The plans had already been made by Dawn and her friends in the preceding weeks. They had a list of adventures they were going to have this summer including the exploration of several buildings abandoned in the mass exodus of a community desperate for a better future; a community that saw no need to look back at the fragile history they were leaving behind in the hands of the city’s developers. Every week more families left for a suburban promised land and for those that remained the daily struggle became even harder. Buildings were either being bulldozed or falling down of their own accord and the only increasing population in evidence were the rats who grew bigger and bolder as the human inhabitants became fewer. For the children of Highgate though this was a world of unlimited pleasure and fear. They never knew what they were going to find next and the thrill of it was immense.
Dawn jumped out of bed and quickly dressed. Her two older sisters with whom she shared the room were already up as were her younger brother and sister who slept in the room below with their parents. She had purposely stayed behind to think about the day ahead but her mother’s calls were becoming more insistent and she knew it was unwise to ignore them.
“About time too” said her mother as Dawn crashed down into the kitchen, a room no bigger than a large cupboard with a sink at one end and a bright red cabinet along the side wall. The other wall was taken up by two separate stairways, up to the bedrooms and down to the cellar. No one was allowed in the cellar except for Mr Adams who went down there to bring up the coal and only when he’d tucked his trouser legs into his socks to stop the rats running up them.
“Hurry up and have your breakfast and get washed. I want to clear up before I go out and sit up at the table” instructed her mother.
Dawn poured milk over her Weetabix until it was in danger of spilling over the sides of the shallow dish. Next she piled in the sugar, mixed it all up and bolted it down in a few minutes. Her mother brought in a bowl of water and set it down on the table ready for her wash. There was no bathroom. The toilet was in a block of three across the courtyard. For the younger ones bath time was on Sunday nights in a pink plastic bath. For the older members of the family it was either a wash down or the public baths. The public baths was a world of luxury that Dawn could only dream of. Fuelled by stories from her older sisters of proper baths that you could lie down in and didn’t have to fill up with pans of hot water she hoped that one day she would be big enough to experience it first-hand.
Petra, who was two years old than Dawn, was reading the Bunty over Karen’s shoulder. The two were moulded together on a small, green plastic settee. Karen, a couple of years older again, elbowed her sister irritably which only caused Petra to do the same to Karen but even harder.
“And you can stop that” bawled their mother. “Get outside in the fresh air and take Gwen and Alec with you.”
The two girls got up, grabbed their younger siblings and sulkily pulled them out into the courtyard. Dawn wiped toothpaste from her mouth and went to follow but was caught by her mother wielding a hairbrush.
“Hang on, let’s have a go at this” she said applying the brush to the thick mass of tangles on her daughter’s head.
This was a daily torturous routine which would often leave Dawn in tears and her mother threatening to cut it all off. Happily, Mrs Adams was in a hurry today so gave up trying to rip out every last shred of resistance quite early.
Petra came running back in
“Come on, we’re waiting for you”
Dawn wriggled free and ran for the door.
“Just a minute” shouted their mother sensing an unwarranted excitement “what are you two up to?”
“Nothing, just going out to play” said Dawn innocently.
“You’d better not be doing anything you shouldn’t be doing. I’m warning you, if I catch either of you in those empty houses you’ll be sorry.”
“We’re not going in the houses” said Dawn
“We’re not going in the houses” echoed Petra, a bit too quickly for their mother’s liking.
She fixed a look on them. Honed to perfection and designed to intimidate and it was one they knew well. Doris Adams was a formidable woman. Having borne six children with ages ranging from four to nineteen, five of them still at home, she had just about come across every trick that could be played and had a punishment for every one of them, most of which started with a slap and often ended in a good hiding. A large woman she had a speed and agility that would surprise even the most cocksure of children. In short no one was too far away or in too difficult a spot for her to get to when she put her mind to it. She was not popular with the other mothers. Most of them were of the opinion that she thought she was better than them. That didn’t bother Doris. As far as she was concerned she was better than them and as a result had no time for their opinions or their friendship. She kept to one or two close friends the most notable of which was an earthy Irish woman with unnaturally black hair that the children only ever knew as Mrs Flanagan. Another friend was Mrs Tuckerwho possessed a voice that bore witness to her chronic dependence on Benson and Hedges. She lived at the opposite end of the courtyard with Mr Tucker who worked nights and their four children, two of which were waiting outside for Petra and Dawn.
“Can we go now?” asked Dawn bravely.
“Yes but I’m warning you…”
Doris pointed her finger fiercely but the girls were already half way out the door. On the other side of it June Tucker was waiting impatiently. Her younger brother Paul was halfway up the courtyard playing football with some older boys. When he saw them he ran over, simultaneously wiping his nose on his sleeve. Paul was roughly the same age as Dawn. Had they gone to the same school they would have been in the same class but the Tuckers attended Rea Street School. Dawn was sorry that Paul would never experience the joys of Miss Simister, the best teacher ever, and she often told him so. Not knowing the fabled teacher Paul was sorrier that he had less opportunity to experience the joys of Dawn Adams. Although he never told her, Dawn was aware that Paul had a soft spot for her. She liked Paul but the permanent stream of green snot hanging from his nose precluded them from becoming anything more than friends. Indeed for Dawn copping for a full on snog with Paul in True, Dare, Double Dare, Love, Kiss or Promise was a fate worse than death that she hoped she would never have to face.
They called for Roma as they walked further up the courtyard and now their group was complete. Making their way through the entry they walked out onto the other side of what was left of Hope Street. Across the road there were a few kids playing on the Bomb Peck. They ignored their calls to join their game: they had other plans.
They slipped in to another entry that took them round to the back of the recently vacated pub all the time keeping a look out for adults, interlopers or anyone that would give the game away. There was no one. The courtyard and the houses surrounding it were eerily empty. They began to pile up bins, boxes and rubbish against the high wall that surrounded the pub. Petra, being the tallest, was sent up first. She wobbled unsteadily on some old crates, placed on a couple of wooden slats, balanced across two battered bins and just about managed to climb onto the top of the wall seconds before the precarious structure came crashing down. The others giggled nervously as they dodged flying crates and rolling bins.
“I’m stuck now” panicked Petra.
“Jump down on the other side” shouted Paul
“And what if I can’t get back up?” She yelled back down at him. “I’ll be stuck over there on my own with the ghosts and the rats. I could be dead in a couple of hours.”
“Shall we go and get your Mum?” asked Roma.
“She definitely would be dead then” snorted Dawn.
“It’s not funny” said an increasingly small voice from above them.
“Don’t worry we can build it back up again. Just try to get to that gate first. See if you can get it open. Then we can all come through” said Dawn taking charge.
Things were not going quite to plan so Dawn was thinking on her feet. It was at times like this when she liked to think what would George do? Since Miss Simister had introduced Dawn to The Famous Five she had modelled herself on George the tomboy who was smarter, stronger and braver than any boy she knew including Dick and Julian, the male contingent of The Famous Five. She decided that, in this situation, George would have done exactly as she had so she quietly congratulated herself on her good sense and went back to directing her sister who had now managed to edge herself along the wall to a large solid gate topped off with barbed wire.
“Looks like it’s just a few bolts” reported Petra “but I can’t reach the top one without getting caught on the wire.”
“Hang on I’m coming up” called Dawn concluding that this was definitely what George would have done.
She scrambled up the hastily rearranged scaffolding. Petra grabbed her arm and pulled her towards her. She felt her knees scraping against the wall as she clambered onto it and, by the time she’d reached the top, tiny pin pricks of red fluid were beginning to make their way to the surface stinging the raw pink flesh as they came. She spotted a window of opportunity and, ignoring the pain, jumped down on the other side.
“Come on” she called to Petra who gave a heavy sigh and followed reluctantly.
The two rolled an empty barrel over to the gate. Petra helped Dawn on top of it and within minutes the bolt was open. The other two were easily unlocked and before long the five friends were standing in the yard behind the pub. One of the downstairs windows was already broken suggesting someone had been there before them and could still be inside. They looked at each other waiting for the first one to suggest turning back but no one did, the whiff of potential danger was intoxicating. Dawn climbed in through the window and the others followed. They went through a small empty room straight into the bar. None of them had ever been in a pub before. Previous excursions to its tiny outdoor to buy a Barley Twist had not prepared them for the spectacle before them. Even stripped bare it was an imposing sight for a bunch of primary school ne’er do wells. They stood for a few minutes their eyes swollen with awe. They had never seen so much wood or glass. It was the nearest thing they’d had to a religious experience in their short lives. Then, like young greyhounds springing from their traps, they suddenly and collectively proceeded to storm the room. They climbed on the big oak bar and up onto shelves once stocked full with adult treats then jumped off them to prove their bravery. They hung from the empty pumps and turned cartwheels on the spacious floor until the exhilaration of their mayhem wore off and they regrouped to decide what to do next.
“Let’s play Famous Five” offered Dawn “we can be searching for treasure that the robbers have hidden here.”
“Yeah” nodded Paul “and we have to be careful because they might come back at any minute.”
They all agreed this was a good idea. None of the others had read the Famous Five but that didn’t matter: Dawn had retold the stories so many times that they were convinced they had read them anyway.
“I don’t want to be Anne this time” said Roma “she’s boring.”
“I’ll be Anne” said June rolling her eyes “You’ll have to be Kit.”
As Timmy, the fifth member of the Famous Five, was a dog no one was keen be him so he had to be imaginary. That meant they were always one character short sothey made up Kit, another female cousin who was nearly as clever and brave as George but not quite. Dawn was always George and Petra, on account of her height, always played Julian. Petra wasn’t too happy about being a boy but she had given up arguing about it. At least she got to boss the others around a bit.
They decided on the plot, the thieves had stolen jewels from the Manor House and the Five were investigating the robbery when they came across an old smugglers tunnel that had led them to their hideout. They began to look for the stolen goods.
“Let’s look upstairs” whispered Dawn.
“Be careful, they might be up there” replied Roma.
They all nodded and quietly made their way to the stairs. Slowly and silently they crept towards the upper floor, grimacing at every creak in the ancient steps. Then they heard the sound of something rustling above them. They all looked at each other uneasily.
“What was that?” said a startled Roma.
“Probably a rat” said Dawn trying to sound calm.
Paul gripped the broken chair leg he’d picked up downstairs. The others held the handrail tightly and forced themselves on. They carefully pushed open the doors one by one and peered in. No sign of any rats, just a few bits of paper rolling around in the breeze blowing through another broken window. They relaxed and continued with their game, poking around for stolen treasure and tracks left by the villains. In a room overlooking the front of the street they found a cardboard box half full with broken ornaments and a single faded curtain. Paul pulled it out, swirled it around his shoulders and proclaimed himself to be Adam Adamant. The others tittered as he thrust the chair leg towards them as if it were his swordstick. As Dawn rummaged through the box’s contents looking for a suitable weapon she caught sight of something glistening through the bits of broken china. She reached in and pulled out a long rectangular metal dish. They all crowded around the buried treasure in wonderment.
“Is it gold?” gasped Roma.
“Probably worth thousands of pounds” said Petra “we could sell it and buy loads of sweets.”
“And bikes” added Paul
“And a dog” said Dawn wistfully.
Just then they heard a van pulling up outside. June ran over to the window.
“They’re coming in here!”
Dawn grabbed the dish and the five ran at breakneck speed for the door, down the stairs and out through the window at the back, the last few just about getting through before the workmen came after them. They shot out of the gate, up the courtyard and out through one of the entries, the sound of the workmen’s shouts becoming ever more distant the further they fled. The rush of fear and adrenalin went to their heads and they laughed manically as they slowed down to examine their prize.
They decided to lie low for a bit in case the men were looking for them so climbed into one of their favourite empty houses to carry on with their game until at last hunger got the better of them. They wrapped the dish in Paul’s jumper and took the long way home so that they didn’t have to pass the pub. On the way back they debated what to do with the dish and finally settled on hiding it in the Adams’ wash house. Petra went into the house to check if Mrs Adams was back from her errands. She came out and gave the all clear. The wash house was piled high with junk and Dawn edged her way in carefully so as not to disturb any of it. She found an old metal pot and put the dish inside covering it over with stray newspaper. Afterwards they went into the house and made jam sandwiches swigged down with water then went out to play with the other children in the yard. Tomorrow was Sunday so they would have no chance to go into the wash house but on Monday, when the adults went back to work, they would take the dish out and decide what to do with it. As evening drew near they swore an oath to keep the dish a secret and went home each agreeing it had been a good day for adventures.
“What have you done to your knees?”
“I fell over when we were playing Tig” lied Dawn.
“Oh Dawnie you’re such a clumsy clot” said her mother in a moment of rare tenderness.
She bathed them in warm water
“There, now we’ll let the air get to them and they’ll heal much quicker” she smiled “Time for bed.”
Knees stinging Dawn lay in bed going over the day in her head but in no time at all tiredness won over her attempts to stay awake and she fell into a deep and happy slumber.
Sunday was a nothing day for the friends. Sunday School in the morning and playing in the yard in the afternoon. Even though the place was half empty there were still too many adults about to have any kind of fun especially on a sunny day like this one when they brought chairs outside or leaned on fences idly chattering. Finally Monday came around and the five met again outside the Adams house. They hung around waiting for the chance to go into the wash house. Petra was sent in to check the whereabouts of her mother and rushed out to confirm that she was in the kitchen. Every minute counted so Dawn hurriedly made for the wash house but as she opened the door she heard her mother’s voice booming across the courtyard
“One step further young lady and you’ll be in big trouble.”
Dawn gulped and turned to see her nemesis standing in the doorway to the house with a stern look on her face and a bowlful of dripping washing in her hand.
“I just thought I heard something in there that’s all. I was just …”
“You were just nothing” Doris cut in “the only thing that’s going to be in there are rats and they’ll rip your throat out. Is that what you want?”
Dawn shook her head.
“Thought not and anyway your Dad’s got a load of stuff in there and it could all come down on top of you at any time, so stay out. Do you understand?”
Dawn nodded her head.
“Right well go off and play…and stay out of trouble the lot of you”
Doris turned her attention to the washing and started to wring every last drop of water out through the ancient mangle that lived outside the Adams downstairs window. Knowing there was no point in arguing the children obeyed. They went off to play on the Bomb Peck with the other neighbourhood kids and vowed that, rats or no rats, they would retrieve the golden dish the next day when Mrs Adams was out at work and sell it at the Rag Market. Then they would be rich.
The day went faster than they had imagined. They climbed into the empty clinic and played doctors and nurses, spied on the men in the pub who were stripping it of any remaining items of value and got chased by an angry tramp whom they’d accidentally woken up. They went up to Gooch Street and slithered down the bank to the River Rea where they prospected for gold using a broken bowl they’d found on the way. It had been a full day and time to go home to dinner.
Petra and Dawn walked in as the other children were crowding around the television watching Crossroads. Their mother was standing over the table mashing the life out of some unfortunate vegetables, watching the television and talking to their father at the same time. Because the kitchen was so tiny, food was always prepared and cooked in the living room. It was the centre of family life and served all of their basic needs. Neither parent acknowledged the girls’ entrance: they were busy talking about the rectangular golden dish that sat on the table besides Albert Adams.
“Might fetch a few bob” said Albert.
Petra’s eyes were as wide as lollipops as she looked at her younger sister aghast. Dawn gave her a scowl that said say and do nothing incriminating.
Alec climbed onto his dad’s lap
“Is it gold Dad?”
“Of course not” laughed Albert “it’s just a bit of brass”
Albert Adams knew his metals. He was a Tatter, a Rag and Bone man, who went out with his barrow scavenging for junk, the most prized of which was scrap metal. He had a group of strange and wonderful friends, all in the same trade, with names like Ginger, Jazzer and The Painter. Albert was known as the Professor mainly because he wore glasses and had a studious look about him. To Dawn he was an exotic creature, a seeker of treasure and it was a rare treat when his friends came round to visit. Doris took a different view. She longed for the day when her husband got a proper job and they could leave this bunch of loonies behind. Until then her interest in his work came and went depending on the items he brought home. Today she was interested.
“What is it?” she asked
“Looks like a drip tray from a pub” Albert replied
“Where d’you get it? Did they let you in up the road?”
“No chance they’ve got the professionals in there. I found it in the wash house when I was clearing some stuff out. “
“How’d it get in there?”
“I don’t know. I thought you put it in there.”
“Me? Where would I get it from and what would I be doing in the wash hou…”
As the sentence trailed off into the air Dawn could feel her mother’s eyes turning and fixing their cold, steely glare on her. She dared not look round pretending to be engrossed in the programme but all the time thinking what would George do right now? She knew in her heart of hearts that George was a good sort who would naturally have owned up to everything. She also knew that George was a toff who would probably have got away with a telling off and being sent to her room. George would not have to face the wrath of Dawn’s mother or even worse her father. With this in mind she concluded that, on this occasion, she would forget George and keep her mouth shut and her eyes on the TV. Besides, it was Bubble and Squeak for dinner and she didn’t want to miss that.