SEVEN in the morning, and I am getting ready for school. From my bedroom window I see a front door opening an inch or two and a trembling hand gropes for the milk bottle left on the step. The same white hand swiftly replaces it with an empty. Then, routinely, the door closes quietly and that was almost all we ever saw of the lonely recluse who inhabited the house opposite ours
Once or twice as dusk settled we glimpsed her, in heavy ground-length black, walking slowly in the garden where the grass grew shoulder high, leaning heavily on a stick.
She never spoke. We learned nothing about her. Perhaps she did not hear us when we tried a a timid hello. I thought her a witch; mother said that was unkind, she had suffered great bereavement and I was to leave her be.
What a contrast to her neighbour, an Irishman and scrap metal merchant who got drunk every Saturday night and chased his screaming wife round the garden, brandishing one of those huge knives natives use to hack through jungles.
From the same elevation I could see an aerodrome, with windsocks and hangars; civil and military aircraft taking off and, occasionally, crash-landing. I watched Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus, and begged in vain for five bob to pay for a flight over town in his big blue flying machine. Still, it cost nothing to watch the tiny silvery Hawker fighters drop flour-bag bombs on an unseen target.
In those far-off days an ancient Avro 504K biplane, WW1 vintage, with a tail skid, would trail a half-mile banner which declared to all who lived in Balby that Bile Beans Would Keep Me Fit. Or was it Beechams’ Pills? Or Carter’s little liver pills?
We enjoyed air displays but were shocked when a low-wing monoplane without warning turned over close to spectators. It all happened in a flash and I rushed down to our shed to tell Dad who didn’t believe me.
Then there were the BA Swallows and yellow Tiger Moths whose pilots skimmed our chimneypots and waved to me. Little did I know that those young men would one day fly the Spitfires and Hurricanes on more urgent missions.
Handley Page Hampden bombers would hit poles and swing round them. One memorable moment I watched as a man parachuted to safety
Mr North’s cows grazed the airfield. They were a regular sight as they were driven from the aerodrome farm to market on a Saturday morning and thoroughbreds from the Belle Vue stables did their morning gallops across the airfield on misty mornings.
Across the road was a sewage works. What went on there was disguised outside by an elegant mansion, all light and space, a temple to sanitation and public health, with great iron gates and a cupola, a pleasure dome.
From somewhere under the dome came a deep and endless humming sound never explained. From beyond the manicured lawns emerged a heavy-laden lorry dripping, nay groaning, with smelly stuff, a sort of end product, to be spread over the driver’s market garden, no doubt. The sign on the tailgate read “there goes another load of Huddlestone’s Fresh vegetables.”
Mr Huddlestone was not concerned with the finer points of horticulture.
Despite being told to clear off we children congregated round a mysterious tunnel which opened out into fields. Where it started nobody knew; the sewage works presumably. But we could guess. The dare was how far were you prepared to go into its furthest recesses and shout Oi. This tunnel had a habit of discharging great gushing gobs of water without warning. We must have been barmy but every kid loved a challenge.
My teenage years were the years of the blackout, rationing, stay-at-home holidays. Midnights spent in pyjamas in the Anderson shelter listening to the droning bombers, waiting for the siren to sound the all clear. Queuing an hour for wine gums; feeding my six Rhode Island reds; gleaning the Armthorpe wheat fields for grain; picking blackberries at Branton; begging chewing gum from the Yankie airmen; taking cheap paperbacks to searchlight and ack-ack batteries.
We kids never did anything, or go anywhere, without our bicycles. Trackless bus fares were only a penny and you could go out of St Sepulchre Gate for miles, stay on the bus and come safely home again, but if you had a bike, no matter how huge the machine nor how small the rider, you rode it.
Wooden blocks on the pedals helped, but some desperate kids developed a curious system whereby they put one foot reaching through the frame to the far pedal. Don’t ask me how it was done
Our world lay in a circle, Bawtry, Thorne, Balby, Sprotbrough, Warmsworth, Horseshoe Tunnel, Tickhill being on the perimeter.
Some places were out of bounds but you went there all the same. My parents never knew that Trevor and I pedalled to Newington to swim in the Idle. We simply stripped off, shielding our little bits from the sun, then straight into a cool current where passing weeds stroked our legs. There were hundreds of mothers and small children there on a hot summer afternoon. It wasn’t half cold to start with.
My parents never knew we used to crawl into what appeared to be a secret passage into the limestone at Hexthorpe. The little liars at Hexthorpe told us “Goes for miles ... all the way to the dungeons in Conisbrough Castle.”
We would believe anything like that.
Neither did they know that friendly drivers of little tank engines in the marshalling yards south of Doncaster would give you a ride on the footplate providing you told nobody. No thrill was greater than this. Some kids boasted they had been into Doncaster centre and back. A generation later and “Can I cab yer, mester?” was still heard on the Marshgate sidings.
We were all train spotters. The steam trains were worth spotting those days.
We stood on Hexthorpe bridge knowing what time to expect the streamliners to come scorching through. We heard the distant whistle, like horns of Elfland, far off and faintly blowing and the excitement mounted.
Finally, one of Gresley’s Pacifics, loco and coaches made by our fathers, seemed to explode out of the bridge. The driver gave us a brief imperious wave. Such pride we had… such envy! I could weep at the remembrance. It was our great reward after days on the cattle dock recording the diddy little workhorses.
We were taught by scholarly masters at the grammar school. A classical education for us? Latin prayers before dinner? Latin school song?
What were we doing there, the sons of railwaymen, coalminers, shopkeeers, learning Latin and Greek, French and German, logarithms, algebra? These schoolmasters relied on pain, often viciously inflicted as an aid to teaching. “French through the seat of the pants,” as one put it. Using those methods today they would have ended their careers in jail.
Mother could not believe it when I told her we all swam naked. “Teachers an’ all, Mam!”
“George,did you hear that? And I’ve knitted him a costume in school colours.”
Then, fortunately, our later teenage years were enlivened by National Service. An unforgettable, occasionally lamentable, but never regrettable, experience.
A railway warrant took us from Doncaster to Corsham via Bath.
We joined a crowd of spotty-faced youths in grey flannels and sports jackets, each carrying a cheap suitcase.
Marched from the station to six weeks’ imprisonment on HMS Royal Arthur, the burning days of sun bronzed us and fried us on a concrete quarter deck. Bawled at by a fatherless petty officer; lugging a useless rifle, its spout stuffed with Vaseline; a tin mug for dipping into a dustbin full of greasy cocoa laced with bromide. All the fags you could smoke at a tanner for 20.
Twenty foreign-speaking stoker mechanics from Glasgow and one naive Yorkshireman... sloping and ordering arms and doing royal salutes in our navy and whites.
We joined his Majesty’s Home Fleet knowing nothing and two years later, having seen the other half, in all its raw vulgarity, came out randy as the proverbial butcher’s bulldog with a taste for Old Jamaica, and thinking we knew everything.
There were unforgettable years in St George’s choir. Yet during all my teenage years, in church and school, at home or at play, we boys never discussed Jesus, the Christ. Was he human or divine? His virgin birth, death hammered onto a cross, resurrection, ascension, heaven.
These were the greatest mysteries. And we never spoke a word about them.