WHEN TESTOSTERONE RULED
When I joined a youth club in 1945 that was held in the Methodist Church hall, I stepped slap bang into the middle of a silent cold war. The Reverend wanted to open the meetings with a prayer. Most of us turned up ten minutes late to avoid taking part. So he decided to close the meeting with a prayer. Everyone folded their tents and stole away into the night as soon as he said, “let us….”
He was a resolute Reverend however and didn’t give in. And in the end he won. We stopped our activities half way through the evening for tea and buns, over which he presided. Then he joyfully led his captive audience in prayer over the tea urn, with steam wafting about him like incense, before dishing out the refreshments.
Two weeks after I became a member a young lady joined our select society. A slim sylph, dressed in a plain green frock that contrasted dramatically with her startling red hair appeared in the doorway.
I, in the company of some fifteen impressionable young men, gazed in admiration at the apparition. She gazed back at us, and her expression made me think of a hungry vampire watching a haemophiliac shave with a cut-throat razor. It was so full of expectation.
Her name was Nicole DeVere, and all the girls hated her. I couldn’t understand that. What was there to hate?
We were attempting to produce a play concerning an innocent man wrongly imprisoned, and his love for the prison governor’s daughter. The besotted producer immediately cast Nicole as the heroine, displacing the willowy Wendy, who had been his girlfriend until that moment
I made a belated attempt to join the players, saying that I wouldn’t mind treading the boards again. My Julius Caesar in a school play had been heartily applauded by my parents, so I felt confident enough to speak up.
“You can play an escaped convict disguised as a woman,” I was told. “That’s the only part left.”I drew the line at that. Dammed if I was going to perform in a frock and bonnet in front of my mates. Besides, Lorna would laugh at me.
Lorna Penfold, a lovely girl, glossy black hair, shining dark eyes and a beautiful smile. Compared to Nicole’s lust for life, Lorna appeared to be the epitome of modest maidenhood. I was seriously smitten by her.
She had a boy friend, Steve, who was big and thick in every way. No one argued with him, so we steered clear of showing any interest in Lorna.
Then one evening my luck changed. Steve made his entrance with Nicole dancing attendance on him.
Lorna appeared fifteen minutes later looking so distracted and upset that she even allowed herself to be cornered by Neville, a bespectacled weed and the club bore. His only topic of conversation consisted of a lengthy account of how his collection of matchboxes had been destroyed when a fire broke out in his bedroom.
I wasn’t afraid of Neville and his long defunct matchboxes. I butted in.
“Lorna, I gulped, hoping that my acne wasn’t too much in evidence, “Would you like to………….?”
“Oh, yes please,” she interrupted, lighting up like a candle. “I’d love to.”
I soon discovered that Lorna’s appearance of modest womanhood was a fine veneer covering something much more exciting.
She was not a slender girl, and many’s the time she pinned me against the church wall after the Youth Club has closed for the night. In vain I protested that I should be the one doing the pinning, but she never seemed to cotton to the idea.
We frequented the Invicta Picture Palace that squatted between the Home and Colonial Store and the butchers shop in the High Street. It was a dark and dusty building and smelt of oranges and boiled sweets. On Saturday mornings we would storm into the cinema to cheer our heroic cowboys, or boo the villain who tried to do the heroine wrong. Sometimes we booed the hero who rescued the distressed damsel before he could do anything interesting.
The first time I took Lorna to the Invicta, I splashed out on balcony seats at one and threepence (7p) each and spent the last of my pocket money on an ice cream during the interval. After all, one has to make a good impression when taking a girl out for the first time. To hell with the expense! Later on I let her pay her share when I was a bit skint. On that first outing we were both a little unsure how to behave, and spent the time watching the film.
Subsequent visits were more exciting. We had to keep a wary eye out for the usherette, a sour spinster who would goose-step up and down the aisles in the darkness. Her torch, like a searchlight in a prisoner of war camp, would traverse the audience at regular intervals, seeking couples who were traitors to the Fatherland, or in her case, failing to pay attention to the film. Avoiding her surveillance, with its accompanying strident warning, “You two. Stop it,” gave added spice to an evening at the pictures.
Something as welcome as finding half a caterpillar in the salad happened one windy day. I and a couple of mates were sauntering around the shops, looking at nothing in particular when we met Lorna . a gust of wind caught her full in the face and sent her hat flying down the street. I, full of heroic adrenalin, set off in pursuit, and captured the brute by the simple process of stamping on it. Punching it back into something resembling its original shape, I returned to Lorna and placed it on her windblown head.
“Oh, my God,” she screamed catching sight of herself in a shop window, “I look a right mess.”
Being brought up to tell the truth whenever possible, I said, “Yes, you sure do.”
I meant well. Really I did. I thought that agreeing with the girl was the right thing to do.
Anyway, Lorna went all unreasonable about it, and refused to acknowledge my existence from then on. I sloped around feeling a bit glum for a while, and then cooked up a plan.
“You can’t run away to sea, you idiot,” giggled Pep when I foolishly took her into my confidence. “You’re too young. And too stupid,” she added, in the brutal way that sisters do when pouring scorn on their brother’s capabilities.
“I’ll do something, you just wait.” I grunted, stirring my tea, and accidently letting the hot spoon fall on her wrist. There was a few minutes truce whilst we mopped up the tea that she had spilt, and then she lost her temper and stomped out of the room.
Lacking the means to become a Lord Nelson, or a fighter pilot, I compromised.
“What do you think of that?” I demanded of her a couple of weeks later. She looked long and hard at my ill-fitting Army Cadet uniform, and was still laughing when I marched out of the room.
That week Lorna raised my expectations by saying that she forgave me, although I had forgotten what sin I had committed, and invited me to tea the next Saturday.
This was a big day for me; I was to meet the girl friend’s family. Shoes glossy with cherry blossom polish, hair agleam with Brylcreem, and a lump the size of a lemon in my throat, I walked up the road to her place. Lorna lived at number eight, near the end of a terrace of about a dozen cottages with small windows and heavily thatched roofs. They had been built in the early 1900’s for the families of the men working at Chalk Pit, near the cement factory. Some of the men had still worked there until the war took them.
As I made my way along Lower Tower Road, I was absolutely sure that every curtain twitched as I passed by, and a pair of beady eyes gleamed from behind each one. Hundreds of birds jostled for a place in the trees that lined the avenue, just to watch me go by. I was a nervous wreck by the time I arrived at Lorna’s house.
Taking a deep breath I gently lifted the shining brass knocker. A whiff of Brasso nearly choked me. The brass horses head dropped with a genteel tap. I polished it with my sleeve just in case I had left finger marks anywhere.
Lorna opened the door. She was wearing a blue dress with short sleeves that were sort of puffed out. She wore a blue ribbon in her hair. She looked like little Bo Peep. I was ushered into the parlour, which was used only for important occasions. The room reeked of lavishly applied lavender polish, and everything sparkled like new. The mantelpiece was jam packed with fine china, and every flat surface bore an ornament or photograph of some sort.
“Blimey. It’s like a museum,” I said to myself standing paralysed in the doorway, as if Rigor Mortise had set in. I was afraid to move for fear of knocking some priceless family relic to the floor.
Lorna, changing her role from Bo Peep to guide dog, steered me to the sofa, then went to fetch Mother.
Mrs. Penfold made her entry. She glanced around the room as if taking an inventory of the contents. I felt guilty, even though I had touched nothing. She was not young. I didn’t blame her for that. Most people get old at some time in their life. And some remnants of beauty still hovered around her face, as if reluctant to admit defeat.
Lorna must have been the result of the last round up, if you see what I mean. Lorna introduced us. “Mum, this is Tom, My fiancé,”
That took me back a bit. Engaged? What me? Surely I would have known about it before now. From her attitude, now that she was on home ground, it appeared that she had parcelled me up all ready to be delivered to the church on time. And I hadn’t even undone the string and peeled away the first layer of Lorna’s wrappings. The fact that I had tried on several occasions wasn’t grounds for assuming marriage was in the offing, was it? I made a mental note to ask for a postponement of our engagement party, say about ten years.
Lorna’s mother gave me a sad smile. “Please call me Ivy,” she said in a voice as fragile as spun glass. “That’s my name.”
We made polite conversation, and chewed on Lorna’s home made, and aptly named, rock buns, and sipped tea,
“Would you like to see some photographs?” Ivy asked.
Before I could reply, two black albums materialised in her arms. She’s done this before, I mentally groaned. How many other boy friends had to sit through this? The volumes contained a series of photos of Lorna, all designed to show what a tower of strength she had been since father had departed many years ago. Not with an ailment, but with a secretary,
Making a show of being interested, I pointed to a woman standing beside a younger Ivy in a group photo. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s my sister,” replied Ivy. “She went away.”
“What Mum means,” explained Lorna, “Is that she eloped with a man she had met only two weeks previously, and now lives in Dorset.”
“That’s enough,” Ivy said quickly. “Look at this lovely picture of Lorna in her first dance dress
I looked, and then jumped like a scalded cat as a spot of warm liquid suddenly dropped onto my hand.
Ivy Penfold was weeping. “You’ve come to take my only child away from me,” she sobbed. “What will I do? I’ll be a poor old widow all on my own.”
Before I could think of anything intelligent to say, Lorna knelt down and put her arm round her Mum’s shoulders.
“Don’t worry, Mum,” she said, gazing up at me, her body language begging me not to say anything that would make matters worse.
I sat dumbstruck as she carried on quite calmly. “We’ll be living here with you for some time before we find a place of our own.”
Alarm bells began to jangle inside my head. This was getting out of control. I couldn’t let this go on. It was going to be years and years before I was ready to be tied down to a wife.
I had wild oats still unsown. I had ambitions to travel the world, meet exotic Eastern girls and frolic with dusky maidens in a tropical paradise, and to leave them asking for more. And when I’ve gone, expect them to think only this of me. “Just wait till I get my hands on that son of a gun.”
A strategic retreat was called for. My military training came into use.
“I have to go now,” I announced over Ivy’s lamenting. “The Army Cadets have a night exercise on. I’ve got to get into uniform and report to base.” That sounded official enough to me.
“I didn’t know,” said Lorna. “You didn’t tell me.”
“Military secret,” I improvised. “We’re going to start early. We want to catch the Rochester bunch by surprise.”
Unfortunately, that set off another tearful bout of despair from Ivy Penfold. “Oh, Dear God,” she cried. “You’re going to take my poor daughter to rough soldier camps now.” She flung her arms around Lorna, ready to defend her to the death, or a fate worse than that. “She’ll catch all sorts of diseases. She’s a very delicate child.”
“Mum, Please,” Lorna tried to calm her down.
“You’ll be captured by savages and die in the jungle.” Wailed Ivy.
At last I butted in and assured Ivy that her beloved daughter would never leave home, and would stay to care for her all her life. I was careful to say nothing that would involve me in the arrangement. This was something Lorna would have to cope with on her own.
“Good night”, I said after a fumbled goodnight kiss, at the front door. I hurried away, feeling very guilty at leaving her alone with her tearful mother, but glad to get away all the same.
Poor Lorna, I thought. Longing to break free from her mother’s cloying presence. As frantic as a blackbird trapped in a greenhouse, she was throwing herself at anyone whom she thought could offer a way out.
“Introducing every visitor as her fiancée on their first visit is not the way to go about it.” I told a marauding cat. “It’s no wonder she can’t keep a boy friend for any length of time.”
The cat favoured me with a steady stare for a moment, decided that I was not worth paying further attention to, and faded into the shadows.