George vowed not to be grumpy today. He had something to look forward to. But his good mood only lasted till he reached the breakfast table. ‘Feel like a foreigner in my own bloody country,’ he groaned into the Mail on Sunday. He looked to the bust of Queen Victoria on the mantelpiece and felt better.
‘What time does the station open, dear?’ asked his wife Audrey, bringing him a bacon sandwich and herself a mango.
George scowled at her choice. ‘You’re not used to that stuff, love. It might give you the runs.’
A statuesque black man wearing only boxer shorts passed through the room.
‘Who the bloody hell was that?’ whispered George, cowering in his seat.
‘Must be a… friend of Sarah’s,’ said Audrey, nibbling a spoonful of mango. ‘Excuse me?’ she called after the man. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Well I wish she wouldn’t treat this house like some bordello,’ said George.
‘Give her a break, dear. He might be her boyfriend. Could be good for her after all she’s been through.’
‘Yes yes, that’s probably what he’s been telling her too.’ George shook his head. ‘But why doesn’t she go for someone less…’
Their son Tim ambled in, yawning and fuzzy-haired. He lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
‘Uh-oh,’ said George. ‘The great scholar graces us with his presence.’
Audrey raised her eyebrows to her husband. ‘Dear, when did you say the station opened?’
‘Fancy coming to see some real history, son?’ said George.
Tim brought a mango to the table and sat down. ‘You mean unlike that fake stuff I’m doing my degree in?’
George rolled his eyes. ‘Postcolonial postmodern post-this and post-that. Whatever happened to good hard facts? Did you know, son, that the railway extends five hundred metres from Clifton to almost next door to this very house? Isn’t that fascinating?’
‘Yeah, Dad, fascinating.’
‘Would anyone like a cup of tea?’ asked Audrey with a sudden smile.
George got awkwardly to his feet. ‘Well I’d best be off.’
‘How is uni, love?’ asked Audrey of her son.
‘Costing me most of my pension,’ said George, picking up his National Trust walking stick.
‘It’s fine, Mum,’ said Tim.
‘I saw Sarah’s… friend earlier,’ said Audrey, ‘and, well, wondered if you’d got yourself a girlfriend yet?’
Tim looked away.
Everyone fell silent as the black man passed through the room again. For a brief moment Tim and the black man made eye contact.
George didn’t know what to make of this. He patted Victoria’s crown for reassurance.
The steep walk up Hinton Lane was tiring. George stopped halfway to take a painkiller for his arthritis. When he reached the Top Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway, his heart was pounding more from excitement than from the trek. A bearded guide spoke slowly to a queue of Chinese tourists. George joined it, looking at his watch with impatience.
Once inside, he peered through the gloom into musty corridors and rubble-filled offices, at the stained brickwork of the auditorium and the grazed iron of the tracks. The guide rejoiced in the past. The world’s only four-track funicular railway created by Victorian sweat. A vital artery of local life surging through the cliffs. In its heyday, whisking thousands between chic Clifton and the bustle of the river. By 1940, defending the realm with an air raid shelter and emergency radio unit. George flushed with pride. He wanted to tell a Chinese tourist how great it was to be a Brit and a Bristolian.
The queue shuffled into the pump room. This had once housed the ‘water balance’ machinery that had been the driving force of the railway. On the ground George noticed a loose rock with a weird blue glow to it. He waited for the queue to move out and placed the rock in his breast pocket. It felt warm and stirring against his heart. He thought about the railway some more. It came from a golden age when the word ‘British’ was synonymous with strength, excellence, hard work. What an age to have lived through.
On the way home, the pain in George’s leg returned. But he didn’t stop for another painkiller. He lifted his walking stick, stiffened his back and marched.
Nearing Hotwell Road, he felt increasingly bewildered. He frowned at the cars whizzing past, at an aeroplane in the sky, at a teenager on a mobile phone. ‘Egad,’ he muttered to himself.
He entered the house and bowed to the bust of Victoria. Audrey was sitting at the table reading. ‘How was the railway station, dear?’
George scrutinised her book. ‘By Jove, wife, what is that?’
‘A book authored by a… female?’ He let out a stentorian laugh. ‘The very notion is absurd. The fairer sex is congenitally incapable of any act of philological composition. That is empirically proven. This must be a wheeze of some variety, and there is no room for japery in this house. I shall do you the honour of disposing of it forthwith.’ George snatched it with forefinger and thumb and tossed it in the bin.
‘But I love Danielle Steel!’ peeped Audrey, putting her fist to her mouth.
Music sounded from the student flat next door.
George put his fingers in his ears. ‘That recalls some godless racket from the colonies, the kind of egregious din the martial races tortured us with back in Lahore, ‘82.’
‘Are you feeling all right, George?’ asked Audrey. ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’
Tim appeared at the front door. He was wearing cycling gloves. ‘Hi Dad.’
‘Dad?’ barked George. ‘Dad? Henceforth you shall address me as ‘father’ or ‘sir’, confound you! Respect for one’s paterfamilias is essential to a young man’s hardihood and discipline, lest he degenerate into some idle jollux, rummy old cove, or worse – Yorkshireman.’
Tim removed his glasses. ‘Are you playing some sort of joke on us? It’s not April Fool’s Day is it?’
‘No dear,’ said Audrey.
‘I am not, at any rate, a ludibrious fellow,’ said George.
Tim looked hopefully to his mother. Audrey got up without looking at either man. ‘George, if you could stop all this messing about, there’s something Tim would like to tell you.’
George approached his son with a self-assured nod. ‘Is this so, boy? I trust it is good, sturdy news, as you would not trouble a gentleman of my wit and standing with a mere trifle. Are you going up to Cambridge to read Mods and Greats or Divinity perchance?’
‘No Dad, I’m already at UWE, remember?’
‘Or perhaps you have enlisted with the Royal Engineers to help annex the Dark Continent for Queen and country? Come on, boy, spit it out.’
Tim was about to when Sarah entered. Her dreadlocks bounced against her camouflage vest. ‘What’s all this hassle about? I can hear you all from my room.’
‘Sarah, child-’ began George.
‘What do you mean ‘child’? I’m twenty-four years old.’
‘Do not ejaculate in such a discourteous fashion, child.’
Sarah sniggered. ‘Why are you talking like some olden days person? Have you been drinking?’
Audrey spoke up. ‘Sarah, dear, you know your dad hasn’t touched the stuff for years.’
‘Well maybe he went back to it,’ hissed Sarah. ‘They say retirement is boring.’
George tightened his grip on the walking stick. ‘Blast your slanders, child! Do not forget that I have long been a stalwart of the temperance movement.’
‘But seriously, Dad, have you fucking flipped?’
‘Why, your mouth is like the Randall Road Sewer and your mien that of some velvet-tipping harlot of ill fame! On the contrary, child, it would seem that you are suffering from feminine hysteria. Melancholia too, perhaps. I advise laudanum or heathen tinctures from the Orient, but failing that, a restorative spell in Bedlam. There is one Dr Featheringstone based therein whose progressive methodologies involving the Padded Rotary Chair come highly recommended by both The Lancet and the governor of Newgate Prison.’
‘What are you trying to say, Dad? Are you talking about my depression?’
‘Don’t say horrid things to Sarah, dear,’ said Audrey.
George’s eyes zipped about in shock. He raised his stick at each family member in turn. Tim started hyperventilating. Audrey took a step back. Sarah stayed where she was.
‘What is this?’ said George. ‘Mutiny? Mine own blood going socialist on me, possessed by frightful hobgoblins? Do you want me to thrash the lot of you? Gluttons for punishment all, eh?’
‘Wanker,’ said Sarah under her breath.
‘Please, dear,’ squeaked Audrey. ‘Put your stick down, this is getting out of hand. And Tim really does have something to tell you. It’s very important.’
Tim was bright red, his breath still escaping him.
‘Well hurry and enunciate, boy! And do not bore me with trivia.’
Tim caught his breath and took it in deep. He squared up to his dad, eyeball to eyeball. ‘How about this for trivia, Dad? I’m gay. Got that? I’m gay.’ He turned to his sister and mother and shouted with the hysteria of relief. ‘I’m gay! I’m gay!’
Audrey raised her eyebrows and smiled faintly. Sarah grinned with pride. ‘At last, little brother, standing up for yourself!’
George frowned. ‘So you declare that you are happy. There is nothing so queer about that-’
Tim screamed in his dad’s ear. ‘I’m homosexual! Got that? A bugger! I spent all night with my black boyfriend’s penis up my arse and I loved it and there’s nothing you can do about it ‘cos I’m free and you don’t rule my life!’ George opened his mouth to speak, but Tim’s rant wasn’t over. ‘And I don’t know what all this Victorian bollocks is about, but if you ever bothered to read something other than pub quiz primers you’d know how fucking miserable that period was, how this country exploited half the world, how women and children were treated like animals, how hypocrisy was elevated to an art form, and, and, and…’
With his free hand, George brandished the rock from his pocket. His family gasped at its blue glow. ‘Backgammon player!’ George howled and swung the rock down towards Tim’s head. Tim dodged and snatched the rock.
‘Give that back, you opium-addled mandrake!’ shouted George.
‘What the hell is this?’ said Tim, turning the rock over in his gloves, staring at its blueness.
George whacked Tim on the backside with the walking stick. ‘Take that for demurring the authority of your patriarch!’
‘Right, I’m calling the police,’ said Sarah.
‘You’re mental!’ shouted Tim at his dad. He ran out the door, down the steps and into Hotwell Road. George gave chase with shrieks of ‘Churl! Hobbledehoy! Workshy affiliate of the back-stair classes!’ Neighbours rushed to doors and windows.
Tim dropped the rock onto the pavement and jumped up and down on it. By the time George was a walking stick-length away, the rock had turned to dust, its blue glow gone.
George collapsed, eyes rolling as he fell.
Some hours later, George awoke in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. His family flanked the bed, cheeks sore from tears.
Audrey fell upon her husband, hugging him for dear life. ‘Oh George, you’re awake, you’re all right! The doctor thought you’d gone into a coma.’
‘Well I feel all right,’ said George. ‘Bit groggy. How did I get here?’
‘Do you remember what happened before you blacked out?’ asked Tim, touching the spot where his dad had hit him.
‘No, son. I was in the station and I took this rock as a souvenir. Then… well, nothing.’
The doctor came in to check George’s pulse and blood pressure. The doctor asked some questions about where he lived and what year it was. George answered them correctly and was free to go.
Back at the house, his family explained what had happened, the things he’d said and done. ‘You were, like, possessed, Dad,’ said Sarah.
George didn’t believe them. This was a wind-up. But then the police visited and confirmed his odd behaviour. They said that the matter was now in Tim’s hands; he could press charges for assault if he wanted. Tim chose not to. George felt an incredible sense of shame which he couldn’t shake off. He was also scared for his health; ranting and raving and collapsing in the street wasn’t healthy. Not for a man of advancing years.
He admitted all this to Audrey the next morning at breakfast.
‘Perhaps you need to make some life changes, dear,’ she suggested. She brought him a mango instead of a bacon sandwich. He enjoyed it. That surprised him.
‘I was wondering, dear,’ said Audrey. ‘We should invite Tim’s friend Deon to dinner at the weekend.’
George began to scowl, but thought again. ‘All right, we’ll… we’ll give that a try.’
Tim rushed into the room and sat down. He was shaking. ‘We don’t know how that rock works! What if I’ve been… infected by it? I held it in my hands.’
Audrey touched his shoulder. ‘But you smashed the silly thing up, dear. And you were wearing gloves. I’m sure they would protect you.’
‘I don’t know. I should avoid anything Victorian for a while. Might trigger a Dad moment. No costume dramas, no flowery wallpaper, nothing designed by “the Little Giant”.’
‘That’ll be hard in Bristol, dear.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ said George. ‘This’ll do us both good.’ He picked up the bust of Queen Victoria and took it out to the bin next to the sealed Bottom Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway.
First published in Hidden Bristol (Tangent Books), 2011.