20150112

Knaresborough's Child



I was a child of the sixties but, if they swung with any resonance elsewhere, I missed them altogether.
           I grew up on the edge of the market town of Knaresborough, the edge then, though the fields and country lanes where I played as a child are now covered by a veritable rash of houses and trading parks.
                       The sixties for Knaresborough were much the same as the fifties and drifted aimlessly into the seventies or its population would have been scandalised. A local young mother discarded her tweed coat and rollers in favour of clothes unbefitting of her age and was the talk of the street. Yet no one thought any the less of the many husbands escorted to bed with a frying pan, or other suitable weapon, on a Friday night, their wages mostly gracing the owner of the Ivy Cottage’s, or some similar establishment’s, Landlord’s pocket. Proper men, who could take a drink or two, and why not? It was a man’s world and plenty of children grew up on bread and dripping.
                          Knaresborough still boasted the ‘Oldest Sweet Shop’ and Chemist in England back then. In recent years, I note that the sweet shop is a hairdressers and the chemist just retains its frontage, having a tea room inside. Strangely I felt the loss of these establishments more keenly than any other. But back then they were constants with goods little changed from Mum’s childhood.
                          On our street no one locked their doors and everybody knew everybody’s business. Coal was delivered by a man who, apart from his bright red eyes, looked as if he might have been modelled from that medium. The Pop man and the Rag and Bone man still delivered or collected their wares by horse and cart.
                 As children we were taught to avoid the local quarry because of the bogeyman who lived in the shed under the bridge. Though I did once have to decide between almost certain death or risking mum’s wrath, had I returned home having lost a flip-flop in the sinking mud in that forbidden place - possible death was the only option. I returned from its alien landscape of grey stones and coveted bulrushes clutching my slip covered shoe and a handful of cowslips from the top of the railway embankment - also forbidden, our parents assuring us that closer than three yards from the top we’d be sucked under a spectral train, somehow arriving silently and robbing them of their children and us of our young lives.  I was in my forties before I dared to divulge details of my brush with death to my horrified parents.
               Indifferent to the gifts that were mine, to have a garden that edged the bottom of a railway bank, its track leading out to open countryside, I enjoyed the endless freedom to roam and learn. Woken by the morning chorus of birds, residing in the roof, I would pull on sweater and jeans whilst trying to avoid Mum’s attempts to crucify my hair into a bun. In truth, her efforts rarely lasted to the bottom of the garden.
                   Over the hedge I would go, to the sanctuary of the railway bank and its adjacent gardens, each offering other children or a profusion of caged animals and all their natural scents. Unable to resist the furry or feathered, I was drawn to searching for new laid eggs and the fascination of a goat that could be milked.
                 I knew the seasons’ rhythms from the earliest celandines and wood-anemones to the wild strawberries and brambles of autumn. I listened out for the cuckoos’ return and watched the abundance of wild creatures - the bully starlings who stole all the bread from the ‘spuggies’[1] in the winter months and the odd cheeky robin following Dad’s spade in his attempts to grow vegetables.
                 It was a thankless task. The neighbours’ caged animals would invariably find a way to scramble into his allotment and nibble new shoots barely raised. We would help ourselves to peas at the first sign of a bump in the pod; carrots, radishes and spring onions had only the merest chance to swell before I and my brother devoured them.
               If Dad did have a success, it was his marrows. Sadly, no one liked them; marrows earned even the goats’ and rabbits’ disdain or it’s improbable they would have made it to maturity. After several meals reminiscent of slugs mulched with cabbage, the whole family revolted. Consequently, they were pickled in their masses and overpopulated the pantry. At least Mum loved a pickle and wasting anything, when a workingman’s wage was a pittance, was a crime.      
                         I was a dreamy distant child, little troubled and slightly confused by life’s agendas.  I was more aware of a hedge full of spider silk, trailing its beads of rain in the autumn, or spiky-cased horse chestnuts, with their mahogany nuts, than I was of what adults seemed to want of me. I walked the Ginnel to school, head down, searching for nature’s leavings. How could I be so late? I just didn’t know.
                     How could I explain the need to trail my fingers along the railings or hedges, sending them fuzzy, or pausing to study the new green leaves before they turned copper on the birch.
                     Unfortunately, the spiders that sent others into fits of screaming fascinated me with their sticky ballet on the wire. Just as a catkin, or the fragments of a tiny blue-green egg, could rob me of my senses for a length of time not remotely conducive to punctuality. I would dawdle in wet weather to save slugs, snails and worms from the less conscientious feet of others. I would rescue rodents and rehabilitate injured pigeons, with the help of the elderly gentleman and his wife who lived nearby and had almost everything, short of a tiger, living in their large shed.
                     No, I didn’t know how my ribbons got lost or strange stains appeared on my new school frock, how my arm had a scratch the length of it or my hair was tangled up with bits of most of the flora and fauna it had briefly visited. 
                    However, such disasters and their irate consequences meant I did know the secret of removing oil from socks, and creating invisible repairs, and I willingly shared my skills with my peers to protect their delicate behinds from unwarranted adult attention.      
                       Selective memories provide long hot summers; foggy mornings that burnt back to provide blue cloudless skies. Autumns were crisp and abundant; winters were snowy and cold.
                      Despite the nights drawing in, there was always the heady display of Harvest Festival to look forward to or the delights of Bonfire Night. This meant treacle toffee, or toffee apples if you were lucky, bought from the corner shop. There was always a small box of fireworks to let off in the garden. It was Dad’s job to supervise such dangerous materials. We had, of course, been told about children, who would still have died if they had fallen into a doctor’s arms, from their injuries, having been misguided enough to play with fireworks.
                       Christmas, too, was magical. It generally meant a present buying trip to Harrogate, or even Leeds, then an exotic hotchpotch of demolished industrial decay and shiny enormous department stores.
                    But, best of all, there would be shiny foil paper at school to create lanterns and stars, paper chains and nativity plays. There would be presents, handmade and built to withstand a Third World War or freak weather conditions, along with books, board games and selection boxes.
                       Sadly, there were also maiden aunts; these powdered ethereal creatures would buy you presents like talcum powder or knit you misshapen clothes. The former was useless as a modelling compound and oddly, I discovered later, not to be used on the hall carpet to turn Enid Blyton books into passable skates. The latter, in the cause of not wasting good clothing, had to be worn somewhere no other child might venture or social ostracism was sure to follow. 
                       In my eighth year I bid the sixties farewell; it was the year I discovered there was no Santa and the Christmas tree lights got broken when it was too late to buy more. I had discovered I no longer enjoyed playing but was not old enough to regard the strange grubby creatures called boys with any real interest. A dark void stretched out before me and I wept in my mother’s arms for my lost childhood.
                           Today’s Knaresborough retains its quaintness. The castle ruins keep their vigil over the beautiful castle and moat gardens. The paddling pool has changed little since I was a girl, other than to gain a fresh coat of paint. I’ve a picture of Mum sitting on its edge, just as I did more than two decades later. How very privileged we were without knowing it; few children today are blessed with the freedoms we knew.                   
                
                          


[1] Local term for sparrow

20130913

Blackbird Summer



                                                                 
I am waiting in the schoolyard; I’m perhaps seven years old. My brother is there but he doesn’t emerge from my recollection much. There is just the knowledge that he is somewhere, close by. We are completely alone; lost to the buzz of idle bees and gravelly voiced mowers struggling against parched lawns.
  The school building is square and modern, significant only as a place of confinement and unwelcome expectations.
  I wander among fat bushes, craning to be taller to reach their waxy flowers dripping yellow powder, white frocks crumbling with the end of summer. I’m searching for underground passages, hunting among grass-tangled roots for trees holding hidden doorways. Here Zephyrus whispers incantations and secrets hide everywhere: in the cut grass and pollen air: in the warm breath of enchantment creeping over me. I dance a wild jig, spinning faster and faster, I am free, I am safe.
  Somehow I know I’m watched, somewhere in the spinning green wall of bushes. In the circling shadows edging the dizzy sky there’s a small dark stranger.
  I stop, frozen, even my breath is loud. I sink to the floor, the air in my lungs straining to escape, pressing my fingers into rough dry grass.  
  A fledgling stands there, shaking in heartbeats, eyes unblinking; flattening itself to the ground, pitiful in my unwelcome attention.
  I inch forward, sliding clumsily over broken glass, scraps of litter, gradually becoming more conscious of the pain, white-hot, searing, the feeling of warm blood trickling on raw skin. But I do not cry out. I’m fixed on the tiny being before me.
  The bird opens its beak, choking on single notes, as I stretch forward with grimy fingers. It’s so close now.  Perfect feathers glossy, unsullied, creep out between stray tufts of baby down, eyes burning with reproach.
  Yet I long to touch it, to make it my own. Closing my eyes I tremble with effort, trying to reach it with some primeval force. I mean no harm and do not understand its fear.
 Shuddering under my gaze it drops wet faeces. Desperate I lunge forwards like a guileless puppy. It flaps and scrapes the ground with untrained wings, limping awkwardly to its shelter.
  A sleepwalker entranced, intoxicated with the thrill of the chase, I lay in the dirt, side-eying tiny feet. It cowers in the darkness as I tear off sticks, filling my mouth with dust. The splintering wood sends my victim in another direction.
  The bushes are dense and sharp and my skin pulses hot with threaded scars. I struggle out spitting strands of hair caked with soil. Leaves and twigs shower down on me, snatching at my clothes, but I am dead to all but my creature.  
  I jab at the undergrowth viciously. My prey loops out over open earth, always just a little ahead, hopping through dry paper hedges, leaves crunching, under small scattering feet.
  Frustrated tears smart on torn skin. Massaging my nose with a sleeve, dirt mingles with blood and salt. I bring the stick down hard on the bush; clouds of insects erupt, catching in my throat, my eyes. I scrape blindly at the air. Then, at my feet, a dark crumpled thing falls. It is loose and broken, a small bundle of splayed feathers and parched skin.
   Part of me lurches backwards feeling my stomach empty somewhere, though I’m still as death. It’s like there are two of me and one is crying silently and that one knows it, but won’t tell. Even then I know this is not my bird, its rotted body is old, its eyes dry holes, it’s ugly limp and dull. I know it, but the shame does not, it envelopes me, filling my mouth with running salt. I can see myself in those sad remains, drunk with self, uncaring and cruel. And I know with a child’s certainty that God will punish me.
  I never told. I walked home with my guilty secret, like a rock in my belly.
Many times I dreamt of it, my poor little bird calling for its mother because I had frightened her. Its presence haunted the place between sleeping and waking, forcing me to follow, fixated, terrified. To hold it till it came apart in my arms, its grey raisin eyes staring accusingly; a rotten corpse, choking me in a cloud of flies.
 

20120618

Café

Trapped under glass it’s 1953.
Where Rayon’s the success of
spring. In other news; a sewing
countess boasts of her prowess
whilst the Earl dusts his coach

A child waitress; sixties coal
and a fifties print dress, swings
past the duke box and quilted
toilet door of Bond’s nemesis
with cappuccinos and mochas

We laugh; eat improbable cakes
off, of white plates; sip our drinks
cool mountains of cream, gaze into
glazed fruit pastry frames; by the
coffee espresso and Quimbley fish





20091023

Useful information for Pupils 2

Things teachers say:

· What do you think you’re doing? This is not actually a question at all. Do not fall into the trap of explaining yourself. Merely apologise and put the hamster back in its cage.

· When you’ve quite finished. Anything else you’d like to do or can we start working now? Note these are trick questions and there are no correct answers.

· That’s really interesting. This either means stop interrupting or I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.

· Which comedian wrote this on the board? Warning this does not imply your teacher feels you have a brilliant career ahead of you making people laugh. He wants revenge.

· Pay attention – should not be accompanied by a note requesting money.

20091019

Cover Up

The recent gravity machine's
malfunction left ancient listed
seas all floating - out
in - outer space

Someone's unplugged the polar
fridges. A form of damage
limitation. But it went out
the same way as the rest

The National Federation
for Discussions of Important
Decisions Not Decided or
Resolved: ruled it no good

to tell the workers, all
that needless panic and sent
a spray can into space to
paint the planet blue

20091015

Cross Purposes

Silence class 9B
SILENCE!
Does no one understand
the word Silence?
Do I have to get a dictionary
and spell it out for you?
I don't know It's...
It's as if you and I speak
a different language
No Simon Jones
I don't need
A DICTIONARY

20091013

Killing Time

He'd always been ordinary
Clothes, muted beige
The porcelain cup
with a picture of a cat
meant just that
no significance
Training shoes
some supermarket brand
stitched by children
in Deli - probably
His morning was grey
often they were
he couldn't seem
to start his car
But apart from
emptying the last
of his cash, into
the open hands of a
tramp and the illusion
of creeping damp
everything's normal
yet there it was
his watch had stopped
at twelve o'clock
Just like his own ticker