A dull thump, a thwack on my back. A direct hit by a snowball. Dodging more incoming missiles we retaliate. The kids from Nazareth House on one side of the road and us on the other are like passing ships exchanging broadsides. Snow balls arc across passing cars, then the firing peters out as we move out of range of each other; the orphanage kids heading towards the Catholic Primary school in the town while we disappear down the steep Wee Brae, treacherous after a snow fall, and descend to the village in the Esk Valley. Our periodic spats had nothing to do with religious intolerance, we were just two different groups of school children in different uniforms. It was only later in my life, much later that I heard stories, rumours of the abuse of the children by the nuns, women who had given their lives to Christ, sacrificing a life of motherhood to care for the children of others. No surprise, I suppose, that it all went wrong.
It was the late 1950s, a time of innocence and simplicity. The games we played at school and at home, required few props and an abundance of imagination. My early school life was spent at the Primary School that stood overlooking the small village of Lasswade, just south of Edinburgh.
The school stood at the top of the School Brae. A grey austere building with tall windows, it overlooked the village and floated high above the chemical stench of the river, caused by of the colourful fluid that spewed out of Leonard’s Paper Mill. It must have been there a long time; my mother and her mother before her had been pupils. At the top of the Brae I would turn right into the upper playground, a flat tarmac area that ran along the side and across the front of the building. Steps at each end of the front portion of the playground led down to two shelters, or sheds as we called them, which were open to the front. Sandwiched between the sheds were the primitive toilets. The slopes to the sides of the stepped pathways leading to the sheds were covered in threadbare grass.
In the winter months, snow, when it fell, was the main ingredient of fun. Snow ball fights on the way to school, at play time and on the way home. On the School Brae slides formed like glaciers and, to the cheers and laughter of children, even the occasional teacher was known to sample a slide, precariously balanced with arms outstretched, a briefcase in one hand. Playing ended when the bell clanged and we would form lines, under clouds of foggy breath, at the entrance doors. As we sat down to our lessons the radiators under the windows were covered with steaming coats, and mother- knitted scarves, gloves and hats. Beneath this embankment of clothes, shoes and boots were propped against the wall in puddles of melting snow. The teacher would struggle to hold our attention as snowflakes would gently cascade past the high windows. All we were interested in was the next playtime.
At the weekend sledges would be retrieved from sheds and cupboards and dragged to the hill in the local park or the Broomieknowe golf course where the pins flags could be used to form slalom courses. One winter, to the annoyance of my mother the Kirkwood boys from across the road, rolled a massive snowball into our vestibule.
Its’s Spring. My mother has caught me leaving the house to go to school with my hair uncombed and my clothing in disarray. In the vestibule, I stand still as a statue, while my mother combs my hair, straightens my blazer, pulls my socks up and wipes any residue of snot from under my nose. She then stands back for a moment appraising me with narrowed eyes, a sculptor admiring a work of art. Once out on the street and before I crossed the end of Golf Course Road I have mussed my hair, unbuttoned my blazer and pushed my socks down to my ankles, to look like William, the child antihero of the Just William novels by Richmal Crompton. Novels, which I avidly read and which influenced generations of horrid children. After I disarranging my clothing and hair to my satisfaction, I wave to Mr Scott, standing outside his grocers shop, peering at me through his round wire spectacles, slightly baffled. Then a car approaches and I run and use Miss Meldrum’s garden gate to lever myself off the ground as it passes. This is a version of High Tig, one that you can play on your own, without a friend. The game has one simple rule: every time a vehicle passes you have to be off the pavement. A wall or a step would do, or Miss Meldrum’s gate. She raps on her window in irritation. She is actually a nice lady. She once invited mum, dad and my brother and me for a meal. The main course was hamburgers. We were agog when she told us that she had lived in America and had been a personal assistant to some business mogul in New York. A dark horse, Miss Meldrum. At the time we had never heard of hamburgers, fast food was still some time into the future.
On fine days, usually in the upper tarmac playground, we would play tig in small groups and, sometimes, the enmity between the girls and boys would be suspended and a game of Chain Tig would develop. Chain Tig was a communal game where one child was nominated as ‘het’ ( or ‘it’) and would manically run around trying to catch someone. When they caught a fellow pupil both would hold hands and try and catch someone else. Eventually there would be an extended ‘chain’ of children trying to corner the the remaining boy or girl. A game would be popular for a time then, for no apparent reason would fall out of favour and be replaced by another. A ball might be brought to school by a pupil and, with rules agreed, dodgeball would be trending. If teams were necessary for a game, two children, on the grounds of peer popularity or basic natural selection, were chosen as leaders. One leader would step, heel to toe towards the other. The one whose foot overlapped the other had first pick. The last to be picked, the least wanted kid, may have felt a bit humiliated, but would soon forget as the game, whatever it was, started.
In wet weather everyone crowded into the sheds at the bottom of the grassy slopes. In the boys shed, British Bulldog or Corner Tig would pass the time. British Bulldog involved hopping towards an opponent with your arms folded in front, the winner was the last boy standing; usually the one with a streak of violence in their make up. The rules of Corner Tig were that you had to run between the corners of the shed without being caught by the person that was ‘het’.
Summer. In memory, imaginary days of continuous sunshine and blue skies. There is sporadic outbreaks of warfare with the Nazareth House kids. The projectiles are now stones, not snowballs, and a lorry driver, window open, is hit in the face by a stone. There is a severe clampdown by the police, the school and the orphanage and an armistice is declared. At the school the slope of the lower playground has dried out and out come the racing cars: Dinky and Corgi miniatures of Cooper-Climax, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. At playtime we set our cars hurtling down the slope, the winner is the car that travels the furtherest. At home we strip tyres from military vehicles and trucks and fit them to our cars trying different combinations of tyres to improve performance, gain an advantage, make them go further. We imagine we are Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham or Manuel Fangio. In the classroom a child Fangio stands his car on his desk in order to admire its flowing lines or tyre combinations. But his inattention is spotted by the alert teacher who pockets the model like a magician, as he stealthily passes down the aisle.
At some point in the season the interest in racing cars fades and marbles, pea shooters or water pistols became the new fad. ‘Gerries and British’ war game enactments are a popular boys game, fuelled by the relentless diet of Second World War films or stories in the comics that I would read in Mr McKenzie’s barbers shop. While we boys played with our toys the girls played games that seemed to required far more skill. I remember standing in a corner of the upper playground watching, mesmerised by the girls skipping, sometimes with two ropes at once or two girls hopping up and down through the arcing ropes. Hopscotch, too, seemed to require a high degree of dexterity well beyond any boy’s ability.
To the relief of the teachers and pupils the holidays came round. We looked forward to days of building gang huts in Melville Woods, the Old Sandpit or up the Braeheads. Sometimes we would sneak through the council yard fence, like commandos, to steal pram wheels to build bogeys. If we had some pocket money saved we would take the train to Portobello to swim in the salt water baths and mess around in the arcades. All to soon it would end and we would again make the long walk to school.
Summer has turned to Autumn and my pockets bulge with conkers. At home, I sit at the kitchen table and bore holes through the conkers with a bradawl from my dad’s tool kit. I thread strings through the holes and tie knots. In the morning I head for school to try and smash an opponent’s conker off it’s string. A win will add to my conkers tally, an opponents miss will result in very sore knuckles. There are rumours in the playground of fifteeners or twentyers, and of unscrupulous kids who marinate their conkers in vinegar or some other sinister substance to harden them. One day I suffer the combination of knuckle injury by conker and a stinging palm, the result of getting the belt. For at least a week, a group of us has been ringing the bell of Mr Towers’s flat and doing a runner. Mr Towers is our teacher and lives in the top floor of the red sandstone apartments at the end of Golf Course Road, just round the corner from my home. He could have simply walked round the corner and complained to me father about his son’s extra curricular activities, but then, in the late 1950s there was no limit to a teacher’s jurisdiction. One morning, just after Billy Watt has nearly broken one of my knuckles, Mr Towers calls the bell ringers to the front of the class and gives us all a thrashing with the tawes, or the belt. My father never found out, either from Mr Towers and, certainly not, from me.
As the dark nights set in we would, as a family, play simple board games like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, and various card games. On the way home from school and at weekends stealing apples from gardens and Mrs Clarks small holding was a popular pastime. Then, as Guy Fawkes Night approached, our pocket money financed small arsenals of penny bangers and jumping jacks which we would use to terrorise the local citizens as they stood at bus stops or walked about the town.
After hallowe’en and bonfire night the residents of Bonnyrigg and Lasswade breathed a collective sigh of relief and Sergeant Turner and his constables would relax and put their feet up for a few weeks to await the first snowfall.