Dad was a member of the local social club and so that meant that once a year (sometimes twice), we’d ship off to the seaside on the North East coast instead. Sometimes it would be South Shields and sometimes Whitley Bay; one time even Tynemouth and Seaton Carew… These day jaunts were an added bonus to our ritual holiday week at Cullercoats.
On mornings we left for club trips there was always an anxious rush to get everyone ready, hastily prepare sandwiches and make up flasks of tea – we always seemed to go with armfuls of bags of something or other! We only lived a short distance away from the club and where the coach was leaving from, still, we’d trot rather than walk so as not to be late – and if the coach was a double-decker, all the more reason to be early and get a seat up-top at the front!
There would stand the coach, and on one particular trip we had to make do with a single-decker. That’s fine. Climbing aboard, the first noticeable thing was the stale smell of tobacco, the next was the clouds of smoke from the folk already sat down. I walk past a bus stop outside of my office these days and sometimes when there’s a bus there with the doors open, I swear I can still smell smoke – in a quirky sense, it can be quite comforting…
I wasn’t too fussed about the journey to the seaside but I’d usually have something to keep me occupied on the way, perhaps an action man (great for pretend burials on the beach) or a toy car of sorts… This particular occasion though, one of my friends just happened to be sitting opposite me – this was a much better alternative to being stuck next to my older brother who, before we’d got a mile, would probably be nipping or punching me out of sheer boredom and spite. But no, there was my chum! We were already chatting excitedly, not for the trip but, for a club committee man making his way up the aisle, stopping at every seat, one side to the other, ritually handing out small, transparent envelopes to all the kids. In the envelope was fifty pence and two barley sugars – it was believed that barley sugars would stifle the onset of travel sickness. It never worked for me because I was always sick anyway. And besides, it was the money we were after! Wow! Fifty pence! We thought ourselves rich!
Mum was insanely house-proud and overly hygienic when it came to the home and children – we lived our young lives dodging the hoover, eating biscuits over the hearth, and scrubbing away the skin on our hands before meals! So it was no surprise that she didn’t approve of the friendship I had with my friend.
You see, to put it bluntly, my friend and his family weren’t what you might call, clean. What my mother would describe as hacky-black! They were neither rich nor poor, they just seemed to plod through their lives without a care for soap and water… And, yes, my friend did smell. Pitted dirt in his ears, thick tide mark around his neck and hands a tramp wouldn’t eat with! But his personality shone out from behind the grime and I can’t ever remember his face without a smile on it! Frizzy-curly blonde hair with eyebrows to match, pale skin but for two rose-red cheeks, big, bright blue eyes and a huge toothy smile! Sometimes crusty deposits would hang about his eyelashes, hanging on as if they’d taken up free board and lodgings, comfortable and unwilling to leave. And food residue could often be seen loitering around the corners of his mouth – the bits seemed to hold each corner in perfect equipoise! I can still see him now!
As we’d rushed that morning, my mum had missed her opportunity to brush through my hair, as she always did, every morning without fail! She’d drag a brush, front to back, through my tufts of thick, black, curly hair – stopping to hush me when I offered complaint or resistance. It was painful! At times… I preferred my hair how it naturally fell, all curly and comfortably tatty; but because her bairn would be on show, he best have a neat and tidy do.
I was sat on the coach in the seat in front of mother which afforded her the opportunity to bring out her weapon and insist that she brushed my hair – what would people think? “Looks like you’ve just crawled out of bed!” I had! Anyway, on she went, dragging the brush through my locks, and, as was her custom, stopping here and there, fingering over my scalp, looking for nits – like some eager ape; the only difference being that she wouldn’t likely eat them if she found them… This was quite common and something, that behind closed doors I wouldn’t have minded. But there she was, rutting through my hirsute little head. The fact that this was shamefully embarrassing for me didn’t matter to her at all, and through my dad’s protests, she carried on. The horrifying reality was that, yes, a nit was found! Another one…then another and another, until there was a plethora of these hair-dwelling nuisances being wrapped in her hanky! Mum said you had to crack them between your nails to kill them. Her inexorable search for critters carried on with an unbelievable enthusiasm that I’ve not yet witnessed with someone who’s just come across a pile of bubble-wrap! You’ve all done it – it’s addictive and hugely satisfying…admit it. Incidentally, we had a coffin from our factory delivered to the funeral home the other day that was wrapped deliciously in the big-bubbled bubble wrap! Three of us unwrapped the coffin which should have only taken about five minutes, however, we were still there, around a half-hour later, unwrapping – chatting and popping, savouring every last bubble! I’m not convinced we realised what we were doing?
The nits came thick and fast and mum was furious! Casting scathing glances across the aisle of the coach toward my grubby friend and his family! “I know where they’ve come from”, scolded my mother – spitting the words with a venom I could almost taste!
Now I’m not sure what the science is behind who gets nits and who doesn’t? People say they don’t live in clean hair and some say they don’t live in dirty hair either? The point is my mum was seriously irked that she’d found them. I was in floods of tears with sheer shame and my friend’s mother heard some of what my mother was saying! Recipe for disaster! Before too long there was a raging stand-up shouting match in the aisle of the coach! This shouting match, in turn, led to the first punch being thrown – and I mean, punch! No whimsy half-hearted slaps! Husbands and wives up and down the coach pushed, pulled and struggled to get to the action, I suppose to part the two warring parties, although without much success… Kids clambered over and under to see the excitement – the two women were locked in a writhing tangle of hair pulling and screaming! Obscenities mostly and very colourful.
When all came to all, and hostilities ceased, hair was straightened, blood was dabbed, clothes were tidied and the journey began… It was an unusually quiet ride out to the seaside.
And I still had nits…