I wrote MORE THAN JUST SKELETONS largely as a tribute to my brother who died in April 2016. We had always planned to write the book about our early lives in and around Northfleet & Gravesend together but fate intervened as it invariably does.
Bernard was never a straightforward human being and his life became ever more complicated as he aged. Like so many of those who loved and admired him I think I simply wanted the echoes of that life to continue to resonate.
The book is available in both print and ebook versions and can be found on Amazon or Smashwords.
Friday, 9 February 2018
The Trokes lived above the shop on the corner of Tooley and Shepherd Streets. None of us were aware at the time that Peggy Troke’s real name was Marguerite because she was always known as Peggy, and sometimes just Peg. If we had known my mother would undoubtedly have thought her pretentious which is not exactly fair as none of us are able to choose our given names. As it was she labelled her as no better than she ought to have been because it was rumoured that she spent too much time up in the flat with certain travelling salesmen.
Victor Troke, known simply as Vic, seemed not to concern himself with idle gossip and described his wife as An Angel and even gave her a beaver jacket for her thirtieth birthday making my mother snort and toss her head back in a strange gesture of general disapproval that was clearly supported by some of our neighbours. One of the reasons for this reaction was that apparently Peg was forty five if she was a day. Quite apart from that back in those days it wasn’t a good thing to dress flamboyantly and be no better than you ought to be and furthermore Peg should really have had more sense than to court gossip by courting salesmen.
She was not popular with local children and did not have the patience of Aunt Elsie as far as her youngest customers were concerned. If we did not smartly make up our minds when comparing the attributes of Sherbert Dabs as opposed to Liquorice Wheels, she would tap her long red nails sharply on the glass counter top, purse her matching red lips and advise us to Get a Shuffle On. Generally speaking we only patronized the Trokes when Aunt Elsie was closed or when sent there on other errands by our mothers. On one occasion my occasional friend Greta Tilthorpe who was three years older than me and considered odd for wanting friendships with younger girls, reminded Peggy that as she was about to spend more than one shilling she would appreciate being accorded more courtesy. She made that statement in order to impress me, which indeed it did, standing at her side and hoping that the sweets would be shared – which they were. Furthermore Mrs Tilthorpe, always known as Tilly actually worked part time in the shop which gave Greta a definite edge over any other youthful customer with an intention to be rude to adults. Peggy Troke said nothing in response but gave us both long and hostile looks when she placed the Polo Mints and Spangles on the counter with just a fraction too much force. As we wandered up Dover Road and into the grounds of the library, Greta told me that in her opinion Peggy Troke was just a bit too Big for her Boots and clearly thought she was a Cut Above the rest of us. Peg needed taking down a peg or two in her opinion - and sucking hard on shared confectionery I nodded enthusiastically.
Shortly after this exciting exchange my mother announced she was going to work for the Trokes one morning each week, not serving in the shop but doing Peg’s housework to release her for more important tasks. Despite her reservations regarding the general values held by her new employer, she seemed quite excited at the prospect and within a short space of time the relationship with the Trokes and their staff resulted in me becoming even more friendly with Greta. It also occasioned the making of a red chiffon blouse for Greta’s mother. I am uncertain about Tilly’s satisfaction with the blouse since my mother’s dress-making ability had not improved over the years but she was far too polite to complain and wore the blouse to her twenty fifth wedding anniversary party to which we were invited. If you didn’t examine it too closely it looked reasonably presentable worn with a great deal of chunky jewelry. Peggy and Vic were also at the event of course, arriving by car which Greta told me was an MG and Peggy very smartly attired in a pink tweed two piece costume.
Becoming more friendly with Greta, the only girl in the Tilthorpe family, meant becoming acquainted with her six good looking brothers, two of whom were of an age that interested me, particularly one called Michael who was sixteen and moody-looking in a manner that would have made even James Dean envious. At the time, as I was yet to stumble across James Dean who had in turn not yet embarked upon his short but stellar film career, Michael Tilthorpe emerged as a younger and more accessible version of Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and therefore highly desirable. Unfortunately for me he failed to notice my presence at all and the somewhat forced friendship with Greta began to pall despite her astonishing rudeness to adults, her sweet tooth and willingness to share.
It would be fair to say that my mother enjoyed the time she spent cleaning for the Trokes because the job seemed to provide a constant stream of minor scandal resulting in endless rumour and gossip in the neighbourhood, which could be commented upon and spread with ultimate efficiency. Peggy Troke bought far too many pairs of shoes apparently, and occasionally even drove down to Maidstone, where the shopping was legendary, in order to do so. She also went in for what she called Afternoon Dresses acquired from the newly opened Chiesmans Department Store in Gravesend and when the travelers called, she wore them in the morning if necessary. If she and Vic went out for their tea, which they certainly did from time to time, they drove into Gravesend to the Clarendon Hotel and ordered steak and chips. When the Berni Inn chain opened they became regular once a month customers. Peggy once even persuaded Vic to take her to the new Pakistani restaurant near the bottom of Harmer Street but my mother failed to be impressed because nothing would have persuaded her to eat the kind of food foreigners seemed fond of. Vic said that he hadn’t found it to his liking either if he was to be honest. Peggy ignored him and said she always had a gin and dubonnet with her tea when dining out but Vic, bless his heart, always stuck to pints of mild.
The Trokes had a bob or two, there was no doubt about it because during those early years of the 1950s the shop did very well, hosting a constant stream of customers six days a week and they were quite adept at anticipating the buying needs of all, from the very poor to those who worked extra shifts at Bevans and were not doing badly at all. Grace Bennett from Buckingham Road, however, declared that one of the reasons for their success was that Peg was not beyond putting two fingers on the scale when weighing confectionery, especially when serving children who hadn’t got the nous to notice. Her Joan, she said, was told to buy from elsewhere but of course when Aunt Elsie’s was closed her Joan did what the rest of us did.
The majority of the customer base, living right on the doorstep in Shepherd Street were very poor indeed and to their credit both Vic and Peg were capable of extending a friendly and helpful hand towards many of them. In fact Peg herself seemed particularly fond of the Reads, Les and Elsie who lived at 55 with their large mostly male family and when Elsie gave birth to yet another son expressed concern towards the only daughter, Jill, commiserating with her that a baby sister had not yet eventuated and handing over a few humbugs by way of consolation. She also showed unusual patience towards Brian Philpott from number 60 when he appeared with a collection of fast disappearing farthings in his hand enquiring the price of gobstoppers. This was, my mother said, because he was a Mongol and therefore lacking in understanding. The term Down’s Syndrome had not yet infiltrated among us. For some reason the Vandepeers at number 90 and the Baldwins at 122 did not inspire the same care and concern within either of the Troke breasts.
Quite the most sensational piece of gossip my mother was able to come up with during her time of employment was the confirmation that Peg was undoubtedly Carrying On! It had not escaped her notice that Derek, the traveler in stationery invariably made a monthly visit, as regular as clockwork and it almost always co-incided with Vic’s monthly visit to the wholesaler in Gillingham. Other travelers were scheduled in for quarterly visits, but although the shop sold far more confectionery and biscuits than birthday cards, for some reason the traveler in stationery called with unusual frequency. And what was more, decisions about writing pads were so complicated they demanded an unusual degree of discussion in the flat upstairs during which more than one glass of sherry and gin was drunk, never mind that it was only eleven in the morning. You couldn’t pull the wool over my mother’s eyes because she wasn’t Born Yesterday.
It was shortly after the dissemination of this piece of information around the neighbourhood that Marguerite Troke, known simply as Peggy, came to the decision that she no longer needed a cleaner. My mother sniffed a lot and said she didn’t really care because she’d been considering handing in her notice for a long time.