At first, the armbands had been the best thing ever and I couldn’t wait to wear them. Nanny Jill had bought them for me because she knew that I loved Peppa. On the armbands Peppa and George were wearing swimming costumes and smiling. Peppa was smiling right at me and I thought that was very nice. Mummy had been talking about swimming lessons for a long time and I was looking forward to getting my swimming costume. When we got to the shop I knew it was not going to special like the armbands. We went to a sports shop and the only choice was about what colour stripe was down the side. I wasn’t excited about the swimming lessons anymore. Mummy said it should be a good quality costume but to me there was nothing good about it. It was horrible.
When we got there we had to get changed with all the other kids. We didn’t go in a separate cubicle. Mummy was talking to the lady next to us; her little girl had a purple costume covered in mermaids. It made me feel really sad. Mummy started to squeeze on my armbands and for a minute I felt a bit happier when I saw Peppa Pig smiling up at me but then I realised that everyone else had plain orange ones. Mummy was still talking to her new friend; she was always making new friends. I wanted to see if I could fit into a locker so I went round the corner and climbed into the family sized one. It was a bit small and I had to squash in my arms, but it felt nice.
Mummy was very angry because she couldn’t find me and couldn’t understand why I was hiding in a locker. I said I wasn’t hiding, I was just sitting, but mummy was pulling me along by my armband and I kept slipping on the floor. All of the children were sitting on the side of the pool near a lady who wore a t-shirt, but the t-shirt was wet, so I knew it wouldn’t keep her warm. Everyone turned round to look at me. Mummy pushed me next to the girl with the dolphin costume. She didn’t smile at me so I didn’t smile back.
All of the children were told they could splash the teacher with their feet. Everyone started to kick the water like crazy while the lady shielded her eyes. I didn’t want to put my feet in the water. Next the t-shirt lady said we could slide in and she would catch us. I knew I didn’t want to slide in. I was happy I was last in the row but then she turned and made me first, which I thought was cheating.
I watched as all the other children slid into the water. The lady said she would come back to me. I kept looking round at mummy but she was talking to her new friend, which didn’t seem fair because we had come here for me to make new friends and do swimming lessons, not for mummy to make new friends. Mummy already had lots of friends and I didn’t see why she needed any more. Then mummy stopped talking to her friend and saw me still on the side of the pool. She looked cross put pretended to smile. I felt wet on my knees and realised it was me crying.
The lady came back and asked if I wanted to go down the steps. All of the children were bobbing around in their armbands near the side. Dolphin costume stuck her tongue out, so I stuck out mine back but the t-shirt lady thought I was doing it to her and said that was very naughty and I should just hurry up and get in and stop messing around.
I stood up and walked over to the steps but instead of going down them like the lady told me to I walked straight past. I was pleased that my locker was still empty, so I climbed back in. I wished I had my towel now because I was quite cold.
This time when mummy dragged me out I slipped on the floor and banged my head. She shoved me to the t-shirt lady who pulled me into the water. I didn’t get to slide. My head slipped in and I felt terrified. I couldn’t breathe, there was no air and I couldn’t hear myself scream at first. I was splashing and screaming and crying. The t-shirt lady looked shocked. All of the other children laughed. My head hurt, my teeth were chattering and mummy was still talking to her horrid friend.
After we got changed I asked mummy if I could have some Monster Munch from the machine but she dragged me past the machine. Dolphin had Monster Munch, she did a mean smile and waved at me, I put my two fingers up at her like I’d seen daddy do. Luckily mummy was walking ahead so fast with me skidding behind that she didn’t see, but I saw old Dolphin tell her mummy.
In the car mummy said that was the last time we would be going to swimming lessons and I smiled and hoped that was true. I sat in the back of the car and thought about how much I looked like the hulk. I still had my armbands on under my coat.
It started innocuously enough. My daughter and I took a tender from the cruise ship to St Thomas, one of the Virgin Islands, and were bussed to an idyllic sandy beach where two men with over-developed thighs emerged from a dilapidated wooden hut. They gave us clipboards and asked us to complete a questionnaire. This would assess whether we were fit enough to scuba dive and whether we had sufficient respect for nature. I remember one particular question: ‘If I see an underwater organism I should/should not molest it (delete as appropriate). I could see my daughter’s shoulders shaking and couldn’t meet her eyes. That was the funny bit.
Then it got serious.
They put a belt filled with lead round my waist and handed me a pair of flippers which they called fins. However, the weight of the belt and the cumbersome oxygen tank plonked on my back drastically altered my centre of gravity. It meant that I lurched forward and almost kissed the sand every time I tried to put my foot in a fin. Eventually, like some crippled soul approaching the altar at Lourdes, I was escorted into the sea by the two burly men who swiftly did the job.
When I put the regulator in my mouth that converts high pressure oxygen in the tank to something more user-friendly, I began to feel the first frisson of fear. My breathing suddenly became so loud it was like having an asthmatic Darth Vader on my shoulder. Gamely I plodded on until the water was waist-deep, then I took the plunge into the unfamiliar underwater world. Once submerged, the whooshing sound of my breath going in and out intensified, a perpetual reminder of my vulnerability. I wanted to turn back, tell them it wasn’t for me, but my pride kept me mute, well that and the uncomfortably big rubber regulator distorting my mouth.
And so I went under, deeper and deeper, reminding myself that 30 feet wasn’t much at all really. Then I thought of all that water pressure bearing down on me and people who got the bends and ended up maimed for life if not dead … My breathing was deafening now, my eyes full of tears misting the diving mask. I wanted to escape but didn’t know how. Everyone else’s fins were disappearing into the distance and I was alone in the deep, feeling abandoned.
Realising I was having a panic attack and that screaming wasn’t an option, I struggled to regain control. I thought back to giving birth – the last time I was truly scared – and how yoga breathing had helped. Spreading my arms and legs wide, I lay flat as a starfish just above the seabed breathing in for four counts, holding my breath for a bit, then out for four counts. After a few minutes I felt almost sane and my heart had stopped trying to break free from my chest. I remembered a friend who had gone on a dive and experienced similar terror. She thought she had seen the long, waving arm of an octopus in her peripheral vision and, flooded with adrenaline, yanked at it in a frenzied bid to save herself. Unfortunately what she had actually seen was her diving instructor’s regulator pipe. In the ensuing James Bond-like tussle and rendered mad with fear, she starved him of oxygen and damn near killed him.
I continued with my yoga breathing which seemed to be working and soon felt calm enough to head back to the group. Turning clumsily, I propelled myself forward with my fins. But my breath stuck in my throat when I happened to look up. Above me was a long, silver, cylindrical body with razor-like teeth protruding from its jaw. It did not dart and weave like smaller fish but moved languorously with a cocky superiority as if combing the ocean for prey. A shark – it was a shark. Words from a reference book I’d read a couple of days before came back to bite me: ‘Although there are sharks living within the waters around the Virgin Islands the likelihood of you seeing one is rare. Many shark species are shy but occasional attacks do occur.’
This was not desperately reassuring.
The diving instructor had taught us some hand signals to use if we ran into I trouble but I could not remember what they were. Did making a circle with my thumb and index finger mean I was I danger or should I be rotating my flattened hand to signal my distress? No idea. I’d been too busy thinking about the comedy of the questionnaire when this was explained. I stopped moving, my breath coming now in loud, ragged gasps while the shark lazily circled above my head. I knew it had seen me. I prayed it was the shy type and, more importantly, had already eaten. After an eternity, which was probably only a couple of minutes in the real world, it sashayed back into the blue mist leaving me paralysed with fear.
By now, alerted by my daughter’s bizarre behaviour, the instructor had become aware I was no longer with the group. Seeing me spread-eagled on the seabed she had begun to laugh so much she began rising to the surface. He had to grab hold of her leg and pull her back down. She had then pointed to my prone form. ‘You looked so ridiculous mum,’ she said later. Now the instructor held my hand and escorted me back to the others. My daughter rolled her eyes.
It was then that a miracle occurred. Reaching into a pouch, the instructor threw handfuls of fish food into the water and suddenly the deep, dark nothingness exploded into life. Shoals of tropical fish swarmed around us – gaudy parrotfish, red squirrelfish, fluorescent blues, iridescent greens and yellows threaded with glittering gold and silver. It was like being hurled into the centre of a rainbow into a magical land of make-believe with colours so vibrant it made Disney look under-stated. I forgot about my breathing, forgot about my fear and gazed wide-eyed as this natural kaleidoscope constantly changed shape around me – one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
And so, yes, I did once go into the deep, though not boldly. And no, I will not be doing it again. I can’t risk meeting another shark. A second one might be looking for its dinner.
There were only three of us left, huddled together, terrified, against the back wall. Then Milly returned, and we were four again.
Milly had found a small amount of food, but had lost it to the Killer, who was still keeping vigil outside our hiding place. She had managed to evade this Monster but had sustained a minor gash on her left side, it was not too serious. She also reported that she had seen a couple of dead bodies. She thought they were probably two of our brave brothers who had escaped last night; there was no sign of any of the others.
There had been about twenty of us living in this cosy lodging before the Evil Killer had demolished the entrance.
The youngsters were the first to go, they were dragged out squealing, and there was nothing we could do to save them. A couple of the horrified Elders tried to create a diversion in an attempt to stop any further destruction of our home and family
They were caught and killed.
The few of us who were left moved back as far as we could away from the demolition. The brothers tried to dig a tunnel out of the back but found it impossible, They decided that they would get out when they thought the Killer was sleeping, and would find help, to dig a tunnel from the outside. We four sisters tried to dissuade them but they were convinced that they would succeed.
It seems that we were right.
Now, we had to have a plan. If we stayed here, in relative safety, we would starve.
An alternative, we decided, was for the four of us to rush out in different directions past the Killer and perhaps one or two of us might survive.
We considered the boys had made the wrong decision to leave at night; we would go in the middle of the day when it was hot. We reasoned that the Killer might be sluggish or even dozing in the warmth.
Our reasoning seemed to be correct, for when the time came, I rushed to the entrance and immediately turned sharp right. I ran as hard as I could until I reached the safety of a nearby hedgerow. Staying in the cover of the hedge I travelled some distance until I suddenly sensed that my sister, Minny, had been there before me. I was trying to establish which direction she had taken, and had wandered out into the open.
I was surprised and attacked from above. I felt the iron-hard claws tighten around my body as I was lifted off the ground. I realised that I was doomed and would soon be dead, but I had enough time to philosophise about my fate.
I had escaped from the cat but had been caught by a hawk.
Such is the destiny of a mouse.
MORGAN RECORDING STUDIOS
Day Sheet: 25/5/1963
Artist Raymond ‘Romeo Ray’ Romano
Musicians: Bert Weedon – Guitar
Clem Cattini – Drums
Jim Fletcher – Bass Guitar
Roger LeVern – Piano
It was warm in the studio that morning, despite the fans set up about the room to keep the musicians cool. All they succeeded in doing was to spread the cigarette smoke around more evenly so everyone smelt like an old ashtray.
‘Morning, Jim.’ Bert Weedon looked up from his music stand and sketched a wave.
‘Bert, Clem, Rog. What have we got today?’ I asked them.
Bert strummed an E major chord. ‘Romeo Ray,’ he said with a knowing smile.
Clem gave a snappy roll on his snare drum and finished with a short splash on his hi-hat. ‘Are we in for a treat,’ he added with heavy sarcasm.
Roger said nothing but sat on his piano stool his head buried in a paperback.
‘I take it he’s not here yet,’ I said as I unclipped the catches of the guitar case and took out my Fender Precision bass.
Bert glanced up at the wall clock. ‘It’s not nine o’clock yet. I doubt we’ll see him much before half past. The boy needs his beauty sleep.’
‘We’ve got time for a couple of run-throughs then. Have you got the charts?’
‘I’ve got mine,’ Bert said. ‘You’ll find yours on your stand.’
‘Very efficient,’ I said. ‘Most unlike you, Bert.’
‘Cheek. Actually it was all set up when I got here. Hot Shot Harrison’s producing this session. He’s the organized one, not me.’
As I took my seat I looked through the window to the control booth.
In the booth I could see the young producer Simon Hot Shot Harrison sitting at the desk smoking a cigarette and exchanging a few words with Alf Martin, the engineer who, as usual, was wearing his white lab coat, his thinning hair plastered to his scalp with brilliantine, his experienced hands hovering over the faders as he made ready to balance the recording.
I plugged in my bass and nodded to Clem to count us in.
In twenty-five minutes we had the arrangements pretty much nailed. ‘Are we all happy with those?’
‘I messed up the solo on the second song,’ Bert said. ‘But I’ll have it down by the time they roll the tape.’
If Bert had messed up I certainly hadn’t noticed, but then that was Bert – ever the perfectionist as well as being the best damned session guitarist in the country.
‘Too much time with your hand stuck up a dog’s arse,’ Clem said from the drums.
‘I told you before, Clem, that’s Ivan Owen’s domain,’ Bert said. ‘I don’t go near the bloody puppets.’
Bert had recently landed the gig on television, teaching the guitar to kids on the Five o’ Clock Club, and sharing presenting duties with Wally Whyton, Muriel Young and two pretty obnoxious glove puppets, Fred Barker, the dog, and Ollie Beak, an owl with a scouse accent, who were the actual stars of the show. Bert was happy with the gig – it paid well – and we were happy too because it gave us so much ammunition to rib him with.
‘Hold up,’ Bert said, ‘the royalty’s arrived.’
There was activity in the control booth as Sam Bloom, Romano’s manager entered, followed by the star himself. And Raymond ‘Romeo Ray’ Romano looked every inch the star as he swept into the booth in his manager’s wake. From his black lacquered pompadour hairstyle, down past his purple leather suit to his green crocodile-skin winkle pickers.
‘Phew!’ Clem said.
‘We are not worthy,’ Roger said with a smile.
‘I remember when he was plain old Les Pickles from Peckham,’ Bert said.
‘Have you played for him before then?’ I asked him.’
‘Yeah, on his first two discs that came out after his Opportunity Knocks appearance on Radio Luxembourg back in ’54. He was a nice kid then, quite shy and very polite, as well a being pretty good singer…but that was before he got famous in America. This is the first time I’ve seen him since he arrived back in the country. On appearances alone, I can’t say I’m that impressed.’
‘Shtum,’ Roger said. ‘Hot Shot’s bringing him through.’
‘Do we bow?’ Clem said, and we all bit the insides of our cheeks to stop ourselves laughing.
Harrison entered the studio and ushered Romano into the soundproofed room. He made the introductions to a mixture of head-nodding and cursory handshakes and led Romano across to the vocal booth, isolated from the rest of the studio by Perspex walls.
‘Well, let’s try a rehearsal, shall we?’ Harrison said in his clipped Old-Etonian accent and retreated quickly back to the safety of the control booth. He tapped Alf on the shoulder and the engineer dutifully started the tape machine. Hot Shot then reached for a goose-necked microphone. ‘When you’re ready, chaps we’ll test for levels.’
Clem counted us in again.
The session progressed smoothly for two numbers but hit a wall on the third. Halfway through the recording, a series of expletives issued from the vocal booth and Romeo Ray stormed out of the box.
‘Hold it there, chaps,’ Harrison said smoothly. ‘Do you have a problem, Ray?’
‘It’s Mr Romano to you,’ Romano snapped.
‘Sorry, Mr Romano. Do you have a problem?’
‘Yes dammit, I do! Where did you find that bass player?’
I looked up. ‘Me?’
‘Yes, you. What’s the matter with you? Can’t you play?’
‘I thought I was doing fine. I’m playing what’s written on the chart.’
‘Yeah, but where’s the feel? When I was recording in the States I was using the best players in the world. Carol Kaye, James Jamerson, people of that calibre. It’s all about feel. James once said to me, “Ray, I get into the deep, man. I lay down a groove so deep that your voice can soar over the top of it.” Can you do that? Can you get into the deep?’
I hit a low E on my Precision, striking the string heavily with my thumb. The note burst out of the studio monitor, making Bert jump and rattling the wire snare on Clem’s kit. ‘Is that deep enough for you, Mr Romano?’ I said, trying to hang on to my temper. I managed it but I don’t know how. It probably had something to do with the expression on Bert Weedon’s face – a mixture of faux outrage and wry amusement.
‘It’s an improvement. Can you keep it up?’
‘I can try, Mr Romano,’ I said tiredly. ‘I can try.’
‘You’d better,’ Romano said threateningly, made his way back to the vocal booth and pulled on his headphones. ‘Let me hear the playback,’ he barked.
I looked across at the control room. Sam Bloom was lying back in his seat, his brown trilby pulled down over his eyes. It looked like he was asleep. Alf Martin was poised at the faders, his face a neutral mask. Hot ShotHarrison was looking at me sympathetically. He pointed to the headphones on his head and then to the pair hanging from my music stand.
I took the cue and picked up the headphones and slipped them over my ears.
‘Don’t take it to heart, dear boy,’ he said. ‘He’s a prima donna. He was like it in America too. It’s why he’s cutting this disc over here.’ He glanced at Bloom, who seemed to be oblivious to what was going on around him. Harrison continued in a low voice. ‘Sam told me in confidence that they can’t find a studio out there who are willing to accommodate him these days and, worse still, they can’t find any half-decent session players willing to work with him again.’
I glanced toward the vocal booth. Romano had headphones on as well and was listening intently to the playback.
‘What does he mean by into the deep?’ I said.
‘Your guess is as good as mine, old son. Just turn your amp up.’
‘I’m on five now. Any louder and it will distort and ruin the recording.’
‘Let Alf here worry about that. He can limit your feed. You can do that, Alf, can’t you?’
Alf Martin rolled his eyes and nodded his head slightly.
I reached behind me and turned my amplifier up to seven.
‘Okay, chaps,’ Harrison said on the monitor. ‘Ready to roll again.’
So we rolled again, and more or less successfully, unless you counted the sour looks I was getting from Bert, Clem and Roger for playing too loudly. Bert even made a play of producing a pair of earplugs and screwing them into his ears.
I played as best I could, but I winced every time I played anything below a low B.
Finally the session finished and we had three tracks in the can.
Romano came out of the booth, nodded curtly to the four of us and disappeared into the control booth.
Sam Bloom roused from his slumber and came into the studio. ‘I’d like to thank you guys for a great session. You all played great.’
‘You heard it then,’ Roger said. ‘When I looked across at you I thought you were asleep.’ Quietly spoken, and with an accent to rival Hot Shot’s, Roger was the group’s smiling assassin. He could say the most outrageous things but, because of his college-boy looks and diffident demeanour, he managed to get away with them.
‘I didn’t miss a note, and what my boy delivered today was gold, pure twenty-four carat spun gold. A year from now he’ll be topping hit parades all across the globe.’
‘I think the Beatles and the Shadows might have something to say about that,’ Clem Cattini said, and Clem spoke from experience. He and Roger had topped the charts all around the world themselves last year with Joe Meek’s opus, Telstar.
‘Bah!’ Bloom said. ‘Guitar groups! A flash in the pan, nothing more, nothing less. The future belongs to real singers, like my boy there.’ He looked almost adoringly across at Romano who was sitting in the chair Bloom had just vacated and was nodding his head in time to the recordings he’d made.
‘If you say so, Sam,’ Bert said.
‘Damned right I say so and I’m never wrong about these things. Bye, lads.’ He walked out of the studio, back to the control booth, where he collected Romeo Ray, and stepped out into the late afternoon sunshine.
‘Well, I never want to work with Ray Romano again,’ I said.
‘And I doubt you ever will,’ said Bert. ‘It comforts me to know that Romeo Ray’s career is in the hands of a visionary like Sam Bloom.’
‘You know what,’ Roger said. ‘I think theirs is a match made in heaven.’
We were still laughing as we put away our gear and headed off to the next gig.
There was definitely a familiarity, the smell for certain. How to describe it? Old biscuits…sort of creamy…and very reassuring.
She began to look around her and realised that lying next to her was a floppy rabbit. Mr Timothy! How wonderful to see him again He was so smart in his little bow tie. Violet had forgotten all about him, but seeing him now, it was like meeting a long lost friend. She and Mr Timothy had been through so much together.
Violet wriggled around under the blanket. She lifted her legs up and grabbed her feet. Now this was exciting, Violet hadn’t touched her toes for years. She tried to sit up but discovered that to be more difficult. Could she stand? She reached for the bars and tried to pull herself up. It was difficult but she was determined to see over the side.
The door opened and Violet knew the smell immediately…Lily of the Valley. The woman stood at the door and sighed. Her blonde hair in tight curls, lips smiling and sea-blue eyes.
‘Violet, what are you doing standing there? You little monkey!’
Violet began to cry, huge squawking sobs, it felt good and then two arms lifted her from the cot.
It was her mother lifting her, holding her in her arms, kissing the top of her head. Loving her like she hadn’t been loved in years.
‘Would you like a cup of tea, Violet?’
Violet opened her watery blue eyes and tried to focus on the woman standing next to her. She felt like her head was going to burst; she really didn’t feel very well this morning. Her eyes hurt when she tried to turn her head.
‘Thank you that would be nice.’
Violet had never forgotten her manners not like some of the old people in this place who swore and spat. That’s why she preferred to stay in her room, but they would insist on dragging her down to the lounge and sticking her in front of the telly.
‘Come on now, sweetie. Don’t cry, darling. Let’s get you some milk.’
Violet reached out her hand and touched her mother’s cheek. Its smoothness touched her heart. Her mother stroked her head and Violet drank in her smell.
Now they were in the kitchen and sitting on a stool and Violet was drinking her milk, gazing into her mother’s eyes.
Suddenly there was a terrible noise, a loud whining and Violet’s mother sprung to her feet. She grabbed her handbag and Violet’s blanket. Violet remembered the noise. It was an air raid.
‘Here’s your tea, Violet. We’ll take you downstairs, shall we?’
‘I am not feeling myself today. I’ve a terrible headache.’
‘Come along now, Violet A change of scenery will do you good.’
‘Honestly, Dear, I just don’t feel like myself today….I am very tired.’