By Nasir Ali Hussain
I’d been told by people who’d grown up with me that the place where we had once lived had changed. Changed so much that it might as well be someplace else, with few, if any, signposts for fragments of memory to tack on to. When I went back I saw that they weren’t lying. It had changed alright and not for the better. A real shame that, because Roxeth, or Rooks Heath as it was once called, was a great place to live and grow up in during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. At one time, that part of North West London was considered ‘rural.’ However, as the London Underground network started to spread out in the 1920’s and 30’s, places like Roxeth began to lose the sense of being part of the countryside. They instead became exemplary examples of the new metroland; ideal environments for socially mobile aspirants working their way up from working class status. They became suburbs.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s you could walk the streets of London in fog filled pea souper winters that reminded one of the age of gaslight. And Roxeth was no exception. The light would fade between five and six and evening darkness would come down like a cloak. By six o’clock the streets would be largely silent, fewer cars back then. The sound of your shoes would echo through the street as they pounded the pavement. You’d find yourself feeling vigilant for any extraneous noise. Don’t think that I’m being grim here though. Like I said, these new suburbs were for the most part great places to live, grow and thrive in. They were gilded environments, insulated from the more gritty reality of inner city London and were almost guaranteed to leave you with the sort of childhood memories that you’d want your own children to have. They were safe, green and familiar. They also had character and were home to characters- basically all the ingredients you required to be happy- even if you weren’t aware that you were ‘happy’. The shops in the one thoroughfare, with the exception of the Sainsbury’s, Woolworths, and Boots, were all independently owned and as such had an individuality about them. The area seemed to be built around seven streets. Anyway, one bright day, in 1983, during the school summer holidays when England were beating New Zealand in the Test cricket Series and Culture Club were going to storm the charts with Karma Chameleon, me and a group of friends were out in the park, playing football and riding our Choppers, Grifters, and BMX bikes. Roxeth Recreation Ground sat atop one of the roads near the station called Eastcote Road. Everybody just called it ‘The Park.’ It felt like you were walking up a steep hill to get there. The place was laid out in three divisions as well as having a large allotment area to one side. The first was sort of flat and plateaued. It seemed like all the kids in the neighbourhood converged there from sundown to sun up. There were tennis courts, both grass and concrete, two football pitches, a bowling club, and a children’s activity playground. There were also secret shrubs and pathways with trees to climb as well as two lush cricket pitches. One pitch was better for bowling. The other was more favourable to batsmen. For us that park might as well have been Disneyland, because it contained just as many adventures. Around noon we bought bags of chips smelling strongly of salt and vinegar from Louis and Sons Fish and Chip Shop. It was on the row of shops on the corner of Eastcote Road, between Sellanby Records and the Interflora flower shop. In those days most chip shops would have their ‘frying times’ displayed alongside their opening hours. And Louis was no exception. You don’t see that anymore. They were the best chippy for miles and had a clipped newspaper article proudly displayed on the front window to prove it. The owner, Louis Tsoukalas was a stout, sweaty man with a glistening bald head and round patron’s belly. He wore thick jewellery round his neck and wrists and had a fat gold ring on one of his fingers. I expect he wore these as a testament to a poor 1950’s immigrant from Cyprus having made good. He would sort of grimace with his tongue pushing against his lower lip as if he were lifting a heavy weight as he pulled or plunged thickly battered fish in and out of the deep fat fryer, the hot glass cabinet or dipped it with the thick batter completely concealing the fillet. On Friday evenings the customer queue stretched out into the street. His two sons stopped working for him by the mid 80’s and it was his wife and assorted workers in aprons, including one lovely green eyed woman who more than one customer tried to chat up, who helped run the place. A full team was needed when the seats inside were taken and the customer line stretched out onto Northolt Road. I was not the only person who tried to avoid being served by his wife. Louis looked like a Fun Time Frankie with the quality of jovial fat man generosity. He was always giving a few free chips to the young kids. His missus on the other hand had a strong sense of economy and gave much smaller portions of chips. Even her ‘large’ portion was disappointing. I once saw a customer throw his whole cone shaped parcel of chips against the shop wall in protest. She was tight lipped and po-faced in her blue apron and had short, forever dyed blonde hair. I never learnt what her name was. They both had thick, full features that made me wonder whether long term marriage made husbands and wives look like brother and sister.
I had known these guys, who were my best friends at the time, ever since I had started school in 1976. Which means I’d known them forever. Within our group that day there was one kid however whom none of us had ever seen before. He had just magically shown up that afternoon. He caught our attention as he was doing these really high wheelies on his bike. We were of course doing the same and before long he was one of us. He was a bit heavy with a soft belly and flabby forearms and one of our group christened him ‘Chunky.’ We started kicking a football around after a while and were challenged to a match by another group of kids.We asked Chunky if he would go in goal as he didn’t look like he was going to be the fastest player on the pitch.
“No problem,” said Chunky with a smile that said he would have asked had we not asked. He was a good goalie. We won the game because of his saves. I forget what the score was, but it was one of those games in which both teams scored over ten goals each.
“You move pretty quickly, Chunky. How comes we’ve never seen you before?” I wanted to know.
“I’m not from around here.”
“Well, where are you from?”
“I’m from Northolt.”
An uncomfortable sensation was immediately felt by all of us when we were told that. It was like somebody had suddenly pulled back a curtain. The temperature was imperceptibly electric. You see, the youth of Northolt and Rooks Heath were like sworn enemies. Our lot referred to themselves as the Rooks Heath Breakers; after the breakdance and body popping craze that were so popular at the time. Whilst the Northolt youths were known as the Northolt Soul Boys. You saw both groups names graffitied in admiration or condemnation on various walls in town. There was a kind of trendy hostility between us. As far as we were concerned the Northolt lads were soft, gelled haired poseurs who swayed to soppy soul rather than breakdance or body pop to Electro music and Rap. Basically the whole animus stemmed from one notion. And that was that we thought, that they thought, that they were better than we were. The legendary tales of what had happened to so and so’s older brother in Northolt didn’t help. The images in our minds were like scenes out of West Side Story. There was a bridge at the southern end of Rooks Heath from which the overground Northolt Park train went past. That was like the cut off safety zone between us and Northolt. We had all heard excitedly exaggerated tales of gang fights usually involving someone from our end of town getting duffed up outside the White Swan pub. It was always the same story, of being alone or outnumbered on the wrong side of the zone and at the wrong time and ending up in Northwick Park Hospital. Yet funnily enough none of us actually knew anyone who had been involved in these explosive episodes. No evidence to substantiate these stories we told each another. And, as far as I recall, there were no local paper articles to corroborate our stories either. There was no primary proof whatsoever. And yet, we were always on our collective guard whenever we ventured under the Nortolt Park Bridge towards The Swan Pub. This was a pub with a kind of cone shaped Hansel and Gretal roof, opposite of which was an insanely long road of houses called The Heights. At such times we felt like soldiers on undercover maneuvers in enemy territory. Such stories made our lives more interesting.
“Northolt boys are poofs and the girls are all tarts.” Said a voice from our side shorn of all friendliness.
“Yeah.” Said another voice. I could see Chunky sort of take an involuntary backwards step and blink his eyes in the sudden unknowing of what to expect. There was this energy in the air that came from the feeling you get when you’ve been swindled or lied to. I licked my lips and thought quickly of finding some way to relax and release the tension.
“Yeah, well that’s why our friend is here with us. Look, let’s forget all this crap. My mum is on her way from work and she told me that was going to bring me some new records, maybe Electro 3 or Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.”
My mum worked in Sellanby Records and Tapes. This was the local record and video shop that sold new and second hand records and cassettes. It was run by two brothers called Pete and Dave. They sometimes allowed my mum to take some records free of charge for special occasions or if they had a surplus. They also let her borrow films free of charge from their video club. Since it was my birthday that weekend they had let her bring a few records home for me. Nice guys, even if they did pay you peanuts for the records you sold them. Sellanby was by far the best record shop I have ever been to. They always had what you wanted and they were always fairly priced.
I looked around me and did this sort of body popping movement and a swift little moonwalk. Everybody laughed. That killed the bad vibe stone dead.
“To my house!” I shouted like I was announcing an invasion.
“Good idea.” Said someone.
We all loved music.
Chunky smiled and looked relieved at that. We all then hauled ourselves onto our bikes and rode to my house like a posse of cowboys- including this unknown kid. When we got there my mother had a bunch of records in her hand. We all went inside to the living room. There was the ‘Rio’ album by Duran Duran, ‘Listen’ by A Flock of Seagulls and a 12 inch by an unknown group called ‘The Flying Pickets.’
“No Electro then? No Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five?”
“No,” I said finding it hard to hide my disappointment. The only Furious Five in the room was us.
“Well, lets just hear what you got anyway.” Said Chunky.
I shrugged and carefully took the Rio open out of it’s sleeve, making sure not to get my fingers on the actual surface of the vinyl itself. It was a second hand copy, as was ‘Listen’ the LP by the Flock of Seagulls. We started listening to the albums.
We were surprised by joy. We had expected brass and got gold. Everybody particularly liked the second track on the Duran Duran record. It was called ‘Last chance on the stairway’ and of course we swayed along to the space age melancholy of ‘Wishing’ (If I had a photograph of you).
I had heard it before and likened it to the Electro sounds we heard on the Mike Allen Capital Rap Show on 95.8FM on Friday nights. Everybody was ready to go after that. Then I suddenly remembered and called them all back.
“Hey, we haven’t heard this one yet!” I said holding up the plain black sleeve that contained the third record.
“Who are the Flying Pickets?……” said someone.
“Never heard of them.” Said another.
“Bet they’re naff,” said a third voice.
There was laughter at that comment. I felt like a ‘Right Plonker,’ as Del Trotter liked to call Rodney on Only Fools and Horses. I started to put the record back in the yellow and black Sellanby Records and Tapes bag. No sooner had I done that when Chunky suddenly said in a loud voice. “Hey, give it a chance. You shouldn’t judge anything, or anyone- until you’ve given them a chance.”
So I took the glistening black vinyl out from its plain black sleeve. I did so with a frown on my face, as a sort of insurance in case anyone decided to laugh at me again. I gingerly placed the shiny, new black vinyl onto the turntable and dropped the needle.When the song came on nobody said a word. We just stood there in a sort of semi- circle, mezmorized. There was something about the melancholy melody, echoey harmonies and complete lack of physical instruments that really affected us. When it was over there was an uncomfortable, yet profound silence that was broken when Chunky said.“Play it again.”
“Again?” I said pretending I didn’t want to hear it again.
“Yeah, put it on again,” everyone chorused in one voice.
When it was over, that unknown boy, whom we had just met that day and decided to name ‘Chunky,’ suddenly announced: “We are all friends now.”
“We will always be friends.” I said.
“Yeah, always!” Echoed another voice.
“Always,” said somebody else in a hushed manner.
Chunky looked around at us and said that he never really listened to music, had never cared for it much until now, but he knew that he would never forget that song…. I saw him cycle away with the others. He did one final wheelie, waved and then took a turn that separated him from the others. Within seconds he had faded from sight. We expected him to show up at the park the next day, and the day after that. But he never did. Oddly enough, after that one day not a single one of us ever saw him again. He never showed up again doing his wheelies in the park or anywhere else for that matter. It was like he had simply vanished, or had never been. I even wondered whether he was a figment of our collective imaginations. Which I decided was impossible because how could we have all had the exact same delusion? We talked about him for a couple of days after. But pretty soon everyone forgot all about him and he was never mentioned again. Though I did think about him every now and then; especially if I saw some kid doing a wheelie on his bike, or saw a chubby footballer energetically chasing a ball in the park.
Over twenty years later and I was a 33 year old police constable doing my bit around different parts of London. One night, during a patrol in North West London on a piercingly cold December night with another constable in tow, we arrested a man. He was dishevelled and clearly an addict and was causing a disturbance in the vicinity of the tube station. If there was a disturbance in the area, that’s where I was told it was most likely to be. Hard drugs were also known to be sold on those street corners … I was trying hard to lie to myself about where I was because the old neighbourhood had indeed charged. All the old shops and once familiar haunts were gone. It was like the underground station was the only remaining landmark from my time. Anway, whether I liked it or not, this is was what Roxeth was like now. It was not even known by that name anymore. It had gone from Rooks Heath to Roxeth and was now known as South Harrow.
This man, that my partner and I had our eyes on, looked like he was in his early forties. He was tall and skinny and had the mangy, crumpled appearance of the rough sleeper. He had longish hair over which he wore the sort of hat that Benny used to wear in the afternoon ITV soap Crossroads. ‘A razor, some toothpaste and a stint in a barbers chair would work wonders on this guy.’ I mused as I drew close to him. There was quite a scene going on. He was shouting incoherently. I was surprised by the volume in his voice. I was also surprised that he had not been beaten up by some of the young guys on that stretch of street. They sort of cluttered around him jeering and laughing. He was lucky that they were taking what he was doing as a laugh than as an affront. I had seen these guys before. Every one of them method acting like they were gang members of the Bloods or Crips in South Central Los Angeles. I was angry at how they were casually tossing their youths away over juvenile fantasies for what they saw on MTV. My partner told me that they weren’t around during the day, but come evening and they would be standing outside the Sri Lankan owned grocery that never seemed to close. The owners of the shop didn’t seem perturbed or even slightly worried by these hyenas in hoodies selling heroin. I suspect this was because they were probably the hidden hands behind the brisk drug trade that went on outside their front window in the late hours. Some of these youths had been picked up more than once. But the charges had never stuck.
My partner cuffed this scruffy looking feller’s hands behind his back and roughly tackled him to the ground. A needle fell out one of his pockets.
“Right, you are under arrest. You’re coming with us.”
He squirmed on the ground and growled. “What for! What for!”
“For being in possession of a class- A drug. Heroin possession to be exact.”
I did not like the idea of a man sitting outside with a needle in his hand in the sort of weather where you didn’t go outside unless it was necessary. So, I went along with my partner’s tactics. I thought a night in the cells would do him some good. Perhaps even save his life for another day or two. I wondered whether he would stand his ground and argue back; but he was either strung out, or just too tired to kick up a ruckus and let himself be handcuffed and led away to the car like a child. I put him in the backseat of the patrol car and slammed the door shut.
“Name?” I asked looking at him in the rear view mirror sat hunched in his blue black Benny hat. He just sat looking and not looking at me with zoned out eyes.
“ Name!” I said again, this time in a more stern manner and a no nonsense look on my face.
He turned to stare out the window before quietly answering.
“Yeah, and I’m Huckleberry Finn.” I said to him.
“He reeks,” said my partner with some impatience. “Let’s just get him to the station before the whole car stinks of piss and dust.”
“All you pigs are the same,” Scruffy said, still staring moodily out of the window. I looked at him as he sat on the backseat from the rearview mirror, all skinny and wretched. He must have felt my eyes on him, because he suddenly stopped staring out the window and started staring at me and my partner. And if looks could kill there would have been two dead coppers in the car. We stayed glaring at each other like that and the atmosphere grew charged until I sighed and softly said to him.
“We may have just saved your life out there. We don’t want to see you get hurt or in any more trouble tonight.”
Then a strange thing happened. His eyes sort of flickered and squinted like a dark room in which a light had briefly switched on. He sat looking at me with this oddly lucid look while the snowflakes fell around us.
“What is it?” I said to him. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He sort of gulped and told me. “I’m sure I seen you somewhere before, but I can’t place it.”
“And why is that?” My partner asked with some amusement.
“Because for the last ten years I have just been a total wreck… ten years and counting,” he added, turning his head to stare mournfully out at the drifting snow.
“Well, heroin will do that to ya” I said. I then took out my pad to do my report then and there in the car. While I’m doing a report I sometimes like to turn on the radio. This is done as a means to distract whoever I have in the backseat so that they give less bother. Silence can be dangerous. Radio One was on and after an advert had finished the first song to come on was ‘Only you’ by The Flying Pickets. As the song played he leant back, closed his eyes and let out a deep, wistful sigh. He then sat sort of looking up with this expression on his face that took him right out of character. He started singing quietly to himself.
“Bada da da, bada da da.”
“What is it?” I gruffly asked him thinking he was either higher than I had supposed or was possibly about to kick off again.
“I remember this song very vividly from a really good day in my life, but that day just like that song, was just a one-hit wonder.” He paused introspectively for some seconds before continuing. “It was a really good day….The last good day before everything turned to mud,” he said with another sigh. He then closed his eyes and leant back in his seat. You could hear him breathe; but it was an almost contented sound now. All the while snowflakes continued to gently fall outside the window.
Now, if it is in any way possible to look sad, yet almost happily nostalgic at the same time, then that was how I’d describe the look on his face at that moment. I stopped scratching my pad with my pen.
“Oh really? Tell me more.”
My partner looked at me like someone does at a person who’s suddenly lost leave of their senses.
The scruffy guy cleared his throat and then proceeded to tell me the story. He said that one time he went to a kid’s house and that his mother was bringing home some records for him and that he along with a bunch of other kids had gone along to that kid’s house.
He closed his eyes to remember better. “His mum had got him an album by Duran Duran, another one by erm, A Flock of Seagulls I think they were called- and then the last record was this one playing now.”
“One hit wonder,” said my partner with a slight chuckle. Before asking our captive in the backseat if he was ‘alright mate.’
The man nodded and then quietly said. “It’s funny I’d never had any interest in music till then. None. It was all just sound and pointless words to me, until that kid put this song on. Then I totally got why so many people like music so much. Music can take you to places that nothing else can. It’s like time travel. Wow, been years since I last heard this song. I was going to meet those guys again the next day, but the next day my dad was taken to hospital cos of his drinking and then we got trapped by life. One unhappy incident led to another and before I knew it…. This is what happened. ” He added, raising his handcuffed hands level to his bearded face.
“Well, there are things I would like to forget, but can’t… And there are things I want to remember, but can’t. But one thing I never want to forget is this song.”
“Why is that?” I asked. “Tell me more.”
“Because the day I heard this played signified the last magical moments I had as a child. It was the last day of innocence.”
He then proceeded to tell me about those other kids he had met for that one day back in the summer of 1983.
“We played football, rode our bikes and then I enjoyed music for the first time. It was a great day, a great day,” he added looking sad, yet nostalgically pleased again. By then I had sort of frozen in my seat with sticky, salted tears blurring the vision in my eyes. I turned to look at him and said.
“Chunky? Chunky? Is that you? I always wondered what happened to you. We never even got to find out what your name was …”
He looked at me with a look of horror, surprise and shame all rolled into one.
“Who are you?”
“I was that kid whose mother was bringing home those records for.”
He broke down and started to cry. He told us that for the past ten years he had been an addict.
“I really want to change, but I fall down at every step.”
I told him that I would help him and that if he made it through the night till the next morning I would give him a surprise. We held him in the station lock up that night, let him sober up. He was released the next day, but I had already finished my shift and he was let go before I could see him. I drove around the seven streets of South Harrow in a bid to find him; but he had simply vanished again. I wondered whether he had succumbed to his addiction. A couple of years went by and then one day I proceeded to find this man with nicely cut hair, clean clothes and smelling of cologne sitting next to me on the train. I looked at him and smiled.
“You’re the boy with the records.” He then told me that he had recently married and that he had turned his life completely round.
“I’m a computer programmer now.”
I shook his hand and told him my name and asked him his. I then told him to meet me at such-and-such a day at Eastcote Road, where Roxeth Recreation ground is.
“I will be there,” he said, taking one of my hands again in both of his. When he got there, to his surprise, he saw me and the original group of friends there again on their bikes. I brought along the same three records my mum had got for me in 1983. I replayed the same songs on a tape recorder I had brought with me. After ‘Only You’ had finished he looked around at us and said.
“This song changed his life, not once but twice.”
We all crowded round and hugged him in turns. Life is strange for sure, but I’m beginning to wonder whether things happen for a reason and whether we are all part of some big script. Because all I can say is that if this song had not been playing in my patrol car at the moment it did, a lost person’s memory would not have been jogged back to a better time. Taken back to a much better time when the future looked full of hope. And where that hope, in the heart and mind of a twelve year old boy, was a right and not an aspiration. Maybe I’m getting carried away by poetic thoughts here, but one thing is for sure. That song galvanised something within him. He took hold of one of my hands and thanked me for that one moment in the back of my patrol car. I refused to accept his thanks.
“No, thank you for changing my life.”
“How so?” He asked, looking taken aback.
“You made me realise that the past, present and future are all one and each passing moment presents an opportunity to turn it all around.”
I’m playing Wishing (If I had a photograph of you) by A Flock of Seagulls now as I write. The words, and the way those words are sung combined with the hypnotic melody are taking me to places, and showing me faces I haven’t seen in a long time. Chunky was right- music is a form of time travel. Maybe when ‘Wishing’ finishes I will play ‘Only You’ by the Flying Pickets again. I only wish I had a photograph of that time in the summer of 1983. A time of life where I and those of my age were still blissfully unaware of what life could take from you- just vaguely aware of what life could give to you.
Copyright by Nasir Ali Hussain April 9th 2021