It’s amazing what sights you see in Belgium,
especially if you’re a 12-year old schoolboy.
I was born in Holloway (Road, not Prison) but I grew up in Tottenham amongst working class people. As such, my expectations of what my future life might hold weren’t great. I never dreamed for a moment that I’d travel as much as I eventually did. Nobody I knew had ever been abroad, unless it was in the forces during the war. My mum, for example, never set foot outside England until she was 44. I thought my life would take a similar turn. My mum and dad, though, harboured greater ambitions for me.
A few months into my secondary school education a letter was sent to parents. It offered their children the chance to go on a school trip abroad over Easter. My mum and dad grabbed it on my behalf.
So it was that one Saturday in April 1960 I assembled at Victoria Station with thirty of my schoolmates to catch the boat train to Dover. We were booked on a ferry to Ostend, thence to visit the Belgian seaside resort of La Panne, where we would stay for eight days. Also scheduled were excursions to Ghent, Bruges, the Menin Gate at Ypres, and a day trip to Lille in France.
As I stood on the platform I took stock of what I deemed necessary to take away for a week on ‘The Continent’. By my side I had a small suitcase made from strengthened cardboard containing my clothes. Over my shoulder I carried a duffel bag within which were a sandwich lunch, 12 copies of Buses Illustrated, and a newly acquired British Passport. Why on earth I decided that it was essential to take a dozen bus magazines to Belgium, I have no idea. But take them I did.
Two teachers accompanied us, Mr. Hudson, a science master, known to all of us as Major Tom (he’d been in the army) and Mr. Williams, a maths teacher, universally called Willy. Major Tom was a popular figure within the school, a heavy-built giant of a man, who carried a battered leather briefcase stuffed with banknotes in foreign currencies, plus a healthy amount of Sterling. These days carrying that much cash around he’d be arrested for suspected drug dealing. Back then there was no alternative. Credit cards had yet to be invented.
Mr. Williams, on the other hand, was not so popular, a teacher who punctuated his classes with frequent and enthusiastic bouts of corporal punishment using a leather strap that he carried around in his inside jacket pocket. This instrument was known as the Drossie, named after its first-ever unfortunate recipient. Mercifully, it didn’t accompany him on the trip to Belgium. At least I don’t think it did. He did, however, bring along his thick, bushy eyebrows, tobacco and foul-smelling pipe, and permanent scowl.
I don’t remember much about the journey to La Panne, except two things. Much of my first crossing of the English Channel was spent hanging over the side of the ship throwing up. Once I didn’t make it as far as the guardrail so I was sick all over my duffel bag, seriously pebbledashing several copies of Buses Illustrated in the process. The second thing I recall is that we took a tram all the way from Ostend to La Panne. I’ve just looked at Google Maps and I discover it to be a distance of 29 kilometres. At the time it felt like the longest tram ride in the world.
Towards the end of a long day we reached our hotel, the Hotel du Sablon, which again courtesy of Google, I see still exists. But as everybody else’s holiday began, a nightmare started for me. In order to explain the gravity of the situation that was about to confront me, I have to return to Tottenham for a few sentences.
The West family lived next door to me. I knew the patriarch of the family as Uncle Terry. He wasn’t really my uncle but in those days older friends of my mum and dad gloried in the honorary title of uncle or auntie. Uncle Terry was a tall, bespectacled balding man in his mid-fifties. He always more a safari suit and seemed to spend most of his time pottering around in his garden. He had a wife, Auntie Margie, and two daughters, Janet and Susan.
Back in Belgium, we checked into our rooms and filed down to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. I didn’t notice him at first, but after a while I spotted a familiar, bald-headed, bespectacled figure wearing a safari suit. Yes, it was Uncle Terry. But he wasn’t with Auntie Margie and Janet and Susan; he was with another wife and a different pair of daughters. My mind started racing. First of all, logistics came into my head. I’d watch Uncle Terry every morning set off on his bike for his job at Cope’s Pools in Edmonton. How on earth did he get to Belgium in time for dinner? And wasn’t he being missed back home in Tottenham? Was Interpol about to be alerted?
Then a terrible thought occurred to me. If he recognised me as I’d recognised him, he might resort to serious measures to silence me and continue with his double life. I slid down in my seat and tried to hide behind the enormous bowl of mussels I was about to eat.
One or two of my classmates took a shine to Uncle Terry’s two daughters and tried to engage them in conversation. As the girls only seemed to speak French, the boys didn’t have too much luck – especially with Uncle Terry and his Belgian wife glaring at them. I went back to considering Uncle Terry’s double life.
He came from Jersey, where I understood they spoke a version of French. So that might explain his speaking fluent French to his Belgian family. I looked through the restaurant’s large window and scanned a row of pushbikes parked outside. None of the bikes resembled in any way the sit up and beg model that Uncle Terry rode to Cope’s every day. He must get here by other means, I reasoned – perhaps even the same tram we’d used to get to La Panne. I thanked God that he wasn’t on board this afternoon.
At that point, Uncle Terry and his family rose from the table, but I didn’t see them go. When I did notice their empty table I breathed a sigh of relief and attempted to get on with my holiday and my mussels.
The next day, Major Tom and Willy were taking us on a day trip to Ghent to visit the Castle of the Counts of Flanders. We set off early in a chartered coach, thankfully without bumping into Uncle Terry and his surrogate family. Major Tom had drummed into us that we had to carry our passports at all times in Belgium as it was compulsory to be able to provide ID if called upon to do so. Just as well he did.
Major Tom spoke brilliant French. Unfortunately, the coach driver didn’t and could only speak Flemish. Tom took up what was to become his customary position within the coach, in the seat next to the driver. Willy placed himself towards the rear of the coach puffing on his pipe, ready to provide clips round the ear to any boy indulging in rowdy behaviour. We set off, just as I saw Uncle Terry and his family arrive for breakfast through the hotel restaurant’s window. I pulled the curtain across my window until the coach was safely out of La Panne.
As the journey progressed it became apparent that Major Tom and the driver were having an altercation concerning the route to be adopted. This was made all the more amusing by the fact that it was being conducted in two different languages. Eventually, the driver steered the coach into a layby opposite a small country road. Tom could now be heard shouting ‘a gauche, a gauche’ and pointing to a map spread out across his lap, then to the small country road. The driver said something in reply, of which none of us could understand a word, least of all Major Tom. The more astute amongst us – that didn’t include me, by the way – thought they’d heard the word Netherlands somewhere in there. One boy even ventured to suggest that the driver said we were going to Holland. ‘Nonsense, boy’ said Willy, now regretting his decision to leave the Drossie in England, as he gave the outspoken pupil a quick clip round the ear. With a shrug of his shoulders, the driver turned into the small country road that Major Tom insisted he take.
The road was narrow with passing places for cars. The driver pressed on until a sign appeared at the side of the road ‘Douane’. Despite two terms of intense French lessons none of us boys had a clue what this meant. We turned a bend to be greeted by the sight of the Dutch border. There was no room for the coach to turn round, and reversing was out of the question, so we had no choice but to enter Holland, where hopefully we could turn round, return to Belgium, and thence to Ghent.
This was pre-European Union and each country guarded its borders jealously. Two Belgian officials came aboard the coach. One proceeded to stamp all 32 passports to mark our exit from Belgium. The other searched our bags and when satisfied we weren’t smuggling contraband, chalked a white cross on each.
We crept forward another 20 yards whereupon two Dutch officials climbed aboard and proceeded to do exactly the same as their Belgian counterparts had done minutes earlier. We were all delighted. We’d only been abroad a day and we already had four stamps in our passports. (We even got one leaving England.)
The coach drove a mile or so into Holland when we reached a small town called Sluis. As the driver turned the coach around we were allowed by Tom and Willy to take pictures of a windmill and the canal that ran through the town. Ten minutes later we re-boarded and five minutes after that we were back at the Belgian border. We went through the same palaver all over again. By now, my brown duffel bag had gained four white crosses and my passport another two stamps. There were so many crosses on my duffel bag, in fact, that if I squinted it began to resemble a leg of lamb, scored, ready for the oven.
We eventually got to Ghent but it was something of an anti-climax after the Dutch adventure. All I remember of the tour of the Castle of the Counts of Flanders was that one of the exhibits was a guillotine in full working order. As 12 year-old schoolboys we took a macabre interest in this instrument of execution, and of course, tried it out. We didn’t actually put anybody in it, but we raised the blade and let it drop. This resulted in a complaint from a museum custodian and clips round the ear from Willy. But what’s the point of having a guillotine if you don’t use it?
Back at the Hotel du Sablon it was time for dinner again. Uncle Terry and his family were already seated so I crouched to waist level and stole into the restaurant under cover of a trolley used for carving meat, wheeled by a waiter towards the table I shared with my school friends. I don’t think Uncle Terry saw me. I hung around until he and his family left before I chanced quitting the restaurant myself. I nipped straight up to bed.
The next day was what travel brochures describe as ‘at leisure’. The weather was good so we all headed for the beach. As a concession to the heat, Willy removed his sports jacket with leather patches. He also slightly loosened his tie. The rest of us stripped down to bathing shorts. We swam, sunbathed and generally larked around for most of the day.
Around four in the afternoon, a few of us took a stroll round the town. Of course, for me, this was fraught with danger as I might bump into Uncle Terry at any moment. We soon discovered a shop that sold flick knives and purchased one each. We spent the next hour staging knife fights on the genteel promenade of La Panne, West Side Story style. This somewhat alarmed the locals. The police were called. But for the fact that Major Tom and Willy happened to be strolling past, we would most likely have ended up in jail. Major Tom talked the coppers out of further action and confiscated the flick knives. We escaped with a warning and more clips round the ear from Willy.
The week continued with excursions to Bruges, where we looked up at the Belfry; a day trip to Lille, and a half-day spent at the Menin Gate in Ypres. I, for one, found seeing this vast monument a chastening experience, dedicated as it is to the memory of soldiers, many of whom who were just two or three years older than me when they died.
In between times I avoided bumping into Uncle Terry and his family particularly at mealtimes, where I became an expert on the movement of the carving trolley across the restaurant.
Soon, it was our last evening at the Hotel du Sablon and now I began to worry about what would happen when I encountered Uncle Terry back in Tottenham. I took the lift to the ground floor where the restaurant was located. As the lift doors opened I was startled to see Uncle Terry and his family standing in front of me. I couldn’t avoid them. But hang on a minute – not a flicker of recognition passed over Uncle Terry’s face. Not only that, Uncle Terry back in Tottenham was over six feet tall. Uncle Terry in Belgium was just over five foot. For the briefest of moments, I wondered how he’d lost 11 inches of height just by crossing the Channel. Then it dawned on me. This was the first time I’d seen him standing up. At five feet one, this couldn’t possibly be Uncle Terry, but a doppelganger. The likeness was amazing, spooky even.
With a much lighter heart I returned the next day to Tottenham. I got home around six in the evening. As I walked up the road towards my house a familiar voice hailed me. ‘Hello, Michael, did you enjoy your holiday?’ I looked round to see Uncle Terry, the real one, on his sit up and beg bike returning home after a day at Cope’s Pools. ‘Yes, thank you, Uncle Terry, it was great’. If only he’d known what had really happened on that holiday.
Copyright: Michael Everett 2014