Wearing the quartered cap
‘Let’s have a look at you,’ said his Mother, brushing her fingers through his dark brown hair.
‘Are your shoes clean?’
‘Yes Mum, done them, they’re ready, everything’s fine.’
Whilst Ian enjoyed being touched he was embarrassed at the current close attention.
‘You look smashing son. The blazer is perfect. Are you OK? Ready to go? Don’t be nervous. I’m proud of you. Don’t forget – you’re special, not only to your Mum, but to the whole of your last school. Remember, you were the only one to pass the 11+. Well done.’
Ian nodded, knowing that the next few hours would be a turning point in his life. If it was raining, he could at least cover up the new blazer. His raincoat had come from a jumble sale at the local community hall last Saturday. It was dark blue, with a half belt; old and worn, but better than a light blue blazer. They never wore blazers on this estate. Ian knew that once his former school mates saw him, they would all be laughing. His mother seemed to have forgotten the quartered cap, then she looked at him.
‘Put the cap on son. Let’s make sure it fits’
Ian opened the brown paper bag, his name already stencilled on the inner lining. He put it on his head. The light blue quartered cap with centralised house badge dominated his whole face. Boys didn’t wear caps on this estate, only old men, with fags in their mouths and war worn, wrinkled faces. Men wore the same cap; flat, checked, greasy and smelling of tobacco and most seemed to cough a lot in the early mornings.
His mother looked at him for a moment, before tugging the cap down and to the side. She stepped back and looked at him. Her face had a look of real satisfaction, although Ian noticed a wetness to her eyes.
‘You’ll do.’ She whispered. ‘Off you go now and catch your bus. I’m working late again today, so hope to be home right after you. Pick up the kids and put the tea on, if you get in first’
As she spoke, he saw tears building. As a post-war single mother of three, his mother only cried in private. Ian knew his life as an eleven-year-old wartime evacuee, and top pupil at the Junior school on a newly built, 1950s council estate, was about to change forever.
‘Good luck bruv.’ said his young sister, holding in her arms, an even younger brother mumbling through his dummy, whilst holding his arms out for a kiss, his urine soaked, smelly nappy, clinging to his podgy thighs. Ian’s mother intervened and lifted the baby into her arms.
‘Right you two. Let’s get you ready for the nursery. Till tonight, son. Good luck. I love you.’ She paused. ‘We all do.’
He drew a deep breath and opened the front door. It was a quarter of a mile to the bus stop. The Woolworth’s satchel was slung across his shoulder. It contained his former Headmaster’s gift of white gym shoes and a compass. These lay upon a small bag of yesterday’s still fresh, bread rolls, with some paper and pencils stolen from his mother’s office. In a brown paper bag, also purchased from Woolworth’s with his own pocket money, was an unopened, unused plastic fountain pen and a small bottle of black ink.
Ian thought to himself that it would have been nice to have a father watch him go to grammar school for the first time; he paused, shrugged and began his walk. The high hedgerow of their neighbour’s garden gave him his first opportunity. He took off the quartered cap, rolled it up, and stuffed it into a side pocket of his satchel. Leaving at seven-thirty to catch the first of three buses to school had distinct advantages. Most of his former schoolmates were still in bed. The bus befuddled with smoke and sweaty coughing adults, had a young passenger intent on taking up his place at an elite Grammar School in the nearest town some 8 miles away.
As his final bus approached the Grammar school, Ian watched several cars discharging other uniformed pupils, who entered the school grounds. It was 1952 and whilst on his estate, cars were a rarity and driven by Spivs or sales reps, many children seemed to have been driven to this school..
He descended from the upper deck of the bus, retrieved his quartered cap from the satchel and pulled it onto his head. The final hundred yards from the bus stop to the school gates seemed an eternity. Pulling at his loose fitting but new grey socks, which barely reached the bottom of his short trousers, he rubbed the front of his shoes on the reverse of each leg, and walked towards the gates.
A group of larger older boys were waiting on the pavement; dressed in similar school blazers, yet menacing in appearance, some with adolescent pock marked faces, all intent on scrutinising new entrants to the school.
‘Here’s another one,’ said a member of the group, his oafish features focused on the approach of Ian.
‘Oh hell, my socks are falling down again’ Ian thought, pulling at the cheap grey woollen sleeves which encased his spindly white legs, whilst trying to balance his school satchel. He tried to avert his gaze from the group at the gates.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ said the lead oaf, moving out in front of him, his eyes on the brand new blazer and cheap satchel.
‘School please. I’m new here. This is my first day. Where do I go? Please?’
‘Well, you can take that thing off for a start.’ said the questioner, ripping the quartered cap from Ian’s head. He realised that none of the older boys were wearing caps, although they all wore the standard school blazer with various house badges attached.
‘Now bugger off.’
Ian watched his cap being jammed across the spikes of an adjacent school fence, joining several others in a bizarre montage. As he did so, there was a sudden tugging and ripping on the pockets of his blazer. His jacket, purchased by a special grant from the Education Department, available only to families living in poverty, was damaged.
‘Piss off you bastards!’ Ian screamed, before running through the school gates, tears rolling down his cheeks. In the sanctuary of the school entrance hall he stopped. His hands shook, and his breathing was becoming difficult.
‘Now what?’ he thought, before looking down at his torn blazer and becoming very anxious. His palms were already sweaty, so he tried to wipe them on his hair, and tidy it before straightening the new school tie which was tight. He’d never worn a tie before and had relied on his mother to use the relevant knot.
‘What if it comes undone?’ he thought to himself. ‘Mum will go daft when she finds out about this, and that’ll make it worse for me. I’m sure of that.’ He looked towards the school gates, and the group of older boys now dispersing. Ian walked into the vaulted main hall of the school in a dishevelled state. A school prefect was standing inside the main corridor and called him over.
‘You as well?’. Ian nodded, looking down at his shoes, and realising that once again his loose grey socks had fallen down to his ankles. The prefect reached out his hand and adjusted Ian’s tie. ‘Some of us have been there. Like you. Ignore them twats. It only lasts a day. They only get away with it because of some stupid school tradition, which has got out of hand. My name’s Tony. If you have any more problems come to me. I’m around here before classes start. Your room is there on the left 14B.’ Tony paused. ‘Good luck, kid.’
As he entered Room 14B, there was a serried row of desks with metal frames, and thick wooden surfaces. Most desks had occupants. Facing them was a large blackboard, with a larger desk in front. There, sat an elderly man wearing a dark blue suit, under a black gown checking a register. As Ian closed the door behind him, the man showed with his finger he should approach him.
As he did so, Ian recognised the familiar smell of tobacco which had permeated the three buses he had caught that morning. Without apparently seeing he damage to his blazer, or the agitated state that Ian was in, the man spoke.
‘I’m Mr Parkinson, your tutor and teacher of the English Language. Name?’
Ian responded and explained what had happened.
‘Your name is all I asked for. Other issues can wait. Name?’ Ian responded. The teacher pointed to a desk next to a window. ‘Sit there.’
His arrival in class completed the registration process. Mr Parkinson spoke at length about school hours, lesson arrangements, procedures, assemblies and worship, meal routines, even the values and history of this elite all male Grammar School, commending some of its most successful and well known former scholars. He never referred to Ian’s earlier attempt to explain what had happened to him.
The rest of the day was a blur of classroom changes, lesson schedules, and being overwhelmed by the sheer size and numbers of other pupils, some of whom although uniformed like him, were as sixth-formers, already adults, needing to shave regularly. It sank in. From being top of the pile at his Junior school, passing the 11+, on his own and being a local estate hero he now faced a massive challenge.
The three-bus journey home went well. Ian got off at an earlier stop prior to collecting his younger sister and brother from the Council nursery, and pushing them both home. When he stepped off the bus, he removed his recovered but damaged quartered cap, and put on his raincoat. The pavements were quiet.
On some adjacent grass, former classmates from his Junior school, acknowledged his presence, with a few waves, before returning to their game of football. Their “goalposts” were piles of jackets, coats, clothing and satchels. His heavy satchel was already crammed with homework.
After settling his sister and brother down with a drink and biscuit, Ian walked into the kitchen. On the cooker was a heavy saucepan containing prepared vegetables and mince. In the adjacent cupboard he found a box of matches, struck one and lit the gas burner beneath the pan. As he did so, he heard the front door open.
His mother instinctively sensed his tension. As she saw the damage to his blazer he knew his mother would react. Explaining the day’s events she simply reached out and pulled him towards her. ‘I wish I could have been with you on your first day,’ she said, ‘but I need to work Ian and with your sister being sick two weeks ago they were getting funny about me taking any more time off. Do you understand?’ Ian nodded.
‘I’m not letting this go though. The Council won’t give us another grant till next year.’
He was unsure how the school would respond to being challenged on what seemed to be a traditional ritual for new boys. Next day he found out. A summons to the office of the Headmaster, Mr Ackerman. There was a distinct coolness in his manner. He had a letter in his hand addressed to his mother. ‘Please tell your mother that following her telephone call this morning, the School welfare funds will provide a new cap and blazer. This letter is the authority to the school uniform supplier.’
‘Yes Sir. Thank you Sir. Sorry but I…’
Mr Ackerman raised his hand. ‘Enough. Put this letter away and make sure your mother gets it tonight. Now go back to your class and let this be the end.’
However, five years of misery lay ahead.