“Where do I start?” I asked.
“Where do you normally start?” A smile flashed across her face. “When you tell stories …”
Where do I usually start? I often don’t tell stories anymore because I’m afraid I am taking people’s time for my indulgence. I used to tell stories all the time, and I noticed that I sometimes lacked the differentiation between what was true and what was entertaining. I couldn’t differentiate, so I was worried about being seen as a confused personality, or worse, as a liar. It began when I was a child, and I had the invisible friend that children often have. He was always at fault when I did something wrong, but never there to take the blame. My mind was often full of the stories I had read, and they drifted into my talk of what had happened that day, or at a time in the past. I remember telling children that I had seen a cobra when we were in Malaya, but that had been a game we had played when my father had been stationed there, which arose after reading about the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in the Jungle Book from Rudyard Kipling.
Many stories came from the Jungle Book, which was a source of imagination for an “impressionable boy” of ten years old. When we returned to England, I imagined the stories of the Jungle Book had happened to me in that great adventure, which avoided the fact that my parents had broken up after misadventure and jealousy clouded our house. I was confused and scared in that situation, and the return to England and confrontation with my maternal Grandmother only deepened the need for an alternative reality in which I took refuge. The reintegration of my father into the family was a tearful affair, in which I was asked what I wanted. I wanted him back, of course, as I say now, but the situation only pushed me further out into my imagination.
When we had moved shortly afterwards, and I had new children with whom I had to cope, my stories received some criticism. I was branded a liar, and it was true, I couldn’t differentiate between the facts and the fiction, which had been a source of comfort to me. New stories had come along when I had been sent to my paternal grandparents, probably due to the caustic way in which my maternal grandmother regarded me. I had read the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs in a frenzy, immersed in a fantasy world that was even a fantasy for the author, let alone for me. This only complicated the situation, for these stories fuelled even more fantasies about our time in Malaya, and my classmates were right, I was making it up. It was, after all, better than the truth. But it was a time of contradictions. In Malaya, we had also been confronted with naked local children on the beach and mothers openly breastfeeding their children, although they generally covered themselves in response to the staring eyes of British children. My brother and I assumed it was normal to walk around naked, but my mother insisted it was “different” for them and that “they didn’t know any better.” A short time later, there was a magazine in the school, hidden from the teacher, shown by older students: “Health and Efficiency” championed the cause of nudists, publishing letters, articles, and photos in which the genitals were blacked out, but the women’s breasts were visible. I assumed that these people “didn’t know any better” either.
I was attracted to a girl in my new class whose parents were from India and who had a dark complexion. I was starting to get pale, but still had enough skin colour to attract her attention, but her interest faded with my complexion. As soon as I saw her, she was part of my fantasy world, but she lost interest in my stories, and soon I was sent to a secondary school for boys, and she went to a grammar school for girls. In between, I had moved on to the “Jeremy” books, which were about schoolboy pranks, and as puberty approached, I was quite indifferent to girls, although I struggled with the changes in my body. Of course, I had no one to talk to about it, since my parents didn’t talk openly about these things, and I suddenly had to bathe myself alone. I just read everything I could get my hands on, including the science fiction classics that my father read but wouldn’t talk about. The more I read, the more I was dodging the reality I was struggling with.
At Barnstaple Boys Secondary School, our history teacher, Mr Sam Ellacott, told stories of old England, drawing wonderful pictures on the blackboard of country life, which he had also drawn for “The Golden Hammer Booklet of 1961”, which was printed by W. F. Cole & Sons of Exeter. Our English teacher, Mr Ford, who was also an amateur actor, managed to stimulate my imagination further with his portrayal of literature and eventually persuaded me to take part in a project in which we pupils let our fantasy flow to classical melodies, which developed into a spontaneous dance. We went to see him in a Greek comedy about the gods on Olympus, in which he played Mars, the god of war.
A key experience was a Christian Endeavour camp in Wales, which was an adventure I tried to warm to. There was a variety of activities, building rafts, swimming, shadow theatre in the evenings, and most of all we told stories and heard new ones. The friendly atmosphere encouraged me to read the Bible, and talk about what I had read, which had me thinking about God for the first time. On the way back, I had my first “spiritual” experience. We travelled across the Bristol channel on the passenger ferry from Ilfracombe to Mumbles, and the journey to Wales had been pleasantly unspectacular. On the journey back, however, we were caught in a sudden storm, the likes of which I had never experienced. I stood on the deck in the covering over some stairs and watched in awe as the sky and water turned a dirty brown, occasionally lit up by lightning, and the waves surged well up above the ferry and then crashed into the depths out of sight, only to rise again shortly afterwards. The movements caused a stirring in my belly, but I had no urge to join the multitudes at the railing, expelling whatever they had eaten to the waves.
When we arrived back in Ilfracombe, everyone looked the worst for wear as they left the ferry and joined their worried parents on the quay. I just had another story to tell, and my father listened in a solemn silence but then revealed that he had his own story to tell. My brother, Colin, was in the hospital recovering from a fall from his bicycle at high speed, from which he had a cracked skull, concussion, and numerous other injuries. I understood the silence because my brother had imitated me racing down that same hill, just as he had imitated me climbing trees and had fallen, damaging his spine. We travelled back in silence. Colin recovered, thankfully, but the concept of responsibility was imprinted on my mind.
I remember that the time I spent there was peppered with such episodes, being a typical schoolboy who used his imagination to get himself into as much trouble as possible. I had already broken two bicycles, got into trouble for stealing apples and destroying a haystack to build a den, fallen off the roof of our bungalow, been caught by a farmer running around naked in the fields, knocked over a huge vase that fell on my brother and me, and, along with my friend the pastor’s son, had tried to blow up a tree, which was heard all over town and reported in the newspaper. The countryside invited us to look for adventures, take long walks to the beach and investigate everything we found.
This all came abruptly to an end, at least for my taste, and we were soon on the way back to my grandparents. On the one hand, it was a tearful farewell, because we were leaving the countryside and heading back to a large town. But on the other, I was curious about my cousins, whom I had rarely seen, and who were roughly my age. However, the challenge of adjusting to another school, this time with a mixed class, proved to be daunting. It only helped a little bit that Linda, my cousin, was at the same school, but she was a year behind me. The school was just over a mile, or at my pace, about 45 minutes away, but took me under the metal railway bridges next to the railway works. I was always very hypersensitive to loud noises, especially the grating sounds of trains crossing above me, and I hated having to pass under those bridges. When I arrived, I had to put up with being pushed around for being smaller than most in the class. The school year seemed endless, but I grew very fast in that year, and with weight training, I gained a stature that put me in good stead to stand up to the bullies. In one unfortunate incident on the school bus, a fellow student suffered a broken jaw, and in another incident, a boy who challenged me fell over a bicycle and injured his head on the street. This meant that I was left alone, but the incidents occurred because my stories about foreign countries and schoolboy mischief had attracted negative attention.
When the school year ended, I changed schools again, only this time some of my classmates went with me and the school was closer to where I lived. But the new teachers were a new challenge, and as I hit puberty, the girls became a challenge as well. I was now the second tallest in the class, with only a giant of a boy taller than me. I also had broad shoulders, from swimming, but also from lifting weights. This made me interesting to some of the girls, but I had a hard time adapting, and it was as if they sensed it. No one wanted to listen to my stories, at least not in public, so I also had a problem with my identity. I couldn’t get along in school, and even in German, which I enjoyed, I was told in no uncertain terms, “You’ll never speak German, boy!” Ironically, today I am considered reasonably eloquent in that language.
I started avoiding school after I found a way to sign in and then disappear. After a while, some days I didn’t sign in at all. When the weather was good, I would go out to the fields around town, which are all housing estates now, but still open then, with a few cows here and there. It was quiet there, which I appreciated. When the weather was bad, I would find a café or cafeteria in a big department store like Debenhams, where my mother had worked, and scribble in notebooks whatever came to mind. In this way, I wrote so much that I received a prize for the greatest contribution to the school magazine, although only a short poem was published. When I was caught out, I was sent to the school psychologist, who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him that his job seemed a good idea, and he told my parents that the big psychological problem I had was that I had lost connection to school and was bored. As to what potential I had, he said, “whatever he puts his mind to.” When school ended, I only had poor CSE grades in English Literature and Geography, which is not hard to understand.