© Chris Rose
‘Now is the winter of our discontent made…’
I directed the parka at the cubby hole, otherwise referred to as the ‘storm cupboard’, beneath the stairs, the place my sister and me had spent many a befuddled night – because we occupied the last house on the block, my dad suffered ‘gable-end’ attacks, sparked as they were by the slightest weather rumble: ‘One strike o’ lightnin’ in the right place’, we could have ended up on the pavement nursing sore heads before the thunder had even clapped. I wedged myself between the table and wall, to my mum’s eternal amusement. I once thought of writing to Roy Castle to see if there was a record for the world’s smallest kitchen, and this was after my dad’s architectural adjustment.
* * * * *
One summer’s evening he came home from work like he knew something we didn’t, Woodbine in teeth and lump hammer in hand. A man on a mission, he swaggered through the door, glared at the pantry, and smashed it to smithereens. It was as if the old hole had been picking on him years, as if it could talk but only he could hear it.
‘’Not laughin’ now, you bastard!’ I thought I heard him think.
Millie Jackson, a Soul singer with attitude, once boasted of owning a kitchen spectacular enough to blow people’s minds. Well, ours was spectacular enough to blow my mum’s.
‘Pete,’ she ventured, ‘why didn’t you wait till I’d took the food out first?’ She wouldn’t push it. The whim had no doubt taken hold in the day and that was it…
* * * * *
I clasped my cutlery and inhaled the vapours. The pressure cooker hissed in sync with my stomach’s snarl.
My plate was under my mum’s nose by the time she completed her shrewd hint at slipping me a couple of pancakes to keep me going – my dad didn’t like anyone pigging other than himself. I submerged them in Henderson’s Relish – not unlike Lea and Perrins but unique to Sheffield: Mr. Henderson refused to sell his recipe – and wolfed them in a manner akin to my grom’s offal-gobbling, except I kept my teeth in. It was one of the reasons I took refuge in the kitchen, it being the nearest I got to a conventional starter or dining room. Though there were others.
My dad guzzled in ‘the room’, crunched up in his armchair in front of the telly. I not only rejected the simulated leather sofa but kept as far away as possible, by burying myself into my miniscule trench, as I saw it, unless I sat on the coalbunker in the yard, but that was more a summer quirk.
Although I’d not yet come to the conclusion my dad’s eating practice was an unhealthy one, I was concerned by another destructive force: Calendar. That depressing regional news programme with the depressing musical intro. Depressing presenters presenting death and job loss in depressing locations. Depressing meteorologists predicting the depressing weather, who’d slap fragments of magnetic cardboard onto the northern bit of those depressing British Isles. We’d only recently upgraded to a colour television, which somehow managed to enhance the programme’s greyness. I had a similar aversion to The Magic Roundabout. To tear onto that set and tear out Zebedee’s spring: ‘Jump now, little shit!’
Thank goodness, then, my grom provided real colour with her nippin’ bys. And from my entrenchment I held a bird’s-eye view: of the lady herself, who sat on the sofa; and of my dad opposite. My brother Sam, a ‘latecomer’, cuddled beside his grom and received the same magical goodies treatment I once had, except his thing was Marvel comics. My sister Jenny was never home these days, spending more time with the Yorkshire Rambo to-be.
While I hated teatime television, I was at least able to laugh at their reactions to it. Or more my dad’s reactions to it and my grom’s reactions to his. And I shouldn’t forget the cat. Unable to concentrate on siestas taken with her silverfish friends by the fireplace, her drowsy eyes would sway from my dad to my grom and back again – to the untrained eye, she looked like she was only lacking the umbrella and strawberries. They were more an old couple than mother and son, a genuine northern Alf Garnett and missus.
My mum interred my official pancake-serving beneath a mountain of hash – vaporised chopped-things and meat. I’d first drop in my nose, to scald my cheeks, to cleanse my mind of the day’s excrement as with some ancient Chinese remedy.
Sam leaned over the sofa without falling – his grom grasped the waistband of his pants – in response to my mum’s worry that I’d end up burning my face off. In response to my dad’s suggestion it was possible I’d gone ‘doolally’, and that that was what happened to people who didn’t sleep at night, I called him a warthog, without knowing what I meant or caring to. What I knew was that we could talk to each other like that. It was our way of dealing with the banalities of a bleak, industrial-class midweek.
But if my dad had managed to elicit my first verbal response, my mum would be the one to bring the spiritual cleansing to a close. She’d know just what to say: ‘So how was work today?’ Even my dad deemed it inappropriate, before backpedalling from her glower. My grom then had a go at him, said it was clear for anyone where I got it from.
I didn’t need to say much at all to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. This was the deciding reason for my enduring the culinary-straightjacket. If teatime telly served as a catalyst for riot, my job would involve casting over a modest contribution, a word, a phrase – bait; like I was holding hemp above a lake of famished fish, a tad of which I’d add from time to time… feeding out my line.
The custom had developed over the last year, my having become a worker. I’d say little for an hour and focus on recovering my health.
All the same, I wouldn’t get too generous with my frugalities. For when my grom deemed it time to put me back in my place, she’d do so, often with alarming delicacy.
In the intervening moments, I’d tap my usual tap, for reinforcement. And, armed to the hilt, new comic in one hand, well-thumbed ones in the other, Sam sprang over like an Olympic athlete. As he flicked through their vibrant pages, I informed the rest of the house that if they should require my attention from here onward, then they’d do it via my ‘intermarry.’
My mum screamed in delighted horror at my semantic error, said there was little wonder I’d ‘not got no qualifications. Do you mean intermedrary?’
My dad’s correction of her linguistic boob sounded more pessimistic.
What neither of them realised was that my malapropisms were intentional. While they nourished the teatime theatre, they also kept the why-I’d-left-school-with-a-blank-sheet interrogations down to a bearable minimum – what neither of them knew also was that, even back then, I was a regular little wordsmith, albeit a very secret one. You weren’t supposed to be clever where I came from…
‘That’s Iron Man,’ Sam pointed, peeping up and down again, his finger bent back on the red and yellow fellow.
The lingering quarter of my hash and pancake mash-up had taken on an air of grout, and so I pushed it aside for a rummage through a Spider Man mag or two. What I’d be likely to marvel at was how the webbed Super Hero’s Super Villains in some way resembled a member of our family. The Lizard was a dead ringer for our grom – especially when she got caught out in Skeggy; she seemed somehow scared of sun-cream. Doctor Octopus was surely my mum’s ultimate whimsy – a duster on every arm! But then my Dad wasn’t a Super Villain for being every part The Mighty, hammer-swinging Thor. ‘The Pantry Pounder.’
I’d made these observations explicit; Sam’s reaction had been to demonstrate authentic signs of respiratory problems. And yet response from the room was inexistent. My requested, if repetitive, Clangers impression proved equally ineffective: those funny little creatures on that funny little planet. Not only were they were Sam’s favourites but they made up a minority of teatime characters I didn’t find so demoralizing – The Wacky Races generated the odd smile; Peter Perfect and Penelope Pitstop. For the impression, I held the page of a comic between my palms and blew against its edge, along to Sam’s legs swinging scissor-fashion…
My grom had only waited until I’d done playing with my little whistle. And crooned: ‘I see the trains are on strike this Friday’, transcending the realms of nonchalance.
I was grateful my mum had none of the same knack. Her nod was too considered: ‘’Don’t suppose Phillip will make Wigan this week, then, eh?’ Though she did ask Sam whether the Clanger had had enough and gone home.
‘Is it still here, Phill?’ he whispered.
I ruffled his hair, my relief as firm as the gunk in my gut – my life depended on that Friday Soul train.
Still, revenge would go for less than a song. It was a rule for some and they should have known better. You didn’t use ‘‘strike’’ as a form of attack in our house, not with my dad about.
He dropped his knife and fork onto an empty plate: ‘Wouldn’t be surprised. Bleedin’ unions.’
And if ever two words made my grom look up, those last two were they: ‘Don’t start with your “bleedin’ unions”, Peter!’
‘Union’ was indeed another of those funny, fish bait words I’d feed out: ‘Mam… you know the three pounds I borrow on Wednesdays… till Friday?’
Her eyes narrowed: ‘What about ’em?’ A purring… catfish.
‘Well, if I didn’t pay… union money, I’d never need to borrow them in the first place.’ It was a naughty thought.
My dad agreed. Why should I have to pay union money?
‘To keep his job,’ his mum scoffed, smirking at the cat.
‘They won’t keep his job,’ he said, in my defence. ‘They’ve destroyed most of ’em round here’ – he’d get all het up and yet he knew I’d have paid the union more to get rid of me.
‘Well, Jeff says…’
But she was cut off: ‘Jeff ought to know better!’ Jeff again, that younger son of hers, my dad’s brother. Mr. Chalk and Mr. Cheese – in younger days, Uncle Jeff wouldn’t eat bacon on a Sunday if Wednesday had lost and United hadn’t, it was a stripes thing. So my dad would taunt him with his extra rashers. He now reminded my grom that Jeff wasn’t so pro-union during the ‘‘Three-Day Week’, when he’d be comin’ over here wantin’ to borrow pub money. Or can’t you remember that far back?’ he said.
She put up an index, warned he wasn’t too old for a clip yet. She was always threatening to hit him.
He’d carry on regardless: ‘No coal. No electricity, no gas.’ Closing with the soft and piteous ‘nowt.’ He regretted not voting for Edward Heath.
My grom then reminded him that he’d once said he’d ‘punch the “big teethed’’ so-and-so on the jaw if ever he came to Sheffield. Or can’t you remember that far back?’
And there he appeared to drift elsewhere.
Meanwhile, my mum went puce. ‘You’re not votin’ for her, Pete,’ she part-enquired, part-ordered. ‘The cow stopped our kids’ free school milk…’
He then reminded her of the nights he’d grafted whilst the rest of the mill snoozed.
‘’Your own silly bloody fault,’ thought my grom.
‘They’d all brought their sleepin’ bags…’
He ought to have done the same, she said. He might not be such a miserable sod.
‘Whenever any got caught, that was it.’ He really did look like he was wearing blinkers at that point, refusing to acknowledge my grom’s very existence. Then came the pause, for the sake of emphasis: ‘… all-out strike.’
She couldn’t see what his problem was: ‘Jeff would’ve lent you one.’
‘Lent him what, Edith?’ asked my mum.
‘A sleeping bag.’
‘Don’t talk to me about unions. I don’t know who said the workin’ man’s his own worst enemy, but, Labour? Never again.’
To place the lid on it, she urged him to put his head in a bucket of water.
And when my mum asked me if I was proud of myself, for having ‘set him off again’, I blamed them, for bringing the subject up. Their reaction was simultaneous clamour, the one sounding like Bob’s knackered stallion down the shire, the other like Stan’s knackered Cortina four doors down, both now agape.
‘Watch out,’ cried Sam, overjoyed at the chance to use his favourite big brother-line, ‘there’s a bus comin’!’
Of course, our haughtiness wouldn’t live so long. My grom didn’t settle for defeats.
Having disposed of her son with ease, not that he’d noticed, she began to fiddle with that ever captivating bag. ‘To think I’d brought you a treat,’ she said.
I looked over my shoulder. Before Sam egged me on: ‘Go and get it.’
I was led by forces recognisable – I told myself such, hoisting Sam to a shoulder; I just can’t help it, I said. And once we’d positioned ourselves at either side of our grom – my spot had a defunct towel my mum had placed in preparation – I expressed our mutual regret.
We were exonerated in no time. ‘They’re for you,’ she sighed, as if on some After Eights advert, tendering me a bag of broken biscuits from the market – I suspected she knew I wasn’t keen on broken biscuits, and that I didn’t like saying so. She just couldn’t resist…
‘Look what you nearly missed,’ my mum whistled. ‘Do you want a cup of tea with ’em?’
As a lad, one of the films they’d taken me to see at our local pictures was Billy Liar, with Tom Courtenay, about a character appearing to have created his own little world. During a scene, he stood shaving in front of a wall-mirror while his mum nagged him for what I couldn’t remember. All I’d recorded was how he turned and machine-gunned her to bits, after which ‘reality’ resumed. I’d do likewise with my mum, mostly when she questioned me about work.
This also was one of those moments.
I declined the tea and, from a second-hand paper bag, rooted out two, formerly pink, wafers, a sort no less soggy than the rest but which I could just about stomach. Sam took the fearful remains into the kitchen, acquainted as he roughly was with the ritual. I promised to feast on them later – there was more chance of my dad voting Conservative and I didn’t believe him for a minute. All the time, I couldn’t help thinking that had she spent that penny more, she might have managed a packet edible to humans.
That was my final conscious thought, for a while; the after-tea wave had drawn me under. Hardly surprising considering I hadn’t slept for the last two years, at night at any rate, and had just bolted my way through a dish fit for six pigs.
The last thing I heard was Sam’s thin voice, from a faraway kitchen: ‘Are we givin’ these biscuits to the birds like last time?’
* * * * *
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