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Monday Memories: Beginnings #7 – Making Friends

An aerial view of an early twentieth  century building, 3 stories in brick with bow windows at the ground floor. Perpendicular to the main building is another, single storey building, the two surround a formal lawn and garden.
Another view of the main school building at Reed’s, “The Shack”.

The majority of the other boys in my age group at the school already knew each other. They had either been educated at Reed’s since the age of 7 or 8 or had attended an associated school, founded by the same benefactor, designated the Royal Wandstead School. The rest of us were outsiders, boys with strange accents and, in my case, small for my age. From being the clever child in a small school, I was now just one among a group of boys who were at least as talented. By the summer of 1952 all of the older boys and girls from the village school had decamped to the new school in the big house so I was among the oldest still in the primary school. Now I was one of the youngest in a large school a long way from home.

Those of the boys who had begun their lives at Reed’s before reaching 10 or 11 years of age had been accomodated and taught in rooms in a separate building called The Close. Now all of us ten- and eleven-year-olds were accomodated there but had to walk through the grounds to the school’s main building, which we called “The Shack”, for meals and lessons. I remember the agony of walking with chillblains on toes and fingers. One or two of my fellow pupils even had chillblains on their ears.

An image of a Postal (money transfer) Order.
A typical UK postal order from the reign of
King George VI

We were allowed visits from family members twice each term. My mother arranged for her cousin, Basil, to visit. Other friends and relatives sent the occasional postal order for half a crown (2/6, equivalent to £0.125) to supplement my pocket money which could be used in the school tuck shop to purchase sweets – although, with sugar still subjected to rationing, our pennies had to be accompanied by ‘points’ from our ration books, most of which were, of course, used in the purchase of food for our three meals and one snack per day.

The return journey to Hereford at the end of term was a reversal of the September trip, escorted by my mother’s friend. Arriving at Paddington after the Christmas holidays there was no sign of my mother’s friend. The train’s guard, in whose protection I had been placed on boarding, took me to the station master’s office. I don’t recall hearing it, but there must have been a tannoy announcement. After what seemed like a long wait my mother’s friend arrived to collect me. By this time I was extremely upset and my recollection is that I hardly stopped crying at all until I was on the south bound train the following afternoon. I have no idea what correspondence was exchanged between my mother and her friend in the following days.

When it came to the Easter holidays a new arrangement had been made: Mum’s cousin Basil would meet and accompany me and I would sleep in his sister’s apartment close by in Hammersmith. Instead of the train between London and Surrey I would travel that segment by coach. This arrangement continued for the next couple of years, until I was deemed old enough to travel alone on a journey that did not involve crossing the capital, changing trains at Reading and Guildford and completing the journey in a single day.

At the end of my first year I was rated in the bottom 3 of 33 pupils in the class. I was lucky, because, being born in November, I could start again so I remained in the first class (which was called ‘Remove’) for a second year. Now I was the boy who knew the ropes among a group of new comers. Although, once again, some already knew each other, having previously attended the Royal Wanstead School.

I very quickly formed a friendship with one of those newcomers from RWS. He was a month older than me. I gained the impression that, like me, he was somewhat introverted, not great at mixing with the other boys, even those he had known for several years. It was a friendship which would last throughout the next five years of school, and continue into adulthood.

Ornate part 5

I wanted to finish the story with this episode. I could have had the main character’s trust in her companion turn out to be misplaced. But I couldn’t introduce anything unsuitable for a readership that could include minors. Your comments on the conclusion I finally arrived at would be most welcome. New readers start here.

Unlike the others, this door opens outwards. My friend tugs it until it jams against the uneven flags. He stands back, bows and gestures with a hand, inviting me to go ahead. My torch reveals a bare wooden staircase leading up. I step back.

“It’s a staircase. Probably leading up to the main rooms.”

“Makes sense. It would have been the way the servants took food to the diners.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough. Shall we get on with our painting?”

He shoulders the door back into place and we exit the vestibule. As we walk towards our cars he places an arm across my shoulders.

“Are you okay? You seemed nervous when I arrived.”

“It was the bats. When I got the door open they flew straight at me.” I don’t tell him how I ran in terror.

“But you are alright now?”

“Alright now,” I confirm, looking up into his smiling face.

He draws me closer to him and lowers his head as if to kiss me. We are by the cars. I pull away, placing the little tool box into the still open trunk of my vehicle.

He makes no move to open his own trunk. “What were you doing with the tool box?”

“The door was locked. I picked it.”

His eyes crinkle in puzzlement. “You picked it? I didn’t have you down as a sneak thief.”

He’s laughing but I can see he’s worried, too.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. Does the fact I can pick locks mean I can’t be your friend?”

He doesn’t answer at once. I carry on gathering my painting materials, my easel and portfolio of sketching and water-color paper. My hands are shaking, I can hardly breathe as I await his response.

“Have you ever done anything like this before?”

How will I tell him the truth? But there is no need, as his next sentence shows he is changing the subject.

“Have you thought that with this breeze none of our potential subjects will stay still long enough? It would be much better to collect a few specimens and take them back to paint at home.”

I can see the sense of that, but I also see a problem. “How will we keep them fresh?”

“I thought of that.” He is opening his trunk now. He turns and I see he is holding up four jam jars, one finger of his left hand in each, gripping them against his palm. In his right hand is a plastic container. I assume it holds water. I return my equipment to the trunk, close and lock it.

“How clever of you. Can I help? Carry something?”

“You can bring these,” he says, pointing to a bunch of brown paper bags threaded on a piece of white cord.

As we walk towards the small copse at the bottom of a gentle slope I feel a sensation I have not experienced in a very long time. Afraid that my past will destroy any relationship I might form, I have avoided getting too close to anyone. At last I can dare to think I have someone who is prepared to take me as I am, not probe too deeply into those dark days that I do not care to recall.