BBC Life on Mars UK: Begin Again in 1981


Summary: Sam Tyler aged 12 is in a 1981 hospital bed after a broken arm during a coach accident. He meets his future Detective Chief Inspector as a teenager of the Eighties; Annie Cartwright was just a mere toddler of two years old in the Children's Ward playroom.

12 year old Sam sees his mum Ruth Tyler walk through the brightly painted double doors of the St James NHS Children's Ward. This is much easier. Immediately he sees his mother: her neatly combed blonde hair, her blue eyes fond and slightly anxious, the tiny crease between her eyebrows that he always longed to press smooth. He sees her in a party dress, remembers her wearing that dress on the day Daddy went on the road again. How she'd bent down to speak to him, earnestly, as though Sam was much older than his four years. The urgency of her tone, as though willing herself to believe her own words.

"Hey, but he loves us. And you'll see him again."

I was born in 1969, and the coach crash happened in 1981 when I was twelve, I have been admitted to St. James hospital after the accident had broken my arm. The police are trying to get my mum Ruth Tyler to visit me; but Dad won't come as per usual since he's busy on those little business schemes of his like that telly programme about a lovable spiv and his sidekick. They find out that Gene's dad Stephen had been convicted of Domestic Violence for the very first time. But no-one believes Gene's mum as this is still seen as normal; even though its the 80s!

10, April 1981

"Sam! Sam. How do you feel?" asked one of the nurses with three blue stripes on her white cap.

Sam shakes his head, unable to speak.

"Do you know where you are?" asked Mrs. Ruth Tyler his mum stood at her son's bedside.

Sam nods his head this time.

"You're in St. James's Hospital. I'm Matron. Do you remember the accident?"

"I broken my arm during a coach trip with my mum Ruth; we were supposed to go on a journey to the seaside." Sam recalled to his mum, a doctor and a team of nurses observing his mental state as part of the 12 year old boy's assessment; writing their notes on to clipboards.

XXX

It was the year of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding, the riots in Brixton, pastel suits and perms with the soundtracks of Duran Duran, OMD, The Clash and the Human League. The latest video game was Ms Pac-Man and the Raleigh Burner Mk1 was just released. There was personal computers, The Troubles and the Argentina war. Margaret Thatcher was in power.

"Don't be in such a hurry, pet," she says. Her voice has a Northumberland burr, warm and patient. She smiles when he steadies himself and indicates that he's ready to walk. Slowly they make their way down the ward to the bathroom at the end. The staff nurse eases Sam into the room and lowers him onto the toilet, then gives his hospital gown a quick upward tug at the back.

"Now I want you to listen to me. Until your legs are strong enough for you to stand unaided, you've got two choices. You can either do girl-style, or I can support you while you piddle standing up. Which will it be?"

Sam groans. She gives him a cheeky grin and says, "Girl-style it is," bestows an encouraging pat on the back, and stands. As she closes the door, the staff nurse adds, "I'll be outside the lavvy if you need any help."

1981 had been a year of seemingly endless riots, the capture of Ronnie Biggs and the Yorkshire Ripper, coal mine closings, Irish hunger strikers and IRA bombings, CND and Greenham Common, the wedding of Charles and Diana. But Sam's having trouble remembering what Thatcher looked like before she had dementia, knows she is nicknamed the milk snatcher. Then he saw news footage of PM Margaret Thatcher visiting a British Leyland factory in Longbridge, Birmingham collecting her new Austin Metro car; it then came that Gene nicknamed her as "The Great Handbag" throughout this decade before she retired from politics in 1991.

Sam had tried to drown his worries in music. He'd believed fervently that the height of musical expression was "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell and "Ghost Town" by the Specials. And where his classmates craved all sorts of toys, he'd wanted only two things: a portable cassette player and a guitar.

Her voice softens. "There's nothing for it but to keep on going. You must do everything you can to make yourself better physically. It's important to get back on your feet again. Movement—activity—will help. And the first step is for you to eat properly."

She points at his tray. "Do you think you can manage just a little more? If you really haven't the appetite then no one will force you, but one or two more bites..."

Matron's face is so hopeful. She smiles persuasively, and Sam feels himself weakening.

"There's sponge for pudding later, too," she coaxes. "With jam and custard."

All right, then.

He picks up his fork and gives it another go.

XXX

The boy looks over at him. Mid-adolescent perhaps, the exact age hard to judge—sixteen possibly? His expression is sceptical and highly annoyed.

Sam falls asleep. He wakes up to a complaining voice. "Oi! Mind where you're putting your hand, Nurse Cheekydrawers. I thought you lot in the NHS were all about healing people, not feeling 'em up when they're too poorly to defend themselves."

Sam looks over at the bed to his left, which now shows every sign of being occupied. The occupant of the bed stares back at him: a headful of unkempt long, brassy mullet hair, a long and truculent face, a spray of acne on both cheeks, and a challenging glint in the eye that Sam would have recognised anywhere.

Sam finds himself smiling through tears as a sudden ray of hope pierces him from head to toe.

"Hello, guv." He always called Gene by his future title for some odd reason; even though it would be seven years before Sam graduated the Greater Manchester Police Cadets himself.

XXX

"Eugene Hunt. Gene to you." The boy's stare hardens. "Hang on—you're that lad who's been playing at Coma Statues, aren't you? Weren't you down the other end of the ward to begin with? Didn't recognise you with you moving and talking and that."

"Twelve, are you?" Off Sam's nod, he adds: "About my brother's age. I'm seventeen. Nearly eighteen."

"Oh, I'll be all right," the other boy says expansively. "Heal quick, I do. And in the meantime I've got hospital food and pretty sexy nurses to look forward to. I'm having a fab old time."

XXX

15, April 1981

Sam dreams of Gene Hunt—the adult DCI— in his cool leather jacket, black jeans, a sleek silver mobile phone and Doc Martens or his bright collared shirts and suits with his beloved graphite grey 1994 Ford Granada Mk3 GLX saloon; registered L865 LTM that Gene would own 13 years later from now.

The pounding sound continues as Sam opens his eyes to the dull white light of the orthopaedic ward. He looks in the sound's direction and sees that someone has pulled the curtain about Gene's bed. Several feet are visible below the edge of the curtain: a woman's scuffed brown Clarks shoes, a smaller boy's Addias trainers, and a pair of loafers standing close to the bed.

"You'll bloody shut up and like it, boy!" yelled Stephen Hunt at nearly 18 year old Gene.

A murmur. Another thump, and the bedsprings of the hospital cot squeak violently. Another vicious thud. Sam hears a tiny sob, which resolves into a woman's tearful voice. "Stephen, please stop..." A growl in reply, a low-pitched sound of contempt and loathing.

And then, unmistakably, the sound of choking.

Outrage runs through Sam's body like lightning. In no time he's out of his bed and on his feet, heedless of the hospital gown gaping behind him. He limps over to Gene's bed and yanks back the curtain. And there he is, a huge brute of a man looming over Gene, his hands wrapped around the boy's throat, and Gene himself beginning to turn blue-lipped, struggling feebly, no longer making a sound.

Sam is incandescent with rage. He's no longer aware of being small, young, or powerless. He is his future self DCI Sam Tyler, seven feet tall, commanding, and radiant with fury. "Get away from that boy!" he shouts, and his voice rings with authority.

The man starts, then snarls, his hands still gripped tightly around Gene's neck. "Get back to your bed, you little gobshite. This is none of your business."

Sam tugs at his arm, and the man yelps with surprise. He turns and swings, but Sam deftly swerves out of the way and slips in front of him. As the man stares, Sam brings his foot down hard on the instep with all his might. Gene's father shrieks with rage and swings at him again. This time his fist connects with Sam's cheekbone, and Sam goes flying into the metal frame at the foot of Gene's bed. He lands painfully, his breath knocked out of him. He feels a hot trickle running down his face, feels a sudden throbbing in his skull.

"Stephen!" the woman says again. Sam watches, his vision blurring with tears, as Gene's father advances on him again. Gasping, he tries to struggle to his feet, but he's not quick enough to evade the huge fists that pound again and again into his face and chest.

"You little fucking poof," the man spits. He seizes Sam's left wrist and yanks him to his feet. Sam feels something give in his wrist. The pain is excruciating.

Reflexively, he slams his foot onto Stephen's instep again, and as the man gasps in surprise, Sam manages to pull his wrist loose. This time he ducks under the man's arm and moves directly behind him. With two smooth movements, and despite the pain in his own wrist, Sam pulls back the man's left arm so that it's fully extended, then smashes the flat of his right palm against it with full force. Something in the man's arm audibly cracks, and the man howls. He spins, but Sam is already moving in front of him, nimble as a cat. He lifts his right foot and put every ounce of strength he possesses into kicking against the man's knee.

A second loud crack, and the man crumples into a heap, shrieking in pain.

A voice of outrage, like a trumpet, resounds through the room. "What is the meaning of this?!" Sam, who is still standing over the man, looks over to see the Matron and the consultant staring at him in astonishment. Behind Sister, wavering on uncertain feet, stands old Edgar...wearing an expression of complete triumph.

Sam's vision goes patchy black. He wobbles and collapses.

"He injured you—could have hurt you very severely indeed. You should never do anything like this again."

Matron lightly touches his bandaged wrist for a moment, then reaches across and takes his uninjured hand. She says: "It was very badly done. And extremely dangerous. You foolish boy."

Unexpectedly, she strokes his hair. Sam says, past a sudden lump in his throat:

"Gene's my friend. I couldn't let him go on being attacked like that without trying to do something."

Matron whispers, "I'm sure your parents Ruth and Vic would be very proud of you, looking after your friend like that," and looks at him with an expression of pure fondness. She leans forwards, apparently on impulse, and presses her lips to his bandaged hand. As Sam blinks, surprised, she stands abruptly and looks down at him with her usual implacable expression.

"I shall speak to the staff. Your punishment will be to forego the usual pudding at mealtimes for the next week."

"Fair enough," Sam says meekly.

XXX

He is not entirely surprised when the next meal comes with a serving of homemade chocolate mint crunch cake and custard that is so generous, it's in danger of spilling over the side of the bowl.

You just had to interfere, didn't you? Get my dad all angry! Make things even worse!"

"Hang on a minute!" Sam objects. "He was choking the life out of you. How could it get any worse?"

Gene accuses. "And now he can't go to work till it's healed!" He huffs for a moment. "My mum had to do a lie in front of his copper colleagues to get him off that Domestic Violence charge."

There's a long pause. Then Gene lowers his head and mumbles, "Anyhow, now my mum has to get by, somehow, with just dole money coming in. Her and Stu." There's a pause. "And she says Dad may be in hospital for a few weeks. Manchester Royal Infirmary. That's miles from here."

Can't be far enough away for me, Sam thinks.

Gene glares, as though he could hear Sam's thoughts. "Maybe you're used to having bags of money," he accuses, "but my mum has to make every penny count." A shadow of worry crosses his face. "I don't know how she'll manage."

Sam feels a stab of guilt-tinged anger. "You're not seriously saying I should've done nothing, what, to save the household budget?" he demands. "What if it was your mum he'd been choking to death? Or your little brother? That would've been fine, I suppose?"

It's that..." Gene begins, slowly. "I know he's rubbish." He touches a bruise on his face, and winces. "He's drunk as a bastard most of the time, and he's got a fearful temper; hits our mum whenever he can get away with it. My brother and I can stop him, sometimes, when he's too pissed to stand up straight, but..." His eyes darken with pain.

Why'd you scrap with him?" Gene bursts out. "He could've torn you to pieces!"

"The police looked into it?" Sam hadn't known this before.

But during those brief periods when Gene isn't available to talk to, Sam has to make his own entertainment.

Beside him, Gene produces a box of Player's No. 6 Filtered. Cigarettes and produces a lighter with a smiley face on in yellow. "I won't think less of you if you don't want the fags."

Gene holds out the cigarette. "Want to try it?"

"I'll be applying for the Greater Manchester Police Cadets soon," Gene says. He takes another drag of the cigarette with studied casualness. "It's my eighteenth birthday come November 1981."

He frowns. "It'd be perfect, except for my mum. And Stu. Not sure how they'll manage on their own. I mean—without me, like."

"So how is your father as a police officer?" asked 12 year old Sam Tyler to his future boss.

"Not likely! My dad's in work, for all he's useless at being a copper; I'm the one not bringing home the bacon. I'm not a younger schoolboy any more, but I'm still stuck at home unless I'm out in that preloved Ford Cortina Mk3 GXL of mine. It's rubbish. At least if I'm in the Police Service, I can make my own life."

Sam can't help but laugh at this, remembering his future DCI's taste in footwear. "Nothing wrong with being a copper on the beat. But there's another kind of policeman, you know—police detectives." He can hear his tone becoming earnest—too earnest? "The ones who investigate and solve crimes that've already been committed. Preventing criminals from striking again. That's even better than being in uniform...I think."

"Well then, I can enter the police service at nineteen, no problem."

"Peter Sutcliffe," Sam mumbles. "The Yorkshire Ripper. When will the police catch him? He'd been murdering women for years, years. Pros'tutes. Convicted of a dozen homicides, probably committed more. 'S horrible, horrible stuff, but I wouldn't stop reading about it. That's when I realised that policing means protecting everyone. Not just the upstanding citizens. Everyone."

He and Gene grew up on The Beano; but there only so many comics of Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids, Billy Whizz, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx and Ball Boy to be entertained by; some characters enjoyed terrorising teachers, parents and people in authority. It's a weekly comic that had been running since 1938. They were bored of playing their new orange Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong multi screen electronic games. Years later this would be the inspiration for the innovative Nintendo DS family design.

"To tell you the truth, I, um, gave a Beano to Gene." He catches the fleeting expression of disappointment on Matron's face, quickly smoothed away. Think, think. "Is there any chance I could get something else to read? Or could I build a police station with the Lego?"

She smiles. "A very good choice. What sort of thing do you like to read?"

Sam dithers for a moment. "A crime novel? A police procedural?"

Matron frowns slightly, and Sam tries to think which of the popular authors of the day he might ask for. He remembers one long summer in 1973 when, housebound with the mumps, he'd had little but an old box filled with books to amuse himself with. Some of them hadn't been too bad.

"How about Josephine Tey?" he suggests. "The Daughter of Time...?"

Matron says, lost in thought. "But I do have some other books of hers. In fact..." She beams at him, pleased. "I've thought of just the thing. I'll bring it in after midday."

Sam dithers for a moment. "A crime novel? A police procedural?"

That's what I like about crime fiction," Matron says cheerily. "Most of the time, goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. Well, after the commission of the original crime, of course." She looks down at the book. "My word, you're a quick reader. You'll be asking for more novels in no time. What else do you like? I can't promise to find exactly what you want, but I can try."

"You're on 62 Curzon Road, Moss Side," Sam repeats as he writes down Gene's parents address.

"Manchester, SA73 MS." Gene recites the post code for his house "But my dad won't let you visit me or Stu."

He gazes down at the twinkling skyline of Manchester, enchanted with the lights inside the tower block flats out of the St. James hospital windows; when Gene and Sam have a gossip over a cheeky midnight feast listening to Gene's new Sony Walkman. Has this sort of treat been so rare in Gene's young life that he actually craves such things. He noticed the second hand Ford Cortina Mk3 GXL that Gene has with a posh for the time vinyl roof and coke bottle curves.

"Old Ted Bannister is in an industry that's dying. Crester's Textiles, born in 1922-1924; he used to box in his prime before getting married to a woman years younger and had three kids starting with Derek in 1946." Crester's Textiles was declining during the rocky backdrop of Thatcher's Britain; as it would be a few years before generations of textiles workers were eventually unemployed and placed on to the dole or stood outside queqing at the Job Centre.

XXX

Sam wanders down to the other end of the ward and examines the radio set. It's playing a typically cheesy arrangement of Bucks Fizz – "Making Your Mind Up" on BBC Radio 1 with Ed Stewpot. Suddenly Gene's at his side, a hand on his shoulder. Sam looks up hopefully.

"You're telling me," Gene demands firmly, "that Vic Tyler just buggered off leaving him and Ruth a single parent on their own? I'd take him in myself if I had the means." he mutters.

Chris Skelton was only a little boy of seven since he was born in 1974. There's a small noise to his left, almost a whimper. Startled, Sam turns and finds himself gazing into the bright eyes of a young boy with long floppy jet black hair.

He's no toddler, but he seems small for his age—no more than four, surely? The lad looks as though he's trying to be brave, but his lower lip is wobbling dangerously. Without warning, he ducks his head and presses it into Sam's shoulder.

"Are you a policeman?" the young Chris Skelton asks.

Later that day he's walking down the corridor, dutifully taking his exercise the way the nurse told him to, when a very small child of no more than two runs bang into his knees.

He looks down and sees brightly inquisitive blue eyes, porcelain skin, dark curly hair.

The girl's mother calls out from the far end of the hallway: "Margaret Anne Cartwright!"

He kneels and looks at the child. She's totally unafraid, staring at him curiously, and eventually favours him with a smile. She reaches up to tug on the medal around his neck. She was born in 1979, just two years earlier when Sam brought his very first record of Gary Numan's Cars.

Suddenly the girl's mother is standing beside him, snatching her up. "No!' she snaps at the child, then turns to Sam, her face apologetic. "She's a good girl," she explains, "but she can be that grabby at times!"

"Sorry lad," Annie's mum interrupts. "My husband's waiting."

Sam stares longingly after the two of them, Annie's hand still stretched out towards him, gaily waving, as her mother bears her away from the children's playroom.

The younger children were happily watching Rainbow a children's magazine show on ITV with Geoffrey, Bungle the Bear, Zippy and George on a white plastic cased colour television that still had a channel dial and buttons.

18, April 1981

Gene said he would like to be a police officer, loads of times when he and Sam have been playing together "My ticket out of the dole and violent dads as far as I'm concerned." They shared their Action Man figures, Corgi Ford Cortina Mk3s and 1970s Dinky police panda cars frequently "My dad, he's like that. Angry because he's pissing his life away with corrupt coppers and by the time I take the DCI throne, they'll be old codgers."

"In 2006; we'll be Detective Chief Inspectors." said Sam thinking of their future in Greater Manchester Police as best friends turned colleagues out on the blue line. He pauses and counts, laboriously, on his fingers. "In twenty five years."

Cadbury's Curlywurly 3p the wrapper read, on the chocolate bar, teenage Gene was eating.

"It's an advert for Walls' Funny Feet Ice Cream." in a lurid pink colour inside a Whizzer and Chips comic.

"Dudes!" Gene declaims at full volume 'Your chance to GET ON! If you are over 12 and under 16...oh, blast, I'm a year or two too old!" when he spots a post for the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme, it had been running since 1962.

Why do grown-ups always have to be so difficult?

"Yes, you cheeky divvy. I've given you my word."

"Divvy?"

"Really?"

"Yes, really. We're mates, aren't we?"

"Yes. Yes, we are."

Sam is satisfied. Gene's his best friend, and friends don't lie. Both Vic and Ruth had pale blue eyes and sharp, pointed features. Once an observant schoolmate had actually taken it upon himself to suggest that Ruth had been unfaithful, accusing Sam of being the product of an extramarital affair with a dark-eyed stranger. It had led to a shouting match in the school corridor, and Sam had landed a few furious blows before the teachers intervened, but that had been an end to it. And when his science teacher had removed the last of Sam's fears by revealing that it was not absolutely impossible for two blue-eyed parents to have a dark-eyed child, he had forgotten all about the accusation.

XXX

Despite the day's interruptions, he's halfway through the book by the time Matron stops by after the evening meal. It's only when he feels a sudden presence next to him that he looks up and finds her smiling at him.

"You like it, then?"

"Yeah. I—I do. The main character, an adult who steps into the life of a 13-year-old boy who's gone missing years earlier...It's such an unusual premise."

XXX

"It's all right," Sam says, vaguely aware that Gene is upset. "I just wanted to know it. In case I need to write to you, yeah? Your mum can forward a letter, can't she?"

Gene thinks this over and nods.

He remembered his fourth birthday in 1973, the real one, the last one at which Vic was present. An impression of dark hair and sharp features, a Thunderbirds toy whizzing about in the air.

He looks up, eyes blurred with tears, and sees that Gene has reappeared. Sam must have imagined his distress, because now Gene is as rock-solid and reassuring as any grown-up even though he's only nearly eighteen. Despite his youth, he radiates an intimidating level of unspoken fury towards his own father Stephen. "And she says Dad may be in hospital for a few weeks. Manchester Royal Infirmary, thank God. That's miles from here."

"Come on! Big lad, now. No tears. Hide those bad feelings away, Sam." His voice is sympathetic. "Don't be such a wimp."

A woman and a boy are waiting near the door, chatting with a uniformed ward sister by the door. There's a man, too. He looks like Gene, but he's not. Because Gene is kind, and this man isn't. He uses bad language, and he sneers, and sometimes he pushes someone against the wall and bullies people.

The other boy sees his tears, and stops. Then he squares his shoulders. "You'll be a policeman. The way you always wanted. And I'll be one, too. We'll both be coppers together. Won't that be terrific?"

Sam wonders how the boy knew that, about wanting to be a policeman when he grows up. He nods.

"But Sam. You won't be able to come visit me at my house. My dad... is a violent thug. But don't worry your little head, I'll give you a spin in my Cortina GXL pretending to be The Sweeney or The Professionals."

THE END