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Toby's Book

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 3

I felt very forlorn without Matthew and all the things we had done and enjoyed together. We'd exchanged addresses and promised to write to each other, but New Zealand was a very long way away. Air mail in those days was only used for very urgent matters; ordinary letters went by surface mail and you could reckon on anything up to six weeks between sending a letter and receiving a reply.

I started at my new school, Abbey Grange in Mouseborough. The school was four or five miles from home and I had to travel there and back by 'bus. In theory this was straightforward enough, but in practice the timings were pretty tight. If the journey in were delayed, I might well be scolded – "Sorry, sir, the 'bus was running late" was not accepted as an excuse by some of the masters – and if we were not let out promptly at four o'clock I might well miss the five past four 'bus and would have to wait for the five-fifteen.

The school was still running on a pre-war reputation for Classics. Actually, since the war the teaching of that subject had deteriorated pretty heavily, but other subjects had not improved so as to compensate. It was housed in a pretentious but ugly late-Victorian building, to which various other structures had been added as numbers rose. There was a sixth form building dating from the 1930s and a science block added in the late 1950s. The whole place smelt permanently of boys' sweat and disinfectant. The classrooms in the original building had walls tiled in dark brown or dark green up to head height, with dingy whitewash above. Windows were placed too high to see out of, no doubt on the assumption that if they were placed lower down boys would be tempted to look out of them instead of doing their work.

I hated that school from day one. For a start, lessons were hard going. I wasn't really Grammar School material, but Mother, with her usual snobbery, had pushed hard for me to have a place there rather than go to the Secondary Modern. But I did struggle. Some subjects were not too bad: Religious Education was one I coped with fairly well, as I still remembered the gist of the Bible Stories from Miss Kinrade's class. And my habit of solitary, concentrated reading stood me in good stead with English. Maths, on the other hand, was an impenetrable mystery. I'd done well enough with Arithmetic under Mr Weston, and with Matthew's help, but this new system of 'Modern Maths' (which was just coming in) seemed to turn everything on its head. In French, taught by Mr Day using the 'audio-visual method' which was then fashionable, I just about kept my head above water. In History I floundered hopelessly and Geography was if anything worse: it was taught by a vast and elderly Welshman named Owens, known throughout the school as 'Thunderguts' from his notoriously short temper and loud voice. He terrified me.

But the worst thing about the school, by a very long chalk, was Games. Twice a week we walked out to the playing fields, which were a mile or so out of the town. I hated the games. Running round a field after a silly ball, getting cold, wet and muddy seemed to me to be worse than pointless. The only thing worse than the game was showering afterwards. We showered naked, in large, and usually rather cold, communal showers. Barry Hodson, to my great relief, had gone to the Sec. Mod. (as we called it) but there were plenty of other bullies to take his place in my life. I'd put on a bit of a growth spurt, but had become painfully thin and weedy. I soon found that there was an etiquette about using the showers: one took no notice whatever of any other boy. To be noticed looking at another boy's penis was to attract an instant chant of "Homo! Homo!"- and a label which would stick for ever. One boy, whose name I seem to remember was Rogers, was unfortunate enough to get an erection from time to time when showering; he was immediately nicknamed Todgers (Todger being a slang term for the penis). I think he probably was homosexual, poor chap. I don't know what happened to him in the end.

Most of the boys' conversation at the school was about football and the local club which they all supported. Personally I couldn't have given two hoots about the silly game (I still can't) but I was tormented without mercy for my unwillingness, or inability, to join in. Whether things would have been better or worse at the Secondary Modern I don't know. I gathered that the discipline there was pretty strict, so it might have been easier. The academic work would certainly have been, and I should probably have been able to take classes in the things I really was good at: practical subjects like woodwork and metalwork.

Homework was another nightmare. I spent a good deal of my time staring at my work, trying to make sense of it. I did my best but I was pretty consistently in the bottom quarter of the form. Inevitably, with a surname like Nutting, I was unkindly nicknamed "Nutcase" and assumed by the other boys to be thick-headed and by the masters to be lazy. And it wasn't always easy to find time to do it all, especially on the days when we had two or more subjects to cover.

If I missed the five past four 'bus, as happened pretty regularly, I would have to wait for the five-fifteen. If the weather were wet or cold, I would loiter in the waiting room at the 'bus station, but otherwise I preferred to sit on a bench in the Memorial Gardens with my books, trying at least to plan what I would write. From time to time I would see various other regular visitors to the Gardens. There was a strange old woman who always had a couple of carrier bags stuffed with rubbish. She would sit on a bench and mutter to herself. There was usually a sprinkling of younger women who had babies in prams. There was a young, rather vague-looking man who was always carrying a cloth bag. And there was a pleasant-looking man of around thirty who would smile and nod to me as he sat down, and again as he left. I used to wonder who he was, where he lived and what he did for a living.

About a month into my first term I received a letter from Matthew. Even if I hadn't recognized the handwriting I would have known by the stamp who it was from.

Carrefour Lodge
Aberlour Road
New Zealand

Dear Toby,

I've started my new school (Wellington High School) and it isn't too bad. Everyone can tell I'm English from my accent. Dad's started his new job and he says it's all going well. Most of the boys play Rugby football, but I am excused that because of my heart. I play hockey instead which isn't too bad.

I'm still making models. I took a couple in to school last week and a lot of the boys admired them. I couldn't help remembering when I took a model in to our old school and that rotter Barry Hodson smashed it!

I really wish you could be here with me, Toby, you'd like it so much. Mum says she hopes we can have two weeks in England next summer – although of course when it's summer here it's winter in England. She wants to visit Granny and Grandpa. If we do that I hope I can see you. We'll be staying at Grandpa's house in Kent, so maybe you could stay with us for a few days.

Please write back to me and let me know how you are getting on at your new school. Did you get to Abbey Grange?

Love from,

Mother, of course, was thoroughly sarcastic about my getting a letter from abroad. I explained what must have been obvious, that it was from Matthew, but she only sniffed and rolled up her eyes. I wrote back, and told Matthew about Abbey Grange, the masters and the boys, and having to go by 'bus. And of course I said I'd love to stay with them in Kent if I was allowed to.

My first year at Abbey Grange passed otherwise uneventfully. Matthew and I wrote to each other from time to time. Living out of town meant that I didn't get much chance to socialize with the few other boys in my school year that I got on reasonably well with, the more so as Mother invariably said, "If you want to go out and meet your school friends you can get yourself there and back." I did make friends with a couple of boys, Edward Andrews and Richard Docker (nicknamed, inevitably, Dick-Dock), who were also keen on model making, though they generally stuck to Airfix kits while I preferred to work in wood and to my own designs. A few times I went into town on the 'bus on a Saturday, though I had to pay the fare each way out of my scanty pocket money as Mother refused to take me in the car.

Then I started in my second year. I had a new form master, Mr Griggs, who taught senior Maths. He was known as 'Dickie' as his Christian name was Derek. He wasn't a bad old stick, and he was one of those natural disciplinarians who had very seldom been known even to raise his voice.

The work was now a little harder, which was only to be expected, and on some nights I had two lots of homework to do instead of just one. I didn't find Maths any easier, though, and to my dismay my form still had Thunderguts for Geography. History was now taught by Mr Gray. I've seldom met anyone with a more appropriate name. He had grey hair, he invariably wore a grey suit and his lessons were probably the most colourless and boring I have ever had to sit through.

But it was in that autumn term that I had an unexpected encounter, one which would, in the long term, change my life radically, and very much for the better.

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