JUST A BOY FROM BRISTOL PART TWO
 
Chapter Eight
 
 
Somewhere down by the Ropewalk
 
 
It was a lazy, grey Friday evening in late September 1951 when the two young girls took a wrong turning and came wandering into our young lives. 'Scattered showers', had been the official forecast, but although the clouds were threatening, the rain hadn't arrived. One by one, our little gang gathered on the steps outside of number 2 Marlborough Flats, Eugene Street, Bristol. This was the home of Johnny, Frankie and Alan Millar, who were three of the members of our gang.


Another weekend was upon us, and, we always met here to discuss the events of the past week, and make our plans and arrangements for the next seven days. Bristol Rovers were entertaining Norwich the following day, so Saturday afternoon was already taken care of; we would be taking our usual places on the Tote End at Eastville. Rovers had made a promising start to the season, and we were confident that under the guidance of new Manager, Bert Tann, Rovers were going places. We also knew that wherever Bristol Rovers went, we would be going there with them.

We lounged around that evening on the cold stone steps, nervously playing the brand new roles that life had created for us. The radio, the newspapers and the magazines were constantly informing us that we were the lucky ones; we were the new, supercool generation of post war teenagers. The conversation usually started with football and cricket, and then invariably switched to girls, sex, films and music. Our experience and knowledge of girls and sex was strictly limited, but we were able to speak about films and music with all the confidence of youth. Music, in particular, was a popular topic; Nat King Cole's songs were a regular feature on the wireless and he had achieved big things that year.

On that particular night, I stood at the top of the steps, and playing an imaginary piano, I crooned the opening lines of his latest and biggest hit record.
They try to tell us we're too young
Too young to really be in love
They say that love's a word
A word we've only heard
But can't begin to know the meaning of.


I had recently acquired an old wind up gramophone, complete with a trumpet speaker, and that record was the first in my collection.
Patrick, Johnny and I were the inner circle of our gang. We were a sort of unholy trinity. Patrick was the leader, Johnny was the voice of reason, and I was the dreamer, the hopeless romantic. I was constantly falling in love, but it was always unrequited, and there was forever a trace of sadness in my smile. As I sang that night the boys rolled their eyes, and then gently teased me, because they knew I was still recovering from my latest broken heart, which had been inflicted by Valerie Grey.

"You need to learn the right way to treat girls. You have to treat them rough," said Paddy.  Paddy knew everything about everything. "They prefer it that way," he added, "and you need to toughen up yourself."

It still seemed rather strange spending our Friday evenings in Eugene Street. For there had once  been a time when Friday nights had been sacrosanct; Friday nights had always been religiously set aside for speedway. Nothing would ever have stood in the way of  our weekly pilgrimage up and down the Well's Road to worship at the altar of our Bristol Bulldogs Speedway team at Knowle Stadium.

'Time marches on and time changes everything', was one of the many important  lessons of life that Granny Kelly had taught me, and the wise old bird had got it right again. Time had indeed changed everything. Those long Friday night bus journeys into uncharted territories, which had once been adventurous voyages of discovery, had become repetitive and boring.  The guttural  roar and the screaming whine of the motor cycle engines no longer set our pulses racing, and as we'd grown older and progressed further into our teens, we had become increasingly self conscious as we huddled in the crowd on the first bend and chanted '2-4-6-8 -  Who do we appreciate? -  B-R-I-S-T-O-L', at the top of our young voices. I wouldn't admit it to anyone, but I did miss the 'smell of speedway', that unique and compelling  mixture of high octane fuel and Methanol, but the visits to Knowle were now history; they were now mere memories of yesteryear..

We were no longer kids, but we weren't adults either. We were now more like miniature apprentice men. We all wore long trousers, and our voices had broken. We sported trendy DA hair styles, and razor cuts vied for space with the pimples on our spotty chins. We were, however, still clinging on to our childhood, and old habits die hard. It felt like the natural thing to do, and it wasn't long that night before we were doing what we had always done. Football reigned supreme in Eugene Street.

"I'm Geoff Bradford," I shouted as we squeezed another game of street football into the remains of the day. It was that precious last hour of daylight; the period between twilight and dusk. The section of the day that the French call 'L'heure bleu', the blue hour.
In truth, the game was all but over as the last of the light faded and players slowly started to drift off into the darkness in pursuit of food and drink.
"Time to call it a day, Pat?" suggested John, the voice of reason, but Patrick, the leader, had other ideas.
 
He stood like a young Colossus between the stout tree and the stone pillar which represented the goalmouth at the Marlborough Hill end. Everything Patrick did, he did with an air of authority and military precision. He stood, now, staring into the gathering gloom, calmly bouncing the tennis ball with his left hand, as he considered his options. He made his decision, and then with his faced creased in concentration, he took the ball in both hands, and with exaggeratedly careful aim he punted the ball in my direction.
"Our Mike," came the cry as his trusty left foot delivered the pass with its usual unerring accuracy.
The ball bounced once, then twice on the pavement and then thrice as it landed on the cobblestones. I moved in for the killer finish. Another goal was a certainty, after all, the opposing goalkeeper had already wandered off for his supper leaving the goalmouth unattended, and I had a simple tap in to score.
 
At that precise moment the two young girls came giggling and chattering over the summit of the flight of steps which led up from Marlborough Street. The girls, the ball and the eager young centre forward all arrived at the same spot at the very same time. The collision was inevitable and the girls went down in an untidy heap.
 
"Get off the pitch, there's a big game going on," yelled Patrick, but then he spotted that the intruders were girls. Placing his thumb and index finger between his lips, he blew a shrill blast that signalled the final whistle, and sprinted towards us.
 "That's it - All over - Full time. We won 7-5 because our Mike would have scored from there," he shouted as he ran.
The taller of the two girls was the first to rise to her feet. She was a pale, slender and lovely girl. The green gabardine raincoat she was wearing was unbuttoned, and the dress beneath was of  the purest white. She stood before me with lowered eyes, and then she looked up and smiled. She extended her hand and offered me the ball. "Sorry," she whispered, and then she smiled again, and I fell just a little bit in love.  
I joined the other boys as we crowded around the girls like a swarm of bees around a honey pot, but Patrick arrived, and formed a barrier between us and the girls. He stood facing us with his arms outstretched and waved us away. "Leave this to me, I will sort it out."

We retreated reluctantly, and then stood against the red brick walls, our arms intertwined with the railings, watching and waiting whilst Patrick worked his magic.There was a lot of shoulder shrugging, gesticulating  and nodding, and then he sent the girls on their way with a dismissive wave of his hand. They turned obediently and returned from whence they had come. I felt a sense of disappointment as I watched them step gingerly back down the steps, and back down the lane. Just before she disappeared from view, the taller of the girls looked back over her shoulder and smiled again. I knew she was smiling at me. I ran across the road, stood at the top of the steps and watched them walk away, but there were no more backward glances
 
We leant against the wall and the railings as Patrick re-joined us for the debrief. The questions came thick and fast, and Patrick had all the answers.
"They're from St Jude's way  - Somewhere down by the Ropewalk - Olive and Jean - Yes, they will be returning - Probably next Friday - Same place and time."
"Which one was the taller one?" I enquired.
Patrick pursed his lips and stared at me for a brief moment before he replied. "That one is Olive, but keep your eyes and your hands off - She's mine."
I knew differently. I'd seen that look and I'd seen that smile.

With speedway now a thing of the past, my Friday nights were set aside for my Latin and Greek homework. At least, that was the intention, but another of Granny Kelly's sayings had been, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," and sure enough it wasn't long that night before I put my books to one side. Mum and Dad were out, no doubt drinking at either the Bay Horse, the Prince Alfred or the King David. I made myself comfortable, and settled down in the new rocking chair with my best friend, the wireless.
The rich, plummy voice of Raymond Glendenning introduced Sports Report, and I listened spellbound as he talked in great detail about the next days match between Chelsea and Manchester United. He described the game as a 'potential championship decider.' Almost in the same breath he spoke about the game between Bristol Rovers and Norwich. "Two of the seasons potential promotion rivals from Division 3 (South), will be locking horns in front of a 30,000 crowd." Hearing Raymond Glendenning speak so highly about my beloved team gave me a nice warm glow; life was finally coming good, and it was getting better by the minute.
My highlight of the Friday night radio broadcasts was Educating Archie, and my favourite performer was Max Bygraves. In the same way that I had always waited patiently for the arrival of Colonel Humphrey Chinstrap in ITMA, and for the pronouncement of his famous catchphrase, "I don't mind if I do," I now waited eagerly for Max and his catchphrase, which was "I've arrived and to prove it I'm here." Max didn't let me down, and I had barely finished chuckling, when I heard the closing music playing. "You've been listening to Educating Archie, with Max Bygraves, Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Ronald Chesney, Peter Madden, The Tanner Sisters, The Hedley Ward Trio, Anton and his Orchestra. Script by Eric Sykes and Sid Colin Produced by Roy Speer," said the smooth, polished voice of the BBC announcer, and the time had now arrived for me to implement the cunning plan which had been taking shape inside my head.  
I put on my new white trench coat, pulled the collar up high over my neck, climbed aboard my trusty, green, 3 speed derailleur, Raleigh Lenton, and set off down the hill. I knew exactly where I was heading; my destination was 'St Jude's, somewhere down by the Ropewalk'. I desperately wanted, needed even, to see Olive again.
 The threatened rain had finally arrived. It was in the form of a fine misty drizzle; the sort of soft, gentle rain that gets you very wet without you realising it, and I was already thoroughly drenched by the time I turned into the Ropewalk and came to a halt outside of Broad Weir Swimming Baths
 
 
I knew the Ropewalk reasonably well, and had never considered it to be a very romantic spot, but true love will colour and heighten the emotions, and that night the Ropewalk possessed  a beauty beyond compare. The cobblestones were glistening. They were wet from the rain under a thick covering of brown, red and golden, fallen autumn leaves. Illuminated by the flickering street lights, the Ropewalk resembled a magical bejewelled highway. The silence was near perfect, broken only by the occasional barely audible swish of a passing cyclist, the chug of an ancient motor vehicle, or the rare clitter- clatter of a hurrying pedestrian. I felt more like a spectator in a Parisienne boulevard, than a solitary, lonely cyclist in the heart of St Jude's.  
"I know how it feels to have wings on your heels,
 and to fly down the street in a trance.
 You fly down the street on a chance that you'll meet,
and you meet, not really by chance," sang the voice inside my head as I waited, one foot on the pavement, the other on the pedals. But I became aware that I was getting very wet now, and I suddenly recalled Patrick's words. Patrick was always right. I was a dreamer and I was dreaming  again; I was wasting my time; I was pursuing rainbows. I needed to toughen up.

I was just about to leave when I heard the footsteps, and she suddenly appeared from nowhere, as if by magic. She was wearing the same green gabardine raincoat she had worn earlier, and even with the hood pulled up to protect her hair from the rain, I recognised her immediately. I also recognised the young boy at her side. His arm was firmly around her waist as he guided her confidently round the corner and out of sight. It was my cousin, Patrick.


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