Peter a few years later in school photo
Ladies below are the school cooks
Boy at left is now an antiques
expert on popular TV programmes
So I must have been 12 and that underlines the frustration with which I spent the last days at Merrion House School, and at Granny’s in the holidays, waiting for the divorce to be finalised, impatient to start a new school, new house, new stepfather, new way of living. Anyhow I was innocent enough to be 11 or even younger. I travelled to the Isle of Wight on my own and encountered a man in the train. His hand was moving in his pocket and he looked at me. I was pretty unnerved but didn’t want to offend him. Then he tried to involve me with his life-story and endless apologies. I muttered something and moved to a compartment protected by the presence of other passengers; but on the ferry he tried to corner me again, anxious he said that I should not think ill of him. My innocence stayed intact and I was 13 before I discovered self-stimulation and indulged it only in the strictest privacy.
Blackett’s lodging house was a granite four-storey slab with a circular drive at the front and a small wilderness behind. I loved the basement. It had various rooms, mostly deep in cobwebs with some astonishing junk: gasmasks from the War and all kinds of components and offcuts which Blackett had taken from the aircraft factory. In the midst was his workshop with metal-working tools, vices and sheets of Perspex. He’d bought these to make models, such as a sculpture, clear like glass, of the Princess Flying Boat. He always had something on the go and later he would present my grandfather with his coat of arms incongruously in Perspex, with its motto Usque ad mortem fidus impressed on the scroll with metal-working punches. There was a lot of blue dye all over the things in the basement. I believe it was used in machining metal, as a guide to the flatness of a surface.
I soon made friends with a local boy, Peter. His father worked with Blackett at the aircraft factory, and Peter was at the Newport Grammar School. Apart from Matt, he was the only good friend I had made outside boarding school. He often invited me to his house. His parents were working-class, and I envied their easy-going ways and their cosy little house. It’s almost exactly like the one I’m buying today: a little Victorian worker’s cottage. They had a television, which I’d heard of (from Matt of course) but never seen before. It didn’t impress me and often displayed a sign “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible”. I was much more impressed with Peter’s elder brother Lawrence who had an airgun which could fire lead pellets at birds (and neighbours’ cats too, if you dared). Having an elder brother meant you learned things parents never mentioned. For example, Lolly (Lawrence) had told Peter about condoms and Peter told me, referring to them as “rubber Johnnies”. To me it seemed a crude and ugly idea: I accused him of making it up. We used to wander all over town when we weren’t at his place or my big house, which impressed him greatly: he was very deferential when he came. Sometimes we went to the beach. It was nothing grand, being infested with seaweed and washed-up flotsam, for the Solent was one of the busiest shipping-lanes in the world, not a lido. The beach was separated from a wooded area by the Esplanade, a broken-down concrete road almost impassable by motor-car. In a clearing were two corrugated-iron enclosures for changing in and out of bathing costumes: one for boys and one for girls. This was the scene of Peter’s revelation about the johnnies, and other tales---disturbing and exciting---of naughtiness between boys and girls. I looked at him in amazement: this chubby-faced boy with owlish glasses was more than met the eye! Yet he was no participant, just the messenger, or possibly a voyeur. The technical facts of life I knew, but not till then their role in gossip and play.
Our friendship suffered a setback. When the school term started, Peter accompanied me on the bus and up to the school gates. From that point on, our paths diverged. I had been placed not one, but two forms above Peter. He was in a babies’ class and it was imperative to ignore him. He understood this perfectly well and as time went on we became strangers to one another.