The street I grew up on had over a 100 houses, packed in tightly one beside the other. By the 1970s this was a street in decline: all former seafaring folk, beside one, had long gone and as the 60s ticked over into the 70s it became increasingly ‘undesirable.’ In those days there were few cars so we were allowed to play outside. The acceptable area for our roaming extended from Coltman Street to the Boulevard which meant we had three streets of equal length to make mischief.
When I was 7, 8 and 9 we never really went much beyond King’s Bench Street, our street – apart from to the shops: Pawson’s and Shepard’s where we went daily for some item or other. I remember buying the 4oz of chopped pork, cut thin, for our packed lunches and having to watch to ensure that the assistant didn’t go beyond the wafer setting, or there wouldn’t be enough meat for the sandwiches the next day. It was tricky having to complain if she did so…on the upside, this scrutiny sometimes paid off so that there were more slices than were needed in which case you could unpack the grease proof paper of the pork slowly down the alley at the top of the street and take the spare slice to eat on the way back home, careful to re-package the order so it didn’t look disturbed at all.
Some things come into focus slowly. One such thing is the can of air freshener that sat by the till on the counter top of Pawson’s shop. I didn’t really understand what this was for although it was always there, often with the lid removed ready for immediate use. I was dallying by the magazines when the reason for its presence became clear.
The old lady came into the shop for something or other leaving outside the wrecked old pram she pushed about as a shopping trolley. She was wearing a very grand looking coat, which had seen better days, with a stole of sorts around her neck, and a fur hat, held at a jaunty angle with a hatpin. She was loud and bright, laughing with the shop ladies picking up and putting down various items and then buying one small thing before leaving in a flurry. Her bright pink lipstick had missed her lips and glowed from her teeth. I forget her name: but years later my sister and I when we were on the Cancer and Polio round (selling charity leaflets to donators) used to argue about who would take the leaflet up to this woman’s house on Coltman Street. Being the younger sister, I usually lost the argument which meant that not only did I have to go up to the house, trailing up the steps, an effort in itself, I also had to go in because the lady invariably had misplaced her purse and you would be invited to wait until she found it. This was a fate worse than death: she had dozens of cats and no urge to clean up. This was when I discovered I could hold my breath for a long time.
The second she left Pawson’s the shop-ladies swung into action.
“Where did she touch?” they’d asked and then wipe down each item with a cloth, following up the whole procedure with a liberal spraying of the air freshener.
“I know it looks awful,” Betty said, “But we have our other customers to think of…”
There were a number of other families who the shop-ladies undertook this routine for and one of those was the Carters. They lived about 10 doors down from us, and to my father’s utter chagrin had decided to paint their house bright orange and white which was a clear sign that the neighbourhood was going to the dogs. We were very familiar with Mr Carter who we nick-named Popeye on account of his proclivity for wearing a vest (and only a vest) whatever the state of the weather. He also was bald, short and stocky with an array of naval tattoos. He had very few teeth. I don’t remember if he ate spinach (I don’t remember if anyone did in those days) but I do remember him storming about the place spoiling for a fight. He once took on Horace, our next door neighbour, over some imagined (or real) sleight which was the first time I’d seen grown men really brawl: it was dramatic and short-lived. Two punches and Horace retreated to his lair. There was a lot of blood.
Popeye did not have an Olive. He did however have a wife: Alma as well as two daughters. I only remember one of them by name: Norma. Alma and her daughters had achieved legendary status at the Church jumble sales. When I was an older Guide I was strategically placed on the bric-a-brac stall (the most popular and therefore a job for youth) with clear instructions to watch out for thieves and the Carters. They would barter down any price until you conceded that it was only worth what they thought it was worth. They were not leery; just quietly determined. It astounded me that they would haggle when the benefit of the sale was the church roof, but they did. And hard.
They were also always first in the queue, waiting outside patiently before the church door opened at 10am. They dressed old. Out of step. Not fashionable or with it. Not in vogue with how young women in the 70s were beginning to find their feet, and self-expression with it. Those girls dressed like old women did, headscarves and heavy coats. I didn’t mind the Carter women though: they just wanted to do the best they could – not what I wanted, or expected but their priorities were different. They just wanted to buy rubbish stuff at a knock down price. They were ahead of their time: that’s the basis of the consumer economy.
The most salient piece of learning I did as a young person was that no one knows what goes on behind closed doors even when people seem to be letting it all hang out: and the Carters were one of the first times I realised that. When Popeye was on the rampage and out there doing his thing, it was easy to assume that was all he was- that what you saw was what you got. It was easy too, to assume that Alma’s steely determination to get a bargain and her daughters’ quiet acquiescence in that situation meant this was all there was to know. Not true. Not, not true.
I have often wondered what made Norma do it. The shame of her crazy father? The embarrassment of her mother’s jumble sale antics? Her out-of-step clothes? Was it a mistake? A cry for help about something else altogether?
The first anyone knew anything was afoot was when Popeye spilled out on the street wailing like a wounded animal. He hugged himself and walked rapidly up to the lamppost and back. We watched him, but couldn’t guess at what was wrong. Back and forth he walked talking step after step, head down, arms taut, helpless – the noise coming from him like nothing I had heard before.
Then the siren. We lived relatively close to the hospital but nothing prepared you for the sound of the siren as it bounced off the walls of terraced streets. It was getting nearer and nearer to us and its magnetism brought people out, pulling them out of their houses to see who it was for: dozens and dozens of people. It stopped outside of the Carters.
The ambulance men came towards the Carter house and stopped. Then a police car arrived.
Popeye said, “I can’t open the door!”
The party of emergency workers hesitated, and a policeman went back to retrieve an axe.
What was happening? From inside the house you could hear banging. Not desperate, but the slow steady beat of the axe on something that relinquished quickly.
We were polite enough as an audience, orderly in our waiting, watching. An ambulance man came back for a wheeled stretcher. He was in no hurry. Had someone had a heart attack? Had someone fallen the wrong side of a door? Why was he walking so slowly? Things took a while to come into focus.
She came out of the house covered over, including her face. There was only one reason for doing that: Norma was dead. There was an audible whisper as the family followed, the women in their big coats, some item from the jumble sale, and Popeye with his vest stretched across his chest. They climbed into the police car and that and the ambulance left. The bright orange front door looked sadly on.
Norma had taken an overdose in the bathroom. She was dead when the ambulance was called. No one ever told us why perhaps because no-one knew.
Soon after the family moved away.