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A Shout From The Attic: Getting Out Of The House

...In childhood, barriers to egress were the symptoms of parental anxieties of what might happen to their ingenuous offspring when abroad in the world without their flawless guidance. They imagined peril in every footstep, blood spilled from amorphous but inevitable accidents, and death standing mockingly in the shadows, beckoning their young with a skeletal finger and skullish grin...

Ronnie Bray recalls the questioning he had to undergo in boyhood before being allowed to go out to play.

It sounds easy, but getting out of the house could be more difficult than escaping from Colditz and more daunting than the Spanish Inquisition. These days when I go out I just open the door and I am out, but there were times when departing from one’s domicile required planning, preparation, and forethought, all of which were generally absent when the urge to go out and play hit me.

In childhood, barriers to egress were the symptoms of parental anxieties of what might happen to their ingenuous offspring when abroad in the world without their flawless guidance. They imagined peril in every footstep, blood spilled from amorphous but inevitable accidents, and death standing mockingly in the shadows, beckoning their young with a skeletal finger and skullish grin.

They were right to consider the possibility of accidents, because trees were easier to climb, walls were much higher, and canals further from side to side, than the stunted trees, low walls, and narrow cuts of today’s world. But in a simpler time there was little to go wrong, hence nothing to worry about.

However, worry they did. recalling I suppose the car-less days of their own childhood, and the absence in those times of death delivery systems such as electrical circuits and gas ovens, or the danger of being clocked in the face and having one’s nose torn off by a rogue gramophone spring bursting its natural boundaries, with assistance from a young mechanic.

They worried about motor car accidents, although in the nineteen forties motor cars travelled at a leisurely and sedate pace, produced by the combination the driver’s inherent fear of the vehicle itself with the obligation to be circumspect and well-regarded, so that it was possible to be brushed aside by a well rounded mudguard instead of today’s peril of having one’s legs snapped off at the knee by the descending slope of modern car bonnets acting like cleavers if they hit in the right place at the right speed.

The accepted speed in town’s busy streets was no more than twenty miles an hour, but there was always the possibility that some cad would race as fast as twenty-two miles per hour and pluck an innocent child from the tree of life and fling him down into the cold clay of the ancestral burial barrow aforetime.

Parents worth their salt understood that and acted accordingly. Even now when I approach a road junction in my rig, the voice inside my head whispers, “Look right, look left, look right again, then if it is safe to do so, cross.” I need to modify that instruction because the traffic here comes at me on the wrong side of the road. I had the same problem when wandering through the streets of Friedrichsdorf in Germany, because as there was nothing coming on my side of the road, I sometimes stepped off the kerb before turning to check the other half of the road, and came close to being beamed up by a ‘run silent – run deep’ Mercedes Benz coming my way on the wrong side!

Yet, it seemed not to be the premature death of a scion that troubled dams and sires, as much as the eternal shame that would be heaped on the family escutcheon and all who sail in her if the twisted mangled body of their child was found by the mortician to have on even remotely soiled underwear.

So it was that departing children were arrested before the foot of their hind leg could trip over the threshold on their way ‘out,’ and put to the interrogation. It might be my imagination that recollects being strapped into a kitchen chair by a surplus to requirement whalebone corset in front of a roaring fire under the penetrating glare of a single lamp whose conical shade forced the beam directly into my eyes whilst a feldwebbel, who looked remarkably like my Ma, stentorially demanded, “Have you changed your underwear?” I eventually realised that it was my mother, but her German accent fooled me for several years before I did so.

I could only give one answer to that question. “Mother, you know I don’t have any underwear! If you buy me some I will not only wear it, but I promise to change it before going out to play.”

Mother’s response was an unchanging, “Gerroff out, then,” and I gorroff out then. That is, I started to gerrof out, but was always apprehended by her fingers firmly and painfully grasping the flesh at the back of my neck as I breached the outside doorway, which was followed by a continuation of the prior interrogation.

“’Ave yer bin?”

“’Ave I bin where?”

“You know!”

“You know” was Ma’s stock answer to avoid direct mention of anything she considered indelicate, and that was just about everything in a post-Victorian age. She returned to the question.

“Ave yer bin? Because, if you ‘aven’t, yer’d better go now afooar yer gerrout.”

She meant, of course, had I been to the lavatory, as the WC was referred to, and taken ‘relief.’ If I hadn’t, and in the rush of life that is boyhood, sometimes such fundamental offices occasionally slipped from sight in the rush to enjoy life outside of 121 Fitzwilliam Street, then I was summarily despatched up three flights of stairs to ‘go’ before I went.

What is the worst thing that can happen to a lad who didn’t go before he left the house? Public conveniences, especially for men, flourished on almost every street corner, and if we were playing in Greenhead Park, well, there were lots of bushes and trees, dark arches, secret corners, and even public lavatories, so that being ‘caught short’ rated extremely low on our scale of concerns, somewhere between the chances of sweet rationing ending soon and Ben Shaw’s stopping making Dandelion and Burdock.

I have seen the film about Colditz, and all they had to do to escape was dig a tunnel and creep through it. If my Ma had been Kommandant, they would no sooner have put their legs in the hole than she would have grabbed them to find out whether they had on clean underpants, and if they’d ‘bin.’ Woe betide them if they answered in the negative. It would have been no escape for them lads that night, nor any other night until they could deliver the right answers to the two Great Questions that stand as bulwarks against children setting foot into a dangerous world without having taken proper precautions.

Parents had their standards, and though they might seem to us to be precariously based, they made sense to our guardians who did not want to have to collect stained underwear from the morgue after identifying their little Johnny, and did not want to have him arrested for doing in public that which should only ever be done in private. It was simply part of the scheme of things for those who needed to march to the beat of the drum heard by all that were part of an orderly and moral society.

Did it have any effect on me? I’ll say it did. Even to this day, I will not cross the road unless I have on clean underwear. It is much too risky!

**

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's luscious autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

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