After a year-long hiatus because of the arrival of our foster girls, this academic year I got back to my part-time Creative Writing MA course at Swansea University. One of the modules I’m doing this semester is ‘Writing the Self’. In the first session last week one activity we were asked to do was to take a decade in your life and write it about in sentences of no more than three words. Then the homework was to take an aspect of that piece and write it up in around 1,000 words. The segment I chose was: “Thursday’s are dad’s. He parcels news. Busses it away.”
I held dad’s hand at the bus-shelter, shielding my eyes from the sun, looking south towards the Sough Bridge bend in the A56, waiting for the X43 ‘White Lady’ from Manchester to curl into view. Even for the intellectually curious, childhood is an unsceptical place and I didn’t wonder until much later why the poppy-red double-decker carried that name, the cream coaches with a cherry stripe having been repainted in Ribble Motor Service’s standard red a little before my living memory.
As the bus bobbed and wallowed towards us, dad stuck out a superfluous arm, as if the slowing vehicle might crawl past us, its double folding doors obstinately closed, if he didn’t formally hail it. I let go of his other hand and stuck my arm out too, copying him in the universal language of filial piety. In his outstretched hand he held a brown paper package, tied with string, about the size of a couple of paperback books of the type he didn’t read. It was addressed, in thick black pen, Craven Herald, High Street, Skipton. No stamps.
In a hiss of hydraulics the bus dipped to a halt, its eye-round headlamps glancing back up as the doors furled open in a feat of mechanical origami; dad stepped a foot onto the wide platform, propping the parcel against the chrome retaining rail on the shelf by the windscreen. “To be met off the bus at Skipton”, he announced in a familiar and invariant formula, pronouncing‘bus’ as if he’d been slapped on the back while saying it, the vowel strangled like those he used when ordering ‘hem and iggs’ in the cafes I thought were posh but weren’t. “A’reight Jack,” nodded the driver, combining salutation, valediction and phatic query.
The bus shushed back to life and sailed off, its sweetish tang of diesel exhaust fading into the honeyish base note of laburnum. We walked the three garden widths back to our little drive -a grand name for a parking spot that could fit two cars but rarely needed to. On the way I plucked a fuchsia from the spill of pinky-red belling over Mrs Carlisle’s front wall, and sucked its purple tube, relishing the minuscule hit of sweetness amid the astringent plantiness.Dad opened the car door, got in, leaned across, and opened the door on my side. Just the two of us on these Thursdays, so I got to ride in front. I’d had a toy steering wheel for Christmas, with a little squeaky horn and stalks for the blinkers and windscreen wipers, but its rubber sucker wouldn’t stick to the dimply plastic of the dash, so I wedged it between my knees, best I could, and sat, my eyes level with the glove compartment, the seatbelt hanging uselessly limp across my neck, waiting to garrotte me should the worst happen. There were no inertia reel tensioners until we got the fancy red ‘Caledonian’ model, last of the Hillman Imps, a year or so later. This one did have the fancy metallic paint though. It was called ‘Silver Moss’ (I had the paint sample card from when dad picked the car up in Barlick) though Pondweed Green might have been a fairer description. “A nice little pedal car”, my brother Iain had called it, leaning through from the back when seven of us had crammed into it for its first trip out, me on mum’s lap and the other four kids (Jackie now married and John away at college) on the back bench seat meant for two.
Now, dad crunched the car into reverse, leaned unencumberedly round, his left arm across the back of my seat, right hand guiding the wheel, and backed us out of the drive, into the road opposite the park gates and we drove past the Portland stone cenotaph in the direction the bus had gone a few moments earlier. We’d pass it, waiting at Earby bus station, as we headed up towards Stoney Bank Road, past grandma’s, then over the tops to do the weekly shop at Morrisons in Keighley, my only other connection with the town being that, by happenstance, I’d been born there four and a half years earlier.
Thursday was dad’s day off. His work was parcelled up on that bus: a wedge of off-white copy-paper, with the occasional hole punched out by an over-aggressive letter ‘O’, typed up with all the news of interest, and a good proportion of none, that had come to his notice (and his notice had considerable gravitational pull) in West Craven in the week up to that morning. He was often still clattering away on the typewriter to ensure some last minute scoop was filed as the White Lady breached the Yorkshire/Lancashire boundary just up the road, then a rapid bit of boy-scout knot-work with the parcel string and the nearest dad came to breaking into a run, ensuring his weekly dispatch got those few yards to the bus in time for its journey to the Herald in Skipton. There his copy would be edited, typeset on great clattering monotype machines, and cast in hot metal before the press ran through Thursday night to get the paper across the Yorkshire Dales and onto the newsstands by Friday morning.
And now, I’m writing about dad writing; following in his footsteps you might say. But I wouldn’t. Yes, dad’s living depended on him getting words on paper, but he would never have thought of himself as a writer. Or at least if he was a writer, it was in the same way that a surgeon is a tailor: there’s scissors, needle and thread involved, but that’s not really the point. Yes, I can say that dad was a journalist, but he never used that term. He was a reporter. And I can’t be sure, even here, writing the so-called self, that I am.