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Wednesday, January 30, 2013


A moment, frozen in time.
Trapped within the pages of a white, linen-bound photograph album, in the centre of its black-and-white image, stands my grandfather. He has thin eyebrows. They’re barely visible, almost feminine, set against a square face that frames an angular nose. He’s wearing a double-breasted jacket with baggy high-waisted trousers. Although he’s in his sixties, he looks much younger thanks to his full head of dark, wavy hair. To the left of him is his wife, Edith. Much smaller than him, slightly built, but shapely, her hat casts a seductive shadow over her face and even in her advancing years she can still turn a few heads. The traces of beauty that attracted him to her in the first place are still visible on her high-cheekboned face. My mother is stood to the right of them clutching a bouquet of flowers. Blonde, but not natural, she’s forty but looks much younger. She’s inherited her mother’s good looks. Her right arm is outstretched, the fingers extended, left leg kicking in the air; she’s pretending to be one of the showgirls she’d seen on the stage of the Winter Gardens the previous evening. Standing next to my mother, dressed in a grey suit, is John Watson, her new husband. She’s hanging absently onto his arm while he smiles. Uncle Chas is stood next to him, his right hand closed into a fist; he scowls in the direction of the unseen cameraman. I’m knelt down in front of the group, eight years old and dressed in a horrible pageboy’s outfit. 
Everyone is smiling. Everyone looks happy. 

But appearances can be deceptive and, on this freezing day in February, you could be forgiven for not noticing that behind all the smiles, everyone, with the possible exception of the bride and groom, was as miserable as sin.
A fat effeminate photographer took the picture. The principle players are all in sharp focus, whilst the blurred and ghostly figures of friends and distant family are passing quickly behind them, moving faster than the metallic click of the Box Brownie’s shutter.
On the reverse of the photograph, inscribed in my mother’s neat handwriting, are the words Blackpool Registry Office, February 15th 1962.

It had been raining all week; needle sharp, icy rain that speared its way into the bones. Stiff limbs ached and tempers frayed. Misery was absolute.

The wedding itself was a simple ceremony carried out with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss in a dismal and depressing Registry Office that boasted dirty yellow walls that complimented the Registrar's nicotine-stained fingers. After the hurried ceremony the hired photographer, a small, effeminate, fat man with piggy glasses herded everyone out onto the wet pavement and took pictures of us freezing to death.
“No! No! Over here! Over here! The light's no good over there,” he ranted in a high-pitched voice as he minced up and down the pavement, directing us here and there in order to get a good picture. “How am I supposed to get a good composition when you're all over the place? I'm an artist, for God’s sake!”
“Bloody arse bandit, more like,” Uncle Chas growled. “I’d like to give him a bloody good kicking!”

He went to move forward but Grandma slapped him across the top of his head with the flat of her hand and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.

“Now, listen here, you little bugger,” she hissed. “We'll have no trouble from you. Just because it’s your sister’s wedding day doesn’t mean you can do what you bloody well like. So you'll bloody well behave yourself and you’ll stay sober. Have you got that into your thick head?”
“Yes mum,” said Chas meekly, and he begrudgingly did what the photographer asked.
The reception was held in the Halfway House, a large rambling pub at the top of St Anne’s Road, and a less than appetising array of curled up sandwiches, pork pies, wrinkled sausages on sticks and soggy trifles were laid on for when we arrived. The buffet was tucked away in a dark corner of the pub, as if hidden there by the landlord to prevent it from being eaten (or, more likely, discovered). This culinary disaster was arranged on a large table covered in a white sheet that featured all manner of unusual stains.
“God, would you look at this,” said Granddad, gingerly lifting a corner of the sheet. “It looks like King Kong’s handkerchief. I’m not eating anything that’s been on this bloody thing.”
“Never mind the food,” said Chas. “Where’s Uncle George?"

George Pickup was Grandma’s wayward brother and he had stood in the same corner of the Halfway House for the past forty years. It was his local and had been for as long as anyone could remember. George had served in the Royal Warwickshire’s with Granddad during the Great War and he (granddad) was, in fact, the reason he was now a resident of Blackpool and not his native Dublin. During the Second World War George had remained in Blackpool for “essential services”. Quite what those essential services were no one ever knew, but according to his sister all he ever seemed to do throughout the war was drink at the Halfway House. Maybe, she suggested in a letter to her husband, that he was essential in keeping the brewery business afloat while all the other men were away serving their King and country.
George was something of a legend in the drinking circles of Blackpool and from time to time a young pretender who thought he had the mettle would challenge him to a drinking contest. Like his father before him, George had a vast capacity for alcohol and these hopefuls came from as far away as Bolton to attempt to steal his crown. He saw himself like a gunslinger from the Wild West and all his contenders left defeated, disappointed and usually in a comatose state.

He’d been stood at his usual place at the bar of the Halfway House when his niece had been getting married. He wasn’t one for ceremony and he felt that he would have been wasting valuable drinking time hanging around the Registry Office looking bored. Besides, he was opposed to marriage and didn’t want to be responsible for anyone but himself.

Over the years he’d grown to like, even depend, on that lifestyle. Bringing someone into his life would have been disastrous and would have upset the delicate equilibrium of his perfectly structured world. People could come in and out of his life, but they couldn’t stay. He preferred visitors to permanent residents. He was the master of his own destiny and it would stay that way until he was found dead in his chair at home ten years later.

When he saw Chas heading towards him he knew exactly what was coming.
“Right then, George,” said Chas. “Get the beers in. I’m going to drink you under the bloody table.”
George rolled his eyes. “It’s Uncle bloody George to you, lad,” he said.
“Aye, alright then, if you say so.”
“Pint for pint, it’ll be,” said George, calling the barmaid over.
“Not a problem.”
George leaned over and whispered in the barmaid’s ear. “This is my sister’s daft son, Chas. Clear a space somewhere for him, will you, luv – he’ll be unconscious in about half an hour.” As she turned to go he added, “Oh, and you’d better fetch a bucket."

Aunty Sylvia was tarted up to the eyeballs, her hair rigidly beehived, her eyelashes thick with mascara. She was sat at the bar sipping at a Babycham, crossing and uncrossing her legs provocatively as she watched Uncle Chas slip into drunken oblivion. She was smoking Menthol cigarettes because she thought they were good for her and made her look sophisticated and attractive to men.
Two hours later Chas was reeling around the pub on unsteady feet leering at everyone through hooded stupefied eyes until he fell over and slipped into a dribbling unconsciousness.
Grandma tutted and tucked her arms under her breasts. “Look what my bloody brother’s done to that daft apeth,” she said to Granddad. “Go and sort him out will you, love.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” whined Granddad, who was also feeling the worse for wear.
“I don't know. Sit him up in a chair or something. Anything. Just make him look respectable.”
Granddad sighed and strode over to where Chas was slumped like a pile of old clothes ready for the Rag and Bone man. He began lifting him up on his own until Grandma shouted across the pub to him. “For God's sake, Bill, get someone to help you. You'll have a heart attack doing that on your own, you daft bugger.”
Granddad rolled his eyes and called me over.
We both picked Chas up who was by now delirious, and carried him over to a chair where we dumped him down like a sack of potatoes. His head was resting in the overflowing ashtray and clouds of fag ash flew up into the air. When we looked back we saw that he had an old dog end sticking out of his mouth.
“At least we know he’s breathing,” said Granddad. “Keep your eye on him, will you, lad.” 
I give him a confused look.

“Just make sure he doesn’t get into any more trouble.”
Chas started to snort ash from the overflowing ashtray and after a short time he opened one eye.
“Alrigh’ lad,” he slurred.
“Granddad says I’ve got to keep an eye on you and stop you getting into trouble,” I told him.
“Did ‘e now?”
He looked around furtively and motioned for me to move closer to him. His face was now a deep grey colour from all the ash he'd been sleeping in and his breath smelled of stale tobacco and alcohol. He fished a damp dog end from the corner of his mouth. “She’s mad, you know,” he whispered.
“Your mum. My bloody shister.”
I shrugged my shoulders, unsure of what to say.

“Why?” I asked.

“Wrong’n,” was his reply. He rolled his eyes. “Now, Ge’ me a drin’ then, there’s a goo’ lad; I can't seem to get up.”
“Why don't you go home, Uncle Chas?”
“Go home?” Chas said. “I can’ go home. I’m s’bess man. I’m shupposed to ge’ a shag tonight.”

He looked over at Aunty Sylvia and winked. "She'll do," he said.

Aunty Sylvia waved her fingers at him and smiled.
As I walked to the bar to get a glass of lemonade I saw the expression on Aunty Sylvia's face change from flirtatiousness to disappointment. She took a sip from her Babycham and lit up another Menthol cigarette. 

When I looked back at Uncle Chas he was asleep and dribbling into the ashtray.

I wasn't sure what Uncle Chas had been talking about when he said "wrong-un" to me on that day in 1962, but even as early as the day my mother and I moved out of my grandparent's house and into my stepfather's I knew instinctively that I would no longer be the centre of attention. 

During the first few weeks of their marriage I could feel the family dynamic shifting in favour of nice Uncle John; only . . . he was no longer nice Uncle John. Like the parents in the sci-fi film Invaders From Mars that my granddad had taken me to see at the Odeon a few weeks earlier, nice Uncle John seemed to have been replaced by something altogether more sinister and brutal.

From then on there would be no more smiles and hugs, no more dirty old sweets - just tension and unpredictability.

I can see now why everyone in the photograph, with the possible exception of my mother and her new husband, were miserable; and it had nothing to do with the weather. 

They had seen the signs long before the Box-Brownie's metallic click captured forever that moment in time in 1962.

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