Here is a photo of my brother, Tony Wilson, riding his first bike.
This was taken in the early 1960s in Sunbury on Thames, Middlesex, England.
Here is a photo of my brother, Tony Wilson, riding his first bike.
This was taken in the early 1960s in Sunbury on Thames, Middlesex, England.
This story, one of the earliest from my childhood days, is about my socks changing colour. Yes, they really did change colour! I am sure you are thinking, ‘Did it really happen or was it just the result of a child’s overactive imagination?’ Read on, my friend, and you can decide for yourself…
I was only six years of age when we set off on our first summer holiday, to Ireland. Although my mother hailed from there, in my young, innocent mind Ireland was a far-off, exotic country. I thought it something akin to Africa, India or even Borneo, where it was claimed head-hunters roamed.
We lived in a quiet part of southern England, a place called Sunbury-on-Thames, where nothing exciting ever happened. Setting off, on holiday, to another country was as exciting as it could possibly get.
My sister, Maria, two years my elder, and my brother Tony, two years younger than I, were almost as excited as I was. Moreover, when we boarded the electric train that was our transport to London, we could hardly contain our excitement.
When I say electric train, it probably stirs up visions of sleek, shiny carriages whistling along even shinier tracks in a most efficient manner. That vision, however, could hardly be further from the truth. The green painted electric trains travelling from Sunbury to Waterloo Station, in London, were old. Even to my young, idealistic eyes, that saw the positive side of most things, they were old, run-down and dilapidated.
As our train rattled, creaked and shook its way slowly along the tracks, transporting us on the first leg of our journey, the lights in our carriage flickered on and off all the way there. Despite the flickering lights, we were determined to enjoy our ride in the train, Tony, Maria and I gazed through the windows. It was a magical, mesmerising world outside, alongside the tracks. There were parks, factories, houses and shops. We even spotted a racecourse. I was so jealous of the people whose gardens backed onto the railway line. I imagined their lives were so exciting, with trains whizzing past their properties night and day. I so wished that I was living in one of those houses.
If the gardens backing onto the railway line were exciting, the land running alongside the tracks was HEAVEN itself. In that wonderland of sidings, buffers, sheds, water towers, turntables, goods trains and, most importantly of all, steam locomotives, my heart yearned to reside. In those heady days of steam locomotion it was every boy’s dream to be an engine driver, just the thought of being a part of that magical world of fire, smoke and steam sent our hearts racing.
As we passed station after station, stopping at each and every one of them, the excitement burning in our bellies grew exponentially. The closer our train approached London, clanking its way noisily across points, where so many tracks converged on the nation’s capital, the slower it became. Offsetting the frustration we felt due to our slow moving train, the increased number of steam locomotives present, the closer we got to London, perked us up no end. In Sunbury, where we lived, with the station only one stop away from the end of the line, the presence of a steam locomotive, there, would have been a major occasion. The only thing railway related that was remotely exciting was an old Pullman carriage parked on a siding at Shepperton station, at the end of the line three miles away. With my face glued to the windowpane, I stared out in wonder, at the metal beasts thundering past us, pulling enormously long trains, heading to far-flung destinations such as Edinburgh, Liverpool, Swansea and Bristol. I was in heaven.
When our train reached Waterloo station, the end of the line, it pulled into platform one. As it inched its way slowly towards the buffers, my heart skipped a beat, knowing the next leg of our journey was about to begin. Before the train had stopped completely, we heard people opening the doors. Slamming hard again the green painted carriages, they offered free exit to the impatient people within.
Whenever she saw this, mum, my Irish born mum, said “Why is it that everyone in England is always in a hurry?”
Looking back, all these years later, I believe she was right questioning this. We rush about all of our lives, getting nowhere most of the time. It’s a pointless occupation.
We didn’t rush off the train; we had far too many bags and cases to organise, first. But let me tell you, right here and now, dad was about to show us what, being English and rushing, was about.
“Porter, sir?” a kindly looking individual enquired.
“No!” dad sternly replied. “We are perfectly capable of carrying our own bags, thank you very much.”
“But we do need a porter!” mum protested. Her words, though, failed to reach dad’s non receptive ears. Carrying his suitcase, dad marched along the platform as if his life depended on it.
“Mum!” Maria, Tony and I grizzled as we struggled, trying to carry our own bags.
We caught up with dad at the ticket barrier. Mum had the tickets; she was minding them in her handbag. “Show the man our tickets,” he told her. Mum opened the bag, searching for the tickets. “They are in a brown envelope,” dad said to her.
“Ah, here they are,” mum said triumphantly.
“Give him the tickets,” dad told mum.
She dutifully handed our tickets – all of them – to the ticket collector.
“No, no, no!” dad complained. “Only give him our tickets to Waterloo.”
“Oh, sorry,” mum answered. She put the rest of our tickets back into the envelope and then into her bag.
Although mum was a little bit doddery, at times, dad chose to let her mind such things as tickets. Having an irrational fear of losing tickets, he thought it the better of two evils, her minding them. Inspecting our luggage, particularly so how we were struggling under its weight, dad said, “This is not working.” Grabbing hold of the first suitcase, dad balanced it on his right shoulder. Then he tucked a smaller one under the same arm. Grabbing hold of two bags, he gripped them firmly in his left hand before picking up the second suitcase with the very same hand. Having done that, he said, “That’s better, so it is,” then he marched away from us. Looking back over his shoulder, he said, “Keep up with me this time!” We obediently followed dad as he scorched his way across an open area, to a place or places unknown…
However, despite trying to keep up with our fast moving dad, he got further and further away from us.
“Mum!” Maria, Tony and I whined, panicky and frightened, when dad disappeared behind a Royal Mail delivery van, on a cobblestone plaza.
“Faster,” mum ordered, “so we can catch up with him!”
Trying to avoid being hit by Royal Mail delivery vans, fast moving scooters, and dive-bombing pigeons, we quickened our pace, following dad across the cobblestone plaza.
Catching up with dad on the far side of the plaza, we found him busy, trying to thumb down a taxi.
“Why didn’t you get one inside the station?” mum asked him, after the third taxi sped past us without stopping.
Shaking his head from side to side, he answered, “No, no, I couldn’t do that! There’re far too expensive, back there.” With his hand high in the air, trying to hail the next taxi he spotted, dad watched hopefully, but it also sped past us.
“Don’t they charge the same rate, wherever they are?” mum asked dad.
“No, not all!” he insisted. “They charge different rates, from difference places – everyone knows that!” He said, convinced by the soundness of his case. “They might tell you they charge the same price, but they don’t fool me, by jingo!” Just then, he spotted another taxi. It had stopped a distance away from us. Determined to secure it, he hightailed it across the busy plaza, luggage and all. When he reached the taxi, he opened the door, flung in the luggage and then parked himself inside it. We watched from where we were still standing, thinking dad would tell the cab driver to drive across to us. Nothing happened, though, apart from dad and the cab driver talking animatedly to each other.
A few minutes later, the cab began to move – and it was heading our way. Seeing this we breathed a sigh of relief. When the cab drew to a halt alongside us, dad stepped out from it, and said, “There you are; I told you I would get us a cab.” Grabbing hold of our suitcases and bags, dad packed them into the cab’s boot. When we were seated inside the cab, the driver set off for Euston station. Soon we found ourselves passing the large, stone lions guarding its entrance.
“Hurray for Euston!” we cheered as the driver steered his cab into the station.
The interior of Euston station bore an uncanny resemblance to Waterloo station. There were postal delivery vans and scooters speeding in every direction, and dive-bombing pigeons all over the place. The cab driver, who had up until then remained remarkably silent, suddenly spoke. He said, “Euston Station; two pounds please.”
Dad almost choked on his cigarette when he heard the price he was being charged. “Two pounds?” he hollered. “We agreed on one pound.”
The cab driver smiled condescendingly, and said, “That’s true, sir, we did agree on that price. But I did tell you there would be some miscellaneous expenses on top of it. Your bags are those expenses, and they are one pound exactly.”
Dad was beaten; there was no way of getting away from that fact. Instead of getting a bargain price fare, he had been ripped off. Grumbling, he begrudgingly paid the man his money.
From the comfort of his seat, the cab driver said, “Don’t forget about your luggage in the boot.” Grumbling and grizzling away to himself, dad removed our luggage from the boot. He was so annoyed with the cab driver, he forgot about closing the boot lid.
“Excuse me, sir!” the driver said condescendingly, “You failed to close my boot lid.”
“Don’t worry, dad,” I said to him, “Tony, Maria and I will shut it.”
I smiled, Tony smiled. Maria smiled. Then we closed the boot lid and walked away from the cab.
“Why are you all looking so happy?” mum asked, as we watched the taxi pulled away from the kerb and join the thickly packed traffic.
“There is no reason,” we lied.
Then she heard him, mum heard the taxi driver cursing and swearing from deep within the thickly packed traffic. He was shouting, “NO, NOT A STINK-BOMB! NO!”
Hearing this mum laughed. We also laughed. Dad never laughed, though. He was far too busy searching for the platform our train was departing from.
“Tickets please,” a jovial, dark-skinned man said to us, when we approached the platform barrier. Dad pointed to mum. She searched through her bag, looking for them.
Gazing innocently at the ticket collector, Tony said, “Hello, black man.”
“And hello to you too, little white man,” he jovially replied.
“Tony, what are you thinking of?” mum chastised. “I am so sorry, ticket collector, she apologised, “he doesn’t usually say such rude things.”
“It’s okay, Mrs,” he answered. “No offence has been taken. I have been called a lot worse than that, in my time.”
Mum shepherded us through the gate. “Now where had your father gone?” she asked.
I never heard mum’s question, because, having entered the platform, one of ever so many in Waterloo station, the mecca for all things STEAM, I was in a world of my own; a world populated by steam locomotives. Euston station, although soot laden and grimy, was a wondrous place in my steam loving eyes. I marvelled at everything I saw – and then some.
As I walked along the platform, oblivious to everything going on around me, I marvelled at the steam engines some more. Turning my attention to the carriages, I marvelled at them also. Although they were old, almost as old as the rickety, electric train carriages we had travelled in, on our way up to London, they were so different; worlds apart. These carriages, in a magnificent shade of deep purple, had a set of narrow lines, white, yellow and black, painted half way up them. Moreover, these lines spanned the entire length of the train. Complimenting the wonderful colour scheme of the carriages were lions. Splendid British Railways Lion logos, standing majestically and regal, were featured at the centre of each and every carriage. It was sheer perfection.
We caught up with dad at the far end of the train. Smoking a cigarette, he said, “This is the carriage, number twenty-three. See?” He pointed to a piece of paper glued to the inside of the carriage window. “Mum (dad had a habit of calling mum that), have you got the seat tickets?”
Mum looked in her bag, searching for them. Retrieving the brown envelope, she said, “Here they are, I knew they were in here somewhere.”
“Let, me see,” dad said to her. Taking the envelope, he opened it, and then delved a hand into it. “Here they are,” he said triumphantly, a few moments later. Waving five pieces of paper high above him, he said, “These are our train tickets and seat reservations, so they are!” Having said that, he stepped into the train, turned a corner then vanished from sight.
Following dad, we climbed aboard the splendid steam powered train. It was a corridor train (most of the trains on the main lines were in those days). The corridor was over to one side, and opposite it were a series of compartments running the entire length of each carriage. It was an excellent setup, offering a great travelling experience. Within each compartment, which had its own sliding door, there were six seats, roller blinds on the patrician widows, and a small table under the carriage window. It was, like I have already told you, a great travelling experience. Moreover, for the life of me, I cannot understand why these types of carriages are not still in use.
We still had to find our compartment. Dad set off once again at a blistering pace. We struggled to keep up with him. It still puzzles me as to how he managed to negotiate such a narrow corridor – and so quickly – with so much luggage in tow.
When we caught up with him, dad was standing outside one of the compartments as if he owned it. “Here you are,” he said to us, “your home from home.”
We entered; we entered our compartment. Tony and I bagged the window seats. Sliding the door closed, dad said, “There will be no interruptions for us until we reach Holyhead.”
Gazing at the empty seat opposite dad, I wondered if anyone had reserved it. I tried to ask him about it, but he would hear none of it. “That is a spare seat,” he insisted. “Nobody travels alone. Pull down the blinds,” he ordered. “No one will be any the wiser, with them down.”
Forgetting about the empty seat (at least for the moment), my eyes wandered around our compartment. The seats, of a striped design fabric, were extremely comfortable. Above each seat were framed pictures, promoting various holiday destinations, such as The Isle of Weight, Bognor Regis, Blackpool and Holyhead. I wished I was a train driver, setting off to splendid destinations each day.
“What time does the train leave?” mum asked dad as he slid open the compartment door.
Lighting a cigarette, dad looked at his watch, and then he replied, “At seven thirty,”
“Good,” mum said to him, “we have plenty of time left until we set off.”
It was true; we had an hour and a half left to kill before the train began moving. This was how they did it, my parents, when going on holiday; they arrived at the station long before our train left it. “Just to be sure we don’t miss it,” is what they usually said to me, “just to be sure.”
When dad finished smoking his cigarette, he became restless. “I’m just popping out for a moment,” he said to mum.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Just out,” he answered vaguely.
We smiled, Tony, Maria and I knew exactly where dad was going. He was going to the station cafeteria, because of the second love of his life – tea. Tea was dad’s pastime. HE LOVED IT.
When dad was gone for almost half an hour, mum began to worry about him. “Where could he have gotten himself to?” she said to herself. We knew, though.
Five minutes later, mum was beside herself, with worry. “He’ll miss the train, so he will,” she said to us. She gazed through the window, looking for him. “I can’t see your dad,” she worriedly told us.
Several minutes later, dad was still missing. “Maria, go see if you can find your father,” mum ordered. “He must be somewhere out there.”
Waving a hand excitedly in front of mum’s face, Tony said, “Can I go too?”
“No, you’re far too young to be going out there on your own.”
“But I won’t be on my own!” he protested. “I will be with Maria! She needs help to find dad!”
“Return to your seat,” she ordered. A few moments later, however, after considering the situation some more, mum said, “Perhaps Maria could do with some help… Gerrard; go with your sister and find your dad.”
I was thrilled. Jumping up from my seat, I raced to the door and opened it so quickly it almost bounced off its runners.
“Take it easy,” mum ordered, “we have enough to contend with, without you destroying the train carriage.”
Stepping down from the train, Maria said, “Mum said you must stay close to me” Stepping down from the train, I sauntered away from her as if I hadn’t a care in the world. “Didn’t you hear what I just said to you?” she asked me.
“We are either in this together or not at all,” she barked. “Do you want to go back to your seat?”
“Okay,” I lied, “we are in this together.
“I wonder where the cafeteria is,” Maria said, thinking out loud.
She should have asked me, because every train enthusiast knew where the cafeteria was located.
“Ah, there it is,” she said, pointing ahead of us. “It’s at the beginning of the platform. Come on, Gerrard, we’ve no time to waste.”
I had absolutely no idea why she said that, because we had plenty of time left before out train pulled out from the station. Exiting the platform Maria set off at a brisk pace, heading for the cafeteria. With so many steam engines I wanted to see, inspect, I seized the opportunity to give her the slip. I set off in the opposite direction.
Stopping at the next platform, I spotted a dirty nondescript locomotive attached to an equally dull train. Deciding to give it a miss I set off for the next platform. Gazing through the platform gate, I spotted a steam engine. It was clean and shiny, and hissing great clouds of steam as it pulled to a halt in the station. “I wonder where it has come from.” I whispered to myself. As I stood there, admiring this shiny beast, its passengers began to disembark. I stood away from the gate, allowing the passengers free access onto the station concourse. I just had to know the exotic location it had come from. Spotting three children exiting the gate, I said, “Excuse me, please, where has this train come from?”
Looking at me as if I had two heads, the eldest child (it was a boy) replied, “Oxford of course.”
I was so disappointed. Oxford was too close. It could never, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered exotic. Although it was a magnificent steam engine, it had lost its appeal. I wandered across to the next platform gate.
As I gazed hopefully through the next platform gate, I hardly believed my eyes, when I spotted the steam engine therein. Resting, resplendent amidst huge clouds of steam, was the Mallard; the fastest steam engine in the world. “Wow! Wow! Wow!” I said over again. “This cannot be happening! Wow!” My eyes were glued to it.
When I finally calmed down, I wondered why no one was guarding it. I stepped closer to the barrier, hoping to slip through it. “Where are you going?” the ticket collector at the gate suddenly asked me.
“Onto the platform,” I coyly admitted.
“Oh no you’re not,” he told me.
“No. You’re going nowhere without a platform ticket, young man,” he informed me.
Rummaging through my pockets I found a thrupenny bit, “Here you are,” I said, holding up the money for his inspection.
“I’m the ticket collector, not the seller,” he told me. “Go over to that machine, yonder, where you can buy one.”
I looked at where he was pointing. It seemed so far away from the Mallard.
“You won’t get a platform ticket, standing there,” he told me. I tore across to the said machine.
“You were quick!” the ticket collector said when I returned with my ticket. “We could do with the likes of you working on British Railways.”
I was chuffed, incredibly chuffed that he had said such a thing.
“Hand me your ticket, and I will clip it,” he instructed me. “Then you can enter the platform and see the train.” I handed him the ticket, which he duly clipped. Waving my through the gate, he welcomed me onto the platform. As I approached the Mallard, my legs trembled with excitement. At the gate, the ticket collector said quietly, “Kids and steam; what a strange mix.”
I could hardly believe it, that I was standing so close to the Mallard; the fastest steam engine in the world. “No one at school will believe me when I tell them about this,” I said to myself. “I wish I had a camera.”
Running my fingers along its streamlined body, I marvelled at it. “I will get my bedroom painted the same shade of blue,” I promised.
Although there was no one anyway near the Mallard, it was brimming with energy; fired and ready to go. Approaching the driver’s cab, I said, “Is there anyone there?” There was no one inside. Taking hold of the handrail, I climbed the steps and pulled myself up into the cab.
Inside the cab was a world dials, levers, cogs, soot and, above all, steam. It was heaven, sheer heaven. Although it was small, the driver’s cab was crammed full of instruments, dials, gauges and other pieces of equipment, all of them so important for driving a train. It reminded me of Doctor Who’s Tardis; bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Then I spied the engine driver’s seat. Although it was a rather primitive affair, it was a hallowed article in my idealistic, young eyes. It was high, though. I scratched my head thoughtfully, wondering how I might get up to it. Just then, something to the rear of the cab caught my attention. “That is just what I need,” I said gleefully. To be truthful, the item was actually located in the coal tender. Moreover, it was on top of the huge pile of coal secreted therein. Entering the tender, I was in the world of the fireman. There was coal, shiny black coal, everywhere. “I am coming up to get you,” I said to the item above me. Clambering up the mountain of coal, I stretched out my arm and grabbed hold of it. “Got you,” I said to it.
“You got what?” someone suddenly said to me. I had been found out. With face, hands and clothes covered in coal dust, I returned to the driver’s cab. “What have we got here, one of the black and white minstrels?” an old, round-faced man, dressed in timeworn dungarees, asked.
“I, I was just getting this,” I explained, showing him the item. “It’s a stool,” I told him,
“What do you want that for?” he enquired.
“You wanted to climb it, didn’t you?” he said to me. I nodded. “You wanted to climb it, to the engine driver’s seat, my seat?” I nodded again.
“Are you the engine driver?” I dared asked.
“I am,” he told me. “But not for long, though…”
Intrigued and saddened by his statement, I had to hear more. “Why not?”
Withdrawing a battered old pipe and an equally battered old tin from one of his pockets, he set about filling the pipe with tobacco. “You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” he asked, more out of politeness that concern for the health of my lungs (that’s that way things were in those days, you know).
“It’s fine with me,” I answered.
Striking a match on the fire door, he sucked on his pipe, filling his lungs with smoke. Watching him, smoking his battered old pipe in front of me, I decided, right there and then, that I was going to smoke a pipe when I grew up.
“You see,” the engine driver said slowly, thoughtfully to me. “You see,” he said again, as if for added emphasis, “I am retiring today…”
I was shocked; I was totally shocked that anyone might want to retire from the best job in the world (in my innocence, I had no idea a person has to retire when they reach a certain age), so I said, “Don’t you want to keep working?”
“Of course I want to keep working,” he answered. “However, they say I am too long in the tooth, to do it safely.” He sucked some more smoke into his lungs, and then he exhaled, filling the cab with same smoke.
“That’s terrible,” I said to him.
“No – them making you retire,” I explained.
Changing the subject, the engine driver asked, “Where are your family?”
“Mum is in the train, the one that’s going to Holyhead. So is my brother. Maria, my sister, is looking for dad. He’s mad about tea,” I told him.
“I like it myself. How about you?” he enquired.
“I like it,” I lied. I hated tea, but could never admit such a ‘failing’ to an engine driver.
“Do you fancy a cuppa?” he asked me.
“I would love one,” I answered, lying again.
Grabbing hold of a duffle bag that was hanging from a hook in the cab, he searched for some tea. “Your train doesn’t leave for almost an hour, you know…”
“I know,” I glumly replied. “We always arrive early at the station, when going on holiday.”
“That’s not bad.”
“No, not at all,” he answered. “Arriving early gives you plenty of time to explore the station. “By the way, the name is Joe; Joe Bloggs.”
I laughed. I tried not to, but in vain. “I’m sorry,” I apologised. “I thought that was only a made up name, for funny stories and the like.”
“Think nothing of it,” Joe answered. “It takes a lot more than that to rile me.”
Using the hot water from the engine, the Mallard herself, Joe made two mugs of piping hot tea. Then he asked me if I would like to sit in his seat.
With eyes beaming bright with excitement, I answered, “YES, YES PLEASE.” Placing the stool under his seat, Joe told me to climb up to his seat. I climbed the stool, and then sat on his seat, the best seat in the world.
“Here is you tea,” he said, handing me a mug of piping hot tea.
Accepting the mug, I drank heartily from it. Gazing in front of me, at the dials, gauges and levers, I felt as if I was a real engine driver. It was GREAT.
When we had finished our tea, Joe showed me around the engine. He showed me every part of it, from top to bottom. He explained what everything was for, how it worked and why it worked so much better on the Mallard. Before stepping aboard the Mallard, I considered myself an expert on steam locomotives. By the time Joe finished, telling me about the Mallard, I realised how little I had up until then known.
“I think it’s about time you returned to your family,” Joe said to me, when we finished inspecting the outside of the steam engine.
“Do I really have to go?” I grumbled.
“If you want to get on your train, you do,” he answered.
Thanking him for the wonderful tour, I waved Joe a sad goodbye. As I walked slowly away from the Mallard, a huge blast of steam escaped from the engine. I was engulfed within it.
A few moments later, when the steam had dissipated, I glanced back over my shoulder, to see if Joe was still waving goodbye. Joe, however, was nowhere to be seen. As I made my way along the platform, I felt dampness in my shoes. Gazing down at them, I was surprised – shocked by what I saw. My socks were wet – and they had changed colour, from blue to yellow!
“Wow! That’s magic!” I whooped. Then I noticed my hands; they were perfectly clean. My clothes were also clean. “Wow!” I whooped again. Turning round, I raced along the platform, to tell Joe what had just happened. “Joe, Joe!” I called into the cab. “Are you there?” The driver’s cab, however, was silent and empty. “Where is he?” I grizzled, confused by his sudden disappearance. “Perhaps he is inside the train, having a rest,” I said hopefully. I boarded the train and searched it from one end to the other, but never found Joe.
“Did you have a good time?” the ticket collector enquired, as I exited the platform.
“I did. I had a very good time, thank you,” I told him. “Do you know where Joe is?” I asked him.
“Joe? Joe who?”
“Joe Bloggs, of course,” I told him. “He is the engine driver. He drives the Mallard.”
“Joe Bloggs, you say?”
“Yes, he made me some tea then let me sit on his seat…”
“That’s mighty peculiar,” the ticket collector said, as he gazed peculiarly along the platform, toward the Mallard.
“Why is it strange?” I asked him.
“You see,” he said slowly, thoughtfully, “Joe Bloggs is dead.”
“He can’t be dead!” I answered. “I was just talking to him!”
“I’m afraid that he is,” he instituted. “He died a year ago, to this very day. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, you being a young kid, and all…”
“Tell me, tell me!” I implored.
“He – Joe – died right there, where he worked, seated in the cab of his beloved Mallard…”
As I made my way back to our train I was in a daze. I was confused and bewildered by what I had seen. My friend, my new friend Joe Bloggs had died a year before I met him. Suddenly remembering my socks, and how they had changed colour, I said, “Magic; it was magic that helped me to meet Joe, and my socks changing colour are proof that it really did happen.”
I caught up with Maria, where she was standing outside the cafeteria. “You were supposed to stay with me!” she growled. “Where have you been?”
“I was talking to Joe,” I told her.
She ignored what I had just said; she was far more interested in telling me about dad. “Do you know where dad is?” she asked me, her annoyance with him only too evident in her voice. “I will tell you where he is,” she continued. “He is inside that, that cafeteria – drinking his fourth cup of tea, no less!” Fuming, she said, “Look at the time! We’ve only got five minute until our train leaves!”
She was right; there were only five minutes before the train pulled out from the station.
“Go into the cafeteria and get him out of there!” she ordered me. “I’ve tried it four times already without any success.”
Entering the cafeteria, I approached dad. He was standing at the counter, where he was drinking his beloved tea. “Dad, dad!” I said to him.
“What is it?” he answered.
“Dad, the train leaves in less than five minutes! You have got to come with Maria and me – now!”
“I will leave when I am ready,” he told me. “Why aren’t you on it?” he enquired.
“Go, go get on the train!” he told me. “Your mother will be sick with worry, wondering where you have got to.”
“Go – now!” he barked. “Hurry!”
We ran; Maria and I ran as fast as our legs would carry us, to our train.
“Where on earth have you been all this time?” mum asked, as we slid open the door and entered our compartment
We stared; we stared at a Chinese man sitting in the sixth seat. He smiled at us.
“Stop staring at the man,” mum told us.
“Dad’s still in the cafeteria!” I told mum. “He said he was going to get you some tea.”
“He would,” mum answered. “It’s not for my benefit, though, but his…” The carriage moved; it shuddered and jolted back and forwards for a few seconds. “They’re getting ready to go!” mum cried out in alarm. “Where is dad?”
The train shuddered again, and then it began moving.
“Dad, dad!” mum cried out, worried for him. She opened the window and poked her head through it. “Where are you, dad?” she asked.
Then we saw him, we saw dad running alongside the train, carrying two beakers of tea.
“Open the door, before he runs out of platform!” mum roared.
On hearing this, the Chinese man leapt up from his seat and ran out of the compartment. Opening the carriage door, he invited dad in.
“Thanks,” dad said gratefully as he clambered aboard. “It’s leaving a bit early, isn’t it?” The Chinese man smiled in reply. Coughing nervously, dad entered our compartment. “There you are, my dear,” he said, handing mum one of teas, “a nice beaker of tea for you.”
Sliding the compartment door closed, dad returned to his seat, where he began drinking his tea. Finishing his tea, dad rested his feet on the empty seat opposite him. “I need some shuteye, he said to us. “Running along the platform has played havoc with my feet, so it has.” The compartment door suddenly slid open, revealing the Chinese man who had helped dad onto the train.
“I am sorry, but this compartment is taken,” dad advised him.
“Yes,” the Chinese answered. “I am in it.”
“No, no, you don’t understand!” dad told him. “There is only one empty seat!”
“Smiling at dad, the Chinese man said, “I am only the one person.”
“But no one travels alone!” dad insisted.
“I do,” he admitted, smiling again.
“But, but…” dad spluttered, “where is your wife?”
“In china,” he answered. “You like to see picture?”
“No thank you.”
“Can I come in now?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” dad answered, accepting defeat.
after taking his bag down from the overhead luggage rack, the Chinese man sat on his seat with it.
“How did that get up there?” dad asked.
“It’s mine,” the Chinese man told him. Opening the bag, he produced some bowls and plates from within it. “You like some curry?” he asked dad.
Eyeballing the curry with a growing disdain, dad answered, “Curry is from ‘out foreign’, is it not?”
“It’s from Luton, where I live,” he told dad.
“But, but you are Chinese,” dad insisted. “So your curry must be Chinese, also!”
Smiling yet again, the Chinese man produced a boiled egg from one of his containers. “You like a boiled egg, instead?” he enquired.
Accepting the egg, dad answered. “That’s more like it! You wouldn’t happen to have any tea in that bag of yours, would you?”
That was how my first holiday to Ireland began. Regarding my socks, well, no one believed they actually changed colour. They paid no attention to me, either, when I told them about my hands and clothes miraculously getting cleaned. Despite what they thought, these things really did happen. Moreover, Joe Bloggs, the man who had the best job in the world, had been a part of this magic, despite being dead.
Hot, Sticky Porridge
Some time ago, in a place not too far from here, there lived a man named Jack. Now Jack lived a normal life, with nothing exciting ever happening to him. He always got up at the same time each morning and, after washing, made his way downstairs for breakfast. Tea and toast was his favourite, except in the wintertime when hot, sticky porridge replaced the toast. He always said, ‘In wintertime you need something substantial in you, to keep out the cold.’
If you saw him, setting off each day, be it summer or winter, in his heavy, multi-coloured checked overcoat, you would be forgiven for thinking Jack couldn’t be anything but warm (with or without his porridge).
On the particular morning that we are concerned with, Jack pulled the door closed, put the key into his trouser pocket and made his way down the garden path – all as per usual. Then he opened the gate; it squeaked. “I’ll have to oil you, tonight,” he said, pulling it closed behind him, causing it squeak again.
It was a wonderful June morning with the trees in full leaf, the birds singing their hearts out and the sun shining gloriously down when Jack set off, walking the short distance to his place of work, the Wooden Shop. Counting his blessings, he said, “A perfect start to a perfect day
Let’s follow Jack and see how his wonderful adventure began…
No. 237 Bus to Hounslow
“Morning, Jack,” said Mr. Fryer, on his way to the fish and chip shop.
“Morning,” Jack replied. “I’ll see you, later, Mr. Fryer, I’m looking forward to a nice piece of your Rock Salmon, for lunch today.”
“Ok, Jack, bye.” Mr. Fryer said as he turned down the lane disappearing from sight.
Passing the old rectory Jack always took the time to admire the Vicar’s wonderful garden. And today, as always, it looked a treat – picture perfect. Spying a particularly large clump of Sweet Williams, just coming into their own, Jack stopped, and leaning on the old rickety picket fence he enjoyed their wonderful perfume.
“Hmm, that’s heavenly,” said Jack as his mind drifted to days long ago when he grew them in a little patch of garden assigned to him by his father.
“I’m glad you approve,” said Vicar Fernbach as he strolled up to the fence.
“Oh, I didn’t see you there, vicar. It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?”
Glorious,” the old man replied as he lit his timeworn pipe, enjoying the aromatic perfume of the softly igniting tobacco.
“You know, you shouldn’t be doing that,” said Jack, scanning the garden.
“It’s all right, Jack, my wife has gone shopping,” the old man replied, sucking the pipe. “She took the 237 bus to Hounslow – won’t be back till sometime late this afternoon,” the vicar added.
“That doesn’t mean you should be smoking, you know how it plays havoc with your health,” said Jack sternly eying the vicar.
“I know, but let’s keep it as a secret,” said the vicar, winking. “How about a nice bunch of flowers, to brighten up your shop? It might take your mind away from all this smoke.” Vicar Fernbach waved his arms in a mock effort to disperse the smoke haze surrounding him.
“As long as they’re from that clump of Sweet Williams,” said Jack, chuckling, “You know, I have no idea how you ever managed to ever become a vicar, I have no idea at all.”
Knee deep amongst the wonderful assorted blooms, the old man trod carefully until he arrived at the clump of Sweet Williams. Bending down, he cut the wonderful blooms until he had a huge armful, “How’s that, Jack? he asked, proudly displaying the fruits of his labour.
“God! That’s far too many,” said Jack, though taking them anyhow.
“You’re welcome, Jack,” said vicar Fernbach. “But remember, not a word to the missus?”
“Don’t worry,” Jack replied laughing, “Discretion is my middle name.”
After bidding the vicar goodbye, Jack once again headed off down the road. Looking at his watch, he said, “Just enough time to pop into Bennett’s, for my newspaper.”
Entering the small and decidedly musty old shop Jack never failed to be amazed at the variety of sweets on display. Behind the timeworn glass counter, the array of sweets on display was mind-boggling. And the patience that Mr and Mrs Bennett displayed, to the mesmerised children it attracted, was truly amazing
“The paper, Jack?” said Mr Bennett leaving two small children almost hypnotised at the counter.
“Please,” Jack replied. “Exact money today, no change needed.”
“Thanks, see you this evening?”
“You sure will, I can’t go home without a Lucky Bag for my niece, Ally.”
After serving three giggling girls, Mrs Bennett looked up and saw Jack and his huge bunch of flowers. “Why, what lovely flowers, Jack. Where on earth did you get them?” she asked.
“The vicar, gave me them. Here, take some,” said Jack, dividing the large bunch in half.”
“Thank you, thank you,” said Mrs Bennett, surprised at the kind gesture.
Looking at his watch, Jack said, “I had better get my skates on, don’t want the old boss to be at my throat.” Laughing, Jack disappeared through the open doorway.
“Bye,” the happy couple replied.
Placing the folded newspaper under his arm Jack began the last leg of his morning journey…
Standing at the kerb, in his white coat and with lollypop in hand, the familiar figure of old Mr Swan drew Jack on.
“Morning Jack,” said Mr Swan as he scanned left and right along the busy road.
“Hello, Mr Swan. It’s a great day, isn’t it?”
“Lovely, I hope it keeps fine for my holidays,” the old man answered.
“Going anywhere nice?”
“Jill and I are going up to the Lake District, went there once, years ago, thought it about time we tried it again.”
“When are you going?”
“In three weeks.”
“I hope you both have a great time, Mr Swan,” Jack replied, with sincerity.
Spotting a gap in the traffic, Mr Swan walked into the centre of the road holding the metal sign high above him.
“There you are Jack, been doing that for a long time, haven’t I?” And in truth he had, for Jack had been crossing at the self-same point since he was a young child. And now, even a mature adult, he would never even consider doing otherwise. Life can be strange at times, can’t it?
The Wooden Shop
On reaching the far side of the road, Jack stepped onto the path and walked the short distance down the driveway of his place of work – The Wooden Shop. You might think that a strange name for a shop, but it was made of wood – completely, so what better name might it have? The Metal Shop, maybe? Nah. That would be stupid. It was The Wooden Shop, and that was that.
Approaching the tired-looking doors, Jack took the key from his pocket and pushed it home, turning the lock mechanism anticlockwise. The door opened. As he entered the shop the smell of its stock wafted out, greeting his sensitive nostrils. Smell, perhaps, is a rather inappropriate word to describe the wonderful bouquet produced by the amazing variety of fruit and vegetables on offer. Aromatic aroma might better describe it, because the array of produce on sale was mind-boggling. There were apples from England, oranges from Spain, tangerines from Israel, peaches from the Canary Islands and leeks from Wales. There were plums from Cornwall, pears from France, potatoes from Scotland, strawberries from Wexford and cabbages from Lincolnshire. Moving further afield, there were pineapples from Ghana, bananas from Jamaica, melons from The Lebanon, kiwifruit from New Zealand and yams from Nigeria. It was a most remarkable shop, indeed. Entering it was like going on a safari and having a geography lesson all at the same time.
Standing in the doorway, Jack flipped the light switch. The fluorescent tubes spluttered into life. Jack always enjoyed this part of the day. He loved his work and would never, ever dream of doing anything else. Sure, why would he? He owned the shop, was the master of his own destiny – it was a perfect life, and he loved every moment of it.
After placing the bunch of flowers and his newspaper upon the shop counter Jack took off his heavy, checked coat and hung it on the hook on the wall. Then stepping into the small alcove to the rear of the counter, and plugging in the electric kettle, Jack made himself a nice cup of tea. He always said, “It tastes better in a cup, and leaves are far superior that those awful, new fangled tea-bags.”
Pulling himself onto the high stool, next to the till, Jack took a mouthful of tea, opened his newspaper and settled down to catch up with the latest news. It always intrigued him how so much happened somewhere else in the world.
“Nothing much happens around these parts,” he said. And that certainly was the case, up till now. Sunbury was a quiet place in those days, a backwater, but soon, very soon the peace and tranquilly that Jack took so much for granted, was to be shaken to its very foundations…
Flicking through the pages of his newspaper, Jack took another gulp of tea and began reading an article about the wholesale price of fruit and vegetables. It read; ‘Fruit and vegetable prices soaring.’
“Hmm, I wonder what that is all about,” he said, folding the page in half. He continued reading, ‘All around the world the wholesale price of fruit and vegetables is rocketing.’ It continued, ‘Almost overnight the supply of these items has been dramatically cut. While the reasons seem quite varied, from bush fires in Australia to droughts in France and England, from locusts in Africa to floods in Ireland, the outcome is always the same – the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables has been dramatically cut, causing an unprecedented rise in the cost of these commodities.’
“I hope this is just a temporary thing,” said Jack. “We all need fruit and veggies. It will cause chaos if it continues.” Eying the article, he said, “I’ll bet that by this time next month, this news will be ancient history – just a blip, that’s all, a simple blip. Yes, I am sure of it.” So without further ado Jack turned over the page and got on with his reading.
This time an article about mushrooms caught his attention, it read, ‘Mushroom blight wreaks havoc on growers.’ Jack read on, ‘A hitherto unknown disease, blight, is rapidly spreading through mushroom farms across the world. Nobody knows where it originated and how it had been able to spread so quickly.’ “Hold on a minute,” said Jack, “just what is going on here? First we have fires, floods, locusts and what have you, and now there is a mysterious mushrooms blight!” Jack scratched his head, trying to make sense of it, but he couldn’t. He was so concerned he both articles, again.
After taking a last drink from his now almost cold tea, Jack carefully closed the newspaper, placed it beneath the counter, and said, “I don’t have time to dwell on these matters, it’s time to open up shop.”
Pulling the doors open, sending bright rays of sunlight streaming into the Wooden Shop, Jack gazed up the driveway looking for customers. Staring into the clear blue sky he marvelled at the wonderful weather. At times such as this he was glad that he hadn’t taken the advice offered by so many customers and friends down the years, that he should replace the gardens surrounding his shop with tar macadam and concrete. ‘A car park is what you need, Jack,’ one might say. Then another, ‘It is not easy parking on the street, I might have to go to that new supermarket, at the cross.’ But the garden stayed, and despite all these ‘threats’ not one of his customers deserted him. The apple trees, picnic tables and benches, they all remained. Much better than a silly car park, don’t you agree?
Today, as always, Jack’s first customer was little Tommy Tilbert. “Morning, Tommy, said Jack to the young boy.
“Hello, Mr Wilson,” Tommy replied.
“Your usual, Tommy? Jack asked.
“Yes please, Mr. Wilson,” said Tommy, smiling.
Now Tommy had a penchant for fresh, green apples. He loved them. He loved them so much, that on his way to school each and every day, he made a point of calling in to The Wooden Shop, to purchase one.
“I have just received a new batch of apples from New Zealand,” said jack poking around behind the counter. “I have been assured they are something special. Mind you, they’re not green,” Jack warned. “Would you like to try one?” Jack held up a large, dark red apple in his right hand. The fruit was so dark it was almost purple in colour.
Tommy gazed at it, his mouth watering, “Yes, please.”
“Here you are, Tommy,” said Jack as he handed the tempting apple to Tommy.
“Thanks, Mr Wilson,” said Tommy, offering the usual tuppence.
“It’s alright, Tommy. This one’s on me. All you have to do is tell me, tomorrow, how you liked it.
The young boy’s eyes lit up and, taking the prize apple, he placed it carefully into his satchel. “Bye, Mr Wilson.”
“Goodbye, Tommy.” And with Tommy skipped through the doorway and was gone.
Jack was happy that Tommy had accepted the Kiwi apple. It was part of a first consignment from that country, and the importers desperately wanted any feedback as to their quality, taste and customer appeal. Tommy was the perfect subject for this trial; he knew everything there was to know about apples, and then some. Despite coming from a broken family (his father had died when he was only three years of age) Tommy was a good lad, perhaps the best-behaved child Jack had ever come across. He often said, “When I get married, if I have ten children as good as Tommy there won’t be one too many.”
Putting on his brown shop coat Jack grabbed hold of the broom and began sweeping out the premises. It always amazed him how much debris fell from his neatly packed shelves. Yes, the shelves were always neatly packed. Jack might have won prizes if there had been a competition for such an activity. Potatoes, turnips, tomatoes, even yams – and all lined up in perfect rows, with their best side facing out.
“Just because they are vegetables doesn’t mean they can’t be presented as appealingly as apples or oranges,” Jack always said. And that was so very true because each and every part of the produce on display was absolutely flawless.
While sweeping a particularly messy assortment of fallen cabbage leaves into the dustpan Jack thought he heard something, a noise – talking – from the back of the shop. Was someone whispering? In silence, Jack walked to the rearmost part of the shop, but saw no one. He even looked beneath the display counters, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, nothing that shouldn’t be there.
“Hmm, I must be going dotty, there’s no one here,” he said scratching his head in bewilderment. So taking hold of his broom, Jack continued cleaning the shop of yesterday’s rubbish.
After he had finished sweeping, Jack’s next job was to restock the shelves and tidy them to the picture-perfect condition. He knew only too well that his work would soon ‘trashed’ by vigilant housewives intent on getting the best value for money. That was all a part of the job – he loved it – and he forgave them.
First on the agenda were the potatoes, which took the longest, so he got stuck in right away. When these were finished they were a sight to behold – row upon row of lovely fresh spuds, ready to tempt his most fickle customer. Jack turned his attention to the onions next. He always had three separate displays in this category; Regular, Spanish and Spring. He flew through the Regular and the Spring, but when he began sorting the Spanish onions, Jack came across something that disturbed his concentration completely.
After emptying a Hessian sack of Spanish onions, Jack sorted out the largest, shiniest ones, placing them next to the onions left over from the day before. Standing back to admire his work, Jack felt something was wrong.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked, scratching his head.
He knew something was different, was not as it should be, but no matter how hard he tried Jack couldn’t see what the problem actually was.
Mrs Sentence coming in for her usual Friday order of potatoes interrupted Jack’s thoughts. Mrs Sentence was a regular. She came in each and every Friday morning to buy a stone of potatoes for the chips she made for her husband and two children. ‘A growing family needs homemade fish and chips once a week instead of that rubbish Mr Fryer offers,’ she always said. Mrs Sentence could be quoted for saying the same, words without fail, each and every Friday.
“Hello, Kitty,” said Jack, greeting her. “Spuds, as per usual?” he asked, by way of politeness.
“Yes, Jack,” Mrs Sentence, answered. “It’s a grand day, isn’t it?”
“Wonderful,” said Jack as he took hold of the scoop and began placing several large King Edward potatoes upon it.
“Oh, will you give me that one?” Mrs Sentence asked, pointing to a particularly large specimen.
Jack reached for the said potato, and scooping it up he noticed something peculiar. Unlike its comrades on the scales, the skin of this particular potato had distinct markings upon it. For a second, Jack hesitated.
“Is everything alright?” Kitty Sentence asked.
“I said is everything OK?”
“Yes, everything is fine, Mrs Sentence. I don’t know what came over me,” said Jack, replacing the offending potato and disguising his confusion. Wasting no time Jack weighed the potatoes, put them into a bag and gave them to the woman.
“That will be two and thruppence,” please.”
“Here you are, Jack, half a crown.”
Jack rung the money on the till and gave the woman her change.
“See you next week, Kitty.”
Bye,” Mrs Sentence replied as she disappeared through the open doorway.
Hurriedly walking to the doors Jack closed them one after the other, securing each with a hefty bolt. He needed some time to think…
“If any more customers come, they will jolly well have to wait,” said Jack, acting nervously, like someone was about to jump out and grab him. Standing stock-still behind the closed doors, Jack’s thoughts raced, his heart pounded as he tried to come to terms with the remarkable thing he had just seen.
“I have seen it, but I still don’t believe it,” he said, wiping his brow. Pondering his dilemma, Jack’s mind continued to race.
Suddenly, he cried out, “I can see it, now. Why didn’t I notice it, before, in the onions? How could I have overlooked something so obvious?”
Breathing deeply, in slow regular breaths, Jack tried composed himself, and control his jittery nerves. “Okay,” he whispered. “Come on, Jack, there must be a rational explanation for it. Yes, there must be…but what is it???
It was a quiet for a Friday morning, the fine weather having obviously attracted the customers elsewhere. “Thank heavens it’s quiet,” said Jack, stepping tentatively toward the potato counter, “I have no idea what I might say if someone were to knock on the door, looking for service.”
Plucking up courage, Jack approached the potato counter. He studied it. Everything appeared, as it should be; row up on row of neatly arranged potatoes, their best sides facing forward, waiting for eager housewives to purchase them. Everything looked right, everything was right, except for one small thing – THE POTATOES, THE KING EDWARD POTATOES HAD FACES, and they were looking right back at him…
Jack rubbed his eyes in disbelief, hoping the apparition might somehow disappear, but it didn’t. He leant over closer, to inspect the potatoes in finer detail. And, yes, they definitely did have faces upon them.
Tearing away, Jack rushed over to the onion counter where he found each and every onion sporting a face, tattooed upon its shiny skin. Beads of perspiration ran down Jack’s face as he dashed around the shop, where the same scene repeated itself at each and every counter. Every vegetable, every fruit had a face engrained upon it. Faces, staring, shocking faces with questioning eyes.
Jack finally stopped running at the far end of the Wooden Shop, in front of the cabbage counter.
“Got to catch my breath,” he said, coughing and wheezing breathlessly. Looking around the shop, in shock in disbelief, he asked, “Am I going mad? – This can’t really be happening.”
“Oh, but it is,” a voice suddenly boomed from behind!!!