By Mike Smith
This is a photograph from my childhood. It is of a roadside cottage and a fine, unidentified tree, on what was the edge of a Midland town, as they both were over sixty years ago. I’d guess it was taken in the mid or late nineteen fifties. It shows the front wall of the cottage I grew up in, and the road outside. It was a road that, when the photograph was taken, led out into the Staffordshire countryside. You might have called it a road to nowhere.
In the foreground on the left, if you ignore the old gaslight, is an upright object with a white top. You might recognise it as a petrol pump, probably a ‘Shell’ one.
The cottage had been the gate-lodge to a substantial house belonging to a successful Burton-upon-Trent brewer. That was demolished sometime between the two World Wars. A short flight of stone steps, overgrown, and the rumour of a lost cellar, both at the far end of our plot, were all that was left of what must have been the house and its ornamental gardens.
A pale blue gate, permanently open during my childhood save once when I recall cattle being driven along the road, stands out of sight closer to the camera than the lens captures. It bore the name of ‘The Lodge’ if memory isn’t playing me false. A short drive led down past the bay window of the cottage – an oval rose garden edged with stone alongside – to old stables, coach houses and outbuildings. All had the same steep, slated roofs, blue weatherboards pierced with fleur-de-lis designs in which swallows nested, and tall, pointed wooden finials. You can just make one out on the visible gable of the cottage, not quite merged in the foliage of the tree behind. There’s the shadow of another on the roof, presumably above that bay window. These were the buildings that I described in my only published novella, A Penny Spitfire, and the greenhouse that features in my daughter’s animation Giant’s Puddings leaned against one of them.
The photograph shows more, and pricks memory beyond what it shows. I can just remember that gas lamp being lit at dusk by a man who, Wee Willie Winkie-like, ‘ran through the town’, carrying his long pole, hurrying to light the lamps before true darkness fell, or at least, I think I can. I found a coal miner lying beneath it once, or the lamp that replaced it, and thought him dead, rather than dead drunk, and wrote a poem about it fifty and more years later.
The tree is in full leaf, beneath a Simpson’s sky, which would have had no meaning when the photograph was taken. And the shadows are long and to the east of north if my internal compass points true. This makes it a summer evening, I guess, or maybe late afternoon. Those cyclists, small as they are, seem unhurried. I imagine them enjoying the warmth, chatting, side by side as they ride.
Above the stub wall, beyond the petrol pump, you can see the top of what used to be the front door. Unseen to the right of it, but the shadow gives the clue, steps led up to road level and an opening with, back then, a gate.
Further along the road, even at this angle, you can make out a window and beyond that another door. This didn’t open into the house but was a yard gate through which you stepped down to outhouses, though I never saw it used: a washhouse with a boiler in the corner, a room with running water from a tap – dad fixed it up as a darkroom for photography. He was a hobby photographer all his life and taught me to develop and print in black and white. This photograph, of which I have several prints must be one of his. There was an outside toilet too, in that yard, lit by starlight and protected from frost by a paraffin heater, with a store shed alongside, both backing onto the road. The shed was eventually hollowed out, its roof left intact and propped up at the corner, and a fuel tank for central heating was installed in the space beneath.
The cottage was tiny. The room with the bay window had an open fire, and opened onto a short corridor, to the left of which was a scullery kitchen with a gas water heater by the sink. The bath was underneath the kitchen table, which was fixed to the wall and hinged up, secured to a hook. And yes, I was told, it did once fall down on me in the bath. The room with the window onto the road was a bedroom. The room with the window showing to the left of the petrol pump must have been some sort of reception room. I can remember it with a desk, being used as an office and shop-front, but not for long.
Because dad was an inveterate builder, and demolisher. That single pump turned into two, and perhaps three. Their swing arms carried pipes across the pavement to serve the cars. At the back he extended the kitchen, and added a bathroom and indoor toilet, nibbling away at other outbuildings to make space. He added a bedroom. Some called them the golden fifties, though I remember them as grey, and the sixties they called the silver sixties, because things got better.
Reminiscing about my mother recently, I realised what a catalogue of disaster blighted the first forty years of her life, and dad’s. Born before the First World War, mum, the youngest child, was sent to queue for food at the shops – there was no rationing (until 1917?) in that war, and when it was gone it was gone. Then there was the Homes Fit for Heroes that didn’t materialise, the inflation caused by the war, the crippling debt it imposed, the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash, and the next war after that. No wonder mum was content and counted herself lucky all the years of my life. She knew her place, and knew it was better than she’d had before, and bore it without aspiration, with the stoicism of some unspoken disappointment. She might have truly asked though, who could want for more?
The cyclists – there are two more in the distance – emphasise the emptiness of the road. I can just recall it like that, though I wouldn’t have noticed at the time. Dad spoke of that petrol pump as being modern. Earlier ones were hand operated, and before that petrol was sold in two-gallon cans. But the times were changing. They started to build what was said would be the biggest coal fired power station in Western Europe a few miles up the road. Conveys of vehicles passed by in both directions day after day for years and several times a day, calling in for fuel. The private car was on the rise. By the time I left school they were predicting 20 million of them. Dad knocked down the extended cottage, put the pumps a little more than a car’s width back from the pavement, and a new building a tad more than a car’s width back from that.
There was a showroom, a shop, office and stores on the ground floor, a staircase bolted on at the back – overlooked in the original thumbnail sketch – and a four-bedroom flat with enormous rooms built on above. For a time, my old new bedroom had a steel girder down through the ceiling, a tarpaulin on the roof. I played on the scaffolding after school.
And not just our place: the road changed too. Just beyond the last tree on the right-hand side, a hillside we’d sledged down to the hedge was opened up. A road network spread over the ridge that we’d called the Cow Pastures. I learned to drive on it. Before that we had slid on metal trays down clay ski-runs where they later bumped out the hillside for houses. I went to school in a brand-new building on land I’d seen bulldozed flat, frogs, newts, plants, and water spilling from the ponds as they trashed them. The houses were slow to arrive, one by one over years, like reluctant weeds along the crest and on the reverse slope. After working hours, after school, we roamed the building sites.
Below them at the slope’s foot, opposite to us, an Aunt and Uncle, dad’s sister with her second husband, lived in a bungalow stuffed with dark furniture and suppressed resentment. He was a tee-totaller with a fine palate and tasted the beer for one of the breweries. It might have been Bass. A taciturn man, he told me once, that if I practised long and hard enough with a tennis ball in my pocket, I could crush it flat with one hand. And he demonstrated.
Dad fell out with her, over a petrol mower he decided to sell when the last piece of our grass was concreted over for the business. I’ve no money, my uncle had said, surprised to be asked. She crossed the road, threw banknotes on to the kitchen table and didn’t speak to him again for years.
Next door to them, another bungalow, more modern and with a tennis court – both plots had been the grounds of the house you can catch a glimpse of at the photo’s far right edge – and a retired policeman lived there. He always wore a fag, unlit, dangling from his lips. Offer him a light, dad said. I’ll get one later, he’d reply. When they were too worn, I suppose, to dry out and re-use, he’d buy another pack. Twenty Players.
There’s an old red phone box in the shot. We used it, until we got our own. What we see arrive seems always new. What is there already seems just furniture however recently it arrived. I recall our, first fridge, first image on a TV screen, even our first phone perhaps.
Go back there today and you’ll find the road, I suspect, much as it was, save for the cottage and perhaps the tree. It’s full fifteen years, as I write since I visited the spot. The pumps had gone. The showroom had substituted furniture for cars. The old red phone box might be a garden ornament by now. Cyclists will move a little faster, pumping Lycra, no doubt.
The power station’s come and gone, been swept away, its working life complete. Built, used, demolished, all in the blink of a life’s eye.
Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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