Les Rowse, Philippe and I , final chapter.
By elsie katz
‘Playing with yourself again’ she said before stomping downstairs to give me my coffee, cereal, toast and breakfast choice of sausage, bacon or egg. Not for the first time, had Mum tiptoed up to my bedroom door on fairy footsteps to ‘catch me at it’ more like the thousandth. The tipping point.
‘I’ve got my O-levels and I’m no longer a virgin’ I said to myself. Loss of aforesaid encumbrance had happened in December on a working holiday in Israel. 300 of us randy young Jews were flown over from England and holed up in a hotel, 4 to a room in off-season beachside Netanya. We picked and packed oranges in order to release army reservists to fight in yet another war. I soon discovered the delights of being unfaithful to the first lad, a sixteen year old from Finchley.I had no sensitivity, it was about ego and skins touching and smoking straight after, our cigs having sex too as one red tip lit another. Manchester Sarah* had one a night, mainly soldiers on leave and she tried to get rid of the consequence by smoking, so rumour said.
After Mum left our sunny kitchen for her job as a do-nothing schools inspector I walked to Wembley Park station. I fancied the country life and bought a ticket to Amersham, the furthest stop on the Metropolitan line. I booked into a pub that served breakfast and went down for a half pint of cider.
‘Take my advice’ said the old codger at the bar. Marry a man with money.’
‘But money might not give me happiness’
‘No, but at least you’ll be miserable in comfort.’
His punchline sucked. Finding work was more urgent. Next morning I went to the Labour Exchange, they became Job Centres the year after. The Water Board were looking for clerks for £12 a week. The card on the board required ‘clean amenable types.’ A ‘living-in’ job would be better. That afternoon I bussed it to High Wycombe unpacking in the servant quarters of Wycombe Abbey Boarding School ready to start as a kitchen assistant next morning. Because I was under 18 Dad had to give his grumpy telephone consent to my boss.
But escape had really begun 2 years ago. With my Saturday job at the bakery.
All my environment had led me to think of the working class as second class. Sort of the B-stream of life. What saved me from terminal snobbery was – I liked the way ‘they’ spoke!
‘We was’ seemed loads more alluring than ‘were’, ‘’ennit’ I practised at home.
I still love phrases, expressions, clichés even. They seem ‘extra’ not less. The collective experience of full rooms in tight spaces.
‘There’s good and bad in all people’ I’ve come out with that a few times. Say it with weight and measure like a philosopher king - it shuts up racist bigots. Say it with a dash of irony and a greater scoop of meaning - it halts the smart but snarky.
These days I can trace roots. The slipways logic behind the person who lets go a mild swear and caps it with ‘pardon my French’. The French were baddies when we fought Napoleon. So a ‘French’ word is a bad word.
‘The great heart of the people’ that Les was so pushme-pullyou about? Well certainly a pulse beat. I wanted more.
It helped that Margaret, my manageress back at Clarks Bakery in Neasden was friendly, well-organised and fair-minded. We got a box of cream cakes to take home each day, as ‘if we didn’t have them they would only feed them to the pigs.’they being the returns lorry of Ranks-Hovis-MacDougall. I was one of a team and I got paid.
Home at 15 was a prison, school the same. These days I know that all life is real, all experience counts. Back then I called my Saturday job ‘real life’
I still picture Margaret Ley as an overalled goddess of reality. On a plinth with Lakshmi and Mary-Mother of God.
Life’s adventures at 17 were banal. A succession of rubbish jobs and dull sexual encounters where only the plumbing and a small amount of companionship worked, sometimes not even that. So maybe it would be good to go back to school and get my A-levels.
That October saw me back at Mum and Dads, enrolled in the local comprehensive. Kingsbury was even more boring than South Hampstead and we had to wear uniforms. I had a new Saturday job selling silk scarves at Liberty’s in Town. Us surburbanistas call London’s West End ‘going up to Town.’ I was depressed. I worried about my weight. I had shovelled in the leftovers at that kitchen job.
But my bright spot was the French Assistant, Philippe.
I had him to myself, the five other sixth-formers in my group shunned French oral practice with Philippe. I lapped it up, I had never met anyone like him.
What Les, Philippe and I shared is an early gut awareness that learning is experience and that it sometimes works best when the feet are engaged as well as the mind. An optimism too that life in the world can be friendlier and more interesting than home. Maybe.
Philippe was twenty but dressed in the formal garb of an old establishment male, grey trousers with a crease, a tweed jacket, shiny ‘gentlemans’ shoes. His Dad was a high-up in De Gaulle’s civil service, an army officer who whacked attitude out of his son with a cane.
French assistants are uni students working the third year of their language degree abroad. Perhaps his Gaullist Papa had not wanted him to study English and refused to pay his expenses as he shared a grot-hole room with his landlady’s son. The son worked nights and told Philippe he was too noisy getting dressed in the morning.
‘Make noise again and you are a dead man.’ said son.
Philippe gave him and his mum what-for. He was moving out when his week’s rent was up.
‘I showed them’ he said ‘that I ‘ave something in my trousers.’
How could anyone miss out on this? Or on learning to help a blind man from one classroom block across the yard to the next. His eyes weren’t revolting, simply glassy and still. He didn’t fuss when we got to other side though he was firm about the point on the staircase where he could now manage himself. I liked his independence.
Once more ‘real life’ was here!
* name and city changed