by Andrew Foote
Looking back on it, I had been born into what you might call a 'dysfunctional family'.
Both my Mum and Dad were completely alternative, my formative years full of excitement and wonderment never quite knowing what tomorrow might bring.
I was born in 1960 just at the very beginning of the hippy revolution, not of course I realised this at the time but it shaped my future, moulded me in to the person I am today and by that I mean my attitude is very relaxed, my acceptance of other lifestyles and sexual preferences, religious beliefs and practices mean that they are of no consequence whatsoever. All brought about by my upbringing as I remember my Dad saying, probably high or ever so slightly drunk, "Are they nice people? If they are, then embrace them, if they're not, then politely ignore them."
I was born and raised on the water, well to be exact, Mum and Dad had a rather tatty narrow boat moored on the River Thames near Reading.
They had to move it regularly to avoid the 'River Police' as my Dad referred to them, the 'Thames Conservency' as they were actually named kept a watchful eye on people such as us so as to maintain the façade that Reading was a 'nice' place to be and ruffians such as us were absolutely not allowed. Okay we were tolerated so long as kept ourselves to ourselves but big and expensive cruisers piled high with drunk and arrogant gin-swilling toffs is okay?
Oh well. As I was taught, tolerance is everything.
Due to this slightly nomadic lifestyle I was home tutored.
Both Mum and Dad were university graduates and as history has proved, my education was at least as good, if not better than if I'd been enrolled into the state system but the downside was I couldn't mix easily with kids of my age and so my attitude towards everything was an inheritance from my parents, adult if somewhat 'off the wall' but all thing said, I had a great childhood. Free to cycle around, yes I did have a bike or rather a frame, two wheels, a fixed gear and a 'sometimes' front brake. Like everything else we owned, tatty but I loved it.
There were other children I knew, mostly younger than me as Mum and Dad had me as a rather big surprise when they were still studying at university so I wasn't completely cloistered in an adult environment, my folk were hardly 'adult' in their approach to life anyway!
My other passion was river swimming.
In those days the water was relatively clean and free of pollution and I used to taunt the Conservancy blokes by body surfing over Caversham weir, pretending to drown before swimming to the bank for the usual bollocking before doing it again much to the amusement of the bankside anglers. (No-one liked the Conservancy blokes. Bolshie bastards.)
My interaction with other kids changed during the summer of 1970.
The 'Head of the River Race' or more simply put, Reading Regatta was due to take place and Dad was having his work cut out persuading Mr Conservancy not to move us on.
During a pretty intense exchange of words, not my Dad, he was way too gentle but the conservancy bloke was really giving us a bad time when an elderly man interjected.
"Now be reasonable? I've noticed this family on the river for quite a number of years.
They cause no problems, tidy up after themselves and move on when directed and as they've only been moored here for a matter of a few days, I might say your attitude is somewhat belligerent not to say confrontational."
"I have my instructions Sir George. All casual boaters must leave this stretch of water before the race practices start on Thursday. Nothing I can do."
"These cruisers? Are they not casual also?"
"I think you know what I mean Sir George. I need to do what I'm told and these people must move on."
"Very well." Then he looked at my Dad and said "I have a private mooring on the other side of the river. I have no boat now, I'm past my prime but you are very welcome to use it for the duration if you so choose."
Dad was dumbfounded!
"What can I say Sir….. George but we are……………"
"Without funds? No matter, I'm not looking for payment however if you wish to make recompense, my gardener come handyman passed away two weeks ago if you get my drift?"
"I would be delighted Sir…. George. Thank you very much!"
"George Appleby. Sir George Appleby." And with that he raised his arm and pointed across the expanse of water indicating his property.
God it was massive! Beautiful too!
An Edwardian riverside house in what was around six acres of formal garden, its own boathouse and jetty moorings.
This pad had to be worth…………. millions!
"Dad? That is such a fantastic house! Please tell Sir George you accept his nice offer?"
Sir George first looked at me, smiled then turned to my Dad.
"Yes he's ours Sir George."
"So very polite! Uncommon in today's youth unfortunately. Well young man? Do we have an arrangement?"
"Yes Sir George and thank you very much."
"Good, good! By the way just call me sir. The whole 'Sir
George' thing is too much of a mouthful.
Your boy here?"
Then turning to me "What should I call you then young fella?"
I grinned, "I get called all sorts of names, water off a ducks back but my given name is Alexis sir."
"And I can only guess what some of those names are and harshly spoken!
Very well Alexis, get your father to move your boat over and then I will introduce you all to the memsahib."
With that Sir George strode off, four overactive Springer Spaniels hot on his heals.
"He seemed a nice man Dad?"
"Yes didn't he. Ex-Indian Army unless I'm much mistaken. Certainly helped us out of a hole offering to let us use his jetty so son, best behaviour okay?"
"Sure thing. Why do you think he's ex whatever?"
"Indian Army, a division of the British Army that served in India when it was a colony.
The term he used, 'memsahib' was the giveaway. That's how the officer classes referred to their wives.
Very 'old school'!"
It was a simple matter to move our boat and once tied up Sir George walked down the lawn and greeted us, Dad introduced my Mum during which time I threw balls for the dogs trying to make sure they stayed on the grass so as not to spoil the immaculately tended flower beds and borders.
All my life I'd been raised to appreciate nature, what with my folks being hippies and such and so none of this was lost on Sir George.
"Well done Alexis! Don't need the hounds digging up my dahlias!
You seem to have an affinity with them. Do you know what breed they are?"
"I think so sir. They're Springer Spaniels aren't they? Sort of gun dogs."
"Quite right! Go to the top of the class that boy!
What you may not know about them is they're normally a 'one man' dog but they've definitely taken a shine to you."
"I think it's only because I throw the ball for them sir, you know, spend time playing with them?"
"I know my dogs very well.
They don't much care for strangers, even my grandson who visits us regularly they tend to stay away from.
If your Father agrees then why not take them for exercise along Mapledurham Lane?
If they stick with you then you'll know, if not and they head for home then perhaps it is only the playtime they need from you.
What say you young man?"
"Far out sir!
Sorry. I should've said 'thanks I'd like that very much'.
I'm used to being amongst friends of my parents, not someone like you and these things just slip out."
"No matter. I've been too long cloistered in this house and not mixing as I should.
I like you Alexis.
You are refreshing and I'm sure we will learn a lot from each other!
See those dogs?
They're sitting at your feet now whereas before, they'd be at mine."
"I'm sorry sir? I really didn't mean to upset anything?"
"Don't apologise! I like to see them happy and well exercised so I'm happy for them.
Now I must show your Father around the place.
Is there anything else you need to know?"
"Please sir, yes there is one thing?
Dad believes you're ex-Indian Army. Is he right?"
Appleby, Second Horse Regiment Gloucester Brigade until the swine's disbanded us!
My apologies Alexis. I shouldn't use such words in front of you."
"Don't sweat it sir. Whoops! Sorry again!"
Sir George belly-laughed!
"I do understand that my boy! Take care of my boys won't you? They can be a bit of a handful but they like you, seem to trust you as well.
Now I'd better go and talk to your Father, get him away from the wife and let the ladies talk 'lady things' before he goes crazy!"
"Let the memsahibs be together sir?"
Quite so young Alexis!"
So the following days passed as normal. Schooling in the morning, no breaks for holidays for me, relax and playtime come the afternoon.
My routine didn't alter, lunch then run around with the dogs then helping or was that hindering my Dad with his work on the estate, tending the gardens and rebuilding the boathouse that was until we were about two weeks into things.
"Did you see him then?"
"See who Dad?"
"It would appear there's another boy here, looks to be about your age as well."
"Is that it? Oh? You don't seem very excited about it?"
"Should I be? I mean I don't know him or anything?"
"Well I just thought it would be somebody to play with, you know, someone your own age, that's all."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe. We'll see. I'm going down to the water mill with the dogs if that's alright."
"Okay. Off you go then."
I'd rounded the dogs up and was just walking up the driveway when I heard a voice, a young voice.
"Where do you think you're going with those dogs then! They're not yours. You're stealing them aren't you!"
I looked back and noticed a boy, slightly older than me standing by the side door, hands on his hips looking as if he owned the place.
"Of course I'm not. I'm just walking them."
"Lies! I know your sort right enough. I'm going to call the police!"
With all the noise of the shouting, Sir George appeared from round the corner of the house.
"What on earth is going on? Who are you shouting at Justin?"
"That……….. low-life there! He's stealing your dogs!"
"That 'low-life' as you call him is Alexis and he has my full permission to walk them boy."
"I thought you would have better judgement Grandfather. Just LOOK at him! He's a scruffy…………"
With that Sir George fairly clouted Justin round the ear.
"How dare you talk to me like that! For two pins I'd put you on the next train home!
Now you WILL go and apologise to Alexis, go on, right this minute!"
Justin slouched up the drive and without looking at me muttered something incoherent, spat on the ground before retracing his steps.
It sort of made me giggle, I mean his attitude was pure 'snob' so I just said "You and I are really going to hit it off mate!"
Just how much Sir George noticed this incident I have no real idea but once Justin was by the side door he was shoved inside and I could tell he was getting a goodly amount of tongue pie.
I continued my walk up to Mapledurham Mill and sat down and watched the dogs gambling around swimming in the mill pond when my thoughts turned to Justin.
'Cute' I thought. 'Yeah really nice looking kid. Why is he such an arsehole though.'
Any thoughts that I really shouldn't think about him that way didn't occur to me but I knew I found him seriously attractive and I wouldn't mind getting to know him but 'fat chance of that! He's a spoilt little rich kid and way out of my league' and with that thought foremost in my head, I whistled the dogs to heel and made my way back to the house.
I think he'd been looking out for my return because no sooner had I ushered the dogs into the scullery and started to dry them off when Sir George appeared through the door that led into the main house.
As he walked in he briefly glanced behind himself before closing the door and settled back against it.
"What can I say to you young Alexis? 'Sorry' just isn't adequate.
My Grandson is a spoilt brat who needs taking down a peg or two."
"It doesn't matter Sir. Some people are just intolerant, maybe he's one of them."
"But that is where you are wrong d'ya see? It does matter. It matters a very great deal.
He's thirteen, fourteen in a few months and if he thinks he can act like a… a… little, pardon my language, a little shit at his age, what's he going to be like as an adult!
I personally blame boarding school. No parental guidance, no proper discipline other than to obey school rules. They think they're a cut above everyone who doesn't have the privilege of their background and upbringing whereas the opposite is true.
I can honestly say I'd far rather have you as my Grandson than him. Your parents are doing a splendid job educating you. You're quite obviously a very intelligent young man but it's more than that. You are articulate and polite, a real pleasure to have around and that's how he should be. Oh and my dogs love you too!
That might sound like a stupid thing to say but young sir, animals are very sensitive, very fickle when it comes to who they trust and who they like to be around.
They have never got on with Justin, never liked him, avoided him even.
Now you have to ask the question why.
He is just not schooled in the real world. His only experiences are brought about by those he mixes with, upper class and pretentious young upstarts like him and a schooling system that doesn't do anything to mitigate it. Money in the bank doesn't make the man."
"So it isn't really his fault then? I mean if his background were different then so would he be."
"I sincerely hope so but the thing is, I was mortified that a member of my family could treat you in such a way and without so much as a backward glance. His arrogance is unforgiveable and I will not tolerate such behaviour under my roof.
By the way, I was aware of his so-called apology to you and also his spitting on the floor. I'm yet to decide what to do about that but for now he is restricted to the house, 'house arrest' if you like and I hope the lesson is well learned."
"That's a shame sir. I was going to ask him if he would come swimming with me one day."
"After all that, you would actually invite him to……. to involve him in some of your activities? My word! I'll tell you this. If I were in your position, I wouldn't!"
"An olive branch sir. He can say yes or no and actually I hope he says yes as there's something inside me that…………. rather likes him despite his manner."
"Do you really mean what you say? You'd give him a second chance?"
"No harm in trying sir. Maybe if you would let me talk to him?"
Sir George studied my face for a moment as if looking for some kind of ulterior motive but then he clapped me on the back and said "Very well Mr Alexis. Let it be so!
His room is at the top of the first landing, turn left and it's the second door on your right. Good fortune to you!!"
"Yes who is it?"
"Umm, it's Alexis. Alexis Greening. Remember me?"
"Well you did bad-mouth me earlier on the driveway so unless you make habit of doing it to everybody, I'd rather hoped you would!"
"Right. Yeah, so I remember. What of it? What do you want?"
"Talk to you maybe? I mean it's great outside and it seems a shame you're hiding away in here.
Can I come in?"
"I'm not HIDING as you put it, I WANT to be in here and no you can't!"
"Okay but we both know that's a pile of old bollocks don't we? You're grounded and if it's of any comfort, it happens to me if I misbehave.
Now…….. about your invitation to join you in jail……….."
I could hear him giggling behind the door. – A good sign I hoped then I heard the key in the lock and the door opened fractionally.
"So? What's with you! I thought maybe you'd got the message."
"Yeah I heard it but c'mon? It's no weather to be cooped up inside and anyhow, umm, it would be nice to have somebody to play with."
"Me? Play with the likes of YOU? In your dreams maybe!"
"Okay so we come from very different backgrounds but so frigging what? We're both kids aren't we or do you see yourself as something else?"
A minute or so passed then the door opened.
Justin was shirtless, sockless and his eyes somewhat red-rimmed from crying.
Using his head and his eyes, he beckoned me in slamming the door after me.
"So Mr Flavour-of-the-month Alexis Greening? What's the deal then."
"No deal. I just thought that as we're sort of neighbours the least we can do is try to get on? Why is it you dislike me? You don't even know anything about me?"
"I know enough.
Water hippies, a bunch of lay-abouts, scroungers and criminals."
"That's been said before but do you always believe everything you hear?
You must have collared on to the fact that ACTUALLY the tooth fairy doesn't exist and Santa Clause is just a myth? The same with us.
My Dad works very hard and is honest as the day is long.
My Mum educates me and does everything else to keep us together as a family so what's your problem. We don't ask for any handouts, we don't go begging for favours but a little respect might be nice."
There was a kind of raging silence in the room as Justin thought about what I'd said.
"Alright so what do you propose?"
"Nothing much. Have a bit of a laugh together, play around and well, just enjoy the summer."
"Well I suppose but just so long as nobody at my school gets to hear about my socialising with you. That would be so awful!!"
"Your guilty secret is safe with me then! I'm hardly likely to meet them am I!"
For the first time, I saw Justin smile.
He was cute, almost pretty in a boyish sort of way and it made me realise he was just as needy as me if only emotionally.
"C'mon then Justin! Let's go have a blast!"
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