The Old Men —

28 11 06

Before it fades forever, a snatched chance to recall Sunday. A good day in a long line of indifferent days. We woke to rain, rain in sheets down the windows, and hailstones clattering, and finally a shot of sun dousing the huge leaves of the scrawny, autumn-thrashed shrub at the end of Corina’s garden in a deep gold under the heavy slate sky, and a rainbow cutting across the gardens. Then sprinkling rain again, a round of phone calls to cancel tennis for Dex and his 3 pals, and a plan hatching.

I had seen a toy fair advertised, and originally thought I’d sneak down there alone while H & D were at tennis, but with my warm, dry wife and child still in dressing gown and slippers, H took the chance for a rare lazy morning. Well-wrapped against the grim, wet wind, Dex and I headed up to the High Street for the bus to London Bridge. We walked via Sandringham Road, scouring the pavement for a small piece of plastic puzzle D & H had apparently dropped a few days before. Dex has inherited my knack of spotting things and I had a hunch that between us we’d find it, but it had been hidden by a leaf of washed away, or else it was cowering under a car. But we did find the Biggest Puddle in the World at the mini roundabout and, in the drizzle, we stood at a safe distance watching buses plough through the water and send waves cascading down the basement steps of the big house on the corner. Having nothing better to do, and doing it with Dex, is priceless.

We picked up provisions for the bus journey – a packet of bright green bubble-gum. I had a long-standing engagement with Dex to show him how to blow bubbles from gum, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Once the festooned Africans had all alighted for church, we had the front of the bus to ourselves. We began with one piece each, eventually amalgamating them as only gross dads and sons can. Soon, swapping back and forth, and flatting and stretching and chewing and blowing, a tiny bubble formed on Dex’s lips. He was on his way. By the time we were on the train from London Bridge he was popping & clicking like a good ‘un. That’s my boy.

Orpington is much as I’d imagined it, a place you’d need a good reason to visit. The toy fair was a wet two-minute walk from the station in a hall with a life-size picture of a Roman soldier leant up outside. Three teenage boys were practising freerunning, vaulting from a bollard to some railings in the car park, and in the dark doorway a bald man sat with a roll of orange raffle tickets and a cardboard tray of loose change. The Hornby Railway Collectors’ Association website had offered a discount on entry for members but, at £1.50 (kids go free), I paid full price without a pang of a missed opportunity. The day I become and HRCA member may not be far off, but as I also fully expect my wife to shoot me when it finally happens, I’m not in a particular hurry.

On the stage at one end of the hall, a large rectangle of trestle tables had been erected and covered in clean green cloths. On three concentric rings of bright steel rails, small, old and very beautiful tin-plate locomotives hurtled in endless journeys, pulling pullman coaches, wagons and other trucks. Thin white shapes lurked in the perimeters of the layout. These were the Old Men. Actual HRCA members whose wives had evidently chosen to shoot themselves. Every so often one of them stepped forward from the gloom to rewind one of the locos, cradling it in the palm of one hand just as one might gingerly attempt to sex a hedgehog. The Winding of the Mechanism is undertaken without recourse to sight. The tension of the spring is monitored in thumb & forefinger of the key hand but, most importantly, as tension increases, final cranking is controlled by ear – the head nods down a little, the eyes glaze, and the keen ear detects the subtle shift in pitch of the click. The loco is wound. One man in a green cardigan released his black loco and coaches and it obediently propelled itself around exactly three circuits of the track. He wound it again. Three circuits. And again. Three circuits. The loco came to rest exactly on the spot from wich it originally departed. Dex went off with some money to negotiate with a large, scruffy man over some injection-moulded plastic in the shape of a Star Wars figure. When Dex was very small and in his buggy, I felt safer than ever walking around Hackney. Any potential assailants were immediately and powerfully stupefied once they’d so much as glimpsed the ginger-haired dollop of joy I was portering. This effect may be waning, but is still powerful – on this occasion Dex managed to pay exactly half the asking price for his Yoda. As Dex himself reasoned, a fiver is half the quids of a tenner.

In the meantime I started talking to the Old Men. First, I spoke to Terry, who turned out to be Spares Coordinator for the HRCA. He gave me his card and a back issue of the HRCA magazine. I was hoping for a secret handshake or password but instead I got a membership form. I clutched it politely as I spoke to other Old Men, one of whom began to tell me about wheelbase lengths on pre-war clockwork locos. It was essential information and I was grateful for it, as Terry was going to email me contact details of a man who would be able to provide the correct connecting rods for the wheels of the little loco I’d brought with me, but I couldn’t help stepping back and listening to our conversation as an outsider. I was horrified to realise that I, too, had become and Old Man.

My great-grandson and I had tea and cake and ate our sandwiches and it was fantastic, and we rang H and left the hall. We were followed by a random man with big black eyes that looked right through you. He was talking, jabbering at us, and Dex was quite afraid. He was actually within the normal spectrum of toy fair demographic, albeit pretty much right at one end. Eventually I said ‘run’ to Dex and we ran as fast as we could away from the nutter and took the next train into London. We sat and attempted a wooden puzzle I’d bought which seemed far too easy until a very pretty German woman explained the correct rules, and then it was far too hard so we just looked silly.

We walked from Waterloo al the way to the National Portrait Gallery to meet H – right up past the Festival Hall, right across Hungerford Bridge, where we stopped and read off the skyline against the little information board and each chose our favourite boat on the river and traced the rainbow from one bank to the other, right over Charing Cross tube station and through Charing Cross railway station, where we stopped again to watch a Chinese Lady Nutter screaming at a poster, and up through Trafalgar Squarewhere we stopped again to spot all the landmarks we could recognise from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, and finally to the NPG bookshop, where we met my wife dressed in pink.

We headed for the Tudors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth and Mary and Lady Jane Grey and the House of Lancaster and the House of York, and read all about them with Dex because he was doing a school project on them, but we were all too tired to take in much of the fragile, precious, remnants hanging on the walls, so we climbed up to the restaurant to be served tea & cakes by some superfluously snotty staff who appeared to be from another realm but who were probably 3rd year catering students. The sky was pink and black and we could see across to the silouhette of the London Eye, surreptitiously turning in the gathering gloom. Finally we bundled into a 38 on Charing Cross Road, full of shoppers making their way home. A Chinese man stood by us at the front, his white plastic bags of shopping on the baggage shelf. Every once in a while, one of his bags twitched with a loud snap. Evidently he was having fish for supper.