Publishing this story here led to an exchange of letters with Graham Irwin who has set up a web page about Brickendon, now complete with a reference to JTS and a link back here: http://www.compassion-in-business.co.uk/brickendon/snippets.htm
First published in The Guardian on Monday 3 April, 1972.
Scanned and submitted to the site by Roger Stanger
I don’t know whether you know Brickendon in Hertfordshire. They’re planning to electrify the line now, same with the one to Royston. King Edward used to go to Brickendon for dirty weekends and my uncle Sidney George was the station master and used to meet him and his society friends in a top hat which we’ve still got in the family.
“They used to stand there where you’re standing now, boy, on a summer’s day, waiting for the special, and when they got in, the ladies I mean in their beautiful long silk dresses and their parasols, they used to leave a little jimmy riddle like as not.”
King Edward’s ladies, Uncle Sidney maintained, wore no drawers under their long finery.
“Old Ben, that was the dog we had then, you remember Ben, missis,” he would say for my Auntie Kate would be laughing at my red face in front of Brenda, “he’d go snuffling from puddle to puddle - Lady this and the Duchess of that and the Honourable Phoebe - and I’ll tell him bugger off, old ’un, they ain’t for the likes of you, they’m spoken for. Didn’t I, missis? Old Teddy were a lad, he was.”
“You shouldn’t say bugger in front of Brenda,” Auntie Katie would tell him.
Brenda would be bathing in the sunken bath in front of the open log fire if it was winter, though usually it was summer. I described this scene in a school essay once and got caned by Mr Faulkner on behalf of Miss Wilderspin. It seemed to me sometimes that I was a link with a past far more distant than my age would warrant, and I was anxious to get it down, establish it.
“King Teddy had all the maids. Or him and his friends any road. They had Tucker’s two girls, they had that little Tippit creature - she stood up in church and told everyone but they wouldn’t hear of it. Then they had Minnie Ha Ha. You remember Minnie Ha Ha, missis. That’s old Bluenose Begley’s mother who kept the Crown afore they turned it into a shop. Old Begley reckoned he had royal blood in him. That were whisky, you ask me. He made his daughters wear servant’s caps.”
“That’s all tittle tattle,’ Auntie Kate would say. “You shouldn’t say such things in front of Reg. He’s blushing like a beetroot. Are you washing your bum, Brenda?”
I was eleven and I was there to get what my mother called native air into my lungs. Sometimes my brothers and sister would come, though they didn’t need it as much as I did.
“Reg’ll never make old bones,” my mother used to say.
“You want to give him oranges with a hole cut through the middle and lumps of sugar inside - squeeze it over his mouth,” said Mrs Murphy, who was as close as we ever got to a doctor.
“Why, your mum worked at the big house,” said Uncle Sid during one of his remembrances of times past that seemed to go on through so many summers of my life, with Brenda sitting naked in the middle.
“That’s enough of that,” said Auntie Kate.
But she never stopped his mind ticking, so full of rustic relish and the possibilities of having posh blood in the family. Ever after that, he’s take my face in his hands and hold it alongside the family’s portrait of King Edward.
“Wait till Reg gets a beard,” he used to say.
On Sundays Brenda wore a pink straw hat with white daisies on the brim; seen now above her shy frown in the ancient family photo album it’s enough to bring you to tears. She didn’t affect me that way at the time.
Towards the end of my summer holiday at Brickendon in 1924, when the asters were at their best, Uncle Sid won the LNER prize for the best-kept station garden. Beds of dwarf asters were his speciality, spelling out the word Brickendon in the flower bed along by the platform. There were plenty of other flowers too prettying up the station, phlox, roses and so on and all the stone faces kept whited up.
“Simplicity,” Uncle Sid said. “That always gets ’em. You give ’em too much to look at and they don’t know their arse from their elbow.”
Besides he thought it a bad psychological thing to compete in any way with the area superintendent’s garden. That was Major Cuffley, who came up from King’s Cross to give the prize and make a speech. I still remember one bit of it that’s got a funny sort of ring to it today.
“The motor car and the aeroplane will never be more than rich men’s playthings,” he said, “but the steam engine and the horse and cart will serve the public for hundreds of years to come.”
My cousin Brenda stood on the steps of a locomotive and sang the following song:
I come from the streets of the city,
Where houses are ever so tall,
And me and my sweet sister Kitty,
Can scarce see the blue skies at all.
The streets of the city are full,
Of poor little children like me,
So please I have come
From the dark dismal slum,
The wonderful country to see.
Aunt Kate had made her dress of blue velvet out of old curtains, the unfaded side out. Over this she wore a lacy pinafore of white, with white socks and white ribbon in her hair. Watching her that hot afternoon I remember wishing that I didn’t have to sleep with her, so I could go to bed alone that night and think about her the way I thought about some of the girls at home who I never saw undressed.
“Look at his winkle,” Uncle Sid used to say when it was my turn in the bath. “Standing up there like a little old carrot.”
“You enjoy making Reg go red, Sid,” Aunt Kate said. And she said: “Wash under his foreskin, Brenda, or he’ll get a lot of old cheesey bits, else.”
Although a kindly woman and full of laughter, Auntie Kate was not very clean; being too big, perhaps, for the joys of the sunken bath. She weighed 18 stone and smelled always of old sweat. When she cooked, which was often, she would get a dew-drop on the end of her nose and I would sit there unable to leave the kitchen for fear it dropped into the mixture.
“He likes to watch, bless him,” she used to say, “but he don’t eat no more’n a bird.”
By the time she finished the cooking her hands and fingernails, grey with coal and engine smuts, became whiter than the dough. Alone with me she would talk about her life as a girl and what my mother used to get up to, her anecdotes often springing from something she was doing at the moment. The vinegar bottle would remind her that my mother almost killed herself with vinegar once.
“She wouldn’t let it alone. That turns the blood to water. All the Catesbys were vinegar drinkers. Thin and white as sticks.”
I was given the feeling, never crystalised by the tiniest fact, that Aunt Kate was not really a Catesby; was not my mother’s true sister but something vague and unspecified. Families in those days, though I was too young to know it at the time, were full of unspecified relationships. There existed among the working classes a kind of pale reflection of their betters. Girls were inclined to go “into service” in houses no grander than their own.
“Could I marry Brenda when I grow up, then?” I asked her. She stopped mixing the dough and her dew drop fell. “I don’t know about that, Reg,” she said at last. And I could see that she really didn’t know. Our relationship was all too vastly complicated and founded too long ago.
* * * * *
The photograph showing Brenda in a pink straw hat is in my sister Mary’s alms house in Friern Barnet where I go now on Sundays. It was taken in Brickendon branch line station parlour and you can still see the geraniums at the window sill and Uncle Sid’s horn loudspeaker wireless standing on Aunt Kate’s treadle sewing machine - all the status symbols in view.
“You used to cry when you came back,” Mary told me.
I did used to cry. I asked her once if our mum ever said anything about her service at Brickendon big house but she couldn’t remember.
“Did she ever see King Edward?”
She didn’t know. Mary was never interested in Brickendon or the country or her native air. She was doing the Charleston and wearing knee garters at the time being older than me. I told her about the royal goings on at Brickendon before the First World War.
“Well mum wouldn’t mention that, would she? She wouldn’t have a word said against the royal family. She used to send Queen Mary a birthday card.”
“Do you think I look like King Edward?” I couldn’t be more direct than that; I’d often hope somebody would mention the resemblance though I didn’t grow a naval beard or wear a curly-brimmed bowler till they became fashionable.
“Yes,” she said. “Everybody does.”
Mary’s approaching 70 now; strange to think that Brenda would be about 60, if she’s still alive.
Harvest time we used to go and work for Mr Beckett at Home Farm though I reckon I was more of a hindrance. Not Brenda; Brenda could do anything - horse leading, sheaving and dying, stacking, milking, ’tater digging - new ones for the Sunday roast - killing and gutting rabbits and poultry. I would tag along with her, a young townie, getting instruction.
She showed me how to trap a rabbit’s back feet in the drawer of the dresser and pull the skin off, using the knife only once, to nick around the ears. She taught me the following song:
My father died and I do not know how.
He left me six horses to follow the plough.
With a wim, waddle-o,
Jack’s lost his saddle-o,
Jackie boy, bubble-o, under the broom...
There was just the two of us in our garden of Eden, it seems to me now, and all that was missing was the serpent.
* * * * *
I don’t know whether you remember the General Strike in 1926. The only thing you noticed in a place like Brickendon was that the two trains a day stopped running. I was caught halfway between twixt and t’other on Broxbourne station with a label round my neck: “Please deliver safely to Mr Sidney George, Brickendon Station, Herts.”
“You’re too old in the snout to be labelled, boy,” said Uncle Sid when he picked me up in the dog cart.
My mother sent us everywhere by guard’s van till after we left school. That year, there being no transport, no coal, short rations, the country full of strife and drama and poverty, there was more for me and Brenda to get on with. Gleaning, we did, selling the results for chicken food around the doors and up at the mill for grinding. Peat, dug from the Cambridge fens and delivered by farm wagon and army Leylands we used to sell round the village on one of the LNER station luggage carts, me between the shafts. Trotting alongside, Brenda sang:
Horsey, cock your tail up,
Cock your tail up,
Cock your tail up,
Horsey, cock your tail up,
Keep the sun out of my eyes...
“Don’t you go learning things your Uncle Sid says,” was always one of her last-minute injunctions at the station. She’d have had a fit if she’d heard some of it or seen Brenda washing my winkle. I kept quiet about all that for I didn’t want her to stop me going. My native air became more important to me than anything else in the world.
I don’t know whether you recall the agricultural May Day fair they used to hold on Hartham Common. Uncle Sid took us that year being there weren’t any trains. There’s something about the colours of childhood that hold all the promises of life itself yet are never matched again. You’ve never seen blue ribbon until you’ve seen it on horses and cattle at a show. No, nor yellows and whites and reds and greens till you’ve seen them dancing like coloured rain around the May Pole. Snorting and trumpeting and bellowing, one against the other, the animals against the men with their megaphones, all coming and going on the wind.
“Mr Josh Beckett of Home Farm, Brickendon. First Prize with Clara, Friesian Dairy Herd...”
It was the first time I knew which one of the men I met sloshing around the farm was Mr Beckett himself. He looked like Satan dressed in a long white coat and leading the cow with its full udders along by the rope fence. Dark eyes, pointed face, thick eyebrows and a waxed moustache. He looked like the villain out of “Maria Marten” or “The Murder in the Red Barn.” I don’t know whether you remember the old Zube cough lozenge advertisement - it was pasted up on the station hoarding for as long as I visited.
Enter the villain,
His throat, just like his heart, is bad,
He smokes too many fags, the cad!
Go, suck a Zube...
Mr Beckett looked like that.
“Look Sid, look at Mr Beckett,” said Auntie Kate, “don’t he look proud.”
“Ar, dirty old goat,” said Uncle Sidney. “He only bows his head to get his horn up.”
Aunt Kate’s laughter spoilt her protest. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Our Brenda do,” said Uncle Sidney. And to the pretty girl in the pink straw hat with the daisies, he said: “Don’t never unbutton your drawers when his about, gal.” And he went on to me sitting on the other side, just as if I was a man of his own age, for that was his style: “You should have seen him in the war. Them Land Army girls coming in by the truckful and him sleeping them in his barns. All as pregnant as cows before they signed the armistice. Brickendon never saw nothing like it since King Teddy’s days...”
I took my sister Mary down to Hartham Common last May Day to see the fete, for I’ve little else to do since I left the force. We couldn’t take our eyes off the helicopters, shooting about the sky with coloured smoke pouring out their tails. They had a group with electric guitars playing the old dance: come lasses and lads. Take leave of your dads, And away to the maypole hi...
For the rest there’s not much changed, the same old band, the same Original Gypsy Lee telling the future, the river where I fell in and nearly got drowned.
“That wasn’t you,” Mary said. “That was Arthur - I pulled him out with my fishing net cane.”
I don’t argue with her: she’s getting old. And over in the Warren high up among the trees there was the top attic window of a tall mansion where during all my childhood you could see the pale face of a girl dying of consumption.
That year as there were no newspapers, neither the nationals nor The Mercury, old Tommy Tippit, the one whose daughter had stood up in church and complained of outrage at the big house, came round on his bike in his tricorn hat crying the news and ringing his bell. O Yez! O Yez! and all about the strike and how many people had gone to prison for stoning the blacklegs and the Prince of Wales breaking his collar bone again at polo. Whenever I want a bit of real peace I think of Brickendon in the strike with no papers and no post and no worries except for old Tommy Tippit who you could drown out by turning up the wireless.
“Turn it off a minute!” said Uncle Sid. “Listen!”
“What’s he on about?” said Auntie Kate.
The town crier was on about a sale at the Home Farm, and suddenly my Uncle Sydney was behaving like a mad thing, jumping up and spilling over his tea, his chair falling backwards, running out. And running in again a minute late saying: “Dang me! Dang me! Gimme some more tea, missis. Bloody vegetables!”
It was a sale of farm produce that was being announced. There was no way of getting it to market and nobody to handle it even if they did.
Auntie Kate explained to me, seeing she thought I’d been frightened: “He’s after that bit of land across the line, Reginald.”
* * * * *
I don’t know whether you ever drove a railway trolley. You’ve got to do it when you’re 13 to get the best out of it. Brenda one side, me the other, pumping this lever up and down, standing on nothing but a platform with the sleepers rushing under us and the rickety clatter of the rail joins. Uncle Sid and Aunt Kate had gone round to Home Farm to do the buying, we were on our way to collect, for the rail went right down the side of the dairy sheds.
“We’ve got the whole railway to ourselves!” cried Brenda, her long hair flopping up and down as she pumped. “We could go to Scotland!”
“We could go to the seaside!”
I had seen the sea twice in my life; Brenda had never seen it. Brenda had seen the Great Bed at Ware, Ryehouse Park and an airship. There wasn’t the money for travelling. People stayed where they were or emigrated to the colonies.
“Oh yez! Oh yez!” she cried, to the trees, the standing cows, the stationary world.
Where the railway passed through the disused gravel workings was where the best strawberries grew. The earth was young over the red sand and full of colourful sapling life, sweet grass, wild flowers and creepers that ran scarlet across the dunes of red and green. And there were pools that stayed clear and cold even on the hottest July day.
This was the place, midway between Home Farm and Brickendon station where the strike-enforcers, a plate-laying gang from Hoddeson, most like had removed two whole sections of the line.
“Look out, boy!” Brenda cried, for she was facing it and I wasn’t. “Use the brake!”
And I don’t know whether you ever tried to use the handbrake on a railway trolley on a down gradient. You need all the strength of a man to press the brake bar down against its spring and then lodge it under the locking slot. I got it three parts down before it slipped in my sweaty hands and came up and hit me in the balls - at the same time we went off the rails.
That part of my anatomy which my mother called “down below” and Uncle Sidney called “your courting tackle” has never fully recovered from that excruciatingly painful accident. Oh yes, its always worked at the proper time, though I’ve never, so far as I know, fathered any children and in the force I got no higher than sergeant although the potential was there.
“Try to put your knees down,” said Brenda.
I was curled on my side in the grass, tight as a hedge-hog, my hands pressing into my groin, afraid to know what had happened, what was screwing all my insides into a ball and pulling them down through my crutch on cords of pain as taut as tent lines. It was an hour before I could put my knees down and let Brenda take off my trousers.
“You’ll be alright, boy,” she kept saying.
What she did then, after a little frown, a little thought, was to take off her drawers and soak them in cold water from one of the gravel springs. This cold, wet poultice she applied to my private parts and numbed them for blessed minutes.
“Is that better?” she said.
Three cold compresses she gave me with her wet drawers, then she hung them over the warm rusty steel line to dry. When she came back I closely examining the damage. There was nothing to see, being all so soft and yielding.
The serpent, disturbed by having half a ton of railway trolley fall on its grassy world, now slithered up onto the embankment, reared its puny green head in search of a path, then pushed itself up the leg of Brenda’s damp drawers and vanished over the line.
“Kiss me, boy,” she said suddenly.
I came into her hand as we kissed and it was the first time. Mr Beckett sat on the line where we’d last seen the grass snake. He was holding Brenda’s drawers and looking down at us like Satan himself. Brenda got up.
She said: “Can you help us put the trolley back on the line, Mr Beckett ?”
He didn’t say anything.
“My cousin Reg hurt himself,” she said then.
Mr Beckett said: “Does your dad know what you get up to?”
She told him we were on our way to pick up some vegetables from his farm, but we knew he wasn’t thinking about that. He held up the damp drawers.
“Supposing I show him these, then?”
“They’re not mine.” Brenda said. “We found them. Didn’t we Reg?”
“Yes,” I said. I was the biggest liar in the force.
“Let’s have a look at what you’re wearing then,” said Mr Beckett.
Brenda said: “I’ll tell my dad.”
“If you don’t I will,” said the farmer. “Cone on, girl. Pull up your clouts.”
Brenda just stood there. I got off the ground and put on my trousers.
“You come over here boy and sit down,” said Josh Beckett. “Now you pull your clouts up or I’ll tell P.C. Ray what I saw.”
“We weren’t doing nothing,” Brenda said.
“You’re on my land,” he said. “Indecent behaviour and committing a trespass. You could go to a reformatory school. Now let’s have a look if these aren’t yours.”
Slowly Brenda pulled up her summer dress and the pinafore over it till we could see above her knees.
“Git ’em up, come on,” said Satan.
When I first wrote in for details how to be a policeman it was following my urge born at this moment of helplessness. Innocence in peril and a beast at large and me too small and frightened to do anything. Soon Brenda was showing everything she’d got and it was the first time I noticed the hair over her fanny. Mr Beckett too seemed amazed.
“How old are you, girl?”
“Sixteen,” Brenda said.
“That’s time you were up and doing,” said Mr Beckett. “Stead of playing about with little boys.”
He threw her her damp drawers and she put them on. He went to the trolley and started to right it; I helped him; Brenda came and joined us in the lifting.
“It’s time your dad found you a good place, girl,” said Mr Beckett, and there was a kindness in his voice that seemed to upset Brenda more than the other business.
I’d had my horn up now and had moved closer to understanding my uncle. But something more precious had been lost. Bath nights became less of a frolic and finally were taken separately behind shut doors. The last time we bathed together in the living room Uncle Sid upset Brenda with one of his jokes.
“Feel her titty, boy,” he told me.
“You shouldn’t, Sid. She’s a big girl now. Just let Reg feel your titty, Brenda, for your dad.”
As I gently squeezed the nipple on her breast there was the sound of a horn blowing. I did it again and again the horn, my aunt and uncle laughing at my expression. Uncle Sidney had the small squeeze-horn he used for starting trains. Instead of laughing, however, Brenda jumped up out of the sunken bath and ran crying out of the room and up to her bedroom - for we were already sleeping in different beds now.
“Now look what you’ve done, Sid. She’s started her rags - she’s not a child,” said my Aunt.
Uncle Sid brooded for a moment in silence, which was not like him; then he said: “I’ll have to get that bit of land.” Which may sound like sheep and apples, but comes from knowing that as girls turn into women, men turn into pensioners.
Only other thing I remember doing with Brenda was breaking into the big house one afternoon when we were up there scrumping fruit. I may not have mentioned it but the estate had been broken up since the grand days of royal parties and goings on. The Home Farm was now owned by a dairy company and Mr Beckett was part of that.
The great mansion, turreted in grey stone, that once had commanded the entire countryside, now stood derelict and empty, isolated on its island of overgrown terraces, the garden, the orchard, the lake all covered in rot and decay.
“They say it’s just the way they left it,” said Brenda. “All the furniture and everything. I’d like to see inside the ballroom.”
“I’d like to see inside King Edward’s bedroom,” I said. Funny thing is I wouldn’t have whether this was before or after I got hit in the crutch, except I remember clearly I had the new feeling for my cousin and kept wanting to put my hands on her.
“Let’s just try the doors,” she said.
We got in through a french window that pushed open without any effort. The place was beautifully furnished and filthy dirty. There was massive inlaid furniture and marble clocks and silverware and great portraits on the walls watching us wherever we went.
I’ve seen nothing quite so rich, nothing that so much separates us from them; except once when we were called on a false alarm to the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.
Standing there together in the ballroom, holding hands, dusty kings danced again with dusty ladies; and up in the gold bedrooms duchesses took their drawers off again. So did Brenda, there on the royal bed. I can’t remember what it was like, only that it was important to both of us - and we never did it again, not with each other.
“I love you, Brenda,” I said.
“I love you, boy,” she said. “But don’t tell dad. If he makes me go into service I shall run away.”
I think she knew, for it was the pattern of our lives, that she was soon to be exchanged for a bit of land.
* * * * *
In my job as a policeman I’ve got to say this; whenever I came up against young people in trouble with the law I had a bit of sympathy for them. You do things in a spirit of rebellion that you’re ashamed of even while you’re doing it. Sometimes when it seems there’s no future you lay hands on the bit that’s directly available. In an unlocked bureau in the master’s study we found a set of ancient coins made of some sort of chalk or clay. They were nested in red baize in a long box with a glass top and labelled “Roman coins at the time of Christ.” We took them and we took a leather roll of silver cutlery, two silk dresses, a gold-framed hand mirror and a gold-backed brush to match and some books that were on the floor in one of the bedrooms - “Dusty Diamonds Cut and Polished,” “Kidnapped,” “Coral Island” and “Little Women.” We tipped out the army rucksack of apples and plums on the terrace outside and stuffed the treasures in it.
“I bet it’s worth a hundred pounds,” I said.
“We’ve got to hide them somewhere,” Brenda said.
There was no joy in it, I remember that. We walked back down the drive towards the lane and we were miserable with fear. Then in the lane we met old Alf, driving the cows from the top field back to the farm.
“Got an apple?” he said.
Alf the cowman was not old, only about 30 and a bit simple. When he wasn’t working at the farm he used to go round the village mending cane-bottomed chairs.
“We been wooding,” Brenda told him, and ran.
I ran after her. We circled back through the grounds and we threw the rucksack full of its antique treasures far out into the stagnant lake. Then we went home, unhappy, silent, full of secrets.
Copyright © the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2002. Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.