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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Cuddly Dudley?

You may remember, in the last post (that could be appropriate!) Sorry young man, you can't turn that fancy round 'ere! I recounted my childish fumblings with a form of witchcraft, involving a laurel leaf stuffed hopefully under my pillow?  This, you may recall, was in an ultimately futile attempt to find out the name of my future soul mate. 

Now, I’m sure there are many of you out there who thought to yourselves, “When I was that age all I was interested in was football, cricket and train numbers, in that order”, to which I would say only two words:

Valerie Singleton.

Does that bring back any fond memories?  Does the old heart pump just that little bit faster?  Yes, I thought so.  I suppose, for some of the slightly younger fraternity, Susan Stranks might have the same effect.  There may even be a few lost souls who still carry a torch for Jean Morton (of Tingha and Tucker fame) but I should think they are few and far between.  Personally, I was rather keen on the female assistant to Eamonn Andrews on Crackerjack but that really is showing my age. 

My point (and there is one, I promise you) is that even apparently sweet, innocent young lads who appear to be totally focused on sport and avoiding washing, may secretly harbour a desperate longing for some older, unattainable female,  probably Natasha Kaplinsky these days! This brings me, rather neatly, to this month’s story of childhood unrequited love.

As my hopes of finding the name of my true love on the back of a leaf had been somewhat dashed, all thoughts of future romance had been well and truly pushed to the back of my mind.  Until Miss R. arrived at our school.  Miss R. was stunning!  She had dark hair, styled in the fashionable ‘beehive’ arrangement much in favour in the early 1960s, she had olive skin, she was very pretty, softly spoken and kind.  From the moment I first saw her, I was besotted.  Whenever she taught us, I could not take my eyes off her.  If she actually spoke to me, I would turn crimson with embarrassment and stammer and stutter my way through my answer.

Now you may remember that I had assumed that my childhood friend, Elaine, would fill the vacancy for the post of the future Mrs. Whiteland, this being the purpose of my leaf-enscribing activities. The idea was that this would simply confirm what I always assumed to be the case.  The arrival of Miss R. rather threw a spanner in the works of this putative life-plan.

In a bizarre twist, Miss R. was not the only new teacher we had at our school that year.  Elaine’s stepmother (Miss E) joined the staff and became our form tutor.  This seemed very odd to me.  Teachers, in my view, were a sort of separate species that only infiltrated my world during school hours.  I was vaguely aware that it was a career that other people might follow but I didn’t expect to ever meet one in real life.  My infant brain struggled to cope with the concept of Miss E as someone I came into contact with both socially and as my teacher.  It was like Valerie Singleton suddenly arriving to serve tub butter at the local Co-op.

Miss E. was rather strict and our class was more than a little in awe of her.  I vividly remember one occasion when she had been calling various children to the front of the class to have a sharp word with them about sundry misdemeanours.  I was the quiet ‘goody goody’ in our class and I don’t think I had ever been told off for anything in all my time at school.  Therefore, I nearly dropped through the floor when Miss E. called me to the front.  An audible “ooohh” rumbled through the ranks as the rest of the class speculated on what awful crime I had committed and what grisly fate awaited me.  Standing at the front of the class, before her desk, I trembled with anticipation and embarrassment.  Miss E. looked up, smiled and whispered “I wondered if you would like to come to tea with Elaine on Friday?”  I suppose I must have muttered something about having to ask my Mum and she told me to go back to my desk.  Of course, my classmates were beside themselves with curiosity, what had she said to me?  Was I going to be punished?  And so on.  I, of course, was stuck between a rock and a hard place.  If I told the truth I would be an object of ridicule for having a girl as my best friend (and, by association, being ‘teacher’s pet’) but any other story would lack credibility, given my squeaky-clean image.  I think I adopted a policy of dignified silence which drove them wild with frustration but did lend me an aura of mystery (albeit short lived).

Whether Miss E. realised the amount of ‘stick’ that I was getting from the rest of the class and decided to reward me for my fortitude or whether it was just coincidence, I don’t know, but shortly after the above incident, at the start of the Summer Holidays, Elaine asked me if I would like to go on an outing to Dudley Castle and Zoo.  This sounded like a reasonable idea, but it got better.  Miss E. would be taking us and we would be going by train (this was when travelling by train could still be seen as an adventure, rather than an ordeal).  However, what really sealed the deal was that she would be bringing a colleague with her – Miss R.!!  I could not believe my luck.  I was to have Miss R., all to myself, for a whole day.  To say I was happy would not even get close – I was beside myself with excitement.

The outing was planned for the following Saturday and I spent the entire week in a state of nervous anticipation.  To have an entire day to spend with the object of your affection was like Christmas, Easter and every birthday all rolled into one.  Valerie Singleton could take a running jump as far as I was concerned, I was to spend a day with the delightful Miss R.

The day dawned.  Mum and Dad were to take me to Burton Station to meet the others on the platform.  This was when Burton Railway Station was still something that Sir John Betjeman could wax lyrical about and not the prototype for a Gent’s convenience that it later became.  Heart thumping and blushing in anticipation, I hurried down onto the platform.  No sign of Elaine and her party but we were early.  Then I saw Miss E. coming down the platform with Elaine, but no Miss R.  Miss E. hurried up to talk to my parents and, after the initial pleasantries, I overheard her tell them that unfortunately Miss R. would not be coming as she had another engagement but Miss A. had agreed to come instead and would be with us shortly.

My heart sank like a stone.  This was not how it was supposed to be.  I imagine we all remember our first huge disappointment? As a nation we’re pretty immune to it, otherwise why would we continue to compete in the Ashes, the World Cup and the Eurovision Song Contest?  But, as with so many other things, we all remember our first time.  The worst of it was, there was no-one that I could pour my heart out to.  On top of all this, my better nature was giving me a hard time because I was acutely aware that I was being really ungrateful.  After all, I was still getting my outing to Dudley, it was a beautiful day and I should have a really nice time.  How could anyone guess that the disconsolate seven-year old before them had just had his crush, crushed?  Worse still, Miss A. had a similar reputation for strictness as Miss E. and, although she was perfectly nice, she was no Miss R.

Miss A. arrived and my parents waved us off on the train.  I have to say that Miss A. was kindness itself and made a real effort to engage me in conversation and cheer me up.  I tried to act the part of the interested and excited child, particularly as Elaine was clearly really looking forward to her day, but my heart wasn’t in it.

I don’t remember a lot about our visit to Dudley Castle and Zoo (some would call this a blessing), other than it was a beautiful summer’s day.  I just remember wandering around with my own personal black cloud hovering above my head.  I didn’t think it could get any worse, but I was wrong.  In those days, one of the ‘unique selling points’ of the Dudley Castle and Zoo ‘experience’ was that they had a chair-lift (similar to those used in ski resorts) that would take the more adventurous up the hill, from the Zoo, to the Castle.  Elaine knew no fear and, for her, this was the highlight of the day.  I could not stand heights at any price, a particularly thick doormat could give me a nasty turn, and this was definitely not my idea of fun.  Of course, if Miss R. had been there and had wanted me to go on the chair lift, I would have probably leapt from chair to chair, without the aid of a safety net, all the while clutching a box of plain chocolates!  With Miss A., I dug my heels in and refused to go.

It says a lot for Miss A.’s patience and understanding that, on a boiling hot day, she forewent the excitement of the chair lift and trudged up the hill with a sulking seven year old.  I wonder if Miss R. would have been as compassionate?

From that day forward, my passion for Miss R. was dimmed but not destroyed.  Our class moved on and other teachers took over her role with us.  It was quite some time before I saw her again but I still remember the occasion clearly. 

It was a rainy winter’s evening.  For one of the final years of our Junior School education, we were moved to classrooms at Bond End in Burton (which involved a scary walk down the pathway through Midland Joinery, with the sawdust extraction vacuum system rattling and banging all around you).  This meant, at the end of the day, we had to walk into town to catch a bus home.  On this particular evening, as I made my way to the bus stop by the Abbey Arcade (once home to the Derby Evening Telegraph Burton office) I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a young couple in a shop doorway, locked in a passionate embrace.  What arrested my progress was not this unseemly display of affection in itself but that the girl in question was Miss R!  It would have been weird to have seen any of my teachers in this scenario, but for it to be Miss R!!  Well, if she could be unfaithful to me after everything we had been through (or not been through, to be honest) then she clearly was not worthy of my devotion.  It was back to Valerie Singleton for me.  At least she would never be caught in a clinch in a Burton shop doorway.

Of course, Miss R., Miss A. and Miss E. are still imprisoned in my memory exactly as they were then, in the early 1960s, never ageing or changing.  It was only as I was writing this that it dawned on me that Miss R et al must now be nearing 70.  Well, that’s what you get for hanging around in damp shop doorways!  Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wife and I are heading off for a romantic weekend in Dudley – I understand the chair lift has long since gone. I wonder if I can persuade her to adopt a beehive hairdo…?