The Boy in the Road (part one)

_You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away_
Jimmie Davis 1940

He lay in the road and squinted up at the sun. The tar surface was hot and soft to the touch, and he liked the smell of it. There were no cars on the road. Only three people in the whole street owned a car, and they were away somewhere, probably at work, he supposed. He closed his eyes, and the world became orange. He thought of his dog, Bonzo, who was orange and white. The dog had a way of trotting at an angle, which the boy admired very much. Sometimes he tried to walk like that himself.

The boy opened his eyes just as a red and black butterfly flitted across the road. The boy, whose name was James, let his thoughts float after it. He thought about the Raymond gang, which had a membership of four; Raymond Chine, Stuart, James himself, and his brother Keith. The two boys were very comfortable with each other, although in fact they were not really brothers, or even related. They were, however, equally stubborn. When Gill Drayson bought them a cricket set, consisting of two bats, some stumps and a ball, the boys took it all down to Valentine's Park and had a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours. When it was time to go home, they were both tired, and neither one wanted to carry the equipment back up the hill which lead to home. After some argument, Keith left it on a low coping wall for James to pick up. James left it there, expecting Keith to go back for it. When they got home, Gill sent them back for it, but by that time, of course, it had gone.

James was a sort of out-rider for the gang. When someone said, "I dare you", they all knew he was the one who would carry out the dare. The boys sensed a kind of wildness in James, which set him a little apart from them; "I dare you to climb to the top of that tree", "I dare you to lift that lady's skirt", or put pennies on the railway line for the train to flatten out, or jump off the bus while it was moving. Once he even took a half crown from Auntie Eva's purse. He took it to the local sweetshop but he had no idea what to buy with it. The shopkeeper took him back home. Auntie Eva gently explained to him that it was wrong to take money without asking. She didn't seem angry, and she didn't scold him. He felt so ashamed that he promised himself he would never do anything like that again.

James had been with the Draysons since he was three years old. Before that he had lived a very long way away, in Scotland, with his mother. He had no memories of that time, but Eva and Gill Drayson sometimes mentioned it. Auntie Eva told him that his mother had been on her own, and that times had been hard because of the war. She said that his mother had to go into the farmer's fields at night sometimes, to steal turnips; otherwise they might both have starved. James didn't really think about things like that, but he stored it away somewhere at the back of his mind, as something to mull over when he was older, and could perhaps understand it.

Right now he had more interesting things to think about. Like Deirdre Ross, for instance. She always seemed to know more about the mysterious world of grown-ups than did the boys. She wasn't part of the Raymond gang, but often hung around with the boys, who tolerated her because of the indefinable air she carried, of knowing more about the way the world worked than they did. Yesterday she had told the boys that she knew a secret. "Keep it under your hat, boys, but I know where babies come from", she confided in a stage whisper, and pointed vaguely towards her tummy. James thought of a baby in a hat. A top hat. It was all a bit confusing, and he added it to his list of things to think about at a later stage.

James let the sun soak into him. Could life get any better? High up, a single-engine airplane droned slowly across the sky, the sound getting fainter as it moved away. He watched it until it disappeared. He remembered that he had asked Uncle Gill if there would ever be another war. Gill had been mending a shoe on an iron last. He looked at James. "I hope not, boy," he said. Gill and Eve often called him 'boy', which he loved, and Eve sometimes called him 'sausage', which he also loved. The war had ended three years ago. On the rare occasions that he had been taken to visit his mother in London, James had seen the bomb sites which still littered the streets, looking like missing teeth. There were more fields then streets where the Draysons lived, and there had been no bombing raids here in the war, but still, James thought, if there were another war, the Germans might concentrate on his area next time.

He thought about his house disappearing with a loud bang, and Bonzo running down the street with his funny sideways gait, and his tail between his legs. He tried to imagine the street without his house in it, and couldn't. The house was all he knew; the kitchen where Auntie Eva placed him on the sideboard and scrubbed his face and knees with a flannel at teatime, the dining room with the big radio and the brown tiled fireplace, and the front room with the piano, which nobody ever played. The main bedroom upstairs, which belonged to Eva and Gill, had a clock on the wall which was taller than James, and was operated by a system of weights and chains. James never really understood anything at all about that clock.

There were two other bedrooms; one for the girls, Tommy and Pam, and the box room at the end of the passage, which was shared by Keith and James. Next door lived Raymond Chine, the nominal leader of the Raymond gang, although Keith was the real leader. Raymond's father was a bus conductor, but Gill Drayson was a bus driver, which was far superior. Once a woman had thrown herself in front of his bus. Gill stopped the bus inches from her head. When the company measured the skid, they decided to give him an award for quick thinking. The boys were very proud of that.

James heard a car turn into the road, and decided to sit up. The road shimmered in the heat of the afternoon. The car, a small black Austin, drove slowly down the road and disappeared around the corner, leaving a smell of exhaust fumes in the air. James considered his options. He could find the gang and see if they wanted to go over to the Crooked Billet farm, and throw stones at the windows of the abandoned farmhouse. Or he could see if he could catch a lizard in the field behind the street, although you really needed two for that - one to distract the lizard and one to creep up behind and catch it before it disappeared in the long grass. Or he could just lie down on the road again and look at the sun through his fingers. Yes, that would be the best plan. It must be teatime soon, and they would probably send Bonzo out to look for him. He thought about Bonzo's funny walk, and smiled.

And then, a week later, a letter came from his mother, and everything changed...

The smell of frying bacon was coming from the kitchen, but James stayed where he was. He glanced at his face in the mirror over the fireplace as if seeing it for the first time. Then he looked at the rest of the room, over his reflection's shoulder; the two old armchairs, the long dining table and the sideboard, upon which rested the big mahogany wireless.

James liked everything about that wireless. He liked its solid chunkiness, the big wooden dials and the window with its red needle, which lit up when you turned the set on. He thought of the programmes he listened to in the evening, sometimes with Keith, sometimes with all the family. There was 'Dick Barton, Special Agent';"Come on, Snowy, help me break down this door before the blighter gets away!" "Right you are, sir - here, better take my gun"; and there was 'Journey into Space', with Jet Morgan and Lemmie, which had them on the edge of their seats with its sounds of rocket engines roaring, hissing air escaping from something or other, and the eeriest music they had ever heard. He even listened to 'Toytown' with Larry the Lamb, although he was supposed to be too old for that; "Please Mr. Policeman, there's a dra-a-a-gon in the woods".

He wondered briefly why it was called a wireless, when anyone could see the thick wire coming out the back of it, but life was full of mysteries. For instance, why were all airplanes a mile long, why did you float to the ceiling if you swallowed an orange pip, why was there a flagpole without a flag in the garden, and what had happened to their pedal car. This wonderful vehicle had been made for James and Keith by Uncle Gill, and was the envy of all the kids in the street. One day it disappeared from their garden, and the grown-ups claimed they didn't know what had happened to it. The boys suspected it had been broken up for firewood, but nothing was ever proved.

James sighed. Looking out through the French windows he could see the flagpole at the bottom of the garden. He remembered the 'boxing match' he'd had with Keith in the garden. Uncle Gill had bought them each a pair of boxing gloves, and they couldn't wait to try them out. Off they trooped to the end of the garden. They both swung and landed a mighty punch at the same time. It was the only punch of the match. They burst into tears at the same moment, and the boxing gloves were taken away, never to be seen again.

When he had first come to stay with the Drayson family, they had called him Silent James, and even now, six years later, he wasn't a great talker, but he was happy, and couldn't remember having lived anywhere else. Keith was just four months older than James, Pam was a couple of years older and Tommy was nearly grown up. Tommy's real name was Eve, like her mother, but she had always been called Tommy. James was a little in love with Tommy, but then so was everybody else. In summer they sometimes cycled the five miles to Hainault Forest to pick blackberries. At least, the two girls did the cycling and James and Keith perched on the handlebars. He remembered that the metal brake lever would pinch his thighs if he weren't careful.

And now his mother was coming to take him to London to live. Apparently she had just got married again and had written to say she wanted to take him home. Well, not home, this was home, thought James. His mother smelled of perfume and wore a fur coat. He went to visit with her several times a year. He wore his good clothes and tried to stay on his best behaviour. He was always glad to get back to his life with the Draysons.

His parents had split up when he was three, and he had been with the Drayson family ever since. He had seen his dad only once since then, on his fifth birthday. His dad had brought him a large cannon with wooden wheels, and which fired wooden cannon balls. The grown ups called his dad Jock, and seemed to like him a lot. Auntie Eve gave James a gold cigarette lighter to give to his dad. It was wrapped up to look like a toffee. James thought that was a very clever idea. Jock put the boy on his knee and talked to him in his funny Scottish accent. James liked him a lot, but that was the last time he saw his dad.

He returned to the present to hear Uncle Gill calling him from the kitchen. James scuffed his shoe against the fireplace. He did not want to go into the kitchen. He knew his life was about to change in ways he could only imagine. Uncle Gill called again, and this time James made his way to the kitchen. Uncle Gill did not look at him. "Your mother will be here soon, boy. I've made you a bacon sandwich for the journey".

Auntie Eva had gone off to work this morning, Keith had gone to school, and Pam and Tommy had gone wherever they went during the day. James and Uncle Gill were the only ones left in the house. The boy watched as Uncle Gill cut the rind off the bacon. This was the first time James had ever seen him cook anything.

They heard a car scrunching to a stop in the road outside. Footsteps came up the path. Now the man looked at the boy and ruffled his hair. Another first. James found he could not speak. The doorbell rang.

James Collins Scottish Essays
Click here for part two.