James stood at the door, twisting the ornate Victorian door knob. It wasn't that he liked it, in fact he thought it was ugly, but it gave him something to do. His family - his new family - were seated at the long table, about to eat. No-one seemed to notice him and he wondered whether he should join them, but he was reluctant to walk across the room to the table. He knew they would turn and look at him and he would rather they didn't notice him, so he stayed where he was.
He looked up at the ceiling. He had never seen one so high. It was edged all the way round with a sort of sculptured floral pattern made from plaster, with extra convolutions in the four corners. There was a circle of the same pattern in the centre of the room, and in the middle of that hung a chandelier. The house was so different from the one he was used to that it was difficult to believe it was his home now.
He thought about Eva and Gill, who had looked after him for as far back as he could remember. In some part of his mind he had known they weren't his real parents, but he had always felt at home there with Tommy and Pam, the sisters, and his brother, Keith - well, his foster brother, as he was supposed to call him now. And then there was Bonzo, his dog - should that be foster dog, he wondered? Just then his grandmother looked up. "Come and sit at the table, Jimmy. Your dinner is getting cold".
There were many things to learn now. His speech had to change, for one thing. He was required to sound his aitches, speak more clearly and with rounder vowels. He hadn't realized there was anything wrong with the way he spoke, but he was a quick learner and soon mastered the required accent. He had no intention of giving up the way he spoke altogether. Everyone at his new school - Munster Road Primary - spoke the same way he did, so he finished up with two accents; one for school and another for home. It puzzled him slightly that his grandfather also spoke the same way, but the family didn't seem to mind that. The old man was supposed to be very clever, even though he was an East End cockney, so he was allowed to drop his aitches.
One of the differences between his old life and his new one was that he was no longer permitted to bring friends home from school. This was his grandmother's idea. She was in charge of things when his mother was working, which seemed to be most of the time.
The inevitable result was that some of the boys at school formed the impression that James was a bit stuck-up and got into the habit of chasing him at home time. James didn't mind too much at first. He was a fast runner and there wasn't much chance of them catching him. All the same, by the end of the week he had had enough and decided to teach them a lesson.
He knew what to do. He had just finished reading 'The Call of the Wild' by Jack London, and he remembered the part where a lone wolf was being chased by a pack of dogs. The wolf waited until one of the dogs miscalculated and drew too far ahead of the pack. The wolf slowed down and turned suddenly on the dog, which realized its mistake, but too late...
That night the boys chased him home, as they had done every night that week. As he turned the corner into Dancer Road, he glanced back. Sure enough, one of the boys had pulled ahead of the others, eager to cut him off before he reached his gate. James slowed and waited. The boy rounded the corner, and just like the dog, realized his mistake too late. James's punch caught him under the ear, and he yelped and fell back into the hedge. James walked the few yards to his gate and didn't bother to turn when the rest of the gang appeared round the corner. As they saw what had happened they hesitated and then stopped. That was when James turned to look at them. There was no more trouble after that.
James wished all his problems could be solved as easily. He imagined clipping his grandmother behind the ear and watching as she dropped the tray of aitches she was carrying, tripping over a stack of rounded vowels, which rolled all over the floor like gobstoppers. "Get serious, James, you're in this for the long haul", he drawled out of the corner of his mouth. He loved American films. When he lived with the Draysons, they had taken the boys to the cinema once a week. Fred McMurray, Jimmie Cagney, Jack Palance, Jimmie Stewart, Bogart - he knew them all.
He focussed back on the present. His grandmother apparently had to be known as Nana. He couldn't help thinking of the dog 'Nana' in Peter Pan. He had seen the new Walt Disney version at the cinema just before he moved to his new home. Come to think of it, he thought, Wendy's house was very much like 20 Dancer Road. Anyway, at least they didn't want him to call his grandfather by the male equivalent of Nana. Perhaps there wasn't one.
Even worse than the Nana business was the fact that his mother, whom he didn't actually know very well, wanted him to call her Mummy. No boy that James had ever known called his mother that, and he wasn't going to do it either. He promised himself that he would solve the problem by not calling her anything. Perhaps she wouldn't notice.
Then there was the problem of Boris, his mother's new husband. It was because she had married again that Kate felt able to reclaim James from his foster family. Boris was Polish. His real name was Boleslaw, with the 'w' sounding like a 'v'. Kate struggled with it for a while but finally she gave up and settled for Boris. Boleslaw didn't like the name, claiming it was Russian rather then Polish, and he hated the Russians. To be fair, he hated Germans and Jews with the same passion. He didn't seem to like anyone very much, and as James found out in due course, he liked James least of all.
Dancer Road was situated in Fulham, and that part of South London was very much a working class area in the early 'fifties, when James first saw it. Most of the houses were very tall and had definitely seen better days. In Victorian times the servants had lived on the top two floors and the owner's family spread themselves through the rest of the house. This was pretty much the way that James's mother, Kate, had arranged 20 Dancer Road, except there were no servants.
It seemed odd to James to live in a house full of strangers, who were actually his relatives. He wondered how so many people could fit into one house. He counted them off on his fingers. At the top of the house lived Nana, but Granddad lived one flight up from the ground floor because they were separated, soon to be divorced. Next to her lived Uncle Roy, who wasn't that much older then James himself. Down one floor was James's own room, which was next to the family's sitting room, where he had had his first meal with all the family. Down again was the bathroom and the tiny kitchen. Down still further was the bedroom of his mother and Boris, which was next to his Grandfather's room. On the ground floor lived an old couple called Mr and Mrs Loveday who came as part of the house when his mother had bought it.
In time, James settled into his new life. He grew used to his family, with the exception of Boris. Boris seemed to spend a lot of time hissing, and turning lights off after people as the left the room, so that when they returned a few minutes later they had to turn the light on again. He was a great hisser. He would do it if you used too much toothpaste, or left a tap running or brought mud into the house on your shoes. Sometimes you didn't know why he was hissing.
Boris seemed to think that anyone who had not built a bridge across a Dutch canal under fire, as he had, or thrown a grenade into the river to catch fish, hadn't really lived.
It was about this time that James became interested in art. He did a watercolour of a black metal paint box, trying to paint the reflections on the box exactly as they appeared. His mother showed it to Boris, who said he didn't know what the white bits were as the box was obviously black.
James never talked about his life with the Draysons. That was his own private world, and had nothing to do with his present family, but he knew that that part of his life was over and set about making friends at his new school. There were Roger and Alan Plant, who made you laugh until your mouth ached. They had a kind of act, where one would unscrew the leg from the other while they talked in a pantomime German accent. All the kids in the playground would gather round to watch. Then there was Barbara, who was born on the same day as James. One day she suggested they meet after school, under the stairs at a nearby block of flats, and take their pants down. James wasn't quite sure what the point of this was, but it was definitely an exciting idea, so he agreed to meet her. He waited at the appointed time, but she didn't show up. James wasn't sure whether he was disappointed or relieved.
Then there was John Munton. He was just as funny as the Plant brothers in his own way. He was a big, clumsy boy, who wore glasses. Something of a loner, he would have been picked on but for his size. As it was, when he teamed up with James they were more than a match for any of the local gangs.
That summer, James saved up and bought an air rifle. It was a BSA .173 with a rifled barrel and a beautiful polished wood stock. James practised hitting tin cans in the garden and was surprised to find he was quite a good shot, but when John showed him the guitar he had just acquired, they both knew they had to swap. James had already experimented with a plastic saxophone and could play a chromatic harmonica quite well. He had tried an accordion but couldn't make any sense of the chord buttons. But now everything fell into place. Somehow he understood what to do on the guitar straight away.
He started having half-hour lessons from a local dance band guitarist called George Weston. For his first week's homework he had to learn three chords. The next day he went down with 'flu, but he didn't let that stop him. He sat up in bed, practising his chords and by the time he had his next lesson he had learnt the chords, and could play them in time. After a few weeks George Weston told him he was 'one in two million', and said James could 'hear the chords'. This was just before Rock 'n Roll burst on the scene. James thought his teacher meant he could hear the guitar playing at the back of the orchestra, on the Perry Como records that Mr. Weston liked so much.
James spent most of his spare time practising. He liked it all; jazz, rock 'n roll, country and classical. He listened to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Ray Charles, and jazz players like Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel, but his idols were the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Lonnie Donegan. By the time he was seventeen he had been working in an advertising agency near Baker Street for a couple of years. There were several kids in the agency who had guitars and they used to bring them in at lunch-time. One day, as they were tuning their guitars, someone put his head round the door and told them Buddy Holly had just been killed in a plane crash.
Shortly after this, James left the agency, signed up with the Merchant Navy, and spent some time on P.&O. liners in the catering department, cruising to and from Australia. He liked to think of himself in a small ship on a storm-tossed sea, lashed to a dishwasher and bravely passing out the plates. He found that he was never seasick, which surprised him as he was always sick in the back of cars when he was a boy. James liked the sea. He liked the way the wind would whip all the tea out of your mug if you stood in the bows and held it up. He liked to watch the dolphins in the blue waters of the Indian ocean. You could see them quite clearly, sixty feet down. They would keep quite still, and suddenly accelerate and climb, easily overtaking the ship. Best of all, if you stood right up in the bows, gripped the ship's rail tightly and looked down, you could see them curving elegantly out of the water and across the ship's prow.
After two years of this happy, sun-drenched life, when he was at home for Christmas, and between ships, he decided, on an impulse, to stay ashore and form a band with a guitarist he had met on his last trip. In the years to come, James would play in many bands and would have a long career, teaching music and art.
Buddy Holly was only the first in a long line of casualties in the music business; Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, Roger Miller, Marvin Gaye and John Lennon, to name just a few, but none had quite the impact on James as did the death of Buddy Holly. Not so much because Buddy had a great talent - which he had - but because James was seventeen at the time, and what happens to you when you are seventeen stays with you always.
James now lives with his wife, Karen, daughter Abi, and three dogs, in the north-east of Scotland, near Forres, home of Macbeth's three witches. The blasted heath is long gone, but there is a park called Grant's Park where James walks his dogs. At the back of the park is an ancient beech tree, on which someone has very carefully carved 'H.S. loves R.A. 1.6.47'. James would have been six years old and six hundred miles away when this message was carved, perhaps laying in the road and squinting up at the sun as the hot tar melted in the summer heat, and an orange and white dog came trotting towards him. James admired the way the dog walked very much, and sometimes tried to walk that way himself.
James Collins Scottish Essays