Those Dagenham Days
Copyright© 2014 by The Heartbreak Kid
George Beckman picked up the mail that was lying on his doormat. It was the usual assortment of letters, statements, bills, and ‘To the Occupier’.
“If you don’t even know who I am, Pal, you can go straight in the bin!” he said to himself.
His attention was drawn to a hand-written envelope with no postage and no address: he had a few of these occasionally, from people who had somehow found out his address and posted things through his door. His curiosity always got the better of him, however, so he read them before usually filing them in the shredder. Why the shredder and not the trash: because it wasn’t unknown for certain types of individual to search through the dustbins of others, looking for something salacious to sell to the gutter press.
George sat down at his kitchen table with his tea and toast and proceeded to open that one letter:
Dear Mr Beckman,
My name is Samantha O’Toole and I am sixteen years old. You won’t recognise that name, but my mother’s maiden name was Angela Pritchard and she has just told me that you are my father.
Mum doesn’t want anything from you ... in fact she doesn’t know I’m writing to you ... but she said that she thought I was old enough now to know the truth.
Can I also say that I loved the man who I thought was my dad ... he died of cancer eighteen months ago ... but I am also a fan of yours and I’m proud that we are related. I appreciate that this might be a shock for you, but as far as I am concerned, it is yours and Mum’s and my secret.
Please find enclosed a picture of Mum taken a few years ago ... I don’t think she’s changed much since you knew her. There is also one of me taken quite recently.
Very best wishes, yours sincerely,
George sat staring at the two photos: that was definitely Angie and the young girl bore a distinct resemblance to his sister’s two daughters.
“Bloody Hell!” he exclaimed, “I’m a father!”
George Alan Beckman was born in Dagenham, London, in 1977. Like many of the people who lived in the area at that time, several members of his family worked for The Ford Motor Company. He was a normal working class kid, who from an early age had a very cheeky personality which enabled him to get away with borderline bad behaviour. He was not so much bad though, as naughty, disrespectful, and anti-authoritarian: he pushed the rules to the limit, just to see how far they would bend.
Although he was bright at school and could have done well academically, he never really tried hard enough; believing, as did most of his family, that he was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, uncles, cousins, and several female members of the Beckman clan. And as the saying goes: there’s nothing wrong with nepotism as long as it pays the rent! In fact, he’d had his interview at Ford’s and was due to start shortly after leaving school at sixteen.
Angela Pritchard was George’s first, proper girlfriend. They’d known each other practically all their lives, going to the same schools and living only half a dozen streets away from one another. The two families obviously knew each other from the Ford connection and Kenny Pritchard was George’s best mate. Angie was a year or so younger than George and her brother and as little kids she would often walk between the boys, holding on to their hand. So it was no great surprise to anyone when Angie and George started dating when she was fifteen.
The first year that they were together Angie was still at school, but George was earning, so they had a rare old time socially, going out almost every night. Like George, Angie wasn’t expected to aim high in her choice of work, so her parents never said that she couldn’t go out with George on school nights ... in fact, he was seen as being a good future husband for her.
But despite the odds against it happening, she got six good GCSE passes and decided to become a hairdresser; whereupon she travelled by public transport into nearby Ilford every day. George still saw her in the evenings, but she was often tired after working and her commute, so they didn’t go out as much as before.
Then, in 1994, George, who had a good singing voice and had always been a bit of an entertainer, on a whim, attended an open audition in London for a new stage musical that was being cast. He got called back for a second and then a third audition, before finally being offered the part. Both he and Angie were obviously overjoyed, and after one celebration drink too many, they slept together; an act that would ultimately lead to the birth of their daughter.
Because of the show’s rehearsal schedule, George quit his job at Ford’s and moved into lodgings near the theatre; and of course he saw very little of Angie after that. When she found out that she was pregnant, she had to make a decision ... and the decision that she made was to break up with the father of her child and the one and only boy apart from her brother that she had ever loved.
She tried to let him down easy ... telling him that if he was going to have a future on the stage then he needed the freedom to do whatever was necessary to advance his career ... but that if it didn’t work out she would still be there in Dagenham waiting for him.
But it did work out: the show was a big hit that played in London for several years, after which he was offered more work. For a few years they exchanged Christmas and birthday cards, but for many reasons he never made it back to Dagenham and Angie made his family swear never to tell him about the baby ... for everybody’s sake.
She worked for as long as she could and then when Samantha was born Angie’s mother looked after her during the day from the time that she was three months old. Angie proved to be a talented hairdresser and became a popular stylist, and then when Sam was three years old she met and married Robbie O’Toole. They moved first to Ilford and then to Chigwell, where Angie opened her own salon in 2006. Angie and Robbie had had nearly nine, happy years of marriage before Robbie died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
There was an address on Sam’s letter ... Chigwell ... that wasn’t so far from where he lived in Barnsbury and he had a few days off. What he had to decide, however, was whether he should ring first or just turn up unannounced. There was the third option: should he go at all?
He had loved Angie ... probably still did ... but it had been a long time. She’d been married, happily, he assumed, and he’d neglected to stay in contact with her, even though he’d intended to. It was one thing to travel to Essex to look up an old friend but it’s quite another to turn up after all those years and say: “Hey ... Daddy’s home!” and then expect to be welcomed with open arms. He needed to sleep on it.
George’s car approached Chigwell on the A113. He was already on the road he wanted, so now he just had find the shop. There it was: Styles By Angie O’Toole. He was dressed quite casually and as it was a sunny day he kept his sunglasses on. The car was parked twenty or so yards away and he walked back to the salon.
He stood outside looking at a few notices in the window and checking out the interior. He didn’t recognize her straight away and he didn’t want to leave a message, in case she wasn’t there.
“Hello! I didn’t expect you to come,” the young girl’s surprised voice exclaimed. George saw her reflection in the plate glass window first.
“So you’re Samantha, or is it Sam?”
“Samantha Amber O’Toole ... a bit of a mouthful, but you can call me Sam, Mr Beckman. Are you coming in?”
“Only if you call me ‘George’, anything else might seem a little bit strange, and we don’t know how your mum will want to handle this,” he said, smiling.
“No ... good idea!” Sam said. She pushed the shop door open.
“Hi, Danni! This is George, an old friend of Mum’s!”
The girl behind the little reception desk may or not have known who George Beckman was, but she definitely didn’t recognise him wearing sunglasses. Sam had spent a lot of time in the salon so she was friendly with all the stylists and juniors, and she used to earn her pocket money by washing customers’ hair and sitting and chatting with the seniors who came in.
Her mother’s hair was cut differently from the last time that George had seen her, of course, and her face now had care lines ... not surprising, he thought ... but she was still the Angie Pritchard that he’d known since she was only a few feet tall. She was cutting hair, looking in the mirror and chatting as she did so, but she somehow sensed her daughter’s presence and then saw her in her peripheral vision. She turned her head, briefly.
“Hello, Love! How was school?” And then she saw him.
“Hello, Ange! You’re looking well!”
“ ... Er ... hello, George! I see you’ve met my darling daughter!” She looked at Sam and raised her eyebrows. Sam just smiled.
“Can I get you a tea or coffee, George, while we’re waiting for Mum to finish up here?” his daughter asked him.
“White coffee with sugar, please.”
He’d only been a dad for a little while, but he thought he understood what the expression ‘proud parent’ meant now; she was a lovely girl, and a credit to the people who raised her, it was just a pity that he wasn’t one of them!
George Beckman had sat in so many make-up chairs by then that the salon’s environment just seemed very natural to him. Hairdressers or make-up artists, they share that same cheerful, chatty, friendly disposition. They both work on the principle that it’s easier to do your job if you put your clients at ease, and after knowing her for only a few minutes, he could see that Sam had it too.
“So how is school, Sam? What do you like and dislike? I’m afraid I didn’t take it very seriously and if it hadn’t have been for a bit of good luck I’d probably still be living in Dagenham and working shifts at the engine plant!”
“ ... And married to Mum.”
“ ... Mmm ... maybe ... it was looking that way. But then she would never have met your dad, would she? But back to my question ... school...”
“Oh, not bad ... quite good, actually! Apart from those silly, immature boys who insist on calling me ‘Samber’!” George smiled.
“And is there one of those silly, immature boys who you maybe like more than the others?” Sam looked at him and returned the smile.
“ ... Might be!” she said, slightly coyly. He recognised that same look ... from now nearly half a lifetime ago.
“ ... But I like English and Drama. Maths and sciences I get by on. But I’m quite good at French and German: the teacher’s say that I’ve got a good ear.”
“ ... And music?” he asked.
“Well, it’s only compulsory at our school in years seven to nine, but I play guitar and sing a bit, and Mum pays for me to learn the piano, but it’s a bit harder than guitar.”
“You said in your letter that you were a fan, Sam ... I wouldn’t have thought that it’s the sort of music that someone your age likes.”
“Oh, yes ... I like all sorts, not just chart stuff! If you like music, you shouldn’t be snobbish: good music is good music, Mum says. Even before she told me about you, when dad was still alive, the three of us went to see your shows. I don’t know if mum told him, but he liked you, too. And we’ve been to big rock gigs in stadiums and seen Jazz in Ronnie Scott’s and classical at the Royal Albert and Festival Halls ... but of course I like some types better than others.”
“Well, I think that’s brilliant: and a very mature and healthy attitude to have! And if you ever want tickets to London shows, I’ve got contacts and you and your mum can always come and stay with me. By the way, Sam, was it you who put that letter through my door? If so, how did you know where?” Sam smiled.
“No, not me personally ... Uncle Kenny ... he’s still friendly with your family. Mum was living at home while she was pregnant and she never said who the father was to start with, but it couldn’t have been too hard to work out, could it? And she asked them not to say, and they never have.”
“You’re making me feel guilty now, Love!” George said, “I should have stayed in better touch with them, and I should have stayed in touch with your mum. You don’t realise just how quick time passes until you look back and see that it’s gone!”
“So what have you two been chatting away about all this time?” Angie asked.
“Oh, just catching up!” George replied, “Look, Ange, I’d really like to talk to you, too: can I take you both out to dinner somewhere tonight?”
“Sam’s got school tomorrow, George ... but why don’t you come home with us and eat there? You can even have the spare room tonight if you want.” George looked at his daughter, who nodded enthusiastically.
“Okay, I’d like that! Do you need a lift ... if not I can take Sam home now in my car, if you like.”
“All right! I’ll be home in about thirty minutes. Sam can make a start on her homework: she usually does it here, but she got distracted somehow!”
Angie watched as her daughter walked away with the man who until recently she had only ever seen singing and acting on a stage. The girl took the man’s arm and draped it around her shoulder, and then put her own arm around his waist, George slung the school bag over his own shoulder as they walked.
It was a nice three-bedroom semi in a quiet road. George pulled onto the wide drive where he stopped, leaving enough room in front of the garage for Angie’s car. Once inside, Sam picked up the long-haired cat that had wandered in from the kitchen.
“This, is Alfie, George ... my baby! Come on, I’ll show you round!” She led him upstairs first.
“Bathroom ... Mum’s got an en-suite; and this is her room,” Sam said, stepping through an open doorway. “And this is my room ... Mum says it’s not natural to keep it so tidy! And you’ll be in her, George! I’d keep the door shut, though, unless you want this fella jumping up on the bed during the night. It’s his house during the day when everyone’s out, so he thinks it’s his at night, too, when we’re in bed. Have you got any animals, George?”
“No, I like dogs and cats, but sometimes I’m away for days or weeks at a time and I don’t think it’s fair to keep unsettling them by boarding them out.”
“Do you want another drink, or are you going to wait for Mum? Come and have a seat while I get on with my homework. I’m just going to change out of these school clothes ... I won’t be long.”
While Sam went back upstairs, George looked around the room. He was particularly interested in the many framed photographs that he’d seen, some of which resided on a long sideboard, while others hung on hooks on the wall. Unsurprisingly, the majority were of his daughter, taken throughout her life. It was a graphical catalogue of a young life; which under different circumstances he might have witnessed as it happened. He felt her presence next to him and a warm hand slide into his.
“You’ve always been very pretty!” George said.
“Don’t all parents think that, though!”
“I suppose so, but in this case it’s true! And this must be your dad. He looks nice ... what did he do and how did he meet your mum?”
“He was nice! With a name like O’Toole you can guess where his family comes from ... I’ve been to Ireland several times; County Wicklow, on the east coast. He was actually an accountant, like his father, who was the one used by the hair salon in Ilford where mum worked when you knew her. Robert, or Robbie, as he preferred to be called, was a few years older than Mum and they met and got married when I was three, she told me. I’ve never seen my birth certificate, so I don’t know whether you’re on it, or whether dad adopted me when they got married.”
“Yes and no,” the voice behind them said, “You are registered as Samantha Amber Pritchard; father, George Alan Beckman, musician. I always thought that if you wanted to change your name legally, you could do it when you were eighteen ... but you are O’Toole on the school records and your passport ... it’s not illegal.” Sam let go of George’s hand.
“Well, I suppose I’d better start that homework now!” she said, with a smile. Angie went out to the kitchen and George followed.
“She’s perfect, Ange: you’ve done a grand job!” She leaned in and for the first time kissed him lightly on the mouth.
“Well, perhaps not exactly perfect ... but I haven’t got much to complain about! And I don’t need to ask how you’ve been, George; we’ve followed your career. You’ve done as well as I knew you would! And I think you already know what she thinks about you!”
“So did your husband know about me?”
“No ... not to start with. He knew I was a fan of the shows, ‘cause I had them on CD’s, but he never asked who Sam’s father was, so I never volunteered the information. We always had a lot of music around the house, as you’ve probably seen for yourself, and she was always curious about everything. I never forced Sam’s choices, but she started playing the recordings of your shows and I swear, by eight, she probably knew all the lyrics as well as you did!
“So Robbie and me starting taking her to see live performances: we even travelled up to Manchester to see a touring production of your first one, even though you weren’t in it by then. It was about that time that I told him. He didn’t need to see the birth certificate. And then later when Robbie got sick, she’d sit on the bed with him and he’d say: ‘Give us a song, Sam ... you know which ones... ‘“
George reached across and brushed away her tears with his fingers and then he took her hands in his.
“I wish I’d known him, Ange!”
“Yes, so do I, George!”
The evening was as pleasant as the afternoon had been. They talked, mainly, but the house had an upright piano for Sam and she and George sat together on the seat as she played him what she’d learnt so far. George was actually quite a good pianist himself, which he hadn’t been when Angie knew him, and he showed his enrapt daughter a few things that might help her.
As she had school the next day she went to bed at nine-thirty, but before she went up, she put her arms around George’s neck and hugged and kissed him. Angie made tea and when it was made she sat next to George at one end of the sofa. He put an arm around her.
“This takes me back!” she said, “But we never had this much privacy in our front room at home.”
“Good job, too, otherwise you might have found yourself pregnant a long time before you did!”
“Well,” Angie said about eleven o’clock, “it’s been lovely catching up, George, but I’ve had a long day and I have to take Her Ladyship to school before it starts all over again tomorrow. I’m going up, but you can stay down here if you want to.”
“Okay, Love! Sweet dreams!”
Another quick kiss and she was gone. George sat contemplatively for a few minutes, then he turned out the light and retired himself.
At about eight thirty the next morning there was a knock on George’s door. Sam opened it a little way: “Can I come in, George?”
“Of course!” he replied, sleepily. She skipped over to the bed and lay down on top of the duvet, her head a few inches away from his on the pillow.
“I just wanted to say thank you for coming, Dad! It’s really been lovely! Now that you’ve found us, you are going to say in touch, aren’t you?”
“Oh, a lot more than stay in touch! I missed the first sixteen years of the miracle and I intend not to miss much more of it!” Sam beamed.
“Good! Love you lots, Dad! See you soon, then!”
“You’d better believe it, Love!”
She jumped off the bed and scampered out of the room. A little later it was Angie’s turn to look in on him.
“Have a lie in, George. As soon as I’ve dropped Sam off I’ll come back and say goodbye before I go to work.”
Her car pulled up outside the house, next to George’s. Angie picked up her phone.
“Morning, Gail! Look, something’s come up, can you look after the shop? Reschedule my appointments if necessary and call me on this number if it’s something important.” Once indoors she took off her jacket and climbed the stairs and went into George’s room.
“I’m back, Love! Look, I reckon we’ve got a lot of catching up to do and there’s no time like the present,” she said, as she quickly got out of her clothes.
They lay in each other’s arms afterwards, recovering.
“Aren’t you worried about getting pregnant again, Ange?”
“No ... I’m only thirty-four, and Sam would love a baby brother or sister. And I think this family is probably able to cope with another child ... and another dad!”
“Well, if you’re sure ... I’m up for it! Ready for another go?” Angie laughed.
“ ... Less talk, more action, please, Mr Beckman!”
“So would you like to read your essay out, Sam,” her English teacher asked her. She stood up behind her desk.
“This is called ‘Family’:
“I have had lots of families, or should I say, a lot of family. I was born in Dagenham, in an area where most people work, or have worked, for Ford. They are like a family ... people live and work together, and laugh together, and sometimes cry together; and they support each other in the good times and the bad.
“My other family were the people who brought me up. My gran, especially, who looked after me as a baby when my Mum had to go to work to earn money for us to live. I don’t remember much about that house, but I know that it was always full of people: aunts, uncles, cousins, or just neighbours popping in to chat.
“And then of course there was Mum and Dad. They moved away from Dagenham when I was a toddler. The new house ... the new home ... was bigger, but it was quieter. I started to learn about the world in that house and there was laughter and music ... lots of music. And then we moved to another house; but we took the laughter and music with us.
“But then my Dad died, and I thought that my heart would break into a million tiny pieces and the laughter and the music would stop. But I was wrong ... if anything they both got louder and it does this because my mum tries twice as hard to make it so!
“I found out a little while ago that my dad wasn’t actually my dad ... but in my heart he always will be! I’ve just met my birth father for the first time and I’m happy to say that he’s a lovely guy, too!”
“So that’s my families: a place, a community, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours, friends, and one mum and two dads! What I’ve learned about families is that it doesn’t matter whether there’s two of you or two-thousand ... it’s how they make you feel! And I feel loved, and very, very lucky!”