HELPING HANDS

Annie Barraclough smiled, the spark of recollection lighting up her wizened face, memories of youth - of times long gone by. "I'll nivver forget the day we flit to number 13 Alegar Street. It were a hot Monday in summer when t'mill were shut dahn for t'Bowlin' Tide. It hadn't rained for abaht five weeks an' t'sun were crackin' t'flags! Hot an sticky weather it were, not 'reet sort o' weather fer humpin' furniture abaht. We 'ad plenty of assistance though. Where we lived there were allus plenty o' fowks willin' to lend a hand. That's the way it were in Girlin'ton in them days between t' world wars. It were a world of cobbled streets of back to back houses. We all worked in t'same mills, went to t'same chapels and shared t'same hardships. Fowks'd go aht on ther way to help ther neighbours in them days, an when t'word got raahnd that t'Barracloughs were flittin, well - t'whole street offered to help.

Me dad were a fair man. A bit strict at times, but upright as a ramrod. He were a warper at Holroyd's worsted mill. He took the pledge when he were sixteen years old and had never touched a drop since. He were sunday school teacher at t' Ebenezer. Me mam were a spinner at Jabez Coles. Apart from them there were me an me two sisters, Sarah an' Mally. We all used to go to t' Daisy Street School, but apart from our Sarah none of us were much good at owt - we couldn' wait ta get aht o' schooil an get set on at t'mill wi' mam. Like I said, our Sarah were t'clever 'un. She passed her scholarship ta goa to t' grammar schooil, but dad hadn't sent her, 'cos he couldn't afford t' money for t'books an' t' uniforms.

Anyrooad, we all lived in this little back-to back on Prospect Street. Tha knooas t' sort of thing - back yard, outside toilet an' cellar head kitchen. We were 'appy enough there, despite the damp walls an' woodlice. But then one day me mam told us all that we were sooin goin' ta have another little brother or sister, and that she was in consequence thinkin' about tryin' to get a bigger haase, so we'd have room for t'new babby.

A few weeks later me dad come in all smiles. He told me mam that he'd seen a big house up for rent, an that t'rent were even cheaper than they were already payin'. It seemed to be the answer to all us problems!

Number 13 Alegar Street was just around the corner from where we lived. It were a posh house. An end terrace with fancy glasswork in the windows, iron railings and a flight of smooth stone steps leading up to t' front door. In t' back yard, beside the back door, another flight of steps and railings led down to a basement, with its own outside door and window! Inside, the house had high, fancy plastered ceilings, electric lighting and a bathroom with a real inside toilet! There were only one odd thing abaht it. Set into t'glass pane over t'front door were a miniature portrait of a Victorian lady in a starched collar with a severe look on her face. It was painted on the glass. Looking at it, it seemed obvious that the house must have been built for her. Our Mally didn't like that picture. She said the lady looked spiteful and it made her feel as queer as Dick's 'atband. It was as if she was guarding the entrance and didn't want us to move in. We laughed at her an' said she were daft. We all thought it a smashing house.

But mam were suspicious. Why were mister Dyson, t'landlord, rentin' it aht so cheap? 'Look Frank,' she said, 'ther's a catch somewheer. An 'ouse like this is too posh for us. Why's he rentin' it so ruddy cheap?'

Me dad smiled, I remember, and said that Mr. Dyson had explained to him that number thirteen had been empty a lot of years. It had been gettin' dilapidated, but as Mr. Dyson were havin' trouble with his greengrocery business, he'd decided to give it a lick o' paint an' rent it out to try and get a bit of extra income. It might, he said, require a bit of work on it after they'd moved in, an' that was why he was rentin' it so cheaply. Me mam were still a bit suspicious, but me dad, bein' a very practical sort of man, said that he'd fix anything that might need fixing, and besides, you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth! So dad accepted the lease, an' Mr. Dyson said we could move in straight away.

Now in them days, same as now, you'd normally hire a furniture removal firm to come and take your goods and chattels. But us fowks couldn't allus afford things like that, and in any case, t'new haase were only on t'next street anyway, so we decided simply to use an 'and cart. Well like I said, folks were close knit in them times, an' when t' word got raahnd t'Ebenezer that t'Barracloughs were flittin' on t'Monday, loads of people offered to come an' lend me dad a helpin' hand on the appointed day.

Of course you couldn't help but get ta thinkin' that some o' them were nosey beggars intent on seein' what we'd got - but me dad weren't one to refuse any offer of help, because he knew that if the circumstances were reversed he'd do the same for anyone else. It were simply 'is christian duty.

Anyrooad, t'neet before movin' we all went ta bed full of excitement. It were first time we'd ever moved anywhere, cos me an' me sisters had lived at Prospect Street ever since we were babbies. Of course in t'mornin' when dad shaated us dahn at six o' clock we were all tired wi' stayin' awake late, but we all got dressed an' come downstairs ta wheer mam were mekkin breakfast in t'cellar 'ead kitchen. At seven o' clock ther were a knock on t'door. It were Mr. Mather from next door an' his lad, come to help us wi' t'furniture. He were only t' first o' many. By eight o' clock we 'ad a housefull an me mam were run off her feet mekkin' tea for everyone! Last of all Mr Watmuff came raahnd from t'Ebenezer wi' an' 'and cart, an' by half past eight we were startin' ta get t'furniture out into t'street ready to manhandle raahnd ta t' new haase.

Nah me dad were not only Sunday School Teacher up at t' Ebenezer, he also were stand-in organist when required. We 'ad an old harmonium in t' front room what he used to practice on. He sounded awful! When t'regular organist were off an me dad ad to play, we were fair embarrassed to goa to t' chapel! We used to pretend 'ee were nowt ta do wi us! This harmonium were a fine bit o' furniture. It were made out o' walnut wi ivory keys and mahogany pedals. One key didn't work, and a few more I recall were aht o' tune 'cos harmoniums don't like damp, musty rooms. But for all that it were a smashin' instrument, an' us kids used ta play for hours with it when dad wasn't around. Of course we daren't play on it when he was in. He'd be listenin'n ta t'wireless, and he'd tell su ta 'shut that ruddy racket!'

T'Harmonium were one o't' last things ta be moved out. There were a good reason for this. Dad had had to tek t'door off o't' front room ta get it in when he'd first 'ad it given, and he knew that now he'd have to reverse the procedure. After he'd got t'door off, him and Mr. Potts manhandled it into the street an' got one end of it perched on a sack cart they'd borrowed from t'mill. Wi' three of 'em 'angin onto it, they trundled it raahnd t' corner onto Alegar Street, and then began to manhandle it up the steps to the front door of number 13. They were halfway up the steps when summat reet queer 'appened. T'harmonium played half a dozen notes on its own! It were such a shock that Mr. Potts dropped his end and the harmonium crashed down to the pavement, bowling dad over in the process! When he struggled to his feet he were reet vexed. The harmonium was smashed and splintered. Me dad said it were about as much use now as a chocolate fireguard - 'Good fer nowt but firewood!' Fortunately nubdy were hurt, but it seemed queer how it could've played wi' t'lid down ovver t'keys. Me dad said there must've been a bit of air left in t' bellows an that's what'd caused it.

But me dad were only t'first to fall foul of Alegar Street's 'Helping Hands' Jinx, as me mam later called it. Not long after, she were strugglin' up the stairs wi an' old mahogany chair, which she was tekkin' up to the front bedroom. We were sat in the kitchen an ' we heard this awful yell followed by a loud thud. We all ran through to the hall to find the chair at the bottom of the steps and mam sitting halfway up, sobbing hysterically. Dad were fast on the scene.'You alright my love?' he said. "What 'appened?"

"Our Mally were reet abaht this house,' she sobbed. 'Ther's summat wrong 'ere. Somethin' hoverin' an' watchin' an waitin' ta make mischief'. Me dad were perplexed. He couldn't understand the change of heart. "But you thought it were smashin' yesterday, what's 'appened to change your mind?" Me mam explained that every time she'd been up the stairs today, she'd felt that someone was trying to drive her back. And on this last occasion she'd actually felt it, a cold hand which had stroked her brow and then had tugged at her hair!

Then they got to arguing. Me dad said she were bein' daft, an' wondered whether she were 'on this earth or fullers'! Well that did it! Me mam exploded and stormed out of the house, refusing to move back into the godforsaken place!. In the end though, me dad calmed her down, and we got the last of the furniture in.

By teatime everyone had gone home and we were well settled in the new house. I was feelin' tired an' wanted to sit at home, but our Sarah persuaded me to go aht with her to t' 'Little Vic' to see 'The Curse of Frankenstein'. It were dead scary. Our Sarah were almost hidin' under t'seat! But it were nowt compared to what happened when we got home! When we got back to Alegar Street we found the hall light on and the front door wide open! We crept in, and found the house deserted. But then we heard this muffled yellin' an' bangin'. It were comin' from t' cellar door, which were bolted on t'outside. When we oppened it up we found mum, dad an' our little Mally. They'd been down to look raahnd t'cellar, and someone 'ad locked them in! Dad thowt we'd been burgled, but nowt were missin' from t'house.

At ten o' clock we all went up to bed, and as we went upstairs every one of us felt something cold and icy try to push us back down. we literally had to fight our way up onto the landing! But not dad. He was the sole exception. He felt nothing at all unusual, and said we were a load of hysterical women!

Apart from father, we all slept badly that night. It was hot and sticky, as is usual on such summer nights, but also there was this dank, oppressive atmosphere about the place, and a strange feeling of dread we couldn't explain. It must have been about two in the morning when I woke up suddenly from a fitful doze. I'd been having this most awful dream that someone was holdin' a pillow over me face, tryin' to suffocate me. I sat up bolt upright in bed, bathed in sweat. I grabbed the pull switch for the bedroom light, but it wouldn't come on. So I made my way to the landing. But the light were off theer as well. Power cut. It were then I smelt this queer smell - gas! It were comin' from Mary an' Sarah's room. I went on the landin' an' a cold hand grabbed at my arm, an' tried to push me back. So I screamed the place down. Then t'lights come on an' next thing I knew dad were beside me while mam stood in't'doorway rubbin' her eyes. "Its gas dad! They're in there an' I can smell gas! Me dad ran to t' door an found it locked. He banged it an' yelled, but there were no reply. So he put his shoulder to it an' broke t'lock.

Room were full o' gas. Me dad ran across an' smashed t' winder aht, then he dragged t'two unconcious girls out of bed an carried them aht onto t' landin'. He got some smellin' salts from t' bathroom an' managed ta bring 'em round. They were all reet, but they were lucky. If they'd stayed there a bit longer they have been goners. He soon found t'cause o' t'trouble. It were t'gas fire in t' corner o' t' bedroom. Someone had left it turned on unlit. Well Dad played heck wi' me sisters for messin' wi' t' gas fire, but they cried bitterly an' said they'd nivver been near it. In the end we were all settled back in bed, while dad went dahnstairs to mek a cup of tea for me mam. He'd hardly done so when such a scream went up. We all jumped out of bed to find mum standin' in the bedroom doorway, very distressed. We all looked in t' bedroom. It were t'most horrible thing I ever saw. T'whole room were wick wi bugs - blackclocks, cockroaches, woodlice, silverfish, there were thaasands of 'em, crawlin' ovver t'carpet, bedding - everything. There were hordes of 'em, swarmin' aht of t' woodwork!

Well that were it! Early next mornin' me dad went raahnd to Mr. Dysons and told him what he could do with his fancy house! After a bit of haranguing dad got the truth out on him. It turned out that the house was built by Dyson's great uncle for his new wife. They lived there quite happily for a number of years, but then she found out that her husband were having an affair with another woman - Mrs Dyson's close friend. When t' 'other woman' come raahnd to tea, all unsuspecting like, Mrs Dyson confronted her with it and they quarrelled. Mrs Dyson pushed her down the stairs, and when her husband returned he found his lady love in the hall, with a broken neck. Mrs Dyson meanwhile,had locked herself in the bedroom and refused to come out, shouting that no-one was going to usurp her place as mistress of the house. When her husband came back with the police and broke down t' door they found her dead in bed. She'd gassed herself. Since then, no-one had ever been able to stay in the place, and the house had remained empty for many years.

And so it continued to remain, for dad went straight round to Mr. Wilson our old landlord and asked him for our old house back! By the end of that Tuesday we were sat round the fire at Prospect Street, having moved house twice in 48 hours! For a while t'Barracloughs were t'laughin' stock o' t' neighbourhood. But we didn't care. We still had our cellar head kitchen, and we still had to cross the yard to get to the toilet where squares cut from The Telegraph & Argus hung from a piece of wire. But at least we were warm and cozy. Anything was better than that foul house on Alegar Street.

We lived on Prospect Street another twenty years. Dad got made up to overlooker, and we managed to send Sarah to Grammar School. She eventually grew up to be a schoolteacher. Me an' Mally stayed in t' mill up to t'war, when we were called up into t' Land Army and went to work in South Devon. It were there that I met me future husband. He were stationed near Plymouth, bein' in' t' Marines, and I met him in a local pub. When I asked him where he come from he said 'Bradford'. When I asked him where, he said 'Number 25 Alegar Street, Girlington!' talk about a small world! I eventually got to telling him about our adventures at number 13, and I was surprised when he told me it was no longer there! It turned out he'd been home on leave a few weeks earlier when it happened. They'd all been woken in their beds by a whistling noise followed by an earthshaking thud! It turned out that bombs had been dropped on Bradford. It wasn't a raid or anything like that, just a lone German bomber jettisoning its bombs in a desperate attempt to get home. One wrecked the Rawson Market and another the Ritz Cinema. There were only one house hit - number 13 Alegar Street! Seems that Hitler lent the last helpin' hand! Of course it's all gone nah. Prospect Street were demolished in t' nineteen sixties, along wi all t' other streets. Most of t' mills've gone nah too. Ther's nowt in t' way o' textiles any more. Its all ruddy industrial estates. Me 'usband died ten years ago, an' ther's just me nah, livin' in this sheltered housin'".

Annie Barraclough went over to her old utility sideboard and pulled out a tattered cardboard box. She removed the lid. Inside was a cracked and scorched pane of glass painted with the portrait of a prim looking victorian lady. She looked up and smiled. "That were 'er I were tellin' you about. Nah what about this cup of tea then ?? I mean that's what they pay you home helps for, don't they....to lend a helpin' hand..............................................."


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copyright Jim Jarratt 2002