As a toddler, I spent eighteen months or so with foster parents. My mother was too ill to be able to care for me or my sisters and eventually she went for a long stay in hospital.
My sisters went to one loving home and I was sent to another. I wasn’t allowed to see my mother, she was in an isolation ward, but my father would visit every Saturday afternoon.
We lived in a small village in Essex, and as a smiling little blondie, there were bountiful offers from worthy ladies to take me in.
My parents chose, though, to send me to the family of our cleaning lady. I called them Mummy and Daddy Walton.
Mummy Walton was a doughty soul, with four children of her own. Two boys, one of whom at the age of 10 was my pal as much as my tormentor and got his ear soundly clipped for teaching me swear words.
“Say ‘Sod!’ Baby!”
“Don’t you teach that child to swear, Billy, you little bugger!” Clip!
At all times, she wore a scarf tied round her head and small dangly gold earrings. No make-up, just a broad and ready smile. I loved her with all my heart.
Daddy Walton was a poacher and we had a good supply of pigeon and rabbit to the table. I picture him still, a small, slightly built man; he wore an Army Greatcoat that reached right down to his ankles and a flat cap. His face was nut brown and he had the sparkliest, bright blue eyes I’ve ever seen. The cupboard under the stairs was where he kept his decoy birds and one of my earliest memories is playing with the pigeons. Out the back he kept the cages of ferrets whose intelligent, pointy little faces I so loved. I would stand and gaze at them, under strict instructions to keep fingers well out of the way.
The house was tiny, with a front parlour, which I remember to be chilly and never used but the back room was always warm and cosy. A latched door blocked off the stairs and kept out the draught from the unheated bedrooms and with an armchair either side of the fire, there was room for the table where the family took all meals.
Sunday tea was always pints of Winkles with thin cut, buttered Hovis. I remember, to this day, crying because I wasn’t allowed my own pin to hook the flesh from the shell! I had to wait while Mummy Walton hooked them onto my plate for me. Daddy Walton would pour his tea from his cup, into his saucer and slurp it from there. Funny the things you remember.
Eventually, my mother was allowed home and she told me later that poor Mummy Walton, brought me to the house, stood me on the back step, knocked on the door, and ran down the path crying, her heart fit to break.
We left the village shortly after that. My father applied for a transfer because the sly gossip about his abandonment of his children and his leaving the baby to The Charwoman, of all people, was too uncomfortable to bear.
I continued to visit, though, all through my childhood. Perhaps that’s why my memories are so clear. Nothing ever seemed to change: the scarf, the smiles, the oversized coat and the brightest blue eyes.
Of course, there were still always winkles for Sunday tea and yes, I did get my own pin, in the end.