Elvis Presley had just released ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and his film of the same title was doing the rounds of the English cinemas. Gerry Lee Lewis had ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ in the charts, and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ by Little Richard was there as well. To slow the tempo down a bit we had Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments’ which was another of those songs that seemed to please all ages.
We moved in to the big house and Mum arranged for our furniture to be brought over from the garage where it had been stored for the last few months. Amid great excitement I explored our new home.
It was a long, corner house with the narrow front facing on to the Oxford Road and a side and rear entrance in Little John’s Lane (the same lane that I walked down most evenings to watch The Red Dragon train go by). The building had once been an Off Licence and the large shop window was still at the front. There was a big cellar below where the shop part used to be and the opening flaps, where the beer barrels used to be lowered down into that cellar, were still there in the pavement down the side road.
Mum and John picked the ex-shop part for their bedroom. On the ground floor from that room, going towards the rear of the house, was a lounge room, a living room, a toilet and bath room ending in a kitchen before stepping out of the back door. On the first floor were large bedrooms and Val had a bedroom on this floor at the rear of the house. The stairs wound on up to an attic room and this became my bedroom. There was an L-shaped garden out the back with large, double gates that led into Little John’s Lane at the side. An old caravan was parked in this garden amongst piles of wood, old pipes, sinks, baths and all the other junk that a plumber would collect and store over the years.
The rent for this large house was a lot in those days and we needed more money to supplement John’s income. Mum had to give up working at the Granby cinema when we moved into Chester Street and had gradually slipped back into her Agoraphobic ways. Any extra work that was taken on would have to be done by Mum at home. She thought about it for a while, then the answer came. She’d taken in boarders before, there were the empty bedrooms up-stairs so she decided to start up a boarding house for working men away from home who needed a place to live while completing their contracts of work. Once the idea was decided upon, Mum moved quickly.
She bought bedroom furniture and bedding on credit from a second-hand furniture shop and an Army Surplus store in town. I recall that the Army Surplus store was called ‘Brennan’s’ and Mr. Brennan was very good to us. Soon the spare bedrooms were full of single beds, barrack-room style.
To keep the boarders happy in the evenings, Mum purchased a television. We’d never had, nor really bothered about, a television before but all at once the little black and white picture invaded our living room and seemed to drone on for half the night. I was never overly interested in the television except for the pop-music shows, although I would occasionally watch it for something to do.
The first boarders to arrive were the Hanrahans, two brothers and the son of one of those brothers. These three men would board with us throughout the whole of our stay at that house. They were good men and treated me as a person although I ended up as a virtual ‘scullery maid’. Other men arrived in dribs and drabs and I’d have a few ups and downs with some of them.
More and more Mum seemed to be relying on having me around. My education was forgotten as I went for longer and longer without going to school. How we got away with it I’ll never know. As the boarders started arriving, I was roped in to help. There were the fires to light, the shopping to get, errands to run., meals to prepare, beds to make, washing and wiping up to do, and the place had to be kept spick and span. It never seemed to end. I still had to be indoors at seven-thirty each night, but with all the work that seemed to be needed for such a venture, I was pretty tied up to start with so that didn’t make much difference. My whole life seemed to revolve around that house.
where the men caught lorries or
buses to work.
Each morning I’d help Mum to get the men off to work. Most of them were on contract jobs in out-lying areas and they had to be down at the St. Mary’s Butts in town in time to catch their work lorries and buses.
All would be quiet through the working day and I’d help Mum to tidy up and prepare for the men’s homecoming. Then in the evening the men would arrive home and the rush would be on to feed them dinner and supper. It was always very late when Mum and I were finished and could get to our beds. Weekends were worse with the extra meals and having to wait around for them to get up before we could get in and tidy the bedrooms. But at least I didn’t have the evening chore of making their sandwiches for lunch on those days.
With all these long hours, Mum started having a lay down in the afternoons and I amused myself as best I could during this free time.
I’d acquired an airgun from somewhere and I spent hours down in the cellar shooting at targets. Soon I could hit the bullseye from the opposite end of the cellar every time and I became bored. Halfpennies became my targets but I soon gave up on them as I seemed to be able to hit them without ever missing. Then I started shooting little plastic soldiers that were being given away in the Corn Flakes boxes at that time. It was uncanny, I used to shoot the little red figures down one after the other as if I was Annie Oakley herself. Finally, I became bored with the sport and chucked the gun in the cupboard.
Mum couldn’t bear to know that I wasn’t around
the house. Through the illness and her reliance on my presence, I
always had to be on hand. At first I was fairly happy to do
things around our new home, but as the house became familiar I
began to get itchy feet. Mum used to read while she was resting
in the afternoons and, if I put my ear to the door I could hear
the pages of her book being turned over. If five minutes passed
by without hearing anything, I’d know that she’d
fallen asleep. Knowing that she wouldn’t come out of the
room until just before the men started coming home, I realised
that I could go anywhere and she would be none the wiser.
I remember the first trip that I did after making sure that she was asleep in this manner and how wonderful it was to be free after being tied to the house for so long.
I cycled up to Woodley aerodrome (where Douglas Bader had crashed in an aircraft, resulting in both of his legs being amputated) on the east side of Reading. At the aerodrome was a large, corrugated-tin hanger with an aeroplane parked under its shelter. I crept into the hanger and climbed inside the plane. After ‘flying’ it around the world half a dozen times, I came back down to earth to realise that the time was getting on. Head down, backside up I raced back through Reading and reached home to find that Mum had just got up. I mumbled something about just being around the corner and nothing more was said.
Gradually my trips became longer as I went farther afield. After all those months away, I longed to go and see Amersham again. I knew that it was within my reach and capabilities to ride there and back if I was given the time. I decided to try it one afternoon.
Mum went in for her rest and I sang away to myself so that she’d know I was still there and relax. As soon as all was quiet, I hopped onto my bike and pedalled off. It was thirty miles from Reading to Chenies. It would have been at least twenty six miles from our house to Amersham. On these rides I also had to take into account the time it would take to get back and try and make allowances for my failing energy as the miles went by. On that first trip I was only five miles from Old Amersham when I had to turn back. But I had enjoyed the ride so much.
A couple of days later I tried again and reached Old Amersham before I had to return. I was quite tired when I arrived home, but, of course, I couldn’t let Mum see this.
The next week saw me attempting a trip to Chenies. I threw caution to the wind and set off as soon as Mum went into her bedroom. This gave me at least half an hours start. With legs flying and pedals ablurr, I raced up the London Road, turned left at Knowl Hill, hurtled through Marlow and High Wycombe, passed Amersham and was going through Chalfont when the time for me to start the return trip arrived. I was only a couple of miles from Chenies so I carried on, determined that even if I didn’t have time to visit my grandparents, at least I’d see their house. At the end of their close, I turned around, glanced over to their home, then headed back towards Reading.
With all my determination I’d reached Chenies and seen at lot of the old familiar sights that I’d come to love over the years. But now I had to set my determination on getting home before Mum got up and I was already feeling tired.
Without slacking speed, I struggled up and down the hills past Old Amersham, High Wycombe and Marlow. By the time I’d reached the London Road I was pretty beat. Forcing my legs to keep up the pace, I passed the Floral Mile and strained up towards Shepherd’s House Hill. At this stage I was absolutely exhausted. As I reached the top of the hill my one desire was to stop and rest.
The London (or Bath, if one is travelling west as I was at the time) Road passes over the Great Western Railway’s Sonning Cutting at this point and I thought that I’d sit on the bridge parapet for a minute and watch a train or two pass below in the deep defiles of this famous spot for railway photographers.
I didn’t realise just how exhausted I really was until I suddenly heard a car horn and found that I’d dropped off to sleep while laying along that bridge parapet. I was shocked to think that I’d flaked out on that high arch above the lines and could have easily rolled off and fallen onto the railway far below. Shaking with more than exhaustion, I arrived home to find that Mum had just got up.
It wasn’t long, before I could easily ride to Chenies, have a ‘cuppa’ with my grandparents (or Nan, if Granddad was at work) and get back before Mum came out from her afternoon rest. My grandparents always kept my trips a secret from Mum for they knew of her problems only too well.
But I wasn’t always going off on rides and a majority of the afternoons were spent listening to records or the wireless. Tommy Steele had released a song that took my fancy called ‘Happy Guitar’, Lonnie Donegan released ‘Grand Coolie Dam’ which is still one of my all time favourites, Chuck Berry was climbing up the charts with ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, Connie Francis was going well with ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and Elvis Presley was keeping his run of top-charters going with a song called ‘Don’t’. There was a short serial on the television called ‘The Killing Stones’ and the theme tune from that serial, called ‘Tom Hark’ (by Elias and his Zigzag Jive Flutes) was being whistled and hummed by everybody. This tune also crept into the top ten.
One afternoon at this time I was listening to some records when there came a frantic banging on the side door. I opened the door to be greeted by a lady who told me that her house was on fire just around the corner and would I please help her. I told her to lead the way and we raced a couple of doors up, turned into her house and ran through into the kitchen..
Out of the corner of my eye I could see flames flaring up the wall, but my immediate attention was focused on a baby that was strapped into a push-chair and which had been left in the kitchen while the lady had gone for help. Shouting to the lady to call the fire-brigade, I snatched the pusher up with the baby still inside and took it a safe distance up the back garden.
Back in the kitchen, I found that I was faced with another frying-pan fire, this time the pan was on a gas stove. I quickly turned the gas off and, having learned from the previous similar experience when we’d had the frying-pan fire at Donyatt, I grabbed a cloth, picked up the blazing frying-pan, and walked slowly backwards out into the garden.
With the frying-pan out of the way I went back into the kitchen where the wallpaper above the stove was still alight. Luckily, the fire wasn’t too bad and I managed to beat out the remaining flames with a towel just as the lady returned from telephoning the fire-brigade. By the time they arrived, I was back indoors playing records again.
The lady and her husband had a very nice-looking, dark-eyed daughter and that evening, after the husband had thanked me for my efforts (much to my embarrassment) their daughter stayed to chatter to me for a while. I thought that she was a lovely girl and my heart fluttered as I talked to her. But something happened the next day that changed all that.
It was late afternoon and Mum was due to come out of her room very shortly. I was playing some records in the kitchen and making sure that everything was prepared for the evening meals, when I glanced out of the window and saw two young girls walking down the pavement on the other side of Little John’s Lane. One of them was a pretty, dark-haired girl, but the other one, to me, was like a beautiful goddess and I couldn’t take my eyes off her as they walked down the street and stopped outside of a house almost opposite our back gates. After chatting at the door of the house, the dark-haired girl walked on down the street while the ‘goddess’ (who had fair hair) went inside and closed the door.
The next day I watched out of the window at about the same time and the two girls came down the street as they had the day before. The dark-haired girl was the younger of the pair but the ‘goddess’ was only a couple of years younger than I was. For the next week or so I stayed at home each afternoon just to catch a glimpse of that beautiful girl as she walked down the street with her friend, obviously on their way home from school. My heart gave a great jolt as soon as I saw her coming down that street and I wondered how I could meet her. I was a coward where girls were concerned but I really wanted to meet this one. Then a slight change in my life made me forget that lovely girl for a while.
The end of my school years arrived and Mum sent me back to school for my last couple of days. I did no lessons as everyone in my class had already given up on school and were excitedly talking about the jobs that they hoped to get.
I was taken up to the headmaster and he explained that, due to my long absence from school, nobody knew what to write on my last school report. After asking a lot of questions about my school life, education, and interests, he sent me back to my classroom.
And so I left school with a report that gave me an average on all subjects except English and maths, where I got a poor on each. In the ‘comments’ section at the bottom of the report had been written ‘David can swim’. That meant more to me than anything else that could have been written. To be fair, I think that the headmaster had done me very well considering that he had to assess me from a short interview.
I’d become used to helping Mum out and had spent so long away from school that I came down with a jolt to realise that there would be no more school summer holidays for me. I had a responsibility to myself and my family to get out and find at job so that I could start earning my keep. Then Mum suggested that, being as how I was used to the work, I might like to work for her on a permanent basis. She offered me three pounds a week (a fortune to me at that time) and she would take my board, food, and clothes money out of those wages. I agreed to give it a try and, if I thought I had worked hard before, I’d seen nothing.
Each day started very early. It would still be dark when I’d get up, light the fire, lay the breakfast table, prepare for cooking the breakfasts and making the cups of tea, then go upstairs and call all the boarders. By this time Mum would be ready to start cooking. As each boarder came down for breakfast, I’d serve him a cup of tea and a meal, clearing the dirty plates and cups as each meal was finished. Gradually the house would empty as the boarders went off to work leaving me with a mountain of washing up. After washing, wiping and stowing the dishes, cleaning the gas stove and work-tops and washing the kitchen floor (most days), it was time to begin the real work.
There were all the beds to be stripped and made (sheets changed once a week). Every day the carpets had to be vacuumed and the furniture had to be polished. The stairs were swept then, after a final dusting and a last inspection, I’d go down for a mid-morning break.
The break usually lasted fifteen minutes then I’d vacuum, polish, and clean the lower rooms and bathroom while Mum made out a list of any shopping that she required and any repairs that needed doing to the house or furniture. After finishing the lower rooms, I’d do the shopping then set about any of the household repairs that I could handle or thought that I could handle.
I did my first bit of brickwork there when I repaired the collapsed garden wall. I learned to repair furniture, fill in holes and cracks in walls and repaint the rooms, repair taps, unblock drains, lay carpets and lino, fix door-locks, replace broken window panes, and a thousand and one other things that needed to be done to keep such a place going with the minimum of expense. I soon became quite a handyman. Every couple of weeks, Mum would decide to move all the furniture around in one room or another. We’d sweat and struggle until she was satisfied only to move it all back again a couple of months later as she worked her way round the re-arranging of all the rooms.
These jobs usually lasted up until mid-day when, on weekdays, Mum and I would just have a snack to save the extra cooking session. After the snack, Mum usually went for her afternoon rest while I was left to wash the dishes then prepare all the vegetables, peel the potatoes and set up everything ready for the evening rush when the boarders came home from work.
Once I’d done this last bit of work, I was usually free to amuse myself until the boarders started arriving home. Then there’d be the mad panic to help cook the meals, serve them, and keep the dirty dishes cleared. With the meals finally over, I’d clear the table completely, do all the washing, wiping and stowing of the dishes, wash all the tops again, then make all the sandwiches for the boarder’s lunch-boxes for the next day. By the time tea and supper had been served and I’d cleared all that lot up, I’d be well and truly looking forward to going to bed and getting a bit of rest.
At weekends, there’d be the extra meal as well as keeping the men supplied with cups of tea all day. The beds still had to be made, the rooms still had to be vacuumed and polished, and the other meals still had to be prepared and served. It was always harder on weekends as the men used to like to have a lie in sometimes and I’d have to wait until the bedrooms were empty before I could get into them and do my work. This very often threw me out of my routine and I’d be glad when the men went to work again on Mondays so that I could get back to normal.
Occasionally, Mum would give me a Sunday afternoon off, telling me not to go too far away just in case I was needed. But I nearly always took the opportunity to break out and go for a decent ride, although I’d tell her that I’d only been down the road if she asked me where I’d been. At the peak, we had thirteen boarders. My bedroom was taken over and I was ‘promoted’ to sleeping in the front lounge after I’d complained about having to share my bedroom with a couple of them. There were thirteen beds to make each day, thirteen lots of each different meal, and thirteen piles of sandwiches to make each working night. On top of the boarders were the four of us in our family as well although I never had to do anything in Val’s bedroom, and Mum usually kept her room tidy to save a bit of work.
All the men were extremely well behaved except for two or three who didn’t last long anyway. It was part of my job to help keep law and order in the house and, if Mum or John couldn’t eject an undesirable, I was called to do the job. Fortunately the occasions were rare. I didn’t really like having to fight, especially when I was facing a big Irish navvy and he wasn’t very happy at being thrown out. But, I was very fit at the time and only came off the worst on one occasion and that story will be related later. Generally the men treated me well and I had very few complaints as far as they were concerned.
With all this work there was very little time to relax. Mum seemed to want me near her all the time and she never went outside the door unless I went along as well. Even then she wouldn’t cross the main road or go out of sight of the house. Agoraphobia had taken hold of her again with a vengeance and she was virtually trapped in that house. Very often I’d get annoyed and rebel against the long hours and working conditions, but I’d feel sorry straight away because I knew of her illness.
During those school summer holidays, Tommy, my friend from Amersham (who was still at school), came over to stay with me for a few weeks. It was even harder to do all that work knowing that he was getting bored all day while he waited for me to get my couple of hours off each afternoon. Even if I managed to get finished at a decent time in the evenings, I still had to be in by seven-thirty and do all the evening work. Some evenings I never managed to get out at all.
Tommy was really very patient about the situation and would amuse himself around the house, playing with my old toys, reading books, or watching the television. But, as soon as I was free for the hour or so in the afternoon, his eyes would light up and we’d head off happily down the street.
We mostly went down the lane to watch the trains pass, or hunted for grass snakes along the railway embankment. But, I remember one incident when I was well ‘in the mire’.
A sewer-pipe had burst on a spare bit of land behind the houses in Sherwood Street and a gang of workmen had come along, dug an enormous trench, and located the broken section of pipe. The trench had filled up with the raw sewerage straight from people’s homes and, as Tommy and I walked down the lane on that particular day, the stench nearly knocked us over. For some reason there was nobody working there at the time (it could have been the weekend) but, there was a J.C.B. front-end loader and backhoe parked above the hole, and this machine was more than enough of an attraction to lure the pair of us over to the work-site.
As we reached the great pit, hardly able to breath, we could see all manner of human waste bobbing along on the surface of the flood. The pair of us reeled back at the sight and, if it hadn’t been for the J.C.B. we might have moved on quickly. But there the machine stood, with its two front wheels very near the edge of that pit filled with slime and solids, and the attraction to ‘have a go up in the cab’ was too great.
I hopped up into the cab, sat in the seat and was soon pulling knobs and levers for all I was worth. Poor Tommy stood patiently outside waiting for his turn. Then I noticed that the key had been left in the ignition. I reached down and turned it. Suddenly, I was hanging on for dear life. The driver had left the machine in gear, as I turned the key, the J.C.B. shot forward, went over the bank and tipped into the sewerage-filled pit. I think that it was only the front bucket that saved me from going low enough to be in it as well, for the surface was only just below the cab when the machine stalled and came to a stop.
With a couple of bruises, I gingerly opened the cab door, climbed up the rear-wheel fender and back-hoe jib, and was soon on dry land once more where I joined Tommy who was helpless with laughter. I turned around and saw the machine tipped over head first in the pit and was amazed that I’d got off so lightly. The relief after my sudden shock, the sight of Tommy unable to stand with laughter, and seeing the J.C.B. tipped into the great hole soon had me laughing uncontrollably as well. We raced away from the scene like a couple of mischievous imps and couldn’t stop ourselves laughing about the incident for the next few days.
The bit of free time each afternoon didn’t seem very long when Tommy and I were out having fun. Some evenings I’d finish too late to be able to get out before seven-thirty and, as I always had to be in by that time, we’d miss out. After I’d finished late at night with the suppers and washing and wiping up, Tommy and I would go up to my bedroom and lark around until someone would shout at us to keep quiet. Then, giggling like mad, we’d settle down and whisper together until the early hours.
One night I had a brilliant idea. I thought that, if we couldn’t go out together in the daytime when I had to work, then we’d go out at night. Tommy said that he’d be game and so our nocturnal trips began. Each night we’d wait until the house was still and quiet, then creep down the stairs, climb out of the kitchen window (I had no door key) and, laughing at the thrill of it all we’d race off down the street in the darkness to find something to do.
Most nights we’d go down the lane to the Scour’s Lane railway sidings and trespass on the lines. It was a good game (to us) to creep around in the shadows of the goods wagons, under the brightly-lit arc-lamps of the railway yard, and not be caught. It was also excitingly dangerous with the movement of shunting wagons and the Great Western Railway expresses racing by on the main line which we had to cross over to reach the goods yard.
One night we were walking down the lane under a bright moon. We arrived at the fields to find that a thick mist was covering the ground up to about waist high. All was still and quiet and the thick blanket of ground mist looked like the sea under the moonlight. We went out into the field on the right and were soon ducking down into the low mist, crawling along then bobbing up and laughing at the different spots where we suddenly appeared. It was very weird to wait for Tommy to stand up, staring across that sea of mist that looked like quicksilver under the sharp light of the moon, then to see him rise up like a monster from the deep. At one time I nearly jumped out of my skin when he stood up out of that thick mist right beside me, sound was so muffled by the mist that I hadn’t even heard him approaching.
Suddenly, Tommy grabbed my arm and pointed to someone who was standing out in the field watching us. We bobbed down with just our heads above the mist and strained our eyes to try and discover who the person was. We could see him standing up to his waist in the mist and his hands looked as if they were on his hips. I could almost see a movement as if the person was tapping his toe on the ground in mock patience as he waited for us to finish our game before he accosted us. Tommy thought it was a policeman, but I was sure that it was the farmer (I think the farmer’s name was Mr. Drayton). Deciding to go and investigate, I pulled Tommy down into the mist and we moved off in a running stoop at right angles.
After going on this course for about fifty metres, we circled around the person until we thought it was safe to take a quick look. We found that we were on the opposite side of him now and, with the railway siding lights shining dimly into the field from behind us, we could now just see the whiteness of his face. He was still watching us. Tommy was sure that the person was a policeman, and I, knowing that we weren’t allowed to be out at that time of night, decided to go and give myself up and take the full blame for bringing Tommy out. Just then a train passed by and the yellow glare from the carriage lights showed the true character of the ‘person’.
Laughing at the way we’d been fooled, and with a certain amount of relief, we ran across to the figure to confirm our findings and, sure enough, we were right. The farmer had placed a scarecrow in the field and we had mistaken it for a person with sinister intent. We hadn’t realised that the field had been sown with cereal crops or we would not have gone into it and trampled about. But it wasn’t until the cereal had sprouted up that we learned the truth and by then it was too late to undo our next actions.
Our young fertile minds started working and we decided to play a prank on the farmer. Up-rooting the scarecrow, we carried it over to the highest tree that we could see. Between us we hauled the figure up into the top-most branches where we lashed it into place with an old scarf that had been hanging around its neck. It was a precarious job in the darkness, but as we walked off through the mist we could just make out the dark form of the scarecrow standing out above the thick canopy of leaves that crowned the tree. Giggling about our prank we made our way back home.
The next afternoon, we walked down the lane and furtively peeped across the field to where we’d put the scarecrow. There it was, old coat flapping in the breeze and arms sticking out as if asking how to get down from its lofty perch. That scarecrow was up there for three years that I know of. In the winter it would stand out starkly after the leaves had fallen from the branches of the tree. The hat was blown off in the first strong wind and the coat flapped in the wind until it disintegrated and was also blown off. In the end there was only the wooden ‘body’, looking like a cross on a church dome, to remind me of the night Tommy and I had put it up there.
For the next couple of weeks, the pair of us slipped out every night. I was hardly getting any sleep at all, but Tommy stayed in bed each morning and was as fresh as a daisy by the time I’d have my hour or so off in the afternoon. Now that we had the extra time to wander at night, we didn’t go far in the afternoons. Mostly we played in Little John’s Lane beside the house. I recall an incident that occurred in that street at the time which caused me to meet the first of my many friends in that area.
Tommy and I were throwing a tennis ball to each other. We had a fair distance between us so naturally called out loud in our derision when either of us missed catching the ball.
After a while, a man came out of one of the terraced houses and told me to clear off and take my ball with me. I asked him, in a very polite voice, what harm we were doing anybody by throwing our ball in the side street, whereupon his hand lashed out and he hit me a ringing blow around the ear. Instinctively, I drew my fist back to retaliate, feeling sudden anger and resentment at his attack for, what I thought was, no reason. Then a loud voice shouted at me to wait and I held back.
Without a word, the man who had hit me turned and walked back into the house and a younger lad took his place. This lad was about three years older than I. He was tall, dark and his shirt was bursting at the seams under the pressure of his chest and arm muscles. It was as if Superman himself had come to the rescue of the man who had just hit me.
Even so, I became very annoyed that the man had started the trouble then left this muscle-bound monster to do his dirty work and I became determined to fix this pair of ‘bullies’ somehow. I raised my fists and told the lad to do his worst, promising that I’d get the man if ever I had the chance, whatever happened.
The lad stood his ground but spoke to me in a very gentle voice. He introduced himself as Brian, apologised for what his brother had done to me and he asked if I would give him a chance to explain.
Suddenly, I felt that I could trust Brian and I relaxed my guard a bit. He told me that his brother worked on night shift and needed to get some sleep during the day. He went on to say that normally any noise wouldn’t bother his brother, but things had changed since the man had found out that he was dying of cancer and he had become very rebellious against everything and everyone. Without any menace in his voice, Brian asked me if I’d be kind enough to forgive his brother.
I was shocked. The man had looked so healthy and he had plenty of strength as my still ringing ear told me. But I understood and was quite happy to forget the whole incident. Brian thanked me and we chatted for a while. Little did I know that I’d gained a wonderful friend in Brian. He was as strong as an ox, but I never once saw him use that strength for anything other than work or to help someone out. His very physique and height commanded respect and nobody picked on him that I knew of. We were never best friends but Brian and I often went out together and he was always good fun. He was one of the nicest lads that I ever met.
As well as his older brother, Brian also had two sisters, Mavis and June. June was closer to my age and she became one of my close friends, although there was never any romance. We could tell each other of our problems, share a laugh together, and give and take advice from one another, but that was as far as it went. She was a lovely girl who dressed in the, then passed, ‘Teddy Boy’ era clothes (female version) and I used to call her ‘The Teddy Lady’. With these new friends to chatter to, things looked a bit rosier for the future.
Then Mum found out about Tommy and I going out at nights.
It was about three o’clock one morning and the pair of us were sneaking back into the house through the window. I was helping Tommy to climb over the kitchen sink when the light was suddenly turned on and there stood Mum. She’d been waiting for our return so that she could catch us in the act and her fury had grown with the passing hours. Tommy was sent straight to bed and I got a good dressing down.
Tommy only had another week to go before he returned to his own home. I didn’t get a chance to go out with him anymore during the rest of his stay, I was far too busy.
Then, a couple of days before Tommy’s departure, I looked out of the kitchen window just in time to see him walking off down the lane with the beautiful goddess, that I had watched out for each afternoon, and her friend. I couldn’t get away from my work, although I tried hard to think of an excuse to leave the house, and I was forced to watch them vanish out of sight. I wondered how he’d met the girls and how long he’d known them while he’d been staying with us.
All that afternoon I kept my eye out for their return as I worked and finally I saw them wandering back up the street. Tommy had his arm around the lovely girl and I remember thinking to myself that he was a lucky young devil. I was very envious of Tommy and his freedom, I wasn’t annoyed with him, but I was annoyed with the situation I was in that kept me trapped indoors day in and day out. I knew in my heart that this girl probably wouldn’t be interested in a ‘scullery maid’. Anyway, I had no money for decent clothes or to take a young lady out properly. I plodded on with my work feeling very rebellious towards Mum, the boarding house, and the job.
When Tommy finally came indoors at tea time, he told me how he’d met the two girls the day before, and how he and the lovely girl had hit it off straight away. Knowing that I would have done exactly the same thing if the situation had been reversed, I wished him the best of luck in his association with her. He couldn’t stop talking about the girl and I tried to be happy for him so that his joy wouldn’t be spoiled. It was arranged that Tommy would come and stay during the next lot of holidays.
Before Tommy returned home, I had the chance to meet the two girls. The younger dark-haired girl was a very pretty and sweet young lady with a good sense of humour and a bubbly character, I shall call her Debbie. The beautiful goddess was very reserved towards me although I couldn’t look at her without the heart-stopping jolt and the jelly-legs feeling. I felt that this girl couldn’t just be grabbed and taken home as Tommy had seemed to indicate by his talk and actions. The feeling I got was that she would have to be handled with care and loved from afar until she had matured. To me, she looked so beautiful and delicate, with a perfection that would match the finest crystal, so I shall call her Crystal in this narrative.
Then Tommy was gone and I got back into the routine of work without worrying about when I could get five minutes off to get away and help stop his boredom. I couldn’t help keeping my eye out for a sight of Crystal, the truth of the matter was that I was head over heels in love with her. But secretly, I knew it was stupid to think that she’d even look my way, and besides, she was Tommy’s girl now.
There were plenty of other avenues of entertainment to keep me amused though. The charts were full of popular songs at that time, including such classics as ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ by The Everly Brothers, ‘Twilight Time’ by The Platters, ‘Lollipop’ by The Mudlarks, and ‘Endless Sleep’ by Marty Wilde. There was a ‘Pop Show’ on the television every Saturday evening called ‘Oh Boy’ that had taken the place of the ‘Six-five Special’ show. ‘Oh Boy’ featured all the latest British songs and singers, backed by a band called The Lord Rockingham’s Eleven, and a chorus of girls called The Vernon’s Girls.
‘Oh Boy’ was my favourite television show and I couldn’t wait for it to come around each week.. On that show I watched such singers as Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Dusty Springfield, Marty Wilde, and Tommy Steele. I well remember the first appearance of Cliff Richard and The Drifters (as The Shadows were called at that time) on the show. Cliff looked like a real mean yob with his Elvis Presley hair style and his sideways leer at the camera. He wore a black suit with light-coloured socks and shirt. As he sang and swivelled his hips, the girls in the audience screamed like crazy as if the roof was falling in on them.
Another popular program on the television was a comedy called ‘The Army Game’. This was a send up of life in the British army and featured such stars as Michael Medwin, Alfie Bass and Bernard Bresslaw. There were also three American westerns doing the rounds about this time. ‘Wagon Train’ starring Robert Horton and Ward Bond, ‘Rawhide’ with Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates, and ‘Cheyenne’ starring Clint Walker. Apart from these shows, I didn’t watch much on the television.
Gradually, I caught up on all the household repairs that I could manage and began preparing the vegetables, for the evening meal, in the late morning. This enabled me to start riding out in the afternoons again. Mum had become confident that I wouldn’t be side-tracked into wandering off now that Tommy had gone home, but little did she know of the journeys that I took on.
As well as a couple of more exhausting rides over to Chenies for a quick ‘cuppa’ with my grandparents, I rode to other places of interest. I once went to White Waltham aerodrome, near Maidenhead, but there wasn’t much movement while I was there. Very often, the great American B52 bombers would circle low over Reading and I found out that there was an American air base at Greenham Common, near Newbury, about sixteen miles away. One afternoon I found this base but there wasn’t much going on there either.
I’d read a lot about London Airport (Heathrow) and knew that there should be plenty of aircraft movements there if I could reach it. That airport is on the Reading side of London and I worked out that the distance would be roughly the same as the distance to Chenies. One afternoon I set off.
The road to London wasn’t half as hilly as the road to Chenies was and I made good time, spurred on by the sight of aeroplanes landing and taking off as I neared the airport. Finally I was standing at the end of one of the runways on the western perimeter fence and thrilling at the sight of all the planes taking off to far distant lands.
I recognised planes that I’d only seen pictures of in books. There were Stratocruisers, Britannias (Whispering Giants), Viscounts, DC 7s, Constellations (Connies), and many other types too numerous to mention. I lingered for as long as possible, wishing that I could get on one of those planes and fly off, then I rode the exhausting trip home well satisfied with my afternoon out.
I’d spend many happy hours of my life up at that airport watching the aircraft movements. After a series of accidents, the Comet 1, the first jet airliner in service was withdrawn. But it started flying again that year (1958) in the shape of the Comet 4 after the accidents were found to have been caused by metal fatigue in the fuselage and that part of the aircraft was modified and strengthened. That year also saw the first Boeing 707s flying in and out of the airport. You could see where the 7O7s were for the tail-fins were a lot taller than any other aircraft tail-fin at the time.
Meanwhile, something happened to my life that was way beyond my wildest expectations.
I was chatting to Brian’s sister, June, one evening and I remember that it was almost seven-thirty when I’d have to go in and start work on the boarder’s sandwiches and suppers. June and I were discussing the latest pop-record releases when Crystal came out from her home a couple of doors up. As usual, my heart gave a lurch but I managed to act calm as she stopped to say hello to June and I.
The time flew by as the three of us chatted. I didn’t want to go back to work, especially as Crystal was looking into my eyes and seeming to take a lot more notice of me than she was of June. But finally I was forced to go and I noticed that Crystal went back indoors as well. I had wondered if she had come out because I was there, but then I had dismissed the idea as I knew that she was Tommy’s girl.
Nevertheless, over the next couple of weeks or so, Crystal and I saw a lot of each other and, during that time we gradually became close friends. Then we realised that there was more between us than just friendship and the situation became more serious.
Her mother, wanting to do the right thing by Crystal, wouldn’t allow her to go out with boys at that time (especially a ruffian like myself). We met when we could. Some afternoons I’d meet her and Debbie up to the school, near Prospect Park, that they attended. It was the typical ‘carrying the school books’ situation. We also used to see each other for about thirty seconds each evening. Crystal would put their milk bottles out at exactly nine o’clock and I’d be waiting by our side gate. Little love-notes would be exchanged, then she’d have to dash back inside before her Mum became suspicious.
On weekends, we’d meet down the road during my afternoon breaks and go for walks with Debbie and her boyfriend, Richard. Very often we’d go down the lane with a gang of friends, a small wind-up record player, and a pile of the latest seventy-eight (rpm) records. We’d set the record player up in the corner of the field beside the railway line and sit and chatter or dance to the music, while the Great Western trains rushed by on the embankment just above us.
It was very relaxing at these ‘get-togethers’ under the golden warmth of the late summer sun. June would dance to every record, her younger sister, Mavis, would be affectionately teasing all the lads, Debbie used to keep us laughing with all the funny antics that she got up to, and Crystal and I were getting more serious about each other day by day.
At first I felt very guilty about stealing Tommy’s girl, but Crystal explained that she only thought of him as a new friend and that he had put more into the friendship than she had expected, although she did think a lot of him. I told her how Tommy hadn’t stopped talking about their friendship and that he was serious about her. In the end I suggested that I steer clear during the next holiday period while Tommy was staying over, and she could then be free to decide whether she wanted to make a choice between the two of us.
Eventually Tommy came to stay again. He couldn’t wait to see Crystal and I felt terrible about the whole situation. As agreed, I kept out of the way while Tommy and Crystal went off for walks together. If she decided that it was me that she wanted, I was going to take Tommy to one side and explain the situation as gently as I could. I wasn’t looking forward to having to do it, but then, I wasn’t looking forward to the fact that Crystal might decide, after all, that it was Tommy she wanted. As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry either way. Crystal soon told him how we felt about each other, and he, being a real solid friend, was very pleased for us both. He finally went home, leaving the way clear for me to develop my friendship with her.
As in my other ‘love affairs’, I was quite happy to just be near Crystal without the physical contact and we’d go out with each other for a long period before we even held hands. Apart from the nine o’clock evening meets, we were never alone, but I didn’t worry as long as I was with her. I squeezed every Sunday afternoon off work that I could (and once or twice a Saturday afternoon), and it always cost me a lot of extra work to make up for those times I’d had off. But, to me it was worth it at the time.
At first, I thought her mother was a real ‘ogre’ and I steered well clear of her as much as possible. But I’d come to realise that she was a wonderful woman who only had Crystal’s welfare in mind and I couldn’t blame her for that.
Crystal went through a bit of a worrying time when Sheila, Bert and Doll’s daughter from the Isle of Wight, came to stay with our family for a holiday. A neighbour told Crystal (as a joke) that Sheila was my one and only love. Crystal was most concerned until I put her mind at rest. If only I could have looked into the future!!!!
Cliff Richard released his first song, ‘Move It’, and it was an instant hit with all of us young teenagers. Connie Francis had ‘Stupid Cupid’ up in the charts, and ‘Yakety Yak’ by the Coasters was doing well. Bernard Bresslaw came up with a song called ‘Mad Passionate Love’ that caught everyone’s fancy (the words ‘making love’ didn’t have any sexual meanings to us in those days), and a clean-cut, young American boy named Ricky Nelson released ‘Poor Little Fool’. This song also became very popular at that time.
Like a lot of young teenagers, I wanted to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll star. Very often I’d sneak up to my bedroom and, with the broom as a guitar, I’d gyrate in front of the full-length mirror of my wardrobe as if I was ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ himself. I combed my hair in the Elvis hair style and wasn’t satisfied unless I had a big wave of hair hanging over my forehead. It was my proud boast that the wave was so big that I used to get sea-sick each time I looked into the mirror to comb my locks.
After all the trouble that Mum had gone through to save my hair when I was a toddler, I abused my head of hair terribly while I worked in that house. I couldn’t afford any hair-cream or shampoo. Every day I’d wash my hair in laundry detergent (soap powder), feeling my scalp burn like mad as I did so. Then I’d lather face soap into it and, after setting the style, I’d let my hair dry and the style would stay in, although it would feel as if I had hair-spray on. Now, at the age of fifty two years old I feel very lucky that I still have a decent head of hair!
Elvis had sideburns, but Mum wouldn’t let me grow any on the side of my face. I remember once when I borrowed one of her thick eyebrow pencils, after she’d gone in for her afternoon rest, and drew thick sideburns on the side of my face. I thought that I looked like a real Rock ‘n’ Roller that day. Unfortunately, I forgot to wash the black off and it didn’t take Mum long to spot them when she came out. She was furious and I had to wash my face spotless before I was allowed to get on with my work.
Gradually I got to know more of the local lads and I soon had half a dozen friends who knew that I’d be free in the afternoons. Very often I’d help repair their bikes if they were having any problems that they couldn’t fix themselves. David, one of these lads was an unwilling cause of another brawl that I got myself into.
It was one afternoon just after Tommy had gone home the second time. David and I were on the road outside of our side-gate and I was helping him to adjust the three speed on his bike, when a chap of about my age came riding past. David just happened to glance at the cyclist whereupon, the cyclist did a U-turn, came back, and asked David if he’d had his eye full. I was still kneeling down beside David’s bike as he stammered to the cyclist that he hadn’t had his eye full, and the cyclist threatened to fill it for him. Annoyed at the blatant way that the cyclist had picked on David, I told him that if there was any eye-filling to do, I’d be the one to do it. Without a moments hesitation, the cyclist threw his bike down and advanced on me as I stood up from my crouching position beside David’s bike.
But, as the cyclist came closer, I realised that he was at least twelve to fifteen centimetres taller than I was, and I groaned inwardly to myself at the thought of the expected thrashing I was about to get. Even so, I still didn’t think it was fair that he should bully young lads like he’d tried to bully David and I determined not to back down. I was also determined to get in first as I knew that I’d have to stop this chap very quickly.
Before the cyclist had stopped in front of me, I threw myself forwards and hit him straight in the mouth. As he reeled back, I landed an upper-cut under his jaw with the other fist and he went down on his back in the road.
Once again amazed at how easy it had been, I grabbed him by his jacket, dragged him off the road, and sat him against the side wall of our garden. He was very groggy and spitting out bits of teeth, but as soon as he had steadied down a bit, I sent him on his way, warning him not to come and bully youngsters around our way again. And as far as I know, he didn’t.
I didn’t feel any elation at beating the chap, it all happened so quickly. But I was happy at the outcome and counted myself jolly lucky that I’d got of with only bruised knuckles. I shuddered at the thought of what could have happened, but I couldn’t see my young friend being bullied like I’d been bullied when I was younger. Of course, young David couldn’t wait to tell his other mates how I’d saved him from being beaten up by the cyclist, and I had to explain to them that I didn’t really like fighting, but that I hated bullying.
More and more young lads came around to have their cycles repaired, punctures mended, three speeds or brakes adjusted, or anything else that I could fix to save them a couple of bob. It wasn’t long before I was out having a few adventures with these lads when Crystal wasn’t around.
Catapults were a popular weapon and they were cheap and easy to make. I recall one afternoon when I spent an hour dodging flying stones as I joined a gang, who were waging a ‘war’ with a rival gang, using catapults as weapons. Luckily nobody was hit, but when I look back now, it doesn’t bear thinking of.
I didn’t get off so free when I joined the gang up at the sand pits, near Norcot Hill, for a ‘war’ with air rifles. As I crouched behind a boulder in the best ‘Roy Rogers’ stance’ tradition, one of the ‘enemy’ crept around on our flank and quickly shot me in the right cheek of my backside. It was very painful and I was nearly sick with shock. But, ‘war was war” and I dutifully ‘died’ much to the delight of the ‘enemy’ and the amazement of my young ‘comrades in arms’. I couldn’t sit down for a week after that rifle pellet had been removed from such a tender spot.
But most of my spare time was spent with Crystal, especially during the weekends. It was a beautiful autumn that year and Debbie, Richard, Crystal and I spent many wonderful hours going for walks along the River Thames, around the Forbury Gardens, or up to the local parks.
I remember the first time the four of us went to the cinema together. A Tommy Steele film, ‘The Duke Wore Jeans’, was showing at the Regal cinema in Caversham and, as Tommy Steele was a popular rock ‘n’ roll singer at the time, we were thrilled at the chance to see him on the screen. I’d already seen his film ‘The Tommy Steele Story’ and my ravings about that film made us all determined not to miss ‘The Duke Wore Jeans’. Somehow, we scraped up the one shilling and sixpence each for the tickets and we settled down in the front row of the stalls to enjoy the film.
As the story developed and the singer laughed and sang across the screen, I kept getting strong feelings of Old Amersham. I couldn’t work it out at first. Then, on the screen, I suddenly recognised the familiar dip of the Misbourne Valley between Old Amersham and Great Missenden. Upon looking closer at the large house that the film was centred around, I realised that it was ‘Shardloes’, a large mansion just outside of Old Amersham. I could hardly contain my excitement as I pointed the fact out to my friends, who were duly impressed.
A few days later, one of my young mates came to me with a message from some chap, that I didn’t know at the time, asking me to meet him up the road to ‘sort things out’. To me, it sounded as if the chap was just looking for a brawl and I didn’t bother to go. I wasn’t going to fight just for the sake of it.
A couple of days passed, then David, of the bullying cyclist incident, told me that the mysterious chap had stopped him, told him that he was a ‘J.M.P.’ (Junior Member of the Police, a title that he’d made up to help him get his own way) and that he was to tell me that, if I didn’t meet him at the new specified time and place, he’d come looking for me. I decided to get to the bottom of this as it seemed as if I wasn’t going to be left alone by this chap until we’d ‘sorted things out’.
I was there at the appointed time and place to be confronted by a tall, lanky lad of about my age. He told me that he’d heard how I’d beat the cyclist for bullying David and he was wondering if I’d help him to 'clean up the neighbourhood' of a few more bullies that he knew. I was a bit surprised, but explained to him that I wasn’t interested in going out to look for trouble but, that I would deal with it if it came my way. He seemed a bit disappointed, nevertheless, we chatted on until it was time for me to go.
The chap’s name was Geoff and we became good friends. Geoff was full of good intentions when it came to protecting youngsters from bullies, but I never saw him fight for those intentions. He used to back his height up by telling so-called bullies that he was a ‘J.M.P’ (Junior Member of the Police - ficticious). If that didn’t work he’d warn them to behave themselves in future - as he walked away. He was a very likeable lad and we had some good times together.
And so I gained another friend as the winter approached. Crystal and I were still swapping notes at nine o’clock each evening, The Everly Brothers had ‘Bird Dog’ in the charts, and Elvis Presley’s film ‘King Creole’ was doing the rounds of British cinemas.
I joined a queue at the cinema one afternoon and paid my half a crown to see ‘King Creole’. I’d looked forward to the event and had scraped the money up from somewhere (I hadn’t been able to scrape up enough money to take Crystal). It had been reported in the newspapers that youngsters had danced in the aisles of a cinema to the music of this film -and the noise had caused part of the cinema ceiling to collapse. I in turn enjoyed the film and the songs featured in it, like ‘Crawfish’, ‘New Orleans’ and ‘Trouble’, were soon among my favourites. I can still happily sit down quietly in 1995 and listen to my long playing record of the songs from that film that I scrimped and saved for all those years ago and have treasured ever since.
Elvis made many films but, personally I think that ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘King Creole’ were two of his best. I didn’t really go to see the acting, I was more interested in the songs. I felt that, after ‘GI Blues’ his films and songs became rather monotonous and I gave up going to see them. But, in the late autumn of 1958 1 couldn’t hear enough of his songs and was singing them all day.
Cliff Richard had become very popular and I remember him once being described as the ‘Elvis Presley of Britain’. His latest song ‘High Class Baby’ was in the charts, along with Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’, Lord Rockingham’s ‘Hoots Mon’, ‘Falling’ by Connie Francis, and Jack Scott’s ‘My True Love’.
Just before my sixteenth birthday, Mum gave me a whole Sunday off. I was delighted and, although she told me not to go far, I immediately took off to go and see my grandparents and Jim for the day. It was wonderful to have plenty of time in which to do the trip, but I still hammered along on my old bike so that I’d have as long as possible at Chenies. I spent the day happily wallowing in their friendship and the warmth of their home, but all too soon it was time to head off back to Reading.
I stepped out the back of the house, armed with the usual great lump of fruit cake and jam tarts that Nan always packed up for me when I paid them a visit, and ten shillings that Granddad had secretly slipped into my hand when nobody was looking. As I turned to stow the goodies into my saddle-bag, I was surprised to find that my trusty old bike had gone and in its place was Jim’s beautiful racing cycle. The three of them laughed as they saw me stop dead and look all around for my own bike. Then Jim told me that his ‘racer’ was mine, as a birthday present, for he’d bought another, more modern cycle.
I was stunned. My old bike had ordinary handle-bars and the old, rod-operated brakes. It was heavy and only my very fitness and determination had enabled me to race that bike mile after mile. I’d never thought of wanting something better, indeed, I couldn’t have afforded such a luxury anyway. Now, through the kindness of Jim and my grandparents, I suddenly had a racing cycle that was everything a keen cyclist could have asked for in those days.
The ‘racer’ wasn’t all that old and Jim had looked after it well. It was still as polished and shiny as the day that he’d bought it from the ‘Mayo and Hawkes’ shop in Chesham. It had drop-down handle-bars, cable-operated brakes, five speeds, dynamo-supplied lights, and the whole cycle felt as light as a feather. Nan had purchased a new saddle-bag for it and Granddad had sorted out a heap of tools that he’d put into the saddle-bag so that I could keep the machine in tip-top condition. I was thrilled and couldn’t thank them enough. Finally, with the cake and tarts stowed in the saddle-bag along with my new tools, I took my leave and happily headed back towards Reading.
It was a beautiful ride home. The thin saddle (Granddad called it ‘a piece of four by two’) was high and the handle-bars were low, with head down and backside well up, I laid along the bike and the miles seemed to flash by. Everything was so much easier on the ‘racer’ after the old ‘sit-up-and-beg’ way that I had to ride my old cycle. Just over an hour later, I was back in Reading town.
I was on top of the world as I stopped outside of the model shop in Kings Road and pushed my new cycle over the pavement so that I could lean on it while I looked in the shop window. As I moved away from the shop to ride the last couple of miles home, I scooted two or three metres along the pavement and threw my leg over the saddle as I went down the ramp of a driveway onto the road. Suddenly, I heard a shout and turned around to see a policeman calling me back.
Wondering what I’d done wrong, I went back to the policeman and was given a good dressing down for riding my bike on the pavement. He told me not to let him catch me doing it again and sent me on my way. I couldn’t deny that I’d ridden my bike on the pavement and I rode home very deflated over the incident.
Of course, when I arrived home with my new cycle, I had to admit to Mum that I’d been to Chenies for the day. She was amazed that I’d gone over there and back in one day. I didn’t tell her that I’d been over and back in an afternoon on quite a few occasions. Nothing was said about my going away so far even though I’d been told not to wander away just in case I was needed. It was even harder to stay around the house now that I had that racing cycle.
Then my sixteenth birthday came around and my grandparents came over for the day to help me celebrate the occasion. It was their first visit to that house and I took Nan upstairs to show her my bedroom at the top of the house. As we reached the top of the stairs by my bedroom door, she suddenly stopped and I saw a shudder go right through her body. I asked her what was wrong and all she could say was “Skeleton roof” as she turned and retreated back down the stairs. I later learned that she had a real phobia about attic rooms that were built into the apex of the roof. She called it a ‘Skeleton roof’ and nothing would induce her to enter a room with such a roof-type ceiling.
My grandparents went home after tea and Mum gave me the evening off so that I could go up the local pub with John (who was an expert in alcoholic drinking) now that I was old enough. Off we went with Mum waving to us until we were out of sight.
An hour later, I was almost bored to tears. Sitting around drinking wasn’t really my idea of fun. We were in the ‘Albion’ public house, on the Oxford Road, I’d already had a few rum and blacks, and had then changed to drinking pints of cider.
The landlord was playing a record to entertain the customers and one of the songs on that record was called ‘It’s Only Make Believe’, I’d watched Cliff Richard sing this song on the ‘Oh Boy’ show the previous Saturday. Half way through the evening, I asked the Landlord if he would play ‘the Cliff Richard song called ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ again’. He informed me that it wasn’t a Cliff Richard song but had been released by a singer named Conway Twitty. I felt a bit daft, but the singer’s name was slotted into my mind and I was determined to add his song to my little collection of records. The landlord did play it for me again.
The more bored I became, the faster I seemed to swill the drinks. After the few rum and blacks and nine pints of cider, I didn’t feel too good and decided to go. John wanted to stay on but said that he didn’t mind if I went early. Thankfully I took my leave, got out into the fresh air and staggered home. The last thing I recall of my sixteenth birthday was Mum laughing at me as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom.
But, I was non the worse for the experience and the next morning I was up bright and early for work, giggling with delight at all the leg-pulling from the men who had seen the state I was in when I arrived home the night before.
Over the years, I’ve rarely gone into pubs as I still get bored just sitting and drinking. Sometimes I’ve had to be sociable and do it, but I almost cry out with relief when it’s time to go and I get outside the doors.
And so, as the Christmas of 1958 approached, I got stuck into my work again, seeing Crystal in the afternoons, or going for rides on my bike when she wasn’t around. We still met each other fleetingly at nine o’clock each evening.
Meanwhile, Val had joined a drama club. She was doing very well and was making some new friends at the same time. Val and Mum decided to invite the folk from the club over to our house for a Christmas party and I remember that I, the scullery maid, was terrified at the thought of them all being there while I was working. But the plans were finalised and the evening of the party arrived.
I’d worked like mad all day so that I’d have as little as possible to do in the evening. The party guests were all boys and girls of about my age and the front room was given over to them so that they didn’t interfere with the boarders, who always stayed in the back part of the house. Soon the music was going full bore and the party got under way.
Crystal wouldn’t have been allowed to attend this party so I wandered into the front room on my own. Within seconds I was backed into a corner by a likeable lad named Bill. This lad was head over heels in love with Val and had cornered me so that he could learn everything possible about her. But Val and I had drifted apart over the last year or so and her lifestyle had become so different to mine. She was the party-goer who loved to rage it up, liked plenty of friends around her, and wanted to be out in the front. I was just happy to be quietly in the background and live an uncomplicated life. I couldn’t tell Bill anything about Val at that time as I didn’t really know her anymore. Then, what I thought of as being ‘rescued’ from the awkward situation suddenly occurred as I felt someone grab and squeeze my arm and I heard a female voice laughingly tell Bill off for ‘monopolising this lovely man’. I turned around and looked down into a pair of mischievous dark eyes that belonged to a very pretty young lady who stood by my side with her arm linked into mine.
The apprehension that I’d had earlier in the day had disappeared as I’d gradually relaxed while talking to Bill and, knowing that I had my own girlfriend just across the road, I felt very calm and confident as this lovely-looking girl asked me what I was doing at the party all alone.
Soon I was telling her all about Crystal and myself. I told her how Crystal wasn’t allowed to go with boys because she was still fairly young, and I explained how I would wait until she was old enough, then court her properly. I told her how, because I worked for Mum, I couldn’t see her regularly because of the awkward hours and how we did manage to secretly meet for walks when we were both free. I also told her about the nine o’clock meets at our side gate. The lovely young lady sympathised with me and, as I got up to get the men’s supper, she told me that I was being wasted. I laughed and left the room.
I hurried around and prepared the men’s supper, then it was time to go out the side and wait for the few seconds meeting with Crystal. Soon Crystal came across the road, handed me the usual little note and was gone.
I used to look forward to those little letters. The contents were usually only about what Crystal had done during the day. But the small message on the back of the envelopes were the signs that kept me going.
Across the back of the envelopes she’d print a word, in capital letters, and I’d have to work out what the message was so that I would know how she felt about me, for she was a very shy girl and couldn’t tell me such things to my face. I recall that ‘H.O.L.L.A.N.D.’ written across the back of the envelope stood for ‘Hope our love lasts and never dies’, ‘S.W.A.L.K.’ stood for ‘Sealed with a loving kiss’, ‘B.O.L.T.O.P.’ was for ‘Better on lips than on paper’ and so on. These examples were the more popular messages but there were others that I can’t recall now. Anyway, back to the story.
As Crystal went back into her house, I shoved the letter into my pocket, to read quietly later, and walked back through our side-gate. Suddenly, in the blackness outside the rear of the house, I bumped into somebody waiting there. At first I thought it was one of the boarders and apologised. But, it wasn’t a man, it was the pretty young girl that I’d been talking to earlier at the party and she soon made her intentions clear.
Without hesitation, she threw her arms around my neck as I staggered back against the garden wall, her lips found mine and she kissed me like I hadn’t been kissed up to that time. For a few seconds I was far too amazed to do anything. She quickly switched to kissing my neck and nibbling my ear, telling me again that I was wasted on Crystal, and that I needed to be loved by a real woman, and that she was that woman. She crushed her body hard up against mine and forced one of her legs between my thighs, fiercely rubbing herself against me.
I can’t pretend that it wasn’t nice. There were explosive feelings in my body that I’d never experienced before. But I stubbornly fought against those feelings, I was Crystal’s boyfriend, I loved her dearly, and I didn’t want to do anything at all to ruin our friendship. I felt extremely lucky to be so in love with her and feel that love returned, even if we were both very shy and still hadn’t held hands at that time.
But this fiery girl wasn’t going to give up without a fight. As I tried to explain my feelings for Crystal again and how I didn’t want anyone else, she renewed her efforts, telling me that I’d soon change my mind and forget the little schoolgirl over the road. Her hands were frantically searching my body, and she was still kissing my neck.
Quick as a flash, I grabbed both her wrists and stretched her arms out sideways. At the same time I forced her leg from between mine and turned away a bit. I was annoyed that she should talk about Crystal like that and told her so. As I let go of her wrists and turned to go in doors, the girl told me that I’d definitely change my mind and, when I did, she’d be waiting and we would have a beautiful time together. I was only too glad to get back inside and serve the men their supper.
As I was washing up the supper things, I thought about the sensations that the girl had caused me to experience. If they were a part of really being in love, I had thought to myself, then it would be worth waiting until Crystal and I were ready to feel those sensations together, and I could wait.
I had almost finished my work when the young girl came into the kitchen and apologised for her rash behaviour. Feeling a bit relieved because she seemed to want to clear the matter up, I told her not to worry as no harm had been done. Then she went on to say that, although she had started off wrong in the heat of the moment, she thought that I was a lovely person and she wanted to ‘get to know me a lot better’. Calmer now, we sat and chatted. I must confess that I could only talk about Crystal but she listened to my ravings as if she thought that, by talking about the girl I loved, I’d get her out of my system.
In the end, she looked squarely into my eyes, told me that she’d fallen in love with me (after only one evening?) and that, if ever I was dissatisfied with Crystal or we parted for any reason, then she would be waiting. She also said that she didn’t care if I was a ‘scullery maid’ with no money, I’d proven myself to be honest and decent and that was what she was looking for in a boyfriend. I remember that those words caused my face to burn with embarrassment.
The rest of Val’s guests had gradually all gone while the girl and I chatted like old friends in the kitchen, but finally she left with me promising to contact her if ever I needed anyone. For quite a while she would drop in on a visit and always asked me if I was still happy with Crystal. Slowly her visits ceased and I’ve often wondered if she found the happiness she was looking for. I was very naive at that time, but she left me with a vivid memory that has stayed with me all these years. Sadly, although I have a good memory for these past events of my life, I cannot recall the girl’s name. Maybe it’s just as well that I didn’t become her ‘one night stand’.
Christmas arrived and Mum and John gave Val and I a tape recorder between us so that we could record our favourite music instead of buying records. I was very happy as we could record the ‘Oh Boy’ shows and I could listen to them all day while I worked. But it was a bit hard when Val and I wanted to use the machine at the same time.
We had a Christmas party for the boarders as most of them were away from home (and probably feeling a bit homesick at that time of the year). I recall that a couple of these lads were good singers and they entertained us with an hour of Irish folk songs at that party.
We were all entertained to more Irish folk songs as we saw the new year of 1959 in. This was the first time that I can remember seeing the new year in and I was delighted to hear, right on the stroke of midnight, all the steam trains around the Reading area blowing their engine whistles.
As we slowly crept out of winter towards spring, I plodded on with my chores, my occasional afternoon trips, and my fleeting meets with Crystal. Nothing much seemed to happen to relieve the boredom, but I do remember one incident that still has an impact on Mum all these years later.
We used to send all the boarder’s washing to the laundry in a large white bag, ‘the bagwash’ we called it. The bag of clothes would come back to us still damp and Mum would have to hang it all out on the line to dry. One day, as she was out at the washing-line, I heard her cry out in disgust and start retching. I rushed outside and asked her what was wrong. She couldn’t speak but kept pointing at a pair of ‘long John’ underpants that were hanging on the line by one peg.
These ‘long Johns’ belonged to one of the boarders named ‘Nobby’. He was a large, obnoxious man who annoyed everyone and always sprayed saliva and food over us when he shouted in our direction, which was most of the time because he couldn’t talk without shouting.
Still retching and looking away, Mum pointed to the half-hung under-garment and managed to squeak at me to look inside them. I looked and could see that the whole lining inside of the pants was covered in black, lower-body hairs and this was what had caused Mum to almost vomit all over the back garden.
I wasn’t affected by the sight, but ever since then I only have to mention the words ‘Nobby’s hairy pants’ to reduce her to a retching wreck.
Gerry Lee Lewis was up in the charts with ‘High School Confidential’, and Ricky Nelson was doing well with his rendering of ‘Someday’. Crystal and I had been invited to a party, Mum allowed me the evening off, and we were excitedly looking forward to the event. We’d never been to a party together before. The two of us met up the road so that Crystal’s Mum wouldn’t know that I was going to the party as well, and we walked up to the venue at Southcote, a nearby suburb of Reading.
It was a typical teenager’s party with plenty of loud music, plenty of eats, and plenty of chatting and laughing. I was happy to be there with Crystal where everyone knew that she was my girl. I hadn’t met some of her friends before, but they were all at the party and I soon settled in as Crystal introduced me to everybody. We danced, sang, ate, drank (soft drinks - no alcohol was allowed, but then, we didn’t need it to enjoy ourselves), laughed and talked. Yes, I was so happy. Then, at ten o’clock, just as I was getting into the swing of things, that happiness was shattered.
There was a knock at the front door and, when the door was opened, we all distinctly heard the shouted words “Taxi for David James”. I was stunned and went to the door to make sure that I’d heard right. But, it was true, Mum had sent a taxi up to collect Crystal and I.
Crystal was furious, but her fury was nothing to my rage. I seethed with embarrassment as I tried to act calm and apologised to her. I was torn between my love for Crystal, the desire to ensure that she had a good time at this, our first party together, and arrived safely home, and my respect for and loyalty to Mum. I stood there on the door-step, very undecided as to what I should do about the situation. My very instincts screamed at me to ignore this summons and make a stand for my rights. It seemed as if the whole house was holding its breath, waiting for my decision.
Then the taxi driver said that he couldn’t wait all night and I decided to go home, the fear of the consequences from Mum, if I sent the taxi away, were too strong. My decision ruined that evening, Crystal didn’t speak to me all the way home, and she went indoors without a word (who could blame her?)
But the damage had been done and I was out for blood. I stormed into our house and demanded to know why Mum had sent the taxi up to collect us. She explained that she had tried to save us the long walk home. I told her that ten o’clock in the evening wasn’t a very good time to leave a party, we’d only been there for two hours and the party had hardly got off the ground when the taxi had arrived. The more I thought about it, the more I seethed with rage, and the more rebellious I became. I felt that I’d been humiliated in front of Crystal and her friends. I didn’t think that Crystal would ever speak to me again. I felt so trapped and frustrated.
As soon as the house settled down that night, I packed a small bag, crept downstairs and out of the back door, hopped on my bike and rode off in the direction of Amersham. I didn’t have a penny to my name, and I knew that none would be forthcoming for any work that I’d done, but I’d decided to make a stand, and I tried to take the easy way out.
As I cycled down the Oxford Road towards the Reading town centre, it was just as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. But, at the same time, I had a terrible ache in my heart at the thought that I’d lost Crystal. With mixed feelings, I plodded through Reading, rode up to the Twyford roundabout, and turned left through Wargrave towards Henley.
Before I reached Henley, it was raining like mad and I was soon soaked right through. But, that didn’t dampen my spirits or make me any more miserable, depending on my thoughts of the minute. Henley, Marlow, High Wycombe, Old Amersham, and Amersham were passed during that rainy night, then I was standing in the wet darkness outside of Alf’s house.
It didn’t take long to wake Alf up (and the rest of his family) and soon I was having a hot cup of tea and asking for shelter for a couple of weeks until I got a job and somewhere to live.
Alf worked at the Cancer Research Station near Little Chalfont and he suggested that I might like to go with him for a day, on the off-chance that a job might be available. I readily agreed to this plan and Mrs. Baker made up a bag of sandwiches for my lunch.
When it was time to leave for the research station, Alf told me that, as he had a ‘tandem’ cycle, I might as well leave my bike at his house and ride the tandem with him. This tandem had a small engine fixed to the rear wheel and had to be pedalled like mad to get the engine going (hopefully), although the engine wasn’t powerful enough to get us up hills and we had to pedal hard to help it.
But, before we got the engine going, I should have made sure that I could ride a tandem with someone else. I’d never been on a two-wheeled vehicle without a sidecar and its third supporting wheel (Grandad’s motor cycle), and I didn’t know about ‘laying over’ with the driver as he negotiated corners, although I always did it on my own cycle without thinking. I wasn’t experienced enough to even ride that tandem with Alf.
As we left the house and wobbled up the road with me desperately trying to peer ahead over Alf’s shoulder, my co-ordination was terrible. The engine suddenly spluttered into life and I felt the extra power pushing us from behind. Thinking that that was that, I sat bolt upright as if I was on a bus, and prepared to enjoy this unusual ride.
But the ride didn’t last long. As Alf tried to lay the machine over and turn left into New Road, I panicked and froze in the upright position. Alf had no chance of getting around the corner. We shot across the road, hit up the opposite kerb, and crashed into a large hedge. Swearing and cursing at me because I was having my usual uncontrolled fit of laughter, Alf pulled the tandem from amongst the leaves and branches and gave me a few ‘lessons’ on riding pillion on a tandem. Finally, we wobbled off again with me trying hard to obey Alf’s instructions and, after a few narrow squeaks, we reached the research station in one piece.
I can’t remember much about the few days that I went to the Cancer Research Station with Alf. His job was to look after the dozens of animals that were used there for experiments. There were rooms full of caged animals and, if I recall rightly, these animals were injected with cancer cells and the progress of their health was monitored. I watched a few operations on some of the rats and mice, where they were put to sleep and dry ice was used to try and burn the cancer cells out of their bodies. It wasn’t really my sort of environment and I didn’t make any efforts to try and get employment there, although I hung around with Alf at his job for a couple of days.
I would have liked to have gone up to visit my grandparents and Jim, but I felt so guilty at the way I’d snuck out and left Mum that I didn’t feel that I could face them. I thought that I had done a terrible thing, especially when Mum sent the police to Alf’s house to try and trace me and get me to return home. I had told the policemen that I didn’t want to go back and the message was passed on.
But, the longer I hung around Amersham, the more I missed Crystal. I longed to see her again so that I could try to patch things up. Finally, I decided to go home and see if I could sort things out.
Soon I was back in Reading and it was just as if I’d never been away. Mum didn’t say anything and I settled back into the routine of being ‘scullery maid’ once more. I need not have worried about Crystal either, she was so happy to have me back again and we never mentioned the word ‘taxi’ from then on.
While all this was happening, Val had fallen head over heels in love with one of the borders. This lad was a young Irish chap named Derek, and the romance was soon flourishing. Derek was a hard worker and earned good money at his job of erecting pylons for power lines that were being routed past Reading. He was a tough, quiet, good-looking lad and Val was very happy.
The dreary, hard-working days passed as I slipped into life back at home. The tape recorder had had a good ‘holiday’ while I’d been away but, I was soon working it overtime as I listened to the latest songs that I’d recorded from the television, wireless, or Val’s growing record collection (she would have murdered me if she had known that I’d touched her records). And there were plenty of popular songs to choose from at that time.
Elvis Presley had ‘One Night’ up in the charts, along with ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour?’ by Lonnie Donegan, ‘A Pub With No Beer,” by Slim Dusty, ‘To Know Him’ by The Teddy Bears, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by The Platters, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ by a new lad on the entertainment scene named Billy Fury, ‘The Story Of My Love’ by Conway Twitty (this last mentioned song became one of my firm favourites), and a few others. But, the song that took me by storm at that time was a Paul Anka release called ‘All Of A Sudden My Heart Sings’. Somehow I collected the money to buy this song on record and I played it over and over again. It made me feel so good and grateful that I still had Crystal and I became, once more, content with my lot. But trouble was only just around the corner.
Geoff had introduced me to a squirt of a lad who I will call ‘Arnold’. Now, although Arnold was a spotty-faced, little weed, he was nevertheless, the leader of a gang who roamed the local neighbourhood, striking terror into anyone who was timid or easily frightened. It was suggested that I might like to become a member of Arnold’s gang, but I turned the suggestion down flat and hardly saw them at all. Until one of them, who I shall call ‘Willie’, took it upon himself to try his luck with Crystal.
She came to me just after I’d settled back home and told me that the gang had stopped her just up the road. Willie had asked her why she was interested in a weakling like me when she could have everything he had to offer and more. She had been very frightened by the incident and was visibly upset. I flew into a rage of fury, not only had Willie bullied a girl, but he’d picked on my girl as his victim. I was determined to get him for that.
Willie rarely went out unless he was with Arnold’s gang. I knew that they stuck together and protected each other, but I threw caution to the wind and went out looking for Willie during every spare moment that I had. For about a week there was no sign of them anywhere, and nobody seemed to know of their whereabouts. Then one afternoon I was talking to a couple of friends outside our side-gate when I spied the gang hurrying by along the Oxford Road. Leaving my friends, I took off in pursuit and caught the gang up just after they’d turned into Wilson Road. There were seven of the gang, including Arnold and Willie.
Without hesitating, I went straight for Willie, hit him a couple of times in the head and he went down. Immediately I turned my attention to the next closest gang member and he sank to the ground as I smashed a fist into his face. There was an explosion in my mouth as somebody came at me from the other side, but I was in such a rage that I didn’t feel any pain. A third member went down under my onslaught. Then I had my back up against a garden wall and the blows from the four remaining gang members started to wear me down very quickly as they used fists and boots to avenge their mates.
As I tried to ward off the blows, I had a fleeting sight of Willie’s blood-splattered face peering up at me as he was picking himself up from the road where he’d fallen. I knew that I wouldn’t rest until the matter had been sorted out, if I got out of the present fix alive. As I bored hatred at him with my eyes, somehow trying to convey to him that I’d get him proper, and still trying to ward off the blows that were coming from all directions, I saw his face change from pain to amazement. This threw me into confusion and, for a split second I was lost.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur of red as someone else waded into the gang. With a sigh of relief I thought that somebody had come to my rescue. Without hesitation, I took advantage of the gang’s panic to deal a few more blows at a couple of unprotected heads. I became aware of metallic, ringing thuds and it dawned on me that a woman was shouting by my side. The gang began to scatter, abandoning the two or three members still laying on the ground. Then I felt a ringing blow on the top of my head. I staggered a few steps until I’d regained my balance, then turned to face this new threat.
In spite of the painful areas all over my body and a smashed mouth, I had to grin to myself at the sight that met my eyes. A woman, wielding a large frying-pan, was hitting out at us left, right, and centre. Apparently she hadn’t been very happy about us brawling outside of her home, and had decided to move us on. Grabbing the first ‘weapon’ on hand, which happened to be the large frying-pan, she stormed out of her house and waded into us.
She was a big woman with dark hair, and wearing a red jumper. There’s no doubt about it, through my impatience to avenge the fright that Crystal had got from Willie, I’d put myself in a very tight spot and, if it hadn’t been for this woman, I would have had a real thrashing. A couple of more clangs, as the frying-pan helped the remaining gang members on their way, gave me the chance to make a safe retreat back down towards home. Once out of range of that formidable woman and her frying-pan, I shouted to Willie that this wasn’t the end of the matter.
I’d been wearing a very tight pair of trousers that somebody had given me. They were a relic left over from the ‘Teddy Boy’ era (‘Drainpipe trousers’ we called them), but I’d been glad of them as I had very few clothes. As I walked back towards home, I discovered that these trousers had split on the inside seam from one knee, right across the crotch and almost down to the calf on the other leg. I felt very embarrassed as I walked across the Oxford Road holding the split seam together as best I could. It must have looked as if I was holding myself because I was dying to go to the toilet and couldn’t find one (although there was a public toilet right there on the corner of Wilson Road and the Oxford Road).
With great relief, I arrived home and went into the bathroom to tidy up. I had quite a few bruises and swellings about my body and, of course, my mouth was badly smashed up. The split lip didn’t really bother me, but I had three or four broken teeth, and one of them was paining like mad. Mum suggested that I force a piece of bread into the tooth to relieve the pain, then go straight down to the dentist. But I refused to go anywhere near a dentist, I still hadn’t forgotten the agony of that visit to the dentist while I was living over on the Isle of Wight. The bread trick worked and I decided to carry on doing it until the teeth fell out. This decision would cause me a lot of unnecessary pain over the next year or so.
Not satisfied that justice had been done as far as Willie was concerned, I decided to round up a gang of my own so that the rest of Arnold’s gang could be held at bay while I dealt with Willie. One by one I approached my friends and asked for their help just for the single occasion. But, scared of reprisals after the event, they all refused to tangle with Arnold and his thugs, even Geoff. I was beginning to think that I’d have to have another go at Willie on my own when Val’s boyfriend, Derek, offered his services.
Derek was a tough lad and looked it. Better still, he was unknown to Arnold and his gang, so I felt sure that they’d be a bit wary of him until I’d had time to sort Willie out, then he and I would sort the rest of the gang out if need be. I put this plan to Derek and he was happy about the arrangement. I sent a message to Willie, through Geoff, to meet me for the final settlement up at Prospect Park one evening about a week after the first fight. My mouth was healing well, although I was still suffering from the bad toothache. But, that wasn’t going to stop me from smashing Willie properly.
At the appointed time, Derek and I arrived at the meeting place and, just as I’d suspected, Arnold and his gang were very worried by Derek’s presence, they were bullies to the hilt. Derek took advantage of this by warning the gang of what he would do to the first one to interfere with Willie and I. A circle was formed, Willie and I stepped into the centre, and Derek told me to get on with it. Apart from Brian (who was away at the time) I couldn’t have asked for a better chap than Derek to hold those bullies back for me.
With a scream, Willie threw himself at me as if he knew there was no escape and might as well go under fighting. We swapped punches and I was fleetingly pleased to see him reel back in shock as I returned the previous week’s favour by punching him in the mouth with a lucky shot. Then, somehow, I was on the ground, spinning round on my back as I tried to ward off Willie’s hob-nailed boots as he tried to kick me in the head. I waited my chance, then grabbed his foot and pulled him down as well. We rolled about for a bit, arms flailing as each of us fought for dominance over the other. But, I must have had the edge in strength for I managed to get him flat on the ground where I quickly sat on his chest with my legs straddling his body (the Francis Ridgeway fight all over again!). It’s still so clear in my memory, how that fight went and how, in that final triumph when I had Willie at my mercy, I was going to make an example of him so that he (and, hopefully, the rest of the gang) would think twice before bullying again. But, Willie hadn’t given up yet.
As I slowly drew back my fist, giving Willie time to know what was coming, he shouted to Arnold that he wanted ‘it’ quickly. What ‘it’ was I didn’t know at first, but I saw something snaking towards us out of the corner of my eye, and quickly rolled away to stand up and take stock of the situation. I was just in time to see Willie snatch up a bicycle chain that had sharp nails twisted into some of the links.
By this time, there was a great crowd of people around the circle. Derek was hemmed in by them and the gang. The cowardly Willie was advancing towards me, swinging the chain of nails while his gang chanted at him to smash me with it. I was wishing that I could get him away as I was sure that I would be able to deal with the situation if I could get him on his own.
But, with everyone egging him on, probably hoping to see plenty of blood and gore, Willie advanced closer, swinging the chain at my face. I managed to dodge the vicious weapon a couple of times as I tried for an opening. Then I felt it scrape across my back as Willie made contact. As I reeled away, the circle of people opened and I took a chance. With no more ado, I raced through the gap with Willie in hot pursuit, laughing and telling the world that he had me now. Along Tilehurst Road I went, going at a pace that enabled Willie to almost touch me, thereby, keeping his interest. When we’d left the gang and crowd well behind, I gave a great bellow, dodged back around Willie and stopped with, what I thought was, a murderous look on my face and a menacing stance.
In surprise, Willie spun around with the chain flailing awkwardly around his body. I remember that his eyes looked past me as he realised that we were finally on our own. I knew that it was nothing but pure luck that things had worked out that way, but later, he and others would say that they thought I had planned it (and who was I to argue with them?). As he tried to get the chain from around his body, I closed in on him with the murderous look still on my face. Now that I had him on his own, my confidence soared. Then it was all over.
Willie suddenly held up his hand to stop me and quickly said that, rather than keep on fighting, we should talk things over. I saw a glimmer of hope, seized the opportunity and told him to throw down the chain or one of us was going to be badly hurt, especially if I got the chain away from him. He dropped the chain down onto the pavement and I kicked it out of reach. I honoured the agreement and told him to talk.
He said that he was fed-up with Arnold’s gang, fed-up with always brawling, and fed-up with not being able to go out on his own without the worry of being beaten up by lads that he had crossed while with the gang.
We both stood there, splattered in each other’s blood and it struck me as rather funny. I could feel the laughter rising up in my stomach (probably just as much from relief as the sight of us pair) and I quickly told him that I didn’t trust him but, I’d give him a chance to prove me wrong. I promised him that I’d come looking for him with more than a chain if he ever so much as looked sideways at myself, any of my friends, or any girls with the intent to harm. He told me that 1 wouldn’t have to worry. With no more ado, we shook hands and walked back to the crowd that were still waiting in the park.
Derek was still there and the rest of the gang were still being very wary of him. Willie and I had been away for no more than a couple of minutes. I could see that Arnold wasn’t very happy about the outcome, but it was his own fault. As gang leader, he and his gang should have followed us and backed Willie up, especially after encouraging him to use the chain.
As soon as I was back beside him, Derek asked if any, or all, of the gang would like to try their luck. Needless to say, there were no takers. And it was just as well for someone had called the police and they arrived a few minutes later. As the police car came down the road, Willie ran off one way, and the rest of the gang ran the other.
I stood there, still splattered in blood, my shirt ripped and bloody where the nails had slashed across my back, and I was still panting from the fight. A policeman came over, asked me if I’d been fighting and I told him that I had. He asked where the other person was and I answered that he’d gone. Then he asked me why we had been fighting and I told him that it was all over a girl. He looked at me knowingly and told me to clear off home. Derek and I needed no second telling and we hurried away.
Crystal was standing at her door and had been very worried until she saw me arrive home safely. I couldn’t tell her what had happened until the next day as her Mum still didn’t know about us and Crystal was scared to be seen talking to me by her.
It was the toughest fight I’d been involved in up to that time. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t scared when Willie grabbed the chain of nails, I was terrified and only pure luck caused the lucky outcome. Funnily enough, when the nails slashed across my back, there wasn’t much pain at all. I think that I was too angry to feel any pain. But, I was young and fit and soon healed up.
Willie did stop going around with Arnold and his gang. We eventually became friends and he even started courting a nice young lady. I don’t think it was anything to do with our fight, I just think that he wasn’t really a bad lad all along, but had got mixed up with the wrong crowd.
As for Arnold and his gang. There had been a lot of young people up at the park when Derek asked the gang if they’d like to take us two on and they’d been made to look a bit foolish by their refusal. They lost a lot of the terror that they’d instilled into others as the news spread locally. Soon the gang broke up and was no more. I like to think that Derek and I had a small hand in this bonus and that a lot of youngster’s were saved a bashing by that gang at least.
As I’ve said earlier, I was scared when Willie produced the chain of nails, and I had felt very defenceless. Not wishing to be put into that position again without some kind of weapon of my own, I foolishly swapped my old air rifle for a vicious flick-knife. This flick-knife looked innocent enough until a button was pushed in the handle and a very sharp, pointed blade sprang out. When the button was pulled back, the blade sprang back into the handle. It had a safety device that stopped the blade from accidentally springing out while the weapon was in the pocket or some such place.
Luckily for me, I soon saw the danger of having such a weapon. I’d got the knife as a sort of insurance against someone coming at me with a weapon. But, the first time that I took it out, I realised that I might, just like Willie, go for my weapon if my back was up against the wall. I thought that it would be better to get a thrashing than to be in real trouble because I’d stabbed somebody. I only took the knife out the one night, and never carried a weapon for illegal use again.
More and more I was getting fed up with working as a ‘scullery maid’. A few nights after the fight up Prospect Park, I decided to leave home again. As soon as I thought that everyone was asleep, I packed my bag, stole half a loaf of bread (for my aching teeth) and walked out. One of the tyres had burst on my bike and I couldn’t afford to buy a new one, so I had to leave the cycle behind and walk as I also had no money for bus or train fares.
Again with the feeling of relief that I’d taken the plunge and decided to start life anew, I walked through Reading town and out along the path beside the River Thames, heading for Sonning. My idea was to try and keep away from the roads for as long as possible, I didn’t want to get picked up by the police for being out so late.
I was almost at Sonning Lock, about four miles from our house, when I realised that I was also leaving Crystal again. My determination faltered and, in the end I turned back, reaching home just before it was time to get up for work.
The next day I told Crystal that I just had to talk seriously to her without any interruptions or anybody else around. I needed to explain how I felt about the job and ask her if she’d be a bit patient with me if I suddenly vanished for a while. I suppose it was unfair of me, but I wanted her assurance that she’d wait for me if I left home and tried to sort my life out. She agreed to see me alone down the lane beside the railway arch.
She was there at the appointed time and I recall how funny it was to be properly alone together without anyone else around or having to rush off. I began to tell her of my discontent with the job, how I needed to get away, and how I wanted her to still be my girl-friend. She seemed most alarmed at the thought of me going away again, but she said that she understood. I told her how I just couldn’t face my Mum and tell her how I felt or that I was leaving. I knew that I couldn’t bear to see the hurt look on her face. I explained that she had been ill and still seemed to rely on my presence all the time, even after all these years. But, I told Crystal, I was more fed up with the kind of work that I was doing, the long hours, and never having any money. I went on to tell her that I was going to leave home and I asked her to wait for me. Then something happened that made me forget about leaving home for a couple of weeks.
We were idly chatting about our hopes for a future life together when I glanced up the lane towards our homes and spied Crystal’s Mum coming down the lane towards us. Knowing that we’d been caught and that it was no good running for it, we both walked up to meet her. She was livid and sent Crystal straight home with a slap around the face. Nothing was said to me and I didn’t say anything for fear of causing more problems. I didn’t think that it would be any use trying to explain why we were there alone as I was sure that it could only make things worse. I wasn’t much of a prospect for a future ‘son-in-law’ so I kept quiet and thought I’d let things run their course.
Crystal and I still hadn’t even held hands at this time. I didn’t know what it was like to hold her in my arms or to kiss her, let alone anything else. I respected her in my own naive way and was content to let her call the tune. This suited Crystal as she had been raised under a strict guidance as to rights and wrongs. Now it seemed to me that I’d never have the chance to hold her at all.
I followed her and her Mum back up the lane and wandered gloomily indoors. Mum could see that I was upset about something and she’d soon got the story out of me. Utterly depressed and confused I went up to my room and sat down quietly to try and think things out.
Half an hour later, Mum called me down and told me that I’d been invited to afternoon tea by Crystal’s Mum. I was shocked and a bit dazed until Mum explained that she’d gone over and had a talk with Crystal’s Mum. Crystal had told both Mothers of her love for me and of how I had treated her perfectly in all respects. Of course, she also had to confess to her Mum that she had been meeting me secretly. In the end it had been decided to give us two young ones a chance.
I couldn’t believe it and was terrified at the thought of going into Crystal’s house. But it all went very well and Crystal’s Mum turned out to be a beautiful person who, as already stated, only wanted to do the right thing by her daughter. I had thought of her as a bit of an old dragon, but I soon changed my mind as we got to know each other and relaxed. Crystal was delighted and it wasn’t long before we were visiting each other and openly going out together. Although I was a young ‘ruffian’, Crystal’s Mum had trusted me to do the right thing and Crystal and I never betrayed that trust.
Our happiness didn’t last long before I was, once again, in a brawl and the discontent with my lot surfaced. This time I had a fight with Nobby (of the ‘hairy Long John’s’ incident).
As I have previously mentioned, he was an obnoxious person and he picked an argument with me one afternoon. It was impossible to get the better of him in an argument, even if you knew positively that you were right. I was right on this occasion (although I can’t remember what the argument was about) and, better still, I was able to prove it.
Now, Nobby didn’t like being proved wrong and became very annoyed. He was a big, stocky chap, a lot older than I was but, as I found out, not half as fit. Without warning, one of his hands flashed out and held the back of my head, while he smashed his other fist into my face. It was a purely unprovoked attack and I just exploded.
In a sudden fit of rage, I pummelled his head. As he was falling about the kitchen, a cool-drink bottle was knocked off the table and smashed on the floor. Nobby quickly went down under my onslaught and the next thing I knew was feeling his sweaty neck as I took him by the throat and slowly started to squeeze the life out of him.
The other boarders had been delighted at the bit of entertainment that Nobby and I had put on for them. Most of those lads were hoping that Nobby would get his just desserts as he’d annoyed all of them at one time or another. But, when they saw him fighting for breath as I blocked off his windpipe, there was a mad rush and I was dragged off. Nobby staggered up to his room and I was treated like a hero by the other boarders. But, secretly, although I wanted to hurt Nobby for hitting me, I was glad that they’d been around to prevent what could have been a nasty incident. I promised myself that I’d try to stay a bit calmer if I was forced to brawl in the future.
Nobby was none the worse after a day or so. He’d fallen onto some of the broken glass from the smashed cool-drink bottle and was still getting splinters of glass out of his back and legs a week later. Our cuts and bruises healed up and soon the fight was forgotten as everyone got back to normal. Nobby never changed and he’s probably still having arguments and fights.
But, during the fight, he’d made references about my job and how I was doing ‘girl’s work’. The desire to get a proper job started to nag at me again and I thought about the problem long and hard. Firstly, I didn’t want to hurt Mum, secondly, things were looking up as far as Crystal and I were concerned (I didn’t forget that Mum had helped Crystal and I in that respect) and thirdly, I didn’t have a penny to my name. But, I became so discontent, frustrated, and annoyed over the next couple of weeks that I just had to get away from that job. Finally, I packed my gear and left home once more. I didn’t go far, in fact, I wasn’t any more than twenty metres from the house.
the old caravan.
Up the back of the garden was an old caravan. It was gradually falling to pieces with disuse. There was the strong aroma of liquid gas as the door was opened and a hundred spiders had made their homes in the nooks and crannies around the walls and cupboards. I decided to join them and, for the next week I lived a strange, twilight life in that old caravan.
It was in the middle of the night when I climbed out of the kitchen window once more, case in one hand, army blanket in the other, and another stolen piece of bread (for my bad teeth) stuffed up my jumper. I entered the dark caravan, hid my case under the bunk-bed, rolled up in the blanket and went to sleep on the bare boards of that bunk. It was only April and still very cold at nights, a single blanket didn’t even start to keep me warm, but I was determined not to give in this time.
Over the next few days, I relaxed and tried to work out my next move. Each night I’d wait until I thought that everyone was fast asleep in the house, then I’d climb through the window and steal food. At the time I didn’t think of it as stealing, I still thought of myself as part of the family and felt that I’d earned a few morsels of food. I went for nightly walks around the area, being careful not to be picked up by the police as youngsters wandering around in the dead of night were still frowned upon at that time. Each day I’d hide in the caravan, peeping out of the window at the world going by, or dozing. I often saw Mum out in the garden and each night I heard the house come alive as the boarders came home from work.
I felt terribly guilty at the thought of Mum having to do all that work, but I couldn’t stand another minute of being a ‘scullery maid’. I knew that the crunch would have to come sooner or later so I thought that I might just as well get it over with. I was a young, energetic person trying to burst out of a shackled body. No longer could I see reason and knuckle-under, I tried not to think of Mum’s feelings (although I still couldn’t bear to see the hurt look on her face) and just wanted to live a normal life like all other lads of my age. I felt that I was being held back in time through not being able to mix freely with boys of my own age. I played with the younger lads because boys of my age didn’t have the time to spare on a lad who only had a couple of hours freedom each afternoon. There was a real tug-of-war going on in my mind between my loyalty to Mum and my desire to live normally. The desire to live normally was winning. I don’t know how I was going to achieve all this as I had no money and even less chance of getting any.
Every afternoon I waited to catch a glimpse of Crystal as she arrived home, and watched her in the evenings, chatting to June and Debbie just across the road. Her eyes were continuously wandering over to the house as she hoped that I’d appear and she’d know that I was back. Of course, I couldn’t let her know that I was only across the road in the caravan just in case somebody saw us talking.
For a week I lived this life then, one morning as I was dozing, the door suddenly burst open and Mum walked in, followed by a man that I’d never seen before. She didn’t say anything to me but told the man that she wanted me back at work that day. The man suggested that he and I be left alone and Mum went back to the house.
Once we were alone, the man introduced himself as one of the local Probation Officers. I’d never been mixed up with Probation Officers before and I was very wary at first. They were something to do with getting into trouble with the police and going to court as far as I knew at the time. He was a decent chap though and had soon won my confidence. It was wonderful just to have someone grown-up to talk to who seemed to understand the way I felt.
At first I didn’t want to tell him what was troubling me, but in the end I took the bull by the horns, told him of my feelings about the situation that I was in and the two way tug-of-war that was going on in my mind, and then I finally explained that all I wanted to do was go out to work like other lads of my age.
After the chat, he called Mum back so that she could hear what he had to say. My heart was in the bottom of my boots, I knew enough about authority, I thought, to know that they expected children, even teenagers, to obey their parents. I was furious with myself, I knew that I should have moved on instead of lingering about in that caravan. Now it was too late and I’d be back in the house within minutes, no better off than I was a week ago. What was worse was the fact that Mum would have the authority of the Probation Officer behind her. I felt as if I’d be trapped in that job, with the long hours, hard work, and no money, for ever (or at least until I went berserk).
The three of us sat in the caravan (I’d refused to go indoors) and the Probation Officer delivered his verdict. After a few words I heard him say, as if I was dreaming, that, if I wanted to go out to work then, it would be better to let me go.
And that was that. Mum must have realised that I was so unhappy and she resigned herself to either letting me go out to work or losing me completely. A couple of days later I started a real job, Val took on the job with Mum (although with less hours and more freedom than I had, and even then she didn’t last long), Crystal was pleased to have me back, and life became a joy to live again.
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