I can conjure it now, lying on my back, rocking in the top bunk of the overnight train to Glasgow. But this time the dummy has a face. Beneath me and all around me I feel the Royal Scot hurtling through the night, steel wheels clacking remorselessly on the rails. Occasionally the great beast splits the tomb-black landscape with a midnight shriek and I listen for an answering call that never comes. I’m going home for the first time in two and half years, and the thought of what I have to face there fills me with a hot mix of anger and dread. I take another pull at my cigarette and watch the tip glow and die, and the smoke drift and swirl away.
Four carefree days ago I was sitting in my wee attic room in South London. I was having a good spell. Almost a week of sleeping better and drinking less. Maybe the two were connected. My newly polished shoes – army indoctrination – were sitting by the door ready for their sprint to Fleet Street. The spring sun was already banking through the skylight window. I was hunched over the table nursing a second mug of tea while reading yesterday’s Times and my own paper the London Bugle. Know your enemy, my old drill sergeant used to say. Besides, I enjoy the adverts on the front of the Times. In their way they give as clear a picture of Britain as the inside news pages. Stories of a hard-up country where gentlemen were selling their fine leather gloves, or where an ex-officer, RAF, DFC would make excellent private secretary. Where trained mechanics were searching for work as drivers, and war heroes were on the lookout for gardening jobs or other manual exercise. The fruits of victory were bitter enough for some.
I supped my tea and counted my blessings. In the last month I’d started to get a steady trickle of freelance assignments from the Bugle and there was a chance of a full-time job. I was making enough money to afford food, fags and Scotch, not necessarily in that order. But at least I would no longer simply be drinking away the last of my demob money. Two weeks ago I’d dragged my flabby body round to Les’s Boxing Academy on the Old Kent Road and – aching limbs apart - I was already getting back a sense of physical well-being. Something I hadn’t felt since the build-up and hard training for D Day. After a few days of the glums last week I was daring to hope that I was nearing the end of the tunnel. Sunshine on my face would be good. Such was my upbeat mood that I’d been crooning along with Lena Horne and whistling a tuneless descant to Artie Shaw on the Light Programme. Even my first fag tasted sweet instead of just satisfying a craving.
Then the phone rang down in the shared entry.
I glanced at my watch. It was just after seven fifteen. Someone was starting early. I knew Mrs Jackson wouldn’t answer it unless she’d cranked up her hearing aid; I wondered why her daughters had bothered getting the phone installed. Her voice was so loud it made the device redundant. The other three households in our entry rarely got calls, but we were all happy to chip in to pay for the rental. I sprang to my door, still in my slippers and collarless. I could have done with another fifteen minutes of paper-reading and crossword-filling, but maybe the Bugle was calling. I dived down the three flights of stairs and grabbed the shiny black set.