Memory waits in ambush

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It takes me a good hour to walk around ‘The Head’. That is if I walk briskly. If I walk properly, it takes two or three hours, possibly four. There is always something to look at or somebody to talk to. I don’t burn off any calories. It took me long enough to put on a little bit of weight. It keeps me warm– as do the memories. Many years ago, about 1977 (open to correction) I saw the martello tower, standing isolated. The holiday camp was gone. It was as if it had folded up and vanished. The martello tower looked as it should, a sentinel, solid as the rocks around it— back to normal. It is a failing of age that you expect things to get back to normal. I am still waiting for the traffic to get back to normal, two dogs, Miss Hurley’s cart, in which she transported buttermilk, a group of sepia-coloured cyclists leaning on their bikes and a bus. ‘Is the bus in?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Who was on it?’

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Now, that’s normal; the Tower Tea Rooms, the Tower Theatre and Percy Clifton’s field, where you can still pick mushrooms, if you get there early enough. You might be allowed go up from the strand, with two pennies in your fist, to get an ice cream at the shop. There were slot machines up there too, but these were off limits. There was a juke box, where older boys and girls gathered, looking nonchalant and unimpressed, sometimes smoking and taking in the scene; off limits too. Jazz! I read recently that the Irish Farmers’ Association staged a mass protest march, as they have often done, to protest against —Jazz! That was in 1947 or 48, when the Shannon was spreading all over the midlands and crops were rotting in the fields. Britain and Europe were starving under a rationing regime, but first things first. Get rid of that oul’ jazz. What Ireland needed was a Marshall Plan to stamp out jazz, get the country back on its feet, get the farmers out on the roads, protesting against jazz. Daft. The boys and girls in the juke box arcade were not protesting.

Neither did I, but first I needed an ice cream. Two pennies bought a respectable wafer, cut from the block, or pressed into a hand-held mould with two flaps, that sprang open at the touch. It looked like a gigantic safety razor, with a wafer inserted instead of a blade. Fourpence bought as much as any child could ever desire. Choc ices in foil, with no sticks–too cold to handle.  Eightpence bought Lucullan luxury, decadence, gluttony, depravity, everything we longed for. To hell with rationing. Give it a lash. Eightpence didn’t come around too often.

I went to the theatre once, that I can remember: The Miracle of Fatima. It was important to see it because the world was due to end in 1950, after the Pope revealed the Third Secret of Fatima. I can’t recall if I ever heard the first two. What’s the point of having a secret if you can’t tell everyone? It was important to go to the play in order to get my soul ready for Armageddon, the Second Coming, the General Judgement and the End of Days. There was a reasonable chance of ice cream or lemonade at the interval and moreover, you were allowed go out in the dark, after your tea. Most importantly, my older sister had a speaking part, a one-liner: ‘The sun is falling!’  She was very good. Thunder rumbled and  lights flashed. I repented of my sins on the spot. The boy, Francesco, lay slumbering on a bank of moss and flowers. A group of shepherds found him and regarded him in awe. In drama it is important to prrroject the voice. One of the shepherds told me in later years, about his moment of stardom. He was supposed to say: ‘Behold, he is asleep.’  Holy people always say Behold. Overcome by the solemnity of the occasion and the requirements of his trade, he spake unto the assembled multitude (Holy people always spake unto  the rest of us.) In ringing tones he declaimed, to the back of the hall: ‘Behold, he is a sheep.‘ Forty years on, he could laugh about it, but his stage career took a downward course. At least, the sky didn’t fall about our ears. If I heard him that night, it didn’t register with me. We were in a place of miracles anyway. Dan Brown would, no doubt, have a more sinister interpretation of his words.

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My sister took me for a walk around The Head. There were men digging in Clifton’s field. They were digging foundations. She told me that they were digging their graves and that the Germans were going to come and shoot them all so that they would fall into the graves. She must have been reading the papers, or perhaps she had seen newsreels in the cinema. I kept a wary eye on the men as we passed by. My brother climbed up The Girder, a diving structure at the Springboards. One of the men came down and told him to get down. He seemed a kindly man, despite the doom-laden circumstances of his employment.  A holiday camp rose from the foundations. There was a high fence around it. The mushrooms were off limits. Thousands of holiday-makers came every summer to enjoy the delights of Skerries. The menu boasted ‘real eggs.’ You could have two eggs and one sausage or two sausages and one egg. Coming from bleak, post war Britain, they loved Red Island. They were invariably cheerful and spent their money in Skerries. They ate the best of Irish food, as the farmers had got over their obsession with Louis Armstrong and Big Bill Broonzy. They played pitch and putt on the mushroom field. There were bright borders of nasturtiums, with hawk-moths hovering over the blossoms. I wanted them to be humming birds. There was music on loudspeakers, all day long: Hear My Song, Violetta (a gut-buster from Joseph Locke); She Wears Red Feathers and a Hooly Hooly Skirt (too hot to handle); There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner (a cautionary tale)… all evidence of depravity, but we enjoyed it from outside the fence. It seemed that the sun always shone on Red Island.

Then cheap package holidays made everyone a jet-setter. The holiday camp tottered and fell. It was cleared away. I walked over to have a look. There was something strange. I was five years old again. The tower was back to normal. I thought of tuppenny wafers and fourpenny ones. How did ‘fourpenny one’ become synonymous with a clout in the ear? I was mugged by memories. I stopped and had a good look around. There was a car park on the tennis court. The walk took me a couple of hours. Maybe I went to look for mushrooms. I still get them there, early in the morning, before gulls and crows have a go at them. They can make a tasty breakfast after a swim.

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A friend salvaged some planks from the demolition of the holiday camp. He gave me two, for old time’s sake. I made shelves. They looked hideous.  The planks warped and all the stuff fell off. Now I go to Ikea. Everything fits. It’s a miracle!  The third secret..? Read the bloody instructions.

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Carnival time. Bene merenti.

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Let me assure you that there are pink elephants under those tarpaulins. I have seen them. I have ridden upon them. They fly through the sky. They are not creatures of a heightened imagination or seasonal beverages. At some point in their orbit a gear slips and they go kerrrchunnkk  and all the elephants shudder. So do the passengers. My little grandson was alarmed. So was I. I hung onto him until the slipped gear became a familiar feature of the ride. ‘Do you want another go?’ I asked him. He shook his head.

We once sat in an aeroplane in Buenos Aires, waiting for departure. We waited and waited. There were noises off. Kerrrchunnkk. There followed some hammering and then some bashing. A slight technical problem was mentioned. ‘We will be departing very soon.’  That much was true. We departed back through immigration and on to a hotel. We watched some dismal Spanish language game shows and tried some restorative alcohol. We found Vatican Television. Big in Argentina at the time, probably mega-big nowadays. It explained the symbolic significance of the jewels in the various papal crowns and the different shapes of the papal hats. A papal beretta can signify a major shift in the Church’s attitude to social issues. You didn’t know that. Neither did I. Neither did the founder, a barefoot carpenter from Gallilee, Who never saw a Gucci shoe in all His life. A papal biretta is a different matter altogether. Think of the Vatican bank and poor Calvi dangling under Blackfriars bridge.

More refreshments were required to fend off dark thoughts. Pink elephants began to circle on the ceiling. Blackfriars! They have a higher body count than any other organisation in the mediaeval church, what with crusades and heretic burnings. It’s all a conspiracy. Send for Dan Brown. There was some bashing at the door. The Inquisitors? A voice cried out in the darkness: ‘Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus under-carriage,’ or words to that effect. We were consigned, not to the dungeons of the Inquisition, but worse, we were condemned to check-in and security for a second time. There was weeping and a lot of teeth gnashing but the under-carriage stayed on. Ah, the glamour of jet-setting.

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I knew glamour in my early days. I  knew Tofts’ carnival when it was big, Man. Bigger than the glum remnant that now occupies the site. Okay, it’s winter. Who doesn’t look a bit glum in winter? Everything was big, to a five year old. There were chair-o-planes as high as the clouds. There were swing boats, where both occupants pulled on a rope and screamed as the boat went higher and higher, threatening to catapult you up and away, out over the entire fairground. There was a carousel with horses that went around and around and up and down, in time to the music. There were dodgems, with sparks flashing from the pole overhead. There was a lot of screaming from the girls and a lot of hair oil on the nonchalant boys who drove like mad men, with one hand on the wheel and one arm protectively around the girlfriend’s shoulder. My sister minded me well. I was old enough for slides and the mini-roundabout with the cars, trains and motorbikes. No matter how much you turned the wheel or revved the throttles, it made no difference.  I vowed that as soon as I was old enough for hair oil and girls, I would be a daredevil on the dodgems. I look forward to that.

There were prizes for shooting at targets, but I was too low to take part. The big boys strutted and blazed away. I know that they were trying to impress my sister. Maybe they did. There was stuff going on there that was above my head…again. The centre of my desires was the Wheel of Fortune, with its bank of treasures. You could pick your own prize. There were dolls and crockery, teddy bears and sets of glasses, mirrors and knick-knacks, all the riches of the Orient.  One spin of the wheel could satisfy the dreams of avarice. I know that avarice is a sin, but I coveted the pair of china lions. I wanted them with a passion. Ming dynasty, Han dynasty, Hector Grey dynasty, It didn’t matter. I didn’t want them as an investment in Chinese artefacts. I didn’t know that the resurgent Chinese, along with buying the world, would probably have paid double figures for them in the twenty first century. I just wanted them because they were shiny. I wanted to bring them home as trophies, and look at them on the mantlepiece, testament to my incredible gambling skill.

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Una Fox won them. She bore them away in delight. Although my dream was shattered, I was quite pleased for her. I owed her. She put them in the fanlight over her door, flanking a stuffed pheasant. They crouched there for sixty five years, guarding that pheasant. I looked at them every time I passed. Sometimes the door got a new coat of paint. In summer it wore a striped canvas screen, like a vertical deckchair. But the lions never changed.

My landlord, many years ago, asked me if there was some major industry in Skerries that used large quantities of dark red and dark green paint. ‘Why?’ I queried. ‘Well,’ he replied,’every house in Skerries has either a dark red or a dark green door. I just wondered if people were stealing it.’ I was affronted at this slur on the good people of Skerries. ‘No offence,’ he went on,’ but I lived in South Shields, near a naval dockyard and every house in the town was painted battleship grey.’  Bloody cheek!

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There was another limestone slab parallel to the one in the photograph. There  were a couple of inches between them, forming a gully and a ramp. My sister wasn’t minding me very well on the day I stuck my foot in the gully. I was looking up at the, as yet unattended, pheasant. (I suspect those hair-oil boys again.) I screamed. I was trapped forever, outside Foxs’ butcher shop. She pulled and tugged, but it was no use. I heard the butcher sharpening his knife. Knives speak their name in Irish, scian, scian, scian.  I was terrified. So was she. How was she to explain that she had taken 100% of of me out for a walk and had come back with a mini Long John Silver? Scian, scian, scian. Una heard the commotion. She came out, uttering soothing words. She assessed the situation, then unbuckled my sandal and slipped my foot out, intact. Brilliant! Great God Almighty! Free at last! I owed her. I didn’t begrudge the lions. Her sister, Pat, received an honour from the Pope, for long years of service to church music. It was in a case, embossed with the keys of Saint Peter. Bene merenti. Fair play to both sisters.

The second slab has been removed by road menders, maybe in the interests of safety. I still retain a talent for putting my foot in it, nonetheless. Una’s heraldic fanlight is empty…. no lions couchant with pheasant rampant. The shopfront is listed. It stays as it always was. It has a nice coat of dark red paint. Hmmm! I wonder…..