I must have been fourteen when I started working as a Saturday delivery boy for a butcher in the medieval village of Old Bexley. I can still remember the day I first entered the shop, the pungent smell of raw animal flesh, the bloodied clumps of sawdust over the floor, and the three butchers with their traditional blue and white striped aprons, wielding their knives, carving and chopping meat as they chattered amongst themselves.
I’d been taken there by Peter Murphy, who was the son of my godfather, Jimmy Murphy. Our fathers had been friends since their childhoods and both had attended the same secondary school, St Joseph’s Academy, in Blackheath. Jimmy Murphy was originally from Arklow in Ireland, where my paternal grandmother was born. As with my own family, there were three boys and three girls in the Murphy family, and I was closest to Peter, the eldest of the boys, who was probably five or six years older than me. Peter attended St Mary’s Grammar School in Sidcup, and when I started there in September 1961, my parents had asked him to take me to and from school. So each morning he would call for me on his way and we would walk down to the Black Prince pub where we would catch the bus. Similarly, he would wait for me at the end of the school day.
Always a jovial character, it was not difficult to get on with Peter, but the age difference was significant, and after a couple of months, we both tired of the arrangement. At the end of the day I’d give Peter the slip and go off with my friends to play football in the park across the road from the school. This was undoubtedly a great relief to him.
My memory of all the circumstances is a bit hazy, but I assume Peter had been working for the Bexley butchers for some time; so when he decided to move on to better things, he asked me if I was interested in replacing him, which of course, I was.
I was a scrawny looking lad in those days and as I walked into the shop beside Peter, the manager eyed me up as a rather unpromising piece of meat before reluctantly agreeing to give me a trial.
That first Saturday, Peter showed me the ropes.
The delivery bicycle was one of those old-fashioned affairs with a very large basket at the front. It was extremely heavy, even before the basket was loaded, and quite high, so that even when the saddle was adjusted to its lowest height it was still so high I could barely touch the ground with the tips of my toes.
“And watch the brakes,” Peter warned me. “They’re very poor and you need to slow down well in advance if you want to stop.”
“Couldn’t you ask them to do some maintenance on it,” I asked.
Some questions in life can be answered silently, with just an appropriate facial expression: that was one of those occasions.
Notwithstanding, we eventually left the shop and loaded the basket. I had my own set of wheels with me, a cycle which I’d cobbled together over months from parts I’d found abandoned in the street at different times. Peter led the way on the delivery bike and we spent most of the morning distributing quality cuts of beef and lamb and a few boxes of eggs to some of Old Bexley’s finest.
There were a couple of very steep hills on the round, one in particular on Parkhill Road which ran down to the Blue Anchor pub.
“This one is treacherous,” Peter warned. “Remember, with the weight of the bike and a loaded basket, the brakes are useless, might as well not have any. So you need to be especially careful.”
I nodded, but felt sure I could handle anything.
“And,” he added. “If you need to turn the bike around be sure to make as wide a turn as possible or the handlebars will lock and the bike will slide from under you. Next thing you know, you’ll be lying in the road with your meat and eggs scattered all over the ground.”
On a later occasion I had cause to wish I’d paid more attention to all the sound advice he had given me: but such is the folly of youth, full of confidence until the cropper comes!
But this piece is not about the cropper. The incident I wish to describe took place after I’d had several uneventful Saturdays working for the butcher’s, and it concerns the second wife of the actor, Sir Roger Moore, the former Saint and seven-times James Bond who is currently doing the rounds promoting his one-man show in London.
At the time of this story, he was living in Bexley, having just married the popular Welsh singer, Dorothy Squires: not that I knew this when I saw the name of Dorothy Squires on the list the butcher handed to me a few Saturday mornings into the job.
Dorothy lived at The Mount, a large detached house in Wansunt Road just off Vicarage Road, the continuation of which led to Dartford Heath. The house was actually the last of the addresses on my round that day, and by the time I reached the front door I was feeling rather pleased with myself. No accidents on the bike, not an egg broken, no sweat. It was a beautiful summer’s day, the air was full of honeysuckle and lavender, birds were singing and I would soon have a little money in my pocket once I returned the delivery bike to the butcher’s.
I remember a long gravel path curved down to the house which to me looked more like a palatial mansion. I leant the bike against the wall and took out the package of meat. Then I rang the bell. I waited for an answer. And I waited. One minute, two minutes passed. But nobody came to open the door. Beginning to feel a little impatient, I rang the bell again, twice. Suddenly I heard the clump of footsteps, then the sound of a chain being loosened, the sound of a key turning in a lock, twice. The door opened just enough to see a blonde lady in a flimsy nightdress and dressing gown. It was Dorothy, I’d seen her on TV. She scowled at me when she noticed the package I had thrust towards her. She didn’t take it.
“Don’t you know,” she said in a lilting, rather posh Welsh accent, “that there’s a tradesmen’s entrance at the side of the house, boy? You’re not supposed to ring here.”
I looked down at the ground and shook my head, and felt my freckled cheeks flush with embarrassment.
“No,” I muttered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Well you do know now,” she said. “So remember next time!”
And with that she snatched the meat from my hands and slammed the door in my contrite face.
Years later I read a description of a similar occurrence, in William Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom Absalom, in which the doomed hero, Thomas Sutpen, suffers humiliation, as a fourteen year old, when a black butler refuses to allow him to enter the mansion of the planter Pettibone by the front door. The young Sutpen vows after that incident that one day he will be the owner of a similar mansion, set in a similar plantation with blacks working for him. And it is the psychological damage caused by this childhood snub that motivates Sutpen to achieve immense material success and leads ultimately to tragedy.
Happily, the rebuff I received from Dorothy Squires failed to leave such a pyschological scar!
In the extract below from Absalom Absalom, by William Faulkner, the use of an ethnic term which has now become offensive is retained:
And now he stood there before that white door with the monkey nigger barring it and looking down at him in his patched made-over jeans clothes and no shoes and I dont reckon he had even ever experimented with a comb because that would be one of the things that his sisters would keep hidden good-who had never thought about his own hair or clothes or anybody else’s hair or clothes until he saw that monkey nigger, who through no doing of his own happened to have had the felicity of being housebred in Richmond maybe, looking-” (“Or maybe even in Charleston,” Shreve breathed.) “-at them and he never even remembered what the nigger said, how it was the nigger told him, even before he had had time to say what he came for, never to come to that front door again but to go around to the back. “He didn’t even remember leaving. All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house, and not toward home. He was not crying, he said. He wasn’t even mad. He just had to think, so he was going to where he could be quiet and think, and he knew where that place was. He went into the woods. He says he did not tell himself where to go: that his body, his feet, just went there-a place where a game trail entered a cane brake and an oak tree had fallen across it and made a kind of cave where he kept an iron griddle that he would cook small game on sometimes. He said he crawled back into the cave and sat with his back against the uptorn roots, and thought. Because he couldn’t get it straight yet. He couldn’t even realise yet that his trouble, his impediment, was innocence because he would not be able to realise that until he got it straight. So he was seeking among what little he had to call experience for something to measure it by, and he couldn’t find anything. He had been told to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand, who had sprung from a people whose houses didn’t have back doors but only windows and anyone entering or leaving by a window would be either hiding or escaping, neither of which he was doing. In fact, he had actually come on business, in the good faith of business which he had believed that all men accepted. Of course he had not expected to be invited in to eat a meal since time, the distance from one cooking pot to the next, did not need to be measured in hours or days; perhaps he had not expected to be asked into the house at all.