John McCullagh November 29, 2004
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When the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ drew to a close, we were compelled to seek elsewhere for casual distraction. 
 
Come early December there was little left on the trees and bushes except those berries of minimal food value and which had little attraction even for the birds of the air.  Still, we could put them to use.
 
You are probably aware that a few weeds – such as the wild parsley – have a hollow stalk with a bore not dissimilar to that of the average haw berry.  We had a fair share of wilderness about us – today these plants can only be found where man has not encroached on nature’s preserve:  the Tow Path and The Rampart spring to mind.  My walking companion and I harvested a few recently to make ‘Pluffers’ of them.  And for a few moments behaved like children again!
 
The favourite practice ground was ‘The Matinee’ at one of our three local cinemas [Savoy, Frontier and Imperial] on Saturday mornings or afternoons.  With a pluffer or two in one pocket and the other stuffed brimful of berries, we made a scramble for the back seats.  (Just a few years later we would have a very different reason to seek out the back seats!).  From our vantage point we had an 180˚ field of operation as we deftly, every few seconds, picked off unsuspecting targets. 
 
Our companions in the seats in front of us were now at a distinct disadvantage.  If they were to turn around and shoot back, they’d likely choose the wrong target and thus become the subject of concentrated reprisal fire!  Also the light emerging from the projector above would identify both them and the Pluffer in their mouths to Aul’ Torchy.
 
They would usually content themselves with making further trouble for Torchy.  That limelight above would cause any object traversing it to blaze up like a lighted match.  We weren’t so foolish as to play with matches so: but if we could convince Torchy that the rolled-up balls of paper we flipped with our thumbs were lighted matches, well, that was his problem, wasn’t it?
 
 
Everybody’s favourite target, of course, was ‘Torchy’. 
 
It is with a sense of deep remorse and contrition that I now recall how we tortured these poor souls who obviously had a very trying and poorly-paid occupation.  I do not remember the name of even one.  They were ourselves of just a few years time: desperate for any job, part-time or otherwise.  But for now they were The Enemy! 
 
They could see in the dark somewhat better than us, not merely from their advantage of carrying the eponymous torch, but from being better adjusted to the constant gloom in which they worked.  Still they were repeatedly bombarded with volleys of ‘peas’ from our home-made ‘pea-shooters’.   How to react was their chief dilemma.
 
Occasionally a companion would be caught red-handed and unceremoniously ejected on to the street.  The chorus of whoops and cat-calls in support of this unfortunate ‘victim’ would cause a few minutes of total disruption that spoiled the film for even the serious viewer.  Old ‘jook-the-bullets’ Audie Murphy would be forgotten, as a much more exciting drama played out in the cinema!
 
Then Torchy would resort to an appeal to our better nature.  This brought just howls of derision and uncontrollable laughter.  Then he’d try identifying and isolating the ‘ring-leaders’ along the end-seats where he could better control them.  This required the previous occupants’ co-operation, which was seldom forthcoming.
 
His best defence was attack. 
‘I saw you there, young McCann!’       he’d roar.
‘I know your father!  You’re for it when you get home!’
 
The most successful Torchy was the one who could so identify a greater number of the Pluffer-blowers; the fear of retribution from older brothers, or father or mothers, finally quietened most of us.
 
At some point, his short-skirted female equivalent would appear with a dainty tray of goodies for sale projecting horizontally from her midriff.  It contained drinks, ice-creams, sweets, crisps and the like.  We were convinced that management raised the central-heating temperatures just before, in order to boost sales.  Mostly the sales were made in the dark with a tiny torch-light helping the girl to make the transaction.  One needn’t worry about the quality of the goods for sale (it was usually of the worst kind!) for disappointed customers would readily advertise their annoyance.
 
‘Yer crisps are RATTEN!!’ was a normal enough reaction, broadcast to the whole cinema – and sure enough, no more crisps were bought!
 
The film ended, we’d spill on to the streets, blinded by the harsh afternoon sunlight, but oblivious of the danger, we’d veer recklessly across and through the traffic, roundly smacking our own haunches and straining on non-existent reins, trying to control the runaway horses we imagined we were riding.
 
(To be continued..)

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