Heritage: A coconut from Romford Market was nothing like the real thing in Panama

Coconuts growing on a tree like the ones Michael Merry saw in Panama.

Coconuts growing on a tree like the ones Michael Merry saw in Panama. - Credit: Archant

Novelist Michael Merry moved to Panama when he left school in 1959. He soon discovered it wasn’t like Romford

When I arrived at my very prestigious Romford High School in 1951, it was assumed I had read the usual children's books and that I was now ready for Shakespeare, Shaw and Steinbeck.

Of course, I could read but preferred Dumas, Dickens and another "schoolboy" author named Robert Michael Ballantyne.

His most famous book was, by far, The Coral Island. It was famous not for its literary content, but for a widely known mistake involving the thickness of coconut shells. I didn't care! Drinking from a coconut became a quest for me.

In The Coral Island I found my new heroes. Ralph, Jack and Peterkin. They lit up the pages of Ballantyne's book!

What enthralled me was their discovery of coconuts. They described the liquid contained within the shells as "not unlike lemonade" and in my mind, I formed an image of myself downing a delicious nut filled with R. White's best fizzy brew.

In October, the local newsagent produced home-made ice cream for the first time since the war. I queued for three hours and purchased, for three pence, a delicious cone. It was wonderful, but I still had my heart set on a coconut.

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One day, walking with my parents in Romford Market just before Christmas, we came upon a greengrocers stall with a handwritten sign proclaiming "Coconuts".

After a week of softening up Mum, we returned and she purchased a coconut. It was nothing like Ralph had described. Instead, it was a hairy brown ball like a monkey's face.

Undaunted, once home I used a screwdriver to pierce holes in the top where three circles stood out. Closing my eyes and dreaming up white sands and waving palms, I took my first drink, and promptly spat it out.

White's lemonade? No way! It was a bitter, musty, slimy concoction. I was devastated. For the next eight years I remembered my disappointment and becoming resolute in my resolve to one day, to drink from a "real" coconut.

In 1959, I left England and travelled to Panama to train local telegraphists.

Shown to my bachelor quarters that first day, I looked out of the window and there, not five feet away, at the top of a large palm tree, hung about a dozen "proper" coconuts. They were as Ralph described them, green and as big as footballs!

It took me two minutes to retrieve a kitchen knife from the cooking area I had been shown. Then, straightening out a coat hanger and making a hooked end, I leaned out of the window, pulling the nuts towards me. I cut one off and let the others spring back.

Taking a newspaper from the rack, I sat on the wooden floor, nut between knees.

Due to inexperience, it took five minutes to cut through the outer skin and get to the "eyes".

This nut was not brown and hairy, it was soft shelled and when penetrated, a clear liquid ran out. Making two holes, I lifted the nut as Jack described, over my head letting the liquid run into my mouth.

Not R. White's, but delicious. Cool and sweet and not fizzy at all. Over the next two days I drank the nectar from all twelve coconuts and enjoyed every one. Unfortunately, there's always a "down" in every "up" story! I had not been told about the laxative effect of coconut milk and after finishing the nuts, I spent two days running back and forth between my bedroom and the bathroom.

However, my craving had been satisfied.

I went home on vacation in 1962 and in Romford Market I passed the greengrocers stall. There I saw a notice proclaiming, Coconuts on sale. Half a dozen ugly brown spheres stared up at me. I smiled at the somewhat wishful description.

You see, I knew what a real coconut was!