When I was a kid, my closest relative and friend was a cousin, Dave, who was the same age. I had a pretty gruelling couple of years when I was 11 and 12 - it's a daft age anyway. Most of my friends at school lived some distance away, and I wasn't allowed to invite anyone to our house - this was in case they met my sister, who was mentally handicapped, which is a separate story altogether - my dad wasn't very good with stuff like that.
So I recall a dismal few years when there was a lot of homework and a very small amount of television, and I filled in my spare time by reading in my bedroom, and going for long walks with the dog. I later got some relief when I discovered the pleasures of cross-country running, but for a long time there was pretty much nothing going on. My family didn't talk much.
My cousin, whose parents were separated, got a place as a boarder at Liverpool Bluecoat School. The Bluecoat was an unusual school - it had day pupils - I also knew someone who attended there as a day pupil, but he said he was basically an outcast - the boarding school was very much the heart of the institution. There was a long tradition of places at the school being allocated on a charitable basis, which is how my cousin was accepted. Many of his friends in the boarding house were from military families, frequently British Army people stationed overseas - so he had pals who used to go home to Kenya or Malaya for the Summer holidays. Dave used to go home to sunny Wavertree. *
|Liverpool Bluecoat School - I think that's the chapel|
He also had a friend called Soss. They were pretty much inseparable. I used to go with Dave's mum to the chapel service at the Bluecoat most Sundays. The boarders all paraded in - very disciplined, full uniform - and there was a full, drawn-out service, organ, choir, proper sermon - the lot. The chapel was dark and cold and grandiose - lots of busts of Lord This and Viscount That, and General The-Other. And very, very hard pews. At the end of the service, the boarders were allowed to meet with any personal visitors - I think I used to get 5 minutes with Dave. Any items passed across had to be approved by a member of staff. I'm sure it was character-building, but my recollection is that it was a bit like a very dignified prison.
Dave was invariably accompanied by Soss, who never had visitors of his own. Soss - short for Sausage (his love of sausages was legendary at the school, apparently), his real name was Danny Burgess - was an odd character. He was quite small, and he never spoke. He would occasionally shrug, or grin nervously when spoken to, and he blinked constantly. He looked like an urchin - he had a pudding-basin haircut, years before the Beatles made such things fashionable, and his blazer was too big, and he always looked uncomfortable, and fidgeted. He was constantly in trouble for not polishing his shoes for the Sunday service.
Soss came from Cornwall. He was at the school as an Army orphan. His dad had been killed during the Suez Crisis. His dad was a driver in a transport section somewhere, and he died in a road accident around Suez time. This gained Soss a lot of contempt from those of his school chums whose families were senior officers in Colonial Places, and it added to his general exclusion. Soss's mother used to come up a couple of times a year for Speech Day, and to meet with his teachers. Her name was Antoinette, and she was a tough, rather battered little lady - very kind and very polite. She was as poor as a church mouse, and used to travel up from Cornwall to Liverpool on a relay of buses, which must have been dreadful. Because she couldn't afford to pay for accommodation, she used to stay with my aunt, and on one occasion, though it seems incredible now, she actually stayed with us. My mother got on very well with her, and they maintained a regular correspondence for some years. My mother was always fascinated by people who had had difficult lives, so I fear Antoinette may have been something of an exhibit.
When I was about 14, I suddenly learned we were going on a Summer vacation to Portreath, on the North Cornish coast, for a week, and we were going to stay with Antoinette. Sounds idyllic, but we were going in a car my dad borrowed from a work colleague who repaired cars in his spare time, and the whole spirit of the trip was along the lines of never mind how awful this is, just think of the money we're saving.
Our destination was Portreath, not far from Redruth. The holiday itself was not great. Antoinette had arranged cheap B&B at a friend's house, about a mile from her own home, for my parents and my sister, and I stayed in the village with Soss (I shared Soss's bedroom) and his mum, and her partner, Walter, who was a bit of a problem. Walter was an ex-marine, and covered with tattoos (by the standards of the day, anyway), and he was loud and aggressive, and argumentative, and he drank a great deal.
I found that I had been allocated a camp bed which rocked like a see-saw, so I stuck my suitcase under one end and a box under the other, and that stabilised things a bit. Soss had part of a large room which had been split into two by putting a partition down the middle, and this partition divided a large bay window in half, so that each half-room had a half-window, which made a sort of alcove where my bed was situated.
I needed to add a simple map here, since the placing of the bed was one of the themes of the holiday. Problems were threefold:
* the bed was dreadfully uncomfortable, and smelled of having been stored in someone's garage for years
* there was a street lamp right outside the window, which sounds odd, but the street lamp was a normal-sized lamppost, and the lane outside climbed steeply and turned very abruptly, so the lamppost from down the hill illuminated Soss's room quite brightly, even with the curtains closed
* the bed was tucked into the alcove to save as much space as possible, so I was at an angle to the rest of the room. Because I couldn't sleep anyway, I was constantly staring at the edges of the ceiling, which made very odd angles with my bed, which disturbed me greatly - bugged the hell out of me, with those vivid shadows! In the dead of night I got up, shifted the chair from next to the bed, and moved the camp bed so that it lay against the partition. That was better. The world was straight again, I could go to sleep.
I became acquainted with Walter after bedtime, since he came back from the pub very drunk, and started shouting and banging things about. Soss said we mustn't talk any more until the morning, or there might be trouble.
When I got up in the morning, Walter had gone to his work. He worked irregularly, and it seemed to involve a van and people that Antoinette wasn't happy with, and anyway Soss wouldn't talk about it. Fair enough.
It was a lovely day, so after breakfast Soss took me swimming in the harbour. In those days I had a glass face mask, which I got a lot of fun out of, but with hindsight it probably messed up my swimming, because I never swam any distances - I was always looking at the bottom of the pool, or playing around underwater. Whatever, off we went to the harbour. Soss, of course, swam like a tadpole - well out of my league. Because I had my face mask with me, he came up with a great idea that we would dive down, swim under some wooden fishing boats (they were two-abreast) and come up against the ladder on the harbour side. This was pretty good, actually, but on about my 4th turn the bow-wave from another vessel caused the boats to drift against the harbour wall, so that when I came up the gap had closed - I had a few seconds of absolutely blind terror, but I turned around and had enough breath left to swim back under the boats to the clear water on the far side. There was no real danger - in fact, I could have gone forward to the prow of the boat I was under, which was a shorter distance.
Soss laughed like a drain, of course, and I put a brave face on it, but I'd had a bad fright, whether or not it was justified, and I'd had enough underwater swimming for the day, thank you. I can still remember exactly how it looked and felt when I thought I was stuck down there.
We went back to Soss's house, to get rid of our swimming costumes ("cozzies" in both Liverpool and Cornwall, I recall!). My bed had been shifted back to its angled position, and there was a handwritten note:
DO NOT MOVE THE FURNITURE OR THERE WILL BE TRUBBEL. REMEMBER YOU A VISITOR HEAR!
Soss said don't worry, that was how things were in his family. I worried.
|This looks about right...|
OK - next adventure. Soss seemed to have a gift for targeting my neuroses - or possibly helping me create new ones. We took packets of egg sandwiches with us and went for a walk along the beach, round a couple of headlands, to what Soss called his secret beach. That was really very nice - it was deserted; we played around on the sand and in the water until lunch time, threw about a billion pebbles, and then Soss announced that we would have to get off this beach by climbing the 200-foot cliff behind us, since we were now cut off by the tide and the beach would be underwater soon. Once again, he was completely relaxed, totally in his own element, and had never considered that there might be townies who were pathetic enough to be scared of heights (as I was, and still am!). Up the cliff we went - only fear of letting myself down in front of my cousin's friend kept me going, I think, though I can't imagine what alternatives there were. We made it to the top, and I found that I had been clutching my package of sandwiches in one hand all the way up, which can't have been an advantage. There was a lot of very nervous laughter at the top, I can tell you.
|Triumph Mayflower - not one of the British classics|
And more of the same. I persevered with the oblique bed, dutifully went into hiding each night before Walter roared back from the pub, enjoyed the peaceful days when Walter went to work, and relished a few walks that did not involve cliffs or drowning in the harbour. I saw very little of my family - they may have been pleased to have got rid of me! To be honest, I am astonished that I can't remember much more about my stay in Portreath, though I do know that the weather changed on about day 4, and after about a day of looking at horizontal rain outside (and, I suspect, an argument between Walter and my dad, which could have left me an orphan as well) we cut our losses, and my family drove back to Liverpool in the borrowed car (which was an old Triumph). That was one occasion I was glad to get home again!
* Footnote, nundanket style: One of Dave's great friends at school was Brian Knowles, an exceptional musician, who earned his crust for many years touring as Musical Director with Roger Whittaker (quiet at the back, please), but eventually was established as a composer and performer in his own right. He is now Composer in Residence at the Royal School, Haslemere. I find it hard to imagine him hanging around in cold, dusty corners of the Bluecoat with Dave and Soss. Dave died of prostate cancer when he was only about 50 - Knowlesy played some music at the funeral, in Birkenhead. I have no idea what happened to Soss - my mother's correspondence with Antoinette stopped fairly abruptly!