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A Shout From The Attic: Frankie Knight

...Someone at the little church thought that as Frankie was a big lad, he would be ideal for the position of bellows pumper for the ancient hand-pumped organ. The bellows was located in a small room at the back of the organ, and Frankie would sit on his chair until the hymns were announced and then, springing like a crouching tiger for the handle of the big leather bellows he would pump vigorously until the dying notes were sung, when he would resume his sedentary position to repay his oxygen debt...

Ronnie Bray recalls a school friend, Frankie Knight, a lad who vigorously pumped the organ bellows - for a while.

Frankie Knight was one of the nicest boys I ever met. He lived with his family on South Street Huddersfield, a few doors away from the little church that houses Huddersfield’s biggest Pentecostal Church these days. His father worked on the railway and was, like Frankie’s mother, his elder brother Eddie, and himself, well proportioned. These days he would be called fat, but as far as I can remember, we did not make fun of people’s peculiarities back then.

Frankie was a very pleasant and positive young man who made conversation and play a treat. It was in company with Frankie that I went into Willie Hudson’s attic to make non-moving pictures move, imbued as we were with a strong sense of the miraculous and not being far from the top rung when it came to imaginative and creative thinking.

As to Frankie’s physical stamina, I am not qualified to make comment, for we seldom did anything requiring physical effort, being mostly content with cerebral occupations, such a jokes, general talk, and “what ifs.” I suppose that someone at the little church thought that as Frankie was a big lad, he would be ideal for the position of bellows pumper for the ancient hand-pumped organ. The bellows was located in a small room at the back of the organ, and Frankie would sit on his chair until the hymns were announced and then, springing like a crouching tiger for the handle of the big leather bellows he would pump vigorously until the dying notes were sung, when he would resume his sedentary position to repay his oxygen debt.

Musicians, even those serving small church congregations, are a strange lot. Whereas you and I, being normal sensible and thoughtful people would have connected the length of some hymns with the youth and physical capabilities of the bellows-man, and maybe cut out a few verses, the conductor at the South Street Church had no such sensibilities, and so it was that one fateful Sunday she had chosen a hymn the singing of which would match any one of the labours of Heracles, not taking into account Frankie’s level of rigour, nor taking into account his extreme youth.

And so it came to pass that somewhere past the midway point of the interminable hymn, Frankie’s hard-pumping arms flagged and his stamina was spent, and he felt a pang of hunger vying with his determination to keep on pumping at all costs. Young people are noted for their altruism, but however pure that sense of self-sacrifice is, it is not equal to the imperious demands of the gnawing pain of hunger, nor to the need to stop the arm-socket-searing-pain caused by too many vigorous verses of a long-metred Victorian hymn on self-improvement. Fatigue, pain, and hunger triumphed over the selfish needs of a congregation and their lusty fervour and as Frankie stopped pumping and took his seat where he unwrapped the cup cake his mother had provided for him, the supply of forced air to the intoning instrument waxed and died and the notes trailed down and off as if from the desperate mouth of an alien and despondent creature.

The voices of the congregation trailed off soon after the organ died, and in what seemed like no more than half a flash, the room door burst open and an infuriated, red-faced conductor swung in on the handle demanding – in most unchristian terms – “Why in the blue blazes isn’t the organ pumper pumping?” Frankie calmly waved what was left of the bun towards her, and, spitting a few crumbs, in her general direction, did his best to explain to her that his arm was about to drop off and that his stomach thought his throat was cut. If Frankie expected sympathy from the muso, he was not only sadly mistaken, but also rapidly re-educated.

When I think about Frankie’s performance that day, a smile curls my lips, and a cosy warmth creeps into my heart as I picture him in his cubby hole, insouciantly sitting and devouring his precious sweet bun as he rested his worn-out arms, for which he was roundly condemned in his innocence as he, perhaps, failed to notice the thunder of silence he had initiated in the congregation, and even, I fancy, had failed to anticipate the furore of the fuehrer during whose precious hymn he had unexpectedly terminated his employment.

Knowing Frankie Knight as I did, I know that he was not a quitter but a young man with a dream of being self-sufficient, even modestly well-off, so that he, like his brother could have a hundred pounds in his pocket – a lot of money in the late nineteen-forties – and say, “That’s mine!” I do not doubt that he accomplished what he set out to do, and find it hard to believe that his experience in the pump room on that fateful day did not teach him something about pressing on to the end regardless of how grim or difficult the road became. I would like to see Frankie again and enjoy his ebullience, his good spirit, his honesty, and his unassuming frankness, for Frank – as he was christened – was well named.

And just sometimes, when my way seems unusually difficult, and I feel like quitting, I think of Frankie and his bun in the back room of the church, and I keep pumping the bellows of life a little longer as I smile at the memory of an old and valued friend.

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