Little? Little? I'll have you know, I'm a third of my weight noo, but I look taller. Am nearly a good coffin size. Ha ha. Happy now Firefluff? I said I'd come. Now listen you lot. Terminal just means they can't quantify how long exactly I have. So to me, each day I wake up (before I put on myyy make-up) is another celebration for me. OK? Now lemme alone. I have so much writing to do.
Back then, in that sweet, sweet moment, Dave and Betty ceased to exist for me, for that's when Moona wrapped her arms around my neck and suddenly I forgot how to breathe. She pressed her skinny body up to mine. Not in a sexy way, yuh understand. Just a fact. I wasn't quite at the stage where I'd be excited by her actions. Not yet. She looked in my eyes, and she was smiling. I smiled back. It seemed the right thing to do? Her lips, fully red, parted and the whitest teeth behind them almost blinded me. You know, I think it was right there that I fell fully and deeply in love with her. You might, at this point be scoffing and thinking, 'what the hell did I, a young kid of Shields know about love?' And I'd have to agree with you, because up to that point, I didn't really understand it or how it could make you feel? Or how it could affect you? I only know how I felt right then. I'd even seen it portrayed, often enough as I'd sat with the other noisy kids, goggle-eyed in my seat at the Pictures. Or on the Sunday Matinee on our black and white telly at home. And to tell you the truth, I thought of it all as . . . well . . . a bit sloppy. But I myself had never known it. Oh, I'd experienced Mother or Nanna Love. That was different. (I used to think it was a duty, to love your family. There were no 'getty-outs' of that kind of thing). This was different. This was a love, felt between two people. Or I should say, on my part at least. She closed her eyes and, slightly puckering her lips, leaned in and kissed me. In slow motion I saw the lips coming towards me. Then time itself stopped still. Everything went deathly quiet. I closed my eyes too. Lost in sudden thoughts of love and togetherness . . . drifting on a sea of expectation. . . . I kissed her back. She smelled of flowers, and underneath that, a mild hint of Imperial Leather soap. We weren't fervently kissing, yuh understand. Just touching lips. . . . then . . . WHAPP!
I was on the floor almost under her feet. I almost smiled, thinking that she'd . . . ? But it wasn't because of Moona . . . or our sweet kiss, that had me sprawling. It was a huge, hairy, spadelike fist that pounded me onto the dirty ground. Her big brothers had turned up unexpected.. Oh no! We were in trouble. I say 'we', because, as if by magic, Dave and Betty reappeared before me again. Betty cowered next to Moona, as Dave was spread his length next to me.
(I'm going to call the brother, Hassan, for wont of a proper name. Because, like the girls, I've forgotten his name as well. There had once been a Hassan in my life. And he too liked to use his fists, and was a bully, so the name is appropriate for this one). Hassan sat astride my chest and started to batter my face with his fists. Bam! Left. Bam! Right. The blood, spattering over himself, as well as me. And beat me he did, till I might have died. And he would've too, if his older brother 'Ali' hadn't dragged him off me.
Dave, meanwhile had dropped in a heap inside the pit of the Tarzan Swing. Ali, seeing his plight, stretched his hand out and hauled him back up, whereupon Dave ran to my side, crying over what Hassan had done to me. He turned to Hassan and not seeming to care about the possible beating he would get, shouted, what seemed to me, in my hazy recollections, something that sounded like, "Yuh-fuggin-big-arab-bastard-me-big-brother's-ganna-knack-yuh noo!" But all in one go, through a stream of blubbery snot as he wailed at him. Although Dave's older brother Alan was a scrapper, his eldest brother Gordon was the mean one, when he wanted to be. Someone duffing up his younger brother . . . and me, would hopefully get him angry enough to step in?
Whether it was this threat of someone coming after them . . . or maybe they saw that Hassan had really gone way too far overboard, beating two young kids, the two of them beat a hasty.
Without looking back, they soon scarpered up the embankment and quickly disappeared. The girls, who I honestly thought had gone, reappeared at their brothers' departure. Moona knelt by me, and Betty grabbed Dave's hand. "Let's go an' tell me' Da, smiled Moona at me.
I looked over at Dave, just as he looked worriedly at me. We weren't too thrilled at this idea. I didn't want to admit to her Da 'why' her brother had beaten me? But Moona was determined that this was the best thing to do. She was confident that her Da would sort them out. So, still smiling stupidly through my bloodied lips, but also embarrassed at being beaten up in front of her, and still feeling madly in love, I let myself be dragged up the embankment by Moona, with Dave and Betty bringing up the rear.
The last row of terraces at the bottom of Laygate Lane had once been shops. But they weren't shops any longer. They were Café's and Boarding Houses for the various Asian Seamen that lived in the community. The windows were painted a sickly bright yellow, or red, and from the outside couldn't be seen through. A few of them had old flowery curtains at the windows, that even back then looked as if they'd been there since the buildings were built in Victorian times.
But the places were filled with an assortment of people from all over the world, mostly as I remember, Yemen's, Somali's, Arabs and other Asian people. And of course, other English families, like us, lived above the shops too. The noise issuing out of the Café's and Houses hit first. The raucous calls of the gents would ring out as they played a card-game called Pollot. (Don't ask me what it was about, cos I've yet, to this day, no idea). Easier to follow, were their endless games of Dominoes. The noise of both games could be distinctly heard in Fregga Street, if the wind was from the river.
Then it was the smell of them. I grew up surrounded by that smell. Not an awful smell, you understand? But a delightful spice and curry aroma that seemed to permeate everywhere. I loved that smell and couldn't get enough of it. It was through this café that Moona now led me. Straight past the men, sitting on wooden hard-backed chairs, against wooden dining tables, with plastic waterproof tablecloths draped over them. Most of the men wore large overcoats, unbuttoned with their checked suits visible underneath. They wore varieties of hats. Trilbys. Hornburgs. Or plain white skull caps. (The skull caps usually signified someone had Haji status in the Muslim religion).
And then we were in the steaming kitchen of the Café. Pots of many sizes bubbled on the gas stoves. Vegetables in different stages of preparation lay on the benches ready for cooking. The pungent smell of raw onions wafted over to me. Dead chickens hung by their feet from a metal bar above the cookers. They made me nervous. Their glazed eyes seemed to follow me wherever I went. I cringed at the sight of them because I imagined myself suddenly up there, hung by my Sandshoes. It was just a kiss. So why did I suddenly feel so guilty?
Thankfully, on the way to the Café, I'd persuaded Moona not to say who had beaten me. To say that it was two big lads, who'd then ran away. This was, in my head, not a lie. But a form of the truth, and it sat better with me. The last thing I wanted was for her Da to beat me up as well. And then possibly string me up to hang with the chickens. Her Da entered the Café from the back door that I could see led to the yard. All I saw through it was a storeroom and a coal shed. Her Da looked . . . nice. I was expecting a horrible bully of a man. I don't know why I thought this? I just did. Maybe it was an innate fear that I'd been doing something that was wrong, so I expected an appropriate punisher to be as bad as I felt. Who knows? He smiled when he saw Moona and Betty, but it dropped slightly when he noticed who she was with. But then he saw my cut lip and teary eyes, and he smiled again. He turned to the sink behind him. I could hear a tortured squeak of something being turned on. A splash of water rose over the sink, and then the squeak again, obviously to me then of a tap as he shut the water off. He turned back and beckoned me to him, still smiling. So I went over to him, my fear dissipating. Wiping my face with a dampened cloth that still smelled faintly of curry, he asked in a low voice to Moona, in their language, who had done this? I know that's what he asked her, because she replied in English, what we'd agreed, that it was two big boys who'd done it, then ran off. I sighed with relief from her words and the coolness of the wet cloth on my split lip. He then asked Moona something else, and there seemed to be a question in his tone, because Moona suddenly nodded her head and skipped out of the back door and disappeared into the storeroom. Meanwhile her Da said to the rest of us, in Pidgin-English, "You wanna cok?" I have to confess, this question puzzled me. What the hell's bells was a 'cok'? I'd never heard of it before, and I could see by Dave's equal puzzlement, he hadn't either. But it seemed Betty had, for she brightened up too.
He led us into a side-room whose only item of furniture seemed to be a countertop, that stretched across the room. It was polished like I'd seen in a Public Bar I'd sneaked into once. Moona returned and placed on this bar, four bottles of something that had silver clasped tops. Her Da pulled a little bottle opener off a hook that hung on the wall and proceeded to pull the silver tops off. There was a pleasant little hiss of air every time he did this. I stood fascinated. My eyes widened and were drawn to the bottles. They were slender, and had a shape like . . . a woman's figure. Long necks. What looked to me like a bosom shape. Then a long bit, like legs. He placed paper straws in the bottles, then smiling at us still, he left the room. Moona and Betty walked over, lifted the bottles from the counter and got stuck in, while Dave and I looked at the two remaining. I still didn't know what they were? I knew they were a drink of some sort. But that's as far as it went. Only Beer came in bottles with clasp lids. That . . . I was sure of. Soft drinks, or Pop, came in clear bottles with black screw-off stoppers that had little bits of rubber to seal them when you screwed the top back on. So maybe I was being introduced, albeit innocently, to the pleasures of foreign beer for the very first time? I was hesitantly game.
Most of my family had been beer or alcohol drinkers. I'd secretly watch them while pretending to be asleep scrunched up on the sofa at family get-togethers, all the time sneering inwardly at them when they staggered about, being really embarrassing. 'Slavvery' I called it. Cos that's what they did. They'd slavver all over you saying how much they loved you. Or "What a good lad yuh are," they'd say. As if they needed drink to say it? Sometimes though, they gave money out, as if paying for their drink and kids. But even worse, when they seemed to get sick, because of it. I'd witnessed many many protestations of faith, given to their 'Toilet-God', in the wee hours. That they'd "never . . . ever . . . take another drink again, as long as they lived. So help me God!" Next day . . . back on the drink. Bunch of hypocrites. I'd vowed never would I let myself get in a state like that. And yet, here I was, about to take my first taste of beer. . . and looking forward to it. Some resolve huh?
I approached the counter, and saw the bottles up close. They seemed to be perspiring. Little beads of water gathered and as if following an invisible trail, dropped down and pooled on the wood they stood on. The sunlight, what little there was, caught the droplets in tiny catchlights, making them sparkle like diamonds. I reached out and drew the bottle towards me. Dave did the same. The girls were slurping theirs as if someone was going to take them away before they were finished. I'd never held a chilled bottle, of anything, before. I liked the feel of it. My hand got colder as I held it. Placing the straw in my mouth, I sucked on it and at first nearly choked as a mass of froth exploded onto my tongue. This was followed by the sweetest but most refreshing drink I'd ever tasted. I sucked and sucked, taking in big draughts while my cheeks were sunken with the pressure of sucking that paper straw. I couldn't get it down quick enough. It was glorious. Not as glorious as Moona's kiss was just a mere ten minutes before, but it was close. Between gulps, obviously the level went down the bottle, and I discerned a name engraved in the glass. P-e-p-s-i. Pepsi? Never heard of it. I just knew, like Moona's kiss, I wanted more of it. But as I later found out. It cost more than a penny.
I never forgot that first innocent kiss. Or my first taste of Pepsi. Because they both happened on that wonderful sunny day. A day etched into my memory of almost 50 years ago.
A kiss that set the benchmark that all future kisses were set against for many years to come. And as for drink? Nothing ever came close to that first Pepsi . . .
In the grimy shadows cast by Trinity Church Bridge, as the traffic moved slowly under and through it, there by the side of the railway lines was little nine-year old me. I held a precious penny clasped in my sweaty, grubby little hand. I was a little lad of ordinary looks. Not handsome, or cute. But not a fuugly either. Just plain ol' me—came from a broken home and living with Ma in a tenement-style house above a line of shops near South Shields Docks. I'd begged and begged Ma to part with a coin, which in itself was no easy task. You see Ma was tighter than the proverbial fishes bum—I'd been fishing lots of times, and seen fish heads, fins, scaly skin and other bits of fish. But never had I seen its bum, nor wanted to. So I didn't quite understand this saying? Yet it didn't stop me using it every chance I got. I liked the sound of it. It made me feel older. It was the 60's and money 'was' tight. So Ma liked to remind me, every time I asked for anything. "Money doesn't grow on trees yuh knaa?"
So like I said, I was successful in my latest endeavour. I dunno now if it was my own victory over her, or if she felt it was the lesser of two evils, and just gave it, to get rid of me for a while? When I heard the little 'snick' as her purse opened, my first thought was, 'Let the good times roll.'
Letting out a triumphant, "whoop!" I hugged her, while she fished in the murky depths for the said coin. I even let myself dare hope she wouldn't find one, and bless me with a 'tanner'. But no. A penny is what I'd sought. And a penny is what I got. Careful not to let her see my disappointment,—gifts can quite easily be taken back yuh knaa?—I hugged and thanked her and skedaddled out of the old house. I skipped down the old stone stairs of the vestibule onto the sunny daylight of Laygate Lane. As you sit in your present time, surrounded by the trappings and luxuries of your life, you might think that a penny wasn't enough to be bothered about? Not worth getting off your chair. But lemme' tell yuh, a penny back then was a gateway to goodies for a kid. A penny would get you Two Blackjack chews, coupled with two Fruit Salads for a start.
Or—after I'd skipped along to the paper shop on the next block, the one with the funny step in the middle of the room—and sampled the confectionaries in the Sweetie Tray, seen behind the thick glass and under the counter—I was as happy as a pig in shi-nola. For Tuppence you could get an aeroplane made of balsa wood that came in a little slim, flat packet—the wings slotted through a little slit in the body, with a small pellet weight of lead attached to the nose that made it catch the wind. And when thrown from the top of Laygate Flats Park Slide, it seemed to fly forever.
After a swift walk along to the cheap shops filled with second-hand things, a penny could buy a tattered but still readable comic, or even two. Heavenly.
But not this day. This day, I wanted the penny for one reason only. I wanted to 'put it on the line'. Let's backtrack about an hour before the great, 'Begging Ma with Puppy Eyes' caper, to what I'd been doing.
In those days, the mainline Trains went over the Trinity Bridge. But underneath it and going over the main road, were the great big ugly 'Lectric Trams that pulled the full wagons of coal to and from the Staithes at the river. Then the empties were hauled back to the pit at Westoe Colliery. Us kids would stand and watch, fascinated as the trams and the wagons passed in front of our pie-eyed eyes. At some unseen or heard signal, when the trams got near, a little blokey scampered out of his ramshackle little hut that sat under the Bridge, and he'd drop the barriers, preventing the cars from crossing the lines embedded into the cobbled roads. Yuh knaa? I don't think I ever saw him clean. He seemed covered in the very dirty stuff being transported in the wagons. And I don't think showers had been invented back then either? Or maybe they had, but were late in coming to Shields at that point? So . . . day in . . . day out, the Trams carted the coal to and from the Pit. At odd times in the day, little kids would ask the 'Watchie', as he was called, to put a penny on the line for them. A penny carefully placed on the line, resulted in it being flattened out into what we called 'pan-lids'. cos they looked like . . . erm . . . pan lids. As the wheels of the trams screeched and whined their way, kids from the estates around begged their parents for a penny to put on the line, and oot they'd whip from their houses and race to the Bridge. Wide-eyed they'd then proudly make their way home, hoping to show off their new trophy to their nearest and dearest. Not fully realising their error. I'd learned that lesson myself, the hard way, never to take them home.
Ma went berserk.
Accused me of wasting her hard-earned money. It was a good week before she gave me anymore, with the clear admonishment "Nee puttin' it on the lines mind!" Ma's an' Da's didn't appreciate them. Nor the fact that a penny had been changed into something far more valuable. Parents never seemed to see in the same way, the things we kids did. The ironic thing is, the pan-lids seemed to lose our interest after an hour or two. I mean what could you really do with it? If you took it home you got in trouble for wasting money. If you tried showing your mates, it was no use because they all had their own. So we generally let them become lost, till eventually the memory of them became sufficiently dim, and we forgot the bother we'd gotten into, so therefore another one always eventually seemed like a good idea.
Back to me . . . stood standing, waiting my chance to get another pan-lid. I'd followed the usual pattern with my last one. The only difference was, seeing how I'd learned not to take it home, I'd hidden mine. But some thievin' git had nicked it from my secret stash. Where? Under my bed of course. I think I knew who'd got it, but I couldn't prove it. But little did I realise then that my latest penny would be used for something that I'd remember for the rest of my life. For just then my best mate Dave, passed behind, and was beckoning me to walk up the bank to the High Shields Railway Station with him. I stood my ground at the Bridge. Defiant. As I looked at the Watchie, then down at my penny, Dave whistled to get my attention again. I looked up the bank at him, puzzled as to what he wanted of me? He knew I had nee money for a Train ride, so what the bliddy hell did he want? He winked at me and smiling enigmatically said, "You'll wanna try this. It's brilliant." I had no idea what he was on about. But as I looked down at my penny, then back at him walking quickly up and away, I came to a decision. 'There'd be other pennies, and other Trams,' so followed him up the bank, passing the billboard that sat at the bottom of the Bridge embankment.
The ramp up to the Station used to be for delivery vehicles dropping off and picking up from the Trains. But deliveries were made elsewhere by then. All that remained was the sloping bank. At the top, the road bent round left to the railway, but before it did, and set back a little from the path, sat the old Station House. An old stone house, it was, that had stood there for centuries I thought. It was really, really old. When you're nine years old, and everything's new to you, I suppose it's safe to assume that everything else is old. But the Station House wasn't where Dave was heading. He was going to the right side of it. Then I knew where he wanted me to go. At the rear of the Station House was a small, narrow tract of land. Behind this, the bank on the other side sloped down to an old train turntable. The table part was long gone. All that remained was the pit it had sat in. Stood next to this was an old gnarly, but strong tree. On one of its higher branches that stretched partly over the radius of the circle, some kid in antiquity had fastened a length of ship's hawser. Our Tarzan Swing. As far as we knew or were concerned, it was ours and no one else knew about it. So it became the Secret Swing. Over the years the hawser had been softened by the grip of our young grubby hands, as we swung our excited way around and across the circle of the pit. At first we copied the "Awoooooo!" noises Ron Ely as Tarzan made, as he swung through the jungle with Cheetah the chimp close behind. Gawd we all loved that show on the telly. Then it was Johnny Weismuller on the Pictures, we tried to emulate. It wasn't a swing with a wooden seat kinda thing we swung on.
No, we were MEN OF THE JUNGLE . . . and hung on for bliddy dear life, if I'm honest. There was a large knot on the end that was chest height, for Dave and I. While Gord and Alan, being quite tall, had their own smaller knot further up the rope. But the swing wasn't the centre of attention that day.
Standing with arms intertwined, beneath the swing stood two lasses. I was quite shocked to see them. Firstly it seemed our Secret Swing wasn't such a secret after all? And secondly, what were these two lasses doin' here? I knew them you see. Although, come to think on it, I suppose 'knew them' is a bit of a stretch. I'd heard lads speaking of them. And not unkindly either, because the lasses were sisters . . . and were nice, but more importantly, they had a couple of geet hard bigger brothers, who we knew, simply by word of mouth, were very protective of them. But other than that, I myself knew nothing of them. What I did come to realise was that the girl on the left, up closer as I now found myself, was the prettiest thing I'd ever seen. Jet black hair that seemed spun from silk. With just-as-black eyes, ringed with kohl. (Ma called it Arab Mascara) Skinny as a beanpole she was, and wearing some kind've blouse and skirt? I had no fashion sense back then. I've no idea what the other lass looked like or wore. I only saw 'her'. By then, Dave and I had reached them. Thankfully Dave stood in front of the other lass, while I, usually the gobby one, was suddenly lost for words as I stood in front of the pretty one. Dave, who when I think back on it, must've arranged this, reached out and appeared to be shaking hands with the lass in front of him? That's how dim I was. I hadn't realised that whatever was going to happen next would cost something. Dave nudged me and said "Go on. Give her yuh penny." Still not quite realizing what was gonna happen, I did so. Both girls stashed the money somewhere under their blouses. This act alone had me intrigued? Where had they stashed the cash? They then stepped forward as one, till we were all four of us, practically nose to nose. (for the rest of this story I'm going to have to give them names. Truthfully, I can't remember them? But for now let's just call them Moona and Betty). Moona was in front of me. Betty before Dave.
Great post Gyp. I know Poland was a big place, but I wonder if your Lady and my Da knew each other? For my Da was in the Polish Resistance too.
He once told me his life story, after I'd pestered him again to tell me. Only this time I recorded it on a little cassette recorder, and later transcribed it. Over a couple of beers and a few games of 'doms' he started.
"I was thirteen and came home from school and saw my Mother being dragged out of our house and she was marched off to Siberia. I never saw her again. My Fadder was a Polish Cavalry Officer, and they all got shot by the Gestapo. Neighbours hid me for a while. I never stayed in the same place for more than a few days. People were informing the germans about partisans and 'traitors'. And they disappeared. We heard they were being transported out of the country.
After a few years of this, I joined the resistance, when I was Fifteen. I saw action in a few places and it was here I learned from the other fighters how it was to be a man. The times we lived in made us brutal. I don't wanna talk about that. I later joined the Polish Army and saw action all over Europe. I was at Monte Casino and other places where things happened.
Eventually we were seconded to the British Army. When the war was over, I was given a choice. Canada, where I knew I had relatives. Or England, where I'd probably be alone. They gave me a sum of money to either make the trip to Canada or to set myself up in England. I made my choice I was demobbed in Rugby, bought myself a motorbike, where I eventually met your Mother. . . my life went downhill after that."
Cheers Ind. I'm glad you 'saw' what I was trying to get across. That just cos I was raised surrounded by familial violence, I don't have to promulgate it, or carry it on. It's something I feel most strongly about. I think too many weaker persons use the excuse "I came from a broken home" to explain their own use of a slap or smack or a punch to exonerate themselves. It doesn't. Thanks to the crit, I changed the fist to 'curls'. Much better, I think.
I use my loud and commanding voice to achieve what I want. I've been told recently (in a fb vid) that I have a voice like a commentater. Not knowing how a tater sounds I have no idea if this is a compliment or not.
Sometimes people give what they got and sometimes they strive to do better for following generations. I find this reassuring Bri, lovely poem. When horses cant in your neck gf the woods does it look like American horses who cantor? (or is it canter?) Anyway there are a few of your colloquialisms that don't translate over the ocean. I still don't know how I feel about that---is it up to the reader to make the effort to figure out the difference?
I vote for "curled"
I deliberately used the word 'cant' as a truncated 'canter' cos it fit better in the poem.
Funny you should mention coffee addiction Gyp. I haven't touched the stuff since I started the chemo. If someone hadda told me that I'd one day give up coffee and take up 'the bag', I wudda spat a laugh in their face. But no . . . horror upon horror, I'm now a confirmed Tetley's man. Incidentally, Tetley's also do a Fruity concoction that when added to the old H2o makes a lovely refreshing drink.
I still get that old familiar rush of joy when I turn on the 'memo' app on my phone and my fingers fly over the keys. Or when I turn on my pc, load up a word doc and a virgin, blank page, lies there spread out before me, and I know I'm gonna infect its virginity with a flourish of sentences, periods and the dreaded over-use of the comma (scourge of all writers).
Everything else can be given the old 'heave-ho'. But words . . . NEVER.