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A Shout From The Attic: A Child In Search Of Life

"My childhood was like falling through space with no points of contact that had real meaning. It was a free-floating experience without constellation or structure in which I found my own way in a day-to-day nothing that led nowhere. I still feel the draught. I learned not to look people in the eyes or ask questions. Sometimes it hurt to know too much...''

Ronnie Bray looks back on his life as though through a camera's lense. Ronnie has crowded lots of experiences into his years, and his literary gifts enable us to share in them. This is the first episode of what he calls "An autobiography in progress''. Week by week, there will be a further entertaining episode from A Shout From The Attic.

I was not born in the attic, but it was for many years my place of sullen withdrawal, my haven, my place of safety where, my place of brief but excited joy at the feeling I got when curled up under the gray blanket, safe from all enemies, at times chuckling maniacally with that knowledge. My attic, where, miraculously, most of the cares that infested my young life never went, rendering it a place of safety, not only when I was snuggled as small as I could be under my coarse blankets, but also from dangers of my own making within my peculiar room.

My childhood was like falling through space with no points of contact that had real meaning. It was a free-floating experience without constellation or structure in which I found my own way in a day-to-day nothing that led nowhere. I still feel the draught. I learned not to look people in the eyes or ask questions. Sometimes it hurt to know too much.

Yet for all the pain and hurt, for all the betrayals, and for all the deception of love that proved not love, I have been blessed to feel true love, and to know the love of children uncontaminated by selfish interests that have made the passing of the years less bleak, less tormented, and less desolate. In my old age I sorrow for those who have never loved, and never been loved, as I have loved and been loved.

In my garret, I was a boy with needs, but with no source of fulfilment; a child in search of his niche in the scheme of things, but without mentor, map, or sense of direction, a lonely voice with no one to hear, and no auditorium except the quiet street far below the high attic window. A street I could not see for the overhang of the roof, but in which I knew people passed to and fro. Some of them would hear my shout, although they could not see me and would not know the cause of my pain, or the meaning of the shout from the attic.

It was called the ‘small’ attic to distinguish it from the ‘big’ attic next door that was occupied by lodgers: Phinehas Beaumont, 'Little Bob' Beaumont, ‘Big Bob,’ and at various times Luke, the gentle white-haired Irishman who sometimes drove my Nanny’s leather-seated Wolsey, or John Toner, another Irishman who struggled to hear and was an artist in his spare time.

Only my grandfather and I used the small attic. I occupied it, but he only went there to sleep, hanging his clothes on the iron railed and brass knobbed end of his three-quarter bed that lay along the wall opposite the door. Where he kept his other clothes, I have no idea. My bed, a single, was against the wall that ran down the left side of the ‘L’ shaped room that form a ‘T’ shape, positioned over the skylight that was intended to let attic light penetrate the windowless bathroom. Granddad’s three-quarter bed was separated from mine by a gap of about two feet between the end of his bed with the brass knobs on, and the side of my own.

The attic window was peaked at the top and opened outwards. Standing on a chair, I could see out of the window, but not into the street below, although I had a good view of the far half of Wentworth Street. The house is called Wentworth View, that legend being painted on a half moon tablet above the passageway, but the name has been painted over in recent years.

The room had a door, a window, an electric light fitting hanging from the huge beam, a six-inch lead stench pipe that ran up through the floor from the bathroom below, and a window laid into the floor under my bed, presumably to admit some light into the bathroom. When I got my crystal set, I hammered a screw into it to make an earth connection. The floor was covered with old and uninteresting linoleum. The horsehair and plaster walls were colour-washed.

The door had ancient scratch marks, similar to Palaeolithic cave paintings where some instrument in my childish hands had marked through the last coat of paint into the colour below: marks so old that although I knew I was the writer, I have no memory of ever making them. Two remain locked in my mind: one was a backward capital ‘R,’ the other a capital ‘E’ with six or seven lines trailing from the upright.

Because my grandfather only used the room to sleep in, it was at all other times my private domain where, untroubled by anyone else, I could pretty much please myself. Whilst this gave me a reasonable amount of freedom, it also provided the possibility of dangerous activities that were potentially fatal.

Don’t ask me where things came from. Better still; don’t ask me where they go! In childhood, things came and went apparently unexplained, probably because the having is more important than their origin or destiny. All my life, things have disappeared without trace or explanation.

Once, I laid my shoulder open to the bone when hacking a baseball bat out of a four inch diameter piece of round wood. I was using a German officer’s dress sword, one of my many mysterious ‘swaps,’ and on one of the upstrokes, the tip of the blade struck the roof beam, deflecting the sword down across my right shoulder with considerable force. The blood poured out. I stemmed the flow with my shirt and managed to get hold of a bottle of iodine to apply to the wound. The result was interesting. I learned something about iodine from that. I did not tell anyone about the wound and have the scar that I will carry to my grave, unless I lose my shoulder first.

My interest in chemistry was fuelled by schoolboy curiosity and a complete lack of understanding of the danger of chemical reactions. It was an unmeasured combination of potassium nitrate and flowers of sulphur, ignited by a generous strip of magnesium ribbon. Using a match, it took a little time to light the ribbon, but once it lit, it was staggering.

The pine commode cupboard was made when functional reliability rather than cost was the guiding principle. It contained nothing that I ever saw, and its back panel was a good inch thick. I lay the commode cupboard on its face at the side of Granddad’s bed and piled up the crude mixture. Once the combination of chemicals got going it produced a dense cloud of smoke whose centre was almost incandescent, but whose billowing cloud shut out all light in the room.

After my first gulp of the acrid haze I held my breath, though my lungs wanted to burst, and blindly fought my way to the window where, after throwing it wide open, I hung my head and breathed as if my life depended on it – which it did!

When the blaze had extinguished itself, and the vapour sent its last trails out into the air above Fitzwilliam Street, I surveyed the damage. The back of the cabinet was burnt almost the whole way through, but when it was stood back against the wall, the damage was invisible and as far as I know, no one ever spotted it.

The super-breed bed bugs that we hosted – in more ways than one - uttered a few choking gasps and were back at their blood-sucking work the next night. Not enough sulphur and insufficient exposure! My lungs remembered the assault, but recovered with no apparent after effects other than a painful memory.

It was my interest in radio that brought me nearest to an attic demise. An avid reader of the weekly Hobbies magazine, I looked with awe and longing on the one valve radios. They seemed to be so cheap and so easy to make. Just buy the bits, put them together as instructed, sit back, and listen. I’d give it a try!

I did some sort of swap to get the radio chassis and box of bits, comprising valves, coils, interesting tin things, and bits of multi-coloured wire: a radio builder’s paradise.

There’s always a snag. The main snag was that I couldn’t make heads or tails of the diagram. Then, I didn’t really know what all the bits were. Apart from some widely generic nouns for some of the components I had no idea what was what.

After scratching my head for a few moments I decided not to be deterred by my ignorance, so determined to carry on with the building process, fitting in components wherever they would go without reference to any plan, master or otherwise.

When all the parts had found a home in the steel chassis, even though some places had nothing in them, I decided to put the machine to the test. The only wire I had was a coil of copper wire that was insulated with shellac. I deftly ran two pieces of wire from the two holes in the back of the chassis up to a bayonet adapter and plugged it into the light socket. I switched on the light. Nothing happened.

Time to troubleshoot. Nothing lit up, and no sound issued from the contraption. This last problem was probably because there was no loudspeaker anywhere to be seen. Even if there had been a speaker, the chance of anything coming out of it could be figured adversely in astronomical proportions. Nothing lit up. I knew that was a bad sign.

More troubleshooting. Was the power getting through? I had no way of testing current flow, so I had to improvise. The method I devised is known to this day as the Bray method of current detection.

I withdrew the two ends from the holes in the chassis and holding one end in each hand I deposited a glob of saliva onto the chest of drawers that served as my construction bench, then stuck the ends of the wires into the pool of spit.

The method worked. A flow of current was identified, and in a flash, the wires evaporated from the sideboard to the lamp fitting. I was moved somewhat, but untouched.

Apart from that, nothing much happened in the attic. I went to bed there, and slept there reluctantly. It was a lonely place where I was left with my thoughts, my anxieties, my longings, my fears, and some little, but oft blighted, hope.


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