Joe struts across the garden, swinging a blackboard ruler, which resembles an ax in his hand. The garden is overgrown but was originally laid-out to flower beds and hedges, shrubbery and crazy paved terraces. It surrounds the pebble-dashed, bay-fronted detached house in a quiet leafy suburb of south London. The house, which belonged to a doctor who had built it in the ‘20s, had been empty for a few months after his death, aged 95, before being sold for the princely sum of £5,000 to the Weiners last year. It is a substantial property, full of character, with parquet floors and a gallery landing, floor to ceiling built-in cupboards and original fireplaces in every room. Though a little tired and outdated, this is a family home with status, ideally suited to bringing up the Weiners’ four, soon to be five, children. They’ve moved up in the world, from the manufacturing base in Sheffield to the Battersea laboratories, from the terraced back-to-back to the three-bed semi, to the management quarters.
The builders are in, removing as much of the 1920s character as possible to be replaced with the clean lines and mod cons of the sixties. Gas fires are being installed, along with a fitted kitchen, and central heating. The wallpaper is more pop art than pre-Raphaelite, and the new three-piece suite is Swedish, from Heals. The picture rail is coming out along with the built-in cupboards. The parquet flooring can stay, and the front lounge will retain its originality, to suit the Bechstein grand and the Victorian sofas, but otherwise it’s out with the old and in with the new. The Wireless dial still points to the Home Service, but Drew has a transistor radio in his room, which he tunes to Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The acre of garden, with its underground bomb-shelter feels like unexplored jungle. The shelter had been off-limits since they arrived, and once the landscape gardeners start work, it will be excavated and turned into a pond. It’s glorious out, so the boy is seeking treasure between the Victoria plum tree and the cloches behind the hedge. His sword is wielded two-handed, like King Arthur’s, as he swings it left and right, beheading dahlias in a war that only he can win.
It is the summer of 1964 and Joe, aged 7, wears his grey school uniform. It’s a bit untidy and his shorts pocket is ripped where one of the big boys tried to steal his bus money while he ran away. Dorothy, Joe’s mother, used to make sure he always looked smart going to school, but since she’s been so busy, and drinks a lot of whisky, she doesn’t seem to notice what he looks like any more.
He’s at the local primary school, Avenue Road, but has just auditioned to sing in the choir at Westminster Abbey, which would involve his becoming a boarder in the Choir School when he is eight, until he’s 13 and his voice breaks. Already a quiet child, Joe is worried about being away at school, about sleeping in a dormitory and about not being allowed his teddy in bed. He’s started wetting the bed in apprehension of this big change, which is imminent.
Joe has found a soul-mate in Harry, who lives across the road. Harry’s parents can’t afford to send Harry to prep school, and besides, he can’t sing to save his life. Joe and Harry auditioned for the Belmont church choir last year and Joe got in while Harry was turned down by the vicar and choir master for being tone deaf . When that happened, their relationship as best friends came under pressure, but Joe tells Harry all about the choir each week on their way to school on the morning after practice, and they still spend all their spare time together. Harry is broad-shouldered and accepts that he and Joe are different. Joe’s dad dresses in a suit and drives a Morris Oxford, while his own dad is a milkman and drives an old Mini. His dad’s a rockabilly fan who still works his hair into a quiff with Brylcream, and he wears two-tone loafers and white socks, and his jacket has shiny lapels and white pocket tops. Harry’s parents always go to the pub on Sundays for several hours and Joe and Harry sit in their car on the drive and pretend to be cops or robbers in car chases.
Harry and Joe’s favourite place is The Dell, a strip of woodland between Harry’s parents’ back garden and the main road. This is dense undergrowth with fallen trees and brambles, and they can disappear here for hours, getting scratched and muddy, but happily lost in their adventures. They have a hidden fortress in the bushes, and can climb into neighbours’ gardens from The Dell without being seen. They enjoy stealing pints of milk from the neighbours’ doorsteps and making cement with milk and mud, or builders’ sand when they can find it. They play Knock Knock Ginger along the road, and run like crazy into the Dell to hide. Sometimes they knock and ask for jobs as though they were boy scouts on bob-a-job week, but they are either turned away or given lousy jobs to do without enough money to spend afterwards.
Harry gets two and six a week for his pocket money, while Joe only gets a tanner, which is one fifth as much. That’s strange seeing as Joe’s parents are much richer than Harry’s. They both get their pocket money on a Saturday and go straight to Morrison’s sweetshop in the village. Harry is really generous and always gives a shilling of his money to Joe, so they have the same amount. They buy a load of sweets with a view to dividing them across the seven days before their next pocket money day, but invariably have eaten almost everything in one afternoon, despite making themselves feel sick. Joe likes to buy flapjacks because they’re eight for a penny, which is nothing. They come in licorice flavour or fuity flavour, and he buys four of each and eats them alternately. He also loves sherbert fountains, with the yellow and orange paper tube full of sherbert and the stick of hard licorice glued into the top, which is used as a scoop to dip in the powder.
Harry’s dad drinks a lot and tends to hit him when he’s drunk, so Harry comes to Joes’ in the evenings to hide. Joe’s mum isn’t violent when she’s drunk, but his dad can be pretty angry over the smallest things. If Joe miss-pronounces a word, he can be made to say it correctly a hundred times. If he’s caught with his elbows on the dinner table or holds his fork like a spoon, he’s sent to his room.
Harry is coming over later to play pirates, but for now, Joe’s alone in the wilderness with his sword and trusty steed, Tosca. Tosca is a Labrador who has managed to bleach the grass in many places with her pee, and whatever it contains, the yellow patches don’t regenerate. Joe swings his sword and slices the heads of every flower in the garden he can see.
Joe’s parents are always busy and often fighting. They’ve hired a housekeeper, Jacko, who smokes like a chimney and swears under her breath. She’s short and stocky, with a flowery housecoat over her dress, old black walking shoes with space for her carbuncles, and cook’s hands. When Jacko was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, but she needs to work since her Fred was blown up in the war, and she hasn’t any children of her own. Jacko has a heart of gold and Dorothy says she’s a ‘treasure’, but she has no time to talk to Joe, as the house needs every minute of her day.
Dorothy is in the hall, talking quietly on the phone to Michael, the man she disappears off to see whenever she can. She’s holding her afternoon sherry and an untipped Senior Service in one hand and the heavy bacolite receiver is tucked under her ear. She’s looking in the mirror, checking her lipstick.
Tom is at work at the steel labs in Battersea, where he is the chief scientist for the steel industry association. He’s never home till late, after Joe is in bed, so they only really meet at weekends. The older children are all at school. Joe’s older brothers, Drew and Jeremy, are both boarding at Worcester Cathedral, where Jeremy sings in the choir, Jane is at the local girl’s grammar school, so Joe is alone.
“So! You dare to challenge your king? For this you shall die!” he shouts as he slices another large dahlia flower from its stem.