Friday, 6 June 2014

Miss Chew

I am a little taller than the gate - eight or nine years old maybe - and I stare wide-eyed and tingling with the excitement of a child who knows she is secure, and is savouring the fear.

The innocent object of my fascination is an old, old woman. I can not guess at her age, I don't have the experience. As old as God, I think. She lives alone in a ground-floor maisonette behind the patch of green at the closed end of  of our cul de sac. She stares out of her window as we, noisy, scruffy kids,triumphant  in our youth, play Tag, and British Bulldog, as fast as our feet will carry us. As night closes in , shielded by the dark, before we're called in, we play cherry-knocking. Banging loudly on our neighbours doors, then running away shrieking with laughter. What nuisances we were! How little we cared. 

We do not deliberately target Miss Chew, we  shun her, her age alienates her from us, her shuffling form draped from head to foot in black, sets her apart. She glimpses us through eyes puckered by age in a face creased and twisted by a hard, relentless life. We flinch from her. 

This is the day I learned to feel ashamed. My brother Adrian and I had the good fortune to be given sweets. Four ounces of Cadbury's chocolate eclairs, expensive at 10d a quarter, smooth and delectable. A toffee overcoat, that can be sucked gently away or bitten straight through to the soft chocolate interior. In no time, we'd scoffed the lot. A regal sweet, a rare treat. 

Left with a white paper bag and a handful of purple cellophane wrappers, we hit on a plan which we thought would afford us a half-hour's entertainment. We were living without consequences in a world that had been kind to us: we didn't know how to weigh our prank against the feelings of another. We were to learn.We wrapped   the shiny cellophane around lumps of mud, and left the 'sweets' enticingly abandoned on the pavement. 

We hid behind the privet hedge at Number 14 and waited.

More than fifty years later, I blush with shame as I relive the moment when the bent old woman leaning heavily on her sticks, made the painful descent to pick up those bloody sweets. I can see the pleasure light up her button eyes and the smile  lift her caved- in mouth as she struggled to gain her prize.

I couldn't laugh. I could find no pleasure in this frail old woman's humiliation. My brother and I slunk away, no word passed between us, then or since. 

We didn't fully understand the awfulness of what we had done, but we knew that never, ever, would we do such  a thing again.


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