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Authors: Griff Rhys Jones

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I felt
it unwise to tell my father this. Despite all his frequent protestations that
it was always better to tell the truth, and that no harm could come to you if
you did, I sort of knew that this was utter hogwash. I had stolen the money.

Charles
was most unlikely to raise the alarm. He had no idea how many half crowns he
had. Charles was a Fotherington-Thomas sort of playmate who rocked back and
forth humming at his desk in school. He clearly had no idea what he was worth.
If it had been me I would have counted my half crowns every day and calculated
what exact proportion of a super-death-ray-blaster I could afford. But Charles
seemed manifestly otherworldly, hardly a fit custodian of a frog full of dosh,
so I had taken one of the half crowns. The opportunity had come to me on the
crest of a rip curl of envy. No little demon had appeared in a puff of smoke at
my left shoulder. I had simply taken it, very swiftly and almost without
thinking. But the half crown almost instantly became a liability: a massive,
unheralded amount of money. Buying sweets for everybody, including my older
brother, was far from being an act of generosity. It was an attempt to dispose
of the incriminating evidence as quickly as possible and, woe, oh fatal
happenstance, my father had borne down upon me in the bottle-green Morris
Traveller, just when I least expected him.

So,
anyway, I lied.

‘It was
given to me,’ I said.

‘Given
to you?’ Something in his tone gave me the impression that he was not going to
let it go at that.

‘Yes.’

‘Who
gave it you?’

I was
wildly groping now ‘A man on the bus.’

There
was a silence. Clearly he was next going to ask me ‘What man on a bus?’ But he
didn’t seem to ask it immediately, as you would, which was a relief, because I
couldn’t think of any man who might have wanted to give me half a crown, but it
was disconcerting that he seemed to want to chew over this information for at
least a quarter of a
mile, and a
noisy gear-change.

‘What
did he look like, this man on the bus?’

And
this was where my powers of invention took flight. I gripped the loose leather
loop which was used to pull the door of the Morris shut and glanced at my
brother, who was still chewing. ‘He had a bowler hat on,’ I piped.

People
did wear bowler hats in those days, although I am not sure that at the age of
five I had met many guardsmen or city workers, but it must have seemed a handy
flag of identification. Instead of reassuring the pater, or even prompting a
snort of derision at the very idea that a bowler-hatted man would dispense
valuable coins on public transport, as one might have expected, my father fell
to brooding. A worried frown appeared on his face. He became oddly solicitous.
‘What sort ‘of man? Did he ask you to do anything in return?’ This struck me
immediately as some sort of cunning ploy. But there was no indication of any
guile. Guile did not anyway come naturally to my father. He was generally a
book in which emotions were printed in big print and underlined to assist the
partially sighted. ‘No,’ I answered firmly and when we got home I was sent away
to my room, to await further developments.

My
father summoned a policeman from Midhurst. Ordinarily, I might have been rather
fascinated to meet a real detective face to face, but it was clear, even to
this embryo criminal mastermind, that this was all getting a little out of
hand. I heard of boys whose fathers threatened to take them to the
police-station to see justice done, but we knew this was transparent hyperbole,
a hollow threat uttered by an exhausted garrison which had long ago used up all
its ammunition. This night was different. It had grown dark, and, as ever when
serious matters are under consideration, nobody seemed to have bothered to
switch on the lights in the hallway Supper had been hurried and eaten in
silence. My brother and I were waiting in our room at the top of the stairs. We
were summoned one after the other. I went second.

This
was all far beyond expectations. The policeman was not wearing a uniform, but a
double-breasted suit. He was really quite stout and flush-faced and he had a
lot more grease in his hair than the other adult males who usually visited the
house. Clearly, I was about to become unstuck. All the elements that had been
carefully prepared to put me at my ease, to ensure that I felt secure enough to
tell these slightly smelly men — tobacco and wet serge — who were now leaning
down to my level and thus breathing on me a little heavily, had the effect of
scaring me rigid. Tears were already starting in my eyes; which only seemed to
make my father even more concerned. The policeman gently asked me a series of
probing questions, and I stuck to my story. The bowler hat was mentioned again
and was joined, I think, by a mackintosh. After a
short while he paused,
and I was asked to leave the room.

When I
had gone, he briskly told my father, ‘I am sorry to have to tell you, Doctor, I
don’t think your son is telling the truth.’ It was, for some unaccountable
reason, a bit of a shock, accompanied by exquisite pangs of embarrassment, that
the policeman had come all the way from Midhurst in order to come to this
elementary conclusion.

In
fact, listening from the room at the top of the stairs, I rather-wished that
the policeman wasn’t quite so easy-going about it: ‘No, no, Dr Rhys Jones, it
was quite right of you to call me out … I was more than happy to drive out
here … that’s very kind of you, but I am on duty.’ The door banged shut. The
front door knocker rattled as usual. There was a
significant pause as my
father lingered by the door. It was
The Winslow Boy
in reverse. He was
thinking up a cruel and unusual punishment, and who could blame him?

If the
family had stayed in Midhurst would we gradually have fitted in more? Would I
have felt less like an outsider, less willing all my life to be a voyeur,
looking in on the lighted window across the square, or the gravel drive, and
the Georgian house glowing in the sun, or the clink of glasses and the bray of
public-school certainties? After all, ‘in the local kindergarten one of my
classmates was Lucy Cowdray Her father, Lord Cowdray, came and stood with a red
face and flat cap at the sports days watching us do somersaults. Jimmy Summers,
my best friend, had a maid who wore a uniform. Their house was huge. When we
played at Jimmy Summers’ house he could reach into a toy chest and pull out a
set of lead toy boats which, astonishingly, included scale models of every ship
that took part in the battle of Jutland — Germans too. It took us hours to lay
them out across his vast playroom floor. It must have come from some family
connection. The sort we lacked. There were fancy dress competitions at the
local church fete where I was dressed as a Mexican with a burned cork
moustache, but they were always won by some damned people who had the same elaborate
costumes every year and fooled the visiting judges. I sang the treble opening
to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ at the local carol service. ‘Jab’ and the
Benicky boys and the general Tory heartland benevolence of this pre-war English
Eden easily sucked my mother in. She loved the social whirl. Who knows, it
might have even broken down my father’s natural defences. I would have gone to
a public school, like my boyhood friends. We would have had chintzy furniture, and
my father would have had to learn to like cocktail parties. But when I was
seven, my father started looking for another job. In some shadow world, down at
the hospital, there was another, rather different father, the dedicated, stern
and diligent chest physician who had toiled, between woodwork projects, to get
more qualifications and who was now expecting promotion but not getting it, in
the cloistered and class-ridden atmosphere of what was after all an ex-RAF
hospital. It was time for him to move on. My mother’s friends could hardly
believe it. It was not just the idea of promotion, throwing up the world of
the sanatorium and the close-knit society to which they were all so firmly
attached. It was the location. ‘How will you cope, Gwyneth? It will be too
awful.’

We were
moving to Essex.

 

 

 

4. Swimming in Essex

 

 

The M25/M11 intersection,
a colossal masterpiece of road engineering visible from Mars, lies slumped in
the bottom of the valley of Epping Green. Wendy Davies’ architect father had a
house there, where I first listened agog in the semidarkness to Leonard Cohen.
I’d be lucky to hear him now. The traffic whistles in all directions at once,
but the nearby hill is still topped by a castellated beacon: Epping’s water
tower.

I see
this turret of my old home virtually every weekend, but I never ever venture
off to look at where I lived for fourteen years. When I did, I didn’t know how.
‘You presumably have to come off the M11 early,’ I explained to my wife, Jo,
who was driving. The map-book was under the dog, and the dog was asleep. ‘You’ll
have to come off where it says Loughton.’

‘If you
want to come off for Epping,’ chimed in my mother from the front seat, ‘you’ll
have to come off for Loughton.’

My
mother is a little deaf. The noise of the car made it more difficult for her.
She obviously heard things, but confused them with instructions from her
subconscious.

‘It’s
just up here, the next exit.’

‘It
will be the next exit, I should think, said my mother. There was nothing
familiar at all about Loughton in the damp autumn of 2004. Like planned
post-war housing estates everywhere, it managed to look utterly haphazard. We
could have been in Bremen or the outskirts of Leeds.

‘Just
head north,’ I said, following my nose, and we did, until the blank
international rubbish suddenly gave way to more familiar, mock-Tudor rubbish.
We were in the outskirts of Theydon Bois and beyond that was the soggy fuzz of
Epping Forest, my playground around the age of ten. It is peculiarly watery.
These days, the once private, once enormous, royal deer shoot is little more
than a thick beard of trees on either side of a high road on a crest of hills,
but there are bits of bog everywhere. If you walk it, you’ll plunge into a chocolate,
composty gloop soon enough. I certainly did. I fell through the ice when I was
nine. A little unhelpfully, the other kids with me stripped me off and tried to
warm me up in front of a fire made from my sketchbook. It is quite easy to spot
the fishing lakes and their sandy parking areas, but less so the spiky-headed
needles that mark patches of marsh. Why it doesn’t all slide off down the side
of the hill and swamp Waltham Abbey I have no idea.

We were
climbing up to and into it. In a few moments, after we had missed our turning,
we would go down and out of it.

We
sluiced up to a roundabout. ‘Which way now?’ called Jo, and though I recognized
the roundabout (revered the roundabout, indeed, as one of the key roundabouts
of my youth), it was familiar like a dream. But perhaps any roundabout in the
middle of a wood, with trees all around, would have been familiar in the same
way.

As a
family, we dropped parties along the road to Epping. My brother William stayed
in the Midhurst grammar school where H.G. Wells once taught. My sister,
metaphorically, stayed behind there in the comprehensive school. Harlow was a
new town and a new experience for us pampered southerners. ‘We’re not going to
live here!
It’s not even detached,’
I said as soon as I saw the terraced
house my father had been allocated, until he got himself settled in nearby
Epping.

School
in Harlow wasn’t much solace to the young master. In Conifers I had been one of
fifty or so. In ‘The Downs’ there were many hundreds. Did I make friends? Was I
bullied for speaking posh like a twat? Probably Most of my memories of the six
months we lived there are of being alone, playing self-absorbed fantasies out
amongst the big beds of spiky plants on the windy pavements between the huge
recreation grounds.

For
some weeks I became a detective, with a toy spy kit. I had an FBI pass in a
plastic wallet and a fingerprint kit made out of drinking chocolate. I wandered
the streets in a mac with a tightly drawn belt, ‘spying’ on people. I was occupying
myself with myself, while my parents searched around for a house to match my
father’s new status as a consultant to three hospitals.

One of
his hospitals was in Harlow, where we had been provided with our temporary
residence, one in Waltham Abbey, fifteen miles to the south on the other side
of a spur of Epping Forest, and between them was St Margaret’s in Epping, where
it was almost inevitable that we should settle, on the right side of the main
road, just up from the underground station, in White Lodge, Hartland Road.

We went
round the roundabout twice.

‘I can’t
remember where it is,’ my mother chimed in.

‘No, I’ve
just said that.’

‘But if
we go straight on we’ll probably find it.’

‘I just
said that too. This will take us down to Waltham Abbey’

‘This
will take us down to Waltham Abbey They’ve demolished the hospital now Daddy
once decided he would cycle here. He only did it once, though.’

I
remembered Waltham Abbey, because we always went to the cottage hospital on
Christmas morning. As soon as we’d opened our presents we’d be bundled into the
car and taken on a little tour of my father’s wards. Sister (the unmarried one)
had marooned herself in her staff room, almost hidden behind a colossal display
of sweet sherry, peach brandy and ginger wine. She and an unshaven priest with
a red face would be steadily knocking back this Christmas largesse, from
grateful relatives, in a stifling, overheated atmosphere, waiting for soggy
turkey They relished the opportunity to force a couple of mince pies and some
warm lemonade on to us. And then my father would go and wish his charges ‘Happy
Christmas’ and have a little chat with the poor old ladies with no one to take
them in. (The ideal was to send the walking back to their families for the
festive season.) We didn’t want to go. The hospital was smelly We had a new
Slinky, or the Dan Dare Helicopter Gun that launched red plastic spinners up on
to the top of the wardrobe waiting back at home, and we’d hardly played with
them at all yet.

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