Father taught us to respect living things. He would not allow us to tease dogs or cats, or manhandle them, or speak, even kindly, to one that was sleeping. We knew better than to ask for rabbits or white mice, but he did let us keep the small fish we caught in the stream that ran through the woodland at the end of our road. It took twenty minutes to walk to school and two hours to meander back, across the railway and into the trees. The water was clear and cressy. It twitched with tadpoles and whirligig beetles, minnows and loaches and sticklebacks. These last were my favorite. They are a fish with boldness far beyond their size. They decide on a thing then do it. The males defend their offspring fiercely, repelling even the mothers, so recently lured in with a flash of color. Father used the proper names for their anatomies and metamorphoses. He never did have any patience with baby talk. When it became obvious that our charges were not thriving, he had us collect them up and release them back into the wild.
In 1951 I reached the age of eighteen, old enough for national service but not to vote. It was the year the Festival of Britain showed us how to look forward and what we could hope to find there. The Tories loathed the whole idea. After they won the election that October, they demolished the site and threw most of it into the Thames. But that hadn't happened yet.
Mother sent me ten shillings for the festival, which she could not well afford. I was a month into my service, and while the first set of clothing was free, minor items were issued as "slops"—that is to say, deducted from our pay. So although in theory I was paid twenty-eight shillings a week, I had yet to receive anywhere near that rate. And except for meals, the money had to cover everything, including all kit maintenance, blacking, metal polish, etc. The quality of the navy's material was excellent, I found, but the garments were not well put together. In the first week, for example, all the buttons came off my coat. Had we found ourselves at war, we'd have been running about with uniforms flapping, tripping us up and signaling our ineptitude to the enemy. Ten shillings was a great deal for my mother at that time, because the day after I arrived at the training camp my father had set out to work and not come back. My mother had my sister, Alice, still at home, and nothing for the two of them to live on except a post office account and the chickens Mother kept in the back garden. The only person my father had been in contact with was his brother, my uncle Walter, which we knew because Walter had written to reassure us that Father was not lying facedown in a ditch, as we had feared for some days, but sleeping, peacefully or otherwise, on Walter's studio couch in Southend. So when I learned that our camp would have the chance to visit the festival, I took advantage to arrange, via my uncle, a meeting at which I hoped Father would explain his reasons and intentions. Walter wrote that I should not expect too much, which I understood to be code that my father was not yet ready to go home.
I conveyed all this to my mother, as I did not want to keep any more secrets than were necessary, and thought that in general people behaved more rationally when they had all the facts. I counseled that she should not let the news cause either fresh apprehension or renewed hope. In her previous letter she had written that the chickens were off their food and had taken to hiding themselves about the garden and panicking at imaginary sounds, and having no reason to believe otherwise I assured her that they would settle down soon.
She worried repeatedly over the jobs that Father usually did, asking me which ones were urgent. The dripping tap. The rattling window frame. The loose slate that banged all night when the wind got up. Since my part in such tasks had been to do whatever Father told me to do, I found it hard to advise her. I had supposed that at some undefined date the knowledge of how a man maintained his house would be passed to me, all at once, so that I could assume the responsibilities of an adult, but he had left without warning or preparation.
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