My grandad's allotment is all gone now. I last drove past where it stood on a dark mizzly night in the November of '93. My engine was misfiring, and as I passed the entrance to the Northroyd Industrial Park, it spluttered to a halt and refused to start again. Cursing my bad luck, I raised the bonnet, and armed with a torch, a rag and a tin of spray oil I began to check over the ignition system. Whether it was the just the fog and the autumn weather I don't know, but halfway through wiping the plug leads I suddenly felt unnaccountably cold and began to shiver. Instinctively, feeling that someone was near, I glanced uneasily over my shoulder, but there was no-one there - just sodium lamps, access roads - security notices - yet in that moment a strange, half forgotten recognition dawned. In this desolate, labyrinth of fences, flowerbeds and factory units, I had become aware of a time and a place long gone. It suddenly occurred to me that entombed beneath this concrete was an episode of my life, a distant, half forgotten memory. This was the exact spot, I intuitively knew, where the allotment had been - just opposite his house at number 10 Blithe Terrace. All that was long gone now, along with Grandad and uncle Joe, now slumbering unmarked but not unremembered in the Royd Wood Cemetery. Here were industrial estates where once had been cobbles, gaslamps and back-to back houses, now a concrete wasteland devoid of people, oblivious of their lost lives, loves and uncertainties. And then I remembered Charlie - I entertained no doubts that he was a certainty, and that somewhere, lost among the razor wire, floodlights and tarmac he was still hiding in the faint recollection of my childhood, still waiting for another little boy to play his game.
I got back into the car and tried the engine. It coughed a bit, but soon burst back into life, and with the radio blasting out bilge I was quickly on my way. But there was no escape. In that brief encounter I had taken on Charlie, and he had instantly become the invisible passenger of my car and the companion of my bed. That night as I lay there, falling through the void of my past days, it flooded back, and there, standing in the autumn dusk was the small pathetic form of Charlie Poniatowski.
"Wake up Alf! It's 8.15 and you're going to be late for school. There's a bacon sandwich ready for you love!"
"Coming mam!" I stretched out an arm, and, feeling the cold morning air draughting through the aluminium windowframe, promptly retreated back beneath the warm blankets.
"ALF! You're going to be late!"
Reluctantly I scrambled out of bed and pulled on my shirt, shoes and socks. My corduroy shorts I found on the floor, but they were still neatly pressed with the braces buttoned in place. I pulled them on, twanging the elastics over my shoulders. I hated them, they used to slip down - or snap buttons. None of my schoolmates wore them, they preferred smart elastic belts with 'S' buckles. But I only got the braces. My mam insisted they were good for me.
Dressed, I sauntered through the lounge to the kitchen where she had breakfast and a mug of steaming Horniman's Yellow Label tea ready for me on the kitchen table. I didn't go downstairs to the kitchen. We lived in a post war prefab and everything was on the one level. We had fitted aluminium wardrobes, bathroom and toilet, gas cooker and fridge - and walls sweating with black damp!
"If you look in that new tea packet love, you'll find another card for your collection." I separated the paper label from the foil, and pulled out a small rectangular card.
"'British Monarchs - King Henry the Eighth'. I've already got six of them mam."
"Well throw it in the wastebin."
"No its alright mam, I'll swop it at school."
"Don't forget you're going to your grandads tonight love, and I want you on your best behaviour."
"I won't forget mam!"
Forget? How could I forget? It was Friday the 4th November - the day before plot night! Then there was a gentle knock on the back door. As my mam opened it a small familiar voice - "Is Alf ready for school yet Mrs Ackroyd?"
"Alf! Your mate's here, get a move on will you!"
I pulled on my green gabardine coat, pulled socks up to my stocky, scabby knees, grabbed the leather satchel and the green cap that my mother said fitted 'like a pea on a drum', and, after giving her a peck on the cheek on the way out, ambled reluctantly off to school.
At school the day dragged on wearily. Everyone was in a state of uncontainable excitement, and nobody could wait to get home. All over the area, timber and branches, laboriously collected since the summer, lay locked away in the gloom of sheds and outhouses, awaiting the moment when they would be dragged off to the nearest piece of waste ground to become part of the 'street bonfire'. Throughout most of the early autumn I had been out 'chumping' with my schoolmates - but much of our cache of timber had been raided by the gang from the neighbouring street. I wasn't overly concerned, I recall. This year I was spending plot night at my grandads on the other side of town, and that, as I knew from past experience, was always guaranteed to be an exciting affair.
For Guy Fawkes night was special in those days. Words cannot describe the sheer thrill and anticipation that attended its coming. It was ritualised in a way that has now long since passed. We would no more consider having our 'plot' on a night other than November the Fifth than a vicar might consider holding communion on a Monday. Guy Fawkes night was sacrosanct, not to be scattered piecemeal over four or five nights as it is now. Bonfires were held on the dot, on the day, and went not so much with a whimper as with a bang! The Guy Fawkes atmosphere was already in the air that Friday night after school, when my mother pulled out the box of fireworks she had been hiding away behind the kitchen cabinet, and thrust them into a large, brown paper bag.
"Now you keep a good grip on them Alf, and we'll get off to your grandads. Now wrap up won't you, I don't want you coming down with another bad chest do I?"
She smiled, eyes twinkling through her thick glasses. "Come on then Alf, there's a bus in ten minutes!"
So, full of excitement and impatience, I set out upon what was to prove a rather more than memorable weekend. I sat on the top deck of the 'trackless', my nose pressed on the glass, watching the droplets of drizzle trickling down the window pane, as the bus whined laboriously up Mill Bank Top. I remember praying fervently that thimgs might not be so soggy on 'the night', and in town, as the '46' sped away with a receding drone and a flash of sparking wires, everything seemed to be a hustle and bustle of pre-weekend anticipation. Office workers queueing at bus stops under umbrellas as the heavy rain bounced and spattered on glistening pavements beneath illuminated shop displays; people bobbing to and fro, ducking and weaving along the busy streets. Yelling news vendors, the smell of urine in the ginnel by Albion Court,the chiming of the great Town Hall clock - the newsagents, the toyshops bristling with bangers, replete with rip raps, air bombs, catherine wheels - all the panoply of plot night, a symphony of coloured cardboard and blue touch paper. As we turned into Sunbridge road and joined the queue for the Northroyd bus, my mam clasped my hand tightly. She seemed excited too, or perhaps she was not a little apprehensive, this being the first time I had ever slept away from home, even if it was at my grandad's house.
The bus was full. As it rumbled out into the suburbs, its numbers swelled by the textile operatives spilling out of the numerous worsted mills that lined both sides of the road, it was soon 'standing room only', and my mother made me stand up (as was the custom in those times) so an adult could sit down . When we finally got off at Northroyd traffic lights I was feeling decidedly sleepy.
No 10, Blithe Terrace had seen better days. Big and rambling, it stood, grey and gaunt at the end of a row of eight. Being the end house it was the biggest, but despite the pretensions of grandeur it was in poor shape, and my grandad had got it at a peppercorn rent from the Hope Baptists, for whom, when he was younger, he had been a lay preacher. His cousin was the superintendent of the chapel, and it was through his influence that he had managed to secure the house, which, had it been put up for sale on the open market would have been way beyond his means.
My grandad had been a miner, who, at a time of depression and unemployment in the Yorkshire coalfields, had been drawn to Bradford by the prospect of unlimited work in the textile mills. Here at Northroyd he had settled down and raised a family, my mam and her brother and sister. I had never known my grandma, she had died before I was born. My grandad was my hero! He taught me to ride a bike on a machine he had fashioned out of bits and bobs garnered from a scrapyard. He took me to a quiet backstreet he knew, Hollis Lane, where I rumbled over the cobbles for the first time, promptly falling off and skinning my knee badly. I cried - and he sympathised, but he wouldn't allow me to give up, and in the end I mastered it. A week later he had fashioned me a cricket bat from a bit of old wood he'd found in a bobbin skep at Kit Robertshaw's Mill, where he worked in the combing. It is hard to describe the wonderful dignity-of-race my grandad possessed. I worshipped him from his snub nose and thick glasses down to the toecaps of his shiny pit boots! His house was always full of sights, sounds and smells. I remember the sport on the TV, turned up to a deafening volume as Grandad sat hunched in his chair, his feet on the hearth of the black leaded fireplace, a woodbine dangling precariously from his lower lip with a long tendril of unflicked ash waiting to fall off onto the peg rug at the slightest movement of his greying head. I remember the old mirror on the wall, the two dogs woven from Woodbine packets which faced each other across the 'utility' sideboard, and the dartboard, hanging on the perforated and splintered kitchen door. This was a man's house, a house from which the feminine touch had long since departed.
"Come in lass, an' you little Alfie. Get yer coit off an set thi dahn - Alfie - Annie, tha knoas wheer t' tea pot is."
My mother disappeared into the kitchen and my grandad flicked off that impossibly long tail of cig ash into the fire, grabbed the poker and jabbed the hot embers with it.
"Reet then our Alfie. Esta got thi fireworks then?"
"Yes grandad. They're in the brown paper bag."
"Nah then. Oppen yon sideboard cupboard ower theer sithee, and tha'll find another box o' crackers for thi'. Goa on - get to it!"
I hurried over to the chipped old sideboard and pulled out the fireworks, scarce able to contain my excitement! At that moment my mam came back in.
"And what do you say Alfie?"
"Thank you grandad!"
"Kettle's on dad. When I've made t'tea I'll get our Alfie's bed aired."
"All reet lass. Ther'll be more crackers yet for t' lad. Your brother's on leave. His train's due in at Bradford Exchange tomorrow afternooin."
Mam smiled. "Do you hear that Alfie? your Uncle Joe's comin' home!"
My mother's elder brother was a sergeant in the army. He was stationed in Belgium, somewhere near Antwerp and I always looked forward to him coming home on leave. Not so much for the irritating and abrasive 'chin pie' he always inflicted on me as for the marvellous model trains and toys he brought back with him from Europe. This time though, I knew it would be fireworks he'd be bringing, for my uncle Joe was a 'plot night fiend!' He'd bring packets full of bangers and 'rip raps'. I'm sure he would have smuggled home mortar shells and hand grenades if he'd got the chance! He was a pyromaniac! It wasn't that he suffered from any kind of mental affliction - he'd just never grown up! He had joined the army during the war and had rejoined after his demob. He had been divorced twice. I remembered his first wife - 'Auntie Ulrike'. Her marriage to my uncle had been her passport out of post war Germany!
They sent me to bed at nine o' clock. I felt so excited that I didn't think I would sleep, despite my persistent yawns! Mam and grandad sat downstairs talking for about half an hour, then I heard my mam set off home. I heard my grandads' voice through the window. "Don't worry Annie - he'll be alreet with me." Then I faded away into a warm, dreamless sleep.
November 5th 1959 was an exceptionally pleasant day for the time of year. True, the sunlight was weaker and the shadows longer, but for all that it was a lovely day - ideal for building bonfires! After a hearty breakfast of fried bread, black pudding and bacon, my grandad outlined to me his plan of action.
"Nah then our Alfie. We're havin' t'plot dahn on my allotment this year. John Aked's sent dahn a load of old oily bobbins an stuff from Robertshaw's, soa I reckon it'll mek a good blaze!" He pulled out his pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket and fumbled at the keyring attached to the 'Albert'.
"Nah here's t'key for t'yard gate - dooant lose it! I'm goin' into t'tahn ta meet your Uncle Joe. Get workin' on buildin' t'plot. When I get back we'll give thi a hand."
My grandad's allotment lay about five minutes walk away from the house. He'd only owned it for about six months, having bought it very cheaply off Albert Winstanley, an overlooker at Kit Robertshaw's. Why Winstanley had parted with the site so cheaply that my grandad could afford it, wasn't clear. But whatever the old man's reasons it seemed that my grandad had definitely got the best of the bargain. I'd first encountered grandad's allotment during the summer, when I'd played there during the school holidays. It was a fabulous place, surrounded by a high wooden fence, crowned with barbed wire. High double gates gave access to a yard big enough to park four or five cars in comfort. The yard was surrounded by an array of ricketty wooden sheds. On one side was a garage with adjacent workshop, woodshed and storage hut. On the other side were three henhuts and two glasshouses beyond which lay a large allotment area with with ruinous cloches, cold frames and a deep well covered over with a wooden door. At the top end of the allotment was an open area where grandad informed me the wood had been stacked ready for the bonfire. During the summer, I recall, grandad had bought some goslings, but when three of them were killed by local youths with air rifles he sold the remainder. He still had a few hens however. They weren't his - they belonged to a local Pakistani shopkeeper who paid grandad a nominal sum for looking after them. Any eggs they might happen to lay he was welcome to keep, but as most of them were old hens that had stopped laying we didn't come upon too many eggs! My grandad must have been the first halal chicken farmer in Bradford!
I opened the door of the nearest henhut, listening to the scuttering of the rats as they scampered into hiding. In one corner I found a sackful of old mill bobbins marked 'bonfire'. I grabbed at the sack, and hauling it onto my shoulders, passed between the henhuts towards the open allotment. The sack was heavy, and halfway down the passage between the two sheds I tripped over a half buried brick and tumbled head over heels!
I lay there for a brief moment, winded and dazed. And then, as I slowly got to my feet a strange feeling came over me, a sensation that I was not alone and that someone else was observing me from nearby. Turning my head back towards the yard, I fancied I caught a flitting shadow in the corner of my eye - a dark shape peering around the corner of the henhut - but when I turned fully there was no-one to be seen.
I called out - "Hello? Is that you grandad?" But there was no sound save the clucking of the hens in the adjacent hut and the distant rumble of traffic. Shrugging, I picked up the sack and whirled around once more, jauntily sauntering into a sudden and heartstopping shock!
Standing immediately in front of me was a small, tousle headed boy. How I avoided bumping into him I don't know, he was so close! He must have been standing right behind me all the time! Needless to say, I wasn't pleased. When I had fully recovered my composure I laid into the newcomer in no uncertain terms!
"What are you doing here? Don't you know this is private property? You could get into trouble, creeping up on folks like that! What are you doing here anyway?"
The boy looked as if he was going to cry. He must only have been about seven years old, and I was a mature ten! I spoke in a gentler tone.
"I'm sorry. Don't cry. You just gave me a fright that's all. What's your name?"
I eyed the pale freckled face and thin body mounted on spindly legs. There was a sour, unwashed smell about him.
"And what are you doing here Charlie?"
I smiled. "You don't say much do you?"
He grinned back then beckoned.
"Follow me ... you follow Charlie."
Slinging the sack of bobbins over my shoulder I followed my new found companion to the far end of the allotment, where, to my immense surprise, stood the bonfire, almost completed!
"But it shouldn't be ready yet Charlie, I haven't even...."
"Bonfire. Charlie make. You come. Come see den."
Charlie grabbed my hand and, like an over enthusiastic puppy, dragged me towards the great pyre of stacked timbers and old furniture.
"Come. You see."
He led me round to the far side and bent down by an old cupboard almost submerged in the stacked timbers. He opened the cupboard door, crawled in, and promptly disappeared. His voice reached out from the darkness. "You coming? See Charlies den?"
I got down on my hands and knees and crawled into the cupboard. For me it was a tight squeeze. The back of the cupboard had been knocked out, and beyond lay a substantial chamber carefully constructed in the very heart of the woodpile. No effort had been spared in its construction. The den even had a carpet and seats made from beer crates!
"Charlie's den. You like?"
I nodded in the affirmative. "Smashing Charlie. But what are you doing here? Do you help my grandad or something?"
Without giving me an answer my host held out his hand.
"I Charlie." He smiled. "Charlie Poniatowski."
"That's foreign," I thought.
I held out my hand. "Alfie Ackroyd," I said.
Charlie and I spent the rest of the morning playing together. He didn't talk much, but I put it down to his being 'foreign'. The air in Charlies' den was stuffy, and I found myself constantly yawning. Then I was almost on the point of dozing off when I heard this distant voice, calling me, almost from the back of my mind.
"Alfie? You there lad? It was my grandad's voice. Suddenly wakeful I crawled out of the den, and screwing up eyes unnaccustomed to the sudden sunlight I scrambled to my feet, and ran towards the hen huts.
"Come on Charlie, it's Grandad!"
I dashed through the gap between the henhuts and emerged into the yard where Grandad and Uncle Joe, decked out in his sergeant's uniform, were manhandling a large piece of wood. It was my uncle who spoke first.
"So there you are Alfie! Tha's grown since I saw thi last! Come here and get some chin pie!"
"Not likely!" I ducked and weaved, but he grabbed me and I was forced to submit to what I then believed was the traditional mode of greeting in her majesties armed forces!
"By heck, he's gettin' to be a big lad father! Just like his mam tha knows. Nah then Alfie Ackroyd, how's t' bonfire comin' on?"
"Smashin' uncle Joe. You should see this den my mate Charlie's made an' -"
"Yes grandad. Come an' see."
We manhandled the length of timber between the sheds, and out into the alllotment, me walking backwards.
My grandad grinned. "Well Alfie Ackroyd.... a fine worker thou art! Look at this lot. I'd not have him workin' for me Joe, yon lad's not lifted a finger all mornin'!"
"But grandad. I didn't have to do owt! Charlie had already built must of the -" - I glanced over my shoulder - "bonfire......"
I gaped! Where there had been a tall bonfire there was now nothing but a patch of open ground with piles of wood stacked all around. And there was not a sign of Charlie Poniatowski!
"But grandad!! There was a bonfire! someone must have..."
"Enough of your romancing young Alfred," interrupted my uncle. "Your mam's coming over at teatime which only gives us a couple of hours to get it all ready. So lets get busy! Up guards an' at 'em!!"
We went back to grandad's for tea. My mam had arrived and was cutting great wedges of angel cake on the dining room table. Grandad always had tins full of angel and battenberg cakes. He got them cheap off a stallholder in the John Street open market. Mam had also brought an old 'quality street' tin filled to the brim with parkin and home made plot toffee.
While mam was laying out tea I decided that I wanted to go to the lav. The W.C. at my grandads' was located out in the back yard. Inside it was horrendously dark, and I had a struggle to find the newspaper sheets which my grandad used for toilet paper. Finally, I flushed it and stepped out into the darkened back yard, and as I did so, I beheld a rocket, bursting high over the chimney tops of the houses opposite, in a shower of sparks! It was now dusk, and already there was a smell of smoke and sulphur in the air, that thrilling scent that always heralded the advent of plot night. Soon we would be heading for the allotment. I turned to enter the house, but as I did so, I became aware of a shadowy prescence in one corner of the yard. "Hullo? Anybody there? Why it's you!"
In the semi- darkness I made out the pale, freckled face of Charlie Poniatowski.
I grinned. "So what happened to you then? One minute here the next minute...."
"ALFRED!!? Are you out there?" It was grandad's voice. "Get a move on wilt tha? There's some pop here for thi, an we'll be settin' off shortly!"
"Coming grandad!" I glanced at Charlie. "You coming to our bonfire Charlie? Come inside and my mam'll give you a glass of pop!"
Charlie shook his head sadly. "Charlie can't go inside," he said in a low, almost imperceptible voice, "Charlie he ... how you say ... all time outside."
"Well you just wait here and I'll fetch you some plot toffee," I grinned.
Leaving Charlie I sauntered into the kitchen where mam was packing up her toffee tin.
"Ma-am? Can Charlie have a piece of plot toffee? He's waiting for me outside."
"Charlie? Who's Charlie love?"
"Me mate mam. I met him at the allotment this afternoon. Can he have a bit mam?"
"Where is he?"
"Just out in the back yard mam."
My mam gave a kindly smile. "Look Alfie, you go and get your warm coat on and I'll take Charlie his toffee. OK?"
A few minutes later, wrapped up in overcoat and muffler, I was ready to go out to the plot. My mum tucked the scarf neatly into the collar and buttoned me up.
"Did you give Charlie some toffee?"
"But why not, I thought you were going to ..."
"Well when I went out back there was nobody there. Your friend must have run off somewhere. Is he supposed to be coming to our bonfire?"
"I think so mam."
"Well you get on down there and sort him out, but don't touch anything until your Uncle Joe arrives, OK?"
At the allotment the gate was open. A bit odd considering grandad usually kept it padlocked to keep vandals out. I called out.
"You there Charlie?"
There was no reply, but almost as if in response to my thoughts Charlie's thin, pale face suddenly appeared in front of the darkened henhuts, silhouetted against the sodium lights which cast up a glow from the nearby main road.
"Oh there you are Charlie. How on earth did you get in here?"
A sudden flash of a smile, lit up the thin, puckish face.
"Oh Charlie have key. My dad sends me here. For bonfire. But he no come yet. We play? Yes?"
"What do you want to play?"
"We play hide and seek yes?"
"I hide. You seek. Ready?"
I closed my eyes and counted. Then I called out.
"Coming Charlie! Ready or not!"
I switched on my torch and set off on his trail. First I searched the henhouses, but he wasn't there - only rats darting in the beam of my torch. I tried the greenhouses and the workshop. No sign. Then, almost involuntarily a thought arose unbidden in my mind. Of course! The bonfire! The den. I passed between the henhuts, and on reaching the end of the darkened passage, stopped. A strange, dizzy feeling gripped me, a sensation which, had I been an adult I would have called 'deja vu'. In the far allotment a strange scene lay before me - strange - yet inexplicably familiar. A large group of silhouetted people were laughing and joking, passing round toffee and sparklers. A moment ago there had been only darkness and silence, now there were torches and lanterns and this group of total strangers jabbering away in a strange foreign tongue..... on my grandad's property! Dumbstruck and half afraid I stared at them, mesmerised by this strange illuminated tableau, which, it seemed, had materialised as if in response to the completion of a circuit, like the switching on of a light.
On one side of this strange group, a large, ebullient man with a corpulent, wrinkled face and a fur cap was busily sprinkling paraffin on to the stacked bonfire from an old jerrican. Momentarily, the scene wavered, as if in the haze of slow motion, then suddenly the bonfire was ablaze, and crackling,its sparks ascending into the cold night air.
Then out of the acrid smoke threre came a piteous cry. It was the most terrible sound I have ever heard, a cry of sheer terror and desperate, hopeless agony. Then I felt a cold iron glove grasp the pit of my stomach as I realised its source. It was emanating from the bonfire - the bonfire where Charlie had been hiding in the den - the bonfire in the heart of which a small boy was now being burned alive in a funeral pyre of his own making. I don't remember anything else. I must've passed out with the shock. When I came to I was in bed at my grandad's, with my mother sitting anxiously beside me.
It transpired that mam, Grandad and uncle Joe had found me in the allotment in a state of hysteria. Apparently I was screaming, shouting and sobbing my heart out. My mam was terrified. She thought I had been attacked or molested by someone. They called a doctor, who gave me a sedative and informed the police. The police found nothing. There was no-one lurking around the allotment, and the bonfire hadn't even been lit! It was stacked up just as grandad had left it that afternoon. In the end they put it all down to a child's over active imagination.... all except one elderly police sergeant that is. He took my grandad to one side and told him a strange tale, who some years later, not long before he died, passed on the tale to me.
It turned out that there had been a Poniatowski in Northroyd - and he'd once owned the allotment. Apparently, him and his boy had escaped from the Nazis during the war and got to England. The father served with the allied forces, while the little boy was sent to live with a family in Bradford. After the war they were re-united and stayed on at Northroyd, the father finding work in the mills. The old man kept goats on the allotment, and became well known locally. Then tragedy struck. The boy had built a den in a bonfire, and unbeknown to his dad, was asleep in it when he lit the plot. After the boy's death, his father went a bit queer in the head, and died in a mental hospital. The allotment was sold off, and then sold again not long after. There had been six owners in the space of six years - my grandad being the seventh! Not long after my encounter with Charlie, my grandad sold the allotment to a developer, who demolished the lot to make way for modern industrial units. But they couldn't get rid of Charlie that easily. It's said that his screams can still be heard on November the fifth, and he has badly frightened many a security guard locking up for the night. As for me, I grew up, married, and acquired a family of my own. But I never forgot Charlie. And now, whenever I go to a bonfire I always make sure my kids are standing close beside me !!