Mary's Essays



by Mary Reed

Sometimes, when the sun is setting but the night has not yet arrived, introspection invites the mind to wander. Leaning on the windowsill to watch melancholy bronze sunsets, my thoughts turn to flamboyant childhood sunsets, glowing scarlet a long way back on life's road, but the most spectacular I have seen.

 Childhood's windows were Victorian sashed. with paint which needed refreshing every year because of rampant air pollution, the same pollution which gave us such glowing sunsets. On Mondays there were specks of soot spotting drying laundry, from glowering clouds casting a pall over grey slate roofs which, in memory, seem always wet with rain. We would sit on the old steamer trunk in the attic's bay window, reading, while a damp wind hugged our row of houses. Our window looked out over the grimy industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where grass and open spaces were uncommon. Uncommon, that is, unless you counted weedy World War II bombsites coloured seasonally by the ruby of rosebay willow herb and dusty yellow coltsfoot, working a little magic among discarded and rusting bicycles, battered paint containers, mattresses weeping yellowed stuffing from stained ticking,  in short, the sort of household bric-a-brac about whose provenance it was probably not too wise to inquire. The wind's moaning, sweeping off the river, formed a counterpoint as we wandered through literary mist, the echoing tap-tap of Blind Pew making an eerie tattoo. Draughts crept in through cracks around windows and in walls built when the Empire coloured half the globe imperial red, and the Widow of Windsor, mourning behind a black veil, reigned over subjects large and small. Those draughts would flicker light from the gas lamp across the slope of the ceiling, the shifting black shadows mirrors of our imagined cobwebby castles, inhabited by wraiths wont to Walk At Midnight, and making our pre-war wardrobe loom even larger, always enticing us to feel around in its back, behind the clothes, looking for the way to Narnia. But we never found it.

And when another day had ended, mum drew the attic's thin post-war curtains against a night sky lit by yellow sodium lamps lining the roads, eclipsing all but the brightest stars. Through half-open windows downstairs there drifted in the cries and yells of children swarming in the street, causing  her to purse her lips and shake her head over bairns up long after their bedtime. Later, as night settled on the city, would come the echoing songs of patrons spilling out of the pub on the corner, a nightly lullaby, off-key and raucous.

But our houses are long gone, demolished by a benevolent city council in its efforts to better the lot of  what would now be called inner city dwellers.  Families said tearful goodbyes to the street as its occupants were scattered among housing estates. They left in dribs and drabs - the Smiths,  the Eldons, all the people who made up our childhood world. What happened, I wonder, to the cobbler who had a small shop at the top of the street, the grocer who ran the small grocery on the corner,  the publican at the bottom of the street?  Now, when twilight comes, I find myself wondering if any of them remember those long-ago scarlet and grey sunsets. Or if any of them recall the Reeds who lived at number 32.

Copyright (c) 1998 by Mary Reed


by Mary Reed

It was a rite of summer. Sunny Sundays invariably saw an exodus from the city, as the electric railway carried load after load of families, older members laden down with baskets and towels, younger fry frisking at the leash, away, away, away to the windy shore of the North Sea.  It was time for a trip to the seaside! To Tynemouth, perhaps, or Whitley Bay, or North Shields. Which would it be?

Fortunately for us impatient youngsters, preparations were quickly made. Mum packed a shopping bag with meat-paste sandwiches, bread slices cut thick from yesterday's loaf. There would be apples, green and crisp, which she ate with a spoon. There might be biscuits hidden below her handbag, and bags of crisps with their individual blue paper twists of salt, and, lastly, a huge thermos of tea, well-sweetened and milked.  Ordinary fare, to be sure, but the food of the gods after the long walk down from the Victorian railway station, taking us past rows of boarding houses with their neat little gardens and mercurial signs flashing VACANCY or NO VACANCY.  We tumbled by, the smell of the sea already in our nostrils, scorning the fairground we passed on the way, with its rides and stalls and lounging ne'er-do-wells. It was the beach which called us.

And what delight it gave! There, seaweed made a slippery carpet on limpet-encrusted rocks around dark pools of water trapped along the shoreline, microcosms of the ocean. Small, dark crabs lurked boulder-like in them, the occasional rippling fronds of a sea-urchin dancing lightly in the current. Round, raspberry-like sea creatures lurked in sinister clusterings near the waterline. Were they really the bloodsucking mutant jellyfish with which we scared each other? Taking no chances, we paddled in pools scoured clean of marine life each time the tide turned.

But the adults were less squeamish about jellyfish, more coy about clothing. Men rolled up their trouser legs to the daring height of mid-calf, slung their jackets over their arms and entered the surf for a paddle. Even dad, who was rarely seen without a tie and immaculately polished shoes, got his feet wet. We children, in scratchy woolen bathing-suits, rushed in and out of the water, frolicking loudly. We had donned our waterwear by modestly contorting winter-pale bodies behind towels held up around us by tightly permed and corseted mothers and aunts. Later, these female relatives would brave the briny themselves, holding frou-frou petticoats above their knees, Kiss-Me-Quick hats perched at a jaunty angle on back-combed hair stiff with hairspray. The salty wind cutting in from the horizon to give us all goosepimples had come 'all the way from Roosha", our parents commented, downing another cup of hot, sweet tea and munching on sand-gritty sandwiches.

But what cared we? There were sand-castles to be built, intricate fortifications topped by a piece of grey driftwood, waiting to be captured on black and white deckle-edged photographs for the family album. The castle's underground network of tunnels carved haphazardly in the wet sand were a constant snare for unwary beach cricket players. Caves which were under water at high tide had to be explored, as we scared each other half to death with tales of kids perishing in kicking agony, trapped by the raging tide.

Along the railed promenade, deckchair men sold tickets for renting wood and canvas loungers, which invariably took ten minutes of wrestling to get ready for use, with much muttering under the breath as renters grappled with the Escher-like pieces of furniture. We just sat on a blanket, if we could be dragged out of the water.

Meanwhile, a brass band played gamely on, melancholy and slow, over the sound of crashing waves, mewling seagulls and music from the fairgrounds, blended with hoarse shouts from sideshow men and the screams of teenagers splashing each other with sea-water. And over it all lay that distinctive seaside aroma, a tantalizing mixture of salt air, frying chips, drying seaweed and the occasional dead fish temporarily overlooked by the swooping seagulls.

If we were lucky, we might be treated to those delights available only at the coast. There might be paper cones of snail-like "whellecks", winkled out from their shells with a free pin.  Or candy tuft, cloudy and white, sweet on the tongue for a few moments and then gone as quickly as summer was speeding by. There were long ropes of licorice, and hard-crusted toffee apples whose flat tops defied our teeth even as the apple juice ran down our wrists. And when we had eaten, we scavenged along the shore-line, booty popped into our sand buckets. There might be chalky coloured, ridged barnacles, or a weathered piece of bleached and knotty driftwood, or waxy yellow, brown or white shells which had survived the grind of the surf.. Long strands of brown-olive seaweed were collected, pulled from piles deposited against rocks, for its wetness or dryness, so it was said, accurately, predicted the weather. 

And so the afternoon rolled by, as our city-pale skins were burnt scarlet by sun and salt. We played until the setting sun's liquid gold path made a bridge from horizon to shore. Then, because it was Monday the next day and that meant work and school,  it was time to pack up the towels and  the thermos, the shells and the seaweed, and go home.  As stars twinkled and winked over the restless sea and strings of coloured lights popped on along the promenade and in the fairground, we toiled back up the street to the railway station, our shoes uncomfortable with sand. On the return journey, half asleep, we children looked out at the backs of houses as we travelled by, clackety-clack,  clackety-clack, clackety-clack, all  along the shining rails to Newcastle, nodding, dozing, dreaming.

 Copyright (c) 1998 by Mary Reed

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