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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Adam

img_3070I am not taken to crying at Facebook as a general rule, but for the second time in a week I find myself weeping at a post.  What’s the chances?

Quite high, as it turns out.

When I was 22, I began my very short teaching career.  For reasons I can’t remember now, except for some vague notion of being close to London, and as far away from my family as possible (the next step in my reinvention process, I suppose: I AM BRAVE I AM STRONG I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM) I had taken a job in Basildon, Essex.  I am not one for saying disparaging things about this or other new towns but they are pretty soulless sorts of places.  I loved the people but the truth is if you’ve seen one roundabout, you’ve seen them all – and I pretty much did see them all.

The school I worked in is no longer there – Barstaple School, and when I arrived, so too did 26 other new staff.  That’s a turnover in a secondary school that tells you everything you need to know about it – it had its rum folk and not everyone could hack it.  One older teacher, on day one, regaled us with tales of how she’d gained respect by beating children up.  This was meant to impress us – it did not – but it is also true that within weeks as a new teacher you are driven to the extremes of your tolerance and to thoughts of violence that shock you.

There was a generous gesture on the part of my Head of Department (I taught English: badly as it happens – I still shiver when I remember the apostrophe lesson I taught!) that I did not need to take a year 11 class.  Excellent idea, except this meant that I was free when everyone else was delivering their year 11 class, meaning that whenever a teacher was absent during those sessions, I covered them.  It was a baptism of fire.  I felt that if I managed to herd them into the same room, and mostly stopped them shoving implements into one another’s orifices, I was doing well.  If I could corral a handful to their desks, all the better.  If someone actually wrote something, this was akin to a miracle.

Besides, what I lost in Year 11s, I gained in Year 10s – particularly last two periods on a Friday.  Goodness, whose idea was that?  As I walked to the classroom, I would hear them swopping football chants: Millwall! Millwall! Tottenham! Chelsea! Chelsea!  My heart sank as I walked to the room: and I spent much of my time trying to ensure that a) they didn’t kill each other and b) I didn’t kill them.

But over time, I grew to love that group.  They brought me cream eggs that had fallen off the back of a lorry, other offers of knock-off goods, homework in tattered books and tales of all sorts.  They made me laugh, particularly when a couple of them hid in the store cupboard to ‘surprise’ me as a joke until I started ranting about how they would amount to nothing as a group and then they were too afraid to jump out!  I knew there was something afoot when the rest of the class listened earnestly.  They never did that. I laughed heartily until tears rolled down my face when they finally sheepishly appeared…

At the back of the class sat the two Claires.  One Claire was a big built girl who was a wonderful character often telling me how best to control the group and offering me very sound advice on how to deal with the psychopathic boy in the corner (the only funny thing he ever did was hang a chair from the ceiling struts.  “You’ve a poltergeist, Miss,” he said, as the chair hung there, he was dead eyed and smirk-free.)  The other Claire was a bit colourless, and before the year was out, got pregnant.  At 14.

Relatively early in my tenure, my sister gave birth to a little boy: Adam, three months prematurely.  I told character Claire this, and in addition to her teaching tips, she would also ask on a daily basis how he was.  “Not great,” I’d say, “I’ve bought him a ted with the words ‘tough ted’ on its vest.”

“He’ll be alright, Miss,” she said, “They can work miracles now.”

Adam had been born with fluid retained all along his stomach like a giant bubble.  At half term, I travelled to Hull to see him.  He was hooked up to beeping machines and in a room with the a strange blue hue.  This was 28 years ago.

Each week, Claire would ask me about his progress, never forgetting one day to the next, and 3 months later, I was pleased to tell her that he was going home by then effectively full term with the fluid all gone.  My sister was full of hope and excitement. It was all she wanted.

And then it went wrong.  One day, on January 10th, he stopped breathing whilst she was feeding him.  The ambulance arrived but Adam died in her arms on the way to the hospital. My sister received no help with this, no support, no suggestion of someone to talk to, or someone to help, or a pathway through.  She went home to organise his funeral.  It took three men to hold her up that day.

Of course, Claire asked me how Adam was and I told her, upset I suppose though I don’t remember now.  What I do remember is her somehow conveying this message to everyone else in the room, and that impossible group of bonkers kids all behaved impeccably for two hours whilst we were trapped in that room together.  I loved them for that, and continued to care desperately about their prospects for the rest of the time I held that bit of their future in my hands.

So, from day to day of course, I hardly think about Adam though: it’s a fact, something that happened that explains everything and nothing which I find myself sharing sometimes.  Every single day my sister thinks of him.  She had 8 children since then, but always there is that place within her that belongs to Adam and Adam alone.  I cannot imagine this pain and I don’t want to.  I don’t even remember the key dates: when he was born, when he died; these are engraved on the inside of her eyes.

Today, then, I went briefly onto Facebook and this is what I saw.  My sister’s status:

I give you this one thought to keep –
I am with you still – I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone –
I am with you still in each new dawn.
28 long years my darling boy.

It turns out that it didn’t work going so far away.  I am not brave.  I am not strong.

Not today anyway.