No 162 - 2000
Early on was my field gun, cast in lead. It was painted brown and had proper wheels, two inches in diameter. I didn’t know lead was poison then, and often nibbled at its barrel as I brooded over my table battlefield. You could shoot a match by pulling down the breechplate against the spring and letting it hit the match. It would go right across the table. One day, I hoped, I’d use the right sort of match and it’d go off, and zoom, flaring, over the green plush cover.
Later on, in my peashooter and catapult years, I got a proper gem out of Tommy who lived over the old stables with his dirty mother and slept with a real Dick Turpin horse-pistol that had a broken butt. He sold me a blue-steel gangster waterpistol for sixpence. I kept it wrapped in an oily rag because it was prone to rust. A couple of years later my new pal Leonard sucked up petrol with it to make a flame-thrower. He tossed it into a pond just as it blew up. He was three years older than me and was strong and resourceful. I was flattered that he’d picked me, so much younger, for a friend.
After the drowning of my waterpistol Leonard got two Daisy air pistols. We’d smuggle them out to the scruffy countryside under our coats. A tube sprang out at the muzzle of a Daisy as it went off, wrecking the most careful aim. We could hit doors and windows with them but not much else. Sometimes they didn’t even break glass. We’d carry them through the sparse woodlands, stopping every now and then to shoot down a rabbit-hole, hoping that a wounded rabbit would run out and die at our feet. We couldn’t, I think, have managed to kill one openly. But rabbits were few and far between.
Blank cartridge pistols came into fashion and eventually I got one for Christmas. It was a nicely made miniature resembling Tommy’s proper weapon. It banged well. Since it was now 1940 this alarmed no end of old gents and ladies who thought the Germans might at last be invading. Of course banging was all it did, and the blanks, proper little cartridges without bullets, were expensive just for that. I got a bit bored with it and Leonard got bored with toy guns in general. But now everybody, I mean the lads at my school, started to say, ‘You can make ‘em into real pistols.’ You drilled out the steel barrel and sealed up the vent above the firing chamber. I told Leonard.
So one day we were in his mother’s cellar, where no-one else came. He was minutely examining my dinky little weapon, as if he was suddenly an expert, turning it over in the cobwebby light from the window. ‘John Shaw can do it,’ he said. This was a man in the joinery firm where he had just started work. ‘Yeh, he’ll do it.’ He raised his head and looked at me with his pale blue eyes to see how I was reacting. I was immediately excited.
Leonard had three grown-up sisters; fine girls with shoulderlength hair, big breasts, and long legs. When I was in the living-room over the cellar they were always lifting up their skirts to fiddle with their suspenders, showing lots of bare thigh and knicker. When I was in bed at home they appeared before me, taking off their knickers to let me stroke their warm bodies and feel between their legs.
Down in the cellar with Leonard I could hear them moving about in the living- room. I imagined I had x-ray eyes and could look up their dresses through the whitewash, plaster, floorboards, fake lino, and clip-rugs. They giggled and shrieked and chattered. I longed to know what they were saying.
Leonard and I spent Sunday afternoons in the cellar listening to Strauss waltzes on my dead cousin Marjorie’s gramophone. Each record blotted out the girl-noises from above for a minute or two.
We’d whirl, holding each others’ elbows, over the damp flagstones, among Vienna silks and roses – I was always dreamily embracing one or the other of his sisters. He wasn’t so well off for dream-partners; girls were as few and far between as those unseen rabbits. None lived nearby and we were always mournfully wondering how we could to get to know some of our own age. It was hopeless. Still, I had his sisters.
Leonard had an unusual face with pale skin and full lips and a bump on the bridge of his nose. His forehead and cheekbones were prominent. Years later I bought a plaster Haydon life mask of John Keats, and realised that Leonard had been almost a Keats’ double. My mother was dead set against our friendship. ‘He’s a lot too old for you,’ she said. I ignored her.
He was very lively and liked to study people and mimic their voices and walks. I loved this. Sometimes he was scary and almost cruel. He’d suddenly turn into a ghoul or a vampire and sway nearer and nearer with hanging arms through the cellar shadows. He’d keep it up so long that I’d fear something had actually taken him over. Something that made him spring forward and squash me in a bear-hug, moaning and pressing his teeth to my jugular, only turning back into a human when I was nearly fainting. I knew my mother was right. He was too old for me. I didn’t care.
He could be very embarrassing too; bringing up the subject of wanking. He tried and tried to get me to admit doing it. He did it in bed he said. Every night on the other side of the wall from his three longhaired, pretty-breasted sisters. I stonewalled until he tired and started to talk about his mother’s boyfriend, or his eldest sister’s boyfriend and about how he’d caught them doing it under the stairs. Or the time he had a bath with a girl and with his toothbrush he... And then she... I could have listened forever, but all too often he’d break off and rap out:
‘Don’t change the subject, you do do it, don’t you?’ Aw, Jesus... ‘No.’
‘How many times a day?’ No answer.
‘How many times a week, then?’ Oh, I wish he’d stop it.
‘How long’s it take you to?’ ‘Dunno, I don’t do it.’
‘It’s great, innit?’ I didn’t entirely trust him.
But now we were in the cellar and he was still looking at me with pale blue eyes. ‘John Shaw’ll do your gun, if I ask him right.’
He’d told me about John Shaw of the timber yard who spent his spare time scrounging for broken mechanical or electrical things that he’d try to mend. He lived on his own in a house full of such stuff. He was admired as a good machinist despite lopping off several of his fingertips with the big circular saws over the years.
‘How’ll he block that top hole, then?’ I asked. ‘With a short screw, sawed off level, I should think.’ It was plausible.
I could get some little ball bearing that fitted the barrel and pack them with cotton wool. It’d be good. Like a derringer. Maybe I could shoot Mick with it. Mick was a horrible greyhound who was always chasing me.
‘Yeh,’ said Leonard, still looking straight into my eyes. ‘I’ll get him to do it, but you’ve got to let me wank you first.’
‘No,’ I said,
‘You’ll like it,’ he said.
‘No I won’t ,’ I said. He pondered.
‘Tell you what, just let me do it till I count twenty. And then I’ll stop if you want.’
‘No, I don’t want to,’ I said.
‘And I’ll take you gun to work tomorrow and see John and go home with him and he’ll do it straightaway. And I’ll get you another box of blanks. He’s got plenty. And you can shoot Mike next time he attacks you.’ He’d read my thoughts. He knew this dog terrified me.
‘Go on,’ said Leonard, ‘Be a sport. Just till I count twenty, and then I’ll stop if you say.’
I knew he was thinking that by then that I wouldn’t want to stop. I looked at the sweet little nickelplated gun nestling in his hands. It was shiny and neat and potentially deadly. It was blackmail. I grew angry with him. ‘All right,’ I said. His eyes seemed to enlarge a bit, and he shyly looked away.
We went into a cubby-hole off the cellar and I undid my pants. His fingers were rough with work. ‘One... two... three... ‘ He went gently and lingeringly, but I didn’t care about that. I’d made up my mind. He slowly came up to twenty and stopped. ‘Shall I go on?’ He was panting a little. But he was wrong about me. He thought he knew me better than he actually did. ‘If you want,’ I said, casually. When he got to a hundred his arm must have been aching, and he stopped. I wondered if he was discouraged yet. He ought to have been because it was perfectly clear that nothing had happened and that nothing was going to happen. I was telling myself that I’d beaten him.
He let go of me and went over to the old stone sink and unfastened his trousers. It was interesting, but I stayed where I was, a few yards off in the cubby-hole, watching. He wasn’t all that good at it, I thought. But he was three years older than me and so it finally got very interesting indeed.
He turned on the tap and flushed the sink and buttoned up. I had already sorted myself out, and found I was very sore. But it was worth it. I’d beaten him at his own game and he’d still have to fix up my gun, unless he broke his promise.
The following night he came for me, late on. I went outside with him and he slipped the gun into my hand in the dark. ‘Here,’ he said, pushing a big pillbox at me. ‘There’s a hundred blanks. And there’s ball bearing in this bag. Old John likes me,’ he said. ‘We get on very well. Look at this.’ He led me over to a sports bike leaning on a blacked-out street lamp. He shone his torch over it. ‘He’s a good mate,’ he said. It was a bit rusty here and there, but looked fine otherwise. I mistily wondered why John Shaw had given it to him. Still, I’d got my gun fixed up.
It worked, too, and easily drove a ball-bearing through a quarter inch board from about six feet. But just as with the Daisy air pistols you couldn’t depend on hitting anything much further away. Maybe the barrel was too short. I carried it loaded in my jacket pocket for months, but I never shot Mick the greyhound with it because he got distemper and mooched about listlessly and then vanished for ever. We fired it down rabbit holes with no more success than with the air pistols.
Leonard and I went on talking about girls without ever getting to know any, but he gave up on autoeroticism, at least with me. He began to spend a lot of time at John Shaw’s and we slowly drifted apart. I played my gramophone to myself in the front room at home, waltzing round and round the mahogany table with princesses in my arms. Sometimes I’d see Leonard in the street and we’d exchange hellos. I lost sight of his sisters and his mother altogether. Three years later he was called up with the other local eighteen-year-olds. Nearly all went into the county infantry regiment and got drafted to Burma to fight the Japs. Soon after I heard his family had moved away.
One day I met George Sillito at the end of our road. He had been conscripted with Leonard. The war was still going on, and I was surprised to see him in civvies. He seemed to want to talk a bit, although I didn’t really know him. In fact, most people had thought him slightly odd, if not actually weak-minded. He was a heavy-featured, clumsy bloke with a sort of clogging to his tongue. I noticed that the Army hadn’t cured him of splaying out his feet like a penguin. He’d got a medical discharge.
‘Wounded in the legs in Burma. Surprised by the Japs, over-run in our bivouac,’ he said. ‘Most of us didn’t get out.’ He stopped speaking for a second or two. Then went on, ‘Like Len Anson. You know he was in my platoon? Didn’t he used to be a pal of yours?’ ‘Yes, he did, for a while,’ I said.
George didn’t make a meal of it. Len had dived into an old deserted dugout that swarmed with rats. The Japs winkled him out. Clumsy George Sillito, hidden in the vegetation, shot through the ankles, watched. ‘The flame-thrower went boom, and Len jumped out. He was running all on fire along with burning rats,’ he said, ‘till he fell down. I crawled away, very slow, for miles and miles, till I got clear.’ ‘Poor old Leonard,’ I said. I couldn’t think of him as Len. ‘He was a nice bloke,’ said George.
It was true, on the whole, and we’d had a lot of fun together. No doubt we could have had much more. If I’d been that way inclined.
I sometimes wonder if I was a bit mean over that business with the gun. We’d been friends for a long time and I cheated him. In a way. Maybe I was justified. But even after all these years I’m not sure. Friendship has limits. But it’s always difficult to know where they are.
Shortly after this story was accepted for publication, Ted Burford died. His good friend Ron Taylor writes: Ted Burford died on June 14, 2000, two days after an unexpected heart attack. He was 74. Ted will be remembered by many in the London literary scene for his friendliness and urbane wit, as well as for his stories and poems - which won their share of recognition and prizes. For nine years in the 70s Ted edited, together with Geoffrey Adkins (who also died of a heart attack, in 1997) the poetry magazine Limestone. In the 90s this was reinvented by Ted as a lively web magazine, which as the close friend of both poets I have inherited, while feeling all the more keenly their double loss.
- 10th Muse
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- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
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- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
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- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Review, The
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- Second Aeon
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- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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