Saturday, October 9, 2010

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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