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Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

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Book III: At Home With Robert

Chapter 2: Salad Days

part 2 of 3

In September I went up into the third year. Nothing had really changed, apart from the teacher; everything was still fine for me. But that was also Peter’s first day at school. What a fuss he made that morning when Mum said it was time for her to leave! And I had to go and check up on him in the first break, because Mum and Dad had both separately asked me to. I don’t know if I would have thought of that, if they hadn’t ...

But I soon realised for myself that Peter wasn’t very comfortable with school. I went to find him in the playground on several occasions over the following weeks, to try and cheer him up or whatever, but it didn’t do any good. And in his diary he says I never actually did that. Very sad.

I didn’t say this to Robert as he was talking, but I just have to mention here that when I saw those references to Peter’s little friend Catherine in his first year at Infant School, I couldn’t help recalling my so-called mother’s dying words — because here was a “Cath” in Northgate Hill, who would have been about thirty when I was born ...

But that sort of thinking is utterly ridiculous, of course. I’m going to have to forget the whole silly idea!

I really wanted a new, proper-size bike for my seventh birthday a few days later. But I didn’t get one. And that Christmas I just got a saddle-bag for my old one! And some football boots. That was a reasonable consolation prize, I suppose. I used to put them on and play with Dad in the garden as often as I could after that.

I think if Peter had wanted to play football with me at that time I would have been quite happy about it. But all he ever did, when we weren’t watching TV, was to sit in his bedroom and read! That was something I never did! Well, the occasional picture book or comic, of course, but whole encyclopaedias? Hah! No, I still preferred going over to see my friends and watching their big TVs with the entertaining new channel that we couldn’t receive ...

Apart from the tedium of the travel, I was now quite enjoying our occasional visits to Nanny and Grandpa, even though Peter always made a constant fuss about things. I just took it all in my stride, and I was already building a sort of “grown-up” relationship with Uncle Charlie and his father.

Peter was also always complaining to me about school, and of course I was still sharing a bedroom with him. Very frustrating. And then when his fifth birthday came round, I remember getting really jealous of his shiny new sports car. And I was bored and annoyed at his “baby” birthday party. Amy always put far more effort into his than she did into mine.

My eighth birthday arrived, and still no new bike appeared. Now I was even more jealous of Peter and his racing car. But I tried hard to forget about it, because I was going up into Primary One at school, and I knew there would be lots more interesting stuff to do, especially on the playing field.

That was the term when I realised how angry Dad was that Amy wouldn’t force Peter to have lunch at school, so that she could get a proper job. That made me angry too, and I had a little showdown about it with Peter. Of course, that just turned him even more stubborn, so then I decided to take the opposite line and ignore the subject completely. And essentially to ignore him completely as well.

There was still no new bike for me at Christmas! Very little, in fact. All the spare money had gone on Peter’s car.

Dad and I carried on playing football all through that winter. Peter still wasn’t interested — he insisted we were both too big and strong for him to join in. And he was a real pain throughout 1957. It’s all there in his diary. He cried on the way to the dentist and earned himself a present! Huh! Then he made Amy really frightened by going off to the library on his own. I never did that sort of thing. I certainly wasn’t a goody-goody, but I think I was a lot more aware of other people’s needs and concerns, and far less self-centred. And then there was a little accident with a tin pail in the paddling pool. Boy, did he over-react! It was only a tiny graze ...

He inherited a lot of my old clothes on his birthday, and that’s about all he got, I believe. I felt a perverse sort of pleasure from that, since I’d been growing very fast and I’d needed lots of new ones during the year.

That summer we went on a week’s holiday in Suffolk. I was really bored ... it was all too windy and dull for my liking, and we only had two friends to play with. And then I had a silly bike accident, and broke my arm. Peter talks about that in his diary too, and “Jane” treats him like a hero. Hah! I was in a lot of pain, but I actually had to put a huge effort into persuading him to go for help. He simply had no natural feel for what needed to be done ...

My ninth birthday came and went, still with no new bike — not that I could have ridden it for many weeks anyway! Instead we went to see a silly American film. I hated it. It seemed completely unreal and irrelevant to my no-nonsense life in London — and my father’s. But Mum and Peter both loved it. Hah! There’s the difference, of course!

I went up into P2, and everything was still OK. I never really understood why Peter was uncomfortable with things at school. He was so bright that he should have been sailing through life without a care in the world. And still he refused to have school lunches ...

‘You know, Robert, it seems to me that you’ve been talking as much about Peter as about yourself today ...’

‘Yes, I’m sure you’re right, Donna. It’s possibly because I’ve re-read his diary several times recently, so his thoughts and activities during these years are at the forefront of my mind. But it is also a nice way of telling you about myself and our parents, by bringing out the contrasts between us all, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘And I think this would be a very good place to stop and let you have a further look at that diary. Why don’t you read his account of the two years I’ve just described, and carry on to see what he has to say from 1958 to the end of 1960? Then I can give you my own perspective on those years tomorrow.’

‘That’s suits me fine, Robert. I’m still finding it all quite fascinating!’

‘Excellent! So, here are his next five chapters ...’

* * *

I really hadn’t thought any more about my silly “Catherine” idea. But when I learnt from Peter’s diary that his lovely little friend had died at the age of six ... well, I felt very sorry for her and her family, of course, and for poor Peter ... and I reminded myself once again how absolutely ridiculous my passing thought about “Cath” really had been! So, enough of that!

‘Well, Donna, what did you think of those latest pages of Peter’s diary?’

‘Quite frankly, Robert, I was stunned — over and over again. Not just by everything the poor boy seemed to be going through, and his strange combination of intellectual maturity, social naivety and vulnerability ... but also by Jane’s continued “presence” and his slowly worsening treatment of her, despite the help and advice she was always trying to give him. It was difficult to take it all in ...’

‘Yes, I completely agree. And I may have sounded a bit flippant about the business of “Jane” yesterday, but I don’t mind admitting that even I find it all very hard to comprehend. I’m not a naturally prejudiced person, so I’ve tried to keep an open mind about it for many, many years ...’

‘Well, I’d certainly like to see how things continue to develop for Peter. And I’m still trusting he didn’t embellish the truth about his early precocity in his later transcript of the diary. But I do have one other observation ...’


‘This time it was through Peter’s words that I heard about “so much family” once again. After reading those pages last night, I cried myself to sleep ...’

‘I’m very, very sorry if I’m to blame for that, Donna.’

‘Oh no, Robert, of course you’re not! It’s just me and my silly sentimental dreams of things that never were and never can be ...’

‘I understand. Truly, I do. So, shall I carry on now?’

‘Oh yes, please do!’

* * *

I now started to spend time with Dad in his little workshop, in the evenings and at weekends, and I was surprised at how interested I became in what he was doing. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be some sort of skilled tradesman like him.

I was also surprised at my reaction to Charlie and Barbara’s baby, Sally. We’d visited them a year earlier, when she was tiny, but now she was about eighteen months old, and I developed a great fondness for her during our short visit in the Easter holidays. I think I knew at once that she was partially filling the gap left by Jane, who had died at exactly that age ...

Peter had taken to riding my little bike in the garden. I don’t think he ever asked. It was ludicrous ... the thing was far too small for me, and still too big for him. My greatest fear was that he would crash it before I finally got a new one!

And then, on his seventh birthday, Mum and Dad dropped the bombshell that we were moving to Estingham in a few weeks’ time! I was very unhappy with that news. I couldn’t see any benefits, just a lot of unnecessary change and the loss of all my friends. But everyone else seemed very pleased. So I had one little moan about it, and then I just shrugged my shoulders and got on with enjoying what time I had left in Northgate Hill.

And the new place turned out to be just as bad as I’d feared. Worse, in one big way ... we no longer had a TV! Dad had no time to buy a new aerial and fix it up, so we just had to do without. That was hard! And there was only one upside to the whole business — Peter and I had separate bedrooms at last!

But he was still hogging my old bike in the big new garden. I literally had to drag it away from him whenever I wanted to go out that summer. But, heaven be praised, when my tenth birthday came round, Dad came good on his promises of special presents for us that year, and I finally got my fabulous new bike!!


‘That’s exactly what I said!’

‘You know, Robert, when I was reading Peter’s diary last night, I had the feeling he was always far more sensitive to his environment than you seem to have been. An awareness of “spirit of place”, if you know what I mean. Especially in the way he had Jane talking about the differences between London and Suffolk, and so on ...’

‘Yes, you’re quite right, Donna. I’d actually call it hyper-sensitivity — and not just to places! He over-reacted to almost everything that hit him. Compared with him, I usually just went with the flow. And I know which was the better route to general contentment ...’

And off I went into P3 at Estingham village school. It was good to meet lots of new kids — once again I’d had to spend most of the summer holiday with hardly anyone to visit or play with. I was now the very oldest in my class, and still physically the biggest, and although there were some strange reactions to me on the first day or two, I soon let them all know I wasn’t going to be messed with. And after that I found they were falling over themselves to be friends with me. Including the girls. I think that’s when I first actually took conscious note of that strange new species!

I didn’t try to make contact with Peter on his first day at school, or later. I figured that if he still needed me to do that, then he had real problems — or he soon would have! But nobody made an issue of it, and his diary suggests “Janey” gave him all the solace he needed over the months and years to come ...

Yes, I was now having less and less to do with Peter, and I was quite happy about that.

Hah! Mustn’t forget the stupid fancy-dress hats competition at Dad’s new factory that Peter wrote about! It would have been so much better if the two of us had gone wearing each other’s hats. Then he could have won and been content, instead of moaning all night about losing.

At least the year finished on another good note. We got some more very nice presents, and Mum had a real one of her own at last ... a lovely new rental TV with all the latest bells and whistles! Everyone was pretty happy that Christmas! And despite missing my old life back in Northgate Hill, I was feeling that we had definitely never had it so good.

Proceed to part 3 ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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