“Mummy! The King’s dead!”

Mummy! the King’s dead!

This story could only have one title, but has the title ruined the story?

It’s something to do with growing older: ‘spots of time’ as I think Wordsworth called them, or one liners as I tend to call them glow more brightly or repeat themselves like Abba songs you can’t forget.[1]

Forget the introduction. It’s 1952 and I’m at home in the bath. The bathroom was on the ground floor, the door is open  and my mother is busy in the kitchen. I suddenly remembered what the teacher had told us at school, so I called  out,

‘Mummy, the King’s dead!’

And she appeared straight away in the doorway.

‘What?!’

I had to turn my head round to see her, which I only mention  because I’m surprised that I remember the configuration of the narrow bathroom with the door at one end, behind you as you lay in the bath. Was this the first time in my life that I told my mother something she didn’t know? Was it the first time I saw her respond vividly to something that had nothing to do with our family? I had been out into the world and brought back a piece of important news. I’d announced it like a voice on the radio with a sudden invasion of our private little space. Presumably my mother could have the radio on, but wasn’t in the habit. When I saw her shocked reaction to the news did I feel almost like a grown up? I think I was too shocked by the moment of power those few words gave me; to be in a sense my mother’s equal was frightening so I was immediately a little boy again.

This particular king, a George, I think, Elizabeth’s father, was well regarded, though his popularity was soon eclipsed by that of his widow, the Queen Mother. He was liked for being vulnerable and  finding kingship hard to learn. He was the one who was pushed onto the throne by the abdication of his brother, who was irresponsible and a bit of a fascist. He was a chain smoker, which explained his early death. He had a terrible stammer. His speech therapist stood beside him at his coronation, though I don’t think this was generally known at the time. He visited the East End during the blitz, meeting ordinary Londoners. And he had two lovely daughters, and I honestly think that by that time nobody really cared that he didn’t have a son. After all, we still had Churchill.

The next thing I remember saying was in 1957 when I went to secondary school. The school in Salisbury, eight miles from where we lived, had a cluster of different sites and I think I probably turned up at the wrong one, part of an early nineteenth century terrace in a street whose name I’ve forgotten, the main street leading south from the city centre, and I came to a busy door way and a teacher, an enormous teacher about seven feet tall was standing there (he turned out to be Mr Potter, the deputy head)  and I looked up at him and said,

‘Please Sir, I’m a new boy!’

And he was perfectly nice to me, but gave away his amusement with an indulgent but humiliating little smile.I was trying so hard to be grown up and I’d said the most uncool – there’s no other word for it – the most uncool thing I could possibly have said.

After that there was a whole lot of silence or possibly millions of boring forgettable words and the next thing I remember is something that was said to me, in possibly our first PE lesson at grammar school. We had to stand straight, chests out (if you had one) andwith our hands on our hips. Try it. Now, are your thumbs to the front or the back? And are you a girl or a boy? Because boys should have their fingers to the front (it does help with getting your shoulders back) and the teacher whose name I’ve forgotten although I was to see a lot of him until he fell off the Matterhorn about six years later shouted at me,

‘Trustram, you look like an old washer woman!’

How could I look like an old washer woman when I was ten years old? How does it work, that twist of the wrist, to change a manly, military posture into something sleazily menial and contemptibly female?

And of course all the other boys thought that was hilarious, even though at the time the Quentin Blake classic hadn’t been written. If it had, everybody would have known that the terrible washerwomen would revenge themselves on that PE teacher – and in his case there’d be no hope of marriage afterwards. He was a lonely soul actually. In summer, during breaks, he would sit in the playground almost naked sunning his lizard skin and when he climbed the Matterhorn he climbed and died alone.

The next think I remember saying is when I was about fifteen. This was definitely the most dramatic and  memorable thing I have ever said in my life and I’m not going to spoil it by making it into a title or heading. But am I going to spoil it by too long a preface? Have I got so little to say that I spin it out to avoid the end?

One of the greatest cultural changes of the last forty or so years has been the gradual decline of hitch hiking, to the point where lonely old sentimentalists drive through the motorway services in vain, looking for people to pick up-

Sorry. When I was  fifteen I started to go hitch hiking, to see England. I was intellectually precocious, sexually retarded, my voice was breaking and I didn’t yet have acne. I swooped across the pennines high up in the cabs of enormous noisy lorries from Glasgow, simultaneously exhilarated and humiliated, trying to guess what the driver was saying to me as he struggled with the gears and double declutched. I saw the angels of Lincoln cathedral; Beverley Minster, perfect and nowhere; smoking chimneys and coal miners squatting at bus stops after their shift, that natural, easy squat I later found for myself as a gardener.  One short day, it must have been early spring or late autumn, after I’d been to Southwell Minster to see the capitals in the chapter house carved in the 13th century with true to life foliage and I was heading south again, a man whose face I never saw because it had grown dark gave me a lift. He kept his right hand on the steering wheel and with his left hand tried to dig out my balls from where I was keeping them hidden as best I could between my clamped thighs, and he tried to encourage me by telling me he had some dirty pictures (of women) at home if I wanted to see them.

‘No thanks,’ I said.

He carried on groping and we made completely forgotten and irrelevant small talk, and I do remember how crazy the difference between what was being said and what was being done, until I suddenly said,

‘How long have you been a homosexual?’

Whereupon he removed his hand and burst into tears and told me about his unhappiness and loneliness. But I don’t remember what he said, I only remember the dramatic and uncalculated effect of my line, (written, learned, rehearsed and performed for the one and only time all in a flash.) Then he dropped me at a lonely roundabout somewhere in the East  Midlands and sped off, frightened. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how worried he must have been that I would get his registration number and go to the police.

Soon after that a lorry driver picked me up and took me all the way to Canterbury, all through the night (there were no motorways/there were no gays) and it was still dark when I came to the locked cathedral, but there were lights inside so that in a vivid reversal the stained glass windows projected their bright colours out towards me.

Next is something I remember very clearly not saying.


[1] Every serious line of thought offers possibly witty diversions; all the metaphors can be mixed and matched. So, ‘glowing spots’ fit nicely with my teenage years.

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1 Response to “Mummy! The King’s dead!”

  1. Rachel says:

    I like it- a lot! I could try and make some witty comment on your blogging skills, but it would be dwarfed by the writing which precedes it. So I’ll leave it at that.

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