Part 1 1918
David Ratcliffe’s thoughts were always intangible. A mix of dreams and wishes so out of tune for an apparently practical man. As he walked home from his job down the pit, from the pub or as he sat ramrod straight in his favourite and only armchair reading the local newspaper.
Throughout his adult life the most common thought had been when can I have a son? This wish had been surprisingly granted four years previously and little Ralphy was now the apple of his Father’s eye. After seven daughters, six his with his present wife and one, the eldest with his wife dead now these eighteen years his common thought was a natural if somewhat optimistic wish. He had been getting too old. He was too old for a young child and he hoped Ralphy would be the last But now there was another intangible as his thoughts floated around his wife’s latest pregnancy.
This one was coming to term and his wife Elizabeth was bedridden on Doctor’s orders. The woman was done and birthed out. Obviously far too old to be pregnant again. ‘I would like another son, to balance out’ David thought and he worried about his wife’s condition. But only insofar as it would selfishly affect him. David was not a man to waste emotions. David was not a man to have emotions other than his intangibles. That the pregnancy was his wife’s fault was in David’s view obvious. Anything that happened because of it would also be down to her. It was a woman’s concern, it was a woman’s fault
Elizabeth had four sons from her first marriage. Her husband now also deceased. But these were not David’s sons. They were old enough for work and two had families of their own. All worked at the same colliery but not, of course on the same shift. Tradition and common sense dictated that it would not do to lose all breadwinners in an all too common accident. Strange that the same rules had not applied to the great conflict still claiming blood and breadwinners in the mud of Europe. At least a miners job kept everyone out of that. Although some could do with a little army discipline. This now was David’s most common intangible thought. At least my son will not have to fight. This mess will be over by then. Ralphy was too weak to fight. He was a sickly lad unfortunately but that did not matter.
Ralphy would be and would have the best. He would not go down the mine as his father and his half brothers had done. Nor would he work in the mills as his sisters did. He would not end his life coughing his guts up in some tiny, two up two down. Ralphy would be educated, was being educated right now at the small St Andrew’s chapel under the slag heaps at the end of the street. He would soon be old enough to go to the big school at the big church St Peter’s. Ralphy would learn a trade and make his father proud. Perhaps he would be a teacher himself. Helping others to get away from this blank, dark existence of mills and mines, canals and public houses where the only escape was to drink yourself into oblivion. Usually at the end of the shift when the pubs opened specifically for the miners.
Each bar would be crowded with coal dust covered men drinking their wages away on brown splits before going home to beat wives and bathe away the dirt in tin baths in front of the fire.
David now walked home from the Britannia warmed by his intangibles. It was an officer during David’s army time that had first applied the word. David had then taken it as his own. He liked the unlikelihood of it all. His intangibles.
Food would be on the table cooked by one of the daughters as soon as he walked in. Another girl would be starching a clean collar for tomorrow. David was a stickler for cleanness when not working. Where other miners would make do with flat cap, muffler and thick belt under an old waistcoat. David had a full suit, a homburg hat and most importantly a clean freshly starched collar every day.
He would eat the food presented; have a cup of tea; pay his respects to the wife, for what it was worth; get changed and be out again before the lamp lighters had finished their miserable rounds.
He would begin his one man route at the Correction the nearest of the pubs to the terraced house in Talbot road. Opposite the new railway being built by German prisoners of war. He would then move across to the Grey Horse before finishing once again at the Britannia. Three of the five pubs in the immediate vicinity of the pit yard.
He knew whilst he was out the younger miners would come sniffing around his daughters. Normally they would be sent packing with a flea in coal black ears. But he almost wished them luck whilst Mother was laid up. So many dogs sniffing around so many bitches. Not that the daughters would have much time for billing and cooing. All he knew was that his bloody tea had better be piping hot on the table as soon as he loosened his collar and sat down or someone’s arse would be due for a tanning. It was bad enough with those bloody POW’s come across mithering for bottles of nettle beer all day. Wouldn’t have happened when he was in the army. Letting the enemy out on his own with good girls not a couple of yards away.
David’s thoughts and intangibles floated around this pleasant near future as he walked past the penny shop and chippy at the end of Talbot road.
The first thing he noticed was the cart outside his house half way down the street. The second was the amount of people around. Soldiers supposedly guarding the Hun, the POW’s themselves. Women from further down the street, standing around in canvas pinnies all with one hand on chin the other tucked under usually ample bosom. Looking for all the world as they belonged there.
“Father, Father, its our Ralphy” It was the second eldest daughter Edie come running out of the house. She flattened the vowels in Father until it came out Faythur. Intangible.
“Calm down, lass” said David. “Tell us what’s up”. This was the apparent signal for all hell. It seemed all the people outside the house started talking at once. All the busybody miners wives, all pulling at aprons and peering over hands. Disgusted that they did not know more. All the soldiers shouting at the women and their charges. The POW’s themselves apparently cursing in German. Some of them offering to help in broken English. Soldiers with batons pushing them back. The horse in the cart wild eyed pushing back into the crowd. Women even more disgusted that they could not get into the house, or see sufficiently over the cart.
“What’s this about Ralphy?” and then more loudly “Will you bloody screechers and nosy bloody parkers shut up! And give a man hearing room!” David’s Sergeant’s barrack square roar quietened momentarily before bringing back a chorus of “Well, I never did” and other such offended tones.
One bright spark of a very young soldier said “Well its about time you did then innit, Missus. Come on give a man some room and some bloody privacy. Let him get in and see to his lad.” Housewives backed off sheepishly, muttering and looking daggers.
“Thank you Corporal” said David with all the security of a hardened NCO.
“No problem Sarge” replied the erstwhile corporal instinctively knowing.
The sun was hitting the winding gear as David followed Edie into the house.
The front parlour was as crowded as the street with people who felt they had every right to be there. Friends and relations with not a stiff back or any way of handling a crisis amongst them. David’s voice was as stentorian and as filled with command as it had been outside.
“Out, the bloody lot of you. I want to see nowt but family in here in two minutes straight” He fished a pocket watch out of waistcoat pocket and flicked it open. The exodus to the front door was as immediate as it was unruly. Again accompanied by furious female muttering and the odd “Common Edna, you try and help and see what you get”.
“And when I say family, I mean nowt but my girls and Lizzie’s lads”. added David.
When some element of calm had been restored David queried. “Alreet, where is he?” Intangibles, oh my little one, you should be learning, followed this in unspoken plea.
“He’s upstairs wi Ma” This was Billy, Lizzie’s eldest. “Brought him home from school, they did, poorly” continuing as he saw the look of query on his stepfathers reddening face. “He was white as a sheet, poor mite. He favvered he’d seen a ghost”.
" I said he shouldn’t be with Mam, in case he’s got sommat catching" said Edie trying to sound both sympathetic and in command. “But Mam ud have nothing to do with that. She said he’d to be in we her come what may” she added abrogating responsibility as she to saw her father’s increasing anger.
“Has quack been yet?” said David attempting to quell his internal, intangible storm.
“He’s up with im now” replied Billy hands in thick belt and rising to the impending battle. “An he says nobody is to disturb him”.
“Oh he does, does he. We will see about that and you will keep a civil tongue in your head when speaking to your Father, young fellah, miladd”
“Thy art no Dad o mine” Billy managed to get out before a ham sized fist crashed into the side of his head. Felling him in one blow and causing the girls to scream.
The sun was setting through the front parlour window as David pushed his way upstairs. It was intolerable, intangible that he could not see, hear, hold and comfort his little one. He was Ralphy’s Father and no bloody quack of a Doctor was going to stop him. He would hold him and make him better and what had those so-called teachers been doing to him. Nobbut kids themselves.
The half and half door to the front bedroom was covered with a thick embroidered curtain, seemingly this time tangible in its refusal. David flung it aside so violently it came off the brass curtain rod above
Behind this the top half of the door was open. David could see the sick miasma rising out of the room. It seemed as if the Doctor had done peculiar things to the lamps burning fitfully near the bed.
Lizzie was on her hands and knees, her thick cotton nightdress ridden up, showing her arse end to the world. The midwife nurse was trying to get her to lie down. Her bottom, legs and nightdress were sodden and grey. Beneath her was what appeared to be a small bundle of rags that the Doctor, in shirtsleeves and collarless was trying to poke with some kind of silver rod.
Lizzie was screaming, silently, head and open mouth turned to the heavens and body wracked with great heaving sobs. The bundle underneath her twitched mechanically as if switched on and off suddenly and relentlessly.
“What the bloody Hell in God’s name is going on here” shouted David over the door and causing the whole tableaux to freeze momentarily in sepia glass callotype.
The Doctor peered over misty half lenses. " And who might you be?"
“I’m the lads fayther, that’s who I might be and I’ve just flattened somebody who didn’t satisfy me downstairs. So I would thank you for some honest answers, Doctor or no bloody doctor!”
“Ah” that worthy answered, apparently unphased and equally able to read both profession and character as the winking corporal outside. “Mr Ratcliffe, now you need to be calm, at the moment your wife and baby are as expected”.
“Sod her and that bloody brat, it and she can have the bloody flux for all I care. what about mi lad?”
“I’m afraid that’s a different, as it were, story, Mr Ratcliffe” glasses were polished and choices made.
“I’m afraid your son has pneumonia. he is very poorly”
David seemed to calm somewhat at this. Pushing his way into the room he glared at the midwife an, ignoring his wife, turned to the Doctor.
“I can see that. I can see he’s sick. But what, what are you doing for him?” The emphasis was powerful and forceful. There was a tacit, you had better be doing something.
" I’m afraid its not as simple as that, Mr Ratcliffe" The Doctor continued to polish his glasses. David was no fool he recognised symptoms of the weaker man when he saw them. This person may have been an officer but he was no better than me or even that lad sitting wi an headache downstairs he thought. The midwife seemed to be crying and muttering something about bringing him into the world and the poor little mite. This was getting on David’s nerves.
Lizzie was now lying down and holding Ralphy in her sweating and trembling hands. Keening softly she rocked him slowly over her swollen abdomen.
Little flecks of glistening blood and mucus speckled his pale face as David saw him for the first time. He looked dead already.
Blond hair was plastered to his head and although his eyes were open only the whites could be seen. He looked as if he had been fitting and had only stopped when his Father came in. David took some small comfort from that thought. Perhaps he knows I am here, he thought.
The Doctor was speaking, “What?” demanded David angrily.
“I said, I think you should prepare yourself for the worst Mr Ratcliffe. I’m sure you saw enough dying in the trenches. I know I did. Not to recognise it now.”
“Don’t you sat that” screamed David “Don’t you bloody well say that!. I’ll swing for you and that bloody nurse if owt happens to my lad. Do you hear that? I’ll swing for you. As God is my witness. You do something, anything. You get him better or there will be murder in here”
“But I’m afraid we must concentrate on Mrs Ratcliffe now, Mr Ratcliffe. We have done all we can” The doctor places half glasses back on his nose.
“I towd you, don’t say that. Don’t fuckin say that” David screamed again and then buried his face in his hands.
David’s daughter, his eighth, was born at 12:10 0n the 8th of October 1918. Twenty minutes after her brother died. In the same room that her brothers body was cooling.
Of course no-one was in the mood to celebrate. The busybodies and old wives had all gone home to prepare meals or husbands or children for the next shift down the pit The German POW’s had been locked away again and the soldiers had helped themselves to some of Lizzie’ s nettle beer. Not that anyone in the household cared.
Other than naming her Doris, not much notice was taken of the new baby She was suckled by Lizzie, still in shock and ignored completely by her husband. Changed by the elder girls, who complained vociferously until Father put his foot down. Thereafter she was mostly taken care of by her eldest half brother Billy when he was not working.
Lizzie was still not well enough to go to the funeral but she was told it was a good do, by the busy body neighbours who came to visit and partake of the free ham tea. The only thing spoiling the occasion was her husbands obvious drunkenness, they said.
David drank himself into oblivion on both the night of the birth and the funeral. Thereafter his son was never mentioned again. But then again his smallest daughter was not much either
Lizzie died a few years later, a broken, inconsolable wreck but David hardly noticed. He still had the girls, including Doris to see to his every need. To keep his daily collars clean and to put food on the table whenever he deigned to come home from the pub.
Gradually, certain hardy souls risked wrecking on the shoals of the older man and wooed all the girls away from the family home. All Lizzie’s boys likewise got married and moved away. Leaving Doris at home with her Father.
Doris never celebrated her birthday. Her brothers and sisters stayed away around that time every year because of David. Although at other times she was often seen at their homes, playing with her not much younger nephews and nieces. She spent most of her time, however, quite naturally at her surrogate father/brother Billy. She got on well with Billie’s wife and was often seen helping with the steadily increasing family.
When Billy died of miners lung Doris had a breakdown and spent many months in a sanitarium for the treatment of Tuberculosis of all things.
David continued to rely on and beat the now young woman and assumed that she would stay with him until his time was also over. He continued to wear his waistcoat with a St Christopher watch fob, his homberg hat and carry his silver top cane as if it was his Sergeant’s swagger stick. This he used rather liberally on Doris when he was drunk.
Doris’s second boyfriend George was not a miner, he was a tool fitter by trade. Her first secret boyfriend had been a Navy pilot that she had met in the TB clinic. He had been killed in action in the far east during the Second world war. Doris never spoke of him.
George had to wait for Doris at the end of Talbot road by the chippy until she came up on Friday nights to get her Father’s tea. George’s mother was strangely enough the landlady of David’s favourite pub, the Britannia.
Two years into the secret courtship Doris sat on the red lead doorstep in Talbot road and chained smoked forty Capstan full strength untipped before she plucked up enough courage to go inside and tell her Father that she was getting married. She was 34 years of age.
Once told, her Father silently removed to his bed in the front bedroom and remained there unspeaking until the day of the wedding. Unmoved by pleas by Doris, her sister’s or George’s landlady mother.
On the actual day of the wedding , he rose, dressed himself in his best suit, came downstairs and without speaking retired to the Brittania’s rival pub the Grey Horse. Doris brought him lunch from the wedding breakfast. David had told everyone that he was not invited.
It was inevitable that David would move in with Doris and George once they were married. George did not want it, Doris did not and certainly David was against the idea. But no one else would have him. The sisters were all full with their own burgeoning families. The brothers that were left, Billy having died had nothing to do with the old man and had stayed away from the time their Mother had died. They had not and would not forgive.
The newly married couple had got a small miners cottage in a village some two miles from the main colliery. These had been built to house the extra miners the colliery now needed to cope with production.
The owner had given keys to these houses to those who could play an instrument in the Colliery Brass Band. George had got one, even though he was not a miner through the auspices of his Mother, landlady of the Britannia. The owner, a Captain Walters put his head under a locomotive when the pit nationalised and the band inevitably failed without its patron.
It was inevitable and for David intangible that I would be born two years later. David called me intangibly Ralphy from the moment he first saw me.
For some reason I was the first grandson. Or full grandson, daughters being the order of the day with the other sisters. David’s intangibility looked on this as just punishment.
He cut a lonely, sad figure with his suit, hat and cane as he walked the tips and canals.
The mine was still going strong except now it had been Nationalised and large dark blue trucks with yellow National Coal Board,NCB ran up and down,dirty roads, dirtying playing children and washing alike with black coal dust. Before it had been huge coal barges pulled by large horses trundling at a sedate pace along the canals. As David had been pit blacksmith, underground, seeing to the half blind pit ponies he often visited the stables on his solitary walks. These ponies had been brought up to what was seen as an honourable retirement to stand in cramped stables for twenty four hours having lost most of their sight underground.
Solitary walks that is until I came along. Then whilst still in my pram he would walk me into the pit yard and down to the stables to pet and feed both giant canal horses and tiny pit ponies that were cared for by old retired miners. The rare retired one’s that had survived the lung.
My Mother complained constantly to no avail. She insisted on dressing me in white and I was so blond my hair was almost a white as my Grandfather’s. I would return looking like a negative. My Grandfather apparently stripped me whilst in the pit yard to save my baby clothes from getting dirty. He did not consider my face or hands as worth the bother.
" Thy can bath him, sooner than thy could wash little Ralphys clothes, can’t you Mother?" He would say much to my Mother’s disgust.
“How many times do I have to tell you? His names Kenneth not Ralph. Ralphy’s long gone Fayther. Why can’t you understand that, you silly old fool?”
“Aye that’s as maybe, an I may be an old fool. But you are not to bloody high and mighty to get a good slap, me girl. That still mi daughter an don’t thee forget it”
" Tell him George!" said my mother when my Father was around, which apparently was not very often. George still walking in fear of the old man.
“Tell him!” In frustration and anger rounding back on David. “Oh so now I’m your daughter am I? That’s strange cos I never was before, hear you talk” Then she would bundle me out of the way, crying and get the tin bath from the yard wall where it hung on a single rusty nail.
David would continue to call me Ralphy and continue to take me with him to both pit stable and pub. Where apparently I developed a taste for Brown split very early. Or I did until my matriarchal paternal grandmother found out.
My Grandfather killed himself when I was eight months old. I was present when he cut his own throat although consciously I remember nothing of it. Whatever is remembered by me, who knows? He brought me home from a usual walk and took me straight up to the room we shared, under the roof.
My Mother was concerned so shouted up from the kitchen apparently " Do you want a cup of Tea, Dad?" She received no answer.
Running upstairs she tried the door. It was locked. She ran to get her sister Lottie who lived a few doors down. My father apparently was at work or at his Mother’s pub, or somewhere not at home. This was not unusual.
The sisters after trying the bedroom door again decided to call on the off duty policeman who lived in the road and was busy having his lunch at the time. Bringing mug of tea and cheese sandwich and in shirtsleeves and braces; he duly arrived out side the bedroom door and took charge of the situation. Like all good Bobbies do.
“You say he’s been t’pub. Well there’s yer answer then. He’s gone an got himself plastered”
The sisters mentioned that I was inside with him. And Lottie added that it was unlikely that I was plastered at eight months old, along with a few of the expletives she was known for. Little did they know.
“Oh, right. Well that’s a whole new kettle o’ fish, then” And with that he put his hobnailed Policeman’s boot through the door. Woking his leg from side to side, he succeeded in demolishing the entire door.
“Oh bloody hell, Christ an all his angels” he apparently said. Clumsily dropping his sandwich on the floor and moving into the room.
My Mother heaved and then vomited and my Auntie Lottie swore.
The first impression was of red. On the bed, on the walls, on me and my white baby clothes. I was standing up in my cot and grinning. Red thickening on the rag of a man that had been my Grandfather and pooling viscously on the floor. They found out later that it had soaked through to the kitchen downstairs. I remember that stain on the ceiling that would not go away, throughout my childhood.
My Grandfather had cut the major artery in his neck with a broken bit of mirror. I was shouting Daddy at him whilst standing up in my cot, half stained and half pure, licking my lips.
My grandfather, David Ratcliffe always said he would buy his Ralphy his first suit. He obviously never did. This was his last intangible.
How my Grandfather died.