When I was six, seven and eight, Saturdays were always housework. Usually, that meant spending all morning cleaning and tidying. There was dusting my stepdad’s collection of beer taps (what? Your house wasn’t full of these?) and my mum’s… random collection of shite like an owl dressed to play cricket draped with random offcuts of hers and my stepdad’s hair. They were allowed to grow their hair long and then cut bits off and decorate the house with them. I wasn’t.
There was the dreaded washing up, which I despised but had been lumbered with since I was big enough to stand on a little plastic chair to do it. I hated it because I detested standing still. There was folding and putting away laundry which I quite liked because it got me out and about around the house. And there was pegging stuff on the washing line, which was also a nice change of scene.
When I’d done as much as a small child could reasonably contribute, I was sent out to play while the grown-ups and my baby sister did other stuff. No idea what. Wasn’t there.
So it was that when I’d woken up on one particularly cloudy Saturday morning, I decided I wanted to wear a dress. I didn’t like trousers much; as an adult I’ve learned to tolerate them, but I’ll never feel the same about a pair of jeans as I do about a big fifties circle skirt or a floor-length tweed number. I was a bit fed up of only ever being allowed to wear my trousers so on this particular day I put on my green corduroy dress with the little red flowers beneath a white Peter Pan collar.
It didn’t look like anything special, and it was just the sort of dress described in many-an-Enid Blyton adventure. Girls named Bessie always wore dresses in adventures.
I did all my housework in the dress, paired with some thick red wooly tights. No one said anything. Perfect. Maybe I’d wear it more often.
There was a knock at the back door. I’d been expecting it. I opened it and Sarah-next-door and her brother Andy (of some of the other misadventures) were standing outside. At least one of them usually called for me at some point on a Saturday.
“Are you playing?” Sarah asked.
I wasn’t sure if I was allowed out yet.
“Mum, can I go across ‘ fields?” I asked. My entire life revolved around the answer to this question.
“Who with? Andy?” My mum didn’t love Andy.
“Sarah’s going too.”
If Sarah was going, I was usually allowed out. My mum had this bizarre idea that Sarah was responsible and safe to look after me. Sarah was four months older than me.
“A’rate.” That’s Cheadle for all right.
Before she could change her mind, I skipped off out, still wearing the green dress and now a pair of pink wellies and my purple coat.
The brook was the main geographical feature of Cheadle. At least, it was when I was little. I’ve already mentioned the time we tried (and failed) to chart it in its entirety. This happened a long time before that.
We went across the massive bowl-shaped field and straight to a part of the brook that was narrow with a bit of an embankment on either side.
“This is perfect for brook jumping,” Sarah said.
“I’ll go first.” Andy took a run and leapt over the fast-running water.
Sarah followed. Then me.
That’s basically brook jumping. You jump from one side of a brook to the other. At the time, it was the most exciting thing ever.
What made it even more exciting was the fact we’d been categorically told not to do it. At any possible opportunity, my mum would regale me with the same word-for-word story about how her friend had jumped off the side of the brook and broken both his legs when they were little.
I’d listened carefully. The moral was to avoid the bit with concrete sides, where it had happened. That was in the complete opposite direction, three fields away.
We had all made it safely across the brook and now we were on the Other Side. This was minorly scary because it meant at some point we’d have to cross again to get home. After exploring the fields a bit, including looking at this random island full of grass (we couldn’t get to it across the water) and a big row of trees that looked like it ought to be a field boundary, but it wasn’t (I didn’t know about oxbow lakes until I was quite a bit older), it was time to go back.
Being sensible, Sarah decreed that we should use a big wooden beam tangled up in barbed wire that spanned the brook. It seemed like a safe alternative to brook jumping.
I started across the beam. I had to go first because I’d gone last when we’d jumped across earlier. Halfway across, my dress got stuck in some barbed wire. I tried to untangle myself, lost my balance, and the dress ripped as I fell into the water.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of landing in cold running water on a cold, cloudy day. It’s a cold that bites all the way through to your skin. I climbed straight back out.
“Y’a’rate?” Are you all right?
“I fell in.” It was one of the most redundant things I’ve ever said in my life. I was dripping and freezing. The kind of cold that makes you feel like you’ll never be warm again.
“C’mon. We’d better go home,” Sarah said. This was why she was the sensible one. Left to ourselves, Andy and I might have kept playing until I died of pneumonia.
We picked our way back across the fields. The whole time, my wellies sploshed and squelched. When we got back, I was still dripping and I knew I was going to be in Deep Trouble if I just walked into the house and soaked all the carpets.
I knocked. I didn’t really want to, because part of me thought I might get away with going straight upstairs and getting changed before my mum saw how soaked through I was. But the dress was ripped and there would be questions, and anyway, I wasn’t sure you could wash something when it was ripped or if you were supposed to sew it back together first to stop all the seams fraying and the whole thing unravelling into a big pile of thread.
The door opened. My mum’s face… it was quite bad.
“Don’t move.” She disappeared and came back with a carrier bag. “Put it all in there. You’re in Big Trouble.”
I didn’t like Big Trouble. It was worse than Trouble, which was troubling. I wondered if I was going to get hit. She closed the door again.
First, the wellies came off. I poured the water out of them down the drain with the little black grille, where the kitchen sink’s waste pipe emptied into the sewers. I put them by the doorstep because they would dry out by themselves.
I took the dress off and finally saw the extent of the rip. I’d never damaged an item of clothing before, so it seemed ginormous. I scrunched it into the bag. I peeled my tights off and put them in the bag, too. Shivering in my wet knickers and vest, I knocked on the door again. She opened it and sighed.
“I only meant the dress! Come in! Anyone could see you!” She pulled me into the house and sent me upstairs to finish undressing and have a bath. It was the first time in my life when I’d had a bath and not spent an hour playing in it. I knew I was in Big Trouble and didn’t have an appetite for playing or lingering in the warm water. When I was clean, I got dressed. In trousers, this time.
During the resulting two-hour lecture, I got told in graphic detail about how I could have ended up dead in a ditch being eaten by fishes whilst being on fire. I don’t know where she learned about this stuff, but it was worrying because at no point had I seen any fish in the brook and she got really mad when I asked where we could find some.
My mother was adamant that this was my best dress. I’d thought my peach silky bridesmaid dress or the white bridal-type one I’d worn for First Communion were more likely to be my best dress. Or the nice flowery one with a faded Laura Ashley label that had come from my cousin Laura. Sarah-next-door’s best dress was flowery and had a hula hoop in the hem. There was nothing about this plain green dress that suggested it was best. It didn’t even have a fake petticoat!
That annoyed me because if I’d known this was my best dress I would have worn the First Communion one that day and maybe been in less trouble. Adult logic tells me that my mum was exaggerating for dramatic effect, as she was known to do, but at the time I didn’t know this, so I was miffed because I would have preferred to wear a proper froofy princess dress if I was going to be in Big Trouble over it.
I got hit (but only a bit) and grounded for a month, during which the weather stayed cold and I read a lot of books. When it was over, the sun was starting to come back and there were more misadventures to have across the fields.
I also had to repair the dress myself, but it wasn’t much of a punishment because I liked sewing.
Although, now I write it down, it does beg the question, had no one in the house looked at me all morning before I went out to play? Had no one noticed I was in this dress?
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