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U3A Writing: Blackbeetle Alley

"Yes, my earliest memories were of black beetles, ants, flying ants, silver fish and spiders in the loo at the bottom of the garden,'' says Sheila Ford.

Yes, my earliest memories were of black beetles, ants, flying ants, silver fish and spiders in the loo at the bottom of the garden! My mother used to have earnest conversations with neighbours about the mortar between the bricks turning to ash and that our house, and the other half of our 'semi' and the two identical ones across the dirt path, nos. 1,2,3 and 4 Railway Sidings, Rogerstone, were built on the rubbish tip. We paid the princely sum of 7/6 (37½p) to a Mr Bray of Risca for this "des. res''.

Not only was I scared to death of all the creepy crawlies, it is a wonder I was not deafened by the noise of the steam engines on the railway that ran alongside our house. There was a large signal box just over the fence and all the engines stopped there for what seemed an inordinate length of time. Washing day was a real trial for my mother who had to keep dashing out to gather the clothes in from the line. We kids waved to the engine drivers.

I was much more worried about the black beetles than I was about planes and the bombs they dropped. We had a metal table in our living room which was supposed to protect us from the blast. My father used to gather me up, and carry me downstairs to shelter under the table. The black beetles would scamper for cover and I would be screaming the house down. You could not hear the planes. Apparently the Germans were after the aluminium factory nearby, which manufactured aeroplane parts. They did not get it. I did not know then that I was to work there many years later.

A few yards from us, across the dirt lane, lived my Auntie Bessie and Uncle George, with my cousins Roy and the twins Bruce and Viv. The twins were five years older than me and without being asked, assumed responsibility for my up bringing. I do not think that pleased my mother very much. I wonder why? Could it be that they purloined me regularly on way to Sunday School, dressed overall in my best, and I ended up being dumped in the canal? Mothers are funny creatures. What a fuss they make when you come home covered in mud and soaking wet! On our way to and from the canal, we went through fields, and it was not unusual for me to be pushed into a cow pat if the twins were in that sort of mood!

Another vivid memory of the war years were food parcels that arrived from America. They were arranged through the Methodist Church I attended (Bruce and Viv permitting). There was usually a tin of fruit and a tin of jam but the best of all was the "Sunshine" powered milk. I used to sneak into the pantry and grab large spoonfuls when my mother was not looking. Oh! Nectar of the Gods! I can almost taste it now.

We would be lucky to get through a pot of jam before the ants got at it. Open the cupboard door and they were everywhere. Armies of them! What a cafuffle "Mam, mam, ants in the jam" Cloths, hot water, Dettol, the lot. Phew! Chaos reigned as the cupboard was emptied and cleaned out. Nests were searched for and eliminated - temporarily. Persistent creatures ants.

What I did not know then was that we were the envy of all the neighbours, particularly the kids, as we had an apple tree and a piano! Riches indeed. Never mind that the apples were always full of grubs (we carefully ate around them) and that I had to practise an hour every day. Few of our neighbours had a garden, only backyards. Also our house was bigger (that only meant more creepy crawlies) so had more room for a piano.

It is a wonder to me now that we grew up as healthy as we did. "Ah, you had good packing," my mother used to say. My cousins and I grew up tall. Bruce and Viv became 6' rugby players. If I had a pound for every time neighbours and friends said to my mother "isn't your Sheila getting tall?" I would be basking in the Bahamas now.

The 'piéce de resistance' of those wartime years for me was being a bridesmaid at a cousin's wedding. I had a pink taffeta dress for the occasion. I used to preen myself in the wardrobe mirror (when it was not covered by a film of damp!) I wore it again at the VE celebrations in the village square. All the local kids were dressed up and placed up on lorries to form a pageant. There were flags, tables covered with food, and lots of people waving and shouting. Did I think I was the cat's whiskers? You bet.

It was many years later that we were moved out of the house. I was tottering around on high heels and working by that time. A new estate had been built by the Council on the fields at the back of us and we were allocated a flat on the grounds of my father's ill health. He had worked all his life in a brickyard and developed emphysema from the brick dust.

No more baths in front of the fire; a bathroom with hot water in the tap. No more boiling kettles and washing in a flag - stoned scullery. No more dashing down to the loo, with snow piled high on either side of the path. And better still, NO MORE BLACKBEETLE.



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