“Go Down the Cellar”

Day or night, it was my crown of thorns to
“Go down the cellar”
-- be it for coal or to put a penny in the gas meter.
Bad enough during daylight hours but during the night time
it was sheer terror! There was a cubby-hole halfway down
the cellar steps bereft of door;
from the jet black interior came
the sound of gusts of wind . . . more like sighs --
I never doubted it was a cry for help from lost souls.
Then there was the faint noise of water trickling --
it was said a stream ran parallel with the houses on the street,
and eventually it wound up at the River Mersey.

At night I’d shudder whenever the gaslight grew dim
or the gas stove flames started to sputter. . .
I knew my mother would tell me to “Go down the cellar.”

This would be a terror trip. Speed was of the essence.
First I would twist the Liverpool Echo into one long spill,
thick and sturdy as one of Lady Guinevere’s plaits.
I would light the end, run, trying to outdo the speed of light,
bouncing down the steps, racing past the gurgling cubby-hole,
sliding along the packed dirt floor, holding my Olympic torch.

The gas meter was a dull red cast-iron box, looking very
formidable with a heavy dangling padlock just below
the penny-slot (a sort of warning not to try to steal
from the Liverpool gas company). Directly above
was a gas jet without benefit of mantle or globe.
A gas jet that could hiss and spiral two feet in the air,
yet be coaxed into the submission of being
a mere flicker as of a match flame.

Sometimes I would be lucky enough to make it. . . but usually
the paper would burn itself out as soon as I had lit the gas jet.
There’d be the frantic search in the dimness for the penny-slot,
then the precaution of making sure the gas jet was turned off.
I then became a blind girl, groping along damp walls, slithering
on the slippery floor, crawling past cubby-hole on hands and knees.
At last I reached the warmth and comfort of the well-lit kitchen,
although my heart would be pounding like a sledge hammer.

Now, these feats of bravery did not go unrewarded.
Whenever the gas man came and emptied the meter
on the kitchen table, he would stack the pennies in neat
piles, and the “discount” would be handed over to me.

Of course, there was always a catch to these benefits, for,
when there was an emergency, we’d use a foreign coin. . .
These would be deducted from my bonus! You can’t win!

By Margaret Goings