On Wood Street. Short Story by Kevin Murphy

On Wood Street

“My Uncle “Bombed” that Gasometer on his first leave from National Service”

“He never did – it’s still there!”

“No, Jean, I don’t mean really! He brought home some ‘Thunder-flashes’, great big bangers that they use for pretending hand-grenades. He let one off over there at three in the morning, and all the old biddies were running out of their houses and having heart attacks and things. The police and fire brigade came and there was terrible trouble – in the Bury Times and everything.”

“What did they do to him – you can be hanged for treason, can’t you Kevin?”

“Don’t be daft…”

“You can tek yer ‘ands off me if your going to shout!”

I jumped back, put my hands in prayer and put on my best injured-puppy look.

“Sorry Honey!”

I’ve got to tell you what phase we’re in here – American B movies.
In the Summer of 59, we were reaching the end of my Dad’s first exasperation with television. Exasperated, because my mum, my sisters and me, we could not resist the novelty of the box – and anyway he’d never had the money to take us to the Flicks, except once to see Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” at the Moulin Rouge…. And that was like going to another City. We went up Headington from Oxford to see it at the Moulin Rouge what would now pass as an Art House, but was then the area’s cheapest flea-pit. But my Grandma had a Telly!

Every afternoon (it seemed) they showed B movies on the Telly (real ones remember – the crap ones you had to sit through at the Flicks before you could watch what you actually paid to see! Imagine being the Director and knowing you had to make a crap film, in case anyone thought it was better than the one the studio spent thousands on! Most of them had the same actors in the same story set in a different place – but what I really liked was all the bombing and hiding. This was probably real “Stock Footage” (Not in the Randolph Scott Cowboys of course.)

Me and Jean were hiding from the bombs. In the churchyard on Wood street. I had to keep leaving her on a railway platform and doing that screen kiss. I showed her: ” I put my right arm round your neck,” (She let me!) “and you put yours round mine.” (She did.) “Now I put my left arm round your waist and you put yours round mine and we kiss” (Straight in!!!).

(Now I hope your heart’s pounding, because mine is and this was fifty years ago – my first adult kiss – I was eleven, …and anyone who doesn’t believe me… It was real love. I felt the same passion [Latin: passio – I suffer] – weak knees, aching heart, sweaty palms, as I did for any of my later loves – much later because Jean was my last love for ten years -see below!)

“Mmw … hold on, Jean, now we’ve got to do like the films – I’m so tall…” and we fall apart, laughing.

“You, yer lickle squirt. I only love you ‘cos yer lickle”

She loves me! I know! I stagger about and fall and do one of those deaths the same stunt-man does in “Boots and Saddles” every week – last week he was an Indian; the week before a Cowboy – anyone can die – well not everyone – but he’s the specialist, probably gets a bit of bonus! Here’s what you do: from your haunches, you break cover – stupid ‘cos you’re bound to get shot, but you’re mad at “them Injuns”, or “them Palefaces”, or “dem Gringos”, or “low-down-bums” (Great joke: Cowboys with no legs [Dandy, circa 1958; and again 1964… ] You stand up ‘n shoot the varmints, but they get you. You throw your arms up and away with your Winchester/ Bow/ Bluntline Special ( that’s so’s you don’t fall on it during the next bit) (are you following this girls? Stick with it – it is a love story!)  …then you do a Roly-poly down a hill, or roof, or hay-stack ,  but the Methodists’ didn’t have much call for haystacks, so I dived in the Elderberry Bush.

“Are you alright, Kevin?

You can’t flamin’ cry when yer with yer gal. “Aah! A stick got me right in the eye!”

“Ohhh. Let mi luke” (My mother’s accent!) – she holds my head; she can’t see my eyes for the hand that’s over them – the other’s on my side where I really hurt myself. She wraps her arms round my head and clasps me to her bosom – that she hasn’t got yet – but it was as real as any woman who did – see below!
She kisses my head: “It were a lovely dive!”

“Were it… was it? Was it as good as Boots ‘n’ Saddles?”

“Eeh, I don’t know – that’s bye’s stuff”

I shove her up, wounds healed, and charge out of the gate and turn, arms out, Dam-Buster style, and fly back right up to her, nose-to-nose and freeze.
That smell – I’ll never forget it – well I don’t think I have – I went in a Children’s Home once and thought of her – no, not piddle – a sort of unscented cleanliness. Was it Lifebouy (“Carbolic”) and Tide or Omo? I wouldn’t know – we always had Palmolive and Persil – no carpets, like!

I could have stayed forever, and so could she – we were as one.
I have to stop typing, and you have to stop reading there for a minute to take this all in. Shut your eyes.

“OK, we put our arms….”

“Shush! There’s Nigel!

Nigel! What a name for the Cock o’t’Walk. But he was! He beat me for Jean. I had asked her to be my girlfriend – it was the dead straight hair with perfect auburn fringe that did it. She had nice teeth, too. She accepted, but her alleged boyfriend didn’t. (He alleged  – she sort of shrugged, embarrassed. Looking back, I see the oppression of women – she had to live there. I was probably only a holiday romance). For the duel of fisticuffs we agreed a time – two o’clock that afternoon, and a place – The Mucklows, across the hedge from the tryst at the heart of this story; and a referee – a fat, spotty, but mature thirteen year-old.


Rubbing my hands on my T-shirt I had time to realise that we were standing just about where my Grandpa had had his Cobbler’s Cabin, in the years before I was seven and he’d died. Then Nigel grabbed my shirt and it was pulling, puffing and pushing each other for an hour – not a punch, not even a slap. Then he grabbed me round the neck and pushed my forehead into the ground and over in a second – well two seconds.

“Give up?” he asked after an eternity.

I was quiet – choking back a tear from the stone piercing my forehead. I couldn’t move.

“Are y’ givin’ up?”

“Yeah!” I whimpered and he let me go and leapt up. The Ref held his arm aloft – the champion.

I accepted the decision in good faith. My Dad had taught me about the Queensbury rules, but even though Nigel broke them and cheated, I stuck by the Ref’s Decision, and gave Jean up for him.

Jean mustn’t have been as feudal as me – she wasn’t having lads feighting ower ‘er. I wished she had said that before he ground my forehead into the grit. But maybe she wouldn’t have had me – a Southern Stranger and the smaller pugilist – if I hadn’t shown the desire to fight for her!

She swished her pony-tail “yewer a dirty cheat Nigel Hemshore. Push off up Back-Charles Street y’ugly mug. (This was very nasty – all the streets had a Back-Street, but this hinted at living down the back out where the Night-Shit-Shifters came – even though her mum’s and my Grandma’s had proper WCs for years by then!)

He went in some shame and, strangely, the small audience shuffled off with him.

“He’s gone – carry on” and she just looked at me eyeball to eyeball what a look – you know what I mean. (If you don’t, put this down now, and go and fix a drain!)

Firstly just a kiss – eyes closed, and lips too of course, forever. Then a breath -it’s a wonder we didn’t spifflicate.

Relax there’s no pressure. That was just the whole of my life rushing before my eyes – my love life, so far, that is – she’s right with me. I’m just back from bombing the Ruhr.

In the churchyard.
Next to Mucklows.
Next to the Gasometer.
On Wood Street.
In love.

“OK. We kiss, with our arms round each other, but then there’s the special bit they always do in the flicks – while we’re kissing you have to reach up to me, the camera moves down from our lips, you move onto tip-toe and lift one leg … and freeze!” Delicious.

It was decades before I find out why they did this: there was a Hollywood Production Rule that the screen kiss could only last three seconds.
The love I felt for Jean … I wonder at my kids getting to 18 and not having had a heartbreak.

I loved Josephine Maloney at 5, Vivian Welsh at 8/9 (Unrequited) and Sonia Hartman at 10.

I loved Jean, really loved her, but I loved Jesus and the poor more. I gave her up on 31st August 1960. I cried myself to sleep on 30th. It was the night before returning home from my Grandma’s when, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I cried out to the Father to take this cup from me – but only as he wished, not as I did. I was to forsake the love of a good woman for the love of all who asked in Christ’s name, in the life of a Friar.

The next day I set off for London and a life of celibacy. I stuck to it willingly all through puberty. It was such a conscious choice that at 18, when I took the Franciscan habit, I became Brother Bernard, taking the Saint of that name as my Patron, because the choice was hard for him too. Bernard – What a lad! He had founded the strictest Order in the Church – The silent Cistercians – St Bernard of Clairvaux – just the right patron for a man in my position – choosing to give up the love of a good woman. In the 1960s.

On his 31st of August Bernard was riding beside a lake when he saw a beautiful girl. “Phwoar” is the modern idiom for what he may have thought. Then he remembered he was supposed to be giving up such sentiments. He gingerly clambered up onto the saddle of his horse, and dived into the lake to calm his ardour. I needed a patron with such sense of humour!

My Romance had to last me. It did last me ten years. But it finished just two weeks after the fight.
And ten years later I was Brother Bernard.
There aren’t any lakes on Wood Street, and the inky Irwell in the fifties would have killed me in minutes.

50s Childhood memory retold.

“The Footprints of time” by Brendan Stoneham

The Footprints of time.
Black trees on a burnt grey sky,
Always observing, they are the dark footprints of time.
Stretching back to when the earth was not, and leaning forward still.
Dying slowly, so it seems they don’t die at all.
A constant of forever is what they seem to our brief grasp of time.
Going thru all, yet experiencing what?
They give us life, the unknowing guardians of our world.
They seem to shout into the rainy wind and keep themselves silent in the calm shadowy light of winter,
Even though they are silence themselves.
With leaves ever-changing, even the constant trees move with time.
The branches grab the clouds and pull the weather down,
Roots slowly penetrate manmade ground.
Slowly recovering the land once theirs,
Because they can wait longer,
Far longer than we ever can.

Prologue to “Deadman Running” by Gerry Fruin

Prologue to “Deadman Running” by Gerry Fruin

PROLOGUE

The night air was still and cloyingly warm, with no breeze stirring to cool the heavy air. In the back of the old Renault van the silent men sweated uncomfortably. Outside, the village held its breath. With no moon to cast any light, even the light coloured buildings were barely discernible. Any windows there were, were shuttered and no lamplight filtered through. The narrow alleys that made up the small remote mountain village remained silent and impenetrable barriers.

Inside the van a swift flash of the night-light from a wristwatch brought an instant tensioning from the men. A hand squeezed gently on an arm. The leader had given the ‘go’ signal. The five black-clad figures eased silently from the back of the rusting van’s well-oiled rear doors. No orders were given, and none expected. They had trained together for months, and their drill practised until each man knew precisely what the other’s role was. They were a team; they were the best.

Not a sound was made as they slipped through the darkness towards the house on the edge of the village. No cocking of weapons – this had been done earlier. Not even the click of safety catches. No sound. The team flanked the building as planned. The house stood alone, its single recessed entrance facing the village street. One man had taken position at the rear. He lay against the low dusty wall and sighting through his night-scope, he saw no movement from his comrades. Under his facemask he allowed himself a tight smile of satisfaction. The team were good, very good.

A muffled thump broke the silence. No shouting, no histrionics. The two clearance men had hit the door, and would now be in the building with their night-vision glasses sweeping the darkness. They would react instantaneously to any movement, moving at lightening speed, with weapons ready to be fired at any hostile figure. The earpiece of each man’s short-range radio crackled with the breathing of the two men in the building.

“Clear,” hissed the voice of number one.

He would repeat this every few seconds, so that the second entry team would know exactly where they were. Seconds passed.

“Chris, moving in.”

Wilson had no need to ask who had used his name. The French accent came over thickly, even though it was little more than a murmur. Jean-Paul Raoul, Lt. Colonel, French Foreign Legion. Team leader on this raid. Wilson scanned the roof and surrounding area. Nothing.

“Clear,” pause, “clear,” repeated the tension-filled voice.

“In,” came the French accent.

In those fleeting seconds, Wilson could not understand why no contact had been made. They had all been sceptical of this additional assignment. Most of them thought that the young ‘Rupert’ was too inexperienced an officer to be calling the shots. As a compromise, they had insisted that the legendary Jean-Paul lead the team. The intelligence team had added a new liaison officer and he was adamant that the information was good. With no time to check, the raid had been approved by ‘high authority’ on the dubious account of the unknown newcomer. It was against all the carefully laid out rules, but rumour had it that the new ‘Rupert’ had good connections.

The whole twenty-strong unit of special forces men had not liked the new influx of personnel. For eight months they had been one of the most effective anti-drug units in the world. Set up and run through an official multi-government quasi-police unit based in Brussels, they had been selected from the cream of the world’s special armed forces and tasked with spearheading the fight against trafficking. Most countries supported, at least on paper and with rhetoric, the drive to eliminate drug trafficking. Many, like the small Arab emirate they had flown into two days ago, were, at best, ambivalent. Despite this, the unit had fast gained a fearsome reputation for swift and incisive action.

They had flown in and out of numerous countries, striking ruthlessly at storage depots and distribution points. Such was their success, that some countries were even withholding approval of their entry on the grounds of “International violation of human rights”. The team knew little of and cared less about this political double-speak. They were now at, or purported to be at, a key manufacturing refinement base. Intelligence apparently confirmed that this remote and quiet village was a key distributor out of the Gulf area.

Uncharacteristically, Wilson was on edge, his gut instinct screaming that something was not right. He swung the night-sight ever more urgently left and right, his eyes straining to see any movement. The building and its surroundings, digitally enhanced in the state-of-the-art scope, showed nothing untoward.

“Clear,” pause, “clear,” he reported.

“Two, clear,” snapped the Frenchman.

Wilson came to his knees. The low ancient wall collapsed, leaving him with no protection. He sensed the danger and could virtually taste it. Sweating and adrenaline pumping, he swung round again to scan the hillside. Never in his ten years of soldiering had the feeling of menace and danger been so omnipresent.

A slight movement higher up the hill? He swung the scope back again while the calls kept coming through his earpiece. Time had stood still, yet only a few seconds had elapsed since the destruction of the door.

“Clear,” pause, “clea…er, smell,” hissed number one.

Wilson spun back towards the house, rising instinctively into a crouch, his nerves at screaming point. How could Rick smell? His self-contained breathing equipment would not allow him to smell. Unless… unless the smell was so powerful that it had penetrated the equipment.

“Allez, allez,” screamed the colonel, instinctively reverting to his native tongue.

In that same instant, Wilson saw the small house expand outwards in a fireball. Afterwards, he could not recall whether he had heard the explosion or had felt the searing heat first. He knew he was in the air, the black night turned into intense daylight for a few seconds, his night vision destroyed. The ground smashed into his back, stunning him and winding him at the same time. His instinct for survival took over. His night-vision destroyed by the intense light from the explosion and, although unable to see, he sought cover. Dimly he became aware of the sound of small arms’ fire. Christ! They’re raking the building.

He ran. A figure lurched away from the building, his flameproof clothes smouldering and stinking in the intensity of the heat. Wilson barely paused in his zigzag attempt to find cover. He heaved the semi-conscious figure across his shoulders, and ran. When the pain came it was after he knew he had been hit. He hurtled on down the hill. The pain became so intense that he struggled to keep upright and conscious. The body on his back had ceased screaming. Only the steepness of the terrain and his strength as an athlete kept him upright. His momentum came to an abrupt end when he literally hit the road into the village. He stopped fighting the nausea, staggering onto the road. The body fell from his shoulders. I’m dying, he thought. Slowly he sank to his knees, knowing that if he passed out he would indeed die.

The firing had ceased. Like a puppet he collapsed, his face hit the dirt and stone of the primitive road. As he fought to stay conscious, his unfocused eyes saw headlights.

“Are they alive,” asked the affected drawling voice from a long way off.

“Yeah! Or one of ’em is,” came the reply. “Shot to shit though, by the looks of it.”

“Get them then, and let’s get out of here quickly.”

“But the others, sir, we have to check!”

“Don’t argue man, you saw the explosion. No one could have lived through that. Get out now, the bastards may be following up.” There was no mistaking the fear in his voice.

“But sir…”

“Shift them now you idiot, snarled the Rupert.

“Sir,” came the surly, reluctant response.

Wilson heard this exchange faintly through the red haze of pain. Next came the jolting of the vehicle and he finally gave way to unconsciousness.
Briefly he was aware of the noise of rotors, and vaguely he guessed that he was being ferried to their base, HMS Vulcan. Hands lifted him gently from the armour-plated floor of the chopper.

“OK, now pal, hang in there,” a deep Midlands accent spoke into his ear. “We’re taking you straight to M.I. Have you fixed up in a jiffy.” A needle punched into his arm. He felt nothing.

His mind was softly drifting on a wave of painkiller. In a final moment of clarity Wilson struggled to stand.

“Steady, steady, Sergeant.” Hands held on to him.

“I want to stand,” he heard a muffled voice croak, and realised he was speaking, albeit from a great distance. A storm of rage seared through him, overcoming the powerful drug. He strained to focus his blurred vision on the object of his fury. The young Lieutenant was standing apart from the medics, aloof, yet with eyes darting nervously left and right. Wilson sought and found him.

“We were set up, you wanker,” he croaked, blindly trying to shake off the supporting arms. “You gave no support. You left them, you yellow snivelling bastard.” He felt himself fading.

“You ran, Sergeant, not me,” the young officer smirked, stepping back quickly, his confidence restored now that he was safely on board the base ship. The accusation and the sneering tone snapped the last of Wilson’s control. With a superhuman effort, he shook his helpers off and, before the astonished medics could move, he struck the Rupert in the throat.

A week later, Wilson stood before his base-unit Commanding Officer. Two escorts stood inches away on either side, facing him as military procedure dictated. The Regimental Sergeant-major was behind the guard, and the Adjutant stood behind the Colonel, staring fixedly above Wilson’s head. Wilson was still sedated, but charges had been brought and discipline would be discharged.

“To summarise, Wilson,” the seated figure of the C.O. gravely continued, “you struck an officer of Her Majesty’s Armed Services, abused him, and called him a coward.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t bother denying it; more than ten people have confirmed in signed affidavits what went on.”
Wilson blinked. Bloody hell, he’s still alive! Throughout his week’s treatment, he had assumed the Rupert to be dead. He could only suppose that his injuries had prevented him achieving his objective.

“Apparently the officer concerned is lucky to be alive. You have a choice, based on your past impeccable record. Simply, you accept an honourable discharge as of now, or face a court martial. Of course,” the Colonel carried on as though Wilson was unable to speak, “you will accept a discharge!” His eyebrows rose in expectation. Dismissed.

Minutes later. “Richard, please bring the security coding up on screen, full eyes only for all security services and police anti-terrorist units.”

“Wilson’s that special, sir?”

The Colonel looked old and weary. “Yes I’m afraid he is, Richard, he’s more than special. Did you know they have a scale up to five, and would you believe they actually use X’s.”

“So how do we rate Wilson, sir. One X?” The newly-arrived adjutant smiled knowingly.

Deeply troubled the older man looked at his new aide. “To give you some idea, you remember the hoo-ha about the joker Carlos, the so-called Jackal?” The younger man nodded though his brow creased in puzzlement. Long before his time.

“Well apparently he rated a world-wide rank of 2 Xs, now Wilson, yes Wilson,” he paused brooding on his ancient pipe, and pointing at the office door through which the said Wilson had disappeared, “Wilson I would rate about 7.”
The adjutant looked sharply to see if the Colonel was joking, and gulped, and quickly bit back a smart response when he saw the look of deep foreboding on the face of the senior officer.

“I hope,” the older man spoke very quietly, so the Captain had to strain to catch the words, “that no one is stupid enough to underestimate Wilson.” He turned towards the by now clearly worried Adjutant, who had never seen the old man in this kind of mood; it was very disturbing. “That man is a walking death sentence.”