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Toby's Book

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 1

Dedicated to John Denham, whom I met by what people call chance, but who was the best friend I could ever have had.

As far as our mother was concerned, my younger sister Annabel and I were more of a fashion accessory than a family. After our father died, which happened when I was six years old, she went to work for Price and Perkins, the local estate agents. How much she actually did in the office, other than polish her nails and look glamorous, I don't know. Perhaps that was all the job needed. But as a mother… well, let's just say, motherhood really wasn't her strong point. I don't really remember my father, except as a big man with a red face and a loud voice. Though I do remember once playing at skittles with him and his allowing me to use a much bigger ball,as a result of which I won the game.

We lived in a suburban area quite near to the town of Mouseborough, a large town not far from the Welsh border. There was always a lot of controversy about the pronunciation of that name. Did the first syllable rhyme with 'Rose' or with 'Moos'? (It was never 'Mouse' to rhyme with 'House'). It was an ongoing debate locally; but the real local people and farmers called it 'Moos-b'ough' with just two syllables and the letter R elided. Mother, of course, insisted that it was 'Moze-bo-rough'. She was a terrible snob, was my mother. We had to speak in what was then called BBC English, like the announcers on the radio; any straying into the local accent on our part got very short shrift.

The estate on which we lived was a post-War build; not, it has to be admitted, a particularly attractive one, and one on which the builders had cut a lot of corners. The house was a very ordinary suburban semi-detached with, allegedly, three bedrooms, though the smaller bedrooms were more like large cupboards with tiny, draughty windows. Indeed, the whole house was draughty due to ill-fitting windows and doors. There was a small paved area at the front with a few rather dispirited shrubs in tubs. Behind the house was another paved area and a scruffy lawn, as much weeds and moss as grass. A shed at the foot of the garden held garden tools, but Mother never used them; I think she felt it was beneath her. Every couple of weeks Mr Hobbs from next door would come and mow the lawn, I suspect so that weed seeds didn't blow over into his garden, of which he was very proud. He was a nice man, Mr Hobbs. He'd been widowed some years and always liked to chat over the fence. He had a lovely garden, with neat flowerbeds and vegetables growing in tidy rows. Mother didn't like him, of course. "Common little man," she would say when he offered her some of his garden produce, "poking his nose where it isn't wanted, as if we couldn't afford to buy our own vegetables."

But Mr Hobbs was also my first instructor in handiwork. He'd been a joiner before he retired, and he still had a workshop in a shed in his garden. Watching him at work fascinated me. He could pick up a chisel and make it go exactly where he wanted it to go; he could saw an exact straight line with no fragmentation of the edges. Any tool he picked up would do his bidding. Best of all, he was happy to share his knowledge and his expertise. Mother, characteristically, disliked my visiting him. "You're not to go pestering the neighbours" was her version of "I don't want you picking up a common accent".

But Mother greatly resented living where we did, and in all truth it was a poky little house. I don't think we'd been all that well off even when Dad was alive; he had left a life-insurance policy which paid a modest amount each month and Mother had the Family Allowance which then gave a small amount for each child of school age after the first one; apart from that she had only her salary from Price and Perkins.

But Mother had her own system of priorities. The first, and most important, was Keeping Up Appearances. We had to look, sound and behave as if we were much better off that we in fact were. Since the house was decidedly infra dig., visitors were not encouraged. Annabel and I were strictly regulated as to whom we might play with; there were several children living in our street who played on the pavement after school each day, but we were not permitted to join them as they were Common People and we might pick up a Common Accent. If ever we spoke in the local dialect or used a phrase in the local vernacular it would earn us a sharp rebuke. "We may have to live with them, but you don't need to speak like them."

And she was never, ever addressed as "Mum". "Mummy" when Annabel and I were small, otherwise "Mother". If we addressed her as "Mum" she simply ignored us, and if we referred to a friend's parent as "So-and-so's Mum" she would reply acidly, "I assume you mean his (or her) mother."

Keeping Up Appearances was hugely important. Annabel and I had to be neatly dressed at all times, and if we soiled or damaged our school clothes we knew we should be in Big Trouble. She and I went to the Primary School in Edgwick Road, about half a mile from our house. Mother used to drop us off at the school on her way to work, and pick us up at just after four o'clock. It must have been very inconvenient for the school staff, as the school day ended at three-thirty, but I don't suppose that ever crossed her mind.

Once at home, we had to change our clothes immediately in order to avoid their getting dirty. Any mark on my school clothes would attract a response ranging from a sharp reprimand to a hard slap. But that was a pretty standard reaction to almost everything we did. We've all heard of people who could do nothing wrong. Annabel and I were people who could do nothing right.

But we didn't do too badly at Edgwick Road Primary. The 'littluns' were taken by Miss Worsley, a placid, comfortable middle aged woman. A visitor to her classroom would usually find at least one child on her lap and one or two more with her arm around them. She was one of those natural teachers who bring out the best in every pupil.

I remember that classroom quite well. It's curious what things one does remember from early childhood! The room had a wooden floor and those curious desks made in pairs with a lifting wooden seat on an iron frame. The room was heated in winter by a 'Cannon' gas heater. I was fascinated by this device and spent many an hour looking at the flames through the little window. Since Annabel and I were usually the first to arrive in the morning I would often be able to see Miss Worsley 'lighting the gas'. This was great fun. She would strike a match, then lift the front and poke the lit match inside as she turned on the gas. If it lit at once, which it generally did, well and good. If, however, it didn't and a second match was required, the result was usually a most satisfactory bang and yellow flame would issue from the vents in the top of the heater.

At Playtime we would all go outside and run about in the playground. As a rule the boys went to the further side of the ground and the girls to the nearer. We played, I suppose, the usual boys' games: Tag, British Bulldog and so on. Marbles were an intermittent craze, and of course Conkers dominated our games in the autumn. Sometimes one of the boys would bring in a football and there would be a scratch game of some kind. The girls played Hopscotch and various singing games, and brought in skipping ropes. There would usually be a small group in a quiet corner playing Cat's Cradle.

Lessons were straightforward enough. We learned to read, and to write a good round hand. We embarked upon Sums: simple addition and probably subtraction. Every day we would read a Bible Story and we thus picked up the elements of the Christian faith as practised in the Church of England. If, during lesson times, one needed the lavatory, the correct procedure was to put up a hand and request to 'be excused'. We would then go to the rather insanitary little cubicle under the stairs. Upon our return to the classroom we were invariably asked "Have you washed your hands?"

I still remember one occasion when I had put up my hand for this purpose but Miss Worsley was occupied with another child and didn't notice. Unfortunately I was a rather diffident boy and didn't ask to 'be excused' unless it was urgent. On this occasion I wet myself copiously. I still remember the urine dripping from the wooden seat onto the floor. Miss Worsley, bless her, didn't make a fuss. It was something that happened occasionally and not anything to get upset over. But I was in big trouble when Mother arrived. The discomfort of spending half the day in wet underwear and any possible embarrassment I might have suffered were not important; what annoyed Mother was the embarrassment to her of having a child who had wet himself, in addition to the trouble of having to wash my shorts and underpants. I suppose she must have felt that it reflected badly on her. When we got home I was roundly scolded and sent to my room.

Annabel and I spent a good deal of our time in our rooms. "I don't want you under my feet," Mother would say; "Go to your room and don't come out until I call you." But there were always books to read, and I had a set of wooden building blocks which I think my grandfather had given me. Later on I had my model-making things and later still a quite substantial set of Meccano. So I never had any difficulty in keeping myself occupied.

Well, Miss Worsley made a good job of teaching me to read, and it's a habit I have kept all my life. Mother didn't, as she would have thought of it, waste money on buying books for me, though I was allowed to read some of the books she had had as a child, as long as I didn't damage them. But Miss Worsley, and later Miss Kinrade (of whom more later) lent me books, and I had two aunts and an uncle who gave me books or book tokens as presents. I got through all sorts of literature: Hans Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, E. Nesbit and Arthur Ransome. The one author I was not allowed to read was Enid Blyton. I can only assume that my mother thought her work common. As indeed it was, in the sense that there was, and still is, a great deal of it around. But it's easy reading; perhaps that's why Mother didn't like us having it. She always had the attitude that anything which was easy must be bad. Though this didn't extend to her housekeeping.

At the age of seven I graduated to Miss Kinrade's class. She was a tall, angular woman with a long, slightly hooked nose and steel-framed spectacles. Her manner was austere but her teaching was efficient. What had been Sums now became Arithmetic, and what had been Bible Stories became Scripture. Twice a week we had Time and Tune on the radio, and twice a week we had Music and Movement. The broadcasts were relayed to the classrooms using loudspeakers that plugged into a jack in the wall. For the latter we had to remove our outer clothing and strip down to our underwear, greatly to Mother's annoyance as it meant she had to remember to provide us with clean underwear on those days.

It was in Miss Kinrade's class that I made my first real friend. His name was Paul Bartley, and Mother disapproved of our friendship from the outset. His father was a 'bus driver or something of the kind, and he had a Common Accent. I can't say that I noticed, but I brought him home to play on one occasion, and that was that. After that we played together at school and I kept quiet about it at home. On several occasions his mother invited me to their house for tea, but Mother turned down the invitation. It was a pity, because Paul was a very nice little chap. One of the more dubious games we played was to go to the urinal which stood in a brick building to one side of the playground, and see who could either stand the furthest from the target and still hit it, or who could make the highest mark on the wall. No wonder the place had a permanent smell of stale pee!

But I was already aware that I found other boys interesting and I sometimes took the opportunity to examine their genitalia when at the urinal. Thank the Lord that Mother never found out about that! She had a way of pronouncing the word Disgusting so that the middle syllable somehow included the sound conventionally spelt eugh!.

I must have been about seven or eight, and it was in Miss Kinrade's class, that I contracted some kind of stomach upset. I'd put up my hand and said, "Please, Miss, I feel sick."

"Do you think you are going to be sick, Toby?"

"Yes, Miss."

"Go to the lavatory, then. Come back if you feel better."

Fortunately I made it just in time, and was bent over the WC, retching, when something of an explosion happened at my other end. I returned, red-faced, to Miss Kinrade. Austere as she was in general, she was at least fair and did understand that it was not my fault. I was provided with a spare pair of P. E. shorts and told to go to the lavatory and change into them, and put my soiled underpants and shorts into a plastic bag. Fortunately I had a robust digestive system and such accidents were rare, but I knew I should be in trouble.

When I got home, I was sharply told that I should have gone to the lavatory before making such a mess in my underwear. 'Accidents' did not happen in my mother's world. That night I was sick again. I had only just woken and was getting out of bed to go to the lavatory, when it happened. There was nothing I could do to stop it; it splattered all over the rug by my bed, the side of the bed and my shoes which were to one side. I sat on the bed and contemplated the mess, knowing all too well what Mother's response would be. I sat on the side of the bed and wondered what best to do. I still felt horribly ill, and I broke down in tears.

Mother came in and summed up the situation in one glance. "What are you snivelling for?" she asked, acidly. "I'm the one who will have to clean up after you. Take off those pyjamas, and go and wash yourself." She went out and returned with a mop and a bucket. The rug went straight into the dustbin; the sheets went into a bucket of disinfectant and I passed the remainder of the nightuncomfortably between a pair of blankets.

Not long after this, we had a visit from Uncle Bill, who was my father's brother. He lived and worked abroad for most of the time, and had no address in England, so he usually stayed with us when he came over. He would sleep in my room, and I was relegated to the couch in the sitting room. I didn't mind in the least, as I liked Uncle Bill. He always brought exciting presents from Canada. On this occasion, he brought me a set of little tools for model making, and some model kits. I took to this new hobby like a duck to water. Uncle Bill showed me the basics, and then left me to get on with it. I was, and still am, naturally neat-fingered and found quite delicate work both reasonably easy and enjoyable. Even now, in middle age, I enjoy making and mending things.

And it was this that introduced me to my best friend, Matthew McKenzie. Miss Kinrade had asked us all to bring in something we had made at home for a display table. All kinds of things duly arrived. Some of the girls brought in needlework or things they had baked such as biscuits. One boy, I remember, brought in a model horse made of papier-mâché over a wire frame, and two boys brought in things they had made from wood. I brought one of my model aeroplanes, as did Matthew who was new to the school that term. I have to say that in all truth mine was much better than Matthew's. I found him admiring it.

"Did you really make this yourself," he asked me, "or did your Dad help you?"

"My Dad's dead," I replied.

"Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't know. But did you really do this all by yourself?"

"Yes, there's no-one else. My uncle gave me some tools and things and showed me how to do it, but I did this one all myself."

"Could you help me with mine?" asked Matthew. "You could come to our house for tea and then we could make something together."

I was greatly attracted by this idea. Matthew was a good-looking boy with warm brown eyes and dark, wavy hair; he had a friendly, outgoing manner. "I'll have to ask my mother," I said uncertainly.

That evening I broached the subject. It didn't go down particularly well, but in the end she grudgingly agreed, and I was allowed to go on Friday after school, provided that Mrs McKenzie collected me from school with Matthew and delivered me home by nine o'clock.

That visit was a real eye-opener. The McKenzies' house was a good bit larger than ours and had a warm and welcoming feel to it. The front garden was neat and tidy with a small lawn, in the centre of which was an ornamental tree. The sitting room had a big bow window giving onto the front lawn and the upper story was half timbered in the 'Stockbroker Tudor' style. There was a larger garden at the back, with a big lawn and flowerbeds each side. We were given a glass of milk and a biscuit - a chocolate one, which was a luxury we were never allowed at home - and then Matthew took me up to his bedroom to work on his model. Matthew's room was much larger than mine and more comfortably furnished. His bed was a full-sized single with a little table next to it and he had a big table with a couple of chairs at which we worked. There was a set of bookshelves, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers. It all felt very snug and pleasant, like the whole house and the whole family.

I'd brought my little toolkit with me, in its own box that I had made from some wood offcuts given to me by Mr Hobbs, our friendly next door neighbour. I opened up and re-made some of the joints that Matthew hadn't understood how to make neatly and tidied up the paint-work. Mrs McKenzie called us down to have our supper at six o'clock, and then we worked together at another model until it was time for me to go home. While we worked we chatted about this and that. They had only just moved to Mouseborough from somewhere in the South. Mr McKenzie worked as some kind of Manager at a big factory just outside the town which made aircraft engines. It seemed to me, as well as to Matthew, that this made him quite an important sort of person.

On the way back I started telling Mother about the McKenzies' house, and what a nice time I had spent with Matthew, but she interrupted very abruptly. Clearly she didn't like hearing about other people's houses. I wasn't allowed to visit Matthew for some while after that, but he brought models to school for us to work on together; Miss Kinrade, unusually, allowed us to stay in the classroom after lunch to do so. Looking back, I think she was glad that I had made a friend.

I found that Matthew was quick to take an idea. I showed him how to prepare the joints so that they fitted neatly, how to make sure the glue only got where it was meant to be, how to layer and overlap paint coats so as to make a neat job. Sometimes I took his hand to guide it; he seemed to like my doing that. To me it was a source of constant enjoyment; not only doing work that I liked and using my skills, but also doing it with my friend – and, indeed, not unaware that my friend was very good-looking. We made some quite complex and elaborate models between us. As I received pocket money only when Mother chose to give it to me, and in such small amounts as she deemed suitable to a young child, most of mine were made from materials quietly given to me either by Mr Hobbs, or from time to time by Miss Kinrade. Matthew, on the other hand, could afford to buy kits. No matter, we collaborated very happily on all sorts of projects.

A few weeks later, Mother needed to be away for a couple of nights, visiting her parents in Northumberland as her father was ill. It was easy enough to find somewhere for Annabel to stay as she had various school friends whom she visited regularly, but I was more of a problem. "I don't know what to do with you. I suppose I'll have to take you with me. You'll just have to sleep on the couch in the sitting room."

"What about Matthew?" I asked, "Perhaps I could stay with him."

Mother was in something of a quandary. On the one hand, she resented anyone who was better off or who had a larger house than ours. On the other hand, it would mean that she could leave me safely with the McKenzies while she went away. In the end she gave me a note for Matthew to take to his mother, and the result was that on that Friday I took a little suitcase in to school, and at the end of the day went home with him.

On the previous night I'd been almost too excited to sleep. I'd never slept away from home before that I could remember, and Matthew was quite definitely my best friend. I found to my delight that Mr McKenzie had put a folding bed in Matthew's room. "I thought you two boys would like to be together," he said, "but you're not to chatter all night. I know it's the weekend, but it's lights out at nine o'clock, and no talking until the morning." He was a nice man; I liked him. Like his son he had dark, wavy hair, and the same friendly, good-humoured manner.

We all had supper together at six o'clock. I remember that meal as if it were yesterday. It was Toad-in-the-Hole, with little crisp roast potatoes and gravy, followed by fruit salad with ice cream. I'd never enjoyed a meal so much. Mother's catering tended towards stews and the like, and tinned fruit with evaporated milk. One of her favourite dishes, which we had at least once a week, was "cheese potato pie" – in other words, mashed potato with a little grated cheese added. Another meal which frequently appeared at our table was Liver and Onions. I suppose one useful consequence of being brought up with Mother's catering is that there is almost nothing I really can't eat, though I am now quite a fastidious cook. And it certainly left me with a robust digestive system.

Anyway, Matthew and I were allowed to look at television for an hour or so after supper, and were then sent upstairs. There was a television set at home, but Annabel and I were strictly rationed as to what we might watch. Most children's programmes were switched off with a tart "You don't want to look at that rubbish." I forget what programme Matthew and I looked at that evening because my attention was far more on him. I loved the way his hair curled into the nape of his neck, and the set of his head, and the little dimple in his chin.

After we went upstairs we spent some time working on a model of a battleship and then Mrs McKenzie came up to start getting us ready for bed. As the guest, I was allowed to be the first to use the bathroom; and then Mrs McKenzie tucked me up in bed and even gave me a kiss. This was a new experience for me; Mother never did anything of the kind. But I saw that she did the same for Matthew and assumed, quite correctly, that it was usual in their household. We were allowed to read for half an hour, and then it was lights out. Having not had much sleep the night before I dropped off quite quickly and didn't wake until Mrs McKenzie came in to open the curtains.

On the Saturday, Mr McKenzie took us both out. We took a picnic lunch, and then played in the park where there was the usual apparatus of swings, a roundabout, a slide and so forth. Matthew and I got gloriously grubby and when we returned to his house Mr McKenzie took us both upstairs to the bathroom and ran a bath. "Come on," he said, "there's plenty of room for you both. One each end!"

Well, he was right, there was room, though not much to spare. But I'd never seen another boy fully naked and was fascinated. He was about my height, slender and rather delicate-looking. I loved his beautiful olive skin and the small, copper-coloured nipples on his chest; much nicer, I thought, than my own ordinary pink ones. Mr McKenzie washed our backs and shoulders, but left us to do the rest ourselves. Once we had shed the grime from the morning's play, we climbed out of the bath and wrapped ourselves in big towels. "Bill," called Mrs McKenzie up the stairs, "Are those boys clean? I know what you chaps are like!"

"Yes, my dear," he replied cheerfully, "at least, Matthew and Toby are clean as new pins. I don't know about myself, though…" He laughed, and I heard Mrs McKenzie's answering laugh from downstairs. I suddenly realised how much I liked Matthew and his family. In their own quiet way they were good-humoured, friendly sort of people who liked to enjoy themselves.

That night, in bed, I lay for a while thinking about the McKenzie family in general and about Matthew in particular. We'd had a bath together and seen one another in the nude. I was sure Mother would not have approved, but I relished the new intimacy. In the morning I woke quite early, and saw that Matthew was already awake and reading. I had to get up to go to the lavatory, and when I got back Matthew suddenly said, "Would you like to get in with me?"

I was more than a little startled by this. But then I thought, well, why not? Matthew lifted his bed covers, and I slid in next to him. Although it felt strange to be close to another person – not something I remembered feeling before - it felt nice as well, especially with Matthew, my best friend. We sat up and read for some time, then chatted about school and the other boys there. What I didn't then know was that quite often at weekends in the early morning Matthew or his sister Lisa would get into bed with his parents. Annabel and I had never done that; we wouldn't have dared. But one of the things we talked about was Sums, which I found very challenging. This conversation was to bear fruit in the two years or so which followed, when Matthew would help me with my arithmetic, to the great improvement of my marks.

Mother collected me on the Sunday morning. She didn't ask what sort of time I'd had, neither did she ask Annabel, whom we collected on the way home. We were given to understand that Grandfather was very unwell and had to go to hospital for an operation. Back at home, I mentally compared our small and dingy house with Matthew's. I tried to re-arrange my room to make it feel more welcoming, but as soon as Mother saw it, she made me put it all back the way it had been.

Grandfather died on the Wednesday. I wasn't particularly grieved, as I had only met him twice and we weren't close. But there was a firmer than usual set to Mother's lips. Not for anything would she have showed any emotion. His funeral was to be the following Thursday. As I'd hoped, I was to stay with Matthew again, this time from the Wednesday until the Saturday. Of course, I was thrilled to bits, though I tried my best not to let Mother see it as it would only have provoked some acid remark.

On the Wednesday I again took my suitcase to school, and at three-thirty Mrs McKenzie collected us from the gate. When we arrived we were each given a glass of milk and a biscuit – custard creams this time - and then sent upstairs to change into play clothes. I folded up my school uniform and put it in the suitcase, then put on my old shorts and a T-shirt. I sensed Matthew looking at me, but I wasn't sure why. I was doing the same as him, except that he put his school clothes in a laundry basket. Then we went downstairs, and into the garden. Matthew produced a Yo-yo for each of us. I'd never used one before and was a bit puzzled, but he showed me how to do the basic up-and-down movement and then some tricks like 'round the world' and 'walk the dog'. He was pretty expert and despite my being a complete novice I enjoyed it. I remember saying to Matthew that he ought to be a teacher when he grew up as he was so good at explaining things. This applied not only to playing with a yo-yo but also the help he gave me with arithmetic. Miss Kinrade was a good teacher, but she had anything up to thirty children of widely differing abilities to teach; with the best will in the world there was no way in which she could give each of us the individual attention we really needed. In consequence there were one or two really bright children who could have gone much faster, as well as some of the slower ones such as myself who needed more help. However, Matthew never seemed to get bored or impatient with having to explain things to me and in consequence I generally kept up pretty well with the majority of children in the class.

Because it was a school day we had tea and then went upstairs to Matthew's room. We were allowed to work on a model for a little while, and then it was bedtime. I was hoping that he would invite me to get into bed with him but he didn't. I worked out why when I heard Mrs McKenzie come in later on to check on us; she would have been surprised, to say the least, to find us sharing Matthew's bed. But still, it was lovely just sharing his room and being near to him. I hadn't expected her to come in for a 'last look' to make sure we were alright; it was certainly something my mother never did for either me or Annabel.

The next afternoon we found Mr McKenzie rather than his wife meeting us from school. After the usual drink-and-biscuit he said "I wonder if you'd like to get out the Meccano. Matthew's got quite a good set, haven't you, son." He stood on a chair and ferreted in the top of a tall cupboard on the landing and brought down a couple of big boxes containing Meccano. This was my introduction to simple mechanical engineering. I'd never seen it before and was, of course, utterly fascinated. Matthew and I had quite a long discussion as to what we would make, but eventually decided upon a car. Among Matthew's collection of pieces was a clockwork motor, so it could actually be made to run by itself.

Well, that clockwork car kept us busy right up to bedtime, and all of the Saturday afternoon as well. But by tea-time it was finished, and we demonstrated it proudly to Matthew's parents. It even had a steering mechanism worked by a long, flexible shaft.

"My word, chaps," said Mr McKenzie, "you've got a work of genius there."

"Thanks, Dad," replied Matthew. And then, with characteristic modesty, he added, "It was mostly Toby's work. I just helped him."

"Well, whoever did what, it's a fine piece of work. Well done, both of you."

At that point the doorbell rang. It was Mother, come to collect me. Matthew came out into the hall with the Meccano car. "Look, Mrs Nutting, what Toby and I made."

My heart sank. One cursory glance, and "very clever, I'm sure," was the only comment. I saw the excited smile vanish from Matthew's face as if wiped off with a cloth. "Hurry up, Toby, I haven't got all night." I couldn't help comparing Matthew's parents' interest in everything he did with my mother's complete lack of concern regarding any of my pursuits.

After thanking the McKenzies for their hospitality I picked up my suitcase and followed Mother out to the car. "That poor child," I heard Mrs McKenzie say to her husband as I went out, "I don't know what sort of a home life he must have." I didn't hear her husband's reply, but I am sure he would have agreed with her. They were like that.

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