A Minstrel in Spain

Chapter Seven

INTERLUDE — How it all began

According to reports I emerged into the world at 6 am, a time at which I have never looked my best, especially when naked. I managed to get a good solemn look at the bystanders, who all seemed to be grinning at me, before being hauled up by the feet, and smacked briskly on the backside, simultaneously getting a second view of everyone upside down. This displeased me, and I began to cry bitterly. In those first few fleeting seconds, then, I had already received two valuable lessons in human relations - that first and second impressions do not necessarily have to be the best ones, and that you should never, ever, trust anyone who smiles while giving you a workover on the butt.

All this happened in a hospital in St. James, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on the 16th of October, 1928. This is what I have been told, at any rate.

I recall sitting in my pram in Winnipeg being shoved around by my fat little sister. I would look over the side at the unpaved, wooden sidewalked Rutland Street in St. James, registering the empty tin cans lying around in the road awaiting my youthful boot some years later.

The pavement out there was called the sidewalk, and the tram the streetcar. Prams were baby buggies. Kids in the streets rushed around on things called coaster wagons. They were big four-wheeled things made of tin; you put one knee up on it and pushed along with the other, steering by means of a tiller. They were fast and much more dangerous to pedestrians than skate boards are nowadays.

The people were so honest in those days that street doors were never locked, and prams containing babies could be left unmolested at tramstops while the mothers journeyed into town for some shopping.

The practice earned me very many tickles and pokes in the stomach from perfect strangers. I would respond by giggling, kicking my legs and peeing myself.

There isn't an awful lot to report when you're only one year old. In Winnipeg the summer was too hot, and children and dogs were forbidden to go out. The same thing happened in winter, when the snow piled up in drifts several metres high from which drunks and missing persons would re-emerge in spring stiff and solid.

My Uncle Bob had one of the first cars around, which made him either a criminal or a playboy in the eyes of the neighbours. It was called a Tin Lizzy. This occasioned much mirth, because that was also his wife's name, Lizzy not Tin.

The car stank of leather, oil, petrol, and brake fluids. As the roads were not asphalted one became thrown about violently in all directions. If my older sister Joan was in it she would be violently sick several times, adding to the heady aroma. As I was usually scrunched up on her lap I received the lion's share of it. In fact, Joan could usually be made to throw up wholly by suggestion. As soon as I was old enough to grasp this I capitalised on the knowledge. Swaying gently at the dinner table with my chair creaking ever so slightly as I went back and forth, back and forth, was enough to send her scurrying to the toilet with one hand clapped over her mouth.

However poor we were in Canada we still managed to go away for the odd weekend, and on holidays, something that we never ever did once we'd returned to England.

Our weekend trips took us to the Sunnyside Beach on the Red River, where my Dad once saved my Mum from drowning, past Horseshoe Beach, where there were flies as big as blackbirds which were supposed to eat your eyeballs, and on up to Winnipeg Beach.

Sometimes we rented a wooden house there in the summer, and here it was that I was treated to the sight of my maternal Granny Hutton sitting up in bed with an umbrella up to keep the rain off, greatly resembling the painting Der Arme Poet by Spitzweg.

There were powerful storms up around Lake Winnipeg, and we always seemed to catch them on our holidays. Up would go the storm shutters and we would huddle there listening fearfully as the wind threatened to whip the whole house away, like in The Wizard of Oz. My Dad, meanwhile, would rush around with buckets and basins to catch the little torrents pouring in through the loose tiles.

There seems to be unanimous agreement that, as I grew older, I became a holy terror. This is not borne out by the few remaining pictures of me as a child, where I usually look solemnly sweet and angelic. My Dad, on the other hand, hated being photographed, and used to blow out his cheeks just before the shutter clicked. As we were usually standing next to one another, we look like a comedy act, the straight man and the buffoon.

When I was four and able to wander off on my own the greatest threat to life and limb were the hailstorms. These would happen without warning. The stones were as big as eggs and could kill, especially if one was caught out in the open, or at the top of a playground swing. Then the only thing to do was to jump off the best way you could and run like a hound in hell to the shelter. I lived out many violent hailstorms under the corrugated iron roofs of those storm shelters. The stones hammering down made a din not unlike the noise experienced eight years later in the air raids, and were every bit as lethal.

Whether my Dad worked or not we still seemed to live a life of luxury. There was always enough to eat, and evenings were pleasantly spent listening to Jack Benny or the Amos 'n Andy show on Radio CKY, while the corks from our bottled home-made wine popped in the cellar. I never understood why my parents used to bottle the wine because neither of them ever drank alcohol.

Christmas in the snow in Canada was in the sort of winter wonderland one only sees today on Yuletide cards. At Christmas I got to sit on Santa's knee in Eatons telling lies, and to ride around on a donkey in the Christmas Fair on the top floor. There was skating, tobogganing and wassailing. On the ice you could walk over the Hudson's Bay to Newfoundland, or even to the North Pole if you felt like it.

When my parents realised that my Dad wasn't going to make his fortune in Canada we travelled back to England.

Our relatives threw us a grand going-away party, and someone made a huge model, several feet long, of the SS Montcalm, the ship we were to travel on. There is a picture in my Mum's album of Joan standing beside the mock-up dressed in a little sailor suit and saluting, while I pull a face in the background.

When the Germans stepped up their efforts to kill me in Coventry later on my Mum applied for me to be evacuated back to Canada. I received my ticket and was all ready to go. Exactly one week before I was due to embark, the ship caught fire in Liverpool docks and the trip was off. This was not a good omen, so Mum managed to have me evacuated into Shakespeare country with the rest of our school instead.

The trip to England entailed travelling for three days on a train to Montreal, and then for eight more days on the SS Montcalm. This gave my sister Joan a fine chance to outdo all previous efforts, and she managed to be trainsick and seasick for the whole of the eleven days. Now it was no longer necessary for me to do anything. The ship pitched and tossed about all on its own. It was only necessary for me to appear in the cabin doorway and whisper, ‘Bacon and eggs’ and off she went.

Not long after we’d departed Newfoundland and had lost sight of land I awoke to find the ship stopped and the foghorn wailing like a lonely banshee in the night. Next morning we saw that the ship was surrounded by icebergs. After the Titanic went down they were taking no more chances, especially with me on board.

The funny thing about that voyage was that although I know that my Dad was on the train I can’t remember him being on the ship. I’ll swear that there were only the three of us in our cabin. Maybe he was working his passage as a stoker or something. On the train he seemed to spend most of the three days walking up and down the carriages with three enormous black men. There was talk of selling cheese, although whether he was selling it to them, or vice versa, I couldn’t make out.

I know that we cheated about my age on the ship because every time a steward asked me how old I was I would open my mouth to say ‘I’m sev...’ and my Mum used to interrupt very quickly to say that I was a ‘big five’. Obviously fives and under travelled for half price.

I never found out what made my Dad decide to bring us back to dirty old London, at a time when all the rest of our relatives were busily moving over from Winnipeg to Vancouver. His decision meant that my Mum never ever saw her own mother again from that day onwards until the old lady died thirty years later.

Maybe my Dad had a burning patriotic desire to rejoin the army to fight for his country. The winds of war were certainly blowing in 1935. When the war began and he finally did apply to the War Office they didn’t want him. He'd been wounded twice in the First World War and honourably discharged from the Royal Fusiliers. He had to beg them for months before they gave him the job he wanted, which was training officers up in Oldham, before he was sent off to win the war in Africa with the Eighth Army.That all came later, though.

Our family moved straight back into the slums when we hit London. After the healthy environment and clean prairie air we found ourselves trapped somewhere in the smog between Clapham Common and Lavender Hill.

But luck was on our side, because my Dad couldn’t find work anywhere except in a tiny village called Hockley, near Southend-on-Sea. Here he became a bricklayer’s labourer, and came home dirty and complaining every night. As was usual in most of my Dad’s jobs, he would spend the weekend telling Mum how he was going to knock the false teeth of whoever was his current boss right down his throat.

At least the air was better out here in the country. Our cottage was right in the middle of fields. I would often awaken to find a cow looking through the window a couple of inches from my face, chewing away mournfully. The first time it happened to Joan she, quite naturally, became first hysterical, and then sick, which surprised no one.

I was sent to my first school in nearby Hawkwell village, and at once fell desperately in love with my teacher, Miss Leighfield. As I was now eight years of age and could read, write and do math already, she showed no interest in me. So ended my first romance. I thus had much spare time in which to daydream in class.

It was here that I had my first lesson in psychology. There was a kid in the class named Alan Appleton. As all things involving lists in England have always gone alphabetically, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, he was first in everything. Alan was only a little guy and he hated being first. When anything new came up he was always the one who had to try it out first, always first in the line at games, first to be asked things and so on. Alan was Number One. We used to benefit by watching him blunder through. By the time my name came up all the bugs in whatever we were doing had been ironed out.

One day his mother, who must have been a fast worker, divorced Appleton and quickly married a man named Williams. Overnight he became Alan Williams, and went right to the back of the list. When I congratulated him on this he had tears of joy in his eyes. It was my first lesson in life. After a while I realised how lucky I was to have been born big, white, British, and have a name beginning with ‘S’.

We soon moved to Southend proper, and lived with my two maiden aunts Edith and Jane. What relationship they had with us I never discovered. I doubt that they were real aunts. There was no love lost between us. They both seemed to have arthritis, and complained bitterly about the noise every time I came into their view, even if I was making none.

I went to the school opposite in the Bournemouth Park Road. Upon my first appearance in the playground I was surrounded by boys taking the piss out of my Canadian accent. Following truly in my father’s footsteps I seized the one I took to be the ringleader and dragged him into the toilet.

‘You see this?’ I demanded, holding up my fist. `I’m going to knock your false teeth down your throat, I am.’

He struggled in my grip. It was obvious that he didn’t know what I was talking about.

‘I’ll bash you,’ I explained, ‘Tell your friends.’

When I followed him out after a decent pause I was accepted as one of them. This should be a lesson to all school beginners, because it was pure bluff, and taught me something which has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.

Apparently in Canada, still a land of pioneers, children first went to school at the age of seven and were baptised when they were nine. I was baptised at the same time as my young brother, which means that I was theoretically in the hands of the devil for those early highly formative years. This has made me quite different from my fellow man in many ways, something for which I am truly thankful.

My Dad couldn’t carry on in life as a bricklayer’s labourer, so he found a job in London as a furniture salesman, and lived during the week at his mother’s place in Battersea. The rest of us moved to a dinky little place called Hutton Village in Essex, where I at once became firm friends with the village idiot.

That is what everyone called him, but, after a few outings with him I realised that he was no more stupid than everyone else around there. The boy was known as Knobbler, and he got pretty badly treated by the rest of his family, who were totally degenerate.

When the war began we soon had quite a few Italian prisoners of war coming to work in the fields. We hung around them a lot and they quickly befriended us boys, and used to carve us little things out of wood, or bits of aluminium. They showed us pictures of home, happy grinning families with country or mountain views in the background. They were glad to be out of the war. The soldier guarding them used to sleep while they worked, while one of them looked after his rifle, which wasn’t loaded.

I had a great time in Hutton. It hardly ever rained, we had Indian Summers, and snow on Christmas Eve. The place was all fields and woods, and we lived right on the edge of a field, with a frog pond at the bottom of the garden.

I went to the village school, run by Miss Staten and Mrs Butts, two fat old spinsters who taught us nothing. Most of the kids came from farming families and were as thick as planks. We were given an essay to write one day—what would you do if someone gave you a hundred pounds? Don’t buy anything for yourself with the money, we were warned. This was supposed to show our deeply-ingrained British sense of consideration for those less fortunate than ourselves, and so on.

The boy beside me finished his essay almost before I had begun my own. His name was Sydney Todd and he had written: if i had a hunred pauns i woud by sum pise. He was way ahead of all educators and reformers. Every word perfectly understandable and the meaning crystal clear. Brilliant.

Sydney went on to become a successful politician of ministerial rank. No, I’m only kidding.

For some reason, known only to herself, Mrs Butts had it in for me. I seemed to spend most of my time standing in the corner of the classroom, being punished for something or other. She would announce my misdeeds to the class with the gravity of an Old Bailey judge, causing all the rest of the kids to press their lips together and nod sanctimonioiusly—that boy will hang one day. Then it was into the corner with me for an hour or so.

She must have spent most of her spare time spying on our house, which was close to the school. She saw me pitching stones into the frog pool at the bottom of the garden and accused me of throwing them at my mother. I was observed speaking to a boy from another village, whose father was suspected of house-breaking. The vicar had seen me standing in the vicinity of a still-burning cigarette which someone had thrown into the gutter, and I was charged with smoking. All these things, and more, got thrown up at me in class, to the immense satisfaction of my schoolmates.

As I knew the answers to most of the stupid questions she would put to the class I was Mr. Cleverdick. In the music class I was quickly fired from the percussion band. ‘Mr. Cleverdick has no sense of rhythm at all!’

The yearly pantomime was put on by our local shopkeeper, Mr. Stratford. I used to do little things for him at weekends. One of them was to push a heavy ice-cream cart all the way through endless country lanes up to the cricket ground on a Saturday afternoon, stand there selling the stuff, and then push it all the way back again. As payment for that I received one free ice-cream.

I usually helped him construct the stage for the pantomime, and all other functions at the school requiring a stage, saving him the cost of a paid helper. As a reward he cut my hair badly for fourpence.

If he spotted my mother, or any other woman from the village, getting off the Brentwood bus carrying shopping he rushed out to demand why she had not patronised his shop.

When you entered Mr. Stratford’s emporium a bell rang over the door. He always made you wait a while before he came in from the back. He invariably entered the shop drying his hands on a towel, which gave cause to much speculation as to what he was getting up to in the back there. Mrs Stratford was a very fat ugly woman, and he sure as hell wasn’t doing anything to her.

One day I went in there to buy a pennyworth of broken biscuits and saw a bar of chocolate lying on the floor.

Just then I caught sight of him watching me in a small mirror hanging on the wall in his back room.

‘Hey! Mr. Stratford!’ I called. ‘There’s a bar of chocolate on the floor in here. Someone must have dropped it.’

He came out in a rush, grabbed my arm, and shook me until my teeth rattled.

You dropped it, didn’t you?’ he hissed. ‘And now I’ve got you, little bastard!’

He actually sent a policeman around to the house to question me. My mother stuck up for me valiently. The policeman listened to everything I had to say with his head down, staring at the floor, nodding slowly. When he left he asked my mother to step outside for a moment. I heard him tell her that Mr.Stratford had pulled the same trick on every boy in the village, in the hopes of getting a confession. What he did get, after all that, was a general boycott of his shop, which caused him, finally, to sell up and leave.

That Christmas I helped the local undertaker build the stage for the pantomime. He was so impressed with my skill with the tools that he asked me if I’d like to help him at weekends. I had nightmares for weeks after that offer.

For this particular pantomime I was roped in to appear in a short play, which was put on before the main event. I was the biggest and huskiest boy in the school, and horribly miscast for the role. The part consisted of my sitting around on the stage repeatedly asserting that I did not, in any way, believe in fairies. Various incredible things then happened all around me, as several lumpy girls, wearing gauzy spangled dresses with gossamar wings sewn on their backs, thundered all over the stage like young elephants, working miracles. At the end of this ghastly episode I had to say, ‘I do! I do! Now I do believe in fairies!’

The rehearsals took place in civilian clothing. Although I hated the part I went on with it to avoid having an argument with Mrs Butts, who had typecast me, somewhat sadistically, for the role. Right up to the dress rehearsal, during the afternoon before opening night, I had not seen my costume, which was apparently still being sewn together. It was only just before the actual pantomime took place that I was confronted with it for the first time.

Mrs Butts had faithfully copied something she’d seen in some fairy tale book, the biggest fag costume you could imagine for a ten year old boy. Being the tallest and strongest I was captain of both the school cricket and football teams. I was fastest runner, best tree-climber, best street-fighter, and could throw a spitball the furthest.

When I was all dressed up for my part in the play I was wearing a large frilly and fussy white satin blouse, brown velvet shorts elasticated at the legs so that they ballooned out like a pair of bloomers, long black tights, and a pair of patent leather strap shoes. With the make-up and blonde wig I looked more like a fairy than the girls did. Some of the other kids didn’t recognise me at first, but when they did there was a great deal of nudging and winking and I started to get a bit hot under the collar.

To make things worse my name in the play was Cecil. That was a sissy name, as far as I was concerned. It was too late to back out, so I went on and did my piece.

My entrance on stage was greeted with a stunned silence, then a few titters broke out as the locals in the audience recognised me.

I began to swagger. Every time I spoke I used a loud rough Shiver my Timbers—Long John Silver kind of voice, to make up for the mincing little Shirley Temple outfit. Even the fairies took time off from crashing around to look at me in amazement.

Mrs Butts spent the entire play in the wings shaking her fist, drawing her finger across her throat, and hissing with rage at me, but I persevered until the end. Then, when the punchline came, I shouted, ‘I DON’T! I DON’T! — NOW I STILL DON’T BELIEVE IN FAIRIES!’ which of course ruined the entire piece.

For that Mrs Butts told me that I was going to get the cane. No getting away from it—I would be severely punished in front of the whole school the very next day. She was looking forward to it, she said.

When I got home I told my mother all about Mrs Butts. Up to now I had spared her with my school problems, but today had been the last straw.

My mother took me up to the school very early the next morning and banged on the door until Mrs Butts opened it, still wearing her dressing gown. My mother pushed her way inside, leaving me standing in the playground. I heard her shouting, which was interesting, as I had never heard my mother raise her voice at anyone before

When she finally came out my mother was blazing. I was burning with curiosity, but she only said that she’d sorted things out with that woman.

From that day onwards Mrs Butts ignored me completely. One or two kids shouted ‘Cecil’ at me in the playground for a bit until I banged their heads together, but the incident became quickly buried in the past. With a war now on we had greater things to worry about. However, the only bit of enemy hardware to fall anywhere near that area was at the end of the war, when a V1 flying bomb lost its way and fizzled out over the village. Dropped right beside the school, where else? Made a big crater. No one was hurt

One day a madman escaped from the asylum in Brentwood and appeared in our village. He gathered all the small boys around him in the copse behind the village store and got us to show him our dicks. That was all.

Next day a policeman came to our door and interviewed me.

‘Did he want to look at your penis?’ he asked.

I was squirming about with embarrassment beside my mother, who was all ears.

Finally I said ‘No, he didn’t. He only wanted to see my winkie.’ Well that’s what we had always called it in my house.

He hid a grin and left. Those were the days when you could ask a policeman the time. There was even a song about it—if you want to know the time ask a policeman.

We had a plague of rabbits. Most weekends I went rabbiting with some local men. Most of them had ferrets, and they sent these down the holes, while I held a net over another hole nearby. We caught six or seven rabbits each time, and I used to get one for helping out. My Mum was very glad of those rabbits, because we were desperately poor at the time.

Shortly after the pantomime episode I began attending Brentwood Senior Boys’ School. A special bus picked me up every morning. That was a school and a half, that was. All the teachers were superior beings, and I loved every one of them.

Here I had Art, Music, and Chemistry for the first time. The music teacher made us close our eyes and listen to classical music, and it was here that I first heard ‘Prince Igor’. I was enthralled by the music. Afterwards I asked the teacher for the name of the piece.

‘That was the Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens,’ he said. I made a note of it in my head. ‘Thank you for asking,’ he added. Apparently I had been the only one who had been listening. He used to play the violin up on stage when we sang hymns in the Great Hall at prayers. I was in awe of his talents. When the war began most of the younger teachers went to join the army, as officers, of course. I used to write to them care of army field postal addresses. They always answered my letters.

Most of the kids were scared of the art teacher, who was very short, and used to bark at you if you goofed up. In the art class I learned how to draw trees, and have been a specialist in tree drawing ever since, which I do when answering the telephone. The science teacher taught me how to make explosions. I can’t remember him doing anything else. Sitting in other classes we could always hear a succession of loud bangs coming out of the laboratory. He should have been in the army as well, but obviously he was more usefully employed in teaching us, the soldiers of the future.

I brought my newly learned science back to the house. I took an old treacle tin, the kind with a push-on lid. In the lid I bored a large hole, and several smaller ones in the bottom of the tin. Then I held the large hole over the gas ring until the tin, and most of the room, filled with gas, stumbled out into the garden choking for breath, stood the tin on a couple of bricks and lit the hole in the top.

This was supposed to blow the lid out skyhigh, which it did. Wheeee! Next stop nuclear fission.

Apart from Knobbler, another friend of mine was the son of the housekeeper of one of the big houses. His name was Maurice Petit, which all of us, including himself, with no regard for the language at all, pronounced as Morris Pettitt. The owner of the house was a Mrs Du Rose Hanson, and it was whispered that she was religious. I saw her often when I went over to play with him and she frightened me.

For some reason she always seemed to be wearing long flesh-coloured rubber gloves, probably for doing her little bits of flower gardening, but I associated them with something more sinister because the murderers in my comic books used to draw them on with a snap just before cutting up bodies.

‘Now there’s a nice boy,’ she would say when she saw me, and my blood would run cold. Once, greatly daring, Maurice and I accepted an invitation to see inside the house. It was enormous and gloomy like the house of the Addams Family, and huge pictures of Jesus and God hung everywhere. She kept taking my arm to steer me over to another picture and I had to steel myself every time she touched me because she was still wearing those rubber gloves.

I began to wonder if she wore them all the time, even in bed! Maybe her hands were horribly deformed!

At that point she stripped the gloves off and flung them into a corner where they writhed about on their own for a moment.

‘Let’s have some tea,’ she said, and rang a bell. Maurice’s mother served us out on the terrace. Mrs Du Rose Hanson had lovely hands, with brightly painted fingernails.

Maurice and I became the firmest of friends. We played, explored, argued, made things, climbed trees, stole apples, went to the cinema, fell into ponds, rode horses bare-back, played conkers, and did everything two boys could ever do together. We were inseparable.

On the day our family left for Coventry, and men were loading the removal van, I saw Maurice walk by in the street outside. He was yelling something, so I opened the window to hear what he was saying.

‘Good riddance!’ he was shouting.

Chapter Eight >>>
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved