The year: 1949, the month: September, the day: Sunday; time around twelve noon. My casual friend Pat Fullalove (what an authentic surname to have!) hadn’t turned up at our assigned meeting place. What to do? Go home and read a book – I loved reading but no, my adrenalin was flowing too fast – knit? With my four thumbs! Wash my hair, again!? No, too sunny to stay at home. So, should I catch a District Line train from Dagenham East to Mile End station and walk to ‘The Hayfield’ pub to listen and dance to a Be-Bop group, or not? Shy, but curious about ‘life’ I thought Why not? I had nothing else planned on that day. I do not, now, believe in ‘fate,’ rather siding with ‘chance,’ so am – many decades later – oh so very glad that I did!
Ignoring a nervous spasm in my stomach as I approached the pub, I swallowed hard and walked in. At seventeen, I had already learned that unless you looked like Quasimodo’s sister, most guys (although I called them boys then) looked you over. If you had quite generously formed boobs (like what I did!) there were lingering glances one tried to ignore. (Women didn’t wear skirts up their bums then, so boobs were the lure.) By-passing the bar (drink rarely bothered me one way or the other) I went upstairs. The place was ‘jumping’ – the band’s interpretation of popular songs and tunes (while not quite the standard of the Ray Ellington or Johny Dankworth’s groups), sounded pretty good, and they played with gusto. People were bopping/jiving to ‘Sabre Dance’ – half beat of course, as I slowly sidled in – still unsure of being alone… Surely no-one could keep up with it full tempo, although some, heavily perspiring youngsters, tried…
Sitting there like a spare part, it occurred to me that perhaps I should have bought a shandy: something to concentrate on… Fortunately, it wasn’t long before a pleasant-enough-looking lad asked me to dance. I blushingly (curses!) rose to my feet and was soon scuffing up the floor. I hadn’t tried sex (remember the year!) and was only seventeen, so thought dancing: ballroom and jive, etc., the pinnacle of living. Hypnotised by the saxophone – a favourite instrument – and the drums, our bodies gyrated and twisted with delight.
My first partner danced with me twice before, fanning myself, I begged a break. It was then that I noticed a ‘Tony Curtis,’ black-haired, dark brown – twinkling-eyed – Italian-looking youth giving me the eye. More colour entered my cheeks and I averted my eyes, sliding them back a few minutes later to see if he was still looking. He was: smiling at me this time. Umm…I noticed a friend at his side giving him a nudge, and with pulse-rate quickening, I looked elsewhere, sensing ‘Tony Curtis’ was approaching.
“Fancy a dance?” a voice asked.
“O.K!” I said. And that was the start of it all.
I can’t honestly say that he was the best dancer in the world and had a sore toe to prove it, but he was polite, and just as important, funny in a humorous way! With men and boys easily out-doing the female sex in our immediate family (with Dad and three brothers and no sister), and a bunch of gregarious uncles, I was used to, and appreciated, male banter and humour. Even so, strange males were treated with slight caution!
‘He’ – telling me that his name was Eric; recently demobbed from serving his conscription in the Army – danced with me a few times after that first encounter and we sat and chatted some.
“D’you live far? You don’t sound like a Cockney! “
“Oh, Dagenham!” he grinned and his friend, Gerry laughed.
“A bit posh then…” Gerry kidded. (Hard to believe now, but Dagenham was thought of as slightly ‘up market’ to most Eastenders then.) Soon ‘all danced out,’ Eric bought me a shandy – or was it a ‘Baby Cham’? – and asked if he could walk me to the station.
“The Third Man’s showing at the Barking Odeon. Fancy seeing it in the week?” Eric blurted out enroute to Mile End. Why not? I thought, and said yes. I sat on the train homeward, all aglow, and thought about the tanned, quite handsome, young man I had just met. He told me he had been born in Stepney Green and lived in Bow, so obviously a Cockney. Yet he didn’t drop his h’s or get his th’s and f’s confused…Although I am half Cockney on my Dad’s side – Dad having been born within the sound of Bow Bells – neither did he, or I! But then, I had long ago learned that not all Cockneys sounded like they were assumed to! However, we all knew plenty of Cockney rhyming slang…
Gradually, we learned more about each other, and when I asked if he was Italian, he laughed and said “Did the spaghetti stains on my suit lapels give me away?!” That set me giggling. (He was a natty dresser.) “No! I’m only joking, I’m Jewish,” he added. I had no hang-ups about anyone of whatever religion or colour and had mixed with several Jewish boys and girls at Pitman’s College, so that was fine with me. Apart from an early hiccup – around Christmas time – that was the start of our great big ‘adventure’.
More thumbnail sketches to follow..