THE SNOW HOUSE author, lochsplus
This year has seen a particularly cold winter in Scotland. Weeks of snow and arctic temperatures reminded me of other long, harsh winters from my childhood. One such was 1946. I was seven years old and that was the year I found out firsthand about crime and punishment.
I presently live a few yards from the River Leven, about a mile from Loch Lomond. Back then, my home was an orphanage about fifty miles from here. It was cold, with snow on the ground, when I arrived there in January of 1943. Early on, I realised that the whole of my existence would henceforth be a battle against the innate sinfulness that we unfortunate children brought with us when we exited the womb. SIN would be ever- present in our lives. Staying clear of eternal damnation was an uphill struggle. The list of wickedness possible was endless. Thinking of anything other than repentance and retribution was, well, sinful. Warning cries of ‘I am a God of wrath; I will repay!’ and, ‘Thou God see-est me!’, and ‘Lying lips are an ABOMINATION unto the Lord!’, were heard loud and often. And it was cold.
The list of punishable offences was long and varied. Most of these were to be expected – all the ‘Thou shalt nots’ in the Commandments along with no lying; putting ones foot over the edge of the linoleum when waiting in line; speaking when silence was ordered; rolling down ones ‘Hairy Marys’ (black, scratchy, woolen stockings) and umpteen more. One sin I always thought was highly unreasonable. We were reminded of it by the Head of the House, a.k.a., ‘Mother’, once a week on the evening before rubbish bin (garbage can) emptying day. This was in the days of metal bins. The Bin Man was never given the courtesy of ‘Mr.’ before his name. He was just ‘Farley’. The reason for this was that Farley was a sinner of the first order. He was going to suffer eternal damnation and burn forever in the fires of Hell. There would be no redemption for this fellow and, if we were each not VERY careful on bin day, we would be right down there in the flames with him. Unless, since ”The wages of sin is death” according to the Good Book, we got our comeuppance sooner than expected. According to ‘The Word of God’, otherwise known as ‘The Bible’, ”He that winketh with the eye, thinketh evil in the heart.” Farley was a winker, a smiler and a winker. Whenever he met one of us children on his travels around bin-emptying land, forbidden to speak to we innocents, he would smile and WINK. The problem was, and this is where the unfairness came in, it wasn’t just the WINKER who was on track for eternal damnation. Any unsuspecting WINKEES were Hell bound also. For this reason, a sharp lookout was kept for Farley. The sight of him at the end of the road would send us all fearfully hiding as far from the bins as possible lest we became the subjects of the bin man’s drooping eyelid. For three years I had successfully escaped Farley’s evil winky eye being cast upon me. Then, on this snowy day in 1946, it happened. I BECAME A WINKEE.
Looking back, I realise that we never ever built snowmen. We didn’t talk about snowmen and I, for one, didn’t even think about snowmen. Snowmen were a non-subject. It’s not surprising really, given that, made of snow or not, they were MEN. Perhaps an older girl had made, or Mother was afraid an older girl might make, an anatomically correct snowman by fashioning and adhering an appendage. This would surely turn every last one of us twenty some girls into raging, sex mad, man-hungry monsters, fair riddled with sin. So no snowmen. This winter of 1946 gave us so much snow we were able to build something much more fitting. We built a snow house, an igloo. Since The Gravel, our play area, was being whipped by a bitter North East wind, we chose our site on the sheltered side of the house. Unfortunately for me, as it turned out, this spot was overlooked by the side bay of Mother’s sitting room window.
Half a dozen or so of us younger girls worked diligently on the igloo. It was almost completed, to the delight of we budding architects. I can’t remember what exactly I was doing as I gave it some finishing touches. Suffice to say, I was totally focused on my creative endeavour. So much so, that I did not notice all the other girls had gone. Suddenly, I was awakened from my dream state by the sound of bins rattling. Instinctively, I turned in the direction of the noise, and froze. I was looking straight into the face of Farley. He winked. Out of the side of my eye I caught movement at Mother’s window. The net curtain fell back into place. She’d witnessed the wink. What to do? To stay would mean punishment. To go, likewise, for being a winkee in the first place. I left.
Strangely, for all the dire warnings of God’s wrath and Hell’s fire, my worry was always for the more immediate consequences of transgressions. Mother’s punishments were many and varied. They ranged in severity from ”No Friday Bun” to ”Hairy Marys For A Week”. ”The Strap”, a fearsome, thick, leather belt, split up the middle to make it more ‘effective’, was saved for only the worst offences. To her credit, Mother rarely used it. She preferrred more creative means of keeping us sinners out of the flames of Haedes. To the uninitiated, I should explain some of the most common of these. As well as the bread and butter which comprised our evening meal, we were allowed half a slice with jam. ”No Jam” was for minor sins. On Friday, as well as the bread, we received a Paris bun. ”No Friday Bun” was for offences slightly more serious. ”No Pudding” at lunch time came next in the food related consequences with, ”No Tea”, meaning, no evening meal atall, being the worst. That was often accompanied by ”Go To Bed Without Tea” – a double whammy, that one. There were too many others to list, but the one that must be mentioned is ”Hairy Marys For A Week”. That one I dreaded most of all. Hairy Marys were thick, black, woolen stockings held up with elastic garters which we wore from September 1st until April 30th. These scratchy, itchy, unsightly objects were much hated and would have served monasteries better than hair shirts. Since our legs were encased in them for eight months of the year, the ”A Week In Hairy Marys” punishment was only handed out for the other four. Before climate change, summers were reliably summery. An unseasonably hot day in spring or Autumn, was torture for all of us, even the most saintly. Having just become a winkee, I was so steeped in sin I just knew a HUGE sentence would be handed down. The fact that, this being January, I was already in Hairy Marys, was all that saved me from that immediate threat. There was still the fear of a suspended sentence, if you’ll pardon the pun. I could have payment of my debt to society deferred until May or even June. At seven years old, something that far in the future held no great fear, just a nagging discomfort, like a slight earache. No, it would probably be something else; maybe even a new manifestation of God’s wrath; a punishment so horrible it was, as yet, undreamed of.
The rest of that day I spent in an agony of dread – and the next. Nothing happened. Mother totally ignored me. I did not even get the usual scrutiny at inspection times. I was a non-child. Day followed dread-filled day, but the axe did not fall. Eventually, as days turned to weeks, the snow melted, taking with it the constant reminder that Farley and I were now doomed to be companions in eternity, forever roasting. Other sins, that I’ve long forgotten, were, no doubt, committed and punished. Life went on. I grew up. Enduring this past arctic winter, reminded me of that long ago snow house. I still feel highly uncomfortable when a man winks. There’s a sudden hitch in my breathing and my stomach turns over. Doing nothing and leaving me to sweat was the most effective punishment of all. I KNOW it is unfair and unreasonable, but some part of me still believes that, ”He who winketh with the eye, thinketh evil in the heart.” I have built many snowmen over the years, but never another snow house.
However we phrase it, Karma; Just Desserts; What- Goes- Around-Comes-Around; God’s Will; for every crime there is a punishment, but, unfortuantely, in this imperfect world, sometimes there is punishment without a crime.