Near Compass Road, the bulldozers had left weeks ago and the rubble of the block of flats had finally all been cleared away. It was starting to get a bit warmer and more kids were out and about after school now. There was never much to do on the estate and a lot of the time we just hung about, talking. Nobody usually made any plans to meet up and do anything in particular. Kids just drifted towards the shops and waited to see what happened. Which was usually nothing much.
Sometimes, one of us would dare someone to do something. Generally, it would be something a bit naughty, just to liven things up a bit. Most of the time, it would just be knock off ginger – knocking on someone’s door and then running away. Even if it wasn’t knock off ginger, it would be something that would involve getting someone to chase us.
It surprised me that anyone ever bothered. Mostly, they didn’t. Sometimes we’d play football or cricket in the part of the street where you didn’t get too many cars disturbing the game. The problem was that the bloke who lived on the corner of the perfect place for football was the type of person who never gave your ball back when it went over his fence. You could get in part of his garden without him knowing anything about it, but the back part had a higher fence and a locked gate. He was called Mr Cooper, but I didn’t recognise the irony until much later, as will you.
You know how it is, the ball never went where you could actually get to; it never failed to go straight over into the back garden and you could knock on the door until the cows came home and all you’d get was sworn at through the locked front door. He was, in short, a miserable old twat.
Over the years, he must have had nearly fifty of our footballs, tennis balls, rugby balls and probably a few frisbees too. We never got a single one back.
That was just how things were. We were always thinking of ways to get back at Cooper. We never came up with anything any good until Pauly Parnoe came back from holiday in America.
Pauly Parnoe lived a couple of doors down from me. I’d learned the hard way that Pauly Parnoe was not to be listened to a few years prior to what I’m about to tell you. I wasn’t allowed on the road outside our house because, as roads tend to, it had cars on it. One day, Pauly had encouraged me to play with him on the road, which I did. That led to my mother tearing out of the house, picking me up by my collar and smacking me in front of him while shouting at me.
Nobody I knew had ever been on holiday abroad until Pauly’s dad came home one day and said they were all going to America for the whole summer holiday. He was going with work and it was all paid for, so Pauly was the first kid I knew who’d been on a ‘plane. Pauly was alright but he didn’t have much imagination. He was in America for six whole weeks and he said he just stayed in the house and watched telly. He said it was rubbish because there were adverts on every five minutes. “Why didn’t you go out?” we asked him.
“Well, my Dad was at work, wasn’t he?” he said.
“What about your Mam? Where was she?” We asked.
“Well, she went out all the time, didn’t she?”
“What? Didn’t she let you go with her?”
“Yeah. She said I should go and see the sights with her.” Pauly said, like she’d asked if he wanted to go to school in a dress.
“Why didn’t you go?” we asked.
“I didn’t fancy it,” he said, “I couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t want to go to America anyway,” He sound annoyed that he’d been made to go on a great holiday.
That’s what I mean: he went to America and he just wanted to be hanging around with us at home. I thought he was daft. America! I’d have gone anywhere. I’d see everything I could.
Then, when he’d got back, he was moaning that it was boring here and there was nowhere to go. Some people like complaining, don’t they? It was boring here but Pauly was bored wherever he was.
Diversion – Old Soldiers
Our back garden at Compass Road backed right onto the River Hull which regularly burst its banks within a few years of the water board deciding that dredging it was a waste of time. My old man had built me a sand pit which drew the local kids.
My Granddad had left me a box of tin soldiers from the late 19th century, replete with lead paint. I often played with them in the sand pit. Even though they weren’t desert rat type soldiers because they were all grenadiers. I think they were grenadiers, although they might not have been. I suspect I’d decided they were grenadiers because I enjoyed the poem Dumb Soldiers by Robert Louis Stevenson. In my childhood, if anyone asked me if I had a favourite poem, I’d say either Dumb Soldiers or The Inchcape Rock by Robert Southey which, if anything, is even better: kids like to see baddies get their comeuppance – see also Ironhead. I still like them both.
Dumb Soldiers is about a kid who found a little hole in the grass of his family’s garden and put a toy soldier in it. He left it there through the summer, winter and autumn until the grass had grown and covered it up.
I shall find him, never fear,
I shall find my grenadier,
But for all that’s gone and come,
I shall find my soldier dumb.
The poem’s written at the point prior to the kid going out and finding his toy soldier and he imagines all the things that it has seen, all the things he wishes he could see if only he could be the grenadier: talking animals and insects, flowers sprouting, fairies naffing around, that sort of thing. But because his grenadier is dumb in the traditional sense of the word, the kid knows it’s not going to be able to tell him anything about being in a hole in the garden, he writes that when he finds him, he’ll put him on his shelf and imagine what he got up to and what he saw. I loved it; it was right up my street.
Naturally, when my old man had cut the grass at the start of spring, I scoured the lawn to find some small hole that I could stick a toy soldier in. There weren’t any, so I borrowed the trowel from the shed and made one, into which I put one of my Granddad’s tin soldiers and left it there.
I never found the sodding thing, despite days and days of combing the garden. Robert Louis Stevenson must have had less diligent parents – or perhaps gardeners – than I had.
Anyway, one day, whilst playing Monty and Rommel in the sand pit with incongruously dated soldiers, Pauly Parnoe ended up having to be taken to hospital to have his stomach pumped because the silly bugger had spent the afternoon surreptitiously gnawing what turned out to be lead paint from them.
Diversion Diversion – The Brave Tin Soldier
Being a big reader, I’d already consumed – although not in the manner that Pauly Parnoe probably would have – Hans Christian Anderson’s children’s stories, whichever then appealed to my burgeoning melancholy nature. Especially The Brave Tin Soldier. I don’t know if it was the noble sacrifice that appealed to me or if it was just the idea of metal melting.
It was probably a bit of both.
On Friday, after tea, my old man and I would go to visit my Grandma. I don’t really know why we went, because even though we ostensibly went to visit her, we didn’t really see very much of her because she tended to spend her time in the kitchen, doing things like peeling bits of wallpaper off the wall.
In the absence of my Grandma – whom my Dad called, ‘Gruber’, as in ‘Schicklgruber’ which, at that point, was popularly thought to be Hitler’s original surname – we sat and watched telly. We watched The Phil Silvers Show, which was Sergeant Bilko, and Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, both of which I enjoyed enormously.
In fairness to her, even though she had no time for me whatsoever – never got me a birthday card or present, never got me a Christmas card or present – what she was prepared to do was to save up all her scrap paper for me.
In those days, I didn’t get a lot of plain white paper to draw on. Who did? I had to make do with whatever scraps I could get my hands on. So, I’d draw Duane Doberman doing that face he pulled, and Basil Rathbone defeating the Nazi threat as Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone adaptations played fast and loose with the basics of Sherlock Holmes and were used as wartime propaganda) and then I’d burn them in Gruber’s open fireplace. Occasionally, I’d light one and chuck it up the chimney before running out into the street to watch a flaming piece of The Weekly News twitch and furl into ash.
Naturally, I enjoyed experimenting with fire which usually only resulted in minor burns. Once I’d read The Brave Tin Soldier and received my own set of tin soldiers, I decided to recreate the story, except I didn’t have any ballerinas, but I was less interested about her, so I figured I could live with that.
When my old man wasn’t looking, I delicately placed my soldier onto the fire and sat back and watched it bubble, turn dark grey and melt onto a piece of coal.
Transfixed as I was, I moronically reached out and touched the melted blob, on which burned my finger quite badly. I didn’t tell my old man that I’d been melting tin soldiers. I told him I did it shoving lit paper up the chimney, so I was banned from doing that again for a bit.
Sometimes, my old man’s brother Alan would turn up on Friday evenings too. He sometimes brought his kids, Tina and Donna. My Auntie Val would show up quite regularly as well. I’ve written about Val taking Tina, Donna and me to see Gary Glitter at Bridlington Spa when I was about seven or eight.
When I was much older, once Val had her legs amputated due to emphysema and finally died of it, my Grandma was probably starting to go a bit senile. I say ‘probably’ because it was hard to tell. not just because she studiously ignored us whenever we went round, but because she was always pretty odd, so it was hard to tell.
Once, we were sat together – she sat with us when Alan was there – she asked him, “Hey, Alan, have you see our Colin recently?”
“Yeah, I have as matter of fact,” Alan smiled, looking at my old man.
“Where? When?” she said, moodily, “He never comes to visit me anymore…”
“Well, he’s there, isn’t he, mam?”
“Noooo,” she said, looking at him like he was simple, “I mean your brother Colin,”
It transpired that she thought my old man was the butcher’s delivery boy and I was some kid who lived above the chip shop on Rosalyn Road. No wonder she ignored us, I suppose. Probably wondered what the hell we were doing, turning up every Friday night and hogging her telly with programming from the 1940s.
Even later than that, she told Alan that a woman and a baby had been round her house in the week and she didn’t know what the bloody hell they wanted.
Turned out it had been my mother, who’d gone round with some dinner for her. The baby was Sam, our dog.
When she died, I wasn’t fussed really. It’s hard to give too much of a shit about someone who never gave a shit about you, isn’t it?
End of Diversion Diversion
Pauly Parnoe was always doing weird things like eating the paint off my soldiers. You couldn’t let him near toy cars either. Not because of the paint on them, although his preference for paint wouldn’t have helped, but because he couldn’t help himself from taking the tyres off them. Which he then ate. Funny kid.
End of Diversion.
After he’d been back for about three weeks, I was at Pauly Parnoe’s house because he was showing me his new telly. It was alright, but his mam was watching rubbish on it so it wasn’t very exciting.
We went up to his room and he leant on the windowsill and started going on about how boring everything was. I found this box, stuffed full of all sorts of stuff. Junk, Pauly called it. It wasn’t junk, it was brand new stuff that his dad had bought him that Pauly didn’t even have the imagination to open and do something with.
While Pauly was droning on about how something at school was particularly boring, I was picking my way through all this so-called junk until I came to a bright red box with black writing on it that said, Kent Cherry Flash Salutes that had obviously never been opened. I’d never seen or heard of them.
“What are these?” I asked him. I knew what he’d say. We’re always having the same conversation.
“Dunno, got them off my Dad.”
It was what he always said. He had tons of stuff, Pauly, and he never even bothered with most of it. Maybe that’s why.
I asked Pauly if I could have them and he said I could, as long as I didn’t tell his dad and as long as he could come along when I let them off.
For someone who said he was bored most of the time, Pauly was a bit reluctant to get involved in anything exciting. He wanted to see what they were like, but he didn’t want to get the blame for finding out.
I opened the box. Inside, there were ten little pinkish red balls, with a fuse about five or six centimetres long. They looked like cherries, which there were pictures of on the box.
I got a lighter from Pauly, who had loads of them. Why? He didn’t smoke; he was only about eight. We went out to the edge of the waste ground. I picked one out of the box and carefully lit the end of the fuse. It fizzed, like bombs do in old films. Pauly and I looked at each other, grinning and I threw it onto the waste ground, where the flats were before they were demolished.
It was a lot louder than a banger. A lot louder.
Naturally, this brought us some attention. Dogs, mainly. There was a lot of barking. We heard the sound of kids shouting and looking at the huge cloud of dust that we had blown out of the ground. We walked up to where I’d thrown it and there was a pretty big crater in the ground. We looked at each other.
We cleared off quickly because we knew that very soon, there would be lots of kids and, probably, the coppers.
As the night went on, we let more of them off and ran off laughing as people opened windows and shouted at us for waking babies up. There was a lot of crying going on. Crying and barking.
I’d blown up all but one of them before I had a thought about getting revenge on Mr. Cooper.
Outside Mr. Cooper’s locked gate was a water butt. It was one of those enormous blue barrels that collected rain water and he probably watered his garden with it in the summer. I didn’t make the connection until years later, telling Balf this story, when he accused me of making it up because it was too much of a coincidence for a man called Cooper to have a barrel in his garden.
I said, “Follow me,” and ran off towards Cooper’s house. He did.
There were a couple of kids sat on the kerb as we stopped by the side of his house.
“What are you two doing?” One of them said. We knew him a bit, he played football with us sometimes.
“Nowt,” said Pauly. “What about you?”
“We’re not doing anything now,” said the other one. “Cooper’s got our ball.”
I didn’t know if it would work, really, but I said, “Watch this” and I hopped over the wall into the bit of the garden where balls never went.
Diversion – Watch this.
It’s asking for trouble, saying, “Watch this,” because whatever ‘it’ is, probably won’t work and you look like a smart arse with shit for brains. I only remember saying it on one other occasion.
After spending a night in the local pub, my friend Dave and I had decided to go and get something to eat from a nearby takeaway. We ordered and were sat down opposite the counter where a group of lads were trying (a bit too hard) to impress a group of girls. They were being a bit boorish.
I was chewing gum and said to Dave, “Watch this.” As casually as could be, I slowly stood up and walked towards the bin that was in between the girls and the lads and spat my chewy out into it and sat down again.
I don’t know how I knew what would happen; maybe it was just a lucky guess, but instantly, the lads were cowed. By me spitting my gum into the bin.
Dave was impressed. Funny how it goes, isn’t it? I suppose I’d just had more experience of showing off.
End of Diversion.
I scuttled alongside the wall of his house until I reached the water butt. I lit the last cherry bomb and reached up and dropped it in the top of it, it was almost full to the brim. Pauly and the other two were looking at me like I was daft. I gave them the thumbs up and ran up to the wall and dived over it.
“You daft get,” Pauly said, “It’ll just have gone out and that was the last one.” He punched my arm.
The two kids were looking at me with pity when we heard it. It wasn’t like the terrific crack that we’d been hearing all night; it was a dull, low-pitched thud. B-DUMMMBB! It made the ground vibrate. You saw his windows wobbling in their frames.
Very shortly afterwards, tiny lines, like spiders’ webs began to appear along the sides of it. Then huge cracks appeared out of the webs in the sides of the water butt.
Then suddenly, what seemed like about eight million gallons of water emptied all over Cooper’s pristine garden in the space of about two seconds. It was excellent.
Pauly and the other two kids just gawped gleefully. I did, too. At that moment, Mr. Cooper opened his front door and saw what was only a few seconds earlier a garden, but now looked more like a rice field. I’d never seen anyone look so surprised.
He didn’t say anything for what seemed like ages and we didn’t run off. We just stood there, looking at each other.
Then, suddenly, wordlessly, he made a run at us, as if all the water hadn’t registered in his mind. He immediately fell flat on his face with a huge splash and his glasses fell off. He propped himself up and started shouting at us, how he was going to get the police and have our guts for garters. The spell was broken and we ran like the clappers.
He never did, though. I don’t know why. Perhaps he felt bad about keeping our footballs, maybe he thought we might do it again, or something worse. Maybe his wife talked him out of it. From then on, if our ball ever went over his fence, it came back again. Maybe not the same day, but not long after it’d turn up on the road outside.
His garden just about recovered, but he didn’t bother getting another water butt. I can’t think why…