Bubla Basu was born in India and aged four came to England to have harelip and cleft palate surgery at Great Ormond Street. Her family moved to Thornton Heath in 1968 but after her father’s sudden death from stroke her mother returned to India.
A teacher for over 20 years Bubla, a published author who lives in Mumbai, now divides her time between teaching Shakespeare to adults and working with stray animals. Here she writes about the sentimental journey she made to Thornton Heath to search for a lost childhood.
Since 1972 when I left England at age 10, I followed imaginary routes from my home in Manchester Road to places I used to walk and cycle.
If I went down my road, past the corner shop and turned left towards Parchmore Road, I would be on my way to Julie’s house. If I turned right, it would be towards where Helen and Lisa lived. Further was where I went to Lorraine’s birthday party and further again where my father and I went to get my first dog.
As we walked back with him, we met Tony -the best looking boy in my class. My dog was named Tony on the spot because he was a handsome chap too!
I also had memories of the Recreation Ground, Grange Park and of the Swimming Baths where Mr Gower did classes on Wednesdays – when I wanted to watch Ace of Wands on tv. The only compensation was cheesy Quavers from the crisp machine outside.
On 26th June, 2019, I returned to Thornton Heath inspired to wander the streets of my childhood alone. After the first few cards and letters in the ‘70s, I had not been in touch with anyone here.
I chose first go to Julie’s house on Parchmore Road. The door was no longer the bright orange colour and I wondered what chances I had of meeting Julie.
“No, luv, I’m sorry I can’t help you,” said the man who answered the doorbell.
Well, of course. Why should anyone be in the same place after 47 years? Smiling at my foolishness, I headed towards my school. My mind maps were foggier than I had thought, so I had to ask for directions.
Children were swarming noisily in the playground and as I looked at the teachers on duty, I wondered if any one of them could be as reassuring as my favourite teacher who used to let us warm our hands in her coat pockets on winter mornings.
Could there be anyone as vigorous as our music teacher, always so noticeable in his bright shirts and broad ties? How I had wished my teacher’s thick hair and sideburns could be part of a wig for my dear, bald old dad!. Could there be a Principal as dignified as the wonderful lady I had known so many years ago, so firm of manner and so calm of face?
On what turned out to be one of my last days as a student in the school, a ball had struck me in a game of rounders and though I had been given first aid, my Principal had phoned my mother to tell her I needed to be taken home.
When she put down the receiver, there was nothing in her manner which betrayed my mother’s words on the end of the line – “I’m afraid I can’t come right away, you see, I have just lost my husband.”
My father’s sudden death ended my childhood in England. I had spent four years in the school, moving up from the Infants to the Juniors
On that June afternoon in 2019, I hoped to look around my old school but with no appointmentI was disappointedly turned away.
Going up Manchester Road, not on a Raleigh cycle (how I had wanted a Chopper!) I thought of other Thornton Heath times – like walking into the police station to report a lost dog. Jeannie and I had done that – two serious children whom two policemen took very seriously. They drove us back to where the dog was at age nine we were so excited and felt so important to be in a police van!
As we rode home, the policemen reassured us that the dog would be sent to the RSPCA. I was almost at the head of Manchester Road now and another wonderful memory brimmed up – attending the wedding of Snowy, our Brownie pack leader in a church not far from my home
My parents were no more Christian than they were anything else but they wanted me to have the fullest experiences available.
I stopped at what used to be my house – now a dull grey and maroon structure with a small unattended front patch and a crumbling step. I drew in my breath and walked up to the door. I watched my hand reaching for the first of three doorbells (we used to have two)…then the second…then the last. No response to any of them.
What an anticlimax. No Julie, no school, nobody home. This trip had been nothing but an idiotic indulgence.
Back home in Mumbai, however, I found myself suddenly galvanised into action. I found my school on Facebook and through it, Julie, her sister Lesley, another friend, Debbie, and incredibly enough, our music teacher.
Couldn’t I have simply done the Facebook search and connected with friends and teachers without going to Thornton Heath? Of course, but I hadn’t done that. There had been no sense of urgency, only sentimentality and nostalgia, no realisation of putting something back into my life because I hadn’t even known how much was missing or even lost.
It took half a day of rudderless desolation for me to discover the value of belonging and identity.