by Gordon Christie
We knew the sound of the iron wheels on the cobbled street and we ran to the corner to see the arrival of the Watchman’s Hut. Like a dull battleship grey version of a gypsy caravan but with small iron wheels, which were out of date even then. Lorries arrived and quickly the men unloaded their tools. Great hammers which surely only some mythical warrior could wield, battered shovels, crowbars and spades. Somehow mounds of hardcore and tarmacadam appeared, a brazier was lit and old battered syrup tins with twisted wire handles were produced from within war relic gas mask satchels. Tea! And what we called “pieces”. There was no other name for a sandwich as far as we knew and generally they were jam.
Silently we watched, our eyes devouring every mouthful that was taken. We were never starving but we were always hungry!
We were ignored. A bunch of half frozen children huddled on a street was nothing unusual. Some still wearing their summer “sandals” which had to wear out before winter shoes were bought from St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative in Bread Street. It had the mysterious, at once frightening and exciting foot x-ray machine which allowed the snippy assistant to see that your feet had “space to grow” when encased in the unforgiving new shoe.
They had come to take down the old ornate iron street lamps and replace them with modern concrete ones which glowed orange, not yellow/white. The new ones had upturned metal saucers for “hats”.
But after tea, when we were once more out in the street, was when it all came alive. The men had gone but the site had to be watched and the Watchman was in his Hut! The brazier now had its own dry patch of ground in what had become a dark, snow covered site and we, always silently, gathered round it. The Hut had a door that was in two halves, like a stable. The top half was open and there He could be seen, half-dozing, with a newspaper and a pipe. Paraffin lamps marked the edges of the site and protected it from the odd car.
He stood up, opened the lower half of the door and nodded towards the bench! Without hesitation we filed in and the smell of a coke fire instantly filled our nostrils, replacing the mixed smells of winter and tar.
“Sure, it’s too cold to be out there.” No-one answered. A piece appeared from a tin and was divided equally among us. Honey! There was a first time for everything. Tea was shared from one tin – hot and impossibly strong. “Stewed” we called it.
No further words were spoken until we left – we always knew when we had to be home.
For two whole weeks this ritual took place (with different fillings for the piece). The cold was so bad at times that your feet would stick to the pavement if you didn’t move them but it mattered not to us, sitting inside on the tar stained bench with its old cushions of no particular colour. Eventually, he told us stories, this old Irish gentleman. Tales of his childhood in Ireland. We watched his eyebrows and smelled his tobacco, his coke fire, the dusty tar and paraffin atmosphere.
And we knew what it was to be happy.
Gordon Christie writes because people tell him that he can (for which he thanks them) and that these memories are important. Living near Edinburgh.
#1 by Anonymous on June 16, 2008 - 8:19 am
A deeply atmospheric autobiographical vignette. It’s so important to record these memories, etc. Hope to read more soon.