Sunday, 5 June 2016

Just Popping out for the Paraffin

...and other excuses from a just barely dissolute life.

My Dad was as close to a blameless existence as any human being ever can be. He didn't drink, except an occasional half of cider in the summer. He didn't have a shred of violence in him, and he certainly wasn't a womanizer. He smoked, but so did everybody then. He had just one small vice: the horses. Every Saturday he would study the form, place a few bets, watch the races on the television in the afternoon, and if he got lucky, he'd go and collect his winnings.

We lived very close to our local shops. It was only a two minute walk, and the bookmaker's (the bookie, or "Ernie's") was one of the closest. It was nothing to pop over there three or four times during the course of the day, as necessary. There was just one problem: my mother. She absolutely did not approve of him betting on the horses, though heaven knows it was a small enough vice and his bets were tiny - generally a shilling (£0.05) each.

So he couldn't just say, "I'm just popping over to Ernie's, back in fifteen minutes," and get the reply, "OK, see you soon". Instead he had to make a just-barely-plausible excuse.

Our house, like all English houses of its vintage, had no central heating. There was a coal fire, latterly replaced by a gas fire, for the living room. The kitchen was supposed to be kept warm by cooking, and in the bedrooms... you were supposed to be in bed anyway. I remember scraping ice from the inside of the windows during the winter. So in the kitchen and the bathroom, we had portable paraffin heaters. The ones we had were cylindrical, a couple of feet high and about a foot across, with a tank holding a gallon or so of fuel at the bottom. They needed constant adjustment and frequent maintenance, but no matter what you did, they stank. The very first thing to do on getting up on a winter's morning was to light the heater. By breakfast time the room would be just barely warm, and filled with a miasma of fumes and unburned paraffin.

For those who've never seen it, paraffin is a clear, greasy inflammable oil, a bit like diesel. Back then every house and workshop had paraffin heaters, and every hardware store had a big tank of the stuff, which they would sell by the gallon. To keep our heaters running, it was a weekly chore to go round with a five-gallon plastic container, returning with it filled. I occasionally did it myself, as a teenager, and I remember the weight lugging it home - 42 pounds, or about 18 kg, if my arithmetic is right (it weighs the same as jet fuel - these were English gallons, remember).

One of my Dad's excuses was this regular excursion, just before lunch, when he would place his bets. "I'm just popping out for the paraffin," he'd say, and he'd walk off up the three steps to the street, wrapped up tight against the chilly winter weather, the empty paraffin can in his hand.

The trip to the hardware store, waiting to be served, and coming home again, took about a ten or fifteen minutes. At least it did when I did it. My Dad took an hour or more, because, of course, most of the time was spent at Ernie's. I think it was as much a social occasion as anything else. He was a very social man, especially with people he knew but not all that well. He was a salesman by trade, and I think quite good at it although there wasn't much money to be made selling haberdashery.

That was the second trip of the day. The first, just after breakfast, was announced as "I'm just going to pay the papers." Like everyone back then, we had a newspaper delivered every day - the Daily Express, a favourite of the right-leaning working class. On Sundays there was the Sunday Express and - naturally - the News of the World, a titillating scandal sheet and favourite of the working classes right up to its own scandalous end a few years back, and the home of the phrase "then I made an excuse and left."

The papers were supplied on credit, and once a week there was a visit to the local newsagent (actually we had three) to stand in a long line of people waiting to pay their account. It was another fifteen minute round trip, which took my Dad an hour. I think his first trip was to study the form.

The afternoon was spent watching the races. I can still remember the noise and rhythm of the commentary, the stock phrases like "and now - now he's coming up on the inside! - and it's Bright Blaze, Bright Blaze by just a short head". Actually I hated it, and would hide away in the kitchen or my bedroom while it was going on, but like the football results later in the afternoon it was an inescapable part of every single Saturday. After the races there just might be some winnings to collect. In that case there would be some other domestic excuse for an outing - some cleaning product that needed to be replenished from the supermarket round the corner, another five minute trip that would take an hour.

Of course my mother knew perfectly well what was going on. In later years I learned that it annoyed her intensely, though I'm not really sure that honesty would have been any better a policy.

It wasn't only on Saturdays that things took longer than they needed. My Dad had a job that combined selling with delivering the things that he'd sold, and every evening he would drive a little delivery van home from the firm's base in the West End, full of odds and ends to be transformed into clothing in the sweatshops of East London. Occasionally in the school holidays he would take me with him. We'd leave just after five, and be home by 6.30 or so. Yet when my Dad was on his own he was never home until 7.30, an hour later. It's not hard to guess where the time went.

It was a blameless life, but still it needed a supply of excuses.


David R.. Harper said...

The paraffin cans were metal... The big white plastic one came later! I still remember flicking water at that heater and watching it boil on the exposed, lethally hot surface. And yes, on going away to university one of the great joys was Saturday's without "...and as they come into the final furlong it's...."
From the younger brother

Cathy DM said...

More please.