A Drink of Bittersweet (A memoir) Part 2

Started by Granda, June 19, 2019, 06:49:13 PM

Previous topic - Next topic


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.
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 . . .

Till my second one.

The End.

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