11. CR33 KET


The choice was succinctly bleak. Either walk along a narrow, single-carriageway back lane facing oncoming traffic, trying not to be clipped by a raging, lost, Duel-like petrol tanker, or traipse across ploughed fields, hoping to pick up a well-trodden, signpost-filled trail or a whiff of civilisation. The decision was split: Tim Healy and Brian Clough were in favour of farmers’ furrows; for Geoff Boycott and Peter O’Toole, B-roads were best.

“Well, I think we should toss a coin,” Healy suggested in a positive tone, before placing his tongue in his cheek for effect. “Road or ramble, concrete or cross-country? The truth is, we’re in a pickle, lads.”

O’Toole presented a leathery glower: “An erratic course, surely, would be a ramble over hill and yonder dale. All roads lead to destinations, to villages, to snug pubs and roaring fireplaces. That’s why they laid the damned things in the first place! Roads lead to locations; yomps do not.”

“I’ve a feeling roads lead to an early grave tonight, pet,” Healy explained. “There are few pavements in these parts. But I’m willing to toss a coin to give us an answer either way.”

Clough placed a brotherly, training-ground arm around O’Toole’s bony shoulders. “Now listen, this TV brickie here’s got a point, right. We’ve found nowt tonight apart from hedges and ditches and between us, we’ve managed to write off a Capri and a motorbike, and my Merc’s been nicked. Geoffrey’s Granada’ll not last much longer cos it’s parked on a blind bend in the thickest fog Michael Fish has ever bloody known. In fact, this is more than fog, Mr O’Toole, it’s practically a material. It’s ten miles square of cotton bloody wool! If we take the road, we’ve a good chance of ending up as flat as a Dover plaice and not as much bloody use!”

“We could flag down a car,” O’Toole reasoned. “Not every driver can be lost!”

“Would you stop for four giddy figures trying to catch your attention in the middle of bloody nowhere?” Clough said. “There’ll be few daft enough to be out on the roads tonight. Maybe one or two, but they won’t be stopping!”

“Well, let’s just make a decision and stick by it,” O’Toole haughtily conceded. “I might be in my fifties but discomfort is no stranger to me, comrades. I’ve had some shockingly cold evenings on the deck of a Royal Navy submarine depot ship, pootling around the Baltic, waving to whales, watching icicles grow from the tip of the first mate’s bugle, and I’d rather not recreate the experience.”

Healy asked for a coin and Clough presented a predecimalisation shilling that, in 1984, was in use as a 5p. “I’ll let it drop to the road, to elongate the excitement, y’knaa,” Healy explained. “It’s a big decision this, like. Our survival could depend on it.”

The shilling spun into the air as if in slow motion and fell to the road surface with a lively ping. But with a will of its own, the coin rolled along the gutter and with a silvery glint, seemed to hop, jump and disappear down a roadside drain.

“Ahhh hell, man!’ Healy howled. “We’ve gan and lost the bob!”

“You should’ve just caught thing!” Boycott jeered, “instead of tryin’ to be showbiz abart it. Here, I’ve a 2p on me. Just be more careful wi’ this. If you lose it, I’ll still want it back.”

“Look, lads, the last of the big spendahs!” Healy glared at Boycott, and grabbed the currency. This time he flicked and caught, then said, “Heads it’s cross-country, tales it’s the roads, Orkee?”

One by one, they nodded, glancing at each other with a growing sense of unease. Healy slowly lifted his hand to reveal fate’s calling. “It’s…”

“Come on, come on,” said O’Toole with exasperation. “This isn’t Jack-a-bloody-nory.”

“I can’t see with all the darkness and fog, like, man – hold on, will you,” Healy replied. “It’s… it’s… I can’t tell what it is…”

Boycott stepped forward and peered at the coin closely: “It’s young Queen, so it’s ’eads.”

O’Toole shivered at the thought. “Well, of course it’s ’eads, because there’s less detail on that side of the coin, so the shiny side will almost always come up top!”

Clough was having none of it: “Eh, the referee’s decision is final,” he stated, “and under no circumstances will you remonstrate or show disrespect to Mr Healy, who is our match official this evening.”

Boycott’s expression stiffened and for a moment it looked like he might recite the full details of his favourite innings. In fact, Boycott was merely morphing into his natural captain’s role, weighing up the pros and cons of the situation, ascertaining the wind direction and condition of the ground. He stood resolute against a burst of oncoming breeze, which only brought with it more wisps of Hammer House fog, before declaring, “We’ll go wi’ wind behind us backs to start wi’, lads. It’ll gi’ us an extra ounce of energy should we tire after five or six hours. We’ll cut through ’edge and walk in a straight line. We’re bound to come across somethin’ sooner or later but I think this 2p of mine has actually done us a favour. Walking in bloody road is playin’ silly beggars and we’ll end up dead as dodos. At least ’iking through fields, only danger’s being poleaxed by a disoriented deer.”

“Although if we cannae find shelter within a couple of hours, we’ll end up like four big ice lollies,” said Healy.

“We’ll just put a stick up our arses then,” Clough chortled, “and a Wall’s wrapper over our heads.”

“At least a paper wrapper would provide a modicum of warmth,” O’Toole grimaced. “Imagine the newspaper headlines: ‘DIM STARS WILL SHINE NO MORE’. And I quote! ‘Yesterday, an unlikely collection of actors and sportsmen was found frozen to death in a farmer’s field near Carlisle, just half a mile from a pub. Police are not treating the incident as murder, just downright stupidity. Next of kin have been informed but were hardly surprised.’”

“Way I look at it,” noted Boycott, stamping his feet on the ground to illustrate how cold he was, “is if we stick round ’ere we’ll succumb to ’ypothermia.”

For a moment O’Toole appeared dumbstruck, then a grin rose on his face: “We’ll what to hypothermia?” he delightedly questioned.

“Succumb,” Boycott repeated in his broad Yorkshire accent. ‘I ’ope your ’earings not packin’ up, Pete.’

“Looks like there’s a fair-sized gap in the hedge over there, man, Geoffrey.” Healy pointed out.

“Man Geoffrey, he’s right,” O’Toole smiled widely. ‘It’s the start of our Yellow Brick Road.”

Clough ducked through the hedge and precariously pushed his flat-capped head through the aperture. “Last one to the bar pays for a round.”

A cacophony of chuckles followed as, one after the other, stars of screen and sport directed themselves through the prickly thicket.

Moist agricultural clods of fertile loam made rough work for ankles and knees, while the fog and pitch-black nothingness played tricks on the senses.

“Am I asleeeeeep?” O’Toole enquired with a perfect, RADA-trained howl. “Did I die in a car accident but haven’t realised it yet? This sensory denial – I’m seeing purple fireworks in the distance! All I can feel is how damp my socks are. It’s Wipers in the Great War all over again, and we’ve been blinded by Hun chlorine gas.”

“Howay, Pete, with a bit of luck, the temperature will drop close to freezing point, so this soil will turn hard like concrete,” offered Healy. “It’ll just be like walking down Carlisle high street on a crisp winter’s night.”

This was wishful thinking from TV’s Dennis Patterson. With the temperature doggedly hovering around 3-4°C, soles were not tapping firm, pavement-like frost but were sinking and slopping. Healy, wearing vintage motorbike boots, was fortunate in that he had warm, dry toes. The feet of the rest would remain chilled and wet for some time, while trouser ends were elegantly chocolate-dipped.

O’Toole pondered for a moment and growled, “‘If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in mine arms.’ Shakespeare, you know.”

“I’ll knock darkness to silly mid-off,” Boycott responded, playing a cricket stroke that nobody else could witness, “and score a sneaky run.”

O’Toole cackled: “Now you’re talking, tiger.”

Clough suddenly sprang to life: “Darkness and cold! I’ve faced Liverpool in the European Cup and beat them over two legs when nobody gave us a bloody hope. I’ve made ordinary players into heroes and I can tell the club chairman to piss off whenever I please, which I do often. I can pick a squad against darkness and grind out a victory. And that’s what we’ll do this evening – be strong at the back and score a winner in a counter attack late on in the second half.”

“Are we in second ’alf yet, Brian?” asked Boycott.

“Sadly not,” Clough replied. “If this was a football match, I’d say we’re about a quarter of the way in so far although with fog like this you’d expect the tie would have been called off and rearranged for next Tuesday. The referee has no doubt been bribed by our European counterparts – and they’ve been cheat-iinng.”

The four celebrities entered into personal battles with their own spirits, faces set like Easter Island statues as they made their way sullenly across yet another vast bare field, blind men connected by sound alone, with nothing but inclines, descents, walls, bushes and varying sized puddles to allay the tedium. There was nothing to see other than, occasionally, hands in front of their faces to check they were still living beings and not merely a floating dandelion clock or speck of dust drifting into the sky.

Sensing despondency setting in, Boycott attempted to rally the troops. “I ’eard a good joke on telly other week,” he spoke – and his voice woke his comrades like a rugby league klaxon. “It were Bernard Manning! By gum, there’s a good comic ne. He said, ‘Italian tanks are only ones fitted wi’ reverse lights.’ All deadpan, like. It took me a few seconds to get gist, cos I didn’t know if ’e were makin’ a joke or statin’ a fact. Reverse lights, Brian!”

“Cowards as well as cheats,” Clough called back through the dark. “They bloody well nobbled us at Derby in ’73. European Cup Semi-Final. Imagine what being European champions would have meant for a place like Derby. We had the team to do it as well. McFarland, Hector, Hinton… Juventus. Veccia Signora. The Old Lady. Ref’s have got a tough job in my book, but that one that night may as well have been wearing a Juventus jersey. Probably got a free Fiat afterwards as well. But to me a Fiat’s a punishment, not a gift.”

“Good grief,” said O’Toole, ‘we’re like an Atlantic sea convoy in 1943. Steaming on, communicating by signal lamp alone, but expecting the whirr and fizz of a torpedo at any moment.”

‘Cos you know Italians were neither use nor ornament in battle,” Boycott continued. “That’s what Bernard Manning were getting’ at. Me mother used to like humour like that. These grannies in audience could ’ardly breathe, they were laughin’ so much. Then ’e turned to one of these old biddies and said, ‘Do you know why seagulls have wings, my love? To beat gyppos to tip!’ Because gypsies ’ang abart at tips, don’t they? That’s two brilliant jokes in ten seconds. No wonder ’e’s got a Cadillac and a chauffeur. He deserves them.”

Clough’s face shone. With excitement, he asked, “Has he really got a Cadillac?”

“He ’as that, Brian,” Boycott enthused, “and it’s a smasher. He must’ve ’ad it imported from America. Only problem is that it’s left-hand drive. You’d ’ave a job on overtakin’ anything on road. He’s got ’is own numberplate. I think it’s COM 1C.”

“Listen, legends, I loathe pedantry in all forms,” added O’Toole, “but I think you’ll find that’s Norman Wisdom’s registration plate. I can’t quite fathom why I know that. A big star in Albania, by all accounts, although I could never get behind all that Pitkin, Mr Grimsdale nincompoopery.”

“Well, I was in Manchester earlier today at Granada studios,” Healy said as his vintage leather boots squelched onwards, “and funnily enough there was an American motor in the car park with the plate 1 LAF. I reckon that’s the car you’re talking aboot. That’s Bernard Manning’s wheels.”

“I think I’d go for CR33 KET,” remarked Boycott. “You know, crickeeet. That’d suit me.”

“You’d never get a registration like that, man,” Healy called out, shaking his head. “It’s has to be a numberplate that’s already existed at some time. You can’t just choose numbers and letters in any order you please.”

Boycott was startled: “Well, how do you explain 1 LAF then: ‘I laugh’? That’s never been on a car before! It’s been made special for a very good comedian, that has! You’re payin’ privilege!”

“No, no, no,” Healy said. “Before the use of suffixes on plates – y’knaa cos ‘A’ was used in 1963, ‘B’ in 1964, ‘C’ in ’65 and so on – they used to have a series of letters and numbers, or numbers and letters. 1 LAF was from before 1963. I know all this cos I took an interest in it when I was a bairn, noting down the numbers in a pad, like.”

“Sweet Jesus,” howled O’Toole, “when I arose this morning, I’d never in my wildest dreams believe I’d be walking across waterlogged agricultural fields in Cumbria discussing the history of car registration numbers. I mean, what’s next, typefaces on cans of supermarket soup?”

Clough smiled at the absurdity of the situation, then turned his thoughts to another long stroll from the previous summer – a four-day sponsored walk in the Pennines raising money for a disabled girl in Nottingham. That’s the moment when he’d found out his former ally Peter Taylor, by then the manager at Derby County, had signed Scottish winger John Robertson from Forest. Robertson, scruffy as he was, was like a son to Clough. He loathed Taylor for his duplicity, but missed his friendship. Taylor was the funniest man he had ever known, the good cop to Clough’s bad. Why didn’t you ring me, Pete? Clough asked in his head. Why didn’t you tell me what you were up to? Why go straight to the Forest board and not to me?

A curious aspect about sustained periods in pitch-black conditions is the sudden realisation that it has become suddenly darker, that the contrast has been lowered or you’ve somehow moved further into a tunnel.

“Howay man, did you notice that?” Healy enquired. “It’s gone blacker. It’s so black, we could be in a cave – do you not think?”

 “I’m still seeing fireworks,” O’Toole responded. “A cave, though… at least a cave would have a roof and there would be the small chance we could build a fire and bed down for the night.”

Healy rubbed his gloved hands together. “We could get the deckchairs oot, put a couple of spuds in foil in the flames. Get a bevvy from the fridge. ‘Git mortal’, as the kids roond Toon say these days.”

“Would this cave have an aga in the back?” Clough enquired. “I could set a trap and pick us up a lovely bit of venison and get it cooked while you lot dried your feet by the fire. Heeey, I love cooking, I do. Now that you’re asking, I’d have a whisky while preparing your teas. Not a Bell’s, no, because I’ve won so many bottles of that stuff down the years, and although I’ve drunk the lot and enjoyed it, it can be slightly rough on the throat. No, a decent single malt for me and you fine people. We’ll push the boat out tonight.”

“Might I suggest a peaty Islay?” O’Toole ventured, splashing through a puddle. “I was told I’d die if I ever drank whisky again but I’d take the risk tonight.”

“You absolutely may have an Islay dram, Mr O’Toole,” Clough smiled. “And if I knew where your hand was, I’d shake it. But would we have any ice or just take it straight?”

“Course we’d have ice!” Healy whooped. “They’ll have some at the cave’s bar!”

There was low-level laughter as sparkly particles of all-lads-together geniality floated through the cold night.

 “I’ll steer clear of booze but I wouldn’t mind you lot lettin’ your ’air down given circumstances,” said Boycott. “I’d ’ave an orange juice… no, a lemonade… no… steamin’-’ot tea in a big mug! One of them big mugs wi’ blue stripes on it. That’d do me smashin’, that would.”

“How’s your legs holding out, Geoff?” Healy enquired.

“Don’t worry about my legs, you rapscallion,” Boycott snapped back. “This is a puddin’ of a pitch, there’s no doubt about that, and I may ’ave a slight muscle spasm, but I’ve played on worse surfaces and scored undrids.”

 “I’ll tell you what,” Healy remarked, “I can’t wait to find this cave. If we ever get out of this godforsaken countryside in one piece, I think we should open it as a nightspot. We’d make a killing. I can see it now! The sign above the entrance in neon lights: Gan Undergroond. Y’knaa, like the hit-parade record.”

“It should be a painted sign,” Boycott called out. “If you’ve got bright lights, we’ll attract wrong crowd. Young ’uns, ’oodlums, louts, a rum lot, wi’ people who write indecent filth on lavatory walls. ‘So-and-so will be this-and-that for you’ – and then give a telephone number. You want a painted sign like you’d find on a decent café in the Peak District or ’aberdasher’s. I see it as more a place that also sells ’ot drinks, not a booze parlour.”

The wheezing of O’Toole’s laughter went largely undetected.

Boycott, still smartly dressed for his earlier covert meeting in a hillside hotel, with navy blue rain-shield outerwear and a baker-boy’s hat to keep his balding head warm, cut a bizarre figure strolling across bare fields on a winter’s evening, his large kit bag over a shoulder. His lace-up derbys were slowly turning into mud snowshoes, yet the smooth soles of his Northants-crafted leather footwear offered little traction. It was a wonder that none of the foursome had taken a tumble given the conditions underfoot, yet it was a shock to Healy, Clough and O’Toole that Boycott should be the first to fall. Swaaaash, “Whuuu!… Ooooph!” It was as if the controversial Yorkshireman had slid on a discarded banana skin. His feet gained altitude and his shoulders dropped in an advanced Fosbury flop.

“What was that??” O’Toole gasped. “Has someone been taken by a winged monkey on our Yellow Brick Road?”

“It’s damn well me,” Boycott grunted, regaining his breath. “I’ve gone ass over tip! Better than fair in Fitzwilliam Park when I were a nipper. But these slacks’ll need two spins in washer.”

O’Toole bent over double and let out a 100 per cent laugh.

Clough managed to discover Boycott’s hand flat in the soil and helped his old friend back to a vertical stance. While Boycott knocked earth from his coat, Clough edged forward and twisted his head to one side as a Labrador might when hearing a whistle. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was a swishing nearby. Was it the swaying of branches? “This way,” Clough urged, gesturing his compatriots forward. The foursome upped their pace. With every stomp, the fog grew less dense and with eyes fully accustomed to the dark, Clough could make out the shape of trunks. “It’s a forest!” Clough called to Boycott.

“Something you’ve a great deal of experience with,” Boycott called back. “I still say we keep going in a straight line. That was the plan and when you make a plan, it’s best to stick wi’ it and see it through. So we go through these trees and see where it takes us. Might be a woodcutter’s ’ut where we can get some rest and shelter.”

“My word,” O’Toole said with genuine surprise. “It’s an enchanted arboretum. But listen. I’m 51 and until last Friday, I smoked in the narrow hinterland between heavy and industrial. I have now stopped. Doctor’s orders. My heart might be hewn from Leeds rock but I’ll be honest and tell you that at this point, my legs are like a schoolboy’s dish of strawberry jelly. You men keep going and I’ll catch you up. If we’re walking in a straight line, our fates will remain exactly the same, only I’ll find out about it a little later. Do you get my gist?”

“I hope you’re not suggesting we leave you here, Mr O’Toole,” said Healy.

O’Toole rested a weary arm on Healy’s shoulder.

“Got it in one,” O’Toole replied. “Reach your hostelry with its roaring fire and superb range of beers and spirits, and, once you have imbibed and your poor, poor feet are bare and drying by the hearth, one of you can reach for the telephone on the table by the sofa and explain the cock up to Plod. They’ll send out a sergeant or two with, one would hope, a smashing great St Bernard. Make sure the cask has been filled to the maximum.”

“Not a chance, pet,” Healy replied. “Howay, we could be half a mile from a village green somewhere. All we need is a roof over wor heads but we’ll find something soon, I just know it. Right, come on, lads,” he chivvied. “Let’s get through these trees and see what’s on the other side. Like, if we find a train track, it’ll be useful. We’d follow it. Pete – we might still find a place in time for last orders.”

“Good man,” smiled O’Toole and exhaled. “Lead the way.”

Go to Chapter 12: A forest away from Nottingham.