YOUNG AND TENDER
PART I: MY EARLIEST MEMORIES
Having grown up with a controlling father and an alcoholic mother, my childhood was not one which I look back on with tears of joy.
I also had an older step-brother, Raymond, who was my father’s son from his first marriage. He would enter a life of petty crime, earning numerous arrests and spells in a juvenile rehabilitation centre, which would lead to his suicide at the age of twenty one. I would almost follow the same path. With my father not having custody, I didn’t see much of Raymond with the exception of some weekends. I was however, fully aware of who he was and the fact that he was my half brother.
One of my earliest memories is of spending time with my maternal grandfather when I was around four years old, which would have been in 1976 or thereabouts. Grandad had suffered a stroke and had lost most of the use of his left or right side, I do not remember which. At that age, I hadn’t understood why he was suddenly unable to walk anymore. As his grandson, I’d felt compelled to fix this situation.
Every time we would visit – most weekends – I would try to teach him to walk again. I’d hold his hand while telling him to put one foot forward, then the other, and that if he could just do that simple task then he would get better. I remember him being so patient. I remember the effort and the pain, along with the lines of concentration etched onto his face.
I remember how he’d love walking to the shops on Elmfield Road to buy me sweets and to spoil me, as any grandparent does. I remember the warmth and love as we’d walk, me holding his giant thumb in my tiny hand. I’m glad we had that bonding. The following year he passed away at the age of seventy seven.
PART II: STARTING SCHOOL
My father was successful. He was an engineer, who, at that time was in charge of operations and production at Perkins Engineering in Peterborough, a major firm which is still in existence today. Mum was working at National Tyres, the biggest tyre company in the UK at that time. With both of them having good jobs, we wanted for nothing. They owned a nice house, drove Jaguars, dined out often and enjoyed a life which others envied.
Oh, how that would soon change.
Towards the end of the 70s, Mum and Dad had decided to relocate, and we found ourselves living in a small village called Rippingale in Lincolnshire. I joined the local school, Rippingale Church of England Primary, a small three-class school with around 90 pupils.
It soon became clear that I had a fascination with the piano, and, at the age of five I was already playing basic tunes such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without ever having taken a single lesson.
The head mistress, Mrs Roberts, summoned my parents to a meeting. She strongly suggested that I was gifted, and that they should nurture my possible talent. Mum and Dad therefore bought a piano and started me with private lessons.
It was at around this time that I noticed Mum acting differently. Mum and Dad had started their new hobby; winemaking. They’d sometimes have as much as 20 gallons on the go. Little did I know that for Mum, it was becoming an addiction which would change everyone’s lives; little did I know that her hobby would still have a presence well into my fifth decade of life.
She, like most alcoholics, was a secret drinker. Sometimes I’d walk into the kitchen to find her having a good gulp. She’d explain that she was testing the wine. At the time, I was too young and naive to understand that one doesn’t need to test something ten times every day, unless of course you happen to own Boeing and have just designed a new plane.
Being a kid, I’d often have a friend over to play, and, like all other kids we would find our corners of the house where we’d play Hide and Seek. Rather than seek each other, we’d often find ourselves seeking out hidden bottles of cheap scotch.
As I started to get a little older, I began to understand that things were not normal, and I was asking questions. On a good day I’d be given an excuse, a hug and a smile. On other days I’d be told to shut up and to mind my own business.
PART III: MRS TAYLOR
My time at Rippingale School was not what one would describe as comfortable.
One of the teachers, Mrs Taylor, was from Northern Ireland, and she had the strongest accent coupled with a most ferocious temper. Being small and timid, I soon became her personal piñata; the boy onto whom she would offload her misery, frustrations and anger.
I hated, feared and dreaded going to school because of Mrs Taylor. My parents took a long time to see it: one was always angry and stressed, the other was drunk. While this sounds terrible, I was lucky that I had consistency in my young life.
Finally, they did see it. One day at school, Mrs Taylor had become physically violent towards me. I remember the event as if it happened only yesterday. I’d written ‘I’ without capitalising it.
She transformed into a psychotic lunatic, dragging me to the front of the classroom while screaming her lungs out at me, her spittle spraying my face. To accentuate her yelling, she prodded me – with force – all around my chest, using the end of her pen.
One. Stab. For. Each. Syll. A. Ble.
Later in the day, while at home and trying to hide my sadness, I was being prepared for my evening bath when my parents noticed bruising. Dad pulled me over to him for a closer look and asked what had happened. I clammed up. I was afraid that if I told him what Mrs Taylor had done to me, she would escalate the misery which she was intent on including in my life. I was also afraid that Dad would be angry because I had not capitalised my letter ‘I’. Eventually he weeded the truth out of me, and simply told me to go to bed. He didn’t tell me that I’d done nothing wrong, he didn’t tell me not to worry, nor did he hug or comfort me. He just told me to go to bed, which I did, shaking.
The following morning I got dressed and had my breakfast as usual, but this particular morning would be anything but normal.
Instead of making my own way to school – a two mile walk – Dad drove me there. We arrived and both walked into my classroom where he came upon Mrs Taylor.
She was all smiles and charm. As she was talking and welcoming Dad to the school, he slowly approached her. Very quickly, I noticed that several inches of space had appeared between Mrs Taylor’s feet and the floor. He just held her there – by her throat – for around ten seconds, with little space between their eyes. He said nothing, released her, and then left.
Mrs Taylor never touched me again.
PART IV: PIANO LESSONS
My first piano teacher was Mrs Pickering and she was a nasty cow. She was around 60 years of age then, and will be long gone now. They say, don’t speak ill of the dead, but, she was a nasty cow, and, with that in mind, I am not going to respect that unwritten rule on this occasion. Being only six years old at the time, I never understood why she was always so hostile. Now, at the age of 45, and having lived life a little, I am pretty sure that Mr Pickering was not satisfying her.
It’s strange and insignificant, but I still remember where she lived, and, if I were placed behind the wheel of a car at our old house in Rippingale today, I could drive straight to her house.
Out of Rippingale, turn right onto the A15, go straight for around 3 miles until you reach Aslackby, hang a left, go past the church on the right hand side, hit the brakes, and you’ve reached your destination.
Dark and dank is how I remember her house; a dark and dank house with an upright piano stacked high with sheet music, tainted yellow from both age and Mr Pickering’s pipe.
Scales was the first thing my new ‘mentor’ told me I’d have to master on the piano.
The C scale, one octave. Then the G scale, adding F sharp, one of those pesky little black notes. Screw up at my peril, for if I made a mistake with my scales at Mrs Pickering’s house, I would soon find the piano lid tumbling down onto my tiny fingers.
Music feeds all emotions. Music does indeed wash away the dust of everyday life. Not with Mrs Pickering. She had no heart, no soul, no feelings or desires – except for the one where I would do something wrong such as breathing – giving her the self-justification of doing the thing she enjoyed so much with the piano lid.
Looking back, I have to ask myself if she, as the piano lid came crashing down, would become a little moist.
With my enthusiasm for the piano waning, I was moved to a new teacher, Ms Pond. Ms Pond was a spinster, and never closed the piano lid on my fingers. The fact that she was around 158 years old and slept through most lessons gave good reason.
I always had a good feeling when, after having played my scales and pieces of music, she would wake up and tell me how well I was doing.
Having said that, she did put me through my first piano exam, Grade 1 with the Royal Associated Board of Music at the age of eight, and I scored 120 out of a possible 150, achieving a pass with merit.
PART V: GRANDMA AND THE WHEELCHAIR
Having lived alone for some time following my grandfather’s death, my Grandma Jessie suffered a fall at her home in Peterborough and broke her hip. The injury and trauma would put her into a slow terminal decline – both physically and mentally – over a period of a few years.
Grandma was always proud that she was born in 1900 and was therefore as old as the years. She was also proud that she shared her birthday with the Queen Mother. You’d think they were old pals if you’d have listened to her explaining this piece of trivia enough times.
It was no longer practical for her to live alone. She couldn’t get out and about for her shopping, and was struggling with the most basic of tasks.
My parents therefore decided to add an extension to our new house, and Grandma would eventually come to live with us.
She wasn’t happy. She’d completely lost her independence and had said goodbye to old friends and neighbours, some of whom she’d known for decades. All she had with which to keep herself occupied was her black and white TV, and in those days, the networks were limited to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. She was a big fan of snooker and would always enjoy watching the televised world championship. I still to this day have no idea how anyone could watch – let alone understand – snooker on a black and white TV.
Mum wasn’t especially close to Grandma, Dad even less so. She’d only join us in the main part of the house at dinner times, spending the remainder of the day sitting alone. I felt sorry for her. Although I was young, I did feel her loneliness and I’d often spend time with her during the day at weekends and after school to keep her company. I remember starting this habit when she’d first moved in with us, and Dad telling me not to do it, because if I started it, she’d expect it all the time. I continued to spend time with her regardless.
Mum and Dad bought Grandma a wheelchair to help her get out and about a little. It was very exciting for me, and I’d soon become her personal wheelchair chauffeur.
The village of Rippingale sits on one big shallow hill. We lived at the bottom end. I’d sometimes take Grandma out for a spin, especially on weekends. We’d set off from home along Station Street, before turning left into Middle Street. This was where it became hard work as walking up Middle Street from our end of the village was all uphill.
Towards the top of the street was the local convenience shop, and Grandma would give me a few pennies with which to buy some sweets. She too, had a sweet tooth, and her favourite indulgence was Merry Maids, a hard toffee covered in chocolate. Never before had I seen anyone’s false teeth jiggle around so much than when she was chewing those.
We’d continue on for a few more doors to where the village post office was located, and she would withdraw her state pension, out of which she would give me ₤1.00 to deposit into my post office savings account.
At this point in the trip, things started to become a little easier – and far more exciting!
I was a young boy who’d just pushed his Grandma – overweight from inactivity – about one and a half miles uphill through the village. I was entitled to an easier journey going back home.
I’d put the shopping bags over the handles of the wheelchair, release the brakes, stand on the back and give a little push, allowing gravity to take care of the rest. We’d slowly pick up speed along the entire length of Middle Street.
This was actually quite easy and straightforward. That is, until we were approaching the end of the road where the t-junction with Station Street was.
I’d tell Grandma to lean as far as she could to the right hand side, I’d do the same, and at precisely the right nanosecond, I’d jam my foot onto the right hand side rear wheel and we’d find ourselves executing a perfect 90 degree turn to starboard, before continuing back along Station Street, homeward bound.
Grandma was always a whiter shade of pale by the time we arrived home. As for me, I was for the first time, enjoying some real joie de vivre!
PART VI: MR THOMAS
In the very early 80s, Dad met a man, Mr Thomas, who owned an engineering firm in Corby. I was still under ten years of age at the time and my recollection of all the facts is not detailed, but it’s enough to give you an idea of the person my father was becoming. I think the reason I cannot remember everything about Dad and Mr Thomas is that it was such a terrible time, my subconscious may have auto-deleted a lot of it.
Mr Thomas had offered Dad a job running his firm. After several meetings in both business and social environments, Dad had accepted the position.
From what I remember, Dad was also offered shares in the company which meant an investment. As he had no liquid cash to speak of, he remortgaged the house to raise the funds. This decision would change all our lives very much for the worse.
Very soon, things started to go wrong. Dad arrived home one day from work explaining that he hadn’t been paid that month’s salary, and that the company was nigh on bankrupt. There we were: no money, a big mortgage, together with ever mounting bills and debts.
Dad spent the next few years fighting Mr Thomas to no avail. You can’t get money from an empty pocket. You quite simply cannot get blood from a stone.
One day, Dad had gone off to confront Mr Thomas. Later, the police arrived at home and arrested Dad for threatening behaviour. Dad was angry because I was crying and upset. It was the policemen who were very comforting and kind.
When he was released from custody, Mum went to collect him and took me with her. I wished to God she hadn’t. Dad drove us home and the journey was one of the most terrifying of my life. All the way, he was constantly overtaking regardless of oncoming traffic. He was driving up to other cars at speed with one hand on the horn, the other flashing the lights, until there was no more than the width of a sheet of paper between the two vehicles.
Dad’s fight with Mr Thomas not only changed him, it consumed him.
The first time I found myself being disappointed in my father was when he decided to stand outside Mr Thomas’ factory with a placard, and to also go on a hunger strike. It was over one Christmas, and he didn’t even drop it to spend Christmas Day at home. I don’t believe he saw the logic that on Christmas day itself, people are at home with their families, and no one would have seen him outside a factory on an industrial estate. Had they seen him, they likely wouldn’t have given a crap anyway.
I spent most of that Christmas Day with the family of my only close friend, Roy Newsome. They were aware of the situation and I vividly remember Roy’s mother saying how disgusted she was that Dad would choose to continue his crackpot campaign, sacrificing Christmas Day with his young son.
Dad v. Thomas had escalated to such a level that it had been all over the local newspapers and radio station. He’d even been interviewed on TV, and it was therefore inevitable that I was going to get a lot of flak from other kids in the village.
Mum had been going to visit my father every day to make sure he was ok, of that I was aware. What I hadn’t known and had only learned having seen something I was not supposed to see, was that she’d also been taking him sandwiches and other snacks along with hot drinks every day, taking advantage of the dark British winter afternoons.
While you’re being abused and bullied at school because of your father’s actions, it’s far easier to take it on the chin if you’re proud of what he’s doing. When you know that he’s cheating, the words and blows land much harder. That’s why I was disappointed in my Dad for the first time, and it would be far from the last time.
I think this is probably around the time when I started to become a somewhat introverted child. Dad could focus on Mr Thomas and Mr Thomas only, and we rarely did the father and son things that I saw other fathers and sons enjoying. I built my own dens, played alone, and was very unconfident around other kids. Mum didn’t seem too interested in spending much time with me; she had her own extra-curricular activities. With the exception of the odd family game of Monopoly, Mousetrap, Mastermind or Battleships, it was me against the world.
I tried so hard to earn their approval. Sometimes, even in the winter, I’d fill buckets with water and wash Dad’s car. My hands would be blue from the cold, and my reward would come in the form of Dad telling me I’d wasted my time, as it was winter and the car would soon get dirty again. He’d never stop me from washing it as I was starting, he’d only give me that piece of advice once I’d finished.
We had an open fire in the lounge at home and I’d help my parents by chopping the wood. One Sunday, we’d been to the pub at lunchtime, a weekly ritual. We’d arrived home, had our Sunday roast, and they’d both fallen asleep in their armchairs. Bored, I’d decided to go out and chop some wood. It was bitterly cold, but I’d chopped enough for the week ahead. I suddenly heard yelling coming from inside the house. Dad had blown a gasket because the fire had gone out. It was my fault because even though I’d been outside in the snow swinging an axe, I’d been the one who had stayed awake. It wasn’t their fault for being drunk and asleep.
My own son was born in 2004. I vowed that I’d never once raise my voice to him.
PART VII: THE TODDS
At the age of nine, my parents decided to give up on Rippingale Primary School, and transferred me to a new school in Pointon, around six miles from home.
The head teacher was Mr Todd, and his wife, Mrs Todd also taught there.
There was a whole different atmosphere at that school. The teachers seemed very dedicated to their profession and actually loved teaching. They had after-school activities, something I’d never before experienced.
A good example is that all students were put into groups of five and allocated a small plot in the school grounds for gardening, probably around four square metres for each group. We grew whatever we wanted with some choosing flowers and others choosing vegetables.
On Harvest Festival Day in September, the school would take all of our produce to the local church and our gifts would be distributed to those less fortunate. At such a young age, it was a great lesson in giving, along with community spirit.
My interest in music was promoted and nurtured far more at Pointon. Mrs Todd taught guitar and I became her newest student. The novelty soon wore off when I realised that I wasn’t enjoying the metal strings shredding my fingers.
I became good friends with Mr & Mrs Todd’s son. Sadly, I cannot recall his name. Sometimes, perhaps once a week, they’d invite me to their house after school where I’d play games and join them for dinner. Mr Todd would step out of his teacher persona and become just the regular family man at home. He’d tease me, pick me up by my feet and hold me upside down, along with other fun and games. My visits to the Todd household were always enjoyable, and I looked forward to them immensely. It was the closest I would come to a normal, loving, dedicated family life for many years.
PART VIII: CLICK ‘N SNAP
With a wife and son to feed and mortgage to pay, Dad had to find work. He decided to set up as a professional photographer. He called the business Dovecote Art Prints. Our address was 111 Station Street, also known as Dovecote House.
I don’t have many good thoughts with regards to my father, but, one thing I do remember him for in a positive light is the dedication that he had for photography.
He purchased some great cameras and other equipment, and even went as far as kicking me out of my bedroom which he transformed into a darkroom for developing his own negatives and prints. I can still smell the developer, fixer and other various chemicals now.
He started expanding the business to include such products as framed canvasses, china crockery, placemats and many more.
His specialty was to follow the Belvior and Cotswold Hunts and to produce beautiful photographic products featuring them at their meets in the countryside.
He would send Mum out every evening, selling their products door-to-door. Like my father, I don’t have too many fond memories of my mother while I was growing up, but, cold calling on doorsteps is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It takes an enormous amount of strength and grit to do it, and I respect her wholeheartedly for doing that.
I still believe to this day that they could have made a huge success with the business. There was just one slight flaw which stopped that from happening; Dad pissed off his customers one by one, which would, as time went on, become his trademark.
Working from home, Dad started taking our puppy, Candy, for her walk every day at around midday. This translates to him walking to the Bull Inn – a traditional British village pub which was run by a wonderful elderly couple, George and Norah Beaver – and parking himself at the bar for a couple of hours.
During the bad times, my parents would be on the verge of losing the house while struggling to pay bills, but there would still enough money for a bottle of scotch to be hidden under the stairs, and Dad would continue to manage a couple of hours in the pub every lunchtime.
The business ticked by for a few years and kept our heads above water, and our stomachs full.
PART IX: MELTING SKIN
It was around this time in my life that I would experience my first real taste of physical pain.
I was at home with my Mum, Dad was out doing something, and it was time for me to have a shower.
Our house, by this point, was in need of many repairs, none more so than the water heater. Because the thermostat was broken, the power would fail to shut off causing the water to boil in the pipes, creating a loud banging noise which would echo throughout the house.
We had a constant setting on the shower, denoted by a little mark on the dial. Before stepping under the water on this particular day, the water heater hadn’t been turned off as it should have been.
Something happened – I’m not a plumber so I do not know what – which suddenly caused the cold water to shut off from the shower, leaving only the scalding water coming through. I felt a piercing pain on the front of my upper right leg. I instinctively looked down, only to see that my skin had melted. I could see the flesh of my leg.
I started screaming hysterically and Mum rushed into the bathroom. Upon seeing the state of my leg, she picked me up and carried me away.
What do you suppose came next? What would you do if this happened to your child? I’m guessing that you’d toy with the idea of applying plenty of chilled water to the affected area?
That’s what I would do too if my son was ever in this situation.
What did my mum do? First, she carried me through to the lounge. Do you remember that open log fire I mentioned earlier, the one I used to chop logs for? She then put me on the floor, on my back, right in front of the fire which was blazing away keeping the house warm. She then decided to smear the scalded area with butter. I have no idea why she would have done that; it does more harm than good. It basically makes the wound ‘waterproof’, as well as heat proof, meaning the heat from the burn cannot escape.
She then called the local doctor. Back in those days, it was easy to call one’s village doctor for an urgent home visit, and our GP, Dr Ann, was an excellent practitioner regarded highly in the local community. Dr Ann arrived within just a few minutes. She used some cold water (finally), cleaned me up and left dressings, gauze, bandages, creams and iodine. I’d spend the next few weeks having my dressings changed twice each day. I still have a very small scar on my leg today, just to remind me.
PART X: MOVING ON UP
In 1983, aged eleven, my primary school education was completed and it was time to move up. I was put into Aveland Secondary Modern School in the small market town of Billingborough.
One thing that sticks out in my mind is the daily trip to school. The transport from our village was outsourced to Kimes Coaches of Folkingham. They had a few nice modern buses but not many. We would regularly be picked up in a bus that had probably entered service circa WWII. The Bone Shaker, we called it.
We kids would be packed into that bus like sardines. No room to breathe or move, and, back in those days, no inspectors to ensure our safety.
There were a few memorable teachers at Aveland who stick out in my mind:
MR HITCHMAN is a man to whom I am, and will always be indebted to. He was my music teacher, and gave me so much inspiration with his enthusiasm and inexhaustible energy. He would also become my piano teacher on a private basis. He was Mr Hitchman at school, and Ray everywhere else.
Ray and I became close as I was good friends with his son, Miles. We generally enjoyed an informal relationship during my private lessons.
I had started to learn Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. Not far into the piece, there is an arpeggio in G minor starting at the bottom and finishing right at the top of the keyboard. I was playing the piece for the first time to Ray at his home. I got to the arpeggio, when he suddenly burst into fits of hysterics. I stopped, and asked him what I had done wrong. He told me that technically, I had done nothing wrong, he was just confused as to why I had chosen to play it with my left hand only, causing beads of sweat to form on my forehead, when I should have played it using both hands in an overlapping manner, making life so much easier for both myself and the piano. Fingering is everything, Stuart!
Mr Hitchman was far more formal within the confines of school, especially if a pupil such as yours truly would decide to ‘borrow’ a school owned trombone without asking.
He had created a fabulous school brass band that I had desperately wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t that I was getting bored with the piano, I just wanted new challenges, and had decided, alone, that the trombone was the instrument for me.
Early one evening after our weekly practice, I’d been designated to tidy the musical instrument cupboard, and there were a couple of trombones looking lonely and unwanted. With band practice taking place during out-of-school hours, Dad had come to collect me, plus one trombone.
At around 21:00 that evening, Mr Hitchman rang our home number (Dowsby 386) asking if I, Stuart Hopkins, being the last person to have left the instrument cupboard, had any knowledge as to the whereabouts of a missing trombone. I explained that I’d borrowed it, and he erupted in a fashion that could have taught Mount Krakatoa a thing or two. After he had explained to me in no uncertain terms what he was going to do to me the following morning, my father took the phone. He said, ‘Ray, if you wish to punish Stuart, that’s fine, but, please just listen for a moment.’ Dad held up the phone and I recited several scales that I’d learned by myself since having arrived home.
The next day upon arriving at school with my new friend, Mr Hitchman gave me a clip around the ear (it was allowed back then) and told me I had two months usage of the trombone, and that if after two months I failed to impress him, there would be far worse punishment to come.
Within one month I was the first trombonist in the school band.
MR SQUIRES was The Enforcer, and quite simply frightened the crap out of every student. He taught mathematics. During one lesson he asked us a question which no one could answer.
He was, at the time carrying one of those old style metre long wooden rulers. Every time one of us would answer his question incorrectly, his complexion would change. Normal skin became slightly flushed, moving on to pink, then rosé, before finally settling for a deep crimson hue. He then lost all self-control and started beating the ruler on a desk so hard that it literally shattered into tiny pieces. If, at that precise moment he had said, ‘Johnny’s coming’, he would have been Jack Nicholson’s dopplegänger from that scene in the movie, The Shining. We still couldn’t answer his bloody question, but at least he now had our attention.
MR SWAYLE, our head master, was a 1980s Gene Hackman look-a-like. If a student did something wrong, his trademark was to parade us through the school by pulling the hair just above our temples.
MRS SWAYLE, Mr Swayle’s wife, was my art teacher. She used to chain smoke JPS Black cigarettes throughout every lesson, and her voice made Barry White sound like a Bee Gee.
MISS CAYLEY taught us English. She was a clone of Mrs Taylor back at primary school, sans the pen stabbing.
MR DRIVER was the mad scientist. I remember his enthusiasm for the subject. He adored science and was one of those teachers who made his students want to learn. I also remember that he too used to smoke during class, but cigars rather than cigarettes. Looking back, having a smoking teacher in a science laboratory highlights the difference in attitudes between then and now with regards to health and safety.
Mr Driver was not as impressed with me as I was with him. As I started getting a little older – and bolder – my curiosity and mischievousness started coming out. I, along with a few other classmates would sneak into the lab during break times and hook up the Bunsen burner gas lines to the water mains and the faucets to the gas lines, along with many other misdeeds. Mr Driver would later write on my school report, ‘Stuart is a danger to both himself and others in the laboratory.’
PART XI: THE LAND OF FRIES AND CHOCOLATE
I’d experience my first time away from my parents at the age of twelve when I went on a school trip to Ostend, Belgium. Mum and Dad had paid £5.00 every week into a school fund to pay for the jaunt. There were around 30 of us that went, led by Mr Peg Leg Hewitt, our geography teacher with the wooden leg.
Also looking after us were Ms Chamberlin and Miss Oliver, our French and English teachers respectively. As far as our teachers at school were concerned, Miss Oliver was the looker, and it was no secret that the PE teacher and Miss Oliver were having it off.
As a young man, Dad had served in the Royal Navy, and had decided to pack my rucksack for me before I left, which was a very nice thought. He rolled all my clothes and managed to squeeze inside more than had appeared possible. As fine as this may sound, I was never able to repack it properly, and consequently spent most of the time traipsing around Ostend not only with my rucksack, but with several plastic bags.
Because of how the world has changed, it seems incredible to me now that on the final day of the trip we were left to our own devices, walking around a strange foreign town, doing some final sightseeing. We all managed to get back to our hostel without any issues. I can’t help thinking that we were better prepared for life back then than kids are today.
PART XII: UNIFORMAL BAD TASTE
Mum’s drinking was becoming worse, and Dad continued to visit the pub every day.
Their photographic business had taken a very sharp downturn and little money was coming into the house. The place was filled with doom and depression. There was little in the way of conversation and even less fun. I think this was actually one of the loneliest times of my life. As an adult, we can cope with loneliness, some even relish it – as I’d discover several years later – but as a child, it’s extraordinarily tough.
There was no money for new clothes. Dad had given up caring about his appearance and Mum had for some time been buying as good as new from charity shops. Now, this policy of thrift would start to include me.
We all wore a uniform at Aveland School, consisting of charcoal grey trousers, a white or grey shirt (my shirts were grey but had originally been white), and a blazer, together with the school tie. On Fridays however, we were allowed to wear ‘civvies’. My dress-down day was defined as losing my blazer and tie because I had little else to wear.
Mum got me a ‘new’ pair of trousers and slung them at me one Friday morning while I was getting ready for school. I took them upstairs and was horrified. They were navy blue corduroy flares. They weren’t just subtle flares; I’m talking Aloha in Hawaii flares.
At that time, fashion had stepped back a few decades to the 1950s, and boys were wearing drainpipe trousers. Me? I found myself eating my breakfast, in my flares, knowing that I was about to be dispatched into the abyss.
I was now old enough to understand the effects of alcohol on Mum, and I knew that there was more chance of me successfully masturbating a pissed off grizzly bear while holding a hand full of drawing pins – and surviving – than there was of Mum ever buying anything so egregious for me to wear to school while she was sober.
With breakfast finished, I left that home that morning. It was winter time, not far from Christmas, but I knew that there would be no goodwill coming my way that day, only the fire of hell.
I walked slowly, not wanting to get to the school bus stop too early. There were about ten of us that used to pick up the bus from this particular stop and I absolutely did not want to be there any longer than necessary.
The bus appeared from around the bend in the distance so I picked up the pace a little. I was spotted, and it started.
What the fuck is Hopkins wearing!?
Hopkins is wearing flares!
You look a right twat, Hopkins!
You’re gonna get your head kicked in today, Hopkins!
This was merely the ice-breaker from my ‘friends’ in the village; just the beginning of what was to be my day.
As the bus pulled up to our stop, the snow crunching under the tyres, everything started to slow down. Not just the bus, everything. Like a troop of hungry primates being driven past a banana plantation, the kids were looking and pointing, their faces pressed against the windows for a better look. I could not hear anything – yet – but their facial expressions were saying, ‘This is our moment. We are going to tear Hopkins to shreds.’
The bus driver’s hand, its index finger extended, slowly moved toward the open door button. He pressed it and the bus exhaled a big breath of compressed air.
The door was open. The cacophony was deafening. Everyone was screaming, unable to believe their luck at what they were seeing. I had to walk almost the entire length of the bus towards the back to give others behind me space to get on. I was tugged, punched, my shirt was outside my trousers, and it wouldn’t abate for the entire day. At school, even the teachers would join in, their arms being the only available prop with which they could stifle their snickering and laughter.
I don’t remember how, but I soon managed to ruin those trousers by spilling bleach on to one leg. Mum flew into a rage, convinced that I’d done it purposely. She found me guilty of malice without trial. Regardless, that was not the case, it was a genuine accident. I was just a kid, I didn’t have a malicious bone in my body. Plus, I understood that my parents were struggling financially.
Not wearing those trousers again made no difference. I’d worn them once, and kids have a long memory. I could have worn them every day for the next year and things wouldn’t have been any different.
PART XIII: TIME FOR COMPETITION
Because of the worsening abuse I was getting at school, I was becoming sick and tired of the piano. I wanted to quit, but my father had other ideas. While other kids were out in the evening and on weekends racing their bikes, playing football and fighting while I was practising the piano. I was gay; a fag; a pansy, a poof. At that time, I had absolutely no idea what any of those descriptions meant. I did however have a suspicion that they weren’t complimentary terms. I think it was possibly the snarls on the other kids’ faces that tipped me off.
As I was becoming more advanced, I needed to practise more and more and it was becoming a chore. Scales had branched out to include arpeggios and chromatics. Pieces of music were becoming more complicated. I was forced to sit down at the piano at home for two hours every day as soon as I’d arrive back from school.
The piano was in the dining room. While I practised, Dad would either be watching TV in the lounge or cooking dinner and winemaking in the kitchen.
The pieces I was learning back then, as is standard, were classical. Classical music, especially as it becomes more advanced, has some combinations of notes which, to the untrained ear, clash and sound wrong. There it was in black and white on the manuscript before me, but Dad being Dad, being the person he was, he suddenly knew more about music than I did. He’d hear one of those strange mixtures of notes before yelling at the top of his voice for me to stop, read the bloody music and to start again from the beginning.
I invented a little trick. I learned to change these strange chords into normal sounding chords which kept him quiet. The upside was that it gave me a head start in being able to improvise, which would become invaluable in later years. The downside was that I effectively had to learn two different versions of the same piece of music.
At the age of 11, I was entered into the Peterborough Music Festival under 18s category for piano, meaning all other entrants were far older and more experienced than myself. I won third place. It wasn’t good enough. If I’d have pulled my finger out and practised more I would have won. Third place is not winning, it’s losing.
The following year I was entered again. All entrants had completed their performances and it was time for the results. Dad was sitting to my left, with Mum to his left. Third place was announced, not me, then second place. Still not me. During the few seconds of dramatic pause prior to the winner being revealed, I heard my Mum whisper to Dad, ‘Oh well, another disappointment.’ It wasn’t an actual whisper, it was more of a Homer Simpson whisper, hence me knowing that she said it.
As I’d get older, I would learn that my mother was a naturally pessimistic person, and that trait would never change.
‘The winner of this year’s Peterborough Music Festival, who provided everyone with an outstanding performance and who displayed faultless technique, is STUART HOPKINS.’
My Mum’s prediction was wrong. I’d won, I’d won against tough competition, and I’d won with pride. Mum and Dad were full of praise, but it didn’t matter. They’d already written me off.
PART XIV: GOODBYE GRANDMA
In 1985, just before my 13th birthday, I sat for my grade 5 piano exam. I was nervous. I had been awake all night practising scales and pieces of music on my pillow, and my brain was blank. I couldn’t think about anything clearly. It was as if I was a floppy disc, and a big electromagnet had walked past me, erasing everything stored.
Dad drove me to my exam that morning, which to the best of my recollection was held in Stamford. As usual, things were pretty quiet in the car. Dad wasn’t the greatest of conversationalists with kids – even his own – and I’d come to learn that there was a far greater chance of not upsetting him so long as I kept my mouth shut, so I tended not to push things.
That morning, however, I did detect that something was wrong.
Dad seemed distracted. I also noticed that I hadn’t seen Mum that morning at all.
When we were almost there, I asked him why she hadn’t come with us. He told me matter-of-factly that she’d had to go to hospital with Grandma late the night before, and that Grandma had subsequently died. This little snippet of information of course did wonders to boost my morale, concentration and confidence.
Several weeks later, Ray Hitchman called to say that he’d heard from the examination board. He’d received my certificate – another pass with merit – and congratulated me. I had passed, despite my Dad’s crass judgment.
PART XV: WHY, OH WHY?
My parents’ house had been up for sale for several years, garnering little interest. In the early 80s there was a deep recession and the housing market was stagnant. By the time the economy had regained confidence and people were buying again, ours had become a complete mess. Dad had lost all interest in keeping what was once his beloved garden blooming, and Mum was taking next to no interest in keeping the inside clean and tidy.
Cobwebs and dust festooned the place and the garden resembled something along the lines of what one may find when trekking through the deep Amazon Rainforest.
One day there was a knock at the door, and that knock would abruptly change our family’s direction in life.
Doug, the knocker, was new to the area and was house hunting. He’d driven past our house by chance and had noticed the For Sale sign. Mum and Dad invited him in, showed him around, and he made a cash offer right there and then.
After the mortgage was paid off and debts had been settled, my parents decided it was time for a fresh start, somewhere new. They decided that they’d start a new business too.
With my Dad’s engineering background, you’d think that he would have set up in that field, perhaps as a consultant, using his years of experience and knowledge. You’d be wrong. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that after years of almost being a successful photographer, he’d improve his range of equipment, set up a professional studio and use the capital he now had to do what he loved bigger and better than before. Again, you’d be wrong.
In their wisdom, my impatient and angry father who possessed the skill to piss off everyone very quickly, along with my alcoholic mother, decided that they’d buy a bloody pub.