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Toby's Book

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 2

That autumn, Matthew and I joined the 'biguns'. We were taught by Mr Weston, the Headmaster. He had the reputation of being stern, but fair, and we found it was justified. He very seldom found it necessary to use the cane which hung on its nail next to the blackboard; one glance from his gimlet eye was enough to quell any incipient commotion. In Mr Weston's class we had individual desks, evenly spaced with enough distance between them to make copying of work impossible. He was not lavish with praise, but a tick in red ink and a "good work" meant a lot.

I worked hard for Mr Weston; he knew that I was making an effort and was, in his dry way, encouraging. The fly in the ointment was one Barry Hodson. He had joined the 'biguns' during the previous term from another school and was determined to rule the roost. He was a good bit bigger than most of us and physically much stronger. He had come from a tough school in Liverpool and spoke with a broad Merseyside accent. One or two of the bigger boys stood up to him to begin with but eventually backed down and accepted his leadership. The rest of us tried to avoid him as far as possible. This was not always easy as unless Mr Weston were watching he would slap or punch other boys or take their things.

Matthew and I bore this stoically. We avoided him in the playground, where he would generally be organizing a game of football, a pursuit which he followed to the point of obsession. Unfortunately Mr Weston was not keen to allow Matthew and me to stay in the classroom and build models, so we had no option but to go outside with the other boys. In general Barry didn't bother with us as he was fully occupied with his football, and we gravitated to the opposite, and quieter, end of the playground. Barry had acquired a couple of cronies: Michael Murphy, known as Micky, and Josh Huggins. They looked up to him, copied his mannerisms and even picked up some of his tricks of speech.

"Come on youse two." Barry called across the playground on an occasions when an outbreak of measles had resulted in numbers being down at school.

"Oy, youse, Matthew an' Toby. I want you here. I'm short two men for the game."

"No thank you," said Matthew quietly, as Barry came over, followed by Micky and Josh.

"Yer what?"

Josh and Micky caught us by the arms, marching us over to where Barry stood.

"I said, I want you here. I'm short two men for the game."

"I don't want to play football. I'm busy with my model."

"Let's 'ave a look, then."

Matthew produced it from his pocket, a little toy car which he'd made and painted himself, with a little help from me. Barry took it, dropped it on the ground and trod on it, breaking it into pieces. Matthew looked at it, tears in his eyes.

"Now yergoin' to come an' play."

"No, I'm not. And I'm going to tell Mr Weston you broke my model."

"Oh no you aren't. See this?"

Barry held up a threatening fist and then punched Matthew on the arm. This, on top of his model being broken, was too much for him and he started to cry. I looked at Matthew, my best friend, and something broke inside me. I felt his pain and completely lost all self-control. It had not happened before, and it hasn't often happened since, but just then all I wanted to do was to hurt Barry. I went for him like a madman, pummelling with both fists. One of them struck his nose, which began to bleed. A couple of the others pulled me away, but Barry who like many bullies was at heart a coward backed off, sniffling. Mr Weston, hearing the kerfuffle, emerged from the school house and bore down on us, frowning.

"Sir, Toby 'it me. 'E's made me nose bleed."

Mr Weston looked at me, still being held back by two other boys. "Toby, is this true?"

"Yes, Sir. But he trod on Matthew's model and then hit him."

"Alright. Come inside, all of you. Barry, you go to Miss Kinrade and ask her to look after you."

We were all a little in awe of Mr Weston, but I had faith in his fairness. I told him what had happened, which Matthew corroborated. Micky and Josh tried to bluster their way out of it but in the end, under Mr Weston's quiet but persistent questioning had to admit that my account was fair. When Barry came back in, holding a damp cloth to his nose, Mr Weston asked for his version of the story. When he had finished, he looked hard at all three of us. He waited for a few moments before speaking.

"Toby," he began, "I'm surprised at you. I know you were provoked by seeing your friend hurt, but you must see it won't do. If it happens again I will have to take a very serious view of it. As for you, Barry Hodson…"

He paused, impressively.

"… I have been watching you lately and wondering what to do. If I see any more bullying of smaller boys – no, Barry, don't interrupt me – if I see any more bullying from you, you will be caned, and then sent home with a letter to your parents. Now, let that be an end of the matter. Matthew, go and ring the bell for afternoon school, please."

The next day, I had a letter from Matthew's mother to mine. I handed it over in some trepidation, hoping that it didn't contain an account of my fight with Barry Hodson. But it didn't; it was an invitation to spend a weekend with the McKenzie family.

And so, despite Mother's irritable comment, "I don't see why you have to spend so much time with those people, when you have a perfectly good home here," on the Friday morning I brought in my little suitcase and after school went to Matthew's house. When we arrived, Mrs McKenzie took us into the kitchen and gave us the usual snack, and then said, "Matthew, run upstairs with Toby's case, please, and make sure your room's ready."

When Matthew had left the room she spoke to me. "Toby, I want to thank you for looking after Matthew the other day. You probably don't know this, but when he was little he was very ill with rheumatic fever for a long time. It damaged his heart and he's still not strong. It was very good of you to stand up for him. I want you to know that we really appreciate it." And then she gave me a great big hug. Later, when Mr McKenzie came in, he looked at me gravely, shook my hand and just said "Good man." Those two words, and that quiet look, gave me more pleasure than almost anything in my life before or since. They meant that they had accepted me not as a small boy who happened to be their son's friend, but as someone of consequence.

After supper Matthew and I started on a new model to replace the one Barry Hodson had broken. We worked away, sitting close together, our arms or legs often touching. We made good progress with it; by now we were well used to working together. At nine o'clock Mr McKenzie came in to say, "Bedtime, boys. Go and have a wash and get ready." This time we went into the bathroom together, taking turns to wash and clean our teeth, and changing into our pyjamas. Then we both decided we needed a pee, so we stood side by side, urinating into the WC. Well, we'd stood side by side at the urinals at school many times, so why not? I looked at Matthew's willie and thought how nice it was, a little bit bigger than mine. What I was not aware of at the time was that he was also looking at mine.

I woke early the next morning, and reached for my book. But I was careless, and dropped it. Matthew woke up at the sound and looked at me, and my heart gave a bound. Then he said, "do you want to get in with me?"

In moments I was in Matthew's bed. We snuggled up together, and he put an arm around me. Oh God, I thought, let it be like this always. Being in my friend's bed with him, sharing his space and his warmth, felt so special - and so right. After breakfast Mr McKenzie said, "I'll take you out today so as to give Matthew's Mum a bit of peace and time to spend with Lisa. How would you like a day at the seaside?"

Well, of course Matthew and I were madly excited. We rounded up some swimming trunks – Matthew found a spare pair of his shorts for me to wear – with towels and a travelling rug. I was allowed to ride in the front of the car as I was the guest. They had what I thought was a very splendid car, a Rover 100, unlike Mother's shabby little Hillman Minx. The journey took about an hour, and by the time we got there the sun was shining brightly. Because it was not yet holiday time the place was not too crowded, and Matthew and I had a wonderful time. We built sandcastles, swam in the sea (carefully supervised by Matthew's Dad), caught crabs in rock pools, picked up shells and odd bits of sea glass and the like. Mr McKenzie bought us fish and chips for lunch, and in the afternoon we roamed the area, even discovering a cave further along the beach.

On the way back Matthew said he'd prefer to sit in the back with me instead of taking his turn in the front seat, so we got in together and started to sort out the odds and ends we'd collected. But after such an energetic day we were flaked out, especially Matthew, and before long we nodded off, with his head resting on my shoulder. I'd have liked to put an arm around him but didn't know how he would take it. I remembered what his mother had told me about his illness; it made me feel somehow protective of him. Eventually as his head was rolling about a bit I did slide an arm around him; he moved a little closer to me. I spent the rest of that journey in a state of absolute bliss with my beloved friend snuggled up to me.

"Early night!" said Mrs McKenzie when she saw how tired we were. We didn't argue; the thought of our beds was a comfortable one and we'd still have the whole of Sunday together. We were trusted to take a bath and get ready for bed without supervision. Again, it felt good going into the bathroom with Matthew. I was disappointed that we were now too large to get into the bath together, but we shared the room, stripping off with no embarrassment and peeing together as we had done before. It must be rather like having a twin brother, I thought. I don't think that at that stage of my life I had come across the word uninhibited but that was exactly what we were with each other. Mrs McKenzie came up, tucked us into our beds, gave us each a kiss and put out the light. Matthew was asleep in moments. I listened to his regular breathing and wished I could sleep in his bed. I'd noticed that towards the end of the day's adventures he had seemed to flag suddenly, and I remembered with real pleasure how he had slept in the car with my arm around him and his head on my shoulder.

On the Sunday it was grey and drizzly. After our day at the seaside Matthew and I were quite happy to stay in and work at our models. We had a late breakfast and then Mr McKenzie got out the Meccano again. This time we built a model crane, that really worked. It had some gears from the clockwork motor so that the jib would rise and fall, the block on its cord would go up and down and the whole thing would turn from side to side. It was quite an adventurous project and took most of the day but we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We were sent to our beds reasonably early as it was school the next day. We lay there for a while chatting before Mrs McKenzie came up to put out the light. I was very thoughtful. We'd had a wonderful weekend together. Matthew's parents were so nice. His Dad had given up a whole day to take us out, and whatever we did they were encouraging and interested. Suddenly I wished that I still had a father, one who would take an interest in me and the things I did. Our nice neighbour Mr Hobbs was very friendly and helped me with making things from wood, but it wasn't the same thing. I'd often thought it would have been nice if he'd married Mother and become my stepfather instead of just "the man next door", but she disliked him on principle because he was a working man. The sense of the unfairness of it all hit me, and although I wasn't generally given to self-pity I started to sniffle.

Then I heard Matthew whisper, "Are you all right, Toby?"

I couldn't answer as I suddenly choked up. I heard Matthew get out of bed and come over to me, putting a hand on my shoulder. I put up my hand and clasped his.

"Come in with me?" he asked. I nodded, and we climbed together into his bed. I said, "I wish I could be your brother and have your Mum and Dad for my parents."

"I wish you could be my brother too," he replied, "but we can always be best friends." He put an arm around me and pulled me close to him, and we dropped off to sleep together.

The next thing I knew, it was daylight and Mrs McKenzie was drawing the curtains. What amazed me was that when she saw us together in bed she didn't turn a hair. She just said, "stay there for a moment, boys", and called her husband. When he came in she just said, "Look at our pair of sleeping beauties!" He just looked at us and chuckled quietly, then went out again. Oh God, I thought, if only I could have a Mum and Dad like Matthew's. But he'd said we could always be best friends, and that was a very comforting thought.

All too soon, the time came when we were to take the Eleven-plus examination. The result of this would determine our educational future. There was a curious two-tier system then in use, whereby those children who passed the Eleven-plus went on to a Grammar School, which was relatively academic, while those who failed went to a Secondary Modern, which had more emphasis on vocational training. There were good arguments both for and against this system, but it was how things were done then.

Mr Weston had prepared us well. I was certainly literate, though I still, despite Matthew's help, struggled with Arithmetic. Even now, I still can't manage Long Division! There were two papers, Maths and English. I found them both quite demanding but did at least finish within the required time. When the results came out, Matthew had passed with a good margin, but I was said to be "borderline". However, we hoped that we would both go to the same secondary school, probably the Abbey Grange in Mouseborough.

But our friendship was to be broken unexpectedly. At the beginning of the Summer holiday I was invited to the McKenzies' house. I arrived, in expectation of at least an enjoyable day with Matthew. But it was not to be. Mrs McKenzie told me that her husband had been appointed to a new job which meant that they would be emigrating to New Zealand. The move was also partly for Matthew's sake; they had been advised that a warm, dry climate would be better for him than the damps and fogs of England.

It is not too much to say that I was devastated. Matthew had become almost closer than a brother to me; we shared each other's secrets, worked together on our models and were quite uninhibited with each other, though in a completely innocent way. Mrs McKenzie told me that when they had told Matthew about the move he had surprised them by bursting into tears, the reason being that he didn't want to leave me behind. But they could not take me with them, neither could they take everything in the house as it would have cost too much to transport to the other side of the world; they were therefore having to dispose of a good deal. Matthew wanted to take his model-making things with him but had suggested that I might like to have his Meccano. We exchanged addresses and promised to write to each other.

And then it was all over. Saying Goodbye to Matthew was painful in the extreme. We were both in tears, and just as I was going out of the door he ran over and hugged me tightly. Mrs McKenzie loaded up the two boxes of Meccano into her car and took me home. I took them upstairs to my bedroom and sat on the bed. I remember thinking that I would give up everything I owned if only I could be with Matthew. All the time tears were running down my cheeks and eventually I just lay face down and sobbed into my pillow. Fortunately Mother was out. I could not have borne her cruel sarcasm at my grief. For grief it was, and I have only on one other occasion in my life felt so bereft as I did that day.

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