The most trivial encounter I had with Vic Denby was on the first day at my new school. My father had insisted on accompanying me despite my protests, for not only did he constantly embarrass me when out with him by telling me to pull my shoulders back and to breathe deeply - a leftover from his army days, the only cockney in a Yorkshire regiment serving in Delhi when he was seventeen - but seeming to wait purposely till we were in earshot of a dozen people. It was 1960, I was thirteen and going to the local Tech.
Nearing our destination, a twenty minute walk from home, isolated groups of boys in the silence of newness were standing around outside a wide, sloping incline leading to the main doors of the building. Not one of them had their fathers with them.
As I walked towards them, looking down and away from my father, there were the tinkling sounds of giggling and a barely controlled snigger. Glancing up, I saw a big, dark haired boy with a rough, pitted face looking from side to side at his newly found cronies and then pointedly at my father and me. I looked straight at him, his lips twisting in an exaggerated sneer of contempt. I turned away, unable to hold his eyes. I looked up at my father, willing him to return home. He was looking around him with a self-satisfied air, rocking slowly backwards and forwards on his heels with his hands held loosely behind him and repeatedly pushing his shoulders back, vigorously sniffing and nodding his head in approval as if in the middle of the countryside admiring the scenic beauty spread before him.
‘Yes, it looks a nice school, son. They seem to be decent boys. I think you’ll be okay here.’
He probably said it quietly, but it seemed to bellow out, echoing around the forecourt. The sound of a bell came from somewhere and we all moved towards the entrance.
‘You’ll be alright then, son?’
I gritted my teeth and momentarily closed my eyes, ’Yes, dad’ He looked uncomfortable then and said hesitantly, ‘Well, cheerio son.’ and walked away. I saw Vic for a second turning for a final sneer, then went into the building.
That morning we were told that for the first of the three years there we would be taught the usual academic subjects; after that, one day a week would be spent getting acquainted with the basic principles of the building trades and at the end of that period would be expected to choose the one we intended to specialise in, the remaining time almost singularly devoted to it. There were, after a while, a few extra-curricular activities not mentioned then that were to lighten the class and workshop rituals; one such created by an English teacher who decided that if we were at the School of Building, then, by definition, we must be louts and in an attempt to civilise us he taught, in the main hall and after hurriedly scoffed meals in the lunch hour, ballroom dancing.
It was, in retrospect, quite bizarre to watch boys, some with cement or paint-spattered overalls, dancing with each other - the ones who had to play the woman’s role gritting their teeth in a howl of sarcastic comments. One particularly small lad was made to stand on the teacher’s shoes and be whirled around as a teaching aid, like a puppet at a seaside fairground.
I realised after very few weeks that I had little interest or ability in any of the trades except the more artistic elements of decorating, and it was in this workshop a year or so later that Vic’s contempt for me came into the open.
He had quickly established himself as one of the dominant personalities of the class and gathered around him the majority of the rougher lads. He attempted to prove his physical superiority on every possible occasion. If there was any furniture moving or desk arranging to be done he would be the first to get up and push and carry, his expression meant to convey that he was only toying with small pieces of wood, mere child’s play, and after sliding a desk recklessly across the room would spread out his hands and curve his arms up over his head in an exaggerated follow-through. If there was cement to be made up in a brickwork lesson his hands were the first to grab a shovel, picking up wads of ‘muck’ and holding them up as high and for as long as he could before dropping them back on the mortar boards and, often unnecessarily, stacking a large load of bricks into a hod and carrying it around, depositing them in piles in front of the small walls the other students were building.
Vic had a native shrewdness and an aptitude for quickly grasping a practical subject and - considering the finer points of communication superfluous - was basic and direct.
In one decorating lesson we were all, either in pairs or singly, painting murals on the workshop walls. My associate for this was a normally quiet boy whose father, it was rumoured, had his own decorating business.
The particular creation we had evolved was a six feet square relief map of the Bay of Biscay and part of Spain, the land mass being formed by a stippler, made of short lengths of rubber strips placed at right angles to each other, being repeatedly pressed onto a thick layer of alabaster. This, when hardened, rubbed down and shaded in various tones of brown and green was a reasonable topographical representation of hilly, wooded land. The trade teacher, seeing that his class was absorbed in its work, was indulging in one of his periodic absences from the room.
We had been working silently for a while and I mentioned to my colleague something about Dali’s moustache dropping off if he could see the misshapen mess we were making of his country, and in a slow, scholarly manner, he surprisingly began to tell what he knew of the artist’s life. He rolled out a string of interesting facts and observations and as I aired my meagre knowledge of the subject, I became more absorbed in our conversation, was stimulated, loquacious.
‘What you on about, Bowes?’
I felt myself flush even before I turned and saw Vic looking down at me from across the room, He was standing on a pair of steps from which he was working on a version of the mailed fist and motto of the Tank Corps. He leisurely swivelled round, leant his back on the steps, drew one leg up a couple of treads higher than the other, rested his elbow on a knee and cupped the side of his face in a hand. He sat smirking and closing his eyes in an affected manner of nonchalant superiority, and thrusting his head forward said condescendingly,
‘What is it this time then, your artistic appreciation? He carefully emphasised the last two words as if they were foreign to him.
‘Why ain’t you like Jim and Lofty and the uvvers, Bowes?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes. ‘We’re gonna get motor bikes when we can. Get the gels, too.’ he grinned, looking around at the others.
The largest of his sycophants looked up and sniggered. ‘You don’t wanna know nuffin’ about art,’ he said with infinite conviction, his eyes moving from side to side as if he was thinking of a significant sequel to his statement. He looked down at his board again, shaking his head and saying almost absently,
Vic, turning the steps towards us, was using them as a pulpit now, leaning his folded arms comfortably on top of them.
‘You wanna watch wrestlin’, he said, holding his arms up like a weightlifter. ‘Strength.’ he shouted, ‘Strength.’
Somehow he represented the whole world, and I felt that familiar, panicky isolation.
‘Muscles,’ Vic was saying. ‘What yer wanna do, is –‘
‘The biggest muscle you’ve got is between your ears.’ I blurted out angrily in a sudden flash of bravery. The silence made the words seem even more inadequate and stupid. A few of the boys who had heard them laughed in a preoccupied way for they were, in varying degrees, enjoying what they were doing and there was nothing hostile in their amusement. I sensed that Vic had failed to see this and he glared around challengingly, his lips tightened in anger.
Nobody looked at him and if they had would probably have been surprised to see him so annoyed. His eyes caught mine in the second before he turned away. I stood tensely, trying to concentrate on my mural, wanting Vic to do the same with his.
No one was speaking. A few boys were humming or whistling quietly. I relaxed a little. Then a slipping, juddering sound, wooden clatter, heavy thump. I spun round. Vic was laying spread eagled on his back with the head of the steps across his legs and red paint, like blood, spattered over the floor around him, his paint can describing an arc in the air, its curve decreasing as it slowed. There was a momentary stillness, and then the sound.
They were pointing down at him, shrieking, mouths wide open, lips stretched back over teeth. One boy abruptly sat on the floor, head dropping back loosely and then whipping it up again to stare incredulously, his eyes moist, laughing hugely and soundlessly. I was watching Vic closely as he viciously kicked the steps away and clambered to his feet. His white face was expressionless as he calmly and methodically brushed himself down, hands slapping over his shoulders and the back of his thighs, eyes almost vacant.
The room had quietened a little, then without warning he strode across to me. I pushed my arm up defensively and pressed back against the wall, but Vic’s fist chopped it down with such force that I slid to the floor, cradling my arm to my chest. Vic then knelt in front of me, his back upright and erect, hands tightly clenched. He was quite still. I stared back at him, gaping. Nobody was laughing now. There was no noise at all.
He raised his fists high above his head and swung them down onto my shoulders, one at a time, as one came down the other would go up as if he were ringing imaginary church bells. Strangely, there was no force behind them, they just lightly touched me. I was holding my hands palms upwards in front of my face, turning away in anticipation of heavier blows and catching short glimpses of Vic looking unblinkingly at a point above his head, detached, yet frightened and frowning hard as if he were desperately trying to remember something or grasp the reality of his actions. Slowly and, at first, almost inaudibly he choked hoarsely,
‘I hate you, I hate you,’ and then quickening until he was screaming it into a high-pitched rhythm of, ‘aitchew, aithchew, aitchew,’ over and over.
A few of the bigger boys pulled him away from me and as soon as he was on his feet he shook himself from them and with head hanging walked limply back to the fallen steps, pushed them upright and slowly looked around him for something to clean the paint up, none of which had touched anyone’s work. Someone tentatively offered him a piece of rag then wandered back to where he had been working. The others returned to their places, also, some looking over at me and shrugging their shoulders, but shock showing in their eyes. Vic was kneeling on the floor, body stretched forward, rubbing the bunched-up rag in wide ineffectual movements, his shoulders spasmodically jerking. He was crying. The class then helped clear up the mess. I did, too.
Vic was quieter and less aggressive for a while afterwards, but not for long. His strident voice could soon be heard again and he seemed the same old Vic, except that he never spoke to me at all and when he eventually did it was only at moments when he more or less had to.
Eighteen months later and just prior to leaving I had an interview with a large City and West End painting contractors and a month afterwards started work.
A pressure on my shoulder. A rocking motion, gentle, rhythmic, my arm firmly gripped, the rocking more vigorous, my head lolling loosely about. My name was being called, gently, insistently. I opened my eyes and stared at my mother who was telling me that there was a cup of tea on the bedside table and not to knock it over and don’t be too long getting up. I nodded slowly, feeling sleep clamping my eyelids tighter and was only barely aware of the door closing, and then the slow realisation that it was Monday morning, my first day at work. I hung my head over the side of the bed and stared at the ceiling.
Images of myself travelling to work drifted into my head and concreted themselves in movie form: a straightforward shot leaving the house wearing a grey, black-flecked sports jacket, neat, wool tie and worsted trousers. The camera pans towards me as I walk quickly along the street showing a back view with head bent forward on stooping shoulders, then a dramatic close-up, the camera on its trolley twelve inches from my bobbing face, minute particles of sleep in the corner of an eye, off-white filling in a front tooth and the pallor of the smooth skin.
The houses in the background are seen as the camera moves away, travelling faster than I’m walking. The corner of the road, a blank wall, a dog trots past, then I appear again, turning quickly, flashing from left to right of the screen. A side view this time as I begin running to catch a bus pulling away from the stop, a slowing down and then a casual leap onto the platform with an aerial shot looking almost directly down at me swinging around the pole with one hand and instantly disappearing into the interior. The blue-grey acrid air of the crowded top deck, a low shot showing boots, black shiny casuals, corduroys and a pair of brown suede shoes. Stark close-ups of men with a day’s growth of beard and the just shaven ones putting home-rolled or factory made cigarettes between their lips. Faces with closed eyes endeavouring to finish off harshly interrupted sleep, faces with eyes narrowed reading the pages of the Daily Mirror or Reveille, faces with mouths open, panting with the effort of the double exertion of having run for the bus and coughing from a too-early fag.
The vehicle slows and just when it has almost stopped starts away again. An early morning office girl climbs the stairs and looks around her with distaste. Nobody stands, and leaning against the side at the top of the stairs, brushes imaginary smuts from her crisp, clean dress with the back of a gloved hand and stares fixedly out of a window. The bus slackens its bouncing, rolling speed, the camera points away through a window and in the natural frame lorries and cars, motorbikes and cycles sweep across the lens which tilts upwards showing a wasteland of dust and bricks, squashed drink cartons, remnants of bonfires, old newspapers and the frame of a bicycle sticking up like a scalene triangle. The rectangle is then filled with tall, shabby Victorian houses, then a shot from the top of the steep, curved stairs as bodies helter-skelter down and as they jump off the bus, the majority before it has stopped, into the grimy entrance of the station, makes them look like squat-bodied giants with huge feet.
My gaze strayed from the ceiling to the underneath of a saucer rim protruding from the top of my bedside table and in a moment of full wakefulness I lifted myself from the bed in pleasant anticipation of the hot, sweet tea. Ten rushed minutes later I was on my way to the bus stop. There were no cameras.
I was to report at eight o’clock to the foreman painter, Mister Fox, at a building in Finsbury Circus. I was carrying a small case containing shiny, newly purchased tools and a packet of sandwiches. Walking from the station I swung this about disdainfully in an effort to hide from the world that this little lad, who I was sure it was looking at with comforting smiles and women with inclinations of heads and looks in their eyes which suggested an inwardly exclaimed ‘Aaaah’ of pity, was not really going off to work for the first time, but had, in fact, started years ago and was now accepted as one of the men. Squaring my shoulders, an old habit, I crossed the road to the entrance.
A staircase with a rail supported by iron balustrades wrought in heavily ornate designs spiralled upwards. I climbed carefully, passing floors with metal partitions, false ceilings, plastered walls and new window frames in the process of erection and men just starting work for the day, slow moving and reluctant. One of them told me where the paint shop was and I found the foreman there who, when informed timorously that I was the new apprentice, gave me a look of disapproval, a paint kettle full of pink priming and led me along the large, semi-partitioned floor to the windows at the end and told me he wanted ten completed that day. Half way across were pairs of trestles, scaffold boards stretched between them, and working in pairs on them were six painters, their brushes casually pounding the ceiling with hollow flip flops of sound. I hoped that, in time, I could pick up their effortless expertise.
They were laughing, voices and guffaws echoing around and one of them, with quick glances at an immaculately dressed man sporting dustless brogues, looking irritated and flicking a steel tape measure from hand to hand, was making a gesture towards his workmates by gripping an arm above the elbow and, still holding his brush, swinging it with tightly clenched fist mock-furiously up and down, lips curled back over gritted teeth - a universal gesture unknown to me at the time.
There was a cliquishness in such incidents, an unconscious knowledge of the right things to say and do, the correct responses, the right feelings. These things were seemingly a natural part of them, unthinking, unforced.
I walked over to a window which seemed to soar above me, the others vanishing into a pinpoint of perspective. In my brand new white bib and brace I began searching anxiously for a pair of steps. I explored the floors above and below and the only pair that weren’t being used were painted brown and an electrician, before grabbing them back from me, stuck his face through their inverted ‘V’ into mine and with patronising mock severity as if he had just caught his youngest child sticking a finger into a pot of jam, slowly and deliberately shook his head then burst into laughter while I stared with fascination at the small dots of amalgam in his mouth glistening with spittle.
I returned to the floor where I was supposed to be working and heard the foreman sarcastically say to one of the men, ‘If you can’t finish it till the first coat’s dry, stand there and blow on it.’
He turned to me.’ Haven’t you started yet?’
Then, ‘Anyway, we’re off to tea now, they’ve got a big area down there and they’ll have a long run till dinner.’
I sat in the café, the other boiler-suited or bib-and-braced painters laughing easily, ordering food - ‘two airships on a cloud, darlin’…’ babies on a raft, luv’ .for sausages and mash, or beans on toast - and then, swaggering in, shoulders rolling, long hair slicked down, was Vic Denby. He sat down in the corner, had a quiet chuckle with a couple of painters, looked at me, gave a slight nod, then turned his head away. I had no idea that he had come to this firm, was working on this job.
I only seemed to see Vic in the café, it was a big job, painters, mostly in twos, were spread out on various floors. He never spoke to me, never gestured. On the third day Charlie Fox took me to the main entrance ceiling - someone had mentioned that it was the biggest in London - and scaffold-boarded about eight feet below its surface where men were brushing cream eggshell onto it, finishing it with large, fine hair stipplers. He pointed up through the gap where the ladder entered through the boards to a large, elaborate Adam ceiling rose.
‘You been to Buildin’ School ain’t yer? Well, pick that out, the swags in red and the egg and arrers in white; do the round rim in blue. Ted’s got the colours, get ’em from the paint shop.’
This was more like it. I had a sudden urge to ask for the boards to be raised so I could lie on my back to paint and pretend it was the Sistine Chapel. I carried three paint kettles and brushes up with me in one go, then went down for the turps and rag. I started enjoying myself immediately; standing on an old stool, cutting in the Roman swags with a large chisel-edged sable, pushing the white into the tongue and dart with an inch tool. Time was irrelevant.
I stepped back. There was nothing there. My shoulder blades hit the metal edge of a board as I fell, I seemed to bounce away and then my buttocks were hitting rungs, then the back of my head hitting them as I fell, strangely upright. I landed vertically, also. I glanced down at a shoe. It was hanging off, almost broken in half. I looked around dizzily, perhaps for the brushes, the kettles…I don’t know.
I just stood there, alone. None of the painters on the boards above me seemed to have noticed. One was singing in a casual voice about a country girl, I could hear his foot tap quietly to the rhythm of the song, and his brush. And then I looked to the corner of this big, dust-sheeted area and there was Vic, ten yards away. In a moment of schizoid irrelevance I noticed he had cut his initials into the handle of a filling knife he was holding. He was smiling, almost likeably, a forefinger lightly tapping the side of his nose. He stopped, nodded his head slowly up and down, still smiling. I looked away. On the sheets around my feet were spatterings of red. Like blood.
Ken Champion © 2011