Monday, 8 September 2008

Children learn what they live

My delightful grandaughter, Carys, having read my last burblings, has suggested I tell more about my childhood, so if you find this boring, blame her!

As you have already read (if you've read my early offerings) I lost my father at an early age, and I have few real memories of my life before his death. However, I have been told that I was very much "Daddy's girl", and if I really dig deep into my memory, I have vague memories of smells of pipe tobacco, and wet wool; and sensations of being tickled with a beard - not much for 4 and a half years. I know the silly song that my father made up to comfort me when I was grizzly, and one or two stories about my incidents of being childishly charming, but almost nothing first hand - I am deeply envious of those lucky people who have detailed memories of their early childhoods. I do remember 2 special people who cared for me when I was little, both before and after my father's death - 'Mummy' Lawrence, and her son 'Desi' ( short for Desmond) They lived at number 5, New Orchard, near the harbour front, which was demolished long ago. I recall a small, cosy house, with an outside 'loo', on a narrow, cobbled street, not far from the public baths, where we went for both baths and to get the laundry done. It was also close to the Old Custom House, on the quay, which is still there, with its graceful, curving double stairway. Apparently I was quite creative in my mischief in those days, it seems that on one occasion when left alone in the front room (the posh room, rarely used) an appalling racket caused them to rush into the room with their hearts in their mouths, only to find me running up and down the piano keyboard! Ah! Happy days!

Poole, in those days, hadn't yet had the heart ripped out of it and replaced with ghastly modern blocks, and was still a complex of alleyways and little businesses serving the shipping that still kept Poole's harbour thriving and my father in work. There were lots of little seamens pubs, ships chandlers and all the hum of a traditional working community, and we were not the only ones living on board vessels in the harbour, my parents were part of a thriving, post-war water-borne community. I can remember, just, being in a pub with my parents at about 3 or 4, I imagine, and grabbing my father's pint - apparently I downed the lot, and demanded more! That particular pub is now a chi-chi little 'styled' tourist gastro-pub, like most of those that weren't demolished in the 60s and 70s. The smell of a working harbour (not just the sea) with the mixed aromas of sea water, oil and rubbish, can still make me feel both safe and thrilled.

The period following my father's death is not much clearer, it was a muddled and unhappy time for both my mother and myself, and my memories don't really start to have any consistency until we moved into the house bought for us by my grandfather's legacy. The house, 43 Castle Street, Canterbury, was a terraced 2-up 2-down, overlooked by the gas works and cost £500, and a further £500 to gut and put into a livable condition. When it was finished it had its first bathroom and was pristine clean, with a new kitchen extension and all the 20-odd lilacs in the tiny back yard chopped down! However, the bequest didn't allow for furniture, so we moved in with one table, one chair and a large double bed in which all three of us slept. Anything else was created from wooden orange crates, which were sturdy and adaptable. By this time my little sister was about 2, and I was 7, and mummy had a struggle to support us. She took several jobs, and eventually managed to get a good one - secretary to the Headmaster at St Edmunds, a boys public school (private, if you're American!) on the outskirts of the city. With the debts my father had left, this still wasn't enough, so, in school holidays and evenings, she also worked as a waitress in the 'Castle Grill', a fairly up-market restaurant further up Castle Street. In those days there were far more small, local shops, and Castle street was almost a complete village by itself - apart from school, one could live without ever going more than 2 streets away from Castle Street.

Mummy still needed more income, and we had more bedrooms than we needed, so she struggled to furnish one bedroom and the living/dining room, and put a sign in the window, advertising 'Bed & Breakfast'. She got her self so wound up and nervous that she told the first potential customer that she was full! However, once she got into her stride there was no looking back, and soon sharing our home with a wide variety of paying guests was our normal way of life. We met some wonderful people, and some very strange ones, and I learned to take responsibility for looking after other people's needs at an early age, doing everything from cooking, serving at table and cleaning rooms, to dashing out to get extra bread or eggs! It was an exciting life in many ways, though very unpredictable and confusing, as well. I was very shy and insecure, and made few friends in the area before going to boarding school shortly before my 8th birthday.

My first boarding school, the junior part of the Royal Merchant Navy School, was in Bexhill, Sussex, just along the south coast from Hastings. It was a long way from home for a lonely, awkward little girl, and I was desperately homesick - like several other similarly orphaned children at the school. The Headmaster did his best to be a father figure for us (we had almost all lost our fathers to the sea) and used to come to our dorms, sing us lullabies and tuck us up in bed at night, a caring man, I can see with the wisdom of hindsight. I was a sickly child, and seemed to spend most of each spring term in the sanitorium, with one bug or another, and had a very sensitive digestion, with a low appetite, which made for many confrontations with the dining room staff! I couldn't digest animal fat, it made me sick, so I spent many hours sitting alone in the dining hall, with a congealing plate of fat in front of me, being told I would get nothing else till I'd eaten it - thank heaven they eventually weakened, or I would have starved to death!

At Bexhill I encoutered my first corporal punishment - often! My bottom was warmed with everything from a slipper, through a hairbrush and a plastic badminton racquet to a cane! It didn't make me do what they wanted, and demolished my respect and trust for the staff members concerned. These were isolated incidents, though, and most of the staff were caring and special people - even the ones I never seemed able to please! I was a lonely and dreamy child, with a good brain but an extreme reluctance to concentrate - not helped that I badly needed spectacles but no-one had realised it. I couldn't see the blackboard, even from the front desks, so couldn't copy from it, which meant I couldn't do most of the work, because there were not enough books to go round, in the cash-strapped post-war economy. I did get a prize, though - a book on my beloved ballet, for effort! I stayed at Bexhill until I was 11, when most of my contemporaries were taking their 11-plus exam to decide their educational fate, but I was spared that - I was destined to go on to the senior department of the school at Bearwood. Sadly, at the time I left Bexhill it closed altogether, leading to the staff, as well as the children, being scattered far and wide - there were many tears at the end of that last summer term.

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