Friday, 1 February 2008

Chapter 1

August 1952

He didn’t like the look of the dark red-brick buildings in front of them. They looked like a prison with wire mesh over the windows. He turned round to grab his mother’s hand but she had gone.

“Mummy!” he screamed after the rapidly disappearing figure weaving its way through the crowded playground.

Mrs Fillary carried on walking as if she was deaf.

He didn’t understand why she couldn’t hear him. “Muuuum-eeeeeeeeeee!” he yelled at the top of his voice but at that moment a bright red bus went past and drowned out his cries.

Mrs Fillary reached the school gates on the far side of the playground and turned right into Canberra Road, heading for home. She never looked back.

“Muuuuuuum-eeeeeeeeeeee!” he screamed as he ran across the playground after her. His eyes filled with tears, blinding him.

A hundred young heads swivelled round and watched him with amusement.

He caught up with her and grabbed the back of her long brown woollen coat. “Mummy, mummy, mummy!”

She stopped and turned. She was smiling down at him. She seemed amused by his distress, proud of his dependency.

“Mummy, mummy, mummy.” He pushed his face into the rough folds of her coat. He was sobbing, gasping, gulping in air, hysterical. At that moment he hated her.

She took his hand and dragged him gently back into the playground. She took out a handkerchief and knelt down and dabbed his eyes and wiped the dusty tearstains from his face. The damp linen handkerchief felt rough on his skin. She was hurting him. She handed him the handkerchief. “Here, darling, blow your nose, it’s all runny.”

He did as he was told. “Don’t go, mummy, please don’t go.”

She sighed. “You’re being silly.”

“Don’t leave me. Please.”

“I’ll wait until the bell goes.”

“Don’t leave me!”

“Act your age, darling. You’re a big boy now. Don’t let them think you’re a softy.”

He stopped crying and looked around him. Everyone was watching him. Some of them were pointing in his direction. He realised they were laughing at him and he felt scared and humiliated. He lowered his eyes and stared at his feet. He was wearing his brand new baseball boots. They had looked so nice in the shop but now they just looked stupid. He wanted to go home. He wanted to hide forever. He wanted to die.

The bell rang and everyone formed into lines outside the main entrance to the school. Mrs Fillary looked confused. She didn’t know which line her son should join. A small dark-haired girl in a green jumper noticed her confusion. “Over here,” she hissed, tugging on Mrs Fillary’s sleeve. “Quick, before Sister Bernadette comes out or you’ll be for it.”

Mrs Hillary hauled her son to the end of the little girl’s queue. “You’ll be all right now, darling,” she whispered, “Just do whatever the teacher says.” She bent down and kissed the fine blond hair on the top of her son’s head. Somebody behind them in the adjacent queue sniggered. On the roof of the building in front of them three crows cawed grumpily, shuffling impatiently as they waited for the playground to empty. Above them a jet aeroplane scratched a thin white vapour trail across the clear blue sky as it headed off to America. Mrs Hillary looked up and sniffed the air. It was a good drying day.

At that moment the big double doors into the school were flung open with a clatter of screeching metal. An old man in a blue boilersuit came out and bolted the doors open. Behind him a small, fierce-looking nun dressed all over in black apart from a white collar round her face appeared framed in the archway. To Chris it looked like a vision, like something out of the prayer book he had got for Christmas. He thought maybe she was Joan of Arc. Perhaps she had come here to visit them like people did in miracles. His mum had read to him about that happening in the Old Testament. The crowd of chattering children immediately fell silent as the nun surveyed the scene. The whole thing was miraculous.

Chris looked round for his mother but she had vanished like magic.

He was all alone again. She had abandoned him once more.

He closed his eyes. He was terrified. He tried to think of something nice. He thought about the fort. All that long hot summer he had played down at the fort beside the river, coming and going as he pleased, running wild. He had caught grasshoppers and butterflies and put them in match boxes. If you put a grasshopper in a matchbox and shook it hard its head came off. Now he was the one that was trapped. Alone in this strange playground about to enter a grim and nasty building, a big dark box. Anything might happen to him inside the box.

He opened his eyes and began to cry once more as the nun walked towards him looking grim.

Chapter 2

October 1952

School turned out all right.

He discovered to his surprise that he was the only one in the class who could read properly. Everyone looked at him as he read out a page from "The Big Day Out". One of the girls could read some of the easy words but he was the only one who could read it all the way through. He had been reading for ages, that was how he knew about Joan of Arc and God and the Holy Ghost and that. They were in books he had got for his birthday. He didn’t remember how he had learned to read. He was already a member of the local library. He took out six books at a time which was the most you were allowed. He went every week. He loved reading. His favourite was a book about horses called Black Beauty. He liked reading comics too. The Dandy was his favourite.

Their teacher was called Sister Dominic and she looked pretty like a young saint because of the nun's dress she wore. Sometime when she walked past him her black skirt brushed the side of his face. It was cool and soft and smelled a bit of moth balls. You couldn't see her whole face but it didn't matter because she was always smiling. She had really white teeth. She was impressed that he could read. She put him to the back of the class and gave him a pile of books to get on with while she taught the others to read. Some of the class were very slow on the uptake and they were moved to the front of the class. He noticed that after a few weeks it was mostly the poor kids at the front. Some of them smelled of rotten eggs, others a bit of cabbage and sweat. Dennis Coffee’s nose ran all the time and he never stopped sniffling. He could make himself burp and sometimes he even farted out loud which made everyone laugh. When that happened Sister Dominic blushed and pretended she hadn’t heard. Most of the time it was hard to stop giggling even though you weren't supposed to and you had to make sure you didn’t catch anybody’s eye or you would get an attack of the giggles which you couldn’t stop. If that happened as a punishment you would get hit over the knuckles with a ruler. If you still didn’t stop you got put outside in the corridor. If Sister Bernadette found you there you were for it.

In the playground he did slow-motion fighting with his new friends. Mostly they were cowboys and Indians. He was an Apache. Derek Ryder was always Billy The Kid. Footballs weren’t allowed but someone used to bring in an empty Jif lemon container and they played with that until the janny came out and stopped them. The janny was an old man with white hair and thick black glasses with blue-coloured lenses and no-one liked him. He stopped you doing everything. The next day they got another lemon and did it again. It was fun being part of the crowd and doing something wrong. In the end the janny gave up. They stopped playing when someone threw the Jif ball over the wall..

Derek Ryder soon became his best friend. One morning Derek came to his house and they walked to school together. After that he came every day. The school was five minutes from his house past the big Post Office building that had shiny marble floors where his mum bought stamps to write to her sister in Scotland far away. The road was lined with big old sycamore trees that formed a canopy and it was like walking through a giant tunnel. At one end of the road was the church. There was a convent in between. Then there was the school. They ploughed through the piles of fallen leaves with their feet pretending it was snow. One day Derek put Brylcreem on his hair and combed it straight back like a Teddy Boy. He had a leather jacket and knew how to smoke. You could buy real cigarettes one at a time from the sweet shop if you said they were for your mum. He knew about football too and had been to see a team called Spurs with his dad. That was up in London. You went on the train. London was the capital of Britain and the Empire. Derek was quite clever but he was lazy. He was in the middle of the class. When he grew up he wanted to be a joiner like his dad.

After a bit Patricia Fitzgerald got moved back to the desk beside him. She was very pretty with curly blond hair and Chris blushed whenever she looked at him. They sat together for two years but he never spoke to her because he was too shy. Once she offered him a jelly baby but he shook his head even though he wanted one. Whenever she spoke she had a posh voice. She put her hand up first and answered all the questions until Sister Dominic said give someone else a chance. Her dad was a teacher at the school. Chris knew most of the answers too but he was too shy to put his hand up. Soon she was top of the class and Chris was second. The girls were cleverer than the boys except for Rose Regan. Rose Regan was bottom of the class. She was really thick. She didn’t have a dad and someone said she was really a diddikay. She smelled of rotten eggs and she wore a brace on her teeth because they were all crooked. She wore glasses too and they were held together by elastoplast but they were squint. She chewed gum all the time and never did what she was told. She was tall and she often hit the other boys and called them names. When she farted she didn’t make a noise but you could smell them. No-one liked her. Sometimes she said bad words and got put out into the corridor. She didn’t care. She was the only one who wasn’t scared of Sister Bernadette. When she was out in the corridor they could get on with their work.

After a bit they got homework. Mostly it was copying words and making sentences out of them. Sister Dominic said they were learning to write. Chris wrote with his right hand but Dennis Weaver wrote with his left. He could draw cartoons and pictures really well even though he was left-handed. He wanted to be a fireman when he grew up.

At first his mum met him after school along with the other mums but after a few days she didn’t bother and he went home with Derek Ryder, kicking up the leaves as they walked. They stopped at the sweet shop and bought gobstoppers and liquorice with their pocket money. The shopkeeper said they were lucky. Sweets had only come off the ration not long ago, he said. It was something to do with the war when they beat the Germans.

Chapter 3

November 1952

It was already dark when he prepared to set off for the hairpin bridge. His mum didn’t want him to go in case he got run over but he argued and argued until she let him go.

“Don’t blame me if you get yourself killed,” she muttered as she tucked his scarf into his coat.

He laughed. Nighttime was his favourite. It was exciting and magical even if it was scary. Anything could happen, not like during the day when you could get bored with doing nothing. At night you had to keep your wits about you, stay alert. You had to make yourself into a shadow so that nobody could catch you. You were like a ghost. You could dart in and out of the traffic to cross the road knowing you wouldn't get run over. At night you could be anything you wanted to be. Mostly he was a Plains Indian in the Wild West like in the books he read, floating across the ground, never getting tired, a free spirit. Nighttime was magical providing you never got caught by the big boys or the perverts out there. He loved it when the neon street lamps cast their strange yellow glow over everything and there were lots of dark corners to hide in and the wind was cool on your face as you ran along not daring to look behind you in case there was something there.

All the same he didn’t take the short cut through the bombed-out building site because that was too dark without the street lamps shining in. You never knew what was in there and even in daytime it was scary. Someone said a tramp lived there in a cardboard box. Somebody else said it was a witch. If you weren't carefull you might get kidnapped and carted off somewhere to be a slave. That's what his mum said anyway. She said lots of kids got carted off by the gypsies. You had to keep your wits about you at all times. When he was older he was going to get a penknife to protect himself.

The staircase up to the top of the hairpin bridge was made of railway sleepers and smelled of creosote. You didn’t want to meet anybody else on the staircase at night neither. When you got to the top you could lean over the parapet and stare down on the railway lines thirty feet below. Him and his friends used to spit on the trains as they went underneath, trying to gob down the funnels. The steam came up and made them damp. He loved the smell of the steam and the smoke and the screeching noise the train made as it braked on the bend and the way the bridge shook as the train went underneath.

His dad was working overtime in the shipyard like he did every night at the moment. You had to work overtime to make ends meet, his dad said.

At seven o’clock the hooter sounded down in the docks and a few minutes later the first cars appeared, racing over the bridge. A few more minutes after that a big crowd of men on bicycles rode into view. He jumped up and down anxiously scanning the crowd. It was easy to miss his dad in all the excitement.

Some of the men shouted cheerily at him as they rode past, standing up on their pedals as they struggled up the steep incline.

“All right, son," someone shouted out, "Your old man will be along soon!”

“Don’t worry, nipper, your pa’s right behind us, he can’t keep up with us young ‘uns!” cried out someone else.

They knew who he was because he often went down to meet his dad.

At last he caught sight of his dad, his bicycle rolling from side to side with the effort to pedal up the bridge, a long way behind everyone else, almost as far back as the stragglers who were walking home. He didn’t mind that his dad wasn’t as fast as the rest of them. His dad was older than them. It didn’t matter to him. He loved his dad. “Dad! Dad! It’s me!”

Mr Fillary looked up and smiled. He dismounted and pushed his bike across to the pavement. He was out of breath and he leaned on the handlebars, resting. “I wasn’t expecting you tonight, son. It’s a bit cold for you to be out, isn’t it? I wonder your mother let you come.”

“I talked her into it, dad. She didn’t want me to come but I made her.”

“Well, you’re here now. Jump on.” He hoisted Chris onto the crossbar of the big green bike and pushed it slowly up to the top of the bridge. At the top he paused to get his breath back again. After a few minutes he mounted up and Chris balanced precariously on the crossbar as they set off but as soon as they crossed the flat part of the bridge where it went over the railway line and started on the downslope they picked up speed rapidly and the bike felt much safer. Soon the wind was pulling at his hair. He could smell the diesel and the sweat from his dad’s coat as he sheltered in his arms. He felt safe and happy wrapped in his dad’s coat, like he was wearing a suit of armour. He loved his dad more than anything in the whole world. Riding on a bike with him was the best thing ever even though his bum ached on the crossbar. He laughed out loud with delight when his dad rang the bell even though there was no-one in front of them. It was great that his dad was enjoying it too.

When they got to the bottom of the incline he stayed on the crossbar for a bit until his dad got tired and the bike slowed down and started to wobble then he climbed down and ran alongside. His dad wasn’t quite right because of the war or something and got tired easily, especially after he’d been working all day. That’s what his mum said anyway. It was harder at night too because you had to put on the dynamo to power the lights and that rubbed on the back wheel like a brake.

Chris had a three wheeler of his own but at Christmas he hoped his dad would buy him a proper bike with a dynamo an all so that he could ride alongside his dad at night and stay out late.

That evening, after tea when he’d gone to bed, his dad came up and read him a chapter from Children of the New Forest and Chris was just falling asleep when his dad gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead and he felt his father's bristly unshaven skin and smelled the diesel oil again and the tobacco on his breath.

He fell asleep with a big smile on his face and dreamed of the new bicycle he hoped to get, the red one with straight handlebars and plastic mudguards and ten gears.

And a dynamo to see at night.

Chapter 4

Christmas Day 1952

He didn’t get a proper bike for Christmas after all because his dad said he was too young and anyway there wasn’t much overtime just now and he couldn’t afford it. He got a nearly-new Scalextrix set instead with racing cars that his dad bought off one of the blokes at work. He hid his disappointment because he didn’t want to embarrass his dad or anything. It was a shame but there was nothing you could do. His dad plugged it in and they raced the cars round the track against each other. Chris won every race but he didn’t think his dad was really trying. His mum wouldn’t play. She said she didn’t know how. “It’s easy,” said Chris, showing her how to push the lever on the control console, “Come on mum, have a go.”

But Mrs Fillary said no, it was a boys’ game. She lit a fag and read her Woman’s Own magazine again instead. She never played games. He heard her muttering to herself while they were playing. She thought his dad was stupid spending so much money on a toy. It would just be another fad that he got tired of, like everything else, she said. She kept going on about it.

“Give it a rest, Anne, would you,” said Mr Fillary eventually, “It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake.”

His mum continued muttering to herself but more quietly, although you could still hear the rumbling like a kettle boiling. He thought she might be a bit frightened of his dad but not enough to shut her up completely. She never shut up completely.

The cars kept coming off because they were going too fast round the bends. His dad got tired and wanted to stop but Chris wouldn’t let him. In the end his dad said, “I’ve got to go and make the Yorkshire pudding.”

They were having roast beef and Yorkshire pudding because his mum had left it too late to get a turkey like she was supposed to do. She didn’t like going out of the house and normally sent him to do the shopping but a turkey was too much for him to carry so she never got round to getting one even though his dad had given her the money specially. They had a big row about not having a turkey when his dad found out but Chris didn’t mind about the turkey which he didn’t really like anyway. Last year it was really tough. His dad had got it from a bloke he knew. He had to sneak it home balanced on the saddle of his bike with his coat over it in case the police saw it. It didn't cost much but it was really tough. "I won't buy another turkey from him," his dad said afterwards, picking bits of the turkey from his teeth with his fingernails. His mum nagged him about the turkey for weeks, calling him a mug for buying it like that.

He crossed his fingers that they wouldn’t have another row today because that would spoil everything. The two of them had been fighting a lot recently, all the time really. Chris tried to calm his mum down when this happened but it didn’t usually work. She didn’t listen to what anyone said. His mum blamed his dad for everything so you never knew what was going to set her off. They had roast beef every Sunday and he loved the Yorkshire pudding that went with it. His dad made it in the lid of an enamel casserole dish that was blue and had lots of dimples in it. You poured the batter into boiling hot dripping. Next day you could have bread and dripping to eat if you wanted. Dripping was good if you put lots of salt on it. His dad had learned to cook in the navy. He’d been in the War. He didn’t like to talk about it but his mum said that he’d been torpedoed twice and was lucky to be alive. Once she said she wished he hadn’t been rescued after all but that was only during an argument and she didn’t really mean it. His dad had a collection of war medals upstairs which he let Chris look at now and again.

Because it was Christmas they had the meal in the living room instead of in the scullery where they normally ate. His Dad did most of the cooking. When it was ready he passed the food through a hatch from the scullery and his mum and him put it on the table pretending they were waiters. Even his mum laughed at the joke. As a special treat Chris had some orangeade and the bubbles went up his nose and made him sneeze when he tried to drink it. His dad drank a bottle of Bass which he poured into a tumbler. His Mum wasn’t supposed to drink because she was taking tablets for her nerves but she had a glass of sherry which seemed to put her in a good mood. Before they started they pulled some crackers and then they all wore paper hats, even his mum. She looked at herself in the mirror and laughed, saying how stupid she looked. They both laughed with her because they were happy she was in a good mood. She looked nice when she laughed. Even though she was his mum she was very pretty. When she was younger all the men fancied her. She could have had her pick. That's what she said anyway.

Because it was Christmas they had real gravy which was great even though it was a bit salty.

Afterwards his dad rolled himself a fag with Old Holburn tobacco. His mum smoked Players Weights because they were the cheapest even though they made her cough. He was always being sent out to buy fags or tobacco but he didn’t mind because he usually got something for going.

Then they had the trifle which his mum had made. It was all right but it hadn’t set. His mum said it wasn’t her fault, there must have been something wrong with the custard. Chris said it was all right, he liked it runny. His dad said it was fine, don’t get yourself worked up about it. His mum pushed her plate away, she said she couldn’t eat it, the whole meal was ruined. She started to cry. Chris and his dad ate their bits even though it did taste a bit funny right enough and his mum quietened down in the end and they didn’t have an argument after all. Then they all listened to the wireless. Dick Barton Special Agent came on which they all liked, except his mum. Half way through when it got a bit scary he went over and climbed onto his dad’s lap. He could smell the beer on his dad’s breath, mixed with the smell of oil and sweat that he got from working in the engine rooms of the boats in the docks. Because it was Christmas his dad had shaved and his skin felt soft and smooth. Chris soon fell asleep on his dad’s lap. They stayed like that until it was time for bed.

His mum knelt with him while he said his prayers in his pyjamas and then his dad came up and read him a bit from Treasure Island which his Auntie Mary had given him for Christmas. Auntie Mary lived up in Scotland very far away. They'd been to visit her once and the train had got stuck in the snow. He could just about remember it.

In the end it was a brilliant Christmas even though it hadn’t snowed and he hadn’t got the bike he’d asked for. But at least his mum hadn’t had one of her tantrums, which was the main thing. It was great when she behaved herself like that. It was like having a proper mum.

Chapter 5

January 1953

His dad woke him up, gently shaking his shoulders. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” he whispered.

Chris yawned. He looked up into his dad's face. He had big thick lips and the bottom one stuck out more. His chin was dotted with black hairs because he needed a shave. He had a big nose with lots of hair growing out of it. When he leaned over you you could see right up it. "What is it, dad? Smarties?”

“Look out the window.”

He slid out of bed and climbed up on a chair and peered out of the bedroom window. What he saw was amazing. They were surrounded by water. “What is it?” he gasped.

“It’s a flood. We can’t go downstairs. The house is flooded. The whole street is.”

He gawped down at the muddy brown water. A sofa bobbled down the street on the current. A dog sat on the wall of the house opposite yelping forlornly. They were half a mile from the River Thames. The night before when he went to bed he’d looked out of his window at the familiar houses and gardens tinted yellow from the street lights swaying in the stormy winds. The road that ran past their house had been empty apart from a few parked cars. When he went to sleep everything had been normal apart from the window rattling in the storm. Overnight the world had changed. There was a funny smell in the air like after you went into the bathroom straight after your parents.

“What’s happened, dad?”

“We’re marooned, that’s what. That water’s about three feet deep and it’s filthy. It might get deeper, I dunno. Something’s happened but the radio isn’t working. It’s the storm I think. Here, come and put your clothes on.”

“Are we going to drown.”

His dad looked worried. “We’ll be all right. Don’t worry. Someone will come and rescue us.”

His mum came through to the bedroom. She looked scared. “I’m dying for a fag,” she said, “But they’re all downstairs.”

They heard shouting. They all went and leaned out of the bedroom window. A man in a canoe came down the street.

“What’s happening?” his dad called out.

“Don’t worry,” the man in the canoe called back, “The army’s coming. Stay where you are.”

“Will it get deeper?”

“Shouldn’t do. The high tide is past. “

“What happened?”

“A big storm breached the sea defences further up the coast. There's loads of people been drowned. It's terrible.”

They sat around on his bed waiting for something to happen. It was cold in the house because there was no electricity. They were hungry. And thirsty. There was nothing to drink. The water that came out of the taps in the bathroom was black.

After about an hour his dad stood up. “I’m going down to get something for us to eat,” he said. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off his trousers and socks. Chris had never seen his dad’s bare legs before. They were very hairy and white. There was a big wide scar up his left leg about a foot long and three inches wide where no hair grew. It looked painful. He must have got it in the war. Perhaps the time when he was torpedoed and he was trapped in the engine room. When he got out he floated in the sea all night. The bloke beside him was dead in the morning and his hair had turned completely white. That’s what happened to people in the war, his dad said. The bloke had been his best friend called Ginger.

“Get my fags,” said Mrs Fillary, hitting her chest with her fist as she started coughing.

His dad went down to the scullery in his underpants. They were supposed to be white but they were more like grey because they didn’t have a washing machine so they didn’t get cleaned as often as they should because his mum wasn’t strong enough to work the wringer. His dad usually did the washing on a Sunday if he wasn't working. Chris stood at the top of the stairs and watched him step into the murky water. There was a bad smell wafting up the stairs, like a blocked drain. The water came all the way up to his dad’s waist. “Christ, that’s cold,” his dad gasped as he waded forward.

When he came back up the stairs he was shivering and dripping water. He carried two tins of beans and a tin opener.

“That’s all there is in the larder,” he said.

“What about my fags?”

“Gone. Must’ve floated off somewhere.”

“Did you have a proper look?”

“For Christ’s sake, Anne.”

They ate some cold beans from the tin with a spoon.

“I hope I get rescued in a boat,” said Chris. He’d never been in a boat before.

“I hope they come soon,” said Mrs Fillary. “I’m freezing.”

“Get into bed,” said Mr Fillary.

Mrs Fillary climbed into Chris’s bed and pulled the sheets up to her chin. “Why does it always have to happen to us?” She was shivering with cold.

“It’s not just us, it’s everybody.”

“I wish I was back home in Scotland. We should never have come down here.”

Chris found his book, The Famous Five, and climbed in beside his mum. “I hope it’s a canoe,” he said, giggling with excitement. His dad sat at the window, keeping a lookout.

After about three hours they heard the sound of an engine. They rushed to the window again. It was a was Bedford Army truck just like one of his Dinky Toys. Some soldiers with waders on jumped out and started knocking on their front door. They wrapped him in a grey blanket and one of the soldiers carried him out to the truck. The soldier said, “Don’t worry, son, everything’s gonna be all right.” He spoke in an American accent.

“I wanted to go in a boat,” said Chris, looking glum.

The American handed him a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate. “Maybe you will one day,” he said.

It took three of them to get his mum into the Bedford after she became hysterical because she saw a turd floating in the water at the foot of the stairs.

Chapter 6

June 1953

That morning they went up to Chadwell on the bus to watch the Coronation of the Queen on the television. Apparently the Queen was being crowned because her father had died unexpectedly and they had to have a new Monarch otherwise there was no-one left to run the country. They went to the same house they had stayed in for a month when they’d been evacuated after the flood in January. It was uphill through the council estate after they got off the bus and his mum was soon out of breath and even his dad said he was knackered. It was really hot and he was thirsty so they stopped at a newsagent’s shop and his dad bought him a frozen Jubbly. There was a group of kids playing outside on roller skates and they looked at him funny. He moved closer to his dad just in case. His Dad had his suit on and a white shirt with blood on the collar where he had cut himself shaving. He still had a bit of toilet paper sticking to his chin to stop the bleeding. He had his hair plastered with Brylcreem and combed straight back but bits of it still stuck up at the back. His mum was wearing a hat and gloves like she did when she used to go to church. She was wearing lipstick too and it came off on the fag she was smoking.

Mr Vickers opened the door. He wore the same brown cardigan he had before when they stayed there. He led them into the sitting room and sat down in his favourite chair next to the fire. The house looked the same apart from the telly in the corner. Mr Vickers lit up a pipe while his wife made a pot of tea. He still had his slippers on even though it was the afternoon. He was very fat and his trousers were held up by green braces. The television was a new one they had bought specially. Mr Vickers said they were paying for it on the never-never. He said he had no trouble fixing up the HP because he had a steady job in the shoe factory. Renting a telly was a mug’s game, he said. He was the only person they knew who had a television. Mrs Vickers cleaned the screen with a damp cloth and moved some flowers out of the way so they could all see the picture all right when it was time to switch it on.

“I wish we could afford a telly like that,” his mum said.

“We might,” said his dad, “If the pools come up.”

They all laughed, except Chris. He didn’t care if his dad couldn’t afford a telly. He preferred his books out the library. They didn’t cost anything neither.

The house smelled funny like it did before. Other people’s houses always smelled funny. This one smelled of burnt bacon.

His mum hadn’t wanted to go because she was too tired but his dad said, “Come on, Anne, you’ll enjoy seeing the Queen being crowned.”

So in the end, after a lot of fussing about so that they nearly missed the bus, his mum came.

After the kettle had boiled they all had tea and some fruit cake which came from the Co-op. Chris didn’t like the taste of the fruit cake but he ate it to be polite. He didn’t want to show his mum up by behaving badly when they were in company.

“So how have you both been keeping since we last saw you?” said Mr Vickers, removing the pipe from his mouth.

“Mustn’t grumble,” his dad said.

“You have to make the best of it, don’t you,” said his mum.

“What about the young lad. Still growing I see.”

His mum laughed. “He’s eating us out of house and home. He’s going to be as tall as his grandfather if you ask me.”


“His grandfather on my side was six feet five.”

“That is tall.”

They finished the rest of their tea in silence. Mr Vickers studied the Radio Times. “It starts at three,” he said eventually.

Nobody said anything. You could hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. Mrs Vickers got up and started to clear away the dishes. His mum used to say she was too house-proud by half.

“Switch it on, will you,” said Mr Vickers to his wife.

Mrs Vickers eyed the television nervously. They all watched her, wondering what would happen. Eventually she bent down and pushed a button under the screen. There was a loud pop and then a buzzing noise. They all watched nervously as the buzzing noise grew louder. Then the screen flickered like it was snowing.

“It takes a while to warm up,” explained Mr Vickers, pointing at it with his pipe, “What would you like to drink, Anne?”

“Oh, I won’t bother. Drink doesn’t agree with me.”

“Go on, it’s a special occasion. It’s not every day the Queen gets crowned, is it. Have a glass of sherry.”

“Oh, all right. Just the one.”

“What about you, Henry?”

Chris didn’t know his dad’s name was Henry.

“Don’t mind if I do. I’ll have a stout, please, Charles.”

The Coronation went on all afternoon. The picture was in black and white and a bit fuzzy like it was raining but you could still make out what was going on. It was in London. Most of the time there just seemed to be a big crowd waiting for the Queen to appear in her horse-drawn carriage on her way to getting crowned.

Chris sat in a corner reading William The Outlaw while the grown-ups chatted and drank.

Later on they had their tea on their laps in front of the telly. They had boiled ham and a boiled egg with potatoes. At eight o’ clock his dad said it was time for him to go to bed. As he climbed the stairs he could hear them laughing and talking loudly. He thought they might be drunk although he’d never seen anyone like that before. Later on he was woken up by the sound of shouting and screaming. It sounded like his mum. He thought about going downstairs and asking her to be quiet but he knew she wouldn’t listen. He should have got her to come up to bed when he went. Usually she fell asleep without much trouble. It was the best time of the day when she went to bed. He shoved his head under the pillow to drown out the noise. Somebody banged on the wall from the house next door.

In the morning the three of them got up early and went to catch the bus without having breakfast even though he was starving. They didn’t say goodbye to anyone. It felt like they were running away. Chris felt ashamed. Somehow he felt it was all his fault. He shouldn’t have bullied his mum into coming.

“You shouldn’t have let them talk to me like that,” his mum said as they stood at the bus stop.

His dad made a face.

“You should’ve stuck up for me like a real man. No wonder I was black affronted.”

“They didn’t mean anything. You took it all wrong.”

“That’s right. Blame me for it all. As usual.”

“What did they say?” said Chris.

They waited for the bus in silence. His dad looked really miserable and he wanted to go and hold his hand but he knew his mum would be upset if he did. She got jealous really easily. He could imagine how she must have behaved with a drink in her. She was bad enough when she was sober. She didn’t know when to shut up, that was the problem. It was the same at home. She never stopped.

It was the last time they ever went out together to visit anyone.

Chapter 7

November 1953

Billy Beckforth was his new best friend. Billy was clever too and sat just in front of him in class. Billy had straight black hair combed forward into his eyes. He had freckles and buck teeth which meant he had to wear a brace. He had a posh voice too because he was adopted and he wasn’t really from round here.

One afternoon after school he went round to Billy’s house to play. They played soldiers in the war. Billy was the Germans and Chris was the paratroopers. He took his own soldiers with him because they were his favourites and they played up in Billy’s bedroom. Nobody really won, they just made up the rules as they went along. In the proper world the English won the war. After they finished their game Mrs Beckforth gave them lemon curd sandwiches and Ribena to drink. Then it was time to go home. He said goodbye politely and thanked Mrs Beckforth for giving him a nice tea. Mrs Beckforth was really nice and sometimes he wished she was his mum instead. Then he thought he shouldn’t think like that and maybe it was the sin of envy or something and anyway his own mum was all right really. She just suffered from nerves, that was all. She worried too much, that was the problem. Most of the time she was all right, especially when she laughed. It was great when she laughed.

When he went outside it was much darker than usual. Normally it was only five minutes walk to his house. When he ran it only took about two minutes. Tonight he couldn’t run because it was so foggy. As soon as he moved away from the street lamp in front of Billy’s house it became pitch black. He held his hand out in front of his face but he couldn’t see it. He looked down at his feet but he couldn’t see them either. There was a funny taste in the air and it hurt to breathe. He started coughing. He tried to turn back but Billy Beckford’s house had disappeared in the fog. He felt a bit dizzy. He started walking in what he thought was the direction of his own house.

After a bit he realised he was lost. It was the fog. It was so thick you couldn’t see nothing. He walked into a chain link fence and scratched his face and then he grazed his right knee when he bumped into a wall. He started crying. He wanted to go back to Billy Bickford’s but he didn’t know which way it was any more. He started to scream but no-one came. The fog muffled his screams.

Then he tried to find the edge of the pavement but it wasn’t there. After a bit he stood on a cat’s eye and realised he was walking in the middle of the road. Very slowly he edged back across the road until he came to the pavement. He sat down on the edge with his feet in the gutter and started screaming again.

“Mummeeee! Mummeeeee!” But no-one could hear him and no-one came.

He didn’t have a coat and he was getting very cold. His jumper was damp from the fog. His teeth started chattering. Suddenly a car went past very slowly, its headlights blazing dimly like lights in the sky. The car was about a foot away from him but he could hardly see it. He yelled out but the driver didn’t hear him.

He got up and started walking along with one foot on the pavement and one in the road. When he came to a drain cover he fell over and grazed his other knee really sore. He picked himself up and kept going, limping along. There was nothing else he could do.

Eventually he came to another street lamp. He couldn’t see the top of the lamp, it was just a dull yellow haze like the moon when it went behind a cloud. He clung onto the street lamp and started crying again. He had wet himself because he was so scared and his trousers and pants were cold and wet. He started praying in case he was going to die. “Our Father who art in Heaven…”

He had no idea where he was. He started to think about what might happen to him. A gang might come along and do him over. He might get abducted like that time a foreign bloke came up to him and said Come with me to India I will never never leave you and he had screamed and run home the long way in case he was being followed. He tried not to think about what might happen to him. Instead he repeated the prayer over and over again. “Our Father who art in Heaven…”

Then he heard a man’s voice. “Blimey, it’s a kid.”

A man and a woman appeared out of the fog, leaning over him like angels with haloes from the light of the street lamp behind them. “What’s the matter, son, are you all right?”

“I can’t see where I’m going. I want to go home.”

“It’s a real pea souper, all right,” said the woman, “It’s that London smog rolling down the river.”

The man asked him where he lived. He told him his address. The woman said, “That’s just round the corner. Here, hold my hand and we’ll take you.”

Her hand was warm and soft. She put her arm round him. He reached up and clung to her waist.

When they reached his house he thanked them and they left him at the front door.

His mum said, “Where have you been all this time? I’ve been worried sick about you.”

He had his tea and went early to bed. He hung his underpants and trousers on a chair so that they’d be dry in the morning. He was exhausted and had a headache. In the middle of the night he had a nightmare about being buried alive in a coffin and scratching at the lid and almost suffocating. After the nightmare woke him up he had to get up and be sick in the bathroom. He could still taste the smog, like coal dust, in his mouth.

Before he climbed back into bed he knelt down and thanked God for saving his life. He also promised God that he wouldn’t ever stay out late again and that next time he went to mass he would light a candle to God as a token of his eternal gratitude.

Chapter 8

Christmas 1953

He woke up early. Father Christmas had been and filled his stocking while he was asleep. He sat up in bed and worked his way through it. On the top there were bars of Frys Five Boys chocolate and apples and oranges. There was also a Red Indian headdress made with big feathers which he put on and a small water pistol which he shoved into his pyjamas. There was a book too - The Fighting Formula - which he started reading while he ate the chocolate. He was a quarter of the way through the book when his mum called him down for breakfast. He couldn’t eat anything when he came down but for once he didn’t get told off. He looked around the kitchen but there was no sign of any other presents. He pretended to be cheerful even though he was disappointed. He knew his dad couldn’t afford much, especially when there wasn’t much overtime. It was a shame but it couldn’t be helped. When he grew up he would make lots of money and give plenty to his dad.

At half past eight his mum made him put on his suit and together they went off to church for Christmas mass. He wore his new tie with the Dan Dare transfer on it. His dad had showed him how to do a Windsor Knot before he went back to bed and had a lie-in instead because he was Church of England and he’d been out drinking with some of his mates from work the night before and wasn’t feeling chipper.

He held his mum’s hand as they walked to church. As usual she seemed very nervous about going. When they reached the driveway into the church she stopped. “I don’t feel very well,” she said.

He knew she was scared of being told off for not going more often by Father Byrne in front of everybody. He pulled her gently forward. “Don’t worry, mum, if Father Byrne says anything I’ll tell him you’ve been ill.”

When they got to the church she gave him threepence for the collection. On the way in he crossed himself with the Holy Water from the font in the entrance. There was no sign of Father Byrne.

As soon as they sat down she took out her rosary beads and started praying with her eyes closed and her head bowed and her scarf pulled down over her eyes so that no-one would recognise her. Despite the noise of people coming in and all the coughing and sniffling from the people who were already there he could hear her whispering quite clearly. It was the Our Father over and over again said very fast. She kept getting out of breath and starting again and gasping like she was drowning. He wished she’d turn it down a bit in case anyone else heard but he was afraid that if he said anything he might get her started. The wooden pews were hard and cold and made his bottom itch (You couldn’t say bum in church because it was a rude word). He wriggled and squirmed to try and get rid of the itch, lifting one cheek at a time off the bench. Cheek was all right to say, it was only a bit rude, he thought, although he wasn’t absolutely sure. He’d have to look it up in the dictionary when he got home just in case.

“Stop fidgeting,” hissed Mrs Fillary, “You’ll show us all up.”

The man kneeling in front of them had really bad breath and the smell made Chris feel ill. To try and take away the pong he rubbed his fingers through his hair and then held his hands to his nose. The scent from the Brylcreem made him feel a bit better but not much. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could last without being sick.

Father Byrne came out followed by six altar boys. After his confirmation he was going to be an altar boy too and wear a cassock and a surplice and speak Latin like them. He might even get to have a go of the gold thingummyjig on a chain which held the incense. When you swung it the smoke came out more.

The mass went on forever and he struggled to keep his eyes open. When the collection came round he put his threepence on the tray and his mum put in sixpence. Some people only put in pennies and the bloke with the bad breath didn’t put in nothing at all although he pretended to which Chris thought might be a sin. The sin of omission perhaps.

After mass they hurried out before anyone could talk to them. The fresh air smelled wonderful after that bloke in front of them’s bad breath.

“I don’t know why they’re all staring at me,” said Mrs Fillary, “Anyone would think I’ve got two heads.”

Chris didn’t think anyone was staring at her but he didn’t say anything in case he upset her again.

When they got home his dad was up and dressed. He was standing behind a big cardboard box in the scullery with a wide grin on his face. Chris could tell immediately that something good was up. “What is it, dad?” he said, barely able to contain his excitement.

“It’s your main present, isn’t it. Did you think you weren’t getting one?”

Chris was amazed. He really had thought he’d had all his presents. This was a real surprise. “What is it, dad, tell me, tell me?” he cried, jumping up and down with excitement.

“You’d better open it and find out.”

He tore at the cardboard until he was breathless but it was too thick to tear. “I can’t get it open,” he gasped, tears of frustration welling up in his eyes.

“Don’t panic,” his dad said. He went into the scullery and returned with the bread knife. “Stand back,” he said, then he started slicing open the box.

Chris' eyes widened as the present was revealed. “It’s a bike! It's a bike. A proper two wheeler! And it’s got straight handlebars an’ all!”

The bike was blue which was the best colour. It had two small outrider wheels attached to the back to keep it upright. He pushed the bike out into the street and rode it up and down the pavement as his mum and dad watched him from the porch. It was much better than his old three wheeler, at least twice as fast, maybe more. After a bit his dad called him over and adjusted the saddle with a special tool so that he could just reach the ground with his toes. It had three gears which you adjusted with a lever on the handlebars using your thumb. They weren’t proper racing gears like he’d asked for but they were better than nothing.

In the middle of the afternoon they had their Christmas dinner which was turkey with all the trimmings and a special Christmas pudding from Marks and Spencers which his dad had bought months before. His mum had a glass of port to drink while his dad had two bottles of bass. Chris had as much of a new bottle of Tizer as he could drink which was about three quarters and made him burp. His mum laughed when he did a really loud one even though she told him that he had the manners of a pig.

Afterwards Mr Fillary rolled himself a fag from his packet of Old Holburn. After he lit the fag he stood up and said, “Let’s go to the park and see what this bike can really do.”

The three of them set off together but he got there miles before them. While his mum and dad sat on a bench and smoked he cycled round and round the park. Soon he managed to do a complete circuit without falling off.

When he’d been round a dozen times his dad stood up and called him over. He took a spanner out of his coat pocket and unscrewed the stabilisers. Mrs Fillary looked worried. “I don’t know if you should be doing that, we haven’t paid for it yet.”

“How are they going to know?”

“He might fall off,” protested Mrs Fillary.

“He’ll be all right.”

“Dad, I’m scared. Hold me up. Please.”

“You’ll be all right. I’ve got you.” Mr Fillary held onto the back of the saddle as Chris pedalled slowly away. The bike wobbled but somehow he managed to stay upright.

“Don’t let go, dad,” he shouted as he gathered speed.

“You’re all right. Keep going,” his dad gasped as he trotted along behind him.

“Don’t let go!” He pedalled even faster, gathering speed. “Promise you won’t let go!”

There was no reply. He looked round quickly. His dad was thirty yards back, his hands on his hips, grinning.

He wobbled but somehow managed to stay upright. He was terrified he was going to fall off and hurt himself. When he came to the first corner he nearly went into the wall but somehow he managed to get round. The next corner was easier as he leant over at an angle. He started going faster and faster. He was flying, like a bird. He passed his mum and dad on the bench again. “Look at me I’m cycling!” he called out without daring to look across at them in case he fell off. He went round and round the park on his own. He was free. He was a bird. He could go anywhere he wanted. Anywhere in the whole wide world. Even Epping Forest where the others sometimes went in a gang looking for birds eggs.

As the wind whistled through his hair he decided this was easily the best day of his life. Speed was brilliant. As he stood up on the pedals to make the bike go faster he made a promise to himself that when he was older he was going to get a motor bike and go round the world.

Chapter 9

June 1954

His dad knelt in the hall beside the coal bunker. He lit a candle which he had stuck onto a saucer using hot wax. He was wearing welder’s gloves that he had borrowed from work. “Pass me that bit of glass, Chris.”

Chris passed him the postcard-sized sheet of glass that had been wrapped in brown paper.

His dad held the glass over the flame using the tongs from the coal scuttle. Soon one side of the glass was covered in soot. He turned the glass over and blackened the other side. When he had finished he dropped the glass onto an old copy of the Daily Express he had laid out on the floor in front of him.

“Wait till it cools,” he said, smiling at Chris. He looked pleased with his handiwork.

“What’s it for, dad?”

“You’ll see.”

“Oh, go on, tell me.”

“It’s for something that only happens once in a lifetime.”

Chris couldn’t guess what the glass was for. He knew his dad liked watching mysteries on the telly, which only built up the excitement.

His dad looked at his watch. “Go and give your mum a shout.”

His mum was upstairs having a lie down, as she did most days lately. Chris called up to her from the bottom of the stairs. “”What is it now?” she shouted back, “Can’t I get any peace in this house.”

“Dad says you’ve to come down here. Hurry up or you’ll miss it.”

“Miss what?”

“I dunno. He won’t tell me.”

A few minutes later his mum shuffled down the stairs to the scullery. She was wearing a headscarf because she still had her curlers in. Mr Fillary held up the smoked glass to the bare light bulb above his head.

“Perfect,” he said, “Right let’s go into the garden.”

They trooped in single file into the garden.

“I haven’t got my jumper,” his mum said, “I’ll freeze. What are you dragging us out here for anyway? You’re not right in the head.”

Squinting, Mr Fillary pointed to the sun which was directly overhead in a cloudless blue sky. “See that. That’s why we’re here.”

Mrs Fillary frowned. She didn’t understand and she didn’t like surprises. “Stop playing the fool,” she said, but she looked more intrigued than angry.

“What about the sun, dad? What’s going to happen?”

There’s going to be a total eclipse,” his dad said as he peered up into the sky through the smoked glass, “Sometime within the next five minutes.”

“What’s an eclipse?” demanded Chris.

“You’re an eejit, you’ll go blind.”

“No I won’t. This’ll protect me.” He showed her the smoked glass.

“Don’t let Chris look through it, for heaven’s sakes.”

“He’ll be all right. Just a quick look when the time comes.”

“What’s an eclipse, mum?”

“Ask your father, he’s the one getting all het up about it.”

“What’s an eclipse, dad?”

“It’s when the moon passes in front of the sun.”

“What happens?”

“Well, I’ve only ever seen a partial eclipse before when I was in Brazil but you’ll see a shadow on the sun and it should start to get dark.”

“Let me have a look. Please.”

Mr Fillary frowned. “Your mother’s right. Wait till it starts to get dark then you can have a look.”

A few minutes later Mr Fillary squinted up at the sun through the smoky glass. “That’s it starting now,” he announced.

“Let me see. Let me see.”

“Not yet. In a minute.”

It suddenly started to get dark. The temperature dropped rapidly. Mrs Fillary shivered. “I’m freezing. I’m going inside.” She scuttled off, looking a bit scared.

“Let me have a look, dad.”

Mr Fillary passed the glass to his son. His fingers were blackened from the soot. Chris peered up at the sun through the glass. Even though the glass was very black it was hard to look directly at the sun.

“Can you see the shadow?”

“I think so.”

“Okay, that’s enough.”

The sun did not disappear completely but for a few seconds it became very dark as if it was nighttime and all the street lamps weren’t working. The birds stopped singing. It became even colder. It was pretty scary.

Eventually it started to brighten up again. He could feel his bones warming up as the sun was revealed. Mr Fillary put his arm around his son’s shoulder and led him back into the house. “You’ll always remember this day, Chris, as long as you live. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

“It’s a special day, then, is it?”

“It certainly is.”

“In that case, can I have some chocolate as well?”

Mr Fillary laughed. “I suppose so. Don’t tell your mum, though.”

Chris giggled. “I won’t.” He loved it when they were conspirators together, outwitting his mum, who never let them do anything.

Chapter 10

September 1954

Every Wednesday for the past two months he’d been going to special classes after school to prepare for his First Communion. His mum was supposed to go too but she gave him a note for Father Byrne saying that her nerves weren’t right and she couldn’t manage to come with him.

Eventually the time came when he was ready to attend Church to make his first confession. He was told by Father Byrne to be there at eleven. His mum made him wear his suit before she sent him off even though it was only Saturday. When he got there he found there were three old ladies in the pew in front of him. Each one of them took forever in the confessional, at least ten minutes each. He wondered what sins they had committed that took so long to confess. They didn’t look that wicked. They were so old it was hard to imagine what they had been up to. Eventually it was his turn.

He went into the confessional at the side of the altar and closed the curtain behind him. He kneeled down on the long narrow cushion that covered the wooden bench and looked up at the grill. It was very dark and behind the grill the priest had pulled a thin black curtain across the opening so that he was almost invisible. He wasn’t sure who was supposed to speak first so he coughed aloud to let the priest know he was there and waited nervously for the inquisition to begin.

He could hear the priest wheezing on the other side of the grill and his heart sank. He was sure it was old Father Cassidy which meant he was bound to get a big penance whatever he confessed. Father Cassidy was Irish and he had a lopsided face that was smooth and red. He talked funny like he had been drinking and it wasn’t easy to make out what he was saying. He was always in a bad mood. When he was giving a sermon from the pulpit it was always doom and gloom, especially if you were a sinner. If you were a sinner you were bound to go to Hell because God had no time for you. Chris swallowed hard. There was even a chance he might not get absolution. If Father Cassidy sent him away without forgiving him his sins and he got run over it was possible his soul could end up in Hell, burning in the fires, forever in agony. It was a scary thought. Dying gave him nightmares as it was but the thought of going to Hell was even more terrifying and made him want to cry. Kneeling there in the dark he felt like his soul was in danger of being condemned to eternal damnation if he didn’t say the right thing.

“Well, my son, so you’ve been a bad boy and you’re here to confess all your sins and obtain absolution.” It was Father Cassidy. He could recognise that thick Irish accent anywhere.

“Yes, father.”

“What’s that? Speak up.”

“Yes, father.”

“Is this your first confession?”

“It is, father.”

“I see. Mind you tell the truth then. Remember we can’t hide from God.”

“Yes, father.”

There was a pause before the priest spoke again. “Well, get on with it then, ‘Bless me father, for I have sinned…’”

Chris had been worrying about this moment for weeks. The thing was, he knew he was supposed to be a sinner and that his soul was black from original sin and all the venial sins as well piled on top he hadn’t really been able to think of any sins that he’d actually committed. The truth was he had nothing to confess but he knew no-one would believe that. Everyone has sins to confess. They might even accuse him of arrogance before God because we are all sinners, without exception. Arrogance before God was a mortal sin. This thought had been bothering him all night and he’d hardly slept a wink. Eventually, out of desperation, he’d been forced to make up a few sins so he said, “Bless me father for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” He paused. He couldn’t remember what he was supposed to say next.

“Yes, yes, we already know that. Get on with it or we’ll be here all day.”

Chris frowned. It was worrying that he hadn’t even started yet and already the priest was angry with him. “Sorry, father. Okay. These are my sins. I was cheeky to my mother twice. I was indolent in getting up three times and was late for school as a result (he wasn’t – he was never late for school), I coveted my best friend’s new bike (this was a brainwave and it really was true – it had proper racing gears).”

“Yes, yes. Good. What else have you done wrong?”

“That’s it, father. I haven’t done anything else.”

“Are you sure? Have you given this proper thought? What about girls?”

Chris was taken aback. What about girls? What was it about girls that was sinful? He wracked his brains for anything they’d been told in their communion classes but nothing rang a bell. He didn’t think girls had even been mentioned unless that was the class he’d missed because he’d been sick after eating some tomatoes. “I don’t think so,” he said eventually.

“No impure thoughts? Nothing like that?”

Chris wasn’t exactly sure what an impure thought was but he didn’t think he had had any. “No, father.”

The priest grunted. He didn’t sound very pleased at Chris’s lack of wickedness. “All right, my son, if you’re really sure that you’ve told me everything, that you’re holding nothing back. For your penance say ten Hail Mary’s, ten Our Father’s and ten Acts of Contrition.”

Chris was shocked. It seemed a lot for so little. On the other hand it was better than going to Hell for the rest of Eternity. “Yes father,” he said meekly.

“And make sure you stay out of trouble before your first communion tomorrow. “

“Yes, father.”

“Above all keep your mind pure.”

“Yes, father.”

After he’d done his penance in front of the altar and stepped back into the bright sunshine on the pavement outside the church Chris felt as if a great weight had fallen from his shoulders. For the first time since he had been baptised he was in a perfect state of grace. He was pure and cleansed of evil. He skipped home with a joyous heart, singing and laughing aloud. He made up his mind to go to confession every week and obtain regular absolution for all his sins. He wanted to feel like this all the time.

When he met his mother she said, “You look like the cat who got the cream.”

“I’m in a state of grace,” he said, grinning.

She grunted. “We’ll see how long that will last.”

But her eyes were smiling and they both laughed as she gave him a cuddle. He knew she was proud of him and it made him feel even better.

Chapter 11

September 1954

That night he dreamt of Patricia Fitzgerald.

In his dream she let him kiss her on the lips. When he woke up he remembered his dream. It was still very vivid. His willy was hard too – he could feel it pressing against his pyjamas - and felt funny. He knew immediately that he’d done something wrong. He tried to understand what had happened. In the end he decided he had been visited by the devil in the night like they warned you about at school. The devil was always sneaking about and lurking in the shadows. When you were asleep you were off your guard, that’s what Sister Bernadette said.

Despite his best efforts he knew in his heart he had committed a sin. His soul was no longer as white as the driven snow like it was supposed to be. He remembered Father Cassidy’s words and he knew he had had an impure thought. The funny thing was, he thought, if Father Cassidy hadn’t mentioned the dangers of girls and put the idea in his head it might never have happened.

And then he realised he couldn’t go to communion because he was no longer in a state of grace.

When his mum came to get him up in time for mass he pretended he was still asleep.

She shook him gently by the shoulder.

He groaned.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m not feeling well.”

His mother looked annoyed. “What’s wrong with you now?”

“I’ve got tummy ache, mum.”

“You’ll be all right. I’ll give you some Enos.”

“Mum, I’m not well.”

“This is your big day. You’ve got a new suit. Stop being a sissy. Get up and get dressed.”

“I’ve got belly ache, mum.”

“Stop acting the goat. There’s nothing wrong with you. I’ve put your clothes on the chair here. Get dressed and come down stairs.”

He wasn’t allowed to eat for an hour before his communion so that when they eventually set off for church he was so hungry he really did have tummy ache.

He was dressed in his new suit. It was brown and had long trousers, the first time he’d worn them. The trousers were made of something like tweed and they were rough and tickled his knees but not in a nice way. He had on a clean white shirt that was too big for him because it had to last and a blue tie with Mickey Mouse printed on it. It was the only tie he had after his Dan Dare one got ruined in the wash when the transfer came off. His dad had several ties but they were all too big. His dad was sitting smoking in the kitchen. He was wearing his suit as well.

“You coming too?”

“Of course. It’s a big day, isn’t it. I may not be a Catholic but I’m not a Heathen.”

Chris was amazed his dad was coming with them. He’d never been to church with both of them before. He knew his dad didn’t like priests much – he didn’t really believe in God at all since the War. Chris walked in the middle and held his parents’ hands. He was really proud even though he wasn’t in a state of grace. He prayed for a miracle to happen and save his soul before the communion service started.

There were lots of other kids from his school making their First Communion as well. They all sat together at the front. They were all a bit nervous except for Derek Ryder who kept giggling until his mum gave him a swipe across the back of the head with a prayer book that really hurt. Then he started snivelling. His mum gave him a handkerchief and told him to blow his nose which he did really loudly. He looked across at Chris and winked. Chris bit his lip and looked away. He didn’t want to incur God’s wrath any further by laughing in church.

Half way through the mass all the young kids who were doing their First Communion were told to get up and come to the altar by Sister Bernadette. He kneeled down on the step and rested his elbows on the rail that guarded the altar. He was in the middle. He watched Father Byrne out of the corner of his eye as he started giving the Holy Sacrament to the other kids. He began to feel faint. He knew what he was doing was a mortal sin because his soul was black from the impure thoughts. He had to bite his lip to stop himself from crying. He wanted to stand up and run away but he was too shy to create a scene. He knew he would just have to take his punishment in Purgatory or worse when he died.

When his turn came his mouth was dry with fear and he couldn’t swallow the Eucharist. The body of Christ was still in his mouth when he returned to his pew. His mum smiled at him as he knelt down and his dad leaned towards him and whispered, “Well done, son, I’m proud of you.”

He got the body of Christ off his teeth with his tongue. He was tearing the body to shreds and he was scared in case there was going to be lots of blood. It didn’t taste of blood though, more like an ice cream wafer.

Outside the church his dad shook his hand and his mother gave him a hug. He was very careful crossing the road on the way home. He knew if he got run over and killed he would go to Hell because his soul was now completely blackened with mortal sin after his sacrilegious act which was an affront to God.

After he got home he climbed the stairs up to his room and buried his face in the bed cover and cried his eyes out. When his mum came up to get him to come down for his tea he pretended he was asleep. He wasn’t hungry and anyway he thought that by not eating it would be like doing penance. He even thought that maybe if he starved himself to death God would forgive him.

Next Saturday he would have to go to confession and tell the priest the wicked thing he had done that day and the thought terrified him and kept him awake long into the night.

Chapter 12

September 1954

When the following Saturday came he went to confession again. He had been unable to sleep the night before worrying about it. His mum thought he might be going down with measles or something.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It is one week since my last confession.”

“Very good, my child. Confess to God through me all the things you have done wrong and for which you seek absolution.”

He smiled in the darkness. It was Father Byrne. He liked Father Byrne. He didn’t think Father Byrne would question him so closely about how evil he had been. “Well, father, I was cheeky to my mother three times (this was not strictly true although he had debated with her about what time he had to go to bed on Thursday). I was late for school twice through my own indolence (untrue again but he had to say something). I didn’t do what I was told once (again untrue – despite his vigorous protests he went to bed on time on Thursday). I am sorry for these AND ALL MY SINS.” He said the last phrase slowly and deliberately so that there could be no misunderstanding. At the same time he carefully included in his mind both the impure thoughts about Patricia Fitzgerald and the fact that he had taken communion while not in a state of grace as well as the little white lies he had just told.

“You are truly repentant, my son?”

“Yes, father.”

“And you will do your best not to commit any of these sins again?”

Chris hesitated. It was going to be very difficult to think up new sins for his next confession if he did that. “I’ll try not to, Father.”

“Very good. God loves you because you have truly repented. Say five Hail Marys and five Our Fathers.”

“Yes, father. Thank you father.” This time it seemed like a fair penance.

Once again the sun shone and the birds sang when he stepped out of the church after doing his penance.

He was so happy and relieved at obtaining absolution that he started to cry. Thanks to God’s bountiful charity towards even the worst sinners he wouldn’t be going to Hell after all. Before he climbed into bed that night he promised God that he wouldn’t ever again dream of any more girls, not even Patricia Fitzgerald who he really, really fancied with all his heart.

Chapter 13

March 1955

He was doing really well at school. It seemed to him that he read a lot more than everybody else. As well as all the library books he took out he read the Daily Express. At night he often listened to the radio. He wasn’t top of the class but he was third behind Patricia Fitzgerald and Jean Welsh and he was better than both of them at reading. After the Easter holidays they started studying the Romans. He bought a book about them out of the pocket money he saved from giving up sweets for Lent. At the weekend he went with David Vincent on his bike to a quarry near Grays to look for fossils and pottery and stuff but they didn’t find any. It was scary and exciting in the quarry because they were trespassing and would get sent to prison if they got caught. David Vincent said they were too young to go to prison and they would more likely be sent to a Borstal instead. Neither of them was really sure what a Borstal looked like but it probably had high walls and bars on the windows. You would have to eat gruel and take a cold bath in the morning, probably.

On the way back they went into the woods and looked for birds’ nests. They found a blackbird’s nest with four eggs in it. He picked up one of the eggs. He could feel the warmth from it in the palm of his hand. He put it back carefully and they crept away and hid in the bushes. A few minutes later the mother blackbird appeared and sat on the nest. He decided he would ask for a pair of binoculars for his birthday in April so he could do more birdwatching.

When they got back to Tilbury it was getting dark and all the street lights had come on so that everything was dark yellow. He said goodbye to David Vincent and turned into Bermuda Road. In one of the old houses at the other side of the street there was a light on in the bathroom window and he could see the outline of a girl standing up in the bath through the frosted glass. It was a bit fuzzy but he didn’t think she was wearing any clothes. He pulled on his brakes and sat and watched as she bent over to dry herself with her towel.

He felt his willy moving in his pants. His heart began to beat faster. He had never seen a naked girl before. He looked away. He knew what he was doing was wicked. He knew that if he kept looking he would be committing a mortal sin. He carried on down the road with his eyes averted from the window.

When he got home he was proud of himself for not giving in to temptation but that night he couldn’t sleep for thinking about the girl in the window without any clothes on.

Chapter 14

September 1955

His mum sent him down the shops to get fags. With the money he got for going he bought some Flying Saucers. They were brilliant. He loved the way they exploded in his mouth.

He was walking back beside the old garages when a kid he didn’t know ran to catch him up. The kid was tall and looked about fifteen. He was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket and had his black hair slicked back like a Teddy Boy and he had a bit of a moustache. Chris looked away, pretending the boy wasn’t there.

“I know you,” the kid said, leaning down so that their faces were almost touching.

Chris felt there was something bad about the boy. His could feel his heart racing. He carried on walking and pretending the boy wasn’t there.

“What’s your name?”

He felt faint. He didn’t want to tell him anything but he was too scared to keep quiet any longer in case he made the boy angry. “Chris,” he said, feeling ashamed for some reason.

“I know where you live.” He laughed as he spoke. He was enjoying himself. “Where you bin?”

“I’ve been shopping for my mum.”

“What you got?”

“I got her cigarettes.” For no apparent reason he heard himself adding, “She’s an invalid.”

“Let’s have a butchers.”

Chris took the packet of cigarettes out of his trouser pockets and showed them to the boy. He kept his eyes lowered. He was too scared to look directly at the boy.

“Give ‘em to me.”

He handed the packet over. “My dad will get you for this,” he said, fighting back the tears.

The boy stopped and faced him. “I know your dad an’ all. He’s a ponce. I know all about you and your family. You’re all fucking diddiquoys. You tell your dad if he comes near me I’ll fucking kill him then I’ll come after you.”

Chris burst into tears. The boy leaned back and took a swing at him. His fist hit Chris on the side of the forehead, knocking him over. He lay with his face pressed onto the rough concrete road sobbing uncontrollably. His head hurt like it was the worse headache he had ever had. He thought he was on fire. He was sobbing so hard he couldn’t breathe. He thought he was going to die.

When he eventually raised his head the boy had disappeared. His face was covered in dust. Snot ran down his nose. He picked himself up and touched the side of his head. It was tender and swollen. He felt unsteady on his feet. He was only a couple of minutes away from his house but he set off in the opposite direction and took a long way home in case he was being followed.

When he got home he sneaked up to his room and got out enough pocket money to buy more fags. He crept out the back door and climbed over the garden gate after first making sure that there was no-one around. He went the long way round to the shops and bought another packet of fags and ran all the way back down back alleys and through peoples’ gardens.

There was no sign of the boy.

His mum asked him what had happened to his face. He said he had fallen over. She washed off the dust and dabbed some Dettol onto the grazed bits and made him cry again with the stinging pain.

Later that night she asked him to go down to the chip shop for three fish suppers but he said his head still hurt and they had beans on toast instead.

He didn’t tell his dad what had happened in case the boy came back and did them all in.

Chapter 15

December 1955

He’d already been in bed for three weeks because he had mumps and the doctor said it would be another week at least before he could get up and go out. His face was all swollen and sore. It hurt to swallow. None of his friends was allowed to visit because he was infectious. He’d already had measles and chicken pox that year so he’d missed a lot of school already and now he was near the front of the class with the thick kids instead of at the back. The kids in the front were not very well-behaved and none of them worked very hard. Some of them smelled a bit too and had holes in their jumpers and never blew their noses neither. They were always talking and fidgeting and it was hard to concentrate when you were stuck in the middle of them. When he went back he was going to make a special effort to get back to the back of the class alongside Jean Welsh and the other brainy kids.

He’d never spoken to Jean but she was his favourite. He used to think about what it would be like to kiss her on the lips but it was hard to imagine. He tried kissing the back of his hand to see but it didn’t feel much good. The real thing was probably better. The only trouble was that David Bass said that Jean fancied him. Bassy was the best-looking boy in the class and all the girls fancied him. He had his hair done in a crew-cut and it was all spiky like a hedgehog. He had a brown corduroy jacket that looked really good that his older brother had given him. He put Brylcreem on his hair and was always combing it. He said he looked like James Dean but no-one knew who he was. Chris felt like crying when he thought that Jean might fancy him. He liked Patricia Fitzgerald almost as much because she had long blonde hair with ringlets and stuff hanging down her back. The trouble was Patricia was a bit posh and he knew she would never fancy him because he was too common. Maybe if he came top of the class she would change her mind. The trouble was he was never going to be top because those two girls were too clever and knew all the answers and wrote really neatly an all.

While he was lying in bed he started reading the first volume of the Book Of Knowledge encyclopaedia that his dad had bought for him on the never-never. He’d done A-BON and BOO-CRO and now he was half way through CRU-GERA. He knew a lot about Achilles and Acids and Bases and Africa and Anaesthesia and Annunzio and Baku and Ballet. Not much about things beginning with H onwards though.

They were on strike down at the docks where his dad worked as a fitter’s mate so he knew it wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas again. He didn’t see why his dad being on strike should affect Father Christmas exactly. Perhaps you had to give the money to Father Christmas to get the presents in which case why didn’t you just go to the shops and buy the toys direct? Sometimes he didn’t really believe in Father Christmas but at other times he did. It was like believing in God and the Saints and all that. You had to have faith otherwise you would start thinking it wasn’t true and that would be a mortal sin. Besides, without God there would be no Hope. Or that’s what Sister Bernadette said anyway.

He’d asked for a penknife for his Christmas. He really wanted a throwing knife or even a flick knife but he knew his mum would say no because they would be too dangerous. His dad said he could have a sheath knife when he joined the scouts. Penknives weren’t much good for throwing but you could use them if somebody attacked you. You could learn to throw a sheath knife and make it stick in but not all the time like they did in the circus when they threw it at a woman on a wheel. He’d asked for a penknife with a mother-of-pearl handle if it didn’t cost too much.

Before he caught the mumps he’d bought a little paraffin lamp with an adjustable wick and a little glass bowl and when it got dark he lit it and used it to send signals out of the bedroom window. He could do SOS in Morse code. At first he was worried in case somebody saw it and dialled 999 and the police came round but nothing happened even after he did it a few nights. He was surprised nobody saw it. He could’ve been a damsel in distress imprisoned in a tower and no-one would have come to rescue her.

While he was ill he had read all the William books by Richmal Crompton. Richmal Crompton was a woman but you couldn’t tell just by reading the books. Sometimes his dad came up and read him bits. That was the best. He loved his dad. They were like friends. His dad said when he was better he would take him up to London to see Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.

When he grew up he was going to work in the docks like his dad and go on board ships and go down into the engine room and fix them.

He wished he was grown up now and could get started.

Chapter 16

May 1956

He was walking home from the pet shop where he’d bought some maple seeds for his peashooter when this darkie bloke came up to him. The darkie stood right in front of him. He was wearing a white shirt without a collar and striped black trousers. Chris stopped and smiled nervously back at the bloke. There were always lots of darkies around off the boats and sometimes they asked for money or tried to sell you things like shoe laces.

“Come with me to India,” said the darkie in a foreign voice, “I will never never leave you.”

Chris was astonished. “No-oooooo!” he screamed out at the top of his voice. He was aware of half a dozen started faces turning in his direction. The darkie took a step towards him. Chris leapt back and then turned on his heels and ran off in the opposite direction from home. He had on his baseball boots so he could run really fast. He was too scared to turn round to see if the darkie was following him. He went the long way home, over the railway and round by the hairpin bridge. When he came to the bomb site near the police station he ducked into the weeds and ran along bent double so he couldn’t be seen. When he got within sight of his house he darted into the alley that ran down the back of the garages. Half way along he shinned up a drainpipe and climbed onto the roof. He crawled along on his tummy until he could see the road he’d just run down. There was no-one there. He rolled over onto his back and let out a big sigh. The man hadn’t followed him and he was safe for the time being. If he’d had a knife he would have been all right. He didn’t want to go to India, he wanted to stay here with his friends.

He stared up at the blue sky with the puffy white clouds scudding across and thought about what had just happened. It seemed to him that as he got older the town was becoming more and more dangerous. It was like being a rabbit in a forest with lots of hawks and foxes waiting to gobble you up whenever you came out of your burrow. If you had a knife you’d be all right. A sheath knife with a seven inch blade would be best.

He decided to start saving up for one.

Chapter 17

June 1957

He’d only been back at school for a week when the worst thing that had ever happened to him took place. He had a homework jotter which he’d covered in brown paper. He’d already done three essays on the Romans in the south of England and got good marks for all of them. Sister Dominic said if he kept up the good work then he would soon get moved to the back of the class with the other bright kids. She gave him some homework for the following Wednesday: he had to write an essay on what he was going to do during the summer holidays. He had a gold-nibbed Parker Pen and a new bottle of Quink royal blue ink and he was up in his bedroom filling up the fountain pen when his hand slipped and he poured half the bottle over the opened jotter.

The ink went through all the pages even though he tried to mop it up with blotting paper. Sister Bernadette would go bananas when she saw what he had done. You got marks for being tidy and if you made a mess you could even get the cane. He was supposed to hand in the essay in less than a week. He didn’t know what to do. He started to cry when he thought about what Sister Bernadette would say. She’d probably drag him out to the front of the class and make an example of him. He couldn’t believe he could be so careless. He should have filled the pen in the sink in the bathroom. He was so stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. He couldn’t do nothing right. His mum was right. He was useless.

That night he went to bed and lay awake for ages praying to God to ask him to remove the blot. He woke up early and said another five Hail Marys before he got out of bed and opened the jotter. His heart sank. The blot was still there. Later on he felt so sick he couldn’t eat his breakfast. His mum felt his forehead to see if he was sickening for anything.

“You look as white as a sheet,” she said.

He went to school carrying his duffle bag with the dirty jotter in it. He felt like he was Jesus carrying the cross to his place of execution.

“Hurry up,” said Derek Ryder, “We’ll be late if you don’t get a move on.”

He spent all day at school worrying about the inkstain and when he came home from school he went up to his room and said some more prayers to God asking him to remove the mark. The same thing happened every night. His mum was so worried about him she got him some Lucozade and some cod liver oil capsules.

When he woke up on the Wednesday morning when the essay was due to be handed in the stain was still there. He felt sick again.

“Cheer up,” his mum said, frowning, “You look like you’ve sucked on a lemon. Are you sickening for something or what’s the matter?”

“I don’t feel well,” said Chris, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You better go back to bed then,” his mum said, shaking her head at his strange behaviour.

He stayed in bed for a week praying all the time but the stain refused to disappear. He ticked the days off on the calendar until the summer holidays came and he knew that he was all right for the next six weeks until he had to go back to school. As soon as the holidays started he got up from his bed.

His mum made a face at him. “I think you’ve been swinging the lead if you ask me.”

The jotter lay under his bed the whole of the holidays, festering away. He was dreading the moment when he would have to drag it out and take it back to school and show it to Sister Bernadette. He started dreaming about running away. Maybe even going off with that bloke to India.

As the days passed and the holidays drew to an end he began to think about killing himself instead of handing the book in. He wasn’t sure how he would do it. Maybe he could jump off the hairpin bridge when there was a train coming. If he’d had a penknife he could try slashing his wrists. Even though taking his own life was a sin and he would go to Hell he kept thinking about it.

He didn’t really want to die but there didn’t seem to be any alternative.

Chapter 18

September 1957

Despite his nightly bedtime prayers Summer ended all too soon and the darkness closed in upon him for the final time. After a sleepless night when he nearly suffocated in the heat and his final prayer remained unanswered he reluctantly dressed in his old school uniform and forced his feet into shoes that were now too small. Although he had decided not to kill himself - he resented going to Hell for the rest of eternity just because he’d spilt some ink - he trudged along Bermuda Road with a heavy heart, prodded towards his dreadful fate by an irresistible, invisible force.

They lined up in the playground as usual but to his surprise they were put in a new classroom and got Sister Brendan as their new teacher. Everyone else seemed to know this was going to happen except him. He often seemed to be the last to know about anything, as if they were keeping a secret from him, or maybe his mind was always on other things. His ignorance made him feel foolish. He ran clumsily after the others in his pinching shoes as they charged into the new classroom.

Sister Brendan was young and pretty with rosy cheeks and she smiled a lot with perfect white teeth. She wasn’t in the least bit scary like the other teachers. She gave everyone a new set of jotters and the old ones were just forgotten about It was as if the ink-stained jotter that had made his life a misery had never existed. As the day passed and he realised what was happening it seemed to him that all his prayers had finally been answered and that a real miracle had come to pass. He nearly cried with relief. The slate was wiped clean just like he’d been to confession. Sister Brendan stood at the front of the class and said everyone was equal at the start of this new term and that they all had the same chance in life. It was up to them to take it. After that everyone worked really hard, especially Rose Regan, although she was still bottom of the class. Even though she tried her best she always got it wrong. Some of her answers were so stupid it was difficult not to laugh out loud. Sometimes when she spoke you had to bite your lip or pinch yourself hard to stop yourself having hysterics. It was hard to believe anyone could be that thick especially as she was quite pretty really. Not that he fancied her. He couldn’t fancy anyone that was stupid. Besides, she still smelled of rotten eggs and it was worse when she farted.

At the end of the first week everyone got a project to do as their main piece of work for the term. His was the Romans in Essex. This was great because it meant he could go down to the library in the town centre after school and read lots of stuff in the local history section. He’d been there already lots of times and he knew there was plenty of stuff about the Romans that he could copy. He remembered seeing the bits of pottery they had in a glass case. Even better was the remains of a soldier’s leather sandal which had been preserved in the mud down near the fort where there was supposed to be an old Roman camp. The main thing was to write a bit every week and not put if off otherwise it would all pile up and give you nightmares by the end of term, just like the ink stain. There was going to be a prize too for the best project although probably one of the girls would win that. They were always first. Jean Walsh was doing Elizabeth 1 who had once come to Tilbury to visit her fort and see that it would repel the Spanish. He wasn’t sure what Patricia Fitzgerald had got but he thought it was something about the Home Guard in the War which sounded a bit difficult. Rose Regan got something on cooking which sounded easy but even so she would need lots of help and even then you could bet it wouldn’t be much good.

He liked Sister Brendan so much he decided he’d put a lot of effort into his project and make it really good. So good he might even win the prize. At the very least it might make Sister Brendan like him more. If she did it would be like having a saint for a friend. If she hadn’t been a nun she would have been a brilliant mother even though she was a bit young. Sometimes when you did particularly well she even gave you a sweet.

As he sat in class at the end of the week waiting for the bell to ring which would tell them it was time to go home he smiled and thought to himself that once again his school had become the best place to be in the whole world. He was so lucky. He could have been born in Africa or Russia or somewhere and had a horrible time. He might be starving with a pot belly or being taught stuff that wasn’t true like they did in Communist countries. He’d read about this sort of stuff in the papers and it made him really sad or angry or sometimes both. When he grew up he would probably become a missionary and go out to Africa and baptize lots of little children so they went to Heaven when they died from starvation.

When he went to bed that night he decided he would say a special thank-you prayer to God for being so good to him with the miracle of the Blot even though he probably didn’t deserve it because he was a sinner for being careless and spilling the ink in the first place.

Chapter 19

March 1958

He was sitting in the bath while his mum washed his hair and scrubbed his back which she still did every week even though he was nearly eleven. He kept his legs crossed to hide his willy so that neither of them got embarrassed by seeing it. His mum was in a good mood today which made him happy too.

“You know what, mum?”


“When I grow up I’m going to be rich and famous so that I can have a big house with lots of room in it and then you can live there too and you won’t have to worry about money or nothing.”

Mrs Fillary laughed. “Chance would be a fine thing.”

“I’m serious mum. I’ll work really hard and make lots of money and look after you and dad when you get old.”

Mrs Fillary shook her head good-naturedly as she rubbed soap onto the face cloth. “And just what are you going to do to make all this money may I ask?”

“I’ve been thinking about it. I’ll leave school when I’m fifteen and go up to Aberdeen and get a job on a trawler.”

“A trawler! What on earth put that idea into your head?”

“I read about it in the Daily Express. All the crew get a share of the money when they land their catch. They all make a fortune.”

“Well, your father was at sea for most of his life and he never made any money.”

“I know, but he wasn’t a fisherman was he. He was in the Merchant Navy. And then the war came along and he joined the Royal Navy and got paid pennies.”

Mrs Fillary frowned. “He got danger money when he went on the Russian convoys.”

Chris didn’t know about this. “Did he? How much did he get?”

“I can’t remember. All I know is he spent it all on drink before he came home. He was always penniless didn’t matter what he earned.”

“Did you starve?”

“He was a fool to himself. Nothing but a wastrel.”

“How did you buy furniture and that?”

“We lived on tick. We still do. Half the stuff downstairs still isn’t paid for.”

“Maybe if you stopped smoking…”

Mrs Fillary squeezed shampoo onto his head and began vigorously to massage his scalp. “I might as well give up breathing too, for all the pleasure I get out of life” she muttered through clenched teeth, breathless with the effort.

After she rinsed his hair he said, rubbing the soap out of his eyes, “Once I’m rich you won’t have to worry about money. You’ll be happy then.”

She scowled, Her good humour had evaporated as she thought about her husband. “Chance would be a fine thing.”

“I’ll work doubly hard at school.”

“School? Pull the other one. Them nuns just put ideas into your head. Fat lot of good that will do you. All them books you read. Your brain will be addled before you’re out of Primary School if you ask me.”

He didn’t speak again while he waited till she had finished rinsing his hair and went downstairs for a fag. You couldn’t reason with her when she got into one of her moods. It was pointless trying.

After she shut the door he reached for his model destroyer and sailed it round the bath. His dad had sailed real destroyers in the war. He’d been torpedoed twice. Once he was floating in the sea for hours with one of his mates and they were both covered in oil. When they were fished out by the rescue destroyer the bloke was dead. When they cleaned him up his hair had turned white. That’s what his dad said, anyway.

Trawlers would be different though. You could make lots of money on a trawler.

When he got out of the lukewarm bath the room was really cold and he shivered as he towelled himself down. In his new house they would have central heating and lots of hot water.

They’d even have their own telly and lots of sweets and crisps and stuff to eat every night. It would be like living in the Garden of Eden with a big wall all around it and even his mum would never have nothing to complain about. He’d even get her a washing machine and a fridge an’ all.

He couldn’t wait until he was fifteen so he could get his first pay packet. He’d send her the whole lot and go straight back to sea so that he didn’t spend it in the pub. That way they’d have enough money in no time.

When he went downstairs his mum said she was too tired to cook and sent him off to the chipper to get three fish suppers even though it was dark and he hated going at night in case he met the big boys who went around in a gang and gave you a hard time if they caught you.

“Don’t be such a Jessie,” his mum said, as she thrust a pound note into his hand.