23 September 2016

In September we visited the Gibberd Garden in Harlow - our second visit.  It is beautiful, peaceful and inspirational. Go visit! From their website: The Gibberd Garden is an inspirational and...

yellow and greyPam’s Revenge

February 1972

It never ceased to amaze me quite how much Anna knew about everything. We all were aware that she read a lot, and it was unusual to see her around the school without an armful of books. We knew she had travelled widely and had met any number of remarkable and well-known people, but it was the sheer variety of subject matter that interested her, from astrophysics to fine art, via natural history and literature, which impressed us all so much. And of course, that eclecticism spurred the rest of us into a kind of unspoken competition to become more rounded scholars.

Most of us scholarship students had won a place at the school at least partly because some unusual aspect of our personality had already given birth to various manias and nerd-isms that had resulted in a precocious depth of knowledge and ability in at least one area of study. Hobbo, for instance, was a self-taught telecommunications specialist, quite able to hold his own with experts in that field. I had come to like Hobbo a lot; he was always straight with you, never lied and could be very good company on a walk. He knew the names of all the wild flowers and butterflies, and was a master at spotting birds’ nests. The fact that he had only ever read one novel in his entire life was abundantly obvious from his stunted imagination and wooden writing. Hobbo was perfectly aware of his limitations and, up to the point where Anna appeared on the scene, could not have cared less.

However, something had changed in all of us, and in Hobbo, it was the appearance of a sudden, keen interest in literature. I first noticed it when I came into the library one afternoon and saw him looking at the fiction shelves. This wasn’t in itself unusual because often he would sneak in there if he wanted to hide from one teacher or another. What made this particular occasion so out of the ordinary was to see him earnestly studying the book spines, as if titles and authors had suddenly attained a hitherto undiscovered significance.

From my seat in the opposite alcove, I peeped over the top of my newspaper and watched as he scanned the rows of books, his broad, stubby neck craning upwards while his stomach stuck out and strained at his waistcoat. He came down off his tiptoes, rested his knuckles on his waist and harrumphed to himself. Then his head swivelled sharply in my direction. He had spotted me watching him – I had been rumbled. He broke into a grin and planted a finger to his lips before waving me over with huge, theatrical come-hither gestures.

“Ah, young Sam. Just the person,” he whispered in a voice loud enough to be heard out in the corridor. Why he always called me ‘young Sam’ was a mystery, since we’re the same age.

“Hobbo, what are you up to? It’s nearly teatime. Have you lost your bearings? Only novels and similar worthless books here. Maths and physics over yonder,” I said, nodding towards the opposite side of the room.

“Yeh, yeh, I know, but er, actually…” he trailed off. I felt my head lean over slightly to one side as I looked at him. His cheeks and neck had turned rose pink and his bulk shifted slightly from leg to leg. “Sam, you like books. Give me the name of a decent author, for God’s sake.”

I had one or two questions planned for Hobbo, but this did not seem the right time. The boy was plainly desperate, so I asked, “Is this book for you, or a friend?”

I hadn’t realised how close I had come to the truth with this question, for in the next moment his face changed from startled to guilty and finally settled on a resigned, ‘the game’s up’ sullenness. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple rising and falling like the puck of a fairground strength tester. “I want a book I can talk to Anna about,” he mumbled. “An author she likes. You know.”

I realised I was gawping. After closing my mouth, and resisting the urge to wink, I leaned over and whispered, “No sweat,” and hoped that didn’t sound too patronising. It did not take me long to find a book Anna would almost certainly have read at some point that I thought both she and Hobbo would enjoy discussing. I had chosen an Isaac Asimov novel and handed it over with, “Try this, and plenty more where that came from.”

Hobbo took the novel in both hands, which made it look about the size of a pocket notebook, and turned it over several times. He mouthed the title and read the blurb on the jacket, nodding faintly and pursing his lips as he did so. Finally, he looked up. “Thanks, Sam.” He stuffed the book into his jacket pocket and turned to leave. “You won’t, er…” he faltered.

“Definitely not,” I replied, and this time I did wink. Looking pleased with himself, he straightened up, turned and walked briskly towards the library door, filtering out for tea among the other hungry bookworms.

****

It was a miserable wet Saturday towards the end of February and the Black Cat Gang had gathered round at Pam’s place for an afternoon of tea and sympathy. She had just begun to relate the events of a week ago, when her Valentine’s ‘date’ with Brown in the cricket pavilion had gone horribly wrong.

“I told you, didn’t I? Didn’t I, Pam? I said you should have taken me with you,” JJ chirped from his beanbag throne. The clack-clack of the bat and ball toy he was playing with was beginning to grate on everyone’s nerves, and JJ’s gratuitous piece of smugness gave Olivia the excuse to snatch it and swipe it over his head.

“Will you shut it JJ, and let Pam get a word in,” she said, half-heartedly irritated.

Pam didn’t seem to notice any of this and continued talking. “I thought he actually seemed quite nice and sincere when we chatted after games. Then during prep in the library, we played footsie under the table, and again it was because he’d started it. Then he suggested meeting in the cricket pavilion before the Friday Valentines disco began, away from his mates, he said. He wasn’t ready to for us to be seen together. And I stupidly agreed.”

“So when did Brown’s gang turn up?” I asked.

“I think they must have been there all the time, hiding behind the tea bar, which makes it worse, doesn’t it? They’d planned the whole thing. I’d even bought him a Valentine’s Day present. It wasn’t a lot, just some pens from Woolies.”

“So, then what happened?”

“Remember the weather? It was snowing like mad. I almost didn’t go, but I don’t want to be one of those girls who get a reputation for standing boys up, and so I went, didn’t I? We’d just taken our coats off and sat down when the others popped out from their hiding place.”

“What did they say?”

“Oh, Miller said something like ‘This is a cosy scene, don’t you think, Potts? Brown with the little Indian girl.’ And Potts said something equally inane back.”

“And what about Brown?”

“He didn’t say anything. He just looked somewhat awkward, embarrassed even. Then Miller and Potts grabbed me and got me on the floor and rolled me up in that big heavy rubber mat that lays in front of the door.”

“Why didn’t you scream?” Hobbo asked.

“I don’t know. It honestly didn’t occur to me. I suppose I thought they’d have their bit of stupid fun and then leave us alone. I struggled a lot and shouted at them, but inside that mat I was completely helpless.”

“What about Henderson?” I asked.

“He didn’t do anything, or say anything, come to that, but stood with his hands in his pockets and watched the whole thing. It was creepy. After that, the two of them lifted up the mat and carried me outside, dumped me in the snow, shouted ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ and walked away, laughing their stupid heads off. Oh, and they took my boots off and threw them somewhere. Probably they’re still lying out on the cricket pitch. Richard did protest at this, to give him a nanogram of credit, but the others ignored him and carried on.”

Anna had listened to all this with an expression of growing horror and disbelief. She looked genuinely shocked. “Why on earth would they do that?” she stammered. “You can’t be any kind of threat to them, surely?”

“I don’t know. I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times. Maybe they did see me as some kind of threat to their cosy club. Who knows? I think they probably have no idea how serious what they did was. To them it was just some prank. I expect they do similar stuff to each other all the time; you know, practical jokes. I could have died out there it was so cold. Once they’d turned off the pavilion lights and scarpered, it was pitch black. The snow was still coming down thick and there I was, dressed in my skimpy disco clothes in the middle of a snowy field, stuck inside a bloody rubber mat.”

“You did well to get back inside before you froze,” I said.

At this point Pam looked over to me, and I half-smiled. At least she hadn’t lost her sense of humour, I thought. “Has Brown said anything to you since?” I said.

Pam shook her head. Despite what had happened I think she probably still had feelings for him. “He’s passed me once or twice in the corridor and actually had the nerve to smile! Sheepishly, it’s true, and that’s what makes me think they haven’t a clue what they actually did to me. It’s frightening, honestly.”

Olivia put her hand on Pam’s shoulder. “I know. It smarts, doesn’t it? Bloody men. Right now, you want to make him suffer, to punch him, to kick, to bite.”

“Damn right. I’d like to smack him hard round his stupid face,” Pam replied bitterly.

“Atta girl!” Hobbo called from behind his Brian Aldiss novel.

Anna sprang from the armchair and crossed quickly to the window. Outside, the trees thrashed randomly in the wind while heavy rain drummed in sheets on the window. She folded her arms and leaned against the wall. Wisps of her hair moved slightly as attenuated gusts filtered in under the ill-fitting sash.

As I watched, I noticed that she let her bottom lip briefly slide up and grip her top lip as she gazed down at the sodden lawns. I knew from times past what it meant: that she was about to dredge up and bring into play something from her past. Elsewhere in the room voices continued but as always, I was captive to the subtle drama unfolding in Anna’s features. With her mind apparently set, her eyes flicked back to the room but as she turned, she caught my gaze. I imagine my face must have displayed amusement bordering on the patronising. She flashed me a look and wrinkled her nose imperceptibly before going over to the fireplace where she pretended to warm her hands by the settling coals. In my experience, Anna never normally felt the cold.

“I think I will get subtle revenge,” Pam was saying. “I’ll wait until Friday’s disco and put laxatives in his Tizer. Many laxatives. Yes.”

“And it’s the semi-finals of the Brasher Cup on the Saturday,” JJ chipped in. “Brown’s almost certain to be playing. Imagine the fun!”

“Sweet. That’s settled then. What about it, Sam? Going to distract him for me while I do the dirty deed?”

I must have looked less than enthusiastic, because Pam’s grin began to wilt like an unwatered pot plant. I realised that all eyes had turned in my direction. Apart from a few small winks and murmurs from the coal fire, the room had become completely silent and still. JJ leaned further and further forward in his chair, his mouth slightly ajar, and even Hobbo lowered his book.

Eventually I got my head to nod. “Sure, of course,” I heard myself saying. Now it was Anna’s turn to eye me with curiosity and not a little amusement. Hobbo had raised his book again but was now making quiet chicken noises from behind it.

“You don’t like the idea, then?” Pam said, and shot me a challenging stare. The whole Brown incident had obviously bitten far more deeply than I had realised.

“Look,” I retorted, “I said I’d do it, and I will. Count on me, Pam. Honest.” As soon as I said it, I felt something had resolved itself, and I knew then that I would go through with it. Pam was worth it; she was a good friend and I trusted her. Brown probably had it coming to him for a hundred other offences anyway, and he definitely was no friend of mine. He would lack the wit to work out what had happened to him, or more likely, he would blame it on sabotage by the opposing team or even one of his so-called friends, such were the circles he moved in. Still, I felt uneasy, as if I was missing something, something else that needed to be said.

Feeling slightly desperate I looked across at Anna, but she had settled on the floor with her back to me, legs drawn up and chin on knees, staring into the fire. I wished she would say something, but she plainly had no intention of doing so.

Pam rose from the floor and walked behind my armchair. I heard her light the gas stove. She crossed back to the fireplace and lifted the blackened kettle from its resting place at the side of the fire. “Tea, anyone?” she said.

It was tea to the rescue, as always. I listened meditatively to the merry knocks and whumps of the warm kettle quickly coming to the boil. The rattle of a biscuit tin followed the chink of crockery and spoons. Suddenly, Pam’s head appeared over the back of my chair and hovered briefly. I felt her warm breath on my ear. “Thanks,” she whispered. Her hand rested momentarily on my head, and then came a sound that caused everyone to jump. “Hobbo! Clear the bloody table, man. Come on, make yourself useful!” she yelled.

Hobbo could move quickly when he wanted to and immediately launched himself forward from his chair as if his backside was on fire. “Right-ho, Pam,” he wheezed, and with a casual stroke of his arm swept everything off the table into a heap on the floor. This was so unexpected that everyone burst out laughing, even Pam, whose belongings they were. Any awkwardness lingering in the room immediately evaporated, even more so when Hobbo continued to act the innocent with big open-handed gestures and puzzled cries of “What? What did I do?”

And so the evening ended well. We toasted Pam’s forthcoming victory with the clinking of teacups.

“Down with Brown!” JJ announced importantly.

“Down with Brown!” we chorused.

“I’ll give him Brown. He’ll be Brown by name and brown by nature by the time I’ve finished with him,” Pam added, and everyone giggled and spluttered into their teacups.

“He’ll be known as ‘Trousers Brown’,” Hobbo added, which got the biggest laugh of the night.

The evening finished with a Scottish jig by the hearth. While the others clapped along, Hobbo did his bagpipe rendition of Scotland The Brave by holding his nose and humming the tune while chopping at his windpipe. I tried to catch Anna’s eye before she left but she was too busy linking arms with JJ in some kind of spontaneous tea-drinking ceremony. Still, as I watched her bounce and twirl in a duet with Pam, I had a feeling that Anna’s thoughts were still elsewhere. I wondered if she had remembered something important from her past. Downstairs, Dad was waiting for me in the courtyard and I told him all about our evening’s fun, just omitting the reason behind our merriment. What a night.

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