14 July 2018

This was our first visit to the Maitreya Buddhist Garden. It's about a half hour drive from Lincoln, and close to the River Trent. It is the lifetime's work of Buddha Maitreya, a Japanese monk, who...

purple and yellowThe Black Cat Gang Begins

October 1971

The school term was only five weeks old but in some ways it felt like I had been at St Mungo's my whole life. I had become used to having different teachers for different lessons, to being well organised and independent, and to being mentally challenged every single day. I had become good friends with two boys: Hobbo and JJ, and two girls: Pam and Olivia. I also had got to know Griff a little, but because of his seemingly constant training for some sports team or other, our paths didn’t cross all that often. In a few short weeks, we had become a tightly devoted group – a club of friends, a gang.

These days I catch the town bus at the end of our lane at ten to eight and reach the school gates by twenty-past. It’s a ten-minute cycle ride down the drive (I leave my bike stashed underneath the milk platform near the road) and that leaves me time to sit in on the last of breakfast and help myself to toast and tea. For boarders, the day begins at seven, when Mrs Duncan, the welfare lady, struts round the corridors with a gong and beater, yelling everyone out of bed and into the bathrooms. According to JJ, the gong is superfluous, being all but drowned out by Mrs Duncan’s foghorn bellowing.

Junior Six had started badly for me. I was not in the same maths set or English set as Hobbo, although we were together for science and technology with the Senior First Form. St Mungo’s learning policy meant you shared a class with the people they felt you would learn with best, regardless of your age. So teaching sets might consist of three and sometimes more age groups. I was miffed not to be with Hobbo for maths, because I believed I was every bit as good. However, it meant I had a better chance to get to know Olivia, as we would be sharing a maths table all that year. Hobbo had been kept back in English, which made him miserable company on certain days of the week. It also put him in the same room as Potts and Miller, who’d also been kept back, and right from the start of the year I felt a confrontation was brewing. By mid-September, it was clear there would be trouble.

Thankfully, our timetable contained only one afternoon of games a week. The keen types, the ones who excelled at sport, mainly practised after school and at the weekends. Hobbo and I shared a strong dislike for unnecessary physical activity, especially the competitive sort, which meant that sports and games, which played such a major role in school life, were something to be avoided if possible. However, our attitudes to exercise were far from identical. Hobbo did his utmost to shun any substantial exertion beyond a casual stroll in the countryside with a pair of binoculars. I, on the other hand, quite enjoyed purposeful effort, such as farm work or building dens or gathering branches for a fire down in the woods. I liked cycling, so long as it had a purpose and wasn’t only to find out who could be the fastest round a twenty-mile circuit or something similar. Getting to Larksbridge and back before dinner to buy some electrical bits for a new project was challenging, but it wasn’t competitive.

Quarter past three on a Wednesday afternoon and Junior Games had finished. The mixed hockey had started this week. After the announcement in assembly, I had volunteered like a shot because I knew Mr Gentle would be coaching us. Mixed games was something new at St Mungo's and despite my habitual loathing for sport, I had thoroughly enjoyed it. My views on sport hadn’t really changed, but something had. Today, I played my first competitive game of hockey and actually had fun. To me it didn’t matter who won. That old saying about it not being the winning that mattered, but the taking part, suddenly and vividly made sense.

After games, Hobbo, JJ and I sat chatting in the locker room. I had showered and changed and was packing my kit away, while JJ raked in his trunk for the remains of a lemon drizzle cake that had arrived from home last weekend. Hobbo had weaselled out of games by managing to convince Blenkie he had a cold; he now sat on the trunk next to mine and blathered on about super heterodyne circuits while I brushed my hair.

 “You should come out next week and give the mixed hockey a try,” I said, just to change the subject from radio circuitry.

Hobbo was attempting to straighten the pins of a radio valve using a pair of long-nose pliers. “You must be joking,” he replied without looking up.

“Well, actually I enjoyed it despite myself, and so did JJ, didn’t you? None of us are sporty types, but actually it was kind of fun.”

Hobbo was unmoved by my sudden and atypical enthusiasm for games. “No thanks,” he replied with a finality that told me the subject wouldn’t be worth pursuing further.

Accompanied by strident laughter from the corridor, without warning a mud-caked football flew through the doorway and cannoned off the lockers opposite. Hobbo bolted upright, badly startled, as Brown, Henderson, Miller and Potts of the football first eleven bundled in, flicking each other with towels and pushing people out of their way. Hobbo, cheeks reddened, stared miserably down at his feet. The room rapidly began to empty. Two fourth year girls closed their trunks quietly and crept towards the door. “Out of the way, girlies!” a loud male voice bellowed. The two Junior Four girls ducked under Miller’s outstretched arm and disappeared. Potts slammed open the lid of his trunk and looked around.

Then he noticed us. He nudged Brown and whispered something. “Baa, baa, moo!” they chorused, and giggled.

Miller joined in with an imitation yokel voice. “How’s loife down on the varm then, Jones? Quack! Quaack!” The three boys flapped their arms in a poor imitation of a duck and convulsed with laughter.

JJ and I looked at one other; I raised my eyebrows. “Hello Malcolm,” I said to Potts, as if I was addressing a toddler. He scowled; I’d already learned he hated people calling him by his first name, which made him dead easy to needle. “Those shorts are so tight I can see your underpants,” I added. Potts picked up a muddy football boot and got ready to hurl it, and for a moment, I thought I had gone too far.

Then, “Oink, oink!” Miller yelled over. Hobbo bent his head further towards his chest. “You should be down on the farm with all the other pigs, Hobson!” Brown and Potts plainly thought this qualified as the wittiest one-liner they had ever heard and roared even harder with hysterical laughter.

By now, JJ had found his cake and we closed our trunks. “C’mon, Hobbo,” he said quietly. “Let’s go and scoff this down the woods.” I gave a small tug at Hobbo’s blazer. For a second I thought he wasn’t going to move. Then slowly he stood up and the three of us made for the door. The pig noises and guffawing continued until we were some way down the corridor. Right at that moment, I sincerely hoped that all four of those idiots would choke themselves to death.

****

Though barely a ten-minute walk from the school, hardly anyone bothered to visit Crow Wood, and that, of course, suited us fine. It was mild for October and no one had bothered to bring their top coat. The air was damp and still. Our shadows walked ahead of us and I felt the tepid sun on my neck, a faint reminder of the hot summer days now behind us. Above us in the trees, I watched the rooks wheeling and diving and listened to their noisy bickering as they went about their business in the tops of the elms. We headed for the tree universally known as Arthur, an enormous beech that grew on the edge of a steep bank not far inside the wood. The bank had crumbled during the tree’s long life and the roots on one side now projected soil-lessly into the air, like the ribs of an enormous umbrella. The soil underneath was always bone-dry, protected from the elements by the root plate overhead.

We settled in our favourite spot beneath Arthur’s roots, with Hobbo in the middle, and JJ divided the cake into three with his grubby penknife. We ate in silence. I wondered what Hobbo might be thinking. His face had returned to its normal colour and the slice of cake had clearly lifted his mood. I guessed that today wasn’t Hobbo’s first run-in with Master Potts and co. and I pondered whether we could do anything that might help.

“This place would make a great den,” I said by way of conversation. “We could make it our gang’s HQ. What do you think?” I pulled some mud from a root poking out overhead and threw it at JJ. He retaliated by kicking me on the leg.

“Pack it in, you two,” Hobbo scowled. He hadn’t join in as he normally would, and I guessed he must have still been smarting from his treatment earlier. A robin came to investigate the noise and perched on a clod of earth right above JJ’s head. “Scram, bird!” Hobbo said sulkily, but the robin stood its ground, watching us silently, its head tilting first to one side, then the other.

JJ produced a pencil and a small notebook and began to sketch the bird. “Sam, I think you are on to something,” he said as he glanced up and down between paper and subject. “We should bring Olivia and Pam down here and have a full meeting, agreed?”

“Good idea,” I replied, although I imagined they would not be overly impressed by the location.

“Maybe they could do the place up a bit,” JJ continued enthusiastically, looking around as if he might be considering moving in.

Hobbo snorted. “Have you gone stark raving mad? Get a grip on reality, will you? It’s a bloody tree root, for Christ’s sake, not a run-down cottage in need of some new wallpaper and a coat of paint. Anyway, you couldn’t fit two more bodies in here, at least not without doing some digging.”

JJ looked disappointed and glanced over to me for support. I responded with a Gallic shrug. “Sorry JJ, but I think Hobbo’s probably right. I don’t think you’ll get them to come down here, not more than once anyway.”

“Well, I don’t see why not, I mean you don’t mind it, do you?” he replied, but his voice told me he knew Hobbo was right. “The thing is, where else in St Mungo’s are we going to find a place to meet that’s as quiet and safe as this one?”

“A place where Potts and his cronies won’t bother us,” Hobbo added.

I glanced at JJ. “Well,” I said, “I refuse to believe that three resourceful young people such as ourselves can’t discover a secret hidey-hole in a place as old and rambling as St Mungo’s. There must be whole wings of the place we’ve never even been into.”

“It would have to be pretty well tucked away or Potts would soon find us,” Hobbo pondered unhappily. “They’re quite persistent, believe me.”

Frustration and anger rising, I stood and paced in front of the others, my hands shoved into my blazer pockets. “What is wrong with them? Why can’t they be pleasant; why can’t they just have a laugh? Christ, we’re all human beings; we all have feelings. Even they must have feelings. Can’t they see the misery they cause?” I spat into the brambles opposite.

Hobbo nodded in agreement, adding wistfully, “As my old dad might say, all of us are just small eddies in the great river of life. Here today and gone tomorrow.”

“I’m not a small Eddie, I’m a small Jamie,” JJ piped up.

“Oh, shut up!” we replied in unison.

He pretended to be upset, and pulled a face before returning to his drawing. The robin sat patiently, eyeing JJ in a familiar way.

Hobbo had settled with his back against the dry earth. Eyes closed, he looked to be at peace. I resumed my spot beside him and relaxed too. I always found it so calming and tranquil down here among the trees; I closed my eyes too and imagined we were three woodland animals enjoying a peaceful moment in our real, natural home. I breathed the cooling air and let the songs of the kaa-ing rooks wash over me in friendly waves. The rooks’ calls, ebbing and flowing, were beautiful, musical even, when you really listened to them.

Then, eyes still shut, Hobbo spoke. “I’d really like to finish my plant survey of Crow Wood by the end of term. That would allow me time to write it up in the Christmas holidays. I’m quite well on already – I’ve even done a bit of rough mapping. I was just wondering; would you care to help?”

“Me?” I said with some surprise. “I’m no great shakes on plant ident.”

“You? Being a local who’s spent half their life roaming around woods and fields, birdsnesting and finding mushrooms for your mother?” he said. “I imagine you’re a lot better than you’re giving yourself credit for. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know who’s better qualified, apart from Mr Gentle perhaps. Also, you’ll know the local names for lots of flowers, I’ll bet, and you certainly won’t find those in any of the published books.”

I thought about this for a moment before replying. “OK, sure. I’ll help, and I don’t collect birds’ eggs, by the way. I think it’s cruel. What about you doing some illustrations, JJ? Right up your street.”

JJ looked up from his sketch and sucked on his pencil, while his face took on a dreamy, faraway look. “Yeh, why not? I could paint the pretty ones, orchids and such, and photograph some of the others. Could I have my name on the report, Hobbo? James Jones: Illustrator.”

“Of course, old chap, of course.”

“Maybe we could flog them at the Spring Fair,” I suggested. “Raise some cash for the school and some summer holiday money for us.”

“Not a bad idea,” Hobbo said. “The school is pretty hard up by all accounts. Now the Army seems to be bailing them out with this testing range for tanks and jeeps. What next, I wonder?”

“Exactly,” JJ added. “According to Olivia the school might be starting an Army Cadet Corps for the older boys, using some grant from the military which Old Man Terry can use to do up the gym and that old part of the school no one ever goes in. But it sounds to me like he’s getting a bit too cosy with the Army boys.”

Hobbo sat up and looked a bit more animated. “Great minds think alike, JJ. Like you, I’m not very happy with the idea of the Army hanging around here more than is necessary. I don’t think Sir Julius has any particular love for the military either, from what I’ve heard. So, how does this sound as a money-raising idea? Why don’t we try to get somebody famous to come along to the Spring Fair? They could open it or something. The day’s supposed to be the best fundraiser of the year. All the teachers get involved, running stalls and doing refreshments.”

I joined in. “Nice one, Hobbo. There must be loads of wealthy parents around. Supposing we could get somebody really famous, like Ted Heath or David Coleman or Elizabeth Taylor…”

“God, they all sound dull as ditch water,” JJ chipped in. “I mean, picture it. They turn up in their Roller, cut a ribbon, say a few words and then clear off. Who’s going to want to cough up to see that? What about a pop star?”

To me this sounded like a great idea. “Got anyone in mind?” I asked.

 “Well, Mick Jagger, say. He’d turn up and sign autographs for a tenner a time, and then when he’d cut the ribbon he could get up on the stage and give us Ruby Tuesday.”

“No, not Mick Jagger,” Hobbo said. “Far too vulgar.”

“Well, Jimi Hendrix, then.”

“He’s dead.”

JJ pondered for a moment. “OK then, what about Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch? ‘ Bend it, bend it, just a little bit’…” he crooned loudly, which startled the robin enough for it to take wing and seek shelter in the nearby brambles.

Hobbo cupped his ample cheeks in both hands and shook his head sorrowfully. “Oh, Jesus,” he groaned. “I’m rapidly going off this idea.”

“What about George Harrison?” I said. The other two looked at me. “Well, he’s probably not that busy at the moment, is he? Well, is he? Not since The Beatles broke up.”

“Stroke of genius!” Hobbo exclaimed. JJ leapt in the air and started doing an Indian war dance complete with high-pitched whoops.

“Keep the noise down, you two,” I pleaded. “We don’t want a visit from you-know-who, now do we?” We sat down again and I continued. “I can write to him care of the Abbey Road Studios, Abbey Road, London, NW8. It’s on the album sleeve. That ought to reach him.”

Hobbo frowned. “Hang on a minute; let’s think about this. This is a Beatle, remember, not just any old pop star.”

“An ex-Beatle,” JJ corrected.

“OK, an ex-Beatle then. But I don’t think even an ex-Beatle is going to take much notice of a scrawled note from a junior fifth former at some private school, now is he? And don’t forget, I’ve seen the standard of your handwriting.”

“Yeh, well yours is no better,” JJ retorted.

We were all quiet for a few moments. “That may be true,” I replied. “However, he might take more notice of the letter if it came from Sir Julius Terry, typed on school headed notepaper and with his signature, don’t you think?” The other two had temporarily stopped breathing, so I continued, “OK, OK, so there’s a small risk of getting caught. But I think I know just where and when to strike.”

It was teatime and we rose stiffly and brushed the dry crumbs of mud off each other. The last thing we wanted to do was give away any clues about where we had been. “I still think we should have our first club meeting in the woods; it’s got to be better that than the locker room, don’t you think?”

“And I suppose it’s going to end up being my job to ask Pam and Olivia,” I said with some resignation.

 “Well done for volunteering, Sam!” Hobbo said, and mock-punched me on the arm. He picked up speed as we approached the junior entrance and JJ ran to keep up with him. I paced along behind them, thinking about what I could to say to the girls that might persuade them. Knowing Olivia slightly, I thought she would be relatively easy to convince, but I wasn’t so sure about Pam. I remembered once, when asking the others if they’d like to visit the farm sometime, her slight shudder and look of pointed indifference to the idea. From that, I’d concluded that she was probably allergic to the countryside in general and dirt in particular. There was only one thing for it. We would have to resort to bribery.

****

As it turned out, that was exactly the right strategy. By the following Wednesday JJ, Hobbo and I had amassed quite a stash of eatables, all safely locked away in Hobbo’s trunk. Griff had decided he needed to catch up with his English prep and had disappeared off to the library. That morning I had brought in a holdall from home with my share of the food, and the other two now stuffed some of theirs in to fill it. We had even borrowed five cups from the dining room for the pop – there would be no swigging from the bottle today.

Straight after games, the three of us gathered our food bags, plus a blanket I’d borrowed from the medical room, and headed out of school. First Team games were not yet over so we had no need to dodge Miller and his gang. The weather looked to be in our favour, too. Windless, with a lightly overcast sky, for a late autumn afternoon it felt not in the least bit cold. The rooks and jackdaws circled and busied themselves above us while we laid out the blanket and arranged the food to make it look as inviting as we could. “It’s almost like we’re baiting a trap,” Hobbo said with a wry smile.

JJ volunteered to act as lookout, ‘in case the girls started down the wrong path’, and he grabbed a Flake and disappeared from sight. It wasn’t long before he reappeared at the top of the bank. “They’re coming!” he giggled. Taking an almighty leap, he grabbed a root poking out of the bank and, swinging wildly, landed with a thud next to me on the blanket.

“Careful, you prune! I nearly spilt my cream soda.”

“Ooh, give us some, then,” he pleaded. “I’ll give you a handful of my Twiglets.”

I didn’t have time to reply before two small faces appeared above us. “Hobbo, I hope you’ve left us some food. We’re starving,” Olivia shouted down.

A pebble landed in Hobbo’s hair and he looked up, squinting to see which of the visitors was responsible. “Enter, fair maidens, and welcome,” he said in an exaggeratedly Shakespearian manner, and waved his hand regally in the direction of the blanket. “Olivia, did you bring your bag of Cheesy Wotsits, as promised?”

In a brief cascade of stones and scuffling shoes, Pam and Olivia slid down the bank and arrived in front us. Pam stood with hands on hips, slowly surveying the scene, but Olivia spoke first. “Budge up, JJ. I want some blanket.” JJ obliged and she plonked herself down between us. Hobbo held out his cake tin and she helped herself to a slice of flapjack. After a brief moment’s hesitation, Pam also knelt and squeezed on to the blanket, and finally sat, facing the rest of us. I held out my bag of salt and vinegar and she helped herself to a handful.

For several minutes, we all sat quietly, munching cake, biscuits, and crisps and slurping cups of cream soda. Then, when we’d scoffed most of the food, Hobbo picked up a pebble and tinked it on his cup. “Ahem hem,” he coughed importantly. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to bring to order the first meeting of the Black Cat Gang.”

“The Black Cat Gang?” I said. “Where did that come from?”

“You don’t like it?” Hobbo replied, looking ever so slightly put out.

“No, no. I do like it – stroke of brilliance!”

“I’ll start working up a logo,” JJ added eagerly. “The BCG…” he mused.

Olivia joined in, though her attempt at a newsreader’s voice sounded more Val Doonican than Michael Aspell. “Dis is a BCG announcement, from a hole somewhere in the woods. Get off JJ; you’re standing on my Kit Kat!” All the rest of us could manage by this time was to roll around on the rug, helpless with laughter.

JJ leapt clear as Olivia took a swipe at him, and sought refuge back on his tree stump. “Thanks, Olivia, but that’s it. Perfect. A tall, cat-shaped logo, made from the initials: BCG. I’ll bring some sketches to the next meeting. Any volunteers to make a flag, and how about some membership cards?”

“How about BCG coasters and a tea towel, maybe?” Pam brought us all quickly back to earth.

The temperature had fallen noticeably and the pale, westering sun had now disappeared completely behind an advancing cloudbank. Pam pulled her cardigan more tightly around her shoulders and began to fidget, clear signals that her visit was probably nearing its end. Quickly, Hobbo filled the girls in on the letter idea, which they both excitedly approved of, and then he called for ‘any other business’.

Pam spoke up. “Personally, I’d say next time we need to meet somewhere that’s a bit more, how shall I put it?”

“Indoors?” I suggested.

“Exactly.”

“I’ve slept in worse places than this,” Olivia said, and I could see from her face that she wasn’t joking. Pam, however, was unmoved.

“Your feelings are duly minuted, Pam, and I suppose winter is coming,” Hobbo said, shaking the crumbs off the blanket and folding it. “And on that note, I bring this first meeting of the Black Cat Gang to a close.”

On the way back to school, Pam walked beside me. “Do you think I’m being unreasonable, Sam?” she said. “It’s just that I’m not very comfortable in the big outdoors. Give me a cave, any day.” She smiled, and I smiled back.

“Perhaps it’s something to work on,” I said lightly, “but in the meantime let’s spend some of our Saturday afternoons looking for a Black Cat den, somewhere inside the school. There must be dozens of unused rooms and cubbyholes around the place. For starters, we could explore that section of the Hall nobody ever goes in. If you like, we could make a start this Saturday.”

“I do like,” she replied, and linked arms with me as we crossed the strip of grass to the courtyard entrance, right on time for dinner.

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