Chapter 9 First Love
It was getting bitter again. September, the month of rotting fruit carpeting the orchard undergrowth - with the attendant heavy morbid butterflies - had merged into a welcome October, except that meant school and first frosts. The pounding run to the station brought rasping coughs from my chest; my breath spurted in clouds of condensation; my ears and nose tips grew raw and tingling cold. I wore my thick vest and a pullover under my blazer which made me feel awkward and slow-moving like an old man. November and December brought rain and then a flurry of early snow; school was wet mackintoshes and Wellington boots dripping by the lukewarm cream-painted radiators.
Christmas caused a change of mood. Blazing fires, crowded family parties, too much to eat and no necessity to venture out of doors for several days at a stretch, enabled me to relax. I even took off my ever-buttoned blazer. I did not bother to pull up my grey knee-length socks every couple of minutes. I felt secure.
The invitation came out of the blue. In the post, one day, in the middle of all the Christmas cards, was an envelope addressed to me. It could have been just another card; I thought it was and glanced at it with only mild interest. Indeed, when I slipped the brightly coloured invitation out of its disguise, I didn’t recognise what it was. My mother, glancing over my shoulder, remarks:
“That’s nice, David; who’s it from?”
I start in surprise, then look more closely at the spidery inscription.
“Robert. Robert Miller from school. He’s invited me to his Christmas party. But it’s the same day as the church social. I can’t go.” I almost say the last remark with relief.
“Nonsense, of course you can go. You’ll be much better off with your schoolfriends.”
“I like the New Year’s Social. There are lots of good games.”
“I know you do, David, but there are plenty of other chances to join in at the chapel. Spend some time with your new friends. Get to know them better. They’re your age; you don’t want to spend all your time with grown-ups.”
My mother apparently tells dad about my invitation that evening as I am on my way to bed. “It’ll do him good,” I overhear, “it’s the first time he’s been invited to join in anything social at the grammar school. It worries me that he seeks to avoid contact with boys of his own age.” So that’s what they think. I stop and listen outside the door. My dad agrees. I hear him say he’s been concerned for months at my solitariness and my preference for the company of adults. I’d missed the male influence during the war years, of that he has no doubt. Surrounded by mother, sister, grandmothers, spinster aunts, the boy’s confidence is being undermined. “You’re all too worried about his vulnerability,” I hear him say, “you encourage him to play it safe all the time. Don’t let him wriggle out of this opportunity. Just assume he’s going to his friend’s party; don’t ever let him think he has a choice.”
And so, too passive to challenge my parents’ opinions and unwilling to risk a scene or let on that I’ve overheard their conversation, I am committed to the unfamiliar. Part of me is, of course, pleased and excited. Am I being accepted at last? Who will be there - will it just be Robert and our mutual friend Cedric Uttley, or will I find a whole host of my classmates who will find opportunities to jeer and torment me?
The day of the party arrives surreptitiously in the wake of other festivities. I’m despatched, full of nerves, in my Sunday best and clutching a parcel, to the bus stop and put on the red single-decker which meanders through suburban avenues to the prosperous estate of pre-war mock Tudor detached homes where Dr Miller, a general practitioner, both lives and holds his surgery. I gulp twice, hesitate one last time, then ring the bell which chimes echoing through the hallway.
“Hello, come in, you must be David. Take your coat off, we’ll put it in the cloakroom here. Let me hold your parcel a minute.”
I’m swept inside, enveloped by Robert’s mother - I presume - who exudes jollity and decisiveness in overflowing abundance. A girl, a year of so younger than me, peers from a doorway at the end of the hall and disappears quickly. I hear her voice calling to someone,
“It’s one of yours!”
I look quizzically at Robert’s mother.
“That’s Robert’s sister, my daughter, Jane. Didn’t he tell you that she was having a few friends over as well?”
I shake my head.
“Oh, my son,” she wails in mock desperation, her eyes still twinkling, “he obviously doesn’t tell you any more than he tells us. You boys are all the same, we just have to guess what is happening! Come on in and meet the others.”
The door is opened wide and I’m propelled into the coloured chaos, candles, Christmas chains, wrapping paper and tinsel, a vast tree that takes up a whole corner of the room. Robert’s father is poised, ensconced in a paper hat, on tiptoe tacking back a streamer. There are bodies everywhere, darting around like playful kittens, falling over each other, snatching pieces of paper, laughing, giggling.
“Come over here and hold this end for me, David,” calls out the doctor. “We’ll introduce you to the others when they’ve finished this game.”
I hold the streamer I’m handed and slowly sort out the scene before me. Robert and Cedric are there and another younger boy I don’t know. There are a similar number of girls; I presume Jane and her friends. Robert had not told me that there would be any girls. However, I am relieved on another score. None of my other classmates apart from my two best friends are present.
“This is Gordon, he lives next door. That’s Jane, Robert’s sister; Susanna, Annette, Topsy. Don’t ask me why she’s called ‘Topsy’; she’s been called that ever since we’ve known her!” Dr Miller indicates the girl perched on the end of a sofa who is grinning broadly from ear to ear.
It’s hot in the crowded room. Very soon my face is glowing red.
“Give me your jacket, David, you must be cooking in there.” Mrs Miller reaches out and practically strips it from my shoulders. They are playing ‘murder in the dark’. The house is plunged into a world of flickering shadows and obstacles, stifling silences and raucous giggles, shrill screams as a murder is anticipated or Robert takes advantage of the darkness to tease his sister. I use the obscurity to merge into the furniture, to feel at home, to gradually be enticed into their world of magic. At first I’m confused, but when I get the gist of the game, I join in with vigour and some skill; and finish by wishing that I can be caught. If I’m not to be the victim, perhaps I can be the murderer. At length my moment of glory comes; I am the detective. The scream pierces the darkened house. I dash to the light and throw the switch, then rush into the hall. Suppressed voices and footsteps assail my ears; shadows pulsate, disappear.
“Stop where you are, you’re not meant to be moving!” More stifled squeals and a sneeze. I skip up the stairs and note children frozen, statue-like, in poses of impossible contortion. At the gaping doorway of the bathroom lies Jane, her long blond hair dishevelled across her stricken face. Her legs are twisted awkwardly, displaying too much thigh, she attempts to suppress her shaking laughter but gives up and staggers to her feet before I can tell her not to move.
Downstairs I begin my cross-examination of the witnesses. A few brief questions, then I get to Topsy. She sits saucily on the arm of the sofa, her legs waving jauntily as she fixes me with her ready grin and answers all my questions in the negative. I’m sure she is covering up and I keep questioning her relentlessly, convinced she is the guilty party. The more I persevere in challenging her, the more vehement become her good-natured denials. She seems to be leading me on to make a commitment.
I stare at the girl, squirming on her perch.
“I accuse you, Topsy, of being the murderer.”
The girl throws her head back, gleefully tosses her hair and extending her thin arms as if to repel me, chortles:
“I misled you that time, didn’t I? No, it wasn’t me, really it wasn’t!” she adds emphatically as I look at her in some disbelief.
“It was me”, bursts out Robert, “couldn’t you guess? I thought I was too obvious. It’s a good job Topsy conned you; you really were tricked by her, weren’t you!”
After the party tea, we squash onto the sofa to watch children’s TV. It’s a novelty for me; Robert is the only boy I know whose parents have a set. Robert’s mother makes us boys sit and then drapes the girls decoratively on the armrests or in the tiny spaces between the boys. There is a lot of pushing and fidgeting.
“Settle down, you lot. Boys, don’t be so silly. Let the girls sit down. Here, Susanna, sit on Robert’s knees. And Topsy, you sit here on David.”
I hear Robert’s protest and I was going to add my voice when Dr Miller douses the lights and switches the television on. I try to make myself more comfortable, so that I can see the screen; Topsy is in my way, but she’s already so absorbed that she’s oblivious of my further movements.
For a while I stare at the black and white images, but I begin to grow bored with that. The girl on my lap shifts her leg, then becomes lost in the TV image again. I begin to feel peculiar, a strange sensation as she moves on my lap, I’m very aware of this person so close to me, yet so far away. Her brown bobbed hair brushes inches from my nose, the odd flying strand tickles my cheek. I am acutely aware of her bare legs pressing on my thighs until I am aching with her weight. I want to shift under her, yet for some reason I do not want to break the spell, I hold my breath and sit, uncomfortable, as still as a statue, lest I disturb her. I stare at the profile of her face, barely a foot from mine. I can see her turned-up little nose silhouetted against the light from the Christmas tree candles, her high cheek bones. Her face is flushed with excitement, perhaps she is just hot. And her eyes flash with reflections from the screen. I want to touch her brown arms. I can see the tiny hairs glinting in the dull light; she looks so frail, I am afraid to brush against her.
I bring up my hand to push the hair from my eyes and flick briefly against the girl’s shoulder blades which are separated from my touch only by her flimsy party dress. She reacts as if she’s had an electric shock, jerking her body away from my proximity. At first I think she reacted deliberately, in antipathy to my action; then I see she’s still absorbed in the programme, her withdrawal had been instinctive, as if sweeping an insect from her skin. I hold my breath and scarcely dare to move. When, eventually the programme finishes, and Topsy hops off my lap without a second thought, I am left awkward and stiff and my legs have ‘pins and needles’.
“Who wants to play ‘Postman’s Knock’?” Robert’s father advances on us with the air of a conspirator and produces a beaker and dice from behind his back. The others become highly excited, even silly, in their gambolling; I am puzzled.
“What’s that? How do you play?”
“Don’t you know?” mouths Jane, eyes wide in mirth and derision, “haven’t you ever played it? Dad, tell him how to play it!”
“Do the rest of you know? Yes, I see you do! It’s easy, David. All you have to do is select a folded piece of paper from this beaker here and roll the dice. There is a number written on the paper - that denotes the girl you choose. The dice indicates how many kisses you give her.”
I blush a beetroot red. I am both excited and appalled. In front of the other boys, kiss a girl, it is impossible to contemplate. I am flabbergasted that Robert’s parents would condone such a game; I can’t conceive that my parents would ever do so. But the others are jumping up and down, eager to be at it, they do not seem to have any such qualms. Then silliness reaches extravagant heights, to the point of hysteria.
Robert is rolling the dice and goes into the hall with Topsy. The others whisper among themselves with hilarity; I feel a pang of hurt. I don’t recognise yet the pain of jealousy. When they return a couple of minutes later, Topsy is pink, and Robert is smirking from ear to ear. I want to hit him. Then I realise that Topsy is now making her selection, so I hold my breath willing it to be me; but I’m disappointed. Gordon traipses out after her looking blasé beyond his eleven years.
It is as if the genie of the game has sensed my reluctance or fear of joining in and is conspiring to protect me from embarrassment. Time and again I’m excluded; I watch the others trooping in and out, while I look on with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Then, at last, my number is drawn; the dice rolls; one. Suzanne grabs my hand and pulls me out behind the door, her eyes rolling to the heavens for the benefit of her friends who are teasing her. I stand awkwardly before her, then shut my eyes and make a lunge, but she ducks out of my reach and squeals and runs back through the door with me lumbering after her.
“Here, David, take a number.”
I wish I knew which is the number 8. I choose the most well-worn scrap of paper and am disappointed. Number 6. Jane. I roll the dice; two kisses. My first kiss. It should be romantic, remembered for ever. It is very matter of fact. Jane takes command.
“Stand here. Shut your eyes, don’t look.”
And she pecks me twice on the cheek.
“There.” It is almost as though she is going to add, ‘it didn’t hurt, did it’!
And that is that.
Every time a girl’s hand goes in the cup, my heart pounds, my mouth goes dry. But I’m never chosen. Do they know which slip is mine - the uncreased largest piece of paper perhaps? Are they avoiding me on purpose? And to rub it in, Topsy is in the thick of the action; is she enjoying it so much? Is she avoiding me? Did I offend her when she sat on my knee?
“Last time,” booms Dr Miller, as his daughter slips her arm around his waist.
“No, daddy, let’s go on some more.”
“Last time, I said - look at my watch, girl. It’s time for the others to go home, their parents will be worried.”
“Come on Topsy, it’s your choice.”
“Number 7, that’s you, David; and you’ve six kisses. That’ll make up for you not having so many turns.”
I’m in turmoil. Now that my longing of the last half hour has born fruit, I am petrified. When the door is closed behind me and I’m alone with her, I stand transfixed, staring at her until her image becomes imprinted on my mind for all time. Her brown bobbed hair, retroussé nose and high cheek bones I’ve already mentioned. Her golden grin which stretches from ear to ear. Her huge brown eyes which bore into mine, her smooth brown arms and legs, the delicate white dress with red polka dots all over it - I will never forget. I swallow hard and try to speak but I only croak.
Topsy is giggling with gusto. She comes up to me and puts her mouth to my ear, so that I can feel her breath down my neck.
“Let’s fool them,” she whispers hoarsely, “let’s stay out here for a while and make them think we’re doing it properly. Count to twenty slowly, do you think that’s long enough?”
I want to say, why can’t we do it properly? Why do we have to pretend? I want to ask her if she’s played the same farce with all the others, or is it only me she will not kiss? But I dare not risk such questions; I remain mute while every nerve within me begs me to open up.
“Right, that’s long enough. Pretend we’ve done it. Make them jealous of us.” So saying, she seizes me by the wrist and drags me back into the room of giggling children.
“Look at David,” calls out Cedric in amusement, “he’s bright red.” He nudges me. “I didn’t know you had it in you!” I look up in my embarrassment and catch Topsy’s eye. She winks at me and puts a finger to her lips. Is she mocking me or is there something else in her look? I’m confused and look away before the others can catch me out.
“Enough,” says Dr Miller, putting the implements of the game away.
Later that night I lie awake in bed, thoughts rampaging through my head. I’ve said little to my parents. Of course, they’d asked me how I got on. I had muttered grudgingly, ‘alright, I suppose’ and volunteered no more. I hadn’t even told them that there had been girls at the party. On the contrary, I think, I must not tell anyone that. They would laugh at me.
I let my mind wander to the image of Topsy I have retained printed on my retina. My thighs tingle with remembrance of her touch, I shut my eyes and pretend it is she who kissed me, not Robert’s sister. In my mind, I say all the things I had wanted to, but had not dared to utter. She throws herself into my arms and lets me kiss her on the lips. I try in vain to salvage this and fail. What is it like, a real kiss? What would have happened? Would she have been shocked? Would she have shouted, screamed at me? Everything aches, my body feels so hot and tingly. I am still thinking of her when I drift into sleep.
In the morning I find I have forgotten to close my curtains properly. And I can’t even remember taking off my shoes.
It is a week later in the school playground on the first day of the winter term. I’m half joining in, kicking a tennis ball around, when I see several of my classmates in a huddle. Cedric, my best friend, is in the middle. Suddenly a shrill voice rings out in the playground: “Maidment is in love!” It is repeated as a chant, the word ‘love’ being elongated into two syllables. Then there are two chorus lines shouting out the refrains in antiphony:
“Maidment is in love”
“Maidment loves Topsy”
“Maidment is in love”
“Maidment loves Topsy”
I freeze and feel the colour rushing to my cheeks. How could they know, I have said nothing. Surely Robert and Cedric have not sensed my feelings? They are guessing, they are teasing me knowing I would be embarrassed. Perhaps they think I really had kissed Topsy on that last turn; perhaps it was all a plot, they had put her up to it, just so I could be discomforted.
As I flounder in confusion, more join the group of chanting schoolboys, picking up the refrain. I feel faint and dizzy, I don’t know where to hide from them. Suddenly I summon my strength and flee from their ranks pushing them aside in a headlong rush. I run straight out of the playground although it is forbidden except in the lunchbreak, hearing the chant and ribald laughter ringing in my ears.
No-one has followed me. I have run to the piece of waste land above the railway cutting, and lean against the concrete post of the wire fence, breathing heavily and feeling sick. Then I hear the pounding rhythm, and alone and safe at last, I watch ‘Sir Bedivere’, one of my favourites, thunder beneath the bridge and feel better.