Sunday, 18 December 2016


'Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow'

The secluded mining village pretty much remained as it always had. Change was slow and largely unwelcome. It was built just after World War II to provide homes for the colliery workers. Surrounding countryside made for an idyllic nursery, where youngsters could fully explore the wonders of boyhood. The swinging sixties, free-love, and pot-smoking hippies, had made little impact on the pragmatic and largely insular inhabitants of the village. It was a place a boy would hasten away from as soon as he was of an age, the alternative being a career in the coal-mine. Even that began to look tenuous as the sixties were replaced by the seventies, when glam-rock and disco provided the nation with the worst decade of music imaginable. Joel Phillips was born in the first month of the decade and often wondered if that was the problem he had, or one he inflicted.

Joel was not unique, many of the village boys having almost identical backgrounds, but the fates of the boys were to vary considerably. With his brother born nine years earlier, Joel's mother had become broody and finally the decision to have another child was made. Were they insane? In hindsight they would have to be. In a marked contrast of what was to come, Joel was brought into the world, not kicking and screaming, but chilled out, and smiling. Resisting the urge to slap the mother, the doctor instead slapped Joel's bum and he started to cry.
"What the hell was that for?" must have travelled through the mind of the howling infant.

Perhaps it was just a warning of things to come........

1. Freedom

Many adults take freedom for granted, until they feel their civil liberties have been denied. Yet these same adults deny their children a taste of this gift. This story will do little to allay the fears of nervous parents, but childhood spirit should be nurtured not stifled. There is little to compare to those first furtive steps into the great wide open. Prepare them, don't prevent them!

No longer was Joel a mere child, he was nine and a half years old! The strings of mother's apron had been severed and he was free to explore boyhood without restraint. He had been under the wing of no-nonsense, but nonetheless doting, grandparents for his first few years of school life. Now at nine and a half (those halves are so important) and the summer holidays here, Joel was finally trusted enough to look after himself during the daylight hours. Joel felt as if he had been set free and like a fledgling flapping its wings for the first time, he wanted to fly.

As with every morning, Joel raked the ashes from the fire-place and shovelled them into the empty coal scuttle. He carried the scuttle to the bottom of the garden with ease, and emptied the contents into the corner allocated for ash. The ash would later be spread around the boundaries where Joel's father grew vegetables, he said it was to keep the slugs away.

Joel stopped at the coal bunker on the way back and filled the scuttle with a fresh batch of coal. Next was the wood pile. It was stacked up with neatly chopped wood, each stick 6 x 1 x 1 inch in measure. Another one of Joel's chores was to split the logs and keep the kindling well-stocked. A couple of times Joel had depleted the reserves and found himself on a wintry morning, wearing just his pyjamas, chopping wood in sleet or snow. It was all a lesson, life is a lesson. Even had he been warned there was no substitute for learning the hard way, unpleasant as it may be. Splinters and a careless blow of the axe became less frequent with time.

Squeezing the kindling between the coal and the metal handle of the scuttle, Joel struggled to carry it back indoors. The scuttle filled with ash was light compared to the solid fuel it now contained. His legs were wide apart, the object dangling precariously between them as he huffed and puffed towards the fire-place. If a piece of coal was to fall from the scuttle onto the carpet, valuable time would be lost. Coal marked the carpet and had to be vacuumed before any remaining residue could be scrubbed off. Joel was in no mood to scrub the carpet today, it was the first day of the summer holidays and he was anxious to see his friends.

If it had been a weekday and his parents at work, Joel would have been tempted to leave the fire until later. He knew it wasn't an option today. Scrunching old newspaper pages into balls, he threw them into the empty hearth, taking care to make sure some paper poked through the grill for lighting. Joel put the wood over the paper, criss-crossing it to allow an air flow, then carefully placed coal on top by hand.

The fire had to be just right or it wouldn't light properly, and then it was a pain in the butt trying to get it going. Joel made his first fire at five years old, he was an expert now. Wiping his hands on his jeans Joel looked at the black smears and shrugged. It didn't matter. He was going out and was likely to come back covered from head to foot in mud and / or blood,. It was expected.

It is difficult to tell if Joel was accident prone of just reckless. Joel liked to think it was more a case of being adventurous. Taking the bread knife, Joel cut a thick slice from a loaf and scooped some of his grandmother's cherry jam onto it. Joel and his friends had picked the cherries and now he was reaping the rewards.
"Oww!!" Joel howled and looked at his mother quizzically.

The slap to the back of his head was out of the blue. It always hurt more than when he braced himself. Joel's mother looked pointedly at the jam-jar with the top off and the boy realised his crime. He screwed the lid on and put the jar back in the cupboard. Snatching up his crude sandwich Joel headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" his mother demanded.
"Out where?"
"I don't know yet"
"Who with?"
"Who with?" she repeated.
"Everyone! It's school holidays and it's Saturday"
"Be back no later than seven o clock"
"Eight-thirty" Joel ventured but he was pushing his luck.
"Okay eight" he conceded.
"Too late it's seven-thirty and if you say another word it will be back to seven"

Joel left muttering under his breath. He should have known better than push it too far. The streets looked somehow different this day as Joel walked hurriedly to the home of his friend Jamie. Brighter, more alive, and filled with prospects.

*  *  *  *  *

"He's still in bed sweetheart" Jamie's mother told Joel.
"Wake him up then!" was what Joel wanted to say.
"Okay I'll come back later" was what he actually said.

Joel trudged off. It was a pattern he would get used to. Most of his friends didn't have chores and could lie in bed as long as they wanted....... and most were given pocket-money! At least this year Joel could get a newspaper round, if he timed it right. With there being no secondary school in the small village, the older boys had to get a bus or train to the next town. It meant they didn't have time to deliver the papers before having to set off to school. Several times Joel had asked for a round, but they were all taken and it was a case of waiting until one of the older boys left. It probably wouldn't be until the end of summer though and Joel needed the money now. The ticket collectors were getting wise to Joel and his friends, making it harder to bunk the trains.

It was pointless asking for money at home, there just wasn't any. Joel remembered the tantrum he threw saying it was unfair how his friends were given pocket-money and he wasn't. The tantrum was more a moody, pouting, sulk. It was as demonstrative as Joel was allowed without a slap to the back of the head. Joel's father sat him down at the kitchen table one day and put his weekly wage in the middle. Joel's eyes were like saucers, he had never seen so much money. Seeing the look on his son's face Mr. Phillips rubbed his hands excitedly.
"Let's see what we have then" he said and began to peel notes off the top "Mortgage......"

Notes were taken for gas, electricity, water, food, etc. until just two were left. Joel's mother reached over and took one of them.
"This can go in the jar towards some new shoes for school"

Joel hated that jar. It was like putting forbidden fruit in front of a starving man and expecting him not to eat it. The savings jar was kept in a cupboard in the kitchen and usually had a healthy amount of notes and coins in it. Joel watched as his mother put the note in with the rest, and rubbed his butt as if remembering the pain it had caused him. On one occasion Joel had stolen a pound note from the jar thinking 'just one won't be missed'. He didn't realise his mother knew to the penny exactly how much was in the jar at any given time. The severity of the beating was testimony to that. Even then it was mild compared to the second occasion Joel's fingers became sticky.

Joel's parents had returned from a night out and thought he was asleep in bed. As was usual Joel had stayed downstairs long after his bed-time, watching television with the lights off. He turned the contrast down to darken the screen so it couldn't be seen lighting the room from outside. When Joel heard the car pull up he would turn the television off and run upstairs, jumping into bed just as the door opened. His parents always looked in on him but Joel pretended to be asleep.

On the fateful night, Joel had crept back downstairs after his parents had gone to bed. He put his hand in his father's jacket pocket and struck gold. There were lots of coins and Joel took a handful. After putting them in his own jacket pocket hanging on the back of the door in his bedroom, Joel went back to sleep.

It was very early in the morning when Joel became aware of someone in his room. Opening one eye a crack, he saw his father going through his pockets. A sense of dread made Joel feel sick in the stomach. The slight jingle told Joel his father had found the incriminating evidence and tears began to well up in anticipation of what was to come. Joel's father left the room silently but the boy knew it wasn't the end of the matter. He didn't move and squeezed his eyes closed tighter. 'Please God don't let him hit me, please, please, please' Joel prayed silently.

Joel was an altar boy, surely God would listen to him. 'Please Dear Lord Jesus, please help me. Please Blessed Virgin Mary save me' he prayed to all hoping one at least would listen. They didn't. Joel's father came back into the room carrying the leather belt which meted out punishment for transgressions. With his eyes closed Joel sensed his father's presence in the room. A big meaty hand closed around Joel's skinny little upper arm and the boy felt himself yanked out of bed in one easy motion. There was no time to react because Joel was still in mid air when he felt the first stinging lash on his buttocks.

Trying desperately to squirm out of his father's grasp Joel wriggled and a second blow caught him on the back. Joel knew to struggle just made it worse but it was impossible not to, such was the pain inflicted. Another blow caught the back of Joel's legs as his father homed in on the moving target. Joel put his hands behind him to protect his buttocks but one direct hit on soft hands made them withdraw quickly. There was no set amount of 'lashes' Joel would receive making it somehow worse, and the blows kept coming. Joel's bowels relaxed and a brown noxious liquid seeped through his pyjamas as the next lash of the belt made an amplified slapping sound. Then it was over. Joel fought back the racking sobs which made breathing difficult and took his father's proffered hand for the customary post-beating handshake.

Joel's father insisted they shake hands afterwards just as he had with his father. When his father left the room Joel gingerly peeled back his pyjama pants. They were stained with a mix of liquid faeces and blood. Mrs. Phillips came into the room and saw the state of her son.
"Take those outside and rinse them under the tap, I'll run you a bath" she instructed in a soft but firm voice.

Joel cursed the fact he had soiled himself. He carried his pyjama pants downstairs and out the back door to the tap. Cold water splashed his bare legs as Joel put his pyjama pants under the flow, The cold wind was both a comfort and an agony, it froze his legs and feet but had a soothing effect on his buttocks. The relief was only temporary, the subsiding pain would be heightened again in the bath. Joel wrung his pyjamas out and dashed back inside the house.

The hot water was like fire on his buttocks as he knelt in the bath. Joel's mother cleaned him up, each dab of the sponge bringing a new agony. He thought the ordeal was over as his mother dabbed his buttocks dry with the coarse towel.
"Go and lie on your bed I'll get the TCP"
"Mum no! Please!"
"It has to be done the skin's broken and you might have muck in it"

Tears were welling up again. Joel hated the antiseptic liquid which stung worse than the hot bath water. His mother applied the liquid with a cotton ball. Joel winced and let out an occasional yelp when the liquid entered an open wound. He never stole money from his parents again.

* * * * *

To a 'townie' the countryside must have seemed an idyllic place and a safe environment for kids, but there were dangers everywhere. A disused railway, a canal, a pump-house irrigating the land, a coal slag heap still with trenches and bunkers from the war should the country be invaded, sluice water from the mines formed a black lake. Then there were the woods, with rope swings and the swimming hole. Despite being constantly warned of the dangers, the boys took no notice. Of course there were accidents but it was part of growing up. The occasional broken bone or countless cuts and bruises were more than compensated for by the ability to run free and explore.

Sunday morning wasn't Joel's favourite part of the weekend. While most of his friends were laying in bed Joel was up emptying the pedal bin into the main dustbin outside. His mother refused to buy the new plastic bin liners; she had always used the paper carrier bags from the supermarket. Whilst townsfolk decided to save the planet by not cutting down trees to make paper bags, and used instead these new-fangled bags that take like a million years to bio-degrade, the village people stayed firmly in the past.

It cost money for the plastic bags and pennies were short. Joel emptied the bin and screwed the hose-pipe to the outside tap on the wall of the house. Turning the tap on the water oozed more than flowed out of the end of the hose. Joel sleepily put a thumb over the end of the hose to increase the pressure. He covered too much of the hole and cold water sprayed in every direction. The spray in his face snapped Joel out of auto-pilot in an instant. He eased his thumb back until the pressure was enough to spray the inside of the pedal bin with sufficient force to rinse the marks off.

Joel was being lazy, he was supposed to use the hand-brush to scrub the inside, but it wasn't too mucky this time. He made the fire next and the dampness of his fingers acted like a magnet for the dust from the wood and coal. Pretty quickly Joel's hands were black. He lit the fire straight away, as was usual on a Sunday morning. It was bath day and the fire was kept going all day, even in summer. It was needed to heat the water. Wedging the poker in the grate Joel put the newspaper over the hole to draw up the fire.

It took barely a minute before Joel saw the first small flames illuminate the paper from behind and he took it down. Too quickly! A ball of smoke wafted into the room, straight into Joel's face. He coughed and spluttered as he rubbed his eyes.
"Look at the state of you; you cant go on the altar like that!" his mother scolded.

Joel looked at his hands and was about to wipe them on his shirt.
"DON'T DO THAT! Have you got cotton for brains? Get upstairs and wash that lot off"

Joel walked to the stairs and quickened his step as he passed his mother, avoiding the swipe he knew was coming.
"And use soap!" his mother called after him as Joel disappeared upstairs.

Mrs. Phillips knew her son well. Joel didn't like soap. The greasy feel made him shiver and it stung his eyes when he washed his face. Often Joel would just wash with water straight from the tap. It didn't work with coal though, and he had to scrub his hands properly. Joel's mother would check the boy's finger nails before letting him go to church. It didn't always help. The walk to church was quite long and Joel had to call for Jamie and Ashley on the way. A lot could happen before they reached the church.

Usually the boys served at the altar twice a week, on Sundays and Thursdays. It was maybe a little surprising it was the three boys considered the toughest who did it, and voluntarily as well. Unfortunately they weren't little angels and there was a motive. On a Thursday the whole school had to go to church. The school was built with funds from the church and was conveniently situated next door. Those boys serving at the altar had free time before and after the service.

The service passed without incident and ended with the priest thundering out a hell-fire and damnation sermon before the boys stood either side of the exit doors with the collection plates. Afterwards as the boys changed they discussed what to do that afternoon. They headed to the playing field. It was only 11:30am, the rest of the boys who went to the other primary school in the village would only just be arriving. Most boys could stay up as late as they wanted on Saturday night and rarely emerged much before noon on a Sunday morning. Only the Catholic boys had to go to church.

Academically the kids at the Catholic school did a lot better than their football friends at the regular school. It was due in no small part to the nuns who taught them. The 'times tables' were learnt parrot-fashion and there were only three in Joel's class who didn't know up to their twelve times table by eight years old. More of the Catholic school kids went to grammar school and Joel was already beginning to stand out. Joel thrived on school-work. Everything was interesting and he had an insatiable curiosity for anything new. Joel's father had recently left the coal mine and gone to sea but when at home he was an inspiration to the boy. He seemed to know so much for one who never had an education. What was more, he taught Joel valuable lessons on life that weren't taught in school.

If he didn't know the answer to a question, he would be honest and say so, but he would make a point of finding out and then pass on the knowledge. Too many people when they don't know the answer will guess so as not to lose face, or worse still they will make assumptions based on what they have been told by the ill-informed. Joel looked to be destined to follow his brother to Forester Grammar, a semi-private boarding school, so with the mines facing closure and a mortgage to be paid, his father opted for the relatively secure employment afforded by the sea.

* * * * *

The pump-house linked a series of dykes which irrigated the surrounding agricultural land. Like Forbidden Wood, Witches Lake, and other places, it was considered dangerous and the inevitable story of how some kid had drowned was circulated. Nobody could name the boy though. All these stories associated with places parents would rather their kids kept away from, were taken with a pinch of salt by the boys, but perhaps the pump-house deserved its reputation. There were three pumps side by side which were automatic. They would pump vast volumes of water through into the channels to keep the dykes full. When at a certain level the pumps would cut out and the water would stop flowing. It was then the boys clambered onto the slippery algae covered sections and hand-pick eels as they clung to the algae before dropping into the water.

The main danger was it being impossible to predict when the pumps would kick in again, since they ran on water volume not on a timer. Sometimes it was ten minutes, sometimes half an hour. Occasionally they would start up again within just two or three minutes. The boys would gather the eels quickly, then wait for the pumps to start and stop again before getting more. Often the boys would spend all day at the pump house, especially when the fields were close to harvesting. All sorts of 'goodies' became available. Maize, onions, potatoes, lettuce, all manner of things were there for the taking. The kids made little impact on the overall crop and most farmers accepted the fact the boys would leave with as much as they could carry. There were exceptions though as Xander, Mattie, and Joel were to find out to their cost. It was the wrong time of year on this occasion, most of the fields having just been planted. It didn't prevent a detour via Potter's Pond on the way home though.

This was where Mattie was in his element. Most of the boys could hunt and fish, but nobody could tickle a trout like Mattie. Alan was better than most of the rest of the boys but even he couldn't match Mattie's prowess. As the boys walked to the pond Joel put an arm round Mattie's shoulder.
"You gonna get me one?" he asked in his best grovelling voice.
"Course, don't know why you can't do it yourself though"

Joel had never mastered the art of tickling a trout and although he always tried, he only ever managed to catch one and swore that was a fluke because the trout was depressed and suicidal, wanting to be eaten. Mattie always caught one or two for Joel and any of the other boys who wanted them. Ashley didn't bother, one trout wouldn't go far in his house. Jamie too chose not to take one, hating the slimy feel of the fish. Joel loved taking them home, his mother and father liked trout and sometimes gave him ten or even twenty pence for his efforts. The money didn't really matter to Joel, he felt so proud just to be putting food on the table.

The kids stealthily approached the pond which was always stocked full of trout. Potter guarded his pond jealously and poachers were poachers, however old they were. Old Potter wasn't able to give chase very well but he had a pellet rifle, and he was a good shot. Most of the boys had been hit at one time or another. It stung like hell and left a big red dot wherever the lead pellet hit. The next day blue and yellow surrounded the red as the bruising came out making the skin look like a little target. The pellets didn't penetrate the boys' clothes so the skin was never broken, but one time Alan was hit in the head and Joel had to use his finger nail to dig the pellet out.

At the pond some of the boys became nervous and held back. There was no sign of Potter but they knew he would be somewhere close by. Mattie, Alan, Xander, and Joel crept forward on hands and knees. Xander kept watch whilst the other three dipped their hands in the water, waggling their fingers. Mattie had an almost instant success and flicked a decent size fish up onto the bank. Within fifteen minutes Mattie had two more, Alan had caught one but Joel was still without luck. Suddenly Xander shouted.
"There's Potter, he's seen us, run!!"

The boys picked up a fish each and ran as fast as they could.
"Yikes!" Alan yelped as Potter's first shot found a target.

His second shot missed and the boys were out of range by the time he reloaded again. Out of breath, the quartet caught up with the others and flopped down on the grass.
"Where did he get you?" Xander asked Alan.

Alan stood up and showed the tell-tale red spot on his lower back. Mattie spat on his fingers and rubbed the saliva over the dot causing Alan to wince. It was how the boys treated most wounds or injuries but whether it was actually any practical use is questionable. It seemed to work, but perhaps it was just the empathy and camaraderie among the boys that made it feel better. Even the boys that didn't really like each other much exercised concern for a wounded comrade, something which was commendable but quite the norm for the boys of the village.

Saturday, 17 December 2016


2. Scrapes and Scraps

'Parents try to wrap their kids in cotton wool and freak out at the mere sight of blood. As kids we were forever hurting ourselves but very rarely was it serious' - jp

There was an unwritten code in the village. A boy didn't tittle-tattle, grass, snitch, or however else it is termed. Parents would say 'nobody likes a tell-tale', then in the next breath tell the boys not to lie. This confused Joel and gave him his first taste of double standards. For most of the village boys, lying would result in a beating and they soon learnt how to be 'conservative' with the truth. As harsh as the regime within the village may seem to some, it didn't feel that way to the boys. Almost without exception they considered beatings justified as they were a result of some transgression. The boys knew nothing else, they knew the potential risks, rewards, and / or penalties for misdemeanours.

Sometimes this schoolboy 'code of silence' could be dangerous. Today was one of those days. A whole gang of boys made their way out to Haunted Wood. They had to pass through a lot of fields which varied considerably in nature. A field full of ripening spring onions was too good to pass up. Each boy gathered up handfuls and climbed over the fence into the next field to eat them. The next field was a meadow with cows some distance away, there was no sign of the rumoured bull. It was difficult to tell from a distance because the cows had horns as well.. The bull might well have been a myth conjured up in the minds of imaginative youngsters as none of the boys could recall seeing it.

One of the reasons the Haunted Wood wasn't as popular as other similar woods, was because of its location. It reached across a main road between the boys' village and another one, at about halfway between. This road added fuel to the ghost theory, it was an accident black spot. Some motorists claimed having seen an apparition gliding across the road in front of them. Haunted Wood did have the best rope swing though. A rope hung from the branch of a tree stretching out over a long drop. The boys would swing from one side of the tree over a what was to them certain death, and round to the bank on the opposite side. It was heart-stopping for the boys and they tingled with excitement, the danger heightening every sense.

They had done this for months without a problem and had many turns this day. All was well until dusk was upon them and it was time to hurry home. The long summer days meant it was late already and there would be trouble. Taking one last turn Joel swung out fearlessly and the rope broke. He plunged thirty feet to the ground below. Joel was fortunate in the respect he landed on a bush which broke his fall a little and may have saved his life. The other boys looked down in horror. Joel wasn't moving and didn't make a sound, his small frame twisted at unnatural angles.
"He's dead" Ashley said eyes wide.
"What are we going to do?" Nathan asked close to tears.

The boys quickly thought about it, deciding they would all go home and say they hadn't seen Joel if asked.
"Shouldn't we climb down and make sure he's...... you know, just in case" Xander suggested.

The boys looked at Joel again. He hadn't moved. To the bunch of ten year olds it could only mean one thing.
"You go check then" Jamie said to Xander.

It was getting darker by the second and it wasn't an easy climb. Xander decided not to chance it, nobody could have survived such a fall. The boys hurried off back across the fields unaware Joel was beginning to stir. The wind had been knocked out of him. His friends had long since departed when Joel finally managed to extricate himself from the bush. Seeing the darkness of the fields, Joel opted to walk home following the road. Concussed and disorientated, he started walking the wrong way.

The darkness descended quickly. There were no roadside lights and Joel didn't recognise the country road he staggered along. Cloud cover blocked out the stars on the moonless night. Joel just wanted to lie down and go to sleep but the thought of the beating he would get drove him on. At some point Joel's parents began to worry and his mother went round to see several of his friends. She questioned the boys but all held true to their word, thinking they would get into trouble. Joel's father didn't have a clue where to start looking for the boy. Even if the friends had told Joel's mother about being in the woods it wouldn't have helped. He had long since left and was unwittingly heading for the next village several miles away.

Eventually Joel saw the beginning of street lights up ahead and thought his ordeal was over. Not a chance! Joel was confused when he saw the street. It wasn't at all familiar. Further and further he walked unable to understand why he didn't recognise the surroundings. In desperation Joel wandered into a pub and became the object of curious stares. Puzzled why the boy was out so late on his own, the landlord asked:
"What do you want boy?"
"Where am I?" Joel asked weakly:
"The Rose and Crown. Are you hurt?" the man asked, concerned Joel didn't know where he was.
"No" Joel answered honestly.

He was trying to be brave. He wasn't really hurt as such just concussed, but of course he didn't know that. Joel gauged if he was hurt by how much pain he was in and right then he just felt tired not hurt. He felt a little bruised but that was nothing out of the ordinary.
"Where do you live?" the landlord asked.

Joel told the landlord the street name, but the man didn't click it was in another village. Feeling really sleepy Joel's head began to nod as he sat in the chair. The landlord telephoned the police. It took a long time before two stern looking policemen walked into the pub. Joel only vaguely registered them telling him off and they too asked where he lived. Fortunately one of them realised Joel was from the neighbouring village, confirmed after a couple of pertinent questions.

The policemen put Joel in the back of the car and drove him home. Joel's mother went nuts saying how she was worried sick. The story the police gave his father about wandering into a pub late at night did little to ease the boy's plight. Joel knew he was in trouble. When the police left Joel was subjected to an interrogation and quickly told his father what had happened, except for the part about the swing. It wouldn't help his case admitting to doing dangerous stuff and getting hurt because of it, or so Joel believed.

Being late wasn't a beating offence but being brought home by two policemen didn't look good, and Joel didn't want to make things worse. Lying WAS a beating offence. Joel thought he could still maybe get a lesser punishment for telling the truth. He just told his father he had been to the woods with his friends and as it got dark he got lost. It did sound quite lame.
"What have I told you about lying? Now tell me the truth!" Joel's father demanded sternly.

There was nothing else Joel could think to say and his silence just served to fuel his father's suspicions he had been up to no good.
"Your mother has been round to all your friends and they said they hadn't seen you" Joel was told.

The panic in the boy's eyes was almost an admission of guilt as far as Joel's father was concerned, not as the lack of comprehension at the denials of his friends, and the realisation of impending doom because of it. The most severe beatings were meted out when caught lying. Joel received what his father termed as a 'damn good hiding' and was sent to bed without supper. There were no shortage of tears that night as Joel silently cried himself to sleep.

* * * * *

The summer passed in the blink of an eye and the boys were growing fast. Joel joined the local judo club and with the summer behind them, the boys who attended the Catholic school went to the church run youth club which was an annex to the church. November 5th was approaching and Joel hatched a plan with best friend Scott.

They would go and get Lawrence out of bed and dress him up as a 'Guy'. It had to be Lawrence. He was a little younger than them and very small. Last year Scott had been used by his older brothers for a similar purpose. They had selfishly kept the bulk of the money collected, giving Scott just a small amount. Consequently Scott and Joel discussed how they would cut the older boys out of the equation and share the money evenly. It was usual for boys to make up a dummy or Guy from old clothes stuffed with newspaper and straw. The Guy would be placed on top of a bonfire on November 5th and burnt.

Making a Guy was okay for the bonfire but dressing up the smallest boy was far easier for collecting pennies. It was the 1st of November and Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night was on the 5th. They had four days to get as many pennies as possible. The licensed extortion that was Trick or Treat may not have reached the village but Penny for the Guy was alive and kicking.

Lawrence's sister Lizzy answered the door to Scott and Joel. She was a couple of years older than the boys and was just going out. Lizzy was as disinterested in the boys as they were in her, even though she was fast becoming the centre of attention for older boys.
"He's still in bed, go and get the little git up" Lizzy said allowing the boys into the house as she left.

The parents were at work so the boys saw an opportunity to tease the younger boy. They crept up the stairs silently and saw Lawrence through the half open door to his bedroom.
"Let's throw water on him" Scott whispered.
"No, he might get into trouble if his bed is wet"
"He probably still wets the bed anyway" Scott sniggered but Joel cringed, thinking about his own problem in that area.
"Elephants and ants?" Joel suggested and Scott agreed.

The two boys crept into the room and as one jumped on their friend.
"Aargh! What the...."

Scott sat on Lawrence's stomach and hammered out a drum beat on the boy's chest with his fists, whilst Joel sat on the younger boy's ankles and nipped his legs with thumb and fore-finger.
"I give, I give, get off you gits!" pleaded Lawrence.
"Not till you say you smell" Scott demanded.
"You smell!" Lawrence said and Joel laughed.
"Aw now you're gonna pay" Scott told Lawrence and pounded on the boy's chest again.

Joel let Lawrence go and turned on Scott. He didn't know the younger boy that well and felt sorry for him. The three boys wrestled around on the bed for another five minutes before flopping back exhausted.
"We've got a job for you" Scott said finally.
"What is it?" Lawrence asked with suspicion.
"Penny for the Guy, you're the Guy" Joel piped up.
"Okayyyy" Lawrence was a little unsure "but why me?"
"You've got a mum, a rabbit, and you're small" Scott said as if that explained it all but even Joel looked confused
"What's a rabbit got to do with it?" he asked.
"And my mum?" Lawrence added.
"We need straw for padding and make-up for the mask, come on get dressed or we won't get a spot.

The best spot to be was outside the pub at weekends but during the week it was best to be outside a shop. Often the adults would hand over their loose change on leaving the shop, but leaving the pub could reap big rewards if one of the men had too much to drink.

Lawrence dressed quickly and the three boys went to the bedroom of his parents. They looked through his mother's make-up drawer. Joel and Scott went to work as Lawrence sat back passively. Scott used the red lipstick to make scars on the boy's face. When they were satisfied with their labour the boys went to the back garden to get some straw and started stuffing it into Lawrence's clothes.
"Not in my trousers it's all scratchy!" he complained.
"Stop moaning it'll keep you warm" Scott laughed.

For a finishing touch Lawrence put a balaclava on and that too was stuffed with straw around the neck and face. They went to the local shop and were relieved to see no other boys had taken their spot. All morning the boys accosted adults going in and out of the shop. It was a tradition and almost without exception the adults would hand over a few pence. The boys did well, the only glitch was when Shaun appeared at the shop. He looked the Guy up and down. Lawrence sat motionless as he had whenever someone came. There was no doubt the adults knew it was a boy dressed up as a Guy but at least the boys made an effort.
"That's a good Guy" Shaun said amicably.
"Thanks" Joel muttered hoping the older boy would go away.
"Real life-like" Shaun mused.

Lawrence didn't move and Shaun put his foot against the boy's groin gradually pushing down. Trying to keep up the charade that he was indeed a Guy, Lawrence bravely tried to remain motionless. Shaun pushed harder.
"Aargh" Lawrence wailed and Shaun laughed.
"Serves you right for cheating" he sneered and went into the shop.

Shaun just couldn't help himself, he always had to be mean. The boys shared the money out shortly after, then went to meet the others who were playing football. Using the same trick the boys collected more money for the Guy the next day. but a spate of rainy days quite literally put the dampers on things. The money collected wasn't wasted on chocolate or sweets. It went on fireworks which were shared around all the boys. Jamie was unofficial leader of the boys due to his wild older brothers, one of them would buy the fireworks for the younger boys. Sixteen was the legal age to buy fireworks but a tall fourteen year old could generally get them without a problem. The shopkeepers had for generations sold them, and although there was always the odd casualty with misuse, it was looked upon as part of growing up and gaining experience.

The boys would have a tarpaulin muster whereby they all threw whatever money they had collected onto a cloth. It was counted, knotted, and hauled off to the shop. Most of the boys contributed but the likes of Ashley and Joel rarely had money. With Ashley it was because he came from a big family and was poor. Joel's poverty was a little different. His parents had bought into the government's ideal of purchasing their own home instead of renting.

It meant both his parents had to work and there was little money left after the mortgage was paid. Like so many other families duped into this scheme they couldn't possibly foresee that soon after, the Iron Lady would remove the ability to continue payments, by closing the mines and selling off the industries to companies unconcerned about the welfare of workers. They would end up owing in interest more than the house was worth. This year Joel had managed to contribute more with collecting Guy money and a bunch of excited nine and ten year olds looked at the fireworks with wide eyes.

The most common purchases were bangers, Roman Candles and a few rockets. These were shared out and the boys would go to the woods to play war. They would hurl bangers at each other, similar to a grenade, timing the throw was crucial. If it was thrown too early the target boy could pick it up and throw it back, too late and it would explode in the hand. The most common cause of injury was the former. It was always risky throwing one back because the fuse had been fizzing a few seconds already.

To have a banger explode in the hand resulted in bruising and sometimes the odd burn, but the boys dealt with it. The more timid boys wouldn't pick up a lit firework anyway, so it was only the tougher boys that were most often hurt, Alan had more than his fair share of mishaps. Rockets were no problem, even though the boys would set them off at 30 degree angles instead of vertically as manufacturers intended. As Joel was to find out, Roman Candles were perhaps the most dangerous.

They would shoot four to six fireballs out of the ends. Ignoring the written warnings on the side, the boys held the Roman Candles and pointed them at each other. Usually the distance involved enabled the target boy to comfortably avoid the flaming missile. The boys had a lot of fun running around the rain dampened woods throwing bangers at each other, and the stock of fireworks were almost exhausted without mishap when Joel came rushing into a clearing. His heart sank. He was faced by three of the boys from the hostile army and one had just lit a Roman Candle. Joel turned and ran but knew he was in trouble. Joel was too close to put any suitable distance between him and his foes.

The first shot hit Joel square in the back and the fireball burnt itself out on his jumper. As soon as it hit and his back started heating up, Joel pulled his jumper, shirt, and vest off in one swift motion. It wasn't fast enough and Joel's back was burning. It hurt. Hurt bad, but Joel was more concerned with the problem he would have when his parents saw the holes in his clothes. Alan looked at the big red mark in the middle of Joel's back and lightly ran a finger around the circular burn.
"Damn, you better get that looked at"
"S'alright" Joel said as he tried to rub the black marks off his shirt and vest.

It just made it worse and the black marks became holes. On the surface Joel was calm but inside his stomach was churning and he had to fight back the tears. Joel didn't go home straight away, preferring to watch the remaining rockets and delay the inevitable. He was just glad he was staying with his grandmother. At least it would just be a couple of clouts round the head with a wooden spoon instead of the dreaded belt.
"S'pose that makes it my turn" Alan laughed trying to cheer Joel up.

He didn't realise how prophetic his words were to prove. Nor how soon they were to come to fruition. It was the last - and biggest - rocket that was the cause. The boys decided to set it off as intended because very often the ones set off at an angle would crash into trees and spoil the effect. The boys found a gap in the tree branches overhead. They pushed the piece of pipe they had into the ground to support the rocket. The stick on the end of the rocket was fatter than the others and had to be forced into the tube. They lit the firework and watched. The rocket started fizzing away but wasn't taking off, the stick wedged firmly in the tube. For several seconds the boys watched the rocket trying to take off. It was as if they all asked themselves the same question at the same time. What happens when the rocket gets into the sky? As one the boys turned and ran.

The rocket exploded in a shower of sparks and stars. Alan's words may have been for Joel's benefit and in jest but one star went into his thick curly blond hair and smouldered.
"Aargh, aargh" he yelled and the other boys ran over to him slapping his head.

He was quite fortunate that only a small portion of his hair singed, thanks largely to the speedy reaction of the other boys. Joel and Alan walked back in silence licking their wounds as the other boys chattered animatedly. They were the focal point and heroes of the moment. It didn't make Joel feel any better as he walked back shivering, unable to put his clothes back on now his back had really started to smart.

Fortunately he was spared the wooden spoon treatment, possibly because of the nasty weeping wound in the middle of his back, but out came the dreaded TCP and he howled in pain as his grandmother dabbed it on.
"Don't be such a baby" his grandmother chided as he squealed, sympathy was in short supply when injuries were a result of stupid behaviour.

Alan had to have his head shaved to even his hair up and he looked odd without his long blond curls. At least they had a whole year to forget how dangerous irresponsible use of fireworks could be.

* * * * *

The Odeon was the entertainment centre of the village. It was a cinema, bingo hall, theatre, and community centre all rolled into one. As a cinema it only opened twice a week, on a Tuesday evening and a Sunday matinee. There was one other occasion on Saturday mornings and it was then the cinema was packed for the only time during the week. Saturday morning pictures were for the kids of the village.

Joel and Ashley never had the money to go even though the prices were just pence. It didn't matter because Jamie and Mattie would sneak down behind the curtain and open the fire escape door to let them in. Ashley had to wear his balaclava inside because even in amongst the scores of kids his flaming red hair stuck out like a sore thumb and a floor manager patrolled the aisles.

The 'pictures' would go on for about three hours, and were a saviour for many parents. It allowed them to go shopping, safe in the knowledge the kids weren't getting up to mischief, or having lots of friends in the house while they were out. There were one or two five-minute information films scattered in amongst a plethora of Looney Tunes, and old black and white films from the cinema archives. Lord of the Flies seemed to be on once every month and Laurel and Hardy were well worn. The cinema didn't have the revenue to show the modern films, a trip into the neighbouring town was needed to see a new release.

As the Ovaltiney song came on signalling the end of the show, the kids would rush out of the exits and to the pub across the road, piling into the off-sales area where the landlord opened a box of salted peanuts. He would throw the small bags out to the children who eagerly tried to catch them. It was a kindness the kids took for granted and they never went back to thank the man, much to their shame.

Even inside the pictures there was a hierarchy and regular seats were unofficially reserved. As the older boys stopped going to the cinema, the younger ones gradually moved to the back where it was considered the best place to be. The void left by the older boys who went to big school after summer meant a race to get the best seats, as happened every year. It was then Joel and his friends came into conflict with the boys from the other end of the village. It was all over one seat which overlapped the two groups. There had always been a rivalry between the two sets of boys who once a week played football against each other. On occasion scuffles broke out, but it was never serious. Joel had just sat down when a boy approached him.
"That's Ozzie's seat" the boy warned.
"I don't see his name on it" Joel said looking around mockingly.
"You better move" the boy advised.
"Or what?"

Joel wasn't bothered, he was now one of the older boys who went to Saturday morning pictures so didn't see any reason to fear anyone, even though he didn't know who this Ozzie boy was. He soon found out. A blond headed boy approached him as the other boy made way and Joel looked at him. The boy was about the same height as Joel but thicker set. Ozzie looked quite angelic on the surface but looks could deceive, as Joel found out to his cost on many occasions. He told Joel to move and swore at him for effect.
"Make me" Joel responded annoyed at the boy's rudeness.

Ozzie grabbed Joel and hauled him to his feet as boys scattered in every direction. Ozzie's first hit split Joel's lip, drawing blood. Joel went mad, fists flailing in every direction, but none found their target as Ozzie easily parried then countered with another solid hit of his own. Ozzie may only have been the same age as Joel but his father was a boxer and had passed his knowledge on to his son. Joel had recently started taking judo lessons but for the first few months all he was taught was how to fall over.

Blow after blow found their target, but Joel was used to pain and could take a knock. Ozzie was getting a little worried. He had hit the boy numerous times with some of his best shots, yet still Joel kept coming back and Ozzie was beginning to have doubts. A moment of hesitancy and Joel leapt on his protagonist, both boys going over the seats into the next row. Ozzie yelped in pain as Joel landed on top of him. He may have been hurt but Ozzie was no quitter and even though Joel had him in a headlock he continued to fight. Four times Ozzie pushed Joel's head into the floor. Joel wasn't letting go of Ozzie's neck and squeezed harder and harder.
"I give, I give" howled Ozzie but Joel didn't ease up straight away.
"Whose seat is it?" he demanded.
"Yours, it's your seat"
"And that's the end of it?"
"Yes, yes"

Joel let the boy go relieved at the outcome. Ozzie trudged off rubbing his neck and holding the small of his back. There wasn't a visible mark on Ozzie, although his back might have had one where he landed awkwardly, but Joel had blood running from one nostril, a fat lip, swelling under one eye that would turn black the next day, and an egg sized lump on his forehead. He sat back in the seat victorious and it all seemed worthwhile.
"I knew you would win" Jamie said.

It was then Joel was told about Ozzie and his boxer father. Joel wished he had known beforehand, he might have given up the seat willingly. Nah!

* * * * *

Over the year ahead things began to change for the boys. Some changes were more significant than others. The judo club he joined was to help Joel significantly, particularly in the next few years. The confidence it gave served him well straight away. Gardening had given Joel a strength which belied his stature and judo was the perfect discipline to suit his rough-and-tumble style of self-defence.

Jake was a bully. In their idyllic little school he was the only one and as was to be a trait of Joel's, he became a deadly enemy of the bully. Jake had been Joel's second fight and bar two, his next thirty as well. Give Jake credit for trying, he never won one, but it didn't stop him starting another. Joel lost count how many times they fought in the end, but it was all too frequently. To make matters worse the boys lived near each other and the conflict began from an early age.

Joel's first fight was at the tender age of six years old. A boy three years his senior started pushing him in the chest. Every time Joel stood back up the boy would push him over again. Reduced to tears, Joel ran home.
"What's the matter love?" his mother soothed.
"A-big-boy-keeps-pushing-me" Joel blurted out between sobs.
"Don't fuss the boy! Are you trying to raise a sissy" growled Joel's father.

He looked out of the window and saw several boys playing rough on the green opposite.
"Which one was it?" Joel's father asked.

Joel pointed to the boy in question and his father looked then went to the cupboard where the dreaded belt hung. Joel's father picked it up and placed it on the kitchen table.
"Now get back out there and hit him or I'll give you something to cry for"

Panic was in Joel's tear-stained eyes and he looked to his mother for help, but she turned away and busied herself at the sink. Joel was scared but one look at the belt on the table made up his mind for him. His father didn't make idle threats and Joel was in no doubt what would happen if he didn't do as he was told. As he approached the boys, the one who had been pushing Joel saw him coming and laughed.
"What's up runt want some more or you gonna go crying to mama again?"

Joel knotted his little fist into a ball, closed his eyes and swung with all his might. More by luck than judgement, Joel caught the boy square on the nose and heard a satisfying crack. A split second later and blood gushed from both of the boy's nostrils. He turned and ran home in tears. Joel went back to the house a little nervously. The first thing he noticed was that the belt had been put away.
"I don't want to see you crying again. If you want to cry you go to your room and do it" his father said mildly.
"Yes dad"

Just when Joel thought it was the end of the matter there was a knock at the door. It was the boy he had hit, holding a blood soaked hanky over his nose. The boy's father was with him and looking angry.
"Yes?" Joel's father asked calmly.
"Your son has broken my son's nose" the boy's father said angrily.
"Boys will be boys" Mr. Phillips stated matter-of-factly.
"It's not on given the difference in ages, what are you going to do about it?"
"Hmm, I think we better hear my son's side of it. Joel come here"

Joel thought he was in trouble again. He had heard the boy's father say about a broken nose and was fearful once more. Joel's father had realised something from the other father's words. The parents knew each other and their families. The boy's father had assumed it was Joel's older brother who had hit his son. When Joel appeared in the doorway the man looked shocked, Joel's father smiled inwardly..
"Why did you hit this boy?" he asked mildly.
"He kept pushing me over" Joel said, panic in his eyes.
"Him?" the boy's father demanded from his son who looked at the floor and nodded, still holding the hanky to his nose.

The man grabbed the boy roughly and practically dragged him to the gate. Joel's father watched them depart and put a hand on Joel's shoulder. Joel looked up at his father who continued to watch the departing duo. It was all a little confusing. It was another two years before Joel and Jake clashed for the first time.

Not once did Jake get the better of Joel in the respect he was always the one who ran off. However if the boys were put side by side after a fight, anybody would swear Jake had won such was the damage he inflicted. Only Joel's stubborn streak saw him through on many occasions, and once or twice Jake hadn't realised how close he had been to winning. Their first clash happened right outside Joel's front gate, and unknown to the boys they had an audience. Joel's father, mother, and older brother watched from the kitchen window as the boys rolled around on the concrete path.

Jake was bigger and heavier but had never handled a spade or scuttle full of coal to hone his muscles. Joel managed in the end to get Jake in a headlock and in the manner which was to become customary of Joel's primary school bouts, he choked his opponent into submission. Jake ran home crying and Joel went indoors to a hero's welcome, his father handing him a big shiny fifty pence piece. Both his mother and brother thought it was a mismatch when the fight started and wanted to intervene.
"Leave them be!" Joel's father growled and the pair watched anxiously.

The problem Joel had was he couldn't stand seeing somebody being upset by another person for no other reason than to be mean. Unfortunately for Jake he couldn't help himself. A girl named Jane came from the scruffiest family in the village. Her clothes were always dirty, her hair matted, and she smelled bad. She was teased often by a lot of the kids but it was generally just odd comments, Jake always went too far. Having reduced the girl to tears for the umpteenth time Joel stepped in.
"Leave her alone Jake"

Jake swore at Joel, telling him to mind his own business. Joel jumped on Jake and the other kids gathered round as they rolled around the playground.
"Fight, fight, fight, fight" the others chanted.

It alerted the nuns and for once the fight didn't reach a conclusion as they stepped in and pulled the boys apart. Both boys received four raps across the knuckles with a ruler, but were unrepentant and arranged to meet outside the school gates afterwards to settle the matter. Jamie, Ashley, Alan, and Jane gathered to watch and the fight resumed. As the boys fought a man saw them.
"Leave him alone, fight one on one" the man barked thinking all the boys were attacking Jake.
"It is one on one" Joel protested and Jake taking advantage of the distraction hit Joel in the mouth, rattling his teeth.
"Go on lad" the man called encouraging Jake.

Having lost the momentum it took Joel a little while to regain control and in spite of the support from the man it was Jake who ran off in tears. The man looked disgusted.
"Hope you're proud you little hooligans" he spat.
"Please mister, he started it. He was picking on Jane" Joel said feeling upset he was being accused of bullying.

The man didn't answer and stormed off. It wasn't the only problem. Joel had an admirer after the incident. He was Jane's knight in shining armour and he had to work hard to avoid her. On the plus side it made everybody else think twice before being mean to her again.

Friday, 16 December 2016


3.Wild Boys

'William Golding aired a literary hypothesis in 'Lord of the Flies'. He believed boys revert to a primeval state when left to their own devices. The only criticism I have with that ideal is one my father drummed into me.... 'circumstances alters cases'. Had the village boys been castaways I believe we would have had a relatively peaceful, thriving encampment; but we were all friends. However, had the boys I met at school - or indeed any large group of boys thrust together by circumstance - been castaways, there would have been division, chaos, and most likely.... war!' - jp

In the main, the boys of the village were good natured but there was no doubt in their minds that Steve was a bad ‘un. As time went on most tried to stay away from him. It wasn’t out of any desire to please their parents, who all told their kids to keep away from Steve, it was simply because of some of the things he did. Vandalism was high on Steve’s agenda and he would rarely pass up an opportunity to be destructive. As wild as some of the boys could be, they had a sense of honour and bore no ill-will. There were the usual pranks and mischief, but then there was what is termed today anti-social behaviour.

The boys weren’t stupid and although the thin dividing line was sometimes blurred, they all knew without exception which was which. It was fun throwing stones through the remaining windows of an old abandoned warehouse but quite different to a premises still being used. Houses were strictly off limits but Steve didn’t care. More than that, Steve actually thrived on shocking friends and adults alike. It soon reached the stage where most boys would avoid him. When Steve went calling for the other boys they would be out, in bed, busy, grounded, or some other excuse. Only Joel answered the door to him. Joel’s parents warned him away from Steve but ultimately they left the decision to Joel himself. Knowing other boys wouldn’t hang out with Steve made Joel feel obliged to. He felt a little sorry for the older boy who was becoming ever more the outcast. Joel had no idea then his empathy might be a premonition of what he himself would experience.

One day Steve called for Joel. He was excited having found a new place to scrump apples. Scrumping was a popular pastime with all the boys and Joel couldn’t see how Steve could cause any trouble doing that, if he overlooked the fact they would be on private property stealing apples. Even after their brush with the law the boys from the village didn't consider a trip through an orchard stealing. Sometimes they were given permission to take 'windfall' apples which would only rot anyway.

At least Steve wouldn’t be breaking any windows or anything; he did like those breaking noises. Most of the regular haunts for scrumping were known to the boys, so the prospect of somewhere new was always exciting. As it turned out Joel was a little disappointed because the new place only grew cooking apples which were sour. The boys still ate one or two, convincing themselves they enjoyed them.

Scrumping did have hidden dangers. Joel and Ashley walked past a house one day and saw an apple tree in the garden. Seeing no obvious signs of life from the house, they nipped in a grabbed an apple each. As they dashed back out the gate they looked round and all was quiet. They walked down the street munching on their ill-gotten gains not realising they had indeed been seen. The owner dashed after them, put his hand between the boys' faces and slapped Joel with his palm, then back-handed Ashley.
"Enjoy your apples lads" the man muttered and went back to his house.

Joel had a rosy red cheek but the back-hander split Ashley’s lip, drawing blood. In this day and age the man would have found himself in court on assault charges and possibly facing a prison sentence, but neither Joel nor Ashley even considered telling their parents what happened. It wouldn’t have been the only slap they received.

The new scrumping place had its own hidden danger. Joel and Steve were up a tree when a large Alsatian dog came running to the bottom of the tree. It saw the boys and started barking. Steve began pelting it with apples making the dog even angrier. Joel was worried the barking would alert someone, but there was no escape without confronting the dog. The dog was more intent on Steve who was still throwing apples and shouting obscenities. He looked almost possessed. The dog was directly below him so Steve unzipped his fly and urinated on it. The barking became more frenzied and did indeed alert the owner who finally came to investigate. He was carrying a bamboo stick and Joel feared the worst.

The owner took hold of the dog’s collar and ordered the boys down from the tree. He escorted them out of the small orchard, alternately swiping each boy’s backside with the bamboo stick all the way to the gate. The boys never went back again. In spite of the trouble Steve caused, Joel still hung around with him until something else he did was the last straw. Joel may not have been as devout a Catholic as other kids with deeply religious parents, but the school and serving on the altar did make him a little respectful. Steve however wasn’t a Catholic and had no religious allegiance. One day when walking through a graveyard Steve saw a big stone cross. He stood one side of it and started to push.
"Steve, I don’t think you should do that"

Steve was a year older than Joel. He didn’t listen to boys his own age and older, so he certainly wasn’t going to listen to Joel and he pushed harder. The cross began to lean then fell over, smashing to pieces as it hit the ground. The act of vandalism was in the local paper with a picture of the shattered cross. It wasn’t even a Catholic church but it still made Joel feel bad. When Steve came round to boast about it, Joel’s father called up to him.
"Steve’s here"
"Tell him I’m busy" Joel called back curtly.

Joel’s father shrugged at Steve who frowned and went away muttering.

* * * * *

It was a good summer for weather and the boys were becoming more adventurous. The additional freedom afforded by the long daylight hours, coupled with a wanderlust borne of living in a sheltered little village, saw the boys going further afield. They were actually following in the footsteps of older boys and siblings. This bunch of lads were not the first batch from the village to spread their wings. The boys knew where to go and how to bunk the trains to get there. They would board the middle of the train and keep watch both ways to see where the ticket collector was. When he was spotted, the boys would hurry to the opposite end of the train, knowing the ticket collector didn't have time to check all the passengers before the next stop.

The two villages were close together by train, and then the main town was a similar distance from the closest village. At the next village the boys would get off one train before the ticket collector reached them, then wait for the next one half an hour later and do the same. It took the boys nearly an hour to do what was a fifteen minute journey but it was free, even on occasions like today when they had the money to pay.

The boys had time to kill but hurried along to a level crossing. They crossed the track and carried on a little way. Further up they quickly climbed the trees. The boys swung about like monkeys on the branches that overhung the track.
"Here it comes" Ashley shouted and the boys stopped swinging.

They climbed out on thick branches above the track and looked down waiting. The boys held tight as the train coming from town passed just a few feet beneath them. Their whoops and hoots drowned out by the noise of the train. When it had passed the boys swung around again for a while, then went back to the station to wait for their train.

The town had many attractions. The beach and cliffs among them. On rare occasions like today, a trip to the cinema to see the latest release was a special treat. Most parents thought the old movies in the village cinema adequate. There was a big fairground but that was also deemed a waste of money by parents. It didn't stop the boys though. They would wait outside the gates hoping to cadge wristbands. Tokens for single rides could be bought or alternately day-wristbands which allowed unlimited rides all day. It allowed people to leave the park and return throughout the day. Many families would start leaving around four or five o clock and the boys would ask everyone who came out of the gate if they had finished with their wristbands. Some people were rude, but there was never a time the boys failed to get one each.

The cinema in town was another treat. Unlike the one in the village, it showed all the new films. The experience may have been a visual treat for Joel but he didn't share his friends fever pitch excitement. To him the highlight was the popcorn the boys bought with the money that should have gone on train fare. There were no worries about the village boys throwing popcorn at people, every morsel was savoured and not a crumb was wasted. Using the same method with the trains on the return journey made Joel late home and resulted in no dinner, but it was worth it.

* * * * *

Boredom was unheard of in the boys' busy summer schedule. They found it hard to fit everything in. It was a time of magic and wonder with endless opportunities to play and explore. The penalties could be harsh but the accompanying security and respect from such an environment were priceless for the community spirit. Coal miners were a hardy breed and even with improvements since the war, it was no place for wimps. For most of the boys of the village the colliery was the only chance they had of employment, and fathers prepared their sons for this man's world from an early age.

The boys got up to things that would have made even these parents cringe. Perhaps the most dangerous thing they did was collecting seagull eggs. As ever Ashley did it first, it was almost like he had a death wish, or perhaps he was just oblivious to the dangers. The cliffs were more than high enough to make a fall fatal and the boys laid on their stomachs looking over. There were seagull nests all over the cliffs and the nearest ones were about fifteen feet down.
"Bet you can't get an egg" Jamie challenged Ashley.

The other boys laughed, there was no way anybody was going to climb down the vertical face of the cliff to get the eggs. It made them feel funny just looking over the edge. Ashley swung his legs over and reached with a toe for a solid hold. He found one and then with remarkable ease scampered down the cliff, put an egg in his mouth, and climbed back up again.
"Your turn" he declared triumphantly.

With only a momentary pause Jamie swung his legs over and climbed down to another nest. He wasn't as fast as Ashley, but Jamie managed the feat with equal ease. Nobody challenged Joel but he knew it would be expected of him, especially as Ashley had done it. Joel's heart was in his mouth as he swung his legs over. He was ultra-careful and took twice as long as Jamie, but like the others came back unscathed, even though at one point he swore he could actually feel his fingernails growing.

Alan looked at the three 'heroes' and made up his mind to get an egg as well. Joel felt almost as fearful for Alan as he had been for himself. He contented himself with the thought Alan had been hurt last so it must be Joel's turn, and he had already survived. Alan's foot slipped at one point causing all the boys' hearts to miss a beat, otherwise he was faster than Jamie. From those first tentative steps the boys were soon harvesting the eggs. None of the other boys would try to get one, not even Steve who was just as reckless as Ashley in some ways. The only near miss came one time when Ashley snatched an egg and an angry seagull started attacking him. He managed to scramble back up the cliff and the other boys shooed it away.

The seaside became a popular place to camp with many hidden coves. From the top of the cliff they watched the fishing boats coming in and went to meet them, curious to see what had been caught. The fishermen were a jolly bunch and were happy chatting to the boys.
"Got a spare fish mister please?"
"Got a spare crab, a little one mister please?"

The boys soon learnt which boats had shell-fish and which had wet fish.
"Got a spare little lobster please mister?" Joel always was ambitious.

His mother had one at a restaurant once and told Joel is was like a giant prawn. Joel loved prawns. Prawn cocktail was a special treat usually as a starter to Christmas dinner, or at weddings (and funerals).

The boys soon learned to follow the tide out from the bottom of the cliff and they found cockles and mussels. On a real good day the boys would feast on hard boiled gull eggs, cockles, mussels, mackerel (sometimes herring or whiting) and crab. They didn't know about the dead-man's fingers in a crab until a fisherman told them. They had eaten several by then but nobody became ill. The boys liked the claws best and whoever managed to scrounge the crab had first pick.

With all the gathered booty the boys would start a small camp-fire, Mattie had an army canteen his father gave him. It comprised of three metal cooking pots, a mug, knife, fork, spoon, and tin-opener, all folding away into one easy to carry container clipped on Mattie's belt. They could always rely on Scott for matches. Then one day it happened!
"Got a spare lobster please mister, a massive one" Joel said finally tiring of the relentless question he had continued to ask fruitlessly.

The fisherman roared with laughter.
"Raised our expectations have we?" he asked jovially.
"Well, I've never had one and if I do get one I'll probably never get another so I might as well have a big 'un" Joel rattled off without taking a breath.

The fisherman laughed again.
"If I give you a lobster, just this once, do you promise never to ask for one again?"
"I promise I'll never ask YOU for one again" Joel said earnestly after thinking a moment and brought more laughter from the fisherman.
"That's good enough for me" he said and went back the crates picking out a good size lobster.
"Tell your mum to put it in boiling water for twenty minutes" he said handing it to Joel.
"She ain't getting it, she's had one, I'm eating this!" Joel said adamantly "Me and my mates anyway"
"I suppose you'll cook it on a camp fire" the fisherman said barely able to keep the mirth out of his voice.
"Yep!" Joel said proudly.
"Get away wi' ya" the fisherman laughed and turned back to his catch.

Joel liked asking for a lobster because even though he was unsuccessful he was often compensated with a crab. Sometimes the boys found their own crabs in the rock pools left by the departing tide, but they were usually too small to eat. The boys dined on lobster that day and Joel had the biggest claw he had ever seen, as well a good chunk of tail. All agreed it was the best thing they had ever tasted.

* * * * *

Patrick was as an exception, his parents had gone into religious overdrive. He was a timid boy who feared even farting in church would send him straight to Hell. Joel felt a little sorry for him and made friends with Patrick, despite everyone else calling him a freak. To make matters worse Patrick cried a lot and even a little bit was too much for the boys of the village, boys simply didn't cry. Joel blamed Patrick's parents, sure the boy would have been a lot more popular in school had he been allowed the same freedom as the others. 

His parents tried hard to keep him away from the corrupting influence of other children, little realising they were creating a monster. The other boys had long since given up with Patrick. What was the point of a friend who was never allowed out of his garden? On Patrick’s eleventh birthday his parents allowed him a party, at home of course, but it just served to confirm their fears that other kids were a bad influence on the boy.

Patrick invited Joel first, and was allowed to invite another five boys. There were strictly no girls by order of Patrick’s parents, not that any would have been invited anyway, except possibly Jodie. Patrick asked Joel whom he should invite and quite naturally Joel suggested his own friends. Jamie, Ashley, Alan, Scott and Terry were decided on, which upset Jodie no end.

At the party the stifling influence of Patrick’s parents was irritating the boys. ‘Don’t make a mess’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’. It wasn't like any party the other boys were used to and inevitably Ashley and Scott began to misbehave. The boys were getting bored. Musical Chairs and Pass the Parcel may have been okay for six or seven year olds but the boys were eleven now and didn’t want to play baby games, especially under the strict guidance of adults.

When the boys gave Patrick the birthday bumps his mother looked on, frowning in concern her baby might get hurt. Boys were boys and the village boys in general were far more robust and daring than their townie counterparts. 

"Not too high" Patrick's mother fussed as the boys counted the bumps.

The first sign of trouble was when Scott ‘pantsed’ Patrick. Patrick was wearing 'trackies' with an elasticated waistband. Scott crept up behind the birthday boy yanking his trackies down. It was common prank and all the boys at some point had suffered the indignity of having their underpants exposed for the world to see. Unfortunately Scott had picked an inopportune moment as Patrick's mother just came back into the room. To make matters worse, when he grabbed Patrick's trackies he had unwittingly taken hold of the boxer shorts underneath. In one swift motion Patrick's pants and boxer shorts were yanked down to his knees. It was unexpected and the boys laughed heartily as a red-faced Patrick quickly pulled his pants back up.

Patrick's mother looked visibly shaken. The horrified expression on her face surprised the boys. It was almost as though she would be struck blind. Nudity was a definite no-no in Patrick's house. For Patrick to be an only child in a strict Catholic household had to be an indication on how his parents thought about certain things.

Things went downhill from there. Patrick's father was rapidly losing patience with the boys and finding it harder to hide his feelings. On a subconscious level the irritation of Patrick's parents was being transferred to the boys. They were naturally boisterous but now they were looking for a reaction. When Ashley initiated a food fight the party came to an abrupt halt. It was actually quite restrained as food fights went, but still a step too far for Patrick's parents. The boys were glad the party ended prematurely. Anytime it looked like they would have some fun, stern words would nip it in the bud.
"Patrick’s a drip" Jamie muttered as he walked home with Ashley and Joel.
"He’s a girl" Ashley added with disgust.
"It’s not his fault, it’s his mum and dad, they’re weird" Joel said trying to defend his school-friend.

What was supposed to be the best day of Patrick’s life, had ended with the boy reduced to tears. How could his parents not see the harm they were doing. Most of the boys had crosses to bear of one sort or another, but none ever complained about their treatment. It was accepted as the norm and the boys were far more interested in getting on with their lives, instead of bemoaning their personal circumstances. Of all the boys, Alan was most envied for his home life. He was the 'baby' of the family and with two troublesome brothers, Alan slipped under the radar. He was never known to be beaten by his father.

Fate may have been kind to Alan at home but made up for it in other ways. An old saying states ‘seven scars maketh a man’ but if that was true Alan and Joel could have made half a battalion between them. The two boys more or less took it in turns to get hurt and it was spooky the way it happened, but certainly not contrived. In general Alan’s injuries were worse, Joel hadn’t broken any bones but Alan had a catalogue of them. He had broken both legs (at different times), an arm, wrist, three fingers, and a collar bone. That was without counting the cuts and bruises. Very often it was as a result of bizarre accidents and usually caused by a third party, but one occasion shortly after his eleventh birthday was Alan's own stupid fault. Given the nature of his friends he was asking for trouble, and was duly obliged.

Ear piercings were fashionable with boys from the towns and cities, but in the village any boys with an earring would be regarded with suspicion in this man’s world. Both Alan’s brothers had earrings and he complained when he wasn’t allowed one. One day the boys put their heads together and decided to give Alan what he wanted. It might have been what Alan wanted, but it didn't quite happen as he expected. The boys thought they had it all organised in their childish naivety and set out their tools. Two ice cubes to put either side of the ear lobe to numb it, and a darning needle to pierce the ear with. Things started to go wrong almost immediately. The ice cubes had little effect in the numbing department, judging by the screeches coming from Alan when Jamie tried to push the needle through his lobe. Alan was thicker skinned than thought and Jamie couldn't get the needle to pierce the ear.

Two more ice cubes were put on Alan’s ear whilst Ashley fetched a hammer to hit the needle with. Alan lay across the kitchen table and put his head down. The boys couldn’t rest the lobe flat against the table so Xander picked up a small piece of wood from outside. With the wood strategically placed on the table and Alan’s ear lobe now resting against an immovable object, Jamie positioned the needle again.
"Do it quickly please" Alan pleaded, fear in his voice.

Deciding one good hit would be better than several little ones Jamie took the hammer and belted the needle hard. It went straight through the lobe and deep into the wood behind it. The boys cheered but Alan jumped up and ran around the room screeching even louder than before. The piece of wood was pinned to his ear by the needle. The only person not laughing hysterically was Alan who continued running around the room howling.
"Get it out, get it out!" he yelled.
"Come here and stop blubbing" Ashley ordered.

He tried to pull the needle out but it wouldn't budge.
"Try pulling the wood not the needle" Joel suggested.
"You do it then" Ashley said.

Joel tried but the needle went deeper into Alan’s ear lobe. Alan’s screeches were going right through Joel and he let go. It was all too much for poor Nathan who went white as a sheet and had to go outside. Jamie saw the needle being pulled through the ear by the wood.
"Let me try"

Jamie grabbed the wood and pulled hard. The needle came halfway through the ear lobe then parted company with the wood. Now Alan was running round the room with the needle sticking out of his ear. The boys cornered him and pulled the needle back through. Jamie picked up the ear-ring Alan had taken from his mother’s jewellery drawer.
"Here and I’ll put this in for you"
Alan swore a Jamie angrily, he’d had enough.
"You’ve got to put it in or the hole will close up" Ashley told him.
"I don’t care" Alan said adamantly.

The boys left Alan alone but a couple of days later as if to add insult to injury, his ear lobe went septic. The needle hadn’t been sterilised. Ashley took great delight in squeezing the pus out of the swollen lobe, providing even more amusement to all but Alan and the queasy Nathan. Alan's parents relented and he was eventually allowed his piercing after his ear healed up. It was possibly because of his pains at the botched DIY attempt, or maybe just to stop Alan damaging himself further.

* * * * *

With several of the boys working now paper rounds, there was money to spend. It wasn’t sufficient to buy expensive items like computers, which had evolved to the stage where they were no longer just a dot moving across a screen to be hit with a paddle. Spectrums, Commodores, and Mega-drives were fast becoming obsessions with town and city boys, but the villagers were yet to succumb to this new menace that threatened the welfare of children. Instead the boys from the village spent their hard earned cash on less harmful things, like pellet guns. 

It seems ridiculous on the face of it, and many would argue which was healthier. Sitting for hours in a darkened room shooting at a virtual foe, or running around the woods taking pot-shots at each other with guns unable to pierce skin, The boys initially hunted with the guns but soon realised they were ineffectual. It seemed quite natural to shoot each other instead. They had played war games for as long as they could remember, it was no big deal. 

The boys went back to the more tried and tested ways of stalking other prey. The closest they had come to killing anything with the all but useless weapons was when Ashley fluked a head-shot on a pheasant. It dazed the bird to a degree but didn’t prevent it from scuttling away through undergrowth, clearly in distress.
"Kill it! KILL IT!!" screamed Nathan as the boys gave chase.

No, it wasn’t blood-lust that prompted Nathan’s screams, it was the fact the thought the pheasant was suffering. Although the boys hunted animals and birds, it was purely for food, and they wouldn’t kill anything they weren’t going to eat. Rats, wasps, and flies being acceptable exceptions. Even bees were off-limits. The boys managed to corner the pheasant and Mattie wrung its neck bringing relief to the bird and a tearful Nathan alike.

* * * * *

One food source which had so far eluded the boys was rabbit. The surrounding countryside was alive with them but they were impossible for the boys to chase down. All that changed when some of the boys started keeping ferrets. Mattie was the first to get one and that might have been the end of it. When Jamie then Xander both bought a ferret as well, it left Joel no choice. He had to get one. Joel didn’t even like the animals, they were far too vicious. Xander was bitten on the finger and the ferret wouldn’t let go. Xander’s father had to prise the ferret's jaws apart to free the boy.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow" Xander kept repeating as his friends rolled around on the ground holding their stomachs.

It looked funny when it was someone else on the receiving end but it certainly made Joel wary of the animals. The boys soon learnt how to pick a ferret up. They had to be quick, grabbing the ferret round the shoulders and neck so it couldn’t turn and bite. Joel hit lucky when he bought his 'ferret' from Hawkeye, a local man who kept birds of prey. He had a special licence allowing him to do so and had four birds. Two falcons, a kestrel, and a huge owl. He also bred ferrets, rabbits, and mice. Joel was told he could buy a ferret off the man and went round to get one.
"Have you got one that doesn’t bite?" Joel asked and the man laughed.
"They all bite, that’s what they do, they’re predators"
"Well have you got one that don’t bite as much?"

The man scratched his chin and regarded the worried looking boy with an amused expression.
"There is one" he said finally "but it’s not a ferret it’s a weasel

Joel nodded. He didn’t know what the difference was but if it didn’t bite him he didn’t care. The man went to a hutch and pulled out the weasel. At first glance Joel was unsure. It was bigger than the ferrets the other boys had, but Joel liked the colouration. The ferrets were all white apart from the yellowish tinge on parts of their coat. The weasel had brown and black colouring, breaking up the creamy white between. Hawkeye offered the animal to Joel to hold and he took it nervously.
"He’s a big daft sod, I doubt he’ll bite you"

The weasel appeared to like being held and Joel stroked it with growing confidence. Joel was impressed and handed over his money.
"What’s he called?" Joel asked and Hawkeye laughed again.
"Call him what you like he won’t come"

Joel carried the animal home deciding to call him Zorro as he was reminded of the masked hero from Saturday morning pictures. It looked like the weasel had a similar mask over the eyes. Joel’s father knew he had gone to get a ferret and laughed when he saw what he brought home.
"That’s not a ferret it’s a bloody pole-cat"
"Hawkeye said it’s a weasel" Joel sniffed.
"Pole-cat, weasel, potato, tomato"

There was a similar reaction from Joel’s friends and their fathers. They were all of the opinion it wouldn’t be much use for catching rabbits. Joel didn’t care, at least he wasn’t going to get bitten. The boys gathered in Jamie’s garden with their ferrets ready to go and find some rabbits. They knew of several warrens because they had seen the holes when out in the countryside. The boys had been given some nets and pegs to place over the holes and had a small lump of wood each to kill the rabbits. Jamie’s oldest brother looked at the boys grinning.
"I’ll give fifty pence to whoever can keep the ferret down their pants longest" he challenged.

Xander looked decidedly nervous.
"Won’t they bite?" he asked.
"There was one case where a man had his willy bitten off, but he got it sewn back on. Anyway I doubt if they’ll worry about your little maggot" Jamie's brother answered laughing.

The boys were apprehensive but Jamie tucked his trousers into his socks ready. Jamie had to live up to his brother's reputation and he wasn’t going to lose face. Besides, fifty pence was fifty pence! Joel, Mattie, and Xander copied Jamie then unbuttoned their trousers. On the count of three the boys put the ferrets down their pants.

They tried to keep still with the claws of the ferrets scratching thighs and legs as they wriggled about. Zorro just went to the bottom of Joel’s trousers and curled up to go to sleep. It was too much for the other boys who pulled up their trouser legs out of their socks, allowing the ferrets to escape through the bottom by the ankles. Joel was declared the winner. Jamie’s brother handed over the fifty pence laughing at the other boys who were inspecting their legs for scratches. None were actually bitten.

For all the mickey-taking it turned out Zorro was perfect for the job of netting rabbits. It was an asset that he was slow and cumbersome because it meant there was little chance of him making a kill underground. It was a problem if the ferrets caught and killed a rabbit because they would eat their fill then curl up and go to sleep. If this happened the owner was left with three choices. Dig the ferret out, wait hours for it to wake up and re-emerge, or leave it and buy another ferret.

The boys soon learnt by their mistakes. Sometimes they would miss one or two of the escape routes and not put a net over them. It was almost as if the rabbits knew which had been missed and bolted out of those holes. The other thing was they had to be very quiet because some rabbits would rather face a ferret than go above ground if they knew humans were waiting. Joel’s first kill was a disaster. He held the rabbit down and asked Mattie what to do.
"Hit it" Mattie said waving his bit of wood.

Joel gave the rabbit a knock on the head with his piece of wood but it just struggled more.
"No, HIT it!" Mattie yelled.

Joel hit the rabbit as hard as he could and both the eyes popped out.
"Yuk! You didn’t have to hit it that hard!" Mattie snorted.