Or Are You Just Very Small?

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Before beginning this week’s blog I feel compelled to make mention of the Grenfell Tower Fire.  and the terrible tragedy that happened there; at least 30 dead and 70 missing  overall (including the 30).  If this blog is about anything – aside from loss of one kind or another – it is about the working class neighbourhood of my childhood and youth, it is about people living together, striving together and struggling together as well as laughing and learning and growing.  It’s about camaraderie and love.  I feel that I was lucky to grow-up in such a neighbourhood: it has shaped my sense of shared purpose and given me an understanding of endeavour, graft and belonging that not everyone gets to encounter.  It was not perfect and I spent a part of my life afraid of who I might run into around any given corner and another part worried about what my middle class friends who I went to school with might think of me, perhaps even something close to shame about not being quite like them. That’s what a dominant narrative does to people – it keeps them in their place, and it makes them feel bad for not being the same as those who have privilege, and then offering tempting sign-posts and pathways that not everyone can take. And calling people failures when they miss the chance – perhaps a single chance – on offer to them. I have been lucky. I was lucky that when I fell through a greenhouse and nearly died, the NHS patched me up, I was lucky because although we were poor we had enough food and a house that was warm, and that was our own. I was lucky I had somewhere decent to live. I was lucky that I was educated in the 70s and 80s before we imposed a curriculum that stopped people thinking for themselves and I was lucky to be able to go to university on a grant and fees paid (and just as lucky to receive bursaries for my MA and PhD).  I was lucky to get a good job, and have a career. No one gets to be that lucky now. Working class people have been marginalised and demonised – and options are increasingly limited even if they are educated, even if they have a job, even if they have a sense of place and community. But fundamentally people need to be safe in their homes because none of those other things can happen if they are not. David Lamy had it right in this video. People need somewhere decent to live – that’s the first and last of it.  People were crammed into that tower block – families of five and six sometimes, in two bedroom flats that were just 75.5 metres squared.  Families with young children and older people on the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th floors.  And higher still.  It beggars belief.  This was an accident waiting to happen and now that it has the only saving grace is that the community is angry and rising.  I hope they can translate that anger into real change so that this does not happen again.  So that political change will enable this working class community and others to expect a fair chance, and the power to effect positive outcomes in their own lives.

Or Are You Just Very Small?

Vera met her husband-to-be on a bus.  It was not the most romantic of venues and she was not the most romantic of people.  She thought she was on the shelf.  I asked her which shelf once, and she said, “The one at the back of the cupboard, where there’s all the stuff that you never really use.  Like tinned potatoes. And Spam.”

The reason she was on the bus was that she was a conductor.  They had to make a special cut of the uniform for her because she was short, very short (and not as slim as she might have been.)  It was grey and even with her child-bearing hips she looked dashing. And taller, elegant even. But she could climb up and down the stairs quicker than you could say Jack Robinson and never missed a fare.

“You’d always get folk trying it on, even in the good old days, but no-one passed me by.”  She would snap away the faces in her photographic mind and then whizz round each and everyone checking the fares. She enjoyed the power of her ticket machine.

Her husband was a bus driver and it was love at first sight.  Unfortunately, Alan was already married.  “He was unhappy, you see, Love.  He’d got married in the war, lots of people did and then lived to regret it.  Folk didn’t expect to live.  She was nice enough, but they weren’t well matched…but I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?”  Vera laughed.

Alan was more than 20 years her senior, almost in his 50s.  An old man really, by those standards, but she loved him anyway.  Right from the off – it was the way that he smiled.  Shyly.  He’d fought for his country – in the RAF – flying all sort of raids and was immediately a hero in her eyes.

They spent their dates dashing around on a motor-bike, Vera riding pillion.  “He used to go so fast, like a super-hero.  He was in my mind.  I could picture him in the bomber, flying low, battling…”

“Killing people, Vera?”  I smiled.

“Well, it’s alright for your generation,” she said, “Getting all moral about it.  You don’t know what it was like.  Hull was trashed.  Alan and his mates saved this city for such as thee and me.”

I shut up then.  Unlike most adults Vera had a habit of talking to you about everything and anything: she didn’t pull any punches.   We used to go together to the swimming pool to supervise the Cubs and Scouts who were doing swimming badges.  Not quite sure how I got dragged into that – must have been something to do with T, my brother, and my reputation for swimming with David Wilkie, I only did this once (on a sponsorship event) but you only needed to do something that often where I lived and then you were located there forever.  Mary Brearley, swimming sensation.  Not true.  I remember saying to Vera once, in the pool, “Are you kneeling, or are you just very small?” And she laughed a lot, and repeated it to anyone who’d listen.  “You’re funny, you,” Vera said. I wasn’t

I used to wait for T at the end of the Cub meetings where Celia Worley, the Akela*, seeing me, would make some disparaging comments about the Guides. I’d just smile. Mostly, I’d chat to Vera who was bringing her lad, Steven, to the Scouts.  The others used to tease him about the presence of his mam – but she liked to wrap him in cotton wool. And Steven didn’t mind.  He was a mummy’s boy.

“We never expected to have him.  But I was very careful until the divorce came through, and that took forever because she didn’t want to let Alan go, and you wouldn’t, would you?  I mean even now that he’s in his later 70s, he’s lovely isn’t he? So tall and handsome.”

It wasn’t a word I would use to describe him.  He just looked like an old man to me.  A bit like Michael Foot – the politician, thin as a pin and a shock of white hair.  I didn’t answer Vera, but she didn’t need me to, she’d just carried on.

“But eventually he came and we couldn’t love him more.” She smiled, and looked wistful.

They lived on the Boulevard and I used to be awestruck by the amount of Lego Steven had on the table in the front room.  I once asked what he was building and Vera just shrugged.

“That’s his dad’s department.  Sit in there for hours, they do, building away.  I don’t interfere – it’s important that he has time with his dad.”

There was a silence then, and I suspected that I was supposed to fill it but I didn’t know how to. I knew his dad was old. And that he might die soon. Steven was 13 going on 14 and people used to tease him for playing Lego with his dad.

“Alan won’t last forever, I know that.  I really do.  I knew that all along.  He wasn’t a mistake you know, even though I wasn’t a spring chicken by the time he came along – nearly 40.  But we love him.  Steven is the best thing that ever happened to us.” She paused, “We’ve talked about it.  He knows.  He knows his dad will die sooner rather than later.  And I know too.  It’s not like we’re prepared but it means that we take each day as it comes, and we love each other through every minute of it, because that’s all you can do.”

A few months later, when I walked past their house on my paper-round, the curtains were tightly shut in the middle of the day.  Upstairs and downstairs: shut against the world. I knew what this code meant.  Alan must have gone – he must have died over night.  I had sort of half been looking out for it. I felt for Vera who loved him very much and Steven too.

Then the news came through. At four in the afternoon, the day before, Steven had made his way home from school.  Normally, his mum would have been loitering somewhere close but she hadn’t come.  No worries, he’d just taken himself home.  He’d opened the front door, calling her, and then his dad, and still nothing had alarmed him.  Maybe across his mind, he’d thought about his dad and that maybe something had happened but surely his mum would have come to school and told him? But it was Tuesday and on a Tuesday his dad visited an old friend who was ill.  Maybe his mum had got caught up at the shops?  She liked to chat, that was true.  Many an hour he’d stood beside her as she’d told a tale or two.  So Steven walked in.  Through the hallway, into the kitchen and there, half into the pantry was his mum, on the floor: dead.  Of a brain hemorrhage.

He didn’t know what to do.  He rang an ambulance.  He was numb.

Then his dad had come home, and he’d taken over.

I often asked about them in my phone calls home from Universtiy: Steven and Alan.  Within a year or two, before his 16th birthday in any case, Steven’s dad had died too. And he went to live with his mum’s sister in North Hull.

 

*Akela – my aunt Joan – once said to my mum when she was talking about Akela, “That’s weird J, because the woman who runs the Scouts round here is called Akela too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Lost Boy

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The funniest thing Uncle Gordon ever did was put a large bouquet: triangular in shape and a foot and a half long, in the top pocket of his dress suit at my cousin’s wedding.  He didn’t make a speech but a statement.  He said, there is madness here.

I’d already noticed it.  It was hard not to.  He had a shock of dark, curly hair and a shy smile that gave a strong hint of the little boy he’d been.  He often looked awkward.  My mother implied that perhaps everything was not all there. I could testify to this: when you arrived at he and Aunt Joan’s house he’d scurry into the kitchen and make tea all round and often there would be a cry of, “Gordon,” from my aunt to propel him onto some other task: vegetable peeling, washing, windows, pots, toilet cleaning, drain clearing and so forth all of which he undertook without ever complaining.

Aunt Joan was busy knitting. Sometimes she had a dozen or more balls of wool in cups as she clacked away stopping only for a cigarette.  I worried about her inventions – it was me and my sister that would have to wear them to school.  It took a long time to recover from the-school-jumper-that-wasn’t, for example.  Bottle green in the body and sleeves, all very regular, Aunt Joan had made a creative decision to knit the cuffs and waist band in a green many shades lighter.  Inexplicably, she’d also made both 10″ long – as a shy, retiring sort it wasn’t the statement I was after making.  It said, ‘Pick on me!  Firstly, I have zero control over my wardrobe and secondly, relatives with no taste.’  Doubtless, any expression of the humiliation I felt about this and any other such lovingly made hideousnesses would have seen me hit from the back to the front door for my ungratefulness, so I kept my counsel.

But I digress. A man of very few words, Gordon used to communicate by tickling you behind the ear.  I never got used to this even though – to give him credit – he did it consistently for a full 20 years.  I’d like to say I’m making this up, but I’m not.  He also liked to tickle behind the knees which (try it) often makes you collapse in a heap which he seemed to think was hilarious.  It was marginally amusing when he targeted someone other than you but it wore thin.

But the truth was it was hard to stay cross with Uncle Gordon, the mildest of mild men.  He would nod and shake his head as if he was actually participating in the ongoing adult conversation in their front room, without ever speaking.  It was claustrophobic in there with the heating ramped up to full blast – on account of Aunt Joan’s cold blood (“I’m very nearly a lizard,” she once said).   Relief came from this oppression regularly as she dropped another malapropism or similar sending us all (except Gordon) into paroxysm of laughter, “Have I said something wrong again?” she’d say as we wiped the tears away.  She was never wounded.  The Dooley Brothers became the Gooley Brothers, HMV – MFI, tendons in a boy’s finger were described as girders, the Newel post – which Gordon sawed off along with the stair spindles one rainy Sunday afternoon because Joan fancied going ‘open plan’ – became the Neutral post (a bit like a miniature Switzerland, I’d imagine). And very posh cooking was referred to as Gordon Blue.  He’d just smile at her – a shy, loving smile. He was a simple sort, kind and decent.

When I was 15 years old, I began cycling with the CTC and met a man, Trevor, who worked at Jackson’s the Bakers alongside Gordon.  I hated Trevor, who was cruel and borderline pyscopathic (he once attacked me at a youth hostel in the Lake District, though I’d been well taught by my mother and I managed to lift a knee to the delicate bits which seemed to do the trick.  I wasn’t that kind of girl.  And besides, he was married.  To a woman who was on the trip with us and in the next room.  And 35.  Later, still in pursuit of me, though I felt I’d made myself clear, for my sixteenth birthday he sent me 6 pairs of very lacy knickers – so I re-addressed the label of this gift to his wife and mentioned she might like to have a quick word with him.  They neither spoke to me again, and my cycling career was over.)

Before the knickers’ incident, Trevor, laughing, told me a story about one particular shift he shared with Gordon.  He said they’d de-bagged Gordon and then filled his white work pants and white work wellies with flour so that when he re-dressed he left a trickle of white wherever he went, like a factory-based Hansel and Gretel.  Gordon could have traced his journey back as he zig-zagged his way to the end of the shift.  But instead, he just smiled, benignly.  He was not a fighter, nor one of those men who felt the need for retaliation or power displays.  He knew his place in the male hierarchy: the bottom.

When babies die, they always say, “She was too beautiful to live,” which can’t be true, though apparently that was the case with Lorraine, Gordon and Joan’s second child, who lived to 9 months and then did not wake up one morning.  I tried to imagine what difference this had made to them but could not guess at either Gordon or Joan, who seemed lighter than my folks, and who floated along like flotsam on the high tide. For years on their bubblegum pink living room wall (“What were they thinking with that colour?” my mother asked) it said, “Gene Pitney” and I could never work that out either.  Was that their favourite song, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart”?  Who could say?  (And besides, they’d spelt both Gene and Pitney wrong so I was never certain that that was what it actually read: though I hoped it was.)  Nothing they ever said, or did hinted at any sadness or passion.

My dad said, “Gordon’s brighter than he looks,” and then added, “But not much,” and I understood this.  I also knew that he was kind in the very core of his soul and as strange as the ear and knee thing was he was not a ‘mind-your-back-sis’ weird like Uncle Knobhead* (of which more, another time.)

Gordon had had plenty to contend with: later on when all three children, their girls H, D and M were strong and thriving, Aunt Joan got pregnant again.  But this baby was a stillborn boy: Michael – made yet more hideous by two things.  Firstly, Aunt Joan had to go through the pregnancy and secondly, on either side of this awful event both her sisters gave birth to boys, my brother T and my cousin J.  Michael became a tree in their front garden and you would often find Gordon sitting on the step staring at it.  I wondered at this thoughts but no word came from him.

One time,  I arrived at their home on North Hull Estate and he was sitting on the front.  It was a bright sunshiny day and for a change, he wasn’t running around after Aunt Joan.  He was finishing his crossword.  (“Must have been the quick one,” my dad quipped, “Was it in the Sun?”)  I sat beside him.  He rolled himself, then me, a cigarette and we smoked contemplatively together.  From the house, came the Squeeze tune, “Cool for Cats” which he sang, softly emphasising the words:

“I fancy this, I fancy that,  I want to be so flash, I give a little muscle and I spend a little cash, but all I get is bitter and a nasty little rash.  And by the time I’m sober, I’ve forgotten what I’ve had, And everybody tells me that it’s cool to be a cat, Cool for cats….”

And I helped him with the last few clues, which surprised us both.

Not long after that I got the news that he had a brain tumour and his death was imminent, which seemed unkind.  But, much as he lived, he left the world with a resigned, amiable, Buddha-like calm.

*Blatantly nicked from Peter Kay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orange mortar and Scapegoats, part 2

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I never saw Ernie Clarke (you can read the first part here) again, apart from on television and that was on the occasion of his trial where the TV camera followed him from a white van.  He had a blanket over his head.  The torso and the head were recovered in the dregs of the giant oil vat at Velva Liquids Ltd which had preserved both, more or less: not sufficiently to provide a picture of the young woman who had died, but enough to enable them to calculate her age, her height and the cause of death – a blunt instrument to the head.  There were two other facts to distinguish the girl (aged between 16 and 20, and in all probability nearer the lower end of that scale) – she had had her appendix out and had once fractured her collar bone.

All sorts of tidbits were given on the news and we all took a sudden interest – hanging around for the 9 o’clock rather than scurrying off to bed.  It seemed surreal that the man who had, up to a few months before, lived opposite us could have done such a thing when he seemed so ordinary and dull.

“I don’t think Ernie did it!” Mrs Petty said, leaning on her yard brush – something she often did though rarely did she bother to sweep in anger.  It was like a stage prop, something to give her purpose from A to B that explained her reason for being in the tableaux of three women outside our front.  She loved a gossip.

“Me either,” my mam said washing the sills down like a whirling dervish, “And his kids are gorgeous too.”

Val Petty lit a cigarette, sucked the nicotine into the very pits of her lungs.  “He once winked at me,” she said, a moment of genuine excitement in her perimenopausal life.

“He never winked at me,” Jacky Frame sounded a bit disappointed.  She was small but perfectly formed as though she’d gone in the quick wash the right size, and come out shrunken, “I thought he was a bit shifty,” she said.

“No you didn’t Jacky,” it was my mam who was now washing the step with an inappropriate ferociousness, “You said he had a look of Sidney Poitier…”

“He did,” Val drew in another lungful of smoke, a habit that would see her dead within 4 years, “He really did.  Gorgeous.”

There was more talk and then, the women turned to exclude me.  I knew their mouths would be shaping out the words – fierce ones like ‘rape’ and ‘sexual assault’ and ‘battery.’

Val drew away first,  “He didn’t seem the type to me – he’d only have to ask!” My mother looked a bit shocked and continued her frenzied cleaning of the front.

“Well,” she said, “We’ll see.”

A few nights later on the news we were given more info about the girl in the tank.  They’d found out who she was and when she went missing.  The biggest clue had been her teeth – the forensic dentist was able to identify she was from South Shields because of the level of fluoride and then, an unusual number of cusps on her teeth had led to an identification.  She was Eileen McDougall.

Eileen was a 17 year old girl who went missing in January 1970, nine years before, and as bad luck would have it, from Ernie’s point of view she had been found where he had worked.

To hear Peter Frame talk it was an open and shut case: because of course he, a young boy along with Dave Petty only marginally older, knew all along that there was something of the night about Ernie and they’d never trusted him.

“Don’t be so ridiculous, the pair of you,” I’d said but no one was listening.  Rumour abounded.  His three kids kept a low profile – going to school, coming home, not playing out on the street, not joining in with a knock-a-bout, not being one of us so that somehow this added to the possibility that all this was true about Ernie.  And we couldn’t rib them without breaking them in two, a tell-tale sign of guilt by association.

“He had an eye for the ladies,” Dave Petty said, “especially younger ones.”

“You’re making it up!”  I was outraged.

“My dad heard from someone in the pub, who heard it from a friend of his: there was a young lass on Bransholme, and one up in Hessle…”

“So that must be true! Honestly!”

“Are you calling me a liar?”  Dave seemed hurt.

“Yes,”  I said, “Yes, I suppose I am.” And walked off before they could call me anything…

But the truth was Ernie was in deep: not only had he worked at the place Eileen had been found but her sister had babysat his three children.  And because Ernie was a man of his time, and in the spirit of some kind of misguided camaraderie, he’d sought to impress the police with his sexual conquests suggesting he’d slept with Eileen’s sister and her friend too.

I could picture the scene: 1979 police station, a black guy trying to impress the while police officers, trying to sound like his misguided idea of what a real man would do. The big I am.  The man women couldn’t resist.  That was Ernie.  He had not a single problem with admitting sexual encounters (of which there were many, he said) or with making up a few because he thought it enhanced his reputation.  That was what male bravado looked like (that’s what it still looks like in some quarters!)  But he didn’t think it through. Ernie committed a suicidal error because he also admitted he knew Eileen and had had contact with her and that, wedded to the fact that he knew the Velva site like the back of his hand, meant his guilt was confirmed in the eyes of the police.

There was more to come – as we discovered on the news.  The reporter stood outside the courtroom telling us that a colleague also remembered Ernie digging a hole, and then filling it with a liquid that solidified as if he was hiding something. When the police excavated the site and found some items of what might have been clothes (although later proved to be cleaning rags) the situation got graver still.

All in all, it was a very bad situation for Ernie Clarke. Not only had he dug his own grave, he’d helped to fill it with handfuls of soil.  He was found guilty of murder in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison.

But the story didn’t end there. Ernie always maintained his innocence, even when an acceptance of his guilt would have been more likely to reduce his sentence.  He never deviated.  And the Clarke kids couldn’t stay off the street forever so they came out fighting, defending their father and saying it was none of it true.  Later, Liz would take every opportunity she could to say that her dad hadn’t done it…

In 1984 we were all very excited when the TV programme Rough Justice conducted a re-investigation of the evidence.  They believed that Ernie was innocent.  They wanted to know where Eileen was hanging out, who else might have known her, what other potential mistakes may have been made.  In the end, their evidence was compelling (see here for a discussion on it…)

And the programme believed Ernie innocent.  But he was never released from prison – not until the end of his sentence in 1994 by which time, we’d gone from the street and had lost track of all the people we’d lived with. By which time, Ernie had aged and was old for his 64 years. Innocent or not he’d paid a price…

Hard to say where the truth lay.  A girl of 17 could fall out of the world without much notice, be brutally murdered and lie in the vast bottom of a tank for 9 years – whether Ernie killed her or not – that’s the real tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)