Thirty seven years ago when I was at Prep-school in Northumberland I let a young girl die and buried her in the allotments we boys kept in the semi-derelict Victorian kitchen gardens.
Boarding prep-school in a boys-only environment from the not-so-badly-off middle-class, upper-middle-class and landed-gentry was common then: professionals, ex-pats, execs & directors of various kinds – they all found a way or satisfied a need to have their boys away from home. There were plenty of broken families too, not a term used for this ‘class,’ but broken they were, separated & divorced, split largely by men having a mistress while the wifelet was at home with the kids … though a few were single-parent families from suicide – wives sticking their heads on a pillow in the gas oven when they found hubby had a mistress (or someone else’s wife) on the sideboard.
I don’t know the girls’ name, but I have a photo of the garden where we buried. We won the ‘Gardening Prize’ – a silver cup that was given out on Prize Giving at the end of the summer term under the marquee on trim lawn.
We gave her a name, she wouldn’t tell us who she was; I forget why.
I suppose by giving away the ending you may feel there is no point in reading on, but there are a number of issues and surprises that might intrigue you.
Visiting Scotty Hall for only the second time in several decades (I returned once as some old boys do the year after leaving) I went to the site of the allotments. The sheds had gone, with their stacks of pots, the changing rooms for the open air pool gone too and the whole complex now under brick, stone & glass, an edifice of financial deviousness that I contrived in the 80s in order to give the school an indoor pool and the capital to maintain it. I should have looked beyond the boundaries of the plans as the allotments or ‘gardens’ as we called them were now grassed over, the Victorian cold-frames long gone, along with the Victorian glass house. I had to wonder if we had dug her grave deep enough – deep enough not to be disturbed when the ground was skimmed over to lay turf. All of this a great shame as between them, swimming & gardening, were the loves of my life. And Kathy.
You see I’ve remembered her name. Or what we called her. She didn’t say much, this stray, this orphan, this lost girl, this fellow human being who came to us like a lost dog and sought sanctuary, protection and comfort.
We had to keep her from the prefects, and the teachers. We had to keep her from the other boys in others dens too. You can understand why then we protected our den with such vigour and deviousness at the end of that term. I was eleven.
Let’s roll it all back a few years to the trigger that perhaps set this all in motion. I am seven, pushing eight. I am with my brother and sister, and we have a photographer coming round. We are dressed in what might be described as our Sunday best … Sunday best for school that is as we had stopped attending Church, even at Christmas at least a year or two before. Probably timed with my late father’s bedding of first his secretary, then the wife of a friend. I think he, like me, felt that having committed a sin he could no longer attend Church (possibly why the Catholic introduce confession in the first place, to keep the numbers up, to get bums on seats). You’ve gathered from this I am an atheist, not the time of place to go into the details why be suffice it to say that as a chorister and ultimately the head chorister at school all my requests from the choir stalls for God to prove his existence to me failed. He does not exist. And my late grandfather who had survived the First World War – he had very good reason to curse god, kings & country and dam them all to hell. Or hells bells, somewhere not pleasant.
Anyway, my brother, sister & I are not only gathered to have this picture taken, we are also gathered to be told by my father, with my mother’s assistance, that he would no longer be living with us. We children burst into tears of incredulous disbelief and my father swore.
“ I can’t stand this.” And walked out. Boarding school seemed to follow uncomfortably swiftly after this. Getting to boarding school I should not have been surprised to discover just how many of my friends had divorced parents – for us, the children of the wealthy middle-class boarding prep school appears to be the dumping ground of the unwanted and unloved. It seemed that way, though I realise since that is was just a traditional thing.
It was in my third year. That first year I got used to the rules, habits & customs of the place: dorm-captains, bundles, fire drills, numbers and even how we were called, not by our first names, but by our surnames. If we had a sibling or cousin or some other unfortunate who shared the same surname that each of us had the prefix max, min or minimus. In this way I started as Harrison Min until my cousin, who never completed his final year, left and my older brother become Harrison Ma & I become Harrison Mi.
It is into the world of dorm-raiding, Sunday tuck, tuck-boxes & trunks, choir practice and lights-out that I need to bring you. Outside, beyond the gates in the world beyond there was a three-day-week. The impact this had on us is memorable, though we were never reduced to a three day week ourselves. We were nonetheless reduced to days without electricity and therefore without light. It became some enormous camping exercise with hurricane lamps in the common rooms and classrooms, with candles on the dinning room tables as if every night was Halloween.
There was sport every afternoon with a match of some kind on Saturday after morning lessons. On Sunday church was followed by Sunday lunch and the handing out of tuck, or what the real world might know as sweets or candy. The means by which us 110+ boys got to select a piece of tuck was grossly unfair and waited utterly to the whim of the teacher in charge. The preferred method was for them to call out a number somewhere between 1 & 31 until everyone with a birthday falling on the date called out had been covered. My brother and all the others born on the 3rd of the month got up and away earlier than everyone else time and time and time again … it is one of those numbers that is bound to be picked of the top of someone’s head early on … for me, with a birthday on the 27th more often than not, we’re be the one’s telling the teacher that our number had not yet been called. They never took notes. never used a Tombola. Never considered to be a lottery. There was a bias built into it with, I’m sure. some teachers knowing the birthdates of their favourite pupils.
Anyhow, there was more to this than ending up with a Mars Bar (the ultimate prize) or a Penguin biscuit (the duff end), getting out first meant you were also out first, changed into a boiler suit & outdoor shoes and off into the woods for the afternoon.
The woods were a boy’s dream, 35 acres of deciduous wood, mostly unmanaged. Boys formed gangs by age and form and took over dens from he previous year, building on their structures or starting again from scratch. These dens were castles, fortress, strong points. We had a dry spot, often lined with plastic fertiliser bags with ferns cut and piled onto the roof. We dug what we called trenches, even moats to defend out space. These might fill with water. We collected brambles too and let them dry sharp, then wound them around the boundaries of our territory. There would be a rare raid from one den against another and in the process maybe a few bombs and spears would be taken. Bombs were fern-corms while the spears speak for themselves. We had bows & arrows too. Very effective. Clearly dangerous.
It is into this environment that I must introduce Kathy. Her full name might have been Kathleen. Getting to our den after Sunday lunch one the third week of the Summer term in my third year all seemed untouched until we settled under cover of our shelter to dig into our tuck. Between us we had birthdays on the 3rd, 1st, 11th , 27th & 18th. We shared what we got – I often had the duff Penguin biscuit which also went into the pot so I’d get a couple of Opal Fruits, a piece of Mars Bar and maybe a mouthful of Curly-Wirly or Milky Way. So we’re doing this share out, the boys from Beamish Dorm, Saxby, Hardy, Ramsbotham and Blackett. And we find there is something in our den under a blue fertiliser bag.
We are taken aback by the creature. Too scrawny, scruffy and moth eaten to be human we thought.
We couldn’t keep pets, so we kept her. Some of us had sisters, but this girl was like no sister, like no creature we had come across before. She was a thing of the woods. She said nothing, was easy to please with pieces of food and fresh water and we could keep her warm too with clothes we brought out to her. We’d come out in two pairs of socks and give one to her. We’d put on two tops, and so on. Blankets we pushed out a dormitory window and collected in a wheelbarrow when on stone picking duties – for this we needed to pick up a minor punishment, running in the corridor was the simplest one.
In this way we looked after our girl. We took extra care with den security, the dried brambles for barbed wire and the trenches deep enough, I doubt deeper than 3ft feet, that contained water. We brought her things to do and read. Her favourite was Look in Magazine for the pictures and puzzles.
I got out at night. I couldn’t sleep well anyway. You’re in a dorm of 12 or more boys and there is always someone snoring or wheezing. I’d hold their nose, tickle their feet, put pillows over their heads. We’d target practice the asthmatics with slippers, which I can see now could only have made their dust induced wheeze worse. But after these games I’d not be able to sleep. I’d wandered around the school at night unspotted so taking the next step and leaving the school to go to our den and check on the girl was easy enough, in fact, the chances of me getting caught once I was into the woods, compared to wandering the corridors of school, were greatly reduced.
Radios weren’t allowed by Ramsbotham had made one with a kit which somehow had got around the rules; perhaps the headmaster had never expected anyone to get one of these kits to work. She had that so that she had company, Radio 1 did the trick.
She said very little but understood everything. She did not want us to tell anyone where she was, that was for certain. We stuck to this wish. Without radios (and never listening to anything local in any case) rarely catching TV unless it was deemed educational, like Tomorrow’s World and only getting national ‘quality’ daily papers we weren’t likely to learn if a girl had gone missing.
At home, when my parents were arguing hardest, shouting and even throwing things at each other, I took to getting into the dog basket with our black Labrador Morag. It was a warm, comforting & secure place to be. At school, if I felt lonely that term (because these events only latest one term) I would go out and cuddle up to Kathy. We kept each other warm, it was simple as that. The dorms were unheated. Strategies for keeping warm included wearing tow pairs of pyjamas, keeping our dressing gowns on, curling into a foetal ball, or the only one that worked for me was to lies as stiff and as straight as a knight on a tomb, my legs crossed, one foot keeping the other warm, my arms crossed over my chest. Clambering under a blanket covered in bracken to snuggle in with Kathy worked much better.
I never got caught and I never fell ill. Being asthmatic I might have been better off in the fresh air of the woods in any case.
During the summer term we had sports days, swimming in the outdoor pool, making rafts on the lake and competing around an obstacle course. We had gardens too, some flowers, some vegetable. Just as we would compete to stake out a plot for a den in the woods those who fancied gardening had competed for plots rarely larger than a double bed around the derelict Victorian kitchen garden. The vegetable plot I had produce cress, mustard, radishes and lettuce. I had peas too and cabbage. Carrots and beetroot. A little cash could be earned selling this to the wives of teachers who lived in cottages around the estate. Some of this went to Kathy.
My grandfather, in his late seventies, had been a machine gunner in the first world war. He had often told me how he had made a little bit of fire in a tin can to heat up some water, cutting thin shavings so as not to make any smoke. We produced a little heat for Kathy, taught her how to warm things up without making any smoke. She had to cope for long spells without us. We had lessons all morning, games all afternoon, more classes then dinner and prep. Getting out to her at all could mean an early morning visit in pyjamas … or a visit a night, also in pyjamas.
When she fell ill, we too fell ill, or rather we pretended to fall ill with her symptoms. We lined up to be looked at by the visiting GP and were fobbed up with an Aspirin or a Vick’s rub. Certain that what she had was a bit more serious all we could do was pilfer from the medicine cabinet. There was always someone in sick bay with something so a handful of something more powerful, antibiotics for example, could be had.
By now Kathy had been in our den for two months. As the term progressed our next problem was of course how we’d take care of her over the long summer vacation. None of us lived close, in was 15 miles to Newcastle for me, 25 to Alnwick, 11 to Hexham. Age 9 we couldn’t get chauffeured where we wished either. Perhaps we thought it was just as well that she was ill.
We respected her absolute wish not to be exposed, which is of course our crime, because her illness got worse and as we approached the last week of term she died. We had to do something with her and more than one of us having buried pets large & small in our gardens this is what we decided to do with her. With the gardens a bit of a cemetery in lay out in any case with they two dozen plots we decided to dig one of these up and put her at the bottom.
We chose my brother’s plot without telling him. It was 6ft long and a few feet wife with a little crazy-paving path along the centre, curved at one end and surrounded by rocks. In a way it was like a stained glass window. In a way it was like a grave without a tombstone. The idea was this, we’d all meet out at the garden at around 11.00pm one night and dig out my brother’s garden to the depth of the tallest boy, this would be a little over 5ft. Kathy would go in a school trunk, we all had these from Isaac Walton’s in Newcastle with our names on them. We drew lots for whose trunks to use. Mine was chosen, that had to come out of the attic where a hundred of these things were stacked, empty in former servants quarters, unused rooms above the dormitories.
We went unnoticed and unmissed. The night we were out all th staff, including Matey Ma & Matey Mi and any teacher who might have been on duty, were down by the pool having an end of term party. While an Australian assistant teacher strummed a guitar and sang songs we five boys were out.
We each placed an item special to us or something we thought that was special to Kathy in the trunk with her. I gave her my teddy. Ramsbotham put in his prize butterfly yoyo. Blacket gave up his cricket pads, that somehow looked right, like armour on a medieval knight. Smallwood, who’d got in on the act left six copies of Look and Learn and Saxby put in the radio he’d made from a kit that he’d been given by hid Dad when he’d come third in the school spelling competition.
We covered the box, replaced the plants, watered them and went back to bed.
The growth and splendeaour of my brother’s garden was spooky. Perhaps it was because we’d disturbed the ground and watered the loose soil. Perhaps it was because of out little angle in the ground below, but when it came to judging the garden for the Gardening Cup 1973 it was this garden that won.
And so I’m back thirty five years on. I can locate the site of the garden, just about, on a bank, now neatly grassed over. The boys and girls at the school don’t have gardens anymore, they make shared contributions to planters all around the school buildings. Its not the same. I want to leave a cross. I have one left over from Remembrance Day. I’ve removed the poppy and replaced it with a Breast Cancer yellow daffodil. I don’t expect that my placing this cross in the ground will draw undue attention; it doesn’t.
With time on my hands though I start to think about who this girl really was. There must have been some record of some girl going missing at some stage in the previous years. There was a home up the road for children, she might have run away from there, but surely they would have reported her missing? Of course they would. There had been a gypsy family behind the cricket pavilion who had more children than you could count. I dare say by digging her up DNA samples could be taken and records checked.
What I eventually came up with as a possibility was a girl who had been snatched from her bath in a downstairs bathroom of a cottage in Beadnell in 1966. How the family had disappeared with her no one could understand, yet proof of the abduction, with no child and no body, had dumbfounded the family and the authorities. I can’t imagine it would give any surviving relatives peace of mind to know what had become of the girl and if indeed this was their girl in a trunk five feet under a bank of neatly mowed grass by a swanky swimming pool complex at this posh boys school. The problem I have with it was that is was my sister who was snatched, I was five at the time, and unwell … my mother was on her own in the cottage. Could a boy of five with a fever be expected to recognise a sister who had been three years old when she’d been taken another five years down the line? A girl who didn’t speak, who was too dirty and scared to be recognisable, who behaved like a rabbit with mange yet was certain on one thing that we boys respected absolutely – she did not want anyone at all to know where she was.