Dinner over, he proposed that we adjourn to the park while it was still warm enough. The sun had just set but it was a lovely evening, and we went beyond the Hall to sit with our backs against a great oak looking down at the Thames. Muffled sounds from a window somewhere behind suggested that the older boys, and maybe the snotty little new ones too, were in a common room watching a comedy show on telly. Otherwise it was quiet, and not a soul was around.
“Peter, I am going to tell you what happened.”
He said it quite resolutely. But he quickly sank to staccato sentences as he struggled to subdue his emotions. For most of the time my arm was trying to instil comfort. And after a while the evening midges became so unbearable that we had to beat a retreat to S312. So word for word quotation would be as painful to read as it was to hear, and it will be better to retell his story in a more continuous form.
It all hinged on an August Saturday five years before, when David was eleven. He had just finished at St Birinus, the local primary school, and was destined in September for the secondary school at Wallingford four miles away. His home in Dorchester, in a cul-de-sac called Bridge End, was a happy one. Charles Kingdom, ‘the best Dad in the world,’ was a vet with a substantial local practice. Mum, though she sounded a bit scatty, was loving and supportive. In the house opposite lived his best friend, Carl Faithfull, with his mother and father and little sister. The two families were as thick as thieves and always in and out of each other’s homes.
That Saturday all the womenfolk drove into Oxford for a day’s shopping, but of the menfolk only David went with them. Mr Faithfull was abroad. Carl stayed behind to watch cricket on telly. And Charles Kingdom had to go to the dentist to have a tooth root extracted. When in the late afternoon the shoppers returned they found him still wuzzy from the anaesthetic and half asleep. There was no sign of Carl, but nobody was worried. The boys often did their own thing, and the area was safe. After a couple of hours, however, as teatime approached, Mrs Faithfull asked David to find him and chase him home. As he was in neither of the houses or their gardens, by far the most obvious place was the wartime pillbox only a couple of hundred yards away which the boys used as their semi-secret hideout.
So there David went, to discover his best friend lying stark naked and apparently dead. From his upturned backside blood was dripping, and white stuff. David fled home in panic. Dad, more or less woken up by now, phoned for police and ambulance, left him in Mum’s care, and went to the pillbox himself. When the emergency services arrived they sent him home to be out of their way. There Dad reported that Carl was still alive, if only just.
David, distraught, asked what had happened. Dad explained, simply and gently, that Carl had been sexually abused by some evil man. He thought that he had been drugged. It was a thread of comfort, therefore, that he had probably been unconscious and unaware of what was happening. David was well genned up on the elementary facts of life. As a vet’s son who often went out to farms with his father, he could hardly be otherwise. He had seen bulls mounting cows. He had seen bullocks trying to mate with bullocks. He knew the principle of artificial insemination and, though he had none himself, he knew what semen was. He could understand the mechanics of what had happened to Carl — that something too large had been forced into a hole too small. What he could not understand was why.
When the police called on Mr Kingdom for a statement, Mum took David out of the room and, in view of his state of mind, refused to let them interview him too. They never did question him. Nor was he told anything of what the police had said, except that Carl had died on the way to hospital. In the depths of despair, he was given a pill to help him sleep.
In the morning the police came back and took Dad away. David had not set eyes on him since. The police took over their house to search it. The Kingdoms spent the day at the Faithfulls’, women and children clinging to each other in tears and confusion. In the evening Mr Faithfull returned, summoned back post-haste to the emergency, and the Kingdoms were allowed home. Mum gave David another pill and kissed him good night. Never once since then had he received any physical comfort from anyone, let alone known any happiness. The morning after, finding nobody around, he went to her room and found her dead in bed.
His memory of the following days was understandably dim. His uncle, Mum’s brother, arrived and took charge. From him he learned that Mum — poor silly woman, his uncle called her — had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. The ghouls of the media were camped in the street outside, and he remained housebound for a week while Mum’s inquest took place and her body was bundled hastily into the ground. He was not even allowed to attend the funeral. The moment that was over he was told to pack his personal belongings and was taken to Heathrow, where he and his uncle boarded a plane.
The uncle was stinking rich, with a fortune from insurance or something, and lived in the tax haven of Bermuda. It was crystal clear that he and his wife were taking David under their wing as a necessary but wholly unwelcome duty. After a month or so with his new family, largely ignored by the adults and constantly taunted by his pampered cousins for blubbering, David was sent back to England, alone, to a prep school at Shillingford near Dorchester. Rightly or wrongly he interpreted the move as an act of kindness in returning him almost to his home patch.
But, as he very soon discovered, it was not a kindness. It was a bad school which did not care. And because it was strictly forbidden to leave the school grounds he could not revisit his home patch. He did once pluck up courage to take himself the two miles up the Thames towpath and, carefully avoiding the pillbox, into Bridge End. Both the Kingdom and the Faithfull houses were empty, and outside both were For Sale signs. When he slunk back, his tail between his legs, he was caught and punished beyond reason.
In October he learned that Dad had been tried for rape and murder. He had to look up rape in the dictionary. Dad had been found guilty on clear-cut evidence, and had been sentenced to a minimum of thirty years in prison. It was not from his uncle, who was now his guardian, that he learned this, or even from his new headmaster. It was from the radio.
For two years, bewildered and utterly at sea, he endured the purgatory of Shillingford School, flying back for the holidays to the purgatory of Bermuda. He tried to keep sane, he said, by burying himself in books. So it continued until he was thirteen and was sent to Dorcic instead. What had happened there, or not happened, I already knew. But it did have two advantages over its predecessor. Life being vastly less regimented, he could walk wherever he wished. And because boys could stay over during the holidays he did not have to go to Bermuda nearly so often or for so long. His uncle, probably as relieved as he was, seemed only too happy to pay.
In David’s solitary life his solitary lifeline was the memory of his Dad, to whom he was devoted. Because his uncle refused to tell him — and even, he came to suspect, suppressed letters from Dad — it had taken him a year of courage-summoning even to discover which prison he was in. He was not allowed to visit — not that he had any means to — but now at least he could write from Shillingford and receive letters back. What their letters talked about he did not say. But the impression I got was that father and son were the only mortals to lend each other strength. Dad sounded almost as lost and bewildered as his son. Paedophiles are given a rough time in prison, and for his own safety he had to spend most of the time alone. On the one side, it seemed that nobody but David believed in his innocence. Dad was totally incapable, he said again and again, of rape and murder, but how to prove it he had not the faintest idea. On the other side, Dad was the only person to offer David any sympathy in his loneliness, but was equally unable to help in any practical way.
Jesus Christ! What an unholy mess. Talk about man’s inhumanity to man. I found myself utterly horrified by the way David had been treated. It offended every sense of social justice.
“This is my favourite photo,” he said, digging in his desk.
He brought out a colour print, just a snapshot, taken in a garden. It was a happy scene. A man of thirty-odd, good-looking, with an open and honest face, was playing with two boys of perhaps eight. One was clearly David. The other, as fair as David was dark …
“That’s Carl. He was my best friend even then. He was great … always helpful, always considerate … we did all kinds of things together … he stood up for me even when I did something silly. And so did Dad — that’s Dad, there. He trusted us, and we trusted him.”
I nodded, knowing a lot about parental trust. And there did seem, in the photo, to be total trust all round. I had no idea what a murderer or a sex fiend looked like, or was supposed to look like. There was nothing sinister to be seen anywhere. They were all laughing their heads off. Carl was as innocent as David. How anyone could harm a kid like that was beyond me.
“What happened to the Faithfulls?” I asked.
“They must’ve moved out. I’m not surprised, given the way we were harassed by the bloody press. And they wouldn’t have wanted to stay on here, with all its memories. But I’ve no idea where they went, and they never got in touch with me.” He sounded hurt. “Carl would’ve stuck by us if … if …”
He tailed off in despair at the complexity of what he was trying to say.
“But I suppose they thought Dad was guilty and wanted nothing more to do with him. Or with me. I’d still like to see them again, though. And I’d like to see Carl’s grave too. But I don’t even know where he’s buried.”
“Wouldn’t it have been at Dorchester, before they moved?”
“That’s what I thought. But as soon as I came to Dorcic I went to the cemetery and searched, and he isn’t there. Though I did find Mum’s grave.”
“Do you have a picture of her?”
He dug again. This one showed a dark-chestnut-haired woman hand in hand with the same man. Her face was rather like David’s, chubby and somehow immature. David stared at it and sighed.
“I feel guilty. I’ve always been tempted to blame her for giving up and dumping me even deeper in the shit. She was very, um, dependent. She wasn’t good at coping with emergencies. I fell out of a tree once and broke my arm, and Carl ran home to get help. He said she went into such a flap he had to call the ambulance himself. But when I started thinking of doing myself in, I wondered if I’d have done any better myself. It’s the way she was made. I loved her. And I suppose I still do.”
“Did you seriously think of doing yourself in?”
“Oh Lord, yes. I thought of taking an overdose of paracetamol, but they wouldn’t sell it to me. Then I tried to drown myself in the river, but the lock-keeper at Benson Lock saw me and pulled me out and tore a strip off me for going too close to the weir. Didn’t I know it was dangerous? Bloody hell, of course I did! That’s why I was there. But I couldn’t tell him that. And he reported me to school and I was grounded.”
“Was that what made you give up trying?”
“No. Oh no. It was hope,” he said simply. “Hope that somebody would heave me out of the shit. It had been there all the time, I suppose, faintly. And by pure coincidence it was then that I first got in touch with Dad, and that’s what he kept on saying. Or writing, rather. Cling to hope, David, cling to hope.”
David was currently clinging to me. Did that mean I was his hope?
“And he was right. It looks as if it’s paying off for me at last. For my puberty thing. But it hasn’t paid off for him. Not yet.”
“God!” I said, giving him a final squeeze. “You have had a rough ride, David. I’m really, really sorry about all that, but thank you for sharing it. I won’t respond now, if you don’t mind, because it’s going to take a while for it to sink in properly. May I tell my parents, though? My Mum’s at Great Ormond Street too, and she’s a paediatric psychotherapist. I’m sure she could help you as well.”
But he said it unenthusiastically, as if he felt that in that department he was beyond help.
I had had an exhausting day, mentally if not physically, and so no doubt had David. We went straight to bed. I habitually slept naked but, knowing the next two years would be different, I had brought a supply of PJs. Caution being needed, I took a pair into the bathroom and put them on in there. When I emerged David was already in bed but watching me anxiously.
“What happens with laundry?” I asked.
“Put it in the bin. They’ll bring it back in two days’ time.”
I dumped my dirties in the bin, parked my grey trousers and maroon blazer on a chair, switched off the main light, and got into my own bed.
“Thanks for all your help today, David. I do appreciate it. And for trusting me with your problems. I appreciate that too.”
“No, it’s thanks to you.”
He sounded diffident and small. But perhaps after all he didn’t sense that he was beyond help.
“For five years I’ve felt as if there was nobody good in the world, apart from Dad. Today I’ve found that I was wrong. I feel as if … as if I’ve turned a corner.”
“I hope you have.” I really meant it. “Good night!”
As I switched off the bedside light and lay back, certain words were swimming round my head. In no way was I religious, but I had sung in Messiah, and listened to it many a time on CD, and knew it inside out.
‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief … He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him.’
That described David to perfection. Poor sod, I thought. Poor, poor little sod. Battered into a pulp, but still with fight in him. All right, I had tried to help. It had been hard and draining work, but I had had to. It was what any decent person would do. What was more, I was beginning to find it a pleasure. David was still tossing and turning, but I slid effortlessly into sleep.
By the end of the night I was wondering if it really was a pleasure. At some unknown hour I was woken by loud whimpers merging into a howl. He was obviously having a nightmare. I got up and knelt beside his bed to put an arm, outside the duvet, over his thrashing body, and murmur inane words of comfort as one might to a fractious baby. He half-woke, grunted, and promptly fell properly asleep. Back to my own bed and my own slumbers.
Then it happened again. Same routine.
Then it happened once more. This time I got into bed with him.
Lucky that Dorcic was five-star, as a hotel if not as a school. The beds were neither standard three-foot singles (let alone miserly two-foot-sixers) nor full doubles, but halfway between. Three-quarter beds, I believe the term is. Two people in one did not have to be all that intimate. Keeping my body clear of his — this was no time to take risks — I put my arm back over him. Inside his pyjamas he was quivering. But again he quietened down and his breathing became regular. And there I stayed for the rest of the night, sleeping only fitfully until day began to break, when I did drop off.NEXT CHAPTER