Dad was a man of many facets. He was an electrician, a van driver, a gardener, a wanderer, an anarcho-syndicalist and a story-teller. He’d have his madeleine moments at the strangest of times. When no one asked he would come out with things like:
“Did I tell you about the time I ran a weather station, well, when I had one in the garden…?”
“It’s like the time I did some repairs on Bob Marley’s squat over in Kensington. I won’t tell you how they paid me but… well I better not tell you…”
“Son, you haven’t lived until you’ve kicked a copper square in the balls and got away with it…”
His favourite anecdotes were about his time living in Eastern Europe, when and where, of course, Mum and Dad eventually met. Mum was German with dual nationality. Her parents were refugees, old Communists who fled Hitler in the 30s but kept the faith through the show trials and ’56. They moved back after the war and settled in what became East Berlin. We never met them, even after The Wall came down. Dad’s involuntary vospominaniya about that time usually went something like:
“Remember that time in Kaliningrad with the Mosfilm man and his incredible collection of dirty films he couldn’t sell anywhere…?”
“It’s like that sunset we saw once, you remember, on the collective farm in Hungary…? That was a beautiful summer…”
“Son, you haven’t lived until you’ve kicked a Stasi agent square in the balls and got away with it…”
Of course I remember few details now. What remained was how I felt listening to the stories. They were warm moments.
As you can imagine Dad took a lot of interest in the Velvet Revolutions. Mum did as well, though in a more sympathetic, less political way. She wanted everyone to be safe. Dad was for the uprisings, you had to be, though he was ambivalent about the results. He wanted to go. He wanted to be there with the people he used to know in that moment but we couldn’t afford it, and it was dangerous and:
“Look at them!” I remember him pointing to news footage of the masses gathered on Glienicke Bridge. “They’ve got pictures of Helmut Kohl, Helmut fucking Kohl!” He sat back, crossing his arms in disgust. He didn’t mind swearing in front of us and he didn’t mind us swearing in front of him either.
“Helmut fucking Kohl” I remember repeating. I folded my arms too, mirroring Dad’s pose. Mum did mind though:
“How many times have I told you?” she scolded, “stop with the bad language. Your Son looks up to you. Set an example!”
Poor Mum, she just couldn’t compete with Dad, at least in my eyes. His past was her past but she rarely talked about it. Mum lived in the present, a different present. She was a much needed source of stability whereas Dad was pure animation and joy. It was part of the reason, I think, why they stayed together, why Mum put up with him. Every now and then Dad shone his spotlight on her. He would come home, shovel money in our hands and practically push us out the door, that or he’d set up a stack of home videos in the front room and announce to that my (older) sisters were babysitting that night. They would go out, Mum and Dad, laughing and tripping their own light fantastic. We never knew where they went.
As I got older I was dragged into more of Dad’s jags and conflicts. I was not sure, at least at the time, why he picked me. There were three children to choose from, me and my two sisters. Sometimes I’d ask about this but Dad would fob my questions off with something like, “I’ve always been for the little man and you’re the littlest man I know,” and he’d flex his Getting Away With It Grin.
Dad was a revolutionary agent, in every sense of the word. He had battles to fight and enemies of his own. Enemies such as Mr Kemp, Chair of the Allotment Committee. Dad was an avid gardener as well as a stubborn rebel. Perhaps it was a shadow, a contrasting side to his mercurial, energetic persona. Then again it probably suited him to have a hobby he could put down for days on end without worrying.
Dad and Mr Kemp were polite enough in company but they were naturally opposed. If they ever argued openly it was about weed control. When he was out of earshot, Dad usually called Kemp “that old fascist.” In reality Mr Kemp was a Tory, a rare and weird thing in Hackney. Come election time Kemp would pepper his bit of the allotment, always a prime spot, with Vote Conservative placards and leave leaflets in everyone’s pigeon hole in the main hut. If his placards and leaflets ever ended up in a wood chipper or under a compost heap or floating down the Lea it was nothing to do with us. Mr Kemp was a retired businessman who kept shares in the chain of garment factories and outlets he used to run in north-west London. He unfailingly referred to the employees as “my pakis.” Sometimes Dad referred to him “Pik Botha.”
There were real reasons as well as good ones for battling Mr Kemp. Mr Kemp had been Chair of the Committee for decades. He was retired, experienced and naturally unctuous. “He’s a shit, alright” Dad would say, “but he’s not daft. He’s a clever shit…” Mr Kemp always attended meetings and never failed to reward his supporters. They got all the best plots with the best soil and light, preferential access to the seed bank and so on. He even tried to win me over. Whenever we met Mr Kemp always offered me a kind word, a flask of tea and the occasional biscuit. I stayed true to our cause, even if I did take the biscuit. Dad led a war of position against Mr Kemp and his tyrannical regime, going on for years until, flicking through an old pamphlet Dad stumbled upon an unusual coup de grace.
“For years and years you’ll get nothing…” Dad shifted in his camp chair to address me more squarely. I knew he meant business. “It seems like nothing’s happening, nothing’s going on… at least on the surface. Meanwhile…” he cast his torchlight across the grass, “the revolution is busy, underground, digging under the feet of the powerful and well-to-do until…” the light came upon a molehill, “it emerges suddenly.” It was evening, just after dusk and Dad and I were sat out in Springfield Park waiting for our mole-traps to go off. “Or not, in this case… Nothing yet…”
Dad had got them off a friend, called Dave, who had not long left a permaculture commune near St Albans. Dad explained. The land was owned by an amiable, wealthy son of a minor gentleman but run on a democratic-consensual basis. That was the idea but then came the mole infestation. Dave’s faction wanted to get rid of the moles, humanely of course, but they were voted down. Moles are an essential part of the ecosystem after all. Dave meanwhile had bought dozens of mole traps he now had no use for, but Dad did.
It was a Friday night. We negotiated a little time out, though Mum said we had to be back by ten, which was fine by me. Dad and I were sat on our stools, yammering away about this and that, politics, constellations, school, football, TV, politics, music and politics, moles, school, politics and more school. I mentioned in passing that I skipped lunch-detention earlier in the week. I could practically see Dad thinking “good boy” but he reined it in, put on a serious face and asked:
“Oh really, are you sure that was wise? What were you in for?”
“Disrupting Mr Thompson’s history class” I said.
“Well, you know you shouldn’t be doing that, don’t you?” said Dad. “There’s people trying to give you an education, sure it’s…”
“He’s an idiot…!” I interrupted, “I said his lessons were all bourgeois ideology… He only gave me detention because he didn’t have a comeback.”
Dad stifled a laugh before getting back to Serious Face. “Son” he said, doing the direct address thing again, “you’ve got to learn to pick your battles. Besides… you know the old saying, ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it…’ Then again” he added, “those who do learn from history are doomed to repeat it to those who don’t.” He shook his head and laughed. I didn’t get it but, fortunately, there was a snap and a volley of squeaks. One of the traps had gone off.
It took us a good few minutes to funnel the poor thing into our jerry-rigged bucket with a lid that had breathing holes on top. There was so much noise and struggle I was surprised that no one noticed us, we were just yards from the canal tow path, but no one came by. When we were done we were both pleased. Then it dawned that one mole was not enough and there would be no telling how long it was until the next trap went off. Luckily three more went off in short order. We safely deposited each mole in the bucket. Four was enough, Dad reckoned. We packed up and made our way back to where the van was parked.
It was time for phase two of the operation, though phase two was almost blown when we bumped into two police officers. They approached us at the bottom of the hill on Spring Lane, almost at Dad’s van.
“Hello, what’s all this about then?” said the First Officer, frowning. They were curious, or bored, or anxious for an arrest, it wasn’t clear but without hesitation Dad flashed a badge.
“Hackney Council, Pest Control” he said, earnest looking. I had wondered why he was wearing overalls. Now I knew. “We’re here about the mole infestation in Springfield Park” he added, lifting up the bucket so they could see. The moles were quiet at that moment but they distracted the officers from the fact Dad had just shown them an ID badge belonging to a friend who worked for the Local Education Authority. The picture looked nothing like him.
“Oh aye?” said the Second Officer, also askance, “all this at night time?”
“That’s when they’re about their business” said Dad, sounding confident, assured.
“I see” said the First Officer blankly. “And the young man here?” He gestured to me.
“My Son” said Dad, beaming. He grabbed me with his free arm and gave me a demonstrative hug, “I’m just showing him the ropes. I come from a long line of pest control experts, see…?” and he shook me about. “It’s been in the family for generations…” he smiled at me and let go. “Of course the boy wants none of it!” Dad laughed and shrugged. I was worried. I thought he was going to go off on a tangent but instead he said, “good for him, eh?” and punched me a little too hard on the shoulder, laughing again. The Police Officers seemed to take a moment to consider. They looked at each other. The First Officer then said:
“Very well, Sir.”
“It’s our job to ask these questions” said the Second Officer… “It’s not exactly the most savoury of neighbourhoods, now…” The pair started shuffling away.
“Full of moles for one thing” said Dad, waving his bucket again.
“Indeed” said the First Officer from over his shoulder. “Goodnight…”
“Goodnight, officers…” Dad prodded me. “Say ‘goodnight officers…’”
“Goodnight officers…” But they were already gone.
In Dad’s van, puttering through the night; phase two was now underway. I was used to sitting up front with Dad, though I’d not been up front with a bucket full of moles before. It was my job to make sure they survived the trip, peering in every now and then to check they were OK, though I hadn’t a clue what I’d do if they weren’t. I looked inside. The moles were still oddly quiet. In the low, passing lamplight they looked like a single ball of writhing, piping fur.
We reached the allotment, near Daubeny Fields, a few miles from Springfield. The gates were locked but we crept inside. It wasn’t that late but nobody seemed to be about. None of the sheds had lights on, not even the main building. It had been a fairly clear evening up until then but clouds were now rolling over, darkening things further. Dad wondered if we should set a mole each down in a subdivision, spread the damage, but this was impractical. Instead we dumped them across a radish patch, near to Mr Kemp’s prime spot, probably belonging to some blameless individual but needs must and it was time for the moles to do their job.
A week later their job was very thoroughly done. The moles had made a mess of numerous plots, almost all of them belonging to Mr Kemp’s crony/friends. Dad’s plot, on the far, stony, weedy side of the allotment was unscathed. I realised why Dad had chosen this particular moment to strike. Mr Kemp had been away, a week’s holiday. He came back the Wednesday after our mole-sabotage to find the allotment in disarray with frustrated, anxious members flinging angry accusations at each other. I heard some of the arguments going on prior to the Emergency Meeting. The strange thing was no one seemed to suspect Dad at all.
It was Friday evening again, around dusk. We were all waiting outside the main hut, which also doubled as Mr Kemp’s shed, waiting for him to arrive so the meeting could get underway. Dad took me along, though I wouldn’t be allowed inside. It was going to be a big meeting and Dad was on edge, pacing about, occasionally conferring with a few likely allies. Dave was there too. He was part of the plan. Dad was going to get Dave to join the allotment. There were a few plots left unallocated that year, so it was possible. Dad would sell him as a ‘mole consultant’ but Dave would also be a key ally, able to swing future votes. That was the plan.
Mr Kemp eventually arrived with the keys. The hut was unlocked and everybody went inside. Dad was one of the last. He gave me a big wink. The plan was coming together. This was his moment, our moment. The door closed and I was left to my devices. I played football with myself, keep ups and wall, for about an hour while the sun set and the members deliberated. I heard little, occasional raised mutters, some clapping and on one occasion Mr Kemp saying:
The meeting ended suddenly and the members poured out into the new night. Mr Kemp was one of the first to leave. He seemed happy and I was worried again. I waited. Dad was one of the last to come out, with Dave saying “well done” and shaking him by the hand. Dad looked somewhere between bewildered and elated.
“Well” he said eventually, standing next to me but looking into the distance, “that didn’t go as expected…”
“What happened, Dad?”
He looked at me. “I’ve been made Chair of the Committee.” He laugh/smiled. “Not what I expected at all…”
“That’s brilliant!” I said, delighted for him.
“Yeah” he laughed again, though this time it sounded hollow. “Well grubbed, old mole…” he trailed off. He looked uncertain, unsure of himself perhaps for the first time in his life. Scratching his left arm Dad asked me. “OK… um… what do I… what do we do now?”
Adam Marks lives in Hackney, works in Chelsea and writes whenever and wherever he can, both longer and shorter stories. He is a member of Hackney and East London Writers and Clockhouse London Writers groups. Examples (and links to examples) of his work can be found at: adammarkswriting.blogpot.com.
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