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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.

One of the Old School

14 Nov

By the time she had reached the top of the drive, it was dusk. Myra managed to pick out the word ‘girls’, carved into the sandstone arch above the entrance to her old school. She hauled herself up the steps and through the archway just as the sun disappeared. Where did Ruth go? Myra called her from the top step.

‘Ruth, Ruth’. Her own voice came back to her, Ruth’s did not.

The years slid away, it was like yesterday she took the steps two at a time. Only ever made register by the skin of her teeth.

The old cloakroom, still here? It was old, forty years ago, old and cold.

‘Ruth, Ruth’, again

Her shoes click clacked across the tiles as she ventured further in.

‘Brrrrr.’

The whiff of girly body odour and smelly knickers turned her nose up. She tripped over a mud caked plimsoll. Where was Ruth? Myra thought she heard something.

‘Ruth is that you?’

A gabardine mac fell from a peg onto the floor.

‘Ruth!’

And again the only voice, reverberating around the damp, peeling walls, was her own.

A tap gushed into one of the washbasins, then another and another and them all.

‘Ruth, you’re not bloody funny, turn the frigging lights on.’

Myra couldn’t remember where the switch was, couldn’t remember if the switches were accessible to the kids. She began to feel her way around the sticky walls, stumbling over the hockey sticks and netballs beneath her feet, kicking them out of her way in desperation to find the way out – the way she came in for God’s sake.

Her breathing became short and fast. Shorter and faster still when the nattering and chuckling began.

Myra was panicking now. The throbbing in her ears almost blotting out the clamour which was reaching a crescendo. Then suddenly the doorway. She fell through it, into the lobby. Then silence. No Ruth.

Crawling a few yards on her hands and knees, she reached the quadrangle before attempting to stand. There was a rail, she heaved herself up.

The Quad, a large lawn, was overlooked by a rather grand house where the caretaker lived with his wife and son Lucien. Lucien would stand at the landing window with his willy hanging out. This performance was attributed to being named Lucien.

The classrooms built around the other three sides, were still standing.

Myra moved on sensing her way around. She wished she could see properly. What with the fading day and her failing eyesight, she was struggling. Ahh, room fifteen. Was there a light? Hypnotised, she made her way towards it. Squinting through the door, she could just make out all the desks, crouched, one behind the other in four rows. It was in room fifteen that her cousin Raymond stood up and threw something at her whilst yelling,

‘Shut yer gob!’

Raymond earned himself a hundred lines for that. He hadn’t seen Totty Lawson, so called because he had a wooden leg, behind him. Totty, outraged, bellowed,

‘Manners Maketh Man, on my desk, tomorrow morning at nine!’ She smiled at the memory.

The glow which attracted Myra to the room, moved around. Up and down the aisles, in and out between desks. Up and down, in and out, around and around it went. Myra’s nose was pressed on the glass, staring, eyes like saucers. The glow, brighter now, was gravitating towards her. She went to run away. Run? Rather, move as swiftly as her hip would allow. Too late. The door to room fifteen scraped opened and then a voice, that voice, that calm, yet demeaning voice. Hushed, but not gentle. That voice which always and even now scared the hell out of her.

‘Come in Myra, you look worried.’

Worried? She thought she would faint. Wished she would. Myra didn’t faint, just stood there her mouth a gaping hole.

The glow fizzled out and instead, and with attitude, stood Zombie Banks, headmaster.

‘Come in Myra’ and again, ‘You look worried.’

Myra walked towards him, in a trance. But then that was always how she walked towards him, unless riveted to the floor, too terrified to move. He was a fearsome sight, as his name implied. Zombie held the door for her.

‘Sit down and take out your books.’

Still in a trance she walked to her usual desk and sat down. They were all there. Sandra in her red spotty dress, Julia in blue, Fred and Johnnie Lamb. No Ruth. All facing the front, books open at Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Zombie’s favourite. Oh my god, he’s bound to ask me to recite something, he always picks on me.

By the shores of Gitche Gumme,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Myra found herself thinking in the present tense, wasn’t this the past? Terrified, she scanned her memory. Desperate for another verse.

Till she bore a son in sorrow,
Bore a son of love and sorrow,
Thus was born my Hiawatha

No, there was no more. It was a mile long anyway, nobody could remember it all.

Zombie turned away to write on the board. From the back, his tall frame, black gown hanging in folds, reminded Myra of a gigantic cockroach. Suddenly he turned and pointed at her his eyes ablaze.

‘Pythagoras’ theorem, word perfect, stand!’

Shaking she began, ‘In every right angled triangle’

‘Wrong, sit down. Anyone?’

Nobody moved. He began to tell a tale of when he was in the Army. He was a Warrant Officer. He had thousands of men under his command and had to train them all to be loyal, brave soldiers capable of blasting Jerry to smithereens. To hear him talk, he had won the war single handed. ‘Pity there wasn’t more men like me’ he boasted. There wasn’t a kid in the class who would argue with him.

The bell went, Myra giddy with relief headed for the door. Zombie did not call after her. Nor did her friends. But then they wouldn’t, she remembered. They were all dead, long dead.

She escaped the quad as fast as her wobbly legs allowed; her heart beating ten to the dozen, her face red and smeared with tears. Down the steps and halfway down the drive, she stopped. Hot on her heels was Ruth. Ruth with the knees, her with the hip. ‘Christ!’

Ruth and Myra, in unison, ‘Where the hell have you been?’

‘You won’t believe it.’ Myra told Ruth,’ ‘Where were you?’

‘In room fifteen with that mad bastard, Zombie.’

They limped down to the gate, holding on to each other, neither daring to look behind.

Out in the street they scanned the faces of passers by looking for other friends, long gone. But no, all appeared normal.

‘Is The Black Bull open?’

Later after a couple of gins, they calmed down and discussed their simultaneous experience, hardly believing it had taken place. Indeed wondering if it had.

‘Learn anything new?’ they asked each other.

‘Only that if you jump in a river in full combat kit, you’ll break your neck if you don’t unfasten the sodding strap that holds your steel helmet on!’