In 1957 going to boarding-school in Woolverstone, Suffolk was an enormous adventure. I mean, at 10 you don't really understand the world that well, but you do realize that being carted off to boarding-school for the next seven years, far from home, no more telly, no more kicking around the streets of Camberwell, no more chucking things into the canal, no more playing knock-down-ginger, no more playing on bombsites or dropping bangers around the shopping centre - even at 10 one could dimly grasp that this was a watershed, a defining moment.
Well, Mum felt it too, of course, and she wanted to give me a special present to take. When she asked me: "What can I get you, my dear?" I didn't know what to say. I had to think it over for ages. Finally, instead of something sensible like a dictionary or a slide rule, I decided I wanted a cricket ball - a real, leather one. I can't remember the reasoning - there must have been some, even if incomprehensible to anyone else. Perhaps I thought they might be a bit short of balls up in Suffolk, or that when I played I could demand to use my ball and would of course be the better player for it. Or I just wanted to show off my ball. Whatever, I wanted a cricket ball, a real leather one with golden stitches and lettering.
So, one fine afternoon off we went on one of those wonderful buses not outlawed by the European Union and jumped off at that roundabout on the south side of Waterloo Bridge. There was a row of shops there, including a sports shop. In we went - no idea about cricket balls, except that a good one was made of hard, red leather with golden stitches and letters. The purchase process is a complete blank, but out we came with the ball, cushioned in a special little box. How I treasured that ball. It cost my mum 21s, a fortune in those days. I could have got TWO water-pistols for that, or fish and chips every day for a week, or absolutely zillions of marbles. I suppose Mum thought I was daft, but she never let on. A couple of extra vests would have been her choice. She was always so afraid I’d catch cold. Aren’t Mums wonderful?
Anyway, this ball was stashed lovingly away in anticipation of the great day, which came in fact when we left on the coach not far from where we’d bought the ball. Much of the rest is a blank - there must have been so many things going on - new faces, the songs on the coach, one’s bunk in the Orangerie, frightening great monitors with enormous slippers - and not only for wearing either .... A complete blank for details, except for the first visit to Orwell Side. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to do with my ball. Having seen some of the crowd I’d landed among I started to think it would be nicked at the first opportunity, or ‘confiscated’ by some grinning ape of a sixth former. I remember hesitating before we left the dorm - to take it or not to take it, my precious guinea’s worth. In the end, couldn’t resist, and out it came from its posh red box. Someone had a bat, and we got some stumps from somewhere - be a miracle if anyone else remembered - could only be Terry Ashcroft, Ken Randle, Ken Clarke, Bryan Weaver or one of the other guys from the ‘57 intake.
Well, we set up stumps, picked sides, and off we went. Somehow I got in very early, and of course, the second ball I received I whacked it straight over the balustrade. Now you must remember the balustrade - wonderfully posh. And on the other side was a steepish drop, and all along its entire length from the physics lab right down past the rugger pitches were nettles four foot high. Of course, we never found the ball. I looked for hours, whacking the nettles with a bat, till long after all the others had gone in to tea.
I’d only been at Woolverstone for three days, and I’d lost my precious ball. Late at night, alone and homesick, I cried, though nobody knew. I cried not so much for myself, but for my Mum, who’d made such a big sacrifice to buy me my stupid ball. I later had many happy experiences at the school, and some not so happy, but I’ll never forget my sadness at my lost ball.
And if any of you bastards found it after I left I bloody well want it back!!