The Tufty Club and other stories

Today I contacted the Armagh City Library to ask if they could accommodate me for a book signing when I go home at Easter. The manager was terrific and immediately agreed. I was delighted because the Armagh City Library holds a special place in my heart – I used to live in the same street as it.

Market street, 2014 – Our house on the right and the Library is house in the building on the left.

So when I hung up the phone, it was no surprise that my mind-Tardis dumped me back in Market Street, Armagh, circa 1973, where I’d lived from the ages of 4 until 9.

It’s not many kids who can say that they had a library in their front yard, but I did. In fact we shared Market Street with a library, a Cathedral, and a cinema – the Ritz. People from Armagh used to call any cinema a “Ritz” in the same way “Sellotape” or “Scotch tape” became a generic name for sticky tape. I was an adult before I realized that the Ritz Carlton wasn’t a movie house! 

The cinema was so close to our house that when my sister and I fell asleep at the movies, my Dad would carry one of us home and then go back for the other one! I remember going to see Jaws there. My best friend, Lucia and I went together to see Grease – both of us too young and innocent to actually get the sexual innuendo in the jokes. By that stage we had moved out of Market Street, so I must have been 11 when we saw Grease.

Often the Ritz would be evacuated because of bomb scares, and if anyone we knew was at the movies they’d come over to our house. If we didn’t need to evacuate ourselves, they’d be welcomed in. I have a vague memory of us all lying on the living room floor because snipers were taking pot-shots at the army and the police outside. Dad would pass out beers for the grown-ups from the fridge, and we’d wait it out on the swirly orange and brown carpet. After all it was the 1970s in the North of Ireland – we were inured to the Troubles, not to mention the decor!

We didn’t frequent the Cathedral on our street very often. It’s not that we were heathens and didn’t pray. Armagh has two Cathedrals, a Catholic one and a Protestant one – this one was the Protestant one and while, from time to time, our parents would take us up for a walk around the grounds, being Catholic we worshiped at the other one. I don’t really remember being told not to go and play up there on our own, but on the occasions I did, I had this mixture of thrill and unease that I might be breaking someone’s rules.

Church of Ireland Cathedral

Our house’s front door opened directly onto the street. No paths, no gardens, no fences for us. The British Soldiers used to hunker on our doorstep, hoping to to shelter from rain and sniper bullets in the alcove created by the slightly recessed front door.

Dad used to tell the story of how one evening after dinner (except back then it was called teatime because we weren’t posh enough to call it dinner) he was helping Mum clear up. He was planning on staying in for the evening and had already put on his slippers. He went to put the empty milk bottles out for the milkman to collect the next morning – this was back before recycling was invented, so we had to reuse instead!

Dad open the door and a soldier who was leaning against the door fell into the front hall on top of him. Both were understandably startled, but in a “surprise!” competition the guy with the gun is going to win. Embarrassed and pissed off, the soldier arrested my Dad on the spot. He didn’t let him go back into the house to tell my Mum where he was going. He just bundled Dad into the landrover and took him to the barracks, in his slippers and still carrying the milk bottles! They held him for a few hours and then released him. No explaination, no apologies – though my Dad always did point out that he’d been lucky that the soldier’s gun hadn’t gone off when he’d opened the door or it would have been a much shorter story.

Anyways, poor Daddy, still in his slippers had to walk home a couple of miles through the town from the barracks. When he arrived home he got no sympathy! Mum was mad at him. She thought he’d sneaked off to The Foresters’s Club a few doors down from the house. Eventually, she believed him because he was still in his slippers, and Dad would never go to the pub in his slippers!

The Troubles played a big part in all our lives back then. One day my sister and I were playing in Market Street, and we found a parcel wrapped in brown paper. We’d been told in no uncertain terms that unattended packages were dangerous. So we went straight to our parents and told them what we’d found. It was right in the middle of the street – a huge tarmacadamed expanse, not the beautifully landscaped area it is today. The entire street was taped off, and the homes evacuated, and we all stood (as we often did during evacuations) along the top of the hill looking down Market Street. Dozens of police and soldiers milled around and then the parcel disappeared. They found a guy calmly walking away with it. Someone had been loading/unloading a van with innocent parcels and had left one out. When he noticed it missing he’d come back for it, and had just walked over and picked it up!

“Better safe than sorry,” my Dad said to us later.

But getting back to the Library…

The Library is a beautiful limestone building that had once been a technical college. I remember it as always being a warm, calm place with the wonderful smell of books, a smell that very writer and avid reader mentions. I know I risk being cliche when I say that that smell still gives me a sense of anticipation – something good or interesting about to happen.

Even when I was a kid (yes, way way back then!) our library had excellent programs for children. I was in the Tufty Club. Tufty was a human sized squirrel – perish the thought! Imagine what that could do to a garden. Tufty, along with his other woodland friends taught road safety, a strange choice of character judging by the number of squirrels that get mashed on our roads in San Jose and whose remains are feasted upon by other squirrels (I kid you not!)

As well as the regular story time and Tufty club meetings, we had a quiz team. I was on the team that made it to some finals or other…a big enough deal for it to attract the local press. My sister and her favorite teddy, Jumbo, came to watch our team compete. I can’t remember if we won. Obviously that wasn’t foremost in the newspaper photographer’s mind either, because the picture that appeared that week in the paper was not your’s truly and her quiz team, but instead, my sister and her teddy. Over the years I’ve tried to hold her stealing the limelight against her, but it’s been hard – she is such a great sister. And who could blame the photographer? She was so adorable!

This picture was in the Armagh Observer sometime around 1976

I wonder will she bring Jumbo to see me when I do my book signing in the Library in April? I’ve a feeling a certain little nephew will, and I wouldn’t be surprised if history repeats itself!

Nevertheless, it will be a nostalgic and poignant moment to see my book on the shelves of the peaceful haven that existed in a crazy time and place, where I first fell in love with books!

Byddi Lee

2 replies to The Tufty Club and other stories

  1. Loved reading your stories Byddi.

    Thank you,the memories floated back in wonderful technicolor.

  2. Thanks for reading them, Marie.

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