BY ANDREW CHRISTOPHER MILLER
Ricky was particularly excited about the guns. The rifles. Not any old air rifles like the older kids around here had or the ones on the stall at the Fair, but proper weapons. He had seen them lined up in the cadet store with their polished butts and greased loading mechanisms, ready for use. He’d be allowed to handle them, begin his proper training, when he was fourteen. By his next birthday but one!
Ricky had changed a lot in the year he had been away. Although he had never been any taller than me, he now seemed to hold his shoulders further back, to push his nose and chin forward like an athlete perpetually reaching for a finishing tape. His freckles had subsided somehow and his hair was much tidier, cut in a way my Dad would have described as a good old-fashioned short back and sides. His face was thinner, more pointed, and I wondered whether he had been eating far fewer sweets and biscuits than the rest of us.
The cadets were the best bit of where he lived now, he told me. You went on manoeuvres, learned about discipline and had to dig your own hole to go to the toilet when you were camped out in the hills. At the end of the day when the tents were erected you could play British Bulldog. You had to learn how to look after yourself, he said, to find out who your mates were. It could turn into quite a scrap and get serious. You could get badly hurt if you didn’t watch your back.
I had suggested that, as he was only visiting for a few days, we hang around up at The Rec like we used to do. But he hadn’t wanted to meet up with our old gang. His flattened tone of voice and concentrated stare let me know clearly enough that he considered himself now far removed from those childish past times.
‘We should have an adventure. Like commandoes,’ he said. ‘Get ourselves lost and have to find our way back’.
And so I foolishly let slip the secret I had been entrusted with, that one of the kids last week had heard the booming of a bittern out in the Reed Beds. That there might be a nest.
His indifference vanished. An excitement flushed through him, widening his gaze and sharpening his posture as if he were detecting a scent.
‘Let’s hunt it down,’ he said, ‘like we’re survivors or something’.
Ricky had lived on Mendip Street, less than ten minutes’ walk from me, and I played there once or twice. His older sister Miriam was more dramatically freckled, the colour of her thick red hair splattered also across her face and arms. She sat at the dining table, in her school uniform, her books covered in flowery wallpaper and piled amongst the tea things. Sometimes Ricky and I made plans for a den in their shed. I encouraged him to seek
approval for our plans from his mother, he invented excuses not to do so.
‘She had a ruddy cheek, if you ask me,’ my mother said of his. ‘She just dumped him off in the school holidays with his slippers one day, first thing in the morning. Said he had to be home by half past five. Never asked me, just assumed I’d give him his dinner. And his tea, probably. Of course I would, but the cheek of it. Just dropped him off like that, first thing in the morning, with his slippers, expected me to look after him all day.’
One Saturday afternoon, some months before he left Mendip Street, we played at my house with my old clockwork train set, a figure of eight track with an infinity of possibilities. When the engine slowed and stopped, we inserted the key and rewound the spring as close to its coiled limit as it would take. But the game ground to a halt when the key became mislaid. We looked everywhere, underneath and behind the chairs and settee, my parents joining in as my patience collapsed into a noisy despondency.
‘Try to think where you last saw it. Did you come into the kitchen with it at all?’
We searched down the backs of cushions, in the drawers of cupboards, in increasingly improbable locations. The game was over and my parents advised that we found something else to play and that it would turn up. There was no substitute though to the urgent fantasies that we had built alongside the tracks and the mood deflated into a long wait until teatime.
Some while later, as we failed to find any game that could begin to match the one that had been denied us, my father came into the room and said
‘Ricky, I want you to have a good look in your pockets and see if there is anything in there that shouldn’t be there’.
Ricky fumbled with his hankie, jiggling both hands emphatically up and down in his pockets.
‘Have a good look,’ my father said, and Ricky pulled out the key.
‘I must have put it in by mistake,’ he said gloomily.
Later when he had gone home, I asked my father how he had guessed. He suspected something, he said, when Ricky had gone to the toilet and he had heard a metallic object drop to the floor.
My father had once again brought resolution to the seemingly insoluble, just as when he succeeded with cryptic crossword clues in his newspaper or showed me a short cut for multiplying by eleven.
‘But then he must have known where it was all that time we were searching,’ I puzzled.
I had to accept that Ricky must have engaged me in a convincing deception but his motivation for doing so eluded and bothered me.
‘He didn’t want you to enjoy yourself, that’s why,’ my father explained. ‘He’s just spiteful’.
More shocks were to come a few months later though.
‘I’m leaving in a couple of weeks’ he told me.
I couldn’t grasp his meaning. Leaving what? Our gang at The Rec?
‘I’m going to Barnardo’s, in South Wales’.
That was miles away, hundreds of miles, another country.
Nobody I knew had ever moved away. Our great post-War cohort of children had pushed forward together on a common front, dividing only at the great schism that followed the ‘eleven plus’.
‘What do you mean, Barnardo’s?’
I had heard the word somewhere, it had connotations of sadness. It was nothing to do with us.
‘For a holiday or something?’
And when he did move, I puzzled in front of my mother about the reasons for his departure. Ricky had told me how exciting it would be, there would be lots of activities he said, and he made it sound as though there would probably be no school.
‘It was the mother – and that Grann,y’ my mother explained. ‘They drove the father out first. He had to go and live on Cumberland Road on his own. But he was a nice man, the dad. A bit soft but he always spoke to me. They kept the daughter though, she was useful. A girl, see. She could help in the house When they’d got rid of the dad, then it was Ricky’s turn. He was a bit of a little monkey, mind you. There was that business with the key for your train set. He had it in his pocket all along. They probably thought he was going to be a handful so they got rid of him. They sent him to Barnardo’s. All that way away and he was only a little nipper. It’s supposed to be for orphans, for poor little beggars who’ve got no mothers or fathers. But they just sent him off anyway’.
My mother returned many times to the subject of Ricky and the cold-hearted expulsion from his family, always prefacing her remarks with ‘Do you remember that Ricky? They lived down Pennine Road’.
Of course I remembered Ricky, and his walking away. It was an August evening in the dying light of a high summer day and a spectacular parachute practice filled the sky. A bulbous barrage balloon anchored up in the sunset, streams of tiny figures slipping away from the underside, like elvers on the current, tiny mushrooms sprouting and bobbing, and then the slow, swaying descent to the airfield far away behind rows and rows of houses.
We were up at the Rec, children everywhere, the noisy and dominant commandeering the big rocking gondola and taking it to its limits through sickeningly larger arcs. The little kids who had climbed aboard at the beginning were unable now to escape and clung to the worn iron handles, sweating it out. Elsewhere, on the individual swings, smaller groups of twos and threes dawdled or worked the seats and chains round and round into tightening spirals. Shouts, screams and threats bounced from the backs of the houses that bordered the three sides of the field.
I absorbed the energy from all around me, as I always did, aware that it was Ricky’s last night with us. He was leaving in the morning on a train, on a journey beyond mine or anybody else’s imagining.
But I could forget all that, or put it well to one side, among the gangs running and whooping through the grass and the crank and groan of the huge, green, metallic monster now again ascending slowly and rhythmically towards its mighty zenith.
‘I’ve got to go now,’ he said, turning to me. Some of the others knew too but he had spoken directly to me.
‘Yeah. Well, I’m allowed to stay out for another half an hour’.
He continued to look at me.
‘I’m going in the morning’.
The parachutes had ceased, the sun inched further behind the houses and the barrage balloon was being cranked slowly and invisibly back down to earth
‘Yeah. But you’re gonna visit your mum, aren’t you?’
And he turned and began to walk away. I felt foolish, aware of the others around me, just standing watching him wading through the long grass in his short trousers, as if in a stream, towards the exit and out onto the road. He did not turn to look back at us even though I expected him to, and I was aware that many had stopped their games and conversations also to stare at Ricky on his long walk. The roaring had dimmed, the evening focused our muddled comprehension.
‘Good riddance!’ shouted Carol Devaney, puncturing the solemnity. And some of the others laughed and jeered.
He must have heard. He didn’t flinch, let alone turn. But he must have been able to tell that it was a girl’s cry. She was standing right behind me, but he must have known it wasn’t me. If he had turned, I would have waved, shown some expression of good will, but he disappeared out into the road without looking back, locking our history and our parting into himself.
A bittern out in the Reed Beds!
This wide expanse lay far beyond parental oversight and jurisdiction. From the furthest end of the Sports Field, an exit through a brambled gap in the hedge and a steep descent of Slippery Slope led to its perimeter. Various openings between the tall grasses, reeds and rushes allowed access to a network of trails too complex to memorise. Twisting a way through clearings and intersections, burrowing deeply into an interior dry and dusty in places, waterlogged in others, I was always anxious that, unlike Theseus, I had no method or system of clues to help me find the route back out.
We had sticks. We always carried sticks.
‘Get your rifle up!’ Ricky commanded, raising both arms above his head, his stick held between them.
I lifted my arms and stick as instructed, feeling foolish and unable, unwilling, to extend them as rigidly, and in such a disciplined a manner, as Ricky.
We found a nest, a mallard’s not the bittern’s, just to the side of the track where it began to disappear beneath a layer of blackened water. We must have been somewhere near Chafey’s Lake, perhaps on its western edge. There were upwards of a dozen mottled green eggs, almost two layers of them, surrounded by a loosely-woven ring of twigs as if arranged with care and an eye for composition.
‘Get down! We stake this out until the parent birds return,’ he said, holding out his hand behind him as a signal for me to halt and then dropping to a crouching stance. ‘That’s our dinner tonight sorted’.
But it was an impossible position to maintain, even for a few minutes. I had a sharp pain at the back of my knees straight away and a dull ache in my thighs. Water had seeped right through into my new basketball boots.
‘They won’t come back while you make that row,’ he said although, in truth, his own wriggling was causing as much rustling and swaying of the undergrowth.
‘Okay then,’ he said, suddenly straightening back up. ‘Let’s see how they like this’.
He picked up one of the eggs, tossed it lightly in his palm and then threw it towards where he judged the lake to be, threw it with all the force he could muster. We heard it land with a dull plop and he grunted in solemn approval.
‘Go on,’ he said. ‘Your turn’.
‘Go on!’ he said again more insistently as I hesitated.
Then he stepped forward and brought one foot down into the middle of the nest.
‘Let’s see how they like this!’
None of the eggs could have survived that impact. The nest itself was smashed into a ragged mess of individual twigs. But still he kept on stamping, the whole of his body weight behind each blow.
‘Let’s – see – how – you – like – that!’
Only a Book
‘He’s reading, Mr Miller. That’s the main thing. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as he’s reading’.
My father was reporting back from a visit to my primary school parents’ evening, where he had expressed a concern about my fondness for comics. He enjoyed these occasions and gave detailed reports afterwards about each line of the conversation as well as the reasoning behind each of his questions. He was clearly keen to be perceived as a conscientious and interested parent and I appreciated that. But I also experienced other feelings that seemed more resentful and unworthy on my part, something about his own need for approval from teachers with me being merely the pretext.
Thankfully, my teacher had supported my current reading preferences.
My father also referred to ‘the classics’ frequently although on our regular visits to the public library, he always returned with crime novels for my mother and himself. I meanwhile made a steady progression from Enid Blyton through Richmael Crompton to Capt. W.E. Johns. Much though I loved the serious bulk, the embossed covers and the gauge of the paper in the occasional hardback books bought for me as Christmas presents by kindly relatives, the Swiss Family Robinson and Lorna Doone remained unread on our sideboard, receiving little from me by way of serious study.
When I was ten we went as a family to London. My Dad secreted some of our holiday money in each of his shoes and I mused on the likely identifying features of pick pockets. Arriving in the immensity of Waterloo Station, we crossed the road outside, negotiating more traffic than I had ever seen, and entered the Union Jack Club.
Then in the following week we took in the vastness of the city – Madame Tussauds, the Natural History Museum, the Planetarium and, to my great delight, the second hand bookshops along Charing Cross Road. There I found an Agatha Christie that I had not read, the one about the ten people on an island who are all murdered one by one. When we took a boat trip down the Thames from Tower Bridge to Greenwich that afternoon, I sat up on deck reading this book and missed all the sights.
‘Had his nose in that book the whole way,’ my father later remarked.
So it was a relief all round when, in my second year at the grammar school, the set book in English turned out to be Moonfleet by J Meade Faulkner. A relief because, to my Dad the book had an obvious aura of serious literary merit and because the village of Fleet was only half a dozen miles or so from where we lived.
‘We used to have a member of our family kept the key for Fleet Church,’ my father told me, prompting me to make a cycle trip there.
At the churchyard, I could not bring myself to step onto the heaped mounds even though I very much wished to relive the terror that Jim Trenchard had experienced in the book. Although I had seen nobody as I freewheeled down through the village, I was nonetheless very aware of the deep disrespect that would be conveyed if I were to stand on top of the graves. Just looking from the edge though I could imagine the rumbling of the contraband barrels eddying in the vaults below. I was still able with Jim to mistake their crashing for the groans and disquiet of the dead.
The track from the church soon petered out at the edge of a salt water lagoon, The Fleet, a narrow stretch of water nipped between Chesil Beach and a scruffy, little-visited stretch of the mainland. Although it looked tranquil – brackish almost – much of the Fleet’s eight miles of water disgorged and then replenished itself on the tide each day at Ferrybridge through a tiny access channel.
‘You wouldn’t think it but there’s a vicious current runs through there,’ my Dad explained. ‘The whole Fleet is a danger trap. It’s only half a mile or so wide at the most and seems so calm. You get a false sense of security’.
‘So why is it so dangerous then?’ I asked.
‘It’s the mud. It’s not very deep, see, at low tide and you get stuck. You think you can walk and then the tide starts. You find out you can’t swim and you can’t walk. That’s how it gets you once you’re stuck’.
I knew this was no story exaggerated by my father for dramatic effect. We had the proof in our under stairs cupboard in the shape of a beautiful, adult-sized fishing rod that I was given by my father to share with my brother. He was reluctant to say more about its origins but the story did eventually come out – three men from his works, fishing from a boat in the Fleet at night, the water seemingly little more than inches deep, one of the widows wanting the rod to go to my Dad’s boys.
When we finally finished reading Moonfleet in class some months later, I asked whether my Dad would take me to Portland so that I could look out into the vastness of West Bay and see for myself the setting for the book’s dramatic conclusion.
‘They call it the Isle of Portland,’ my father explained although my brother and I had both heard this explanation many times before. ‘But really it’s an isthmus,’ he added as the three of us made the train journey on a Sunday afternoon in February.
An isthmus, as the map so clearly revealed. Where Chesil Beach, the road and railway all fused together at their southern end there was Portland, the huge, obstinate snout of limestone wedged immovably among the tides and turmoil of the English Channel like a heavy, broken pendulum. Sitting high on the sea, some five miles in length, home to both a borstal and a prison, it was another country, a giddy, foreign excursion so potentially close at hand.
This landscape was a whole world, varied enough to offer adventure, mystery and horror. Cut off and protected, it seemed, from all the concerns that sullied national newspaper headlines it was nonetheless accorded recognition and a special place by the rest of the world in the nightly tolling from London for those in peril on the sea.
‘… Dogger … Finistere … Portland Bill …’
There were few people in the streets when we disembarked and even fewer as we left the pavement at a place where pebbles had spilled into the road. As we climbed the embankment, our feet slurred across the smaller shingle but steadied in the larger stones with a clink or scrape of realignment. When we reached the crest the wind picked up from the sea blowing an insolent spray into our faces.
From the top we could see below us the monstrous and unsettled water. The winter slipped a degree or two towards its malignant heart. The wind broke in various directions, picking at our clothes and hair, making wet flecks. The grey sky eased further from its zenith and the activity of the sea increased in its restless, caged persistence.
‘Do you want to go down a bit?’ Dad asked.
The bank dropped steeply before levelling, rising slightly over a subsidiary scarp and then falling directly into the foam and oblivion. To the north, as far as the visibility would allow, I could see this huge geometry elongated. Dad told us that sailors and fishermen, if they were washed ashore on the beach at night or in a storm, could tell where they were from the size of the pebbles, large stones here at the Portland end diminishing along a very fine gradient to grit and then sand some eighteen miles away near Bridport. With thrilling ingenuity they could therefore judge in which direction to trudge the soonest to meet dry, level and unshifting land.
I found my father’s hand, cold without a glove. ‘Can we just go down to that bit?’ I asked.
Descending to the dip, the larger stones creaking and groaning but staying in place, we met the sea in its own domain. Some thirty or forty yards out, the surface waters, already treading horrifying depths, paced about as if in agitation. Slowly a firmer constitution formed, a smoother, more coherent body, swelling and rearing, as if to claim the sky itself. Then the huge wave rushed in towards us, seeming unstoppable but tripping on itself some fifteen feet before the shore, breaking and convulsing onto the huge sloping platform of battered pebbles. Gulls wheeled away, their terror inaudible. A furious rush of foam and water, a pounding on stone, the upward lick of the furthest froth thinning into weak, exhausted fingers still clawing upwards.
And then silence, the sea empty and spent before its three melancholy witnesses. Secure, unharmed, salt water full in our faces, I wanted to step further down to scorn the water’s last vague trickle. Instead we aimed our stones at its splayed-out body, made our purposeless incisions.
‘It’s the undertow, see. Doesn’t matter how hard you try to get out, you get pulled back in,’ said Dad.
Late that night in bed I read again the final chapters of Moonfleet, the fate of Elzever Block engulfing me in the shadows of the sleeping house. This kindly pirate, rough-hewn protector to Jim, thrown from the shipwreck off Chesil Beach, thrashing in the foam among the splintered struts and mast of the ship, unable to maintain his footing in the undertow, weakening in his grip on the rope from the shore, taken back forever into the depths, the storm triumphing wet, dispassionate and cold.
Afterwards, I could not settle or sleep for my tears so I shuffled into my parents’ bedroom, waking them, looking for some calm or even irritable voices to assuage me of the wicked wildness of the Bay.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ my mother mumbled, still half asleep, and I attempted to explain my upset through my embarrassment.
The dragging retreat. Pebbles, grasped by the sea, scraped together back down into the dark body of the water
‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘Just go back to bed’.
The screeching stones building into a gigantic cry, the whole beach being torn from itself, being carried back to the cold foundries in which it was first forged.
‘And try not to go waking your brother up,’ my father added. ‘After all, it’s only a book’.
Next week Chapter 12 Mentors for the Nuclear Age and Chapter 13 Racing Right Away
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