Wright's Aerials

"Hello, Billy, it’s Barry! Barry Brady! Long time no see, eh?”

No one calls me Billy. I don’t like it, especially from spooky-sounding voices on the phone. I was Billy in the Infants’ Dept., but not since. Since the phone call took place forty years later, in 1996, this had to be someone with a very long memory. But who the hell was it? As the nerdy voice prattled on, realisation slowly grew. Yes, this was a figure from childhood all right, a character from the late 50s known to us kids as ‘one-lung Brady’, for what reason I never knew. There were prefabs on our street, and Barry lived in the end one, behind a seven-foot privet hedge, with his mum and a huge mongrel wolf-like thing that was always biting the tyres on the bread van. Barry was about five years older than most of the kids on the estate, but he was never a leader, or a bully. He was a loner. At twelve he was an embryonic dirty old man in a mac. Once I asked my Grandad why there was no Mr Brady.

“Hah! A lot of funny things happened in the war!” An enigmatic reply to give a seven-year-old.

Back to 1996, and Barry was rattling away. “. . .so I’ve got the dish, and I need someone to fix it on the wall. . . it’s so I can get this special channel . . . “

“Just what is this ‘special channel’, Barry? You’ll have to tell me the satellite, frequency, and polarity.” Eventually I prised it out that he had subscribed to a porno channel. In those days some of these dodgy channels were on low powered transponders from obscure satellites, so they would supply every subscriber with a ‘special’ dish – at a price. I could tell from the suppressed excitement in Barry’s voice that this project was very important to him – it was obviously the climax of his life’s career as a shadowy old purve. He’d saved his money up for months, sent it to Belgium, or Holland, or wherever, and now he was ready to boogie (or whatever you call it in your part of the world).

I asked Barry where he was living now. I knew the prefabs had been demolished years before. He gave me the address of a flat on the next street, no more than a hundred yards from where we’d both been brought up. He must like the Grimthorpe Estate, I thought. I gave him a price that I thought would put him off, but no, he was still keen. I suggested a day and time. “Ah, well, there’s a bit of a problem. Quite a big problem, really,” he muttered. “It’s Mum. It’s not really the sort of thing. . .”

“Mum?” I thought. Not Mrs Brady! “What, your mum? Is she still, err . .? “

“Oh yes, still going strong. Very strong, in fact.” Barry was still living with his mother! And she was still the boss! The big problem was that the acquisition of the wanking channel had to be kept completely secret from Mum.

“This dish, Barry. How big is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s still in the box.”

“How big’s the box?”

“Not that big. Me and the bloke got it through the door all right. It’s in the passage. Mum doesn’t like it, she can’t get past it very easy, what with her hip.” Shall I put the phone down now? I wondered, but some mad curiosity made me go on with it. I wanted to see Barry and Mum, forty years on. She’d been a terrifying old dragon in 1959 – much more scary than their dog – so what was she like now? We arranged a date and time when Mum would be at the bingo long enough for us to do the outside work. The receiver would be in Barry’s bedroom, so we should be able to sort out that part of the job even after Mum got home.

At the appointed hour I knocked on the door of the flat. To my surprise Mrs Brady appeared, with an ashen-faced Barry hopping up and down behind her, gesturing wildly and unintelligibly from the other side of a huge box with Dutch printing on it.

Mrs B. seemed little changed by the passage of time. Still a formidable figure with a crocodile grin. “Ohh, its Billy Wright! I haven’t seen you for a long time. How’s your mum and dad? Have you come to see Barry?” Good grief, she’s still in, I thought, and what’s more she’s as bright as a button. Barry also seemed largely unchanged. He had been about a foot taller than me forty years ago, and he still was. Impossibly thin and stooped, his complexion and clothing an essay in grey, he looked, as my Dad would say, ‘like death warmed up’. Tea and biscuits were produced, and soon Barry wheedled, “Isn’t it time for bingo, Mum?”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you, Basil, they’re painting the Church Hall, so it’s off this week.” Barry stood behind his mum and made a desperate throat-slitting gesture. I guessed that this referred to the job and not to Mum, so I bade the old dear a fond farewell and scarpered.

Exactly one week later the coast was clear. Barry and I dragged the box down the stairs to the front garden. These flats were low rise. There was a ground floor and a first floor, with two flats on each. If you didn’t notice the concrete stairway at the end of the building you’d mistake them for a pair of semis. The four flats shared one chimney stack, and since this was a bad place for terrestrial reception each block had an amazing tangle of huge aerials on the one stack. The aerials never used to fall down cleanly in a gale. They would land across another one, often precipitating a mass collapse. The owners would wrangle for hours about the exact sequence of events, and who had to pay what. But I digress. This dish was huge. Actually, it was a glass fibre thing, about 1.5m across, as I remember. Not that big for a ground stand in a large garden, but blooming big to go on the front of a small block of council flats! Now Barry already had a Sky dish, and so did all three neighbours. There they were, four 60cm Amstrad dishes in a row, more or less fully occupying the narrow strip of brickwork between the downstairs windows and the upstairs windows. The block faced south-east, and there was absolutely nowhere else to put a dish but on the front wall. The sections of wall between the top floor windows were covered with hanging tiles, as were the walls above the doors of the downstairs flats. There was really only this little area between the windows that could possibly accommodate a dish. A ground stand was obviously out of the question in a vandal-ridden area like that, and in any case I got the impression that Barry’s budget was already severely over stretched.

Now, I didn’t want the job to abort at this late stage. Barry already owed me two call-outs, after all. But I thought it only sensible to pause at that point, and discuss things with my client. The assembled dish lay on the lawn, huge and white, and wobbly. The mount, by the way, didn’t look strong enough for a small hanging basket, never mind this five-foot monster. “You know, Barry,” I said, “This here dish isn’t going to fit between the upstairs windows and the downstairs windows. And there’s not much wall left, either.”

“Can you cut a bit off?”

“Ah well, Barry, you might not get the full picture, then. Who knows what you’d miss?”

“Can you fix it so that overlaps the downstairs windows a bit, and our windows, well, a lot?”

I sighed. “You’ll have to talk to your downstairs neighbours about it. And Barry, don’t you think your mum will notice the dish when she gets back?” Barry banged on the downstairs neighbour’s door. An old man came out and said meaningfully, “You can do what you like, as long as we don’t have no more of that trouble like before.” I looked puzzled, and he nodded darkly towards Barry. “He knows what I’m on about.” Barry looked sheepish, but he was obviously relieved that the dish would not meet neighbourly opposition. He went inside for something, and two kids appeared at the front fence.

“Hey Mister! That’s a big Sky dish! What’s it for?”

“He’s putting it up for Spooky, so he can watch telly from Venus where he comes from!” said the other. Without any input from me their curiosity had been satisfied, and they ran away chanting “Spooky comes from Venus, Spooky comes from Venus!”

‘Spooky’ emerged with two mugs of tea. “One other thing, Barry,” I said, “This dish and the brackets and everything are really terrible quality. I can’t guarantee that it won’t move in a gale.” Barry looked gloomy, but said he’d have to risk it. I’d already mentioned the Council, and the Planners, and he was well aware that Mum would be steaming up the street from the bingo within the hour. Any threat from storm and tempest must have seemed the least of his problems.

The dish went onto the wall without any problems, although no matter how much I tightened everything it still went ‘boing boing’ up and down if I so much as touched it. A sparrow landing on it would, as they say, seriously compromise its structural integrity. I aligned it on the chosen satellite, as best as I could, but it was possible to push it completely off-beam with very little pressure. I stood back and surveyed my work, and it looked absolutely diabolical, a monstrous carbuncle if ever there was one.

Inside Barry’s bedroom I unboxed the receiver. It was one of those dreadful little black efforts with an external power supply that were floating about in the early 90s. The porno firm had obviously bought a shed full for next to nothing. Anyone active in the trade at the time will remember these receivers with a shudder. Tuning was via a row of eight presets accessed from underneath, needing a tiny screwdriver and a steady hand. One turn took you all the way across the band, so accurate tuning needed microscopic adjustments. The decoder was outboard, with yet another external power supply.

The porno channel was only on the air from midnight to 2am, of course, so I had a look in Wotsat to see which daytime channel used the same transponder. It turned out to be middle-eastern, so I tuned through until I got a picture of a swarthy gent reading the news in traditional Arab dress. There was no station ident., so I trawled through the band on a few more presets and came up with several similar channels. In the end I tuned-in everything I could find, which wasn’t much, and nothing in any west European language. There was some bizarre way of changing the polarity on these black boxes, but I can’t remember how it was done.

I felt that I had done all I could, so I started to put my gear back in the van. I had an ominous feeling that the shit would hit the fan big style when Mum returned, so I collected my invoice book and calculator from the van and presented Barry with an invoice, which he paid in cash. As I was putting the ladder on the van I looked down the hill to see Ma Brady steaming up the pavement. Despite the incline and her hip she seemed to be making good progress – about 7mph I’d say.

Mrs B. burst into Barry’s room. “Basil, what the Hell is that?” she roared, waving her stick in the direction of the dish. Without waiting for an answer, she turned on me. “I’m surprised at you Billy Wright! I know you’ve put him up this! That’s what you were up to last week, coming to see him after all these years! I knew there was something fishy! You boys just can’t be trusted!” My mouth opened and closed, but nothing intelligible came out of it. Mrs B. launched into a further tirade, listing all my petty crimes from the 50s, and concluding that it had always been obvious to her that I would grow up crooked. It wasn’t a conclusion, though. She only paused for breath. “Now I want to know what it’s for,” she said. “No nonsense, mind. You boys just tell me what it’s for.”

Barry cleared his throat. “It gets extra channels on the telly, Mum.”

“You’ve got umpteen damn channels already! You even get that filthy one!” This was no doubt a reference to the very soft porn on some of the German channels. “What do you want more channels for? Show me these channels!” Barry reluctantly operated the receiver, which had Arab newsreaders, dancers, and soap opera, but nothing else. “There’s none of them in English! What’s the good of having a lot of wog channels? It’s just bloody ridiculous, this is!” She seemed to be moving inexorably towards a violent explosion.

Barry spoke. “I, erm, thought I might, er, learn . . . Arabic . . .”, he croaked, his voice diminishing as the absurdity of his words occurred to him. There was brief silence whilst Mum considered his statement. It was very brief, actually.

“Arabic my arse!” she yelled. “I’ll give you Arabic, you little sod!” As she advanced menacingly on six foot six Barry with the walking stick I took my chance and dodged through the door. My van roared up to the panhandle at the top of the cul-de-sac, did a U turn, and as I drove past the flat Ma Brady was in the front yard, whacking the dish with her stick and yelling blue murder. The hapless Barry was nowhere in sight.

There’s no neat conclusion to this tale. I never heard from the Bradys again, and I’ve never been back to the cul-de-sac. I live miles away from the estate, and for all I know the dish could have been back on the ground an hour after it went up, or it could be on the wall to this day. Whether Barry ever actually got to see any porn, and what justice was actually meted out with the walking stick, I don’t know. There was nothing in the paper though, so she must have stopped short of murder . . .

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