Thursday, April 15, 2021

Bapaume III by Nick Fraser

Why he’d gone for the donkeys I don’t know. All of his other ‘business ventures’ had gone tits up so badly I’m surprised he hadn’t thrown in the towel before I was born. The escort agency; the billiard hall (a partnership with Joey Hart – whoever the fuck he was); the sandwich boards; the tram adverts; the American hamburger joint on the Golden Mile…the list seemed endless.
Nanna was understandably critical; mum was understandably protective, but when she spoke about him she was sad and probably a little confused. Let’s face it, he’d done nothing to cover himself in glory. He’d failed to support mum and me until the day he threw in the towel forever. Shame really. The bloke that was sold to me as my dad was Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, even Budgie Bird, but he was actually a selfish, dreaming piss-pot who’d struggled to feed himself, let alone his family. Wish I could really remember him properly though. He smelt of Embassy tipped and Double Diamond (apparently) and he wore a watch, a gold coloured one, which had his wrist hairs trapped in the bracelet. He used to tickle my neck with pincer-like fingers when I’d sit between his legs watching telly. He went out a lot and wasn’t there when I woke up in the morning a lot. He wasn’t a bad man – he just wasn’t a good dad; but like I say, I wish I could really remember him.

So why the donkeys? Jack Carnell was the name that kept coming up. He was a pre-war ponce who wore a tatty homburg and was rarely seen without a cheap cigar (Romeo and Juliet?) and sweat on his upper lip.

Mum was endless in her criticism of him and Nanna, who’d never been north of Peterborough, poured even more poison into the pot. I think the reasoning was that the shittier the company, the more of an arsehole my dad must have been. Suffice it to say, Jack was a fellow piss-pot and dad was no Dick Turpin – quite ironic really as DT was really a pock-marked horse thief hanged for little else.

Jack owned twenty-two donkeys, complete with harnesses, bells, blinkers, chains and straw hats. Mum told me that dad had thought he was a great laugh. He’d got him with the old one about what the donkeys on Blackpool beach have for their lunch: ‘About half an hour like everyone else,’ Jack had quipped. My dad was sold. It wasn’t Jack’s fault that the donkeys all died. He just sold them. It was Bapaume II who was responsible for that asinine mass murder.

It was hardly worthy of a Peter Schaffer play, but the script was equally tragic and entertaining. Dad had bought them for twenty-five pounds each. I’m not exactly sure what five hundred and fifty pounds was worth in nineteen seventy-six compared to now, but I’ll bet it won’t have been far short of about seven or eight thousand quid.

Passbook in hand and four pints under his belt, he led Jack to a Post Office round the corner from Stanley Park, its flagpole leaning awkwardly in the other direction as if to warn him to walk the other way. The money changed hands and Jack buried it in his money belt, inside layers of flab, pullovers and several dark overcoats. After shaking hands, the two men customarily returned to the pub from whence they came.

Now here it is. At six o’clock, four pints later, Jack led my dad over to the stables where he kept the beasts of burden. With bells and harnesses he and dad tacked them up and took them down to the beach. Jack thereby showed my dad the basics of donkey handling: how to move them; turn them; feed them; water them; wash them; stable them; discipline them and even stop fat kids from riding them too hard.

My dad was happy. Happy and purposeful. In the letter to my mum found on his body, he told her how he had led the whole train of twenty-two donkeys up and down the beach opposite the tower until dusk. At eight thirty he got a thirst on him, but he still wanted to show his new toys off to his drinking buddies, so he chained them up to the promenade wall.

As he entered the boozer Georgie Marr was propped up against the bar. He saw his smug face sunk deep into a pint of Guiness and made his way over to the big Irish bastard. He ordered a pint and once he’d taken a satisfactory slurp, he let his elbow brush gently against the colossus.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ mumbled the labourer from Cork.
‘I’ve got a surprise for you Georgie.’
‘For a cunt with such a stupid name you’re a cocky –
‘Cunt?’
‘Aye. Cunt.’
‘Donkeys Georgie.’
‘What?’
‘Donkeys.’
‘What d’yer mean saying donkeys? Yer daft bastard.’
‘I’ve bought twenty-two donkeys.’
‘Not from that daft twat Carnell?’
‘Yeah. Why?’
‘Nothing.’
‘No, come on. What do you mean nothing?’
‘I mean nothing. Now leave me and my pint alone and fuck off!’

My dad approached the dartboard and scratched his name onto the battered blackboard next to it. Joey Hart threw the last of his three darts at double one and then caught him by the sleeve.
‘Donkeys?’
‘Yeah, donkeys,’ said dad.
The reply was pretty much the same all night long. It turned out that Jack had been trying to off-load the beasts for some time. It would seem that every piss-pot in Blackpool had said no apart from my dad.

By half past ten dad was rat-arsed and then the lock-in started. The stakes went up with each game of darts and the money for illicit beer went into the pint glass behind the bar; each punter so grateful for every pint that tasted sweeter than those bought before the bell.

That’s about as much as we know, apart from the obvious. Dad was found dead next to his dead donkeys. The police were able to confirm that much. After waking up at dawn on a bench on the prom, he must have gone to check on his forgotten acquisition. His findings caused him to ram his penknife through his eye into his brain. He probably bled and suffered a great deal, before he keeled over on top off the sodden, swollen beasts.
He’d secured them to the sea wall on a chain with ten feet of slack. While he was sleeping it off on the bench, the tide had come in to a depth of fifteen feet at the wall. God only knows what the poor creatures had gone through at the time.

The police found his blood-soaked body draped over the rigid corpses of his last throw of the dice. The letter, written in pencil on both sides of a Ladbrokes betting slip and addressed to my mum, was found in the inside pocket of his jacket. Finding his new and last venture so utterly wretched must simply have been too much for him to bear. My selfish, pathetic, pitiful, one-eyed dad.


© Nick Fraser

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