Poet on a Hill

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Carry on England

AW
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. We’re in the same
class at school, 4b, the slow 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’s done 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 as if 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, our 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 pissed 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 still pees the bed. Maggie says, ‘The cold does it.’
But Gran says it’s ’cos she’s scared to go outside to the toilet 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 her own pee.  She keeps the jerry under the bed.
There’s a turd in it this morning. She’s gone through the lean-to
kitchen and 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. Gran’s got terrible scars all over both arms.
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… 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. 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. There’s 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, racing to
leap 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 aim. I had a practice session in a
back alley a couple of weeks ago. I see 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 and Jimmy. When they were home on leave and I was small,
Billy and Jimmy 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, the women 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 the same. 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 he 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
about it. 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
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. They blew
his brains out in the last war too.

All our teachers are old ’cos everyone young is in this war.
All our men-teachers went mad in the last war and take it
out on us. And the women are witches with tartan legs and
a stink of piss. They all hate me – men and women.
I don’t know why...

All the kids are crowding on the side of the plunge 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 cross 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 one’s a wooden peg. That’s why we call him Silver – ’cos he
has a peg leg. He lost one of his legs in the bombing.
He takes his peg off to come in the water but he’s still 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 to. 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 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, give you boils, and send you blind. Now Silver
tells me 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 to.

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 backwards 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, still 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.
‘Is it 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 Sken-eye 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
window-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, Sar-ran Cummins.
‘Sar-ran 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.

Sar-ran’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, after Maggie was born,
Sar-ran died of TB. 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 Sar-ran 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 Sar-ran three babies she
doesn’t want. Then he kills her and makes Gran struggle
and weep. Gran says God’s punished her for being selfish.
I’ve never prayed to God since I heard that. He’s just like
all the rest.

As I enter the kitchen, 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 anythin’ 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!’

 
AW