By Simon Downham-Knight
For Terry Two Times
Being the middle-aged father of a teenager in the 2020s has made me realise more and more that growing up in the ‘70s and the ‘80s was a strange old time. We didn’t have the terror of all our business; all our mistakes; all our moments of rage, of vulnerability, of intoxication and humiliation being splurged all over social media. Everything we did occurred in private, for better or for worse. We played outside much more, and we read more. So much more. To my parents, the biggest threat to the development of my intellect and the biggest threat to my soul, as a Christian, was my love of comics and I really loved comics; from The Dandy and The Beano and later, The Eagle (which he introduced me to, my dad, because they were what he read as a child), to Marvel and DC (that I was pretty ambivalent about but still was aware of and engaged with to some extent, primarily in the form of the British Marvel comics which were black and white,) to 2000AD (my favourite), and Battle and Scream and all the other IPC comics, even the girls’ comics (that friends like Stan’s sisters read, like Mandy and Bunty, that I read just for something to read and Misty, which I read for pure pleasure and some of them stories scared me to bits, especially Moon Child, which I later realised was a Carrie rip off). What my dad didn’t realise was that the stories and artwork contained in those tomes was building in me a love of literature and story that opened up doorways that I never would have entered otherwise.
And then there was the scary stuff. The violent stuff, the gory stuff, the massive body counts (some Judge Dredd stories had body counts in their hundreds of millions, just check out The Apocalypse War story and Judge Death and the Dark Judges deciding that, because all crime was committed by the living, that life itself was a crime and proceeding to execute everyone in their dimension and, seemingly bored and lonely after all that genocide, coming to our dimension to mete out the same punishment, here. This stuff that was way above the age limit of what I should have been looking at the age of eight and nine years old, but I absolutely loved it; I thrived on it. Then there was the spooky stuff and the hauntings; in comics like the previously mentioned Scream and Misty but, more especially on TV, kids’ TV: Children of the Stones, Rentaghost, Ghost Stories for Christmas, even the advertisements for milk featured ghostly red-and-white-striped straws that stole your milk before you could drink it, “Watch out, watch out, watch out, there’s a Humphrey about!” Adverts that scared the hell out of my sister, a trauma that lasts to this day. We were scared senseless that strangers would take us home and hurt us or frighten us in public information films like Never Go With Strangers that old blind men would come and show us through 16mm projectors in darkened school halls while they smoked fags. Not only that, the most popular TV show of the day, the wish-granting Jim’ll Fix It, was hosted by a multiple-child molester and sexual deviant; and Gary Glitter, another child molester, was never too far away from Savile, or from the top of the charts.
Bearing all this in mind, one day, my mum brought me home this multipack of three pairs of underpants, on a triple, white-plastic hanger, from Marks and Sparks when I was about eight years old. They were little brushed-cotton briefs with an elasticated waist and elasticated legs. There was a red pair, a white pair and a blue pair and they were about the most comfortable pairs of pants I have ever had. I loved those pants, and something terrible happened to each one of those pairs of pants that led me, at the time, to believe that they were haunted in some way; maybe even possessed by a ghost or a demon of incontinence or emasculation.
Three Pants: Red
We had recently moved into a new house in East London that backed onto a cemetery, and I had just made friends with this kid called Stanley Dixon. His mum and dad were from Jamaica, but his dad had died a few years before this, leaving Stanley the only boy living with his mum and three sisters. The only bit of masculinity amongst all that femininity; his oldest sister was just two years younger than my mum and the youngest was three years older than us, me and Stan. We had recently become the best of friends after discovering a mutual love of comics and Action Men and war.
Spring was in full effect; the daffodils were all well past their best and brown or headless; the blossom was falling from the trees like snow. My parents were going out to a Rotary Club dinner on Friday night, and it had been agreed that I would spend the night at Stan’s house. Stan had injected a big squirt of the fear of God into me regarding his mum’s liberal use of corporal punishment—before I ever even got to meet her. He would tell me about getting the slipper or the belt and occasionally, when she was really cross, a red wooden brush that she used to sweep stuff up with. I had been to his house a couple of times, but she got home quite late from work, and I was always gone by the time she came home.
The first time I met her was when my mum knocked on their door, after church, the Sunday before the sleep over; she came to the door with a big smile and was friendly and sweet, not at all the violent hag that Stanley had portrayed her as.
“Of course, Terry can come and stay on Friday,” Mrs Dixon said. “It’ll be nice for Stanley to have the company. What time you want him to go to bed?” She had smiled, and with that, we were all set. I would go back to Stan’s after school on Friday and my mum would pick me up mid-morning on Saturday.
On that Friday I was wearing the red pair of the little cotton pants and when I got there, I was surprised to find out that I would be sharing the double bed that Stan usually shared with his youngest sister, Rachel. She would bunk in with his middle sister, Simone. His oldest sister, who I only ever heard referred to as Sis, lived in the bedroom downstairs, which was between the living room and the dining room. Whenever I went to friends’ houses who came from other countries, I was always aware of how different they felt, the food, the smells, the artefacts. Stan’s mum had this enormous white leather Bible open on the coffee table in the living room and this set of weird 3D pictures on the walls of scenes from the last supper, the weirdest of which was one of a white, blonde haired and bearded Jesus, in a state of prayer, sweating blood.
Stan and me spent the first part of the evening fighting a wicked battle with our Action Men in this big old pile of rubble, left over from an old wall that had fallen down, that he had in his back garden. It was when I went upstairs to use the toilet that I got my first taste of Mrs Dixon’s Caribbean discipline. As I walked past Stan’s bedroom, I saw an Action Man I had never seen before. It was Bullet Man, an odd Action Man, superhero rip-off with a red spandex uniform, red boots, and a silver bullet-shaped helmet, but he was weirdly mutilated with both his legs missing from the knees down. Mutilated or not, it was the first time I’d seen Bullet Man in real life, and I was busting to have a go on him. I’d seen the advert on TV where he was described as the human bullet and slides down the zipwire to biff The Intruder. Stroll on! I went over to the wooden bannisters and leant over, right over.
“Stan!” I hollered down the stairs at my new best friend. “Stan! Can I bring Bullet Man down wi…” I didn’t get the chance to finish my word; a vicious sting at the back of my bare legs caught me completely by surprise. What the hell? I spun round to find Mrs Dixon bearing down on me brandishing the red-painted, wooden dustpan brush that she had just walloped me across the backs of the legs with.
“What are you doin’ hangin’ over me banister like some bloody old man!” She hollered into my face. She raised the brush above her head and waved it. “Now get out of me sight.” She didn’t have to tell me again; I was straight down them stairs and back out in the garden with Stan and his other, weirdly mutilated Action Man and my pristine Action Man but no blooming Bullet Man. I was in too much shock to even mention to him what had happened upstairs to me.
We sat and yammed down a dinner of chicken stew with some rice and peas, which was really delicious; and then we went up to Stan’s room, where we copied pictures from out of his collection of War Picture Library and Commando comics. I fancied myself quite the artist but was sad to see that Stan was better than me. He had his own style at eight and I just copied the styles out of comics. At eight o’clock, as she promised my mum, Stan’s mum told us to turn the light out and go to sleep.
“Oh!” Stan grumbled, “It’s Friday night. You always let me stay up late on a Friday night. Kelly’s Heroes is on later.” Mrs. Dixon’s face clouded over, and she raised herself above her son and he cowered beneath her.
“Terry’s mum say he go to bed at eight.” She said. “Eight is completely reasonable time for boys your age to go sleep.” She switched off the light. “Now, shut up and get some rest.” And with that, she slipped out and closed the door behind her; leaving the two of us lit only by the yellow streetlight outside.
In the darkness, we set down our comics and drawing utensils, undressed down to our pants and vests, and got into bed. Neither of us said anything; I was too scared to incur the wrath of Mrs Dixon again. I lay looking up at the ceiling and watching the lights of the cars flashing by, and listened to Stanley’s breathing slow down to a light snore. I tried to conjure the face of my mum into my mind’s eye. There she was; lovely mum; she never let me down.
I woke up shivering and cold and soaking wed from my head to my toes. The worst thing imaginable had happened. I had wet the bed; at Stanley’s house and not just a little piddle; I had evacuated my entire bladder into Stanley’s mattress; the one he shared with his sister; with Stanley sleeping right beside me; with Stanley’s mum sleeping in the room next to us.
*A note on my bedwetting: I wet the bed throughout my childhood until I was about twelve. My mum had always said that she wet the bed when she was a kid and her mum and dad used to punish her for it—by pushing her face into the urine-soaked sheets and then beating her with various cleaning utensils. (What was it with cleaning utensils?) She always said she was traumatised by this and, because of it, she always assured me that she would never be angry if I wet the bed; in fact, she was always really lovely about it and so was my dad. All I had to do was to go into their bedroom and alert them of my mishap and they would get up, strip the wet sheets off, turn the mattress over, remake my bed and give me clean pyjamas; allowing me to slide back into the cool clean bed and go back to sleep as though nothing had happened. It’s one of my abiding good memories of my mum and my dad.
Back in Stan’s room, I’m cold and wet and scared. I want my mum and dad to come and strip the wet sheets off, turn the mattress over, remake the bed and give me and Stan clean pyjamas, but they are either still out having fun, without me, or tucked up nicely in bed at home. I lie there and try to go back to sleep but I’m too cold and I’m too wet and I’m too scared.
“Stan.” I whispered. “Stan!” I hissed louder and he stirred. “Stan, one of us has wet the bed.” I was too scared to confess what I already knew: that it was me who had wet the bed.
“What do you want me to do about it?” He snapped. “Turn over and go back to sleep. We’ll deal with it in the morning.” It was my worst nightmare come true.
“Do you not tell your mum when you wet the bed?” I asked and he scoffed and shook his head.
“Are you crazy?” He said. “I’ve told you what my mum’s like. I wasn’t joking; If I wet the bed, she gives me some hard lick- ups. Just go back to sleep. You’ll be surprised how dry it is when you wake up. We might even get away with not changing it.” Maybe his side was dryer than mine. I wasn’t sure but there was no way I was getting back to sleep. My side was soaked and freezing cold. I looked over at Bullet Man and he had his hand up to his mouth, like he was laughing; mocking me! Mocking all the bed wetters in the world. I pointed at the bullet brained blockhead and said:
“And, you can stop laughing!” Stan rolled his eyes and slumped back onto the bed. I got up and crept over to Stan’s bedroom door in my soaking wet vest and sodden red pants. Mrs Dixon’s bedroom door was slightly ajar, so I snuck over and held my breath as I poked my head around the door. Light from the yellow streetlights outside bled through the curtains and lit a fan shape on the ceiling along with the silhouette of Mrs Dixon, lying on her side, facing away from me towards the window. She was snoring loudly. I imagined myself approaching her bed and gently shaking her awake.
Back in Stan’s room he was clearly sleeping. Maybe sleeping in a freezing and sodden bed is something you get used to because Stan was contentedly snoring in the gloom. I had no idea of what the time was, or how long it was until the morning. I felt cold and alone and the tendrils of despair creeping in. I crawled back up onto the wet bed and shook my friend awake.
“Stan! Wake up, please. We have to get your mum to change your bed.” When I think about it now, I wonder why I didn’t just get a towel or something and lie on that, but I was eight years old and beginning to panic.
“You don’t get it.” Stan said. “She won’t change the bed. She’ll beat us within an inch of our lives and then we’ll still have to sleep in a wet bed.” I shook my head and crept back over to Mrs Dixon’s bedroom door and looked over at this sleeping behemoth. I couldn’t wake her up; I couldn’t go back to sleep. The way I saw it, there was only one thing left for me to do.
Back in Stan’s room I stripped off my wet vest and my wet pair of red underpants and dropped them into a little wet pile on the floor at the foot of his wet bed; then I pulled on my shorts up over my pantsless bum and pulled my jumper over my vestless body. Stan sat up and looked at me.
“What are you doing?” He said.
“I can’t stay here.” I said. “I need to go home. I’ve got no other choice.”
“Just get into bed and go back to sleep. I do it all the time.” Maybe you do it all the time, with your big cold scary mum, but I need a nice dry bed to sleep in – I thought to myself. “What if your mum and dad ain’t back? You’ll get stuck outside all night.” He was right, of course, but I was ready to take my chances. I took a final glance at my wet red knickers before I ran down the stairs as quietly as I could, opened the big red heavy wooden front door, slipped out, closed it behind me and ran, as fast as I could, along the still, silent yellow-lit streets towards home. I had never been more scared in my entire short life; I ran past houses and gardens and alleys; terrified of the shadows cast by the streetlights, shining through the branches of the conifers and the hazels and the planes. As I approached a garden wall, I saw a pair of hairy, heavily clawed monster’s arms coming up from the shadows and scratching and pulling itself up to eat me, but as I got closer, I realised it was just a couple of branches of a bush. Phew! I turned the corner of Stan’s street onto the main street and stopped dead. A drunkard was meandering along the street, shouting, and swearing and bumping into the parked cars.
“He’s got the whole world in his belly!” The drunkard sang and I smiled to myself, despite the terror I felt, at the adult being sacrilegious with that song we sang at Sunday School. I stifled a giggle and shoved my hands deep into my pockets, dropped my head deep into my chest and tried to sneak past the staggering middle-aged inebriate. “Hey, little man,” he said, spotting me. “What are you doing out so late?” Maybe he wasn’t just a drunk; maybe he was one of them strangers we’d been warned about, one who was going to take me back to his house, pretending to be friendly, and then keep me there forever or bake me into a pie. I ignored him and quickened my pace and tried to sneak past, but he reached out and grabbed for me. I recoiled back and his hands swiped past my face, and he toppled over and collapsed onto the floor like a pile of old rags, chuckling and mumbling to himself as he rolled over onto his back. I quickened my pace and sprinted the final five minutes all the way to my house. As I got closer, I could see that it was in total and complete darkness. I approached the front door with its two long, frosted, striped, glass panels and could feel my heart beating up in my throat. As I reached up to ring the doorbell, I startled myself by praying out loud.
“Please God; please Jesus let there be somebody home.” I rang the doorbell once and then I rang it again and again and again and again and again. “Please God, let my mummy and daddy be home.
The light on the top landing switched on and, through the frosted glass, I could see the shape of my father, in a string vest and striped pyjama bottoms, quickly descend the stairs. He opened the front door and I burst into tears and, as he crouched down beside me, I fell into his arms. As my tears broke into sobs, I could see my mum, frowning in consternation, as she followed my dad down the stairs in her long, white nightie.
“I wet the bed.” I sobbed. “I wet the bed at Stan’s house and was too scared to tell his mum. She would have beaten me and given me licks.” My mum crouched down beside us and stroked my hair.
“It’s alright, Terry,” Mum said. “You’re safe now. I’m sure Mrs Dixon would not have given you licks, whatever they are, and I’m sure she would have turned the mattress for you if you’d asked.”
“She wouldn’t,” I managed, though I was almost hysterical. “Stan said that if he wets the bed, he just lies in the cold and wet and cleans it up himself. If she finds out; she gives him licks.” I could see my dad smiling at my mum as he gave me a squeeze and picked me up and carried me up to my nice clean bed with dry, freshly laundered sheets.
With clean pyjamas on, Mum pulled back the covers and dad placed me on the bed, then mum covered me over and tucked me in. I felt dry and safe and warm. They both kissed me good night and then backed out of the room, smiling as they closed the door behind them. I could hear them murmuring outside for a few minutes before they turned the hall light off and took themselves back to bed. As I lay on my back, looking up at the streetlights reflecting off the ceiling, I thought about Stan lying in a puddle of my own wee and felt a stab of shame and regret; I hoped he would be able to change and clean his sheets without his mum finding out. The last thing that passed through my mind as I dropped off into a deep sleep was the image of my wet red underpants and vest twisted up under his bed where I had left them.
Three Pants: White
My dad worked for the Cabinet Office on Whitehall for about twenty-five years. He was intensely proud of this until the day he died, even though they broke his heart by retiring him off early, at the age of fifty, and he would never really find his feet again. He was fiercely private about his work there and would cite the fact that he’d signed the official secrets act as a reason for never talking about what he did there, although I suspected it was just boring office work. One Saturday afternoon though, he took me and my sister there to watch the Trooping of the Colour from his office window, which overlooked the courtyard that it all played out in. His office was old and musty and oak panelled and there were suits of armour and various other relics of ancient past wars on display; and he let me try on a medieval helmet that I could barely lift and, with his help, hold an enormous, top-heavy pike that was used in the Civil War. As they trooped the colour, both my sister and I were more interested in the pigeons’ nest on the ledge just below his office where the eggs had just hatched than we were in the pompous horse show that was unfolding in front of us.
Anyway, it was another Friday in the middle of a truly glorious summer, before we’d broken up for the holidays, a few months after the red pants incident. For a reason that is now lost in time, London Zoo had been opened, late in the evening, especially for the staff of the Cabinet Office and their family and friends, so dad and mum had invited my friend Thomas and his hippy mum and dad—as well as another family from the church who had their six-month-old baby, Timothy, in a pushchair with them. On that day I was wearing a polyester T-shirt with a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex on it, one that was done before they realised they use their tails for balance, so it was dragging its tail behind it; a brown velour zip-up cardigan with the number 27 stitched onto the right breast, the white pair of the little cotton pants, a pair of tan shorts, that, thinking about it now, were way too short, a pair of white knee socks and some brown, closed-toe, school sandals that buckled at the top and I felt like I looked pretty terrific. When I set eyes on my friend Thomas though, I realised I didn’t even look a fraction as terrific as him. He was wearing this amazing brown-leather flying helmet that had apparently been worn by his great grandad in World War One. His mum had also put some wire into a white-silk flying scarf that gave the effect that it was blowing out behind him, like Snoopy when he fought the Red Baron from the top of his kennel in the cartoons I loved so much. I was green with envy. I needn’t have been really though, because he happily let me wear it as much as I wanted, and we bombed around the zoo making aeroplane noises and firing machine guns at each other. We were much more interested in our game and taking advantage of the fact that there was hardly anybody else around than we were in the bored and tired-looking animals.
Pretty soon we were totally knackered, and I ambled along with my dad and mum and sister, and Thomas took an interest in pushing the six-month-old baby around in the pushchair for the Christian couple—as his mum and dad watched on proudly, whispering and smiling to each other. I had a go, pushing the baby around for a little while, but soon got completely bored and couldn’t work out why Thomas was so into it. He seemed to be a lot more into pushing the pushchair around than wearing his flying helmet, which was OK by me, but it was no real fun having dogfights by myself. As the sun disappeared behind the tall trees of Regents Park, we all sat down on some wooden benches and shared out our picnic dinners, and then we all munched on sandwiches and quiche and apples and bananas and twiglets and Golden Wonder crisps and Blue Riband biscuits until our appetites were sated.
As we all swallowed our last few mouthfuls of food, Thomas’s parents stood up and made the surprise announcement that they were going to have a baby in six months’ time, a little brother or sister for Thomas and they then expressed how odd, and yet heartwarming, it had been to see young Thomas acting as a big brother for baby Timothy and they had wondered, out loud to each other, if on some level Thomas already knew. We all cheered and toasted the new addition to the family, and I wondered how this might affect me and Thomas’s friendship in the future.
Once this was all over, me and Thomas decided to play a game of ambush where we tried to sneak up on each other for a surprise attack.
“As long as you don’t go too far,” my mum said.
“We won’t!” Thomas and I replied in unison as we trotted off in different directions. It wasn’t long before I was hopelessly lost, with no idea where anybody was, including Thomas. I wandered up the pathways alongside the big cats, where a scruffy tiger nonchalantly gazed over at me and yawned, then I ran past an ancient rhino and a load of ratty old storks and a gang of chattering monkeys and a big grumpy old albino gorilla. I turned the corner and could see at the bottom of a long steep slope, my friend, Thomas smiling up at the Christians, who were pushing the pushchair with their six-month-old baby.
“The little rotter,” I said to myself. “He isn’t even playing the game. I’ll show him!” And I launched myself down the slope as fast as I could go, allowing momentum to take me and wheeling my arms round and round. As my sandaled feet slapped on the tarmac, as I barrelled forward, I suddenly felt the urge to blow off. No grumbling or groaning in my stomach, no cramping or bellyache, no urge to poo, just a little pop; a little trumpet in the back of my pants, like I’d done so many times before that. So, I freely and happily let it out and, as I did, I massively and copiously filled my clean white briefs with much more poo than they could possibly contain.
I leant back and slowed myself down to a standstill and felt the first of the overspill trickle down my leg and pool at the top of my white knee sock before it seeped into the material. I then recoiled as another big brown lump dropped out and splatted on theground. I felt the sandwich and the apple, and the packet of cheese and onion crisps, and the chocolate biscuit rise up in my gorge before I quickly looked up to see if Thomas, or the others, had spotted me messing myself. Mercifully, they had not; they were continuing on their way and for the second time that year, at least, I just wanted my mum to be there to clean me up and give me clean clothes and tell me that everything was OK. I looked around to see if I could see a toilet but there were none to be seen, so I trotted up the path holding the seat of my pants to keep as much of the muck in there as I could and to find a toilet in which to sort myself out. Worse than the poo running down my legs was the shame, palpable shame that you could pick up, roll around in your fingers and put in your pocket.
At last, tucked away under trees, I found a large, white, rotunda shaped, disabled toilet that was open. I let myself in and locked the door and saw that the floor and ceiling were white-tiled, and it was white-tiled from the floor to the ceiling. There was an insanely bright fluorescent light on the ceiling giving it a feeling like the bedroom at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I dropped my shorts and pants, and slung them filthy loaded briefs into the corner of the room, making sure not to look at them. I never wanted to see those horrible things again. Ever! I then set about cleaning myself, first of all with my knee socks and then with the roll of toilet paper that was in there which, of course, was that horrible 1970s tracing paper stuff that didn’t so much absorb, rather smear it all around, but I did my best with what I had, sneering at the fact that each sheet had the words “Now wash your hands!” printed on it in blue. Once done, I made my way over to the toilet door. I was clean and dry and only a little bit stained. As I opened the door, I remembered the bit in the Bible where Lot and his family left Sodom. The two angels that Lot had saved from the lustful eyes of his neighbours, by offering his virgin daughters instead, had said to Lot that his family would be saved if they would just leave town and not look back, but his wife just could not resist and she looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, just like God said. Well, I thought about that as I opened the toilet door and emerged into the setting sun of that early July evening and I knew that if I looked back at my own soiled knickers and all that poo and crispy toilet roll that I would surely be turned into a pillar of salt, just like Lot’s wife was. And just like Lot’s wife I did just that. I looked back at my loaded pair of white cotton briefs and the piles of pooey tracing paper, but I did not turn into a pillar of salt. I can tell you now though, that I never forgot that pile of cotton and toilet tissue and faecal matter. In fact, I can conjure that forty-four-year-old image into my brainbox as clearly as I can conjure up what I had for dinner on this very day, in 2023, and I think I always will. Even if I get dementia.
My stomach had not been rumbling before I soiled myself, but it certainly was rumbling now, and every rumble or grumble or creak or groan or parp gave me the fear, or the heebie jeebies, or the yips that I was going to fill my pants again and I really did not want to fill my pants again. I wasn’t even wearing pants, just my shorts. I turned the corner of the albino gorilla house and, hallelujah! Mercy of mercies, I could see my mum and my dad and my sister bunched together at the top of the pathway. Thank God! Thank the angels in the heavens! Thank the baby Jesus! I was saved.
In my memories of childhood, I always loved my mum more than I loved my dad. She was the one I trusted with secrets; the one I told when I was in trouble; but on this occasion, it was him that I told about the fart that went too far. About my soiled white pants, left behind, in the toilet. And he listened, and he nodded and he understood.
“Are you sure you’re finished?” He asked with a smile.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Is all the poo out?” He said. “Is there any chance there is still more to come?” I thought about it and shrugged. He looked at my mum and nodded and then guided me over to another set of toilets and stood outside quietly as I sat on the bowl and tried to make sure that I was completely clear of it happening again. When I was, I told him so.
“OK, Terry,” he said. “Let’s gather everyone together and tell them that we’re going home.” And that’s what we did. My sister had a moan that we were leaving so early, but only a little one, and Thomas barely looked up from the baby in the stroller when we said goodbye and Dad held my hand tightly as we walked to Euston Station and he giggled and joked as we took the Victoria Line down to Victoria and changed onto the District Line that would take us all home to Plaistow. As we left Westminster Station, which was close to where my dad worked, I felt a frightening gurgle in the depths of my bowels; I squeezed my dad’s hand as hard as I could.
“Dad!” I whispered. “Dad, it’s happening again. I need to go. Now!” He looked down at me and squeezed my hand.
“I just need to pop into the office,” he said to my mum as he stood up, and she looked at him like she had just eaten a stalk of raw rhubarb. I spotted him frown at her and then shoot his eyes over at me. “I left my briefcase on my desk. I’m going to take Terry with me to pick it up. Is that OK?” She smiled at him, and the train pulled into Embankment Station.
“Of course it is,” she said as the doors opened and my dad led me off the train by the hand. “See you at home.” I heard her say as the doors closed and the two of us strode down the balmy-white tunnel towards the escalator that would take us back up onto street level, then back down some more stairs to a public toilet under the pavement; one of those ones with the small square glass tiles that let light through the ceiling from the pavement above. As it turned out, I had already done all the poo and it was just a load of wind.
“Sorry dad, false alarm,” I said and my dad smiled and ruffled my hair.
“That’s OK,” he said. “Do you need anything before we get back on the tube? Are you thirsty? I bet you’re really quite dehydrated after all that pooing.” Despite being from Bow himself, he prided himself on being well spoken, and pronounced tube: “tyoob,” whereas I would say: “choob.”
“I would love a can of Coke,” I said. “But they’re super-expensive round here. Double the price of the cans round our way.”
“That’s fine, you can have one,” he said and he bought me a fifty-pence can of Coke from an old man in a cloth cap, who was sitting in a booth on the platform, smoking a Woodbine. The tube arrived a few minutes later and I sat next to my dad in shorts and no pants and sandals and no socks, maybe four pounds lighter than I was when we left earlier that day, and I drank coke and laughed at his jokes and maybe, just maybe, loved him more that night than I had ever loved him before—or since.
Three Pants: Blue
October was conker season and conkers, the game, was bigger than the World Cup, bigger than Abba and bigger than Star Wars, in my school, for that brief time in autumn when they littered the ground under horse chestnut trees everywhere. The game was simple: You made a hole through the middle of a conker with a knitting needle or a spike or an awl and threaded an old shoelace, or something like that, through the hole; then you would each take it in turns to hold your conker, at arm’s length, by the shoelace, as still as possible; and your opponent would wind their shoelace around one hand, leaving around four inches of lace; hold the conker in one hand; pull the conker shoelace tight with their other hand and take a shot at your conker. If they missed, it was your go, if they walloped your conker, they could keep going, either until it was smashed, or they missed; then you would take your turn to do the same to theirs until a victor emerged. Every time you broke someone’s conker, your conker would gain points. If your conker had never beaten anyone else’s and your opponent’s hadn’t either and you beat theirs, yours became a oner. If your oner then beat a tenner, it became an elevener and so on. Rumour had it that if you baked a conker in the oven for eight hours it became really strong, but I had tried that, and the conker just became very brittle and broke really easily. Another rumour was that if you soaked a conker in vinegar for six months it became invincible, but nobody had had the foresight to do that so far in my almost nine years on earth.
Paul Warrior was the toughest kid in our school and despite him being short and wiry and smelling of wee, nobody would mess with him. Mr Ashmore, the head teacher had bellowed in his face one day for stealing an entire crate of milk out of one of the classrooms and drinking the lot. The following day, Paul’s dad had turned up at the school with the intention of beating the hell out a terrified looking Ashmore. We all saw him arrive, all bald and tubby and purple of face, wearing a string vest and tracksuit bottoms, and we crowded behind him as he strutted up to Ashmore’s office. Nobody knows what happened behind that closed door, but Warrior got away with murder after that. Anyway, Paul Warrior had a conker that he had named Fat Man, after the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, that had slowly risen up the ranks to become a ninety-sixer with a mixture of smashing loads of low number conkers to bits and taking out a couple of higher-numbered ones.
I used to play a lot in the crematorium behind our house. You could easily climb up onto the neighbour’s wall and up onto the crematorium wall, then use the branches of the tree to drop down from. One day when I was over there, I noticed that the conkers underneath the massive tree in there were huge. There were usually some decent conkers in the adjacent park and the tree round the corner of the school, but they had been picked clean. The ones in the crematorium were fatter and juicier and stronger. I picked up a few of the bigger ones and put them in my pockets and showed them to Stan, who you might remember from Three Pants: Red, at school the following day. He stared at them in wonder and rolled them around in his fingers.
“Wow, what whoppers!” He said. “It must be something to do with the trees feeding on the flesh of all them dead bodies.” It seemed like a fair assumption to me.
Later that afternoon, we jumped up onto the big, grey wall with our P.E. bags slung over our shoulders; I was wearing my blue hooded anorak and under my grey trousers I was wearing the final pair of pants from the set. The blue pair. We slid down the tree and, keeping to the peripheral wall, made our way round to where the enormous horse chestnut tree was. The reason for our sneaking around like this was that there were two of the most vicious groundsmen working in there and one of them, the tall, wiry, young one had a reputation for being fast and very, very cruel. The short, older, tubby one with the drinker’s nose, had a vicious Alsatian called Rex that he would set loose on us if he ever saw us playing in there, and that was the last thing we wanted. Over the last few days, the leaves on all the trees had really turned; there were burnt oranges and lemon yellows and chimney reds and umber browns; and we dawdled along a row of beech trees that had turned a beautiful rusty orange colour, that ran along a recent row of graves, and they were flanked on either side by a pair of maple trees where the leaves had turned a vivid cherry red.
“These places are creepy, even in the day,” Stan said. “Makes me think of my dad.”
“How did he die?” I said.
“He died of cancer,” Stan said.
“Do you ever think of him?” I said.
“Sometimes,” Stan said. “It feels like he’s been dead for ages.”
“How long has it been?” I said.
“I’m not sure. Maybe, three years? Four? I have this set memories of him. I remember him taking me to the football and I was bored and cold all day. I didn’t see any football. All I could see was the backs of men’s legs. He put me up on his shoulders at one point and all I could see was blokes in coloured shorts kicking a ball around for about twenty seconds before I was back on the ground staring at blokes’ legs.” I laughed at this, having had a similar experience with my grandad. “I also remember him letting me smoke his pipe.”
“Stan,” I said and he stopped and looked at me. “I think my pants are haunted.” Stan scoffed and gave me a sharp shove.
“What is this stupidness?” He said.
“I had a set of three pairs of pants. I lost one pair at your house; I left one at the zoo. I’m wearing the last pair and every time I wear them, I’m terrified that something awful is going to happen.”
“Why wear ‘em then?” He said and I shrugged. “Haunted underpants? I’ve never heard of anything more ridiculous. Shut up!” So, that’s what I did, and we continued our dawdle in silence.
When we reached the end of this new row of graves there was a large plinth with a life-size statue of what looked like an old biddy, complete with set hair, glasses, a skirt below the knee and sensible shoes and a handbag. As we got closer to the creepy effigy, we could see that her name was Maureen Taylor and she had lived between 1909 and 1979. We looked up at Maureen and Maureen looked down at us benevolently through sightless marble eyes.
“If they make a statue of me when I die,” I said. “I hope they do one of me when I was young and handsome, not when I’m old and past it and bald.” Stan looked at me and sniggered.
“Terry, you were never handsome, and you’re never gonna be,” Stan said and we sniggered as we continued on our journey to the mother of all chestnut trees.
And there she was: looming large over the two of us; fecund and green and bountiful, with the setting sun shining through the rapidly turning leaves causing us to squint and shield our eyes as we surveyed the bounteous booty of conkers both dangling from the branches and covering the ground like a blanket. Stan looked like he was about to get raptured as his eyes darted from conker to conker on the ground and he rubbed his hands together with glee.
“You weren’t kidding, Terry,” he said.
“I never kid about conkers,” I said, and the two of us scrabbled around on the ground picking up the biggest and best of them. Once we were satisfied there were no more huge ones to be had, we looked up into the branches of the old tree. Stan looked around on the ground and found a rotten old root and threw it up into the branches; three massive conkers fell down and smashed open on the ground. I followed suit with an even bigger bit of branch that I’d picked up and we were showered with a whole bunch of them. I could barely contain my squeals of excitement. Soon our bags were fit to bursting with some of the biggest conkers I’d ever seen, and I felt like it was time we made ourselves scarce, but I could see that Stan had other ideas. He was looking up and when I followed his eyeline, I could see a cluster of jumbo conkers at the end of a branch that was well within reach of a chunky limb. With a bit of shimmying and pulling and climbing, I could totally see a way to get to them. Without speaking, almost telepathically, I put my back to the tree, bent my knees and steepled my fingers together making a step for Stan to put his foot into, and he used my hands and then my shoulder as he made his way up. Stan shimmied along the top of the branch on his belly as he made his way to the cluster of conkers. He was about two more feet away from the cluster when I heard the unmistakeable Alsatian bark of Rex from through the tree, getting closer with each bark.
“Rex! Rex is coming!” I screamed. “Let’s get out of here,” Stan made one more stretch forward and swipe at the conkers with his stick before Rex emerged from the row of conifers looking angry and scary, closely followed by his owner with the drinker’s nose. I stood frozen to the spot, gawping at Rex and his owner, but was broken out of my trance by Stan falling out of the tree; I turned and gawped at Stan as he landed on a big cushion of leaves with a foofing sound.
“Run!” Stan said as he scrabbled to his feet and shot past me like a bolt. I felt the wind from the slipstream of the younger of the workmen waft my hair as he sped past me and after Stan. He could run like the wind, that boy. The fastest kid in the school. I turned tail and took off toward the thicket of trees as fast as I could. Now, when I say “as fast as I could,” I feel like I need to point out that I was a slow, leadfooted and clumsy child, prone to falling over and when I did fall over, people would laugh and tell me I looked like I was falling in slow motion; so bear that in mind when you imagine me being chased through an autumnal boneyard, carrying a bag overflowing with conkers, by an angry Alsatian and a drunkard. I clumped through the dead leaves towards a line of trees that I knew led to the wall that led to the recreational grounds. I took my P.E. bag off and threw it at the salivating evil encroaching on me, but it did no good; Rex was gaining, and I could hear him panting and growling behind me as he got closer and closer. He took a leap at my arse, and I heard his jaws snap shut an inch behind the cloth of my meaty buttocks and he fell and then rolled and skidded into a lump on the ground. The drunkard howled at me as I disappeared into the bushes. Not twelve feet away was the wall into the rec, but it was strangely lower than I thought it was going to be. I could have sworn it was higher. I vaulted over the wall, only to see that my memory had not failed me. It was a lot higher; around ten feet higher than the four-foot wall I had vaulted over. Just like Wile. E. Coyote, I found myself comically suspended in the air before gravity took over and I dropped like a stone and landed with a thud in a crumpled heap on the grass below.
I picked myself up and dusted myself off and, after a quick once over, decided that I was uninjured. That’s when I felt something warm trickling down my leg. I put my hand behind my back and touched my own bottom, which was utterly exposed to the elements and warm and wet to the touch. Why was my bottom bare? When I brought my hand up to look at it, my stomach lurched over as I realised it was crimson red and dripping with blood. I gasped and clutched at my bottom with both my hands, and I realised that the entire seat of my trousers and underpants were missing; and I was bleeding copiously from one of my buttocks, the left one. I turned around and looked up at the wall and could see the cloth of my grey trousers and my blue pants hanging from a broken milk bottle jutting from the concrete between the stone of the wall. Stan appeared, smiling and panting, from around the corner.
“I got away,” he said. “The idiot was way too slow to catch up with me. You’re just lucky he came after me instead of you.” His smile dropped off his face and he gawped at my bloody hands for a few moments before he burst out laughing when he realised my entire arse was exposed through my ripped shorts and pants. We both looked up to see the seat of my pants dangling from the glass and then saw both groundsmen and Rex peering angrily over the wall down at us. We gave them the two-fingered salute and trotted off towards my house chuckling. Once a safe distance away, I tied my anorak around my waist, but I could still feel the blood trickling down my leg and by the time I got home it had pooled into my shoe, and it squelched as we walked. Realising I had lost all my conkers, Stan gave me a few out of his bag, which was nice enough of him, but I knew he’d kept all the good ones for himself.
Dad seemed to believe the version of the story we told, which was that I’d tackled someone, playing football in the rec, and slid onto a broken milk bottle. He took me to the A&E and, after hours of waiting, they stitched me batty up nice. I needed twenty-nine stitches in all, and I still have that long scar that spans my entire buttock to this day. As I sailed past the razor-sharp edge of the glass jutting out the wall, it had caught my butt cheek and sliced it and had ripped the seat out of both garments ruining both my grey trousers and the final blue pair of pants.
When Stan told the story later, he would always say that there was a chunk of my arse dangling off that broke milk bottle as well as the seat of my trousers and the bloody pants, and I never corrected him. Over the next few days, one of Stan’s massive corpse-fed conkers rose up the ranks in the school, destroying all other conkers and getting quite a reputation for itself. People called it the Death’s Head and there was a rumour going around that it had been soaked in my blood in a weird magic ritual, making it invincible. That bloodstained blue fabric stayed hanging on that piece of glass jutting out the wall in the rec until my family moved further out east to Essex, a few years later. Maybe it’s still there now.
So, that’s it, right? I mean it’s called Three Colours: Pants and there have been three stories about three pairs of pants, so we’re done, right? Right? Only, we aren’t, are we? You might remember that I left the pooey white pants in the toilet in London Zoo, and I left most of the bloody blue pair dangling from the broken milk bottle in the stone wall of the East London Crematorium. What about the pissy red pair that I left at Stan’s house? Where were they? Well, it turns out that Stanley kept them. After his mum had washed them, he didn’t return them to me, or throw them away; he kept them, and he wore them. Sometimes when we were getting changed after P.E. I would see him wearing them.
“Oi,” I said. “When’re you gonna give me my pants back?” At first, he would say that he would give them back to me the next time his mum washed them, but he always seemed to forget. One day I asked him, and he pointed directly in my face and said:
“You lost them pants when you left me to carry the can for you pissing my bed.” I was shocked by the vehemence of his retort. “You know we don’t have a washing machine and my mum does everything by hand. She was furious the whole time she scrubbed them sheets on her washboard. And when she was done, she give me dem licks.” I felt so shocked and guilty, all I could do was nod. “You even had the audacity to try and blame me. She thought it was me! Well, they’re mine now. Call it wet bed tax!” And that was that.
So, when Stan finally took on Paul Warrior’s conker, during lunchtime on Halloween, it was a big event in the school playground, Fat Man versus Death’s Head. Kids were pushing and shoving to get a decent view of the match of the season. It was like the end of Rocky: Paul Warrior’s two hundred and thirty-fiver versus Stanley Dixon’s one hundred and eighty-three-er. The two boys squared up against each other with Paul’s best mate, Barry acting as crowd control on his side and me acting as crowd control for Stan.
Paul had won the coin toss and decided that he would go first against Stan. Stan smiled at me as he dangled Death’s Head from his outstretched hand; Paul closed one eye, took aim with Fat Man and, Smash! Stan’s conker windmilled round and round until it finally stopped. No damage at all. Stan smirked at Paul, who scoffed and then took aim again and scored a second massive wallop, but just like the first time, no damage. On his third swing, he missed, so it was Stan’s turn. As Stan went to take his first swing, I heard the entire audience draw breath simultaneously. Bokk! The sound of Stan’s conker smashing into Paul’s echoed across the playground. Paul looked physically hurt as he inspected Fat Man for damage, and he really brightened up when he saw there was none. Stan’s second swing seemed light in comparison to the first, but an enormous fissure opened up in Fat Man. The first smash must have caused catastrophic internal damage. Paul looked like he wanted to burst out crying and take Fat Man home and nurse him back to health, but he knew the rules and he didn’t want to lose face; so, fighting back the tears, he held Fat Man up for a final time. Stan winked at me and took his shot. Fat Man was utterly obliterated, like his namesake, but at the same time, all the onlookers heard the sound of Stanley’s bowels being evacuated into his pants. Paul stared at his empty shoelace with his lip burbling, and everyone stood in total silence.
I smelled it first; then soon after, so did Paul and, one by one, so did everyone else.
“Stanley messed his pants!” Someone said, with a tone of hysteria to their voice.
“Stan messed his pants!” Someone else said.
“Stan messed his pants!” Someone else said.
“Stan shit his pants!” Paul Warrior said, pointing at Stan. I could hear others in the crowd sniggering, soon someone burst into hysterical laughter.
“Stan messed his pants!” A chuckling, mocking voice in the crowd shrieked.
“They’re not mine,” Stan said. “They’re Terry’s pants!” Everyone fell silent and looked at me.
“They’re, they’re not mine!” I said.
“Yes they are!” Stan said and he fumbled opened his button and then his fly and showed everyone that they were indeed my red underpants that he had shat.
“Why are you wearing Terry’s pants?” Someone said.
“Yeah, why are you wearing Terry’s pants, you weirdo!” Someone else said.
“He, he left them at my house when he wet the bed.” Stan blurted out.
“You’re wearing Terry’s pissed pants?” Paul Warrior said.
“So weird.” Someone said. And the entire crowd burst out laughing again. Poor Stan hung his head in shame. People at the back of the crowd jostled to get a better view of my shamed best friend and the circle was getting smaller and smaller. I shoved some of the kids back and took Stan by his hand, pushed some kids out of my way and led him through the braying crowd of children, through the playground, out the school gates and, without saying a word, all the way back to his place. I waited outside while he cleaned himself up, rinsed the poo off his clothes and put on clean ones. He came out the front door and the two of us walked back to school in silence.
Later that afternoon, Stan and I lay on his bed, the same bed I wet six months before, and we were going through his sister’s Misty comics; trying to put a story called The Four Faces of Eve together. We had all the instalments but one in a pile when Stan said:
“I’ve been thinking,” I looked up and he was staring at me intensely. “I’ve been thinking that I was wrong in the cemetery, and you were right after all. Them pants are definitely haunted.” I nodded sagely at my best friend. “I had no warning at all. I didn’t even feel like I was going to blow off.”
“What did I tell you?” I said, suddenly feeling vindicated. “But… why did you tell everyone that they were my pants? That made everything so much worse. For both of us!”
“I don’t know! I don’t know what came over me,” he said. “It was like I had no control over what I was doing.” I choked back a sob. He beamed at me, and we both felt the bonds of our brotherhood had been strengthened by these shared supernatural terrors. We both bathed in the glow of this until it got a bit awkward. Stan continued his search through the Misty comics.
“What did you do with them? I said.
“I put them in the incinerator in the garden,” he said and I nodded at him “Shall we go and burn them? I know where mum keeps my dad’s old lighter fluid.”
And so, we both stood, in Stan’s garden, in the dusk, staring into the lapping flames that warmed our bodies and lit up our faces and burned both cloth and faecal matter alike, finally putting to an end the reign of terror that was the three haunted pairs of pants.
And the infamous messy end of the conker match between Fat Man and Death’s Head became the 1970s version of a meme: Graffiti. All over the school and in the surrounding area, for many years after, you could read on walls and lamp posts and bus stops and signs, the words:
“Stanley shitted Terry’s pissy pants.”
The Stinking End
Copyright 2023, Simon Downham-Knight