Mum and Val were at the front gate to meet us as Nan and I arrived home to more crushing cuddles. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed them and it was really wonderful to be back. It wasn’t long before I was telling my story over the usual cup of tea and Mum’s home-made cakes.
Mum couldn’t believe how healthy I looked either. She and Val had a good laugh at the broad island accent I’d picked up while I was away. Mum was delighted to find that I was a lot easier to feed and she never let me get back to my old fussy eating habits.
I didn’t go back to my old school for the last week or so as the school summer holidays were about to start. Mum told me that she had arranged for me to start a Catholic school at Rickmansworth (in the County of Hertfordshire) after the holidays. I groaned to myself at the thought of starting another strange school, but I soon forgot about it as the holidays got into full swing. With Muffin romping around my heels, I went down the garden to see how Wilfie, my big black rabbit, was getting on.
I settled down again and it wasn’t long before I was enjoying those golden days of school summer holidays back home with my own family. I was soon going for walks down the river or up to the Needham’s little cottage at the Latimer camp. Veronica wasn’t her usual self the first time I saw her after my return and I put it down to the fact that she was becoming a woman. I tried to re-kindle her old spirit, but she had changed and we gradually drifted apart.
Granddad and Nan had me over a couple of weekends, although it did seem strange without Jim there as he was doing his National Service at that time. Granddad laughed when I told him how I’d re-built the back wheel of my bike after the accident on the island. I had to tell my story all over again so that he could hear of my adventures.
But most of all, it was good to be home with Mum again. We quickly became the loving, close-knit little family as before and, apart from my memories, it was just as if I’d never been away.
Finally, the summer holidays drew to a close and I started to worry about starting the school at Rickmansworth. I begged Mum to take me on the first day, but she said that I was old enough to look after myself. I really didn’t want to go to that school and I asked her to send me back to my old school where all my old friends were. Although I hadn’t seen any of them since I’d come home, I knew that I’d soon sort things out with Alf and become a part of the little group once more. But Mum was adamant and so, in the end I had to go.
The first day of school arrived and I was up very early ready for the seven miles bus journey to Rickmansworth. Mum had given me a map so as I could find the school once I got off the bus at Rickmansworth. Hurriedly, I dressed and had breakfast, not that I felt like anything to eat as I had a real sickly feeling of anticipation in my stomach, but Mum insisted. Then waving goodbye to her and Val, I was off with a bag of sandwiches in the new satchel that Mum had bought me.
I walked the mile down to the bus stop in Woodside Road, just around the corner from my old school, and It wasn’t long before the number three three six bus from Chesham came along bound for Watford. I got on, went upstairs, and sat in the front seat just as the bus went under Black Horse Bridge and past my old school. How I had wished that I was going to that school instead of riding the bus to my new school at Rickmansworth.
The bus took me on along White Lion Road, through Chalfont, and past Nan's house where I waved just in case Nan or Granddad were looking out of their window. Then we were heading out of Chenies towards Rickmansworth. At Rickmansworth station I got off the bus, walked the mile or so along the by-pass to the Catholic church on the Watford Road (at the bottom of Scott's Hill), and found the two little classrooms at the rear of that church. These two classrooms were my new school, St. Monica's Catholic School.
St. Monica's was part of the St. Joan of Arc's Catholic Convent at Rickmansworth. It was a small school for children of the not so wealthy and there were about fifteen to twenty pupils in each of the two classrooms. Father Brendan-Fox was, I suppose, the equivalent of a Headmaster and there were two Nuns to teach us. Mother Santa taught the little children and she was very strict with us all, Mother Maria taught us older children and she was an angel.
As I reached the entrance door between the two classrooms, Mother Maria came out to meet me. I stood there amazed as, for some reason, I hadn't expected to be taught by a Nun. But my surprise only lasted for a second as she smiled her lovely smile and invited me in with a voice that was so quiet and gentle.
Mother Maria was probably in her late fifties and had wisps of grey hair peeping out of the white wrapping under her hood. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and these may have made her look older than she really was. A more loving and understanding person would be hard to find and I never saw her get upset. Like the other children there, I came to adore her, and she earned a place in my heart along with all my other loved ones.
Mother Maria led me in front of the class, introduced me, called to a boy named Victor and told him to look after me. I was given a place next to him and my schooling at St. Monica's began. Little did I know, after all the fuss I'd made about starting at that school, that I'd come to be so happy there and cause an even bigger fuss when I finally had to leave.
It was a very easy going school and I soon settled in and became a part of it. That first day was one of surprises that had me wondering if I was at school or a summer holiday camp.
The first thing that astounded me was the fact that all the boys called Mother Maria 'Ma'. I thought my ears were deceiving me at first and listened hard, wondering if it was another form of address that I didn't know of. But I hadn't heard wrong, the boys were actually calling a Nun ‘Ma’. It sounded very disrespectful at first, but Mother Maria didn't seem to mind and, in time I'd hear her refer to herself by that title. It wasn't long before I was calling her Ma as well. The girls in our class all called her Mother. You couldn't take that sort of liberty with Mother Santa.
As I sat beside Victor during the first hour of that day thinking what a strange easy school it seemed, I became aware of a beautiful young blond girl who kept looking over and smiling at me. At first I was very embarrassed and looked away each time I saw her head moving towards my direction. Then I furtively started looking at her. Suddenly, our eyes met across that little classroom and my whole body seemed to turn to jelly. I'd never felt like it before. I couldn't take my eyes off her and Ma's teaching efforts were lost on me.
The morning playtime arrived and, still feeling the effects of that strange attraction to the young girl, I was led outside by Victor. There was no metalled playground there like I'd seen in other schools but, there was a park with plenty of trees just outside the school gate. We all walked to a fallen tree in that park and sat on the trunk where Victor introduced me to the other children in my class.
Amongst the boys was a lad called Ronnie Marshall who became my best friend at that school. I can't remember all the boy's names but I recall Peter, Michael, and another good friend who's name was Timothy. Amongst the girls, I was introduced to Josephine, Patsy, Margaret and her sister, Georgina. Georgina, or 'Gina' as I came to know her as, was the young blond girl who had made my heart beat so hard in the classroom that morning. Most of these children seemed to come from a place called Mill End and I found that it was an estate on the Denham road going out of Rickmansworth.
They were eager to find out all about me and were surprised when I told them how far I had to travel to get to school. They listened as I gave them a brief outline of my life up until then and told me how lucky I'd been to have lived over the Isle Of Wight. As I talked, my eyes kept wandering over towards Gina and my heart gave a lurch each time we looked into each others eyes. I'd never had a crush before, but this girl made me tremble all over.
After another session of lessons it was time for the lunch break. I expected to spend the break in the corner of the park as we had done earlier but, I was in for another surprise.
The older children quickly had their lunch, urging me to hurry up and eat mine. As soon as we'd finished and put our satchels away, I followed the others out of the school and up into the main park beside the by-pass. Happily chatting, we walked across the park, went over the by-pass via a small foot-bridge, passed Rickmansworth station, and soon we were outside the Aquadrome. There was a small children's playing area with swings, see-saws, slides, and roundabouts in a small park before the bridge into the Aquadrome proper and I thought it was wonderful that we could play in this park during our lunch break without any supervision.
But things were going to be better than that. Victor led us all straight past the swings and onto the bridge. In those days, before the low modern bridge that is at that spot now, there was a high pedestrian bridge similar to the type seen at small railway stations. It was made of iron and stood about four metres above the river. The other children crossed the bridge and walked down the steps towards the other bank, but Victor asked me to wait in the middle of the walkway as he had something to show me. Feeling a bit apprehensive about being above the deep river, I waited until the others had reached the far bank. I could see the thick weeds down through the water and I shuddered at the thought of what would happen to me if I fell in.
Then Victor climbed up onto the sides of the walkway, with a foot on each side and his hands holding a cross-bar above, and he slowly started to lean from side to side. I suddenly became aware that the bridge was swaying under his efforts. It felt very exciting and soon, river below forgotten, I was up with him and the old bridge was nearly being rocked off its foundations, much to the delight of the other children. Finally, they tired of watching us and wanted to move on. Reluctantly, Victor and I climbed down and re-joined them. I had really enjoyed the daring feeling of making that bridge sway and defying my fears of the weed-filled river.
I had expected that we'd only go as far as the pay booth of the Aquadrome but, was surprised again when we all passed into the area without paying. The others just waved to the man in the booth and walked on in. It wasn't long before we were standing on the little beach beside the old gravel pit where the man had drowned while Val and I were last there with Mum. Although the water was as calm as a mill-pond, I wouldn't go anywhere near the edge. After a bit of a look around, it was time to head back to school. I couldn't resist another swing on the bridge as we passed over it.
All the time, apart from while I was larking about on that bridge, Gina and I walked close together. She seemed smitten by me and I was certainly smitten by her. The other children became quite amused as our friendship developed, but we didn't care and soon everyone was used to seeing us together.
The afternoon passed with more easy lessons and another play break spent on the log in our corner of the park. All too soon that first day at St. Monica's ended. Gina and Margaret walked me to the bus stop outside Rickmansworth station and waved goodbye as the bus took me back towards home.
I couldn't wait to get to school the next day so as I could be near Gina again. As I sat on the bus, I thought about those new feelings and wondered, in my innocence, if I was in love. I had a real ache in my heart and it seemed as if it would burst out of my chest each time I thought of her.
When I arrived home, I told Mum and Val all about my new school and how wonderful it was. They were very pleased that everything had gone so well. Mum asked me if I'd still like to go back to my old school and laughed when she saw the horrified look on my face. Later I told them about Gina and they were tickled pink that I was actually seeing a girl as a girl, not just another person to drag up trees or go exploring with. Val, who had already had the experience of a crush or two, was delighted to find that her older brother was human after all. But, it didn't end there. My leg was pulled with great gusto when they saw that I was in such a state that I couldn't even eat my dinner. I had my bath and finally went to bed, not to fall asleep straight away, but to lay there and wish that it was morning and I could be at that school near Gina again.
As always, time moves on and that first week passed as I became accustomed to the school, the Nuns, my new friends, and the easy way of life there. But, I couldn't get used to my feelings for Gina. They seemed to swell until they were painful and I couldn't bear to be apart from her. The blissful play breaks spent sitting on the tree trunk beside her were so beautiful. Each lunch break we'd bolt down our sandwiches and head off with the others for a walk somewhere.
We had plenty of places to explore other than the Aquadrome. There was the River Chess and the River Colne, the Croxley Woods, the ford over one of the Rickmansworth streets that we called 'The Splash', and the Grand Union Canal that still had working barges going up and down it. We became a happy group and sang the latest songs as we walked. Our favourite song at that time was 'The Shoemaker's Shop' by Petula Clark. Later, it was toppled from our favourite spot by a Max Bygraves' song called 'Gilly Gilly 0ssenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea'. We'd shout the chorus, which was also the title of the song, out loud then go into fits of delighted laughter. Of course, we didn't do this in the streets, and were always on our best behaviour when walking around the town. My favourite singers at that time were David Whitfield and Mario Lanza. I mostly sang the songs that had been released by these two, though never in front of anyone else.
Every morning, Timothy served on the altar at the morning service in the church next door. After a couple of days at the school, I was offered the chance to do this as well. I accepted and followed Tim and Father Brendan-Fox into the church. It wasn't long before I was kneeling at the altar, dressed in a cotta and cassock, trying to master the strange language (Latin I latyer found out) that I'd first heard at our church just down from Beech Barn. I watched Tim, who seemed to know everything off by heart and soon I was lighting the candles, chanting Latin, ringing the hand-bells and wafting the incense as if I too, had been doing it for years. Serving on the altar each day became a daily ritual and it was quite a while before I realised that I was missing the hated maths lesson each day by doing it. Very often there was nobody in the pews at all but, the three of us would carry on as if the church was full. At the most, there were no more than five or six persons at these morning services.
Granddad and Nan came over the first weekend after I'd started that school to see how I'd got on. Nan suggested that I'd like to stay with them for a couple of weeks. She said that I'd only have half a journey to travel to my loved one. Mum, Granddad, and Val laughed at the joke but I was all for it. My clothes were quickly packed and, waving goodbye to Mum and Val, I was soon on my way to Chenies with my grandparents.
As usual, I wallowed in the friendship and love of my Nan and Granddad, There were the enormous dinners, the never ending chain of cakes and tarts, the soft warmth of their home, and the lovely surrounding countryside that I could wander over at will. Jim was still doing his National Service, my grandparents were missing him and I suspect that I was filling in the gap for them a bit. One incident really stands out in my memory of that fortnight that would cause me to see Nan on one of the very few occasions that she got cross.
Nan and I went shopping at Chalfont and, while we were in the grocery shop, she bought me a large bar of chocolate. I asked her if I could save it so as I could take it to school the following Monday and share it with Gina and my friends. She thought it was a good idea.
That afternoon, with (for some reason) the block of chocolate in my pocket, I took Billie for a walk. We went down the lane on the other side of the main road, passed under the railway bridge, walked through the woods to Chorleywood then back along the road to Chenies. It was a long way and the afternoon was very hot. As Billie and I left Chorleywood, I felt in my pocket to make sure that the chocolate was still safe and was annoyed to find that it had began to melt.
I carefully took the soggy package from out of my pocket and placed it on the ground. It was a sorry sight and the chocolate was like liquid, only being held in place by the wrapping. I knew that we still had a long walk ahead of us and that the wrapping would never last, I did the only thing I could do. After opening the wrapping, I scraped up what chocolate I could with my finger and Billie licked up the remainder, at least he enjoyed the treat. But I was miserable as I walked back to Chenies with the thought that I didn't have the chocolate to share with my friends anymore.
The first thing that Nan asked on my return was where the chocolate had gone. I had to confess that I'd eaten it and she wasn't very happy at all, telling me that I was a very greedy boy. In the end, I was able to explain what had happened and we became friends again. Granddad bought another block of chocolate on the way home from work that Monday and I was able to get it to school safely the next day where it was shared while we sat on the old tree trunk.
Back home with Mum and Val again, I gradually got bored with the slow, plodding progress of the bus twice daily. The only break in the monotonous ride was when I passed my grandparent's home and Nan would be waving at their window now that they knew what time I passed on that bus. Finally, Mum suggested that I go by train for a change.
I couldn't believe it. The thought of actually riding the train from Amersham to Rickmansworth on my own was so thrilling, but Mum said that she trusted me not to do anything silly and so it was agreed that I'd try it.
Armed with a shilling for the day return ticket to Rickmansworth, I rode to Amersham station on my bike with the exciting feeling of doing an adult thing for the first time without supervision. I put my bike in the Standard and Triumph garage (was it Station Motors?) cycle shed, opposite the station entrance, and walked into the booking hall. I was feeling a bit nervous by that time and worried that I wouldn't have enough money for the ticket, or I might get on the wrong train. I'd never asked for a train ticket before, so I stood back and watched a few people get their tickets.
Finally, I walked up to the little window and asked for a day return ticket to Rickmansworth. The man punched up the little green piece of cardboard and handed it to me as if he gave eleven year old boys a ticket every minute of the day. I was very relieved and the ticket had cost the one shilling.
There were a lot of London commuters on the platform, mainly gentlemen in pin-striped suits and bowler hats, each carrying a paper, an umbrella, and a briefcase. As the train came into the station, I had the panics again and rushed over to a porter to make sure it stopped at Rickmansworth. He assured me that it did and I climbed up into a crowded compartment, facing a wall of open newspapers as I did so. There was one seat left and I sat down just as the train moved off. And so, the first train ride to school began.
It wasn't how I'd expected it to be. I sat in the middle of the compartment and I couldn’t see out of the windows. On the row of seats in front of me was the wall of open newspapers, each with a bowler hat above and a pair of pin-striped trouser legs below. On both sides of me was the same, only the papers nearest to me had been turned sideways a bit so as I was in a little alcove of my own. Nobody spoke a word and I felt very uncomfortable. I didn't even know if I had been allowed to ride in this compartment, I knew that compartments on trains were sometimes reserved, but it was too late anyway by then.
on the platform (left of picture).
The train sped us down through the countryside, stopping at Chalfont and Chorleywood stations. Soon, we pulled into Rickmansworth and I was very relieved to get off. The porter ripped my ticket in half, gave me the return stub and I walked out to, what seemed like, civilisation again. I didn't like the closed-in feeling of that crowded compartment and resolved to go by the bus again as I knew where I stood there.
After school that day, I walked up to the station entrance with Gina and Margaret, said goodbye and went straight over to the down platform, expecting a train home any minute. There was a London Transport electric locomotive in a bay on the other side of the up-line platform waiting for its next turn on duty.
In those days, the London Transport used steam locomotives to haul their trains on the Rickmansworth to Aylesbury section of the Metropolitan line, and electric locomotives to haul their trains on the Rickmansworth to London section. The London section was partly under ground and I believe steam locomotives couldn't be used through the tunnels due to the smoke and fumes from the engine being trapped down there. It was always interesting to watch the engines being changed at Rickmansworth. Some of the trains were steam-hauled on the London section, but these branched off near London and went to Marylebone station so didn't have to go through the tunnels. The remnants of the Great Central Railway Company also used the same lines for their steam-hauled trains on their journey from Marylebone to the north and back, so there were plenty of steam locomotives using the Rickmansworth to London section as well as electric locomotives.
I was still waiting on the platform when, at about four-fifteen, I heard the bell ring in the old signal box, that used to be on the London end of the down-line platform. There was a clatter as the signals dropped and changed to green, then I could see a train coming down the straight from the direction of London. I thought it was my train at last. But the distant shrill of that engine whistle didn't sound anything like the boy scout-type whistle noise that the electric locomotives made, so I looked at the approaching train a bit harder. I soon realised that it was a steam hauled train. It was travelling very fast and it started to wobble a bit as it passed over the points near the station. The station is on a curve and it seemed to me that the train would hit the end of the platform at that speed. I moved quickly back towards the pedestrian subway that linked both platforms, ready to dive down the steps if need be. But the slight camber helped the train to get round the curve easily.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous beating roar. I had fleeting visions of great, green driving wheels, thrashing connecting rods, a red glow from the fire-box, billows of thick smoke under the station canopy, windows and doors blurring by, the quieter, rhythmic knocking roar of the carriages riding over nearby rail joints, and a last clatter as two goods wagons on the end of the train passed. Then all was quiet and still, save for the beating thump of the train exhaust in the distance as it struggled up onto the Chiltern Hills, and the flutter of a few bits of paper that had been thrown up into the air by the wind of that passing train. To me, it had been very exciting to see that train go roaring by and feel the thunderous vibration through the platform and in the air. It had been worth the boring sight of the papers that morning just for that.
By comparison, the train that I was to catch seemed almost docile. The exhaust of the fast train could still be heard faintly in the distance when the sound of the boy scout-type whistle caused me to look up and there was the electric locomotive-hauled train approaching down the long straight. I could see the flashes from the third rail pick-up line as it rattled over the points, then it was gliding into the station. I walked down to the front of the train to watch the engines change over.
On previous trips up this line, I'd never been allowed to see the change-over and I watched the proceedings with interest. The electric locomotive driver jumped down onto the line between the engine and the first carriage where he un-coupled the locomotive. He climbed aboard the engine again, drove across to the up-line, came back past the engine-less carriages standing at the platform, then backed into the bay on the other side of the up-line platform where I'd seen the other electric engine waiting earlier. Meanwhile, a steam locomotive, that had been waiting patiently in a siding at the Aylesbury end of the down-line platform, drove out onto the down-line and up to the head of the train where the electric locomotive had been. The fire-man jumped down, coupled the engine to the first carriage and all was ready to continue the journey.
The engine would pull us on up over the Chiltern Hills bunker-first. This train was almost empty of passengers and I hopped into one of the first compartments. The guard's whistle blew, the engine gave an answering 'toot', there was a roar from the engine exhaust as the driver opened the regulator and the driving wheels spun on the rails, then all went quieter as we jerked into motion. The beat of the exhaust came again once the train was moving and we built up speed gradually as the engine laboured to pull the six carriages up the gradient towards Aylesbury.
The trip home, being mostly up hill, was slower than the morning ride and I had plenty of time to watch the country side slide by. I had the compartment all to myself and could look out of the opening door-windows on either side of the train. I soon learned to do this carefully when, on that first day, I got an eye full of soot and grit from the engine exhaust. Mum had always told me not to lean on carriage doors just in case they opened accidentally so, I placed a hand on the window frames each side of the door before looking out of the open window.
We stopped at Chorleywood station then, carrying on again, I recognised the lane near Chenies where I usually took Billie for a walk. After another stop at Chalfont station, we passed Boughton's yard on the right, and then my old school (now St. George's School) on the left. Soon we were pulling into Amersham station and my first train ride home from school was over. I handed in the return stub of my ticket, grabbed my bike from the cycle shed over at the garage and rode home.
I had been so excited about the train ride and told Mum and Val all about it as I got stuck into the welcome dinner that Mum had prepared for me. After I'd complained to her about the crowded train that I'd caught that morning, Mum said that maybe I could try an earlier train. I agreed to do as she had suggested the next day.
The next morning, we were up a lot earlier. I rode to the station, parked my bike in the cycle shed again, and walked over to the ticket office. I was a bit more confident and went straight up to the window where the ticket was handed to me with no trouble. I entered the station and saw, to my delight, that the platform was almost deserted. The train came steaming in and I easily found an empty compartment.
The exhaust of the engine barked noisily as the driver opened the regulator to get the train moving. But once this was done, with the track being mostly down hill from Amersham to Chalfont, he was soon able to close the regulator down as the speed built up under the train's momentum. It wasn't long before we were rocking along at a fine old pace.
There was a rhythmic, metallic roar coming from the wheels as the train raced along the rails, the occasional hiss of steam came through the open windows from the shut-down engine, and the carriages were soon swaying at an alarming rate. Telegraph poles, signals, and trees flashed by, and I staggered from the window on one side, to the window on the other and back so as not to miss anything on that helter-skelter ride down the line.
Then, as the train passed Boughton's yard and went under Bell Lane bridge, the brakes were slowly applied. I could hear and feel the grinding roar of them coming up through the carriage floor and the deceleration jerks had threatened to throw me off balance towards the front wall of the compartment. The rhythmic roar gradually slowed down then broke up as the wheels passed over the points outside of the station. Finally, with a last screech from the train brakes, and a flurry of hissing steam from the direction of the engine, we slid into Chalfont station and stopped with a shuddering jerk.
It had been an exhilarating experience for me. While alone in the rocking compartment during that headlong dash, the thought had crossed my mind that the train might go off the rails. But it was only a fleeting thought and served to help me enjoy the ride all the better. At Chorleywood, a man got into my compartment and I had to sit down respectfully. But, I didn't really mind because the train didn't seem to race so fast after Chalfont.
Later, I'd learn to lean out of the window at stations and leer at any approaching passengers. Very few got in with me. But, worse was to come and I confess that, finally, if any passengers came towards my door at Amersham before the fast trip down to Chalfont, I'd even pretend to pick my nose. As the passengers veered away towards another door, the look of disgust on their faces would always send me into helpless fits of laughter. I knew it was disgusting and very rude but, I hated sharing my compartment on the ride down that stretch of line. Regular passengers soon got to know me and gave me a wide berth in the end. After the new year, I'd share my compartment willingly. But more of that later.
From then on, after that second day of going to school by rail, I caught the earlier train. Mother Maria benefited from my early start each day. It was then Autumn and the cool days were creeping in. I arrived at our little classroom that first early day to find Ma cleaning the ash from the pot-bellied stove in the corner and I offered to do it for her. Soon I had the fire going well and the room started to heat up. I took over the job after that and each morning through the winter and spring, I cleaned out the ash-pan, chopped the wood, laid and lit the fire, and brought in the coke to keep it going all day.
At home-time, I'd be on the platform at Rickmansworth to watch that fast train storm through the station and soon learned that the engines were usually, if I recall right, Gresley 'Sandringham' class B17s with four-six-oh wheel arrangements (sometimes an A4 Pacific would be at the head of the train). It was one of the ex-Great Central Railway's trains heading north.
All the railways had been nationalised under the name of 'British Railways' by that time and a lot of the steam locomotives had been painted black. But, there were still plenty of the old company-coloured engines around. The light green colour of those ex-Great Central engines was a welcome break from the all-black steam locomotives that I rode behind each day. I remember standing on the Raans Road bridge over the Chesham Shuttle line once and seeing a light blue engine pulling a rake of carriages up towards Amersham on the main line nearby. Somebody said it was a train called 'The Master Cutler' but, I don't know how true that was, the colour just made a nice change. (The Master Cutler usually travelled north via High Wycombe if I recall right.)
The electric locomotives that worked the London section from Rickmansworth were mostly painted red but, I seem to recall that a couple of them were painted brown. I suppose that they could have been dirty. I soon got to know a bit about those Metropolitan Vickers electric locomotives with their bo-bo wheel arrangement, and still remember some of their names like 'Lord Byron', ‘William Penn', 'Benjamin Disraeli', 'Sir Ralph Verney' and 'Michael Faraday'.
The old steam locomotives that worked the Aylesbury section from Rickmansworth at that time were, if my memory is right, mostly Stanier tank engines with a two-six-four wheel arrangement. These old steam locomotives always pulled the train in reverse (bunker first) from Rickmansworth to Aylesbury, and forward (boiler first) in the opposite direction.
Like a lot of other young lads in those days, it wasn't long before I had a grubby note book in which I collected engine numbers. This was a popular pastime for most boys, there would usually be two or three lads at the end of a platform waiting to 'spot' or 'bag' the numbers of any locomotives that came by.
After the fast train had gone through, I'd know that my train would soon be coming. Each evening, I'd watch the engines change over then hop aboard one of the ‘Dreadnought’ carriages for the ride home.
As the train stopped at Chalfont and Latimer station, I'd see the Chesham Shuttle train waiting patiently at its platform for connecting passengers. Again if my memory serves me well, at that time the locomotive used for the shuttle was an ex-Great Central four-four-two tank engine. The train comprised of this engine and three ‘Ashbury’ stock carriages. It was what we called a 'push and pull' train, where the engine always stayed at the same position on the train. While going to Chesham it went in reverse, pushing the carriages along. On the way back to Chalfont it went forward and pulled the carriages.
Every day, as my train stopped at Amersham station, I'd start to worry that my bike wouldn't be in that cycle shed. I didn't know if I was allowed to leave it there but, as I had nowhere else to put it, I always left it in the shed beside the garage. My days were so full that I'd forget about the bike until the last minute, then I'd leave the booking hall and look straight across the station square to see if it had been removed. But, it never was.
Soon I became a confident train traveller. I'd stroll up to the ticket window, say "Good morning" to the man in the office there, and ask for "A day return to Ricky, please." It wasn't long before the station staff knew me and I often chatted to the porters while I waited for the train. I never went to that school by bus again.
And so I came to enjoy going to that school so much. Mum would give me a packed lunch every day, although I never did it much justice as I hurriedly ate it so that I could join the others in the lunch time walks.
The River Chess was only half a mile away. We could get to it down a path that started from our corner of the park. In the nice weather we'd splash about in the shallows or just sit on the bank and laze. The River Chess flows into the River Colne just down stream from where we played.
‘The Splash’ was another of our diversions. It was a stream that flowed over a dip in one of the town side streets. There was a small foot-bridge for pedestrians, but cars had to go through the water. We'd very often stand on the bridge and watch the cars splash through that stream. The Splash has now been replaced by a road bridge.
Croxley Woods were just up the hill towards Watford and it was always a pleasant change to wander up there for a bit of peace and quiet.
My favourite spot were the locks on the Grand Union Canal at Church Street (Batchworth Lock, and a lock that led into the River Chess - although I never saw the latter worked!). The coloured barges were a sight to behold and the canal people were so friendly. It wasn't long before the lock-keeper knew us and, to my joy, he taught us how to work the locks. In the end we would go there and work the locks for the whole of the lunch break while the lock-keeper sat having his lunch and chatted to the bargees.
We got to know a couple of these bargees and I remember that one was a big, dark-haired woman. One day her barge was tied loosely to the bank awaiting its turn to go through the lock. Gina, Margaret, Ronnie, and I were waiting for the water in the lock to reach the high level before we opened the gates to let her through. To our astonishment, she called us over before she cast off and asked us if we'd like to ride through the lock with her. We, of course, didn't say no and called to tell the lock-keeper that we were going off duty.
She sat us in the back 'cockpit' just behind the cabin and we watched as she steered the barge, using a huge tiller, into the lock. All the barges were motor driven and the bargees could handle them as if they were little dinghies in spite of their long length. This woman bargee was no exception. With one hand deftly working the throttle and the other on the tiller, she easily steered the barge into the lock without so much as a bump. The lock-keeper closed the lock gates, went to the down-stream end of the lock and opened the sluice gates to let the water out from the lock.
As the water emptied and the barge was slowly lowered in the lock, I took a look through the open cabin door. Everything inside was so neat and tidy. There were brass and copper ornaments, horse-brasses and fittings everywhere, and a great copper tea-pot on a tiny combustion stove. I could just see a bunk with a coloured bed-spread neatly covering it. Everything looked so squeaky clean and polished.
I didn't really like the enclosed feeling deep down in the lower level of the lock but, once the gates were open and I could see the canal again I didn't feel so bad. The woman let us off just down-stream of the Church Street bridge and we thanked her profusely. It had been another great experience for me and I was to 'ride the locks' quite a few times after that first go. .
When the weather was wet, we were forced to stay at the school. There was a large hall at the rear of the church behind our classrooms and we were allowed to play in there any time. As the rain poured down, we'd be warm and dry playing all sorts of indoor games to keep ourselves amused. I remember that we had three days running in the hall once. On the fourth day the sun shone and we were like spring lambs as we set off for a walk to the Aquadrome. We didn't like being forced to stay indoors.
Meanwhile, back at home, Mum had taken in a lodger. He was a very nice chap and his name was Joe. We all called him 'Dowie Joey'. He was always laughing and happy.
Dowie Joey hadn't been with us long when, in October, Nan was taken very ill. Granddad had painted their home out with lead-based paint and Nan had become ill shortly after he'd finished. She had a form of toxic poisoning, caused by the lead base of the paint, called (I think) Polyneuritis. Nan refused to go into hospital, nothing Granddad or Mum said would make her budge, she just didn't want to go to hospital. Finally, they talked her into coming to stay with us where Mum could nurse her, and the doctor was closer.
Soon we had the spare bed set up in the living room. Nan was brought from Chenies by ambulance, carried indoors and put into the bed where we lavished her with all the love and attention we could. Mum spent night after night sitting up beside Nan's bed, but still mustered up the energy to happily look after us all through the day.
One evening, just after Nan had been brought down, I was waiting at Rickmansworth station during one of the worst thunder storms that I can remember. Being early winter, it was almost dark as the two oil lights on the front of the engine appeared out of the stormy gloom followed by the fast train. I could see the red glow from the fire-box reflected on the under-side of the thick exhaust smoke as the dark shape of the engine pounded into the station. There was a cold blast of rain-filled air, the red glow flashed by to be replaced by the flickering, yellow lights from the carriage windows and I was forced to take shelter from the sprays of water rushing up the platform. When I looked out again, I could just see the single red oil light at the rear of the train through the murk before it vanished around the curve towards Chorleywood.
The evenings had got progressively darker as the long winter nights approached and I'd see the blue flashes on the horizon from the Third-rail pick-up of the electric locomotive long before I could see the train through the darkness. But on that stormy night the lightning had flickered almost continually, the thunder had crashed with deafening roars, the rain had drummed on the old platform canopy and I hadn't noticed my train drawing into the station until it was almost level with me. Thankfully, I climbed from the cold, damp, dimly-lit platform into the comparative warmth of a carriage compartment. I didn't watch the engine change-over that night.
With wheels slipping like mad on the wet, greasy lines, the steam locomotive struggled to get the train moving. As the friendly lights of Rickmansworth slid from view I had a strange feeling that I was heading all alone out into the unknown. The rain poured in torrents against the windows, the wet trees beside the line showed up ghostly silver and black as the lightning flickered all around, and the thunder seemed to shake the very ground that the train was running over. The noise was continual with weird bangs, rattles, and shakes from the carriage that I'd never noticed before. Every so often through that clamouring din I could hear the thumping beat of the engine exhaust as it struggled gamely to get the train up the gradient in the face of that storm.
Suddenly, I had the urge to sing. I started quietly singing 'Because You're Mine', a Mario Lanza song. Soon I was singing as I'd never sung before. David Whitfield's 'I Believe' and 'Answer Me' were among other songs that I sang with such meaning in that dimly-lit compartment. I held my arms out wide and sang through the window to the dark, angry, storm-filled night with such gusto that I look back now and wonder what any passengers in nearby compartments had thought if they had heard my efforts, Chances are that they probably wondered if there was a terrified cat howling out in fear at being trapped on a buffer or somewhere similar. If I thought the noises were bad it must have been worse for others with my bit thrown in. Nevertheless, I sang songs until the train reached Amersham station with the storm raging as bad as ever.
I was wearing the usual shoes, long socks, under-clothes, short pants, shirt, sweater, jacket and thick over-coat. I looked out from the station entrance and could see, by the light of the dim street lamps, a sheet of black water moving slowly down the slope of the station square. As the rain poured down onto the surface of that mini-flood, the wind picked up the splashing droplets and sprayed them in every direction.
The cycle-shed across the square was in total darkness. Two or three flashes of lightning enabled me to pinpoint the shed and I launched myself from the shelter of the station building. Before I had crossed over the square my legs were wet through, but I found the shed and my bike quite easily once I'd left the slight glare of the street lamps. I switched my cycle lamps on and pulled the bike out of the stand. Without any hesitation I jumped on and rode straight out into the storm.
As I went along the gravel road that we called 'Darvell's Road' (now metalled and called Chiltern Avenue) I soon realised that the heavy rain was all but blinding me. My lights were useless as the beam couldn't even penetrate through the deluge and my eyes were stung by the heavy wind-blown rain as I tried to peer ahead. The old road had long, deep pot-holes all over the place, in normal rainy weather these could be missed, but on that night I couldn't even see the road surface due to the floods. As the lightning flickered all around me, I squinted up the road, took aim in the silvery-blue light and rode into the blackness hoping for another flash before I went off course.
Within a hundred metres I was like a drowned rat. The freezing cold rain soaked straight through my clothes touching my warm skin like sharp slithers of ice. Each time I went into one of the big pot-holes I had to stand up and put more pressure on the pedals so that I could get through the deep water and up out of the other side. Soon I was so wet that it didn't matter anymore. The water ran down the back of my neck and I could actually feel it splashing soggily in between my back and my coat, being trapped there by my belt. Even so, the water was pouring out of the back-side of my pants.
I decided that, instead of going along my usual route which was a lot more winding, I'd go straight up to Woodside Road. After struggling through what must have been every pot-hole in that road of pot-holes, I finally reached Woodside Road. This road was under water as well but, at least it had a metalled surface and the going was easier. A few cars passed by at a creep in the opposite direction, otherwise, I had the roads all to myself. I splashed left into Green Lane, right into Plantation Road and left again into New Road. As I was riding the last few metres before turning right into our close, there was a great flash and a terrific thump of thunder right above my head. I nearly fainted in fright.
I skidded into the close and raced along to our gate with my head down and my back-side up, feeling that the mighty Thor would grab at me any second. The bike was thrown willy-nilly into the garden shed, I squelched up the path and was finally standing just inside the back door with water pouring out of my clothes in streams. Mum had everything ready for me and soon I'd had a hot bath, put on warm, dry clothes and was telling Mum, Nan, Val, and Dowie Joey all about my great adventure through the storm while I got stuck into my hot dinner.
As we sat around the wireless that evening, we heard that a bolt of lightning had gone through the roof of a house in Orchard Lane about the same time as I arrived home. I wondered if it had happened when the big thump of thunder had occurred as I was about to turn into the close. If the rain hadn't been so bad I'd have passed along Orchard Lane as that was the way I usually went. I only travelled the whole of Darvell's lane that night because it was straight while the Orchard Lane route had plenty of bends that may have caused me to come a cropper while I was blinded by the lashing rain.
The following morning, with the storm gone, I rode to the station by my usual route and, sure enough, there was the house in Orchard Lane that had been hit by the lightning bolt. A large tarpaulin covered the hole in the roof. To me, the storm had been an adventure but, to the people in that house it had probably been a nightmare.
Through the Needham family and attending the Catholic church, we started getting visits from members of the St. Vincent De Paul Society. I remember Mr. Turvey, Mr. Gabb, and Mr. Clarke. There were two other men whose names, unfortunately, I cannot now recall. These good men would take it in turns to call on us and check that all was well. They gave us spiritual comfort and helped us out with little treats. They encouraged us to keep happy (not that we needed much encouragement) and showered us with friendship. They were wonderful people and we looked forward to their weekly visits.
Guy Fawkes night (November 5 th.) arrived and Granddad brought over a big box of fireworks. We gathered around a small bonfire in the back garden and watched the Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and Rockets go off in every direction. Half the neighbourhood were standing in their gardens watching as well for not everybody could afford fireworks in those days.
Mum bought Val and I a packet of Sparklers and, in amongst the fun, we held them in our hands and waved them around making all sorts of patterns in the dark night. Poor Nan was still so ill that she couldn't get up to watch the show but, when it was over, we went indoors and told her all about it.
The next event was my twelfth birthday. Granddad came over to help me celebrate the occasion but we voted not to have a big party that year due to Nan being so ill. Of course, Mum wouldn't let a birthday go by without goodies and a cake. The table was spread as a nice surprise for me as I arrived home and we tucked into the feast with a will. Even Nan seemed a lot better and was actually sitting up in bed smiling, but she was still a long way from being well.
I had another surprise on that day when two of the St. Vincent De Paul men, Mr Gabb and Mr Turvey, dropped in and gave me a present. I opened it to find a large toy aircraft carrier complete with a dozen aeroplanes. It was a beauty and, after thanking them, I was soon lost in a world of deck-landings and heroics. The carrier even floated and Mum had a devil of a job to get me out of the bath for many nights after that birthday.
As the winter crept in, the days became colder. There was the usual exciting feeling of Christmas approaching and the sight of the warm, glowing fire at home was welcome every night when I arrived home from school.
One afternoon at this time, we all looked out of the classroom window to see that the sky was leaden and sleet was falling wetly on the hedge and trees outside. By the time we'd left the classroom to go home, the temperature had dropped and we stepped out into a veritable blizzard. The daylight was fading fast as I walked over the by-pass with Gina and Margaret. Almost frozen to the bone, I said goodbye to the girls at the station entrance and went over to my platform.
As I looked up the line towards London, the whole scene had changed. I couldn't see very far through the snow storm and darkness but, what I could see appeared black with a grey-blue mantle of snow. The only relief came from the coloured lights of nearby signals and the pale yellow of the signal box and station lights.
I heard the fast train whistle and watched as it suddenly roared out of the darkness, sending the swirling snow in all directions. My train came in and I noticed that the snow had gathered quite thick on the front of the locomotive. Soon the train was taking me up the gradient while I peeped out at the cold, bleak country-side every so often. I was very glad to be in the warm compartment.
But I couldn't stay in that warm compartment for ever and, eventually the train drew into Amersham station where I stepped out into the freezing cold air again. As I walked across the snow-covered square to my bike, I thought what a contrast the scene was that night to the scene there a month previous when the whole area had been flooded during the great thunder storm.
Negotiating the pot-holes in Darvell's lane was a lot easier than on the night of the thunder storm. The water already in them had turned the snow into a black slush. Slipping and sliding along that road through the blizzard, eyes squinting against the driving snow, I tried to steer my bike around the darker patches of the pot-holes. It was like trying to ride along the cracks of gigantic crazy paving as I fought to keep my wheels on the lighter snow ridges between the dark spots.
Soon I was covered in snow and it fell off my coat sleeve each time I reached forward to clear the snow off my cycle lamp glass. I need not have bothered to keep the glass clear really because the light reflected on the swirling snow flakes and almost blinded me anyway. But, somehow I felt a bit of warmth from the kaleidoscope of brightly lit flakes in front of me. By the time I'd reached Plantation Road my hands were numb and almost frozen to the handle-bars. I gave up on the lamp glass and grimly hung on as I forced the bike through the ever-deepening snow. The tyres and part of the spokes of each wheel were covered in snow and the machine was getting harder to handle with each passing minute. As I crept down New Road, I peeped through slits in the snow that had covered my face, my hands too frozen to wipe the snow away any more.
I was shaking violently with the bitter cold as I threw my bike into the garden shed. Mum was at the back door with a warmed blanket and, in an agony of coldness, I stripped naked at the back door then gratefully wrapped the warm blanket around my frozen body. It wasn't long before, with a sigh of utter relief, I climbed into the bath and sank my whole body below the hot water. I remember thinking that anyone who went out into a blizzard on purpose must be mad. I thought of a book that I had on the adventures of such noted people as Scott, Shackleton, Hillary and Tenzing and I wondered why they and others went to such cold places.
By the time I'd dressed and eaten my dinner, I was looking back on that freezing ride as an adventure. Mum laughed and said that I had looked like a live snow man as I stood by the back door. She added that she had hardly noticed me against the lighter background of the snow in the murky darkness, until I had moved.
As we sat in front of the warm fire that evening, listening to the wireless with the wind moaning outside, Mum suddenly realised that our goldfish were still out in a large bowl that we'd placed in the garden as a type of fish pond. Mum, Val and I rugged up and dashed out into the dark snow-filled night to try and rescue them. Sadly, after clearing the snow away, we found that the water appeared to have frozen solid. Mum said that the fish would have died in those freezing temperatures. Val and I were most upset as we'd carried those fish home in little plastic bags full of water after winning them at the fair. But there was nothing we could have done and, after saying a quick prayer out there in the snow storm, we dashed back inside.
The next morning there was a mantle of snow over everything. I had to walk to the station each day until the snow melted as it was too slippery to ride my bike. For the next week or so we had great fun at school. We made long ice-slides down the slopes of the park, built plenty of snowmen, made snow-castles and tormented the big girls from the St. Joan of Arc Convent as we ambushed them with a volley of snowballs.
At home and with Christmas approaching, I had the usual job of sneaking into the Plannie to get Christmas tree branches so that Mum could make her giant Christmas tree, and I struggled in the snow to get the holly from Raans Road once again. With the carpet of snow outside and the decorations taking shape indoors, everything was beginning to look very Christmassy. Then Nan said that she wanted to go home.
Although still far from better, she'd made up her mind to spend Christmas in her own home and that was that. Granddad slithered and slid in the snow as he arrived to collect her and soon he had Nan wrapped up warm in the side-car and they slowly rode off into the whiteness that covered the land.
The illness had caused Nan's wrists and hands to twist up in the most grotesque manner. When she placed her right arm and hand flat on the table, we could see that the wrist had almost bent at right angles away from her body and the fingers had bent in towards her body. The left hand wasn't so bad, it looked as if she had a piece of invisible string tying the end of her fingers tightly together.
For a long time after the illness, Nan had to put her hands and wrists into a large bowl of heated wax once a day and keep them there until the wax had cooled. She hated that enforced idleness but, through that treatment, therapy at the hospital, and plenty of hand exercises, she gradually regained a limited use of her hands. Her hands and wrists never completely straightened up again. Some of her fingers wouldn't bend at the joints and they played up terribly when the weather was bad. But Nan was a fighter and wouldn't give in. Finally, as well as being able to do the housework, cooking and shopping again, she could knit, sew, embroider and crochet. She won many prizes at the local clubs and shows for her needle-work after her recovery.
But back to that Christmas of 1954. Even though I was twelve years old, I still believed in Santa Clause, and the magic of that time of year was as strong as ever.
On Christmas morning, Val and I rushed excitedly down stairs to get our Christmas stockings. We had time to notice a pile of presents under the big tree in the corner of the living room before we dashed back upstairs to sit on Mum's bed where we dug deep into those stockings for our Christmas goodies. Once again, Mum had done us proud and the two of us whooped with joy as we found apples, oranges, dates, nuts, chocolate, sweets, and little toys in the stockings. After the initial excitement had died down, we were soon dressed and downstairs. It wasn't long before the fires were lit and we'd had our breakfast. Then, sitting happily around the glowing fire, we opened our presents.
Mum bought me a magic questions and answers set that year. Inside the box was a raised base-board with two holes in it. There were a dozen flat boards with corresponding holes. Around the left hand hole of each of the boards were written questions, and around the right hand hole were answers. There was a little plastic man supplied with the set and, after the subject board was placed over the base-board, this little man was placed in the hole surrounded by questions. The little man held a long pointer in his hands and we had to turn him around in the hole until the pointer was pointing towards a question. Then we had to take him out of the left hole and place him in the right hand hole where he automatically spun around until his pointer was aimed at the correct answer to the question. It didn't take me long to discover that the little man was worked by magnets in the base-board, but I had hours of fun with the set and learned at the same time.
Dowie Joey gave me a toy yacht and Granddad popped in with a pictorial encyclopaedia that had a wealth of information for a boy of my age. The St Vincent De Paul men had also brought us presents, although unfortunately I can't recall their gift to me that time. Mum cooked an enormous Christmas roast and we spent the rest of the day contentedly playing and reading.
And so another wonderfully memorable Christmas passed. The weather turned mild, the snow melted and we slipped into the new year of 1955.
On the first day back at school, I walked into Amersham station and asked for the 'day return to Ricky' at the ticket-office. The ticket was produced and I handed my shilling through the hole in the office window. Quickly, the ticket was pulled back out of my reach and I was informed that the fare had gone up to one shilling and one penny. I had no penny so, as I was a regular customer, I was given the ticket at the old price and asked to remember the new price in future.
For some reason, I was very embarrassed about this incident. I felt that, not having paid the full fare, I wasn't entitled to ride the train. Instead of standing happily out on the platform in my usual, by then, confident way, I lurked around the side of the station building. I felt that the whole of the station staff knew that I hadn't paid enough for my ticket. I had the same feeling at the Rickmansworth station.
When I arrived home that evening, I told Mum what had happened and how I had felt. She said that she understood my feelings. The next morning I arrived at the ticket-office where I produced the correct fare and paid off my debt with the extra penny that Mum had given me for that purpose. Feeling that a weight had been taken off my mind, I jauntily strode onto the platform. I was full of my old confidence and chatted to the friendly porters like old times until my train came in. Those porters, of course, hadn't known about the under-paid ticket and probably wouldn't have cared if they had known but, I'd felt like a criminal for a day and was jolly glad that Mum had given me the penny so that I was able to square things up.
As the mild weather continued, we children at school were making the best of it. It was good to go on the lunch time walks with my friends again after being away from them through the Christmas holidays. None of us had a care in the world, we enjoyed each others company and we always seemed to be singing.
Rock ‘n’ roll was just about to take the country by storm and our latest 'favourite song' was Bill Haley's 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' that had just been released. I feel that his song 'Rock Around The Clock' was also released early that year but didn't make much impression at the time.
On one of the first weekends after starting back to school, Eric, who lived opposite us, and I decided to go for a bike ride. The weather was lovely and warm as we rode down to Old Amersham and headed out on to the Aylesbury road. Great Missenden was passed under the unexpected warmth of that winters day but, as we approached Wendover, a dark, leaden sky covered the warm sun. Almost immediately, the temperature plummeted and we were both soon very cold as we had no over-coats on. I spied a road signpost pointing out the direction to Chesham on the right. For some reason instead of turning back the way we had come, we decided to take this side road and get home via Chesham. It turned out to be a bad mistake.
As soon as we had turned onto the side road, we were forced to get off and walk due to a long steep hill. This hill wound up through dark woods for, what seemed to us, to be miles but, was probably only one mile. It was very steep and the effort to push our bikes up it cut into our reserves. To make matters worse, it started to snow as we were still struggling up that long slope. It would have been so easy to have turned around, swooped back down the hill and gone home the way we'd come. But, thinking that Chesham was only over the hill, we never thought to turn back.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of walking, we reached the top of that hill. It was a relief to be able to hop onto our bikes again. With heads down, we wobbled off into the gathering darkness of the fast approaching evening, our squinting eyes trying to pierce the snowy gloom.
Somehow, in that terrible weather, we must have missed the road to Chesham and we struggled blindly on into the snow storm as the afternoon became progressively darker. It was bitterly cold up there on the hills and Eric, who was a year younger than I, began to whimper as the freezing coldness reached through his clothes. I was luckier than Eric for I did have on a leather jacket and he only had a normal one. Just the same, I was frozen and knew how he felt. To add to our problems, Eric had no lights on his bike and I had left my front lamp at home. There was only my rear light between the pair of us.
I was just beginning to think that the road would go on for ever when lights appeared through the swirling snowflakes and we both cheered thinking that they were the lights of Chesham. But our spirits were soon dashed when we discovered that we were in a town called Tring, not Chesham.
0nce again, we spied a signpost pointing to Chesham on the right. With heavy hearts we set off into the darkness once more, heading along this new direction and only able to see the road because the grass verge was darker than the snow-covered road surface. Before we'd gone a couple of miles along that twisting road, we were both sobbing because we were so cold. I thought of the last snow storm that I'd ridden my bike through on the way home from school and realised that there would be no quick trip home this time. I knew that, somehow, we had to grin and bear it.
We passed the few scattered lights of a village. How lucky the people were there, I had thought, to be in their nice, warm, cosy homes. Eric was riding out in front and I kept behind so that any cars that might approach from the rear could see my rear light. I was hoping that the battery would last until we got home. As in a dream, hands once again seeming to be frozen to the handle-bars and my whole body an agony of coldness, I peered through the dark black and grey of the snowy night at Eric's black form weaving along in front of me.
All at once, as we were riding unsteadily down a hill, Eric started to slow down and shouted at the same time. I had no chance of stopping at such short notice and skidded past him in a long broadside to be stopped as I hit the snowy grass along the opposite verge. I picked myself up and ran back to Eric who was pointing away from the road at something that had caught his eye. I looked in the direction and there, right beside the road, was a small cottage. The curtains at the lighted window of the little cottage were open and we could see a wonderful roaring fire in the grate at the opposite end of the room.
When I look back now, I think of the story of 'The Little Match Girl' who was forced out into the snow and could strike matches that enabled her to look through walls into peoples warm homes. But Eric and I were seeing the real thing and he wanted to knock on the door and ask if we could sit by the fire to warm up a bit. I refused to let him knock the door as I knew that we'd have to get just as cold again as we continued on our journey after. I also knew that our Mums would be worrying about us by that time and I didn't want to hang about any longer than necessary. We argued outside in the bitter snow storm with that lovely hot fire no more than five or six metres from us on the other side of the brightly lit window. Finally, Eric saw my reasoning and we quickly grabbed our bikes and rode away from that oasis of warmth into the dark snowy night.
I didn't tell Eric until after, how I'd longed to knock at the door myself and it was only the thought of how cross our Mums would be if we were very late that had overpowered the strong desire.
We were struggling up a short hill just after leaving the cottage when, what seemed to us, something like a miracle occurred. The snow storm suddenly ceased and there, right below, were the lights of Chesham.
Cold forgotten for the moment, we hooted with relief and skidded down the slippery hill. Soon we were riding through the slush that covered The Broadway and High Street. We rode along Waterside and had just turned off towards Chesham Bois when the snow started falling again with a vengeance.
Our initial elation at seeing Chesham had gradually subsided as we had rode through the town. We were so very tired, hungry and extremely cold, we were worried about what our Mums would say and we'd been worried that the police would catch us without the proper lights on our bikes.
Our morale was at its lowest when the snow had started falling again. Soon, Eric was crying openly because he was so cold. I wasn't much better off and, between sobs, I urged him on. We warmed up a fraction as we pushed our bikes up Chesham Bois hill but, were frozen again by the time we'd reached the start of Stubbs Wood Road. There was less than a mile to go but, the closer we got to home, the more we cried with the cold and exhaustion. It seemed to me that my frozen body couldn't take any more of that terrible bitterly cold night.
Then suddenly, I was standing inside the back door at home, crying my eyes out with relief and shivering like mad. Mum dashed upstairs and got a couple of blankets for me while I stripped off my soaking, snow-covered clothes. She didn't have time to warm the blankets up this time, but I eagerly wrapped them around myself anyway. The bath was filled in record time and I sank into the hot water with even more relief than I had after the snowy trip home from school. Gradually, the bad shivering fit passed and I relaxed in the hot bath feeling the joy of warmth returning to my body. As the blood started circulating properly again, I was nearly driven mad by 'pins and needles' but, the sensation soon went and before long I was back to normal, although I felt very tired.
Once again, Mum had thought that she had a live snow man on the back step. She hadn't been unduly worried as it hadn't been as late as I had thought, and I'd just managed to get home on the usual dead-line of seven thirty. She'd been annoyed that I hadn’t come home for tea but had thought that I was at one of my friends houses. She was amazed when I told her my story, and she said that she would have worried if she'd known that we'd rode so far away from home. But, she did tell me off for not having the proper lights on my bike. She threatened that I'd be banned from riding my bike for a month if I ever forgot the lamp again. From then onwards, I never used the lamp for anything else without making sure that I placed it back on my bike.
Happily, I snuggled down in bed that night with the contented feeling that Eric and I had been lost in the bitterly cold snowy weather but, had managed to come through. I thought to myself that it had been a wonderful adventure. I suppose that I could afford to think that it had been wonderful after, as I lay safely tucked up in my warm bed. We had rode our bikes for twenty five miles that afternoon and evening and were jolly lucky to have got off so lightly considering.
That same night, as Eric and I were recovering from our ordeal, a neighbour's son got into a fight at a dance in Chesham. He was a lot older than I was but, I knew him well because the Mother was one of Mum's mates. The son was a quiet, well behaved, good mannered lad who was liked by all the locals. His Mum came in just as I'd settled in front of the fire and told us how her son had been forced into the fight because he'd danced with his assailant's girlfriend. Not content with beating the son up, the hooligan had dragged him outside and bitten his little finger off. All of us were very shocked, I felt very sorry for her son and shuddered at the thought of having a finger lost in such a manner. Eric and I had rode past the very dance hall earlier that night and I resolved never to set foot in the place after that incident.
Then a tragedy occurred during that cold spell. I went out to uncover Wilfie's cage, as I did every morning, only to find that I'd forgotten to cover it up the night before. Although he had plenty of straw in the cage, it was the open-fronted type with wire-netting over the front and no sleeping-box. He relied on me to cover the opening each night and I had let him down. My lovely, big, black rabbit, that Jim had given me, lay at the back of the cage frozen to death. Full of shame, I bitterly reproached myself. I had been a bit slack with him since I'd started the school at Rickmansworth and Mum had had to remind me a few times to cover him up, now I'd lost him through my own neglect and I was very disappointed with myself. Knowing how cold it was out in the snow, I knew that he must have had a terrible death. I never had a pet rabbit again.
I got up at the usual time for school the next morning but, due to the fact that I didn't have to un-cover and feed Wilfie, I arrived at the station a bit earlier. As I was buying my ticket, a train clanked into the station. The guard's whistle blew for the train to start and I ran for the nearest compartment door. Upon climbing into the compartment, I could see that it was already occupied by three boys who all looked a year or so older than myself. The train began to pull out of the station and the boys started to whisper among themselves, glancing in my direction now and again. I thought that they looked like a right gang of thugs and grabbed my satchel ready to repel the attack that I fully expected.
Suddenly, they all started nodding their heads as if they'd come to some agreement. I braced myself as they turned and faced me. To my relief they were all smiling. They asked me who I was, where I'd come from and where I was going to. Not letting my guard down, I told them the answers to their queries. By the time we'd passed my old school, we were all chatting like old friends. They told me that the little meeting in the corner had been conducted so that they could decide whether I looked like a good sport or not. Apparently, to those three lads, I did look like a good sport. The three boys played a game on the train every day and they thought that I might like to join in.
Everybody knows the game of 'Squeak, Piggy, Squeak' but, try playing it in a small, noisy train compartment as it rocks and shakes while racing down the line. I agreed to give the game a go, much to the delight of those lads. Names were exchanged, and a scarf was soon tied over my eyes. After spinning me around three times, I was left alone to go and search for the others, furiously trying to remember their names and trying to put the voice to each name.
Through the noise of the lurching carriage, I could hear them giggling and dashing around. At last, I caught one and said "Squeak, Piggy, Squeak" where-upon he 'squeaked' and I was lucky enough to remember his name. But, although he was then out of the game for the moment, he was still allowed to run around the compartment which helped to confuse the hunter a bit. Just as we were drawing into Chalfont station, I found and identified another lad and we quickly settled down.
A gentleman came hurrying over to our compartment and, not wishing to have this new avenue of fun spoilt, I moaned, showed my best leer to the man and he changed direction fast. My new companions thought the trick was hilarious and laughed out loud. They laughed even louder when I told them of the nose-picking trick. That trick was employed by the others many times while I knew them.
Still laughing with the fun of it all, we commenced the next game as the train left Chalfont. One of the other boys was blind-folded and I had a turn at being an evader. We couldn't get under the seats, but we managed to get everywhere else, including laying along the high net luggage racks. I was able to dodge the hunter for quite a while as he felt around the compartment. But then, my giggling gave me away and I was the first to be caught after my laughing 'squeak' was recognised.
I can't remember any of the boys' names now. I can't recall where they came from or where they were going to each morning. I caught the same train and had a wonderful time with them each day as we played that game, and the trick on the approaching passengers. Then, one morning, I watched horrified as one of the lads climbed out of the compartment window to hide. I thought that it was a very stupid and dangerous thing to do. Although I hadn't said anything, it was the end as far as I was concerned and I went back to catching my usual train. I never saw those lads again.
The weather was still cold when Dowie Joey left us in March of that year. He'd been a good bloke and we had missed his ever-laughing presence around the house.
It was also in that month that I took Val to Rickmansworth one Saturday so that she could meet my school friends (she especially wanted to meet Gina). Off we went by train to Rickmansworth station where we caught the bus to Mill End.
I'd already been to Victor's home one evening previously after school so I knew where to meet him. It wasn't long before the gang was collected together and we set off so as the others could show Val and I around. We had a wonderful day exploring the fields and woods about the area and I was pleased to have a better idea of where my school friends lived. In the end, it was time to go and Val and I rode the bus, train, and bikes back home, well contented with our day out together.
The following Monday at school, Victor came up to me and said that he felt very sick in the stomach. I asked him if he knew why and there were shouts of laughter as he told me that he was 'in love with my lovely sister'. Now we had two 'love-sick' boys in the class. But I was there with Gina, Val wasn't there to keep Victor interested and gradually he talked less of her as the days passed. In the end, he'd forgotten her (I suspect) completely.
In April, we took in a new lodger. His name was John Barry, an Irish man. John was a coach conductor on the London Transport Green Line coaches - and we all got on fairly well to begin with.
Mum had acquired a wind-up gramophone from one of her friends. It was in a large ornate cabinet and stood on four legs. We had to wind it up and change the needle for every record played. There was an on/off lever for the turn-table and it only played at seventy eight revolutions per minute. If we required our music loud, we had to open two doors in the front of the cabinet, otherwise, we'd leave the doors shut and still be able to hear quite easily.
Mum gave Val and I the money to buy a record each. I can't remember which record Val bought, but I purchased a song that I'd heard on the wireless by Eddie Fisher called 'Wedding Bells'. Mum had also been given a big heap of old records and we all set to with a will, changing needles, winding like mad, sitting back to listen then repeating the process for the next record. That old gramophone gave us years of pleasure.
With spring bringing the warmer weather again, the locks became our lunch time target more often while at school. The friendly lock-keeper was always pleased to see us and we never tired of working the locks and having the occasional ride through them on a barge. Sometimes we'd see a motor-less barge roped to the side of a main barge, but the bargees could handle these through the lock just as easily as one. I believe that all the barges were called 'narrow boats' in those days. I couldn't say for sure what was carried in 'our' barges as the holds were always covered by tarpaulins.
Then a new 'sport' took us boys by storm. As the summer approached and the beech saplings began to sprout in the hedge-rows, we started to use the long, straight saplings as spears. Somebody began playfully sword-fencing with a couple of shorter saplings and, all at once, each boy had a sword.
I had a beauty. It was made from a slightly curved beech sapling and I'd trimmed the thin bark off except where the handle was. Using a piece of wire that I'd found, I tied a cross-piece just below the handle and my sword was complete. With that sword stuck in my belt, I felt that I could do anything.
The girls tolerated this latest craze and Mother Maria didn't bat an eye-lash as us boys trooped into the classroom with swords stuck in our belts. Other teachers would have told us to leave them outside, but not Ma. I don't think any of us would have been parted from our own beloved sword anyway. I know that I carried my sword, stuck in my belt, all the way home on the train and bike then, took it back to school each day. I hated being without it.
I recall one lunch time when we were walking back across the park after having been to the Aquadrome. We were away from the public eye and, as we walked, a mock sword-fight developed. Suddenly, one of the girls called our attention to a man who had appeared coming towards us. As we looked, he exposed himself. He didn't look in our direction or make any advances, it was just as if he was in a world of his own.
But he wasn't on his own, we were there and, pretty soon we were gone. With a shocked feeling of amazement, we turned tail and ran as hard as we could, us boys keeping between the man and the girls in true chivalrous style. Down to the by-pass we ran, just as we'd all been taught to do by our parents in such an eventuality. Soon we were telling Mother Maria all about it.
I never knew whether the man was caught or not. Victor and Pete were all for us boys going back up to the park and setting about the man with our swords, but not me. I may not have hesitated if he'd come near the girls while I had my trusty sword, but I wasn't going out looking for trouble. I was too much of a coward for that. Chances are that I may have saved him from a fate worse than death.
I toted that sword around with me at weekends as well. Val and I had started going out on 'discovery trips' (as we called them). Then knowing most of the 'beaten tracks' around our area, we had started exploring the more inaccessible spots where there were no paths. Val went one better than I, she toted a real sheath-knife.
I well remember one of these trips when we were walking down towards Old Amersham. Our intention was to explore some of the Misbourne Valley on the Great Missenden side of that town. As we walked along a path, I spied a tortoise plodding along in front of us. Not without surprise, I picked it up and we went to the nearest house to see if we could find the owner. As luck would have it, we picked the right house first time and, to our amazement, the lady gave us two shillings for our efforts. Two shillings was still a lot in those days and, in great excitement, we ran down to Old Amersham where the nearest sweet shop could be found.
As we walked along the High Street chatting breathlessly about our lucky find, an old man stopped us and demanded to see Val's knife. Instantly alert, we started walking hurriedly towards a group of people on the pavement nearby. This was what Mum had instructed us to do if we were stopped in the town (as opposed to running away if stopped in the countryside). Over her shoulder, Val told the man to go away or we'd find a policeman. The poor chap probably meant no harm but, we were not taking chances. As we reached the other group and looked around, he said, with the most indignant look on his face and arms open wide, "I was going to peel an apple, but I won't now". The way he looked and said those words sent Val and I into fits of laughter, causing the man to give us a furious look before he turned and stalked off. Those words became a sort of catch-phrase between Val and I and we often used them to relieve the tensions after some disagreement or other.
Regarding the rule of us children not speaking to strangers. Mum had drilled us on what to do if the situations arose and warned us of the possible consequences if we failed to do as she had taught us. But, apart from the incident in the park at Rickmansworth and one that will be related later, I never knew of any children who were abused or assaulted by 'terrible men'. But, Mum did the right thing by warning and training us children and, at least we were prepared.
There was an incident that I recall when a woman (was she a local doctor?) was found murdered in Rectory Wood and everybody was living in fear of a man in a white raincoat. But, the panic gradually died down and I don't know what happened about it. Apart from that we heard very little about criminal activities and it is true when older people say that unlocked houses could be happily left in those days. Our house was rarely locked and we never lost anything.
I 'wore' my sword over to Chenies one weekend. That made Granddad really chuckle. He went up to his shed, rummaged around for a while and came back indoors with a long length of thick cord. He presented the cord to me, saying that I could have it for a lasso. Well, I knew that the Three Musketeers never had a lasso between them, but, I thanked him and spent most of the weekend trying to lasso everything in sight. When I arrived home, I decided to make a rope-ladder with the cord. Humming my latest favourite tune ('Lonely Ballerina' by Mantovani) to myself, I collected some wood for the steps and set to work. Val and I thought the end result was great and we eagerly took off to the woods to try it out.
As we reached the echoing bridge under the Chesham shuttle railway line, we thought it would be a super idea to try the ladder out hanging from the entrance arch We climbed up the bank at the side of the arch, tied the ladder to a convenient tree above the arch centre and slithered back down to the ground where I 'bagged' first go.
Val stood back to watch as I started to climb up the ladder. By the time I'd ascended half way, I was thinking that, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to climb on the flimsy-looking piece of work after all. My courage failed more and more with each step up. Finally, fearful for my very life, I retreated, like the coward I was, before I'd reached the top.
Val looked at me in pure scorn and stormed up to the top of the ladder where she climbed off and slid back down the bank. She told me how easy it had been and I believed her, but my fear over-powered my shame and nothing would make me climb the ladder above the three quarter mark.
In the end, the ladder was put into Mum's wardrobe to be used in an emergency if the house caught on fire below while we were upstairs in bed
One late spring morning, I went to get my bike and found that one of the tyres had a puncture. I decided that I'd fix it that night and set off by foot for the station. As I walked up New Road, I suddenly noticed that Alf was just ahead of me. I threw my precious sword into the hedge and broke a small branch so as I would know the spot later, then I caught him up. I hadn't seen him since the day of the fight more than a year before.
Warily, he said hello, and just as warily I returned his greeting. As we walked on in awkward silence for a few metres, I thought that I should at least bash him one. But, even then I couldn't remember what the fight had been about and I couldn’t see any point in making an example of him when I couldn’t recall what had caused our original dispute. I decided to let bygones be bygones unless he started anything. Soon we were chatting about our adventures we'd had over the past year and, by the time we had to go our different ways, were back to normal although, it would still be a while before we'd become firm friends again. Neither Alf nor I ever spoke about the fight again. I felt naked without my sword that day and was jolly glad to find it again on the way home.
A few days after this meeting with Alf, I arrived at school and was surprised to see another lad from Amersham walk into the class room. His name was Stuart and I'd known him since we'd lived in the bottom camp at Beech Barn. He had come by bus that first day and looked just as lost as I had probably looked on my first day. I remember how surprised he had looked as he saw me there. Soon, Mother Maria had put him under my charge and I had to move away from Victor so that Stuart could sit next to me in class.
Stuart was a year older than myself. He liked getting up to mischief and was a real 'Jack-the-lad'. For the rest of that week we rode the train to school together. Then, he suggested that we spend our train fare and ride our bikes to Rickmansworth and back each day. Well, I knew all about spending my fare in this manner, but never on such a long journey as that. I had a quick think about it with Stuart urging me on and decided to take up the challenge. Off we went as hard as we could, up hill and down dale, the seven or eight miles to school. We laughed the whole way with the thrill of it all. In the late afternoon, we plodded home feeling very tired after our day at school and with the added work of going mostly up hill.
After a week, I got bored with the bike ride and decided to go back on the train and ride to school occasionally. Missing the train ride for a bit of spending money just wasn't worth it and, besides, I didn't really like cheating on Mum with such a lot of money involved. Stuart wasn't very happy about it at all and continued to ride his bike for a couple of days more. But I didn't care and soon he was catching the train with me and having the occasional ride to school when I did.
Finally, the bike rides ended altogether when I snapped my chain as I was riding over the by-pass one morning. Luckily, Father Brendan-Fox came to my rescue and gave me the money to get the chain fixed before I started the journey home. It taught me a lesson when I realised that it could have happened half way between Rickmansworth and Amersham.
The lunch time walks began to change from the happy wanderings to something more daring. Stuart showed us how to smoke a plant that we called 'Old Man's Beard'. Under the disapproving eyes of the girls, us boys were soon coughing and spluttering as we smoked the dry stem of the plant and turned all shades of green. We started lighting fires and sat around them smoking like a party of Red Indian chiefs at a peace parley.
Soon, the girls stopped coming out with us. Then, gradually, the other boys found something else to do at lunch time. Pete broke my lovely sword up and I couldn't understand why. Finally, there was only Stuart and I left. For some reason, I stuck by him for a while, probably because he was from my home town and we travelled together. I hated the smoking, I wasn't keen on outside fires, and I tried to steer Stuart towards more innocent pastimes.
I recall the last time I played with Stuart. I'd talked him into going up to Croxley Woods for a game of tracking. To play this game, one of the party hid his eyes and counted up to fifty while the other ran off into the wood, breaking branches along the trail, until he found somewhere good to hide. Then, the first person had to follow the trail and find the hide-out.
Stuart hid his eyes and I loped off, quietly breaking small branches as I progressed. I'd gone deep into the wood when, suddenly, I ran into a small, grassy clearing and there, right in front of me, was a man and woman laying on the ground making love. I don't know who was more shocked or surprised, them or me. The man started to get up with a wild look on his face, while the woman tried to cover herself up.
Seeing the man's cross face galvanised me into action. I turned and fled back the way I'd come with the man shouting behind me. I knew that Stuart would be coming along the trail and I hoped to warn him. But, in that head-long dash I lost the track and finally went to ground under some thick bushes. Then I listened, but all was silent.
I gave it a few minutes, knowing that Stuart would be getting near, then I stood up and shouted towards where I thought the path was, telling him not to go any closer but, to run as fast as he could back to school where I'd meet him. As I shouted, I saw the man, who, I presume, was creeping around looking for me, come running out of some bushes nearby. Again, I took off for all I was worth. With beating heart and gasping breath, I charged around in a big circle until I'd lost the man and was back at school.
Stuart wasn't there. He still hadn't returned when the afternoon session of lessons began. I explained to Mother Maria that we'd become separated up in the woods and that he was probably looking for me. I was secretly worried that the man might have got him and had just decided to tell the truth when he arrived back. He was very annoyed and threatened to get me at play time. I started to seethe and told him to try it, but we'd both calmed down by the time the break came. I explained what had happened in the wood and he told me that he had heard and seen nothing except the birds and the broken branches. He'd followed the broken twigs all over the place, then decided to give up as, he said, he didn't like the game anyway. That was the end as far as I was concerned. I began to avoid him as much as possible. I changed desks in the classroom, I kept away from him during the play time, and I travelled in a different carriage on the train from the one that he was in.
The other children accepted me back into the group but, it wasn't the same. I could feel that things were not like they used to be. Worse was the fact that Gina had almost stopped talking to me at the time. I'd let them down and lost more than I had bargained for. Even at that age, I knew that it would take a long time to regain their respect.
That first 'crush' had lasted for at least nine months after I'd looked across the class room into Gina's eyes. We'd sat beside each other on the log, gone on the lunch time walks together and had always been so happy to be close to one another. On most evenings after school, Gina and Margaret had walked up to the station with me and Gina had always looked into my eyes when I left her, as if to say that she couldn't wait until the next morning to see me again. I know that I hated leaving her.
And yet, during the whole of the time I knew her, we never once touched. We never kissed, we never cuddled, we never even held hands. It was just as if we were extremely contented to be near each other and nothing else. Never once did we talk about any feelings or about love. Everything was done with our eyes, there seemed to be no reason why we should talk or touch. As I look back over the years, I can still see her face in my mind exactly as it was, with a serious, full of love look in those eyes and a fringe of beautiful blonde hair falling over her forehead. How I loved that girl in my young innocent way.
After my 'wild' spree with Stuart was forgotten, I soon settled down again. My friends were very pleased for me when I was confirmed on the 17 th. June that year (1955). As a reward, Mother Maria gave me the whole afternoon off. She suggested that I might like to take one other class mate and ride a punt around the lake in the gardens of the St. Joan of Arc convent. It sounded great. I chose Timmy and away we went. Soon, we were paddling and poling a long, thin punt around, what looked like, an artificial lake with an island in the middle. We had a wonderful time and it was the last event that I can recall about St. Monica's.
With only a couple of days to go before the summer holidays, Mum learned that St. Monica's, the little school behind the church where I'd had such happy times, was closing down. All my friends, who I loved so much, were going to a new school at Garston, just north of Watford. When Mum told me, I pleaded and cried to be allowed to attend this new school so that I could still be with my friends. But Mum explained that the distance was far too great. I told her that I'd be willing to get up at whatever time I had to in the mornings to get there. I even offered to catch the bus directly to Watford and walk the rest of the way if she'd let me go. But, it was no use, Mum knew that the school was too far away. Deep down, I knew it as well but, I couldn't bear the thought of going to another school without my friends.
And so, I left St. Monica's. I visited some of my old friends at Mill End a couple of times but, gradually we lost touch. I met Mother Maria once more. But, I never saw Gina again. She and her family, I was told, had gone to Australia to live.
The summer holidays began, but I wasn't very happy. I had a song on my mind, it seemed, every minute of the day. That song was 'Unchained Melody' (by Jimmy Young). I didn't feel like going out much unless I was on my own. (Was I nursing a broken heart?)
I recall one incident during that short period when I wanted to be alone. I was walking back up the path from Bluebell Wood, as we called it (Market Reading Wood), when I noticed two lads on the shuttle railway bridge about one hundred metres ahead. They dodged behind the bridge parapet as soon as they saw me. Suddenly, there was a fast 'zipping' noise and something whizzed through my hair on the right side of my head.
I dropped quickly to the ground and lay still in the long grass. I realised that those boys were shooting at me with a powerful air gun. I'd just narrowly escaped being shot in the head. Not wishing to be caught out in the open by those two fools, I decided to try and crawl back to the wood. As I peeped up between the blades of grass to try and see where the boys were, I was just in time to see them running on up the path towards Quill Hall Lane. Thinking that they might ambush me farther along the path I crawled back below a rise in the hill until I couldn't be seen from their direction and went home by a different route.
I knew who these two stupid boys were and, a couple of weeks later, I met them in Chestnut Lane. At first, they just gaped at me, then they looked at each other and started laughing. They were both older than I was but, with every determination, I decided to tell them off for the dangerous way that they had fired the rifle at me.
The two boys asked me if I was alright. I said that I was, no thanks to them and their silly games. They said that they were very relieved and I asked them why. They went on to tell me that, after they had decided to give me a scare and had fired a pellet that was supposed to have missed me, they'd seen me fall to the ground. Thinking that they had murdered me, they'd run off in panic and had been living in terror ever since. The pair of them had been expecting the police to knock on their doors any minute of the day.
When I told them how close they had come to shooting me in the head, they were both visibly shaken and it was my turn to laugh. I hoped that the lads had learned their lesson as I walked on, a much happier chap.
A few days later, an incident occurred that gave me the courage to never be bullied again.
Val was going around with a very nice young lad called Chris. She kept on at me, through the summer holidays, to go along with her and Chris on the discovery trips but, I didn't really want to go. Chris had a sister of my age called Maureen. Val finally talked me into making a foursome with herself, Maureen and Chris. Off we went for a walk down to Stubbs Wood.
We were happily wandering along a leafy path with the sun sparkling through the trees overhead when, all of a sudden, Francis Ridgeway stepped out from behind a bush. He was in a real mean mood and started to threaten Chris (the smallest person in our group).
Francis was two years older and a good deal taller than I and, knowing what he was like, I'd kept well clear of him even though he only lived next door. Now it looked as if there would be trouble.
Without any warning, he hit Chris straight in the face and Chris went down as if he'd been pole-axed. I was scared and my legs started to shake. I knew that I should do something but, I didn't know what it was. I couldn't make up my mind whether to grab the girls and run, try and reason with the brute, or (horrors!) try and make a stand. In spite of my resolution not to be bullied anymore, I had suddenly realised that the thought of being bashed up by Francis Ridgeway was very frightening. Nevertheless, I knew that something had to be done, and quickly. All this raced through my mind in a flash.
Then Francis made a very bad mistake which made my mind up for me. He swung around and hit Val straight in the face and I saw her collapse to the ground as well. Suddenly, a red film covered my eyes. This bully had dared to hit my sister. I let out a great bellow of rage, covered the few metres between the thug and myself in a flash, and dragged him to the ground with every bit of strength I possessed. His fists were flailing out in every direction as I laid into him, but I was oblivious to anything except my desire for revenge on this lout for hitting my sister in such a cowardly way. Then I was astride his chest with my knees pinning his arms to the ground. In this position, I started to pummel his face to pulp.
I'll never forget it. The suppressed frustration’s of being bullied all my life went into the beating that I gave Francis that day. I can remember the thud and sight of each blow as if it had been only yesterday. In a frenzy of unrepentant fury, I smashed my fists into his nose, mouth, and eyes. Blood belched out of his nostrils and he started to scream. Without mercy, I crunched half a dozen more alternate fists into his face. The screams for help gurgled as blood threatened to choke him. I could feel Maureen pulling at my shoulders to try and get me off. But, I'd tasted blood and I wanted to make sure that Francis knew it. I shrugged away from Maureen's feeble grasps easily and crashed another blow into his face again. His blood was splattered everywhere and his attempts to get me off had ceased. The face that had sneered at me (and others) so many times, was a wreck. He was groaning through his smashed mouth and I knew that I had beat him. Maureen renewed her efforts to pull me off, then Val was helping her. I looked up and saw Val's blood-spattered blouse, my fury returned for a split second and I crushed a last fist into Francis's jaw before I released him. Chris was still groaning on the ground and I was very tempted to give Francis a few kicks in the ribs as he lay there at my feet. But, I couldn't do it, even to a bully such as he was. My furious rage was still tempered by my ethics. I warned him never to bully anyone again or I would set about him once more.
Leaving the bully laying there holding his head and groaning feebly, the three of us picked Chris up and helped him away. We must have looked a sorry sight as, with Val and Chris spattered in the blood from their bleeding noses, and my pants and shirt covered in Francis's blood, we staggered up the path towards home. I was shaking like a leaf as we climbed back up the hill, and I also began to worry about the way we'd left Francis laying there. He hadn't looked too well as we'd departed. Then I thought of the time he had locked me out of his house years before, when I'd been so scared of the light in the sky. I felt justified in walking on.
Mum was shocked when she saw the state of us as we walked indoors. She suggested that Maureen and Chris go home so that their Mum could ensure that they were alright. Val and I explained what had happened and, as we washed and changed our clothes, she told us that it sounded as if Francis had got his just desserts.
Mum was thrilled that I'd stood up for Val. Usually, it was the other way around. Many times, Val had threatened bullies who had tried to push me about. She was a very determined girl and had a bravado that had put me to shame often. I had always been the weak and timid one of the family. But, over the previous year or so, I had began to rebel against the bullies who thought it was good fun to spoil other peoples lives. Yes, Mum was very annoyed with Francis but extremely pleased with me.
Meanwhile, Francis had arrived home. When his Mother saw the state of his battered face, she went berserk. She flew out of her door and started shouting for me over the garden fence. Soon, Mum and her were having a terrible argument. Fingers were pointed at faces and threats were made. Francis was brought out so as Mum could see what her 'brute of a son' had done to his face. Mum just laughed and said it served him right for hitting girls. This made Mrs. Ridgeway livid and she called Mr. Ridgeway out to deal with us all.
Now, Mrs. Ridgeway was an enormous woman and could have crushed the three of us in one go. On the other hand, Mr. Ridgeway was a small, weed of a man and wouldn't have stood a chance against a flea. But, Mrs. Ridgeway thought that he could sort us out so she shouted his name, which was Walter, two or three times. As he opened the door, Mum dashed indoors and left Val and I to face the wrath of the little man.
Mr. Ridgeway stood behind the great bulk of his wife's body and, looking out from under her arm, he promised me that I was doomed for what I'd done to his loving son. I stood my ground and tried to explain what had happened, but it was no use, he wouldn't listen. They were the type of people who always think that they are right and everybody else is wrong, and that their children are little angels.
Just then, Mum re-appeared with a full bowl of water in her hands. Mrs. Ridgeway just had time to shout "Look out! Walter" to her husband, when Mum threw the whole bowl of water over the pair of them, saying, "You shouted for water (Walter), here's some water for you". Dripping wet and screaming abuse at us, they retreated through their door with Mum telling them that, if Francis ever came near any of us again, she'd get me to give him a real bashing.
After seeing Francis's face, I wondered what a 'real' bashing was to my Mum. When Francis had been called outside, I was shocked at the sight of his face. His lips were split and swollen, his nose was split and bloody, his right eye was completely closed by a purple bloody swelling, and he had cuts over most of his face. He looked like a one-eyed monster. As in a dream, I looked and couldn't believe that I had done such a thing.
Another thing that amazed me was how easy it had been. Once I'd made up my mind (or had it made up for me) I had just seemed to steam-roller the bully into the ground. I didn't feel any triumph over Francis, I just felt a great relief that I had, at last, got him off my back. I knew that I would never be bullied by him again.
The Ridgeway family moved away shortly after that memorable day. We were not sorry to see them go. The whole house that they had lived in, next door to us, had to be painted right through, and broken windows, taps, doors, and plaster had to be replaced. I went into the house to chatter to the painter while he was working on the house. He took me into the kitchen, lifted the lid of the bath and asked me what I thought of the sight. And, what a sight it was. I thought that my own eyes were playing tricks when I looked into that bath. It was absolutely chocker-block with empty cigarette packets, match boxes, sweet papers, and chocolate wrappings. It was an amazing sight to me, especially as their four children (two of them being infants) went around in rags. Soon, there was a procession of locals going in and out of the house to see the unbelievable sight. The painter could have made a fortune if he'd charged an entrance fee. Everyone had the same question on their lips. "When had they last had a bath?"
And so Francis went out of my life. But, little did he know that the fight we'd had would give me the courage to stand up for myself and my friends. I never allowed myself to be bullied again.
The summer holidays continued. 'Rosemarie' (by Slim Whitman) was my latest favourite song along with 'Mama' and 'Everywhere' (by David Whitfield). Our new lodger, John, took me on a couple of trips to Croydon in the Green Line coach that he was conductor of. Then the holidays were over and school started again.
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