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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.

Red Sky at Night

16 Mar

He awoke to a red sky, a red sky in the morning. It had been red when he went to bed, a red sky at night. He remembered the rhyme. But sailors or shepherds, which? He kept repeating it. Sailors, shepherds, sailors, shepherds.

Without thinking of how he got dressed, or even if he was, he walked up the backstreet, turned into another backstreet and another and another. He was in a maze of grey stone walls but not lost. He turned again and was in the centre of town.

There was no one about. No buses, cars, people, the shops all closed. He did not consider this to be unusual, he did not consider it at all.

As he crossed the road to the Town Hall, the sandstone clock tower appeared like a flame exploding out of the main building. Suddenly he had the urge to run – but invisible, elastic cords were holding him back and he needed to get to the High Level Bridge.

The High Level Bridge linked the town to the island where Schneider or Ramsden, he didn’t know which, built a shipyard. Schneider or Ramsden? Sailors or shepherds? He would have to find out.

Then there it was, the bridge. He was on it, looking down into the water. Two black submarines were basking in the shadow of the cranes, the Revenge and the Dreadnought. They looked alike, he wondered which was which? His head was spinning. Opposite, a huge cargo ship with a strange sounding name, registered in a strange sounding country. The quayside was a very busy, active place, in complete contrast to the town – but he didn’t give it a thought. Stevedores, shouting to each other, were unloading fruit and vegetables, particularly bananas, hundreds of bananas. From here the carters looked like matchstick men, with yellow loads, running to and from the ship. And then he saw him, his dad. Dad wasn’t running, he was waiting, waiting for him.

The elastic cords had snapped and he jumped down the steps from the bridge to the dockside and walked towards his father, who seemed to have moved and was now standing nearer the boat. The vessel loomed larger and larger the closer he got to it. It was an immense black mass against the crimson sky and the men working on the deck, just dots. Dad was wearing his tan-coloured bib and brace, his face was ruddy and smiling and his ginger hair was poking from underneath his cap. One hand was in his pocket. He stood out a mile but no one noticed.

‘Hiya Dad, are you waiting for me?’

‘Not not this time, I’m waiting for that fella up there.’

He pointed to a dot dangling over the edge of the boat, balancing, one leg on the rail and one arm hanging on to a net of bananas, slung from a crane.

The sky turned to grey, it had become chilly and silent.

‘Okay, see you.’

Vaguely disappointed but comforted by the fact that maybe another time, he went home. It was still early, he would go back to bed.

He awoke when the cat decided it was time to get up. It was a lovely morning. Blue sky and sunshine. He loved this time of the year. The garden was at its best. He would sit outside with his coffee and decide what to do with the day. The telephone rang. It was his mother.

‘Remember old Tommy Shuttleworth, used to work down the docks when the boats came in? Lived at the bottom of Ramsden Street, or was it Schneider. In one of those old back to backs. Knew your father. You can’t have forgotten, they were always arguing. Red sky at night. If your dad said shepherd, Tommy would say sailor. Came to dad’s funeral. Well, he died in his sleep last night.’

Lamb Holm Whispers

12 Feb

Alberto walked across the island to the chapel and went in.

‘Alberto’

He looked around.

‘Alberto?’

He looked around again but could see no one.

‘Alberto, over here, come and see.’

He followed the direction of the voice and found Luigi, kneeling in the Sanctuary, gazing up at Our Lady, smiling down from the ceiling.

‘It’s finished.’

Alberto fell to his knees to thank God for the miracle. Was the miracle the ceiling or that he was kneeling next to Luigi?

Alberto and Luigi were both serving with the Italian Tenth Army in North Africa when they were captured and brought to Lamb Holm.

Lamb Holm, a small lonely island in Orkney. The surrounding sea, dark, hostile and menacing, whipped up by the ever threatening storm. The spray, biting and salty. Bitter and bleak, the surf breaking on the shores of Scapa Flow and the rusty frames of the blockships, obstructing the narrows, made this a miserable place to be. It was the perfect location for a prisoner of war camp. The Italians, captured during World War II, were brought to this desolate isle and set to build the Churchill Barriers.

Camp 60. In 1943, the camp commandant and the camp’s priest agreed that a place of worship was required. Two Nissen huts were joined together and formed a makeshift chapel.

It was constructed with whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Domenico Chiocchetti painted the sanctuary end of the chapel, his fellow prisoners decorated the entire interior.

Alberto and Luigi often came to the unfinished chapel and not wanting to disturb the angels they spoke in whispers.

Luigi: ‘How I wish it all to be over and we can go home.’

Alberto wasn’t sure.

‘To what, Luigi?’

‘To Mamma, the food, the wine, to the sun and the warm sea.’

Alberto tried to interrupt. It was futile. Luigi was in full flight. He made his homeland sound like heaven. Alberto didn’t feel he had left heaven when he was sent to North Africa. Just left one hell hole to end up in a worse one. But here, in Orkney, it was all over peace. He could live with the cold.

He didn’t pass these thoughts to Luigi. No point. He hoped when Luigi returned home, he would be made welcome. He hoped he would sit in the sun, eating pasta cooked by his madre and everything would be how he imagined.

Alberto tried to engage Luigi in conversation about the war and how lucky they were to be out of it. But Luigi was having none of it, and so it was back to the sun and the sea and the food and the wine and Mamma.

And always they had to return to their work.

At the weekends it was the chapel. It was surprising how accomplished they had both become, how they had all become, under the direction of a master. Alberto would never have believed himself to be capable of such artistry. Such creativity. Domenico stressed that imagination knows no limits.

Luigi sang as he created. He sang as loud as he could. He would sing for Mamma when he got home. His voice echoed from every corner and rebounded into the chapel. Alberto and the others, applauded the songs they all knew so well. O Sole Mio and Sorrento. Sorrento always left someone crying and they all cheered and joined in Funiculì, Funiculà.

How Luigi and Alberto had come together they could not remember but they had become friends, comrades. Comrades as different as they could possibly be. Comrades, tolerant and strong.

A comradeship that would end suddenly and dramatically.

For some reason, no one ever knew why, Luigi left the hut, where they slept, in the middle of the night. He passed the guard, unseen, and into the dark. With arms outstretched and singing, he walked into the sea. His body was found the next morning, He had been battered against the rocks and was hardly identifiable. Alberto was stunned. Stunned, shocked and distressed. His friend had given no indication he was so unhappy. They were prisoners, yes, but Luigi was always on about going home and how wonderful it would be. How he longed for home. The sun, the wine, Mamma.

Alberto reproached himself. He should have noticed something. Had his attitude to going home affected Luigi? Dashed his hopes of a happy return? Alberto wished he had kept his mouth shut but they had shared so many intimacies. It wasn’t Luigi’s fault that Alberto didn’t have an adoring Mamma who wanted to cook his favourite food, who wanted to love him and welcome him home from the war with open arms. He wept, wept for Luigi and for himself.

Alberto went into the chapel often after that. He prayed for Luigi’s tortured soul and prayed for his own forgiveness. If only he could tell Luigi he was sorry.

And so it was a miracle that he was kneeling next to Luigi now.

He didn’t have to ask. Luigi spoke first.

‘Alberto, you must not scold yourself. I am happy and with Mamma. She called me that night, she wanted me to sing and I went to her. Now we sing all the time. We eat pasta and drink wine and the sea is never cold.’

Alberto began to cry. Large tears, loud sobs.

And then a voice from nowhere. The voice of a child.

‘I heard them Daddy, there were voices, voices and sobbing. I heard them.’

Walking with Ghosts

21 Dec

‘Oh no, he’s coming over.’

He’d been watching her for quite some time. Their eyes met when they passed each other in the alley. Something drew her gaze to him and then he was gone. Lost in the crowds. But now he was here, on the square, watching her.

‘Deep breaths.’

‘Ms Foster? This way please.’ He spoke quietly. ‘I am your guide for the evening.’

Now she felt silly, embarrassed, as if he knew what she had been thinking. That he was a crank, a pervert or worse.

Stupid woman.

Julie Foster assembled her group. All first year A-level students launched from childhood to adulthood in the space of a few weeks. She always arranged excursions during their first year. Activities designed to take them out of their comfort zone, an introduction to a world of society, traditions, entertainment and culture. Enrichment Activities she called them. Trips to art galleries, museums, theatres, criminal courts. And, for fun, a ghost walk. Always a ghost walk. And always a late one. A ghost walk in the dark.

The students saw this year as a breeze, a light wind in contrast to the gales of previous years, which blasted them to the big exam. Trips out and about? A doddle. To Julie it was evaluation, these jaunts were part of that. The ghost walk was just a bit of a laugh, but it gave her some satisfaction to hear the screams and cries when spooks materialised in dark corners, jumped out of doorways with bloody aprons and severed heads on the ends of spikes, screaming and moaning from house windows and doors banging in the wind. Knocked some of the cockiness out of them.

She smiled at the man and he smiled back.

He pointed to a passageway on the far side of the square, raised his red umbrella to distinguish him from the other guides and beckoned her to follow. Julie dropped in behind him, mustered her troops, who in turn, dropped in behind her. They weaved their way in and out of the crowds and soon they were off the piazza, towards the church with the golden spires.

Zigzagging their way down a narrow street, the cobbles glistened under the Christmas lights. Julie had to keep her eyes lowered in case she landed in a puddle. She had done these tours so many times and returned with wet feet. And now it had started to snow. Why hadn’t she put her boots on? The street narrowed even more. The buildings seemed to meet overhead and form a tunnel. No lights. Julie felt she should crouch in case she hit her head. The guide, identified as Henry, kept up the historical dialogue and strode ahead without looking behind. His feet were large, his steps long. He dressed the part. A cape draped from his wide shoulders and rippled as he stirred up the air around him. He wore a dark suit with a high buttoned waistcoat and underneath a starched white shirt. It crossed Julie’s mind that he must have felt most uncomfortable. The things people do for their art. She assumed he was a resting actor. His boots shone. Henry’s stature grew and filled the space ahead.

She could hear chattering from behind and was secretly delighted that the babble would soon turn into shrieks, first of fright and then of hysteria, probably around the next corner. She wished Henry would slow down.

They left the street and crossed over a bow bridge on the edge of the city. Henry came to a stop and turned around to face them. Julie was still at the front.

He addressed the gathering.

‘The Red Lion and Lollard’s Yard and Gallows to the front.’

The Gallows had a line of four nooses and from each one a hanging female. One looked dead, eyes bulging and tongue hanging out. The other three were still kicking.

‘Hell fire.’ Julie gasped, ‘A bit realistic.’

‘Prostitutes.’

That’s all Henry said.

‘Prostitutes.’

They moved on, through the cathedral close and up the slope towards the city walls. Walls twelve feet thick and built with flint and the sweat of peasants. Henry took an abrupt left turn and walked along the wall until they reached a sort of prison. Deep recesses burrowed into the wall, open to the elements, bars from top to bottom. The floors were lined with dirty, wet straw, the smell, terrible. A huge jailer was planted without, arms folded across his chest, whip tucked into his belt. He held a huge bunch of keys and stared ahead, unblinking. Julie thought he looked like a waxwork. She almost jumped out of her skin when he turned to face her, snarled, raised his arm, stretched it towards her and shook the keys angrily, in her face. Screams filled the air around her; she was pleased she wasn’t the only one petrified.

As they skirted past, the prisoners stretched their arms, torn and bleeding arms, through the bars, grabbing and wailing, pleading to be let out. She stepped away for fear of one of them catching the hem of her coat. A skinny, scabby, slavering dog bared its teeth, barked menacingly and ran off.

Henry turned back towards the city continuing his flow of information, hardly stopping for breath. Julie was amazed by what he knew. It was unlikely her students were making notes. Before they knew it they were in a muddy lane with hovels either side. They stopped outside a dingy dwelling. By now, Julie had completely lost her bearings. Henry told the tale of a young girl who fled from the country to find her lover who had moved to the city for work. She searched and searched for him without success. Julie glanced at the house; she could see a girl’s face at the upstairs window. A white, gaunt face with tears running down her cheeks, she was sobbing. Julie could hear the sobbing. Suddenly the door opened and out ran a man, carrying a large knife, dripping blood. He was howling like a wild animal. Julie thought she would pass out with fright.

Henry continued.

‘Thinking she had been forsaken and unaware that her lover had gone back to the country to find her, the girl sought comfort with another man and moved into this house to live with him.’

Henry gestured towards the dwelling.

‘Her lover returned to the city and found her here.’

Another gesture from Henry.

‘He was so distraught and driven by jealousy and rage. He stabbed them both to death, ran out of the house, down the lane and threw himself into the river where he drowned.’

Henry pointed, with his large hands, down the lane towards the river.

Oh my God, Julie’s mind was running riot, her heart was thumping fit to burst, she felt dizzy and wondered how her students were. Before she had time to turn around to check, Henry suddenly, and without warning, set off again. Julie, taken by surprise, leapt and quickened her pace to keep up. She wondered what surprises were awaiting them around the next corner and was grateful when she saw the lights on the trees in the square and the crowds milling around. She relaxed, glad it was all over.

This was the most terrifying walk she had ever taken the kids on and a new route to her. She must talk with the agency tomorrow, the kids are only sixteen. This was a bit over the top.

Henry raised his red umbrella again and they crossed to the clock tower where he had collected them a couple of hours before. As they approached Julie checked her party. They were jostling, pushing and shoving, some shuffling from foot to foot. Others, chatting. She was glad to see they were unperturbed. The clock in the tower must have stopped, it still said eight o’clock.

Henry lowered the brolly and Julie walked past him to her charges.

‘A big thank you to Henry, I think.’

She turned but he had gone.

A young man, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt bearing the unlikely slogan, ‘I ran the World’ approached them.

‘Ms Foster? My name is Dean, I am your guide for the evening.’

The Phantom of Sandwood Bay

2 Dec

‘Hamish’

The voice came again.

‘Hamish’

He heard the voice often when he was little. It could have been the wind whispering through the scrub and the long grass but he knew it wasn’t. He gave the voice a name. It was The Other Hamish. The Other Hamish went away years ago. Now back, calling, beckoning.

‘Hamish, Hamish’

Hamish was a strapping young man A crofter, out in all weathers, digging and stacking peat, growing, harvesting, feeding. Feeding, him and his mother. Hardened to the harsh climate he rarely wore more than two layers. His jeans were held up by a piece of rope tied around his waist, one end hanging down, like a clamped umbilical waiting to drop off. He refused to wear a belt, maintaining that the rope may come in useful.

Hamish was brought up by his mother. His father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. His body, washed up at Sandwood Bay, was an hour’s walk from the cottage he shared with his wife, Morag, and their and young son. Morag, remote in her manner, always told him he was his father’s boy, loved by him beyond reason. She did her duty and the best she could.

‘He’d have been proud of you.’ she’d say.

Hamish took that as a sign of affection.

Hamish worked hard day after day. Digging, stacking, growing and harvesting, the piece of rope still holding his jeans up. Although he hardly remembered his father, he missed him. Hamish felt warm, when he thought of him. Warmth dredged up from the past? Hamish didn’t know, just knew he did.

One day, sitting on an upturned oil drum, eating his sandwiches, he was approached by a walker, looking for peace.

‘Plenty of peace here’ Hamish remarked, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.

‘Yeah, nothing here but ghosts.’ the man said, ‘Just gliding and floating silently here and there.’

Hamish smiled.

The walker asked if there was somewhere he could stay for a while. Hamish directed him to the local guest house.

‘Mrs McFarlane will look after you.’

The walker, who introduced himself as Robbie Logan, was researching ghost stories for a book he was compiling. Each day he sought out Hamish and they shared the oil drum. Hamish would labour his way through his doorsteps; Robbie ate the lunch more delicately prepared by Mrs McFarlane. They got on.

Hamish didn’t know much about ghosts. His mother was down to earth and didn’t believe such rubbish; she passed her cynicism onto her son. But Hamish enjoyed Robbie’s stories, vaguely wondered where he got his information from and decided it was probably from the local bar. Robbie spent his evenings there, by the fire, recovering from one of Mrs McFarlane’s famous suppers.

Hamish laughed at the thought of the regulars winding Robbie up.

‘Won’t matter whether or no.’ Morag snarled, ‘It’s all nonsense. Don’t you be taking any notice.’

Hamish thought he sensed unease in her voice. But he continued to tell Morag Robbie’s stories and snippets and although it seemed she wasn’t listening, he knew she was.

Hamish looked forward to his lunches with Robbie, disappointed when the weather was poor and he didn’t turn up. Still, after a few of those days, Robbie had a bunch of stories to tell and their break would extend into the middle of the afternoon.

This particular day, Robbie was excited.

‘Have I got a yarn for you, Hamish. The phantom fisherman of Sandwood Bay.

Hamish listened, he hadn’t heard this one before.

‘The phantom fisherman of Sandwood, who drowned off the Cape and trawls the coast to the bay searching and crying out for his little boy. They say he had tied his son to him with a piece of rope.’

Morag refused to listen when Hamish began to relate the tale.

‘Told you before, it’s all nonsense.’

Hamish persisted. As the tale unfolded, realisation overcame him. He felt light headed and ran the track though the sandhills to the beach. There he saw his father walking out of the waves towards him, arms outstretched, an umbilical made of rope dangling from his waist.

‘Hamish’ he called and then again, louder this time, ‘Hamish.’