BOREDOM IS THE CURSE OF all children – and the scourge of their families. And sure enough, despite the best efforts of Auntie Kathleen to keep my mind occupied, shortly after my mum had departed Brockenhurst Avenue to return to Leicestershire, leaving me to enjoy my fortnight-long holiday, I started to become restless.
It was Saturday the thirteenth day of August. The year was 1977, and the start of the football season was a full, excruciating week away. I had been in Cottingham for less than three hours, and as the small arm of the living room clock got nearer to three o’clock – and the booming ‘bongs’ that hit the same kind of decibel levels as those triggered by Big Ben – I felt an acute bout of mischief start to pulse through my veins. As my poor mother knew only too well, I was often prone to these episodes, hence the need for her to have some time to herself every year.
I looked around at my surroundings. The animated face of Dickie Davies, host of World of Sport was speaking on the telly. I couldn’t understand what he was talking about as the volume was too low for me to hear anything on the recently acquired Phillips colour ‘box’. So, I simply stared at his dark moustache, which bobbed up and down, like a giant leopard moth caterpillar munching its way along the a dandelion leaf. Uncle Jim loved to have the telly on as background noise, which meant he could do other things while not missing anything of importance. But I couldn’t see the point, particularly as nobody could hear anything. I glanced to my left and my right; Auntie Kathleen had the tip of a black biro pen in her mouth, while Uncle Jim was scratching his ear vigorously with the remnants of a pencil, the type that’s acquired from a local betting shop. Both were absorbed by the contents of the Daily Mirror and The Sun newspapers respectively, with Uncle Jim also keeping a watchful but irregular eye on the events unfolding on the control of Dickie. It was clear this was their weekend routine; they had settled down to enjoy some peace and quiet and there was nothing (or ‘nowt’ as they say in these parts) for me to do other than ‘be seen and not heard’. I had played with my Airfix toy soldiers for an hour, and the Nazi and Japanese axis of evil had lost for the umpteenth time on the stairs and landing to numerically inferior (but militarily superior) British Eighth Army forces. Apart from picking up a book to read, which no self-respecting lad of my age ever did, my options were exhausted. Even Sweep, the resident mutt and world’s worst guard dog, couldn’t be enticed from under the front room table to go for a walk. So, with one of my remaining options being to sit still and be silent (something I could never do), my imagination started to run wild.
Making as little noise as possible, I wandered into the kitchen and spied a bowl of plump Jaffa oranges. If you haven’t tasted the delights of a Jaffa, you have missed a trick: grown in Israel, it is a fruit with the sweetest taste, and in the 1970s, when you could only buy seasonal oranges at certain times of the year, they were more prized than gold bullion. I checked to see if anyone was looking – they weren’t – so I snaffled two of the largest on offer, tucked them under the new Hull City shirt I had been wearing every day for the last two weeks (unwittingly creating the illusion I had started to grow breasts) and meandered into the downstairs bathroom, eager to consume my ill-gotten gains.
“You won’t be long, will you?” called Uncle Jim from the comfort of his chair as he eyed the direction in which I was going. “I am starting to get desperate for the loo myself and I know how long you can take in there.”
I waved my hand in acknowledgement, never daring to look at him or say a word, lest I slip up, surrender my spoils and incur his wrath. Thankfully, Uncle Jim’s eyes quickly settled once again on the inner pages of that day’s paper. He was attempting to complete the ‘quick’ crossword. His endeavours had already eaten up the last forty-five minutes and I knew this latest foolhardy quest would take considerably longer until the white flag of surrender was raised and the newspaper tossed aside. For as long as I could remember, it had been the same outcome every time he sat down to attempt the feat. After I had unconsciously eyed the paper’s sordid front page tale about a couple of English school girls who were embroiled in an ‘Arab love riddle’, I relaxed. Uncle Jim had closed his eyes and was whistling something to himself, and I was as confident as I could be that my small misdemeanour would remain undetected.
Once securely inside the sparse, whitewashed bathroom, comprising a bath, sink and toilet, made some thirty years earlier out of the finest porcelain, I retrieved the two oranges and ate them like a ravenous piranha devours flesh. Boy, they tasted good, despite the overpowering smell of insulin, a drug Auntie Kathleen was required to inject into the fat below her skin every day. After the last piece of the fruit had been consumed, and with my fingers dripping in sticky citrus juices, I suddenly realised I had a problem not foreseen when I pocketed these heavenly delights: what would I do with the peel? Throwing it away in the bin was a definite no-no. It was emptied every day and would lead to instant discovery and potentially dire consequences, such as no pudding at the evening meal, as well as certain chastisement from Auntie Kathleen, Uncle Jim, or both. Nor could I flush it down the loo, as the unyielding peel would easily lead to the pipes becoming blocked. So, I had to be clever. Looking around the room, I immediately discounted throwing it out of the small window that overlooked the backyard. That would just be sheer stupidity and lead to quicker discovery than if I had used the bin. Next, I studied the bath panel, which looked like a good spot to hide anything from the incriminating peel to a dead body. Unfortunately, it was secured by screws and I didn’t have the means to remove them. It was at that moment I wished I’d bought a Swiss army knife with my birthday money, as well as the Tigers shirt I now wore from dawn to dusk.
Nope, I would be buggered (metaphorically) unless I could find somewhere to dispose of the evidence. And then, just as panic threatened to overwhelm me, I had a light bulb moment. I put the toilet seat down and climbed on top of the lid, so I could reach into the cistern that was located directly above, a good six and a half feet off the ground and way too high to come into Auntie Kathleen and Uncle Jim’s direct line of vision. Being taller than the average twelve year old, I was able to get my hand into the cold and uninviting water channel. After fumbling around in the depths for a few seconds, I was happy. This would be an ideal spot. I bent down, picked up the peel from the sink, and quietly and surely placed it in the watery hiding place. At a stroke, the evidence of my crime had disappeared. Even the juice that had dripped onto my prized football shirt couldn’t be seen as it blended in perfectly with one of the wide amber stripes. Contented, I came out of the toilet and proceeded to let Uncle Jim know it was now ‘safe’ for him to use.
“That’s wonderful,” he exhaled, opening his dark brown eyes and talking to me kindly. “But it is usual in these parts for us to flush the toilet when we’ve used it. Tony, your standards seem to have dropped since you moved to the Midlands. So, can you kindly pull the chain before I go in, there’s a good lad and, if it’s necessary, open the window.”
I looked at his dark, swarthy face (even when he shaved, Uncle Jim’s chin looked as though it had not seen a razor blade in weeks) and suddenly the simplest and the most perfect fib popped into my shell-like. “Don’t worry Uncle Jim,” I said quickly. “I didn’t need to go in the end. It was a false alarm.”
I must have been convincing, for Uncle Jim seemed satisfied with my response. I hurried away from the scene of the crime, eventually finding myself in the scullery, and feeling the cooling touch of the oilcloth that adorned the table on my leg. As I sat, with my back to the front room, I heard my uncle rise from his seat, grumble at the outcome of the latest race from Haydock Park, which presumably meant he had lost a couple of bob on the result, and stride purposefully to the loo. I remained still, not moving until I heard the door close and the latch drop. I sighed as an immense feeling of relief washed over me.
Looking around, I marvelled at all the freshly baked foods on display. A chocolate sponge cake caught my attention immediately. It was filled with strawberry jam and fresh cream, which had spilled over the sides. It sat invitingly on a plate on the wooden shelf of the main cupboard, drawing me towards it like a magnet pulls in an iron filing. It took all my self-control to stop myself from flicking my finger across the rich seam of jam and cream. I licked my lips, anticipating the joys to come later in the day. There were also scones aplenty (the ones with raisins in them) and a meat pie. Then I eyed some fish fillets; they appeared to be smoked Haddock, as the flesh was a yellowish colour. There were also some large pieces of Plaice, which were Auntie Kathleen’s favourites. Their tails poked out of the plain white paper they had been wrapped in, a sure sign Mister Wigby, the man who sold groceries and meats from his mobile van to the residents of Brockenhurst Avenue at least twice a week, had been in the vicinity. When I had clocked everything that was on offer, I leaned to the side, stretched out my right arm, and gently eased open the bright white pantry door. Inside this particular Aladdin’s Cave were a large chicken, some dairy items and tinned foods, including enough Corned Beef to feed the British army. I smiled. It looked like we would be feasting over the next few days in the truest of Auntie Kathleen traditions! But the prospect of a meal, or two, wasn’t enough. I remained restless. I still wasn’t contented and my boredom was increasing. I tried to fight the urges from within, but was unable to resist. And from that moment, there was only one possible outcome: I was going to be in a spot of bother.
As is often the case, it was at that precise moment I spotted an intriguing glass bowl. Made to withstand heavy knocks and blows, it looked as though it must have been manufactured before Uncle Jim enlisted with the East Yorkshire Infantry to go and fight in the Second World War, a good thirty six years earlier. But what particularly caught my attention was the little mountain of sugar it contained! Now then, I thought, there’s something…
I had always wanted to trick someone into using salt instead of sugar. I think I had first seen such a prank being played out when I had watched an old black and white film film one Saturday morning on the BBC. The thought you could hoodwink someone so simply, with such devastating effect, made it all the more appealing. Thereafter I’d always wanted to recreate a similar kind of chaos. So today, just a few hours into my stay, I decided Uncle Jim, one of my favourite people in the whole world, was going to be my unsuspecting victim.
“Auntie Kathleen,” I called out using all my charm, while trying my hardest to stifle an involuntary chuckle that was threatening to escape. “Would you and Uncle Jim like me to make you both a nice cup of coffee?”
Prior to posing the question, I’d already placed two cups alongside the cooker and got an unopened bottle of ‘steri’ (sterilised milk) out of the fridge (prising its metal lid off with a bottle opener), and I’d filled the metal kettle with water and placed it on the lit cooker ring. All of these things had been done before I heard Auntie Kathleen’s confirmatory “yes, please”, which meant the plot was now entering its decisive phase. I looked over my shoulder in the direction of the downstairs toilet – a place I hoped would continue to be Uncle Jim’s home for a few minutes longer. All continued to be quiet; there was nothing to suggest he might be ready to return to his place by the fire and telly. The only sound was a light, occasional cough, which indicated he was still trying to overcome the disappointment of his latest crossword failure, as well as attending to nature’s call.
As the kettle’s liquid contents noisily bubbled and hissed away, I peered into the pantry in an effort to try and locate the all-important salt. Sure enough, I quickly spotted a packet of Saxa, which had barely been used. Its extrovert gold, white and blue packaging made it easy to identify. I reached for it, grabbed hold and eased it out of its resting place. Once everything I needed was at my fingertips, I hastily poured the sugar out of the bowl, onto a plate, which I hid on of one of the shelves in the pantry. Then I started the most important part of the grand deception… the all-important swap. It only took a few, fleeting seconds to complete the task, and when it looked as though the salt equalled the amount of displaced sugar, my wicked sense of humour was well on the way to being sated. But just as smugness threatened to overwhelm me, the peace of the house was shattered.
“What in buggery’s name is wrong with this damned toilet?” I heard Uncle Jim shout behind the protective screen of the lavatory door. At the same time came the sound of the toilet chain being repeatedly yanked followed by the cistern emitting strangled gurgling noises. At my tender time of life, I knew nothing about plumbing, but it was abundantly clear number thirteen’s loo did not want to comply with the wishes of the flusher.
“Damn you. Damn you. Damn you,” my normally softly spoken uncle roared in frustration, as his efforts failed to bear fruit. “Bugger. I suppose I will just have to bloody-well sort this out. Whatever could be wrong with the damned thing?”
Suddenly, the cistern fell silent, albeit movement and what sounded like some physical exertion continued – the result, I suspect, of trousers being pulled up and a belt being buckled. Auntie Kathleen stirred in her chair momentarily, looking in the direction of the scullery, before an article about the rock singer, Freddie Mercury, penned by Nina Myskow in The Sun, reclaimed her attention. She continued to be focused on the newspaper while splashes and grunts, the results of Uncle Jim’s urgent investigations, shattered the hitherto peace and calm. At first, I couldn’t fathom out what was going on. And then the penny dropped: like I had done earlier, Uncle Jim had climbed onto the toilet seat – perched on his tip-toes – and was attempting to discover the source of the blockage. It was then that my heart started thumping wildly.
Time was of the essence. After pouring water and milk into both cups, I quickly took the coffees into the sitting room, placing them on the small trestle tables located by the sides of the chairs Auntie Kathleen and Uncle Jim claimed as their own. As she received my offering, Auntie Kathleen made an approving cooing noise. Her eyes never shifted from the columns of the newspaper, such were her powers of coordination, and soon the combination of warm drink and exaggerated newspaper stories had consumed her.
I had also taken the sugar bowl with me, so Uncle Jim could access its contents. I placed it on the table by his cup. I had almost managed to make it back to the relative safety of the kitchen table when I heard him exclaim: “What in hell is this doing in here?” Less than thirty seconds later, he emerged from the toilet. “Young man,” he bellowed in my general direction. “I think you have some explaining to do!”
As I turned and faced my accuser, I saw the shirt sleeve cuffs on his right arm were sodden, while his hand was gripping all that remained of the two succulent Jaffas. But before I could say anything in my defence, Uncle Jim spied the cup of steaming coffee by his chair. Like the captain of a Seventeenth Century galleon being guided on to the rocks by the mesmerising calls of a mermaid seductress, the lure of a cup of Nescafe proved too great a temptation. My conscience suddenly sparked into life and I tried to warn him of the imminent danger he faced. Nervous, I stammered incoherently, but my words were immediately cut off.
“Hold on to your thoughts, Tony,” said Uncle Jim, stopping me in my tracks. “You can think about your answer, and how you will atone, after I have drunk my coffee. After buggering about in the toilet, sorting out the mess only you could have created, I am now in need of some refreshment.”
With that, Uncle Jim proceeded to launch a teaspoon into the sugar bowl. Once, twice. thrice, four times… depositing what he thought were pyramids of the finest British cane sugar into his piping hot liquid refreshment. Then, in a bid to make the coffee more temperate, he blew short blasts of air across its surface, creating little ripples akin to rolling waves gently caressing the seashore. Only when he was satisfied he wouldn’t scald his mouth did he take an almighty swig. And that was his downfall.
Time seemed to stand still for a moment before I became aware of Uncle Jim’s swarthy face turning crimson red, his eyes bulging then narrowing into slits, before an involuntary percussive explosion erupted from his mouth as he violently expelled the foul-tasting and invasive brown liquid. It was as if Iceland’s famous Strokkur geyser had transported itself momentarily into number thirteen, for the scale of the plume that spurted from my uncle’s mouth that day (soaking the wall, opposite) certainly had supernatural qualities. Very quickly, my uncle’s confusion turned to bewilderment, followed by shock, anger and then gradual realisation. Joey, the resident and normally anonymous house budgie who lived permanently in the front room, started hopping from one perch to another in his small wiry cage, making wild and raucous hooting noises as he expressed his mirth at the scene being played out before him. His squawks added to the overall pandemonium and helped to rouse the normally docile Sweep, who started barking energetically, his tail thumping rhythmically against the brown, dralon settee. Amid this scene of utter bedlam, Uncle Jim was rapidly regaining his senses. When he had done so, he caught my eye. And it was at that very moment, I realised he was capable of being a cold-blooded killer. He had, after all, fought in Burma against the formidable Japanese.
“You conniving little bugger,” he ranted, as he rose from his chair. “When I get my hands on you I am going to bloody-well flay you alive.”
With that, Uncle Jim hurled himself out of his chair and in my general direction. Thankfully, I had my wits about me and was prepared. I legged it as quickly as I could, making for the back door and the freedom of the yard outside. If I could escape the confines of the house, there was a fighting chance Auntie Kathleen would intervene and I would be safe.
“Come here, you little monkey,” I heard Uncle Jim rasp, as I reached for the door handle and twisted the knob, allowing the wooden obstruction to swing open and my legs to propel me into the fresh air. Then, my prayers were indeed answered: Auntie Kathleen had roused herself from her contentment and entered the fray.
“Jim! Jim! Calm down,” she said soothingly in her distinctive and softly spoken East Yorkshire voice. Her arms were folded as she stood on the outside steps that led to the kitchen. Unlike her husband, she was the picture of serenity. “Whatever has happened, remember he’s only a young lad, and he’s only playing the kind of prank you would have been proud of when you were his age. There’s no serious harm done.”
Uncle Jim disagreed and continued to spit barbs in my direction. “No harm? I nearly choked on that vile stuff,” he said as he joined his wife on the steps and started mopping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. “It feels like I’ve drunk half the bloody Humber estuary. And then there’s the matter of the orange peel I found in the cistern. He’s only just arrived, and already we’ve got havoc raining down on us. I am not having it, Kathleen. I am not having it. Tony is going to have to buck his ideas up if he going to last the fortnight.”
“Oh, Jim, don’t get yourself all worked up,” urged my aunt, a woman who would have made a wonderful diplomat if she had been blessed with an education and more fortunate upbringing. “Look on the bright side, it got you out of that chair you had been slumped in for half the day. And there’s no lasting harm done. Anyway, what did he actually do to cause such a commotion. What real harm is there?”
Uncle Jim put his hand on Auntie Kathleen’s shoulder, turned her around so she was facing the sitting room, and pointed his finger directly at the sugar bowl.
“Take a look for yourself,” he urged. “Go and taste what’s in that bowl. Just make sure you don’t swallow too much of it.”
With curiosity written all over her face, Auntie Kathleen strode purposefully to the crime scene, licked her index finger and dipped it into the sugar bowl. I should have warned her beforehand not to do it. But before my brain had clicked into gear, her finger had disappeared into her mouth. It was an act she regretted instantly. Her cheeks imploded, and a gagging noise, the sort made by a Baboon when it is the height of the mating season, came out of her mouth. Moving at a speed that belied her age and weight, my aunt made for the kitchen sink, where she turned on the cold tap, allowing a torrent to blast the sides of the stainless steel sink. She quickly cupped one of her hands, capturing some of the outpouring in her palm, and proceeded to gulp down the comforting water. Eventually, when the foul taste had subsided, she had composed herself, and the twinkle had returned to her eye, she looked at me and said: “If your mum finds out about this, she’ll give you a good hiding, and it will be nothing more than you deserve. And if you try anything else like this while you are here, you won’t be able to sit down for a week because I will sort you out myself. And I promise it will be a painful experience.”
Then, with her words hanging in the air but unable to contain herself, Auntie Kathleen let out one of her signature belly laughs, adding: “So, are we agreed?” she asked, while trying her best to conceal the sniggers that overwhelmed any feelings of anger. “You’re going to be on your best behaviour for the rest of your stay, aren’t you?”
I nodded my assent, eager to please the woman who was the beloved matriarch figure of our family. And at that precise moment, I meant it: I was willing to be compliant, the good nephew who never knowingly put a foot wrong. Alas, as anyone who has passed through childhood will know, two weeks is a very long time for any child to remember all the solemn pledges he has made.
And I was doomed to fail.