'Twas the last day of school before Christmas, and lots of sounds could be heard, even a mouse(trap..)
The last day of school before Christmas, and back in the day when school uniforms were not a thing, at least not at my primary school in rural Devon, so we'd get dressed a little bit smarter than usual and take real pride in it. Some kids even worse ties and the girls would often put on their best dresses.
Now and then, a special day came along and I practically ran to school - sports day, the school play, and the last day before we broke up for Christmas. Every kid was just desperate for the next few days to fly by, but going into school on that day was a special one because this was when we could bring in own toys and games. As I left my house in the chilly Dartmoor drizzle, I'd spot the other kids making their way through the estate.
"Alright Scott, What did you bring?"
"I've got Ker Plunk and Domino Rally, how about you?"
"I've got Monopoly and Top Trumps."
Everything was skill back then.
The weather, in typical Dartmoor fashion, was often gloomy and wet, but that added to the atmosphere in many ways. The village Christmas lights were nothing more than a few coloured lightbulbs on a line between the shops, but it still felt magical. There was a smell of coal fires in the air, and as we walked to school, we'd point out all the Christmas trees in the windows.
"Hello Mr Edginton, Merry Christmas!" as we walked into the classroom and gave him a card. Some kids had been there for ages and set up their various games, but a couple of the kids were always there early - too early - because they were turfed out and didn't have the best life at home. "Mr Edge" had put some carols on, and it wasn't long before the classroom was alive with the sound of rolling dice, Connect 4, laughter, kids counting out loud.."1, 2, 3, 4....I'll buy it!" and "Was it Professor Plum, in the kitchen, with the rope?" Some kids were playing with their Action Men or Sindy dolls, whilst others brought card games and made dens under the tables.
Everyone handed out Christmas cards, except for a couple of kids who always seemed to be on the periphery of everything, the same kids who were at school before the classroom door was even unlocked. These two had it really tough and on so many levels, and there always seemed to be a sadness in their eyes.
We were a mixed bag of kids, but on the whole we all got on quite well. You had the kids from the farms, those whose parents had a fair bit of cash, the estate crowd (of which I was one), the established local kids whose names went back generations in the village, and then sadly, the kids like Stephen and Donna who just seemed to be there, lurking in the background, never really joining in nor wanting to. They were in our class - but not really, if you know what I mean.
They didn't bring any games with them because they didn't have any, and they wore the same clothes every day, which was evident on more than one level, and some kids would let them know in a very direct way - it was very sad to witness. Stephen (we later found out) was being knocked about and up to all sorts of unmentionable things. He ended up committing the most terrible crimes you can imagine, which resulted in a very lengthy prison sentence.
We all went from table to table to play games, whether it was a long game of Cluedo or a bit of a laugh with Buckeroo. Then suddenly, one kid would rush back from the steamed-up windows.
"He's coming! He's coming!"
We all darted to the window knocking chairs flying and bits from board games. We all wiped the windowd to see, and there in a very hastily put together Father Christmas costume was our headmaster, carrying over his shoulder an old potato sack. With his cotton wool beard just about clinging to his face with sticky tape, he proceeded to hand out presents. We knew what was coming, it was the same every year, but we still loved it. Satsumas and nuts, and we ate them with relish. I remember Stephen just wandering around the room, back and forth like a bored zoo animal doing loops around its cage.
"Thank you Father Christmas!", we all shouted, and off he went in the Devon drizzle holding on to his heard and into the next classroom. Mr Edge put on Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin Stevens, and whenever I hear that opening few seconds, I'm back in the classroom with boardgames and the smell of satsumas. It only amounted to roughly four hours, but what a four hours it was.
I was totally split between not wanting the day to end, but also desperate to get home, and when we did finally leave, you could cut the excitement with a knife.
As I headed back to my house with my little stack of cards and Monopoly box in a Tesco carrier bag, I really was walking in the air, I only wish the same could have been said for Donna and Stephen.
Cycling home from Colin's house on a February afternoon back in ’85. Wet leaves along the narrow lanes, naked hedgrows high, a chilly wind from Dartmoor, a smell of snow in the air. Fingers raw. Crows caw under a crimson sky as the distant bells of St Petroc's ring out. A tractor passes by. A smell of manure. Wellies thick with mud. Socks wet.
Along the lanes of South Brent on my BMX, brakes squealing. Scarf up to my nose. Parker hood up.
My clothes and hair thick with woodsmoke, we'd made a fire at the end of Colin's field. Icy drizzle now. The smell of fish and chips on Station Rd, the sound of a deep fat fryer.
Through the village and past my school, not a car in sight on Exeter Road, just the bus to Plymouth, all the windows steamed up. Someone somewhere is burning old tyres. The Corona lorry passes me by. No lights on my bike but they're on at the police station. Pedalling faster now. Into the estate, a smell of roast dinner. A thumbs up from Richard’s brother in his red Cortina.
Past Scott's house, they’ve got the telly on. Down the hill, braking hard, and home at last. Dad is in the garage fixing the old Rover again. Kicking off wet wellies at the door. Warmth. Grandstand is on, final score. “Albion won” says Mum, “Give Grandad a call later.” She smells my hair. Time for a bath. Vosene. Matey. The sound of a dripping tap. A Stormtrooper and Matchbox car covered in foam. Head under the water. My world is silent for a few seconds.
Out. A thick cotton towel. Pajamas. Dressing gown. Downstairs to the phone. Extractor fan on. “Tenby 2392” says the voice on the other end. “Oh Hi Grandad, Albion won!” Mum smiles. Roast chicken for dinner. Dad washes the oil from his hands. “I think it might snow”, he says.
And that night, it fell thick and fast. The next day, we sledged until it was dark.
There was more than just snow in the air, there was magic. You could really smell it.
We’re back from midnight mass. As I open the door of our old Rover, I see my frosty breath as I impersonate a steam train. The sky is clear and the stars are putting on a show for free. Christmas tree lights in the window across the road. The sound of front door closing, just as we opened ours. Once in the house, we're hit with a delicious smell of turkey - it's been roasting since we went to mass and will continue slowly throughout the night. Mince pies are on a tray. “Tomorrow”, says Mum.
From the turkey to the tree as the rich aroma of Norwegian spruce fills our tiny living room. A tin of Quality Street on the coffee table, a bowl of nuts, a pack of dates, some After Eights, and a net of satsumas. It’s not a lot, but it’s everything.
A string of Christmas cards across one wall of the living room with the larger ones on the coffee table beside our little black and white telly. There’s silver and red tinsel on the tree, tiny coloured lights, satin baubles, wooden toys, plus some Father Christmas chocolates.
My bedroom - strewn with thin strands of left over tinsel from wall to wall and affixed by lumps of blue tack. I put on my Star Wars pajamas and slide under my duvet.
I can taste the Blue Minty Gel toothpaste as I listen to my parents getting ready for bed. After a kiss goodnight, my light is out and I struggle to fall asleep.
When I next open my eyes, it's 5am. There...at the door, is a pillowcase with presents. They'll be a few more under the tree, but Father Christmas always made a special delivery to my bedroom door. I knew it was my parents, and they knew that I knew, but we all kept the magic alive for as long as possible.
Mum and dad appeared at the door, yawning and bleary-eyed, but putting on a good act as I start to open presents, reading out-loud the messages on the little tags.
Beezer and Dandy annuals, an Action Man plane, a model car, a chocolate selection box, a West Brom diary, a joke book, An Action Force soldier, a teddy, a remote control car, a siren for my BMX, and my stocking with chocolate coins, a couple of satsumas, some nuts, and a yo-yo. I’m a lucky boy, I thought, as I sat in my bed of gifts under a sea of paper and tags.
It was more than just the presents for me, it was decorating the cake, playing board games on the last day of school, buying the Radio and TV Times from the village newsagent, decorating the tree together, and waiting to see Dad drive down the hill on his last day of work. He’d flash the headlights as he pulled into the drive.
They headed back to bed and I ate chocolate coins and satsumas as I read my annuals. Eventually I do drop off, and I'm awoken by the sound of mum downstairs singing Bing Crosby. I look outside and hope for snow, but not yet. Jason is riding his new BMX in the rain.
Dad is shaving and listening to carols on Radio 2 with his tiny radio - I pop in to give him a hug and a kiss as he taps his razor on the sink.
I race downstairs with my Action Man in hand. The tree lights are on. I can smell the wrapping paper. I hold mum tightly as the Bing music plays. Dad is here now, smelling of shaving cream and soap. We have tea and toast as we unwrap our presents. Outside, it’s a mixture of sleet and rain. Our little electric fire is also on, and the faux coal gives off a beautiful glow. Behind our house is the edge of Dartmoor which is covered in the lightest dusting of snow.
There we were, just the three of us in our little house in South Brent back in 1983. It might be in the past, but I can go back there whenever I want, all I have to do is close my eyes.
The smell of creosote and freshly cut grass was carried by a warm summer breeze as Scott and I cycled through Brakefield, the new-build housing estate in South Brent made up of white pebble-dash houses and bungalows. It was the first Saturday of the summer holidays in 1985, we were 10 and the days ahead were warm and wonderous.
Scott, my best friend, was on his Raleigh Striker, and I was on my red BMX, freshly washed that very morning and gleaming in the afternoon sun. We drove up onto the pavement but soon had to bunny-hop back onto the road as a section was blocked by traffic cones and a line of plastic tape between them. A deep and warm smell of tar filled the air as we pedaled by.
We spotted Colin and Richard on their Raleigh Burners and immediately headed their way, shouting their names as we approached and pulling hard on our back brakes to see who could leave the longest skid marks. “That was skill”, I said to Scott. “SO skill!”, he replied, as we looked back with pride at the rubber trails behind us.
There was Richard with his yellow and blue Burner and Colin with his gold one, which glistened in the summer sunshine. Wearing nothing but shorts and trainers, the four of us sat on our bikes as the sun dried the beads of sweat on the back of my hair. We gathered around Richard, who showed us his wad of Panini stickers, and as he flicked through them, we spotted the ones we needed to complete our respective albums. “Got…got…swap ya…got…ooh, John Barnes..."
“Beep beep!” shouted a boy of around six as he drove past us erratically on his bright yellow go-kart, weaving left and right along the pavement and then cutting across his lawn and disappearing out of sight down the side of his house.
Earlier in Scott’s back garden, we’d played with Star Wars figures in his shed, then soaked each other with the hose, just after his Dad had cut the lawn. Our legs were itchy and covered in blades of cut grass, which we had thrown at each other in huge clumps. The water in my grass-covered Velcro trainers squelched against my soles as I straddled my BMX and looked up at airline contrails. It made me think of my dad, 4,000 miles away in Oman, and I wondered what he was up to right now and if he was thinking of me.
Across from where we had gathered, a recently washed Sierra dried off as the puddles of water on the driveway gave off a smell akin to that of an approaching rainstorm.
It was still very warm as the removals men hauled open the back of the truck to reveal tea crates, white goods, and a deep wall of boxes, and I thought back to the excitement I had when we arrived. A few days later, this new boy called Jason joined in with cops and robbers, building dens in the nearby fields and constructing bike ramps out of anything we could get our hands on.
A Bedford ice cream truck playing Greensleeves turned into the estate, and with it, the familiar sound of Greensleeves. Some of us had a few coins in our damp pockets, so we took off on our next pursuit after the van, pedaling furiously to be the first in line. As soon as the sliding window was opened, we were hit with the sweet smell of vanilla ice cream. "Right, lads, what can I get you?”
Our lips had turned the shade of our ice pops, and we all stuck out our coloured tongues as juice dribbled down the plastic wrapper and onto our pale, skinny legs. We tilted our heads back to get the last remaining drop. A Flymo lawnmower fell silent as Greensleeves started up once more and the van made its way to the next cul-de-sac. That night, my window was slightly ajar to let in the light evening breeze. It was half-light outside, but dark enough for me to make out the ET and Ghostbusters glow-in-the-dark stickers on my headboard. My Airfix Concorde, hanging from the ceiling with a piece of fishing line, gently swayed from side to side as I listened to the distant and distinctive sound of an Intercity 125 train.
My eyes grew heavy as I held my Harry Heathrow bear, and I wondered what had happened to my tee shirt. Ah yes, I thought – Scott’s garden—it wouldn’t be the first time. The television was on downstairs, and as I turned toward the wall and closed my eyes, I heard a muffled "And it's goodnight from me, and it's goodnight from him."