DEREK told no-one about his ordeal in Miss McRae's classroom or the nightmare that followed. To have done so would, he surmised, have led to him being labelled, yet again, as the villain, rather than the victim in regard to the school episode, and as merely a frightened little boy in relation to the dream. He was clearly in a no-win situation, so he kept his deepest feelings to himself. Still several months short of his eighth birthday, he was fast learning the art of emotional self-protection. At the same time he was beginning to come to terms with the realisation that being in his own company was where he felt most at ease. He was becoming a loner, but that didn't bother him. Instinctively, he knew he would endure.
During that year's long summer break from school, he began to venture further and further afield. Scaling the boundary fence on the edge of the prefab estate, he'd walk across Fox Field to Mottingham high street, a little over one mile away. There he'd stand outside the village toy shop for a while, admiring the assembled plastic Airfix kits of British, American and German wartime fighter planes and bombers. He also spent time imagining himself playing with some of the more expensive die-cast Dinky and Corgi toy trucks on view, before wandering-off towards the Sidcup bypass.
Crossing the busy dual carriageway at the Mottingham crossroads traffic lights, he would then make his way north towards The Dutch House pub. Two hundred yards short of the pub, a huge grass embankment offered him a panoramic view of the bypass and the fields and houses beyond. For hours on end, he'd sit watching the passing cars, trucks and motor cycles and noting the livery of the coaches travelling deeper into Kent; some of which displayed their destinations Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Folkestone and Dover. His vantage point on the embankment soon became a favourite summer spot for him. It was somewhere he could escape to when he was feeling excluded; a place where his imagination could roam at will, free of the shackles of home, school, parents and peers.
Another favourite destination for him in that summer of '54 was Chinbrook Meadows; one of a number of municipal parks scattered around South East London. Walking through the prefab estate to Harvey's Lane, he'd turn left and climb a steep incline past his school playground. Then he would cut through a gap in the terraced houses to a hillside entrance that overlooked the entire park and its surrounds. Standing at the park's green painted, metal-railed gate, his eyes followed a curving footpath to the children's playground at the lowest point in the Meadows. The footpath and playground were, in turn, overlooked by the sloping mass of a high railway embankment.
More often than not, a few minutes after entering the park gates, he would be hurtling on his bottom or lower back down the playground's smooth metal slide or pushing the roundabout to what felt like a breakneck speed. Then he'd nonchalantly hop on-board to spin dizzily until the roundabout slowed. Grazed elbows and knees were a small price to pay for such fun. Whenever he tired of winding-up the roundabout and descending the slide, Derek had a habit of sitting under the giant oak tree in the middle of the playground to wait for his favourite swing to become vacant. Eventually, with his backside firmly planted on the swing's wooden seat and his elbows crooked around the thick metal support chains, he'd sit swinging back and forth, listening intently for approaching steam locomotives. As each one came into view chuffing along the nearby embankment ' often inbound to and outbound from Hither Green sidings ' he'd imitate their whistles and wave to the tiny figures on the footplates. Occasionally, his wave was returned by either one or both of the crew on a passing locomotive, and he'd spend the rest of the day on a high, just knowing that his presence had been acknowledged in a friendly manner by a complete stranger.
On rainy days, he tried his best to keep out of his mother's way by spending a great deal of time in his bedroom either playing with the few toys in his possession, or thumbing through either one of his two favourite books. He wasn't the slightest bit interested in reading story books, but the children's encyclopaedia and an illustrated volume titled 'Looking at History', both of which he'd been given at Christmas 1953, were different. They contained a treasure trove of fascinating images and information that he found irresistible.
Another by-product of his days spent indoors was his rapidly growing interest in music. His mother invariably had the radio switched-on and his brain acted like a musical sponge; retaining many of the popular songs and melodies of the time, as well as some older tunes. In particular, two frequently featured recordings struck powerful chords with him. Both sounded familiar but he couldn't work-out why. All he knew was that the beautiful melodies of 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' and 'We'll Gather Lilacs' appealed to him greatly. So much so, he took to humming them, and other oft-heard tunes, to himself as he lay in bed at night, before drifting-off to sleep. It was his way of committing them to memory.
School holidays also brought opportunities for him to get to know his cousin Brian better. Eleven months younger than Derek, Brian was much shorter than his older cousin and, due mainly to his rather rotund frame, much less agile. Left to their own devices, though, the two boys played well together with their games usually revolving around the cowboys and Indians or wartime scenarios they'd either seen on television or watched during Saturday morning pictures at their local cinema. The young cousins also had very similar easy going temperaments and identical senses of humour that were frequently at the mercy of two of their uncles; Jimmy and Eddie Barker. Jimmy and Eddie were naturally funny brothers, and they could quickly reduce Derek and Brian to fits of giggles with their never-ending stream of jokey one-liners and hushed references to bodily functions or intimate body parts. Any disapproval from other members of the family within earshot would only serve to encourage Jimmy and Eddie all the more, and they'd persist until everybody was roaring with laughter.
Nevertheless, these outwardly light-hearted family gatherings had a darker side which finally revealed itself to Derek in the run-up to Christmas 1954. He and Brian were playing together one afternoon in early December when his cousin let-slip that their uncle Vince and auntie Dolly were taking him to see Father Christmas at Hamley's toy store in London's Regent Street the following Saturday. He chose not to react to his cousin's revelation. Instead, he assumed that the Hamley's outing was to be a treat for him as well as Brian, but a treat his parents had, until then, kept secret. On returning home, he told his mother what his cousin had told him and she reacted angrily. At first, he thought he'd unwittingly exposed a surprise that his parents had kept under wraps. Then it dawned on him that he'd been excluded and the visit to Hamley's was for Brian only. Intuitively he sensed that, with the issue now out in the open, it had the potential to boil-over into a major family disagreement, for which he would be blamed. Thinking fast on his feet, he played down his own expectations.
Don't worry Mum, I'm not that bothered anyway,'' he said bravely.
However, he was churning inside and, not for the first time, he was wondering what he'd done wrong to warrant such exclusion. Deep in thought and thoroughly miserable, Derek went to his bedroom to play quietly and await his father's arrival home.
Len was furious when he heard about his nephew's forthcoming visit to Hamley's with Vince and Dolly and his raised voice filtered into Derek's bedroom. Half expecting a sympathetic Mum and Dad to come rushing-in with offers of an excursion of their own, he continued to play quietly. However, no visit came, and he was eventually called into the kitchen for dinner. No further mention was made in his presence of Brian's trip to Hamley's, but he knew his parents well enough to know they would make their feelings known to Dot's sister Rose, and to their cousins Vince and Dolly. That, in turn, was likely to lead to strained family relationships over the Christmas holiday.
As in previous years, the whole family were due to gather at Rose and Ron's prefab after Christmas Day lunch for what was euphemistically called 'a knees-up' lasting through to the early hours of Boxing Day. Dot and Len planned to remain at home until early evening but they gave Derek permission to make his way round to his cousin's home late that afternoon. On his arrival, he discovered that Brian's main Christmas present had been an electric train set; the track for which was being laid out on the large living room rug. His uncles Ron, Jimmy and Eddy were all crawling on hands and knees, connecting switching points and branch lines, and positioning station platforms, bridges and a signal box. Brian, meanwhile, was sitting in the middle of the floor closely inspecting a black locomotive and a maroon and cream carriage.
Wide-eyed with wonderment, Derek edged his way around the track and sat down at the far end. Moments later his uncle Jimmy crawled over and instructed him to move out of the way. With his back already propped hard-up against a sturdy piano support, he had nowhere else to go, so he stood up beside the piano and pressed his back to the prefab wall. Eventually, the locomotive and carriages were placed on the rails and set in motion, and he just had to get closer. Sitting down crossed legged next to the track again, he watched enthralled as the little train circled the room.
DEREK!'' Uncle Jimmy's sudden and unexpectedly loud bellow made him jump with fright. I thought I told you to get out of the way.''
Dumbfounded, he tried to reason with his uncle, but Jimmy cut him off abruptly. No arguments, Derek, you're in the bloody way, so go somewhere else.''
With that, his Uncle Ron chipped-in. Yes, Derek, do as your uncle Jimmy tells you. Just get out of the way, lad.''
Looking around the room for support from one of his three aunts or either one of his maternal grandparents, all he could see were excited faces absorbed in the comings and goings of the train set. He was alone in a crowd again, and he didn't care much for how it felt. So, easing himself up onto to his feet, he left his extended family at play and returned to his parent's prefab.
Dot was surprised to see him. Hello Derek, why have you come home?''
Putting-on his best air off indifference, he replied, Oh the uncles and Brian are playing with his electric train set. I kept getting in the way, so I thought I'd come back home and play with some of my own toys.''
His mother didn't seem to understand the underlying unhappiness in his words. There's a good boy,'' she muttered absent-mindedly.
Dot then turned her back on her son and resumed the Christmas dinner washing-up. With that, he shrugged his shoulders and shuffled-off dejectedly to his bedroom.
In the months that followed, he became increasingly aware of his aloneness at home, at school, among his peers and in his extended family environment. There was, however, one brief period when he found friendship with a boy of his own age who lived in a prefab opposite his own. The back gardens of the two prefabs were separated by a low fence, but Derek had rarely seen his reclusive young neighbour. All he was sure of was their respective bedroom windows faced each other across the rear gardens of both properties.
As 7 o'clock approached one late January evening he was idly shining his torch out of his bedroom window when a torch beam from the window opposite flashed on and off. Derek responded with an on-off flash of his own, and this was quickly returned by his near neighbour.
Momentarily flustered, he wondered what to do next but, in his excitement, he beamed three short flashes followed by three long flashes, followed by three short flashes. S.O.S. was the only Morse code he knew, and he waited patiently for a response. A few seconds later the same S.O.S. code came flashing back. Without taking his eyes off his neighbour's bedroom window, he rummaged in the dark for his copy of the Boys Own Handbook which contained a complete Morse code guide. Hurriedly locating the correct page, he laboriously flashed out the greeting 'H-e-l-l-o' and, almost immediately, the same greeting was returned.
Before Derek could take any further action, the torch from the far window flashed into action again. He grabbed a pencil and a scrap of paper and, over the next few minutes, scrawled 'm-y-n-a-m-e-i-s-D-e-n-n-i-s. S-e-e-y-o-u-t-o-m-o-r-r-o-w?' Hastily working-out a response, he flashed 't-o-m-o-r-r-o-w-o-k-m-y-n-a-m-e-i-s-D-e-r-e-k.' Dennis replied 'o-k-D-e-r-e-k-n-i-g-h-t.' He responded with a goodnight greeting of his own and climbed into bed with a broad smile of achievement on his face.
The following morning ' a Saturday ' he watched expectantly through his kitchen window for any sign of his neighbour venturing into his back garden. Shortly after 10 am Dennis appeared and Derek ran-out to meet him. A few minutes later, the two boys were standing together in Dennis's garden, chatting enthusiastically about their communications the night before and comparing their respective Morse code reference books.
Dennis was six months older than Derek and he didn't enjoy the best of health. He explained that he was due to go into Farnborough Hospital for an operation, and he would then have to spend some months in convalescence in another part of the country. Derek's heart sank at the prospect of losing a friend almost as soon as he'd gained one, but he put the disappointment to the back of his mind. Over the following five weeks, the two boys spent many hours together in their respective back gardens or ' when the weather was wet ' indoors in each other's prefabs.
Before setting-off for school on a sunny Thursday morning in March, Derek stood with his pal at Dennis's front gate, waiting for a black London taxi to ferry Dennis to Farnborough Hospital, where he was to be operated on the following day. Wishing his friend well, Derek slammed the taxi door shut, and the vehicle pulled away noisily. A few seconds later, the taxi disappeared from view as Derek offered a final wave. He then picked-up his satchel, broke into a sprint and ran the half mile to school.
Preoccupied with thoughts of how his friend might be fairing, he was unable to concentrate properly on his lessons that day. And the same was true for the school day that followed. Then Saturday morning came, and he clambered over the garden fence and knocked on his friend's back door. Dennis's mother came to the door in tears, and a cold shudder ran down Derek's spine. With little time to think, he blurted out the first words that came into his mind. Mrs Barlow. What on earth is wrong?''
Through her tears she explained that her son had come through the operation, but the doctors were having difficulty stemming the bleeding. My little boy is haemorrhaging and they can't stop the bleeding,'' she sobbed. Can you visit him Derek? I'm sure he'll be pleased to see you. Look, take this. Here's half a crown for your bus fare.''
Derek ran home and explained to his mother what Mrs Barlow has asked him to do. Oh, that poor little fellow. Of course you must go to see him Derek,'' replied Dot.
Late that afternoon, he set-off for Bromley on a 126 bus from the stop opposite the Chinbrook public house. At Bromley North Station, he caught a 119 for Farnborough Hospital, and was soon making his way to his friend's ward. He was shocked to discover that Dennis had been placed in an adult male ward, among a number of very elderly and sickly men. However, he made no mention of it, and pulled-up a chair next to his pal's bed.
Touching him gently on the shoulder, Derek whispered, Hello Dennis, how are you?''
Dennis opened his eyes with some effort and smiled wearily. Hello Derek,'' he replied with a croak in his voice. I'm very tired but thank you for coming.''
Derek softly brushed the hair from his friend's forehead with the fingers of his right hand and whispered, Sshhh, Den, you just sleep. I'll sit here with you for a while.''
His friend forced another smile, nodded his head slowly, and drifted back to sleep.
In the one and a half hours that Derek remained by Dennis's side, no further words were exchanged between the two boys. However, during those ninety minutes, Dennis roused briefly four times and acknowledged his friend's presence with his eyes but, on each occasion, he quickly fell into a deep slumber again. By the time Derek returned home, he was very sleepy himself, and he'd hardly finished his supper, when he wished his parents goodnight and climbed into bed to fall fast asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
The next morning, he watched anxiously for any sign of movement from Dennis's prefab, but he saw none. At 11 am, he couldn't wait any longer, so he clambered over the garden fence and knocked on Mrs Barlow's back door.
In complete contrast to the previous morning, she came rushing to the door with relief and happiness written all over her face. Oh Derek. Thank you for coming over. I don't know what you did while you were with Dennis yesterday, but you must have done something. I telephoned the hospital at nine o'clock this morning and they told me the bleeding has stopped. What's more Dennis has had breakfast and he was even allowed to speak to me on the 'phone. He said he remembers you brushing his forehead with your fingers and suddenly he felt better but very, very tired. You must have the healing touch. Thank you Derek. Thank you so much.''
Mrs Barlow grabbed him by the shoulders, kissed him on the forehead three times, hugged him tightly and then handed him a ten shilling note. A bewildered Derek glanced at the banknote in his hand, looked at Mrs Barlow and spluttered a faltering reply.
Er um er thank you Mrs Barlow. Say er hello to Dennis for me. I hope er um he comes home soon.''
With that, he wished Mrs Barlow a good morning and raced across the two prefab gardens to show his mother the gift he'd been given.
He decided not to tell his Mum what Mrs Barlow had said about him having a healing touch. In truth, he didn't know what she'd meant. So, he merely explained that Dennis was much improved, and Mrs Barlow had given him the ten shilling note as a thank you.
Dot was glad to hear the good news, but she took the ten shillings from her son. I'm not having you spending all that money on sweets in one go Derek. I'll pay it back to you at half a crown a week over the next month.''
Hiding his dismay, Derek initially agreed, but then put an alternative suggestion to his mother. I've had my eye on an Airfix kit of a Lancaster bomber in the toy shop window in Mottingham, and I was wondering''
Dot anticipated his next words. Okay, Derek, I'll give you the ten shillings to buy the kit, but when you get home you must give me any change and, depending on how much you give to me, I'll pay it back to you in instalments of, say, sixpence a week.''
Clapping his hands and jumping with delight, Derek agreed. He then ran all the way to the shops and back again.
It took him a full two weeks to assemble the Lancaster bomber, then paint it, add the roundel transfers and other identification marks and then suspend the model from the ceiling above his bed. There it joined previously assembled Airfix kits of a Spitfire, a Hurricane, a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt ME 109 and a Stuka dive bomber in an imaginary dog fight. Over the next few weeks, he spent some of his play time lying on his bed and gazing-up at the aerial combat being played-out above his head. At first he would imagine himself being a Spitfire pilot flying-up to join the battle, but then his mind would drift and he'd begin to wonder how long it would be before Dennis returned home.
In the end, all of his conjecture and expectation counted for nothing because his friendship with Dennis was never properly restored. A whole three months passed before his pal returned home and, by then, Mr and Mrs Barlow had decided to move away to another distant part of London. During those same few months, Derek had suffered more unhappiness and exclusion, not only at school, but also in his extended family and among his peers.
Years before the phenomenon was given a name, he had become a victim of emotional and physical abuse. But it didn't end there. The more hurtful experiences he endured the more he relived the frightening recurring nightmare of doors being broken down, followed by pitch blackness and, what he perceived as the hounds of hell, hunting him down. But he still told no-one.
Following his friend Dennis's move away from the prefab estate, once again, there was no true sense of belonging in his life or any lasting friendships, and that saddened him greatly. However, every moment of rejection or exclusion he experienced seemed to bring an inner strength and determination to prevail. His philosophy was simple. If he had to make his way in the world on his own, then so be it. Independence was the key and, unbeknown to him at the time, that key was soon to unlock doors to new horizons.
On his tenth birthday, his Mum and Dad presented him with his first proper bicycle ' a Raleigh Lenton Tourist ' and, almost immediately, it opened-up new avenues of exploration for him. The day after his birthday, Len accompanied Derek on a long cycle ride to Sevenoaks and back to check his son's road sense. The ten year old's maiden descent of the notorious Poll Hill, with his father following close behind on Gary's Dawes racing cycle, was scary at first because he kept glancing warily at the steep wooded drop to his left. However, he forced himself to concentrate on the road straight ahead, and the sense of achievement he felt once he reached the bottom of the hill was confidence building. On their arrival home three hours later, his euphoria was compounded by an extremely rare event: his Dad's praise.
Well done Derek, I was impressed with your riding. You seem to be able to read the road well. Dot? I'd say Derek is a natural on the road, so he should be okay on his own.''
His father's words were music to Derek's ears, and during the half term holiday later that same month, he took full advantage. Setting-off early on three consecutive mornings with sixpence in his pocket, plus a sandwich for lunch and a small bottle of orange juice, he explored much of the South East and East of London, including the Blackwall and Rotherhithe Tunnels, the Woolwich Free Ferry and Tower Bridge. With each passing mile he felt the exhilaration of a growing sense of freedom; something he'd never experienced before, and he relished every moment.
At the end of the half term holiday, the cycling had to be curtailed and limited to weekends only because Derek was facing the next big hurdle in his education; preparation for the Eleven Plus examination.
Due to the fact he lived just inside the Kent county boundary, he was required to sit his Eleven Plus exam one year earlier than those children living within the London County Council boundary. So, at the age of ten years and three months, he sat the Eleven Plus, but failed just.
On his arrival at Hurstmere Secondary Modern for Boys in September 1957, he was initially placed in Form 1; the second to top stream but, within six months, he was promoted to that year's top class, Form 1A. Already excelling at sports ' in particular rugby and athletics ' he was also holding his own academically, but that was about to change.
In the few months since starting at Hurstmere School, one of Derek's Form 1A fellow pupils had earned the dubious reputation of being that year's school bully. Johnny Collins was a thoroughly nasty character and he targeted Derek Shortman as soon as he realised his prey wouldn't fight back. It wasn't so much a question of fear on Derek's part as his acute awareness of his own strengths. He was a big, powerful lad for his age and he possessed a foul temper which had exploded several months earlier.
On that occasion, he caught his father cheating him at cards and he felled him with a lightning fast right hook to the eye. Len had clutched his face and crumpled to the floor like a sack of loose apples.
Derek, meanwhile, fled to his bedroom and barricaded himself in for several hours until Gary gently knocked on the door and called-out, Come and have some tea Del. It's okay, you're not in trouble.''
He sat at the kitchen table that evening casting occasional glances at his Dad's black eye, but not a word passed between them. The whole episode had worried him so much that he vowed never again to throw a punch in anger, especially at somebody else's face. In reality, his thinking was surprisingly logical for a ten year old: if he could do so much damage to his Dad, a grown man, goodness knows what damage he might inflict on someone of his own age. However, over the twelve month period that followed the felling of his father, his decision to avoid lashing out in anger conspired against him. The bullying he was subjected to by Johnny Collins made his life a misery.
He tried confiding in his parents but their stock response was an unhelpful. If you can't hit him, kick him.''
He then began to have his recurring nightmare at least twice a week, complete with the battering down of the door and the menacing hound's howl. As a result, his school work suffered and he was eventually demoted to the second stream. Once there, he thought he'd, at last, found a respite from the malevolence of Johnny Collins. However, his sense of relief was to prove premature. At the beginning of the next new school term, Collins was demoted to Derek's stream and the bullying and the nightmares resumed.
Much to his delight and relief, though, external events eventually intervened. In late September 1959, just two weeks into the start of the new school year ' Derek's third at secondary school ' his form master Mr Hunt made an announcement to the whole class that brought an end to many months of torment. During the summer holidays Johnny Collins had been arrested along with others and charged with arson. He'd been sent to borstal and would not be returning to Hurstmere Secondary.
Derek was immediately fired with renewed interest in his studies and, over the remaining nine months of the school year, his class rankings rose steadily to leave him top of the form in June 1960. At last he was motoring academically, and he looked forward to his fourth year at Hurstmere with real enthusiasm.
His much anticipated fourth year at that Secondary school was destined, however, never to happen.
Returning home, in mid-July 1960, from a fortnight's caravan holiday near Dawlish on the south Devon coast, Len and Dot Shortman opened a letter from Lewisham Borough Council that informed them of the imminent demolition of the whole prefab estate. By late-August they had moved approximately four miles to the west, to a council flat on Beckenham Hill Road. Despite the sudden change in his home environment, the move resulted in the worst kind of news for Derek.
The seven miles between here and Hurstmere Secondary is much too far for you to continue cycling to school,'' announced a worried Dot.
Len agreed, and added, Besides, Hurstmere is almost impossible to reach by bus or train from where we are now, and there's a brand new Comprehensive school right here on our doorstep.''
Their son's tearful protests and heartfelt pleas had no effect. Dot and Len insisted he would have to change schools.
Copyright: Lewis Adler (aka David Lowe) 2011
All rights reserved
"Redeeming Factor" is available as an e-book for Amazon-Kindle, iPad, Kobo and all other e-books readers at 77pence (GBP) or around $1.20 (US)