by Mark Crimmins
The first thing I learned when I got to Melton Street was that my mother’s definition of a cottage and mine were different. I suppose all those illustrated editions of fairy tales I’d read had given me the impression, a cottage was a quaint little white house, nestled in a cradle of hills, surrounded with flowers and bleating sheep. With this notion in mind, I wasn’t too opposed to my mother’s plan to move from my first home.
There were some perils I’d be leaving behind in Macclesfield. The proximity of the local police station was quite disconcerting, as were my older sisters’ threats of incarceration, used as deterrents to my puerile crimes.
When I offended or irritated them, they would drag me from the house and transport me in the direction of that familiar building. With graphic descriptions of the torments of prison life ringing in my ears, I would be taken to the entrance, where, after promises of reform had been extracted from me, I would be rescued, as it were, from the jaws of doom.
Another comforting aspect of the impending removal was I would be leaving the infernal Mrs. Shufflebottom and her damnable shoelace cards-little cardboard facsimiles of shoes, threaded with shoelaces- behind. She had me convinced, at age six, that the sky would fall in if I didn’t tie my own shoelaces. I knew my mother could tie mine for at least the next ten years, so I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Along with the shoelace cards, I was glad to be leaving Brenda behind. She had been my first love, and the aftereffects of my disenchantment made things uncomfortable at school. Brenda was a pretty little brunette, and I was first attracted to her because of her superior intelligence (manifest in the proficiency with which she tied her own shoelaces). I had admired her for a week or two until I spied her picking her nose in class. “How can a person do that?” I thought. No one had ever told me not to pick my nose in public, but still I knew you just didn’t do that. The disillusionment was instantaneous, and I ruled out all possibility of ever marrying her.
So all in all the move from Macclesfield was welcome. But then again, Ithought we were moving to a fairy-tale cottage.
When the removal van stopped by a row of dirty townhouses, I wascertain we had just made a temporary stop-I didn’t see any cottages. Butthen Mother announced, ‘ ‘Here we are,” reached for the door of the van,and gathered up my baby sister with her free arm.
“But where’s our cottage?” I asked.
“Right there,” she said, pointing to a dilapidated townhouse with an ugly green door and black window frames.
“That’s not a cottage,” I said; “it’s just a dirty little house.”
“It’s a cottage if I say it is,” she snapped, searching her purse for the key.
In despair, I looked around the dismal neighborhood. I’d seen places like it on television. A group of dirty-faced children that had assembled on the cobblestone road to watch us unpack tried to shoo us away by pelting us with lumps of coal, and we scurried inside out of the hostile rain.
Inside the house my despair began to deepen. The living room had a dark yellow carpet, frayed at the edges, which was too small to cover the floor and exposed worn purple linoleum at its tattered extremities. The wallpaper sported a crisscross pattern in faded red and gold, and was beginning to peel and puff off the walls in several places. The kitchen was a tiny affair, its floor covered with dark green linoleum, cold cement peeping through its bare patches. And the kitchen sink was grotesquely large, a dirty white with rust-colored rings around its inside and an ominous crack describing a faulty arc across its face. When the water was turned on, the archaic, noisy plumbing groaned like decrepit organ pipes. The walls were
a bare plaster white, and a solitary light bulb hung from the ceiling on a twisted black cord.
The two bedrooms were up a narrow flight of stairs that creaked and
moaned as you walked on them. Both rooms were almost square, adorned
with an off-white wallpaper. Rain, leaking through the small dirty windows,
had left puffy patches on the walls with their perimeters marked by squiggly
brown lines. There were no carpets in these rooms-just dusty floorboards.
The bedrooms emitted a stale smell suggestive of a tomb, and in the corner
of one of the rooms a small, dead mouse lay stiff under a veil of cobwebs.
These four were the only rooms in the house. Something was missing.
“Where’s the bathroom, Mum?” I asked.
“Under the stairs.”
I looked under the stairs and saw ‘the bathroom’ -a tapless bathtub thrust awkwardly into the dark vacancy, a real spider’s lair.
“Where’s the taps?”
“On the ends of your arms,” Mother quipped.
“But it’ll take all day to fill this,” I moaned.
“Well, you’ll just have to bathe in the sink then,” came her unsympathetic reply.
I didn’t mind that a bit; I hated taking baths anyway. In fact, I’d already decided that for my next birthday I’d ask for the privilege of not having to take baths anymore.
Suddenly an urgent question came to mind.
“Where’s the toilet?” I asked.
Out I went, fearing the worst. At the far end of the barren yard was a shed, its rotten door slightly ajar. Edging forward, I peered inside until I could barely distinguish the outline of a toilet. I felt for a light switch, but realized, as the cold brick walls had hinted, there wasn’t one. ‘Tm not using this,” I thought. I was not prepared to sit in there in total darkness, yet I wasn’t about to sit in there with the door open either, so all those neighbor kids could see me from their upstairs windows.
Altogether, the prospects looked grim; I decided we’d just go back to our home in Macclesfield. Running into the house, I announced to my sisters, “Don’t get any more things out of the van; we’re going back to Chester Road.”
But my rhetoric proved insufficient; we stayed on Melton Street.
Though it wasn’t terrifying like the outhouse, the bath was a real challenge. Since we had to fill it by hand, we all had to use the same water, and the order in which we bathed was governed by seniority: Mother and baby were always first (I thought letting the baby bathe with mother was a flagrant transgression of the seniority rule); next, Linda, the eldest, would have her turn; then Sally would absorb what little warmth remained in the water; finally, when the water was murky and almost cold,
it was my turn. As dirty as I would get during the day, I was confident I never got any cleaner in the evening by taking a bath.
But I didn’t look out of place at my new school, Saint Thomas’s-all the kids were filthy there. Saint Thomas’s school made our house look like new. It was built of large stone blocks, black with pollution, and it looked like an evil church. All the kids there were poor and fought as often as possible.
The headmaster was the most evil-looking man I’d ever seen. He had dark whiskers and an implacable face, and everyone was terrified of him, even the teachers. He looked like an escaped convict, and a lot of the kids said he was, but they couldn’t agree regarding his crimes. His name was Mr. Goodall. If you didn’t bring your shorts to P.E., he would see to it that you exercised in your underpants, to teach you a lesson. I’d seen boys doing P .E. in their underwear, and I’d seen girls giggling as they watched, so I made an early resolution to not cross Goodall. But on one notable occasion I did.
Gary Nash, a weak and sickly individual, had been irritating me on the playground. So, I punched him in the mouth and spat on him; he cried and ran away, and I didn’t think any more of it. About five minutes later, playtime ended, and we were all whistled over to the main door, where, as usual, we arranged ourselves in wobbly lines according to our classes. Often Goodall would come out and make us stand like chips waiting for vinegar, while he warned us of the evils of time-wasting, fighting, and “giving cheek” to teachers. On this day, however, something was obviously wrong; Goodall’s mien was ominously cloudy. The serpentine lines metamorphosed into rods at his glare; we all looked straight forward, and there was silence. Then an interrogative burst like lightning from Goodall’s cumulonimbus face:
“Where’s Mark Crimmins?”
Everyone glared at me, as at the condemned, and as I raised the frail twig of my arm into the air, I wanted to believe that there had been a great mistake. Detecting my arm, Goodall stared at me, petrifying me as though he had snakes for hair.
“Come up here, Crimmins,” he rumbled.
I slunk up to the front of the lines, and there behind Goodall I saw the slender profile of Nash snivelling and cowering. Goodall snatched me by the hair and spun me around to face Nash.
”Is this your spit?” he snarled, pointing to the unfortuitous expectoration that had reached a woolly terminus on Nash’s sweater.
“Yes sir,” I said, feeling I’d assented to something more significantthan the Magna Carta.
Goodall hoisted me over his knee and began to paddle me with his hand. He interjected admonitions between the blows, like an aboriginal chant with percussion.
“Don’t you (spank) ever dare (spank) to spit (spank) on anybody (spank) in this (spank) school again,” etc.
The beating seemed interminable; I was a supple student under the ample admonition of Goodall’s hand. After this, I conducted my vendettas after school hours. But even this practice occasionally had frightening consequences.
Take, for example, the time I beat up Steven Boardman. He’d knocked a sandwich out of my hand at school, and wouldn’t apologize . (Actually, he did apologize, but he didn’t mean it. And to me, this was worse than not apologizing at all.) So, I chased him home after school and caught him at the end of Smith Street. When I was finished with him, his nose was bleeding and his face was grazed from contact with the pavement. He screamed hysterically, threatening he would go home and kill himself with his mother’s breadknife.
“Then you’ll be sorry,” he sobbed.
To me, a kid who’d never heard of hari-kari, this sounded a bit severe . I
envisioned the headlines:
RADCLIFFE BOY KILLS HIMSELF WITH MOTHER’S BREADKNIFE
AFTER BEING BEA TEN UP BY MACCLESFIELD BOY
READ ALL ABOUT IT
And I knew if he did kill himself, I’d get sent to that miserable police station in Macclesfield.
Fighting wasn’t the only thing I learned at Saint Thomas’s; it was there I learned to steal. The stealing was senseless; we neither used nor needed the things we stole. We were motivated by the excitement of doing something dangerous. We’d steal tools and parts from a factory near school, run down Nipper Lane, and heave them into the canal, where the heavy booty would make quite a splash.
One day, returning from my adventures by the canal, I learned Mother had slipped a disc and needed to spend several days in the hospital. Linda and Sally were given charge of Josephine and me-a situation, given the personalities of my older sisters, that caused me great anxiety. Time proved me justified in my worries.
One evening, they made my favorite drink: hot chocolate, but this time adding vinegar, hot sauce, and numerous other unsavory ingredients. They stirred the concoction and administered it to me. I only drank one mouthful, but my choking and gasping provided them with the entertainment they had sought.
Just before Mother came home, they pulled their most daring stunt. At midnight they woke me up , telling me it was seven thirty A.M. , gave me breakfast, fixed me a packed lunch, and sent me off to school. Because it was winter, I was used to it being dark when I left in the mornings. I did notice there was very little traffic on the roads, which seemed a little strange, but I just kept walking. By the time I realized-from the moon, the empty streets, and the dark houses-that I was out in the mid-
dle of the night, I was halfway to school. I returned home furious, vowing revenge.
Although there wasn’t much I could do by way of retaliation, my sisters being older and bigger than I, I did discover one thing that bothered one of them. Sally was a little on the plump side, and I made up a little rhyme to celebrate the fact . It was my first attempt at poetry, and it went like this: “Sally-the-big-fat-bally.” Sally didn’t like my rhyme at all, especially when I shouted it in public. On one occasion I accompanied her to a doctor’s appointment, and after she had gone into the physician’s room, I sneaked up to the door, pushed it open, chanted the rhyme, and tore off. I often used this weapon against Sally but eventually stopped because of
the severe reprisals I merited by its use.
Several months passed, and I arrived at the age which qualified me for baptism at the local church. Mother thought the step imperative and insisted I participate. I resisted at first: The church we attended baptized by immersion, which concerned me, hating water as I did. However, I trusted the minister and knew my baptism would count as a bath for that night. Besides, the water was warm. But perhaps the most significant factor in forming my convictions was the promise of fish and
chips I had extracted from my mother in return for my compliance. So finally I succumbed, figuring it was all worth it.
Mother stood at the front of a small group of observers, and I could tell she was as nervous as I was. The minister said a prayer and the officiator dunked me, both hitting my head on the bottom of the font and causing me to gulp down some water. When I emerged, spluttering, I got my balance and exclaimed angrily, “My head! Can’t you watch what you’re doing? ” Mother quietly retreated from the room while
the officiator stared at me in amazement, as did the small group of observers. I wanted to defy them all and say, “So what are you lot staring at? Don’t you ever hurt your heads? ” But after some speculation, I managed to refrain .
The fish and chips tasted great afterwards, so in the end I considered the baptism a real bargain. And Mother was glad to tell the neighbors that her “little Mark” was a real member of Christ’s church now.
Mother was dating a lot during this time, and occasionally I would meet her male friends. (The only ones I liked were the ones with fancy cars.) A Greek by the name of John Papaspyridas worried me because, according to my sisters, if Mother married him, I would have to be called by that funny last name . Crimmins was a good enough name for me; I wanted the same name as my dad .
I would visit my father every weekend, and we often played war games together, reenacting battles from the Napoleonic and American Civil wars. Dad would always take me to war movies, especially those dealing with ancient Rome and Greece. From him I developed an early fascination for military history and strategy.
He also helped me appreciate museums, art galleries, and libraries. Once he took me to London to see the Crown Jewels, the Houses of Parliament, and the Tower of London. After we had seen several of the monuments, Father asked me if I liked the capital city.
“Yes,” I said, “but aren’t there any toy shops in London?” He understood and took me to Mark’s and Spencer’s, where a few cheap toys afforded me more satisfaction than all the jewels in the Tower.
It wasn’t hard for me to live with my mother and visit my father on weekends. In fact, it was easier for me; they seemed to bring out the worst in each other and were nicer people when they were apart. Also, I got a break from each parent once a week, and each would sympathize with me when I talked of the weaknesses of the other. That way it seemed I was always right. If Mother criticized me, Father would stand up for me on the weekends; if Father chastened me while I visited him, I could go home to Mother and get sympathy from her. That was a lot better than the situation in a lot of my friends’ homes, where the parents would often conspire against the kids.
One bad thing, though, about not having a father around all the time, was that I never had somebody big and strong to stand up for me. Notwithstanding my interest in war, I got sick of Mother saying I had to fight my own battles. I had no real defense against older kids and bullies. However you look at it, two older sisters simply aren’t as imposing as one big dad.
Both my parents were avid readers, and both encouraged me to read. I took their advice, principally because I had no choice. It seemed I spent half of my childhood wandering around libraries, waiting for Father or Mother to find certain books. Often, in exasperation, I would grab a book from a shelf and say, “Read this one, will you? I’m sick of wandering around here.”
But eventually I gave up trying to sell my parents on the books I found and started looking for my own. I developed a fascination for fairy tales and spent many months busily exhausting the genre . I would run down to the library after school and check out collections of fairy tales from other countries, and frequently I would beg one of my parents to recite a fairy tale, protesting at the least variation from the text as I knew it. I was quite depressed when I’d read them all and didn’t quite know where to go from there.
But the void left by the absence of fairy tales was soon filled by a boyish penchant for horror films. Watching up to ten monster movies a week, I was more eager to see Dracula films than the dreaded count was to drink the blood of his victims. The films never really scared me-spiders were still the most terrifying things in my world. I’d rather have had a vampire gnawing at my jugular vein than have had a spider crawling on my bed at night.
With my interest in books and movies branching out into other areas, I began to do well in school. Competing for the little merit stars proved to be a real incentive for me, and my teachers began to commend me for my work. Soon I was at the top of my class-a fact I somehow hoped would reach Mr. Goodall to make amends for my previous crimes.
Just as I was becoming really comfortable at Saint Thomas’s and on Melton Street, Mother brought home some devastating news: we were going to move up the road . I would soon become a foreigner to my old neighborhood and school. I’d heard the kids at Wesley Methodist, my new school, were all “cry babies”; I’d probably be the best fighter-“the cock of the class.” Still, I didn’t want to move but, as usual, I didn’t have much say in the matter. So, I didn’t nourish any high expectations when Mother said we were moving to a “nice new house.”