Introduction

She stood there like a broke down old diva on a cracked asphalt stage, creases and face paint illuminated by a single spotty floodlight. That was the left side, her show side. The right had no paint at all, just metal, with rag tag patches of primer hopelessly clinging to a series of scrapes and dents. The inside wasn’t much better, but it did have seats and a steering wheel. She–an old-fashioned three-gear rental truck–had the stick shift on the steering column, murder on steep hills and stop-and-go traffic. Being a conscientious sort, the rental manager had strategically placed strips of duct tape where the radio used to be, and on the seat—ostensibly to protect drivers from falling into the hole. He had also taken the time to the window was rolled down halfway–later, I discovered that the window was permanently set at that position.

But like any old song and dance diva, she worked when she had to, albeit with so much shaking and wheezing that service station mechanics came out of their garages and waved as we drove down the street.

It was perfect. All we needed was a big hog to haul furniture, and our pennies had delivered her. That was fine, thank you very much. She was a fitting symbol for a brand new married couple moving into their first home. And what a home it was. Not a mansion, but big enough in our eyes. Not new–but it had that 30 year-old layout that seemed to highlight all the best features. From two big windows in the dining room, you could see the eastern mountains and watch the sunrise. It had a simple, roomy feel that shouted for someone to add a touch of personality and tender care.

She was our chariot to our own little castle–our empty, dirty, unlived in home sweet home. Chris and I could already begin to make out the outlines of memories waiting to be made. “Can you believe this?” I asked out loud with a mock tone of incredulity, throwing my hands up in the air as if to act disgusted. Christina laughed. She is always laughing, which is something I fell in love with the moment I met her and one of the reasons I married her. The smile, the laugh—her all around cheeriness was what won me over. Now, more than ever, I’m seeing more of the smile and hearing more of the laugh.

“Did you realize that we can make as much noise as we want to?” Christina said to me in a tone of can-you-believe-it in her voice.

“Oh yeah, I realize we can even jump up and down as much as we want whenever we want, without getting anyone upset.” We had already experienced the joy of jumping around in an empty house once–so much so, we were out of breath and could scarcely contain ourselves. Now that we were faced with the enormity of moving everything in, jumping around seemed like a nice diversion to hauling and cleaning and shoving things into the front door.

“It’ll be all right, honey, with a truck this size we only have two or three loads. I can get a lot of stuff done tonight,” I remarked as we looked over the truck. Chris just smiled. She was used to my inability to judge just how difficult a job would be.
“You’re crazy, you loon, it’s already late. You’re not doing any moving tonight.” She and I both knew I would be doing moving that night. We had the truck for 24 hours, and we needed every precious hour.
“Well, whatever we do, we have to take this over to the folks, so we can show them the fine hauling automobile we have acquired to assist us in our big move.”

My parents looked at a first home as the true start of life. Anything before was just practice. And in a strange way, the old truck was a symbol of that perspective. She wasn’t pretty–and sometimes arrived by accident–but she was chugging us along in the right direction.

We had a lot in common with that old truck.

By the time we had driven the five miles to their house, the noises were getting louder and increasingly ominous. We didn’t have to come to the door. They heard the truck coming down the next street over and were waiting for us on the front steps, laughing and shaking their heads.

“Well, Dad, here she is. As you can see, we have spared no expense to help us with our big move.” All four of us were standing in the street outside the house, looking over the truck. “There’s no way I’m driving that thing,” said Christina. “Not a chance.”
“I don’t blame you. Let Brian deal with this monstrosity,” Dad said, looking over his shoulder and rolling his eyes at me. “I suppose as long as it runs, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Or sounds like.”
“It will run, won’t it?”

“Sure, Dad, just as long as she gets a running start.”

Sometimes a moment can symbolize a lifetime. And as we stood outside and laughed over the truck, it dawned on me that this was one of those moments. No matter how ragged our plans or broken down our dreams had been over the years, Mom and Dad had always been there to give us a push in the right direction.

“Look at those two in that truck,” Dad said to Mom as they went back inside. “Two peas in a pod, those two.”
“I hope that truck doesn’t break down. And I certainly hope Brian has enough sense not to start moving tonight.”
“Well, they didn’t plan for enough time. Knowing them they probably haven’t even started yet, so they’ll have to start tonight. Either way, you know Brian–he’ll want to get going right away.”
“I suppose we’d better plan on helping.”
“Well, don’t do any heavy lifting, Rich. You know what the doctor said. Don’t strain yourself.”
“I don’t plan to, with all those big lads around to help. Besides, I haven’t been feeling well today. I think I’m coming down with a cold.”
“Come here and let me feel you.” Sheila put her hand on Rich’s forehead, and noticed his cheeks were flushed, his eyes a bit glassy. “You better call it a night. “You’ve probably caught the flu from staying out in that garage at all hours without a sweater on.”

“I’m sure I haven’t caught anything. But if I’m not better tomorrow morning I’ll call Brian and tell him I can’t help until later.” Sheila knew he must feel pretty lousy to say that. Rich was just never the type to complain about being sick. Ill or healthy, he was always at work and always doing something. Lying down only made him feel worse. And it must have worked, because through all the years, he had been sick less than anyone. He had only ever been into the hospital once.

“Rich, shall we have a cup of tea before we go in?”

It was more a statement than a question. Every night they had made having a cup of tea before they went to bed a ritual. It provided a sense of closure, a way to put a final touch to the happenings of the day. And with that cup of tea came conversation about some of the most important topics of their lives. This was when they made their final decisions–talking over one last cup of tea, resolving issues so they would not have to waste tomorrow’s moments on issues meant for today. Invariably, those issues would have to do with us kids. How to help one of us out of a bind. Whether or not we were disappointing them, and how to get us to behave as they felt we should. This was the essence of two good friends who happened to be husband and wife. Tea talk had shaped their lives. All things major and minor, from moving to new homes to seeing new movies. Everything and anything was mulled over during those evening moments with a cuppa and a pile of buttermilk tea biscuits.

It was an English thing, tea and talk. Rich and Sheila had grown up in Liverpool during World War II, a horror which taught them to cherish the simplicity of life and the importance of proper perspective. Carole, the oldest, Sheila in the middle and I as the youngest had grown up to stories of dog fights in the skies above, family relocation, POW camps next door and evenings–days–spent in air raid shelters. I’m sure that the overwhelming transient and temporary feel of life during war left an indelible mark on the way they looked at things. During the war years, education was in the sky and survival was on the train tracks, searching for enough coal bricks to heat a home. Formal education was a foolish luxury when the only thing you needed to know was what a buzz bomb sounded like and where to run.

Once the air raid sirens stopped for good, most families picked up the dirty remnants of their lives and carried on. That’s so English, to pick up and carry on, so English not to dream of greater things–to accept, and in that acceptance be defeated, left to live a life of little opportunity, mixed emotions and slim satisfaction. To carry on as though nothing before had ever happened.

Except something had happened. There was no denying that. The bombs from Hitler’s Luftwaffe had shattered a centuries-old working man’s town. For those who were a little prosperous before the war, wealth and comfort was a memory. Poor families were still poor, only now somehow a bit poorer and more grimy. Sons were gone. Foreigners were everywhere. Everything had changed; the streets and shops of their childhood were shuttered and condemned, the friends and families they had known were mostly gone, victims of the bombs or examples of the war’s lasting economic devastation. Yet they survived, and were left with the task of rebuilding, of moving upward and onward beyond craters and rubble and all the horror of Liverpool’s World War. Each unscathed family became a sacred thing—nothing could dirty it, nothing was so strong as to rend the fabric of the family group. It was the only thing in Liverpool that had not crumbled.
It was here, beneath the shadow of bombed out buildings, where our family began to take shape.

 

Chapter 1

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