It was the Winter of 1962. Christmas. I was 11 years old, and was pleased to be back with my Mum after my first term at boarding school.
Mum had moved to London, as she no longer had to stay with me in the bleak and bucolic seaside town where we’d lived for several years. My new home was a cramped, cold, and musty bedsitter. It was all my Mother could afford. Sometimes she couldn’t even afford that. I didn’t like the place. We had to share a toilet with about 4 others, and there was no bathroom at all. About twice a week Mum would take us to the “Slipper Baths” (Public baths, that don’t, I think, exist anymore). More about that experience in another blog.
So I was thrilled when Mum told me that she had met a lovely man who was the Manager of a Hotel near Newmarket, Suffolk, and that he had invited us both there for Christmas and New Year. A nice place to stay, and a possible Dad, all in one go! Things were looking up.
The first inkling I had that this new adventure might not be so rosy was when I met my new “Uncle”. My Mother and I had left our bedsitter in London with all our belongings. It didn’t take long to pack. My things consisted mainly of my school stuff: uniform, shoes, 2 or 3 books, and a few toys. We took the train to Newmarket and Uncle met us at the station in what seemed to be a rather grand black car and drove us to the hotel. I didn’t like the look of him. My intuition told me that something was not right. I was proved correct, and ever since I’ve never doubted my intuitive powers. He was tall, dressed in a navy blue suit, and smelt of stale alcohol and cigarettes. Of course, he smiled and gave my Mum a hug and a kiss on the lips. But the kiss was too long and the hug too tight for my liking. After all, I was her Man, what right did this stranger have to be so affectionate towards her? I also noticed that the elbows of his jacket were slightly threadbare, and his shoes weren’t polished. Like an animal, I was on my guard.
The Hotel was lovely. Large gardens, warm, the staff friendly, and best of all, I had a whole apartment to myself. Yes! A large room with a huge double bed, a bay window with pink velvet curtains, and an en suite bathroom. I really fell in love with that bathroom. I relished the privacy after boarding school and the lack of facilities at the bedsitter. Even today, half a century on, I prefer to stay in a hotel or guest house with an en suite bathroom, than with the friends I’m visiting (unless I have a bathroom to myself). This is often a source of amusement and it certainly doesn’t make for cheap visits, but I don’t mind: I know what I like and what makes me feel secure.
I had the run of the place and its amazing gardens. I soon made friends with all the staff, especially the Chef. He let me help in the kitchen with simple tasks, like preparing the curled butter for the guests, and arranging it on small plates. Even jobs like these made me feel valued and worthy. I only saw my Mother at lunch and dinner. I didn’t mind, she seemed happy with my new Uncle and I was relieved that I didn’t have to see too much of him.
It was just before Christmas Day that things began to go wrong. I’d seen another man in the Hotel Bar with my Mum. It was obvious to me that he and Mum got on well. He was a dashing type: handsome, tweed jacket, pipe, and a fabulous British Racing Green sports car. He took me and Mum out in it on trips to a country pub. Very exciting!
I remember passing my “Uncle’s” study door on evening and hearing a furious row between him and my Mum. I went in, to see if she was alright. She was sitting on a chair crying and “Uncle” was swaying and shouting. Then he fell over. As he was trying to stagger to his feet my Mum took me upstairs to bed, and left me there. I was confused and didn’t know what to do. I was also a little frightened. I couldn’t comprehend all the “ins and outs”, but I knew that something was very wrong.
Christmas Day came and went, and it seemed to me that things had settled down between “Uncle” and my Mum. Then on night, my Mother came into my bedroom and told me to dress, and pack all my things as fast as I could as we were leaving. I was too disorientated to ask why. I was surprised to see the man with the sports car outside. He helped me and my Mum into the car with our things, or some of them, as I think we had both missed a few items in the rush and confusion. Then the dapper man drove us to London. It was a long, lonely, cold, dark, journey. So many thoughts were going through my head. Who was this man? Would we be returning to the nice hotel? Where would we live? Was Mum alright, she wasn’t saying much?
London was freezing, and the buildings looked threatening. The streets were deserted. I had no idea what time it was. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really care. The man told us to wait on the pavement while he went to look for accommodation. Mum and I got out. We weren’t properly dressed for the cold. I had no gloves, and the gloves my Mum had were paper thin. The icy wind whipped along the bare streets and cut through us. I hoped the man wouldn’t be too long. We never saw him again.
(To be continued…)