Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Making of a Child Psychiatrist (36): Back to the Grind (6)
After a year, we moved flats. I think 4, Melon Road was scheduled for demolition. It certainly looked like it at times, especially after a Saturday night. But someone had found a really great flat – the bottom half of a much larger house in Cosbycote Ave in Herne Hill. This was a manageable walk from King’s up Denmark Hill past Ruskin Park. The flat was in much better condition, quite well furnished and clean, and had a quaint kitchen down in the cellar. Upstairs lived five nurses who worked at King’s, so although many of us already had partners, it was a lively environment, and someone was always organising a party. In addition, we had inside information about events at King’s to which we might not have been privy, so our social lives became quite spectacular.
From memory, only Jim had a car at that stage, and Barry had purchased a Vespa scooter. The more lifts I had on the back of the scooter, the more I began to appreciate this as a convenient form of transport, easily parked, and gentle on petrol. I began to see Jan and I scooting around London, and using our cheap transport to go down to Thanet to see family more often.
At some stage, we broached the topic at home, and Jan’s father Reg helped me with a loan. We bought a rather fetching, if underpowered, lilac scooter – sadly not a Vespa because I could not afford one. It was a British made Triumph Tina, fully automatic and with no gears - fun, cheap on petrol, got me to med school each day. It was not cool however (and now, I can look back and think it must have looked a bit ‘girlie’), but it was transport.
I still lusted after a Vespa. Somehow I got to know a fellow who ran a motorbike repair and second hand shop down on Camberwell New Road. He was 10 years older and worldly wise (apart, perhaps, from the fact that he lived in a small squalid room at the back of his shop). He helped out with some minor repairs at some stage, and I liked him and his attitudes. He told his stories of his life, and I told stories of being a student. He got invited to parties, and I seemed to get some privileges down at the shop; I am sure he would agree he got the better part of the bargain (but I didn’t care).
Over the months, my underpowered transport increasingly irritated me - especially if there were two of us on board. So eventually I badgered my friend. He being in business, persuaded me to buy a scooter he had in the shop – a large British Racing Green four-stroke Triumph Tigress that had gears, power and performance, but was a bit of a brute. I traded in my girlie bike for the real thing. Of course, over the following months, it began to go wrong - apparently a feature of the bike (on which production was stopped in 1964). I have heard it said that it was a ‘great bike for the enthusiast as long as someone else was paying the bills’. Over time it spent more hours in the shop than on the road and I spent hours walking backwards and forwards, agitating about progress and the possible cost; as a student I just did not have disposable income to keep shelling out. Eventually my friend found a decent Vespa in good shape, but my grant and other resources were very stretched, and in those days you could not just go to the bank and borrow money for something as frivolous as a scooter. And bankcards had not been invented.
I began to plan my finances, casting around until I got a part time after hours job in a local garage as a pump attendant.
Shifts selling petrol were a bit erratic, and took up whole evenings but, with my eye on the prize, I kept it up for several months. It was an eye opener. The customer service was no problem; I liked people and had always been able to start up conversations with almost anyone. But learning the ropes was not quite as easy. Garages in those days were not mini supermarkets, but did sell cigarettes and matches and lighters and chewing gum and other sweet delights. So I had to learn how to manage the till, (and gain the trust of the manager), and also had to ensure that everything tallied up by the end of my shift. Knowing what I know about the dangers to health in cigarettes, I cannot imagine (now) selling the damned things, but around that time I had begun to smoke the occasional cigarette, and it was not till much later that solid research began to emerge and I began to understand the risks.
There was a small ‘lurk’ that also now causes me some discomfort. When you work in an environment, you fit in and do what others do; you don’t necessarily make instant ethical judgments. I was let in on a secret. When filling a customer’s oil, there was a way of not quite emptying the plastic bottle. It was really quite rare for a driver to be interested in watching what was happening under their bonnet, or interested in getting their hands dirty. They just wanted the job done quickly, and were quite happy to leave it up to us lackies. The plastic bottles, with their precious residue, were then taken to a quiet dark part of the garage and left to drain thoroughly into another bottle. By the end of an average evening, we could have saved enough oil for two complete refills. And the cash from this would be shared – usually between just two people. It was not doing much harm, was not stealing from the owners of the garage, and went into my kitty towards a new Vespa. Dishonest? Yes, I am afraid so. The honesty you might expect from a future doctor? Mmm, not quite.
The other job I took on a couple of nights a week was as a temporary part time barman at a pub called ‘The Cricketers’ on Kennington Oval, right next to The Oval Cricket Club. Sadly this is now one of the ‘lost pubs of England’, but in its heyday was a well-known venue with live music. It attracted a rather interesting clientele, and I count it as a priceless part of my education. Tuesday night was ‘drag night’, and no-one had forewarned me.
At first I did not notice. It did seem a bit busy, but then it was a very busy pub and, as a relative novice, I was too engrossed in ‘pulling pints’ and making sure change was correct. To noisy acclaim, on the stage appeared a couple of over-dressed, over made up, women who launched into a series of covers of popular songs (you know the sort of thing: Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’, the Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’, Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy’, the Beatles’ ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Love Me Do’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Wishin' And Hopin'). The customers were going wild, and hearing orders over the raucous banter was nigh impossible. One woman customer paid for drinks for her male friend, and I sort of noticed that she had rather large hands – even for a tall woman. The veins on the back of her hand stood out, and when I looked up into her face, the features were rather large, and the make-up a bit over the top. ‘She’ was the one who drank the Gin and tonic. Finally it dawned on me. While the members of the band were all male, the two singers were also males in drag, and singing falsetto. Ah well. My job was to serve drinks. In any case, the atmosphere was happy, nobody got roughed up, and I was never propositioned. It was all just fun, and for the weeks I was standing in for my friend and colleague, I enjoyed Tuesday nights, and was somewhat sorry when he returned. But by then I had scraped together enough money to make up the shortfall on my precious scooter. And learned several life lessons along the way.