I could never quite understand my cousin Julie (I've changed her name. Regardless of the fact that she lives over the other side of the world, I'm still not going to invite her wrath). She is a week younger than me, we look similar - same height, same kind of weight (back then, anyway), same dark curly hair - but we were totally different. I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by animals, playing in the dirt, watching horses & cows giving birth, being chased by donkeys and geese. Julie grew up in inner city Salford (now part of Manchester) among the cars and the noise and the overwhelming number of people. She is also one of seven kids. I loved going down to their house during the school holidays because it was so different to my house. Well, I loved some aspects of it, I didn’t love the fact that they were limited in how much they could eat and drink, for example.
Julie's mum had to feed & clothe nine people, including three teenage boys, on a pension, as my Uncle was wheelchair bound for as far back as I can remember, so money was very tight for them. They lived in a three bedroom, end terrace house with a toilet in the back yard. Going to the toilet in the middle of the night was quite an experience. I was terrified of the place, with its timber walls and spiders everywhere. The house was across the road from the local Anglican church and at 6.30 every Sunday morning, the bells tolled with an enthusiastic and energetic joy that definitely wasn't reflected in my mood when they invariably woke me up. I remember lying there, wondering how on earth my cousins slept through the cacophony.
They had the incredible luxury of having soft drink delivered to their door. Coming from the country, this was such a decadent, city-like experience for me, I thought it was great. The "Alpine Man" (Alpine was the soft drinks company) would come round in his van once a week, and my Aunty would buy two litre-bottles of soft drink ("pop") from him, to be shared between my cousins and whoever else was in the house at the time, and if you weren't in the house when the pop arrived, bad luck, you didn't get any.
In short, Julie's life couldn't have been more different to mine. We weren't wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we were kind of privileged, we did get plenty to eat and drink, we did go on holidays abroad, I had a pony, Alan (my brother) had a motorbike. Compared to Julie's family, we were filthy rich.
One summer, Julie came up to visit us and we went for a walk up the hill at the back of our house. We lived about halfway up a steep hill and in the field at the side of our house, there was an old Victorian water pipe that went from one of the local dams to somewhere. We spent hours exploring its dark, uncharted (to us) depths, waving our hands in front of our faces to get the cobwebs out of the way, it was a child's paradise. So quite naturally, when Julie came to our house to stay one summer (the only time she ever did), I wanted to share this dark, exciting adventure playground with her and off we set, up the hill towards the pipe, feeling like adventurers boldly going where no kids had gone before. At least, that's how I felt. It turns out that Julie wasn't nearly as enamoured with the whole idea as me. For a start, I don't think she'd ever walked up a hill that steep before. I skipped and gambolled up the hill like Maria in The Sound of Music; Julie wheezed and staggered her way up, looking and sounding like an geriatric asthmatic with a heart condition and severe arthritis.
I capered and danced around while I waited for Julie to catch up with me, unconsciously avoiding the rabbit holes and the natural ridges that flowed across the hill, happily watching the herd of cows chew the grass and feeling mildly aggrieved because the horses had decided to spend the morning further away in the next field and I couldn't introduce Julie to them. Oh well. Several hours (okay, probably not several hours, but it felt like it) later, Julie finally caught up with me and I ran across the flat part of the hill towards the water pipe, urging Julie to run with me. Unfortunately, Julie was wearing "city" shoes, completely unsuited to any outdoor surface other than bitumen; she was finding that crossing bumpy, uneven, muddy terrain a tricky task that required total concentration. So I was completely flabbergasted when Julie, despite her focus, managed to get her foot stuck down a rabbit hole! How could she not see that? It's a hole in the ground, don't try to stand on it! Despite her best efforts, Julie's foot wouldn't come free. Her stiff, patent leather shoes wouldn't bend enough to get her foot out, so I grabbed hold of her leg to try to help her pull it out. Then she began to scream. I let go of her leg, wondering what on earth I'd done, but she was pointing and screaming, a look of absolute terror on her face. I spun around to see what danger was coming towards us but I couldn't see anything. Confused, I grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her, "Julie, Julie, what's the matter! Have you broken your foot? What's going on? You've got to tell me!" I spun around, trying to figure out what horror was approaching to cause such fear and panic but I still couldn't see anything. I didn't know what to do; was she having some weird kind of psychotic episode? Could she maybe see things that I couldn't and she could see a wave of zombies approaching us, arms outstretched, hungry for our blood? Or some kind of man-eating fog was oozing towards us, ready to rip us to pieces and slowly devour our souls, damning us to unimaginable pain and torment for all eternity. But the heifers and the horses were all still calmly eating, totally unconcerned by whatever it was Julie was seeing. From what I knew, animals were the first to sense any danger and this lot seemed totally unfazed by anything. If anything, the furore that Julie was making was piquing a little bit of interest with some of the animals lifting their heads and thoughtfully grinding the cud while watching the drama unfold. One particularly curious bovine began to move towards us to see if she could figure out what all the fuss was.
I shook Julie again, "What is going on? You've got to talk to me!" I could see her mouth trying to move, she was trying to say something. I thought about slapping her face to bring her back to her senses; I'd seen people do that in films and it seemed to work but she finally managed to begin to get her vocal chords working: "C… C… "
"C… C…?" I wracked my brain trying to think of scary things beginning with the letter 'C'. And failed miserably. What on earth was this terrifying and began with the letter 'C'? My brain frantically scanning my memory banks for a likely candidate, I shook her again, "What is it?"
"C… C… COW! There's a COW!"
Poor city girl that she was, she had an absolute terror of animals that increased in direct relation to the size of the animal and the cow coming towards us right now to see what the fuss was all about was (of course) one of the biggest in the herd.
I'm sad to say that when I realised what was going on, I gave up trying to get poor Julie's leg out of the rabbit hole and instead collapsed on the floor howling with laughter. There I stayed till my Mum ran up the hill to see what all the screaming was about and finally shoo'd the cow off and freed Julie's foot from the vice-like grip of the rabbit hole. I don't think Julie ever got to see the water pipe.
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Hi! I’m Karen O’Connor, hormonally-challenged, menopausal writer, blogger, self-confessed sarcasm enthusiast, mother of 4, wife of 30 years, destroyer of souls... no, wait, that's just in the mornings...
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