We woke too late for breakfast, but made do with a quick cup of plastic coffee. David was full of both gratitude and trepidation.
“Thank you for last night, Peter. I’m sorry about that.”
“Do you often get those dreams?”
“Most nights. You’re still free to ask for a transfer.”
“David, I said I wouldn’t walk out on you. That still holds.”
He heaved a great sigh of relief. Then he hustled me to my appointment and left me to the mercies of Grumbly Grumbold (as David called him) who was dour and uninspiring. But, as promised, I will give no details of academic stuff that does not matter to the story. Once released, rather than going straight back to S312, I found a quiet spot outside. I had two things to do. The first was to ponder what I had heard last night.
To get them straight in my mind, I ran through David’s hideous experiences. In my inexpert view the whole long cycle of shocks and misery seemed ample explanation of his internal system shutting down. But I was still perplexed. When I had asked why his room-mate had walked out on him last year, he said that I didn’t yet know the worst. Now I did know the worst, I could not see why it had made the boy walk out. Surely it would have generated sympathy, not rejection. Still, let that ride. It would be wrong to probe deeper and resurrect the pain which David so blatantly suffered when revisiting his past. The answer might emerge of its own accord.
Another perplexity was David’s belief that his father was innocent. It was so patently sincere that, out of simple loyalty, I could only share it. No way could I try to persuade him it was misguided. But what could he do to prove it right? What could I do to help? Hard facts were in short supply. He had been told little of the detail. Might reading up the press reports of five years ago offer a lead? But to hope to spot something the police and the defence had missed was clutching at straws. It would surely be a waste of time.
I sighed. My second job was to phone home. It being Mum’s day off, she would probably be in. This was more up her street than Dad’s, and he would undoubtedly have put her in the picture. So it was to her that I relayed the outline of David’s horrific trauma.
“Oh, the poor boy!” was her reply. “That could have any number of knock-on effects, especially with all the neglect he’s suffered since. He certainly needs psychotherapy. But for the time being, ordinary day-to-day friendship is the best way to help lay the spectres. After all, your treatment over the last twenty four hours has already paid off, hasn’t it?”
I laughed. “Thinking of treatment, Mum, I’m sharing my sherry with him. Rationed to a glass a day, and I think it does him good. But given that physically he’s only eleven, is that naughty of me?”
Mum laughed in turn and put on her pompous voice. “Any physiological risks will in my professional opinion be outweighed by the psychological benefit.”
Back to David, who spent the rest of the morning and all the afternoon showing me the geography of the school and its grounds. I asked him straight out what he thought of Dorcic.
His reply was unembellished. “It’s crap. Undiluted crap. It shouldn’t be allowed to exist. But it does, and we have to put up with it.”
The ice between us was thawing fast, and his real self was bouncing back with astonishing speed. He was a naturally friendly soul, I deduced, who for years had had nobody to demonstrate it to. From time to time, presumably when he was reminded of his problems, his face and voice went dead. But for the most part he was cheerful and ever more voluble. It was as if, with the dam broken, his pent-up energies were pouring out. He had an insight far beyond what I had suspected. At one point, seeing my expression, he pinpointed precisely what lay behind it.
“I know what you’re thinking.” He faced me and put his hands flat against my chest. “That the David of today isn’t the David of yesterday. You’re damn right. It’s the David of five years ago. Though with five years of hard experience on top. Thank you, Peter.”
“Don’t thank me,” I said awkwardly. “Because if you’re happier, so am I.”
His smile was no longer watery but brilliant. And he actually made our tour fun, with caustic comments on almost everything we saw. In the coming weeks, moreover, I found myself agreeing with all of them. Dinner was raucous with the noise of a full complement of boys, of whom not a single one said a word to either of us. And I did not mind. Until, that is, someone said something not to us but about us.
“Hey, take a squizz at that!” Unlike the character in hunting pink, the owner of this voice lived up (or do I mean down?) to the worst Aussie stereotype. He did not care if we heard, or maybe he intended us to hear. “The runt’s back, and he’s smiling for once. Looks like he’s that spunk’s toyboy now. No wonder he’s happy.”
The smile was wiped off David’s face. I had no idea what to do. Bullies, according to the stories, are quelled by withering sarcasm or even a few well-placed thumps. But I was capable of neither. All I could do was glare at the jerk. And, astonishingly, it worked. My glare had an almost Medusa-like effect, for he visibly cringed, turned pale, and whined.
“Aw, no offence, cobber. Only a joke.”
All I could then do was turn my back on him, quaking internally with both anger and relief. David’s expression was now a mixture of gratitude and, so help me, of admiration: just as the proverbial damsel in distress might look, as I imagine it, when the shining white knight canters into her sight.
Astonishingly too, not one of the jerks ever gave him, or me, any trouble again. I suspect that they saw and accepted me as David’s minder or even his nanny; but they were so self-centred that, to them, we were simply not worth bothering with. Although it was surely rare for someone to join the school at my age, nobody showed the slightest smidgen of curiosity about who I was. At Dorcic, enquiring minds were a rarity.
After dinner, Dad phoned.
“First, Peter, just for your ears. I’m impressed. You’re not a scientist. For some reason which will for ever remain a mystery, you prefer your arty-farty stuff. Yet your diagnosis seems to be spot-on.”
“Well, I’ve had a good teacher, Dad.”
He chuckled. “Now David needs to hear the rest. Are you in your room? Is he with you?”
“Yes to both.”
“Then can you manage to share your mobile?”
I explained to David, and we sat side by side, heads close, phone held facing backwards in front of our ears, my spare arm round him, one of his round me. It felt good, together.
“Here we are, Dad. Fire away.”
“Right. Hullo, David. Here’s the latest. Stage one’s all done and dusted. They checked everything they could with the preliminary tests. Basic things like cholesterol and glucose look normal, though you hadn’t been fasting beforehand. Much more important is the hormones.
“First, growth hormones. Zilch. Even Peter’s will be tailing off now he’s nearly full-grown. But you’ve got none at all.
“Second, gonadotropin-releasing hormone. Zilch.
“Third, oestradiol, which in effect means oestrogen. Very low, at usual pre-pubertal levels.
“Fourth, testosterone. Ditto. Your balls just aren’t producing it.
“David, Peter’s diagnosis seems to be on the ball. Oops, pun not intended. And we can help you. The next step is to do some much fuller tests which are way beyond the powers of the Thwing. I need to give you a thorough physical examination, if I may. We’ll take a complete blood count. As a double check we’ll x-ray your hand to find your bone age. If Peter didn’t explain that, sex hormones affect the size and shape of your bones, and if your bone age is normal for eleven, then it confirms it was at eleven that your problem started. And Peter’s mother would like a psychotherapy session with you too.
“All that means getting you up to London for the day. I suggest I write to Dorcic and request them to release you — doctor-speak can be very persuasive — and to cart you to Didcot station and back to save you the faff of getting to Oxford by bus. They damn well should, given the fees they charge. We can fit you in in two weeks’ time. Wednesday October 5th.
“So there you are, David. How does all that hit you?”
David was well in control of himself. “That sounds brilliant, Dr Truelove. Thank you very much. And what happens after that?”
“If we find what we expect, then replacement therapy. Best by mouth or by patch. It can be done by injection, but I doubt you’d want the Thwing sticking needles into you every day for years. Because it’s going to take time, David. You mustn’t expect overnight change. After all, you’ve got five years-worth of catching up to do.
“But the good news is that the first effects should be visible fairly soon. They’ve done sizeable studies of boys with delayed puberty, and after four months of treatment they’d gained on average eight pounds in weight and an inch in height, and all of them had considerably bigger balls, and a quarter of them had some pubic hair. After a year all of them had pubic hair and broken voices, whereas a control group that was given no treatment had made no progress at all. Of course there’ll be a long way to go after that, but it’ll be a start.”
When we rang off, David was in tears again. From relief and hope. He said so. And when we went to bed I was in two minds over which one to go to.
“Try by yourself,” he said. “But …”
I tried by myself. But, sure enough, there came the same whimperings. I reverted to his bed, and never since then have I slept by myself. We had to remember to rumple my bedclothes each morning to save the cleaners getting ideas, but that was no hardship.
Next day we plunged into the routine of school. It was by no means demanding. Six mornings a week were filled with classes. The afternoons, for the few like us who did not play games, were free for three hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, followed by a couple of classes. On the other weekdays they were free the whole time from lunch to dinner. We spent the evenings in the library or S312 doing our reading and coursework, and then talking. Sundays were entirely ours. It was in these free slots that we walked and talked and talked yet more. About ourselves, mainly. Getting to know each other.
I discovered that, as I had guessed, David was extremely clever at school work and was top of the class in all subjects. Although that should have boosted his self-esteem, it had two downsides. It confirmed to the jerks that he was not only a weird infant but a nerd, which did not endear them to him. And it brought from his teachers none of the praise and commendation it deserved, which did not endear them either. When I expressed surprise (tactfully, I hope) that his tribulations had not numbed his brain into a torpor, he was ready with an answer.
“You’re dead right. But if I get really interested in something, everything else takes a back seat. It’s been crucial in seeing me through.”
That became fully apparent as he conducted me around his beloved countryside and introduced me to his favourite places. His breadth of interest and his knowledge were an eye-opener. Our first excursion outside school premises was to the flooded gravel pits nearby which, though artificial, recent, and destructive of prehistory, now teemed with wildlife.
“The insects aren’t anything special. But I’m not wildly excited by insects anyway. Are you?”
I confessed that I was not wildly excited by insects.
“Though I did see a scarce blue-tailed damselfly here. But what is good is the birds. It’s not the best time of year now — midwinter’s better. There are little ringed plover, and gadwall, and pochard, and wigeon, and teal, and smew, and shoveller. I think I’ve even seen a cattle egret, but I couldn’t be sure because I haven’t got any binoculars.”
I had never heard of half those breeds, and was not wildly excited by birds either. But it seemed hardly diplomatic to say so.
The next walk was upstream to Clifton Hampden, a village of thatched cottages and a long bridge over the Thames, of red brick with flat pointed arches.
“How old would you say that is?” David asked.
I considered. It looked rather like the architecture of Hampton Court.
“Tudor?” I offered.
He laughed. “1867, actually. Mock-Tudor. And Radiohead used to rehearse in the village hall over there, before they made the grade, when they were still called On a Friday. Did you know they were all boys at Abingdon School? And that farm there’s got a herd of alpacas. And up beside the lock you can sometimes see the local archery club shooting with longbows.”
For our third excursion he suggested the Sinodun Hills.
“But they’re the other side of the river,” I pointed out. “How do we get across?”
“Boat’s easiest. There’s a punt at the boathouse we can borrow. Can you punt?”
“No way! I’ve never tried.” The thought of standing upright in a small boat horrified me.
“Then let’s paddle. Less dignified, but safer.”
At the boathouse, before helping ourselves to the punt, we waited for an eight of hearty rowers to disappear upstream. We could do without them mocking our plebeian transport. It was easy to paddle it downstream to just above Day’s Lock and moor against the towpath on the opposite bank. From there we walked past the lock and climbed the nearer of the twin hills.
“This is Round Hill,” David told me once we were on the top. “And the one ahead is Castle Hill. The Sinodun Hills is their formal name. But that seems to be an antiquarian invention of the eighteenth century, and the locals have got other ideas. Sometimes they call them Wittenham Clumps, from the trees on top. But their best names are, um, anatomical. The Berkshire Bubs, which I suppose means boobs. Or Mother Dunch’s Buttocks — the Dunches used to be the lords of the manor.”
We descended into the dip beyond Round Hill.
“So now,” I pointed out, being in a frivolous mood, “we’re between her buttocks. We must be in Mother Dunch’s arsehole.”
David gave me an unfathomable look. Perhaps for him, understandably, arseholes were a sore point. Even for me, on consideration, the thought of being in the back passage of an ancient lady of the manor was not an alluring one. But the Iron Age fort on the other buttock, when we reached it, was archaeologically interesting, and in the pallid autumn sunshine we sat on the grassy ramparts to take in the fabulous views.
“Don’t move!” he said suddenly. “There’s a bloody great spider crawling up your trousers.”
We watched its progress, and as soon as it reached my crotch he leant over to scoop it up and throw it aside. He was gentle, and the pressure of his hands was slight. But it left me puzzled. Had he just been observing the creature’s behaviour, or had he waited until it was in the right position as an excuse for a tentative grope? I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it would be worth testing the water a little.
“Good thing we don’t wear shorts,” I remarked. “It might have gone up inside.”
He gave me an enigmatic grin which might have been cheeky or sly and which certainly made my heart flutter.
“I doubt if spiders are interested in what’s inside.”
Hmmm. Had he put some extra emphasis on spiders, or was I imagining it?
“Because all they’re interested in is flies.”
That was clever, and I laughed. Yet it had not answered my question, and I was still in doubt. He might have been teasing, or he might have been flirting. With no more ado, however, he returned to business and began to point out the sites of other antiquities.
“That’s Brightwell Barrow over there. Bronze Age, but almost ploughed out now. And there’s a Roman villa some distance that way, with mosaics. And lots of prehistoric field systems all over the place. In fact the whole of the Thames valley’s thick with settlements. River gravels, well-drained, marvellous for agriculture.”
Then he was distracted again, by a bird circling high above us.
“Look! A red kite! Rather like a buzzard, but its tail’s forked. Did you know that in England and Scotland they were hunted to extinction? And in Wales they only just clung on. Round here they were reintroduced twenty years ago, and it’s been a howling success — there are something like five hundred breeding pairs now in Bucks and Berks and Oxfordshire. I wonder … can they have been breeding in the Clumps? Or even on Clifton Heath? That must be three miles away, but it’s still within their feeding range. I do wish I had some binoculars.”
In the copse on Castle Hill he insisted on showing me a dead beech tree, its branches lopped.
“What’s so special about this?” I asked.
“It’s the Poem Tree. Look at the bark up there.”
I could make out a few carved letters. There had obviously been plenty more, but most were obliterated by the growth and flaking of the bark.
“It’s a poem carved in 1844 by someone called Joseph Tubb. Before it was too far gone a copy was made.”
He pointed to a large stone nearby, on which was mounted a plaque with twenty lines of verse about the landscape and history of the area.
“Not far off doggerel, but fun.”
On none of our walks were these snippets of information exactly earth-shattering, but all of them were interesting, and they deserve mention as typical of David’s breadth of knowledge and his expertise as a guide. And he had not yet finished. On the way back he took me to a footbridge across the river just below the lock.
“This,” he said importantly, “is where they hold the World Championships. Every year, in March. People come from all over the place.”
“Oh? What championships?”
He threw me another grin which this time was unmistakably sly, and once again it made my heart flutter.
That both tickled and touched me. As with 1066 And All That, anyone who retained Winnie-the-Pooh from childhood was all right.
“Then we must come too.”
But looking east from the footbridge I spotted the roofs of Dorchester only half a mile away.
“Couldn’t we have come through the village?” I asked, “And saved faffing about with the punt?”
“Well, yes. We could.” He seemed unenthusiastic. “But more fun by boat.”NEXT CHAPTER