In the small two-street enclave of Cowpen where I grew up, my friends and I got to know by name virtually all the adults who lived there. It didn’t take us long to suss out which housewives paid the best rates for errand-running, and when and where wedding scrambles were to take place. Our little syndicate of street cubs knew not to go carol singing at old Mrs W’s, as she was stone deaf, that we’d be chased away if we played football outside ‘misery-guts’ Barton’s door, and to steer clear of the Ramsays’ when playing knock-door-ginger, as the dad was a wild beast with a furious temper.
One of the scarier characters from my childhood was old Fraser, who lived at the top of my street. He had a shed at the bottom of the back lane in which he kept his bicycle and assorted tools. He was quite a surly man, and we would always stop whatever game we were playing to let him pass on his way to the shed. He had little time for children, and I was rather afraid of him.
Fraser had a crude NO PARKING sign in the bedroom window of his ground floor flat. He didn’t own a car himself, so I assume this sign was just his way of showing the world he was a busybody, and not to be messed with. For some reason I also remember him stopping on his way to his shed once to show us that he could still touch his toes at his age, and he challenged us to do the same (he caught me bending my knees, so I failed).
My friends and I had rescued a battered old pedal car from the rubbish and, with a toy machine gun fitted to the back, this became an armoured vehicle. An artistic member of our gang made the transition more believable by daubing military symbols onto the bodywork with white paint. Our brush wizard made the unfortunate choice of painting on symbols that had been adopted by the enemy during World War II.
I don’t know if old Fraser had fought in the War, or if he’d lost close relatives in that almighty ruckus, but when he saw the car in its new livery, he blew a gasket, ranting about murderers and threatening to tell our parents. We had no idea at that young age of the offensive nature of these symbols. We had seen them all over war films on TV and in our blissfully politics-free minds they just looked cool. A few days later the bin men took the car away.
My strongest memory of old Fraser though is one of a dirty trick and child exploitation. I was five or six at the time.
While hanging about alone at the gable end of our terraced street, I watched Fraser cycle to his shed on the other side of the road. He whistled a tune as he pulled a bunch of keys from his pocket, and he glanced over at me. After the old man had opened the shed and put away his bicycle, I was stricken with butterflies in the stomach when he beckoned me over. Rather nervously, I walked across the road to see what he wanted. Standing astride a fairly large puddle on the road right outside his shed, he plunged his hand into its depths and pulled out a small square grating.
“I’ve dropped half a dollar down there,” he said, “if you can find it, you can keep it.” He disappeared into the shed and returned moments later with a large ladle, which he handed to me.
I had no idea what ‘half a dollar’ was, but I was sure that I’d be able to buy chocolate with it. I got on my knees and lowered the ladle into the black water. I scraped it along the bottom, and pulled up a dirty sludge of water, gravel and mud, which I dumped on the kerb. Old Fraser saw this, and he fetched a galvanized pail for me to put the sludge into.
I toiled hard, eagerly looking out for the faintest glint in the mud. Eventually though, after many ladels, the puddle drained away and there was only a small pool left at the bottom. Fraser took the ladle from me and picked up the pail.
“It must have been washed away,” he said, and he returned to his shed. I went home with nothing more to show for my efforts than a wet sleeve.
At that age I was, like many children, trusting of adults, even those I was afraid of. As I got older, and childhood innocence was replaced by hard cynicism, I realised that there never had been a coin down that muddy sinkhole, and old Fraser had simply used me to drain the puddle from outside his shed. He could have at least given me a tanner for my labour.