6. Barnstaple

When we arrived in Devon again, we moved into Pilton Abbey in Barnstaple, a huge old building that had a kitchen with a massive breakfast table in the adjoining room as well as large rooms with big burgundy drapes. The walls and the window ledges inside were about three feet deep, and the kitchen had old-fashioned lead window panes with criss-cross patterns. Outside a Robin often turned up for the crumbs we threw out. I also remember Colin and I once polishing the floor with dusters tied to our feet and hands and sliding about – rather ineffectively I assume. In a room that seemed to be an endless expanse to us children, with an old Christian painting above the fireplace, we had our beds in a corner. This large painting depicted the death of the martyrs in the Roman arena. At night I had the feeling that the curtains were bending threateningly over us and that the moon brightened the death scene, making it appear life-size. I was finally moved to a smaller room with no paintings on the walls, where I dreamt less of such cruel scenes.

The surrounding estate was substantial as well and had tennis courts that hadn’t been used for a while, an orchard and lots of gooseberry bushes. I discovered all sorts of underground chambers and climbed into or up everything I could find, especially after we discovered a tree den in the large oak tree opposite the house, complete with metal rungs hammered into the tree. My brother, Colin, always imitating me, got stuck in a large poplar tree, and froze after looking down. I had to climb up to him and help him come down again whilst my father looked on. He said the tree wouldn’t take his weight, and besides, it was my fault for encouraging him. Once we played on a huge red clay vase full of earth in the garden, but it tipped over and broke into many pieces. I was in trouble for that as well, since the vase had fallen onto Colin and knocked the wind out of him. Mum thought he was dead at first and was panic-stricken. We got into trouble for going down into the mysterious and dark cellar that was full of spider-webs. We children didn’t go down without some lights on, because we couldn’t find our way back without crashing into a wall or pulling spiderwebs onto oneself. It wasn’t hard to catch someone down there and turn the lights off, but it was terrible to be on the receiving end. The people on the other side of the house had a huge winding stairway and many more rooms, which gave us an idea of how big the whole house was.

Whilst in the abbey I had started to go to a small primary school in Pilton next to the church, which was just across the road that wound through the buildings. My skin colour was darker than usual when we arrived, but it faded quickly. A young girl of colour felt an affinity for me, and I sat next to her. She was disappointed, however, when it turned out that my skin colour was not permanent. At that time I also started to read much more. Just the usual children’s books about a schoolboy named Jeremy, but it revived my imagination. During this time I had to do my „Eleven-Plus“ test and the result meant that I was not accepted into grammar school, which was apparently the goal. Instead, I had to go to Secondary School, which was quite a lot further than primary school, but on the way there I would experience many different adventures, most of them in my mind.

It wasn’t long before we moved into a bungalow a few miles away. I don’t know if these events had anything to do with it, but my mother was relieved. However, one of my school friends was the pastor’s son, Guy. He had resources I didn’t have and got me into all sorts of nonsense. Once we made a bomb that was heard all over the town and Guy and I were thrown off our feet when it exploded. The tree we wanted to blow up did not fall – thank God we had no knowledge of explosives! It would have buried us under it. But there were also all kinds of places to experience adventures, including haystacks, apple orchards, ruins and old buildings. We even managed to be chased by a herd of cows, which, in reality, they were being called for milking. We also used our bikes to imitate the American Evil Knievel, whose stunts were on TV at the time. It led to me taking my bike home in two parts and my parents telling me that I had to walk to school from then on.

The bungalow was set behind a wall and a number of Hortensia bushes decorated the entrance. Out the back, behind a glasshouse, which was built on to the house, there was a small lawn, a vegetable garden and behind the shed at the bottom an orchard. The orchard was “off-bounds”, but the apples didn’t taste good anyway. Colin and I often played on the lawn with plastic soldiers and a fort that my father had made that had quite some detail. He had spent hours building it and we were elated when we had it given to us one Christmas. Later on, he was devastated when he found that in our games had started trying to create “realistic” scenes and we had set fire to the fort. I think that seeing how my father was affected by the damage I had done was the first experience of empathy, and I realised how much I had hurt him. I only then saw what effort he had put in to provide for us, and what it had meant to him. For him it was wanton vandalism, for us it was in one way the beginning of consumerism – when it’s broken you get a new one. We underestimated the emotional value this piece of artistry had for him.

During our time in Barnstaple, it must have been before or during 1965, I was sent to a Christian Endeavour camp in the south of Wales in Pembrokeshire. We crossed the Bristol Channel from Ilfracombe to Mumbles, near Swansea, and took the bus to a place near Fishguard. It was quite a fun time of raft building and playing, but also of reading the Bible. I had problems at that time and was under observation because I was very often a brooding loner. I have good memories of that time, even if I had difficulties. The greatest moment of all was on my way home. We had gathered at the Mumbles Pier and the sky was already dark when we boarded the small ferry. The children and staff looked worried as we boarded, and it wasn’t long before the sky turned dark brown and the lightning brightened the sky. The boat was hurled back and forth between the waves and I could hardly tell the difference between water and sky. Almost the whole group was hanging sick over the railing. When I entered the small deck where the drinks had been served, I noticed that I was not feeling so well inside. So I took shelter in the stairs leading to the engine room, but the rain and seawater sprayed over the deck and everyone got wet. At a moment when the sky flashed with lightning, everything seemed to stop for a moment, and the scene remained in my memory as if it would tell me something that words could not say. Having read the Bible in Fishguard during the week, I connected this experience with God even though I couldn’t explain myself.

When we reached the pier in Ilfracombe, my father was waiting for me among other parents who were very worried at the sight of their seasick children. I was full of the experience and as we got into the car I excitedly told him what had happened. My father was even calmer than usual, although he asked me how I felt. I assured him that I was well and he told me that my brother Colin had fallen off his bike while I was away and was in the hospital. Somehow I linked this information to an accusation, as if it were my fault, be it because I wasn’t there, be it because I had given him the idea to go down the hill at breakneck speed. He was unlucky that his tire burst and he was thrown off his bike. He suffered a concussion and a nasty cut on his chin, which is still visible today as a scar, along with many abrasions. This was in addition to the injuries he had already sustained when he climbed trees with me and fell. He had hit almost every big branch on the way down and injured his back. I had been guilty then, too, so I felt guilty again because of his new injuries.

Once again I had a story to tell people, this time there were more people who would believe me. The idea of an epiphany subsided with time and new imaginations were colouring parts of the story in as I saw fit. Moving on to Secondary school gave me more to include in my stories because we had a history teacher who could draw incredible sketches of medieval life and an English teacher, Mr. Ford, who encouraged us to put the literature we read into practice in the classroom and on stage. He was part of the local theatre association and we went to a Greek comedy by the Classical comedic playwright Aristophanes, in which he played Mars. At school, we worked on school plays, talking about how, for example, Aristophanes used his comedies to dramatise many politicised ideas and draw attention to specific individuals in society. I don’t think we all realised how important this was, but these details made the play come to life. We also played out spontaneous choreographies to classical music. With the latter, we even took part in a drama competition that took place at colleges around Devon. But not everything was successful. I was so taken in by this activity that I was often envious of those who could play roles on the stage, whereas I was put on the wind machine. I was too emotional to be able to concentrate on my lines and got carried away. I was also not recommended for the school choir because, as the teacher told me carefully, I was „a solo singer and not suitable for a choir“.

I took this experience with me, however, and my father was concerned at one stage that his son was being turned into an effeminate dancer. Of course, it soon wore off and I became enthralled by the next new discovery, but the importance of writing and conveying thoughts, and the ability to hint at things without blurting them out, became a real challenge for me. I started writing and filling up notebooks with plagiarised versions of what I had heard or seen somewhere, and tried to find ways of expressing what I struggled to convey verbally. It was then that puberty was taking place and I struggled with feelings that my parents didn’t want to talk about. Wet dreams and uncontrolled emotional outbursts left me a very confused boy. At this stage, my mother suddenly stopped bathing me with my brothers and I had to take a bath on my own. I heard from school mates that they knew all about sex and even the first accounts of sexual encounters were being passed about. I smiled or laughed as though I knew what they meant, but I didn’t. All I knew was that I had another problem that I couldn’t deal with. My fathers “Men’s magazines” suddenly left something stirring in my groin, which hadn’t had that effect before, so I told stories like those I had read to other boys in an attempt to belong to the crowd. I found that I had the knack of telling stories and went on to tell more of them. Unfortunately, my stories became my reality and I had difficulty for a while to differentiate between fact and fiction. Sometimes they were extremely childish, but I relished the interest I awoke.

Belonging to the crowd didn’t last long. My father had been growing deaf and had attempted to get compensation on leaving the Army, but it couldn’t be proved that his deafness had been caused by anything he had experienced in the service. I can imagine that this was a serious issue for him since his plans to serve 22 years and leave with a pension had been thwarted. In the end, it frustrated him and after we had moved to Swindon once again, and he stayed in Devon to clear up, hand over the quarter and leave the service. The marital struggles returned again after my mother found out that my father had been seeing a younger woman, who had been a neighbour and a friend of hers, during the weeks he was alone in Devon. He told me nothing had happened, but that he had just run across her and spent some time with her. My mother was furious, and it became quite clear to the rest of the family that this issue was being blown out of context. I just saw it as another cause of confusion, and I discovered that I had become quite efficient at saying good-bye to people, although making new friends was another thing altogether.

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