Bits & Bobs – 3

A Compilation of Musings and Notes Forever Increasing and With Nowhere Else To Go….

“REMEMBERING JAMES”

He wasn’t a bad lad. In fact, as lads go he was probably better than most. The trouble was I hadn’t seen him for ten years and didn’t quite know what to expect. To make matters worse my second wife had just run off with a Brummie West Indian (the offspring of Caribbean immigrants living in Birmingham, England) and left me to bring up our three year old daughter alone.

Seven-thirty on a dark November night wasn’t the best time for my first wife to telephone and say she could no longer tolerate our fourteen year old son, and had put him on a train I was supposed to meet in half an hour. In a nutshell, she had kicked him out and told him to ‘go live with your father’.

I was the guilty party in the breakdown of my first marriage. I’d left my wife to run off with a nurse from the local animal hospital.

Leaving my four year old son and six year old daughter was the hardest thing I had ever undertaken, but I had no choice. I had to get away. It wasn’t that my first wife did anything wrong. We were just not suited. It was as simple as that.

I never contested the custody case. I’d left her, but that didn’t mean I had a right to deprive her of our children. Access was granted, but on the occasions I drove the one hundred and fifty miles to see them, I arrived to find an empty house and no hint of where they might be.

Eventually, it seemed easier to just give up and let them get on with their lives.

Consequently, when I got the news that my son, whom I hadn’t seen in a decade, was arriving on my doorstep, it sort of took my breath away.

I coped as best I could. The one saving grace was my three year old daughter from my second marriage, who took to James like he was……well, her long lost half-brother.

At first things weren’t too bad. Apart from a head of bright ginger curls, the gawky youth bore little resemblance to the four year old I had last seen ten years previous.

I learned that, unlike his elder sister who considered me the Devil’s henchman – her mother was heavily into religion – James had always maintained an undeserved loyalty towards me that had frustrated his mother’s attempts at eradication. He settled in quickly and became a wondrous solace to my three year old, still lamenting, and blaming herself, for her mother’s sudden disappearance.

It was school that eventually led to James’s undoing. I’d enrolled him at the local comprehensive (equivalent of an American junior high) and for a while he did fine until I began getting calls from the headmaster.

James was playing truant, forging sick notes from me, and generally becoming disruptive. It wasn’t until a hysterical parent landed on the doorstep one evening accusing my son of pushing drugs, that I really began to take notice.

I was working for a national animal charity at the time, and my vehicle contained various items that included syringes and needles. James, and his friends, had helped themselves to some syringes, for no more evil purpose than to squirt water at each other, but the offending object had been discovered by a parent who quickly added two and two, and made twenty. In the hysterical days of the 1980’s, when a young person with a syringe only meant one thing, I was rapidly summoned for an interview with the headmaster of the comprehensive, and asked to explain why my son was involved in the drug scene.

It was all very innocent. Kids being kids. It was the adults who contributed the sinister aspect.

I chastised him for stealing, took away a few privileges, and thought no more of the matter.

Unfortunately, I failed to take account of my own mental state. My second wife had walked out only six months before. I was attempting to hold down a full-time job and cope with a three year old still in shock, and a young teenager in unfamiliar circumstances. Surely, with hindsight, it was a recipe for disaster.

Matters progressed from bad to worse. Eventually, I realized coping was not an option.

Twelve months after James had arrived on my doorstep, I was dispatching him back to his mother.

It was probably another eight years before I saw him again. The animal welfare charity and I had long parted, and I was managing a large marina in the north-west of England, when the door to my office opened one day and in walked a tall, good-looking, young man with tight ginger curls.

Although I didn’t recognize him, I knew at once it was my son. At age twenty-four, he was a successful young businessman, living in London, and already a junior manager for the German car company, BMW.

It was the start of a brand new relationship. James, though hardly someone of whom I had a right to be proud, was nevertheless a totally different individual from the gawky, fourteen year old, who had stood on my doorstep, battered suitcase in hand, all those eight long years before.

He was successful, engaged to be married, and destined for great things. In fact, everything a proud parent could wish for in their offspring.

Over the course of the next year he visited my daughter and I on three more occasions. Each time I was more proud of him than before. James had defied the odds. Despite the trauma of his early years, separation from the father he idolized, he had made good, manufactured a life for himself, and a career that would take him wherever he wished to go.

The last time I saw him, he arrived at the marina in a powerful motor. As he was leaving I said, “Be careful in that thing.” He replied, “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll be fine.”

It was 8.30 in the morning of the 22nd February 1998 that the phone rang. I was still in bed. I’m not sure who it was on the other end of the line, but the gist was that James was dead.

He had been returning home the previous evening, lost control of his car, and run headlong into a tree.

I’m not a great one for ‘might have beens’. Life is life and don’t expect a cushy ride from birth to final dissolution, but sometimes I lie awake and ponder on those big “ifs” of life.

What if he had lived……what would he have become…..how might son and father have clinched their relationship……?

On September 22nd each year, the day of his birth, I retrieve a dog-eared card from an envelope that has preserved it for the last ten years, light a candle to his memory, and remember the son who might have been, who truly was, but whose light shone so briefly, and was extinguished.

The card says simply:

“To my dear Son, I hope you are happy. I miss you. Love, Dad.”


“FOR THE LOVE OF MISTER SMITH”

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does rarely is it a mistake. You know the moment; you look into a stranger’s face and immediately sense an empathy, a shared compassion, an understanding.

Let me make clear at once I’m not talking romance, or sexual attraction, not even opposite sex. It’s all about trust, you see. Encountering someone for the first time and knowing there and then you would trust them with your life.

It’s a sense, a feeling, that has never let me down. Not that it’s happened often. Perhaps, only three or four times in sixty years of life. The first occasion was long ago. I was ten years old. His name was Mister Smith.

I liked going to school. That is, once I got over the shock of being left screaming at the railings as my mother walked abandoningly away in the opposite direction. Actually, it took a couple of years and a change of school before I finally settled down and realized I really could go back home at the end of afternoon classes. Then, it became more enjoyable.

Barnston Lane Junior (grade) School was a homely sort of place. The headmaster was strict, but kindly, and we got to do all sorts of interesting things.

I didn’t have much to do with Mister Smith at first. He wasn’t my form master. Occasionally we passed in the corridor, or I’d see him from a distance during morning assembly, but from the very first moment he looked at me, I knew Mister Smith was my all-out favorite teacher.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. It was no kiddie crush, or swooney-eyed heart-fluttering whenever he came near. I just knew whatever happened, I would be safe so long as this man was around.

To tell the truth, I hardly saw him from one day to the next. He had his own class and I was far to busy being a railway engine, or sailing ship, or any one of a myriad other imaginings young boys indulge in, before the hormonal secretions take charge sufficient to dispel such innocent games in favor of the more furtive lusts of onset puberty.

As summer break approached, we seniors were offered the opportunity to partake of that year’s school camp. It was to be a week away in Staithes, a small fishing village not far from Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast in eastern England. None of us had been away from home before, not without our parents. We could be no more excited had they told us we were to explore the Amazon – except back in those days none of us would have known what the Amazon was.

As the day of departure drew near, excitement mounted for those fortunates picked to attend. I guess there were about twenty-five of us, all told. The trip involved a long ride on a steam locomotive right across England, and we were to stay in a youth camp, an old ex-army barracks from World War Two. Three teachers had agreed to accompany the expedition; Mister Chrimes – my own class teacher, the headmaster, and Mister Smith.

It was a wonderful week. We played around the little harbor, had pillow fights in the dormitories after lights out, visited lots of interesting places, and we all got nits.

On the Thursday, big bowls were filled with hot water and some foul-smelling liquid. We all had to dunk our heads in the brew while one of the teachers scrubbed at our hair to ensure the little pests were well drowned.

I made a point of ensuring I was in Mister Smith’s line.

After completing the process, he grinned at me and said, “There you go, young Bob, no more nits for you.”

It was the next day I began feeling poorly. My eye itched abominably and when I looked in the mirror it had turned bright red. I felt hot and listless. Soon I was back in bed and the local doctor summoned. After a brief examination, the diagnosis was conjunctivitis and the ‘flu.

Medicine was dispensed, and while the others went off to some exotic place, I lay mildly feverish, sleeping most of the time but aware of Mister Smith, who had volunteered to remain and look after me, visiting my bedside regularly to check I was still breathing.

It was the last day of the trip and on the morrow we were due to catch the big steam train that would take us back home. I felt a little better and able to walk the short distance to the railway station. On the train we all packed into empty compartments. The teachers occupied one and we piled into the others. But it wasn’t long before I felt ill again and curled up on a seat to try and sleep.

It wasn’t very comfortable, but I dozed for a while, until aware of strong arms lifting me, the faint smell of a familiar cologne, and the blissful, soft, comfort of a human lap.

I remember little of the journey, until the train finally pulled into our station where I knew my parents would be waiting with the car to transport me home. I had lain in Mister Smith’s lap for more than three hours. His strong arms wrapped and protected me, allowing sleep to work its healing miracle.

I never got to thank him for such caring and kindness. He handed me to my mother on arrival and I was too sick almost to notice. Of course, I was a youngster and within a week was cured and out on my bike as usual.

The summer days shortened and school beckoned once more. I only saw Mister Smith a couple more times. Passing in the corridor once, he smiled and asked how I was doing. I responded shyly that I was doing just fine.

Then, suddenly, he was gone. At first, I didn’t notice. Then, it gradually dawned that he was no longer at the school. I asked the other kids about him, but they shook their heads in ignorance. He’d left – just like that, without goodbyes.

I might never have learned the reason for Mister Smith’s sudden departure, were it not for the mother of one of his class calling round one day to borrow some sugar. I was about to enter the kitchen where she and my mother stood talking in low whispers, but stopped outside the door, straining to listen as I heard them mention his name.

I couldn’t hear all the conversation. It was muffled. “Dreadful business”……”caught red-handed”……”interfering with……little girls in the changing rooms”……”disgraceful!” This last from my mother.

I tiptoed away, back up to my room. Even at the tender age of nine I had a good idea what was meant by, “interfering with little girls”.

No-one mentioned Mister Smith again. It was like he’d disappeared without trace. Now, fifty years later, all I know is he was a man about thirty-five, married with two small children, and that he was there for me when I needed him. I regret not overcoming a natural childhood shyness sufficient to say, “Thank you.”

Today, Mister Smith would be labeled a pedophile. Yet, today, I still feel I would trust him with my life.



“THE SOUSING OF ‘JESSE’ JAMES”

Calday Grange Grammar School for the sons of gentlefolk was not where I wanted be at the tender age of twelve years. To say I disliked grammar school would be putting it mildly. Most of all, I detested sports. Physical interaction with other members of my own sex has never been an attraction in my life.

While attending junior (grade) school we’d play soccer once in a while and that was fun, though it was a rarity I touched the ball more than twice in ninety minutes, and even then it was only to kick it quickly away in the vague direction of our opponent’s goalmouth before some great, hulking, ten year old could bear down on me.

But Grammar School meant rugby, and there’s no more awful contact sport than rugby. I didn’t play often. Only once did I ever handle a ball. It was a fluke, really. I was standing near the sideline, hoping to God the darned thing would stay well away, when some hulking bully with a sadistic leer suddenly threw it straight to my hands. Momentarily, I was aware of twenty-one pairs of eyes all focused on Adams junior. Then, I felt the ground shake as twenty-one pairs of booted feet thudded in my direction, all with the intent of landing on top of me.

I did the only thing I knew. I dropped the ball to the ground, then kicked it as far away as puny leg muscles would allow.

It wasn’t the right thing to do, of course. The referee blew his whistle for a foul, and twenty-one mouths all shrieked, “Pillock!” in perfect unison.

After that, I took up cross country running.

Not that I enjoyed slogging round the countryside in flimsy shorts, but I had a friend, David Chester, and his mum smoked, so he always managed to pinch a fag from her handbag for ‘sports period’. After a swift half-mile trot we were up on the ‘Thurgo Hill’, where the gorse grew in abundance. It was easy to slip away to a quiet spot for a quick puff.

Quite often, David would arrange for his older brother to pick us up part-way round the course in his van, and drop us off half a mile from school so we could just work up enough sweat to look as though we’d run all the way really hard, and get bonus points for good ‘times’.

The other major dread was gym class. In fact, looking back, I guess anything that involved removing my underwear and replacing them with nothing but a pair of flimsy, see-through, cotton shorts was bad for my sense of vulnerability. It didn’t help that the gym master was a rough, Welsh, amateur boxer, straight out of the army, and a stickler for discipline. He kept a large, rubber-soled, slipper on a shelf in the gymnasium, and heaven help anyone who slacked, or failed to reach the top of a rope, or backed off vaulting the horse. The slipper was in regular use, and I felt its hard, stinging, sole against my puny buttocks on more than the odd occasion.

We all lived in dire fear of the gym master. His name was Mister James. Of course, we christened him, “Jesse”.

For me, the only recompense for gym classes were the showers. After gym we’d all herd into the changing room, and then the shower cubicles with their huge, stainless steel roses hanging from the ceiling by gleaming pipes. I loved the feel of that hot, sensuous, water streaming over my head and down my body. Not that it was tolerated for too long. Within three or four minutes a stentorian voice would roar out through the gymnasium doorway with the promise of a slippering for the last boy out the showers.

When Jesse wasn’t terrorizing little boys, he was hard at work training for his next boxing match. Many’s the time, while passing the gymnasium, we’d hear the regular thud-thud of gloves on punch-bag and the short, gaspy, breaths of heavy exertion. Jesse trained almost every night after school was over, but it never seemed to do him much good. I don’t ever remember him winning a fight.

Boxing was the last entertainment I’d watch from choice, but the regional amateur league matches were broadcast live on local TV channels of the day. When Jesse was fighting, virtually the whole school tuned in, willing his opponent to thrash him to death.

Whether it was the combined thought-power of three hundred kids, or simply that he was a lousy boxer, is something I never fathomed, but he habitually lost his bouts, and almost always by a knockout.

How well I remember the sheer, gloating, pleasure of watching the knees of Jesse James buckle under him, eyes glazed over, as his prostrate form thudded, spreadeagled, on the canvas.

Bouts were fast and furious in those days; senseless boxers couldn’t be allowed to lie around the ring too long as the punters would be screaming for the next match. If a boxer didn’t recover sufficient to leave the ring within a few minutes, his second would appear and fling a bucket of cold water over the prostrate’s chest and head.

It was the final delicious moment for us kids. Often, two or three of us would gather at someone’s home to watch the fight, and a yell of, “Get the bucket! Get the bucket!” rent the air, followed by shrieks of delight when the unconscious Jesse finally, as we saw it, got soused by an icy comeuppance.

It was great payback for all those slipperings and sore bottoms.

The use of David Chester’s brother and his van served a useful purpose in our pursuit of nicotine and great cross country running times, but it had its drawbacks. One day, at least for me, our clever scheming sorely backfired.

I was late for maths lesson one morning and haring across the quadrangle when “Jiggers’ Johnson, a sixth form prefect in charge of our Bennet House annual athletic “standards” grabbed my coat and swung me around.

“Ah, Adams, you’re good at cross country, aren’t you?”

I hated ‘Jiggers’.

“Not really, ” I said quickly, “only…er…. average.”

I knew David and I hadn’t been stupid enough to set Olympic records.

‘Jiggers’ sneered, “I’ve seen your times. You’re above average. Fetch your kit out to the track after school, you’re needed for the mini-marathon.”

My heart sank. “But…but…”

“But me no buts, Master Adams,” ‘Jiggers’ really enjoyed bullying fourth formers, “Higgins has a broken leg, Carlyle is hamstrung, and your mate Chester is sagging off with flu.” He turned away. “Be there!” he snapped over one shoulder.

The mini-marathon was run over twenty laps of the track – five miles!

House standards weren’t about racing anyone, it was all about times. They were held over a month in the early summer. You went out and ran, or jumped, in the event chosen, and everyone had a month to turn out and do it. Then the times were scrutinized, and the winner announced. There were four “Houses”, and the “House” with the most winners took overall prize for the year.

The day ‘Jiggers’ collared me was the last day of the month.

Four-thirty saw me changed once more into my little white shorts and school sports shirt, slouching dejectedly off towards the sports field. ‘Jiggers’ was waiting trackside.

“Come on, Adams, get a move on. I wanna get home sometime tonight.”

He checked his stopwatch. “Right, I’ve checked your cross country times and you’ve averaged seven point two miles an hour, overall this year. Now, the mini-marathon is run on the flat so you should do better than that here. I’d say you’ll be done in half an hour, if you put your back into it. Are you ready?”

Needless to say, after four laps I was barely managing a jog and ‘Jiggers’ was becoming very agitated. After ten, I had blisters and reduced to hobbling.

‘Jiggers’ was furious and kept waving his arms in the air demanding I go faster.

I never completed the twenty. It was after staggering over the finishing line for about the fourteenth time that I gave up caring what ‘Jiggers’ did to me, realizing whatever it was it couldn’t possibly hurt anymore than I already did.

I sat down in the middle of the track, utterly exhausted.

‘Jiggers’ just shouted a lot about letting the “House” down and things like, “What a prick you are, Adams,” before stomping off the sports field leaving me sat forlornly in the middle of the track.

As he was going, he shouted, “You’d better shower in the gym. The pavilion was locked up half an hour ago.”

It was quite a way back to the gymnasium building, but I eventually hobbled across the quadrangle and in through the door to the changing rooms. Everyone had gone home and I had the showers to myself, though I could faintly hear the thud-thud of gloves on punchbag and muffled, gaspy, breaths of exertion as Jesse James worked out ready for his next big defeat.

It was wonderful in the showers. All my aches and pains vanished as I luxuriated in the hot, steamy atmosphere of fast-flowing water. I never wanted it to end. I could have stayed there forever.

Exactly how long it was before my reverie was abruptly shattered by the hot water turning lukewarm, and then to almost cold, it’s hard to say.

I realized it was after five-thirty. The caretaker would have turned off the boiler and left for the night. I had used all the available hot water.

It wasn’t my problem, I thought, as I dried myself and dressed quickly. Then, I realized the thud-thud of gloves on punchbag had abruptly ceased. I heard the sound of footsteps approaching from the direction of the gymnasium. It had to be Jesse, finished his workout and…….heading for the showers.

Realization dawned. I didn’t want him to find me there. Snatching my schoolbag and remaining clothes, I did the first thing I thought of and dived into a large closet used to house sports equipment. The door pulled to just enough to conceal me, as Jesse burst from the gym and into the changing room.

Without pausing, he went through into the showers and turned on one of the faucets. Then I heard him back in the changing room grunting as he pulled off his shirt and shorts. I risked a peek through a gap in the closet door, just in time to view a very hairy and rather red backside disappearing back towards the showers.

It was time to go. I was out the closet and opening the changing room door to the quadrangle just as an almighty bellow erupted from the showers. It’s echo followed me as I ran gleefully out the school gates.

A smug grin lit my face for the rest of the journey home. Jesse James had just suffered yet another icy sousing.

Only this time, I really felt like it was me who’d been flinging the bucket.

All items © Copyright R J Adams 2008

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