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Strange Stuff

Writing can be a odd business.  You spend a sizeable chunk of the working day trying to conjure tension and credibility from characters you’ve hauled from the depths of your imagination.  You arrange them in interesting patterns, push them in this direction or that, and hope to God that the fictional chemistry works.  Then you check the e-mail or answer the phone, and begin to wonder about that strange no-man’s-land between reality and make-believe.


The phone call first. It came from a woman called Peggy Harrison.  She’s the speaker secretary of a local Probus group here in East Devon and she’d got in touch to check a date-change for a talk I’ll be giving later in the year. There was no problem with the new date (we’re talking December) but she had something else to say. 


She’d just started “Western Approaches” and she’d got as far as page two, in which a husband and wife rowing team are riding out a mid-Atlantic storm in the cramped forward cubby of their tiny craft.  For the umpteeth time that week, they’re getting by on a diet of tinned sardines on Ryvita biscuits, a detail that had seriously impressed Peggy.  Why? Because, at that very moment, she was looking at a plate of sardines on Ryvita.  “You’ve got that so right”, she said.  “I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.”


Whether Peggy makes it to journey's end is anyone’s guess but then came the first of several e-mails.  It was from a guy called Robert Chambers.  He thanked me for the Faraday series of crime thrillers, which he and his wife had been reading on journies to and from Spain.  Beyond those bare facts there was one other clue.  “We share a past but best forgotten”, the sentence read. 


I stared at it.  It sounded like a phrase out of one of my own books.  There was something slightly eery about it, especially the pay-off.  Was I wrong in detecting the slightest edge of menace – or perhaps regret – in “best forgotten”?


I started thinking very hard about the name.  Robert Chambers rang a bell but I wasn’t quite sure where.  Then, in the small hours, I awoke with the answer. 


For my sins, I spent eight extremely formative years at a boarding school in London.  I happened to be one of thousands of pupils who survived the dying moments of the public school regime that had been in rude health at the time of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.  This was a tight, claustrophobic, exclusively male world bossed by the boys themselves in the shape of school monitors.  These were the demi-Gods who sat on top of the pile of grubby schoolboys, and who seemed – at least to us – to have the power of life and death when it came to the smallest detail of our daily lives.  The worst of them were sadistic, manipulative, and predatory.  Robert Chambers, if this was he, was one of the best.


I wrote back.  At fourteen years old, I occupied the corner perch in a 14-bed dormitory in the Victorian heart of the school.  The dormitory was called Drab.  My precious window offered me a view of the quadrangle and the chapel.  During the winter, the condensation on the inside of that window would frequently turn to ice, and the hot water for our 6.00 am showers was deeply unreliable.  The food was grotesque, the academic pressures were unrelenting, the sporting opportunities were a godsend, and the rough company of hundreds of other recidivist boarders was an eyeopener. 


If you survived boarding school, I now realise, then there was nothing in the rest of your life that could possibly put you to any kind of serious test.  When Jonathon Aitken went down for eighteen months on a conviction for perjury, he found that "B" wing was a doddle after an adolescence at the mercy of the English public school.


Back to Robert Chambers.  The guy, as I began to recall, had been a hero.  He was bright, humane, extraordinarily gifted on the sports field, and Corinthian in his sheer range of talents.  I remembered, with increasing clarity, watching him turn out for the school first XI.  He played football with a poise and a natural flair that was awesome to behold.  Same on the cricket field.  The fastest bowling failed to unnerve him.  He could sweep any ball towards the boundary, lope through a couple of runs, and settle down to torment the next bowler.  In a frequently stressful world, this was someone who seemed to have extremely low blood pressure.  Nothing ever seemed to upset him.  Not even us.


I needed to be sure.  In my answering e-mail I wondered whether the word Drab meant anything to him.  It turned out it did.  He even remembered a conversation we’d once had.


A third e-mail arrived.  He and his wife are attending a family wedding in Topsham, a rather smart village upriver from where we live.  I replied at once, suggesting that we might share a pint of two.  I’ve yet to receive a reply but in the meantime, I’ve begun to wonder about the bigger picture. 


For me, as I now realise, Robert Chambers occupies a top position on a shelf in what still serves as my memory.  He will always be 18 years old, always sleep in the dorm monitor’s bed by the door, always be a guiding light in what often felt like the enveloping darkness.  Just the fact that a regime like ours could produce a bloke of such quality was a kind of guarantee that we’d probably make it through.


All that, of course, was a very long time ago, 53 years to be exact.  Should I tamper with that image?  Should I risk gambling that the intervening half century has been kind to us?  Should I, in short, sully a wonderful memory with the messy contagion of real life?


Of course I should.  Life is an adventure.  May is only five months away.  Let’s hope he says yes.