by Syd Peck

Algernon: Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
– Oscar Wilde,
The Importance of Being Earnest


‘Let’s go down to Willicoats? Would you like that?’
‘Oh, lovely, yeah. And can I get a bucket and spade?’
‘Why aye, man. Get your hair combed and your shoes on, and we’ll away.’

The electric train station was close to the beach. In fact you didn’t have to walk far in Cullercoats to reach any of the attractions since it was such a small, compact village. It possessed all the necessaries for a small child’s happy daytrip, sand, sun and seafood. It was a world in itself, and a million miles away from the grey inner-city existence of  Bensham, Gateshead.

As soon as we got off the electric train, he would buy me a new bucket and spade and turn me loose on the beach, and let me dig as long as I liked. But he would never accompany me down on to the sands, claiming that the sand would get into his false leg. When I grew up I realised that he could not negotiate the wooden stairs down, and uncle John didn’t want to risk slipping on the sand-strewn concrete ramp. I therefore dug alone. When I tired of the digging and squinted anxiously up at the top of the sandstone cliffs to see if he was still there, he was always waiting for me, sitting within sight on one of the blue seafront benches at the top of the concrete ramp. The new binoculars would be in hand, and uncle John would be keeping an eye on me, and watching the freighters coming into the Tyne or riding out at sea waiting for the tide. And as the afternoon wore on and the sea breeze turned chilly, I would give up digging and come up the ramp, filling my pockets with sand and shells to take home.

The clifftop road around the bay was lined by terraced cottages with walls of sandstone blocks weathered away by a hundred years of salt-breeze, like a child’s ice cream partly licked away. Outside the open cottage doors on the uneven sandstone flags of the pavement were wooden tables carrying crabs, lobsters, saucers full of mussels, and dozens of paper packets of winkles, all boiled and pickled and ready to eat.

‘Bag of willicks and a pin, hinny?’ would be suggested to you by thickset, weatherbeaten women standing by each table as you passed along the path, dodging the colourful plastic toy windmills whirring vigorously in the cool breeze. Uncle John seemed to know everyone as he squeaked past trying to hide his limp, and he occasionally stopped and introduced me to the strange pickled creatures of the deep, laughing as I pulled a face at the taste of this or that slimy offering. Periwinkles, known to all as willicks, eaten from the shell with the aid of a pin, are an acquired taste, and I acquired it. There seemed to be unending tables groaning with these shelly delicacies, and it was easy to see why uncle John called the place Willicoats.

Plainly it wasn’t true that relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.