There are many ways you can get at an adult as a child; the sad thing is for the most part you don’t know you have the power. You are immured in a world to which no adult has a pass except by invitation. Your imagination, your fantasies, your labrynthine secret planet of forbidden pleasures and treasures are off-bounds to adults.
Occasionally they get an insight when through some act of carelessness or innocence you reveal a glimpse and create a tidal wave of angst, suppressed or repressed according to genetics, history, mood, menstrual cycle, the stress of poverty or proximity to pay day.
As a child you don’t know what’s going on, you just pick up on the unspoken, and animal-like respond by fight or flight, or human-like by lies and contrivances that buy time and allow space for some other crisis to intervene and command attention. If they but knew your thoughts you’d be the subject of muttered late-night stilted conversations where words are forced into the hanging constipated silence like turds, each passed inch accompanied by a scarce-suppressed whimper of pain and rage.
The bottom- line is always the same, what will people think, what will the neighbours say? They have to go down this route. They know what is at the root of it but cannot articulate their frustration, their own lovelessness and excoriating pain of failure. As if a cork had been taken from a bottle of lemonade the hissed voices will rise to the point where they flow out in an uncontrolled spurt which can be heard in the cold bedroom above. You know they are talking about you.
They conspire over the conceit of normality, the illusion of standards, the washed step and windows, the adherence to ritual (laundry must be done on Monday whatever), the belief that all will crash into dust if the slightest deviation to the handed down pattern is tolerated. At its best it is secure, reliable, every risk minimised by adherence to a set of rules and customs the Tikopia would be proud of. Unfortunately the world will have none of it and no matter how many incantations, spells, potions and sacrifices they make to tie the earth and its inhabitants down, it insists on changing.
Like the time he came home for dinner as usual for his round of sandwiches, a cup of soup and a glass of milk. All the kids who lived locally and had someone at home did that. While he played with the baby the mother took five minutes out and made herself a cup of coffee; Camp, of course, that cheery liquid chicory extract concoction with a turbaned Indian on the label serving an officer and no doubt gentleman outside his tent. Their relationship seemed entirely cordial, informing the boy's world view neither more nor less than the French on the side of the HP sauce bottle.
“Its h....o....t “ she spelled out. “No” he said, every time, “it’s h...o...coffee”, for he was a very precise but literal kind of boy and could not understand why his family laughed at this standing joke until he was at least eight.
Being Tuesday she was looking anxiously at the clouds scudding above the roof of the terrace opposite, hoping the weather would hold so that the washing could be dried and folded away before the father came in from work. She never asked the boy if he had enjoyed himself at school focusing rather on whether he had behaved himself and worked hard. “We had a new boy today” he said, “I’ve got to look after him”. She did not know whether to be pleased or be put out at this unasked for responsibility and imposition. “His name’s Paolo”. She recoiled. It didn’t sound Polish, which was reasonably acceptable. “Where’s he from?” she asked. “Croft Street” he replied. She did not push the point. But her mind was already racing..... “Italians, chocolate soldiers, scroungers, lotharios.” Hadn’t one of them from the Bevan huts done the wrong thing to Mary Chapman’s daughter and then disappeared, leaving her to sponge off her widowed mother and her on a miner’s pension. Tommy Chapman would be turning in his grave. She tried to push it to the back of her mind but could not stop herself from saying “be careful” with no particular qualification.
Wednesday; it was always ironing day unless Monday and Tuesday had been so wet that nothing had dried. It was also the day before pay day and represented the lowest point in the week. She was relieved that the sun was out, that there was no need for a fire to dry the remnants of Monday’s washing; that she had enough potato, flour and a half pound of stewing steak to make a meat and potato pie for tea; that Willy was in work but would not be drinking tonight; that she had coppers left in anticipation of his request to lend him his bus fare tomorrow should he be broke; “I’ll pay it back later” he always said. She was relieved that the girls too were both in work and paying their way. She had her eyes on a twin-tub; she wouldn’t tell him but she was already saving for a deposit. What could possibly go wrong to bring such a utopian situation crashing down? Her Methodist guilt would not let her enjoy the situation for she was conditioned to the unexpected. If fact there was no such thing as the unexpected for her since her mind had catalogued every eventuality of misfortune that could be visited upon a family in the space of twenty four hours, so that she could be prepared.
The boy ate his dinner quietly, a plan running through his head. He had learned through observation that timing was everything, that to get permission for any change to ritual was an art requiring both stealth and cunning. For instance if he wanted to go to the Scratch to see a western or a comedy he had to weigh up whether to give advance notice of his interest, make it clear he had the required fourpence in his money box, and have the elder sister vouch that she would take him and collect him (she was a friend of Mrs Prodger the cashier cum usherette). On the other hand he could conspire with whoever else could be encouraged to join the adventure, and at 5.30 could announce with surprise that Trevor, or Keith or Colin was at the door wanting to know if he’d like to go the flicks with his mother, aunt, sister, cousin or whoever seemed both adult and distant, and that yes he had the entrance money, and yes he had to go now, knowing it was best to be out of the house before his father came in. The conspirators would then pull the same trick in the next street before heading up the hill to the cinema in a spirit of adventure, knowing that the next test would be to get a friendly adult to take them in. Such an evening could only be topped off by pooling whatever coppers they had left to buy two penn’orth of chips, before galloping home in a posse and regaling whoever was in with a full start-to- finish rendition of the film.
Such conspiracies, transparent as they were, seemed to suit everyone and allowed the mother to fudge the issue of whether it was right to sanction so much enjoyment without it being earned or justified. It was outweighed by her concern that the neighbours must not see them as tight-pursed, broke or snobbish. And perhaps her view, compromised as it was, was more predictable and easily managed than the father’s, who on a good day would just say “yes” and on a bad day just say “no.” There was no manipulating him at 6.00pm after nine hours repairing diesel pumps or the hydraulics of cranes and diggers that had been delivered to the yard on a low loader from a building site or motorway, or even worse were bogged down in a foot of clay in some outlying quarry.
The next day, being Thursday, the boy knew there was a good chance she would be in a good mood. The weather had held off. Wednesday evening had passed uneventfully. It was pay day and the mother felt justified in taking a little from her hidden saving to buy some liver from Harrison’s the butcher on Moorland Bank, which she would grill into submission with onions and mash. The boy sensed the optimism as he ate his boiled-egg sandwich at dinnertime. “Guess what? The jam-jar Wakes is on, it starts tonight.” He left it at that waiting to see if she gave him an opening. She carried on wiping snot from the baby’s face. He knew she had heard. He took a gamble “Jimmy Mountford and Eric Hill are going with their Terry and they’ve asked if I can go.”
She had enjoyed the Wakes as a girl, the roundabouts, the waltzers, the helter-skelter, hoopla, darts, the shooting range, coconut shies and white chalk poodles with green cut-glass eyes, the bright lights, the garish music, the smell of diesel and candy floss, the sense of danger, the boys all dressed up and showing off. They had paid in jam jars all through the war and the whole village seemed to turn out. “I haven’t got any money” she said, already knowing his response. He was a thrifty child and consciously worked the aunts and uncles as they visited or were visited each weekend; a penny here, maybe threepence there. There had been occasions, before the girls were working ,when his money box had saved her and Willy from the ignominy of publicly perceived penury when the insurance man called a day early or the milk had gone sour on a Wednesday.
They went through the preliminaries and she conceded he could go at 4.30 as long as he was back for 6.00. He could take no more than a shilling which was enough for three rides and three pence to be spent recklessly. As she mentally rehearsed her warnings and ran through the myriad mishaps that might occur at the fairground, there was a knock on the front door, an unusual and unexpected event. Visitors usually came via the back door and then only by invitation or prior arrangement. Before the boy could even get up from the settee the mother was opening it. He listened and held his breath. She appeared at the curtain separating the kitchen from the parlour. ”There’s a boy here, he just keeps saying your name.” She was ashen. “It’s Paolo. He’s coming with us. I told him to come here first. He doesn’t know Jimmy or Eric”. She hated herself for looking at the clock but there was no danger that he would be coming home yet. “Be back at six” she said, and hissed “don’t let him spend your money.”
He enjoyed showing Paolo around. It was difficult talking to him. He only knew about six words of English. Mrs Flaherty had told the boy he was from Naples in Italy. He was unusual, very small and wiry, nut brown with a pointed head, his black shiny (“oily” his mother would say) hair shaved almost to the scalp all over with no parting, unlike the standard short back and sides everyone else sported. He smelled different and had exotically deep dark brown eyes. The boy had accompanied Paolo to Croft Street on his first two evenings at school. On the second evening Paolo had grabbed his arm and pulled him down the cobbles. Croft Street was an airless, damp and dark cul-de-sac which made even the boy’s cold-water terrace seem modern. He had no wish to enter the house but Paolo would not let him leave and pushed him through the back door. The kitchen was dark and smelled of wet washing. A man stood at the sink in a vest. There seemed to be only one room. The man was unshaven. He spoke sharply to Paolo. Paolo replied. The boy heard his name mentioned. Paolo led him back outside into the small back yard. There was what seemed to be a broken pram in the corner and Paolo led him to it. “Bambino” he said. “Bambino” .Paolo repeated the word. The boy tried it. “Bambino.” “Bella, bella” said Paolo. “Bella, bella” said the boy. Paolo took him to the coal shed. The door was open and wire netting was nailed across the frame. As they approached, six coal- bedraggled chicks, still getting their first feathers, threw themselves at the wire in the hope of food. “Pollo, pollo” said Paolo. “Pollo, pollo” said the boy. “Bella, bella” said Paolo. The boy said he had to get home. Paolo got the idea. “Ciao, amico” he said. “Chowa miko” said the boy.
At the Wakes, business was already brisk. In those days it opened at four and was closed for nine. It had visited this site for over thirty years, twice a year. The showmen and women all spoke with strange accents; Black Country according to his sister. The boy could scarcely understand them. He was overwhelmed with the excitement of being out un-chaperoned and took his own chaperoning responsibility seriously. His enjoyment was offset by the fact that Paolo had no money. This bothered him because he knew he could not deny the guest some hospitality. They walked around twice, soaking in the atmosphere, before he pointed to the Speedway Racer. They each mounted a bike and clung on as the machines flew in a sickeningly undulating circle threatening to flirt them into the watching crowd as the speed increased. When they got off, his knees were trembling and he was sick with excitement. Paolo was saying things he could not understand. With sixpence spent he was faced with a dilemma. He resolved it by giving Paolo two pence to spend on the slot machines, spent two himself and bought two penn’orth of candy floss with the rest to share on the way home.
As they walked over the rough fields to the village he had a strange feeling of emptiness and anxiety. A whole shilling spent in just over an hour, four weeks pocket money. He would have to be particularly compliant with his sister’s demands that he do her errands, courteous to the relatives and helpful with the bambino at home to make it up. When they reached the end of his street he pointed." I’m going home. See you at school tomorrow." “Grazie” said Paolo Grazie amico, bueno notte, arrivederci.” “Gratsemiko, arry diverci” said the boy.
“Where’ve you been?” said his father who was halfway through his liver and onions. “Wakes” he said. “Who’ve you been with?” “Jimmy and Eric” he lied. “Who’s the Eytie?” he said. The boy didn’t understand him. The father knew who the Eytie was as did the mother. No-one moved into the neighbouring streets without someone knowing about it. That the Italians lived in a house considered unfit for any decent working man was small consolation to the man although the woman conceded in her mind that it was no place to bring up a baby. That the Italian was working down the same pit that the man had sworn never to return to, after coming home from a long war, was even less consolation given the way pit wages had risen after nationalisation. Silence ruled and no more was said before bedtime. The boy held the baby after it was washed and made ready for its cot. “Chow bella bambino” he said quietly.
They did not speak of the event to him again. But the boy knew they were discussing it as he lay in bed that night feigning sleep. The silences between each forced sentence were palpable. The father’s voice rose. It was Thursday. It was pay day. He had been for a drink. The mother bore the brunt, for whatever the problem it was naturally her fault. Children were her department. She rose to her own defence, smarting at the criticism before relenting and lapsing into silence. The boy cried to himself.
Paolo never came back to school on the following Monday. The boy was not sad, but somehow relieved. His chaperoning duties were lying heavy on him. The father assumed the miner had been housed on a new Coal Board estate on the moors with an inside bathroom and hot running water. The mother just chastised herself for not being a better Christian and found other things to worry about and other disasters to prepare for.