More on my Schoolboy Years in England

Heathfield, Sussex

We left the last episode with my Father having married his lady friend and the both of us moving into Heathfield to the Fish and Chip shop on Hailsham Road.So we pick up from there

I was now 12 years old going on 13 and soon found out that step mothers are all they are made out to be. Mine was no exception and though she may have loved or somehow been attracted to my Father, that didn’t include me. She already had a son, Neville, who was several years older than me and to be fair to him, he wasn’t a bully and although we were not the best of friends, at least we learned to get along. My step mother on the other hand, just didn’t like me and showed it in as many ways as she could. There are more ways to ill treat a kid other than beating them and the psychological effect was devastating.

As I mentioned in the previous episode, I had passed the 11 Plus exam which got me through to the Lewis County Grammar School which was a pre college school with most of the emphasis on the Academic work. With the home life that I was experiencing, my grades and studies suffered to the degree that I would even miss the school bus on purpose just to get out of Physics and Chemistry which were the first two periods of the day on two of the days of the week.

The only thing I was really excelled at was sports, Soccer in the first year and then Rugby after that and I was good enough to play for the school first team. I think I was so extra good because I was allowed out of some classes just to train with the first team players who were all older that me. Same is true for games but on many occasions, the entire school was let out to watch and support the school team in their matches against other schools. I forgot to mention that the town of Lewis was also the County Seat (like being the Capital of the County of Sussex) and was 16 miles from Heathfield. We travelled by bus leaving and returning to the High Street every day. The High Street was about a couple of miles from my house which we walked to and from every day. We didn’t think anything of it and in fact considered it the norm. You either rode a bike, caught a bus or walked. That was how it was. Any family owning a car or even one of the family knowing how to drive was almost unheard of. If you did own a car, you were a part of the upper class and when I was growing up, class distinction was very prevalent. Most of us knew our place but as is normal, there were always those who would be willing to buck the system. Although there were no more Lords of the Manor and most of the serfs had been freed, the system was deeply entrenched and it would be years before it became a thing of the past… well almost. As a lot of England was (and still is) rural, farming was an ongoing pass time and the farm laborers to this day, still rent their cottages from the Farmer from whom they work. So, if you lost your job, you lost your house and all of the security that goes along with it. Think about how serviant the people are under those conditions.

Our bus passes were marked with the bus numbers it covered which in my case was from the High Street to the school and back on bus number 18 (or something like). When I was still living at Huggletts Lane, it also covered a connecting bus that would pick me up at the bottom of the Lane to take me in to Heathfield to connect with the school bus and of course home again so the pass then showed two different bus numbers. If it happened to be raining or cold and miserable and we were faced with our 2 mile hike, we used to try to con the bus conductors, the guys that sold the tickets, by showing them the pass with our thumb over the bus numbers covered by the pass in order to hitch a ride to save us having to walk. Some of the more cheerful conductors would let it go knowing that we were pulling a fast one but others would not be as sympathetic and would stop the bus and kick us off to walk whatever distance remained. Such was the life of a young kid back then. Easy to laugh about it now and I can imagine that any conductor who tried to kick off an American kid would have to face the wrath of not only the parents but probably the court system and lose his job in order to justify his actions.

The bus trips to the Grammar School and back were in themselves a very interesting experience. We were both boys and girls riding together and in many cases, relationships were getting formed although none of them were ever serious and in a lot of cases, the related parties didn’t even realize that they were even connecting.  To a twelve-year-old boy not having had the benefit of any discussions from anybody about the difference between the sexes, any talk of the female anatomy left me completely in the dark wondering what part was being discussed.  You could say that I had my first classes on sex education on those bus rides. Whether they were correct or not is a whole different story and much was left to the fertile minds and young boys imaginations.

The ages on the bus were eleven through sixteen and up to eighteen if you were in the college program. Back then, kids could leave school at 15 or stay and graduate at 16. Only, in the case of those that had chosen to go on with their Academic Careers, were they older and those were the ones preparing to enter one of the Universities. It was NOT everyone goal to enter a University and many parents were still stuck with the class thing and to them, a decent education was enough to get through this world. It was good enough for me and by golly will be good enough for you was the general attitude. The brainy kids were generally University bound while the rest would find employment in whatever field they could get a job. Invariably, they would end up doing what their Father had done and his before him. It was generally not a career that you either wanted or had planned on and back then, not too many people enjoyed what they did for a living. In the end, you just got used to it and then it became a habit like getting up in the morning. On the job training was very much a part of the English way of life and many of the larger employers would run such programs. There was also a parallel  education system that instead of going to the Grammar school, the choice would be to go to the Trade School instead where the rudimentary skills of the different professions were learned to be completed by the on the job training. The English may not be as smart as their American counterparts in many ways in their approach towards business, but in this aspect of things, they recognized that not everyone is College material and that there should be alternative training available. By the way, we all wore a school uniform of black shoes, grey, long or short pants, shirt and tie and a blazer. This was for both girls and boys except the girls wore grey skirts. They too, wore ties.

But I digress again. How easy it is to do that. Back to the Fish and Chip shop.

After a year or so of living in this unhealthy atmosphere, it all came to a head one evening when the four of us, my Father, my step mother and step brother and myself were all sitting down to the evening meal. My step mother was a pretty good cook which was a good thing as we did live at a fish shop and we ate an over abundance of the stuff so she was always finding new ways to serve the fish. Anyway, the silence was chilling, I mean really chilling. To this day, I can remember that meal and the atmosphere in that room and it was so thick, you could almost cut it with a knife. My step mother was painfully aware of it and made some remark about it. I don’t know what followed but the bottom line was that the next day, my Father dragged me out of there and we got on our bikes and pedaled to Sandy Cross, a couple of miles to visit my Aunt Elsie and her husband, Uncle Jim. These were a couple whose own children had flown the coop and my Father wanted to know if I could go and live with them. We were related although I wasn’t particularly fond of them but again I was probably going on 14 years old and with such a broken young life, did not think too much about relatives and family.

That is not to say that I was desperately unhappy. On the contrary, I was full of life and made my own happiness with my friends and playing football and cricket. Again, sports taking a leading role in my life. Anyway, bottom line is that I moved out from the Fish and Chip shop and my “wicked” step mother and moved in with my Aunt and Uncle. This Aunt, by the way, was my Mothers sister so felt some sort of responsibility towards me as my Mother had left home a couple of years previously. She was not a very happy soul and was a bit of a tyrant so it was almost a case of out  of the fry pan and into the fire sort of situation. Anything was better than where I came from so we were all willing to give it a go.My Uncle was a WWI veteran and had contracted some sort of skin disease from being in the trenches and was constantly scratching his hands which would drive my Aunt insane. She would holler at him and the poor chap would slink away knowing full well there was nothing he could do about the itching. He had ointment but I guess it wasn’t that effective. As I said, she was not a very understanding lady. Jumping ahead, my Aunt eventually lost her husband and was unable to face life without him probably because she had no one to holler at so she stuck her head in a gas oven and committed suicide.

In the meantime, my studies improved a little with the more settled environment and I made a whole bunch of new friends from the new area that I now lived. Across the street from our bungalow was a housing development that had been erected immediately following the war as a stop-gap measure to make housing available. These houses were made up of prefabricated walls and roof  manufactured elsewhere and shipped to the site and then erected. The exterior walls were made of smooth asbestos panelling. God knows if anyone went down with mesothelioma or some other form of cancer as of course, it wouldn’t have shown up until much later. You could describe it as tenement housing and there certainly were a varied bunch of people living there. Didn’t affect me as at going on 14, I could only see the good in people and the rest I ignored.

This period of my life living first with my step mother and then my Aunt was the closest thing that I ever got to being religious. Some of it was because many of my friends belonged to this small church whose Pastor’s name was the Rev. Manning. He was just a young priest and was interested in the betterment of the youth. We had a club housed in one of the Church buildings where we would all meet and play indoor soccer and generally be entertained. Another reason for the religious interest was to find some sort of stability and I thought that maybe God could do that. I went to Church on Sundays and sang in the choir until my voice broke then I was relegated to one of the regular pews.  I was taking religious classes in preparation to being confirmed and in my case. also to be baptized as I never was as a baby. None of my family were particularly religious and so it was never much a part of my life. I do know, that towards the end of his life, my Father did turn to God but whether that was because he knew he was on the way to meet his maker or out of sheer fear of getting sent to the other place.

I remember that  as we sat around the room with our religious preparation studies, I had these huge moments of doubt as to the validity of all that I was supposed to be learning and I brought this up to Rev Manning in front of everyone else. I thought he was going to have a fit as he struggled for the words to describe me for questioning the Bible, his teaching and if I felt this way maybe I should think twice and on and on and how bad a person I was to be thinking like this. This was not the response I expected from him as I was looking for an explanation but whether it was because he could not give me a satisfactory one and did not want to sow the seeds of doubt in the other students minds, I shall never know. All I know is that although I completed the training and was subsequently baptized and confirmed, that element of doubt has stayed with me always. I have dabbled with religion later in life primarily to be closer to my third wife even to the extent of embracing Catholicism and in truth was a better catholic then she, but the doubt is still there. I hope that when the time comes, my deeds and actions on this earth outweigh my lack of belief and that the Lord will smile kindly on me. Now there is a conundrum wanting the Lord to smile on me and not truly believing in his existence.

In the meantime, back at my Aunt and Uncles house, I was getting used to living with them. My first bedroom was in the roof. It was not even a room but a part of the roof with a floor and a set of drop down stairs. To be fair, this was only a temporary measure as like me, my Aunt had to clear out her junk room in order to get back the bedroom that was hidden under all of the clutter. Now I know where I got that nasty habit of keeping all of the junk that I own. For those of you that have never had to use a chamber pot, let me tell you that you are lucky, very lucky. Only with the advent of indoor plumbing was the chamber pot banned from the bedroom. Using one is bad enough but when you have to empty yours first thing in the morning that leaves a lot to be desired.

Eventually, I moved out of the roof and into a bedroom on the ground floor and felt a bit more human again. I was at the age when girls started to become interesting and my circle of friends began to grow as girls were now included in the group. We had one very sad collective moment in time when one of our friends got into an accident on her bike and was killed. It was raining and she and her friend were biking down the hill with their heads down because of the rain and Phyllis went through the windshield of an approaching car. That incident really put a damper on our group for a while but like the kids that we were, it was soon put behind us.

It was funny but I can never remember being bored or not having enough to do. There was no such thing as TV and the internet was yet to come. Computers were only in space movies which we used to watch at the Picture house in Heathfield. We made our own entertainment and most of it was outdoors  including the sports that many of us really enjoyed. My Aunts house was in a small place called Sandy Cross which consisted of a bunch of houses and one shop that sold everything. We were just a couple of miles down the road from Hailsham Road and the Fish and Chip shop of my previous life. That is how England is made up with small villages not quite connecting with the next or previous and each one, a little community within itself.Life at school was beginning to get into a better routine and I was no longer playing hookey to get out of classes. I remember that as a part of the English tradition, Grammar and Private Schools divided their boys and girls into “Houses” and it was with some pride that if you got selected to represent your House for any reason, that was a real feather in your cap. I was never any good at the Academic events but excelled at Football, Rugby and Cricket. We competed against the other Houses in both Academic events and sporting events usually on Saturday’s. I can remember that I was supposed to go to school and play against one of the other Houses at Rugby and woke up sicker than a dog. My Aunt wouldn’t let me go even though I wanted to but in truth, she was right as I wouldn’t have played very well in my sick condition. I can’t remember the name of my House but there were at least 6 of them as we had over 500 students attending the boy’s Grammar School.

Life was comparatively settled for about a year and then something happened. My Uncle became ill and they were no longer able to look after me and so my Father and I made a trip to Hailsham to visit my sister who lived there with Ron, her husband and a couple of kids, a boy name Jim and a girl named Sheila. I, of course, was their Uncle. These kids were not very old if I remember. I think Sheila was still a baby in diapers. Ron, who was a Scot although we didn’t hold that against him, was a Manager at the local Rope Manufacturing plants called Geebro  which was the trade name for the Green Brothers who owned the company. It was the largest employer in Hailsham. My sister was a stay at home Mum and being the kind and understanding lady that she is, welcomed me with open arms as my Father explained the need for me to move yet again.Hailsham was by my standards, a good size town. Up until then, I had only been used to villages or rural areas and to move to a town, albeit a very small one was quite the step up. I think Hailsham back then had maybe 8000-10000 or so people. It was like moving into a civilization collected all into one place.

So we come to the end of the second phase of my life as a schoolboy. There is much more to the story as I moved to Hailsham.

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