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U3A Writing: Dripping

Derek McQueen tells of the day when fat Colin got stuck in the air raid shelter, a tale that is oleaginous and hilarious in equal measure

The day was hot. Not that wonderful and rare summer heat we crave for most of the year but serious, dripping-sweat, shirt-off, heat ; more Marrakech than Matlock. I was desperate for a cool place to rest. The flies were driving me crazy as I headed for shady trees, away from the river. I lay in the grass and squinted up at the sunlit branches. Something about this experience was taking me back. Not deja vue exactly but some trigger to my memory of long ago.

As I began to cool down, the scene in 1941 was slowly unravelling. I flicked away more of the tormenting flies. I was ten years old.

How to get Colin out? That was the difficulty. Heíd got in easily enough to be sure. The blind panic he was experiencing seemed to make the difference. To be honest we had been frightened too but Colin was fat and the rest of us werenít, not then at least. He was simply too fat to get back out through the tiny concrete doorway he had pushed through, a couple of hours before.

As Colin now realised, rushing into the shelter at the first sound of the air raid sirens, was ill judged. The German bombers had only just crossed the Lincolnshire coast and there had been no need for hurry or panic. There was plenty of time for a more measured approach, if youíll forgive the pun.

Despite the best efforts of all of us, Colin was trapped. Every which way and human contortion had been tried but to no avail. All were certain that there could be no more disagreeable tomb. Slimming, would take vital days or even weeks. Demolishing the concrete shelter was not a consideration. A more radical solution was both called for and urgent.

Our two families lived in Fox Lane, on the Frecheville estate, near Sheffield. Dad was on the railway, the LNER Company and Albert, dadís brother-in-law, worked at the abattoir. Walter was a platelayer and Albert slaughtered cattle. He was top man at the Sheffield abattoir back then, around 1940. He could kill more cows in a shift than the other two slaughter men put together. The shelter was home made, very home made. The Anderson, wriggly-tin, Government, shelters were still a year away.

It didnít occur to Albert or my dad that the inclusion of a second exit might prevent incarceration if a bomb blast blocked the entrance.

Their enthusiastic use of concrete and steel reinforcement bars, from the railway, was such that the shelter stands to this day. None of this was comforting to Colin, or the rest of us come to that.

It started to rain. The kind of rain that doesnít look much but which wets you through in minutes. Aunty Betty and my mother, Nellie, went in the house to make a pot of tea. The rest of us shuffled back inside to calm Colin and try to work out the next move.

Albertís greenhouse was only a few yards from the shelter. It was full of bluebottles, which buzzed, crawled and laid their eggs on huge pieces of putrefying offal which he brought home from the abattoir. Thousands of fat, endlessly wriggling, maggots were produced this way and Uncle Albert enjoyed a profitable sideline selling them to local fishermen. Stamfordís yellow, liver fed maggots were legendary in the area, guaranteed to bring good catches. Bream loved them and virtually jumped on to the hooks, if the fishermenís tales were to be believed.

Aunty Betty and the neighbours were less enthusiastic. The smell from the greenhouse, when the wind was from the Sheffield direction, was deplorable and complaints were made regularly about escaped bluebottles in their houses.

My uncle and Dad left Colin still fuming and cursing in the dank, candle-lit gloom of his prison. They stood in the cool night air, my dad pulling on a Woodbine, planning a last desperate attempt to rescue Albertís stricken brother-in-law.

Albert quietly opened the greenhouse door and as angry bluebottles swarmed round his head, reached for a large tub of beef dripping he kept on the top shelf. It was used to smear on the pieces of meat to attract the bluebottles and feed newly hatched maggots. To say that the dripping was unsavoury would be a masterpiece of understatement. Its foul stench was unbearable to all but the most dedicated of maggot breeders.

Back at the shelter, Colin was told in no uncertain terms that his only hope now was to strip completely and cake himself with the loathsome stinking but extremely oleaginous dripping. Its lubricating powers would possibly give him back his freedom if dad pushed him from inside the shelter while Albert pulled from the garden side.

Dad always thought heíd drawn the short straw on this one. The language from all concerned was becoming increasingly obscene as tension; the appalling smell and the site of Colin naked and covered in dripping took their toll. At this point I was ordered back to No 14 and thus missed the great escape. Colinís white and quivering bulk emerged slowly from the shelter like a 16 stone new born baby into the chilly garden of no 22. My Uncle Albert cursed his relief while dad lit another Woodbine.

Apart from a few grazes and badly bruised self-esteem, Colin got away lightly. I was told that remarkably, he went to his pipefitting job that same morning.

Dad and Albertís shelter remains to this day, sixty plus years later. Subsequent occupants of 22 have not been able to demolish it. They have tended their rockery blissfully unaware of the strange goings on which took place a few feet below all those years ago.

I was cooler now.

That was it! My memory trigger! The flies. It was the flies.


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