A Drink of Bittersweet (A memoir) Part 1

Started by Granda, June 19, 2019, 06:45:52 PM

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A Drink of Bittersweet

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.

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.
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.

My heart (and the rest of me) belongs to the Northeast of England.