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Back Without Regret

"Music takes him back over many years"
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Author's Notes

"Although not a completely true story, this has so many facets that actually happened that it is almost there."

That’s it. Breakfast dishes all cleared away. Cups neatly stacked, in the lower cupboard, Cereal bowls alongside with the plates. Now, why do I find something so menial satisfying? Oh, don’t I know the reason very well? It’s a form of security. Just like the warm aroma of my wife’s scones baking in the oven.

There’s something steadfast and reassuring about that sort of thing. Fifty years or so of establishing everything in its place. Life’s pattern. God’s in his heaven---all’s right---hold on! Best not get carried away. All right, I have been lucky. The cosiness of it all sometimes gets to me, even now.

Easy music soothes me from the Alexa my son bought us for Christmas.

“Look, Dad, you just ask for Guns and Roses—” He did, and I winced.

“You can tell her to stop any time,” he reassured me.

“Well, tell her.”

So, Alexa has spent much time providing me with the easy listening music from my younger days, and here I am, a secure married man refusing to accept the sly manifesto of ageing.

Ah, an unidentified crooner has been piped by Alexa, and that opening line, “I have often walked down this street before...” God, that song’s done it again. I’ve heard it hundreds of times. And instantly I’m clicked back nearly seventy years. Long before the song was even written.

Yes, back to the days when I suffered the pangs of being fifteen years old. Would I want to be there again? No way! As Maurice Chevalier had once assertively sung it, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”

But the crooner’s song now playing always bring back those days of confusion and uncertainty, when I did often walk down Margaret Davey’s street. Enchantment did pour out of every door because I didn’t know which one was hers.

And, oh, yes, there was that overpowering feeling that any second she might suddenly appear. The girl with the long, coal-black hair, and the upper lip shaped like a delicate M. If she had shown up, God knows what I might have done. Run a mile probably. Me, hot and callow.

So, where did I find the guts to fix that date with her? We had only been near each other on the walk to and from school. The girls’ building was separated from ours by a Berlin wall. But somehow, a date was fixed. A date with her, with that delicate face, the wide brown eyes, and that hair, the colour of a raven’s wing.

Alexa feeds me with the high tones of Johnny Mathis—“Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.” Margaret Davey. Okay, the name is different, so what. The sentiment is strong, and the sound of her name made my head spin.

Only my second date ever, wasn’t it? What a nerd I must have seemed. That first one, I had met Betty Coupland outside the Welbeck cinema. And what happened? She brought her seven-year-old sister with her. Brilliant! The way it turned out I spoke more to the sister than I did to Betty.

My date with the gorgeous Margaret had to be at the coast. There were two main reasons for that. First Gregory Peck was on at the Playhouse in Whitley and she loved Gregory Peck. (Some of that affection might transfer, I hoped).

The second reason was the superior girl-winning advice of an older occasional friend Cliff Bolton.

“Can’t beat the seafront,” he told me.” The sound of the sea always gets them going.”

Cliff was a fountain of knowledge on the unzipping of dresses and the unhooking of bra straps. No wonder I hated him! I was more concerned with the loosening of my tied tongue and knowing what to say.

Such a boaster was Cliff. Regaled me with the account of how he’d got to number six with pretty Angela Lovett. In those days, [JR1] stages with a girl were numbered. I’d heard others recount that number six was a hand inside, top half, naturally curious,---well, you would be---I asked Cliff what it felt like.

I recall being singularly unimpressed with his reply, “Like squeezing your calf muscle.” Was that all?

But yes, that evening, as I was only half concentrating on my homework, my dad suddenly asked, “Something wrong with your leg?” And I remember the heat in my face as I let my trouser leg fall, and told him, “Just an itchy calf.”

But I had a date with Margaret Davey. No need now to haunt her street. I was dominated by the prospect That waiting time. Anticipation followed closely by apprehension. Oh, how it all floods in on the tide of the music. Problems sidled in. I had a spot right in the middle of my chin, fiery red, glowing like a traffic stoplight.

I asked my mother about it. Her answer was prompt and abrupt, “More greens,” she declared, piling my plate with runner beans which I liked, and cabbage, which I hated. To be fair she did come up with some cream which at least disguised the spot.

Then there was the jacket. I forgot about that. The jacket would bestow me with the ultimate suave image. My Uncle Bob worked on the railway, and I saw him often because he was full of humorous crack and a constant supply of magazines from emptied carriages.

He had bought the jacket but then decided it didn’t suit him. On one of my visits, he’d urged me to try it on. “You’re a big lad now.” It was small brown, black and white checks and fit so very well. Standing one way I was Robert Mitchum, and the other was I was Tony Curtis. But only if I adjusted the mirror so my head was cut off. No point in spoiling the image.

The night of the date, I bathed, spent ages combing my straight hair back, before pushing it up into a quiff—a la Alan Ladd. A Windsor knotted tie helped sustain the image. Then, sliding into the jacket, with a strained casualness, I became Mr Modern.

When I went downstairs my mother eyed me and said, “I hope you’re not messing about with girls.” Born in a different era my dear mother might have been with the Pilgrim Fathers or aiding the progress of John Bunyan. How could I ever tell her that “messing about with girls” was my ultimate goal?

We’d arranged to meet at Walkergate Station, and Margaret came only a couple of minutes behind me. My breath was all caught up in my throat when I saw her walking up the slope to the platform. Until that moment I’d only adored her in the rather lumpy school uniform all the girls wore. Now, here she was in a tight-fitting yellow dress.

Stunning. But I had to advise myself that achieving number six was probably out of the question. Admiring the straight flat front of the dress, I knew that even if I were bold enough, finding anything at all would be a challenge

All the way in the train she went on about Brent Harwood, son of a local bookmaker. He had wavy black hair and was always flashing money—and his teeth—to a constant clamour of girls. I was in the same class as him, but only in the school sense.

When I told Margaret that, she wanted to know if I ever knocked around with him. I didn’t. But the questioning went on. Down the hill, to the cinema, she kept that yard of space between us.

The film was ‘The Gunfighter’, good, but I couldn’t concentrate, thinking only of how, and when, I might dare put my arm around her. Other couples in the dark were comfortably snuggled together. At last, I allowed my arm to slither behind her with my hand hanging limply down her left arm. Somebody behind hissed, “Sit still.” So, I just sat.

Outside, and into the warmth of the slowly dimming evening, I asked if she had enjoyed the film. “I didn’t know it was a western. I hate westerns, and I didn’t know he got killed at the end. And I didn’t know he had a moustache in it.”

Undaunted I asked if she fancied seeing the sea. She didn’t refuse. Soon we were strolling, still with that yard of space between us, along the Whitley lower promenade. The sea swished calmly, but with, I hoped massive potential. Our conversation was limited to, “Look at that,” “Warm enough?” and “Is that a new dress?” All my efforts, to which her replies were, “Where?” A shrug, and “Don’t be daft.” My jacket made little impression.

We reached the Rendezvous Café and just beyond were the toilets. “I’ll have to pop in here,” she said. Since it was the longest sentence she’d used on our stroll I couldn’t complain. Standing there alone, I looked towards the toilets, and then at the gently lapping sea, then back to the toilets.

I recalled Cliff’s wise words, “The sound of the sea always gets them going.”

Was this the kind of ‘going’ he meant? Hell, I might as well have gone to the Welbeck. She came out and said we should head for home before it was dark. I agreed, even though I’d stored great hopes on it getting dark.

Her front door, and crunch time. “You always give them a real kiss good night,” Cliff had insisted. But that meant touching. Pointless words followed. Time dragged. Her lovely eyes looked up and down the street. Just lean forward and—

Suddenly her front door opened, and her father, eight feet tall, demanded that she get herself in. She turned to go. Desperately, I puckered my lips and leaned forward just as her head turned back, and a bony point just above her left eye collided with my mouth. “Good night,” she whispered, and disappeared inside, dragging my heart and hopes with her.

I stood there, tasting the blood inside my split lip. My first kiss good night and good-bye?

Now in the cleared kitchen, Nat King Cole’s mellifluous rhythms reverberate, with the solid truth, “Nothing’s impossible I have found. For when your chin is on the ground. Just pick yourself up---Dust yourself off –and start all over again.”

Good timing, that song, Alexa.

Life is full of so many complexities. Some of them unkind, balanced by others more rewarding. Fondly I watch as the tray of scones is expertly removed from the oven and placed on the table near she asks why I’m staring.

“Was I staring, dear? No, just feeling romantic.”

“As ever.” And that teasing smile that I’ve loved for so long tightens the delicate M of her upper lip. Her hair is shorter these days, and the raven has silver wings. But everything in life is in its place, steadfast and reassuring.

As you’ve said many times over the years, Margaret, I’ll never grow up.




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