Jack o’ Diamonds

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, March 27th, 2023)

Most British towns and villages are ancient foundations with Roman remains, ruined castles, and the like. Not so Daleforge. Before the 1840s, there was just the forge and the smith’s cottage. Butthen, in quick order, came the pit, the rows and rows of workers’ cottages, the ironworks, and the railway. With the houses, came the football. Not at first the codifed game of eleven versus eleven,but the rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, pitched battle held every Shrovetide between those in the houses on one side of the Red Brook versus those on the other. But soon enough after the English Football Association was formed in the 1860s, Daleforge United FC emerged and eventually became a founder member of the Football League. And that was what my dirty old town became famous for: the foundries and the football.

Lives can turn on a single event. In my case it was a dolorous meeting in 1988, an event as desolate as a snowflake dissolving in a muddy puddle. But there’s nearly always a back-story to those turnings in the road, and this back-story stretches away ten years, to 1978.

I was twenty-two back then, living at home, drifting from job to job. Dad and I argued furiously about almost every damn thing – jobs, music, drinking, politics, clothes… hair. Jeez, the arguments we had about hair… Difficult to credit that now. Our rows were interminable. My then girlfriend, Susie (who deserved better and eventually found it), said that Dad and I were like a pair of rutting stags in Mum’s scullery kitchen.

We even fell out about football. In fact, that was maybe part of the trouble. I was one of that fortunate minority, a natural left-footer. So I was always in demand as a player for local youth teams, even though my right foot was just for standing on. All Daleforge was football-daft and Dad was no exception. He’d been a notable teenage footballer himself, but the war had intervened. I understood why he loved to come and see me and play. And why he was so disappointed when I lost interest in the game. I think we both understood the other guy’s point of view, but understanding
just didn’t help.

Do you know that lightbulb joke? How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. I was that awkward light bulb. Dad had grown up in the Hungry Thirties, then he’d gone off to the war and ended up in the Middle East, stuck there til early 1946. And he’d come back to 1940s post-war austerity. He’d landed a clerking job in the Purchasing Office at Stark’s Foundry and counted himself lucky to get it.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot more to him than that: for example, somewhere along the line, he’d learned to play the banjo, and though he couldn’t read music, he could hear a tune just once or twice on the radio and pick it out afterwards on that battered banjo. Yeah, there was definitely a lot more to Dad. But he didn’t like to let it show.

I’m glad now I didn’t storm out of the house, back in ’78. I just took a summer job in the Channel Islands – a Guernsey beach café – and, somehow, I never came back home. In ’88 I was working in Canada: there was good money working the Athabaska Tar Sands, if you didn’t mind freezing half to death in the winter time. That was when my cousin Sheila got in touch to tell me Mum was ill with cancer.

I got the first flight back that I could find and landed at Prestwick in Scotland. The guy in the next seat to me said Prestwick Airport was the only place in Britain that Elvis had ever visited. I could see how it might’ve put him off, but at least the airport had a train station. Two connections later, it was late afternoon by the time my train arrived back home. As I walked out of the station, a smartly dressed busker was playing to the passing crowd. I was so tired I was almost hallucinating, but I recognised the tune: it was ‘Jack o’ Diamonds.’ I went over, put a quid in his hat, and said: ‘Hiya Dad.’

It turned out that Stark’s Foundry had computerised their stock control and made him redundant. After forty-odd years. He hadn’t wanted to worry Mum, so he’d just leave the house as usual every morning, with the banjo in the boot of his car. He wasn’t thinking straight: some busybody would’ve been bound to recognise him eventually. But there weren’t any jobs for 62 year-olds in Daleforge in the 1980s. He didn’t know what else to do.

We both had a damn good cry.

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