Call me selfish, but being the recipient of a clean, dry nappy and long, warm bottles of milk was what it was all about. My earliest memories were of torturous long waits for those well-appreciated bottles which, once they arrived, were gulped with fervor in long, sweaty bursts, punctuated by short intervals essential for the intake of air.
I instantly recognized my provider as mum…never dad. I cried long and hard for attention and often woke the next day knowing I’d been unsuccessful.
I recall gazing at the maze pattern frill around the hood of my perambulatory prison and soon recognized the various smells as I lay defenseless and devoid of stimulation had it not been for the buzzing bluebottles orbiting the hanging, sticky fly-catching strips that twirled and twisted from the yellowing ceiling.
I progressed from my pram to the heavily covered bed that accommodated us like sardines in a tin. The air was often stale and breathing easily seemed to be a problem for me as I often found relief by pushing my tiny wet finger as far up my nostril as possible. It never occurred to me simply to open my mouth.
My bedroom was also my prison where I waited many long hours before being allowed into the friendlier, livelier and more stimulating living room. Sunday was a particularly long wait while the only real meal of the week was prepared. Our ‘mam’ could certainly cook when funds made it possible.
I don’t recall being outdoors in the pram, although I do remember it being bumped as it progressed down the 30 or so spiralling concrete steps enclosed within a tower at each end of the building, before entering the brightness of the inner Garth area.
I hated the smell of the concrete steps which, with pride born of duty, were kept scrupulously clean by shawl cladded, metal pail carrying women; twisting and wringing grey ‘floor clouts’ in their lobster coloured and weathered hands as they knelt or bent to the task at hand.
I remember with pride the first day I was able to climb these stairs more than one at a time and no longer having both feet on one step before moving onto the next; but still the combined smell of disinfectant and ashes bound for the ‘shute’ was a smell most unpleasant to me.
As I grew older, they became a source of embarrassment as the practice of cleaning them had long been abandoned and I contemplated bringing ‘outside’ friends home. I would invariably run up them as fast as I could and can remember the echo of my footsteps bouncing off the walls in the dank and dusty atmosphere before bursting into the fresh air of the main veranda that served about fifteen homes.
I later imagined what I could do to beautify them if money was no object...say £100, but never came to an idea that would improve their appeal. At least we were on the first veranda and not the top. There was always someone worse off than us.
Anyway, I’m moving on too quickly. No such thoughts accompanied me as I bumped down those concrete steps with my Mam and pram.
I remember well the layout of 81 St Patrick’s Garth.
The living room was situated immediately to the right as I left the bedroom. On entering there was a pantry to the left with the scullery next to it. Straight ahead was the open fire with an integral oven to the right which had a diamond two-tone green shaped tiled door with a swivel lock handle. The left hand side of the fire had a hot plate. The fire itself was the heart of the home. It was easily lit and once the shovel had been placed in position with a two-fold sheet of newspaper covering it, it was soon roaring. Two armchairs flanked the fire. I can’t recall what was in the alcove to the right other than a photograph of Elizabeth hanging from the picture rail, but the alcove to the left housed a beaureau which in turn housed ‘Suzie’. The dropdown of the beaureau served as a temporary bed for me when I had measles or scarlet fever or something of that nature. Adjacent to the alcove and opposite the pantry and scullery were the windows encased in metal along with the glass paneled doors leading to the independent veranda. I loved the sun streaming through these doors to fill the room with light.
To the right of the glass door was the redifusion box with its ½ dozen selections for radio. The wall adjacent and opposite the fireplace accomodated the plaster plaques of flying geese and the square dining table rested against it. We were one floor up and the view from that rarely used veranda was of Joshua Wilson’s factory with the Sweet factory to the right. To the left was the slaughter house, the Black Cat pub and the quayside…soon to become my preferred playground.
The slaughter house was a magical place to be…especially when a bull was being delivered for slaughter. The big lorries would have these gigantic wooden ramps that would unhinge from the back with long metal ring-pull rods. The bulls always sensed they were going to be slaughtered as they slid awkwardly and wide eyed down the ramp. We would cower behind the flimsy barrier and often ran for our lives down the narrow steep cobbled alleyway once we saw the nostrils flare, eye contact made and hooves clattering wildly and slip on the hard cobbles at the foot of the ramp.
Sheep weren’t that scary, but it was fascinating to watch from the open doorway as they were dragged onto the grid to have their throats slit. We were so frightened of the slaughter man. I later found out that he lived in the same block of flats as Celia Agnew and Iwas terrified passing his door in case he opened it and dragged me in for slaughter.
I once scaled the brick holding pen of the slaughter house and dropped inside the empty arena. I was stunned with fear having realized I couldn’t get out again. Fortunately I found some wood to give me something to use as a lift, but during this time the hair on the back of my neck was on end thinking a bull or the slaughter man would enter and kill me.
A bull did escape once. I pelted down that alleyway almost tripping and took refuge in ‘Snowballs’, a little grocers at the bottom to the right which I burst into with legs quivering. The shopkeeper had a hunch back and wore a brown overall, and he let me stay a while (the shop is still there). When I thought it was clear, I ventured out but was still terrified and unsure which direction to go. I eventually found my way to the Church yard and dropped down from the surrounding wall only to have the bull suddenly appear behind me. A man struck the head of the bull as it closed in on me and it changed direction, but it was unimaginably horrible to have the snort of the bull so close to me. We later learned that it found refuge under a cart or wagon and was shot with a dart to sedate it before eventually being destroyed.
There was a bombed out area near Celia Agnews place and when it filled with water we floated sheets of corrugated iron and timber and jumped on to paddle across while waiting for Dad. We were never allowed to go in with him. We had to play outside rain or shine for a few hours. Draw your own conclusions.
A very fond and private memory was of sliding down two huge angled concrete slabs and through a slit into the part-demolished massive interior of the Gaumont Cinema. I stood alone facing the stage and screen area and looked around at the empty dusty seats. I felt like I'd discovered a magical place hidden for centuries. On the way home I found a sailor's hat.
The stone triangle area near the quay where we begged passing foreign sailors for money still stands.
I can't believe how I'm rambling on. The memories are just flooding out.
2010...the car is two-thirds packed and ready to go. Watching 'Flash Forward' now.