STORY


One early September afternoon in 1956 I was in the backyard with my Dad, watering the window boxes. It was twenty past twelve and I had walked home from primary school, a few hundred yards away, for lunch. Dad had cycled home from the docks. His battered black bike was propped up against the wall. Mum was busy putting the food on the table, and my older brother, who had just started Grammar School near the city centre, stayed at school for lunch. As we weeded and watered the pansies, lobelia and sweet alyssum, we talked. ‘What would you like for Christmas this year?’ My Dad asked. ‘A pony!’ I replied. He laughed. We lived in an inner city terraced house, in an area where there was hardly a blade of grass. Our house was known for streets around as the house with the window boxes. I had helped my Dad make those window boxes. He used to call me ‘Tommy’ when I helped him. ‘Pass the screwdriver, Tommy!’ and I passed it. I knew the names of all his tools.


 


When he’d finished joining together the base and sides of the window boxes, he put the poker in the coal fire. When it was red hot he used it to burn drainage holes in their bottoms. I was thrilled. ‘What would you really like for Christmas?’ he asked. My eyes fell on his bike. I had just been reading a story about Milly Molly Mandy and how she had come by a bike. ‘A bike?’ I asked. I was a good reader, and I got my big ideas from reading books. When I was much younger I had read a book in which Noddy had been rewarded with a cup of coffee and a piece of ginger cake. I knew what ginger cake tasted like, but what was coffee like? It was a good ten years before I found out. I liked the stories by Josephine and Diana Pullein Thompson in which everyone who was anyone owned at least one horse. I believed that there was an England in which those characters might live, but it wasn’t the England that I knew. I had recently discovered the Famous Five. Those children didn’t have ponies, although they rode them effortlessly when occasion demanded. They more commonly rode bikes. They too inhabited the other England, but a girl could aspire!


 


I didn’t have to wait until Christmas. A few weeks later I got home from school for lunch and Dad was there already, twinkling with excitement. ‘Go into the yard,’ he said, ‘there’s a surprise there for you.’ I couldn’t find the surprise. The battered black bike was leaning against the wall as usual, but at last I realized that it wasn’t. It had shrunk. It was a smaller version. It didn’t have a crossbar. It was a bike for me! I was wild with excitement, but I had to get my lunch and go back for afternoon school. That evening I started learning to ride my bike. The terraced houses were so small that life spilled over into the street. We children played games there with balls and ropes, and our parents popped in and out of the houses to keep an eye on us all, and sometimes they stayed out talking to each other. My bike attracted much attention, as did my frequent tumbles.


 


Some of the older boys had bikes, but I was the first girl. There was only one car parked in the street in those days, and I mostly managed to avoid it. The post war pot holes were a problem too, but their presence helped me hone my skill at steering. In the daytime there were sometimes delivery vans, but there was very little movement of traffic after business hours. I practised hard and at last I became proficient. Now I could go on bike rides with my Dad. The thought never occurred to me at the time, but looking back it seems to me that this was my first romance. Our first date was an excursion to the cemetery one Sunday morning, where we tended my grandparents’ graves before calling in at my Auntie’s house on the way home. My Auntie was very impressed that I had ridden so far.


 


During the school holiday my father was on strike. We both rode down to the docks one day. He had to see a Union official on some business. My Mum had made sure that I was clean and tidy. One of my Dad’s workmates spoke kindly to me and gave me sixpence. Later Dad said that he should have kept it and given it to his own kiddies. Still during the strike, we went to visit his workmate, Mr Durham, and Miss Durham, his sister, who lived with him and kept house. Miss Durham shared a cinnamon spiced iced doughnut with me – another gastronomic first. We cycled to visit one of my cousins, who had sons older than I was. My brother was staying with them for a few days of the school holiday. They had a modern house with a toilet inside and a bathroom. There was some woodland behind the house and a playground with a slide. The boys were running around outside climbing things and building things. I stayed with my Dad and my cousin and inspected his allotment. He gave me blackcurrants to take home with me.


 


Before we went home, my Dad and I cycled a long way down to the nearest beach, and I played in the sand while he laughed and chatted with me, and made suggestions for improvements to my sandcastle. That is the best day that I can remember from my childhood. By the next Christmas the storm clouds had well and truly gathered. The strike had ended, but my Dad was very dissatisfied with the way that things were at work. Worse still, my Dad was getting a pain over his right eye, and he just didn’t feel well. He had suffered from a stomach ulcer in the past, and he couldn’t seem to get his doctor to understand that there was something else wrong with him now. Parents didn’t tell their children very much in those days. I didn’t deliberately eavesdrop but the house was so small that we children inevitably heard snippets of conversations that we were not meant to hear. I knew, for example, that my bike had come from Mr Canning, at work. It had been Mary’s, and Mr Canning had been glad to see the last of it, although he had wanted it to go to a good home. I deduced from this that Mary did not need or could not use it any longer. Some sad, but unspecified fate had clearly befallen her. Poor Mary!


 


In early March, when my Dad went into hospital, my mother did not want us to see him being carried out of the house on a stretcher and into the waiting ambulance. We were ordered to stay in the back kitchen and we duly obeyed. I was allowed to visit him once in hospital. When the bell rang to signify the end of visiting time he became visibly upset. He hugged me with so much passion that he both hurt and scared me. I tried not to let the pain and confusion show. He died in November and I never saw him again after that one visit. His death did not make an immediate impact on me. I hadn’t seen him for eight months. There seemed little difference to a ten year old between having a dead father and having one who could not be visited in hospital. My mother did not want me to go to my Dad’s funeral, so that was that. I wasn’t going to make life any more difficult for her if I could help.


 


Well meaning relations offered me ambiguous words of comfort, such as, ‘He is in a better place now.’ It was a while before I understood what it was that I had lost, and much longer before I could talk about it. I knew that he was dead, just as I had known that I couldn’t have a pony, but I did not believe it one hundred per cent. It had never happened to any of the Famous Five. My mother dreaded being seen as an object for pity, and encouraged us children to carry on as normal. I just didn’t talk about my Dad any more. I hadn’t really talked about him much when he was alive. I’d talked to him, and I’d known that I could rely on him. Someone must have mentioned the death to my primary school teacher because she asked me why I hadn’t told her, and tried to comfort me. I only felt intensely embarrassed and couldn’t answer her. She didn’t persevere for long. It was nearly time for the eleven plus and she was very busy. The eleven plus examinations came and went. I too got a place at the Grammar School in the city.


 


The girls’ school was only a third the size of the boys’ school, for reasons that I didn’t understand then. There were other interesting differences too. However, I was getting the best of what was available to me. I was learning French, like the girls at the Chalet School. Towards the end of my first year at that school the French teacher was emphasising a point of grammar. She went round the class asking each girl a similar question. When my turn came I had two answers ready. ’Ton père, , a-t-il une bicyclette?’ She asked. My inner voice said, ‘Mon père est mort,’ but the cooperative schoolgirl said brightly, ‘Non, Mademoiselle, mon père n’a pas de bicyclette.’ It was, however, a breakthrough. I could nearly bring myself to say it in French, although I still couldn’t say it in English.


 


Other girls in my street had bikes now. Shiny new bikes painted green or red. I got too big for my old battered black one, and there was no replacement. I was travelling by bus now, along with the handful of girls from school who lived on my side of the city. There wasn’t much time for playing in the street any more, and teenagers were now finding other things to do. My little bike went into the backyard shed and never came out again. I’d like to tell you that my bike riding skills came into their own once more when I went to Cambridge to study maths, but that was my friend. I did quite well at school, but not brilliantly, and I didn’t manage to get a place at University at all. I studied at the local College of Commerce for an external London University degree. I got my degree by working harder than many of my old school friends, and having one fifth of the fun. I also continued to live in the home of my childhood with my mother and brother.


 


As a young woman, I had very little confidence and felt very insecure with new people. I had had no deep relationships with men, and had begun to despair of ever finding anyone to love. I was almost at my last prayers when I met the man I married. He was like my Dad. He was big and cuddly, and utterly convinced of one thing, that he loved me very deeply. We have been married for 32 years and counting, and despite continuing health problems, he has managed to stay alive while our three children grew up. Now we are retired, we go adventuring together all summer long. Not on our bikes, but in our narrow boat.


 


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This story was added on 17th September 2010

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