The funeral came and went. Time passed slowly. Uncle Bob spent all his time drunk and eventually threw my evening cooking into the fireplace. The house smelled dusty and was always dark. The only glimmer of life and light was Beauty, my (now twelve years old) pet budgerigar. Good old Beauty was still hanging in there, almost featherless and half blind, and worshipping the ground I walked on – the feeling was mutual. Beauty was without a doubt the reincarnation of some loving spirit; he made me aware of the value of one’s own gentle nature. When he wasn’t talking away at his own reflection in his budgie mirror, he would be endlessly trying to communicate with me as soon as walked in through the living room door.
Unfortunately, Beauty wasn’t enough to keep the once happy home together, and I decided it was time to pack my bags and leave. Maybe if I left my Uncle entirely on his own he may just start getting his act together and learn to live again. As it was, I was doing a miserable job of filling in for Auntie Peggy’s domestic role, and just seemed to annoy Uncle Bob with every move I made.
Where would I live? I didn’t have a clue! So I filled a hot water bottle, stuck it down my pants, put on a big coat, took my savings which amounted to thirty pounds and stepped into the cold, dreary night. I headed into the centre of Newcastle and sat over a cup of coffee in the all night Wimpy Bar. Not wanting to fall asleep at the table, I retired to the gents and slept for five hours on the throne. I woke to someone knocking on the toilet door and a rather disgusting smell of vomit outside the urinals. It was 6am and I felt awful. A voice shouted, “Come on, you can’t stay in there forever!” A smell of disinfectant cut through the stench. Looking at the pathetic and perverted graffiti on the wall, I decided the place would be better off with a stick of dynamite as opposed to a bottle of Domestos. My hot water bottle had gone cold along with my outlook. Why were there so many disgusting, pathetic individuals in the world?
I left the all night Wimpey Bar and crossed over the road to Newcastle Central Station for breakfast. The early morning bus passed on route to Denton Burn. The early morning sparrows and pigeons twittered and cooed in their hundreds above the deserted taxi rank, and a ray of sunshine shone over the Tyne. Dozens of factory workers awaited that everyday bus ride to Vickers Armstrongs. Each one wearing a uniform of a navy blue boiler suit, smelling of sweat and smoke. A haversack over one shoulder held cheese sandwiches, the Evening Chronicle from the night before or possibly the Daily Mirror, and twenty woodbines to chain-smoke over a production line machine churning out millions of nuts, bolts and washers.
They weren’t really any different from the silk screen printers – same gig – up at 6.30 every morning, nursing a hangover. Out the front door at 7am to catch the bus to get to the factory for a quarter to eight to stick your card into the clocking machine. Ding! The machine printed the time on the card bearing your name and you put it safely back in the rack so you knew you’d be paid from that time, and that time was no longer your time. It belonged to the factory. It belonged to the foreman with his brief authority, the shop steward, the union, the machine you operated, the bosses, the managers, the governors, everyone else but you – the bottom of the heap.
I wandered into the station café, brought a tea and sat at a table by the window. The boiler suit brigade climbed aboard the work bus, miserable and grumbling. I saw them all as blinkered, following each other’s tails and never knowing there could be a different world to their left or right – a different world for them, a new orbit to spin in. No, they refused to put a foot out of line in case they end up without a pension or a Christmas bonus. They might not get time and a half or double time for working on Sunday morning. They may not be able to hang on to their insecure security.
I gazed around the station café. A couple of down and out looking guys slept in a corner. One was sprawled over a table, head in a plate of grease; the other was crumpled in his seat. It suddenly hit me. I’d left home and was sharing this dump with a couple of dossers! I got myself into gear and moved off.
By the afternoon, I had secured a little bedsit by room at No. 15 Regents Terrace, Gateshead. My landlady was a little, grey haired lady in her sixties who seemed to take a shine to me. She showed me my new room on the first floor. It was 9ft by 6ft and had a single bed with a washed-out, pink bed cover over it, a wardrobe half-devoured by woodworm and a chest of draws, totally devoured by woodworm. In fact, on pulling open the top drawer, the front came off in my hand.
Mrs. Luxham told me she’d seen that problem before and disappeared for three minutes, returning with some glue. “This stuff sticks anything to anything!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to dab it all over the rotten dovetail joints of the top draw. I thought she was joking – she wasn’t! Five minutes later the drawer was fixed as good as new. She even covered it with wood-grain printed fablon to brighten it up. After explaining that I worked as a musician and kept strange hours, she enlightened me to the whole music business. “Oh! My nephew is in the music business, his name is Bruce Welch – you know, The Shadows!” She was now in her element. Gossip, gossip, gossip… “…you need a good agent and a good tune. Have you got an agent?” I told her we had Ivan Burchill, “He’s good for us for all the local C. I. U. club gigs,” I said. I felt really small time compared to Mrs. Luxham’s famous nephew stories.
The following day, I unloaded several boxes of clothing, an accumulation of nick-knacks, guitars, amplifiers and myself into my 9’ x 6’ room. I sat looking out of the first floor window thinking of my Uncle Bob and Beauty and the note I had left behind. He’d understand. My Uncle did eventually understand that I had to leave the nest and learn to fend for myself in the big wide world; he, by the same token, had to build a new nest for himself too – learn to fend for himself on his own. By the end of 1967, the hurt of losing Auntie Peggy had lifted a little for me. On the outside, it seemed to be so for Uncle Bob too, but I’m sure on the inside nothing had changed for him.
Greta the Gateshead Goddess had been away working at Jackson’s The Tailors in Liverpool, during which time I had taken out a couple of other girls on dates, in between playing gigs with the ‘Tenth Avenue All Stars.’ When Greta returned she seemed a bit dissatisfied with our relationship. I had become a bit of a wanderer on the side, and secretly wanted to keep wandering. She, on the other hand, wanted to get married and have dozens of screaming brats – it was all feeling desperately wrong! I knew inside it was finished.
I didn’t want to be the husband of Greta, with a brother in law who worked in a slaughterhouse. I didn’t want to have Greta as a mother, because that was what she was becoming, the third mother in my life. A couple of weeks later, I told Greta it was time to call it a day – in return, Greta told me she was pregnant. She had missed one period and was two weeks late for her second. Oh God! It suddenly dawned on me that I could not possibly marry the Gateshead Goddess to give a child a name. How could I qualify to raise a child when I was still a child myself?
We didn’t see each other for a few days to give ourselves time and space to think about our situation. I sat for hours alone in my 6’ x 9’ bedsit box, quietly trying to come to terms with the enormity of Greta’s revelation and my predicament. Not only had Auntie Peggy gone, but the ‘Tenth Avenue All Stars’ were on the verge of splitting up and I was about to be made redundant as a silk screen printer. I would soon be on the dole with hardly enough money to buy a gallon of petrol for my beaten up old Volkswagen Beetle. My existence seemed to be hanging together like Mrs. Luxham’s fablon covered drawers.
How would Ernie Bell have coped with the situation? Would he have married the girl? Would he have married her, had four more kids and spent the rest of his days in a pub, regretting his mistake? Would he keep talking about the career that he could have had, if he had not settled down into the world of the grown up’s before growing into long trousers? What would Johnny Snots do? I wondered where Johnny Snots was! Eleven years had sailed passed without hearing from him. I rolled a joint from a hint of Tai grass that Terry Dalton the trombone player had left behind. It didn’t help.
I had to be a responsible person. I couldn’t spend my whole life getting all that terribly nice joint rolling with musician acquaintances; sitting on top of toadstools and watching the sunlight dapple it’s way down through the dingle dell of life’s rich pattern bullshit. I felt an obligation to Greta to do the right thing, but what was the right thing? Auntie Peggy and Uncle Bob had always tried to teach me good values, and to be honest with my own feelings. I did not want to be married at eighteen to my new adopted mother figure. I wanted to run wild and free and travel the world.
I wanted to be a famous pop star and gig around America and Europe and Japan, and anyway pop stars didn’t live in crummy little flats with an outside loo. Pop stars didn’t stand in a bus queue at 7am every morning to go and work at the factory. No! Pop stars didn’t live in 9’ x 6’ bedsit boxes either. I was getting rather upset by my plight and the Tai grass was helping me see double. I sat there wrapped up in my sleeping bag pondering upon my loneliness. It was true. I was alone for the first time in my life.
There had always been someone there to look after me. My Mother, Auntie Peggy, Uncle Bob and now Greta. I didn’t want it, but I needed to have someone there to mother me. I was still a lost little boy. However, I also knew the moment I came out of the womb, I was on my own. Was I to spend the rest of my life trying psychologically to climb back in there. Were other men the same? They certainly didn’t seem like that to me! All the guys I knew were so cock-sure and did nothing but brag about their conquests with girls and their untouchable manliness. Maybe they were all superhuman in that department and I was one of the very few mortals who felt insecure on his own in the big bad world of growing up. Someone once said that loneliness is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. Lonely people can be self-sufficient, it is the dependent people who find friends. Was I ready to be independent? I didn’t think so!
A couple of days passed by and Greta appeared at the downstairs door to my 9’ x 6’. She wouldn’t accept my invitation to come upstairs and proceeded to tell me that she also wanted to call it a day, to throw in the towel on our relationship. “But you told me you were pregnant!” I said. “Oh, it was just a false alarm,” Greta replied. “a false alarm – You mean you’ve come on?” I said, feeling ten tons lighter in spirit, but trying not to show it, for fear she might change her tune and want us to stay together forever. I wanted Greta, with all her Gateshead working classness, all her extraordinary ways, to be happy. But happy with someone else – not me! I wanted to step up the ladder – move on to the next gig, maybe move to London and mix with the all those dolly birds in Chelsea, maybe move to America and become a cowboy, maybe travel to India and meditate on the back of an elephant. One thing was for sure, I was off the hook with the Gateshead Goddess and free to roam for a while.
Rene was tall with long dark hair parted in the middle, to match the models in every fashion magazine of the moment. Her legs seemed longer than those on any racehorse, although the fact that her red hot pants barely covered her backside may have had something to do with it. She was definitely a cool looking chick, especially for Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Kings Road, Chelsea set the precedent for the groovy chick look, and Rene would certainly have scored high marks for visuals in front of that backdrop. The eyelashes and heavy mascara were in place; the face, when not covered in panstick, was nicely burned pink from a sunray lamp. These lamps were so fashionable at that time, you could see every kid walking around with a red face and white rings around the eyes from wearing the special sunray goggles that came with them.
Rene lived in a flat in Jesmond which she shared with two other girls, Carol and Paula. Carol was also one of the groovy chick brigade. She hung out with the local radio station D. J. Paula was a skinny, dithery and small girl who looked rather like a sick whippet. She had a lithp, and a thlight th th thtutter! And a large hang up about not being able to attract a boyfriend. Everywhere we went, Paula went! She was there, lurking in the background like your shadow.
Their apartment looked like an explosion in a cosmetics and fashion department. Nail varnish of every colour, mascara and eyeliner pencils littered every surface. Curlers, boxes of hairclips and sanitary towels sat on the draining board in the kitchen. Dresses, skirts, shirts, pairs of tights, hats and an array of multi-coloured scarves hung on clothes hangers suspended from every inch of picture rail and doorframe. Posters of the Beatles and Badfinger hung on the living room wall, a white polystyrene head stood in the fireplace with a pair of broken headphones over its non-existent ears. Joss sticks burned on top of the pink tiled mantelpiece, under a lipstick daubed art deco mirror, suspended over the chimney breast. A goldfish bowl lived under the bottom of Rene’s bed and doubled as an early morning porta-loo!
Life with Rene had its advantages. For a start, I could almost stand up straight when we practiced nookie in the passage. I could borrow her shirts, although they buttoned up on the opposite side to men’s shirts. I could burn my face pink with her lethal sunray lamp anytime I wanted. I could remember one morning, before going for a job interview for the position of poster writer, I decided to use the sunray lamp and fry myself a little beforehand. I would look tanned and healthy and it might just help me land the job. I stood the little beast on the living room table and plugged it into the mains. I then proceeded to look for the goggles but gave up after five minutes and decided to cut up little squares of paper to place over the eyes. I spat on the squares of paper and stuck them on each eye for about fifteen minutes.