Keith West was an unstoppable muscular battleship, inches taller and wider than any boy.
A handwritten letter dropped through the letterbox and I knew it would be interesting. Bills, circulars and spurious junk mail are always typed. Eagerly, I tore open the white envelope and, as I read, I was transported back, back, back to my childhood…
Hillbury Road had twenty one elegant Edwardian houses – bay windows on either side of the half-glassed front door, a low iron balcony partway across the first floor, and second floor windows below a fine gable – facing Tooting Bec Common.
We lived at number thirteen along with four other families in post-war London shorn of many fine houses by Hitler’s bombers. Yet I was unaware of the deprivation for ours was a happy home on the edge of the Common.
Sixty plus years ago things were different. We had old money that could be divided into 240 parts, we learned the twelve times table, and we ran around the Common in pale khaki shorts kept up by a striped belt with a buckle in the form of a silvery snake. Days were sunny, spirits free, and cares none.
Our home had a head-high privet hedge on either side of the short black and white tiled path to the front door inset with pieces of Victorian coloured glass in a rose pattern.
Aged four or five, I fell for Helen from number seventeen, the only girl of my age in the street and a photograph proves it! It must have been a short-lived affair for all my memories are of playing with boys – football, run outs, tree climbing, bird nesting, making camps in the badly fenced council dump and in the bombed out houses on the far side of the Common. In addition, summer meant swimming in the open air pool and watching the weekend cricket matches played on short grass before our home by men in creased white shirts, trousers with leather belts and dirty off-white pads.
Who were the boys who played alongside me? Bernard Busby lived on the top floor of number twenty. He was different. He went to a posh school, St Joseph’s, Beulah Hill. John Jacobs had jet black hair lived at number eighteen with his older brother Michael. At number fifteen, lived my closest friend Roy Lee with his older and younger sisters, Thelma and Carol. I had a younger brother George. For years that was my world.
Primary school was a mile away past the prefabs, across the ‘army patch’ – the part of the Common that had been converted into a potato field in the war – and up Franciscan Road. School was a blur of football or cricket played on a tarmac playground, spelling-binding radio with ‘How Things Began’, and country dancing with girls from the sister school separated from us by a creosoted lapped fence.
After I sat an 11+ exam next to Terry Caulfield, who had to have our teacher Mr. Taylor help him spell his name correctly, I was in the grammar school.
Suddenly everything changed: a new route to school, a uniform, homework, form captains, big boys the size of men, teachers in black gowns with long sleeves, special lessons such as French, geography and general science, a headmaster who addressed us each morning from a stage and rugger.
Rugger. I smile at the thought. Mud, tackling and lukewarm showers through which we took our puny bodies uncomfortable with our nakedness. We rubbed most of the dirt off onto the towel.
Keith West was an unstoppable muscular battleship, inches taller and wider than any boy. He shrugged off tackles and scored tries by running directly through any opposition. ‘Give it to Keith,’ was our cry in matches for the first three years. But in the fourth year something happened, he wasn’t as tall nor as wide, we had grown and now we played our roles more effectively.
Nevertheless, Keith will always be remembered in the folklore of my adolescence.
Thelma was Roy’s older sister. On summer days, she and Beryl played in the street at pretending to be actresses, singing songs from the hit parade or hit musicals. Girls! That was all they did. They didn’t bother us.
The mists of age descend, I remember little else.
I pick up the handwritten letter that brought it all back: ‘Keith and Thelma announce their Golden Wedding Anniversary on 26 August 2017.’