To Wigan via Reykjavik

A Memoir by Peter Street

Chapter Three

Food parcels, toys, dolls, medicines/first aid, you name it, was being passed from a couple of the arctics’. There were kids, Mams and Dads, elderly, who were thinner than thin: on the line between life and death; arms up that were either begging and praying or both. The Police and Fire Brigade were doing their best to organise parcels for everyone. Meanwhile journalists were doing their best to climb and invade the few buildings that were still standing. They were like monkeys with cameras who were climbing up the cages for nuts: regardless of who or what got in their way. In the village square a young journalist was blowing up coloured balloons and was asking a little girl to pat-pat the balloons up into the air in front of a bullet cratered wall. All the while he’s clicking, snapping her picture.

One of the coppers: Peter, a big guy who seemed to remind me of someone I knew, came forward and moved some of the journalists away from the kids and the rest of the sufferers. There was bombing and rapid machine gun fire somewhere maybe a couple of miles away.

There was a stink, faint yes, similar to that still in my nose from all those years ago when I was working on the spade; grave digging and exhuming in Bolton and that giant of a man from Armagh who when seeing me used to shout: “Be quiet now, there’s a Cork man about!” He would then share his strong cheese and raw onion he would eat like an apple and then he would then give me a slug of whiskey, nine thirty those Saturday mornings when we were exhuming the Welsh Tabernacle round the back of Deansgate to help wash down the taste of that first baby I lifted up in bits; stinking of something between shit and coal gas.

………..
Christmas Day 1958, we gave Mam a bottle of her favourite perfume: Evening in Paris. We let the brown paper and string wrap it up for us. My Christmas present was a bagatelle. Ok, so I got it two weeks early like all my presents. So what? My birthday present was a new set of rosary beads and a picture book of St. Bernadette. We gave Dad a box of Woodbines.

We had turkey for the first time and I couldn’t keep my fingers off the crispy skin. I drew some Christmas cards for Mam, Dad and one for Vick. None of us really liked the shop Christmas cards so we made our own: Dad’s was best; he drew Vick taking me for a walk in the snow.

Then suddenly Mam and Dad disappeared just before we were ready to start eating.
“Close your eyes!” Dad shouted.
“Right. Open them!”
Two pirates were sitting at the table with me. One with a black eye-patch over his thick-rimmed glasses and a red handkerchief over his head. The other pirate had a white handkerchief over her red hair and she wore a thin moustache like Errol Flynn. I was the only one in Christmas clothes. I couldn’t stop laughing and Vick couldn’t stop barking. After dinner; Dad, me and the carpet had a game of marbles.
I won.
Mam cleaned up the pots.
It was the best ever Christmas.

A couple of weeks later Dad brought home another addition to the family: a card table to make up the foursome for Ludo, Snap, Happy Families and Dominoes. Wonderful.

January 1959: The rest of our class had made fun of Dennis Heaton because he had holes in his school jumper and he looked like he had slept in his clothes. The school milk that morning was frozen. Even Miss Regan: our teacher, asked if Dennis was ok? So I leaned across the aisle and shared my toast with him. The only ones who didn’t laugh were Michael Warren and Tony Bannister.

Early summer: Dennis Heaton and his Dad walked into my back street. First they had a game of footy with my leather case, the wall and myself. Then Dennis asked if I would like to join him and his Dad for a day out in the country where we would cook our dinner on an open fire?

My first car ride and there was a faint smell of petrol. The ride was bumpy, noisy, beautiful and exciting.

We stopped near the boating lake in Barrow Bridge, then we climbed the “Sixty Three Steps” and there was nothing but us, fields, trees leaning to one side and ferns waving at us.

His Dad let us loose and off we went shooting baddies from our favourite cowboy films. Then we jumped forward hundred years or so and set up some trap wires, land-mines and machine guns post to stop the approaching Nazis. Then, after the Nazis, we ventured down into some woods near to a stream where we stopped and I suddenly asked him if he still sleeps with his arms across his chest in case he died?

“No.” Michael (his older brother) says it’s just to stop us from ‘playing with ourselves’. I wasn’t sure what he meant. So I was going to ask him to explain and also ask him if he had ever worn a liberty bodice and made up sins in the Confessional. I was going to ask him what it was like to have a brother and ask him if his Mam ever gave him syrup of figs to cure everything from broken legs to ear ache. Before he had time to answer his Dad was shouting for us; so we made our way down through jungles of live snakes, crocodiles, quick-sands, we jumped over land-mines and escaped towards the voice shouting us. We took off our socks and shoes and then stepped into the freezing stream…….

DINNER’S READY
For Dennis Heaton

Bare-foot, on all fours,
we scramble, pull ourselves over
green-felted boulders flooded downstream
from ancient quarries,

then jump, splashing to pieces a sun,
a yellow full stop
on a flowing sentence
that slices off our legs
just below those Cub garters,
holding up our shins.

With pebbles bumping toes apart,
we wade upstream
in a bed we can’t sleep on.

Smoke from our dinner,
that’s like a search party, seeps
through the woods,

catching us just inside ear-shot
with bacon and eggs
applauding in the frying pan.
……………

It was a couple of weeks later when me and Dad were sitting at our dinner table waiting for Mam to give us Finney haddock smothered in butter. Friday: a no meat day and I can’t remember much of what really happened next: Mam suddenly started sneezing. Yes, she had, had sneezing fits in the past due to working in the cotton mills’ card-room but this particular day she couldn’t stop. Every time she sneezed, cotton just banged out of her nose and mouth. Our food was peppered with cotton and snot. Then Dad told me to rush for some water in a dish. I hurried best I could. Dad came over, gave me a hug and kissed me on my head and told me to stop panicking. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do with the dish of water. Confused. It was like I was getting a drink for Vick. I just didn’t understand. Strange. Vick was hiding under the table. I wanted to join him but I didn’t.

Strange: How I walked a walk that was closer to a run while trying my best to keep the water in the dish. Dad grabbed it and started showing Mam how to snort water up into her nose to wash out the dust. It was the first time I ever saw my Mam cry. Really cry. Then I started crying. Even now it was the strangest thing I had ever seen (I have never seen anyone else do this) Dad sniffed water up into his nose and then he spit that very same water out from his mouth.

Then Mam tried; she screamed it burned (it was later when I started thinking how could cold water burn?) On the fourth or fifth attempt she managed it and water coloured with cotton dust came out of her mouth. This became her ritual whenever she came home from the cotton mill.

Dennis was the only one I told about Dad and Mam sniffing water. I’ve often wondered if this was the reason why he stopped coming to our house.

A strange thing happened: he stopped coming to school and I never found out why. Me and my bike went over to his house, just off Crompton Way, but there was no one there. In the backyard there were tatty pieces of carpet cuddling up to some odd bits of furniture near to where his Dad’s front room chair was just sitting there looking straight ahead like it was just trying to work out the situation.

Me and my bike made our way back home. I never saw Dennis Heaton again.

The next week or so Vick and I made our way down Tippings Brew, turning off at the first footbridge on the left. There was no one about so I peed into the running stream and moved from side to side to make funny patterns in the water. Before finishing I tried to beat my distance record by trying to pee past the large lime-stone stuck on the right hand side of the stream. But I ran out of pee.

So, me and Vick scrabbled down to the waters’ edge. I skimmed stones while Vick tried to chase them. Then I won two out of three wrestling matches with him. Vick started barking after seeing a big man walking over the footbridge towards us. The stranger leaned over and shouted:
“Your Dads been looking for you – they want you home, now”
Vick helped me scramble back up the banking.
“Hurry up,” The man shouted. “Now.”

I panted through our doorway and into the hallway where Dad was peeling off his overalls. I didn’t even know he had a ‘best’ dark-blue over-coat and grey hat. His teeth were in and a woodbine dangled from the side of his mouth.

It was just eight words: “That gas has finally got your Uncle George!”

Who is Uncle George? What gas? I don’t have any uncles or aunts?

Vick had to stay home while I went with Dad. Walking down Blackburn Road, people I had never seen before were waving and shouting, “Hello Tommy”. Dad waved and shouted something back to them.
“See you Tommy”. Smiling he waved back to them again.

We walked past the Iron Church; past the baker’s shop, which made the best vanilla slices this side of Texas. We turned left at “Jack Sheff’s Temperance Bar” where a crowd of maybe thirty or forty people were milling outside a terraced house. They parted. No one was talking. A few pointed at me. People I didn’t know seemed to be talking behind their hands.
Some men were holding hats against their chest. Some women were crying.

Men I had never seen before were circled around a shiny coal-fire range that smelled of sulphur and fire. Some of them wore white shirts with no collars. Others were rubbing tobacco in the palms of their hands. They looked at Dad, then me, “So this is Peter, is it?”
  They looked back at Dad. “Well, is he worth it?”
Dad put me behind him:
“Aye, he’s worth it!”
Strange how there was something different about Dad. It was how he walked me to the back of the room and then stepped forward and in a voice I had never heard before asked, “Why do you want to know?”

They leaned back in their chairs. Some stuffed tobacco into pipes. Others lit cigarettes. Some were clicking their teeth.

“I’ll just have a minute with George, and then we’ll be on our way.”

I started playing with a brass cannon that fired match-sticks. There was one just like it at home on the secret shelf just above the kitchen door.

Their eyes were all over me. I was covered head to toe in eyes: strange eyes, Eyes I had never seen before. It didn’t stop me from firing live matches into the hot embers where they exploded.

Dad came back into the room. He had been crying. We were ready to leave when one of them shouted, “Here you are, lad!” He threw a sixpence on the floor.
I was about to pick it up.
“He doesn’t need your money.”
We left.
I never saw or heard about any of them again.
We stopped at Jack Sheff’s where Dad bought me half a pint of nettle beer. He had a slug of sarsaparilla. Jack walked over to us while wiping his hands on his white apron, “I’m sorry about George.”
“He’s out of it now.”
The two of them started talking about something called mustard gas.
“So, this is Peter?”
“Yes, he’s alright. Different than……”
Silence.
“And Kitty?’
“She’s got a temper on her”
“It’s the red hair.”
Then we left.
All I can really remember about that day was Dad saying his brother George had turned into a whispering skeleton.
……………..

Strange waking early Saturday in mid June. With two birthday cards facing me: Mam and Dad wishing me “Happy Birthday” and there was also one card from Uncle Peter I really thought it was my birthday: my real birthday. I was a Christmas Day baby! There was also a shoe-box size parcel sharing my chair, next to where my clothes had been cuddled up to each other for the night. There was also a new pair of football boots inside the shoe-box.

“Mam!”

“It was your Uncle Peter’s idea. He said it didn’t seem fair that you should have all your presents on one day.”

My new birthday happened when ever Mam and Dad thought it a good day for a birthday. It never happened on the same date and I was never given notice. I would just wake to find two cards wishing me “Happy Birthday.” There were only ever two cards on my made-up birthday: Mam and Dad with the other from Uncle Peter.

No one else ever knew about this. All this was because I once mentioned about never getting a birthday like all my friends. I used to get so jealous of other kids standing up in class and being clapped because it was their birthday. I always used to wish and wish that could happen to me. I just wished; once would be enough. Just once to have my birthday on an ordinary day instead of Christmas Day was my biggest wish then.

……….

Eleven years old. Grown up. I was wearing long trousers in winter and short pants in summer. I failed my Eleven Plus Exam because I wasn’t sure what it was. It had probably been explained but I was busy drawing spaceships or something like while the teacher explained everything about the exam. When the papers were placed on my desk, I just ticked the same number/letter on every page thinking that I would get at least one of the questions right. Wrong. But I had the best spaceship drawings of any class in our school.

1959 was a big year for me: I gave up trying to sleep with my arms crossed over my chest. I, instead took to wearing my rosary and crossing myself with holy water before I climbed into bed, just to
make sure I wouldn’t go to purgatory in the middle of the night.

A couple of times I tried to keep awake just to make sure I wouldn’t die in my sleep. Sleep always won. I had to do something to keep safe because I was going to the big school: St. Anne’s, R.C and I wouldn’t be able to go to Morning Mass the same as I used too. It was impossible to do both. It was also going to be strange eating a breakfast now I wouldn’t be having Morning Communion. Then I stated thinking I wouldn’t be a true Catholic. To my young self it all seemed a waiting game: when or how the punishment would come I didn’t know: minutes, days weeks or years later, I felt there was going to be a punishment of some kind because I was not having Mass every day like I had had since I was seven.

That summer was hot, and I was in my short pants. I even wore no vest, bare chest showing. That was my very first time in public. 1959 was my no-vest summer. I had spent my time playing football or cycling with Michael Warren or Tony Bannister. I saw Geraldine Parnell’s knickers when she fell over in the school yard.

It seemed like I had been banned from Denis Ogal’s Grandma’s because my accidental fart put her off her sandwich. I was moving a heavy chair and my fart just broke out. It was so loud I’m sure it rattled the windows. To make it worse I couldn’t stop laughing and neither could Dennis.

My ball and me were now sharing our summer with the boys in Astley Bridge Park who marked out goal-mouths with their jackets/shirts/jumpers anything. The first few times I was last to be picked. I think it was because they thought I was not good enough and I wasn’t. Then I went back to the wall where we started back at the beginning and ok, I didn’t really know what position if any, I could play, but then it all started to happen when the ball came bouncing back to me and I just caught it; it seemed so natural. I knew then I wanted to play in goal. I was going to be another Eddie Hopkinson,
Bert Trautman or even Peter Bonetti.

The three of us: the wall, my leather football and me had really got it together. It was the first time the three of us became one – it was so instinctive. Each of us knew what we had to do – there was no thinking involved it was just us three and nothing else. It was just happening. Simple as that. We were equal partners and for me that made it so special. The wall and my football were preparing me for the grand position of goal-keeper. I was being the one that most kids didn’t want to be. Everything about it just seemed to be me. When I was on the pitch I somehow felt like I was in charge. I was the last one to save the game. I was being respected. I was being me. I had friends. Lots of friends. More friends that I could ever imagine I would have.

In our back street I was being Peter Bonetti catching high balls and then throwing the ball back to the wall with a one-arm throw when Kathleen suddenly walked around the corner and then asked if she could join in. Her voice was different; deeper, she looked different. Older. She didn’t look like a kid anymore and she talked kind of foreign sounding.

I had never hugged a girl like I hugged Kathleen. She looked strange dressed all in black; but I liked her black beret, and her bright red lipstick. I had never seen anyone dressed like she was, except for those people I saw walking towards me and Mam in Bolton; they were down near the bus shelters this side of the market hall. They were strange Beatniks. Frightening with their white powered faces and all black clothes. In 1959 they reminded me of the ‘moon people’ who worked in the Belmont Dye Works but more frightening.

Kathleen had never kissed me on the lips before. It was so quick, but the sweet taste of her lipstick was so beautiful it has survived fifty years. She refused my offer of riding my bike. Although in the end I did give her a ‘backi’ and she held onto my sides just underneath my ribs with her fingernails nipping my skin. I was never any good at giving a ‘backi’; I only managed a couple of hundred yards and I gave up. So, we swapped and she in her tight black jeans and long funny black jumper pulled down nearly to her knees gave me a ‘backi’, up to the traffic lights of Blackburn Road/Crompton Way junction (where the Asda store is). We walked the rest of the way to the park. She laughed when I told her about my dream and meeting her in the park.

We didn’t go to our spot behind the bowling shed. She instead rested my bike against the drinking fountain and we shared a patch of grass where the shade from the tall trees behind us gradually gathered around us; ear-wigging everything she was saying. Whenever she said something about herself the shades seemed to move even closer, almost like children getting close to the teacher. Kathleen’s story was of Amsterdam. Boys. Her Mam. She seemed different. Happy. She made a
daisy chain and threaded it through my hair. She talked about a boy called Michael. And how he was the most gorgeous boy she had ever seen.
“Are you going to marry him”?
“No, I’m not.” She giggled a false giggle. “I can’t. He’s Catholic.”
“Does that mean you won’t be able to marry me?”
I didn’t give her time to answer: “We could run away or I would stop going to Mass. “
It was like she didn’t hear me. I went to say it again but she interrupted me with, “He has desert disease.”
“What’s that?
“Wondering palms.”
“What’s that?”
“He keeps trying to put his hands up my jumper”
“Why?”
“Because that’s what boys do.”
“I won’t.”
“You will. You’ll see.”
Silence.
“He pushes himself into me when we are kissing and then rubs himself against me like a dog rubbing itself against a wall.”
Then she said the not-to-say word: “I think he wants to fuck me.”
It was a secret word that I had only heard once before and that was when Paul Rice ran head first into our back gate and Billy Gordon from next door shouted the secret word. I think other people wanted to shout it as well, especially when the bump on the front of Paul’s’ head suddenly grew massive. It was so massive it looked like he had two heads: one filled with his eleven years; the other was filled with pain.

Shade from the trees and rhododendrons were nudging each other; creeping that bit closer. My Catholic church in front of me with its bright red exterior seemed brighter, redder than ever, embarrassed. Shamed. Hiding behind the tall elms.
“What does fuck mean?”
“Shag”.
“What’s a shag?”
The silence between us was deafening.
“We had better start back,” she said.
Walking back home. Kathleen and my bike stayed behind me.

On the part of Blackburn Road where it drops down near the bridge she suddenly rode my bike side-saddle fashion. I had never seen a girl ride side-saddle before. Of course my bike would go along with it. What else could it do? It just couldn’t put the brakes on. Besides it was the first time I had shared my bike with anyone, but it was ok, in fact it was kind of nice knowing it was sharing out the fun. It was great knowing my bike was more than just an ordinary bike; that was because my Dad had built it; that’s why.

But it was more than that. It was a friend -builder, just like the wall. That also was a friend-builder.

For a short while I thought I was losing Kathleen, but she would be back. Ok, she had talked about Holland and then she mentioned how her Mam kept talking about how she would send her to America. America. I thought of Roy Rogers and wearing a bright Roy Rogers shirt while riding my bike down Blackburn Road. Kathleen mentioned New York. Again, the silence again pushed between us.

We said our goodbyes and she kissed me on the side of the cheek. I went all giggly, but held back my tears. She said she would see me again and that was it. She turned and disappeared round the corner I ran after her in the hope of waving to her and maybe get another kiss. There was no sign of her. There was a Humber Hawk drawing away I didn’t see her waving from the back seat. In fact I didn’t see anyone except the driver who wore a black hat like Edward G Robinson.

My tears came back in waves. Then I started wondering if that afternoon had been another dream? How could it have been a dream: I could taste her lipstick.

In my bedroom I cried and cried. Dad knocked on the door. He wouldn’t come into the bedroom. He said it wasn’t the right thing to do because it wasn’t his bedroom. It was my Mam’s.

I followed him down stairs still with tears still in my eyes. It was just before he went through the door leading into the front room when I asked: “What does ‘fuck’ mean?” That startled him. He stopped doing whatever he was doing and then asked me if I would like to go up to the Dunscar Cenotaph again. I agreed, but then I saw him put his teeth in and when Dad put his teeth in I knew he was going to say or do something out of the ordinary. However he did let me take Vick with
me.

There was only me and Dad at the bus stop when he asked me who had said ‘that’ word? He guessed right: “Kathleen?”
I nodded. Then I told him about the blood stains and how Kathleen had said it was something called a ‘period’.
He waited until the bus came. It was Dad who chose to go upstairs. The cigarette smoke fogged the upper deck. I could barely see the grey or blue trilby hats of the men smoking. Vick seemed to be crawling under the smoke. The bus was packed with workmen in overalls that were covered in cotton.

People were sneezing cotton. I wanted to tell them about how to stop it, then thought better of it, besides who would believe a kid talking about something so strange?

Then Dad spoke: “There are two things that are sure to kill you: women and alcohol.” He didn’t give me time to say anything before he said: “Periods are what happens to women once a month. It’s nature’s way of releasing some of the badness, some of the evil from them.” Then he lit a cigarette and didn’t say another word.

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.

…………

Peter Street © 2010