Chapter 19 Old Boys’ Day
At the end of the summer term 1952, the Headmaster of Surbiton County Boys’ Grammar School retired. He had filled that position since the founding of the school and had been my father’s Head as well as mine. We both received embossed invitations to attend a final Assembly at Surbiton on the last day of term, to participate in presentations and other ceremonies at 9.45am for 10 o’clock, followed by a light buffet being arranged by Sixth Formers for the Old Surbitonians’ Association. With good fortune the day corresponded with the first day of the summer vacation of Charterhouse School. My father would take the day off work, going directly from home to Surbiton. I would catch the London bound school special from Charterhouse, changing into a stopping train at Woking. That would give me plenty of time to amble up the hill from Surbiton station, meet my father and go in together to the Assembly.
It all seemed so simple, nothing could go wrong. It did, dreadfully. I would have liked to share it with you in the present tense, but I could not. Even now, I would have preferred this narrative to recount what I feel in the third person, but I cannot let myself off so lightly, I must face it.
It began with another error on my part. I cannot really explain why I failed, especially in the light of the mistake I made the previous term, when I’d changed at Woking into what I thought was a slow train and had sailed past Esher, but alighted at Surbiton and come back on the next train. As a train enthusiast it seems even more incomprehensible, unless I was overconfident and thought I knew the railway workings without making enquiries of the station staff. Suffice to say, through some Freudian slip perhaps, I contrived once more to catch the wrong train from the town where I alighted from the school special and separated myself from my friends.
At first I did not realise anything was wrong. When the train sailed through the initial wayside stations, I did not worry; that I’d expected. The electric train was similar in design and layout to the one I had caught in error last term; if I had needed to catch a steam train, perhaps, I would have spotted my error. No, for sure, I would never have made such a mistake.
The train approached Esher at speed. No problem, I did not expect it to stop; I was too busy at the corridor window trying to get a brief glimpse into Topsy’s terraced house and back garden. I saw her house, nothing more. About a mile from Surbiton I got up again and pulled my case down from the rack, expecting to feel the pull of brakes any second. The driver is leaving the braking very late, I thought. Then the realisation dawned on me as I heard the long blast on the horn, we were not intending to stop. The awful horror and embarrassment of my situation made me go hot and cold, I was still standing in the corridor, case at the ready, as we swept under the station overbridge where I had hidden so often from my tormentors; then the train, still rocking from the pointwork, dived under the graceful roadbridge opposite the school where I should be meeting my father in twenty minutes’ time.
As we sped on towards London, my mind was feverishly recalculating my schedule. With increasing disappointment, I worked out that at best, I would be twenty minutes late for the main ceremony. I would miss my father. I would have to make a late entrance into a crowded hall, where everyone would turn and look at me. I would feel like a new boy when he is late for school for the first time, imagining all sorts of humiliations and punishment.
Sick with frustration at my stupidity, I could think of no way to avoid the obvious or extricate myself from my predicament. I could call it all off, of course, then turn round in London and go straight home on a Portsmouth semi-fast train. Invent some excuse, the school train was late, I would have missed you anyway. But I had been looking forward to the event, I felt that my dad and I would receive a special welcome, and I would forego whatever dad had planned for the rest of the day.
I resolved therefore to do my best; to slip in at a side door if possible without drawing attention to myself. At worst, I could skip Assembly and join the others afterwards at the buffet. Having reconciled myself to this decision, I cheered up and quickly found a train back from the London terminus. I walked the length of the platform, past the eight coach train, the compartments were virtually empty, everyone was travelling in the opposite direction. I walked beyond the unit to the end of the platform and for a few minutes, gazed at a couple of locomotives, both impatiently blowing off steam from their safety valves deafening would-be passengers and scaring toddlers.
Then, in good time, I sauntered back towards the front coach of my train. It was completely empty. The coach had an internal corridor linking each compartment, but there was no through corridor connection to the next coach. I had my pick, selected a corner seat from whence I would have the best vantage point to see any locomotives lined up outside the large engine shed just outside the capital. I took my harris-tweed school jacket off and laid it on the seat beside me. I peered into the oblong mirror above the bank of seats opposite me and smoothed down my hair. Then I sat down, got out a notebook and pencil from my case and waited for the train’s departure.
With about a couple of minutes to go, I heard the corridor door slam. Someone got in and brushed past the sliding door, making a noise which made me look up; but the person had moved back towards the rear of the coach. Then I heard footsteps returning, and in the next moment, the door to my compartment was drawn back and a man entered.
I was annoyed. With a whole empty coach to choose from, why pick my compartment? His presence would inhibit me from dashing from one side of the compartment to the other in order to try to carry out my trainspotting. I turned and glared at him; at least, I think I did. Of course, I can’t imagine how the look came out, how it was interpreted.
The man closed the compartment door behind him and sat down on the edge of the seat in the corner opposite me. He was a young man, in his late twenties perhaps, sparse mousy hair despite his age, thin nose, piercing blue eyes. He was licking his lips, nervously I thought. He seemed out of breath, as though he had been running for the train. He had a navy holdall with him which he put on the seat beside him. At that moment the train jerked into movement. The man got up and went down the corridor, I assumed he was going to the toilet, but he came straight back again and closed the door with a slam. He sat down again and gave me a weak smile.
‘Oh no,’ I thought to myself, as the train lurched over the pointwork at the throat of the station, ‘he’s going to talk to me. I shan’t be able to concentrate on the trains’.
Sure enough, he cleared his throat, cast his eyes down at my knees and gabbled in a reedy voice that I could only just hear:
“How far are you going?”
I told him. The first stop, twenty minutes away.
He looked pointedly at my case. “Where had I come from? Did I like being at boarding school? How old was I?”
I answered all his questions, politely. I wasn’t worried, just annoyed; we would be passing the engine sheds shortly, I couldn’t see them properly as he was blocking the view.
Then he began a line of questions that puzzled me. He wanted to know what we got up to in our dormitories at night. What did he mean? Talking or what? No, did we get in bed with each other, you know? No, I didn’t know. I was an innocent at fourteen years of age. I hadn’t the remotest idea of what he was talking about.
“You’ve never done it with another boy?” the man then said with incredulity. I shook my head miserably, embarrassed as much for my naivety as for where I thought he might be leading.
“Let me show you.”
I could have refused. Or at least tried to resist. But my senses petrified, I didn’t say yes or no. I was still trying to come to terms with his offer when he got up and sat down right next to me. He put his hand on my knee, then ran it into my crotch, probing. I froze, I wanted to struggle, scream. Nothing came. He began to unbutton my trousers and put his hand inside. For a few moments he wrestled with my clothing.
Eventually I found my voice.
“I’d rather not,” I said, still attempting a veneer of politeness, “I want to watch out for trains.”
He stopped what he was doing for a couple of seconds and thrust his hand into his own pocket.
“Do you want to do it to me?” he inquired, his face only inches from mine. “Come on, I’ll let you touch me. Put your hand here.”
I wouldn’t do it. I felt sick. I told him. He lifted the strap holding the window from its knob and lowered it a notch, so that some air came rushing in.
“Stand up, you’ll feel better, you’ll be able to watch the trains, and I can get at you better.”
As I stood, meekly obeying his command, my trousers slid to my ankles. He encircled my buttocks and slipped his hand into my underpants until he held me in his grasp.
Even in hindsight I cannot go farther. He tried, pathetically, to arouse me. We got nowhere. I felt disgusted, revolted by the whole process. All I could think of was that someone from a passing train might see my lack of clothing. The more I felt embarrassed, humiliated, the more vigorously he tried to rouse me from my impotence. It was a total fiasco.
Suddenly I realised we were passing through the station before Surbiton where I wanted to alight.
“I’ve got to get out now.” I said matter-of-factly.
The man withdrew his hand from my clothing like a startled rabbit and began furiously to stuff his own shirt back into his dishevelled clothing. I hauled my trousers up without bothering to adjust my pants. We were only just ready when the train drew to a halt at the crowded platform. The man leapt to his feet, picked up his holdall and rushed out of the door in one sweeping movement. Even as I staggered to the open door, nearly forgetting my case, I did not really grasp why his exit had been so panicky. I saw him, already half-way down the platform, running between clusters of waiting passengers, then disappearing from my view.
I lugged my case to a bench on the platform and tried to make myself comfortable without anyone seeing me. I ached and felt sore. My mouth was dry and all my clothing was twisted and rucked. I was trembling violently and had to sit down quickly and put my head between my knees. I sensed a porter looking at me curiously, so I made myself sit up and pretend to sort through the contents of my case. He lost interest and carried on closing doors on the train, giving the signal to the guard for departure.
Still I did not realise what had happened to me. It did not occur to me to seek out a station official to complain. What if? I couldn’t put a name to it. The whole episode was too bizarre, had been over so quickly, was so numbing.
I shut myself in the station toilet and redressed properly. That felt better. Then, back on the platform, I watched one of the trains I had observed in London come pounding down the track, whistle screaming, clouds of thick white smoke catching the sun’s rays. I shrugged my shoulders and began to trudge up to the school. I forced myself to address the next problem; how I could slip into the Assembly without being noticed.
Funnily enough, I can remember very little of the ceremony. I think I was spotted by one of the prefects who beckoned me in and I stood beside him against the wall, looking across a phalanx of schoolboys at the platform. I think the Headmaster was making his speech of response, but I cannot be sure. I remember vaguely chatting with Mr Harris-Ide at the reception afterwards, being asked to write an article about my experiences of my first year at Charterhouse for the Surbitonians’ School magazine. I know I did, I recently found the Christmas 1952 edition with my trite script duly published.
Of the rest of the day with my father, I remember nothing. To be honest, I cannot recollect meeting up with him. I presume we did meet, that is what we had arranged.
I do remember that night. As I huddled beneath the flimsy sheet in the heat of the late evening, my limbs ached and not just with soreness. I could not help myself. A morbid fascination throbbed through me, I could not resist a curiosity that half of me cringed from in revulsion. But I had to know. Poison had entered the system. The union between sex and guilt had been reinforced.