…………Fragments of hand written notes come to me from my Aunt Mary about her early years in Stonnall and Walsall Wood, and married life in Lynn Lane, transcribed by my cousin Rosalind. Along with stories I remember her telling me, these form the entire basis of what follows…..
There’s yet another commotion in Aldridge Road. What is it now? It’s now a bit late in the morning for it to be poor Jimmy Pitt, who came back “touched” from The Great War a couple of years ago. With a broom stale under his arm, gruff and hysterical, it would be grey dawn at The Vigo when he had loudly drilled his imaginary troops on the pavement, just as the neighbours on “earlies” left him behind on their way to the pit.
Whatever this fracas is, it must be something sensational to be causing people to rush across the street in such numbers that Mary Horton has no hope of observing proceedings properly from street level. So she darts back under the brick arch and through the entry, to the rear of the tightly packed row of two up, two down, terraced cottages, and into to the yard where the privies steam gently behind their gappy wooden doors. Now she can get into their house through the scullery, and bolt up the narrow, enclosed staircase to the front bedroom, a perfect vantage point.
This is the room where, come 1925, my father, Edwin Noah Horton would be born: Mary’s last little brother, and the final child in this, particular, Horton brood.
I can drive myself a few miles, morbid and eccentric, and stand within this very column of empty but significant air right this minute, if I so wish. But my toes would dip into the modern day gutter and I am in danger of having them amputated by much passing traffic at the top of what was once Aldridge Road, but is now called Northgate. Behind me, three or four boring modern houses sit behind their small front gardens on the very spot where a score of crowded households birthed and were bereaved in the shadow of the collieries and the brickworks early in the last century.
Above me, on my precarious kerb, and in another time and space, the child, copper haired Mary, presses her high forehead (a characteristic of our family physiognomy that I share) eagerly against the window pane, sapphire gimlet eyed towards the place from which, this particular day, the screams are issuing………….
No, not yet time for my father, but there had been a baby in Mary’s house recently. Little Margaret May Horton had been dressed up far finer and fancier than Mary or even sister Nellie (and she “the pretty one”) had ever been. Mary had spied her – lying still, waxen and be-ribboned – in a wooden box, on a high shelf that Mary was supposed not to be able to reach. For days, before the funeral, she believed that, beyond her wildest dreams, her parents had procured a beautiful doll that she might be able to play with ostentatiously on the front step. What exquisite envy that might have inspired in the hearts of Aggie Mushkin, Louie Beardmore, and Dolly Cowley, who also lived in the row. The boys in the gang (each of the five roads that meet at The Vigo has its own) had other fish to fry. But Mary remembered she was often up to mischief with them, that is, Mushy Tolley, Bachy Pinches, Mary’s brother Bill and cousin Jimmy.
We tormented the lamplighter by following him and shinning up the lamp post and pulling the chain which put the light out – then shouting ” Your lamps gone out !”. We helped ourselves to fruit from a cart pulled by a small pony. Pony quietly waited for his boss to come out of the pub. Guess who carried the fruit down the entry for the share out ? ME.. the only one with a skirt. We tied door knobs together, knocked the doors and watched the struggle to open the doors. We rubbed wet fingers on windows which produced a sound quite unbearable. We followed courting couples up dark lanes sniggering aloud when they went into a clinch and got chased for our pains. Dad called us in about 9 o’clock.
Mary also read avidly: “Peg’s Paper,” “Red Letter,” and, when she could get away with it unnoticed, “The News of the World” with its salacious tales of horrible murder. That was alright in print, but did she really want to look at what was transpiring across the road? No, but she couldn’t take away her eyes from the scene. And whose house was it?
Across the road from where we lived were five houses in the shape of an L upside down. The first house was used as a barn Mr Tolley kept his pony, cart, hay, straw and all kinds of things in it. He was a stone breaker for the roads. He once showed me a stone he had just broken, it contained a space in the shape of a caterpillar. The stone was the size of a big potato.
Next to the barn was the home of Lottie Pinches and her family, then Tolley’s house. Mrs Tolley wore a dark coloured bustle dress, floor length, when she walked she appeared to float.
Two more houses formed the bar of the L. Our bedroom window was directly opposite the two houses, there was a Mrs Whitbread and her two sons in one, and a woman who appeared to live alone occupied the last house. One morning the woman was screaming, I ran upstairs to see better as everybody seemed to be rushing to her house. Looking across their gardens I saw the woman come out of her house in a flame, People tried to beat out the flames but she kept backing away saying “Don’t touch me ” and eventually fell over into her pigsty. Her screaming stopped. The ambulance came and she was carried through the garden and down to the road in a red hospital blanket, as the passed a tree near her back door something dropped from the blanket, a man stopped, made a hole and buried the object, when he caught up with the others he shouted ” That was her hand , I buried it ”
For weeks I was terrified to look through the window across the garden to the tree. As soon as my eyes closed I saw the hand squirming out of the ground, fingers flexing as though looking for the body, I was sure if it saw me it would ” cotton on ” to me. Can’t remember how long my fear of the hand lasted. It seemed a long, long time. She had poured a can of paraffin over herself and set herself on fire.