When last I saw Dennis Cromwell he had committed his life to two particular aims; to elevating himself in society, and mastering masturbation. He admitted no particular shame in either. Indeed was so dedicated to both that my own news of the time felt rather childish in comparison. So much so indeed that in the parlour of his father’s house in Pinner I refused to show what had caused my visit at all.
‘Not gobstoppers is it?’ Dennis wanted to know.
It wasn’t. Sweets had not been rationed in my memory. That’s a lie, I was very little when still they required a coupon but my own dear father always held that rationing had been the best thing about the big war. He maintained that the health and the diet of Britain had improved immeasurably because of it. So much so that sweets were rationed in our household just as we ate only what the ration had allowed, which meant afternoons attacking an allotment with a gardening fork whose broken handle was repaired, frequently, with an increasing length of string about the middle. Despite my father’s habit of picking up string in the street and his delight in receiving anything in a paper parcel the degree of gardening ensured that the ball of string about the fork had by then been larger than the ball in the drawer put aside to repair it. The result of all this had been enough vegetables to have fed the street, and for Woolton pie to be regarded not so much as a recent memory as an example of the advances made in wartime unprecedented in peace.
Not gobstoppers, no.
A model kit of the Golden Hind, purchased from Woolworths that very afternoon. Dennis and I had once made gliders as boys and then as our talent increased rather good little models of airplanes. My father had approved of any pastime that had not involved expense. Bits of wood were then considered ideal. But that model in plastic had possessed a detail we could never have hoped to duplicate in wood.
Dennis is impressed, I see it now. He asks if he could have the bag. To practise his technique, he told me. At sixteen Dennis dressed in blazer and slacks. He wore a stolen tie so that on his regular trips into the city he would be taken for a Harovian. Dennis was always served in public houses whereas in my shorts I never was. Not that I would have dared to, you understand. Where I would fluster and grow red, Dennis would buy rounds. That was, he considered, a very proper sort of thing to do. In the public houses of my youth no one bought rounds. In the big war rounds had been banned, the beer had been weakened, and opening hours brought in.
It’s no accident that that was the last time I saw Dennis. Or rather, spoke. I saw him of course but he was part of an older crowd, too old and experienced for university where two years later and with my higher school certificate still figuratively damp in my hand I had left Pinner behind.
My father used to regale with news in his letters, and a popular subject was Dennis. Dennis who was forced to stand at the end of Meadow Road every Friday to hand over 5/- to Maisy Wills whose shame bawled in the old pram left by the lamppost. Dennis who had managed to serve eighteen months of his two years National Service in the glasshouse after spending the first six months under assumed rank pretending to be a young subtaltern. He had I had learned exited the bus, taken one look at the sergeant, and left to where the pink gins were to be found. Dennis who had elicited scandal... well, I never quite learned the details of that.
I had not considered Dennis Cromwell in the years since.
I would no doubt have not thought of him today either, had he not now been on stage in hunting pink, severed gas mask in one hand, levelling a revolver at Cecil with the other. Scars and old burns ring his face so that the skin is another mask sunk somewhat into the smooth, bubbled flesh about it. Whatever he had once suffered the mask in his hand had clearly only protected that which was his face to the extent of the seal about the rim.
And Cecil says, “Oh yes, any relation?”
“Yes,” says Dennis Cromwell and cocks the pistol as he might a cigarette lighter, and with just as much certainty of intent.