A lighthearted look at my teens

I’d like to tell you about myself.   My life didn’t actually begin at 13, but I started some things then which have been with me ever since. You know, on one or two days in your life it’s almost as if you suddenly wake up and without blinking an eyelid or having regrets, change your whole existence.

It was like that one morning, as I said, when I was thirteen.   I’m an only child and I had a bedroom to myself.  It had a door and a bed on one side and two large wall cupboards, a gas fire and a very large mirror on the other.  I used to sleep without any clothes on, and when I got up that morning I couldn’t help noticing myself in that large wall mirror over the gas fire.  True, I always did notice myself in it every day and looked to see how my acne was coming on – I’d been spotty since 9 and went to hospital to treat it – but on that morning I really did notice myself.  I had a good look at not just my spots, but at my round shoulders, my narrow chest and my long thin legs.  To see the latter I had to get near to the mirror and look down into it, so to speak, because it was quite high up.  For the first time in all those years it really struck me that I didn’t like what I saw. I’d been hovering about that realisation for a long time.  It’s easy enough to realise you don’t like Dicky Adams who sits next to you in school, but to admit the same about yourself takes longer.

Actually, I’m still undecided whether I didn’t like what I saw, or felt I was destined for greater things.  Come to think of it though, my view could have been helped by a pen-friend I had.  For some time I had been writing to a blonde, beautiful, Swedish girl. I believe her father was conductor of an orchestra; at least that’s what she told me, and she looked the part.   After some months of writing weekly and eagerly awaiting each others letters, I sent her a photograph.  Her next letter contained bad news.  She told me that for family reasons she had to stop writing, and so ended what I had hoped was to be a long and growing romance.

The light of my dreams about travelling to Sweden and sharing sustaining love for each other had to be extinguished.  Perhaps that was the darkness that had caused me to see myself in such a bad light.  Or maybe it was my mother’s influence.  Looking back, I can understand the situation, but at the time I could only take it where it hit me.  You see, my parents owned a greengrocery shop in a small, attractive paved walk near St Pancras Church in London.  It had belonged to my grandfather Nick, who was an Italian from near Amalfi.  Just after the war Nick wanted to see his home again and so went to Italy for a holiday and died there.  So my father, the youngest of five boys and three girls, took over the shop.  Dad was a full-blooded Italian and mum just as full-blooded English with other English influences like ancient Viking, Irish and French blood.  Not the quiet English rose, but with a lot of emotion and a temper she could express easily and some-times devastatingly, as many traders found out who tried to give her a raw deal.  If she had something on her mind she would stew over it for hours or even days, going ominously quiet.  Then suddenly she would start talking and with volcanic force the heat of her worried emotions would spill out. Not that there were many things which caused her that amount of emotion and anxiety.  I can’t ever remember her flooding out strong over politics, hardship, the war, or clothes – I was born in 1937.  The few things that roused her because they were her whole world were, concern over the safety and well being of me her only child; my father and his very few glances at other women; internal family feuds, and being sold bad goods in shops or in life. It was the force of the love my mother gave by ever working to cook my meals, wash my clothes and providing all the things necessary to exist – that was her love.

My mother was, and still is, one of those people who live almost entirely on the emotional level.  In her mind she used to get things done with, not to clarify or explore mentally. Feelings were good enough for that. So the force of her life expended itself mainly through years of non-ceasing hard work, and the pleasures, worries, excitements of caring for her man and child.  It was therefore both very satisfying and sometimes very difficult to be loved by mum.

When there is not much else in life for you except your feelings for your family they can be very intense.  The amount of her caring as it poured into her cooking, washing clothes and sheets, working, painting the house, being with us, was enormous.  But it was so intense she could as soon flatten you with it as nurse you when you were sick.

For instance, when I was six we lived in Amersham, Bucks.  I went to school at St. Mary’s along School Lane, which ran past fields and a recreation ground.  I hated school dinners so I walked home each day and Mum had an arrangement with our next-door neighbour who cooked a meal for me because the war was on and mum went to work.  Brian Spencer, a boy from my own class, also walked home.  On one beautiful Summer’s day we walked back to school together after having our dinner.  School Lane starts from the High Street and passes through some rather fine houses and what was Goya’s Perfume Laboratories, where my mother worked at that time.  Then the lane turns left and stretching uphill is Rectory meadow.  It was covered white with horse daisies, and in the heat of the day was a beautiful place to be.  So we went into the field to gather horse daisies for our teacher. It didn’t seem to us we were there long, but when we arrived at school with our daisies, an ominous quiet existed instead of the usual shrieks, laughs and shouts of children at play.  We felt very unnerved and walked slowly to our classroom door.  Putting our ear against it we could hear a lesson was in progress.  We stood outside for some time trying to find courage to open that huge wooden door and walk into the gaze of thirty children and teacher. I had never ever been late, and it seemed complicated to explain what had happened.  We decided the best thing to do was not to disturb the lesson but play in the recreation ground until the afternoon break.  We could then join the other children and go into our class when they did.  Right, the problem was solved.  Meanwhile, to pass the time we played on the swings, roundabout and rocking horse.  Tiring of that, we moved down to the river Misbourne at the far end of the recreation ground, beyond the cricket pitch.

We climbed the willow trees there and imagined them to be tanks, airplanes, or just willow trees.  Then we saw the sticklebacks in the river.  So, with bottles found, in we went to trap the unwary minnows.  This was so absorbing that when the children came out for playtime, and some even came and talked to us, it never entered our heads to leave the magic of the river and go back into school.  We were under a spell that put flight to all the world outside of childhood’s delight and time itself.  We knew no hunger, time did not exist, home was in another space and experience.  There was only the river and delight.

When the children went home from school I was still lost in that world made up of water, jam jars, sticklebacks and joy.  Our daisies had been left and forgotten along our journey to the river; so had mothers, home and teatime. But suddenly, what I still remember as a dark thundery type of cloud loomed over us and blocked out the late sunshine.  It was a tense, silent, oppressive sort of cloud.  It was my mother.

I was pleased to see her and began to share the river with her and show her our catch of minnows.  She didn’t appear to be interested.  “Do you know what the time is?”  she asked me.  No, I didn’t have any idea of the time. It had taken me a long struggle to grasp what a minute was.  Our neighbour had once told me when a minute began and ended while I looked out of her window trying to experience it.  Hours were beyond me.  I tried again to share our pleasure of the afternoon.  “It’s six o’clock” my mother went on, coldly, with tremendous restraint.  “I’ve been worried sick about you.  Some of the children said you hadn’t been to school.  Why weren’t you there?”  I tried to explain. My mother took my wrist and with a tight grip walked me home without further exchange.  Despite being half Italian, I was a very fair-haired child with large hazel eyes in a wistful face with a pointed chin.  Perhaps that evening my eyes were a little larger than usual and my face more wistful in trying to understand. On the way home she stopped outside of what was at the time Goya’s perfume factory. What happened was so intense it is seared into my memmory, for my mothe turned me and stared at me and said, “You hurt me, now I am going to hurt you!”

When we arrived back at our cottage, with its two up and two down­stairs rooms.  I was taken into the kitchen.  At first my mother had said nothing except, “You hurt me now I am going to hurt you.”  She boiled water, put a large tub on the wooden kitchen table and filled it with the hot water.  Slowly and silently she undressed me, washed me, and dried me.  Then she brought clean clothes, Sunday best trousers and shoes, and began to dress me in them.  I blurted out from my fear of this strangeness, asking what she was doing.  It was quite simple.  “I am going to take you away and put you in a home,” she said.

The threat was not an empty one.  I had been in hospital twice by the time I was six and it had crippled me emotionally.  I knew what it was like. I reached out to her to hold on, but my arms felt small and weak.  Beyond that I cannot remember.  As I said, it was sometimes difficult to live with mother, but only sometimes. But on that day I made a huge decision for unconsciously I turned against my mother and started on the road to become independent from her. In fact I also remember being on a bus with her on  the upstairs level and was sitting as far away from her as possible. She called to me to sit next to her, my reply was, “No you are an old cow.” It was the worse insult I had at that age.

Looking in the mirror on that day was a turning point.  There is something in us that constantly gathers fresh information and adds it to our already large collection.  Usually, whether it is information or experience; or information gathered from experience, it adds to our stockpile without radically altering us.  But occasionally something in the nature of a catalyst comes along, and its very presence amongst all our past gatherings swirls them energetically into a new order.  Something clicks, and our life is altered in one way or another.  Perhaps the almost unwanted fact that my penfriend had stopped writing the moment I sent my photograph, had been the last straw.  But the catalyst cannot act unless there is the right material for it to act on.

But what makes us swing one way and not another?  Which way would I swing as I looked at myself?  My childhood fear of being sent away, added to my pen friend turning away, were the influences causing me to see the poor shape I was in.  But there were other factors, with other influences.

For instance, when I was about twelve my friend Eddy had told me about masturbation.  It sounded a bit improbable but I went straight home and shut myself in the sitting room to experiment.  It was a reasonably safe place because my parents were busy in the shop that was directly underneath the sitting-room.  If anyone came up the stairs I could have heard them and terminated my scientific curiosity.  But that first exploration led not to delight but to fear.  Things seemed to be progressing well when suddenly the vital part of me blew up in the middle with a bulge like a weakened bicycle inner tube.  The bulge was the size of – believe me – a golf ball, right there in the middle.  To my distressed imagination, if that bulge were a part of the event, the end result could very well be explosion.  I’d seen exploding cigars – not a pretty sight.

But fortunately the explorative spirit in mankind cannot be extinguished by minor setbacks.  I don’t know how, but that threatened disaster never arose again, and I went on to a happy and frequent involvement with myself.  Maybe, looking back it was a little too often.  I did look a bit pale, and it certainly was harder to run and jump aboard buses than it had been before masturbation.  So much so that after coming back from a camping holiday with Eddy, and just at the point where I was moving out of the most intense part of my love affair with myself, my mother sent me for a chest X ray, fearing I had TB.

The result proved my chest was okay, but I don’t think it got through to my mother.  I say this because one day soon after, she was waiting for me in the kitchen when I came home from school.  I had a key of my own to get in what we called the side door.  It was actually our front door, but we called it ‘side door’ because it was at the side of the greengrocery shop my father ran.  From the door a long passageway led the length of the shop to the stairs and the kitchen door.  The passage was usually piled high with sacks of potatoes or crates of oranges.  I made my way past these and found my mother doing ironing.  She hardly spoke, so I knew it was one of her silent times.

Gradually she began to get around to it by telling me she had changed the beds and put clean sheets on.  Then she said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you. ”  My heart began to pound slightly, sort of first gear.  She had said that to me only once before in my life.  I had been about five or six at the time and still living in Amersham.  It was wartime and two of my cousins, Sylvia and Boysie, older than me, had been living with us in our tiny cottage next to the British Legion.  Directly behind the cottage was a field, and in part of the field was a fair sized orchard.  We had got into the orchard and picked pocketful’s of apples and ate them.  They were deliciously ripe, crisp and bursting with juice and flavour like only freshly picked apples can be.  I was absorbed in my third apple when distant shouts began.  The orchard belonged to some rich people who lived two doors up from us, and their gardener was fast approaching through the various fences.  Sid, another cousin, Sylvia and Boysie fled screaming, and I quickly got the feeling of the situation and fled too.  The only thing was my legs were shorter than theirs and those of the gardener.  He was shouting us to stop, and roaring about knowing who we were.  It was like one of those bad dreams where your legs feel as if they are moving in slow motion, while the rest of you desires to move at lightning speed.  The dream got worse when he caught me and I stood paralysed, still clasping some apples.  My cousins watched from the safe distance of a couple of hundred yards while he took my apples and threatened eruptions.  It was when I got home I heard those words “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”  I had never heard the saying before, and my young mind raced through all its associations and imaginations to understand.  Understanding didn’t come until it was explained the gardener had paid a visit.  My mother was an great threat when towering in a rage, but she could tower for as well as against. And in this case I believe the gardener got the worst of it in the end for victimising a six year old.

But this time, as my mother ironed sheets, I did have an association with bone picking.  It meant I had done something wrong.  Thus the fight or flight reaction shoved my heart into first gear.  “You’ve been playing with yourself haven’t you,” she said.  It was not a question it was a statement. It didn’t mean anything to me anyway.  I knew what bone picking was now, but I didn’t know this one.  I told her so.  “You know what I mean” she said, “I’ve seen the marks on the sheets.”

Several things happened.  I put two and two together and they made four. My heart went into second gear, and I tried to swallow something that didn’t want to be swallowed, and made it difficult to talk.  It wasn’t what my mother had said, it was that she was now going into full erupt, and the power behind the words hit me.  “Please don’t do it – Please!  Daddy and I love you. Don’t you understand what you are doing to yourself?  Don’t you understand we don’t want to lose you?  We don’t want you to die? And if you keep on, you’ll die.  Do you understand that?  You’ll die!”

My heart had jumped straight into fourth, but my body still had the brake on.  It was a strange feeling to walk slowly out of that room almost paralysed, with a solid lump in my throat.  We never spoke about that again, ever.  It wasn’t necessary.  I had got the message.  It was only many years later that the pieces of the puzzle fell together because of something I heard on the wireless, making my mother’s intensity understandable.  She was obviously frightened I had TB. What I hadn’t understood was that in those days some people with TB had an overactive sexual activity that helped, in their condition, to deteriorate their health.  They died.  My mother was frightened I would kill myself on the old banjo, and from that day on, so was I.  So a battle of wills started, my will against myself. Previously I had never felt sex to be a problem, but it was now.  The fear of premature death had etched itself into my emotions.  Oh well, it was easily avoided.  All I needed to do was give up loving myself.  So I did.

But then in my sleep I began to make myself happy again, and would wake to find the act accomplished.  Up until then I had only been frightened, now I was scared stiff.  I had the awful feeling some horrible life-negating power possessed me, the Devil, so that even in my sleep I was not master of myself.  For a thirteen year old to face the realisation that we are largely only conduits for natural and biological drives to express through, and not individuals in our own right, was heavy going.  I believe this was one of the first steps that led me in later years to an exploration of yoga.  It also eventually led me to realise that when we set ourselves against our own nature as I did, we create a devil, perhaps even the Devil, because of the fear, temptation, struggle and division we create in ourselves.

None of those fine points really bothered me at the time.  I was in on the fight, and my reaction to the insidious sleep invasions on my decision to stop was to wear tight pants in bed.  The difficulty of dealing with the tight pants woke me up and I reinforced my waking decision, even though the part of me that lived while I slept complained like hell.  Anyway, tight pants and abdominal tension won the day.  But can you ever win against yourself?  It was a paradoxical victory that for eight years I never masturbated or had a wet dream.

Nevertheless, victories are victories.  Having discovered my newly fledged willpower, even if it was born of fear, I realised I had a power for change in my life.  So where do we go from here?

Remember, I was looking in the mirror.  So what if I did look a bit round shouldered, spotty and narrow chested.  Hadn’t I conquered Old Nick himself with all his temptations?  If I could master Himself with a pair of tight pants and a little muscular tension, I could surely do something with a pair of undecided shoulders and an unforthcoming chest.  I might even be able to do something with my hairy legs.  They didn’t matter as much because I had to get near to the mirror and look down into it to see them. But perhaps I could get them a suntan or something.

By the way, I have to explain that in one of the left hand cupboards as I faced that mirror, central above the gas fire, I kept my collection of Tarzan books and comics.  Just after the war few, if any, were in print, but I had scoured the bookshops in Charing Cross Road to swell my stock, which I read with great intent and seriousness.

My true self, I knew, was hidden to casual observers by my appearance of thinness, and deceptively pale face.  This hidden self was only revealed to close friends like Eddy who could take the revelation without nervous laughter. During daylight my disguise was in full force.  I purposely avoided looking people fully in the eye at that time, lest the proud fire and certainty alight in my own eyes shocked them. But at night I could slip silent and unseen through the London back streets, using all the jungle craft and amazingly finely trained senses I had acquired from the deep intimacy of days spent with Tarzan, Lord of the jungle.

There were two big problems in being a silent deadly predator roaming London’s streets at night, looking in at lighted windows with a sneer at the poor civilised folk inside who didn’t know what it was like to run wild and free with the wolf pack. (Oh, I forgot to tell you I had read Mowgli and been one of the wolf pack before I was a colleague of Tarzan’s.)  Firstly, I had to be home before nine-thirty so as to rise fresh for school.  The second problem was that I didn’t want to remain hidden.  I wanted everyone to know what a tiger I really was – especially girls and my father.

There was a boy at school, Martin Stevens, who was shorter than I was, wore glasses, which I didn’t, but could lope like a wolf for mile after mile, which I couldn’t.  Our school was Marylebone Secondary, a small building in Marylebone High Street, with a graveyard next to its playground.  From there we sometimes went for cross-country runs in Regents Park.  Although I was slim and agile, with longer legs than Martin, the run always ended with Martin in front running along with as much ease as if he were out for a Sunday afternoon stroll, and me creasing myself to keep up with Fatty Atkinson and half blind Skinny Arkle at the end.  It honestly didn’t sit down easily with the tiger in me.

Martin also had broad shoulders and muscles bulging all over his bronzed body.  I asked him once how he got to be like that.  He said he was born like it.  Can you imagine it though, mother’s baby peering out owlishly from behind its glasses while it ripples its Herculean muscle?  As an afterthought though, he showed me a monstrous rock which for some obscure reason just happened to be in his tatty Hampstead Road garden.  He told me that from early childhood he kept attempting to lift that rock.  Eventually he managed it.  He actually demonstrated while I was there.  Veins bulged on his neck and temples like he was going to blow a fuse, but he did it.  I believe I had a go afterwards, but I mercifully forget the details.

I think it was in the Hotspur comic published then, there was a character called Wilson who did this rock-lifting stunt in his childhood. I suppose old Martin had read it too.  I remember Wilson could put himself in a trance and be frozen in a block of ice, as well as out-wrestle, out-box, outrun or outwit all the other people he met.  Strangely, Wilson was a very slim intellectual looking guy with keen blue eyes. I was forgetting I had fought and thought my way through all Wilson’s adventures too.  I liked him.  He could tap the powers of the mind as well as the body.  While he was in that block of ice he went into meditation and caused his body heat to rise so much it melted the ice. He didn’t need to breathe because he had mastered breath control more than any yogi.  Maybe that’s where I got the idea from as to what I could do with myself as I stood in front of the mirror.

Somehow that inner tiger had to be let out.  From my mother I had got self-restraint and a passionate involvement in whatever I was interested in.  From Tarzan I had learned to love my body and feel the pleasure of its capabilities.  Mowgli had given me the gift of finding the balance between the wild animal in me and civilised manhood.  Wilson? Well he had acquired all his abilities by training himself hour after long month.  Heaving rocks was a gift from Martin.

As I stood in front of the mirror all those influences surged and arranged themselves in me.  Suddenly I knew what I would do. It was difficult, but if I could meet the devil and win, I could do this.  I would stop riding the bus- back to school at dinner – time and walk instead.  And while I walked I would practise deep breathing exercises. This would be my first step.  Wasn’t it Wilson who had been a sickly child who had regenerated himself through years of training?  Eventually he achieved amazing self-mastership.  That was good enough for me.  I would get there too.  Fatty Atkinson and Skinny Arkle would have to put up with running at the back by themselves.

I started my regime the very next day.  The old habit, started in my childhood, died hard.  I still did not like school dinners so rode the 18 or 30 buses from Harley Street to Euston Station to eat at midday.  But now I began to walk back the two miles instead of busing. My system was to breathe in as I walked three steps, hold my breath for one step, then breathe out for three steps.  To keep this up for two miles took concentration.  Quite a few people stared at me as I paced up the Euston Road.  I don’t think it was just the regular paces and breathing that drew the stares.  There were finer points to the practise.  To really exercise the chest one had to breathe in and out fully.  Breathing right out, as far as I was concerned, meant collapsing the chest down as far as it would go.  This gave me a rather crumpled up bent over appearance.  On the other hand, breathing right in meant expanding the chest as high as it would go, starting the breath in the abdomen, and ending by raising the shoulders so the top lobes of the lungs were filled.  As I was pacing along I would go through the cycle every seven paces of being bent over, gradually straightening up and throwing out my 32’’ chest, then lifting my shoulders up to my ears.  I suppose it must have looked strange to passers by, but nobody actually stopped me and asked me what I was doing.

Anyway, who cared, the results were terrific.  In the first week I gained an amazing one inch on my chest.  During the next fortnight I gained another inch, and at longer intervals other inches crowded on. True I got some pretty good chest pains as my rib cage was dragged willy-nilly into expanded existence.  But it was a wonderful feeling to know that I could alter my condition, that I could, through my own efforts, become something other than I was.  I was so impressed I took the next step.

You already have the basic idea of the shape of our house. Looking at it from the street, first was the shop, with our side door on the right. Behind the shop was our kitchen, about a third the size of the shop.       The passage ran from the side door, past the kitchen, down a few steps to the toilet and a back door leading to a small smoke-blackened garden.  The first and second floors also had a big front room and a smaller back room, and right on top was a large attic which my cousin Sylvia slept in, as her parents lived on the second floor.

Right down underneath was an enormous basement.  Its big front room was the size of the shop plus all the area taken up by the passage.  This led, in the front, to big coal cellars underneath the street.

They had manholes to drop the coal through.  I found a rusted shotgun, air rifle and other delights in these.  But at the back of the basement was a bathroom with a huge boiler in one corner.  The latter was just an enormous earthenware bowl with a fireplace underneath.  In this way clothes could be boiled and laundered.  It was the washing machine of the times.  We often used it.

From the bathroom large folding doors opened into an area, a walled in square pit, at the back of the house.  And from this, underneath the toilet on the ground floor, was another cellar.  This was full of many things, mostly vacuum cleaner hoses.  My Uncle Tony, second eldest of my father’s brothers, had a good thing going during the war selling renovated vacuums.  I believe he started by selling new Hoovers.  He travelled all over the country in a little Morris Seven trying to sell cleaners.  But he discovered that if the customer wasn’t interested in a new Hoover, they were often very interested in a cheaper renovated cleaner.  In the end he sold so many second-hand cleaners he left Hoovers and set up his own business, and the hoses were the results of some black market deal.  He had sold a lot but there were still a lot left.  And underneath those I discovered a set of James Grose weights. My Uncle Lou had been a bodybuilding enthusiast in his youth and had left his weights in the cellar.  I can still remember the magic of that find, and all the million remembered events it led me to.

So that was my next step.  I didn’t have a handy rock in my garden, but I certainly had weights in the cellar.  I took them out, wire-brushed the rust off, gave them a coat of blue paint, and started exercising in the bathroom.  The results weren’t quite as explosive as my chest growth, but things did start happening.  I began to develop obvious and well-formed muscles.  The whole thing got to me so much I carried a tape measure around with me and measured my biceps and chest once or twice a day.

I really believe this was only blatantly a check on how big my muscles were growing.  Deep down was the fear that if I didn’t keep an eye on them, these delightful additions to my appearance might surreptitiously melt away.  After being a nobody so long, boys in my class were beginning to put me in the same category as Martin and Do-Do Gray. I still couldn’t run like Martin, but I could keep pace with Fatty Atkinson and Skinny Arkle and look beautiful.  I couldn’t fight like Do Do, but I certainly looked rough and tough and tigerish.  It was a good feeling to have boys come up and ask to see and put their hands around my biceps, or bring a friend along to admire the show, and go away looking at their own arms.  I was even chosen for team games now. I didn’t play any better, but I joined the team class and maybe even frightened the smaller members of the other team.

 Before and After

There was only one small cloud in my otherwise blue sky.  One day as I stood in the bathroom stripped to the waist doing a vigorous exercise, I noticed strange wheezing noises coming out of my chest.  It was actually caused by the air being pumped in and out of the lungs by powerful movement instead of breathing.  I didn’t know that at the time, and there were other factors that tipped my imagination into the negative.

My mother’s pre-occupation with TB for instance.  Also, in that very bathroom I had witnessed something that didn’t help me.  Nick, my Italian grandfather, had been a widower for years when we moved to London after the war.  Living with him as his friend he had a very big built Italian woman, Maria.  She was a handsome and impressive woman in the way an opera singer of the old type was.  I remember she always dressed very smartly.  Well, one day there was a crowd of us in the bathroom, Maria, my mother, my Aunt Millie – Sylvia’s mother from upstairs – and myself.  It was washday and everybody was sorting out what to put in the copper to boil.  I was having a great time looking after the fire to boil up the water.  Then suddenly Maria began to scream and clutch her ample chest and look as if she was choking.  Panic and confusion reigned, but somebody got a chair and Maria was sat on it.  I don’t know what I was doing, probably standing open-mouthed and wide-eyed. All I can remember is what I saw and heard, as if I were everybody else and not myself.  I was so involved.  Then Maria managed to ask for some tablets she had.  When these were taken things began to calm again and I learned that this was a heart attack.  Afterwards I heard that Maria had already experienced some of these attacks, and if she had many more they would kill her.  So as far as I was concerned that’s what it looked like when death clutched at you.  It went for the chest. That time she evaded it.  It didn’t always get you when it came.

Also I had a mongrel dog about that time.  He wasn’t far off being as old as I was, so was a big part of my life.  I had taught him a number of things, like shutting the door.  He rushed at it and leapt, slamming the door.  His name was Bucky, but some people called him Fucky, because he was very keen in that direction.  It was difficult when women in fur coats sat in our house, because Buck took them for bitches and made love to their legs.  Once, as Millie was scrubbing the side doorstep a bitch walked by and Bucky leapt straight over Millie onto that bitch.

I had taught him to leap over the wall at the end of the garden. It was very high but he ran up it and managed to clamber over into the waste land beyond.  We spent hours together there.  But one day as we went over the wall I saw his back legs were less agile than usual. Shortly after that he couldn’t make that wall at all.  He had hardpad, and Buck was put down.  That evening when the shop was closed and we sat in the kitchen together, Mum, Dad and myself, we looked at each other and all burst into tears.  We talked about Buck and cried like that for a long time, remembering his peculiarities.  How he loved to look out of Millie’s window, and if he saw us coming along the street he would run barking to the stairs and launch himself down them to the side door. Ah well, he was dead.

Death comes to all of us – but if that was it making noises in my chest, I was going to squirm as hard as I could to break loose.  But it wasn’t easy.  Soon afterwards I discovered I’d got a pain in my chest just about where my heart was.  Things began to look bad, I thought. At thirteen I was too young to die.  Well, I would go to the doctor.

Our doctor was a woman of very large proportions.  Not only was she tall, but she had enormous breasts and everything else to go with it. Also she looked as if she washed so frequently you could almost see through her skin.  I had never been to the doctor by myself before. When my turn came I went in, explained about my chest pain – a sort of stabbing, aching pain, and was asked to strip to the waist.  I was pleased about that.  Even if I was deathly ill, she could see I had fought it all the way with my firm muscular body.  I think her name was Kathleen.  Her hands were as clean as the rest of her.  She listened, probed and tapped, then sat back quietly looking at me.  I sat expectantly, almost happily, waiting for the diagnosis.  She asked me how old I was and why I had come.  Then suddenly she got really angry and said I was a bloody hypochondriac.  I hurriedly put on my tee shirt again, and pursued by further invective about needing to be ashamed of myself being a hypochondriac at my age, I fled.

I didn’t know what a hypochondriac was, but she hadn’t acted as if it were any immediate threat.  Maybe it was a slower death than heart attacks or hardpad.  In that case I might last for ages.  I might even reach my twenties.  My chest pain eased.  It was good to be alive, being a hypochondriac in the bloom of youth wasn’t such a bad thing.

When I got home the dictionary told me the problem was not in the body but in the soul. So? Well, if I could develop a bigger chest through deep breathing maybe there were things people did to their soul to liven it up. If there were, I would do it.

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