Growing up in the boarding house

Any aging former Portsmouth Grammar School boys may remember the school’s boarding house fondly nicknamed ‘The Shack’. Dad, who was classics master at the school, took over the running of the boarding house in 1951 when I was 18 months old.
‘The Shack’ was a large and somewhat dilapidated villa on the seafront in Southsea and during term-time it was home to 50 boys from the age of 11-18. In those days many naval officers wanted to keep their sons at the school while they were posted abroad.
Dad, in overall charge as well as still teaching at the school, was assisted by two bachelor masters. Mum ran the domestic side of things helped by matron and cook. Matron looked after me in the mornings when sometimes a treat would be to go into the big kitchen and make jam tarts. After lunch mum would take over and we would listen to listen with mother followed by an outing to meet up with other mums and toddlers at the Ladies Mile.
In term time it was largely an institutionalised life. The boys or boarders all had a cooked lunch at school so after school they had high tea which consisted of beans or spaghetti on toast or macaroni cheese and large urns of tea with thick slices of white bread and marg. The dining room was in the basement where I sat in my high chair. The only treats were when one of the boys had his birthday when mum would bake a sponge cake and we would have jelly and blancmange. I still shudder at the thought of the blancmange skin in my mouth. The boys all had tuck boxes at the start of each term with a stash of chocolate. I never saw any of that but sometimes on their birthday their mum would send treats to be shared.
I lived at The Shack with my two older sisters until I was five so my memories are scanty. There was a posh-for-Pompey restaurant opposite complete with doorman in a red with gold braid uniform. More than once the boys got in trouble for throwing bread rolls at the poor chap. Getting in trouble in those days meant the cane from dad – funny that as he was the kindest, mildest of men. Fire drills were a major highlight as evacuation involved climbing out of a top window onto the fire escape – elf and safety nowhere to be seen. One firework night a few of the older boys decided to make their own fireworks – clearly no one died but that’s as far as my memory goes.
When I was five the school decided the big old house was no longer viable so we moved with one of the masters to a smaller place with just twenty boarders. I remember the boys’ rec room with a record player and a library of Jennings, Arthur Ransom and Billy Bunter. I often joined them in the prep room and swapped stamps from my growing collection. I also acquired a number of older girls as friends who took to doing handstands on the lawn outside the prep room. Girls just didn’t wear trousers in the 1950s. One boarder – now famous started his first group in the garage with a double bass made out of a tea-chest, a washboard and thimbles and bog paper and comb. He went on to become a fine singer and harmonica player

 

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Facebook Rant

And the purpose of Facebook is ….. to brag, big yourself up, make arrogant assumptions that everyone is of your own political persuasion, bombard with hundreds of photos, and/or divulge personal stuff that just shouldn’t be in the public domain.
Yes, I do use Facebook. It’s good to catch up with what friends are up to – the holidays they’ve enjoyed (sometimes far too many to be civilised), additional grandchildren and sadly deaths. Here Facebook has replaced the traditional death announcement in the local paper. I was sad to learn recently that an old colleague’s elderly father had recently died – thank heaven for the new sad face button as there was no way one could really click like. I’ve also heard that it’s quite hard to have a Facebook page removed should a loved one sadly die – that feels uncomfortable.
With Facebook’s new buttons as well as like and sad one can also express love, anger, amusement and amazement – all useful in their own way. However, when it comes to those shared political posts, sometimes I want to say that I disagree with the content of the post itself. If I click like it looks as though I agree with the friend posting, if I click angry or sad it implies I’m sad about the political statement which often I actually agree with at some level – it’s complicated. I could of course bypass the buttons and straightforwardly make a comment but politics is a funny old thing. I’m ok having a face to face discussion amongst friends with differing viewpoints but heavens I might get trolled if I put my political views online for all to see. So even though I may not actually be brave enough to comment or even to physically press a symbol, I do like to be in a position to do so mentally.
I do wonder if people who brag on Facebook do so because their lives are actually not that exciting or if they just don’t realise it comes across as boasting.
I’ve been to parties where a few hours later there are the photos of everyone having such a good time (I’m not usually in those) and comments such as ‘best night ever’ etc. Um! well I did enjoy the party but it wasn’t that good.
Talking of photos as I say I like reading about where friends have been on holiday etc. and seeing a few selected photos but my heart sinks when I see 201 new photos – 201!! Why not share those with just close family or use a photo sharing app and pick out a few favourites for the rest of us.
The same goes for shared funnies and videos – I love to chuckle over some of those but go easy guys – not five in a row.
For research purposes you understand, I noted post on my Facebook newsfeed for the last 24 hours. You will learn from this that I don’t have many
Facebook friends. Due to rejection issues I have only ever responded when people have asked to be my friend (how playground it all sounds in writing). I have boldly ignored some friend requests from people I wasn’t interested in years ago – they are just being nosey but I know all about that.
• Somebody shared a memory from 3 years ago – I don’t care I wasn’t part of it so why not just share it with those who were involved.
• There were happy birthday messages for a close friend, how her husband is planning to celebrate and lamenting her swollen knee – all acceptable.
• An ‘I love my job, awesome session’ brag post
• A shared fitness video
• Local music and gig guide posts x2
• Photos of coypu swimming in a French canal – mercifully only 4 (photos not coypu that is)
• A friend’s Top 11 photos of the year with 108 likes – brag post
• A ‘Do You Remember in Portsmouth’ post
• Information sharing for clients of a personal trainer friend – why not share with group – the rest of us don’t need to know the time of their session.
• An RNLI charity appeal
• A friend having an angry rant about his car breaking down
• Photos of swans feeding from the hand of someone’s mother in Majorca
• A video entitled ‘A stork love story’ – haven’t looked at that yet
• An unexplained photo of people at an unnamed football match
• A photo of a flower called ‘hanging naked men’ – mildly amusing
• A photo of an unnamed street at night – and your point is?
• And last but not least Rob and Chris’ holiday – 3 photos!!

Some people seem compelled to share how wonderful they, their spouse or their offspring are. I don’t really want to know how spoiled you feel when your adoring hubby presents you with an extravagant bouquet for Valentine’s Day or what your children did for Mother’s Day. Let’s face it most of us probably get a card and a bunch of flowers and for those who don’t it does rub it in a bit. Then there’s the photos of new and old grandchildren. I’m fine for your friends to say how adorable they are but it doesn’t sit well if you say so.
What about the stuff in life that goes wrong? This is often far more interesting. My own warped mind is much more inclined to post when things go pear-shaped or those gritted teeth moments usually involving cyclists in my case.
I could tell my Facebook friends about our 12-hour journey back from France to Gosport recently. My husband is not a patient traveller and it was truly like travelling with a 6 yr. old including toilet issues, but as he is not on Facebook this would seem unfair and a tad disloyal. Likewise, I don’t share the amusing happenings such as when he first got his hearing aids or when he forgets to put his front teeth in – yes I realise that I am sharing them here – oh the irony!
I think personal things should only be shared with the explicit consent of others involved.
So I’ll still trawl Facebook in my stalker-like and Schadenfreude way but am increasingly reluctant to actually post anything for fear of being thought boastful, arrogant or worse inappropriate and disloyal.

 

Tobacco, mints and perfect pitch – that’s my dad.

Stanley Frederick, now there’s a good old Edwardian name. An only child who spent a lot of time with his grandfather, he could play chess and read ‘The Times’ at the age of five. These early experiences obviously ‘maketh the man’ for he gained a place at Lincoln College, Oxford where he read Latin, Greek and philosophy or Greats as it’s apparently known
He was sporty too – although enthusiastic rather than talented and, forever the eccentric, he kept shedding big toe nails whilst playing rugger and took to tying them on with string.
His huge calves came from long distance cycling and, having met and fallen in love with mum, he cycled most weekends from Oxford back to Portsmouth to see her.
He became classics master at his old school, Portsmouth Grammar where he earned the nickname of Elfie on account of his large ears. Over the years, inevitably, Elfie became corrupted to Alfie and he used to get letters from parents addressed to Mr A. MacGregor. But to colleagues and family he was simply known as Mac.
Daughters came along and with them Dad’s opportunity to be eccentric. When my sister’s goldfish was ailing, he broke half an aspirin into the water, whereupon it swam round like a maniac for a few minutes before passing to the great goldfish bowl in the sky. He sat up all night when my other sister brought day old chicks home from the market, trying to keep them alive in the airing cupboard. Sadly, they didn’t survive either.
As a father, he gave us huge amounts of freedom and we were certain of his unconditional love. But if he asked you to do something he expected that it would be done. If you took your shoes off without undoing the laces he simply cut them off. If you neglected to turn lights out he simply removed the bulbs.
He was known to cut the small lawn in the back garden with a razor blade or nail scissors as the mood took him. As a child,I had pigtails and once when mum was away he couldn’t plait my hair so took me to the hairdressers and paid the girl 6d to do it for him.
It was great fun having him as a dad. He taught us to make owl hoots with our hands and say the alphabet backwards – this has actually proved to be quite a useful tool in later life and not a bad party trick.
He set us fun challenges such as promising to pay us £5 if we could still spread our toes when we were 21. That was a lot of money back then.
Of course, he often drove mum mad. She was a small woman and I remember the sight of her drumming her fists into his chest in frustration for he could be infuriating. He had huge hands with clumsy, sausage fingers – if he tried to mend something he inevitably broke it and was constantly dropping things but would catch them again before they hit the ground and declare cheerfully – ‘It’s alright I’m not hurt.’ One memorable Christmas, he managed to push a tray laden with the best crockery and glasses straight through the hatch. Amidst the shattering sounds from the stone-flagged kitchen floor we could hear ‘It’s alright I’m not hurt.’
Another Christmas, he brought home a huge 18lb turkey which inevitably wouldn’t fit into the oven. Whereupon he attempted to suspend said bird from strings inside the oven. Failure and repercussions were to follow.
Despite the clumsiness and sausage fingers, Dad was a talented pianist with what I think is known as perfect pitch. If you played a record or sang a tune he’d not heard before he could instantly play it on the piano.
When I came along, in the later 1940s, things were difficult financially so dad, along with two other masters, took on managing the school’s boarding house. In an old crumbling villa on Southsea seafront, where Fastnet House now stands, Dad was in charge of fifty boarders and later in a smaller establishment with twenty boys. One of these masters had a tragic cricketing accident and went totally blind. Dad helped Ted to manage his teaching job by reading to him every week, whether it be the newspapers or the boys history essays, and patiently helped him to master Braille.
Dad was a deeply kind and self-effacing man. Yet, he was also incredibly self-conscious and exasperated mum when he found it necessary to talk in a loud voice in public, addressing remarks to nearby strangers.
He sometimes made deliberately provocative decisions. When, at the age of fifty, mum decided to learn to drive and bought a car, Dad’s answer was to buy a scooter. It was lilac in colour and called a ‘Triumph Tina’. I’ll leave it to your imagination mum’s reaction to this development. There were no crash helmets in those days so dad bought a trilby hat which he wore when riding it. He was a well-built man with a large head and he looked nothing short of ridiculous on his new machine – a bit like Biffo the bear riding around a circus ring.
He did eventually learn to drive himself and passed his test after three attempts. But it wasn’t a happy experience to be in the car with him. Although he had a good understanding of road sense from all his cycling, he struggled with the mechanics of driving and if something went wrong his response would be to simply turn off the engine whilst underway.
He was also a man of ritual. He smoked a pipe all his adult life favouring Three Nuns Empire – what’s that name all about I wonder? I swear there’s more ritual in pipe-smoking than having a fix – all that tamping down of the pungent smelling tobacco, placing the box of Swan Vestas across the bowl and sucking deeply. His tweed jackets always smelt of tobacco and extra strong mints and the pockets were never without a clean handkerchief.
When his beloved Kay died, dad coped by immersing himself in his favourite dusty, Greek tomes. In her honour, he kept the house going just as she had – always a tin of rock cakes ready for visitors and he could produce a mean Sunday roast.
He still cycled, of course, and would appear at my house, red faced and eyes watering but always with a lovely bunch of flowers or some fruit in his saddlebag.
He never judged when we made mistakes and taught me ‘don’t let the bigots get to you’ – which has been a valuable lifelong lesson.
I’m well-proud to say that he was my dad.

SUZANNE

Her hand closes over his. She laughs – it’s a deep and throaty laugh. Her hand closes over his – it’s a strong hand, a brown hand; ornate silver rings glint on every finger.
He allows himself to be led along the mossy brick path. The morning’s rain drips from the shiny beech trees which loom resentfully around the small cottage. She pushes at the door. Swollen with damp, it resists her for an instant. He gazes into her clouds of hair. It is so blond that he wonders if it is white – white, candyfloss hair. Child-like, she has attempted to restrain the frothy strands with strips of tatty, coloured cotton, twisted randomly.
He knows what will happen, what always happens. He should be at college this afternoon, facing the turgid delights of ‘A’ level geography. He knows he will spend the night beside her. His throat tightens in remembrance of their nights of exploration, each knowing the other so completely within their separateness.
They step into the room. Familiar smells greet him – incense and oranges – glossy, swelling oranges piled into her much loved blue and white bowl. They were ever-present those oranges – unchanging. Did she not eat them? Did they never rot?
She gathers the sleek black cat in her arms, plucked reluctantly from the lumpy armchair, and turns to face him. The low autumn sun, a honey gold, slides between the soggy towering beech trees and thrusts dustily into the room. It shines on her smiling face. He blinks, slowly and deliberately. He is reluctant to turn away from her gaze; reluctant to face the truth of that sun so cruelly illuminating the lines on her face.

‘Tea?’ she asks and, stepping towards him, the brown hand strokes his face.
They sip the scalding pale liquid, each savouring the delay. Damp fungal air sweeps through the open sash windows. Beyond the low garden wall, lush grass slopes towards the river – glistening where the sun strikes, yet blackly mysterious in shadow. She lifts her head in recognition as a fishing boat pushes upstream towards Totness – chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk.
He looks into her eyes, those crazy-lady eyes, beech leaf brown in their wisdom. She has unlocked for him the beauty of the river – the joy of discovery of the blackest beetle wandering amongst the leaves or the dusty, gossamer wings of an insect in momentary stillness. She sees things in him too that others, his ever-distant parents or those inaccessible, unfathomable girls of his own age, all fail to notice.
He lies beside her in the dark quiet and she makes his heart soar. Not with love, not for her, but for the validity she offers him. She has held up her mirror, enabling him to glimpse who he is and who he might become.
His hands travel over the contours of her hip; his fingers trace her small breasts. Brown eyes on his, smiling, childlike, they draw close. Body to body, their minds melt together until the daybreak. Yet each day break he spends with her is harder. He is pulling away from her. He fights it; his body and his mind want to stay with her in this place by the river but his rational eighteen-year old brain intrudes with the coming of the light. She is a traveller lady at rest; their paths have crossed. He longs to travel with her, to share her longings, share her every moment but he must make his own journey.
The faded, floral curtains move gently in the early breeze. From the bedroom window, he watches the empty tripper boats making their way from the overnight moorings back to the quay at Dartmouth; the dark waters of the Dart are churned in expectation of the new day. He loves this river, her river, her chosen place. As a youngster, he’d never given it much thought. It was just a place to swim in summer and mess about in a dinghy with his mates. He knows now its magic and its menace. He sees how it echoes his mood – placid at slack water on a July day as he lies in her arms or tide -running, in full flood, turbulent in its insistence to move on.
Eyes fix on his, their fingers entwine.
‘Time to go,’ she smiles.
He moves towards her; his eyes cloud into a frown. She smiles and nods.
‘Trust me; it’s time for you to go.’

Early Memories

I’m in my cot. The curtains are drawn but daylight shines through. I am hot and pink skinned, a warm soft jelly baby. I wriggle and kick at the slippery satin eiderdown that still lies heavy on my legs. My bedroom is small but through the opening, and not far away, is my haven, my oasis where my mother and father sleep.
I’m still sleepy, looking around at my special things. There’s my Noah’s Ark lamp and my Noddy books. I’m surprised every time I wake that they are the same, and still there. My blonde hair is blackened with sweat and clings like curly worms to the back of my neck.
Ah footsteps.
Hands reach into the cot and grab me underneath my armpits. My cream flannelette nightie flows downwards and I feel my toes dangling, wriggling free in the cooler air. I’m lifted over the white painted bars of the cot. But wait, no cuddle, no comforting words. This is not my mother.
“Pooh, she stinks!”
Charming I think to myself but secretly I feel ashamed and rejected. Held at arm’s length, my body is rigid. We are rushing and I feel the cool breeze waft passed, cooling my pink cheeks.
What’s going on? I notice my sister’s school blouse near my face. We are in another room now. I’m cold. Where’s my mother? Thud, my head meets the nobbled bath mat as I’m laid none too gently on the cold floor.
“Pooh, it’s disgusting! I’m not changing her; you do it, Jill”.
I try to wriggle round; there’s dust and brown marks under the bath. The soggy and yes stinking nappy is held, as I was, at arm’s length and flung into the tin bucket. I long for the baby powder feeling when my mother does the business.

It’s just not grandmotherly

 

Exhausted, B.B. laid back, her coarse grey hair fanning over the lumpy pillow. She sighed, suppressing uncharitable thoughts about her youngest granddaughter who she looked after in the school holidays. She really didn’t feel up to the task today having been in bed with flu for the last three days. She had planned a trip to town to visit the beautician to have her moustache waxed but had reluctantly been forced to cancel. That was the trouble with the countryside B.B. had moaned to her cronies after the move from town.
‘It’s so bloody far to get one’s hair done, darling.’
‘Gran are you there?’
B.B. used her bony arms to heave herself into a sitting position.
‘Come along in.’ She was surprised at the gruffness of her voice but she did have a sore throat and remembered that she hadn’t spoken to anyone over the weekend.
‘How do I look?’ She couldn’t help but enquire.
The child came nearer; her blond locks swung healthily around a creamy peach- like skin – irritating!
‘I’ve never seen you without your hair but you look just fine, Gran,’ the child ventured after the merest pause.
It had not however gone unnoticed.
‘Baa!’ replied her grandmother. ‘I don’t believe you; fetch me that mirror. I was too ill to put on my hairpiece.’ She never could refer to the wretched thing as a wig.
Fine, indeed. Beady eyes stared malevolently back at her, seemingly huge in the grey shrunken face. Her stiff hand tentatively inspected the coarse black hair that had spread from upper lip to include part of her cheeks and pointed chin. B.B. drew back the thin cracked lips in a hideous grimace to inspect the lengthening canines.
‘It’s true, then,’ she murmured. ‘I truly am getting long in the tooth.’
‘Whatever are you doing, child?’ she enquired irritably.
‘Just checking the bottom of my shoes, Gran. I thought I must have trodden in some dog’s muck but I haven’t.’ She smiled brightly. ‘There’s a funny smell in here though, Gran. Can’t you smell it?’
Her grandmother watched for a moment as the button nose wrinkled in distaste. Faced with yet another confirmation of her fears, her heart sank further. She could indeed smell it. Despite her cold, she had been aware of a dog-like odour that she just couldn’t get rid of. Usually, she liberally sprayed a heavy floral scent to mask the essence of dog but had neglected to do so since she’d been ill.
‘Stop your nonsense,’ she barked unkindly. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
She struggled to contain a filthy rage that gathered within her. Beneath the duvet, her bony limbs shook with anger and a slug trail of spittle coursed from the side of her mouth.
‘Gran?’ The child backed away from the bed but not before B.B. had seen the fear in her eyes.
A loud knock at the door startled them.
B.B. shook herself grateful that reality had returned to smooth out her rage. She took her granddaughter’s hand kindly.
‘It’s not you, child; it’s me trying to cope with growing older that’s all.’ She sighed; it was hard but she’d just have to accept that she was just an old dog now.
‘Time to give in gracefully I think,’ she said softly.