Chapter Twenty-six, The Balaclava.

 It is surprising, that the memory, which is so good at reminding us of something best forgotten, can also hide something that should be a delight to remember.

  I have such a memory.

My friend, Roger Field, in a comment he posted about our school days, mentioned the cardboard milk-tops from Stanford’s Farm. Children who could not collect fag cards, because there was no one who smoked cigarettes in their family, would collect these round cardboard milk tops, using them in the same way as fag cards.

There seemed to be a special time for something like fag cards or marbles when one kid would bring something like a pack of fag cards to school, and it would start what would be called a craze. It swept the playground as if by magic, one child would show off his new plaything, a kite or a bag of marbles and we all wanted one—I suspect now, that all the local shops had a grapevine and would stock up with these things on a regular basis, just waiting for the flood of kids. The shops may also have planted a few freebies among the kids to start the flood. 

In the winter someone would start wearing a balaclava, but for some reason I was never so lucky to have one. Norman Jefferies, a boy who lived at the town end of Abbey Road, came to school wearing the most magnificent ‘Balaclava’. He looked like a Norman Knight, a craze had started, everybody wanted a balaclava.

  I asked my mum, if I could have one, she said, Deirdre, my sister who was good at knitting would make one for me, but I wanted it now, not after the winters gone. 

Mrs. Salmon, who was sitting in our kitchen at the time—I sometimes think that lives in our kitchen—came up with a quick fix, she said.

   “Alan, why don’t you just pull your jersey over your head and just look through the neck”?

Although, I had my misgivings about this, I did as she suggested. mum then put a piece of string around the neck to make it fit snugly.

   Today, the memory of that afternoon, that has been hidden for the last eighty years, came agonisingly back in the greatest detail. Thank you, Roger, what a friend you are.

The sight of my mother and Mrs. Salmon, going into convulsions of laughter, as I posed in my new ‘Balaclava’, was a good thing to forget for all these years.

  I knew, in my heart, it was not the style I wanted to take to school, but I don’t think they should have laughed for quite so long.

Looking back at that time I am so pleased they both had such a good laugh, after all there wasn’t much to smile about during the war.

Talking about children’s crazes brings to mind the most popular one, marbles, it would come up every few months. The marbles came in several sizes and colours, a large red one would be the most valuable and was probably made in fewer numbers deliberately to create this scarcity value. Children have always put fairness, or treating someone fairly, as most important, you often hear them shout, ‘That’s not fair’ or such as that. Children with a fair complexion or fair hair were thought to be lucky.

 My school friend, David Ralph, who lived opposite Pound Pond, was such a boy, he was fair skinned and had blond hair, we all liked David—and he was also amazingly good at marbles.

In school, owning marbles was like having money, it was currency, you could ‘swap’ them for anything, fag cards and milk tops, and even sweets. On this day his pockets were heavy with marbles, he had beaten everyone, and now he had run out of boys to play with, and they had all drifted away. Kids have an easy remedy for this, it is called ‘scrambles’, our David shouted ‘scrambles’ and threw his marbles in the air. The playground was soon a heaving mass of boys and girls gathering as many marbles as they could, soon the games were in full flow again.

He was only eight, but he already knew, that to children, sharing was better than simply keeping.

Now we see people who have so much wealth that they cannot possibly spend it in their lifetime or hundreds of lifetimes. The same people think that taxes are for ordinary people and hoard their money away on some island, our David could teach them what life is all about.

I think most people would like to be a winner, but it is just not possible, that’s life as they say, but there was a time when I did think my turn had come to be just that. A Champion!

Every Autumn, the conker trees in Stanford’s Farm gave us another playground challenge. To have a conker on a string that could break six other conkers would be called a sixer, and so on. The conker trees in Mr Stanford’s farm were pretty good, if you could throw a big stick high enough you could have a nice big conker. It would last quite a few conker tournaments.

One boy came into the playground with a special conker, and it was shattering even the biggest challenger. It was said he used to soak it in vinegar to make it harder, but this maybe just a rumour put about by his victims. He also had a conker tree in his garden so would be able to pick the best of them, but this year I was confident that I would be the one to beat him.

 There was a rather spindly tree in the car park of ‘The Carpenters Arms’, It never produced a single conker, until one year I found a lovely unopened conker beneath it, I opened it and there was the darkest, shiniest  conker that I had ever seen, I looked up and the tree was completely devoid of any more conkers, it seemed as if this poor tree had used all its energy to produce at least one super conker. My friend David Mawford, who lived opposite the Carpenters—and he should know this. Told me that the reason the tree had never given any conkers before, was because the men would come out of the pub and have a Pee against the tree every night.  Without putting too fine a point on this, it is sufficient to say that this poor spindly conker tree used this —shall we say ‘vinegary’ substance to enhance the single conker that it had ever produced—and I had it on the end of my piece of string.

I couldn’t wait to start swinging my conker in the playground—if you pardon the expression. I was beating everyone and was attracting quite a crowd when I was challenged by the boy with his twenty-fiver conker, it was jet black and even the string was thick. We had more strikes than any other conker in the playground.

 He had found his match, my conker was hardly marked but his was looking very sad, the bell went, and we all had to go into the school, we would have to finish the fight in the dinner hour.

We met in the playground at dinner time, but he was almost in tears, he had tried to thread a new piece of string though his conker and it had split in two.

The worst part of this story though, is that I could not say that I had broken his conker, and therefore could add his twenty-five to my seven making it a record breaking thirty-twoer and be the undisputed champion of the year.

  That’s life as they say, some you lose and some you nearly win.

Author: madeinchertsey

Born in 1932, this is a collection of stories of my childhood growing up in Chertsey, and some stories of my later life.

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