Let us say, life changes at a glance. Let us say you’re walking forward, you turn your head to look over your shoulder, and behind you the landscape has changed. One life, a life you might have led, is snatched back into the shadows. A different life begins.
This is the day I meet my stepfather; it is the day he meets me. I must not take for granted that you know the topography. You have not seen with your own eyes the long snaking road, nor the hedge on one side, behind which the land rises, nor the wall on the other side, beyond which the land falls away. I am four now. I don’t go to school yet. I am small. I wear a bonnet. And everything about me is as sweet as sweety-pie. My head is slightly too big for my body. The inside of it is bulging with knowledge.
The hedge looks dusty, grey masking green, as if a deposit of ash has fallen, from some distant perpetual fire. The waste ground behind it, steep and tussocky, seems to fade to monochrome. On the other side of the road the wall is made of blackened stone. Beyond it is the cannery. We are walking uphill towards home.
This is the geography I have purchase on. I don’t know left or right. This is a steep village and so I just know up from down. I just know there and back, what’s before me and what’s behind. St Charles Borromeo, behind me, is called ‘our church’. The school of St Charles Borromeo is called ‘our school’. Up ahead is Bankbottom, that is called ‘home’: I am slow with the word ‘home’, because no one says it, they say ‘our house’.
I am forging towards the crossroads, Station Road cross Woolley Bridge Road cross Tintwistle Road, Tintwistle pronounced (except by my mother) Tinsel. If you leave the door open when you come into our house, people say: ‘Do you come from Tinsel?’ And indeed, at the very crossroads, you may see the first front door standing open, in the Tinsel manner: not open wide, just fifteen inches or so, just enough to take the effort out of being nosy.
At this age I have to decode the streets before they are safe to walk. It’s a snag that I can’t read, but I am having all signboards read to me, also the covers of drains and manholes, and those square yellow plates bolted to walls with numbers on them. If you take care to be observant you will see that the roads teem with spoors and tracks, the tracks left for each other by one trade or another, by the companies of men about their business. This plate affixed to the wall, my grandad says, denotes the presence of a hydrant, so many yards that way and so many this. He does not point, but uses his whole hand to indicate: to the forward, to the swerve. Beneath the pavements are pipes and drains, culverts and sewers, and above ground are words to the wise, if you know how to find them. We have just walked on to the toffee shop, at the top of Woolley Bridge Road. If you take care to be observant, Grandad, I say, look into this crack in the wall and you will see a big spider. He faces the craggy stonework, bending his back but not his knees. It is low, for a grown man. He presses his hands into his back as he rises. Ee, love, he says, I take my hat off to you. He is a big ‘un.
I say yes, he is always there.
Let us say, life changes at a glance. Let us say you are still moving towards home, towards Bankbottom, confident and purposive. Let us say it is still five minutes before you will turn and look back over your shoulder and your prospects will be transformed. Coming up now, just before the crossroads, is the Wesleyan chapel.
One day, previous to this, you are coming home from Sunday Mass at our church. For some time now you have been able to take your eyes off your own feet without the general danger of falling over; that’s the stage of walking you are up to. You notice this structure looming up – a big flat frontage, a big dim window. It has some features resembling a church, but not all. Huge window, but no tower: mighty double doors, shut. You cast your eye across the road to establish how it’s located for fire hydrants. You touch your mother’s sleeve, the deep-cuffed sleeve of her winter coat; soft wool brushes your cheek. You say, would this be a church? The reply is soothing: no, it is a chapel. Read the sign, please. It is the Wesleyan chapel. What would be Wesleyan? Well, it is Methodist. What should be the method? No, no, no, it is a church, of sorts. It is a chapel.
I torment her for particulars. It is called pestering. Pestering about Methodists. She says, they sing different hymns. Have you been there? Oh, once, she says, once or twice, with non-Catholic friends; though strictly speaking I should not.
On higher ground, on another street, on another day but soon, you find a second chapel, the Primitive Methodists. You pull her sleeve again. You are out of breath from the climb up the steep street. Your eyes grow round.
You go about and about, seeking enlightenment. This is how the world gets wrong, this is how the wires get crossed. You should persist in questioning with each individual, not stumble about all over the place looking for answers: but you have to get definitions from whoever isn’t too busy. What is primitive? Soon I am seized with mirth: baseless, I know, but I can’t help it. I imagine the Methodists draped in animal skins, beating drums, and I imagine them chalking on the walls. People look around in alarm, checking over their shoulders to see who in our backyard I’m offending. ‘Mrs Clayton’s chapel,’ someone says plaintively.
Ho, ho, is she? I run to read her door number. It’s No. 60; I’m glad of it. Till now, 58 was the highest number I knew. I frolic outside her door, waiting for her to form a hunting party, or rush out and scalp me; though I know she’s a small poor lady, with a piping voice and a bird’s neck. Till someone explains why it’s wrong, I’m sticking by my joke. I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s the only joke I’ve got.
I know everything about denominations: church, chapel, various chapels, Protestant which is St Andrews. At the top of the village is the station. I know various stations, pegs on the map of the line my grandfather draws. To other people stations are places you go to on trips, but Grandad will talk about them even when you aren’t at them or on your way to them. The whole vast train system forms an invisible mesh, drawn tight, under his railway guard’s cap. For him stations are places that exist in pure thought form, and which you may represent in the form of a drawing, a drawing in the form of a double streak, a worm, a worm divided into segments, scored off by his pencil. His pencil is not painted, it is the colour of wood. I bite and gnaw the end. Don’t do that. Don’t worry, I want to say, I won’t, it is not a fixed habit with me. I am only imitating Walter Drain.
It is Walter I sit next to, when in time I go to school. He is a penance for me – a penance before the fact, as I am not up to the Sacraments yet, not till I’m seven. Till then, Walter is a punishment for me because I am so distractible, always looking around for someone to engage in conversation. Walter gnaws his pencil so constantly that the wood dissolves into mush and the lead protrudes, fragile, snappable, and taps against his grey baby teeth. It is why Walter never speaks: his mouth is otherwise occupied, sucking, chomping. Walter’s father shaves his head. It is a penance for him, perhaps.
When I am five I learn the catechism.
Who made you? God made me.
Why did God make you? God made me to know him, love him and serve him.
What is a Methodist? It is just another method.
What is a hairnet? It is a net made of hair.
At the end of the railway line is Manchester. Land of my father. Every day he travels there, wearing his trilby hat. A Manchester word is ‘civil’. Oh yes, he is a very civil man. He wears a trilby and he is a very civil man.
So let us say you are on this road, and it is a year or two earlier, it is before Walter and his pencil, and let us say you are not yet five, and you are walking uphill because you’ve been down to our school: not for teaching, for a visit. Running ahead of your mother, you are approaching the Wesleyan chapel. You turn and look back. Your mother is pushing a heavy, shrouded object on a baby’s trolley. Walking with her is a man you don’t know.
Immediately, you feel you should run back and put him in the picture. Does he know what object she is pushing? Does he know this trolley is yours? Does he know you at all, your name and address?
Let’s unwrap this. Let’s shine a torch back into the mouth of the underworld, and take some notes in the mouth of the cavern. Let’s return there, as the fabled dog to its vomit. Let it be a trotty dog with an eager curled tail.
Your mother goes to the school each day but is not a teacher, though she could have been, she could have been, she says, Father Coleman implored her, and he would have got her a grant: a grant is a payment. Father Coleman came up himself and directly implored her, describing to her the reference he would write, and a reference – what is a reference? It is praise of you written down, a recommendation, your suitability. Father Coleman would not have hesitated to put the weight of himself behind it. But an opportunity was missed, I fear, she says: once again she was denied her chance. Other people have their chances in life, but hers it would seem is never. No one would mind the baby while she went to the training college. They could not be responsible, they said, and didn’t feel themselves up to it. The baby they would not mind is me.
So she is not a teacher nor a pupil, though once she sat herself, once she, in these very classrooms, these very benches. Once she herself at those desks and chairs, an exemplary, her work books shown about, reverently preserved by Mother Urban long after she had left: shown about to other pupils to discourage them, long after Margaret Mary Foster has gone to work in the mill. She is called MMCF, Margaret Mary Cecilia, Cecilia for the patron saint of music, an art in which she is perfect: her embroidery as elegant on the wrong side as on the right, chain stitch and satin stitch. Her work is unblotted, both religion and sums, and most widely praised her compositions. Her recitation: ‘A host of golden daffodils’.
Now she is the school secretary. She does the books; this means enters figures in columns in a big ledger, this ledger is the books. To enter is to write in. It is to write in, at the correct place. She types the letters on the typewriter. Keenly she strikes the keys.
One day, we walk down the road to school pushing my trolley. The trolley is empty, as I can walk, thank you. But I remember when my feet rested on its broad running-board, and my fingers grazed its smart grey coachwork.
So this is school! This is the top class, she says, you will not be in here, this is Mother Malachy’s. Of course, she says, in your grandma’s day it was one great schoolroom, but now between rooms as you see there are half-glazed partitions. I think they are called petitions, but she corrects me.
The air is acrid. The floors are bare boards. I look around. Where did Grandma sit? She says she doesn’t know. Did she sit there? Or there? I’ll ask her, I say, when we get home, but my mother says she truly doubts I’ll get much sense out of her, on that point or any other.
My grandma says all of her life she was in terror of Sister Deshonkle and Mother Desensailes; those, she swears, were their names. If you broke your needle sewing, you were in for it then! We’d to chase a horse to get a hair out of its tail, you put it on your hand and the stick doesn’t hurt so much. She asked for a needle to take from home to make up for the broken one, but her mother shouted a curse and chased her out of the door throwing shoes at her. She ran to school where Sister Deshonkle was waiting, grinning and prancing, whipping her cane through the air.
One day, Grandma says, when we was going down to our school, a lass said: look in our window, you can see me mam and dad rolling drunk under the table, and beating each other.
So they peeped through the gap in the drawn curtains, and that was exactly what they saw.
Those were the olden days.
The days of yore.
My mother, because she visits the school so often, brings me red lollipops from it. These are what you can buy at playtime, she says. I realise that, though I am her only daughter (as she is my only mother), she knows how to induct a child towards the prospect of pleasure. My mouth is hardly wide enough to insert the vast red stop sign inside it, but all the same I try.
This is the office, my mother says. She opens the door. It leads off the top class’s classroom, and it’s really a corner of the room petitioned – no, partitioned off. It’s not big, I say, she says no, really just a cubicle. Papers lie stacked on the desk. The typewriter squats among them. It is a great metal machine, gleaming and black. ‘Is it steam?’ I ask. My mother corrects me: is it driven by steam? Then says, no.
She lunges at it, and heaves it up into her arms. Its teeth tip against the front of her frock. She groans, she gasps. She drops it with a thud and a clatter into my trolley. Though delicate she is strong as any man, she says, yet the typewriter causes her to groan. She puts a hand on her back. She closes her eyes. We are pushing the typewriter home, she explains. So that she can type the letters at home, it is going in the trolley instead of me.
I peer at it. Letters lie on its flat yellow teeth. I dab at one with a finger. Don’t, she says. Don’t interfere with that. She masks it with a great black cloth which she says is to protect it: it is called its protective cover. I finger it; it feels wet but not like ink; I inhale it, a faint smell I can’t name. I stare at my fingers, to see if the black has come off.
My mother rests her hands on the push-bar of the trolley, eases it backwards out of the cubicle. She pushes down, rocks it back on its hind wheels, makes a half-circle turn. It rumbles over the floor; we leave the classroom. A big brass bell sits on a ledge. I ask to ring it, she says it would be inadvisable. I take a final breath of the lung-scrubbing air. I see that no one else is at the school, just us. My mother explains it is the holidays; I say, oh, that’s nice. We push the trolley across the whole façade of the school, then run it down the slope to the gates.
At the school gates we turn onto the track called the carriage drive. I stop to peer into the Holy Well. It is St Winifred’s Well. The proper name for it is a grotto. The ground all around it runs with damp. Rusted railings stop you from climbing in to touch the stonework, clotted with drifts of dead leaves. If you hang about there at midnight you will see the devil; my grandmother has told me so. It is also true that if you hang about there in the afternoon you will see a frog.
We have reached the main road, Woolley Bridge Road; we turn uphill. What if I am tired, I say: what will we do? I cast a piteous look at the trolley. Under its protective cover, hidden from all eyes, the machine steams gently, it puffs, it clatters at me. What if I am tired and can’t walk any further?
You are not tired, she says equably. You can walk. Oh, OK. I always wait to be informed by her of what state I am in. It is a feature of mothers to understand their daughters thoroughly and speak about their states. You are hungry, no you are not hungry, you are tired, you are overtired, I am afraid you have a temperature, I think you need to go to the toilet. They can inquire, have you done anything? This is not a general inquiry, but a rather specific one. My grandmother puts it another way, have you done your business? To ensure you do your business you have Syrup of Figs. In colour like muddied water, it is poured nightly into the shining bowl of a spoon. As my mouth approaches, it foams lightly.
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.
So we are pushing the trolley. We are pushing the laden trolley up towards Bankbottom, wheeling its important passenger up Woolley Bridge Road. I put my hands on the bar, to help. That, my mother says, is what she calls hindering. When Grandad comes off his shift I can tell him I’ve been to school today; Good Lord, he will exclaim, you are very advanced! I can tell him I’ve been hindering, been in a cubicle; I rang a great brass bell.
As it seems I am not tired, I romp ahead, ranging up and down the road, running twenty steps to every one of hers, forward and back, forward and back. I skip, I hop, I glance back to see if my frisking is appreciated; I am not tired. I cast my glance back and my mother is walking with a man I don’t know. She knows him, though.
I set my eye on the chapel, looming ahead. I know it’s only the Wesleyan Methodists, but it does not stop me thinking merrily about the savage sort. The building is set back from the road behind a high wall, and fronting this wall is a rampart of grass. If you are small it is irresistible to run up and across it, so a muddy path is worn, the width of a small child’s shoe, and in the middle of the path is a hole down which I hope there is a rabbit: a sort of token, a town rabbit, available to any toddler who looks into this hole. I’ve never seen a hair of it, not a glimpse of scut, yet I will lisp, wilfully, spitefully: ‘rabbit down there.’ Just my little whimsical fantasy, I know. I want to be a child. I want to play my role. My family has only one child and I am it.
I look back at them walking, my mother, the man. I run along the shoe-path, wide as a child’s shoe. I skid down to the pavement; I run and skid down again, so long are they taking, so long are they taking to get anywhere, so slow: so slowly, slowly, slowly are they walking.
I look back down Woolley Bridge Road. The weight of the steaming typewriter oppresses my mother, she is trailing her feet, the man is trailing his feet too, his hands are on the bar and he is hindering. They lean together as they talk. Time passes I am sure, though I don’t have a watch. I loop back to catch up with them. I make remarks about Methodists: more to myself than to them, but I need my presence to be registered. The register is what they call at school. My mother brings home and checks the register. I count the ticks, she explains. The names denote the children. Zero denotes absence. Absent is missing.
I say: missing? Missing means lost! She says no, it means ill.
What are they ill of? She says she can’t imagine.
I frisk back towards them; the slow walkers, still hindering, his hands beside hers on the bar of the trolley. I chatter to attract their attention. The Methodists live in there, it is savage. I have seen a half-glazed petition, has he seen it, does he know what one is? I have seen a big brass bell, it is on a shelf, such a small shelf we call a ledge. The devil lives on Woolley Bridge Road, the road between our house and our church, looking for souls to snaffle, looking to catch them in a greasy leather pouch.
Snaffle means to catch up quickly. It is what you do when you are on the qui vive! When Grandma brings in a plate of cakes, Grandad says: ‘That one looks good, love – I’d snaffle it, if I were you.’
Thus the devil reaches out, he takes our soul as if it were an iced bun.
When he is unoccupied he lies flat in the ditch. At midnight you will spot him; he has luminous tips to his horns, and flat on his leather paw he carries one tiny candle, the candle from a birthday cake.
The man nods; his face, which is yellow and narrow, makes a narrow smile. Small brown hair, like feathers, springs from his brow. Like my mother, he smiles without showing his teeth. He smiles in a minimal way, as a social obligation: turning up the corners of his mouth. He nods; he acknowledges me.
We are home at Bankbottom, in my grandmother’s house, which is to say, our house too. My father is not at home yet. He is still in Manchester, wearing his trilby and being civil. My Auntie Margaret is there from next door perhaps, the back door is open, various people are walking freely in and out. I am in the kitchen. My mother is walking, pacing between the kitchen and the front room. Sometimes she quickens her stride as new people buzz in and out. She turns about and about, to smile at those who come in at the front door and those who come in at the back; she swivels on her heels, smiling into their faces. She is saying to everybody, guess who I saw, Jack Mantel, Jack Mantel. She indicates me and says I was embarrassing about the Methodists; she flutters that she hopes Jack Mantel was not offended, for ‘they’re chapel, aren’t they?’ She turns about and about, her hand laid to her cheek; she is performing for an audience. I am in the scene, a thing to be indicated, an accessory.
The typewriter is in the front room, just inside the door, still squatting in the trolley.
It is an appealing tale, the tale of guess-who-I-met. Yet no one stays or lingers. No one pauses in their everyday routine, which includes running in and out of each other’s houses every few minutes. There seems, in general, to be a stony response to my mother’s news. I met Jack Mantel, Jack Mantel, she says. Her head is thrown back, her hair rippling to her shoulders, her voice trilling with laughter. She stands with one pretty calf advanced, one foot rocking in her high-heeled shoe. Guess who I met? No one answers. Her voice rises high and hangs itself on one of the vacant cuphooks on the shelves above my grandmother’s kitchen table.
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