To Wigan via Reykjavik

A Memoir by Peter Street

Chapter Two

An old fire-engine all done up like new was the first to drive towards the border into the unknown Croatia. The Chief Fire Officer in his dress uniform was driving. It was now or never for my first interview. Ok, the whole experience with the bombs in the far background was panicking me and I was beginning to lose my logic between left and right. So I had to distract my mind. “Where are you
going?” shouted the wagon driver.

I ran and jumped on the running board of the fire engine; held out my wonderful microphone Sony had sponsored me with and asked: “So what are you doing here?” Panic had removed my memory of eating peanuts so when I spoke a blunderbuss of peanuts blasted him and his highly polished buttons. Picking the bits from his face and his tunic, He answered me calmly with: “I’m driving this down to a village in Croatia. It’s a gift from the East Midlands Fire Brigade.”

…………

ZAGREB CAMP

Our wagons rock, jerk
through lines of pot-holes
a foot deep in a cinder path
where children walk barefoot.

It’s a ride down
into something I don’t understand;
a dog shelter where at least
one hundred families live,

who beg out their hands
and cough loud barking coughs.

Naked kids swapping boredom
for disease under a tap
splashing cold silver
into mud pies.

Our interpreter - an English Lit. student,
his family wiped out,
is talking of Shelley in a waste land
such as Eliot never saw.

…………………..

1957/58 Mam had now freed me of my liberty bodice only to replace it with a set of rosary beads; now I was a true Catholic they would protect me from T.B. Or anything else the world could throw at me including the hunch-back hanging on the back of my bedroom door.

The late summer of ’57 I was six weeks out of school looking after my Dad’s dysentery ( he swore he brought back from the Black and Tans) strange because no-one from school came to find out where I was and what I was doing. For those few weeks my job then was to give Dad the traditional Doctor’s medicine, plus a boiled egg: with its shell (crushed) in a cup with butter, salt and pepper which Uncle Peter promised would put a lining on Dad’s stomach. I did this once in the morning, once at night with an afternoon matinee!

At least Mam didn’t try giving him “Syrup of Figs”. This was her remedy for everything from bee-stings to bad chest colds. I think it was an Irish thing: “If your bowels are working then everything else is ok.” is what she used to say.

So, Mam went to work while I looked after Dad. It was ok, but the vomiting and diarrhoea used to tire him and then he would tell me things about women and how they bleed once a month and other things like that which I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about: to me blood only happens when you cut yourself on a sharp knife or when you came off your bike!

While Dad slept I made friends with a red brick wall in our back street opposite our back gate. This wall became my confidante especially when there were no other kids about and up until this point my football skills were none existent. That ended in those few weeks I was looking after Dad. That wall took everything I could kick at it. Not only that, it helped me to make friends with other kids. That wall was an all rounder. It was part of our footy and cricket teams. The girls played “two ball” with it. Kathleen even felt safe doing handstands against it with her skirt tucked up into her knickers. It was the best wall any kid could ask for. If I wanted to kick the ball about or scream or whatever: it was there. It always played goal-keeper while the rest of us got on with being Bobby Charlton or Duncan Edwards. When it was too hot to play football the wall let us chalk wickets on it. Then the pavement came in on the action with hop-scotch. The lamp-post joined in our skipping games. Life was good. Strange but good.

Saturday morning’s Turkish bath:
steam rising out of a dolly-tub.

Cut-in-two, Mam is humping
a wash-board, hands
grabbing at the shoulders
of a navy blue shirt -

It goes down for the third time,
its blue-black arches, bubbles up.
She thumps, lifts, squeezes,
slops it into the corner.

His clothes dripping from her forehead,
Dad watches telly,
flicking fags on the carpet, a six-by-four
ash-tray stretched the length of
our front room.

The wall and I were having a friendly game of footy when two strangers: man and woman walked into our back street. They stopped, watched me for a second or two then the man kicked the bottom of the gate (you couldn’t open it otherwise - Dad had been meaning to mend it for years!)

I hadn’t even scored a goal before the shouting and screaming from our kitchen started. Then the woman came out drenched from head to foot. Water was everywhere. From the back gate the man pointed to me shouting: “Only if you get rid of her and that little bastard out here!” I don’t know who they were but I never saw them again.

…………

Our front door was wide open after returning home from school. I went into shock mode: Mam and Dad were working. I shouted something. Nothing. I shouted again. Nothing. I wanted to leave but somehow couldn’t. Vick my dog was silent.

The stairs were silent. So too were the upstairs bedrooms who usual greeted me with at least one creek. Nothing.

The door to our front room opened and Dad was standing there with a bike chain in his hand. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” he said.

A white dust-sheet in the shape of a ghost was lying on the carpet in front of him, the rusty innards from this kid’s two wheeler bike was on one side of Dad while new parts: new chain, brake blocks, reflectors, seat, a dynamo, even new pedals waited excitedly on the other side of him. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the other bits. I sat down and watched him put it all back together. Dad didn’t say a word. He just lit up a woodbine and that was that. I was crying with both joy and excitement: Dad threw all the old bits into the middle of the ghost on the carpet tied the four corners up and then carried the lot out over his shoulder and then let it crash down near the dust bin.

He then went outside for a few minutes and just stood at the gate looking left and right. I don’t know what he was looking for but he seemed to spend ages there, then he came back with another cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth he looked like he was going to say something. But he didn’t. He set about fixing all the new bits onto the frame I was asking him all sorts like where did he get the bike from. Nothing. (I never found out where it came from) It was the best bike in our row.

The following weekend, the four of us: Mam, Dad, me and my bike made our way down Tippings Brew. The bike was next to Mam. I was next to Dad when he suddenly started talking about some old Hollywood film stars: Tom Mix, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney like he somehow knew them personally. He told me about how Tom Mix was a really good friend with the real Wyatt Earp and how Fatty Arbuckle got into some trouble with a woman – I’m sure he mentioned murder! Whatever it was Dad told me that Arbuckle got off with it but he was never seen in films again. Dad was in the middle of telling me something about James Cagney and a real snipers bullet grazing his head in the film: “Angels with Dirty Faces” when he came and held the seat to my bike and told me to climb on.

I tried and tried to ride it but kept falling off. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to go home: my bike was just stretched out on the floor not even an inch of wheel was moving. Then Dad went over and got the bike, wiped the dirt from it and sort of polished the seat with a duster from his pocket and the pair of them came back over to me. It was the way he held the seat. I know it sounds crazy but it was like they somehow seemed to know each other? Then Dad started repeating the James Cagney story and again how Cagney ducked real live bullets in the film: Angels With Dirty Faces, I didn’t understand why he was telling me the same thing again and again, he had never done this before in fact he had never really talked about Cagney before except to tell me about him being a fabulous dancer who came from a very poor upbringing. Dad pointed
over to Mam saying, “Cagney’s Mam was Irish too.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant. Again and again Dad was telling the Cagney story: the film makers used army or police snipers to fire at the upstairs windows in the film and how one live bullet just grazed Cagney.

When Dad suddenly let go of the seat and me and my bike were on our own and I was pedalling like mad without any fear. Mam was screaming something about me slowing down. Dad didn’t smile, clap, cheer or anything like that! He lit up a Woodbine, tipped his hat back like Humphrey Bogart and just waited for me to slow down.

When both me and my bike had had enough, we stopped. I ran over to Dad and jumped into his arms. Then for some reason he started crying. Mam said he had a bad cold. But I knew it was more than that!

The bike went home with Mam. Dad said we had to celebrate at one of his mates who had a bar. The place was Jack Sheff’s Temperance Bar in Waterloo Street just near to the “Empire Cinema”. Within a couple of minutes of us being there, Dad went over and put some money into the juke box and the place started rocking to Tommy Steel “Singing The Blues” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls Of Fire”. There were two Black guys in lime green suits who said hello to Dad and we went sitting with them.
“Is this him?” they said in a strange accent.
“Yes,” Dad said. “This is Peter.”

I don’t think I said anything. I just couldn’t stop staring at them. I had never seen a black person never mind shake their hands. Also, I had never seen a lime-green suit before. Then they all started talking and laughing and Dad said: “You know they tried shooting Jack Johnson after he won the title!” The two black guys stopped talking and listened to Dad. My Dad was telling them all about a boxer called Jack Johnson, then Dad was up on his feet throwing a left and right. Like shadow boxing into nothing. Other people in the temperance bar came and listened to him talking about this first black boxer and some Olympic champion, Jesse Owens. We stayed until it was nearly time for our dinner. On the way back home people were waving and shouting across the road to Dad. He shouted and waved back. We went into one of the many pawn shops where Dad shook hands with the big guy with a big nose who wore a big gold watch over a big belly. Dad and him were both looking in one of the many glass cases. “That one there!” Dad said. Pointing to a Hopalong Cassidy wrist watch. The big man just lifted up the big lid and gave it to me. There was no money handed over. As far as I can remember Dad never paid out any money to anyone especially to any of the pawnshops.

It was all strange how I used to hear both kids and grown-ups saying this cost this much or that cost so much. I can never remember those words ever being said both with Mam and Dad. Yet Mam always took me down to the shops in Bolton to get new clothes. I had new clothes galore. If I needed new football boots, Mam would take me down to The Sports Shop down Blackburn Road. As soon as we walked in the shop, the owner would ask: “How’s Tommy?” and then as we were leaving he always said “Give my regards to Tommy” Strange how everyone seemed to know him and never a bad word was ever mentioned about him.

On a summer’s weekend Mam took me up to the bus terminus in Belmont Village. Next to that is Belmont Yachting Club. I had never seen anything as glorious. There were yachts of all shapes sizes and colours. Mam rested while I tried peeping though the fence. Then we walked down to the Blue Lagoon reservoir (Wards Reservoir) where other kids around my age were swimming and diving off the jetty. I took my socks and shoes off I was only ankle deep when she came in her bare-feet and gripped my jumper. “That’s as far has you go!”

I had never known anything so cold. It was like putting my feet into a bucket of ice.
“It’s very dangerous!”
“But they’re swimming and jumping in”
“They’ll regret or their parents will for letting them in there on their own!”

BEAUTY SPOT - BLUE LAGOON: BELMONT

Trees scurry down
to the water’s edge
wave their arms
trying to warn kids

away from a black jetty
over the reservoir with
a bad reputation for taking
anyone

even young boys
strong, who jump in
for the fun of it – maybe a dare,
a kiss, a first fumble

what-ever but innocence
makes no difference not
with this baby when its hot
and conscience

compassions are frozen
miles below shackled to all
those kids just sitting there
arms folded waiting in a long

long line for something to happen

I had never seen her looking so frightened. After we dried our feet we went to have our butties. First, Mam took out a little bottle of water splashed some onto her fingers and then crossed me saying out loud: “ In The Name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost Amen” We said prayers before we ate and then Mam announced she would like it if I became a priest. But first she said to me that I really needed to learn how to look after myself. “No old crows would be looking after you.”

“We’ll start with cooking,” she said. We started with eggs. I had eggs in cups with butter, salt and pepper, boiled eggs with and without soldiers. I had fried eggs with toast, poached eggs and something which I had never heard of: omelettes. Eggs were everywhere. While Mam was at work I was now cooking eggs. Vick, my dog, was my chief taster who soon became fed up with eggs. Both of us were bunged up. So, Mam brought out the Syrup of Figs. It was awful. If I had to suffer the taste then so should Vick. I think I gave him too much of the figs stuff because he couldn’t stop pooing. Poo was everywhere. Mam wasn’t best pleased, so she gave me another spoonful of the figs just for good measure! Vick and me made up a few hours later and became best friends again.

(In School the teachers were telling us we had to sleep with our arms crossed over our chest in case we died in our sleep so we would go straight to Heaven. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t get to sleep like that. That kept me awake thinking if I wasn’t going to Heaven then where would I go? )

Sewing was next. “You always have to have a button-box,” she said. I knew about Mam’s button-box from the time my button came off the top of my trousers and the way she told me to take them off, sit down and she would show me how to find the right button and sew it back on. Everything was all to do with priesthood in mind. I had to learn “little jobs” as Mam called them. So, it started with Mam putting her hand in the tin box and bringing out the first button she found. Whatever size or colour the first button was, that was the button she always used regardless of size or colour. Yes, the other kids made fun of my yellow button just has they did with the zip-up winter bootees. At least she didn’t force me to wear anything that was mocked. I think school became a kind of testing ground for all of Mam’s clothing ideas. I often think Mam was a frustrated fashion designer. Especially after the double thickness six foot red, black and yellow scarf, she knitted from old jumpers she found at ‘rummage sales’ and then re-cycled into scarves socks even gloves. The crème de la crème was a scarf that I could push one end up inside itself and my scarf would turn into a bob hat and scarf. OK, it never really left our house especially through the day it was so modern, so futuristic. I was too frightened to wear it, besides the scarf, I had to try and hide the button box. I thought of burying it in the back garden but Mam sees everything and would notice where I had been digging. The best place where no-one would look would be the coal-shed attached to the house. When I went to look for the button-box it was nowhere to be found. I think Mam must have hid it from me!

That weekend she decided after masses of pestering from me to go and see the ’moon-men’ who lived and worked on the moors north of Bolton. It was both exciting and frightening to see men. Real men who were coloured head to toe in bright orange or luminous green or crimson red – head to toe. There was not one bit of earth skin shown. And they stood there waving and pointing at us like me and Mam we were some sort of attraction at the zoo. I wanted to both run and stay. I wanted to know what they were doing. Why they were the colour they were?

Going out somewhere with Mam was always routine: she would make corn-beef butties and would wrap them in a tea towel and we’d take a bottle of water with us for drinking. I was both nervous and excited at seeing the ‘moon-men’. ( of Belmont Dye Works) But even stranger was the present my Dad had left me. It was a three-foot oak yacht with white canvas sails that hoisted up and down. It had a thin fifty-foot length of string tied to the back of it. No-one I knew had ever said they owned a yacht. It was fantastic. (Even now I never really found out where it came from and how Dad managed to own it.)

Before the ‘moon-men.’, Mam took me to play on the water of Dunscar Boating Lake. I could have stayed there all day just pulling and pushing the yacht in and out of the water. Dusk was coming in and we had to see the ‘moon-men’.

We were about the size of a football pitch away when the lights from the space station just seem to pop up. Even from that distance away we could just make out some ‘moon-men’ standing under the lights, smoke was rising up from their brightly coloured heads. Butterflies were all over my inner stomach. I held Mam’s hand, tight, like I had never held it before. I wanted to say something but couldn’t. It was Mam who first spoke, “Peter, you’re hurting my hand.” We were ready to hurry up the path leading past them, past the lights and past the high fence. When one of the gang who were all coloured royal blue (even their hair was royal blue) started walking towards us.

That night I had dreams about flying. Every part of me was bright green. Even my hair was green. I never saw the ‘moon’ men after that. I asked and asked. Mam just said something about them: The Dye Works had since closed down.

………….

I was now going to Confession once a fortnight. I was going to the 7.30 Morning Mass before school and having Communion. Confession seemed to be my biggest challenge. I am sure every time I went in that black box Father Barr used to end up laughing: I know he did at least once and that was because of Mam’s button box and how I tried to hide it. Also, I didn’t like the way I had to squeeze my sins through the wire mesh in front of me and listen to them crashing onto Father Barr’s lap. The sound of the sins crashing depended of the weight of the sin. I told Father Barr about the button box and how I wasn’t “Honouring my father and mother.” No matter where I hid that button box Mam always found it. I sometimes think my parents used Vick to smell things out a ‘trail’ I had somehow left. I am sure my dog sold his soul for a lamb chop bone! Mam was now collecting pieces of fur from some of the church ‘rummage sales’ Soon there were two bags of fur: all various shades of fur waiting at the side of her bed. That was until she decided to sew all the pieces together, making one large fur coat. It was highly skilled project with no seams showing (it lasted her for a further forty years!) Dad liked it. She used to wear it when she took me to watch the latest movie release.

This was about the time Dad gave me my very first real bow and arrow and he started to talk to me about Indians. Native American Indians he called them and told me about how the real life General Custer was nothing like the one in the movies. He talked about Custer like he was some evil person. Like he somehow deserved to die? I never found out where he got all his info from. Yes, I asked. I asked a few times where he got it from and how did he know of such things, but he never said. The four of us: Vick, bow, my arrow and me became inseparable. The only time we were apart was when I was at school and church.

My hero was Robin Hood (Richard Green) and in my back garden I must have shot the “Sheriff of Nottingham” a thousand times! Now Dad could see I was getting serious about my bow and arrows; he made a target for me from a pillow case tied and stuffed it with straw for the steel-tipped arrows to dive head first into the three red circles. Great. Then he hung it onto the house side of the garden gate. Me and my bow and arrows became inseparable. I even took them to bed just in case the hunchback hanging on the back of the bedroom door ever woke up.

It was around this time I started dreaming about Kathleen. The dreams were as real as breathing. It was around the end of July, maybe August. I saw and heard her saying, “Meet me in our place behind the bowling shed in Astley Bridge Park around 4pm”.

Everything about it was real: her voice, the way her dark eyes looked at me. It was the way she said she needed to talk to me about something. What? That was Kathleen. She always wanted to share what had happened to her. I took my ball. And my bow and arrows with me, then I kind of forgot to tell Mam where I was going and how long I would be. I knew this was going to be the best Friday ever. I could feel it. It had been at least a year since we last met. I also had so much to tell her. It was all so magical. I often dreamed and wondered: where in the world was she? Now I was going to find out and we would sit there in our secret place behind the bowling shed.

It was almost dark when Mam, along with Dad, found me sitting on my ball. I was sobbing thinking something must have happened to her. I could see Mam had been crying. Dad put his arm around me and gently asked who was I waiting for? I didn’t answer. I had no spending money for two weeks.

Mam wrote to my Aunty Pat asking if I could spend a couple of weeks at their place in Aspull with her and my three other aunties: Margaret, Mary and Eileen. Dad wasn’t keen. The thought of me being with all those women nearly blew his mind. I had never seen him so agitated. Then he told me about how he took a bag of coal to them in Aspull (on the bus), when he arrived there. It was late, there were thunderstorms and torrential rain and so he asked if he could sleep on their sofa. Grandma refused and said he had to make his own way home. It took him six hours!

Dad was worried. Really worried about me being in a houseful of women. But everything had been agreed; I was going to spend my last two weeks of the big holiday with my aunties. I think Mam must have seen it as some kind of convalescence place for me after the park incident. But at least I was allowed to take my bow and arrows to shoot in the then, ghost grounds of Haigh Hall.

Everything was great; Aunty Pat was the best aunty any kid in the world could ask for. Every night I used to sleep with her in her double bed. It was so warm as opposed to sleeping on my own. She even let me sleep with my bow and arrows at my side in bed with me. Great until a couple of mornings later there was a large patch of blood on the sheets where Pat had been sleeping. I started crying, thinking that somehow in the night I had been dreaming and had stabbed my aunty Pat with my arrows. I was frightened. I didn’t know what to do. I was in the middle of saying sorry when Pat started laughing. When I asked about the blood on the sheets she said, “Oh, it’s nothing.” And left it at that. Everything was so confusing. Also, I was so mixed up at why they would talk to me but never Mam. My Mam their sister. None of it made sense. I said I wanted to go home.

DUNSCAR CENOTAPH
For Thomas Edgar Street

Pals, all of them
buried there right in front of us
underneath “Keep Off The Grass”,

as if they’ve been carried here
from where ever they fell
for me and Dad

who, every time we stand here
on the edge, holds his black trilby
tight to his chest

trying to tell me
about his trench
and something or other
about some gas

I almost lose balance
and stumble
into their sacred ground
on top of them

Peter Street © 2010