How easy it is to remember a few minutes of a time before I started school, but at school there were large gaps of memory, a barren place where nothing seems to have taken root. Such as when I was in Stepgate’s Juniors. I can only remember two of the Junior school teachers, Miss Slaughter and Miss Williams. Both teachers brought to my attention another use for the yellow wooden ruler. They were both rather fond of rapping the knuckles of a talkative child. It didn’t hurt, but the slap of the flat ruler made you think it did. Miss Williams soon realised this and would use the edge of the ruler on occasion, that though, really smarted.
Miss Slaughter, being the head mistress would deal out any punishment in front of the morning assembly, mostly for ‘tardy’ children—a word that I had never heard of before but one to which I would become very familiar. Miss Slaughter preferred a very thin whippy cane, once again it was the swish of the cane through the air that made you wince, it really didn’t hurt at all. I think she knew this and that was why she chose the thin cane, she probably never wanted to hurt a child, but it was the accepted punishment for ‘tardiness’.
It is just over a mile to school, Eastworth Road went on for ever. Walking to school was agonising for me, not because I was in any agony, but it was just the thought of another day of being made to look a bit backward. I would hang back and let the other kids hurry past watching them jump up to look over the high convent fence for a glimpse of the big clock in the grounds. It was like a herd of leaping Antelope that we might see on the pictures.
Although Eastworth Road was long, it had something that I liked, bread and cheese. This may come as a surprise to some people, perhaps I had better explain.
The Hawthorn hedge along the field of the Handicraft School was always trimmed very neatly. I think the boys from the home, who were mostly orphans, would practice hedge trimming as one of their trades. They did all sorts of trade training like this, boot repairs, carpentry, anything to prepare them for a proper trade when they left school. In lots of ways, they had an advantage over an ordinary boy like me—although they would never think so. For when they left school, they could start work straight away doing a skilled job and earning a real wage. Whereas a child like me would usually start off as a tea boy.
The regular trimming of the Hawthorn hedge encouraged bright green, fresh leaves. We kids called them ‘bread and cheese’ because that’s what they tasted like. In the winter, some children would even eat the red and orange berries, but they tasted like wood, I left them for the birds.
Another attraction for me and a good reason to dwell for a few minutes, was the horse that was always patiently waiting to be stroked by the passing children. He stood in the corner of the Handicraft’s field next to Keith Cartey’s house. From there I could easily look over the Convent fence to see the time without the need to jump—one advantage of being tall. I would wait until the big hand was near the top and then stroll around the corner and over the bridge. I never quite timed it right though, and I can hear the bell with still a distance to go. Sometimes I would meet Johnny Jones, he lives in a caravan on the Fairground. He is not fond of school either and we both know very well that we will probably hear the swish of Miss Slaughter’s whippy cane again. Of course, this only happened a couple of times, but the fame of having the stick in front of all the school was the only time that we were famous—at least in our eyes it was something worth remembering. We talked about it afterwards as if we were almost boasting how little it hurt. Miss Slaughter would be quite upset if she knew of the effect her skinny cane had on the two of us.
After school I sometimes went back with Johnny to his home, he lived in a real caravan, beautifully painted as all the caravans on the site were. Everything was so clean, with lots of ornaments and polished copper pots. There was one large silver water jug, in which Johnny had to fetch water from Mr. Boxall’s shop at the top of the road. He carried this in a little trolly that was painted in the same colours as the rest of the fairground, all red and gold. One advantage of knowing Johnny was a free ride now and again in the large fun fair that would visit the fairground once or twice a year. I really liked his Mum, she had big gold earrings and dark eyes—just like a Gypsy that I see in pictures, although I would never say that. She was very kind to me, but I never met his dad, he never seemed to be about.