I bumped into an old friend the other day. I hadn’t seen John since shortly after leaving school in the 1950s. I have to confess I wouldn’t have known him from Adam, but we exchanged nods, and, as I walked on, he stopped and called out “It’s Brad Fleming isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” I replied, and turning, studied his face more closely. Still not having the foggiest who he was, I asked “I’m sorry, but have we met before?”
“I should think so,” he confirmed. “We shared the same school classroom for years, played football and cricket together and nicked apples from the same orchards.”
I looked into his eyes even harder. There may have been a vague familiarity about him but I still couldn’t pin it down. I mentally ran through a checklist of lads I’d endured school with, most of whom I’d long since lost touch with. Something clicked. “It’s John, isn’t it?”
“The very same,” he acknowledged. “Not surprised you didn’t know me. We’ve both changed a fair bit since those days. Put on a few pounds and shed some hair.” As we shook hands warmly, he added “Don’t worry about it Brad. I wouldn’t have recognised you either, if I hadn’t seen your picture on an e-book cover in Amazon. I’m not surprised you’re a writer now; you were always good at essays and that sort of stuff at school, as I recall.”
Such flattery! The least I could do was shepherd him into a nearby café and stand him a coffee. We chatted and reminisced for over an hour, trouped down memory lane, caught up on what we’d each been up to in the last half century or so and ticked off those of our old school chums we knew had shuffled off to a better place.
John had spent much of his working life in the United States and Canada, returning to his native Mourne eight years ago to retire in familiar surroundings. We exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses and will keep in touch.
The encounter set me thinking about my early years and growing up in the little town of Kilkeel, nestling in that narrow strip of coast where, in the words of Percy French’s song, the famous Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.
It was a good time to grow up. In those days before television, computers and iPads we relied on home-grown and home-made entertainment. We played football (soccer) in winter and cricket in summer, attended the local youth club for snooker, table tennis and badminton sessions and explored the neighbouring towns and countryside on our bicycles. I guess we kept ourselves fit without making any conscious effort to do so.
We spent a fair amount of time in the two local cinemas too. Each had two shows every night and most of us went two or three times a week. As kids, we could sit in the front three rows and risk getting a crick in our necks from looking up at the screen from such close range. A ticket cost only three pence in the old money (pre-decimal) and when our pocket money ran out we raised the necessary by collecting jam jars and lemonade bottles and returning them to the local general store for a penny a half dozen.
As we got into our teens we moved back to the more comfortable seats in the middle rows. This cost us nine pence, but, by then, most of us had paper rounds or similar after-school jobs. There was a raised balcony at the back of the picture house. The seats were better and cost one shilling and three pence—well beyond our price range. It was used in the main by older folk and courting couples. I well remember the first time I ventured up there, trying to impress an early girlfriend. But that’s a story I needn’t trouble you with
Kilkeel was a friendly little place where everyone knew everyone else. In those days the locality was known as Kindly Mourne and the saying went that if a passing stranger stopped at any house to ask directions he was invited in for a cup of tea before being ushered on his way. Many of the older street houses had what were called half doors and the women folk, usually clad in wrap around aprons or pinnys, would lean over these the better to carry on a bit of gossip with a neighbour or passer-by.
Fishing and farming were the main industries in those days. The land between mountains and sea was fertile and the town was a thriving fishing port (pictured above). All any young lad had to do was to grab a length of twine and walk round the harbour when the boats were in to be offered a dozen cod or whiting to take home. The kindly fishermen made no charge either.
In the fall, when shoals of fish came close inshore, the little fleet of thirty or forty skiffs were launched from the beach and headed out as dusk was falling. Passers-by and folk in cars would stop and look out across the bay at the masthead and port and starboard lights reflecting across the water as if a little village had sprung up from the sea. A truly beautiful sight and one I shall never forget.
Next time I’ll write a little about some of the wonderful characters I remember from my childhood.