At the age of eleven, I was sent to a boarding school named Exhall Grange, in Coventry, England. The following four-page excerpt from my memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh describes what I might call my first little adventure there.
It will help to explain that we weren’t allowed to keep our own shoes, but had to forage for a pair each morning in the room where our housemaster, Mr. Rodney, kept them and hope the pair we found fit. No child was supposed to be better off than any other, which I look back on as a misguided application of socialist principles.
Also, for competition purposes, the school was divided into four houses, mine being Canterbury. “Biggles” was the pilot adventurer hero in many novels that W.E. Johns wrote for young boys. Names, of course, are changed.
It’s the spring of 1965:
After dinner, evening recreation on the big field lasted two hours. As I walked around, staring out at children playing cricket and doing gymnastics, the shoes I’d picked out that morning dug into my feet. In lieu of my book and a radio, which we weren’t allowed to bring with us, I played back songs in my head. The anguished guitar work in the Beatles’ “No Reply” became the nerve endings of my knowledge that I had no way to make telephone calls.
A fat and greasy-looking boy introduced himself. “Where are you from?” he said.
He introduced himself as Pete. He lived in Lancaster, one of the three other houses besides Canterbury. He said he was fourteen.
“I wish I could go out on weekends like you,” I said. “Where do you go?”
“The fish and chips shop, places like that.”
“How do you get there? We seem so far from anywhere.”
“You take a right out from the school to the main road. From there you can go all the way to the city center, but it’s a long way.”
“What do you expect? Shops, offices, flats.”
“A train station?”
I coaxed more directions out of him before he got suspicious. “Why do you want to know?”
“I like to know where I am. I’m interested in maps. I don’t have one of Coventry, so I’m trying to make one up in my head.”
“For what good it will do you.”
As we’d been walking, I’d noticed a gate at the far end of the field. That would be the school’s right end, the direction Pete had just told me to take for the main road.
The next evening, I happened on the gate when no one was nearby. Knowing it would be a rare opportunity, I opened the gate and ran. Pete’s directions proved correct, and soon I was on the road to the city center.
I walked through the gray evening, conscious of being an eleven-year-old out alone at a late hour. The road turned into a main street lined by shops. Each time I passed people, I expected to be stopped and questioned. Remembering Second World War resistance biographies, I told myself not to panic and run.
After a few hours, I worried I might reach the station too late to catch a train. I decided to risk taking a bus, even though I hadn’t so much as a penny to pay the fare. My only possessions were the clothes I was wearing, my watch and the Biggles paperback I’d smuggled out. At the next stop, I waited for a bus displaying the city center as its destination.
From my seat on the half-full bus, I watched the woman conductor edge down the aisle and turn from side to side as she took fares from other passengers. At last she stood before me and asked where I was going.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any money.”
“How could you go out without any money?”
“I walked farther than I meant to.”
“That wasn’t a good idea.”
“You won’t do it again, will you?”
“I’ve learned my lesson.”
She smiled and moved on for the next fare.
Night was falling when I stepped off the bus. I looked around to find an area dominated by a large, well-lit building that had to be the station and crossed the street to it. Pushing through a door, I found myself in a huge hall. On one side was a line of what might be ticket windows, but no lines of people. There were people passing through the hall, but I couldn’t tell where they were going. Maybe it was an indoor shortcut between streets. I circled the hall. No trains, no platforms, not even a corridor leading to platforms. It was 10:30.
Along one wall was a bank of telephones. I dialed the operator and asked her to reverse the charges to my parents.
I was heartened to hear Dad’s ever curious greeting.
“Tiger, where are you? We’ve been worried.”
“Dad, I want to come home. I’m at the Coventry station, but I can’t see any platforms or trains. Are there two buildings? Maybe this one is for buying tickets, and there’s another for boarding trains?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been to Coventry by train. Tell me about your surroundings, what you see.”
I told him, and he drew out more details. I asked again if there could be two buildings. As we debated that possibility, I worried about leaving the warmth of the hall for the night outside. Where would I go? Would the next person I asked get suspicious?
Dad’s voice was soothing. Maybe Mum and he were beginning to understand that I was right to want to leave Exhall Grange.
I felt a touch on my shoulder. Turning, I found myself looking into steady, gray-blue eyes. Into the phone I said, “Mr. Rodney’s here.” In my ear, Dad explained that while we’d been talking, Mum had gone next door to call the school.
Later I discovered I’d left the Biggles paperback in the telephone booth. I’d had only ten pages to go. I looked for months in libraries, but never found another copy.
Note: Next week, what happened next.