Here is the first part of Chapter one, where we learn something of Tony’s early life
Lynn News: Births Announcements
PLATT Congratulations to Mark and Samantha on the birth of BENJAMIN STUART on 2nd of June 1953, younger brother of ANTHONY JOHN
I always say that I grew up in a mansion, and like many of the things I say, it’s true in a general sense.
My father worked on a farm, and my parents rented part of an old country seat of a nobleman who had fallen on hard times. The mansion itself was really impressive but had been divided up into a lot of smaller homes, and we lived in the basement in what used to be the servants quarters.
I assume I had the room to myself until Ben was born, but I don’t remember a time back then when we didn’t share a bedroom. Most of my memories of home, however, are of the large kitchen/dining room, which always seemed to be cold even in the hottest of days. I have some good memories of it, but my most vivid memories are of sitting on the floor by the fire playing with Ben, and hearing my parents from the other end of the room. Usually, it was just routine things, but sometimes their voices started to get louder, and when one of us tried to say something we were told to be quite because our parents were having a “grown-up conversation.”
This often ended up with Dad putting on his coat and down to the village, and Mother noisily cleaning up the kitchen. Later, when Ben and I were in bed I’d hear Dad come back in, and sometimes the voices would carry on, but mostly there was silence for days afterward.
From those early days, I remember how much fun it was in the long summer months to go out with Ben and play in the fields that surrounded us. The mansion we lived in was set back about a mile from the sea, and with nothing but rolling farmland between us and the sandy beach. Along this part of the coast, the tide goes out for miles, leaving the vast expanse of glistening sand, and making a fantastic playground for a young kid. There was always something to explore, shells to dig up, and occasionally a dead fish or bird to examine.
Our village was about a mile in the other direction, and at the time, it seemed like the most exciting place in the world. Really it was just a little collection of cottages, a church, a couple of stores and three pubs. The market town of Lynn was another 15 miles away, but it might as well have been in a different country for all we knew about it. Every month or so, Mother would go “up to town” and spend the day in the Lynn shops. Sometimes she took us, but I was happier wading barefoot in the sand pools than walking the streets of Lynn. Between us and Lynn, the resort of Hunstanton was the bright spot during the summer, always full of tourists and day-trippers up from the city. Us local kids preferred our own small area of the beach, where we could talk to the fishermen, play in the sand dunes and spend the long hot summer days just being happy to be alive.
I remember one day we discovered a new game when we happened upon some driftwood on the shore. Filled with some strange fantasy idea, I decided that we would make a boat and sail all the way across the sea to Germany. Ben looked a bit worried at my suggestion, but I told him it would be OK, and that we could get some cake there, so we set about building our craft.
It took about 3 days to find the string to tie the ship together, get all the equipment I thought we would need, and then to put my plan into operation. We waited until the next high tide and pushed our craft into the waves. It was a calm sunny morning, and for a time, we floated gently along with a slight breeze. It wasn’t long before Ben started to complain about being hungry, and wanted to know when we would reach Germany and the cake I had promised him.
Soon the sun began to set, and the adventure didn’t seem so much fun anymore. We were both soaked to the skin and starting to shiver violently when we saw one of the local fishing boats approaching.
Mother and Dad had missed us and reported us missing to the police, who, in turn, had alerted the local fishermen to keep an eye out. I remember how much the fishermen laughed when they pulled us out of our craft, and the smell of fish as we sat there. I thought it strange when they gave me a cold drink to warm me up, but when I swallowed it, I thought my throat was on fire, and my gasps made the men laugh even more.
Needless to say, we were severely punished for our escapade, and I don’t think we were allowed out on the beach for many months after that. We had to go to the police and apologize for wasting their time, and thank the fishermen for their kindness, but every time I started to explain about wanting to float to Germany they just started laughing all over again. Soon it became the talk of the village, and for a while, we were known as the German brothers.
I was two years older than Ben, so started school first, and I can still feel the sting of hurt that he got to stay behind and I had to put on decent clothes and set off to the schoolhouse. At that time, our village had its own little school just for the local farm kids. It was a tiny place, with just three full-time teachers, Mrs. McKinley, Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown. I was not a good student, primarily because I could not really see the point of most of the things that they tried to teach us. When Ben got old enough to come to school he shone in all the academic subjects, which only made it harder for me in a lot of ways.
But I did excel in one area at school. Mr. Smith took us out for sports, which I loved with a passion. In the gym (actually, the church parish hall that we took over once a week) I was always the one who got to the top of the rope first or made the highest high-jump. I loved team sports and gave the hardest tackles on the football field.
I was learning about a lot of things on the playground too, and started to hang out with the tougher boys. We were a kind of gang I guess, not that we meant any real harm, but we were the ones who were bored with classes and looking for excitement outside of the classroom. I learned how to fight and even when I got a black eye, it always seemed worth it for the thrill of the adventure.
I started to know more about the home life of the other kids and began to realize that the “discussions” my parents had were not how other couples lived, but I continued to accept it as just how it was. Ben used to get really upset when Dad would storm out of the house, and he’d often go and sit with Mother after he had left. The more I learned, the more I wanted to side with Dad because Mother always seemed to want to stop him enjoying himself.
Nothing much changed until one day soon after my 10th birthday. Ben and I were called into the kitchen, and my parent told us they were splitting up. Ben was going to go with Mother, and they would live in Lynn. Mother had found a nice flat and had a job working in a Bank, and Ben would go to school in town. Dad and I would stay in the mansion as Dad had his farm work here, and I would go on attending the village school.
Looking back it seems strange that there was no discussion of options, no one asked us if we had an opinion on who we would like to stay with. But I think at that time children were just not consulted as much as they are nowadays. I didn’t know that any other option was available, and, in any case, it seemed reasonable. Ben was more academic, and would love the school in town, and I loved to go roaming over the fields and the beach, so it seemed an ideal solution.
The next Saturday Ben and Mother went off in a truck loaded down with bags and boxes, and I got to have a bedroom to myself. Did I miss them? Looking back, I have to admit that I’m not sure I really comprehended what was happening. Mother was gone, I had more room to play and no little brother to look after, but life went on.
The highlight of the year back in those days was the week-long County Fair in Norwich, which was held at the end of the school summer holidays. Mother had always taken Ben and me there, but that year no such offer came, and much as I nagged Dad, he said he was too busy to take me. I was depressed as the time for the show approached, but then had the brilliant idea of going by myself. I’d heard people talk about hitchhiking, and it sounded exciting and the perfect way to get to the show. However, I instinctively knew that no grown-up would ever approve of me doing it, so I just decided not to tell anyone.
I’d collected enough coins for the rides, and got together some food. On the appointed day, I told Dad I was off to the beach to meet some friends, then quietly slipped out to the main road. I walked for about a mile to be out of range of anyone working on the farm, then stood by the side of the road and thumbed for a lift. Cars whizzed by and the occasional tractor filled the road with dust, and I was getting to the point of giving up when a sleek black sports car screeched to a halt.
With my heart in my mouth, I jumped into the car and found an older gentleman driving. He winked at me and asked if I was running away, so I told him no, I was just going to the County Fair for the day. I made up a story about missing my lift with my older brother, hence needing to hitch there. I expounded about how my brother had a stall selling apples at the fair, and how I was going to help him. Only then did I wonder if the stranger would be going to the far, and want to meet my imaginary brother. Luckily, the driver was on his way to a business meeting, and he told me all about his business life, much of which went over my head. I looked around me at the car, so unlike anything I’d ever been driven in before. My driver saw me looking at the leather trim and smiled. “What do you think of the old Jag then?” he said. It was the first time I’d heard even heard of a Jaguar, much less ridden in one, but I loved the feel of the seats and the way you were pushed back into them when he put his foot on the accelerator.
It was a fantastic ride, and I was almost breathless with excitement when he dropped me about a mile from the show ground. I took a slow walk to the entrance, just dreaming of owning my own “Jag” one day and speeding through the countryside.
But soon I was in the fairground and all thoughts of what might be in the future left me as I surrounded myself in the excitement of the fair. When I’d been before, Mother had always decided what rides Ben and I should go on, and what foods we’d eat. Now a world of opportunities seemed to spread out at my feet. I went on all the fastest and most noisy fairground rides until I thought my stomach could not take any more. I tried everything from all the food stalls, and by late afternoon, I’d spent all my money and was heady with excitement, my stomach was bursting with fried food and sweets, and my head was reeling.
I wandered about aimlessly for a while wondering what to do next when I found myself behind one of the beer tents. I had never been in a beer tent in my life and had always wondered what was so special about them. I knew from previous years that the farmers liked to spend a lot of time in them, but Mother always got a bit sniffy when we got near them, so I never even got to look inside. As I walked around the tent, I noticed that one of the sides had come loose from its tether. I bent down to examine it and saw that there would be enough space to slip under the canvas and into the tent without anyone seeing you. I hardly even thought about it, and in a second, I was inside.
It was dark after the sunlight outside, but as my eyes got accustomed to the gloom, I saw that I was in an area with crates full of bottles and big wooden beer barrels. I heard a noise and hid behind a barrel, and was able to watch a man came in carrying 3 crates of bottles. He put them down on one side, walked over to another stack and grunted as he lifted two of them and walked back out.
When he had gone, I came out from my hiding place and went to investigate. It was exciting to be back here, I could hear the noise of happy voices from the other side of the tent, and there was a smell that I could not quite identify. There was the earth smells from the ground under my feet, but there was also a different smell too, a musty cloudy kind of smell that reminded me of cooking potatoes. I went to look at the crates that I’d seen the barman bring in. They were full of bottles, and I realized that the smell I couldn’t identify was strongest near them. I picked a bottle up and sniffed it. Yes, this was the smell I detected, and I knew then that it was the beer that I could smell. I could see that there was a small amount of liquid left in the bottom of the bottle, so I tipped it into my mouth. It had a horrible taste, sharp and bitter and I wanted to spit to get it out of my mouth, how could people drink this stuff? But even though it was horrible, I wanted to try again and tipped a few of the bottles into my mouth.
I had tried maybe a dozen bottles when I heard the man returning again and scurried to hide behind a barrel. When he had gone, I walked over to the other pile of crates and saw that these contained unopened bottles. I was intrigued. I picked up a few of the bottles, there seemed to be 4 different types of label, but I had no idea what they were all about. I remember looking at one bottle for a long time, it had a picture of a bird on it and the word “stout” in large letter around the top. I’d heard people referred to as stout, but how did this bird come into the picture? My thoughts were interrupted by the man coming back, and I was only just able to hide again. When he left, I realized I still had the bottle in my hand, and a thought came to me that maybe it tasted different from the empty bottles. I wasn’t sure how to take the top off, but after a few attempts, I managed to wedge it under the lip of a barrel and twist it off. As I did so, the liquid foamed up and spurted out, soaking my shoes and sinking into the ground. I giggled at the mess it had made then slowly tipped the bottle and took a deep drink. It seemed to explode in my mouth came running out of my nose, and I was now covered with the brown liquid. At my second attempt, I took a slower approach and actually managed to swallow some. It still tasted horrible, but I was getting used to the taste. I was still hiding behind the barrel out of site, so I stayed there slowly drinking my first bottle of beer.
When that bottle was gone, I decided to investigate the room some more, but on trying to stand I felt strange. The floor was feeling unsteady, and my feet seemed to have trouble knowing where to walk. I started to go over to the crates, but couldn’t get there without holding on to something. I decided that the safest thing would be to crawl, so I got on my hands and knees and made it over to the crates. The stack of unopened bottles was a lot smaller than it had been, and this time, I found a bottle of “pale ale.” This sounded like it should be nicer than the “stout” so I took one and went unsteadily back to my hiding place. I was vaguely aware that maybe this was not a good idea, but I went ahead anyway.
I was ready for the fizz this time and managed not to get any on me, but as I looked down, I realized that I must have crawled through some wet ground as my legs and shorts were covered in mud. For some reason, it seemed funny that I was dirty and I started to laugh. I took a drink from the new bottle, and found it quite as horrible as the first one, but I was getting used to it by now. It occurred to me that Dad must drink this sort of stuff too, and that really amazed me, so I started to laugh again. I heard one of the bar staff come in and tried to stifle my laughter with another drink, which only made me fall into a fit of coughing.
The game was up, and I was soon surrounded by a group of men all shouting, and waving their arms around, which I found highly amusing. This time, when I tried to stand I found the whole floor was slowly circling around me, and I fell forward into the arms of one of the group of men. I wanted to run away, but my legs didn’t seem able to support me. It was suddenly so funny that all I could do was laugh. That was the point at which my stomach finally reacted to the rides, the food, the beer and the fact that the room was slowly spinning. I started to throw up in a quite spectacular manner, and I will always remember the faces of those men, staring at me in horror as I splattered the ground with sick.
The next few hours are a blur. I know someone must have taken me to the toilets and cleaned me up a bit, and I was given sweet tea to drink, which only drove me into another round of retching. After a while, I was put on the back of a truck, and someone drove me home. I can only assume either I managed to tell them where I lived, or someone recognized me, I have no idea which. In any case, I recall having to stop to throw up more than once, and I owe a debt of gratitude to that unknown driver for getting me home safe.
Dad was still out when I got home, so I took myself to bed and spent the next few days slowly recovering the ability to keep down solid food for more than 30 seconds. I told Dad I’d had too much sun the day before, but somehow the news of my adventures got round the village, and Dad threw a fit and told me he’d never let me out of the house again until I was 21. I was still chained to the toilet at that stage, so a few years at home seemed like just the thing. When Mother found out, she came straight over and there was an argument much worse than anything I’d heard before. When she left, we sat in the kitchen in silence for a long time, until Dad stirred himself, and said: “well, that’s us told.” He then headed off to the village without anything else being said.
Soon life got back to normal, Dad relented on his punishment, and I was back to my usual unstructured life. Those months with just Dad and me seemed more like an adventure than real life. Dad visited the village most evenings, and sometimes forgot about little things like cooking or washing clothes, but that was fine with me. I loved the extra freedom which the lack of supervision gave me. If I were hungry, I could always find something to eat in the fields or the local houses, and who needed to change clothes that often anyway.
Back at school for the winter term, I was a bit of a celebrity for a while, and I told everyone what being drunk was like. I was still bored with school and took to bunking off when the weather was good enough to go out to the beach, where I would sit for hours with the fishermen helping them with their nets and hearing all the old stories. Sometimes they would share their food and drink with me too, and I got to like the taste of beer.
Mrs. McKinley soon noticed that I was missing several days a week and that when I turned up at school, I was often wearing the same unwashed clothes day after day. When she asked, I told her that all was great at home, but one evening she came round to talk to Dad about how we were coping. She came the next week too, and soon she was a regular visitor to our home, and things started to be more organized.
As a child, you often accept things that you would question as an adult. I don’t remember being in the least taken aback when Mrs. McKinley started to stay overnight, nor when she moved her things from the village into our home. On the other hand, I was annoyed that my bunking off school was not as easy anymore and that more rules had to be obeyed. I also had to put up with lots of joking from my friends about living with our teacher, and I thought I got the worst of the arrangement.
With this in mind, I couldn’t understand why Mother was so upset by Mrs. McKinley staying at our house. Every time I went to see her, she would ask if “that woman” was still there. I thought she’d be pleased that I was eating good meals and that Dad wasn’t going to the village anymore in the evenings, but when I told her she got upset and said she didn’t want to know. Looking back I can see how insensitive my responses were, but I was just a gawky kid, who had no idea about grown-up emotions. I had vague ideas about sex from talking with the other boys at school, but the thought that people as old as my Dad and Mrs. McKinley would be doing anything like that was beyond my comprehension.
Many years later Ben and I talked about it, and he said that Mother thought that there had been something going on between Dad and Mrs. McKinley for years, but I’m not so sure. To me, she just seemed a lonely lady, who started off helping a man and his son, which turned into friendship, which turned into something else.
But then Mother always veered towards the conspiracy theory of life, believing that people have plans that they worked on for years if need be. Myself, I find myself more a follower of the cock-up theory of life; nothing happens for a purpose, it’s all random, and all we can do is make the best of the cards that we are dealt.
(To be continued…)