The Blue Coat
November 29, 2015Posted by on
Lenny had grown up living with his mother’s parents and her older brother in a two-up two-down terraced house in Cross Street where his father had left them both when he went away to the war. Their arrival antagonising the older brother who had lost the right to a bedroom of his own but four occupants, whatever their relationship, didn’t make a house overcrowded in Cross Street. It was normal in the street for grandparents to share a house with one or more children of their own and where their grand-children often outnumbered the adults living there. The street had many absent fathers who, like Lenny’s father, had gone to fight in the war. A war that had begun the same year Lenny was born and five years later, having no memory of his father or of a life without a war, he rarely thought of his father coming home and expected to go war himself when he grew up.
Cross Street opened onto a road where the row of terraced houses on the opposite side of the road had porches with mosaic tiled floors leading up to a front door inset with frames of coloured glass. Set back from the pavement, the front doors opened to reveal a light airy hallway with a bannister staircase. Backing on to the Chester Canal, these houses had neat back gardens bordering directly on to the canal. In sharp contrast to these terraced houses alongside the canal with their neat back gardens, those in Cross Street had no porch or glazed front door and there was no light and airy hallway with a banister staircase. Instead the houses in Cross Street had small backyards with a gate that opened on to an alleyway between the rows of two-up two-down terraces. The backdoor in the dimly lit scullery did little to keep the house warm when it was cold, allowing chilly winds to sweep through the rest of the house. Facing a small window that looked out over the backyard was a sink with a cold water tap and sitting next to the sink was a cast-iron gas stove which, like the gas mantle in the front room, only worked when a shilling was put into the meter. The family lived and ate in the front room where a fire glowed in the black-lead grate and a large blackened kettle sat on the hob, always ready with hot water. The heat radiating from the fire dulling any coldness from the draughts swirling around the room in the winter and bringing comfort to the grandparents in a house where little sunshine shone through the downstairs windows to keep them warm in the summer. Apart from a door leading into the scullery, the front room had a door in one corner that opened onto the pavement of the street outside. Housewives regularly washed the pavement when they scrubbed and blancoed the front doorstep that was now worn down by years of scrubbing, letting even more draughts sweep under the front door and into the room.
On a sunny day the small sash window of a bedroom would fill the room with sunlight, unlike the windows in the two rooms downstairs that were in the shadow of other houses for most of the day. An unlit narrow enclosed staircase in the scullery led to the bedrooms either side of the small landing at the top of the stairs. The bedroom doors were always closed to keep the house warm so that even on the brightest day the staircase was dark. Going up the stairs to a bedroom was a scary experience for Lenny, especially at night-time when a candle was of little comfort to him. The candle’s dim light always flickering to throw shadows that flitted on the walls all around him as he climbed the stairs. The light from the candle surrounding Lenny failing to reach into the darkness ahead that confronted him and causing the darkness behind to follow him. Left in bed with no light in the room Lenny could never see into the corners of the bedroom, which always seemed to be black ominous places where strange things might lurk. On dark winter nights the bedroom was just as cold and scary as the lavatory in the backyard but at least once in bed he could seek warmth and refuge by hiding under the bedcovers, resisting any urge to get out of bed to use the chamber pot underneath it.
The lavatory in the brick walled backyard was in a corner where the walls of the yard formed two sides, another a brick wall inside the yard adjoining them. The fourth side of the lavatory was a latched door, the gaps at the top and bottom of the door providing light inside the lavatory during the day and a bare slate roof keeping any occupant dry when it rained. A smooth wooden board stretching from wall to wall with a hole in the middle making a seat, the wood where people sat having been worn even smoother over time by its occasional residents. Lenny didn’t like using the lavatory after dark, thinking it a spooky place at night-time. The groaning gurgling sound that it made when he flushed it always frightened him, causing him to run quickly into the house, afraid that it might be the sound of a bogeyman coming for him. However, in the summer when the weather was warmer and light streamed into the lavatory it was a safe haven, somewhere Lenny could sit searching for torn up copies of The News Of The World amongst the papers hanging from a piece of string that was looped over a nail hammered into the whitewashed wall. Try as he might, Lenny never really understood The News Of The World and for reasons that he was never able to fathom, the grown-ups wouldn’t let him read it in the house. The torn up pieces that he read in the lavatory always seemed to have some exciting part missing or at least the part that would explain the story, otherwise they never made any sense to Lenny. The pieces of newspaper hanging from the nail were no use, they were like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle in which he rarely found the connecting piece and even when he did it still never brought any understanding. Lenny assumed that grown-ups must know what the stories were about — but he couldn’t ask them.
He daren’t ask the big boys in the Cross Street gang either, even though Lenny was sure that they would know. He knew that they would only make fun of him for asking. They already called him prof because he wore glasses, a nickname that was intended as a slur. The glasses were his curse, the source of his frequent torment by the gang who thought that they made him a school swot — which he was — books giving Lenny illusory escapes to worlds beyond Cross Street. He had quickly learned that it wasn’t wise to appear different from any other member of the gang but the glasses and the assumptions made about his wearing them made that difficult. The glasses which Lenny couldn’t disguise and his fear of the dark which he didn’t hide very well, adding to the even worse handicaps that he already faced in the gang. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t spit very far, couldn’t whistle at all and couldn’t aim or throw stones very well, skills that brought admiration and prestige in the gang.
The terrace with the neat gardens backing onto the canal was a stones throw distance from the towpath on the other side of the canal. The Cross Street gang had learned not to annoy the people in the terrace as a policeman always turned up to chase them away from the canal, boxing their ears if ever he caught them, unlike the lock-keeper living in the nearby cottage who had tired long ago of trying to keep the gang away from the canal lock. The canal was a dangerous place, the danger drawing the gang to it, especially the lock where the canal could be crossed by walking over the lock gates as the bargees did. Lenny had seen the strange boy from another street being dragged dead from the canal where he had drowned. Always on his own, the strange boy never spoke and didn’t seem to understand anything that was said to him, rarely one of the gang’s hapless victims as his lack of response quickly bored them. When Lenny saw the strange boy dead beside the canal he expected a policeman to question the gang in Cross Street but none ever came. Ever mindful of the strange boy, knowing that he would also surely drown if ever he fell — or was pushed — into the canal, Lenny still played by the canal on his own. He would clamber backwards and forwards across the closed lock gates to improve his prowess and impress the gang but his fear of the dangerous waters either side of the gates always made his progress slow.
It always thrilled Lenny when a barge arrived at the lock and he could watch as it was raised or lowered inside it. Clean and bright with ornate paintings on the side of their cabins and colourful flowers in pots on the top of the cabin, he thought that it must an exciting life living on the canal. Arriving at the lock, the bargees would quickly close a set of the lock gates behind the barge that they had just steered safely into the lock. Often Lenny saw children no bigger than himself jumping from the barge onto the bank to scramble quickly and fearlessly over the gates to wind the windlasses, raising the paddles of the gates to let a spume of gushing water empty or fill the lock. The barges were sometimes steam powered, puffing their way up and down the canal, but his favourite were those towed by a magnificent horse with its brightly painted bobbins and a harness covered in polished horse brasses. Whenever the gang was playing on the lock and they saw barges approaching they would close a pair of the lock gates to fill or empty the lock, whichever hindered the progress of the barges the most. Never waited for the barges to arrive at the lock the gang would taunt the bargees from the safety of the road bridge overlooking it, quickly running away when it looked as though they might be threatened.
Usually the gang retreated to a small area known as ‘the playground’, which was near to the canal bridge and where four swings gave the name to what was really a piece of wasteland with toxic groundwater from the nearby lead-works slowly poisoning anything attempting to grow there. The big boys always scrambled for the swings, the smaller boys in the gang knowing better than to try and compete with them for one. The gang’s leader never scrambled for a swing, Dennis was always offered one by a big boy with either carefully feigned magnanimity or sycophantic fear. At the swings the big boys would vie with each other to recount their part in the latest escapade, embellishing their bravery in order to gain Dennis’ approval. The smaller boys stories were ignored unless its telling could provoke a fight to amuse the gang and Lenny, who wasn’t big enough to win a fight with anyone yet, had learned the safety of silence. The lead-works could be seen in the distance on the other side of the fence that separated the playground from an area where debris from the works had created a desolation on which nothing grew. Alongside the fence a footpath had been created by the passage of people using the playground as a shortcut between the road bridge over the canal and that over the railway lines that Cross Street backed onto. Sometimes when he was at the playground using the swings on his own, Lenny occasionally saw a boy in a blue coat using the footpath. The boy always looked smart in his clean blue coat, making Lenny think that he must go to a better school than the one he and the gang went to. They they didn’t wear a uniform with a blue jacket at their school and he was sure that the boy in the blue coat didn’t have his hands, fingernails, behind his ears and the collar of his shirt inspected before going in to class.
The gang was in the playground on the day that the boy in a blue coat was crossing the footpath. He may have glanced with some trepidation towards the gang but carried on walking toward the railway bridge. Dennis ordered the gang to stop him so the gang, led by big boys, ran over to quickly surround the boy in the blue coat. Although he was as big as them there were more big boys and the rest of the gang had now collected around him barring his escape. The gang waited for Dennis to challenge the boy in the blue coat and full of bravado Dennis poked him aggressively with his finger, asking him what he was doing in their territory without their permission to be there. Made braver by their numbers Dennis and the big boys goaded the boy in the blue coat, pushing him from one to another trying to provoke him to fight or cry. Standing on the fringes of the gang surrounding him Lenny could understand the fear of the boy in the blue coat, he had experienced it himself many times. Lenny wished as hard as he could he that the boy in the blue coat wouldn’t begin to cry, knowing that crying only increased the gang’s torment and their victim’s humiliation. At that moment he was sure that the boy in the blue coat looked at him and understood his wish as he suddenly punched Dennis on the nose. There was blood everywhere as Dennis collapsed crying out in pain. Startled by the sight of so much blood the rest of the gang were stunned, becoming transfixed as they stared at Dennis lying on the ground moaning and holding his nose trying to stop the flow of blood. Seizing the opportunity, the boy in the blue coat broke free from the gang and fled over the railway bridge.
Watching the boy making good his escape over the railway bridge was the last time Lenny ever saw a boy in a blue coat. He turned his head back towards Dennis who was still trying to stem the flow of blood from his bleeding nose and muttering something incomprehensible as he spat blood from his mouth. Some of the big boys were making Dennis wild promises about the actions they would take next time they came across a boy in a blue coat. Lenny saw that one of the big boys was not sympathetic to Dennis at all, saying nothing to Dennis, perhaps now more confident that Dennis could be beaten in a fight. At that moment Lenny secretly made a promise to himself. He swore that he would never again show anyone was afraid of anything and that one day he too would wear a blue coat.
The Blue Coat School was a type of English elementary school that emerged in the early 18th century to educate the children of the poor. They became the foundation of 19th-century English elementary education, in an attempt to cope with poverty by means of education — particularly in urban areas. The Chester Blue Coat School was the first school outside London to be established by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the charity school was moved to the Blue Coat School, which was built in 1717 and closed in 1949. Its name is now incorporated in the title of Bishops’ Blue Coat Church of England High School.