Barefoot in the Snow
Living in a caravan perched on an old industrial tipping ground may not sound idyllic, but this particular dump was a cut above the previous ones. My dad had sited the van near a derelict farmhouse, and hooked it up to the electric main. He leeched the water supply from an old cow trough, and the pipe that lay above the frozen shale would thaw by late afternoon – on a bright day.
I liked it in Oldbury, and felt relieved to be invisible amid the obscurity of a large, impersonal school. A murky green canal ran alongside the half mile track that led to our home. The boatmen were a friendly crew, and during the school holiday I would go down to the locks, stamping circles into the ice-topped puddles along the way.
The weighbridge man greeted me with his usual caveat as I passed by his window. “You watch yerself, now – fall in that cut and you’ll be poisoned before you drown.”
I suppose he had a point; the narrow-boats ferried toxic waste from the same industrial heart of England that inspired Tolkein to write of Isengard and Mordor. The Birmingham of 1967 was equally intoxicating.
It wasn’t long before an open narrow-boat arrived, steam rising up from its noxious liquid cargo into the fresh winter air. I waved down to Dusty Jim as he wound the windlass to close the lock paddle.
His leathery face broke into a mellow smile. “Morning, young-un, I expect you’d be looking for a ride?”
I beamed my reply, and felt my head nodding in approval.
Jim laughed. “That’ll be a yes then, I reckon. Well, you’ll have to wait awhile – takes twenty flipping minutes for this lock to fill right up.”
The narrow-boat had seen finer times. Now, since put to pasture on the dark green waters of the Birmingham canal system. Blisters of rust erupted where the rivets held the steel skin together. The engine was sweet, though, according to Jim: “Sweeter than a toffee apple…never let me down.”
As we entered the wide marina I felt in my pocket for the slate stones collected on the way. The trick was to flick your wrist as you let go, watching it skim once, twice, thrice, hoping for a seven.
Jim tutted. “Oooh! I thought you’d have got at least a six out of that one. Try keeping your elbow in a bit.”
I pursed my lips and took Jim-of-the-twelve-skims’ advice. I turned on my heel as the slate spun out of my hand and skittered across the water – and skittered – and skittered. Yes!
Jim was grinning fit to swallow his ears. “You’ll soon get the dozen, young-un, now you’ve got the knack.”
Two sevens and a six quickly followed before we left the marina for tighter waters, where the frost-dew clung to the hedges and beaded the intricate spiders’ webs.
We heard the toot of the Cutty Sark. Jim hit the whistle in response and Bert came steadily about, steering his Oxford blue clipper alongside.
Jim gave Bert a wink. “The young-un requests permission to come aboard the Cutty Sark.”
Bert peered at me. “Well…as long as he doesn’t chatter me ears off all the way to Oldbury.”
Bert took pride in the Cutty Sark; his putrid cargo was contained in a thirty-foot butty, which followed obediently in our wake. Bert had many a tale to tell, and I was a good listener, lapping up the rich history that surrounded the hub of the Gas Street Basin. More canal miles than in Venice, Bert said.
He lifted me onto the towpath when we reached the lock by the weighbridge. “Christmas eve tomorrow, young-un,” he looked sideways at the low clouds rolling in above the horizon, “and it looks like snow.”
I waved Bert goodbye and headed for home. Santa. I’d often wondered how he’d got into our caravan. We didn’t have a chimney and the skylight was too small for me to get through – and Santa was quite fat. Maybe if I pretended to be asleep I could solve this mystery, but then there was a risk he wouldn’t fill my stocking.
My mum smiled at the look of shock on my face as she answered the door. “What d’you think, chuck?” she asked, caressing her new hairdo. “It’s Clairol Nice ’n’ Easy.”
I smiled. It did look rather glamorous.
“Your dad’s back tomorrow night, think he’ll like it?”
I nodded affirmation. Blondes have more fun, after all.
Recovering scrap metal from old commercial dumps was very lucrative during the Sixties. After leaving Donegal at the age of fourteen to dig our ditches, Dad had learned to drive every monstrous machine on the M1 motorway project. He soon got to grips with the huge metal-sifting plants and occasionally went abroad to help set up the mobile rigs. The dragline cranes could bite two-ton chunks at a time to feed the hungry hoppers, and within a year it would be time for us to move on to another site.
Christmas Eve and still no snow. The looming clouds taunted every hopeful young boy, until the early dusk sent them scurrying into their houses to fill the restless hours before bedtime. Mum sat in her chair and a casserole sat in the oven – both waiting for Dad. Most nine-year-olds would be fast asleep by the time my dad rolled in from the pub.
I slept in the bottom bunk-bed when my sister visited our Irish granny. It would be strange, Nod not being here for Christmas. My parents hadn’t believed her when she told them that I could talk as an infant, until they listened from behind the door. Nothing much had changed. I could only share my thoughts with Nod, my comrade-in-arms. Things had simmered down of late, though.
I liked to imagine Wild West cowboy escapades when drifting off to sleep. Skirmishing with the Apaches, like in the films my dad watched. Nobody got shot, we’d just chase each other around on horseback until I slipped into a dream – it kept the shadow-men at bay.
Santa woke me up in the middle of the night. He sneaked away before I dared to look, but a dark shape in the corner of the bedroom confirmed the visitation. I closed my eyes and became the Milky Bar Kid, shooting holes in silver dollars and throwing my lasso, to the delight of my cowboy audience…
Christmas morning. Ignoring the presents, I dashed through the kitchen and into the living room to find my mum and dad still asleep in the pull-out sofa bed. I crept back into my bedroom to examine the contents of the pillowcase-cum-stocking that Santa had left for me. That was when I noticed the plump flakes of snow slanting past the window. I looked out over the sprawling wasteland, now transformed into a winter wonderland. If only Nod could see it.
Breakfast followed the tradition we had on Sundays. My job was to peel the horse-mushrooms and Dad fried them with rashers, eggs and black pudding. Mum washed and dried the aftermath. The radiogram played carols as we unwrapped our presents. My dad got Old Spice and I had a clockwork train set, two exotic looking cars, and a giant bar of Toblerone with strange writing on the packaging. Dad offered me a game of ‘hard knuckles’. I accepted and retired after a few bruising exchanges, then asked if I could go out to play.
“Sure you can,” he replied. “Tell you what, I’ll bet you ten shillings you can’t outrun me, barefoot in the snow.”
I was taken aback. I mean, where had this idea come from? I pondered for a while. He had a distinct advantage in wrestling and ‘hard knuckles’, but I’d never seen him run before.
I cleared my throat. “I’ve only threepence.”
He laughed at this. “Okay, I’ll set my ten-bob note against your threepence, say what?”
A bone-crunching handshake sealed the wager and we were soon on our way, loping along the familiar route to the canal locks. It wasn’t long before the effects of sixty smokes and a bottle of scotch per day became apparent, and so I slowed the pace as the snow-covered path grew steeper. Funny, but my feet didn’t feel all that cold after the first quarter mile. Dad was a sight, with his shock of auburn hair bobbing as he wheezed his way to a more level footing.
“Will we stop for a while, boy?” he asked. “I need to take a leak.”
There we both stood, in the back of beyond, tracing tracks of lemon in the pure white snow. A warm, glowing moment between father and son.
“You ready to go home yet, boy?”
I shook my head, and off we trotted along the rutted way to the locks. Credit to Dad, he didn’t give in easily and he struggled alongside me until we reached the marina. At the bank, I took a flat stone from my pocket and gave it everything I had as it spun from my hand. Seven skims.
Dad whistled his approval. “Not bad at all, laddy. Have you any more of those stones?”
I had a pocketful. Always did. By the time the stones ran out we had tied with eight skims apiece. Dad lit up a Gold Leaf and asked did I want to give up the race.
“No, Dad. Let’s go on to the locks.”
“Call it a draw then, boy?” He smiled as though he already knew what my answer would be, and then finally capitulated on the condition that I ate some of my sprouts before laying into the dark and sticky Christmas pudding.
I never did get the princely sum of ten shillings, nor did I ever match the tally of Jim-of-the-twelve-skims, but something had passed between us while barefoot in the snow, and it filled my heart with fire.