12 July 2016

Double bill entertainment this weekend - a cat cafe in the afternoon, followed by a superb gig from Twin Atlantic at the Rescue Rooms in the evening. Actually, a triple bill because the Salvation...

tunnel 841434 960 720Introductions

July 1972

Anna would like this day, I thought as I hosed and swept the concrete pathway behind the milking shed. It had rained during the night and the morning was fresh and breezy, with ragged fair-weather clouds tipping speedily eastwards at low altitude. It would soon be the summer break. I could remember previous holidays when I’d dearly wished I could have stayed at school, as long as my friends were there with me, of course. But not this summer. Farm jobs had kept me busy so far; they helped take my mind off recent events, and I did anything that Dad asked me to and more, just to tire myself out, so that for a while at least I would be able to stop thinking about Anna. I had already creosoted the chicken sheds, and the stable had never looked so clean and well-tended. I longed for contact with the others, but we had agreed to keep apart so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. Hobbo for one had a suspicion he was being watched.

Back inside, for the nth time I stood silently in our hall, rested my head against the hat stand and gazed down at the empty doormat. I shut my eyes. In my imagination, I tried to picture Anna. Her beauty, so apparent to me at least, was not the obvious, showy, Joanna Price, ‘Queen Bee of Junior Six’ kind of beauty. I’m not sure if the casual eye would even have picked her out in a crowd. Her long face, intelligent and usually serious, never lacked composure but once studied was not easily forgotten. Her round, heavy-lidded, hazel eyes seemed constantly engaged in a relentless mission to make sense of the world. A rather narrow nose and prominent cheekbones contributed to a countenance that might have been described as severe, had it not been softened by the gentle curvature and perfect mirror symmetry of her lips. These were full and darkly red and concluded in each corner with a slight upturn – an alpine ski run in miniature.

Then, in my thoughts, she was there, standing in the winter quad, wearing Levi’s and bright white tennis shoes, hopping from one foot to the other and blowing on ungloved hands. As usual, she had tied her hair back in a ponytail, and she was smiling, all trace of seriousness gone in the joy of the moment. I pictured her dressed in her red woollen winter coat; the one with the fake fur collar that Hobbo told her was made from cat skin, just to tease her. One of these days, she would make contact. She had to. I opened my eyes. Plainly, today was not going to be that day.

And so I turned over in my thoughts the past year, in a search for lost information that might help to fill in some of the blanks. Back inside the house, I raked in my chest of drawers and found a journal I had begun soon after I started at St Mungo’s. I sat on the edge of the bed and began to read.

My name is Sam Smith. I am eleven years old, just. My friends are Olivia, JJ, Hobbo, Pam, Griff and Anna. I attend St Mungo’s School.

I had written this on the first page of a large, dark brown hard-backed ledger I’d picked up in a bargain bin at the Larksbridge WH Smith. It had cost me 4/11d. The pages had closely spaced lines and several annoying red vertical lines dividing the page into columns of various widths. For lack of anything better to do I read on.

I have straight, blondish hair, the kind that looks like it needs a wash even when it doesn’t. I prefer it cut short. I’ve always had short hair, except when a tiny baby and everyone have weird hair then. I have a thin, slightly crooked nose and quite full lips. My skin is typical English peasant – stark white in winter, red, and freckly in summer. Mum says I have nice teeth. She has always made us brush our teeth so I’m quite proud of mine. I’ve only ever had two fillings, unlike some of the children in our year that I could name who are practically ready for false teeth. Mum says I’m slim, but not thin, and I think I’m quite strong – all the haymaking and animal feeding over the years, I suppose. Oh, and George is my favourite Beatle.

When I’m not at school my preferred clothes are jeans and a T-shirt, and either plimsolls (if it isn’t muddy) or wellie boots (if it is). This is partly for convenience – who can be bothered changing every time a farm job looms up – and partly because many of my clothes were once David’s. I suppose it’s just as well I’ve never taken much interest in fashion.

People say I’m tall for my age. Until David suddenly grew about a foot overnight I had almost caught him up, and he’s three years older than I am. We shared a room until I went to St Mungo's, when Mum decided I should have my own. I’m not a boarder, unlike my friends there. Mum insisted on my living at home as a condition of her agreeing to me going there. David’s fourteen now and intends to leave school next year and work full time at the farm. Dad says he should stay on at school and get some more qualifications, but secretly I think he is looking forward to having David around all day.

I live on Dikeway Farm in the village of Finlow-on-Teal. You won’t have heard of it or ever been there because it is very small and off the beaten track. It’s probably not changed much in a hundred years. There is no street lighting beyond the few lanes around the middle of the village, and they only put that in a couple of years ago. Many of the cottages still have outside lavatories and nothing much in the way of heating, apart from a fireplace in the living room. There are still fields separating many of the houses and the centre of village life is a pub called The Boat. Grandad told us it’s called that because they built it from the timbers of a sailing ship.

Dad’s farm is at the end of the village high street, which isn’t much of a high street any more since it is now a dead end. For centuries, there had been a ferry over the River Teal, but it stopped in the 1930s when they built the bridge. Over the years, most of the businesses have closed or moved into Larksbridge, and now only the Post Office and The Boat remain open. Nowadays, most people by-pass the village altogether, and therefore Finlow-on-Teal has become a quiet, forgotten place frequented only by locals.

My brother David and I were born at the farm, and so naturally, all my earliest memories are farmyard-related – sights, sounds, touches and smells. From the time we were old enough to walk and hold a pail of hen feed, Mum and Dad encouraged us to help around the farm.

Of course, I’d heard of St Mungo's long before I went to school there. It’s quite famous in this part of the world and cropped up regularly in Grandad’s war stories. He said St Mungo’s first became a school after the war when the Terry family demanded it back from the Army. The war ministry had taken the place over in 1941, and by the end of the war had made themselves very cosy there, thank you very much.

I had read enough for now. I turned the page and ruled a margin. I wrote the date and then a title: The Black Cat Gang. I underlined it and then closed the book. Tomorrow I would make a start. I had resolved to use my spare time to record the story of the past year, if for no other reason than as a testament to the bravery of my friends and as a history of the incredible, unbelievable events in which I played, and still play, a part. For this story is not over yet. It will not be over; I will not let it be over until every question has been answered.

The story begins more than a year ago, long before I had met Anna, long before I had even set foot in the grounds of St Mungo’s School.

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