The film came on the television at 9 o’clock in the evening. I was having difficulty concentrating on it and was dropping off to sleep, so took myself off to my bed. It smelt of fresh sheets, pillowcases and duvet cover. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Sunshine was flowing like a golden waterfall into the bedroom but it was the noise of scaffolds dismantling a chimney pack across the road that had wakened me. The hammering and clanging of steel did not keep me from turning over in my cosy cocoon and disappearing once more into slumber. It was after 10 am when I finally arrived back in the land of the living, feeling good, if a little wobbly. Must get myself out.
As a boy, I suppose I lived in my own little world, I was not really interested in what gown-ups were saying around the table, so my sessions with my older brother has been a real eye-opener.
When the long school holidays came along we, or at least we that were still at school, would be hived out to stay with aunts and uncles or in my case my grandmother, on my father’s side.
When first I was shipped off to gran’s she stayed in the ‘Happy-land’ a collection of miners rows that backed onto the old shunting yard. The rails and sleepers had been lifted but because it was mostly covered in hardcore it would have taken a great deal of effort and sweat to turn it into anything resembling an allotment.
My gran run a shop from her kitchen, it was not uncommon for a child to turn up at the door, sent there by their mother,
“Mum wants to know if she could have two Woodbine and a couple of slices of bread?”
Whoever had sent the child knew perfectly well that her man would not go down the pit the next day unless he had a Woodbine before he went down, and a Woodbine for when he surfaced again. His wife would make sure he had them or the wage packet would be light at the end of the week, and it would be her housekeeping money that would be short.
The two slices of bread was optional, the men would go down the pit without their peece (a Scottish sandwich that would be carried with you to work) but not without their Woodbine.
Gran would hand over the goods and enter them in her little black book.
My uncle John was a cripple and walked, rather awkwardly with two sticks, when a boy he had suffered an injury to his foot, it never healed and finally turned to gangrene, the leg would have to come off below the knee, granddad would not hear of it.
It was many years later when dad returned from a visit to see his father that he told me, with an almost shocked expression, that when he and the old man had been sitting opposite one another across the fire, his father suddenly burst out crying,
“I have never seen my father cry before” he told me, “I did not know what to do, I just sat in silence.
Granddad to my father was always the strong oak beam that held up the roof, he went down the pit at fourteen years of age. Came through the Great War without a scratch, and straight down the pit once more, never missing a day. He was seventy years old before the NCB (National Coal Board) discovered he should have been pensioned off five years earlier. Grandad took it badly when they said he would have to leave. The locals organised a retirement party for him, and there he would be presented with a trophy, from the Mayor, and the press would be there to record the occasion for prosperity. Grandad never turned up, the committee, the Mayor, and the press had to go round to Minto Street and present the trophy there, and get their story and pictures.
I remember reading in the local paper about Jimmy Hamilton, starting down the pit at 14 and working there until he was 70. Mum always said it was his stubbornness that brought him through the depression and Great War.
Dad went on, “Then in a quiet voice, choking back his tears, the old man said,”
“Why didn’t I not let them take John’s leg he would have had some sort of life, I committed him to a life of pain and misery?” Some mistakes we carry with us to the grave.
John served his time as a cobbler, a good trade to be in with all the pit boots needing mending. Not able to go gallivanting he would sit with his cobbler’s last over his thighs and mend boot by the fire.
Gran suggested that they rented the old shunting yard from the NCB and keep hens for eggs and food, John could still mend boots but it would be his job to look after the hens. Gran of course would find a road for the eggs and meat, well there was a war on.
By the time I was old enough to be hived out at grans during my school holiday, John had around 500 hens on the land. I would be set to work, cleaning out hen huts and coating them in coal tar, as protection against the weather and red spider. The coal tar I would carry the mile or so up from the gas works at the bottom of Station Road.
I loved it at grans, for not only was I away from “Bedlam Hall” you would not believe the constant noise there is in a house with five women in it. Not only that, I got a whole egg when I stayed with my gran.
There were two other uncles Uncle Alec, and Uncle Willie. They were seldom over at grans since they were both married, were pipers, in fact they were both Pipe Majors in their turn, in the Lochore and Glencraig Pipe band, so when not out with the band they were at work down the pit. I did not realise it at the time but Willie was a compulsive gambler.
My brother would tell how Willie worked harder than anyone down the pit and made good money. On his way home he would throw his unopened wage packet on the ground and on the toss of two old pennies, either waked home with a roll that would choke a horse or empty-handed. If he had won he would go to the dogs at Thornton. It matters little, whether the dog won or lost, he would show no emotion, money had no real value other than catalysis to gamble. Little wonder his wife left him.
Strange looking back how I was totally unaware of these things going on around me, then again, to me grown-up were alias, and sisters more so. I lived in my own little world, free from care and strife. Sadly it also made me a very poor student, if the teacher was boring me, I simply escaped into myself, I switched off. Hardly surprising therefore that when I left school, I was so poorly educated and had to start all over again in my own time.
Someone once asked me,
“What is the worst thing about growing old?”
I have no idea what answer I gave then, but I would say now,
“Remembering when you were young.”