I was seven years old. I was a sicky child. In the proudest moment of my life up to that point, an ambulance drew up outside our council house. Instead of being the undoubted weakling on the street, kids rushed to wonder at my sudden importance. I was taken to somewhere that seemed so far away. There I made my first black friend, a friendship that endured for years and widened my perspectives. Joe came on a boat from Jamaica. The Windrush Generation.
Of course, at the age of seven I had no idea about the Windrush Generation. I grew up on a council estate on the edge of Northampton. It was decent for its time. The cold, mould and damp were standard but it had three bedrooms and an indoor bathroom.
The closest we got to other cultures and ethnicity was the Irish family down the street. The only dark faces I saw were in encyclopaedias and children’s books. They were often labelled “tribes” and “primitives”.
None of this mattered. I didn’t know there was another life outside our council estate. If there was, it was no further than the park at Eastfield where I had recently fallen into a stinking pond. We didn’t have a TV. Radio was the Home Service and the Light Programme. No phone. No car.
I struggled to keep up with street life. It was a rough and tumble and naughty life. I was pathetic at the rough stuff but not so bad at being naughty.
Long before the modern regimes of asthma control, I couldn’t breathe well. There were no inhalers and no management plans. One day, I recall it as summer, I retired to bed with serious asthma. The doctor was called late at night after my father went the phone box a couple of streets away. I can recall the elderly doctor’s grumbling as he knelt to my low bed. The bed suited me.
The next morning the ambulance arrived. This was such a unique experience that the kids from across the estate came to watch me being loaded in. It was the highpoint of my life on that street.
I was delivered to Creaton, a TB sanatorium in north Northamptonshire. It was probably the furthest I had ever travelled. It felt like going into another dimension. I can’t recall being scared. I didn’t feel much more ill than usual.
Creaton was a classic sanatorium. Rooms facing onto gardens. Big windows that were open all day. There were two beds in our room. Me and Joe.
I had never met a Jamaican before. I didn’t know where Jamaica was. I am fairly certain that I had not met a black man before. Joe was in his thirties maybe. Gap toothed. Broad grin. Always cheerful.
Joe was a tonic but he was more. We talked endlessly and I am sure I exhausted him with my pesky questions. At the age of seven, I thought I knew everything about the world. I had a lot to learn.
He told me he came across on a boat to work on the buses. The date, this was 1962, and his chatter link him to the Windrush Generation.
I can’t recall details of the conversations more than five decades later. But I do remember that I really enjoyed being in the next bed to him. That is despite my having lost the use of one lung with pneumonia.
My knowledge and my thirst for knowledge expanded every day.
This older man treated me as an equal. We were just mates in the same ward.
I learnt from others too. I was bored by two girls who were brought in to meet me. But a couple of guys dropped by and gave me a stack of Eagle comics. Dan Dare! My lifelong love of science fiction began.
Joe was discharged. I became bored. One day, I found my clothes in the wardrobe and escaped through a window. It was bright and sunny and I wandered the grounds. Of course, I didn’t know I was being monitored every step of the way. I found no way to escape and arrived back at my starting point. There were two doctors with arms crossed awaiting my return. That image is indelible in my mind. Both Indian, she had a bindi. It was many years before I knew it was called that.
They took my underpants away and no self-respecting seven year old goes around without underpants. I was confined to bed.
Joe worked as a conductor on Northampton Corporation buses – the red double-decker buses. We met often. He always had that same grin. It was always the same friendship. He would never take my fare. I was often petrified of an inspector getting onboard to check tickets.
Despite the angst I felt as a teenager, the moment I saw Joe I would burst into a smile and laughter.
By the mid 1970s, I was working away. I heard that Joe, who was a heavy smoker, had died from lung cancer.
Lying in a bed next to Joe at the age of seven helped shaped my life. As a shy, skinny weakling, I learnt the principles of equality even before I knew what those words meant. I got to understand the value of friendship. Joe treated me as an equal.
Treating everyone as equal remains Joe’s legacy in my life. A legacy of the Windrush Generation.