'Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow'
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........
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.
"I don't know yet"
"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.
* * * * *
"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.