When one of the Clarke girls started going out with Jonny Weetabix it caused a bit of a scandal. This was a measure of how far we’d come – the chat was about Jonny’s suitability and not Liz Clarke’s heritage. When pushed, I’d characterise Jonny as above Baby Harry (a terrifying 8 year old who threatened anyone he could with his Alsatian dog and ruled the whole of Coltman Street) on a par with Peter Frame (who got expelled from school at 8, 10, 12 and possibly other times) and a good bit below David Petty (who was largely harmless but did cause me actual bodily harm when the dart he was throwing into the air somehow landed in my forehead about an inch from my eye. I pulled it out, ran in crying and then went swimming – worrying that the hole in my head would let the water in. It didn’t.)
The Weetabixes – not their real name, obviously – lived behind our house and my mother said we shouldn’t hang out with them because they didn’t get washed properly and they were people who lacked ambition.
“Ambition?” I’d asked but only because my mother’s reasoning often defied any logic and I was in the mood for entertainment.
“Yes,” she said, “They eat Weetabix for breakfast, dinner and sometimes tea. They share 2 fish between 8 of them and they don’t believe in reading. And they go out in the rain without their anoraks.” My mother held great store about anoraks which is why she almost killed my sister when she accidentally (on purpose?) lost her brand spanking new anorak a few months before somewhere under the flyover. My mother hit her with a milk bottle that time (she was washing them out before putting them on the step at the time) and rhythmically beat out the phrase, “How could you lose it?” over and over on her legs. KM couldn’t say. And, if my mother had bothered to ask me, I couldn’t either, even though I was probably walking behind my sister. As penance, KM had to wear my mother’s anorak which buried her and made her look like something the cat dragged in.
“Perhaps they don’t own anoraks?” I said.
“That tells you everything you need to know,” my mother smirked.
That was conclusive then.
I’d been in Jonny Weetabix’s house – and I was amazed how little furniture they had and the fact they could draw on the walls. I thought he was mostly a bit stupid, the kind of boy that got the blame for things even when he hadn’t done them and who didn’t care either way: it was attention, and attention, even as life’s perpetual scapegoat, was better than no attention at all.
“One final thing,” my mther began again, “they’re trash. They threw a dozen old shoes into our yard, which their mother denied – where else could they have come from? And they chucked over a rat. A dead rat. What kind of people do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t.
“Trashy people,” she said, “The Frames might be stupid, but they’re not trashy.”
“Yes. I told her my maiden name was Davies-Smith, Jackie Frame said – “Oh, we might be related, I’m a Davies.” I said, “It’s Davies hyphen Smith.” And she said, “What’s a fucking hyphen?”
“Right,” I said, not being overly certain about hyphens myself.
“What’s Jonny been up to? He putting his hand up for stuff he hasn’t done again?”
“He’s going out with one of the Clarke girls, Liz I think.”
“I’m surprised Ernie would let that happen. He loves those kids and wants the best for them.”
“Maybe it’ll bring Jonny up?”
“Mary, you cannot polish rubbish, love. Not even with Mr Sheen. Not now, not ever.”
One of the things I loved about my mother was her use of the English language. If you said, “This is hot,” in relation to food, she’d say, “You sit with your arse in the oven, and you’d be hot too.” If you wished for something that your friends had, and you said, “I wish I had…” She’d say, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which gets fullest first.”
What I didn’t wish was to go out with Jonny Weetabix. He smelled and the Clarke girls had style. The Clarke girls were beautiful, quiet, determined and self-contained. Liz and Jonny seemed a very odd combination.
Ernie himself was a nice enough bloke as far as I knew. He had a certain Caribbean swagger. My dad was not massively impressed when he painted the bricks of his house a glossy white, with the mortar in citrus orange. He thought it was bringing the street down. Dad’s snobbery had a context: he worked at a paint factory where high quality paint was cheaply available and where he was on top of what was in vogue and what was not: orange mortar would never pass muster, except perhaps in St. Kitts. But why should Ernie care about this? At least it was clean. At least Ernie looked after his house, even if it was not to the specifications of my father’s standards.
“He’s bringing the street down!” dad’d say, with a moribund despair. By that stage, what with one thing and another, he would have preferred living almost anywhere. Even the moon.
Ernie Clarke worked in the Hull Fish Meal factory down at the docks and this much at least impressed my dad. Day after day, Ernie would walk to the top of the street, catch a bus and head off to work where all manner of fish bits that people couldn’t eat would be processed into fertiliser, or feed for cattle. I don’t know what Ernie did there, but he was a hard worker. In March 1979 he got made redundant. It was the last months of the winter of discontent which saw multiple strikes and numbers of people became unemployed for the first time in generations. Mrs Thatcher was just about to come to power.
By July, Ernie Clarke had found himself another job. But he never took it up.
We’d got wind of something on the Tyne Tees news. In June, a woman’s torso and her head had been found in a massive tank on the banks of the River Tyne. The torso was in a plastic bag and the men who found her – who were cleaning the tank inside – didn’t hang around long enough to find her head which had been severed and wrapped like a parcel in canvas.
A few weeks later a police car arrived at the Clarke house, and Ernie looking lost, was bundled inside. In the Hull Daily it said a Hull man was helping the police with their inquiries: a euphemism for arrest it turned out. Ernie was remanded in custody.
…To be continued…