He was a nervous and skinny boy with thick fair hair, and he hated going back to boarding-school. He was eight years old. On the morning he was due to take the school train from Birmingham, he went into the garden and shoved a sprig of plum leaf down his throat and made himself sick. He showed his mother a smear of sick on the periwinkle under the plum tree. She hugged him and said it was nothing. Later in the day, at Snow Hill Station, he went into the gentlemen’s lavatory and really made himself sick. His mother took him home.
Two days later he was on the morning train, alone.
The train passed through the Black Country and he peered through the window at the chimneys and cooling-towers pouring smoke and steam into the sky. He had to change trains at Wolverhampton. There was a twenty-minute wait. He bought a popular magazine from the news-stand because the picture on the cover reminded him of the Black Country. He was alone again in the compartment of the second train which was passing through fields. He read in the magazine about the hydrogen bomb and the cobalt bomb. When the junior master met him at Wellington, the boy was shaking.
He hated school because no one would leave him alone. Because he was so skinny he hated being tickled by the headmaster at bedtime. He hated the boy who stole his marbles, and he hated the boy who rubbed his chest with his hairbrush. After lights-out, the others whispered plans for the future. They wanted wives and children. He hid under the sheets and saw himself as the last man alive after the bomb. He saw himself in white cloth walking across a charred landscape. He knew that babies could not come without a man and a woman. He knew he had to find a woman alive. He found her. She was a shrivelled, dark brown woman, and she was stirring thick brown liquid in a pot. He walked away.
He had hated Guy Fawkes Night in November. He hated the bonfires on which they burned the guys. The guys had pumpkins cut into faces. One guy was Mrs Attlee in a scarecrow hat. Mr Attlee had Hitler’s moustache. He hated the masters for working up the boys. He went into the dark and cried for Mrs Attlee.
He hated school food because it made him constipated.
His father told him he must not use the word ‘hate’. He must say ‘dislike’ or ‘not care for’ or ‘prefer not to’. But he should never say ‘hate’ about anyone or anything.
He was a religious boy. He did not giggle in Chapel. He knew he had to forgive the boys for teasing him and he prayed to Jesus to get them to lay off. He had one special prayer: that they lay off teasing him about his father’s car.
It was not a car but a grey Ford van. It had windows cut in the back and Spitfire seats to sit on. Sometimes the van smelled of pig-swill.
To help pay the school bills his father kept pigs on the side. Their first sow was called Louise. The boy learned about men and women and babies the day they drove Louise to meet the boar.
He was proud of the van because it reminded him of the War. He was proud of his father who had been very brave, at sea, as Chief Officer of a mine-sweeper. He had loved the War. He loved the Scottish soldiers under their sandbags on the sea-front. He loved the postman who gave him his first book: an account of Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s Mission to the Labrador Indians. He loved the ladies in the Naafi canteen, and he loved the Free French. He loved being carried into an underground bunker on the left shoulder of a man in RAF uniform. He loved the identification models of German and English planes, and the map of the North Sea with WAAF officers moving little things across it. It was an air operations room.
Years later his mother said this wasn’t possible. They had lived out of suitcases, but she had never left him. He must have invented it or seen it in a film. She then remembered that one afternoon she had left him with the next-door neighbours, an RAF couple who did secret work.
More than anything, he loved his father’s ship. He loved the grey cabin and the black American oil-cloth on the bunk. He loved to put his hands on the wheel. He loved eating plum pie in the ward room. He loved his father for taking him up to the crow’s nest and pointing to all the grey ships in Cardiff harbour. The ships were the same grey as the van.
He never envied other boys their fathers’ Jaguars and Bentleys and Packards. He knew these men had made money in the War, whereas his father had lost his house and almost everything. He asked his mother what she meant by nouveau riche. His own inheritance, a Cremona violin, was sold in 1941 to pay for baby food.
After visiting days he prayed a little harder for them to stop going on about the van. He wished they’d stop laughing when he had a hard time on the pot. The lavatories had no doors; the boys stood and watched. He went to Matron in the evenings for his Milk of Magnesia. He did not understand about constipation.
The Chapel was a half-timbered building in the garden among flower beds. On the wall above his head was a brass plaque in memory of the only boy in the school’s history who had died there.
The others told him the story. The dead boy had not gone on the pot for seven days, and on the seventh he had died. He believed this.
Two weeks into the summer term he went to Matron for the Milk of Magnesia, but it didn’t work on the second or third days.
On the fourth he was more than half-way to death.
On the fifth day he felt a stab of pain. He could not tell Matron.
On the day before he was due to die, there was blood on the lavatory paper. He took from his sponge bag a small mirror in front of which he would comb his hair. He squatted in the shrubbery. He looked in the mirror and saw a horrible purple bulge. He could not have known about haemorrhoids.
On the last night he whimpered under the sheets.
On the seventh day he clung to Matron: ‘Save me, save me.’
She gave him Syrup of Figs.
He did not tell about the purple bulge, and soon it went away.
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