I think it speaks for itself. Have we not all experienced a sense of longing for change?
A halfway place, neither here nor there. A doorway from the uppermost half-landing led the way. If it had led to a cold and draughty garret in some poor Parisienne arrondissement, perhaps how he felt about it might have seemed more reasonable.
Okay, being at the very top of the old Victorian house, it provided a welcome refuge (five flights of stairs made it a place parents didn’t visit without exceedingly good reason) but he did not, could not, love the place. He hadn’t chosen it, had he? It had been chosen for him! He decided that more worldly-wise and more practiced parents would have known such a decision could easily have guaranteed to make him hate it! So, as he only disliked it, it showed his maturity, didn’t it? Well, he thought so. At least he did when he was seventeen. At seventeen, from the very first moment he had inhabited the room, he did not think of it in any way as permanent. How could it be, when there was still so much expectation for the years ahead?
He had a vision of himself somewhere else, in the future, perhaps in his mid-twenties, single, well off, in a plush, modern bachelor pad: ‘Ultra’ modern. He could see it: Dimming lights, a sofa that converted into a bed for when a mate stayed over, central heating, Lots of chrome, all that kind of stuff. Sophisticated.
So this halfway place was just a room. A place as the saying goes, in which to hang his hat. Of course, like all places that are starting or stopping-off points, they still take on something of the people using them, even as a railway station takes upon itself the rubbish of the commuters passing through, so the room accumulated his things and took them upon itself, gradually, over a period of time, the chattels of his life: Books, clothes, records, typewriter, posters et cetera. “Bits”. They did not amount to much. The most important of them – record-player, five or six cherished hard-backs, two posters, and his typewriter – decorated the room more than did the dusty and watery white paint that scarcely covered its pine-panelled walls. Devoid of that decoration the room would have had a somewhat bleak and milky nothingness about it. Those chattels, and a few items of discarded clothing (well, he was a teenager), added colour. Other things were hidden away, cluttering up the large cupboard space under the eaves, and inside the small armoire.
In the depth of winter, whilst he slept, the huge window that formed one side of the space would magically transform the moisture from his breath into intricate sugary fractals on the glass. On cold frosty mornings, when he would awake to see his breath appear like steam in the air, he would turn his eyes to the window and see the myriad of diverse crystal patterns that frosted its panes and obliterated the view. When it was freezing like that it was a place that most people would have avoided in favour of a more temperate room; One with heating. He however, did not. It was, remember, a refuge. A refuge in the wintery daytime, when he would spend long hours at his typewriter consuming rain-forests of paper – most of which ended up as discarded paper snowballs strewn around the floor. There he sat, clicking out streams of characters that were intended to be read as rhythmic streams of words. Streams of poetic thoughts – often melancholy – that provided the spout through which his teenage suffering could pour: Both the real and the imagined. And when it was too cold to type, there was always the refuge of his bed in which to slip. He was an only child. He was a lonely child.
Conversely, in the heat of summer, the room could become oppressively hot as the sun-baked its dormer skin. Then, if he felt it’s chalky pine planked walls, they would be hot to the touch; Almost as hot as metal left in the sun. He would throw the window open wide, and allow it to gape optimistically, an air-magnet ready to capture any errant breeze that came it’s way. And through that huge window, he could then enjoy the view. From that vantage point high up inside the roof, he could see more than could be seen from any other window in the entire house – in fact higher than any building in front of him – out over the rooftops and on to the countryside, north, east and west of Brighton.
He would sometimes – summer Sundays mostly – draw the chair to the window and sit astride it backwards – Christine Keeler like. Sitting with his arms crossed over the chair back, resting his elbows on the sill, chin on his hands, he would imagine that he was somewhere out there, in the distance, on the distant hills perhaps, north-east of the town, walking through long, dry, cool grass. From that window he could engage himself in daydream adventures; pseudo astral travels. Travels of the spirit, so intense, so real, that he could even feel the slight whipping sting on his shins from the sharp edged leaves of the grass that he mentally waded through in his shorts.
Another halfway place was a particular time of the week called a ‘Sunday’! It was also the worst day of the week. It was a day that was in the process of metamorphosis – neither one thing or the other, as it slowly prised its way out of the control of the middle aged and into the youthful hands of the new age in the late twentieth century. An era when it was no longer a social necessity to ‘go to church’ – for any reason: Whether out of devotion, out of duty, just to be seen doing the ‘right thing’, or simply out of ritual.
Sundays were, nevertheless, full of ritual, though not of the religious kind. And all of these other rituals were being fiercely questioned by the new generation to which he belonged. Take for example, the ritual of he and his friends being grounded on Sundays; kept at home, neat and tidy, spick and span, polished for parents anxious that visiting relatives or friends should see what well behaved teenagers they had.
Imposed ritual like this was as bad as being deprived of choice. And from it, another facet of teenage rebellion was borne, where, in defiance (or was it plain downright awkwardness?) he would hide himself away in his room only to appear downstairs when called from a lower landing. Even then – skilled at judging the volume and tone of the call – only when the subtle level of exasperation in the caller’s voice indicated he had no alternative, would he descend.
‘Aren’t you coming down to say hello to Aunt Lizzie?’ One of the parents would call.
The slight emphasis on the word ‘aren’t’ was the thing to observe. It was usually his mother who called. What did she mean posing a question like that! As if he had a choice! Everyone knew the likely consequences of him answering, ‘No!’ There was always a consequence to non-compliance: There’d be the sulks from his mother – who’d also send him to Coventry for a couple of days – and his father’s attitude would harden too. (Well, it had to really, else he too would feel the rougher side of Mother’s temperament!)
He was at that time just beginning to develop a strategy for those Sundays: After he had ‘appeared’ and the novelty of his attendance had worn off sufficiently, he’d attempt a disappearance act, to slip away back to his garret. This, of course, with the absolute minimum of delay. Judging the moment of his disappearance was the skill he had not quite perfected. The rule seemed to be that once past the fifth tread of the stair he’d be free and away to the solitude of his refuge. But most of the time, he would only have hesitantly reached perhaps the second or third tread, when a call would come from behind him, such as, ‘… will you bring the biscuit tin back in with you when you come?’ Subtle, wasn’t it? Did they really have eyes in the side or back of their heads? They would not have looked directly at him, or have involved him in their conversations for what seemed like ages, but when he had moved out of the room, they somehow knew, within nanoseconds, that he was slipping away and escaping. Damn!
As far as he was concerned, it was Brighton itself that should take the responsibility for these parental, Sunday, social demands: Well, it was at the seaside, wasn’t it? This meant that, for all the ‘Aunt Lizzies’ and the likes, it was top of their lists of favourite places to go visit on summer Sundays. It was that simple. That obvious.
He reasoned that If Brighton had been at the top of a long and treacherous mountain pass, then those ‘Aunt Lizzies’ would have given it a very wide berth – visiting only once in a blue moon!
Then there was the predictability and monotony of it all. Wasn’t that irksome! After a substantial meal – predictable by the fact that it would be one from a menu of only seven (there was one for each day of the week) – there was the very real prospect, in the mind’s of the visitors, that a trip to one of the piers, or a walk along the Marine Parade ‘To take in the air before tea…’ was on the cards.
And so it would be (if it wasn’t raining) that they would saunter off en famile along Buckingham Road, turn left at the Women’s hospital to go down Gloucester Road, and then first right to emerge through the cemetery of St. Nicholas Church, and onwards to the Clock Tower. Thence, it was either down Queen’s Road to the seafront, or down North Street to the Pavilion or the Dolphinarium. (Those poor dolphins: Incessantly having to perform for the millions of Aunt Lizzies!)
They always took the same routes too. Mother always ‘shushing’ everyone up as they passed the hospital, Father always explaining how the ball on the top of the Clock Tower could rise and fall, and he (always the reluctant mandatory teenager of the party) stomping along, bringing up the rear. Now, in the territory in which they would find themselves, close to or on the seafront, there would be a thousand different places in which to have ‘tea’. But no. Oh no! The ritual was that they had to retrace their steps back home, where the rite of Sunday could continue: Tea.
At some point, while the assembled guests would be munching on their salmon sandwiches (tinned pink salmon: no other!) he would hear the zylophonic tones of ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’. This was the signal for mother to present him with the monetary means to secretly sneak out onto the street to buy the requisite number of greaseproof paper-wrapped blocks of ice cream from the mobile “Mr Cool”.
His mother would usually attempt to camouflaged his exit to the street by recounting some ‘funny’ story about him as a diversion: ‘Did I tell you about the time he was a baby, and spread a fried egg all over his head?’ or something equally embarrassing story – before, secretly she thought, unwrapping the waxy blocks and placing them in shallow bowls and drowning them in a sea of tangerine segments in light syrup (taken from the huge catering sized cans kept in the cupboard under the stairs). He would then be expected to distribute the bowls to the assembled guests for their delectation.
Finally, on those Sundays, immediately after the guests had said their goodbyes and Aunt Lizzie’s whiskers had tickled his cheek as she plonked a sticky kiss, the final part of the Sunday ritual would start: Sunday night TV.
The washing up would have been completed, the plates and bowls all replaced in the cupboards, the TV switched on, the parents would take up their designated lounge seats, all miraculously just in time for the opening music of their favourite Sunday evening drama! How did they manage that? It beggared belief. But at least he would then be forgotten, and he could get back to the solitary comfort of the refuge. Blessed relief. He longed for the day, when, in that flash bachelor pad, he could do what he wanted on a Sunday.
Until then, in his mind, life was full of halfway places.