Lake Mabprachan, East Pattaya, (The ‘Darkside’), 19th March, 2011

2 months, 19 days and still sober.

Pick of the day (1 of 3)

Yesterday I went out for the first time since the previous Sunday and as a result I had 5 days of beard to get rid of!

I drove to the noon AA meeting at Jomtien, the first one I have attended this week. I have to admit that for the most part I found the meeting lacking in inspiration and interest. It was one of those meetings where discussion on members’ belief in a ‘higher Power’, dominated the ‘sharing’ and in particular how their belief had been so instrumental in relieving them of the desire to drink and how it had turned their lives around.

I sat there, listening to speaker after speaker espouse their obviously truly and sincerely held beliefs, and wondered, not for the first time, what the hell I was doing there?

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was being swept up by this ‘need to believe’ and for period of time – maybe several months – I think I really was starting to believe in God. I certainly went through all the motions; praying to God every day, reading a lot of spiritual writings, some AA, some not, and trying to genuinely work the twelve step programme. I even reached step 3 where I was required to ‘Make a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood him’ and I went down on my knees and recited the third step prayer, in the presence of my then sponsor. (For those of you who have been reading my blog from the start, you will find my account of this in my blog when it happened.)

There has been much water under the bridge since then and I now doubt whether I will ever return to a similar spiritual state of mind. I did start to believe it all, but I now regard it as a sort of ‘brain washing’ or a desirable mental state that I craved in order to make some sort of sense out of my life. Without in any way wishing to be unkind or uncharitable, I look and listen to most of these guys at the AA meetings and quite frankly, I see a bunch of ‘weirdos’– some weirder than others – but all of them unstable in one way or another and all of them only held together by rigid attendance at daily AA meetings and an unquestioning faith and belief in a personal God who has saved them from a life of alcoholism. In a twisted way, that is one of the reasons I find AA so fascinating. I enjoy some of the sharing because these people are not normal people and sometimes they have little gems to impart. Often they are very funny, and more often than not, these guys have a high degree of intelligence, even though many are not well educated.

When they are not talking about their Higher power they are more thought-provoking, and for me, more useful. They have many original and insightful little gems to impart and I have never attended a single meeting, however boring and frustrating, when I have not gone away with at least something useful to think about.

And so it proved yesterday. Amongst all this ‘God fearing’, a couple of guys said stuff that was good. Attending an AA meeting is like attending a group therapy session, for that is what it is, and if you are sick in the mind, it has been proven that group sessions can sometimes be very therapeutic. I also accept and believe that the 12 step programme, God aside, has much to commend it and I will continue to try and live by its principals.

I know that what I am writing is sheer heresy to thousands of ‘orthodox’ AA members, such as my would be mentor, ‘Mobiphollower’, but I believe they are too myopic to see the truth of the situation, which is that many alcoholics derive great help and sustenance from AA without necessarily embracing the ‘Full Monty’. Anyway I will continue to attend meetings until I feel I no longer derive benefit from such attendance. Who knows? One day, I may become a believer – but somehow I doubt it….


Pick of the day (2 of 3)

After the meeting I drove to see my little Thai friend who runs a computer repair shop out on Soi Chaiyapruk, (East of Sukhumvit – on the right hand side just a block or so in; the name is ‘DCO computer’ repair.) I have written about him before – the guy is incredibly brave. He is a quadriplegic but gets around incredibly well, drives his own car and speaks excellent English – learnt at the Catholic orphanage where he was brought up. He is one of the few Thai men that I can have a sensible conversation with and we always enjoy a good discussion about Thailand and the general political situation. Anyway, this guy is one of the good ones in this evil world, and if any of you have any need for computer repair, (software or hardware), then please try him out as he really struggles to survive.

He has been cleaning up and renovating my old desk top and had to put in a new sound card and increased the ram from 1 GB to 2 GB. Total cost, 2,000 Baht.  I now plan to install a Linux operating system onto it and see how it goes. It will be a new project for me, but if I can become proficient and comfortable with the new system, I will seriously consider changing my main system to Linux. My frustration, not to say anger, with Microsoft, knows no bounds and I could write a book about all the annoyances and grievances that I have had lately with that company.


Pick of the day (3 of 3)

Then I went on a ‘short time bar crawl’. I started at my newly found place in Soi Kow Noi. I was the only customer and the girls had only started work. I had three of them encircling me at the bar, trying their best to give me a hand job. I enjoyed the ministrations, but was determined to ‘save myself’ for later. At my age, there is only so many ‘eggs in the bank’ on any given day. From Kow Noi, I drove to Nern Plub Wan and found a lovely little lady in one of my regular haunts. Again, resisting her pleas to adjourn to a room, I had a quick lunch and moved on to another place off Siam Country Club. There I met a incredibly sexy lady who gives you a ‘hard-on’ just by looking at her. She is one of those small, slender ladies who wears shorts so short that they show the cracks in her buttocks. She has beautifully smooth, brown skin, lovely little bosoms (no bra) and has a very pretty face which is always creased in a cheeky, alluring smile.

The girl knew me from previous occasions, and as soon as I entered the joint, she extricated herself from where she was siting, (atop the lap of a fat farang, legs akimbo) and rushed over to greet me. Within seconds, I had my hand down the back of her shorts and my long fingers probed the frontal area, where I was rewarded with some nice juicy cum. In the meantime, after skilfully releasing my shorts belt, she greeted a long lost friend. We stayed in that position for several minutes. She was begging me to take her to a room, but I resisted, determined to remain faithful to my little Noo….

My final ‘port of call’ was to one of the oldest places around the lake. Amazingly, there are still a few girls there who I met some 5 years ago when I first came to Pattaya. The mind boggles as to how many farangs they have fucked during that period of time.  The place was surprisingly busy and after a quick glass of water in the company of one of the older ladies who I bought a drink for the sake of ‘bygone times’, I decided to call it a day and drove back home, still 100% sober.

I have completed my revision of Chapter 5 and now have pleasure in publishing it below and in my ‘tab’.  I hope you feel it has been worth the effort. After a short break, I think I may do some more revision work on the earlier chapters before pressing on to chapter six.

Butt of the day.

“Som Nam Na” (novel in progress)

CHAPTER FIVE

Toby was playing in the back yard. He was digging a hole in the hard earth with a rusty old trowel. Next to him was a half rotten potato with some shrivelled roots. Mummy had told him that if he dug deep enough and put the potato at the very bottom of the hole, it would grow during the winter and next spring the family would have a big bowl full of new, delicious potatoes to eat. He looked up at his mother who was sitting on a chair by the open window that overlooked the back garden.

‘Mummy!’ Toby called out, ‘Is it deep enough?’

It was impossible for Toby’s mother to see the bottom of the hole from her position in the first floor kitchen window, but she smiled lovingly at her four year old son and said: ‘Yes, darling, that will do very nicely. Pop it in then.’

Toby did as he was told and placed the rotten potato in the hole. Then, recalling that his mother did something similar with a spade when she had planted some bulbs in their small patch of garden a few days earlier, he stood up and kicked some earth into the hole with his foot. The potato disappeared under the falling earth and he stamped down on it, just to make sure it was firmly in its place. He smiled up at his mother for approval.

‘You’re such a clever little boy! Now go and get your little bucket and water it.’

Toby wandered down the garden path towards the house and found his rusty, toy bucket next to the dilapidated garden shed. He picked it up and walked across the yard, then along the side of the house to where the water tap was located, next to a large, battered, iron trash bin. It was mid-Autumn, but they were enjoying an ‘Indian Summer’. The weather was hot and humid and the flies were everywhere – especially in the area near the bin, which was half full of putrid rubbish, partly covered by the dented bin lid, which no longer fitted properly. The flies buzzed around his head; a large bluebottle settled momentarily on his face and he swatted it away.

His mummy had told him to keep away from the flies because they were dirty and would make him very ill. She said that if he wasn’t careful he would get very sick like Barry next doors. He hadn’t seen Barry all summer as he had been confined to his bed with something called ‘Scarlet Fever’. Mummy said that Barry might die.

So he filled up his little bucket and ran back to the flower bed, the water leaking out of a hole in the bottom of the bucket and leaving a moist trail in the dusty earth behind him. The bucket was barely a third full by the time he reached his potato patch and he quickly emptied the remainder into the earth, smiling with pleasure in anticipation of the feast of potatoes that the family would be able to eat in a few months’ time.

He looked once more toward the window where his mother had been sitting, but she was no longer there. She had disappeared. For a moment he started to panic, but after a brief moment he was able to make out voices coming from the open window. He felt reassured and returned to his gardening chores, walking back towards the house, carrying his little bucket to get some more water. He had just turned the tap back on to refill his little bucket when suddenly, the familiar and gut-wrenching sound of a very loud, screaming, male voice ripped apart the somnolent tranquillity of the hot September afternoon; it was coming from the upstairs kitchen. Even the flies took flight at the ferocity of the noise.

Toby took his cue from the flies. He dropped his bucket, scattering the water over his legs and ground as he raced away from the house to the far end of the garden shed in an effort to get away from the noise. But even at that distance he could still hear his father raging at his mother and could even make out the frightening sound that he knew from previous occasions; the sickening sound of his father slapping his mother mercilessly across her face.

He crouched down by the shed and listened to the noise. His father would shout abuse at the top of his voice, then pause for a few seconds during which Toby could make out the tell-tale slapping noise of his mummy being beaten, before his father’s screams resumed once again. He wondered if Mummy would die. He wondered what it would be like to die. He thought about Barry, lying sick in bed next door. Everyone had said that he might die, too.

‘What is all this stuff about dying?’ he thought to himself, ‘Maybe it’s better if I die. If I’m dead, I won’t have to hear Daddy screaming any more or watch mummy being beaten.’

‘Yes, Maybe it is better if I’m dead. Then I can go to that place mummy is always talking about.  I can go to heaven.’


***


It was a gloomy, bitterly cold, January afternoon.  Toby was outside, playing alone in the alley behind the house .The weather was so cold that his tiny hands had become numb and he could barely feel his own fingertips; but despite the temperature and the forbidding, ever darkening sky, he was more content to be out there in the alley, left to his own devices, than to stay indoors and have to endure yet more temper tantrums from his obdurate and intimidating parent. Indeed, his father had screamed at him to ‘go out and play!’ several hours ago and he needed no second bidding to remove himself from his father’s frightening presence.

In any event, the inside of the large, sprawling, nineteenth century terraced house, that Toby knew as home, wasn’t much warmer than being out in the back yard, fully exposed to the elements. There was no central heating, and in much of the house, ice had already started to form on the insides of the ancient Victorian casements that sat riveted in their frozen window frames. The only heat in the entire house was in the first floor kitchen/diner, overlooking the back yard, where a pathetically small coal fire was smouldering away in the tiny hearth. His father had forbidden any coal fires to be lit during the daylight hours and although it was only 5’oclock in the afternoon, the early winter night had cast its dark envelope across the skies of London more than an hour ago. Ever since darkness had fallen, Toby’s mother had been trying to fire up the kitchen hearth, using some old sheets of  newspaper, some sparse kindling wood and a few meagre lumps of coal that she had emptied out from nearby coal shuttle. But the lumps of smouldering coal were still being coaxed into life and their dirty, black surfaces had not yet started to emit that warm, orange glow that would eventually start to make their feeble mark on the plummeting temperature of the family kitchen.

As luck would have it, today was Sunday night and that meant that a large tin tub, half filled with ice-cold water was being heated up on the ancient gas range, with no less than three gas burners running at full pelt under the rusting metal tub.  Once the water was deemed hot enough, the tub would be gingerly carried into the bathroom by both parents and the overturned into the stained, enamel bath. Cold water would be added from the bath tap until the ambient temperature had been cooled down sufficiently for the entire family to take their weekly bath.

The first person to enjoy the dubious pleasure of bathing in the clean, relatively untarnished water was always Toby’s mother and she quickly stripped off her clothes and spent a few precious minutes soothing her fatigued, world-weary, and grimy body. Jeanette, Toby’s older sister, would be next and then it would be the turn of the two boys, Toby and his older brother, Danny. By the time the boys got their turn, the water would have already turned to a decidedly unpleasant looking greyish- brown colour in appearance and the temperature would be barely lukewarm.

Danny was already undressed down to his underwear and the gas burners, their job done, had been turned off, no longer contributing to the ever deepening chill in the kitchen, but Toby was nowhere to be seen.

‘Danny, where’s Toby?’ Danny mother asked.

‘I don’t know Mummy, maybe he’s playing upstairs in the bedroom.’

She walked to the stairwell and called out her youngest son’s name, but there was no response.

Danny was starting to shiver with the cold and his mother told him to get in the bath to warm up. But where was Toby? Surely he wasn’t still outside at this time of evening in the dark? She went to the kitchen window and struggled to open it as the frame was half frozen and the frayed sash cords caught on the pulleys.

Her husband, who had his head buried in a week old newspaper at the kitchen table, looked up and asked what the hell she was doing. Wasn’t it cold enough without her letting the winter air in?  She gently explained that she couldn’t find Toby and thought that he must be playing outside in the alley.

‘Outside! At this time of night! What the hell is going on round here? Why can’t you keep your eyes on your fucking children?’ he screamed at her.

The tall, burley man walked over to the window, which  his wife had succeeded in opening barely an inch or so, and gave it an almighty heave , whereupon it shot up on its sash cords letting a shocking blast of wintery air into the room . He put his head out of the window and yelled at the top of his voice.

‘Toby! Toby! You wretched little brat! Come home, this minute!’

Toby was still playing in the alley way. He was almost frozen stiff but the coolness of his body was put to the back of his mind as he played in his own little world. He was pretending he was at school with his older brother and sister. They had told him so much about the school he would be starting in the summer when he was five years old and he couldn’t wait to join them. He was doing his ‘a-b-c’ with his imaginary teacher when the sound of his father’s screams invaded the relative peace of his little game. At first, he felt glad that he was well away from his father’s latest tirade, but after a few moments, he suddenly realised that Daddy was shouting his name and a shiver of fright passed through him. He was much more concerned about his father’s anger than the cold he was enduring in the bleak night air, so his initial thoughts were to find a corner of the alley to hide. But the shouting continued and he soon lost the will to ignore his enraged parent and he ran quickly back into the garden where he saw his father, still standing and shouting from the open kitchen window.

In spite of the dark, his father spotted him running towards the house and shouted for him to get indoors before he gave him the ‘hiding of his life.’ Toby rushed upstairs where thankfully his mother was waiting for him. She grabbed hold of him before his father could do anything and cuddled him to her bosom.

‘My goodness Toby – you are freezing cold! Quickly come into the kitchen and undress and get into the bath tub with Danny. The water will warm you up.’

He was led into the kitchen, where at least the tiny, half-frozen Toby noticed that the air was a little warmer. His mother quickly stripped him down and carried him into the bathroom where he was deposited into the now tepid water, facing his elder brother who by this time had more or less completed his ablutions.

The tepid water thawed out Toby’s semi-frozen, emaciated frame and he felt a warm, tingling glow run threw him as his body temperature adapted to its new surroundings. The water was dirty and rapidly cooling and Danny jumped out of the bath and wrapped himself in a threadbare towel, mocking his younger brother for being late for bath night and warning him that he was yet to face the wrath of his father.

But Toby wasn’t really listening. He was still luxuriating in the bath water and was busy trying to wash his tangled, dirty hair with a hard block of soap that was stubbornly refusing to generate any soap suds, no matter how vigorously he rubbed it. Through the bathroom wall he could hear the sounds of his angry father, shouting sat his mother for some unfathomable indiscretion. He wasn’t too bothered; he was too occupied in finishing his bathing before the water was too cold to stay in any longer. In any case, his father’s tantrums were so much of a daily occurrence as long as he personally wasn’t the object of his father’s anger; he tried to shut it out of his mind.

But then, unusually, he heard his mother’s raised voice. She sounded upset and he even heard her mention his name – Toby – ‘poor little Toby’. Then yet again he heard the sickening sound of his mother being slapped hard across the face. The kitchen door slammed and for a moment, Toby thought his father would come into the bathroom, but mercifully, he heard his father stomping down the stairs and out of the house. Through the wall he could hear the sound of his mother sobbing. He listened, hoping that she would stop. But she didn’t, she kept on and on, sobbing her heart out. Toby looked at his brother, who had also become engrossed in the emotional events that had been unfolding in the next room.

The water was cold, but Toby still sat there, listening to his mother crying. He looked at his brother and could see tears at the corner of Danny’s eyes. Why was Danny crying? He thought he knew the reason, but he had never seen Danny cry before, he had always been the strong, brave one. Immobile, he sat in the cold water and listened to his mother crying and watched the tears roll down Danny’s cheeks. Then, for no apparent reason he suddenly felt his own eyes well up and as much as tried to stop them, he knew with an innate certainty that his own tears were every bit as real as Mummy’s and Danny’s. They streamed down his face plip-plopping` onto to the dirty scum, which was now forming on the surface of the increasingly icy-cold bath water.


***


It was early April and spring had burst in upon gloomy East London and had somehow lifted the depressing effects of the long, cold winter. Toby was back in the garden with his mummy who was weeding the tiny flower bed. Some spring crocuses and a few scrawny, diseased yellow daffodils had made a belated but welcome appearance in the stark back yard.

A small boy and girl, of similar age to Toby trotted into the garden from the alley beyond. They were Normal and Janice, who lived a few houses ‘down the alley’. They asked Toby’s mummy if he could go to their house and play for a few hours. Toby loved going to play there. There were a number of reasons for this, not least of which was the prospect of getting away from his father’s all-pervading  influence for a couple of hours.

‘Oh yes, please Mummy, please let me go.’

His mother looked worried and a little fearful as she knew that her husband didn’t approve of these neighbours – as indeed he rarely approved of anyone or anything in this world. But she knew that Toby enjoyed himself so much and her love for her children was greater than her fear of her husband, so she told him he could go. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and she told Toby to be sure to be back home in time for tea at five o’clock or his father would be very angry.

Toby needed no second bidding and scampered off with his little friends, although how he would know when it was time to go home was somewhat problematic, particularly as was yet to learn how to tell the time.

The three young children scampered off along the alley and into the back garden of Norman and Janice’s home. Norman’s father was a large bluff Irishman and his mother was a lovely little Greek lady, who Norman’s Dad had ‘met in the war’, Norman had confided in him. The family was clearly much better off than Toby’s family; the father was a pharmacist and he managed the chemist shop that faced out onto the East London high Street, with the family, like Toby’s, living above the shop.

But there the similarity ended. A shiny new family car was parked in the alleyway outside the house, and inside the house it was all the ‘mod cons’ of the day. A well equipped kitchen, modern, comfortable furniture, the rooms beautifully decorated with wallpaper in every room and the Pièce de résistance  sitting on its own, in pride of place, in the middle of his friends’ sitting room.

As ever, as soon as the children entered the house, Norman’s mother was fussing around them and Toby was fascinated yet again to hear the mother and her two children yapping away with each other in fluent Greek, a language they had learned as soon as they were able to speak. Both children were completely bilingual. Norma’s mother hugged Toby and welcomed him into her home before leading him into the kitchen and offering him all manner of sweets, biscuits and cakes.

Oh you poor leetle babby. You are soooo, how you say – skinny…. Come on,  eat up, before you fall down from starving…

Norman’s mum had taken a real shine to the skinny kid from down the alley and always insisted on him ‘filling up his stomach’, from the moment he arrived at her home to the moment that he left.

After Toby had somewhat assuaged his hunger, the three children moved into the living room and parked themselves on the large, plush sofa. Norman’s mummy followed them in and walked over to the table in the centre of the room and pushed a button. Toby sat transfixed. Within a few seconds the dark screen lit up and a picture of a man appeared. The woman played with the box and managed to produce sounds of a man talking – just like the man he had heard sometimes on Daddy’s wireless.

Then, suddenly, bliss descended. The familiar music emitted from the television and the three children knew what was coming. Toby has only seen the programme a few times but already he could recite the opening preamble

First those familiar horns: ‘Dah – de da – de dah de dah de dah!’

Then: ‘A fiery horse with a speed of light, a cloud of dust and a – hearty Hi-o Silver!  The Lone Ranger!’

The kids were in seventh heaven and they sat enthralled watching the latest adventure of their hero.

*

If it hadn’t been for the highly intelligent and sensible Norman, Toby would never have moved himself from his seat in front of the television. He couldn’t get enough of it, but Norman remembered Toby’s mother telling him to be back home by five and as he could even tell the time, he reminded Toby that he had better get going as it was already gone half past four.

A quick jolt of panic went through Toby’s stomach as he too belatedly recalled his mother’s warning. Thanking his friend for his thoughtful reminder, Toby reluctantly hauled himself up from the comfortable sofa and ran back down the alley to his own back garden. He was indeed back home well in time but was dismayed to hear his father’s voice, yelling once again from somewhere inside the house. At first he thought that his father was angry at him being late home, but as he approached the side door to the house he could hear that the shouting was coming from within the shop, where his father worked.

He ran upstairs to the kitchen where the family were getting the table set for ‘tea’ – their evening meal of the day. From the look on their faces, especially his mother, he could tell that they were listening to the shouting going on downstairs in the shop and his older brother and sister were clearly dreading the inevitable  appearance of their angry, domineering and frightening father.

Tea was ready and everyone sat down at their allotted places, awaiting the arrival of their father. After another five minutes of shouting, the noise finally stopped and a few seconds later they could hear the angry man climbing the stairs, with a loud, heavy thump on every approaching step. The door flew open; he took in the family scene and without a word took his place at the head of the table.

‘Eat!’ he said loudly and started to pile up food onto his own plate. The family followed suit.

His wife timidly enquired: ‘Everything all right David?’

Anyone would have thought that the poor woman had just uttered some terrible curse at her husband.

‘Everything all right? he screamed. What the fucking hell do you mean? Everything all right? Couldn’t you fucking hear me downstairs in the shop? Did it sound like everything’s all right?’

‘Well, no… I supposed not…’ stuttered the terrified woman.

‘No! Everything is NOT all right!’ screamed Toby’ father, his face reddening with rage.

With that, the big man stood up, grabbed his plateful of food in his two fists and threw it across the kitchen, the china plate smashing to pieces and the food scattering all over the wall and floor. Not content with destroying his own meal, he then swept his large hands across the table, sending all the plates and food scattering and smashing onto the floor around the table.

He walked to the door and then turned to look at his cowering family who by now were trembling with fear at what their crazed father might to next.

‘No, Carol’. He screamed at his wife, ‘Nothing is right. I just quit my fucking job. I will not work one more day for that bunch stupid bunch of arseholes. They are all fucking idiots and I told them so. They can go and take a running jump and find another mug to run their fucking shop for them!’

Toby’s mother stared at her husband. ‘But what will we do?  Where will we live?’ she plaintively asked him, for she knew that their home ‘came with the job’.

He looked at her for a few seconds, his temper rising once again.

‘I don’t fucking know and I don’t fucking care!’ he screamed before stomping back down the stairs and out of the house.

‘David! David! How will we live? How will we eat? She screamed.

But David was gone and didn’t hear a word.

The children were still sitting at the table, staring at their mother; hungry and badly traumatised by what had just happened. Toby’s mother sat down with her children and put her head in her hands, sobbing quietly to herself.

Toby’s sister, Jeanette, also broke out in tears and her mother got up and walked over to her, putting her arms around her young daughter’s shoulders in an attempt to provide comfort. Toby and Danny watched the two females hugging each other from the other side of the table. Toby glanced at Danny to see if he was crying but he could not detect any tears lurking in Danny’s eyes.

‘Well if Danny’s not crying, the neither will I’, Toby said to himself. The truth was, he wasn’t feeling very brave and he didn’t know how long he could hold on, but he was determined to keep his eyes dry. He sat there, his tiny, anxious face staring straight in front him while he gripped the sides of his chair so hard that his knuckles turned white.

 

 

***

It was early September. Danny and Jeannette were accompanying Toby for his very first day at school. It was a good twenty minutes’ walk along the residential road, lined on both sides by large terraced and semi -detached Victorian houses. The road commenced at the top of Toby’s alley and snaked deep into the heart of suburbia, where the nineteenth century Victorian school building was located. It was St Andrews Infants and Junior mixed school, which was to be Toby’s place of education for the next six years. Toby was so excited. He had been ready for school for over a year and had never tired of hearing school stories from his brother and sister. He had turned five the previous June and just couldn’t wait to get started.

As with so many highly anticipated events, the reality of Toby’s first day at school wasn’t quite how he had been imagining it during all those long months of waiting. He was dumped by his older siblings in the principal’s office, for the very briefest of inductions before being sent out to play with a bunch of kids who had never seen before. Most of them were much bigger than him and not a little intimidating. So it was a relief when the school bell was rung and his name was called out. The teacher took him by the arm into a class-room for the very first time in his life.

He immediately withdrew within himself. The other children seemed so unfriendly, even hostile. The ones who spoke to him seemed to be so much smarter – most of them could already read and write; something that Toby had been unable to achieve during his pre-school years, due to the lack of books and someone to tutor him. At the mid-morning school break, Toby hid himself behind a low wall at the end of the school playground. He was so unhappy and   couldn’t wait for the break to end and for him to return to the relative safety of his classroom.

Things got worse. His mother had paid for him to have a school dinner and he was led by some of his class mates to the school hall where tables had been set up for the children to have their lunch. He followed the line and queued up for his food. He looked at the food being ladled onto the empty, waiting plates. It not only looked disgusting but also smelt disgusting. It was some sort of meat gruel in thick, dark-brown gravy accompanied by Toby’s most detested vegetable – cabbage. He couldn’t stand it and even his domineering father had never insisted on him eating it at home when he had convinced him how much it disagreed with him. He hated the smell of it and he hated the taste even more. Just to smell the foul, boiled vegetable made him want to retch.

The dinner lady insisted on piling the stinking vegetable on his plate and he was led back to his place at the dinner table by a couple of his new classmates. He nibbled at the gruel. It tasted awful but he managed to force a couple of forkfuls down, making sure that he kept his fork well away from the cabbage which covered over half his plate.  After five minutes, he gave up the unequal struggle and decided he couldn’t eat any more of the foul tasting lunch and placed his knife and fork neatly on one side of the plate. He was still hungry but decided he would have to wait until he got home and had his tea before his hunger could be at least partially assuaged. He would rather starve than have to force down that horrible cabbage.

One of the ‘on duty’ female teachers approached Toby’s table and immediately saw that the young boy had barely touched his lunch.

‘You – boy!’ the teacher shouted, ‘What’s your name?’

Toby looked up at the woman. ‘T-Toby, Toby Stark.’

‘Toby! Why haven’t you eaten your lunch?’

‘I- don’t like it…’

‘Don’t like it! Don’t like it! You don’t have to like it young man, you just have to eat it. You haven’t even touched your cabbage. Eat it up right now or you’ll be in serious trouble.’

Toby looked at the woman and knew that she meant business, but it would take more than a stern teacher to make him put that poison in his mouth.

‘I can’t eat it. I can’t,’ he belated plaintively.’

‘Can’t or won’t?’ she barked at him, before taking a spoon from his plate, piling up with cabbage and holding to his mouth.

‘Open your mouth and eat! It’s good for you.’

She held his forehead with her left hand and pushed the spoon onto his lips with her right hand, trying to force his mouth open. Toby was terrified and his lips parted, whereupon he felt the dreaded cabbage filling up his mouth.

‘Now eat! Chew it!’

He did as he was bid and made a great effort to swallow the unwholesome mess.

‘There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?’ asked the teacher, as she started to follow up with another spoonful.

She was once more holding the spoon to his lips when Toby’s stomach heaved, his mouth opened involuntarily and a huge mass of vomit suddenly spewed forth from his mouth, covering everything in sight; his shirt, his plate, his chair, the table, and even the hands and arms of the teacher who had been unable to remove the spoon in time to avoid being thoroughly soaked in the foul smelling bile. She was enraged, but quickly pulled herself together and lifted the boy up with one hand under his puny waist and hauled him underarm into the bathroom where she attempted to clean-up both Toby and her own, stinking hands and arms.

At length, Toby was carried back to his classroom where he was dumped unceremoniously in the corner of the room and left to wait out the remainder of the lunch time in quiet solitude. No further attempts were made to ‘force feed’ him and that was the last school dinner he ever had to face during his primary school years.

The afternoon of Toby’s first day of school turned out to be even worse than the morning. His clothes stunk of vomit and the teacher made him sit at the back of the class in the corner, but even from there, the smell continued to permeate the classroom and the children lost no time in telling the new boy what they thought of him.

At long last it was time to go home and Toby rushed out of the playground into the nearby street to look for his brother and sister. He waited there for more than ten minutes but there was no sign of his siblings. After fifteen minutes, he decided that they must have forgotten about him and he decided to take the 20 minute walk back home, on his own. He was sure he knew the way and walked along the road to the nearby crossroads. He stopped in his tracks and thought for a moment.

‘Shall I go straight on, or should I turn right?’ he asked himself.

After a moment’s consideration, he decided that he hadn’t taken any turns on his way to school so the way must be straight on. Within half an hour he was totally lost. He realised he must have gone the wrong way and tried to retrace his steps, but by this time he had already taken several turns in a desperate attempt to find a familiar road and he could no more find his way back to school than he could find the way home. But he walked and walked, forever in the hope that the alley that ran behind his home would magically appear in front of him.

He lost track of time. Late afternoon gave way to evening and night was rapidly descending. He was tired and hungry and didn’t know what to do. He stopped walking and sat on a nearby garden wall to consider his situation. Two middle aged men came into view, saw him sitting there and walked over to see what he was doing there, all alone in the dark.

‘Hello little boy, what are you doing here, in the dark, all alone? You’re not one of the local lads from around here, are you?

‘I was on my way home from my school, but I lost my way.’

The two men looked at him, trying to decide what to do.

‘Where do you live? Do you know your address?’

Toby did, and told them, ‘55a High Road, Ilford, above Dr Scholar’s foot shop.’

‘Dr Scholar’s foot shop? I know that place, it’s about halfway down the high road, not far from the train station,’ the second man said to his friend.

‘You are a bit off course,’ the first man told Toby, ‘Come on, we’ll show you the way’.

They led Toby down past a number of cross roads where he turned either left or right so many times he couldn’t hope to remember which way he was going. Eventually they reached a road that Toby thought looked familiar.

‘I know this road – this leads to my alley, doesn’t it?’ He asked the strangers.

‘Alley? What alley?’ the first man asked

‘The alley – behind my house.’

Again, the second man knew what Toby was referring to.

‘Yes, I do believe there is an alley that runs at the back of the highroad. I’ve seen it when I’ve walked home from the train station.’

‘That’s right little lad, this road goes straight to your alley.’

With that, Toby broke away from the two men and shot off into the darkness.

‘Hey, Toby, wait a minute will you,’ shouted one of the men, but Toby was long gone before they had a chance to appreciate that he had gone.

‘Do you think he’ll be all right?’

‘Well if he keeps on going down this road he’ll soon be home, so I don’t think we need to worry too much’.

After running for a few minutes, Toby became tired and slowed down to a walk. He knew he was on the right road now and knew he would soon be back home. He was tired and hungry and not a little frightened for he was starting to worry about what his Dad might do. Thankfully, his father had found another job after he walked out of his job downstairs, so most days he was out at work, but he was always home before it got dark. Toby was becoming more and more anxious at what sort of reception he might encounter.

At long last, the top of the alley was in sight and Toby broke into a run once more. As he approached the alley, he saw two tall figures standing there in the darkness. One had the distinctive blue uniform of a London Policemen, and the other, equally tall, was the menacing figure of his father. Toby stopped in his tracks, wondering whether he could hide from them. It was too late. His father had spotted him and shouted out.

‘Toby! Come here, now!’

He walked wearily towards the two men; hungry, terrified and dismayed at how calamitous his first day of school had been.

And it wasn’t over yet……


***

Danny told Toby that he had overheard his father telling Mummy one night that they had all been allowed to stay at their ‘home over the shop’ because the new shop manager didn’t want to live there  and nobody else had wanted to either. Even in the bleak post war period, nobody wanted to live in such a dilapidated house that was in such  a terrible state of decoration that it had mould growing on the walls, had no running hot water and was so cold in the winter that ice would regularly form on the inside of the windows. Danny had heard his father pass on this information to his mother, one night, a few weeks after he had stormed out of his job at Dr Scholar’s foot shop in a terrible rage.

Since then, his father had been going out early every morning to a new job he had found, working with an acquaintance in a nearby London suburb, so the family had been blissfully spared his intimidating, daytime presence during the weekdays and Saturday. But on Sundays, the one day of the week when the whole country came to a halt, Toby’s father would be home all day.

After a few weeks, Toby had settled in at school. And was starting to slowly ‘come out of his shell’ in the new environment. He had solved his ‘school dinner’ problem by making the 15 minute journey home each lunch time, to be quickly fed by his waiting mother. Within a very short while, he could make that journey blindfolded and never again would he suffer the wrath of his father by losing his way home. He soon learned to love school, to tolerate Saturdays, when he could play with his friends, Norman and Janice in the back alley and watch their television, but he hated Sundays. On Sundays he was all alone. His elder siblings would disappear with their own friends and Toby’s friends from the alley never came out to play on Sundays. Most of the families living in the neighbourhood went to church, and many of the children went to church ‘Sunday schools’ in the afternoons.

Toby sat perched on top of a brick wall at the end of the alley, not far from his back yard. The high brick wall ran right across the road, turning Toby’s end of the alley into a dead end, a cul-de-sac. On the other side of the wall was the local Baptist Church. Toby was fascinated by all the activities that went on in the church grounds and inside the building. Sometimes, after school, he would see dozens of kids running around in the church grounds, all wearing exciting and colourful uniforms. Some evenings it was the cubs, with their green jerseys and striped caps, the next day, brownies, in their little brown dresses, the next day the Boys Brigade in their smart soldier’s uniforms and so on. But it was on Sunday afternoons that captivated him the most. On Sundays he would see children of all ages, dressed in their ‘Sunday best’; the girls in the colourful little dresses and bonnets, the boys in their smart shorts, neatly pressed  white shirts, bow ties and little jackets, all running around, playing games in the grounds before disappearing inside, laughing and frolicking as they went. Once inside, he could hear the joyful voices, singing Sunday school songs to the accompaniment of a piano.

Toby dearly yearned to be part of those happy, laughing groups of children, playing games, singing songs and generally having a good time. He decided to take his life in his hands and go and ask his father if he too might go to Sunday school. His father was snoozing in the upstairs living room.

‘Daddy, Daddy, are you awake?’

His father stirred, opened his eyes and looked at his son.

‘What are you doing inside the house? I told you to go outside and play! Get out!’

‘B-but Daddy, I want to ask you something…’

‘Ask me something? What?’ he demanded in an increasingly harsh voice.

‘I w-want to go to S-Sunday school…’

‘Sunday school! Sunday school!’ his father had shouted, ‘No son of mine is going to get involved in all that religious claptrap. Over my dead body! No! Never! Get out of here!’

He walked slowly back outside, climbed onto the wall and  sat there alone, watching and listening the children enjoying their afternoon at Sunday school, wondering what he had done to have such a dreadful father. He couldn’t stop terrible and sinful thoughts from forming in his mind. He wished that Daddy would suddenly die and that Mummy would find a new Daddy. He wished that he had a new Daddy who would be kind and jolly, just like all his friends’ Daddies. He wanted a Daddy who wouldn’t shout at him and his brother and sister every day; a Daddy who would let him go to Sunday School and let him do other things that all his friends were allowed to do; but most of all, a Daddy who wouldn’t keep hitting his Mummy and making her cry..


***

Toby was once more in trouble with his father.  His second year class teacher, Miss Evans, had told Mummy that he was a bit ‘dopey’. Without thinking, his mother had inadvertently passed this comment onto her husband a few days later, with predictable results.

A year had passed since Toby’s father had stormed home to announce to the entire family, at the top of his voice, that he had a major disagreement with his ‘brainless business partner’ and that he no longer was working with him. A period of unemployment ensued until one day he managed to pick up some free-lance work as a barber, but money had become tighter than ever and for most of the time he stayed at home, brooding on how the world was full of idiots and how that everyone, except himself, was to blame for all his misfortunes.

When Toby’s father had heard that a teacher had the temerity to call his youngest son stupid, he had flown into a rage and the next day, he dragged his son to school to ‘have it out’ with the offending teacher. Toby was terrified at what might happen, with good cause as it transpired.

Toby stood behind to his father, outside his classroom in the main hall, while his irate parent cross-examined the timid,  female teacher.

‘Why did you call my son dopey?’ he asked in a loud, menacing voice.

Miss Evans felt slightly fearful of this large, intimidating man, but felt safe within the confines of the school and had no hesitation in telling him her reasons.

‘I said that, Mr Stark, because there is definitely something not quite right with your son. Toby doesn’t seem to join in and play with the other boys. Maybe ‘dopey’ was the wrong word to use, but most of the time, he sits by himself and seems to have no interest in their games. Even when they queue up to go in the classroom, Toby never tries to get to the front of the queue like the other children, he just walks to the back of the line and waits alone. There is no interaction with the other children.  It’s just not normal for a young boy of his age. He doesn’t seem to have any spirit.’

His father wouldn’t have it.

‘Goes to the back of the line? No spirit? What are you talking about woman? He’s not dopey – he’s using his bloody common sense. Why should he join in fighting with the other boys? Why should he fight to get to the front of the line? Toby’s not dopey – he is very clever!’

Toby’s heart warmed a little to hear his father defending him like this, but he dreaded what his father would say when they got back home. He was only six years old, but he knew that his father was only defending him because he was being criticised by someone outside the family. How dare they criticise his son!

The teacher tried to elaborate on her viewpoint, but Toby’s father was having none of it. He started shouting loudly at the poor lady who was becoming increasingly concerned by this threatening confrontation. The noise soon attracted the attention of other teachers and within a few seconds a large group had gathered around. One of the older women walked over and introduced herself.

‘Mr Stark I am Mrs Butler, the Head Mistress. Would you mind coming to my office please? I can’t have all this noise going on in the main hallway. The children will be very disturbed.’

‘Disturbed! I’ll give you disturbed!’ he erupted. ‘What about me being disturbed by this idiotic, incompetent teacher?’ he shouted, pointing his finger menacingly at the poor Miss Evans.

‘Mr Stark, will you come to my office please?’ the Head Mistress repeated.

‘No, I won’t. I will stay here for as long as I choose!’ he shouted back.

There was a silence while Mrs Butler considered what to do with this unstable, ferocious –looking man. Whatever she was, she most certainly wasn’t a coward and in any case she had her pupils’ welfare to think about.

‘Very well then Mr Stark. If you won’t come to my office, then so be it. But this school is private property, and I am in charge here. I must ask you to vacate these premises forthwith or I will have no choice but to call the police and have you evicted.’

It seemed for a minute or so that Toby’s father had finally met his match as he was stunned into silence by someone who had the courage to stand up to him. Quickly recovering, he glowered at the older woman before shouting a torrent of abuse at her.

‘You stupid, fucking bitch! I will leave this school when I am good and ready and you can call out the ‘fucking British army’ for all I care!’

‘Mr Stark, you are a nasty, violent man and I will not stay here for another moment. I am going to call the police and I warn you to be gone before they arrive. Also, with the deepest regret, I must advise you that if you don’t leave this school immediately, then I will have to seriously consider removing your children from this school. I simply can’t have my staff and the other children subjected to such outrageous behaviour by a parent.’

With that she stomped off and the other teachers who had gathered around, including Toby’s teacher also made themselves scarce, leaving father and son standing alone in the hallway. Toby’s father looked at the retreating figures and then down at his son.

Suddenly, he shouted: ‘Toby, go to your class! I’ll be dealing with you when you get home.’

He walked briskly out of the building and back to his ramshackle home. Toby, traumatised by what had just transpired between his father and the school teachers, walked slowly into his classroom, dreading what might await him when he got home that night. He was completely unable to concentrate on his schoolwork.


***

It was    1955; three years after Toby’s father had taken issue with his school over being labelled as ‘dopey’. Today was the last day of term and Toby’s strict but caring teacher, Mr Leach, had called him to his desk to have a quiet chat.

*

Toby had at long last realised the academic potential his father had been demanding, when he was ‘promoted to the ‘A’ stream for his 3rd year of junior school, which was now about to com e to an end. He had been at school for five years; two years in ‘infants’ school followed by three at ‘junior’ school. Junior school classes were ‘streamed’ according to ability, with the ‘A’ steam containing the brightest, the ‘B’ containing the ‘not quite so bright’, and so on down to the ‘C’ stream, which contained those children who had  with the most difficulty in learning.

But Toby was part of the post war baby-boom and for his year there were so many children that the school was obliged to create an additional ’D’ stream.  Toby was spared the shame and indignity of being placed in either the ‘D’ or ‘E’ streams but his second year infants teacher, the one who considered him dopey, still thought that he wasn’t too bright at the end of his year with her and she recommended that he was put in the ‘C’ stream for his first year at junior school.

Toby had been berated endlessly by his father for being so ‘stupid’ and had to endure non- stop ribbing from his brother for failing to do better at school. Danny was the bright one; he had gone right through his Junior school years in the ‘A’ stream and had now passed his ’11-plus’ examination and was  awarded a place in the prestigious local grammar school. Even his elder sister, who was not known for her intellectual prowess had produced solid results in the ‘B’ stream, but poor Toby, the ‘runt of the litter’, seemed to be destined for a life of mediocrity and failure.

He had stoically accepted what appeared to be his lot in life but enjoyed school and started to respond to the challenges of primary school education – the proverbial three ‘R’s’- reading writing and arithmetic. At infants’ school, many of his classmates could already read when they started school as they had been tutored by their parents at home and it took a while for Toby to catch up. But by his first year of junior school he was one of the most advanced readers in his class and he was also becoming quite adept with sums – adding and subtracting. By the end of his first ‘junior’ year in the ‘C’ stream, it became obvious to everyone that he was much brighter than his infants school teacher had suggested and he was promoted to the ‘B’ stream for his second year in the ‘juniors’.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Toby continued to forge ahead and halfway through his second year, he was singled out for special praise by the school headmaster, who came to his class to congratulate Toby on a wonderful story he had written in class. Toby’ teacher had been so impressed with his composition – a story about the life of a purse which went from owner to owner – that she had taken it to the headmaster who was similarly impressed. So it came as no surprise to anyone, when at the end of junior year 2, he was once again promoted, this time to the ‘A’ stream for his third year.

His father barely uttered a word of encouragement or congratulations when Toby had proudly announced that he would be going into the ‘A’ stream for the new term, merely commenting that if it hadn’t been for ‘That stupid, fucking Miss Evans,’ he would have been there two years ago.

He still had to endure the domineering influence of his father with his regular, almost daily temper tantrums and many were the days when Toby would arrive at school in a traumatised state due to the latest uproar at home. Occasionally, in rare moments of openness, he would tell his closest friends what had been going on at home, but for the most part, he kept it all to himself, deeply hidden in a special recess of his mind. He tried to pretend that he was a normal boy with a normal family having a normal life at home and at school. When he was enjoying himself at school, away from the influence of his intimidating father; he sometimes almost believed it was true.

*

‘Toby,’ his teacher said to him, ‘How are things at home?’

‘Home, sir?’

‘Yes, I noticed that you seemed upset and distracted when you arrived at school this morning. Did you have a problem with your father again?

‘My father, sir? What about my father?’ Toby was becoming increasingly concerned that he was in some kind of trouble.

‘Yes your father, Toby. Did he ‘do’ anything to you this morning?’

‘I don’t understand, sir.’

‘Toby, we know all about your father. We know what he does to you and your family. We are all worried about you’.

‘You know sir? How can you know?’

Mr Leach didn’t tell Toby that they had known about Toby’s abusive father from way back when his brother Danny was in infants’ school and his father had come to the school and made some threats against Danny’s teacher. There was also the incident when his father had come to the school and had a row with the headmistress about Toby being called dopey. Then there were the concerned reports they had received from Toby’s neighbours, whose children also attended the school. Last but not least there were the occasional accounts from Toby’s classmates, some of whom had passed on the stories that Toby had told them on the few occasions when he had opened up to them

‘Toby, it doesn’t matter how I know. I just do. Tell me, are you all right?’

‘All right sir? Yes, sir I’m all right. It’s not as bad as you think sir, please don’t worry about me.’

He was terrified that someone from the school might go and talk to his father. That would be a disaster and his teacher sensed the reason why the young, frightened boy was holding back.

‘Toby, don’t worry, nobody is going to go your home or say anything to your father. We know he treats you so badly and we just want to know that you are all right.’

Toby looked at the kindly man and he relaxed – he knew that this man would never do anything to harm him or make matters worse.

‘This morning, Toby, what did your father do?’

‘He – he shouted at me sir,’

‘Did he hit you?’

‘No, sir.’

His father had slapped him across the face that morning in a terrible rage, but Toby wasn’t about to report this part of the incident to his teacher.

‘Are you quite sure?’ he pressed the boy, unconvinced.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Toby, I want you to know that if you ever have a problem and can’t stand it anymore, then you can come and tell me and we’ll try to help you.’

‘Thank you sir, I will.’

He looked at the teacher and for some unaccountable reason, tears started to flow down his cheeks. Mr Leach saw what was happening and put his hand round Toby’s shoulders and led him from class. They stood outside in the corridor while Toby sobbed his heart out for a few minutes; the teacher gently patting his shoulders to comfort him. After a few minutes he pulled himself together and stopped crying. Mr Leach lent him a large clean handkerchief to wipe his face and then led him back into class.

‘Don’t forget, Toby, we are here to help if you need it.’

Toby returned to his seat in class and if his classmates had any inkling of what had been going on, they showed no sign of it.

*

Mr Leach then addressed his class and gave them his little ‘end of term’ speech.

‘Next term, you will all be going into class 4 ‘A’ where you will be taking your ‘eleven-plus’ examinations. I know you are all worried about Mr Kempson, your new class teacher,’ he began.

They were indeed. In fact they were in fear and dread of this legendary despot, a tarter extraordinaire. He held an unrivalled reputation as a man who would brook no insubordination and demanded nothing but total obedience and the very best behaviour from every member of his class. Any miscreant would be very harshly dealt with.  He had been in charge of the 4th year ‘A’ stream class for longer than anyone could remember and he had achieved an astonishing record of getting his entire class through the ‘eleven-plus’, year after year after year. No other primary school in the whole of the London area could come close to matching his record.

Mr Leach tried to reassure the worried class that Mr Kempson’s ‘bark was worse than his bite, and that deep down he was a good man who only wanted the best for them,’ but they remained unconvinced.

But for Toby, he couldn’t conceive any teacher being as frightening as the man he had to live with at home. He was looking forward, without fear, to getting back to school and working with his new, 4th year school master.


***


Toby had never been more terrified in his life. He, Danny and Chris was sitting in a low, smelly, pitch black tunnel and they were completely lost. They had been exploring the ruins of the bombed out ‘Super Cinema’ and one afternoon they had found a large metal hatchway which led into a long, mysterious tunnel. They had decided to explore it after ‘taking’ some candles and matches from Chris’s house to light up the tunnel as they reconnoitred.

It had been another hot summer and Toby had to spend the summer school holidays, playing in the alley; sometimes with friends who lived nearby, occasionally with his brother and his friends, but mainly alone, generally bored out of his mind. There was little to do and his parents never took him out anywhere. His school friends would go away for 2 weeks or longer to the seaside or maybe to a cottage in the countryside, but not Toby. He was stuck for six weeks in the alley behind his house; there was no television, no cinema, nothing.

The only days when he had a whiff of excitement was when Danny, his brother, took him along when he went to visit a friend who lived nearby, opposite the entrance to the alley. Danny’s friend, Chris, was even older than Danny but as ‘needs be’, the three of them would have a wonderful time, playing in Chris’s house. But there was even more fun to be had at the back of Chris’s garden. A brick wall separated the back of the garden from the huge, cordoned-off area beyond which contained a massive old cinema, which had been bombed beyond repair during the war. It was called the ‘Super Cinema’ and although damaged beyond repair, much of the structure was still standing and it became a wonderful but highly dangerous playground for kids who had nothing else to occupy their long hot summer holidays. It was a simple matter for the agile young boys to scale the wall and jump down into the strictly forbidden area.

Luckily for them, on the fateful afternoon when they went exploring the tunnel, Chris’s older brother, Scott, decided to come with them when he heard what they were planning to do.

In reality, the tunnel that they had entered was part of a vast, intricate network of ventilation shafts that ran through the ruins of the huge building and as the four boys turned left, then right, then left again coming across an even larger tunnel, which they ran along for five minutes, going ever deeper into the bowels of the cinema. Eventually, they entered a very narrow tunnel which finally came to a dead end, the way ahead blocked by falling concrete. They tried to retrace their steps but soon became hopelessly lost. Their dwindling supplies of candles were fast burning out and they were becoming ever more fearful of their hopeless plight.

Scott, being the eldest boy in the group, decided that he better do something. He had been in these tunnels before and thought that he might be able to find his way out by locating one of the metal hatchways. He thought that he had better go alone as most of these exit hatchways were situated high up in the building so it would be very difficult for the younger boys to climb back down to safety, even if they managed to find one. It was agreed that Scott would take the last remaining candle with him and see if he could get out and go and ask for help.

The three sat in the low, dark tunnel, miserable, hungry and very frightened, wondering if Scott had managed d to find a way out and if they would ever be rescued. How long would it be before they were missed? Would anyone ever think of looking for them in this bombed out building which was out of bounds to all but the most intrepid?

It was over five hours and late evening before the cold, dirty and despairing kids heard some distant shouting and immediately shouted back, in a desperate attempt to guide their rescuers to where they were sitting. It was a scary and frustrating time, for although the rescuers and the boys could hear each other, they were in different ventilation shafts and the rescuers could not find their way through to where the boys were located. The boys panicked when the shouts of the men faded away and they thought that the rescuers had given up and that they had been left there to die. But after half an hour they heard the shouts once again and at long last they saw the torch lights in the distance and realised that their ordeal was finally coming to an end.

Their rescuers were three uniformed policemen and once Toby and the two other boys had recovered from their fear of dying in the tunnel, they learnt that Scott, Chris’s brother had managed to find a way out but had broken his leg when he had tried to jump down to the ground from the hatchway, high up in the building’s superstructure.  Eventually he had managed to hobble out to the main road and shout for help; he was now in hospital, recovering.

At long last, Toby was on his way home but his feeling of relief from the fear of dying in that tunnel was being replaced by his dread of what his father would do when the policemen delivered the tired, starving boys at the backdoor of their home.

He was right to be fearful. Not for the first time and by no means the last time in their lives, Toby and Danny were subjected to a beating, so ferocious, that Toby was not to forget it for a very long time. They were both forbidden from leaving the area of the alley for the remainder of their summer holidays.

*

Boredom once again set in for the two brothers; Danny’s friend, Chris would still come to see him in the alley and after two or three visits, Danny, with his own memories of his father’s beating starting to fade,  decided to chance his arm by going to play with Chris in Chris’s house. Toby tried to persuade him not to go, but Danny refused to be cowered by his father’s unfair rule and insisted on taking a calculated risk to go and have a bit of fun with his friend.

‘Don’t worry, Toby. Dad never comes out to see what we are doing. I will be back in plenty of time for tea, so nobody will know.’

Toby felt distinctly uneasy as his brother chased up the alley with his older friend and disappeared into the distance.

Teatime came and went and no sign of Danny. Toby stayed away from his house as he was terrified of his father finding out what had happened. In the end, his father appeared at the entrance to the alley, shouting for Danny and Toby to come in for their tea.

‘Where’s Danny?’ he father asked, angrily.

‘I – I don’t know?’

‘Don’t know? Of course you know. How dare you lie to me! Where is he?’

‘He – he went to play with Chris.’

‘Didn’t I tell you kids not to go out of the alley?’ his father screamed   at him.

‘Yes’.

‘Then why did you break my rule? Come here this very minute!’

Toby knew he was in for another beating. ‘B-but Dad, I didn’t go,’ he protested.

‘Why didn’t you stop him? And why didn’t you come and tell me?’ his father screamed at him.

In a pattern that was to repeat itself many times in years to come, Toby was punished severely for his brother’s indiscretions. Being the bully that he was, if his father couldn’t punish the perpetrator, then the brother of the perpetrator would do perfectly well, as if by inflicting fear and pain on anyone, he could somehow assuage his own, terrible temper.

In the event, his brother was brought home several of hours later, once again escorted by a policeman. This time he hadn’t been rescued, he had been arrested. The two boys had been caught running around on the roof of the Super Cinema, throwing stones onto the railway line beyond. Someone had seen them and reported them to the police and Danny had been taken to the local police station, where he had been given a good ‘talking to’. The policeman sat down with Danny and his father and told them both that if Danny was caught breaking the law again, he would go to court and put into a remand home. He also told Danny’s father that he had already been ‘sufficiently punished’. They had put the ‘fear of God into him’ at the local ‘nick’ and had given him a sharp ‘clip round the ear’.

He spoke very strongly to the angry father. ‘So no further punishment is necessary, Mr Stark.  I know that you like to punish your boys when they get out of line, but this time I want you to lay off – is that clear?’

‘What I do with my own family is my business…’

‘Mr Stark – I repeat – is that clear? If it ever comes to my attention that you have touched your son over this incident, then you, me and my station sergeant will have a big problem.’

David Stark looked at the burly policeman and said ‘Yes, constable, that is very clear.’

The officer took his leave and Toby was waiting for his father to explode again. But he didn’t; for once his father had taken heed of what someone had told him and Daniel didn’t receive any additional punishment.

Later, Danny told Toby that he had begged the policeman to do something to stop his father hitting him and the policeman had said he would ‘Do what he could’. Toby ironically reflected that he had been punished for something he didn’t do, yet his brother, the perpetrator, had escaped more or less scot free. Life really wasn’t very fair.

*

Under ‘pain of death’ the two brothers never left the alley during the remainder of their school holidays. Toby became increasingly bored and frustrated and couldn’t wait for the new school term to begin. As if they needed any validation of their unfortunate plight, one long, tedious day, they were playing in the alley behind their home, when two, well-dressed strangers came to visit their father. It was so hot that the two lads had taken their shirts off, revealing lily-white, almost emaciated bodies with their ribs cages showing through so sharply that you could count every rib.

He would never forget the look on the female visitor’s face when she exclaimed: ‘Oh you poor, poor boys – you are so thin! It’s a wonder you can even stand up!’

Toby looked at himself and looked at his brother. It was true – they were so thin; even their legs were like matchsticks. Their daily repast was so meagre that their fast growing body-frames, starved of proper nourishment, had turned them into something akin to ‘third world’ skeletons, or God forbid, like the photographs they had seen in the newspapers of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps who the world had discovered, barely ten years previously.

Most of Toby’s friends seemed to be so much better off than he was. All of them had a television in their homes and many of them had such post war luxuries as telephones and even cars. During school term time, he would delight in spending much of his weekends and school holidays at his best friends’ houses, where he would revel in the generosity and kindness of his friends’ parents. All too briefly, he would enjoy the simple luxuries that his friends took as normal; such as children’s comics, television and warm houses, with hot water in the bathroom.

Then the grown-ups would give Toby and his friends delicious sweets, biscuits and crisps to eat –in addition to nourishing, hot meals that were so much better and tastier than those he normally had to endure back home.

***

By the time he was ten years old, after having  been subjected to an overbearing, terrifying  father for years, the prospect of spending a year with a school master who had a reputation for strict discipline, held no fears for him. And so it proved. Mr Kempson was indeed fierce in appearance and stalked the classroom, cane in hand, whacking it on empty desks for effect and snarling commands at his shaking students. But Toby soon saw it for what it was – an act to keep his entire class totally concentrated on the only task in hand – the need to pass their 11- plus examination, some nine months hence.

Everything that happened during that year was subordinate to the need to pass the 11-plus. The kids who passed their ‘eleven plus’ would be sent to a ‘grammar school’; where they would be given a much superior education, and from which all the state school entrants to university would be drawn.

So a single examination at the age of eleven would determine the future life direction of hundreds of thousands of English kids for a generation or more.

This helped to explain why Toby’s father had been so angry, both with the school and also with his youngest son when he was put into the ‘C’ stream. Most kids in the ‘A’ stream, and even a few of the brighter ones in the ‘B’ stream would have a good chance of going to one of the coveted grammar schools, but the rest of them would be condemned to a distinctly second rate education with little or no prospects of either making it to college having a decent career.

So when the students arrived each day, they would find a range of I.Q. tests awaiting them on the blackboard. They had been categorised according to ‘type’ and Kempson would grind into their minds the secret of how to recognise each ‘type’ of I.Q. test, and how to go through a simple routine in order to arrive at the correct solutions.

The brighter kids, which now included Toby, would soon cotton onto to the way to solve these tests and within weeks they could do most of them in their sleep. But for some of the less bright class members, they would have to practise week in, week out, for months on end before they could start to master these self-same methods. Mathematics was tackled in a similar manner and for English, every day the class would be given five new words to comprehend and spell. Then the following week, they would be set tests to see how many of the new words they had remembered and if they could put them into sentences and spell them correctly. All these exercises were crucial in improving the children’s English comprehension and composition writing abilities.

These and others were the tricks of trade used by the indomitable Mr Kempson to try and ensure every single one of his charges earned a place in one of the local grammar schools. He wasn’t interested in a 90%, 95%, or even 99% pass rate. It had to be 100%. Every single one of his precious charges had to be made to pass.

Toby breezed through the year and loved every moment of it. He found the work easy and was not taken in by a wonderful teacher who, to him, held no fears. This meant that the growing ten year old, unable to assert himself in his home environment, started to ‘test’ the resolve of his new ‘master’. Toby continually ’bent’ or broke the silly rules that ‘Kempo’ had imposed and while he was sometimes able to get away with it, on other occasions he was caught re- handed.

Scared or not, Toby soon learned that he crossed the indomitable ‘Kempo’ at his peril. Fury and punishment would descend on him from a great height for even for the barest whisper to a cute little girl sitting next to him, or even worse, flicking ink onto the floor. And Heaven help him if he was caught, as he was – several times  –  carving his initials into his desk.

‘Stark! Stand with your face to the wall!’

‘Stark! Stand up and put your hands above your head!’

‘Stark! Leave the room and report your transgressions to the headmaster!’

‘Stark! Go and stand outside the classroom for the rest of the morning.

‘Stark! Take another week of school break punishment for talking in class!

And even the dreaded: ‘Stark, fetch my cane!’

But Kempson never, ever, hit anyone with his cane; he just delighted in whacking it on his desk and wall close to an offending, trembling student with the intention of frightening the hell out of him, and he usually succeeded.

One afternoon, an irate female teacher from another class room, dragged a boy into Mr Kempson’s classroom, demanding that he immediately give the poor boy ‘six of the best’. The lad’s heinous crime had been to pinch a girl who had been sitting next to him. Toby watched with amusement and not a little gruesome anticipation, as Kempo huffed and puffed, swung his cane with such force near the poor boy’s head that they could hear the ‘swoosh’ of it at the back of the classroom.

Then, when the trembling kid was in total fear of his life, he was told to hold out his hand. The kid fully expected his hand to be hit smartly with the cane, but astonishingly, instead of striking it, the teacher inspected his hand very closely before unleashing a riot of invective at what he termed as: ‘The most grubby, miserable mit he had ever had the misfortune to set his countenance upon!’ whereupon he sent the lad to the bathroom to give it a good scrubbing.

Upon his return to the front of Mr Kempson’s classroom, the terrified kid showed his now, gleaming pink hand to his would-be -torturer. Kempson inspected it slowly, huffed and puffed and harrumphed for a few, seemingly endless minutes, almost as though he knew not what to do next. The silent class watched on, in fascination. Finally and suddenly, Kempson ordered the boy to return to his own class room and to report back to his class teacher. He was to tell her that his hand was now spotlessly clean and he had been properly prepared for whatever punishment she should see fit to administer.

Without further ado, the poor, but relieved kid fled from Mr Kempson’s presence and Toby never saw him again and never knew what punishment finally befell him – if any.

What Toby did know, however, was that his fierce master was no fan of corporal punishment and Toby seriously doubted if he had ever administered it during his distinguished teaching career. As he and many of his classmates had long suspected, Mr Kempson was really an old ‘softy’, and as their third year teacher had told them, ‘His bark was infinitely worse than his bite’. But to all, save those who had the privilege of being taught by him, he was the very devil incarnate, to be held in fear and dread by all who crossed his path.

For that entire year, Toby was never once allowed to go out and play at break time – he always had ‘punishment chores’ to do – like scraping ink from the floor with a blunt knife, or weeding his teacher’s flowerbed at the rear of the school, or more often than not,  just sitting at his desk doing extra punishment school-work.

But Toby didn’t mind. He was rather proud of his growing reputation as an intrepid student who knew no fear and deep down, he knew that the formidable Kempo was not really what he seemed to be. He had seen the long line of former students who would come and visit their ex-teacher on Friday afternoons before the end of each school term – almost unheard of in primary schools – and he could see the smiles of gratitude in their eyes which was slyly returned by the stern, enigmatic Kempo.

Toby was particularly amused by the way that Kempo would insist on calling all his ex-students by their surnames only, even though some of them had already graduated from university and had grown up and had successful careers. To Kempo, they were still his ten year old students and were to be addressed as such until the day that they, or he, died. But it was totally transparent that much mutual love and respect existed between them. Kempson was playing a game – of the like Toby was never to witness again.

The class had been promised an end of year trip to Windsor Castle, which was a long bus ride to the other side of London, but poor Toby was told that he was banned from going, due to his ‘execrable conduct’ record. Toby wasn’t too bothered as by now he reckoned to have the measure of his revered master and felt sure that that there would be some kind of last minute reprieve.

*

In the meantime, Toby and the rest of his class duly took their dreaded eleven plus examinations in the adjacent ‘secondary modern’ high school and awaited their results with much trepidation. They needn’t have worried. It was probably the first time that Toby had ever seen Kempo have a wisp of a smile on the corner of his lips when he announced to the class that they had all passed, including two or three who had been distinctly ‘border-line’. The incredibly determined school master had ensured their 100% success rate by individually tutoring the ‘weak’ ones for hours and hours every evening.

As a special reward for the entire class having passed, Toby’s earlier punishment of being excluded from the annual school trip was rescinded and he was free to go. The only one who wasn’t surprised about this was Toby himself.

Despite the class already having sat and passed their eleven-plus examinations, the school still required them to do their end of year class examinations.  These tests, in conjunction with the students’ overall academic records during their final year at junior school, would determine their final class positions.

Toby could hardly believe it when he opened his end of year school report and saw that in every subject, he was graded in either first, second or third place, on the class list and in his report summary, his overall grades and year’s school work had elevated him to the very top of the top of his class. He was in essence, the top student of his school for the year of 1957.

The look on the faces of his rivals, many of whom had hoped to be number one at the end of their primary school career, was a perverse joy to behold for the young boy who had such a weight to bear on his young shoulders. Some of the very bright kids, who had  been singled out by Kempo for special coaching and had subsequently succeeded in being awarded scholarships to prestigious fee paying schools had now been beaten to the top spot by this delinquent ‘johnnie come lately’. In previous, interim end- of- term class results, Toby had not even been placed in the top ten of his class so his unexpected elevation to this enviable summit had come as a huge surprise to one and all, not least, to Toby himself.

In many ways it was an incredible achievement for someone, who, only a few years earlier had been described as ‘dopey’ and had been mistakenly graded with the ‘academic no-hopers’ in the ‘C’ stream.

*

Throughout Toby’s primary school years, despite suffering from the mental anguish of being continually dominated and abused by his father, he tried to lead a ‘normal’ existence. Few knew of the incessant mental torture that he had to endure from his tempestuous, very unstable father or of the primitive conditions in which he lived and the sparsity of good nutrition in his daily diet.

In spite of all this, the youngster still managed to pursue three major extra-curricular activities, outside his school work and away from his father. His first love was football. He would play football after school and every Saturday morning with his friends in the local park. He loved the game and never tired of kicking a ball around with his equally football-mad friends. He had aspirations to play for his school, but the closest he ever got to this was one Saturday when he was made second reserve following a rash of sickness that had wiped out half the team. He didn’t even get a game that day and that was the end of his budding football career.

Having to play with his brother’s ancient, heavy leather boots, which were so big that he had to stuff newspaper in the toes to stop them from falling off when he kicked the ball didn’t exactly help his ambitions.

His second love was music. There was no doubt that Toby was very musical and had an excellent ear for music. His father, although always short of money, had acquired an old upright piano from a ‘contact’ who had been planning to throw it out until it was ‘rescued’ by Toby’s father. Instead of being sent to the rubbish dump, the old piano found itself being  delivered to Toby’s house, along with some ancient sheet music and a pre-war ‘teach yourself’ piano tutor book. Toby knew that his father would never pay for him to have lessons so he set about teaching himself how to play.

He soon picked it up and within months he was playing literally dozens of popular songs that he had learned ‘by ear’ and even adding a simple, self-taught ‘left hand’ accompaniment. Once he knew the melody, he could usually pick it out on his piano within a few minutes, often at the first attempt. His father was always collecting discarded items from his occasional acquaintances – people who he would befriend for a while before inevitably falling out with them – and over time he would bring home other musical instruments, such as an accordion (squeeze box), a violin, a ukulele, a tin whistle and of course, the ubiquitous harmonica for his son to amuse himself with. And Toby did just that. He taught himself to play any instrument that his father brought home for him; but lacking anything approaching professional direction, his musical abilities and playing techniques remained primitive, at best.

The school had also recognised Toby’s musical abilities when he was quite young and he took a leading role in the school ‘orchestra’ where he played all the larger instruments in the recorder family while the rest of the students had to satisfy themselves with playing the standard recorder.

Toby also had a good treble singing voice and one of his football mad friends, who also sang quite well, persuaded him to go to the local Church of England choir rehearsal session one day and try out as a chorister. The Choir master listened to Toby sing for barely ten seconds before quickly enrolling him into the choir. His voice was very powerful and very sweet; from the age of nine until he was almost eleven, Toby was active in the choir, singing at the three Sunday church services, performing solos at weddings on Saturdays (for which he was paid the princely sum of two shillings per wedding) and going on choir outings to cathedrals and other places where mass choirs performed.

He was probably at the height of his powers and was just coming into his own a renowned soloist when he decided to give it all up. Quite why he did that, was never clear – least of all to Toby himself. On the surface it was all over a minor dispute with the choir master who had withheld a ‘wedding fee’ following some  prank he had got up to at a Sunday church service, but in the end the choir mater relented and gave Toby his money, so concerned was he at the prospect of losing his prized singer.

But Toby refused to go back, not even when the choir master visited his home and actually managed to charm his father and begged him to persuade Toby to return to the choir. Toby’s father had allowed him to pursue his choir activities, even though he was an avowed atheist. When Toby was much younger, his father had adamantly turned down a request for him to attend ‘Sunday School’, but this time around he had permitted Toby’s ‘Christian’ activities – presumably so that he could bask in the reflected glory of his son as a solo singer. But when Toby stated his determination not to go back to the choir, his father made no effort to persuade him to do otherwise.

Like his ‘football career’, Toby’s singing career was nipped in the bud, by of all people, Toby himself. Sure, his voice would have broken when he was about fourteen years of age, but he was barely eleven when he decided to quit the choir and he still had at least three good years of solo singing in front of him, which he thoughtlessly, without any apparent rhyme or reason, had thrown away on a childish whim.

His musical talents did lead to the somewhat comical episode of Toby forming his own ‘skiffle group’,  jazz-blues inspired music, played mainly on improvised instruments – all the rage at the time. He roped in some of his school friends to join him in this venture. They made their own instruments from old fashioned washboards (rhythm) and tea chests (double bases) and of course he put into service his own, motley collection of real instruments. The boys would ‘jam’ in a shed in Toby’s garden and never had the neighbours heard such an unmitigated cacophony in their entire lives.

If Toby had been born a decade or two later, into a family who didn’t have to scratch around to put food on their table, he might have formed a proper pop or rock group; but it was 1956, he was only ten years old and he had no money and no parental encouragement, so like so many endeavours in his life, in the end, it all came to naught.

Toby’s third love, which was fast developing fast during primary school years, was his love of books and reading. He had become an avid consumer of books and there were never enough of them around to satisfy his voracious craving to read.

Along with his insatiable appetite for books was an equally strong desire to write – a desire that remained with him right through to his ‘senior’ years. He still basked in the glory of the original story had wrote at school few years back which the headmaster himself had singled out for special praise. At another time in another age, the writing of that story might have been the making of Toby, but in those far off, post war days, when England was still struggling to get back on its feet, not much notice was taken of a budding, nine year old, creative writer.

The success of his first story inspired Toby to start writing a play, and when his friends enthusiasm for playing in his ‘skiffle group’ began to wane, (along with a corresponding increase in his neighbours protestations over the noise), he roped in the self-same gang to join his little ‘drama group’ and in so doing, he had a ready-made troupe of players to rehearse his very first play.

He would write the play, scene by scene and then he would get his friends to act the scenes out, week by week as they were written. In the event, the play was only partially completed by the time the ‘11- plus’ examinations came along and all thoughts of drama groups were suddenly forgotten and Toby’s play became yet another failed dream.

But although all these apparent talents became stifled in the struggle to survive the incredibly dominating influence of his father, no one could take away from Toby his surprising achievement at the age of eleven in attaining first place in his class and indeed the whole school. He didn’t know it at the time but it was to be the high point of Toby’s academic career and of his early life. He knew he owed a great debt to that superbly eccentric, magnificently dedicated, fourth year teacher, the venerable Mr Kempson, who had so inspired him to such a great achievement.

Soon, his growth into a shy, awkward, unhappy adolescent and the dark days of his grammar school years were to dominate his whole life, but dear old Kempo was a man he was never to forget.

 

***

Toby woke briefly. He was still lying in the middle of the prison floor and his body was still wracked with pain. His hunger pangs seemed to have left him, so at least he was grateful for that, but his brief sleep had not stopped his heart from racing and his head from spinning and throbbing. He tried to open his eyes, but couldn’t see anything as his lids seemed to be stuck together. After a few seconds he gave up and lay there with his eyes closed, desperately praying for sleep to return so that his dire predicament could be blanked out from his consciousness. Ah sleep, blessed sleep…. What had he been dreaming about?  Flashes of his dreams returned; his father and mother, both long dead, his brother, his sister and his early school days in Ilford, so long ago….. and his teacher…. Mr Kempson…. What on earth had happened to Kempo?

He started to recall the very last time he had seen that wonderful, crazy old man. It must have been a good thirty years after he had left Kempo’s class. Toby had just moved back to England after living abroad for much of his adult life and he came across the old man, near to where he was living, out in East Essex.  His appearance, although much aged and changed, was still instantly recognisable. Toby had always meant to go back and say ‘hello’, just like those who he used to watch at the end of each school term, but somehow, he had never got round to it. Now he saw his long forgotten and much beloved mentor at the end of his life, but Toby didn’t know what to do or say.

He knew that there was no way that  Kempo could possibly remember him from all those years ago – how many thousands of kids must have passed through his class during his forty odd years at that school? The old man limped slowly along the pavement, eyes to the ground, obviously in pain and possibly suffering from dementia. What could Toby say? In the end he ‘chickened out’. He opted to say nothing. It was just too long ago and there was just too much ‘water under the bridge’ since he and Mr Kempson had last come face to face.

So he passed the old man without saying a word, but just as he was almost out of earshot, he heard the old man’s unforgettable bark.

‘Afternoon – Stark!’ he snapped, as he hobbled along the pavement and turned the corner, out of view and out of Toby’s life, this time forever.


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