I left home for the first time at the tender age of two. It wasn’t that I was unhappy or being badly treated, it was just that I had this overwhelming urge to explore the world. Most children who leave home run away; I could barely walk so my escape was somewhat slower. Needless to say, my mother managed to catch up with me before I had gone too far but it did her no good as the moment she turned her back, I was gone again. Apart from infuriating her, she was baffled; there was no Australian aboriginal blood in any of the family genealogy and none of the family before me had ever had such a wanderlust.
I grew up in a small village called Old Coulsdon, about 20 miles to the south-east of London, and in the middle of what is often referred to as the stockbrokers belt. Our house was originally a monastery built in 1207 at the time of the 2nd Crusades for St. Thomas of Acre. It had been converted into a Farm house and from there transformed into two semi-detached 3 bedroom houses, but all the original oak beams from the monastery were still in use, blackened with age, and, probably as solid as steel. On the upper level in my grandparents side, one of those beams had a bas-relief carving of the Crusader’s cross.
As a child, it seemed to be an enormous house with a huge fireplace in our living room where I spent many hours lying in front of, reading book after book. However, many years later, when I visited it as an adult, the house turned out to be quite small and pokey and the fireplace that I remember as being so big, was tiny.
My grandparents, on my father’s side, lived on one of the two and we lived in the other. There was a door on the upstairs landing allowing free passage between the two.
My grandmother was originally French but she had no trace of an accent that I can remember. I do remember that she bred Pekingese dogs and that they were always running around and getting underfoot. Perhaps that is why they are my least favorite dogs.
I used to walk for miles around the neighborhood and it was quite normal for my mother to get a phone call from somebody that she barely knew, telling her that I was over at their house. I, of course, was quite happy to be there because there would always be a seemingly, unending supply of tea, cakes and sweets to keep me occupied until I was collected. She would walk over to get me (in those days, virtually nobody had cars), walk back home and ten minutes later I would be gone again.
She tried everything possible to cure me of this rather irritating and worrying habit; locking me inside the living room, keeping me on a leash but none of it worked; I got out anyway. One time she had my father build a wire fenced enclosure in the garden for me to play in. Within an hour of being in this ultra-safe environment, I had got bored, dug out underneath it and went wandering off again. Finally she resigned herself to it and just waited for me to either turn up or for the phone to ring. Of course, in those days, it was much safer to be a child; in today’s environment who knows what might have happened!
Sometime between my second and third birthday, my mother came down with pneumonia and was deathly ill. She was lying on the day bed shivering and shaking and generally feeling dreadful while I, obnoxious child that I was, demanded attention. Not getting it, I picked up a brass flower pot and banged her on the head with it. She was too sick to kill me!
My natural tendencies to run away stood me in good stead a year or so later when I was kidnapped, out of my push chair, outside the grocery store where my father was shopping. The kidnappers locked me in a bedroom and went off in search of a phone to call in the ransom demand. It took them quite a while to find one that worked. I was told the conversation went something like this.
A short argument ensued over what they should do next and with nothing settled, the two disgruntled kidnappers headed back to the house where they were keeping their hostage. They were somewhat relieved to find that the decision had been made for them as both the front door and the bedroom door were hanging open and I was nowhere to be seen.
Back at my house, my mother and father were having a heated discussion of their own which ended the moment that I appeared on the doorstep. “I told you it would be a waste of a hundred pounds,” my mother said triumphantly. My father threw up his hands in frustration, a gesture that was to be repeated many times over the succeeding years. Meanwhile the subject of all the fuss and fervor had headed into the kitchen in search of milk and cookies.
As to the kidnappers, they probably decided to find another line of work!
I should mention that I have no memory of this incident, and it is quite possible that my parents made the entire thing up. Our entire family are jokesters, and like nothing more than a good wind-up.
I had an uncanny sense of who had chocolate in their pockets. Whenever we went out to eat, I would wander away from the table and head straight for any old ladies who my senses told me had chocolate. I made a lot of friends and collected a lot of chocolate. I rarely struck out.
As much as I loved reading, I loved playing games more; board games, card games just not stupid games. The family favorite was Scrabble and, when we played it was all out war. We were merciless with one another, particularly Mum & I. I won most of our games, so when she beat me, it made her day.
Many, many years later I was living in Florida and Mum came to visit. Every morning we would sit on the balcony and play. One morning she started with a seven letter word, QUARREL, which gave her big points. She had a very smug grin when she put it down, and I knew she thought she was going to teach her upstart son a lesson. When the game ended some 40 minutes later, she had lost by 40 points. She looked at me and said “I’d call you a son of a bitch but I know your mother!” We both howled with laughter.
I remember another game when I was about 15. Mum, Dad and I were playing. Mum started with a 7 letter word. Dad followed with a 3 letter word and then I got another 7 letter word, followed immediately by Mum with another one. Dad looked at the board, stood up and said “Well, I’m not playing with you two bastards any more,”and went to his office.
As well as Scrabble, we all loved to play Cribbage which is a fantastic card game, played by 2, 3 or 4 people. Once again, we were all out for blood and we were all very good players. Money was always involved and the winner would inevitably gloat about their winnings.
After my Dad died in 1987, and I was living overseas, my brother would stop at home every night, on his way back from work, for a few games of Cribbage. He was single at the time so Mum would make him dinner. They had a standing bet that if she won, he would pay her £5 for his supper, otherwise he got to eat for free. I’m pretty sure he never paid for a single meal.
In the summer, we would go out to the front lawn where Dad had laid out a badminton court and we would all play badminton for hours. As with everything else, we were all very competitive and we had many fun times. We were out there playing early one evening, and a fox with her two cubs came through the garden and sat at the side of the court and watched us play for a good ten minutes; I’m not sure who they were rooting for but I’m pretty sure it was me!
The other game which I have always loved, and still play every single day is chess. Dad wouldn’t play with me once I got to 8, and my brother was never interested in it, so I mostly played with my school friends, or, more often, their fathers. I can’t remember when this was, but Mum decided she wanted to learn. I offered to teach her but she declined the offer, saying that she wanted to learn by herself. Finally she told me that she was ready to play. I gave her the white pieces and she made her move. I made mine and she made a face. “What’s up?” I asked. Her reply was priceless. “That move isn’t in any of the books I’ve studied,” she said, and, of course, I laughed. She gave up the game that very day.
We had a very big garden, 2 acres in all. At the top if it was an old barn which my grandmother used to use as a kennel for her rotten little Pekingese dogs. We had an archery target set up with the barn as a backdrop to catch errant arrows, of which there were many. One afternoon, I was out practicing and a pigeon flew in front of the barn at the same time as I let fly. The arrow impaled the pigeon right in the gold of the target. I was so pleased, with my accuracy of course.
Geoff and I were also allowed air rifles with the strict instruction that we were only allowed to shoot pigeons. He didn’t say anything about not shooting my grandfather’s tomatoes, so they were fair game for quite a while until my grandfather went ballistic. Dad and I were out one day shooting at targets. I looked up and saw a sparrow perched on the edge of the chimney. “Dad,” I cried. “Look at the sparrow. It would be a sitting duck if it was a pigeon!”
We also played a lot of cricket in the garden. One time I was at bat, and Dad bowled me an easy ball which I took full advantage of, and hit with tremendous force. I could see the look of horror on his face as he watched the ball head straight for the huge glass window to the lounge. Fortunately, it missed and went through one of the small corner windows instead. The cricket pitch was immediately moved 30 yards away on my mother’s instructions.
As I mentioned earlier, my entire family were jokesters with my Dad being the chief one. Outside the front door, there was a small, empty flower bed. Mum, Geoff and I were in the kitchen when Dad came in, and proudly announced that he had planted some bulbs in the flower bed. Mum was very excited and rushed out to see, only to find out that the bulbs he had planted were light bulbs, including a 6’ long fluorescent tube. She did laugh.
Geoff and I are 3 years apart with our birthdays on the 1st and 3rd of May. As children, we fought a lot; sometimes quite violently. I shot him once in the hand with the air rifle. Another time he hit me with a dog chain and I retaliated by throwing a knife at him. It missed, but made a huge gash in the bedroom door that we were hard pushed to explain.
We had two cats growing up, one after the other. Both were called Pepe. Pepe #1 was a beautiful tortoiseshell and Pepe #2 was a beautiful grey and white tabby. She was incredibly intelligent and quite mischievous. One time, Mum was preparing our usual afternoon tea and had put the tea and cream on the trolley in preparation. She turned around to see that Pepe had drunk all the cream. The look on Pepe’s face was priceless; she was definitely ‘the cat that got the cream’.
Pepe also had a predilection for fruit cake and, if there was any left anywhere, it quickly disappeared into her mouth. She was asleep on Dad’s lap one afternoon when he picked up a piece of fruit cake from the trolley. She immediately woke up and stared longingly at it. He moved his arm outwards so that it was stretched horizontally with the cake still in his fingers. Quick as a flash, she climbed up onto his shoulder, walked to the end of his arm, grabbed, and swallowed, the cake, carefully backed up and went back to sleep. Dad picked up another piece, and she immediately woke up, but this time, it went straight in his mouth. She gave him a disgusted look and went right back to sleep.
At night, she would sleep outside my parent’s door and would scratch the door when she wanted to go out. To prevent the door getting scratched to pieces, Dad hung a large key there and she would bounce that against the door instead, waking him so that he could put her in the garden. He would then wait up for her to come and ask to be let back in which she did by knocking on the door, literally. There was a plastic strip the full length of the door, the bottom of which had come close. Pepe would pull it out with her claw and then let it go, repeating this as often as needed until somebody came and let her in. I did tell you she was highly intelligent.
If you’ve guessed that I had a very happy childhood, you would be absolutely right.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading or listening to this chapter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and recording it.
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