Read an Excerpt
The True Story of a Family's Dark Secret and the Brothers it Tore Apart at Birth
By Dave Sharp, John Parker
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 Dave Sharp and John Parker
All rights reserved.
It seemed that in the late 1940s and early 50s everyone in our village kept a few chickens; not many, maybe a dozen birds at most. With rationing still in force most folks could keep themselves in eggs this way and when the birds stopped laying the owners would have an occasional roast chicken dinner. The chickens were fed primarily with left-over scraps from the house. The exception was at harvest time when the chickens' diet would be supplemented by corn. After the binder had been round to cut the corn and the sheaves were collected, there was generally an interval of a couple of weeks before the field was ploughed up. During this period people went out into the stubbled fields to go gleaning, which was picking up the ears of corn left behind by the binder. These ears of corn were then fed to the chickens.
One particular harvest time, when I was eight or nine years old, I was out gleaning in the fields with half a dozen friends, all about the same age as me. We had just started working a small area of the field, each of us making an individual pile of corn ears before putting them in our bags and moving on. Bent to our task, our keen young eyes searched out every detail of the soil. In our imaginations we were hunting for nuggets of gold and every glimmering sight of another stray piece of corn brought the joy of discovery and the pride of achievement to its finder. But gold prospectors are naturally competitive. As the sun rose higher over the field and each child's private harvest stacked up, as often happens with kids, an argument sprang up between a little blonde-haired girl and me concerning the ownership of a small heap of corn ears. 'Hey!' she said. 'Leave off, those are mine!' I looked at her. 'No, they're not,' I said, 'I've been piling mine up here for ages.' 'No, yours are over there, stupid.' 'No, these are mine,' I insisted. 'No, they're not!' 'Yes, they are!' 'Not!' And so it went on, our voices growing shriller, our bodies arched defensively, faces thrust pugnaciously at one another in passionate self-righteousness. The whole quarrel was pointless, since the corn ears were to be shared out, but that didn't matter. What was at stake was who'd done the most work, and now that all the other children had gathered round neither of us was going to back down. It was a point of overweening childish honour that I was right and she was wrong. We stood irresolute, she a little older and taller, both of us with arms folded, lips angrily pursed and eyes trying to outstare the other. I wondered if we might come to blows and if not how this stand-off would end. We began to trade minor insults and as the store of unkind words and phrases became exhausted and we each struggled to outdo the last rude remark, my opponent came out with something that took me completely by surprise. 'Well,' she said loudly, 'at least I've got a proper mummy and daddy!' Her brother, who had been standing by her watching at this point turned and slapped her hard across the face, making her cry. 'They told us not to say anything about that in front of him,' he said. The girl held her cheek and now turned the full force of her anger on her brother. 'I'm telling mummy what you just did!' she said. She started crying now and turned to make her way across the field, heading for home. As she did so her brother shouted after her, 'Good, fuck off – and you can tell her why I did it.' Everyone in the cornfield fell silent and looked at me. I stared down and kicked at the stubble not knowing how to react to the little girl's remark or what to make of it. One by one the other children, who had stopped what they were doing to listen to the argument, now drifted off to carry on with their gleaning.
When I got back home with my bag of corn my mum had the dinner ready in the oven and Dad was washing his hands at the sink. 'Hello David,' said Mum. 'I'm just going to dish up. Have you been busy?' She looked at my bag of corn and smiled. 'Oh, he's been working his socks off!' said my dad, and ruffled my hair affectionately. 'He must be hungry as a hunter.' 'Sit down, love,' said Mum. 'How many potatoes would you like, David ...?' It was just another teatime at 1, Spring Terrace. When I'd cleaned my plate there'd be 'afters' of tinned fruit, and then Mum would wash up. Dad would put the radio on and in a few hours it would be time for bed. 'Night Mum – night Dad.' 'Goodnight David.' Everything was as it always was. What had that stupid girl in the field been on about? Of course I had a proper mummy and daddy. But that night, lying in bed and watching the candle cast its familiar shadows around my little room I felt sad, only I didn't know why.CHAPTER 2
A child's home is a child's world. However you live, all children live, so you imagine. If you're born in a castle you assume other boys and girls play in huge echoing banqueting halls, their laughter carrying down long, winding corridors. You don't even know they're huge or long or winding. It's just what's there. Castle children must think all houses contain libraries of books stretching high up to the ceiling with a ladder to reach them, and that turret rooms and a moat and a back yard the size of a soccer pitch are what every little boy has at home. It does not immediately cross the mind that others may live in far different surroundings. Not till a child reads or hears or sees for their self how other children live, do they realise that the world is a varied place.
Like most people, I did not grow up in a castle. Nor were there servants, rose gardens, drawing rooms or lawns so long you couldn't see where they ended – again, nothing uncommon about that. So what was my boyhood home like? You'll have already gathered there was no silver spoon in my mouth, though if you think this is going to be another story about a deprived childhood think again. Certainly there were a few hardships, but my family and I were by no means the only ones to experience them. And like I say, what you're used to doesn't seem arduous at the time. Everything's relative and even castle-dwellers have their problems – draughts, leaky roofs, upkeep costing an arm and a leg and the dilemma over which old master to part with when the west wing needs doing up. And for ordinary people, what were luxuries even fifty years ago are now seen as essential. Indoor toilets are today the most basic of facilities in British homes and families without central heating, a washing machine or a car are seen as living in the dark ages. Spare a thought too for any poor kid who doesn't have internet access or the latest pair of designer-label trainers.
Anyway, I'll stop beating about the bush now and tell you about my own life. Apart from birth to age one month, which I'll come to later, I spent my first two decades living at 1, Spring Terrace, Gravel Road, which is about six miles outside Reading in a village called Binfield Heath. There were four pubs, one on each corner as it were. These were the New Inn, the Coach and Horses, the George and Dragon and the Bottle and Glass, the latter being the only one that survives today. The area was what you might call a rural backwater, and looking back I would describe where I lived at that time as no more than a country slum. The house was on the end of a block of five, and had three bedrooms. Downstairs was gas lit, but for some peculiar reason there was no lighting upstairs. When it was time for bed I would be given a white candle in a red metal holder to illuminate my way aloft. Climbing the narrow wooden stairs, the candlelight casting eerie shadows up the walls, I would enter my bedroom, where the ill-fitting sash windows rattled and shook no matter how much newspaper my dad stuffed around the edge of the frame. The wind whistled through the gaps making the candle flicker and dance, and the shadows moved in continuous, shifting patterns over the ceiling and walls. Described like this I suppose it was what you might call creepy, but it never bothered me; it was simply normality.
Spring Terrace had a cold water tap and apart from that absolutely no other plumbing or sanitation at all. Even the washing-up water had to be taken outside and thrown on to the garden. How 'green' we were without realising it! Downstairs there were three rooms – a kitchen with a black grate, that, I seem to remember, was continually cleaned by Mum with some stuff called black lead. (I wonder if you can still buy black lead.) The focal point of the kitchen was the big iron range, where all the cooking was done. The range was heated by coal, which was delivered to our house by a Mr Povey who also ran the George and Dragon pub just down the road. We always stocked up on coal in the summer months as it was cheaper – come October the prices would always go up. My parents would usually buy a ton, which Mr Povey would drop off in sacks with corners turned like rabbits' ears. The coal would be emptied in the shed and the sacks counted to make sure the amount was correct. This was 'real' coal, not the perfectly formed oval nuggets of smokeless fuel common nowadays, but big rough-hewn chunks that chugged out real black smoke from the chimney.
Like many houses in the fifties there was no bathroom at Spring Terrace. We did possess a bath though, a long, galvanised one that hung from a nail outside the scullery window. Friday night was bath night, when the bath would be brought into the scullery while water was heated in the big copper that stood in the corner. When the bath had been filled I would take first turn and then be packed off to bed, after which my mum would bath and lastly my dad, all of us using the same water. The bathwater, like that used for the washing-up, would be tipped onto the garden. The water in the copper was heated solely by wood logs, which we got from the local woodman whose name was Den Belcher. Mr Belcher ran a family business. Or rather, he got his wife to hump the heavy sacks of logs off the lorry while he drove from house to house collecting the money from the customers. It wasn't only in fine weather that Mr Belcher gave his nearest and dearest this opportunity to keep fit and improve her complexion. Rain, hail or snow, she'd be out there trudging behind the lorry and heaving the logs on and off her shoulder. Obviously her husband was not what you'd call a paid-up member of the Women's Liberation movement. Then again perhaps he was following the Soviet example, where women were already mending the roads and doing a lot of the heavy manual work. I never heard Mrs Belcher complain of her lot. She was probably too knackered.
'She looked lovely, didn't she?' said Aunt Grace. 'Oh yes, beautiful, really beautiful,' agreed my mum passing her sister-in-law a tea plate. They were talking about the newspaper pictures of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. 'Such a shame about her father though.' 'Yes, tragic for her, wasn't it – another cup of tea, Reg?' When I was young the front room was only used on special days like Christmas or when relatives came to visit. There weren't many visitors to the house, apart from my dad's brother Reg and his wife Grace who used to come up regularly from Henley-on-Thames for afternoon tea on a Sunday. My mum liked to cook, and was especially fond of baking cakes. Many are the times I remember us sitting down like this while Mum sliced up one of her Victoria sponges. The conversation was about the usual things – gardening, the weather. Sometimes they'd discuss current affairs, especially if there was some big national event, scandal or terrible crime in the papers. 'He looks so ordinary-looking, if you know what I mean,' was my mum's comment on John Christie, the Rillington Place murderer whose death sentence was announced a few weeks after the coronation. 'I'm not so sure, a nasty piece of work if you want my opinion,' demurred Aunt Grace. 'Well, you would say that now we all know what the man did,' said Uncle Reg leaping gallantly to Mum's defence. 'I mean if you know a chap's done in four women and hidden them under the floorboards he's bound to look shifty, stands to reason.' My mum gave a little cough at this and fiddled with some crumbs on her plate. 'Did they find out any more about the other three girls?' went on Uncle Reg. 'Apart from the fact they were all on the ...' Now it was my dad's turn to cough and say to me briskly, 'Offer the plate round David, there's a good boy.' 'Yes, come on Grace, eat up,' joined in my mum, 'there's plenty more really.' Uncle Reg took the hint and asked, 'How are your tomato plants doing?' I don't think Mum and Dad were any more prudish than other people of their time; it was just accepted that there were certain things you didn't discuss in front of children, and in those days a ten-year-old was still considered very much a child. They always had the Daily Mirror delivered. I remember later on certain news items would prompt dark comments about 'the bomb' which it seemed was permanently pointed at us from Russia. We had one too, which we kept pointed at Russia. It was like a playground stand-off between them and us, the difference being that if a fight started it would kill everyone in the world. 'Last night I dreamt the bomb went off,' someone would say with a shiver of foreboding, or 'if the bomb goes off we won't need to worry about it' – 'it' being anything from the rising cost of living to the perennial problem of our draughty rattling windows. The Daily Mirror continued to provide our family with food for thought and I remember when I was in my early twenties rushing home to read it for the latest goings-on with Christine Keeler and Mandy-Rice Davis. That trial must have sold millions of newspapers and so provided a whole generation of spotty-faced kids with the only sex education they were likely to get.
I wasn't aware of my dad being strongly political in any way. During the war he'd had scarlet fever, which prevented him joining the forces. Instead he was on the fire watch over at Reading. With so many of the local husbands away on active service I feel sure there was a bit of resentment in the community directed at my parents. I often wonder if Dad was a pacifist, since he always hated violence of any kind, even reading about it in the newspapers or seeing it on the television. In all my life I never, ever heard him swear. Neither was he a big drinker at that time. Sometimes when we were out for a walk he'd stop off briefly at one of the village pubs for a packet of crisps and something to quench the thirst, and that was about it. Dad was a skilled tradesman, employed as a sheet-metal worker at the firm of Cope and Cope in Vastern Road, Reading. We did not have a car and he would cycle the five miles into work each morning, leaving the house at 7.30am in order to clock on by 8 o'clock. If you were three minutes late the time clock would automatically mark your card in red and a quarter of an hour's pay would be deducted from your wage packet at the end of the week. Clocking-off time was 5.30pm and Dad would cycle the five miles back again. In the summer months he often arrived home a little later since he would stop on the roadside and pick a bunch of wild flowers for my mum. The house would often be bedecked with bunches of blue cornflowers contrasting with rich, red scabious.
The entertainment in our home was at first provided chiefly by the radio that stood on the living room sideboard. Although the radio contained a large battery it also had an accumulator, which was a large glass receptacle filled with a liquid, some kind of acid, I imagine. Each week the accumulator would need to be recharged and was taken down to Miller's paper shop, where Mr Miller would plug it into his mains supply. In the meantime we would use a second accumulator that had been left on charge the previous week. The programme I was especially fond of was 'Dick Barton, Special Agent'. Dick was an ex-wartime commando who now used his talents in the role of private eye-cum-special agent. Each week at 6.45pm, just after the news, Dick, together with his sidekicks Snowey White and Jock Anderson, would tangle with master villains, defeat their dastardly schemes and see that justice was done. I suppose the Dick Barton character was a blend of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, though of course Bond was still a long way off then. Having said that, Dick was a gent to his fingertips, and unlike the Bond stories there was no sex, alcohol or swearing of any kind. There was violence, but it didn't go further than the occasional 'good, clean sock on the jaw'. Dick Barton's wholesomeness didn't stop the clergy and educationalists of the day from condemning it as immoral though. What would they make of today's popular entertainment one wonders, with porn and extreme violence as common as cookery programmes? At its peak the Dick Barton radio show played to an audience of 15 million. At the end of every story, avid listeners knew they could sleep safe in their beds, reassured that England was the country of fair play, and that crime never pays. I loved the programme, and looked forward excitedly to every episode. Everyone was familiar with the thrilling signature tune, which became synonymous with high-speed adventure, eleventh-hour rescue missions and tales of derring-do – in fact any kind of dramatic situation that drew listeners to the edge of their seats. The Dick Barton stories were adapted for TV and film, though the purists never really took to the visual versions. I suppose they already had their own imaginative picture of their hero, which no actor would ever quite resemble. Quite a bit later on my mum and dad brought a fourteen-inch black and white Ferguson television set, which took pride of place in the living room. At that time owning a TV was still relatively unusual. I don't know if it was by accident or design but our set was placed directly opposite the window. Passers-by could clearly see that we were keeping up with the Jones's, or maybe we were the Jones's, I don't know.
Excerpted from Complete Surrender by Dave Sharp, John Parker. Copyright © 2008 Dave Sharp and John Parker. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.