It’s our summer holidays and it’s already very hot this morning, I am waiting for my mum to come home from work. She cleans for Mrs. Snelgrove at the Golden Grove— about ten minutes away. Mum has promised to make me a swimming costume out of an old jersey. 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 the bathing pavilion.
Now that we are in a war seaside holidays are not possible, because the coastal beaches are closed and barricaded to prevent the enemy landing. The swimming pavilion is always crowded on a day such as this, you would never think there was a war on. 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 ever to use the gate, she is very superstitious.
“Ooh” she said as she saw me waiting at the door, “Put the kettle on love, and let’s 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 are wearing. A lot of local women work in the tank factory at Chobham. They all must wear these turbans when using the machinery there. She pushes 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 eight 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”.
My heart sank, I’ll never have my cozzy made now. Rosy had very rosy cheeks, as shiny as an apple that I had just rubbed on my jersey. Everyone seemed to have a nickname in our area, 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, and as she sat into it, usually with a thump, a cloud of dust would rise, 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-grocer’s shop, so we hardly ever had to buy fruit or veg. This time, Rosy had brought a fruit cake that she had just cooked.
“Here you are Ethel, I know you will like this one its full of fruit and it’s still warm”.
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. 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 grown-ups want to say something in front of the children, they would move their lips without saying the word, gum talk she called it.
Of course, the grownups had not realised 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. Especially 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, and taking a long puff from her Woodbine cigarette, she began to tell her story. This sounded like a very long one, I would never have a swim today at this rate.
I couldn’t help becoming interested though, 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 another 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 in the Barker Road air-raid shelter”.
Rosy started laughing, she could hardly get the words out,
“He told his wife that he was just showing the girl how to do the Fandango, that new dance”.
I thought any minute Rosy would have some sort of fit, she was rocking back and forward in the old chair and going redder and redder.
Rosy went on, still with the gum talk but this time with more words, “She didn’t believe him though, and chased him all round Chertsey saying she was going to cut off his doodaa, he was last seen running over Chertsey bridge with his wife following on her bike waving the breadknife”.
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 an eight-year-old boy, all I could think of was how could poor ‘Whatshisname’ have a pee without having something to hold on to? It has taken me over seventy years to realise 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 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 on a Boys Brigade belt to keep the cozzy tight around my waist. I tried it on, and it looked fine. The jersey sleeves were a bit on the long side and nearly reached down to my knees but were a nice tight fit around the top of my legs.
‘You will be the only one there with a cable stitched swimming costume”.
Off they went again, laughing and giggling, 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 so that I could hold it in front of me, then I could start running again.
It’s not very far to the Bridge and I was soon going along the towpath. I have never seen so many people in Dumsey Deep— the meadow where the pavilion stood. There were tents and campfires all around, it seemed like all of Chertsey were there. Before the war, the pleasure steamers used to stop at the bridge for tea and such like. But now the tea wagons that used to serve the passengers are closed and locked up. The steamers couldn’t use the Thames as it was full of half-submerged barges to prevent German seaplanes from landing.
At last, I was at the pavilion, I saw my mate Alex, with a very fancy ‘cozzy’, his Aunty had knitted it specially for him, 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 to do was to jump into 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 my brother’s belt had somehow appeared around my chest. I reached down to find the top of the ‘cozzy’ to put the belt back on, but there was nothing there, the water was so muddy I couldn’t see a thing. The woollen ‘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, she was with her daughter, and they were both looking at me, I 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 the stinging nettles, no one would be in a place like this I thought. I climbed up the bank but then I saw a pair of courting couples, I thought they were too busy to notice me putting my ‘cozzy’ back together though.
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 by the tight jersey sleeves down my legs.
Without the support of the water, the knob of wool that was once the neck of the jersey was too heavy for the stitches which unravelled, and the whole lot fell between my legs. They started laughing even more and I started to cry, my sister came over and said “Alan, we’re not laughing at you, we are laughing with you”.
“But Iris” I said, “This is 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 pavilion, I saw Alex Lees coming out of the river, he was looking a bit sheepish, his hand knitted woollen cozzy with his initials on the front, had also doubled in size and was hanging down to his knees full of water, looking like he had a pair of old lady’s bloomers on.
I didn’t feel so bad now.