Saturday, October 9, 2010

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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