In 1950’s London two young boys from different backgrounds form a close bond. Where will this friendship lead them?
A cold east wind whipped across the playground creating whirlpools of dancing dust and sweet wrappers as 500 secondary school pupils prepared for morning assembly. Three weeks of freedom had eroded discipline on the first day of Easter term. Piercing whistles and shouts brought order to the chaos as though some gigantic magnet was at work under the playground the pupils, mere iron filings, responding in rows to its magnetic field.
It was mid April, the war was still an almost daily topic, and my 14th year passed a few months before.
The Secondary school was located in the midst of one of the more pleasant outer London social housing suburbs. It was exclusively Catholic, staffed by a roughly equal number of nuns, and lay teachers with a fervent commitment to see their pupils succeed. To the continued embarrassment of the nearby grammar school, both academic and sporting achievements exceeded theirs.
Personal interests revolved around a consuming passion for sport, especially soccer and I mixed with a crowd of like-minded friends. We were noisy, high-spirited and often disruptive. Studies were tedious but the school sufficiently well organised and disciplined to channel these high-spirits into a curiosity for the world together with a commitment to learn and prepare for our futures.
Within a few days it became apparent that one of the new boys was focussing more attention than usual in my direction. I often found him staring across at assembly or sneaking sly glances during break times. He was attractive with an interesting manner but playground lore was absolute; older boys, unless related, did not communicate with younger ones other than in the most dismissive terms.
The mysterious newcomer continued to glance and when I caught him, he looked shyly away. I resolved to corner him at the first opportunity.
The chance came unexpectedly the following week. Returning hurriedly from an errand and rounding a corner in the quad, I ran straight into him. He was alone, and quickly flushed with embarrassment. Taking the initiative, I grabbed his jacket lapels and propelling him into an empty classroom and said aggressively.
‘Why do you keep staring at me? Anyway what’s your name?’ I demanded before he had a chance to recover.
‘Alexei Delaine, form 2S, I’m French,’ he replied in a timorous unbroken voice with a slight lilting accent.
‘Alexei??’ I asked with an incredulous tone. ‘What kind of name is that?’
‘Yes, with an ‘ei’. Short for Alexander; father thinks he’s a Czar or something,’ he said with a breathless smile before continuing, ‘I hope I last longer than the other one.’ The remark went over my ignorant head.
‘So ALEXEI’, I emphasised, ‘why do you keep staring at me?’ I persisted.
‘You’re not going to hurt me are you?’ he replied with widening eyes and furrowed brows.
‘No, of course not, if you tell me why. Do you know me from somewhere?’ I asked, looking down at him. He was at least half a head or more, shorter.
‘No’, he said.
‘Well?’ I said becoming impatient for an explanation.
‘You promise you won’t hit me or anything if I tell you?’ he implored again.
‘I said I wouldn’t, so I won’t – just tell me,’ I insisted.
‘Ermm, you look nice,’ he breathed screwing up his eyes with a grimace clearly expecting violence.
‘What?’ I said harshly.
‘You heard’, he replied sullenly. ‘You look nice, and I would like to be your friend but now I just don’t know how that would ever be possible.’
‘Alexei, how old are you?’ I asked impatiently but a little more softly after this unexpected, and frankly unbelievable, revelation.
‘Twelve’, he paused ‘and a half,’ he replied relaxing slightly.
Still firmly holding his lapels, I felt a softer material than usual in the school uniform. He gripped my wrists with fine boned hands and clean unbitten nails. There was a certain smartness and attention to appearance not typical in boys of his age. Nice shirt and collar, straight tie. He was clean and fresh with just the faintest aroma of cologne, his closeness and warmth disturbing.
As I eased my grip on his jacket and his hands fell away, I noticed his almost straight, fine raven hair falling onto finely arched brows, oval slightly tanned face and large hazel eyes framed by delicate lashes; faintly discernable freckles were sporadically distributed about his face. The slightly parted lips with quizzical smile revealed perfectly straight teeth. He was slim and tanned and, I thought with some surprise, quite beautiful.
No one had ever said such a thing to me before and I had no idea how to reply. Just possibly a girl might have had the nerve, although I didn’t know any who would, but another boy and a younger one at that? I was instinctively drawn to him and not just for his courage.
‘Where do you live?’ I asked eventually letting go of his lapels but rested a hand on one shoulder.
‘Kensal Rise. You won’t tell on me will you?’ he replied.
‘Really? I live in Kensal Rise too, whereabouts in Kensal Rise?’ I asked smiling.
‘Just by Queens Park.’ He replied.
‘That’s not far from where I live.’ I said amazed.
‘I know, sometimes I see you on the bus. I get on at the next stop. You always sit downstairs at the front and read.’ This was true enough, it was a longish journey and I liked to catch up with homework or sometimes the exploits of my hero, ‘Biggles.’ It was a little disconcerting to know I had been observed in this way. ‘For how long?’ I wondered. ‘Presumably since the new term began,’ I thought, answering my own question.
‘I sit at the back and get off first so you don’t see me,’ he continued smiling brightly for the first time. The effect was immediate and quite startling, rather like stepping out of a shadow into a beautiful sunlit garden.
‘No, I won’t tell and, yes we can be friends Alexei, but it will have to be at home, not here,’ I said also smiling, ‘you know how it is at school we don’t ever mix between classes.’
He nodded his assent grinning happily.
‘Do you have a bike?’ I asked.
‘Yep, a new Raleigh,’ he relied proudly, ‘for my birthday.’
‘We could meet in Queens Park if you like, maybe Saturday.’ I suggested.
‘OK. Morning or afternoon?’
‘Well I’m playing football in the morning, so I guess the afternoon. What about 3 o’clock by the swings?’ I suggested.
‘Great, OK. I can’t really believe it was that easy,’ he smiled again. ‘Can I go now?’
‘Yes, of course. See you Saturday. Ohh and I really do like your name – both of them,’ I called, as he ran off skipping down the corridor.
Although it seemed longer, the whole encounter could have taken only a few minutes but in that one brief moment everything changed. I had to remind myself what had just occurred. A younger boy had rather daringly said he was attracted to me. Could this really be true? No, he was French; there was a misunderstanding, and he meant he just wanted us to be friends.