Saturday, October 9, 2010

Pater Familia: Tales of Dukinfield: Acknowledgements

Flag of DelawareImage via Wikipedia

A note from My Father.


This is the most intimidating part of the book to write, for I shall surely omit a close friend or helper. So let me begin by thanking those deserving souls who are omitted below. No slight is intended.

Meri Bernstein, you’re a terrific agent. Thanks for steering, pulling and pushing me through the publishing process.

And thanks to Nina, about whom a few words are in order. My friend Nina is not big on literary criticism. I think she feels unsure of her ground and, having helped me through the throes of mania and the ravages of depression, she is probably reluctant to risk tipping the balance. Nina is a very caring person, a truth she would admit only to her nine indoor and four outdoor cats.

Nonetheless, we have persevered with each other and, in reading her my stories for our mutual entertainment, I have tried to convince this self-described “non people person” that a critique of a story is more useful to me than an expression of support, at least when I’m not depressed. Poor Nina, I put such conflicting claims on her.

So I read her about ten new stories one night, easing her into the process of criticism with,

Tell me what you remember about this story.” and

Tell me what you didn’t understand”. By the last story, one with which I was not happy, I asked,

So, what did you think?”

It stunk.” Said Nina, emphatically.

Er, thank you, but do you think you could be a little more specific?” I asked, constructively.

It stunk worse than a rancid polecat.” Said Nina, helpfully.

Thanks to my dear friends Paul and Tim, who not only have encouraged me to keep writing, but have raised my spirits when low and kept a watchful eye on me when high.

Thanks to Kathleen, my former business associate and current E-mail reviewer and source of never-ending support.

Thanks in particular to Sherry Chappelle, who coached me in the art and craft of writing at the University of Delaware Academy of Life Long Learning and whose expert opinion encouraged me to pursue publication.

And thanks to my three harshest critics; my wife, Ellen, who keeps me down-to-earth, however much I might resent it; my son, Ben, whose encyclopedic knowledge, sharp wit and innate kindness make him a far better writer than I; and my son, Steven, whose high standards and mature judgment will not allow me to declare a story finished before it is complete.

Finally, thanks to the people, police force and EMT’s of Lewes, Delaware, who rescued me from my suicidal depressions, helped me cope with my tremendous manic urges and piloted me through stormy mental seas into their Harbor of Refuge.

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Pater Familia: Tales of Dukinfield: Bedtime

(slumber)Image by Craig Walkowicz via Flickr


"Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take"

Even on days when I don't want to die, I have to pray about dying before I go to bed. And then it's not easy for me to sleep. I know heaven's supposed to be paradise, but grown-ups are too vague about heaven for my liking. And if it's so good, why is my mom crying softly next to me in Grandma's bed. I'm waiting quietly for her to stop. I think Granddad's dead. They'll tell me in good time. Grandma has gone downstairs with Uncle George. I've never seen a man cry before.

"It's my fault. It's my fault" he's crying. It's not his fault. Granddad was an old man of sixty-five and none of them as was in the trenches in the Great War sees it past sixty-five. Uncle George is crying about a wireless, too. He took Granddad a wireless yesterday, so he could listen to Manchester United. They've gone to play football in Munich, in Germany. Maybe if Granddad's dead, the wireless belongs to the hospital, now and that's why Uncle George is upset. I know it cost him a lot of money.

My mum gets up and tells me to stay in bed. I count to a thousand, then pull on my clothes and climb carefully down Grandma's steep, dark stairs. My mum is cuddling her and they are both crying quietly. They are more placid than I had imagined. "Is Granddad dead?" I ask. "Yes, love. Why don't you make some toast and a pot of tea for everybody?". That's my job, making toast and brewing tea. I'm very good at it, my mum says so. Making breakfast at Grandma's is fun, because you make the toast on a toasting fork over the fire and you set the kettle on a stand that you swing in over the fire. The water seems to boil faster than on a gas stove. The kettle stand is part of her massive black fireplace. Grandma's fireplace has an oven and a warming cupboard on the left and a place for drying wood on the right. It has hooks for hanging pots over the fire and big black knobs to work the damper and the grate. It's more than my height in every direction. She used to have a cat that got shut in the oven by mistake.

The man on the wireless is talking about the Munich air disaster and ice on the wings. I only start listening when he mentions Bobby Charlton. He's the young kid with Manchester United. Grandma says, "Shut it off, will you, Edith?" My mum switches it off and I have to ask, "Why" even though I know it would be better to keep quiet.

"There's been an air crash and almost all of the team has been killed. Your Granddad heard it on the wireless and had a heart attack and passed away."

"Does that mean the same as being dead, Mum?"

"Yes, love. It's kinder to say 'passed away'."

I wonder if he'll see Sputnik on his way to heaven. That would be nice. Death would be less frightening if I knew I could ride Sputnik around the world a few times. I've been looking up at night ever since it was launched, but I haven't noticed anything different, even from the school playing field, where it's dark. We've spent most evenings cleaning the school since Granddad got sick. He's the school janitor. I like being able to walk where I want in school without any teachers telling me not to. Sweeping the corridors tires me out, though, because the brush is so wide and heavy.

Sometimes I fall asleep before my Mum and Auntie Ruth have finished cleaning. One night I fell so fast asleep that, when I needed to pee, I dreamt that I went to the boys toilet and peed. But I didn't, I peed in my pants.

Nobody wants the toast I made, so I wake Steven and Derek, to see if they want it. They like to dunk their toast in their tea. It makes the toast taste nice and sweet, but the tea gets grease pools from the butter, around clotted toast crumbs and smudges of jam. Sometimes I dunk my toast in Derek's tea. He doesn't seem to mind.

Once I've got everybody washed and dressed, we set off for Auntie Ruth's. We meet her at the bottom of Chapel Street, hurrying toward Grandma's and crying more like I expected my Mum and Grandma to do. We cross Chapel Street and kick stones up Underwood Street to number thirty-three. At first, there's no answer to the door knocker, then Ian opens the door, crying. I can see Beryl inside, shaking and sobbing. I'm supposed to keep baby Andrew happy.

After I get Steven and Derek and Andrew playing together in the front room, I go to Ian and Beryl in the kitchen.

"Why are you crying?" I ask, secretly proud of myself for being a big boy, but also a little unnerved at the sight of my favorite big cousins crying. Ian explains that it's what you're supposed to do when somebody you love dies. "You think of all the happy memories you have of them and how you're not going to have any more memories and that makes you sad and want to cry".

I give it a little try and I can see that I could make myself cry, but my Dad is always telling me not to cry and for once I don't feel like I have to. I'm going to tell him tonight. He'll be proud of me. I hope.

Auntie Ruth comes back and tells us Grandma doesn't need any little children under her feet, so we're moving back to our house. I can't wait to get back to our toys, but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be happy. Anyhow, we all put our wellies on and tramp back down Underwood Street toward Grandma's. We stop in to drop Derek off and get instructions from my Mum (feed the dog, make your Dad's tea, don't get into trouble) then continue on over Mayers's brow, down Astley Street and right on Hadfield Street to number ten.

The front door to our house is bright red. Every time I see it, the door says, "RED!" to me. It seems to leave its jamb to say hello. Which makes me feel welcome. The front room is welcoming, too, with our carpet that greets me with, "GREEN!". But when it rains, we have to use the back door and enter unwelcomed.

There are not many days when it doesn't rain and today is no different, so we trudge around the back to the yard gate. The back gate is a dull, dingy green, the green hardly able to hold its own against dull and dingy. It's six feet tall, so there’s a trick to getting over it. Steven holds my hat and coat and I back up to get a good run-up. I run at the gate, which is not easy in wellies, and plant my right foot about half-way up and push upwards, while I reach for the top with both hands. I catch the top of the gate and pull myself up and over, climbing down the other side by putting my foot on the bolt, then dropping to the flags.

I’m proud of my back gate trick, because I'm not a very good jumper. I'm not a very good runner, either. In fact, I'm pretty bad at all sports. I learned the yard gate trick from Rex, my mongrel. He's who discovered that planting your foot in the middle of the gate gives you a second jump. Unless your wellies skid on the slippery wood. Then you do a Wyle E. Coyote.

I open the gate and let Steven in. We keep our coats on and lay a fire. There's no point lighting it until my Dad gets home. He likes to see a fire, but we don’t have much coal. Steven brings the milk in from the step and I find some bacon in the cupboard. The eggs are next to the bread-box with the butter, so everything's ready for my dad's tea. The frying pan's already on the top of the stove, with a nice amount of bacon fat in it, but I add some lard, because my Dad likes plenty of lard. I like cooking with plenty of lard, too, so I can splash it on top of the eggs like my Mum showed me and cook both sides of the egg at once. And after the eggs and bacon are cooked, lots of lard means I can make slices of fried bread.

My Dad walks in through the back door, goes straight to the kitchen sink and splashes water into his eyes. He’s had a flashback. Must’ve been working in a stainless steel boiler. Maybe with the annealer on, too, so he’d be hot to begin with. Then the stainless would reflect all the heat and light from his welding torch back at him from all angles.

He comes into the living room and lies down on our coal cart, only just missing Peggy with his boots.

Get me a compress, Steven. Neil, take me boots off.” Steve chuckles all the way to the sink.

I try not to gag, but my Dad’s feet smell worse than a dead cat. “Urrgh!” comes out despite myself.

Sorry, Dad. I tried not to.” He’s very sensitive about his feet. They hurt him and they stink. It might be standing on hot steel plates all day, I don’t know. But I know it embarrasses him. He washes his feet every night.

Steven is laughing so hard at my misfortune, he drops the flannel, but picks it up quickly, rinses it off and brings it in to my Dad.

Mmmmm, he says through the pain as he lays the cold, wet cloth on his eyes. “That’s better. Feel in me pocket and see if there’s owt there for thee.” Being careful not to jolt him, we rummage through his jacket pockets.

Matchbox Cars!” yells Steve. My Dad has been bringing us home Matchbox Cars every Friday now for weeks. We jump up and down for awhile and do our best to make Dad feel better. We open the toy drawer and reach out our other Matchbox Cars and line them all up for a race.

Just when the race gets exciting, my Dad takes the flannel off his eyes and asks us to be quiet. “What are you doing with your coats and wellies on, i’ th’ house? Take ‘em off and I’ll light t’ fire. What’s for tea?” he asks.

I thought egg and bacon would be nice, Dad. I collected the eggs from Grandma’s pen yesterday.” I suggested.

Would you like some fish and chips?” He teased, knowing what a treat he was offering.

I’ll get them!” I squealed.

I’ll butter t’ bread!” shouted Steven. No point squabbling over who does what, when you’re getting fish and chips.

Make a brew as well, Steven. Neil, get me pudding, chips and peas, and get two sixes o’ chips for you two and you can share a fish.”

Can we get peas as well, Dad?”

Aye, go on.”

I shoot out of the house before he can change his mind. Thank God Steve had the sense to keep the momentum going by volunteering to butter the bread.

We sit down at the table, all three of us at the same time. We’re having us tea with us Dad. All eating our favorite food. Together. We talk a little about Granddad, but then just talk about things. We tell my Dad naughty jokes. And he tells others to us! It’s like getting to know what he must have been like as a kid. What he might be like when he’s not being a Dad. What he might be like at work, with his mates. He smiles and laughs and interrupts us sometimes, when he can’t hold it in. And he listens to us, as if we aren’t just kids.

Before we know it, it’s bedtime and none of us wants to let go, but he has to be our Dad again. And we have to be his kids. So we protest a bit and he says, “Let’s not spoil a nice evening”, so we get undressed and fold our clothes in front of the fire. We open the stair door and start up.

Don’t forget your torches.”

Yippee! My Mum had confiscated them, because we couldn’t get to sleep with them. We grab the flashlights, “Thanks, Dad!” and run up the stairs. He climbs solidly behind us.

All right, time for prayers.”

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.


And God bless Granddad.”

And God bless Granddad.”

And God bless Granddad.”




We slide under the covers with our torches.

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Some Background (if you haven't been scared off)

MausImage via Wikipedia

My Father Bleeds History (hi Art)

My father intended to write a book, shopped it around to a few people then died suddenly. I then found a magazine (What it is Weekly) willing to publish parts of it but by that time I had lost the files in question. Recent unearthing of old computers for purposes of playing early video games has caused the unearthing of his texts. Incomplete and rough though they may be they are a link to a time and place far nearer than we think. They are the memories that form a thread, however strained and frayed that leads unbroken across the seas and decades. Here is his preface.


About This Book


Fishing With Sharon is a collection of short stories, vignettes from the life of a family, as seen from the perspective of the eldest of the five children. The family is technically “working poor” but lives in grinding poverty by today’s standards. The stories have the insight of a precocious child and the morbidity of undiagnosed manic depression, yet they also contain the irrepressible glow of optimism and humor borne of innocence and family love.

To date, approximately twenty stories have been drafted, with a further half-dozen in the pipeline. (these along with some poems were never finished B. Their unfinished forms may be posted here at some point) They follow the life of the family during a six-year period in which the boy grows from age six to age twelve, while “the village”, initially a vibrant neighborhood in an area of abandoned mills, is demolished by the local government and the family is relocated. The child escapes both the neighborhood and the town by competitive examination to a boys’ grammar school in a neighboring town. Yet ultimately, the death of an old lady binds him forever to the now-deserted village.

The stories take the form of individual adventures and are largely self-contained. The central plot is subtle and I am still of two minds whether to weave in a stronger central plot, fearing that it may appear to be too contrived. I would welcome your thoughts on this matter. At present, all of the names used in the stories are those of the actual characters and need to be changed.


This book is enjoyed by teenagers as an adventure story and by adults as an historical chronicle of working class life in post-WWII England. It brings comfort to parents of children known or suspected to suffer from depression or manic depression; and presents a triumph of innocence to the general public.

International sales potential is expected to be significant, although the Lancashire dialect that I have removed for the American market might have to be reinserted for the English market.

(The unexpurgated version is being posted here so some will be in Lancashire dialect some will not. Some names have been changed others have not. If anyone complains I will take down/edit/alter the information as needed as I do not at present have any of the contact information necessary nor to I have any knowledge of who the principal characters in the story are besides my father and his immediate family. Besides, most of the people are unrecognizable or dead.)

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Pater Familia: Tales of Dukinfield: Grandma's Pen

Cover of "Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magi...Cover of Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic Book)

Grandma’s Pen

I like sitting here with my Grandma, under the cherry tree, listening to her stories of the olden days and every now and then, throwing a handful of corn to the hens and watching them zig-zag and squawk to avoid each other as they scrambled to get at this kernel or that. My granddad put a hen sticker next to my coat hook on my first day at school. He is the school caretaker and it was his job to put a sticker next to every coat hook in the nursery. I would rather have had a lion, but I know he was only trying to give me something familiar in a strange place, especially since I was only three and most of the other kids were four or five.

I hated the nursery, it was so loud and crowded and they made me go to bed when I wasn’t tired and one of the teachers used to put her hand in my pants when she caught me alone. That made me scared to go to the toilet and sometimes I’d have an accident in my pants and be embarrassed.

One day, we were playing cowboys outside and I pretended to shoot John Fielding’s hat off, but when I threw it into the air, it landed on the roof. I told John my Granddad would get it down for him and I was telling him how I got a lot of balls that way when the teacher picked me up in the air by one elbow and started smacking the back of my legs. I cried a lot and then she sat me on top of a big pile of stacking chairs, so I was high up off the ground and I was scared. I had to sit there for a long time. Then my Granddad came and told them to let me down and he’d get John’s hat.

As we fed the hens, my Grandma told me about when she was a little girl. I loved these stories. She and Auntie Annie had their own harnesses for pulling open the lock gates on the canal. Her brothers used to take barges of coal to mills and factories along the canal towpath and opening lock gates was girls’ work. Her favorite part, though, was the legging tunnel. There was no towpath for the horses to get through this tunnel, so she and Auntie Annie got to lead the horses up and over the road and meet the barge at the other end of the tunnel.

At the other end of the tunnel they’d have breakfast and take a rest. She always looked forward to this, because you got more food working on the barges than when you were at home. One Monday, the weather was sunny and dry and the horses were fresh from the weekend, so, as a special treat, they stopped at a picnic spot and had breakfast before they got to the tunnel. She says Uncle Dick’s face shone like an angel’s in the sun.

When they reached the legging tunnel, grandma and Auntie Annie unharnessed the horses and walked them over the top, to wait for the men to leg the barge through the tunnel. To leg a barge, you climb up on to the cabin roof and lie on your back. The other men give the barge a shove to start you on your way, then you walk upside down on the roof of the tunnel till you come out the other side.

Grandma says it took a long time for the barge to come out of the tunnel that day, and when it did, uncle Dick’s face was purple and he wasn’t moving. The men inside the cabin climbed up to help him. They had heard a thud on the roof half way through the tunnel, but there was no way to get up to him. He’d choked on his breakfast, which is why you should always sit up when you eat and exercise after every meal, instead of lying down.

My Grandma has a true story about every one of her brothers and sisters. She’s the thirteenth child of a thirteenth child of a thirteenth child, which is why I’m related to almost everybody in the village.

Grandma’s pen is at the edge of the village, next to the railway sidings where my Granddad used to work. Two sides of the pen are fences made of railway sleepers. They’re very high and thick. All the pig styes and hen cotes back up against these fences, so they can’t be knocked down. The other two sides of the pen (as well as the roofs of the styes, cotes and sheds) are made from doors we bricked from all the derelict property around here. Some of the fronts of the buildings are made out of tin advertising boards you see in front of shops advertising “Old Holborne” tobacco and Ovaltine.

The Big Door is big enough for a horse and cart or a lorry. It’s two doors, actually, each of them made out of three bricked doors. It has a bar across it, like in “Robin Hood”.

The pen has an oil drum or a barrel or a bathtub outside each building to catch the rain for the hens and pigs. There’s little squiggly animals in the water, too, that are fun to play with. I don’t know how they got there, but they’re in every tub.

As you come in through the big door, the big shed’s in front of you, where we keep the corn and other stuff that needs to stay dry. The midden’s to your left and the boiler’s on your right. The boiler is like a huge witches cauldron, surrounded by bricks, with a fire underneath.

Grandma takes us collecting firewood to the empty houses. It was Grandma who taught us the art of bricking. Usually, for the boiler, we take baseboards and floorboards for fuel, and laths for kindling. To get at the laths, you have to tear down the walls and ceilings, so sometimes you get very dusty from the plaster. Laths make great swords, though, and Grandma’s always telling us to stop messing around and get on with the job.

Inside the boiler we cook swill. Me and my brother Steven get paid sixpence a week to collect peelings for swill. Sixpence is not enough for that job, but we’re not allowed to quit, or else our family gets no pork. My dad built us a cart with long shafts and pram wheels. Its body is just a big wooden box. We take turns between the shafts.

We go out of the village, over the bridge and all around town picking up peelings. The people who save them for us complain to Uncle George if we miss them. They also complain to us about their peeling bins being old and rotten. I don’t know why they complain to us. We’re the ones who have to pick the bins up on to our shoulders and let the food that’s so rotten it’s liquid drip down our necks. Maggots get caught in our pockets, too, but at least they’re useful. If I ever get squeamish about maggots, I think about Jim Eastwood. He keeps his in his mouth while he’s fishing, and he’s a grown-up.

But collecting peelings does change the way you look at food. I’ve handled so much moldy cheese that I find it hard to believe that rich people pay extra for it. And since when it’s cooking, swill smells strongly of cabbage, I don’t like cabbage very much. Come to think of it, I don’t like food very much at all. And I don’t believe that cow heel and lungs are better or you than whatever kind of meat other people eat.

Another job that me and Steven do together is collecting sawdust and shavings for bedding for the pigs. It’s not a bad job, it’s clean and dry and warm, because all you have to do is crawl under the machinery at the saw mills and scrape the stuff behind you, then shovel it into a sack. It’s light, so shoveling’s not hard work. It only gets heavy when the sacks are full and you have to pull the cart back up the hills.

Me and Steven are good at mucking out the pigs. First you shovel out the muck, which can be heavy if it’s wet, and hard to scrape up if it’s been left too long. Then you dump it on the midden. The trick there is knowing where it’s firm enough to stand on and where it’s like quicksand. Our Lillian has some cousins called the Bradburys, who talk loud and posh. We always get them to chase us over the midden, then laugh when they sink. I don’t understand why they never learn. Grandma says empty yeds make loudest noise.

The secret to spreading sawdust and shavings is always to remember to leave one corner bare, away from the trough. Then the pigs use that one corner as a toilet. If you put bedding everywhere, they shit everywhere.

I’ve learned a lot from Grandma. She’s like a good witch. She showed me how to use different parts of the cumfrey plant (she calls it knit-bone) to make tea, poultices and dressings to help cure all kinds of stuff; how to make beer or soup from stinging nettles; how to get food, wine and slide-whistles from an elderberry bush; how to make dandelion salad and dandelion and burrdock pop. She has made it that I feel safe wherever I go, because I know all the birds, trees and plants and how they can help me wherever I go. I can trap rats, pigeons and rabbits, too. Rats are pretty straightforward, though nowadays, rats are left to our Ian. He’s a crack shot and has the patience of Job.

Trapping pigeons is fun. You get a big cardboard box, a long piece of string, a short stick, and some bread. You go underneath a railway bridge and tie one end of the string to the stick, then turn the box upside down and prop one end of it up with the stick. You break the bread into pieces and sprinkle it on the ground around and under the box. You hold on to the other end of the string and hide as far away as you can. Then you wait quietly. The pigeons come down for the bread and when they go under the box, you pull the string.

Eating a pigeon you’ve caught yourself is better than eating tripe from a cow you’ve never met. Pigeon meat is darker than any meat I know, but it’s very good. What puzzles me, though, is why so many of them have club feet and distorted beaks. Maybe that’s why they didn’t evolve into eagles.

Rabbits are a different story. Believe it or not, I once chased down a rabbit. Our Steven shone a light at it (it was evening) and it paused for a second. When it saw me move, it snapped out of its trance and bolted. We ran all over the bloody field, but I wouldn’t give up because I was a Boy Scout with two beers in me. We came to a fence which, at its height, was only a single strand of wire, nine inches off the ground. It froze and I picked it up. That taught me that all your obstacles are inside your own head. Knowing this does not mean you can put it to good use. The rabbit was young and I let it go, hoping it would not now expect similar treatment from other humans.

When I tell Grandma this rabbit story, she tells me about Uncle Luke, another of her brothers, who was a butcher and when The Great War broke out, couldn’t get meat, because the good stuff was going to the upper classes. We knew it wasn’t going to the “boys at the front” because all the village’s boys were at the front, and they were starving. We know this because when my Granddad was home, injured, when he was walking down King Street in his civvies, a young upper-class woman pinned a white feather on him, the badge of cowardice. Grandma wrote to her brothers in why-pers (which is spelt ypres) about it and one of them said he should have told her to stick it in a hen’s arse and send it there, because they were starving. The censors handed the letter back to him and punished him for being unpatriotic. He saved the letter.

Anyhow, Uncle Luke found a way out of his predicament when he realized that, headless, footless, tailless and skinless, rabbits are virtually indistinguishable from cats. Once they were on a roll, he and his wife used to sell rabbit/cat pie with horsemeat. The joke was that the proportions of the meat were fifty-fifty-, one rabbit/cat to one horse. Grandma has all kinds of funny stories to tell about the good old days.

The point that interested me, though, was that you paid according to what it was you believed you were buying, that is, ‘rabbit pie’ was expensive, while cat pie (only if you knew enough to ask for it) was cheap. I thought this was funny and maybe stupid, until my Sunday School teacher told me that you only go to heaven if you believe in it. Now I’m not sure what to believe in.

Through the branches of the cherry tree we can see long white stripes across the sky. I tell Grandma that our Ian says they’re called contrails and that if you look very carefully, you can sometimes see airplanes at the pointed end. They’re tiny and silver. Ian says they’re Vulcan Bombers. He says the Americans have planes that fly so high you can’t see them at all. It makes me feel a bit nervous, having bombers up there. It’s nice that they’re ours, but what if they accidentally drop their bombs on us?

Some planes that fly over Grandma’s pen fly much lower than the bombers. Grandma says she heard that there’s lots of people in them. Americans mostly, going on their holidays to London or other countries, or even flying all that way just for a business meeting! It’s hard for me to imagine more than two people in a plane, but it must be wonderful to be up there, going somewhere else. When I grow up, I want to go places on a plane, but if it crashes, I want it to be over land, because I can’t swim.

Grandma tells me to go and pull a stick of rhubarb from the midden. Our rhubarb is huge, because of the pig shit. She goes over to the boiler and picks up a piece of newspaper that we use to start the fire. She twirls it into a cone and pours sugar into it from the sugar tin on the shelf in the shed, next to the tea. I like dipping rhubarb. So do Steven and Derek. Sometimes, we have competitions for who can eat the most rhubarb without sugar. I always win the lemon-eating contest, but rhubarb dries up my mouth like sawdust. This stick is good and I settle back down and lean against her. She puts her massive arm around my neck, so that the flaps that hang down cover my shoulders like a cape.

You see, my Grandma has no breasts. When my mum was nine, they got off a bus and a car ran over her chest. Cars were heavy in olden days and they had to cut her breast off, together with all the muscles in her chest. That’s why her arms flap down. I think it was six years later that they cut off her other breast because of cancer. She can’t lift her arms very high, but she’s strong. She used to have inflatable breasts, till she stuck a pin in one and burst it. She sews a lot and keeps her pins and needles in her bodice. Now she has sponge breasts. They’re fun to play with.

I help her sew sometimes. We make rag rugs out of old coats and feed sacks. Cutting up the coats is the worst part. The scissors blister my fingers. But it’s nice to make something. I always want to say “create” something but create means to make something out of nothing, and only God can do that. But making a rug out of coats deserves a better name than “make”.

Now it’s time to let Chrissie out. Chrissie is our favorite pig. Me and all my brothers and sisters and cousins take very good care of Chrissie. We give her extra apples and spuds and take her for walks. She’s a beautiful red and she’s clever, too. She gets all excited when I walk up to her pen. I wish she didn’t have cloven hooves, though. It would be fun to wrestle with her, but I have to knock her away when she jumps up, so her feet don’t hurt me.

Our last Chrissie wasn’t nearly so friendly, which in a way, made things easier. Like Chrissie, she was the runt of the litter and all her brothers and sisters got sold when they stopped nursing. I love nursing piglets. I sit on the floor of the pig cote, inside the little shelter Uncle George has built to protect them. It’s warm and the smell of the kerosine lamps makes me want to be nowhere else in the world. I stroke the piglets and attach the weaklings to a teat if I can. The front teats are always taken, probably because that’s where the milk starts out from. The hind teats are sometimes available, but almost dry, so I have to suck hard to get the milk flowing for the piglet. Pigs’ milk doesn’t taste much different from women’s milk, probably because it has to do the same thing, no matter what kind of baby you’re raising. We probably drink so much cows’ milk because they have such big udders.

Our last Chrissie seemed to miss her brothers and sisters a lot. She never pranced around with us like Chrissie does. Our last Chrissie was the first Chrissie I saw slaughtered. Just before Christmas, uncle Tom brought a two-two rifle to the pen and shot her in the forehead. Me and Ian were clinging to the top of the Big Door. She didn’t just drop, like I expected. She reared into the air and squealed and ran around berserk. Then she tripped and couldn’t get back up again, even though she kept trying.

Shoot her again” I shouted, but the men had all taken cover in the big shed. She cried and cried and I did, too. They wouldn’t shoot her again. She looked at me and asked “why?” and I didn’t have an answer. I just kept shouting “shoot her again”. Uncle Tom came out with a sledge hammer and started hitting her. He meant to hit her head, but the first two swings broke her shoulders and her face sagged to the ground, still not understanding. Finally, the hammer smashed right through her brain and her eyes popped out. A lot of questions went through my head.

I kept telling myself that this was the way of the world and I forced myself to watch. They dragged her into the big shed, where they had a cauldron of boiling water. After a while, Uncle George came out carrying big strings of sausages and threw them on the midden. The waste offended me, particularly in view of the price Chrissie had paid for them. Later, he told me they were intestines, but I still thought we had an obligation to eat what we had killed if eating was the justification for killing.

They scraped and cut and chopped all afternoon, at last coming out with packages wrapped in newspaper. Since our house was closest, everybody went there to divide up the packages. They wrote on the packages the names of everybody on my peelings route and I sank at the thought of having to deliver them. But Uncle George did it the next day and wished everybody a Merry Christmas.

When Christmas came, I ate the pork we got, because it was better than our usual meat. I told myself that Chrissie would want me to enjoy her more than these savages. I managed to control myself until my dad started singing “Jingle Bells”. When he sang “What fun it is to ride and sing our slaying song “ I got upset at the gruesome memories of Chrissie’s death.

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Pater Familia: Tales of Dukinfield: Trains

Train with Guard's VanImage via Wikipedia


I don’t like playing trains. I never vote for trains, but I usually lose and today is no different. So we walk over to the siding and pick a train. One of the big kids bricks the padlock on the guard’s van door, the other kids pile on to the running boards and me and Mike go inside. The inside of a guard’s van is like a mobile den. There’s four walls with windows, a little stove for making your tea, a telephone kind of thing for talking to the engineer and pictures of women showing their breasts and a sort of blank area where their privates should be. A guard’s van’s the kind of place where I feel like I should light a pipe and brew a pot of tea.

Towards the back of the van is the brake. It stands on its own column, like a ship’s wheel, only the brake wheel on a train is flat, like a round table-top with spokes. There’s a handle on the wheel that sticks straight up from the rim. It’s a bit like an upside-down toilet chain handle, really and it spins if you flick it.. Because it’s built for grown-ups, the rim of the wheel is about level with my armpits and Mike’s shoulders. That makes it hard to turn, because you have to reach up to grab the handle.

I put the loop of my grappling-iron rope over the handle and we both start to pull. There’s something very friendly about the way a rope stretches and pulls back when you lean into it. It feels like the rope’s playing with you, like it understands what you’re up to and wants to share in the fun. It’s the same when you’re dragging the canal and you hook something heavy. The rope rocks you gently and teases “guess what I’ve got” and you wonder if it’s something really valuable, if it’s a pram, or if it’s just stuck.

So we rock with the rhythm of the rope and, when we feel that it’s ready to pull, we lean back and lend it our body weight. The wheel begins to turn slightly, then it picks up the rhythm of the rope and we just help it around.

Then we wait while the train makes up its mind to move. It’s always this way. The rhythm of a resting train is very slow, because it takes a while for idea of movement to travel from the guard’s van to the front. Eventually, we feel a gentle warning tug, then gradually we begin to roll. That first thrilling, secret hint of motion is always my favorite part.

As the train gets underway, it rattles and clanks and the littler kids start to jump off. I want to jump with them, but that would be embarrassing. The kids my age stay aboard as the utility poles start to whiz by, faster and faster. They stay until they get almost too scared to jump. I’m already a long way beyond that point, nearing panic and wanting to put the brake back on. I don’t even look at the things rushing past. By the time the train begins to sing out its rhythm, “da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum” there’s just me, Mike and the big kids left.

Mike’s brave, because he’s deliberately testing himself, seeing how fast he can go before jumping. I’m just a coward, too scared to jump, but nobody knows it. Mike reaches the point where he’s worried about hurting himself when he lands, so he yells, ”Geronimo” and bails out. Mike jumps to safety, but I must jump from it. For me, safety is in the train. Yet I have to jump sometime and the longer I leave it, the more scared I am of hurting myself when I jump. The big kids jump and now I’m alone on the hurtling train. Eventually, my fear of staying overwhelms my fear of jumping. I go to the door and the noise of the train is suddenly much louder. The wind buffets my ears and the ground beckons me, like looking into the canal at the reflection of a tall mill, it just seems to suck you down and you can’t fight it. I start to rock forward without wanting to. Before I lose my balance, I try to bend my knees to cushion my fall, but they wobble and with a pathetic whimper I jump off the train, hit the ground and roll. I sit shaking in the dirt, trying to catch my breath while the other kids pace out the distance of the ride. My eyes follow the train as it picks up speed down the slope, then begins to slow down as the track turns upward by the wagon repair shop in the distance. That’s where I see the other train.

We all watch dumbstruck as our train plows into the unsuspecting wagons waiting quietly in line for repairs. At first, there’s no sound as the wagons heap and hug, like breaching whales, then part and turn away from one another, to splash down again into the track bed. As broken wheels and axles, splintered doors and floors, and twisted roofs all begin to settle back down, the sound reaches us, a low rumble at first, then a clattering and clanking and screeching that speak of great weight and force. Almost immediately, a light so intense it hurts my eyes comes out of one of the wagons. The wagon is vaporized in an instant.

Aliens!” yells Kenny Hodgin. Everybody ignores him.

Might be welding rods” says my brother Derek.

Could be fireworks” argues Kenny, just for the sake of staying in the discussion. Everybody ignores him.

It’s magnesium”. I know I’m right, I’ve learned about it in science, but I know better than to press the point. So I just sit there and watch the trains burn. Soon, the firemen arrive and watch the trains burn, too. Last summer, I used to sit on the fence and read, up there where the firemen are now, in their dark blue uniforms and shiny brass helmets. One day, blue, two guards came up to me from the siding and told me to bugger off. Just like that, for no reason.

I live here”, I said.

Not here, you don’t, you cheeky young sod. Now bugger off before I put my toecap up your arse.”

I haven’t said anything cheeky and I’m not doing anybody any harm”

Can you read that sign? It says ‘NO TRESPASSING’”

Yes, and the dictionary says trespassing is to do something wrong, and I’m not doing anything wrong”.

Yes, you are, you’re sitting on that fence”

If the sign meant that, it would say ‘no fence-sitting’. Do you think that’s what the Lord’s Prayer means, ‘forgive us our fence-sitting, as we forgive those who fence-sit against us’?”

You cocky young bastard, what’s your name?”

Jack Robinson, what’s yours?”

I noticed the quiet one of the pair sidling up alongside me, so I swung my leg up and over the fence and dropped to safety. I set off up the cinder track and had almost reached Grandma’s when I began to wonder why the two guards cared about me one way or another. What was going on? I went back.

The guards slid open the door of a goods wagon and murmured as they removed two cardboard boxes. They closed the door and padlocked it. Then they padlocked it again. With a big lock, one that couldn’t be bricked. Then, each carrying a box, they walked off, chattering in a sort of self-satisfied way.

While I was eating my tea, I reckoned that the wagon must contain something good; and that the guards had each stolen a box of whatever it was. They wouldn’t have chased me off just to avoid being seen stealing, since usually, guards would ask me to keep a lookout for them and then give me a box, too. So giving me a box must be the problem. The boxes must be full of stuff I wasn’t supposed to have, like dirty pictures! Our gang is on a never-ending quest for the source of British Rail’s Bare Breasts. They are our Holy Grail. After tea, I ran around the village, mustering the troops.

I’ve found them! British Rail’s dirty pictures!”

We all went home to get our tools, then met up again at oh-something-hundred-hours, the number chosen at random, but translated as seven o’clock, at the Wagon Repairs entrance. We crawled on our bellies, lugging our equipment behind us. Then we got tired of it, so we stood up and walked to the train.

It’s this door. Don’t try bricking it” I said. Mike whaled away with his brick, which split in two and cut his hand. He didn’t cry, because he’s tough. Where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling.

Steven had dragged our dad’s fourteen-pound sledge hammer with him. We all took turns swinging it. We inflicted massive damage on the door trim and the gravel of the track bed and we raised sparks from the rail, but the heavy-duty padlock was untouched. Now, I reasoned, was the time to apply science. I wedged a crowbar between the lock and staple, then handed the sledge hammer to Mike. He swung a mighty blow, which glanced off the crowbar, sending it moaning and somersaulting into the air, while the hammer narrowly missed his toes.

One of the little kids came asking for help with a tool he’d found. We sent the other little kids to give him help and they came back with a shunting bar: about six feet of tempered steel and perfectly designed to pop padlocks right off the doors of railway wagons.

With a loud crack that surprised us, the padlock and staple came off. We heaved at the heavy door. It slid open slightly, enough for Derek to squeeze in and begin to unload The Secret Of The Universe.

It’s chocolate” He said. The more sophisticated among us disapproved of this characterization of colored women.

No. It’s Cadbury’s”. He threw down a box of one hundred and forty-four Cadbury’s Chocolate Flakes. Pandemonium.

Now, one hundred and forty-four Cadbury’s Flakes, divided by eight kids who’ve just eaten their tea, is eighteen-and-a-half Flakes each, so there was no sense in trying to restore order until at least ten minutes had passed. Then we sent for the prams and methodically began to loot the train.

Although it was less then a quarter of a mile to our dens, and even though we had two prams, it took us hours. It got dark and our mums and dads came out looking for us. We could hear them calling us and decided to pretend we didn’t hear, promising to be each other’s witnesses. It was about eleven o’clock by the time we finished, but before anyone was allowed to leave, we bound ourselves by a terrible oath not to tell anyone, grown-up or kid.

As we walked back over the bridge to the village, we could see all the mums and dads standing in a little knot on the corner. This was not good. When parents herd like that, it means they will soon show each other what good parents they are by thrashing the living daylights out of their kids. Me and my two brothers were lucky, because dad had to hit all three of us once before anybody got hit twice, and with three of us dancing and yelping around him, he’d get confused about just how much punishment he’d meted out. After a while, it seemed like all the dads were just waiting for one of them to break, so they could all stop. This one was usually the dad of an only child, who had received three times the thrashing that me and my brothers got. I felt sorry for only children.

Nobody betrayed our secret. For the next few days, there seemed to be an outbreak of sickness in the village. After little Brian threw up in our den, we all agreed that we should try to throw up into a toilet, so grown-ups wouldn’t see the dark brown slime. If we couldn’t make it to a toilet, we were to throw up on a dog, so it would get eaten up again quickly. When kids at school heard us talking about how many times we had thrown up, some of them started to throw up, hoping it would get them into the gang. Pretty soon, most of the boys at Globe Lane County Primary School could be seen throwing up on the playground for no good reason whatsoever.

In the meantime, British Rail took a dim view of this non-union crime. Men in uniform stamped all over our neighborhood. So we laid low in the dens during the day, till five o’clock, when they all clocked off and went home. Then we’d come out to play.

Our dens are really quite cozy. We have heat and light from kerosine lamps that my Grandma uses for the pigs when they are farrying. The dens are set in bomb craters at the bottom of a canal embankment opposite Grandma’s. We use railway sleepers to support the roofs, which are made of doors bricked from cotton mills and abandoned houses. We’re really good at bricking doors. Bricking doors is similar in principle to bricking padlocks. With a padlock, you twist the lock on to its side, so the side which opens faces up. Then you slam a brick down on it, hard and at an angle, so that the locking bar pops off its restraining bar inside the lock. To brick a door, you place a brick against the wall behind the door, at the hinge side, then you run across the room and throw yourself at the door and the brick pops it right off its hinges. Dave Combs once told us about bricking a camel to make it go. You stand behind it and bring two bricks together smartly on its balls.

Ooh, doesn’t that hurt?”

Only if you get your thumbs trapped”.

Other gangs paint their dens. Our gang doesn’t. We have no colors. We have no secret handshakes or signs. And people think we have no den, when in fact, we have a warren. Since our dens are below ground, they’re hard to spot. We make it harder by putting reeds on top of the roofs, and then dirt, in which we plant grass and rosebay willowherb, a tall, purple plant imported from America as a cotton substitute. It didn’t work as cotton, but it colonized railway sidings and embankments everywhere and grows well on our roofs. Since they see it everywhere, railway police are blind to anything covered in willowherb; it sings to them soothingly that all is well.

A railway wagon can hold an unbelievable amount of chocolate. The weather turned cold before we finished it. The toffee shop owner knew something was up, though, and he was not pleased about it. The whole village was suspicious, but of what, they couldn’t say. After years of telling us to save up our pocket money and not eat so many sweets, our mums and dads got very uncomfortable when, at the same time, we all seemed to be doing just that.

About half-way through the first term, we started to use the chocolate as money at school, then we just gave it away, being careful to do it gradually, so as not to arouse suspicion.

By Guy Fawkes Night, things were back to normal. Every evening, we would sit in the dens, air guns pointed across the canal as we lay in wait for unsuspecting passers-by. Even better than unsuspecting passers-by were suspecting passers-by. They would get all edgy as they came into range. One bloke showed up with a pair of binoculars, but we just kept still and looked right back at him through our Panzer Corps periscopes. We shot him in the arse when he started to walk away.

For some reason, none of us ever shot our own dads, even though they hit us frequently. So for a while, we shot each other’s dads. One night we talked about this and all confessed to being scared that our dads might disgrace themselves by some act of cowardice. It really troubled us. So we stopped shooting each other’s dads, at least in the presence of their own kids. After Alan Biddle’s dad got squashed at work, we stopped shooting dads altogether.

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