My First Book

Batman book
I have a book, a tatty little book. I wrote it when I was seven…

I don’t remember much about my grandad, but what I do remember is all good. I remember that I was his ‘mate’, helping him out with DIY projects which never went according to plan. This obviously runs in the family and is still true of my DIY schemes now, but while I quickly become grumpy and exasperated my memory of Grandad is that he remained patient and kind, exuding an air of bemused resignation.

When I was seven Grandad became ill, and was taken from his home on the south coast to Guys Hospital in London. I remember going to visit him, and being impressed by the glamour of his surroundings. He lay in a bed high above the city, with a balcony outside his room. I was allowed to step outside and survey the sights below – the Thames, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London. Guys is now dwarfed by the Shard, but back in 1967 it had one of the best views in town.

I wanted to give something to Grandad, so I made him a book. I suspect this was about the only thing I was capable of making – my first school report, from the same year, is full of grudging phrases such as ‘poor hand control’ for craft activities, ‘inclined to give up easily’ for maths. But for English my teacher wrote ‘Stephen has a good imagination, and writes long, interesting stories which are a delight to the rest of the class’. I was good at something! So I decided to write him a story.

I made Grandad a Batman book, illustrated by my own clumsy hand. It’s a very small book, on tatty scrap paper. In nineteen sixties Britain affluence was growing, but in my parents’ minds the austerity of the fifties lived on. In our house we still had rationing, and that included paper.

Perhaps that was why I loved the TV series of Batman, with its technicolor villains and crazy costumes. I loved the fights, where every punch was accompanied by the words ‘POW’ or ‘BAM’ in huge letters on the screen. And every episode ended with a cliff hanger, usually Batman or Robin on a conveyor belt being carried towards some terrible death.

So it was with my Batman book. The story is entitled ‘The Plan of Deaf’ – my spelling clearly no better than my hand control. Quite what ‘the plan of deaf’ involves is never made entirely clear, but there are lots of fights and it’s all revealed to be the dastardly work of the Joker. There’s even a love scene:

“Batman, I love you!”

“Not now. With Robin I cannot look after a girl.”

Batman then climbs back into the Batmobile and moves on to the next fight.

The story ends on a cliff hanger, with Catwoman capturing and threatening to kill Robin. I’d like to believe that this was a deliberate imitation of the TV show but suspect that I simply ran out of time, or interest. There are plenty of pages left in the little book, but they’re just filled with pictures and scribbles.

I don’t remember if Grandad ever got my book, or how I come to have it now. I know that he died in that summer of 1967, when peace and love reigned over the rest of the world and sadness descended over ours. I have a school book where I report in a matter of fact way that my grandad had died, ending with the words, ‘He was my best friend’.

I hope he saw my book, and that it helped make his last days a little more bearable. Perhaps it even made him laugh. But there were no cliff hangers in his ‘Plan of deaf’, just the predictable advance of the cancer that ate away at him from the inside, until all that was left were our memories.

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Gigs on the Pier: The Eighties and Beyond

Elvis pier poster

This is the third of three articles about the history of gigs on Hastings pier. The eighties and beyond were a time of decline for the pier but there were still some notable gigs, involving the likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Nick Cave.

As the seventies turned into the eighties it seemed like nothing had changed. The Clash returned to the pier for the third time, playing a gig to promote the classic ‘London Calling’ double album in January 1980. But things were starting to go wrong. Dexy’s Mdnight Runners ended a gig after three songs, when fighting broke out after members of the National Front infiltrated the audience. A few months later Elvis Costello and the Attractions hit town to play a set when a seriously inebriated Elvis forgot the words to ‘Alison’ and had to be led from the stage. The lesson he took from the experience…

“Never play over water.”

It seemed that quite a few acts were learning this lesson, and over the next few years the number of gigs declined dramatically. This was due to a number of factors. Seaside towns like Hastings fell into a steep decline, with few holidaymakers and little investment. Across the country people were less inclined to go out and more likely to entertain themselves at home. With the rise of music video and MTV your favourite bands were available to watch in your own front room – no need to face the windswept seafront and decaying pier.

By the nineteen nineties the big name bands had pretty much stopped coming, and local bands had the pier to themselves. Simon Steadman’s band of young hippies The Dharmas played a couple of great shows, and I vividly recall seeing Roger Hubbard’s brilliant blues band Buick 6. Liam Genocky played drums with all three bands on the bill.

By the end of the decade the pier was in a state of severe disrepair, and was closed on safety grounds in 1999. There was a brief ray of hope when it reopened under new ownership in 2002, providing the opportunity for two more memorable gigs. On 20 November 2002 Joe Strummer returned for a sell-out gig with the Mescaleros, recalling his triumphant shows with the Clash over two decades earlier. It was to be one of his last gigs, as on 22 December 2002 he died from a heart attack.

In 2004 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds played a storming set to launch their double album Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus. Some say that Nick and his band’s demonic intensity shook the old pier to its Victorian foundations. Whatever the truth may be, a few months later it was condemned as unsafe and closed down. And closed it remained, until the terrible fire of 2009.

Now, thankfully, the pier has been saved. Rebuilding work is in progress and it will open again in 2015. I wonder who will play at the reopening? Perhaps the Stones will return in their ambulance. Perhaps Elvis Costello could be persuaded to confront his fear of playing over water. Or maybe the time is right for the Orange Seaweed to reform…

The Hastings Pier Trust has exceeded the £500,000 it needed to raise through the share ownership scheme. The pier is ours!

Gigs on the Pier: The Seventies

Image

 

This is the second of three articles about the history of gigs on Hastings pier. Much of the information here is derived from the excellent Seventies Music and Retro Talk (SMART) Facebook page, which is a really comprehensive and fascinating guide to the local music scene in that era.

The sixties turned into the seventies and bands kept on coming to Hastings pier. The whole range of the British music scene was represented, from cosmic rockers Hawkwind, who returned several times in the early seventies, through arty types like 10CC and Sparks, to chart acts such as Suzi Quatro and Wizzard. Being a chart-topping band was no guarantee of a good turn-out though, as Mud discovered when they played a poorly attended Christmas Eve gig in 1973.

In the early seventies going to see a band didn’t have to be an expensive night out. Most gigs cost no more than a pound, and Gong’s gig in 1974 cost only 50p. ‘Incredibly cheap, courtesy of the pothead pixies’, read the poster.

Some bands were better-prepared for playing on a rickety Victorian pier than others. ELO barely had room for all their gear, while Dutch rockers Golden Earring ill-advisedly drove a truck full of equipment on to the apron of the pier, nearly losing it all as the planks splintered beneath it. In 1973 over 2,000 people attended a Status Quo gig at which the floor was ‘bouncing’, just a few creaky timbers between the audience and the chilly waters below.

The big name acts were often supported by local bands. Factory, Stallion and the Teen Beats were particularly well regarded at the time. Some splendidly named but long forgotten bands also appeared, such as Wally in March 1973 and the Winkies in August 1974.

Some bands, like Hawkwind, became local favourites and returned regularly. Welsh rockers Budgie first played in 1972 as support to Genesis, who they apparently ‘blew offstage’. They returned later that year as a headline act, then again on 3 July 1976 when they were supported by the Sex Pistols. Legend has this almost as the southern equivalent of the Pistols’ gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall, when the likes of Morrissey and Ian Curtis were inspired to form The Smiths and Joy Division. In Hastings Poly Styrene went away and formed X Ray Spex, but the majority of the audience booed the Pistols off the stage for ‘being shit’.

The punks kept coming though, with the likes of the Damned and the Vibrators gracing (or should that be disgracing?) the once elegant ballroom. Posters often advertised gigs alongside the pier’s other attractions. The Vibrators gig was advertised with the News of the World Angling Tournament, while the poster for The Clash’s first gig also featured Miss Patricia Carr’s Pier School of Dancing.

The Clash were another band who played on the pier three times. Their first appearance was on 12 November 1977, when they were supported by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. A member of the audience describes the gig:

‘When the Clash came on with a raw rendition of London’s Burning, I really thought we would end up in the sea. The Pavilion vibrated to the pogoing and the floorboards groaned… What a buzz – it was a relentless jostle of dancing, jumping and seething bodies.’*

Great days, and it probably felt like they would never end. But everything was about to change.

* See http://jeke13.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/clash.html?spref=fb

Hastings pier is being rebuilt and for an investment of only £100 you can become one of its owners! For details of the community shares scheme visit www.hpcharity.co.uk. But you need to move fast – closing date for applications is midnight Saturday 5 April.

Gigs on the Pier: The Sixties

This is the first of three articles about the history of gigs on Hastings pier. Much of the information comes from the excellent BBC documentary ‘The End of the Pier Show’, screened on BBC2 last Sunday. If you missed it then catch it on the iPlayer while there’s still time!              Pink Floyd on the pier!

Throughout the nineteen sixties and seventies pretty much everyone who was anyone in British rock and pop music played on Hastings pier. Driven by the rise of the teenager and the rhythm and blues boom of the early sixties, the pier ballroom became a regular venue on the circuit. It held up to 2,000 people and, unlike the cinemas which were often used as concert venues, was designed with space for people to move about and dance. The fact that it was perched precariously above the sea only occasionally registered as cause for concern.

One of the problems for big name bands was how to get on and off the pier without getting torn apart by their adoring fans. In June 1964 the Rolling Stones were driven from Hastings police station to the pier by ambulance. The ambulance pulled up, the doors opened, then Mick and the boys leapt out of the back and ran for the comparative safety of the dingy dressing room.

Other bands were more relaxed about meeting their audience. The Kinks sat drinking with them in the bar before going onstage. Between 1963 and 1965 the pier played host to gigs by the likes of Tom Jones, the Hollies and the Small Faces. Even the Beatles were scheduled to appear, but for reasons lost in the mists of time the show never took place. On 24 December 1965 the lucky people of Hastings celebrated Christmas with a performance by The Who. They returned a couple of years later for a New Year’s Eve gig in 1967.

As the beat boom gave way to psychedelia the bands kept on coming. Jimi Hendrix played the pier on 22 October 1967, just a couple of months after his iconic appearance at the Monterey pop festival. A feature that runs through the history of gigs on the pier is that the big name acts were often supported by local bands. Hendrix’s support act was the splendidly named The Orange Seaweed, a Hastings based psychedelic band.

A particularly noteworthy event was on 20 January 1968, when Pink Floyd’s gig on the pier was their last show with Syd Barrett. Their former leader was so bewildered by this time that when they travelled to their next show, in Southampton, they decided to leave him at home. Syd Barrett and  Pink Floyd never played together again.

Perhaps the most momentous day of the decade came on 20 July 1969. Not only did Apollo 11 land on the moon, but The Who returned to Hastings to play a warm-up gig for their appearance at Woodstock. The first half of the show consisted of selections from the recently released Tommy, while the second half saw them blasting through their hits.

The sixties was a great decade for live music on the pier, but with the arrival of the seventies there was a whole lot more to come.

Hastings pier is being rebuilt and for an investment of only £100 you can become one of its owners! For details of the community shares scheme visit www.hpcharity.co.uk.

Piggy

PiggyI wrote this piece in 2010, the year after my marriage broke up. It’s all true!

I still remember the trauma of Piggy falling in the toilet. I was five years old and he was my favourite cuddly toy. Mum rescued him and put him in the washing machine. After what felt like a long and worrying wait he emerged clean and still in one piece, though only just. It was a rough ride in a washing machine in 1965.

I went to bed cuddling Piggy every night. As time went by he became progressively more threadbare, but mum kept patching him up. When his stuffing started falling out she covered him in a pale blue shirt and dark blue trousers. She also gave him a new pink nose and added two big pink ears to replace the original ones which had fallen off.

As time went by Piggy, like Woody at the start of Toy Story 2, found himself consigned to the shelf. And then the cupboard. And then the loft. By the time I left home I had no idea where he was – not that I would even have thought about it.

My sister had children first and dad took the opportunity to see what he could remove from the loft. So down came the cot, the doll’s house and a black sack of old toys. Some of them were moth-eaten and had to be thrown away. But Piggy was intact. He was turning out to be a survivor.

Piggy was never a big hit with my sister’s girls. Perhaps he looked too male in his blue shirt and trousers, or perhaps too tatty. Maybe they were put off by the story of him falling in the toilet. When they grew older and started throwing out old toys to make room for new ones, Piggy was one of the first to go.

Mum phoned me, outraged. She’d been to the church jumble sale and found Piggy on one of the stalls. She’d had to pay good money to buy him back. Admittedly he only cost ten pence, but it was the principle of the thing.

When I had children she gave Piggy back to me. He wasn’t a favourite – too old, too tatty, too weird-looking. But the boys liked the story of how he had been my cuddly toy, especially the part about him falling in the toilet. And although I sometimes put him up on the shelf – in the interests of his own preservation – he always ended up back in the pile with the other toys. In my boys’ room Piggy was one of the gang along with Zonky, who sleeps with Michael every night, and Ringtail, who sleeps with Ben.

Last year I split up with my wife and, due to the circumstances of our separation, the boys have lived with me since that time. One night Ben brought Piggy through to my room, so I wouldn’t have to sleep on my own any more. So now, in my fiftieth year, I’m back with Piggy.

We Went to See Life of Pi

‘Life of Pi’ is one of my favourite films of the last few years. This is the story of Phil, whose trip to see it at the cinema doesn’t exactly go according to plan.

We went to see Life of Pi, my ex-wife and I. We hadn’t planned to, we just happened to find ourselves in the same place at the same time. It was 21st January, the day they say is the most depressing of the year, when the benefits of the Christmas break have faded and all you’re left with is the expense. It was certainly pretty bleak in the office, so I told Tracy I was off to a meeting for the afternoon. I was sure no-one would be bothered by my absence.

“Looks like you’ll have the cinema to yourself,” said the girl on the ticket desk.

This was good news – no chattering popcorn crunchers who forget to turn off their mobile phones despite being reminded at the start of the film. I walked down the steps and sat in the aisle seat of the middle row, which combined the best view and plenty of room to stretch out my long legs. I was just getting comfortable when I heard someone else come in and sit a couple of rows back on the other side of the aisle.

“Oh shit!” she said. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

I turned and there she was. I noticed that she’d dyed her short brown hair a kind of purply colour since I’d last been over to pick up the kids. This and her blue eyes were pretty much all that protruded from an anorak the size of a sleeping bag – clearly she’d dressed more for warmth than style.

“Heather! What are you doing here?”

“Taking the chance to see a decent film while the kids are in school. More to the point, why aren’t you at work?”

“Skived off for the afternoon.”

“Well don’t lose your job. We need the maintenance.”

I turned back towards the screen, hoping that the lights would go down and the ads would start. I wanted to forget that the bleakest day of the year had just got even bleaker.

“Are you going to sit over there all on your own then?”

“Well…” I searched for a response, but wasn’t sure what was appropriate. I wasn’t clear on the etiquette of being alone in the cinema with your ex-wife.

“Oh, for goodness sake Phil, come and sit with me! I’ll share my Maltesers.”

“You’ve got Maltesers?”

“Of course! I assume you still like them?”

I nodded.

“Well get over here then. Quick, before it starts!”

I reluctantly gathered up my coat and briefcase. Heather was sitting at the start of the row so I had to squeeze past her then wedge my legs in behind the seat in front. I felt uncomfortable in many ways.

“I’m trying to remember the last film we saw at the cinema together,” said Heather.

“Shrek,” I think. “Or possibly Shrek 2 or Shrek 3.”

“No, not with the kids – just us on our own.”

“Blimey, that’s going back a bit.”

“It is. I think it might have been Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind…”

The lights went down and the ads started. We munched the chocolates until a notice came up telling us to put on our 3D glasses. Heather rummaged in her bag.

“Where are yours?” she asked.

“I didn’t get any.”

“But it’s in 3D!”

“I’m happy to watch it in 2D. 3D’s just for kids’ films.”

“But it’ll be all blurry!” she rummaged in the bag again. “Put these on.”

“How many pairs of 3D glasses have you got in there?”

“Mine and the kids, so you’ll probably find the lenses are covered in sticky fingerprints. But at least you’ll be able to see the film properly.”

I sighed and put on the 3D glasses as instructed. While waiting for Life of Pi to start I totted up the pluses and minuses of being there with Heather. 3D glasses were a minus in that they felt uncomfortable over my existing glasses, but a plus in that they made the spectacle on the screen a whole lot better. Being wedged into a seat with no leg room was a definite minus, but the Maltesers were a definite plus. The point I was confused about was the presence of Heather herself. Had we been provided with an unexpected opportunity to improve our strained ex-marital relationship, or was this just another encounter when we’d end up getting on each other’s nerves?

The film was spectacular. During the early sequences in the zoo I kept feeling as though the animals were coming out of the screen towards me. When Pi tried to feed meat to the tiger I flinched as though it was about to snatch the Malteser from my own hand. True there were some boring bits where the older Pi was telling his story, but the storm in which the boat sank was brilliantly done. It was hard to believe that he then survived alone on a lifeboat with a man-eating tiger but it made for some tense moments, then at the end you realised it was all just a made-up story, like the ones in the bible.

“So what did you think?” asked Heather, as we emerged into the drizzly gloom of the high street.

“Yeah, good. The effects were awesome!”

“Awesome… that’s the kind of thing Jake says.”

“Yeah… I think I started saying it after taking him and Sarah to see Skyfall.”

“But Jake’s twelve, and Skyfall’s a James Bond film.” Heather stopped walking and turned towards me in the street, meaning I had to stop walking too.

“So as a forty something man, leaving aside the ‘awesome’ effects, what are your thoughts on Life of Pi?”

It was cold in the street and the drizzle was on the verge of turning to sleet. It was typical of Heather to be asking me difficult questions when I didn’t want to think about them. Trouble was, though, I never wanted to think about them.

“As a forty three year-old man – and that’s still a year younger than you, by the way – I enjoyed it. I enjoyed having an afternoon out from my miserable job and seeing something spectacular. And you were right to get me to wear the 3D glasses, so thank you for that. Thanks also for the Maltesers.”

“You know Phil, even when you pretend to be saying thank you for something – it’s really just an avoidance strategy.”

‘Avoidance strategy’ – that was just the kind of pseudo-psychological phrase that Heather loved to use about me. I’d tried to be nice, but despite my best efforts the afternoon was still going to end badly.

“What was Life of Pi about Phil? For you, personally? What are you going to take away from having seen it?”

The drizzle had flattened Heather’s purple-pink fringe against her forehead and she looked frozen, but her eyes shone with the fire of confrontation and her feet were firmly rooted to the ground, making her seem immovable. I knew she wasn’t going anywhere until I answered her question.

“I guess… I guess it was interesting the way that Pi had to make up a story so he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his terrible experiences. To lose his family like that, to see his mother brutally murdered…”

“So that’s the story you believe?”

“Of course.”

Heather nodded. Her eyes didn’t look angry now, just sad.

“You know Phil, when we got married I thought that we could create something special together. But you never believed that, did you?”

“I believed we could create a good life together. That we could provide a good home for our children…”

“But you’ve never believed in anything magical, have you Phil? You see, I think that when two people really believe in each other something happens that transforms their lives, just like Pi’s life is transformed when he chooses to believe in God. But you Phil, you never believed…”

Water trickled down Heather’s face – I couldn’t tell whether it was drizzle or tears. Snot was running from her nose. She didn’t look very magical.

“Heather, I’m sorry…”

She nodded and attempted a thin smile.

“I know you are. And I’m sorry too. Because you are who you are, and it’s not fair of me to blame you for that.”

“But you wish I was different.”

“I wish… I wish you could just believe in something. I wish you’d believed in us.”

I nodded. “Sometimes I wish that too.”

Heather checked her watch. “I need to get back for the kids. I’ll see you when you come for them on Saturday.”

“Saturday at twelve. I’ll see you then.”

We turned in opposite directions and walked away, Heather to our house and kids, me to my flat and a ready meal. I pulled my coat close against the cold.

On my way back to the car park I passed a church. The lights were on, and looked inviting through the stained glass windows. I went inside and, as when I entered the cinema, found myself alone. I sat in the front pew where there was plenty of leg room. After a while I moved down on to my knees, then I put my hands together and prayed. I prayed to be forgiven for making such a mess of my marriage. I prayed for the ability to change, so that I could start to lead a better life. Above all, I prayed for the gift of belief. But when I left the church there was no sudden shaft of sunshine, just sleet through the streetlights, slowly turning to snow.

Inappropriate Behaviour

I’ve read this story at a couple of alternative Valentine’s shows. It seems to go down well, although I always worry that people will think it’s autobiographical. I promise it isn’t!

Danny’s in love.

He’s writing a letter to Natalie. He says he wants to kiss her at playtime, then at lunchtime he wants to sit with her for a romantic meal.

Danny’s seven, and he’s just learnt the word ‘romantic’.

After finishing his letter Danny gets busy making something out of Lego. While he works he sings about his love for Natalie. The song is very loud, and doesn’t have much of a tune.

To stop him singing I ask what he’s making. He tells me it’s a telescope, but I say it looks more like a periscope, like they have on a submarine.

“That’s right,” he says. “It’s a periscope. So I can look over walls and spy on Natalie.”

“Mmm. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Danny.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I think your letter’s great, but it’s not very nice to spy on someone you love.”

“But I want to know what she’s doing!”

“In that case you could ask her what she’s been doing. That way you don’t need to spy on her, and you’ll have a way of starting up a conversation.”

“Ohh!” cries Danny. He throws the Lego periscope on to the ground, and multi-coloured bricks fly in all directions as it shatters on the wood veneer floor. Danny stomps off upstairs.

I kneel to pick up the bricks, feeling uneasy about the conversation. I feel I’ve offered the right kind of fatherly advice – after all, it’s not very nice to spy on someone you love. But I’m sure we all do it sometimes.

Don’t we?

****

Having just discovered love Danny talks about it all the time.

“I love Natalie,” he tells his brother Joe. “Who do you love?”

“Err… Scooby Doo!”

Joe is four.

Jane comes home from work. As soon as she comes through the door Danny starts bouncing around telling her that he’s in love with Natalie, and about the love letter he’s going to take to school for Natalie tomorrow.

“That’s lovely, Danny!” says Jane. “Can I just take my coat off?”

“Look,” says Danny, showing her the letter. “I’ve drawn kisses all over it!”

“Wow!” says Jane. “Isn’t Natalie a lucky little girl to get all those kisses.”

“Yuk!” says Joe.

“I’m gonna tell her that I think about her all the time, and that I’ve been singing a romantic song about her, and that when she’s not with me I want to make a periscope so I can spy on her. Only Daddy told me not to…”

“I said that it’s not very nice to spy on someone you love.”

“Well, Daddy’s right really,” says Jane, reluctantly. “Even if you think you’re doing it for nice reasons, people don’t like to think they’re being spied on.”

“But why not?”

“They might think you’re doing it for bad reasons,” I say. “They might mistake you for a stalker.”

“What’s a stalker?” asks Danny.

****

“Very bloody helpful!” says Jane, later, when I make the mistake of joining her in the kitchen to help with the dishes. “You’ve got a seven year old who’s in love for the first time and you start calling him a stalker!”

“I didn’t call him a stalker! I said he might get mistaken for a stalker.”

“That’s a pretty fine distinction, Mike. One that is hardly likely to matter to a seven year old!”

“Come on, Jane. It was just a flippant remark…”

“And one it wasn’t appropriate to make in front of Danny. Christ, they don’t stay innocent for long. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could hold on to his innocence for just a little while?”

When Jane looks at me I notice how the frown lines are becoming etched into her face.

****

I’m walking home from school with Danny and Joe.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Danny.”

“Natalie says that her mummy doesn’t like you.”

A lurch in my heartbeat. “Does she?”

“Yes.” He pauses. “Why doesn’t Natalie’s mummy like you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it because you’ve been spying on her?”

“No!”

“Have you been stalking her, then?”

“No!”

“Why is it, then?”

“I don’t know, Danny.”

I decide it would be inappropriate to tell him about the incident.

****

When I empty out Danny’s book bag I find his letter to Natalie. I take it through to the living room, where Danny and Joe are munching peanut butter on toast and watching ‘Scooby Doo’.

“Your letter to Natalie’s still here,” I say.

“Yes,” says Danny, his eyes fixed on the TV.

“Why didn’t you give it to her?”

“Mrs McIntyre said I shouldn’t.”

“Oh. Did she say why?”

“She said it was… it was…I’ve forgotten the word.”

“Oh.”

Danny stares at the TV for a while. He shows no sign of thinking, but he is.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Danny.”

“What does innapprope…innappropri… what does inapproprat…”

“Inappropriate?”

“Yes. What does inapproprihat mean, Daddy?”

“It means something that’s not right at a particular time. Like if I told you off when you’d hurt yourself and you were crying – it would be inappropriate for me to do that. The appropriate thing would be for me to give you a cuddle.”

“I’ve hurt myself, Daddy!” cries Joe, who clearly feels he’s not getting enough attention.

“All right, Joe, just a minute! Why do you ask, Danny?”

“Because that’s what Mrs McIntyre said about my letter to Natalie.”

****

Jane, once again, is furious.

“Fancy telling Danny his letter was inappropriate!” she says. “What right did Mrs McIntyre have to do that?”

“I guess she was just trying to protect him. You know how kids can be…”

“He only wanted to tell Natalie he loves her. What kind of a world is it where we need to protect children from that?”

****

It’s coming up to Valentine’s Day. I’m shopping for a present for Jane but I’m thinking about Natalie’s mum, Rebecca. In particular I’m thinking about the incident.

I’m pretty sure that Rebecca and I are the only people who know about the incident. Certainly she can’t have told her husband, Keith, because he’s the kind of bloke who would come straight round and hit me. Keith keeps a baseball bat in the boot of his car.

I don’t want to think about that.

I wonder what Rebecca has said about me to Natalie. Clearly she’s indicated to Natalie that she doesn’t like me. Hopefully she’s just described me as ‘a bit weird’ or something. Lot’s of the mums think that, simply on the grounds that I pick up my kids from school each day while Jane’s out working.

I didn’t mean to start e-mailing her as much as I did, but when you’re at home all day writing – or in my case, failing to write – you start to long for a bit of human contact. And the drinking didn’t help – it just started with a couple of lagers while I caught up on the Sky Sports News at lunchtime, but I did lose control of it for a while.

I stopped when Jane threatened to kick me out. She said my behaviour was inappropriate, especially when I was responsible for collecting Joe from nursery and Danny from school. Fortunately she didn’t know how inappropriate. She didn’t know about the incident…

When Rebecca stopped replying to my e-mails I started feeling like I’d lost all contact with the world. Each time I checked my inbox it was just full of scams and offers for Viagra – which, I hasten to add, I really don’t need. So I decided I needed to get out into the world, and sent Rebecca an e-mail inviting her to lunch at the Swan. She didn’t show up, of course, so I drank a few lagers, added a couple of whisky chasers, then had the good sense to realise I needed to get home. Only I decided to stop at Rebecca’s on the way…

I really wasn’t spying on her when she found me under the hydrangea in her front garden. After all, how can you spy on someone when you’re unconscious? And it wasn’t strictly accurate when she accused me of stalking her, because stalking implies walking and I wasn’t able to do that either.

But I do accept that my behaviour was inappropriate…

I buy Jane a nice card, and some soap in a heart-shaped box from the Body Shop.

****

Danny draws a picture of himself with a big red heart, which takes up most of his body. Inside the heart he’s written ‘I love you, Natalie’. He’s going to give her the picture tomorrow, for Valentine’s Day. He’s decided not to tell Mrs McIntyre.

The next day he comes running out of school. He’s really excited.

“Esme loves me!” he cries.

“Who’s Esme?” I ask.

“A girl in my class. Look!” He opens his book bag, and takes out a big pink card with a huge red heart drawn on it. “She made me this!”

He opens it up and I read, ‘To Danny, Happy Valintyne’s Day, Love from Esme’.

“Hey, that’s great Danny. But what about Natalie? ”

“Well, when I found out that Esme loves me I gave the picture to her instead.”

“But you’d written it to Natalie…”

“Yes, well I crossed her name out first…”

As we walk across the playground I glance towards Rebecca. A brief shaft of sunshine lights up her golden blonde hair. She is walking hand in hand with Natalie when a little boy runs up. He hands Natalie a bunch of flowers, the first daffodils of spring. Then he skips away again, and Rebecca hugs her daughter and they laugh.