06 February 2021

The only place anything was happening around here in January was in the sky.              

boyGirlSilhouette4Spring Term Begins

January 1972

It was the first day of the spring term and, after a cold and foggy period over Christmas and New Year, the weather had turned mild and sunny, just to spite us. The first term at my new school had passed in a flash. It was the term in which I got to know the way things were done at St Mungo's: what absolutely had to be done, what I could get away with not doing and how far the rules could be bent or flouted without getting in too much hot water. I learned which teachers were easy to please and which ones were impossible to please. I learned which subjects I liked and looked forward to and which ones I disliked and so worked the least hard.

The first day of a new term always began with a whole-school assembly. As we waited to go into the hall, I looked around the lobby for the sight of a familiar face. A voice from behind said, “There’s Sam!” I turned to see Hobbo and JJ walking towards me.

“How was your break, Hobbo?” I began.

“Oh, not bad. Still alive, always a bonus,” he replied. I knew he had been in hospital for a few days at the beginning of the holiday because of a serious asthma attack, and not for the first time. I had wanted Mum to take me up to London to see him, but it had been too busy on the farm to make that a practical proposition. I had had to make do with writing to him.

“And what about you?” I said to JJ.

“Ooh, fabuloso!” He squealed. Several senior boys turned to look at us. “Victor and I had a groovy week in France with Mummy and Daddy. You should live on a grain farm, my friend. No smelly animals to feed.”

I knew he was saying this to entertain us, because his farm was as mixed as ours. “Tone it down, JJ. People are looking.”

“Well, you’ve got to keep up appearances. You never know which of this lot is listening.” He gestured with his head to a knot of girls off to our right. I recognised one of them as Hilary Fleet, an unpleasant girl with a termly pocket money allowance larger than her IQ score. JJ had already had a set-to with her last term over a propelling pencil she had allegedly borrowed from his pencil case that ended up in her top pocket.

“Did you pass your Amateur Radio Licence exam?” I asked Hobbo.

“With flying colours, young Sam, with flying colours. Moreover, while in the Hammersmith I finished building the new shortwave radio I was telling you about last term. The nurses were very kind and let me have my radio equipment out on a table in the canteen. The circuits use transistors instead of valves, so it’s actually quite small and portable. In fact, I’ve got it in my trunk if you want to see it.”

“I do, and I’d like to see it in use sometime.”

Hobbo was obviously pleased at my enthusiasm. JJ on the other hand looked very bored indeed. Then he brightened up. He produced a small art pad from his blazer pocket and was soon busy sketching the pair of us. “You’ll never guess!” he breathed in a loud stage whisper while he drew. He stopped and with exaggerated drama put his hand on my arm and leaned in. “I heard this from a sixth former on the train. You know Hilary’s right-hand thug, Joanna Price?”

Hobbo raised his eyes to the ceiling. “She of the improbably large buttocks?” he intoned with a sigh.

 “Yeh, that’s her. You know she’s always going on about her dad’s Berkshire estate. It turns out the only estate she knows her way around is a council estate in Kilburn. According to my source, her mum and dad split up years ago. Mum has all the money. She started out with a handbarrow in the Portobello Road, selling floorboards she’d rescued from building sites. There’s so much redevelopment going on in NW10 that most of the stuff they rip out of the old houses gets dumped or burnt on building site bonfires. Well, she discovers that floorboards sell like hot cakes, so she takes on a couple of West Indians to scour building sites for whatever they can buy. Then, when she gets too busy, she rents a shop by Ladbroke Grove Tube and calls it Tongue and Groovy. D’you get it? Well, pretty soon she’s got half a dozen shops all over West London, selling fireplaces and lavatories and doors and pretty much anything else that hasn’t been nailed down. And, hey presto! Welcome to St Mungo's, Joanna Price.”

“Very interesting,” I said, trying to sound interested. “If Joanna Price’s mum wants to spend her money on an education for her daughter, well who are we to comment? It’s her money.”

JJ looked rather crestfallen. I think he’d expected a bit more interest from us, although he should have known better. “Oh, be like that,” he finished sulkily.

“You can’t possibly be jealous of Joanna Price; you’re not, are you JJ?” Hobbo had probably hit the nail squarely on the head but in any case, it brought the conversation to end, because JJ didn’t respond and went back to his sketching.

“So,” I said to Hobbo. “What’s on the agenda for this term, apart from ‘you know what’?”

“Well, there’s still the pressing problem of finding a headquarters for the BCG. The ‘you know what’ is obviously not going to be suitable. I’d put that mission top of our list. What do you think?”

“I agree. A number one priority. Got any bright ideas?”

“I still think our best bet is the old school” Hobbo replied. “As we now know, it’s got dozens of unused rooms that Old Man Terry doesn’t have the cash to do up, and isn’t likely to either, from what I hear.”

“Won’t it be all damp and cobwebby in there?” JJ put in.” Oh, yuk!”

“Like Crow Wood, you mean?” Hobbo replied scathingly. “I think it might be a bit more attractive an idea for the girls, don’t you agree, Sam? We’ll be able to do it up a bit, make it homely.”

Personally, I liked meeting in Crow Wood, and thought ahead to the lengthening days and warmer weather to come, but I saw his point. “You could hang some of your paintings on the walls, JJ,” I suggested. This idea went down well. JJ sucked his pencil and stared into space. In his imagination, a gallery of his best work was already materialising.

****

The BCG had already hotly debated whether to tell Mr Gentle about the tunnels. It had been my idea, and so of course, I was strongly in favour. JJ and Olivia were lukewarmly positive but the others were against it. Mr Gentle was my favourite teacher, of course, and I thought we would benefit from the guidance of someone older and more clued up about the ways of the world. I felt we were getting into something that might end up being more than simply a fun adventure on Saturday afternoons.

Over the months, we had all become regular visitors to Gentle Towers, as JJ had come to call Mr G’s rooms at the top of the school, but never all at the same time. Usually we went in twos or threes and for me the only thing better than a visit to Gentle Towers was a visit accompanied by Anna. For the time being, anyway, the subject of the tunnels remained firmly off the agenda.

On one particular visit, we had drifted on to the subject of things we loved and things we hated. I was musing about my idea of hell. “I think my personal hell would be to have to live on the farm for the rest of my life, though I imagine it would be David’s idea of heaven. How strange life is; how different we all are.”

“And what would be your idea of heaven, Sam?” Mr Gentle said in his matter-of-fact way, but I knew well enough by now that he expected a thoughtful answer.

I thought, but nothing came into my mind. Saying that I wanted to be happy sounded somehow trite and incomplete, because it automatically invites the question of how anyone might achieve happiness. Anyway, happiness never lasts that long. I think I’d have preferred it if the world started to make a bit more sense. So what did I really want? What a difficult question. Sam, you’ve done it again, I thought.

“It’s OK; I’m not really expecting an answer. Makes you think though, doesn’t it?”

I turned to Anna, who was still browsing the bookcase but probably hadn’t missed a word. “Don’t ask,” she said without turning round. Mr Gentle chuckled loudly, nearly spilling his tea. Suddenly I thought of a reply. “OK, so what would be your personal hell, Mr Gentle?”

Mr Gentle still smiled but I could tell from the way his face became unlined that he had fallen into a way of thought that I had only seen before in Anna, like watching the cover across the top of a deep well sliding back, and then standing on the edge of its giddying depths. Clearly, I had stirred something up. He pushed his lips together and emitted a long “Hmmm”. Then he began. “I think it would be Eamonn Andrews jumping out of a broom cupboard and saying” – and at this point he picked up the cake knife and held it, handle uppermost, as a microphone – “Bill Gentle. Ternoit, dis is yerr loife!”

I don’t think even Mr Gentle knew what he was going to say before he said it, and it took us all by surprise. I cracked up with uncontrollable laughter while Anna shrieked and dropped her book. Holding her stomach, she collapsed on the floor in a fit of giggles.

When we had recovered slightly he went on. “No, but try to imagine it. An eternity of people, strangers mostly, coming out from behind a curtain, one after another, and pointing at you and saying things like ‘Yes, that’s him. He was terribly rude to me at a bus stop in Croydon when he was nine’ or ‘I had to share a hut with him during National Service. He never spoke to me once, the snob.’ We laughed even harder at the idiot voices Mr Gentle was giving to his imaginary tormentors. He continued. “And since this is hell you might as well have various agents of the Dark Lord putting in an appearance to expose some of one’s most unlovely and embarrassing private acts, or even, God forbid, thoughts, to the baying audience. We have eternity to fill here, after all. And you did ask, remember.”

Anna stood and came to sit on the arm of my chair. “It certainly sounds hellish,” she said. “Ha, but aren’t you forgetting that surely some of your guests would have some good things to say about you. You are basically a good person, aren’t you?”

“Why thank you, my dear. Although please remember that the show is being run by Eamonn Andrews, in league with Satan, quite a chilling thought in itself. So, let’s see. Oh sure. Here comes the earthworm I once lifted off a path and tossed over a garden wall. He’s just wriggled in to say ‘Thanks mate. You saved me from a painful death by dehydration on that hot pavement, although when I landed in the garden a mole happened to be passing by and ate me.’ You see?”

I snorted. “You always make a joke out of everything. When are you ever serious?”

Mr Gentle gave us one of his unfathomable smiles. He looked at us in turn. “I’m always serious, you know that.” An easy moment of silence passed between us before he turned to look out of the window. “Actually, I’m never serious. Or both. Or neither. What’s the difference anyway?”

Anna and I glanced at each other, but said nothing. After that, what could one say? I sat for a minute, hoping Mr Gentle would continue, but it became clear that our time there was at an end for that day. I rose and began to stack the teacups on to the tray while Anna put on her plimsolls. Mr Gentle looked lost in thought, although I knew from experience that he was completely aware of every movement in the room. This felt like the ideal moment to mention the tunnels, but how could I without the others’ approval? We made for the door, me with the tray and Anna with the book she had borrowed – without asking I noticed, but it didn’t seem to matter. I called over “We’ll wash up, don’t bother coming down. Bye.”

“Thanks for the visit. I appreciate the company.” Coming from another adult those words might have sounded weak, sinister even. From Mr Gentle, however, they merely sounded natural, no big deal. He didn’t want anything or need anything from us. Nevertheless, he had genuinely appreciated our visit. We skipped down the stairs to the kitchen and washed up the tea things. Mr Gentle saw us out. “I’ll be interested to know what you make of that book, Anna. You know, you two make quite a couple.”

Anna wrapped her extravagantly long woollen scarf twice around her neck and then twice around mine. Even though it was a chilly evening, I felt warm as toast as we crossed the tower roof. Anna slipped her arm through mine and pointed out various constellations and stars as we walked, while I stayed silent and pretended to look at them. Ursa Major, Aldebaran, The Pleiades, Saturn. Beautiful names for such hostile places. Who named them, I wondered?

I still thought about Mr Gentle’s words as we approached the South Turret. How can something be both serious and unserious at the same time? What did he mean, and what was I missing? Then Anna interrupted my thoughts. “I’ve just had an idea. Let’s take over the South Turret as a BCG hideout! I bet we could do it without anyone ever knowing.”

“No way!” I said, shocked by the idea. To believe that we could hang out up here without anyone finding out, right at the top of the school, in secret, sounded like madness. “Forget it, Anna. There is no way we’d ever get away with that. We’d be expelled for sure. Mr Gentle and Mr Juniper would notice something and that would be that.”

“Maybe they would. So why has he given us the key? Surely it’s not only because it’s a bit quicker to get back to the dorms this way?”

As usual, I found Anna’s logic very hard to counter. Saying nothing, I unlocked the door to the South Turret and we slipped inside. Clearly, this was going to require an urgent discussion with the others.

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