It was a beautiful day when I went for an interview at Vandervell’s. Crystal came along and, with the train ride there and back as well as a walk along the River Thames through Maidenhead, it was a good day out. But I wasn’t so happy about the job. The work was there but it meant doing shift work. I’d never worked shifts before and I wasn’t at all keen on the idea. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go and was told to be waiting at a certain spot, along the Oxford Road in Reading, the following Monday. My first week would be on the afternoon shift.
On the Monday, I was at the spot waiting with some other workers from Vandervell’s. A ‘Smith’s (Of Reading)’ coach picked us up and took us the twelve miles to the factory. I was introduced to the foreman of a section in the enormous workshops and he led me to a big, long machine. It was called ‘The Rotor’.
In my section of the factory, motor car engine bearing liners were finished off and packed. Once the liners were made (and there were many different types and sizes) all the sharp and rough edges had to be removed from each one. This was The Rotor’s job. Instead of having dozens of workers to clean the liners with files, the job was done by one person using that machine.
If I remember correctly, a container of liners were tipped into a large, revolving drum along with a container of pebbles. Water was added, the hatch was closed and the whole lot revolved for about half an hour. With the allotted time up, the machine was stopped. Then the contents of the drum was tipped out onto a large, vibrating sieve where the water drained away, the pebbles dropped through to their container (ready for the next cycle), and the cleaned linings were tipped into another container ready to be inspected and packed.
At first, I was quite interested in all the machinery and it was good fun to operate The Rotor. But, it wasn’t really my kind of job. The half an hour wait each cycle nearly drove me mad. I could empty and fill the drum very quickly after a couple of days and I became so bored with the waiting. I hated the shift work as well, especially the afternoon shifts when I couldn’t go out with Crystal all the working week.
But Vandervell’s was a very good firm to work for if you could take that type of work. I believe that it was an American company and they did pay their workers well. I wasn’t there long enough to reap any benefits, but I did get a memorable day out of the short spell of sheer boredom that I endured.
Through riding the Smith’s coaches back and forth to work, I was able to keep track of all their weekend seaside day-trips. I decided to take Crystal on a coach trip that August and the day finally arrived. Full of excitement, we sat together in the plush seats on the coach as we were whisked down to Southsea. In a whirl of fun, we’d gone around the fair, along the beach, through the arcades, and had lunch.
Just after lunch, I spied a poster advertising aeroplane flights for one pound per person. I had that sort of money in my pocket and Crystal was game. A small bus took us to the aerodrome and I recall that I felt sick with excitement (as usual). All my life I’d wanted to fly. I’d spent many hours watching planes take off and land at airports and aerodromes and I’d longed to be in one of them. Now suddenly this was my chance and I wasn’t going to miss one second of it.
The bus stopped beside a small, single-engined plane and the pilot helped Crystal and I to climb aboard. Once we were all strapped in, he gunned the engine and I could feel the power of acceleration as we raced across the aerodrome. It seemed a matter of seconds before there was one last jolt then we were flying.
But, as the pilot dropped one wing to turn the plane and head back towards Portsmouth, I hung on in a horror of fear and amazement. Suddenly I was terrified, I didn’t like being up in that aeroplane at all. The ground below seemed to pass slower and slower, it was just as if we’d come to a standstill after that initial racing take off. I felt that the plane couldn’t stay in the sky if it was going so slow. Some flyer I was!
But, we were moving and tiny houses and streets came into view way below as we crossed over Portsmouth town. Then we were circling Portsmouth Harbour and the great warships looked like the toys of some rich giant on a model landscape, only the movement of cars and trains showing that it was all real. I couldn’t believe how different everything looked from above. Although I hung on, more than fearful about this new (to me) mode of transport, it was fun to look down on Portsmouth and Southsea, picking out places below that I’d been to.
All too soon we were losing height after re-crossing Portsmouth and I could see the aerodrome down in front of us. The closer we came to the ground, the more the speed seemed to build up and the better I felt. After one last gun of the engine the wheels touched the ground and that memorable first flight was over. Before the little bus had dropped us off back at Southsea, it already seemed as if I’d dreamed that flight, so quick had it been. There had hardly been time to take anything in.
One thing that I had taken in though was the fact that flying was nothing like I had expected it to be. I didn’t like the bumps up in the air, I didn’t like tipping over as the plane turned, and I didn’t like that feeling of getting slower as we gained height. Of course, I had realised that we were still speeding along but had nothing nearby to relate that speed to. The farther something is away from us, the slower it appears to pass as we move along. Even after thirty years, many flights and hundreds of hours up in all types of aeroplanes, I still hate that feeling.
But, in the mid-1990’s, I look at that feeling in a different light. In spite of how much I wanted to fly and the excitement of that first flight, I have a terrible fear of flying that no book, my sense or my knowledge of aero-dynamics can overcome. Although I’ve delved into my problem deeply, I’m still reduced to a terrified wreck as soon as I make any plans to fly. Throughout the flight it all gets worse, and it usually takes a couple of weeks for me to unwind. I always want the flight to go by as quickly as possible and although the engines are roaring like mad,, that ground below still looks as if we are creeping along as we fly at thirty five thousand feet. I feel that, if there was an avenue of trees up in the sky and the plane could fly between this avenue, the feeling of speed would be there and I’d probably be a bit happier.
Nevertheless, on that Sunday outing I’d had my first flight, satisfied my curiosity as to what flying was like and I didn’t expect to board a plane again. With a fun-filled day behind us, Crystal and I rode the coach home contentedly.
With increasing boredom, I hung on to the job a bit longer. While waiting for each cycle of the Rotor to do its work, I tried to fill in the time in an effort to keep my sanity. I tried talking to nearby workers, but there was too much noise to be able to hold a decent conversation. I tried reading books, but couldn’t concentrate, and I tried singing but then, singing was a part of my life anyway, I was always singing or whistling. Nothing seemed to help the boredom. I recall that I received a few weird glances as I stood beside that machine, opened my heart and sang at the top of my voice. It must have looked funny to see me standing there, mouth opening and shutting, arms waving all over the place, and not being able to hear a sound because of the noise all around. But, I’d sing to my heart’s content, it just seemed to be natural to me.
At that time, ‘Apache’ by the Shadows had just been released and was rocketing up the charts along with Brian Hyland’s ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’. Roy Orbison, a new singer to us, had his first song, called ‘Only The lonely’, in the charts and it was doing very well. On top of that, a new Elvis Presley album had been released called ‘Elvis Is Back’ and I believe that it was his first album to be released after he did his stint in the army. It became my favourite Elvis album with songs on it such as ‘Reconsider Baby’, ‘It Feels So Right’, ‘Soldier Boy’, ‘Like A Baby’, and others. As far as I was concerned, this was Elvis Presley’s swan song. I lost interest in his work as other singers gave us new sounds and he started churning out songs and films that all seemed to be the same old thing.
With the hour each way to and from work on the bus, along with the daily shift, a large slice of my weekdays were spent either travelling, working, or sleeping. The wages were good, but they didn’t compensate for having my weeks messed around by the shift work, not to mention the extra time travelling. When I was on the afternoon shift I missed out on seeing Crystal for the whole working week. The sheer boredom didn’t help and, in the end I quit the job with a relief that is hard to describe. Those sort of jobs are well suited to people who can handle them, but I couldn’t have put up with another day of doing the same old thing in the same old place.
Those were lucky years for anyone who wanted work and there was no need to be unemployed. I was happy to chop and change a bit, hoping to find the type of employment that would suit my nature and also give me the chance to put a few shillings by for the future. And so it was that I came to get another short-term job, this time as a labourer for a builder and renovator. This builder, who has probably rotted in jail by now, shall be completely nameless as he was, in my estimation, a very low person.
There were two of us working for this builder, an old man who was definitely the only master of the trade out of us all, and myself who was the muscle. The old man and I worked at renovating a house along the Peppard Road, in North Caversham, and the boss dropped in every day to see how things were going. I enjoyed the change and was soon smashing out walls, mixing cement and plaster, and lifting heavy concrete lintels into place as we progressed with the renovations.
Then the boss started to hang around a lot longer than he had been the first week or so. The old chap couldn’t understand it as the boss never usually stayed more than a couple of minutes a day. He put it down to the fact that the boss’s wife was having a baby again and he probably wanted to keep out of her way. The boss was that type of bloke. At first I didn’t worry, being the boss meant that he could do as he liked, I was a worker and had to do as I was told and that’s how it went at first. The old man would stop work and chat to the boss, but I’d carry on doing what I’d been told to do or find something to do so that I wasn’t standing around in front of him.
But then, more and more the boss drew me into conversation and finally told me that, if I played my cards right, I could do a lot better. I thought that he meant that I could do a lot better in the building trade and was duly encouraged. But, his intentions were soon revealed.
He’d taken me off the job for a while and had me sorting out a big heap of building materials in his back garden. His wife was a lovely woman and she kept me supplied with orange-juice throughout the warm day. They had a couple of children and the woman was expecting another baby very soon. She looked a lot younger than the boss and I couldn’t understand what a lovely lady such as herself could see in such an old looking man, but it was only a passing thought.
In the late afternoon, his wife and children had gone out somewhere and the boss and I were left alone. He made his move straight away, calling me to stop work and sit down with him. I went over, sat down and he asked me if I wanted to get on in the world with his help. I asked him what it was all about and he went on to say that I could have plenty of money, a big car, and lots of women. Well, I’m only human and I was very interested in having a car and plenty of money, I wasn’t worried about the woman. He asked me if I was at all interested and, still thinking that he was talking about the building trade, I asked him what I had to do. My suspicions were immediately aroused when he told me that our conversation must go no further than where we stood. But, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and listened to what he had to say.
He took a tobacco tin from his pocket and opened it. I could see a wad of grubby photographs inside. He was telling me that he’d been looking for a strong, independent, good-looking lad like myself for a long time. I was still thinking about the car, all that money, and what type of building work I would have to learn to get these goodies. He began to hand the photographs to me and I was amazed to see that they were explicit pornographic photographs of himself and a woman. Lady’s bodies were still quite a mystery to me in those days and I’d never seen such photographs. I suppose I must have ogled them a bit and this probably gave him the encouragement to carry on. I hadn’t been on such familiar terms with a boss and I was being caught completely off guard.
A young girl began to appear in the pictures. She was, he told me, only thirteen years old and the daughter of one of the women in the photographs. Now, as my memory recalls the pictures, she must have been fairly young for she looked young and had no pubic hairs above her private parts. I had really begun to smell a rat by this time. I knew enough about the law to know that a man wasn’t allowed to do things to little girls such as this man was doing to that girl in the photographs. Starting to feel very uncomfortable, I was wishing that he’d either get back to the building trade and how I was going to make all that money, or that he’d let me get on with my work. Then the truth finally came out.
He told me that he wanted to open a brothel in Reading and, as he already had all the women for such a venture, he just needed me as a manager to run it. I was shocked and he must have seen it for he quickly went on to tell me that a car would be supplied, he’d put me through my test, there would be plenty of money, and I could have a different woman every night - including the thirteen year old girl who was a bit older by that time. He suggested that I give the matter some serious thought and tell him my decision the next day.
But, I gave it some serious thought there and then - for about one second. In a few unmentionable words I told him what he could do with himself and his job. I can see his mean, sly face in my mind’s eye even now as he told me not to be too hasty. But, I was having nothing to do with something that, to me, was extremely distasteful. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, in my nature.
And that was the end of my building and renovating career. I left the job there and then and didn’t even go back for any wages owing to me.
At first I toyed with the idea of going to the police. But then I had thought to myself that he would have probably already hidden the tin of photographs and I’d look a fool if I turned up with the police and accused him without any evidence. I finally decided that I was well out of it and left it at that. He was an ugly, mean person and I couldn’t for the life of me see what any woman could have seen in him. But his wife seemed very happy so he must have had something. He was probably an expert at taking people in, he certainly had me going there for a while. Dreams of a nice car and all that money flew out of the window and I was once more out of work.
To be fair, I wasn’t really interested in the building trade. What I wanted was to get in amongst a fleet of lorries somehow. I dreamed of going on trips in lorries, of having all the problems associated with such a job (such as breakdowns, bad weather, etc.) and of learning to put loads on in the correct manner. Little did I know that the beginning of my long road to being a professional lorry driver was about to eventuate.
Rather than go down to the Labour Exchange and have to go to any job interview that they sent me to, I was happier to try and find my own jobs. On the way home after leaving the builder, I called into the Fire Station, in Caversham Road, to see if there were any vacancies for trainee firemen. But I chickened out when I noticed that the hoses were hung from a high tower to dry. I’d shuddered at the thought of having to climb to the top of that tower. Now I look back and can’t believe that I may have lost a good job through such a minor detail. But then, knowing my history for chopping and changing jobs, I might not have lasted long anyway.
As I walked back down towards the town, I thought I’d just pop in to G. R. Jackson’s on the off-chance that they might have a vacancy. This company dealt in scrap metal and rags. They had a fleet of dark-blue lorries and I knew that a mate sometimes went on trips with the drivers. As luck would have it, my enquiry coincided with the firm’s need for a worker and I got the job.
G. R. Jackson’s was a family-run business if I recall rightly. The company was operated from a yard that stretched from the Oxford Road, right through to Chatham Street (a town centre by-pass now occupies the spot where the old yard used to be). A cobbled driveway ran up the middle of the yard with offices and sorting and storing sheds on each side. At the top end (Chatham Street end) was a large, more modern building where all the types of clothing material were sorted out. This building had an archway through it to enable the lorries to enter through a gate from Chatham Street and leave by the Oxford Road gate. There was a weighbridge just inside the Oxford Road gate and sometimes, if the yard was blocked farther up, a lorry would be reversed back through that gate onto the weighbridge to save time.
Everything that came into the yard had to be sorted. Bales of old mixed clothing were cut open on the floor of the clothing material sorting shed at the top of the yard and bundles were lifted up onto large tables by the sorters. Around the sorting tables stood a number of big wicker baskets. With very sharp knives, the sorters went through the bundles of clothes, cutting off buttons, zips, poppers, badges, and any different materials on the garments. All the buttons, etc. went into a box for further sorting while the different types of materials were tossed into their respective baskets. As each basket was filled up, the contents were put into a press, baled up, weighed, and stored ready to be transported as soon as enough bales of that particular material could make a lorry load. It wouldn’t be long before I became familiar with material types such as wool, cotton, silk, serge, etc.
Sorting metal was done on similar lines. There was a large shed on the left side of the yard with mixed metal in hessian sacks piled up against one wall. In the middle of the shed were a couple of sorting tables, and along another wall hung a number of hessian sacks with frames holding the necks open. The sorters emptied a sack of mixed metal onto the tables and sorted the metal out, tossing each different type into its respective sack hanging from the frames along the wall. As each sack was filled, it would be sewn up and stored across the yard to await transport. I soon learned the difference between brass, copper, lead, gunmetal, bronze, silver, etc.
It wasn’t my job to do any sorting but, when I had a spare half an hour, I would go into one or other of the sorting sheds and help out. There were always a pile of interesting items in the ‘bits box’ beside the clothes sorting tables and, as well as buttons and zips, I can recall a treasure of money, badges, rings, lighters, and a hundred other items that were found in the pockets of old clothes.
In the metal sorting shed there were the silver, brass, copper, and pewter mugs, ornaments, statues, plates, tea-pots, etc. that were all sorted for melting down. If anybody had the stuff that was sorted out in that shed now, even what went through there in a month, they would make millions on the antique market. But in those days we didn’t think of such things and I would look, admire, then throw into a sack, some of the most beautiful items of metalwork.
The chaps in the sorting sheds were good blokes, mostly old and very patient. I recall Len, Old Clarrie (the first black man I ever worked with), and a chap who used to go around saying “Bark! Bark!” all day - who I called ‘Bark, Bark.’
As well as the sorters, there were the office personnel, the buyers, the drivers, and the yardmen. I was taken on as a yardman and became one of a happy gang of men who worked hard but were always ready for a good laugh, mostly at each other’s expense.
Alby was the yard gang’s foreman. A solid built man, quietly spoken, patient, and with a lingering twinkle in his eye. Then there was a chap who, on our first meeting, said I looked ‘almost human’. I can’t recall his name because I called him ‘Almost Human’ from then on. Fred, another of the gang, always had a cigarette in his mouth and was a good friend to me. He was fairly old and had a girlfriend (who was at least three times his size) called ‘Queenie’. But the chap that I’ll never forget from the two periods that I worked for that firm was Maurice Greenaway.
Maurice, or Maurie as we called him, was one of the best-natured, unselfish persons that I ever met. He was also one of the fattest men that I ever met. He must have weighed over twenty stone. He had three great chins and was as strong as an ox. Nothing could get him down and I never once saw him look serious. Life to Maurie was happiness itself. His wife was a tiny wisp of a woman, but his schoolboy son was already following his father’s footsteps in size. Every job, no matter how hard, was good fun with Maurie on the gang. And that’s how I began that job - working alongside Maurie, Alby, Fred, and Almost Human.
I arrived at the yard that late October morning, wondering how I’d get on at this new job and, of course, hoping to get out on one of the lorries. Alby met me at the office and I relaxed a dozen degrees as soon as he spoke to me in his gentle voice. I was taken up the yard to where Maurie, Fred, and Almost Human were unloading bales of clothes from one of the lorries. Straight away I was struck by their open friendliness. This was the A. S. Duran folk all over again, and after the last two jobs I felt I needed some relaxed company to work with.
The four men were a lot older than I was, ranging from Almost Human being about thirty five to Fred being about fifty five. I was introduced and at once Maurie gave me the nickname of ‘The Kid’, and Almost Human said that I looked ‘almost human’.
Giggling to myself at the way I seemed to have landed myself such good workmates, I walked up to the side of the lorry to help unload the bales as they were doing. But, the smile was soon wiped from my face as I felt the crippling weight of that first bale crunch onto my shoulders.
Those bales were enormous and each one weighed over three hundredweight. My legs began to buckle as I tried to gain my balance and adjust the crushing load on my shoulders. Maurie came to my rescue just as I was about to crumple to the floor. Holding the bale steady, he led me as I staggered into one of the sheds. I thought that I’d just have to drop the bale down on the floor, but I was wrong. Horrified, I listened in disbelief as Maurie explained that I had to carry the bale up to the top of a great stack of bales already there, via some wooden steps that were leaning against that stack. Groaning to myself, with Maurie giving me tips and keeping the bale steady on my shoulders from behind, I slowly struggled up those steps with my legs threatening to buckle as I pushed myself ever upwards. Finally reaching the top, I rolled the bale off my shoulders and collapsed in sheer relief.
But, it wasn’t good enough for my new mates. The bales had to be dropped in just the right place, or time and effort was wasted while it was stacked properly. This was soon demonstrated to me as the men good-naturedly sat up there laughing at me as I tried to push that bale into place. In the end, they gave me a sack hook and showed me the easiest way to do the job.
The sack hooks were a handle that fitted across the palm of the hand with a hook that usually came out between the first- and second fingers. Being fairly sharp, this hook could be stuck into the side of a bale or sack to give a decent grip while handling such a thing. With the sack hook and some good advice from those lads, I was soon handling the bales with less trouble. I dropped a couple, but the lads rallied round and between them they lifted the bales back on my shoulders. As I staggered around that day, I thought to myself that I was a real weed compared to my new workmates.
Those men had watched me carry the first bale without a sack hook on purpose, it was one of their tricks. They knew how hard it was to get a grip on the soft corners of the bales and how much easier it would be with the help of a hook. Because I laughed at their joke along with them when they told me, I was told that I was a good lad and soon became an accepted member of that gang.
Nevertheless, now in the mid1990s, with all the hue and cry about work-related injuries and back-problems, I hate to think what any Safety-officer, Union-rep, or Government Health & Safety Official would say if they saw such practices being carried out in the workplace at the present time. Fortunately, although I’m over fifty years of age now, my back and body is still strong, but I often wonder if I was just lucky not to have sustained some serious injuries from the work, or if the men of my time (and before) were stronger in body and spirit than the Government seems to credit modern man with!
Maurie was always ready for a rough and tumble. Very often he and I would have a mock fight on the piles of rags, but I never won. His favourite trick was to get me down and lay on me. With his great weight, I didn’t stand a chance and I’d be trapped, with not a scrap of breath left in my lungs until he’d realise that I was in trouble and let me go. Sometimes they’d all suddenly grab me, tie me up until I was helpless, and throw me on to the slope of a great pile of rags. Then Maurie would climb to the top of the pile and roll down to the floor, crushing me on the way. The first time they played this trick I was a bit scared as I watched Maurie’s huge bulk come tumbling down towards me. But, he’d use his arms and legs to keep most of his weight off me and I learned to scream at the right moments so that the gang got a good laugh out of their prank.
Another prank they used to play was the ‘tripping trick’. As it sometimes took a while to get the heavy bales off the edge of the lorry and settled on the shoulders, this was an easy trick to play and I fell for, and played this trick, quite a few times. The trick was simple, as you were settling the bale, someone who was waiting beside for the next bale would throw a loop of rope around your leg and quickly tie the end to the lorry spring or chassis. As you’d be busy with the bale, there’d be no hint of the trick until you went to stagger away from the lorry and find your leg yanked away from under you. The trick then was to get your head from under the bale before your brains were squashed between the heavy bale and the road.
Amongst others, there were the usual pranks played while you struggled to carry those bales over uneven floors and up rickety steps, like tickling you under the arms or poking a stick at your private parts. Being a very ticklish person anyway, I was always a prime target for those tricks and very often landed up in a laughing heap on the floor. Then, for a while, one or other of the lads only had to look my way and I’d collapse to the floor with laughter. But, gradually I’d forget about it until I’d be caught again.
And so I settled happily into this new job and wallowed in the friendship of all the people there. ‘Lucille’ by the Everley Brothers, was up in the charts, Crystal and I were very happy together, the weather was wonderful, and the worldly troubles seemed a million miles away. Our little gang unloaded bales, sacks of metal and clothes, great lumps of cast iron, steel turnings (from lathe work), lead piping, and a host of other materials of that nature. When it had been sorted out, we’d load it all back on again to be sent for recycling.
I hadn’t been at the job long when, one morning in the yard, we heard a woman calling Fred’s name from the Oxford Road gate end. To my astonishment, Fred suddenly cowered down behind some bales in one of the sheds and Almost Human shouted down the yard that Fred wasn’t at work that day. Almost Human muttered something about ‘here we go again’ and I looked out of the shed opening and saw a large woman storming up the cobbled driveway towards us. As she approached, she told Almost Human that he was a fibber because she had been round Fred’s house and he was not there. To me, she looked a very formidable person, and I was glad I hadn’t had to lie to her.
When she reached us, her eyes darted all around the shed and she called for Fred to come out or he’d get a bashing. Open-mouthed, I stood and watched as she started to hunt around in the dark corners. Almost Human whispered out of the corner of his mouth that this often happened and Fred was for it. As she moved closer to Fred’s hiding place, I had thought to myself that it wouldn’t be that bad.
But it was that bad to me who had never seen a woman, especially of her size, lay into a man like it before. As we watched, the woman found Fred and, with a great bellow, she set about him with fists, knees, and shoes. She was giving him a real thrashing and Fred squealed for help, but the others didn’t interfere. Alby told me to stay back from the one-sided fight and all would be well soon. Sure enough, after one last thump at Fred’s head, the breathless woman warned him not to hide from her again. She calmed down and five minutes later it was just as if the beating had never happened.
That was my introduction to ‘Queenie’, Fred’s girlfriend. She was very domineering and Fred was like putty in her hands. Sometimes he’d come into work terrified because he hadn’t felt like seeing her the night before, knowing that she would come looking for him at work. I saw her bash him on a number of occasions. Then a few minutes later it would be forgotten, even, it seemed, by the battered Fred.
But apart from that, she was a very nice person and I went out with the pair of them on a number of evenings. They were good fun to be with and always ready for a laugh. They both liked their beer and it became one of Queenie’s ambitions to get me drunk. But, although I went to some of the local pubs with them, I just stuck to the lemon squash and watched as they quaffed their half a dozen pints through the evening’. I couldn’t see much point in messing myself up as I had done on my sixteenth birthday and down on the farm at Donyatt.
I worked hard beside my workmates, it was too hard a job and too small a gang to be able to afford any slackers (‘Skivers’ as Maurie called lazy people). Then, a couple of weeks after starting the job I went into work to be told that I’d been picked as a ‘striker’. I asked what a striker was (it was only a word I’d heard in passing and never bothered about up until then) and nearly fell over with excitement when they told me a striker was a lorry driver’s mate. I suddenly knew that this could be my chance, if I worked hard and learned well, to get my foot on the bottom rung of the lorry-driving ladder.
The old flat-fronted Commer was loaded with a full load of metal that was to be delivered before we went on to the Aylesbury depot of G. R. Jackson’s to pick up a load and bring it back to our yard. Joe, the driver, was typical of the good-natured lads who worked for that company and I had a great day with him.
Almost Human was the only other yardman who would go out as a striker, Alby, Fred, and Maurie thought it was a nuisance and upset their routine. When Almost Human realised that I was so keen to get on the lorries, he also said that he wasn’t really fussy and would rather stay in the yard. I, in turn, helped the drivers as much as I could, laughed out loud when they played tricks on me, and did everything I was told to do. It wasn’t long before the drivers were making excuses to get me out with them and I could almost pick who I went with. More and more of my working hours were spent sitting in a cab watching the countryside go by and enjoying the friendship of the drivers.
All the lorries were Commers. There were a couple of flat-fronted ones but the rest were long-nosed types. As I gained the confidence of the drivers, they let me move the lorries while we were in private yards off the road. I started to learn how to put awkward loads on, different ways to stack bales and sacks, and the correct way to cover and rope down a load. I learned about ‘Dolly knots’ (for pulling the rope tight over the load), how to stop the sheets (tarpaulins over loads) from flapping, how to judge when to stop when reversing into a loading dock, and a thousand other tips and helpful hints that would add to my experience as I gradually realised my ambition of becoming a lorry driver. Just as I had done with Cliff at T. W. Wards so I did with these drivers, cleaning the windows and mirrors in the morning, and making sure that the cab was clean at the end of the day. Alby said that I was spoiling the drivers, but it was a small return for the good way that those drivers treated me.
I was looking forward to telling Mum and John all about that first ride out in the lorry but, upon arriving home, I found that we had a new border. This new boarder was a fair-haired lad, about five years older than myself. He was sitting quietly in the dining room and, before I barely had time to say hello, Mum took me straight into the front room to explain about this lad.
The new boarder, who’s name was Alan, had lived a rough life. I can’t recall whether his parents were still alive or dead, but he’d been living in homes and institutions for years. In the end, he’d decided to get out into the world and go it alone. He went down to the Social Security office to try and get some money to help him out, but that office refused to give him any. Determined that he needed money (and not being the type that would steal anything), he settled down in the office with the intentions of staying there until, realising his plight, they helped him.
But, the Social Security officers would have none of it and finally called the police. When the police arrived, Alan explained his need and still refused to move, so one of the policemen grabbed Alan with the intention of dragging him out onto the street. It would have all probably ended there but Alan lost his temper and hit the policeman. Quite rightly so, the policemen arrested Alan and he was sent to a Borstal.
With good behaviour, Alan was released and put under the care of the local Probation Officer. As it turned out, the Probation Officer was the same man who had been called in by Mum to deal with me when I’d hidden in the caravan for nearly a week. He’d remembered that Mum had a boarding house and he thought that I might be a stabling influence on Alan if Mum would take him in. Mum agreed to give it a go and that’s how Alan came to be sitting in our dining room.
Soon, I was telling Mum and Alan all about the trip out in the lorry. By the time John and the others had come home from work, I was too engrossed with Alan to want to repeat the story
Mum had warned me that I was being trusted with Alan and that she didn’t want me to get into any trouble. But Alan was a good lad really. He had a chip on his shoulder as far as the police were concerned. Apart from one incident, I’d have less trouble trying to keep on the straight and narrow with Alan than I did with my old, established mates. He was a great friend to me and we spent many mischievous hours of fun together. He was tall and fair with slightly buck teeth, and he laughed at anything and everything. But he hated being pushed around by anyone. On the other hand, he’d do anything for anybody who treated him right. And so, along with Crystal, I had a new friend and a good job to enjoy.
It was easy to listen to my workmates and gain experience from them, but sometimes I also learned the hard way. The first lesson learned like this was when we were trying to sort out a great tangle of steel turnings with pitchforks. My driver was using his fork slowly and sensibly, I was using mine as if the lunch whistle was about to blow. I ripped a ball of tangled turnings up into the air and a loop, still caught in the heap on the ground, shot up the handle of the pitchfork and slashed my fingers (we wore no protective gloves in those days). Blood poured all over the place and I learned to treat the turnings with more respect.
A week or so after that first lorry trip with Joe, I was out in another lorry. The name of the driver escapes me now, but I always thought of him as an Italian as he had an Italian look about him. I’d gained a lot of confidence by going out with the drivers and knew pretty well what was expected of me. As we arrived back outside of the Oxford Road gate, I had the door open ready to jump out and hold the traffic up while the lorry was backed in onto the weighbridge if it was not in use.
As we came level with the entrance, I saw that the weighbridge was empty and jumped down from the cab, slamming the door at the same time. I felt a sharp pain in my right index finger as I did this, but I didn’t have time to worry about it as I had to stop the traffic from creeping up too close to the rear of the lorry. It wasn’t until I was standing in front of the traffic and the lorry was reversing into the yard gate, that I noticed a small puddle of blood beside me on the road and glanced down a my finger. I was amazed to see that the nail had completely gone and that the top of my finger was a bloody mess. When the lorry had cleared the road and pavement, I walked over to the cab, opened the door and there was my finger nail and small lumps of flesh stuck in the door jamb. Soon my finger was bandaged up and I went back out to work with another lesson learned.
I say that I went back out to work and that’s how it was. We relied on the National Health for sickness benefits but, if we took time off from work through sickness or accidents, we’d have to fill in forms, get them to an office in the town, then wait for the payments to be posted to us (if I remember rightly). There was no such thing as ‘sick leave’ paid through the company each time we had a day off through illness (or anything else we might want a day off for). I, like most other workers, wanted all my money in my hand on pay-day. I hated messing about with forms and queuing up at offices. So, while I had two legs to stand on and two hands to work with, I preferred to work even if it was a bit painful at the time. Of course, there would be times when I’d want a bit of a holiday and I’d pack in the job, have a break, then find another job somewhere else. But, in the meantime, I was happy with the job I had at G. R. Jackson’s.
Alan had never had a girlfriend and I was astounded when he told me why. Apparently, when he was younger and beginning to take an interest in girls, his Father (the only time he ever made reference to any of his family) had explained to him that a single woman’s vagina had a sharp, left hand bend that hurt the male penis while trying to have sexual intercourse. According to his Father the bend only straightened out when the woman got married. This story caused me to go into raptures of laughter. Even I knew better than that. But, at the time of our first meeting, Alan still firmly believed that story and nothing would make him believe otherwise. He even asked me if I’d ‘done anything’ with Crystal, and when I answered that I hadn’t he seemed more convinced and chided me for having the cheek to laugh at what his Father had said. He explained to me that as he had no intentions of getting married what was the use of having a girl-friend.
But, as Alan and I had become instant friends, I was determined to help him lead as normal life as I did. It was hard for me to see Crystal as much as possible and also spend plenty of time with Alan. What I thought he needed was the least thing he wanted - a girlfriend. This would enable us to make up a foursome now and again which would ease the problem a bit. With this in mind, I made the suggestion to Alan. he was horrified but soon saw my logic. Already we’d become such good friends that he’d try anything so that he could go around with me a bit more. Most of my female friends had a boyfriend, so the situation called for drastic measures.
The cinema was a good place to try if one was looking for a girl-friend. Alan (shaking with fear) and I decided to give it a go a week or so after our first meeting. Off we went, down to the Gaumont cinema in the Oxford Road, and soon we were settled behind two blond girls in the half-empty stalls and the very dim light reflected from the screen. I leaned over, had a look at the girl who was sitting in front of me and she looked quite nice. Soon we were chatting quietly to each other. I had no intention of going out with her, but I had to play along in the hope that Alan would latch on to a girl.
Alan had lost his nerve by this time and I had to push him in my efforts to get him to start talking to the other girl. Frantic whispering and cajoling finally got him to agree to make a move and I went back to my conversation with the girl on my side. Suddenly, I stopped dead half-way through the conversation as I heard Alan tell the girl on his side that she had lovely hair. I remember thinking what a corny line that was.
In amazement, I looked across and saw that he was stroking the girl’s hair. The next second I had collapsed off my seat with uncontrolled laughter, for the woman turned around to Alan and said “Yes sonny, is there something you want?” and we could both see that she was a very old woman with GREY hair - and no teeth. We all had a good laugh about the incident after I’d apologised and explained the situation to the girl and the woman (who happened to be the girl’s grandmother). Luckily, they were both good sports, but the young girl wasn’t interested in Alan so that was that.
Then we went to a pub with Queenie and Fred. But Queenie tried to introduce Alan to so many girls, and made his problem so obvious, that he was overcome with confusion and embarrassment until, in the end, we beat a hasty retreat.
A few days later, after talking him into giving it another go, we were in the stalls of the Central cinema in Friar Street. This time we were more lucky and latched onto two young girls almost immediately. Like two well-behaved gentlemen, Alan and I sat beside the girls and watched the film. After the show was over we took a walk around the town and, by the time we’d escorted the girls home, they’d already agreed to see us again.
So, we met the girls a second time and Alan seemed to be getting on with his partner very well. But things were going too slow for me, I wanted Alan settled in with his girl so that I could get out of the situation before Crystal learned what was happening’. A week after our first meeting with the girls, we were back in the Central cinema with them again and I thought it was about time I gave Alan another little push. I couldn’t just tell him to hurry up and get on with it so I thought that I’d give ‘my’ girl a bit of a cuddle in the hope that he would do likewise with his girl. My logic at the time was that once he’d experienced a bit of romance he would soon become ‘normal’.
Wrapping my arms about the girl that I was with, I began to kiss her and she returned those kisses with an eagerness that I hadn’t expected. Half an hour later, I had very sore lips, but Alan still hadn’t made a move.
Then I heard the other girl whisper to Alan. She was (I later found out) asking him why he didn’t want to kiss her like I was kissing her mate. Alan was very embarrassed and completely fell to pieces. He knew that he had to make a move, but he wanted to do it in his own time - ‘Be the master of the situation’ as he called it. Now the girl was trying to push him (and not being as subtle as I was trying to be) and he’d become unsure and flustered. He said the only thing that he thought would end his acute embarrassment and make him master of the situation again. He told her that he didn’t want to kiss her and, if he ever did, he’d do it in his time, not her’s.
Now, what girl was going to stand for that? She must have had about ten pounds of make-up in her handbag and the next second Alan was staggering up out of his seat as she smashed the lot across his head. Stunned with more than shock, Alan retaliated by calling her a ‘Vicious Cow’, whereupon the deadly handbag lashed out and almost knocked him senseless again. By this time, the other patrons had turned their attention from the film to the far more interesting ‘live’ event that was happening right before their eyes. There were roars of laughter and shouts like “Give ‘im one, luv!” and “Get ‘er, mate!” But Alan didn’t stand a chance against the formidable girl and her weapon. She chased him up the aisle (much to the delight of all the women in the audience) and the pair of them were thrown out by the management.
Meanwhile, full of embarrassment ourselves, ‘my’ girl and I had stayed in an embrace, pretending that Alan and his girl were not with us (a hard thing to do when the four of us were the only people sitting on that side of the stalls). About five minutes after things had settled down and the laughter had stopped, we got up and left quietly together.
Alan was up the street a bit and his (ex-)girlfriend was waiting outside for us. ‘My’ girl turned and asked if we could still go out with each other as she’d become very fond of me (she said). I hadn’t wanted to get so involved with her and I felt rotten as I explained that Alan and I were a team that couldn’t be broken up. Wanting to get away from the situation, I turned and walked away, leaving the girl in tears as she asked why she should suffer for what had happened to our mates. With no more thoughts for her feelings, I shouted back that I’d catch up with her sometime. Then Alan and I walked up towards home, laughing like mad about the incident. That girl was just what the police needed in their ranks when they had someone like Alan to deal with.
I’d had enough for a while, and anyway, I wasn’t happy at the way I was using the girls to try and get Alan fixed up. He, in turn, was happy to give it a rest and I went back to sharing myself between him and Crystal.
While all this was going on in my life, Val and Derek had got married.
I was still riding my Dawe’s Dominate around in spare moments to keep fit and I also rode it to and from work. Maurie used to ride a bike to work as well. As I’ve previously stated, he was a very large man and I’d laughed heartily when I’d first seen his bicycle. It was the only bike I’d ever seen that was fitted with a large, old-type motorcycle saddle. This saddle was wider than the handle bars, but even then his buttocks hung over each side of it. But Maurie was fed up with all the pedalling he had to do just getting to work and back from his home, so he decided to buy a second-hand Raleigh ‘Moped’ that had been advertised in the paper.
Arriving at work on his new machine, Maurie told me that he was amazed at how easy the Moped had made the trip from his home. As he lived up near the Tilehurst Road and the journey had been mostly down hill, I wasn’t surprised. But the next day he came in and complained that the machine didn’t seem to go at all well on the way home the night before. He asked me if I’d take it out for a test run and see what I thought. As I’d had a bit of experience on motor cycles and mopeds by that time, I agreed to try and help him out.
That lunch-time I took off on Maurie’s Moped and, after pottering along the Oxford Road a bit, I turned up Cranbury Road towards Maurie’s home. The Moped roared up the hill with hardly any pedalling. Back at the yard, Maurie looked at me as if I was mad when I asked him if he’d helped the engine by using the pedals up the hills. He said that he thought the pedals were only for starting the motor. As tactfully as I could, I suggested that the little fifty cubic centimetre motor wasn’t really designed to pull a man of his weight up such steep hills without some help from the pedals. I told him that I was amazed that the machine had got him even half way up the hill without pedalling as I’d had to pedal a bit. But, he had expected just to sit back and let the motor do all the work. Nevertheless, he seemed a bit happier and I think it was a good thing that he still had to pedal a bit, at least he was getting some exercise other than at work.
The summer crept into autumn. Elvis Presley had ‘It’s Now Or Never’ in the charts, and ‘Blue Angel’, Roy Orbison’s second chart record, was up there with it. Sophia Loren and Peter Sellars had a song in the hit parade as well. It was called ‘Goodness Gracious Me’. A little dumpy friend of Crystal’s used to have us in fits of laughter when we’d sing this song, get to the chorus, that went ‘Oom Diddy Dum, Diddy Dum, Diddy Dum, etc.’ and her belly would wobble up and down like a jelly. But, I think that she did it on purpose just to make us laugh as Maurie’s belly didn’t go up and down when he sang the same song to himself and he was at least four or five times larger than Crystal’s friend. It’s funny some of the things that a person can recall from the past!
On the other hand, it’s sad how, as we go out of our childhood the memories of later birthdays and Christmas seem to disappear. My eighteenth birthday passed with no particular memories. How well I can recall my childhood birthdays and Christmas celebrations but, if you could ask me what I did on my last birthday or Christmas, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I feel that, as we grow up, these events become a bit of a bore in the hotchpotch adventures of our lives. It may not always be the case but that’s how it seems with my life.
Just after my eighteenth birthday, I had one of those stupid-type ‘accidents’ that need never occur. It was a typical example of what can happen when a person messes around with dangerous items of which he knows nothing. I was that person and I was jolly lucky not to have been killed or badly maimed in the incident.
One of the sorting sheds was reserved for brass shell- and bullet cases, presumably bought for scrap from local units of the army. Now and again some live ammunition would slip through and there was a device in this shed for firing the live bullets safely, although I never saw how it was done. On the day of the incident, I went into this shed with a chap named Mac and we decided to take a live bullet out into the clothing sheds and see if it would go off when we hit the percussion cap.
Like a couple of mischievous schoolboys, we hid in one corner of the clothing sheds and I stuck the bullet through a hole in the handle of a sack truck. This hole was where a bolt used to be, but the bolt was now missing and the hole was just the right size to hold the bullet. Using the pointed end of a sack hook as a firing-pin, I gave the sack hook a tap with a lump of iron. Nothing happened, so I tried again. Still nothing happened and Mac walked off saying that the bullet was a dud.
After Mac had gone, I took the bullet out of the hole and
examined it. The percussion cap had a couple of shallow dents in
it, made by the point of the sack hook. All would have been well
if I’d taken the bullet back to the shed but, for some
reason, I put it back into the hole for another go. Still the
bullet didn’t go off, and in pure disgust I hit the bullet
one last time. It was a real hard clout, as if to say ‘Take
that for not going off!’
But this time the bullet did go off.
There was a resounding bang, something knocked the sack hook out of my left hand, and for a few seconds I was stunned. My ears had been deafened by the sound in that enclosed corner of the shed. I looked down at my left hand to see that blood was pouring out of it onto the floor.
Then there was shouting and the sound of heavy boots pounding on the cobbled driveway from half a dozen directions. I heard Mac shout “In here” and I was suddenly surrounded by my workmates in that cramped space. Soon the boss was standing there demanding an explanation.
As someone wrapped a great bundle of rags around my injured hand, I could only tell the truth of how foolish I’d been. A bit of the bullet case was still in the hole in the sack truck and the tools I’d used were there on the ground. After I’d told the sad tale, the boss took me up to the Battle Hospital (Val’s birthplace) to have my hand attended to.
It was found that the bullet case had disintegrated and I had a piece of it in my left wrist, a large piece embedded in my hand where the thumb joins the palm, and three or four bits were stuck into my left index finger. The hospital staff went into action. After a jab with an anti-tetanus needle (that, to me, was worse than the initial injury!), they removed all the bits of casing from my hand, stitched up the wounds, and I walked out almost as good as new (although one side of my left thumb has been numb ever since).
But then, things could have been worse. It was worked out, from the chip in the wall where the bullet had hit before the ricochet caused it to fly off in some direction (never determined) that, if I’d stood only nine inches to my left as the bullet went off, I’d have shot myself for sure. Nevertheless, I had still been lucky for I realised that my left hand had been between the bullet and my face - I could have been blinded.
The next day, hand heavily bandaged, I was back at work where I received a stern lecture from the boss and much ribbing from my workmates. I knew that I shouldn’t have been messing around with that live ammunition, I’d seen what just a small firework could do to a hand or face. I accepted the lecture from my boss and agreed with him that I’d been very foolish. I’d earned the ribbing from my mates (“If you wanted a holiday, you only had to ask, etc.”) and felt very ashamed as they carried me for the next couple of weeks while my hand healed up and I could use it again. I was really annoyed with myself for not thinking ahead during the incident. I suppose I’d been a bit bored stuck in the yard that day instead of being out in one of the lorries. But I knew that I had no excuse for larking about like I did.
Christmas came and passed. ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ by The Drifters was up in the charts, along with ‘Man of Mystery’ by The Shadows. The new year of 1961 arrived and everyone seemed happy. Mum and John were going well, there were plenty of boarders to keep the house full, and Val and Derek were very content with each other.
Although I was fairly happy with my lot, there was still that feeling that I needed something to really live for. Something that I could reach out for, get within my grasp and say “This makes me feel wonderful.” At the time, although I hoped something would come of Crystal and I, there seemed little prospect of any future in that direction. We were both young and independent. It was good fun to go out with Alan, but it wasn’t all that fulfilling. Work was a lot better now that I could go out in the lorries, but that only made me realise that I still wanted to get behind the wheel and drive up the open roads. I needed to vary my life a bit to try and find what I was looking for and a chance came that January, that would give me a bit of variety. It would also involve another accident.
As well as the Aylesbury depot, G. R. Jackson’s had a branch at Aldershot. The Aldershot lorry often came into our yard with a full load of metal that had to be sorted. I’d helped to unload this lorry a couple of times and got to know the driver a bit. Jeb (not his real name) was another of those very friendly men and I’d taken to him straight away. He, in turn, thought I was ‘a good young lad’.
Towards the end of January, he arrived with a load on one of the days when I happened to be in the yard instead of out in a lorry. He had to unload his sacks of metal then put on a full load of sorted metal to be delivered at the foundry before he headed home. In the passenger-seat beside him was a young blonde woman. I couldn’t see her all that well as the light was reflecting off the windscreen of the lorry, but I assumed that it was Jeb’s wife. I recall thinking to myself that she looked ‘a bit of alright’, what I could see of her.
We unloaded the lorry with Jeb dropping the sacks of unsorted metal down onto our backs. When it was time to load the lorry with the bags of sorted metal, I jumped up onto the back of the lorry to give Jeb a hand to stack the load. I had a bit of experience under my belt at that time and, if I was up on a lorry, I was happy. With the sacks all loaded, my workmates went off for lunch and I stayed back to help Jeb rope and sheet the load.
With myself on the roof of the cab (the young blonde woman was still sitting in the passenger seat) and Jeb at the back, we unrolled the sheet and spread it over the load. The sheet was too far back along the load to enable me to cover it up right down to the headboard, so I pulled on one of tarpaulin front tie-down ropes with the intention of tugging the sheet towards the front a bit more. With all my weight on it, the tie-down rope broke and I fell backwards.
If the lorry had been flat-fronted, I might not have been here to relate this story. But it was the long-nosed type and that probably saved, if not my life, then at least a leg or back injury. As I reeled back and fell, I jumped my feet hard on the long bonnet. Still falling backwards and well out of balance, I hopped along the bonnet, over the radiator, and out into space above the cobbled drive. As I hit the driveway, I was forced over backwards by the momentum. I tried to turn, got half way and crashed my shoulder into the hard, square cobbled stones. There was an explosion of light in my head as I smashed into the gutter beside the driveway.
Then I was sitting up feeling rather dazed - and looking straight into the eyes of the blonde young lady from Jeb’s cab. Her face showed concern for my safety, but all I could think of was that she seemed too young to be Jeb’s wife. She looked younger than I was and my heart missed a few beats.
Meanwhile, Jeb had come from around the back of the lorry and had found me sitting in the gutter. He took me down to the office for treatment and, by the time I’d been set free again, Jeb and his lovely passenger were gone.
When my workmates returned to the yard after lunch, I related the story of this latest accident of mine and told them how Jeb’s wife had looked so worried as I sat dazed in the gutter. Hoots of laughter followed this latest statement and Alby explained that the young lady was Jeb’s daughter, not his wife. For some reason I was secretly pleased about that bit of news. They told me her name was Elaine (not her real name) and I wondered if Jeb would bring her out in his lorry again.
A few days later Jeb was in the yard when I arrived back from a trip out in one of the lorries. He didn’t have his daughter with him, but he did have a message from her. She had liked the look of me and had wondered if I’d consider meeting her under better circumstances than our last, unintroduced meeting. Jeb told me that he’d be very happy for me to visit Elaine and, with no more ado, he invited me to his home, near Aldershot, that very weekend. I accepted his invitation without a second thought.
But, as the week progressed towards the Friday night, I began to realise the full implications of my rash decision. It was one thing to meet a girl in the cinema as an excuse to get Alan a girlfriend, but a different kettle of fish when I was meeting a girl with the intentions of going out with her properly. I was truly flattered to think that a Father would actually feel that I was the right kind of lad for his daughter. Both of Crystal’s older sisters had successful men and, although nothing was ever said, I did feel a bit of a failure when we were all together. And now here was a parent accepting me for what I was, not for what I could be
I wondered if this was what I needed, that something more that I was looking for. In the end, I decided to take a chance, finish my relationship with Crystal once more and see what the future brought with this new meeting. I was well aware that it might not come to anything, but I couldn’t go on a serious date while I was still going out with Crystal. Before the Friday night, Crystal and I had stopped seeing each other and I was free to pursue a brand new love life with Elaine.
‘Poetry In Motion’ (was it sung by Bobby Rydell?), and Elvis Presley with ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ were up in the charts at that time. I caught a train from the Southern Railway Station (that used to be beside the Reading General Station) on the Friday evening and got out at a small village near Aldershot. Jeb and Elaine were there to meet me and we walked a mile or so to their house. In the relaxed atmosphere of Jeb’s home I met his wife and their son. As the evening progressed, I soon settled in with this family as if I’d known them for years. I was very conscious of the fact that Elaine seemed to be watching my every move. But, I’d decided to be myself as always and let things take their course.
We all talked and laughed into the night, but finally someone gave a yawn and suggested that it was time to go to bed. I was to sleep in the son’s room where a spare bed had been set up for me. After saying goodnight to the rest of the family, the son and I settled down in our beds and chatted on into the early hours. During our conversation he mentioned that there was a large, black box under my bed, that was full of money. I laughed at his bragging and thought that it was a good job that I wasn’t a crook or I’d be fumbling under the bed in anticipation. The next morning, he showed me the locked box, but I still didn’t believe him. After getting to know Jeb a lot better and, in the light of what was to come, there might have been some truth in his claim. The box was there in full view but I never even thought of shaking it to see if any money was inside.
After lunch on the Saturday, Elaine and I took off on our own for the first time. There was a canal going right through the area near her home and we spent the afternoon walking along its bank. Elaine turned out to be a lovely girl, innocent and honest, with a ready laugh. The kind of girl that would devote her life to one man provided she was looked after and kept happy by him. The only thing, about her, that I wasn’t used to, was the fact that she smoked cigarettes. She was the first girl I’d been out with that smoked and I was very surprised when Jeb gave me a full packet of cigarettes so that I could give her one now and again. Apart from a bit of dabbling when I was younger, I’d never touched cigarettes. But I didn’t interfere with anyone who wanted to smoke, it was an accepted part of life in those days. By the time we’d arrived back at the house, I’d smoked two or three of the cigarettes myself. Elaine had taught me how to get proper satisfaction from the cigarettes by inhaling the smoke into my lungs. I quite enjoyed the grown-up feeling of having a cigarette in my hand and it wasn’t long before I was having one each time that Elaine had one.
The weekend flashed by as I wallowed in the warm friendship of that family. Elaine and I hadn’t wasted any time, she seemed to think a lot of me and we’d kissed that first Saturday afternoon beside the canal.
For the rest of the weekend we sat close together and the others seemed very happy with our progress so far. As the time approached for my departure on the Sunday evening, I began to feel a bit guilty about Elaine and I smoking the packet of cigarettes that Jeb had given to me. In the end I bought another packet as a replacement. But, Jeb didn’t want them. He told me to hang on to them until the next weekend (I’d been invited to their home again on the following weekend). With that I said goodbye to the family and got on the train for the ride back to Reading.
But once I was on my own in the compartment of that train I took out the packet of cigarettes, thinking that I’d try one while I was alone. I don’t know how much different I expected it to be, but I know that I felt very guilty in a daring sort of way. Before the train reached Reading station I’d smoked a second cigarette, and I smoked a third on the trolley bus as I rode up the Oxford Road.
Mum was pleased that I’d had a wonderful weekend, but she wasn’t very pleased about the smoking. I told her not to worry as I’d only experimented with the cigarettes. I wish it had ended there!
That same week, Alan and I were lucky not to have been smashed to pulp by a gang of lads in the Gaumont cinema.
I was still on that first packet of cigarettes and thought I’d experiment (show off?) in the cinema. As soon as the pair of us got settled in our seats, I pulled out my by then almost empty packet of cigarettes, gave one to Alan and lit one for myself. We sat back in a cloud of smoke to watch the film. In front of us were half a dozen lads, of about our own age, who were making a bit of a noise. Alan asked these lads if they’d mind being a bit quieter, but they ignored him. I wasn’t really worried about their chatting as the film was a bit boring anyway, but Alan wasn’t happy about the noise at all..
As he finished his cigarette, he told me to be prepared as he was going to let these lads know that ‘quiet meant quiet’ and that he wouldn’t be ignored. Before I could say or do anything, I was astounded to see him reach over and stub his cigarette out on the top of the biggest lad’s head, twisting the hot butt as he would when putting a cigarette out in an ashtray. It must have been extremely painful. The lad shot up out of his seat, screamed in agony, turned around and poured a torrent of foul language at Alan and I. Ready for the worst, I coiled up to spring into immediate action. But Alan just sat there as calm as you please and quietly told the lads that they must expect trouble if they wanted to spoil the film for others. They must have thought that we were a couple of real toughs for they quickly settled down and luckily we had no more trouble with them.
But I was furious with Alan for doing such a thing. To me, it amounted to nothing more than bullying even if there were more of them than us, not to mention the thrashing we could have got through him thinking he was so tough. He wasn’t tough, he only looked and acted the part. I’m sure that, if those lads had taken us on, we’d have been mincemeat and I’d have been tarred with the same brush as Alan But, we got away with it and were fortunate.
By the time the next weekend had come round, I’d smoked the full packet of cigarettes (shared with Alan) and almost finished another packet. Then I had to buy a new packet before I went over to Jeb’s home for that weekend. I was well on the way to being hooked, but still thought that I could stop anytime and I settled down into this new romance and very quickly became addicted to nicotine.
Meanwhile, Val had given birth to a baby daughter on 31st January 1961. They named the baby Lynette Ann. Little did we know that Lynette would have a courageous spirit, train to be a nurse, travel the world, and take up such sports as rock climbing and sky diving.
Alan and I would spend all the weekday evenings together, except for when I went for a ride on my bike, then he’d stooge around all the weekend, as miserable as sin until I arrived back home from Elaine’s home. ‘Rubber Ball’ by Bobby Vee was up in the charts, along with Petula Clark’s ‘Sailor’. The weather started to fine up towards spring and I never seemed to have a moment to myself. Then, once again I was nearly killed at work. But this time I was almost murdered.
Old Clarrie, the black chap who worked in the clothes sorting shed was, like all the other lads at G. R. Jackson’s, a jolly good work-mate to me. I was the target for many of his little pranks and I came to admire him as a good friend. He was just going grey around the temples so I suppose he would have been in his late forties. The colour of his skin didn’t bother me, he treated me well and earned my respect. But, it was about this time that something happened that caused Old Clarrie to go berserk and, for some reason, his fury was aimed at me. I don’t know what caused the trouble and never will now.
But he was upset, very upset. I remember seeing his eyes, pure circles of penetrating fury, his teeth were bared and his face was twisted with rage. He was shouting at me and I recall hastily asking what was wrong, but he didn’t answer. Instead, he reached for a long-handled pitch fork (used for loading lathe turning) and took a stab at me. Feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole affair and wondering if Old Clarrie was playing another of his jokes on me, I laughed a bit half-heartedly and dodged to one side. The fork jabbed at me again and it began to dawn on me that I’d never seen him like this before. I snatched a quick glance at Alby and Maurie and they were not grinning like they usually did when I was being ribbed. They were telling Old Clarrie to be careful and calm down. But Old Clarrie wasn’t listening.
I sensed that something was very wrong and quickly backed out of the shed with Old Clarrie and the pitch fork following me. Then suddenly Maurie shouted at me to run for it. Not being a hero and feeling that there was more to this than meets the eye, I turned and hurtled down the yard towards the Oxford Road gate.
With a bellow of rage, Old Clarrie raced after me. I could hear his laboured breath and the pounding of his boots just behind. But I was young and fit, fear also lent me wings and I began to gain ground. I’d almost reached the gate when I heard a strained grunt from behind. Something shot from over my shoulder and thudded into the gatepost as I grabbed the post with my right hand to help swing my body around the corner (my momentum would have carried me out into the road otherwise). My eyes flicked for a split second to the right and there was the pitch fork, stuck quivering in the gatepost just above my hand and no more than a foot from my head. Then I was around the corner and racing up the pavement. By the time I’d realised that Old Clarrie wasn’t following me and I’d stopped, my body was shaking with the shock of the incident.
Feeling very scared and not quite knowing what I should do, I crossed the road and walked back down the other pavement, watching the yard gate and ready to run for it again. I felt a bit safer with the traffic between myself and that yard. As I came level with the gate, I saw Alby and Fred trying to get the pitch fork out of the gatepost. Alby saw me and called me over. I kept my eye on the yard as I dodged the traffic, but Old Clarrie was nowhere to be seen.
I never did know what was wrong with Old Clarrie that day. My questions were answered with words like “Don’t worry about it”, “Forget it”, or ‘It’ll be alright”. And it was alright. I met Old Clarrie that same afternoon (by accident) and it was just as if nothing had happened. He laughed his usual greeting, said he was glad it was nearly home time and passed on by with me facing him all the time ready to defend myself.
I hadn’t forgotten so easily his twisted face, the way he’d thrown the pitch fork (like a spear) at me, and how it had taken Alby, Fred, and myself to pull it back out of the gatepost. The incident was never referred to again. Old Clarrie laughed and joked about with me without any more nasty moments until I left the job. But, I never forgot what happened and kept very alert when I was in his company.
While all this was going on, I still hadn’t given up on that car licence. It was easy to keep getting the provisional licenses that enabled me to hop on my friend’s motor cycles (providing I carried no unlicensed passenger and displayed the ‘L’ plates), but it wasn’t helping me to get the car licence. Finally, in the middle of February, I took the plunge and went along to the ‘Abbey’ school of motoring. This company were advertising that customers could have the first lesson for free and any subsequent lessons would cost one pound an hour. My instructor was a very nice, patient man and, after my first lesson he told me that he’d soon get me through the test. I’d heard those words before and I remember thinking to myself ‘Here we go again’. But, having made the decision to get that licence by hook or by crook, I was determined to persevere this time.
February passed into March and spring was just around the corner. The charts were full of such songs as ‘Ebony Eyes’ by the Everly Brothers, ‘Calendar Girl’ by Neil Sedaka, ‘F. B. I.’ by The Shadows, and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ by The Shirelles. I’d been going over to Elaine’s home quite regularly and she had spent a weekend at our house so that my family could meet her. The two of us were getting on very well until something happened that changed everything in that direction.
It was towards the end of March and I was at Elaine’s home. I don’t know where Elaine and her brother were, but I was in the front room with Jeb and his wife and the subject got around to Elaine and myself. I was discreetly (as I realised later) grilled as to my feelings for Elaine and any future intentions I might have regarding the two of us. All the time I’d been seeing Elaine I’d been gently encouraged by the family’s friendliness and trust. As with Crystal, I hadn’t betrayed that trust and had been content to let things take their course as far as Elaine and I were concerned. Mum had taught Val and I to be very good-mannered when visiting people’s homes and I was always on my best behaviour at such times, including my visits to Jeb’s house. I treated the family with respect and was treated extremely well in return. I felt like one of the family after only a couple of weekends. But, I think that Jeb and his wife had decided that the pair of us needed a nudge. I feel that they’d talked, reached a decision, and the ‘grilling session’ was leading up to it.
It seems that Elaine’s parents were satisfied with my answers for Jeb suddenly said to me that, if I wanted to marry Elaine, he and his wife would arrange everything and, as a wedding present, would give us ten thousand pounds towards a start in our life together. I was so dumbstruck that I couldn’t speak. Indeed, I didn’t know what to say and instantly felt trapped in that room. I suppose my hesitation made them think that I was turning the idea over in my mind and Jeb went on to tell me that I could buy a house with that sort of money, or put a deposit on one and buy a car for when I passed my test. They both agreed that I’d proved myself to be a very nice boy and that Elaine would have to go a long way to find another like me that she would think so much of.
But, the alarm bells were ringing inside my head. The pleasant, easy-going situation between Elaine and myself was being taken out of our hands and I suddenly felt as if I was being pushed. I didn’t like that feeling. I hadn’t even thought of marriage, we’d barely known each other for little more than nine or ten weeks. Then I suddenly became suspicious and began to wonder if there was something about Elaine that I didn’t know about.
As previously stated, I’d behaved myself with Elaine. I didn’t know much about pregnancy signs, it wasn’t a situation I’d had to worry about. But, it occurred to me that she might already be pregnant to somebody else who had gone off and I wouldn’t know any different if I married her. It felt as if they were in a rush to get her married off quickly. Of course, I should have voiced my thoughts and been honest in that respect. But, I didn’t, I took the easy way out, said I’d think about it and went home.
I had no cause to think such things of Elaine, or that her family would try such a trick on anyone. There had been no ‘smutty’ talk at all while I’d been visiting. Elaine had been as clean as a new pin and she had always turned or moved discreetly away if I got too close to her in a passionate embrace. I am only human and like a nice close cuddle, but I was used to Crystal backing away a bit and it was just a matter of course that Elaine did the same. Things were too chancy in those days, there was no pill, and we were too embarrassed to go to a chemist for condoms. Most of us at that time hadn’t even had a taste of anything further than a cuddle so, although the feelings were there, we behaved ourselves. The price of getting into trouble (or getting your girlfriend into trouble) was too high.
As can be expected, my suspicions were unfounded, but in my mind the damage had been done. I’d felt as if I’d lost the upper hand and my future was being planned for me. I wasn’t ready for marriage at that time. I also knew that I hadn’t found that certain ‘something’ that I was looking for, the change in my love life hadn’t really satisfied me. Through the week, Jeb came into our yard to unload his lorry and I took him to one side where I explained that I’d made a mistake as far as Elaine and I were concerned and that I would not be seeing her anymore. I told him that I thought a lot of her, but not enough to think of marriage at that time. I can’t recall his reaction but that was the end of that romance.
A few days later I bumped into Debbie, Crystal’s friend, and she told me that Crystal was still waiting for me. It wasn’t long before Crystal and I were together again..
Meanwhile, I was still taking the driving lessons. By that time my instructor was just sitting in his seat and giving me directions and tips while I enjoyed myself driving around the town. We’d already put in for my test and he was just keeping me polished up. The first weekend that I didn’t go over Elaine’s gave some of the Irish boarders a chance to give me a lesson in ‘real driving’, as one of them called it. We borrowed Mum’s Ford Consul, the ‘L’ plates were thrown into the garden, Alan and half a dozen lads squeezed in and we set off for a ride out into the country. I was left to enjoy my driving while the lads passed bottles of beer around and settled down for, what they described as, their ‘mystery tour’.
I was thrilled to be left alone to do the driving while the men sang Irish folk songs and passed the bottles around. I drove through Reading and out onto the London Road. At Knowl Hill we turned left and reached Marlow where the, by then, tipsy Irish lads waved and whistled at the young ladies walking along the street. Turning back towards Reading, we reached Henley where my new-found skill as a driver was tested while the almost drunken lads around me were given a bit of fun.
As we went around the one-way system towards the bridge over the River Thames where I’d turn left over the river, we noticed a policeman directing the traffic at the cross-roads on the Henley side of that bridge. There was a short, sharp slope going up to these cross-roads. I’d kept a decent gap between our car and the car in front and, as I approached that short hill, the policeman used the gap to stop the traffic going our way and got the traffic going from the main Henley street across our path. As the policeman put up his hand for me to stop, I remembered what I’d been taught, moved over to the left, stopped, applied the hand-brake, and put the car into neutral.
But Alan and the lads didn’t think that I’d get away with a decent hill start in front of the policeman. They thought that I’d bungle it and roll back, or go bumping around the corner onto the bridge, or even stall the car in front of the policeman. The lad who threw my ‘L’ plates into the garden, and was sitting beside me as my instructor, was now wishing that he’d left the ‘L’ plates where they were. There were no offers to change places with him. Instead, being gambling men, they started betting with each other whether I’d bungle the hill start or not.
I was feeling a bit worried. I knew that I had no ‘L’ plates, I knew that the lads had been drinking, and it was hard to concentrate on what I had to do with all the leg-pulling and betting that was going on. Of course, I hadn’t touched any of the beer, I hadn’t bothered with alcohol since my sixteenth birthday. But, I was rather worried about the packed car, the missing ‘L’ plates, and the fact that my ‘instructor’ was a bit worse for the drink. Then the policeman was pointing in my direction and waving me on.
Trying hard not to listen to all the advice that was being urgently whispered at me, I was lucky enough to do a perfect hill start. There was a great cheer from those lads as I turned onto the bridge and the policeman receded into the distance, still directing the traffic and not taking any notice of us. After that bit of a fright, I resolved to do things by the book in future. But, the Irish lads had thought it had been a great laugh (now that we’d got way with it) and the toasts to my driving were plentiful. I finally arrived home with ringing ears and a car full of drink-sodden lads singing at the top of their voices. It certainly had been fun but I wouldn’t do it again.
The month of April that year was a memorable month for me. ‘Baby Sitting Boogie’ by Buzz Clifford was in the charts, along with ‘And the Heavens Cried’ by Anthony Newley and Helen Shapiro’s ‘Don’t Treat Me Like A Child’. Yuri Gagarin was the first man to go up into space when he hurtled around the world in his spaceship, Vostok 1, on the twelfth day of that month. It was also the month that I took the test to try and get my car licence.
I can’t recall the exact date in April that I went for the test. But, it was a cool morning and, like thousands of others before me, I was very nervous. I’d almost learned the Highway Code book by heart and, even to this day I can recall the sequence of the traffic lights (red, red and amber, green, amber, red). My test examiner was, so I was told by my instructor, an ex-policeman from Henley who used to teach the police how to drive safely at high speeds. Apparently, he was a stickler for having things done right. But my instructor was very confident that I’d pass with no problems.
If my instructor was confident, then he had more faith in my ability to pass the test than I did. Quaking with fear, I followed the examiner out to the car after being introduced to him. The examiner’s office was in London Street and the car was parked in Mill Lane, opposite the local bus depot. I remember thinking how lucky those bus drivers were, they’d already been through the ordeal that I was about to endure. After asking me a few questions on the Highway Code, we set off. Although he looked very stern, I remember the examiner as quite a pleasant chap who reminded me of my Granddad. He chatted away to me as I drove around the town and I began to feel a lot more at ease. But that relaxed feeling was lost in one fell swoop as I made a mistake and saw my licence go out of the window.
I’d been instructed to drive down Broad Street and on along King’s Road. The Duke Street traffic lights were green so I drove straight through from Broad Street into King’s Road. The road is slightly down hill and, almost immediately past the lights, I had to pass a cyclist. Making all the correct signals and moves, I pulled out to pass the cyclist only to realise that there wouldn’t be enough room to pass between the cyclist and an on-coming trolley bus. My feet went to the brake and clutch pedals and I almost did an emergency stop. I pulled back in behind the cyclist, changed down a gear and waited until the road was clear before I finally was able to pass in safety. The examiner told me to drive back to his office and, with sinking heart, I knew that I’d failed the test.
The instructor was waiting and, while the examiner went through some paperwork, I told him how I’d messed things up. He told me not to worry too much as I’d done the right thing. Well, it was all right for him to stand there and tell me not to worry, he had his licence. Then the examiner called me into his office.
He told me that I was a fairly competent driver, I’d made a mistake but had taken the right action to keep out of trouble. He then went on to say that he was going to give me my licence, but I was a 'young yobbo' and I’d lose it within three months.
Although my happiness knew no bounds as I took the bit of paper that said I’d passed my test, I was nevertheless, chastened by his words and I’ve never forgotten them. I don’t know if he said them for that reason, but I was determined to prove him wrong regarding the three months deadline and I’m sure it made me a better driver (thirty five years have passed and I still haven't lost my license yet in spite of driving millions of miles in cars, buses, trucks and on motorcycles).
Full of joy, I thanked him and, as we shook hands, he told me to always drive carefully. The instructor was very pleased for me and I thanked him for his efforts and encouragement over the six lessons I’d had with the Abbey School of Motoring.
That same day I bought a Ford ‘Ten’ (‘Sit up and beg cars’ we called them) for ten pounds. The Ministry of Transport (M. 0. T.) test for old cars had just been made compulsory and this car wasn’t tested. But, on the following Saturday morning, I drove the Ford out for the first time and got it through the test with no problems. I remember that it was a fairly foggy morning and I had to keep wiping the windscreen so that I could see out. But, with my new licence and the, now tested, car, the world was my oyster, so to speak.
Meanwhile, John had taken on a car-cleaning job in his spare time and Mum and I had often helped him to clean cars when he’d been a bit pushed. About a week after passing my test, while I was home from work one lunch hour, John asked me if I’d like to pick up a car, clean it, and have the money for doing the job. That same morning, I’d seen an advertisement in the local paper where a small company were looking for a driver. John suggested that I could apply for the job while I was collecting the car to be washed.
The car to be cleaned was a Rover belonging to the boss of a local company. We called the Rover ‘A poor man’s Rolls Royce’. I collected the car and drove straight around to the firm that had advertised for a driver, to apply for the job. After taking all my particulars, the manager took me for a test run in the firm’s van. By the time we’d arrived back at the shop, I’d been told that the job was mine and I could start on the following Monday.
The interview and test had taken quite a while and there was less than an hour to get back home, clean the Rover, and deliver it back to the owner. I went mad but the cleaning job was a disaster. The owner wasn’t very happy about it at all, but I could only apologise and leave it at that.
With the new job under my belt, I gave my notice in to Jackson’s and finished at the end or the week. I’d miss all my workmates there, but they were happy to see me with a driving job at last. I would have liked to have stayed there and become one of their lorry drivers (and it was suggested by the boss) but, all their lorries were five tonners and my licence only permitted me to drive three tonners until I was twenty-one years of age. I was too impatient to wait two and a half years before getting out on the road. Little did any of us know that I was destined to work with them all again as a driver.
The Ford Ten didn’t last very long. That very weekend, with a bit of extra money in my pocket, I decided to get away for a couple of days and Alan agreed to come with me. We had planned to go up to London on the Saturday and spend the day and evening there. After that we’d scoot over to Amersham, sleep in the car for the night, then spend the Sunday with Alf and Mick before heading home in the early evening so that I’d have a good night’s sleep ready to start the new job on the Monday.
In great excitement we loaded up the car with blankets, spare clothes, and a bit of food and drink. We filled the tank with petrol (three shillings and ten pence (3/10) a gallon at that time if I remember right), then we were off, passing the early Saturday morning shoppers as we went through Reading and out on to the London Road. Apart from a few rides around the town, this was the first serious ride that we’d done in the Ford. As we gathered speed and headed up Shepherd’s House Hill, I could see, through the rear vision mirror, that the air was blue behind us. There was the thick smell of burning oil inside the car, but we carried on without giving it much thought. The piston rings must have been worn to nothing in that engine.
The Floral Mile, Knowl Hill, and Littlewick Green were passed and we reached Maidenhead Thicket where, at that time, the first section of the M4 Motorway had just been completed. This section began at the Thicket, by-passed Maidenhead, and rejoined the A4 (London/Bath Road) again just west of Slough, at the start of the Slough Trading Estate. The M4 only had two carriageways in each direction in those days. (A section of this first part of the motorway would be re-built and changed into three carriageways each way in later years). Although I’d been along the new motorway a couple of weeks earlier, as a striker in one of Jackson’s lorries, this would be the first time that I’d actually drive along it. Learners and cyclists were not allowed on motorways in those days.
As Alan and I went around the roundabout at the Thicket, to get on to the motorway, we noticed two female hitch-hikers thumbing a lift on the hard shoulder. With no second thought, I pulled over to help them out. They were very grateful and climbed into the back seat where they were almost hidden by their large rucksacks that they were forced to put on their laps due to our gear already in the back. But they were happy and we set off along the motorway, trailing the thick cloud of blue smoke.
The girls told us how they had hitch-hiked up from the West Country, starting the day before and spending the night sleeping in a tent at the Thicket. They were going up to London to stay with friends if I recall right. They were happy girls and Alan and I were enjoying their company until, about half way along that section of the motorway, there started up a sharp knocking sound from under the bonnet of the car. I pulled over onto the hard shoulder and we lifted the bonnet to investigate. The knocking sound was coming from the engine, but I didn’t know what was causing the noise. I decided to carry on to the end of the motorway and get the engine checked at a garage and I suggested to the girls that they should try and get another lift as we might be a while.
Dropping the two hitch-hikers off once we were back on the A 4, Alan and I drove back into Maidenhead and stopped at a garage where we were told that the big ends had gone in the engine. The mechanic went on to explain that it was a serious problem caused by lack of engine oil and that the engine could seize up. He suggested that we could fill the sump up again and drive back home very slowly. Sadly, Alan and I agreed to head back home. The oil that I’d topped up with that morning had all been burned up along with every scrap of oil that had already been in the sump. We refilled the sump and slowly headed back home.
That was the end of my first car, I couldn’t afford to get it fixed and I didn’t know enough about engines in those days to do the job myself. Once more I was back to relying on my faithful bike.
But, the two female hitch-hikers had given me the idea of another form of transport - hitch-hiking. I asked Alan what he thought about the idea and he said that he’d be game to try it. We decided to give it a go the next day and see how we got on.
That Sunday morning, we caught an early trolley bus across town to the Cemetery Junction. We were both dressed in neatly ironed clothes and soon we had positioned ourselves at the start of the London Road just past the Junction. A few cars went by then one stopped. The driver told us that he was only going as far as Maidenhead and we asked to be put down at the beginning of the motorway. After a very pleasant ride, chatting to the driver all the way, we were standing at the spot where we’d picked the two girls up the day before.
Within minutes a van had stopped and the driver said he was going to London. Excitedly, Alan and I climbed in and an hour later we were up in the middle of that city. I still had money on me and had thought to myself that, if we couldn’t get a lift back home then, at least we could find our way back by train. Meanwhile, we’d enjoy a few hours up in ‘The Big Smoke’ and it helped to make up for the disappointment of the failed weekend trip in my car.
The River Thames was always a big attraction whenever we were up in London, and I recall that, on that day Alan and I bought a big ‘Winston Churchill’ cigar each (the first cigar I had ever smoked) and coughed ourselves almost hoarse as we wandered along the embankment looking at all the sights. Later, we walked up to Trafalgar Square, and then on to Piccadilly. It was there that I remembered how I’d followed the road towards home when I’d gone up on my first little motor cycle. The time was getting on so, after a quick scout around that famous spot, Alan and I decided to try and hitch-hike along that road. If we had no joy with a lift I knew that we’d just have to go to the nearest underground station and ride to Paddington Station where we’d get a train down to Reading easily.
With our thumbs waving out in front of the traffic, we plodded along the road, occasionally having to pass along the outside of parked cars. We were hooted at a few times for getting in the way of passing traffic while doing this, but it all added to the fun as far as we were concerned. Although it was Sunday, the road was still fairly busy and the drivers were rushing as mad as they would if it had had been a weekday.
Suddenly, as we reached a set of traffic lights, a car pulled up at those lights, tooted at us and the driver waved us urgently to get in before the lights changed to green. We dashed out into the road, opened the car doors and dived in just as the lights changed. Within seconds we were being swept along with the traffic and the driver was telling us that he was heading for a place called Pangbourne, just the other side of Reading, and asking if it would help us any. I told him that we lived on the Pangbourne road (Oxford Road) out of Reading and he agreed to drop us off outside our house. The miles unwound as we chatted to the friendly driver, then we were through Reading and saying our thanks and goodbye’s to him.
It had been as easy as that. A great day up in London, with good travelling companions, the apprehension of whether we’d get a lift or not, the thrill and laughter when someone did stop, the good-natured chatting as we were whisked along to the next point in our journey, and that humble feeling when car drivers went out of their way to help us.
To me, it was a wonderful form of travel. But, that first trip up to London had only really been for something different to do as a new experience. It had been easy and we’d both agreed that there was nothing to the hitch-hiking business. Later, we would learn different. With that good day under my belt, I saw Crystal for a couple of hours then went to bed early for a fresh start to my new job.
Peter Wildash & Son were paint and wallpaper distributors. Their Reading shop was in Castle Street and they had shops in Wallingford and Staines. Just like I’d had to learn all about electrical goods at A. S. Duran’s so I had to learn all about painting and decorating goods at this new job. It wasn’t long before I was familiar with the different paints, wallpapers, varnishes, brushes, paint-strippers, and all the other items used for that trade.
The learning began on that first Monday morning as I joined the company. My job was to assist in getting the orders to be delivered together, and sorting those deliveries out into a run so that I didn’t have to back-track all over the countryside. I used a map to start with as I wasn’t familiar with the round. Once the orders were made up and sorted I could load up and head off.
The van was a Standard ‘Atlas’ one tonner and it was fairly new. The deliveries were all within a thirty mile radius of Reading, mostly in the Oxford area direction. It was normally mid-morning before all the deliveries were made up and sorted, so a nippy van was needed to get them all done and be back at the shop before closing time. Once a week I’d take a full load over to the shop in Staines and the weighed-down van would struggle hard to get up the hills.
For some reason, although I can recall the real names of most of the people I’ve worked with, I can’t recall any of my fellow worker’s names at Peter Wildash (although I do remember that the Rep's name was also Peter and that he lived in the Wallingford area). But they were as helpful and as encouraging as the folk at Duran’s, and I remember that the manager used to thank me for my days work every evening before I went home. I wish I could recall his name just for that.
It wasn’t long before I was one of the crew and the customers knew me. I, in turn, got to know the delivery round and our customers. Soon the names of towns and villages like Abingdon, Appleford, Didcot, Kingston Bagpuise, Wantage, and others were as familiar to me as the towns that I passed through on the way to Chenies. Although I wasn’t in a lorry, it was great to set off with the loaded van and feel the satisfaction of doing a responsible job with nobody standing over me. I thoroughly enjoyed that responsibility and the freedom once I was away from the shop. My wages, when I joined the company, was nine pounds a week. Not a bad wage for five days a week at that time.
The amount of driving I was doing at work kept me happy and, as I could still ride my bike around I didn’t worry about buying another car immediately. Crystal and I saw each other as much as possible and I still found time to go out with Alan. I tried, at least once a week, to go on a bike ride just for the sake of keeping fairly fit, and also for the quiet solitude of being out in the countryside on my own with no noise. Alan and I went on another hitch-hiking trip where we hitched rides to Amersham and back quite easily in one day.
The summer burst upon us in all its glory. ‘What’d I Say’ by Jerry Lee Lewis was up in the charts, along with ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon, Eddie Cochran’s ‘Weekend’, ‘Running Scared’ by Roy Orbison, and Billy Fury’s ‘Halfway to Paradise’. There was also a song called ‘Marcheta’ by Carl Denver. It was quite a catchy song and one of Mum’s Irish boarders could sing it so well that we all preferred his version to Carl’s.
It was somewhere about this time that I received a 45 rpm. record through the post. There was no identity as to the person that had sent it, just the words ‘This side’ on a small tag taped to one of the labels. This song was called ‘Apollo’ by Connie Stevens. To get the gist of the message being conveyed through that song, I’ll quote a few lines as follows; ‘Apollo was a gorgeous thing, He was like a work of art, Baby, you’re no work of art, But darling in my heart, You’re my Apollo, My sweet Apollo, Oh! I love you so.’ Crystal swore that she hadn’t sent it so, like the poems, the identity of the sender has remained a mystery, although I suspected that someone was playing a practical joke on me.
Another form of amusement was discovered one evening about this time when ‘Paddy’, one of Mum’s boarders, asked Alan and I if we’d like to go and visit his parent’s home in London. He told us that he knew the city well and we sensed that there would be new sights to see. On the Friday night, straight after work, the three of us caught the train up to Paddington and were soon on the Underground heading up into north London.
But Paddy didn’t know the Underground as well as he had made out and we went in the wrong direction. With no more ado, we hopped on another tube train until, following the little maps of the Underground system that were on the wall of each carriage, we managed to get ourselves back on track again. This incident gave us the idea of ‘riding the Underground’ where we’d pay for a short journey, ride around the system for an hour or two then make our way to the original destination as if we’d just done the legal journey that was on our tickets.
But, on that first trip, Paddy had us lost for most of the night as, when we finally reached the station of our destination and went looking for his parent’s home, he managed to also lose us in the back streets of north London. We wandered about in the dimly-lit, echoing side roads until well after midnight. To make things worse, Paddy didn’t even know his parent’s address. In the end, we made our way back to the, by then closed, Underground station and started again. Paddy was able to remember the way this time and we finally found the house in the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t long before we were spread around his parent’s home catching up on a few hours sleep.
The three of us wandered around London on the Saturday afternoon, having another hour’s ride on the Underground for the price of a couple of stations. Then in the evening Paddy’s parents took us for a night of dancing at the Gresham Ballroom. Neither Alan or I liked dancing but we jigged about, generally made pests of ourselves and had a great laugh at the same time. Alan was still shying away from the girls.
Another late night, a lay in on the Sunday morning, toast and tea in bed then we said our goodbye’s to Paddy’s parents, rode the Underground again, and finally caught the train back down to Reading. It had been a memorable weekend that, through Paddy’s mistake in first getting us lost, had given us a new game to play whenever we were up in London - riding the Underground.
But, we couldn’t always just get on a tube train and ride about all day. There were stations where we had to pass through barriers to go in another direction. As the system was very complicated, the ticket collectors usually let us pass if we told them that we’d got lost and were trying to get back on track. The journeys we took under London all depended on which station we boarded the trains, but, with legal rides and stolen rides, I think that I travelled every bit of line on the system that was open to the public at the time. It almost became a ritual to do a few extra stations whenever I travelled the tube.
Meanwhile, I was gaining a bit of experience out on the roads through my job. I recall an incident when a young girl got me out of a real hole.
I’d backed into a laneway near Kingston Bagpuise to turn around and go back the way I’d come (for some reason). Just as I was about to stop, there was a banging jolt and the rear left side o£ the van dropped, stopping the vehicle dead. I got out to look and found that the rear left wheel had collapsed the concrete cover of an old drain and was stuck fast in the resulting hole. Forward and reverse gears couldn’t get the wheel out of that hole.
As I was wondering what else to try (thoughts of phoning for a tow truck etc.), a young woman, slightly older than myself, rode up on a horse. Sizing up the situation and seeing that I was a real novice, she offered her help which I gratefully accepted. Shortly, under her instructions, I’d jacked up the wheel, using the concrete edge of the drain as a firm base, and the pair of us filled the, fortunately shallow, drain with stones and rocks from a broken wall nearby. When the drain was full of rubble, we lowered the jack and I was able to drive out of trouble. She was a good sport and we had a laugh about the incident as we took all the stones and rocks back out of the drain and put them back where we’d found them.
I thanked the young woman for her help and she rode off to warn the landowner about the dangerous hole in his lane. She was truly my knight (or should it be ‘knightess’?) in shining armour. That incident taught me to look closer at problems for an alternative answer rather than just try and take the normal, and usually more expensive, way out.
I started having my lunch in cafes frequented by lorry drivers. My favourite cafe was at the end of Abingdon High Street. The juke box always seemed to be blaring out the latest tunes and songs. ‘Temptation’ by the Everly Brothers was popular at that time, along with ‘Pasadena’ by the Temperance Seven, ‘You Don’t Know’ by Helen Shapiro, ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leyton, and ‘Ring of Fire’ by Duane Eddy (I went to see the film ‘Ring of Fire’ just to hear that title song). With all this music in the background, I’d listen to the conversations and lorry-driving stories from the tables around me and wonder if I’d have such stories to tell one day. But, for the time being I had to be content with the daily drives in the van and a few rides out on my bike. I recall one ride that I did at that time.
I hadn’t seen Alf and Mick for quite a while so I set out early one Saturday morning to visit them. Alan had no cycle so was unable to accompany me. At the time I had a car aerial fitted to the right hand side of the cycle’s rear wheel axle. This aerial had half a dozen pennants flapping from it in the slipstream. Not only were these pennants for decoration but they showed up in the beams of car headlights at night.
I rode the twenty six miles to Amersham, spent the day with Alf and Mick and they offered to ride back as far as High Wycombe to see me on my way before returning home.
As we stood at the bottom of the long Marlow Road hill at High Wycombe saying our goodbye’s, a large group of cyclists came whirring around the corner and started heading up that long drag. A few of them, much to my annoyance (it was no business of theirs), laughed and poked fun at the pennants on my bike. The three of us said nothing, but I became determined to show some of them that my bike was as good as theirs, pennants or not.
There must have been at least forty or fifty cyclists in that group. With heads down and backsides up, they tackled that hill in best touring tradition. The leaders were almost half way up the long drag when the last of the group passed Alf, Mick, and I. Quickly, I said goodbye to my two mates, hopped on my bike and set off up the hill in pursuit of the long line of cyclists.
In those days the Marlow Road hill out of High Wycombe was just a wide lane either way with no centre dividing strip as it has now. It is about three quarters of a mile long, straight and falling in two sharper hills, roller-coaster fashion. Before I’d gone a quarter of the way up, I was already passing some of the stragglers from that group. At the halfway point I was passing the main body of the cyclists, some of them, to my satisfaction, who had scoffed at my pennants. I didn’t say anything or even look, with legs going like pistons, I edged up towards the leaders. Then suddenly I felt that I could pass the whole lot if I could keep the pace up.
As I saw that full triumph within my grasp, I found new energy. A gasp (was it of surprise?) came from my left as I raced past the first of the leading group. Then there were only a couple of real leaders left. The brow of the hill was coming up fast. With one final effort I flashed past them and the road was empty in front of me.
But I didn’t stop to gloat or rest on my ‘laurels’. Still going like an Olympic racer, I sped around the right hand bend at the top of the hill, then around the left hand bend, swooped over the top of the downs and tore down the long hill into Marlow. I hadn’t once looked around during that four mile sprint but, as I reached the streets of Marlow, all the time expecting to be overtaken by what were obviously experienced members of a cycle club, I glanced quickly over my shoulder and saw that I was on my own.
To be fair, I’d only done about forty miles up until I’d left my mates at the bottom of the hill. Who knows how many miles those cyclists had done. It could have been anything up to a hundred or more by that time of day. Also, if they still had a fair way to go, they wouldn’t be wasting their energy by racing with any young fool that passed them. They’d be conserving their strength for the duration of their ride.
Secretly, I knew all this, but nevertheless, I didn’t slacken my pace as I raced through Marlow, Medmenham, and Henley. By the time I’d reached Caversham, in north Reading, I felt quite tired. But I’d really enjoyed the excitement of speeding along those roads and expecting any moment to glance around and see those cyclists bearing down on me from behind, bent on vengeance for my cheek at passing them on that long hill. It had certainly been the fastest bit of riding that I had ever done on a cycle.
No more than a couple of weeks later I’d be standing on that same corner, at the bottom of the Marlow Road hill in High Wycombe, under a lot difference circumstances, and not feeling very happy about it at all.
It all started when I arrived home from work on the Friday afternoon. I hadn’t been in very long when there was a phone call for me and I was surprised to hear Alf’s voice from the receiver. He explained that he, Mick, and John (another of our friends) had gone up to London for the afternoon. Having spent all their money, they had wandered round until they’d got bored and had finally been arrested for larking about on the marble lions that were a part of the pedestal for Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. He asked me if I could possibly dash up to London and pay ten pounds to bail the three of them out. Without a thought or any hesitation, I agreed to catch the first train up to the city and pay the money.
Although I’d just been paid, I didn’t have that kind of money on me, Mum lent me the ten pounds and I raced for the front door. I threw open the door, stepped out into the street and nearly died with fright when there was a great bellow beside me and there, hiding beside the door, was Alf, Mick, and John. By the time I’d recovered and tried to comprehend how they’d got down from London so quickly, they were laughingly explaining that Alf had used the public telephone outside the front of our house. I’d been completely taken in by their trick.
As the laughing died down, I was led over to a small Fiat car and Mick proudly told me that the car was his and that he’d bought it so that he would have something decent to learn to drive in. I was a bit envious, Mick had a brand new car and hadn’t even passed his test. I noticed that there were no ‘L’ plates on the car and asked how they’d got to Reading from Amersham. Mick told me that they had taken a chance.
As none of them were qualified to drive without ‘L’ plates and a qualified driver in the front passenger seat, the idea had been to come and pick me up and we’d all go for a weekend ride. Without another thought, I returned the ten pounds to Mum, fitted ‘L’ plates to the car, grabbed some clothes and my bathing trunks, jumped in beside Mick and we set off in the direction of Windsor as a start. Unfortunately, there had been no room for Alan so we had to leave him behind.
An hour later the four of us were lounging beside the Thames at Windsor and having a laugh with some of the local girls that we’d ‘chatted up’. But as it got dark we abandoned those young ladies and took off in the direction of the South Coast. Somewhere along the way, we parked up in amongst the roadside bushes and slept the night where we sat.
The next morning we awoke very stiff and sore from sleeping in that tiny cramped car. But our spirits were high as we carried on down to the coast. Soon we were having a ball at the fair on Southsea front, in the arcades, and along the piers. In the afternoon we swam about in the sea, had fish and chips for tea then drove along to Bognor where we had another cramped night in that little Fiat.
Not being able to sleep much, we were wide awake at dawn that Sunday morning and had soon got bored with Bognor, so we decided to carry on along to Littlehampton. It was mid-morning when we reached that resort, we went straight to the beach, found a nice spot and settled down for a bit of swimming and sun-bathing. Within minutes I’d dropped off to sleep, laying on my back in my swimming trunks with the hot sun feeling good on my bare skin.
Suddenly, I was awakened out of a deep sleep by Alf telling me it was time to head home. It had only seemed a minute since we’d arrived and I was surprised to learn that it was late afternoon. For some reason that I couldn’t at first explain, I didn’t feel too good. I was glad to get in the little car and start for home. By the time we’d reached Arundel, I was feeling quite ill and the whole of my body down the front felt as if it was on fire. I couldn’t even bear to feel the sun on me through the windscreen. I covered myself from head to feet under a blanket that had been over the back seat. My mates laughed at sight of the blanket swaying around in the front seat, but I felt so sick that I just wanted to get home and couldn’t have cared less what they thought.
Although Mick had driven his car from Amersham to Reading without any ‘L’ plates or a qualified driver beside him, he was very reluctant to drop me off at my home and take the chance again. I knew that I’d never forgive myself if I insisted on going home and Mick was caught. So, in spite of how ill I felt, I sat under the blanket, asked Mick to get back to his house as soon as he could and willed the minutes to pass quicker. To make matters worse, we’d spent all our money. But Alf promised to borrow my bus fare home from his Mum.
The lads were laughing at me for being under the blanket, and saying that I was soft. They’d spent most of the day, while I was asleep, in the sea or going around the arcades. As we approached Amersham, I pulled the blanket down for the first time, causing my mates to gasp with astonishment. My face was burned to the colour of a letter-box. I pulled my shirt open and my chest was the same. I was sun-burnt to a frazzle down the whole front of my body, except where my bathing trunks had been. Sitting in that cramped seat, swaying around as Mick turned corners, was agony as my clothes rubbed across those burned areas. I felt so sick that I only wanted to lie down, and yet I also wanted to stand up to get those clothes away from my chest and legs.
Then at last we were at Alf’s house. Mick dropped us off and went up to his house around the corner. It was comparatively cooler in Alf’s home, but his Mum was out and so the money for bus fares wasn’t forthcoming. We dashed round to Mick’s house, but his family were out as well. In the end I decided to try and hitch-hike back home. If I had a decent bit of luck, I would probably beat the buses back home anyway.
Mick gave me a lift down to Old Amersham via the back roads and, after saying goodbye to him and Alf, I walked out along the road that led to High Wycombe. Being the middle of summer, there were still another couple of hours of hot sun to go before the day started to cool down at sunset. As I swayed under that hot sun, thinking that I couldn’t bear much more of that heat and wondering if I should go across the road to Amersham hospital, a car stopped and the driver told me he was going to High Wycombe if it would help. I gratefully got in and within a few minutes, it seemed, the seven miles had passed and I was saying my thanks.
Then I was standing on the corner at the bottom of the Marlow Road hill. The same place where, two weeks earlier, the group of cyclists had passed while Alf, Mick, and I were saying our goodbyes.
But there was no cycle to hop onto this time, I was relying on the help of a friendly car driver. The sun was still shining redly down into the valley, but at least I could stand in the shade of a wall and some trees nearby. From my toes right up the front of my body to the hair-line there was just an agony of burning. I had a throbbing headache and felt as if I’d collapse with dizziness any second. It must have looked as if I was blind drunk and I didn’t really blame the half a dozen cars, that passed me, for going straight by.
Then I began to feel very sick and became worried that I’d vomit in somebody’s car. The High Wycombe hospital was right across the road in front of me. I staggered across the road, thinking that I should have gone into the Amersham hospital while I’d had the chance. A nurse was just inside the entrance and I gabbled out my woes. Then I was laying on a trolley with a doctor walking along beside me and the last thing I recall was seeing the ceiling of a corridor rushing past above me as I was wheeled along to goodness knows where.
Then I was looking up into a pair of beautiful dark eyes that belonged to a young woman that I thought I recognised from a long time ago. Through my befuddled thoughts, I studied the face of the young woman that was bending over me. It was full of concentration, not concentrating on my face, but on something she was doing to my legs. I could feel the smoothness of her hand as it slid above my knee. I tried to comprehend what was going on and where I knew those eyes from.
The eyes glanced my way and, still carrying on with what she was doing, the young woman asked me how I felt. I wasn’t feeling so bad and told her so. Then I noticed that the young woman had a nurse’s uniform on. I could see that I was laying on a bed and there were curtains hanging all around the bed-space, closing out the world. I lifted my head to see what the nurse was doing and the sight of my body made everything come back to me.
And what a sight it was. I lay naked on the bed and could see that enormous blisters had formed on my chest, arms, legs, and feet. The nurse was smoothing a liquid (Calamine Lotion?) all over my body that helped to hide the red sunburned skin. My hand went instinctively to my face and I could feel that it was also covered in blisters. I noticed that I’d already had the lotion treatment once, it was still smeared in patches on my chest. I recall thinking that I’d only been at the hospital a few minutes and had wondered if I was to have two coverings of the lotion per session to ensure that the burned areas or my body were completely covered.
The nurse worked on my chest, then my face. I was still feeling a bit disorientated and completely forgot that I wanted to ask her who she was. The next thing I knew was having the sheet pulled up to my waist and the surrounding curtains opened. With a crackle of starched clothing the nurse had gone.
I looked around to find that I was in a large hospital ward. I remember being amazed when the man in the bed on my right asked me how I was and said that I’d looked a bit of a mess when I’d been wheeled in the night before. The night before? It had only seemed like ten minutes ago. I turned and looked out of the window, still unable to believe that I’d been there all night. But the sky was bright, the sun was high and I realised that it was the next morning. No wonder it had looked as if I’d already had the lotion treatment before that session.
The nurse came back and I asked her name. She said that I could call her Nurse Dumbarton. Of course! She was one or the Dumbarton girls that used to live an the old army camp at Beech Barn. I asked her if her name was Cherrie, for she looked like what I’d expected Cherrie to look like after all the passing years. The nurse was surprised and asked me how I knew her sister’s name. I told her that, if she was Cherrie’s sister, then her name must be either Freda or Joyce. This surprised her even more and, with a note of suspicion in her voice, she told me that her name was Joyce and demanded to know how I knew her family’s names.
I told Joyce that she should remember me, David James, from the old camp days as she and I had often played together. But, she was probably too young for she couldn’t recall me at all. In the end, I suggested that she ask her Mum and sisters as I knew that they would remember me. The next day, she came in and told me that none of her family knew me.
I couldn’t understand it, we’d all been such good friends on the camp. Freda had been my age and Cherrie had been about three years older. If I could remember them, then surely they must remember me from the camp. Although I felt a bit deflated, I didn’t press the issue and said no more about it. But I couldn’t believe that this young woman, who had been my ‘Queen’ when we’d all dressed up to collect money for the Lynmouth Funds in 1952 while living on the army camp, could forget me. I even began to think that her family might have some reason for not recalling those days. Of course, I’d changed a lot, especially in my looks, so young Joyce probably wouldn’t have recognised me as the boy who’d been her King for an afternoon, had lived in the next-door hut, and had been a friend of her family during her younger years.
It wasn’t until I’d arrived home and related the story to Mum, that I realised how we’d lived under the name of Kissman all the time we were at that camp. No wonder Joyce and her family didn’t recognise the name of David JAMES.
I was in the hospital for a week or so. As well as the severe sun-burn, I had Sunstroke and had been very de-hydrated. The great blisters swelled up and gradually burst one by one, soaking my bed-clothes each time and leaving wet lumps of skin hanging from my body. But, under the good care of that hospital staff, I was soon well enough to go home.
Mum had been informed of my plight that first night in hospital, I’d managed to give the nurse our phone number when I’d been admitted. Alan caught the bus to High Wycombe on the day I was released, I said goodbye and thanks to the hospital staff and the two of us rode the bus back home.
After that bit of time off, it was great to get back at work and ride out into the country again. Both Crystal and Alan were pleased to have me back once more and things soon got back to normal.
Crystal very often went for a ride with me out on the delivery round. It was about this time that I did an unpleasant ‘favour’ for Crystal and her Mum, that caused me to feel very guilty and upset for a long time.
They had a large, black, furry cat named ‘Sooty’. It was a beautiful animal and the family were devoted to it. The cat, in turn, seemed to adore all the family and never wandered like other cats did. There wasn’t anybody that I knew who didn’t think that the cat was a lovely creature, it was a fine pet to have. Unfortunately, about that time, the cat was very sick and had been for a while. It lay around and a real smelly liquid was oozing from its ears. Finally I offered to take the sick animal to the Vet’s in the delivery van as Crystal’s Mum had no transport. This was agreed upon and she told me to do whatever I thought was best as long as the cat didn’t suffer.
During work hours, before I set off on a delivery round, I collected Sooty from Crystal’s home and put him in the van. Crystal and her family were all out so they didn’t see him go. But, the poor animal must have known. It went mad and jumped at the rear window to try and escape, then it raced over the pile of goods to the front of the van and tried to jump through the windscreen. Each time Sooty hit the glass, he screamed in (it seemed) frustration and fear. I don’t think that he had ever been out of the house and garden, let alone in a vehicle. He raced around the interior of the van like a mad dog and I became very worried that he’d attack me. But, by the time I’d reached the Vet’s surgery back down in the town, poor old Sooty was hiding behind some boxes, utterly exhausted. After one last feeble struggle, the cat allowed me to carry him into the surgery.
I can’t recall what was wrong with him, but the vet told me that there was no other course than to put the animal out of its misery. I was horrified. This was the last thing that I’d wanted. I’d expected to take Sooty down and had him made well. He was as good as a pet to me as well as Crystal and her family, I would also miss him. Although Crystal’s Mum had told me to do what was best for him, I felt that I couldn’t take the responsibility of making a decision about whether Sooty lived or died. In desperation, I explained this to the Vet and told him how there was nobody at Crystal’s home at the time to consult. But the Vet said that the problem was too far gone to save the poor animal anyway and he would die a lingering death over the following week or so. With sinking heart, I sadly left Sooty to his fate and quickly walked out.
I felt terrible and wondered if I should have made such a decision on somebody else’s behalf. True, Crystal’s Mum had said that she didn’t want Sooty to suffer anymore, but had she meant me to take such an extreme step? For the whole of the afternoon, as I went on with my delivery round, I worried, fearful of what the family would say. In an agony of suspense, I parked the van up after work and raced to Crystal’s home with the bad news.
But, according to what Crystal’s Mum told me, I need not have worried. The whole family had expected, and been prepared for, the outcome. After I’d explained what the Vet had said they all agreed that I’d done the right thing for Sooty. But, I wasn’t so convinced that they really felt like that, I knew that I’d done the best that I’d been asked to do but I would have felt a lot better if I’d let them make the decision. As I look back years later, I realise that I’d done as I was asked, Sooty was put out of his misery, the family hadn’t watched him suffer too much and they’d remember him as his usual, happy self. Maybe it was myself being over-emotional
But, there was another angle that was causing me great concern at this time, and that was Crystal herself. Over the last couple of years, she had grown up to be a beautiful young woman. She was intelligent and smart, and had a very good job. And we were both beginning to realise that she could do a lot better than hang around waiting for me.
Then Alan moved on and a bit of fun went out of my life. We’d had some good times together and I missed him. He was a good mate, but I hadn’t seen the last of him. Meanwhile, I’d got into a bit of a rut and had to get out of it.
At the time I thought that I was having bad problems with my life. But people were suffering around the world and their miseries, although I didn’t think it at the time, made my problems look like nothing. The main story in all the papers at that time was the building of the Berlin Wall. Little did us free people in our safe haven realise just what that wall would mean to the thousands of families that were trapped either side of it. The heartbreak, horrors and heroisms of events acted out in the shadows of that wall would be with us for the next thirty years. I had it easy but didn’t appreciate it.
‘Kontiki’ by The Shadows was up in the charts, along with ‘Michael’ by The Highwaymen, and Helen Shapiro’s ‘Walking Back To Happiness’. I’d just had a one pound a week raise as a thankyou for my efforts, my life should have been totally happy with Crystal, and I had a rosy future to look forward to.
But I wasn’t satisfied, I was so bored all of a sudden. My bike had been ignored over the last couple of months and I mooched around, hardly knowing what to do with myself. I hadn’t done anything exciting since the south coast trip with Alf, Mick, and John three months earlier. I knew that I had to try something else or burst. I was a very mixed-up young lad!
It was in October of that year that I decided to try another direction towards finding out what I was looking for. I saw a poster on a wall. It said something like ‘Do a real job, make a man of yourself, live a life of excitement and see the world, JOIN THE ARMY’. I stopped and looked at the poster hard. I had a good little job at that moment, but was I a man? Did I need something like the army to make me grow up and face my responsibilities in an adult manner? The National Service had been abolished, but older people were always saying that a dose of the army would do us youngsters good. I thought of the T. A. unit, I hadn’t been very happy with my lot there. But then I had thought that maybe the real thing would be different. I wondered if the army was what I was looking for, the poster certainly promised plenty of adventure.
I thought about the problem very seriously over the next couple of weeks. During that time I again told Crystal that we were finished, so although I wasn’t happy about losing her, at least things were clear in that direction. The only worry I had was the thought of committing my life to the army for six years, I knew that I’d have to give it all I had or forget about the idea completely. In the end I made up my mind and applied at the St. Mary’s Butts recruitment office to join the forces. I was accepted after written and medical examinations and told to give a week’s notice at my job.
Mr. Wildash wasn’t very happy at all. He’d just given me the raise and probably thought that I was happy at my work. But it was too late for me to change my mind, not that I wanted to as I was looking forward to the new challenges.
Mum wasn’t happy about it either, I could see that just by the look on her face. But she didn’t try to put me off and she had all my best clothes ready for packing on the day of departure.
It was a grim November Friday afternoon as I boarded the train at Reading station for the trip down to the Training Camp at Honiton, in Devon, where I’d been ordered to report for the first phase of my army life. The rain lashed against the carriage windows as the train pulled out of the station and I looked at the streets through the murky weather where the Friday evening rush hour was just beginning. I wondered how long it would be before I trod those streets again.
Back to top of page.