I thought JFK was assassinated on a Wednesday. Why? Because I always went to the cinema that day. The picture house at Eastbourne was the only one that showed a fresh film midweek and weekends. I could watch a new programme twice in seven days and different films at the other three cinemas. There was little else to do at the seaside town, especially during the winter months.
I was sixteen and in my second job since leaving school. After paying out tax, insurance, superannuation and union money, I had little left of my weekly wage. I paid granny for my bed and board. Going to work each day by bus and buying sandwiches for lunch. The money did not go far. It took me three weeks to save up for a new pair of tights. I discovered tights that did not ladder or go into holes. Instead, they snagged. I went around with threads dangling from my legs until I had saved up enough money to buy a new pair.
In the summer of 1962, I left school with three o’levels in English, Maths and Geography and I could not find work. I applied for many jobs and either received a rejection letter or no reply at all. In sheer desperation, Mum suggested I write to the WRAF, which I reluctantly did and forgot to sign the letter. I did not want to work in the forces. The last type of job I needed was one where you wore a uniform. A letter back from the WRAF thanking me for my anonymous letter frightened me enough to not even reply when they asked for more information. I felt like a blackmailer—why couldn’t they call it an unsigned letter?
Even though I had left school, I decided I was still going to have the summer holidays. So for six weeks I did not worry about being unemployed but continued applying for jobs.
At the end of the six weeks, Mum, who worked at the Electrolux factory, said she had got a job in the offices for me. I was to start work the following Monday. I cried all night long and went to work in the morning puffy eyed and red faced. This was not how I wanted to look on my first day at my first job.
Mum gave me instructions on where to go. I had to hand in a form to a man who appeared to be standing on guard in a sentry box at the giant metal gates. I felt like I was going to prison. The man pointed out some stairs. I climbed the two flights and pushed open the swing doors. There were rows upon rows of desks with people sitting at them, their heads down, scribbling and typing away. On each desk was a manual typewriter. The noise was deafening. The air stifling.
A supervisor showed me my place, which was at the end of a desk at least eight feet long. I was shown what to do and then left to my own devices. I did not know when the tea or lunch breaks were or even if you could go to the toilet. I sat there, worked away and watched and copied the other people.
At five minutes to five, the room fell silent. The clackety clack of hundreds of manual typewriters ceased. I was engrossed in my work but then realised the noise had stopped. I looked up. Everyone around me had cleared their desk and swivelled their chair around to face the door. Each person sitting on the edge of their seat, one foot forward as if they were on the starting blocks for the hundred yards dash.
At precisely five o’clock, a horn blasted out an ear shattering sound. There was a stampede for the doors. Everyone had suddenly gone mad. I joined the masses, pushing and shoving down the stairs. A wave of heaving bodies. Out onto the driveway, through the gates and into the road. Cars honked their horns, cyclists tinkled their bells. The mob spread out like ants from their disturbed nest. I wondered where Mum was in the crowd of workers and knew she would hurry home like everyone else.
That noisy, stuffy office was not for me, I decided as I sauntered home. I left two weeks later.
After telling Mum I would not work there anymore, we needed to come up with another idea for my employment. Mum did not moan because I was unemployed again, but I felt guilty that I was not earning any money.
I ran out of job vacancies to apply for and we both realised that everyone who had left school that summer was also applying for those jobs.
I thought about Eastbourne, the place of my birth. We had left there when I was about four years old. My relatives still lived there. I often visited them, either taking a coach and my Whippet for the day, or a train and staying a few days.
I was mainly thinking about the sunshine, sea and hills, and getting away from crummy old Luton rather than thinking of working and earning money.
I told my mother my thoughts and asked her if it was possible for me to go back to Eastbourne to live. It seemed the next minute, granny was posting me the jobs vacant section of her newspaper. It all happened so quickly, I felt as if Mum was trying to get rid of me.
I applied for two jobs and was offered both of them. One in a solicitor’s office and the other in the offices of a large departmental store near the seafront. I chose the departmental store.
While living with granny and working in the store, I met David. We started courting and eventually got engaged, but I broke it off. I realised I did not love him after all. Dad, who by now had left Mum, was living with a lady and her three children. They were planning on moving to South Africa. He phoned me at granny’s as he was cross with me. I asked him if he wanted me to marry someone I did not love. He did not answer that question.
Granny’s house was freezing, whether it was summer or winter. There were no carpets on the floors, only brown linoleum. One small coal fire in what granny called the scullery. In order to get warm, you had to sit so close to it that your shins burned and yet your back was still freezing cold. In front of the coal fire was an old pine table that granny regularly scrubbed. The table had warped from this constant washing and the edges curled upwards.
When granny put my dinner plate on the table and poured on the gravy, it flowed to the edge and almost spilled over onto the table. I had to move it to the centre which had remained flat and reach over to eat my food. Granny insisted it was healthy to put a piece of each item from your plate onto your fork. I liked to eat the meat first, then the potatoes and last, the vegetables. I could hear Granny tut-tutting as she put a bit of everything on her fork. She had been in service from the age of twelve and knew how gentry ate and served up their meals. She always put the food out on the table in several dishes for you to make your own choices. These days, people would say there was a great deal of washing up from this method of presenting a meal.
In the winter months, because the sash windows did not close properly, I often woke up to find my flannel frozen solid. Granny did not have a bathroom and each morning she brought me a jug of hot water, which I poured into a china bowl and did a strip wash.
I bathed twice a week. Once at the baths at the bottom of granny’s road. I bathed there on a Wednesday. I ran from The Dental Estimates Board, where I now worked and arrived at the baths hot and flustered a few minutes before the last bath was allowed.
There were about six baths in separate, blue wooden cubicles. The lady on duty would huff and puff about how late I was and turn on the hot tap, which was outside the cubicle. As I felt I had already caused too much trouble for the lady by arriving near closing time, I dare not call out to her to put any cold water in the bath.
I stripped off, covered my body with soap, then quickly submerged myself in the scalding water to rinse off. After drying myself and getting dressed, I would sweat all the way home because of the red hot bath. Even on bitter days, I did not wear a coat so that by the time I got back to granny’s house I had cooled off. But at least I had bathed and felt clean again.
I had another bath on a Saturday, and for this, I walked the length of the South Downs. From granny’s house, at Old Town, Eastbourne, I went up a road, across a park, up an alleyway and onto the hills. Then I strolled the length of the hills to Polegate, where auntie lived. I found it invigorating and relaxing. I felt free. The wind was in my hair. I could see and smell the ocean. There were sweet-scented wild flowers along the path and it was lovely to be outside and not cooped up in an office.
One day I heard a cuckoo as I set out and it appeared to follow me, or its call did. By the end of nearly two hours of walking and hearing cuckoo, cuckoo, I could have strangled the bird.
Sometimes I missed the path going down off the hills. It wasn’t really a path like the one at the top. I judged where the bend in the hills looked familiar and hoped I was going in the right direction, then stomped through the tall grasses until I reached the pavement. When I realised I’d missed the place where I come off the hills, I had to turn back on myself, but I did not mind.
I did auntie’s ironing in exchange for a bath and sometimes I paid her half a crown, which is two shillings and sixpence or twenty-five new pence in today’s money. Auntie cooked a dinner and emphasized the fact that she had made gravy, especially for me.
Sometimes, on warm days, auntie put the table and chairs in the garden and we ate in the sun. I preferred eating inside as often at Eastbourne and surrounding areas there was a wind and insects and flying leaves landed in my dinner.
The Tivoli was the smallest and coldest of the four cinemas in Eastbourne and it was here that I learned of the death of JFK.
David and I met at the bus stop at the bottom of granny’s street and we caught the bus into Eastbourne town centre. Then we took the short walk to The Tivoli. It was a dark, damp evening with the mist coming in off the sea.
David and I crossed the narrow side road and went in the entrance, where there was a tiny window with a person’s face behind it. The person, male or female, never smiled as they pulled back the piece of glass, took our money and gave us our tickets. Then we climbed the two flights of grey, concrete steps. We pushed open the swing doors and entered a small room that looked and probably smelled like The Cavern, where the Beatles and Cilla Black began their music career.
It had a domed ceiling and bare brick walls. The seats were grey plastic on metal frames that were fixed to the floor. I remember wondering why the owners had screwed the seats to the floor, as I suspected that no-one in their right mind would want to steal them. They were cold and uncomfortable. Some were broken or had cigarette burns on them where the plastic had melted. There was no heating, so David and I huddled together to keep warm and watch the film while trying to forget our cold toes.
I cannot remember which film we went to see. It could have been Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as we both enjoyed scary movies. However, by today’s standards, horror movies back in 1963 were very tame.
We probably entered the cinema at about six in the evening. First, the news was shown, then a cartoon. Sometimes there was a short film where cowboys fired guns at Indians who fired arrows at cowboys. Where people fell in love and members of the audience cried.
Then the main programme began. The film used was celluloid film on a reel and nothing like the films and videos of today. If you turned your back to the screen, you could see the rays of light coming from a small hole in the wall at the back. You could see a man’s head as he often stood smoking and making sure the reel played correctly. Sparkly white droplets of dust could be seen floating in the beam of light, which transferred the images from the reel to the screen on the wall opposite. Sometimes the reel broke, and the screen went black. Then giant numbers flashed up. Members of the audience would sigh or whistle or boo. The breaks in the film varied from seconds to minutes and the longer the film was broken, the more agitated the audience became. The film would then appear back on the screen. Sometimes part of the story was missing, which was disappointing or not, depending on how much you were enjoying the film.
It turns out that David and I were at The Tivoli on a Friday that week and not a Wednesday. Friday 22nd November 1963. Halfway through the film, the screen went black and, as usual, the audience sighed and looked around at the projector manager to see what was happening. Then words came up on the screen. That was new. That was different. The audience read the words in silent disbelief. The message stated that President Kennedy had been shot and taken to hospital and at 7 pm GMT had been declared dead.
The words slowly scrolled up the screen and then stopped. I could hear members of the audience taking a shared in breath. I turned to David and stared at him. Tears welled up in my eyes. This was beyond comprehension. The new, young, good looking President of the United States of America was dead. This was the time of flower power and ban the bomb and the president who believed in peaceful talks was now deceased.
The theatre lights came on. A man stood before the screen. He read from a sheet of paper the same words that had come up on the screen.
John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was assassinated today, Friday, November 22, 1963, at 12:31 p.m. CST in Dallas, Texas, while riding in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza and declared dead at 7pm GMT.
The man then said the film would recommence after a brief interval. He said he understood if some of us did not want to stay and watch the rest of the programme. Those who left would be given a complementary ticket to use at any other time and for any other film.
I heard mutterings around the theatre as people discussed what they were going to do. Thoughts rushed through my head. If we stayed and watched the rest of the film, would we enjoy it or would our minds be elsewhere? Would it be disrespectful to watch the film while The President of the United States of America lay dead? If we left the theatre and went into the icy outside world, where could we go? I had never invited David back to granny’s house and did not even know if I could. I only ever went to his house on weekends. Did granny and auntie and my cousin Bob know what had happened? Had granny heard it on her tiny radio?
Most people in the theatre left in a solemn queue politely trickling down the stairs to the cold, dark world outside. David and I followed. We walked around Eastbourne feeling numb and speechless. Then went up to the seafront and sat there for a while, huddled together on a bench seat while being battered by the icy sea wind. Then we walked back down the high street to the coffee shop.
Most people in there had also heard the news and everyone was talking about it. There were bouts of chatter and bouts of silence. Everyone was stunned.
David and I caught the bus back. We kissed goodbye at the bus stop. I walked home and went straight upstairs. Granny and Cousin Bob were already in bed and Uncle Jack was not back from the pub. I cried myself to sleep and wondered what the world was coming to and what good or bad news tomorrow might bring.