The House In London Road: 1.4

The wedding must have been a significant rupture. My father, an only child, had lived at home until he was 40. He had lived in a downstairs room, where he kept his trumpet and his jazz 78s, and his gear for developing black and white photographs. Every weekday he would take the train from Leigh to Fenchurch Street, and spend the day working at F E Walker & Co in Water Lane. One or two days a week my grandfather would make an appearance at the office for an hour or two, briefly interfering with whatever was going on and then retiring for an early lunch. 

After the wedding my father and mother moved to London to live in a furnished flat in Bina Gardens off the Old Brompton Road. An 8mm movie film shows them throwing a cocktail party in the first floor living room, my mother and the other women in cocktail dresses and pearls, the men in double-breasted suits and those silvery speckled salmon scale ties that men wore in the 1950s.

Bina Gardens was a desirable address even in 1955. There were restaurants, clubs, museums. But the Bina Gardens era was short. My father never cared for London. His friends were all in Westcliff, and Leigh-On-Sea. London was where he had to go to work in the office of his father’s company every day; that was bad enough, he did not want to live there as well. And the gravitational pull of the old house in Leigh was strong. His mother would certainly have been agitating for his return. No doubt the waves of neurotic blackmail that she emitted would have reached Bina Gardens and permeated the days.

By early 1956 my parents were looking for a house near Leigh-On-Sea. Some time during that year they moved to a rented house in the suburb of Chalkwell, where I was born in December. Shortly afterwards they bought the house where I spent my childhood. During their first week in the new house their only furniture was a bed, a cot containing me, and a deckchair.

It was a detached house built with the confidence of the late 1920s, a combination of Spanish-styled villa combined with some elements of mock Tudor – it looked as if the architectural plans had got mixed up, a page from one design having been inserted accidentally in another. There was a Latin arched entrance over a path leading to the front door, false shutters either side of the bay windows, and leaded windows.

Gradually my mother eliminated the stuffy suburban fittings. The threadbare fitted carpet was eventually removed, and the pine floors were stripped and varnished. Rugs were bought. The embossed wallpaper was also stripped, and the house was painted white inside as well as outside. The kitchen and breakfast room were knocked through into one larger room. A split-level oven and hob were installed. Later there was a new washing machine that loaded from the front instead of the top, and a dishwasher with a large plastic button that started the wash cycle. Sometimes the dishwasher engine would catch, sometimes not, like a car starting up. I learned how to time it exactly so that the dishwasher would turn but the motor would not catch and begin the cycle. I pressed it again and again.

A family came to visit; the child asked its parents if we were very poor on account of the lack of fitted carpets.

We barely knew our neighbours. One of the next-door houses was occupied by an elderly Jewish couple called Wein. I do not recall ever seeing them in person so I have no idea what they looked like, but we knew they were in residence on account of Mr Wein’s typing which continued all day. Mr Wein must have been typing on a large manual typewriter, which clacked as loudly as a threshing machine and which had an equally loud bell that sounded at each carriage return. This was part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

We never saw anyone in the Wein’s gloomy shadowed garden, where two enormous fir trees blocked out the light. On the other side lived another elderly couple: we did not even know their names, or if we did they have vanished from memory. Most of the people that lived in our secluded street I would not have recognised had I passed them. We knew the Irish family opposite us who had a new car every year although their house was almost as bare and sterile as Grandma and George’s, and we knew glamorous Mrs Prevost next to them, who was married to an estate agent and who had artificial tan and an au pair.

At this period my father’s business was profitable and my mother had the sole use of her salary as a physiotherapist. She used some of it to buy a green open topped roadster. One day as she was driving away from the house – with me in the back seat – the steering wheel came off in her hands. But she was undeterred, and sold the green car for scrap and went on to buy another open topped roadster. It was red, but she bought a can of gloss paint and painted it green.

This must have been a time of release for my parents. Even though they had moved back to within two miles of my father’s parents, at least my father had made a partial escape from number 1755 and its straitjacket of moods. And for my mother who had grown up in a tiny two-bedroomed house in a poor street in Twickenham, this new home with its four large bedrooms, its terraced garden, its space and privacy, must have been a stimulant. Our suburban world had an air of deep-seated pleasantness. There was room for everything. For my parents it must have seemed as if they had moved to America.

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