Journeys Taken on Mother’s Knee

As the crow flies it was a hundred and forty-four miles from our village in Staffordshire to Sydenham in London. Nothing these days. Jump into the car and zoom up the Motorway, with perhaps only a stop for a coffee or pee at the Rank Services to break the journey. Sitting in an air conditioned car with satellite navigation systems, radios, play stations and all the paraphernalia we take for granted to smooth our way. Three hours maximum, perhaps another half hour accounting for the rush hour.

But how different fifty-five years ago when I was a young ten-year-old. Twelve hours minimum along the A5 with more than the occasional stop to replenish father at various hostelries en route, not to mention the breakdowns. Journeys in old cars, long before MOT’s were heard of, in austere times when Motorways were a far away dream and potholed roads, ravaged by wartime use were not high on the list of repair priorities by Government departments.

Mother, father, various dogs and yours truly made this journey at least three times a year to visit grandparents. Christmas, Easter and school holidays were the agreed times, and now in hindsight all the journeys were horrific, or wonderful according to how you remember them. For a start, the cars were nearly always pre 1930 and none of them costs more than fifteen quid. None of them had heaters and most of them had hoods which were torn or held together with sticky tape or coat hanger wire. None of them was capable of more than forty-five mph and that was downhill, with a following wind. Brakes were a hit and miss affair, almost literally and head lights were as dim as a nun’s nightie. Street lights were the same… if there were any. White lines with cat’s eyes suddenly seemed to veer off into muddy ditches or fields and road signs pointed the way to intended destinations via bridle paths and farm tracks.

However we didn’t know any better, it was a way of life, it was normal and so were the drink and drive laws. Father wouldn’t contemplate such a monumental expedition to the Metropolis without a monumental amount of alcohol to steady the nerve. Anyway, he always drove better after a couple or six. And he was a Barrister!

So picture a typical scene. The day before Christmas Eve and Mum and I are all packed and ready for father to come back in the car he has been testing after a day spent underneath putting in new main engine bearings. It’s now early afternoon and father disappeared at eleven. We both know that he’s at the Bull, fortifying himself for the journey ahead, but more than that, being a crafty devil, the journey, his journey is planned according to pub opening and closing times, and there are lots of watering holes along the A5. We stare out of the window; we always stare out of this same window at these times, we’ve done it for years. Any thought about phoning the pub was as alien, in those days, as drinking and driving are today.

Eventually, we hear the car, it’s now about three in the afternoon, and father pulls up outside. He gets out, gives a front tyre a perfunctory kick and opens the bonnet. This is all show; we know that. He thinks we will think he’s been having more trouble with the engine and has spent the last two hours fixing it. We say nothing.

Eventually, we were ensconced in the car, me on mother’s lap, the dog under the dashboard. Three flasks of sweet tea and Marmite sandwiches catered for our hunger pangs and hot water bottles provided the heat, as did various blankets and at least four layers of clothing. The hood was kept down as father thought that the various draughts induced by the exceptional speed he could now induce out of the finely tuned engine would give us lumbago.

By five to six we had got as far as the outskirts of Coventry and father stopped for replenishment at a pub. He said he needed the Gents, which he probably did and he disappeared with alacrity together with our hot water bottles and flasks, into the warm, welcoming bar, leaving us to shiver by the light of a solitary street lamp. The customary Vimto and sweet sherry were brought out to us, together with the newly replenished hot water bottles and flasks.

By seven thirty we were on our way again, by nine we got as far as a nice little pub near Fenny Stratford we had to stop because the engine was overheating! The fact that it is minus five degrees outside, where we are and the engine water temperature gauge registered little more than slightly warm had nothing to do with it. The same pattern follows… sweet sherry for mum and a bottle of Vimto for me, plus the necessary filling up of hot water bottles and flasks. The dog poked his nose out of the door, shivered and declined the invitation to perform against the pub wall. By nine o’ clock father in all his wisdom and swaying gently managed to sprain his wrist whilst cranking the starting handle, a not uncommon occurrence and sometimes used as a ploy to go back into the pub for medicinal purposes. This time, however, he managed to kick the engine into some sort of life by jumping up and down on the handle. Mum and I made the right noises praising his heroic endeavours and huddled together.

We made about another thirty miles before father heard a distinct knocking in the engine and decided we had to stop to investigate. Luckily a pub car park was on hand and father decided he had better go inside to phone grandfather and tell him we may be a little late as the car had developed a distinct big end rattle. The phone call took a good thirty minutes which uncannily coincided with kicking out time. The sprained wrist somehow managed to coax the engine into action and we were off again. Try as we could mother and I, who were very tuned into engine sounds, could hear no discernable rattle, but there again we didn’t expect to.

By the time we reached the outskirts of London, the car had developed a nasty habit of jumping out of gear. Mother was elected to hold it in. Along the Victoria Embankment, we heard Big Ben strike twelve and the clutch started to slip. As we edged past the Oval at a sedate fifteen miles per hour the exhaust fell off and took the brake wires with it, rendering us unstoppable. This state of affairs was not uncommon and we took it in our stride; our stride being stopped when necessary by double declutching into first and allowing the engine to stop us…after a while.

In those days, there was not the traffic that there is today, the police seemed to want to help rather than hinder and when the lights went out as the battery gave a last gasp, we carried on regardless, unworried about prosecutions and all that stuff until at last we reached my grandparents. They, as always, stayed up in case we required a tow but rarely was this necessary, and especially not by grandfather who had an old Austin seven which was more un-roadworthy than our car, to say nothing of grandfather who was himself about as un-roadworthy as a headless chicken trying to cross the road.

Whilst father usually spent the next few days, when pub opening times allowed, repairing the car ready for the journey home, mother and I recuperated from severe frostbite The journey home was just as exhilarating but we usually went the Oxford route on the way home. At least it meant a different view of pub car park walls for mother and me.

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Brain Swop Shop

Written 25 years ago, not nostalgia, just a muse.

‘Good morning doctor,’
‘Ah Mr Chapman, welcome to the Brain Swap shop, do sit down.’ The Doctor stabbed a few buttons on his console and stared intently at a screen.
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘haven’t we met before, I seem to recollect your…’
‘Could have. I’ve only been doing this job for a month, used to be an astronaut, got me name in the paper, quite famous I believe. Had to give it up though, travel sickness you know’
‘Ah, that accounts for it, must have seen you on the telly.’
‘Probably, although I can’t remember anything about it of course. Change of brain cells and so forth.’
‘Of course,’ I said, ‘I’ve been told I was the President of an African Republic once and can’t remember any of my Swiss bank account numbers.’
‘Terrible isn’t it. I sometimes wonder why we want to change our brains at all.’
The Doctor scratched his head, ‘It’s the novelty I suppose.’
Time I thought to drag the doctor out of his rumination. I leant forward. ‘Not in my case it isn’t,’ I told him. ‘This is caused by my wife’s change of circumstances. It is not novelty.’
‘Oh well,’ said the doctor, then swivelled around to his computer and stared at the screen. ‘Let’s have a look at your application form.’
‘I must say, ‘I said, leaning back, ‘You’ve been jolly quick with the paper work.’
The Doctor smiled, ‘Oh we’re quite proficient in this department now the Government has dropped the restriction on only allowing five brains per lifetime.’
‘Has it?’ I said.
‘You should know. It says here you’re the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.’
‘Am I?’
He jabbed a finger on the screen. ‘Says here you are.’
‘I wondered why I was chairing these high-powered meetings. Mind you I’ve had a lot on my mind recently; what with Winifred’s condition and so forth…mind you come to think of it I did think they were a pretty rum lot, I wonder if…?’
‘Well the brain you’ve got now has a waiting list of six people, so you should be able to trade it in for something half decent.’ The Doctor jabbed at the keyboard, ‘but according to regulations I must ask you why you want to change?’
I looked at him. I rather hoped he’d not ask.’ It’s the wife,’ I said painfully, ‘she’s inherited her mother’s brain you see. The old bat left it to her in her will, and Winifred was close to her mother and feels obliged, as it were, to comply with her wishes.’
‘What is she now?’
‘A topless lap dancer.’
The doctor grimaced, ‘Hardly goes with your image,’
‘I should say not,’ I said, the fog suddenly clearing, ‘There I am chairing these dynamic meetings, discussing matters of state and what have you, when the wife comes in half naked, jumps onto the table and starts gyrating her navel and god knows what else into the faces of what I suppose is the Shadow Cabinet.’
‘How old is she?’
‘Seventy-four.’
‘Good god, what happened to her mother?’
‘Fell off the stage at the Trocadero and drowned in a bath of Champagne.’
‘Very nasty,’ said the doctor.
‘They say she came up for air twice,’ I winced at the memory, ‘But I don’t believe ‘em… She only drank Gin.’
‘Is her brain alright?’
‘I think so they got it out before rigour mortise set in.’
The doctor sat back, ‘Well,’ he said punching some more keys, ‘I can’t see any problems, you pass all the criteria.’ He peered intently at the screen, ‘My word you’ve had some interesting brains in the past,’
‘Have I?’
‘One hundred and twenty odd brain years. Two Prime Ministers, The Archbishop of Canterbury, a champion pole vaulter and President of some obscure Republic in East Africa, for a start.’
‘Pity we can’t remember past lives,’ I said.
‘Good job in your case I should think, you’ve been shot fifteen times and run through with an assegai twice.’
‘Have I?’
‘Yes…but no good dwelling on the past, what do you fancy now?’
‘Well,’ I said sinking back into the chair and putting my hands behind my head, ‘I thought about something in the arts field might be interesting.’
The doctor pressed some more keys and we watched as a printer gurgled into action. He read the printout. ‘You may be in luck,’ he said, ‘We have a ballet dancer’s brain just come in, it might suit you, sort of fits in with your wife’s lifestyle, both working at the same sort of thing.’
‘Why did the ballet dancer want a change?’
‘It was forced on him actually,’ replied the doctor, ‘he only had one leg.’
‘How did he…?’
‘Oh we fitted him up with one of those artificial screw on ones of course, but every time he did an anti-clockwise pirouette he unscrewed himself. Very disconcerting for the audience.’
‘Let me think of that one,’ I said. ‘What else have you got?’
Well,’ said the doctor, ‘The trouble is most of the swaps in the arts field seem perfectly content at the moment and not many want to change with politicians. Hang on we’ve got a pop singer, he’s been on the books for quite a while.’
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘He’s stone deaf.’
‘Stone deaf?’ I gasped.
‘Yes, he had six number one hits before anyone noticed.’
‘What is he now?’
‘Nothing…he’s in limbo.’
‘Can you do that?’ I asked, mind whirring.
‘Oh yes,’ replied the doctor, shuffling some papers, ‘Just leave the department with a list of preferred options and we’ll pop you in a freezer until something comes up.
‘How long can you stay in limbo?’ I asked, somewhat taken aback.
‘Three years is the maximum. After that we take a random brain and fit you up with that; a bit like the lottery really.’
‘Oh, I bet that leads to all sorts of…’
‘Well we can’t have bodies and brains cluttering up the place.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘otherwise people would stay here forever, frozen up and become a real drag on the taxpayer.
‘Exactly ,’ said the doctor, warming to the subject. ‘It all started with the other organs of course. Livers, kidneys, spleens and so forth.’
‘I know, jolly handy when you can pop into a body bank and pick up a new part.’
‘You’re so right,’ said the doctor,’ I’ve drunk myself to death regularly and had three new livers fitted.’
‘I’m on my third set of lungs,’ I said, ‘Lovely when you can smoke sixty a day and not give a damn about the old wheezing and coughing.’
The doctor gave me a conspiratorial sort of wink, ‘Tell you the truth I only wanted this job so I could get myself fitted out with a new set of family jewels.’ He smirked. ‘Perks of the job don’t you know. I’ve got contacts in other departments; they’ve promised to give me the nod when something decent comes in.’
‘Say no more,’ I said ‘but if you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t look much like a doctor.’
‘Oh this,’ he pointed to his forehead which was impregnated with a large purple tattoo. ‘Yes I must get it removed. Can’t go around doctoring with ‘Manchester United rules OK’ plastered across my face for ever.’
‘Bad for the image.’ I agreed.
‘Suppose I must have been a football hooligan a few brains ago,’ he muttered.
‘It never fails to surprise me,’ I went on, ‘I mean when you think what strides have been made in the last few years. Now you can just wander into any of these swap shops and get a whole new persona. Why just a few years ago you had to go through life with what you started off with.’
‘It’s good isn’t’ he replied, ‘A quick snip here and there and the next minute you’re off the operating table sitting up in bed with a cup of tea and a biscuit and a whole new person inside your head.’
I nodded agreement, ‘But I’m glad that the powers that be stopped issuing synthetic brains,’ I added. ‘I mean who wants to go around with a computer stuck in your head.’
‘It wasn’t that. It was the weight of the batteries you had to lug around with you. It was all right when you could plug yourself into the mains at home or work but not much fun otherwise. I mean who wants to lug two bloody big lorry batteries around strapped to your back when you’re wandering around Tesco’s or jigging the night away at the local disco.’
‘To say nothing of the Olympics,’ I added, I mean bit of a disadvantage when you’re going for gold in the high jump.’
‘Exactly, mind you, tell you confidentially we’ve had a bit of trouble fixing bodies up with brains. People don’t always tell us the truth about any abnormalities they might have.’
‘I suppose you’ve got to be careful.’
‘I should say so. We’ve had some god almighty cock-ups.’
‘Like what?’
‘Well we had in Interior Designer who didn’t tell us he was colour blind; created havoc wherever he worked.’
‘What happened to him?’
The doctor sniggered, ‘Fixed him up as a champion snooker player, just to get our own back.’
‘I suppose, ‘I said, ‘You get a lot of people in here applying for brains without thinking of the consequences?’
The doctor rolled his eyes, ‘Do you know, my predecessor actually fixed up a BBC football commentator who had an uncontrollable stammer. By the end of full time he was still trying to describe the bloody kickoff.’
‘Gosh!’ I said.
‘Too right,’ said the doctor. He leant back in his chair and gave me an appraising sort of look. ‘I could get you a very good deal on a juggler. These ones even got a guaranteed eighteen months circus contract.’
‘Sounds interesting,’ I said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘Cross-eyed, kept dropping his balls.’
‘How very careless.’
‘They kept him on at the circus for a while, though as a catcher in a trapeze act, until we fixed him up with something.’
‘I’m glad I wasn’t his partner,’ I replied, mind-boggling.’ But what I really want is something in the real arts.
’We’ve had a wine taster one that came in yesterday for a swap.’
‘Why did he want to change?’
‘He didn’t, it was forced on him. Kept getting the sack, an absolute alcoholic, chronic shakes, kept swallowing the wine, wouldn’t spit it out,’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I want something that will fit in with my wife’s routine.’
‘Well can’t you get her to change her mind?’ he asked.
‘No, she’s absolutely adamant. I think she quite enjoys it.’
‘Everybody to their own I suppose, but if you ask me I think she needs her head examining.’
‘I suppose there’s no use hanging around, for say, an opera singer?’
The doctor pushed another few buttons,’ we’ve got one here who’s looking for a swap; had him on the books for weeks now but I wouldn’t recommend him.’
‘Why not.’
‘Got a cleft palate.’
‘Oh right,’ I mumbled. ‘Anything in the classical Shakespearean mould?’
‘Only one, a dyslexic brain, it’s OK but can only play Falstaff, and that took the man whose got it five years to learn the part, so he has to wait for Henry the Fourth to come round, which isn’t very often. He’s been on our books for months.’
‘Doesn’t sound too bad,’ I said, ‘plenty of time off…that’ll do me.’
‘Are you sure, I mean if you can’t learn your lines you are gong to be a bit stuck with this Falstaff chap? ’
‘No, I’ve made my mind up,’ I said. ‘When can you fit me in?’
The doctor looked at the screen. ‘Next Tuesday be alright, ten in the morning?’
‘Fine.’
‘I tell you what though, the surgeon will need watching.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘why’s that?’
‘He used to be the wine taster I was telling you about.’