It being a Monday, the back yards are festooned with drying laundry and the sweet spring air is filled is the pungent underground smell of broiling pit clothes. The lines of laundry undulate sedately in a fast drying breeze like sail ships in dry dock. Every back yard captain keeping a weathered eye out for a change in the wind that will bring a fine film of coal dust from the slag heap. My progress is ponderous, pausing to collect my due and writing each entry off in my little black ledger that feels so much more like a journal; a fond memoir of my time here. I could be a Mr Chipping, counting my life through the passing generations of schoolboys, but my customers are not lacking education and they are most definitely not schoolboys.
“’Ave you brought yer van?” Myra Radmanthwaite halts me mid stride.
“Did you want something?” I pass her a respectful smile that goes unnoticed as she jams a wooden peg onto the washing line. My black suit soaking up the heat of the day, I extend my smile to a moon faced tot in a pair of faded hand-me down knickers gazing up at me with immense grey eyes. Myra cradles the back of the child’s head as it buries itself in the folds of her dress, then bends her sizeable frame to pick the next piece of wet laundry from a pile in a basket at her feet.
“Depends what you’ve got,” she unbends herself, hooking her indelicate fingers round the waistband of a pair of pink bloomers to stretch the elastic, the indecipherable colour of her eyes shimmering above a darkly conjugal grin.
“Always here to serve,” I tip my hat feeling an allegiance with the wilting coms dangling helplessly on the washing line next to the bloomers. At the last count the Radmanthwaite brood numbered ten, including five strapping lads all working shifts at the pit and living at home.
“Go one with yer, yer sweet talking bugger, if I had two bob to spare I’d invite you in just for a change of scenery, ”barking out a deep gravelly laugh, she releases me with a dismissive sweep of an alarmingly large hand and continues hanging out the washing.
“Leave him be Myra, at least till I’ve done with ‘im,” next door draws me into the relative safety of the far corner of her yard. “You don’t want to be dipping yer wick in there, her lads ‘ad grind you into the pavement and take you home as a new hearth rug,” she fixes me with a meaningful expression, adjusting the baby slung in her hip and shifting her mouth to avoid small inquisitive fingers in a single smooth practiced action.
I smile a small helpless smile.
“Ave you got any shorts for our Mickey? The little bleeder ripped another pair tobogganing down the slag. I swear he’ll be the death of me.” Despair moves over the smooth features of a face not yet gouged by relentless hardship and her eyes flick in the direction of the slag heap; a vast, dark hill a stones throw from the last house on the street.
For the next twenty minutes I crouch in her yard going through my stock of grey shorts until a suitable pair is found while she regales me with the horrors of youth. I listen, attentive and concerned to stories I have I heard a million times before, though they never grow old, log the sale in my little black book and snap my case shut.
“Would you be going up Maple Street?” My new customer enquires, tipping her head to one side to hold me to an answer and ignoring the baby who is venting its frustration by throwing itself backwards, pinching its features and whining.
“Yes I will be,” I smile pleasantly
“Thought you might…”
I beat a retreat tipping my hat as I leave, my face beginning to flush at the amused assumptive look that follows me.
Maple Street is no different from any other street in the village, but my feet move lightly over the tarmac and my burden swings from my hand as I walk past the street sign. The sun is high in the sky now, my shadow a small smudge leaking from the soles of my shoes and time takes on an eternal quality. An invisible thread draws me relentlessly smiling up the broad tarmac track between the back yards where a quickening breeze has picked up to a warm wind and the damp bed sheets billow like impatient sails. Each stop seems an endless interruption and I find myself gazing up the street as customers fumble through purses for coins and pout over decisions, hoping for a glimpse of a head of brunette hair pulled back in a clip.