The Old Feller is as regular as clock-work. My bus usually tears past with the conductress laughing fit to bust doing a Harvey Smith on the platform, while I ruin my lungs chasing it to the stop. But not him. No, he's always waiting there in plenty of time, same seat every night and home at the same time. He hangs his "mac" behind the kitchen door and washes his mucky hands over the pans in the sink. Twenty five years he's been running swarfy Lifebuoy all over my mam's saucepans and if twenty five years black looks haven't stopped him he won't change now. Why his hands aren't clean already I don't know 'cos I know for a fact that he and his mates spend half an hour in the bogs waiting for the hooter to go. He sits in the front room on the settee reading the Evening Star, even though he's read it on the bus. Mam shouts him in for his tea and they start whether me and 'Reen have got home or not.
Straight after tea he goes out to the pigeons for an hour or two, comes back in to watch the telly until nine and then on the dot, he's off to the Club. He has a couple of pints, a game of darts and he's back by half past ten. He plays hell if I'm home before him for laking off work. Laking. My God, who uses words like laking nowadays? He plays hell about Jim's hair an all. "Idle young layabout." "Long-haired twillock." I've tried telling him that it's nowt to do with him how long Jim's hair is, and he's lucky it's not green, but he doesn't listen. 'Reen fancies Jim. She saw him in his athletic shorts once. She says they make him look like Ron Fawcett. Steve Bancroft more like, and who'd want that, but they got our 'Reen's chest heaving. Back at home I told 'Reen I was thinking of getting a pair. "Of what?" she said and had hysterics. She said my legs would frighten the natives on the Common. They'd think it was Allah's camel or summat.
She said the Race Relations could 'ave me if I didn't darken 'em, or the Obscene Publications Squad or Mary Whitehouse. Did I want to borrow her tights, and how about a handbag to make me look a bit more normal? She went on for half an hour. She offered to sell me a nearly full tube of leg browning for £5 to make me look sexy. I said that I wasn't going to pay £5 a tube for Marmite and in any case I preferred mine in sandwiches and she said why not come to Mum's make-up party and buy my own, and don't forget to come in my athletic shorts, it could get the evening off to a really good start.
Eventually she stopped and I thought nothing more about it until that particular Wednesday night. Jim and me were going to the wall in Leeds so I went up to town and bought a new chalk-bag and my pair of shorts. I spent an hour or two reading all the magazines in Tanky's and trying to talk the assistant into selling me karabiners at half price. No chance. Tanky's got their brain waves inked to a computer that rings up "No Sale" and puts you on his black list for slipping 10% on your bill. I was home early even though I spilt my box of , light magnesium all over a zebra crossing and had to go back to Boots for another. When the Old Feller came in I was sitting at the table ready. You should have seen his face when Mam took his Star off him, put it in his mac pocket behind the door, sat him down at the table, put his tea in front of him and said, "Come on eat up, I've got a make-up party starting at seven and I've got to clear up after you lot and get the refreshments ready.
And don't hang about before you go out. Nor you neither" she said, banging my tea down on the table. I got a stream of red-hot tomato juice all down the front of my Colorado University tee-shirt. When 'Reen came in she thought I'd cut me throat and did I want a neck ointment as well as the leg browning. There was a discount for big orders! The Old Feller said nowt — nowt ah tell you — nowt. We were hustled out by six o'clock and I walked along with him because the Club is on the way to Jim's. He said nothing until we were opposite The Norfolk. "Ah reckon nowt to this" he said. And at the Club door he added "We's have to do summat abaht it, so think on — and get that mate o' yours thinking. He can't be all that daft." "He's had his hair trimmed" I said. "She wants her hair trimming" he said. "Ass rely on yer." Jim bet me that the Old Feller'd be kalied by ten o'clock and have to be helped home. He was wrong because he was back by 9.30, being charming to the make-up lady and saying she'd have to come again, and why didn't she fix a date now so as to be certain.
'Reen says the old lady looked gobsmacked and had to sit down in case her knees gave way. Must have been a funny feeling, thinking you've won after 25 years. There's an old, stone-built Methodist Church down Furnival with a big yard where the kids at the youth club play at football under floodlights. On fine Thursdays Jim and I go and traverse along the wall on the lumpy holds and then go and cast an eye over the birds at the pub disco. I never knew that the Old Feller had got my habits sorted out but as I went out he was right behind me. "Your mother's having another of them parties" he said, underwear, December 1st, so the stuff'll be here in time for Christmas". "Don't tell me you're going" I said. "No" he grinned, "but you are." "Hold on, hold on" I said. "Nay, you 'old on and listen to this." I was supposed to go to the next party and find out how they were organised ready for his master plan. "No way" I said, "I'm not sitting through two hours of that like a fairy.
Besides Mam'll smell a rat. Besides 'Reen already knows how they're organised". "She'll not tell us though, will she" he said. "No" says I, playing my trump card, "but she'll tell Jim." "Dust know" said the Old Feller "there's hope for thee yet, tha's inherited some brains." "Aye" I said "Mam's side of the family is fairly sharp." "Gerroff wi' thi, and set Jim on to get it sorted." And so we briefed Jim. I pointed out that she wasn't a bad looking lass and he'd only need to waste one or two evenings, perhaps three, to make it look subtle. "And listen, keep your animal instincts under control, after all she is my sister." "That's what you think," he said, "last time I was alone with her she acted more like Dracula's" — which was two bits of news for me, but still, "Put up a good defence then," I said, "and get the low-down on the uplift party."
Jim looked a bit peaky for a day or two but we got the party plans and the Old Feller gave us our orders. Jim enrolled Browett, who's a very smooth operator, and between them they got Lomas and Naylor's to put on a climbing gear do at our house. I was sent out to rake in a list of climbing mates, all instructed to buy at least a karabiner. "And here" said the Old Feller, "what happened to that lad as used to come round — him wi' the stick-out ears that could imitate someone being sick." "Pukey Porritt? — but he's not a climber." "Never mind, invite him. Tell him he gets a free supper and a free ticket on t'Pigeon Club's trip to t'illuminations." "And tell 'em all to bring a couple of empties apiece." And so took place Sheffield's first climberware party.
I felt a bit rotten about it because Mam made a stack of sandwiches and borrowed a tea urn from the chapel. They came in droves and it went quite well. They downed sandwiches and tea, rattled the empties, ordered gear like men with three arms and every ten minutes or so we put an armful of empties outside the back door. Pukey kept borrowing different folks coats and sweaters and shuttling to the toilet. His retching and heaving was a masterpiece. Albert Finney couldn't have done better the Saturday Night before Sunday Morning. Mam could see visions of half the city's climbers being sick in her front parlour. "There won't be any more will there?" she asked the Old Feller. "No luv" he said "Not until the pubs turn out." And she turned pale and sat down and went quiet. "You'll have to get rid of 'em" she said "before then, you will, you will." "All right luv" he said "Ah'll go and sort it out."
He came into the front room and gave us the thumbs up and they all surged off to get a few in before the pubs shut. It was next day that Mam gave me an ear-wigging about inviting that crowd of drunkards to her house. I was struck dumb and the old hypocrite sat beside her looking suitably serious. A week later he told me that she'd decided not to have any more perfume parties and such. It didn't seem such a good idea. "You bloody old fraud" I said "don't you feel ashamed." "Nay lad, our 'Reen knows your Mam's size and wheer that underwear woman lives." "She's gone round to order a wardrobe full o' stuff. Thi Mam'll be oer t'moon. Mind you" he said "you're not in very good odour. You'd best be on your best behaviour for a bit, and" he added "you might need to be looking for a new climbing mate. Thi Mam says that ahr 'Reen's started looking in jeweller's windows."
Dave Gregory: Cartoon drawings by Nichols.First published in Climber and Hillwalker-September 1988
Published in tribute to the author who died this week.