Onions Make You Cry

Sometimes there are moments when I was a kid that I remember now as a time of innocence. I wish childhood could be stored in a jar and reused over and over. Sad, wrong, good or downright naughty, kids are a wonderful part of our lives.

When I was a kid growing up, while my mother still had to shop with ration books and my father earned less than five pounds a week as a carpenter was hard on us all; three sisters and one brother and a dog. When I was a kid in those days, families were closer and looked after each other. With the introduction of the TV, cell phones, X Box and all the other electronic paraphernalia, many families today seem to have lost their sense of ‘belonging’ together and the ability to enjoy life as a unit.

Not so in the new era of post-war Britain when I was a kid. Sunday afternoons for me meant lying on the living room floor listening to the BBC and ‘Journey to the Moon’ on the radio. It was a time when kids made their own entertainment, and I had loads of adventures. No exceptions when I was a kid. I was always getting into trouble. Many were the times when my mum would get a knock on the door, and a policeman would be standing on the step with one hand holding me up on tip-toe by the scruff of the neck and enquiring – “Is this your son?”

I remember one incident when I was a kid. Me and my gang, Charlie Whiting, Johnny Beaman, and Eric Foster, were playing on the railway lines. Of course, we were not supposed to be there, but living close to the railway was like a magnet for boys. We had our favourite spot where we hid by a line of poplar trees and loads of blackberry bushes. Those bushes were our excuse for being there. Mums loved us to pick the berries so we could all have a berry pie treat with loads of custard. Of course, we picked the berries as quickly as possible and then played our usual game of chicken.

On this particular day, a week before Christmas and with the berry bushes covered in the morning frost, we had no excuse to be there. It was pretty cold as all of us were still dressed in short trousers. In those days, boys wore their first pair of long trousers when they became teenagers. My mother had warned me not to get into trouble or make myself dirty as she wanted to take me to see my grandmother, who was too old to visit us on Christmas day. The only way I could stay out of trouble or keep clean was to stand still all day. I nodded and smiled. Minutes later, with the warning forgotten, I rounded up my mates.

As usual, we reached a field we had to cross to get to the railway and stopped behind a hedgerow to experience that fantastic high of giddiness when drawing on a ciggy and then blowing the smoke out quickly. Each time we went out, one of us would supply the ciggy, usually pinched from a father or mother’s stash. This time it was my turn, and we all looked forward to smoking my dad’s ciggy. He rolled his own, and, as I had not quite mastered the art of rolling a ciggy, my offering normally looked like a baby cigar. We all ended up sitting on the ditch bank below the hedgerow unable to move for a couple of minutes. When we did, we all had wet pants stained green by the grass.

At the end of the field, there was an access road and a wooden level crossing, open both ways, for tractors and horses that farmer Rainer used for harvesting on the other side of the tracks. To one side was the line of poplars and our ‘den.’ Periodically, the railway workers checked the lines and sometimes left materials or tools for later visits. We had found a large tarp and spread it across some bushes so that we could crawl under to hide from the odd railway inspector or the rain.

 white wooden rail fence ran the entire length of the field, separating us from the tracks. We climbed under the fence and started filling our pockets with gravel from the side of the rails. We line up several rocks on the nearest rail and then retire to the den and wait for a train to pass. The dare was that we did this in turn and whoever lay the stones had to sit on the fence as the train went by. The rocks would crack loudly as the engine ran over them, sending pieces of rock everywhere. If the layer shielded himself or jumped off the fence, he was a chicken – if he stayed still, he was a hero. Beaman lined up the first rocks and sat on the fence while the rest of us sat in the den. We didn’t have to wait long before the first train came. There were loud cracks, and we all cheered.

Unfortunately, as the last carriage went past, we came face to face with a railway worker who we had not seen over the top of the railway bank, fixing a point box. For just one second, the world stood still and then it all happened. Beaman fell off the fence, and the rest of us ran. Charlie and Eric left me way behind, and I tripped over and fell headlong into some tall grass. By this time, I could hear Beaman shouting obscenities at the worker. He came past me like a bat out of hell, leaving me brushing a lump of horse manure from my jumper. I ended my walk home by myself, vowing I would never speak to the gang again.

I was dreading getting home. This day’s events would keep me indoors until after Christmas and probably earn me good hiding from my father. When I was a kid, my father was a strict but fair man and sometimes, especially near Christmas, he would bribe me with three pence if I caught him with his hands in a pickled onion jar. My mother spent most of the year pickling onions and other goodies for Christmas, and she got furious at father if he started scrumping onions.

Luck was on my side. I got home, crept into the kitchen, and caught him red-handed eating onions with a lump of cheese. I don’t know who looked guiltier. He couldn’t shout at me or give me good hiding, or I’d grass him up, and he knew it. I stripped and put my clothes in the copper clothes washer while he ran a bath. At least I only had to face my mum. As soon as the tub was ready, my father put me in it and went to collect the jar of onions. He had to put them back in one of my mother’s hiding places around the house. He came back into the bathroom to put the jar up onto the top shelf of the airing cupboard. My mother opened the front door downstairs and my father panicked at that precise moment. The jar slipped into the bath, and onions flew in all directions. Of course, I giggled as my dad made his excuses.

Seconds later, the giggles turned to screams of pain.  My mother rushed in, looked at all the onions scattered on the floor and, with hands on hips, gave me one of those looks that warned me I’d better not be trying to get a sympathy vote. I wasn’t and gesticulated madly at my nether regions. Two hands pulled me over the side of the bath like a piece of washing, and a second later, the pain was gone. That wasn’t the end of the incident; mum always had the last word when I was a kid

All of us kids really looked forward to Christmas. Spam and chips, Beans and chips, horrible salad and pilchards – all forgotten during Christmas week. Excitement ran through the house non-stop. The house and tree looked colourful, decorated with homemade paper chains. When I was a kid, our aunts and uncles descended on us with plates of two cooked chickens, ham, jam tarts, and Victoria sponge on Christmas day. I was in heaven. Dinner was fantastic, and after, while the women washed up and talked, the men sat in armchairs and went to sleep. Of course, we kids disappeared upstairs to play

Now it just so happened that my dad looked forward to Christmas teatime after seven. With fifteen of us around the loaded table, it was a jolly affair when I was a kid. I loved the jelly and cream, cake and Christmas pudding. Father loved the salad, which included cheese and onions. My mother used to load the plates up because we couldn’t get everything on the table. Well, we got through the salad, and, as I was tucking into my jelly, my mother looked at my father and, pointing her fork at his half-eaten onion, said, “That’s a special onion you’ve got there – your son kept it warm for you.

By the way, I got my threepence.- – when I was a kid.

Flying Scotsman