FROM NOUGHT TO FIVE BESIDE A TAR PIT. By Thomas Parr
Imagine a small cottage huddled in the shadow of a cement factory by the river. The cottage is twenty feet from the river and there is a ten foot drop into the water.
Behind the cottage is a pool of tar that has seeped from the ruins of a brick- making factory, of which only one tall unstable chimney remained.
An area of marshland teeming with frogs, newts and adders, bounded by a mass of brambles and elder trees, adjoin the ruins.
It was in this dangerous and unhealthy environment that I spent the first five years of my life
Our house was within walking distance of the cement factory, and as long as my father worked there, we were able to live in the cottage. It went with the job. It also meant that we were homeless if father lost his job for any reason.
We had a dog named Bonzo. He was a mixture of breeds. Terrier Collie, Dachshund and, so my father claimed, part water rat. He was so far down in the pecking order that even the stray mongrel dogs refused to associate with him.
But he was a loyal and brave animal. His sole object in life was to keep everyone away from the edge of the sea wall
He had mentally drawn a demarcation line about six feet from the drop, and ferociously attacked anyone daring to cross it. It sometimes made things very difficult for dad when he wanted to get to his rowing boat for a days fishing. He had to make sure that Bonzo was indoors or chained to his kennel before venturing out.
One day mother heard him snarling and yelping like mad. She dashed out, expecting to see the dog holding off an army of crazed tramps and vagabonds. What she did see was myself hurtling like a lunatic lemming towards the drop to the river, and Bonzo in hot pursuit. He grabbed me by the seat of my pants and held on like grim death as I did my best to fling myself over the edge.
He won, and from then on could do no wrong in my mother’s eyes.
Another menace to my well-being was the tar pit beside the house.
In the winter it was solid enough to walk on, but in any temperature above freezing, it became a sticky morass that engulfed any tiny creature that ventured onto its surface. Even I , at four years old, knew enough to keep away from the edge; though I did think it fun to toss the occasional caterpillar into the gunge. Mother was totally against such activity, and I had to sit still in the corner chair in the kitchen for what seemed hours if she caught me at it.
The summer of 1934 was hot. I was thrilled to bits when the sun ignited the tar. Thick black smoke with little orange flames flickering inside it billowed up the side of our cottage. ‘This is great’ I thought. ‘I’ll go and get mum. She’s always lighting the fire indoors, so she’ll be pleased to see this big one outdoors.’
She became very agitated when she saw the fire, and started to run about. After a minute or two, she ran to the water’s edge and waved to a man in a boat. He was fishing, and called back that he hadn’t caught any yet.
Mother yelled again, Bonzo barked, not quite knowing why but thinking that he should contribute to the excitement, and I flung twigs onto the fire.
Then the man in the rowing boat saw the smoke and he figured out the little woman on the wall wasn’t practicing an Irish Jig, but actually asking for help.
He rowed across to the dockyard on the other side of the river and phoned for the fire brigade.
Meanwhile mum started dashing back and forth with buckets of water, and I helped with my tiny seaside pail
When the firemen did arrive, the fire was out and mum was making tea in the kitchen. She offered the men tea and biscuits. When they had finished and thanked mum they felt that they couldn’t really leave without using their hoses on something. So they washed down the wall where the smoke had blackened it. Being summertime, mother had left the bedroom window open. They said they were sorry that they hadn’t noticed it. Mum didn’t mind much. She said that the floor needed washing anyway.
Before leaving, they filled the tar pit in with bricks and rubble from the ruined factory and covered it with earth. It was a long time before I forgave them that.
One day mum and dad said that I was going to have a little brother or sister. I asked why? What’s wrong with Bonzo? I didn’t need anyone else, and I wasn’t going to share my dog with anyone. Besides, there was only room for Bonzo and me in his kennel. I spent many happy hours sitting in that dog house on a wet day. Watching the rain pelt down and sharing a handful of biscuits with the animal, what could be better than that?
Mother began to waddle rather than walk, and refused to play chase around the house any more. I was beginning to feel that the new baby was interfering with my life even before it arrived.
Then half a dozen men knocked at the door and told us that they were going to demolish the derelict factory chimney the next day.
My father happened to be home recovering from a cracked rib caused by a workmate allowing a bag of cement to descent upon him from a great height. He pointed out that the said chimney was a mere thirty feet from his house, and his wife was in a critical part of her pregnancy, and that blasting a great big chimney to bits with her in the vicinity was not a good idea.
After a good deal of chin-wag the men decided that it was too near lunch time to do anything at the moment. Then they thought that it looked as if it was going to rain shortly, and they couldn’t work in the wet. So they left.
Father’s parents lived in the a nearby cottage on the edge of a chalk cliff. They used to have a very large garden until some of the chalk gave way and they were left with a small garden. As the crow flies, they lived about four hundred yards away from us. Straight up, that is. By road and footpath it was two miles.
One day mother became very agitated and said that it was time to go.
Dad dashed out of the house, and I wondered what Mum had done to frighten him away. Even at my tender age I knew that she had a temper, but it didn’t last long.
“He’s gone to phone the hospital,” she told me. “You’ll soon be having a new brother or sister.”
Dad took me to grandma and granddad’s house. “Be good,” he shouted as he ran down the garden path. I think he was talking to me, but wasn’t sure.
Grandma was a great tub of a woman always dressed in al long black dress. Permanently wedged in a large black upholstered chair, she looked like a great lump of tar with a small white head stuck on top. She smiled a lot, especially whenever I demonstrated what a clever child I was, like being able to count up to ten, for example. She would exclaim, “Oh, what a genius,” and all her chins would wobble, which fascinated me.
I cannot remember her saying anything else.
Grandpa was a jolly stout fellow. He smelt strongly of cigarette smoke, and would always greet me with a suffocating bear hug and tap me on the head with his pipe.
I suppose that dad had told someone that mother was not at the cottage. Tthe demolition men arrived the next day. I sat with grandpa at the edge of the cliff and watched the men buzzing around at the base of the chimney. Just as I was getting bored all the men ran away from the chimney. I thought they had gone to dinner, but suddenly there was a loud thump that shook the ground, and a lot of bricks flew away from the bottom of the chimney. A few wisps of dust seeped from the top of the chimney, and it groaned as if annoyed at being so rudely disturbed. After all, it had stood there for nigh on thirty years just contemplating the landscape, then a group of men appear and begin to knock seven different kinds of brickdust from its foundations. It wasn’t fair.
After a few moments of hesitation, the structure began to tilt, and without a great deal of noise seemed to melt into the ground. The majestic tower that had dominated the first years of my life died in a vast cloud of dust that billowed up and completely engulfed our house. I was thrilled to bits and watched entranced as the dust slowly settled and our house gradually emerged from the cloud. First the chimneys poked through, then the pointed roof, then the bedroom windows, wide open as if in shock at the rough handling they had just endured. Grandpa said that an expert had told dad to leave the windows open so that they wouldn’t be shattered by the blast. He had not mentioned the dust.
I was amazed. Within seconds our cottage with its red chimneys, purple slate roof, green window frames and yellow brick walls had been transformed into a uniform grey lump. It was a marvellous trick.
Bonzo shot out of his kennel, yelling blue murder and wanting to know how he was going to find his buried bones now that the world was a grey dustbowl.
Early in 1936 two good reasons for us to move presented themselves . the first was mentioned by the doctor. He said that dad would be dead within a year because the cement powder was coating his lungs. The second was that I was fast approaching school age.