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A Shout From The Attic: Attic Salt

...Of an evening, we mostly sat around the fire in the living cum dining room. All the chairs were wooden dining chairs. The floor was covered with linoleum and was bare except for the pegged rung that was in front of the fire. Pegged rugs were formed on a backing of jute sackcloth, pieces of cloth cut from old coats, and dresses were put through holes mad with a wooden skewer. Simple patterns were achieved which made them look attractive, but they were dust traps.... Ronnie Bray recalls his early teen years in quieter, though much itchier, times.

At bedtime granddad wound the clock up as he stood on the hearthrug in front of the fire. This was a coded signal, which everyone studiously ignored. The clock was then taken upstairs, often accompanied by a candle on a night candlestick to light the way. The clock then sat on top of the commode cupboard next to his bed in the small attic we shared.

The noisy ‘tick-tock’ could not be heard when granddad was snoring. When he was quiet, the sound broke the silence of the night with tormenting reverberations. It was a toss-up between them. Far better to sleep soundly and escape both.

Our bedroom had a metal pail in the corner by the door in case of nocturnal calls of nature. I did not need the bucket until I was fourteen because I was an habitual bed-wetter up to this age.

This caused me great anguish when I joined the Boy Scouts and found myself hurtling in the back of a lorry to Wray Castle campground on Lake Windermere in the Lake District. I wet the bed and suffered the devastating shame.

I overheard, or may have thought I overheard, a plan by my brother scouts to scrub me in the lake. I took off into the hinterland and crept back under cover of darkness that night during the campfire singsong. The matter was never raised again, but the fear of that day has stayed in my memory.

Wetting the bed must mean that I smelled, because baths were once a week on Friday. That was bath night. We washed our hair with soap and it was rinsed with vinegar to get rid of the grease - the same reason we put it on our fish and chips. If we had head lice, we had our hair washed with Derbac soap.

Derbac was a blue-grey soap with a distinctive smell that I adored. Then we had our hair combed with a toothcomb, our name for a fine-toothed comb. This would bring our the nits and lice and they would be squashed with a resounding ‘crack’ by the expert thumbnail of either Nan or Ma.

The attic was infested with bed bugs and fleas. The dark red splotches on the walls showed where I had prematurely and joyfully terminated the life of a little bloodsucker. The smell this brought out was nasty but worth putting up with. Fleas were a constant irritation. On one occasion when we returned from a week’s holiday at the seaside, I went up to the room wearing the customary short trousers of a lad who was not yet a young man.

Upon entering the room the visible parts of my legs from sock top (crumpled as usual) to trouser leg hem were covered with starving fleas, to such an extent that no part of my skin could be seen. I do not exaggerate. I scooped them from my legs with cupped hands and hurled them into the stale bucket in the corner of the room. Although the experience was not a pleasant one it did not upset me.

Fleas were a normal part of life to be patiently endured. Every so often a shovel full of red-hot coals was put on an upturned bucket in the middle of the room and sulphur candles put on top fumigate the room and furniture in vain efforts to kill the visitors. The process met with limited success: some died but just as many got only slightly bilious and recovered.

Traffic sounds were almost unknown; much transport was still by horse and cart that produced only a steady clip clop, and the gritting rumble of iron tyres on cobblestones. Motor powered vehicles were becoming more popular but were still a novelty. It was the meeting place of the Old World and the beginning of the modern one. Some parts of old seventeenth century Huddersfield can still be found if one knows where to look.

I recall a little more of my thirteenth and fourteenth year, except that by this time I was playing a lot of truant and doing a lot of going to the pictures. In and around Huddersfield at that time there were about twenty cinemas. Many of them had changes of programmes in the middle of the week, so with some careful planning it was possible to go the pictures every afternoon and take in two shows at night.

My cinema visits were mainly financed by collecting empty beer bottles that the lodgers had brought into the house and taking them back in a “Busy B” carrier bag to the back door of “The Olde Hatte” pub at the bottom of Trinity Street.

Of an evening, we mostly sat around the fire in the living cum dining room. All the chairs were wooden dining chairs. The floor was covered with linoleum and was bare except for the pegged rung that was in front of the fire. Pegged rugs were formed on a backing of jute sackcloth, pieces of cloth cut from old coats, and dresses were put through holes mad with a wooden skewer. Simple patterns were achieved which made them look attractive, but they were dust traps.

I found another use for the rugs. In the days when doctors were followed quickly by doctor’s bills, most ailments were treated with traditional and shop bought remedies. The family favourite was Fenning’s Fever Cure. This was so bitter to my taste that I was sure it was made form something the cat had passed. I can taste it as I write this, but I never took all my dose. Instead, I tipped my egg cup full of the stuff into the rug when no one was looking.

Remarkably, I always got better, which confirmed the efficacy of the noxious liquid to my family, which I dare not contradict. The rug, apart from its permanent overdose of dust, ailed nowt!


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