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I Swear

This happened to me when I was a child

I Swear

England. South Shields, 1967. I leaned against our back gate, acting the big man in front of the bloke next door. Mouthing off to him and swearing even though he'd already complained a couple of times to Ma about my bucket-mouth. Thinking I was so big and clever, the other kids looked on. They were keen to see what happened next.

I should have realised something bad was coming my way when their eyes widened in shock. While I was busy showing off, someone's hand grabbed my collar, yanked me off my feet, and hauled me through the gate.

Ma knew, intuitively the way all mothers did, that I lied a lot. I'd given enough evidence of them. She'd known I'd swore at people in the past, despite my protestations otherwise. So she'd hidden on the other side of the gate and heard me herself.

Dragged across the yard to the back steps. I blubbered and pleaded with her, that I'd be good from then on. I'd have sworn to anything to avoid what came next. My heels thumped on the rickety stairs as the fading light from the back door illuminated the cobwebs in the roof amid the dirt and stains. I lost a sneaker on the way when it snagged on a crack in the stair-riser, but that didn't slow Ma down as she hauled me like a sack of spuds into the scruffy scullery.

She'd warned me endlessly she'd wash my mouth out with Carbolic Soap. If everyday soap could be categorized as nice and sweet, soft and gentle, perfumed and refreshing, then Carbolic was the total opposite: Blocky, rough, smelling of disinfectant, lather-less, industrial cleaner, and generally horrible. Carbolic was the skinhead of soaps, and I was about to have a meal of it.

I could tell Ma meant business because she grabbed the dirty plates out of the sink and smashed them to the floor in temper. Oh Gawd, I was in big trouble. I just stood looking at her, hoping that if I looked dejected enough she'd relent but she didn't. She yanked me by the collar and the seat of my pants. When she had her mad on she could be a strong scary bugger. Then she slammed me onto the damp, smelly drainer, like a butcher slapping a hunk of beef onto a chopping-block. Dampness seeped into my clothes, as my head drooped into the big china sink. Ma mustn't have liked the position I was in because she dragged me further up the drainer, scattering the greasy pans and plates that were waiting to be washed, until she shoved my head directly under the brass tap.

I fought even harder. On the drainer, I struggled and wriggled, trying to shake free of Ma's strong, polished-finger-nailed hand that held me by the throat. Her fingernails dug deep into my skin to keep me positioned. I fought her back despite my struggles to keep my head away from the sink edge. Pans and plates scattered, clattering everywhere as my legs and feet thrashed wildly in our battle, neither of us willing to give in. She reached over me and turned the tap on. A clunk sounded. I waited as the air was released and I heard the water surging up the pipe. A single drop gathered on the end, and I thought I'd been saved. Sometimes the water didn't flow, due to low pressure and I thought to myself that this was one of those times. But alas for me, not that day.

The treacherous water gushed out of the tap, soaking my head and neck. For a brief second the coldness froze me where I lay. I spluttered and spat as I continued to cry and begged Ma to let me go. But once Ma made up her mind to do something, she did it. All the while Ma was shouting at me at the top of her voice, "I'll teach you to f***ing swear you little bas***d! You won't f***ing swear again, will you? You f***ing little shite!"

I heard snippets of distant shouts drifting up the stairs. "Go on Mim, give the little bugger what for!" or "Teach the little bugger a lesson he wont forget!"

I snapped my mouth shut. I knew she couldn't shove the soap between my lips if they were closed tight.

"Open up, and this'll go easier on you!" she shouted, her voice louder in the tight confines of the scullery.

At that point, three pit ponies wouldn't have got me to open my gob.

"Open. . . your. . . mouth," she repeated slower and quieter and with menace.

I remember defiantly staring at her, but I had to keep blinking to keep the splashes of water out of my eyes. My lips were still clamped shut, as I tried to dodge the water that gushed over me.

Then she leaned down, got right in my face, until we were practically nose to nose and she repeated in a quiet voice, "Brian, open your mouth," She gave me one of those rictus-smiles where I knew she was also gritting her teeth. The killer-smile. It brooked no more arguments, no resistance, no bullshit. This kind of calm command had to be obeyed, or woe betide. I knew then it was no good. I had to give in or it would be worse for me.

I stammered a quick, "Please Mam," but instantly she jammed the Carbolic Soap into my gob. Oh she could be so quick. I gagged, I knew for sure I was going to die. She rubbed and drubbed like wash day on a Monday, humming some obscure song under her breath. Her eyes, normally blue and pretty, turned to slits.

Meanwhile I begged and sobbed and got myself worked up into a lather. After the bar was wedged between my teeth, she put some elbow grease into it. It tasted horrible, like sucking on a toilet urinal cake, I tried like frig not to swallow. She was determined to teach me a lesson, even if it meant someone reporting her to the National Assistance.(Government Welfare)

Finally it was over. She stood me on my feet. I, of course, being the devious little git that I could be, wobbled, and looked about to faint. Ma gathered me in her arms, contrite. Guilt could be a good commodity when you were eight and knew how to wield it. She wrapped me in her arms cooing to me and telling herself what a horrible person she felt for inflicting this on her poor child. I then made a cardinal error. I smiled, thinking how I could turn this to my advantage?

She saw this and instantly reverted to Monster-Ma. My arse landed back on that draining board so fast I was stunned. She had the Carbolic Soap in her hand ready to "wash" me again. I looked on with futile-acceptance of something uncontrollable. She knew she'd made her point, dropped the soap-bar onto the floor, looked at me with a little discomfort and possibly shame on her face and told me to get off the drainer myself. This wasn't easy, there being no stool or chair to climb down, but I eventually managed and stood in front of her.

I hung my head, and totally knackered by my exertions swore on the Bible that I'd never swear again. With her hands on her hips, her foot constantly tapping its temper-fuelled rhythm. I knew I could still be in trouble so I said nothing. She shook her head slowly and sighed quietly "Eee, our Brian, what am I going to do with you?"

In 1993, when we buried Ma, I was reminded of the taste of that soap in my gob all those years ago. We'd gathered in Ma's sitting room for her wake. I told the rest of the family about what she'd done, to teach me a lesson all those years ago, but my Aunty Syl asked the question.

"Did it work then? Did she teach you to stop swearing?"

All eyes fixed on me again as I pondered her question. It didn't take long for me to answer.

"Did she fuck!"

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