Writer Andrew Brownlow grew up in Eccleston, and has written a story about an incident from his childhood. The piece takes place during the run up to the general election of 31 March 1966. Harold Wilson was MP for Huyton, with Eccleston at the time within his constituency’s boundaries.
HAROLD WILSON IN CHAPEL LANE
By Andrew Brownlow
‘You’re always in the wars,’ she said.
I like the smell of TCP. She swabbed it on. It stung – still smelled nice though. When it dried, she put a plaster over.
I said, ‘Going to show Dad now.’
I ran down our hall, then remembered to limp. He didn’t really look though. Mr Wooldridge was talking to him, frowning like something was all dead important.
‘Right here,’ he went, ‘in our own back yards. Imagine it, George!’
‘What is?’ I asked.
He turns his head and looks right at you. You hear him in sermons every week. You think he’ll talk about God all the time – the good book George, the Lord’s own will – a big hand patting. He doesn’t though – not always. He talks to Mum and Dad like they’re proper people.
He went, ‘Ever heard the adage, ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ young man?’
You never know when he’s joking either. I just blinked back – it’s not his house. I went, ‘What’s in our back yard?’
You see his mouth twitch. He likes you talking back cause he’s sort of rude too. And David gets away with loads, so you think it’s alright to do it as well.
‘The election,’ he said. ‘You’ll find it quite boring.’
Saying what you’ll think so it makes you want not to. It didn’t make sense though.
Dad – ‘For the Labour Party – they’re holding a meeting, at Chapel Lane.’
‘In the school.’
– ‘The infants school?’
‘Not for you lot though – for grown-ups,’ said the Vicar.
– ‘Why Chapel Lane, though?’ It seemed stupid.
Dad said, ‘Schools are publicly owned.’
‘Let this shower carry on and everything not nailed down will be publicly owned. Churches next, you mark my words George. And that man’s the worst.’
‘Who is?’ I went.
Dad said, ‘Harold Wilson.’
I sat on our modern settee, picking at my plaster. ‘You mean – Harold Wilson at Chapel Lane School?’
Then I felt all stupid. I knew I’d sounded stupid – he’s on the telly, in London. Only Dad just smiled. ‘Right here, in Eccleston.’
‘In our own back yards.’ The Vicar, grinning. ‘Tell you one thing, George. I’ll not have that lot parking on Christ Church grounds. They can leave their cars in the road. I’m locking the gates!’
‘You know the Beatles come from Liverpool?’
Stephen Williams tutted. ‘Everyone knows that.’
‘I know,’ I said, ‘only I didn’t know it was funny. That they come from Liverpool, and it’s only in Lancashire.’
He blinked under his straggly fringe.
‘So it’s the same with Harold Wilson,’ I said. ‘Why’s he coming here?’
‘Why shouldn’t he?’
‘Seems daft though – Chapel Lane.’
We’d walked along the stream across from the Vicarage. Some of the trees were coming in leaf, all bright and light, uncurling. We sat on the grassy bandstand in the church field – grass wet on my bum. I lifted up my knees.
His head stuck out from his furry-edged Parka. ‘Did you see on the news?’
You pull back a plaster and the scab looks soft – all the skin round it’s white, like fingers in a bath. I went, ‘News is boring.’
You watch Blue Peter – John Noakes climbing steeples and Peter Purvis in comfy sweaters. Valerie Singleton pursing her lips – two used match sticks and half a Fairy Liquid bottle. There’s a dog called Shep and a bitch called Sheba – they don’t say she’s a bitch though, just a girl dog. Another one’s Tomorrow’s People, which it’s children with a time machine. It’s supposed to be good – they’re a secret special force. But they’re kids and you know they can’t do that. You like How! with Fred Dineage, and on Fridays it’s Crackerjack cause it starts, ‘If it’s Friday, it must be Crackerjack!’
Then Dad watches news, so I do something else.
‘I know,’ Stephen said, ‘but someone threw an egg. Right at him! Right at Harold Wilson!’
We laughed loads.
I went, ‘Your dad’s Conservative, isn’t he?’
He said, ‘Everyone’s is.’
I picked at some scab edge. ‘Did you know who was Prime Minister before Harold Wilson?’
‘No. Did you know Gordon Hand’s dad’s a councillor? At Whiston.’
‘Is he Conservative? So’s mine, everyone’s Conservative! Why does Harold Wilson think people want him here? Nobody wants him here!’
‘I know,’ he said.
You push at the pus so it splodges to the sides. You want it to go like all the little dried bits so you can pick them off. ‘The Vicar doesn’t want him coming either. He can see the school, and that’s where he’s doing it.’
Ste stuck his hands in his Parka pockets. ‘Should get eggs,’ he said.
I sucked at my teeth – I’d picked too much scab.
‘To throw at him?’
‘Yeah. So everyone’ll know nobody likes him.’
We laughed – but different.
‘Stink bombs,’ I said. ‘From that man’s shop.’
‘Eggs.’ Stephen twitched his fringe off his eyelash. ‘Good if it’s eggs, cause eggs go splat.’
‘Where’d we get eggs?’
He shrugged. ‘Our mums’ fridges?’
It didn’t feel right. You knew it’d be stealing. I looked at him. He peered back, seeing if we really meant it.
He went, ‘When’s he coming, anyway?’
‘You’ve got to find out!’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Or you can ask your dad.’
He said, ‘So can you then.’
I nodded yes – it wasn’t really real yet.
I asked, ‘Mum, how d’you know if an egg’s rotten?’
Then I felt guilty cause I though she’d know why. I thought she’d see my ears blush red.
‘Is it for school?’ she asked.
‘Um – just want to know. Are Uncle Tom’s eggs ever rotten?’
She brushed flour dust from her hands on her pinny. ‘He sometimes leaves old eggs in the nest. So the hens’ll carry on laying.’
‘Doesn’t,’ I said, ‘he uses stone eggs.’ I’d just looked, and that’s what he’d told me. Then I’d thought of the ones he might get from the field. If they’re broody, his hens can lay miles away, out past the dog runs by Ellison’s Drive. He’ll not say where though – he just winks and says it’s a secret he’ll not tell.
‘I know the stories your Uncle Tom tells. His eggs are older than he thinks they are sometimes. Here – you can check ’em in a pan.’ She got one out and filled it with water. ‘If they’re rotten they’ll sink – or is it float?’
I got two from the fridge.
‘Put ’em in, now. Gently.’
They settled. They went to the bottom, then stood up on their little ends. I got excited. ‘Are they rotten then?’
‘They’re good,’ she said.
I ran and got more. They next eggs did the same, then I went for the rest. I tried them all, tutting, ‘Mum, they’re all good.’
She said, ‘Sorry. Shall I ask for spoiled ones next time?’
The doorbell rang, ding-dong. I dashed for it before Mum could get there. Stephen Williams was stood outside with Gordon Hand. I stared.
‘Coming out then?’ Stephen asked. He did this head twitch, secret – let’s go.
I didn’t know why Gordon was there. He’d never even come to my house before. He stood behind Stephen in the frosty night, his hands all hidden.
‘Um – just be a minute.’
‘Do you want to come in? Must be cold out,’ Mum said behind me.
Stephen – ‘Think we’ll just wait here, Mrs Brownlow.’
I pulled on this jumper. ‘Just going out, Mum!’
She blinked, watching. ‘Don’t be back late.’
Gordon wouldn’t turn around. He backed up down the drive before us.
‘Why’s he here?’ I whispered to Stephen.
‘Why shouldn’t he be?’
‘Thought it was just us.’
‘Did you tell him?’
Mum had watched us going. She shut the door slowly.
‘Where’s yours?’ Gordon went. He swung his hands out – he’d got these paper bags in them. He said, ‘We’ve got loads!’
I felt my heart thumping. ‘Where did you get ’em?’
Ste went, ‘Nevins. Bought ’em coming back from Bleak Hill.’
It’s where we get sweets. Gordon pulled this face, tutting, ‘Didn’t you get any then?’
– ‘Mum’d see them missing.’ My grin wouldn’t come.
Stephen – ‘We got loads anyway.’
Me still whispering – ‘Thought it was just us.’
‘Told Gordon at playtime.’ He said it loud, so Gordon could hear. ‘Thinks it’s brilliant, don’t you Gord? – Want to look then?’
We crouched down on Church Lane, behind the Pikes Bridge sandstone wall. Gordon put the bags on the frosty ground. They’d got a dozen, fresh in two egg boxes. My hand shook fishing out thrupenny bits – I had to pay Gordon from my pocket money. I felt scared – you saw it in Stephen as well, how it was real now.
We ran over Church Lane, down trough the beech trees and along the stream. Gordon went, ‘Where can we chuck some?’ He was darting his head about, loads more excited than he gets in school.
‘Should hide ’em first,’ Stephen said, ‘up by the Church Hall.’
You saw these on lights in the Vicarage, off the side. We sneaked over the footbridge, then up the path between the tennis courts and the Vicarage lawn, running low so we wouldn’t get seen. The Church Hall’s dark when it’s not being used. There’s a path round its back that nobody ever goes on, leading up to Chapel Lane. There’s no lights anywhere – just these steps, with black railings, and black painted doors in the side of the hall. We stopped at the bottom.
‘Makes you think of ghosts,’ I said.
Gordon – ‘You’re scared.’
‘Go up first then.’
He sniffed. ‘I will.’
But he didn’t. It’s this narrow alley. The hall on one side, a tall wood fence up the other side. Little scratchy bushes. We all went up together. The iron railing felt freezing to your hand.
It takes a bit for your eyes to see. The empty Church Hall looks massive – no windows, just bricks and fat black drainpipes. Gordon put the boxes on top of the steps. ‘Let’s chuck one,’ he said.
‘It’ll waste ’em though.’
‘So? There’s loads. And you never brought any.’
I didn’t even know why Stephen had brought him. Gordon’s always saying how the rest of us are useless, only he’s just as useless as everyone else. He got this egg out, pretended he’d chuck it.
‘Let’s do ’em,’ he said.
Stephen was crouching. He picked one out. So I had to get one too, like this pact between us. I felt dead guilty just picking it up.
Gordon wound himself up like a clock. When he lobbed his egg it splatted the railings – all shell and runny bits left dripping off it.
‘Do yours,’ he said.
Stephen threw his at the wooden fence. It broke in the shadows – the fence thrummed back.
I didn’t want to. I though of Mr Wooldridge seeing the splats – looking dead angry, telling Dad there’d been vandals on Church Hall grounds. He’d say it in his sermons.
‘Only wasting ’em,’ I said.
‘Chuck it,’ he said.
‘So who put you in charge?’ I knew we’d said we’d do it – but that was me and Ste Willy, not Gordon Hand as well.
‘You’re useless – give it here!’ He grabbed it from my hand, then he lobbed it hard at the Church Hall wall. Splatting yellow, dribbling down. ‘Brilliant,’ he went, ‘give us another!’
I was angry back, but angry weak. – ‘You’re wasting ’em, you’ve broke mine already!’
He picked up another and stared straight at me. Then his eyes flickered off. I thought he’d stopped – but he threw it anyway, high on the wall where it cracked and ran all loose, like bird splats. He laughed this high laugh. ‘How many’s left?’
‘Eight,’ said Stephen.
‘And you’ve chucked three!’ I’d shouted it. Stephen’s head flicked towards Chapel Lane. I hissed, ‘So somebody’s only got two now.’
‘So? You never even bought ’em.’
‘Paid for ’em though,’ I mumbled at the ground.
Stephen looked at me, then he looked at Gordon. Nearly squinting, blinking his sandy eyelashes. ‘He’s right, Gord,’ he went. ‘Should save ’em for Harold Wilson.’ Then he picked up the second box and tucked it in his Parka.
It stopped Gordon, anyway. You heard it in his voice when he pointed at the first box. ‘What about them then?’
Stephen’s hands in his pockets, bundled tight. ‘Leave ’em here. Chuck ’em after.’
‘Can’t though, can we? Not if we’re legging it.’
‘Tomorrow then – might be nearly time now.’
His voice had got quiet. It meant we should go. So I stalked off in front with my back to them both. My face felt sour. I crunched along like I didn’t care who saw me. Gordon made it feel all wrong – cause with just me and Stephen, you knew we might not do it anyway. Like with swimming lessons at Boundary Road Baths, when one of us starts stopping so the other can too.
I crunched up to the Church Hall gates. Then I stood there, looking. I’d forgot – I’d never seen them locked before. The Vicar had shut them with a heavy padlock through this fat curled chain, slumped around the iron like a sleeping snake.
Gordon went, ‘They’re bl’ddy locked.’
We stared. I’d even stopped being angry – I couldn’t believe it. ‘Could climb over ’em, I suppose.’
Stephen – ‘They’re massive. And they all look, won’t they?’
There were loads of men there, over the road – you knew we couldn’t climb the gates, they’d come and stop us. We drifted back, then sneaked to the side between the holly bushes. There’s a fence bit, up in the wall, and the wall’s not as high as the gates are anyway. Ste squinted through the fence – me and Gordon pushing behind. These men looked grainy under orange street lamps. Stephen poked his fingers through.
‘They’ll fit, won’t they?’
‘What – eggs? Might.’
He got one out from deep in his Parka. It fit, even with his hand wrapped round it. He said, ‘Two of us go over and one can pass ’em through.’
‘Me then,’ Gordon went.
I stared at him.
‘So you lot won’t break ’em.’
Someone had to do it. Ste passed him the egg box. Then I just started climbing. I climb with Jonathan loads, I was over dead fast. Stephen had to scrape over the top of the wall, laying flat and a bit awkward. The men opposite hardly even looked though. They were all just waiting for Harold Wilson.
‘Know anyone then?’
I’d never seen these men before. Not any of them. Stephen squinted when he’d scrambled down. You saw him pretending he was just stood around, like he’d been there ages.
‘Might not come from Eccleston,’ he said. ‘Cause of none of our dads vote Labour, do they?’
‘Stick your hands back.’ Gordon hissed it through the fence.
We pressed back against it, still looking forward like nothing was happening.
‘Which one’s who then?’
I wiggled my fingers. An egg touched their tips. My heart thumped faster.
‘Have you got it? Who’ve I give it to?’
‘Me,’ I said. I crept it to my pocket. None of the men even looked our way. They looked fuzzy in the orange, pacing with their coats pulled tight, smoking cigarettes, staring up the road. They’d parked their cars half up on the pavement, like the Vicar said they’d have to. Just this gap by the school gates, for Harold Wilson. I palmed a new egg in my other pocket.
Gordon, hissing – ‘Take one of mine. Don’t break it neither!’
He gave me one and gave Ste one as well. This egg sat stinging cold in my hand. We heard Gordon scramble, then he jumped down in the shadows by the end of the wall. When he sauntered up, this man peered too long. Then just looked away – we were only kids.
‘Hand us me eggs then.’
My tummy felt tight – I didn’t want Gordon with eggs in his hands. ‘Here.’ I nudged Stephen. ‘Pass it on.’
More of the men came up all the time. It was only us on this side – I stuffed my hands in the tops of my pockets, pushing them wide so my eggs wouldn’t crack. You felt them warmer. After a bit, my palms were sweating.
‘Could hide underneath the foot bridge past the tennis courts. After.’ My voice had come out little and thin.
Gordon – ‘How’d we get there? Gate’s locked, stupid!’
‘Vicar’s gate. It’s never locked.’
Me saying how we’d do it. They didn’t answer.
‘I go through their gate coming back from school.’
I cut through it after the path from Clark’s Crescent, cause if Carney’s behind, he won’t follow me inside. The Wooldridges don’t mind. I might talk to Ruth or Jean so it’s nice.
Stephen, frowning – ‘We can’t – the Vicar.’
Other lads are scared, cause he’s big and his voice booms, all massive from the pulpit. I’m not scared though. If it’s his house and he does it, Ruth just tuts.
Gordon – ‘It’s stupid.’
Then I knew why not. I hissed, ‘Shouldn’t smash eggs on the Church Hall then, should you?’
‘Have to climb back over.’ That was Ste, a bit quiet.
Me – ‘They’ll catch us.’
Over the road, men were craning their necks.
‘Just have to be faster,’ Gordon went.
‘Should go through the Vicar’s gate.’ It was stupid. I shivered, watching my breath puff out.
Stephen asked, dead quiet – ‘Do you still both want to do it, then?’
You heard us breathing. My eggs were slippy in my palms. If I said no first, then Gordon could blame me.
‘Gord?’ Ste asked.
Gordon shrugged – he didn’t answer.
Then this big black car was coming up. It had to be it – it looked all dead important. It stopped by the school. I felt my hands shaking. The egg was in it – I’d pulled it out – I thought it might crack. The car was just there, with everyone shuffling and moving about. A man got out, then another one – it was Harold Wilson! He’d got on his raincoat, like on the telly. He sort of hunched and turned his back. He pushed through the middle. The men gave way, then they shuffled in behind him. Really quick – he was there, he was gone.
Gordon, craning his neck at the side. ‘Did you see? Was it him?’
Stephen – ‘Think so – um, dunno.’
Me – ‘Must have been him, he had on his raincoat.’
‘Could you not get a shot off?’ Gordon was jumping up and down, trying to see over the men. ‘Didn’t even know it was him. Could you see him?’
I said, ‘He’d just gone in.’
We all started going, ‘Kuh,’ and, ‘tuh,’ acting all disappointed. Just you knew as well, before he came – our dads wouldn’t want us really chucking eggs. We were all just acting, to still pretend.
Stephen said, ‘He’ll be inside hours, Gord.’
‘So? We can wait.’
– ‘Can’t really,’ Stephen said. ‘I want to go home for my tea soon.’
I’d given Gordon my eggs, then me and Stephen climbed back over. We didn’t have to hide them, there was no-one left to see. He rolled them through the fence. We kicked all glum at the stiff holly leaves.
Stephen – ‘We can throw them anyway. Can’t we? See what it might have been like.’
Back down the alley. Gordon aimed at the wall by the steps.
‘Not there though, Gord. My dad takes Boys Brigade,’ Stephen said. ‘Might be him has to clean it up.’
Gordon tutted. He smashed his egg hard in front, on the ground. Blobs of it splatted back on his shoes. We didn’t laugh.
‘Take this Harold Wilson,’ Stephen went beside him. Sort of quiet. He chucked where birds might get the yolk – or a hedgehog, or it might rain and wash it all away.
My arm threw all pathetic – my egg just dribbled its stuff on the steps. My second hit some grass and didn’t break at all. I had to go and get it and throw it again.
We came back next night – just me and Stephen, not Gordon as well. We peered up the steps, from the tennis court side. It was dark and we only looked for a second.
‘Don’t think there’s anything left now,’ he said.
Then we turned and ran away again.