Ronnie Meredith and the End of the World by Alan Holland

Living on Stamford Street, Stretford, us kids needed to be tough. Right enough, I had my big brother next to me - Eric - but still, I needed bigger. There was a war going on - WWII to be precise - and we recognised the need for backup in case things ever got hairy. With a fair few kids living on the street, before long we got a gang of 9 - 14 year old lads going. We roamed the streets of Old Trafford, supposedly fighting for the good of the town, but often dabbling in the bad. Eric, or Eka as the gang called him, was second in command of the gang. As the biggest on the street, Ronnie Meredith was our esteemed leader.
     Ronnie was only 14, but he already had a job. He worked as an order boy for the Co-op on Stamford Street. His job was to ride down to the Co-op entrance, pick summat up, and then go and deliver it in the carrier on his bike. If you were a high-ranking gang member; if he saw you out and about whilst on the job, and if he liked you, he’d stop the bike and prop it up on its front stand. He’d search the box he was delivering to see if he could find a biscuit or summat similarly sweet to give you. Eka always got the biscuit, but not me. Instead, I’d get a sliver of raw streaky bacon from his ration. It always made me bilious, but he wouldn’t leave until I’d swallowed it. I never ate another bit of bacon until I had at least a few hairs on my chest. Thank God, Norma’s best-in-class bacon butties’ve more than made up for it since then… but that’s a different, much longer story.
     I don’t know how Ronnie got away with the things he did. Like most tyrannical rulers, he wasn’t thick. He was bad, but also very religious, and he clung onto his power by any means necessary - mostly by being hard. We worshipped every word he said for fear of a battering if we didn’t. I remember he scratched down three rules on a piece of paper and pinned it to the gang tree. They were as follows:  

     NO GIRLS - which I often regretted because I’d already taken a fancy to Norma. 
     No SAM COOGAN OR ALFIE PYATT - no offence lads, you just weren’t gang material. 
     And finally, NO SCHOOL - which was very ambitious; we broke this rule on every weekday that the Nazis took a break from dropping their bombs on us. They bombed our chippy once.

Anyway, on an otherwise uneventful, grey Manchester day, Ronnie gathered us underneath that gang tree on official gang business.
     "Lads, I’ve brought you here on official gang business -" That sounded good to us. Here I was, proud as punch to sit next to my brother, the second-in-command of our rock ‘ard gang. " - my sources have said that the End of the World will happen quite soon -" I can still hear the squeal Vinny Tomkins gave before burying his head in his hands, but worse was to come. " - at five o’clock tonight, we’ll assemble on the back field of Hullard Park with all the other kids from the area." Wow. "Boys, the World will end at half past five. I’m sorry." He left. Our Eka, who must have been briefed on the matter beforehand, followed him.
     Alas, Judgement Day was upon us. Unfortunately I was spending it by trying to stop Vinny Tomkins from crying before somebody came and battered him for it. We were all reeling, but we didn’t have time. We had work to do, and before long word of impending Armageddon reached as far as the other schools around Hullard and Seymour Park. Brothers and sisters from Roll’s Crescent, St. Wilfreds, and even as far as Manley Park would finally - symbolically - come together as the World ended. Every kid should assemble on the back field of Hullard Park at five o’clock precisely. There, they were expected to make their peace with the Almighty through prayer. At any cost, no parent was to be informed of the impending doom, under threat of - in Chairman Ronnie’s own words - everlasting hellfire. Instead we should just assume that the mams and dads had already made their own deals with God.  

* * *
Right enough by five o’clock, around 50 or 60 kids - both boys and girls - had amassed on the agreed field. Proudly standing on the raised bandstand, I could see by Ronnie’s face that he considered it a good turnout. He belted out some words of encouragement about the Afterlife - something about teachers having already been courted by the Devil and we shouldn’t worry about them anymore. He told us, especially the gang, that we’d already achieved everything we wanted to achieve and we could expect a good spot in Paradise. Then he sat for his final meal, which were a couple of butter butties ‘sacrificed upon him’ by a much smaller kid. We watched, wondering whether there’d be any spuds in the Next Life. At around ten-past-five, Sam Coogan and Alfie Pyatt turned up to join Mass and say their goodbyes. Typically, Ronnie told them that this still counted as official gang business, and they weren’t welcome here. They should go and say their goodbyes elsewhere. He wished them well in the extended purgatory they faced, before they were promptly escorted off by one henchman each, kicking and struggling. I even remember our Eka apologising to a blubbering Pyatt. Eka wasn’t a bad lad; he was just big, hard, and a bit daft. “I’m just following orders” he whispered, bundling poor Pyatt through the jeering crowd and back through the gate by which they had just arrived. At around twenty past five, word got out that blubbering Vinny Tomkins had told his parents about the End of the World. They were on their way to pick him up, take him home, and inform everybody else’s parents about what was happening. This presented a problem - a threat, even. They couldn’t batter him, for fear that the parents would see it and tell the coppers. Instead, Ronnie ordered sobbing Vinny to be pink-bellied, so he could hide it underneath his t-shirt and his parents would never find out. I didn’t, but a lot of other kids got involved. Vinny squealed like an asthmatic pig. The mob slapped that poor lad’s belly until it went pink and then purple and then probably black - I’d already looked away. His parents never did turn up. As the World’s final ten minutes approached, I started to regret. I wouldn’t get to see his Majesty’s forces finally batter the Nazis, I wouldn’t clap eyes on Norma - too posh for this End of the World bollocks - again; and I’d never get to meet my next brother or sister, who Mam was pregnant with at the time. But as Meredith had already explained - nothing good lasts forever. He said “time is like anything, with a start and an end” and “one day it’s bound to end”. Actually, he told us we were lucky to experience it - nobody had experienced the end of the world before and nobody ever would again. Upon the ten-minutes-to-Doomsday call, we all knelt in terror. We made our calls to the High Almighty not to spend too long in limbo, no matter what our sins were. Meredith led us in one final prayer, reiterating that we had fought a good fight and all teachers hadn’t. He’d see most of us up there in Paradise.
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Lads and lasses started to say their final goodbyes to each other. There were tears and tantrums.
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Chaos continued as hysterical children screamed into the sky, cried into the floor, and begged for forgiveness.
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Knees on the ground, arms crossed out in front of them, and heads in arms seemed to be how most kids chose to go. Eka came over and knelt on the floor next to me.
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He told me I was a good brother, despite it all.
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A blanket of silent tension settled on top of us; calm finally came.
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This was it. This was the end.
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But still time still ticked on.
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And still it ticked on further.
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At thirty-two minutes past five, the Afterlife felt very similar to the actual-life. At thirty-three minutes past, kids started lifting their heads out of their arms. Some of them screamed and jumped for joy. They hugged and danced; cheered and pranced about. I never felt a feeling like that again. I remember Eka put his arm around me and gave me the widest smile - I gave him one back. Then Meredith beckoned him over to the bandstand and whispered something in his ear. He must have asked Eka to go and check the time by the library clock on Stretford Road. It could have been a very tense moment, but no. Eka came back as quickly as he had gone. He whispered something in Ronnie’s ear. It was thirty-four minutes past five and the World still very much existed. You should have seen how Meredith moved on that bandstand - shuffling about, staring straight down at his feet - the self-proclaimed spokesman for the End of the World. As the crowd watched his every next move, he timidly found his voice again and addressed what was quickly becoming an angry mob. "Brothers and sisters - " but the jeers were so loud that you could barely hear him, so he shouted louder "- it’s looks like my sources were wrong -" more jeers, heckles, and boos "- and the end of the world will actually start tomorrow, at the same time, in the same place. I’ll see you there." That was it - the Mob went for him. I went for him as well and even Eka got involved. We chased him out of Hullard Park and all the way back up Stretford Road, but his legs were long enough to get him away and out of sight. I don’t know what we would have done if we caught him, but he was finished either way. Kids went home that night and got battered by their mams and dads for missing tea, and it was all on his head. Ronnie Meredith had been toppled - our oppressor was as good as dead.
* * *
In the end, nobody knew what became of him. He stopped coming to gang meetings, which soon ceased to exist - we grew out of all that and started courting girls. As for myself, I realised that life’s too short. Everything could end before you’ve even got chance to get out of bed - never mind tomorrow. I married our Norma as soon as we were old enough. Well, as soon as her mam and dad would let me.

About the Author

Alan Holland grew up in Manchester during World War II. With his Mam at home rearing younger Hollands – and his Dad off somewhere making ends meet – young Alan had to find his own ways to pass the time. His life stories are mischievous, emotional, and sepia-toned.

This story was submitted by George Rowlands from the memoir of his late Grandpa, Alan Holland.

Twitter: @helmshore44

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