Saturday, 23 November 2013

Hometown Memories (Part Two)

Previously, I was talking about health and safety during my childhood (or lack of it!) I’d now like to revisit a blog entry from 2009, some of which I’ve tweaked for the purposes of this post.

Health and Safety didn’t exist in the 70’s and 80’s. British Bulldogs, a game we played during break-time at school, resulted in many broken limbs, missing front teeth and black eyes. Despite this, there was never a need for playground supervisors. We just got on with things without adult intervention. And it's a miracle that any of us managed to escape Mad Cow Disease after being forced to eat those horrific beef olives for school dinners. They looked like turds wrapped in boiled socks, cunningly disguised under a mound of lumpy gravy and mashed potato which had been served up with an ice-cream scoop).
I distinctly remember my Primary 6 teacher clapping with glee as a fellow pupil stood up to show us all her party trick, which involved shoving a liquorice lace up her nostril, pulling it out of her mouth and yanking it backwards and forwards like she was drying her back with a towel. We all thought this was mega cool and not one single member of staff intervened to tell us otherwise. Those were the days!
The best example of 1980’s leniency towards health and safety was my Dad’s generator. Intrigued? Sounds like something out of Doctor Who, doesn’t it? Well that’s not far off. The few times I have ever dared to raise the memory of the Generator in front of my childhood friends has resulted in the room suddenly turning icy. This is usually followed by an eerie silence filled only by the sound of tumbleweed rolling past. Some memories are best left buried.
The Generator was one of a kind. I had never clapped eyes on one prior to 1981 and I have never seen one since. I still have absolutely no idea what the purpose of the device was (other than to torture small children), although I have a vague recollection of it having something to do with my Dad’s job as a telephone engineer. Basically, it was a small, black plastic box with a handle on one side and two long (rusty) wires sprouting out of the other. One person was supposed to turn the handle S-L-O-W-L-Y while the victim - sorry, willing volunteer - held on to the wires (one in each hand). If this was done correctly, a mild electric current, not dissimilar to pins and needles, could be felt in the palms. My Dad thought it would be a great idea to take this contraption into school and to use it to demonstrate the physics of electricity to a class of nine and ten year olds. Actually, it was a brilliant educational experiment which involved the class standing in a circle, linking hands. The person at the beginning of the circle would grab hold of one of the wires and the person at the end would hold onto the other. Ta-da! Everyone would experience the tingle of current flowing through their hands, hence grasping the important message that human beings are excellent conductors of electricity. Now, in a controlled environment with a sensible adult supervising, this was a terrific lesson (unless you were unfortunate enough to be standing next to John Galbraith who not only spent most of his time with his finger up his nose but who also had incredibly sweaty hands). However, in the wrong hands this small plastic box was a lethal weapon. It certainly gave kiss, cuddle and torture a whole new meaning!
Only once did I agree to hold the wires when asked to do so by someone who shall remain nameless. I had a hopeless crush on this boy and was therefore putty in his hands. He lured me behind the coal bunker, another dangerous place where we liked to explore, despite the desperate pleas from our mothers who had to deal with our filthy clothes in the days before spin cycles and Vanish washing powder. He cruelly led me into a false sense of security by initially turning the handle very slowly. Delighted with the attention I was receiving from him I happily allowed him to speed up a little. By now the pleasant tingle had been replaced by a prolonged stinging sensation. A small crowd had gathered and were goading him to go faster. There was an evil glint in his eye as the rotations quickened. I didn't have time to let go of the wires. I can still remember, with horrifying clarity, the whirring noise of the generator. I can almost feel the hot, searing pain that shot up through my arms and neck before making its way back down to my burgundy Clarks sandals. There was a smell of singed hair in the playground for days after. The whole experience had a nightmarish quality to it - the boy’s evil laugh as his cheeks reddened from the exertion of turning the handle, the jeers of the baying crowd and the horrific realisation that no matter how much I wanted to let go of the wires I simply could not open my fists. When he eventually stopped (and believe me, it felt like a lifetime before he did) I remember trying to smile to cover my embarrassment but in truth I fought back the tears until I got home. It was my first realisation that love could hurt. Despite this, the hopeless crush continued well into my teens.
The Generator made me popular - for a little while. I took it into school a few times after the coal bunker incident but we got bored of it when no-one was willing to take a turn holding the wires. Something better, more exciting and equally as dangerous probably came along and the Generator would’ve been relegated to the back of the garden shed, the one my sister and I decorated with blue and white gloss paint and posters of Bananarama. It’s nice to still laugh about the Generator with friends who remember it as clearly as I do. Perhaps every childhood contains an object that to an outsider may seem of no consequence but to the rest of us holds much more significance. To those of us who shared the moments it created, the Generator will always trigger vivid memories –  and not always good ones!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Jim and Stella

I was walking home from work this afternoon and to my horror I saw an elderly lady sitting in the middle of the road. I ran over and as I got closer I realised there was an awful lot of blood on her face.  I fumbled for my phone as I tried my best to comfort her. Her husband came from nowhere, himself rather shaken, and explained that she had taken a tumble whilst walking to their front door. He had left her alone to park the car. It was clear that he was in a deep state of shock. I dialled 999 and offered as much information to the emergency services and I could. By this point another member of the public had arrived and was helping the old man lift his wife off the cold ground. It was heart-breaking to watch her shuffle up the driveway, clutching her nose with a blood soaked handkerchief. Whilst I was relaying information to the emergency services, the man managed to tell me his wife was called Stella and he was called Jim. He couldn’t remember how old Stella was; just that she was born in 1927. I did a quick bit of mental arithmetic for the nice lady on the other end of the phone. Jim explained that Stella had Alzheimer’s and that she had forgotten to take her walking stick out with her.

Once I'd finished the phonecall, I let myself into their house where I found Stella sitting in the living room, teary, shaken and disoriented. Jim was in the kitchen so I made sure she was comfortable and warm. I reassured them both that the ambulance was on its way. The heavy bleeding had stopped (much to my relief) and I could now see a nasty gouge down the entire length of Stella’s nose. She already had the beginnings of two black eyes and her top lip was torn. There was blood all over her coat and, more poignantly, the paper poppy pinned to her lapel. I took her hand in mine; tissue paper skin as cold as marble. I could feel her shaking like a baby bird so I gave her hand a gentle squeeze and she started to cry. Jim left the room to get the shopping in from the car. It struck me as odd at the time but I realise now he probably needed a moment to collect his thoughts. I shouted that he should leave the front door ajar so the paramedics would get in easily. He was worried about the house getting cold, especially with the rising cost of electricity. I pulled the blanket up over Stella’s legs. She started opening up about how much she loved Jim and how lost she would be without him. She told me this three separate times, the exact same words with the same passion. I had to fight back my tears every time. 

I learned a lot in the time it took for the ambulance to arrive. I learned that Stella was the youngest of seven children and that she hated her name, blaming her mother for running out of ideas by child number seven. I told her (truthfully) that it was one of my favourite names and her face lit up.
“It means star,” she said, proudly.
“Well, today you really are a star,” I replied, “a falling star.”
She laughed.
I learned that Stella and I share a birthday – 45 years apart. I learned that she is at the horrible stage of Alzheimer’s where she’s aware of her decline and that she often forgets her own name. I learned that Jim, aged 93, cares for her by himself, doing all the cooking and household chores. He never complains. I learned that they have been married for 65 years and have one son (who they refused to let me call in case he worried.) I learned that even in an emergency people feel the need to offer you tea and that it is possible, even at the ripe old age of 87, to have the most beautiful, bluest eyes in the world. 

Some people bring out the best in us and make us forget, for a few minutes, that the things we think are vitally important really aren’t. What is important is love. I witnessed love in action today and I found it deeply moving. Love can be beautiful but often it’s messy and painful. Often it’s about sacrifice and staying together even when things get ropey. And love is always accompanied by fear. I saw that in Jim’s eyes as he watched the white handkerchief turn a vivid shade of crimson. 
Here was a couple so devoted to one another that at times it was difficult to see where one ended and the other began. I joked with Stella that I wished I could find a man like Jim but I know in my heart I won’t. I don’t think love is built to last like it was when they met back in 1947.

When the paramedics finally arrived I knew it was time to leave. Jim couldn’t thank me enough for sticking around.  Stella held her hand out to me. Her blue eyes twinkled but this time there were no tears. And this time it was her who squeezed my hand. She thanked me for helping and apologised for the blood on my trousers. I hadn’t even noticed. I told her to take care and to remember her walking stick the next time she left the house. 

I had a little cry when I got home. It was probably a mixture of delayed shock and the emotional roller-coaster I’d been on. It was sad to think that at some point in the not too distant future either Jim or Stella will find themselves on their own. How unfair that will be after all those years, all those shared moments, the laughter, the tears, the sacrifice. 

True love is a quiet thing. There are no thunder booms and flashing lights. The real meaning of love is absolute loyalty, acceptance, allowing yourself to be be vulnerable. Love is what is left over once being in love has fizzled out. Perhaps that is not as exciting as the initial firework display but the beauty of true love is that it’s long-lasting and unquenchable. Above all, love is a bit of a mystery. You can’t go looking for it; it has to find you.