The survivors will envy the dead
– CND banner,
Hyde Park, London,
Saturday 22nd October, 1983
Halloween. It was Halloween of all nights when I first set eyes on them, first set eyes on Claire. I was roughing it that year, hitching around, casual job to casual job. Well, I’d been roughing it for a couple of years by then in fact; ever since I’d packed in school, packed in life at home, packed in life as my mother’s son. I was pretty much rootless, pretty much up for anything going. I’d had a job down on the south coast for a while, not far from Brighton, cash-in-hand on a building site, making tea for the navvies, shovelling the shit that nobody else was prepared to shovel. But then there was some problem with the developer’s budget projections or something. Everybody non-essential got laid off and Yours Truly was at the front of the queue. I tried London for a time, but it was no place to sleep rough, no place to be without a decent set of threads and half-a-dozen credit cards, not even back then. London gobbled up my building-site money like a hungry horse and made sure it kept the change. So I decided to head out, try my luck somewhere up North again. That’s one of the stupid things about it. I’d no intention of coming back to Crowby, not the slightest intention. It was just the luck of the road that brought me back, that was all. Bad luck, as it turned out. The baddest of bad luck. I’d got out of London easily enough as well, got off to a good start. A trucker brought me right up the M1 as far as the Newport Pagnell services and then this sales guy offered me a lift, said he was going as far as Birmingham on the M6. The only problem was that later on he turned out to be gay, turned out to be cruising, even offered me a tempting amount of pound notes. When I said no, he threw a fit, turfed me out on to the hard shoulder just before the North Crowby junction. It was near enough sunset by then, evening turning into night, the traffic speeding past like I was invisible. I was starting to think fuck it, I’ll walk off the motorway, walk all way the back to my mum’s place, maybe doss down there for a couple of days, rest up, let her make a fuss, put up with her pleading for me to stop on. Except that’s when pointy-hatted Claire pulled up in her little green sports car. The MG. Smiling at me, blonde and blue-eyed, almost ridiculously beautiful. I was barely nineteen right? Barely knew how to tie my shoelaces, barely had ten quid left in my pocket. And here was Claire, dressed up like a stripogram witch in her long spangly cloak and her short black dress, offering me a lift, asking me if I’m cold or hungry, telling me there’s a party at her place, that I could stay the night there if I wanted to, have a drink, something to eat, plus they could easily find a bed for me, easily cook me breakfast. She’s got Bowie on the radio too. Let's Dance. The thin white duke.
Claire’s place was – well, you probably know where Claire’s place was, what Claire’s place looked like. The tabloids weren’t content with straightforward photographs after all. Not then, not later, not now. Along with the lies and the exaggerations, they always like to publish plans, diagrams, artist’s impressions, aerial views. Claire was in a good mood that night. She could be up or down, superficial or serious, as I’d find out later. But that night she was all up. I think there’d probably been some temporarily good news about the campaign, that all of them were in the party spirit. As for me, I’d never seen anything like it, never met anybody like any of them.
The cottage isn’t all that far from where I live now. I walk a lot these days, living out in the country the way I do. Fresh air, exercise, freedom to roam. All of that means a lot to you when you’ve spent the best years of your life inside like I have. So I walk past the cottage sometimes, even occasionally take a closer look around. It’s been derelict for years now of course. At first nobody wanted to buy it because of what happened there and because of all the publicity. And now it would cost a small fortune to do it up to anything like modern standards. So I guess it’ll just stay the way it is, slowly rotting and crumbling into the ground. Not long after I won my appeal, one of the papers said I was going to buy it, going to move in and live there. I’ve no idea where they got that one from, probably just made it up themselves. Believe me, I couldn’t live there again, not for so much as a single day.
Back then, of course, it was a different story. The place was crowded, packed, alive. There were maybe twenty or thirty people living there at the peak of it all. Christ knows how they all fitted in, how they all found bed space or floor space. I mean the place wasn’t exactly large. There were a couple of tipis out in the garden of course. And any number of vans and old cars in the lane that mainly belonged to the itinerant supporters, the non-hardcore, who came and went as the mood suited them, contributing something useful in some cases, sponging off the community in others. Plus the in-betweens who did a bit of both. Contrary to popular belief, nobody lived in the famous ‘freedom field’ on a permanent basis. The field was home solely to the most temporary of the protestors, day–trippers and weekenders who might turn out for one of the special mass actions that the campaign organised from time to time.
I’ve thought about it often. What exactly Claire said to me in the car that night when she was driving me over there for the first time. But I spent as much time looking at her as listening to her and all I’ve got in my head are fragments. I’d no idea at the time how important, how significant, meeting her would turn out to be. If I could have seen what was coming, I’d never have got in, just kept right on walking. Or thumbed for another lift, any other lift. Even stayed with the sales guy, let him have his sodding blow-job.
I guess though that she didn’t actually say all that much. Not about what they were really up to anyway. They were careful like that, careful not to frighten newcomers off. She mentioned the party again, mentioned something about the real significance of Halloween and Beltane, all that Celtic heritage stuff. That’s what I thought they were at first probably - hippies, a harmless bunch of new agers. And some of the hangers-on were just that. But not the hard-core. Not the committed. Not the politicos. If I’d been more clued in, I might have guessed that straightaway - when Claire turned off the radio, killed Bowie, shoved the Crass onto her tape deck instead, Bloody Revolutions, told me they were her favourite band. Maybe you don't remember them? Maybe you've never heard of them? I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you - just count yourself as one of the lucky ones.
The sun had completely gone by the time we got there and the party was already in full swing. I helped her up to the cottage from the car with the crates of cheap plonk she’d been picking up in Crowby in case they ran out of booze. And that was when I first met Nigel. Nigel with his face painted red, green and yellow for the party. Nigel heading out into the yard to chop some more wood for the bonfire. Nigel waving his shiny axe-blade at me with an over-friendly grin.
© Iain McDowall, 2009. All rights reserved.