I was told my father was killed in the war.
Whenever I questioned my mother about his death, she didn’t say any more than that he’d served with the Royal Gloucestershire Regiment and had been killed fighting on the Western Front only days before the Armistice was signed. Grandma said my dad had been a brave man, and once when we were alone in the house she showed me his medals. My grandpa rarely offered an opinion on anything, but then he was deaf as a post so he might not have heard the question in the first place.
The only other man I can remember was my uncle Stan, who used to sit at the top of the table at breakfast time. When he left of a morning I would often follow him to the city docks, where he worked. Every day I spent at the dockyard was an adventure. Cargo ships coming from distant lands and unloading their wares: rice, sugar, bananas, jute and many other things I’d never heard of. Once the holds had been emptied, the dockers would load them with salt, apples, tin, even coal (my least favourite, because it was an obvious clue to what I’d been doing all day and annoyed my mother), before they set off again to I knew not where. I always wanted to help my uncle Stan unload whatever ship had docked that morning, but he just laughed, saying, ‘All in good time, my lad.’ It couldn’t be soon enough for me, but, without any warning, school got in the way.
I was sent to Merrywood Elementary when I was six and I thought it was a complete waste of time. What was the point of school when I could learn all I needed to at the docks? I wouldn’t have bothered to go back the following day if my mother hadn’t dragged me to the front gates, deposited me and returned at four o’clock that afternoon to take me home.
I didn’t realize Mum had other plans for my future, which didn’t include joining Uncle Stan in the shipyard.
Once Mum had dropped me off each morning, I would hang around in the yard until she was out of sight, then slope off to the docks. I made sure I was always back at the school gates when she returned to pick me up in the afternoon. On the way home, I would tell her everything I’d done at school that day. I was good at making up stories, but it wasn’t long before she discovered that was all they were: stories.
One or two other boys from my school also used to hang around the docks, but I kept my distance from them. They were older and bigger, and used to thump me if I got in their way. I also had to keep an eye out for Mr Haskins, the chief ganger, because if he ever found me loitering, to use his favourite word, he would send me off with a kick up the backside and the threat: ‘If I see you loiterin’ round here again, my lad, I’ll report you to the headmaster.’
Occasionally Haskins decided he’d seen me once too often and I’d be reported to the headmaster, who would leather me before sending me back to my classroom. My form master, Mr Holcombe, never let on if I didn’t show up for his class, but then he was a bit soft. Whenever my mum found out I’d been playing truant, she couldn’t hide her anger and would stop my halfpenny-a-week pocket money. But despite the occasional punch from an older boy, regular leatherings from the headmaster and the loss of my pocket money, I still couldn’t resist the draw of the docks.
I made only one real friend while I ‘loitered’ around the dockyard. His name was Old Jack Tar. Mr Tar lived in an abandoned railway carriage at the end of the sheds. Uncle Stan told me to keep away from Old Jack because he was a stupid, dirty old tramp. He didn’t look that dirty to me, certainly not as dirty as Stan, and it wasn’t long before I discovered he wasn’t stupid either.
After lunch with my uncle Stan, one bite of his Marmite sandwich, his discarded apple core and a swig of beer, I would be back at school in time for a game of football; the only activity I considered it worth turning up for. After all, when I left school I was going to captain Bristol City, or build a ship that would sail around the world. If Mr Holcombe kept his mouth shut and the ganger didn’t report me to the headmaster, I could go for days without being found out, and as long as I avoided the coal barges and was standing by the school gate at four o’clock every afternoon, my mother would never be any the wiser.
I was thrilled when I saw Harry walk through the school gates on the first day of term. I’d spent the summer hols at our villa in Tuscany, so I wasn’t in Bristol when Tilly’s was burnt to the ground and didn’t find out about it until I returned to England the weekend before term began. I had wanted Harry to join us in Italy, but my father wouldn’t hear of it.
I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Harry, with the exception of my father, who won’t even allow his name to be mentioned in the house. I once asked Mama if she could explain why he felt so strongly, but she didn’t seem to know any more than I did.
I didn’t press the point with my old man, as I’ve never exactly covered myself in glory in his eyes. I nearly got myself expelled from my prep school for stealing – heaven knows how he managed to fix that – and after that I let him down by failing to get into Eton. I told Papa when I came out of the exam that I couldn’t have tried harder, which was the truth. Well, half the truth. I would have got away with it if my co-conspirator had only kept his mouth shut. At least it taught me a simple lesson: if you make a deal with a fool, don’t be surprised when they act foolishly.
My co-conspirator was the Earl of Bridport’s son, Percy. He was facing an even greater dilemma than I was, because seven generations of Bridports had been educated at Eton, and it was looking as if young Percy was going to ruin that rather fine batting average.
Eton has been known to bend the rules when it comes to members of the aristocracy and will occasionally allow a stupid boy to darken its doors, which is why I selected Percy for my little subterfuge in the first place. It was after I overheard the Frob saying to another beak, ‘If Bridport was any brighter, he’d be a half-wit,’ that I knew I didn’t need to look any further for my accomplice.
Percy was as desperate to be offered a place at Eton as I was to be rejected, so I saw this as no more than an opportunity for both of us to achieve our purpose.
I didn’t discuss my plan with Harry or Deakins. Harry would undoubtedly have disapproved, he’s such a morally upright fellow, and Deakins wouldn’t have been able to understand why anyone would want to fail an exam.
On the day before the examination was due to take place my father drove me to Eton in his swish new Bugatti, which could do a hundred miles an hour, and once we hit the A4 he proved it. We spent the night at the Swann Arms, the same hotel in which he had stayed over twenty years before when he took the entrance exam. Over dinner, Papa didn’t leave me in any doubt how keen he was that I should go to Eton and I nearly had a change of heart at the last moment, but I had given my word to Percy Bridport, and felt I couldn’t let him down.
Percy and I had shaken hands on the deal back at St Bede’s, agreeing that when we entered the examination hall, we would give the recorder the other’s name. I rather enjoyed being addressed as ‘my lord’ by all and sundry, even if it was only for a few hours.
The examination papers were not as demanding as the ones I’d sat a fortnight earlier for Bristol Grammar, and I felt I’d done more than enough to ensure that Percy would be returning to Eton in September. However, they were difficult enough for me to feel confident that his lordship would not let me down.
Once we’d handed in our papers and reverted to our true personas, I went off to tea with my pa, in Windsor. When he asked me how it had gone, I told him I’d done the best I possibly could. He seemed satisfied by this, and even began to relax, which only made me feel more guilty. I didn’t enjoy the journey back to Bristol, and felt even worse when I got home and my mother asked me the same question.
Ten days later, I received an I’m sorry to have to inform you letter from Eton. I had only managed 32 per cent. Percy scored 56 per cent and was offered a place for the Michaelmas term, which delighted his father and was met with incredulity by the Frob.
Everything would have worked out just fine, if Percy hadn’t told a friend how he’d managed to get into Eton. The friend told another friend, who told another friend, who told Percy’s father. The Earl of Bridport MC, being an honourable man, immediately informed the headmaster of Eton. This resulted in Percy being expelled before he’d even set foot in the place. If it hadn’t been for a personal intervention by the Frob, I might have suffered the same fate at Bristol Grammar.
My father tried to convince the headmaster of Eton that it was simply a clerical error, and that, as I’d actually scored 56 per cent in the exam, I should be reinstated in Bridport’s place. This piece of logic was rejected by return of post, as Eton wasn’t in need of a new cricket pavilion. I duly reported to Bristol Grammar School on the first day of term.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw him.
He came to tea at the Manor House to celebrate my brother’s twelfth birthday. He was so quiet and reserved that I wondered how he could possibly be Giles’s best friend. The other one, Deakins, was really strange. He never stopped eating and hardly said a word all afternoon.
And then Harry spoke, a soft, gentle voice that made you want to listen. The birthday party had apparently been going swimmingly until my father burst into the room, and then he hardly spoke again. I’d never known my father to be so off-hand with anyone, and I couldn’t understand why he should behave in that way towards a complete stranger. But even more inexplicable was Papa’s reaction when he asked Harry when his birthday was. How could such an innocuous question bring on such an extreme reaction? A moment later my father got up and left the room, without even saying goodbye to Giles and his guests. I could see that Mama was embarrassed by his behaviour, although she poured another cup of tea and pretended not to notice.
A few minutes later, my brother and his two friends left to go back to school. He turned and smiled at me before leaving, but just like my mother, I pretended not to notice. But when the front door closed I stood by the drawing-room window and watched as the car disappeared down the driveway and out of sight. I thought I saw him looking out of the back window, but I couldn’t be sure.
After they had left, Mama went straight to my father’s study and I could hear raised voices, which had recently become more and more common. When she came back out, she smiled at me as if nothing unusual had happened.
‘What’s the name of Giles’s best friend?’ I asked.
‘Harry Clifton,’ she replied.
The next time I saw Harry Clifton was at the Advent carol service at St Mary Redcliffe. He sang O Little Town of Bethlehem, and my best friend, Jessica Braithwaite, accused me of swooning as if he was the new Bing Crosby. I didn’t bother to deny it. I saw him chatting to Giles after the service and I would have liked to congratulate him, but Papa seemed to be in a hurry to get home. As we left, I saw his nanny giving him a huge hug.
I was also at St Mary Redcliffe the evening his voice broke, but at the time I didn’t understand why so many heads were turning and some members of the congregation began to whisper among themselves. All I know is that I never heard him sing again.
When Giles was driven to the grammar school on his first day, I begged my mother to let me go along, but only because I wanted to meet Harry. But my father wouldn’t hear of it, and despite my bursting into controlled tears, they still left me standing on the top step with my younger sister Grace. I knew Papa was cross about Giles not being offered a place at Eton, something I still don’t understand, because a lot of boys more stupid than my brother passed the exam. Mama didn’t seem to mind which school Giles went to, whereas I was delighted he was going to Bristol Grammar, because it meant I’d have a better chance of seeing Harry again.
In fact I must have seen him at least a dozen times during the next three years, but he was never able to recall any of those occasions, until we met up in Rome.
The family were all staying at our villa in Tuscany that summer when Giles took me to one side and said he needed to ask my advice. He only ever did that when he wanted something. But this time it turned out to be something I wanted just as much as he did.
‘So what are you expecting me to do this time?’ I asked.
‘I need an excuse to go into Rome tomorrow,’ he said, ‘because I’m meant to be meeting up with Harry.’
‘Harry who?’ I said, feigning indifference.
‘Harry Clifton, stupid. He’s on a school trip to Rome and I promised to get away and spend the day with him.’ He didn’t need to spell out that Papa wouldn’t have approved. ‘All you have to do,’ he continued, ‘is ask Mama if she could take you to Rome for the day.’
‘But she’ll need to know why I want to go into Rome.’
‘Tell her you’ve always wanted to visit the Villa Borghese.’
‘Why the Villa Borghese?’
‘Because that’s where Harry will be at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.’