As It Were by John Connolley, Part Five

At the zoo
So in two weeks' time off to Whipsnade. Not a bad move. I really enjoyed it there. The accommodation was a "bothy" cared for by a lady cleaner. Once again all found. The wages of 1-10-0d (£1.50p) week were very good for those times and I had one and a half days off each week. Not, however, at the weekend. There was a French chef, an Italian headwaiter, a German manager and Bob, my friend from the Albermarle days. I was so pleased to see him again. I quickly settled in and Bob soon had me doing the chips and anything to go with them, meals. He introduced me to his girlfriend, a waitress. and they introduced me to a racket. His waitress friend would give me chits for the meals she ordered. She would also expect me to supply meals occasionally without a chit... should I work with them? Why not? Next to the Zoo was the local pub, The Chequers. We met there most evenings to share the spoils. Lou the waitress told me she had learned the racket during her 'Nippy' days in the Lyons Corner Houses. Time went on and, on my days off work, I used to go round the enclosures and watch the animals or maybe a walk on the downs to watch the gliders. Eventually I obtained a second-hand bike and began to discover the locality. In the bakery department was a fellow I knew very well. He had attended the same school as me but he was a little older. "Do you go home?" he asked. "No, it is rather difficult." "Not at all," said he. "Leave Luton at 1pm and you are in Chesterfield by about 4pm. Leave Chesterfield at 4pm the next day and you are in the bothy by about 9pm." We arranged to go the following week. A nice time was had by all. Mum and Dad went to the local with me for a drink. Never a dull moment. The season was coming to an end. What next?
Somewhere in Soho
Cheers Bob and Lou. See you here next year. But no, I soon found another job on my return to London. It was in the kitchen of Maples, the big furniture store. Maples supplied all their shop assistants with lunch and tea. The kitchen staff of four prepared the meals. I joined them. The accommodation was a large house close by and cared for by an elderly couple. The conditions of service were very reasonable.

I settled in and became friendly with a Scotsman. He was a nice enough chap, but at the time no one knew he was a deserter from the Army. We spent a lot of time together and discovered much about the Big City. He knew the ropes. Often we would be walking down a street in the West End and a "floozy" would join us. "Are you looking for a nice time?" Jock's reply was, "not at your price dearie." "But I could make it short and sweet." "No." A cursing would follow. I was learning! I was glad to be on the same side as Jock. Time was passing and I seemed to settle into my present position, for the time being anyway. Another Christmas came and went. Not so lonely this time round.

Jock decided he was going to celebrate the New Year. I told him I was not into serious drinking. No spirits whatsoever. "OK, have your pint and watch I don't get into trouble." Oh dear… We had already told the housekeeper we would be out late and she agreed, as it was a 'special night'.

We were doing fine until Jock said we were going into this pub. He said it would open my eyes to the seamy side of London. It was somewhere in Soho. It certainly did open my eyes. The occupants today are known as gays. Oh la la. There was not a female in the bar but, oh, the kissing and cuddling that went on. One 'nice' boy tried it on but Jock said, "he's mine deary," with a sly wink. We drank up and when we got outside Jock said to me. I hate the b..... sight of those guys." Such is life!

Time went on. The IRA was knocking hell out of the underground and big shop windows. Jock and I spent a Sunday night or two listening to the soap box orators just inside Hyde Park gates at Marble Arch. If we did not fancy walking back a 9d taxi ride would get us there. No tip. An occasional visit to the 'flicks' took place; the Odeon, Leicester Square or the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road. We did go to the Hammersmith Palais a time or two, but Jock was no dancer. So ended another year. Now, though, there were murmurings of war.

Quite a number of strangers, young lads asking the way to Waterloo station en-route to Aldershot. Call-ups were taking place. At work, a fellow who was in charge of the directors (meals) service room left and I was asked to replace him. A cushy job but I had to be on my toes. I had to help the waitress with keeping the dining room up to scratch, and then at 11.30am go to the fruit room with the manageress to select the fruit for the day. There was a dumb waiter, and the waitress and I kept it busy during the lunch hour and teatime. The chef brought the menu in and I sent it down in a presentable manner. The waitress asked me if I drank beer. "Oh yes." Thereafter a jug of beer came up daily at lunchtime. Must get to know that girl.

Summertime was approaching. Do I move on? I managed to get a date with Ivy, the waitress. She was a nice lassie. We went on a Sunday evening walk or two to Primrose Hill via Regents Park. However, the urge to move on became dominant.

Lovers Fate
A visit to Mr Marks again. "Yes, I have a situation if you wish." This hotel, which I have completely forgotten the name of, was in Swanage in Dorset. I said my goodbyes to friends and was on my way. It was June 1st 1939 and the headline news that day referred to the sinking of the submarine "Thetis".

I was assistant cook in charge of vegetables and breakfasts at the hotel. Not a bad job at all. Most of my off-duty time was spent on the beach very close to the hotel. The weather was absolutely glorious. All was going well. It was July, and then...

I was standing on the front one day and a guest drove up in his car. "Son, would you like to wash my car? I know you work here. Have you got the time?" "Yes sir, I have the time." I washed the car and it looked a picture. "Thank you." A £2 tip. "By the way, do you back horses?" "Only if they are certain to win." "Right, this one will win." It was Lovers Fate running in the 3 o'clock race the next day. It duly won and I was over £35 better off. Without giving any further thought I gave a week's notice and returned to London. I was interested in that girl Ivy.

I soon found a bedsit in Dean Street, close to Maples. It was 10/- per week and pay your own gas bill. It suited me fine. Now I needed a job. I heard that Maples bedding factory had just received a huge Army order for 'biscuits'. That was the term given to the mattresses used by the troops. I was set on straight away. Now I had to find Ivy. Yes, she was keen to continue our friendship but the war news was becoming serious. I had to think about it. Our friendship developed but we both realized that we would certainly part if war broke out, and so our friendship remained just that.

That Sunday morning in September found me, for some reason, down Euston Road when suddenly the sirens started wailing. I followed other people who seemed to know where they were going. They led me to a shelter in St Pancras railway station. After a short while everyone seemed to accept that it was a try out and not the real thing. My mind was made up. I would spend the rest of the day with Ivy and later on catch a train for home. No, not running away. I was just making sure that I would be with my folks for a while.

After lunch Ivy and I went for a stroll round Regents Park. We both decided it would be better if we went our separate ways because it was fairly evident that this war was going to upset life as we knew it. We said goodbye at about 9pm. We agreed to write occasionally. I knew she lived in Bridhurst, Kent, but I mislaid her address and that was the end of our friendship.

Induction time
Goodbye London - it was nice knowing you. My train left St Pancras about 10pm but, owing to goodness only knows what, did not reach Chesterfield until 7am the next day.

I reached home and after a little chat Mum cooked me a lovely breakfast. Boy, was I hungry. After five or six years I was back with 'my ain folk', but for how long? We would see. Things were much better at home now. One or two of my siblings had flown the nest. Dad and my sister Margaret were both working and the good old, bad old days seemed just a memory.

It was with a light heart and step that I set off for the employment exchange next morning. They sent me to a railway wagon makers' company, and I was immediately taken on. I started work the next day. The work was labouring, and I found it hard work compared to the easy life I had just left. I was determined to stick to it though. The hours were 7.30am until 5 or 6pm. The wages were £2-10-0d (£2.50p) per week.

So life went on and just as I was settling down, in December, I received a letter from HM Government. "Appear at the drill hall in Boythorpe Road to undergo a medical prior to entering the Army." It was January 1st, New Year's Day. My dad said, "John, with your eyesight they will not take you." They did, and in no time at all. On January 6th I was off to Leeds for induction in HM's Army.

As the train passed through the station it also passed by the wagon yard and quite a number of my workmates gave a grand wave. When would I see them again? On the train heading in the same direction were the Robinson twins who were at school with me. Life was not so lonely after all. We had a good natter about days gone by. We tried to guess which branch of the service we may be put into. Leeds here I come.
As It Were - Part 6 (to be continued Home Top