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That was Then

13 Feb

‘Big fight! Big fight!’

Freda took her fluffy red dressing gown from behind the bathroom door, thought it was time she bought a new one. Stiffly, she pulled it on and slid her feet into the fluffy red slippers she had bought to match.

‘Big fight! Big fight!’ The cry swam around her head; it wouldn’t go away.

She took the stairs down, one step at a time, and very, very slowly; her mind was racing backwards at a much faster pace. By the time she had reached the bend around which she required both hands to manoeuvre, she was back to 1957 and The Medda.

‘Big fight! Barney and Ubbold!’ The kids were running in all directions away from the market cross. Running home for windjammers and wellies, then out again and down to the Railway Meadow. Down to The Medda was just that. Dalton, the town in the dale where everywhere was down, except your house and then it was up! Anyway, wherever you lived, The Medda was down.

Down, down, down they ran hoping it hadn’t started before they got there. The steep, slippery, pavements glistened in late afternoon sun but the kids paid no regard. The air was cool; they didn’t notice. Loads of kids, ducking and diving their way to The Medda.

Barney. His hair was sandy and crinkly and resisted the huge amounts of Brylcreem he plastered on it to make it smooth. His eyes, turquoise, could twinkle but then could not, depending on his mood when they changed from brilliant to dark. Today they were dark. And there he stood, on The Medda, awaiting his challenger. Awaiting someone bold enough to think they could take him on and get away with it.

He was the youngest boy in a family of girls and twin to Stella. His father died when he was five. The kids brought themselves up, dragged up, some would say, their mother working where and when she could. Barney had very little schooling. Never went, said they couldn’t make him and boasted that he had never read a book in his life. But he learned, very early, how to fight. Learned to wrestle, learned to bare knuckle box. He earned himself a reputation.

Barney didn’t bother much with women which was why it was strange that he should be on The Medda awaiting an opponent who had offended the woman he loved.

He loved Freda; she lived in a village above and beyond the dale. He had never looked at anyone else. Freda, tall, and slim, with dark hair and flashing eyes. She reminded Barney of a flamenco dancer. Her full lips were painted red, her dark hair, caught up with a slide, cascaded over her white shoulders. They met on Fridays and went to the Rock ‘n’ Roll club in the Market Hall. Barney and Freda were good together on the dance floor. Barney was magic but Freda was terrific; all the boys wanted her to jibe with them; Barney had to just sit back and watch.

Albert Hubbold, known to all as Ubbold, was a great lump of a lad, an apprentice blacksmith. He looked and smelt sweaty. Ubbold was tall and fat but could dance his socks off and got in the queue for Freda every week. She couldn’t stand his closeness but could not refuse him. She would shut her eyes and let the music take her, politely thanking him when it stopped. One night he did not let her go, she felt the stickiness of his clammy hand around her wrist and although she tugged, he would not let go. The struggle brought Barney to his feet. Ubbold threatened to plant him.

‘Yer big, but not big enough.’ Barney responded; they arranged to meet on The Medda the next evening. Word got out and by the late afternoon the town was alive.

Bare knuckles had never let Barney down but Ubbold was massive and tough.

The crowd was growing, kids joined by youths, boys and girls, jostling for a good view.

‘Ubbold’ll flatten Barney’

‘Barney’ll kill Ubbold.’

‘Where is Ubbold anyway?’

Suddenly it all went quiet. The gate to The Medda swung open, all heads turned towards it. Ubbold. Barney braced himself.

It was at that point, Freda fell in love with Barney. Ubbold had lost.

Freda had been thinking about the big fight since she climbed out of bed.

‘How long ago it was, and yet like yesterday.’ She remembered. Freda was on the last few steps now, almost down.

‘Those were the days when Barney treated me like a goddess, worshipped me, fought Ubbold for me, would’ve fought anyone for me.’ She was muttering now. Freda was always muttering, couldn’t stop; she spent a lot of time muttering. Barney very rarely spoke.

‘Can’t be doing wi’ gossip. Can’t tell yer what’s in the paper, yer can read it yerself when I’ve finished.’ And if he wasn’t reading the bloody paper, which was all creased up and in a muddle when he’d finished with it, he was watching the bloody telly.

If they crossed words, Barney would never say sorry. Not like Freda would. ‘Sorry’ she’d say, ‘Sorry Barney.’ The nearest he got was when, after a row and after more than a few drinks, he sang Neil Sedaka’s, ‘Oh Carol’ to her, substituting Carol for Freda. It was a fond memory and one she conjured up occasionally.

Freda never doubted that, in a way, his own way, Barney loved her, but he never told her. Never said much at all. She often felt lonely and lonelier now she couldn’t get around. ‘Aged frailty’, they said, ‘Comes to us all.’

‘Well.’ she was muttering again, ‘Age and frailty came to Barney, years ago.’ She wasn’t being sympathetic.

By now Freda was on the bottom step, she took it gingerly. Barney was already up and dressed.

‘You’re about in good time.’ She said. ‘Never heard you get up. See you’ve got the paper, anything in it? Not got the kettle on? I’ll do it; nice cup of tea to get us started, yes?’

It was the same every day.

‘What’ll you have for your breakfast? Porridge? Toast? I’ve got bacon and egg if you fancy?’

Barney didn’t even look up, not even a glance to acknowledge she had spoken. He just sat there, his hands crossed over the paper, still unfolded on his knee. Freda thought she had better shut up otherwise he’ll be telling her.

‘Shut up woman.’ he’ll say, ‘Stop going on.’

It wasn’t like that in the old days. Barney never got fed up of her nattering, welcomed it, saw it as part of her charm. Freda was a splendid companion. When they were in company he would watch her in amazement. Marvel at her ability to chat to anyone, entertain, make small talk. Attractive, amusing, admired and his. He adored her, but that was then.

‘Familiarity,’ her mother would say, ‘breeds contempt.’

Is that what he felt for her, contempt? In amongst his own way of loving her, did he also feel contempt? Is it possible to feel those two emotions at the same time? Freda would never know because she would never ask him.

‘Stew for dinner, with dumplings? I’ll put caraway seeds in them, alright?’

She knew he liked stew with caraway dumplings but she always consulted him, always gave him the chance to change his mind. It was only right. He would sometimes respond by saying,

‘Whatever yer think, Freda, I’ll leave it all to yer.’

Today, nothing. No response, no reaction, nothing; Barney just sat there, hands still crossed over his unfolded newspaper, staring at the floor.

Freda sighed and thought she’d leave her cuppa until she was dressed. She sighed again, ‘Another long day ahead.’ She started back up the stairs at the same snail’s pace she took, coming down. At the bend, she stopped to catch her breath. She heard Barney’s chair scrape as he pushed it back on the tiled floor. He walked to the door, there was some coming and going and conversation in hushed voices. Barney went out and the door slammed shut behind him.

Freda was intrigued and made a supreme effort to haul herself up to the landing, and peer out of the window. She hid behind the curtains; he mustn’t see her nosing.

Barney got into a large black car, it looked like a hearse. Freda was surprised.

‘He never said a word about a funeral’

It moved slowly away from the front door, a wicker coffin in the back. Freda thought she would like a wicker coffin and had often said so. It was wreathed with pink tulips and blue iris, her favourite flowers, intertwined with red roses. The card read, from Barney, with love.

Marbles and Frogs

15 Jun

ALBERT had arranged to meet Walter down the back of Union Street, known locally as Widows Lane. Widows Lane, so called because of the number of widows who lived there. And if you were a not bereaved woman but single, you still met the criteria. The back of Widows Lane, known in the vernacular as Widders Lane, was closed off at one end by a high metal gate. A gate that screamed in protest when opened. It needed a tough person to push it. It was the nearest way into the street from the police station and usually gave Albert and Walter plenty of time to run for it should someone call the cops. Someone like old Widder King. Always out shouting the odds. Daft old cat. The other end of Widders Lane opened on to the back of Chapel Street. Chapel Street, as well as being long enough to accommodate three chapels, one of which had been converted into a fruit and vegetable warehouse, was on a hill. A steep hill, referred to as Co-op Hill, because of the jumble of Cooperative stores at the foot. Corp Hill, again in the vernacular was pronounced Corp ’ill, led up and out of town, to, well nowhere really. Just fields as far as the eye could see. The next village just a spot on the horizon and beyond that the Irish Sea. Albert and Walter were both as fit as Sid Haig’s whippets, unlike the local cops, so when chased, which they often were, they would run up the ‘ill rather than down.

Meeting for a punch-up was a habit Albert and Walter couldn’t get out of. Any minor remark from either of them to the other would spark off a punch-up. Albert, five foot eight, burly and challenging, and Walter a great lump, hard hitting and dangerous. Few would take him on. One of them was Albert. Albert was a bare knuckle fighter and when his braces were off, you’d better it. Albert could take a punch and stay upright whereas Walter, caught in the solar plexus, would hit the deck like a sack of spuds.

Albert didn’t win them all but won most. The kids loved these contests which took place with amazing regularity. They bet their marbles and frogs on the outcome. Albert was always the favourite.

The cry, ‘Fight, fight’ would echo around the amphitheatre that nestled the town and away to Widders Lane the little buggers would run, pockets jangling and croaking. Some kids, whose dads worked in the shipyard had steelies. Marbles of steel, rather than glass. They were worth more. One steelie was worth two frogs. Some kids considered it cheating.

Cheating or not, frogs were easier to find than steelies and so the gaming and trading went on. Fortunes won and lost in the blink of an eye. Future bookies in the making, future gamblers, chancers, some sloping off crestfallen, frog hunting.

Now, the contest.

Today there was a prize, bigger than the satisfaction of being the winner and chalking it up. Bigger than any title, any badge. Today, the prize was Annette. Annette had been the prettiest girl in school. All ringlets and ribbons. Prettiest girl in town even now, all grown up, pouty and backcombed. If she knew she was the trophy, she didn’t show it. Annette was the height of cool. Hot, hip and she knew it.

Lookouts in place, Albert and Walter squared up.

‘Seconds out!’

They circled each other strutting and checking that Annette was watching. Fists clenched and sparring, about to make contact. They threw a couple of blows each, neither of them hitting target, both afraid for their faces. It would be hard to grab the reward for victory for a celebratory snog, with blood and snot running out of your nose and your teeth in the gutter. And so the prancing went on. Dancing around each other, ducking and sidestepping, rising and falling. Someone had to make the first move, the crowd was growing restless. A restless crowd was likely to abandon the pitch. An abandoned pitch, empty, littered with small confused amphibians, lost and far from home. Then, a whistle. The gate groaned and silence fell. You could hear a pin drop, well almost. Then, the sound of clicking, clacking, clogs up the back street. No running. The pugilists knew better than to run this time. Rooted to the spot, riveted, arms bent and fists still clenched. Albert, his braces dangling, braced himself.

‘Albert!’ his mother screamed, ‘Get ‘ere now, before I thump yer round yer lug.’

Tail between his legs Albert followed his mother home.

Walter, ever his eye on the main chance, looked expectantly at Annette who linked her friend, walked off and glancing behind, shouted, ‘Arse hole!’