From the age of four until around my tenth birthday, my commute from the suburbs to my London school was at least an hour and a half each way. The coach, meaning a single-deck bus, ground through stop-and-start traffic along the non-postcard streets of London. I spent each journey wishing I could be making model planes or, at five o’clock in the evening, watching television. Eventually, I moved away from the other children at the front in order to practice playing a small woodwind called a descant recorder. I’d kneel on the coach’s dusty floor, place a musical score on the seat before me, and tootle away, pretending I wasn’t bored out of my mind. Curiously, no one said anything about the trail of poorly played notes coming from behind. Not one word of mockery.
The journey lengthened by twenty minutes when a new pickup named Graham, who lived in remote Ruislip, was added. A skinny boy with a runny nose and whiny voice, he never seemed happy or sad and never, despite the whine, complained. Because of him, I got home so late that I missed most of the television program Fireball XL5.
Between classes one day at school, I happened to be walking down the crowded stairwell as Graham was coming up. Seeing his stupid, wet face before me, I punched it. He put his hand to his mouth and stared at me, then continued upstairs. Astonished by what I’d done, I continued down.
No one reported me, not even Graham.
I pulled this passage from the childhood memoir I’m completing because it had no repercussions. My brother and I fought constantly, a thread running through the memoir. Otherwise, that punch was my single act of violence.
I don’t know what became of Graham. He was what Londoners call “gormless,” roughly meaning clueless. Perhaps instinct told me the chances of his telling on me were slight to none. Although we’d been surrounded by other children, they’d apparently been in too much of a hurry to notice. I hit him on impulse, without any buildup, and he barely reacted.
I must have been carrying around a lot of pent-up anger. Three hours daily on the coach contributed mightily, and Graham was its unwitting personification.
I’m lucky the incident wasn’t reported. Who knows what punishment I would have received and what records been kept. As Joan Baez sang around that time, “There but for fortune go you or I.”
There’s a line that for every crime, there are two victims, one being the perpetrator. Because of that punch, I comprehend how violence can explode in the moment, free from conscious control. It also tells me that many who commit violent crimes go on to experience searing guilt.
So, I’m not so different from violent criminals than I’d normally like to believe, even if the connection is as tenuous as what I feel to the nameless people whom Ancestry.com says are my ancestors. But understanding goes only so far. If I or someone close to me were injured as the result of a violent act, I’d want vengeance.
Still, the incident has made me less cruel, less heartless, than I might otherwise have turned out. For that, I feel gratitude. I’m even more grateful that from my teenage years on, I never hit anyone.
Sorry, Graham, in the unlikely event that this post reaches you. I hope I didn’t do you lasting harm. I was gormless, too. We all were.