A town turned upside-down by outrageous radicals.
An extract from the book
Part One: The Braggadocio
It was the kind of pub where old men went to drink dark, brooding pints of ale. The kind of place where the talk was mostly about racehorses, football and fixing things. The kind of place that had often been full of smoke, back in the days when you could fill a pub with smoke. Now it was just full of shadows and gloom, apart from the odd lock-in when the cigars and roll-ups emerged once again from dented tins and ragged pockets. Songs from the fifties blared out of the huge chest of a jukebox, Come on everybody, Something Else, Summertime Blues. Odes to an age long-since slaughtered by time and consumerism. There was the occasional reggae classic from the past too. Three little birds, Jammin’, Al Capone, The Israelites, Dat, One love. Happy songs in a place of truculent, glum severity. I was grateful for the chirpy background noise. Reminded me that there was another kind of life somewhere out there.
I found him in the corner, hunched over the little oval table, nursing his lukewarm pint.
He had a heck of a face. World-weary eyes, with crumpled pockets of skin beneath them, creases and crevices on his cheeks and forehead, and a dimpled chin. The whole thing was like a brown paper bag that had been crumpled up and sat on a few too many times. If you squinted he looked like a detailed map of the region. It was hard to tell his age. His outer skin made you think he’d been around forever. All I can say is he had the ancient of days about him.
He came originally from a little known place in the back of beyond, in fact some place I’d never heard of before. He may even have been making it up. People did that, lied about their roots so you couldn’t trace them. I asked him his name and he just chuckled and muttered about me calling him Blind Rick. He clearly wasn’t blind, but he said he liked the notion of seeing but not seeing. ‘Everybody’s blind to something,’ he said. ‘I’m just covering my back.’
I first met him on the road into Oblivion, just hours before. I was heading there on my old bike, a Monsoon, he was standing by the roadside, hitching a lift. I was not a good rider and didn’t want the burden or responsibility of a passenger. But I stopped all the same to warn him about the vagabonds that stalked the hills around these lonely roads. He persuaded me to take him into the town and he perched on the back, clinging to me like a bed smell. He weighed very little and I hardly felt the difference. I dropped him at the first pub we found, which turned out to be The Braggadocio. They did rooms at dirt cheap rates and I thought that was why he’d stopped me there. But it turned out to be a very different story. He invited me in with him, but I told him I was here on business.
‘Come back tonight and I’ll buy you a drink,’ he offered, ‘oh and tell you about the old days.’
And he shuffled on inside, leaving me no time to come up with a decent excuse. I was depressed enough with the present, I didn’t need the past to bring me down too.
The streets were littered with feral youngsters as I wove my way through them on my bike, jiggling the throttle intermittently, so that I didn’t kill anything and didn’t stall either. I wasn’t sure which would be worse. If I stalled and toppled over I might be the one getting trampled and killed by the ever-present, ever-younger generation. They were everywhere these days, seemed to leave home at the age of twelve and never bother going back there. Bus shelters, park benches and doorways were no longer for public use. Now they were just there for the kids to fill with their strangely-developing, adolescent bodies. Here and there middle-aged men stood alone or in twos on the corners, smoking and clocking me as I passed, no nod of welcome or acknowledgement, just that stare which seemed to say it all. ‘What are you doing here? What are you looking at?’ Blank but somehow morose, threatening. A cloud of dead, soulless expressions leaking across the road towards me. I passed on by.
As I battled on the wind kicked down the street like a wayward drunk, shoving the old and disturbing the young. This place was a one-horse town, without the horses of course. Any potential meat would have long-since been slaughtered and barbecued. The local diet in a place like this was most likely potatoes, bread, rice and the runt-end of the vegetable market. A few of the houses had plots of land with the remnants of veg gardens in them, but I doubt that much greenery was consumed. The apocalyptic weather and rampant despondency had served to scupper the hopes of so many in little backend places like these. There were initiatives in the cities and bigger towns, research into new forms of food supply. But back here that seemed light years away. Lack of fuel had reduced travel and suddenly made the world a much larger place again. A few of the homes still had splintered, crooked For Sale signs lurching outside, but they were fooling no one. They knew the housing market was dead and no one was planning to move to Oblivion in a hurry. I went looking for my contact, spent a grey and largely fruitless day doing what I had to do. Then, as the evening threatened to close in, I made my way back to The Braggadocio, through streets now intermittently lit by the murky, yellow light from the old sodium lamps. And there he was, sat in the corner like an old, leather duffel bag that somebody had left for lack of wanting it anymore. I grabbed a pint at the greasy, ale-stained bar and dropped on the stool opposite him. Outside the rain started up again, dirty, soul-destroying stuff that made even The Braggadocio feel like home. He started up with his tale, straight in there without any small talk, just a nod and the unspoken agreement that we’d take up where he left off. I figured it was going to be a long night.
‘It wasn’t always like this you know. There was a time when a bright light shone in here, like a beacon in the gloom, and the hungry and the hopeful started coming along. I was in my late thirties and there was still a glimmer of zest in me. It was a time of do-it-yourself. A time when anyone could find a voice and someone certainly needed to. And a group of young punks saw that, and did something with it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.’ He paused, drank, scratched his temple with a gnarled finger. ‘People think that the times are bad now,’ he said and he laughed, a harsh bronchial sound, ‘they should have seen it back then, or if they did, they should dust off their memories. The country was bankrupt and lost like a dying man in the desert. Wandering from one failed leader to another. Towns like this were drinking themselves to death. I used to come in here night after night, the place was like a graveyard, full of people that used to be alive. I worked for what was left of the local council, cleaning up the rubbish, emptying bins and the like. The job was getting worse as people cared less and less about the town. Petty crime had gone through the stratosphere. Every so often I’d find an abandoned baby amongst the black sacks. It was hopeless. Hopeless. Nobody cared much, and the less they cared, the less they wanted to care. It was a never ending spiral. Then I came in here one night and there was a band playing, now that was different. Some young punks had moved into a squat on the edge of town, and they were looking for somewhere to play. So they turned up here with some old, beat-up guitars and a drum kit and started singing old rock’n’roll numbers. Fast and furious. Elvis would have done more than a double-take and I doubt if they got paid anything for it. But they didn’t care and people liked the noise, it drowned out their sorrows, along with the bad, cheap beer that got served. They played for a couple of weeks on and off and the atmosphere warmed up a little. Then I came in one night and sensed that something else had changed. There was something new in the air, you could feel it as soon as you walked in. Lick your finger and hold it up and catch the breeze the moment you came in off the street. And when the band stepped up to play that night they had a new guy on the mic. Thin, wiry kid with eyes too big for his head and a mouth to match. And when he opened it to sing, something extraordinary came out. It wasn’t a sweet sound, but it made you listen up. And he sang his own numbers. They were still rock’n’roll, and just as fast and furious, but they had meaning too. As if he was telling true stories. When people got up to dance it meant something, and they sure danced that night - more than usual. If you got on that dance floor you felt like you were joining something.’ Rick paused, supped and sniffed, wiped a finger across his top lip. ‘And that was it, for a while. The band played most nights. Sometimes the new guy was there, sometimes he wasn’t, but whenever he sang you could taste that difference in the air. And let me tell you, it was potent. It had to be in a sweaty, cynicism-saturated place like this. Word spread and more people started turning up, more beer got sold. The landlord back then, Elvis Huck, he was happy. “Let it be,” he used to say, every night. “Let it be.” He wouldn’t smile, didn’t have it in him, but he nodded a lot. Then things changed again, on the night when the girl turned up on stage. That’s when it went up to the next level. Pretty young thing, couldn’t stand still, twisting and shouting and jumping up and down as she sang. Had a voice as big as the thin, wiry guy. They kind of duelled on stage, battling for supremacy. Sang together all night, sometimes he’d get the upper hand, sometime she’d win. I watched them carefully and I knew, things were not going to be the same. I can’t tell you how I knew, one of those deeply-felt, urgent, gut-gripping hunches. I just knew, and I was never surprised later that I wasn’t wrong. It was as if I couldn’t have imagined anything else.’ He paused, thought for a moment. ‘The rest of what I tell you was gleaned from things I saw and things I heard. It was a while ago so I may get a few things wrong, but I’ve told this tale enough times, it’s all in here. Sometimes to any folk who would listen, sometimes just to myself. You see, I wanted to remind myself that it really happened. And perhaps, could happen again. Do you want to hear it?’
I stared at him, blinked, taken aback by the sudden offer of a choice. I thought I was stuck there, jammed in my seat as sure as if he’d nailed me there. But no, I could get up and walk out into the darkness right now. Leave my beer undrunk and him alone. Slip into the dirty, rainy night and get on my bike out of there. No need to stay, my business was done. And perhaps I should have gone, now I know the story I am trapped by it. If I had ridden away when given the chance I would be a free man. Damn it. I stayed there. Damn it. I wanted to know. Damn it.