The first time I had an inkling that I lived in a foreign country was on a Scout trip to Derbyshire. Walking into a village shop and asking for 2oz. of midget gems, I was greeted by a jovial, middle-aged dumpling whose patronising laughter declared, ‘You’re from Potato Land’. I didn’t know what to say to the woman. I imagined myself as Mr. Potato Head with huge plastic ears and a plastic bowler hat. My identity had been reduced to a vast acreage of starch.
Mind you, she had a point. Reclaimed using a system of pumps and drains, much of Lincolnshire is a prairie of ploughed fields and big skies populated by telegraph poles, clumps of cow parsley and blue plastic fertiliser bags. Consequently, you have to be mightily resilient to live there.
What follows are ramblings in and about my early years in Lincolnshire, particularly the flat bit; ramblings influenced by my grandad and his fellow flat-caps who competed to impress me with stories of drinking hot pig’s blood straight from the bucket and who derived great pleasure in describing the magical properties of chicken shit and bull sperm in promoting facial hair on smooth-faced adolescents.
Tall tales, then, from a flat land.
The Boggart and a Bag of Nails
In the days before bungalows started to gobble up the landscape and leylandii palisades had been erected to defend the garden plots of the upwardly mobile, there were plenty of trees to go around. Certainly, in our parish there were. We didn’t care who owned them; presumably faceless farmers or the local council. Whatever the case, since they were on our patch, we claimed the right to climb them.
Skirbeck parish was on the edge of Boston and the houses on our road soon thinned out, giving way to an inviting hotchpotch of sizeable allotments and small fields of pasture and crops. Each was bounded by a hedgerow of hawthorn or blackthorn, interlaced at intervals with elder and hazel. Fiercely impenetrable, these barriers occasionally competed with rows of horse chestnut trees or submitted to an oasis of ash or beech trees at the corners of fields. Oak trees, on the other hand, proudly announced their superiority, growing in solitary majesty by the verge-side or in the middle of a paddock where their branches provided a twilight resting place for the cattle who gathered for an evening’s rumination beneath them.
On the Monday of Whit half-term, 1962, it was decided that we should systematically climb each tree. Or, to be more accurate, it was announced at 9.35 at a gang meeting in next door’s garage. Eddie (a.k.a. Spinach), our leader, in his final year of primary school, had issued one of his diktats. No one had dared to demur. We sat on tea-chests and nodded in vigorous agreement.
Gang membership depended on two rules.
Rule No 1: You were never late to a meeting.
Rule No 2: You agreed with whatever Eddie had decided.
Rule No 1 had only ever been broken once. Chris (Spinach Juice), Eddie’s younger brother, believing that familial ties could protect him from a charge of tardiness, had surrendered to his cravings for a third bowl of Shredded Wheat. Still wiping the milk from his chin, he had casually sauntered into the garage as Eddie was outlining his latest plan for an attack on our rival’s newly constructed headquarters. He entered to a stony silence. Titch, a blonde-haired lad from down the Avenue, gulped and lowered his head to examine the holes in his jumper cuffs. I looked at Chris as he sat down and then at Eddie who was standing in front of the ‘Danger Roadworks’ triangle, recently pinched from the trench opposite the crew yard and which signalled that our meeting was formally in session. Titch nervously giggled then immediately coughed to cover it up.
Minutes later, Chris was staked out on the front lawn. Bare-chested, he had been daubed with Golden Syrup and had to endure an hour’s exposure to the mid-morning sun and the threat from sugar loving insects, ants and wasps in particular. We each had to spend ten minutes on guard duty. When it came to my turn, I sat on the front step, hardly daring to breathe. I rested my chin on my knees, determined to remain silent. Fortunately, Chris’s crucified body had been tied down so that it faced the road. I could see the top of his head and his heaving chest as it thrashed from side to side.
‘I know it’s you, Nuts and Bolts. Go and get my mum, quick.’
He sounded as if he was gargling. It was clear that he had been crying.
‘Nuts and Bolts, I won’t say it was you. Just get my mum.’
I looked down and flicked at the laces on my shoes.
‘I’m gonna sue that bastard. This is torture. Please, just untie me. We can hide in your house.’
I scraped at the toe of my right shoe with my finger nail. Chris tried to throw his head back so that he could see me.
‘Look, bloody come and untie me. I’m gonna smack yer one if yer don’t.
Dry-mouthed, all I could summon up was a croak.
‘Yes, yer can. He can be done for this. It’s torture. JUST… YOU’RE A BASTARD. ALL OF YOU ARE BASTARDS.’
I was relieved by Titch.
‘Sit there and cover up your ears,’ I whispered, as he shuffled next to me.
At the end of the hour, we all gathered in a circle around the figure on the lawn. Totally humiliated, Chris was sobbing hysterically. Dried white spit had gathered at the corners of his mouth and small balloons of snot inflated from his nose with each juddering release of breath.
Eddie’s face was fixed in an icy stare. His words were clipped. I dashed to Chris’s left foot, untied the knot, then quickly stepped back into a rose bush at the side of the front path. Chris sat up slowly, rubbing at his wrists. We all waited for the explosion. Springing to his feet, he looked around him in a wild stare then launched himself at his brother in an uncontrollable rage.
‘YOU BLOODY BASTARD.’
A froth of spit flew from his mouth as he pummelled the air in front of him. At first, Eddie glanced the blows away with his forearms, but as it became apparent that Chris had abandoned all reason and was intent upon murderous revenge, he casually stepped back and straight-armed a punch at the deranged and howling banshee in front of him. I watched in horror as the blood from Chris’s lip splashed across his cheeks. Instantly stunned, he collapsed to his knees. Like a drug addict, he moaned softly, then slowly keeled over onto the lawn where he lay, immobile, for the next thirty seconds.
‘He’s not dead, is he?’
‘Course not. He’ll come round.’
I felt sick. My legs were still trembling as I helped Chris to his feet. He was like a punch-drunk boxer, slurring his speech as we dragged him past the kitchen window.
‘Wash happen? Heh, who shtole my sherrt?’
By the time we arrived at the back door, we had concocted a thinly credible story involving an unfortunate collision between Chris and the gate post. Justifying his half-naked appearance and syrup smothered chest was going to prove more difficult. Chris’s mum responded with her usual display of stoicism, founded on endless encounters with the mangled body parts of her sons.
‘Oh, Chris, what is it this time?’
‘He ran into the garden gate. We was having a game of tig.’
‘Yeah, that’s right.’
We hung about in the passage next to the coal house, peering through the door as Chris flopped onto a dining room chair. His mum ran a flannel under the cold tap.
‘We shall have to get you cleaned up.’
She dabbed carefully at his lip.
‘Why on earth were yer running about with no shirt on? And what’s this all over yer chest? It’s all sticky.’
‘Itsh shirrup. Shpinish did it. He shtayked me out. He wash the one who did shish.’
‘Eddie, what’s been going on?’
‘It was part of the game, mum.’
Eddie stepped forward, staring over his mum’s shoulder at Chris. He shook a clenched fist then quickly splayed his fingers against his thigh as his mum turned towards him.
‘Have you been picking on him again?’
‘The one who was It had to take their shirt off.’
‘How do you explain this, then? It looks like Golden Syrup.’
‘That was part of the game as well.’
‘It was my idea, Mrs Harper.’
We all looked at Titch.
‘You see, we had to try and stick things on Chris without getting caught.’
‘Leaves and cigarette cards. Stuff like that.’
‘Well, I think you’re all as mad as each other.’
Eddie winked at Titch whose face reddened with a blush of embarrassed pride.
‘Time for all of you to get out of the way. I think Chris needs to spend some time in bed. I knew I shouldn’t have started on those net curtains today. Come on, off you go.’
To Chris’s credit, he turned up at the next gang meeting on the following morning. The threat of further violence had convinced him that it was pointless in seeking retributive justice, especially since he had to sleep in the same bedroom as his brother. With a fatalistic shake of his head, he had carefully munched his way through his breakfast of Shredded Wheat – only two bowls this time – accepting that life was unfair to an eight-year old and suffering inevitable.
We all smiled at him as he took his place in the garage, trying not to stare too obviously at his upper lip. Purple and swollen, it gave his mouth a permanent pout as if he had recently undergone a drastic course of collagen injections.
Chris’s arrival also demonstrated the power of Rule No 2. Failure to adhere to this strict rule (unwavering loyalty to Eddie and his decisions) could mean immediate expulsion from the gang which was tantamount to social suicide. No one, so far, had been foolish enough to question Eddie’s leadership. The very thought of being cast out as an unperson made me shudder and had led to nightmares from which I awoke in a feverish sweat.
Fear of Eddie kept us in our place. Yet we also knew that he would repay our loyalty in his fierce protection of every one of us. After all, wasn’t it Eddie who had fought on single-handedly, despite a broken collar bone, in one of last year’s epic battles with our main rivals, the Messenger gang?
So, this half-term it was going to be tree-climbing.
‘How many are there?’
‘Twenty-three. I’ve drawn a map and marked them on.’
He pulled away a sheet from a portrait-sized square of hardboard. It had been painted white then drawn on in pencil. We could see the squares of houses, the lines of field boundaries and the giant X of each tree.
‘Aren’t some of them trees impossible? I mean, the one in the far corner of Cater’s field, that sycamore. The lowest branch is about ten foot off the ground. There’s nothing to grab on to.’
‘Good question, Trev. But not to worry. That’s where these come in handy.’
Eddie tugged at one of the drawers in his dad’s work bench and pulled out a club-hammer and a brown canvas bag.
‘Six-inch nails. With these buggers yer can climb any tree.’
The first X’s on his map were a couple of horse-chestnut trees which grew beside the ditch in the field at the back of the Boggart’s house. These had never been attempted before. We had been too afraid.
To be continued.