My Mum - Escapades!
I have written several pieces about my Mum as she was a very special, if somewhat whacky lady. I started this series with the story of our visits to the outdoor lido and the embarrassment caused to us by Mum’s knitted swimsuit. I have written about her attempts at sewing and cooking and how they didn’t always turn out as one would expect. My clothing was a source of embarrassment what with the knitted underwear, the crocheted dress and the Florence Nightingale coat and bonnet all well intentioned efforts by my Mum. Then there was the cooking as I believe I’ve mentioned her sausage stew, sausages cooked in tomato soup, which was, in itself, a culinary masterpiece, looking as it did like vasectomy trimmings lightly simmering in blood from someone who perhaps was receiving treatment for anaemia. Then there was our evening entertainment something we all enjoyed as a family, such as metal work, huddled round a meagre fire filing the rough bits off metal components with large heavy files taking the skin off our fingers in the process. However, Hop Picking was our much looked forward to holiday transporting us from the grim reality of our life in London.
However, to continue with Mum’s story, although this part is mainly concerned with the antics which my brother and I got up to; nevertheless, it is still part of Mum’s story too. So, when I was about seven or eight Mum went into hospital and my brother and I went into care. My brother went into one children’s home and I went into another. I don’t remember much about the home I was in other than it was the older children’s job to bath the younger ones and as this was done in their evening recreation time they wanted the job done as quickly as possible so never bothered too much about the temperature of the water so my memory is of having lots of cold baths. The smell of toothpaste also transports me back to that home as we children all cleaned our teeth at the same time in a large washroom so the smell of toothpaste, though not unpleasant, was pretty strong. Scrambled eggs are, however, an unpleasant memory as they were never properly cooked through so looked like someone had vomited on one’s plate.
However, the worst part about being placed in that particular home was that the children attended the same school as I went to when I lived at home with Mum. Children can be cruel and we used to call the children from the home the Langley House kids. Little did I know that, for a time, I would become a Langley House kid myself.
At approximately about the same age but when my brother and I were back living with Mum we were not the little angels we tried to convince her we were as we got into quite a few scrapes. One of which concerned the local sweet shop. We would go in once or twice a week to ask if we could have any empty boxes. The proprietor, glad to get rid of them happily agreed and this arrangement went on for some considerable time although I cannot think what we used them for. One day, however, and I swear I don’t know how it happened we walked out with a full box. Ju Jubes! A whole box full! This was a thousand times better than any Christmas we had had up to this point. Of course, it meant that the empty box routine had to come to an abrupt end. Still, what riches! Needless to say we ate the lot!
In fact, that little bit of story reminds me of something else. We never had sweets or chocolate, other than the full box of Ju Jubes that had mysteriously come into our possession, so sweets of any description seemed like unattainable riches. On one occasion, however, when I was mooching about indoors I came across a little packet of what looked like chocolate and vaguely smelled like chocolate but it was the smallest bar I’d ever seen so didn’t think it would be missed. Well, any kind of chocolate was a mighty powerful temptation and so I scoffed the lot. It was not, I think, a well known make of confection as it went by the unfamiliar name of Ex Lax. Needless to say the fallout from that was pretty spectacular!
Then on another occasion we took my friend, the boy over the road, on another of our food forays. This time we broke into a café. Somehow gaining entry via the roof but as we climbed back out someone had grassed us up and there was a policeman fast approaching and looking about to give chase. We tried to make our escape along Stratford Broadway clutching our spoils which consisted of a couple of small bottles of pop and three of those cheesecakes topped with a bit of icing and long strands of coconut. But the policeman was gaining ground so we needed to jettison our spoils but instead of just dropping them we stopped and carefully placed them on the pavement. Well we held such goodies in high regard so we couldn’t just drop the bottles because they would smash but the cakes we still tried to hang onto.
Of course the inevitable happened and we got caught and it went to court resulting in myself and the boy over the road getting a conditional discharge but my brother got three months in a Detention Centre. Needless to say, the boy over the road was never allowed to play with us again. We must have committed some other heinous crime that I don’t now remember because we had a Probation Officer who used to visit us and more to the point she used to take us on outings in her car. On one such outing she took us to the Victoria and Albert Museum and after seeing everything on offer she let us loose in the refectory there. I will never forget all the lovely cakes so appetizingly displayed. I had never seen anything so splendiferous in all my life and the Probation Officer said we could select one each. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Then there was the Holy Souls box in our local Catholic Church. Yes, I’m afraid not even the church was sacrosanct. The congregation used to put money in this box as they left the church. My brother came up with the brilliant idea of blowing the box up with a firework and then we would get all the money. The Irish are well known for their love of explosives and as we were of Irish descent this little episode with the tiniest bit of explosives should come as no surprise being entirely in keeping with our bloodlines. We did manage a loud bang but all it brought forth was the Priest who recognised us so we knew our next stint in the Confessional and subsequent Penance was going to take longer than normal as there were obviously going to be several “Our Fathers” and a great many “Hail Mary’s” before we would be allowed off our knees.
Then there were our trips up West. At this time we lived in East London at a place called Bromley by Bow and we used to bunk into the grounds of a place either called Bromley or Devonshire House, a building which in the 1950’s housed people who couldn’t keep up with their rent. The grounds backed onto the railway station and we used to climb over the wall and onto the platform and then catch a train to wherever our fancy took us…usually up West. Obviously, we had no tickets but when we got to wherever we had decided on we would run through the ticket barrier saying to the railway chap Dad’s got the tickets pointing to the man behind us. Now we were two of the scruffiest kids imaginable but the poor sod we pointed to as our Daddy was usually a Bowler-hatted, Financial Times carrying, rolled umbrella kind of city gent!
Our mischief didn’t end there I’m afraid as on the train journey to wherever we had decided to go we would go from one carriage to another while the train was moving using the doors at the end of each tube train carriage. The doors which were used only by railway staff and this was obviously a very dangerous thing to do but no one ever commented on it. Probably glad to see the back of us. On arrival at our chosen destination our next bit of business usually involved pavement artists who had spent hours on their knees creating wonderful pictures with chalk. When they weren’t looking we rubbed them out with our shoes. Even now, all these years later, I still feel rotten about that so if anyone reading this was ever one of those talented artists then do please accept my apologies. It may please you to know that I am now quite a reformed character.
When I was a bit older Mum again had to go into hospital and again my brother and I were separated he to a foster home and me to a Convent of Mercy. For some reason my sister came and took my brother from the foster home and he ended up staying with my sister and my Nan, although at the time I didn’t know this. I remember my first night in that home vividly as I laid awake most of the night, scared stiff! The other children had told me if you wet the bed the nuns would whip you. Well, I must have fallen asleep at some point because in the morning, to my horror, I had wet the bed, not something I usually did. However, the nuns did not whip me on that occasion but who knows if I had continued to disgrace myself…I was very unhappy in the Convent because I stuck out like a sore thumb being an out and out cockney but all the other girls were fee paying posh kids who would accost me in the playground and ask me what was the name I used for head? To which I would reply in a low voice “Bonce!” then they would all run off laughing.
Then, somehow, my Mum managed to send me two large bars of chocolate and the Nuns would give me so many squares each day. Needless to say suddenly I was very popular with the posh kids and their friendship lasted as long as the chocolate. For these reasons I wanted to run away and I would hide out in the garden with the idea of making my escape once the Nuns thought all the children were inside. The plan was foolproof except for one tiny detail - I was scared of the dark so as soon as it looked like the shadows were lengthening I was first inside. With a little adjustment I think the plan could have worked.
However, by the time I left the Convent, I had completely lost my cockney accent and spoke like the posh kids, which caused enormous amusement to my brother and sister and all the other passengers on the trolley bus that was taking us to my Nan’s as she lived in Limehouse. Moreover, this was when I was introduced to Mum’s handmade Florence Nightingale Bonnet and coat so some of that amusement may have been directed not at the way I now spoke but also the way I now looked!
I desperately wanted to be with my Mum and my siblings but I did have one tiny regret on leaving the Convent of Mercy and that was because they did a very nice line in school uniforms and their day dresses were to die for. Orange! They were wonderful…well, they were to me, I had never been dressed in anything as good as them in my life. And not a crochet stitch in sight!
I will end the story at this point because the next time I take it up will be to document my teenage years through to adulthood which will bring down the Final Curtain on my Mum’s difficult, poverty stricken but, nonetheless, inspiring life!.
TO BE CONTINUED