Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China March 17
Plane to Nanning. The aircraft is much snazzier than the one to Lhasa and we get free hankies (my second), boxes of chrysanthemum tea (not dried tea; it’s a cold drink) and a compass on a key ring. I don’t know if the compass is supposed to make us feel more confident that the pilot knows what he’s doing, but we get there.
Cheryl and Elspeth were entranced by the news that, according to that guy I met in Cheng Du, you can get pizzas in Nanning. Unfortunately I can’t remember which hotel he said, and we trail round three with no success. Our packs are getting heavier as we are now carrying all our winter clothing. The further south we go, the hotter it gets. We’ll have to get out our shorts, soon. C and E have the heaviest loads with those huge Chinese coats.
Bereft of pizzas, we go back to the hotel where the airport bus dropped us off. There’s some kind of celebration going on; there’s a lion dance in the driveway and sheets of firecrackers. The place is packed and everyone is crowding into a special room (where the tables have tablecloths!). Don’t know if it’s supposed to be a particular function but, amazingly, there’s plenty of space for us. The waitress is friendly and the sweet and sour pork is lovely. A western family is here too. They have a baby and a six-year-old child. Both of them seem really ugly after Chinese children. Maybe they are just really ugly. Bed. My first time under a mosquito net.
Bus to railway station. Hard seat to Zhan Jiang, which is China’s southernmost town. It’s a nine-hour journey through the sort of countryside that everyone always associates with China – terraced fields; paddy fields, peasants in coolie hats, water buffalo and rich red earth like turmeric powder piled in heaps. It’s getting warmer and warmer.
At Zhan Jiang we get bicycle taxis to the hotel. I’m on the outside and it’s a bit scary when we go round corners. The hotel is a bit of a dump, but clean and cheap. No food. We go round the food stalls buying oranges and bananas for tomorrow’s trip and trying not to look at the varnished brown dog carcases hanging up with the chickens in the pavement cafes. We stop by a woman with buckets of rice and greens on the pavement and have that for tea. It’s cold, but at least it’s not dog.
Up in the velvety darkness at 5 am for our 6 am bus ride and ferry to Haikou, which is on the island of Hainan Dao. It’s supposed to be marvellously beautiful and unspoilt. It’s also a big military base, and we shouldn’t really be going there, as westerners, but after bottling out of the truck ride to Lhasa we’re going to try it. It’s another trip on the bicycle taxis. This time I sit on the inside, bang next to the back wheel. We get to the bus, and find that the world and his wife and all their pigs and chickens and spring onions are coming too. But, miraculously, we do actually set off at 6. And we’re in front seats, thank god. Some people are standing, and two are sitting on the engine cowling by the driver. Talk about a hot seat.
We go across a river on a raft. We have to get off the bus, which then drives on and we all crowd on after. Everybody spends the short trip fighting like hell to get back on the bus, because as soon as the raft docks the buses drive off – there’s no waiting about. Then we get to the real ferry for Hainan Dao. And, get this, we have to go up a proper gang plank to get on. Well, two planks actually, that wobble, and you have to step over a dead rat. How authentic is that? I feel like I’m in a proper English 20th century novel. Any minute now Peter Ustinov is going to push through the crowds towards us in a linen suit and a Panama hat, or maybe Clark Gable and Jean Harlow are already throwing plates at each other in the restaurant. But sadly not. The boat is just chock full of Chinese people (and pigs and chickens and vegetables) and us. And no restaurant. But, bizarrely, there is a woman selling pink-iced finger buns. We’re very doubtful about them, especially after my experience with the concrete bread rolls in Tibet, but they are lovely. Just like you’d buy in the bakers, back home.
I’m not entirely certain we’re going to get all the way there in one piece. Sealink would probably have sent the ferry for scrap in about 1915. On the up side, there are so many holes in it I get plenty of fresh air and am not seasick, which I was rather worried about.
Amazingly we are here. Another bus from the ferry to Haikou, and yet more bicycle taxis from the bus station to the hotel. It’s properly hot now. There are palm trees which C &E have never seen before in the wild, as it were, and they’re entranced. Elspeth hugs one with delight. ‘They’re great aren’t they?’ she announces. Cheryl is busy examining the patterned bark. I’m sitting on my pack writing this while I wait for them. Anybody would think they’d gone completely bonkers (and I’m sure some passing Chinese people do) but they’ve spent so long in the cold bleakness of northern China that all this lush greenery has completely gone to their heads. They are so happy. Extraordinary.
The hotel is amazing too. All glass and marble and we don’t know if we can afford it. The wall behind the reception desk has clocks showing the time in London and New York. But it’s only five kwai (£1) for a dorm bed. It looks as though they’re still building the place but it will be extremely posh indeed when they’ve finished it. The dormitory has a smoked glass door and white tiles on the floor – it’s like we’ve stumbled into the council chamber in Milton Keynes. However, there is no electricity. There are clerks at the end of the hall who are using candles, and they let us use their private bathroom for a wash.
Elspeth and I go exploring and find a restaurant which has a carpet on the floor and a nice Malaysian bloke who tells us about this coffee shop that sells toast. ‘No bangers and mash for you Brits,’ he laughs, ‘But lot of toast!’ He was dead right. Hot buttered toast. And proper tea. There are a load of young Chinese in, too, and they are all sitting round flashing their digital watches and eating their toast with forks, which they then wave theatrically about while talking very loudly to each other.
Spend the afternoon lying around, having baths and eating McVitites digestive biscuits, which they sell in the hotel shop. The shop sells the oddest things. Roget et Gallet perfumes, Californian wine (30 kwai) a Wrangler denim jacket and personal stereos. I want batteries for mine and point to a stereo in the display case. The bloke in charge gets it out and I point to the battery compartment.
‘Ah, you want batteries,’ he says and shows me two.
‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want,’ I reply.
‘No. Mayo,’ he says and puts them away.
Dinner in the restaurant. The tablecloths are filthy and the waitress sweeps up the leavings with a dirty dustpan and brush. But the service is quick and they are really friendly. The food is delicious; fish with melon, sweet and sour pork, beef with noodles and a huge plate of fried rice. Another big bill (15 kwai) and we begin to realise we haven’t got much money left. Prospects of going to Hong Kong now look definitely dodgy.
In the dorm we are joined by a German couple, two French girls and two Swedish guys. The folding wall down the centre of the room has been pulled out. And there is lots of shouting and shuffling on the other side. So we all creep up, shushing each other and giggling, and peek through the cracks.
All the waitresses from the restaurant are there, and there’s a man fiddling with a tape player. Then, as the strains of Carmen fill the room, he begins to shout instructions and the girls all pair up and start to solemnly tango. And, on our side, we fall silent and feel unaccountably homesick.
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet
In the evening we go to the market. I feel as if I’ve travelled about 500 years back in time. At least. The place is stuffed with pilgrims and families who have come for a trip to the big city. Some of them surround a teenager who is juggling with silver balls. He occasionally swallows them – they are the size of tennis balls – and then he brings them back up and gets on with the juggling, which is disgusting but I can’t not watch. What happens if one gets stuck?
There is a man selling the strips of stripy material that Tibetan women make their aprons out of. His price depends on the length of your arms. Agnetha agrees reasonable terms and sticks her arms out and he cuts a length of material which stretches from her finger tip to finger tip. I mime that I want some too and he agrees the same price. But he doesn’t reckon on the fact that I am way taller than her. The Tibetans all gather good naturedly to watch and when I stretch my much longer arms out, there is a good deal of laughter. The seller is not happy at the poor deal he has struck, but he can’t back out, and there are lots of jokes at his expense. Still, he comes round and gives me a smile with my change. The material is like thick felt, way too stiff to make a scarf out of. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’m very pleased with my bargain.
The market has grown up round the Jokhang temple, the most sacred in Tibet. According to Julie’s guidebook, it was built in 642, (just about the time my ancestors decided blue paint would go well with a goatskin loincloth). On one of the pillars there is a rather poignant inscription recording a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. It says, ‘Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory.’
The square is festooned with what looks like bunting but which is, in actual fact, thousands of prayers printed on rectangular pieces of paper bought or brought by the pilgrims who flock here. There are more pilgrims than you could shake a stick at; some, still not quite at the temple, are throwing themselves full length on the ground and getting up and repeating the process, but once they get to the temple, they have to go round it once, clockwise, before they can go in. In front of the temple doors there are more worshippers bowing and kneeling and prostrating themselves, I can even see children doing it, in a nearby gutter.
Inside the monks are chanting and it is dim and peaceful. There are several different rooms, all with enormous Buddhas and, in front of each, there are all sorts of offerings, from lumps of raw turquoise the size of a baby’s head, to rusting tin cans in which grass is growing. Every gift, from the richest to the poorest is honoured. And then there is a sudden commotion at the entrance and a blare of music and about four Chinese soldiers come in with a ghetto blaster. They swagger up to the altar, Chinese pop music bouncing off the walls, sniff at the yak butter candles and hold their noses. They laugh and point in disdain at the tins of grass. I find this so upsetting, but none of us can say anything. It would only make trouble for the monks, and none of them pay any attention. They carry on with their prayers and their eternal sweeping and eventually the soldiers push off, their music still faintly thumping after they have gone.
Hannah from New York pops round for a cup of tea before she goes tomorrow. She too is going to Kunming, so we might meet up. She’s had a bit of a rough time here. When she went to a sky burial a few days ago, there were five dead children. ‘There was a guy who was there the whole time,’ she said. ‘I think, from what he was miming, that he was the father, and he couldn’t bear to watch, just kept hiding behind a rock. I didn’t want to watch either. So I just held his hand. Poor guy. God knows what they all died of.’
And then, to round off her day, although this doesn’t really count on a dead children scale of disaster, Hannah got some bug and spent all night in the toilet room. ‘It wasn’t too bad until I dropped my book,’ she said. ‘Right through the hole in the goddam floor. It just fell out of my hands, and there was nothing I could do about it. My only book, can you believe it? I just cried. And you know what I was reading?’
We shake our heads.
I think she’s going to cry again. ‘Joseph Fucking Conrad’, she says, and then starts to laugh. ‘Heart of Fucking Darkness.’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Wake up this morning to fertile land. High mountains and mist and a river, and terraced fields. We go through many tunnels cut through mountains. It must be bitterly cold outside. There is a huge ice floe in the river, snow on the mountains and I’ve seen two frozen waterfalls. Still, it’s not brown. It’s like the Scottish highlands. The scenery gets even better as we go on. Those paintings of mountain peaks that you seen hanging on the walls of Chinese restaurants in Britain don’t look so far-fetched now.
The food situation is pretty bad. We have some packet noodles, but it’s not enough and the food in the restaurant car is disgusting. Flimsy polystyrene boxes of cold rice and I suppose something that looks like chopped up salami, but isn’t. And when we finish, the guards just open the train window and chuck the lot on to the tracks. Box after box flying into the perfect scenery.
I’d love an orange. Don’t know why that popped into my head. But now it has, I can’t get rid of the idea.
The children in the carriage are lovely. One toddler, with eyes like sloes, who looks more Indian than Chinese, keeps getting dumped on Cheryl’s bunk. Another child is sleeping above me and squeals with delight when I waggle my fingers. Then she grabs my hands, just like a kitten. But she’s strong – she almost pulls me up off my bunk.
As the night draws on we are visited by four men who want to practise their English. They are all in the blue Mao suits nearly everyone wears here, if you’re not a member of the People’s Liberation Army, and they are holding their caps in their hands.
Actually only one of them understands English, and then only if I write it down and let him have a good think about it. He reads it out loud; he’s very proud of his reading skills. He and Elspeth read a page from his Teach Yourself English book (A Day At the Seaside) – he very correct, and Elspeth in broad Scouse, while Cheryl and I stuff hankies in our mouths to try to keep a straight face. That’s a point. We’ve run out of bog paper and the girls are threatening to use my diary, but we compromise by using the souvenir envelopes of Shanghai that we pinched from the hotel in Xian.
Anyway, back to Mr Earnest – he’s determined to improve his English so he does his best, while the others sit and listen and nod and chat about us in Chinese. I write on his paper, ‘What do you do?’
His lips move slowly, wordlessly over the sentence. Then he has a huddled conference with his mates. Back comes the answer, ‘I study economics.’
‘What did you do before that?’ I write.
He mutters to himself. ‘I was cadre.’
So I decide to plunge in. Cheryl and Elspeth, as politics graduates, could tell me the answer to this in a second, and I know myself that it means a communist party worker, but I’m determined to get it from the horse’s mouth.
‘What is a cadre?’ I write. ‘I’ve never met one before.’
Much astonishment from the men.
‘We don’t have them in England.’
Now it’s his turn to ask a question.
‘Do you have peasants in England?’
Of course, to them, it’s a perfectly normal question; under the Chinese system you have people who work the land and people who work in towns. Having spent all my life in a country where communists are thought of as either rather silly and slightly dangerous, or plainly eccentric, I’m just getting used to the fact that I’m now in a country where people talk about Marx and Mao in the same way westerners talk about Winston Churchill or JFK. It can be very surprising at times.
Back to the question of what a cadre does, though. I’m beginning to get writer’s cramp. No answer. The men talk among themselves and we wonder if this is a rebuff, Chinese style.
‘Why don’t you answer my question?’ I scribble.
Then after another party conference, comes the answer. ‘A cadre looks after the people.’
‘What people in particular, how many and in what way?’ comes my spiffy rejoinder. This is a facer for them. ‘In particular’ and ‘in what way’ seem to give them the most trouble. Back to the conference.
Then, ‘A cadre is a very important person. He responsible for many people. Sometimes hundreds.’
‘How many people were you responsible for?’
He looks round at his mates. ‘Three.’
Everyone laughs, including him.
‘What, these three?’ I ask. ‘Are you all cadres, and you take it in turn?’
His second in command seems to understand this and all the others have a good laugh. But he’s not very happy about this loss of dignity, and when Cheryl teases him, saying, ‘Are you in charge tomorrow?’ he answers gravely, ‘Tomorrow I study economics.’
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Back on that bloody bus. We sit at the front this time. The desert looks just the same, like an asphalt car park for some megastore, without the megastore. The slag heaps look just the same, too.
Get on the train to Lanzhou. Can’t get hard sleepers, so we sit up all night. The carriage is packed and everyone thinks we are great curiosities. When we get a pack of cards out, everybody perks up. There’s even somebody in the luggage rack watching us. They’re such great gamblers, the Chinese; I think they are expecting us to play poker or something. Don’t know what they make of Find the Lady. They look very confused, anyway.
Still on the train. Feeling extremely jaded. Two men in very smart blue uniforms get on and sit next to us. They say they’re judges, but they look very young; about 30. One speaks English, so we get the standard grilling. Where do you come from? Where are you going? Are you married? I almost fall off my seat when he asks if Margaret Thatcher is a madam.
He means, of course, is she married, and can’t understand why I am laughing so much. The thought of explaining it is fairly mind-boggling, so I don’t try.
He gets quite paternal; insists on escorting us to the dining car, tries to get us beer (but even he gets mayo la) and tells us we must have a good dinner when we get to Lanzhou.
The Chinese are wonderful with children. There are several four and five-year-olds in the carriage, all running up and down and being petted and spoiled by everyone they go up to. They are all beautiful; great dark eyes in solemn faces, wrapped up in so many layers that their arms stick out from their sides and they walk with a rolling gait, like old sea dogs. One claims the hearts of a group of soldiers, who sit her on their knees in turn while they play cards.
Another walks up to one of the judges and is made a great fuss of. Our judge, in between polishing up his English, is having a conversation with a four-year-old sitting on the seat behind and who keeps popping up to have a good look at what is going on. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which children belong to which adults. The toddlers are so confident of affection from anyone, and the adults don’t let them down.
We cross the Yellow River. It’s raining. I never thought I’d be so glad to see rain. We arrive at Lanzhou, it’s taken 24 hours to get here. The length of the train trips in this country really makes you appreciate how vast this place is.
The judge insists we write him a message in his Chinese/English dictionary – much in use over the past few hours – and he writes one in the back of Cheryl’s paperback.
To my three English friends, wishing them much happiness. I hope you come to China again, from your friend Pei Ping.
He gets off the train with us to make sure we find the right exit. I promise to send him a postcard from London. He’s going to send me a picture of his wife and daughter.
Get on the train for Cheng Du. We ask for hard sleepers and wait an hour, but we get them.
Exactly 18 years ago today, I punched my husband. I was past speaking, but I hit him hard enough so that he fell half under the bed, with a muffled ‘Ow!’ At this point the midwife, who was a cross between a sergeant major and girls’ school hockey captain, told us both to behave and that she would not tolerate fighting on her labour ward. Quite what she was going to do if we continued, I don’t know, considering I was in the last gasping stages of giving birth.
Steve, in his defence, had been told to make himself useful by dabbing my lips with some damp cotton wool on the end of a stick. Being a technically minded kind of guy he set out carefully to poke every square micron of my mouth. I’m sure I told him to stop. He’s sure I didn’t. Whatever. The pethidine was wearing off and I was in no mood for being shakily dabbed at.
Shortly after that, everything changed entirely because Rose was born. We had waited so long for a baby that, even when she arrived, I couldn’t believe it. I remember looking at her and saying wonderingly, ‘It’s a baby.’ Honest to God, if she had been a puppy I would have been less surprised.
And now, as I say, it’s 18 years on and Rose is officially grown up. We’ve watched her grow from an intensely absorbed, imaginative little girl to a beautiful, generous and kind young woman. I know you don’t really like me mentioning you on my blog, Rose, but happy birthday, and thank you for being you.
Daughter was sewing her costume for a Hallowe’en party. Yards of green cloth festooned the kitchen, the dogs were paw deep in pins.
You have to realise here that daughter is 17 and a fashion student. So she has Ideas. And is, like, creative. It was obvious, this year, that the gothic witchy look was being sidelined, for something more, well, green.
Ages later, she stood up and put the costume on. It was kind of like a sweeping toga with a hood. But, it has to be said, she looked pretty good.
‘What do you think?’ she asked, twirling in an emerald haze.
‘Great,’ said husband. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s elven, dad,’ she said patiently. ‘I’m going as an elf in Lord of the Rings. What do you think?’
Steve looked at her thoughtfully. ‘Have you got a High Vis Jacket?’ he said.
‘Because then,’ he said. ‘You could go as Elf and Safety.’
Pictures via Creative Commons, courtesy of:
Well, I’m back from my hols. The suitcases are spilling their guts all over the house, the dogs have come back from the kennels, and I’ve thrown away the orange I found mouldering on the kitchen counter.
I’ve been to the supermarket and stocked up on beer and bread and jammy dodgers and such fare as you lay before the faces of husbands and teenage children, and I’ve put away my shorts for another year.
I’ve got some nice pictures, including one of a beauty salon in Bordeaux, that my cousin Douglas seems unaccountably to have given his name to. We spent the day in the city, shopping and farting about in the sunlit squares and generally behaving like happy tourists.
But the best memory is of our first night. Son, 14, who was in rather a giddy mood, decided to wind up his sister by thrusting her hairbrush down the front of this pyjama bottoms. ‘Look Rose,’ he crowed rather disgustingly. ‘Look what I’m doing with your hairbrush.’ To which his sister witheringly replied, ‘That’s not my hairbrush. That’s dad’s.’
What is the worst name for a child that you’ve ever come across? I started thinking about this yesterday after reading LBWoodgate’s post on Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Her daughter is called Bristol. (Bristol???) Still, I suppose it’s better than Stoke Poges.
But get this…a survey of half a million people by parenting website BabyCenter found some parents had named their new baby Cheese.
I take it back…Bristol, your tea’s ready!
picture courtesy of sha3teely.com via Creative Commons
It’s funny how the most familiar things can really turn out to be really strange, while exotic sounding stuff just falls flat when you have it explained to you.
Look at Madame Zsa Zsa. If I told you she was a retired Hungarian tight-rope walker and former Parisian café owner, you’d think whoa, exotic. But if I then told you that really she played the organ in the kirk every Sunday, and everybody knew her as plain old Jeannie Delvine, then maybe you’d think, ‘Oh, well that’s boring.’
But to me it was Jeannie who was the more interesting person. For a start, I didn’t know her in her tightrope days. I was only eight, after all. But I did see her walk out on the rocks in the Tay to save Bugs from drowning, and she certainly had an assurance in that treacherous, whisky clear water, that I knew I would never have. And she was old then. Not old old, but old to me. Old as in her, what, forties, fifties?
She moved in next door to us on my eighth birthday. It was a blisteringly hot day, and my aunties and granddad were all round the table in the back room. Granddad was wearing his blue suit with a watch chain stretched across his waistcoat. He had taken his jacket off because it was so hot, and he kept wiping his face and the back of his neck with a brown and white striped hankie. We were eating ice cream and raspberry jelly. It was Neapolitan ice cream, three glorious stripes of colour in a damp cardboard box from Mr Menzies the corner grocer. Colin, my brother, had been sent up the drowsing street to get it. And when he came back he was full of the news of our new next door neighbour.
‘She’s got blonde hair,’ he said, handing two threepenny bits in change, to my mother.
‘Aye,’ said my auntie Nellie, looking meaningfully at my other auntie, Maggie. ‘Blonde hair? And did she have one of they short skirts?’
Colin wiped his hands on his shirt front and looked confused. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Just normal. With flowers on and things.’
‘Nellie!’ my mother said gently. ‘Don’t ask him questions like that. Asking him to look at women’s clothes.’
Mum pushed back a limp tendril of hair from her forehead and looked at him. ‘Is she nice?’
‘Oh, aye,’ said Colin. ‘She’s awfy nice. I helped her in with a box and she gave me sixpence.’ He looked at Auntie Susie. ‘She didn’t have a short skirt. She talks funny and she’s quite old.’
‘Old?’ said Auntie Susie, catching a look at herself in the mirror and smiling.
Colin dug into his ice cream. ‘Aye. About the same age as you.’
Jeannie, or Mrs Delvine as I had to call her, had blonde curly hair. It was not, as my mother said, ‘out of a bottle,’ and therefore she was not, as my auntie Nellie would have had it, a Jezebel. If my auntie Nellie had known that Jeannie was once called Madame Zsa Zsa, she definitely would have been a Jezebel. But nobody knew anything about Mrs Delvine. She kept herself to herself, except for the odd smile here and there when you passed her in the street.
With every fresh bit of news about a new person in the village, there would either be a collective nodding by the women standing at the counter waiting to be served in Mr Menzies, or a pursing of their lips. Not that there were many new people coming to our part of Perthshire in 1963. I knew by their discussions that, if you were a stranger, you had to get certain things right. That you had to pass a kind of a test. And not just the one.
Anyway, the women didn’t have much to go on with Mrs Delvine, except, as Colin said, she had a funny edge to her voice. Nobody could quite place it. And then, when Mrs Melville got too much rheumatism in her hands, and couldn’t play the piano in kirk on a Sunday any more, Jeannie went to the minister and volunteered. And she was a fine, fine musician. So that was another test passed. But what all the tests were, was something that I spent a great deal of time pondering. Would I have to take these tests, when I grew up? When I went anywhere new, would people walk behind me, inspecting my hair and my clothes, and thinking my voice was funny? And how many tests were there and what were they for?
I asked, I did ask, about these tests, but my mother would just tell me to stop blathering and go out to play. So I would go, with Bugs Leckie and Anne Sutherland and Margo Menzies, up to the field behind the school where the swings sat in deep muddy puddles, and where the older kids would dare you to lick the snowball bushes. ‘They’re poison they are. They’ll kill you if you swallow a berry. Go on, I dare you…’
Or we would go down to the Tay. Not often, because it was fast and rocky where it went past our village, and when it was in flood it scared me. But on hot summer days, when it lay quiet and brown under the trees, we would venture out on to the rocks and dip our hands in the cool water and try to catch the sticklebacks that flitted in the shadows. But we wouldn’t go right out in the middle. It was dangerous out there. It looked calm enough, but it was deep and cold, even in August, and the wrinkles on the surface let you know there were big currents underneath.
Bigger boys would sometimes dare each other to cross the river by leaping from rock to rock. And sometimes they did, and sometimes they fell in. My cousin Kenneth had drowned there in 1942, when he was just a boy going after his football. And his mother, my auntie Nellie, had never really got over it. Sometimes, she went a bit odd and looked in the kitchen cupboards, calling his name, and then she would have to go to hospital for a while. We never talked about going down to the river, in front of her. But we still went.
Anne and Margo would stay on the steep tussocky bank and make mud pies with an old frying pan, but Bugs and I would go out into the shallows, before it got dangerous. Bugs wasn’t a girl. His real name was Bob. But he had sticky out teeth, and the boys made fun of him because his dad had refused to fight in the war. Peter Menzies, the grocer’s son was the worst. It was him that thought of calling Bob ‘Bugs’. But they all called him a coward.
The war had ended 18 years before, but memories were still strong in the village of some of the men who had gone and who had not come back. Peter’s uncle was one of them.
Bugs’s dad came to the school to get Mr Roberts to stop the bullying, but Mr Roberts wouldn’t have anything to do with him. They stood in the dim brown corridor by the school hall, wee Mr Leckie, with his Sunday jacket on and his hair combed flat, and big tall Mr Roberts with his gown and his dark suit. ‘I will not see you, Mr Leckie,’ intoned Mr Roberts, in that same booming voice that he used in assembly. ‘I will not see a man who refused to smite the Germans.’
Smite the Germans. I was standing by my classroom door. I had been sent out for talking. I had to stand there for five minutes. But I had no way of knowing how long that was. I had no watch. I could not see the clock in the hall. All I could do was look through the glass in the door and hope Miss Thomson would see me and wave me back in. But smite the Germans took me away. I could see Mr Roberts dressed like Goliath in the bible with a big shiny breastplate, and metal shin pads, his sword raised. Smiting the Germans as they came over the purple plains in their tanks and low flying planes. Smiting them.
Was he going to smite Mr Leckie? And what with? I could see Bugs’s dad clasping his hands and then standing almost to attention. ‘My beliefs are my own, Mr Roberts,’ he said quietly. ‘It is not right that my son should suffer for them.’
Mr Roberts twitched his gown and turned away. ‘I will not hear you, Mr Leckie. I will not hear you. Your son is getting an education. And that is more than the Germans would have given him.’ And he opened the door to his room and strode in and shut the door in Mr Leckie’s face. And Mr Leckie turned and looked at me, and I wanted him to open that door and go in after Mr Roberts and give him what for. But he just stood there and put his hands deep in his pockets and turned away. Maybe he was a coward after all.
I wanted to go after him and ask him why he didn’t want to smite Germans, or even smite Mr Roberts, but at that moment my class room door opened and Miss Thomson pulled me inside. I was sent out again, half an hour later, for asking too many questions, so I don’t know why she bothered, really.
So there we were on the rocks, Bugs and I, trying to catch sticklebacks when I asked him if it was true he was a coward.
‘I am not,’ he said. His hair, blue black, fell into his eyes, and he swept it out with a wet hand. ‘I am not a coward.’
‘I was just asking,’ I said.
He got up on his feet. ‘I’m not a coward!’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I don’t mind. Dinne fash yersel.’
He was standing in the light of the sun coming through the trees, and the light was bouncing off the water on his hair and face and arms. It was like he was covered in diamonds.
‘I’m going to walk across the river,’ he said.
‘Like Jesus?’ I said.
‘On the rocks,’ he said. ‘I’m going to jump between them. And if I make it, you can tell everyone, and I’m not a coward, ok?’
‘But the water’s calm,’ said Margo. ‘Anybody could do it now. Even cowards.’
Bugs looked at her, his pale face flushed bright pink. ‘Would you do it then?’
Margo looked out over the broken line of rocks in the water. ‘No. Because I don’t want to get wet. And anyway, if you fall off you’ll get swept down to the weir, and that’ll be the end of you. There’s currents in there. My mum told me. ’
‘Right,’ said Bugs. ‘I’m going.’ And he turned and there was a moment that I saw on his face, that he really was scared.
‘Bugs,’ I said. ‘Bugs.’
But he leapt for the next rock out. ‘I made it!’ he turned and his face was shining. ‘I made it!’ he shouted. ‘I made it, and I’ll go all the way. You’ll see!’
‘Bugs, come back! You’re not a coward!’ The look on his face was so determined it made me clench my hands. I wished I’d never asked him that terrible question.
But he was too busy looking out at the next rock to listen to me. I shouted again. But it was too late. He had leapt, and he had missed and the water was deep and still and cold there, and Margo and me and Anne screamed. And past us came a flash of yellow on the path by the bushes. It was Mrs Delvine out walking in her Sunday best and she glanced at Bugs sinking in the pool and bobbing up again, his face pale against the dark water.
And as neatly and quickly as if she were bending down to get a dropped hankie, she kicked her shoes off, put her handbag on the bank, and then jumped lightly out on to the rocks. It was easier for her, of course, because she was bigger than us, but there was an assurance and balance that she had, that I had never seen before in anyone I knew. She reminded me of the gymnasts I had seen in the Moscow State Circus on the TV. She just moved from rock to rock as if she was avoiding puddles on the High Street, and when she came to the pool she knelt down, reached out and grabbed Bugs by his hair and then she got an arm under him and pulled him out, and he fell against her, and her lovely suit was dark with water and river muck.
Men had come by then, and women too. Anne had run off to get them. Mrs Leckie was standing shrieking on the bank, ‘My wee boy! My baby!’ Mr Menzies was going out, in his grocer’s white cotton coat, to help Mrs Delvine, but Mr Leckie pushed him back. ‘That’s my son out there,’ he said. ‘I’ll get him, thank you.’ And he went out on the rocks almost as easily as Mrs Delvine, and took Bugs from her, and hugged him, and that was all I saw because my mum had come by then, and I was being dragged willy nilly back home for an early tea and bed and no argument, or it will be the worse for you. And all that long late afternoon and evening I lay in my bedroom and watched the shadows lengthen on the wall and wondered at Mr Leckie saying that, ‘thank you,’ and remembering the way Mr Menzies had blinked and stepped back.
And the next day apparently, Mr Leckie went into Mr Menzies shop, and the women stopped their talking entirely and the men went into the back room and talked for an hour together. And auntie Nellie wanted to go in and see what they were saying, but Mrs Sutherland stopped her. So nobody ever knew what was said. But when Bugs came back to school Peter asked him how he was. So that was all right, because that is the ordinary thing that I wanted to tell you.
Later on, days later, maybe weeks, I can’t remember now, I was round at Mrs Delvine’s because I was having a piano lesson, and there was a picture of her on her piano in a spangly leotard, balancing on a tightrope. Everybody had seen it except me. And exotic as it was, it was given only a minute’s worth of attention by the women waiting to be served in Mr Menzies. ‘Oh yes,’ they said. ‘See that Jeannie Delvine. She used to be a tightrope walker, in Hungary. And then she got arthritis, and her husband, aye, John Delvine, from Glasgow, that she met in the war, he died, poor soul. And then she ran a café in Paris, and it failed and she came here and saved wee Bugs Leckie fae drowning. Fancy that.’
Pictures via CreativeCommons, via pixabay.com and commons.wikimedia.org
On Sunday we went to the Hollowell Steam Rally. Hollowell is a beautiful village in Northamptonshire, and every year steam enthusiasts – that is grimy cheerful men who like driving steam engines very slowly – converge on some fields near the church and show off their darlings to all and sundry. In fact they travel so slowly, that they probably get home from the previous year’s show, just in time to turn round and come back.
We’ve gone every year since the kids were small, because what else do you do on a July afternoon in England but eat hot doughnuts, admire the heavy horses, have a ride on a steam driven bus and enjoy a pint of Sam Smiths/Greene King/Marstons Pedigree in the heaving beer tent? (You could have cider, if you wanted, but really, why would you?). It was one of the high points of the year, and there were times when the kids insisted on going on Saturday and Sunday. There were even plans to camp over.
But time has passed, and our kids, as kids do, have been getting older and steam engines no longer cut the mustard. This year only our youngest, (and he’s nearly 15) came with us. He wasn’t going to. His verdict on the whole prospect was ‘But it’s so boring’. Then we mentioned the doughnuts, and he got in the car.
And it was lovely. There were the usual bizarre overheard snippets of conversation, ‘He said, you can’t come in here; you’re not wearing white trousers.’ ‘He’s so like his father, such an arrogant looking head. Mind you, he’s a lovely boy.’ And, ‘I came round to borrow your wobbelator but you weren’t in.’
Husband had to be physically dragged away from the stationary engines, the parade ring was a stately mass of motorbikes, Victorian prams and dogs and heavy horses. The doughnuts were fab. Husband and son moved among the motorbikes like judges at a cattle show. ‘Look dad, a BSA Bantam; mm that’s a beauty, look at the stainless steel exhausts on that one; Norton, fabulous frame.’
As we were leaving a Spitfire and a Hurricane flew over, and everyone stopped to follow them across the blue, cloud spattered sky. It was, as Lou Reed would say, a perfect day. And next year? Of course we’ll be back. But our kids may have better things to do.