I wrote this story some years ago. It’s about the 70s, and family holidays on the East Coast of England.
I’d like to Google-map a particular time and place; Felixstowe, Suffolk, England. August 1977. Home in on the floral gardens on the seafront, the many caravan roofs of our caravan site. The ice cream parlour with a giant Mr Whippy out the front. The rickety roller coaster and the inflatable bouncy moon in the fairground.
We’d arrive by train, carrying our suitcases from the station. A dark bricked affair with more than a nod to the Gothic. We crossed the brow of the hill with an excited feeling hitting our stomachs as the sea appeared between sky and shingle. We owned one of the bigger caravans in the Beach Caravan Park which gave a superior bounce to our step. There was a social club. We never went — my parents weren’t. A swimming pool and the kiosk which sold boiled sweets and ice lollies. My younger brother, Karl, screamed for the toilet every time his bum hit the water. The damp concrete changing rooms where once I’d heard a couple of older girls, singing The Rubette’s Sugar Baby Love. Beautiful, full figured girls. To my daggy twelve year old self they were angels.
The caravan was an eight-berth, and there were five of us of varying sizes. Mum and Dad’s bed converted into the place where we ate breakfast. Cornflakes and sterilised milk, lunches of cheese sandwiches or the helpfully named, Luncheon Meat. My mind has drawn a veil over most of the dinners my mother made on the tiny gas stove. I can only imagine what they were from the memory of television advertisements on our set at home. The boy who grew up advertising beef burgers. Cheese and ham Findus Crispy Pancakes; baby food in a crunchy coat. The sweaty, dampness of processed cheese.
The table turned miraculously into a double bed. We never saw this, just as we’d never seen our parents’ bedroom at home.
“Perhaps they’re robots and don’t need sleep.” Karl said as he pushed Grace and me on the roundabout at the playground. He was a huge Doctor Who fan but had recently fallen off the slide in the play park twice, so I ignored his comment, considering it childish and possibly the result of brain damage.
Karl pushed the roundabout and with a loud thump, jumped on one of the spare seats. I felt sick from the spinning. “Don’t be stupid.” My eyes rolled to the sky which was grey and intense although no rain had fallen yet.
“Boys are stupid, aren’t they Jude?” My sister, Grace, two years younger, open to suggestion. “There’s a gloom in the sky. Something’s going to happen.” She could almost tell the future sometimes, only not her own. Something her husband later took advantage of.
Karl gave Grace a shove and she fell from the roundabout. “Oh, look Grace. It already has.”
“Oh please, children.” I stretched on the grass, and yawned, as if I wasn’t one. Grace scrabbled to her feet, bottom lip wobbling.
“Can I pick the gravel out of your grazes?” Grace nodded at Karl’s request, forgetting he was the cause of them. She sat down, I marveled at her braveness. Her fists were clenched but her eyes were dry.
Three older boys approached the park that had been ours that morning. One tall and gangly with ginger hair, wearing a badly chosen red tee shirt. The others were both dark and shorter. One sat on the swing, he delved into his bomber jacket and took out a dark packet I recognised. Placed a cigarette between his lips. John Player Special — Dad had a packet hidden behind a shelf at the back of our garage at home. Secret ciggies. I loved the fruity smell of the foil tucked in the packet. The boy pulled the collar of his jacket up and waited. He wore a cheap anorak, similar to the boys at school, and nudged the redhead with his elbow who then produced a brightly coloured lighter. He lit the cigarette dangling between his friend’s lips. The boy smirked and blew smoke from his nose. I felt the kind of excitement I normally only got as the big dipper in the amusement park tipped over the top into oblivion.
He looked like Elvis. I had a poster of Elvis on my bedroom wall at home, dressed in black leather with his collar up just like Cigarette Boy. I imagined the music from the film, King Creole, rise around me. Bad boy music.
“Jude. You’re staring.” Grace hissed from the patch of grass where Karl was still picking away at her raw knees.
I wanted to go back to the caravan, not wait for Dad to call us in for dinner. Dad was alright but he was very uncool. His hair slicked with Brylcreem. I watched him in the morning sometimes. Combing the white cream into his black hair until it set, not a hair out of place. I didn’t want this vision of adolescent boyhood to laugh at me. My nylon polo neck and homemade trousers were starting to itch my skin.
Cigarette Boy raised his head and looked straight at me. My insides went liquid.
“You’re still staring, Jude.”
The boy looked right at me. I was in love.
Later I told Grace about it. “But he can’t be your first love. That’s Elvis.”
“This is different.”
“How?” She wound a line of gum around her index finger as we sat on the front steps of our caravan. I looked at her with pity.
“It’s about probability.” We’d covered it at school the previous term. “I’m not likely to meet Elvis now am I? I mean he lives in America and he’s forty-two.”
There was more to it but I didn’t want to discuss it with anyone. Not even Grace. I could touch this boy, maybe even kiss him. A tingly feeling ran through me. Elvis songs and the films they showed in the holidays, the black leather suit and later, the white jumpsuit covered in rhinestones. He had a look that made my knees melt but I could never breathe the same air as Elvis.
My parents had just finished painting our caravan and the air was strong with the smell of it. They liked green, my folks. It was green before but they’d changed it to a different shade of green.
“Girls, want to go for a walk?”
I shook my head at my dad. The others went while I sat quietly daydreaming about The Boy with the Cigarette. His eyes were brown, although they could have been blue or green, I hadn’t got close enough. How could I get him to notice me? I looked down at my skinny body, my chest looked like I’d shoved a couple of conkers up my jumper. Boys like that preferred a woman’s body. Boys like that could get any girl they wanted. I regretted my savage holiday hair cut as I ran my hand through its roughness. Grace had lovely hair. Blonde and smooth.
I curled up in bed that night my mind spinning with images of Cigarette Boy. He calls me over, tells his friends to get lost. Pushes me down onto the swing, towers over me. Places his hand on the back of my neck, kisses me roughly. Me, plain old Jude Sullivan, with my cheap clothes and underfed body. Someone like him could like me, want to wrap his arms around me and never let go. Cigarette Boy proposed to me from the top of the park slide as I held on tight to railings, not believing it was really happening. Clouds spun like sugar while he held out a ring with a rock the size of Priscilla’s.
As I opened my eyes I fancied there were sea horses galloping by my face. The sound of heavy rain beating down on the caravan roof. The light had changed, as if we were under water.
A sharp knock on the door brings me fully conscious. Dad came in holding a folded copy of The Sun newspaper in his hand, Mum’s favourite. This was new. He dropped the top part of the paper to reveal the front-page, without a word to cushion the blow.
‘Elvis Dead at 42’. A photo of my hero holding a towel to his bloated face. I made a gagging noise and clutched at my heart.
“Jude, are you alright?” Grace shot a look at our Dad. “What were you thinking of breaking it to her like that?”
Dad smiled. “Breakfast in five minutes.” Dad had never approved of my obsession with The King of Rock and Roll. He had found love letters I had written to Elvis when I was ten. I’d put them on the window sill as a homage to my love. I had meant to hide them but I’d forgotten. His face had turned white when he found them. Dad was five years younger than Elvis. I’d listened at the living room door while he talked with Mum.
“Jean, do you think Jude should talk to someone about this. It’s not right. A girl being in love with a fully grown man.”
“Derek, don’t be silly. It’s just a girlish fixation. Mine was Buddy Holly.”
“I don’t know. She’s a bit of a worry that one.”
I found something black to wear. I wasn’t allowed to wear black but I’d picked up some bits and pieces at the Girl Guides jumble sale as it was for a ‘good cause’. I had on a black pencil skirt neither of my parents had laid eyes on and a navy jumper. Grace put her arm round my shoulder, she had to stand on tip toes to reach it.
“Clear a place for Jude. She’s devastated.” She’s never lost her knack for drama.
Mum and Dad moved the cruet set to one of the seats. My brother looked up at me, eyes wide, wondering what I would do next. “Sorry for your loss,” Karl said before giggling under his breath. Mum cuffed him round the face. Grace stared at him. “You are so cold.”
I remember a strained breakfast. My first experience of loss to the backdrop of stilted conversation, and soggy cereal. Loss followed me around in later teenage years. Three years later I became obsessed with The Beatles, my favourite was John Lennon. Most people learnt about death from their pets, but we weren’t allowed pets.
After we had finished eating everyone cleared the table around me while I sat there, hopefully looking sad and majestic. The air was close, and I was starting to sweat under my nylon jumper. The only alternative was a pink one with Dumbo the elephant on it. “Do you want anything from the shops, Mum? I want to take a walk.” Grace started scurrying around. “Alone.” Her face dropped. I felt sorry for her, but I felt the need to brood, to process sad thoughts.
“We could always do with more sterilised milk.” Mum gave me more coins than needed. “Get something for yourself, sweetheart.”
I found my knitted beret but decided I would look more the romantic heroine if my hair got wet, the only time it would lie flat. It looked longer that way too.
As I left the caravan Mum shouted. “Take your brolly, Jude. There’s no point looking tragic if you catch your death.”
It was one of those dome umbrellas. The idea being that you could see through the plastic as you walked. It was completely blurred, and you couldn’t see through it even when it wasn’t raining. They quickly went out of fashion after people collided in the street, but my mother had a knack for picking up things from the bargain bins.
“Hey look everyone. Pencil animals to cheer up your pencils and make you smile.” “Jude, jelly shoes. Cheap at half the price.” “Broken biscuits!” None of us would eat broken biscuits. They ended up in the bottom of the cup when you dunked.
I dumped the umbrella in the margarine tub by the door. It was meant to be filled with rainwater to water the plants Mum had planted. “Jean, those plants are looking good.” Dad hadn’t realised that Mum had planted plastic flowers. She was hopeless at gardening.
It wasn’t far to the general store. ‘General store’ reminded me of America and America of Elvis. Heart attack at forty-two. Tragic. Of course, at that stage no one knew the ultimate tragedy, this beautiful, troubled man had died on the toilet.
By the time I got to the shop I was wet and steaming. The temperature was rising and the rain more than the usual steady drizzle. The shop smelt of fun. Bon-bons in jars and liquorice sticks. I loved to look at the magazines stuffed with free gifts. Last week I had found a Jackie comic with free sunglasses. My latest edition had a story about a girl who put her boyfriend off by being totally obsessed with David Essex. Worth making a note. I had enough things going against me; I didn’t want to put a boy off with any of my obsessions. Elvis wasn’t the only one. I had a girl-crush on Marie Osmond and had already decided I would have twins, when the time came, and I’d call them Donny and Marie. I couldn’t call a child Elvis, it wouldn’t go down well at Wood Green Infants.
I picked up a copy of Diana, the magazine for young ladies, and walked past the papers to get to the milk. The daily headlines held me in their grip. The King is Dead: Elvis. Elvis is Dead, next to a picture of my hero covered in sweat, pasty and fat. Elvis, King of Rock. Dies at 42. Where was the man in black leather who danced and made my legs turn to water? Where was the King of Rock and Roll? This man wasn’t him.
If I didn’t pick up a newspaper it wouldn’t be true. If this could happen then life was rubbish and God didn’t exist. My stupid magazine fell to the floor. I felt sick.
A hand grasped my shoulder firmly. I could smell juicy fruit chewing gum and stale cigarettes. The ghost of Elvis?
“I know how you feel. He was the King. The coolest.” Not an American voice. The ghost of Elvis took my hand and squeezed it until it hurt. The grip loosened and I looked up into the eyes of The Cigarette Boy.
Eventually Ernie who ran the store coughed. “You kids gonna buy anything? I’m not running a grief counseling group.”
Cigarette Boy turned to me. “You wanna hang out?”
Oh yes. “Yes. Please.”
The rain was heavier now, and no one was about. Cigarette Boy, still clutching my hand, pulled me along to the play park.
“You don’t mind the rain do you, Elvis Girl?” My heart swelled.
I shook my head and my hair, which was plastered to the side of my face, sent out a spray of raindrops. He stopped at the roundabout and let go of my hand. “Come on.” He sat on one of the triangle seats, beckoning me to sit on another. We were soaked through.
“No one understands. My Dad had the newspaper out on the breakfast table. Not a word. He knows I love Elvis.”
I found it surprising that Cigarette Boy would have parents. Such a thought seemed too bourgeois. I’d imagined he roamed the park alone, surviving on hot chips and the generosity of besotted housewives.
“Mine came in holding up the newspaper as if it were a joke.” Cigarette Boy spat out something green in reply. It landed on the grass a foot from us. “They don’t take us seriously. I swear my Dad was never young.” He held out his hand. “Mark. Mark Baker. But I’m thinking of changing it to Presley. By deed poll.”
I nodded, wearing my cool face. “Jude Sullivan.” I took his hand and my stomach flipped.
The rain was easing off as Mark started patting down his pockets. “Fancy a smoke?”
“No. I’m trying to give them up.” I hadn’t done anything more dangerous in my life that cramming two Crème eggs into my mouth at the same time, but Mark wasn’t to know. He nodded and gave me a ‘too right’ kind of look.
Just then Mum appeared from our caravan waving an umbrella furiously.
“Your old dear?” asked Mark.
“Yep.” My face reddened under my sopping hair. I gave a ‘coming in a minute’ wave in Mum’s direction. I wasn’t sure about calling her ‘old dear’. My mum was funny and good at parties. I wanted to grow up to be like her but she wouldn’t be best pleased I’d forgotten the sterilised milk “If it’s sunny tomorrow, do you fancy going for a swim at the pool with me?”
I could hardly believe my ears. I nodded vigorously and started to run off. “Nice paint job.” Mark pointed at our caravan sniggering.
“Elvis brought you together.” Grace said with confidence later. We were at the pier devouring Mr Whippies. Ice cream ran down our arms as we tried to lick it away in time. Mum and Dad dragged us all out for a walk along the promenade once the rain had stopped. Dad was too tight to buy 99’s.
“I can tell you’re smitten. Is his name Byron?”
“Mark Baker. But he might change it to Presley. By deed poll.” Grace nodded sagely but I could tell she didn’t know what it meant. Nor did I for that matter. I imagined Mark’s arm draped round my shoulder as we hung out at the swimming pool. Older girls giving me daggers as he whispered something clever and funny in my ear.
When I reached the pool the following day, my towel wrapped firmly around my skinny frame, I had no intention of getting into the water, I still wore a one-piece, Mum thought I was too young for a bikini. I spotted Mark leaning against a wall as far away from the pool as he could be, I approved. I walked towards him. His eyes were dark, nearly black, and he was wearing a pair of brief swimming trunks, also black. He was a lot skinnier than I’d thought. He wasn’t smoking, nowhere to put his cigarettes, but I could tell he wanted to.
“What’s your name again?”
“Jude. Jude Sullivan.”
He nodded. Two girls walked by, spilling out of their bikinis. They burst into giggles when they saw Mark. I expected him to say something suave like; “Hello, Ladies.” But instead he seemed annoyed.
“What are you doing here, Jude?” His eyes were darker than I remembered. His mouth unsmiling.
My heart caught in my mouth. “You asked me. Yesterday. On the roundabout.”
Mark turned towards me and spat out a reply, his chin jutted in my direction. “Piss off.”
I looked down at myself. Regulation black swimsuit, and tatty old towel. I had to get away from there. I’d already paid the five pence entry fee. I felt a fool. I passed the giggling girls on my way out. One smiled at me and walked over. How could I ever have thought that a boy like that would be interested in me. “Don’t worry about Moody Mark. He’s always like that. Blows hot and cold all the time.”
. “Come and join us on the swings. I’m Carla.” She slipped her arm through mine. Another girl sitting on the grass said her name was Donna. Carla was already on the swings, she swung through the air with freedom. They were my angels. I told them my name, my voice shaking.
“All the girls fancy him at first, but he doesn’t even notice it. He just loves Elvis.” said Donna.
“I love Elvis too. That’s why we got talking in the shop yesterday.”
‘Mark lives on site during the season, his dad is the bingo caller in the social club.”
Carla chipped in. “He’s been saying all summer that his real dad is Elvis. He looks like him a bit, don’t you think.”
He did. He really did. A thinner, paler version of Elvis. The ghost of Elvis.
“We all believed it a little bit, we wanted to. Glamour’s hard to come by in Felixstowe.”
“But it’s obvious now that he’s not. I mean he would have been whisked off to Graceland by now.” I thought outloud.
I walked back to the caravan. Grace was skipping towards me. “How was the date, Jude?”
“Pooh on toast.”
She grinned. “It’s true, you should never meet your heroes.”
I’d lost two heroes in two days, but I’d made a couple of friends. Swings and roundabouts. And slides — if you counted my brother Karl.
I wrote this story some years ago. It’s about the 70s, and family holidays on the East Coast of England.