One edition of Nova contained an explanatory article about the form and function of the vagina, including words which seemed to me to be from an entirely unfamiliar language, and possibly even made-up. Even today if I hear ‘Lovely Rita’ from Sergeant Pepper I see the hand-coloured illustration with the labels ‘clitoris’ and ‘labia’.
Steve had an older sister who wrote the names of her boyfriends on her pencil case, but she was too grown-up to speak to me without laughing. Although once she did say, kindly, “it’s a pity you are not older”.
There was also David who lived with his Greek family in a house on the other side of The Drive. David had a collection of Marvel comics. It was a big collection, so big I could not understand how he had got so many comics or where they had come from because I had never seen such comics for sale. They were kept in boxes at the side of his bed, and under the table. He would consult a box and select one and hand it to me, and then choose another one for himself, and then close up the box. Sometimes his mother came into the room and told us to stop reading them because they were hateful things but when she had gone back downstairs they came out of the box again.
David’s parents had a Jaguar car of a deep oceanic blue colour, with rich-smelling leather seats. I had been in it once, when I got a lift back from school. I sat in the back with David’s younger brother who had blonde hair and skin so thin and translucent you could see the blue veins running down his temples. He looked as fragile as an egg.
Despite the attractions of the Jaguar and the Marvel comics the mood of this house was unwelcoming. The interior was darkly shuttered like an apartment in some Mediterranean city, and a sort of hungry and controlling current flowed there. The garden was paved, all greenery banished, and in any case we were not allowed to go into it.
There was also the ever-present threat of David’s father who would sometimes return home unexpectedly and find things that threw him into a fit of anger.
The rages of David’s father were well-known. He was a tall, olive-skinned man with a wave of hair piled on his head who would yell at the top of his voice. Sometimes he raged in the house. Sometimes he raged in the street. You could tell when his temper was building because before he said anything he would walk to and fro and begin breathing heavily, wheezing through his nose and shaking his head as if disagreeing furiously with something. Then he would start to bellow. It was impossible to forecast what might set his temper loose. Once he was at the yacht club when he saw that David was playing on the mud outside, with me. The clubhouse was in a decommissioned ship moored permanently on the Leigh shore. In a moment David’s father was out on the deck, running up and down along the guard rail hurling curses down to us, or rather to David. “I’ll flay you! I’ll flay you alive! You filthy little shit! I’ll make you regret the bloody day you were bloody-well born!”
Something like this could happen at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all as far as I could see. I seldom stayed in David’s house for long despite the Marvel comics with their incredible advertisements for X-Ray spectacles and life-sized Frankenstein monster dolls.
And then one day, from nowhere, Roderick appeared.
Roderick said his family had just moved to our road. Instantly I knew that we would be friends. There was anarchy in Roderick’s eyes. He was a renegade, an outlaw.
Roderick was small, and usually had bruises or cuts which he got from fighting or falling from trees. He seemed to be of an alternative race – his two brothers, one older, one younger, were both pleasant and bland but Roderick was oblivious to consequences. His default setting was transgressive.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Roderick was unable to resist the temptation to tell the truth. Once our two families were walking along the beach promenade, after a morning’s sunbathing on the filthy beach by Chalkwell station, and swimming in the filthy estuarial waters – the late 1960s were perhaps the point of maximum pollution. Roderick was walking immediately behind my mother.
“Mrs Walker, Mrs Walker,” he called, deliberately loud. “Have you just farted?”
“Yes,” said my mother. “What of it?”
It was not fanciful to say that Roderick was of another race. His mother who had an odd-sounding Celtic name which I have forgotten was from Benbecula, the tiny Catholic island locked between Protestant neighbours in the Outer Hebrides. She would sit in the kitchen of her house in Westcliff chain-smoking menthol cigarettes and talking to us as if we were adults, laughing at our ideas and ignorances. When Roderick’s brother Christopher read out something from the newspaper that included the word ‘penis’ and pronounced it ‘pennies’ she laughed without restraint. She would also send us down to the newsagent on The Ridgeway to buy her cigarettes.
“Tell them it’s for me, and they can put it on the account.”
There seemed to be a happy lack or at least mutability of rules in Roderick’s house. What rules there were flowed exclusively from Roderick’s father Alan, a small tough-looking man who worked in the City and who had the banked-up energy of someone fully prepared to do anything that he considered necessary in any given situation.
Alan once took us all to the Essoldo Cinema where we sat in the upper circle and watched a James Bond film. In front of us sat a group of Teddy Boys, sharing a bottle and obviously looking for trouble. When one of them flicked a lighted cigarette over the balcony and down on to the seats below Alan shot out of his seat and stood behind the Teddy Boys. He put his hand on the shoulder of the largest of them and gripped it hard.
“I see any one of you doing anything like that again …” he said in his cask strength Glasgow accent, speaking slowly as if he were idly turning over in his mind various unpleasant courses of action, “then you … will be dealing … with me.”
The Teddy Boys gave no further trouble, and left early.