11. Odds And Ends
Mom had been ill from just before I took my 11-plus exam. She didn’t let it hold me back at all, and pretended she was alright.
Her doctor was a man from Eastern Europe who spoke English with a marked accent. At her age, he said, she would be going through “The Change”. Her symptoms were lack of energy and coughing up clots of blood. The clots, he told her, were because, as menopause happened, some women have periods through their throats!
I still wonder where this man qualified as a medical doctor.
Mom’s illness was, in fact, tuberculosis and it killed her at the age of sixty-one, she having passed it on to my Dad who died from the disease four years before her. I believe that she contracted TB while she was working for the Mohammeds in their little drapery shop on Snow Hill.
Anne Mohammed was a friend of Mom’s – though I do not know how they met. She had married a Pakistani immigrant and immigration checks were not as rigorous as they are now. Tuberculosis was all but conquered in Britain. It had been on the decrease just before the War. It still had a hold on the population of Pakistan, though.
I say all that not in accusing way: the Mohammed family members were a decent bunch, and saw the need for Mom to earn money. I will never know why, as Dad was always in work and Mom usually had a part-time job, we were so hard up.
The bike which they’d promised me if I passed the 11-Plus eventually materialised. It was not a new one. When Mom had promised me a bike, and Dad has flinched at the prospect, they had explained that it would not be a new one. And it wasn’t.
Gran’dad Bayliss found an old Hercules bike – a sit-up-and-beg thing – and Dad had painted it. The black frame remained black, but the shiny metal bits were coated with “silver paint”. It was not real silver.
So I learned to ride it by pedalling up and down the street outside our house . . . closely supervised by Mom who dreaded me being knocked down by the then-sparse road traffic. Later, Dad and I went for rides into the countryside, me on my bike and he on his.
Dad’s bike had drop-handlebars and he’d painted it over in a cheap brown paint. Round about this time, he did a solo ride from Wolverhampton to Rhyl just because he wanted to. He stayed up there overnight at a cheap bead-and-breakfast, then cycled back next day.
Though popular among his neighbours and workmates, he was a quiet man. From the distance of all these years, I feel he might have been a solitary sort of bloke, though not anti-social. I may have inherited those traits from Dad.
I admired Dad, though from afar. His quietness put a barrier between us, but it was not something he tried to maintain. It was not until I left home to go into the Army that I realised how much he loved me. He was a man who seemed to accept things as they were, voted Labour, and simply plodded on usually with a smile.
I rode my bike with pride and, eventually, Mom gave me permission to cycle to School. I followed the same route as when I’d walked: down Leicester Street, across Leicester Square, along Kingsland Road, round the West Park, down Middle Vauxhall, across Tettenhall Road, up Larches Lane, along Compton Road and into the School gates. Sometimes, I’d go via my alternative walking route. From Leicester Square, I’d ride up Walpole Street and along some back-alley dirt tracks to the Tettenhall Road and across to Clarke Road, then on along Rupert Street and through the huts housing HM Tax Offices (or Education Offices, or whatever they were) and come out on Compton Road opposite the School.
Now that’s a long account of the ways I took to School. But my mind holds lots of snap-shot pictures of front gardens, of views along streets, even of close-ups of individual paving-stones. These were the things which were outside of the School grounds; these were the things which meant a little freedom to me.
And those dirt tracks were hardly used by pedestrians or other cyclists, so I was alone along them except for my thoughts and my imaginings.
One day, though, I had a serious accident. I cycled out from Middle Vauxhall to turn right onto Tettenhall Road to get to Larches Lane. I’d made that turn every day for many weeks. I ensured that the road was free of traffic and that it was safe to pull out.
Halfway across – bang! I was hit by a speeding sports car coming from my right. I somersaulted off my bike and landed in the road. It was perfectly safe for me to pull out: not a car in sight. He must have been doing a heck of a lick.
The driver managed to stop before his car hit me. But its front wheels came to rest on top of my bike. That was the end of me cycling to School.
The driver leapt from his car and harangued me for being in the wrong. In a voice like those of my Masters at School, he kept repeating “I blew my horn”. I knew that he, and the posh blonde beside him, had been travelling too fast. But I was a youngster and had been brought up to respect my elders.
He ran me home, which was kind of him. I explained what had happened to Mom, and Gran’dad and Doug Bayliss went out in Doug’s shooting-brake to collect the bike. Mom nearly threw a fit! The man gave her his name and address, told her he’d blown his horn, and left.
Next day, Mom took me – on foot – down to the bottom of Middle Vauxhall, looking for witnesses. There were none. Gran’dad went to visit the driver, pleading the hard-up story in an effort to get some cash for another bike from him. The man did not respond. And that was the end of that.
I could have been killed. I felt nothing, not even the bruises.
When I went to School – the day after the accident – it was “Where were you yesterday, Stevenson?” and no sympathy shown at all.
Saturday, 9th May, 2009.
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