7 November 2023

Things you say you love, you’re gonna lose : 1973 : the curse of The Blue Pool, Camberley

 The couple put the huge dog in the back of their car and, before setting off down our driveway, smiled and waved at us. We did not smile. We did not wave back. My mother was weeping. Uncontrollably. I had never seen her so upset. She had just said goodbye to her beloved pet dog. For the last time. I hugged her. But that day’s heartbreak consumed her … for years to come.

It seemed like a lifetime ago that we had excitedly carried that dog home as a tiny puppy in a cardboard box. It had been smaller than a cat then. Now it had grown heavier than a human. One cold, dark winter’s afternoon years earlier, we had brought back our new pet on the train from Waterloo. Thick fog had enveloped our route, prolonging our usual one-hour journey home to more than two hours, and rendering the suburban landscape spookily invisible through the train windows. Stopped at Bagshot station, the guard walked down the carriages’ central corridor carrying a bright torchlight and explained that our train would be held there for quite a while. Because the double-track railway narrowed to a single line beyond Frimley, the British Rail timetable regularly disintegrated into chaos in both directions when even a single train was delayed. I pulled down the window of the carriage door, peered outside but could make out only a pinprick of the red stop light at the top of the westbound platform entirely masked by thick fog.

That day the scary darkness through which our train had clickety-clacked had been unable to spoil the delight of having collected our new puppy from London. Now, years later, we were having to fight a route through a different abstract kind of foggy darkness that was undeniably dampening our spirits. No longer able to afford to feed the dog who had been her loyal companion for years, my mother had become resigned to placing a ‘dog for sale’ advertisement in the ‘Camberley News’. It was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. It felt like selling a member of her tightly-knit family. But she had recently become a single mother with three children aged between two and fifteen to support and had to accept her budget could no longer stretch to the expense of the huge volume of meat our pet required.

That dog was the last in a line of Saint Bernard’s that had been our pets since I was small. The first had been named ‘Samantha’ after the lead character in the ‘Bewitched’ TV series. I had chosen the name ‘Suna’ for its successor. They had died of old age but, on each occasion, my mother had combatted her sadness by promising herself to buy a similar puppy and transfer her unconditional love to it, which she did. This occasion was very different. A lifetime of big shaggy dogs had been brought to an abrupt end, not by death but by austerity. As children, the three of us had grown up around a Saint Bernard that had been taller than us in our earliest years and, despite drooling over us and our furniture, had been as gentle and friendly as any family could want. Why did my mother have such an affinity for this particular breed of dog, which was so unconventional in that era?

Her trip to Switzerland in 1953 or 1954 had had a long-lasting impact. My mother had returned with three things: a large rusty metal cowbell, a love of Lindt chocolate and her first encounter with a Saint Bernard. For someone from her ‘modest’ background who had never before had an opportunity to travel abroad, the trip proved an eyeopener, particularly after her mother had vetoed her post-school ambition to study agriculture in Denmark. Back then, international travel remained the privilege of the elite and Switzerland was a destination reserved for those attending private ‘finishing schools’ or wealthy skiers.

My mother always claimed that she had made the trip with ‘work colleagues’, though I have always considered it more likely that she was accompanied by a manager (the manager?) in her workplace, Peter, who was providing her with a daily lift to her first workplace, the Elizabeth Shaw chocolate manufacturer recently relocated to Camberley. In earlier years’ annual roll photographs from Camberley Girls’ Grammar School, portraying long rows of its entire student and staff body, my mother was easily identifiable in the back row by her bouffant hair and radiant smile among a sea of rather dowdy girls who looked browbeaten by the War. She had the air of someone who aspired to a brighter future. Maybe it was during this trip to Switzerland, ostensibly to view how chocolate was manufactured at the Lindt factory, that Peter had made his marriage proposal … which she rejected.

A keen swimmer, my mother had managed to persuade her parents to buy her a season ticket during school summer holidays for the Blue Pool, a large outdoor lido-like pool on the London Road adjacent to Portesbery Hill Drive, a half-mile bike ride from her home. This was the only place in Camberley for young people to meet then, there being no youth club or coffee bar to fraternise. Boys and girls thronged to the pool during its summer season, unguarded by parents or chaperones, indulging in fizzy drinks and snacks of which their parents might not have approved. This is where my mother first met my father, who was almost two years older than her and had already left school to work as an apprentice. Like her, he looked more glamorous than his peers with his sleek jet-black hair and olive skin. She was rather reserved while he had the gift of the gab and a roving eye. It was a match made in …

My mother’s family refused to attend the couple’s Registry Office wedding because my grandfather knew the reputation for roughness of my father’s family and considered they and their youngest son no match for his smart youngest daughter with whom he had enjoyed such a close bond, particularly during wartime. He considered no good would come of their relationship … and he was eventually proven right! The day a few years later when I was born at home, my father was nowhere to be seen because, my mother alleged, he was with his ‘girlfriend’ who was simultaneously pregnant by him. Soon afterwards, instead of paying the rent on their council house, my father unilaterally purchased an unaffordable car, resulting in their eviction. My maternal grandfather was generous enough to help the couple buy the semi-detached house adjoined to his home (after evicting his tenants there!), an arrangement permitting my mother’s parents to assist with childcare, in which her husband showed no interest.

My father’s philandering continued until 1972 when he finally decided to walk out on our family and start a ‘new life’ elsewhere with a recently married teenage girl from our street. Not only did he remove his own possessions from our house when he left, but he would return unannounced while we were out and take whatever he wanted. My mother stubbornly hung on to the belief that her husband would one day return to her (as he had done previously) and so failed to safeguard her own future by changing the house locks or hiding our valuables. This immunity only encouraged him to return and take time picking and choosing what he desired.

What did he steal? My mother’s car, an American Motors ‘Gremlin’, one of Detroit’s first compact hatchbacks which we had only recently travelled to an M1 service station to collect new. My father then gifted this car to his new ‘girlfriend’ before discovering that she was too young to be insured to drive it. My mother’s extensive jewellery collection that she had built since the 1950’s and comprised unusual, artistic pieces. Thousands of pounds of cash in plastic bags stashed in the top right cupboard of our white, Hygena living room storage unit, my father’s cut of dodgy property deals with his newest business partner Bill Beaver. Artwork and paintings hung in our hallway and living room. Imported soul records I had bought with my pocket money. The list went on and on.

My mother took two jobs to try and make ends meet, daytimes as bookkeeper for British Car Auctions at their site opposite Frimley gravel pits, evenings cleaning offices in Yorktown. My aunt Pam generously paid for a coastal summer holiday for our diminished family of four. However, we returned home to find even more of our belongings had vanished while we had been enjoying the seaside. To add insult to injury, my mother later found photographic evidence that my father had even organised a party for his ‘friends’ at the house during our absence. It appeared that he had been informed about the dates we were to be away by my younger brother who was the only one of us to maintain a close relationship with his father … until the day he died.

As a result, aged fourteen, that was to be my final ever holiday with my family. Pam continued to fund UK summer vacations for my mother and siblings, during which I had to stay alone at home to guard what remained of our possessions. Occasional nights, I was awoken by noises outside and got up to see the inside door handle being turned in darkness. It was as scary as a horror film, even though I was now protected by interior door bolts and I would switch on the lights to show someone was at home. For many years afterwards, we lived in that house in perpetual fear of losing what little was left of our possessions to an embittered father who demonstrated only cruelty and vengefulness towards his former family. 

That was why the necessary sale of our family’s dog proved the last straw for my mother. She would never again be the same optimistic person evident in her old school photos. It was not just that the family life she had nurtured since her Blue Pool days had finally crashed to the ground and burnt her fingers. It was not just that the warnings two decades earlier from her father about the unsuitability of her husband had proven correct. Moreso it was that her Saint Bernard dog had been a reminder of the ‘time of her life’ she had enjoyed in Switzerland and the possible future she might have enjoyed with Peter if she had only accepted his marriage proposal. It was too late now to turn back the clock. She had three children, for whom she had tried her hardest to provide a better life, but who were now growing up in much reduced circumstances with a mother who was forever at work. During the intervening period, Peter had married someone else.

Life for me became more difficult too. In 1969, my parents had promised to drive me every weekday two miles to Camberley station to catch the 8:10 train to the faraway grammar school they had selected for me. Now, the only replacement car my mother could afford was a tiny second-hand ‘NSU Prinz’ that we called ‘the sewing machine’ because of its engine noise and which regularly failed to start. My mother needed it to reach work so I was forced to make my own way to the station and back by infrequent bus or, more often, walking. To achieve this, on weekdays I was always the first to get up and leave home, but the last to go to bed, usually after midnight as I never returned home from school before six o’clock and had considerable homework to complete. Additionally, I had to look after my baby sister during school holidays while our mother was at work.

When our home’s central heating failed, local tradesmen came and looked blank as the gas air system my father had imported from America was then unknown in Britain. I wrote enquiry letters to dozens of heating specialists listed in the local library’s Yellow Pages directories, none of whom replied positively. I even wrote to the manufacturer in the United States but it had no agent in Europe. As each winter approached, I would once again dissemble the boiler mechanism myself and spend hours trying to discern the problem, to no avail. We were forced to live for years in that unheated, uninsulated house with its swathes of glass sliding doors, a factor that has forever made our bodies vulnerable to cold weather illnesses.

Somehow, we struggled through this terrible period in our lives and kept our family together with much practical and financial help from my maternal grandparents, my aunt Pam and my older cousin Lynn. Sadly, my father somehow poisoned my other aunt Sheila’s opinion of my mother so that the two sisters never spoke for decades afterwards. If this narrative appears one-sided, understand that my father’s parents, also resident in Camberley, were conspicuous by their complete absence from our family’s life. When I was young, my paternal grandfather pushed his wife down the staircase of their council house, resulting in her death. I had visited the couple only once previously with my father, purely because my mother refused to go. I visited the remaining widower only once after he was moved to a tiny old people’s flat on the London Road opposite Gibbet Lane. My father alone attended their funerals.

They say that ‘once is an accident, but twice …’ In the 1990’s, I returned to my mother’s house to retrieve several large cardboard boxes I had packed into the attic of my treasured childhood books, school projects, toys and personal items. When I climbed into the roof space, they appeared to have gone from where I had left them on the left side of the attic hatch. However, on the right side were many similar boxes. I opened them and was baffled to find they contained magazines and papers belonging to my younger brother. I could only presume that, when he had emigrated in the 1980’s, he must have taken with him MY boxed possessions but bizarrely left HIS behind. I now have almost nothing from my childhood, particularly the precious family photo album that I started in 1964 when I had been given my ‘Kodak Instamatic 25’ camera and which I had maintained religiously with dates, personnel and locations of each shot. Had my brother inherited from his father some kind of ‘cruelty to family’ gene?

During the winter of 1996, the central heating failed in the large Victorian house in Toronto where I was renting the top floor. I inspected the gas air system in the basement and was astounded to find it identical to the mechanism I had dismantled and tried to repair so many times in our Camberley house, installed three decades earlier. Bad memories came flooding back of our cold lives.

In her old age, my mother received a phone call from her former chocolate factory boss Peter informing her of his wife’s death, so she attended the funeral and visited him on the South Coast. Could have? Should have? In some kind of parallel universe, my mum might have enjoyed a longer lasting, more fulfilled married life … with somebody else.

No comments:

Post a Comment