Reading was my addiction. It was also a punishable offence. I suppose to be absolutely correct, the offence was being in possession of reading material that didn’t belong to me, but if I was reading, it was inevitably from a book, comic or paper I’d taken from a bookcase or that one of the home manager’s children or the houseparents had left lying around.
Reading was an antidote to boredom. Other children had different strategies. Some would sit rocking and staring into the distance. Some would pick or bite bits off themselves. When the resultant sores became too noticeable they would have boxing gloves put on their hands and tied in place. These didn’t stop the picking completely, but they made it more difficult. As an intermediate step, some children would be given a piece of cloth with little stitches to pick off, but they only picked at that if someone was looking.
Ted was my younger brother but we rarely spoke. His nose was a picked mess and his hands, as well as being gloved were often tied to the chair.
It was Sunday 24th June 19xx and no different from many others in the children’s home. The houseparents played cards, occasionally telling someone to shut up, and we all sat around in our institutionalised boredom.
I was reading a book of fairy stories. For the twentieth time I read how the Steadfast Tin Soldier melted down into a little lump in the shape of a heart and how there was nothing left of the little Dancer but her gilt rose, burnt as black as a cinder.
On reflection, it seems a drastic way to fulfil a dream, but I suppose that then, most of us had some notion of a happier after life.
It was a calm boredom, at least for the boys, because our carers for today were two who made no additional demands on us. It never occurred to me that the girls might have a different perspective.
The home manager came into the room.
“David, Ted, come with me,” he called urgently.
I walked over, but he had to untie Ted.
We were given clean shirts, our faces were washed with the community flannel and we were ordered to go to the toilet – are there people who still wee to order? Our hair was brushed with the communal hairbrush and we were led out onto the lawn. Ted was given a cricket bat and I was handed a ball.
“Enjoy your game,” said the home manager.
“What shall we play?” I asked.
“French cricket,” he replied as he hurried back into the house.
It was to be many years before I discovered that the French didn’t play cricket and the nature of the confidence trick being played. Here we were with the opportunity to do something different, outside with a bat and ball. But a ball was neither bowled nor struck because the home manager reappeared almost immediately.
“There they are,” he shouted with a huge grin, as he led our Aunt and Uncle to where we were about to play. “These two are always out here.”
He took the bat and ball. “Have a lovely afternoon,” he waved cheerfully as he disappeared back into the house.
Now it wasn’t as if we weren’t pleased to see Uncle Harry and Aunt Hilda, and they were loaded with sweets and chocolates, but they just didn’t pick their time very well. As a result they had to put up with the grumpy pair they had just deprived of a game.
We had a nice drive in the countryside, stopped for tea and cakes and answered awkwardly posed questions in a monotone. I can’t imagine that Aunt Hilda and Uncle Harry enjoyed the experience but they never visited again and never once mentioned it in later years.
After the visit it was back to the house. Our presents and sweets were taken, “for safe keeping.” I’ve always wondered about that phrase. Are they still safe?
Talking to my friend James later, he remarked that something similar had happened to him. It was as if visitors had the knack of choosing just the wrong time to visit.
(To add another coincidence, just as I prepared to go to the shop before posting this story I found that a toy soldier, albeit a plastic one, had fallen from the bookcase onto the floor. Is that what they mean by existentialism?)