Like any child, I can remember very little of anything that happened before the age of four, so I have no memory of my father. The only photographs that I have seen of him are when he was about fourteen, he is seen working on the new Wentworth Estate near Virginia Water. Otherwise, it was as if he did not exist. To me, Fred was the man of the house, my father was hardly ever mentioned. Years later, it sounded very odd to me when Iris started telling me about ‘our dad’, an expression I had never heard before.
Iris died a few years after telling me the story, I have always thought that she wanted to tell me about those early days before she passed away. She had always been the one from our family who looked out for me while I was growing up, and often treated me to the pictures and outings with her new husband Glyn.
A good way to show how she looked after me, is to tell the story of a job that she found for me when I left school, but first a bit about Iris.
She was the liveliest one in our family and the only one who had any ambition. She started her working life at the age of fourteen as a maid to a wealthy family in Weybridge. Seeing how bright her young maid was, the lady trained her to eventually become a housekeeper, sharing the task of running the large home.
Just as she was taking more of a housekeeping role, with a higher wage, the war changed everything. Young women were expected to work in factories or on the land. Iris had to leave the job that she loved and started working for Vickers Supermarine, an aircraft factory in London Street, Chertsey. It must have been a bit of a shock for her, working alongside men and women in the dust and noise of a factory—but she loved it.
After the war her early training as a housekeeper gave her the chance of being the secretary to a small firm in Byfleet. Through her connections, Iris has found a nice job for me, and has taken it upon herself to stop me from being what she called ‘Factory fodder’.
It is Nineteen forty-six, my sister is preparing me for the job interview. She has bought me a new shirt, trousers, shoes and even a tie, and has just finished knitting some sort of jersey. She calls it a cardigan, which I am trying on for the first time—it is not hanging well.
“Are cardigans really supposed to be as long as this, Iris”? I ask as carefully as I can.
She ignores what I think is a quite reasonable question considering the excessive length of the cardigan and says instead.
“Look at you Alan, how could anyone think that you would ever come to anything standing like that”?
These are cruel words to say to anyone, leave alone to an exceedingly tall and skinny fourteen-year-old boy—with a voice impediment. But that is my sister Iris, she doesn’t beat about the bush, she’s ambitious.
She stands back, looking at me with a sort of a wincing smile, I have the feeling that she is not happy with what she sees.
“It’s the way you hold yourself Alan, you are not making any effort, are you? I’ve made it a little bit bigger because you’ve got such long arms”.
“My arms look a bit long because I have sloping shoulders, it just depends where you take the measurement from, Iris”.
She pulls the sleeves one way and another. I try standing upright as my sister says I must, but she keeps telling me that I am a funny shape. The sleeves are now much too long and must be turned up, I look down at my new cardigan, saying.
“Dark green cardigans with big white buttons are for old people not for teenager’s”.
As soon as the words leave my lips, I know I should not have said anything, I can see by the way she is standing that she is going to tell me off.
“Teenager’s, where do you get all these slang words from. Anyway, cardigans are very popular in America, I got the pattern from a film magazine. Perry Como and Frank Sinatra wear them. Over there they are sometimes called a smoking jacket and they are worn rather long, it’s the fashion”.
“Fashion, Iris? a smoking jacket! I don’t know what fashion is and I don’t even smoke”.
She gives me a look very similar to the looks I normally get from my mother. To Iris, clothes will make all the difference, but I’m wondering what a potential employer would think of a fourteen-year-old boy, with a stutter, applying for a job wearing a bottle green smoking jacket with big white buttons, that is a bit on the long side.
The afternoon drags on, I start to stammer, and my funny eye begins to twitch, a sure sign of stress. Admittedly I am shy and a bit odd. It isn’t my fault though. As Iris says.
‘It’s just the way I stand’.
I don’t need to say of course that I didn’t get the job. I am doomed to be ‘Factory fodder’. The next week I started work at ‘Chase of Chertsey’, a local factory, but I’m quite content with this, some of my friends already work there. When I told Iris the job that she had lined up for me had come to nothing, she seemed surprised and asked.
“You made sure you were nice and tidy with your shoes polished and did you wear the tie I bought you”?
“Yes of course I did Iris, I thought it was going quite well, the man asked me all about my model making and what Church did I go to and if I belonged to the Scouts or the Army Cadet’s. When I said I didn’t belong to anything, he wrote something down and didn’t ask any more questions. He just said he would let me know, but he did say he liked the cardigan you had knitted for me”.
Iris looked at me as if I had said something bad.
“You didn’t, did you? Please tell me that you didn’t wear it to the office, did you? Alan, what am I going to do with you? It’s not meant to wear to work, it’s for when you are relaxing at home”.
It was a simple misunderstanding, it could happen to anyone, anyway I was never cut out to be an office boy. The factory job would suit me better, but even that didn’t turn out very well, I was only working there for three days. I left because I cut the top of my finger off with a circular saw, but that’s another story.