For the second time this week, I’m handing the reigns over to reader David Evans, with another brilliant piece… I’m sure you’ll all join with me in thanking him for his dedication and effort. I’m loving this stuff.
Four faggots in lace, please…
There were always errands to run, jobs to do, places to go, things to fetch. School time was a demanding and time-consuming part of a young lad’s day as it was, but parents, and moms especially, found ways and means of occupying one’s every spare minute. The promise that each task would only take a few minutes did not carry much weight. Schoolchildren were pretty good at calculating just how long ‘a few minutes’ was, in fact.
In morning school assemblies these few minutes seemed like hours; at playtime those same few minutes hurtled by without touching the ground. Lesson time was often soulless and protracted to the point of despair, only made bearable by the prospect of that imminent game of footy in the playground, that bottle of milk, that dash to the outside, open-air latrine. Morning playtime meant running around, kicking a tennis-ball, pushing, hiding, playing tig, and in winter, sliding. Sliding down the world’s fastest Junior Ski run, balancing, wobbling, desperately looking forward, not down to your boots, and the pure joy of self-made speed, real speed. Then cold knees, streaming eyes, and then hot-aches in your fingers. Without fail, every winter, two days after the piste had been perfectly formed, it was found to have been salted, half way down the run. Nobody knew, but we all guessed who had done the deadly deed. No names, no pack drill.
Back at home, though, the joys and trials of family life awaited, with unremitting regularity.
No lad would willingly tell his friends that he had been required to help his mom wind balls of wool, but would happily show off the resultant new pullover, made from whichever colour was good value at Bayleys shop. Lads were measured, and then the pullover was knitted by the industrious mothers.
Zigzags, the sort of zigzags that Redskins had on their tunics in the comics, were popular. In a flash a normal child became a Sioux, or deadly Apache. A visit to the hairdressers down the Wood turned the brave into either a three-day old, distressed blackbird chick, or, if the barbers numbers hadn’t come up that week, into a Mohican or Belisha Beacon.
Feeding the fowl was a daily task, whatever the weather. These feathered creatures lived in that looking strange shed, part crate, part Avro Mosquito floor panelling, part corrugated sheeting, down at the bottom of the garden, past the potatoes and peas. The fowl suspected nothing but dutifully laid another egg to replace the ones you took from the nests every day. Custard, real custard made with these eggs to go with the apple pie on Sunday, boiled for breakfast, for frying with chips, for poaching with toast made this daily task worthwhile. Eggs were important.
‘Go and see your great aunt Martha and great uncle Jim, now. Take them this steamed pudding I’ve made for them.’ This was Thursday’s regular after-school job.
A walk back in time and into another world followed this command. This dear old couple lived in their house which was just as it was when they set up home there in 1900. Nothing had been added, nothing altered, nothing removed from this living museum of a house. The back room , the kitchen, was their main living room. The front room, the parlour, was never used. It was for funerals and important days only. I never went into this room. The kitchen floor was quarry tiles with a bodged rug gracing the space near the fireside and fender. The black-leaded grate shone with the gentle licking flames from the coal fire. The kettle was bubbling away on the side of the grate. I was expected! A cup of tea in a bone china cup, a saucer, a huge medicinal teaspoon, a cube of sugar taken with the sugar tongs from the dainty little bowl. Yes, please. A cloud of milk from the jug in the larder, that dark room, one step down from the kitchen. Fresh, cold milk. A sidewise, rapid, glimpse into the pantry revealed the same things, week after week. A packet of tea, a packet of sugar, a packet of butter, a packet of lard, a packet of suet, a jar of home-made jam. A loaf. All placed in regimental precision on the top shelf.
In the centre of the room was the scrubbed table, an oil lamp in the white table cloth fitting this square table. The chairs were high backed, and very uncomfortable. Aunt sat in a heavy padded armchair by the narrow window, Uncle lay on the flat settee, coughing and breathing badly. He had been a miner down the Coppy Pit all his working life, and now it was clear even to a young lad, that this poor man’s days were limited. He would smile a very weak smile through this heavy moustache and just look, just look. Aunt poured the tea and ‘engaged in polite conversation’ with patience and calm befitting her elegant personality. Her accent intrigued me. She had moved to Walsall Wood from Newcastle under Lyme many years beforehand, but had retained her potteries lilt and turn of phrase.
‘How bin you, me duck?’ when I arrived, ‘Mind the orse road!’ when I left.
Monday was washday. The whole street seemed to unite in a mighty chorus of steaming kitchens or sheds throwing out the sounds of churning and beating machines as the mangles were turned, and the unmistakable sound of slopping and thumping as every hint of grime or coal dust was forced from the laundry by the combatants in this weekly battle against dirt. Smoke rising from the chimneys indicated the preparation for the next round of this battle, where flat-irons were to be used for the principal purposes, ironing and starching. Lads were warned that there was another use. We shrank away, slowly. But first the laundry had to dry on the rack above the kitchen fire, or on the clothes horse around the fender. The clothes pegs bought from the gypsy women were clustered in the round basket by the door.
Mondays were also faggots day. Faggots, real faggots bought from Bates or Jones butchers. The ingredients of these delicacies were a closely guarded secret. Queries from inquisitive errand-boys were always parried with the reply; ‘Better you don’ t know, my lad, but they’re good, very good.’ Faggots and mashed spuds, with processed peas, and thick, luscious, mouth-watering, rich gravy. Cleaning the plate round and round with a slice of Smiths best wholemeal brown, then ‘finishing it off’ was bliss, sheer bliss. The few minutes spent savouring this delight were the best minutes of the week, the slowest, grandest moments in all of history. Ask any lad!
David Evans November 2011