A kind of Sundayness led me to where my Auntie Pat lived: a pebbledash house, once opposite a cricket ground now luxury apartments, with her dog Pongo (yes he did), fishmonger husband and three children, one sporty who married an actress and gave her six children (so much for that); a fashionista who married a pipe-smoking oilman, and a pretty communist engaged to an Angry Young Man (he proposed over tea at the Ritz.)
I would go in by the side entrance, now a curly-iron gate, to the kitchen door. Pat seemed always pleased to see me. On a weekday she would take me shopping in the High Street, little old ladies in spotted blue dresses tugging wicker baskets on wheels from store to store. I remember a green-glazed pork butchers with sawdusted marble floor, the name J Sainsbury over the door, and smelling like a charcuterie. Is that the French for pork butcher?
Walking on, over the bridge, I peered through the railway fence, overgrowth almost hiding the concrete pillbox built to defend the southern approaches to London Bridge and Victoria. We had tried to get in to play, my brother and I, but never could so made our own way to defend the realm, he in the air, I in the mud.
Bridge Road led into Copers Cope, a broad avenue of great trees, of great houses once occupied by society’s great mistresses. My mother bought the one once owned by Lily Langtry. I and my brother lived there, between South America and East Africa, with the uncle who became our Dad after his brother our father died in the Atlantic. Even in times of war one does not expect a parent to die, never mind his role being assumed by one’s godparent, but Archie made a good job of it. It is only the koala that tears an embryo fathered by another bear from the womb of its mate.
My Auntie Eileen occupied a suite of rooms with her husband and their son Gregory Paul: whom they called ‘the Perfect Child’ therefore much hated by my brother and me. Later we met up, between Brunei and Malaysia as I remember, for a drink in the Three Tuns, now an Italian known as Zizzi’s, where Greg told me he was running the Bluebell Railway. Grown up, he seemed quite a nice chap. Who would have thought, when he was dropping us in the shit.
Another uncle, Ted, my mother’s brother with a huge ginger mustache and addiction to adultery lived there too, mostly part time with his unhappy Welsh wife and child whose name and gender I forget, until ending up at the end of a rope.
Then there were my grandmother and great grandmother, and two lodgers: an elderly banker dressed always in black suit, wingtip shoes, starched white wing-collared shirt with traces of egg down the front, and an Argentinian post graduate student with a short temper and long nose who once beat me for pulling it.
The other ten houses in the quartermile stretch from the top of the road had turned into luxury apartment complexes. Ours stood as it always had, although the carriage house had become two large apartments that used to be a workshop with living quarters above a garage for two cars where I had my first driving experience reversing Uncle Ted’s Austin Seven in, until reminded by the sound of breaking glass that I hadn’t closed the door. I was an expensive child.
The third oldest mulberry tree in Kent had long gone, as had the goldfish pond it overhung, the rockery I made, the sunken lawn where wild flowers flourished in spring time, and another pond watered by a massive shell. The Golden Arrow no longer whistled past the end of the garden a hundred yards away, by the greenhouse where we would run to see it go by and where I first explored the female anatomy with one of Auntie Eileen’s ballet students, a freckled Cockney girl with a loud voice who, I learned on a visit between South Arabia and Hong Kong, grew up to prefer women. Not because of me, I hoped. The dance studio, former ballroom, had become another apartment, and the conservatory too, turned from coloured glass panes bending afternoon sunshine into a lightshow at those huge Sunday tea times when cousin Sally always took the best cakes.
The Regal, ABC, now Odeon still stands at the crossroads opposite the War Memorial. where Auntie Eileen took me for tea in the Regal Restaurant before a movie. Then came a real rush of memory: the 227 came by, the little bus I used to catch with my brother. We’d chant to the conductor ‘Two halves to the Beckenham Baths.’ I jumped on, pressed my Seniors Freedom Pass on the electronic thing and rode down memory lane, passing the Baths, now a huge spa, back home to where I live now, past itch well scratched.