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A Rotten Christmas

by Jolyon Lewes

Chapter 1

I'll never forget my last cycle ride with David. We pedalled to Stonehenge late on a winter's day so calm and so clear it was as if the weather had been specially arranged for our last outing together. In those days of nearly fifty years ago you could wander about at will among the stones; no entrance fee, no gates, no visitor centre, just bare grassland and those magnificent stones standing more or less as they have done for 4,500 years. It was two days after the winter solstice so there were no druids, no tourists, no new age people, just the stones, set against the golden sky as David and I rode westwards along the road from Amesbury.

We knew it would be our last outing together because next day David and his family were going to Lincolnshire for Christmas with his grandparents and when he came home I'd have left for boarding school in Dorset. For two years we'd been at the same school near Salisbury, he in the year above mine. I'd recently been told I'd be leaving that school at Christmas to begin boarding in my father's old school. The prospect terrified me. Parting from David would be sad but becoming a boarder seemed positively horrifying. I was a diffident boy, tall and gangly - I'd reached six feet by the time I was thirteen - with a mop of dark hair that adults always described as unruly. Because I was so tall I'd tended to associate with boys taller than most of my peers and therefore a little older. At fifteen, David was fourteen months older than me. We were both slim but David was a good three inches shorter than me and looked far better proportioned. Nobody ever called him gangly. He had prominent cheekbones, a sweet little mouth and lovely, hazel eyes and I thought he was beautiful. I dreamt about him often but if he dreamt about me he never mentioned it. I never expected anyone to dream about me or even to give me a second thought. As I said, I was a diffident boy and severely lacking in self-confidence.

We leaned our bikes against the Heel Stone and walked to the circle of sarsen stones. Pausing beneath one of the huge lintel stones David looked to the southwest and light from the setting sun made his eyes sparkle.

"I'll miss our bike rides, Tim," he said, leaning against a sarsen.

I touched his shoulder and he gave a little shiver. Was it a reaction to my touch or was he feeling the cold? I wanted to stroke his soft cheek with the back of my hand but I resisted the temptation. After all, aside from occasionally shaking hands, we'd never touched each other. Did I see tears in his eyes?

"Damned cold, standing here," he said. "Best be on our way home."

I was tingling with emotion but now the moment was lost and we walked to our bikes and cycled home. The tears in my eyes had nothing to do with the cold. We said very little on the twenty minute journey home.

Why was I having to go to boarding school? Well, my father was an army major and had been posted at very short notice to Singapore so we'd be leaving our married quarter near Amesbury. He and my mother would go to the Far East but I would have to stay in England, hasty arrangements having been made for me to transfer to my father's old school sixty miles away in Dorset. Father was in awe of his widowed mother, who lived in grand style in London and who'd wished he'd sent me to boarding school at eight, as she'd done with him. My mother had fought against this and won. Now, however, she would have to accede to Grandmother's wishes. Needless to say, I didn't have a say in the plans. I was to start at my new school on 4 January - my fourteenth birthday - and my parents were to fly to Singapore a week later, so Christmas was largely spent packing up the house and getting me sorted out with a new school uniform.

Having for ages worn long trousers at home and at school I wasn't best pleased to learn that the regulations of the new school required me to be in short trousers. Apparently, I'd be in shorts until the Fourth Form, a long nine months away. I was shocked when the uniform arrived because the shorts were extremely short, the inside leg measurement being just three inches. I knew I was going to feel cold but worse than that I'd feel very, very self-conscious. In the past my father had said he hoped I could always be a day-boy as he'd been very unhappy at boarding school, yet now he was about to send me to the very same place! He warned me there'd be no girls at the boarding school and that discipline would be much stricter than I'd been used to. The lack of girls didn't worry me but I so wished that David could be there too.

It was a rotten Christmas. I tried to make the best of things but knew my life was going to change dramatically and not in a nice way. On Christmas Day, I was given none of my usual presents – books, models, something for my bike and so on. Instead, they were items of school uniform and pyjamas and, so I could send letters to Singapore, a letter-writing pack.

The plans that had been made for me filled me with dread. My bicycle would go into storage and a few clothes would go to my grandmother in London. She would act as my guardian and organise my clothing requirements while my parents were in Singapore. I was scared of this arrangement: Grandmother was a fierce woman who liked to dominate all around her. She'd always treated me like a very little boy, slapping my legs if I wasn't sitting up straight, cuffing my ear if I dared to put my hands in my pockets and forever telling me to be seen and not heard. Her house was like a museum – full of expensive furniture and ornaments; a huge statue of the Buddha stood on the landing and had always frightened me. Some years earlier I was too fearful to go past it to the bathroom in the middle of the night and had ended up wetting my bed. My mother had had to stop Grandmother from taking a whip to me in the morning. What would it be like if I was staying there alone with her? I would find out at Easter, as I couldn't visit my parents in Singapore until the summer holidays. I was already dreading Easter.

My Christmas presents hardly filling me with boundless joy, I created a bit of a scene after lunch, the reward for such ingratitude being a very sound telling off, just after the Queen's Christmas broadcast on TV. Father switched off the TV, Mother went into the kitchen to start washing up and I was told to stand to attention while Father berated me. I felt very unloved and through my tears, the lights on the Christmas tree looked blurred. Then I was sent to my bedroom, where I put on my dressing gown to try to keep warm and looked out of the window. I could see scenes of merriment taking place in the other houses, except for David's which was in darkness. I hoped he was having a happy Christmas in Lincolnshire. I saw people walking their dogs in the gathering dusk, (all army officers' families had dogs – except ours) while downstairs my parents were having a blazing row. As usual, Mother was taking my side and, as usual, Father was not. He always won those arguments. It really had been an awful day. I lay face down on my bed and thought of all the children nearby who'd enjoyed a fun-filled Christmas Day. I cried for ages. For me it had been a rotten Christmas.

My mother brought me some milk and sandwiches and kissed me goodnight. After she'd gone I found the woollen scarf she'd knitted for me; I'd make sure I took it to boarding school with me. It wasn't the only personal touch I thought of that night. I remembered cycling back with David from Stonehenge and how, after putting his bike in the garage, he'd walked with me back to my house. It was nearly dark and very cold as we stood outside to say goodbye. I touched his shoulder again but this time he didn't shiver.

"I won't just miss our bike rides, Tim," he said. "I'll miss you as well. Good luck in your boarding school and do write, won't you?"

Glancing furtively around he stood on tiptoe and quite unexpectedly gave me a tiny kiss on the cheek. I so wanted to return the compliment but he shook me by the hand, turned around and set off to his house. "Bye, Tim."

I told myself he loved me but was too nervous to say so. But how could anyone love a lanky freak like me? I knew I loved him but now I'd never have the chance to tell him. Or maybe I could make my feelings clear in the letters I'd be writing.

The New Year celebrations in our house were very muted, it being only four days before I was to be taken to the new school and most of our belongings having by now been packed away either for long-term storage or shipping to Singapore. I'd said goodbye to most of my favourite playthings, having just my school uniform (including those hateful short trousers), pyjamas, sports kit, washing kit and a few books to take with me. I knew once I was separated from my parents I'd feel remorse at my antisocial behaviour, so I took care to pack a framed photograph showing us all in happier times. I could place it beside my bed and look at it each night before I went to sleep.

David never left my thoughts. When he stood by the sarsen stone at Stonehenge, with the dying sun in his eyes, were his tears for me? Had he wanted to express his emotions? If I'd stroked his cheek would he have responded warmly? Was he hoping I'd make the first move? It was too late now and all I had was his little kiss seconds before he turned for his house and left my life for all time. Would we ever meet again?

4 January arrived: my fourteenth birthday and my first day at boarding school. As if to match my mood, it was a day of leaden skies and piercingly cold winds. At two o'clock I was told to put on my school uniform as we'd be leaving in half an hour. I wasn't sorry to leave the house as it held no particularly happy memories but a glance over to David's house reminded me of the companionable cycle rides we'd had together, sometimes to Stonehenge but also to spots on the river Avon where we'd tried unsuccessfully to catch fish. We'd never said a lot but we were happy in each other's company and I'd very much enjoyed the sight of him, sometimes in a pair of cream shorts, relaxing on the river bank, chewing a long blade of grass and looking - to my eyes - irresistible. But now I had to put on my new grey shorts and was horrified to see how short they were. They left my thighs almost entirely bare and as I walked to the car the wind chilled them so much I had to spend ages in the car rubbing them to try to warm them.

It was nearly dark when we got to the school. My mother was crying and I found it impossible not to follow suit as the car approached the formidable iron gates and passed through. I felt numb, my mouth was dry, I'd eaten hardly anything all day but still wanted urgently to visit the toilet. One thing I was conscious of was the vast length of bare thigh protruding from my new shorts. The wind had dropped but so had the temperature. It was bitingly cold but I was too numb to feel it. My father lifted out my trunk, containing all my permitted possessions, putting it on the boarding house steps. My housemaster came out, shook hands with my parents (but not with me) and said a quick farewell was best, indicating that I should come inside at once, leaving my parents to drive away. A minute later he was conducting me inside with his hand on my neck; I twisted round to see our car disappearing towards the gates and felt utterly, completely abandoned. I hadn't even been able to kiss goodbye to Mother.

That first night remains in my memory as the worst experience, up to then, in my life. Some birthday! There were several things that really stood out. It was so noisy – the corridors, staircases and dormitories ringing with the shouts of boys, the banging of doors and the crashing of trunks as they were hauled upstairs; the bareness of the building served to echo and amplify all these noises. It was so cold – only the dining hall and common room were heated, the dormitory and washroom were freezing. The beds were in fact double bunks, and were the only furniture in the dormitory, apart from a couple of wooden chairs. No bedside locker, so all my belongings had to go into a locker room and be kept in a sort of cage with my name on it. I wouldn't be able to see my family photograph before I went to bed. At eight o'clock we were called into the dining hall for supper - a mug of cocoa and a currant bun. Nobody spoke to me but the other boys all seemed to know each other, chatting and laughing together and saying what a great Christmas it had been. I took the older boys in long trousers to be seniors. All the rest were in grey shorts but much longer ones than mine. From what I could hear, some of the boys were sharing jokes about my tallness and the absurd brevity of my shorts but still nobody had spoken directly to me. Later, my dorm-mates ignored me but chatted loudly until lights-out at nine, after which the dorm fell into silence and I buried my head in the thin little pillow, hoping nobody would hear my sobs. Apart from the cold, all I thought about was David, his voice, his face and most of all the momentary touch on my cheek of his lips. His little kiss had been the only good thing in what had otherwise been a truly rotten Christmas.

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