No Country for Old Women

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Mrs Swift wasn’t.  In fact, she hardly moved at all.  Her main journey seemed to be from the kitchen to the living room and back again.  She must have gone upstairs, but I never witnessed this. There was probably a time, years before, when she left the house. But something had happened to stop her.  And, aside from one occasion, she lived her life within the confines of her house on St Matthews Street.

Mrs Swift was the standard issue older woman of my memory: sober dress, wrap-a-round pinny with her grey hair permed or demi-waved.  The only woman who deviated from this template was Purple-Haired Lady who lived alone on Chomley Street.  She had been a professional.  A ‘professional’ what I couldn’t say.  The vibrant mauve gave her a certain swagger which my sister and I admired.  The rest, all the old women of my childhood, looked exactly like Mrs Swift.  They were women born at the turn of the century or in the previous one who had survived the great depression only to hurtle into a war-time of austerity that clung to them like dust. They were resilient.

One such survivor was the old lady who lived directly opposite us.  She had lived in the street, it transpired, longer than anyone.  Each day, dressed in a flimsy mucus-coloured mac, and a green hat at a death-defying angle, she would leave her house to go to town.  Her shopping bag, brown and misshapen, hovered an inch above the ground.  She seemed tiny. I don’t know where she went on those trips, but I do remember her determined walk and wondered how a woman could be so bent and still manage to put one foot in front of the other. When she died, my mother and her friend Alice, laid her out.  It transpired she was 98, had lived without her husband for 48 years and always in the same house.  She had also once been 5’8″.  My mother told me this with a kind of wonder as though she’d witnessed a miracle after seeing her finally straightened.

My mother worked in the fish and chip shop on Airlie Street and this gave her a special status that was a combination of agony aunt and social worker.  Mr Swift, who seemed to me to be austere, went to buy his and Mrs Swift’s supper twice a week.  My mother asked the sort of questions that allowed people to talk, deftly providing a platform for sharing.  That was how she discovered Mrs Swift’s agoraphobia. After that, she always gave him extra chips.

“I don’t suppose he mentioned the affairs that drove her to it?” Alice, who also worked in the chippy, said.  My mother dismissed this as salacious gossip. Not Mr Swift, he seemed a proper gentleman.

On a Tuesday and a Thursday, like clockwork, Mr Swift came in.  He wore his overcoat and trilby hat whatever the weather. And then, suddenly, he stopped. First one week, then another.  When it got to four weeks, my mother took action.

Taking her courage in both hands, she went and knocked on the Swift’s front door.  It opened enough to reveal a sliver of Mrs Swift’s face.

“Is everything okay love?” My mother said.  “It’s just I’ve been serving your husband for years at the chippy and I’ve missed him.”

The door opened and having been quickly ushered inside the whole sorry story came out. Not the why of it, of course, but the how and what.

Mr Swift had had a colossal stroke.  The front room had been converted to a bedroom, and that was where Mr Swift was sleeping. Each day, Mrs Swift would wash and dress him, and get him to the toilet via a walking frame of sorts. He would spend the rest of the day in his chair in the middle room watching a silent television.  He could not speak but grunt, each one rumbling like an earthquake from him. His noises meant nothing to the untrained ear.

“Our Matthew has been here,” Mrs Swift said, “But he has an important job and can only come once a week. At best.”

“Who’s doing your shopping, love?” My mother asked which was how she came to volunteer.  Twice a week she would go around, tap out a special code of a knock before going in, gather the list and sort the Swifts out.  Mrs Swift would insist on paying a few pounds for this service and after repeated arguments my mother would accept the coins for the sake of peace.

Somewhere along the line, this job came to me.  This must have been in the holidays and at weekends (where the mysterious Matthew would fail to make an appearance), I would go round, rap the special tattoo, and enter the house.  At first, I was terrified of Mr Swift because he growled and if you were unlucky enough to encounter him standing, which was a feat of engineering that barely seemed possible, you worried for your life.  As time moved on I got used to him, but the fear never really left me. I didn’t have my mother’s qualms about accepting the payment.

At 6am one morning there was a loud knock on our front door.  It was already a bright sunny day, and my father grumbled his way downstairs.  There was a dark, shadowy figure that could be made out through the frosted glass and the banging was getting increasingly urgent.  It was Mrs Swift.

She was dressed for winter.  Black coat, black hat, black – probably Sunday – dress.

“Do you want to come in love?” my mother was saying.

Mrs Swift was clear that she did not – and looking behind her with every other word – she somehow communicated to my mother that her husband had died over night and she needed the ambulance.  She was saturated with sweat and shaking.

She left then, and I watched her walk down the deserted street in ill-fitting court shoes as though a whole army of not very nice men were chasing her.

In truth, Mrs Swift was lighter and more at ease with the world with her husband gone, as if a weight had been lifted.  She would hint at what this was but never say much of anything at all, and I didn’t have the imagination or the experience to analyse what had caused her deep anxiety, what had made her lock herself away.   She would laugh and joke when I brought her three bottles of stout from the beer-off, and sometimes ask me if I fancied a sip.  The other thing she did was offer me one of her butter-mint bonbons which she bought every week (after that, I stopped pinching one from the bag on the way home from Pawson’s.)

We would enjoy an exchange about her shopping list.  I’d query what some of her writing said, and Mrs Swift would take out her large box of glasses and try one on for size until she happened upon a pair that meant she could see.   One time I asked her where they all came from and she said, mysteriously, “the dead.”

I only occasionally resented having to do the old girl’s shopping and I did it every week until I left for university. I never met her son Matthew but she was very proud of him, his achievements, and those of her two grandchildren who smiled out of posed photographs on the piano.

One day, Clive, the milkman, who still pushed a trolley around the streets to make his delivery, noticed Mrs Swift hadn’t taken her milk in. He knocked, the special knock, but the door was bolted on the inside.  He knelt and looked through the letter box and could see her at the top of the stairs.  He hefted the door with his shoulder until it gave way.

Mrs Swift had died the night before, of natural causes, wearing someone else’s glasses.

Putty

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My mother was not cast in stone but something malleable and occasionally combustible. Some days she was the life and soul of the party, others the spectre at the feast.  She was benign one day, and a raging storm the next.  She once, in anger, hit my sister with a cucumber (the nearest thing to hand), and then hit her again because it broke. That was my mother in a nutshell.

I’d lie in bed in the morning listening for the signs of her mood for the day: the way she moved about the kitchen, the crash and bang of the utensils and the speed of her step as the breakfast cereal made its way to the table, the tone she used to rouse us, the swearing if inanimate objects refused to bend to her will. It sometimes helped, but often she could turn on a sixpence: a shrug of a shoulder from one of us, a misdirected sigh and wham, we were on a different track.  She was unpredictable.

One summer holiday day, my brother K, my sister KM and me were arranged in a police style line-up in the kitchen. The baby, T, was still in his pram – I honestly believe he’d have joined us if he had mastered standing.

“Who did it?” she asked.

We looked from one to the other – there was a dangerous silence.  No one wanted to say anything.  She walked in front of us, staring closely at each of us in turn as though she would need to identify us at a later stage. We were clearly guilty criminals.

“I know it was one of you,” she said.

We none of us spoke.  It was potentially fatal to jump before being pushed.  And besides, the exact nature of the accusation had not been revealed. I tried to look innocent.  I was innocent.

“That mark in the putty,” she began her walk in front of us again: up and down.

In turn, we each denied it.  At first, I didn’t even know what putty was.  And it didn’t seem a good time to ask.

“In the greenhouse window pane. The new one. A fingerprint.” My mother looked down the line-up. I looked at KM.  She looked steadfastly forwards. K seemed more nonchalant.

“It wasn’t me,” he said.

“Or me!” KM half shouted.

“Well?”  My mother said, leaning over towards me.  She should have been in the Gestapo.

“I didn’t do it.”  I hadn’t either.

“I suppose it was Mr Bloody Nobody, was it?”  There was not a hint of humour in her tone.

“I’ve had enough of you all,” she said with controlled contempt.  “I’m leaving.  And I’m not coming back.”  She paused.  “Tell them to look for me in St Andrew’s dock.”

Deliberately, she grabbed the baby’s pram and left the house.

I was seven I suppose, KM eight and K, ten.

“One of you two better own up when she gets back,” K said.

“I’m not owning up.  I didn’t do it.” KM spat back.

“I’ll make you.”

“You and whose army?”

“Stop it,” I said, before they started.  They were always trying to beat seven shades of shit out of each other.

“Mary, you admit it.  She’s always easy on you.”  KM looked at me, half pleading.

“It wasn’t me.” I said.

We stood there for another ten minutes.  I think we expected her to pop up and say, ‘gotcha!’ but she didn’t.

“She’ll be back,” K tried to sound confident. I wanted to know where St Andrew’s Dock was.

“She’ll definitely be back.”

But she wasn’t.  It was early morning when she left.  Dinner time came and went, and there was still no sign of her.  We walked around the house like ghosts. We didn’t play.  We didn’t speak. We didn’t watch television.  It was a beautiful sunny day but we didn’t leave the house. It felt cold. Every now and then K would say, “She’ll be on her way home now” each time less certain than he’d been before.

At teatime, KM ferreted about the cupboards and found some tins of soup.  Standing on a stool, she heated them up then poured them into bowls.  She carefully wiped up the drips, even rinsing off the dishcloth as she’d seen our mother do. The three of us ate in silence.

Dad was working late but I was beginning to wonder how we would explain what we hadn’t done to make our mother leave and not come back.  I felt hollow, empty.  I wanted to say it was me who’d done the putty, even though I couldn’t reach it.  I wanted to take the blame for everything, to make it all alright. I started to imagine the words I would say.  I suppose the other two were making up their story too, but I didn’t ask.  Waves of worry washed over me.  My stomach hurt.  It would be bedtime soon. I didn’t want to go to bed without my mother home. Where was St Andrew’s dock?  Should we ring the police?

And then the door opened, and she came in.  My mother pulled the pram, a great big Silver-cross thing up over the step, parked it in its usual place beside the table. Then, she carried on as if nothing had happened.

I suppose the demands of motherhood just got the better of her sometimes.  And that St Andrew’s Dock day was one of those days.

Fast forward 10 years and I am standing in a phone box in Sheffield, a week or so into my first term at university feeling wretched and alone.  I am the first person in my family to go to university and the burden is too great.  I hate it.  I hate it and I want to come home.  I am out of place, skewed. I want to work in a factory, marry a man, have babies and not be clever. There is no-one like me here, no-one like us apart from the halls of residence porter and the woman who cleans my room.  I have made friends with both: she gives me the only cerise pink duvet available and, when I’m feeling down, he teases me about Hull, about how it smells like fish.

I am phoning my parents. The week before I’d told them I want to leave and over egg and bacon in a greasy spoon my father weeps, big, wracking, silent tears dripping down his cheeks.  My mother says I can leave if I want to.  What am I to do?  It’s the first time I have ever seen dad cry. So I get back on the train and resolve never to mention how hard it is again.

The phone rings out.  And then again.  Five or six times that evening I stand in line.  Five or six times the phone rings out.  Where are they? They are always in.  My parents don’t go anywhere. I feel alone.  Empty.  Hollow. It’s like the putty incident all over again. I don’t sleep.  I rock around my room, walking its tight dimensions like a prison cell.

The next morning my dad answers.  He should be at work.

“Where’s me mam?” I ask.

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Do I need to come home?”

“No!” he says.

He’s so firm that I take him at his word.

“How are you?”

I offer some platitudes.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” I ask.

Yes he says, she’ll be home next week.

So the following week I ring, and there my mother is bright and breezy but I know she’s holding back, holding in.  Week after week, we speak but say nothing.

Finally, I arrive home for Christmas and it is then I find out she has cancer.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I hold in my rage, my anger at not knowing about her pain, and at my exclusion.

“We didn’t want you to worry,” she says, “You’ve got enough on your plate.”

I can only return silence.  I want to say, ‘Please don’t do that again. Please tell me everything.’ But I can’t. I walk around like a ghost, too afraid to ask about her prognosis then finally pluck up the courage.

“I’m great,” she says, lying.  She has had a lump remove and the treatment is aggressive leaving her hair thin and her face grey.

“They’ve told me I’ll get better.”

And because there is nothing else I can do, I believe her. And we carry on as if nothing has happened.

Custard, Part 2

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I’m not entirely sure where Custard got to that night, but she did not go home and she did not go to Dick the Dustman’s flat either.  In fact, she never went there again. By the morning, Janet was frantic with worry and having quizzed KM and myself about her daughter’s whereabouts, and visibly disappointed in our lack of knowledge, she left our kitchen a whirlwind of pain and grey to the gills. A big, fat penny had dropped.

A few hours later, apparently none the worse for wear, Custard rolled up neither smiling nor proud of her absence but steely and determined.

“Wish me luck,” she said as she went in.  She was still wearing her halter neck top and her hair shot off in all angles from where she’d slept.

At about lunch time Janet appeared in our kitchen again.  She didn’t have a bag of tins as usual and she wasn’t full of fun or stories.  She was gloomy, miserable and flatter than I remembered seeing her before; like she’d lost a fiver and found a penny. Or worse. My mother took one look at her, and then ushered KM and me from the room with a, “Don’t you two have something better to do?” which we didn’t although it would not have been a smart move to argue.

And so my sister and I stood in the living room bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for a sign that we could re-join the conversation: in the past Janet and my mother had competed to tell the funniest story, each rolling over the other in an elaborate game of Top Trumps.  Not now though – I instinctively knew those days were gone.

The sign to re-join the conversation never came.  Later my mother, a mass of contradictions herself, would say that she knew immediately what to do, and she did it, without a moment’s hesitation.

And the truth was, if not complicated, than somehow not straight-forward even though on paper it was exactly that.  We don’t live our lives on paper, neither by a manual where the right thing to do is followed by the next right thing and the next: rather we muddle through and drift and sometimes those drifts take us off course.  Janet had believed it was okay mostly because she’d turned a blind eye or never even looked.  She hadn’t thought it through.  She was short of cash and Dick the Dustman seemed like a good source of additional income.  And why shouldn’t he want to support Custard and why wouldn’t he want to pay for her to stay over in his flat, and Custard had seemed fine with the arrangement and she’d got extra pocket money and other stuff?  But it was wrong.  It was so, so wrong, she’d told my mother, so, so wrong.

It’s easy to reflect with modern sensibilities and assume there was never any kind of defence for what Janet had done, and yet as a young person I felt some sympathy for her because I liked her.  We all liked her.  Janet was unformed, child-like; she was impulsive, uproariously funny and because of all of that she didn’t  think about the consequences.  She hadn’t even considered Custard beyond a fleeting second.

The first I knew about the gravity of the situation was seeing my mother in the hallway, holding the telephone – the phone half the neighbourhood paid 10p to use.

“Is that the police?”  I heard her say and then she said, “My neighbour has just told me that she is selling her 14 year old daughter for sex, and erm, I thought you would want to know that…”

They did want to know that.

The cars started to arrive within the hour: first the police in marked and unmarked vehicles and then the social workers swishing about in Laura Ashley dresses and corduroy slacks.  Janet and Ossie were taken away in separate police cars, and then Custard’s two younger sisters were helped into an estate.  Finally, Custard, who was wearing a pink fluffy jumper by this point and her favourite pair of wedge shoes, climbed into a detective’s car.  Not one person smiled.

Janet did not return.  We heard later, when Ossie rolled back into the street that all of the girls had been taken into care.

My mother was in some kind of shock – after all, she had made the call that had precipitated the police and social work intervention – and so she gathered around her the neighbourhood women ‘to do something’.

These women were Jenky (Lena Jenky who lived next door the other way, and who always seemed to have smoked fish cooking on the hob), Alice (distinguished only by her Jersey accent and her preponderance for pronouncing burgundy by emphasising the ‘gun’ bit) and Thelma Boast (not my pretend Auntie) who lived five doors down and was considered a good egg.

My mother, and these women, were outraged.  First, by Janet and what she’d done, and then by the authorities that had whipped the girls into care and that had ripped the family apart.  So, they set about campaigning to get the girls back.  Apart from being completely inadequate in every regard, what had Ossie done?  For all that pile of nothing, he didn’t deserve this (or so my mother and those women said.)

They felt also that they had been deceived.  They had liked Janet, even though they hated what she’d done.  And they felt that they had let those children down.  Because they should have known – they should have listened to their instincts. They shouldn’t have looked the other way.

“She was just a bit simple,” my mother said, in a reductionist moment, “Can you understand that?  She didn’t think it through.”  We nodded.

A few days later we went to visit Custard in a children’s home in Hessle: one of four imposing buildings in a row.  “It’s not that bad,” Custard said, “Like being in a big family.” Her sisters were fostered.

“I didn’t sleep with him, you know,” she said, only once and we nodded not because we believed her but because we didn’t know what else to do.

Two further pieces of news came out after that.  Ossie, obsessed as he was with his submarine building and his bonfire, claimed to have no knowledge of what was going on – and the police believed him.  Janet exonerated him too.  She apparently said, “He was too stupid to know any better.”  Ossie literally thought nothing of Custard sleeping at Dick the Dustman’s.  Nothing. Now, he just wanted his kids back.  That’s what he said when anyone would listen, and, oddly, “She was still a virgin, you know.”

Which we thought she wasn’t because KM and I knew about the favours she’d given the speedway riders, and the encouragement she’d given us both (since she was the living, breathing expert on such matters) to roll around in the grass with some boys on the way back from swimming.  And beside, the truth came out in court.  Custard had had to endure a pretty undignified procedure at the police station…

So the informal coterie of neighbourhood women, led by my mother, started to campaign hard for the return of Ossie’s kids.  This was tied up with a concern that those outside of our street would somehow see us all as complicit if they didn’t take a stand, take a side.  So Ossie, who had always been seen as completely ridiculous and vainglorious in the street and beyond suddenly had the greater good on his side…

The younger two girls came home straight away, and later, after the trial Custard made an appearance.

“You back then, are you?”  I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  And we never spoke of the matter again.

Soon after that she met a boy called Gordon (who wasn’t a moron, actually) and they are still married today.  And at some point in the last 30+ years Custard also won a substantial sum on the lottery, which I like to think is Karma balancing things out.

Dick the Dustman and Janet were both sent to prison.  When I tried to imagine what this was like I found myself picturing Janet slopping out with Myra Hindley, who was the only other woman I’d ever heard of being sent to prison at that time, but that was the extent of my imaginative power.

I saw Janet again, just once, when she was allowed a supervised visit with her children.  She mostly looked herself, and from across the street, tried to be all hail fellow well met.  But something had changed: she could never return and pick up the life she had once had.  She couldn’t joke around, take the mick out of Ossie and make people laugh.  It was as if she was shell-shocked.

A police car arrived early one morning at Custard’s house.  My mother went next door.  When she returned, her face was ashen.  We were just eating breakfast.

“Janet’s been found dead,” she said, flatly.

We all stopped eating and looked at her.  “She was found on the tip,” she said, “And she meant it to happen.  There was an empty bottle of pills in her hand, and she’d been drinking.”  We looked at each other, unsure what to do, our spoons hovering over our cornflakes, then my mother said, “She didn’t deserve that,” which was debatable, and added, “though I’m not sure what else could have happened.”

The first part of Custard is here!

 

 

 

 

 

Custard, Part 1

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“Don’t stick your head above the wall,” Custard said. “I’ve had enough.” She was wearing a pink halter neck top, a short mini-skirt and had tried to style her hair, with limited success.

“It’s a bit stinky down here.”  I was not impressed.  “I don’t think Mrs Key is quite as thorough in her cleaning as my mother.”  I paused and the wave of rotting rubbish wafted over us, “And your mam is definitely calling you.”

“I’m not here.  She’ll get fed up soon.  She never sticks at anything.” Custard said.

But Janet, Custard’s mother, didn’t stop calling and I wondered just how long I could endure the stink of the drains and the slightly sour smell of Custard’s unwashed body.  We were a bit too close for comfort.

We’d been sat down that alley for a good 30 minutes already.  I hoped, against hope, that Mrs Key didn’t pop out and give the game away, revealing us two fugitives in an act of solidarity with all mothers which seemed to be universal and unspoken, a pact apparently entered into as as soon as mothers gave birth to their off-spring. Equally, I hoped that Mrs Key didn’t let Buster, her cross-breed, out for his evening constitutional.  That might not end well either.

“Why don’t you just go home?” I asked Custard but I didn’t expect an answer.  She was quick to laugh and joke around, take the blame for stuff, be cheeky and say things to boys that I only imagined saying in my wildest dreams but she did not always talk straight.  And I knew that whatever her reasons, it was probably complicated.

Custard shrugged, “You have met my mam and dad, right?” She said this as if no further explanation was required – and I completely understood. I had met them.  I’d lived next door to them for the full 14 years of my life.  Janet and Horace were definitely off-beat.

Janet couldn’t really read and write although I’d been to bingo with her and she was something close to a genius at that: she’d had 8 cards to my one, and still managed to identify the called numbers on her own and my card before I did. She was a little wiry woman and a bit of a character.  Plus she never had quite enough money to make ends meet. Regularly, Janet would roll into our kitchen, hitch up her bright orange corduroys (bought cheap at Boyes) to reveal her fluorescent pink socks, and say, “They’re his, he’ll never know I’ve borrowed them!” She was referring to Ossie (her husband Horace) but how he’d miss them I couldn’t imagine.  With a bit of squint, it’d be possible for an astronaut to see them from space!

On those hard-up days Janet would be armed with a plastic bag full of tins of garden peas, peach slices, mulligatawny soup, custard, mixed veg and new potatoes taken from Ossie’s Armageddon stores: his over-stocked pantry.

“He’ll never notice,” she said, as she slammed maybe 30 tins down on the kitchen unit.  “He thinks the world is going to end – probably in 1984, if not before, so he buys more and more each week.  We’ll never eat it all.”

It was true that their walk-in larder was like a mini-supermarket, each shelf packed high with tins of every sort.  Often, Custard would be out in the street, tucking into a tin of cold custard.  This was one of the reasons she’d got her name.  The other one was not very kind and was down to the fact that she didn’t get washed as much as the rest of us, or change her underwear.  I didn’t care that she was a bit smelly most of the time: she was okay.  Her real name was Yvonne.

“So,” Janet was saying, “You can have this bag of tins, and I’ll bring the tenner back in a couple of days when I get paid.  This is like interest.  I’ve nowt to smoke and the Tally man is coming later on.” (By paid, Janet meant getting her benefits.)

My mam would always feel bad for her (apart from the times she ran upstairs and told us to say she was out) and hand over her hard earned cash.  When the money was due, I’d be sent over to Janet’s to fetch it, a journey that necessitated the negotiation of their 6 unneutered Ginger toms, one of which like to mark his territory just as you walked through their back gate.

It was never a simple task of the money being handed over.  I’d have to hang around in their grubby parlour taking in their ornaments and their curious rainbow chairs, while Janet scurried around looking for cash.  Ossie would either be in the next room along building his submarine: a 12 foot replica that was an impressive feat of engineering or he’d be out hunting treasures on the local tip, which he’d sell on.  Horace was on the dole long before it was commonplace.  He was a curious looking man, sort of half finished.  He wore jeans rolled up to reveal his lime-green (or pink) socks and a pair of beetle-crushers. This was partnered with a bright shirt, usually red or pink, opened to his navel, and a leather jacket.  He had had some kind of DA (duck’s arse) in the past but his hair was thinning so instead it straggled apologetically down his back. He was a man who was concerned with either survival or bonfire night – the first a daily grind of finding illegitimate ways of earning money, the latter a four month long trawl for wood so that his fire would outstrip all for miles around.  It always did.

So, I could completely understand why Custard didn’t want to go home on one level, because her folks were genuinely bonkers, but also I didn’t get it at all, because she could do what she wanted most of the time, and wasn’t confined by the litany of rules we had to live by.  I couldn’t quite figure out what she had had enough of.

As we sat in the alley, two teenage girls side by side: Dick the Dustman, a friend of Janet’s, cycled by.  Fortunately, he was looking where he was going so he didn’t see us, but I saw Custard pull herself into the shadows.

“Aren’t you hungry though?”  I asked.

“No,” she said, “Look, I’ll give you a Mars bar if you’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”

In truth, what I meant was that I was hungry and pretty soon, I’d have to get up and go because the consequences for not doing so would be too grave.

“I really just don’t want to go anymore.”

“Home?”

“No.”

“You mean to Dick’s?”  I asked not even remotely understanding the implication of this question beyond its face-value. I knew she stayed over there sometimes.  Everyone did.

“It’s boring,” she said, “And I don’t want to go anymore.”

“Okay.  Fair enough.  Can’t you just say no?”

“I am saying no.,” Custard was a bit cross.  She looked at me, “I’m saying it right now. I’ve just had enough.”

I looked at my newly acquired Snoopy watch – to that date, the best present I had ever had.

“Okay. I’m going to have to go in or I’ll be in bother,” I said.

“You haven’t seen me, okay?”

“You can’t stay down this alley forever Yvonne.”

“No but I can stay here until they get fed up…”

“Okay…” I said.

I rolled out of the alley, stood to my 5″8″ height and walked home, some thirty houses down the street.  Janet eyed me all the way.

“Have you see Yvonne?” she asked.

“Not lately,” I said, maintaining eye-contact.

“What were you doing down that alley?”

I looked at her square in the eye, and said, “Nowt!”

I walked on, saw into their parlour through their open front door.  And there was Dick the Dustman drumming his fingers on the arm of the rainbow chair, waiting for Custard.

But Custard never came.

(To be continued.)

Norma

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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.

My Pretend Cousin

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We were walking to my Aunt Joan’s house on a boiling hot day, each step an effort on an epic journey.  It was a long way, and my mother had a habit of saying, “Just around the jolly ‘orner” to entice us to run eagerly to the next corner, even though the next corner took us only fractionally closer.  It was on journeys of this type that I realised that my mother largely spoke in riddles or in found tales that rolled around each other concluding in one sad ending or another.  The abiding thing about my mother and her stories was that they required absolutely no audience at all. She would tell the tale whether we listened or not, to the bitter, bitter end.

My leg hurt but I wasn’t about to let on about this.  We’d left King’s Bench Street, our street, in good time and I was not going to be held responsible for holding the party back.  Already we had reached the hospital and on crossing the railway bridge on Argyle Street we headed past Diane Mulvana’s house (who my sister and I pretended to be cousins with even though she was very small and we were giants in comparison ). She was not out to wave to.

We had adopted this habit of pretend family from my mother.  She gave apparently random strangers ‘relative’ tags.  These included people she’d been at school with or who she had worked with or from streets she’d lived in. My mother swept up waifs and strays as though she didn’t have enough to do.  Auntie Barbara was one such pretend aunt.  She had no brothers and sisters and came to ours at Christmas.  She also snogged my dad down the ten-foot when he walked her home after the festivities had finished.  KM and I were sent to accompany them and  as spies but we never told.  She eventually married Ian (a pretend uncle I would rarely meet) and her daughter Victoria became our pretend cousin (and she was also one of the two children I abandoned along with my sister in this sorry tale.) Victoria and I had a ferocious argument about butter beans once.  She said they were made of potato which I knew was just plain stupid.

There was also Auntie Mavis who  lived in the States, another of my mother’s former colleagues.  She married a chap called Larry and had a child called Bubbles.  They once came to visit and I was intrigued and horrified in equal measure that her other boy, Adam, who was at least five, ate with his hands.  They were my distant pretend cousins who I liked to mention when I needed to be exotic.

Auntie Thelma held nothing of the same cache and was ordinary: much like my actual aunties.  Like my mother, Thelma had just had a baby, Donna and she and her brother Nigel and my pretend uncle Derek, lived just off Hessle Road. She and my mother had grown up on the same road.  Derek and Thelma were semi-permanent fixtures at family dos, until I began to think they were actual family – at least I did until Thelma was apparently caught with her hand in the till at the Beer-off* where she worked.  She denied this and as she wasn’t poor, I tended to think it might not be true.  I was sorry she was sacked because she’d offered me a veneer of protection from Gerard, the people who ran the Beer-off’s son, whose hands were covered in warts and who chased me around the school playground to infect me until I shouted that I would make sure Auntie Thelma knew…which held him off long enough for me to get away. For my mother this episode of being light fingered coloured her view of Thelma, although to this day, they speak week after week on the phone.

I walked behind my mam onto Prince’s Ave (which was commonly called Prinny Ave).  She pushed the pram with T in ahead of her.  We turned into Newland Ave, then Cranbrook Ave.  Sometimes we walked via Chanterlands Ave (more often known as Chants Ave).  Hull is the only place I know where every street name is shortened.  I’ve never heard anyone give these streets the more formal moniker of avenue.   Cranbrook Ave is the longest residential street in Hull and my legs could tell.  At that time, it was also largely dominated by university houses, door after door painted the same blue green colour.  They were interminably boring.

“Why don’t we count,” my mother said.

“Why don’t you shut up,” I thought.

“Great idea” my sister said and so we did, counting each door with all the joy of a funeral party.

My brother T a few months old, was oblivious to the ‘fun’ we were having and my older brother, K, seemed to have managed to avoid coming on this tortuous trip.  Had he feigned death?

I’d read you could fry eggs on the pavement on days as hot as this but when I suggested this to my mother she wasn’t having any of it. “If you think I’m wasting eggs on a whim, Mary, you’re sadly mistaken,” she said, firmly.  And the subject was closed.

By the time we got to Greenwood Ave we were in spitting distance of Auntie Joan’s – my mother’s actual sister, and not a made up one.  I tried to get to the bottom of this.

“Why do we have so many pretend Aunties.”

“Auntie Joan is my real sister,” my mother said.

“But why do we need more: like Auntie Barbara, Auntie Thelma and that?”

“It’s a nice thing to do isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“You’d rather have more than less of almost anything though?”  My mother’s reasoning defied logic: I wouldn’t want more boils or warts or farts.  We did get some advantages, it was true, like Christmas presents (Auntie B) and special treats (Auntie T) although given her later brush with being a tea-leaf maybe the origin of these was questionable. KM, my sister, lived the principle of more is more: she had always bought a quarter of sweets to my Mars bar, a box of Bics to my fountain pen and so forth.  Even in Aunties I had a sneaking suspicion, largely speaking, quality was better than quantity.  Not my mother though.

“Auntie Barbara is funny, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know?”  She didn’t seem all that funny to me, she just laughed hysterically at absolutely everything anyone ever said.

“And your Auntie Thelma she’s always bringing you broken biscuits, isn’t she?” I had a lingering question over Thelma and her motives. I just felt it.  At weddings, the unsayable would go unsaid: she was there for what she could get, food, company, comfort.

“Why are you asking about this for?” which was the cue from my mother for me to shut up. We sweated our way on.

When we arrived at Aunt Joan’s and after Uncle Gordon had done his weird playing with our knees and ears tickling thing (I knew this was strange that day when I was 6 years old.  By the time I got to 15 it made my skin crawl.)  He giggled.

“Gordon,” Joan said, and he smiled, “Have you made a cup of tea yet?  And got these kids an ice-pop?”

Gordon was a gopher and a bit simple.  His time was not his own.  “It’s too hot for tea,” my mam said.

“Let’s go to the drain.” Aunt Joan was decisive and having barely rested we were setting off again.

The Castle Hill drain was a few streets away as the crow flies, and crossing a field we made it to an open ditch of water that stretched to the River Humber in one direction and beyond Beverley in the other.  It was one of a number of open drains around Hull that captured the run off from the flat plains of the Wolds.  It was steep sided and slightly scary because if you fell in, you would not necessarily get out in a hurry although it had not rained for a while, and it was much less deep than usual.  Still, it made us feel cool just looking at it and gave us a dream of what sitting by the sea would be like if we could have afforded it.

I was not myself that day: that’s all I can say.  I was neither fully with it or firing on all cylinders and as we played KM, our cousins Michelle and Debbie, and me up and down the drain’s sides, I knew I would end up in the water.  And I did.

My stay in it was very brief: my mother, my super hero, sprung into action, grabbing my hand as I found myself being swept along by the stream of the water.  She pulled me out in one clean jab before the fear of being swept out to sea took me.

Everything was wet, all my clothes, every stitch.  Everything.  The indignity.  So, KM reluctantly gave me her dress which my mother and aunt fashioned into shorts (more akin to a nappy, in truth) kept in place by a belt and some safety pins.  My mother removed my vest.  (“Don’t want you catching your death”) and I spent the rest of the afternoon in abject misery.  My cousin Michelle, seeing me sad, gave me her cardigan to wear.  And that’s the difference between real cousins and pretend ones: you’re invited in and with the real ones you shared clothes, hopes, ambitions, and fantasies about the Osmonds.  But the pretend ones, you never really knew because you hardly ever saw them, or never saw them enough.

One time, I went round to Auntie Thelma’s house, maybe to collect money for the didalum** or something, maybe to take a gift.  Their house was red, I remember that much, and it had a big garden.  The back was not just grass, but had a den and toys left outside, something I was not allowed to do.  I was unutterably jealous of the freedom they seemed to enjoy.  I don’t remember meeting Donna, or her brother Nigel but I must have done.

Fast forward to February 2002. I phoned my mother.  Halfway through, her usual monologue she began what had become an all too familiar routine, “Do you remember…” she said. And I knew what was coming…

Over the years this happened a lot, adult people from the street I grew up in, unhealthy, on poor diet, smokers, fighters and drinkers would die with alarming regularity or else distant relatives I didn’t care about…  And she would get some kind of weird pleasure from the process, “You remember so and so,” she’d say, “His son used to go to Trinity School and he lived on the corner of Batchelor Street and Queen’s gate, next door but two to the Johnson’s.”  I rarely knew who she was talking about, but always answered “Yes?” “Well,” she’d say, “S/he is dead.” And I mourned silently for someone I didn’t remember or hardly knew.

Not this day though.

“It’s your cousin Donna,” she said.

I wracked my brain.  Saw in my mind’s eye, the red-fronted house and remembered the toys, a child’s toys in the garden: left by my pretend cousin Donna.

“What has happened?”

My mother was crying, real, heartfelt tears.

“Auntie Thelma’s in bits.”  My mother said.

My pretend Auntie Thelma who rocked up at weddings, christenings and funerals who was sacked from the Beer-off for stealing, something she swore she never did.

“She’s been found dead.”

My mind was not computing.

“In the Castle Hill Drain.  Naked.  Face down.  Murdered.”

I felt a pang of guilt at not knowing my pretend cousin Donna better and now her life was snuffed out at 30.  They did not know who’d done it though her husband was suspected.  No proof was forthcoming. My mother told the tale to the bitter, bitter end. Every detail but I’d stopped listening. She went to the funeral and cried for a girl I could not bring to mind.

A few months later they found Donna’s husband dead by his own hand and the case was closed.

*Beer-off – Off licence

**didalum – a Christmas money saving scheme

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting with the Humber Bridge

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“Oh do God, Oh do God, Oh do remember me – foreveeeeer”  My sister and I sang enthusiastically, standing on the top of the flyover – a position that passed for a hill in Hull which is generally flatter than a frying pan. We had learned the song that morning at church and fueled by the free biscuits and tea we’d gobbled down after the service, we were experimenting with being very good Christians indeed. If God could hear us singing we figured, we would be saved.

I wasn’t sure what we were being saved for, or from but I liked the idea of it.  I was concerned about KM though.  She was singing out of tune.

“Do you think God would mind if we don’t hit the proper notes?” I asked.

“God doesn’t care about such trivial matters,” KM said with such authority that I nearly believed her.  She was 16 months older than me so she often knew better or at least she thought she did. She had just had her 11th birthday.

It was a beautiful April Sunday and we were walking to our school some three miles away to go to a swimming gala.  I was going as an extra, with the chance of swimming if someone else didn’t turn up.  Also, I was my teacher, Mrs Johnson’s project: she was certain that swimming would heal the ills of the giant and ugly scar on my leg from my accident the summer before.

My sister and I walked companionably, KM pacing herself with my limp.  We were still in our church finery, including our best coats.  Mine was a turquoise mac, with neat pockets to the side, and a collar that in the height of 70s fashion, practically reached my lapels. The outfit was set off with an incongruous black and white string bag that was slung lazily over my shoulder and contained the remains of some meat paste sandwiches in grease proof paper and my hastily assembled towel and a cossie.  KM’s kit was, in comparison, neatly arranged. Her lunch remained uneaten.

When we arrived at school Mrs Johnson was there, and so too was Mrs Armstrong, the needlework teacher, and Mr Baker who was a secondary school teacher and the father of one of the swimmers. They were surrounded by a dozen eager kids in the bike sheds.  Their cars were parked  parallel to the dragon’s teeth: concrete posts that marked the edges of the playground.

Mrs Johnson was a typical PE teacher, practical and efficient; she was dressed in a blue tracksuit, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Mrs Armstrong represented a contrast; she wore a floaty Laura Ashley type dress with unruly curls of hair spilling all over her shoulders.  She was giving up her Sunday for the good of the children.  And we appreciated it. Mr Baker was reminiscent of a character from a Kestrel for a Knave: short and stocky, he wore white tennis shorts and a pair of sports socks with a blue and red stripe pulled up to his mid-calf.

We were allocated Mrs Armstrong’s car for the journey to South Hunsley School where the gala was to take place.  I sat behind the passenger seat, next to the child seat that carried Mrs Armstrong’s 3 year old daughter.  My sister was behind Mrs Armstrong. I forget who was in the front seat.

We set off to North Ferriby – a village on the foreshore of the River Humber. Mrs Armstrong was sketchy about the geography of the place we were headed (although she’d been before) and made the decision to, where possible, tailgate Mrs Johnson.  Mr Baker took up the rear of the convoy.

1974 was a time of change in and around Hessle Foreshore with infrastructure changes and the early stages of construction beginning for the Humber Bridge.  (When the bridge opened in 1981, it was the longest single suspension bridge  in the world but it has now been passed by 7 other bridges.  It sits proudly astride the Humber Estuary.) In 1974 the north tower of the bridge was nearing completion.  What this meant on the ground was that heavy and articulated Caterpillar Machinery carried gigantic pieces of concrete and metal about the place, and a series of temporary traffic lights controlled the movement of all other vehicles to accommodate them.

To be fair to Mrs Armstrong, there is no reason why she should have known any of this, or known that she needed to look out for changes.  Her focus was on getting there, on not losing sight of Mrs Johnson and on managing her raised anxiety at carrying children in her car who did not belong to her.

At least, I assume this is what she was thinking about when she jumped the traffic lights.

There was something oppressive about the atmosphere: it was muddy and the trees that had protected the foreshore for years were, in large part, being preserved meaning it was suddenly cooler and darker.  Mrs Armstrong was oblivious to the situation and continued to drive forwards.

I am not sure whether the Caterpillar vehicle saw us first, or whether Mrs Armstrong finally saw it heading towards us: to be honest it was pretty hard to miss – bright yellow and burdened with a piece of concrete the size of a small house. Both drivers jumped on their brakes simultaneously.  The only blessing was that Mrs Armstrong’s nervousness meant she was driving slowly.

We skidded but could not stop and swung 360 degrees hitting the Caterpillar smack bang on its side – exactly where I was sitting. I heard the glass smash. I bent my body to my legs and hoped for the best.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw that my sister had done the same.  The impact of the collision sent Mrs Armstrong’s car catapulting into the air and my stomach flipped as we left the ground, rolling over twice before we came to a resounding stand-still, upside down resting neatly alongside a crash barrier.

I don’t know who helped us out.  I do know that when I looked back  at the mangled car I saw two things that have stayed with me: firstly, where I had been sitting the car was squashed completely so that I couldn’t have sat up if I had wanted to and secondly, Mrs Armstrong’s daughter was screaming and dangling upside down still strapped in her car seat. I really don’t know what happened to her.

Slightly dazed, my sister and I looked at each other.  We didn’t hug.  We were not a hugging family.  We did however empty out the glass from our pockets – it poured like water.  My lovely turquoise mac was ripped on the arm but aside from that, I was unscathed.

Mr Baker drew up in his car like the cavalry.  The police, who had appeared as if by magic, suggested we climb in and carry on our journey.  I sat in the back on someone’s knee, and off we went leaving Mrs Armstrong behind to pick up the pieces, later swimming in the gala as if nothing had happened.

So far as I know at school, no one ever spoke about the accident again and the only indication that it had even happened was that Mrs Armstrong arrived for work in a different car completely: a big black Standard Vanguard that belonged to her father.

My sister and I considered our good luck and for quite some time believed with absolute conviction that our  visit to the church followed by our singing on the flyover earlier that day had made all the difference. Do Lord Remember Me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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