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A Shout From The Attic: Return To Zin - 6

...My week at the guest house ended and my novel was not finished. It wasn’t even started. But then it’s not easy. Authors have to absorb atmosphere, think about life, the universe, the meaning of everything. I did a lot of absorbing and thinking and not much of anything else....

Ronnie Bray recalls the days foillowing his release from prison.

The Prodigal Son

Life, they say, is full of surprises. There was a brief period of time in which I had more than my share of astonishment. First was that they released me from prison a day early. To be honest, I don’t know if it was a day early or whether I added an extra day to my release chart. You know, the sort of thing soldier shave looking forward to their demobilisation, and a day at a time is ticket off until all the white spaces are filled and you breathe free air.

The day off, whatever its cause, was welcome, and in some respects made up for the six extra weeks I had to serve as an unsuccessful appellant. I was ill advised in the matter of my appeal and it did nothing to sweeten my temper.

My discharge document stated that I was being discharged to the address I had at the time of my sentence. It was an old house run by a lady with a heart of gold. I rented the small attic bedroom on a room only basis. I had experience with small attic bedrooms. Every night I went back to sleep, my landlady had placed a saucer of sweet biscuits and a glass of milk on the bedside table.

Out the great prison doors, walking down Gaol Street in Stafford clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string, was something of an ordeal because everyone in the street knew where you had come from and I was not yet used to outsiders.

The travel warrant issued at the gaol took me to Southampton, and then I hopped on a bus to Britannia Street and walked the short way to where the lodging house had been. I could recognise nothing that looked like home in the pile of rubbish on the wasteland opposite the gasworks. I was homeless. That was a surprise!

I had a small amount of money and so I went to the guest house area of Southampton, where I found a place that looked friendly. I paid a week’s bed and breakfast money, admitting to being a writer doing research for a novel. I wasn’t, but it was the kind of thing I would have liked to do. The week’s payment made sizeable dent in my money, and meals were very interesting. It is surprising (which is where we came in) how a frugal meal can be exotic and cheap. Cheap was good.

Being impulsive and being cast on my own devices for days on end, and transistor radios being available as miniaturisation gripped the world, I bought one. It is impossible to buy a ‘trannie’ today for as much as I paid for mine in 1961.

My week at the guest house ended and my novel was not finished. It wasn’t even started. But then it’s not easy. Authors have to absorb atmosphere, think about life, the universe, the meaning of everything. I did a lot of absorbing and thinking and not much of anything else. On my last day, I bought a local paper and found a room to let. It was in an old house with not much excitement about it, but it was affordable and I took it.

I had one room with a bed, a washstand and hand basin, and a jug of cold water. I could heat water and cook rudimentary meals on the single gas ring on the table. My slops went into a white enamelled bucket with a strainer lid. It was self-contained with a small cabinet at the side of the bed on which my radio sat and played comfortingly, night and day.

If I were to be honest, I would have to say that I really didn’t do anything except enjoy my freedom. It was the sweetest thing I had known for some time. My time inside lasted ten months, during which I had no visitors except for one time when two missionaries travelled from Bournemouth to Winchester where I was imprisoned during the first couple of months of my sentence.

Life in my room and up and down the streets of Southampton was pretty good at first. Then my money ran low, and I was compelled to become even thriftier. I purchased the cheapest food I could get; dried peas, soup mixes, and lentils, which I boiled in my little pan on the gas ring, and ate them whilst sat on my bed listening to the wireless.

Eventually, I laid on my bed, soothed by the music, but disturbed by the realisation that all my money was gone, and that my rent ran out at the end of the week and I would be homeless. I looked at my treasures: a small notebook without any notes in it, a portable Silver Reed typewriter on which my masterpiece was to be written, and a five-string banjo that would launch my career as a protest singer. The banjo was my pride and joy, but I never learned to play it properly. However, it made more noise than a ukulele, which I could play to some effect. I vowed that I would never part with these essentials. They were to me, my loaf of bread, my jug of wine, and even my ‘thou,’ and what good is a singer without a banjo!

I looked at my food storage. I had about an ounce of red lentils left, and a couple of spoons of white sugar. I would not eat today, and tomorrow I would eat the sugar. Then, I would go as long as I could without eating. Only when I was desperate would I cook and eat the lentils. I was a man on the edge, but I felt unnaturally cheerful.

The sugar was delicious, if a little sweet. I lasted two days before I steeled myself to prepare to eat the lentils. It is strange how cooking a meal and eating it can be invested with all the fripperies of religious ritual. Utensils were laid out in liturgical fashion, water was drawn in the hush of reverence– I turned own the volume on the radio – and the pan was placed on the unlit gas ring ready for its central role in the ceremony.

With sacerdotal solemnity, I lit the gas, guarding the sacred flame from the draught that blew in form the open window. Igneous, the God of fire in cheap lodgings, was appeased; the flames licked the sides of the pan, hissing secret messages in an unknown tongue. The water waited forever to boil, and then I emptied the red lentils into the bubbling water. It ceased its stirrings nut only for a moment, then resumed its agitation.

Watching as the hot water performed its magic on the ruby pulses, my salivary glands throbbed in expectation of the feast to come. There was a buoyant air of peace and joy abroad in my room. Even the music was bright and gay. Oh, the joy to come! I had had hunger pangs from the morning before and the day was bathed in the still light of the sun’s dying glow. A fitting time for a sacrifice.

The seething was declared complete. My hand trembled as I turned off the gas tap and lifted the pan from the ring. Clouds of steam billowed into the room as I lifted the lid and gazed with longing on the swollen and tender vegetal fare that lay in the bottom half inch of the small pan.

This was my last meal, and I was going to relish it. The salt and pepper were close to the plate from which I would eat my repast. I eased the bucket out from under the washstand with my foot, and slid the lid slightly to one side, tipping the pan as I did so, to allow the water to run out of the pan and into the bucket. It was close to the time. I could feel it.

Perhaps my trembling heart made my hand slip, the lid slide too far, and the lentils discharge themselves with obscene haste into the bottom of the slop bucket. For a moment, I stood as if in suspended time. Then, as the full realisation of what had occurred struck home, I abandoned the pan and fell backwards on the bed and laughed and laughed and laughed. The humour was intense and overwhelming.

When I had regained my composure, I left my room carrying the typewriter and banjo and sold them to a second hand shop. Next day, I went to the bus station and caught a long distance bus to Huddersfield, where my mother met me and took me home.

Where can we go when we are destitute? We have few options then. I don’t know much about pigs, so I don’t know whether they eat lentils. Slowly, I began to see similarities between a certain well-known young man and my own situation.

True, our beginnings were somewhat different, but we had both come to the same end. We had both reached the point where there was nothing that we could do but go back home!

The young man had squandered his inheritance and I had foolishly squandered my own poor wealth. He had had a wonderful round of sociability and excitement with fair weather friends, then been abandoned because he had nothing left to give. My sociability was damaged at that time, but I made up for it in solitary pursuits, so both of us had wasted time we could have used with advantages had we engaged in loftier pursuits. I went back to a mother I had never felt close to, and he returned to a father he found easy to leave. Both of us were made welcome.


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