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Sport 22: Autumn 1999

Dennis McEldowney — A Short History of Ripon

page 46

Dennis McEldowney

A Short History of Ripon

Words disappear. Our cafés do not offer dainty teas, or serve cakes on dainty doilies; a bridesmaid does not carry a dainty bouquet. Same with delicate, as applied to people. Billy was a ‘delicate child’. He had a ‘weak heart’. Weak my foot, he told himself much later when he had learned some of its anatomy. Strong as an ox more like, to cope with that degree of deformity. But in those days they thought it would stop at the touch of a pin. It look some heavy persuading for the school to accept him, and when the formidable school doctor saw him she filled his card with instructions for the teachers underlined in red ink. It took his mother's illness to exchange his pushchair (his wee cart) for a tricycle, and even then not everything had changed. When they rushed home for midday dinner his sister Gwen would often put one foot on the back axle, her hands over his shoulders gripping the handlebars, and scoot him along the street. But that was fun, for both of them.

The children didn't see much of their father. He was picked up at eight every weekday morning by his friend Mr Fellows in the tall square Buick which had never under any circumstances exceeded thirty miles an hour. Having spent his day, among many other things, giving help and advice to unemployed young men and trying to find jobs for them, he arrived home at midnight on the last tram, the conductor shaking him awake at his stop. He was more often than not away at the weekends as well. In one of the mock courts in Cathedral Square in which prominent citizens were tried for imaginary offences to raise money for relief of poverty, Billy's father was fined for neglecting his wife and children.

But it was his father who ensured that Billy saw Titania's Palace. For the purpose he became a ‘crippled child’ rather than a delicate one. Some of his father's friends had recently formed the Crippled Children's Society. This more squeamish generation has changed the name to CCS and is coy about what the initials stand for. The Society page 47 arranged a private view of Titania's Palace, which was touring the country from ‘overseas’. It was a wondrous doll's house (without any dolls), probably inspired by Queen Mary's doll's house, which Gwen had a book about. Billy was lifted on to the crowd barrier and slid along it slowly, together with the children with irons on their legs, and built-up shoes, and twitching heads. He felt no aversion to these children but no affinity with them either: his deformities were internal, invisible. In any case he was concentrating on the Palace. A pram in the front hall beside the stairs, a chandelier in the drawing room, real sheet music on the piano, a book on the desk, opened so you could be sure it was a book, guns in a rack in the gunroom, a leg of lamb on the kitchen table, a real chain hanging from the cistern in the lavotory.

The best equivalent Billy and Gwen could contrive was with the cococub village. Cococubs were painted lead giveaway toys in tins of Bournville Cocoa. They were animals in clothes not unlike Beatrix Potter's: a goose, a pig, a duck, a rabbit. There was a club you could join, and a magazine which told stories of the cubs, cardboard cutout houses you could send for and erect. There was no need to be confined to what the magazine told. His people became more grownup, active and quarrelsome, and their village was christened Ripon. Which was the name on a toy railway station an aunt of Billy's had given him, far too elaborate for his brief length of line, one engine, and two carriages. Ripon, his mother explained, was the name of a town in England. Not to Billy.

Miss Trevarthen was too easy-going to do much strapping, except of the one boy she hated, Joe Morgan, the oversized, dull son of an unemployed (the grownups said feckless) father. Almost every morning he committed a strapping offence: he was late, had not done his homework, spilt ink over his exercise book, left his shirt hanging out, gave Miss Trevarthen cheek. The rest of the class were on edge (awe mixed with some joy) until the daily drama was over, and then settled down. Billy was never strapped. ‘Never to be strapped’ was one of the underlined instructions from the school doctor on his card, but he didn't know that and wouldn't have been anyway, except possibly the time Miss Trevarthen demanded to know who had been shouting in page 48 the playground during playtime. Billy confessed, and she collapsed like a balloon. For Billy was an intimate friend of Miss Trevarthen's, notorious in his family for telling her all their secrets. ‘Did you tell Miss Trevarthen about the hiccups?’ said the postcard his Aunty Dell wrote on her honeymoon at the Hydro Grand Hotel, Caroline Bay, referring to the effect on him of the wedding breakfast.

Because the school had a policy of moving teachers upwards with their classes, Billy had Miss Trevarthen for his first three years in the standards, except for part of one year when she exchanged with a teacher from England, who astonished the class by clutching her handbag all day, even while she wrote on the blackboard. During all those three years Billy puzzled about the angle at which Miss Trevarthen's legs emerged from her skirt (mid-calf in the mid-thirties). She didn't cross her legs: her left and right feet were on her left and right sides, but they were at a sharper angle than they would have been if her stance came from her hips. He finally concluded that she kept her knees together and splayed out from there. But why would she do that?

In the playground, however, Billy was on the sidelines. He was quite successful at marbles, but he couldn't run around much, or march, or do the daily exercises, or play rounders or later cricket and football. The other children knew he was wonky but only teased in a friendly fashion and never bullied. To make sense of being on the outside he ran commentaries on everything he saw, through an unseen microphone with unmoving lips, sometimes imitating the rising hysteria of racing commentators, sometimes the more reflective tones of cricket-watchers. Sometimes he found it difficult to turn off the commentary after he returned to the classroom, which may have been the reason arithmetic was his weakest subject and composition his best.

In Standard Four newcomer Pat Mortimer did not call Billy delicate or wonky. He christened him Four-Eyes, a nickname that stuck, and took him under his wing. Pat, a gently humorous freckled boy with ginger hair, was the son of the manager of the local Self Help, a chain Billy's parents disapproved of because it was supplanting independent grocers. Although, in spite of his arithmetic and being away sick a lot, page 49 Billy had no difficulty in being top of the class and Pat was about halfway down, and Billy was just as tall, he looked up to Pat, and tolerated being fussed into and out of trams on school expeditions. They went around the Winter Show together.

‘This is Radio 3ZB broadcasting to you from the Winter Show, by courtesy of the makers of Vita Brits. Be sure and pick up your free sample packet of two, they are delicious. Did you know there was a Punch and Judy show at the Winter Show, Gracie? Mr Punch is bashing his wife over the head now. Look at those two boys laughing at it, the one with the black hair and the one with the red hair. Are they enjoying themselves? It's good to see so many young people here, isn't it Gracie? They're in a school party so I don't suppose they'll be allowed to see the fat lady, but there are lots of educational exhibits. There's a car with its engine cut in half so you can see what the inside looks like. They can see a printing press working. If they're lucky they'll have their name put on a linotype slug. Yes, as you say, Gracie, they'll probably go home with prizes from Sideshow Alley as well.’ Pat could not hear this commentary of course. He wasn't meant to.

The cococubs were banished from Ripon as too childish. The townspeople really were imaginary now, though their cars weren't. Miniature cars, Dinky Toys, were Billy's latest collecting craze. He drew a street plan of Ripon, not unlike the bay, and parked cars at appropriate places. His most elegant car, a Rolls Royce cabriolet, was on the Esplanade by Lady Clifford's house. The real Lady Clifford, that is. Her real car was only a Plymouth, but she did have a chauffeur; Billy and Gwen talked to him from time to time while he was washing and polishing the car. It seemed more appropriate for her to have a Rolls. But Lady Clifford was a one-only in the bay. There were certainly no Aston Martins or Rileys there, so dashing owners had to be invented. He did, though, know people who actually owned Ford V8s and Morris Twelves. He knew how they quarrelled over back fences. Their children played cowboys and Indians in vacant sections. The petrol station he actually owned was far too big for the petrol lorry, which was dwarfed by the pumps, but never mind. The busiest vehicle was the baker's van, which like the SX van in real life delivered warm, crusty bread page 50 house to house in two varieties, brown and white. And there was still the station for longer journeys.

Billy had grown out of his tricycle: his knees collided with the handlebars. He walked to school now, without any trouble if he didn't try to run. But he wanted a bicycle. He was told it wouldn't be a good idea. He began saving pocket money and birthday presents and in nearly a year saved nearly a pound. He learned to ride friends' bicycles to prove he could. He promised again and again that he wouldn't do anything silly. He read advertisements for second-hand bicycles in the Press. Finally his parents gave in; his father found him a second-hand three-quarter-size machine. ‘He rides it very sedately,’ his mother told her friends.

Mostly that was true. But he did join a group of classmates one day who were walking up Evans Pass Road and freewheeling down, and he imitated them without going so far up. And one day when he had ridden around the seafront to Redcliffs, which was about as far as he ever went, he was Pat Mortimer's face in the window of a passing tram and decided to race him home. He managed to keep the tram almost in sight, but when Pat got out at his stop, instead of greeting him Billy struggled home, collapsed on his bed, and thought he was going to die. Fortunately there was no one else at home.

Not as a consequence of this escapade but of the natural progression of his condition, his strength gradually ebbed. ‘Few such cases live much beyond puberty’, the textbooks said, but no lay person had access to medical textbooks. After he was found one day slumped against a tree halfway from school, breathless and blue and weeping, he was enrolled with the Correspondence School.

Ripon had become a country. In his Jaguar SS the heir apparent raced round the capital city planning the murder of his mistress's husband with an overdose of the heart medicine digitalis stolen from his aunt, the ailing Princess Amelia. The man he hired to do the job used the bread van as his getaway vehicle. The police arrived to investigate in the Ford V8. The Minister of the Interior hurried in his Daimler to order the Chief of Police to stop the investigation because it was leading too close to the Palace. ‘This is the Ripon Broadcasting Service. Here page 51 is the news. The authorities have decided after considering the scientific evidence that there were no suspicious circumstances in the sudden death of Henry Hostig, aged thirty-five, a prominent racehorse owner.’ When the deceased's brother heard this report he vowed vengeance, although he was a poor man who could only afford a Baby Austin.

Billy drew maps of Ripon and designed its stamps and currency. When he was not quite fourteen he wrote The Standard History of Ripon in a Bulldog exercise book. ‘A ship carrying puritans wishing to escape the tyranny of the religious rule of King James, was driven by storms down the coast of South America. It came upon an unknown land. Beating round the coast the ships company were very surprised to come upon a harbour complete with wharves and quays. The party from the ship landed and were received with great courtesy by the inhabitants, a civilised State called Possettokkuno, which word means Kingdom of Possutt. The King granted them land on the shore of a lake near the centre of the island. This settlement was named after Sir Richard Ripon, the leader of the party.’ Somehow this party of puritans became a kingdom. ‘In 1821, Queen Netig, beloved daughter of a hated king, died. Her son, William I (known to his subjects as Billy) then became king. Like his great-great-great-grandmother Mary I, he was a pleasure loving king and paid little attention to the duties of government, which soon became very disrupt.’

Billy didn't see many people his own age. When Gwen occasionally brought a school friend to see him or one of the kids he had known called at the urging of their mothers, they looked scared and didn't stay long. But he saw plenty of his parent's friends. Some of them talked about things they assumed he would be interested in, like rugby and scout camps, but there were others who talked about real things: politics, books, cricket. One knew Ngaio Marsh; another was a New Zealand cricketer. One taught him the basic moves of chess, which he enjoyed but was no good at. He didn't see far enough ahead. For his part he pasted on to an old and incomplete pack of cards coarse-screen photographs from the Press of world leaders, Ribbentrop, Ciano, Lord Halifax, Marshal Smigly-Ridz, Daladier, de Valera, King Farouk, Cordell Hull, Cardenas, Dan Sullivan, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, King Carol of Rumania, and subjected his visitors to a quiz. Few page 52 could identify as many as he would have been able to do if he didn't know already.

His mother was his prisoner and slave but he didn't worry about it and it may not have worried her. She told him he was an invaluable excuse for not joining women's clubs or church committees. (The one it did worry was Gwen, who felt neglected, though she didn't take it out on him.) For his own self-esteem he did as much as his breath would allow—he kept himself clean and toileted, for instance; but everything his mother did for him he took for granted. He did not take his mother herself for granted, although they were not a demonstrative family. He never pictured his own death although he knew in his head it was possible, but it once came to him that some day his mother would die, and he felt as if he had fallen from an aeroplane without a parachute.

His father was working more reasonable hours, was about the house more, could take him for drives in the Chevrolet. For the purpose he was allowed extra petrol coupons during the war. His father was a ‘great reader’. So was his mother, but it was his father who brought home a pile of books every week from the library, where he was known as the man who lifted his hat to the assistant as he placed the pile on the issuing desk. Billy was welcome to sample anything he brought. His father also found books Billy requested and books he thought Billy might enjoy.

Billy read with rising indignation Upon Sinclair's novel Boston. ‘Look at all those great families,’ he raged at his father (a high-pitched rage because his voice hadn't yet broken). ‘They sent Sacco and Vanzetti to the electric chair for robberies they didn't commit because they were anarchists and socialists. That's capitalism!’ ‘I think that is an over-simple view of the matter,’ his father said, and left the room. ‘He doesn't know and he won't be told,’ Billy shouted at his mother. ‘That's what fathers are for, not listening,’ she said.

‘This is the People's Radio of Ripon. Comrades, after years of struggle the revolution is accomplished. The people are in charge, there will be no more oppression. Kings and aristocrats, bloated plutocrats and petty bourgeoisie, they are all gone. This is the dawn of the era of happiness and fulfilment.’

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But Billy was getting bored with Ripon and resented its hold on his thoughts. He focused his resentment on Ripon's most visible element, his collection of model cars. He waited until his mother went off to spend a morning buying a cardigan at Ballantyne's. Neighbours sometimes came to baby-sit when his mother went out, but this was not one of his most breathless weeks. In a half-hour's exalted frenzy he smashed every one of his cars. It was not hard to do: the alloy they were made of was very brittle. Demented drivers drove the Rolls Royce and the petrol tanker over a cliff, the top of his bookcase. The Ford and the Chevrolet crashed head-on at high speed. A heavy weight fell on the baker's van. When he had finished he collected the pieces and shoved them into a box under his bed. When his mother returned he was quietly reading Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. She didn't even notice, until three days later when they were having afternoon tea and trying together to get the hang of RWH's cryptic crossword in the Listener. Suddenly she said, ‘What's happened to all your cars?’ ‘I got sick of looking at them and stowed them away,’ he said, pleased that what he said was all true though it left out something in the middle. ‘I wish you would stow away some of the papers and books on your bed,’ she said.

Ending or renunciation or a sign of frustration perhaps, but the destruction of the cars may also have been a prelude to what began gently enough (though rather late) when the smooth rounded triangle between his upper legs, which he had admired as long as he could remember, sprouted a fuzz of black hair. This offended him aesthetically. He borrowed his father's razor and scraped it off, but the stubble it left was so much more ugly that he let the hair grow. Before long his fingers were creeping through it and exploring around, beyond, below. They stroked his flabby cock until eventually it reared and swelled. The Ripon stories, which had never really left his head, changed their character. The people in them expanded and throbbed. They lost interest in politics, moved towards one another and intertwined. His mother and Gwen were concerned by his apparent apathy, but even while they tried to stimulate him with gossip his hands went unobtrusively about their business under the blankets. page 54 When there was anything to conceal he made sure he sat or lay sideways.

It was not so much an explosion of pleasure as an implosion. It was totally inward with no relation to anything outside. In the night he would wake from a Technicolor dream to a still fiercer delight, which however left the anxiety in the morning of stiffened pyjamas and sheets. It may have been in response to this that a book, from his father's own shelves, appeared on top of the pile of library books on the desk which he still raided almost every day. Bound in dark green imitation leather it was entitled What Every Boy Should Know. It spoke of God's amazing gift for the creation of families, warned about the dangers of self-abuse, and stressed the need for a boy to remain pure for the maiden he would marry. When he had read and digested all this he decided he ought to try and get interested again in his correspondence lessons. Even though he had decided at least twelve months ago there was no God.

His mother could read print upside-down as easily as she could read it the right way up, a legacy from her childhood when she would keep a storybook on her knee under the desk, upside-down so that if her teacher found it he could not accuse her of reading it. When Billy turned sixteen he applied for an Invalid Benefit. The Social Security Department sent its own doctor—who was also the police surgeon—to assess him. Billy's mother stood opposite the doctor and watched him fill in the form. When he came to the question ‘What is the applicant's expectation of life?’ she saw him write ‘Nil’. She did not tell Billy this of course, but if she had it would have seemed nonsense to his still lively and worrisome flesh.

By the time, some years later, an unexpected advance in surgery made the police surgeon's prognosis truly irrelevant, Ripon had vanished and Bill was ready to become an intellectual who analysed the imaginings of others.