Fiction

Mark Returns 1


Loss and disappointment

September, 1979. Home from college to see the family. Cliff was top of the charts singing about sheep and Mark was still dead.

It took a year to become firm friends and plot future triumphs in the publishing world, and a mere three months for Mark to be diagnosed with cancer and snuff it. Now I had an idea how Grandma felt when Grandpa Corden died five years ago. Only an idea – a year of hunting comics in Leeds town centre couldn’t compare to a lifetime spent together as a family.

When Grandpa succumbed to his illness my mother and grandmother pooled their resources and bought Rick House, a Georgian farmhouse on the other side of town, away from the memories. Mum’s house bought the building, and Grandma’s house paid for the renovation. It was a grand place with a large garden front and back, but bloody freezing in the winter. We could already sense the floods and frigid weather blowing in from the fields at the back.

I parked my bike in the basement and entered the kitchen.

“Sorry I was out so long, Grandma. I don’t like to leave you all alone, but they had no comics in any of the usual places. I had to go to the Co-op in the end.”

“That’s all right, duck. I’m never really by myself. Arthur comes to me in dreams and sits with me during the day while I watch telly.”

“Is he here now?”

“I expect so.”

“Hello, Grandpa.”

“What do you remember about your grandpa?”

“That he was kind, and everyone respected him.”

“I remember the line of folks outside the Uni when the hearse went by. I think they were all out.”

“And he limped because of falling off the ladder and hurting his foot. And he only had two fingers on his right hand, which may explain why he fell off the ladder.”

“I told him not to go up there, but he wouldn’t listen. He could be stubborn sometimes.”

“Where’s Henry?”

“He’s round the back, burying the guinea pig.”

“Ern? What happened?”

“He died. They don’t live very long, you know.”

“He seemed all right this morning.”

“Why, did you check?”

“Er, no. Not as such.”

“I expect the dog scared him again.”

Grunty, the asthmatic corgi we had inherited when Grandpa Corden’s brother Jack had died, shambled over and snorted as I petted her.

“You wouldn’t do that, would you, you smelly old git?”

“Grunt.”

Since I finished my degree I’d been submitting scripts to comic companies on a regular basis. I’d send scripts for characters they already published and for some I’d made up. If I was lucky I’d get helpful responses like: “Thank you for the script. We’re looking more for cowboys and Indians in space.” So I’d write cowboys and Indians in space and they’d say: “Thank you for the script. This is just cowboys and Indians in space. We’re looking for more than that.” I would usually lay off for a few days after one of those.

I liked to keep up with what was going on in the world of comics, but Stafford was a terrible place to find them. I would cycle for miles from newsagent to newsagent in the hopes of getting a recent Spiderman or Hulk comic. Sometimes it was even hard to find 2000 A.D.

Unlike Leeds. For some reason, the sleazier the location, the earlier they got the month’s new Marvel comics. So Mark and I would make a beeline for the porn-and-fags shop under the railway arches near the river at the end of every month and score the latest FF or Defenders. Then it was off to the bus station for the black-and-white Rampaging Hulk and/or Savage Sword of Conan and into The Three Legs or Whitelocks for a read and a pint.

In the evenings we’d go to the pub with a notepad each and write scripts for our thesis. We were going to publish our own comic and write about the experience in lieu of an essay for the Scholarly Method portion of our English Literature degrees. It turned out to be way more work than we had anticipated and cost me money that I never recouped. We learned a lot about publishing.

Then Mark spent more and more time sleeping. He would announce, “Phew, I’m knackered,” at the most peculiar times, then go for a lie-down. After an hour or two it was business as usual.

If I came back to our grotty house in Brudenell Avenue and met Mark’s beige jacket on the doorknob, I would know that he was resting, and wouldn’t disturb him until I heard Dennis Brown’s Money in my Pocket belting out of the window.

One day he looked and felt really dreadful and we got a grumpy GP from the uni clinic to visit, as Mark seemed too poorly to travel by bus. He was swiftly moved to Jimmy’s hospital, then to a hospice, then to Middlesborough for cremation.

I don’t know how any of us passed our degrees after that, but we did.

“Where did you bury him, Henry?”

“Near the rhubarb. Better than pushing up daisies.”

“When did you find him?”

“This morning, when I was changing his water. He was mid-poo when he died.”

“Do you think the dog scared him?”

“I doubt it. Grunts was in the kitchen all night. It was probably an owl.”

“Hats off for Ern, lads.”

“Hats off for Ern. He had short, fat, hairy legs, but he was a guinea-pig. after all.

Henry and I took our hats off in deference to our little pal.

“What’ll we do with the cage?”

I pointed, pointlessly, at the cage by the back door. It was a big one, with legs so we could reach into it easily and dogs couldn’t. Ern had been safe from cats and owls, but they could give our nervous pet a fright.

“Let’s keep it as a mute reminder.”

“A mute, stinky reminder.”

“I’ll clean out the poo and put that round the rhubarb too.”

“It’s what he would have wanted.”

That night, a number of us had strange dreams.

 

Dreams come

I often had dreams about finding stashes of fantastically valuable Marvel comics at the stall in Stafford market, even though they only seemed to sell terrible, used black-and-white reprints these days. I always checked and was always disappointed. But in my dream there would be Spiderman 6, where he meets The Lizard for the first time, a Wally Wood Daredevil with the yellow suit and, holy of holies, Incredible Hulk #1, ‘Is He Man or Monster?’ – the one with the fantastic Jack Kirby cover and a grey Hulk. I would get all excited, not because of the value, but because I would get to own and read these treasures.

I also had weird dreams where I would wake up, seemingly wide-awake, but unable to move while a ghost cat settled itself on the foot of my bed. It turned out my mother had the same dream a few times. We concluded that it was an old house and therefore must have had some friendly ghosts. Science begs to differ, but you know it’s more fun to have a ghost than a semi-conscious experience.

Tonight’s dream was a doozy, however. In it I awoke, seemingly, and was able to sit up and put on my glasses, and, mysteriously, see in the dark.

At the foot of the bed was no cat, but someone wearing clothes I recognized – a light beige jacket, straight-leg blue jeans and brown Dr Marten’s shoes.

I immediately turned into a blithering idiot. I can only assume my subconscious knows no shame, as I pounced on Mark, hugged him like there was no tomorrow and tried to talk through a deluge of tears.

“Hello. What do you want?” was what he said.

“I’m just happy to see you, Mark.”

“Me too. What do you want? Money? Comics? Women?”

I was a bit taken aback. I hadn’t imagined our reunion to be of the genie-and-master kind.

“Er, nothing, really. Could you stay?”

Mark ignored my question and went on, drama in his voice.

“I promise you pirates.”

“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?”

“You need ideas, don’t you?”

“Yes, but they don’t want pirates any more than they want Cowboys and Indians in space.”

“Pirates are coming back.”

“But they haven’t arrived, so they don’t want pirates.”

Mark pouted.

“I have things to do. People to see.”

“In Middlesborough? I understand.”

“Don’t look for me in town.”

Everything went dark and I realised I had been dreaming.

When I awoke, I decided to look for Mark in town.

 

A Futile Hunt

I didn’t really expect to find Mark in town, but I was all charged-up after my near-ghost experience so I biked it to the Colonnade, where the only attempt at a comic shop in Stafford awaited. I thought Dream Mark might give me a hand in getting the latest Master of Kung Fu.

No such luck. There was a new lady in the little shop, but no new comics. On the shelves were the same few beaten-up copies of Zap and Furry Freak Brothers that had been there this time last year. I was wondering how on earth they made any money, when a youth with long hair and a centre parting came in.

“Can I have that ceremonial candle-holder and a packet of Rizlas, please?”

“Rough shag?” queried the new lady.

“No, ta. Got me Bensons.”

The youth tapped a packet of B & H ciggies that stuck out of the top pocket of his shirt, paid for his bong and rolling papers, then departed.

“You’ve had the same comics for the last year. Any chance of some new arrivals soon?” I asked.

“You could try next Tuesday. Things usually happen then,” the lady replied.

“I haven’t seen you here before.”

“No. I’ve been away. Things haven’t changed much, have they?”

“Not in this shop, no.”

A beige jacket went past the little window.

“Excuse me.”

I shot outside to see the owner of the jacket, but he had gone. At the end of the Colonnade was an east-west street and no more shops. The jacket could not have got far.

But there was no-one in either direction. The only place he could have disappeared to so quickly was the Record Office, where my mum worked. They knew me there, so I nipped in and asked about visitors.

“No one all morning. Maybe he went to The Salt.”

The William Salt Library was on Salter Street, the other end of The Colonnade. With the best will in the world, no one could move that fast. I knocked on the door anyway and asked Beryl if my friend in the light jacket was there.

“Quiet day, today, Graham. Just the usuals.”

Beryl gestured at the collection of old fellows doing their research. Not one of them had a light jacket on, nor was there such a thing on the back of a chair or hanging up in the hall. I thanked her and left. Maybe the lady in the head shop had seen something.

When I got back to there it was closed and the lights were off. I wheeled my bike to Smith’s to pick up this week’s 2000 A.D.

The cover of Whoopee comic had some nice artwork that looked like it was by Leo Baxendale, so I got that too. Sweeny Toddler – what a terrible pun. Good comic strip, though.

The jacket went by the window again and I nearly shat with frustration as the till girl counted out my change.

Outside – lots of people, more than usual in fact – but no beige jacket.

One or two people looked like they were on their way to a fancy-dress parade. A woman had on a dark dress with a crinoline. She was accompanied by a teddy boy in full regalia, D.A. Haircut and all. There were a couple of kids wearing braces – the things to hold up your trousers, not the teeth type. There were even one or two unaccompanied dogs. You never saw that in town.

In the distance, turning up Mill Street, someone in blue jeans and a beige jacket. I picked up my pace. I wanted to run, but you don’t do that in town unless you want to get stopped. At the foot of Mill Street looking up the road I saw the same person, wearing what looked like brown Dr Marten’s shoes, turn to go up Mill Lane towards St. Mary’s Church. When I reached The Soup Kitchen, the same jeans and jacket were turning right back into town again. If I’d stayed put by Smith’s I would have seen him emerge by the new McDonald’s. When I walked past McDonald’s and back onto the high street I was unsurprised to see no jeans, jacket or Dr Marten’s in evidence.

I retrieved my bike and headed home.

When I entered the kitchen, Grandma and Grandpa Corden were sitting together at the table. Grunty was snuffling at Grandpa’s feet contentedly. Grandma was smiling beatifically.

“Hello, Graham. I’ve been away,” said my grandfather.

I actually said, “Gasp!” (Mark and I had always said it when we were even mildly surprised. This seemed an ideal occasion for such an outburst.)

My brother burst into the room.

“Ern’s back!”

Priorities all wrong, I dashed outside with my brother to witness the resurrection of our guinea-pig. Ern seemed none the worse for wear for his experience and squeaked like he always did when we gave him some bits of carrot.

“Did you dig him up? Was it like that time the hamster hibernated and we stuck him by the fire to thaw out?”

“Nope. I just met him in his cage. I had just finished sprinkling his poo ceremoniously round the rhubarb when I heard him go peep.”

“But, how?”

“Dunno. Who cares? Grandpa’s back, too. Maybe he knows something.”

But Grandpa Corden was of little assistance.

“Your Grandma’s very happy,” was all he would say.

“Let’s go for a walk, Arthur,” she said, and they left to promenade across the flood plain.

Even when they returned and my mother had got back from work, I couldn’t get very far. Grandma was acting like a besotted girl and my mum was fussing about tea and reminding Grandpa about their little Westie.

“He couldn’t come, Joan. He wasn’t dreamed of.”

“How long are you stopping?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

I made to ask my grandfather about Mark, but his stern look shut me up. He could be very severe at times, I recalled.

I thought about calling my chums in Leeds, but realised I had only a dream to tell them about. And a reborn Grandfather. And a guinea pig. Probably wise to keep my gob shut.

In an early Steve Ditko Incredible Hulk comic, Bruce Banner and co. encounter The Chameleon, a master of disguise. I decided to become The Chameleon, and sneak up on the elusive Jacket Boy and find out what was what.

Rummaging through my meagre resources, I found a pair of Groucho glasses, an International Rescue hat and a pair of like-new waders I had bought when I thought I fancied fishing.

That was the cunning disguise sorted. How do you track a ghost? Infra-red, I reasoned. I assembled the Pentax ME Super and switched it to infra-red. I tried it on Ern. He looked exactly the same as usual.

“What you doing?” asked Henry.

“Tracking ghosts with infra-red.”

“It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“You need a heat sensor. Ghosts are cold.”

“Good point. Do we still have a thermometer in the kitchen?”

“I think so.”

“Right.”

I went into the kitchen as nonchalantly as possible, plucked the thermometer off the wall and handed it to my grandfather.

“Could you hold that, Grandpa?”

“Whatever for?”

“My Master’s thesis.”

“I thought you were studying English Literature.”

“I am. This is the science part.”

“You must think I’m daft.”

“No, really. You’re reading the paper, and I want to know if it affects your temperature, reading about all the terrible goings-on.”

“You’re trying to prove I’m a ghost.”

“No, I’m …Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Give it here.”

“Stop trying to prove your grandad’s a ghost, Graham,” said my mum.

“He’s not, duck. Really,” said Grandma.

After half an hour or so, the temperature did not appear to have gone up or down, so I gave up.

“Grandpa, can you still do that song?”

“Which one?”

“Suzanna.”

Grandpa obliged, and sang Suzanna’s a Funnical Man for us, over and over. Henry came in during the first set of squeaks and whistles.

“Ey up, Buster,” said Grandpa, and continued with the song.

I don’t think any of us have ever been so happy.

Now, where was Mark?

 

Picture source: Mathieu19