ANTS AND ANACONDAS

IN the early 1950s Gallipoli Street was a dead end. A makeshift metal barrier – ideal for doing head-over-heelses – separated the street from a brief, muddy slope – ideal for sliding) which lead down to an expanse of wasteland. Every morning I would set off for the junior school, just visible on the far side of the wasteland, except in spring, when all vegetation was thriving, and the wasteland turned into a jungle. To a seven year-old it seemed like a very long journey indeed. I had been reading about anacondas in Odhams Encyclopaedia. The stuck-together ae in the middle of Encyclopaedia, which I have since learned is a beastie known as a ‘typographic ligature’) fascinated me almost as much as the anacondas. I was convinced I would come face to face with one – an anaconda not a ligature – but never caught sight of so much as a grass snake. By the time I got to school the hem of my green pleated skirt would be soggy with dew or prickly with burrs. In summer, creamy cabbage white butterflies flew up as I passed through. In winter I would hobble through frosted thistles, chilblains itching and burning in spite of stout lace-up shoes and the grey, knee-length socks which elastic garters failed to sustain. Nan-knitted fair isle mittens dangled from my raincoat sleeves on yet more elastic.

In the 1960s they dug up the wasteland at the end of our street and built a housing estate. It was, and remains, the ugliest collection of houses I have ever seen. The building work unearthed no anacondas but did produce king-size muddy puddles for jumping in. I lost a wellington boot in a particularly deep puddle. Rather than fishing it out, which would have been the sensible thing to do, I left it and lolloped home one-wellied.

We didn’t really appreciate the advantages of living in a dead-end street until the metal barricades were removed, the street having been extended into the new estate. Until that time there had been few cars anyway, and the few that did venture along Gallipoli Street were looked upon as minor interruptions to our roller-skating and tennis. We stood aside and waited for the exotic creatures to pass. All cars were black in those days. Instead of flashing lights they had little orange arms for indicators, which popped out unexpectedly.

Even if there were no other children about one could still amuse oneself. On dry days I used to sit on the hot pavement and watch the ants swarming over a discarded boiled street, trying to guess what they were thinking. On one particularly hot day I overheard a passer-by saying it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. I wanted to try it out, and asked my mother for an egg, but it was not forthcoming. On rainy days I used to stare into the gutter, mesmerised by the twigs and leaves eddying along towards the drain. As a child, I read voluminously and indiscriminately but never happened across Winnie the Pooh, so didn’t realise that what I was playing was called Pooh-Sticks.

There was always something or someone to see, somebody passing through. Often there would be tramps, or men who looked as if they might latterly have been soldiers, trudging along the gutters in grey raincoats collecting cigarette butts. They emptied out all the little odd bits of tobacco into the tobacco tins they carried, and later made roll-ups out of Rizzla papers.

Then there was the knife-grinder, with his bicycle-powered knife-sharpening equipment. As soon as he arrived the housewives would appear from houses up and down the street – some radar alerting them to his presence, for he made no call – brandishing blunt kitchen knives for him to sharpen, which he did by working some kind of leather strop arrangement with his feet. Perhaps it was attached to a pedal!

Most Sundays the rag-and-bone man would come along with his horse and cart shouting something unintelligible which I later realised was ‘Rag’nBone’ distorted through much use. And out would come the housewives again, in their frilly pinnies, this time brandishing buckets and coal-shovels, since the steaming horse-droppings were much prized as rose fertiliser.

Best of all, the shrimp man. Nan would despatch me back down the street with a pint jug and enough money to fill it with shrimps for our Sunday tea. I savoured the fresh, briny smell of the shrimps but for eating purposes they were more trouble than they were worth; so much de-whiskering and de-tailing for so little greyish meat.

Gallipoli Street was best of all when it snowed. We would walk along from our house to Nan and Grandad’s at the other end, for Christmas Dinner. The snow was thick and slippery and the houses had changed from unexceptional suburban semi’s with names like Fernlea and Foxholme to story-book houses with lighted windows with paper-chains, tinsel and Christmas Trees. We would hang on to the low front walls so as not to slip over, anticipating beef and roast potatoes and a long somnolent afternoon in a roaring hot front room, wheezing a little in the thick cloud of second-hand St Bruno Flake from Grandad’s pipe and listening to the snoring of their fat, honey-coloured labrador.

In later years – or maybe it was just our later years – Gallipoli Street seemed to become a different place altogether. Now there were high-heeled, beehived girls clattering along it under the evening streetlights, the streetlights reflected blue in the puddles after rain. It became a place where courting happened, just out of range of parental surveillance. Later still it became a bus route, though there wasn’t really room for the buses, and a place where commuters left their cars all day because they could park for free and leg it the rest of the way to the station. A few extra houses and bungalows got built, plugging the remaining gaps. Strangers came; people with pushchairs, boys on mountain bicycles.

Now when I visit Gallipoli Street I sometimes think I see the ghosts of roller-skating 1950s kids mingling with the bicycling boy-racers. The shrimp man, the knife grinder, the rag-and-bone man and the old soldiers are no longer to be seen and I notice the ‘ae’ has mysteriously disappeared from encyclopaedia, but one thing hasn’t changed: there are still no anacondas in Gallipoli Street. At least, as far as I know.

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