There is no doubt that during my life, Friday 13th has been a significant date on a number of occasions; I know that for three of these I have ceased employment. The first one was in September 1974 when we had been given notice just one week previously that the charity I worked for had run out of money, I had been with them for nearly six years so sudden redundancy was something of a bombshell to land in a 24 year-old’s lap! However, it is a Friday the 13th in January 1978 that is the feature of this story today.
Readers of flickr and my blog will recall I worked at a long-stay home for children and young persons in London in the 1970s, this was an enjoyable and memorable experience which to this day I remember with fondness and almost sadness for irretrievable times past. You might think I’m a bit sentimental about this and you’d be right, it really was an unforgettable period and I hope I was able to help the youngsters retain a foothold on life in their formative years.
By late 1977 I had made the decision, rightly or wrongly, that my time as a residential worker at this home must come to an end. This was not a conclusion that I arrived at with any positivity and I pondered some while before discussing it with the manager. There were many factors influencing this decision, not the least of which was the knowledge my parents were going to be one half of a team opening up the first private care home for the elderly in Mid Glamorgan and I had been asked to assist with the preparation of this. Difficult choice, I loved my work in London, but latterly realised I was becoming rather too attached to the youngsters in my care and was finding it difficult if not impossible to emotionally disentangle myself after my shift. That was one of the disadvantages of living on the premises, but it also had its good points as I got to know the youngsters really well and also I didn’t have far to go to work! In fact, work was my life and I don’t recall doing much outside that environment, everything I did in London revolved around the youngsters, they were like family, my special “chosen” family, I had elected to live with them albeit as part of a job package.
A few days after an agonising Christmas, on the last Friday of December 1977, I handed in my resignation giving the statutory four weeks notice which, with holiday time owing, would mean I’d be finishing in just two weeks, on Friday 13th January. That didn’t leave much time for the inevitable painful parting, or for all the stuff I had accumulated to be moved back to Bridgend, but that’s another story! The manager and I decided that the best time for me to inform the youngsters of my decision to leave would be at the traditional New Year’s Day lunch, when everyone would be present and so, I recall, I stumblingly informed my young friends that I would be departing. I won’t tell you the reaction and some of the comments as I’m rather too modest for that, but suffice it to say they were quite surprised, saddened and shocked, after all, I had been a prominent part of their lives for a few years.
The last two weeks are a blur and details now mostly forgotten, only remembered through the photographs I took of one or two events during my last days. One of the things some of the boys had been involved with had been my interest in vintage machinery and a few of them had been regular attenders with me at steam rallies or vintage shows. In agreement with the manager I arranged for the four rally boys to come on an evening picnic in my mobile home where I had planned a night-time walk with torches and lanterns to conclude with a barbecue style meal cooked in the van by one of the boys who, at 11 years of age, loved to do the catering. In the event, one of the rally boys couldn’t come so I took along two others instead and we had a fun evening sloshing along the muddy towpath near Walton-on-Thames before our meal of sausages, burgers, rolls and reminiscences. I really didn’t want that evening to end, but eventually I reluctantly started the engine and slipped it into gear for their last journey in my motor home.
The evening before I finished was rather sad with a party tea in my honour followed by a presentation. All the youngsters had contributed some of their pocket money and a member of staff had been sent out on a mission to buy a book suitable for a railway and vintage enthusiast. The one chosen was Nameplates of the Big Four a book featuring photographs of just locomotive nameplates, as the title suggests. There was no parting message inside as the staff knew I liked to keep my books in pristine condition, but this one was different so I had all the youngsters sign their names on one of the pages and I have reproduced that here, although for privacy I have painted out any surnames. The details of the rest of that evening have now disappeared from my memory, my only regret is that I didn’t assemble all the youngsters and colleagues for a group photograph.
The following morning I sadly bade farewell to each and every one of my young friends as they departed for school, all that is, with one exception; one of my final duties was to take one of my rally boys to a dental appointment and then walk him to junior school afterwards. I recall being reluctant to undertake this task as I was anxious to get all partings over with as quickly as possible and this one was going to be difficult, this lad (the one keen on cooking) had been to all the rallies with me since I had introduced them and saying farewell was not going to be easy. After the appointment I remember standing outside the school entrance watching him walk away, as I vainly attempted to suppress the tears welling up in my eyes; I had wanted to give him a departing hug like I had with all the others earlier, but that wouldn’t have done, his school chums might have seen and then made fun, so I made do with a quick squeeze on his shoulder and a brief unemotional statement like “Well, see you around then”. He then slipped quietly into school only glancing back and giving a discreet little wave before disappearing inside; I stood there for a brief moment looking at the empty doorway and then turned away with an empty feeling in my heart. That morning I had lost my entire “chosen” family; it was the end of an era.
The years go by and although I kept in touch for a while I eventually lost contact with everyone, the home closed down and was demolished and all that remained were the memories recollected through the hundreds of photographs I had of the few short years I was there. A year or so back I was unexpectedly contacted by one of my former charges via Friends Reunited, I was really pleased by this and although our correspondence has been sporadic I am grateful he made the time to get in touch. Since then I’m delighted a few more have made contact through other social network sites which has inevitably brought back nostalgic memories of my time in London all those years ago. Writing and illustrating this hasn’t been easy, I started it three weeks ago when I discovered 13th January was going to be on a Friday and even today I’m still editing text and pondering which photographs to use; if you are reading this, I guess I’ve made my decision!
You can also view a number of photographs taken during my time at the children’s home in a set on my flickr photo site entitled The London Years.