Wednesday, 3 June 2020
What was I going to remind you about? I think it was about remembering to update your address if you've moved house during your interminable wait for Moffat's second outing. Well, let's say it was. As an additional reward for waiting, here is a short story I wrote some time ago. It's a personal favourite so it's only been turned down for a couple of publications. Both rejections were of the 'interesting-story-but-not- for-us' kind. Anyway, here is:
A Campfire Story
You couldn’t do it now, I suppose. Take four boys camping, with no mitigating female adult. Lord knows, we thought nothing of it. Jem, Gimpy, Rhubarb and I. Friends. Friends since the first day, when we all picked on the boy with the elastic on his gloves or the one who couldn’t tie his shoelaces. Or the one who had confessed to this shaming fact. Gimpy tied knots and claimed it was how his dad showed him, when we caught him out on day two of the infants. Mrs Beveridge shouted into the playground on the first day, she taught the juniors, not the infants. Some of the girls cried at the noise. I saw Rhubarb’s bottom lip go, but I didn’t know him so well then.
They made us sit at the wooden desks. It all seemed completely random, but then it would to children who didn’t know their alphabet. I sat next to a girl. Her nose was forever running. When we found out she was called Fiona Ogle, naturally, we called her Bogle. It must have been a local dialect word for bogey, for I’ve never heard it since. Sometimes I wonder what I remember and what are other people’s memories, remembered wholesale.
Everything is vague. I remember Miss Clydesdale who went out with a RAF pilot and didn’t look anything like a horse, but she was never my teacher, she left before our gang got to second year infants. Jem, Gimpy, Rhubarb and I were those unfortunate boys who weren’t good at being outdoors. We couldn’t catch a bean bag, never mind a ball. Jem had those pink national health glasses and a sticking plaster over one eye for what seemed like years and maybe was. Gimpy had a leg caliper. The other boys and some of the girls used to ask where his dog was. The teachers didn’t tell them off if they called him a spastic, so I suppose he preferred Gimpy. Rhubarb was Rob Barr, he had a fearsome accent brought down with him from the hills after his father gave up farming - and living too, I learned later. I was a RAF brat, Gimpy was too, not suitable as friends for locals. Only the pretty girls - and boys who played keepy-uppy with a tennis ball to impress them - made friends among the locals.
Every kid spent two years under Mrs Beveridge, so the class size was almost fifty. During our first year, one of the older boys, Gordon Bickerstaff, made Gimpy’s head bleed with a penny, trying to find the slot in his head, he said. Nothing happened, nothing at all. Gordon’s mum and dad got divorced shortly after and he moved away. Wherever away was. Lots of people seemed to live there, anyway.
We got to our last year at primary still alive and kicking, stones if not tennis balls. It seems like we spent the whole year preparing for the Eleven Plus. I was good at what it tested. So was Jem, Gimpy and Rhubarb weren’t. At first, some of the girls, even green-eyed Maureen Stephenson, asked how we did it, if we’d show them how to do the questions. Neither of us had a clue. We had a go at cheating to help Gimpy out – Rhubarb didn’t care – but it wasn’t practical. Mr Poll, the head-teacher, who’d taught the top year ever since leaving the merchant navy, looked at you over his half-moon spectacles and shook his head and the piece of paper stayed in your fist, under the table.
All this meant that Jem and I remained outsiders, and at lunch times even Gimpy and Rhubarb would just nod at us and finish their game of mumbledy-peg. Gimpy always won, his pen-knife eventually finding his orthopaedic boot and quivering like Robin Hood’s arrow in a tree trunk. They played it every day, even after Rhubarb’s knife pierced the canvas on his plimsoll and the blood welled out of the hole. The bleeding had stopped by the end of playtime and nobody asked about the brown stain on his shoe. We were still the last picked for football, rounders and anything at all but it wasn’t the same.
So it was funny when Gimpy’s dad decided he was taking us camping the last half-term of our final year. We’d never met him before, any of us, apart from Gimpy, obviously. He’d been away. Of course, by that time, we knew that could be anything, overseas, another Air Force camp or something we couldn’t begin to think of. I don’t know what conversations happened in the others’ houses but I can remember what happened in mine.
My dad came in at about five fifteen. It was a Friday, he’d have been in the Sgts’ Mess since about one o’clock. We’d have had our tea. He fell asleep on the sofa, we stayed in the kitchen, out of the way. My mum said with absolutely no preamble:
‘You’re going camping.’
‘Yes. With Mr Johnson, your friend’s dad.’
‘Gimpy’s dad? But he’s away...’
‘Don’t call him that… what is his name anyway?’
My mum made a noise that I now know was a stifled laugh.
‘Well, he’s back. And he’s kindly offered to take you camping.’
But my mum had lit a cigarette and just shook her head.
Of course we went. We did as we were told. There was a lot of that then. “Stop your shenanigans”, “if you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about” and “don’t you dare show me up by having a paddy, ye wee scunner’.
You’d have laughed if you’d seen us, at ten in the morning on the first Monday of half-term. I had a sleeping bag with Captain Scarlet’s face on it inside an Adidas bag belonging to my older brother. He’d left it behind when he joined the Army. Jem had a suitcase, a bloody suitcase! Rhubarb had an army issue hessian haversack, one of those small ones with one buckle, the kind older boys used to put the logo of their favourite band on in shiny paints. And Gimpy? Gimpy had all the equipment dangling from hooks and straps on a rucksack that was bigger than he was.
Mr Johnson was tall and thin. He hadn’t gone the full Scoutmaster, but his long trousers were khaki drill and his shirt was military khaki with pockets too. There was no woggle in sight. He had a twitch. His left eye lid would jerk closed every 30 seconds or so and he’d shake his head as if irritated by a fly, although it wasn’t late enough in the year for midges.
We piled into his green and white Cortina estate. Rhubarb bagsied the front seat and neither Gimpy nor his dad said anything. We drove out of the village, two more miles and we passed the gates of the Air Force camp. Gimpy’s dad drove for about half-an-hour. He had the radio on. Radio Two, although he called it the light programme, when he spun the dial to find it. The car stopped in the middle of nowhere, just off a metalled road with no markings. It was about a hundred yards to the woods.
‘Just pile your stuff here,’ he pointed at the ground, we were about ten feet from the car. Then he went back over to the car and brought out his own rucksack. It didn’t look military at all, it looked like something Chris Bonington would use. The mountaineer had come to the school once and I’d fallen asleep most of the way through the slide show, but I remember the picture of his team and their rucksacks. Mr Johnson pointed back over to the car. I followed him. He pulled out a khaki bag, he grunted and I gave him not much of a hand at least until he got it to the floor.
‘That’s the tent, we’ll put it up now.’
We boys looked at each other. Rhubarb laughed.
‘It’s fine, I’ll tell you what to do.’ Mr Johnson said.
We got it up. It was green. Mr Johnson claimed it was an 8-man tent, but the rucksacks and other sundry bags left enough space for about two adults.
It was already past twelve. My stomach was rumbling, but it was Jem who asked if there was anything to eat.
‘We’ll forage,’ Mr Johnson said.
Foraging mostly seemed to consist of we boys picking up fungi and Mr Johnson throwing them away after a brief glance. After about two hours in the small wood, he had a thin layer of scraggy looking things in the bottom of a wicker basket he’d produced from the back of the Cortina. Rhubarb had been sucking at the sleeve cuff of his woolly jumper for the last half-an-hour. I didn’t like the taste of wet wool, so my sleeves were dry.
We – or Mr Johnson – cooked up a soup made of the wild mushrooms and a bouillon cube over a primus stove that came out of Gimpy’s rucksack. We were still starving. Gimpy and Rhubarb started a game of mumbledy-peg, Jem and I watched them because there was nothing else to do. Every-so-often we’d look over at Gimpy’s dad, but he was staring into space. Sometimes his lips moved, sometimes they didn’t. Funnily enough his twitch stopped during the whole of that time. Eventually he gave his head a shake.
‘Water. We need water.’
He handed out four canteens, which had also come from Gimpy’s rucksack.
‘There’s a stream over there.’ He waved an arm.
All I could see was the crest of a hill. Maybe there was a stream on the other side. How far on the other side we had to wait and see.
‘Bevel,’ (yes, we were still sniggering, after all those years) ‘you wait here. Guard the camp.’
Gimpy sighed and said, ‘Yes, Dad.’
It seemed like miles to the stream, although in truth it was over the crest of the hill, but in the valley bottom at the end of a long decline. Mr Johnson warned us not to drink any of the water, as we were going to put some tabs in it to make it drinkable. By the time we got back to camp Gimpy was catching flies and Rhubarb was vomiting the water he had drunk into the off-side wheel arch of the Cortina.
We all put the special tablets into our canteens. Mr Johnson then produced three bottles of Dandelion and Burdock from the back of the car. It was warm and as sweet as ever was, and I can still taste it now.
‘Always make sure you have something to drink when you’re in the field. You’ll survive without food, but you’ll die without fluids.’
He was cross-legged on the grass, we were in a semi-circle in front of him. Not that close, maybe a yard-and-a-half away. He pointed at the tent, behind us.
‘We’ve got shelter.’
He nodded in the direction of the hill crest,
‘We’ve got water.’
He put his hands together palm to palm and gestured at the space between us,
‘What’s missing here?’
Rhubarb said ‘a telly’ and we laughed but Mr Johnson didn’t.
‘A fire. For warmth, for morale, for cooking if need be, but most of all for morale.’
We stood up, knowing that there was more foraging in prospect. Rhubarb was ordered to guard the camp and the rest of us made for the woods. At the tree-line Mr Johnson faced us.
‘Airman’ he pointed at Gimpy, ‘you will collect kindling, dry twigs no more than 5 or 6 inches in length.’
‘Corporal,’ I saw Jem’s back stiffen. ‘You will collect branches one inch or so in circumference and three feet in length.’
He looked at me and I felt he wasn’t seeing me, but someone else, or even somewhere else.
‘What about me, Sir?’
‘We’re collecting logs, trunks, whatever we can find.’
Gimpy had nothing but his pockets and hands to put kindling in, so he went back to camp first. He took his time coming back, because he met Jem on the way. I saw him drop the pile of branches he was carrying in his arms and started running back towards the woods. I shouted for Mr Johnson.
He made us carry the branches and logs we’d collected back to camp. Rhubarb was nowhere to be found.
And Mr Johnson sat down and cried. We tried to start a fire as the sun was getting low. Gimpy actually knew how to do it, looking over to his father who occasionally nodded between sobs. The fire was a comfort, the making of it, the starting of it, the first licking flames. And Mr Johnson kept crying. It was the first time I’d ever seen a grown up cry.
I looked over at Gimpy. Raised my eyebrows.
‘It’s happened before. Straight after he was away the first time. I know where that away was, now.’
‘Aden.’ He said it like he knew where it was.
‘Then he went away again ‘til now.’
Gimpy gave a sniff. His dad was still crying.
He kept crying until Rhubarb sauntered into camp carrying a newspaper-wrapped packet that smelt of heaven and chips.