Poet on a Hill

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


Straight Thinking?

Hang about.

An advert by Thomson, the travel people, has just appeared on my Facebook page. It is advertising ‘Gay Exclusive’ hotels and holidays. Nay, it goes further. It is also hawking ‘Exclusive Male Gay’ and ‘Exclusive Lesbian’ jollies.

The telephone number is British so this is not some copycat outfit based in Athos or Lesbos. And April the first has gone. So this seems to be from the genuine, tried and tested, British Sunshine pedlars who reside on my local high street.

Now I live in the USSK – United Silly Socialist Kingdom – where freedom of choice and speech is well on the way to being successfully eradicated. So how did this little gem slip through the net?

Christian hoteliers and boarding house keepers would be hounded if they attempted to run an advertising campaign offering ‘Exclusive Heterosexual Accommodation and Holidays.’

I know that I am a bit thick. But I really do need the overall principle behind this thinking explained to me.


A Flash of Pride

We were rattling along the rutted main road into Dinas Powys the other day when we saw this road sign.



2010 eh? And the UK still hasn’t caught up with Romans.

Makes you proud to be British.


The Way it Was

Saturday Morning

A handful of us boys shiver by the Male’s Pool in Manchester’s Gorton Baths, wartime thin and pale as fear. It’s 1944 and I’m 10 years old. The winter wind rips off the Pennines, roars along Hyde Road like a bomb blast then streams through the swing doors of the pool as an icy draught. I hate it here. This little group are all about the same age as me. We’re in the same class at school, 4c, the dunce’s stream. We take the 11+ in June. No chance.

The older lads are in the deep end, larking about. Some of them will be in the army next year, fighting the Germans. Scally’s with them. He’s the wiry one with scars on his back. He was in borstal for robbing and GBH. He got the birch in there. That’s what the scars are. So now he’s a kind of hero. It’s like he was in the war and got wounded. He says he owns the deep end. You can only swim in there if he gives permission. I’m scared of Scally. He puts the wind up everyone.

Sken-eye, the bald-headed perv, was already in the plunge when we came in this morning, kneeling in the shallow end with just his head above water, like that seal we saw on the school trip to Rhyl.

Judder, the woodwork teacher, says there are seals all round the coast, watching the beaches. The Germans put cameras in their heads and use them as spies. Judder should know. He had his brains blown out in the last war. He keeps hitting us on the head with lumps of wood and saying. ‘Sheep are the stupidest animals in the world – except for boys – boys are twice as stupid.’

Smiggy, the red haired lad with no cozzie on, is already in trouble ’cos he jumped off the balcony and depth charged Sken-eye. Tommy, the caretaker, is after him now. Tommy’s the little thin guy with the mop of brown hair, the one in the blue overall, white jacket and gum boots. He spends his life circling the plunge with a scoop in one hand and a brush in the other, swilling and brushing, swilling and brushing. He should be fighting the Germans but he got away with it ’cos he’s not all there. That towel he slings over his shoulder is wet through. If you do anything wrong he drops the brush and flicks the towel at you. In a single move, at 4 paces, he can put a wheal on your body the size of a ten-bob note.

Smiggy’s got no cozzie ’cos his dad’s a prisoner with the Germans – so his mam can’t afford one. The cold water’s shrunk his cock so it looks like a jelly baby at the bottom of his belly. Sken-eye’s always looking at him. You don’t think he is, ’cos of his squint. You think he’s looking at you but he’s really looking at Smiggy ’cos he’s got nothing on. That’s why Smiggy depth charges him ...

It was January-dark when I came downstairs this morning. Gran’s house is lit by gas and the mantles don’t give much light. Maggie was already there, kneeling in the hearth, holding her knickers in front of the fire ’cos she’d peed the bed again. She’s grown up really, thin with ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. I get butterflies when I look at her. Gran makes fun of her ’cos she’s 17 and shouldn’t pee the bed. Maggie says it’s the cold that does it. But Gran says it’s ’cos she’s scared to go outside in the dark and too much of a lady to squat over a jerry.

I’m hacking a chunk of bread off the loaf when Gran goes past with a jerry full of pee. She keeps it under the bed. There’s a turd in it this morning. She’s gone through the lean-to kitchen into the yard where the toilet is. She agrees with Maggie really. It’s too dark and scary to go out there at night; freezing cold as well.

Both of Gran’s arms are covered in massive scars. She told me she had tattoos cut out. But auntie Kath told Maggie it was boiling fat from the chip-pan that did it. Uncle Dan went to throw it over Aunt Amy but Gran dived in and wrestled with him, so she got the lot.

I stick a fork in the bread then go and kneel beside Maggie and shove it against the bars of the grate. I can smell warm pee off her knickers. ‘Gran,’ she shouts, when Gran comes back in. ‘Stop him. He keeps looking at my knickers.’

‘No I don’t!’ I shout. ‘I’m making toast. It’s my breakfast.’ But I blush ’cos I do keep looking. I can’t help it.

‘He does! He keeps looking! Look! His toast’s on fire.’

Thwack! Gran cuffs me across the back of the head. ‘Leave her alone! Look what you’re doing!’

‘I am looking. I like it black. It’s not fair.’

I go into the backyard and feed scraps to the hens. The yard’s tiny really, surrounded by a high wall with just enough room for the toilet, dustbin and homemade coop. The coop’s got a rusty mesh front and piece of old plywood for a door. The hens are really happy here. We let them run round the flagstones all day and they lay eggs as presents. They’re like cousins to Maggie and me. We let them in the kitchen but Gran chases them out. They all come clamouring when I come with scraps. Captain Marryat always pushes to the front. She’s my favourite – and she knows it. Gran got the hens as day old chicks. Captain Marryat was the runt and Gran gave up on her because she thought she’d die. But I saved her. I kept her in a shoebox in the hearth by the fire and fed her spoonfuls of water and crumbs and things. Now she’s the biggest and strongest. She pushes to the front when I come out because she remembers what I did. When I call her name she always comes scurrying. I call her Captain Marryat ’cos he’s my favourite author. I’m going to be a sailor when I leave school. I’ll grow a beard and get weather-beaten and all the girls will fancy me.

This is cleaning day. Maggie’s in her flowery overall-coat with bare legs and feet. The overall just hangs on her but you know that, underneath, she’s like … this special shape. She seems to be swaying and flowing all over when she walks. It’s like she’s dancing but she isn’t … On Saturday night, when she goes to the dance at the Alhambra where the Yanks are, she puts pale goldie-brown paint on her legs to pretend she’s got stockings on. I love to watch her painting her legs. She knows I do and gives little smiles to herself. I pretend not to be watching and she pretends not to know I’m watching. It’s like an exciting game as she pulls up her skirt to paint above her knees. Now I’ve got butterflies again. On Saturdays she ties a scarf round her head like a turban then scatters last weeks wet tealeaves over the stone floor. We keep the tealeaves in a box on the slopstone. They look like dollops of mud to me but Gran says they soak up the dust. I ask Gran if I can go to the baths. She says; ‘Yes. There’s threpence on the sideboard. Gerrout o’ my sight.’

I walk to the baths because I can’t afford the bus fare. None of us can. It’s about two miles. I meet Smiggy and Sid on the way. Sid’s the dark lad with shifty eyes. His dad’s in Burma, fighting the Japs, but you can’t trust Sid. I’ve got to watch both these two lads ’cos they bully me; beat me up and pinch stuff out of my gasmask box, like my lunch and marbles and bits of shrapnel I keep as souvenirs after the air raids; depends what mood they’re in. Today’s a good day so it’s all right. They don’t know I’ve joined the LNER boxing gym and started training. The best bit I’ve learnt is that punches don’t hurt till the next day. Joe, the coach, said I could make a middleweight champ when I grow up. I just need a bit of polishing that’s all. So the next time Sid and Smiggy try it on I’ll tear into them ...

Here in the baths, us kids are sitting in the tubs with our teeth chattering. I spend most of every Saturday morning sitting in the tubs ’cos the plunge is too cold. There’s no coal to heat the water. The ships need it to go to America to bring back food and ammo to keep us going against the Germans. I’ll be on one of those ships one day – with a brown face, tattoos, and rings in my ears.

The tubs are like a narrow trench with tiles along the bottom and sides and a trickle of warm water about half an inch deep, running along the bottom. You’re supposed to come in here and wash yourself before you go in the plunge. It’s the only warm water and bath us kids ever see. We sit in a long line, one behind the other, knees drawn up, hugging our legs and shivering. It’s the best moment of the week. But every now and again Tommy goes into his office and turns the control to cold so we are suddenly sitting in freezing water. Then he comes out flicking his wet towel at us and driving us into the plunge like those panicking redskins you see in cowboy films.

Worse than that is when Sken-eye comes in. You never see him coming. He just appears. The first you know is when one of the lads gives a yell and goes haring past towards the plunge, followed by another and another. Then suddenly you feel his hands on your shoulders and these skinny white thighs appear on either side of you, and you know it’s your turn. Then you’re up and screaming as you go racing and leaping into the freezing water. Then, for a moment, the icy plunge, full of shaking blue kids, seems to be the safest place in the world; until Sken-eye’s head pops up right next to you …

On the way to the baths, in Gorton Lane, Smiggy and Sid stop to throw stones at a cat that’s sitting on the roof of a communal street-air-raid-shelter. I don’t join in ’cos I can’t throw straight. The stones never go where I want them to. I had a practice session in a back alley a couple of weeks back. There’s this cat sitting on Mrs Coxie’s backyard wall so I throw a stone at it. But I miss and it smashes her kitchen window, a sudden crash and shattering glass. So I leg it out of there like I do when Sken-eye puts his hand on my shoulder. I thought I’d got away with it but Long Lily Holmes was looking through her bedroom window. The stupid cow split on me and told the other women it was me. The next day they were all shouting at me in the street and saying I should be in borstal because Mrs Coxie’s son, Billy, was killed at Dunkirk, and her other son, Jimmy, is missing at the front and she still wears black. That’s not my fault. The Germans did that. I liked Billy. When they were home on leave and I was small, Billy and Charlie Cummins used to pick me up and throw me to each other like I was a ball. But worst of all, when I said I didn’t break the window, they didn’t believe me. That’s not fair. They believed Long Lily and she’s mad. She’s about seven feet tall, with this little round head, white face, and basin-cut hair; thin as a lamp-post with a long black skirt that goes down to her feet. They believe her but they don’t believe me. Florrie Ogden’s mam says I should get the birch. That’s not fair either. Anyway, Florrie’s mam has her hair cut short like a man. That’s weird that is. I think she’s got nits. But it’s always like this. No one ever believes me when I say I didn’t do things. It’s not fair. It wasn’t their cat anyway.

Eileen Hodge is in the baths today. She was going into the girl’s pool with a rolled up towel when I was coming in here. Eileen makes me feel funny too, like Maggie does. She’s not as old as Maggie though. And she doesn’t sway like a flower in the wind when she walks. But she has this bright face, smooth and shiny like an angel’s. A lot of girls have angel’s faces. I wonder if any of those in the pool next door have no cozzies on – like Smiggy? There’s a connecting door between the two baths but it’s always locked and the keyhole’s blocked. I try looking through it every week but I never see anything. Tommy caught me one week and flicked me with the towel. It hurt for days. The mark was still there two weeks later.

There’s a scary thing about girls though. My cousin Jake told me. When they get to Maggie’s age they get hairs on the belly and give you diseases if you have-it-off with them. It’s hard to believe that Maggie’s full of disease. But she is. They all are. Jake said you get covered in boils then go blind and mad and die. I don’t know why girls do that. But Jake says that’s why the Yanks wear wallah-bags when they take them up back alleys to give them nylons and a good seeing-to. I know Jake’s right ’cos I’ve seen loads of wallah-bags in the back alleys. Jake found one in my Gran’s back entry one day and took it to school. He was passing it round in the math’s lesson when Ratty Ritchie, the teacher, saw him and flung a wooden board-duster at him. It gave Jake a massive lump in the middle of his forehead that went all yellow and purple. Auntie Fanny, Jake’s mam, kept asking how he got it and he kept saying one of the senior lads threw a stone at him. He daren’t tell her that Ratty did it ’cos he took a wallah-bag to school or else she’d kill him – kill Jake not Ratty. Mind you, Ratty should be killed. He’s as mad as a cornered canal rat. That’s why we call him Ratty. His brains were blown out in the last war too. All our teachers are old ’cos everyone young is in this war. All the men went mad in the last war and take it out on us. And the women are witches with tartan legs and a stink of pee. They all hate me – men and women. I don’t know why ...

All the kids are crowding on the side now, looking across the water, gawping and sniggering. ‘What’s up?’ I shout, running to join them.

‘Sken-eye – look at ‘im,’ says Smiggy.

I look over the water at Sken-eye’s cabin. It’s just like all the other cabins, with a half-door at the bottom and a green canvas curtain that you can pull across the top. When you’re changing you close the door and leave the curtain open so you can see outside but other people can’t see your whatsit. Sken-eye does it different. He draws the curtain and leaves the door open so that you just see the bottom part of his body.

‘He’s got an ’ard on,’ says Sid.

‘I can see that but why’s it bent?’ I want to know.

‘’Cos he’s had it off with a woman,’ says Silver, one of the big lads who’s just swum down from the deep end to have a look and is now in the plunge at our feet. Silver’s only got one real leg. The other’s a wooden peg. That’s why we call him Silver – ’cos he has a peg-leg. The other leg was blown off in the bombing. He takes his peg off to come in the water but he’s the best swimmer in the baths.

I wish I had a peg leg. I’d go to sea as a cook and have tattoos and a parrot on my shoulder. And I wouldn’t have to play football. I hate football ’cos I can’t kick. The ball never goes where I want it too. Then all my team shout at me and punch me. It happens every time. The teacher says I’ll always be rubbish ’cos I don’t kick with my instep. I don’t know what he’s on about. I don’t have insteps – only feet and boots.

‘Do girls bend your cock?’ I ask Silver. I can feel another problem coming on.

‘They can tie it in knots,’ he says.

The world suddenly feels empty. Jake said the two most beautiful people I know, Maggie and Eileen, get hairs on their bellies and give you boils and send you blind. And now Silver says that if I have-it-off with them they’ll tie my cock in a knot. I feel scared and excited at the same time. But I’ll still do it if they ask me.

I’m glad Sken-eye’s going home. He makes me jumpy. He’s always grabbing kids by the arm and asking them to go back to his house for dinner. He says he’ll give you a bag of chips and half-a-crown if you go home with him. It sounds dead good really, chips and half-a-crown. He asks me sometimes but I never know who he’s talking to, ‘cos of his squint. I always think he’s talking to someone else. Then he suddenly thumps me in the chest and tells Tommy I’m ‘bloody stupid.’ Then Tommy throws a scoop of freezing water over me to wake me up. It’s not fair. It’s not my fault he’s cockeyed.

For ages now, the big lads have been telling us not to go anywhere with Sken-eye. Scally says he’ll beat us up if he sees us going outside with him. It all started on that day when Smiggy was shouting across to me in the plunge. Smiggy yells, ‘Hey! Sken-eye’s asked me to go for dinner at ‘is ‘ouse.’

And I shouts, ‘Why?’

And Smiggy shouts, ‘I dunno. But he says he’ll give me a bag o’ chips and ’alf-a-crown if I go ’ome with ’im.’

And I shouts, ‘Wow. That’s worth a fortune that is.’

Scally and Silver are swimming past at the time, on their way from the deep end to the tubs. But they hear us shouting – and stop. ‘You don’t go anywhere with him,’ says Scally, rubbing chlorine from his eyes.

‘Why?’ I ask, cringing in case he lashes out. He doesn’t like cheek.

‘’Cos he’s queer,’ says Silver, hopping on his real leg and steadying himself with his arms in the water.

‘What do you mean – queer?’ says Smiggy, who’s just swum across to us.

‘He shoves his cock up your arse till your eyes pop out,’ says Scally, grabbing Smiggy by the hair and forcing his head back in the pool until just his mouth and nostrils are above water.

‘Eh?! How do you know?’ I gasp, throwing caution to the wind.

‘Judder told us,’ says Silver, still hopping and steadying himself. ‘He went home with him a couple of weeks back.’

‘Did he get chips and ’alf-a-crown?’ says Smiggy, bouncing up as Scally lets go.

‘Yeah,’ says Scally, cuffing him across the head.

‘Hmmm,’ says Smiggy, with that expression he has when he’s wondering what to pinch out of my gasmask box …

We’re all stood on the far side of the pool looking at Sken-eye’s cabin when Sid says, ‘Hey. Scally’s goin’ ’ome.’ And when I look towards the swing-doors there’s Scally standing by the edge of the baths, fully dressed, squeezing his cozzie into the plunge.

‘He’s going with Sken-eye,’ says Silver, still in the water at our feet.

‘But he says, “Don’t do that ’cos you’ll get a sore arse,”’ says Sid.

‘It’s for chips and ’alf-a-crown,’ says Smiggy.

‘He’ll get a lot more than that,’ says Silver, grinning up at us, ‘he’s going to beat him up and rob his house.’

‘He’ll go back in borstal,’ says Sid.

‘And get the birch,’ I tell them.

‘He won’t,’ says Silver, nodding towards Sken-eye who’s walking along the other side of baths like a Lowry matchstick man in a flasher’s raincoat. ‘Sken-eye daren’t split.’

‘Why not?’ says Sid.

‘The police’ll have him,’ says Silver, ‘’cos of what he does to lads …’

Turning into Gran’s street I see Maggie sitting on the upstairs sill, cleaning the glass with her back to the street and the sash window pulled onto her thighs. Her whole body’s moving like music and she’s got this shape that makes me stop and stare. It looks dangerous to me, hanging out of the window. If she loses her balance she’ll crash to the ground and be killed. Other women, in overalls and turbans, are kneeling on the pavements sand-stoning their steps and flagstones. They do it every Saturday. They make the pavements a clean yellow-brown colour. I love it. It’s like sunshine coming out of the ground in a world that’s covered in soot from the factories and houses. Maggie’s already done Gran’s front; she’s always the fastest and first.

Gran says Maggie’s like her mother, Saran Cummins. ‘Saran was a lovely girl but she had three babies, George, Edwin and Maggie, ’cos she couldn’t say no.’ I don’t get it. No’s dead easy. You just go, ‘nnnn…oh.’ And it’s there – ‘no.’ Maggie can say no. It’s her favourite word when I ask her to do things.

Saran’s first baby was George, so they put him in Style Home till he was fourteen then sent him to sea as a cabin boy. I’m going to be like him when I grow up. He’s in the Royal Navy now, on warships. But he got torpedoed and swallowed oil while he was swimming in the sea. So he’s on sick leave now. Edwin was the second baby. Then Saran died of TB after Maggie was born. Gran says, ‘Half of Manchester has TB and go round spitting blood.’ I spit blood sometimes – after the kids beat me up and pinch stuff out of my box. But that’s not TB. Anyway, when Saran died, Gran was left looking after Edwin and Maggie. But Edwin died when he was fourteen. I don’t know why he died. Gran says, ‘He was a lovely boy … but tuppence short of the full shilling.’

Maggie’s boyfriend, Frank, is in the navy too. He’s a gunner on a warship. In that letter that came at Christmas he said he was the one who sank the Scharnhorst. But Gran says that can’t be true ’cos he’s still in hospital after that camel spat on him when he got drunk in Egypt. Gran hates him ’cos he beats Maggie up when he’s home on leave. But Maggie says she loves him and only goes with the Yanks to get the nylons.

Going through the front door into Gran’s lobby I wonder if Charlie Cummins is home yet. He’s her grandson like me. But he’s older ‘cos his granddad was Gran’s first husband, Dave Cummins, who died of TB. After that, Gran married my granddad, but then she killed him. She told me about that, one day when there was no one around and she was feeling sad. She said that, when the last war started, he goes down to volunteer for the army. So while he’s out she kneels down and asks God to stop him joining-up ’cos she can’t live without him. Suddenly the sky fills with black clouds and it goes as dark as night and starts lashing rain. Then, during the night, granddad comes downstairs to go for a pee. As he goes into the yard, God throws down a lightning bolt that hits him and kills him stone dead. Then God gives Saran three babies she doesn’t want. Then he kills her and makes Gran struggle and weep. Gran says God punished her for being selfish. I’ve never prayed to God since I heard that. He’s like all the rest.

As I enter the living room Gran’s huddled over the slopstone tugging at something. There’s an axe … lying on the stone at her elbow ... and something else ... I rubberneck to see what it is. Yuck … it’s a hen’s head … I move in for a closer look. She’s plucking a bird … For a moment it doesn’t make sense then ... ‘No! No!’ I yell. ‘You can’t ...! Not Captain Marryat!’ I’m too stunned … too sick to cry. ‘Please! Not Captain Marryat! She’s my best friend …! My only friend …! It is …! It’s Captain Marriott …! You’ve killed her. I hate you … you stinkin’ old COW!’

‘Be quiet!’ shouts Gran, ‘you little mardarse. Charlie’s home. He’s a Desert Rat; bin away three year; since before Tobruk; chasing Rommel through the desert and Italy. He’s off to the front agen soon; Germany this time; to kill Hitler. So run to the shop for two pounds of potatoes. There’s money on the table.’

‘No! No! I won’t!’ I’m really crying now. ‘I won’t do anything anymore! You’ve killed my friend! You’ve killed Captain Marryat. I hate you! I hate you all! I hope the Germans come and kill the fuckin’ lot of you!’