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26 December 2009

Peter Street was born in Wigan in 1948, the illegitimate son of an Anglo/Irish cotton mill worker and an Irish/Spanish glassworker. He was raised in Bolton by his mother and a stepfather: Thomas Edgar Street.

Peter has six major collections to his name, and was a war poet in 1993 during the Bosnian/Croat conflict. He was recipient of a Royal Literary Fund grant in 2008.

Here he recalls memories from the first chapter of his life. He says: "Disability has been a big part of my life. It is who I am. In many ways it has been the making of me..."

Peter's Naming

September 1948. No one really knew Thomas Edgar Street even though he had worked in Heskeths Cotton Mill for nearly thirty years. He wasn’t weird or anything like that he just wasn’t talkative.

His job was stoking the fires deep in the ‘fire-hole’ below ground level where very few entered except for maybe the police or such like who brought in dead dogs or cats to be ‘got rid of’ ...

Catherine Conroy was alone on the outside wall of the cotton mill eating her dinner when Thomas Edgar Street walked over to her and with out even saying hello asked: “So when is the baby due?”
“In four months,” “Is it right you jilted him at the altar?” “That’s right. What on this earth has it got to do with you?”

Christmas 1948. Being a Christmas baby, mum had planned to call me Gabriel or Noel! Then uncle Peter suddenly died a fortnight before. So she pushed me into the hands of a Wigan mid-wife in Billinge Hospital around 1am Christmas morning and re-named me Peter.

For eighteen months she coped with the loneliness, name-calling, and the abuse from other local women who didn’t even know her! She accepted that, but to have women from her own village who she had shared nappies, knickers, nylons and lipstick with, became too much, especially when they started to shout out: “How’s that little bastard of yours?”

She now understood why the other single mum from her village ended the abuse in the cold waters of the local canal? Mum never understood why it was her so-called friends from childhood: women, she had worked on the ammunitions with. Women who had lost boyfriends and husbands to the Germans.

These were women who had stuck together and supported each other through what ever and they did support each other ... except when a new born baby out of wedlock was involved. Then everything changed!

The Outsiders

It was August 1952 when Thomas Edgar Street approached mum again. This time it was with a bizarre deal. He needed someone to be his live-in housekeeper: laundry, cooking – that sort of thing.

Mum accepted, but on her terms. Terms she wrote down there and then while sitting on the outside wall of the mill. She wrote in pencil, on a rough piece of paper and then signed it near to her bag of chips and a pot of cold tea! Neither knew anything about each other – but it was one of those moments and mum grabbed it with both hands

October 1952. It was a register office marriage which mum, being a Catholic didn’t really recognise. But it’s what he wanted. Yes, she wore the ring – but that was as far as it went!

There were two witnesses: myself (in-laws didn’t count) who suddenly changed from being Peter Conroy to Peter Street and the only really close friend mum had: Abrahana a young Dutch woman who had escaped the Nazis with her baby in arms: Kathleen. Who was just four years older than me.

I had a wonderful childhood; strange, but wonderful. Strange in the sense my dad, Thomas Edgar Street was nearly sixty years older than me. Even stranger was the lie my mum and dad lived while in the house I grew up in - a large four bed-roomed Victorian house on Blackburn Road, Bolton.

To the outside world they were an ordinary married couple with all the usual problems of a nineteen fifties working class household. Wrong. For a start mum was from an Irish catholic family, who had witnessed the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans.

Strange because dad, an Englishman was sent from the World War One trenches to work along side the Black and Tans (who he hated with a vengeance) in trying to help keep the I.R.A down. Michael Collins, Irish politics and religion were only ever mentioned when mum was out of the house.

Then a few times I used to hear him say: “I hate Irish women, All those Irish bitches used to entice British soldiers into the hay barns!” It was the only time I ever saw him angry. “Men,” He would say. “From the Michael Collins brigade would be waiting for them!”

Maybe this was the reason why mum and I slept in one bedroom while dad slept in the other? Mum only going into his room to collect his laundry and the usual cleaning chores.

Like good parents, they would sit down stairs in the front room enjoying each others company where they played cards, watched telly, then at bedtime they would wish each other goodnight. I would get a kiss from dad and then he would go into his room and we would go into ours.

Meal times we each had our own jobs. Mum would do the cooking. Dad would set the table and make sure the room was warm enough, while my job, before we started eating was to close all the curtains in the house. Table cleared I had to go back round and open all the curtains again. No reasons were ever given for this pantomime!

Discovery

339 Blackburn Road was full of secrets. Every room in the house seemed to hold some secret. There were even secrets on the shelf above the kitchen door. Secrets I found covered in dust like those big leather-toed football boots that were too small for my feet.

The pen-knife with the ivory cover and there was a tiny tie-pin in the shape of an Alsatian dog. Mum or dad always dismissed my questions about those items and told me never speak of them. If I did play with them, which I did most of the time when the weather was too bad for playing out.

Mum warned me I had to make sure I had to leave them where ever I found them. Not only that, she said I always had to make sure the chair I used for standing on had to be placed back on the same spot where it came from.

Strange was the promise I had to make to dad that I would never go down into the cellar, ever, unless he first gave me permission to do so and even then I would have to be with him. It made me think there was something I shouldn’t see or what ever shouldn’t see me!

So, I would hurry past the green cellar door where the cold breathing of something from down there used to draft my bare legs. Then one night he let me have one peak, just one peak while he opened the door. But before my eyes focused properly he quickly closed it behind him, slotting a heavy bar across the door to prevent me from opening it and trying to go down there.

Dad oiled the years away from a large padlock, then sifted out a key from the many doors he kept in his pocket. He blew off the dust, whistled it, opened a door leading down to where monsters lived. Our kitchen light stretched, and pushed his shadow down the bare staircase into a cold breathing of something I didn’t want to see.

Strange was the coal shed that was attached to the house in the back yard. A coal shed I remember seemed twice the size of our kitchen. In the coal shed there was a long, thin iron chain dangling from a bolt in the white washed walls. There was an old gas mask, bits of a John Bull printing set, regiments of lead soldiers, a bayonet. None of these things were mine. I used to ask and ask who they belong to, but I was never given an answer.

Nearly every time I visited dad in the fire-hole where he worked as a stoker to the fires of a cotton mill. There were always lots of dead dogs and cats lying on the heaps of coal that were next to be incinerated.

He would grab hold of them in the best way he could and then throw them into the fires - where I watched them melt into nothing. Then he would slop some tea from his pint pot mug into the little cup I kept near one of the boilers. The cup was always hot, but not too hot for me to handle and I would sit and watch while he loaded up the fires and anything else that was to go in that night before he left for home.

I was six maybe going on seven before mum let me stop wearing a liberty bodice because she insisted I had to protect my chest. In summer I still couldn’t go out playing without wearing a woollen of some sort. Even when there were school dances or such like and all the other boys would be wearing just shirts with no jumpers.

I so much wanted, I mean really wanted to be just like them. So me and mum came to a compromise (if you can call it that). She let me wear my fair-isle jumper underneath my white shirt. Ok everyone could see the yellow and red patterns through the shirt but I felt so grown up.

Eccentrics

Another man, a strange man used to visit maybe once a year. He was maybe around the same age as dad. He would stay all day. He was a big man with a long beard and always had a bath and a full shave and one full plate of mums bacon hot-pot.

He wore a long coat with old pin-badges covering the lapels. I would sit on a wooden chair watching mum cut his one years growth of hair very short and then dad and him would spend hours looking at old photographs. Then he would disappear again. I used to call him uncle Peter I am not sure why, it wasn’t his real name! In fact I don’t think I ever found out his real name!

The only visitor mum had was her good friend Abrahana and her daughter Kathleen. Kathleen and I would sit in the front room opposite dad where we would share an easy chair while she would try to teach me the words from a Jack and Jill comic.

Mum and Abrahana would spend all the time talking in the kitchen. If dad had to leave the room for what ever reason then Kathleen had to shift away; maybe go into another room until he came back in. Then later mum and dad would have words and then Abrahana and Kathleen would leave and then I would hear dad shout: “I went to court for him – nothing is going to hurt him!” Then mum would scream: “but she’s only a little girl her self! She can’t hurt him!”

Strange how dad would walk into the back yard taking his chair, mug of tea and cigarettes with him if any women came to visit mum. He would stay in the back yard until they left.

Abrahana stopped visiting and I was seeing less and less of Kathleen. Strange how I was never really certain which school she went to. I am sure I would have remembered! She did win some big scholarship thing.

After that I would only see her around holiday times. Sometimes it would be a full year before we saw each other. Then we would walk up Blackburn Road and into Astley Bridge Park. It’s where for some reason the both of us always seemed more relaxed, more our true selves.

It’s where we would just sit on the grass near the rose beds behind the bowling hut. It was our place where we could share our inner most secrets. She would cry at the thought of leaving England because her mum always talked about the time she would return to Holland.

She cried and cried at the thought of going to a place where she had no friends. No brothers. No sisters, cousins. Nothing. The Nazis had seen to that!

Afterwards, ready for the outside world we would walk across the park and go on the swings and I would show off on the monkey bars while Kathleen would stand against the park railings just watching everything and everyone go by.

Finding Me

1956/57. Was another Strange. Strange because I was about eight and Miss Clarkson was giving me lots of nice red ticks in my maths book. Then one day of that year for some strange reason everything in my maths was wrong and I don’t remember getting any more red ticks!

Miss Clarkson was really nice. My school was really nice I had lots of friends, All the doors that were once opened in my mind had suddenly slammed shut. I didn’t know why. I just stopped learning. Not only that but when all the other kids in our class were covering their exercise books with their favourite covers: Christmas wrapping paper or left over bits of wall paper or what ever. They all made it look so easy and it was always clean, tidy and perfect and I tried, really tried but it always seemed to go wrong!

That or it always ended up covered in jam or marmalade. Once it was coal dust after I had been making the fire in the front room. The only time when the teacher shouted at me was when I brought a Ladybird book (Robin Hood) back which my dog had chewed.

It had been a bad morning. Ok, I now agree if there had been no jam on the book my dog “Vick would have left it alone. So my dog had to be punished. The punishment was to be harsh. The dog had to be taught a lesson. That punishment came in the form of a wrestling match with me - Peter Street, wrestling champion of 339 Blackburn Road.

I was in the red corner warming up. While Vick sat waiting in the opposite corner near the stand-up radio-gram with the ivory push-pull buttons. It was going to be a walk over.

I wrestled him from the chair and I was underneath him with my head and face between his back legs ready to turn him onto his back for the winning submission when he won the match by peeing on my head and face!

Of course I didn’t have time to wash I just wiped my face on mums tea-towel and went to school not thinking anyone would be able to stink me. So, for having the most damaged book in the class and stinking of dog pee I was made to go and stand outside the classroom in the corridor.

If anyone asked me why I was standing there I had to tell them the truth. Of course the whole school thought it was funny. I didn’t. Well, eventually I did and me and “Vick” made up when I returned home from school. It wouldn’t have been so bad if my dog had been some huge snarling Alsatian, but it was only a small black and white mongrel I loved so much.

Some time after Kathleen and her mum came round. It was a wet day. Dad was out at work, so Kathleen and I spent the afternoon, first with her showing me how to cover my exercise books, then how to draw straight lines onto blank pieces of paper. In return I let Kathleen twiddle with my hair and paint my face with makeup and lipstick. Great, until dad noticed over dinner the bits I hadn’t washed off properly.

He freaked, saying: “I went to court for him! No girl is going to damage him! That girl Kathleen could never visit again!” “Ok,” mum said. Then when he went to the toilet. Mum took me to one side to tell me that I would have to make sure I washed it all off the next time Kathleen came round.

I loved going to school. I had loads of friends. The teachers were great and honestly I tried, I mean I really tried to learn but it just wouldn’t happen. It was the start of the new year, I was eight going on nine. When our class were taken into the hall for dancing lessons.

Great. Something new, it was a kind of formation dance. I just couldn’t grasp the left and right and the cross over type of thing. The teacher used to grab hold of my hand and slowly walk me through it. She was very patient with me and regardless of the many times she did this I just couldn’t grasp it.

Not Being Me
For everyone with dyscalculia and dyspraxia

Childhood nights were dreams
of being a sheep
then up and outside of a morning,
a quick check to see

if by any chance in the night
there had been a change
of being just like all my friends
and not the odd one out

like afternoon dance lessons
spent hidden
in the toilet
out the way because

I couldn’t dance the sheep steps
that’s why I dreamed
of being a sheep
so I could be like everyone else

© Peter Street

Book Two: Village Keepers

Early October 1966. The Coop Milk in Bolton must have forgiven me for demolishing that outside toilet twelve months earlier, with the electric milk cart, (I shouldn’t have been driving!)  because I managed to get myself a job at the Astley Bridge Co-op. How? I’ve no idea. George, the Manager, then asked: He told me I had epilepsy. I never found out how he knew? It didn’t matter I was to start the following Monday and that was all that was said.

I was first put to work in the tea/coffee section with a group of older men one of them was Bob Howarth, an ex Bolton Wanderers footballer and there was also several middle aged women. The people and the job were brilliant.

They were so comfortable and safe to be with.  I’d been there about two months when I had a seizure. I woke with Tommy Cross (pre war pro boxer) standing near me.   I can’t remember everything he said that day but he later said something about me having a look of my uncle Joe Greenwood, when he was my age. Who were these people? I vaguely remembered uncle Peter talking about old time boxers fighting for ‘five bob’ a fight: if they were lucky!  

October 1966:  Everyone in that Co-op warehouse that day spent the whole afternoon in the canteen watching the disaster of Aberfan unfold. George: the manager suggested we had a collection: he asked/trusted me to take the box round. It was a real first for me: and a real boost to who I was and who I was going to be.    

A couple of weeks before Christmas I was promoted onto the butter and cheese section with Harold.  He was only about five feet tall and as thin as a lat. Yet, he could pick up those 56lb wooden caskets of butter like they were nothing.  I struggled lifting one. He also had the patience of a saint in the way he helped me understand the weighing system; he placed different coloured stickers on the various weights – he wrote out a kind of chart stating what colours went with what weights. From then on it was easy. 

If I panicked I’d just a have to look up at the chart. Easy. Everything he said was always in short sentences and I understood and took in what-ever he said.  I was getting an expert on everything to do with cheese and butter. Butters and Cheeses were going to be my life.  He taught me how to cut everything to within an ounce of what the various Bolton Co-op shops asked for. This was my job. I loved it. There were no Bosses going round to my parents explaining why they had to sack me because they couldn’t cope with someone who was epileptic and ‘slow’. I was beginning to cope with my epilepsy.  The Co-op was it. This was going to be my life.  Ok, when Harold said eating too much cheese would make me ill, I listened. I trusted. That’s how it was.

Almost Christmas, I was going to be eighteen and for some reason I was angry, really angry when I arrived into work that one particular day. I wouldn’t mind; my life was finally going great. Mam and Dad had not done or said anything.  Nothing had gone wrong. I was just angry. I went into work angry.  I wanted to smash everything into pieces; including Harold. 

Our first order of the day came in and Harold asked me in his usual polite way if I would go turn and wipe the sweat from the big roles of cheeses.
I told him to do it himself.

Even now: I just don’t know why I ever said that to Harold, of all people, the ex Chindit; the guy who had given me his time. It was then I made my mistake and I squared up to him. His fingers went into the shape of a gun, like he was somehow getting ready to shoot me with his imaginary child-like gun.  He just jabbed me with his gun-fingers in the top of my chest.  I had never felt pain like I had for that moment.  It took my breath away. It felt like I had some hundreds of volts of an electric shot prodded into my chest. I fell onto the stacks of butter.  I was still unable to do or say anything. He then grabbed hold of me by the collar and pulled me across the room out of the way of the door where everyone would have been able to see me, including the bosses and then he sat me down on a wooden chair in the far corner. 

For a couple of minutes he left me to my pain. I was sitting there trying not to cry.  Then he came with a cup of tea and a biscuit for me and asked if I was alright and why I had been so angry. I said I didn’t know.  I didn’t.

“Ok, take some deep breaths and the pain will go. Tense up and it will go worse.”  He placed two fingers on my wrist like he was taking my pulse: “Calm down, you’re racing: breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Relax.  His voice was very calm: can you feel my fingers on your pulse?” I nodded.  Keep breathing slowly in and out: that’s it. I want you to concentrate on your pulse and the bumping below my fingers. The pain will go. “

Then something bizarre happened: I could see my pulse bumping up and down. I could feel the slow rhythm of bumps. There were bumps in my upper arm.
He let go of my wrist and told me to pretend to hold a small ball just a few inches wide.

There were bumps in the tips of my fingers. I could hear my breathing.  There were kinds of electricity jumping from the tips of my fingers of one; over to the next. He rubbed my back like a masseur. “You’ll be alright now. Now, are you going to wipe those cheeses?”

Something strange had happened.  Even now I am not now sure what. My anger had been completely removed.   Everything about me was calm. I didn’t understand it. Tommy Cross came in to see how I was.  Even he wouldn’t have squared up to Harold is what he told me later. I wish he had said something before. I tried explaining why I did what I did. Tommy shrugged his shoulders and walked away. I wasn’t telling him a lie or anything like that. I just didn’t know. 

George the Manager had been asking for me.  I heard Tommy Cross say something about me going out for some cigarettes.  Then Tommy came in again, to see if I was ok.  They both sat down with me and again asked what was wrong?  I couldn’t tell them.  I don’t know how or what Harold did to me that day.  I wasn’t angry anymore. I know it sounds bizarre. It was like he had somehow released something in me - if that makes sense?   Nothing about that was ever mentioned again.

Finding Eccentrics

My eighteenth birthday, Christmas Day; was spent with Mam and Dad. I was invited to a couple of parties, Mam didn’t want me to go in case I became too excited and was ill. So I stayed in and watched the telly with them because I knew what would happen: she would first start off by spending half the night on her knees crying and praying. Then after that; she would get her coat on and try and find me; regardless of where or what I was doing. So, I helped in the kitchen where we made the Christmas dinner and I helped her make my surprise birthday cake.

Mam was carrying the turkey into the front room when there was a loud knock on the front door. We looked at each other. Mam answered the door. It was Uncle Peter. He wished me happy birthday while holding out a hessian sack for me to grab onto. There was no real change in him; he still had the trench coat and the beard. Yes, his hair was thinner and he was shuffling a bit as he walked down the corridor towards the front room and towards his best mate: my Dad. They swapped hello. That was it. That’s all they said to each other. I was waiting for them to shake hands. It had been years and they were acting like it had just been a few days. I didn’t get it.

Mam ran his bath for him. She walked over to the cupboard and got out the hair- cutting and shaving stuff; as though yesterday had been his last visit. I really didn’t get it. To me it was more than strange. He wishes me well for my eighteen years.

My mind was all over the place wondering what was in the hessian sack. A snake maybe? No. He wasn’t that eccentric. Besides, he knew I was frightened of snakes. It was heavy. I carefully placed it on the floor and let go. The neck of the sack just died there in the middle of hall way and then suddenly out popped up a two foot speaker with a long wire attached. It just stood there waiting for me to pick it up.

He knew I didn’t have a record player, but he thought it would be nice to buy me a speaker just in case I was lucky enough to ever get one.

Anyone else; I would have thought they were too far off the wall. Thinking about it: when I get my birthday present of a transistor radio for my surprise Christmas present in the October of 59 instead of Christmas Day then everything else somehow seemed normal.

He took off his trench coat.. Dirt was ingrained in his hands. Hands rough: sagged, scared. He rolled up his sleeves; walked into the kitchen; soaped his hands and asked if I would put a spoonful of sugar in the palm of his hands, he rubbed it all in with the soap, rinsed. His hands came out sparkling.

Mam and Dad weren’t for asking. They probably knew better, but I was fascinated. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone wash in sugar. He turned to me with a strange sort of look like he knew what was coming. No excuses I wanted to know where he had been and what he had been doing? There were strange glances from Mam and Dad like it was me who was off the wall. It was as though I should have known not to ask certain questions. How was I to know if no one ever told me? He just smiled, nodded and said nothing.

Then, when the three of us were sitting comfortably waiting for uncle Peter. We found out through a series of roundabout tales that he’d had been jobbing and puddling on the estates down south and just following the codes. Codes. I wanted to know what codes? Silence. Dad was nodding. Mam got up and went to make a pot of tea. I asked again about the codes. Silence while they looked at each other.
Then he started talking about Kent and the cider makers who still use rats with their heads cut off. Dad was still nodding as though he knew all about it. It was so incidental the way Dad thought they would have stopped that by now and replaced it with a ham bone or something like that? “Do you think it would be the same?” Silence. The shock was when Mam declared it was to give body and strength to the drink. I was the only one surprised. Dad or uncle Peter said nothing as Mam placed some custard creams on the table. It was about then when Mam started to tell us about the tales she’d heard about the farmers in and around Cork who tried it with their poitín; but the Priest had soon knocked that one on the head is the words she used. Carrying on to tell us they could only use it on the calf or cows back to keep the flies away from the hides Otherwise if the flies got to the hides they would be worthless. I was in another world of strange tales of rats and mice with their heads off dangling down over the ciders and when the fumes had eatedn the rats flesh then the drink would be ready

What. I wanted to know more – like how did they know all these things. There was more talk of cutting the heads of rats and mice and tying their tails to the top of the barrels where the fumes would eat everything away. Uncle Peter said it in such a matter of fact way how it was the way of telling when the drink was ready: when there was no flesh on the rodent. Then he had Mam and Dad laughing when he would talk of the first drink tasting like glue, then after that there was no feeling in the mouth. Then he would finished his story by saying it takes about eight months from start to finish.”

Why Dad, a solid Temperance would be nodding in agreement was a mystery. Mam wiped her hands on her apron and went back into the kitchen like nothing had been said.

Silence while they dunked their biscuits into their teas. That gave me time to think about this code thing uncle Peter had been talking about. Codes What codes?

He dipped his finger into his tea then drew a kind of upside down letter A and then something like a letter O on the table next to where the custard creams had been weighting down the plate.

He warned me if I ever saw anything like those letters scratched or chalked on the side of houses or pavements or gatepost it meant they were friendly and I would probably get a mug of tea or a sandwich for chopping wood. He said it was swapping thing.

He leaned back in his chair pouring some tea into his saucer. He went serious: and started on about lines running through any of the shapes and how I had to keep well away. He raised his voice, “Do you hear, them sort won’t give you the snot from their noses.” Dad was nodding.

I knew then I would have to have my wits about me. He talked about work like chopping wood: but then getting nothing for my troubles. Nothing. I found to be true years later when I was given a job to chop some oak wood.

It was like chopping through concrete. While those I worked for chopped the ash wood. Easy. Uncle Peter was now slurping his tea from the saucer. I wasn’t really sure if I fully understood why he was telling me all of this.

He looked odd. There was something different about him. He was sliding his feet. He was smaller and thinner than I remembered him to be. Then out of the blue Uncle Peter turned to me admitting he’d been following the codes before my bottom was bigger than a shirt button. “ Never too young to learn,” he would say. What? Dad laughed. Nodded. Uncle Peter carried his saucer of tea and a custard cream over to the back window which looked out across the fields. He stood there asking me, “When you see a field what do you see?” I told him I see a field. Mam interrupted; told him his bath was ready and that I wouldn’t need to know such things about the road and the codes of the fields and wild flowers. Mam was ringing her apron to let uncle Peter knew know she was serious.

It was followed by Dad insisting it was all education for me with uncle Peter being a great teacher. I had to admit I seemed to learn more from uncle Peter than I did at school. It was then Mam let her feelings known by shouting something about I would only go down that road over her dead body.

Silence while Mam cut Uncle Peter’s hair. More silence when he went for his bath. Dad tried to say something but Mam walked out of the room as though to shout without saying a word, that, that was the end of it.”

Early the next morning , I was getting dressed when a small folded piece of paper stopped my shoe from sliding on. I shook out the paper, unfolded it. The writing looked heavy, rushed, as if the words just couldn’t wait to escape from that pencil. The words were shouting: “Your Mam’s right. The road is no place, Good Luck. I’ll see you when I do.” Uncle Peter

I went in all the rooms of our flat looking for him. I overheard Mam telling Dad how she heard Uncle Peter leaving even before she had risen. The look Mam gave me when she came into my room frightened me. It was like she was going to tell me he had died. She calmed and was taking in a slow, deep breath when she asked about me going into Bolton the following day. I nodded, then I asked her what was wrong. She didn’t answer.

10am: Bolton Town Centre: We first went into St. Patrick’s Church on Great Moore Street, where she lit a candle for me! She wanted me to go to Confession. Ok, so I told a load of lies. The Priest gave me five Hail Mary’s and five Our Fathers. In the pews, Mam interrupted her rosary to tell me she was going to buy me some new clothes. I tried telling her it would be better if I went on my own. She was having none of that.

Finding Strangers

Noon. We walked into Mr. Joseph’s Bespoke Tailors who owed Dad a favour. He made me a shiny navy-blue three-piece suit, ordered. Done. Plus: a couple of shirts. Couple of ties: with everything matching. It should have been over eighty pounds; Mam got it down to forty. Then the tailor with the sun tan, browning every inch of him; started asking about Dad. He even patted me on the shoulder declaring; I was a good boy, I didn’t know who he was.

Then Mam wanted to show me off to my uncle Joe. The stench of fish on Bolton Market was stuffing my nose almost beyond breaking point. Shoppers were everywhere and there were shouts about cod, haddock, even eels.

There were fruit and veg stalls, curtains stalls, shoe and clog stalls, there were stall holders who were every shape, sex and colour. On the far stall in the right corner there was a tailor, small, wiry, he nodded to us. “Hello Kitty. Hello, Peter?” Again, I had never seen the man before. There was an elderly man nearby who was chubby, stooped over two walking sticks. Second look: he was more than chubby he was overweight, he had a boxer’s face, raw, white going towards yellow. His jaw hung to one side like he had had a stroke. He dribbled when he talked.

I had a job keeping up with Mam when she hurried over to him. “Joe,” she said. He glanced up trying to focus on her face. “It’s Kitty, your Tommy’s wife.” He slurred while looking at me. “I’ve heard you’ve got a temper with a right hook to go with it?” How did he know that? Mam interrupted. She turned, grabbed my arm and then said, “This is your uncle Joe. Greenwood” He slurred hello I thought boxers were always fit and healthy. “You get nowhere with these,” he said. Showing me two hammer like fist. Then he told me to lose my temper. There and then among those market stalls I had to promise him I wouldn’t go into the ring. He turned to Mum. Then Mam turned and simply told them that I would never be a part of what they had been. What did she mean tell everyone? Like who?

Embarrassment was burning my face, then Mam told them as loud as she could that I was epileptic. I wasn’t sure what was going on. I just wanted to get out of there.

Finding A Freedom

Back home, me and my ball were getting it back together after it had been fitted with a new valve. We went off being our old selves. We had a kick about with the small electricity building near the 54-bus terminus on Oldham’s Estate. Mam’s idea of wrapping me up in cotton wool was becoming too much.

My casey made the break, by first: running down the hill – so I naturally ran after it. Caught up with it, then carried on another couple of miles until we came down to the bottom of Belmont Road, not too far from my Co-op works. We were opposite The Ice’s Football Ground. Roy Gleaves, a tall slim guy with blonde hair who I knew from the Co-op milk round, was having a kick about with some other guys I didn’t know. There was always something smart about Roy: cool in his very up-to-date sixties gear. We had a kick-around then he said he’d never seen me down at the Palais.” I didn’t know what the Palais was. “I’ve just started going with the best looker there: Sandra Simpson. Why don’t you come down with me?”

Two weeks later: Me and my new shiny navy-blue suit, white shirt, blue tie with a Windsor knot walked down Blackburn Road with Roy. We walked down past The Palladium picture house, then past Charlie Robinson’s bike shop, past the cake shop where he once stamped on a stink-bomb and then ran out laughing, leaving me to take the blame.

“I told Sandra I’d meet her inside,” he said. “Always keep them guessing and don’t fall into that trap of meeting them outside, they’ll want you to pay for them!” I told her to wait for me next to the stairs. I’m thinking of finishing with her anyway – she won’t give. She’s too shy.”

I kept thinking: ‘She won’t give what?’ There were more friends of Roy’s waiting for him. I didn’t know who they were or where they had come from; and I didn’t want to know where they were going. I was going to keep sensible. I now had a job for life: The Co-op would look after me and I would look after the Co-op.

I had my Palais entrance money ready. I could hear, feel the excitement bouncing around the place. The Doormen were now looking at Roy and his mates. There was something about this that I didn’t like. I could feel the tension; they were restless. They knew where they were going and what they were going to be doing. I said no to it. There was too much at stake. Besides, when you say you are meeting someone you don’t go off with another person. That was wrong. I know I’ve been left standing in places. Waiting and wondering what I had done wrong?

“Listen!” he said to me. “We, have to go somewhere. Can you tell Sandra, I will meet her later? She’ll be waiting for me next to the stairs. She wears a black ribbon in hair dark hair. She’s just a bit smaller than you. Her mate, Sharon, will be with her, she has red hair. Don’t look so worried. Like I said, keep them at arms length.” What?

There were dozens of girls waiting around near the steps. There were maybe ten with ribbons in their hair. There was one that stood out who was looking shy, uncomfortable. Her friend with the red hair was standing next to her. That had to be her. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do. I kept thinking why would he leave his girlfriend and go off with some boys. That didn’t make sense?

“Are you Sharon, and are you Sandra? They nodded, “Why, what’s it to you?” Sharon asked. Sandra looked at me. Her dark gypsy kind of looks made her even more stunning than Kathleen. A red ribbon held up her dark hair at the back. The more I looked and spoke to her the more nervous I was becoming. My mouth was wanting to leave me and go and relax somewhere out of the way like in a dark corner. I was willing my mouth to say something. It tried with: “Hi, Roy said he’s not coming tonight – (then my mouth for all the bad things I’ve shouted at it suddenly forgave me – and hit genius). He said if it was alright with you I should walk you to the bus stop. “No.” Ok, she was probably taking it out on me. “Sharon is coming with me. Thanks, anyway.” Then my legs, without warning suddenly walked me over to the other side of the Palais and out of the way altogether. I needed to be with Sandra. I tried to keep my eyes under control. Couldn’t. They just kept racing over towards Sandra.

I am me That’s not meant to be a rude thing but I don’t want to be you not anymore

I dreamed of nothing else but you being you the pain burned holes in my hurt I just wanted you to look at me

say hello, smile. Yes, a kiss would be too much to ask . So instead you waved , the kind that said

Yes we can be friends nothing else

March 1967. I didn’t understand why Roy would leave Sandra for his mates? Three weeks he had been asking me to meet Sandra and ask her to stay by the stairs. Six times I had walked her to the last bus.

The last Monday of the month, the week when the pop group: Frankenstein and his Monsters were on. This was the group who dressed up in all the grizzly gear; blood dripping; Hammer Film stuff. Then they would chase and carry screaming girls off with them to a corner where the girls would be treated to drinks and what ever. The Monsters always went for girls who were on their own.

Finding My Future

Both Sandra and I could see Frankenstein was coming for her. Frightened, she put her arms around my waist as if we were an item. So, I put my arm around her. Even after the group had finished we were still holding on to one another. The last bit of the music for that night was being played; I took my chance, never thinking of the consequences with Roy and his mates. I felt her warm breath on my face, her breathing was with mine; we were together. I kissed her fully on the tips, and she kissed me back. Her breast pressed into me. On that dance floor, that Monday night: the two of us became one. We were there in the middle of the world were nothing else mattered. Even though there was loud rock and roll music being played. The world was silent. Silent: except for her breathing, her lips, her mouth. We were there together where nothing else mattered.

It was Roy’s loss. I still didn’t understand why he would prefer his mates to Sandra.

The group had finished their gig and we were still holding each other. Fright was hitting me. I felt sickish; thinking it had just been one of those moments. My mouth dry; stomach was in my chest. Terrified. I had to ask. It was that now or never time. I had to find out: So i asked her if she would go out with me?

The usual end-of-the-night: Beach Boys “God Only Knows” was playing the night out. That song; that night; the one I used to walk out half way through, now couldn’t even squeezed between us. “Yes.” I said I couldn’t hear. I did. I just wanted her to say it again. “Yes.” There was something about that moment. I had finally become me. I had finally found a girl who loved me. Yes, it sounds over the top, but that didn’t matter. It was that moment and for that moment; I had a girl friend. Not one who came to see me every so often whenever she was free. Yes, Kathleen had been my dream; but I couldn’t live with what-ifs and when’s: I needed steady. I wanted to be a part of someone and them a part of me. I wanted someone who was more than just an occasional lover (if I was lucky) I wanted a friend; a very close friend as well as a lover, someone who I could share my inner most secrets, feelings and thoughts with. That’s what I craved; prayed for. Now there seemed a chance; and I was grabbing it with both hands. I didn’t know how Sandra really felt about me. Then, for my part; me, Me, Peter Street, had finally arrived. I had a real girlfriend. I couldn’t wait to tell Harold and Tommy Cross; otherwise I kept it all to myself. I wanted to tell Mam and Dad but was frightened with the conversations about women and diseases again.

My wage at the Co-op was about £8.10 shillings a week. It was Harold who brought it up with: “You should save up and buy your own house. Don’t rent! You need to start saving now.”

Three months into our dating. The smell, the tingling had returned I was with Sandra; we had been in Bolton just walking the shops. I woke up in Bolton Hospital; my mouth was sore through biting my tongue. Traces of blood were around my lips. Sandra was crying. The nurse put her arm around her. “He’s alright now. He’s just had a fit.” It was then I had to own up to being epileptic. She hurried out, left me. I was almost in tears when she came back in. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I was too frightened. I didn’t want to lose you.” “I thought I was losing you.” She started crying again. I wanted her to say it again. I just wanted to hear it: “I thought I was losing you!” Over and over, I didn’t ask. It would have been too much for her. So I left it at that. My life was changing. I knew then i would have to take Harold’s advice and start saving up for a mortgage on a house. My Dad, Thomas Edgar, had always told me never to buy a house always rent, working class people don’t buy houses. He used to say it was the worst thing in the world anyone could do. I didn’t really understand when he started saying: “If you buy then they will have you by the short and curlies for the rest of your life.”

When I used to ask him what he meant, he would say over and over: working class people don’t buy houses. That’s for those who don’t believe in sharing with their brother and sisters.” So, again I was feeling guilty, confused because I trusted both Harold and my Dad, even though i didn’t really understand everything my Dad ever said because some of it was so weird like the times I used to hear him and uncle Peter talk about everything being shared, nothing should be owned by the individual.

It was Sandra who said we need to buy our own house. Dad freaked. He disliked her even more than he had done before and i still didn’t know why.

Leaving the Co-op was probably one of the most difficult decisions of my working life. Harold and Tommy Cross and even George, the Manager wished me luck. I had to get a job with more money. I needed a married man’s wage; but what? How? Kathleen Jones at the Employment Office said she had the perfect job for me: Gravedigger.

Comments

Sue Coleman

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24 November 2016

I didn't want this to be the end, I was enjoying this so much.Well written and heartwarming I really hope there's more to come.

Brave New World

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1 January 2010

I really liked this. It is very rare that we get the reality of a working class life depicted these days in literature. It is touching, sometimes stark and brings back memories of my childhood summers with my grandparents in the mining villages of the North East. I look forward to more of this!

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