The Bull Singer
"He's not coming in here, is he?"
"Never; if he does I'm leaving."
"Phewh! You can him smell from here."
"Get lost, street boy; get back to your gutter."
Joey started forward in response to the taunts, and I had to hold him back. "That's quite enough! You're not in school now," I said in a loud voice. After this I was definitely going to the school. The offensive remarks continued as I dragged Joey, struggling, to the left of the stage and through a heavy curtain to the corridor below the wings. As soon as we were out of sight of the boys, I spun him round and held him to me. "It's okay, Joey, I'll sort it."
Joey struggled to free himself. "I get a load of hassle from them at school; I'm not going to fucking get it here as well; no way."
"No. Let me go; I'm going home."
"Joey, just listen; you're not a spoilt brat so don't act like one." I loosened my grip on him, but not enough that he could break free. "You run now and they win. Do you want
that?" He struggled a bit more, but slowly the fight went out of him. He stood there within my arms but looked away from me, grinding his teeth. I shook him gently. "Now we're going into the office to meet my aunt, and you are going to show her what a good dancer you are."
"I'm showing no one anything."
"If you went to a dance school or a college of performing arts, you'd have to audition for a place. Consider this a practice run. Mrs Devonshire doesn't bite, you know."
"Who says I don't?" a crisp voice snapped behind me. I turned to find the eldest of my aunts standing outside her office with her arms folded across her chest and a face like thunder, which was comical on a person as tiny as Aunt Millie in her flowing shawl and long lace skirt. Her grey hair was the same as I remembered, pulled up on top with pins that failed to do their job and allowed strands of hair to stick out at all angles.
I smiled at her. "Hello, Auntie."
Her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. "Magnus? Good Heavens above, where did you spring from?" She rushed to me and Joey had to step out of the way or be knocked flying as she flung her arms round me and waltzed me around, giggling like a schoolgirl. I hugged her back, fully aware of Joey sidling towards the curtain; intent on making his escape and hoping I wouldn't notice.
After giving her a kiss, I said, "Just as minute, Auntie, I'm dealing with a bit of a problem. Joey, come and meet my Auntie Millie." I left it to him whether to stay or head through the curtain and whatever trouble awaited him from the boys. Thankfully, I won and he came back to me. "Mrs Devonshire, may I introduce Joseph Street, a talented amateur hoofer. Joey, meet my aunt, Mrs Millicent Devonshire."
I watched them shake hands and weigh each other up, Millie with the keen eye of a professional, and Joey with the usual suspicion of a teenager meeting a stranger.
"Well, well! A dancer in the making, eh? What's your preference?"
Joey just shrugged his shoulders.
"He does a very good jazz routine," I said, "rather in the style of Fosse."
"Oh?" Millie looked him over again with fresh interest. "I'd like to see what you can do, young man." She indicated the steps leading up into the wings of the stage, and headed towards them. Joey held back and she stopped to look over her shoulder at him. "You're not shy are you?"
"There's a problem," I said. "Some members of your group are in the same school as Joey, and they're not too happy about him joining them."
Millie nodded. "We'll see about that. Have you got music with you?"
"I have a CD."
"Very well, then. Let's go."
Joey still hung back and I put an arm round his shoulders. "Do the boys know you can dance?" Joey shook his head. "In that case, if you want them to win, just go home. If you don't want them to win, go and show them what you can do. You can't be any worse than them. So, go kill 'em kid." I guided him up the steps with a hand in his back so he couldn't turn and run, and we followed Millie onto the stage.
The noise died down and the kids onstage drew back to let Millie take centre stage. "Thank you everyone. Now listen carefully. I want each of you to cast your minds back to the time you first came here. Some of you knew each other; others knew no one. Not all of you liked each other, for some reason or other, but as time went on and you discovered each other's talents, your forgot your differences and fell in love with the stage, so much so, that you blended together to make one of the best amateur show groups I have seen for a long time; and each of you made a promise; to give every child who wanted to join our group a chance to prove themselves. Then you, not me, voted to let the child stay or not. Now, before we begin our rehearsal today, I would like to introduce two people. First, may I introduce someone whom you might have heard of, if you're fans of 'Billy Junior'? Hands up those who know who I'm, talking about?"
Most of the older kids put their hands up. "Well, this gentleman here is my nephew, Magnus Alton; he is also a member of the Billy Junior Band." While the kids gave a gasp of astonishment, I stared at Millie, wondering how on earth she knew. "Quiet everyone, please! Thank you. The second person I wish to introduce is Joseph Street. Some of you already know him from school and I hope you will remember your promise and let him show us what he can do. Can I have your CD please, Joseph?" While Millie took the CD to the sound equipment set up on the back of the stage, I watched Joey calmly take off his bomber jacket and his shirt to reveal a black sleeveless T-shirt to match the black school pants he wore. He took off his shoes, took a pair of black tap shoes and a black bowler hat from his bag along with a pair of white gloves and put them on. Ready to dance, he ignored the snide whispers fluttering about the stage, mostly from the older kids. He walked to the centre of the stage, and waited for the music to begin. Using excerpts from Fosse's famous choreographed shows, Cabaret, Chicago, Liza With a Z, All That Jazz, and The Pyjama Game, Joey had recorded an eight-minute compilation of varied tempo music, to which he gave us a brilliant example of his talent s. I had seen some of it when he practiced at the cottage but nothing like I was seeing now. Today, he was Fosse, complete with hip thrusts, hunched shoulder jerks and his dexterity with hat and fingers. When the music stopped and he bowed, there was stunned silence at first, followed by a ripple of applause, begun surprisingly by the boys who had threatened to give him trouble. By the time he had walked back to me, he was breathing hard and sweating profusely and reached into his bag for a towel which he buried his face in, and so did not see Millie walk to the centre of the stage and call for attention.
"Alright, everyone; you all have a vote regardless of age. Do you want Joseph to stay or not? Hands up those who say aye." Almost everyone put their hands up, including the boys from school, followed by still more applause, louder this time as Joey turned to acknowledge the vote. He bowed again and waited for Millie to approach him. "Welcome to the Luxor Theatre Club, Joseph; are you going to join us?"
Joey shrugged his shoulders. "If you can guarantee that lot over there will stay off my back; and the name is Joey."
Millie turned to look at the troublesome group. "Well, as they led the vote I should say you did that yourself. Practice days are Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, and Saturday mornings, nine till one if there's a show coming up and we need extra rehearsals. Subscriptions are two pounds a week, which we use to make our own costumes and scenery. Now, nephew dear, can you spare me a few minutes in my office? I'm sure the kids will look after Joey for you." But we'd both forgotten her mentioning my connection with Billy Junior. Kids mobbed me from all directions, wanting my autograph. They wanted me to play for them but I said maybe next time. Eventually, Millie managed to extricate me from my new fans and took me to her office where she plied me with questions about my musical adventures, and my subsequent membership of Billy Junior. When I asked her how she knew about my being in the band, she smiled and said, "I've been following you and your sax for years, lad; even if the family don't. And I have friends who keep me informed." Being my eldest aunt, and having the same love of music as I did, she had always been my mentor and counsellor, and knew, just by looking at me, that something needed airing. I took a chance and told her about Billy and I, and how Joey reminded me so much of him.
"Chip off the old block, eh?" she remarked with a smile.
"Huh?" I felt my cheeks go hot.
Millie flapped her hands at me. "You silly goose, you know what I'm talking about; your dad and his fancy boy. Jamie I think his name was. Went off to Canada, otherwise you wouldn't have been born. Your dad caught your mother on the rebound. She gave him a hanky to cry into and he gave her a baby; namely you. When your mum died, he came to me and told me everything, glad he could talk to someone, now he didn't have to worry about her finding out. Lord knows, if those two sisters of mine haven't worked it out by now they never will; they must have their heads in the clouds half the time, or up a cow's backside. They only come down to earth when there's a cow to milk or eggs to collect. I hope you've brought me some."
"I have two dozen in the boot of my car," I said with a chuckle, "and some of Aunt Cissy's homemade Lancashire cheese."
"Oh goody! All that lovely Cholesterol!" Millie giggled like a child then looked at her watch. "Oh my goodness, I'll have to get the rehearsal started. Sorry I have to toss you out; you'll be collecting Joey after rehearsals, won't you? We can talk some more then." She promised to keep an eye on Joey and I escaped to walk to the school a mile out of town, another familiar building with a mountain of memories. On entering the main building I made my way to the head teacher's office and found myself walking towards a familiar figure from my past.
"I don't believe it." My old pal and I shook hands till I thought they would drop off. "I haven't seen you since we left school, you haven't changed a bit. Still pint sized with four eyes."
"A bit fatter and a few less hairs, I'd say," Donald Mitchell said as he pushed his glasses up his nose. "The last time I talked to your dad, you were swanning around Europe with that gob stick of yours. What brings you back here to Fordage High School?"
"I've come to see the head teacher if he's got time to see me. And it isn't a gob stick, that's the clarinet."
"Oh, well. I'm sure he'll be pleased to see you; in fact I know he's pleased to see you. It's me."
My jaw dropped. "You? Since when? How did it happen?"
"I have a few minutes to spare so come into my office and I'll tell you."
Once we were seated at his desk with cups of tea in front of us, Donald said, "It was quite by accident I got the job. I went through college and did a teacher training course; and taught at schools in Herefordshire and Powys; but I got itchy feet and wanted to do more, so I took an advanced course. Then I came back to Fordage and taught here for a while as deputy head till the old head teacher fell ill and moved away to be looked after by a relative. There were no applicants and you can't leave a school leaderless for too long so I applied and got the job. If I hadn't come home I might never have had a head teacher's job so soon. You don't find many heads under forty."
"Most definitely; a son, two lovely daughters and hopefully another boy on the way. You?"
Donald grinned. "I didn't think you would be, somehow. Not after what we did in my dad's attic."
"That was nothing," I protested, "just a quick wank between friends. We didn't really know what we were doing, and we were only ten years old at the time."
"Yes, but you never showed any interest in girls after that."
"And you couldn't keep off them."
We smiled at each other for a moment, self-conscious with the memory, and then Donald cleared the air by asking me what I needed to see him for.
"I've come about Joey Street. He's living in our old house at Home Farm and I've got to know him quite well. Someone's bullying him and I want to find out if it's been happening at school, and when the suspension can be lifted."
Donald shook his head. "There's been no bullying here, at least not the physical stuff. We have zero tolerance on that subject at Fordage; not like in our day. I would have been black and blue if it hadn't been for you watching my back. It wasn't easy being short and fat and wearing specs in those days. I vowed when I started teaching that no kid under my supervision would suffer that way. So far it's worked."
"What about his mother? Do you know anything about her at all?"
"Not much, except that I don't like her. She runs a chain of beauty salons in Manchester and Birmingham and likes to think she can come in and lay the law down as if it's one of her establishments; on the rare occasions she decides to put in an appearance that is. Now about the suspension." Donald went to a grey metal filing cabinet and searched for a file. Taking one out, he brought it to the desk, sat down and opened it. "Mmm; almost borderline this one. I didn't instigate the suspension, a female teacher did, and just over half the staff voted with her. Street created trouble for himself as soon as he started here, both with the staff and some of the pupils; although the latter might not have been his fault. As I said, we have a zero tolerance policy here and to be fair to the lad, when some of the lads got on his back, he challenged them to a fight off school premises. I didn't see anything myself but my sports teacher said the boys took him on and wished they hadn't. It seems they soon stopped the fight when they found he knew a bit about street fighting; gave one of them a bloody nose."
"So, if it wasn't for fighting, what was the suspension for?"
"Verbal abuse against the female teacher and myself, and several others, over the last few months. We preferred not to do anything about it, purely because we thought there was an underlying problem. We discovered that he had no father and by the state of his clothes, his mother didn't care a hoot about him. I interviewed him and found out she's away quite a lot but he copes well enough under the circumstances. He even washes his own clothes, such as they are and comes to school fairly clean and neat, and he cooks his own meals apparently. Not a feat many teenage boys would willingly tackle. I feel quite sorry for him in a way. If he didn't look after himself and keep himself fed, I'd bring the Social Services in. Apart from his mother not being there, we haven't any valid reason to involve them, even though I've seen bruises on him. He's not afraid of getting stuck in on the rugby field he always says that's where they come from; and we can't prove otherwise. If only he had some hobby to occupy his mind instead of taking his frustration out on people."
"Well actually, he has." I told Donald about his dancing skills, and how my Dad was going to teach him to be the next bull singer of Fordage. Donald was pleasantly surprised at that, and I left the school with his promise to review Joey's suspension. I also left with the name of the recipient of the bloody nose. David Jackson, Barry the builder's son. I made a mental note to have a word with Barry the next time I saw him.
By the time I had done some shopping, and chosen and paid for a large fridge/freezer to be delivered to the cottage, along with the first of my furnishings and bed linen, it was time to pick Joey up from the Luxor. Parents and older siblings were already picking up the younger kids, and some of the older ones were working on some pieces of scenery onstage. I assumed Millie was in her office so I made my way towards the curtain. As I reached it, I noticed that Joey wasn't on stage with the other boys and I asked one of them where he was.
The boy shrugged his shoulders. "Last time I saw him some of his cronies were dragging him into the toilets."
I dived to the gents in the front foyer and as I reached them I heard a burst of taunting laughter. Hoping I wasn't too late to save Joey from whatever the boys were doing, I charged the door and ran in, stopped short with my mouth hanging open. The boys were leaning against the cubicle doors, watching Joey as he held their attention with an explanation about something. The boys had wide grins on their faces and there seemed to be no animosity between them and Joey. Their gazes fastened on me and I stood there, feeling like a right nerd. Joey glanced over his shoulder at me, and raised a knowing eyebrow. He turned back to the boys and said, "I'd better go." He picked up his bag and walked towards me.
"See you tomorrow," one of them called out, and Joey waved a hand at them.
"What was all that about?" I asked as we walked to Millie's office.
"They want me to join their dance group. They call themselves 'The Paper Dolls' and do a shadow routine. You know the type; they dance behind a white screen with a strong light behind them?"
"Are going to join them?"
"I don't know yet. I'll see."
The next day was a busy one for me; when did I ever have any other kind of day? I rose early, drove into Manchester, and took a train to London to pick up my car and visit a friend. Jeremy Rhied was an aging actor, and loved mimicking famous people, his favourite victim being Leslie Phillips, of whom he had a distinct likeness both in appearance and mannerisms. He was also a keen amateur Family History Researcher and knew a lot about delving into records. Not only that; he was a a well-heeled adventurer with the means to indulge himself in wild escapades, his father being loaded to the back teeth.
"Hello Magsy! Come on up," Jeremy's surprised voice floated out of the intercom to his penthouse apartment. The main door opened and I went through and up in the lift. He stood at the open door of the apartment, grinning with delight. "Good to see you, Magsy dear boy! This is a pleasant surprise. Do come in."
"Hi, Jeremy." Nobody ever called him Jez. "I hope I haven't come at an inconvenient time."
"Heavens, no; I'm at a loose end today. What could be better than having a chinwag with an old friend? How's the music business going? Still playing are you? Bad business Billy dying like that. So young too." This was the Jeremy I remembered, always asking a string of questions without waiting for answers. I followed him across a pale green deep pile carpet, and we sat down on a gorgeous white leather sofa. Without looking, I remembered the rest of the apartment being just as sumptuously furnished; not the usual bachelor pad, but Jeremy wasn't the usual bachelor. "So, is this a business trip or one of your off the cuff visits to jolly old London, the birthplace of money, laughter and sleaze?"
"I came to pick up my car and to ask you to help me do some digging."
"Oh, yes? Somebody's dirty laundry needing a wash?"
"Something like that. I want to find out all I can about a lady called Angela Street who runs a chain of beauty salons. She has a fifteen-year-old son called Joseph, and I think her father is Elias Chambers. He must have pots of money as he gets chauffeured around in an expensive Volvo."
"Street must be her married name, then."
"It might be her mother's maiden name, as she calls herself Ms"
"Do you know anything about this father of hers?"
"I think I saw him once, briefly, when I visited the house. You know me Jeremy; I get vibes off people and I didn't like what I got from this man. This woman seems to have got her hooks into Dad, and I want to find out why. Can you help?"
"Certainly, dear boy; piece of cake; give me a few days and I'll do some digging for you. I might have to apply for certificates which may take a week or so as we haven't got the precise entry numbers yet, but if they are there, I'll find them, in fact I'll start now." He beckoned me to follow him to a computer, which he switched on, and we sat down to wait for it to open up. Once he was connected to the Internet he logged onto a website called Ancestry.com. As I watched, he typed in Elias Chambers and the place of birth as England. Several items came up and Jeremy clicked on marriages, births and deaths in the left column. He chose marriages and three five-star names came up at the top of the list. He clicked one and chose 'other people on page'. The first one had a spouse called Wendy so we ditched that one and tried the next entry. "There we are; spouse's name Marian Street. They married in Islington, London in 1962. Now we know it's Angela's maiden name I can look for her marriage, but not on this site. You say the boy is fifteen, so that makes him born in 1992, and Ancestry haven't got that far forward yet. It's possible she's divorced, or is more likely a single mother. Any idea where the son was born?"
"I could ask him and phone you."
"Meanwhile, let's see if we can find anything more on Elias." Jeremy did a bit more checking on Ancestry and didn't get very far, and tried other research sites with the same result. He said he had other sources to try and would get back to me, so we polished off a bottle of wine between us and chatted about old times till it was time for me to leave. Being over the limit to drive, Jeremy insisted I stay with him for the night and we ate at a favourite restaurant before turning in for an early night. Disappointed that I was returning home without the information I was seeking. I drove home the next day. As I reached Fordage I suddenly realized I had the very information at my fingertips already. I arrived home late in the afternoon, determined to have my Dad singing like a bird.
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