For my Son
Dominic ‘Dom’ Loftus
16 January 1991 – 4 October 2013
Michael Miller – 11.55pm 24 December 2003
‘Merry Christmas, Michael.’
‘Mum? Has he been? Is it snowing yet?’
‘No not yet, it’s not quite midnight, besides, have you been a good boy?’
In the darkness, I nod. ‘I do my homework every night, and I’ve been learning to skateboard.’
‘In that case, when you wake up you just might find something in your stocking.’
I pull the comforting blanket up to my chin.
‘Close your eyes Michael, I want to tell you something.’ I snuggle further down into the warm bed.
‘I love you very much. You are a very special person and will achieve wonderful things.’
I felt her tone change and her smile fade. ‘No matter what anyone tells you, Michael; anyone! especially things like; you’re not good enough, there’s no opportunity for someone like you, you’re the wrong class, or even if they tell you that you’re a victim, they’re wrong.’
I thought I felt her hand brush across my face.
‘No matter how much your friends laugh at you because you do your homework, ignore it! Work hard at everything that you do. Respect yourself and your dreams. I will always be with you.’ Her smile appears back again in the darkness.
Her voice was hypnotic. The softness of her words and warmth of my Christmas pyjamas mesmerised me. I imagined the toys that could be in my pillowcase in the morning.
Mum’s voice and silhouette fold into my dreams of scalextric, chocolate, and fried turkey sandwiches.
The church bells get louder and I wake.
Michael Miller – 5 Years Later
The first thing you see when you walk into the flat, are the pictures of Mum – that’s if you don’t fall over the Norton Commando Roadster. It’s been sat in the hallway for as long as I can remember. How Dad got it up four flights of stairs I don’t know. I’ve asked him if I could sell it loads of times.
‘That’s a 1974 classic motorbike, Philistine. I’ll have it up and running in no time.’
There are five framed photos, all at eye level, now part of my life since I could stand on my tiptoes and ask Dad questions about the pretty lady.
I never knew her. Dad said I was a baby when she died, but I still get a huge thump of sadness in my chest, every time I look her in the eyes.
The first photo is a black and white strip of four, taken in a photo booth. It’s Mum and Dad, their heads really close together, Mum’s is almost disappearing into Dad’s huge afro. He’s looking serious, almost uncomfortable, but she’s pulling a funny face in all of them. He had them framed a year ago when he found them, tucked inside an album cover, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. It had sat, un-played, in the record rack for ages. I’d seen him cry before, but nothing like he did that night. He didn’t play the album, just stared at it. Later, after a few large rums, he said, ‘Michael, those talentless rappers that you listen to? They have a lot to thank Mrs Coleridge-Taylor for’.
He bought a post-box red frame for the black-and-whites. He thought it would look ‘trendy’, brighten up the hallway. It was the first time I can remember him buying anything for the flat. Like the motorbike, nothing had been moved or had changed. Some of Mum’s clothes are still hanging in the wardrobe. I sneak a look in there sometimes just to touch or smell them.
The next one is a large head-shot, Mum’s smiling and serene. This is my favourite, and yeah it does look like a posed shot, but I can see every detail of her face. Flawless white skin, her blonde hair swept back by a breeze, crystal clear blue eyes. When Dad’s at work, I sometimes lose myself in their blueness and wonder, ‘what would she be doing now? What would Dad be like if she was still here?’ Digby said she looks like a princess he saw on telly once, who was killed in a car crash. I always think ‘What would she look like now?’
There is a mountain in the background. Dad told me one time that it’s Mont Blanc. The shape reminds me of the Sphinx and pyramids we had to draw in a history lesson. It sits there obstinate, triangular, the sun casting shadows in the snow that look like hollow eyes and a lost nose.
The one next to it is taken at an ice rink, you can’t tell it’s Mum, but I know it is. There’s a distant skater in the centre of the ice, poised like an actor on a stage. She’s balanced on the tip of one skate, her right leg and left arm horizontal with the ice. On the front row of the audience in a sea of white faces, is a single black face.
There’s a picture of her on a beach – caught, drink in one hand, half waving, half gesturing to the person taking the picture, inviting the photographer to come and sit by her under a palm tree.
The fifth is another of Mum and Dad both holding wine glasses. Shy grins at the camera. Mum in a tight black dress, a single string of pearls around her neck and a white shawl. Dad’s afro has gone, and is wearing a jacket and tie. They’re at a party in a restaurant somewhere, having fun and I’m kinda jealous. They’re holding hands, fingers intertwined and Mum’s hand seems to stand out like the moon against the night sky. There’s a waterfall behind them, it looks real. What are they thinking and where are they? Dad has never said. He never talks about it; about the past, Mum. What would she be like now?
Opposite the pictures are six shelves of books, one whole row dedicated to sports: sports psychology, training methods and leadership skills. There are also hand-written notebooks. I pick one up every now and then, and they are all in Dad’s hand writing. They’re like diaries, with dates and times, but the entries seem like a code, a language puzzle. Abbreviations like, ‘D is not MOT today. Check carbs, blades or wine?’
‘You in Dad?’ I tap the hall switch on, the bulb flickers, then a faint glow from the forty watt low energy bulb, and finally it burns slowly into life. Its grey light reflects off the head shot picture glass. Mum’s piercing eyes are faint in the poor light, but they seem to follow me through the front door as it bangs shut.
Mum stays forever young, and in my head her smile gets bigger at the sound of his voice.
‘Where have you been? It must be past midnight.’ He hasn’t shaven for a few days and a bottle of rum is already half empty.
‘Haven’t you got work tomorrow Dad?’
‘It’s late; it’ll be time to get up before you know it.’ He won’t stop ‘til the bottle’s empty or he crashes on the sofa.
His eyes are pink. The Coleridge-Taylor album is on the kitchen table.
‘I’m going to bed, do you want me to wake you up in the morning?’ There’s no point in trying to talk to him in this mood.
‘Wait, Michael. Let’s talk.’ He opens his arms. ‘Like father and son. Come on, sit down.’ The kitchen chair scrapes on the floor as he makes a space for me.
I sit down.
‘We hardly talk’. He splashes more rum into his glass, spilling a little on the record cover. He wipes it with the sleeve of his shirt. ‘You’re always at that damned park’.
‘No Dad, I’m always studying for my GCSEs, and I work as well’.
‘You still do that paper round?’ His words run together as the rum makes its way to his brain.
‘It’s a job. None of my friends go out and earn money, apart from stealing – if you can call that work’. I pick the album up off the table, wipe it again and study the copperplate letters.
‘Three pounds fifty an hour boy? That’s slave labour. The indoor ski slope is paying six pounds just for waiters in the cafe.’
He’s right. I’ve done the round for three years and never had a pay rise. I change the subject.
‘Dad, tell me about this vinyl again.’
His mood changes, his voice soft, his pink eyes widen at my interest.
‘Ah, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, where do I start?’ More rum goes in his glass.
Growing up, we never talked about stuff; school, the estate, drugs, alcohol, sex, or Mum. He took it for granted I was like him. I am, but he didn’t know that. This vinyl is a grown up connection, my mother’s connection, a father and son connection, a bond. He tells me the story again, like it’s the first time.
‘Samuel was black, the bastard son of a Sierra Leonean Doctor, his wife Jessie, was white. They were English intellectuals, meeting and falling in love at the Royal College of Music’. He swirls the rum around in his glass.
‘They had a love affair and married in 1899, which broke all the rules at the time’. He misses out the part this time of the two ill-fated lovers who inspired him and shaped his future.
‘But you and Mum got married?’
‘Michael, get real son, interracial marriage was still against the law in over thirty US states in 1961. In the scheme of things, that wasn’t very long ago.’
He speaks softly about the personal and sad story of Coleridge-Taylor and his family. ‘Samuel died really early of pneumonia and left a very young family.’
I think this is another connection that he makes to Mum and the reasons why he’s so moved by the record. It’s not just the beautiful choral and orchestral music, and violin is his favourite instrument, it’s the parallels he draws.
‘Jessie’s parents didn’t accept their daughter’s marriage for a long time.’ He said.
He stopped, took a quick sideways glance at me and looked back into his glass, like he was searching for words. ‘After we got together, Dora’s friends and family never spoke to her again, and my friends, mainly black, thought it was just a phase I was going through.’
This was new. He hardly ever discussed their life together with me. Dad married Mum in 1992, Samuel and Jessie had paved the way nearly a hundred years earlier. Even now, black men hook up with white girls; it’s a tick in the box, many couples even lived together, but marriage? Early 1990’s was before human rights, before a mobile phone was in everyone’s pocket, before I was born.
‘It’s really festive music, Michael, but it doesn’t have to be played at Christmas. The choruses are a beautiful blend of English and American styles.’
He turns the sleeve over but he doesn’t need to read it, he knows it off by heart. ‘Taylor’s eldest son was called Hiawatha, after it.’ He looks serious, ‘that must have been tough on the kid, mixed race and called Hiawatha Coleridge Taylor.’ He splashes more rum in his glass, ‘it must have been almost as bad for your mother. Her full name was Pandora Grace Joliffe – Miller.’
‘Dora was my soul-mate, Michael. Do you know what a soul-mate is? I’ll tell you. And I don’t mean the Cosmopolitan or OK magazine version of soul mate; romantic partner, life long bond, blah de blah. I mean the full fat Plato version and what makes us who we are’
He places the record gently back down on the table. ‘At the time when the Gods ruled the earth, humans had two sets of everything; two heads, four arms, four legs, and male and female genitalia, some were androgynous. Back then, we were both man and woman, and we were born from the sun and the earth.’
I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about.
‘Zeus split humans in half as punishment for Humanity’s pride, and for becoming almost more powerful than the Gods themselves. He created two genders, but Apollo sews them back together again, with the belly button as the only remaining part of the original human form. Michael, Apollo sealed our future and our fate. We are forever destined now to be searching, searching for our other half that was lost, all those thousands of years ago.’
As he talks he almost forgets I’m there, his eyes and mind are now in another place and time. We’ve lived together all these years, but emotionally apart. I remember being about five years old and in awe of him, his power, his masculinity, his confidence, and his physical presence. My head only came up to his waist.
‘And when you find your other half, Michael, there is an unspoken understanding. You are unified and fused together again, and there is no greater joy than finding your lost soul.’ He runs his hand gently across the record; Taylor stands tall, looking into the camera, with his right hand in his pocket.
‘It’s Dora, your mother; she was my androgynous other self. But, to keep it real son, and as a Cosmopolitan journalist would say, she was my best friend, my lover, my protégé, my confidante, my wife, my life!’
A little later, I struggle with him to his room, my arm around his waist. I gently drop him down onto his bed and cover him with a sheet, and then a blanket. It’s snowing outside. I look at him properly for the very first time. I see the nobility in his nose, his facial features, his elegant long neck, his African heritage, his dignity. In the crumpled shirt, his crumpled face, I see his pain at the loss of Dora, his woman.
From his bedroom window he can see out onto the estate. I’d seen him from the park from time to time, staring out over the harsh dull city-scape. His gaze always somewhere beyond the tenement roofs.
‘It’s a ghetto, boy. Don’t make the same mistakes I did’. He would say.
I hear a muffled shout and go to his window. For the second time in a month, there are flashing blue lights outside the Patel’s shop. Dark shadows run in all directions, hushed by a covering of snow. Another police car arrives. The shop lights flicker on as Mr Patel comes outside onto to the street. His face is hidden by the swirling snow and blue shadows, but I can clearly see a cricket bat in his hand.
No one notices the drugs, the violence, and the gangs of teenagers on the streets any more. Last week, two fifteen year-old girls were attacked and gang raped by a group of up to ten lads. A third girl, Chantelle, was indecently assaulted in the skate park behind the half pipe.
The gang, mostly black youths aged from twelve to eighteen gave them vodka. The lads, believed to be from the estate, then split into groups, leaving about fifteen of them still with the girls. Up to ten of these animals – despite the others trying to stop them – raped the two girls. One of the girls was mixed race and the other black. Chantelle, who is white and in year nine, was punched and kicked.
The mixed race girl was raped in the children’s play area behind the park and the black girl was raped in the alley way behind the shops. Police were called by an unknown resident from the estate.
I found one of the girls wandering in the stairwell two flights down from Dad’s flat. I gave her some sweet tea. The other was found near to some garages, obviously trying to make her way onto the estate and back home.
Both of them were treated in hospital but have now been released. No weapons were used by the attackers, but Christ, they wouldn’t need them if there were ten of the bastards. The Police said on the radio last night that, ‘No arrests have yet been made’.
I can see the phone box on the corner, the interior light broken, and I think about that night. I close Dad’s curtains.
I sit down with a hot chocolate and put the record onto the turntable. I’d heard it in the background over the last year but never really listened to the sounds. It is haunting and very moving music, but at the same time as Dad said, festive.
I go out into the hall, to the picture of the ice skater. The music makes me think about Dad and Mum, but more about Mum. I have an image of her in my head, spinning on her left toe perfectly in time to the rising noise of the singers and soaring violin. I hear Dad snoring and go back into his room.
The wardrobe door is ajar; I glance at him and push it further open. Dresses, jumpers and trousers are crammed together, their colours blending in the half light. Underneath them on the floor is a white sports bag, with the logo, TEAM GB.
I glance over at Dad again and lift out the bag, it’s heavy; the zipper slides noisily across the top, the snoring continues. There’s a white shell suit, leather ice-skates, and a couple of short, glittery white skirts. I move the clothes to one side and hear the clink of glass against the metal blades of the boots. I feel in the bag and find a clear bottle with a silver cap, ’Beautiful’ by Estee Lauder. The top unscrews easily and I sniff the contents. Immediately I smell roses and baby powder. I know this smell; I dig deep into my memory, roses and baby powder. It was Dora, my mother. Now I know that my first memory was my mother, roses and baby powder.
Dad grunts and turns over, I panic, drop the bottle in the bag and pull the zipper back quickly. The single memory of my mother, lingers on my fingers as I go back into the hall.
The music is still playing and I study Mum’s headshot photo. She really does look happy; there is a sense of freedom, her smile is genuine. I can see why Dad loved her, she was beautiful. I turn and run my hand along the spines of the top row of books. At the end there is a book that’s been put back the wrong way around. I take it out and open it at the first page. It’s a thick hand written notebook; with an inscription on the inside cover.
Dora Miller 1992:
Henry Miller – Black Loyalist
I take the note book into the kitchen and put it in my school bag. My phone is on the table. I Google the indoor ski slope, save the number in the phone, then I Google Dora Miller. As its loading, I write ZEUS on the back of my hand.
Digby – Earlier that day
‘It ain’t gonna fuckin’ work then is it, knob-head.’ Alistair flicks his cigarette at Baker B., sparks bouncing off his leather jacket. ‘Anyway, he defo’ won’t join in.’ He nods in the direction of the skate park. Baker B. sulks.
The lads around Alistair are all black apart from Ray a white kid, reborn at Christmas as ‘P. Ray’ He speaks better gangster than the older black kids, zealous. A bit like a born-again Christian preaching their new found faith.
‘Dot the Hi’s and criss cross the T’s blood’ as P. Ray would say.
Alistair plans to break into the Paki shop on the corner. He knows Michael won’t be happy, so we talk it over quietly with the crew as Michael practices his moves.
Michael is finishing his best move, a 360 degree big spin on the concrete half pipe. Skating alone, his balance and grace are natural, like a ballet-dancer, but no one tells him that.
The Projects Skate Park had been in the council plan and talked about forever man. Anyway bruv after the estate committee petitioned, the council spent mega bucks on it! Workers mainly Polish and other men with reflective jackets and hard hats, had been there for weeks. But listen, they had to put twenty-four hour security on the site after the first week though, some of the tools went missing and the workmen’s hut burned to the ground. Alistair, me, and the boys all had new Nike trainers and matching gang hoodies that week.
The park is in the middle of the council estate and is just lumps of concrete metal rails and different shapes that the skaters can board over. The whole area is still bleak but there is the new slalom area though that is Michael’s favourite part of the park. Whilst he loves the complicated and fancy moves and practices when he can, he always sets his stop watch and times himself on the downhill slalom at the end of every practice session. He uses the empty beer cans that are tossed everywhere around the park as markers placed every six or eight feet.
‘Yo, bro! Michael! Michael! Don’t know why ya bovver yeh. Only white dudes board now.’ Alistair flashes a smile. His gold tooth looks out of place against the greyness of the concrete. ‘Ain’t no cheese no more, brother’.
Michael reaches the top of the concrete, lands safely and spins the board up into his hands. He takes one of his head-phones out of his ear.
‘It’s not about the money, Alistair. It’s about the sport.’
Michael dislikes the street talk. He hates English kids, black and white, trying to emulate the MTV video stars. Wearing their jeans around their arses, like the New York hip hoppers, and talking like LA rappers, with false American or Yardie accents.
Alistair spits on the floor, ‘It always about the money Ace. How else do a brother get respec’?’
‘Respect yourself Alistair, get a job.’ Michael puts the head-phone back in his ear, drops his board to the floor and is off. Alistair looks in the direction of the crew, spits and nods. The lads gather around him again, hanging onto his next word now Michael had gone. He spits again, and we all watch Michael as he starts his routine of pushing himself over to the slalom area. He sets his watch as usual as he launches himself off the top edge, Alistair presses the seconds’ timer on his ‘Sea Master’. I look at my watch.
Michael easily and confidently dodges between the beer cans, his speed gathering at every turn. He knows the slalom, every rise, twist and camber. He crouches lower, his arms out for balance, he puts his head down for the finish. The first flakes of snow settled on Alistair’s jacket sleeve as he stops the timer just as Michael crosses the line and stops his own watch.
He’s knocked another second off his best time.
Michael is older than me; I’ve known him all my life. Me Mam would send me to the shops for sweets whilst another Uncle came up to see her. Michael would sometimes take me to his Dad’s flat and we played on his Nintendo. We’d have tea and toast. He was like my big bruv, until Alistair came along. He just appeared on the estate one day. Michael was at school. I was ill with an asthma attack and sat on a wall eating a packet of crisps. Alistair sat next to me and offered me a smoke. He spoke like an MC of MTV, and talked about the same gangster stuff, guns, murder, drugs and gangs. Real hard-core. Within a few days Alistair was the main man it was like he had always been on the estate. I had my first splif within the week.
‘We is black bro. Ganja is our birthright brother, yeh?’ Alistair said.
I’d never thought about being a black kid before. All my friends were black, apart from Ray, but I never noticed that. Me Mam and her family are black; she told me my Dad is black. It wasn’t until I met Alistair that being black became any sort of question. It became a state of mind within minutes of meeting him.
‘I is a black man bruv, I want to be proud of my blackness, my roots man.’
That was one of the first things he’d said to me. He was fifteen yeh, I was twelve. I didn’t know what blackness meant, I didn’t fuckin’ care, but it sounded cool and I wanted some of it.
‘Yo, Digs. We jackin’ the Paki shop tonight, you in Shorty?’ Alistair knew what the answer would be.
‘Ace, is da Pope Cat’lic?’
The crew laugh and we head to the mobile chippie van parked at the entrance to the park. For the first time I felt like I was part of a real family, people who cared and looked after me. Everyone always said, ‘I got ya back bro.’ Even though Michael was like a big bruv, he acted like a big sister, always interfering, especially when Alistair became my bro.
Alistair buys everyone a cone of chips with curry sauce and we sit on the wall, hoodies up against the falling snow. He talks over his plan one more time.
‘Easy peazy, Pakeez easy.’ He says.
‘Can you fuckin’ believe it bro, they stash all their cash in a sock in the kitchen cupboard, and there ain’t no alarm.’
He’s finished his chips, skins up and takes a long draw. The grey smoke curls high, edging into the sky, but is slowly crushed down again by the increasing weight of the snow flakes.
‘What can go wrong Shorty?’ Alistair gives me a high five and hands me the joint.
I can see mam’s flat from the wall, and I watch as a new uncle hitches his collar against the snow as he leaves. In her dressing gown as usual, she smiles as she closes the door behind him. I draw hard on the joint, I’d watched the same scene play out dozens of times and in different contexts; sunshine, rain, day, night, sober and drunk. One time, she actually fell in love with someone yeh, Uncle Tyrone. She always smiles at the door in her pink, silk, dressing gown with a Chinese dragon on the back of it.
She cried the last time Uncle Tyrone left.
Cameron Miller – 16 February 1992, XVI Olympic Winter Games
The Dan-Air flight from Gatwick to Geneva didn’t start too well. Dora had three or four large gin and tonics in the departure lounge and four miniatures during the flight. The weather and visibility were poor as we landed in Switzerland; the transfer to the Three Valleys was a nightmare, it took two hours longer due to the snow.
Everyone is cold, exhausted, and goes straight to bed. Not Dora, pulling on her fur hat and gloves she pleads with me. ‘Please, pretty please! Just one for the road Cameron?’
She is talented, driven, a natural athlete, intelligent, beautiful, and naively unaware of what she is capable of. And, I just wish she would bloody well take this seriously.
The choice of Courchevel as a base wasn’t a good one either. Not only is it an hour from the ice rink at La Halle Olympique in Albertville, the après never ends. Perhaps that’s why she chose it.
‘Christ, Cameron, it was four o’clock this morning. She woke the whole friggin’ hotel up. It’s the first round skate off in three hours, get her sober! She’s made it here, she’s representing our country, watch her, the whole world will be! It’s your efin job mate, not mine!’ The boss bangs the door behind him. I deserved that. We didn’t even unpack last night and we were straight into one of the bars.
It’s been like that with Dora ever since we started dating. She’s up at five thirty, skates for two hours, shower, work until six, jump on a train into Manchester, calls me to meet her in a bar at seven. Then at weekends, to a nightclub, taxi home in the early hours. Up at five thirty, skates for two hours…
You instinctively know that there is something different about Dora the first time you meet her. She never talks about skating or the Olympics, she is vibrant, funny, clever, but there’s a flaw, an uncertainty in her own skill, which translates to a naïve understatement of her abilities. But on the ice, Dora is almost autistic; she repeats each movement every time until she does it perfectly. She’s a natural and she skates because she enjoys it. Her performances are aggressive and passionate because she underestimates herself off the ice.
I watched Mae Jemison being interviewed on TV after her space trip. She had no concept of her achievement, the first African American woman to travel in space, and she took it all in a day’s work. She said she was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.; and to her, King’s dream was not an elusive fantasy but a call to action.
‘Too often people paint him like Santa — smiley and inoffensive,’ said Jemison. ‘But when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude, audacity, and bravery. The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up.’
If I ask Dora what her inspiration is, she’ll say ‘Why it’s you, Cam. I do what I do because it’s all for you.’ She is my Mae and my Martin Luther King. She has entered the final frontier and she is living her dream wide awake, and in full colour.
Breakfast is finishing. With the boss’s rollicking still ringing in my ears, I find some polystyrene cups and lids, pour a couple of black coffees and take a few things from the buffet. I call the lift in reception.
Some of the German team is based in our hotel too, and a few of their athletes are already in the lift as I get in. Their skis rattling together as they shuffle to make room. I can feel four sets of blue eyes burning into the back of my neck. They get off on the fourth floor, whispering and looking back, clearly surprised to see a black man, and slightly amused at a black man in the lift with coffee, ham, cheese and croissants, pushing lift buttons with his chin.
Dora insisted on being at the very top of the building so she could wake up and see Mont Blanc every morning. I knock on the door with the heel of my boot. I can hear a TV, the toilet flushes, and then a tap runs. The door slowly swings open, seconds later I hear the sound of curtains being pulled open.
‘Come in Cam, God I hope you’ve got some coffee.’
At the Halle Olympique two hours later, Dora pulls on her white patent leather skates and runs her hands down her thighs brushing imaginary creases out of her shimmering skirt. She looks and smells as fresh as a rose and pushes off onto the ice for the first time. The silver blades dazzle as the first spotlight reflects off them and the ice. I catch the eye of the boss, begin to smile but he breaks eye contact. I think he mouths ‘Thank Fuck’ but I wouldn’t put my wages on it, I just hope the cameras are focused on Dora, not him. I take my seat in the team area.
The five judges are stony-faced. The spotlights are now on Dora. Silence, she bows her head. Her choice of music always amuses and mystifies but her timing is always perfect. It begins and I smile to myself as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice slowly starts to build, its choice reveals itself in the raised eyebrows on the faces of the judges. Dora’s magic starts to work; she is a ballet dancer, a snake charmer, and the promises of a BMW advert all in one package.
She teases them with an Axel double jump with two and a half rotations, the sparse audience clap, but can’t be heard over the rising sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The judges can’t take their eyes off her as the music starts to build tension. Dora is the instrument of Leopold Stokowski, her arms and legs are his baton. Her limbs control the judges and the audiences’ reaction, the mood in the Halle Olympic rises and falls to the whim of her magical moves. The music, the audience, and Dora are as one. She rotates, spinning quickly, centered on a single point on the ice. Then she rotates on the part of the blade just behind the toe pick. With the weight on the ball of her left foot, she does a combination spin with a change from her left to right foot. These are moves I see every day, but she surprises me every single time with her elegance.
She’s graceful, but purposeful with absorbed intent as she performs another Axel but a triple jump with three and a half rotations this time. With the music at a foot stomping crescendo, she spins to a halt as the music is temporarily halted by Stokowski. The beat starts to build again and she shimmies to the centre of the ice rink, her skirt reflects the coloured lights spinning from the ceiling. She works into a position for her finishing sequence. My heart misses a beat as she finally enters into an upright figure skating spin. She executes a one-foot spin but she grabs her other foot and extends it over and behind her head, forming a teardrop shape with her body: the Biellmann spin, the Holy Grail of the ice. She comes to a halt and becomes a silhouette as the lights go down. The audience stands, the judges are stony faced again as the lights come back up, but everyone wishes her four minute routine had lasted for ten.
I finally sit back in my chair and breathe. Dora really does take my breath away. She skates over to the team enclosure and sits on the seat three away from me, and next to the boss. We make eye contact this time and he winks at me, then he gives Dora a high five.
‘Yes! You are the man Dora, you ARE the MAN.’
Everyone in the enclosure now turns to the judges and the score board. We sit and wait for the board to change.
I’m early. I order a large beer, but the waiter brings a small one. There’s a saxophone playing smooth jazz in the background. I wear a track suit seven days a week, so I feel very uncomfortable in a jacket and tie. Dora walks through the door into Le Tremplin and my discomfort melts away. I stand as the waiter brings her over to the table. She is wearing stilettoes and walks slowly across the room. The soft music, the gentle click of heels on the wooden floor, the black cocktail dress, hugging her waist, all accentuate the swing of her hips.
‘Kir Royale and a beer for my friend,’ she says as he pulls out a chair for her. I breathe out.
‘Bien sûr, Madam.’ He bows graciously and he takes her wrap away.
‘You look absolutely stunning in that dress.’ I managed to say.
‘You don’t look half bad yourself; I almost didn’t recognize you without your track suit.’
We just look at each, the silence isn’t a problem. I love her. I can say that now. I always have but never told her. We never seemed to have the time.
‘I love you.’
Her mouth opens to reply as the waiter arrives with the drinks.
‘Madam, monsieur.’ He places the drinks then the menus in front of us.
‘Cinq minutes?’ Again the waiter nods to her graciously. She sips the champagne, puts her glass down and removes the fruit from the glass with a spoon. She pops the raspberry into her mouth.
We look at each other for a while, sipping our drinks. Who will blink first?
‘You know I’ve tracked your Great, Great, Great, Grandfather down?’ She says biting into the fruit.
I blink. ‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’
‘Yes. But I’ve known that for a long time.’
‘Ditto of course.’
That was it. We would discuss marriage, children, race relations and religion later. She has a job to do, but more importantly she’s here to have a party doing it.
‘Only three bloody sixes and two fives.’ She high fives me, but she was comfortable in her black cocktail dress and bouffant hair. The waiter arrives back at the table; he waits graciously with his pen and order pad.
I order tartiflette with smoked salmon instead of lardons and Dora orders sea bass with salsa verde, and another Kia Royale. She takes a sip of her drink. ‘Have you heard of the Book of Negroes?’
‘No. Should I?’ I’m surprised at the title.
‘Yes, if you want to trace your family back to where it all started, Cam! It’s important to know our past if we want a future. What if we have children?’
‘Perhaps their past starts with us? I say.
‘No, Cam, this book is really important. It’s about the immigration of African Americans to Canada after the American War of Independence. It has the names and the descriptions of nearly three thousand black’s that sailed from New York to Nova Scotia in 1783. I’ve found him Cam; I’ve found your ancestor, Henry and his family.’
Dora Miller – Moss High (30) June 1991
‘Miss, I need a wee Miss. Miss, I gotta go, now.’
‘Ok, Brie, ok. How many times have I told you, if you need the bathroom just go. You’re thirteen and we’re all adults in this room.’
‘I know, Miss, but all the other teachers make us wait ‘til the end of class.’
‘We are historians, Brie; history can wait another five minutes for you to discover it. Go!’
The rest of the class giggled as Brie walks quickly from the room.
‘Class, we have two more weeks before we break for the summer holidays.’
The class cheers and a baseball cap is thrown in the air.
‘So, as I won’t see you for seven weeks after that, I’ve got a summer project for you all to do.’
‘Ohhh Miss. The clue is in the word holidays!’
‘Touché, Anthony, but this project is about you.’
‘Me, Miss? Anthony sits up in his chair.
‘No, Anthony, it’s about everyone in this room.’
‘Cheers, Miss!’ He slumps back in his seat.
‘Without a show of hands, does anyone know where their Mum or Dad was born? Has anyone met their grandparents? Don’t forget you should have four! Has anyone met or know anything about their great grandparents?’ Only half the class groan. That’s encouraging.
‘Ok, this is the project. Starting from you, draw a family tree. Work back through your family, including brothers and sisters. Look at the families both on your Mum and Dad’s side. Try and get birthdays and birth places. Let’s see how far you can go back. If your parents don’t know, speak with Aunties and Uncles. If Grandma and Grandpa are still around speak with them.
‘Boring, Miss,’ Says Anthony.
‘Yes, Anthony, I know we’ve been talking about more gruesome things; guillotines, rolling heads and the French revolution over the last few weeks, but it’s just as important that you know your history. The good news is that the headmaster has agreed that this class can use the school computer, but only with a pass from me. And Anthony, this is for research purposes, not for down-loading music!’
Michael Miller – 10th March, 2008
The café is busy but I manage order a hot chocolate and grab a table in the corner. I sit with my back to the room. It’s a study period so the place is noisy and rammed with 6th Formers. The only things getting studied though are the tables full of girls. I find Dora’s note book in my school bag as the hot chocolate arrives.
I’d googled Dora Miller and Pandora in my IT lesson this morning, I told sir it was part of my history assignment. There are some still pictures from 1992, and there’s a little bit of video on You Tube stamped France 1992. There’s a commentary on the video that mentions her, but like the still picture of the skater at home, I can’t really say it’s her.
I did find a website about a junior school in Cheshire that had a pupil called Pandora Joliffe. This wasn’t the official school website; it was done by a man called Alan who seems to be the same age as her. He must have spent years searching for ex-pupils, going back to the 1950’s. There were lots of pictures of him and his family; they lived in the street the school was on. There’s some grainy coloured pictures in the 1970’s section, and two of them are tagged ‘Pandora Joliffe.’
I open Dora’s note book.
Henry Miller – In Slavery
I was born in South Carolina during the year of 1754, thirty miles from Charles-Town. My father was stolen from Africa when he was young, I don’t know which year. He is a humble man and loved by his master. He had the run of the Plantation as a driver for many years. My mother was employed chiefly to help those that were sick, having some knowledge of the virtue of herbs. She had learned about medicine and healing from the Kiawah Indian tribe. She also had the care of making the people’s clothes, and on that basis she was indulged with many privileges which the rest of the slaves were not.
When I was six years old I became a house niger and waited upon my master. He taught me to read and write, and the way to the Lord through the good bible.
In my ninth year I was put to watch the cattle and horses. I travelled to Boston, New York and many other different parts of America with the master’s race-horses, but I suffered many hardships. One time I lost a boot belonging to the groom. He took my only pair of shoes from me so I didn’t have any shoes at all that winter, which was the greatest hardship to endure.
When I reached sixteen years of age, I was released by my owner to become a bound apprentice to a trade. After being in the shop about two years, I was put in charge of my master’s tools. Being of very good quality, they were often used by the other men if I happened to be out of the way. When this was the case, or any of them were lost, my master beat me severely, striking me upon the head, or any other part of me without mercy.
In August that year, my master and the men were away, and the care of the house devolved to me and a younger apprentice. The house was broken into, and robbed of many valuables through the negligence of the apprentice who had been in charge of it. When I came back in the evening, and saw what had happened, my dismay and the consequences were unthinkable. All that we both had in the world could not make good the loss. The following week, when the master came back to town, I was beaten unmercifully, so much so that I was not able to work for a fortnight.
Eight months later, we were employed to build a store house, and nails were very costly. It was in the time of the war. So, the work-men had their nails weighed out to them; because of this, they made the younger apprentices watch the nails while they were away. It was my turn one day to take care of them, which I did till another apprentice returned to his work, and then I went to eat. In the meantime, he took away all the nails belonging to one of the journeymen, who had a very violent temper, and accused me of stealing them. For this offence I was beaten and tortured most cruelly again, and was laid up three weeks before I was able to do any work.
My owner, hearing of the beating I had received, came to town, and severely reprimanded my master for beating me in such a manner. He threatened him, that if he ever heard of the like again, he would take me away and put me with another master to finish my time, and make him pay for it. This had a good effect, and he didn’t beat me again. Over the following two years, I began to acquire a proper knowledge of my trade. I still tended the horses and knew them each by name.
My master being apprehensive that Charles-Town was in danger of being taken on account of the war decided that we should move into the country, about forty miles south. Over a few months we built a large house, during which time the English did take Charles-Town. We carried on a normal life as best we could.
Henry Miller – 1775, First year of freedom
On the morning of 10th July, I fed the horses for the very last time. The week before the English invaded, I’d been into Charles-Town, with my master to collect some fence posts. Whilst the master was drinking in the saloon, I relaxed in the back of the cart, guarding the timber. Throughout the afternoon, my hat over my face, I overheard passing conversations, heated intercourse that would rip the Americas apart for the next seven years.
The reports from frightened white lips, allowed me to piece together my future. I learned that the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had asked enslaved Africans to support the British Colonials in the fight against the American colonies. With a promise of freedom, I had a mind to. I escaped my shackles and looked to join the army. I finally arrived at New York in early September 1775.
I found myself in a long line of hundreds of black men. ‘Make your mark there, boy, and walk to the left.’ The soldier, writing, didn’t look up. ‘I can sign my name, sir.’ Says I.
‘Write your name there, boy, and walk to the right.’ Says he.
I slowly scratch Henry Miller, and walk to the right.
There are eleven other black men, and a white soldier in a row. All the recruits are in various states of attire. Seven have no shoes. The surly soldier marches us in a line to a nearby barn.
‘Halt! You black bastards.’ None of the recruits even register this. ‘Atten…tion.’
At this, another soldier appears in a doorway at the side of the building. There’s an air about him, he’s different, he’s calm, a professional soldier, and he’s the man in charge. Our soldier snaps to attention and salutes.
‘At ease gentleman, at ease,’ says the calm man.
We are already at ease. The surly soldier snaps his arm down again and spins to face the officer. His legs now apart, his hands by his side.
‘I am Captain Samuel Leslie.’ Says he, and salutes as gently as he speaks. He looks straight at me.
‘Everyone has a defining moment in their lives gentleman. This is yours.’ He looks at the next man down the line. No one moves or says anything. ‘You are now free men.’
There’s a cheer from the line but it’s hushed quickly by the soldier at the end of our rank.
‘Today, you have joined the Ethiopian Regiment of freed slaves with over three hundred other freed negroe Americans. Gentlemen, by making your mark today you have also begun writing the history of the New Americas. The actions you take tomorrow will re-write world history.’
The Captain coughs, and puts a white handkerchief to his face. He composes himself. ‘You are not only fighting for your freedom men, you are fighting for the freedom of all African American slaves.’ Another cheer goes up and Captain Leslie scowls at the soldier as he tries to stop it.
‘Gentlemen, I will lead you to freedom, to victory over your oppressors, and I will take you to a glorious new life as equals.’
The line of men is unstoppable now and they wave their hats, those without hats do a jig, but they all cheer.
I am promoted to corporal due to being able to write. The soldier pulls me to the front of the line and I lead the men into the barn. As we file past a counter, a soldier looks us up and down and chooses a jacket, trousers and a slouch hat from behind him on a shelf. He says nothing except ‘Next!’
Later after the uniforms are issued and we are shown to our bunk house, the men are like children, happy smiles and proud of their new clothes. Only one or two of them swap items of uniform because it’s too big or small, until eventually all goes quiet and the men size each other up.
‘We is going to Harlem.’ Says a battered and scrawny youth.
‘Harlem Heights’ He lisps, most of his teeth missing.
‘Dat house niger taak.’ Another emaciated man snapped back.
‘Dem taak in congress; dem white folk put dar names to Declaration of Independence. No mar war.’
‘Why is you here then boy? I say above the beginnings of the childish chitter chatter, the room goes silent.
‘You is here because the British ain’t ever gonna lose no mar taxes.’ I answer for him.
That starts twelve different conversations mostly about our freedom, and if we will we get shoes too. The noise level rises quickly and reveals twelve different opinions in the room.
No guns were issued at the store that day, but forty eight hours later we join the light infantry and the 42nd Highlanders.
I was right. On September 16th we witness the Battle of Harlem Heights. The day before, after a bombardment of the American positions on the shore, General Howe lands four thousand British troops at Kip’s Bay, Manhattan. The American troops flee at the sight of the British and German troops. Even with the arrival of George Washington on the scene, Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Army, they refused to obey orders and continue to bolt. After scattering the Americans at Kip’s Bay, Howe landed 9,000 more troops, but he did not cut off the American retreat from New York City. Washington had all of his troops in the City on their way to Harlem Heights by 4:00 pm and they all reached the Heights by nightfall.
We are being called The Black Loyalists and we are now in support of the British. I had been seconded to the Pioneering detail. I feel my luck had changed as I’m not on the front-line. We do the jobs for ‘nigers’, dirty jobs, latrine digging and cleaning, clearing the brush around swamps, dropping trees, and sometimes scout if there is a local niger, with local knowledge.
Early the next morning, I make my way to the highest point near the camp. I take my bible and my new stripes. Eight hundred black volunteers from the Royal Ethiopian Regiment are among the thousands of soldiers that have marched over to Kemps Landing. I can hear the battle raging from my vantage point. I take out my sewing kit and start to sew the corporal strips onto my blouse. Already sewn on the breast of my uniform is the inscription ‘Liberty to Slaves.’ In the distance I can hear a hunting horn as the British attack. I thought it was odd and so did the colonials. They were incensed at the insult. I learned later that Washington’s army repelled the British attack at Great Bridge, and overran them.
‘You good?’ A young black soldier wearing a different coloured uniform than mine is standing over me. A ‘Brown Bess’ musket at his side.
‘Yea man, I is fine.’
The young soldier takes up a space next to me.
‘Titus. Friends call me Tye. Corporal uhh?’ He holds out his hand. I take it and feel hard skin. This young man has seen lots of physical labour. He is softly spoken and well mannered.
‘Henry. Friends call me Henry. Yea, I can write.’
‘I is not educated like you Henry, but I can fight!’
I can see that his musket is clean and well looked after. He looks fit and well fed.
‘I is one of four slaves owned by John Corlies of Shrewsbury, in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He is a cruel and quick tempered man. He does not follow the tradition of educatin’ slaves or freein’ them on their 21st birthdays. So I escape’
‘Amen to that, we is free now brother Tye, we is free now’
‘My sister is free too, Henry. Patty escape wid me and we join the British Army.
We sit in silence and listen to the four inch cannon firing in the background. I continue to stitch my stripes onto my jacket and Tye polishes his Brown Bess with a rag. The British spend more time cleaning and marching us than they do fighting.
‘Dat der small pox is killin’ everybody dead,’ says he.
‘So is dem cannons.’ I nod in the direction of the valley.
‘Which would you have make you dead, brother?’ I say.
He looks hard at me. ‘None. I is a free niger now and I got plans.’ He polishes Bessie with extra care.
I saw Tye on and off over the next few months, he became a good friend and was a very brave man. His status grew as an urban guerrilla and a feared fighter. I didn’t see him again for quite a few years, until summer 1780, but his reputation preceded him. I did meet Patty later that day, and she finished off the stitching on my jacket.
Until I met Michael I’d never heard of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I’d not heard of Dora Miller or even Bob Marley, but he made me feel that if I did, my world would be a better place.
The first time I met him, it was early 2008, he was washing the floors in the boot changing room, listening to music on his phone.
We were alone. I wiped my skis down and started packing them away. He glanced in my direction and I smiled and asked him what the music is. He looked nervous, but stopped mopping and took a headphone out of his ear.
‘You won’t have heard of him.’ He said, putting his ear piece back.
‘Try me.’ I said confidently.
‘Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.’ He squeezed the mop through the wrangler.
I was surprised at that but said,
‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:’
I recalled the first few lines of the poem effortlessly and confidently. As I put my boots in their bag, I self-assuredly glanced back at him, and I felt quite smug at the time actually.
‘That’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ He said slowly, looking at me like I was barking.
‘No, Samuel Tayler-Coler…’ I trailed off ‘You didn’t say that, did you?’
Later, he helped carry my bags to the car.
Martha – 10am 20 March 2008
For once, the changing room is empty. My brand new, bright red Head boots are on the floor, leaning against each other for support. There is something really comforting about putting on your own ski boots. When I first started skiing with Mum, Dad and my brother Christian, the boots Dad hired for me were a standard fit. I was a beginner and I was only six years old, so it wasn’t worth buying my own boots. A hundred people had hired these boots before me over the last year or two, so often they were well worn and not the best quality anyway.
Usually by day three on the ski trip I had blisters, painful shins, or chaffs. On one ski holiday in Morzine, they were so badly fitting despite being the right size, my big toenail went black and three months later it fell off, revealing a tiny pink new one. It never stopped me skiing though.
I put my boots on fasten the toe clips, instantly the thermo moulded inner shell with the moulded foot beds feel like I’m wearing my slippers.
The changing room door swings open. ‘Here you go, sweetie! Marshmallows and whipped cream just as you like it.’
‘Thanks, Dad.’ Bless, he’s like a border collie, black and white hair, and always there. He’s trained me and supported me since I was a kid. Him and mum have been around the ski scene forever.
I take a sip of the hot chocolate. ‘Did you see the new boy in the cafe?
‘The black waiter? Oh, it doesn’t matter, Dad. What’s on the agenda today then?’
‘Let’s just get a few runs in first and get your snow legs back and working.’
‘Ok, I’m just going to go the loo before we start.’
‘No worries. See you up on the slope, sweetie.’
I quickly unclip my ski boots and take them off, walk past the ladies toilets in the changing room and head to the ones in the café. I see Michael straight away; bent over, his head in a fridge and doesn’t see me.
I make my way to the counter and get as close to the fridge as I can. ‘When two tribes go to war, go to war.’ I sing pretty badly and wince at my own voice.
‘Now, that will be Frankie goes to Hollywood.’ He says without looking up.
‘Nice hot chocolate!’ I say. Poooo! Wish I’d said something a bit more sophisticated.
‘It’s out of a machine,’ he says
‘Funny bugger. Is that your snowboard over there against the wall? It looks a bit small.’
Michael glances straight at me, the same barking mad look as the other day. ‘It’s a skateboard, not a snowboard.’
‘Oops, sorry, didn’t see the wheels. Who brings a skateboard to a ski slope anyway?’
‘Me. I use it when I’m on a split shift. There’s a park about five minutes’ walk away.’
‘Are you any good?’
He picks up a sanitiser spray and a cloth. His head goes back into the fridge. There’s a ‘Tshhh’ ‘tshhh’ sound as he sprays and cleans the shelves.
‘I’ll see you outside McDonalds at three o’clock.’ The voice in the fridge says.
I try to stop my face from smiling, but I can’t. ‘Cool, see you at three then.’
‘Thanks, Dad, I’ll get the bus back and pick my car up later. Just leave my ski stuff in the garage and I’ll clean everything down when I get back.’
‘I don’t mind waiting until you’ve finished?’
‘I’ll be fine.’ Dad’s a cutie but over protective. He doesn’t like me being on my own, plus it will be dark in an hour.
As Dad drives away Michael appears around the corner. I pretend I haven’t seen him and look in my bag for something.
I feel Michael come up behind me and lean right in. He whispers in my ear. ‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock, and the owls have awakened the crowing cock; Tu-whit!- Tu-whoo! And hark, again! the crowing cock, how drowsily it crew.’
‘Now, that will be Samuel Taylor Coleridge!’ I say without looking up from my bag, and we both laugh. ‘So, a snowboard with wheels, are you going to show me what you can do with that tiny thing?’
We walk away from the snow dome and head over to the skate park. Michael drops his board onto the pavement as we walk through a pedestrianised area. He thrusts gently with one foot and steers with the other.
‘Snowboarding is the same as skateboarding, but without the wheels, and you’re strapped in to your snowboard, of course.’ I say as Michael pushes along.
He gives me that look again, ‘Skateboarding is the only reason snowboarding exists. It was nothing until skateboarding came along.’
‘Yes, but snowboarding is at a completely different level to skateboarding now Michael. It’s like skiing, its big business, there’s big corporate names and sponsorship behind it. The equipment is well-designed and ergonomic.’ I sound authoritative as we arrive at the park.
He doesn’t reply but kicks off over to the half pipe and gets up to the top of the right hand side in a single run. Impressive!
The skate park looks exactly like one of the snowboard parks in the Alps that I’ve seen Christian and his friends messing about on, but without the snow.
Michael slides in and out of the half pipe a few times, just to warm up, each time getting faster. He stops at the highest point on the fifth run and flicks his board up into his hands with his left foot. He looks across the park, tall, majestic, measured, in control of everything he can see. He belongs up a mountain not on a housing estate.
Michael drops his board back down on to the concrete. He surveys the park like a twenty-first century Tenzing Norgay. His smile, calmness, the nuance of his skin, and his obvious passion and drive, make me feel like I can climb Mount Everest behind him. He’s got a lovely bum too.
Michael heads off across the half pipe over to an area that looks like an empty swimming pool. As he comes out of the other side he flicks his board over with his feet, it spins in the air twice and he lands back on it again smoothly, dropping back into the empty pool. He does this three times and on the fourth run he doubles his speed and pops up over the top edge. He has three feet of grey Manchester air between his board and the platform, not touching anything until he hits a one meter wide slope leading across some metal rails. Incredibly, he slides down the rails on the front tip of his board, his forward posture counter balancing against his board. His movements are fluid, his balance is natural, and his intuition and timing are uncanny. God, I’m starting to sound like Dad.
I’ve only been watching him for a few minutes, and he’s just awesome. Just about every trick that can be done on a Snowboard, Michael will be able to do on his skateboard. He’s a natural athlete. I’ve seen some of the rich kids or more extreme snowboarders take helicopters up to the tops of mountains that are inaccessible for skiing, and just drop off the edge. These slopes are usually 90 degree vertical slopes, and the snowboarders are just on the hunt for thrills, ‘a first’ and for ‘fresh powder.’ But that’s a financial thing, it’s very specialised and not that accessible to the average gang banger from Manchester.
Michael launches out of the half pipe again. His board spins half a dozen times and I can tell even now, that Michael has the talent to do the extreme stuff, and be the best at it. I know just the man who can help him.
Michael Miller – July 1999
‘Mum? You there mum? I won the egg and spoon race today. Mum?’
‘Michael, it’s me, Dad, its Dad……’
Even when I opened my eyes the room was still dark. I turned to face Dad’s voice and the pillow was damp on my cheek.
‘It’s ok son, it was just a dream. Do you want some juice?’ I nodded and he slipped off the bed and out of the door, the kitchen light filtered into my bedroom.
I could see behind the door and mum wasn’t there, no feet were protruding from under the curtains, there was no one under my bed. I’d missed her again.
One day that summer when Dad was at work, Digby was sick in bed so I was on my own. I watched Sesame Street for a while but they were all repeats. I looked for something else to do and wandered around the flat and into Dad’s bedroom. I moved a chair to his window and stood on it. The sill was wide enough so I sat on it. It didn’t matter if it was school holidays or not; there were always plenty of kids playing around in the park. Two teenage girls with prams were sat on a bench. I couldn’t see their faces but one was white and the other black. A three or four year old kid slid down the slide, walked to the bench and sat next to the white girl. She gave him something; he put it in his mouth and climbed back up the slide again. This happened a few times, the same routine and the girls carried on talking. Finally the boy left the slide and sat on the girl’s knee. She carried on talking and the boy put his head on her chest.
A little later, an older black woman appeared at the park fence and shouted. The girl shook the boy and pointed to the woman. He ran to her and she lifted him over the railings and carried him off, hugging him in her arms.
I couldn’t work out who was the boy’s mother. They both held him in their arms, and I wondered what that was like? They both cared for him, and I wondered what it was like to be loved?
Michael Miller – Now
I know people always say ‘If only I knew then what I know now’ or, ‘hindsight is 20/20 vision’ etc. etc. But just occasionally it’s actually true. It’s true because sometimes as humans we are either too naïve, pig headed or we just can’t reconcile that the ‘now’ events or the current reality will shape our fate. Meeting Martha was the turning point and became the only ‘point’ to my life. She is my inescapable fate. I didn’t accept it until I realised it was the same for her, when suddenly ‘we’ became more important than ‘I’.
Looking at it from Jim Radnor’s point of view, everything about mine and Martha’s relationship was wrong. We are the wrong colour, the wrong religion, the wrong age, and the wrong class backgrounds, but, he loves Martha like his daughter.
Jim interviewed me for a job at the Snow-dome in March 2008. It was planned for 5pm so I came straight from sixth form. I had my ruck sack and skateboard with me. To be honest, at the beginning I think it was the board that he bought in to. I was shown into his office, and his assistant offered me a coffee which made me feel relaxed and well, grown up. He explained about the job; the duties, hours, and rates of pay etc. but he also told me how the Snow-dome worked as a business. He explained about the other companies on the complex and how they rented space there. Intermingled between all that, he told me great stories about his life in the skiing world and men’s downhill racing, regional and national competitions, the ‘Super G’, and the Giant Slalom. That day I really bought into Jim too. I could tell that he was a very caring and genuine man. Towards the end of the interview he asked me about my board. I couldn’t tell him much, except that it was my only hobby, I practiced on it every day, sometimes twice, but I hadn’t entered any competitions. He explained that he gave up much of his time at nights at the skate parks working with poor kids. Just like me I suppose.
Before I left he offered me a job, on a three month trial basis and with a pay review if I was kept on. He stood, shook my hand and walked me to the office door. It was then I realised that he had a really bad limp.
Michael Miller – Saturday morning 15 March 2008
Jim told me to turn up at nine, and wear black trousers. I’ve been here since 8.15, had breakfast at McDonalds and I’m still fifteen minutes early. I take a seat in an empty Café Zero and wait.
‘You must be Miller?’ A fat woman struggles out from the kitchen. She turns sideways to squeeze between two chillers, sweat already running down her face. She wears a black baseball cap and polo shirt with the logo ‘Café Zero’ clearly visible on both. She looks older than Dad, and has a string of barbed wire tattooed around her generous upper left arm.
‘It’s fuckin’ hot in there, Miller; I hope you can stand the heat? You probably can anyway, you’ll be used to it where you come from,’ she smirks. ‘Follow me boy, and I’ll show you were to put your stuff. Get a fuckin’ move on. We open in ten minutes.’
I follow the vapour trail of her stale sweat and tobacco. She pushes open a swing door, but doesn’t wait for me to get through it.
She talks as we navigate around industrial kitchen equipment. ‘I’m Norma Babcock, call me Mrs Babcock. I’m the day shift supervisor, and I don’t take any dicking about, especially from the likes of you.’
We pass three people all in chef’s whites, but she doesn’t introduce me and they don’t look up. We push through some more swing doors, turn left and up a flight of stairs on the left. We turn left again and go through the first door on the left. I haven’t spoken yet and I’ve been here for nearly five minutes. She looks me up and down, opens a cupboard door, pulls out a polo shirt and throws it in my direction and points at another cupboard.
‘Right Miller, put that on, you can use that locker there, don’t piss around and be back out front in less than two minutes. Oh, there’s a box of latex gloves in that drawer, wash your hands and bring a pair with you.’
She waddles away, sweating even more.
The door bangs shut. ‘Well hello Michael!’ I say out loud in my best BBC posh voice. ‘And a warm welcome to you on your first day here at Café Zero, we hope you enjoy your new job and wish you a very happy and successful career.’
I take off my T-shirt and pull the polo shirt over my head. It fits. I put my rucksack, T-shirt and hoodie into the locker, but it doesn’t lock. I grab the gloves and head back the way I came, left turns all the way.
‘Right, Miller, that’s your cupboard there as well.’ Norma points to a door with a sign that reads Cleaner. ‘Get yourself a bucket, a mop and some disinfectant. Start at the counter and work your way back to the furthest corner in the café. No streaks or damp patches boy and make sure you get under every table and chair, move them if you have too! And when you’ve done that you can start on the changing rooms.’ I still haven’t spoken and look across the vast room. There must be at least fifty tables and two hundred chairs.
‘I fuckin’ hate kids.’ She sighs, and takes out a lighter and fag packet from her apron. She turns sideways to squeeze back between the two chillers. Her tiny feet somehow manage to shuffle her huge, fat, sweaty body into the gap. She slowly navigates the opening; her hair, tied back by a rubber band into a ponytail, is stuck to her neck by perspiration. As she trundles back to the kitchen, her fat arse swings into a fridge door handle and she winces in pain. I feel a flash of pity, just for a second.
Half ten and the café is filling up. I don’t know why Norma didn’t wash down the floors at the end of the shift last night instead of this morning. I didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t think it was good service having to ask customers to lift their feet up whilst I mopped. Embarrassing! There’s a nice atmosphere though, lots of families.
It’s strange seeing kids in Alpine gear and ski boots in the middle of Manchester, but they’re having a great time.
Over on the tables in the far corner looking out on the slope, there’s a mixed age group of teenagers sitting together. Boys and girls are together having a laugh; I’ve never ever seen that on the estate. There’s about fifteen or twenty of them all dressed the same in bright pink skin tight all-in-one outfits. They’re drinking hot chocolate, with an air of confidence that only money can bring.
Norma pokes me in the back with her clipboard.
‘Dream on, shit head! Cheshire Ski Club, different world and way out of your league. They spend more on a ski weekend than you’ll earn in a year. Anyway, Jess needs a hand taking food out, she’ll show you how it all works.’
She shouts across the counter area, ‘Jess love, can you show Miller where everything is please?’ Norma actually smiles at her, then she looks back at me and scowls,
‘Miller, get yer arse in gear and follow Jess’.
After an hour the rush is over and I sit with Jess for a coffee break. She’s quite shy and doesn’t say much, but she seems like a nice girl. She only drinks water and has got her head buried in a chick mag.
‘How long have you worked here then, Jess?’
‘Last June, straight from school. It’s a job.’ She replies without leaving the magazine.
I kinda admire her for saying that. No one I know, apart from Dad, has a proper job.
I nod in agreement, ‘Yea, but what a bitch that Norma is. I’ve worked my nuts off this morning. I don’t how you can work with her day in and day out? And she’s mingin’!’
Jess pulls a face, almost apologetic, ‘Sorry Michael, yea, she is a slave driver, but, she’s me mam’.
Awkward! Bollocks, I’m going to get sacked on my first day. I desperately try to think of an excuse or a joke.
I struggle to find any words and Jess jumps in to help me out. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell her what you said. And don’t take it personal either. She doesn’t just hate blacks, she hates everyone; Paki’s, Chinese, Iranians, Rumanians, Germans, and all men. Well, the men are new, only since me dad did a runner with Auntie Jill last Christmas.’
Cameron Miller – The Flat, 5.30 PM 1 November 1992
Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley was gently bouncing around the kitchen from my tape player.
‘Cameron, are you shar this is the right t’ing to do?
‘Dad, it took me ages to decide between ‘Thomas the Tank’ and ‘Noah’s Ark’ wallpaper. Anyway, the biblical theme won.’
‘Don’t you sass me boy. This puts hahl the family in a difficult place.’ he snaps.
‘Dad, come on, lighten’ up. She is the one, and I need you to be there for me.’ I put my hand on his shoulder. I’m not sure if he’s uncomfortable with the physical contact or by being in a nursery with animals two by two.
He says nothing but doesn’t knock my hand away. He just looks into my eyes, pleading. The spell is broken when the front door bangs shut.
‘I love this album, Cam. It always reminds me of you,’ Dora calls out as she drops the car keys onto the book shelf.
‘We’re in the nursery Pan. Dad’s here!’ I give her a gentle warning as I hear the groceries being placed onto the kitchen table.
‘Hello Mr. Miller. Are you staying for dinner?’ She says as she waddles through the door and kisses Dad on the cheek. He looks at her swollen belly and melts.
‘Cameron, why are you lettin’ Dara carry all those heavy t’ings?’ He chastises in a half mock and half serious tone.
Dora smiles and guides him gently by the arm towards the nursery door.
’There’s plenty of Cam’s favourite chicken to go round, and I’ve just bought some rum too.’ She winks at me.
‘Now you’re tackin’.’Dad says beaming at Dora, but gives me a withering look as he allows himself to be ushered out. Bob Marley kicks into Get Up Stand Up, as I drop my paint brush into a jam jar full of white spirits.
‘He’s a real sweetie, your Dad,’ Dora says.
Dad’s gone and we are sitting at the table. Dad even washed the dishes, just to try to prove he is now a ‘90’s man.
‘Don’t be fooled Pan, he’s old school and from the old country. He does love kids though.’ Dora looks over the top of her glasses as I touch her tummy.
‘And don’t you be too hard on him.’ She puts her hand on mine, ‘Squidgy here will be his first Grandson!’
‘Ha, you white witch, how’d ’ya know it’s a boy?’
‘I’m a mom, and that’s ma job’ she says in a poor American accent. And we laugh.
Cameron Miller – 10.30PM 2 November 1992
‘It’s a boy Mr. Millar, 2lb 4oz.’ The midwife winces and finds it difficult to smile. ‘He’s in an incubator to help him breathe.’
‘How’s Dora? Can I see her?’
‘She’s still in theater Mr. Millar, Dr. Robson will be with you as soon as possible. I can assure you, we are doing everything we can. Please take a seat in the family room. If there’s any change we’ll let you know.’
‘Can I see the boy?’
‘He was a little stressed.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘Follow me.’ As we walk down the corridor we pass a sign ‘Intensive Care’, the nursery is straight ahead with glass partitions all around.
‘You will only be able to see him from the outside of the ward today; we are still making him comfortable. There’s a viewing window there for visitors.’ She points to the incubators. ‘He’s in that one.’
The nurse leaves, I look through the glass and into the perspex cot. I can’t see him clearly, he’s wrapped in white cloth, and there are too many tubes. A nurse is stood by the incubator; she adjusts one that’s up his nose. I can only see his eyes, they’re closed. I wonder what colour they are?
I look back down the corridor and two policemen are framed in the reception doorway. I remember now, the other driver was on the wrong side of the road. He has a broken wrist. As I walk back down the corridor Dr. Robson appears and speaks to them, they ask him a question and he shakes his head. They all look in my direction. The policemen take their helmets off. I can only hear my shoe leather against the oak parquet floor. It echoes against the walls as I approach the doorway. The three men are silent. I feel calm, and turn around to go and comfort the boy. But remember that I can’t touch him.
Cameron Miller – The Flat, 10am 5 November 1992
I’m drunk. An empty bottle of rum is on the kitchen table. It’s the forth one since Monday. I haven’t been to bed, gone to work, or seen the boy. I haven’t left the flat, except to buy more rum. Dad’s been. He said the boy will be in hospital for a few weeks, but he’s stable now. They’ll keep him on the ward until he reaches a decent weight. I need to choose a name.
I can smell my bad breath, people say you can’t, but you can. I haven’t brushed my teeth, but it doesn’t matter I haven’t eaten.
Dora was in the basement when I went to see her. The family liaison officer walked with me to the mortuary. I can’t remember how I got home. He may have driven me. I haven’t slept, the image of Dora on a table, with only a cut under her chin, is haunting me. The recurring question of ‘why?’ stops me from breathing. ‘Why Dora? Why me? Why now? Why not me? Why didn’t she take a different route? Why was it Dora and not the boy? Why did that mother fucker get in his car that morning, still drunk?
Cameron Miller – 8.15pm 5 November 1992
A faint orange glow from outside flickers and reflects on the glass of the kitchen window. Rockets and fireworks burst somewhere close. There’s a kaleidoscope of colour on the window for a few seconds and then back to the orange.
There’s a knock on the door. I ignore it but it’s persistent. It’s not going to go away so I open the door.
A young girl about twelve stands there, wide eyed at my sharpness that I instantly regret. She’s holding a casserole dish.
‘Me mam sent this’ she says.
‘Who’s yer mam? I say, a little softer.
‘Michelle. We live next door but one. It’s only hotpot but it’s me favourite. I love black pudding me’
I make an involuntary noise in my throat, a sigh with a sharp intake of breath. This random act of kindness takes over my body.
‘Thank you’ I manage to whisper before taking the dish. I push the door closed and fall to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably.
‘Me mam said bring the dish back, we’ve only got that one’ she shouts through the door.
The words pierce my heart, and on the floor in the orange glow, the tears won’t stop. It’s only hotpot.
Michael Miller – 3.00pm Snow-dome, Saturday 22 March 2008
‘Look, just give it a go Michael. You’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve got some of Christian’s old ski gear in my car; he says you can have it if it fits.’
‘Martha, have you seen the movie White men can’t jump?’
‘There’s a new one just out, called Black men don’t ski.’
‘You ain’t no Wesley Snipes Bro’, get the kit.’ She mocks.
One of the perks of working at the Snow-dome is a staff ski pass. When Jim Radnor saw my board when he interviewed me, he asked me for a passport size photo on my first shift. I arrived for my next shift a few days later and he gave me my pass. I never thought in a million years I’d ever use it.
I’d only ever been in the changing rooms to clean them. As I walk in without a mop and bucket, the entire Cheshire ski club is getting ready for the slope. One of the kids in the pink skin tight all-in-one, does a double take. I drop a ski and everyone turns around. The ski club leave, their laughter and mocking looks echo around the room.
I’m alone in the room now, and I sit in the corner. ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’
I try to make myself as small as possible. ‘This is so not cool’
‘Who ya talking to Michael? Here try this on, you’ll need to rent boots, but everything else should fit.’ Martha hands me a bright blue jacket.
‘Come on, joggle joggle! I can’t wait to see you on the snow.’ She laughs. I do too now; her enthusiasm is infectious and has no boundaries.
I rent some boots and John, in the rental shop, adjusts the skis to my weight and height. I carry them and Martha’s to the slope. She moves the plastic curtain to one side and holds it so I can walk through. The temperature gauge says minus three degrees so I expected it to be really cold. It wasn’t, Christian’s ski gear does its job.
‘It’s just like boarding, except you’ve got more control,’ Martha whispers as the pink Cheshire cats smirk in my direction. They seem to be everywhere. There are two conveyer belts one on either side of the slope. As they glide up the slope on the drag, every pink helmet turns to look in my direction and laughs, or is it just my imagination?
My boots feel heavy and tight. We cross the snow to the left and move over to the nursery slope. Martha takes her skis and drops them to the ground. She kicks one boot against the other to remove any snow, and then kicks it into her ski bindings in one movement.
‘Right, put your skis on and let’s get over to the tow,’ Martha says as she kicks the other boot into the bindings. She lifts and swings one ski over the other to turn around. She pushes off with her poles and I’m left standing on my own. I drop my skis to face the direction of the tow and she’s already on it. I straddle the skis and plant my poles either side too. I kick in the right one, cool, then the left, no problem. I try to push off too but don’t move, it’s uphill and the skis don’t grip, I slide slowly backwards, until I stop on a flat bit, least I don’t fall over. I can’t see Martha now, and I can’t move forwards.
‘Reverse snow plough Michael; make a V with your skis’ Its Jim at my elbow. ‘Make a V like this, look.’ He brings the back of the skis together and widens the tips to about two foot apart. I copy him and instantly feel more stable.
‘Right, keep them apart like that and start walking, they’ll grip the snow I promise.’ Jim glides off towards the tow. He’s right; the edges of the skis dig into the snow and stop me from slipping back. I slowly creep forward.
I’ve got to the tow and now I can see what I need to do next, and it’s impossible. I need to grab a moving long metal bar with a huge button on the end, put it between my legs and get dragged up the slope, without falling off. Jim’s already half way up and Martha’s half way down, doing slick turns. Within seconds she’s by my side.
‘Wow, you got up the hill, knew you could do it!’
‘Jim helped’ I admit, ‘Short lesson in reverse snow plough. I’ll need to know what a forward snow plough is at some point I guess.’
‘Right, on the pommer and I’ll show you exactly what it is!’ She grabs the drag lift and puts it between my legs. My top half moves but the skis don’t, I do a face plant and lose the left ski. It slowly slides back to where I put it on; the pink kids love it, rich bastards.
The hot chocolate tastes boss, even if it is from a machine.
‘I have never seen anyone, ever, parallel ski on their first lesson.’ Martha beamed at me. ‘I knew it, you’re a natural’
I must admit, after I’d got used to the snow plough, parallel was a natural progression.
‘Hey Michael, you looked good out there tonight, I saw you from the gallery.’ Jim sits down next to me.
‘Bit wobbly tho’.’ I say to no-one, I was embarrassed. Jim shakes his head at the same time as Martha.
‘No, you did really well. There’s a training sess’ every Monday night, why don’t you join in?’ ‘Martha comes to help.’ He adds quickly.
Despite the Cheshire ski team, I actually enjoyed today. ‘Not sure, I’m starting to plan for my A ‘levels.’ I don’t sound convincing.
‘Come on Wesley; just give it one go, and then decide from there. We’re just one big happy family here.’ Martha makes my mind up for me.
I felt comfortable towards the end, except for my feet, they are mega killin’ me. When I put my Timberlands back on in the changing room; it was like walking on air.