Mrs Brooks class was a hive of activity; each table had their own projects to complete. Paints, Crayola crayons and multicoloured pencils were laying haphazardly across the desks; all of us chatting with each other. I was in a mischievous mood, flicking paint at the girl sat next to me. By the end of the lesson, we were both covered in an assortment of acrylic, not even the plastic aprons would save us. Mrs Brooks walked over, she looked angry, the frown on her face revealing. Taking us both to one side, she gave us a good telling off and a smack on the back of the legs. I’d been spanked before, standing outside the headmistresses office for the rest of the day; I was an old pro, so hardly reacted; the young lass shed a few tears and we were both ordered to the toilets to clean up before lunch. By the time I had finished, I was in a worse state than before, soaking wet, dripping all over the floor. Cautiously I walked back into class, hoping to avoid catching Mrs Brooks eye. Sheepishly, I sat down at my desk, looking away from her gaze. My friend sat next to me facing the other way, so I did the same; friends no more!
It was dinner time, the bell sounded in the hall. Everyone started to tidy their desks. ‘Quietly, do it quietly!’ shouted Mrs Brooks, trying to make herself heard over the commotion in class. ‘I said quietly!’ she repeated once again. Suitably calm and composed, sitting in our seats, we always said a little prayer before dinner. ‘Close your eyes, hands together,’ shouted Mrs B:
‘Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything.’
Everyone queued in two neat lines, boys one side, girls the other, holding hands as we made our way to the hall. We were on the last sitting today, the canteen was running a little later than usual; the queue unusually ending outside the door. Children jostled for pole position, pushing in front of their peers, wanting to get their food first. I was leant up against the wall, patiently waiting my turn. Mum had always taught me how to behave and never to bulldoze my way to the front; it wasn’t the right thing to do.
My new Clark’s sandals were rubbing the heals of my feet; lifting each one up in turn, I tried to ease the pain. Someone kicked me in the back of the legs. The procession of school children was so long, I didn’t see who it was. Turning, I faced the front, standing up straight, arms folded in protest. Scuffing my shoes, backwards and forwards (The mark of a petulant child, Mrs Brooks always said.) Trying to pass the time, I eventually reached the front of the calvalcade; picking up my mint green coloured plate. Today, soggy roast potatoes, lots and lots of cabbage, boiled to within an inch of its life and minced meat in gravy. Funny enough, I still cook this today; comfort food if you like. For desert, chocolate pudding with thick, lumpy pink blancmange; another dish I look back on with fondness.
The noise in the hall was deafening as I hesitantly walked to the table at the back of the hall, where my friends were already sat. I took the chair at the end, leant back and waited for the Dinner Lady to appear. I can’t remember her name now, but she always came over and helped me cut up my food into bite sized pieces and filled the large metal water jugs on the table, that needed two hands to lift. I precariously charged my glass, most of it spilling over, quickly wiped away by another monitor; dressed in a pink and white tabard, wearing a small white hat and hairnet, that really did nothing to stop hair falling into the food. Part of the course when you ate school meals.
Dinner over it was time to return to class, each of us waiting in turn, to be escorted back for an afternoon of ‘Drama and Dance,’ my favourite lesson. ‘Time to work off all that extra energy after lunch,’ said Mrs B! ‘Time to get big and strong!’
I always have fond memories of school lunches; plain, basic filling food, typical of the time; in contrast the lunches of today. As a product of the 70s, we appreciated the simpler things in life; as children we had very little, none of us any more than anyone else. School Dinners are a reminder of the happy times, spent with friends, enjoying those first steps into childhood; a period when peoples values were different; a time of innocence in a changing World!
I was always a worrier, about everything and anything. At thirteen years old I had more to worry about than most; my sexuality being at the forefront of my thoughts. The beginning of my teenage years was also important in the academic sense; it was time to pick options at school. At such a young age, I was expected to know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, electing subjects to study for the next three years. The forms were duly handed out to the class; it was time to decide our destiny.
As I sat there at my desk, my mind preoccupied, I drifted away to a better place. A feeling of despair was descending over me; I closed my ears, blocking out the voice of my form tutor Mr Campbell, not wanting to hear another word. Looking down towards the paper in front of me, I just saw a jumble of words, none of them making sense. In my head I was sat at the bottom of the school hill; it was green, the sun was out, shining brightly overhead. As I looked left, my cat Ben was jumping through the long grass; a faint summer breeze, blowing through his newly combed coat. In my hand, a cheese and Marmite sandwich, between my knees an ice cold glass of orange. This was my safe place, away from the troubles life always threw my way.
As a sufferer, the weight of the World was firmly on my shoulders; my emerging homosexuality, the threat of nuclear war, death and dying, the newly discovered AIDS epidemic and how to be popular at school, all areas of concern; no wonder I turned to cigarettes! Picking options was just another trouble to contend with and it was right at the bottom of a long list of difficulties. In truth I wasn’t interested in my future at such a tender age, I was too busy fighting my own demons. In my clouded mind, I didn’t have a destiny; not a good one anyway, so I might as well just give up now.
Looking around the class, there was feverish excitement in the air, as my classmates chatted to their peers about what they should do; their favourite lessons, the ones they never skipped and the subjects they never tired of learning about. Others wanted to choose the same courses as their best friend, not wanting to be split up or being seen as a bit of a ‘boff,’ exercising judgement that may be at odds with the mainstream. When you are in your teens, you don’t want to be seen as different, certainly not taking a module that would make others see you as ‘gay’ or ‘odd.’ So as a budding conformist, trying to blend in with the crowd, I chose the courses I felt would be most acceptable to friends and family.
Mum and Dad had said that computers and business were the future and I needed to get a good job when I left school, so I immediately picked ‘Information Studies.’ This was actually a decision I regretted over the years. It was the first choice I made, that proved to be disastrous for my eventual attainment. As a young boy, I was creative and wanted to express that creativity in writing. I enjoyed English language, but never felt satisfied with the lessons. I wrote short stories from a very early age, as I continue to do today. Back then I also wanted to be an actor and would have preferred Drama as an option; it wasn’t to be; far too ‘gay,’ for the likes of me. I wasn’t prepared to go through the last three years of school, suffering yet more bullying. The most important thing for me at age thirteen was to finally begin fitting in with those around me.
When I look back at this time of change, I am horrified at the way I acted. Had I been born thirty years later, I may well have made the correct selections for my future direction in life. As a young gay boy, growing up in 1984, I just didn’t have the willpower or desire to be who I wanted to be and my whole life changed as a result. If I had my time all over again, things would be very different; since I don’t have that chance, I must learn to become content with what I have; not keep thinking, what could have been!
It was 4 o’clock; the sun still high in the sky, as Grandad dropped me off at Nanny’s house, after a few hours in the Forest of bere. I had a carrier bag stuffed full of woodland goodies; moss covered sticks, twigs and bright orange leaves; holly, pine cones and large shiny stones; some with holes in, collected from the forest floor. I ran into the side gate, bag slung around my back, excited to show everyone what I had collected. Through the conservatory, narrowly avoiding tripping, on the step to the kitchen; I emptied the contents of the bag on the dining room floor, satisfied with my Saturday afternoon hall!
It took about fifteen minutes to wander home from Nan and Grandad’s, walking up Fareham Park Road, bags of shopping in hand, right to the very top. Fareham was a small place, where everyone knew each other, exchanging greetings as we walked by. Mrs Adams rubbing my head furiously as Mother and Father passed the time of day; a welcome breather from carrying the bags of shopping home; panting, sore feet, runny nose. As we approached our house, children were playing in the street, neighbours chatting over a garden hedge, others were proudly cleaning their cars or walking an unruly dog. In the distance, I could here the faint humming of a lawn mower; Shirley next door pottering down her path, waving us through the door!
On Saturday evening, we would always have a ‘make do’ meal; Mum, having cooked all week, took respite. A Vesta Curry for Dad, a sandwich for mum, a boiled egg for my brother and I; something simple, non taxing, before a large Sunday Dinner tomorrow; my favourite meal of the week. Mum made up a salad, some ham cut from the bone, hot, spicy home made pickled onions and a jar of piccalilli, sat chatting at the dining room table, looking out across the garden. Ben our cat sat at the window, looking in hungrily as we finished our meal; the sun gently fading away as day turned to dusk.
Television turned on, Dad listened to the final half hour of Grandstand; football results displayed across the screen. Familiar music signalled the end of a sports filled afternoon; football, wrestling with Big Daddy, horse racing on ITV. At just gone five o’clock the news came on; Dad and I both glued to the box. Even at ten years old I was a political animal; listening to my Father raging, banging his fists, sighing loudly; Margaret Thatcher on the TV!
All was quiet on the Avenue, street lamps turned on, illuminating the empty road. Mother drew the curtains; lifting the nets briefly, head bobbing from side to side, checking to see who was about outside. Sat quietly, my back against a chair, Mum lit the fire, smoke filling the air. It was a chilly night as the wind whistled, down the chimney, gently rattling the metal framed windows, blowing into the lounge. Running upstairs, I quickly grabbed my dressing gown, tying it tightly around my waste, pulling the collar upwards, protecting my chest, trying to keep warm. Suitably attired, I ran back down, not wanting to miss the beginning of ‘The Generation Game’ with Larry Grayson, who always made my laugh; ‘shut that door,’ his spectacles dangling from his neck on a beaded chain, slightly camp lisp and kick of the heal.
I could hear Mum in the kitchen making a mug of coffee, immediately I asked for a cup of tea; hot, strong without sugar, accompanied by a milk chocolate digestive and custard cream. Dad shouted from his chair near the fire; ‘a plain crisp and brown sauce sandwich please Mary and a cheeky half a pint of beer.’ This was my Saturday night, relaxing with Mum and Dad, talking, watching the TV. Fond memories with loved ones, recollections from times gone by; happy, carefree childhood, full of contentment, precious memories, with family!
The sky looked grey, just the odd patch of blue, breaking through the thick cloud swirling around outside. It was a typical British summers day and I was up bright an early; today I was going to the beach with Nan, Grandad and Aunty Pam; Littlehampton by the sea. Mum was preparing lunch to take with me, putting it neatly into a brightly coloured holdall, along with some bathing trunks and my china giraffe. I used to carry the Wade Whimsie around everywhere, buying a different figurine, every time I went to the Post Office on Highlands Road. I was a collector even then and always felt secure when I had things around me. Finally Mum packed a packed of Discos, some orange cordial and a towel in the bag; zipping it tightly, placing it over my shoulder; it was nearly as big as me, slipping off my arm, hitting the floor. Rather perturbed, I grabbed the handle tightly, dragging the offending item into the hall, throwing it awkwardly by the front door; breathing heavily, I fell forwards onto the top of the bag, my head narrowly missing the floor. Angry, frustrated, I kicked it with my foot; it wasn’t going to get the better of me!
I sat patiently waiting half way up the stairs, swinging my legs back and forth, banging the step below with my heal. A shadow appeared in the glass of the front door, impatiently I ran back down, slipping down the final few rungs; the figure passed by. A shrug of the shoulder, I turned away and walked back in the kitchen, sitting miserably at the kitchen table. Suddenly there was a knock at the door; my head immediately perked up, a large smile across my face. I jumped up from the chair and ran forth, followed by Mum, greeting Nan at the door. ‘Come on, come on, hurry up, lets go!’ she said, standing there with her perfectly coiffured hair, kept precisely in place with a purple silk scarf, tied around her neck. She tightly grasped my hand and we headed to Grandads car!
I sat in the back of the brown Cortina with Aunty Pam, laughing all the way to the beach: Pam tickling me, playing ‘Eye Spy’ and naming the colour of the cars on the road. Half way there the sun finally came out, streaming through the windows; sunglasses on we finally reached the shore.
There were four folded up deckchairs in the boot of the car; Grandad took two, Nan and Pam two more. Grabbing a blanket and a small plastic carrier bag; we set off walking to the water front, finding our spot, in front of the jetty. Nan helped me change into my bathers, put sun cream on my face and shoulders and took a Marathon from her bag; half for me, half for her. Covered in chocolate, head to toe, she walked me down to the sea, splashing water on a hankie, wiping me clean; carrying me back to the safety of the beach.
The sun rose high in the sky, reflecting majestically off the waves licking the coastline. I knelt building a sandcastle, bucket and spade in hand, unwilling to venture into the sea. Nan sat on her orange and yellow chair reading a book; Grandad, earnestly flicking through a newspaper; Aunty Pam on her way back from the Winkle Store on the promenade, a cup of crustaceans for all; swimming in vinegar, the smell of the sea. After a second trip for some ice cream and beer for Grandad, we sat looking out towards the pier; waving at the fisherman hanging over the railings, throwing bread to the seagulls, dive bombing the shore.
As the sun dipped below the horizon and the summer breeze turned cold, wrapped in Nan’s cardigan, I fell asleep, eyes slowly closing, flickering; a deep red sunset in full view. I could hear the voices of children, running along the sand, a speedboat pass quickly by and Pam singing sea shanties in the background, as I happily drifted away, warm and cosy at the end of the day!
47 year old Author, Columnist and Blogger.