On Wood Street
“My Uncle “Bombed” that Gasometer on his first leave from National Service”
“He never did – it’s still there!”
“No, Jean, I don’t mean really! He brought home some ‘Thunder-flashes’, great big bangers that they use for pretending hand-grenades. He let one off over there at three in the morning, and all the old biddies were running out of their houses and having heart attacks and things. The police and fire brigade came and there was terrible trouble – in the Bury Times and everything.”
“What did they do to him – you can be hanged for treason, can’t you Kevin?”
“Don’t be daft…”
“You can tek yer ‘ands off me if your going to shout!”
I jumped back, put my hands in prayer and put on my best injured-puppy look.
I’ve got to tell you what phase we’re in here – American B movies.
In the Summer of 59, we were reaching the end of my Dad’s first exasperation with television. Exasperated, because my mum, my sisters and me, we could not resist the novelty of the box – and anyway he’d never had the money to take us to the Flicks, except once to see Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid” at the Moulin Rouge…. And that was like going to another City. We went up Headington from Oxford to see it at the Moulin Rouge what would now pass as an Art House, but was then the area’s cheapest flea-pit. But my Grandma had a Telly!
Every afternoon (it seemed) they showed B movies on the Telly (real ones remember – the crap ones you had to sit through at the Flicks before you could watch what you actually paid to see! Imagine being the Director and knowing you had to make a crap film, in case anyone thought it was better than the one the studio spent thousands on! Most of them had the same actors in the same story set in a different place – but what I really liked was all the bombing and hiding. This was probably real “Stock Footage” (Not in the Randolph Scott Cowboys of course.)
Me and Jean were hiding from the bombs. In the churchyard on Wood street. I had to keep leaving her on a railway platform and doing that screen kiss. I showed her: ” I put my right arm round your neck,” (She let me!) “and you put yours round mine.” (She did.) “Now I put my left arm round your waist and you put yours round mine and we kiss” (Straight in!!!).
(Now I hope your heart’s pounding, because mine is and this was fifty years ago – my first adult kiss – I was eleven, …and anyone who doesn’t believe me… It was real love. I felt the same passion [Latin: passio – I suffer] – weak knees, aching heart, sweaty palms, as I did for any of my later loves – much later because Jean was my last love for ten years -see below!)
“Mmw … hold on, Jean, now we’ve got to do like the films – I’m so tall…” and we fall apart, laughing.
“You, yer lickle squirt. I only love you ‘cos yer lickle”
She loves me! I know! I stagger about and fall and do one of those deaths the same stunt-man does in “Boots and Saddles” every week – last week he was an Indian; the week before a Cowboy – anyone can die – well not everyone – but he’s the specialist, probably gets a bit of bonus! Here’s what you do: from your haunches, you break cover – stupid ‘cos you’re bound to get shot, but you’re mad at “them Injuns”, or “them Palefaces”, or “dem Gringos”, or “low-down-bums” (Great joke: Cowboys with no legs [Dandy, circa 1958; and again 1964… ] You stand up ‘n shoot the varmints, but they get you. You throw your arms up and away with your Winchester/ Bow/ Bluntline Special ( that’s so’s you don’t fall on it during the next bit) (are you following this girls? Stick with it – it is a love story!) …then you do a Roly-poly down a hill, or roof, or hay-stack , but the Methodists’ didn’t have much call for haystacks, so I dived in the Elderberry Bush.
“Are you alright, Kevin?
You can’t flamin’ cry when yer with yer gal. “Aah! A stick got me right in the eye!”
“Ohhh. Let mi luke” (My mother’s accent!) – she holds my head; she can’t see my eyes for the hand that’s over them – the other’s on my side where I really hurt myself. She wraps her arms round my head and clasps me to her bosom – that she hasn’t got yet – but it was as real as any woman who did – see below!
She kisses my head: “It were a lovely dive!”
“Were it… was it? Was it as good as Boots ‘n’ Saddles?”
“Eeh, I don’t know – that’s bye’s stuff”
I shove her up, wounds healed, and charge out of the gate and turn, arms out, Dam-Buster style, and fly back right up to her, nose-to-nose and freeze.
That smell – I’ll never forget it – well I don’t think I have – I went in a Children’s Home once and thought of her – no, not piddle – a sort of unscented cleanliness. Was it Lifebouy (“Carbolic”) and Tide or Omo? I wouldn’t know – we always had Palmolive and Persil – no carpets, like!
I could have stayed forever, and so could she – we were as one.
I have to stop typing, and you have to stop reading there for a minute to take this all in. Shut your eyes.
“OK, we put our arms….”
“Shush! There’s Nigel!
Nigel! What a name for the Cock o’t’Walk. But he was! He beat me for Jean. I had asked her to be my girlfriend – it was the dead straight hair with perfect auburn fringe that did it. She had nice teeth, too. She accepted, but her alleged boyfriend didn’t. (He alleged – she sort of shrugged, embarrassed. Looking back, I see the oppression of women – she had to live there. I was probably only a holiday romance). For the duel of fisticuffs we agreed a time – two o’clock that afternoon, and a place – The Mucklows, across the hedge from the tryst at the heart of this story; and a referee – a fat, spotty, but mature thirteen year-old.
Rubbing my hands on my T-shirt I had time to realise that we were standing just about where my Grandpa had had his Cobbler’s Cabin, in the years before I was seven and he’d died. Then Nigel grabbed my shirt and it was pulling, puffing and pushing each other for an hour – not a punch, not even a slap. Then he grabbed me round the neck and pushed my forehead into the ground and over in a second – well two seconds.
“Give up?” he asked after an eternity.
I was quiet – choking back a tear from the stone piercing my forehead. I couldn’t move.
“Are y’ givin’ up?”
“Yeah!” I whimpered and he let me go and leapt up. The Ref held his arm aloft – the champion.
I accepted the decision in good faith. My Dad had taught me about the Queensbury rules, but even though Nigel broke them and cheated, I stuck by the Ref’s Decision, and gave Jean up for him.
Jean mustn’t have been as feudal as me – she wasn’t having lads feighting ower ‘er. I wished she had said that before he ground my forehead into the grit. But maybe she wouldn’t have had me – a Southern Stranger and the smaller pugilist – if I hadn’t shown the desire to fight for her!
She swished her pony-tail “yewer a dirty cheat Nigel Hemshore. Push off up Back-Charles Street y’ugly mug. (This was very nasty – all the streets had a Back-Street, but this hinted at living down the back out where the Night-Shit-Shifters came – even though her mum’s and my Grandma’s had proper WCs for years by then!)
He went in some shame and, strangely, the small audience shuffled off with him.
“He’s gone – carry on” and she just looked at me eyeball to eyeball what a look – you know what I mean. (If you don’t, put this down now, and go and fix a drain!)
Firstly just a kiss – eyes closed, and lips too of course, forever. Then a breath -it’s a wonder we didn’t spifflicate.
Relax there’s no pressure. That was just the whole of my life rushing before my eyes – my love life, so far, that is – she’s right with me. I’m just back from bombing the Ruhr.
In the churchyard.
Next to Mucklows.
Next to the Gasometer.
On Wood Street.
“OK. We kiss, with our arms round each other, but then there’s the special bit they always do in the flicks – while we’re kissing you have to reach up to me, the camera moves down from our lips, you move onto tip-toe and lift one leg … and freeze!” Delicious.
It was decades before I find out why they did this: there was a Hollywood Production Rule that the screen kiss could only last three seconds.
The love I felt for Jean … I wonder at my kids getting to 18 and not having had a heartbreak.
I loved Josephine Maloney at 5, Vivian Welsh at 8/9 (Unrequited) and Sonia Hartman at 10.
I loved Jean, really loved her, but I loved Jesus and the poor more. I gave her up on 31st August 1960. I cried myself to sleep on 30th. It was the night before returning home from my Grandma’s when, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I cried out to the Father to take this cup from me – but only as he wished, not as I did. I was to forsake the love of a good woman for the love of all who asked in Christ’s name, in the life of a Friar.
The next day I set off for London and a life of celibacy. I stuck to it willingly all through puberty. It was such a conscious choice that at 18, when I took the Franciscan habit, I became Brother Bernard, taking the Saint of that name as my Patron, because the choice was hard for him too. Bernard – What a lad! He had founded the strictest Order in the Church – The silent Cistercians – St Bernard of Clairvaux – just the right patron for a man in my position – choosing to give up the love of a good woman. In the 1960s.
On his 31st of August Bernard was riding beside a lake when he saw a beautiful girl. “Phwoar” is the modern idiom for what he may have thought. Then he remembered he was supposed to be giving up such sentiments. He gingerly clambered up onto the saddle of his horse, and dived into the lake to calm his ardour. I needed a patron with such sense of humour!
My Romance had to last me. It did last me ten years. But it finished just two weeks after the fight.
And ten years later I was Brother Bernard.
There aren’t any lakes on Wood Street, and the inky Irwell in the fifties would have killed me in minutes.
50s Childhood memory retold.