Every little detail

Tuesday July 19, 2005

A happy, rather odd day, when the weather broke, a strong, cooling wind came up, and Dolly and I were much more comfortable than of late.

When I woke I did my morning stretches, found my body just a little less willing than my spirit and announced to a distinctly disinterested Dolly that I had no intention of going out anywhere.

“I pushed it enough yesterday, Dolly,” I said. “Today I think I deserve a bit of a rest.”

“Tell me about it,” Dolly’s body language said as she groomed herself after a hearty breakfast, getting ready for a hard day’s sleep.

So I did my morning essentials, including a phone call to the Ford dealer to tell them I want to take up the three-year GAP insurance offer when I collect the new car in a few day’s time. Then I looked at the pile of paper I have to search through and put in order before I can call the Council to tell them I’m living here on my own now and that I want the additional Council Tax deduction for sole occupancy. Needs doing, but it’s a task that didn’t fit in with the general concept of a rest day. I’ll do that tomorrow.

To the piano for a grimly diligent practice session—six times round Mr Smallwood’s Daily Exercises, followed by three Furry Lizas—and then, as a small reward, several tries at I’ve got to sing a torch song, doing well enough on the singing to feel quite good about it but failing satisfactorily to work out a piano accompaniment. There’s a trick to this self-accompaniment thing that I haven’t discovered yet. When I do, I shall work at it, hard.

Another good stretch, followed by lunch and my afternoon siesta. The temperature had dropped noticeably by this time, quite sufficient to warrant turning off the bedroom fan and pulling the cover over myself.

When I woke, it was to find the wind dropping away rapidly and the sky filling with black clouds.

“Whoops, Dolly,” I said. “I think I’d better get this coffee down quick and go cut the grass.”

She wasn’t much interested. Oh, she graced me with one open eye from the heap of tangled flotaki that is a sleeping Dolly, and there was more affection than scorn in her expression, but she didn’t answer, and didn’t move.

Outside I discovered that the wind had blown over the young photinia tree in its pot by the front of the house. What to do? The rather lovely, vigorous thing has grown too tall for the pot but is already far too heavy for me to contemplate repotting. It’s destined to be planted out when we get our next garden. I need to think hard about this but, for the moment, I righted it, tied a loose loop of soft cord around the upper trunk and attached that to the wall. I think the best plan, soon as I can, is to make a timber surround for the pot, fill the space in between with sand or compost, and leave a proper repotting for Graham when he comes home in October.

Then I straightened up, looked at the sky, and decided that a rapid grass cutting really was called for. It wanted another day before it really needed doing so it was an easy job, requiring only two rests while working, and one afterwards. As I sat down outside the kitchen door to finish off the large mug of coffee I’d made to replenish my liquid levels during my breaks, I looked at the sky, to see scudding fleets of heavy black clouds massing overhead. I felt terribly virtuous having done the right thing by my lawns. There was a very brief spatter of rain, evaporating almost instantly as the drops hit the pavement, and then it stopped, the sky cleared, and there was no sign of rain to be seen once more.

“Darn it,” I said to a passing magpie. “That’ll teach me.”

Magpies don’t speak of course, unlike ravens, but it’d probably have replied along the lines of “Nevermore” as it flew on to whatever mischief was in its wicked little mind.

By the time I’d washed up the pangs of hunger hit me so I slung an early dinner together and pigged out on pork, potatoes and green vegetables. Shortly after that someone notched the gravity switch up to max. and there was nothing for it but to take myself off for another sleep.

I knew it was foolish. I should have fought and won the battle with heavy eyelids. Couldn’t for the life of me see any reason to fight it, though, so I stretched out on the bed, Dolly interrupted her sleep to join me, and we went on to sleep solidly right through from just after seven to about half-past midnight. That’s about a full night’s worth of sleep for me and I found myself bright as a button in the small hours. Again.

“Oh well, Dolly,” I said. “We’ll just have to start tomorrow early.”

The day’s account should end there, of course, but the combination of a good, restful sleep and the quiet of the very early morning hit me and, for no discernible reason, I came suddenly to remember an event from my very early boyhood, one I’ve not documented before. I’ve learned that, when these memories come visiting, I need to write them down right away or they will evaporate, perhaps never to return.

So, I settled down to write the following little story.

The sensitive souls among my readers might find the story uncomfortable, touching gently as it does on the subject of child abuse. So, if you feel you may be among that number, please say “Goodnight, Gracie,” and stop reading now. There’ll be another entry and like as not another story tomorrow. There almost always is.

It was one of those dark evenings in late autumn sometime in the cold, grey years closely following on WWII. Least, they tell us it was cold and grey but, as a boy somewhere between six and nine years of age, I hadn’t known much else. To me it was a leaf-kicking, frosty evening when the street lamps shone and the shadows were thick and exciting. I don’t remember what game it was my mates and I were playing. Could have been Cops and Robbers. Might have been Cowboys and Indians. Could even have been Kill Hitler. Who knows?

It doesn’t matter at this remove. I do remember we were having a good, all kids together harmless bit of fun in the hour or so of grace before we had to go back home. It was much like many other street-playing evenings, so my memory tells me, in a childhood that was filled with such happy times.

If I were to walk back there I could probably place the scene pretty accurately, within a house or two of the row that lined the suburban road. The pollarded plane trees are probably gone now, and the friendly old silver-painted street lamps have likely been replaced by concrete pillars topped with a safe sodium glare, but I reckon I could pick out the spot. Close enough, anyway.

From the dark at the top of the road a tall man came walking towards us. We thought nothing of it, moving aside when he reached us, giving him a cheery “Wotcher, Mister” as he passed.

Except that he didn’t pass. He stopped, smiled, and returned the greeting in a soft, well-educated voice. One with a pronounced foreign accent. The other boys drew back, leaving me to face him. I was a tough little blighter back then. I’d survived the war, and neither shadows nor strangers held any fear for me.

It was a brief, harmless conversation and I remember nothing of it except his enquiry: “Are you boys wearing underpants?”

The other boys pulled further away.

“No,” I said, speaking for myself. “Can’t afford ’em.”

“Let me feel,” he said.

He pulled his glove off and slipped his hand down the front of my short grey flannel trousers. Nothing special. Certainly nothing sexual. Just a quick investigative intrusion, much as I’d had of doctors and nurses all my short life.

“See,” I said as he withdrew his hand. “Told you so.”

I don’t remember his reply. I do remember him smiling again, saying thank you, and handing me a silver sixpence for my trouble. And then off he went down the street, walking from pool to pool of soft lamplight and through the intervening lakes of shadow, round the corner and off out of sight.

“Cor,” said my best friend as the other boys gathered round me. “That was wierd.”

“Nah,” I said. “T’weren’t nuffin. And he gave me a tanner, too. Look!”

“You gonna share it?”

“Nope. I copped the feel. I keep the sixpence.”

There ensued one of those friendly tussles, not quite fights, that kids find such fun. I held on to my sixpence, though and soon enough the game got boring, the cold crept further out of the darkness, and we all went off to our homes, another day’s fun safely accomplished.

I shoved the sixpence surreptitiously into my moneybox but not expertly enough to escape the sharp eye of my mother.

“Where’d you get that, Johnny?” she demanded.

“Oh, some bloke give it me.”

“What for?”

“Dunno. Some grown ups are funny.”

I turned to my train set and began to play quietly under the sitting room table. The warm light from the electric light in the centre of the ceiling filled the room, a small coal fire flickered in the hearth, my father sat reading his Daily Express, handing me the page with the Rupert Bear cartoon on it, and my mother returned to whatever it was she had been doing. My baby brother probably gurgled. He did a lot of that. Hateful little brat he was then, and grew up no better, either.

And, as small boys do, I forgot the whole thing, the encounter in the lamplight, the sixpence, and everything else except the imaginary journey me and my Hornby engine were taking.

It ought all to have ended there, but it didn’t. There was a loud knocking on the front door and my father, grumbling, went to see who it was. A couple of minutes later he ushered a police constable and the parents of two of my mates into the room.

“Did you speak to a man out in the street, Johnny?” my dad asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Nice bloke.”

“Did he do anything to you?” asked the policeman.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, did he touch you in any way?”

I’d already sensed that this was trouble. Any cockney kid has an instinct about trouble. Something to be avoided at all costs.

“Nope,” I answered, brightly. “He gave me a tanner, though.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nope. Why?”

“Never you mind. I think we’d better have a word outside, Mr Bailey. You stay there, Sonny Jim.”

And off they all went, my mother and father, the policemen, and the two other parents. A hushed conversation took place outside the front door, one which, to my frustration, I couldn’t hear no matter how hard I pressed my ear to the inside of the door.

“What was all that about?” I asked when my mother and father came back alone.

“Sounds like some of your mates have been telling fibs to their mums and dads,” my father said. “Are you sure nothing bad happened with that bloke?”

“‘Course I’m sure,” I said. “Just a bloke.”

“You stick to that, Johnny,” he said, exchanging a look with my mother. “We don’t want any fuss. Some people get worked up about nothing at all.”

“And you’d better put that sixpence in the collection box on Sunday,” said my mother.

“Alright, Mum,” I said, my fingers firmly crossed behind my back.

And the whole thing was forgotten. I didn’t put the sixpence in the box of course. No cockney kid would have and I certainly didn’t.

There was some whispered comparison of notes between parents over the next few days, but the affair soon fell away for lack of further information. The policeman reappeared the next evening, with one of his mates, and walked up and down the street a couple of times before returning to the warmth of the local cop shop. They repeated the exercise each evening for a couple of further nights, closed the book on the incident, and our street returned to more important issues, like how to feed a young family on a ration insufficient to keep a grown man happy in the ‘good old days before the war’.

I forgot it, too. Oh, years later, it’s popped into my mind now and again, and this evening the whole thing came alive for me once more, perhaps more vividly than ever before. Can’t say it was a major component in my formative years. Just one of those many things that make up the adventures of a small boy on his journey into adulthood.

So, then. The questions. And the hindsight, too, I suppose.

Did they find and punish the offender? No. So far as I know they did try but, in the face of my refusal to say anything, far less identify the bloke, they were on a hiding to nothing. The other boys were too far away to be able to describe him, I imagine, even if they were fool enough to blab to adults about it.

Should they have made more effort to find him? I don’t think so. No lasting good ever comes of a witch hunt. I didn’t think so as a small boy, and I know so now.

Did you know who it was? Not at the time. Shortly afterwards I did, when I saw him in another context. I could have given a sound, accurate description on the night but I didn’t, wouldn’t, and I’m glad about that.

Do you think he should have been punished? No. Didn’t then, and don’t now. It would have destroyed his life. He went on to become a hard-working and dedicated professional man in our town, married, and had several children all of whom went on to similar worthwhile things. He was in his late twenties when the incident took place. His disappearance into the shady world of the ‘sexual offender’ would have been a great loss. As I knew him in later years, in a professional relationship, he was a religious man, in a practical fashion. Any question of punishment or its justification is, so far as I’m concerned, a matter between him and his God.

Would you identify him now? Certainly not. He’s long since dead and nothing worth having would come of it.

Be honest, now. Did it do you any harm? I’ll try. No, I really don’t think it did. I wasn’t frightened by the encounter, and would like as not have forgotten it entirely if it hadn’t been for the fuss made by my foolish pals and their equally foolish parents. I didn’t feel and cannot remember any real sexual content in it. My sexual orientation was already firmly established at that time, and experimented with, and I was happy with it. I was an imaginative child and had my share of nightmares, still do. But this event didn’t and never has figured in them. Not at all. No, honest, I don’t think it harmed me in any way.

Do you have any regrets about it? No. I think I behaved wisely at the time. Wisdom wasn’t one of my main characteristics, then or now, but I’m glad I had the good sense to do what I did in this instance.

Is there a moral to the story? No, of course not. It was just an event, one of those things that happens. No great significance.

Why do you tell the story now, then? Because telling stories is one of the things I do.

What did you buy with the sixpence? Now, that’s a really silly question. You don’t expect me to remember every little detail, do you?



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