Winter Webs, by Sara Murphy

The walk to school in summer takes five minutes, but in the depths of midwinter, with just the right conditions, it could take an age. I knew it was cold when I woke up, the clue was seeing my breath in the bedroom. I jumped out of bed and scraped a porthole through the cat ice on the window, just big enough to peep through. We were expecting a frost, but was it the right kind?

Hoar frost was Jane’s favourite. A white feathery frost that turned the garden into a magical winter wonderland. Trees draped in white feather boas that shimmered, grass that bowed with the weight of glittering crystals that changed into silver witch footsteps when walked upon.  But I wasn’t looking for beauty.  A thick ground frost was what I was after, and there it was, with just the right amount of fog. Mam would call it ‘a mucky old day’, but to me it was perfect for my quest, collecting spider webs.

I poked Jane awake, and tried to get dressed quickly, which was no mean feat when having to wrestle chunky legs into thick tights, and fumble with cold fingers buttons on my home-knitted jumper that seemed too big for the holes. Due to my having a big head, Mam had to adapt each knitting pattern to accommodate a row of buttons across the shoulder.

Thinking I could get out early before breakfast, I got dressed as quickly as I could.  Stepping out onto the landing I heard tuneless whistling from the kitchen, meaning that Dad had got downstairs first. I’d taken too long to get ready what with the buttons and the tights.

Dad first down in winter meant a porridge morning. No chance of a quick get away. Dad was stirring the pan, and said that we had perfect timing, asking us to get out bowls, spoons, and cups. The big tea pot was on the table already. Being Scottish Dad liked his porridge thick with chewy lumps, which he sprinkled with salt before eating.

“That’ll stick to your ribs then”

We didn’t want rib-sticking porridge, and covered ours with brown sugar, and cream from the top of the milk to cool it down. The milk was delivered in all weathers, in glass bottles with foil tops. Sometimes, if it was really cold, the milk froze and expanded in the bottles, pushing the tops off.  Other times when cold but not freezing, the blue tits beat us to the cream and had their breakfast before us. They would peck through the foil, stand on the edge of the bottle, and pinch it. Not that we minded, they needed a drink. Dad said that in winter everyone thought about putting food out for the birds, but never anything to drink, which was just as important.

We drank a hot cup of tea before being bundled into coats, scarves, wellies and mittens. Hopping from one foot to the other with impatience and desperation to be out. We lived just a short distance from school, didn’t even have to cross a road. This meant that all the kids to the right of us would have to walk down the same stretch of road. I wanted to be the first this morning. I wanted the pick of the webs. Luckily, everyone on our street had huge privet hedges. They were evergreen, and provided colour in the winter, and nesting for birds in the spring. Mam said that you could tell a lot about a person by the state of their privet.

Finally me and Jane were ready to go, but also needed our Joey. This is because he had a pen knife, a Swiss Army Knife which boys his age always carried, not Stanley knives, only Dads were allowed those. In order to collect webs, we needed a loop made from a sprig, cut from the privet hedge. Joey was taking ages, because he waited for Mam to finish washing up before he’d come out. Not that he was helping, just wanted the rubber gloves to put on under his mittens. That way he could be warm and stay dry when polishing the ice slides. Everyone knew that the best ones were hand polished to get rid of any ice shavings coming from clumsy shoes.

At last we had a twig from the hedge. All we had to do now was strip the leaves off and make a loop. Joey was off, looking for his mates so that they could make a slide from our gate right up to the school. Me and Jane dawdled in comparison, first looking in our own hedge, and there they were. Bejewelled webs. The trick was getting your loop behind the web, so that when you pulled it torwards you, the web clung to the loop. We must have been the first ones out, as we had our pick of the really big ones. Me and our Jane could stand side by side and gather. We had to be a bit quicker with next door’s hedge, because they didn’t like kids, and, even though I don’t think either of them would want to go web collecting, they still wouldn’t want us to have theirs. Every so often our Joey would skid past us, followed by his mate, before zipping back to widen the slide. By the time we got to school, there would be a glass slide, half the width of the pavement. Mam, and other Mams said that it was OK for the lads to make a long slide, as long as it wasn’t on the gate side of the path, causing old folk to slip. Most people just left it, so we got home from school super quick as soon as the bell went. Although, there was usually a break in it where next door had been out and sprinkled it with salt.

Last week, Johnny Redhead had a loop with webs so thick, you could push your finger in it right up to the first knuckle, without it making a hole. That’s what I wanted. His teacher let him stand it in one of the empty milk bottles in the crate that was delivered to school every day. But, because the milk had started to freeze, the crate was brought in and put next to the radiator in the classroom. We drank our milk just before break, and by then, the webs had dried out, and Johnny was upset when he pushed his finger straight through it.

I wanted a stretchy web to show Mam, because she didn’t believe me when I said how far you could push your finger in it, plus Johnny Redhead was my best mate and I wanted to make him another one. Jane was a bit slower than me because she was afraid of spiders. Well, so was I but there never seemed to be any about when it was cold. They just disappeared. Birds nesting in the hedges gobbled them up in spring, and we pinched their homes in the winter. Spiders got a raw deal really.

We managed to get to school on time, both with a fantastic web loop. I said I would give mine to Johnny, and we could take Jane’s home to show Mam. Disaster. Just as we were due to go in, Jane was playing at being a dragon, breathing out vapour words pretending it was smoke. She was laughing so much, she let go of one of the loop ends, and the sprig tried to reform into its original shape leaving a slimy twig rather than a web loop. I’d just given mine to a delighted Johnny.

However, by the time the bell rung at the end of the day, the playground was covered in a blanket of snow. Johnny said that I could have the web back; he didn’t have time to come to my house, because he wanted to rush home to ask his Mam if he could play out. Most kids wanted to go to the Fifth Avenue Playing Field when it snowed, because we could snowball as much as we wanted without getting told off. I whizzed home thanks to the slide, and thrust the stretchy web in Mam’s face. She squealed, and told me to take it away, refusing to push her finger into it. This wasn’t the reaction I’d been hoping for. My disappointment was short-lived, on spotting a new pair of rubber gloves in the sink.

Mam said I could go back out, as long as I’d have a hot drink first. Hot chocolate, no problem. I was allowed to go to the playing fields as long as our Joey brought me back home before dark. We slid all the way there, knowing that we would be snowballing the other kids long after they stopped throwing them at us, due to their hands being wet and frozen, but ours dry. Because, no matter how good a friend I had, there was no way I’d let them into the secret of the rubber gloves. Not even Johnny Redhead.