For several years we went to the dame-school kept by old Mrs Howlett. Most of the shopkeepers’ children went there, to save them from the shame and come-down of going to the board school, though everyone knew that Mother Howlett was an old imposter and worse than useless as a teacher. She was over seventy, she was very deaf, she could hardly see through her spectacles, and all she owned in the way of equipment was a cane, a blackboard, a few dog-eared grammar books, and a couple of dozen smelly slates. She could just manage the girls, but the boys simply laughed at her and played truant as often as they felt like it. Once there was a frightful scandal cause a boy put his hand up a girl’s dress, a thing I didn’t understand at the time. Mother Howlett succeeded in hushing it up. When you did something particularly bad her formula was ‘I’ll tell your father’, and on very rare occasions she did so. But we were quite sharp enough to see that she daren’t do it too often, and even when she let out at you with the cane she was so old and clumsy that it was easy to dodge.
Joe was only eight when he got in with a tough gang of boys who called themselves the Black Hand. The leader was Sid Lovegrove, the saddler’s younger son, who was about thirteen, and there were two other shopkeepers’ sons, an errand boy from the brewery, and two farm lads who sometimes managed to cut work and go off with the gang for a couple of hours. The farm lads were great lumps bursting out of corduroy breeches, with very broad accents and rather looked down on by the rest of the gang, but they were tolerated because they knew twice as much about animals as any of the others. One of them, nicknamed Ginger, would even catch a rabbit in his hands occasionally. If he saw one lying in the grass he used to fling himself on it like a spread-eagle. There was a big social distinction between the shopkeepers’ sons and the sons of labourers and farm-hands, but the local boys didn’t usually pay much attention to it till they were about sixteen. The gang had a secret password and an ‘ordeal’ which included cutting your finger and eating an earthworm, and they gave themselves out to be frightful desperadoes. Certainly they managed to make a nuisance of themselves, broke windows chased cows, tore the knockers off doors, and stole fruit by the hundredweight. Sometimes in winter they managed to borrow a couple of ferrets and go ratting, when the farmers would let them. They all had catapults and squailers, and they were always saving up to buy a saloon pistol, which in those days cost five shillings, but the savings never amounted to more than about threepence. In summer they used to go fishing and bird-nesting. When Joe was at Mrs Howlett’s he used to cut school at least once a week, and even at the Grammar School he managed it about once a fortnight. There was a boy at the Grammar School, an auctioneer’s son, who could copy any handwriting and for a penny he’d forge a letter from your mother saying you’d been ill yesterday. Of course I was wild to join the Black Hand, but Joe always choked me off and said they didn’t want any blasted kids hanging round.
It was the thought of going fishing that really appealed to me. At eight years old I hadn’t yet been fishing, except with a penny net, with which you can sometimes catch a stickleback. Mother was always terrified of letting us go anywhere near water. She ‘forbade’ fishing, in the way in which parents in those days ‘forbade’ almost everything, and I hadn’t yet grasped that grownups can’t see round corners. But the thought of fishing sent me wild with excitement. Many a time I’d been past the pool at the Mill Farm and watched the small carp basking on the surface, and sometimes under the willow tree at the corner a great diamond-shaped carp that to my eyes looked enormous—six inches long, I suppose—would suddenly rise to the surface, gulp down a grub, and sink again. I’d spent hours gluing my nose against the window of Wallace’s in the High Street, where fishing tackle and guns and bicycles were sold. I used to lie awake on summer mornings thinking of the tales Joe had told me about fishing, how you mixed bread paste, how your float gives a bob and plunges under and you feel the rod bending and the fish tugging at the line. Is it any use talking about it, I wonder—the sort of fairy light that fish and fishing tackle have in a kid’s eyes? Some kids feel the same about guns and shooting, some feel it about motor-bikes or aeroplanes or horses. It’s not a thing that you can explain or rationalize, it’s merely magic. One morning—it was in June and I must have been eight—I knew that Joe was going to cut school and go out fishing, and I made up my mind to follow. In some way Joe guessed what I was thinking about, and he started on me while we were dressing.
‘Now then, young George! Don’t you get thinking you’re coming with the gang today. You stay back home.’
‘No, I didn’t. I didn’t think nothing about it.’
‘Yes, you did! You thought you were coming with the gang.’
‘No, I didn’t!’
‘Yes, you did!’
‘No, I didn’t!’
‘Yes, you did! You stay back home. We don’t want any bloody kids along.’
Joe had just learned the word ‘bloody’ and was always using it. Father overheard him once and swore that he’d thrash the life out of Joe, but as usual he didn’t do so. After breakfast Joe started off on his bike, with his satchel and his Grammar School cap, five minutes early as he always did when he meant to cut school, and when it was time for me to leave for Mother Howlett’s I sneaked off and hid in the lane behind the allotments. I knew the gang were going to the pond at the Mill Farm, and I was going to follow them if they murdered me for it. Probably they’d give me a hiding, and probably I wouldn’t get home to dinner, and then Mother would know that I’d cut school and I’d get another hiding, but I didn’t care. I was just desperate to go fishing with the gang. I was cunning, too. I allowed Joe plenty of time to make a circuit round and get to the Mill Farm by road, and then I followed down the lane and skirted round the meadows on the far side of the hedge, so as to get almost to the pond before the gang saw me. It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. And I didn’t give a damn for any of it. All I was thinking of was the green pool and the carp and the gang with their hooks and lines and bread paste. It was as though they were in paradise and I’d got to join them. Presently I managed to sneak up on them—four of them, Joe and Sid Lovegrove and the errand boy and another shopkeeper’s son, Harry Barnes I think his name was.
Joe turned and saw me. ‘Christ!’ he said. ‘It’s the kid.’ He walked up to me like a tom-cat that’s going to start a fight. ‘Now then, you! What’d I tell you? You get back ’ome double quick.’
Both Joe and I were inclined to drop our aitches if we were at all excited. I backed away from him.
‘I’m not going back ’ome.’
‘Yes you are.’
‘Clip his ear, Joe,’ said Sid. ‘We don’t want no kids along.’
‘Are you going back ’ome?’ said Joe.
‘Righto, my boy! Right-ho!’
Then he started on me. The next minute he was chasing me round, catching me one clip after another. But I didn’t run away from the pool, I ran in circles. Presently he’d caught me and got me down, and then he knelt on my upper arms and began screwing my ears, which was his favourite torture and one I couldn’t stand. I was blubbing by this time, but still I wouldn’t give in and promise to go home. I wanted to stay and go fishing with the gang. And suddenly the others swung round in my favour and told Joe to get up off my chest and let me stay if I wanted to. So I stayed after all.
The others had some hooks and lines and floats and a lump of bread paste in a rag, and we all cut ourselves willow switches from the tree at the corner of the pool. The farmhouse was only about two hundred yards away, and you had to keep out of sight because old Brewer was very down on fishing. Not that it made any difference to him, he only used the pool for watering his cattle, but he hated boys. The others were still jealous of me and kept telling me to get out of the light and reminding me that I was only a kid and knew nothing about fishing. They said that I was making such a noise I’d scare all the fish away, though actually I was making about half as much noise as anyone else there. Finally they wouldn’t let me sit beside them and sent me to another part of the pool where the water was shallower and there wasn’t so much shade. They said a kid like me was sure to keep splashing the water and frighten the fish away. It was a rotten part of the pool, a part where no fish would ordinarily come. I knew that. I seemed to know by a kind of instinct the places where a fish would lie. Still, I was fishing at last. I was sitting on the grass bank with the rod in my hands, with the flies buzzing round, and the smell of wild peppermint fit to knock you down, watching the red float on the green water, and I was happy as a tinker although the tear-marks mixed up with dirt were still all over my face.
Lord knows how long we sat there. The morning stretched out and out, and the sun got higher and higher, and nobody had a bite. It was a hot still day, too clear for fishing. The floats lay on the water with never a quiver. You could see deep down into the water as though you were looking into a kind of dark green glass. Out in the middle of the pool you could see the fish lying just under the surface, sunning themselves, and sometimes in the weeds near the side a newt would come gliding upwards and rest there with his fingers on the weeds and his nose just out of the water. But the fish weren’t biting. The others kept shouting that they’d got a nibble, but it was always a lie. And the time stretched out and out and it got hotter and hotter, and the flies ate you alive, and the wild peppermint under the bank smelt like Mother Wheeler’s sweet-shop. I was getting hungrier and hungrier, all the more because I didn’t know for certain where my dinner was coming from. But I sat as still as a mouse and never took my eyes off the float. The others had given me a lump of bait about the size of a marble, telling me that would have to do for me, but for a long time I didn’t even dare to re-bait my hook, because every time I pulled my line up they swore I was making enough noise to frighten every fish within five miles.
I suppose we must have been there about two hours when suddenly my float gave a quiver. I knew it was a fish. It must have been a fish that was just passing accidentally and saw my bait. There’s no mistaking the movement your float gives when it’s a real bite. It’s quite different from the way it moves when you twitch your line accidentally. The next moment it gave a sharp bob and almost went under. I couldn’t hold myself in any longer. I yelled to the others:
‘I’ve got a bite!’
‘Rats!’ yelled Sid Lovegrove instantly.
But the next moment there wasn’t any doubt about it. The float dived straight down, I could still see it under the water, kind of dim red, and I felt the rod tighten in my hand. Christ, that feeling! The line jerking and straining and a fish on the other end of it! The others saw my rod bending, and the next moment they’d all flung their rods down and rushed round to me. I gave a terrific haul and the fish—a great huge silvery fish—came flying up through the air. The same moment all of us gave a yell of agony. The fish had slipped off the hook and fallen into the wild peppermint under the bank. But he’d fallen into shallow water where he couldn’t turn over, and for perhaps a second he lay there on his side helpless. Joe flung himself into the water, splashing us all over, and grabbed him in both hands. ‘I got ’im!’ he yelled. The next moment he’d flung the fish on to the grass and we were all kneeling round it. How we gloated! The poor dying brute flapped up and down and his scales glistened all the colours of the rainbow. It was a huge carp, seven inches long at least, and must have weighed a quarter of a pound. How we shouted to see him! But the next moment it was as though a shadow had fallen across us. We looked up, and there was old Brewer standing over us, with his tall billycock hat—one of those hats they used to wear that were a cross between a top hat and a bowler—and his cowhide gaiters and a thick hazel stick in his hand.
We suddenly cowered like partridges when there’s a hawk overhead. He looked from one to other of us. He had a wicked old mouth with no teeth in it, and since he’d shaved his beard off his chin looked like a nutcracker.
‘What are you boys doing here?’ he said.
There wasn’t much doubt about what we were doing. Nobody answered.
‘I’ll learn ’ee come fishing in my pool!’ he suddenly roared, and the next moment he was on us, whacking out in all directions.
The Black Hand broke and fled. We left all the rods behind and also the fish. Old Brewer chased us half across the meadow. His legs were stiff and he couldn’t move fast, but he got in some good swipes before we were out of his reach. We left him in the middle of the field, yelling after us that he knew all our names and was going to tell our fathers. I’d been at the back and most of the wallops had landed on me. I had some nasty red weals on the calves of my legs when we got to the other side of the hedge.
I spent the rest of the day with the gang. They hadn’t made up their mind whether I was really a member yet, but for the time being they tolerated me. The errand boy, who’d had the morning off on some lying pretext or other, had to go back to the brewery. The rest of us went for a long, meandering, scrounging kind of walk, the sort of walk that boys go for when they’re away from home all day, and especially when they’re away without permission. It was the first real boy’s walk I’d had, quite different from the walks we used to go with Katie Simmons. We had our dinner in a dry ditch on the edge of the town, full of rusty cans and wild fennel. The others gave me bits of their dinner, and Sid Lovegrove had a penny, so someone fetched a Penny Monster which we had between us. It was very hot, and the fennel smelt very strong, and the gas of the Penny Monster made us belch. Afterwards we wandered up the dusty white road to Upper Binfield, the first time I’d been that way, I believe, and into the beech woods with the carpets of dead leaves and the great smooth trunks that soar up into the sky so that the birds in the upper branches look like dots. You could go wherever you liked in the woods in those days. Binfield House, was shut up, they didn’t preserve the pheasants any longer, and at the worst you’d only meet a carter with a load of wood. There was a tree that had been sawn down, and the rings of the trunk looked like a target, and we had shots at it with stones. Then the others had shots at birds with their catapults, and Sid Lovegrove swore he’d hit a chaffinch and it had stuck in a fork in the tree. Joe said he was lying, and they argued and almost fought. Then we went down into a chalk hollow full of beds of dead leaves and shouted to hear the echo. Someone shouted a dirty word, and then we said over all the dirty words we knew, and the others jeered at me because I only knew three. Sid Lovegrove said he knew how babies were born and it was just the same as rabbits except that the baby came out of the woman’s navel. Harry Barnes started to carve the word —— on a beech tree, but got fed up with it after the first two letters. Then we went round by the lodge of Binfield House. There was a rumour that somewhere in the grounds there was a pond with enormous fish in it, but no one ever dared go inside because old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker, was ‘down’ on boys. He was digging in his vegetable garden by the lodge when we passed. We cheeked him over the fence until he chased us off, and then we went down to the Walton Road and cheeked the carters, keeping on the other side of the hedge so that they couldn’t reach us with their whips. Beside the Walton Road there was a place that had been a quarry and then a rubbish dump, and finally had got overgrown with blackberry bushes. There were great mounds of rusty old tin cans and bicycle frames and saucepans with holes in them and broken bottles with weeds growing all over them, and we spent nearly an hour and got ourselves filthy from head to foot routing out iron fence posts, because Harry Barnes swore that the blacksmith in Lower Binfield would pay sixpence a hundredweight for old iron. Then Joe found a late thrush’s nest with half-fledged chicks in it in a blackberry bush. After a lot of argument about what to do with them we took the chicks out, had shots at them with stones, and finally stamped on them. There were four of them, and we each had one to stamp on. It was getting on towards tea-time now. We knew that old Brewer would be as good as his word and there was a hiding ahead of us, but we were getting too hungry to stay out much longer. Finally we trailed home, with one more row on the way, because when we were passing the allotments we saw a rat and chased it with sticks, and old Bennet the station-master, who worked at his allotment every night and was very proud of it, came after us in a tearing rage because we’d trampled on his onion-bed.
I’d walked ten miles and I wasn’t tired. All day I’d trailed after the gang and tried to do everything they did, and they’d called me ‘the kid’ and snubbed me as much as they could, but I’d more or less kept my end up. I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it—but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line—it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.
Sure enough, old Brewer had sent round and told everybody. Father looked very glum, fetched a strap out of the shop, and said he was going to ‘thrash the life out of’ Joe. But Joe struggled and yelled and kicked, and in the end Father didn’t get in more than a couple of whacks at him. However, he got a caning from the headmaster of the Grammar School next day. I tried to struggle too, but I was small enough for Mother to get me across her knee, and she gave me what-for with the strap. So I’d had three hidings that day, one from Joe, one from old Brewer, and one from Mother. Next day the gang decided that I wasn’t really a member yet and that I’d got to go through the ‘ordeal’ (a word they’d got out of the Red Indian stories) after all. They were very strict in insisting that you had to bite the worm before you swallowed it. Moreover, because I was the youngest and they were jealous of me for being the only one to catch anything, they all made out afterwards that the fish I’d caught wasn’t really a big one. In a general way the tendency of fish, when people talk about them, is to get bigger and bigger, but this one got smaller and smaller, until to hear the others talk you’d have thought it was no bigger than a minnow.
But it didn’t matter. I’d been fishing. I’d seen the float dive under the water and felt the fish tugging at the line, and however many lies they told they couldn’t take that away from me.