When Keeffey Came Marching Home
I was demobbed at the end of my National Service (with an exemplary record of good conduct, of course, and a piece of paper telling everyone that “his services are no longer required”) on 2nd April, 1961. Assimilating into civvie life was an awkward transition. It’s a cliché to say that I’d left home two years before as a boy and returned as a man, but it’s true, broadly speaking.
I had become a self-confident, ciggie-smoking, beer-swilling, gobby bloke. Had I stayed in the Army, I would have continued to feel part of the gang, the team. There had been a moment when I nearly signed on near the end of my service career because I thought I would miss the camaraderie of service life. Now back to both Wolverhampton and railway-clerking, I felt part of very little.
The lads with whom I’d been pally – mainly with the jazz-group – had either moved away, or had become middle-class conformists, or had missed their National Service for some reason and seemed immature. The only person with whom I had anything in common was my cousin, Johnny Muir.
It had been Johnny who’d introduced me to jazz. He’d been called up, too. He went into the RAF and had signed on for a few years to learn a trade, as many lads had done over the years. Now an electrician, he worked for MANWEB.
I used to go with him to local pubs in the evenings. But I never felt comfortable in such places: in those days, they were simply drinking venues for working men and their wives. So, even there, I did not feel a part of anything.
What I expected from a social life, I suppose, was to go back to playing trumpet in a jazz group, either as an amateur or even professionally. It was now the Sixties, though, and the pop scene had done away with the local jazz scene. I had never been much of a pop-fan. I had, on a couple of occasions, gone to youth-club pop concerts with lads from work – still Stafford Road Loco Repair Works. The amateurishness of the local pop-groups appalled me!
Then, out of the blue, things changed.
On leaving work one afternoon in late April, I was walking home along Stafford Road. My route took me past Percy Wiltshire’s Pawnshop and Drapery shop where Auntie Rene worked.
Standing on a small pair of wooden steps outside the shop on the corner of Stafford Road and Ewins Street, hanging out or taking down the stuff on show to prospective customers, was a young girl.
Auntie Rene had told her to keep an eye out for “our Keith”, and must have given her a description of me. That description may well have included “tall with sun-bleached hair and a lovely tan”! Anyway, the girl spotted me and, as I walked past her, she said those words which I shall never forget:
“Ay, you – Rene wants you.”
From the first moment I saw her, I was in love with her. That fact remains true today.
I went into the shop to see Auntie Rene. The girl followed me in and half-hid herself behind some rolls of lino, listening to what Rene said to me and smiling at me.
“Look, you,” said Rene in her usual straight manner, “we’re running a dance for the local Spastics Society. And you’re having a ticket.”
I simply said “I’ll go if she goes,” indicating the smiling little girl.
“You’re going, aren’t you, Irene?” Rene said.
The girl – Irene – nodded.
“So that’s two tickets you’re having,” Rene told me. “That’ll be ten-shillings.”
I paid there and then, I think, then asked where and when the dance was. It was to be on the 17th of May atButler’s Brewery Sports & Social Club in Springfields. I would go to Auntie Rene and Uncle Fred’s house in Grimstone Street, near the Brewery, and we’d all go to the Club together. Irene would be going to their house straight from work to change so she would be there and go along with us.
What Irene did not tell me was that Rene would have let her in for free. She has never given me the five bob I paid for her ticket . . .
The evening of the dance arrived. I walked down to Auntie Rene and Uncle Fred’s, where Irene was waiting for me. We all strolled together the Butler’s Sports & Social Club where I was instantly shoved into buying some raffle tickets.
Irene and I danced together for most of the dances: quicksteps, foxtrots, waltzes – I even think a Samba crept in there somewhere. I confess I’d never tried Modern Ballroom dancing before, but I avoided stepping on her toes. Old Tyme dancing had been my thing before I went into the Mob, and I didn’t have much chance to learn anything else while in there. I had, of course, played jazz at a few Army functions and, having watched what was happening on the dance-floor, I sort of picked up the general idea. I’d gone to a few dances since my demob, too, at the Civic Hall with a girl I’d met at All Souls Church Sunday School.
Between dances, I think I talked more about me than I should have done. I had the confidence learned in the Forces – and I’d been told by many relatives that I’d been vaccinated with a gramophone-needle. I’m sure Irene was impressed by my chatter.
She had to get home to Fordhouses by half-past-ten, I think it was. That was two bus-rides away. When the time came, I took her to the bus-stop, kissed her goodnight, put her on the first bus to come along pointing in the right direction for Wolverhampton town centre, and went back to the Club for another couple of pints. These two joined the ten I’d had while she was with me . . .
At the end of the evening, I walked home – steady on my feet, for I was used to booze in those days – and thought about Irene all the way. I was properly smitten.
At that time, I had a girl-friend . . . well, not a girl-friend in the accepted sense of the phrase. Isobel was more of a pal, and we went round together as well as teaching in the Sunday School. (Why I was ever asked to do so I will never know – maybe Mom, a regular attendee at the Church, told the minister that I’d be good at it.)
After, say, the Civic Hall dance, Isobel and I would go beck to her flat – which was along theTettenhall Road– for a late-night coffee. I would stay until the small hours sometimes, and Mom would be waiting up for me with a piece of her mind.
Having become instantly besotted with Irene, I went into Percy Wiltshire’s shop (either the next day or the day after) and asked her out again. And again it would be to Butler’s Sports & Social Club to a dance in aid of the Spastics Society.
Our next “date” was to be at All Souls Church Hall where the Old Tyme dances were still being run by Arthur Bood the butcher and his missus. We would go to those dances many times over the following months.
And that was the start of our courtship. It seemed that we were going to stick together permanently, though we never voiced that idea. At that time, Irene was only sixteen and had told her Mom and Dad that I was “a dancing partner”. Well, it was true.
Isobel saw us together at the Old Tyme dances. She was not in the least jealous. However, bless her, she told me one day: “She’s the girl for you” and simply dropped out of my social life. What a lovely thing to do. We remained friends.
That was how Irene and I became sweethearts. Then I asked her – whilst down on one knee in the vestry at All Souls – to marry me. Her answer was a foregone conclusion.
But I will never forget the glory of hearing her say she would be my wife.
We’d been to buy the engagement-ring a little while before I made the formal proposal. But, even though her parents knew we’d been going out together for a while, they gave her a hard time for coming home wearing that ring. Well, her Dad did: he told her that she was “too young”.
So she put it on a string and wore it round her neck when at home, and wore it on her third-finger, left hand when out with me.
My Mom and Dad were delighted that I’d found “Miss Right”. The only comment Mom passed, soon after she first met Irene, was “She’s a bit young for you, isn’t she?” That was in no way a criticism, more of a passing thought. Later, she would tell Irene that Irene was “the daughter I never had” – indeed an accolade after several negative comments about other friends of mine who she’s met!
Our courting days were filled – my memory tells me – with long walks in the country and along the canal tow-paths; of doing modern waltzes to “MoonRiver”; of just being together; and of her wonderful comforting of me when my Dad died unexpectedly.
A year or so before we got married, we began going to Wolverhampton Folk Club. It was where I first got up – as a floor-singer – and began to learn the trade of folk-singing, and where I first performed songs which I’d written myself. The Black Country Three – two blokes from Cardiff and a Londoner – were the residents and organisers. The Three were immensely popular in the Midlands at that time, and rightly so, for their music and singing were excellent.
Irene and I were courting until she was twenty-one and three days. Twenty-one was the legal age of maturity back then, and her birthday fell on the Wednesday before we married – not needing her Dad’s permission – on the Saturday. We paid for our own wedding with help from my Mom.
The ceremony was held at St. Mary’s Church, Bushbury, a rather nice late-Norman building on the edge of Bushbury Hill from where there’s a distant view of the Welsh hills. Irene was very nervous and, when the vicar invited us to go up the couple of steps to the altar area, she put her foot through the hem of her white wedding-dress.
The reception was held in The Three Tuns pub by the island on Stafford Road. We were served champagne for the toasts. It tasted like watered down Lucozade. The Black Country Three provided some music for the occasion, and Irene’s half-sister, Molly, tried to jive with her husband Fred Lovatt to the Three’s folk-tunes. She failed.
Desmond Ellitts – Irene’s sister June’s boy-friend (who she later married before she was twenty-one with permission from Dad Burford) – became drunk rather quickly. When he put his hand out to shake Irene’s, he held it hard and tried to twist her wrist. He was pulled away by Fred before I had chance to deck him.
We left the reception amid cheers and messages of “Best of Luck!”. I noticed my Mom – a widow for so short a time – looking very much alone as we departed.
Fred Lovatt took us to Irene’s family home in Kipling Road, where she changed into her going-away clothes. We had a taxi to our new home in Wednesfield. Next morning, we were taken to our honeymoon destination – The Cottage In The Wood Hotel, Great Malvern – by the same hired taxi. How travelling has changed; but this was a special occasion!
Our week in Malvern was idyllic. We walked, in that sunny October, over the Malvern Hills and were impressed by the views. We visited Elgar’s birthplace (cheap in those days) and saw his grave in Little Malvern churchyard. We’ve visited Malvern many times since – happy memories. And then – had it really been a week? – it was time to go home to Bolton Road, Wednesfield. The second week of our honeymoon was to be spent day-tripping.
It’s wonderful to realise as I type this that we’d been married for forty-four years on the 9th October this year.
21st October, 2009.
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