Summer of 76

Celia Coyne 2013

It was the year of the drought. It was the summer that my dad left home. It was the summer I had to say goodbye to my best friend. None of these things were connected.

That summer was hot – the hottest British summer for over 300 years. Reservoirs dried up, wild fires broke out, cars and trains were covered in grime because people weren’t allowed to wash them. For 15 consecutive days in June/July we sweltered in temperatures of 33°C. It was so hot you could fry an egg on the pavement – one man did, earning himself a spot on the evening news.

On those long, hot days there was nothing much to do except close the curtains, open the windows and pray for a breeze. When Ruth came over we would pester my Mum for use of the paddling pool. There was a hosepipe ban but Mum let us have a few inches of cold water and we would be in and out of it all day, splashing each other and squealing when we slipped and fell in. Sometimes Mum would bring a chair and sit with her feet in the water.

One day she looked serious. She said: ‘There’s going to be some changes.’

I wondered what she meant.

‘It’s about Dad and me.’

Then I knew. It must be to do with him sleeping on the floor. He’d been doing it for weeks. He’d use the cushions from the settee to make a mattress and I’d find him there in the morning under a sheet, taking up most of the floor in the lounge. It was annoying because I had to step round him if I wanted to watch the TV with my Cornflakes. He would stir and bark: ‘What time is it?!’ When I said it was 7 or 7.30 he would jump up saying ‘I’m late!’ Next minute he’d be rushing round with a rumpled shirt in his hand saying ‘Where’s the bloody iron!?’. He was very angry in those days and he would shout and spray spit into the air as he spoke. It was as though the heat was making him boil up inside.

‘Why does Dad sleep in the lounge?’ I asked. ‘Is it cooler there?’

Mum didn’t answer. She sighed and slipped her feet out of the water, drying them on a towel. ‘I’ll get you an ice-pop,’ she said.

A few days later when a classmate called me a wog on the way home from school, I had to ask my Mum what it meant. My Mum wanted to know who’d said it and why. I told her that Sandra said I was a wog because I play with Ruth. Mum explained it was a nasty word that stupid people use to describe coloured people. (We didn’t say black people in those days; coloured was the acceptable term.) She said that using the word wog was racist. I was shocked and felt my cheeks flush – as if I’d said it myself. I vowed never to talk to Sandra again.

‘And remember Ruth needs all the friends she can get as she’s new around here,’ Mum said.

She didn’t need to tell me that. I adored Ruth. We had been friends since the summer before, when her step-mum, a large and cheerful woman with wild red hair, had brought her to our house. Her step-mum wanted to join the ladies’ darts team, which my mum ran at the local community centre. While they chatted over a cup of tea, I impressed Ruth with my snail and beetle collection.

When I next saw Ruth, after that horrible incident with Sandra, I gave her a present: two rainbow hairclips. Ruth had short woolly hair and she always wore bright-coloured clips in it.

‘Magnificent Suzie!’ she said and put them on right away. Magnificent was her latest word. She always had a special word on the go. She would pick one from the dictionary and practise it. There had already been contagious, serendipity and mermaid. Mermaid was an old word, but new for Ruth – she was fascinated by the stories of mermaids luring sailors to their deaths at sea. She liked a good horror story.

Ruth’s skin was black as velvet. She had the most amazing hands with long, slender fingers and square palms. Her nails were perfect (not bitten down like mine). Ruth was mysterious: it went with her sing-song voice; the way she said things. She told me she was from a country in Africa. It began with a T. She had been adopted four years ago, when she was seven. But she didn’t say much more than that.

Ruth was a year older than me and she knew things. Like catapults; she knew how to make really powerful ones. It was all to do with the elastic you used. She knew where to find the best trees to climb. She knew how to make traps around our den, so that an intruder would stumble and fall. She was good at making up stories, too, about zombies and ghosts. There was one she liked to tell about a zombie, who used to be a doctor, and knew exactly how to reach into people’s bodies and rip out their still-beating hearts. When she could see I was getting scared her eyes would light up and she’d say ‘Shall I continue?’ even though she knew I would say yes. Sometimes I would just be listening to the up and down of her voice, not really taking in what she said. Then she would stop suddenly and say ‘And what did I just say?’ I had no clue. I had to quickly say something and usually she would pretend to be cross and to thump me. But she would always laugh. Then she would start again, with another story.

On those long hot days in the summer of 76, while the country longed for rain, it was too hot for anything, even climbing trees. As the drought wore on the heat seemed to stack up on itself, sapping the energy and making people tetchy, on edge. In my house, the tension was thick in the air, like a parched forest waiting for a spark. Ignition came one afternoon when my Mum pushed my dad’s reel-to-reel tape deck out of the upstairs window.

Bryan Ferry was on the radio and Ruth and I were singing along, strutting through the house holding hairbrushes as microphones: ‘The marriage vow is very sacred…’ Then there was an almighty crash. We both froze. My Mum was shouting and ranting upstairs. I looked out through the curtains and there it was in the garden: a mess of coloured wires and grey metal.

‘It’s my Dad’s tape deck,’ I said, stunned. ‘It cost a lot of money.’ Ruth came up beside me and we both looked out at the crime scene.

‘She must be incandescent,’ Ruth said. Then we heard the sound of my mum stomping across the ceiling and down the stairs.

‘That’ll teach him!’ she said, pointing towards the mangled machine. Then she went back into the kitchen and I heard the kettle go on.

Later, my sister told me that Dad had it coming and that what my Mum did was strike a blow for all women. The tape deck was symbolic of something he loved. It was true – he loved his music more than anything. So she really was hitting him where it hurt.

The next thing Mum did was pack two large suitcases with my Dad’s clothes. She asked me to fetch the ironing basket and she just emptied the clothes into the case. She struggled down the stairs with the cases, breaking into a sweat and heaving them onto the front step. She was kicking him out. He went quietly without a struggle. He gave me a wink and said not to worry that he would be back soon.

When I told Ruth the next day she put her arm round me.

‘It’s ok not having a Dad around,’ she said. ‘Me and Angie – we manage all right.’

Ruth always called her step-mum Angie. We sat in silence. I wanted to ask her what happened, how it had been for her in Africa, but she didn’t want to talk about it, I could tell.

And the terrible drought went on. It was all they would talk about on the news. My sister said that it was the silly season, but I didn’t think it was silly. It was agonising. The swimming pool had been closed and there was nothing to do. My Mum told me I was looking at things the wrong way. She said it was a ‘life event’ and that in all her life she had never known such a drought. I should pay attention, cycle up to the reservoir and take a look, submit it to memory because I probably would never get the chance to see such things again. Those were the days when the phrase ‘climate change’ hadn’t been invented; all we had was the ‘greenhouse effect’ and no one really understood what that was.

It was too hot to cycle to the reservoir, and I’d seen it on the TV: deep fissures cracked the soil and in the middle a pitiful puddle of muddy brown water like a weeping blister. There were too many news stories like that. It got a bit boring. I was more interested in the plagues of greenfly that were rampaging though the countryside and ruining crops. After the aphids there was a plague of ladybirds, which had multiplied due to the abundance of their favourite food. Some days Ruth and I spent hours seeing how many ladybirds we could find. There were different types, the big ones with nine spots and the little ones with just two. There were stories about ladybirds actually biting people. They must have been as hot and bothered as the rest of us.

When Dad turned up one day, parking his green Cortina on the corner, Ruth was round and we were playing jacks on the front step. He asked me if Mum was in as he needed to get a few things, but before I could answer, my sister was shouting from the upstairs window.

‘Get that scrubber out of our street!’

She flew down the stairs and was standing there all red faced and panting.

My Dad stood very still.

‘Watch your mouth,’ he said to my sister.

‘Watch your own – you can catch things off that!’ and she pointed to the car, where a lady was sitting in the front passenger seat.

My Dad raised his hand as if to hit her but he changed his mind.

The woman had beautiful hair – long and yellow as straw. She had the window right down and her thick blonde hair was flowing like a mane in the breeze.

I was cross with my sister because my Dad just turned round and walked off. I didn’t get the chance to say anything to him.

‘Why do you have to spoil things!’ I shouted at her.

‘You should ask him that,’ she said and stomped back inside.

It was Ruth’s turn to throw but she held on to the jacks. She said: ‘You miss your Dad don’t you?’

I nodded. I wondered how he could forget about us – just walk off and live his own separate life.

‘Do you miss your mum and dad in Africa?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes,’ said Ruth. ‘I used to worry that they would forget me. But Angie told me something. She said that a person’s heart carries a memory of those it has loved and as long as it is beating that memory is always there. Your Dad won’t forget you.’

I didn’t really want to think about it then because I knew it would make me cry, so I said ‘Your turn slow coach!’

And soon we were laughing again and playing jacks until it was time for her to go home for her tea.

Ruth and her step-mum lived in a caravan on the edge of Norsey Woods. It was a beautiful spot, with the woodland behind and a flower meadow all around, although this year it was dried out and brown. When school broke up for the holidays, Ruth and I would spend whole days hanging out in a camp we had made in the woods. We had decked it out nice and comfy with a couple of old settee cushions and a blanket for lying on. We had a radio, too, which we kept wrapped in a plastic bag to keep the rain out, though with the weather the way that it was, that was something of an over-precaution. It was August now and still no rain. Even Big Ben had gone on strike, its cogs seizing up in the heat. The country was so desperate the government had sought the help of druids.

‘Did you hear about the rain dancing at Stonehenge?’ I asked Ruth.


‘Bunch of druids been doing rituals and stuff to see if they can get it to rain.’

‘It’ll rain when it’s time,’ said Ruth decisively. ‘And it won’t be long now.’

I never questioned Ruth when she said things like that. I just believed her.

‘I’ve got something to tell you,’ she said and then she paused for what seemed like a long time. I was just about to break the silence when she said: ‘We’re getting chucked off the land. We’re going to have to move.’

‘What!’ I said. ‘But you can come live with us.’ Even as I said it I knew that it wasn’t possible.

Ruth slowly shook her head. ‘We’ll probably go up to Leeds – Angie has friends there. It might be better.’

I didn’t know what to say so I just sat there looking out of our den at the trees and the way their branches let glimmers of sunlight through to the woodland floor.

‘It’s catastrophic, isn’t it?’ said Ruth. ‘But we still have the summer.’

So we turned on the radio. They were playing a track by Queen, ‘You’re My Best Friend’. We both smiled at that because it was one of our favourites. Immediately we both jumped up and began posing and strutting like Pans People on Top of the Pops. We never told each other we were best friends. We just knew it. Like we knew that this was our song.

Two weeks later, we were walking back from our school’s summer fete. The air was sticky and hot, making our t-shirts feel clingy and the sky was a mass of grey clouds. I’d managed to win a strawberry jelly in the tombola and we’d split it in half, eating the chewy cubes of raw jelly even though it made us feel sick. Ruth had won a coconut and was shaking it to hear the juice moving about inside.

‘I don’t want you to go,’ I said to Ruth.

‘Nor do I – but I have to,’ she said simply.

I could feel my stomach twisting like it always did before I was going to cry. I was fighting it. Then suddenly a fat raindrop landed on my face – and then another. I looked up as the sky erupted in a huge fork of lightning. It was followed by a crackle of thunder – and then came the rain. Boy did it rain – like someone emptying a bath. It came down in torrents, running down the gutters and overwhelming the drains.

We walked home slowly in the rain, allowing ourselves to be utterly drenched. People were going mad all around us, splashing in puddles and clowning about. And so the drought had finally ended, like we knew that it would. Ruth left to go up north. My parents got a divorce. Things didn’t fall apart. Life went on.

Now many years later I wonder about my childhood friend. I wonder if her heart still beats and if, like mine, it still holds a memory of the summer of 76.