I lived with my brothers and parents in Beecher Street, which was in some state of dilapidation at the bottom end. Conditions were such that I remember the landlord coming one day to cold-chisel off the plaster in the tiny bedroom I shared with my elder brother because of damp in the wall. These conditions were not conducive to good health, but to my young mind the damp wall offered the means to cool down during hot summer nights. I remember pressing my bare legs against the peeling Yogi Bear wallpaper for relief.
When I was seven-years-old, the breakfast cereal Sugar Puffs ran a promotion in which a ghostly glow-in-the-dark plastic figure came free in each pack. These included a bat, a broomstick-riding witch, a ghostly suit of armour, a spook, a skull and crossbones, a grandfather clock, a startled cat and a ghostly woman in a long dress (I took this woman for a Miss Havisham type as a child, but, thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I see now that she is sporting a ruff, making her a Mary Queen of Scots figure.) To display this collection of effulgent effigies, the empty cereal box could be made into a creepy Haunted Manor set, complete with sweeping staircase and Gothic windows.
As far as I remember, we had the complete set. My mother assembled the display box and the figures were put into place. Then came a problem. We had already waited ages to collect the figures, now we would have to wait until nightfall before we could see them in their glowing glory. As everyone knows, children are not the most patient of animals, so an interim solution had to be found.
My mother stood the display on a shelf in the roomy cupboard that stood in the passage, beneath the stairs that led to the flat above. We peered in and I was immediately fascinated, and not a little unnerved, at the sight of these ghostly figures glowing in the darkness. I found ‘Miss Havisham’ most frightening, but this was possibly because she perfectly resembled an image I had formed in my mind of the ghostly apparition Ginny Green Eyes, a local phantom whose hauntings had been related to us by my dad.
When my mother had a clear-out of the cupboard one day, it was like the Generation Game conveyor belt to me, as she unearthed items I had never seen before: toys that had been my older brother’s, including a plastic squeaking clothes peg, a gas mask and my dad’s forage cap from his national service in the RAF.
One Boxing Day, when I still had faith in the big guy in the red suit, my dad put his coat in the cupboard and I spied within its darkened depths a box with a brightly coloured lid. When the opportunity arose, I sneaked a peek into the cupboard, and I found the box from the Airfix Motor Racing track we had received for Christmas, and which had been set up in the living room – by Santa himself, I presumed. Other boxes from our Christmas haul were there too. I tried to pictured Santa stuffing the boxes into the cupboard as he made his silent escape, but it didn’t feel right and the seeds of doubt as to his existence had been sown.
One time, my father had to attend a residential training course. This meant that my brothers and I could sleep in the ‘giant’ double bed in my parents’ room. The three of us sleeping in our parents’ bed was a novelty, to be taken full advantage of. We used it as a trampoline, held wrestling bouts on its great surface area, and generally larked about until my mother restored order, and we settled down for the night. She sat on the edge of the bed to tell a bedtime story to my younger brother, who was little more than a baby. My other brother and I were happy to listen in to the tale, albeit while kicking each other under the blankets.
As we began to drift off to our mother’s gentle voice, there came the sound of an abrupt snap, which halted the narration. This woke me up, and I opened my eyes to see my mother rising from the edge of the bed. She left the bedroom and walked into the passage outside, followed by two of her three ducklings.
She went into the cupboard under the stairs, and pulled out a mouse trap with a freshly killed victim. I got a good look at the corpse as she walked past on her way to the bin, and I noticed a dark beady eye looking at me. While my mother was away, my brother and I heard movement inside the cupboard. We hurried back to the safety of the bed and my mother returned, but the story would be interrupted a further two times that night by the snapping of the trap.
Looking back now on the sound of movement coming from the darkness of the cupboard, and the three mice that were caught in one night, I would say that our pest problems were approaching infestation levels. The cupboard under the stairs was clearly Mouse HQ, but the bedroom in which my elder brother and I slept was at the back of the flat, away from the scourge that inhabited the cupboard. Until that night, we were unaware of the seriousness of the situation.
Obviously, something had to be done, and we were eventually re-housed in a brand new three-bedroom semi on a nearby council estate. The good thing was that a sizeable chunk of our street had been condemned alongside our flat, so many of my friends moved into the same estate and we all stayed together. As far as I am aware, the mice were not re-housed.