Dirty weeds dusted grey and hot yellow sunshine yielding the stench of a semi-stagnant river. We were very small and very wild my sister and I. She was much younger than me but I was not protective of her. And actually she wasn’t so wild. She cried a lot and whined that she was too cold/hot/hungry/thirsty, agitated always about anything, something. Mummy’s girl. Sometimes she didn’t come with us. She stayed indoors sucking her thumb and twirling her hair content to be cute and smiley with the grownups instead. She was only four or five and so very sweet when she wasn’t agitating. And she was really too small to enjoy the herd of grubby boys and girls who all ran too fast, shouted too loud, roaming loose in the broken teeth of derelict buildings. Too small to enjoy anarchic wasteland of destroyed buildings, our maybe deadly playground.
Prefabs they were. Put up after the war to house those who had survived the Blitz and the after-blitzes that kept on coming until they didn’t come any more. Prefabs made of steel frames with asbestos panels. They were grey with green paint on the steel and on the inside skirting boards. Green steel kitchens with fold up tables and a door to the outside. Steel sinks and indoor toilets. Mansized bathtubs and hot running water. When it was cold they stank of kerosene from the little blue flamed heaters sitting in the middle of the room. When it was hot everyone stayed outside in the sun, on the steps, in tattered stripey deckchairs.
The skies that last summer were always blue, brittle, hard and endless. Timeless. Just now. And the winters then were always snowy and cold and full of promise: Christmas and birthdays all happening in the chill and quiet of white days and black nights that went on so very long and the excitement of what was yet to come. But that was then.
It was the early sixties, and they were tearing down the prefabs and we used to roam amongst the ruins inhaling asbestos laden dust and dirt, and we squabbled amongst ourselves arguing over who saw the treasures first, who first could claim the shattered window diamonds that made your fingers bleed, the left over pots holey and rusting and who would dare to wade in the river, sink into the mud, get bitten by mosquitoes thick in their venom and greed. We were six or eight children displaced and abandoned by our mothers and their determination to frame their own independent lives, wanting to learn to drive, to travel, to be single again. We were left with a couple of sisters who had no interest in framing different lives. They stayed at home looking after children, keeping the housekeeping money out of the hands of men who liked to hit and drink and drink and hit and whose pained stories we never heard. The two sisters cooked us corned beef hash that was mostly mash striped with pink strands of what the tin said was corned beef. It dissolved into nothing and might have been nutritious. Sometimes it was sausages and mash. One sausage, blackened and split and fat. Always mash or boiled. Mince with carrots and my sister picked them out and gave them to me. I gave her my sausage in small secret chunks or she stole them. Puddings were something that might have been blancmange or Angel Delight. Well named and you can still buy it so it’s stood the test of times and tastes for decades.
In some trashed prefabs we found electricity cables rearing up snakelike and forked of tongue. We would dare each other to touch the soft black rubber, warm to the touch. No not there. Touch the tongue. I did once and thrown back onto a pile of damp and dusty bits of building almost started to cry, but I could see them all laughing so I laughed too. Only my sister was crying, but she was always crying so it didn’t count. When we told them about the sparky snake the sisters shouted at us not to play on the building ruins and to go and wash our hands for dinner. Dinner. Not lunch. Dinner.
They dolloped out the steaming food as we sat silent at the table, water in beakers, plates cold and waiting and we were all to keep quiet as we ate, or there would be a wooden spoon to the back of the head. Persistent talking would mean removal from the table and a slipper, hard and sharp and it made you cry so that was why we never spoke, just ate our way through the mushy food from one side of the plate to the other and it was always mushy and dingy looking. No colour on the plate. Veg that was boiled to nothing and lifeless meats or fish fingers, in muted shades of grey. And there was always water drfting about the plate, glistened and globuled with fat and everyone mashed the mush into the watery gravy to soak up every drop and to leave the plate clean. My sister would eat my meat for me, taking stealthy forkfuls when all eyes were down and concentrating on the mashing. I ate her vegetables, stole them in the same way. It was a pact.
Much later in a strange country where no one spoke English and where we were alone, we carried on sharing our food like this. And although we both cried everynight in slow lost sniffles, we never talked about the prefabs or the deceiving blue of that last summer. We still haven’t done. It’s a pact.