Not long before I entered my teenage years my family and I were rehoused from a slummy terraced flat into a superb brand new three-bedroom house on a nearby estate. We said goodbye to damp walls and a busy mousetrap, and hello to central heating and a Parkray fire. Happy days.
Many of our neighbours were also rehoused and so we didn’t face the problem of making new friends. We soon settled into our new homes, and we all enjoyed life on a modern housing estate. One of the high points of the week for us schoolkids came on Saturday night, when most parents would take off to the pub. This left us in the care of less strict guardians, like sisters, grandmas or, for some kids, no-one. We could get away with a lot more under these relaxed conditions and we were allowed to stay out later.
While we did rather timid pre-teen stuff, one older youth on the estate, whom I shall call Eddie, got his kicks in a way that threatened both his safety and liberty. This juvenile delinquent would sneak the keys to his dad’s Ford Escort van from the house, and drive it around the estate while his parents were out at the pub. My friends and I watched in envy and excitement as he showed off and gave rides to his mates.
One Saturday night he took his friend, Mick, for a spin in the van. This particular night, Mick had with him a red-haired ventriloquist’s dummy in a checked suit. He called the dummy Nobby, and we all had a go at working it.
Eddie and Mick got in the van and we gathered to watch as the former started the engine. There was a lot of revving and a crunch of gears as Eddie found reverse and the van slowly pulled away. He performed a five-point turn and drove, without headlights, up the street. He turned left at the junction and disappeared onto the main road of the estate. With the car thieves now out of sight, we returned to playing keepy-up by the light of street lamps.
Presently, the van came back down the street with its headlights now on. Eddie parked it in the spot from where he had taken it, and he and Mick stayed inside the van to share a cigarette. They wound down their windows and we clustered round the van, eagerly asking where they had been and how fast they had gone.
After their smoke, Eddie decided to take the van for a second spin. He put it into reverse and moved off. We retired to the safety of a garden path as the unskilled driver mounted the kerb in his attempt to perform a three-point turn. As Eddie carefully inched the van backwards, a shock of red hair emerged from the passenger side window as the dummy sought to assist in the manouvre.
“Gack a git, gack a git,” Nobby said, his voice interspersed with howls of laughter from the ventriloquist inside the van. We fell about laughing at this, but our hilarity ended abruptly when the back of the van on the driver’s side hit the wall with a crunch. The engine stopped and we saw that the steel bumper had buckled and bits of glass from the rear light lay on the pavement. Both human occupants got out to inspect the damage and we all ran off laughing.
Eddie collected the pieces of glass from the footpath, and he placed them on a wall. He carefully parked the van in its original position, and then took the keys into the house. When he came back out, he scattered the light glass onto the road at the rear of the van.
In those days, drink-driving did not carry the stigma it does today, and many people drove while under the influence of alcohol. Eddie hoped that his dad would put the damage down to a drunk driver turning in the street, and that the bits of broken glass would add credence to his theory.
The cunning plan worked, as Eddie’s dad suspected nothing. The experience put Eddie off any further motorised adventures, and Nobby was bribed to keep his mouth shut.