The tea leaves have spoken.

Mrs. Salmon was one of those women who was respected by everyone, she was larger than life both mentally and physically. She was a second Mother to me when our family was threatened with being placed in to care in the early 1930’s. Most of my stories have at least a passing mention of her, she was my Mother’s best friend, I spent many Saturday mornings listening to the two of them going over the weeks gossip. In Chertsey there was always plenty of that to talk about. 

As my Mother worked every weekday, Saturday was our washday. I liked to help with the ‘mangle’ wringing the clothes out and hanging them on the line. This suited me as it was the only time I had her to myself. And as a bonus the chance to hear all the gossip. Sadly, the gossip—if you could call it that—was usually about a family who had lost someone. This time it was poor Mrs Martyr in Barker Road, her young son was on HMS Hood when it was sunk with hardly any survivors.

Good fortune or bad luck was always the main topic with Mrs. Salmon, they both believed in any signs, and after I had made the tea, there would be the reading of the tea leaves.

Even at the age nine I had my doubts about how anything could be forecast by some little bits of tea swirling around the bottom of a cup, but they swore by it. So, I was quite interested when Mrs. Salmon took my cup and twisted and turned it until the leaves ‘spoke to her’ as she would always say. She showed me the bottom of the cup and pointed to a cross and next to that, was what she said was a foot—I have to say, that was stretching it a bit. She looked at me quite seriously and said.

‘Now Alan, everyone has a weak link in their body and the leaves are telling me that your weak link is your feet, you must take very good care of them as they can easily be damaged’. My Mother, looking concerned said.

‘Yes Alan, you’ve got to be very careful, look at your legs they’re like a couple of sticks, it’s a wonder to me that they can hold you up at all’.

After this vote of no confidence in my legs, I have been very careful, but calamity. Mrs. Salmon’s tea leaves proved to be right. I was playing football and I heard a crack as I kicked the ball—I had broken my ankle. I could hear Mrs. Salmon saying. ‘The tea leaves never lie’

I now think there must be some truth in these old customs, after all my ankle was swelling up as I looked at it.

Admittedly, it was seventy eight years later, but it still counts. 

Chertsey Rec.

Chertsey ‘Rec.

St Anne’s Hill, Chertsey Bridge, what would all our Chertsey Facebook groups do without these two wonderful places. I always feel so lucky to have been able to enjoy their magic, from my earliest memory to the last time I visited them in 2019. But there another place. The Rec.

One of the most irritating things of growing old is the loss of recent memory, I forget my friend’s names and even what day it is. Fortunately, we oldies compensate this by remembering long forgotten days, they just come in-to our minds without any invitation. I recall my mother telling me of her childhood in the greatest of detail, I sometimes thought she must have made them up, how could anyone do this? I am now a similar age to my mother when she was telling me about her school days over seventy years before. And I find I can do the same, it’s nothing short of magic.

For instance, today on my way back from the hospital I saw a low wall around a Church. The wall was about two feet tall and made with black bricks, the top layer of bricks was rounded with railings on top. Instantly I was taken back to Chertsey recreation ground, or rather the wall along Sir William Perkins School next to the ‘rec. My sisters had taken to the park and had lifted me onto this wall so that I could walk along it, I must have been very small. 

Nothing very special about that of course, except that it is so fresh in my memory. The wall was black with the top layer made of rounded brick’s it also had several different heights meaning I had to lifted up several times as I walked along it, the last level was too high for them to lift me up. The wall has probably long gone but it’s still there somewhere in my mind.

At the hospital today, the Doctor asked when I was last seen by his team, and I couldn’t remember, he looked it up and told me it was last January. Such is life. 

Tooth Fairy!

Tomorrow I am going out into the big wide world for the first time since I was told to isolate myself in March. I am going to Manchester University Hospital to see when I can be taken in to have a new aortic valve fitted. In normal times I like to wander about in the lovely park just across the road from us.  If I do go to town it is usually just window shopping. When you get to my age there is not much that you need to buy apart from odds and ends such as shaving stuff.

It was while I was in Boots the Chemists last year looking for some tooth-paste that as I  was bedazzled by both the range, the price and the claims of one particular firm. I wonder if this tooth-paste maker will ever run out of new ways of enticing us to buy their latest wonder product.

This made me think of what I did as a child to keep everything in my mouth in a healthy condition, the answer is not much. I never cleaned my teeth with anything  except rubbing them with salt now and again. Not really the best way to look after them and probably why I lost a few teeth before I was fourteen. Salt was used for all manner of cleaning jobs, salt and water as a cure-all such as an eye wash or to clean a small wound.

Before the miracle of SR tooth-paste, my brother Don, who was about.eleven and just a year older than I was .Told me what the soldiers did to clean their teeth when they were in action. He gave me a little piece of Fairy soap—a laundry soap and said that if I chewed it as if I was eating something for a few minutes  my teeth would be sparkling clean, and this is what the soldiers did.

“Just chew it for a little while until it foams a bit”. he said.

I’m not sure if it did make my teeth sparkle, but it did make me feel very, very sick.

To be fair to Don though, he never told me to swallow.

Sticks and stones…..

Sticks and stones…..

Children in todays schools have so many ways of learning compared with my generation. Most children have access to a computer or a smart phone, where they can search for the answer to any problem with just the tips of their fingers. 

In Stepgates, we had a more organic way of learning, we learned everything by repeating it over and over again, such as the ‘times tables’. Although I never liked school, I have to say that this old-fashioned way of teaching must have worked. I still remember all my tables. As for decimals, square roots or— heaven forfend—algebra, we left school at fourteen, so we never had to bother with anything like that.

Repeating something as a group was an easy way of learning, sometimes it was with a song., or with an old nursery rhyme. Once you learned them you never forgot them. But unknown to us some of these rhymes had some pretty gruesome origins. Ring-a-ring-roses was all about the ‘Black Death’ but we used to sing it with such gusto. Ignorance really can be bliss.

Another popular rhyme that would be sung in the playground whenever any name calling was going on would be, ‘Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but names will never hurt me’. This was not always true though. Children soon learned that they can really hurt another child without touching them, simply by using a word or misusing some one’s name. This happened a lot when Italy joined the Germans to fight against the Allies. My Italian mates with their strange sounding names were called all sorts of things. But we soon got tired of this and the name calling went back to teasing some one with big teeth of even just having to wear glasses.

The same thing happened to a wealthy man who lived up St Anne’s Hill, he had a very German name, Schlesinger. He was often booed when he was seen driving his big American car through Chertsey. Some of the jeering was for his name and some was for the fact that he could get petrol to run such a big car. It turned out that he was as English as anyone and had served in the British armed forces in the first world war.

 Luckily my family were known as The Waglins, a very English sort of name, which my mother was quite happy for us to be known as. God knows what we would have been called if anyone knew that our real surname was Luz Weguelin, an old German name pronounced, ‘Lutz Vegelin!

Kid’s, who’d ‘ave ’em.

My mother was always scolding me for dropping my H’s, and yet the title of this little story was one of her favourite sayings. Her scolding never worked of course, I always thought it sounded posh if you spoke properly, and that was the last thing I or any of my mates ever wanted to be accused of.

Another of her sayings, was ‘It didn’t happen in my day’. But it must have done, my Mum came from a very big family. The reason for both of these comments was usually because our house was overflowing with children. With our evacuees Mrs. O’Keefe and her son Dennis, there could be as many as twelve people milling around in the kitchen—or the living room as my sister liked to call it. On a cold, winters day it was the only warm room in the house, I can’t actually remember a day when there was that many in the kitchen, but it must have happened at some time.

Looking back nearly eighty years I can’t think what a meal-time must have been like, for one thing there were not enough chairs. Even if there was a chair for everyone they wouldn’t fit around the Morrison-shelter which was also the kitchen table.

In one way it was a relief when first, Deirdre left home to be married, then Bernard joined the Army and Chris joined the Land army. But this relief caused another problem, one that my mother was well used to; the shortage of money, especially as Fred was not able to work for long periods. Iris was the only person earning a proper wage, we were back to square one. I don’t know how my mother managed. I suppose she had some thing from Mrs. O’Keefe, but it couldn’t be much. I don’t think there was any child allowance or that sort of thing yet despite this I can’t remember ever being hungry. I think that the rations, although very small they were affordable and enough to keep us fed.

Today, most families are used to having enough to eat, in fact we probably throw more food away than we actually eat. But after the Governments Furlough scheme comes to an end, there are going to be many families trying to live on unemployment benefit or what-ever it is called now. At least during the war we could afford our rations, and prices were controlled. Now we are told that food prices will soon start to increase.

 When I see my Grandson moving his dinner around the plate to make it look smaller so that he would be allowed to leave it. I am tempted to say.

It wouldn’t happen in my day!

Dixieland Music.

Although we had been bombed  a couple of years earlier, I was quite unaware of the effect the war was having on anyone beyond our little clump of council houses. At school, prayers would regularly be said for some child who had lost an older brother or even a parent. It had become just a normal part of morning assembly. Since our bomb—as we knew it— I still had a keen sense of my immediate surroundings, not afraid exactly, but always expecting something to happen.

The USA had joined the war, and there were troop trains  passing through Chertsey full of American soldiers. They threw packets of sweets out of the train as we cheered them from the railway banks in Lyne fields. A young boy climbed the bank to gather the sweets, he went too near the lines and touched the live rail. A man tried to rescue him by pulling him off the rail with his walking stick, but the poor lad died. Now I have become very aware just how fragile life can be.

Americans  soldiers were stationed nearby. They had money to spend, they made the town buzz. The Golden Grove, an old pub near to us was like a magnet to them, Jeeps were parked every where, as were lady’s bikes from miles around. They even had their own radio station called AFN. Iris used to listen to it all the time, this was the first time I had ever heard Dixieland music.

People were living for the moment, and it had an effect on us kids too. At school, girlfriends were becoming a problem. Not for me of course,  I never had one, but they began hanging about with my mates. Some of the girls were from London and although we were all of a similar age, they were so much more grown up. They were fluent in Anglo Saxon, and were able to string together wonderfully long sentences that made your hair stand on end.

In our house, swearing was unheard of, so I never mastered the rhythm that these girls achieved so effortlessly. On the other hand, my friend Danny’s family had no problems with getting a point over with a few well chosen swear-words. After all, his mum was a railway porter at Chertsey station.

Although these London girls were a bit frightening I had begun to realise that some of them  were very nice to look at. One that caught my eye was a girl called June, but she was in the top class and so I had nothing to do with her. Like a lot of the children from London  she had a nickname: Jersey Bounce Hutchinson..

She was a very popular girl, but she had a very odd way of walking, it was as if she had springs on her shoes., and this made her fluffy jumper move about as if she had a little animal up there.

Our dinner table—all boys of course—would go completely silent when ever she bounced past, which she did continually during the dinner break.

I soon realised her nickname; Jersey Bounce Hutchinson, had nothing to do with  her love of Dixieland music.

Every Seven Years…..

I have heard it said that a person changes every seven years, well it happened to me. But because I had a slow start my change didn’t come until I was eight. This was the age when I learned to read. You would have thought that my mother would be thrilled that at last, I had caught up with the other kids—I suppose it is quite nice when your four year old child learns to read and then reads every word out loud where ever it is seen. But when I did this it was very different. I think I may have overdone it though, because the rest of my family kept telling me to shut up. And even at the breakfast table when I was reading the Shredded Wheat packet quietly, my mother said in a rather fed up.way.

“Alan, I can still see your lips moving”.

Now, I thought this was rather harsh coming from my mother, who conducted most of her conversations with Mrs. Salmon without making a sound, just moving her lips—gum talk we called it.

Now that I could read ‘The Daily Herald’, it made me realise the war was not going very well. There were so many of our ships going down and hundreds of sailors losing their lives, and the bombing had started up again all over the country. It seemed as if the air and sea are full of the enemy, the U boats hunting in packs and the bombers were once again filling the sky. 

Stories were going around Chertsey about local families losing a son or a father somewhere over seas, and even at home in Chertsey a family lost their father, he was a fireman who was killed by a high-pressure fire hose that he lost control of while fighting a fire.

Kids at school grew up very quickly, we became experts on how good the German Tiger tanks were compared to ours and even the German Me 109 fighter plane was at least the equal of our planes. 

Then there was a glimmer of hope in the Headlines of the newspapers, Adolf Hitler had decided to invade Russia, this meant fewer raids on England as he took most of his army to fight them. Most people were saying that he has gone too far and now the war would soon come to an end—it didn’t though.

I soon went back to reading the ‘Shredded Wheat’ packet, but no one thought it was at all interesting that our Green Line coach used to start from the Carpenters Arms, in Chertsey on the long journey through London to Welwyn Garden City, where they made ‘Shredded Wheat’.

There is an old saying……….

My mother was very fond of sayings, she would manage to find one to suit every situation, sometimes a completely inappropriate one. I often heard her swap them with her friends, it was almost like a competition to see who could undermine the others pearl of wisdom, or maybe just to reinforce it. One of her favourites was ‘Charity begins at home’. This would be challenged by ‘The kindness of strangers’.

 As a family many years ago, we benefitted from both. Our near neighbours, who were in the same parlous state as we were still managed to find something for us. And people from far away who we never knew also chipped in.

 When Mrs Salmon was sitting comfortably in her favourite chair, whole conversations would sometimes consist of one ‘saying’ after another, it could go on for ages.

This reminded me of a time in 1953. I have been home for a month, from serving my time in Egypt. My lovely tan had faded and with it, any chance of attracting a girl-friend. Here I was, sitting in the kitchen on a Saturday morning, looking a bit dejected, Mrs Salmon looks over.

“Alan, you should be out there ‘Sowing your wild oats’.

Mum joined in and said.

“Yes, Alan, ‘The early bird always gets the worm”.

Mrs Salmon, “Shy man never gets fair lady”.

Mum, “As long as you look before you leap”.

Mrs S. “He who hesitates is lost”.

It went like this for ages, there was hardly a word of normal conversation.

Luckily Mr Norman, our ‘Tally man’ had ducked under the kitchen window to avoid being seen, and suddenly appeared at the back door hoping for some money, under his arm was his latest catalogue.

Mr Salmon said. “There’s the answer, Alan, why don’t you see if Mr Norman can get you one of those lovely Blazer’s that we see all the time, you know with the silver buttons”.

My mother, bless her, said.

“The trouble with you Alan, is that you are quite a funny shape, look at that sports jacket you are wearing, you’re flat chested, round shouldered and your arms are too long, and why on earth did you buy a cabbage green jacket, it evens smells like cabbages”.

Mr. Norman, said. “Yes, you do have very long arms, you would make a good goal-keeper’.

Then turning to my mother said, as if I wasn’t in the room. “We can do a made-to-measure blazer, for just a few more shillings a week. You don’t happen to have a tape measure do you?”.

I looked in the drawer where everything was put, just in case we ever needed it. But no tape measure, just an old carpenter’s folding ruler. But undeterred, Mrs. Salmon grabbed it and a ball of string. “We can do the measurements with this”.

And without further ado, she wrapped the string around my chest, then laid it on the ruler, and started to read out my measurement’s.

Chest 35 inches, waist 27, hips 35, the sleeves were more trouble, so she just added an inch to be on the safe side.

My opinion never seemed to be of any interest to anyone, it seemed to me that.

 ‘Children should be seen and not heard’—although I was nearly 22! 

Three weeks later, Mr Norman arrived with my new blazer. Navy blue Barathea Whipcord, the latest fashion. Astonishingly it fitted perfectly.

My mother, for a moment was lost for words, but then said.

“Alan, clothes really do maketh the man”.

Mrs Salmon added.

“Handsome is as handsome does”

Mr Norman, catching the moment said.

“A bird in the hand is better than a bird in the bush”. This got a rather frosty look from Mrs Salmon. Even I found that one a bit odd.

At that moment, my brother came in and said.

“How did you get such a good fit without a proper tape measure?

My mother just gave one of her special smiles as if one of her five horse each way accumulators had come up and said.

“How long is a piece of string?”.

Playing Truant.

Some children have difficulty in grasping the basics of education. This was when I and a few of my friends realised that school was a place where we did not want to be. Playing truant was much more to our liking. 

It all started in earnest with the arrival of the evacuees from London. It would never have been possible to do before then, even if we were brave enough to do so. Chertsey had a very keen school board man—as we knew him. If a child did not answer when the register was called in the morning, he would be on his bike with the list of homes to visit. This was quite a deterrent, a visit from him was a serious affair, it could even result in a summons. The first thing a parent would know about it would be when he knocked at the door with his clipboard in his hand.

Come the war everything changed, the classrooms were overflowing with the new kids from London. They were streets ahead of us in how to be naughty—street wise you might say. One of their tricks was skipping school and we quickly found this quite exciting. The school board man, who I think was a retired Army officer, soon found there were not enough hours in the day to check on every child. We soon took full advantage of this and we would stay as far away from the school as possible. The perfect place was St Anne’s Hill, the place was full of kids doing the same thing.

When I think about the many hours that I spent up the ‘Hill’, with a good number of other children, and obviously completely unsupervised, it is wonder that we all did this unscathed. Of course, it was inevitable that we would be found out sooner or later but during the war there more urgent things for the grown-ups to worry about.

At first, I liked school it was all story telling and drawing but when the lessons started, I wasn’t so keen. I have always thought that being so close in age to my brother Don—just 13 months— made me lazy. He was a very bright boy and I just let him think for me. So, when I started school, I was behind in everything. I soon became the dunce of the class, although I didn’t have a pointed hat with a big D on it, the teachers made me very aware of it.

I was only able to read the captions in comic books and even those not very well. I remember very clearly the day I first read a full story, it was in the ‘Hotspur’ comic, The Man in The Iron Mask—I was eight years old! Some of the children could read before they started school—which today is quite normal. But at our school it was unusual, but this meant children were either bored because they already knew the lessons or because like me, they had no idea what was going on.

I find it funny that after all these years I enjoy writing—but I still don’t read many books! 

Its just a lot of bells.

Time is the essence, they say, or time is money.

There was a time, when it wasn’t though, when time was something to be enjoyed.

 A story my sister, Iris told me, was of a time before I was born. When things were a bit slower, a bit more relaxed. My father was a clock repairer in his spare time. She said our dresser in the kitchen would have two or three repaired clocks on the shelf having the final adjustments made. So, there would be several clocks all telling a different time. 

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, on the same dresser, was our own old alarm clock, this poor old thing would lose twenty minutes a day—my mother would put it right at nine o’clock every evening on the first bong of Big Ben before the news started on the wireless.

Apparently, no matter how much she complained about the clock, my father would not touch it—like many men, he probably didn’t like to be nagged and so just dug his heels in. 

Or may-be it was one of those silly little joke’s a man would like to play on his wife—we have all done it!

They say a plumber’s tap is always dripping, and here we have a clock repairers wife having to rely on St Peters Church bell ringing out every quarter.

Fortunately, Chertsey, being an old curfew town, it is very well endowed with bells, they are ringing all the time. There are several Churches within hearing distance, they would ring at least on the hour. The school and the convent bells rang regularly, several times a day. A clock was really not needed.

The bell is a gentle reminder to do something, like the time to start school or work. Now they are largely replaced with buzzer’s that are irritatingly insistent and urgent. 

Those people with their bell’s still got things done, but in their own time.

Now the buzzer controls our time—even Big Ben is silent.