by Harry Downey
I gave up smoking and had my first vasectomy years ago both in the same week. To be honest its ancient history now so Id pretty well forgotten that the two events happened as close to each other as they did. Till the other night, that is, down at the White Hart when we were talking about anniversaries. It gave me a chance to pitch in for bragging rights for the evening when I told the lads about it. I reckon I won hands down.
Yes, I did say first vasectomy. It was quite simple really. Id had to go back and have the snip done for a second time after the routine retest had found my system wasnt clear apparently my tubes joined up by themselves and they shouldnt have. Naturally enough I put it down to simply being more virile than ordinary men something the blokes down in the pub didnt see quite the way I did. The doc actually said at the time that Im now on record somewhere in Lancet or one of the medical journals as Im so special. Thats worth having on your CV, isnt it? And I havent touched a cigarette since then either now that is something Im really proud of. Quite a boast from a man whod been on sixty a day up to then. Pete Marks bought me a pint on the strength of my double whammy as he called it. Hes been trying to give up as long as Ive known him. He still went through nearly a pack in that one evening.
Jimmy Parsons had started us off by saying it was exactly a year since his brother Rob died, and the discussion and recollections followed on from there. Id known Rob for years and the rest of the gang knew him just as well as I did. The two of them, offspring of a middle-aged marriage, were physically similar see them together and youd know they were from the same pod but temperamentally they were as different as chalk and cheese. Jimmy, the younger by about two years, is quick, bright and great company. Rob well he was Rob. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer he didnt socialise a lot and when he did, it showed. He wasnt backward or anything, nothing like that, but he was just sulky, self-centred and when he wasnt being grouchy he was dull, boring and someone to be avoided when you saw him coming.
Limited is perhaps the best word to describe him. No conversation, he didnt even have a special peculiar obsession that went with his temperament something to baffle and bore us silly with, like collecting penny blacks or trying to solve the identity of Jack the Ripper. If he did turn up for a drink hed just fill up space in the corner for a couple of hours, get his round in on time, and that was that. So youll gather he wasnt missed too much when he fell off his perch. Its always sad when someone you know dies in his forties like he did, so we paid our respects, sent a wreath from the group of us at our local and Jos Smithers went to the crematorium with Jimmy and his family to represent us all: then we more or less forgot about brother Rob.
The discussion fizzled out as there was a feeling we were all getting a bit morbid about deaths and funerals and things so the topic became next weeks international at Wembley. Somehow the way England have been playing lately that seemed almost as depressing.
During the talk about football it was clear that Jimmy P was in a bit of a world of his own. I put it down to the fact that he was probably thinking about Rob and obviously the others thought the same, so we all had a go at trying to chivvy him along to snap out of it. He did eventually brighten up a bit and started talking about his brother and a secret; a secret hed been asked to keep for over thirty years. Hed respected the shared confidence all that time. Somehow Jimmy felt that if the secret was to be disclosed at some stage, when could be better than now when he was with his special pals who had all known his brother and his strange ways? The story Jimmy told us went something like this.
When Rob and I were lads I was about twelve and Rob that couple of years older, so were talking well over thirty years back Mum and Dad took us up to Blackpool to see the Illuminations. It was a coach thing on a Saturday from Shadwells Tours down on Bridge Street in town. Youve all probably done the same sort of trip the coach gets there late morning, everybody has a few hours on their own in Blackpool, then when its dark the bus goes up and down the front, you make all the right noises about the lights, then you go home and get back in the early hours. You know the sort of thing.
There were nods all round as the memories poured back some of us as parents with our own kids now taking them off to see the Lights: as well as when we were children ourselves and remembering the excitement and the silver coin for the first kid to spot the Tower in the distance.
Rob and I were at that age when we didnt want to be seen with our folks all the time and felt we could manage on our own. Just like now - go to the seaside anytime and youll see kids like we were then embarrassed-looking, tagging along several paces behind, trying hard to look as if theyre grown up and not with mum and dad. At that awkward in-between age - too old to be with their parents and too young to be let off the leash. So, the Parsons family, parents and boys, struck a deal. We lads were given some money and a place and time to meet up again for getting on to the coach for the drive along the prom and going home. We were told very clearly we had to be there ready on time; and that meant both of us - definitely no splitting up.
The moment Rob and I were on our own, we began to argue about what to do. I wanted to go to the top of the Tower and Rob didnt. He had nowhere especially he wanted to go or anything to see, but he simply didnt want to do what I wanted. No reason why he should, of course, but at least my plan was something definite and not just aimless wandering. I thought he was just being cussed, and we all know how cussed he could be when he wanted to be - in spades. It was almost inevitable we would split up. Rob was my elder brother and so supposed to be the one with more sense, but even by then Id realised that the extra couple of years difference hadnt made him brighter - just older, thats all. I felt I knew better even as a kid, so Rob started to sulk and hid round a corner and I couldnt find him. I reckoned I spent half an hour or so just looking for him before I gave up. There was nothing for it other than to go off, spend my pocket money, enjoy myself and hope Rob turned up on time. Of course, Rob being Rob - he didnt.
When I got back to the big coach park near the Pleasure Beach - and I made sure I was early just in case - our parents were already there. I tried to explain what had happened and all Hell broke loose. Obviously they wouldnt have a clue where to start looking for their missing boy so they had no choice but to wait. The coach driver held on for about ten minutes longer than he should have and that was all he could do. The rest of the folks in the coach were getting very impatient and so he had to go leaving behind three upset and angry people. Rob turned up about five minutes after the bus had gone and inevitably he was in serious trouble.
For some reason peculiar only to Rob, he didnt seem too bothered. He never did really explain properly what hed been up to but just made a gruff apology and some vague excuse about confusing the time wed all arranged to meet. Then he seemed to retreat inside his own head and simply just took all the grumbling and telling-off without showing as much reaction as Id expected. So we didnt see the lights that year except what we could manage to see by walking up and down the prom for a while. The driver collected us all on his way back and a very tired and subdued Parsons family finally got home in the early hours of Sunday morning.
At first Rob wouldnt tell me any more than he told Mum and Dad. Then, about a week later, when he was still very much in the doghouse at home, he took me on one side and told me something of where hed been and what hed done in Blackpool. Nothing like the nonsense about mixing up the time that hed invented. What Rob told me was weird - about being on the Golden Mile, ambling along and seeing an advertising sign that intrigued him. In fact hed written the words down so he could tell me exactly what it said. He even included a spelling mistake that he said he noticed. Spelling was one thing Rob was good at.
Learn what the future holds. See the world renowned clairvoyant Gipsy Leona Felixa and she will tell you all. As consulted by Eminent People and Goverments the world over.
Rob, being Rob, went in to the little booth, paid his two bob or whatever it was back then, was offered a choice of having his palm read or, as an alternative, this woman would look into her crystal ball and see what it foretold. She personally felt that this was better for the sitter and well worth the extra it would cost. Jimmy shrugged as he told us. We can guess which one Rob picked, cant we?
According to Rob he came out knowing that he was going to die when he was fortyfive. His death would have something to do with water and flashing lights according to Gipsy Leona.
To be honest I wasnt sure if it wasnt all a great big wind-up, but Rob seemed so sincere and deadly serious that I believed him. Anyway, when did anyone remember Rob trying to kid someone along for a practical joke? It just wasnt his style.
After hed told me, Rob said that he didnt want to discuss the matter again - ever. And he asked what he called the biggest favour he could ask of me. He wouldnt mention it again and I was never to tell anyone about it. Id already told Rob that he was talking a load of nonsense and it was just a big catch-penny and he was a sucker to fall for it. But he stuck to his guns and so I agreed that it would stay a secret between us.
By this time I was wrapped up in the story and I could see the others in our little Gang of Five as we called ourselves were too. We threw in a few leading questions but Jimmy just told us to hear him out: there was more to come. He took a long drink from his pint, a drink he looked as if he needed, then resumed his tale.
You may find it hard to believe but the fortune-telling business wasnt mentioned by either of us by as much as a single word ever again until about two years back. Thats well over thirty years of silence - and that was all from Robs choice. I know youll probably find that strange but its perfectly true. For me it had always been a load of old codswallop and though I had more or less forgotten about it, Rob obviously hadnt.
One Sunday morning Rob called round at the house. Maggie had gone round to her sisters, the boys were out at a football match somewhere and I was alone in the house. I reckon that Rob might have known all that before he came. Rob was like a man high on something. He didnt do drugs as far as I ever knew and he certainly wasnt drunk. What was the matter with him soon became clear.
Hey, bro. Ive won. Ive beaten the gipsys curse. Ill live for years longer. Lets go and have a pint or three to celebrate.
The story Rob told me was so weird I found it hard to believe. He said hed been up to Blackpool the previous day. And it wasnt an impulse thing either. He said hed driven there specifically to look for the Gipsy woman who had told his fortune when he was a boy. Sounds barmy, doesnt it? I couldnt invent anything as daft as that. And it gets even dafter. That idiot brother of mine reckoned he found the very same booth in this arcade exactly where it had been way back. I know youre probably thinking what I did: but thats what he said.
But it wasnt the same woman though. Well it wouldnt be. The old girl Rob described to me yonks ago would have been well past her century by now, I reckon. Apparently these days somebody else is doing the same sort of thing but now shes Mystic Maggie. Obviously shed moved along with the times.
What Rob wanted was confirmation of the original reading hed been given, or something entirely different. Instead of playing it canny and paying up and seeing what the woman came up with as a new reading for a new customer, the idiot told her exactly why hed come and gave her all the details of what Leona had told him back in the seventies. As soon as she heard the name Leona she became very dismissive and said that anything shed been told by that old fraud was a load of nonsense and a pack of lies. She told Rob about the age-old feud between two Romany families; hers and Leonas, and if he wanted the real truth it could only come from her. Anything else was worthless. Rob came out of her booth a few quid lighter in his pocket but with a smile on his face. He now had a long, happy life to look forward to.
I ask you? Is it just me, or had he lost it? Apparently what convinced Rob she was on the up and up was the fact that she told him he was unmarried - a bloke living on his own. You wouldnt need a crystal ball to work that out. Anyone with an IQ in double figures just had to look at Rob to know by looking at him there was no woman in his life. You know how he looked untidy and always needing a haircut. Anyway, whatever she said seemed to cheer him up.
End of story youd think. Not quite. When Rob died last year the police came round that night. Theyd traced me as next of kin and I was needed to identify the body. I went along and I hope its something I hope none of you ever have to do. Not nice at all.
There was one especially weird thing. The police gave me whatever he had with him when he died and in his wallet he still had that piece of paper hed shown me thirty-odd years before. Same paper: same spelling mistake.
I went to the Inquest of course. They had a witness who saw it all. The way he told it was that he was hiding in a bus-shelter keeping out of the cloudburst. He said hed never seen rain as heavy. He saw a car going through all the water on the road like going through a ford he said throwing up bow waves as if it was a boat at sea. It splashed this bloke Rob that was almost like throwing buckets of water over him. Rob jumped back, slipped and skidded into this scaffolding that was against a building. He banged his head, very hard. The doctor said he must have died instantly. This witness also said something that I wont ever forget. What he said was that The rain probably caused it with water in the electrics but the traffic lights at the junction were going on and off like Blackpool Illuminations at the time.
So there you have it. Rob was forty-five when he died actually two days short of his forty-sixth birthday and you know what I said about the comments at the inquest with the water and the flashing lights. Was the old gipsy right or was it all coincidence? I dont know and probably never will. An explanation that makes sense? I cant give one. Perhaps one of you lot can.
We looked at each other and shook our heads. No, we couldnt. Not a single explanation between us. So I got a round in, Pete lit yet another cigarette, and we all stood around, deep in our separate thoughts.
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