Marjorie Peake was a “big girl for her age” as they used to say. Not fat but big boned, and brassy to boot. Every other kid at their end of the back street had due respect for adults which amounted to not speaking until spoken to, but Marjorie was not shy in coming forward. Unlike the rest she did not live on the two streets which shared a back entry but came to spend her days in the care of her grandparents because both her parents worked.
Her mother was an invisible figure but her father was renowned and respected. He was a butcher, or more exactly, a slaughterman at the abattoir in town. The children could scarcely imagine why their parents spoke of him reverentially with “Abel this” and “Abel that”, as he was coarse of voice, never wore a collar and tie and always wore wellington boots.
To the boy, Abel Peake’s main attraction was not his garrulous daughter but to the fact that he kept a pig up by the single track railway line that ran from the Colliery at the foot of the bank to the coal yard at the top. On Sunday morning straight after mass and before going to the pub, his father would trail him over the dirt tracks and shattered fields of his own childhood in an ostentatious act of parental duty, and they would wave to the puffing billy that chugged laboriously up that substantial gradient, fully-laden, or careered downhill, its empty wagons rattling in abandon.
Then it would be bread for the seagulls on the colliery meres on Old Moor Road, a carrot for the donkey at New Ford, and finally a peek over the low wall of Abel’s pig sty to view the behemoth lurking in its shed, waiting for the next sackful of household refuse, that was even then being collected by the pig man from every willing household in the village as it prepared its Sunday dinner.
In those balmy summers they used to play most days at their end of the back street until the light faded. They had the benefit of the back wall of Potter’s newsagents to facilitate their catching games or to chalk their cricket stumps.
There would be seven or eight of them, all save Marjorie living within shouting distance of their back doors. The older ones would supervise or boss the younger ones, playing school or shops with any available stones, crock, or paper that could be harvested from the cobbled entries.
They organised games and had priority until the older boys appeared usually later in the day to select teams to play a highly constricted form of cricket or football. Marjorie would not be excluded from these activities and was not cowed by their insensitivities. She was quite capable of insensitivity herself.
Occasionally she would organise an expedition across their cobbled back entries and then down the black-dirt rain-rivuleted entry of neighbouring Kinder Street. Beyond was the “red rec” playground with the standard municipal amenity of two swings, a tea-pot lid, a gyroscopic roundabout and an eight seat rocking horse. Here life was less secure, safety less certain. Other children from other streets were there, and as extended family and school alliances were renewed, the stability and certainty of the visiting group seemed threatened. The red-ash recreation ground was the domain of older boys who organised their twenty- a- side football matches while the girls looked on slyly from the swings.
As his own sisters had now left school and were working, Marjorie appeared to the boy as a fitting substitute and he was happily and easily led astray. There was a point in the summer holiday when it was punctuated by an unseasonal amount of rain. The children became fractious. So did their mothers who were sick of having them underfoot. Marjorie came up with a daring idea to organise classes and games in the shed-cum-garage at the rear of Cartlidge’s haberdashers.
The doors were hanging from their hinges and access from the back street was easy. The shed was empty save for two tea chests and a number of cardboard boxes. The children, sworn to secrecy, all contributed something from home; two or three matches, candle stubs, chalk, marbles, crayons, a pop bottle filled with water. Marjorie was quite the organiser and at first the mothers wondered at the fortitude of the neighbours for allowing their children to play in their house while it was raining, for such was the lie conjured by the miscreants. “Just say you’re playing at my house.”
Marjorie was punctilious. Classes started at ten and ran until one. Then everyone went home for their dinner and returned from two until four. Some days there were as many as ten squeezed into the shed, which was now dusted of cobwebs and furnished with carpet remnants. The parents of course became perfectly aware of what was happening, and despite their misgivings as to the views of the Miss Cartlidges on the propriety of this uninvited occupation, were grateful for the relative peace to polish, to wash, to iron and to prepare the evening meal, in the case of the conscientious or guilt-ridden, or to sit back with a cup of milky Camp coffee and a Woodbine for those more advanced beings who were not slaves to conformity and routine.
The boy marvelled at Marjorie’s assertiveness, acting far in excess of her ten years. The two years separating them seemed like a lifetime. Not that he had undue affection for her but he was awestruck. He much preferred the friendship of her cousin June who was altogether sweeter, prettier and less brusque.
However at some point he began to feel uncomfortable as his name was called in Marjorie’s register and he obligingly called “Yes Miss”. Strangely everyone did.
Even Donald Machin, who was nine, quarrelsome and known for his histrionic tendencies. “Highly strung” was one verdict, “spoiled” was another. The boy’s disquiet was palpable but not explicable, until the morning Marjorie stunned them by having them sit in a circle on the flattened cardboard and scraps of carpet, extracted a Woodbine from the small purse she carried and striking a match on the brick floor, lit up.
She explained that as teacher she was entitled to smoke and then offered it to Donald as the second eldest there, explaining that the rest were too young to partake.
This was like being in the company of grown-ups who were not grown-up. It wasn’t pretend, like their aggressive games of Cowboys and Indians, English versus Japanese, RAF versus Luftwaffe, enacted around their cobbled entries. These weren’t white toffee cigarettes with their red painted ends, these were real Woodbines from a real exotic green, blue and gold sleeve. The fact that they were Woodbines added a more sinister dimension to the boy. “Coffin nails” his family called them.
His father was a committed “Senior Service” user, his elder sister at 17 a confirmed “Park Drive “fan. They were equally convinced of the inferior quality of a Woodbine. His unease was tempered by a tingle of excitement, a quickening of his pulse, at witnessing a forbidden act blatantly carried out without furtiveness or fear. But he knew at all costs that his mother must not find out. Her wrath would be temporary and soon forgotten, but she would surely tell his father. Beyond that thought he dared not think.
The next morning, as if pre-arranged, Marjorie announced that there would be an inspection by the school doctor and nurse. No-one quibbled as Marjorie and Donald assumed their new roles, lined up the day’s pupils and invited them in turn, after a perfunctory invitation to cough, to lower their pants or knickers to allow the experts a good look. They were all passed fit and classes continued.
That no-one commented or queried was not a measure of the individual reactions of the participants. Some considered this a natural extension of verisimilitude, some saw it as the litmus test of group membership which they could ill-afford to reject, and some, like the boy revisited that feeling of excitement and dread felt the day before.
The weather was improving.
On the Friday Marjorie announced that next week the school would take place at the back of air raid shelter on the red rec. The building was bricked up and its humped back grassed over to provide an elevated platform for sun bathing while overlooking the playground. It backed on to what had used to be Brierley’s farm, whose swedes had been periodically pilfered by his sisters and distributed to whoever was hungry enough to chew on them raw.
Now Brierley’s farm was a building site, and hundreds of new homes were being built to house the displaced residents of the old town centre, who had long lived cheek by jowl with factories, workshops and foundries, and who were being displaced to this more rural, healthier utopia.
Instead of swedes the boys stole timber off-cuts to turn into machine guns, and at weekends conducted trench warfare among the footings, hurling great clods at each other, before returning home caked in clay.
The boy was used to not being addressed directly at home and had got into the habit of appearing disinterested in the small talk of the adults in the household, feigning pre-occupation with a comic or library book, for they were, exceptionally, a reading family.
That Saturday they had assembled for tea which invariably consisted of finger rolls of boiled ham well blessed with butter. The boy sat on the back step waiting to be called. His mother and elder sister were in the back kitchen a few feet away on the other side of the door. Their tones alerted him and he strained to piece their fragmented conversation. The finer points eluded him but the tone said it all.
Mary Davenport was a trollop, her father a hard-working miner in despair, an Italian living in the Bevan huts on Colliery Lane to blame.
The boy found Mary, who lived six doors away and who was as old as his eldest sister, a rather exotic character. She dressed differently than his sisters, was pale and tall and slim and blond with her hair tied up to reveal the back of her neck which was generally adorned with a fine gold necklace. She had pierced ears.
He was used to hearing his parent’s pronouncements on pierced ears as if they represented the most abject work of the devil on earth. Well now they had been proved to be right. “Don’t you ever come home in that state” said his mother “or your father will kill you”. It never occurred to him to ask for an explanation. The conversation was not directed at him, and it was none of his concern.
On the Sunday the sun shone and after the ritual of mass the boy was taken by his father for the other ritual that frustrated the man and stressed the boy.
He did not walk straight, he did not have a straight back, his hands gravitated to his pockets, he slouched, he did not greet on-comers with a well-mannered yet cheery “good morning”; in short he was a bit of an embarrassment, a bit of a sissy, a mother’s boy.
Even so the father was determined to make an effort to compensate for the six years when he had scarcely seen his son, leaving him to the pervasive influence of a house of women, not to mention his own extended family of aunts and ageing relatives beyond conscription age, who had doted on him and yes frankly spoiled him.
The walk was not unpleasant, the seagulls and the donkey were compliant, and the boy was in awe at his father’s ability to throw crusts high into the air for the gulls to swoop and catch as if under his spell.
For the father it was the closest he would get to the sea that had been his home for most of the previous fifteen years, and it gave him a bitter-sweet feeling to watch the birds wheeling above his head.
They made their way up the track alongside the railway line and approached the pig sty. Unusually Abel Peake was in the sty.
The father lifted the boy onto the wall. Then Abel picked him off the wall and roughly projected him to peer into the gloom of the shed. “Can you see ‘em, there’s ten of ‘em”.
The boy made out the shape of the sow and around the familiar grunts he could detect the squeals of the piglets without actually making them out. Abel stuck him back on the wall and the father offered Abe a cigarette. “Can’t smoke them Willie, not my cup of tea” he said, declining a Senior Service and opening up his own packet of Woodbines.
The boy merged into the wall as the men exchanged small talk.
“If I was Joe, she’d be out on the street, no gratitude”.
“ Where’s she get it from, her mother was a right proper woman, she’ll be turning in her grave”.
“If he did that to my daughter he’d be pig food overnight and nobody would know the difference”.
They were cautious in their exchange and in their language in deference to the child’s presence. The boy took it all in.
On the Monday when his mother asked him where he was going he announced they were going to the red rec to play school and she asked him as she always did who he was going with and told him as she always did, not to get dirty and to be home on the dot for one o clock.
At 9.30 he heard his name called over the back gate and went out to join the five or six children already called to the day’s activity.
The boy was never too happy with the red rec. He was far removed from the safety of his back gate and most of the children there did not go to his school, which of itself could be cause enough for name-calling and jostling. He was relying for protection, should it be necessary, from Marjorie. He was uneasy when he found over a dozen children at the back of the air raid shelter, some of whom he knew not all, and a number of whom seemed as old, if not older, than Marjorie.
When Marjorie called them together it became apparent that the day’s programme had changed. “Today we are playing at war”. Me and Donald and Sheila” she said pointing to a girl of about eleven, and who the boy suspected was Donald’s cousin, “are going to be the hospital, and everyone who is wounded will have to come to us to be treated”.
They split into sides.
Unusually both sides included the girls who had turned up. Only Shirley Jameson opted out and stormed off complaining. One side was to defend the red rec flank of the air raid shelter while the other side attacked. The hospital was to operate on the other flank facing the building site.
Throughout the next hour the hospital received a steady flow of bodies, dragged in or limping from the battle zone, and in turn each had to drop their pants or knickers to be treated. Everyone seemed to be shot or stabbed at least twice. The boy made sure he was an early casualty. After an hour a truce was called and Marjorie democratically invited two other volunteer medics to change places with Donald and
The boy put his hand up, “Can I be one Marje?”.
She agreed and the defenders became the attackers and vice versa and the battleground was moved from D Day to the Alamo.
Magically in a world without watches, all hostilities ended at five to one and those who had families that cared ran home for their dinner.He did not go back in the afternoon.
“Were you playing on the Air Raid shelter?” his mother demanded knowing full well that he had been, for news travelled quickly along the eight streets. She was still of a mind that an air raid shelter was government property and not to be trifled with. He was censured and told to play in the back yard for the afternoon.
When Marjorie came to call for him at two she seemed unconcerned that he would not be returning and in some way he was relieved. For the next two days it rained and they returned to the garage-shed of the Miss Cartledges.
For some reason medicals were suspended and on Thursday afternoon Marjorie announced that school would be closed on Friday following complaints from the spinster sisters that the noise was deafening and putting off their discerning customers as they leafed through dress patterns, wool samples and silko cards. Marjorie called them something that he would never have heard at home. As he was about to gallop the thirty yards back home for his tea she said “what about coming down to the red rec with me and June tomorrow morning” and left it at that. Had she not mentioned June the boy would have found some reason not to go but the familiar feeling in his stomach told him it should not be missed.
At about eleven the next morning, Old Man Hooper whose house was in the street on the other side of the road from the red rec, in a spirit of civic responsibility, decided to stretch his leg and with the aid of his crutch, patrol the vicinity of the air raid shelter which had recently been overrun by armies of screaming kids. He too had an unyielding devotion to public property particularly something so exalted and symbolic as an air raid shelter. It could have been the Cenotaph as far as he was concerned.
Despite the pain and the sheer inconvenience of hobbling further than the end of the street, he made his way to the fence that divided the red rec from the ever-growing building site and peered from thirty yards down the hidden curve of the shelter.
He had been surprised that no children were to be seen but now his instincts were rewarded. Two girls were lying on the grassy slope of the shelter’s side while a boy appeared to be peering between their legs and gesticulating. There was no way he could have run at them or even crept up on them, so he used the only weapon at his disposal and bellowed “you dirty little buggers. Just wait ‘til your dads get to hear about this!”.
Even Marjorie was shocked speechless and without a word the girls hoisted their knickers and all three fled at lightening speed round the far end of the shelter, across the red rec and to the shelter of Kinder Street’s black entry.
The boy had scarcely slept for two nights. A corrosive bile lay on his stomach which cried and wept for respite. His mind rehearsed a hundred lies and excuses.
Every time his mind was distracted by some other event, such as his sisters arguing about who got to use the big mirror on the kitchen wall first as they prepared for their Saturday night out, that weight was still there and those voices still rang out in his head.
He avoided his father on the Friday night. That wasn’t hard as he was in from work at six and washed, shaved and out for seven, with hardly a trace of black diesel grime under his finger nails.
On Saturday after doing his errands, which amounted to going to the corner shop for a quarter of boiled ham and twelve finger rolls, the boy took his three-pence pocket money to the small shop on Craft Court and disinterestedly ate his two ounces of dolly mixtures before he got back home.
In the afternoon he escaped into a library book then pretended to show interest in a deflated football in the back yard listening for his father’s footsteps up the back street, which announced the pub was shut so that he could run inside and mould himself into the sofa to avoid eye-contact. He imagined that if he became ill perhaps they would see things differently and spent the night curled and anguished. Sunday would have to be the day of reckoning.
Nothing had been said so Old Man Hooper could not yet have spoken to his father. However the Sunday walk was postponed as his father had to “see a man about a dog”.
At one fifteen, give or take three minutes, Abel Peake would lift the latch on the back gate and noisily empty the peeling bin filled over the week by his mother. So rigid were the rituals of the house that Sunday dinner was put on plates at exactly one o clock just as Two-way Family Favourites finished. At that point the four of them would sit and work through the over-boiled potatoes and veg before surgically dissecting the small amount of meat left on the plate. The father would eat exactly ninety minutes later when he returned from the pub.
The boy’s position was on the arm of the sofa, there not being enough space around the utility drop leg table for the four matching chairs. From there he could look through the small back window down the yard to the gate. He showed no interest in the meal and his mother chided him to get a move on. He became oblivious to all around him and such was his terror that only survival seemed to matter to him.
The gate creaked, Abel appeared, the boy’s bowels started to dissolve, his body anointed by one cold sweat. Abel did not turn to the gate shouting “Thanks Violet” as he always did, but came to the back door. His mother who was attending to the rice pudding opened the door to him.
The boy, almost in a faint heard his name mentioned and without any pre-conceived plan, slid from the table, past his sisters and ran sobbing through the parlour, through the front door and down the street as if someone’s life depended on it.His sister, the younger one, caught up with him perhaps seventy five yards down Kinder Street. She was always fleet of foot. He had no idea where he was going. He could hear her voice calling after him, and thrashed at her when she gripped his shoulder with her bony hand.
“Whatever’s the matter? What’s up with you?”
He stuttered and stumbled with his words. Images of pig stys and pig food crowding his mind.
“He wants me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to feed me to his pigs”.
He dissolved in catharsis and just wept.
“Don’t be bloody stupid” was his sister’s response, repeating “What’s up with you? What are talking about?”
He hung on to her now, craving her physical presence.
“Don’t let him take me, I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t my fault. It was Marje. She told me to do it.” The pre-arranged excuses tumbled out.
His sister was now trying to haul him back home before they could be accused of making a scene, in public and on a Sunday.
“Why do you think Mr Peake wants to feed you to his pigs?”
He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t tell the truth. He said instead “He’s just asked me mam, he’s just asked me mam”.
She held him tight with both hands so that he could not wriggle away.
“Look I don’t know what you’ve been up to but Mr Peake came to the door to give mam a sixpence for you. He’s just got a buyer for one of his piglets. He always gives a kid a tanner for each one he sells. For the peelings you idiot.”
The boy allowed himself to be led back to the door and to his cold dinner, composing his next line of excuses as he went.
“I’m not very well. I’ve got stomach ache. I’ve had nightmares”.
Meanwhile his bilious stomach and his troubled mind were being slightly assuaged at the prospect of a whole sixpence. It never occurred to him that Old Man Hooper not only had one leg but was also perfectly short-sighted, all children looking alike to him at thirty yards.