There was a difference in class between the streets in our neighborhood of Acton, in West London. Our street had a grand name, King Edward’s Gardens, with nice enough houses tightly crammed together, owned largely by middle-class to working-class families. One over was West Lodge Avenue, which had homes with mock-Tudor facades. Folk along that street were richer than folk along mine and spoke with better accents.
At the top of our road was a parade of shops along the Uxbridge Road: a wine shop, green grocery shop, a newsagent/sweet shop. At about age 12, I started work on Saturdays as a delivery boy working at Mr Mills’ green grocery shop. My job was to pack phoned-in grocery orders and deliver them by bicycle to customers. The bike was old and odd-looking: it had a tiny front wheel above which was a metal platform upon which I would stack the boxes of orders. The shop name and phone number were blazoned on a metal plate welded to the frame; the information was handy for people wanting to report to my boss that his bicycle boy was doing stupid tricks. Stupid tricks included losing control of the overloaded bike on ice; or failing to pack the boxes well enough to prevent them from sliding off the platform when I took turns too fast. Stupid bike, more like it.
When things got busy in the shop I helped out Miss Smith and Miss Jones, who were both elderly; one tall, angular and sharp, the other short, plump and sweet. I learned from them to be polite to customers. I especially learned that when mothers came shopping with their daughters, I could make them smile or laugh with a few lines of quick wit or a wink or two. Miss Jones went along with the witty banter; Miss Smith tutt-tutted.
Sometimes Jill B. came, not often enough for me, but when she came she came alone. I adored Jill. I was 12 or 13; she, a little older. She lived with her widower father, an ex-military man, at West Lodge Avenue. I had no confident, quick lines with her, I was ususually tongue-tied. Anyway, she ignored stuttering me, even when I delivered groceries to her house. She went to a nearby posh school – Haberdasher Askes School for Girls; spoke with a much nicer accent than I had; and was reportedly brilliant.
I admired her from afar for a couple of years. I did not stand a chance with Jill. But I started to attend her church just to be close to her, although this was about the time my parents separated and I stopped going to our Baptist church altogether. She was High Church of England, and so I got to see masses, priests with robes, ceremony and pomp. I was fine with that because going to her church meant that I could also go to the church Youth Club. Yet visits to the Club meant that I could also see that Jill had many young men in her life; she laughing and joking with them, holding their hands, kissing them in the corners of the Youth Club dance floor.
I suppose at some point I caught her attention because we started talking. And I must have seemed appealing, because she asked me to come over one Friday evening when her father was going to be out. My mother warned me to be careful: she thought Jill too forward. But I went anyway; timid, with chocolates. She sat me down in her front room, and she put on a record and we talked. She knew way more than me about the world; I imagine I was dumb with ardor. I recall that she wore a revealing sheer blouse, which hinted of loveliness only imagined, but probably aggravated my clumsiness. As I was leaving, I asked her if I could kiss her and she, smirking, allowed me a chaste peck goodbye. Oh joy!
And then: off I went – to be ignored by her ever afterward. She never acknowledged me after that night, so I assume now that I did not meet her expectations. I was crushed. But I soon learned that there were many other women in life and that I too could be cruel. Cruel enough no doubt to laugh when I later heard that Jill was pregnant at 17. Instead of going onto some fine college, she had to leave her posh school and continue her life with just one young man rather than many. He was a nice chap; always had a kind word for me at the Club.
Twenty years later, I had traveled the world, and finding myself in Acton, I wandered my old neighborhood. On a nostalgic whim, I walked along West Lodge Avenue. It was still a nice-looking street. I knocked on the door of the house that I thought had been Jill’s. A worn, graying woman answered the door and I told her that I was curious if Colonel B. and his daughter had ever lived there. Did the lady know what had happened to them?
The lady was Jill. She invited me in and we talked for a couple of hours; she cooking a spaghetti supper over the stove. She remembered me well, and recalled how much she had enjoyed teasing me. I had once seemed fresh and innocent to her. I had been one of her easy conquests. She had liked me a lot. I think she liked me still; she certainly envied me my free life.
But Jill was no longer a beautiful fresh and lithe woman; she was weary and strained. She had never lived anywhere but the house of her father. I was saddened by the change in our circumstances. Our chaste peck of a goodbye kiss when I left was a sweet echo of my one long-gone clumsy evening with her; and a reminder of how far I had wandered from Acton and its class-conscious streets.