PRESENTS OF MINE
Even at five, I’d questioned how Santa could read a note that caught fire as it rose inside the chimney. My dad said it was magic because the writing still showed and Santa had a special way to read the notes. I remember dad wrote my name on a piece of paper, then burnt it and showed me it could still be read. That pacified me for a while, but because the burnt paper was so fragile it soon had me asking questions again.
Anyway, one particular Christmas morning I went to open my presents in my room, but the big tricycle I’d asked Father Christmas for clearly wasn’t there. This set me thinking about how Santa carted the bigger things around and brought them into the houses. Briefly, the tears welled-up as I thought that perhaps Santa hadn’t been able to bring my new trike, even though I’d tried my best to be good. Perhaps even his magic couldn’t get it down the chimney and he’d taken it away again. Just before the trickle of tears turned into a flood, my dad shouted to me to come downstairs straight away. I ran down in flapping dressing gown and here in this very room thirty years ago was the big red tricycle I wanted.”
I stood in front of the wood panel feature my father had made on the old chimneybreast where the fireplace had once been. The only reminders of the past had for many years been the indentation in the carpet where the fire irons once stood and the large golden-framed mirror that hung above the mantelpiece until it was replaced at my father’s insistence by the impressive academic portrait presented to him by a grateful university.
“The new trike’s front wheel sat in the grate that still contained the previous night’s embers, its handlebars flush with the patterned tile frontage below the mantelpiece and its two rear wheels rested on the raised edge of the tiled hearth, which once came out to here,” I said, slapping my foot down well in front of the panelling.
“So you were happy after all—Saint Nicholas had managed to deliver your present.”
“I already knew all about the type of tricycle I wanted, I’d seen them in the shops. No, what interested me was how those wide back wheels had squeezed through the narrow gap where the fire normally burned behind a grille flanked by two bronze knights in helmets and armour. After Dad lifted the trike onto the floor, all I wanted to do was look up the narrow chimney and wonder about the fantasy adults were spinning.”
“Didn’t you believe in magic, Niko?”
“Magic hah! From that day onwards, I knew the presents must already be in the house.
THE SOURCE OF MY NIGHTMARES
I I asked Mum why she had her own room and she said Dad snored too much. This was true—he sometimes woke me in the next room, even with both doors between us closed. Their choice of separate rooms added to my sense of being an unwelcome child in a broken family. They did nothing together, except shopping, but if I questioned things like mum going on holiday alone, they always had an answer ready.
Anyway, Mum’s wardrobe was wider and far higher than Dad’s so they must have thought that I wouldn’t be able to spot my growing cache. What they hadn’t realised was that if I propped open Mum’s bedroom door, I could see the recessed top of her wardrobe from the windowsill above the stairs. To reach it I had to clamber onto the Ottoman chest then, after snatching short breaths and wiping my sweating palms on my clothes, I stepped up on the banister rail and, without stopping, crossed the yawning stairwell keyed-up to grab the little curly window catch the second my nose touched the cold glass.
Once I’d stopped shaking, I could look over my shoulder and with luck see a sizeable collection from my death-defying vantage point. After catching my breath, I edged along the sill and jumped down onto the topmost stair. Now I only risked getting caught the once building a platform out of chairs, bedside tables and boxes to get my hands on that stockpile and carry out my half hour’s scientific assessment.
The next year, my presents had been on neither wardrobe. When they were out, I continued my search, but my quest ended abruptly at dad’s wardrobe. Beneath his row of suits, well hidden under his collection of shoes was a black metal box.
It was largish, yet far too small to be the new hideaway for my Christmas presents. But having stumbled on possible treasure, I had to assess the contents. I lifted it onto the foot of dad’s bed but a lock protected its secrets. Ferreting around I soon found the key in his sock drawer, but I hesitated guiltily. Curiosity egged me on and I threw back the lid. A quick rummage told me it held only paper. At first glance there seemed little of interest and with the itch of curiosity scratched I was about to close the lid. But cough-like it tickled again—perhaps I should make sure.
Apart from the new Head’s rapid erosion of school traditions, which once enveloped us in a unifying feeling of warmth, camaraderie and security, my education continued largely unchanged towards A-levels. However, apart from the rule-breaking lure of smoking, there was now a novel and truly compelling reason to spend much of our free time behind the bicycle sheds. For this and this alone, I was extremely grateful to the Head for admitting girls to the school, especially Samantha Hughes.
She and I had enthusiastically explored our gender differences and before long she had keenly rewarded me with my first ever cherry. She did this before the end of the spring term, while the sap rose amongst the bushes surrounding our slowly decaying sports fields. The weed-infested grass had lain largely unused since Dear-god had decreed that competitive and contact sports signified something of the past.
The latest rumour had it that the hallowed turf, still pockmarked by boot studs from years of Rugby Union, was about to make way for a new council housing estate.
For Samantha, losing her virginity was something she would do only once, but I wondered if I would have the doubtful pleasure again. I say doubtful because I shall never forget that first time in the bushes at school. When she stood up afterwards she was dripping blood and lots of it was over me too. I thought I had injured her and it scared me, but she just smiled and said her hymen had broken and thanked God she was not a virgin anymore. Anyway, she did not bleed after that, so I thought I understood.
So how could my mother have become pregnant when there was a barrier inside her like...like the plug in a sink? It seemed impossible.
Nadine was already away with the faeries one night when, with all sorts of anxieties about my parentage running through my mind, I finally fell asleep. The following morning, when she stirred I was rapidly discounting possibilities as I probed and peered in wonder at exposed folds of flesh that when first playing doctors and nurses seemed on the surface to be wondrously smooth, tidy and uncomplicated. “Just how could my mother get pregnant if my father wasn’t...didn’t…er… couldn’t...you know...?” I asked.
“Can we consider this after I’ve had a pee or you’ll regret it,” she said, looking down at me.
She was soon back and I resumed my Sherlock Holmes investigation. “You don’t really want to know, do you?” She asked.
Bound to Win
A short walk brought us to Room 7 and after the young woman pressed a button, Aunt Win’s Welsh companion answered, confirmed admission and the door opened automatically. Upon entering, dad and I paused in the entrance vestibule, shell-shocked by what was indeed a spacious fully furnished apartment.
Aunt Winifred was barely visible at the far side of the room next to a panoramic window overlooking the rolling Sussex countryside and the Parish church nestling among lofty trees with their cavorting rooks.
Father ushered me towards her—I was dumbstruck. An army of pillows propped her up and standing sentinel around the bed-head were attendant columns of blinking, peeping monitoring equipment connected to her via wires and tubes. Her hair, once a fair representation of her natural red, now looked remarkably like a purple bearskin.
Miss Bevan, her companion, sat ready to respond to her every command, although knitting furiously. Without prompting from father, I decided to get the worst over before directed. Holding my breath to avoid the ever-present odour of mothballs, I bent and kissed her on a rouge-encrusted cheek. “Auntie Win, Miss Bevan wrote you were unwell, but I must say you now look in the best of health,” I said quietly and with as much concern as I could muster.
To my surprise my efforts fell on stony ground. “What would a whipper-snapper like you know of ill health? You look as though you could have run here from London and still have breath to spare. I, though, have to fight for every lungful. Can’t you see I’m near to dying...dying I tell you and that should please you.” She said in a booming voice that took time to fade as it bounced around the walls. I stood transfixed, knowing her voice would not have sounded out of place at Horseguards’ Parade or any army barracks.
“Why should I be pleased? I hope you live to be a hundred.”
“One hundred, Nicholas, not a hundred! What’s wrong with schools these days—don’t they teach you proper English? I offered to pay for you to go to a decent school, even Harrow, but he...” she gestured to my father who was sitting in an armchair almost beyond listening distance, reading a magazine, “...he wouldn’t allow you to go to a boarding school because he reckoned that’s what corrupted him. What nonsense—he was an abomination long before he went away.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, Aunt Win. In what way did school corrupt my father? Why do you say he’s an abomination?” I asked, stifling a smile, hoping she would spill the beans.
All Steamed Up
On a bright, clear morning, we wandered aimlessly around Brixham, never far away from supervision. Ruth took lots of pictures of the colourful waterfront and the replica of the Golden Hind before we left for the short sail around Start Point to Dartmouth. Mrs G had phoned ahead to confirm there were berths on the visitors’ pontoon still available. Apparently, she had decided we would be mooring up, not in Dartmouth itself, but at Kingswear on the eastern side of the river. My father seemed disappointed, but I hoped it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise as far as getting away from watchful adults was concerned.
As she led us into the marina pontoons, a piercing whistle made me jump and there, almost on top of us, was Thomas the Tank Engine billowing steam as it hauled a line of packed coaches into the station above.
Having moored up, we watched an engine that was more like Thomas’ bigger friend Henry. The huge green engine, shining with polished brass and copper, hissed its way off the train and shunted around to the other end. There were hundreds of holidaymakers swarming like ants on the platforms, “Where have they all come from Dad?” I asked, like a little child captivated by a magical world.
“I have no idea, but I will take great delight explaining the physics of the steam engine. Do you think we could leg-it up there without being stopped in mid-flight?”
Never had I heard father use such language but caught up by his enthusiasm, leg it we did. “I reckon you, Dad, will pay a heavy price for not seeking the Admiral’s permission to leave our vessel unattended.”
“That’s just tough. I’ve been on my best behaviour since the voyage started. I can take a little earache.”
He had underestimated Mrs G’s determination to keep him on the leash, “Quick, Dad, don’t look back, but you have just a few minutes to think of something.”
Forced to ignore the lure of steam, we dashed into the booking office where redemption was at hand. By the time Hillary and Ruth caught up with us, my father was holding two tickets for the evening dining train leaving at 6.30pm.
While he was buying the tickets, I had spotted a poster on the wall advertising a paddle-steamer river cruise and managed to tell him about it, seconds before our recapture.
“Didn’t you hear me call you, Victor? Why didn’t you wait for us? You just wandered off as if we didn’t exist.”
“Oh drat, now you’ve spoiled it—I wanted it to be a surprise, Hillary,” he said, convincingly.
“Wanted what to be a surprise?”
“I was about to head back to the pontoon and break it to you,” he said handing her the tickets and brochure.
Dad and I hung back on the return to the marina, but we could hear Hillary becoming increasingly vocal. Every few paces she paused to read more about her treat. We could hear her clearly telling Ruth and half of Kingswear about the romance of the period journey and the bill of fare. Sadly, the magic had worn off by the time we reached our boats and realisation dawned.
Proposition by Pigeonhole
Although well ahead of the game with the girls on my course and even those a year above and on other courses, Dr Jennifer Driscoll was outside this pre-selection circle of influence. Yet she taunted me from afar like a silent Siren needing some extraordinary stimulus to sing her special song.
Frustrated, I would have to seek further advice from Nadine about what might work in her case. I picked my moment carefully before Nadine dozed off beside me, to tell her I was struggling with my FORTRAN studies and needed to elicit extra help.
She soon caught on once I told her I would give anything to have the lecturer focus on me, but I was getting no more of the woman’s attention than other students on my course.
“Her attention? How gullible do you think I am, Niko? She said, looking at me askance from her pillow, “you don’t need me to tell you how to get her on your side. You’re more interested in a ploy to get her on her back.”
“Don’t you ‘Nadine’ me. I know you better than you know yourself. Stupidly, I helped make you what you are, so why don’t you just be honest? A big prize like her isn’t going to fall for the same sort of ruse that works with your usual petty prey. You will have to try to intrigue her, with an apparently innocent approach to make her interested in you...to wonder about you and have you frequently invading her thoughts. The more you are on her mind the more likely she is to become vulnerable. She must initiate the actual running, but be able to tell herself you started the ball rolling and she was just too naive to realise what was happening before it was too late. After all, she’s a big cog so needs to be able to excuse herself and still deal with you if things go awry. I have an idea, but it’ll cost you and I won’t tell you until I am satisfied you have paid for my knowledge and experience in full, so if she’s that special, you can make a down payment right now.”
The following month when Nadine deemed I had paid in full, she detailed her considered opinion on a workable strategy. It sounded good and I threw myself into the challenge with a passion. After spending hours on forum sites unearthing advanced problems with FORTRAN and potential solutions, I left a note in Doctor Driscoll’s pigeonhole. I just asked for ten minutes of her time because I was struggling with a FORTRAN problem and needed some guidance. I was thrilled when she left me a note to come to her study at 12.30 on Thursday 16th October, when she could spare me twenty minutes before her lunch.
Encouraged by Nadine’s final briefing, I reached the campus with time to spare albeit I had had a difficult journey on the Tube. Dressed for the occasion and with weathered Fahrenheit aftershave, I walked into the gents of Doctor Driscoll’s building to make last minute adjustments. I reset my watch, ran up two flights of stairs and knocked on her door, breathless, exactly eight minutes late. Late enough, Nadine had advised, to cause disquiet, but not cancellation. I knocked, but paused before I opened her door.
Having a Ball
After I lay spent by her side she toyed gently with my ‘Elgin marbles’ until she fell asleep.
In the morning we were both keen to seize the day. For me heading off to some distant training station opened up fresh opportunities, but I could sense Nadine’s fear she had reached the end of an era during what she referred to as ‘the change of life’.
Before we got up, she reached for my testicles again, “Have you slipped while riding your bike and ‘cross-barred’ yourself because your marbles feel different?”
“No, I’ve barely ridden my bike since graduation. What do you mean by ‘different’?”
“I’m not certain, but size-wise. You’ve been toying with them far longer than I have, so feel for yourself.”
“Yeah, you’re right the left one’s a good bit larger. I’ve had a nagging ache for a few weeks, but no real pain.”
“You haven’t been overdoing the candle bashing,” she said, signalling with her free hand, “while you’ve been away from me? My ex bruised himself something rotten when I sent him packing to the spare room.”
“Honestly no, not at all.”
“Oh well, the swelling will probably go down now you’ve vented your spleen a couple of times. Perhaps it was just full to bursting.”
The call back to Cranfield arrived a week later.
“Right Nick, strip off and let me give you a good going over. Before you jump on the couch, I want you to do the standard cough test for hernia,” he said, donning latex gloves, “it doesn’t seem very scientific, but it does the job without fail. He reached beneath my scrotum, “Cough. That’s okay, now up on the couch.”
He checked me convincingly and would have caused no alarm the second time he examined my testicles if Nadine had not drawn my attention to the disparity. The MO stepped beyond the screen, “Get dressed, young man, then come and sit back at my desk.”
Suddenly I was terrified, the MO had not examined my shoulders, back nor had done the dreaded finger-in-anus exam for prostate problems, or even an eye test, “What is it Doc? I know something’s wrong.”
The MO looked sombre as he studied a file on his desk, “You have felt a difference in your testicles, haven’t you? You’re a bright chap so I won’t pull any punches. The lab used some of your blood for a serum tumour-marker test. It’s a procedure where they examine a sample of blood to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumour cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood,” he said with a croak, reaching for his glass of water and avoiding my tear-filled eyes.
I felt a strange hot feeling surge up through my chest and into my head as he spoke and I knew with pounding heart that worse was to come.
“These are called tumour markers. When the lab routinely detected antigens, they diverted some of your bloods from sugar and cholesterol tests to concentrate on assessments considered more important. They found these markers,” He said, turning the file round towards me. I looked unseeing through tears of dawning realisation, before he continued, “I don’t expect them to mean much to you, but my examination confirms the lab conclusion. Regrettably, we are ninety-nine percent sure you are in the early stages of testicular cancer.”
A black haze enveloped me as I fought my emotions. I had never had such a choking lump in my throat and tears coursed down my cheeks, “I’m sorry, Doc,” I sobbed, reaching for the tissues he passed me to deal with the snot bubbling down over my top lip.
“Don’t fret too much, Son, it’s in the very early stages, you will need to see your own GP. I shall give you a letter and you will be referred for what’s called an inguinal orchiectomy, which is a procedure used to remove the entire testicle. Tests will then be done followed by a course of radiotherapy, chemotherapy or both depending on what is found. The good news is I am confident you will come through this and will still be able to father children.”
Thrown a Lifeline
"Coffee in the lounge, Gerard. Oh, and bring the brandy, I’m sure Mr Nicholas will be able to join me in a small one now he has eaten so heartily.”
“Sit down, my boy,” she said smiling broadly, “do you know Port Solent?”
Gerard interrupted my reply when he brought coffee and two huge glasses, mine with just a trace of brandy wetting the bottom. “Just west of Portsmouth? Yes Auntie, there are some good restaurants there.”
“Not just restaurants, but apartments—some with boat moorings—offices, a cinema and shops. In fact apart from a supermarket, it’s a self contained village.”
“Mmm…I don’t think one is wanted there. It’s a classy place, so a supermarket doesn’t really fit. I seem to remember there’s a Tesco nearby so it’s no big deal.”
“That’s exactly what I thought, so Mr Sainsbury was sent away with his tail between his legs.”
“Oh, right,” I said, as the extent of my aunt’s influence began to dawn on me.
“I have read your business plan, but I think your R&D space is too restricting and your favoured location is too isolated, otherwise it is a good proposal. What did the bank say?”
“They want me to go back with my father next week.”
“Mm-hmm…it’s difficult being young, isn’t it? I was twenty-six when my husband met his Waterloo and he left me a substantial amount of capital, but it wasn’t enough for my plans. The banks laughed at me. One manager suggested I return with my husband, so I ventured that if he wouldn’t lend me money, perhaps I could borrow a spade.”
I chuckled dutifully, thinking that was it, obscure joke over. She took a huge slurp of brandy then slid her glass to me for a top-up.
After a mouthful, she leaned towards me, “You haven’t heard the best of it, Nicholas. The slimy manager looked down his nose at me and, like the big fish he thought he was, took my bait and solemnly asked why I needed a spade. You should have seen his stupid face when I told him I needed to dig up my husband, before having a railway coupling removed from his chest, after which I’d have him wheeled in.”
“You didn’t say that?”
“I bloody-well did,” she said, chuckling and slapping the table.
As I continued laughing at my reserved old aunt’s hidden depths, she slid a file over the coffee table to me, “I shall be your banker from now on, although I will give you no up-front funds whatsoever. You’ll have to dig those up for yourself.”
I was desperately trying not to look confused.
“Read the contents, Nick.”
It was the first time she had called me that—such abbreviations going against her oft-expressed principles. Swearing fell into the same category, but a surfeit of wine and brandy obviously lead astray even the most straight-laced. I looked at the files with mounting disbelief, “Are you serious, Aunt Win?”
“Of course! I am leasing your business two apartments; the larger, waterfront one for you with yacht berthing and a smaller, discrete one at the rear for your father, each for one pound a year for up to five years. Included is a significant office block on the far side of the marina next to other commercial outlets, which I’m certain, will impress your customers.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Here are all the keys, I’ve said nothing to your father; it will be for you to persuade him to move from London. If he doesn’t want to move I will put his apartment back on the market, so let me know. Otherwise, ‘thank you’ and a kiss on my cheek will be enough for now. Soon you will tell me you are a millionaire and I shall be delighted.”
I wondered if she might be the spinster Charis on my birth certificate hiding behind a different name. One day I asked her outright if she was my real mother. She laughed at the suggestion, but she must have sensed the need to comfort me, “No Niko, I have no children, but if I did, I would be proud to have a boy as handsome and clever as you.”
I was pleased she cleared that up because I’d been having thoughts of her I’d not had since playing doctors and nurses in the long grass after school. Nadine radiated that same strange magnetism, which mystified and excited me. Unlike the little girls who openly relished mutual examination, I had to study Nadine furtively and increasingly frequently.
Suddenly my enjoyment ended when she caught me peeping at her from inside her wardrobe, “You little pervert,” she’d shouted, pushing the door shut and turning the key, “if you like hiding in my wardrobe, you stay there until your father comes home.”
I sobbed for ages, “Please don’t tell him, I promise I’ll stop being a Peeping Tom. Let me out. I won’t do it again.”
“All right, malaka. I won’t tell your father this time, but if I ever catch you spying on me again I will tell him, katalaveneis?
“Nai, katalava--I understand. Never again, I swear.”
I felt ashamed; perhaps there was something wrong with me. Yet, as promised, she did not tell my father, but as confusing urges hit ever harder, I couldn’t believe my luck when I was nearby at times when her towel slipped or an ill-bolted bathroom door swung open to reveal her slender, heavy breasted, olive-skinned body.
Esse Quam Videri
I was over the moon when I read the school’s prospectus, which said it was adhering to the high standards achieved as a long-established Grammar School. I read up all about such schools and excitedly asked my dad if I was really going there. He confessed he had planned to send me to boarding school, but changed his mind because he liked having me around. This sounded suspect, seeing we spent very little time doing anything together. Whatever the real reason might have been, he seemed content I was pleased with his choice.
It was September 1979 when Patrick and I rode our bikes to what most people still called the Grammar School. In telling my story, I hadn’t intended to dwell overmuch on my secondary education but, along with the anchors of family, friends and the society I was exposed to, it helped make me what I am. Throughout my life, feelings of inadequacy had haunted me and I soon wondered if I’d failed to shake them off when beset by qualms about my school. At the heart of it was a distorted version of the school motto. I will try to explain.
Immediately after half term, lessons started with a passion. “What does the school motto mean?” asked Dr Pickles, our flamboyant English master, before pointing at me. All hands had pointed towards the ceiling, but we had not become Latin scholars simply by wearing strange words on our chests for six weeks. We knew because two hours earlier, in our first-ever Latin lesson, we were told the answer.
“To Be Rather than to seem to Be, Sir,” I called.
“Correct! Now tell me...Foster, if you were to wear your father’s new gilded university robes to school, would that make you a physics professor?”
How did he know about that, I wondered, “No Sir, it would not.”
“No, indeed it would not, Foster. Yet all of you are wearing a fifty year-old school badge with the motto of a once-proud Grammar school, five years after it became a Comprehensive, is that not so?”
“Yes Sir,” we muttered in unison.
“It has been suggested that as this is no longer a selective Grammar, the motto is the ultimate misnomer, verging on a travesty. Some say it might better be restyled as Videri quam Esse.”
This distortion still haunts me to the present day.
Dad's Science of Sailing
Perhaps Dr Pickle’s throwaway remark about going to school in my father’s academic robes had gone deep inside my sub-consciousness. I admired my father and tolerated his personal idiosyncrasies but was determined to make my own way in life, with no hint of nepotism.
I am not quite sure what drew my father into sailing; maybe the accompanying social activity was akin to the nineteenth hole at a golf course. It certainly was nothing to do with achieving career advantage, like becoming a Freemason. It was nothing of the sort in his case because he had already reached the pinnacle of his career and his Chair was secure, dust-laden and immovable.
Yet suddenly he announced he intended sailing from Brighton marina to Fécamp in France in the company of ‘some decent chaps’. I, as a near fifteen year-old, thought this was rash at the one-foot-in-the-grave age of sixty. When pressed about his latter-day conversion from risk-aversion to risk-taking, he said he could rely on these fine chaps. I think he fell under their spell when he, on behalf of the university, had undertaken a hush-hush consultancy for the Ministry of Defence.
However, it was not something up for discussion with a raw youngster who knew nothing of palm greasing. I doubt my naïve parent did either, but afterwards he revealed he had sailed in a sizeable schooner belonging to a Ministry of Defence bigwig. The other fine chaps were representatives of a well-known south-coast defence contractor and some sub-contractors. I did wheedle out of him he was technically assessing their proposals for new weaponry as part of the university’s required commercial activities.
While he told me little about their camaraderie, he did let on the men were keen to savour the gastronomic and other physiological delights of northern France. He said he found his imagination stimulated by the science of sailing, which he was keen to share with me. He reckoned it could be open to supplementation by an array of navigational equipment and automated devices. These, he enthused, would enable such genial chaps to stay below in the comfort of the main cabin while crossing one of the busiest and most dangerous sea-lanes in Europe.
Taking the Bait
We had made good time to Chichester, turned off the main road and headed for Appledram Marina. Dad inserted his pass and up went the barrier in robotic salute.
There were few people about, but the clubhouse seemed to be well patronised. “Would you care for a snifter after your ordeal, Son?”
“I’m not really bothered about booze, Dad, but I could do with a cup of coffee. Don’t let me stop you though. I expect your ordeal was far worse than mine.”
My father proudly introduced another new circle of his friends to me. I quietly drank my coffee while listening to Doctor Victor Foster, in professor mode, sharing stories with men claiming to have encountered all manner of challenges at sea. It seemed to my untested mind that many of the difficulties were avoidable. Why didn’t each of them spend more of life’s precious hours preparing for a critical voyage and anticipating problems rather than bragging after the event how they had managed to overcome a chance crisis?
There were two women, drinking little and missing less, sitting on the other side of our talkative gathering. They looked as if they could be mother and daughter and I assumed they were here with one of the group of self-proclaimed experts that had bored me already. Following Aunt Win’s grilling I reckoned the worst I faced would be two cold shoulders and at best, a half-hearted welcome for an interlude to break what seemed to be the monotony of their prearranged lives. I took my cup to the bar, beyond the grandee’s knot of conversation, where I asked for another.
While waiting, I prepared myself to test one of the many theories about women I had gleaned from Nadine. Picking up my new coffee, I started back towards a seat, but turned my head suddenly and was pleased to find both women looking at me, the younger one particularly slow to lose her smile. Good enough, Nadine, I thought, so I went over to them, my self-confidence at an all-time high.
I remained standing, “It’s encouraging to see sailing is a female passion too. I’m Nick Foster and this is my first time in the clubhouse and already I’m in two minds if that sort of chitchat,” I said, tipping my head back towards the throng, “would ever be for me.”
“Why don’t you sit down Nick? I’m Mrs Gibbon and this is my niece, Ruth Wheeler. It is our passion, well mine really, but I’ve been trying to captivate Ruth because single-handed sailing in the Solent, although challenging, can be lonely and often boring. I believe she’s taken the bait because now we hope to go further afield—in fact we plan to head for Dartmouth in a couple of weeks when Ruth’s school holidays formally start.”
“It’s not school holidays Auntie Hillary, I am still at Torquay Girls’ Grammar, but I’m on the sixth form campus in my final year.
I smiled, I was delighted with another of Nadine’s theories, which she called her number one guideline; ‘Men do not chat up women, they like to think they do, but in truth women allow themselves to be chatted up by men they take a fancy to. Never waste your time with those that show little initial interest.’
ALL SEWN UP
I found him in the garden, brandy and Evening Standard in hand, “Dad, what happened to my left leg, do you know?”
Dad slowly shifted his focus from the bottom of his empty brandy glass to the underside of the pulled up trouser leg I presented to him. “You were born with single talipes, Nick; I’ve not given it a thought till now, you don’t limp or anything so what’s the problem? Is it hurting?”
“What’s single talipes? I’ve never heard of it?”
“When you were born, your left foot pointed to the three o’clock instead of the twelve o’clock. If we hadn’t had it operated on, you would have been walking on the edge of your foot and required a special built-up shoe.”
“How old was I when they operated?”
“Fifteen months or so. It was the absolute earliest you could have the surgery. I took you to the foremost surgeon in the country. I thought he did a marvellous job, so what exactly is wrong?”
“I have to be able to run a fixed distance quite fast for ULAS entry and I can’t manage it. An instructor at the uni gym questioned my scars. I told him my mother put them down to barbed wire. Why the lie?”
“It was only a white lie, Nick. Straight after the op you were in bandages and after they came off, the scar was quite visible and people kept asking. We couldn’t just tell them you had a talipes because the term would mean nothing to them. If they persisted, we would have to say you had a clubfoot, the old term. To people of my generation, where it often went untreated, it meant built-up shoes and stigma, so I told them you had cut yourself on barbed wire. I didn’t want you looked on as an oddity and rejected again...”
“Rejected again? What do you mean, rejected...by whom?”
He flushed red and refilled his glass, “It’s all so long ago,” he said, before sipping at his brandy and slowly emptying the glass.
“You’re draining my patience, Father. Who rejected me?”
“I seem to remember the first hospital we went to was reluctant to do the surgery,” he said, avoiding my eyes and picking up the brandy bottle again to pour another glassful.
“You said I was rejected. I don’t believe the hospital nonsense is what you meant at all. Tell me the truth. Who really rejected me?”
He spluttered into his brandy, his knuckles white as he clenched the glass. “Don’t press me, Nicholas! I won’t let you hound me! Just think yourself lucky I took you on...”
“...took me on?” I snarled, my anger rising.
“Took you on to another hospital, I was going to say. What gives you the bloody right to interrogate me? You’re twisting my words. What’s wrong with you? None of it matters in the big scheme of things,” he prattled into the brandy glass, “they were obviously wrong about your leg. It hasn’t affected you so far.”
“Well it’s bloody well about to affect me now, for all you care. Look at yourself, half pissed all the time because your career’s over and you find yourself with nothing to live for. My career could well be finished before it starts. Should I start drinking myself to death now or just kill myself in some quicker way?”
Two years later as a tall, athletic-looking twenty-one year-old, armed with a first class honours degree and a Private Pilot’s Licence, my contemporaries considered me an ideal applicant to be a pilot in the RAF.
Although I had told the truth on becoming an Air Squadron member and my flying instructor recorded me as an exemplary student pilot who had carried out his first solo after only eleven hours dual instruction, that damned Curse of Talipes still hung over my head.
The MO stood up to greet me before the start of his assessment at RAF Cranfield, “On your application, Nick, you said that you wanted to make an essential disclosure before your formal assessment. You say, subject to the outcome, you will confirm or withdraw your application. Why do you say this?”
“Well, Sir I recognise my health must be beyond question as a pilot, but I may fall foul of the rules unless there is scope for dispensation. If a particular rule is absolute, I would prefer to withdraw my pilot application rather than fail PTU. That way I could apply for a different role without a failure showing on my record.”
“Yes, that is true. So fire away, what rule do you fear might disqualify you?”
“I was born with a clubfoot, Sir.”
The group Captain medic roared with laughter, “Sorry for laughing, Nick, when you must be worried as hell,” he finally spluttered, “but I always wondered how I would react if somebody said that to me. Now I know, but so was I. In fact I was born with double talipes and I’m—what—thirty years older than you, I had my surgery before they became quite so skilled at the repair.”
“I suppose I couldn’t have a better judge then, Sir.”
“Unfortunately, I am not the judge, only the doctor who makes a recommendation. Get your shoes, socks and trousers off and let me take a look.”
While I prepared myself, the Group Captain read my application and commented, “I see you already have your PPL. Where did you do it? Did you have any issues with your left leg?”
“No, Sir. I did twenty-four hours in UAS Beagles. I maintained a civil logbook signed by my instructors, which credited these hours to allow me to complete my forty hours CAA qualifying time in Cessnas at Elstree Aerodrome. Both aircraft will fly with feet off the rudder pedals if you don’t mind skidding through the air. I also flew Chipmunks several times, which being tail-wheel aircraft need a lot more pedal effort on single runway airfields during crosswind take off and landing, as you probably know, but I had no problems at all.”
“Okay, hop up on the couch and let me have a look at your leg.”
“I can barely find any notable difference between the two, young man, maybe a little less total angle of movement in your left, but it’s insignificant. Now I want you to step down and stand on tiptoe on each foot in turn for as long as you can manage or until I tell you to stop.”
The doctor spent over an hour on a variety of assessments, “That’s good. Look, I see no point in leaving you in suspense. I shall recommend you pass muster in this respect. I am confident that you won’t fail because of a well-corrected talipes. Now let me take some bloods and you can do me a urine sample as well to save time now you’re here. We’ll be in touch for a final test and assessment.”
IN THE BALANCE
As soon as I shed the chemo bottle and tests indicated the cancer was vanquished, I only had regular, basic monitoring as a reminder. I tried to forget the horrors of cancer to focus totally on our electronics venture, which we had started modestly. We were soon busy testing our trial models, which necessitated frequent trips to Chichester and outings on Sailing Science.
I usually tried to fit in a visit to Aunt Win while there and dad spent time with Mrs G. He insisted on buying me a car instead of the motorbike I had originally plumped for in a fit of enthusiasm. My keenness lasted two weeks until a cloudburst had me hiding under a motorway bridge for the best part of an hour. Dad pointed out all sorts of sensible cars, but I convinced him a sports car was right for my man-on-the-rise image. I reckoned a British one would fit well with how we had chosen to portray the company. But, sadly, by 1991 there was not much of the indigenous sports car industry left within my budget. Finally, I chose a 1968 MGB Roadster in red, which was the same age as me to the month and like me, had undergone significant surgery and chemical treatment. Apparently, the classic had suffered from metal cancer, more commonly called rust, which the restorers cut out. After that, they fitted new panels before it was chemically treated, painted and returned to first class order. I still had to shelter under bridges, but now only to erect the soft top that did a good job of keeping out all but the worst of British downpours.
Just two years after starting our enterprise, Elgin Electronics had a full order book and we were looking to increase our product range. But I felt thwarted. Our modest manufacturing and R&D processes divided between the house, the boat and some old agricultural offices we were renting near the marina made expansion impossible.
Although my health seemed fine now and the chemo was well in the past, I did wonder if the hours I spent in the office, fighting to build a business could be dangerously stressful and I fretted over the possible connections with cancer. Some of what I read highlighted frustration, where the inability to resolve problems made a more plausible link to cancer than the stress associated with being rushed off one’s feet. There was no time to delve into this more deeply, although one article both intrigued and worried me. So I printed it off and put it in my wallet to discuss with the team researching stress links to cancer when I next met with them.
My sleep patterns had been interrupted by my ‘metal-box monster’ for years and on top of that, I had suffered the stress and worry over the talipes and RAF acceptance. In retrospect, this was frustration rather than stress because I could do nothing about it.
Anyway, right now I felt very well and apart from a faint scar in my groin, it all seemed like a bad dream. I had largely forgotten all about it until a pretty nurse invited me back to her place after a party and noticed part of my anatomy was missing. That tipped the balance for me and I finally decided to have the implant Nadine had nagged me about for months. I was not worried about the mechanics of having it, but it just seemed like an added complication when my time was much in demand. What persuaded me was the likelihood of having to explain why I felt and looked different, to the point where, discounting Nadine, I considered celibacy. At twenty-four, this was fanciful nonsense albeit I could hide behind the excuse that work was demanding much of my free time. After checking about the downside of an implant with Dr Jeffries’ team, I arranged a fitment and never has any woman challenged its authenticity.
Flight of Fancy
I approached the club’s non-descript wartime building whose concrete wall and corrugated-roof structure defied modernisation. It was rumoured this prompted Dougie to kit it out in WWII style so it was akin to a fighter station crew-room with period easy chairs and paraphernalia. That was the rumour I heard when I first joined the club after moving to Port Solent. Knowing Dougie as I did now, I thought it more likely his constant financial plight dictated the second-hand furnishings. It just happened the clubroom had that wartime austerity feel about it.
I sauntered in hopeful of a spell in the air that Saturday and saw a young woman, whom I had glimpsed before. She was evidently preparing for a session of dual instruction and clearly in the early days of her training. Suddenly I was no longer brooding about being ‘up there’, but pleased I was down here and able to feast my eyes upon her. She was stunning, with long bouncy, dark shiny hair and striking English rose features and although she was crammed in a corner, her every movement, look and gesture attracted me. One thing was for sure, unlike last night’s diversion, this young woman had a brain. She was hemmed-in by chatting club members and had clearly failed, like so many before her including me, to hold Dougie’s undivided attention. On her lap and by her feet were all the books needed to help her prepare for her Radio Telegraphy exam. Nonetheless, Dougie clearly could not focus on her due to phone calls and interruptions from other members and the limitations of a small office he was sharing with his Assistant Flying Instructor.
I put my head around his office door, “I can see you’re fighting off bandits, Dougie. It doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere for an hour or more, so would you like me to help the young lady with her R/T revision?”
“Oh crikey, Nick, I came back to my office just to answer the phone twenty minutes ago. I completely forgot about her,” he answered.
“Forgot about her—how could you forget about someone like her, Dougie?”
“You know what it’s like here, just one thing after another,” he pleaded, before calling the girl into his office.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you, Vicky. It’s hectic here today. This is Nick and he’s offered to help you with your studies. Is that all right with you? He learnt to fly with the RAF and has had his PPL A-Licence for nine years. He has night and multi-engine ratings under his belt already and will tick off his Instrument Rating before long. Honestly his R/T is better than mine.”
As we shook hands, she flashed me a flawless white-toothed smile that set my heart racing. Mesmerised, I followed her to rescue her books from an already-invaded corner, “Are you sure, Nick? I’d be ever so grateful. Dougie says I’m not far off my first solo, but my radio knowledge isn’t up to it yet.”
Her voice set me atremble—low, but feminine and clear with not a trace of harshness. I looked forward to hearing her practicing.
“I’d be delighted to help and anyway, it’ll stop me mooning about here getting all excited whenever I see a patch of blue sky.”
“Shall we sit in my car and get a bit of peace, or yours if you’d prefer?”
Tales of the Riverbank
On arrival at Kampung Morten around mid afternoon, it became clear Preoch was not a man to economise by revealing what he was privy to because we were put in two separate double bedrooms.
Nana later led the way out of the rust-red painted corrugated-iron village guesthouse on stilts. We walked hand-in-hand towards a mini-skyscraper with a red ‘Prudential’ sign ablaze. I suppose it reminded visitors of staid Western dependability by advertising a worldwide company unaffected by the financial crash. Nana said the sign was a good locating beacon for tourists, provided they remembered it was on the south bank.
We waited at a waterbus-stop next to a wide, slow flowing river. All sorts of river craft continually created wash and left wakes, which criss-crossed and battled with each other before slapping finally against the banks. We had not waited long before a numbered boat drew up at our jetty. After a while, we passed under a Venetian style bridge lit up with colourful lanterns. Soon we were sitting in a well-appointed Chinese restaurant where Nana seemed to be well known. “It is plain you know people here, but why a Chinese place when I thought we might be sampling Malaysian specialities.”
“Please do not think I have forgotten that—such food is for tomorrow lunchtime. This is a majority Muslim country so there is no alcohol in Malay restaurants and I thought you might like wine with your dinner.”
We walked much of the way back along the riverside that evening, her delicate perfume vied with the river for dominance, so I pulled her closer, put my arm around her and snuggled my face into her long dark hair. The river, with its tourist boats plying up and down, along with the coloured lights reflecting in the water along its length, looked enchanting, but its nocturnal aroma added nothing to the magic.
She had thought of everything that day and that night she indulged me with some tantalising visual experiences. These contrasted significantly with Nadine’s more action-packed menu and rounded off my day perfectly.
After another exhausting night, the following day we caught a river bus and headed for the city centre again. There was much to see including an old Christian church and a wonderfully recreated full-rigged ancient sailing ship. After two hours sightseeing she led me into a cram-packed dowdy-looking eating-house where a quick word had a new table and chairs set up for us. Nana spoke briefly with the waiter and he dashed off to return with two banana leaves, which he spread out before us. Like a carnival parade, a procession of waiters and waitresses, brought steaming pots of food from, which we were invited to make our selection. After they had built a mountain on my leaf, Nana asked a waitress if it would be permissible for her to go next door for two beers. Much to my surprise the young woman in a hijab dashed off and came back with four bottles, then opened and poured them for us.
The food, despite its simplicity, was delightful. I enjoyed strolling back along the riverbank for an afternoon siesta. Nana woke me in a novel way to drive me to Malacca airport for my flight to Kuala Lumpur, where a taxi took me to my hotel just off the city centre. My room was high up on the eleventh floor with a stunning view across the city. I managed to round off my stay in Malaysia with two days of solid, tiring sightseeing based upon the recommendations of both Cerise and Nana.
After we had taken off for the return flight, I looked back at the city and considered all that I had seen, but acknowledged how much I had missed. On and off throughout the journey home I thought about cancer and mortality. Even without the drawback of cancer I was more than halfway through my ‘three score years and ten’ and mulled over how much of the world that beckoned and things I ought to do. I resolved I would not squander my precious time fighting to clamber nearer the summit of success only to face, like my father, the inevitable descent that must follow.
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