24 July 2016

Ah, the first week of the glorious holidays, and we are off on our travels. First stop, Essex. This was our third visit to the, dare I say it, iconic Beth Chatto Garden. Click the Read More for...

brown and blackRichard Brown

November 1971

Life had to go on, however, and sometimes it took unexpected turns. My brush with the Miller crew had given me much to ponder. Without doubt, Miller and Potts were the nastiest of their little bunch; almost any junior fifth former would confirm that view. If you took away sport they would have far less in common with Henderson and Brown, but it was football, rugby and cricket that united them. To my mind, sport itself wasn’t the problem. Griff was in the football and rugby first teams and Olivia played hockey for the school. Both of them took their sport seriously, and both were in the Black Cat Gang – enough said. There’s good in everyone, Grandad used to say whenever he got the chance. People can change, so never write anyone off as a hopeless case, was his philosophy.

It was Saturday afternoon, and of all the places the Black Cat Gang could gather, the gymnasium would seem the least likely. Gyms meant sport, gymnastics, and dance. Nevertheless, here we were, a mixture of the sporty and the unsporty, using the gym voluntarily and with the full approval of ‘the authorities’. Gym and dance I didn’t mind, but sport, well, that was something else. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hated sport because that would imply that it mattered. So, more accurately, I am indifferent to sport. I have no interest in it whatsoever. A younger version of me did try quite hard to show some enthusiasm for football and cricket, purely to serve the practical end of fitting into a sport-mad family and a sport-mad world, and fitting in matters. I have never been one of those children who seem able to blend in with little apparent effort: instantly popular and without any need to try, they never look shy or awkward whatever the situation. They have a natural grace and always seem completely at home in their own bodies. Life just seems to flow through them, unhindered. They can catch and throw a ball with ease. They pick up dance steps in a flash and remember them forever. And, usually, they are sporty.

I, on the other hand, realised at an early age that my squareness was never going to fit well into life’s round hole. Unlike my brother, who could vault a five-bar gate at age seven and shuffle cards like the sheriff in Gunsmoke, I couldn’t catch for toffee; during playground games, nobody ever passed the ball to me, ever. And I couldn’t name you a single member of the England cricket team. David, of course, could reel off the whole lot and tell you for which county side they currently played.

Well, who cares, for God’s sake? I leave him to it now. In the summer holidays, he and Dad go off to watch county matches while Mum and I mind the farm. I get to do the afternoon milking more or less by myself, and I help get the dinner ready. I sometimes think that if I don’t get to be an astronaut then I wouldn’t mind being a cook. Every workday spent in a nice warm kitchen, chopping up carrots and onions, making custard and checking that the roast isn’t burning had an undeniable appeal.

We had nearly four hours until dinner. Anna and Pam had changed into their white tutus while, as a token gesture, JJ and I had removed our blazers and ties. After lunch, Olivia had gone back to her room and donned jeans and a T-shirt. Only Hobbo remained in full school uniform, absorbed in sorting out the stack of LPs and warming up the record player.

JJ and I sat on a bench well out of the way and watched as Anna and Pam went through their warm-up routine. So, I wasn’t sporty and didn’t want to be, not these days anyway. Physical competition normally makes me cringe. Seeing those boys out on the games field every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, taking it all so seriously. Girls, too. How could they be so openly needy? How could they be so simple and straightforward about what they wanted? How could they be so elated at winning a game and so miserable when they lost? Yet Brown and his crew lived for sport. Deflate their ball and you deflated them. Their lives appeared so straightforward, so simple, so lacking irony. You train, you play. You win, you lose. In truth, I envied them and their animal simplicity. I knew that I was excluded from that world, probably forever, and that I was the poorer for it. I wanted to know what it was like; I wanted to know what I was missing.

So, was Anna sporty? I think the best answer is that she could have been. She certainly had the natural ease and grace typical of sporty types. I never tired of watching her dance. She always encouraged all of us to join in when we went to watch her rehearsing for some production or other; I even did, sometimes.

Pam was easily closest to her in ability and it was awesome to watch the two of them dancing together, matching and mirroring steps and gestures. Usually, Hobbo operated the record player and kept the music coming while Olivia, who was even more galumphing than I was, played coach and chief supporter. Ability wise, JJ and I were about on a par, although he was always the one more willing to join in and try out some of the steps. I was more likely therefore to join in with Anna and Pam if JJ wasn’t there, when I would allow myself to be dragged with ceremonial reluctance on to the dance floor.

On Olivia’s signal, Hobbo would drop the needle on to the record, and off we’d go. I could easily match the other two for stamina – I had years of farm work to thank for that – but for speed and fleetness they could make me look about ninety years old. After a minute or so I had usually lost the thread of the dance, and then I would pogo and spin around them, simply enjoying the feeling of movement and of being a part of it all.

After the dance session had come to an end, and the music had died, we’d slump panting and perspiring on to a bench and towel off the sweat, while Hobbo packed up the records and Olivia jabbered nineteen to the dozen about stretching this or pointing that. It felt fine, in fact, more than fine, to be there in that moment, with these friends, in that place, at that time, to have your whole body tingling so much with gratitude that for once you didn’t need to think about anything. Everything anyone could possibly want was right here, and right now, and if you died at that moment, it would be a happy death.

It was after this particular dance session that the subject of Richard Brown entered our collective consciousness, and it was Pam who begun it.

“Sam, you know Brown a bit don’t you? What do you think of him?” Pam said out of thin air.

This surprised me, as I hadn’t heard her mention him before now. “Let’s see,” I began. “He’s a git, and a sporty git at that.”

“Worst kind,” Hobbo chipped in absently, as he polished a Beatles EP before slipping it back into its sleeve.

“His parents are richer than a sticky toffee butternut pudding with whipped cream on top,” I continued.

“Balanced on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow,” Hobbo added.

“Shut up, Hobbo,” Pam said a touch desperately. “I already know that stuff. It’s all public knowledge.”

“Did you know his mother owns the Nissen Hut restaurant chain?” I said. “She used to work in the kitchens here, believe it or not. It’s probably where she got her idea for a back-to-basics menu, based on old British Army recipes.”

“Like boiled beef and carrots, suet puddings and so on,” Olivia said.

“That’s it exactly,” I replied. “It’s filling stuff and cheap. And it’s made her a fortune.” Anna hadn’t joined in but I noticed that she was listening carefully.

“I think Pam wants to know about ‘the real Brown, the Brown nobody knows’,” Hobbo wheezed with a chuckle, as he landed with a thump on the bench beside us. Pam picked up a Led Zeppelin album from the pile and hit him over the head.

Hobbo took not the slightest notice and continued in mock Alan Whicker documentary style. “Here, at St Mungo's, the famous school for gifted children and sporting idiots, we have come to interview Mr Richard Brown, sporting hero and rich twit.” At every pause in his monologue, Hobbo received yet another blow from Led Zeppelin and a shriek of laughter from Olivia. “Today, we are here to discover the unknown side of the caring, sharing Brown, who frequently rescues babies from house fires and gives unstintingly to worthy causes, who risks his life daily as a member of the Dungheap-on-Sea lifeboat crew, and who’s recently donated his brain to charity.”

On the twentieth blow, I grabbed Pam’s wrist. “That’s my record you’re destroying. Stop it, for goodness sake, and I’ll tell you what little I know. Why the sudden interest, Pam?”

“She fancies him, obviously,” Olivia said. Pam wrinkled her nose at Olivia but didn’t say anything. Her feet tapped alternately on the wooden floor.

“Rumour has it, you help Brown with his maths prep,” Hobbo said to me, and added, using his mock-incredulous upper class voice, “for money!” Pam stared at me.

“Oh, that old chestnut. I did help him once with a geometry proof, but only in return for a paint set he’d been sent from home and didn’t want.” I could tell Hobbo knew that this wasn’t the entire truth, but he decided not to cross-examine me on the matter.

“Well, I’ve seen you two talking together at the same table in the library more than once, so you must have some idea what he’s like,” Pam said almost pleadingly.

I thought about Brown. “All right on his own, is how I’d sum him up. Not hugely bright, probably not hugely happy either. I get the impression his folks are expecting great things on the academic front. A lot of pressure there, poor sod. You want to meet him. Ah, but you don’t share any classes, do you?”

“He does football training when we do hockey, doesn’t he?” Anna spoke up at last.

“Ah, so that’s where you’ve seen him,” I said. “He’s in his glory there, of course, captain of the Junior First Team.”

Hobbo leaned forward. “Apparently, Blenkie says he’s the best junior player he’s ever seen, and that’s high praise indeed. Did you know Blenkie ref’d five Internationals in the fifties? He was in the Manchester City reserves before that – goalie. He was fearless, they say, but broke his neck during a game and never fully recovered his nerve. Became a referee instead and worked his way up to the top level, then ended up here when he got too old for it. So he’s seen a quite few good players in his time.”

Pam whistled. “Wow. Brown’s that good.”

I must have looked surprised, because JJ added, “And I bet he doesn’t even know. What do you reckon, Sam?”

I thought for a moment. “No, I don’t think he does. Either that or he’s unduly modest.”

“Brown? Modest?” Hobbo scoffed.

JJ and I looked at each other. “Exactly!” we said together, and high-fived. JJ looked pleased at his discovery. I knew he would hoard it like treasure until he could use it to his advantage. JJ might have the face of a cherub but I’d seen him transform into a spitting demon when cornered. I guessed that years of casual teasing had armoured him more than adequately to fend off an attack from Brown and co. I turned to Pam for a reaction but she tugged gently on my shirt and eyed the door.

“Let’s go for a walk down to the lake,” she suggested.

It was a cool afternoon and I was glad I had brought my duffel coat. We sat by the overflow and dangled our legs over the edge. The recent rain had fattened the waterfall into a decent cascade and I threw sticks into the brown water and watched them as they disappeared over the brink into the foam below.

“So how did you become Brown’s unofficial tutor?” Pam began. ”I’m assuming the rumour is true?”

I threw my last stick into the lake and rested my arms and chin on the rail in front of us. “Well, I was in the library one Monday afternoon, waiting to meet up with Hobbo and JJ before going off to Crow Wood.”

The scene began to play back in my mind’s eye. I remembered I’d taken my shoes off and had curled up in an armchair with a book of poetry when Brown appeared in front of me.

“Ted Hughes, who’s he?” Brown said. His voice contained no menace; it was more like a strained attempt at civility.

“Well, he’s not a striker for Liverpool,” I remarked acidly. “What do you want, Brown?”

He threw down his briefcase, slumped into the chair opposite and fidgeted around for a moment or two, looking distinctly ill at ease. His tie hung loose and his shirt gaped open at the neck; one shoelace was untied. “Your bag,” he said finally. “That wasn’t me.”

I closed my book and sat up. “No?”

“No. I… look, I want to ask you something, OK? It’s…”

Brown writhed uncomfortably. It was painful to watch, and eventually I said, “For God’s sake, just spit it out, will you?”

“I want you to help me with maths,” he blurted. “Maths prep, you know.” He sunk even further into the chair, if that were possible and waited, his eyes darting left and right like a felon with a price on his head.

“What, you want my answers?” I said, trying to keep contempt out of my voice.

“No, no! Not that. I want to get the answers for myself, but I need help. Look.” Brown rummaged in his bag and brought out a navy blue paint set. “I’ll give you this. It’s good quality.” Indeed, it was – a Rowney. I knew somebody who would like that very much, so I said, “OK, I’ll help, but when and where?”

To see the relief on Brown’s face was so gratifying that I would gladly have tutored him for that alone. Almost immediately, the haunted look began to drain away, to be replaced by a much more hopeful persona, and he sat up straight. “How about we meet after sports practice on Wednesday? You’re still doing mixed hockey, aren’t you? Supposing I meet you at the bottom of the main staircase. We could come in here, if it’s not too busy.”

“You don’t want to meet in the locker room, then?” I couldn’t resist that small barb, and Brown had understood what I meant. He picked up his case and departed looking just a little shamefaced.

On Wednesday afternoon, he was waiting at the foot of the main staircase, hair sticking up in all directions and spatters of mud visible on his face and neck. Clearly, he hadn’t bothered to shower after the game. “Where are your books?” I asked. The only bag in sight was the sports grip lying at his feet.

“Let’s go,” he said quickly, giving a long look in both directions, then turning and heading up the stairs. I followed and wondered, as we headed for the junior library, what his friends might think if they spotted us. Come to that, what would my friends think?

The library was busy and Brown turned immediately at the door and pushed past me as if we weren’t together. “Let’s go up to the observatory,” he said over his shoulder. “We can sit on the steps.” The observatory was out of bounds to juniors, so this was slightly risky, although Hobbo and I had been up there dozens of times and never been caught. You only got to use the observatory in senior school and although the door was always locked, I knew the room to contain a ten-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope with a motor-driven mounting. I was slightly surprised Brown even knew where it was, but unhesitatingly he led the way up to the roof.

“How come you know about this place, a secret interest in the stars is it?” I said with mild sarcasm as we reached the top landing.

“Hardly,” Brown replied. “It’s one of Potts and Miller’s favourite haunts, though.” His remark caught me completely off-guard. It took me a second to recover control of my face and I could see Brown was enjoying my look of total puzzlement. After a few moments, he added, quite patronisingly, “No, they aren’t interested in astronomy either. However, if you look out of that window over there you’ll discover that you can enjoy a great view down into the senior girls’ bedrooms. That wouldn’t interest you, I don’t suppose, but it certainly does interest them. Make sense now? So, let’s get busy, now we’re here.”

I shuddered at the thought of those two standing there, craning their necks, smirking and nudging one another, and made a mental note to pass the information on to Mr Gentle when I next saw him. Now it was time to do what we’d come here to do. I was confident no teachers had seen us and so we settled on the steps of the telescope room. Brown got out his maths jotter and brushed some dried mud off the cover. He glanced at me, then smiled weakly and reached back into his sports bag. “This what you want?” he said, handing me an oblong navy-blue tin box, which I knew contained a good-quality set of watercolour paints and two sable brushes. “What do you paint?”

“Oh, landscapes, mostly.” I took the paints and slipped them into my blazer pocket. “Actually, they’re for a friend.”

Brown looked puzzled. “Then, why are you doing this? I don’t get it.” In an instant, his puzzlement changed to annoyance, and he leaned forward and scowled. “Oh, now I do. You’re going to start asking me for money as well, aren’t you? Well, aren’t you?”

I guessed that finding extra money wasn’t going to be easy, even for him, this early in the school year. Asking home for money now was bound to raise suspicion. It was my turn to look discomfited. To be honest, I hadn’t ever considered the idea that this was anything other than a one-off transaction. I think Brown must have guessed my thoughts.

“Look, Sam, I will almost certainly be doing maths with Year Five next year, unless I can impress Mrs McQueen and show her that I’m coping. You can’t imagine how my father will take the news if I’m held back. I guess you’re my last hope.” His pinched and careworn face laid bare his desperation. I would have felt sorrier for him if I hadn’t witnessed the way he and his cronies regularly baited Hobbo and JJ.

I shrugged. “There’s five weeks until the test. Are you saying you want to do this on a regular basis? If so, I don’t think a tin of paints is going to cover it, do you?”

 He hesitated briefly and then nodded reluctantly. “I…I need to understand this, OK?” Brown knew that I would already have finished this assignment. He showed me the question sheet. There were three questions; one was about ratio and proportion, one was a logic problem to do with clowns and the colours of their noses and the shape of their hats. It looked daunting until you had a strategy to solve it, then it was easy. The third problem was about series of numbers. Again, it looked impossible, unless you could find a rule that governed the series. “I don’t just want the answers. I want to know how to find them.”

We sat quietly for a while, Brown watching as I began to set out the answers to the maths problems in his rough book. Then I explained to him, as well as I could, how I’d solved these problems. He listened intently and nodded frequently. At several points, he held up a hand and asked a question, and I attempted to clarify what I had thus far explained, even drawing diagrams if that helped. At the end, Brown leaned back and smiled thinly. “You know, Sam, I do think I actually understand it a bit more now. Thanks.”

Brown hardly needed to thank me, because I had quite enjoyed the whole encounter, although I was careful not to show it. I just said, “That’s good, and if you want to do this again, I’ll think about it. I don’t want paying, by the way. How about you ask your friends to lay off Hobbo and JJ. That would be payment enough.”

Brown gave a small giggle. “That would give Potts a laugh, Miller too.” He put his books away. “Henderson might listen, though.”

Then Brown’s expression began to change. A broad grin became rapidly apparent, like a Klondike gold miner suddenly discovering a shining nugget in the dross at the bottom of his pan. “Here. This will interest you. Just don’t say you heard it from me. Do you remember typing out a letter in Mrs Spencer’s office and putting it in her out tray for posting?”

I stared at Brown. “How on earth do you know that?” I said without even trying to conceal my surprise.

 Brown grinned patronisingly. “You were spotted, Sam. Potts saw you in Mrs Spencer’s office, using her typewriter. He waited and watched you leaving the office. After you left, he went in and looked for the letter you’d written. It wasn’t hard to spot. Whoever would write a letter to George Harrison, apart from you? It never got posted.”

I had been brooding on this revelation for over a week, waiting for the right moment to break the news to the others, and now that I had, I immediately felt better.

Pam had listened attentively while I’d related my tale. “So he’s not a complete idiot,” she said at last.

“No, he’s not that,” I replied, “but he does keep some unpleasant company.”

“Well, it’s not them who interest me,” she said, and we linked arms as we walked back up to the Hall, in time for tea in JJ and Hobbo’s room.

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