Upon this rock


Long ago Peter lived in the Mill House on the river Ock. His mother was the daily maid at Bouveray Manor; these were the days when such homes were still owned by those who bore the stately name. No one really knew what his father did; he was rarely there. He was always present in Peter’s mind, though; in whatever form the child chose to cast him.

Peter was a boy apart; a boy who skipped through the woods and down the lanes that led from the sleepy hamlet. Watch him as he leaps and skitters, hops and lopes as carefree as a fawn, deep in ‘the coarser pleasures of my boyish days, And their glad animal movements all gone by’; lost in the busy silence as his skinny brown arms flap and score through the dappled air. This boy, always so restless and unconsciously disruptive in the classroom, was at peace in his child dance.

‘Sit still, Peter. Read it again. Pay attention. Where’s your homework?’ demanded Miss Ireland. She had little time for these country children who came from bookless homes where stories were told, not read. She didn’t understand this boy and made no attempt to do so as she wrote for the umpteenth time: ‘Peter is a helpful and gentle boy with an excellent memory, but he really must learn to concentrate if he is to achieve success in life.’

If she had ever seen him crouching down to a bullfrog to study its gleaming eyes and slick jade skin, taking in each readied muscle and tapered toe, she may have rethought her words. But she was a bookish woman who learned of the world through the experiences of others. She failed to understand the greatness that was stirring in that battling mind. But she liked Peter and was kind to him, which is more than can be said of some.

The bigger boys at the village school tended to either ignore or tease this wiry woodland creature. The older girls were more open in their scorn, mocking his frayed clothes and unruly hair. It was the little ones who understood him; for they too had scant control over their fidgeting bodies and they too still saw the magic that stirs in every quivering silver leaf and fallen baby bird.

You may think that Peter was an unhappy boy, but he wasn’t. It did sadden him when he heard the frustration in Miss Ireland’s voice, but he accepted that the other children were different; that the gods had, for reason’s known only to themselves, neglected to share equally the gifts of free thought and movement that Peter so enjoyed. He was happy at home, comfortable in the love of his sweet mother as she slipped seemingly seamlessly between Mill House and Manor. Even when she wasn’t at home, her presence was – whether in a note: ‘Deerest son, your tee is in the pantri under the blew plate. Finnish your home work and I’rl be back in time to heet the water for your barth. Love Mummy’ – or in the vase of wild campion on the kitchen table, or the slip of lavender tucked into his pillow case.

Her love was everywhere.

Peter’s best and only friend was Timmy, a boy so unlike himself that everyone wondered at the pair. Timmy was studious, calm, timid and pale. He went to a prep school in town and came home only for weekends and holidays, eagerly shedding his uniformity of dress and mind the second he walked through the front door. ‘Mother! Mother! I’m going to Peter’s. Can I bring him back for tea?’ ‘Of course you can darling,’ his mother always said. ‘As long as Mrs Stone says so.’ But as Mrs Stone was rarely back from work by teatime, the understanding remained that Peter would have his tea at Timmy’s house every Friday and every second day of the holidays. At first Becky Stone felt awkward in accepting this standing invitation on behalf of her son, but once she had met Timmy’s widowed mother, she quickly realised that this genteel middle-aged lady was not dissimilar to herself; the soft yet firm love they both had for their boys instantly uniting them, paving the way for years of unspoken understanding.

So every Friday at half-past-three, Timmy would dash down to the Mill House, elbows pumping, knobbly knees thrusting and eager chin leading the way. He wasn’t a fast runner, but he always felt like one on that downhill lane and, as he sped, he imagined satchel, pens and books flying from his shoulders like winged imps scattering in his wake. Then he’d arrive at the Mill, narrow chest heaving and wide mouth grinning in anticipation and there Peter would be, grinning back, and Timmy would poke Peter’s shoulder and say ‘hello, old chap’ and Peter would swipe Timmy’s arm and say ‘good to see you again, Sarg’ and they would salute each other and set to gabbling their news and plans.

On this particular balmy summer afternoon they headed for the meadow, now littered with cowslips and buttercups and, as they swooped along, arms spread wide to catch the breeze, they became fighter ’planes with rapid fire and terse commands competing with the hum of bees and lowing cows. Never were two boys as carefree and delighting in each other’s company as they collapsed on the lush long grass, giggling and gasping as they found their breath.

‘So, what ho at school, old chap?’ asked Timmy.

‘Paper matchy tortoises this week, Sarg,’ replied Peter.

‘Oh, great stuff, papier mache,’ said Timmy. ‘How did yours work out?’

‘Like a lumpy frog! A great, green, lumpy frog, Sarg. It’s so handsome I’m going to give it to you for your birthday.’

‘I would be honoured to accept such a splendid gift, sir, and shall place it next to the fine clay hedgehog you presented to me on my eighth birthday.’

‘Then it is I what are honoured.’

‘But, hey, Peter. I’ve brought another book for you. You’ll love it. The Scarlet Pimpernel. A bit tricky to read, but the story’s fantastic. Here.’ And Timmy drew a tattered paperback from his pocket and presented it to his friend.

‘Good, is it?’ said Peter as he studied the red-caped, flamboyantly bearded hero on the cover.

‘First class. Now read a bit to me, old chap while I study the clouds.’

And there the secret miracle of Peter’s life was disclosed to the sparrows and the sky larks as he opened the book – and read. Slowly, carefully, but with growing confidence as his eyes, brain and tongue awkwardly united through the words.

“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem nought but savage creatures, animated by vile and passion and by the lust of vengeance and hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade…During the greater part of the day the guillotine had been kept busy at its ghastly work…”

Peter paused, exhausted yet exhilarated. ‘What’s lust mean, Sarg?’

‘Lots. It means lots.’

‘Oh.’

‘Read some more.’

‘I’m so slow. Doesn’t it drive you nuts?’

‘Heavens, no. You’re reading faster than the clouds are moving, so you’re actually going too fast.’

They laughed at that and, their attention now broken, they sought other pleasures to take them through to tea time.

‘Let’s climb farmer Whiley’s oak!’ yelled Peter, leaping to his feet.

‘I got stuck last time,’ said Timmy with great doubt in his eyes.

‘Well I got you down, didn’t I?

‘Yes. With a ladder. Mortifying.’

‘Come along, Sarg. You won’t get stuck this time.’

So they pelted off to the end of the meadow, down the farm track to the great oak that was born long before the greying stone wall was crafted.

To get to the lowest branch it was first necessary to climb onto the wall. That bit was easy and Timmy’s feet were familiar with the footholds. It was only as he had to balance on the mossy top stones and reach up to the lower branches that his heart started fluttering.

‘Not sure that I can do this, old chap.’

‘Of course you can,’ said his friend as he reached down to give Timmy a hand. ‘Come on. Grab my wrist with your right hand and that branch with the other. Then just swing up.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Yes you can. You just need to think like a monkey.’

‘How do monkeys think, then?’

‘They don’t! They just know they can do it. And that’s all it takes. Come on. I know you can do it and I’m the tree expert. Just know you can do it and swing yourself up. Okay. One, two, three…’

And Timmy told himself he could do it and, grabbing Peter’s wrist, he hauled – no, swung – himself up onto the first bough. He had no sense of actually doing it, but every sense of the rough bark that was now skinning his thighs as he lay gasping along its length.

‘I did it,’ he grinned.

‘You did, too, Sarg,’ now let’s get to the top. Or at least the middle,’ he amended at the panic still apparent in his friend’s eyes. ‘I’ll read some more when we get to that branch up there. Looks like a good place to stop.’

That branch up there appeared very far away to Timmy, but he had got this far… Up they clambered slowly, then surely, then slowly again until they reached the perfect bough. Timmy looked down. ‘This branch hangs right over the pond, Peter!’

Peter inched his bottom forward. ‘Yeah! We could dive from here.’

‘You’re crazy.’

‘Not that crazy. Okay, Sarg, pass me the book.’

‘You’ve got it.’

‘No, I don’t. Oh, blast. I left it on the wall.’

‘Never mind. Let’s sing.’

‘Rule Britannia?’

The boys were just into the first bar when they were interrupted by a fearsome shrieking.

‘Good heavens,’ said Timmy, ‘The starlings are going crazy.’

‘Hell, yes,’ said Peter. ‘Perhaps they don’t like our singing. Oh, look! There’s a young starling in the water. It can’t get out.’

‘It’s going to drown, Peter. Oh, no, it’s going to drown. Oh, no! That’s flipping awful. We’ve got to do something.’

Peter was already shimmying down the tree, his shorts and shirt catching on twigs; forearms and legs grazed and scratched. Timmy wasn’t far behind him, oblivious to the fearsome height and his poor history in navigating it. But when he got to the lowest branch he admitted defeat and watched as his best friend dashed to the pond.

‘It’s not such a baby, Timmy. He’s quite big, the silly twit. If I can just get him to this side then he’ll be able to get himself out. Hey, little fellow, I’m here now, okay.’

And then the shrieking of the parent starlings and their twenty-odd murmuration intensified and, as Peter leaned forward to brush the struggling bird towards dry land, they fell upon the boy, hitting, squawking; beaks and claws scraping and pecking.

‘Argh!’ he screamed. ’Argh, gerroffa me!’ He beat the air with his hands, twisting and ducking to escape the attack. ‘Timmy, help me!’ he yelled and then, after what seems minutes but was only seconds, his friend was at his side frantically waving The Scarlet Pimpernel and roaring at the birds. Timmy grabbed Peter’s hand and they ran up the lane, through cowpats and puddles until the birds gave up the chase to return to protect their drowning fledgling.

Peter’s head and hands were lacerated, blood poured down his face. Once he’d stopped running he shook so badly he could hardly speak and tears mingled with the blood that dripped onto his shirt. Timmy ripped off his own shirt to mop Peter’s face and then draped it over the boy’s head, tying it behind his neck like a peasant scarf.

‘Now listen, old chap,’ he stammered, ‘we’ve got to get to Doc Hodgkin’s house top speed. But we mustn’t run, all right? Just hold my hand and walk as quickly as you can. All right?’

‘All right,’ said Peter.

Peter Stone and Timmy Paterson arrived at the doctor’s house – bloody, muddy, smelly and tearful, to be tended by the village doctor and his calm and bosomy nurse. Mothers were called; stitches, TCP and Lucosade administered and tears dried. Then the shaken boys and their shocked mothers walked back to the Mill House where Becky made tea for all, and both women demanded in that voice of fear and anger that only mothers can muster, to know ‘what in heaven’s name did you boys think you were up to?’ And more tears followed and mothers softened and Mrs Paterson hugged Mrs Stone and her stitched up boy and took Timmy home for a bath. She would have carried him if he’d let her.

That night Peter’s mother tucked him into bed, kissed him on his brow and asked, ‘So what was the best part of your terrible adventure, my sweetheart boy?’ To which he replied, ‘Timmy climbed the tree; nearly to the top.’ And when Timmy’s mother asked her son as he was nodding off on her lap: ‘Well, apart from the attack of the killer starlings, did you have a nice time with Peter?’ he replied, ‘Oh, yes; the best ever. He’s going to read The Scarlet Pimpernel, you know.’

********

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‘Your Style in His Hands’? An all-time makeover low


I’ve recently become uncomfortably familiar with a particular brand of partner abuse. Maybe you know it? Talk to them like skivvies, knock them down and then … thank you my saviour! … lift them from the depths of bemusement, emotional exhaustion and crumbling confidence to assure them that you do still really want them even though they’re not sparrow-legged fifteen-year-old silicone models.

Unsure of that of which I speak? Take a look at DSTV TLC channel’s ‘Your Style in His Hands’. I’m halfway through a third episode and can’t quite believe that TLC and DSTV have descended to this level. I amaze myself at my ability to type while my blood boils. And still can’t quite believe that it took me one-point-five episodes to twig.

It goes like this: A male partner nominates his shockingly tasteless wife/girlfriend for a him-directed makeover. She’s recently had your kids, you see; or given up her life to follow you to the country/city; and somehow, despite all your expectations, she’s not living up to them. What a miserable bitch. How dare she not dress like a stoned model on a rooftop shoot. How dare she succumb to life in the slow lane, surrounded by the unfamiliar and terrifying while you go off to work? Is this really what you get for giving up the pub and internet dating! Shame on the slag.

But all is not lost. By simply relinquishing her private life; by putting her insecurities – and body – on display, and by making a bit of a tit of yourself, you get 5 000 GBP to spend on recreating that babe you plied with Bacardi Breezers way back in the day. You don’t have to shift your mindset or ask her what you can do to make her life easier, or help out a bit more, or put your blobby bod on display (or get it in shape), or respect her as a frikken equal, you doos. Nope, all you have to do is get her a makeover while you remain your doosish, self-involved self. And you get to do it on global television.

[vomit break]

And boy oh boy do you then get to pat yourself on the back. Because you are the hero, my man. You are lauded, applauded and televised as the man who cares; who gets back the woman ‘I first fell in love with’. Of course, this makeover will revolutionise your life: you get the hot girl revisited and she gets pretty frocks and fuck-me shoes. My god, that’s really going to change everything. She now knows what pleases you; what turns you on; what’s been turning you on while she’s been breeding your children; changing her life while you suffer on, escaping to work and coming home to that dull, exhausted, bewildered woman dressed by the leftovers from the grocery budget. ‘Shopping for your fantasy life, not your real life’ says the mindless stylist as she oohs on with ‘Has she put the spark back into your relationship? Squeal!’

I get makeover shows, I really do. I love seeing Birmingham cesspits recreated as Hilton Heathrow Hotel suites; 45-year-old stripper moms transformed into St. Oprahs; quivering fearful full-fleshed girls and boys emerging from their voluptuous cocoons under the fairy wand of Gok Wan.

But I do not get how even these most patriarchal, self-absorbed misogynists can bring themselves to take their supposed beloved on a hot date and restore ‘intimacy’ only once TCL has agreed to foot the bill and give ‘their’ exhausted women a makeover.

This is wrong, dear hearts. It is as wrong as training your daughters to mould their bodies for future husbands; as wrong as carelessly neglecting yourself while expecting perfection from your beleaguered partner; or as neglecting your partner while seeking perfection elsewhere.

Your Style in His Hands’ is a symptom of that which is most rotten in our world. I can smell it from here.

Pah.