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By T Ungless


The cloakroom was a gateway between incarceration and freedom. On one side was a door that led to the outside, to the playground and to the road. On the other side another door led to the hall and all the classrooms off it. That side was a place of endless lining up, tedious work, scratching pens and of course the cane. The boy felt that he was caned often which he probably wasn’t, but the fear of it is as bad as the reality. In fact the boy felt that watching someone else get caned was as bad as getting it yourself.


The boy didn’t even care much for the playground. The girls’ playground was sunny and had a big oak tree which, when they had nature study, was the boy’s delight; the boys’ playground, on the other hand, was far less sunny and the toilets so smelly that in summer all the boys tried hard to keep away from them. There was also a pile of coke against the wall between the girls’ and boys’ playgrounds but the boys were strictly forbidden to cross the painted line that led to that treasure. It was a caning offence to climb on it as the boy had discovered to his cost.


The good part of the outside was the gate to the road. That truly was freedom; down the road to the corner, past the joiners’ workshop where the water butt had frozen last winter and pushed the lid a whole foot up into the air, and into the sweetshop. What would it be sherbet dabs, pink prawns or possibly a liquorice bootlace to chew slowly? Then having been suitably refreshed onto the trolley bus and the ride home.


So because of what it represented the boy liked the cloakroom though truly there wasn’t much to like about it.  It was a large room with solid metal coat pegs fixed to the green painted walls, a pine board floor dark with age and shining from the oiled sawdust used to clean it, bits of which clung in odd places. Nearest the door to freedom was a line of shallow earthenware sinks each with its own brass tap positioned above providing only cold water and a plain deal shelf on which rested large blocks of red carbolic soap. On wet days there was always a battle between the strong smell of the soap and the wet Macintoshes dripping from the coat pegs.


One day the boy was astonished to be selected by his moody teacher to run an errand. Normally errands were the monopoly of the teacher’s pets; boys or girls usually of outstanding intelligence, neat, precise and generally perfectly behaved. The boy was none of those things. However, his teacher sent him to see the caretaker with a little note. His route would lie through the cloakroom, into the playground and through a gate in the wall to the small cottage where the caretaker lived.


To the boy it felt like a holiday, a small relief from the tedium of exercises involving pounds, shillings and pence so he walked through the hall with a cheerful step clutching the note but not daring to read it the caretaker being as moody as the teacher. He went through the door into the cloakroom feeling positively carefree but the cloakroom was not empty.


The boy first saw one of the twins standing against a wall sobbing terribly. This alone made him stop in his tracks. The twins never cried they were as tough as nails. Even that time they got four strokes of the cane (two on each hand) they had not cried although they had clearly felt it. The boy tended to avoid the twins; it wasn’t that they were bullies exactly but they carried trouble with them and the boy had enough of his own without getting mixed up with the twins. He also didn’t like their eagerness to fight over trivia so he kept his distance without being afraid. Now though the twin against the wall was helpless with tears so much so that he didn’t seem able to see the boy.


Then the noise hit him. It was a mixture of what sounded like snarls and muffled screams coupled with energetic movement. The boy turned to the noise which was by one of the sinks. There he saw the headmaster holding the other twin in a vicious grip.


The boy hated the headmaster and feared him. Always clad in a black suit that was shiny with age, he was fat, short, pompous and a bully. The man undoubtedly had charm about him because he turned it on with the parents who consequently thought the school wonderful. The boy had been caned by him several times and always for the most silly of reasons which he simply didn’t understand.

Now though the headmaster was not charming. He was animal like, gripping the other twin as if he was some black carnivore about to eat the twin alive. He even seemed to be snarling though he was actually saying something but the words were unclear to the boy. What was clear to the boy was that the twin was screaming but his screams were muffled because the headmaster was forcing one of the large bars of red carbolic soap into his mouth. He must have wet the bar first because there was some foam around the mouth but it seemed to the boy that he was making him eat it and he froze with horror and fear.


The twin was not accepting this treatment submissively he was fighting hard to escape but the headmaster, with surprising strength, held him in a firm grip though the effort together with whatever he was saying caused the snarling noises.


The scene made the boy feel sick and he wondered what to do. He feared that the headmaster might turn and see him and do the same to him; he also feared to go back because his teacher was pretty short tempered; he feared to go on and attract attention to himself. In the end he practically tiptoed to the door and the outside world. With huge relief he shut the door behind him with the sights and sounds that lay inside and went on with his errand.


The headmaster and the twins were gone when he eventually returned but it was something he would remember. Remember forever.


Fish and Chips

By T Ungless


When you’re new anywhere you don’t draw attention to yourself. Blend in, shut up, listen and get the hang of the local customs otherwise you can offend someone and offence given when new is never lost. So there I am, first day in a Lancashire town, the southerner with a London education and never north of Kettering before so I keep it quiet, just watch and listen.


It’s a great day to be in a new town as it’s market day and not only is there lots to see but strangers don’t stand out not unless they open their mouths too much so back to my first line. Market folk are market folk wherever you go; they all shout and joke with the crowds passing and their goods are the best, the cheapest and really they are giving them away but only today and only for you. I don’t buy though I am finding my way around seeing what’s there, listening to the patterns of speech and trying to make sense of unfamiliar terms. Then a familiar, a very familiar, smell comes to my nose; it’s the great smell of fish and chips.


Now fish and chips is my weakness; it’s bunking off school and down to Tooting market for sixpen’oth of chips and a walk round to see what can be found or stolen; well anything is better than the school meals. So the delicious smell of tasty, freshly cooked fish and chips draws me by the nose like some cartoon character until there is the shop. It is very busy, which I reckon is always a good sign in a fish and chip shop, and I realise it’s lunchtime and a long time since breakfast and I have spent four busy days moving so deserve a little treat.


The ‘special’ offer’s fish, chips, mushy peas (whatever they may be but I am always willing to try foreign food), bread and butter and a mug of tea all for a price that makes me blink it is so cheap, but I see folk sitting downstairs and their plates are full to overflowing and it all looks good so in I go.

Now I have a choice of going upstairs, staying downstairs or getting take-away but of course you can’t take-away a special and there in the corner downstairs is one small table and it is empty. Naturally I go get this table and a large, friendly woman comes over and I manage my first order to a Lancastrian.


“The special please.”


I’m pleased with this because there are few enough words not to draw attention to my southern accent and yet it is polite and to the point; all is going well but then….


“Do yer want yer batter normal?”


I am mystified by this. My mind goes around trying to find a solution but none is there and to my horror I find my mouth engaging before my brain. Now this has always been a weakness with me. I remember once when I was about nine and to come in we had to line up on the playground and be silent before filing in under the watchful eyes of the feared headmaster. On this occasion someone kept on talking and he shouted at that person to put their hand up but nobody did.


Naturally he got sarcastic, as head teachers will, and started talking about how strange it was until my mouth intervened. I didn’t want it to but did anyway. “Perhaps it was the fairies,” the mouth pipes up. I could feel the kids around me considerately moving away to give me more space until he had a direct view of me. The resulting interview with him was unpleasant.


Anyway that much older mouth did it again but now much worse. It seems to be talking in this rather affected southern drawl that isn’t me at all, “Normal, as opposed to what exactly? Abnormal perhaps?”

A silence fell over the whole shop: the take-away queue fell silent; those eating downstairs fell silent; and the many waitresses fell silent. For all I know the whole upstairs fell silent too but worse they all looked at me.


Now if there is one thing I hate it is being the centre of attention. I’ve had to be many times in my job but it doesn’t come easily and to be centre stage in this drama was especially unwelcome, rather akin to having your trousers fall down in a ladies’ clothes shop while waiting for your wife.


The waitress that had started all this stood looking at me her mouth open and an agony of indecision on her face. She had no idea what to say or do next. The whole thing required leadership and there the man doing the frying had it in spades.  He looked around and took the whole situation in and strode down the length of the shop to lean over the counter and ask me a question I could answer.


“Do yer want yer batter thick or thin?”


“Oh, thin please.”


He looked over his shoulder and roared, “Normal,” though quite who he was roaring too I’m not sure since he was doing the frying. Abruptly though everything returned to normal and everyone began chattering again.


A minute later she came out beaming with the mug of tea and the bread and butter. As she got near me she slowed and began to look doubtful. She looked down at the tea and then at me and I could see her thought process as if it was scrolling across her forehead in electronic letters, it read, “Soft southerner will not drink this tea it is too strong.”


She stood there looking at me troubled and said hesitantly, “I can put some milk in it if yer like.”

Now I was weaned on industrial strength tea so I beamed at her and replied, “That’s perfect as it is thank you.”


She looked mightily relieved and walked off to return later with a plate brimming over with the hottest, freshest fish and chips imaginable. I tasted the mushy peas and found I liked them and the fish and chips were wonderful. Before long I found that sadly there was no more left so it was time to leave and make room for others.


As I left I leant over the counter and told the fryer, “That was the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.”

He grinned happily. Well it was true.


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