A GOOD BELTING
I recall it as having been one of those perfect, endless summer days that perhaps exist only in our childhood memories. At four-o-clock in the afternoon nine year old me and my gang ran (we always ran) out through the doors of Elland Primary School. I can't recall any parents ever coming to collect any of us, though I suppose there must have been some. I write 'my gang' but in truth it wasn't mine - or anyone else's for that matter. We roamed daily together, but with only temporary leaders, depending on mood and mission. My particular pal Stephen was always there, of course, and since his house was almost as far out towards the edge of town as mine, we would frequently be the last two left together, after whatever adventures had been discharged around the many mills, or in Elland's narrow stone streets and snickets. A brisk march straight up Victoria Road would have got me home within 15 minutes, but such directness was unknown among my peers. Obviously there were no girls involved in the gang, although we were certainly very interested in them during school hours. One or two boys were known to walk home with girls, and I would certainly have liked to do that with Catherine, but that would have meant giving up the gang, and was therefore beyond further consideration.
On this particular day our first destination was 'The Edge', an old quarry facing over the River Calder towards Halifax. This had been the scene of several epic battles with rival gangs, and we were always hopeful of what would, a few years later, be Americanized as a 'rumble'. The chief feature of these battles was stone-throwing and, since we were all pretty good at that, I suppose it was a minor miracle that none of us ever lost an eye or ended up in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary with a fractured skull. Mind you, although accurate, most of the stone throwing was undertaken at a considerable range - rather like those World War II naval battles whose dramatized versions we trooped to see at the Elland cinema, where the big guns are fired at an enemy on or over the horizon. The stones were in the air for long enough for each of us to step out of the way, status going to those who minimized their avoidance so that the stone smacked into the ground right next to them (or, even better, ricocheted off a wall behind them, like the bullets in the westerns that we also went to see). I was not the most nonchalant, but I definitely ranked.
Our luck was in. As we crept up to the top of The Edge we saw some of our enemies from Outlane were down on the floor of the quarry, far below. How stupid can you get - fancy getting yourself into that position without leaving a lookout! Opening fire at once we were gratified by the sight of the Outlaners running away with hardly a returning shot (not much use anyway, since they were trying to throw up the quarryside, whereas we commanded the heights). A notable victory, but one that meant we had to move on sharpish, because those lads would undoubtedly circle round through the town and try to take us from the rear. And their gang included a couple of beefy thirteen year-olds, who would mash us if it came to close quarters.
So we made a rapid victory march over to the recreation ground (whatever happened to recreation!). Someone had a tennis ball, but no-one had a bat, so we practiced spectacular slip catches for a bit, collecting extensive grass stains on legs and sleeves. Gordon collected a bit more than that because he fell over in the long grass where it turned out there was a reasonably fresh cow-pat. We laughed 'til we cried. Then someone fished some ball bearings out of his pocket, and there ensued a lengthy bargaining session in which we swapped ball bearings, glass marbles, sweets and pennies. The schedule of tariffs for this multi-dimensional bartering was nowhere written down, but was nevertheless mysteriously known to everyone. The ball bearings came from the mills, and were used in a superior version of marbles (in a game you couldn't mix them with the ordinary, coloured glass marbles because the latter would simply shatter). Some of these perfect steel spheres were as big as a man's hand, and were too heavy for the pocket, but these giants were hardly ever traded on the schoolboy market and when they were, you had to be prepared to pay in Dinky Toys, not just sweets and marbles. By this time most of us were getting hungry, so we repaired to the sweetshop at the bottom of Victoria Road to load up with liquorice and farthing chews. The son of the sweetshop owner went to our school, but he was in another gang so none of us could look forward to the princely feasts that were rumoured to take place among his friends.
Next stop was the allotments. They had a network of little paths between the sections, which made it a good place for chasing and ambushes. But on this evening we must have been making too much of a racket because Mr Thompson came out and bawled at us. We ran off, of course, but I, for one, was sweating with fear. The problem was that Mr Thompson knew my parents and he might tell them that I had been 'in trouble'. Stephen had no such fears. Indeed, he was soon busy organizing a counterattack on Mr Thompson. The idea was to slink back, crawling along the paths like Indian scouts, and then lob a couple of stones over the fence into Mr Thompson's allotment. That would teach the mean old bugger. Despite my anxieties, it was impossible for me to opt out - the loss of face would have been unbearable. So I found myself bellying along from corner to corner, closing in on Mr Thompson. The two boys up ahead had tossed their stones over the fence when we heard an angry bellow from Mr T. I knew I had to run, but at the same time I knew that if I was not seen to throw my stone I would be ridiculed as a coward. By now I was the only one left in an exposed position, the others already running back. So I tossed the stone and sprinted. As I turned I heard the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. I was the second fastest sprinter in the school, after David Hoyle, but I would have beaten even him on this occasion. I was out of the allotments, across the waste land and into the bushes like greased lightning. The gang lay there, holed up, for quite a time until someone said "What if Mr Thompson calls the police?" Now my anxiety turned to sheer terror. What if Mr. T .had identified me as I ran away? [I hadn't looked back, so I couldn't be sure if he had come out from behind the fence.] What if he had told the police and they went round to my house and talked to my parents? Suddenly my future, so carefree at the Edge and the recreation ground, darkened with vivid scenes of punishment and disgrace.
Just at this trying juncture, the gang began to disintegrate. Perfumed Gordon had to go home (he was definitely in for it) and once one had broken ranks three others pleaded parental rules and headed off. Only Stephen, me and a red-headed boy called Paul were left. Stephen and Paul were discussing the latest dinky toy - a huge tank transporter which another boy had actually brought to school, thus triggering a tsunami of envy, since on the one hand it wasn't Christmas, and on the other the price of the thing was an unattainable multiple of anyone's weekly pocket money. Usually I would have been an enthusiastic participant in the analysis, but right now I had bigger things on my mind. What was I going to do, given that the Thompson-police-parents connection had presumably already been made? What kind of story could I come up with?
Next Paul disappeared, and I found myself walking the last stretch home with Stephen. When we got to his house he invited me in, but I was too worried to take up the offer. His Mum was nice, but she knew my parents, and at this moment I was doing my best to avoid the whole of the adult world.
It was only about 300 yards from Stephen's house to mine, but I took another route. I needed to think -I still didn't have a good story. Maybe I would be sent to prison? I went round and round a couple of streets before settling on an absurdly complicated tale which transformed the nature of my activities and moved them over to the Ainsley brickworks, on the other side of town from the allotments.
Finally tiredness overcame anxiety and I turned up our road. As I passed through our gates, heading for the back door the first unusual thing happened. The front door (usually reserved for my mother's visiting sisters) opened and there stood my Dad. "Do you realize its ten o’clock? Where the hell have you been?" Second unusual thing - my Dad hardly ever swore. Only at tools, never people. And 'hell', in those days, was still a serious word.
"Get inside". He motioned me into the lounge. Third unusual thing - we never used the lounge, except for those same family visitors, especially Auntie Vida, for whom all the best napkins and chinaware still weren't good enough. Time for my alibi:
"Sorry, Dad, I was playing over at the Ainsleys". "Your Mum made your tea for six and it’s been cold for four hours. We were so worried we called the police." Police! That was the only word I heard. Shades of the prison house closed around the growing boy. So Mr Thompson had spotted me! "Bend over the chair" said Dad, loosening the belt from his trousers. In my despair I was in no mood to question this strange request, but was deeply surprised when he applied the first whack. I was accustomed to routine, low-level violence from the teachers at school, and also to fighting with other boys, but this was not just unusual, it was unique - my Dad had never laid a finger on me. I yelped.
At the third stroke my mother burst into the room. "John! Stop" she shouted (shouted - fifth unusual thing) at my father. I noticed that her face was tear-stained. My father obeyed, looking both ashamed and confused, and I was bundled out of the room by Mum, and told to go straight to bed. Apparently she had already called the police to apologise for the "false alarm", and I was instructed to go round to the police station after school next day to apologise personally. False alarm? Suddenly, I twigged. All this fuss was just because I had been out until 10 - they didn't know about the business at the allotments. Saved! It was a real struggle to stop myself from grinning. Free! No prison! Mum and Dad weren't even interested in my ramblings about losing my pocket money on the Ainsleys and looking for the coins in the long grass. Normality could resume tomorrow morning, and I would even get a chance to see inside the police station. Saying sorry would be easy -1 was good at that.
But there is no point in taking unnecessary risks. In the remaining year or so that we lived in Elland I never, ever, went anywhere near either the allotments, or Mr Thompson's house.