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Sport 20: Autumn 1998

Dennis Mceldowney — Not Telling

page 20

Dennis Mceldowney

Not Telling

I've been wondering for sixty-odd years why, when Arnold Humphrey and his friends beat me up, I never told anyone. By that I mean never. Perhaps it is understandable that I didn't tell anyone at the time, though I'm not even sure about that; but why never since?

It was not typical of my childhood. Most of my childhood memories are happy: even if in odd disconnected pictures. Like the soft glow of a gas-lamp on a brass bracket in the sitting room. The house was lit by electricity (it wasn't that long ago); the gas lamp was a standby in case of a power cut, but was sometimes lit for effect when my parents entertained. But after a few uses the mantle would crumble at a touch. The wind-up gramophone and the old records —old meaning they belonged to the twenties. I realised later, but not then, that during the depression my parents could not afford records. Caruso, Gigli, Galli-Curci, Melba, the J.H. Squire Celeste Octet. Marches and excerpts from the Mikado were more to my taste, but on rainy days (it seemed to suit rainy, sad and drippy days) my favourite record was the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. Which would sometimes be blotted out by the screech and rumble of a tram.

That sounds too poetic, though. We didn't always passively over-hear the passing trams. We played games with them. Gravel laid on the rail crushed into dust; halfpennies, if we could afford them, flattened into discs three times their original size. Boxes of wax matches, filched from the kitchen, went off with a satisfying explosion, at least to us, crouched against the fence round the corner in Hardwicke Street. The motorman never noticed. And the pebbles were far from a derailing size. We were good children. When David Shirley wrote ‘Have a fuck’ in pencil on the outside wall of the surf pavilion I knew he ought not to, although I didn't know what it meant, any more than he did.

I had an older brother and sister. Fred was very much older, five years, so didn't often acknowledge us; though I'm pretty sure the matchbox trick came from him. My sister, two years older, also had page 21 her friends. They coalesced with mine from time to time. In summer our focus was on the beach. Ours was the last generation to fully enjoy that beach, and the sandhills, held together with marram grass and lupins. I heard my parents discussing the borough council's plan to remove the sandhills, and replace them with a flat promenade, protected by a stone wall. I gathered the council didn't like what went on among the lupins. The word immorality was used. When I heard it I blushed, remembering the cigarette David Shirley pinched from his mother and shared with me. After we moved away the promenade was built, and the sea removed the rest of the sand from the beach. It was still there for us. For the castles we built and canals that filled with water, and the pipis we dug up (but didn't eat). We waded through the white foam on the edge of the tide and jumped through the breakers. Not many of us learnt to swim.

At the end of a hot day we walked home in concrete gutter because it was cooler than the melting tar on bare feet. Bad weather promised more excitement. A yacht might overturn or be stranded on the bar. The siren pulsed through the bay to summon the volunteer crew of Rescue II and we waited for news of the drowned. Usually there weren't any.

I was not a solitary child. I liked being with people, and assumed they liked being with me. My mother worked on the principle that she would prefer us to have our friends at home where she could keep an eye on us. The beach often defeated her there, but not all the time. Fred and his friends were beginning to talk about philately instead of stamp-collecting, they made elaborate Meccano models, a steam roller, a clock that almost worked, they wrote and edited a magazine, besides playing cricket on the back lawn. We didn't have a radio of our own and Fred partly chose friends at whose houses he could listen to The Japanese Houseboy. That excluded Arnold Humphrey next door, but there were other reasons as well. They were the same age, and both caught the second trailer behind the 7.30 tram every morning (to go to different schools), but Fred didn't like Arnold, for some reason. He referred to him as a little squirt. I think he might have called him that to this face. It is true that Arnold was smaller than Fred.

My sister Beth's full name was Elizabeth, after our grandmother, page 22 but she was Beth by the time she was born, after the angelic sister in Little Women. She turned out to be more a mixture of Jo and Amy; but this didn't prevent Beth from identifying with Beth in the book. She read the deathbed scene over and over, weeping buckets. (So did I, surreptitiously.) She thought now and then it would serve our mother right if she caught a fever and died. Meantime she and her friends had tea-parties for dolls with fabric bodies and porcelain faces, and celluloid kewpie dolls (one, two or four for a penny according to size from Woolworths in town), and cut out and dressed paper dolls.

We were well-brought-up children, but we weren't as well-brought-up as the Humphreys. We were less disciplined with our Easter eggs. Our cheap chocolate eggs were gone by the time we went back to school on Wednesday. The Humphreys' grandmother gave them large, expensive, hollow eggs made of hard sugar icing with piped, coloured decorations. They lasted until Chirstmas. They were kept in their original boxes in Mrs. Humphrey's wardrobe and a square inch was broken off now and then for a special occasion. Ann and Tom once turned up at the pictures with their little squares of Easter egg, and though they sat next to Beth and me they didn't share. That rankled later, though at the time eyes and mind were focused on the screen. At the end of the weekly serial the luxurious airship on which all the characters were travelling broke in half over mid-Atlantic (we didn't go to the pictures often enough to see how any of the cliffhangers were resolved); Shirley Temple, the poor little orphan, danced on a dining table singing ‘Animal crackers in my soup’. The only animal biscuits we knew had coloured icing. In soup?

I think even then I could sense though not explain some kind of constraint between the Humphrey parents and ours. Now and then I would see my father at the Humphreys' front door, handing over an envelope and talking seriously for a few minutes. I knew that our house had formerly belonged to Mrs Humphrey's father. There had been a gate in the corrugated-iron fence between the two backyards, nailed up before we arrived. It wasn't until much later I learnt that when the house was sold the Humphreys left money on mortgage, and that my father had got behind in the payments.

Mrs Humphrey never came even near forbidding her children to associate with us, and was affectionate and generous when we played page 23 at their house, but she kept an anxious eye on what went on in our backyard. She could just see over the fence if she stood on tip-toe at the edge of the window in Arnold's bedroom. I sometimes saw her eye, her check, and her fair wavy hair, if I looked up from the sandpit. The sandpit was the source of her anxiety. We had grown out of it, as a sandpit; but in the middle of it, on a base of loose bricks, was an old bench-top gas cooker. It was not of course connected with the gas, but we made fires of paper and twigs in the little oven and roasted potatoes on top. They were burnt black before they were cooked, but we got a thrill out of eating half-raw potatoes with charcoal skins. The cooking was Beth's department, and she often invented dishes from weeds in the garden, especially dock leaves and roots of which there were plenty, and gave them to us not to eat but to pretend to eat. We spooned them daintily to our mouths and exclaimed with pleasure. One afternoon, however, she made a soup, in saucepan from the kitchen, of parsley in large quantities, turnip leaves, nasturtium leaves, and sow thistle; and this was real. At her insistence we each took one or two spoonfuls into our mouths, before even Beth conceded the recipe needed a few changes. Next day Ann Humphrey came over after school, looking pleased with herself, and told us her mother said they were never to eat anything cooked on our gas stove again. ‘Were you sick?’ I said. ‘No,’ she said, ‘but it put Tom and me off our tea.’

To me, the attractions of the Humphreys’ place were greater than our own. The Hornby train was the greatest of them, but it was added to by the size of the house and garden. The trees in their backyard (fruit trees mainly: apples, peaches, greengages, quinces) were great for stalking and guerrilla wars. Hanging up in the big shed, which had half-doors because it had once been a stable, were a back pack and a gas-mask from Mr Humphrey's service in Flanders during the Great War. I envied these (my father had been confined to home service because of a ‘spot on the lung’); we were not allowed to touch them, but they made our play more real. The trees also made the ideal landscape for the train. Tom had three clockwork locomotives and several boxes of rolling stock (they were Arnold's really, and occasionally he turned up to direct operations loftily), but the set's main distinction was the incredible number of rails, which could weave through almost every room in the house if we had to play page 24 indoors, or about the trees, crossing one another with special pieces, parting at junctions and rejoining further on. Having put together a passenger train, with compartmented coaches (the model trains page of the Boy's Own Paper insisted on ‘coaches’, not ‘carriages’) labelled LNER and GWR and SR (not, Tom said, that they would all have been on the same train at Home), and a goods train with flats and sheep wagons and petrol tankers, and a mixed train, and wound up the locomotives, the great thing was to set them going all at once but make sure, by deftly switching the points, that they never collided. Tom, who at our place was sometimes a bit lost among Beth's wilder imaginings and mine, was here in charge. He knew all the technical words and techniques, and I followed him respectfully. There was a lot of following, at speed, because if we had miscalculated, the only way to stop the trains before they collided was to grab hold of the engine and press the lever in the cab. Sometimes we were not in time, and the trains sprawled beside the line, engine wheels spinning. We fell about laughing and competed with one another to estimate the death toll. ‘I bet it's at least fifty.’ ‘I bet it's two hundred.’

One day, instead of setting up the lines in the yard we stretched them along the side of the house to the front. The reason was that we wanted to see whether the engines could make it up a gradient in the path. There were enough rails to continue along the path under the front veranda. On the front lawn, down a short flight of steps, Arnold and a couple of his friends from College were kicking a football. It always impressed me that they went to College, not to school. Mr Humphrey taught at College. He was sitting on the steps smoking his pipe. Arnold did something tricky with the ball which I couldn't follow. ‘You need a kick on the backside,’ one of the friends said. ‘You need a kick on the backside,’ one of the friends said. ‘You need a knee up your arse,’ Arnold replied. It was not the first time I'd heard such language at the Humphreys' but I found it very shocking. It also astonished me, knowing that the senior Humphreys were strict parents who rationed Easter eggs, that Mr Humphrey took no notice. Perhaps there was something about College that allowed arses. ‘Come on,’ said Tom, and we went back to find the trains and test them on the gradient. The largest of the engines made it up the slope on its own but couldn't manage to take even a guard's van with it, and all the other combinations slipped and slid.

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Ann Humphrey was my age and in my class at school, but I saw less of her than of Tom, who was a year younger. She did play with the Hornby train from time to time, though, and we all played together on the beach, not to mention our sandpit. The beach was where I came across her one day when I'd gone down alone in a huff. I had just quarrelled with Beth, or rather she had quarrelled with me because I had cut out all the clothes from a newly acquired sheet of paper dolls, and was attaching a frock to one of the dolls with the little tabs when she found me, and put on a display of the temper that was said to go with her red hair. She didn't even listen when I told her I was doing it as a surprise for her, which seemed to me a perfectly reasonable explanation although it was a lie. She continued to storm and say she'd tell on me. It was an odd argument because in spite of its passion it was conducted sotto voce. Our mother was having one of her migraines and, although I doubt whether compassion came into it, there was something electric in the air on a migraine day that counselled restraint. Finally I couldn't cope with Beth's anger and fled. I ran to the beach, my mind seething with indignation, and with anxiety in case she did tell.

On the beach I found Ann, just beginning to make a sandcastle with vicious jabs into the wet beach with a stick she had picked up. She had quarrelled with Tom, I couldn't quite work out what about except that it had something to do with the greengage tree and who was allowed to climb it. We didn't like our families just then, we agreed, and joined forces on the sandcastle. She built up the turrets and decorated them with shells; I dug a moat with another stick, a board as wide as my hand which had floated in on the tide; then I branched off from the moat, dug a river, bridged it with another piece of broad, built a road along the bank. ‘I can see you're going to be an engineer,’ said a lady walking along the beach wearing tweeds and brown brogues. Shortly afterwards four standard six boys came along and kicked down the castle and shuffled across my engineering works. ‘I'll tell on you, George Edwards,’ Ann said. ‘See if I care,’ said George, whose shorts were held up by braces, and they walked on.

We weren't as upset as we might have been: the tide was about to demolish our work anyway. But what with our shared work and shared grievances I was feeling friendly towards Ann and invited her to come page 26 home to tea. By the time we were halfway along the single block between the beach and home I was regretting the impulse. I had forgotten the migraine. Ann was so eager I didn't like to back down, and hoped for the best. The fear was a better guide than the hope. When we went into the kitchen and I asked my mother if Ann could stay to tea she did her best to be kind, but suggested another day would be better. Ann flushed, and ran off.

In ten minutes she was back, knocking at the door, coming in without being asked (as we all did), and asked my mother if I could come home with her for a few minutes for a treat. I was in my room by then, reading, but I heard what she said and came out. ‘What kind of a treat?’ I asked. ‘That would be telling,’ she said. She was jiggling about and her eyes were shining with excitement. ‘Don't be late for tea,’ said my mother. ‘Round the back,’ Ann said at their gate. We went round the back. Arnold and two of his College friends were there. Arnold was holding a cricket bat. ‘You've been asking for a swipe across the arse, you lying little squirt,’ he said and did just that. His friends each had a cricket stump, and joined in. ‘That's enough,’ Arnold said, and let me escape. I ran, crying, round the house. Just before I reached the gate Mr Humphrey came through it. ‘Hello, old chap,’ he said, ‘what's up?’ ‘I fell over,’ I said.

Once home I burrowed into our macrocarpa hedge, my favourite hiding-place, and spent half an hour claming myself down and feeling my injuries. They weren't very bad, I had not been hit very hard. But I thought they were very bad, and limped inside. My mother came out of her migraine cloud to show her concern and ask what had happened. ‘I fell down the Humphreys' steps.’ I said. ‘Let's have a look,’ she said and I pulled down my pants. There were no underpants to pull down: we didn't wear any. ‘You did land on your seat,’ she said; ‘no skin broken, but you may be uncomfortable for a while. Why not go to bed for tea?’ And then, ‘What was the treat?’ I was ready for that. ‘Ice-cream from Mrs Smither's fridge,’ I said. The widow who lived in the house beyond the Humphreys had the only fridge in our neighbourhood.

So why didn't I tell? Fear? Possibly, though I would have had the adults on my side, not to mention Fred. The code of silence? You didn't tell, except on siblings. That's nearer the mark, but still doesn't page 27 explain why I never told. Shame is nearer the mark still but is too simple. I think it just didn't square with my sense of reality. Happy, good, popular, loved and loving children didn't get beaten up.

Not telling did me no harm. I was wary of the Humphreys for a week or two, but they proved as good at pretending it hadn't happened as I was. It only slowly dawned on me that Arnold and Ann were scared. Their father had been within a few seconds of coming upon a scene he wouldn't have approved of. Arnold was no friendlier afterwards than he had been before, but he was not less friendly, either. I didn't build sandcastles with Ann again: I left her to Beth and the paper dolls. Tom never gave any sign that he knew what had happened, and that may be true: he was out with his mother at the time. We played with his trains as ever, though played never seems the right word for a dedicated pursuit. I continued to be in and out of their house. It was on their radio, a few weeks after they got it, and a week or two before we got ours, that one morning I heard through shortwave crackles and surges the man who had been king until the day before explaining he couldn't continue on the throne without the woman he loved. What this meant to me I can't say; it has been so overlaid with later hearings.

Early the following year we moved to another suburb. My father had a new job with a house attached. After tea one Saturday in the late winter he and my mother went back to our old house, which they hadn't been able to sell, to visit their tenant. I went along for the ride in our first car (1929 Ford Model A), and they suggested I visit the Humphreys. Arnold was the only one home, along with some of his College friends. ‘They'll be back soon,’ he said. ‘You can come in and wait if you like.’ I sat on the edge of a chair and listened to them discussing the test match they'd watched that afternoon at Lancaster Park, Springboks versus the All Blacks (from which I can date this visit precisely to 4 September 1937). They were sore at the result and believed the All Blacks ought to have won after leading at half time. I gathered this much, but didn't know enough about rugby to be interested. They ignored me. There was no sign of the rest of the family, and soon I went back to our old house. I never saw the Humphreys again.