Sunday, 27 December 2009

Break a leg

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Mom and Dad 1938


Father enjoyed a flutter on the horses, and would always have a daily bet. He would leave this for my mother to deliver to the bookie. The bookie stood outside his own house with hands in pockets, innocently whistling away. It was illegal in those times to run a betting shop or bet on horses away from the racecourse. To place a bet you just walked passed the bookie and slipped a piece of paper, in which money had been wrapped up, into his hands. On the paper was written the name of your chosen horse, the amount of the wager and of course the personal I/D of the punter. It was usually left for me to deliver the bet into the hands of the runner. That is, if mother was not sufficiently desperate to have diverted the money and spent it on food for the family. The amount of the bet I remember was always 2/6p or a half crown, as it was then called. In those times a half crown would have bought a lot of essentials. It was a risk she was prepared to take and she prayed all day that the horse would lose. She would say “please fall and break a leg”, thankfully the poor horse never broke a leg but someone from above was always watching over her, and made the horse go slower, she got away with it every time.

As previously mentioned, the other deception was of course the clothing in the pawn shop, the items had to be back in the house by Friday afternoon, because that was when they were needed for the weekend.

Now this involved a very complicated strategic manoeuvre, as you can appreciate. I was at school so all these jobs to help my mother were done during my dinner hour, for me it seemed a very short hour. I must have eaten my bread and marg, if we were lucky, on the move. I would hop on a bus from my school in Small Heath and go to Sandy Lane in Bordesley and meet a lady who I called Auntie Myra, she worked in a factory and received her pay at lunchtime. Having collected the loan from Aunty Myra I would then hop on another bus and redeem my father’s clothes from the pawnshop. I would then meet my father outside his factory gates, and collect my mother’s housekeeping allowance for the week, it was important to catch him before he went off to the pub for the evening; this became a weekly routine.

One of the good tasks I can remember was to deliver the loan back to Aunty Myra on Friday evening. She and her husband were always sitting down at the table, eating their Friday meal of Fish and Chips. I must have had an appealing face, as I would always be rewarded with a portion of chips for myself.

Now although Myra was a very good friend to my mother, as I have already said, she tended to be a little naughty and a bad influence. I suppose on looking back, it brought a bit of glamour and adventure, which was absent from my mother’s life. On Friday and Saturday evenings, of course without my father knowing, she would get dressed up and take her curlers out and her turban off and accompany Myra to the local dance hall, my mother had beautiful auburn hair. She would often be described in the neighbourhood as the lady with the lovely red hair who had six children. In case she was ever needed urgently, thankfully I always knew where she could be found. None of our neighbours ever knew she was missing and had left the children in my care. She would go along close to the wall of the house, and step over the little garden wall. She would always be back in the house by 10-o-clock, change her clothes put her hair back in curlers and put her turban back on. Father was never aware of anything that went on in the house and never caught on that his wife was on the town.

As I have mentioned earlier, the shortage of money was always a problem. Often I would be sent to the shops for goods on credit, and be refused, strangely at these times I did not feel any shame. We were continually in debt to all the little shops in the area. Also I can remember being in debt to the coal man. We survived each week by having things ‘on the slate’ as it was called. If they were lucky, on a Friday everyone would be paid off, on Saturday the whole cycle would begin over again. It was the slippery slope of pinching from Peter to pay Paul. I can remember my mother exhausting the shops that would offer credit. Even the rent man and the milkman were given the same excuses over-and-over again. We would tell the callers “our mother is not in”, while she would be standing behind the door.

I remember one embarrassing occasion, we answered the door to someone who wanted his money, and we told him she was not at home. The caller asked us what time she would be back and Kevin put his head around the back of the door and asked, “what time will you be back Mom”.

Later I remember my mother getting a job, father did not know about it, he would certainly have objected, he was a very jealous man and did not like the idea of her being out of the house. Unfortunately she was unable to reveal to him the fact that she now had a little extra money, I believe she worked at the same factory as her friend Myra.


Me, aged 13 with neighbours outside our house in Small Heath


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