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Episode 5: Not all superheroes wear capes

One of the major reasons for the August timing of my visit to England was a school reunion. My two best friends live in America and they didn’t or couldn’t come home for the school reunion. I guess that if it wasn’t for Justin Case, I wouldn’t have been there either. Besides Pete and Dave, some other friends couldn’t get to the reunion for various reasons. I had a car and a month in Britain and I was very keen to catch up with a couple of people who did things in my life that they probably didn’t know about, things that changed me and one that saved me. 

For me, one of the benefits of cancer is that it gives you time and a prod in the ribs to go and say the things that need saying. It was time to say thanks and probably farewell; I really wanted to set the record straight with a couple of important people. This meant that day one of the tour turned out to be one of the most satisfying and important days of my whole life.

Julian Friday couldn’t make the trip from Plymouth to the school reunion. Julian came from the posh side of the dividing line in our hometown. Like how a railway line divides socio-economic residents in US towns, we had a road that split the haves from the have nots. Posh is how we described the kids from the other side of the main road. The side where people owned their houses as opposed to us renters. POSH is an acronym that harks back to the 1800s. It was coined when the well-to-do in Britain would go off to Africa to shoot animals, steal antiquities and enslave the natives. The most well-to-do always took cabins on left-hand side of the ship on the way south and then the right-hand side coming home. This gave them a cabin with a view of land as they travelled, as opposed to a never-changing sea view on the other side of the ship; POSH stands for Port Out Starboard Home.

In our schooldays and beyond, Julian wasn’t a close friend of mine, which makes his deeds even more remarkable. As already established, Julian and his family lived on the posh side of town. A short way away from our council estate, but to us, it may as well have been on another planet. We did not know what we were missing out on, but we imagined that they all lived in a world of James Bond-like comforts and joys, while we lived in Brooke Bond comfort. Brooke Bond was a tea bag and its TV ads were Chimpanzee tea parties, jokey voice over, usually ending in fighting chimps wearing cream buns and mayhem. Just like our lives really, but without real cream in our buns or, come to think of it, without the buns either.

Julian came into my life when I was being bullied at infants’ school. I was maybe aged six or seven years old. Julian stopped two boys who were chasing me. After a few words from Julian, they never bothered me again. I never forgot, but also, I never said thank-you. As a six-year-old, my own self-preservation was my main prerequisite and I never really found myself in Julian’s company, at least, not at a time or in an environment that wouldn’t have made a heartfelt thank-you seem anything but strange. 

The internet has brought people together like no other invention ever has. Now we can catch up with people from a safe impersonal distance, creating and renewing faux friendships. In the early days of social interaction via the internet, I came across Julian and he once again impressed me. Julian is as active as he can be via social media and has a great Facebook page called “Jule’s Juke Box” where a few times a week he will post a great song. Almost everything he posts brings back a memory or speaks to me. If you love music from all genres, search it up. You won’t regret it.

In his late 20s, Julian was beset with multiple sclerosis. Cancer is not a great disease, but multiple sclerosis can be much more horrible. A disease that is similar to peripheral neuropathy, but much more insidious. It attacks the myelin sheath around the nerves but in much more vital areas than your feet and fingers. It also works relentlessly and slowly, robbing its victims in miniscule degrees like attacking a beach a grain of sand at a time. Julian’s travails with MS made him an even bigger hero to me over the years. Julian has never taken a “why me” stance and has always taken his requests to God. He has had the amazing strength of faith to accept what he is going through as part of God’s plan. Well, if God’s plan is to make me supremely aware that some men of faith have extraordinary courage, then God you have succeeded.

I caught up with Julian at his home in Plymouth the day after I got to England. I wouldn’t have recognised him if he had been walking down the street. MS and the collective years have knocked him around a fair bit. He does, though, still look younger than me. Julian greeted me with a smile that lit up my heart. My personal faith walk has been long and interrupted. I don’t have the faith or grace that Julian has. I am troubled by many aspects, and my fractured walk of faith was Julian’s greatest concern. While it should have been me besieging God for blessings, lessening of pain, an influx of energy and mobility and a cure for Julian’s ills, it was the other way around. If this doesn’t paint a picture of a man of great strength, of inspiration and total selflessness, then nothing ever will. Julian, thanks for saving me at six and still showing me at 60 what a real superhero looks like. Julian Friday you are the selfless, inspirational, God-filled man that I long to be and my spiritual hero.

After I left Julian, I was supposed to make tracks to see another school-time saviour. But what Julian had done for me made me search out a peaceful spot for some reflection. It needed to be somewhere I could confront my God and ask him why and give him what for. I found myself at Plymouth Ho. Plymouth Ho is where the pilgrims had cast off for America and given Justin Case’s upcoming US itinerary, this seemed a somewhat pertinent place to ponder God’s uneven handedness. I had been here once before for a sea-fishing adventure. We went out in a gale and I was very seasick for a very long time. I was with David Stocker and when I was in the midst of trying to projectile vomit my gall bladder, he offered me a crab paste sandwich. If I could have gotten off the deck, the world would have lost a very good man that day. I had paid 20 pounds to go out. I would have paid a hundred to come back. 

Decades later, there I sat looking out at Plymouth Ho, trying to forget how green your sick gets once it gets to be bile. I was sat on a bench, ready to have unverbalised words with my version of my God. I won’t be preaching here but I have my own version of God. I do believe in a God but I may be struck by lightning at any minute. Not the all-powerful deity that should be approached on bended knees and awe but more so an ultra-intelligent, all-knowing slightly out of control, slightly mad scientist God with a very sick sense of humour. As I said, I’m not popular at church, but for me there are too many things that happen by god incidence for me to sleep at night with any other explanation. As Mr Lennon said: “Whatever gets you through the night”.

So, I sat ready to have stern chat, but unfortunately, just a few yards away from me were three tourists and one local. While not intending to listen to their conversation, it washed over me like a northern Atlantic Ocean wave; brutal, cold, unwelcoming, salty, and shocking. Apparently, the nationalistic bigotry that was virulent in 1986 England was still around in 2018, at least in some people. The local bigot could have been the lifelong president of the ultra-right wing leaning National Front. If he had been wearing a full-face swastika tattoo it would not have looked out of place. He claimed a lifelong residency in Plymouth with just a two-year absence to do his national service in the army. That aged him quite some but he wore his 80 years well. 

The years seemed to have instilled in him enough knowledge to run the foreign affairs for all governments. He decried the current immigration policy and any policy that didn’t start and end with the words “exclusion of all others”. He thought that anyone with anything darker than a rice pudding complexion should be sent back to “Darkieville”. Just where Darkieville was, England’s own Adolf Hitler never enlightened his shocked audience. It was directly at the feet of immigrants stealing jobs and sending all the English pounds they earned back to Darkieville that this man laid the nation’s current problems. The tourists looked as ashamed of his opinion as I did. After 10 minutes of ear-bashing, the tourists extricated themselves from the odious grip of England’s greatest protector/detractor.

As they wandered past me, I blurted out that not every Englishman had the same opinion as that local. To which the alpha male of the tourist group retorted, “You are Australian, go home and look after the Aboriginals”. This completely dumbfounded me and slapped like another Atlantic Ocean wave. Here I was with a foreign accent stumbling through my own country. Even tourists could tell my accent wasn’t from around here anymore. It shocked me that I was returning to my home, but now as a foreigner. I had mistakenly thought that I could assimilate back into my country and not be thought of as an alien. But it seemed that my voice betrayed me and painted an aural picture of an accent akin to Crocodile Dundee crossed with a flu-ridden Ozzy Osbourne. 

At that moment, I realised I had abandoned Britain when I was 24 years old. How could I be away for 32 years and come back expecting to still be British? Am I now Australian? If you are where you spend most of your time, then I’m an Earthling by geography, an Anzac by residence, but by heart, I am more British now than I have ever been. So what if I sounded like Hugh Jackman playing a guest role in Peaky Blinders.

The other friend I needed to catch up with, and just as importantly set the record straight with, was Mark Tomlinson.

Mark and I both lived on the council estate and I think all of us from the council even by the age of six had realised that we were in the shit, unfairly in the shit, but definitely in the shit. If we knew anything, we knew we had to stick together. Mark and I were at Infants, Junior and High School together. And again, like Julian, Mark saved me from a couple of bullies. I was at some fault. No, strike that. I was at total fault. My mouth even at a very young age could question, ridicule and sometimes nullify an argument even from an adult mouth. I knew very well and very early that sarcasm was a very worthy weapon. By the age of eight I had just about eaten the dictionary of famous quotes from the school library. Among my favourites was one from Churchill. When accused of being drunk, he replied: “I may be drunk Miss, but in the morning, I will be sober and you will still be ugly”. Another was from Oscar Wilde: “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit … but the highest form of intelligence”. 

My motto back then was he who takes the piss last, wins. If you verbally shot someone down, it was usually rewarded with a classroom full of laughter. When that happened, the verbally insulted/assaulted adversaries would get you back and usually physically. A full classroom laughing at something I said about a classmate was a momentary victory. A victory that I knew I was going to have to pay for in pain.

Nicholas Gadsby and Nicholas Bywell were each other’s best friends. They were from the posh side of the road and therefore enemies of mine. A knucklehead of a student-teacher had grouped me with them for a math lesson. I was very reluctant to work with them and sloped off to another desk to complete the work on my own. Gadsby and Bywell did their own version and gave in the group answer without my name on it. At the end of class, the teacher said that Gadsby, Bywell and I had got our math all wrong. I quickly stood up and said I wasn’t part of the group and gave the teacher my correctly answered and reasoned math. He looked at the paper and asked if I had done it all by myself. Bywell quipped that he and Gadsby didn’t want to work with me because I was smelly. The entire class sniggered and finally burst into laughter. This pissed me off, and I said through gritted teeth and watery eyes that I wasn’t smelly. I followed this up with the only reason they didn’t want to work with me was they were a pair of poofs and they even had homosexual names. I stepped up to the blackboard and wrote Nicholas BYwell + Nicholas GadsBY = KNICKERLESS BYSEXUAL. In the homophobic 60s, this was greeted with uproar and laughter.

I knew from the moment the chalk dust left the blackboard and the classroom started collectively laughing and whispering the chant Knickerless Bysexual that I was in trouble. The teacher immediately gave me detention. This just prolonged my agony and reduced the audience of those likely to be watching my forthcoming comeuppance. When I left detention, BYwell and GadsBY were waiting for me in the deserted hallway and I had no escape. I knew what was coming from previous experiences. I also knew that I didn’t stand a chance. I ran at them with all my might, swinging my school bag and kicking out. I held my own for a while. But even with me head butting, biting, scratching, spitting, pulling hair and kicking; eventually, a little bloke will be bested by two bigger blokes. 

At exactly the right moment, Mark Tomlinson intervened and rescued me. Mark was a bigger boy than me and was on my side. While it was now two against two, the now nicknamed Bysexuals knew the odds were hugely in our favour and they quickly skulked off scowling and promising comeuppance. Mark walked me to safety and even hung around me in the playground for quite a few days to make sure I was safe from the now constantly berated Knickerless Bysexual twins. In the end, I think they wanted the whole thing forgotten. But even five years later at their then high school, I was told they were each still regularly called Knickerless Bysexual.

Anyway, Mark Tomlinson saved me. We moved house a year later, and I had less and less contact with Mark. In my last two years at High School, we crossed paths occasionally, but the right time and the right words never seemed to line up in the right place. Mark met a beautiful girl called Judith Govier at High School and they started dating as teenagers. Forty-five years later, Mark and Jude, the dream pair, were still together. I had wrangled a bed for the night from them. When we met, Jude readily volunteered that they had been through their fair share of tough times. That just makes Mark and Jude Tomlinson even bigger heroes to me. Mark and Jude welcomed me into their lovely fisherman’s cottage in the beautiful Cornish village of Penzance. 

The cottage looks out on a nearly 300-year-old church with big beautiful stained-glass windows. The closeness of the sea means there is a wonderful light. Mark was always a gifted artist and I am sure this light helps him see things the untrained eye misses. I stayed the night at Mark’s and we had another old school friend Sara Mosely nee Bull join us. It was a truly great night, and I got to tell Mark how he affected my life.

Back at school, the Nicholas’s were probably correct about the smelly bit. I certainly lacked any personal hygiene skills and wasn’t persuaded by my mother to do anything different. My mother was living a life that no woman in the 60s should have been. Recently divorced from a physically abusive husband, she found herself woefully under-skilled to look after three children. Single parent wasn’t a recognised title in those days; it was a curse, a curse sitting beside slag, whore, and prostitute. My mom had very little in the way of money coming into the house, as my father paid alimony very rarely and never to a level for even ample food to be in the house. 

We lived on free school milk and free school lunches. Mum lived on cornflakes with water. Soap was a luxury and hot water was scarce. Often, I would come home to no electricity or gas and a fire grate burning bills written in red ink. We never had a car or any form of transport until my teens. One day, as a six-year-old, I arrived home to find a very drowsy mum sitting in the chair in front of the fire with the remnants of our dining table burning in the fireplace. That afternoon, if my grandmother’s bladder hadn’t been so weak, thus making her stop by for a pee on her way home from work, my mom would have fallen off to sleep and the pills would have taken full and final somnolent effect. My mum tried to commit suicide twice. She failed twice. I’ve personally failed once and Mark Tomlinson stopped me once.

Being smelly at school was probably true. Poor personal hygiene was small potatoes to what was going on in my head. Thanks to mum partly, I was well versed and aware of suicide and the delicious escape that it held. The shuffling off the mortal coil comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy “to be or not to be” all about suicide. I always loved literature, and while not really understanding much of the olde-worlde English in Shakespeare, I had stolen from the library a condensed real English explanation of Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. They were all marvellous stories, and Hamlet especially resonated with me. Hamlet’s speech about the quality of suicide and its escape to a great sleep was very attractive to me. I had no friends at junior school. I wandered around in second-hand smelly clothes with no ball to kick, spurned and scorned by any potential friends. I was very aware and constantly reminded that I was a fatherless bastard and that my mother hated me so much that she wished she was dead. And worst of all to the taunts of being a hated son, I had no valid smart-arse reply.

During my Knickerless Bysexual detention, I had had plenty of time to come up with an escape plan. I determined I would fight, but I knew I had to take my medicine from the Bysexuals. After that, I would go to the park that I walked through on the way home every day. In the middle of the park was a huge, maybe 100-year-old horse chestnut tree. It was a great climbing tree. I planned to climb up into the top branches. I loved it up there. I often sat in it and watched birds flying below my feet, filled with wonder. 

From up there, you could see the town centre a few miles north and the airport a few miles south. On nights when Birmingham City played at home, you could see the distant floodlights lighting up the sky. I had spent many hours up there hiding from everyone and watching planes coming into and taking off from the airport. I had never even dared to dream that I might one day get on one of the planes and fly all the way around the world a few times. Although I have always feared heights, up there I had always felt safe and in no danger.

The detention afternoon was different. I had had enough. I had previously taught myself how to make a hangman’s noose from my school tie. During detention, I wrote a note blaming the bullying from the Bysexuals for my actions; I put the note in my pocket. I walked out of detention and intended to take my medicine, get my justly deserved beating. I would then go to the tree, climb up and hang myself with my tie. There were lots of pluses and no minuses to this plan. I would no longer be a drain on my mum’s meagre resources. My sisters wouldn’t have a bullying big brother. 

I had no friends and the Bysexuals would get the blame for my suicide. They would blame the Bysexuals for my hanging and that seemed to have a Hamletesque deliciousness. All I had to do was walk outside and face the Bysexuals. Then Mark Tomlinson came and saved me. He helped me up and walked me safely; unbeknown to him, past my hanging tree. For the next week, Tommo was always somewhere nearby. For 40 years, he never knew what he did. On August 6, 2018, I finally found some words and the right place to tell him that he saved me from more than just a beating. It turns out the time was just right for Tommo.

Thanks, Tommo, I love you, brother.

Julian and Tommo made the entire tour worth it on that very first day of land-based travel. It took me a year to realise that if the tour had stopped right there and then on that very first day, it would have still been a success.

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