My second year at junior school began with another horrible teacher. Her name was Mrs Thomas and I seem to remember her having long blonde hair and a fondness for velvet alice bands, although this may well be misremembered. She was very friendly with Miss Please and seemed to have taken discipline tips from her. There were raps across the knuckles with rulers, hair pulling and general cruelty. She was one of those, find a weakness and pick on it, kinds of teachers and public humiliation was her favourite weapon.
My weakness, apart from a shy and fairly sensitive disposition, was numbers. Reading and writing were both things I loved with a passion, they came easily to me, even spelling, which reduced some other children to a quivering wreck. Numbers though never did make sense to me. Of course I could count and add up. I could even take away and tell the time. It was when multiplication and division reared their ugly heads that things all began to go wrong.
One of the things we had to do was learn our times tables. This was something I found extremely difficult and, to my shame, I still don’t know them all properly without the use of fingers. The humiliation came with a test and a chart on the wall. Reciting the blasted things was hard enough but, in most cases I could just about manage it. The blasted numbers stayed in my head long enough to pass the test but then disappeared again quick smart. Reciting wasn’t enough for my horrible teacher though. Once this was achieved she would fire random questions, “nine times seven,” “twelve times seven,” “four times seven.” If you got caught out and didn’t come up with an answer at once, or came up with the wrong answer, you didn’t get a star on the chart and had to do it all over again another day.
These horrible tests would be carried out in front of the whole class. When my turn to be tested came I always felt sick. My palms would be clammy and any numbers I had managed to retain would fly out of my head. Needless to say I never did get all the stars on my chart. Five was about as far as I got. Mrs Thomas seemed to delight in my failure.
My other weakness was P.E. It didn’t help that I was a chubby child and very embarrassed about my body. P.E. involved wearing what was basically a pair of green knicker and a green t-shirt. As far as I was concerned I might as well have been naked. I was not a particularly coordinated child either. Skipping or throwing a ball against the wall and saying rhymes was easy enough but, when it came to gymnastic type things I was hopeless, I couldn’t climb a rope, jump high or run fast. P.E. was a humiliating experience altogether.
Then there were the ball games, rounders, netball, that kind of thing. Because I was slow and not very good at hitting balls or shooting balls into nets no one wanted me on their team. Frankly I didn’t want to be on anyone’s team either and would rather have been left alone to read. That was not an option though so I would regularly have the whole team cross with me for making them lose. In winter it was even worse. The games were played in the playground in our P.E. kit. It was freezing cold, especially for a child who wasn’t doing much running about. Mrs Thomas would be standing there laughing with her coat on while we all froze. This could well explain my abiding hatred of playing organised sports and running.
At home things were difficult too. Dad had not been well for a long time, probably years, although his illness had been kept from me for the most part. He was a large muscular man, a butcher by trade, and used to hefting around huge hunks of meat. He managed the little butcher’s shop in Wodehouse Lane, next to the dairy. It’s long gone now, just the crumbling dairy building remains, but I remember the smell of sawdust and the huge cold room with sides of beef and halves of pigs hanging from hooks.
During the war he was a chef in the RAF and food was his passion. The index finger on his right hand was missing, lost somewhere in France, probably just after D-Day. The details are vague but he was in a town the Germans had just left and he cut his finger badly moving some meat they’d left behind. They’d booby trapped it with razor blades, or something similar. The wound became gangrenous and the finger was amputated.
For as long as I could remember Dad had had stomach troubles but I’d grown up thinking this was quite normal. Mother often had stomach troubles too. Everyone in our house seemed to eat mountains of food and indigestion was a word much bandied about. Several times he’d been to hospital and, at some time in late 1968 or maybe early 1969, he’d had an operation.
He’d come home from hospital but he had to sleep in a bed in the front room and was tired a lot. The operation had been to remove his stomach and couldn’t eat real food any more. The huge man I knew and loved slowly began to turn into a frail, thin, grey faced man. He lived on something called complan and a disgusting mixture of raw egg beaten up in milk. Most of what went on was hidden from me but, from time to time, I witnessed things that haunt me to this day. One of these was the little plastic cups he spat stuff into, horrible green, yellow and red goo like snot. He tried to do it when no one was about but I saw and remembered even if I didn’t understand. To be honest I still don’t know what it was about today.
Later I would learn that he’d been diagnosed with an ulcer and treated for this for years. What he actually had though, was cancer of the stomach. In the 1960’s cancer was a word no one said, not even in a whisper. The tools for diagnosis were minimal. When it was diagnosed it was almost certainly a death sentence. There was no chemotherapy, no magic bullets. They cut you open, cut it out and then waited for it to come back. Basically my lovely Dad was at the first stage of this process.
At some point in 1969, probably in the late spring or early summer, he went into hospital again. By this time I was used to him going to hospital and then coming home so I wasn’t unduly worried, although I missed him like mad. This was especially true on the day Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Dad had been so interested in the space programme and I watched on our black and white television as Neil Armstrong took that first ‘small step,’ wishing with all my heart I could have been sitting on Dad’s lap and wondering if he had been able to see it in hospital.
The long summer holidays came but Dad was still in hospital and Mother was there with him a lot of the time. I was not allowed to visit him and stayed at home with Pappy. Towards the end of the holidays Mother was sleeping at the hospital and my aunts, uncles and even cousins took turns to sit with me while Pappy went to visit too.
How long this went on I don’t know. It seemed a long time but could have been just weeks. Then, one night I got up to use the toilet and saw that Mother’s bedroom door was open. When I peeked through the crack in the door I could see her sleeping in the big bed she used to share with Dad. I went back to bed feeling happy because I thought Dad must be better. Perhaps he would be home again soon.
The next morning I was a few steps down the stairs, confident that all was well with the world, when Mother stepped into the hallway below.
“Dad has gone to a better place,” she said.
There was no mistaking what she meant and I turned and ran back to my bedroom sobbing. All night I’d been thinking my wonderful Dad was better and would be coming home and all the time he was dead.
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