It is with regret that I must announce Paul’s death. He died earlier this morning, 16th May 2014, after a brief illness aged 88.
We live in South Gloucestershire. Last week, someone, a complete stranger from the little Hertfordshire town of Bushey, where I’d lived as a child, emailed to say he’d read about me on a website and knew I had lived in Bushey back in the 1930s. He and his family had lived there for some years. He was now building a collection of old photos and information about the Bushey area. His reason for getting in touch was to ask if I happened to have any old photos.
In a closing sentence he told me the name of their road and the number of the house. I was startled to realise that he now lived only a few houses away from my own boyhood home, in the same road. He added that his house was built in about 1938. That was the time I was there myself, now 13. I sat gazing at his email like a zombie. From the number of his house I knew exactly where it was and that it was being built at the time my father’s bicycle crash when his brakes failed as he shot down our road, going faster and faster, unable to stop. Across the road ahead of him was a five-barred gate, marking the end of the cul-de-sac road. He had spotted a heap of builders’ sand just ahead of the barrier, on the left, and headed for that. He hit it, flew over his handlebars and somersaulted, head first, into the sand. It had probably saved him from serious injury, possibly death.
I remember hearing someone banging the front-door knocker. I jumped up and opened it. There stood Dad. He was covered in wet sand and holding on to his twisted bike.
‘Huh! Brakes failed’, he said.
I checked the position of the house on Google StreetView. It was on the left-hand side of the road and exactly where the five-barred gate had stood and, by 1938, had been moved away. I found myself in a daze as I realised I was writing to the man who had bought the house that was being built at the time my Dad crashed – crashed into the heap of sand being used. Looking at it in another way: of all the people who might have read the same website item about me, the one person who wrote to me did so from that house.
Coincidences come and go and most of them are forgotten after a day or two. This one, if coincidence it actually is, will stay with me for some time.
A buzzer sounded. We all stood. Quietly, we moved from our circle of chairs and made for the doorway leading out to the narrow staircase and down to the church below. There were about twenty, the Choirmaster and myself. The youngest boy was seven years old, the oldest thirteen. Each of us was dressed in a dark blue cassock and white surplice. The Choirmaster led the way, and I followed at the rear.
I had been reading a story to them. Below us, in the big redbrick church building, the Vicar was coming to the end of his Sunday morning sermon. The buzzer had been operated by the Organist, informing us that it was time for us prepare for processing into the church and the choirstalls, ready to lead the rest of the congregation in song.
The story was mine. I had never tried writing fiction before. Two weeks or so earlier, shortly before the Harvest season, the Choirmaster had booked me to take a turn as ‘guest speaker’ in these weekly gathering of the boys and I had wondered how I would do it. I decided to tell a story about Harvest and its meaning. The characters became a boy called Jason and his three school friends; the youngest of these, Cedric, was the terror of the village and the three friends agreed that his chief job seemed to be to annoy them. In fact, he often meant well but things just went wrong. The story had a fleeting message within it that I hoped would help the boys understand something of the Christian faith. As I read it on this Sunday morning the circle of thirty-odd boys was utterly silent and motionless. Were they interested or or just polite?
It seemed it was interest, because I heard they had asked for another story. St Cecilia’s Day was approaching so I wrote one called ‘The Musical Saint’. After that they wanted another, and slowly I covered the whole church year. It came to an end after the fourteenth, when Sunday mornings began to be organised differently.
Later, I was helping in the production of a BBC Radio London programme for children called The Orange and Lemon Club. A weekly story was wanted and Jason seemed to fill the requirements. The weekly story had to be recorded and sent up to the London studio so every now and then I had to ask for 20 minutes of silence in the house while I read to my tape recorder. Gradually the stories gained favour around London and eventually I decided to see if a publisher might be interested. The Canterbury Press, Norwich, were brave enough to give it an airing and, to my pride and joy, said Yes, please. The stories had begun in the 1970s. The book came out in 1990 and it sold.
I Googled the Jason title the other day and a sad one or two looked out at me. I fell to wondering if it would attract an audience among the children of church-going parents today. If I re-wrote it, bringing the characters and their ways into the current scene, would it it stand a chance? I shall think about it.
Do you think it might?
It was our first car. The picture, Merry Hill Road, Bushey, shows the previous owner, a close friend, emerging from it shortly before I bought it. It was some months later when I took the risky step of offering my ageing parents a ride. My mother was even more nervous than I and my father, who had never himself driven, firmly cautious on my behalf. The project was prickling with peril.
We started from their Devonshire cottage and headed through narrow serpentine lanes to the coast. I forget where. The road suddenly narrowed and I slowed. Ahead, it dipped out of sight, the final hill down to the seashore. I saw the dangers and said I was going to park the car by the stone wall in the tiny lay-by just ahead and we would walk down.
First, I eliminated the risk of having to turn the car round after others had parked; I turned it then and there. The driver’s door was now very close to the wall and I injected a little innocent drama into the situation by pointing out that, because of our close proximity to the wall I would be very clever and, like themselves, exit from the passenger door. (This model of the Morris 8 had only a single door on each side.)
We walked down. The day was of that of utter perfection, gentle breezes and all. We had a cream tea. My mother said again and again that it was all so lovely, my father rolled up his trouser legs and took off his socks and, gingerly over the pebbles, walked stiffly into the water, ankle-deep.
It was all over. We were approaching the car. No-one else had parked. At the passenger door, the key in my hand, I stopped. The brain was spinning with two problems: first, how was I going to tell them that we were locked out, and, second, how were we were going to get in. I had failed to notice that the passenger door on this model did not have a keyhole.
There were no cries of dismay, nothing beyond my mother’s quiet remark that she was longing to sit down and my father’s tut-tutting. His style of the tut-tut resembled the sound of a lusty baby at its mother’s breast. It was followed by ‘What are you doing?’ I was giving my jacket to my mother and edging sideways along the tight gap between car and stone wall with the stonework snatching at my shirt. I slid the key into the lock, undid the door and opened it the few inches until it touched the wall. I inserted my head and shoulders. From then onward it was a lengthy matter of inching from outside to inside. Halfway, I found myself stuck, unable to move either forward or back. I think it must have been the closest I ever came to panicking. I tried to concentrate on sensing the slight actual motion at each twisting of the trunk and urging of the waist, each grunt. Finally, there came a little plop! of freedom and, sweating somewhat, I reached and lifted the locking device on the passenger door and pushed it open. I lifted the front passenger seat forward on its hinges to make the rear seat available and croaked at my father, ‘OK. Hop in!’ With the front seat returned to its normal position I managed what I hoped was a winsome smile up at my mother, and beckoned.
Driving back, there were cockney-style jests from my father such as ‘no more of that malarky, my lad!’ and, from behind, my mother’s occasional and gentle murmuring of ‘Oh, do take care, won’t you’ and so on. Waving goodbye to them as they waved from their front gate I was a sober and far wiser young man.
Somebody’s Facebook entry today has reminded me of a tragic personal tale. I was coming home to England on the Capetown Castle after my two years with the RAF in India. A few of us were in the habit of sitting on the ship’s rail and chatting, wearing the usual shipboard uniform of a pair of shorts. They had very short legs, as it was the custom to signal one’s status as an old hand by getting the village tailor to shorten them considerably. One day as lunchtime was approaching we were sunning ourselves there, waiting for the bell to go off. Opposite us was a row of elderly ladies in deck chairs.
A ship’s wooden rail is beautifully wide and gently rounded, perfect for a young man’s bottom. However, at intervals along its length it has small pronged objects called cleats: sailors use them for securing thin lines when they haul mail and other packages up from the quay or from small boats alongside. Without realising it I had placed myself close beside one of these cleats and a prong had found its way into one leg of my shorts. The bell sounded for lunch and we all leaped down. There was a ripping noise from behind me and the elderly ladies were left gaping at the rear end of a youth running past wearing a tattered miniskirt. The sound of their little chorus of ‘Oooh!’ is with me still.