Browsing articles from "June, 2013"

The Flying Carpet – The Guinea Pig Children’s Stories written and illustrated by Caroline Whittle

Flying Carpet


A little guinea pig sits all alone in the noisy pet shop. No one has come to


 give him a forever home, although a lot of people have stared at him and


 eager fingers tried to catch him, because he is very handsome. He hears


 loud voices proclaiming him ‘wild’ and ‘untameable’ and the people go away.




He spends his days looking out of a window where he can see the birds


 landing on a table and feeding, then flying away again. He wishes he could


 fly. He would leave this place and be free.




That night, when all is quiet and dark and even the parrots have gone to


 sleep, the guinea pig is captivated by the bright light of the moon in the


 inky sky. He makes a wish to the moon that he will grow wings from his


 long, silken hair and be able to fly.



The following morning, his day begins as usual. The sounds of disruption


 shatter the peace; cages being cleaned and food being prepared,


 squawking and screeching. When it is his turn, there are shocked sounds


 and he is pulled from his bed of hay. It is then that he realises he feels


 different. All of the long hair on his body has gone! He’s just left with his


 long head locks and a fine silky fuzz everywhere else.





The humans in the pet shop think that he has chewed off his own hair as a


 sign of disturbed behaviour, or worse; that he has some awful illness. He is


 moved to the attic so that he is quarantined from everyone else. A visit to


 the Vet finds nothing amiss, so the pet shop owners despair at ever selling


 him without hair and decide to keep him out of sight.




That night, having had nothing to amuse him and make his lonely day pass,


 the guinea pig feels utter despair. He knows nothing of life, he doesn’t even


 have a name. And now, he doesn’t even have his glorious coat of hair. Did


 he wish this on himself by asking for wings? He then starts to cry. He cries


 for the mother he hardly remembers and he cries for his wasted life.




When he finally sleeps, he dreams. He dreams that magical light beings


 come to him and dry his tears. They tell him that he is too special to be an


 ordinary guinea pig and that they had heard his wish. It was they who had


 taken his hair, they said, to weave into a very special carpet. They were


 sorry it had taken so long, but it was a lengthy process, full of loving


 intention and a little bit of his own being. ‘So go well, little guinea pig’ they


 say as they float away, ‘and follow your dreams’.




When he wakes up, it is still dark. He feels the sadness of realising the


 lovely dream was just that. He shuffles over to his food bowl, brightly lit


 again from the full moon. To his astonishment, there, propped in the


 corner of his cage is a rolled up, shimmery, almost breathing small carpet.


 Hanging next to it is a silken costume of waistcoat, loose trousers and some


 golden shoes. Just then, he notices a breeze on his whiskers and sees that


 the window of the attic is open. Little bursts of energy, like tiny fireworks


 are happening around the window and on the carpet. It unfurls and waits.


 The guinea pig puts on the clothes and sits on the rich softness of his own


 hair, dyed beautiful colours and skillfully woven. He then feels that his


 heart and the carpet seem to be as one and they rise up from this lonely


 place and follow the sparkling lights out through the window.




The mystery of the unwanted guinea pig was never solved. All that was left


 in his cage were a few little scorch marks, as if the sun had shone really


 brightly on his hay. But that guinea pig with no name is living his dream, he


 can fly. He has visited the whole world and if you look carefully, you might


 see him when he passes over you on his shimmering, glittering carpet.


The End  for now . . .


Kubernan Mente – Winning short story of the Dr Who Competition at The Isle of Arts 2013 by WFWC member Michelle Angell


Kubernan Mente


By Michelle Angell, Ventnor

Kristie glanced at her watch, it was 9.15.

‘Damn’ she cursed aloud, with no time to stop and already late for the bus, she tripped, falling in a heap on

the pavement. Spotting her glasses which had fallen into a nearby driveway she hoped putting them back on

would get rid of the light headed vertigo sensation but alas it remained.

As she clambered to her feet, steadying herself on a nearby fence she noticed all around her things had

changed. The sky had an odd tinge of purple to it, the trees and bushes had lost their colour and had curled

up and withered. An eerie gust of freezing wind blew the dust up in swirls from the suddenly deserted street.

Kristie watched the dust spiralling around her shoes as the sound of a vehicle approaching made her look up

with a start. A solitary bus glided towards her, the front windscreen was blacked out but as it passed the

faces of the passengers filled her with terror. They sat in twos, their identical green shirts making them hard

to tell apart. Turning their faces all at once, their empty purple eyes gazed emotionless at her. Kristie

panicked and turned to run, forgetting her bag in her haste. She could hear footsteps behind her, speeding

up and getting closer. Heading towards home she quickened her pace but so did her pursuer and the faster

she tried to run, the closer he got. Time seemed to slow down momentarily as her legs felt heavy and slow.

Spinning around she stared terrified into his face.

“You should be on the bus, you’re late!” He glared angrily, squeezing her shoulders in his claw like grip

ensuring she had no where to run, no escape.

Somewhere close by, flying through the dimensions of time, the tardis was heading back to familiar territory.

The doctor had a look of relief at their arrival after tolerating what seemed like hours of Peri’s excited chatter

about their destination. An excitement that he did not share, a place called Ventnor, just another tedious

seaside town.

As the doors opened Peri excitedly bounced out, eager to feel her feet once again on her home planet. It had

taken a considerable amount of time to convince the Doctor to help her come back to find her sister.

“Come on, look it’s beautiful out here!” She called, taking in deep breaths of fresh air. With an unenthusiastic

sigh he followed her out, and stood for a moment, glancing around critically at his new surroundings.

“Changed a bit since I was last here, as I recall there was a pier and, dare I say it, a whole more peaceful

feeling to the whole place!”

Peri looked around slightly confused. “You’ve been here before?”

“Yes, I believe it was 1890 and a marvellous place, good for the soul! The climate has healing qualities. Can’t

say much for it now though…” He sighed looking somewhat disappointed. Peri ignored his negative attitude

and sat beside the waterfall, appreciating the sound of the trickling water and the familiar smells of the


“You should see the diversity of the plants here, it’s just amazing! Oh I just know for sure that Ariana is here. I

can feel it.”

An icy breeze rushed past them.

“There’s something not quite right!” He frowned, dashing back inside the tardis. Peri ignored his pessimism,

even though the seafront was eerily deserted for this time of year. A sheet of paper flapped at her feet,

picking it up she followed after him reading as she went.

“This is unusual…”

“Yes, quite! Readings of activity from another being but I can’t pick up a location.”

“No, I mean to have so many missing kids in one town!” Peri frowned as the Doctor took his usual reaction of

ignoring her and continued to flick switches in a frustrated manner.

“Nothings making sense, it’s like there’s something interfering with the readings, its all distorted.” He

shouted, jumping from one screen to another as each one began to turn slowly purple. “This is useless,

come on!”

Peri grabbed the sheet of paper and followed him up the hill and away from the seafront. The Doctor holding

the mobile tracker device out in front of him.

“I don’t understand, where are we going?”

“Up, we need to get to higher ground, see now I can see there’s something here, I’m picking it up and this is

something big, I just have to work out where the hell it is!”

Peri stopped to catch her breath and was almost knocked over as a terrified young girl running at top speed

collided with her.

“I’m sorry…” She panted, out of breath. “Please help me, everyone’s gone, a bus, chasing me, they had

purple eyes…”

“Did you say purple eyes?” The doctor spun round, taking notice of her for the first time.

“Yes, their eyes were purple, they all looked the same. A man, he said I would find you…oh please, help me,

what’s happening?”

The doctor listened carefully as Kristie explained what had happened and thought for a moment. Turning his

back on the shivering girl he looked up towards the hills and downs that stood above the town.

“This is something old, and I mean really old. Easiest description is a mind parasite! The problem I have is…

where exactly is it hiding?” He turned back to Kristie and knelt down beside her. “This bus you saw, where

was it heading?”

“It went towards the industrial estate, but…”

“Yes…and the man, the one who was following you?” He interrupted.

“I, I don’t know I was running but I don’t think he went any further than the estate either. Why? What is this?

Where has everyone gone?”

“No time to explain!”

Kristie led the way up to the industrial estate which was unusually silent for a weekday. The units lay

deserted. Peri noticed a figure in the distance, as they got closer she realised it was a young girl; she smiled

and waved before running off into the distance. Peri followed as if in a trance.

“Peri, what the….” The Doctor shouted before realising that she had disappeared without a trace. There was

no where for her to go, the Industrial estate was a dead end, the downs above, the town below.

“Where is she?” Kristie shouted, the Doctor lifted his tracking device and thought for a moment.

“If something needs to hide, to evolve, to gain power without being seen, where would it be most safe?”

Kristie shrugged.

“The old railway tunnel” He pointed towards the overgrown area in front of them.

“No way, it’s impossible, no ones been in there for years, it’s blocked up!” Kristie called out, ignoring her he

ran forwards and she followed.

“Closed in the 1960s I believe, far long enough for something to grow, to gain power!” He shouted. All of a

sudden they collided with a purple mist that was thick enough to engulf them both. Falling to the ground the

Doctor glanced up, catching his breath.

“A simple mind illusion, the tunnel is very much open!” Kristie could hardly believe her eyes, in front of them

the tunnel was cleared and open, the trees surrounding had withered back and the same purple mist from

earlier lingered around the entrance. The Doctor led the way, slowly into the dimly lit tunnel; he knew Peri

could not be far away. Hearing her voice in the distance he grabbed Kristie’s hand and headed towards the

sound, the light grew brighter and all at once they found themselves in a large room. In front of them lay

fifteen beds in a circle, each containing one of the missing teenagers. They looked peaceful as if asleep and

each had a selection of wires attached to their heads which all connected to a large computer in the centre.

Peri was hurriedly shaking one of them and pleading for her to wake up.

The Doctor was just about to step forward to help but a large plume of dark purple smoke flashed before him

and began to form the shape of a man. He smiled and folded his arms menacingly.

“Ah Doctor at last you have arrived. On time too thank you for being so prompt on my little invitation.” He

smirked at Kirsty, “You did well on your part. It is a shame I no longer need you.” He pointed, sending Kristie

falling to the ground.

“Who are you?”

“Who am I? Who are we? We are the oldest essence, the furthest soul, the most powerful force it seems

right now!” He smiled. “We have met before many times, and you know too well what I am capable of.” He

waved towards Peri who was still oblivious to them all.

“There’s no point, she can’t hear you, she thinks that’s her sister and the more emotion, the more fear she

feeds out, the more the we can gain power and spread further, to reach every soul out there on this stupid

planet.” He stepped back and smiled. “You can try all you want but these humans have too much fear, too

much sadness, too much to feed on. They make their own demise!” He threw his cane into a corner where it

reared up into a large purple snake, spitting venom from its grinning jaws. Realising he could not get to Peri

the Doctor called out to her.

“Peri, can you hear me that is not your sister, they are using your mind, taking your energies. Peri!” He

looked up to see Peri staring blankly towards him, she had let go of the girl’s hand but her eyes shone

purple. She slowly turned and walked mechanically towards him, her arms outstretched. He backed up

against the wall as she grabbed him by the throat in an iron grip that he knew was alien to her.

“Can you feel that Doctor, that’s how much power we have, your dear friend’s mind is completely empty.

Now we just need your great knowledge to make the Great intelligence the most powerful being in all time

and space. Just imagine, when we have drained you and gained the final keys to ultimate power…then, and

only then will the universe change forever!” He stood back laughing as he watched the Doctor falling back

under his young assistant’s grip; she remained in the same stance, staring blankly into his eyes, unseeing

and vacant.

The doctor felt himself falling to the ground, his memory fading, the surroundings blurring as he choked for

breath. The purple glow began to spread along the water pipes, quickening every second.

“Peri…she’s not…your sister….” he croaked finally. It only took a few seconds and he felt her grip lighten, a

sudden intake of breath that felt real and not of another being. Their captor took a step back, realising

something had stopped the progress of his plan, all he could do was shriek as the Doctor ran between each

bed pulling out each plug as he went and cutting the human energy supply to the computer. After the final

plug was pulled the main machine began to pulse and glow in a purple and green hue, the radiance getting

larger and larger and creating a pressure in the tunnel which became too much to bear. The Doctor covered

his ears and draped himself over Peri who had collapsed in a corner. With no power to drive its force, the

existence known as the Great intelligence condensed to its simplest form, a pyramid of silver orbs.

Grabbing the orbs with both hands the Doctor turned to his bewildered assistant. “Come along Peri, back to

the Tardis, no time to waste. We have some rubbish to get rid of!”

Kristie opened a bleary eye at the sound of voices and cars driving by. She lay on a bench by the waterfall

on the seafront. She looked at her watch, it was 9.15.

‘Coping Strategies’ The Cheam Hall Boys! A collection of short stories by Hugh Harrison – Story No.1 ‘Mr Cholderton’

‘Mr Cholderton’


‘Mr Cholderton’s lips met mine in a kiss. They were frosty and rough, as if cracked, like lips in cold winter sunshine. I wondered at their texture and abrasiveness, like the stubbly graze of a lover’s chin. It was painful and breath-taking with Julian’s foot on my spine as I became closely acquainted with the gravel pressed into my face.  This excruciating stony face was something between a nose-picking finger, and a Neolithic idol. But one thing was certain: the cold, rough, triangular visage that grimaced up at me had a terribly forlorn look about it. ‘Mr Cholderton’, it seemed, was decidedly unhappy, like me, with my arm bent half way up my back. Looking at his flat diminutive lips, the prospect of kissing them didn’t immediately inspire me to passion.

‘Kiss him, you bastard, or I’ll break your bloody arm!’ Julian insisted.

‘ Ahhh…OK..OK…OK…I will. I will!’


A powerful ring of passion then resonated in my soul. Was it hate, love or justice I craved? I don’t know. But what prevailed in my thoughts and feelings in that instant was that place and angular face became a symbol of bizarre cruelty and adventure where we boys learned to fly, to sing, to play and hide. Amidst all the pain and confusion came the sunshine, breaking through the leaden sky. It was a promise of hope; a ray of light to illuminate the stone grey face wedged into the earth like an unerring fulcrum.


The three of us, my brothers and I, had flown over land and sea like pigeons in flight from an African famine and headed towards Britain’s cold shores. Whilst the ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency was at its height in Kenya in the late fifties, we were informed that our mother was now dead and our father, a colonial judge, was sending the three of us to a unique English boarding school in the Wiltshire countryside where the motto was ‘Pons est in Flumine’ (‘There is a Bridge over the River’). We never discovered the river or the bridge over it but made our way in life via other paths.


The one thing you learned with alacrity at Cheam Hall was not to resist, at least not for too long. It could prove expensive and very painful. The ‘kissing of Mr Cholderton’, the eponymous stone idol named after the local village, was the lesser of the trials of initiation. On reflection, I had a very triangular education; it began with that cold, angular face jutting from the ground, and above it the Venom aeroplane, one of the earliest proto-type jet engines used by the R.A.F., a hollowed-out symbol of death from the skies. Stony ‘Mr Cholderton’ and his metallic assistant, the Venom aeroplane, sky and earth, were trying to tell us something. And I guess I may have learned some of their Palaeolithic and preying lessons, although I sometimes wonder what they truly were.


The actual building that housed Cheam Hall School was a late Georgian Mansion. Some said it was built for John Louis Stephenson, yet others, the Quink family. No one really knew its black, inky history. The mansion was approached by a long gravel drive, full of unexpected caverns that wrenched at the school bus’s wheels. Lining one side of the drive-way was a beautifully constructed flint wall, and on the other, a mixed pine wood. I didn’t notice these details at first, as I had other things on my mind, particularly the extraordinary sight which greeted our eyes: the triangular-shaped patch of ground topped by a Venom aeroplane, very different from BOAC airlines that removed us from East Africa to this twilight land of gloom and doom.




                        Surrounding the Venom aeroplane was an evenly spaced line of triangular stones, mounted by ‘stone hats’. That was odd, I thought. I hadn’t seen the like in Kenya, anyway. One among these stones was ‘Mr Cholderton’, and I had already greeted him with a kiss. Swinging into the gravelled courtyard, we were confronted by the sight of Tudor-looking chimneys, mullioned windows and stable blocks.  The stage coach yard in future months became a ‘no man’s land’ swept with eyes like searchlights and the finely attuned hearing of the vigilant Byrd, waiting for the least act or omission by his victims. We always trod carefully in the proximity of Byrd’s Study as there seemed to be an overabundance of landmines about us.


Entering the huge front door framed by a Georgian portico, we were awed with an ornately plastered high ceiling set off by a lovely crystal chandelier. Turning around at that instant we glimpsed a well-kempt lawn planted with splendid beech, oak and cedar trees. And I can still remember that distinctive smell of floor polish, and the gleam of parquet floors on which we delighted in having ‘slipping competitions,’ when we weren’t cleaning them.


The school kitchen was a place of less frequent adventures, except for potato-peeling duties and the odd heroic odyssey in search of midnight feasts. The smells from the kitchen were often a cue for hope or despair: eating being one of our few and needy pleasures. I can still smell the porridge, redolent of out-of-control-bonfires, with a carbonised taste and texture. But the sausages won the culinary accolade with their surprising resemblance to charred human remains.


Aeroplanes and flying were part of our consciousness at ‘Cheam Hall’. As soon as you passed through the stately Georgian portico, you were met with a mural of Churchill and the ‘Battle of Britain’ on the left hand side. This was obviously a proper RAF school, which would vindicate the lives of ‘the few who gave their lives for the many’. This symbol of sacrifice was an apt entrée to the world of this mysterious ‘flying man’. We didn’t all adore ‘W E Johns’ Biggles’, but many of us sought his autograph and dreamed of courage against uneven odds, flying in imperilled skies, or survival behind enemy lines. We certainly learned the lessons of survival whilst at Cheam Hall, and also kept these possible destinies in focus, until we discovered our ‘colour blindness’, the final trick of the genes.




‘Thwack !’ It was an ear-shattering slap about the face.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ Byrd said.

I didn’t know what to say, or how to feel. I was struck dumb with pain, shame and fear.

‘I…I didn’t mean to.’

What ! Lie and deceive, as you’ve always done!’

I’m sorry, Sir…very sorry, Sir’.

I picked myself up off the gravel yard, very bruised and my face stinging like a thousand fires and stumbled across the remaining no-man’s land, reaching the safety of the kitchen porch, holding back my tears at any cost. My heart rocked with anger and rage. Tears welled up. How many times had this terrible scene occurred?  Depressingly often, I thought, as I ran upstairs into my hiding place.  I lay in the safety of the linen cupboard and began to understand the meaning of ‘cupboard love’. The linen cupboard at Cheam Hall had been one of my few refuges. It always smelled of clean, crisp sheets, with a faint tang of camphor. I would often lie here, snug and secure and in secret communication with my mother in the unending darkness where I sensed her presence, her light and her solace. Over the years, the linen cupboard became a place of refuge and healing and reminded me in later years of the Paul Simon lines: ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’.





Henry’s way of finding Mum was different from mine, I guess. From the first moment we set foot in those timeless woods at Cheam Hall School, it was as though he knew that he would discover Mum in the recesses of the earth or the canopy of oak and beech tree leaves in our favourite forest. Perhaps it was something to do with the refracted white light as it penetrated the kaleidoscope of greens above our heads.


Light and leaf fragmented crystals of her being? I wondered. What’s for sure, however, is the way in which his architectural and building efforts were directed and focused, sweeping us all up into his next daring project. One of these projects still resonates with me today. This time he was to become ‘Henry the architectural mole’.


We were heading through the forest towards Cheam Village when Henry took a side detour into a dense laurel thicket and announced: ‘This is the site for our underground den’. I stared disbelievingly at this root-strewn area of wood and rotting leaves, and scratched my head with scepticism. Henry had eschewed this word from his mental dictionary. So, that weekend, the digging began in earnest, like something from ‘the Great Escape’. Obviously, Henry was Steve McQueen. Our spades and saws were purloined from the tool shed to which we had occasional access, and large, old bake bean tins were re-commissioned as scoops for the spoil. By the end of the first week of the summer holidays, we had dug out the first room of our secret den. We stood around the perimeter, and Henry said: ‘The roof will need to be strong, camouflaged and properly vented’. Not being a nascent architect , I asked:’ why does it have to be vented?’ Henry replied shortly: ‘Because we’ll suffocate to death, wally wedge!’


          I felt suitably chastised. By the end of the second week of the summer holidays, the ante-chamber to the main room of the underground den had been completed. The structure was beginning to resemble a labyrinth, with right-angled bends and curves here and there. The most important challenge remained, i.e. the making of the solid, camouflaged roof. Henry had already given the matter considerable thought. He said to the group of us looking down into the formidable hole we had dug: ‘I want you to cut down 12 ten foot trees, and bring them here before tea time. Mind you, they have to be dead straight or they’re no good at all’. So, we’d had our marching orders and set off in pairs with our primitive saws and axes in search of mature pine, hazel and birch.


By the time we had all gathered together again with our sylvan spoils, I remember Richard and I had viciously butchered a couple of young birch trees, and we were immensely proud of our achievement. Henry went round and inspected everyone’s pile and commented on the wood’s suitability, or not. He reminded me of a latter day ‘Clerk of works’. It was a convincing performance and everyone did their best to please him – or else risk banishment from the ‘Escape Committee’.


At the end of the inspection, he said. ‘OK, tomorrow we’ll start putting it all together. I want you to beg, borrow and steal as many long nails as you can, and bring string. Plenty of it. And remember, this project is top secret. If any info slips out and ‘the Byrds’ get wind of it, you’re dead.’ So, at least we all knew where we stood. We dispersed, and went our separate ways, stashing our tools and equipment as we departed.



The final stages of the underground den were taking shape. All it needed now was a strong roof made of interwoven branches interlaced with old planks of wood for extra support. I had learned a lot about building from Henry. We set aside a whole weekend to do the roof, and finally it was complete. We all stood around it and looked with mild disbelief and pride at our achievement. To the trained eye, the slightly elevated area of forest floor around our construction looked like this had previously been a hidden Iron Age burial mound. The most fantastic feature, however, was the concealed trap door leading to the labyrinthine den. Henry had purloined a solid iron structure from an old salvaged boiler, and it worked like a treat.


The next few days were spent gathering supplies, like tins of beans, loaves of bread, and lumps of cheese. It seemed as if we were finally planning ‘the Great Escape’. Robert had agreed to beg, borrow or steal candles, and he also had ready access to matches, being a ‘senior boy’. I thought we might need water, so I volunteered to fill as many lemonade bottles I could find. My God, they were heavy to carry in any number! The night of the inauguration of the forest den approached and we were all on tenterhooks. We had agreed to meet at midnight on the night of the full Moon. That would add a little more illumination, power and excitement to our adventure.


As we stood together round the den, Henry’s tried and trusted ‘Den-building/Escape Committee’, there was a great sense of excitement and pride. Hen made a very brief commissioning speech, and was allowed the honour of opening the hatch with his right hand, and a torch in his left. A cautious cheer went up as he disappeared inside, and closed the hatch behind him. A muffled voice could be heard underground: ‘Can you hear me? ‘No’, we all chorused in unison. What an absolutely fantastic den to escape to when life gets unbearable at Cheam Hall, I thought.


From here on in, the Den became one of our favourite refuges from persecution and punishment. Throughout that summer holiday, and into the autumn term, we smelled like latter-day chimney sweeps, except we were volunteering for this troglodytic peace. All manner of equipment, and foodstuffs found their way into the Den, including a transistor radio, oil lamps, camping and cooking equipment, and a wide assortment of weapons, including bows, arrows and spears, in case of a surprise attack on our secret den.


As the autumn wore on into winter, our visits to the den diminished, as we hadn’t quite sussed how to install a central heating system. Even the ‘Forest Den Architect’ hadn’t mastered the skill of heating engineering – yet. One morning at our usual, dreary and sometimes daunting assembly, we were in for a surprise. It was announced, amidst much consternation, that the Constabulary had strong suspicions that Ronnie Biggs, the infamous train robber, had been hiding in the woods around Cheam Hall. The ‘Escape Committee’ started to shift uneasily in their shoes and glance at each other with quizzical and worried expressions.


And then the full picture emerged from ‘the Byrd’ at the head of Assembly. He said, with a slight tinge of menace in his voice:

‘It appears that a horse and rider disappeared down a cavernous construction in the woods. Furthermore, the Constabulary found a whole store of camping, cooking equipment and a variety of crude weapons. So, for the time being, the woods are strictly out-of-bounds until this police investigation is complete. In the meantime, if any boy wishes to further illuminate this matter for me, I should be delighted to hear from him.’



As we shuffled out of Assembly, casting furtive glances at each other, our hearts and minds were tinged with fear and elation. Not only had the Forest Den been discovered and destroyed, but the police had considered it of suitable design and construction to have been the

‘Hideaway of the Great Ronnie Biggs’. We couldn’t quite believe it. The ‘Escape Committee’ was on the vertiginous threshold of media notoriety. However, discussing it later, we decided it was best to look for an ‘Ariel Hideaway’ as the next challenge for the Escape Committee and Henry, our chief architect.


Robert’s challenge, however, was to be written on a larger canvas, and it was occasioned by the annual ritual of ‘Experience Week’. I was somewhat mystified by this description, because what was life at ‘Cheam Hall’, if nothing but ‘Experience’. By ‘experience’ the Byrd had intended something quite different, which involved having no money, nowhere to stay, and an impossible challenge to achieve. These seemed like an impressive menu for hard won ‘experience’. Nevertheless, Robert was up for it. To tell the bitter truth, he had no choice in the matter.


So what was Robert’s challenge to be? Henry and I couldn’t wait to hear, and asked him directly: ‘So, what’s it to be?’ Robert was thoughtfully silent, and then replied; ‘I’m going to get as far away from Cheam Hall as I can’.  This seemed like an excellent plan to us, and we were hugely envious of him. ‘Far away’ was London to us, where Dad lived. We rarely went there, except to be ‘assessed’ by the London County Council, because Dad didn’t pay school fees for us.



          Robert began to make detailed preparations, which involved stocking up on Iron Rations, packing a tent, sleeping bag, candles, matches, water bottle, waterproofs. And, above all, map and compass. There was a limit to the number of tins of food he could carry. These were the kind of items the ‘Escape Committee’ would like to commandeer.


The day of Robert’s departure approached, and Henry and I got up early to see him off before dawn. Why waste time sleeping when you could be travelling away from ‘Cheam Hall’? Henry offered to help Robert by carrying his rucksack downstairs, nearly rupturing himself in the process. ‘What have you got in here, Robert? A man’s torso?’ Robert wasn’t amused, and proceeded to tie his army boots which gleamed in the porch lights. Robert gave each of us a warm hug before he set off up the driveway, passing stone cold ‘Mr Cheam’ en route. Henry called out after him: ‘Go safely, keep going, and don’t get caught’. ‘That’s right, Robert, don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine’, I added.


The following week was one of the longest I can remember. I had been assigned a more humble route, i.e. to ‘traverse a twenty mile diameter from Cheam Village, Salisbury, Ringwood, Andover and back to Cheam Hall’ – in four days. I will relate that scary tale some other time. Stories of ‘Experience Week’ began to percolate the ether. Phone calls and postcards had been received from Scotland, Dublin, Cornwall, and Dover. We wondered whether or not Robert had travelled further a field than these romantic destinations. Impatience was beginning to take its toll, when we heard the BBC 9 O’ clock news. Two boys had been arrested when caught riding on the bumpers of a speeding locomotive. Wow. That’s impressive! I thought. We wondered whether or not Robert was one of them. ‘Now that’s what I call a good Experience Week adventure’, Henry commented.


          And then, some days later, Robert returned to a hero’s welcome. He had travelled further than most, and he told us the tale that night in the dormitory. He began: ‘I had no real plan as to how I was going to get to France, but as I went along it began to form itself in my mind.The first thing I had to do was to get to Dover and somehow steal aboard one of those cross Channel ferries. Getting to Dover was tricky because the traffic was pretty fast and constant. What we used to do was chat people up in the motorway cafes, and persuade them we had a worthwhile mission to accomplish. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.’

‘What did you do for food? I asked. ‘Well, when the begging ploy failed, we would offer to wash up in the kitchens of pubs and hotels. Sometimes it paid off, and we could eat.’ Blimey, what a tough adventure that must have been, I thought to myself. Robert seemed so tall and brave to me, like Odysseus in search of the Argos. Henry chipped in: ‘So, tell us how you crossed the Channel then?’ ‘That was the most exciting bit of all’, Robert replied. ‘I found a guy in a transport Café in Dover that was really kind, and could see our dilemma. He showed us how you could conceal yourself between the twin chassis of a large freight truck. He even volunteered his own vehicle on the condition that he would disown us if we were caught. This seemed like a fair deal to us.’

‘Wow’ Hen and I interjected in unison. Robert continued: ‘We waited till nightfall and then found our sponsor’s truck in the Customs queue. My God, it was cold though, and I wasn’t confident my grip would hold till we got on the ferry early in the morning. I’ve never been so terrified of being crushed or poisoned by the fumes. Still, we managed it, and within a couple of hours, we were on the ferry to France.’

‘What happened when you reached France, Robert?’ I asked.

‘We did the same thing in reverse order, and hoped we wouldn’t be caught by the French police’.

‘Did you succeed?’ Henry asked.

‘No, we were caught out by their sniffer dogs. They could probably smell the fish and chips on our hands’, Robert quipped. ‘Seriously though,’ I persisted.

‘Well, we actually got off the ferry safely, but as we were going through French customs, Jonathan farted, and that noise and smell did for us’.

Henry and I cracked up laughing. ‘So, what did the French police do?’ Henry asked.

 ‘They escorted us back on to the ferry, and phoned the British Police in Dover to act as a Reception Committee’.

‘You must have been shit scared’, Henry said.

‘Yes, but also relieved’, Robert replied. ‘We had accomplished our mission, which was to cross the Channel’.  

‘So what happened when you got to Dover?’ I asked.

‘It was as we expected, two policemen were waiting for us on our arrival, and we thought we were going to be arrested and handcuffed like criminals’.

‘Did they do that?’ I asked excitedly.

‘No, we were lucky. They said they would be bringing charges against the Byrds at Cheam Hall for encouraging us to do such a crazy thing. They just put us on the first train to Salisbury and bought us a cup of tea and a sandwich each. Not bad for cops, eh?’ Henry and I were silently overawed at Robert’s bravery and accomplishments.

When Henry had had time to think about it, he said:

‘So what proof do you have that you crossed the Channel?’

Robert took a deep breath and produced crumpled document from his jacket pocket. On it, in capital letters, were written the words: ‘Douanier – Return to Sender’


Henry and I were deeply impressed, and Robert was further elevated among the pantheon of Escapees and Heroes of Cheam Hall.


‘Heaven and Hell’


‘Though thy Covenant built Hell’s Jail

Though thou didst all to Chaos roll

With thy Serpent for its soul

Still the Breath Divine does move

And the Breath Divine is Love.’


(From ‘the Everlasting Gospel’, p 83 by William Blake)


We were walking down the hill away from Cheam Hall to the boating lake, when Richard exclaimed:

‘Wow! What an amazing place!’

‘If only it was filled with water’, I replied.

‘Yeah. Can you imagine rowing all around it, or going fishing in a rowing boat? He asked.

‘That would be great, wouldn’t it?’ I responded.


Richard was my best friend and we had just discovered one of our favourite places: ‘Heaven and Hell’. We called it that because surrounding the boating lake was an extensive area of ‘jungle vines’, or ‘Old Man’s Beard’. The undergrowth was so dense that it formed an almost unbroken canopy suspended from the trees. Our favourite use of this jungle was to devise a race through this 500 yard wilderness.


‘Richard! Wait for me!’

‘Hurry up, or they’ll catch us!’

‘Hang on. I’ll be there in a mo!’

            I could see him ahead of me, perched on a great, green and white peak waving his arms with encouragement and urgency. Terrifyingly, there was a fifteen foot drop to the next level. There was nothing for it, so I jumped with my heart in my throat. After what seemed like a prolonged flight, I landed like a green paratrooper suspended in air by a cat’s cradle of vines. Scrambling up the next slope as fast as my legs and breath would carry me, I soon reached the precarious summit, panting and sweating like a pig.

‘Christ, I made it’, I spluttered to Richard.

‘OK, let’s keep going’, he said coolly.


Simultaneously, we launched ourselves into the void, but this time I wasn’t so fortunate. Our combined weight caused an area of the vine canopy to give way, and I went plummeting through the gloom grazing my back and sides with green knives.

‘Are you OK?’ Richard shouted.

‘Uh…I …think so…I..I..can’t breathe’.

 I noticed the fear in his voice as he said.

‘Shall I get help?’

‘Don’t worry…I’ll…I’ll… be okay’.

Richard scrutinised my face with concern. We were ‘blood brothers’, after all.

‘Come on then; let’s get going before Michael and Henry catch up.’

Richard helped me to my feet with his hands underneath my arms, checking me over.

‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ Richard asked again.

‘Yeah, thanks. Don’t worry. Let’s get going before they catch us’, I responded.

We were soon on our way again, leaping and scrambling into our sea of green and white.




One morning, as the mist was still sitting heavily on the lawn, we rose, dressed and descended the sweeping Georgian staircase in our stocking feet. Squeaking along the corridor floorboards, we listened like owls for signs of disturbed breathing or shifting movements in the dormitories surrounding us. Holding our breath in nervous anticipation, we were soon outside inhaling the crisp scents of a late summer morning. The lawn and trees seemed to share our conspiratorial moment as we skirted the school and its outbuildings on our way to freedom.


Hen and I followed the woodland trail through the forest, listening to the creaking of the trees, and the leafy sighs of branches mirroring our tender fears back to us as we set off on our first joint adventure. The night before our desperate bid, we had secreted as many bread rolls and pieces of fruit and cheese from the kitchen as we could carry, and swore our fellow conspirators to silence in the hope our absence would not be missed by ‘the Byrd’ before Monday morning Assembly.


Our destination was Goring-by-sea, and as far away from this land-locked prison as we could get in the shortest time possible. Also, we had heard that Joanna, Dad’s friend, lived there, and she had saved Hen’s bacon once before. Neither of us knew precisely where in Goring-by-sea she lived, but we reasoned that once we reached there, someone was bound to know her, or at least of her. So, our first port of call was Salisbury, avoiding roads and hugging the hedges in order to avoid detection at all costs.

 ‘Come on, Plug! Keep running!’ Hen shouted behind him, spurring me on to greater, superhuman efforts.

‘Okay! I’m trying to keep up! You’ve got longer legs, don’t forget,’ was my feeble response as I wiped the blood off my bleeding shins and exposed arms.

‘He’ll crucify us if we’re caught, so keep up, or you’re on your own!’

‘I’m fagged out. Can’t we stop for just a mo?’

‘No we can’t, Plug! Byrd will be patrolling the area in his black Riley, and we’re done for if we get caught!’

‘Okay, okay, I’m coming!’


Hen was right, as always, so we kept on running and walking alternately, as Baden Powell advised us good scouts. Slowly, the day started to warm up and I could smell the sweetness of the farmyard manure, and the fetid pungency of the dying mayflowers on the hedges. Occasionally, we spotted an unguarded orchard en route which yielded its fruit to our hungry maws. We were expert scrumpers and masters at scaling kitchen garden walls due to our military training and bodily needs. Our favourite apples were Coxes, but even cooking apples were tolerable, allaying the gnawing pains of hunger on our journey to the sea.


As we weaved along the hedgerows, I remembered the first time Byrd had come into our dormitory swinging his silver-knobbed cane maliciously, and thrashing every bed and boy in sight. That was the first time we were sent into the front garden in our pyjamas to do weeding and suffer starvation throughout the day. It’s surprising, on reflection, that we didn’t all become fruitarians, besides being nut cases and all. 

‘Quick! Dive!’ Hen shouted and we both dived into the nearest hedge together. As we crouched in the ditch, he whispered:

‘It’s a long, black car headed our way!’


Sure enough, the ominous black car came slowly up the winding country road and we hid till it passed.

‘Well, I’ll be buggered’, said Hen.

‘What is it?’ I asked anxiously.

‘It’s a bloody hearse. At least someone else copped it before us!’ And we both laughed in great relief.

After the imminent danger had passed, and we walked along the hedgerow, I said to Hen:

‘So what do you know about Joanna, then?’

‘Well…I know she’s Dad’s girlfriend, for a start’.

‘So, how did they meet?’

‘They met through ‘Dateline’.


‘What’s so strange about that then?’

‘I don’t know. I suppose I never saw anyone being with Dad, that’s all’.

‘Well, if it wasn’t for Joanna, I might not be around today’.

‘Blimey! So, what did she do?’

‘Well, she stopped Dad knocking me about for a start’.

‘You mean when you ran away to London the first time?’

‘That’s it, Wally. You remember!’

‘How can I forget?  I was your sponsor!’

‘Well, she said to me, when Dad wasn’t listening: ‘Henry, if you ever need help, you can always come to me in Goring-by-sea. Okay?’

‘What did you say?’

‘What could I have said?’

‘I see…’

So that was it, our fate hinged on whether or not we could safely reach Goring-by-sea and find Joanna as well. That was a tall order but we had nothing to lose, we both agreed. We had been on the road for over four hours by now and our combined thirst couldn’t be assuaged without recourse to a bottle of Coke, so we pooled the remnants of our half-crown pocket money and headed for the first garage we could find. We were only a couple miles away from Salisbury now, and at the first garage we had seen by the A303, we went inside and found the biggest bottle of Coke our money could buy. And before settling our bill, Hen slipped a road map of the South East under his shirt, and…..we got away with it!


When we were safely out of the garage shop, and shielded by hedges, we scrutinised the map and took our bearings to Goring-by-sea. Fortunately for us, the Byrd had tutored us well in map and compass work, and so we were soon embarked on the road to Ringwood, our second staging post to Goring-by-sea and freedom….


It was shortly after this that we had our first piece of great luck. Hen and I had discussed the benefits and risks of hitch-hiking to Goring-by-sea beforehand and agreed that it was too risky until after we had reached Salisbury, as this was the route Byrd and his black Riley would take in his hunt for us. So, it was whilst hitch hiking just south of Ringwood that we were fortunate to convince a ‘man in a white van’ to stop for us. As he pulled into the lay by, Hen said:

‘Whatever you do, don’t mention Cheam Hall.’

‘I promise you, I won’t,’ I replied.

Thankfully, we were soon on our way to Lancing and Christchurch via Ringwood and the hope of rescue in Goring-by-sea.


Approaching Goring-by-sea by the coastal route to Christchurch felt like we were on the threshold of freedom and liberation.

‘My God, we’ve final made it’, Hen shouted jubilantly after the kind gent had dropped us off at a filling station close by.

‘You bet, Hen. I feel like Steve McQueen in ‘the Great Escape!’

Hen just laughed cheerfully at the allusion, as we buried our noses in the ‘Road Map of the South East’.

‘Look, that’s how far we’ve come in the van and that’s where we’re headed’, he said pointing at Goring-by-sea on the map.

‘Yep, it sure is’, I replied, putting the map and compass away again.


We set off on the road at a cracking pace, our spirits lifting loftily with the smell of pine trees and wind-swept sea in our nostrils. It seemed as if the sea had salted the trees and the sun had barbequed them and I couldn’t remember feeling so happy and relieved that we were finally nearing our destination. Exploring the coastal road for the first time, we were awed with the sight of shingle beaches and breakwaters, lines of acacia trees and the smell of yesterday’s fish and chip papers drifting around aimlessly, fuelling our hunger for real food.


Most important of all, as I viewed and breathed in the vastness of the horizon- less sea, I felt as if we had finally found the element that would hide and heal us from the evil, preying Byrds. Joanna would be our Neptune with her trident and we would ride the waves to liberation together. From what Hen had said about Joanna on our journey, I began to see her potential nature as a fairy godmother, with me as ‘Buttons’ and her unwitting messenger.


It was early evening when we arrived and the next steps on our miraculous odyssey were even more fortuitous, for as we scanned the seafront houses in Goring-by-sea with our Peter Panish antennae, Hen grabbed my left arm and squeezed it tightly and urgently:


‘Look, I think that’s her!’

‘Who?’ I replied dreamily.

‘Joanna, Wally!’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yes. I’m sure that’s her sitting in a deckchair and sunglasses in that front garden over there!’

‘Wow! That’s amazing!’

‘Come on, Hugh, let’s go over and say hello’.

I could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of meeting our Queen Neptune and Fairy Godmother. As we crossed the road arm in arm and approached the white picket fence surrounding her garden, I could feel a clammy fear mounting my chest and gripping my throat. I so wanted it to be truly her; for Joanna to know us and hold us tight, to protect us from a return to the preying Byrds.


Hen seemed a lot more confident than me as he called out to her over the fence. She stood up out of her chair, and scrutinised us before her beautiful face lit up with a beaming smile. It was her, and I could breathe again. Joanna approached and beckoned us to come into the garden.

‘Is that you, Henry?’ she exclaimed.

‘It is, and this is Hugh, my younger brother’.

‘My God, how did you find me?’

‘It was a miracle’, Hen said.


            Joanna invited us into her beautiful, family home with her three children and her Jack Russell called ‘Tina’, the first friendly dog I had ever encountered. Joanna had beautiful, dark auburn hair, like my mother’s, and such a lovely kind face with twinkling brown eyes. Within five minutes, we were being feted like war heroes by Joanna’s three children: Caroline (14), Jenny (11) and Peter (11), the latter who were birth twins.

‘You must be starving’, Joanna said, in between the cacophony of excited voices.

‘We are’, Hen and I said in emphatic unison.

‘What would you like to eat then?’

‘Fish and Chips’, we chorused, and so Joanna busied herself in the kitchen whilst Caroline, Jenny and Peter showed us their rooms. It felt for the first time in our lives, after Kenya, we had finally found a safe home….


            Reflecting on Joanna’s legacy, there are so many ways in which she created a warm, loving home for us at Sea Place, Goring-by-sea, ranging from walks and picnics around Cissbury Ring, Dad and her buying our second hand bicycles for Christmas, Lapsang Sou Chong tea for her breakfast and the priceless riddle she posed when I was a boy: ‘How many times does a stopped clock tell the time?’ Not surprisingly, the three of us began to regard her as our step mother, and I wasn’t so surprised one morning, when my father and I were alone, he said to me:

‘Shall I marry Joanna?’

‘She feels like our mother, Dad, but you must decide’, I replied.

In some ways, I regret I hadn’t been more prescriptive and encouraged him to ‘take the plunge’. It just didn’t feel right to say this at the time, but I know for sure that she was the second woman, excepting Nora, in my experience who demonstrated familial love, and we shall always remember her for that.


‘Salt Porage & Servites’



Nora framed by the magnolia door. It was if I had just risen from a dream. She was an archangel of light at the end of the tunnel. I was in the middle of a fever which seared the centre of my being. It was killing me. The bed I lay in was drenched with sweat and I thought I was about to die. But her redeeming smile resonated to the core of my being. Her bony frame illuminated by a translucent gleam: angular, but beautiful.  This was her:  my ‘posh Mum’ and I trusted her. And there was such intense peace and love in that glance.


‘Who’s this boy in his sick-bed? And why is he always ill? ‘Lady Clavell Salter asked Mrs Byrd, with her inimitable Scot’s accent.

‘He’s the youngest of the Harrison boys whose mother is deceased, and their father is in the Colonial Service in Kenya’, Mrs Byrd replied.

‘Ah…I see’, Nora responded.


Every Sunday, we would walk to the village shop and it was Nora that gave me my first lesson in self- confidence when she promoted me ‘vegetable cook’. She was my teacher in experience and embodied love.  Nora enabled me to understand what it really meant to be in ‘Cheam’ and not ‘Cholderton’. She modelled human spirituality for me and wanted me to be a priest, or failing that, a cook. Perhaps she could see that I was someone who was guaranteed to walk into a confessional and emerge with an apple. Even without a kiss.


Nora: mother confessor, model school governess and a friend who always had time for you, and wanted to hear ‘your news’. Saying prayers in her lap and smelling the camphor mothballs, or listening to her reading ‘Winnie the Pooh’ to me in bed, are all melded into one.  Many years later, walking arm in arm, or bathing her after the stroke, I noticed the backs of her hands which were like journeys she had made etched with myelinated sheaths and rosy liver spots, the scaffolding of her frame gradually deteriorating as she faded into memory.


I recall Coleherne Court, where Lady Nora Clavell Salter lived. It was a stark contrast to the Antipodeans’ bed and breakfast land of today’s Earl’s Court Road. Nora’s residence had a dilapidated grandeur about it with its Regency façade, and large elongated windows shuttered against the winter cold. My boyish heart was thrilled with the prospect of Christmas day mass at the Servite Church to be followed by a sumptuous lunch for all. The previous evening I had faithfully peeled and quartered all the Christmas spuds and sprouts which were soaking in slightly salted water in the scullery, and all that remained to complete our preparations was the arrival of the twenty pound turkey from Harrods. I was also glad that I had devoured my Scots Porage Oats, made with salt and water, which would keep the wolf from the door until lunchtime. So, we donned our thick winter coats and gloves and proceeded out of the apartment and into the long corridor leading to the double gated lift en route to Christmas Morning mass.


I looked into the eyes of the lift man at Coleherne Court. He seemed a towering giant with his black suit, red tie and brightly-polished black shoes.

‘This is Ted, our porter’, Nora introduced me.

‘Please to meet ye’, he replied.

‘Hello, my name’s Hugh’, I ventured.

The towering figure leaned over me with a beaming smile and a crackly, hoarse voice.

‘I’ve a present for you, master Hugh’


Ted reached into his capacious suit pocket and pulled out a shiny red apple, which he offered to me.

‘I’ve kept it ‘specially for you’, he said, with a twinkle in his eyes.

‘Thank you, sir’, I said appreciatively, while I took the apple from Ted’s upturned palm.

‘You’re welcome, master Hugh’, Ted said straightening himself with a little bit of an effort.

‘Well, we’re off to early morning mass at the Servites, Ted, so we’ll see you later’, said Nora.

‘Right you are, Mam. Goodbye’, Ted said waving us off.


As we were walking through the glass and highly-polished brass doors, Nora said:

‘I’m glad you’ve met Ted. He’s a lovely man, isn’t he’?

‘He is’, I said approvingly.

Whilst we were walking along the Old Brompton Road towards the Little Boltons, I said to Nora:

‘Why does Ted speak with such a crackly voice, Nora?’

‘I’m glad you noticed. The reason is that dear Ted fought in the trenches during the First World War and was gassed by the Germans.’

‘Heavens,’ I said, and remained thoughtfully silent as we walked to the end of the Little Boltons and into Tregunter Road. The leaves of the trees were turning a golden red, and bespattered the wetted pavements from last night’s rain. I loved the rich and pungent smells of autumn, and the growing promise of Christmas frosts. After a while, I looked up at Nora and said:


‘It must have been awful for Ted and his friends in the trenches, Nora. How did they keep warm and dry in the winter?’

‘Sadly, millions of men died of cold, damp and terrible illnesses’.

‘Why did they have to, Nora?’

‘Because they were fighting the Germans, who invaded France’.

‘Wars are awful, aren’t they?’ I ventured.

‘Yes, Hugh, they are truly awful, and we still haven’t learned from them’.

By now, we had reached the end of Tregunter Road, and we were passing into Redcliffe Gardens. The traffic noise was getting worse, and I had to speak more loudly so Nora could hear me.

‘Where were you during the War, Nora?’ I asked.

‘I was an A.R.P. and I spent every night looking out for Zeppelins on roofs in inner city London’.

‘What are Zeppelins, Nora?’

‘Zeppelins were Hydrogen-filled air balloons which were used by the Germans to drop bombs on Londoners’.

‘Gosh, you must have been very scared up there’, I asked.

‘You got used to it after a while’, Nora replied.

‘Were many people killed by bombs, Nora?’

‘Not as many as in the Blitz, in the Second World War’.

‘What was the Blitz like, Nora?’ I asked with greater curiosity.

‘I’ll tell you all about it one day, Hugh’.


We had reached the end of Redcliff Gardens and turned into the Fulham Road. The noise and smell of cars reached a crescendo and I held Nora’s right hand even more tightly. The talk of Zeppelins, bombs and the Blitz had numbed me into an anxious silence deafened by traffic noise. For a brief and pleasant moment I was distracted by a flower-seller standing by a barrow on the street corner.


‘Carnations. Two bob a bunch. Can’t beat it, ladies and gents. Lovely carnations, two bob a bunch. Come and buy some’.


At that moment, I really wanted to buy Nora a bunch, but felt for the meagre four sixpences in my trouser pocket meant for the mass collection. I bowed my head anonymously and kept walking staring ahead. Nora held my hand tightly as we crossed the road to the entrance of the Servite Church on the Fulham Road. As we approached the Church, one of the priests greeted Nora cheerfully.

‘Isn’t it a fine morning? How are you today, Mam?’

‘It’s a fine morning, father, and it’s good to be healthy and alive’.

‘We’re surely blessed, aren’t we?’

‘We are,’ Nora replied simply as we walked through the huge oak doors into the incense-laden gloom of the Church vestibule. Through the receding dimness of the serried aisles, I could see the ranks of candles recollecting the souls of the dead. I couldn’t help thinking of Mum and the countless candles lighted fruitlessly in her memory. No, I wouldn’t see her again, would I father? Yet there was a strange comfort in the frank- incensed mystery of Roman Catholicism.




Before we crossed the threshold of the vestibule, Nora held me back as she dipped her right middle finger into the Holy Water in the recess of the Church wall and crossed herself. I did the same: ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost ‘. I had met the Father and Son, but not the Holy Ghost, yet. Perhaps Mum was a holy ghost? I wondered.


With her eyes and inclined head, Nora indicated some vacant pews near the altar. Great, at least I would get a good whiff of that lovely frankincense, I thought to myself. I really loved that part of the mass when the priest stood at the foot of the altar and waved the censer frantically in front of him. I imagined the gates of Heaven being cleansed with that glorious fumigation. Perhaps the Holy Ghost or Mum would be there to greet me when I crossed that threshold?


Nora and I waited patiently for the mass to begin whilst the choir above us tuned their voices to the psalms of the Introit. I really loved the singing and was a pretty good descant myself. What I disliked about the mass mostly was the constant standing, kneeling and sitting, in no particular and sensible order. Also, chewing the wax off the polished altar rail got a bit boring after a while.  We both stood as the priests came in. There was a whole line of them, like the Wise Men of old, dressed in rich gold garments and white surplices. In front of them walked a tall, thin, black-haired boy waving the censer in front of him. He reminded me of Robert. I would love that job, I thought. One of my favourite jobs when I eventually became an altar boy was filling the censer and letting the heady incense invade every aspect of my being. I also loved finishing off the Communion wine when the priest wasn’t looking. It tasted of sweet grapes that made you dizzy and happy.



The part of the mass I found most interesting was when the priest drank the blood of Christ and then ate his body in the form of a wafer that melts in your mouth. It was all very mysterious. And before the Communion, Nora would always say, ‘Have you been to Confession?’, and I would lie and say, ‘Of course, Nora’.


Truthfully, I had long since ceased keeping a diary of my venial and cardinal sins. The sin I struggled most of all with was ‘Original Sin’. When I asked Nora ‘What’s ‘Original Sin’?’ she merely said ‘It is something you were born with’. I guess it’s like Henry’s red hair, I thought.


Before mass was over, and whilst the taste of the holy wafer was still with me, my stomach began to ache with hunger as the remnants of my salty porridge disappeared into my hungry veins. Whilst I was kneeling and confessing my non-existent sins, I was fondly dreaming of cutting and eating carrots in Nora’s scullery in Coleherne Court. I can smell the Harrods’s turkey heating in Nora’s pre- War gas oven. I felt sick with anticipatory hunger. Still smelling the scent of Ted’s luscious red apple on my fingers, I reached into my coat pocket and gave it a good sniff. As I smelled it, there arose in my nostrils and my mind’s eye a vertiginous red brick wall which enclosed the ‘Kitchen Gardens’ at Chiltern Hall.


Against the walls were espalier –trained apple and fig trees. Robert, Henry and I were scrumping on the forbidden fruit having been banished from breakfast in our pyjamas for disturbing the Byrd’s sleep the night before. We loved these adventures born in adversity, and they bonded us like resin throughout the ‘Cheam Hall Years’.



‘Have you found the hymn yet, Hugh?’ Nora’s distant voice slowly penetrated my awareness. ‘Yes, Nora’, I replied unconvincingly, as I leafed clumsily through the Servite Hymn Book. I dearly wanted to return to the adventures of the ‘Kitchen Garden ’, but the last hymn of the mass was calling me back. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful, the Lord God made them all’…My high-pitched descant voice rang out exultantly as I gave one of my favourite hymns full lung power. Robert, Henry and I used to sing hymns for the lonely parishioners at Nora’s Christmas Dinner each year after we had prepared the meal, and counted over 400 Christmas Cards. Wow, I can’t even imagine someone having four hundred friends to write to!

That Christmas Day, when we were lined up between the lovely purple damask curtains wearing our blue blazers with ‘C’ on them and the Latin Pons est in Flumine underneath, Nora had said to us, ‘If anyone asks you what the ‘C’ stands for, perhaps you should say ‘Cheam’. I wondered whether  ‘Cheam’ has a ‘bridge over the river’, too?

At last, we were standing again, and I was crossing myself:


 ‘In nominee Patre, et Filio et Spiritu Sanctu. Amen’. Crossing myself like this had become a habit when I was out and about with Nora. Each time we passed a church or a hearse in London, we would be crossing ourselves and ‘praying for the souls of the departed’. They must have had lots of messages from us over the years, I thought. However, I had more-or-less given up hope of meeting them again, excepting perhaps, Mum.


As Nora and I kneeled again in silent prayer after the mass had finished, I wandered what she had been like. I had little memory of her, apart from a disembodied voice singing an ‘aria to life’ from ‘La Traviata’. Dad never talked about her. I don’t know why? I often imagined them playing polo or going to cocktail parties in hotels in Nairobi. I also had vague memories of beggars shuffling along pavements on their arms, or bands of watoto (children) begging for change from khaki-clad wazungu (Europeans) with their long white socks and pre-occupied stares.


But the Servite Church in Fulham was different. Here nothing changed. There were no beggars, or black boys, only ancient, robed priests incanting the same mysterious Latin words, and eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ on Sundays. When we had left the church and were walking along the Brompton Road, I said to Nora: ‘Will we meet those who have died again, Nora?’


‘Of course we will, Hugh. When we die and go to Heaven, they will all be waiting for us’. I could just picture her in my mind’s eye: Dymphna, our mum; Cleo and Rex; our dogs, and Snowy, my kitten. Just waiting for us…I felt inside my pocket for the 6d I had secretly saved from Collection. I’ll buy another candle for Mum, that’s what I’ll do…And I popped it into my top jacket pocket in case I was tempted to spend it on sweets in the meantime.











‘Tonic solfa’


What does it mean?

‘Do, re, me and fa’

and so long to go


I still count the beats

and note the weeks

till they’re over



Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

but what kind?


The resonance of those days

is still with me

some good, some bad


The tee square

is still the tear square

 and I sometimes practice my scales


But not Scarlatti

after all these years


Cheam Hall was indeed a unique school, we discovered, for it had the grace and our not so good fortune to retain some of its pupils during the school holidays, a privilege reserved for orphans and service families, like ourselves. One of the routines that continued through our time at the school was ‘piano practice’, which took place in the ‘Hall of Musical Horrors’ where twenty upright pianos in serried ranks graced the walls of the old stable block. Many times I wished the pianos had been horses, however. I recall a typical lesson where I’m sitting in front of the piano trying to remember how to play a Scarlatti piece. I’m tired and it’s no good, my fingers just won’t work anymore.


‘Thwack’, the tee square descended on my neck like an executioner’s sword.

‘What’s wrong with you, you stupid boy!’ Mrs Byrd shouted.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Byrd, I’ve forgotten some notes’, I said as I nursed my bruised and twitching neck.

‘You’re just lazy and haven’t been practicing, have you? Now do it again, correctly!’

I put my shocked and trembling fingers on the keyboard again, but they just wouldn’t respond. I felt as if they had lost all sensation and coordination and I was frozen and stunned. Playing Scarlatti was never the same again after that. I wondered if Sir Yehudi Menuhin, one of our esteemed trustees, would have approved of Mrs Byrd’s musical tutelage.


Thankfully, however, I loved the Choir and sang descant in musical competitions in various locations, including Salisbury Guildhall, Winchester City Hall and against the Vienna Boys Choir in Stephan’s Dom. Needless to say, the Cheam Hall Choir acquitted itself very well indeed as Mrs Byrd was an ex opera singer and a child psychologist to boot, so we all soon learned we were in capable, professional hands.



 There was a particular singing exercise Mrs Byrd developed which was designed to strengthen our diaphragmatic muscles, and it still catches my breath today. It proceeded as follows:


‘Right now. Half of you lie on the floor and the other half stand by your prone partner’s side, she said.

‘That’s it. Now, I want your partner to put one foot on your diaphragm whilst you sing an arpeggio, up and down’, like this, she demonstrated with her hands on her diaphragm, which expanded and contracted rather flabbily. We then tried it in pairs, and I have a distinct memory of both gasping for air as I sang the required arpeggio and wondering how many ribs my partner had cracked in the process.


            Now I look back on this somewhat medieval musical establishment, I realise how fortunate I am to be able to play the flute with ease (but not the piano) and I can still hold my breath for an inordinate length of time for fear of being assaulted or trampled upon. Perhaps this exquisite piece of voice training would have caused the good Sir Menuhin to oscillate in his grave?