Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Wiping the condensation from the upstairs window, I peer curiously down at the passing streets, as the double-decker bus slowly heaves and inches out of town.
Seated behind, laughing and animated, Ma and Auntie Agnes are happily engrossed, interrupting each other’s sentences, they tut and exclaim over the latest scandalous family outrage, and never being ones to gossip, remember to seal each other to secrecy, before stripping the next skeleton from the flesh. It holds scant interest to me, as most of the names are faceless. Ma being one of ten, and with the majority of them scattered, there are scores of relatives I've yet to meet.
As the shops fall behind us, the route opens on to sprawls of residential landscape, high rise housing schemes, splattered in colourful graffiti. Farther along, the skyline widens, the modern developments giving way to their older counterparts, squat structures erected around the 1900’s.
Everything is built in red brick, capped by sloping roofs of grey tile. The houses are joined all together, side by side, as well as from the rear, creating seam upon seam of double rowed, flat-fronted (no yard or garden) terraces, which (I was soon to learn) are locally known as, “two-up/two down, back-to-back’s”.
A prod in the back jolts my eye from the road. Our stop has arrived.
Moisture coating our suitcase, we lug our way over the damp cobble-stoned streets, to follow Auntie Agnes past row upon row of houses, up the steep hill, to Enfield Place.
“Here we are, c’mon in, dearie, and say a hello to your cousins!”
The door opens straight in to a cluttered living room, filled with a crowd of tall, and not quite so tall, some little, and some down-right toddler-sized, children. A lanky youth greets us, vacating a seat for my Ma, as his younger brother takes our coats.
Once the introductions are through, Auntie Agnes calls up from the foot of the stairs for my Uncle to come on down and welcome us in. (Apparently, Uncle Ray takes to his bedroom for a slice of peace and quiet.)
Auntie Agnes tugs a child out of her space, to settle her ample girth on the sofa, “Fiona, girl, go and stick the kettle on, we’re fair gasping here for a cuppa’.”
Ma had said Fiona was the same age as me. She sure doesn’t look it. I’m a good head taller, and no where near as skinny. She’s a bonny lass, though, and I take an instant shine to her lovely smile.
I go into the scullery to lend a hand, and we chat as I rinse a few cups through. I find I don’t care too much for the Yorkshire clipped accent, where no-one bothers to finish their words. Auntie Agnes still holds her broad Aberdonian brogue, much as she ever did, but her husband and kids are all English, born and bred. I am excited when Fiona promises to, soon as we can decently escape, take me round to meet up with her friends.
And thus it was, how my two week “visit” properly began.
Although she was rather quiet and somewhat timid, Fiona could fall into giggles at the drop of a hat. This earned us frequent punches (to settle down) in the night, from her two elder sisters, who also shared the same bed with us. Barring the fact Sandra pee’d the bed of a night, I didn’t much mind this sleeping arrangement.
Aside from a cold water tap in the scullery, there was no indoor plumbing, and the only lavatory was located outdoors, shared between five other households. Once the lights were out, it was either the pail at the back of the room, or nothing.
(Unless you happened to be called Sandra.)
Too shy to go in the pail, I took to emptying my bladder last thing at night, and held myself in ‘til the morn. Even during the day, I’d only use the outhouse if Fiona posted look-out, because it was dank and smelly and crawling with spiders, and the rough, wooden seat speared splinters in my bum. Besides, there is nothing less conducive to a leisurely dump, than having an impatient neighbour outside, rattling the door frame.
Nevertheless, I found myself having a fine old time. It being the school summer break, we were more or less given free reign to do as we pleased, and we found no end of adventures to keep us occupied.
Some of the houses had taken a direct hit in the war, and their gutted, bombed out carcasses stood gaping and empty, the exposed foundations visible still, some thirty-odd years on. Although bricked up at the front by a chest-high wall, if you cared to jump up to sit on the ledge, and swing your legs round, a fifteen foot scramble would drop you down to the rubble-strewn belly, below. Certainly, climbing out again proved more of a challenge, usually requiring the firm yank from a friend, (which you’d hopefully) pre-stationed above. Deemed too dangerous to play in, we were banned from going anywhere near these places, which of course, made them a natural magnet for us to congregate.
If not out skinning my shins down the shells of these bombed-out playgrounds, I was busy teaching the neighbourhood kids how to speak Scottish (slang), or boning up on my newly acquired competitive skills. I was delighted to discover the English were not only brilliant at football, they also weren’t too adverse as to cluing me in on some manoeuvres, such as how to deliver a blinding "dead-leg" to the opposition, from behind.
I learned a lot from my new friends, such as how a stolen pot of my eldest cousin, Maggie’s, clear nail varnish, could harden the most apologetic of conker’s, transforming it into a sure-fire, winning missile, every time. Also, I’d never played a game of “Find the Lady” not in the entire span of my eight, long years, but well before the end of that glorious, first week, I found myself not only adept, but nothing short of a gifted genius, in the ancient art of sleight of hand.
We came and went pretty much where the fancy took us, only calling by the house when our bellies growled.
Granted, meal-times were a bit hit and miss at my Auntie Agnes’, served on the basis of “first come, first serve”, as they were. Those turfing up last had only themselves to blame. Even when we did catch the odd hot meal, in truth, it was usually more of a challenge than a pleasure to digest. Ma confided, if she ever saw a butterless, boiled-to-mush potato again, she might have to take up refuge with the Pakkies, next door.
(I didn’t like to tell her, I already had.)
Yasmin’s family were from Bangladesh, and she was the most beautiful girl on the face of the planet. I had no word for it at the time, but today I would say she completely entranced me. She wore a rope of thick, dark-brown hair, plaited down the centre of her back, and owned a collection of hand-embroidered doll-clothes to die for – all of which her mother had taught her to hand-stitch, by herself. She was a couple of years older than me, and although she wasn’t allowed to run the streets with us, she was always happy to have us call over. Her mother, ever gentle, kind and welcoming, seemingly never saw cause to raise her voice. Both she and Yasmin dressed in luscious, brightly coloured satin, and I felt sure they were directly related to Aladdin. No matter what time we cared to show up, we were always offered a much appreciated something delicate and tasty to snack on (even if we were made to wash our hands first).
I’d never seen, much less met, any dark skinned person before. I’d heard about them. They were called “Darkies”, and ran about eating each other. Least, that’s what I’d been told. But Yasmin wasn’t like that, and neither was her mother. Maybe her Da was. He worked shifts down at the local biscuit factory, and was always asleep when we called. Perhaps it was only the men-folk who were savage?
A trick of Fiona's was to rise early, and sneak out of the house. The milk-man delivered to the doorsteps before dawn, and whilst the streets were still desererted, we were able to lift the bottles with little fear of being caught. The main thing to remember was to never take from the same doorstep twice in the one week, for the second time around, someone might be there lying in wait for you.
All too soon, the first week flew into the next, and long before I was anywhere ready, the last of our holiday burned close to an end.
Well, so I had thought. In fairness, it came as a shock to us all, when Ma announced we were staying.
Not least of all to my Da, and the sib’s waiting for us at home (never mind to my poor Auntie Agnes).
In truth, the holiday really had come to a close, from here on out things were set to turn a wee bit strained.