THE PHANTOM CAT AND OTHER FABLES

THE PHANTOM CAT AND OTHER FABLES

faery tree

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” :
L.P. Hartley “the Go- Between”
1.
The scrawled note, roughly attached to the broken board, boldly stated…..”The Phantom Cat strikes!!”. We saw the partly -silhouetted distant figure running through the turnip field, backlit by a near -dusk ,drowning sun. He was vigourously spanking his back pocket with his hand like the cowboys whipped their horses in the films we saw at the picture houses on Saturdays.He was by now too far away for us to see exactly who this” Phantom” actually was. There was only a flash of a bright orange jacket and then he was gone beyond the hedge.
Nobody would wear a bright orange jacket back then! You’d literally be a sitting target for other gangs. It was like waving a flag at the proverbial bull.
Where would you even buy such a thing in those days? In any case, all possible suspects would deny any knowledge of the events or the vandalism.We looked around at the destruction of our tree house. It had been rudimentary at best, but it was our “secret” gang- hut ; not much more than a platform in the tree above what we referred to as “the Bucking Bronco”, a huge fallen -down tree trunk which we used to sit astride while plotting incursions into “enemy” territory, or before setting out on adventures. Our secret base was now a scattered puzzle of broken boards and branches. Days of stealing oddments of little planks from the local sawmill, ferrying them through the hole in the fence , across the field , into the “park”and hauling them up into the tree . All that wasted. A ruin.
It wasn’t until later that year, ages of languor in that limitless desert of summer time, while traversing that same field, that someone caught sight of a familiar orange flash sweeping backwards and forwards on a washing line in full flight . The bright flapping lining of the jacket exposing its secrets as it twisted hither and thither in the autumn breeze. The jacket’s owner, many years hence would go on to become a well- respected school teacher….his nefarious alter-ego possibly only a long -distant cloud of memory.
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Childhood is a curious place.It certainly was for us children growing up after World War 2 in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. It’s difficult to compare it to children’s’ lives today because we lived in a very alien world to anything they would now recognise. In some respects it was an inner world ripe with fantasy even though it was mostly lived outside in the hard sphere of everyday reality. I say we lived mostly outside , simply because most of our homes were modest affairs and ,especially in summertime , our collective mothers chased us out from under their feet as soon as we’d eaten breakfast.We were not swaddled in “personal spaces” with electronic toys for company and communication.If like me, you were an only boy in a household of sisters, you might have your own room with your toys and comics well-protected in a box under the bed.”Keep Out!” carefully printed on the side.
As boys outside, we then entered an almost timeless realm, dictated only by the rhythms of our hunger pangs. Generally , we came home when we got hungry and foraged as best we could between mealtimes.
In season we’d “prog” apples from anyone foolish enough to hang this sweet free sustenance on a branch for us to liberate.We’d stuff our “jumpers” down into our elastic “snake” belts and fill them a la Billy Bunter to our chins with our fruity swag…taking maybe only a bite or two from each fruit as if to compare exotic flavours. The fields were at times full of carrots to be pulled and eaten.We’d nibble at corn or barley seed stems. We somehow knew which salad leaves to pick from the grasses and chew. The stuff sold now in Marks and Spencers and high -end supermarkets was there to be harvested free in the fields .We didn’t know the botanical names but we called them things like “Sour Greens” or “Bread and Cheese” leaves. If a bird could eat haws or rosehips, we reasonably presumed we could nibble at them too .The sweet nectar was stolen and sipped from clover blossoms,as we trailed past,  robbing both the flower and the honeybee. There was also a beech tree across the fields in a tangled grove beyond the Fairy Tree but nobody really wanted to be cursed by the faeries for taking too many of those beechnuts. We feared faeries more than we feared the law. At one time a lucky shot by a catapult provided a very meagre and stringy snack when we bagged an unfortunate black water hen {moorhen} along the river bank. The poor scrappy thing was plucked and gutted by one of the older boys who had knowledge of such things, and ceremoniously roasted over the ashes of a campfire with some clay- covered spuds we’d liberated from a nearby farmer’s field.There wasn’t much in this feasting to fight over.BAZOOKA 1
For the most part, parents didn’t appear to have many worries about us .I suppose we knew the limits we could go to and how far the boundaries of our freedom could be stretched. Memory, is of course an unreliable ally. It tends to paint seasonal pictures in abstraction, keeping all the fullest colours bright but consigning all the greyish swathes and deserts of boredom that were also endured to a darkened corner of the mind.Summers always stand out as having had limitless possibilities and unbounded oceans of listless, warmth-swaddled time. The reality was probably more prosaic but a child’s mind can bend a supple thing like time and stretch it out like Bazooka Joe chewing gum… Given the Irish weather, it most likely rained a lot too. It’s a curious trick of recall that the rainy days are not remembered or we were uninhibited by them and never felt their soft dampness.We were obviously inhabiting a dimension parallel to that being lived in by our parents and other adults.bazooka_joe_secret_club (1)
Our universe began at the very edges of town. Literally yards away from fields full of grain crops like barley and wheat, root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and turnips , with cows and sheep intently grazing. The town -centre was within a fifteen or twenty minute dawdle though and it was a busy, bustling town replete with two cathedrals, many smaller churches, several museums, fine symmetrical Georgian buildings, three cinemas and all the usual shops , many pubs and cafes. It wasn’t a huge metropolitan place , but by dint of having cathedrals, boasted the title of “city”. In reality it was , of course , a country town. On Fridays, back then, cattle would be brought from the outlying districts for bartering at the weekly livestock mart  at “the Shambles”, near my granny’s house in Edward Street . Farmers would meet and gossip and find themselves socialising in the nearby pubs or visiting the barber shop. I suppose that was why so much bar trade developed around that tightly packed area. Of course us “townies” called everyone outside the town limits, “cultchies” which was  something of a disparaging moniker.Even though half of own family originated  in Blackwatertown, We  somehow felt superior to our less- cosmopolitan cousins who , in our eyes, lived way-out beyond civilisation. Our wee town was a “city” after all, coming down with cathedrals, churches and fine Georgian buildings which couldn’t be found anywhere else in such profusion. 
2.
On Saturday mornings, early, we were given a few pence and sent to the “Minors” at one of the cinemas. The” Minors of the ABC” was a weekly event that occured between about 9.00 am and noon in cinemas throughout the land in the 1950’s and early 1960’s . This was a time long before all -day television, so we children didn’t roll out of bed and lie in front of a television screen all Saturday morning. The singalong ABC cinema theme song still has an indelible place in my mind , unassailabe by time or failing memory.
“We are the boys and girls all known as
Minors of the ABC
And every Saturday all line up
To see the films we like and shout aloud with glee
We like to laugh and have our sing-song
Such a happy crowd are we
We’re all pals together
We’re Minors of the ABC.”
It had all that old 1940’s/1950’s cheerful, childish naievity that Ireland’s own Jimmy Kennedy tapped into when he wrote lyrical gems like “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic ” or “the Hokey Cokey”. Like those songs it still retains that  eerily nostalgic power to transport me back in time…
For parents it was probably a respite from their children, where they knew they’d be supervised and out of harm’s way .The event was held at the main film house in town. There were three cinemas , each with unique qualities and a pecking order of size and quality.At the bottom of the list was a small “fleapit” known to one and all as the “Cozy”. Second in line was the grandly titled ” City Cinema” and right at the toppermost of the poppermost, was the illustrious ABC “Ritz”. It was possible in those days , on a Saturday, before all-day television entertainment , to go from cinema to cinema throughout the day ,from morning to night without your feet actually touching reality; except to stop for necessary meals . You could live in that silver screen .Viewing might start at the Ritz, gravitate then to the City Cinema before coming to finally land at the Cozy. In the dark anything was possible and it brought out the best and worst in some children. Sitting beneath a balcony full of snotty urchins armed with mouthfuls of penny bubbly gum was not recommended if that fine hairdo was to be preserved. In the secure darkness, spittle-drenched missiles, expelled from mouths , redundant of any sweetness, would arc through the silvery light to find unwilling targets below.
” Auntie Maggie” , our designated Mistress of Ceremonies ‘ flashing torchlight could only inadequately police this annonymous blitzkrieg of spent sticky rubber, from above. She had the onerous task of keeping order in this anarchic melee. It was a fruitless and pointless police action of course.

I remember winning a prize in the Ritz for one of my first artistic attempts. I can still remember the disappointment when the “huge” promised box of Brocks fireworks for creating one of the best Halloween masks, failed to meet up to my fevered expectations. The packet when revealed was a piddling little rectangular box containing about a dozen small fireworks with no relation to the fabulous illustrations on the advert pages of comics like “the Beano”.

For us children , the “Minors” was the “real deal”…the…. ” business”! We looked forward to it and talked about it throughout the week. We then acted out any remembered “action ” that caught our fevered imaginations.We fought over who should be the “Cowboys” or the “Indians”…the “Japs” or the “Americans” while taking sides in our subsequent war-games. This was taken very seriously and when you were noisily dispatched with much rattling, guttural vocal chattering of that imaginary lethal weapon , you lay down and were really “dead”…..until the next time.
There was usually a serial adventure , the Pathe Picture News with some boring world events, an anarchic cartoon or two such as Woody Woodpecker , Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny, posssibly a “short” such as Arthur Lucan’s turn as an old Irish washer-woman in a ,”Old Mother Riley” comedy or one of the “East Side Kids” tough-kid series; and then the “Big Feature” , which was hopefully a technicolour Western about cowboys and wide -open spaces such as “Winchester 73” starring Jimmy Stewart or a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin madcap comedy.
It was here that I first encountered the old black and white Republic serials of “Batman” , the “Adventures of Captain Marvel ” and “The Rocketman” . Looking back , these were fairly crudely made affairs compared to the modern super-hero 3D CGI generated glossy re-makes that fill the modern cinema screens. They may have been cheaply made and rudely acted but our young inventive minds filled in the blank spaces and blurred any rough edges. What these super-real sci-fi adventures, full of secret caves , jungles, complicated machinery with flashing lights, and cloaked and hooded heroes and villians, did was , kickstart our young imaginations into high gear. I can still remember the menacing Scorpion and the demonic Wizard more than fifty years later. When we left that darkened cinema and burst into the dazzling bright daylight, we were primed and ready.We were those heroes, zooming home with arms outstretched in flight like Captain Marvel or the Rocketman , swinging over the step -rails at Market Street, like the Batman, rather than taking the steps in a more sedate, safety conscious way, and galloping our imaginary steeds into the distance…or to the nearest sweet shop! If there were a few spare pennies left , the lady in the sweet shop would pour out penny “nips” of brown Kirker’s lemonade  from the big screw bunged bottle .These we downed from the tiny shot glasses before scaling  the watery back- gully that led to the Clump. 

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