|MANCHESTER AFTER THE WAR|
Big Fred and Big Nellie - A balletic tale.
Heaton Mersey - Stockport - England - 1958: If Terry had not been driving the Standard 10 pick-up van along Cleveland Road pavement on that fated summer’s evening, then Peter-John Rider, Tony’s and Terry’s younger brother, with his movie-star looks, would have naturally taken the vehicle for a cruise round the district on what always appeared to be, but never was, vital business. Peter-John was not as bad tempered and curt as his abrupt manner, ruler straight trouser creases, polished brogues and rapid walk implied; except when dealing with his beautiful blonde sister, Mary-Jo, who was just a year younger than he. Like all the Riders, Peter-John was small but, unlike his father and two older brothers who were big men with short legs, he was, as was his pretty mother, ‘small but perfectly formed’.
As the brothers matured from schoolboys, all poorly served and under-educated at Xaverian College, into teenagers and then into young-men, all three, including in his turn Peter-John, who had for years been the good-looking, strong, silent type, enhanced his sex-appeal by driving his father’s excitingly new and expensive cars and, when a car was not available, Peter-John had charge of the Tompkin & Rider pick-up; his daily work van. His twenty four hour access to a serious vehicle, of any type, with wheels and an engine, and with wages in his pocket, placed him in a higher realm than all of his contemporaries – other than Willy Mason. But infinitely wealthy Willy, whose very existence contradicted Wallace Simpson’s theory that “you can never be too rich or too thin - Darling” did not have the film star looks.
But that evening, Terry had outranked and outreached Peter-John, had lifted the keys from the sideboard and without a by-your-leave had cruised off in the pick-up.
Peter-John even outranked Leon Marshall from Parsonage Road, another Xaverian pupil, whose War immigrant Lithuanian father owned several tailors’ shops and who sometimes allowed Leon to drive his automatic 2.4 Jaguar, which Leon proved, on nearby Wellington Road, could accelerate from nought to a hundred and back again in a few seconds, burning off only an inch or so of rubber while carrying up to six ‘speed referees’ to witness the feat. Leon, also good looking, that evening without a car but applying his considerable talents in winning the bowling match, enjoyed only occasional junior chauffeur’s rights compared to Peter-John’s adult rights to his own transport.
|2.4 Jaguar - Leon Marshall's Dad's type of car.|
The company van, purloined by Terry, always replaced after just fifty-thousand miles, so almost new, was part of Peter-John’s work equipment, enabling him to travel from site to site, officiously ferrying men and vital building supplies from the Tompkin & Rider offices in Smithfield Market to the outlying areas of
When a lorry was needed, Peter-John wasn’t licensed for large vehicles, so he
would press Big Fred into service. Big Fred, a loyal and long term employee was
…well, big. Local stripling youths, daily testing their physical strength and
endurance and regularly measuring their bulging or not so bulging biceps,
enhanced by cunningly folding their arms and applying their knuckles to push
them out, could only regard Big Fred and his feats of natural strength with awe.
Where ordinary men might hoist a hundredweight bag of cement onto the back of the lorry Big Fred effortlessly loaded three at a time. Where common labourers cleared sand and rubble for hours with a size eight shovel, Big Fred good-naturedly wielded a size fourteen. When two youths huffed and puffed and struggled manfully to lift a roof beam onto the lorry, Big Fred, without bothering to breathe any harder, picked them up two at a time. Big Fred was strong, and in the immediate environment of Tompkin & Rider, the only person Big Fred feared, apart from his foreshortened boss Eddie Rider – was Big Nellie.
Despite the similar soubriquet, Big Nellie and Big Fred were not known to be related. They were however of similar size, probably of similar weights and even, with suitable allowances for gender, were quite similar in appearance. Big Nellie and her large extended family owned a fishmonger’s warehouse in the market, just a few doors away from Eddie Rider’s first floor offices.
A month before the Cleveland Road Event, Peter-John, in his usual terse, tearing hurry, but even more so one Thursday spring morning, whisked three young passengers, who wanted to get to Manchester, in the small Standard 10 pick-up, from Heaton Moor to the company offices, en-route to accompany Big Fred in the lorry with a load, an urgent load of course, to a site in Moston.
With four teenagers packed into the two-seater cab, all of them smoking and flicking ash out of the quarter-lights, it was necessary for survival to have the main windows open – firstly in order to breath and secondly for safety purposes, as it was through the open windows that Peter-John, driving as if the survival of the human-race depended on his punctuality, forewarned pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carts and other drivers, loudly, firmly and non-too politely, of his passage. He also blasted the horn a great deal. They covered the six or seven miles into Manchester centre on the main roads at a steady pace, around fifty miles an hour, through crowded streets where all other vehicles were travelling at fifteen or twenty miles an hour and were often stationery. This took some skill; skill that only a grim faced teenager, with three laconic po-faced friends, determined to show no emotion of any kind, could muster.
The pick-up-truck, carting a tall well used cement mixer in the back, charged and weaved and braked and twisted and turned and squealed and raced through the morning traffic. The streets around Smithfield were narrow and cobbled, packed with traders’ vans and cars and wagons parked in every bay, on the cobbles and on the pavements; and with shoppers of all ages and sizes carrying bulging string bags and brown-paper parcels tied with string. They blocked the alleyways solid – but they did not slow the van’s headlong flight. Peter-John’s highly effective technique was to drive at obstructions and people, at high speed, horn blaring, lights flashing, face set in a death mask, and to only divert from his chosen route at the last second if the obstruction proved to be immovable and indestructible or if the pedestrians stumbled and fell beneath the wheels with cries of despair, pleading for their lives.
Dogs were given right of way. Peter-John liked dogs.
Where the cobbles were blocked, he drove on the pavements, where parked vehicles intruded into their path, Peter-John would gently nudge them out of the way with the pick-up fenders, caring little, in fact caring not at all, that the inoffensive vehicle would be trapped in its new position for eons, until uncovered in some future age by zealous archaeologists. Where a pedestrian wandered down a narrow street in a pleasant dream, Peter-John crept up behind them to within twelve inches, then blasted the horn and swore at them as they leapt out of their raincoats and their terrified skins; before he swept imperiously past; the teenagers’ faces still fashionably deadpan, with Peter-John nonchalantly leaning one leather patched elbow of his hacking jacket on the window sill.
|Smithfield Market Manchester|
Thus, in twenty-five exciting minutes from Heaton Moor, they arrived in the jam packed street, opposite the covered market, outside Tompkin & Rider, where Peter-John braked to a sudden halt, double parked alongside a shopper’s car, consigning the owner to a very long wait, leapt out, locked the van and marched wordlessly into a doorway, into one of the centuries old, low buildings surrounding the market, and up a flight of stairs. Peter-John’s constant companion Noel followed, while the other two lads, still expressionless, melted away into crowds.
The offices were low roofed, long and narrow with ancient windows overlooking the street. As at the Rider’s home, every useful surface, including the window bays, was encased in the new miracle material Formica, in dark oak patterns, obliterating all signs of precious antiquity. In the office, his balding wispy-haired head brushing the ceiling, and having to manoeuvre his great girth sideways through the narrow doors, was Big Fred. He automatically put the kettle on the gas ring and lined up five large, deeply stained mugs, a half-used bottle of milk, a crumpled bag of sugar and a spoon secured to the table with string – and nodded amiably. No words were spoken but much understanding passed between them as Peter-John took papers, a small metal ruler and a building plan from a drawer, accepted the mug of dark-brown tea, with two sugars, which Fred pressed into his hands, and pored over the documents. Big Fred, as was his role, waited and didn’t even attempt to read the obviously crucial management texts. He handed Noel a mug of tea. They all lit cigarettes, none of them offering their packs around – the rule being to smoke your own.
Eddie Rider browsed in from his room, smoking a cigarette and wearing a fabulously expensive straw coloured overcoat draped over his shoulders and an equally pricey dark suit with a silver-grey waistcoat. His tie was secured with an understated diamond pin. He was obviously going out and he was obviously in a hurry, but not so hurried to not have time for a mug of
tea that Big Fred was, twitching
nervously, mashing for him, and not before he’d passed the time of day with
“How tall are you?” he asked with a pleasant, boss’s smile. Noel told him he was five-foot-ten and a half inches. The half-inch was of vital importance as it made him a quarter-inch taller, though he would deny it to his dying day, than his older brother Richard.
“Now I’m only five feet six.” Eddie told Noel, sleeking back his sandy, waved hair with a strong sunburnt hand, “…But I’ll bet you a fiver…” five pounds was a lot of money “…that I’m taller than you – sitting down…” And he smiled up at Noel with a broad, bronzed, superstar sort of smile.
Noel knew that though Eddie was carefully not looking at Big Fred, who stooped to avoid collision with the ceiling, these remarks were more for the employee’s benefit than his. Peter-John looked up briefly and coldly at this time wasting pantomime. Noel looked a bit gormless and Eddie felt the need to explain.
“I’ll bet you, young man, five pounds, that if we sit back to back, …I’m taller than you…” and he snickered loudly like a happy horse, waiting for Noel to protest.
Noel was sure Eddie was right, but he diplomatically obliged him and protested that such a thing could not possibly be. Eddie sneaked a look in Big Fred’s direction and beamed at Noel triumphantly. Noel didn’t have a fiver to take the bet but that fact was tacitly assumed and completely beside the point. As Eddie organised two precisely matched chairs and put them back to back, Terry in labouring clothes and a cloth cap bounded in, saw the set up, grinned wildly, grabbed a handful of notes from a petty-cash box while his father wasn’t looking and dashed out again. Eddie bade Noel sit up straight, as tall as he could, before Eddie also sat down.
Noel couldn’t of course see him and, sitting as still and upright as was required of him, it was difficult to turn round. Eddie though quite rightly assumed Noel would trust his integrity in the matter; and, like a good Christian, that he would believe without seeing.
“…See…” said Eddie; though Noel patently couldn’t see at all, “…I’m a good inch, maybe two, taller than you!”
Noel could feel Eddie’s hand waving around somewhere just above his swept-back hair and fully believed that Eddie was flattening his own hair with that hand then, with absolute fairness, was moving it horizontally backwards, without deviation, across Noel’s head to make the comparison. Peter-John snorted contemptuously and found reason to march around the little competition stage, on serious business. His father was unperturbed by this disapproval.
“Well…” he said, extremely pleased with himself and generously waving aside the non-offer Noel was not making to pay the bet, “…I have to get over to Williams and Glynn’s bank in Old Trafford and quote for some new counters and safety glass they want…” He was now obviously in a real hurry. So he hurried out. Peter-John sniffed and Big Fred visibly relaxed.
Eddie’s new car, a long black Humber Hawk, an automatic, with a radio, and which, inspired by American design, had squishy suspension that made its nose dip to the ground when braking at high-speed - as Peter-John had demonstrated to friends at a valve bouncing one-hundred-and-two miles an hour on the Cheadle-By-Pass - was parked half on the pavement across the office doorway immediately below. The market was as busy as ever, the streets blocked and, Peter-John, Big Fred and Noel could see for a fact, that Eddie’s car, built on a steel chassis, was irretrievably locked in, with market traders’ cars, also big, powerful and polished, jammed up tight against his front and rear bumpers. The three watched as he climbed into the
and started the engine. They knew that Eddie could not manoeuvre out of there.
Big Fred started to fret; he didn’t want his boss to get upset.
Peter-John weighed up the problem with the reserved interest of a professional driver.
Humber roared and jogged forward, pushing the
car in front by two or three inches. They could see Eddie calmly flick the
column mounted auto-gear change lever into reverse. The Humber
roared again, more loudly, and half the street turned to watch. Eddie slammed
the car backwards, clanging bumpers and shifting the car behind him an inch or
two. Then he came forwards again, with even more revs than before, and smashed
into the car in front, shoving it another three inches. Then back again, now
with a loud bang that made the rest of the street jump round to see what was
happening. The collision made another two inches of space and shoved the next
car but-one into the lorry behind it. Eddie repeated the exercise, ‘bang!’ and
‘bang!’ and ‘bang!’
Locals waved unconcerned ‘hello’s’ to him as the
bumpers were dinted and the other cars suffered visible damage. Nobody was
surprised or alarmed. Eddie Rider was a long time resident here; no-one was
going to pin a note on the damaged cars. After ten or so shunts, the gap for
the Humber was long enough and Eddie put it in
drive – and swept smoothly out into the street, oblivious to pedestrians and
vehicles alike, which simply had to get out of his way – or die in their
attempt to stand against him.
“Daft bugger” muttered Big Fred in an admiring tone. This was the boss he gave his allegiance to, who had once again earned his respect.
Peter-John had finished with the papers. He put one or two bills of lading in a slim leather case which he tucked under his arm and asked Big Fred where the lorry was.
“I parked ‘im by Lewis’s in
Street…” said Big Fred, and added with a veiled
allusion to Eddie’s driving “…where we can get out from…”
“…It’s s’loaded. All ready to go.”
“C’mon then,” commanded Peter-John, starting to lead the way. But before they moved, there came an uproar in the street below that had the three rushing back to the windows – imagining that one of the bashed cars’ owners had turned up and was looking for someone to murder.
Across from and below the office windows, under the covered market canopy, a bunch of people had gathered around three central players – then, the bunch, thinking better of it, had backed off a few yards from the three, forming a respectfully wide circle around them.
Right in the centre was a woman. But this was no woman for virginal youths such as Peter-John, Noel and friends to weave fond dreams around – nightmares perhaps, but not dreams. She represented the prima-materia of the Universe, the first Eve, the Mother of all matter, the foundation of the Earth. She was a large woman; every bit as large as Big Fred. She wore the costume, unmistakably, of a fishwife. She spoke, or rather hollered, unmistakably, like a fishwife. She no doubt smelt, if one wandered into her perfumed ambit, unmistakably, like a fishwife.
Her sleeves were rolled back revealing terrifyingly, impossibly broad, chilled and chapped lower arms that were attached to monstrous upper arms and hence to massive but shapeless shoulders. Her head, topped with insubstantial mousey hair tied up, incongruously, with an infant’s red ribbon, was massive. Her face was a slab of lard, with a small mouth, which when closed was almost invisible and when open was like the maw of a Sperm Whale. Her eyes were tiny compared to her face; dark, Gallic and piercingly fierce in their intensity. Her legs, mercifully wrapped and obscured in a long pink skirt and a stripped, waterproof apron, were elephantine; each would have adequately made the whole of a natural man.
This apparition stood, monumentally still, with her arms outstretched, extended seemingly without effort on her part. One blubbery hand encircled the neck of a man; not a small man by any means but small and helpless compared to the creature who gripped him. The hand completely contained the man’s strangulated neck, her fingers and thumb meeting at the carotid artery. The other arm, equally comfortably extended for as long as it took, ended in her massive fist. Within the fist were tightly gathered ample pleats from a second man’s shirt, vest, tie, waistcoat, jacket and, causing certainly some inconvenience if not agonising pain for the man who still wore, or was attempting to wear, these garments, the fist also gathered in his braces and consequently hauled the crotch of his trousers two feet higher than his tailor had ever intended. The watchers all wondered if the poor emasculated soul dressed to his left, or to his right – in normal circumstances.
“That’s Big Nellie,” explained Peter-John shortly, but even his quick voice betrayed a note of unconscious anxiety in the presence of this destroyer of worlds.
“She’s …a bit bloody tough..” said Big Fred, not bothering to hide his fear – and his admiration. “…There’s nobody in
can take Big Nellie; not even her brothers.” Smithfield
“Don’t know who the blokes are…” obliged Peter-John, stimulated into a rare volunteering of information.
It was clear that the two men had friends and supporters in the watching crowd. But the supporters had obviously decided to act in a purely advisory capacity, confining themselves to helpful comments.
“She can’t hold you there all day…” one of the watching men encouraged the hapless prisoners.
Big Nellie slowly turned her head, like a hunting owl, and looked at him. He decided discretion was the better part of valour and shut up.
“She laid a bloke out last winter…” Big Fred told the others, “…he wus a wrestler, you know, from Belle Vue; thought he was tough. She walloped him with just one arm. Just the one hit. He was in hospital for weeks. He never came back here…”
Big Fred sucked his toothless upper gum, being at the stage of waiting for a top denture from the National Health, and sighed heavily; whether from deep fright or suppressed love was difficult to decide. They each lit another cigarette as it was clear they would go nowhere until this drama was resolved.
|The fish market|
“…Let’s not do them any damage. After all…” he added reasonably, “…they’ve been good customers – them and their dad before them, for …well for a long time.”
Big Nellie was not quite convinced, she made no move, but to acute observers it may have seemed that she slackened her grip, a teeny-weeny bit. The strangled man’s colour reduced from bright puce to pink and his popping eyes settled back into his head – a little.
Despite the stay of execution, neither of them yet dared to struggle.
A sound came from Big Nellie and all around was silence to allow her voice the airwaves and space it so royally deserved, “Cheeky bloody sods,” she said sociably.
This was obviously a conciliatory statement as her brother came right up to her with some confidence and lightly held one of her ponderous wrists. “…I’ve a bloody good mind to just slap ‘em around a bit, before we let them go…” she added evenly.
Both men tensed with renewed terror, completely powerless to defend themselves, but neither tried to speak.
“…No need Nellie…” said her brother, keeping his voice calm and offering her the nearest thing his face could make of a winning smile. “…They’ve learned their lesson, Nellie. They’ll be good boys from now on… …Won’t you lads.”
The ‘good boys’, who, when not suspended from Nellie’s arms were successful and mature business men in their early forties, nodded with ingratiating vigour.
“…Well…” said Big Nellie, suddenly, horribly, becoming toe-curlingly coy, “…if they promise… I just might”
Nellie’s brother looked at his two customers, probably themselves brothers in a fishmonger business, and said nothing, but they understood nonetheless and found their collective voice.
“We promise Nellie. We promise. Honest we do Nellie. No harm done Nellie, a bit of a joke really.” They gasped in unison.
“You’d bloody better” she growled at them, her pacific mood waning fast, but she nevertheless let them both go.
Released, the neck man almost fell to the ground but two other men rushed forward and propped him up. The clothes man turned away and made brave attempts to tuck his crumpled shirt, through his twisted braces, back into his crumpled pants and to smooth out his crumpled waistcoat and badly creased suit as he stumbled quickly out of Nellie’s immediate reach. The crowd, by common consent and in awe, politely parted to let Big Nellie through and waited for her to start on her majestic way back to the family office before they began to disperse.
Big Fred wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.
“Staf’ut go now,” he said lapsing into broadest
Lancashire. (We shall have to go)
Peter-John leapt into action, leading Big Fred and Noel down the stairs through the alleyways and out onto the main shopping street,
Market Street, which sloped down from
Piccadilly to Deansgate. Peter-John, as neat as ever in grey cavalry-twill
slacks, a country-style jacket, a smart shirt and tie and his hair cut and
groomed very like his father’s, with his document case under his arm and a
business like expression on his face, stepped out rapidly, clicking his shiny
shoes onto the pavement with military precision.
Big Fred, in a dark blue overall with bib and braces, checked shirt, a ragged tie and a favourite old cloth cap, ambled behind him with his big legs easily keeping pace. Noel had to skip and run a little to keep up as they weaved through window-shoppers, around parked cars, dodged behind vans and lorries and risked their lives leaping in front of the almost silent trolley buses that warned of their coming more by their ozone, electric smell and blue, crackling flashes rather than by engine noise. The Tompkin & Rider Bedford truck, loaded with bricks, was parked at the traffic lights on the corner by Lewis’s main entrance and, as Big Fred had boasted, it was free of obstructions ahead. They scrambled into the cab, Big Fred now in charge; and the lorry lurched away, down the main street and turned right to detour out onto the road to Ancoats, as Big Fred wanted to call in at his home en route to the building site.
“Fred!...” barked Peter-John, “…where’re you going. Where are you taking us?”
Big Fred, not at all phased at being checked and challenged by this young management mosquito, calmly told them in a tone that allowed no discussion that he was going to swing by his house and pick up his lunch-box, which had not been ready when he left home at six o’clock this morning, while they were no doubt in bed, to go and get the bricks, now loaded in the lorry, which they were currently delivering.
|Ancoats Manchester UK|
Peter-John and Noel lit cigarettes and opened the quarter-lights to flick out the ash.
“He was born here…” said Peter-John suddenly, with some proprietorial pride, “…Grew up here with his brother… …lived here all his life. And when he got married and his mum died, he and his wife stayed on. Right here.”
Big Fred came back clutching his lunch-box, a square Jacobs Cream Crackers tin, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
Before the engine started Peter-John said “Fred!” but not quite as authoritatively as usual “…tell him about your brother…” and he nodded in Noel’s direction.
Big Fred looked at Noel carefully while he considered this request. He sucked at his gums and took a few moments to light a Woodbine. He weighed Noel up for another moment then decided he could tell him the family secret.
“Me brother…” he announced suspiciously, still scrutinising Noel’s face, “…Me younger brother, Charlie…” and he paused again, still not quite certain if he could be trusted with the information, “…Charlie, is a ballet dancer.”
The information didn’t fit. It demanded feats of imagination and a suspension of disbelief that were very, very difficult to conjure.
Noel looked at Big Fred; his great bulk; his huge hands and thickened fingers almost immobilised by hard labour and stained by building materials and tobacco; his half toothless mouth; his thinning hair splaying out from under his cap. Noel thought of the bits of ballet he’d seen on the television and on posters – Nijinsky floating through the air, his impossibly taut buttocks and shapely thighs sheathed in white tights. He looked again at Big Fred and wondered about his age. He looked at the tiny terraced house, one of millions, and at the anonymous pavement. It just didn’t work. But Big Fred was clearly deadly serious; and it was not a joking matter.
“Gosh – where did he – I mean, does he, dance?”
Noel thought he’d finished and he was trying to frame another question, but Big Fred had more to say.
“…and in the middle of it all; right by this bloody great market, they’ve built a theatre – a bloody huge theatre… …an’ that’s where Charlie dances… …I’ve bin there; me an’ the wife… …We’ve seen ‘im dancin’… …Our Charlie can dance alright…” he added ruminatively, his mind far, far from Ancoats and the load of bricks.
Then he suddenly turned on Noel – to catch any hint of mockery. “…We’d best get goin’…” he said, starting up the lorry and shifting it into gear.
|Royal Opera House - Covent Garden - London|