The Kindness of Poplar

Once upon a time when the time was 1962 and the weather rather cold a young and rather gawky boy, the kind of boy we would describe today as “nerdy” but was then described as “studious” walked across the East India Dock Road in Poplar, past the seated statute of Sir Richard Green and dog missing an ear and into Poplar Baths, built by Poplar Borough Council in the height of the great depression in order to provide work for the unemployed.

The boy had sixpence in his pocket to pay for swimming in the large pool, which was then all of thirty three and one third of a yard long. He exchanged his sixpence for a green ticket and tuppence in change and went to the male changing rooms, where he exchanged his green ticket for a basket to hold his clothes. He went into a cubicle, changed into his swimming trunks, known locally as a “cossie” , gave the basket full of clothes and his tuppence to the attendant in exchanged for a rubber band bearing the basket number and waded through the foot pool full of disinfectant into the large room that houses the swimming pool.

The boy wanted to try out some strokes that he had learned in a library book, and hoped to practice so much that he would be good enough at swimming to win a prize at the school gala, five months away.

He swum alone for a while and then practiced some racing dives, also alone and after an hour or two went back to the changing room, gave up his rubber band for his basket and a thin cotton towel and carefully more or less dried himself (he always missed wet bits) and with his cossie tightened into a very wet ball wandered into the small cafe that Poplar Baths boasted.

A serving lady stood behind a counter, chatting to large man on the other side of the counter. It might have been a romantic meeting, but the boy did not know of such; he was merely looking to see what his tuppence would buy after his swim, for he was hungry and his parents forbade him to eat before swimming. IF he breakfasted he would have to wait two hours for the food to digest, so he skipped breakfast and swum.

He looked at the bill of fare which was displayed on the wall . Toast with margarine was a penny, toast with butter was tuppence and what he craved most, a chocolate covered biscuit called a kit kat was tuppence halfpenny. He was not interested in tea, coffee or beverages, just something to eat.

He must have stared long and hard, because the lady asked him what he wanted. He wanted the chocolate but did not have enough for it. He felt his money and asked for two slices of toast with margarine.

“Give him buttered toast” said the man who leaned on the counter. “It will build him up after his swim.

The lady put thee toast on as the boy stammered that he only had enough money to buy the margarine variety.

The toast popped up and the lady buttered it generously. The many put his hand in his pocket and paid for the toast and gave the boy a sixpence too.

“Thank you, but I cannot accept this” said the boy, who had been taught not to take money from strangers.

The man leaned kindly down.

“Son” he said, a little gruffly, “let me give you some advice. Never refuse money”.

Such was the kindness of Poplar.


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