FROM THE BOOK.
It is in one way fortunate that life tends to develop gradually. If anyone had told me as a kid on our council estate in Hollybank Road that in years to come I would be working with my current heroes, I think I would have fallen over!
And talking of falling over… one New Years Eve at the Owen’s house, I had a huge fall over! Jean and Nev Owen lived in Miall Road, Hall Green, Birmingham. They had a son, Pete, who was a similar age and was a mate of my brother Bob. They were all involved in the Scouts and the Owens had LEGENDARY New Years Eve parties for years. Nev and Jean were the sort of adults every kid should be exposed to and they remain one of the reasons I still have such a soft spot for the Scout Association. Nev and Jean seemed hugely old to me, as all adults do to kids, but I guess they were in their forties. I didn’t see that much of them, but I liked Nev and his whole demeanour. He was safe and wise. He had a secure, contained minimal way; a constant pipe and tobacco burned jumper who never interfered but was a boy’s man with a ready ear and a practical approach. And his lovely wife Jean: flame haired, kindly, intelligent, relentlessly positive, with a constant smile and cup a of tea.
Their parties were legendary because of those they invited. There was a real mix of ages, types and backgrounds. I was quite upset when the Owens eventually stopped having them. In fact, as I'm on the Owen's, I might as well regale you with the tale of how I first got accidentally drunk! And fell over. Honest, it was an accident! Next door to the Owen's lived the Stones. They were a really nice family and their youngest lad, Dougie, was a couple of years younger than me. I'd known him since he was about 10. We were never very close mates, because at that age two years makes a difference. It would have done my 12 year old cool no good at all to be seen hanging out with a ten year old! But I liked Doug. He was a bit of a lad and often got into ‘scrapes’! But he was good natured, with a ready smile and was always prepared to do anything for a laugh - and often got into trouble with the 'grown-ups' for his pranks. He was blonde and athletic looking and as a small child had some trouble with his knee joints, which left him with a slight swagger when he walked. The swagger - a slight one, mind - matched his personality perfectly. I also had a kiddie crush on his older sister, Sue, who at the time was going out with Pete Owen. I would gaze on her from afar, or quite near, actually, as she tended to hang around scouty activities, nursing my terrible secret. Eventually I told Dougie. He was the only person I ever unburdened my secret to. (Until now! Sorry Sue. But if you read this, I just want you to know I recovered okay!) I don't think I was the only older friend who had a crush on his sister, but Dougie was very cool about the whole affair. I think he was quite proud his sister was attracting such unrequited and pure attention from a boy older than himself, and at the same time amused that anyone could be attracted to anything as 'sexless' as a sister! I used to quiz him about her ... what she liked and disliked, what TV programmes she watched. All innocent stuff that tends to become hugely important when nature decides it's time to turn a boy into a man and throws a few hormones into the system to help things along! During our occasional talks, usually about Sue, but sometimes about fishing as well, (for some reason that now escapes me!) I was struck how good a listener and conversationalist Dougie was. It was a side he didn't show too often, especially with me being older. If he was still here today, I get the feeling we would have stayed in touch and maybe been friends, as adulthood eroded the difference in our ages. However, I'll never know now. But back to New Years Eve.
Dougie's dad, Dennis, was always out for a good time. I think I was 13 or 14 when Dennis introduced the idea of 'first footing'. A Scottish tradition, I think, but I had never heard of it. It involved someone dark rushing in the front door holding a piece of coal, shouting, "New Year's in", knocking back the best drink in the house in one gulp, then leaving via the back door. It was supposed to bring good luck to the household for the next 12 months, but I reckon it was a clever rumour started by dark people in Scotland, who obviously never have to buy a drink on December 31st! Whether this is the correct way of doing it, I have no idea, but I was selected to be the first footer because of my dark hair. We also had a bit of trouble with the coal, so a bit of coke was found instead. I duly did my first footing at the Owens, knocking back a can of Shandy, which was quite enough for me at the time. Then Dennis, full of liquid bon homie, suggested that Dougie should take me next door to their house so I could do the same and ensure 12 good months for the Stone household. So the two of us went next door to the empty house. Doug opened his front door and I rushed in and delivered my lines like an old pro. Then we hit a problem. What was the best drink in the house? Me and Dougie looked at each other, perplexed.
"Hang on", said Doug, "I'll go and ask my Dad."
He ran out and returned a few moments later.
"Dad said look in the bar and help ourselves. Anything will do."
We looked at the corner bar in the front room. (Yep. It was the 1970’s!)
"Have you got any shandy, Doug?" I asked.
"No. Dad said there isn't any shandy but we should find something
"What about a coke then? It's not quite right, but I'm sure the luck will still work."
We went over to the bar and rummaged for a coke. There was none.
"Dad said we'd find something," said Doug. "He said all these drinks were the best type."
There was an edge of desperation creeping into Doug's voice. Obviously I didn't want to upset their luck, so we started undoing and uncorking the bottles positioned at the top of the bar. We smelt each one in turn, generally turning our noses up at the smell.
"What about a glass of milk or something, Doug."
Dougie looked horrified.
"No, it has to be the best drink in the house. Milk is no good. It won't work."
We persevered until finally we found something with a foreign name that didn't smell too bad. In fact it smelt quite nice. It was sweet. I took a swig from the bottle (Mom wasn't around!) and it tasted really good.
"This is okay, Doug. We'll use this one."
"Right," said Dougie. "You go out and do your bit again and I'll pour the drink."
So out I went, knocked on the door, ran in again, shouted "New Year's in" and took a glass out of Dougie's hand. It was a half pint glass, full of dark brown liquid.
"Blimey, Doug, a half pint's a bit much isn't it?"
"That's what Aunty Jean gave you next door."
"Yes", I protested, "but that was shandy."
"We've got to do it the same to get the good luck. Go on, down in one. It can't be too strong anyway. It tastes like pop."
"Yeah, true", I said, and promptly gulped down the half pint. "Okay", said Dougie, "now out the back door."
I ran to the back door and out into the night. Dougie locked up after me.
As I walked round the side of the house to wait for Dougie before we returned to the Owen’s party, I noticed the cold air was having a strange effect on me. There was a slight buzzing in my ears. Then, uncannily, my legs seemed to feel a little, well, out of control. I reached Dougie's front door just as he was coming out.
"Come on then, Nick. That's the good luck bit done. We'll get back to the party."
He bounded off and I tried to follow. But for some strange reason my legs didn't seem to want to do what I wanted them to. And I noticed that Dougie seemed to be moving in two directions at the same time. Or were there two Dougies? This was weird. I called to Dougie's retreating back.
"Doug. H ... hang on a minute."
Dougie ran back over to me.
"What is it?"
"I don't know, Doug. I feel a bit strange." At which point, my legs gave way completely and I fell onto him.
"Bloody 'ell Nick, what's wrong?" Dougie grunted as he tried to hold my weight.
"I ... I don't know. I feel all strange and light and buzzy."
"Buzzy? Eh? Buzzy? Oh, blimey. Hang on, I'll get me dad."
With not a little effort Dougie lowered me gently to the ground and ran off next door to the Owens. I sat there, propped up against the Stone's front door. I could feel the cold tarmac through my jeans, but apart from that and the buzzing in my ears, I didn't feel too bad. I decided it was time to whistle a song, but for some reason my lips wouldn't make the right shape. What happened after that is a bit of a blur, but I do remember Dennis Stone coming back with my Dad, Nev Owen and Dennis Stone. And my Dad being a little concerned that his youngest son seemed unable to stand. I think the adults quite quickly realised what had happened, because I distinctly remember being carried into the Stone's house and Dougie pointing at a bottle and saying,
"That bottle. That was the one."
Dennis looked at Dougie.
"Quantro! You gave the boy a half pint of Quantro?"
I don't remember Dougie's answer, but Nev took his pipe out of his mouth, laughed and shook his head. I decided at this point the whole affair was hilarious too and started laughing uncontrollably. Everyone looked at me.
“Dad, Nev,” I slurred, "Guess what Dougie did. He Quantro'd me! I've been Quantro'd!"
I tried to rise, but the legs were still doing their own thing. My laughter, however, was infectious, and soon we were all at it. Dad leaned down.
"Nick. You idiot."
Dad helped me to my feet and led me, staggering, back to the Owens. I think I ruined Mom and Dad's night somewhat, but I can't say I remember. Nev and Jean Owen were, as always, perfect hosts. And strangely, I don't remember being physically sick, although I spent a long time in bed the following day... or two! There were no recriminations, though. Neither Dougie or I got into trouble over it. Like I say, it was an accident and a more innocent age.
Very sadly this story does not have a very happy ending though, due to another accident. A few years later, when he was 17, Dougie had an argument with a girlfriend. He jumped on a motorbike and in something of a rage, lost control over a bridge in Earlswood and crashed. He was killed instantly. 17 years old. The church for his funeral was packed to capacity. There were, literally, coach loads of people who came to pay their last respects to Doug. I came up from London for it. It was the first time since I was a kid that I wept in public. A completely unexpected, immense wave of violent sorrow suddenly overtook me and I couldn't control myself. But I didn't have to worry. I wasn't the only adult crying. I mentioned Dougie to my brother, Bob and his wife, Mel, last night. Dougie died at least 15 years ago, but such was his personality people still feel his loss. Mel dropped something of a bombshell, bearing in mind what I've just told you. I had forgotten, but Mel told me that Dougie had been at a party before his fatal accident. It was a New Year's Eve Party. On the 7th anniversary of me collapsing into Dougie's arms after our first footing episode, Dougie had died. Mel told me this last night and I said nothing, but it had a horrible resonance. The only thing I can say is that now you know a bit about Dougie Stone. I'm glad you do. He will be forever a good kid.
But that was all to come. The year before, while Dougie was still enjoying the New Years Eve party at the Owen's and a full 12 months before he was to get me drunk, I was standing outside the house while the party raged inside. I looked up at the sky. I remember it very well. It was a clear night and the stars looked beautiful. I was 13 and I made a pledge with myself that I must do the same thing again, stand outside and look at the stars on New Years Eve, when I was 40, God willing I was still here. 40 seemed so remote - a whole lifetime away and full of infinite possibilities and excitement. The 40 year old me should remember the 13 year old me. Remember the boy I was. I was fascinated at the thought of being so old! What would I be doing? Where would I be? I was really going to enjoy life. I was looking forward to whatever fortune would throw at me. It was a good, clear, pure feeling. About 9 months later fortune would throw an incident at me that sullied the pureness of this feeling for many years to come, but I don't feel I can say any more about that here. Some things are best forgotten. All I will say is that at 13 I promised my 13 year old self that on the New Years Eve of my 40th year I would try and remember how things were then - how I was feeling. It is rather spooky and purely coincidental that A Ghost of A Chance has prompted me to write this journal now. Had it not been for this, I may well have forgotten my 13 year old pledge. The whole Ghost process, writing a part for a boy, has been a nostalgia trip for me, a process of looking back and, on occasion, remembering the boy I was. Well, I’m now 39. So, I've got a date with myself this New Years Eve!
Posted by Nick Hennegan. Posted In : Nick Hennegan