Echoes of a Bitter Past
Authors note: Denis Compton was a renowned cricketer of that time, often known as 'The Brylcreem Boy' because of his dapper appearance and slicked hair.
I lost Mavis a month ago. To tell the truth it wasn't a surprise; she had fought long and hard, never complaining of the pain always talking of the better times to come when she was well again. We both knew that was Pie in the Sky, but neither of us admitted it to the other. When the end came the grieving had already been done, my son and daughter joined me in taking the phlegmatic approach and were grateful that she wouldn't suffer any more. We had been together for forty-three years and she had been a good wife. I suppose that after all that time I had grown to love her. I had always liked her even from our first meeting when we were kids growing up in the same mean street of terraced houses. As we grew older it seemed inevitable that we would be together. My parents and her parents assumed that, but assumptions are usually hopeful wishes and we all know what wishes are. More Pie in the Sky.
My Dad was a railwayman, starting with the G.W.R. in the early nineteen thirties. Getting a job on the railway was considered lucky as with all the unemployment at that time the railway companies offered secure, even if poorly paid employment. My grandfather was a railwayman and favour was shown to applicants who had a relative already in service. Dad had joined in South Wales where I was born but after nationalisation he moved to Saltley which had been a Midland Railway depot. Dad had an unshakeable belief that I would also be a railwayman, so in nineteen fifty-seven at seventeen years of age I was taken down to the Engine Shed and was signed on. It wasn't what I wanted. I had achieved good passes in the G.C.E. and would have liked to go on to Technical College. That dream vanished as the family needed another wage and I had to provide it. My older brother, William had poliomyelitis when young. He was weak, spending most of the time in a wheelchair and needed oxygen often so he would never be a wage earner. My wishes were naught compared to the family needs, so at six the next Monday morning I reported for duty. I became a member of a gang responsible for cleaning the engines on shed. It was filthy work climbing all over and underneath the locos and at the end of the shift I would walk the short distance home dirty and smelly. Mum, after a lifetime of working around dad's shifts was equal to the task. She had the tin bath full of hot water ready for me in the scullery. This was no time for modesty as she was determined that I would be clean, and as I bathed she would use a scrubbing brush to remove every last grain of dirt and I suspect a few layers of skin. There would be no dirt in her home!
Cleanliness was next to Godliness and mum took that mantra and translated it into fact. You could eat your dinner off the floor in her home if you could ignore the overwhelming odour of bleach. Mum kept the chemical manufacturers in business. Her hands were always chapped red from frequent immersion in the stinging liquid. The house had been built in the eighteen eighties by the Midland Railway Company for its employees. It consisted of one room and a scullery downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. The toilet, called the privy in those days, was a small brick hut built on to the back of the house. It required great resolve and greater need to visit it on cold dark nights. The privy too was fragrant with bleach the linoleum flooring having to be renewed frequently as the bleach would readily dissolve the stuff. Dad kept a short handled Fireman's shovel in the privy and most nights he would use it in his constant battle with rats. William and I would lie in bed and count the thwacks as dad put paid to yet another of the loathsome creatures. His best score ever was four in one night.
Our street was called Midland Terrace, a narrow, cobbled, thoroughfare shoehorned in between the houses and the railway. There were houses to one side only, the other side was a fence built from old sleepers (ties) set on end. In two places the fence had been torn down as railwaymen took a short cut to the engine shed rather than walk the extra yards to clock on. The street was our playground when young and was adapted to the game being played according to season. It was football in winter with our coats becoming the goalposts. I would have preferred Rugby as we were a Welsh family. Although living in England Dad and I would rejoice whenever the Welsh rugby team beat the English, especially if the game was played at Twickenham. Our smiles were hidden from our neighbours after all they were mostly English and we had to live next to them. In summer we played cricket, with an ancient gas streetlight serving as the wicket, and a bit of rudely carved waste wood as a bat. The girls would play hopscotch and there was many an argument as at times a football or cricket player would stray into their chalked grid on the pavement. There were always at least two windows broken every year, when one young budding Denis Compton would connect surprisingly well with the ball, too well as it happened and the crash and tinkling glass was a signal for all the kids to vanish practicing the innocent looks that would be needed later. Punishment and caring was dished up equally by any of our neighbours. It was no good complaining to your dad that Mrs. Wilkins had given you a slap. His reply would be.
"I expect you deserved it."
We were all in the same boat. There was employment on the railway and with that enough money to keep the roof over our heads and food on the table. But there was nothing to spare for luxuries. If a celebration was required, then everyone in the street would rally round and find the wherewithal for it to happen. In nineteen fifty-three there were tables of various shapes and sizes taken out into the street for the celebration of the Queen's Coronation. There was an abundance of food provided by households that could only usually just feed themselves, yet what little they had was put on those tables for everyone to share. We ate, laughed, cheered and danced, for one moment forgetting the hum-drum existence that was our lives.
Mavis lived just down the street in another of the railway cottages. We went to the same schools, Junior and Senior. Not always in the same class yet often enough so that we would exchange notes and cribs. The gawky, skinny girl I first knew as an eight year old grew up into a slim but shapely young woman. As we moved through our teens we began to go out together socially. We would go to the local cinemas together on weeknights, catching up on the latest Hollywood movies as they came round. Then on Saturday nights we joined the crush at the West End Ballroom. Ballroom dancing was out of fashion then as the hurricane of new music had blown in from America. Music that our parents regarded as sinful, spelling the breakdown of society's order. Our dancing would be Rock and Roll, to the sounds of Bill Haley and the Comets, Freddy Bell and the Bellboys and Little Richard. We watched the films at the cinema then went to the dance and tried the steps for ourselves. We called it Jive. Always towards the end of the evening they would play slower, romantic stuff from The Platters and Connie Francis giving us the opportunity to dance close. That was the time when much face powder would be transferred from her face to my jacket and lipstick somehow found its way on to my collar. Later walking Mavis home more powder would appear on my jacket. Nat 'King' Cole got it so right.
Our relationship was good, although I doubt that either of us would call it love. We got on well together, and liked each other. It was a bond forged by growing up and common interests. She did look good. Slim, a pretty face, especially when she put on makeup, with dark hair cut close to her face. On Saturday nights she would wear a nice dress, her slim waist emphasised by a broad belt and ruffled petticoats to spread her skirts out. Her breasts were not prominent yet when we danced close I could feel them pushing into my chest, a rather nice pressure. Walking home after the dance was probably the only time we became a little romantic, I would hold her hand conscious that hers was dainty and clean with painted nails and mine was ingrained with oil and coal dust, the nails broken. Mavis worked in an office as a Comptometer operator, I with brute steam locomotives, solid lumps of coal and hot metals. It was that difference that would become one of the factors that parted us. Mavis lived and worked in a clean world, my world was dirty, and I brought the dirt of work home with me. I could only get my hands clean by scrubbing them red raw, but the smell of oil stayed with you always. Mavis had from time to time asked me why I didn't get a clean job. It was difficult to explain that quitting the railway would be throwing dad's help in his face even though I hadn't wanted that help in the first place.
Being slim it was difficult for Mavis to hide the slight bulge that began to appear in her stomach. I noticed it, but did not put two and two together until my mother asked me if I had done anything I should be ashamed of. I didn't understand why she should ask that.
"I'm sorry, Mum. But I don't know what you are on about?"
"Don't play the innocent with me, Richard Gilson. You know very well what I am talking about. Mavis! Mavis is pregnant. Now what have got to say for yourself?" Suddenly the light went on. The bulge was a baby. Oh hell! Poor Mavis.
"It's nothing to do with me." I exclaimed truthfully. Mum stayed silent for a while watching my face. A tactic she had used for past misdemeanours when eventually my face would flush and she would know where the guilt would lie. This time I had no reason to feel guilty. At last mum nodded.
"So it wasn't you. But somebody has got to marry that girl. She can't have it out of wedlock." I suppose somebody would have to marry Mavis, but it wouldn't be me. It wasn't mine and I would be buggered if I were going to take on another man's child. At eighteen years of age I was completely selfish and uncaring not wanting to take on the responsibility of marriage. There was a modicum of jealous anger in me as well. I had always thought that when the time came I would take Mavis's virginity. I had tried from time to time, after all it was expected that I would try. I was allowed to feel her breasts and even on one occasion my hand had strayed inside her bra, yet there was no conviction in the attempt. Our families lived too closely, and any suggestion that I had conquered Mavis would get around the neighbourhood faster than the speed of light, that was the sort of efficiency shown by the coterie of gossips in our street. I did take my pleasures from time to time elsewhere. After all young blokes knew other young blokes and there was always someone who knew a girl that 'did'. Occasionally they were right.
With the paternity of Mavis's burgeoning child not laid at my door, I could talk to her about who had done the deed. She was tearful and embarrassed.
"I'm so sorry Ricky; I just sort of got swept away at the time."
"Why are you apologising to me, Mavis?"
"Well I suppose it was because everybody thought that we would get married one day." She looked at me hopefully. "We still could." I had to laugh. I don't think she saw the funny side of it.
"No. I don't think so Mavis. Taking on another bloke's baby. No way." She nodded, sniffling. "Who was it?" That was the question I needed to ask.
"It was a chap in our office, David. We went out for a drink after work and well ... one thing led to another." I got an instant vision of this bloke; white shirt and tie, suited, shiny shoes and most importantly clean hands. I would happily punch his lights out with my dirty hands.
"Is he married?"
"No Ricky. I don't think so."
"Does he know?"
"No. I haven't said anything."
"Then we had better go and see him, and let him know that he is getting married soon." Mavis looked at me strangely.
"You will see him?"
"Yes. Just so he knows he doesn't have a choice in the matter." Mavis burst into tears again crying.
"Oh God. It should have been you. I knew you wanted to, I should have let you. Oh what have I done?" I knew full well what she had done and so did she. I knew exactly when she confessed to her parents as when I saw her a day later she sported a black eye, courtesy of her dad. If it had been me that got her pregnant I would have got walloped twice. Once by her dad and then again by mine.
Eventually it didn't fall to me to talk to this bloke David. Mavis's dad and my dad went to have that particular discussion with him. I was in no doubt that if he hadn't agreed to marry Mavis, her dad would have given him a 'good hiding' and my dad would have held his coat for him as he did it. That was the way that justice was served in those days.
The marriage took place quickly and without fuss. No one apart from immediate family was invited. The neighbourhood wives, who maintained that very efficient gossip network were not told yet knew all about it with frequent stops in the street to talk quietly with others, the conversation punctuated with knowing looks and pertinent comments all muttered sotto voce. At first glaring looks were thrown at me, and then they changed to sympathy as the true facts were disseminated. Mavis and her new husband moved away to the other side of town so the arrival of a baby very early would not be more grist to the gossipmonger's mill.
I missed Mavis; we had been companions for many years. We had grown up together and together we had taken those first steps to explore what this life had to offer. I would never have described my feelings as 'Love' but we were always comfortable together and apart from her wanting me to get a clean job we never argued. I suspect that David's clean hands were a factor in her seduction. In some ways I suppose I was a little bit peeved that this bloke was enjoying that which I had always thought would be mine. With her absence I had no one to talk with seriously. The lads I would knock about with only had sport, beer and birds on their mind. I enjoyed those topics too, but not exclusively.
I didn't know then but losing Mavis was not the only significant change in my life. At work the rumblings of modernisation were being felt. In its report of nineteen fifty-five, British Railways had announced a modernisation plan. Steam haulage would go and in its place diesel and electric traction would carry the load. Despite this they carried on building steam locos, the last one being built in nineteen sixty. Usually announcing the plan and actually implementing it was divided by years of discussion and committee meetings. The committees talked and talked trying to make up their minds as to what sort of diesel traction they needed. The first diesels were in service and the build programme was accelerated. Soon they were recruiting men from the locomotive depots to train as diesel drivers. I volunteered and was accepted. Within a few weeks I was driving a first generation diesel multiple unit. My life was so different. The wages were much better to start with. I had a clean comfortable cab to sit in, protected from the weather. My hands gradually lost the ingrained dirt and oil and I would return home no longer needing the tin bath to get clean.
As is often the case the incident that changed my life was a combination of design and accident. The Traction Inspector decided to accompany me on my roster. He made it plain that he wasn't examining me as a driver, but was more interested in the performance of the train in service. We had a number of different classes, built by various manufacturers, all performing the same duties. He was evaluating their suitability for the work. The controls were always the same so qualifying on one class qualified you on all classes. The problem occurred when we were covering a stretch of line with a reasonable journey between stations. One of the motors started to fail. This was a three car unit with two motors. It cut in and out eventually failing completely. I nursed the unit as much as I could. Stopping on this stretch would create problems as I knew there was an express due to pass us at the next station stop. If I couldn't get there then the timetable would be thrown into chaos. On downhill stretches I would try to gain as much speed as I could, pushing the working engine over its rated revolutions, so that I had the impetus to breast the next upgrade section. It was nip and tuck for a while but I managed to get the train into the platform loop at my next stop. We would be going no further, but fortunately the express was only delayed by a couple of minutes. The Traction Inspector nodded and said. "Well done." I was pleased with myself. Many drivers would have coasted to the next signal and used the phone there to declare a breakdown. Then everyone, Passengers, Driver, Guard and the following express would have to wait for the breakdown train.
Three weeks later I got a letter of commendation from the Area Office, and an instruction to report to the Railway Technical Centre at Derby works, where much of the development of these units was taking place. I was offered a new job with the R.T.C. testing new units and assisting in evaluating their performance. I had no hesitation in accepting the offer, it would mean moving to Derby from Birmingham, but my new salary was sufficient for me to still make my contribution to the family budget. Although I was just a qualified driver, not a research boffin they needed me and one or two others to drive as the Unions would not allow any non-union person to take the controls of any train.