In 1972, when the miners had muscles and could plunge us into darkness, I was living in Forest Hill, South London. Devonshire Road goes up to the 400s and is lined with quietly confident houses, a couple of well-ordered council estates, mansion blocks and no shops. I had to share a bedroom with my mother in a basement flat at 92a. This was a step up from our last gaff, which meant sharing a double bed in a mouldy, rat-infested bedsit around the corner in leafy Manor Mount.
My mother met fellow Austrian Mrs Jennings, our live-upstairs landlady, at the local launderette and she’d offered her the tenancy on the place. Mrs J was a sweet, generous, continental lady. The antithesis of my mother, she would talk her out of giving me beatings. Then she died of a brain tumour. It was the first time I’d heard of one. We went to visit her in Lewisham Hospital even though she was in a coma. I spoke softly in her ear, calling her Auntie Greta, urging her to wake up. Come back. She never did. I was being self-serving really, like only a child can; I wanted her to come back and keep my mum away.
Greta’s two sons, Patrick and Martin, both in their twenties, lived in the upper storeys of the house, above the kitchen with the bath in it; although Martin was rarely around. Martin had shoulder-length black wavy hair and sported a standard, unaffected 1970s moustache. He was always coming and going with serious-faced German birds in mini skirts and patent leather boots. Patrick, a slightly older, auburn-haired version of Martin, had recently been released from Cane Hill, a high-security psychiatric hospital outside Croydon. It was an old school loony bin with a ‘harmless’ section full of men who thought they were Napoleon Bonaparte or George V or Houdini. Patrick had been sectioned there when his father died. He hadn’t taken it very well. Now he was deemed to be of sound mind once again and had been released back into society.
My mother used to work the nightclubs as a hostess, so I’d be on my own most evenings. Whilst Mrs J was still alive but in hospital, Patrick would invite me upstairs to keep him company if he was alone. We’d sit in his large, barren back room and practice shooting his air rifles at a paper target pinned to a wooden plank with a drawing pin. One evening he produced some porn. I’ve never enjoyed porn in the company of other males - it gives me the horn, you see, and I’m not comfortable getting an erection with a man or men within the confines of the same front door - least of all when I was ten years old. In an attempt to rise above the situation, I suggested to Patrick it might be fun to tear a page out of the nudie book and let me use it as a target. He did, and I settled in, taking potshots at the model’s tits and fanny.
After a while of this he asked me, “Do you shoot yet?”
I giggled at this.
“Don’t be silly, Patrick.”
I had a rifle in my hand and I was shooting now. I turned to face him. His hand was moving up and down his erect penis that protruded from his brown corduroy trousers. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t freaked out but I wasn’t entirely comfortable. I asked him what he was doing and he told me. I’d heard of ‘wanking’ and was quite pleased (from a linguistic point of view) to find out that ‘tossing off’ meant the same thing. I certainly hadn’t seen it before and frankly was none to pleased to have now done so. I made my flapping excuses and left before the climax. Not that I knew there was one coming, spunk too, was an unknown country to me. I can say though, not carrying around the mental image of my schizophrenic landlord coming his load, can be considered a bullet well and truly dodged, if you get my drift.
Saturday morning was for Saturday morning pictures at the ABC on London Road, but this Saturday was different. Patrick was having a serious episode. Alternating between anguished howling, shrieking, truly, fucking, manic laughter and obscenities directed at his mother, he was smashing the whole place up. Just like the clichéd soap opera scene where Max Branning from Eastenders, or whoever, gets to sweep all the wedding photos and shit off the sideboard and throw carriage clocks at the wall. But for real, and done by an angry, grieving mental patient.
He smashed up all the furniture and threw it out of and through the upper-storey windows, then came the knickknacks, crockery and cutlery, followed by his mother’s clothes. This was the morning after the night that she’d died. I guessed he wasn’t taking it very well. Although, he was smiling and laughing as he stood on our windowsill spraying the first three letters of his name in crimson paint on our conveniently numbered windows. P. A. T. It transpired that he’d also sprayed MY CUNT OF A MOTHER HA HA HA on the staircase walls that led to his front door.
All I wanted to do was go to Saturday morning pictures with my mates from the estate. I tried convincing my mother that I’d be safer out of the house and was willing to make a dash for it by climbing over next door’s fence. But she wouldn’t have it. We didn’t have a phone at the time so we couldn’t call the Old Bill but thought that surely a neighbour would. He’d been at it for quite some time. Someone eventually did call the police but in time-honoured tradition they arrived after Patrick had fled. He eventually surfaced three weeks later at a car park in Rome where he’d managed to draw attention to himself. He had no money and no passport. Nobody could work out how he got there and neither could he. Or at least if he did, he wasn’t telling. They dragged him back to Cane Hill, where he was duly saluted by Napoleon Bonaparte and George V, and Houdini told him how to escape.
Some months later, I don’t recall how this ties up but I was pulled out of class at Heber Road Primary School and summoned to the Headmistress’s office. A copper was there. Patrick had escaped and his psychiatrists expected him to make his way home. My mum was working days now and I would normally be home before her so I’d been intercepted. Apparently there was a danger that he might fixate on me. I got driven in a squad car to Sydenham Police Station and given the tour. My copper was an avuncular fellow who joked about taking me for a pint across the road in The Bricklayer’s and proudly showed me the canteen where he bought me a cup of tea and a bite to eat, and the snooker hall where he let me knock a few balls about. I was just thinking ‘I could get used to this’ when another officer approached and whispered something in my copper’s ear. I was then asked if I’d be very brave and do them a big favour. They wanted me to ride with them and identify Patrick.
We headed to Devonshire Road and cruised past St John’s Church. It didn’t take long. He spotted the cops and swung into the phone box outside the sorting office.
“Are you sure, son?”
“Alright, go on then. Off you go.”
The Old Bill jumped out of one side of the car, gave him the old “Excuse me, sir” and wrestled him to the ground; face down. I slipped out of the other side of the car and made a crouching dash through the parked cars on the other side of the road (avoiding the dog shit) and away home. That was the last I saw or heard of Patrick, and the Old Bill for that matter. You think they’d have sent me some flowers or given me a medal or something.
I happened to be in Forest Hill the other day, visiting a desperate man and thought I’d take a walk down my old street to wash his cat-loving mind from my clothes. There was a memory in every single step, negating my notion of a forgotten childhood: crashed Post Office vans with screaming men trapped inside; Debbie O’Sullivan, her pale thigh impaled on a spiked fence after she slipped off the phone box roof; breaking into houses we thought were empty; 20-a-side all-day football; Forty-Forty; walking down the street at the age of nine wearing Oxford bags but with my cock hanging out; Nicky from across the road - I nicked ‘Machine Head’ by Deep Purple off him; conkering; dog shit everywhere; Horniman’s Museum; blackouts; ghosts.
Pausing outside my old flat, I gazed past the rockery down into the basement window. The place has been modernised, the rooms have been knocked through and I can see a young woman bathed in light tending to a toddler. For a moment I considered knocking on the door and asking if Patrick still lives here and if he does, asking him if he’s got any ten-year-old boys in his family, and would it be fine and dandy with him for the boy to watch me masturbate? But I didn’t. What do you take me for?
I carried on up the road and got chatting to a guy who was sat drinking on the remnants of a wall outside Belle Vue House. There used to be a garden there with long grass where we’d make heroic dives whilst playing football and me and Debbie O’Sullivan showed each other our things. But it’s a car park now. I pulled out my whiskey and we tried to come up with some names of mutual acquaintances. I held back a few. They are not names one casually bandies around.