A Place That Was Ours Chapter Two. The Bridge

I was staring down into the deep fissure formed by the banks where the town had met the river, long ago.  The water’s knife was blunted now, with neither fervour nor edge to cut its valley deeper, but the once-upon-a-time was easy to imagine…

When coal mines prospered, the river’s shore was called ‘The Fellings’, a vibrant pile of warehouses and small works stacked against the side of the valley, so tightly clustered the streets between were no more than alleys, narrow conduits leading down to the quay.  The river was a proper waterway in those days, a navigation for barges taking coal down to Bedeport, bound for steamers waiting to transport it to Europe and the world.  Days long gone.

The mines closed, one by one.  As trade diminished, so the river was neglected, until, in the early nineteen-sixties, they made a dam twelve miles upstream for a reservoir on Raddon Moor.   That was the end of the navigable water, and the end of industry on ‘The Fellings’.  Gradually those old thrown-together buildings tumbled, their windows boarded, their roofs caved.  The cobbled alleys that had rattled to a cacophony of iron wheel-rims and echoed to carters’ curses, now choked beneath the weight of lorries and cars.  Trains, like the coal, no longer came, so engineers widened an old viaduct that once used to carry the railway high across the valley, and they made it into a road bridge.   It was given a name, I suppose, but we never heard it:  we just called it ‘The Bridge’.

The Bridge was where Sue and I ended up, leaning on the stone parapet, after school that Summer Thursday. Hungry or not (a jam sandwich and a school dinner were all I had eaten in thirty-six hours) I didn’t want to go home.

I told Sue about Ma and our broken kitchen.    She nodded sombrely as I related the diary of my week, staring down at the ruined pile of The Fellings, and the river, so far below us.

“I shouldn’t worry.”  She said.  “She had a bit of a fit I reckon.  My mam throws things at my dad quite a lot.  They have a shout, she chucks a plate or two at him, then they go upstairs.”

“What, you mean like…..?”

Sue glared at me as if I was being deliberately obtuse.  “Yeah; well, they’re married, aren’t they?”

“But my Da’ wasn’t home.”  I pointed out.

“She was on her own?”

“Yes.”

Sue pondered this.   “She’s a manic oppressive, then.”  She diagnosed.  “I still shouldn’t worry.  She can get pills for it.”

“How long are they upstairs for?”

Sue giggled, nudging my ribs.   “Hours, sometimes.”

We parted, Sue to her tea and I to whatever awaited me behind a front door which, in a peculiar kind of way, no longer seemed to be mine.  I remember how long a walk it was that evening, across the town centre by the new road and through Addison’s Estate.   If I had known Trevor Bull would be out by the garages there I might have taken an even longer way.

A football smacked against my head, knocking me sideways.  As my vision cleared, it focussed on Trevor, who was leering at me.  Trevor was large and basic.  He had lips like cohabiting slugs.  “Hey, Spakker!  What’r you doin’ out?”

“Slumming, Trev.  Just slumming.”

“Oh yeah?  Get the ball for us, then.  Yeah?  Did y’hear what I say?  Get the ball for us, Spakker.”

A pair of Trevor’s hangers-on sidled into view from a burned-out garage, guffawing at what must have seemed a major diversion in their lives.  I was never able to attach names to Trevor’s sidekicks because they never went to school.  Trevor himself would visit there occasionally, usually after his da’ had been visited by the school inspectors.

The odds were three-and-a-half to one.  I retrieved the ball.  “Where d’you want it?”

“Don’t get lippy wi’ us, yer little frigger!  You got any money then?  Has mummy gived yer yer sweeties money, yeah?”

I had no cash to boost Trevor’s meagre income, and no inclination to donate if I had; the alternative, though, was to be ‘frisked’ by having my pockets torn off.  A quick calculation was necessary.   “Here.  Here’s your frigging ball!”

I punted the ball on my good foot, my right foot, with all the punch I would have used if a goal was open and Trevor was the goalkeeper.  Like a missile it flashed past his left hand to hit the side wall of one of the garages at his back.  Enough rebound remained to whack against Trevor’s calves, then pinball between his two sidekicks a few times: sufficient to afford a moment of confusion and space for me to sprint away, out of the Addison estate and back into the comparative civilisation of the South Town.  He was big and he was ugly, but I had one advantage over Trevor.  I was quicker – much quicker.  His ringing threats dwindled into distance behind me.  I was pursued for no more than a couple of streets.

Finding the front door of our house unlocked I went through all the rooms in search of Ma’.  There was no sign of her.  A five pound note on the table in the back room was accompanied by a scrap of a note in her scrawl;

‘Get your tea out’

I went to MacDonald’s – they had just opened then – and stuffed myself sick.

Our kitchen remained in wrecked condition for a couple more days, my Mam for about the same length of time.   She did reappear downstairs on Friday morning with a warning to “Say nowt to your Da’; understand?”  I got some tea that night, baked beans with egg, sausage and bacon, so I knew there had to be money in the house.   This fry-up was my favourite food in those days; a sort of apology from Ma’, though I knew the wrong that lurked in the still corners of the house had not been righted – would probably never be righted.    But I kept my side of the bargain by keeping my story from Da’, even agreeing with Ma’s explanation that she had just ‘leaned on the worktop a bit too hard’.

That Saturday the rain relinquished its hold for long enough to allow a morning stroll with Sue in bright sunshine along Rob Bentley Way to The Bridge.  I suppose I was too young to dwell on it at the time but thinking back I can see how changes were happening in my life.  A summer since I would not have dreamed that Sue Crabtree and I would be walking with one another on The Bridge. – Jonna had always been my companion then:  throughout our growing years we were sworn friends; amigos, inseparable.   Girls?  Well, girls were all right, but they had their own world, their own society.   Suddenly, though, the lines were becoming fudged, the divisions not so clear.

Sue in her shorts and a green halter top, me in a white t-shirt and jeans that had seen better days, we stopped to gaze down at the black lizard of river far below.

“It’s that high up, this!  It makes me giddy!”  Sue said.  “How can they do it?  I couldn’t, Chas.  I really couldn’t.”

“Maybe they sort of have to.  Like there’s no other way, or something?”

There was an expression in our town, known to us all.   To go ‘down The Bridge’ spoke of a final solution for some who had ended themselves by climbing over that parapet and leaping to the stony waters far below.  In our town, everyone knew someone who had gone that way.  With time and legend, the numbers had grown.

We walked on.  I was anxious not to stay.   No-one tarried longer than they had to on that bridge unless a memory drove them there, or for other, darker reasons.   Being even a distant cousin to someone who had taken the leap was sufficient to taint your name, and the memory of two unfortunate relatives blighted our family.  The association made us different in a sad, almost morbid way.  We became the earthly ghosts of those departed, the pale faces staring in at the window.

Sue said:  “Didn’t your Aunty May…”

And I cut her off.  “Yeah.  Yeah that’s right.  But I never knew her much.”

A half hour from town we left the footpath to trudge through long grass beside a farmer’s hedge, eyed as we passed by speculative sheep.   A small woodland of oak and beech led us back down to the river.  Here, where the sun could find us, in shelter from the wind, we could sit and talk about weighty things, or not talk about still more weighty things, and the time would melt away.

This was the river above the town, wooded on both sides; skittish from a playful squeeze between obdurate whinstone cliffs.  The water was deep and black and sometimes, when the hills were laden with rain it became a red roaring fury, jostling and barging through rocks which braced themselves grimly against the onslaught.  On such days it was dangerous to cross – you could stand just toe-deep in the current and the pull on your foot could make you slip   Even today, with the flow still bloated after a week of rain, the wisest thing would be to remain on the northern bank: but we were young; we were not wise.   And Sue, so nimble, leapt from stone to stone like the young deer she was.   I could only admire and follow.

“It’s wrong, you know.”   Sue stretched her shoulders.   “They don’t move.”

We had found a patch of shorter grass already drying in fierce sun.  Side by side, we sat staring at the rush of water.

“How d’you mean?”  Sue’s top exposed more of her flesh than I was used to seeing, and I was distracted by a tiny mole on her right shoulder.  “You’re not going to go on about your stick again, are you?”

Years ago, when she first came to this place – long before I knew of its existence – Sue told me she had pushed a stick into the soft ground on the higher riverbank;  just beyond reach of the water.  By standing in a certain place, her back to a certain tree, she could line the stick up with a tree on the other side of the river, her idea being to track any movement of the larger boulders on the river bed.

“They tell us how the river carries stones and rocks downstream.  They’re wrong; it doesn’t.”

“Suppose someone moved your stick?”

Sue shook her head.   “I’d know.  I think the water only moves the smaller stones.  Glaciers have to do the big stuff.”

“That’s no good, then, is it?  We haven’t had a glacier down here in years.”

Without thinking, I had let my fingertips explore Sue’s skin around that mole, intrigued, I suppose, by its slight imperfection.  My absent, soporific expression gave me away.  She flashed me a quirky smile.

“You’re not going to start getting funny, are you?”

I felt my colour rising.  What had I done?  “Funny?  Nah!”

I grasped my hands around my knees, wrapping them almost convulsively to my chest, and stared hard at the river.  And even though I knew when Sue’s hand softly brushed my neck, and I heard her say gently:  “It’s all right, Chas.”  I held myself rigid.

They kept happening!  I didn’t like them, those awkward, clumsy moments; like an afternoon by the old jetty two weeks before when Sue had planted a spontaneous kiss on my cheek, in front of our sniggering friends.

“Careful!  You’ll get him going!”  Sarah Coldbatch had warned.   She didn’t really know what she meant, of course, and neither did I, but she made it sound like kick-starting a motorbike.

“I’d better get back.”  I said, when I dared scramble to my feet.

Sue agreed.  “Yeah.”

“I’m going to football this afternoon.”

“With Jonna?”

“Yeah.”

Few words were exchanged as we walked back to the town.  Yet, if we seemed awkward, tongue-tied, there was nothing broken, or even bruised between us, and I remember Sue’s hand finding mine, and how I clasped it with new-found meaning.  No, we were faster, deeper friends.  We had simply found a new level, one which was confusing to us both.  It was something we had to work out.

As we crossed The Bridge we came upon John Hargreave, elbows resting on the same parapet that had supported us, an hour before.  John’s chin rested on his hands, and his eyes looked empty and remote, intent upon something in the far distance.

“Now then, John!”  I said. Sue joined in with my greeting.

John responded slowly.  “Chas; Susan.”  He did not turn, or acknowledge us in any other way.  Somehow, we knew he did not want our company, and we walked by.

Sue glanced back over her shoulder.  “Is he all right, do you think?”  She was concerned.

“It’s just Greavesie,” I said. “He’s deep, yeah?”  But I worried, nonetheless.

John Hargreave, the quiet, thoughtful one; whose thoughts were never spoken, but kept hidden somewhere inside him until a time of his choosing.  John Hargreave was the clever one in our little group, and we were friends, but always somehow at arms’ length.  No-one I knew had or would get close to John.

I said goodbye to Sue at the corner of Ox Terrace.  We faced each other with the same awkwardness we had felt after that moment at the river bank, filled with an emotion new to us, feeling more than a little frightened.  I thought she would just walk away, was not ready for her quick kiss on my cheek, or the squeeze of my hand.  Then she was gone.  I watched her easy, swinging gait until she was lost to view.

My birthday was still a month away, and it was suddenly important to me.  I could not wait to be fifteen.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

A Place That Was Ours

“History,”  Jonna once said to me,  “Is all about Christmases.”   

I might have raised an eyebrow at that, but he insisted.  “Think back on it, Chas.  Like, nineteen-eighty-one:  what do you remember about that year?””

“I got a bike.”

“Aye, and when did you get it?”

“Christmas.”

“There y’are then!”  Said Jonna, his case proven.

“I’ll tell you about hist’ry.  Nineteen eighty-three was the goal I scored against St. Luke’s!  That’s hist’ry!”

“Aye, but what got you started with the football?”

I had to admit it.  “I got a ball for Christmas.”

“See?   Last year was the exams, but no-one wants to remember them!   The computer under the tree on Christmas morning – that’s what they want to remember.   History!”

“You getting a computer this year then?”

“Aye, likely.”

It was lunchtime, so we slid down from the wall at the corner of Ox Terrace, plodding homeward up the grey street which wound like a discarded snake-skin through the houses on the hill.    Perhaps I might have raised objections to Jonna’s simplistic reasoning, but I was only thirteen, and I was hungry.   He had a point.   There were many reasons to remember Christmases in our family; many more than that pine needle quilted pile of presents beneath the tree on the day itself.

The lines for battle would be drawn long before November’s foggy end.   It would be at the breakfast bar when I might first burble something over my bowl of Coco-Pops, like:    “Can I have an Amstrad for Christmas, Ma?”   Although I raised the subject as a request it was not a question.

My mother’s face would darken, and had I paid more attention I would have seen the slight droop of her shoulders, the way she had of becoming smaller as each blow struck.  She was smaller with the years – there had been a lot of blows.  “I dunno, Chas, they’re too expensive for us, pet.”

Five or six years earlier I might have thrown a sullen fit, or bashed my cereal into volcanic eruption with my spoon;  nowadays I was  a lot more subtle:    “Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.   He says they’re really cheap down Argos.”

Of course I knew how envious my mother was of Jonna Sutley’s family.

“Well, I’ll have a look.”

“I need a new bike an’ all.  Mine’s too small now.”

That was the beginning of a process as irreversible as Advent.   Over the weeks that followed, always at breakfast, I would open another small door:  the Manchester United shirt, the puzzle game, fishing rod, Tonka truck.

“Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.”

The list grew; my mother shrank; and though I knew the pain I was causing I could never desist.    My Da’  only learned about it in the evening, after each new demand had a day to settle.   If I thought he was going to shout I’d be well away, playing with Jonna down the recreation, or over at the halls with Sue and the girls. I’d hear them shout at night, though, he and Ma, and I’d hear Ma crying sometimes.

On Christmas morning that heap of gaily wrapped boxes harboured more guilt and despair than anything in Isaiah’s most desperate moments.

“Aye, give him his presents.”  There would be a bitter edge in Da’s voice, even though he’d started on the beer an hour earlier.

I opened each gift with savagery, and the only element of surprise was in guessing which demand each packet would satisfy, and the overwhelming disappointment at those which remained unmet.

“The bike’ll have to wait another year, son.  We can’t afford it, we really can’t.”

“What’s a lad need a bloody computer for, anyways?”

No thanks, no shining faces; by Christmas dinner our sitting room was Hiroshima after the bomb:   by five o’clock all but maybe one or two of the gifts would be forgotten.  Amid the snores of evening I would plot my appearance on the street the next day.  Which of these should I take out with me – which could I claim proudly:  what presents had the others, Jonna and the lads, been given that would outmatch mine?

The gifts of Christmas were good for a week – the boxes they came in often hung around the place much longer.   It took three days for me to get Da’ to set up the computer, and I played with it almost obsessively for five.  Ten days into the New Year a brand new bike stood waiting in the back shed when I got home from my football.  Ma was watching from the kitchen when I discovered it, so she heard my crow of delight.  Nor did she miss the crisp punch at the air – my expression of victory.

“I borrowed off the Provvy.”  She said.  She was wringing her hands together in a way I had not seen before.  Did I thank her?  I don’t remember.

That was the way the fire curtain dropped on Christmas nineteen eighty five.   The repercussions would last all year.

Da’ lost his car in the spring.   A repo. van came for it when he was down the Waggoner’s.    It wasn’t a very good car, Da’ said; which was right, because it was always breaking down, but I saw his face when Ma told him it had gone.  From then on he had to start for work even earlier in the morning, getting a lift from Jamie Hicks down the South Side.

It was the beginning of my fourteenth year, a year when meanings began to change for me and new emotions needed explanation.   As Spring sun bathed our grey slate roofs I found myself more frequently in the company of Dave Crabtree and the girls, and especially deepening my friendship with Sue Crabtree.   Just as Dave was a little older than me, his sister was a little younger, a sprightly girl whose raven curls bounced across her pale face as she ran, so that she was forever brushing them back:  the hand movement was habitual:  once when we were talking I sat in front of her, mimicking each pass and she stared at me for a full minute before she understood.    One afternoon, sitting by the river, she asked me:

“Do you want to be my boyfriend, then?”

“Nah, no time for that!”  I said it dismissively, but it still didn’t come out right.  Sue was not deceived.

Words like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘lover’ had been common parlance between us for years – they were without interpretation – just things we said because they existed everywhere in the world around us; we had no idea of their significance.  Now the curtains were drawing back.   Sarah Coldbatch, a stubby, hearty girl of my own age, always wore dresses of gingham.  She possessed knickers in as many colours as my socks, and since her speciality was handstands we knew Sarah’s knickers almost as familiarly as I knew my own socks, and  it never worried any of us.  Then one day the handstands stopped.   Suddenly, for no apparent reason I could see, even a brief revelation of those gaily coloured undergarments would bring a flush of embarrassment to Sarah’s apple cheeks.

“You can stop starin’, John Hargreave!”

Jonna, not to be outfaced, would counter with:  “I would if you’d stop  flashin’ em at me.  Same pair as last week, I see.”

We spent a lot of time by the river that year.  There was a place that was ours, down the wooden steps behind the Rugby Club – a wide, stony stretch of placid water that rattled with shiny black pebbles and accompanied our games and songs and conversations with an orchestral murmur to rival any piped music.   Here was a bend in the river, where it gently nosed its way around Burdlehope Hill, beneath the old brewery walls which still clung to the slope, though roof and windows were long gone; and once, before they dammed them up in the hills, the waters here would have been much deeper.  A concrete jetty, chewed by neglectful years, pointed out across the stream, in memory of times when boats would navigate all the way from the sea.    It stood eight feet above stony scree:  the shoreline did not even reach it anymore.

Beyond the jetty a patch of level grass rich with buttercups was wide enough for play, hidden enough to pretend secrecy.   There, upon a sunny afternoon in May, Sue and I shared our first kiss.   It was an inelegant affair, a mixture of nervous peck and film star tonsillectomy that brought none of the thrilling sensations my television-based sexual education promised.

“Do you want to kiss me, then?”  Sue had stumbled as we clambered down from the jetty.  I had caught her and our faces were suddenly inches apart.   I was taken completely by surprise; such a thing had never occurred to me – but I was a man, wasn’t I?  So I tried.   I snapped turtle-like at her lips:  they were cold and thin – our teeth banged together.  She grabbed my head and moved her mouth around mine, convulsively grinding until my own lips felt as though they had been minced.   I prayed for it to end.   At last she stepped back.

“You’re not a very good kisser, are you Chas?”

For the rest of the afternoon she and her companions kept catching me with covert glances, giggling conspiratorially as though I had something stuck on the end of my nose.    I was far too naïve to understand the rules of the game:  I was plunged into fathomless humiliation, a perpetual blush which stayed with me through all the hours to sunset.  By the time the others had begun to drift homewards I had resolved to restore my tattered reputation, and when Sue made to leave I grabbed her wrist:

“Stay a bit?”

I had expected Sarah Coldbatch’s disparaging laugh; been afraid Sue would do the same:  she didn’t.

“Alright then, Chas.”

We sat watching for fish in the water, catching the subliminal rubies of red sunset in the ripples.  We talked; about what I don’t know, now, but I know they were adult things:  how I worried for my Ma now Da’ was away at work all the time, and how Sue wanted to move to another desk at school, because Jess Abbott was a distraction.  She wanted to work, she said, so when she left school she could go to university and become a nurse, or a teacher – she couldn’t decide which.  There were other things, but, as I say, I can’t remember what they were.

Nor can I remember exactly when I put my arm around her shoulders, or when I drew her to me.  But her lips were warm, their touch soft.  I know we got it right that time, both of us, obeying rules neither of us understood.  We were learning though.  From then on, everything was changed.

It would have been the end of June:  rain had been falling for days; cold rain that got under my collar so that I ran home from school to be away from it – rain that kept me in my room after tea, wiling away the hours with comic books or my Amstrad.   It was a Wednesday.

The front door was open, yawning an invitation to the street.  Seeing this from several doors away, I thought I would find Ma and Mrs. Potter or someone inside out of the weather, wrapped in one of those conversations neighbours seem to have about nothing in particular; but the house was silent.

I took off my shoes as I always did, adding them to the scruffy little pile of footwear behind the door.   Then – I don’t know why because I was never this careful – I closed the street door behind me.  The doormat was soaking wet.    Maybe something – some quiet voice – was reminding me that this was my home and it was precious to me:  that same quiet voice told me something was different, something was wrong.

I went through to the kitchen.   We had blue plastic worktops in there that Da’ had bought from the Auctioneers one week when he was flush.  I helped him put them in:  I held his tools, I even drove in some of the screws, turning them so hard my hands were red raw and my fingers hurt for days afterwards.  Looking back, those tops were crudely assembled and probably not very strong, but at the time I was proud of them:  I had helped to make them – they were partly my own work.  So seeing how one of them had collapsed, breaking the spindly leg supporting it and tipping the toaster, a pot of the raspberry jam I liked and the last of a loaf of bread onto the lino floor affected me more profoundly than it should.  There were other things scattered about, too.  A saucepan from the stove by the door to the back yard, my Da’s weekend jacket ripped from its peg with a big tear in the sleeve, some recipes Ma had cut from her magazines in a heap at the end of the surviving worktop.

“Ma?”  I called out.  I was seriously worried now and half-way to tears.   “Ma?”

My Da’ should have been there then.  He should have led the way up the stairs to search each room and make things right.  But he worked away these days – he wouldn’t return until Friday night, or sometimes even Saturday.  There was only me:  I had to climb those narrow twilight stairs one by one, listening to my own breath as it followed me.   I wanted to go straight to my room; to hide there, to wait for whatever was baleful and angry in this cold place to leave; but I could not.  At the head of the stairs I turned the knob on the big bedroom door.

“Mam?”

She was lying on the bed.  At first I could barely recognise her because I was seeing another person in my mother’s body and her head was turned away from me towards the window.   I had seen her in a slip before, though never this slip:  never this lilac thing with purple lace.  Bras and knickers were not new to me either, they were the stuff of sniggers when she came down half-dressed to make breakfast, sometimes inadvertently letting the coat she wore as a dressing gown peep open to reveal the forbidden things beneath.  But they were never carelessly uncovered; never displayed  as openly to my sight as these.    She lay very still.

“Mam, wake up, please?”

For an age she didn’t move.  Then, so, so slowly my mother turned her head to me. A clown face of thick make-up and cheap mascara smeared by weeping said, in a stranger’s voice:

“What do you want?”

When I could find no words to answer her she repeated it in a shout:  “What do you want?”

Closing the door on her, I went to my bedroom and sat on my bed, staring at my wall with the picture of Mick Jagger on it, as if he might provide a solution.  I stared for an hour before I heard the light switch on the landing and her footsteps on the stair.  I cringed inside as her feet approached my door, shrank back as the latch turned.  And there she was, standing in front of me with a different, alien smell about her; her open dressing gown exposing that lilac slip, and a plate in her hand.

“Your bike’s gone.  I sold it. You’ll have to have this.  There’s no tea.”

She closed the door.  A moment after, I heard the door of her own room close.

I ate the bread and jam she had slapped together in a sandwich for me, carefully picking off the bits of dirt from the kitchen floor.   A shard of glass in the jam cut my gum.   It hurt for days.

This piece feels as if it should be the start of a book.  Maybe I’ll work on more episodes to feed into the blog, if anyone wants them.  It’s an idea to explore, anyway.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.