This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood

This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson Read Free Book Online Page B

Book: This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Alan Johnson
plastic wrapping carefully to make sure she cooked it for the recommended time. Lily had left a pile of shilling pieces to be fed into the meter so that there would be enough gas to cook the dinner. Unfortunately, the instructions said nothing about removing the wrapping, and while Linda prepared the potatoes and cabbage, the acrid smell of burning plastic filled the kitchen and eventually drifted into SouthamStreet from the sash windows we’d raised to try to clear the air.
    Alerted by the stench, Brenda, the young Irishwoman who lived with her husband and two young children on the next landing, tried to rescue the chicken but was forced to concede defeat. She showed us how the plastic had melted into the flesh of the chicken and explained that we wouldn’t be able to eat it now. She asked where Steve was. Ashamed to admit he had abandoned us, we made an excuse for him and said he’d be back later.
    We ate the vegetables and some more of our Christmas sweets before setting off on the long walk to Paddington General Hospital for visiting time. Steve was waiting for us outside the ward. His breath reeked of beer and cigars as he bent down to speak to us in confidence. ‘Don’t tell Mum that I didn’t come home. Tell her we had a nice dinner together. If you say anything else it will upset her and she’ll have a heart attack and die.’ Hospital visiting times were very restricted then, even on Christmas Day, so we only had to keep up the pretence for half an hour.
    When we left the hospital, Linda and I walked home while Steve headed off in the other direction. He didn’t return that night or on Boxing Day. He must have come back very late on 27 December, while we were asleep, because he was there the next morning. Lily was due to be discharged the following day and he reminded us again of the reason why we must keep our little Christmas secret. I doubt Lily ever knew that we’d spent Christmas alone that year.
    The stay in hospital did nothing to halt her decline. She picked up the cleaning jobs again just a few weeks after leaving hospital, contrary to doctor’s orders. During school holidaysshe had to take us with her. We were quite happy to explore this alternative universe. Instead of individual gardens, the residents of the grand houses in Lansdowne Crescent, off Ladbroke Grove, where she charred for Mrs Dehn, had exclusive access to a private park at the rear, and we were allowed to play there. But it was Mrs McLean’s, the refined boarding house off Church Street, that provided Lily’s most regular employment. She had started there when Linda was at primary school and I was still at Wornington Road. On Lily’s days at Mrs McLean’s Linda and I would catch the 52 bus with her. We got off just before it turned into Kensington High Street, where she’d give us our instructions before sending us off to play in Kensington Gardens: ‘Do not talk to strangers, stay together and shelter in the museums if it rains.’
    Invariably she would spot a trace of dirt somewhere on my face (never on Linda’s) and a huge handkerchief would be produced, spat on and rubbed vigorously at the offending stain, which no doubt added more bacteria than it removed.
    We would carry sandwiches in the waxed paper wrapping from a Sunblest loaf and a few coppers for sweets. We had to report back to Mrs McLean’s at 2.30pm, just before Lily finished at 3pm. We spent so much time in Kensington Gardens that we felt almost proprietorial. There was an invisible border with Hyde Park which we rarely crossed, although the two parks merged seamlessly. The little slope near the Church Street entrance seemed very steep to me at that age and our first ritual of the day was to announce our arrival by rolling down it. We loved the bandstand, from which we’d survey our territory, the statue of Peter Pan, the Round Pond, theOrangery and the museum in Kensington Palace that contained a model of London at the time of the Great Fire. You could flick

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