Big Graham lived in a tree for a while. That was the story, well that was one of the many stories that went around about him. And that one was true. It was a big tree. I mean you could get inside it. You could climb up and get inside it and live in it. Big Graham lived there for a year or so until he decided it was time for a change. He enjoyed the freedom, the lack of commitment and, of course, the fresh air.
He didn’t care about his toilet, easily dealt with, and washing never bothered him. He had a girlfriend. I say girlfriend but Pauline was no girlfriend; someone to shag with and enjoy life with. Pauline never washed either, why would she? She had Graham.
I first met Graham at an open-air party in a garden of a forgotten Victorian house on the Pershore Road that leads out of Brum. There was a big fire of scrap furniture and chopped trees. People stood around it passing spliffs and wise words, sipping cans of red-stripe, grooving to the heavy dub booming out from massive speakers. Graham, and some shorter scruffy imps, drove a battered old ford van right through the garden and screeched to a halt by the fire. They bundled out keystone cop fashion and dumped a huge safe out before the watching flocks.
“So, anyone know how to break into this thing?”
“What is it?”
“What is it? What is it? It’s a fooking safe mannnn.”
Graham stomped round the fire, singing. “It’s a fooking safe, it’s a fooking safe. We’ve stolen ourselves a safe, a big fuck off safe. Now all we have to do is open the bigggg fookin safe.”
Hammers were tried and axes.
“Fuck it! Let’s burn it. Burn the fooking safe. Burn the fooking safe … eee-iii … the paddy eye we’re burning the fooking safe”
Steve arrived with Rat; one straight with a tash, the other a punk with a Mohican.
Both thieves and sometime pimps.
“What the fook you doing man?”
“Trying to burn the safe”.
“Grah, roll that fooker off the fire man.”
Steve dipped into his inside pocket, took out a pouch of implements and did what he does best.
We were disappointed, such a big safe but it held little. A couple a hundred quid, some important looking papers and a couple a blocks of black, and a bag of Black and whites.
Grah burnt the papers and shared the rest out. It was a party.
And that was Graham, never one for possessions, generous with all he had, would give you his last toke if you needed to take it.
The pills kicked in and the party kicked off, then we ran out of booze.
Graham organized a break-in at the offy up the road. A steady stream of soap-spike-haired punks and moustached casuals formed a chain to carry crates down that Pershore road.
That was my first meeting with Graham, but not my last. He was always around the underground of Brum, whatever was going on, from music to politics, squatting to stealing.
I saw him on the bus one day, the number one from Moseley, he was chatting away to all and sundry; me, old ladies, tramps, and workers, as a little punkette went down on him. He never missed a beat. She finished and he stood and danced and banged his head on the ceiling, and leaped off before the bus came to a halt, like a ballet dancer. He took a bow, we all applauded.
Once, skinheads were beating little punkers at a Joke gig at Digbeth town hall. Into the gap walked Graham, he calmly took off his pad-lock and chain from around his neck, smiled, raised his hand in front of him and beckoned the still, watching skins towards him. After he dusted himself down he leapt around. A War dance!
The Teds in the center were smacking any stray new wave kids who hung out at Oasis, checking for reduced bondage trousers, and Reddigtons rare records for any possible releases. It got so bad that kids were afraid to walk around town. Graham and Pauline bounced over to the Turks Head, alone, hand in hand, singing and laughing. I watched from across the road as bodies came hurtling through windows and quiffed ones tried to escape but got pulled back in by their drainpipes.
Graham and Pauline came out arm in arm, laughing and striding, swapping blood and spit and laughs from lip to lip.
Pauline was beautiful. The wildest wild woman a man could dream of, over there, alive, a little explosive bundle of grime, sex, sweat and dreadlocks. Every teenage spike tops kick.
She took shits in bags on buses, and pissed where she stood, and teased and flirted and bigged-up every boy she met.
One night in the old porno cinema, while the Drongos played, on the heart shaped red stage, with florescent lighting, she lay back and shoved chocolate bars up her fanny and invited the boys to taste her.
Over the years we all travelled more, or moved to other cities.
The underground was large, and friendships wide. We bumped into each other at Blues in Brum, or on Road-menders floor in Northampton. We drank piss together from cider flagons at festivals, and then stonked on stage with reggae bands who all knew Pauline and Graham. At political rallies Pauline and Graham lead charges and factory men who let their fears and passions go, and they lead the hordes against fascists of the blue and of the white persuasion.
For a while Pauline moved into Graham’s tree. But that tree was too small, not for their bodies, which fitted nicely. It wasn’t big enough in other ways, something to do with their spirits, so Pauline got her own tree.
Nowadays If you’re in Camden town sometime, on the off chance; see that stall in the corner? Yeah, that one with the 50’s gear and the space suits and bongs. That’s Pauline’s place. She might not be around, but you might find her drinking in the Elephant, stonking in Dingwalls, or having a spliff and a mug of tea behind her counter, her blonde dreadlocks spread all over the floor.
On the South Bank, take your seat in the cool, alternative theatre for the underground French circus. Watch as out of the shadows a huge man emerges with a tattooed head and raving black eyes. Say hello to Graham as you jerk back in fear and wonder as he leaps and breathes out a mighty roar of flames over the top of your head.
Nick Gerrard: One time Chef, activist, union organiser, musician, punk rocker, teacher, traveller, Eco-lodge owner in Malawi and Czech Republic. Stories, poems and essays have appeared in various magazines and web site. Nick also helps edit and design JottersUnited Lit-zine. http://www.nickgerrard.com