I spent my infant years in a police house: one of two at the end of our street in North Shields. That’s what everyone called them – ‘police houses’ – so we followed suit, content to be set apart. It seemed only right and proper. After all, we couldn’t boast the stylish bay windows of the other houses, all private suburban semis. They had proper front doors, too, each distinct, with lots of glass and fancy ding-dong bells. Our doors were tucked around the side, shying away from the public view. But on the plus side, we could look on ourselves, via our fathers’ occupations, as the street’s guardians. And wasn’t this guardianship boldly figured forth in our houses’ location? Between those smug semis on the one side and the scrubby waste ground on the other, we were the final barrier. We held the fort. We guarded the frontier.
The waste ground was a place both of freedom and of menace. Here was the old pit heap, remnant of Preston Colliery, now the perfect site for cowboys-and-indians and bogey races. It was an antidote to the tidy gardens, their regimented flower beds, the domestic straitjacket of 1950s Britain. But it was a landscape of uncertainty and fear, too. If I had fun hiding in the deep undergrowth, or amongst the trees at the top of the bank, others could do the same. I was hunting for forky-tails one day when two lads jumped out and said I couldn’t go any further unless I grabbed a nettle. Not so traumatic an episode, really, in the annals of bullying, but it made you wonder: what next? In her old age, my mam told me that on another occasion a neighbour’s boy made me kneel down amongst the weeds, took out his willy and put it in my mouth. I have no recollection of this event: whether this is because my mam was confused or because I have sublimated it, I cannot say. But I turned it into the subject of my story, ‘Dance Ti Tha Daddy’ (Cyffesion Geordie Oddi Cartref, Gomer 2010).
This same waste ground has been the location for a number of tales, partly autobiographical, partly fictional, where displacement and sublimation are the order of the day. In ‘Cat in a Bag’, the boy meets a bully’s cruelty head-on by internalising it, converting it into a mixture of anger and guile, then going one better. (Or is it one worse?) But readers might suspect, even here, that these troubling, ambiguous places, and my preoccupation with cruelty and retribution, are only surrogates for a drama taking place elsewhere: in the boy’s own home, perhaps, and especially in his relationship with his father. In this sense the stories laid the foundation for the longer father-and-son narratives of Daniel’s Beetles (Seren 2011) and Dwy Farwolaeth Endaf Rowlands (‘The Two Deaths of Endaf Rowlands’, Gomer 2015). One reviewer, novelist Lloyd Jones, wondered whether I would spend the rest of my life orbiting the body of my own dead father, seeking new ways of reviving and killing him. I hope not. And I’d like to believe that the encounter with the bully and his cat-in-a-bag isn’t just the story of me and my father in yet another guise (the policeman figure conveniently foisted on to a different character, the image of the knotted sack announcing quite plainly that I’m evading what’s actually going on). But either way, such early explorations of fear and empathy, of the blasted hinterland of right and wrong, are bound to leave deep traces in the adult subconscious. Like it or not, they are the source of our most insistent internal voices. They are little parasites in the soul, laid long since, still burrowing away.
Tony Bianchi is from Tyneside and now lives in Cardiff. Most of his fiction has been written in Welsh. Pryfeta (Y Lolfa, 2007) won the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize. His other novels are Esgyrn Bach (Y Lolfa, 2006), Chwilio am Sebastian Pierce (Gomer, 2009), Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn (Gomer, 2012) and, in English, Bumping (Alcemi, 2010), Daniel’s Beetles (Seren 2011) and Harry Selwyn’s Last Race (Parthian, 2015). He has also published a volume of short stories, Cyffesion Geordie Oddi Cartref (Gomer, 2010).
You can read ‘Cat in a Bag’ in Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd, which is available to purchase here.
© Tony Bianchi, 2017. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.