Here I am, aged 10, it is July 1942, and It’s already very, hot this Saturday morning, I am waiting for my mum to come home from work, she cleans for Mrs. Snelgrove at the Golden Grove pub— about ten minutes away—at the bottom of St Anne’s Hill, a wonderful woodland park where all the local kids could spend all day, making camps, collecting firewood, chestnuts, blackberries, hazelnuts and mushrooms or what ever was in season.
Mum had promised to make me a swimming costume—we called these cozzys— out of an old jersey that I had grown out of. I had laid it out on the kitchen table with the needles and thread, ready for a quick job.
Then I could go swimming at Chertsey Bridge.
All my mates had already gone up to bathing pavilion, a big wooden hut, built on the bend in the river Thames, this made a small sandy beach, and was quite shallow, there were steps from the bank to the water, and it was very safe for children.
During the war, holidays away, were not possible, because the coastal beaches were closed and barricaded; this was to prevent the enemy landing.
The swimming pavilion at Chertsey was always crowded on a day such as this.
At last I heard our garden gate open and my mum coming down the path—I knew it was mum because she was the only one to use the gate—. Chertsey council always made sure the gates to the houses were working, but the fences between them had been long gone, so we used a shortcut across the grass in front of the houses. Except my mum, she said it was unlucky not to use the gate. She was very superstitious.
“Ooh” she said as she saw me waiting at the door, “ “put the kettle Alan, and lets have a nice cup of tea, there’s nothing like a cuppa to cool you down when it is so hot “.
“ How could that be” I asked, she just looked at me and sighed. I have noticed she does a lot of sighing whenever I am talking to her.
She took off her turban—a sort of headscarf that most of the ladies were wearing. A lot of local women worked in the tank factory at Chobham. They all had to wear these turbans when using machinery there.
She then pushed her hair forward over her face and then back with a good shake, so that her hair tumbled onto her shoulders.
Even at the age of ten I could see my mum was a lovely lady.
I put the kettle on, and even before it had boiled, there was a knock at the door, it was mums best friend. ” You must have smelled the teapot Rosy” mum said.
“Oh no” I said under my breath, “I’ll never have my cozzy made now”.
Rosy was a very large lady with rosy cheeks, as shiny as an apple that I had just rubbed on my jersey, come to think about it, that was why she was called Rosy. Everyone seemed to have a nickname on our estate, some were cruel, like ‘Hoppy Wells’, who had lost a leg in the Great War, and others were just funny like ‘Porky Turner’ or ‘Chalky White’.
Rosy always sat on the only armchair we had, it had green velvet cushions and as she sat into it, usually with a thump, a cloud of dust rose up and was caught in the light from the door, for a moment it seemed as if she had vanished from view.
No such luck, for when the dust had settled she was still there. .
I liked Rosy, she called in most days for a chat with mum, always with a bag of apples or some vegetables, these were called ‘specks’, they had bad bits on them, that had to be cut off, but then they were fine. Her son Jimboy had a green grocers shop —we hardly ever had to buy fruit or veg.
This time, Rosy had brought a seedy cake that she had just cooked, “Here you are Ethel, I know you like this one and it’s still warm”.
It smelled very nice but I hated seedy cake, my favourite ones were rock cakes, they took a nice long time to eat.
I made the tea and poured it out as quickly as I could, hoping Rosy would leave soon, but she had heard some gossip and was longing to tell mum about it.
Then I just sat back and listened —or should I say read their lips—as they were using gum talk, my sister Chrissy had told me that when grownups want to say something in front of the children, they would move their lips without saying a word, gum talk she called it.
Of course the grownups had not realized that we could easily understand everything, as long as you kept looking. Rosy was very easy to read as she had the habit of raising her eyebrows, folding and unfolding her arms and lifting her bosom while leaning back or forward in the chair, when she had something juicy to say.
This was a tale that she could hardly wait to tell mum about, a rumour was going round the town, and everyone was talking about it.
She started the story in the usual gum talk way, but every now and then she forgot I was there and spoke normally, leaning forward, taking a puff from her Woodbine cigarette, she began. This sounded like a very long story; I would never have a swim today at this rate.
Then, I couldn’t help becoming interested, and at the same time trying not to let them know I could understand it all.
There had been a big rumpus in Goosepool—a group of houses nearby, around a small pond where several Italian families lived.
She leaned forward, her eyes were gleaming and after taking a big drag on her Woodbine, she started “You know ‘whatshisname’, the tall good looking one, you know Ethel, he sells ice cream from that old horse and cart, well his wife found him with a young girl from Barker Road”.
At this, even my mum leaned forward, in case she missed something.
Rosy went on, still with the gum talk but this time with more words, “She chased him all round Chertsey with a bread knife saying she was going to cut off his nether regions”.
They both started laughing at the thought of it all, Rosy said, “Of course It’s only a rumour, but you know how passionate they all are in Goosepool “.
My mum then said something that made them both laugh so loud I thought someone was going to explode.
“It may only be a rumour” she said, with tears running down her cheeks, “but it’s really just a ‘Cock and Ball story”
At the time, being a 10 year old boy, all I could think of was how could poor ‘Whatshisname’ have a pee without having something to hold on to? But then, my brother Don, told me hat girls also had this problem, and thats why they crossed their legs when they laughed.
‘——It has taken me over seventy years to realize that my mother had cracked a very funny joke.
After the laughter had died away, apart from a couple of outbursts as Rosy made some chopping movements with her hand, she started reading the tea leaves in the cups, twisting and turning them till she saw something she could read—this was going to be interesting, I thought, as I had noticed that the ash from her Woodbine cigarette had dropped into her tea when she was laughing, I wondered what she would see in that.
She looked over to my mum and said, trying not to laugh, “Someone nearby is going to have some bad news tonight” Off they went again, Rosy slapping her big thighs and rocking back in the old chair— no wonder it had no castors left on it.
I had never seen my mum laugh so much as that day.
Suddenly, mum was holding my old jersey up to me, and they were both working out what was the best way to make my ‘cozzy’. They cut the body and the sleeves to fit me and then stitched it all together in no time, they even stitched a belt around the top as it was a bit loose, I tried it on and it looked fine.
Rosy said “ You will be the only one there with a cable stitched costume”. Off they went again, laughing and smiling, but I didn’t mind, I was out of the door like a Whippet.
I tried to run, but there was a large knob of wool from the neck of the jersey between my legs, so instead of running I had to walk with my legs apart, after a while I managed to pull the knob up in front of me, I could then start running again.
I had never seen so many people at the bridge.
Dumsey Deep— the meadow where the pavilion stood— had tents and camp fires all around, it seemed like all of Chertsey were there, I hurried along the tow path, where, before the war, the pleasure steamers used to be docked, and the now empty tea wagons that served the passengers.
The steamers could not use the Thames now, as it was full of half submerged barges to prevent German seaplanes from landing.
At last I was at the river bank, I saw my mate Alex, with a very fancy ‘cozzy’ it even had his initials on the front, as usual he was with a pretty girl, he gave me a wave and pointed at my ‘cozzy’, I suppose the knob of wool in the front did look a bit odd, but all I wanted was to jump in the water.
The river was full of swimmers and by that time very muddy, but lovely and cool, I had a good splash about, as I couldn’t swim properly.
The first time I noticed that something was amiss, was when the belt had somehow appeared around my chest, I reached down to find the top of the ‘cozzy’, and to put the belt back on, but there was nothing there, the water was so muddy I couldn’t see a thing.
The woolen ‘cozzy’ had started to unravel and had become twice the size, there were strands of wool floating near the surface, it looked like a jelly fish, I managed to gather enough of it to hold in front of me, so that I could leave the river and sort it all out, but as I left the waist deep water, the cozzy, was now floating around my knees.
I started to walk to the crowded bank but saw Mrs. Hunt, our neighbour, with her daughter looking at me, and heard her say
“What on earth is that silly boy doing now”.
I moved back into the river and waded down to the banks where there were no people, I found a gap in the rushes and climbed up the bank, there were just a pair of courting couples, so I thought they were too busy to notice me putting my ‘cozzy’ back together.
One of the girls looked up and saw me, it was my sister Iris, she started laughing, I must have been a funny sight, the ‘cozzy’ had grown so much that I could only keep some of it together, the rest was hanging down my legs.
Now, without the support of the water, the knob of wool that was once the neck of the jersey was too heavy for the stitches, and the whole lot fell down between my legs.
The two couples then started laughing even more, I started to cry, my sister came over and said “Alan, we’re not laughing at you, we are laughing with you”
“But” I said, “I’m not laughing”
Iris gathered my towel and clothes, and I got dressed and started for home, but before I left, I laid the ‘cozzy’ on the bank to dry, in case someone else needed it.
As I passed the pavillion, I saw Alex Lees coming out of the river, he was looking a bit sheepish, his woolen ‘cozzy’ had also doubled in size and was hanging down to his knees, like a pair of old ladies bloomers and full of water.
I didn’t feel so bad now.