by Angela Gallagher
THERE’S a photo of me as a little ‘un, with George and Bess and a few of the kids from the yard. I’m perched on the windowsill of Mrs Hammond’s house in Peel Street – this was home in those days. I look a bit surprised to be honest, but I expect I didn’t really know what was going on; wouldn’t have known what a camera was. I don’t know who took it; I wouldn’t have thought any of the neighbours could afford photography as a hobby.
We didn’t have much: no money for anything but the essentials. Mom’d send us off to the park with a bottle of cold tea and me in charge. In the summer we’d swim in the cut, slipping in over the slimy sides on hot, hot days. We didn’t think anything of it – everyone we knew did the same. This was my world and I fitted it, felt comfortable, knew what to expect, how to behave. That’s important for a shy man. I was a good, strong swimmer. This was where I excelled – carrying the younger ones, laughing, on my back through the waters, entertaining them, making them laugh.
On the other hand, school was hard. I wasn’t clever. George was the one with the brains and he should’ve gone to grammar school by rights but Mom and Dad couldn’t afford it. So he left at fourteen like the rest of us, except that he got an office job. When I left I got a job with the milkman.
Serving in the forces in the war was hard as well. I’m not natural soldier material but after so long I fitted in, did the job, followed orders, found friends who appreciated my sense of humour. I spent those years driving trucks full of ammunition across Italy and the desserts of North Africa, never letting myself think about what would happen if we got hit or had an accident. I’d send postcards back to Mom, of Alexandria and Cairo, with jaunty messages, letting her focus on the glamour of far away places, not the heat and the dirt, the flies and the gippy tummies. I hated it and just wanted to be home in Birmingham – which was where I went when I got demobbed in ’46.
Back home with Mom and Dad, trundling into my late 30s, thinking it was probably a bachelor life for me, like George (newly broken-hearted and never to fall again). But then – it was the spring of 1951 I think – Wally at St Chads decided to do some matchmaking: “She’s single and you’re not doing anything.” I think he’d caught on that I liked her. I’d seen her in the kitchens a few times when I’d ferried stuff between the hospitals and I probably hung about longer than was necessary. She was head cook, though, and I wasn’t good enough for her, I thought, but she did agree to go out with me. Who’d have thought it, eh?
We’d go to the pictures mostly because that meant I didn’t have to find too much to say. I never was any good at small talk. If we hit a sticky silence I’d fill the gap by whistling a tune, and somehow it always seemed to be the same one, though I can’t remember what it was now. It got so it drove her mad and eventually every time I pursed my lips she’d suddenly find some conversation. I think she thought I didn’t realise what she was doing but I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking. It used to make me smile but I didn’t mind because at that moment her voice, those words were just for me.
If my conversation wasn’t sparkling at least I could make her laugh.
“You are a fool,” she’d say.
“You’re the bestest,” I’d tell her.
There were times she’d go away, to stay with her parents in the country for a week, and I’d miss her, and try to let her know as much in the letters I’d struggle to write. My letter writing was as good as my conversation and I’d just find myself telling her about the snooker game I’d played at the club: “Came second again.”
She took the organising of the wedding in hand: the catering, the cake. She wore a blue suit with a little hat on the back of her head – a sort of net thing – and carried a prayer book decorated with a ribbon and a little posy. People gave her horseshoes and wooden spoons and we had a chimney sweep for luck. I bought a new suit and spent ages polishing my shoes.
There’s a picture of me in our living room, trying to entertain our youngest with a squeaky toy and a funny face and I look at it and think: “You can’t believe your luck. You find yourself with a wife, two children, and a home of your own and you can’t quite understand how it happened.”
I provided for them with night shifts and the production line at Cadbury’s and on fork-lifts among the kettles and saucepans at the Swan-brand factory down Spring Hill. Each change of job for a few more bob. But never really enough – not what the skilled blokes made. But I did what I could, bearing home each Friday night the precious brown packet, handed over to be miraculously transformed into Sunday roasts and bills paid, with a discipline I never possessed. I wasn’t at home in those waters.
I have a picture in my head, a memory of a Saturday night that has become all the Saturday nights – of the smell of baking coming from the kitchen, of my girls lying at my feet watching “The Generation Game”, the fire blazing in the hearth – the coals shifting and settling – and the feeling that if there was never more to life than this, this was enough. I needed, wanted nothing else.
I never thought I was good enough for her. I always thought I was the one who loved the most and I was grateful to her for taking me on. But those letters I wrote to her, she kept them. Years after I was gone and when widowhood had made her gradually give up on life, the girls found them, stowed in the tea chest in the back room with her other treasures.
Who’d have thought it, eh?
© Angela Gallagher 2016