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The Big Freeze

By: Roy Hare

It was cold. Very cold. So cold it had frozen people's memories. Nobody remembered it being colder. The picture comes to me now. My father, mother, four brothers and baby sister all huddled round the fireplace in which two miserable logs of wood sputtering into a yellowy bluish flame, trying their hardest to burst into a flaming red inferno. Almost invisible, choking smoke, stinging our eyes, tickling the back of our throats. The flame went blue and stiff.

It's stopped breathing."

My mother's cry burst from her lips cracked the ice in our brains. Little clouds of breath froze in the air.

"Look, look the fires frozen, it's dead, it aint breathing anymore. What we gonna do pa?"

Pa was not what you would call a talker. He liked to think, just as long as it did not hurt his head too much.

"Doneggsackly know ma. Could poke it I 'spose."

That's all yer good fer aint it. Poking things. Yer poke me, poke the widder down the street, any pretty girl comes along. Yer wanna poke 'er. Poke, poke, POKE. Why the 'ell doncha go an' find an' 'ole somewhere and poke yerself in it."

"An' your allus nagging. Morning, noon 'n' night. NAG, NAG, NAG. I sick to deff wiv it....."

An we're sick of you. Aint we kids?"

Yes, Yes, YES."

We all shouted in agreement except my baby sister, who by this time was screaming her head off.

"Started 'er orf now. Why the 'ell doncha clear orf an leave us in peace?" mother said.

"Cos I aint got nowheres to go."

"That's never troubled yer before, speshully when you've 'ad a little tickle on the 'orses. Nobody sees yer fer days. Yer must 'ave bought that bleedin' pub by now."

My mother was almost choking on the words. All the hate spitting from her mouth like snake venom. My father rose from his place. Cold air filled the space. We shivered and drew closer together. Cradled in my mothers arms, my sister, quietened. Standing, looking like the scruffy, useless dejected individual he was, my father looked down on us. I could not be sure, but I thought I saw a little tear roll from his spaniel-like eyes, onto his gaunt white cheek.

Yer...Yer wouldn't 'ave a cupplabob ma....."

A CUPPLABOB. Where the 'ell d'ya think I getta cupplabob. Do yer think we'd be sitting round this miserable, stinking rotten so called fire if I....."

Lost for words she drew in a long breath.

"Clear orf.....Don't come back till you've gotta job. Decent clothes and food for me an the kids. I'm sick of the sight of yah."

Pa's dejected looking figure shrunk even further into misery. Head bowed he shuffled through the miserable door."

"Right kids, he's gone. We'll 'ave some of that porridge that old Mauve Green give us."

If my mother knew anything she knew how to organize the children.

"George, get the bits of wood 'n' coal from where I 'id 'em. Roy fetch the big pan an a kettle of water. Arfur an Tony spoons an plates."

It was not long before we had a roaring fire, belly full of porridge and a warm glow racing through our bodies.

Dragging some old sacks nearer to the fire we spread them out to make a bed. Cuddling up to one another to keep the warmth as long as possible, we drifted into sleep, knowing that if it got any colder, the thin blanket that covered my mother's shoulders would find its way over us. She would then drift in and out of her cat-naps keeping the fire going so it would be ready to wake us in the morning with a cheery flame. A splash of icy cold water from our one tap, which had been wrapped in rags to stop it from freezing, soon had the sleep out of our eyes. We devoured our share of the rest of the porridge and washed it down with a cup of weak tea.

"George and Roy you get off on your paper rounds, see if old muvver Canty will give you a sub on your wages. A shilling would do, it'll be enough to get a bit of meat an veg. We'll 'ave a nice 'ot stew tonight."

Returning from school as we came through the curtain that hung over the ancient door, we could smell it. The smell of rabbit stew. My mother made the most marvelous, succulent stew. It tasted so good that even the rabbit sacrificed for it, would have been pleased at the taste of it's own flesh.

The big iron pot, full to the brim with many coloured vegetables in the steaming liquid was the focus of our complete attention.

We would have devoured the lot but for the thump of the huge ladle crashing down on the table. My mother had good ways of attracting our attention.

We ate our portions with abandon.

"Right that's yer lot fer now. You can finish it tomorrer. I want yer straight home from school tomorrer and no dawdling."

"Can't do that ma." Arthur bravely announced.

"Why not."

Cos I gotta turn the corners."

Arthur ducked as the ladle flew over his head. Like the rest of the family he learnt fast how quick our mother's temper could be.

"Your're getting old Ma. Yer slowing down."

A few choice words followed him through the curtain and out the door. It was the last we saw of him for two days.

Bold as brass he walked in as we sat down for our slice of bread and scraping of jam. Our paper round money was not due till tomorrow morning, so food was short for the present.

"Where the flaming 'ell 'ave you been." Shouted my mother as she delivered a sharp right hander, followed by a low left.

Arthur dodged both blows and as he straightened up raised a hand waving a pound note.

"Look I've gotta quid. Been doing a bit of work.

"You sure you been working, cos if you been doing any feeving I'll flaming well kill yer."

"onest ma I aint done nuffin like that. This bloke I met wanted someone to 'elp up the market.."

"What market? We aint go no market 'ere."

"We go up to London an pick up fruit an veg and bring it back for the shops. I gotta bag of stuff outside if you don't believe me."

We rushed to bring in the sack. Our eyes wide and straining to leave their sockets.

"Cor ma look at this lot, apples, oranges, taters. Cabbage even."

We all cheered as George called out the items he pulled from the sack. Our mother was speechless. It must ba dream. Never in all her life had she seen so much food and a pound note all in one day.

"He want's me to go again tomorrer. Can I go ma?"

Recovering her senses she stuttered. "I ....I suppose so. You better let me have that quid."

"I'll need a bit of cash to get me dinner an a cup a tea..."

"I'll give you enough, don't worry boy."

Thanks ma. I gotta go cos 'es letting me 'ave a drive."

"Eee's doooing WHAT?"

"Letting me 'ave a drive. I've already 'ad a steer."

You aint old enough to drive....."

"Nobody don't see me. It's too dark."

"Well if I don't let yer go you'll only run orf an worry the life out of me. Least I know where yer are, an yer bringing 'ome somefing....Oh go on then."

From this moment on things and life began to look rosier for our family. George and Roy left school, got jobs, brought in some well-needed money. Excuses to the school for Arthur's absences had been repeated over and over. All the family enjoyed new clothes; good food and even the hole in the wall appreciated its new door. Life was sweeter. Then it happened. He came back. The old man decided it was time he returned. He was a wreck. The stink from his person was horrible. The clothes round the holes, dusty and grease stained. Long strands of greying hair hung over his gaunt unshaven face. He was a mess that had got into a mess.

"Wotcha want round 'ere?"

Ma shocked at the sight of him, had to ask the question.

Looking down at his worn out old boots, screwing his hands together as if washing them. Raising his shoulders he gave a big sigh. As the breath whistled through his teeth his body drooped to a cringing pose. His voice squeaked as he forced out the reluctant words.

"C ccan, can I come 'ome ma.....I aint been warm fer weeks. I only got these rags ta wear, my belly feels like me froats bin cut, and I ...I'm...I'm sorry."

The last two words were almost inaudible.

"What's that last bit?"

Ma was a bit angry. Not full exploding angry, yet.

"I...I...said can-I-comeback? I...I'm sorry."

Sorry, SORRY you've never been sorry in yer rotten stinking life. Why break the 'abit now?"

The silence was deafening. The old man's brain twisted and shuffled with his hands and feet as he fought to find some good reasons. After what seemed a twenty-four hour time, Ma spoke.

"It's up to the kids. They're the ones who will 'ave ta see yer taking up all the room round the fire, smokin' that stinking pipe. That's when you aint out working."

The old man turned a nasty shade of white at the mention of the word, work.

"I...I'll get a job, bring in some dosh. I aint 'ad any baccy fer weeks. So I've given up."

"We've 'eard all this before. Aint we kids. What we gonna do wiv im?"

We all chorused from a popular song.

"Put 'IM in a box, tie 'IM up wiv ribbon, chuck 'IM in the deep blue sea."

When the laughter subsided. We went into a huddle, whispering and arguing for and against. George, being eldest was spokesman.

E can stop if 'e cleans isself up and gets a job. But 'es only on a month's trial. Any slip ups and out 'e goes."

"Fanks, Tthanks a lot kids. I...I promise I'll be a better farver to yer. Any 'ot water left for a wash?"

Don't take you long to get yer feet back under the table does it?"

Pa never heard ma's last words as he disappeared into what passed for a bathroom. Our pattern of life did not change very much over the next few years. We all grew older watching the old man hogging the fire as he puffed on his pipe, spitting the brown saliva into the flames. He never did get a job. Ma got fed up cursing him as the few shillings he scrounged, went straight into the bookies pocket.

There must have been a form of love between them, not that either would have admitted it. Everything now has frozen in time and memory.

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