Yes you do have to, my sister replied to my feeble attempt at rebellion. Mrs Havsum is your Godmother and we shall need all the help we can get when you go to big school, you can't expect Jack to.......... and she went on about how she and he had scrimped and saved to bring me thus far and how grateful I should be. A small black book had arrived in the post and I had to learn what was therein before my return visit. The Black Book had other connotations for me being frequently referred to by my current and frightening headmistress, but it was no good arguing and I sat in the corner of the kitchen and opened it, concentrating not on what was written but on the mammoth pieces of intelligence I had just gained. I had no idea I had a Godmother. Mrs Havsum was no fairy and Big School hadn't ever crossed my mind. Neither did I know what Catechism meant, but I read:
Question. What is your Name?
Godfather? perhaps I had one of them too, probably Mr Havsum and then I heard her voice in my head When my husband was alive.... . By the time I was due to cross the divide again, I thought I had learned it very well. You are staying for tea this week so mind your manners was included in my sisters many instructions.
I had to wait for Stella to let me in this time and I wandered a little way up the avenue. The next house was a pile of overgrown rubble, probably a German bomb caused that. I was to learn more about number 15 that very afternoon.. Next door Number 17 was a modest neat house with a garden full of flowers. The occupants of that would also figure in my afternoon's adventures because when Stella did let me in, I was told to play alone for while and, if I wished (and dared implied Stella darkly), I could go in there meaning the bombsite. She slapped me in the way my teachers did by way of encouragement and then disappeared. As I approached the gate in the hedge leading to Number 15, I met a boy perhaps two years younger than me
Who let you in? said he. Miss Estella.
Who gave you leave to prowl about? Miss Estella.
Come and fight, said the pale young gentleman.
What could I do but follow him?
I have often asked myself the question since: but, what else could I do?
His manner was so final and I was so astonished,
that I followed where he led, as if I had been under a spell.
His name was not Herbert but it should have been for that is what my friends at the local primary called those who went to posh private schools. Eric danced before me with clenched fists. My sister would have described his legs as like two matchsticks with the wood shaved off. They seemed to sprout out of his white ankle socks like spindly plants seeking the light and ascend unfulfilled into his wide but very short shorts, so short in fact that his red blazer almost covered them. When he took off his blazer and shirt and tie and vest, his pale body was barely distinguishable from the band of white pants which frothed from the top of his trousers. I kept my jacket firmly on and simply punched him on the nose and it bled a little. He sat down with a bump and held his handkerchief to it, exclaiming with ridiculous good nature You win, you win. Then I heard Stella. Eric made off quickly before she arrived and I put on the innocent look I had perfected at home. Unlike there, it seemed to work.
Instead of going straight to the gate, too, she stepped back into the passage, and beckoned me.
`Come here! You may kiss me, if you like.' I kissed her cheek as she turned it to me.
I think I would have gone through a great deal to kiss her cheek.
But, I felt that the kiss was given to the coarse common boy
as a piece of money might have been, and that it was worth nothing.
My mind grew very uneasy on the subject of the pale young gentle- man. The more I thought of the fight, and recalled the pale young gentleman on his back in various stages of puffy and incrimsoned countenance, the more certain it appeared that something would be done to me. I felt that the pale young gentleman's blood was on my head, and that the Law would avenge it. Without having any definite idea of the penalties I had incurred, it was clear to me that village boys could not go stalking about the country, ravaging the houses of gentlefolks and pitching into the studious youth of England, without laying themselves open to severe punishment. For some days, I even kept close at home, and looked out at the kitchen door with the greatest caution and trepidation before going on an errand, lest the officers of the County Jail should pounce upon me. The pale young gentleman's nose had stained my trousers, and I tried to wash out that evidence of my guilt in the dead of night. I had cut my knuckles against the pale young gentleman's teeth, and I twisted my imagination into a thousand tangles, as I devised incredible ways of accounting for that damnatory circumstance when I should be haled before the Judges.
.............It was high testimony to my confidence in the spirit of the pale young gentleman, that I never imagined him accessory to these retaliations; they always came into my mind as the acts of injudicious relatives of his, goaded on by the state of his visage and an indignant sympathy with the family features.
I was ushered in to Mrs Havsum and instead of being directed to the stool, I was told to stand by the window. Now Philip, I hope you have begun to learn your catechism. I patted my jacket pocket where was the black book and nodded. And have you brought your school report? My heart sank, school report, I didn't know I had to bring that. Fortunately(?) Stella stepped in, No aunt I have it, how did she get it, many things raced through my mind, and I'm afraid it doesn't make encouraging reading, I could have punched her on the nose. Mrs H held out her hand and took the report. Hmm came from her lips several times as she read. I dreaded the word punish might appear on them too but it did not, then I remembered the boy I had just punched and only half heard: Hmm I see you do not study Latin. Of course not aunt they don't do that sort of thing at ordinary schools. The way she said ordinary made me want to punch her again, or it would have had my mind not been reliving the fight. Mrs H folded my report carefully and returned it to Stella. Thank his sister for posting it to us Stella. She nodded like a director giving the signal to begin;What is your name, Stella threw at me like and arrow
My name is N, I replied like a parrot and Stella collapsed in hysterics.
Stella, said Mrs H trying to conceal her own mirth.
Despite my discomfort, things went much better after that and we had only got half way through when Mrs H clapped her hands and said that will do for today. Go and play.
Play went much as before with Stella taking every possible opportunity to goad and tease me, but my mind refused to escape from thinking about the fight and what might happen when my violence was discovered. But then just as we were called in for tea, Stella whispered in my ear that I was not to worry about Eric, she would punish him later. My relief did not dull my perception of the strange enormity of her power.
Mrs Havsum was obviously very proud of her cooking and I was the very doyen of politeness and punctuated every crumb with compliments and thankyous. Actually her fruit cake was not nearly as nice as my sister's and rather more like a pudding. The cloth in a silver ring by my plate threw me at first but Stella in an uncommon act of kindness pulled out the napkin and placed it on my lap for me. I had seen serviettes before but apparently this was a napkin..
Would you like some more tea Philip, said Mrs H brandishing her over decorated china teapot. No thankyou very much Mrs Havsum, said I relishing my acceptance into middle class niceties. Of course we had posh teas at home too but not everyday like this but perhaps a few times a year and at Christmas when all the aunts came. Then came the mistake. Mrs H began yet another sentence with When my husband was alive..... Out of ill based confidence I asked very politely when did you lose him Mrs Havsum?. That was the wrong turn of phrase for a reason I did not learn until much later. However I did learn that Mr Havsum had died when the bomb dropped at Number 15 together with Eric's father Mr Green and the two sisters who lived there. Even to my inexperienced ears the emphasis on that address No 15 whenever it was mentioned suggested a mystery.
After an awkward silence Mrs Havsum nodded at Stella. Eric's mother is going to take you home in her car. Oh no I thought, she will tell my sister I beat up her son then I shall be for it. Stella seemed to read my thoughts and shook her head with a smile. It was dark by now and I felt like a small child following Stella up to Number 17 and I stayed well back as she rang the bell. Eric came to the door but ran inside as soon as he saw Stella, then a round jolly woman appeared. I'll stay with Eric Mrs Green. You're a good girl Stella.
I had been in a car only once before, but it wasn't the car, a Triumph Mayflower which impressed me, rather the fact that here was someone who had one and used it for taking strangers home. Not many vehicles interrupted the games in our street. Only the Baker and the Milkman were regular visitors and certainly noone owned a car. It occurred to me that probably noone played in the Avenue where Eric and Stella lived.
Dear naive Mrs Green kept up a non-stop commentary all the way home. I missed some of it at the level crossing because, unusually, a mainline loco was passing instead of one of the normal 0-6-2 tanks. It was too dark to get the number though. She went on and on about how dear Stella had helped with Eric, looking after him when she went out. She's a very sensible girl for her age, she doesn't take any nonsense from Eric, I think she even taps him with the cane when he is naughty. Mr Green believed in it ......... spare the rod etc. etc. she went on in the usual fashion of those who are all words and no action and not the slightest idea of what went on under their noses. As I discovered later, young Eric was getting rather more than a tap, even as she spoke, and for fighting me. Even then I began to feel sorry for him.
Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed.....
When we arrived, Mrs Green did not get out of the car. Good night dear she said, You must come and play with Eric soon. My sister came to the door: I hope you said thankyou to the lady for bringing you home. Fortunately I had, as for playing with Eric, well........