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Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

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Book III: At Home With Robert

Chapter 4: Brain and Brawn

part 1 of 2

I was only earning a small wage as an apprentice, of course, but I gave a fair chunk to Mum and Dad each week for my board and lodging. They didn’t refuse it. And early in 1965 I started to do some extra vocational training classes at the local technical college. I’d been getting more and more interested in Grandpa and Charlie’s trade as electricians.

There would be no more family holidays for us now, of course — not that we’d had many in the past. Mum and Dad did take Peter back to Estingham to stay at David and Andy’s for a long weekend, and I rode down to join them one afternoon, but it was a bit of a farce — basically we no longer needed each other’s company in such situations.

My own summer holiday that year was very different. I’d already met a lot of other local bikers, most of them a good deal older than me, and we spent two weeks touring and camping around the south and east of England. I was rapidly turning into a fully-fledged Rocker, and that meant meeting quite a few girls, too. But my interest in long-term relationships was still fading fast, and as soon as any of them discovered that, they rapidly dropped me like a hot potato. Most working-class girls in those days still paid a lot of attention to the lyrics of the “love and marriage” songs, for their own understandable reasons.

Peter went up into the fourth year at his school that autumn, and continued on his solo track. He spent all his spare time walking, cycling, fishing and swimming (all activities where he could do a lot of thinking in parallel, he once told me), or listening to the pirate radio stations, doing crossword puzzles, and reading — especially books on chess and card-playing. He never spent his precious free hours on what he called “time and effort wasters” like running or other active sports.

And Christmas was simply Christmas once more.

The next year I carried on with my apprenticeship and evening classes, and began helping Dad in his workshop again, to expand my skills and experience. The occasional girlfriend still crossed my path, but never for long. Yes, I’d definitely become that man’s man!

In the summer, Peter finally broke out of himself — a little bit. He was fifteen now, and he picked up a small vacation job to earn some cash. But I soon discovered he wasn’t wasting a penny of his income on things like cigarettes (he was certainly heeding “Jane’s request” about that), or alcohol, or girls, or even bus fares — he cycled everywhere. And he offered Mum and Dad nothing from his wages, though I doubt they’d have accepted it anyway. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had a Grand Plan, and he was starting to build its Fund ...

I did another touring holiday with my biking mates that summer. Peter, meanwhile, was still restricted to weekend bus trips to the beach with Mum and Dad, but he didn’t seem to mind that, as long as they were paying and he had his little “tranny” stuck to his ear and a puzzle book to work on.

When he went up into the fifth year, I expected him to be devoting all his time to revising for his long list of O-level exams the following summer. But no — he told me he was confident that it was all under control. So I asked him what he was doing at school, when he wasn’t stuck in lessons. It turned out he was playing a lot of chess and backgammon with some of the sixth-formers, to sharpen his skills. And although he definitely preferred private one-on-one games, he’d even agreed to join the school teams when they’d invited him, solely for the purpose of building that experience. He would also occasionally play in group games to practice his technique, but with minimal stakes and financial risk — stuff like poker, bridge, and pontoon (or blackjack, as it’s called in the casinos). And he was also now working every Saturday to keep his new “pot” growing slowly but steadily.

As far as sports were concerned, it was singles-only games for him, like tennis and table-tennis — never rugby, cricket, or any other House games or athletics if he could avoid them. And I think he only had the occasional “pal” ... he was simply not interested in being in any sort of group or gang, even of the mildest variety

But while Peter was saving all he could, and testing the gambling water very carefully with tiny scrapings of his modest pot, I was spending every penny of the little I earned each week! And though 1967 was very much like the previous two years for me, I was already beginning to tire of factory work and the apprenticeship and the evening classes, and I’d been thinking about developing my own cunning plan.

I’d always enjoyed working with Dad, of course, but that was just a part-time job for both of us, and I soon realised there was no way I could turn his little operation into a viable one of my own. But in the spring, Grandpa Kerr announced he was going to retire fully at Christmas, and we all knew that Charlie would then be really overloaded with a business that was still booming. So that summer I gently floated the idea of going to work with him in Wood Green the following year, and everyone agreed we should be able to make it happen.

That same spring, Peter took on another weekend job, and he was now busy every Saturday and Sunday. But he’d been right in saying that he had his exams under control. He got very good results in most of his O-levels that summer, and in the autumn he went up into the sixth-form to work for A-levels in Maths, Statistics and Economics.

I hardly ever saw him now, of course. But we did go out on my motorbike together, one evening after Christmas, and we downed a couple of pints each in a country pub that wasn’t worried about under-age drinkers. He told me he was still playing various games for money, especially in his free periods at school and at his friends’ houses afterwards. And he was usually winning handsomely. But of course he’d slowly been losing that small set of friends, as he steadily took their money off them — so that source of income was now drying up. And then he’d made a breakthrough decision — to target some of the school’s “richer kids” who had little or no experience of gambling, and give them inviting odds in simple individual games of chess and backgammon and cards that he was confident of winning most of the time. That strategy was proving very lucrative, and he’d now made another decision — to use a good chunk of his current pot to buy an old motorbike of his own in the new year. That would allow him to greatly expand his sphere of operations. Of course, he pointed out straight away that the fuel costs would be very annoying, but a necessary overhead!

‘Oh dear. I was fearing this would happen ...’

‘I don’t think you need be too concerned about it, Donna. Peter knew exactly what he was doing!’

I asked him that evening if he’d had any lady friends while I wasn’t looking! He missed the joke, I think, but he did say he had very little interest in girls (he called them “a waste of good money”) and that he’d never sought one out.

And when I thought about it later, I realised his position on that subject wasn’t really too different from my own.

I’d been right about Dad’s business not being a viable proposition for me. During that year, the demand for his services had definitely slackened. People were steadily getting more affluent and buying replacement goods rather than having old things repaired. So when I packed my bags in February 1968, moved from Orlesbury to a one-room flat back in good old Northgate Hill, and started work with A. Kerr & Son, Electricians — well, now actually Charles Kerr (Sole Trader, at least for the time being) — we were all convinced I’d made a very sound decision. And so it proved to be, for the next fifty years!

Charlie even wangled it for me to start going to day-release classes in advanced electrical studies at the local college in Wood Green. That was really unselfish of him, and over the years that followed I did my very best to pay him back for his generosity, in labour and kind if not in cash.

I went to visit Mum, Dad and Peter five or six times that year. They came to see me just once. I also wrote regular letters to my parents, and Mum always answered them. I started off writing to Peter too, but he sent back only two very brief replies, and then our correspondence dried up completely. And none of us had a telephone at home, so talking to each other was never really an option ...

But in the first of those letters he told me he had bought that motorbike, and had started going to private bridge and backgammon clubs in Orlesbury. He was joining in carefully and cautiously with unofficial games for money on the side, and doing well. He was still risking very little, and still building that pot ...

Towards the end of the year, Mum told me he’d taken the Oxbridge entrance exam. He obviously did that one very well too, because he was offered a provisional place at Cambridge, and everybody was feeling very proud.

I went “home” to Orlesbury for Christmas as usual, and one evening Peter and I found ourselves back in the same country pub as the year before. And he was still under age! But nobody cared!

He told me he’d spent the summer holidays visiting several nearby racecourses, including Newmarket and Yarmouth, and immersing himself in the bookmakers’ ways. He said he was already feeling that the horses and dogs were not going to prove a very lucrative avenue to follow, but he still needed to invest a lot more time in researching them.

I really don’t know why, but I ended up asking him about girlfriends again ...

‘Still not very interested, Rob. Once in a while I meet one who looks pretty or seems quite intelligent, and we maybe go out for a coffee or whatever, but it doesn’t last long. And I’m well aware I’m strongly focused on my own interests and the best use of my money. So I probably don’t give them very much attention — and that’s what girls really like men to do, isn’t it?’

‘I think so. But no-one ever taught me about it either, so I’m no expert!’

‘Well, exactly! I’ve never heard you mention anybody since your little baby-love meetings with that Catherine back in ’63. Over five years ago, Rob!’

‘No, you haven’t ...’

‘Right. And anyway — I guess I still have a sort of unconscious policy that I won’t waste my precious resources on teenage girls. I’ll probably wait until I’m properly established in life, and then spend some of my time and money in the company of a few real women.’

I didn’t know how to answer that. So I just smiled in mock admiration of his youthful wisdom and silent pity at his self-inflicted chastity, and bought us another round of beers.

* * *

Over the next few years I led a very simple, stable, modest life. I got on well with Charlie, I enjoyed the freedom of our daily work, and I met a lot of young working men and women in my spare time.

And I visited Mum and Dad in Orlesbury on several family occasions each year, of course. That’s mainly how I kept in touch with news of Peter and his own progress ...

Throughout 1969 he was still making modest gains in all his gambling activities. But he continued to have little time for wine, women or song, even though he now apparently had plenty of cash in hand. Most of it was in his clearly defined pot and was still sacrosanct.

He got very good A-level results in the summer — probably without trying very hard once again — and his university place was confirmed. But I know that once he’d finally left school, he quickly drifted away from any remaining local friends.

We met up again on my twenty-first birthday that September. He’d spent the whole summer at the racetracks again. Now he was convinced that there was too much luck involved in that game. And no doubt some occasional, dubious insider dealings. He reckoned that the bookmakers were the only ones who won over the long term — and quite legitimately. Most people probably knew that instinctively, of course, but Peter was carefully proving it to himself and fine-tuning his forward plans.

He also told me that only one other boy in his year was going on to Cambridge. They’d been very loose acquaintances, even in the sixth-form, and the other lad was no sort of gambler, and both of them would anyway be following different degree courses in widely separated colleges. Peter admitted he was absolutely delighted with that situation. His actual words were: ‘Lots of new punters for me to captivate over the next few years, Rob, and no-one to tell them my secrets or call me Wally!’

In October 1969 he started his three-year degree course, with the option of a fourth year, if approved, to complete “Part III” of what they called the Mathematics Tripos.

He sent Mum and Dad two postcards early in his first term at college. Mum replied, of course, but once again Peter then dried up. With both of us now out of the nest, except when he was back at home during college vacations, she was feeling very empty again. And Dad was still always out at work or in his shed.

Peter sent me one short postcard too. I replied with a long, encouraging letter. Nothing came back, and after that I had no further communication with him while he was at university, apart from when we came together with our parents each Christmas Day.

Proceed to part 2 ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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