INTERESTING TIMES 3: JUST A LONELY BOY

By Andrew Maben

RavenswoodRavenswood was another private boarding school in the hills bordering Exmoor. It had the same rules, the same ghastly food, the same institutionalized cruelty. And I certainly had changed not a whit. My teeth still protruded embarrassingly, I still carried the shame and stigma of a bed wetter. By now my bed was equipped with a rubber under-sheet, so even before the first stains had to be concealed, on my very first morning in fact, all the boys in my dormitory were aware of my “secret”, and in next to no time it was common knowledge. The only difference, really, was that the Headmaster here, Mr. Whittaker, was not a sadistic drunk. Unfortunately that in no way mitigated the petty sadism of the children in his charge.

No doubt you are wondering about my parents. “What were they thinking?” you may well be asking. I wonder myself why anyone would condemn a child they profess to love to years of loneliness and pain. So perhaps what makes me saddest of all is my conviction that they acted only from the most noble of motives, that they truly believed that they had my best interests at heart. I learned early about that road to hell, only my first steps down that road were paved with my parents’ good intentions.

First let us remember that these were the early Fifties, shortly after Britain had emerged victorious but mortally wounded from the nightmare of the Second World War. Almost without exception the great British leaders in that apocalyptic struggle were products of England’s system of private education, as indeed were the great conquerors who had created and maintained a global Empire. It should not be surprising that this system was widely seen as the finest in the world.

Whatever else, I am secure in the knowledge that they were not trying to get rid of an unwanted brat. Although there was one disquieting night some years previously when I had gone downstairs from my bedroom with some minor request to hear angry raised voices. I went into my parents’ room to see them standing facing each other beside the bed in antagonistic poses. My father was red faced with anger, my mother flushed and tearful. I have no way of knowing if he had just struck her, was about to strike, or if the violence was purely verbal. My mother saw me standing there.

“Not now, Andrew.” I crept back to bed. This memory has always haunted me, accused me and condemned.

Perhaps part of what they wanted was to protect me from being witness again to such a scene. Far more important, I think, was my father’s life experience, at least insofar as I have been able to reconstruct and imagine it from the few hints I was able to glean.

The son of a tailor, not a rich man, Dad grew up in Manchester. He won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, and at his father’s insistence went on to study dentistry. This was not a profession for which he felt any vocation, but I gathered that his father’s word was law. I know almost nothing of his family, never met his father, don’t even know his parents’ names or when they died. His mother did once visit, a shadowy figure who lay for the whole course of her stay in my parents’ bed. My mother was constantly on edge, complaining of the unending demands and carping. He had a brother of whom he never spoke. When Bridge on the River Kwai came to a local cinema, he refused to see the film. On the way, Mum explained in rather nervous tones that his brother had been captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore, and later died a prisoner on the Burma railway.

With the coming of the War, my father joined the R.A.F. As a professional he was automatically commissioned as an officer. As a grammar school boy he was ostracized by the other officers. I am ashamed to say that as a boy I was embarrassed that he had not played a more valiant role, and made up stories of how his last minute treatment of this or that fighter ace had allowed the pilot to fly a crucial Battle of Britain mission. It was, I think, this wartime service that fixed in his mind that the only way that we his children could have a future that offered any real opportunity would be by going to Public Schools. The fees for three children’s private education were enormous, and I now realize the extraordinary effort and sacrifice he made for our sakes.

And Mum? Daughter of a captain of industry – a lieutenant at least – one of three siblings, I only have hints of her privileged childhood. Snapshots from summer holidays beside tranquil Swedish lakes, from these, and her father’s name of Bratt, I have surmised Scandinavian roots. It seems that Sir Stamford Raffles was related on her mother’s side, which somehow adds a rather poignant irony to my parents’ story. Later she attended a finishing school in Switzerland. And suddenly the War engulfed her life. From the few stories she let slip over the years I have constructed a picture of a rather remarkable young woman, compassionate, somewhat headstrong and intelligent. Photographs do not suggest a classic or conventional beauty, but hint at a vitality that must have been extremely attractive.

At the outset of the war she volunteered as a nurse, and was serving in a large London hospital at the time of Dunkirk. She spoke once, visibly moved still by the recollection, of a young soldier who lay upon a hospital trolley. His huge sucking chest wound was beyond treatment, and he had been simply parked until he saw fit to die.

“Nurse, have you got a fag?” he whispered as she passed by. Careless of hospital rules, and certain that she could do him no further harm by granting this simple request, she took out a cigarette and placed it between his pale lips. I imagine his grateful smile, the relief and comfort he must have taken from this simple act of gentle kindness. She lit the cigarette for him, and he took a deep pull. And at that moment the ward sister passed.

“Smoking is strictly forbidden!” she snapped. And smacked the fag from the boys mouth. And he died.

Which put an end to the nineteen year old girl’s medical vocation.

Evidently she then joined the WAAFs, for the next glimpse I was given was of a plotter in a Bomber Command operations room. Her job was to push tokens across a giant map of Europe, each token representing an aircraft, as news of their positions was radioed in. Of course every night planes were lost, and she spoke of how difficult it was to rake the tokens from the map, knowing that this action represented the probable agonized deaths of of several young men. Often young men she knew as friends, perhaps even as lovers.

She must have been capable and trusted, as years later she alluded to working with radar, whose very existence in the war years remained top secret for thirty years or more after the war’s end. When the film Enigma was released she casually let drop, “Oh yes. I worked on Enigma at Bletchley Park.” She refused to enlarge on this surprising revelation.

I know nothing of how these two met. I know still less of my father’s earlier marriage, save that by all accounts his first wife was Belgian, something of a femme fatale, named Avis, and that I had a half-brother Adrian. Speaking of Adrian reminds me that my earlier memory of my grand-parents must be faulty, as I recall, I must have been eight or nine, walking beside the Manchester Ship Canal with him. The circumstances remain a mystery, but I can only suppose that we were visiting our grand-parents.

Was Alex still married when he met Diana? Married or not, he must have been an imposing, glamorous figure in his uniform. Standing more than six feet, with a proud bearing and a handsome, luxuriant R.A.F. moustache, it is not hard to imagine that he swept her quite off her feet. I still wear the handmade gold Swiss watch inscribed “A.M. from D.R.B. 21/8/46″, a birthday gift. No, I’m afraid I don’t even know the date of their wedding, though presumably it was before May 1947.

On their return from his posting “somewhere in Germany”, the couple moved into the small but beautiful “Manor House”, ivy-grown and built of glowing Ham stone, in a village a few miles east of Taunton. Dad drove a little MG and Mummy would bicycle the quiet lanes with me perched in a blue metal child seat mounted behind the saddle. I think this may have been the happiest time of their lives. Of mine, too.

I have come to think that my father’s R.A.F. experience left him deeply divided against himself. Almost desperately he aspired to become a member of that snobbish class from which he felt excluded, an exclusion that wounded his sense of his own worth. At the same time he harbored an idealistic yearning for a day when artificial class divisions might be finally dissolved forever. This division was mirrored in almost every aspect of his life, his troubled children, his marriage, most of all in his profession. As a medical man he was able to find acceptance among people who at heart I suspect he despised, even loathed. He refused to take on private patients, choosing to practice within the National Health Service born the same year as I. He was a Labour voter, played the football pools every week, liked a pint or two in the public bar. He was an excellent golfer, eventually achieving a zero handicap and the club captaincy. He was a lonely man, truly at home with neither the working men at the pub nor the golf club snobs. Nor even in his own home.

Leaving the sheltered peace of the Manor for the cramped quarters of Kelston, the house on Station Road, must have been hard. The house was tall and narrow, the garden cramped. With Dad’s surgery and waiting room at the top of the first flight of stairs, the place could never really feel like a home.

This was made particularly clear the day the haemophiliac came to have a tooth pulled. Not bothering to say anything about his condition to my father beforehand – who knows, perhaps it didn’t occur to him that an extraction might be a somewhat bloody affair – he sat for the procedure. Well, an extraction is a bloody affair. And if your blood won’t clot, why then it just gets bloodier and bloodier. Blood flowed. Dozens of gauze napkins could do nothing to stanch the flow. Blood was everywhere. An ambulance was summoned. The patent was carried away, one hopes to be saved from his own stupidity, but anyway never to be seen again. I caught a glimpse of the surgery floor awash with blood, Dad’s receptionist at work with mop and pail.

As I said, having a dental office in the middle of the small house was a considerable impediment to cozy domesticity. It was a relief to us all when we moved to Court Cottage. This was a wonderful 18th century tenant’s cottage in the little village of Holcombe Rogus, that almost straddled the Devon-Somerset border between Wellington and Tiverton. Heavy-beamed ceilings, idiosyncratic changes of level on both floors, it had a large garden with copper beeches, huge raspberry bushes, a crumbling old stable and adjoined the field where our dairy-farmer neighbor grazed his new born calves and their mothers.

Court Cottage, the village and the surrounding countryside provided me with some kind of sanctuary from the variously hellish boarding schools. My brother Pete, born towards the end of our time at Kelston, shared a bunk bed with me, Claire had a lovely room of her own. I was also privileged with the room above the garage, where I had a fairly elaborate model train layout. This was my refuge, where I indulged my hobby of building 1/72nd scale model aeroplanes, ran the trains, read contraband comic books, and later on other proscribed printed matter, and filled notebooks with drawings of planes, elaborate dog fights, hideously twisted crashes, fanciful imagined planes of my own design as well as Spits, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts, Focke-Wolfs.

From the village butcher my parents obtained a puppy who became my bosom companion, my confidant and only real friend of my childhood. Rusty was an endearing mix of Lab, Golden Retriever and Alsatian. He seemed intelligent enough, but had a kink in his tail acquired one lazy summer afternoon as a puppy when he was taking a siesta in the middle of the village’s main street and saw no particular reason to budge when a farmer came along in his Land Rover. So the vehicle ran over his tail. For as long as we lived at Holcombe he could pick out that particular Land Rover’s engine from all the many others in the district, and from a mile away. He would take up a strategic position at the garden wall, tail down, growling quietly, until it came around the corner, when he would burst into paroxysms of enraged barking, leap over the wall and chase it down the street, snapping at the tires. My pal, hopelessly, helplessly lashing out at the incomprehensible source of an unforgotten humiliation…

My life, or my memories of it, became a rather dreary procession of days unevenly divided between “term-time” and “holidays”. Term-time occupied the greater part of each year, and continued to be a lonely, depressing succession of minor hardships and humiliations, accented by the usual twice-a-term beatings – as I recall never less, and rarely more – and gradually less frequent night time accidents. The regime at Ravenswood was marginally more relaxed than at Kestrels. Marginally: I wrote one Sunday telling of some particular source of discontent, a story of greasy ill-cooked bacon, a second egg refused, the Headmaster’s son, but more importantly the sole occasion of my attempting to declare my sadness to Mummy and Daddy rather than trying to conceal it to spare my mother’s feelings. I took great care over spelling and grammar, but it was still no great surprise to see the letter ripped up and to be told that it might be better to write something more cheerful. Naturally a conversation with Mr. Stapleton ensued.

“You’re treated well here, aren’t you, Maben?”

It was apparent that there would be just one acceptable answer. “Oh, yes, sir,” I cringed.

“The food is good?” And so it went.

But I do have one glorious memory of brilliant anarchic chaos breaking loose. It was Guy Fawkes Night. The whole school gathered at the bottom of the haha that separated the gardens from a wide meadow for the traditional fireworks, bonfire, immolation of the traitor in effigy, and hot sausages with potatoes baked in the fire. Somehow, to the delight of the boys, and consternation of teachers, the spirit of Guy somehow gained the upper hand this night. A stray spark, or, who knows, perhaps a well placed match, fell unnoticed into the big box containing all the carefully graded incendiaries. The first indication that something might be amiss was a spray of brightly colored sparks jetting from the box at a careless angle. Dodging this jet of fire a teacher foolhardily went to the box and lifted the lid. The interior was aglow.

“Everyone. STAND BACK!” He shouted as he ran.

For two splendid minutes the box became the hub of a fantastic conflagration. Sparks, red, green, white and blue showered in every direction in haphazard profusion. A catherine wheel managed to leap forth and careen across the grass, propelled by its own multi-colored jet of flame, scattering laughing, cheering boys as it went. Rockets skittered across the ground, flung themselves skyward in corkscrew paths to suddenly change direction and come shooting back to earth and explode. One rocket actually flew at the school itself, smashing into, but alas not through, a dormitory window. A huge roar went up as the boys watched it near the window, fading to a sigh as it fell to the flower garden below. All too soon the box was merely glowing red, a muffled minor explosion now and then.

The judgement was unanimous that this had been the best fireworks ever. Short, indeed, but oh how sweet! Maybe later you will look back with me at this night and wonder if this might have been the seed for certain tendencies. Or not. Because in truth I have never espoused or advocated the kind of bomb-tossing revolutionary violence you may be imagining, nor have I even had the taste for simple arson. Though it is true that there have been countless kitchen flame-ups due to my carelessness. Whatever. After the show we had to listen to some boring polemic on the subject of safety and responsibility delivered by Mr. Stapleton, who must have felt some requirement to fill the time that the fireworks had been supposed to occupy. When at last that was over we enjoyed our food and sparklers around the bonfire and there was a rather louder than usual hurrah as Guy went up in flames.

There were studies, stultifying drudgery, but for all that I was imparted a solid foundation in various subjects. I was no star of the athletic field, but had become a useful enough Rugby player to remain unnoticed. I managed to achieve a comparable invisibility as a sprinter and in the long jump. Cricket was another story. I think I mentioned the pointlessness and boredom, and I seemed unable to either stop or hit the ball. Any team that had me as a member considered itself doomed, as a fielder I was banished to a deep long on, where balls never came. As a batsman I was usually last, even as I walked to the wicket both teams would begin to pack up their gear. Sure enough I would be bowled out before the end of the over, more often than not on the first ball. But my great athletic hatred was long distance running, both painful and pointless. I was invariably one of the final stragglers, though I tried to avoid the total ignominy of coming in absolutely last.

I also began to develop a certain dubious talent for pointing out the more comical aspects of my many deficiencies. This near constant attention to my own shortcomings did little to raise my self-esteem, though in those days no one used the term, or even afforded to children any deep psychological processes at all. But it was nevertheless a useful survival adaptation, as I could usually manage to preempt any budding situation where other boys were about to start ganging up on me, to make me the center of a circle of taunts and blows.

Holidays spent at home were incomparably more comfortable. But by now loneliness had become an essentially permanent condition. I was unable to feel any close bond with my siblings. I regarded my parents with a strange amalgam of emotions, distrust, longing, shame, admiration, and the slightest tinge of contempt. I did not feel the deep warmth of love that I yearned for, and for my own part was distant and undemonstrative. I had no close friends at school, there were no children of my age in the village, no “suitable” children anyway. And I had learned to be as insufferable a snob regarding the “lower classes” as everyone else. I suppose I was desperate enough to feel superior to someone, and class does allow one a feeling of superiority while sparing the challenge of actually measuring oneself against the despised other.

I spent my days reading, indulging my aeronautical hobbies, riding my bike around the lanes with Rusty for company, in fine weather taking long, sometimes all-day walks with Rusty. On these walks I acquired a deep love of the quiet miracles of Nature, an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of both the vistas of rolling hills with their patterns of fields and woods and also the shape of a flower, the meaning laden meanderings of ants. And with this wonder came also a terrible feeling of exclusion, the sense that no matter how much I might worship all this beauty, I could never own it, make it a part of myself or belong to it. Too often this lonely alienation would overcome me. I would sit on the grass, gazing out at all that beauty, and I would weep. I wept for the cruelties and loneliness of school, I wept for an inner beauty that I could never truly believe in. Rusty would lick the tears from my cheeks, the most intimate kindness I ever knew, and I would hug him tight, sure that he loved me, that he was the only one who did, and that I loved him. And soon he would nudge me, push me to get up. I would wipe my nose, my eyes and stand. He would look at me, slowly wagging his tail, then set off at a run, together we would run helter-skelter until I was breathless.

Sometimes we would drive to the Wellington Monument on a Sunday afternoon. Once we climbed to the top to look out at the view of the valley below, farms, railway, town and villages. It was surrounded by sandy heathland and there was always a stiff breeze for kite flying. One spring the heath was littered with bodies of rabbits in poses of agony, victims of the eradication campaign that loosed the mixamatosis virus in Australia.

Then there were our seaside holidays every summer. These started in Lyme Regis when I was still quite young, three or four perhaps. I remember our first stay because on the very first day, which was overcast, I played happily all day long at the water’s edge, building little sand-castles with my bucket and spade, splashing in the small waves. Nobody gave a second thought to ultra-violet rays, or sunblock, in those days, so Mummy happily assumed that with the clouds there was no danger of sun burn. Which proved in fact to be not quite the case. I ended up with second degree burns over my entire body, and I’m told I spent most of the rest of the trip in bed with a fever and in a lot of pain. As a matter of fact, with yearly summer boosts, the tan line I developed that year never quite bleached away over the winter months for a good forty years.

We went back to Lyme every summer for several years, always staying in the Chalet, a green painted holiday cottage built to resemble a traditional swiss chalet. They were happy days for the most part, where I managed to leave behind my usual melancholy. Idle days on the beach. Exploring the Cobb and the other piers of the ancient harbor. Roaming the narrow streets and alleys of the picturesque Old Town, browsing books for hours in W. H. Smith’s. Fishing trips with the local fishermen in their open mackerel boats loaded with a dozen or so tourists. The passengers would make their way gingerly down the heavily worn steps in the harbor wall to be helped aboard with a strong hand and an encouraging smile from the skipper. Of course I already considered my self a seasoned sailor and would jump straight down onto the thwarts, which usually provoked various signs of disapproval, Ah, disapproval without consequences! Once loaded the boat’s diesel would be cranked into starting amid clouds of exhaust fumes, the skipper would engage the prop and we would be under way. Once past the furthest shelter of the Cobb there was usually a heavy swell as waves from the Atlantic made their way up the Channel. Naturally, within moments there would be faces turning green and at least one owner of a heart of oak would be retching helplessly over the side, affording me a rare occasion for contempt. We were allowed to keep our catch, and once home dad would clean and Mum would cook the fish. Too much trouble dealing with all those nasty little bones for my taste, so I made a sweeping decision that I didn’t like fish, and refused to eat any kind of seafood for years. “It’s your loss,” said Dad, and in retrospect I tend to agree.

No episode would be complete without an example of that streak of cruelty making an appearance. Actually there are two that I still look back on with shame and guilt.

I spoke of a gratuitous betrayal of Peter, my old kindergarten friend, and it was here that it took place. Not long before Peter had to endure the pain of his parents’ divorce. It was apparent to all the boys at school that he was suffering, and even the bullies left him in peace. I was down at the harbor with a few casual holiday pals when Peter showed up, completely unexpectedly. He stopped and offered a friendly greeting and I introduced him to my companions. We were all idly chatting when the demon caught hold of me.

I began to laugh, and pointing at Peter I announced, sniggering, “Peter’s parents are DIVORCED!” Peter blushed, looked helplessly around then turned and fled. Trust me when I say I have not the first idea what prompted me. I bore Peter no ill will. He had done me no harm. That summer had been my last at Kestrels, so I never saw or spoke to him again. I’m sure my guilt has hurt me more than my taunt hurt my old friend, and I may have begun to absorb and understand the lesson of kindness that day.

I do not know what I may have hoped for in these days. I think I didn’t do a lot of hoping, and better off for it. Time passed. I passed my time. Days at home were for the most part passed without dread, and that sometimes almost passed for happiness. Certainly there were small eternities for which I managed to leave myself behind, concentrating on an Airfix kit or out in the woods with Rusty, and there were always books. To a point I had become inured to the ordeal of school.

The year I turned ten was when the Future became a concrete presence in my ideas. My feet were getting bigger. The fourth form was where the school started to focus our attention on upcoming examinations that would shape our fates. The Eleven Plus, offered a safety net of sorts, if a grammar school could be so regarded – we were already well-trained little snobs and considered anything but a Public School to be a dead loss. Thirteen Plus was a last chance before the Common Entrance which was the real decider, those of us who passed would go on to the schools where places had been reserved at birth or soon after. The others would not.

Oh yes, “Just a Lonely Boy”? Pop music was beginning to filter through, and as you may imagine, Paul Anka’s song struck a certain chord with me. Pete had a baby sitter who was gone on Buddy Holly – she cried the whole evening, playing “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” over and over, on the day he died.

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