Loss of Innocence

I recall the day I lost my innocence, not in terms of a more personal encounter but in an unexpected and even more unwelcome introduction to the seamier side of life. I left school at 15 and was for the first three years of my working career a telegram boy. The first year on a pedal cycle and then on a motorcycle when I became legally old enough to ride one.

After two weeks of basic training I was assigned to a Post Office in Poplar, London. At that time in 1960, Poplar was mainly a mix of both private and social housing to the north and located at the tip of shipping docks to the south. Large areas of Poplar suffered heavy bomb damage during the Blitz leaving a mixture of old and newer buildings.

I was given my first batch of telegrams to deliver which I duly sorted into a logical order and off I set into this brave new world of mine. I took longer than normal in delivering the telegrams which was anticipated as I was as yet unfamiliar with the area. The route took me to various businesses and houses north of the West India docks and into the area of Limehouse. Part of this area was also known as China Town stemming back to the days of ships arriving from the Orient with numbers of Oriental seamen that used to frequent the area.

My very last telegram was to a large but dilapidated house on a side street off the main road that led into the West India Docks. Although I was unaware of it at the time, the building could be better described as a house of ill-repute. I duly parked my bicycle at the kerbside, knocked on the door of the house and stood back a few steps awaiting for my call to be answered. I did not have to wait long as the door was quickly flung open wide. The next few seconds left me somewhat speechless as framed in the doorway towering above me was an extremely obese woman shamelessly wearing a corset with attached suspenders holding up stockings and nothing else.  I think I must have stood there for about ten seconds with my mouth gaping wide open in shock before incoherently mumbling something about a telegram to deliver. The lady, if that is what she could describe as, took the telegram, tore the envelope open and read the contents. She then looked directly at me and offered me a tip. However, I will always remember her exact words. “What would you like deary, half-a-crown, ( two shillings and sixpence), or half an hour?” All I remember was running in great fear if not outright terror to my bicycle and pedalling away from this den of iniquity at great speed. I feel certain I must have broken both world records for sprinting and speed cycling on the same day.

I suppose on reflection that having only left school a few weeks earlier I was starting to feel quite adult. I suspect many young adults who have recently left school feel the same. This experience was however somewhat ego deflating and made me realize that I was at heart, still just a schoolboy. I think I learnt on that day that adulthood develops much more gradually with life’s experiences and not overnight like many youngsters like myself  may have thought at the time.

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