I was a foster child. I saw my birth mum, June, at weekends but spent my weekdays with a foster family. Before the age of nine months, I stayed with a family named ‘Jones’, but their neighbours had ‘began talking’ about the little mixed-race boy in their midst and so a new arrangement was sought. Apparently, an advertisement was placed in the local newspaper, although I’ve never seen this, but the ad’ attracted the attention of a family in Wylde Green, near Sutton Coldfield and, having passed my mother’s scrutiny, they were accepted. That was until two days before I was due to take up residence with them for the first time.
My mother worked at Fort Dunlop, as a shorthand typist and often worked for one Mr Henry Knott, the deputy training officer, a lovely man. He, his wife Mabs and family had recently suffered the loss of a child, stillborn at full term and were obviously reeling. Through the grapevine, Henry had heard that June had been looking for a family to take on her boy and so he sought her out.
Although fostering arrangements were already in place, June liked Henry and quickly arranged to meet his family and see their home, in Four Oaks. The Knott’s situation was greatly preferable to June and so, a few days later, I spent my first week with them, in a pattern which continued until I left home, at nineteen, thus my ‘normal’ wasn’t quite the same as most children’s.
Mabs was Scottish and every so often the family was packed into whatever Ford we had at the time (it was always a Ford) and the long journey made northwards, at first to an aunt’s in Edinburgh, but, from 1973 onwards, to Mabs’ nephew John Wardrop and his wife, Margaret’s newly self-built bungalow in Faucheldean, next to the ’bings’ for those in the know.
Cousin (I regard my foster family as my own and hope that they do likewise) John was at the time in his early 30s and was something of a self-made man, owning a garage on the outskirts of nearby Linlithgow. Situated on Edinburgh Road, the garage was named ‘Regent Motors’ and it was there that I spent as many days of each stay as possible.
I truly loved the garage’s atmosphere; hard working and professional, mixed with the behind the scenes rough banter of such places. On winter mornings the place was freezing cold and it was my task to set the old diesel heater on the go, but woe betide if I was caught standing next to it with my hands in my pockets. Work was what kept us warm.
My other tasks were sweeping up (I still have a reasonable aptitude for this), fire watch inside cars undergoing welding (often for their first MoT test) up on the single post ramp, with a bucket of water at the ready should the carpet begin to smoulder, making number plates and occasionally hanging out with the guard dog, ‘Sultan’.
My reward for this activity, in earlier years, was to be allowed out into the sizeable yard to muck about with the scrap cars and to try and get them running. The cars biting the dust at that time were mostly pre-registration suffix examples, but I recall being startled when a C-registered Vauxhall Victor 101 joined the boulevard of broken dreams, back in 1973.
As time progressed and my feet grew ever closer to the control pedals, John allowed me a running scrap car to use in the yard, though not before banning me for a while following my poor clutch control while demonstrating my lack of driving prowess in a 1969 Bedford HA van, aged twelve. At fifteen, my car was a 1973 Austin/Morris 1100, another MoT failure, but good enough to keep me occupied in the yard. I was just playing, really.
I also earned my first ‘spannering’ wage at Regent Motors. Twenty pounds for the week, which was duly spent with the bookies at the local point-to-point race meet, so commencing and ending my professional gambling career in a single day. My second week’s wage went on a rather pungent Afghan coat, which had to be kept out in the porch, such was its goatlike aroma.
Back at John and Margaret’s it was on the aforementioned ‘bings’ where I really cut my driving teeth, in a life-expired, F – registered Austin A60 Cambridge estate.
The bings are huge mining spoil heaps, standing sentinel above the village of Faucheldean, threaded with dirt roads, which would probably now, with the benefit of age, seem dangerous in combination with teenage boys (my similarly aged cousins Glen and Lindsay also often stayed) and an old car. But we loved it, seeing in the first moments of the 1980s in the old grey heap, rather than joining in with the Hogmanay celebrations.
My last weeks with John and Margaret and at Regent Motors were in the April to May of 1980, but I’ve not forgotten those splendid times, nor what they meant to me as a young boy entering the world of adults. Sometimes blood is not thicker than water.
- Fuzz t