Copyright 2015, Sarah Hartwell
Dream, 19 September 2015
In the dream, I was Roger. The end of the dream was a jumble of impressions. The visits to Caldwell Street were very detailed.
No-one knew much about Arthur. He drove to work in an ancient Bentley that was too scuffed and worn to be considered classic. At work he always changed into a brown “shop coat” despite working in the drawing office. He said he felt “more comfortable” in that overall. He was quiet, diligent and mostly kept himself to himself. His colleagues knew that he was a widower, having lost his wife, Esme, a number of years ago. The couple’s only son, Dicken, had died in some sort of tragic accident when in his twenties. Apart from that, they knew little about the quiet draughtsman’s life.
Roger was a junior draughtsman in the same office. He looked up to Arthur as a sort of uncle, and Arthur may have seen in Roger an echo of his son. It was only because of Roger that the office knew anything about Arthur’s life outside of work, the younger man seemed to have a way of drawing Arthur out of his shell.
One afternoon, Arthur invited Roger to join him after work at Caldwell Street. Roger, who had a pretty good knowledge of the surrounding suburbs, was unfamiliar with the name.
“It’s a piece of town that the developers forgot about,” smiled Arthur, “A sort of untouched corner of town.”
That evening, the two men walked from the office across the rough part of land that separated the business area from the suburbs. They ambled along a track, fringed with willow herb and cow parsley, behind a street of post-war semis until they reached a wire fence and several corrugated metal panels. Arthur carefully pushed aside one of the panels and pushed through the gap. Roger, wondering what the quiet older man was getting him into, followed out of sheer curiosity. Then he exhaled sharply.
They stood at the end of what had once been a pre-war terrace. Like many end-of-terrace properties it had been converted into business premises, in this case a motor garage with a wide concrete apron. The whole area was enclosed by brick walls and store rooms. Roger noticed signs on the store room doors saying “Fuel Oil,” “Paraffin,” and such-like. In these surroundings, Arthur seemed to come alive.
“Great, isn’t it?” the older man said with a smile, “Let me show you round.”
Inside the motor workshop were a couple of Austin motorcars being worked on by a mechanic.
“Hiya Charlie!” called Arthur, “Where’s Bill today?”
Charlie, the mechanic, waved over towards another part of the garage. Roger noticed the tops of two buses, on red, one green. “He’s working on double-oh-two at the moment,” Charlie called back.
To Roger, the whole area looked like a transport museum. There were faded posters for Shell Oil and bicycle parts on the wall. As he was taking it all in, he heard a car pull up, the engine purring. The car was a gleaming classic Morris and the driver resembled the spiv characters he had seen in films – sharp suit, hat and moustache. The driver leaned out and greeted Arthur.
“Running beautifully,” Arthur observed, “He really looks after that motor.”
“Does he take it anywhere? Vehicle rallies or anything?” asked Roger.
“Oh no,” replied Arthur, “it never leaves Caldwell Street. Well it can’t really, there’s no road out any more.”
The two men visited Caldwell Street regularly after work. On the few occasions Roger had tried to go there on his own he hadn’t been able to move the corrugated panel aside. He could understand the need for keeping quiet about this unspoilt bit of town and hoped that Arthur would eventually teach him the trick of shifting it. At work, the pair could be seen poring over old car mechanics magazine, of which Arthur appeared to have a hoard at home.
One lunchtime, one of their colleagues read an announcement from the local paper. “Looks like they’re going to redevelop that derelict bit at the back of Sunbury Avenue,” he said.
“What bit’s that then?” piped up another man, looking up from his cheese sandwich.
“The old Caldwell Street site,” the first man said, “It’s going to be a three story car park for the business estate.”
“About time,” came a voice, “Parking out front is getting pretty bad, we need a car park to cope with the expansion.”
Arthur looked despondent.
“Can’t it be preserved?” asked Roger, quietly, “A museum or something?”
Arthur shook his head. “Some people don’t see it that way.”
They didn’t go to Caldwell Street for the next few days. Arthur was in too much of a depression and Roger still hadn’t mastered the trick of getting through the metal fence. Instead, Roger started going to the library to see if there was any way to appeal against the car park plan.
Most of Caldwell Street had apparently been bombed out. While most of that area vanished under the new Sunbury estate in the 1950s, the owner of the end terrace property refused to be bought out. His motor garage had survived the air raids and was still doing a good trade. As the estate sprang up, the cunning developers surrounded the motor shop, leaving no access road wide enough for vehicles and choking off trade. Despite that, the end terrace was never bulldozed because they couldn’t get permission to build a new road to reach it.
Finally Arthur and Roger returned to Caldwell Street. Arthur was despondent as he told Charlie the news.
“Well that’s it, then,” said Charlie, patting the Austin’s bonnet, “I’ll never get this old girl finished.”
Their various friends at the motor garage were much quieter after that.
“Can’t we at least get some of the stuff out?” asked Roger.
“I’m afraid not,” Arthur told him with a sigh, “It all belongs here.”
Undeterred, Roger made an attempt to smuggle thing out of the condemned area. First were a couple of posters, but they just crumbled as squeezed out through the corrugated fence in Arthur’s wake. Too fragile, he thought. Next time he tried some of the historical bicycle spares – he could surely donate those to a museum. Only when he found his pockets full of rust and flaked rubber did he begin to understand about the nature of Caldwell Street. An attempt to smuggle out an oil can confirmed his suspicions.
The council had given permission for a new road to be built behind their office, giving access to the blocked off area. As the road tore through the overgrown waste ground and towards the corrugated fence, Arthur sank deeper into depression. Roger no longer asked him about saving Caldwell Street. The bulldozers and back-hoes finally reached the metal fence and tore it down.
One afternoon, Roger took a solitary walk towards the building site. Beyond the metal fence he glimpsed the derelict remains of a workshop. Two buses, completely burnt out, stood behind a crumbling wall. The metal skeletons of two cars were visible under the girders of what had once been a roof. Roger finally understood. Arthur simply sank into himself and not even Roger managed to engage him in conversation.
The car park rose swiftly, a blocky concrete three-storey building that seemed to float on air when lit up at night. The new road was named Caldwell Street and the car park was the Caldwell Street Car Park.
One morning, Arthur was not at work. Roger thought that older man had taken ill due to depression. A day later, one of his fellow draughtsmen, a chap called John Edwards, accosted Roger in the doorway of the drawing office.
“I say Roger, did you hear about Arthur?”
“Is he sick?” asked Roger.
“He was in a car accident,” John told him, “two chaps in a Cortina hit the Bentley.”
“Ouch! Is he okay? “ Roger knew that the Bentley was a solid piece of engineering.
“Not sure, that’s the puzzling thing,” John said, his brow furrowed, “According to the blokes in the Cortina, the Bentley pretty much disintegrated – must have been a pile of rust held together with shiny paint.”
“Where’s Arthur then?”
“They couldn’t find him. The police think he might have been concussed and wandered off. The other guys were really shaken up.”
After that, things seemed to unravel. People stopped talking about Arthur. It wasn’t so much the English taboo about talking of death, it was as though Arthur had simply faded from memory. Roger likened it to pulling a thread on an embroidered pattern and seeing the pattern disappear. It felt like the thread that was Arthur was being unpicked from the pattern. Once more he paid a visit to the records office at the library. Surely Arthur must have family – nephews, cousins or something.
Eventually, Roger turned again to the newspapers that reported the destruction of most of Caldwell Street. He felt he had to have missed something. Finally he found it. Caldwell Street Motors had belonged to George Arthur Evans and was run by George and his brothers, Charles Andrew Evans and William John Evans. Roger surmised that these were Arthur’s relatives, and had probably had families, so he set to tracking them down in parish records.
However, it was an old newspaper advert that finally shed light on the story of Arthur’s family. It was a photo of Caldwell Street Motor Garage & Bicycle Repair Shop with the proprietors standing proudly in front of the entrance to the workshop. There were Charles and William next to George “Arthur” Evans (the latter in a brown shop coat). Pulled up in front of the workshop was a new Morris motorcar driven by one of their regular customers. A magnifying glass showed the faces of Charlie, Bill, the sharp-suited Morris driver and of Arthur himself. Arthur’s Bentley stood to one side. The parish’s deaths register, recording those who had died in the air raid, confirmed what Roger already suspected.
After that, there was little else to know. Dicken was “Known Unto God” in a war grave. Esme never recovered from her grief and died years later in a nursing home in Brighton; it was she who had held out against the developers until the developers had given up.
“Well, Arthur,” Roger said softly as he laid a poppy at the town’s war memorial, “you’re finally free.”