New arrivals from Scotland
It was my ‘pick up’ day and I went into my Senior Boys’ school secretary’s office to collect those visits which had to be done. The school building was old Victorian, gloomy & forbidding from the outside but inside clean, friendly and warm.
The boys (and I always thought of them as ‘my boys’) were a mixture of races who shared a disciplined and caring friendliness. They were chatty but never cheeky to me, and this friendly approach was extended to any visitor to their school, whatever their business. Without being asked these boys would go up to any stranger wandering lost within the building and, after asking who it was the visitor had come to see, would escort them to their destination. Now, if this sounds normal for a school in England then just remember that most of these boys only a year or so previously, were living in Bombay, Calcutta or even on the plains of the Punjab. Quite simply they were maintaining the traditions of courtesy and public service for which the school had been noted for over many generations.
As I walked through the musty smelling hall that cleaning never seemed to sweeten any, I was greeted as an old friend by the lads changing classes. I boast that every lad in the school knew me. It was all smiles and cries of,
‘Have you caught any skivers today, Sir?’ or ‘Baljit’s dodging maths, Sir!’
Ignore the skin colour and these were just your everyday school children.
My conversation with the secretary was interrupted by the Head sticking his head around the door.
‘Can you come up please?’ he asked.
Dutifully, I went up to his room where I was invited to be seated and have a smoke. The boss was grinning all over his face.
‘Boy, have I got two beauties for you today!’ he chortled, ‘and if I’m any judge of character these’ll have you run off your feet and tearing your hair out in handfuls because I’m 100% certain that the whole ruddy family’s trouble with a capital T!’
It appeared that the new admissions were Scottish and newly arrived in the City. School was the second port of call with the first being the pub, judging by the state of the father when he brought his sons in. Just before they left, with orders to begin attendance the next day, the father had asked,
‘Do you use the leather strap here?’
‘No’ the Head had replied, ‘but I do use this’ and going to the cupboard he’d taken out the cane.
‘Good!’ he’d chortled, ‘these beggers of mine could stand some discipline to keep them in line!’
With that the tribe departed, led by father, but only after he’d glanced regretfully at his empty cup that had once held milky coffee, then a second appealing glance at the Head to see if another free smoke was forthcoming.
‘I explained the school rules to them’ the Head declared ‘but seeing who they were and what they were I modified things slightly by making the first rule to be, RULES SHALL NOT BE BROKEN!’
Within a week, as predicted, I was a regular visitor to the family!
Besides mother, father and the two school age boys there were two older brothers of 18 and 20 years respectively. I got on fine with them, especially after comparing notes and finding a ship I’d served on during my Merchant Navy days had been built quite close to their former home address up in Scotland. Unfortunately, I couldn’t win with the younger ones as the truancy, which seemed to be the norm in the family long before I met them, was too ingrained.
I was soon to find out that all of them were on speaking terms with most of the local constabulary! That is to say the ‘Bobby’ would declare, ‘You’re nicked’ and our friends would reply, ‘It wasn’t me officer!’ To be fair though, I found them to be very likeable rogues!
The visit I made to them that sticks out a mile was when I called at their house to enquire into the latest round of absences. The day was hot and humid but never the less they had a fire going in the living room hearth that looked fit to set the chimney on fire it was roaring so! The fire had in front of it a dustbin lid to make it ‘draw’ properly and this had achieved its purpose. Unfortunately, no-one had bothered to remove the lid and so the fire was blazing away as though on a fixed draught. What I could see of the old-fashioned fire range was covered in white, burnt on, blobs of spit. Hankies were not used in this household and so the family would ‘hawk up’ and spit onto the open fire. (or try to) Sadly, most of the time they missed!
Father was lounging back in the only chair the room boasted and I spotted at once that the wooden arms of the said chair were what was keeping the fire going! Mother was in her customary place, that is half in and half out of the kitchen door, although goodness knows why she should choose that particular spot for she never, so far as I was aware, did any cooking or even cleaning. It did cross my mind once that she stood on that spot in case she had to make a ‘quick getaway’ but I dismissed that as being ‘too unkind.’
Father waved his arms around and told me the two younger boys were at school. I then told him they weren’t!
‘Ain’t I got enough troubles?’ he griped in a heavy Scottish brogue. ‘The two big lads are ‘doon’ at the nick helping police with their enquiries!’
‘How very public spirited of them both,’ I said. ‘Is it a sort of neighbourhood watch?’
At this the father started to make all sorts of scurrilous and slanderous statements about our local gendarmerie of which ‘fooking pigs’ and lousy bastids’ were the least offensive! Red faced and by now foaming at the mouth, father told me the whole sordid story!
The night before, a local tobacconist had been ‘turned over’ and the two older boys had been picked out as chief suspects. Now, at this early stage and with only the father’s description of events to go on, I was simply an interested onlooker as it were and not prepared even to consider whether his lads had been involved.
Father was still holding forth however and ‘rabbiting’ on about police harassment of decent, hard-working, Christian people, which threw me somewhat until I realised he meant HIS family and he wasn’t bringing outsiders into his story! In the middle of this diatribe he paused, climbed onto the table which stood in the middle of the room and reaching up and into the dusty, electric light bowl, left I suspect by successive tenants from the day the house was built it was so filthy, he extracted three 2oz tins of Golden Virginian tobacco, selected one that had already been opened and, after replacing the two unopened tins, proceeded to roll himself a smoke using a cigarette paper from a pack….also new, which emerged from the same place. Puffing away contentedly the makings were then replaced in the light bowl.
Stepping down, our Hero looked up to survey the light bowl from all angles to make sure nothing could be seen through all the muck and debris therein. It was then I began to wonder for, as I’m sure you’d agree, that was just a damn funny, not to say inconvenient place, to keep one’s smokes!! Why not in the pocket I asked myself?
Still sending up clouds of Golden Virginia smoke, father then began to describe the scene of the night before when the forces of law and order came to arrest those ‘poor bairns of mine,’ and yet wasn’t it only the day before he was describing them as ‘those shiftless, bone idle, tight fisted sods who won’t buy their father a dram!
So determined were the police to get his sons for ‘the job’, he said, as one ‘tec’ was questioning the boys, another was dribbling sawdust from the crates in which the ‘baccy’ had been packed into their trouser turn ups!
‘In all my years’, confessed father, ‘and I admit I’ve been in trouble with the police a few times myself’ (at this point mother almost choked on her tea) ‘but I’ve never known anything so unethical! It’s dirty and it’s……’ and here he pondered a moment for another word but ‘unethical’ was the only word he could think of, and he’d already used that one! What he said next left me speechless!
‘OK. My boys did do the break in, but to get a conviction like that, why, it’s unethical!’
(Norman Hastings: Through My Eyes Too. Tales from a Leicester Boardman – available from Amazon)