|Eight years later, thats him stood next to Her Ladyship in 1979, she's holding our just born number 2 son, other ex's are in the background at this CHURCH wedding.|
The Blown-Up Witness
a true story
Back in 1970, I found myself moving into one of the largest council estates in the UK. Leigh Park is a massive housing complex owned by Portsmouth City Council. It houses those who can’t afford their own homes by offering subsidised rents. The houses are good and solid, there’s enough land with each to grow some vegetables. If you can put up with a few dodgy neighbours it’s possible to have a reasonable standard of life, although if you’re a Times or Guardian reader you’d better forget it. At the time, my then-wife Cindy was pregnant with our daughter, which is what had made us eligible for assisted housing. We’d been living in the city in a run-down flat for a while and attended the local congregation, Portsmouth South, where trouble was a-brewin’!
Many of the newly married couples had gravitated towards each other, and rumours were just starting to surface as to exactly what these couples were doing on their frequent get-togethers. Whatever it was, Cindy and I were on the fringes, pregnancy not being an desirable commodity at these little soire’s - so when the opportunity came to move away from the city, we were quite glad to be gone. Until…………
One day, in the back garden of our new home, I heard Cindy talking animatedly through the thick hedge at the bottom of the garden. She called me over and introduced me to the couple on the other side of the hedge. Their garden backed on to ours. Now I didn’t know this couple, but Cindy quickly explained that they were JW’s who had just left the city at the same time as we had arrived, about a year beforehand. They too knew about the goings-on in Portsmouth but, like me were unaware that one day, they would also be labeled as part of the "Dirty Dozen".
Larry and Isobel, as they were called, had a young son and Isobel too was pregnant again, so we began to associate with them sometimes as we seemed to have something in common. Larry was a real character, when anything pleased him, he would exclaim “Mustard!” very loudly. I thought Isobel weird, for example she didn’t peel potatos before slicing them up for chips. She also had a complexion similar to that of a potato. I digress.
One day, Larry called me over to show me his new car, a huge Vauxhall Viscount. Actually it was crap car to drive, a bit like driving a 3-piece suite. He then lowered the glove compartment and showed me what was concealed in the interior. Blue magazines! Wow!
Now I had never seen anything like this before and I was absolutely astonished that a fellow witness could look at such things, so I checked through all the mags carefully, and, yes, they were all absolutely, well, unbelievable. Gosh! They looked like they belonged to a gynaecologist or similar, whatever, I never looked at a cucumber again in the same light.
A couple of weeks went by, and once again I found myself down by the hedge at the bottom of the garden, when I heard Larry calling through to me. I pushed the branches aside to view an un-shaven, red-eyed and tousled Larry, who exclaimed that Isobel had packed her bags and left him, gone home to her parents with one kid and one on the way, and that her parents were going to call the police if Larry so much as entered their home town of Worthing in nearby Sussex.
Why why why, I droned, you seemed to be quite happy, how can her JW parents do this to you Larry? Hmm, Larry shuffled his feet and mumbled about perhaps making excessive demands of his missus, whatever, he was obviously now rated as a pervert by JW Isobel’s JW family, who had more than adequate means with which to provide for their newly esconced daughter.
A few more weeks dragged by, then, late one night, at around 3.30am, all hell broke loose. I was awakened by the loudest roar that I have ever heard in my life. Our bedroom windows shook and rattled and the whole room was lit up in a brilliant light through the carelessly drawn curtains. The loud, deafening roaring just went on and on.
I rushed to the window, and there, at the end of my garden, I could see Larry’s house in flames. The roof was partly gone and white-ish flames were jetting from the windows like the flame from a gas-torch. The noise was absolutely incredible. All the houses around were lit up as though it was a summers day. Birds were flying panic-stricken everywhere, having been thrown off their roosts by the blast. It was indescribably terrifying.
But the most terrifying thing was just starting to impinge upon my dulled hearing. It was Larry’s voice, screaming from inside the burning building…
I must have stood by the window for about 10 seconds listening to those awful screams. Truth to tell I just wanted Larry’s horrific demise to be over quickly, no-one could survive in that roaring inferno. The screams suddenly ceased, and then I became aware that the flames were now spreading into the next-door neighbours house. As the property was part of a terrace of 4, the implications were all too clear.
Cindy had reacted more quickly than me, and was already dialling 999 to summon police, fire brigade, ambulance and god-knows who else. I found myself dashing downstairs in my dressing gown and then hurtling down the garden towards the hedge that had been the location of our many gossipy meetings. I couldn’t believe that anyone’s heart could beat as fast as mine was going then. I soon realised that the hedge was just too thick for me to penetrate, so I set off to race the 400-odd yards around the block to get to the front of Larry’s house.
As I dashed around the block, I was also joined by dozens of neighbours, all in their night attire, all of us streaking to the scene of the conflagration, all of us intent on simply doing something to help, though God knows what help we would be able to give to Larry, he had to be burned to a crisp by now.
By now we were all milling about in front of the fiery house, we could hear the dee-dah of the rescue vehicles sirens coming ever closer. The police arrived first, and began to herd us away from the scene, when we were reluctant to move far away the officer told us that he was concerned that a gas main had ruptured and that the whole area could be in danger. Big bang imminent!
Then it hit me. Gas! The whole area had just been converted to the new North Sea gas system! Wow, something had gone really badly wrong, obviously. And Larry, why he was a gas fitter by trade, and as such often commented that he didn’t trust gas one little bit. In fact, he had converted his house to all-electricity, all that remained of the original gas system was the capped off inlet pipe just under the stairs.
As we were pushed back by the police, we began to spill into the gardens of the houses on the other side of the road. A neighbour who was unknown to me suddenly began to shout that he had found a naked body lying at the back of the perimeter hedge, somebody come and see, quickly!
Of course, I knew who's the body was going to be. Three of us walked over and I knelt down next to figure that I had come to know so well. Most of his pyjama's were burned into his skin. The flesh on one side of his chest had come away, revealing the veins beneath. The soles off his feet were hanging off, it looked as though he were wearing tramps shoes that had reached the end of their days. His hair was gone and part of his nose was missing.
But he was alive! He must have run down the blazing staircase in his bare feet, then collapsed as reached safety.
The ambulance men were called over and hustled us away as they attended to my old pal. I was going to tell them not to give him blood, but then thought better of it, thank God. The firemen got the fire under control, and except for a column of flame coming from the gas inlet pipe into Larry’s house there was little else to see. It was about 5am by now, and I staggered back home, where I was met by an excited Cindy.
She’d attempted to contact Larry’s wife, Isobel, at her parent’s home, and had been briskly told by Isobel’s mother to call back after her husband had returned home. Returned home? From where? Where was he at this time of night? Most peculiar.
Dawn came, but neither of us could sleep a wink. I was dog-tired, but my body was so full of adrenalin that I just couldn’t sit still. I kept trying to find out about Larry, but the hospital weren’t saying anything, only that he was being transferred to the National burns unit at Odstock. We drank endless cups of tea. We tried ringing Isobel again, but no-one was answering. The firemen were still damping down the ruins of Larry’s home, the gas flame having been successfully extinguished.
Later that morning, a knock came at the door and I opened it to find highish-ranking police officer standing squarely in the doorway, Good Morning sir, do you mind if we search your garden? We are rather keen to find something and we think that your garden is the place where we are most likely to find what we are looking for. Yeah go ahead, whatever, I collapsed back into my chair as the men in blue began to trample on my hard-grown veggies as they made their meticulous search.
After only a few minutes, the officer tapped on the window to say that his men were finished searching. He then held up a plastic bag for me to see. It was a threaded gas cap, yellow, about one and a half inches in diameter. Also clearly visible was bright metal around the flats of the hexagonal cap. Bright metal that showed the marks of a recently applied wrench…….
A few months dragged by. Larry was battling to regain his health in hospital, it had been touch and go as to whether the surgeons would need to amputate his feet. He was interviewed by the police on several occasions as was Isobel's father. Rumours flew around like crazy.
The general perception in the congregation was that Larry had tried to kill himself, so no-one visited Larry except his parents who were also JW’s. The realisation that North Sea gas was not poisonous had only just started to filter through, but I realised very quickly that, as a gas fitter, Larry would have been aware of this fact, so I could see no way in which the suicide scenario was remotely feasible. One suggestion put forward was that Isobels father, as an elder, may well have felt that he had some scriptural justification to take his son-in-laws life. Many years later, I was struck by the realisation that Isobel's father would have only expected to have served about 4 years in prison before 1975 brought about his release. Hmm!
The police eventually came to the brilliant conclusion that the explosion had been caused by one of two certain people. All the evidence against either was entirely circumstantial, so no arrests were made, nor charges brought. The houses were demolished and then re-built, and I slowly forgot all about Larry. I knew that his parents in Portsmouth South were causing chaos in their congregation as they reacted angrily to the rumours about their son, and in the end they sent a letter of resignation to their PO.
About a year later, the “dirty dozen” disfellowshippings in Portsmouth South were well under way. This caused me some distress as my best pal had been given the chop, and I was wavering in my own faith by now. One bleak Saturday afternoon, I was at Fratton Park watching Pompey play, when I began to notice a few familiar faces around me. There was the Portsmouth South PO, a few rows up was my DF’d pal, with - ye Gods! Larry!
Larry hustled down to me, considerably thinner and walking awkwardly and also sporting a big red beard which masked his facial injuries remarkably. Expecting a huge bear hug for the hero (me), I smiled tentatively and was astonished when Larry rounded on me and gave me a huge bollocking for not speaking to my DF’d pal who accompanied him. I stood open-mouthed as he lambasted JW’s, his (now) ex-wife, the PO who was stood further back, just about anyone who was a JW.
I calmed him down a little, and agreed to visit him in his new home in Cosham. That night I visited him and was surprised to find him in the company of a stunning Malaysian looking lady, who he introduced as the next Mrs. Larry. He then produced reams of correspondence that he had exchanged with the DF’ing committee of Portsmouth North, in who’s cachment area he was now residing.
Unbeknown to me, Larry had been summoned to appear before the committee some weeks previously on a charge of fornication, and had decided to have some fun with the elders. He denied any impropriety, then would ask repeatedly for adjournments as the hearing date grew nearer. He deliberately infuriated the committee by sending his letters typed on Izal toilet paper, recorded delivery of course. But Larry had a final act of revenge up his sleeve……
Larry had a journalist contact who worked for the Portsmouth Evening News. The next week saw a headline in that paper which read:
Local Witness Man To Face Kangaroo Court. Back then, that newspaper was a broadsheet, and all the front page was devoted to how Larry had been blown-up, and how he just wanted to live in peace with his girl-friend and now the JWs were asking him personal questions about his private relationships. It was a masterpiece, incredibly damaging to the JWs who up until then had always fobbed off enquiries about Df’ing. They still DF’d Larry! And that is that really. Larry got a heap of insurance money for the accident, which he used to learn how to fly aeroplanes. He became well known at the local glider clubs, he used to volunteer to tow gliders free of charge so that he could up his flying hours. The last I heard was that he had also become a proficient sailor and was living life to the full.
And he won’t have gas central heating installed, no way!
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