The swinging sixties
Loyalty in families, a step away from delusion, some might say. It had not crossed this young man’s mind what he had just done as he ran his oily fingers through his quaffed Brill-creamed hairstyle and put the jukebox on again to listen to The Rolling Stones.
Back to school the next day.
“Yes Miss, here Miss”.
Wearing shabby clothes, it was still preferential to home, and her Uncle Joe. Later she returned home on her Curry’s cycle which had been purchased on tick. Her legs, as thin as bamboo shoots, pedalled furiously, determined to get to the top of the hill without getting back off of her cycle again and pushing it to where her friend Irene stood. She sat next to Irene in class. Once a week she’d visit Irene where she’d have an orange juice and chat with that ordinary family. Irene’s dad listened, then said he was off to his garden-field at the other end of town.
“He is odd, your dad, I mean”.
Esther was quick to counter that statement.
“My dad is dead. He is not my dad. Not one cell of him is mine…I hate him!”
Irene continued as they cycled on the flat homeward stretch.
“God, Esther don’t he swear a lot. How do you cope?”
Irene had then grown quiet as they cycled abreast past the old yellow AA box which, years before had served to shelter a man whose task it had once been to direct the traffic at the crossroads. If he had tried it then, though, as the Lorries headed north and south, he would have soon become mincemeat. Irene could never keep quiet for long so – back on her bike – for the final straight stretch and that last mile, she ventured her next question.
“Mum says, she says that Uncle Joe left you all. Dad said ‘Good riddance!’ and Mum nodded too as she knitted my new cardigan; says he has gone back to the North of England…is it right?”
Esther sighed, steadying her mince pies, made earlier in cookery class, in her cycle basket. The whole music class had been in fits when she had then gone and scattered half a bag of Tate and Lyle sugar all down the aisle in her next music lesson. Her teacher looked really perplexed as he attempted to deliver his music lesson to pupils who were simply then ready to go home.
“No, sadly he’s not gone…but he did go. He…he stormed out the front door yelling at our poor Mum saying she had not put enough f…in’ ham in his sarnies and she was starving him, and he was going to report her to his doctor and that she was always out”.
“Oh answered Irene, knowing that this was not the whole story.
“Yes, I can tell you. We all cheered when he left in that taxi with his poor guide dog, Bernadine…trouble was though that he was back in under a week when his family wouldn’t have him back. What sort of Christmas present is that?”
“Yes, I’ve seen how he beats that poor animal across the back and the head, everyone sees him doing it in the club, the street…everywhere what a bastard!”
“Anyway”, continued Esther, now struggling to eat one of her almost inedible mince pies, “I ought to be going back home, but that’s not what it feels like most of the time”.
They cycled then past the water tower, which was the tallest building on the landscape (although it hadn’t ever contained water). Shortly later they went their separate ways; Irene living round the corner in one of the smarter parlor houses.
As she walked the needle-straight street, her bike tyre having punctured, she fell into conversation with Mrs. Green, a lady who was always willing to share her thoughts and memories about the past before Esther and her family arrived in the town.
“I know it’s hard to believe but once this street you live in was a big old field and I know your house could be nicer, and Joe a poor substitute for a father, I do understand how you feel, a bit. Most folk round here know how your gas at home has been turned off for months now, your mum told me all about that when I found her crying down by the church, poor lamb!” She then continued, noticing the tears in Esther’s eyes and aware of how she might feel.
“We lived in a little yard, you know, and we had a tap at the bottom where we all would draw our water and we only had a bath once a week, like you do now, I suppose!”
Esther didn’t answer, but felt herself blush with embarrassment, wanting to also change things at home for them all. Mrs. Green continued,
“We used to have a bath every Friday night and our tin bath would be filled with kettles of water and we would wash in front of the fire. Like you, we had only one living room and the stairs went up from the front room, and we had no carpet on the stairs either”.
Esther winced as she heard this.
“Our stairs were scrubbed weekly until they shone, and Mum would get up early in order to sweep the beetles and cockroaches out of the kitchen. She was so particular with her brush, scrubbing every day. I remember how she bashed her home-made peg-rug out on the line in the yard with her broom-head. The rent for our home was about four shillings, and that was collected by a chap from Higham every Friday night. We didn’t have the luxury of a boiler room, but barns in the middle of the yard where folk did their washing and some of those overlooked the Grove”.
Esther, still not wanting to go home, just listened to how life used to be and this helped her to place herself somehow more easily in life. As she stood outside the corner-shop door (with Easter Eggs on display, even though it was barely February) Mrs. Green continued,
“Years ago we could all leave our doors open without fear. Our lovely Mum never lost her temper and was as gentle as your mum, Esther”.
Esther thought of Joe and how sanity left him most days and inebriated, unbridled rage took hold.
“It didn’t seem possible, but I remember how, in his spare time, my Dad used to make our shoes,” continued Mrs. Green, “but he used to cut them out and then he would take them to the Co-op to be skived at the shoe factory. Then after the uppers had been made, he would put them on a last and carefully attach them to the soles. You may find this hard to believe, but I was wearing the shoes he had made right up until I was sixteen. He worked at a shoe factory over five miles away and walked both ways. If that wasn’t enough, after a wash he would cheerfully go up to his garden-fields to gather the crops of his home-grown vegetables. It would be my job to go round the village selling carrots and onions”.
All Esther’s stepfather might manage was to tumble from beneath his eiderdown after a third cup of morning tea and then, with all engines firing and still in a state of inebriation from the previous night, drag his poor dog down the stairs.
It was whilst they were walking past the most recently built houses that this kindly lady opened her cardigan at her neck and hung in her dry, rough, stained hands a topaz necklace.
“My mother brought me this from Cox’s general store when I was a small child. We had just been to the pot stall that would be held every Friday night down where the Health Centre is now. All sorts of china would be set out in the square and anyone wanting a pot would go down there”.
She talked, as she walked with a hint of a limp – only when tired – about how she got infantile paralysis when she was eight, and how she had been really lucky, when three local boys at the time had been left with a lasting disability. Then she grew brighter as she remembered the happy times with her husband and that helped her with the loss now, with her lonely house but wonderful neighbours and friends in Finedon town who, for the most part, really cared then, in the swinging happy sixties.