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Feather's Miscellany: Willie Walker

...Willie had married a tiny, very domineering woman with a face like a walnut and a voice like a foghorn. She’d been a weaver all her life and adjusted her voice, like most weavers, to the clatter of looms; and in the process gone slightly deaf. Her voice was like an under-oiled train braking to a halt, and you could hear her a mile off...

John Waddington-Feather tells a tale which confirms that Willie really did need a partner capable of organising his life.

Willie Walker lived down Scotland Road just off Garlic Lane. Now Willie wasn’t what you’d call bright, but he’d a heart of gold and he hadn’t a bad voice. Like the rest of us he sang in the choir at Trinity Church. He was one of four brothers and his mother had been widowed young, so she’d a hard time of it raising her sons, especially Willie; for to tell the truth he was rather vulnerable and needed looking after. He was constantly being taken advantage of; not exactly bullied but certainly taken advantage of by his pals. He needed an overseer, and as you’ll hear, he married one in time.

Take the occasion when the gang we were part of as lads decided to explore Dead Man’s Cave on the hillside above Keighworth near Ruddledene. We spent much time up there in the holidays and at weekends playing in Elam Wood which skirted the canal and reached to the moors above. We made dens in that beloved wood, lit fires and generally let our boyhood imaginations run riot playing there. That’s how the cave got its name. We were sure there was the body lurking in its depths.

The cave was hidden behind bushes which had grown in front of it over the years. I suspect it was an old exploration adit for coal, which had been mined there briefly in the nineteenth century before richer coal seams were discovered in south Yorkshire. It was dark and mysterious falling away suddenly into pitch blackness. It had fascinated us for a long time till one day we plucked up enough courage to explore. The floor of the cave was thick with heavy clay and mud swept down from the entrance; so thick it rose high up our Wellington boots which we’d brought with us. There were six of us armed with staffs cut from the wood, Willie Walker’s mother’s long clothes line and some hand torches. The rope was tied round each lad then we ventured forth to the mouth of the cave with Willie at the front.

He hadn’t offered but had been told to go first. The others conned him into believing because he was the smallest and lightest he would be able to lead the way better. Behind him came the rest; the tallest and heaviest at the rear. Heart in mouth they entered the cave. Willie paused. 'I wonder what’s inside,” he asked, wide-eyed.

“That’s what we’ve come to find out,” said Tommy Barnet.

“No point in exploring if we knew,” added Raymond Lester.

“Stop talking and let’s get in,” said George Pedwar from the rear, tightening the rope around his middle.

And in they went led by Willie whose wellies sank deeper and deeper into the clay. It grew darker and darker, too, and they’d only gone a short way into the cave when there was a loud and sudden fluttering of wings and a family of bats flew out.

“Vampires!” yelled Willie – and that was that. The gang turned and fled back to the entrance. Had they left in an orderly manner all would have been well, but they panicked and Willie was plucked straight out of his wellies and dragged behind the rest on his belly.

Tommy Barnet was brave enough to go back into the cave alone to retrieve Willie’s wellies, but Willie was a real mess and what his mother said when he arrived home I hate to think, especially as her clothes line was broken.

I didn’t see Willie for many years after I left Keighworth, but fifty years later I made a point of seeing him while visiting the town. By this time he’d married, but had no family. He and his wife lived in a neat semi-detached house in a middle-class suburb of Keighworth going up to Oakworth. Their house looked right across the valley to the hillside beyond, where lay Dead Man’s Cave.

Willie had married a tiny, very domineering woman with a face like a walnut and a voice like a foghorn. She’d been a weaver all her life and adjusted her voice, like most weavers, to the clatter of looms; and in the process gone slightly deaf. Her voice was like an under-oiled train braking to a halt, and you could hear her a mile off.

Willie had changed like the rest of the old gang. We were all drifting into old age and time had wrought its change on our faces. I was wrinkled. My neck had shrunk like an old cockerel’s. My hair had thinned but mercifully much was still there though going from blond to white, and hairs poked out from my ears and nose. I was no longer the young buck my wife had wed, but, thank God, I wasn’t as changed as some. My mouth still had an almost full set of teeth and wasn’t emptied at bed-time.

Willie, when I eventually managed to see him, had changed dramatically. He’d lost most of his hair, wore loose false teeth and he’d shrunk. Like me he was craggy, yet his deep, brown eyes still held that kindly distant look of his youth, a look of long-suffering tolerance and I could see why when I met Winnie.

I knocked at their door one cold February morning and Winnie’s voice screeched through it: “Who is it?” I explained who I was, that I was an old friend of Willie’s.

“Just a minute,” came back the screech and I heard her footsteps retreating along the corridor till they came to a halt and she yelled louder than ever upstairs: “It’s somebody called Jack Pedwar!”

A pause, then: “Jack Pedwar! I haven’t seen ‘im for years!” Another pause, then the toilet flushed.

Winnie trotted back. “He won’t be a minute. He’s on t’ lav.” She yelled through the closed door, but I’d already guessed that.

She was joined a minute later by Willie who shouted: “You’ll ‘ave to come in by t’front window, Jack. T’door lock’s frozzen. I put some paper in t’keyhole last night to stop t’wind blowin’ through an’ it’s iced up so we can’t get t’key in.”

As there was only one door to the house, I went round the front as instructed and Willie was waiting at an open bay window which I climbed through. Once inside I was made very welcome. The room was well furnished in our age of affluence, full of kitschy knick-knacks and souvenirs from their holidays abroad; much better furnished than Willie’s boyhood home down Scotland Road. And I guessed there’d be no long clothes line across the street on washing-day, just a prim line across the neat garden lawn outside in summer and a tumbler drier in winter.

Winnie brought me a cup of tea, then lit up a cig. “They oughter be shot for makin’ these things!” she exclaimed, holding up her cig after a huge drag on it and blowing out a cloud of smoke up in the air. “They’re killin’ me!” From then on she monopolised the conversation about Keighworth and how it had changed since I lived there. However, Willie and I did manage to get the odd word in and go over old times together, including the Dead Man’s Cave exploration. Time can’t take happy memories away.

By the time I left, the lock had thawed out and I was able to leave by the door. Even with Winnie hogging the conversation, I learned enough to realise they were a very happy couple. They’d no family but were devoted to each other. Though I’ll never probably see Willie and Winnie again, they’re part of me, part of my large store of memories - and tales.
John Waddington-Feather ©


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