This is the story of a journey from childhood to adulthood. And we're not being metaphorical.
The twenty-ninth of December 1940 was not a good day in Lewisham. To most Londoners, this was merely the worst night of the Blitz. To my paternal grandparents and me it was historic because that night my dad was born.
My grandmother lay in the cellar of Lewisham General Hospital amongst candles as, above, the Luftwaffe took London apart block by block. The bare electric bulbs flickered every now and again as the building shook to the reverberations from falling bombs, and there was the occasional crash of a window being blown out in the empty hospital above. Through tears in the blackoutblankets, the sky flickered red under the drone of German bombers, the badoom-badoom of anti-aircraft cannons and ashes blew in through shattered windows and swirled around empty wards and naked iron-frame beds.
As patriotic as my grandmother was, she frankly didn't care that the country was being softened up for invasion in the same way a chef's mallet tenderizes a steak. She was grunting and straining under the coaxing of nurses who must have been cursing this, quite possibly the worst night shift of the century.
My dad slithered out at five past one in the morning of the thirtieth of December and within a few shocked seconds told the world exactly what he thought of it.
My grandparents lived in a two-story brick terrace house and pursued a life of aspirant working-class Protestant probity, going to the Victorian gothic church twice on Sundays and keeping their front rooms spotless and the piano consistently badly tuned. My dad went to the Church of England primary school, failed the 11-plus and was dumped in the local secondary modern. When he was 15 he swiped Mrs. Frobisher, a war widow, rather inexpertly across the shoulders with a plank of wood and ran off with her blue fake leather handbag, which, he soon discovered, contained five shillings and sixpence, a packet of mints and a handkerchief.
Even if you ignore the social and humanitarian implications of such an act, this was a silly thing to do. In Lewisham in 1955 most people knew everybody else and my dad had developed a bit of a reputation as a tearaway. At least a score of people had seen him, so the police paid a visit to my grandmother, who sat ashen-faced in the kitchen with her hands on her floral apron wondering where she had gone wrong. Grandfather drank a bit too much, but he worked hard on the railways and went to church. She made good meals every evening and cleaned the house. What more?
When I asked my dad, now enjoying a content middle age, why on earth he did such a terrible thing, he sighed. Life was very boring in 1955, he said. Really very boring, and I was very young.
My dad lurked around Lewisham for a few hours and then sauntered home, whereupon two policemen launched themselves at him from various crannies of the sitting room and he was carried, kicking and yelling, away from his grief-stricken mother and deposited in the local nick. After a very brief court appearance he was sent to a borstal near Rochester. Mrs. Frobisher, I am glad to say, made a full physical recovery, although she was jittery near the market ever after.
Did, er, 'things' happen in borstals in those days? I asked my dad once.
Yes, he said, 'things' happened quite a lot. I was so stupid I thought the boys were having a fight in the showers. They were making all the same noises. My dad paused. I awaited a family revelation. There was this group of boys who took a fancy to me.... My dad trailed off and took solace in a hefty swig of a rather horrible vin de pays he had bought the previous summer from a farm near Montpelier.
Borstals were a bit more relaxed in 1956 than in Brendan Behan's day, and inmates "of good character" were occasionally allowed out to work in the town as a form of rehabilitation. My dad, being a quiet, industrious and charming person when he wanted to be and, more importantly, of a practicing Church of England family,was considered of good character and was farmed out to a metalworking shop in the Chatham dockyards. He worked so well that during a sudden rush his employers asked the prison authorities if he could stay after hours to help with the backlog. The borstal agreed, and Dad did a bunk.
So, one warm May night when he should have been going back to the institution, my dad trotted through the streets of Chatham in his borstal issue shirt and slacks, climbed up a railway embankment and, amazingly, managed to climb aboard a train to London as it waited for the lights to change.
If anybody noticed this, they were terribly English about it and pretended that nothing had happened. My dad curled up in a ball on one of the seats and fell asleep until the train reached Victoria station. Not knowing what to do now that he was in London, and too frightened about the police to find his mother, he walked to Paddington station with the intention of getting on another train, but found that not a lot was happening at that time of night. So instead he nicked a loaf of bread from somewhere--my dad did not elaborate--climbed into a wooden freight wagon, ate the entire loaf and fell asleep.
The wagon was shunted the next morning. My dad was knocked awake and spent a few panicked seconds wondering who and where he was. The wagon was knocked about for half an hour, and as soon as my dad's heart had stopped tripping over itself, he pulled the wagon door open and looked out on some bleak and dreary sidings near Willesden Junction in north west London. He let himself down from the wagon and made his way to a brick wall some fifty yards off. A few steps over the tracks and he was spotted.
"Oi! You! Wotcha dooin?"
My dad jumped five feet into the air and couldn't be seen for dust as he sprinted across the tracks and vaulted the brick wall. All a bit of overkill, really, as the railway workmen (fat lumps all of them) could barely roll faster than the beer barrels they resembled.
Dad then walked vaguely northwest along the Harrow Road through Wembley (where he stole a couple of apples), Harrow-on-the-Hill (where he stole another apple, some cheese, a rather sawdusty cake thing, some bread rolls and ate them all), Pinner (where he stole absolutely nothing), Rickmansworth (where he stole a huge shopping bag full of groceries, but had to drop it outside Woolworth's to escape a posse of enraged shoppers) and Chorleywood, where it started to rain.
My dad fought with second thoughts as his grand adventure took a suddenly wet and dismal turn. He started running to keep warm, and jogged a few miles through wet dog's mercury and beech woods near Amersham and Chesham and then, for who knows what reason, took a minor road which ran north west towards Aylesbury over the green and white Chiltern Hills. This area of the Chilterns is now packed with joggers. On Sundays you can barely turn a country road without slamming on the brakes in an effort to avoid another blank-eyed and sweaty fitness fanatic plodding past heady bramble and elder hedges. I claim my dad started it all. People generally didn't run anywhere in 1956 unless they had killed someone or were Roger Bannister.
Just as it began to get dark my dad found a brick shed, crawled among the rakes and hoes and fell asleep.
The house to which the shed belonged lay less than twenty feet away on the other side of an elm hedge, and about an hour after my dad had curled up around garden implements, the owner of the house decided to return her secateurs to the shed after pruning the vine in her conservatory. May is not generally a good month to do this, but Elisabeth lacked finesse in the gardening department.
Elisabeth wasn't her real name; Dad never told anyone what her real name was. In fact Dad never talked about this episode at all out of choice, except to my mum just before he married her, who then told me some twenty-five years later over washing the Sunday dishes when I pursued this story. And when I told Dad that mum had already told me, he wanted to know exactly what mum had said, of course, and I managed to blackmail him into revealing the whole story. He recounted the story in an odd stop-and-start fashion, reflecting his internal pendulum of embarrassment and sentimentality.
Your dad, said my mum, was quite a looker when he was younger.
My dad at this stage was asleep with his head hanging over the back of the sofa, snoring gently. Mum removed the gradually tipping wine glass from his hand and he snorted in some subconscious annoyance. Difficult to see my dad as a bit of a looker. He always looked, well, like a dad.
Elisabeth saw my dad as soon as she opened the shed door. My dad took several seconds to realize he was being looked at, sprang to his feet ready to run, but tripped on a garden fork and pitched forward with a squeak. Elisabeth stepped out of the way to allow my dad to crumple without hindrance on the damp grass.
"Are you all right?" she asked, bending over my dad.
My dad rolled on his back. His stomach, then flat, now anything but, grumbled loudly. He grinned in embarrassment.
"Are you hungry?" said Elisabeth.
"Yes," said Dad. My dad was 16 and just out of borstal. Not a conjunction designed for charmingly seductive repartee. A situation since rectified, sighed my mum, and always directed inappropriately.
"Well, if you have nothing to do right away, would you care for a spot of something to eat?" said Elisabeth.
Dad said that he had never met anyone who talked like that before. He was used to that peculiar form of southeast English referred to as sahf-luhndun. Only his mum, my grandmother, had ever tried to talk "proper," but even then nothing so upper class as this. It was like being with royalty. And with royalty, you do as you are told.
Dad nodded to the food question. He was suffering the ravenous appetite of the hyperactive young, after all. Elisabeth tried to wave my dad in front of her, but he didn't quite catch on and Elisabeth, being polite, took the lead and my dad plodded after her.
I couldn't believe the house, my dad said to me. It was like those silly Famous Five books, all brick and timber and fireplaces and tiled floors and oak tables. I can't imagine what she made of me. Damp and dirty, a now heavily soiled thick cotton shirt hanging at an angle over my chest, buttons missing and untucked into my trousers, my bad borstal haircut stuck up all angles and full of dried grass. She looked at me in the light of the room and I could see a laugh creeping across her face. I couldn't see why then, but I can now. She asked me to sit at the blackened oak table and went into the kitchen, where I heard her laugh, although it might have been the radio. I looked around, but I was too overawed and tired to be really interested in stealing anything.
"It might be about half an hour before I can get anything ready," said Elisabeth. "Is that all right?"
My dad nodded. He would have agreed to anything right then.
"Do you live near here?" she asked.
My dad shook his head.
"Hmph," said Elisabeth, knitting her brow in vexation at the difficulty of getting anything remotely intelligent out of him. "What about your parents? Won't they be worried?"
"No, no, please don't call them," said my dad, looking frightened.
"Well, all right. I think you should tell them that you're all right though. You needn't say where you are. I've got a telephone."
Dad didn't respond.
What did she look like? I asked my dad. Well, he said, she was shorter than me (my dad was five-foot-seven, and had been since he was eighteen) with black hair. How old was she? I asked. Dad thought about whether to answer that one, and gave me an angry look. I wasn't put off. I don't know, he said. When I was that age there were only four ages--children, my age, my parents' age and my grandparents' age. She was my parents' age put like that, though I think now that she must have been in her late twenties.
"Why don't you have yourself a bath while I'm getting something ready?" said Elisabeth, who was driven more by thoughts of hygiene than altruism.
Baths have been one of my dad's lifelong weakness. Along with food, alcohol and women, of course, but baths were always my dad's first and most faithful of loves. So Elisabeth was slightly taken aback by the enthusiasm of my dad's response.
Dad suddenly stood up at the oak table and said, "Yes, please!"
Elisabeth led my dad up to the bathroom, put in the plug and turned on the hot tap. The geyser ignited with a whumph and covered the bathroom window with fog.
"I'll get you a towel," she said, removing her towels from the wooden towel rail as she left in case he should use those by mistake. Dad sat on the loo watching the water fill the bath. My grandmother had a bath, but the borstal bath was so huge, filthy and rarely used that it hardly counted as a bath at all. Dad's toes twitched in anticipation and he began to undress.
Elisabeth returned with an armful of towel, a pair of trousers, some underwear and a shirt. My dad was almost, but not quite indecent, and vaguely aware that this wasn't the done thing in front of women.
Give her her due, said dad to me, she didn't bat an eyelid.
"These were Tom's, my husband's. They might just fit you. Don't worry, he won't be back," said Elisabeth.
It had never occurred to me to be worried, said my dad. I was such an oaf. But the bath was good. My dad raised his legs and I could see his toes curling in nostalgia inside his slippers.
And then? I asked.
Well, said my dad, I had some meat and potatoes and I remembered my manners and used my knife and fork properly.
What do you mean And Then? Have you any sense of propriety regarding your old man? Dad sighed. Well, what do you think? I lost my virginity. Technically speaking I had lost it the previous month, but I don't consider that real. Dad looked dreamily at the ceiling and muttered Mmmm quietly to himself.
You can't just leave me there, I said. Dad looked at me, various emotions flickering across his face. I wondered whether I had pushed a wee bit too far.
She took off all my clothes and told me to do the same to her. We lay on the rug in the sitting room and she stroked me all over, and told me to do the same to her. Then we made love all night. Well, until I fell asleep anyway. I didn't know what had hit me. OK?
I felt rather jealous of my dad. My first time, real or otherwise, was so ridiculously inept that both of us gave up and decided to watch the TV instead. It wasn't a complete failure, obviously, otherwise it wouldn't count as the first time. It took Ruth--that was her name--and me about a week to get plumbing and lust to coincide. And then it was quite fun. And then we moved on, bound across years, relationships and now oceans by our juvenile fumblings. She's now an up-and-coming journalist. A respected adult with respected colleagues, no doubt.
The next day my dad woke up in a bed with white linen sheets rather than gray cotton ones, and trooped after Elisabeth like a lost puppy, grinning daftly all the time.
It was lucky, my dad told me, that I was such a complete naïf, otherwise there would have been impenetrable layers of meanings and sub-meanings and guilt and regrets, and as it was I thought the whole thing was just grand, which made her just laugh and laugh. I mean, why did she do it? A sixteen-year-old boy of whom she knew nothing? She must have been a strange woman. My dad took another slug of his vin de pays as we pondered Elisabeth's motives.
When I raised the question with my mum, she shrugged. Quiet desperation, like most of us, she said. I must say that I found this remark slightly chilling.
I would love to have seen Elisabeth through my eyes now, said Dad. I mean, why? My dad shook his head and drew his eyebrows together.
Dad stayed with Elisabeth for about a fortnight--doing gardening, repointing the chimney and repegging roof tiles under Elisabeth's arm-waving commands from below. It was the first time Dad had ever voluntarily taken instruction from anyone, and he enjoyed doing it, and didn't even mind when Elisabeth cursed him fulsomely as a dozen expensive Kent pegs slid from the roof and demolished themselves on the front path because he hadn't stacked them properly. He just grinned and grinned.
"Where are you going?" asked Elisabeth one night over dinner. That day Dad had been a little distracted. He felt an imaginary net close in around him. It wasn't as if the police were looking for me, my dad told me. They wouldn't waste time on a runaway, but I sort of felt the need to run again. I sometimes got like that. Fidgety feet, I suppose.
"I don't know," said my dad. "I've always wanted to go to the Yorkshire Moors."
Elisabeth munched on some cabbage. "You don't have any money," she said. Dad shrugged. "Well how have you been finding food so far?" she asked. Dad grinned licentiously. A cloud of irritation crossed Elisabeth's face, and before Dad could say something crass said abruptly, "Well, I suppose you've been stealing, haven't you?"
"Only when I'm very hungry," said Dad. Elisabeth ran her hands over her face as she considered the options. "Well, don't do a bunk on me. I'll give you a little something to take you part of the way."
Oh, she was canny, said my dad. This way she could make sure I wasn't making off with her family silver in the dead of the night. That evening, in fact, she went through all her drawers and cabinets "to do the dusting," she said. I thought she was slightly potty then, but I now think she was making an inventory. She never asked me to leave. I don't think she particularly wanted me to go. I don't know how she would have finished it if it had been up to her, but as it turned out, it wasn't.
"I think I'll be going now," my dad said at about eleven in the morning as Elisabeth was reading the Times in the garden.
"If that's what you want," she said, folding the newspaper and getting up off the garden seat. Dad had collected his borstal boots, but couldn't find his borstal shirt and slacks, which Elisabeth had binned, at arm's length, protected by pink rubber gloves, at the first opportunity.
"Here, have Tom's old work shirt. It'll last longer," said Elisabeth. She also gave Dad Tom's old tweed jacket and a newish pair of corduroys Tom had bought but never wore. My Dad took off the thin cotton trousers and shirt he was currently wearing and put on the new set. Elisabeth spent the next five minutes dashing around the house like a mad thing. Dad watched her uncomprehendingly.
This must have been her final check that I hadn't taken anything, Dad told me.
Then, slightly flushed and breathless, she gave my dad a wallet, a paper bag with some sandwiches and an apple in it, and a peck on the cheek. She held his hand as they walked down the path to the road. He walked into the middle of the road and looked around.
"Which way's Yorkshire?" he asked.
"From here? Well, that way, roughly." She waved north over the hill, at a right angle to the road.
"Oh," he said.
"But Aylesbury's that way," she pointed west along the road. Dad grinned, waved and marched off to Aylesbury.
Thus endeth the Elisabeth chapter.
Dad never let on who Elisabeth really was, and there are many old farmhouses between Aylesbury and Chesham. I would have liked to thank her for taking such good care of my dad, though I suspect she would be somewhat mortified to have been thanked. And one cannot entirely exclude the possibility that my dad made the whole thing up, though I doubt it because Dad never made up stories about anything else to my knowledge. Of course, since I became a journalist like Ruth (though not paid anything like the amount she is) I now make up stories all the time. No member of my family can reconcile what I do for a living with watching the BBC news or reading the Daily Telegraph. Actually, I can't either, but there we go.
Dad looked into the wallet Elisabeth had given him. It contained twenty pounds, a staggering sum for my dad, who had never seen more money than ten shillings in one place at any one time. He reached Aylesbury--over the scarp edge of the Chiltern hills--by mid-afternoon, and ate the sandwiches sitting in the market square under the warm sun, feeling is if he belonged there.
He used some penny pieces in the wallet to phone his mum, who was, as one would expect, upset, confused and desperate about her son. Her son didn't know how to respond, and didn't say much except that he was going on holiday. His mum asked him to give himself up--only another few months in borstal and then he could get on with his life. Dad wasn't willing to face the reality that England is--was--a very bad country to be an outlaw in. A crowded nation of factotum shopkeepers.
It didn't occur to my dad to rent a room for the night so he took the Buckingham road and slept in a cow barn. My dad was not keen on cows. As a London boy, Dad was only used to cows as sides of beef on a butcher's hook--and in the fifties, that fairly rarely--and occasionally as irregularly shaped gray items on a Sunday plate. Real live cows also smelt rather bad. He crawled into the barn's hay loft and lay awake listening to the animals below.
I realized, my dad told me, that the cows must have been lowing. It made it all seem rather Christmassy. Nobody ever talks about lowing unless there is a little baby Jesus nearby.
Before daybreak Dad set off through Buckingham, stole a breakfast and earned it by being chased at full pelt along the entire length of the high street, his booted feet going phutphutphutphutphut as he hurtled across the gravel just outside the old jailhouse. He could run a lot faster than your average grocer, who was making a more crunch, crunch, wheeze, crunch-crunch-crunch, wheeze, crunch sort of noise. My dad then followed the signs to Northampton.
North, you see, my dad told me. Sounded sort of exotic. Just as well that I never saw any signs for Northfleet when I jumped borstal. Northfleet is a town barely ten miles from the place.
Dad then pinched lunch from a grocer's in Towcester and plodded along the Northampton road. He got to Northampton after the shops had shut, leaving very little that was stealable without putting a brick through a window. In any case, Dad was too tired to deal with the inevitable high speed consequences of this and decided to use the money Elisabeth had given him. This was a momentous event in Dad's life. The first time he had actually used his own money, freely given, to purchase a service for personal consumption. He went into a pub just north of Northampton city center to look for a room.
"How old are you, son?" asked the landlord, just as he was about to give my dad the key.
"Eighteen," said Dad, accompanying his barefaced lie with his best barefaced innocent eyed look.
"Hmph," said the landlord, not convinced. "Where you from?"
"London, sir," said Dad.
"Hmph. Room seven. At the top of those stairs there, then turn left." The landlord leaned over the bar and looked for Dad's luggage. "You bringing in your luggage now?"
"Ah, no," said Dad, his brain going into overdrive to explain this one. "I'm visiting relatives in Towcester tomorrow. Don't need any luggage--I'd only forget it."
"Where did you say your relatives were?" said the landlord, an entirely inexplicable smile creeping across his face.
"I think you'll find it's pronounced toaster, actually."
"What is?" said Dad, frowning.
"Tow-cester. It's pronounced toaster."
"Really?" said Dad, genuinely surprised. "Oh."
"Well, whatever. Do you want dinner tonight?"
Dad was hungry again, and a bit more of the contents of his precious wallet was used in a legitimate transaction. He went up to his room before dinner, and as soon as he closed the door he had a fit of the giggles. He threw himself on the bed and stretched himself out, his hands behind his head, and grinned. Once the novelty of that had worn off, he explored the wardrobe and the mirrored cabinet above the sink. He turned on the hot water tap and ran his hand under it for a good two minutes before hot water from the storage heater managed to negotiate the contorted, clanking, magnolia-painted pipes from the basement. This gave Dad an idea. He went out into the corridor, then remembered his key and went back into his room to collect it, and went in search of a bath.
He found a huge enameled bath in a tiny, badly painted bathroom with a cracked window and graying net curtains. Dad skipped a little boogie of joy on the linoleum, and then sat on the edge of the bath for few seconds and raised his legs, toes curling in expectation. Then he went down to the bar for his dinner, which was tasteless, amongst the mostly silent and grimly drinking working men of Northampton, thinking about his bath.
What is this thing you have about baths? I asked my dad.
I don't know, he said. I suppose it reminded me of living at home with my mum. We were one of the few families in our street with a proper full-size galvanized tub. We didn't often have full-blown baths because of the expense, and when we did we used the same water for the whole family, with my dad coming last, as he was the dirtiest. My mum, my sister and I used to share the same bath all together until I was seven, at which point mum deemed it inappropriate. I just remember the borstal as cold and dirty.
Your dad always was quite the bon viveur, said my mum. Even when I met him. It has always astonished me that he survived trekking across England with no clean clothes and no wine.
Ah, said Dad, but that was before I knew about clean clothes and wine and roast pheasant and pâté de foie gras and summer holidays in France and stuff. You're not born with taste; you have to acquire it.
This latter was said with a grand sweep of the hand, which seemed eloquent of something, but quite what was difficult to say.
My dad soaked for a good half hour in that Northampton bath. He then tried to sleep in that unfamiliar hired bed, but was too excited about the portentous strangeness of it all, and tossed about for an hour before finally slipping off.
He passed the landlord the next morning. "Off to Tow-cester now, son?" he said.
My dad tried to laugh politely, but he's never been good at that and I doubt whether he was any better when he was 16. This was just the sort of thing you expected from the country. Trying to catch people out with arbitrary pronunciations. Oh, ha-bloody-ha.
Dad got fed up with plodding a few miles outside of Northampton and decided to thumb a lift. The drivers of the few vehicles which rattled along this road looked at Dad with a mixture of bafflement and suspicion. After half an hour of this, my dad decided to get up from the long summer grass he was sitting in and look as if he wanted to go somewhere. Ten minutes later, a farmer in a bulbous, dark green, left-hand drive army surplus truck pulled over.
"Where you goin', son?" said the farmer, leaning out of the driver's window.
The farmer looked at my dad long and hard. "You've got the right road, then. Couldja be more specific?"
"The Yorkshire Moors."
"That's a heck of a long way to go by thumbin' it. I'm going just past Market Harborough. That do?"
"Yes, thanks," said my dad, who had no idea where Market Harborough was.
Dad walked around the truck and climbed in the passenger seat.
"No knapsack or nothing?" said the farmer.
"No, sir," said Dad, hiding a sudden blush with a big grin. The farmer chuckled as he looked through the rear window of the truck ready to pull out.
"Name's Charlie Ferris," said the farmer.
"I'm George," said my dad.
My dad was named after King George VI, four years dead by then. He was never awfully keen on the name, any more than he was on the age or cause of the King's death--56, of a coronary thrombosis. Dad was 56 a few years ago, and by a strangely unpleasant coincidence had his arteries widened by angioplasty that year after a few nasty turns with angina. He was told by a criminally naïve doctor that the odd glass of red wine could help reduce his blood cholesterol. My dad heard this as "one glass good, one bottle better," and consequently his already moderate intake of red wine took off stratospherically. He also pooh-poohed all attempts to wean him off beef, saying that as he was likely to be long dead before BSE got him, he might as well take advantage of the suddenly low prices. Honestly. The older generation.
The truck clanked and ground through Brixworth, Hanging Houghton and Maidwell. Dad had been in a motorized vehicle before, but rarely, and never before in a left-hand drive army surplus truck bouncing along a trunk road overlooking Northamptonshire fields and hedges. He stuck his head out of the window and felt the sun and wind fly past.
The farmer watched him out of the corner of his eye.
"Have ya never been in a truck before, son?"
"No, sir..." The truck hit a pothole and Dad bounced a foot into the air and landed in a heap, winded, on the dashboard.
"Mind the potholes," said the farmer languidly.
Dad took all of thirty seconds to regain his composure, and then continued to look around him like a squirrel in a room full of walnuts.
"Are you staying in Market Harborough tonight?" asked the farmer.
"I don't know," said my dad.
There was another long pause.
"You can stay at the farmhouse if you're willing to work for me tomorrer."
The farmer drove through Market Harborough and took the road to Melton Mowbray. A few miles outside the town the farmer spun the steering wheel and threw the truck off the metalled road down a white and dusty track which led to a collection of farm buildings and a large horse chestnut tree.
"Do you have any cows?" asked my dad.
"Twenty. And a breeding bull."
"Ah," said my dad.
The farmer threw the truck into a corner of the farmyard and yanked the handbrake to stop the vehicle, which skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust.
"I'll show you the wife now so you won't get surprised later," said the farmer.
Mrs. Ferris was an awe-inspiring woman. Six-foot square and bright red, her hair tied up in a bun.
"What's this you've brought in, Charlie?" she said, looking at my dad not unkindly, but rather like you would look at a new kitchen table.
" 'Ired 'elp. Give 'im some food. Can't work on empty." The farmer stomped out of the kitchen back into the yard.
My dad looked up at Mrs. Ferris as if he was a rubber dingy under the bows of an oncoming liner, and assumed the air of a puppy looking for consolation. Mrs. Ferris stared down at him dispassionately, and then pulled a huge loaf of bread, a leg of ham, a vast lump of cheese, a bowl of tomatoes, a bowl of apples, a triangle of butter and a couple of washed lettuces from various parts of the kitchen.
Had my dad not been holding onto a kitchen chair, he might have collapsed at the sight of all this food displayed all at once. As it was he felt himself start salivating like a dog.
" 'Elp yerself, son. Jus' expect work from it." She grabbed my dad's upper arm in her huge right hand and squeezed. My dad looked at his arm in alarm as Mrs. Ferris felt to see if Dad was work-worthy. She let go without any comment and went back to cleaning something by the sink. Dad rubbed his arm to get circulation back into it and watched the veins in the back of his hands deflate. He then attacked the tabletop of food with the sort of no-holds-barred gusto you tend to get from perpetually hungry youngsters.
Three jagged doorstep ham-and-cheese-and-tomato-and-lettuce sandwiches and ten minutes later, the farmer came back in.
"Finished?" he said to my dad.
My dad nodded happily.
"Happy?" he added with the slightest of smiles.
"Right, come 'ere. Got work for you."
My dad was then put to shifting hay-bales, cattle feed and carrying bricks for the wall of the new Ferris kitchen garden, corralling cows and sweeping farmyards until the sun went down in a blue-purple glow some eight hours later.
The farmer then shepherded a completely exhausted and hence a completely silent boy into the house and into a downstairs washroom, which had a tap attached to a hose.
"Best clean yerself before dinner," said the farmer.
Dad slowly took off his clothes and turned on the tap. The water was ice-cold and Dad suddenly awoke with a squeak as the hose writhed on the floor and squirted him with water. After a brief but violent tussle my dad took control and finished the job, several inches of dirt dissolving away down the drain. Mrs. Ferris popped open the washroom door and deposited a towel and some clean clothes on a shelf. Dad froze in embarrassment.
"Seen it all before, and better," she said as she closed the door.
My dad plodded into the kitchen, where Mrs. Ferris had made some mutton stew. He was almost too tired to eat it. Almost, but not quite. The farmer and Mrs. Ferris conducted their normal minimal and staccato conversation during the meal and watched as my dad drifted off, slowly listing on his chair. The farmer got up from his seat and with impeccable timing caught my dad just as he was about to brain himself on the kitchen's tile floor. Dad jerked awake and flailed a bit in panic as the farmer righted him.
"Time for bed I think, son," he said.
Although my dad's bowl had been cleaned out quite efficiently, he looked at all the other food just sitting there, waiting to be eaten, and sighed deeply in defeat. He nodded, and the farmer took him up to a tiny whitewashed bedroom with a tiny window and a cheap yellow-veneered wardrobe. It also had a bed with clean blankets and my dad pitched forward onto it and bounced a few times. By the time he had stopped bouncing, he was asleep.
Just before daybreak the next day, Mrs. Ferris came in with a mug of tea and shook my dad until he awoke.
"Don't go back to sleep on me now," she said. "'Ave that cuppa tea, and I've got bacon and eggs for you downstairs." She stomped back downstairs.
My dad could smell breakfast, and this was his main spur in getting up. He was a bit surprised to find that he was naked and inside the sheets, as he couldn't remember getting undressed or actually getting into bed.
My dad found the day a series of baffling and exhausting chores, executed in silence except the mooing and stomping of cows, or the rustle of hay, the gentle gurgling of the milking machines or the clank of aluminum milk churns, the high manic twittering of larks and the sound of the wind in hedgerows. Lunchtime found my dad and the farmer demolishing a foursome of whopping sandwiches while sitting on the bonnet of the army surplus left hand drive truck in total, single-minded silence, some two miles from the farmhouse.
Mrs. Ferris had cooked another monster dinner, and my dad managed to eat as much as he wanted before politely asking if he could be excused, a lower-middle-class turn of phrase which made the farmer and his wife look at each other in amusement. They nodded, and my dad plodded up the stairs, got undressed, crawled into bed and passed out.
On Sunday the imperative routine of the farm was cut back to the minimum required to keep the cows happy. At half past nine in the morning the farmer and his wife dressed up in their Sunday best, and rummaged in their chests and wardrobes to find something decent for my dad. He wasn't asked if he wanted to go to church; it was expected. Dad didn't like church very much but was smart enough to know on which side his bread was buttered, and cooperated without a comment. The farmer drove them to church in his army surplus truck, slowly and majestically, as befits a Sunday, which surprised my dad as he thought the bumpy rides he had suffered over the last few days had been because there was something wrong with the vehicle.
In the church, Mrs. Ferris pointed him down a pew at the back occupied by the conspicuously badly-dressed and possibly inbred. The farmer and his wife then sat a few pews forward of Dad, occupied by people with feathered, netted hats, crinoline skirts and badly tailored suits. At the front sat people dressed entirely in black who never looked around. Dad watched the social strata of rural Leicestershire glide past him with intense interest. He noticed that people only greeted people on the same pew as themselves, perhaps nodding to the people behind them with more than an implication of condescension. The scarecrow next to him sneezed violently. As soon as the organist started on some not awfully good rendition of a Bach chorale, Dad drifted into the religion-induced trance which has afflicted him all his life.
In the afternoon, they sat in the farmhouse's best room and listed to records of Haydn and Mozart, read books and said very little, until the farmer and my dad went out to feed the animals again.
Monday was back to the grind. Two local lads, Robert and Peter, came in from time to time to do more skilled work, such as milking the cows and driving the tractor. After a week the farmer gave my dad an envelope.
"What's this?" asked my dad.
"Your pay," said the farmer. "Do you want to stay another week?"
My dad opened the packet and pulled out ten pounds.
That was a good trick, my dad told me. I never thought that I would be paid for work. A whole new world of paid labor opened unto me. It was like the sun breaking through clouds. This is how you do it. Bloody hell.
"Yes, please," said my dad.
"Good," said the farmer, and then he turned around in the middle of the farmyard. "You're a good worker, George. Don't like talkers. All their energy goes in hot air."
So my dad stayed until the beginning of August. He picked up a girlfriend, Sally Smith, from the farm a mile down the road, and went to pubs where he ended up getting drunk with the local oiks and talking effusively about cars and airplanes--subjects on which he had no knowledge or interest. Sally was a bit of an experiment after Elisabeth. Sally was only sixteen herself and couldn't be expected to take the lead like Elisabeth had. For the most part, it was all quite sweet and innocent, and the occasional, half-repressed fumblings in various barns and bramble ditches around the farm resulted in nothing more than a desperate sense of urgency in Dad's slacks and a faint sense of imperiled virtue in Sally.
I'm not sure I learned much about farming, my dad told me. Some people understand it, some don't. I kept thinking that those bloody cows can bloody well wait until I'm bloody well ready, but the farmer didn't, of course. I didn't learn much, but I got awfully fit. Even Mrs. Ferris was impressed. She tourniqueted my arm every now and again and the week I left, she even complimented me on my progress. She could eviscerate a pig with a flick of her wrist. I think she viewed me the same way: working meat rather than eating meat.
My dad wanted to get to the Yorkshire Moors and his feet started itching again. He had a Plan. Plans were things you could make with a bit of money. He planned to walk to Leicester and buy a train ticket to York, which, he fondly assumed, was in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors, just this side of the Scottish border.
Dad told Mr. Ferris he was going. Mr. Ferris shrugged. He had hoped for extra hands until autumn, but was used to the fickleness of hired labor and made no protest. Dad set off on a Thursday morning in early August in the same clothes that Elisabeth had given him, an old knapsack and a horse blanket that the farmer said he could have. Mr. and Mrs. Ferris waved at him from the kitchen door. He walked to Illston-on-the-Hill in blazing summer heat, the smell of nettles and cow parsley filling the heavy air. He followed windy lanes through King's Norton and Stoughton and made it into Leicester by late afternoon, where he studied the timetable in the station and bought a ticket on the train to York via Doncaster. He then wandered around a closing city, bought some food, and found a flea-pit pub to stay the night in.
Did you tell Sally you were leaving? I asked my dad.
Dad scratched his chin. No, he said, he hadn't.
Did you contact your mum again? I asked.
Not while I was at the Ferris Farm, no, said my dad. It never occurred to me. I did try to make it up to your grandmother afterward, when I was a bit older and could guess what terrors she must have been suffering those months.
I have no basis on which to judge my dad in this. When I was 23 I went around the world for a year and sent a grand total of two postcards back to my parents, one to say I had reached New Zealand and the other six weeks later saying I was leaving Australia. Communication is generally not a family trait. As my mum plaintively said on my return: All you had to do was send a piece of paper with a stamp and my address on it. All I wanted to know was that you were still alive.
Men can be such shits, really.
Dad got on the first train of the morning and watched, fascinated, as the train crossed that indeterminate border between north and south England. The buildings and countryside grew harder and sparer. Between Derby and Sheffield, the bare and severe Pennine foothills of the Peak district came down to the railway track. Towns, even villages, became darker with industry, and people came onto the train speaking in way my dad found difficult to understand. By the time he reached Sheffield he was sure that the north was a different country. When he changed at Doncaster, a grim town if there ever was one, he was so excited by the foreignness of it all that he almost decided to risk missing the connection to explore this weirdly gruesome place.
The countryside opened out and became more mellow as the train drew toward York. More hedges rather than stone walls, broad farms and woodland. This confused my dad a little, as he was expecting ever-increasing wildness. The train pulled into York station, under York's city walls and just within sight of the Minster. Dad was now completely at a loss. York looked so, well, southern. It was also very hot. The sun ricocheted off the city's warm stone and carefully tended flowerbeds as Dad followed Station Road and Museum street across Lendal Bridge and towards the Minster. He then went into a bookshop to look at some local maps and found, to his horror, that the Yorkshire Moors were some twenty miles further north, and that England then went on for another eighty miles after that.
England just seemed to go on forever, my dad told me. It was just so big. And even more shocking, so much of England seemed to be northern. Both my dad and I laughed in a worldly fashion at this. But England did seem awfully big when I was younger. Even Kent, the county I grew up in, seemed enormous until I was ten. But when looked at from Australia or the United States, the country seems so small that you want to laugh at it. Such perspectives only come with time; and seems to me to be one of the minor sadnesses of this modern and universally connected world that everybody is so keen on seeing everything everywhere right now that whatever is under your nose is missed or scorned. A shrinking world has rendered a tiny country like England practically invisible. No sooner has a child wondered at the strangeness of it all, than it has suddenly shrunk under the pressure of immediate explanation and perspective. There is no room for delusions any more, not even harmless little ones.
Dad filled his knapsack with food and then walked out along Clarence Street towards Helmsley. When it started getting dark, near Sutton-on-the-Forest, he turned off the road and settled down under a tree with his horse blanket. The next morning he set off again. Beyond Brandsby, the countryside began to roll, building up to the impressively glowering massif of the moors themselves. Dad got to Helmsley by four and thought about staying in a bed-and-breakfast, but everything was expensive. Helmsley looked strange to my dad, all gray stone and tourists. He saw a picture of the nearby Rievaulx Abbey ruin on a poster in a local shop and marched off to see it before darkness.
Rievaulx Abbey, if you have never seen it, is a severe and remote collection of perpendicular gray ruins in a deep wooded valley called Ryedale. My dad described going down into Ryedale was like diving into a deep cold well of unimaginable ancientness. Dad was entranced and sat in the abbey nave, where the wooded valley walls peered through blasted windows and the evening sun caught clouds as they floated pinkly over the open roof. Tourists came and went, mostly in buses or on foot, but Dad only noticed their absence when they left for the evening, leaving the rushing of water and the swishing of trees. The twilight peace of a northern summer evening settled on the valley. The abbey faded as the stars came out and Dad sighed the deep, happy sigh of a someone who has reached his own blue remembered hills. He settled on a bench and watched the great dipper slowly revolve around the pole star until he drifted off to sleep.
The next day he walked the ten miles or so across Bransdale and up to Cockayne Ridge, where he sat for an hour whilst a warm breeze from the south rustled dried heather. There was nobody there, just sheep. Even the birds were quiet. Just peace. Absolute, unhurried, benevolent peace. In the afternoon, he sauntered down to Farndale, whistling and chewing grass, and camped out in a derelict stone barn. He then walked across the head of Rosedale and Rosedale Moor, across Pikehill Moor and camped out in another barn near Goathland.
You really were nipping across the moors, I said to my dad.
I was in a rather strange state of mind, he replied. I was happy to be there, but I had to think about what to do next, and part of me I had obdurately refused to listen to for two months had already decided. Of course I thought I would live forever and I would always be sixteen, but that doesn't preclude some degree of foresight. I wanted to have a normal life. I didn't really want to end up like Robert and Peter at the Ferris farm, hopeless itinerants if there ever were any. I wanted a guaranteed bath every night and money to visit Yorkshire whenever I wanted. What I was doing just couldn't go on. I was also getting tired of feeling like a fugitive. I didn't know it then, but I had decided to grow up. This is a frightening prospect. The child has to be throttled by the adult he becomes. It's an act of violence I don't think anybody really gets over. I've met people in a permanent state of mourning for the child they killed and people who have dealt with their grief by becoming so cold that even the adult dies within them. The child that I was knew that this was the last time he would be in control, and the adult that I was becoming was girding his loins for battle. I never actually managed to finish off my child completely. Lacked nerve and persistence. Like most men, I suppose.
My dad walked to Whitby and looked over the town from Whitby Abbey. I feel I can hear the child screaming even now, knowing what the adult was about to do. Dad walked very slowly down the hill and found the Police Station. He took a deep breath, walked in and gave himself up.
My dad and I are great friends. Sometimes, on one of the provincial excursions my job involves, I find a country pub new to me, with wisteria hanging over a patio, or a greensward leading down to a river. I check the menu and when Dad comes to visit we go there and waste the whole afternoon, eating plaice with capers, or beef and ale pie, making bad and lewd jokes which we would be to embarrassed to repeat in front of anyone else, and gossiping about family and people we know. Wasting time with people you love, I have discovered, is what life is for, and neither Buddhists nor monetarists will convince me otherwise.
Adam Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a computer programmer who has spent a fair proportion of his 28 years wandering more or less aimlessly across the British Isles and plans to spend his remaining time in the sun doing much the same. He has been a biologist, journalist, unemployed bum, bookie's clerk and unemployed bum again--in that order--and doesn't plan on retiring until his cold dead fingers are pried from the office doorknob.
InterText stories written by Adam Harrington: "How Joe Found a Living" (v8n1), "Heading Out" (v8n5).
In the unlikely event that anyone reading this knows Mr. Harrington Sr., it must be stressed that the plot of this story is complete fiction.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Adam Harrington.