I was bullied at school. You wouldn’t think so to look at me now, would you? But it’s true. I was small for my age, you see – what they call a late developer. Mrs Bond dubbed me ‘The Mighty Atom’ when I was about nine and the tag stuck with me right through my time at St Lawrence’s and on through the Grammar School. There was nothing mighty about me on those afternoons when Dave Tyler and his mates would wait for me at the bottom of St Lawrence’s Avenue and I would be thrown to the ground and Dave would sit on my chest with his knees on my upper arms and spit on my face. This happened every day for a couple of months until I began to take a longer and more circuitous route home, down back alleys, where convolvulus with its white trumpets climbed over fences, and where there were dog turds on the cobbles from which rose swarms of flies.
Why didn’t I report it? Because they would really do me over then, wouldn’t they? And besides, you just didn’t. Why did they pick on me? I’ve told you – because I was small. Any kind of difference is enough to trigger bullying. They thought I was a swot too, which was true. I was determined to get into the grammar school. I thought it would be a massively more civilised place where everybody would be intelligent, clean, and smart.
Dave Tyler and his pals were two years older than me. My dream of escape was tainted a little when he got into the grammar and I imagined him waiting for me along Rookery Lane with newer cronies, bigger and uglier. It was such a relief that, when I passed my eleven-plus with flying colours and was admitted to the posh school with the claret blazers, he paid me no attention whatsoever.
Bullying continued, but it came from my peers and was comparatively subtle – but only comparatively. I would be the last to be chosen for team games. My books, my coat, and, once after gym, my trousers, would go missing. My classmates once put me out of the classroom window onto the sill outside and then closed the window. I had to be rescued by a master. I had got used to being called ‘Atom’, and even quite liked it, but now the nicknames proliferated: Speck, Midget, Ant, Microbe, Tot, Mouse, Pipsqueak – all of them had their season.
I don’t think I was particularly cowardly or anything but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it, was there? With Dave Tyler and his sidekicks, I was not only outsized, but outnumbered. In my new school, there was nothing particularly personal about it. I was just the runt of the form.
One day, there was a bit of rough-housing going on in the lower quad and I was being used almost as the ball in a passing game, pushed from one classmate to another. At one point, Fletcher ripped my trousers. He’d grabbed at the pocket and ripped it away, exposing the top of my leg. The trousers were new and I was sure that my mother would be furious at me. I saw red and went beserk. The next thing I knew I was pulled off Fletcher, whom I had dragged to the ground, where I was banging his head on the stone paving.
I was caned for that, but you know what? I was never bullied again, verbally or physically.
There was one incident at St Lawrence’s, when I was about nine, which pained me much more than anything I have described so far and which still makes me squirm with embarrassment over forty years later.
I had fallen in love, you see. Pauline Harris she was called. She was in Standard IV, the top class, eleven years old, way out of my league. I was content to gaze at her from afar, mere worm that I was. I can’t remember a blind thing about her now, of course, but then, she was the Queen of my every waking thought, the Goddess of my distant desires. Maybe we’d been fed a too-sugary diet of Greek myth and Arthurian legends and I may have got it into my head that love was supposed to be like this and that the lover, outranked and unnoticed, was supposed to languish ‘alone and palely loitering’, like in that Keats poem we read with Miss Ashworth.
My mistake was to tell my treacherous sister about my romantic longing. Georgina, or Georgie, was two years older than me and a great friend of Pauline’s. I had sworn her to the deepest secrecy. I might as well have shouted it from the rooftops. I read a newspaper survey recently that said that women could not keep a secret longer than forty-seven hours and fifteen minutes. I don’t think my wife could hold out even that long. But I didn’t know that then, did I? Not only did Georgie tell Dave Tyler and his eleven-year-old thugs but she must have told Pauline and her ladies-in-waiting too.
One winter morning during playtime, I was drying out my socks on the boiler in the boys’ cloakroom. There had been torrents of rain as I was making my way to school that morning and the water had got inside my wellies. I didn’t like the way they squelched. I didn’t have spare socks with me, as I would have done had it been snowing, and so I was hoping I could get them dry before class resumed.
Suddenly, I was grabbed from behind and blindfolded with a warm damp scarf which smelled of wet dog and whose edge tickled my nose. I was carried bodily down the steps to the boys’ entrance, where I could feel the cold air on my face. Then I lost my bearings until I was set down on my feet and the scarf removed. I was now at the bottom of the girls’ staircase and seated on the steps were what seemed like all the girls from my sister’s year and in their midst was the lovely Pauline. By her side was my perfidious sister grinning like a Cheshire Cat on laughing gas.
Such was my mortification that I willed the earth to open up so that I could sink through its crust and be consumed in the boiling magma below. The heat from my blush would have powered Manchester through the rest of the winter. I would have given anything to be back with my damp socks and the cloakroom stove.
‘Go on then,’ said Dave Tyler, ‘give her a kiss! She’ll let you. Won’t you, Pauline?’
‘Yeah. Come here, lickle Atom, I can’t wait to get my hands on you.’
The girls began laughing. It was more crazed hyena than silver bells.
I stood there immobile, my limbs locked as in a nightmare.
‘Go on, Atom, give her one,’ said one of Tyler’s chums, the one with a face like a warthog. ‘She’s gagging for it.’
‘Or are you chicken, Atom?’ Tyler said. ‘I think he’s chicken, boys.’ He began walking up and down with his knees bent making chicken noises. Amid shrieks of laughter the other boys began to imitate him, jerking their heads backwards and forwards and clucking. The girls were beside themselves with laughter. And all at my expense.
Tyler began to crow like a cock and that broke the spell. I rushed up the steps to Pauline, gave her a peck on the cheek and then rushed back down again and out into the playground and across the yard to the outdoor toilets where I locked myself into a cubicle and cried my eyes out.
Now you may think all this was something and nothing but you have to see it from my perspective. She may have been only eleven in reality but, in my eyes, Pauline had been as glamorous and stellar as Marilyn Monroe or Grace Kelly. And don’t go thinking that I am going to say that the incident ruined my life because it did nothing of the kind. I had adored Pauline to distraction – now I hated her.
But I was cured! The malady of love did not trouble me again until I was nearly fourteen – unless, of course, you count my crush on Miss Ashcroft – but then all the boys had a crush on Miss Ashcroft, and some of the girls too, if truth be told. And unless you count my curious feelings for Luke Chery.
There was a score to settle, however: Georgie’s betrayal must not go unpunished. I kept it up for months. I often put salt in her tea when she wasn’t looking. The black face soap purchased at the joke shop in Southport (jolly japes – howls of laughter – breaks the ice at parties) was a good ruse and produced the tantrum I’d hoped for. Best of all was the stag beetle I introduced into her make-up box and which reduced her to hysterical screaming. I got away with it because mum was always so flustered that she would just say to me: ‘Wait till your father gets home!’ And when Dad did get home, he was always too knackered to bother himself with our squabbles.
I think I told you that school got better when Dave Tyler and his sidekicks left the school. And Pauline, for that matter. The other reason was the arrival of Luke Chery at the beginning of my penultimate year at St Lawrence’s. In those days, boys always had nicknames for each other and Luke’s was almost ready made: we merely added an ‘r’ and called him ‘Cherry’.
Cherry was my height but nobody bullied him and the reason nobody bullied him was because he was – I can say the word now though it would have sounded wrong at the time – beautiful. He was also exotic. He had been brought up in Kenya and had a honey-coloured tan everywhere apart from his fingernails. This made his teeth very white. His hair was very blond too, bleached by the sun. He wore very short khaki shorts, with a turn-up, which was a novelty to us, and the sleeves of his khaki shirts were also very short. The result was that his golden limbs were very noticeable compared with the pasty arms and legs of the rest of us, brought up under rainy Lancastrian skies.
Perhaps because of our height, we became allies immediately. I think this probably dated from a game of ‘Pirates’ in the gym. If you don’t know the game, it works like this: The gym equipment is laid out around the gym like an obstacle course – the horse, the buck, springboards, parallel bars, piles of mats, everything. The climbing ropes are untied and hang free. Two people are chosen as pirates and then it’s just like a game of tag. If you’re caught you have to freeze and stand with your legs apart. You can be de-tagged if someone who is still free crawls between your legs. The game ends when everyone is caught. The thing is, though, that the gym floor is a shark-infested sea and you have to flee without touching the floor.
It was great fun – screaming kids swarming up the wallbars and along the beams like sailors in the rigging. I imagine a health and safety officer nowadays would fizz with indignation at the danger – though I don’t remember any injuries – and earnest lady teachers would swoon with horror at the idea of boys crawling between girls’ legs.
Cherry and I were never caught. In this game, being small was a marked advantage. We would scamper up the wall bars like monkeys, onto the top of the beams and up into the rafters of the old gym where no-one dared follow. The consequence was that we always won and became pirates. Then, we were so agile and fast that we captured the sailors, girls first, in no time.
We did everything together, climbing trees, rambling over the moors, cycling, train-spotting, stamp collecting, even our homework. Cherry was bright and gained a place at the grammar school too, though, to my chagrin, we were not in the same class and the name-calling resumed – until I beat Fletcher up, that is. By then we were in long trousers and felt quite grown-up. I think Cherry was absent that day and I remember feeling sorry that he had not witnessed my triumph.
In the third year, when we were thirteen, Cherry was promoted to the top form so we were both in 3A and absolutely inseparable. Mr Ellis, our form master, used to call us Siamese twins. We called him Mr Silly because it was his name backwards, or nearly, though not to his face, of course. Outside school, I would be at Cherry’s house all the time or he at mine. We both loved The Beatles and he had copies of all their stuff. I remember his favourite was ‘Please, Mr Postman’ from With the Beatles; mine was probably ‘Ask Me Why?’ From Please, Please Me.
One Autumn day, I was at his house and we were listening to some track or other. We were sitting quite close and he suddenly put his arm around my shoulders. It felt weird but also rather lovely and I think the two were somehow related. I think I told you that I was a late developer – my voice didn’t break until I was nearly fifteen – but everything down below was in working order, shall we say? All the same, I wasn’t aroused, not sexually, not – you know – literally, but there was a strange feeling. I snuggled up to Cherry and he didn’t resist. I must have been going through a ‘phase’.
‘That is so cute,’ says my wife, who has come up behind me, and is reading over my shoulder.
‘You are not supposed to disturb me when I’m writing,’ I say. I attempt to hide my irritation by making it sound kind of jokey.
‘Yeah, well don’t forget you promised to take the boys sailing.’
I love my two sons to bits but, God, is it hard to get any work done in this house during the half term holidays.
‘I haven’t forgotten,’ I shout, but there is no reply.
Cherry and I both knew, I suppose, what other boys would make of our transgressive behaviour. Girls could cuddle but not boys. However, at the time, it felt totally natural. If neither of us said a word; if neither of us made the fatal error of articulating what we felt; if we could avoid framing, even in our own minds, what this dreamy sensuous pleasure actually meant, it would all be perfectly all right. Eventually, Cherry got up to turn the record over and we didn’t re-engage when he sat down again. The sweetness of the moment was never repeated.
What we most liked doing was swimming. Cherry had swum in rivers where buffalo and zebra and giraffes came to drink. Water was his element. Me too. My mum sometimes said that I was adopted and that my real mother was a dolphin. I would beg my dad for the one and six it cost to get into Croasdale Moor swimming baths. I would have to promise to do all sorts of chores in return which would sometimes get done and sometimes not. If he were in a good mood (Friday, pay day) I might manage to wheedle another sixpence out of him for chips afterwards.
Cherry could swim underwater longer than I could but I was better at diving. I had swimming trunks with a leopard-skin pattern in homage to Tarzan; Cherry’s were white which of course showed off his tan to advantage. In the shallow end, we would do handstands on the bottom to impress the girls. They would swim a breadth or two and then sit on the edge in a cluster and gossip and giggle about the boys they fancied. We would dart about like fish, Cherry and I, chasing each other just under the surface or along the bottom. We would swim between each other’s legs and there would be the same brief erotic charge I had felt on the sofa. Or Cherry would lie on the bottom pretending to be dead until I could bear it no longer and dived to gather him up in my arms and bring him to the surface where he would suddenly quicken and dart away through the water like a guppy.
We would quickly decide that the girls weren’t interested in our antics. Older boys with hairy legs were more their game so we would go to the deep end where I would practise my diving and Cherry would swim along the bottom gliding and suddenly twisting like a cruising reef shark. Or we would dive for pennies from the bottom. This was not allowed. In theory, we were only permitted to dive for a bakelite brick supplied by the pool attendant on request. If he caught us using coins we would apologise profusely until his back was turned and then we would do it all again. We would often stay in the pool until our skin was wrinkled and we could hardly see because of the chemicals in the water. Then, dressed and tingling, we would go for six pennyworth of chips from the shop on the corner.
Everything changed when the fair came to our estate – not the grand Easter Fair which filled the whole market place next to the Town Hall. This was a rogue affair with only one ride – a waltzer – and a miniature circus. There was also a hot dog van. This all sprung up overnight, it seemed, like mushrooms, on some waste ground by the Star picture house. It became a magnet for teenagers from all over the town and it had a strange air of romance about it that was both cheap and gaudy and yet bewitching. At night especially, with its coloured lights and its pop music, it became a trysting place. Older boys would arrive on motor bikes with their girls on the back. The waltzer was ridiculously cheap and they would ride it for hours. Later, there would be snogging (and the rest) in the dark alleyway behind the Star, whilst ‘Love Me Do’ or ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ pumped out from the waltzer.
We younger teens would do anything to raise money to go to the fair: we took empty pop bottles to the shop to reclaim a few pence; we begged unwanted clothing and newspapers to take to the rag and bone shop on Canterbury Street where you might get a few shillings; we walked dogs and washed cars, although there were fewer of them about in those days. We walked to and from school and saved our bus fare. We stopped going swimming and saved the money. Often, on quiet nights, the fair people would let us youngsters ride for free to attract punters. It was better than leaving the ride to revolve empty.
We went to the fair every night, whether we had money or not. You would have done too. Parents disapproved and some of them tried to impose bans and curfews but to no avail. Georgie, my sister, was crazy for one of the gypsy boys who swung around the waltzer whilst it was in motion and set the cars spinning hectically. The girls would put their hands on the top of their heads and scream. There was a smell of cheap scent, engine oil and the sweet reek of onions from the hot dog stall.
The circus was a tawdry affair with only three or four acts. There was a pair of unfunny clowns with a toy car. There was a tight-rope walker with a long pole. The wire wasn’t particularly high so we could see her quite clearly. At first she looked glamorous in her silver sequinned costume, but if you looked closely – and we did – you could see that there was a hole in her tights near the crotch and that her ballet shoes were worn and spotted with grease.
The best thing was Pythagoras, the Amazing Mathematical Pony (‘Exhibited before all the Crowned Heads of Europe’). Well, we didn’t believe that for a moment. I’m afraid Pythagoras was a rather shabby and forlorn-looking beast who hung his head in philosophical dejection. But he could count! The ringmaster would give him simple sums and the creature would paw out the answer in the sawdust. He could even multiply small numbers. We were amazed but that didn’t stop us heckling because we felt there most be some kind of cheating going on. Grinning, the ringmaster cried out: ‘O ye of little faith, why don’t you give him a sum?’
A forest of hands went up and the ringmaster picked Cherry. You couldn’t miss that mop of white-blond hair in any crowd.
Cherry went down into the ring and the ringmaster said: ‘Give him a sum but make sure the answer is not above twelve or we’ll be here all day.’ Cherry agreed that this was fair.
‘Three plus two,’ he said.
Pythagoras counted out five.
‘Six plus five,’ Cherry said.
Pythagoras counted out eleven.
‘Try a multiplication,’ said the ringmaster.
‘Three times three,’ said Cherry.
Pythagoras counted out nine.
‘Two times four plus three,’ said Cherry, smiling up at me in triumph. The crowd cheered derisively.
Pythagoras head went up and down but his hooves did not move.
‘You think he can’t do it don’t you?’ The ringmaster shouted to the crowd, half of whom shouted ‘Yes!’ And the other half ‘No!’
‘Let me ask you for silence, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Pythagoras needs to think. Repeat your question, young man.’
‘Two times four plus three,’ Cherry said.
After a slight pause, Pythagoras counted up to eight and stopped. The crowd began to chatter. And then Pythagoras pawed out another three.
The crowd cheered and clapped and whistled and stamped their feet. Cherry came back up to rejoin me with a big grin on his face.
After the show, we went for a hot dog and sat on a little wall near where the older boys parked their motorcycles.
‘I know how it’s done,’ Cherry said.
‘How what’s done?’ I said.
‘How Pythagoras counts.’
‘Get away with you. You don’t.’
‘I do too.
‘Go on then. How does he?’
‘I’m not telling you now,’ Cherry said.
‘Don’t be a dick. Tell me.’
‘You won’t tell anybody, will you? It’s more fun if it’s just us who know.’
‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’
‘All right then. When you give the pony a sum the ringmaster nudges him ever so slightly with his elbow. I could only see it because I was right down there. It’s every so slight. For every nudge, the pony paws the ground. It’s not thinking at all. It’s the ringmaster who’s done the sum. Clever, isn’t it?’
‘Bloody amazing,’ I said – I was practising a little mild swearing at the time.
‘No telling, mind.’
‘No telling. Just us.’
That was my friend, Cherry. He wasn’t just cute, he was really smart.
The next day, we went to the circus again to see if I could spot the artifice. Cherry was right: the elbow movement was infinitesimally small and the ringmaster stood so close to the beast that it went unobserved. Cherry was a genius. I looked around the benched seating to see if anyone else had spotted the scam.
It was then that I fell in love for the second time.
Sitting opposite us, in the middle of a group of friends which included Georgie, were Lucy Gray and Mike Benson. These superior beings were like royalty in our part of town. Mike was seventeen and actually owned a motor bike, a totem of his power. He was ‘cock’ of the Blakewater estate and no-one had challenged his authority for as long as I could remember. He had also been going out with Lucy since time immemorial or so it seemed. She was vaguely friends with Georgie, though she was a year or two younger than my sister. That did not stop Georgie behaving like a lady-in-waiting, like all the other girls.
I had seen Lucy around, of course – the Blakewater kids all knew each other – but she was so far elevated above my humble estate that I doubt if she had ever even noticed me. So why then did I suddenly become seized by hopeless desire on that particular evening? I couldn’t tell you. It may have had something to do with the gaudy magic of the fair and the little circus: the enchanted space within the marquee, the batteries of multicoloured theatrical lights with their missing bulbs, and the oompah-pah-pah of the brass-band. There may even have been a roll of drums at the instant my heart was stolen.
My wife is reading over my shoulder again as I write. I wish she wouldn’t do that. She is laughing at my thirteen year-old self. Perhaps you are too? After all, this is the second time I’ve told you about a doomed passion for an older woman (third, if you count Miss Ashcroft). You are probably thinking: What a wuss! Doesn’t he realise he hasn’t a hope?’
Well, you’d be wrong, as you’ll see.
I went around in a daze. I neglected my school work. I neglected my appearance. I neglected Cherry. Up to this point we had had no secrets, but I did not tell him about Lucy Gray. I could think of nothing else. On my bus route to school, we passed the Lancastria Garage, which had a huge sign with neon lights illuminating the letters LG in red and blue alternately. To me they spelled out ‘Lucy Gray’ and I would sit staring out of the dirty window while a hormonal maelstrom churned inside me.
The fair and the circus packed up and vanished, as swiftly and silently as it had arrived. Georgie shut herself in her room, pining for her gypsy lover, who hadn’t even said goodbye. Gradually, my routines returned to normal and, at length, Cherry was able to persuade me to go swimming at Croasdale Moor.
The pool was noisy and full. Lucy and her friends were sitting on the edge of the pool at the shallow end. I had seen her and was showing off. To be honest, the tight bathing cap she was wearing was not very flattering. Cherry and I were involved in a gladiatorial contest which involved us sitting on the shoulders of two bigger boys and wrestling. The winner was the one who managed to topple his opponent. The score was about even when the older boys became bored and swam off. Cherry and I swam to the side opposite the girls and sat on the edge to get our breath back.
One of the girls, a rather skinny one, stood up, walked around the shallow end, and came to sit next to me. This was unprecedented and I felt uncomfortable. I’d seen her before but I didn’t know her.
‘You’re Paul Clayton, aren’t you?’ she said.
‘Yeah, I am,’ I replied. ‘Why?’
‘Do you know Lucy Gray?’
‘Yeah, ‘course I do. She’s over there.’ And I pointed to where Lucy was watching us intently.
‘Do you fancy her?’
‘Well, yeah, a bit.’
‘Only a bit?’
‘Well, no, a lot.’
‘Well, she fancies you.’
‘No, she doesn’t. Don’t be daft.’
‘She does, you know.’
‘She doesn’t. She goes out wi’ Mike Benson.’
‘Not any more she doesn’t. They’ve broke up. Last night.’
‘Get away, you’re pulling me leg.’
After the Pauline business, I was wary. I wasn’t going to be betrayed again. Georgie was at home, doing her Lady of Shalott act, but even so I was not inclined to trust females. I could feel myself blushing. If I’d been in the water, it would have boiled.
‘I’m not pulling your leg but, if you’re not interested, you can suit yourself.’
‘How do you know?’ I said. ‘Did she tell you?’
‘Of course she did. You thick, or what? Go and talk to her, she’ll tell you herself.’
‘I don’t fancy getting beaten up by Mike Benson,’ I said.
‘No, don’t worry about it. He’ll already have got a new girl. He can take his pick. He could have me any day,’ said the skinny girl and she got up. ‘Ask her out. She’ll say yes.’
And she went off towards the girls’ changing rooms. I sat there dazed. Was this happening to me?
‘Well, go on then,’ said Cherry,’ and he plunged into the water. I watched his tanned body and white trunks speed away towards the deep end, about a foot beneath the surface.
When I looked back toward the girls, the group was breaking up. They too were making their way back to the changing rooms. Only Lucy was left and she was looking at me. She peeled off the unflattering swimming cap and shook out her thick chestnut hair.
That did it. It was now or never. I did not trust myself to walk round the edge of the pool to her. It would feel as if everyone were looking at me. Instead, I slipped into the water and swam across with what I hoped looked like a casual breast stroke. Once there, I pulled myself up to sit beside her.
‘Your friend says you’ve split up with Mike,’ I said. Not a dazzling opening gambit, I grant you, but I had to make sure that chatting to her wasn’t going to get me a fat lip. He wasn’t around but his mates were.
‘It’s no big deal,’ Lucy said. ‘I was getting fed up of him anyway. He’s such a big-headed prick. He’s got a motorbike, yeah, but you want to know something? So what!’
‘Your friend says you like me,’ I said, blushing like a lobster.
‘Yeah, I do,’ she said, looking into my eyes, ‘I really do. You’re cute.’
Now, I’d have preferred her to say ‘cool’ or ‘hot’ or ‘fit’ but – since I wasn’t any of those things (at the time) – ‘cute’ would have to do.
‘Do you want to go out with me?’ I said.
‘Yes, Paul, I’d like that,’ she said. ‘Anyway, look, I’ve got to get home. I’ve got some homework to do – bloody French. Would you like to walk me home?’
I said I’d love to walk her home and we arranged to meet outside the baths in a quarter of an hour. I went to the men’s changing rooms, showered quickly and dressed. A spike of hair on the crown of my head was sticking up and would not lie down. Cherry was completely forgotten.
Lucy was on time and I walked her home slowly. She lived only a few streets away so it didn’t take long. I had enough money to buy a six of chips which we shared, though I let her eat more than half of them.
I didn’t know whether you were expected to kiss on a first date. Lucy didn’t seem to expect it and I think I was secretly a little relieved. I have no idea what we talked about as we walked along. I expect the conversation was a little awkward on my part. Don’t forget that I was at an all-boys school and that girls were a bit of a mystery – apart from sisters, but sisters didn’t count. We arranged to meet at the swimming baths the coming Thursday and then we would go for a walk along the canal. As her front door closed behind her, I wanted to burst into song!
She Loves Me, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!
It was a miracle. I (the Atom) was going out with the most beautiful girl in the whole Blakewater district. She was probably the most beautiful girl in Blackburn, Lancashire, England, Great Britain, The World, The Solar System, the Milky Way, in Space! I was going out with Mike Benson’s ex-girlfriend! We had a date!
I was walking on air. Cherry had said nothing about my abandoning him at the pool and we were, officially, still great friends. It is only now that I realise that I allowed a chilly shadow to fall on our friendship which, at the time and in my delirium, I failed to notice.
Thursdays were not my favourite day at school. Double chemistry, double maths, double physics and double Latin seemed to me to be cruel and unusual punishments. I endured but could not focus and received a sharp tap on the head from Killer Watson’s ruler when it became clear that I had fallen behind Caesar’s legions in the Gallic campaigns and was daydreaming elsewhere.
After school I rushed through my homework whilst trying to clean my gym pumps at the same time. These were fashionable footwear for thirteen year olds at the time but they had to be Dunlop Green Flash. Mum had tried to get me a serviceable imitation at a cheaper price but I wouldn’t have it. Petulant nagging over a period of time worked with her and she gave in.
My homework was probably rubbish and I would get a rollocking for it but the future didn’t exist for me apart from my date that night. Even when I got Meltonian White shoe cream on my chemistry exercise book, I was able to defer my fear of Mr Walsh for the time being. The exercise book was a deep purple and the white blob on it was inescapable. Wally Walsh was a stickler for neatness and he would probably boil my balls in a crucible but we didn’t have Chemistry till the following Tuesday, which seemed an age away.
At the swimming baths, there was no sign of Cherry, and after a bit of acrobatic showing off with running dives and depth charges, and after setting the girls screaming by pulling at their ankles underwater (but not Lucy’s) and splashing them, we just sat on the side and chatted, Lucy and I, with her handmaidens all around. I had a vague feeling that there was something a shade effeminate about this, but I was too far gone to care.
We left after only half an hour. I had wheedled some money from mum by telling her I had a date so I was able to add a crispy haddock to our portion of chips. We ate our feast as we walked along, the handmaidens at a distance behind us, chattering and giggling.
We crossed the level crossing at Daisyfield and then under the high triple arches of another branch of the railway further on. We passed St Stephen’s Rec. on our left and onwards, out of town. (I always thought it was St Stephen’s Wreck but didn’t know why).
You might be surprised how quickly you can escape the forbidding image of the industrial mill towns of the North of England and find yourself in lovely countryside. Soon we were at Cook’s Farm where you were allowed to lean over the fence of the sty and scratch the backs of the pigs who would squirm and squeal in ecstasy, and you could talk to the pet mynah bird which had been taught some pretty ripe language and would swear at us and cackle.
Above us were some low hills and Cunliffe Quarry, in the depths of which was a pool reflecting the sky. It was said to be bottomless, and was known locally as The Blue Lagoon. A boy had drowned there the previous year and it was said to be haunted. Down below were the massive cooling towers at Whitebirk, around which curved the shining ribbon of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. This is where we were headed.
This was an evening in high summer and it was hot. Lucy and I walked along the towpath holding hands. The other girls had fallen far behind, apart from the skinny girl who had been the go-between a week ago. I was conscious of her as an unwelcome presence only a few steps behind.
Green fields sloped upwards on either side. Here and there cows would look up from their grazing and watch us pass with their big eyes. Crickets churred in the grass and now and then we heard the forlorn cry of the peewit. Thistledown floated in the hot dry air. A barge passed us on its serene passage and a pipe-smoking man waved to us and said: ‘Lovely day for it!’ His dog stood up and wagged his tail and then lay down again to resume his sunbathing. The chugging of the engine gradually receded.
Eventually, we came to a stone bridge whose purpose was to allow the farmer to take his vehicles from field to field. It was high enough to let a barge through but no higher. Here Lucy took off her blue cardigan, saying she was too hot. She had been wearing it over her shoulders with her top button fastened. Now she folded it and placed it over the railing of the fence which ran between the towpath and a field. Taking my hand she pulled me into the shadows of the arch of the bridge. Rippling reflections of the surface of the canal played on the roof. The skinny girl stood at the margin of the shadow. There was no sign of the others.
I knew what I was supposed to do: I was supposed to kiss her. You will not believe what a mess I made of it. I bungled the embrace. Then my nose got in the way. I kissed her chin before I found her lips. Mine were dry and pressed tightly together until I realised hers were open. I opened mine and our teeth jarred. Shy, inept and inexperienced, I made a wet mess around her mouth. She pushed my shoulders away and looked at me.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ she said. ‘You’re shaking like a leaf.’
‘I can’t do it with her there, can I?’ I almost shouted.
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ Lucy said.
‘What’s she doing here anyway?’ I said.
‘She’s my friend!’ Lucy said.
I lurched at her and tried to kiss her but she turned her head away and pushed me back.
‘For heaven’s sake!’ she muttered under her breath.
Then, she turned away from me and, taking her friend’s arm, they walked slowly back along the towpath towards the town. I stared after them until they were just tiny figures in the distance.
Dusk was gathering. Two amorous drakes flew along the canal in pursuit of a duck. Landing with a splash they quacked indignantly at each other and sailed off.
I was confused. Were Lucy and I still going out with each other? We hadn’t fixed another date but she hadn’t formally dumped me either. There was a spark of hope, there were clouds of dejection, but mostly there was just confusion.
As I emerged from the tunnel I saw that Lucy had left her blue cardigan behind. The spark of hope in me flared into life. This would be my passport back into her heart. I would look after it and after school tomorrow I would take it round to her house and apologise for my shyness. She would be deeply touched by my gallantry and my honesty and all would be well.
It didn’t work out like that. We had walked a long way out of town and it was dark when I got home. I left the cardigan over the back of a chair in the living room and went to bed. I was very tired and emotionally exhausted.
The next morning the cardigan was gone. Mum said she hadn’t seen any cardigan and asked if I’d been hallucinating. I told her she wasn’t funny. I went through agonies of shame, embarrassment and desolation. I had lost Lucy’s cardigan.
School was a nightmare, despite English and double gymnastics. My chivalric plan was dust. However, I resolved to go round to Lucy’s house all the same and confess. She was lovely and she was sweet – surely she would have pity on my misery and take me back?
I knocked on her door and Lucy herself opened it, but barely a crack. All the same it was enough for me to see that she was wearing the blue cardigan. Lucy explained that Georgie had seen it over the chair in the living room, picked it up and returned it to Lucy at school.
I would devise exquisite torments for my sister but now I apologised. No, I grovelled.
However, my belle dame was sans merci.
‘Yeah well…’ was all she would say.
‘But Lucy,’ I said, ‘are we still going out with each other?’
‘God, you’re pathetic,’ she said, and closed the door.
I suppose you expect me to say that my life was ruined, that I became a misogynistic recluse, or that I turned queer. I’m afraid that’s a bit corny of you, although there were snotty tears in the privacy of my bedroom for a day or two. It was a week or so later that I heard that Lucy had gone back to Mike Benson, but that was all right. I was more or less over her by then. And a couple of months after that, I saw her shaking out her chestnut hair at Croasdale Moor baths and thought that, yes, she was pretty but there was nothing to explain or justify the agonies I’d gone though that summer. I must have been bewitched by the shabby glamour of the circus. And later, when the skinny girl had come over to ask me if I fancied her, I think my eyes must have been clouded by too much chlorine in the water.
‘Will you get a move on,’ my wife is bellowing up the stairs and she is threatening me with all manner of horrors if I don’t hurry up and drive the boys over to Belmont Reservoir for their sailing lesson.
I must obey – in a moment.
One thing was changed for good, you see. My friendship with Cherry never returned to what it was. We didn’t fall out or anything and nothing was ever said, but our intimacy was over. At the end of the fourth form, he and his family, missing sunshine and servants, returned to Africa.
And now, I cannot escape a lingering sadness, a feeling that, quite casually, I had somehow betrayed my loyal friend, the boy with sun-bleached hair and honey-coloured limbs, who had swum in a river where impala and elephants came down to drink.
©Ian Thomson 2018
First published in my collection of short stories called Cherries – available on Amazon