Sunday, 26 January 2014

...and the boy sat under the stairs.

(1972)


When the gas ran out in our house I was always the one given the job of putting single shilling pieces into the meter under the stairs at the back of the little cubby-hole that my da had built. Since I was smallest I was the natural choice to clamber over the piles of old shoes and bags stored inside this little room, with its angular roof. The room seemed to disappear from standing height into a black hole. The old unloved coats hanging like dead scarecrows, gave off a musty whiff. The concrete floor was covered in old unwanted shoes, handbags, school satchels, cases and holdalls. My ma and da would occasionally have a clear out to make way for the next generation of coats and bags to be imprisoned there.

I didn’t mind the task of feeding a hungry meter with single shilling pieces, and over the years that wee cloakroom became a place of escape for me. I liked the other-worldliness and stillness of it. Once I got into this little cavern and closed the door behind me the world outside would go away and I could be alone with my imagination. The coldness and damp didn’t bother me as I sat reading war comics under a single beam of torchlight. I would disappear into the adventures of Lord Peter Flint, the British war hero from my favourite weekly read ‘Warlord’ as he foiled yet more German plots to win World War II with his cunning and brilliance.

When my ma came gunning for me after I had done something wrong I would hide in the cubby-hole shaking in terror behind the coats. I prayed she wouldn’t look down to see two skinny white legs with dirty knees sticking out from behind a coat. If she did, I was dead. This hiding place usually worked. After she scanned the room for me, my ma would storm upstairs to look for me there. That moment was my one and only chance to escape by diving out of the cubby hole, down the kitchen and out the back door, like Lord Peter Flint on the run from the Germans, except to me my ma was much more terrifying than facing Adolf Hitler and his storm-troopers. I would hide a few streets away until I had to come home because it was getting dark. My hopes were thinly pinned on the possibility that my ma might have forgotten about our earlier incident. But a few hard slaps around the head were waiting for me as soon as I walked into the house…

In our house the cubby-hole was a hideout to help me survive life with my parents and the blazing drunken rows. In my tiny inner sanctum I would hear noises of perfect hatred as my ma’ and da argued and battered one another. I hid so that neither of them could bring me into their war. They would often try to do this. My da would call me to witness something my ma’ had done to him – usually a bloodied face slashed with her fingernails. She would do the same when my da’ had hit her, and I would stand in between the two of them listening to their accusations, like a reluctant judge and jury. If I chose the side of one, the other wouldn’t speak to me for days, as though I was a traitor.

As I sat parked on the cold bumpy gas meter, I would ignore their calls for me join in and continue reading the comics which I had stashed under the stairs to keep me company at times like these.

A war raged in the hallway, yet I was engrossed in a Second World War story from a comic book. The Germans were getting their arses kicked and by the sounds of it so was someone else. I would feel them bouncing off the thin wooden walls of the cubby-hole as they staggered and fell about in a stupor. When the coast was clear and the shouting had exhausted the shouters, I would sit and savour the stillness. The quiet was a beautiful relief from the whirlwind that had been raging a few moments before. The front door of the house had just been slammed violently as my da’ stormed off to the pub for more drink. In my cocoon I could faintly hear the whimpering from my ma as she sobbed, wishing for a better life. Her solution was always to crack open another tin of beer and sink it along with her hopes.

…and the boy sat under the stairs dreaming of what it would be like to be able to fly – far, far away.
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