Charlie Johnson, or just plain 'Johnson', as he'd now have to get used to being called, had a great deal to catch up on when he started his first term at Eastleagh Preparatory School in January 1966, at the age of 7 and 3 months. For a start, it might very well have been his first term there, but it wasn't anybody' else's first term: all the pupils in the class he found himself slotted into had started there the term before, in September, at the start of the 'Advent term'.
September is when British educational institutions of all levels start their academic years, as opposed to the 'Lent term', which commences in January, and which was when he started. Consequently everyone else in class already knew each other well, and existing groups or cliques had been established, and therefore needed to be cracked and joined.
This was in fact to be a pattern for his entire school life, starting and finishing at both his Prep School and his Public School in odd terms, a state of affairs that only got rectified after a partial gap year, which occurred between Public School and University, at which stage he was finally in synch with all the other new students when he joined. However seven year old Charlie wasn't to know any of the consequences of this way back in January 1966.
What he did find out very early on was that there were also a great many other things he needed to catch up on, in addition to making new friends and getting to grips with a number of new subjects, none of which he'd previously encountered . By living overseas for the previous two years, without access to any TV, there was a lot about British culture on which he needed to have a crash course, in order to get up to speed, and to be able to express any form of opinion in the play ground and in the school dining room, let alone in the classroom.
For instance, What on Earth was a Manchester United? And was it better than an Arsenal or a Spurs, whatever they were? Who were Georgie Best and Bobby Moore? Who was James Bond, and why was he called 007? Who, too, was Doctor Who, for Heaven's sake, and what the heck was a Dalek, and why did all the kids kids go around saying "EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!" in weird sounding voices to each other at every opportunity they got? Where was Wembley? What did Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious mean? What were Thunderbirds and Stingray? And who were The Beatles, let alone which one did he prefer?!
Another mystery regarded food. When he'd been asked by the form mistress on his first day in front of the class what his favourite food was, he'd replied 'Nasi Goreng', and the whole class had laughed. He wasn't to know that it would be at least 25 years before decent Malay food would be available in Hastings, in restaurants or in supermarkets, or that nobody else's Mum's could whip up perfect steamed or fried rice and produce incredible curries. What were Baked Beans? What was Nutella? And Peanut Butter? And did people really eat foul-tasting and foul-smelling fish called sardines out of a can, and more to the point did he have to, too?
In those days there was no Google, and nor did his parents own a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. His points of reference were his fellow pupils, and his cousin Eleanor, known as El. El was at that stage one of just three girls at the school, amongst about a hundred or so boys, although in a couple of years time she would be joined by another of Charlie's female cousins, Caz, bringing the complement of girls up to four.
The reason that El was at the school was because her parents owned it and ran it, which meant that they were in fact Charlie's Uncle and Aunt. Yes, Eastleagh was a family business, and Charlie discovered that his new Headmaster was infact his Uncle (by marriage), Godwin (known to students, needless to say, as God!), which of course was a name already familiar to him from stories told of his early Nigerian days, and the care he had received from the African stewards Godwin and Moses.
English Uncle Godwin also happened to be his godfather (but, like his other godparents, had been unsurprisingly absent at his christening in Enugu some 7 years earlier), and he was married to his father Joe's eldest sister, Auntie Angela, or Auntie Ange, for short. When not being referred to by pupils as 'God' and 'Mrs God' they were known as Mr and Mrs Driver.
It would only be during the school holidays that they'd revert into being Uncle Godwin and Auntie Ange. Not only did that connection exist, but for the first two terms at Eastleagh Charlie also found himself living bang next door to the school, and to his newly-met aunt and uncle and his cousin El, in a house his father had rented from his sister and her husband.
El actually had three brothers, being Charlie's only three male cousins Nigel and Philip, who were both quite a bit older, and much younger two year old Colin, which meant that the only two cousins in the Eastleagh years narrative that Charlie was to interact with on a regular base would be his two same-aged female cousins El, and -(when she arrived two years later)-, the aforementioned Caz, both of whom were just a few months younger than him.
To add to the family connections, and perhaps to the confusion, there was a second set of Drivers, both among the students and among the staff. Godwin's younger brother, Jasper Driver, known as Mr Jazz, and his wife Karen, known as Mrs Jazz, were also employed at the school, and in fact lived in a house in the school grounds.
Jasper taught History and Geography, subjects to which Charlie took like a duck to water, and he also coached football and cricket, sports to which Charlie took like a lead balloon to flying. Karen doubled up as part-time school Matron during the day and part-time putter-to-bed-supervisor of the school boarders in the evenings.
They had a much elder daughter, Kate, already an adult, and two younger sons. Their youngest son, John, was also very young, and therefore at this stage didn't have much connection with Charlie, but their elder son, Robert, who was just 3 months older than Charlie, became a classmate, a good friend and a 'cousin-by-marriage', although there's no official name for a cousin's cousin.
El therefore found herself being a first cousin to both Charlie, through her mother being Charlie's father's sister, and to Robert, through her father being Robert's father's brother, but Charlie and Robert were not cousins to each other, or related in any way in fact, although they grew to consider themselves to be so as the years at Prep School progressed.
While photographs from the Johnson's time in mid Sussex in 1962/3 show Charlie in the company of his Driver cousins, and his cousins' cousins, at a family event or two, he had no recollection at all of meeting them, nor either sets of their parents, until starting at Eastleagh, aged 7. So, this was all part of the learning curve too: finding out about his cousins, and the cousins of his cousins.
He was to discover that they appeared to enjoy cricket, chess, fishing, horse riding and making model World War II airplanes, none of which Charlie knew anything about, and they didn't seem to be interested in Dinky toy cars, which at that stage was the only 'hobby' that the adult Charlie, stretching memory back to 54 years before in Sydney in 2020, could recall being interested in during those first two terms at Eastleagh. But such is life. Being different to his Driver cousins was something Charlie would take secret pleasure in, although it never affected his relationship with them. This was a secret 'vice' he would discover he shared with his cousin Caz, when she eventually started at school too, but more of that bond in a while.
The house next door to the school that the Johnsons were leasing from the Drivers was a temporary solution while they looked for their very first house of their own. Upon finding that there were no further overseas employment prospects available at Conch Oil, Joe took a job instead with another oil company, in the field of logistics and distribution around the British Isles, who for the sake of the Charlie Chronicles will be known as Mississippi Oil.
Working for and with Americans now, instead of with predominantly Brits, as had been the case at Conch, this was an office job at Mississippi's London Headquarters, and Hastings was too far down the railway line from London to make regular commuting from there a feasible or sustainable prospect.
With the acquisition of Dozy-Belle, a wonderful elderly second hand (or possibly fourth or fifth hand) gun metal grey Austin A30, acquired for the princely sum of Thirty Pounds, he was able to drive Dozy-Belle to the station for the 90 minute commute in each direction up to and back down from London, which freed up Pam to venture out into the East Sussex countryside in Hillary, the brand new Hillman, to try and find them a home.
The house had to be closer towards London, be relatively near a main railway line, have a decent sized garden, and yet not be too far away from Hastings. The search was thorough, with a number of possible options, mainly on the border between East Sussex and Kent, on either side of the county line. In the end the clear winner was a small picturesque Victorian cottage, 2 up and 2 down, with a flat-roofed 1960s extension sticking out, that had the potential and planning permission to build another floor on top of the extension, and which was tucked away down an unmade farm lane in a tiny speck of a hamlet called Wallcrouch.
The cottage had been built for the groom of a large house further up the lane, which went through a number of metamorphoses over the decades, while the stable where the horses that the groom had looked after back in Victorian and Edwardian days, a stone's throw from the cottage, had been converted to a bungalow, which shared the driveway with the cottage.
One of Charlie's last memories of the rented house next to the school in Hastings was of watching England win the 1966 World Cup on the old black and white telly there, in the company of his parents, and his grandparents from Scotland, who had come down south to assist with the house move. By then he was of course very aware of who Bobby Moore was, as well as Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters, Alan Ball, the Charlton brothers, and indeed most of the England team, but he had yet to decide what, if any, team to support when the new English Football Season started, in time for the Autumn or Advent term back at Eastleagh.
During the six weeks or so between the family moving into the new house in Wallcrouch and Charlie returning to school in Hastings, both sets of grandparents assisted greatly. Teddy, his grandfather down from Scotland, was a born handyman and he built a larder, a number of useful cupboards, shelves and the like indoors, while outdoors Joe Senior, the Vicar, who was an excellent gardener, helped Joe Junior in hacking back the brambles that had pretty much taken over alot of the lawn, having colossal bonfires with all the debris, and helping to dig out and plant the first of what were to be a great many veggie patches over the years.
Meanwhile Elspeth, his Scottish gran, knitted up a storm, ensuring the Johnsons would have winter woolies, with Autumn fast approaching, and Prunela, his English gran, back at the Vicarage whipped up an amazing array of jams to stock the newly built larder, and for Charlie to take back with him to school because.. drum roll.. Charlie was about to become a boarder!
TO BE CONTINUED.