Although going out to play here in The Dales was not, I will confess, altogether unbeneficial to me. By so doing, I was less likely to fall foul of our Granny Wallop. It took me not unhappily out of Mother’s way — Mother and new grizzling accessory of baby Clifford. As for our Jake, I’d always rather admired my now-eldest little brother. These days, he disturbed me greatly. Skull collecting? His favourite new amusement, a dead hens’ foot? He’d found its toes clenched when he pulled the Achilles tendon. He liked to pick his nose and ears with its claws.
Beyond Wallop’s Roost there were no hens to slaughter, rabbits to dress, goats’ warm squishy bags wanting squeezing. I mightn’t exactly have been celebrating liberty when first offered. But freedom of those endless miles of docile sheep-filled hillside was infinitely preferable to Roost, I’d soon discovered. A Roost containing my family at any rate. In fact, some distance behind the church at the bottom of Wallops Hill stretched a riverside wildflower meadow I’d quite made my own sanctuary. A pillow of clover, ironically, was just the respite this homesick city boy needed.
I’d never remarked clouds before. Not wispily drifting the whole sky wide. Like a swift I wished I could scythe through the air screaming for sheer joy of it. Had I been inclined, I might have reached up from where I lay and caught a swallow, they wove their skyway trails that low, teasingly. A large cabbage white landed plumb on my nose once. All those flowers, and it chose me. Butterflies, bees, hoverflies . . . they were all the close company I needed.
So imagine my discomfit one soporifically blazing afternoon when through all those dancing insects, tall grass, flowers and heat haze I rudely intuited eyes upon me. I bolted upright, and needn’t scour the meadow to discover whose. Thirty yards distant, some sandy-haired boy’s of about my age.
Now, as far as I was concerned, my safely going out to play here in The Dales was wholly contingent on just one thing. Namely, absence of other bullying children. Which is as much to say, children. A sad talent to admit to, but I had an exceedingly keen instinct for distinguishing potential tormentors from friends — on account of their pretty much all proving my oppressors eventually. This lad was staring hard and actually carried a weapon. A javelin or a spear.
‘Oh, no,’ I said, lay back down and hoped wished and prayed he would move on. Though even as I did, I knew it was in vain.
What I wasn’t expecting, before I plucked up courage enough to raise myself sufficiently for another peek, was for this tough to have advanced upon me quite so quickly. Still more of a surprise, he wasn’t a lad at all. Not that I knew boys in Leeds who wore cut-off dungarees. I knew no girls either. But they did strike me as a garment decidedly more laddish than lassish. So too the accessory of not a javelin, as transpired, but fishing pole. I thought her gait every inch a prop forward’s.
‘Eyup,’ she said, before I could sit up. ‘Ah thought thee were dead.’
‘Ah thought thee a lad.’
I meant nothing by it. I knew girls’ capabilities. One day, walking home from school, I’d been debagged by I don’t know how many just for asking if one planned on growing a moustache like her mam’s. I hadn’t wanted to. I was made to by bigger boys. All the same, for snitching they threw those shorts of mine up on to the park toilet’s roof. Those same girls, I mean. Not lads. The lads just laughed.
I feared the moment I’d done so I shouldn’t have owned to the mistake. But this dungaree-clad fisher-girl gave my words a moment’s thought and simply shrugged, as if being mistaken for a boy were — well, a compliment.
‘Who are thee, anyroad?’ she asked.
‘What’s it to thee?’ I didn’t want to appear a pushover.
‘Well, thee don’t live ’ere, do thee?’
‘Do,’ I said. Which was wasn’t a lie, as of previous week.
‘Thee don’t. Where?’
‘In t’village.’ That might have been a lie. But even back home, I was not in the habit of owning to Mother. I couldn’t abide the names she was called. And I certainly wasn’t about to own to Granny Wallop.
‘Who’s tha dad?’ she said.
Now the truth about my father I knew without a shadow of a doubt it never paid to admit. In the past I had invented all manner of fathers for myself — and sensibly killed them off before I’d got to know them. But this lass had caught me on the hop. I told her, ‘Tom.’
‘Tom?’ she said.
‘Tom the butcher?’
In actual fact, butcher was the last occupation I’d have wanted for any father of mine. But since our introduction Tom had featured in my thoughts in no small way. Mother’s second altercation with him — that I’d witnessed at any rate — had been a barnstorming performance even by her standards. It played on the forecourt of Wallops Roost, no less. I say, on the forecourt. In the mistaken belief, apparently, that Granny Wallop had ordered a delivery, Tom stood on the forecourt. Mother’s delivery was from the landing window. Evidently, their bad feeling went back some time.
Anyway, the girl laughed at me. ‘Yer’ll be tellin’ us Hetty in’t Post Office is tha granny next.’
‘How does thee know she ain’t?’ I said without conviction.
‘Cos she’s mine. As is Tom Allinson my dad.’
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘Not very bright, is thee? Shall Ah tell thee who tha granny is? Winnie Wallop.’
‘How does thee know that?’
‘Thee have her dog wi’ yer, for un thing. Eyup, Ned, lad!’
Doggy Ned, my new shadow, raised his head when he heard his name. He clapped his jowls at a passing fly before flopping back down.
‘Wha’s tha name?’
As I saw this situation developing, I thought that an unwarranted jibe. ‘Thee know our name,’ I said.
‘Ah don’t. Ah know theur ’ere wi’ mother ’n’ brothers, but Ah don’t know names. Comme on. Wha’ do they call thee?’ I tried disdaining to answer, but there was no getting around it. She demanded, ‘Well . . .?’ And when I did tell her, ‘No. Really? Ned?’
Doggy Ned communicated disdain far more effectively than I. He raised his head again and groaned this time.
‘Ahh, well,’ she said. I suppose I was grateful that she did not pursue the subject. Though grateful only? ‘Ah’m Julie,’ she went on. ‘Pleased t’meet thee. Ah’m just headin’ home, if yer care t’walk wi’ us.’ I was gobsmacked.
Walk we did, and talk, soon establishing that Julie was older than I by only a couple of years. Though I will admit freely she made me feel quite inferior, and that not just physically. Believe it or not, sartorially too. In this setting, once I’d taken them in, cut-off dungarees seemed by no means inappropriate. Bare feet neither. Jake and I hadn’t extensive wardrobes even back in Leeds, but that’s where most of our clothes were. I was wearing last year’s school shorts, me, my usual grey socks and the only pair of shoes I owned — and their soles were attached more by power of prayer than glue.
The funny thing was, not my feeling of inferiority per se — I was very used to that. Rather, my feeling at ease with that inadequacy. Or, I should say, being made to feel at ease. For Julie hardly poked fun at all. In fact, of shoes she said, ‘Who needs ’em? Ah’d go t’school barefoot if they’d let me.’ I’d have taken mine off there and then, only, ‘Drives my Granny Flintoff up wall.’
‘Granny,’ I said, ‘from Post Office?’
‘Aye. Has ideas above ’er station — as Winnie Wallop knows full well.’ How very odd to hear Granny Wallop called Winnie. ‘Funny enough,’ Julie said, ‘Ah were thinkin’ abaht Winnie just before Ah clocked thee. How nice it would be t’ave nice ice cold bottle of her dandelion ’n’ burdock. Or elderflower cordial. Ah’m parched.’
‘Elderflower cordial?’ I said.
‘Mmm . . . the best. She wanted my Granny Flintoff t’sell it in t’Post Office, only Granny Flintoff wouldn’t. Ah told thee she wor like that. Well! Aren’t thee the lucky un. All’t dandelion ’n’ burdock thee could want f’free.’
I thought of the god awful-mix of cod liver oil, garlic and parsley Granny Wallop had forced down me as good as on arrival at Roost — to cure my chill, she said. I’d not seen anything remotely cordial in that!
All the while we talked Julie had been leading me across the meadow to a part of the village I’d not visited before. We wound our way to a cul-de-sac that struck me as modern like nothing I’d seen at home in Leeds let alone here in The Dales. In my naivety, posh is what I thought. Each, though modestly sized, semi-detached house was set back from the road and had its own garage. I don’t know that I’d been expecting her to live over the butchers shop exactly. But whatever I was expecting, it was not this.
She didn’t ask me to, and I wouldn’t have gone in if she had. I myself mightn’t have done her father wrong. Yet on that one occasion of our meeting, the look he’d given me, I fancied he’d sooner fillet me than properly make my acquaintance. And now, if from behind living room nets, her Granny Flintoff gave me much the same look.
But before closing the door behind her, Julie cast over her shoulder, ‘Ah’ll sithee tomorrow then,’ as casually as if it were a plan already made.
Her granny’s gimlet eye notwithstanding, it took Doggy Ned flopping all his weight against my leg to snap me out of my happy reverie. Having only just that moment caught up, he groaned to turn around without rest. He wasn’t one for hot weather, Doggy Ned. Hot weather nor long distances.
As for me, Boy Ned, the ham salad Granny Wallop served for tea that evening seemed not all bad. And not just because she kept no pigs at Wallops Roost, so I needn’t fear she had been schooling Jake in the art of porcine throat-slitting in my absence. Nor just because lying wakeful all night I’d no worries he was likely to produce a sow’s skull from under our shared bed. I’d thoughts of Julie for distraction.
Thoughts such as, what would we talk about tomorrow? As I’d no father and Julie no mother — although hers had really passed away — maybe that. Or school, which, also like me, Julie loathed. If, as Mother said, come the end of the summer holidays, I’d be starting the big one in Settle instead of Leeds, Julie might be there. Would be, surely. That being the case, the prospect was nowhere near as daunting now. Although what if, when we finished school, having no brother, Julie planned on following in her father’s footsteps? How would I cope with that, her being a butcher? Oh, but I didn’t mind Gertie’s bags so much now I was used to them. I could open a cheese shop to complement the butchers.
In light of Julie’s evident fondness for Granny Wallop even she seemed not so fearsome somehow. Mind, I wasn’t emboldened to the point of daring to beg a taste of those beverages Julie so relished. Next day, while the old woman, feet up in the parlour, napped soundly I would dare nab a bottle, though, to present to Julie as a small token of our friendship.
I knew a rack of something or other was stored under the stairs, just had not thought anything of it till now — and wasn’t choosey when it came to selection. In fact, for intentness on making a clean getaway, I didn’t manage a proper look at my booty until clear out of Roost and chugging down the lane.
It was a long clear bottle with a tapering neck, holding what looked like pure liquid sunshine. ‘Ee, gorgeous,’ I thought. Doggy Ned, too. By the time I’d reached the churchyard and he’d caught up, I’ll admit I was almost tempted to pop the cork myself. The sight of his great lolling tongue stiffened my resolve, though. He might drool all he liked. ‘Ned,’ I told him, ‘this is Julie’s. Thee can drink from river.’
When we reached the river, exactly as imagined — or hoped — with all that splendid wildflower meadow outspread behind her, Julie stood on the opposite bank, fishing. I waved. Julie waved. I fairly flew across the footbridge.
‘Wha’s theur got there?’ she asked. I couldn’t have scripted it more perfectly.
‘Ohhh, nowt,’ I said, as nonchalantly as I knew how.
‘Summat,’ she said.
‘Well, just a little summat.’
‘For me?’ she said.
‘Ah don’t see no one else here.’
‘What is it?’ she said.
‘Cordial?’ she said, holding the bottle up to admire its golden contents. ‘Ah don’t think so.’
‘T’other un then.’
Julie smiled, ever so grateful, laid down her fishing pole and gripped the end of the cork between her teeth. The effort of pulling it out closed one eye tight while the other opened wider and wider. It made me laugh. It was meant to. When she had the cork out, she turned her face up and popped it at the sky.
Taking a sniff, ‘This ain’t elderflower,’ she giggled, ‘nor dandelion ’n’ burdock.’ Having taken a sip, ‘It’s better than either. Did Winnie give it thee?’
‘Oh, aye,’ I said, but couldn’t maintain the lie. Julie’s smile was too knowing. I said, ‘She didn’t say Ah couldn’t take it.’
Julie’s giggle was just about the deepest dirtiest gurgle I’ve heard to this day.
‘Ah reckon . . .’ she beamed, ‘parsnip.’
She offered the bottle to me. ‘Can’t thee taste it?’ Whatever it was I didn’t much like it. I didn’t want her knowing that, but she guessed. ‘Give it ’ere,’ she said, and took a bigger swig. ‘Ah’m sure thee could learn t’like it.’
Well, when she said it like that, me too — and we were right. I don’t know how far down the bottle we had progressed before I also took up gurgling. Not halfway. I’d kicked off my shoes, lost one to the river in the process and Julie fished it out with the tip of her rod before we had drunk half. We were both of us rolling around in hysterics. Poor Doggy Ned seemed to want to share the joke as much as he did our parsnip juice but could not get his thick doggy head around it. That only made us laugh all the more.
Gravity did overcome hilarity for a short while, when Julie saw she’d a bite to attend to. Although in truth, for me it was more consternation than gravity. She struck, reeled in and landed the first live fish I’d ever seen that wasn’t from a fun fair, pulled the hook out of its lip.
‘Are thee goin’ t’eat it?’ It was how she planned on killing the thing that bothered me. Killing, gutting . . .
I needn’t have worried. She passed me a look as if I were barmy. ‘A roach? Would thee want to?’
‘By ’eck, nay!’
That set her off again. That, in turn, me.
Only Doggy Ned was disappointed to see the thing released.
For the benefit of shade cast by that bank’s lone alder tree, we finished the bottle some way downstream, sat with backs against its broad bole breathless and giggling at our own filthy toes.
‘Catch us a pike with theur dirty little maggits,’ Julie said.
‘Catch us a whale wi’ yours.’
She taught me toe-wrestling.
It was with no little surprise then that the next thing I knew, I’d woken up. I wasn’t a great one for sleep at the best of times. I suffered bad dreams, the occasional night terror. On this occasion, it was only as I came to that something close to panic rose in me. Doggy Ned lay sleeping alongside, but what of Julie? Where was Julie?
Upon finding her on my other side, also sound asleep, I calmed soon enough. I was more than happy then to bide my time. Whilst in the branches overhead small birds chirruped delightfully, through the leaves sunlight dappled Julie so that only now did I notice a careless spattering of light freckles spanning the bridge of her nose. Just like mine, they were almost the same shade of fine dry sand as her hair. In fact, in respect of complexion and colour we were very similar, although I cannot pretend Julie’s hair wasn’t a right mess. Up close like this, I saw bits of grass in it, money spiders. As for style, it wouldn’t suffice to say she hadn’t one. She might have cut it herself, with her Swiss Army knife of which she was so proud. It wasn’t just dungarees that gave an impression of boyishness. At some point before we’d fallen asleep, she’d even invited me to test her bicep. I didn’t like to offer mine in comparison.
The funny thing was, I’d never felt inclined to squeeze another boy’s arm. Nor touch his nose. Meaning, for all Julie’s toughness whilst awake, at rest was a different matter entirely. Sleep revealed her latent femininity. In it, she was just so soft. Ripe almost. Her nose put me in pleasant mind of a strawberry, with freckles its golden seeds. It was only very lightly I touched it. She didn’t wake.
When she awoke, finally, it was because the sun had crept around to peep under our leafy parasol’s lower branches. With just the one eye open, she said, ‘What yer lookin’ at?’
‘Thee,’ I said.
She just sighed. ‘Ee . . .’ she said. ‘Daft. As a dormouse.’
We’d no reason to make haste except that Julie was parched again. I was too, only I hadn’t noticed. Our first inkling of just how long we’d lain there asleep, then lain there awake, only came once at the Post Office-cum-general store where Julie had intended to prevail upon her Granny Flintoff for refreshment. Straight out of her fridge, one of those bottles of carbonated pop that she so preferred to Granny Wallop’s would slip down a right treat. The sign on the door said closed, though. So too, on the opposite side of the road, the sign on Julie’s dad’s door. And the tearoom’s around the corner.
‘Oh, well . . .’ Julie heaved another sigh. She’d no more genuine inclination for home than I did, apparently. But what else was there for it? ‘Will yer be alreight?’
My one shoe still wet from its dunking in the river, I’d a blister where it had been rubbing. I’d had to take that shoe off. And while the soles of Julie’s feet might have been toughened by habitual bareness, not so mine. I’d a lot further to walk than she, all uphill — and a dull throbbing behind the eyes, though I kept that to myself. I found her solicitousness most touching.
‘Ah’ll sithee, then,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow maybe?’
Maybe? Not for sure? But then she did something that quite anaesthetised me to all my aches and scrapes. She touched her fore- and index-fingers to her lips and placed a kiss on my nose. So I knew then, didn’t I? She had been awake when I touched hers.
She laughed, not at me but at herself, and said, ‘Ah mun be drunk still.’
I didn’t care. I veritably floated home.
I’d never been rebuked for being late for tea before — and didn’t much care about that, either. I could have told all those kids back home in Leeds who’d ever called me a gawby pipskweek to go swivel on rusty spikes. I felt ten-foot tall and made of brass.
It was Mother who did the rebuking, or tried. She was in the scullery, waiting — in her dressing gown as was usual all hours, although no baby Clifford attached for once. No small relief, that. ‘Oh, he’s home, is he? Decided t’grace us wi’ his presence. Thankee kindly.’
I said, ‘Theur very welcome.’
‘Ah’m welcome? Why . . . Theur lucky Ah didn’t gi’ tha tea t’dog!’ she said.
‘Woulda bin clever o’ thee. Ned were wi’ us all day, weren’t thee lad.’
I thought such a riposte rather clever. Mother might have been about to express an opinion to the contrary, but just then Granny Wallop and Jake joined us from the yard.
That she might look Doggy Ned in the eye, Granny Wallop lifted his head by the scruff of his neck. ‘Ee,’ she said. ‘Jake, tek this animal aht an’ water ’im. Beast’s powfagged. Fit t’drop.’
‘Us an’all!’ I said, which I was. I drew a chair out from under the table, sat down. ‘Wha’ theur got f’me t’sup?’
I did remark the look that Granny Wallop exchanged with Mother. Stepping out of Jake’s way as he led Ned out to the trough, what the old woman said was, ‘Wha’ teks tha fancy?’
‘Ohh, Ah don’t know. Dandeflower ’n’ burbury?’ I was dimly aware that that hadn’t come out right.
‘Not sure Ah knows ’at un,’ Granny Wallop said. ‘Thee’ll ’as t’gi’ us recipe. Theur’ve no’ tasted mah dandelion ’n’ burdock, hast-ta? Nor elderflower cordial.’
‘Have thee got some?’ I said.
‘Oh, Ah thought thee did. Under stairs maybe.’
‘’Ow does thee knaw . . .’
I might have been so emboldened as to give myself away. Granny Wallop gave no reason for regret. Not straight off, at any rate. Mother’s back turned while she built up a plate with slices of cold chicken I’d really no appetite for, the old woman only gestured for me to raise my face a little. She smelled my breath, said nothing, but sat down also. ‘Wheeare’ve thee bin all day, onnyrooad?’
I would have answered for myself, only Jake piped up from the doorway, ‘Ah know where he’s bin.’
‘Oh, aye?’ Granny Wallop turned to take him in.
He was grinning his face off, looking at me though talking to her. ‘Down by river, wi’ lass.’
‘Ohh?’ Granny Wallop enquired of me with her eyes, but asked Jake, ‘’Ow does thee knaw ’at?’
Before he could answer, Mother clattered that plate of chicken and spud salad on the table before me. ‘A lass?’ she said. ‘Our Ned? Wha’ lass?’
Granny Wallop smiled. Her green eyes twinkled, emerald-like. ‘Ah can guess,’ she said.
I can’t pretend I wasn’t enjoying this attention. I pushed my chicken to the side of the plate and took a mouthful of Granny Wallop’s salad, mayonnaise home-made as spuds home-grown. Chives too.
Mother persisted from over my shoulder, ‘Wha’ lass?’
‘’Appen ’er name begin wi’ J?’ Granny Wallop teased.
Like I said, I didn’t much mind. I teased right back by rolling ‘Maybe . . .’ with my eyes.
‘J?’ Mother said. ‘Not J for . . . not Julie? Not Julie Allinson!’ Her tone was not jocular.
‘What if it was?’ I said.
‘Thee are not,’ she said, ‘t’go messin’ wi’ ’at girl.’
‘Ah’m not messin’ with ’er.’
‘Messin’, laikin’ . . . Theur not t’see ’er. Does thee ’ear me, Ned Wallop?’ She jabbed at me repeatedly, hard, right inside of my neck. ‘Ah said, do you hear me?’
‘Ah’ll see who Ah want!’ I said.
I only stood up to get out from under her finger. I’d not properly finished my first mouthful of spud salad. But it was standing that allowed her. She bobbed me one. Right on the end of my nose. I was used to being whacked, but with an open hand, not a clenched fist. In reeling, I swallowed and might have received another wallop for choking up the spuddy mess I made on the floor. It was only the bloody mess she’d made of my nose with her first strike that saved me, because, in respect of gore, Mother’s stomach was no stronger than mine.
She turned on her heel, and nearly brought the lintel down, slamming the door behind her. Upstairs, baby Clifford awoke. He was wailing before she’d slammed their bedroom door.
‘’Ang ’eead o’er slapstone,’ Granny Wallop was saying, guiding me over to the sink.
I was quite blinded by tears. But Jake came scuttling in from the doorway to stand the other side of me and gawp with relish. ‘Does it ’urt?’ he said. I thought he might have done me the favour of guessing.
‘Wha’ wor thee doin’ dahn by river, onnyrooad?’ Granny Wallop asked.
‘Nowt!’ I said.
‘Not thee. Jake!’
How could I know who she was talking to?
‘Thee were nappin’,’ Jake said.
‘S’thee followed ’im f’summat t’do? Weel, next tahme,’ she said, ‘dooan’t.’ And she clipped Jake around the back of his head. ‘An older brother’s entitled t’some privacy, i’n’t ee? Go on. Aht of ’is face now. Sling yer ’ook, tha little boggart.’
Jake stalked off into the yard.
‘Ah dooan’t like spraggin’,’ Granny Wallop explained. ‘Reight. Sit ’eeare. ’Eead back. Reight back. It’s nowt. Stoppin’ already, lewk.’ She showed me the dishcloth she held to my face. It was not stopping. It was nowhere near. ‘Tho jist s’ thee knaw,’ she said. ‘Ivver go rummagin’ under dancers ag’in, theur’ll ’ast more than bloody nose t’show for it. Got it? Wha’ wor it, onnyrooad?’
‘Ee, mah favourite. Reight. Weel, think on.’
Clayton Lister lives in Northumberland, England. This story is from his collection, The Cracked Objective Lens; he also has a novel living in his laptop, Tom Thumb's Chunky Blues. Both await re-housing to somewhere grander.