My parental grandparents, Edward and Edith Annie, lived all their married lives in the same two-up, two-down stone terraced cottage. As a young boy I spent most Saturday afternoons there and I found the house stifling and gloomy. The furniture was old, massy and dark-wooded; the household ran to the pace of the slow-ticking mahogany cased grandfather clock; and there was nothing to do. The cottage matched the mood of only one of its inhabitants. Edward was a kindly cap-wearing pipe smoker with a sense of humour. Every year while on holiday in Morecambe, he sent my mother a saucy McGill postcard. It was their shared joke and I still have several postcards in a shoebox in the attic. By contrast Edith-Annie was as austere as her surroundings.
Early photographs of my grandmother show a substantial woman: handsome rather than pretty and with an imposing Edwardian bosom. By 1963 she was elderly, stern and stout. A working class Victorian upbringing and bleak non-conformist religious beliefs helped make her dour and humourless, but life’s experiences had really created her. In the nineteen twenties, Edward and Edith Annie worked in the cotton mills. She was a weaver and he a cotton printer, then a highly paid job. They had been affluent enough to employ a village girl to keep house for them: I have a press cutting reporting how she stole Edith-Annie’s wedding ring. During the depression of the nineteen thirties they both lost their jobs and Edward had to earn a living as water man tending the small reservoir at the top end of the village. Edith Annie stayed at home, made ends meet and brooded.
One Saturday a month Edith Annie’s sister, Aunt Ethel, made the two-bus journey from the mining town of Leigh for a visit. When seated together it was hard to tell the two sisters apart: it seemed as if their father, a miner, had hewn them from the same coalface, and they shared the same coal-black outlook on life. Both women dressed for the visit in their smartest clothes – the only time I ever saw Edith Annie without her apron in the house – and they had identical iron-grey shampoo and set hairstyles. The visit was surprisingly formal. On arrival Aunt Ethel gave Edith Annie a small present, usually a tin of salmon, and they would exchange small talk. Around three they had afternoon tea: Ethel’s tinned salmon, salad and bread and butter. They drank strong tea and finished the meal with ‘fancies’ – small iced cakes. Apart from the small talk the visit was conducted in almost silent communion until, at three thirty, the atmosphere changed.
In 1960 a television had become a surprise addition to the cottage. The set was hardly ever used except for Saturday afternoons, when ITV showed an hour of all in wrestling. In the nineteen sixties wrestling was a popular, earthy, affair. Its fighters were heroes and Ethel and Edith Annie were in thrall to them. This hour was sacred so, with measured haste, the women cleared away the tea things whilst Edward turned on the slow warming television set. This was no place for a man, so when he’d found the channel and set two mahogany Queen Anne dining chairs out in front of the television, Edward beat a hasty retreat. Sometimes I went with him while he walked round the village, but if it rained I was reluctantly allowed to stay for the wrestling. Tucked away unregarded in a corner, the most attention I got was to be ‘shushed’ if I was noisy.
At exactly four o’ clock the commentator, Kent Walton, gave his customary greeting ‘Good afternoon, grapple fans’, and the two old women settled down on their chairs. They sat attentively through the first couple of sporting bouts, but became tense when the Master of Ceremonies announced the final brutal fight between good and evil.
‘In the blue corner, the man you love to hate: Mick McManus’
The crowd booed McManus, who had black trunks and short cropped black hair, and he snarled back. Edith Annie and Ethel tutted their disapproval.
‘And in the red corner, all the way from Canada, Billy Two Rivers.’
Billy, a genuine Mohawk Indian, got rousing cheers from the crowd and raised eyebrows of approval from my relatives. He always entered the ring in a full feather war bonnet, and had a Mohican haircut that Edith Annie would have crossed the road to avoid on any other day of the week. On Saturdays, however, she revelled in the exotic.
The bout started warily as the two wrestlers circled each other. Billy went for a stranglehold but McManus slipped past and gave Billy two of his trademark forearm smashes, sending him into the ropes. Aunt Ethel winced at the pain, but Billy launched himself from the ropes catching McManus with his own forearm smash that made Edith Annie suck in air sharply. While McManus was recovering Billy went for a half-nelson but, unseen by the referee, the bad guy tried to gouge Billy’s eye with a knuckle, an illegal move that made Edith Annie and Ethel tut loudly. As Billy staggered round the ring rubbing his eye, McManus capitalized by kicking him on the knee, sending him face forward to the ground. Then McManus dragged Billy by the leg into the middle of the ring and got him in a painful looking knee lock.
‘Oh no.’ Ethel cried in dismay, while Edith Annie looked pained.
But Billy was strong. Slowly he crawled towards the edge of the ring and managed to grab hold of the bottom rope. McManus should have released him but he pretended that he couldn’t hear the referee’s request.
‘Let go of ‘im.’ Edith Annie called with the crowd.
Luckily the bell went for the end of round one and McManus reluctantly released Billy, who crawled back to his corner.
Billy limped out to start round two but it was a ruse. As McManus went for another kick on Billy’s weakened knee the Canadian deftly sidestepped him, grabbed his right arm and swung him hard into the corner post.
‘Go on’. Edith Annie’s voice rose to a muted shout of encouragement, while Ethel nodded her head violently in support, threatening to dislodge her shampoo and set.
As Billy followed up with a kick to the knee, McManus dodged and managed to wrestle Billy into a headlock. Billy’s head was twisted round savagely and McManus shouted for him to submit. His muffled refusal was echoed by the two old women. Then McManus edged round until he faced away from the referee and, for the cameras, punched Billy in the face four times. Aunt Ethel’s reserve broke first and she half-stood, screaming at the television.
‘You dirty beggar, geroff ‘im’.
Worse was to come. McManus stopped punching Billy and, still maintaining the headlock, reached his free hand down and grabbed hold of the edge of Billy’s trunks. He twisted them savagely while Billy writhed for the viewers. Edith Annie was indignant and she turned to Ethel.
‘Did you just see what he did?’ Then she began to move her lips silently while Ethel nodded in agreement. Modesty forbade them to voice the unmentionable words, so they resorted to the lip reading they had learned when they worked in the noisy weaving sheds.
Somehow, Billy managed to get a hold on McManus’s fingers and prize the headlock apart. Then moving swiftly he caught McManus’s arm and swung him into the ropes so hard that McManus went over the top rope and out of the ring.
The old women became even more excited, because they knew what was coming next. Billy was angry and when he was angry he stoked it with a war dance. The crowd screamed as Billy stomped around the ring, ululating loudly. McManus was a marked man and knew it. He had to be pushed back into the ring.
Now Billy went for a headlock on McManus and paraded him around, shouting to the crowd.
Should I? Should I?
‘Go on, do it’ they replied.
‘Yes, yes’, shouted Ethel emphatically.
Go on’, bellowed Edith Annie, the loudest voice of all. ‘Get ‘im gelded!’
McManus knew what was coming: he had one weak point and no bout was complete until the crowd heard him cry:
‘Not the ears, not the ears’.
Billy theatrically waved his open hand at the crowd and then ground his palm into McManus’s left ear, while the hated one screamed to be set free. Billy obliged him, but only so that he could grab McManus by an arm and leg and hoist him into the air for an aeroplane spin. Billy spun round three times and then threw McManus to the ground.
McManus stayed put while the referee counted to ten. He made one feeble attempt to stand but didn’t make the count. The crowd roared as the master of ceremonies shouted
‘The winner, by a knockout, Billy Two Rivers.’
Edith Annie pointed to the screen, stared at Ethel and shouted triumphantly:
‘See, see, see that’.
At that moment Edith Annie was at the ringside baying with the crowd, then on cue, Edward returned from his walk and she returned home. Neither woman spoke about the wrestling or acknowledged the release it gave them, and shortly afterwards Aunt Ethel left to catch her bus. Perhaps there was a knowing look in the half smiles they bestowed each other on parting.