Sue Vincent’s writephoto prompt this week is this
The winter of 1962/63 was bitterly cold in north Surrey. The snow first covered the ground in early January and didn’t disappear until March. I was 6 and curious.
Dad made a sled for my brother and me but it saw most use as a means for bringing shopping home. Mum would pull it to the shops and back with we boys, once out of school, trailing in her wake. Sometimes she let us ride along.
The route took us across a busy road where we would often have to wait to cross. On the opposite side of the road someone – the council maybe, or utility company – had dug a hole and put a canvas covered hut over it to keep the weather out and stop people falling in. Occasionally we would see workmen around the hole but mostly it just remained a tented hole.
Some days, coming back from school and if mum had had to do some shopping so we were late it would be getting dark. Sitting outside the hut was a man, perched on a low three-legged stool – a bit like a milking stool – and in front of the man was a metal basket in which he had started a fire. Oh, those beautiful flames, fiery colours dancing against the monochrome world. I was entranced.
Mum understood my fascination. On about the third or fourth occasion she paused by the crossing, oddly since there was no traffic. Instead of pulling the sled home she crossed diagonally to where the man sat. We boys followed.
The man looked up, his eyes moist and bloodshot – looking back he probably drank a lot – and smiled. To my horror, and I think secret delight, he had no teeth. ‘Hello missus.’
‘It’s very cold.’
‘Tis that but this ‘ere fire does for me.’
‘They say it’s going to get worse.’
‘I seen worse. Italy, 43. That were bloody – pardon my French – very cold, missus. Hey young‘un,’ suddenly he was staring at me, ‘you like chestnuts?’
I nodded. My gran roasted them on the fire at home.
To my amazement, the man – he seemed ancient what with his sparse hair and deeply gouged skin – stuck his bemittened hand into the fire and pulled out three blackened nuts. He tossed them between his hands for a few moments before offering them across. I glanced at mum; her nod was all we needed and before you could say ‘chestnuts’ my brother and I were cracking the super warm skin to reveal the delicious sticky sweet centre.
While we ate, luxuriating in the unexpected glory of al fresco food, mum and the man chatted. About the war and his life and why the hole just stayed a hole. ‘It’s them pipes see. Until the temperature increases they can’t be covering them up. Or some such. I ain’t complaining, like. Gives me a job.’ For some reason he found this really funny and began to laugh which turned into a cough which turned into the grossest and greenest globule of phlegm I have ever seen, before or since.
After that we always stopped. Occasionally mum would share a kitkat with him or offer him a biscuit but he seemed suspicious – ‘I ain’t having no charity, missus’ – so mum was careful what she did. One time he wasn’t there, even though his fire was blazing. As we hesitated, wondering if we should just go home he emerged for the hut, buttoning his fly. We boys loved that, giggling about it until mum made it clear we needed to stop.
It became colder, if that was possible and twice school closed. We moved more quickly now, there being no incentive to be outdoors any longer than necessary.
And then, one evening the fire was burning but he wasn’t there. It was the bleakest, coldest day of that winter – minus a lot, they said – and we boys thought he must be relieving himself in the hole. Mum seemed unsure but we didn’t stay. And then, the next morning, the fire basket was still there – he usually emptied it and hid it inside the hut after he went home, in the early hours – with the embers still glowing slightly. As we took in the scene mum began to hurry and then run. We crossed the road rapidly, following her. As we reached the hut she turned, worry embedded into her forehead, ‘Wait there, boys.’
She did her best to stop us seeing but little boys are man’s meercats and we could see what we weren’t meant to. He was lying on the floor, his face a distinct blue and his hair covered in frost. I think both of us knew he was dead.
While mum did whatever she had to do, we spoke in hushed whispers. Had he frozen? Could we melt him on the fire? Should we bury him in the hole? The idea of death, the image of death, it didn’t seem to affect us then. But now, whenever I see a brazier burning, or smell roasting chestnuts, that old gentleman and his hut around a hole comes back to me.
I was reminded of him one day, many years later, when I was with mum. ‘You remember the old guy by the hut? In that cold winter?’
She did. She smiled at the memory. ‘You know, it should have been a tragedy, dying like that, but he often spoke about the mates he lost in the snow and cold of the Italian mountains. Maybe I was being naïve but I always thought he would probably have been happy to go like that, like his chums.’
I hope so.