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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 3 of 3

Somebody had finally spotted Peter wasn’t achieving his potential at school, and in the New Year they banged him straight up into the second form. That was one of the few times I actually felt sorry for him — nearly two years younger than the eldest kids now, and still obviously smarter than most of them! I guessed there’d be trouble ahead, but I didn’t get involved. I knew that if I started to be my brother’s keeper, I might never be able to stop. Even so, I got a few snide remarks about it from some of the other “big brothers” in my own class, but I soon shut them up with a dirty look and the hint of an optional punch in the nose ...

I was now spending a lot of time with Dad in his big new workshop in our no-car-family garage. We’d stopped playing football in the garden — I was getting plenty of that in school and at the local field. But now Peter had caught the bug, and he started pestering me to play with him all the time. I eventually bit his head off, and he stopped.

Nanny died early that summer. I think Dad took it very hard, but he didn’t say very much at all. He probably wanted to minimise the risks of derailing Mum again.

I got another big dose of “peer pressure” when Peter was awarded “First in Class” at the Prize Day. First in Class, in the year above him! I had another inkling straight away that this would end in tears for him, and probably more than once ...

In the summer holidays we went to play on some ropes up in the trees near our friends’ house. I’ll admit I took a few risks, but I knew what I was doing. Then I saw Peter trying to copy me, and getting it wrong. He never did have very good co-ordination or common sense. So I stopped at once, and warned him not to try it again. Fortunately, he took my advice. But soon after that he nearly fell off a ladder, while Charlie was staying with us. I’d warned him about that too ...

‘So you obviously did care just a little bit, Robert ...’

‘Hmmm. Yes, I suppose so — and maybe even more than I’ve admitted so far.’

I got a big Meccano set for my birthday that year. I think Dad had picked up the general message about my planned career! And Mum got a dog. I suspect that was another tactic of Dad’s to save her from herself ... and Peter.

Peter, of course, did little to improve her state of mind. He made a huge fuss one evening when she was about to pop out for a couple of hours, just to meet some friends for the first time in years. I felt very sorry for her when she abandoned the idea, and I told him so. He just shrugged, and I just gave up again.

And now I was in the final class of Junior School.

I’d played football all through the previous year, of course, but this was my chance to be in the actual school team. But it didn’t work out quite as I’d expected. The headmaster chose me, all right — but he said I was rather slow on my feet, being so “stocky”, and that the ideal place for me was in goal! So there I had to stand, cold and immobile, through every one of our matches. Trouble was, I wasn’t very good at it, and the rest of the team was pretty poor too. So our opponents were always on the attack, and we ended up conceding lots of goals in every match. No-one really blamed me, and I wouldn’t have let them anyway, but there were certainly no glittering prizes for us that year!

And it’s a complete fabrication that everyone called me “Tubby” Kerr from that winter onwards! I’m sure the girls all called me “Cuddly” instead!


Meanwhile Peter was now in P3, still the youngest, of course, and clearly becoming more and more withdrawn. I started to pick up vibrations that he was being bullied, but I couldn’t bring myself to get heavily involved. I’ve never been sure whether that was the right thing to do, or not, but there we are. When I did catch a real glimpse of something nasty going on, though, I had a quiet word with the perpetrators and things seemed to improve. And Peter never knew about this, but I was the one who got him out of Coventry a few months later, after his bad experience with the gangs and the playhouse. Oh, he was often so reckless! He even went as far as doing a complete Carol Service reading without his Bible. Boy, did I get some stick from my mates the next day! So quite frankly, I was really looking forward to moving on to senior school that summer and leaving that little problem far behind.

I was still putting a lot of my spare time into helping Dad in his workshop, often doing complete repair jobs all on my own and, according to him, very well for my age! I was really pleased about that. Not proud, as Peter would have been, but just relieved that this very skilled man actually thought I would be capable of carrying on a similar sort of trade when I left school.

And that Christmas holiday he began to tell me all about the Kerr family history. That was probably prompted by Nanny’s death and by Grandpa’s going into semi-retirement that year, which gave his son Charlie a heavy extra workload. And the more I heard from Dad about all the hard times of the past, the more I felt sorry for his having to work such long hours to support us. And then, one evening, he let it slip that he really wished Amy could have gone back to work to help him out. Over the next few days I put Peter under a lot of pressure to agree to stay at school for lunch — “to give Mummy a break” — and he finally gave in!

It’s probably obvious that I was very average academically. Actually, that’s probably a gross exaggeration! There was no chance at all of my passing the 11-plus exam, but anyway I had absolutely no desire to go on to the Grammar School or anywhere like it. I wanted to stick with most of my equally unpretentious mates — boys and girls, if you please — and just move on with them to the closest “secondary modern” school in Orlesbury. But just in case I’d misjudged my talent, I purposely answered most of the questions wrongly, even where I definitely knew the answers! It worked, and I successfully failed.

And then the summer came and went. My twelfth birthday present was the best ever: a big, professional toolkit. I think Dad was trying to tell me something this time! And that week I started senior school with all my old friends, just as I’d planned.

‘Robert ...’

‘Yes, Donna?’

‘I was very impressed with what Peter said about how you reported the details of that suspicious van to the police. A lot of people might have been rather wary of doing that. Your mother certainly seems to have been quite worried about it...’

‘Well, I wasn’t. It needed to be reported, and that was that. More reckless than responsible? I don’t know. But you can’t go changing your level of morality on a case-by-case basis, can you?’

‘No, of course you can’t. Bravo, Robert!

‘Hmmm ...’

Our new school was OK. Far bigger and more impersonal than the little village one, of course, but for me it was the other kids who mattered, not the architecture or the teachers or the lessons. And I already had a sense that I’d be getting out of the education system as quickly as I could.

And of course I was now free of any daytime encounters with Peter. Mind you, there were still the evenings and weekends to look forward to! His diary, towards the end of that year, relates how he fell out of that tree while trying to break off bits of it for our bonfire. What a puzzle he was! A brain the size of a planet, and a huge deficit of common sense. Most of the time he seemed to be living in another world entirely.

‘Jane’s world, it seems ...’

‘Yes, maybe, Donna. Or maybe not. Would you like to have a quick read ahead through his diary entries for 1961 and 1962, while I make us a nice cup of tea? I can still manage that sort of manual work!’

‘Oh, yes please, Robert — on both counts!’

* * *

‘So what was your reaction to those pages?’

‘I saw a very mixed-up kid trying to cope with a permanently difficult situation and only occasionally succeeding — still showing some rather unattractive streaks and selfishness, but now making some kind gestures too. The end of the bullying, and those group activities in his final year at Junior School, both seemed to help a lot.’

‘Very interesting, Donna — and very close to my own view of the reality, too.’

‘I also felt as sad as Peter did to learn about the deaths and absences of so many fathers and husbands ...’

‘And what of the mystery that was Jane?’

‘What indeed, Robert?’

* * *

I was still often helping Dad in his workshop, and my interest in his family history stories was definitely increasing. And incidentally, I tried to discuss that subject with Peter a couple of times. I thought the structural aspects of it might appeal to his academic brain, and he might even want to start building a big chart. But he wasn’t the slightest bit interested. Chalk and cheese again.

And the funny thing is ... although I was still so fascinated by it, I was also getting the overriding impression that Families seemed to be largely unhappy “things” that were very vulnerable to problems and arguments and tragedies. And that was hard to reconcile with my generally happy-go-lucky nature.

Hmmm ... I suspect it was about this time that I first felt a broad reluctance to the idea of becoming a family man myself.

But I was certainly still happy enough by the end of the first year at my new school. Nothing had really changed ... it was just a short bus journey instead of a bike ride, a different set of buildings, and lots of new friends to add to all my old ones!

In the holidays it was often back to humouring Peter, of course. On our summer break in Bristol that year, I had to go net fishing with him at the brook. Net fishing, at my age! When I decided to take up potato picking, to earn some good pocket money, he insisted on coming too, and Mum finally agreed, just to shut him up. Of course he slowed me down on the long bike rides to and from the farm, and he worked very erratically and kept complaining about his aching back, and he really cut down my productivity because Mum had insisted I “keep watch over him” all the time. And when he found that injured owl at the cricket field ... boy, what a wasted weekend that was for Dad and me. Ah, Peter, Peter ...

I went up into the second form on the day I became a teenager. And that year I positively decided I wasn’t going to spend a moment longer in education than I had to. I wanted to get out of the classroom for ever and start earning some real money. But even in those days you couldn’t leave until you’d finished the fourth year, so I still had a long while to wait. I just grinned and bore it, always looking forward to my evenings and weekends helping Dad in his workshop

And during those sessions he carried on telling me all the history of our families, several times over. That’s how I still remember it so well! It was around this time that we first moved on to Amy’s side of the family. I don’t think he felt I was ready for it until then.

Peter passed the 11-plus exam during that school year. So then every bit of spare cash was diverted to his new uniform and lots of other “essentials”. There were no holidays or nice birthday presents for me that summer.

Then I went up into the third year at school. And a few weeks later I saw my first A-rated film, Dr. No, with some of the older fourth-year boys. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Why was I supposed to be sixteen before I could watch such silly fantasies? Peter, on the other hand, would later take to James Bond like a duck to water.

Meanwhile, he’d started at the Grammar School, but fortunately he had to catch an earlier morning bus than I did, and spend much longer travelling each way. He certainly made sure we all knew that, almost every day ...

And perhaps that film did actually have a small subliminal effect on me. Because a few weeks later I started hanging around with a second-year girl called Marianne. We’d known each other vaguely at Primary School, and I’d always been perfectly friendly towards her, but now I was feeling something new bubbling up inside me ...

‘And that basically takes us to the end of 1962, Donna. Here’s the rest of Peter’s diary — there are only two more chapters. Would you like to read those through before your next visit?’

‘Oh, definitely, Robert!’

Proceed to Chapter 3 ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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