Sheridan’s toadstool

About this: A short story that references some topics that some may find unpleasant. It’s not graphic or anything like that but it’s probably something you wouldn’t consider for a bedtime story.

Sheridan’s toadstool

I never lost the accent, the one I acquired in early childhood in Middlesex, well not completely anyway, the memories linger longer than they ought — too. One of these recollections concerns an incident that occurred close to the time I left the area. Sheridan’s Garage was the kind of establishment that’s been extinct for some time now, a town garage nestled between retail premises. Entrance from the street was through a pair of large blue painted doors, arranged in what’s known as a wicket gate. The door on the right as you faced them from the street, had a smaller door inset into it, for the convenience of pedestrians and the proprietor. Even then, Mr. Sheridan’s business was less than thriving, there would be the occasional cyclist with a punctured tyre the odd jalopy; the kind of car that inhabited the roads back when you could travel in the country for hour at night without dipping your lights.

The seemingly permanently closed doors of Sheridan’s is one of my most prominent recollections from the period, those first few years in Talbot Road. We’re just around the corner from where Christie lived, the serial killer who’s earlier crimes had been attributed to an unfortunate who paid with his life for the incompetence and bigotry of others. In fact one of Christie’s later victims had worked in our grocers shop for a while, her disappearance had caused the finger of suspicion to levelled at my father. Wagging tongues had taken their toll on his relations with my mother. I imagine that’s one of the reasons he developed a strong streak of Anglophobia in his later years. He was a short man, a Lithuanian emigre who arrived in England during the war, whether he was in flight from German or Russian occupation I never knew. He spoke English badly, it wasn’t that he had trouble with the language, he was an intelligent man who’d aspired to be an engineer in his youth but he was always trying to mask his accent.

A little further down the road from the Sheridan’s, on the opposite side of the street is a basement flat, the home of another one of my father’s occasional shop staff. The reason why this particular lady’s noteworthy is somewhat less tragic. Her daughter, a little older than me, has become the focus of my very first romantic interest, although that’s no particular reason for notoriety. What is interesting, though only mildly so to anyone except myself, is what became of her. She became a model and with good reason, she grew up into an extremely attractive young woman, not that I ever clapped eyes on her again, aside from her appearance in things like the Pirelli calender. I would have been blissfully ignorant of such if wasn’t for the intervention of my darling sister, who took great delight in pointing the fact out to me in my tender youth.

Father wasn’t well suited to retail, didn’t have the patience or absence of thought to cope with the tedium, mother was much better at it and the business soon folded after she left him. She’d often recall tales to me in later years, how she’d mollify customers, pass a bar of chocolate to their kids as they paid for their groceries with a, ‘Say thank you to the nice lady’ never noticing that the price of the gift had been added to their bill. She’d tell of my father’s incompetence with money, on one occasion, she even recalled how they first met, she’d answered the door to him as he was calling on a lady of a certain profession who lodged in the same house. Not something anyone really needs to know about their family history that — but she’s forgiven, her mind lost a lot of sharpness as she aged. I never asked why she should be lodging in the same building either.

I don’t recall the words exactly, not all of them but they were loud, my father ended his diatribe with, ‘Get out — go and stay with that Jew Sheridan next door’. Not quite sure what logic lied behind that particular exclamation, Sheridan was an old man, but the anti-Semitism expressed was genuine and my mother complied with his wishes promptly. It wasn’t long before I found myself passing through Sheridan’s blue threshold, my mother’s hand tightly grasping mine, inside we were greeted with tea and platitudes. Sheridan it seemed was a man of meagre means, his living space was cramped and cluttered. Mother’s lips pursed at the unaccustomed taste of sterilised milk as she drank her tea. I’m not sure what I drank, probably orange juice if he had any, maybe it was just water. I was too interested in the terra incognita that was Sheridan’s home. Strangely he had a large pile of comics, you know the kind we used to have so many of then, The Valiant, Lion, Victor, The Beano and The Dandy too. My reading skills were basic but the four colour process of the covers was too alluring. I wonder what suspicions a man like Sheridan hoarding such reading materials would arouse today. Whether such suspicions were not such a concern then or if was because of some other imperative, I’m not sure but Mother soon left and I found myself alone in the company of Mr. Sheridan. Don’t worry, Sheridan’s not a nonce, so this is no tale of childhood trauma.

Mother left quite discreetly while I was busy with the pile of comics. I was a child used to the absence of parental supervision, being left in the care of my sister on many occasions. A sister who happened to be latterly diagnosed as psychotic though, she’d disappear at the first opportunity, probably to entertain the local West Indian youths who were populating the area in increasing numbers. Even so if it hadn’t of been for the distraction of the comics I would probably have complained, as this day had been marked by more stress than was usual.

Sheridan Himself had left the room, happy it seems to leave me with his comics. I became quite engrossed, the illustrated war stories, populated with have-a-go stereotypes and Germans hiding under dark helmets, was successfully holding my attention. After a while, something a little different caught my eye, it was a book, not a comic and I noticed it because of its colourful spine, as it sat amongst Sheridan’s modest library of books on a shelf. Emboldened by the spirit of discovery, I didn’t hesitate to prise it from its resting place. The cover struck me as strange, the comics seemed prosaic by comparison, it was something quite surreal. There was something immediately unsettling about it, with its lurid green and yellow lettering executed in a stylized script. The illustration depicted some objects that I couldn’t quite make out but I could see they had faces on them. The only thing I’d encountered like them before was the Homepride men or the Tate and Lyle Mr. Cube. Despite my sense of unease I promptly opened the book and was greeted by a curious musty odour, the illustrations inside though, where quite pleasant to view. They depicted various scenes, usually with some adults accompanied by one or two children. The text accompanying the pictures was very strange, it was quite dense and set in what seemed to me to be a rather baroque typeface.

Just then, Sheridan entered in the room, he was quite disturbed when he saw me reading or rather examining the book and he spoke to me sharply enough to get my chin wobbling. Something that took me by surprise, since he’d been rather sanguine about my interest in his comics. None the less I complied immediately with his request to, ‘Put that book down’ and retreated, my interest in his collection of printed work curtailed. That’s probably when I noticed my mother had left and I started to feel a little vulnerable, to his credit Sheridan picked up on my mood rather quickly and apologised for his outburst. That’s probably the first time any adult had ever done that, said sorry to me, there’s precious few occasions that adults ever express any feeling of genuine regret, to anyone let alone a child. We only say, sorry because we’re coerced or we feel we have something to lose, lets face it, do most adults even have any genuine regrets when they injure or cause distress to others?

I responded rather well to Mr. Sheridan’s contrition, well enough to give my curiosity free rein and ask him few questions: ‘What’s that picture on the front?’.

The answer, ‘A grotesque caricature’ wasn’t a great deal of help to a person with my vocabulary.

‘What’s this word say?’ I asked pointing at the script on the cover.

‘Toadstool’.

I was still the none the wiser and I could see the patience borne through his contrition was wearing thin, so I opted to forgo the request for a definition and ask the pertinent question, ‘Mr. Sheridan — why shouldn’t I read that book?’.

He answered me directly, ‘That book’s evil, I would burn it, a child should be reading it?’ his words seemed contradictory to my ears, he continued, ‘It’s propaganda’.

‘What’s propaganda?’ I asked, I pronounced the word as if I was querying about a male goose.

‘It’s a weapon, a weapon used to do bad things, used by bad people to turn others like them, make them the same as them’.

The concept of a weapon was something I could understand even in my immaturity. The comics I had just examined had been full of heroes and villains employing diverse examples of such: rifles, machine guns, knifes but the idea that a weapon could turn your foe into an ally seemed potent indeed to my young mind. I wasn’t exactly sure how such a device could reside between the pages of a book, so I set my mind to discovering its secrets and chanced one last question, ‘How can I get a propaganda?’.

‘Those comics you’re reading, they have heroes in them — those heroes have guns I suppose, what they do with them?’.

‘They kill the baddies.’ I said triumphantly.

Then he looked at me in the eye, ‘That’s what weapons are good for boy, death’.

Of course a child has a limited concept of death, it’s something that happens to people, you know that much. In the comics the heroes had won out and survived, as the they always do in a fantasy. Sheridan’s lesson hadn’t fallen on fertile soil, ‘Kill the baddies, kill the baddies,’ I exclaimed joyously, I’m sure he must have winced at my hubris but I’m speculating, just then mother returned. She probably been gone less than an hour, she thanked Sheridan and we left.

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~ by deadspidereye on November 17, 2013.

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