To Wigan via Reykjavik

A Memoir by Peter Street

Part One

Chapter One

“Children are still being killed in the war in Croatia!” said the two Police Officers being interviewed on the B.B.C. Radio program: “Who Cares?”

Then he really hit us with: “We believe some have even witnessed their parents being executed!”
I wanted to say something but couldn’t think what.

“So we are looking for volunteers to help us load the wagons and we still need more money or supplies to help those families out there. You can see it yourself on your TV that the war is still raging.”

I was showing them out of the studios when - knowing they’d probably say 'maybe next time' - I thought I would ask anyway: “I’d love to come with you.”
“We’d love to have you join us. We are leaving in six weeks.”
“I’ll be ready.”
Ev, my immediate boss at the Radio Station, said “I don’t want you to go. It’s not for you, please don’t go.’”
………….

“Who is going to look after you; if you are ill?” screamed my wife.
“Do they know about you…. Have you told them?”
…………

Bombs were thudding in the far distance from where we were all standing with rest of the convoy on the Slovenian – Croatian border. We were nervous as to what we were going into with this; the biggest humanitarian convoy ever which had all been organised by the various Police forces around England.

About three hundred Police Officers, Medics, Support Workers, Journalists and then me the Poet in Residence for the B.B.C. Who Cares? radio programme climbed back into our fifty or so articulated wagons between borders on that summer morning of June 1993; ready to go in……

……………

September 1948. No one really knew Thomas Edgar Street even though he had worked in Hesketh’s Cotton Mill for nearly thirty years. He wasn’t weird or anything like that; he just wasn’t talkative. His job was stoking the fires deep in the ‘fire-hole’ below ground level where very few entered except for maybe the police or such like who brought in dead dogs or cats to be ‘got rid of’ in the fires. .
……………

Catherine Conroy was alone on the outside wall of the cotton mill eating her dinner when Thomas Edgar Street walked over to her and with out even saying hello asked: “So when is the baby due?”
“In four months.”
“Is it right you jilted him at the altar?”
“That’s right. What on this earth has it got to do with you?”

Christmas 1948. Being a Christmas baby; Mam had planned to call me Gabriel or Noel! Then Uncle Peter suddenly died a fortnight before. So, she pushed me into the hands of a Wigan mid-wife in Billinge Hospital around one o’clock, Christmas morning and re-named me Peter. For eighteen months, she coped with the loneliness, name-calling, and the abuse from other local women who didn’t even know her. She accepted that, but to have women from her own village who she had shared nappies, knickers, nylons and lipstick with, became too much, especially when they started to shout out: “How’s that little bastard of yours?”

She now understood why the other single Mam from her village ended the abuse in the cold waters of the local canal? Mam never understood why it was her so-called friends from childhood. Women she had worked on the ammunitions with; women who had lost boyfriends and husbands to the Germans. Women who had stuck together and supported each other through whatever and they did support each other except when a new born baby out of wedlock was involved. Then everything changed!

August 1952 when Thomas Edgar Street approached Mam again, this time it was with a bizarre deal. He needed someone to be his live-in housekeeper: laundry, cooking – that sort of thing. Mam accepted, but on her terms. Terms she wrote down there and then while sitting on the outside wall of the mill, she wrote in pencil, on a rough piece of paper and then signed it near to her bag of chips and a pot of cold tea! Neither knew anything about each other – but it was one of those moments and Mam grabbed it with both hands.

October 1952. It was a register office marriage which Mam, being a Catholic, didn’t really recognise. But it’s what he wanted. Yes, she wore the ring – but that was as far as it went! There were two witnesses: myself ( in law didn’t count) who suddenly changed from being Peter Conroy to Peter Street and the only really close friend Mam had: Abrahana a young Dutch woman who had escaped the Nazis with her baby in arms, Kathleen, who was just four years older than me.
………………
I had a wonderful childhood: strange, but wonderful. Strange in the sense my Dad, Thomas Edgar Street, was nearly sixty years older than me. Even stranger was the lie my Mam and Dad lived while in the house I grew up in: a large four bed-roomed Victorian house on Blackburn Road, Bolton. To the outside world they were an ordinary married couple with all the usual problems of a nineteen fifties working class household. Wrong. For a start Mam was from an Irish Catholic family, who had witnessed the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans.

Strange because Dad, an Englishman was sent from the W.W.1. trenches to work alongside the Black and Tans (who he hated with a vengeance) in trying to help keep the I.R.A down. Michael Collins, Irish politics and religion were only ever mentioned when Mam was out of the house.

Then a few times I used to hear him say: “I hate Irish women, all those Irish bitches used to entice British soldiers into the hay barns!” It was the only time I ever saw him angry. “Men,” He would
say. “From the Michael Collins brigade would be waiting for them!”

Maybe this was the reason why Mam and I slept in one bedroom while Dad slept in the other? Mam only going into his room to collect his laundry and the usual cleaning chores. Like good parents, they would sit down stairs in the front room enjoying each others company where they played cards, watched telly, then at bedtime they would wish each other goodnight, I would get a kiss from Dad and then he would go into his room and we would go into ours.

Meal times we each had our own jobs: Mam would do the cooking, Dad would set the table and make sure the room was warm enough, while my job, before we started eating was to close all the curtains in the house. Table cleared I had to go back round and open all the curtains again. No reasons were ever given for this pantomime!

339, Blackburn Road was full of secrets. Every room in the house seemed to hold some secret. There were even secrets on the shelf above the kitchen door. Secrets I found covered in dust like those big leather-toed football boots that were too small for my feet. The pen-knife with the ivory cover and there was a tiny tie-pin in the shape of an Alsatian dog. Mam or Dad always dismissed my questions about those items and told me never speak of them. If I did play with them, which I did most of the time when the weather was too bad for playing outside, Mam warned me I had to make sure I had to leave them where ever I found them. Not only that, she said I always had to make sure the chair I used for standing on had to be placed back on the same spot where it came from.

Strange was the promise I had to make to Dad that I would never go down into the cellar, ever, unless he first gave me permission to do so and even then I would have to be with him. It made me think there was something I shouldn’t see or whatever shouldn’t see me! So, I would hurry past the green cellar door where the cold breathing of something from down there used to draft my bare legs. Then one night he let me have one peak, just one peak while he opened the door, but before my eyes focused properly he quickly closed it behind him, slotting a heavy bar across the door to prevent me from opening it and trying to go down there.

Dad oiled the years away
from a large padlock,
then sifted out a key
from the many doors he kept
in his pocket.

He blew off the dust, whistled it,
opened a door leading down
to where monsters lived.
Our kitchen light stretched,
and pushed his shadow down

the bare staircase
into a cold breathing of something
I didn’t want to see.

Strange was the coal shed that was attached to the house in the back yard. A coal shed I remember seemed twice the size of our kitchen. In the coal shed there was a long, thin iron chain dangling from a bolt in the white washed walls. There was an old gas mask, bits of a John Bull printing set, regiments of lead soldiers, a bayonet. None of these things were mine. I used to ask and ask who they belonged to, but I was never given an answer.

Nearly every time I visited Dad in the fire-hole where he worked as a stoker to the fires of a cotton mill; there were always lots of dead dogs and cats lying on the heaps of coal that were next to be incinerated. He would grab hold of them in the best way he could and then throw them into the fires were I watched them melt into nothing. Then he would slop some tea from his pint pot mug into the little cup I kept near one of the boilers. The cup was always hot, but not too hot for me to handle and I would sit and watch while he loaded up the fires and anything else that was to go in that night before he left for home.

I was six maybe going on seven before Mam let me stop wearing a liberty bodice because she insisted I had to protect my chest. Even in summer I still couldn’t go out playing without wearing a woollen of some sort. When there were school dances or such like and all the other boys would be wearing just shirts with no jumpers. I so much wanted, I mean wanted to be just like them. So me and Mam came to a compromise (if you can call it that). She let me wear my fair-Isle jumper underneath my white shirt. Ok everyone could see the yellow and red patterns through the shirt but I felt so grown up.

Another man, a strange man used to visit maybe once a year, who was maybe around the same age as Dad. He would stay all day. He was a big man with a long beard who always had a bath and a full shave and one full plate of Mam’s “bacon hot-pot”. He wore a long coat with old pin-badges covering the lapels. I would sit on a wooden chair watching Mam cut his one year’s growth of hair very short and then Dad and him would spend hours looking at old photographs. Then he would disappear again. I used to call him Uncle Peter I am not sure why, it wasn’t his real name! In fact I don’t think I ever found out his real name!

The only visitor Mam had was her good friend Abrahana and her daughter Kathleen. Kathleen and I would sit in the front room opposite Dad where we would share an easy chair while she would try to teach me the words from a “Jack and Jill” comic. Mam and Abrahana would spend all the time talking in the kitchen. If Dad had to leave the room for whatever reason then Kathleen had to shift away; maybe go into another room until he came back in. Then later Mam and Dad would have words and then Abrahana and Kathleen would leave and then I would hear Dad shout: “I went to court for him – nothing is going to hurt him.” Then Mam would scream: “but she’s only a little girl herself. She can’t hurt him.”

Strange how Dad would walk into the back yard taking his chair, mug of tea and cigarettes with him if any women came to visit Mam. He would stay in the back yard until they left.

Abrahana stopped visiting and I was seeing less and less of Kathleen. Strange how I was never really certain which school she went to. I am sure I would have remembered. She did win some big scholarship thing. After that I would only see her around holiday times. Sometimes it would be a full year before we saw each other. Then we would walk up Blackburn Road and into Astley Bridge Park. It’s where for some reason the both of us always seemed more relaxed, more our true selves. It’s where we would just sit on the grass near the rose beds behind the bowling hut. It was our place where we could share our innermost secrets. Where one or both of us would end up crying in our secret place and it’s where we used to support each other and she would cry at the thought of leaving England because her Mam always, always talked about the time she would return to Holland. She cried and cried at the thought of going to a place where she had no friends. No brothers. No sisters, cousins. Nothing. The Nazis had seen to that!

Afterwards, ready for the outside world we would walk across the park and go on the swings and I would show off on the monkey bars while Kathleen would stand against the park railings just watching everything and everyone go by.

1956/57. I was about eight and Miss Clarkson was giving me lots of nice red ticks in my maths book. Then one day of that year for some strange reason everything in my maths was wrong and I don’t remember getting any more red ticks! Miss Clarkson was really nice. My school was really nice. I had lots of friends. All the doors that were once opened in my mind had suddenly slammed shut. I didn’t know why. I just stopped learning. Not only that but when all the other kids in our class were covering their exercise books with their favourite covers, Christmas wrapping paper or left over bits of wall paper or whatever, they all made it look so easy and it was always clean, tidy and perfect. I tried, really tried but it always seemed to go wrong!

That or it always ended up covered in jam or marmalade. Once it was coal dust after I had been making the fire in the front room. The only time when the teacher shouted at me was when I brought a Ladybird book (Robin Hood) back which my dog had chewed. It had been a bad morning. Ok, I now agree if there had been no jam on the book my dog “Vick” would have left it alone. So my dog had to be punished. The punishment was to be harsh. The dog had to be taught a lesson. That punishment came in the form of a wrestling match with me: Peter Street, wrestling champion of 339 Blackburn Road. I was in the red corner warming up. While Vick sat waiting in the opposite corner near the stand-up radio-gram with the ivory push-pull buttons. It was going to be a walk over.

I wrestled him from the chair and I was underneath him with my head and face between his back legs ready to turn him onto his back for the winning submission when he won the match by peeing on my head and face! Of course I didn’t have time to wash I just wiped my face on Mam’s tea-towel and went to school not thinking anyone would be able to stink me. So, for having the most damaged book in the class and stinking of dog pee, I was made to go and stand outside the classroom in the corridor. If anyone asked me why I was standing there I had to tell them the truth. Of course the whole school thought it was funny, I didn’t. Well, eventually I did and me and “Vick” made up when I returned home from school. It wouldn’t have been so bad if my dog had been some huge snarling Alsatian, but it was only a small black and white mongrel I loved so much.

Sometime after Kathleen and her Mam came round. It was a wet day, Dad was out at work, so Kathleen and I spent the afternoon, first with her showing me how to cover my exercise books, then how to draw straight lines onto blank pieces of paper and in return I let Kathleen twiddle with my hair and paint my face with makeup and lipstick. Great, until Dad noticed over dinner the bits of make-up and lipstick I hadn’t washed off properly. He freaked, saying: “I went to court for him. No girl is going to damage him. That girl Kathleen could never visit again!”
“Ok,” Mam said. Then when he went to the toilet. Mam took me to one side to tell me that I would have to make sure I washed it all of the next time Kathleen came round.

I loved going to school. I had loads of friends. The teachers were great and honestly I tried, I mean I really tried to learn but it just wouldn’t happen. It was the start of the New Year. I was eight going on nine. When our class were taken into the hall for dancing lessons. Great. Something new, it was a kind of formation dance. I just couldn’t grasp the left and right and the cross over type of thing. The teacher used to grab hold of my hand and slowly walked me through it. She was very patient with me and regardless of the many times she did this I just couldn’t grasp it.

NOT BEING ME
- For everyone with dyscalculia and dyspraxia

Childhood nights were dreams
of being a sheep
then up and outside of a morning,
a quick check to see

if by any chance in the night
there had been a change
of being just like all my friends
and not the odd one out

like afternoon dance lessons
spent hidden
in the toilet
out the way because

I couldn’t dance the sheep steps
that’s why I dreamed
of being a sheep
so I could be like everyone else

………………

Peter Street © 2010