Young Richard Hoyes found adults confusing

30th June 2000 at 01:00
My old junior school. I can see us now, the post-war bulge, crowded into assembly. The teachers sat on the stage and looked down at us. In more ways than one. The headmaster threatened and joked alternately. "If five-eighths of my money is half a crown," he said, holding up 26d from his pocket, "how much have I?" We wept and laughed and the teachers wept and laughed, but at different things.

I remember one assembly when the head said he wanted to see us all cheering on our school football team on Saturday. They'd reached the final thanks to Roger Kiddle, our centre-forward, and we'd got to be there to support them. I hated football so I was glad when one lad called out, "But Sir, not Sat'day mornin', Sir. It's minors, Sir!" ABC minors, Saturday morning cinema for kids. If you missed an episode of the serial you'd be lost the next week. Last week they'd found this enormous hidden stopcock and it turned off the water at Niagara Falls. A gorilla had entered this hunter's hideout in a tree, its great form blocking the entrance... continued next week. It was another world.

"Miners?" frowned the head. You could tell he'd no idea what the lad was on about. He turned to the staff behind him. A younger one explained. You could see her mouthing "minors with an 'o' not miners with an 'e' ".

"Well then," said the head, turning round to face us again, his mouth in a sarcastic grin, "dig for victory. Dig for your team."

How we laughed at that. It took me years to understand the joke and learn that "dig for victory" had been a Second World War slogan known to the teachers but not to us, exhorting people to dig up their flower beds and plant vegetables. We shrieked with that high brittle laughter, the sound that mixed juniors make when they've no idea what it is they're laughing at but it's ever so funny. And the staff rocked back in their chairs and chuckled because they understood. Another world.

Then one da the head got up in assembly and told us that a boy had drowned. Two of us in the oldest class were asked to go to the funeral to represent the school, me and a girl. It was bad enough having to sit by a girl, but what happened next was terrible. It was my first funeral and the one I remember most vividly. As vividly as I remember being in hospital when I was five, and being put in an adult ward, and the man in the next bed was in an iron lung and the one opposite, who had all sorts of tubes coming out of him, kept getting up when he wasn't meant to.

I often dream about the two scenes and I get them confused. I can still see the boy's mother running down the aisle as they tried to take the coffin out for burial, fighting off the undertakers' men. I can still hear her crying out "No" and see her flailing at their long black coats. An adult out of control. Not like school, where adults reigned with sarcasm, witty edge, hard sums and occasional use of the stick. In hospital, "Nurse! Nurse!" other patients used to call out at night as the man got out of bed, his catheters dangling off him and trailing on the floor. I used to watch in the dark, from under the bedclothes. Then feet would come running down the corridor, they'd get him back and the curtains would swish round the bed and I'd hear his breaths slowly subside as they gave him the gas.

At least the teachers didn't do that to us. No curtains, no iron lung, no anaesthetising gases. They just kept us quiet with questions like "if five-eighths of my money is half a crown, how much have I?" and made us watch football.

School. However hard the problems it set, at least they had an answer, right or wrong. And adults were in control. It was a harsh, bright world but it wasn't the twilight one that didn't add up.

Four shillings. I've just worked it out.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. E-mail:

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