AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE MEMORY BOX

 

The Memory Box is my memoirs, currently being serialised on Facebook in the Group of the same name, where readers are free to share their thoughts, memories and photos.

 

This resource will allow those not using Facebook to read the text and will be updated periodically. 

  • Joolz Denby

Episode 17

Mad Davey, how did I meet him? Can't remember now because it seemed like I'd  always known him. I think he'd dated a pal of mine, I do remember him being incapacitated as he sometimes was with asthma and her kneeling dramatically in front of him playing to the gallery, begging to know what she could do for him. You can piss off, he gasped, before I fucking throw up on you. My poor darling, she cried theatrically and he vomited all over her. Her frock and their relationship didn't survive.

He was from the North East but he didn't have the accent, rather he sounded faintly posh, educated, sarcastic. He and his doomed Rossetti sister Lizzie, with her mass of floaty black hair and beautiful, white, neurotic triangular face escaped the common life of their rough and ready seaside town and using my flat as a springboard, bouncing off into Bradford escaping their parents and leaving behind their little sister. Davey had a strange, psychologically incestuous relationship with Lizzie, watching over her as she slept, breaking his heart when she careened from abusive boyfriend to abusive boyfriend, finally ending up with an outlaw biker twice her age. This terrible love made him crabbed and hunched, his asthmatic's pigeon chest like the prow of an archaic ship, the strength of his body all in his arms and back. No one measured up to Lizzie for him. No one was as beautiful, as fragile, as wayward or as forbidden.

I remember he lived at my flat in the village while my husband was away, playing the boyfriend without being one. We wove an intricate, black web of arcane books and long extracts from Round The Horne that baffled everyone else and gave him chance to exercise his dark and often cruel wit. We became very close, he was almost the brotherly figure to me he couldn't be with his real sister. He was clever, far more clever than his thuggish appearence would lead people to believe and enormously well read. His life was books, but not in the twee, reader's groups, literature festivals way. He read to examine power, to shape his life, to try to understand how he could at once be so intelligent and yet so incapable of dealing with life in any way.

There was always a brooding, savage quality to him. He was ugly as the world saw it, with a squashed, thick lipped face and mismatched, peering eyes behind dirty round glasses and it hurt him. He wanted the girls who didn't want him, and the heroic life he literally wasn't well enough for. But he was strong and worked at menial,  brutal jobs that served to numb his heart. Davey should have been a writer, a philosopher, a creator of universes but nothing survived his fury and I never saw him write anything. He disdained to even try.

While Davey was at my flat, the Yorkshire Ripper was active in the area, Sutcliffe forever altering the atmosphere of the town and casting a pall of fear and suspicion. The wicked hoaxer had sent his misleading tapes to the police and they were following up every man from the North East in the area. They pulled Davey in. He was from that part of the country though not the part the hoaxer was from, the accent Davey didn't even have was not the same. But Davey had a size 7 shoe, the Ripper had left a size 7 footprint in blood. Davey gave the police his alibi and they released him. Then they came for him again, checking something else. No doubt Davey was as rude and sarcastic as ever, no doubt the coppers, used as they were to men of violence, saw beneath the scholar's pose to the terrible rage beneath. They let him go, then took him in a third time.

When he was released, he came back to the flat, outraged but making a witty story of it, how he'd shown the plod the rough side of his tongue, run rings round them. There were a few of us there, eating a big pot of spaghetti I'd cooked. Well, Davey, if you are the Ripper, I'm going to sell my story to the News of the World, I said, mostly out of nerves. I suddenly noticed there was a dead silence. I realised the others weren't looking at Davey, because they thought, just a bit, that he might be. It was cruel and chilling and I wished, not for the first or last time, it kept my fucking mouth shut.

When I moved, Davey moved. Not at first but eventually he turned up at 166 like the moon's dark shadow and while he never moved in, would visit with huge bags of books and resume our talk. Crouched in the corner with his odd collection of magazines and volumes spread out on the rickety table, he'd give me news of Alice, his little sister, who had made us  laugh so much when we visited him at his parent's house. She was an imaginative and inventive child, dressed in an old fashioned way with her hair in two plaits,  whose best friend was her guinea pig Albert. Sometimes we'd ask her philosophical questions as she liked to work out the answers. Alice, we asked once, what's the worst thing that could ever happen to someone? She looked thoughtful and went off to consult with Albert. She came back a few hours later. The worst thing that could ever happen to you would be to wake up covered entierly in belly-buttons, she said. Can't argue with that, we said. I know, said Alice.

Davey had not had the easy, loving childhood Alice had. It seemed to an outsider the troubles their parents had with Davey and Lizzie passed Alice by, as if the older siblings had been practice pieces and Alice the masterwork. Their mother seemed a nice, if distracted and dizzy woman, a shocking cook, and their father a solid, working man with the strong accent his children didn't have. There wasn't anything I could see that would produce the blinding self destruction of Lizzie or the abyssal darkness of Davey, a darkness that led to suicide attempts and a profound self loathing. But we only ever see what people want to show us, in the end, we don't live their lives.

The person who really brought the worst out in Davey was Batley, the elastic crazy-boy with his exploding curls and round, brown, disingenuous face, the wide grin hiding the clever brain beneath in a fizz of nonsense. Davey was, I now realise, very envious of Batley. Envious of his easy charm and silliness, of his mad escapades and youth. Only the week before, we'd all been at the Uni dance and as it was nearing Christmas there'd been a competition sponsored by Bacofoil, of all people, for the best tinfoil sculpture created on the night by drunken students - and us. We got Batley to crouch on a low table and wrapped him in yards of free foil. We carried him shoulder height to the 'judges' - a panel of student reps - and plonked him down. Batley then burst forth in a shower of crumpled silver. I'm a fucking Christmas turkey, he carolled. The students were so intimidated by the mad glint in Batley's eye and all us Punks they gave us top prize.

It was typical of Batley's electric nerve and hilarity and the polar opposite of Davey's sombre, obscure humour. Davey wasn't charming. He wasn't quick. I liked them both, because they were so different. But Batley called on my maternal instinct of forbearance and indulgence. Davey was the dark brother of my chaotic mind. Davey hated Batley and Batley thought Davey was a bit of a weirdo, if he even thought of him at all. Which irked Davey even more.

One night, as snow fell outside covering the ugly back yard in a polar bear's pelt of furry white, and the noises from the street were muffled and distant, Davey and I sat up talking and as usual, reciting bits from Round The Horne. It was very late and I was about find some bedding for Davey who'd sleep on the sofa then turn in, when Batley burst in through the unlocked front door in a spray of snowflakes and cold, jabbering ten to the dozen about his fabulous night out and who he'd seen, what they wore, a glittering fountain of chat as vivid as neon. My concern was that he was soaking wet and it was freezing. He threw himself on the sofa in front of the wheezing gas fire which was on warp drive and proceeded to interrupt my conversation with Davey to detail who snogged who.

Distracted,  I didn't notice how furious Davey looked. I didn't notice the tension ripple through his thick shoulders and his broad, square hands clench. I didn't notice his smile wasn't humorous but the white, skinned grin of anger. I was about to get up and put the kettle on, when Davey sprang up and pulling his belt out of his jeans, grabbed Batley and whipped the belt round his neck, holding both ends and pulling tight, his knee in the boy's chest.

I don't know if you've witnessed brutal violence in real life. I hope you haven't. It's not like the films or the telly. It has a commonplace, grunting actuality that distorts time, so a few seconds can seem like hours or an hour like a minute. You can barely take in what's happening or process your fear and adrenaline.  As the leather belt creaked and Davey silently exerted his considerable strength I was frozen, half in, half out of the armchair. Then I heard the faintest gasp from Batley. It was enough. My child, my changeling fosterson, the boy who called me Mum and brought me stolen flowers, who pressed himself into that part of my heart that held the images of the children I'd never have, whispered piteously, unconsciously, and I sprang on Davey, punching him, wrenching him off Batley with all my strength and power.

Davey let go and fell back to his corner in the dark. I pulled Batley up as he rubbed his bruised throat, puzzled and momentarily confused. Red veins striated his eyes. He coughed and retched, then said what the fuck? I turned furiously to Davey, Batley behind me. Davey was already shoving his books into his bag and getting into his coat.

We didn't speak. There was no need. To him, I'd sided with the enemy, the cuckoo in the nest. I'd betrayed him. I'd broken our contract. I wasn't his imitation sister anymore and there was no going back. He left, and I only saw him once again, decades later, by chance in town. He was living alone in a bedsit, washing dishes for a living. All his brillant potential destroyed. I've never seen him since.

After making tea and settling Batley for the night, we never spoke of what happened again. It was too strange, too awful and like young people do, we buried it. Only now do I shudder at what would have happened if I hadn't battered at Davey until he let go, if that silent struggle had run its course. Batley eventually ran off to London, which was inevitable as town was really far, far too small and dull for him. After a few years knocking around with the wrong crowd he fell in with the right crowd and made a huge success of his life. He'd occasionally turn up at poetry readings I did in the South and get in free - of course - by telling the organisers he was my son, his cheek undiminished by the years.

Sometimes, you really are In the right place at the right time and do the right thing. Other times, the voice that tells you what's right is drowned by the contorted ruination of your childhood and the wrong choices that seemed so inevitable and sure. I woke the next morning to see X's dear face and a world as white as a sepulchre, laid clean and new for the taking. Everything seemed to shine with the light of another world. I love you, bear, said X, I promise I'll never, ever leave you.

I promise.


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© JOOLZ DENBY - ARTIST - TATTOOIST - WRITER - POET - BRADFORD, WEST YORKSHIRE, UK - JOOLZDENBY00@GMAIL.COM