I was so surprised by all the very nice comments I had yesterday after I upload an aborted project from 2011 that I’m putting up chapter two. I’m amazed that anyone would want to read this but – never one to turn down the chance of a bit of shameless self-promotion – here are links to my latest kids book ‘Johnny Nothing’ and some other stuff contained swear words that is probably not for kids.
1964 – That Boy
I’ll always remember 1964 as a momentous year in which so much happened that it is difficult to know where to start. First there was sadness: sadness that was felt the world over when the American president was shot and killed by an assassin. Although this had happened late in 1963 it seemed to me that the world was in mourning for months and months afterwards. President Kennedy had been young and very handsome, too handsome to be a president. He had been sitting in a car with his wife when he had been shot. Everybody you met was talking about it, even the teachers at school. Maisa and me even saw Mr Trenchard, our rather strict and gruff geography teacher, start to cry in the classroom. This made some of the boys laugh and some of the girls cry.
Our house became a centre of mourning, with everyone from the street gathering around our TV to watch the news reports. My mother cried, too, and so did Auntie Florie, who was really my great grandmother but refused to be called that by anybody. Since the arrival of the TV Auntie Florie had more or less moved into our house. Although she actually lived in a small house just across the street from us she spent most of her time sitting in our living room watching anything that happened to be on the television. She was a nice old lady, and kind to me, but she had the annoying habit of providing a running commentary on everything that was happening on the television. “Oh look,” he’s being chased by that car,” she would say in her broad Nelson accent if she was watching an American crime thriller. Or “Oh look, the piano’s gone down the steps again!” she would say if she was watching Laurel and Hardy. Whenever she did this I would start giggling and mum would shout at me to stop.
As well as sadness there was excitement: excitement at seeing my boys conquer America. In February 1964 the Fab Four, as the press called them, had flown to America to be met with hysteria. When their aeroplane touched down there were thousands of screaming teenage girls waiting for them. Later, they had appeared on American TV and had gone down a storm. They were more famous than it was possible to imagine. Everyone was calling it ‘Beatlemania’.
By this time I was officially The Beatles’ Number Two Fan. Maisa was still Number One, of course. Although I was catching her up fast, she still had more pictures of them than me but unlike me, she was allowed to stick them on her bedroom wall. On Maisa’s urging, I had saved up my pocket money and joined The Beatles Fan Club. Every month I would receive a newsletter written by the Beatles themselves and at Christmas I received a floppy record that contained a message to their fans. It made me feel really special, like the boys were talking just to me. I even managed to persuade my mum to buy a few of their singles, although I had nothing to play them on. Because John was already taken by Maisa, my favourite Beatle was George. He was very handsome and always had a serious look on his face. He played lead guitar in the group and was very good at playing, it seemed to me he was the best guitar player in the whole world. I didn’t want to marry him, although deep down I thought that would have been nice, but he did make my heart beat a little faster whenever I looked at a picture of him.
Maisa and I were very proud of the Beatles’ success but were also a little jealous. We were jealous because there were only four of them and now they were so famous that every girl in the world seemed to want a piece of them. There was only so much to go round and we felt that we had more right than anybody else to the Beatles because we had discovered them first. It wasn’t so long ago that the grown-ups in our living room were shaking their heads and tutting in disgust and now it seemed that everyone wanted to be like the Beatles. The first sign of this was when some of the older boys in our school began to grow their hair. Prior to this the long established school hairstyle for boys was called a crewcut. This consisted of wearing the hair at the top of the head very short and having the hair at the back of the neck shaven away. It wasn’t a very flattering style but none of the boys seemed to mind too much. But now some of the boys grew their hair so long that they were called in to see the headmaster and ordered to cut it off or face detention or the cane.
Even worse, even more embarrassing was the fact that my father was now also growing his hair a little longer. “A singer’s got to keep up with the times…” he would say as he left the evenings to go out and sing in the clubs. He had even changed how he dressed. Instead of his smart black suit he was now dressing a little shabbier. Mum laughed at this and said he should stop trying to look like “mutton dressed as lamb…” But Maisa had a different opinion. “He looks gear,” she would say, which was a new word that had been invented by the Beatles. It meant ‘good’.
Maisa and I were now officially best friends. In fact, she is probably the first and last best friend that I have ever had. I was an only child and she became the sister I secretly always wanted. Slowly but surely we began to spend as much time as possible together and became privy to one another’s closest secrets. I learned that in Pakistan it was the custom for parents to choose a husband for their daughters. Unsurprisingly, Maisa’s parents had not in fact chosen Beatle John as a suitable candidate. Instead they had selected another Pakistani whose name was Raj Patel. Maisa showed me a photograph of him one day and I was a little shocked to discover that he was more than ten years older than her and worked in a bank. Not only that, he had no hair! Maisa crinkled her nose up in disgust as she looked at the small black and white image. “He’s an idiot,” she said. “I’m going to marry John.”
Having Maisa as a best friend was a double-edged sword. On the one hand she showed me a world that was completely new to me, she turned my life from black and white into full colour. And she she gave me the Beatles, without whom I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today. On the other hand it wasn’t easy being Maisa’s friend. One day we were walking to school and I heard a sound behind us. Following closely was a group of more than a dozen boy and girls. They were laughing at us and chanting ‘Paki! Paki! Paki!” Maisa ignored them but I turned around to face them. “Why are you doing this?” I asked.
One of the group, whom I recognised as Helen Walker, the girl that I had fought with, came forward towards me until her nose was almost touching mine. “Shut your cake hole Paki lover,” she smirked.
“You shut up!” cried Maisa, suddenly beside me, her fist raised and ready.
It was at that point that I discovered a had a talent that I had not been aware of. I could run. And so could Maisa. And we ran, ran as fast as we could away from this gang of bullies. From that point on we would run a lot. And it was lucky for us that we were generally much faster than those who were chasing us. Every day we would run – from the gang of boys and girls who waited for Maisa and me near the school gates. At break times. At dinner times. And in the afternoons, when we would run all the way home. We didn’t really mind running. In fact, we rather liked it. We liked it because we had each other.
Once I asked Maisa about the word ‘Paki’. “Why do they call you that?” I said.
“I don’t know,” replied Maisa, “I only heard that word when I came to England. It’s not a very nice word but it’s just a word. It doesn’t hurt me.”
Deep down, however, I knew that it did.
Yet another momentous event occurred in July of that year. For the first time ever I was allowed to go to the cinema without my parents. In those days were called it ‘the pictures’ and I was luck enough to have already been to see quite a few films. My mother had taken me to see The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins and Bambi but on those occasions she had sat beside me and held my hand. Now, after pestering my parents for weeks and weeks, I was given permission to go and see the Beatles’ first film with Maisa. It was called ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. My mother had been against us going and it was only when Mrs. Ahmed herself had knocked on our front door and asked in person that she finally grudgingly relented. Mrs. Ahmed took us on the bus to the small cinema in Nelson town centre. The queues outside the cinema stretched for miles and we had to wait patiently for more than two hours before we finally got a seat. As the lights dimmed we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of teenage girls, most of whom were wearing Beatles badges and Beatles scarves. The film was in black and white and opened with the Beatles running through the streets being chased by hundreds of fans. But as far as what the story was about we had no idea because as soon as the film started every girl in the cinema began to scream frantically, some were even crying. After a couple of moments of this Maisa and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Then we, too, began to scream. We screamed for the whole of the film, we screamed until our voices grew hoarse and we could scream no more. We screamed for John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The day after the film neither of us could hardly speak and after the excitement of seeing the boys on the silver screen it was a terrible anti-climax to be at school, dressed in our PE kits and out on the muddy running track. Because we ran everywhere together all the time, Maisa and I were soon far ahead of the rest of our class. It was the 800 metres – two laps around the playing field – and we even had the luxury of being able to slow down a little towards the end of the race. I won easily and Maisa was second, with other classmates trailing miles behind us.
After the race Mrs. Roberts, the PE teacher, came up to us. Mrs. Roberts was a fearsome woman with sandy grey hair and a body like a walrus. She never smiled. All she did was bellow out orders and occasionally administer a whack with the back of her hand to anybody she thought wasn’t trying hard enough. Readying ourselves for obligatory telling off we were surprised when Mrs Roberts actually smiled at us. “That was very good, girls” she said, leaving us literally gobsmacked at receiving a compliment from this fearsome dragon. “But you spoiled it by slowing down at the end. Next time I want you to run as fast as you can until you finish the race.”
A week later we did as we were told, too scared to risk disappointing Mrs. Roberts. This time Maisa came in first with me close behind her. The rest of the class were a long, long way behind. Again Mrs Roberts came up to us afterwards as we caught our breath. Once more she was smiling. “That was excellent, the both of you,” she said. “I’m going to be writing to your parents about this.”
At first we thought that we must have done something wrong. When a parent of one of the pupils of Stoneyholme School received a letter from a teacher it was never a good thing. Usually, it was to call the parent in to school because their child had been exceptionally naughty. We knew, however, that we had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the both of us spent a couple of sleepless nights waiting for out letter to arrive. Mine arrived on the following Saturday morning and my father opened it. “It’s from the school,” he said, looking over at me as I ate my cornflakes. “What have you done, Sofia?”
He read the letter in silence for a few moments and then looked over at me again. His face showed no emotion. Then he handed it over to my mother, who also read it in silence. By the time she had finished reading the letter a smile was on her face. Then she passed it to me. I still have that letter. This is what it said:
Dear Mr Probert
I teach Physical Education in year four. Your daughter, Sofia, is showing unusual promise at running. With your permission I would like Sofia to take extra running lessons with me after school. This will be free of charge. I believe that with extra tuition Sofia might well be capable of competing at a much higher level.
If you agree to my proposal Sofia will need running shoes and kit.
I await your reply,
Maisa’s letter was identical and that’s how it all began. That was how Maisa I began running and running and running. But more of that later.
There were also other letters to think about. Because in that year Maisa and I began writing letters to the Beatles. It was Maisa’s idea. She said if she was going to marry John then it would be a good idea if he first knew who she was. And so, once a month, she would write a letter to her future husband asking how he was, what he was doing, how he was feeling. She suggested that I do the same with George and we would see who got a reply. I did as she she said but there was one big problem – the meagre pocket money that my parents gave to me could barely cover the cost of my subscription to the Beatles Fan Club. I needed to find a means of making some more money.
Maisa didn’t have the same problem. Every night when she came home from school she served in her parents’ shop for a couple of hours. She enjoyed doing this and her parents even paid her a small wage that was more than enough to fund her passion for the Beatles. Maisa suggested that her parents might let me come and help in the shop and also pay me a wage and when we asked them they seemed quite pleased about it. They didn’t really need another shop assistant but they were glad that Maisa had a friend to keep her company. Before I could begin work, however, I needed my parents’ permission.
“You must be out of your tiny mind,” said my mother, when I nervously broached the subject with her. “You’re not working in that Paki shop!”
Everyone in our neighbourhood now called it the ‘Paki shop’. And it was disturbing to me because nobody seemed to realise how insulting this was. Everyone, that is, except my father.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said, “The girl’s got to learn to make a living – and don’t call it the Paki shop!”
“Well it is the Paki shop, and think what the neighbours will think if they see Sofia working there. The shame of it…”
Mum and dad had very similar backgrounds: both were Nelson born and bred and both were the children of coal miners. But when it came to people from other countries they had very different attitudes. Mum was staunchly against anybody who wasn’t white and wasn’t from Nelson. Nowadays she would be known as a racist but in those times the word simply didn’t exist. Dad was different; I think it was his love of singing and music that did it. He was a very strict man but he was also very tolerant of others who were different than he. To my mother’s obvious disgust he even boasted of drinking beer with black people when he was up in the clubs in Manchester. I was very impressed by this because apart from on the television I had never even seen a black person in the flesh.
So there was another argument and in the end my father got his way. This was the way it was in Nelson. It was the men who made the decisions. Or rather, as I was to learn, it was the men who thought that they made the decisions. And I was allowed to work two evenings a week in the Amheds’ corner shop so that I could earn enough to keep myself in stamps, posters and records. I was overjoyed.
But then there was more sadness. One Saturday afternoon I called around to see Maisa to be told that she didn’t want to come out to play. “Maisa’s not feeling herself today,” said Mrs Ahmed when I asked what was wrong. “But why don’t you go and see her in her room. Perhaps you can cheer her up.”
I climbed the stairs and knocked on Maisa’s room but there was no answer. I knocked again and finally pushed open the door to find the room in total darkness. Buried under the bedclothes could be seen a small bump that was Maisa.
“Maisa, what’s wrong?” I said but there was no response.
I sat down on the bed and repeated my question. Slowly, the bedclothes peeled away and there was Maisa, her face streaked with tears.
“Whats the matter?” I asked again. “Has somebody hurt you?”
“Yes,” came a feeble response.
“John,” came the answer.
My sobbing best friend sat up in bed and told me what had happened. This morning she had picked up a copy of the Daily Mirror newspaper and seen a picture of John. Maisa’s parents always allowed her to look over the Daily Mirror. If there were any pictures of the Beatles she was allowed to cut them out and stick them in her scrapbook. She picked up what remained of the crumpled newspaper and handed it to me. On the front was a picture of John smiling at the camera. Holding his hand was a pretty blond woman.
“He’s married,” said Maisa. “He’s betrayed me. He’s already married. What am I going to do?” And with that Maisa pulled the bedclothes back over her head and burst into tears. I put my arm around her sobbing body and cuddled her. I cuddled her for the whole of the afternoon until she had cried so much that there was no more tears left to cry.