Fog on the Mersey
by Jolyon Lewes
I just managed to get out of the showers before the games master came round, slapping with his hairy hand the shiny, pink bottoms of the boys still under the jets of hot water. The sharp report of his hand striking firm flesh could easily be heard above the noise of the water and the chattering of boys. After rugby it was good to get warm again and I liked a hot shower but I did not like the way the man thought it was his right to smack my bottom just because I was standing there, naked and vulnerable. Some boys actually seemed to like it; maybe they fancied themselves. I’m sure one or two of them deliberately got their pricks hard, to tease the games master and several would shriek theatrically when slapped. It only encouraged him.
Keith, my best mate, didn’t like it any more than me and he was usually out of the showers even before I was. We grinned at each other as we towelled ourselves dry. I liked Keith’s cheeky grin.
It was Wednesday 4th November 1959. Keith and I were both fourteen. Our school was Thorp Grammar School for Boys, in Aigburth, a suburb of Liverpool. It being a grammar school, we’d had to pass our 11-Plus to be allowed to go there and, being a grammar school, it liked to think it was smart so we played rugby, not football. Looking back, it seems odd to have played rugby in football-crazy Liverpool but our first teams had plenty of opponents in the posh schools in Lancashire and Cheshire. Phil, my younger brother, who’d failed his 11-Plus, was at a nearby secondary modern and they played only with the round ball.
I knew I was privileged going to Thorp but I wasn’t any good at rugby – or any other sport, for that matter. In fact, I wasn’t really very practically minded. I enjoyed reading and writing and, most of all, geography. I grew up knowing that Liverpool had more links with the rest of the world, mainly through shipping, than almost anywhere else in Britain and I loved looking at maps and discovering all the places our ships visited.
I couldn’t see a ship steaming down the Mersey without wondering where it was bound. Except for the ferries, of course: I knew where they went. I liked to go on the ferries just for the feeling of being at sea and if it was foggy, all the better. Sometimes, coming over from Birkenhead in the fog, you could arrive at Pier Head almost before you saw the Royal Liver Building. It was exciting.
Keith and I almost always travelled home from school together and we usually tried to get a seat on the top deck of our bus, which went along Riverside Drive before heading off for Speke. I wiped the condensation from the window and saw a huge ship heading up-river, presumably for Ellesmere Port. Meanwhile, Keith was talking about his geography homework. He was worried about getting it done to the satisfaction of Mr Adams, whose subject it was.
Keith and I often helped each other with homework but tonight was my night to look after Mam and I’d have to be home on time or there’d be trouble. I always had to do the shopping for her on Wednesday after school and then get everything ready for her to cook our meal. Then I had to wash up and put everything away. I just wouldn’t be able to help Keith, unless it was on the bus next morning. I looked at him and apologised. Four months younger than me, he was a little shorter and had black hair, while I was average height for my age and had –still have – light brown hair. He’d gone into long trousers the year before but I, worse luck, was still in short trousers.
Mam had been unwell for years. Sometimes she had good days but other times, without warning, she’d have one of her turns and was virtually unable to do anything. Of course, I didn’t mind helping her, nor did Phil, but one thing I hated was going to the shops for the food. The grocers shop was run by a man called Green and you had to wait in turn to be served by the woman behind the counter. What drove me mad is the way she’d wave other women ahead of kids like me and serve them first.
I thought it was wrong for people to jump the queue – I could imagine what would happen if I’d tried to do it. But she thought little boys could wait until all the fat old women had been served, even though they’d only just come into the shop. One day I got so cross I started to shout at her for ignoring me yet again and old Green came round and started to box my ears.
“Now then, Master Bracken, we don’t want your tantrums in here!”
He was hitting my head and it hurt. But I was more angry than hurting and I let rip with what I thought of his shop and he began to hit me harder. There was a tray of eggs on the counter and his elbow caught it and sent it flying, so now there were lots of eggs lying broken on the floor. One old lady screamed. Green grabbed me round the shoulders so he could start spanking my bottom but I wriggled free and ran. Out of the shop I hurtled and I didn’t stop running until I got home.
I was in trouble for not bringing the food home and a day or two later I was in more trouble when my parents heard about me ‘throwing a tantrum’ in the shop. Dad was furious and made me go round and apologise to the wretched woman at the till. That was months before but I still hated going to Green’s and I’d swear the woman smirked each time she saw me queuing up. It was so unfair.
Back to 4th November. It being the night before Guy Fawkes, there were fireworks for sale at Green’s so I spent a shilling of my own on some jumping jacks and then went home with the shopping. Mam was OK so she started to make the meal and I went upstairs to the bedroom I shared with Phil. He was there, still in his school uniform, putting the finishing touches to an Airfix Spitfire he’d made. He was putting transfers on the wings.
Phil was broader than me – I was really quite thin in those days – and a fraction taller. Nobody thought he was over two years younger than me! He was wearing his uniform of thick grey flannel. His shorts came to his knees whereas mine, made of a material called Terylene and worsted, were very much shorter, reaching only halfway down my thighs. All this made me look younger than Phil and I found it really embarrassing, especially when we had a family outing, as we boys would always have to wear school uniform. Everyone assumed Phil was older than me.
Dad had grumbled about the cost of my grammar school uniform and said I couldn’t have long trousers until the short ones would no longer fit me. Well, my body had expanded in three years; both my pairs of shorts were now very tight and very short but of long trousers there was no sign. On the other hand, Phil had recently grown bigger round the waist and Dad had said he’d found the money for new trousers for him – and they’d be long ones.
Phil and I got on well enough but he was much more practically minded than me and I always felt Dad preferred him to me. It didn’t help that Dad had been away fighting in the War when I was born and didn’t come home until I was nearly two, so he’d never known me as a baby. Mam, of course, knew me very well but she’d had to go out to work and it was her parents who looked after me for much of my early childhood and I loved them more than anyone.
Dad always seemed to take Phil’s side in any argument and I’m sure I sometimes caught a look in his eyes that said ‘why can’t you be more of a man, like your younger brother and take an interest in practical things instead of burying your head in books?’ Well, I was never going to be mechanically minded and that was the end to it.
That night, in bed, I thought of the master, Mr Curtis, who’d patted my head when I came off the rugby field that afternoon, as if to say ‘Never mind, young Alan, you tried your hardest. Keep your chin up!’ He was a new teacher, a Southerner and very young. I don’t think he was very happy in Liverpool and I felt a bit sorry for him. I was sure he liked me and I often saw him on the touchline, looking at me. If I caught his eye, he’d give me a friendly little wink. Dad would never do that.
Next day, Keith was off sick, so I travelled alone to school and at dinner break I hung around with my other friend in the class, Austin. Austin was quite different from Keith. He was as blond as Keith was dark and his eyes were cornflower blue. Keith was my best mate but I felt differently about Austin. To be honest, I fancied Austin. I wanted to touch him.
Like me, Austin was still in shorts. He’d grown taller but no stouter and had worn the same shorts since he was eleven. His shorts had started off even shorter than mine, so now, at fourteen, Austin showed a vast amount of bare thigh, especially when he was sitting. I couldn’t stop myself from staring surreptitiously at him and often my prick would get hard. I’d already got a few tiny hairs on my legs but Austin’s legs were completely smooth and I wanted to stroke them. Of course, I’d never mentioned it, let alone touched him.
It wasn’t just his legs that looked girlish; he had a feminine look to his face too, and I wondered what it would be like to kiss him. Austin never acted like a girl, I’m happy to say. He wasn’t effeminate in his manner. He never ponced about like a pansy (as Dad would say). When we were all in sports kit we all looked alike and anyway we were always running about. But in the classroom, with us all in uniform, you just couldn’t miss the bareness of Austin’s long legs. Yes, my prick often got very hard when I was looking at Austin.
After school I went round to Keith’s and took my jumping jacks to cheer him up. I was ready to help him with his geography homework but we had to go out and watch a fireworks display on the green so I never got the chance. My jumping jacks were pathetic – Green must have sold me duds – but Keith’s Mam had told him he’d be well enough to go to school next day, which cheered me up no end.
It had not cheered up Keith, however, as I discovered on the bus next morning. He was dreading what Mr Adams would say about his homework. Mr Adams was sarcastic almost the whole time and I thought he was a very bad teacher. He never bothered me because geography was my favourite subject and I could probably have got a good ‘O’ Level even without a teacher. But he was horrible to some of the boys, Keith included. He used to cane them.
The rule was that only Mr Hall, the headmaster, was allowed to cane boys but one or two masters whacked boys with a slipper or even a cane. The authorities must have known but didn’t seem to care and if any boy had complained to his parents his Dad would probably have given him a sound spanking and told him to stop being a girl. My theory is that Mr Adams was such a useless teacher that he thought he had to resort to the cane in order to instil knowledge. We all despised him.
Poor Keith knew what was coming and sure enough, Mr Adams shouted at him about his bad homework and then pulled him to the front for a caning. My heart was in my mouth as I watched my best mate, his face white with fear, being dragged to the front. The classroom was silent but for the sound of Keith’s shoes sliding on the wooden floor.
“Get your jacket off!” yelled Mr Adams. I forced myself to look out of the window, towards the Mersey; I tried to identify a ship steaming down towards Liverpool but I couldn’t resist looking back at Keith, now leaning over a desk, the seat of his grey trousers looking shiny in the bright light. He looked so thin and frail. Mr Adams made a few insulting, sarcastic remarks and then picked up his cane. I could see Keith’s hands twitching.
Poor little Keith was positioned so that we could see his bottom but not his face. Still, we could all hear his strangled gasp of pain as the cane struck. After four strokes there was a lot of sniffing so I knew Keith was crying. He came back to his desk, his face awash with tears, and he couldn’t look anyone in the eye, not even me. He eased himself carefully onto the seat and the lesson continued, with Keith sniffing for a while longer. I made up my mind to help him with his homework in future, whatever the cost.
When I looked away from Keith and got back to my books I was horrified to find my prick was as stiff as anything. It must have got like that during the caning but I didn’t think of Keith like that. Well, I told myself I didn’t. I thought of Austin like that all the time but not Keith. He was my best mate. It took ages for my prick to behave itself and I hoped Mr Adams wouldn’t get me to stand up or anything.
I spent all dinner break with Keith but I didn’t ask him to show me the marks in case I got hard again and Keith noticed. How on earth would I explain it to him? I could hardly tell him it was because I fancied him. It would be less embarrassing if I told him it was because I was thinking about Austin! I’d heard several other boys saying they found Austin sexy.
Thankfully, my teenage urges restrained themselves while I was chatting to Keith and trying to make him feel better. During the afternoon I took some precautions. I thought if I let my prick get hard, it would be too tired to embarrass me when I was with Keith on the bus home. It was my good fortune that Austin was looking particularly tasty during history. As if the thrilling sight of his bare thighs wasn’t enough, he must have been dying for a pee because he kept crossing and recrossing his legs, making his shorts ride further and further up until I could see the start of his bottom. My prick was dead beat by the end of lessons!
Some Saturday mornings Keith and I would go to the cinema for the kids’ matinee show but we felt we were getting a bit old for it and now went much less often. In any case, Keith had other plans for this weekend so I did one of my favourite things and took the train into the city. Since my fourteenth birthday I’d always worn school uniform for these little outings; in my little shorts and with my voice not having properly broken, I could pass as a kid and get a child’s fare, which saved a bit of pocket money.
Sitting by myself in the train as it rattled its way through the foggy morning, I wondered whether Austin would one day come with me to the cinema. I imagined sitting in the back row with him and fondling his thighs. I was lost in my dreams and the journey passed very quickly. I got out at James Street Station and walked over to Pier Head, my raincoat concealing the rapidly subsiding evidence of my rude thoughts about Austin. As always, I looked up at the Liver Birds and whispered ‘Hallo.’
I was excited to see one of the Anchor Line ships alongside, right opposite the Royal Liver Building, so I decided to investigate. She was the Cilicia , and I knew she did the Bombay run. I perched on a big iron bollard and studied the great ship, counting the port-holes and watching the wispy smoke rising from the huge, black funnel. There were boys only a little older than me in their heavy Anchor Line uniform, carting passengers’ luggage up the gangway. I watched two boys struggling up the steep gangway with a huge cabin trunk. When they got to the deck one boy dropped his end and the trunk crashed down. He took off his cap to fan his face and I saw he looked like an older version of Austin. One of the pursers gave him a mighty clip round the ear, making him yelp in pain. I felt my prick stiffening yet again.
I spent a happy hour or two wandering about before heading home in time to pick up fish and chips to take home for Mam, Dad, Phil and me to eat for dinner. Mam was having a good day and everyone was in a bright mood. She said if I went to the butcher’s we could have my favourite meal on Sunday: fried liver and onions with mash and loads of gravy. Then Dad had some more good news for me.
“We’ve been thinking, Alan. You’ll be fifteen on the thirtieth and we want to get you some long trousers for school, like Phil. They’re not cheap, mind, so it’ll be just one pair and you can keep the shorts for spare. It’s not your birthday present, just a reward for good behaviour. So you’ll have to be good for the next few weeks!”
Keith was back to his usual irrepressible self on Monday morning and we had quite a good day at school. In the evening I went round to his place and we got stuck into some geography in his bedroom. On weekday nights we wore school uniform until bedtime so I was sitting next to him and my grey shorts had ridden right up my thighs, as usual. We were colouring in some maps and Keith, who had a habit of chewing his pencils, had four in his mouth when I said something funny. As he laughed, out fell all the pencils and somehow landed on my lap. He whipped his hand down to catch them before they fell on the floor and his hand landed right at the top of my bare leg.
“Oooops, sorry, Alan!” he said, whipping his hand away. Just the glancing touch of Keith’s hand on my naked thigh was enough to start me off and my prick was hard within seconds. I had to stand up so Keith could pick the pencils off the floor and I turned away, brushing down my shorts and trying to flatten the bulge that had formed at the front. As I’ve said, I’d worn those shorts for over three years and they were far too tight for me to hide my bulge in folds of cloth, like I was sure I’d seen Mr Adams do after he’d caned someone. If Keith noticed he didn’t say anything and I quickly sat down and carried on colouring the map.
When we’d finished we played a game we often played after doing homework. Keith would test my encyclopaedic knowledge of geography by asking me the capital cities of countries. He, of course, had to use a book but when it was my turn to ask him I did it from memory. He lay on his bed and I sat on the edge of it. We usually ended up giggling stupidly and this time I ventured into the solar system and asked him what the capital city of Mars was.
Keith sat up and said “Come ‘ere, you silly git!”
He grabbed me and pulled me down on top of him and we had a little wrestle, giggling like mad. I felt his hands moving up my bare legs and creeping towards where my shorts finished. At the same time my tummy felt the bulge in his trousers! His bulge and mine were getting closer and closer to each other when we heard someone coming upstairs. We sprang apart, got to our feet and tidied ourselves up. Keith looked highly embarrassed. That was the end of homework for the night. Later, at home, I found one of Keith’s chewed pencils in my pocket. I took it to bed, knowing it had spent so long in Keith’s mouth and was therefore a very special pencil. Yet again, my prick got hard and I licked it – the pencil – until I fell asleep.
Next day, Keith and I were quieter than usual on the bus, both trying to pretend nothing had happened the night before. In class, I found myself staring again at Austin. Was it my imagination or had his shorts got even shorter? In the afternoon we had physics practical and we all had to pair up for an experiment with Wheatstone Bridges. Austin asked me to be his partner! We grabbed a place in the back row.
I spent a blissful hour and a half perched on a lab stool, right next to Austin, poring over the apparatus and the books. Because we took turns to take measurements and write down the data, we had to sit very close indeed and because it wasn’t a messy experiment we didn’t need to wear lab coats. So, you’ve guessed it, my right thigh spent its time pressed hard against Austin’s left one but he didn’t seem to mind. Something else was very hard, too!
The physics master came to check our progress and then spent the rest of the time with the boys in front of us. Austin crossed his left leg over his right and swivelled to his left a bit, which made our right knees touch. His left thigh was virtually resting on my lap! As usual, his shorts had ridden right up and looking straight down, I saw this marvellous, naked thigh, the skin as smooth as the paper I was writing on. I leaned forward a little and my tie hung down so that its tip touched Austin’s perfect flesh.
I moved a bit and the end of my tie traced a little circle on Austin’s thigh, about halfway from his knee. It must have tickled him, because he gave a little giggle and scratched his skin where the tie had touched it. I wished it were my fingers doing the scratching. I wanted physics practical to go on forever. My shorts had ridden up a long way (although not nearly as far as his) and the feel of his bare flesh on mine was sensational! My prick was trying to burst out of my shorts. I tried to see if Austin had a bulge too but couldn’t.
A little later I tried the tie trick once more. Austin gave that sweet little giggle again and scratched his leg but afterwards his hand remained on the side of his thigh, his fingertips almost touching my leg. I was finding it really difficult to concentrate on our physics experiment. Then Austin scratched the side of his thigh and the back of his hand made contact with my rigid prick, pulsating away inside my shorts.
He whipped his hand back up to the lab bench. “Ooh, sorry, Alan!” he said. Then he got off his stool, moved it six inches away, turned away from me, tugged the legs of his shorts down and climbed back on his stool, to sit with his knees together and with no part of his body touching mine. I’d been discovered! I felt myself going a deep red. How was I going to live this down? The physics practical was nearly over and so was the excitement in my loins. I felt so ashamed! Austin wouldn’t want anything more to do with me.
I tried to concentrate on writing up the results while Austin began to sharpen some pencils. I was tingling all over with embarrassment. Then Austin suddenly swiveled ninety degrees left and thrust his bare knees against my right thigh. I turned to face him and his beautiful blue eyes looked deeply into mine. He was smiling.
“Right then, let’s see if our results agree!” he said, brightly.
He looked pointedly at my crotch and then back at my face. At last, I twigged. I looked down at his crotch. There was a very obvious bulge at the front of his grey shorts. We both giggled. Then Austin stood up and fussed about with his shorts again. He was probably trying to stop his prick making a break for freedom via one leg of his shorts but he made it look like he was brushing off the debris from the pencils. Then, still standing, he said “Let’s work on the conclusion!” Next, he whispered in my ear “You know, Alan, I never knew you had green eyes!” My prick stiffened further.
Luckily, we all had to sit while the physics master summarised the afternoon, which gave time for my prick to resume decent proportions. I was tingling with the shock of what had just passed between Austin and me. We’d been aroused by each other but where would it lead? It probably meant nothing to Austin. He was just having a laugh. Still, I hoped nobody’d been watching us.
The lesson over, we all stood to pack up our bags and in the general noise of stools scraping on the floor, Austin leaned close again and said. “I’ve seen you looking at me in class, Alan.” Then he gave me a cheeky wink and dashed out of the physics lab.
On Wednesday morning I spent quite a bit of time Austin-watching but as eleven o’clock approached I tried to think of less exciting things. It being Remembrance Day, we would all be standing for the two-minute silence and I wouldn’t want a tent in my shorts! It would not only be highly embarrassing for me but disrespectful to the dead soldiers we were commemorating.
Changing for rugby, Keith showed me his cane marks. Even at five days old they looked absolutely horrible. Inevitably, I felt a hard-on coming. I looked at the little birthmark high up on Keith’s left thigh. I’d first seen it months ago and had never thought much about it but now, with my growing interest in his body, I had a crazy urge to see if I could wipe it off his smooth skin.
Austin was in a different rugby set. Funnily enough, as his blue rugger shorts were much longer than his little grey shorts you couldn’t see as much of his legs on the sports field as you could in the classroom. Or on the bus. One day, I’d have to find an excuse to catch his bus instead of mine and look to see if people stared at him. Even better, we could go to the cinema. Judging from what he’d done and said during Tuesday’s physics practical, I suspected we’d not be paying much attention to the film!
Before Keith and I went for the bus I was stopped in the corridor by the two class bullies, Gareth and John.
“We want a word with you, Bracken.”
Keith looked anxiously at them and moved very close to me.
“It’s alright,” said Gareth, looking at my best mate, “we’re not going to hit him. We just want a word.”
Suddenly having an inkling what this might be about, I told Keith to go for the bus and said I’d get the next one. Looking unsure, he departed.
“Now then, Bracken,” said John, “we’ve noticed how you look at that little blond friend of yours. You can’t take your bloody eyes off him.”
“And we saw you in the physics lab yesterday,” added Gareth. “Disgusting, it was.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked, my knees turning to jelly.
“We’ve got something for you to do, Bracken,” sneered John. “We’re going to give you a dare. We’ll tell you what it is on Friday.”
“And you’ve got to do it,” said Gareth, “or we’ll make sure everyone knows what you do with Austin. And we’ll give you a good kicking too.”
“To teach you a lesson,” added John, even more sneeringly.
“I want to know what you think you can make me do,” I said, shaking. My mouth was dry.
“Friday. We’ll tell you then,” said Gareth. “Now, get lost!”
Now began two days of hell. I travelled home wondering what those two oafs had seen. I wondered if they’d seen Austin and me with our bare legs entwined, or comparing the tents in our shorts, or our obvious enjoyment of each other’s company. I was in a state of shock. Then I thought: would they have made the same threats to Austin? I’d have to find out.
By the time I got home I was feeling more angry than shocked and as it was Wednesday I had to go shopping for Mam. Green’s was the only shop open as Wednesday was early closing day so I had no alternative but to face that awful woman behind the counter. It was a mighty job to control my temper but I managed, just. Once home again I went upstairs to have a bit of time by myself. Standing on his bed was Phil, in his new trousers – long ones of horrible, thick flannel; he was hanging his Spitfire from the ceiling with cotton thread.
“Why can’t you go downstairs?” I grumbled. “I want some space to myself.”
Phil looked down at me and smiled happily. He was proud of his new trousers and hadn’t realised I was furious. Then I saw that above my bed he’d hung a Dornier bomber, about four feet above my pillow. The Spitfire was meant to be attacking the Dornier. I really lost my rag.
“That flippin’ thing is over my bed! Mam said you’ve to keep your toys on your side of the room!”
I reached up, wrenched the Dornier off its bits of cotton and threw it to the floor. The tail and both propellers broke off. Phil looked aghast and, leaving his Spitfire hanging on one thread, leapt down to pick up the Dornier. He burst into tears.
“You’ve wrecked it! It took me weeks to make it and now you’ve wrecked it!” he cried. Paying no attention, I stormed downstairs.
The first thing Dad said when he heard what I’d done was “You can forget all about long trousers if that’s how you treat your brother, you little runt!” I didn’t know what a runt was but it sounded bad.
Phil said his Dornier was beyond repair and Dad told me to save up for a replacement. I said Phil had invaded my airspace and I wasn’t going to apologise to him. I was sent to bed early but I was glad to escape the hostile atmosphere downstairs. I lay in bed and considered my position. Dad had said I could forget about long trousers. Long trousers … if Austin had worn long trousers I probably wouldn’t be in this pickle.
I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep that night and I didn’t but not for the reason I expected. Phil wouldn’t speak to me when he came up. He carefully arranged the debris from the Dornier on a tray, so that it resembled one of those exploded diagrams. Then he went to bed, facing the wall, leaving me to worry about Friday. I was still worrying when, in the early hours, he awoke in great pain. He said his tummy was hurting like crazy. I told him to shut up and stop complaining.
I really thought he was acting as he writhed about on his bed, groaning. He wasn’t going to get any sympathy from me. After a few minutes he suddenly shot up and was sick all over his sheets. I knew he wasn’t that good an actor so I turned on the light. His face was bright green! “Alan – tell Mam I’m dying!”
Quickly coming to my senses, I rushed to the landing and shouted for Mam. Dad came out to see what the fuss was about and when he saw Phil he picked him up and carried him to the bathroom. I could hear Phil crying and being sick. Mam went in and began to fuss over him. I hung around on the landing.
“See what you’ve done! You’ve made him ill!” said Mam.
“You can take the blame for this!” yelled Dad. “And you can get his sheets changed! Now!”
An hour passed. Phil was still making appalling noises – he was really ill. I was beside myself with worry. If only I’d not lost my temper with him. Would he die? If he did, it would be my fault. I thought if I bought him a new Dornier it would make him better, so I counted all my money; twelve and sixpence. It wouldn’t be enough. I sat on my bed, racked with guilt.
Well, Phil survived and although we’d all had an awful night, the shared sense of relief at breakfast brought us together and before I left for school I went and gave Phil a pat on the shoulder and he smiled at me. Mam kept him off school for the rest of the week. As for me, at least I could use Phil’s illness as my excuse for looking and feeling dead-beat all day. Somehow I got through the day, carefully avoiding Austin and too scared to confide in Keith.
When I awoke on Friday a stabbing pain hit me as I remembered my appointment with the bullies. It was Friday the thirteenth! I was quiet as a mouse all morning and Keith was a bit worried for me. I was going to have to tell him something. The bullies came for me in the dinner break. They set me my dare. I was to perform it on Monday.
It might not seem much to modern readers but what I had to do was this. After dinner the bullies would be in the Co-op shop a couple of streets from school, looking at the magazines. I would come in and keeping well clear of them, go up to any old ladies I could find and swear at them. It had to be proper swearing. Then I could run out and head off in the wrong direction before returning to school. And that was all.
“If you do it, your smutty little secrets will be safe,” said Gareth.
“We’ll be watching, mind,” added John, “so we’ll know if you don’t swear proper.”
So that was it. It didn’t seem much to me, even then. After all, I was known for getting stroppy in shops. With an unexpected feeling of relief, I passed the rest of the day almost normally. I even stole the occasional look towards Austin, who was looking more delicious than ever. I was convinced his shorts had shrunk. Keith and I chatted almost as usual on the bus home but I told him nothing about Monday’s task and he was a bit distant. On Saturday Mam slipped me a pound so I had enough to buy Phil a new Dornier kit. I told him I wouldn’t mind if it hung over my bed.
On Monday morning Gareth came up and whispered that I had to use the worst swear words I knew. If I didn’t the deal was off and everyone would know I fancied Austin. It dawned on me that the dare wouldn’t be as easy as I’d thought. Even though I liked school dinners, I didn’t feel like eating much. I made some excuse to Keith and nipped out of school and set off for the Co-op. It was easy going in, as I hadn’t done anything wrong yet and there were some interesting magazines on the rack. Then I saw the bullies coming in. I picked up a Wizard comic that I had no intention of buying and went towards the counter.
Predictably, there were four or five old ladies standing nattering so I pushed in front of the fattest of them and waited for the reaction.
“Eh, sonny, watch yer manners!”
I drew a deep breath. “Can’t you see I’m in a hurry?” I yelled. “I ain’t got time to wait for you old biddies!” A huge hand reached for me and I heard shocked intakes of breath.
“Well, I never!” said the fattest old lady. “What’s yer name, sonny?”
“Not telling you, you bloody old bitch!” I wriggled out of harm’s way and added, for good measure “You’re all a lot of bloody old bitches!” I dropped the comic and ran for the open door, disappeared down the foggy street and was round the corner in a flash.
Back in class for the afternoon, I made a point of looking at the bullies. Gareth grinned and gave me a thumbs-up and John just gave a sly little smirk. On the way home, Keith said I’d been behaving oddly and asked what was wrong but I just put it down to the worry we’d had with Phil being ill. He said I could always tell him anything. “Even if you’ve committed a crime,” he added. I suddenly felt lead in my belly. Supposing I’d been identified in the shop? Supposing the bullies didn’t keep their word?
I felt a bit uncomfortable until Wednesday afternoon and then the floor dropped out of my world. The whole school had to go to the assembly hall before anyone got changed for games. The last time that had happened was for a public caning. My conscience wasn’t exactly clear and I felt weak at the knees and my guts turned to water. I had to hold onto Keith as we walked into the hall. I was terrified. A vaulting horse was standing on the stage and most of the masters were there too.
Mr Hall the headmaster swept in and stood on the stage. Three hundred boys were standing in silence, waiting to hear what it was all about, as if we couldn’t guess.
“Boys, I have a very grave matter to deal with. There is nothing more important to me than the good name of this School. If a boy should damage our reputation by an act of dishonesty, deceit or greed then I shall deal with it most severely. Nor will I stand for any act of gross bad manners, especially if a lady is concerned.” I thought I was going to faint and held onto Keith.
“There is in this School a boy who has committed just such an offence. He was caught stealing from a kiosk in Sefton Park. In school uniform ! His name is Rodrigues. Bring him in!”
A wave of relief swept over me and I felt able to stand without assistance. Rodrigues was a boy in the Lower Sixth, a decent enough bloke and very nice-looking. A side door opened and Rodrigues was brought in. The rule said boys should only be caned in uniform but Mr Hall always took the law into his own hands. Rodrigues was in very skimpy white PT kit and plimsolls; he looked terrified and almost as pale as his clothing. A slim boy but taller than me, he certainly didn’t look nearly seventeen!
The games master had brought Rodrigues in and he led him straight to the horse, which had been adjusted to be just the right height. Rodrigues was laid over the horse with his bottom facing us but not before the games master had put his hand in the boy’s shorts and yanked them right up. They were already very short and now, as Rodrigues lay over the horse we could see some of his bare bottom. It looked so smooth and perfect. The games master, satisfied he’d got the victim properly presented, then gave the waiting bottom a mighty smack and the sound echoed around the hall.
Mr Hall took up a cane and spoke again. “Now, boys, let this be a lesson to you all.” Then he began to cane poor Rodrigues. He gave him six strokes with his cane and like many other boys, I watched in a combination of wonder, fear, pity and disgust. Mr Curtis, the master who liked me, looked as though he shared my feelings. Others, like Mr Adams and several of the older boys, looked in obvious delight. Whatever your feelings, you couldn’t possibly ignore the terrifying spectacle.
Rodrigues held his position and if he made any cries I didn’t hear them but I was quite far from him. What was plain to see after the first three strokes was the red mark that appeared on the bare part of his bottom, followed by another a bit lower down and then a third, at the very top of his thighs. That was the sixth stroke and this time I did hear a sort of anguished groan.
The games master grabbed Rodrigues and pulled him upright, pushing quickly him out of the hall with one arm in a half-Nelson, so the poor boy couldn’t rub his bottom, which I’m sure he desperately wanted to do. His face was pink and covered in tears and he was sniffing continuously.
Halfway to the door, the games master paused and with his free hand yanked up Rodrigues’s tiny shorts to expose even more of his bum and now we could see four great marks, all of which seemed to be getting redder with every passing second. As soon as Rodrigues was out of sight we were all dismissed and went to change for games. To my shame I found that my prick had stiffened but, judging from the many other boys – and Mr Adams – fiddling about in their pockets, it seemed the reaction was pretty common.
You may think I was a bit slow on the uptake but of course, during the afternoon the realization dawned that I’d damaged the good name of the School and could end up with a punishment just like that! But I hadn’t been caught and nobody at the Co-op knew my name. Mr Hall would have a hard job to pin anything on me!
On the bus home, Keith and I talked about the public caning. We both agreed that Rodrigues got what he deserved but I said it without much conviction. Nor did Keith seem to think the sight of a boy’s semi-bare bottom being caned was particularly edifying.
Next day the bully Gareth came up to me at break and said I’d done a good job in the Co-op. “It’s John,” he said. “He’s jealous of you. He fancies Austin rotten. But for Christ’s sake, don’t tell him I said that!” So that was it. Bully boy John wanted to get me into trouble because he wanted Austin for himself! Well, I wouldn’t let him.
On the bus home on Friday night, Keith told me he’d heard that some kid had caused a riot in the Co-op near school and Mr Hall was trying to find out who it was. I felt a great weight on my chest and my mouth went dry. I couldn’t think of anything to say. At home I think my parents thought my solemn behaviour that night was because I was still feeling remorse at the way I’d behaved to Phil, who was, by the way, quite back to normal. He was working happily on his new Dornier.
On Saturday I said I wanted to go to Liverpool docks and Mam slipped me ten shillings, saying to enjoy myself and have some fish and chips and to be back by teatime. The fog was really thick as I set off on the train and when I got to Pier Head it was bitingly cold and very clammy. The Liver Birds were hidden in the fog.
There were plenty of ships but none that I recognised. The Cilicia would probably be halfway to Bombay, in the Indian Ocean perhaps, where it was nice and warm. Those boys I’d seen carrying luggage would be sunning themselves on the deck. I suddenly wanted to run away. I wasn’t a rude boy but the chances were high that I’d be punished for pretending to be rude – for a dare. But who would believe it was a dare? I withdrew into myself and even forgot to feel cold.
I considered getting the ferry and finding somewhere to hide in New Brighton; I even considered stowing away on one of the freighters but I’d no idea when any of them was about to sail. I was building myself up into a real depression as I wondered about, only half aware of the swirling, icy fog and the greyness of the Mersey. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hello, young Bracken. A penny for your thoughts.” It was Mr Curtis.
“Oh, hallo, Sir,” I said, trying to control the panic that had seized me.
“I’ve seen you here before, Alan. You like ships, don’t you?”
Mr Curtis was so nice to me. He strolled along with me, chatting about the ships. He never mentioned school or anything like that. He said he came from Hastings which was famous for a different kind of ship, William the Conqueror’s ships, in 1066. He seemed to trust me because he went on about how he missed Sussex and how he found it so cold and grey in Liverpool.
“You must be freezing in those little shorts, Alan. Why don’t we go and find a nice, warm cafe?”
Mr Curtis asked me about my family and what I hoped to do in the future but he did it kindly and he didn’t seem to be prying so I told him everything about me. Well – obviously I didn’t tell him about Austin or the bullies, or what I’d done in the Co-op. It was nice talking to him. He didn’t seem at all like a teacher. I think he liked telling me things, how he hoped to get a car, and somewhere nice to live. He said the digs he had in Cressington were awful.
We had fish and chips – which he bought – and I was beginning to forget my own troubles. At about three it was getting dark, the fog was even thicker and we caught the train home. At his suggestion I took my raincoat off as the train was very warm but I felt very self-conscious about my legs, which seemed so very bare. All day I’d not seen any other boy in shorts. I was to be fifteen in a week’s time and my shorts seemed to be getting shorter by the day! Mr Curtis sat close to me but didn’t try to touch me or anything. I trusted him.
At home though, I didn’t say I’d met one of my teachers and Mam was a bit surprised that I gave her ten bob back. She said my long trousers were back on the agenda. “In time for Christmas, love.”
Sunday wasn’t too bad; Keith and I hung around together and when we went to his place his big brother played us the new Adam Faith record, What Do You Want If You Don’t Want Money? It had just made Number One in the hit parade. We heard it about ten times that Sunday. Keith and I had no time to ourselves but he seemed to be back to his usual, friendly self. I went home feeling quite cheerful. In bed that night though, the worries came flooding back. I feared my whole world was about to fall apart and next day, it did.
Mr Hall sent for me at morning break. He asked me if I’d been to the Co-op last Monday and said if I denied it there were reliable witnesses to say I’d been there, in school uniform and had been grossly rude to three old ladies, who’d been so distressed they’d complained to the School Secretary.
I nearly passed out. I couldn’t deny it; everything he said was true and even if I’d wanted to deny it I couldn’t have got the words out. To use an expression I learnt fifty years later, I knew I was toast.
“You are well aware how important to me is the good name of the School, Bracken. You have wilfully damaged the reputation of Thorp Grammar and I will deal with you extremely seriously. You will see my secretary after school and take the names and addresses of the dear old ladies you so violently abused and will write an apology to each of them. Understood?”
Still unable to speak, I nodded my head. Could I breathe again?
“Furthermore, you will report to the assembly hall today, at one o’clock, in your PT kit. Which had better be clean! Now, go!” No, I couldn’t breathe again.
I don’t know how I found the strength to leave Mr Hall’s study but I somehow found myself in the corridor near my classroom. The next lesson was about to start and I didn’t want to get into even more trouble so in I went, a great rushing sound in my ears and my knees barely able to hold me up. The class seemed unusually quiet and the master was already at his desk. It was Mr Adams.
“Take your seat, Bracken,” he said, laying on the sarcasm. “Enjoy it while you can. I doubt you’ll be able to sit this afternoon.” I didn’t look at him but I did see the bully, John, and he was smirking horribly. I looked around to see if all the others were smirking but they weren’t. Gareth was looking firmly at the floor; Keith was looking studiously at his desk and Austin was tugging at his shorts to try to make them look longer. I was an outcast.
At the end of the lesson I didn’t want to leave the room and Keith hung back, waiting for everyone else to leave.
“I heard what you did. John went and told everyone. I reckon it was him who snitched on you. But why did you do it?”
I couldn’t think of what to say. Instead I started to sort of choke and tears formed in my eyes. Keith put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t tell me now,” he said, gently. “Maybe when it’s all over. Meantime, you’ve got me. I’ll not desert you. Same goes for Austin.”
I looked up at Austin, who was slowly walking towards us. Through my tears I could see blue eyes looking searchingly at my face. “What made you do a thing like that, Alan?” Again I couldn’t answer and my choking turned into proper crying. How could I tell Austin it was all because of him?
My two friends sat with me at dinner but I couldn’t eat anything. I urgently needed the toilet. In half an hour I would be disgraced in front of the whole school and be in incredible pain. I didn’t know which was worse. Yes, I did. It was the pain to come. I strained like mad in the toilet but nothing happened. Keith and Austin, their faces as white as mine, came into the changing room with me and helped me change into PT kit. Keith kept giving me looks of encouragement. “Be brave, Alan,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
As I stepped shakily out of my grey shorts my brain seemed to be going numb. Then I took off my pants and tried to pull on my PT shorts but my arms wouldn’t work and Austin had to help. It struck me later that he and Keith would have seen my prick, looking tiny and insignificant, yet the pricks of many boys and even some masters would soon be swelling at the sight of me bent over, getting the cane.
My friends walked me to the side door to the assembly hall but then had to go inside and join the excited throng of spectators. Before leaving me they patted my shoulder and wished me luck. I wasn’t capable of rational thought at that moment but I realised later that they’d no idea why I’d behaved so stupidly yet were still prepared to take my side and back me up.
The games master appeared and told me to stand still while he checked I had nothing on under my PT shorts. Then he pulled the waistband up as far as he could and it hurt. At least I knew my shorts were much longer than the ones Rodrigues had worn and however high they were pulled up, they wouldn’t show my bottom.
I was made to stand straight and face the corridor for Mr Hall and a line of masters to file past, on their way into the hall, each in his gown. One was Mr Curtis and I saw the expression on his face. He looked as though he was about to burst into tears. If I’d confessed to him on the train, he might have been able to prevent this awful business and maybe the bullies would be getting it. But how could I tell on them? You just can’t do that sort of thing.
I heard Mr Hall make his announcement and then I was dragged into the hall and onto the stage. That’s what must have happened but I remembered nothing about it. All I remembered, in vivid detail, was having my singlet and shorts tugged right up and then being put over the horse. The leather top felt cold against my bare tummy. Now there was no escape. I just wanted it to be over.
The games master hovered around in front of me, as I heard the terrifying sound of a cane swishing through the air. But it didn’t land on me so it must have been Mr Hall practising. He did it a few more times and then the games master disappeared from my sight and a second later I felt a massive spank on my bottom. For all I knew, it made a sharp report that echoed round the hall but all I noticed was the impact and the pain. I felt the shock through my whole body. I must have winced but I don’t think I cried out. Anyway, what was to come would be far worse.
And it came. Quickly. I’d been caned before but in school uniform and with none of this drama. Mr Adams had done it in the classroom without any great speeches, like he’d done it to Keith the other day, and I hadn’t had time to get really scared. But this time was different. I completely forgot about three hundred boys watching and just thought about me and my poor bottom.
Four strokes of the cane I took and the pain was so great I had to fight to breathe, with tears and snot all over my face. I was expecting more strokes and wondered why they didn’t come.
Then I realised there was a muttering of voices in the hall and I heard Mr Hall say something to someone close by. I tried to stay still and keep my sobbing down but I really wasn’t in control. Then I felt something happen. My bottom was on such fire I couldn’t feel hands on my skin but I did feel my waistband being pulled back. Surely they’re not going to make me take the last two in the nude! Whoever was doing something must have stopped it because I heard Mr Hall shout ‘Stand back!’
I was aware of another man’s voice yelling “No! No!” and I was sure it was Mr Curtis. Just as I was beginning to wonder what was going on, there was another crack of the cane and I definitely knew it had hit my upper thighs. It was the worst stroke of all and I must have doubled up in my agony because I felt my knees on the top of the horse. Next thing, I was falling, falling. My eyes were so bleary I couldn’t see the floor but that’s what I hit, head first, crumpling up into a ball and reaching for my bottom with both hands and sobbing helplessly.
The games master pulled me roughly to my feet, twisted one arm behind my back and frog marched me off the stage and out of the hall. “First Aid Room for you, you little bugger!” he said as he hustled me along. Why was I going there? I wanted to go to the changing room and the only company I wanted was that of Keith and Austin. The nurse put some Dettol on a cloth and wiped it over my bottom and thighs. If it stung, I wouldn’t know, as the whole area was still burning with a flame I thought would never go out.
I was quickly shunted out of the First Aid Room and in the corridor were Keith and Austin, looking terribly worried. They fell in either side of me and helped me back to the changing room.
“I couldn’t believe it when he hit you again after he’d seen you were bleeding!”said Keith. “Mr Curtis tried to stop him hitting you again but he just pushed him away!”
Austin gave me his handkerchief to wipe my face. He’d obviously been crying and his hanky was already damp. Once I could see properly I looked at his lovely face. He said “Thank God it’s over, Alan. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen!”
“Well,” I replied, suddenly feeling strong, and grateful for the company of my friends, “it’s the worst thing I’ve ever felt !”
Just then Mr Curtis came in. “Oh, Alan, – I mean, Bracken – how are you? No – don’t answer – stupid question!” He came over and put an arm round my shoulder. “You’ll get over this, my boy. What say we take a trip on the ferry one Saturday? The foggier the better!”
“Thank you, Sir,” I said. I never expected support from a master.
I was soon back in school uniform and having to face the afternoon lessons. Strangely, the masters were sympathetic and left me alone. One even said I could stand if I preferred. Keith kept on giving me his little looks of encouragement and so did most of the other boys, even Gareth. Poor Austin was otherwise occupied. The bully John was sitting next to him and kept trying to touch him, thinking that the desk top would conceal his prying hands from onlookers like me. Many times did Austin have to remove fingers that were probing inside his tiny shorts.
The throbbing in my bottom was dreadful but I’d got over the shock and was gradually coming to my senses. The sound of Austin slapping John’s trespassing hand drew my attention to Austin’s magnificent thighs. They were the root cause of all my pain. To hell with Gareth and John! I wanted to do physics practical with Austin tomorrow! Then it struck me that when Dad heard about all this I could wave goodbye to long trousers for at least another year. I supposed Austin and I would be known as the Bare-legged Two for months to come.
After school, feeling buoyed up by the support I’d had from those who mattered, I caught the bus home with Keith, who’d proved today what a good best mate he was. He had his arm round my shoulders for most of the journey and once, noticing how difficult I was finding it to sit still, he patted my bare thigh and left his hand there for just a few seconds, long enough to show me he’d forgotten our little misunderstanding. I can’t tell you how much it boosted my spirits!
Looking to the east, from the top deck of the bus, I saw the sky was already dark. Then, as usual, I looked west, to the river and any ships that might be there. It had been foggy for ages but now, looking towards Port Sunlight, appropriately, I could see the fog was clearing at last. The setting sun created a massive red glow over The Wirral, lighting up the clouds and making them pink, and friendly.
I was fifteen on 30 November 1959 but there was no birthday party. My brother Phil bought me some toffees and my grandparents, who never lost faith in me as long as they lived, gave me a nice present. Dad was still fuming after hearing about the public caning I’d had at Thorp Grammar. It wasn’t only my cancelled birthday that depressed me – my hopes were shattered when he said my promised long trousers would not be coming.
“You’ll not be getting long trousers for school until you’ve learnt to behave, you little runt!”
The only other people who remembered my birthday were my two friends, Keith and Austin. They’d given me support on that dreadful day at school and stuck up for me despite all sorts of ridicule they got for their loyalty. Keith and I had been best mates for years, although I was jealous of the long trousers he’d been wearing at school for over a year.
Dad kept saying he’d get me long trousers but found any excuse to put it off because they were more expensive than the thick flannel ones Phil wore at his secondary modern school. Thorp Grammar insisted on properly tailored grey suits in Terylene and worsted and they weren’t cheap. Phil, stouter and taller than me, had long, flannel trousers. In contrast, my grey shorts were embarrassingly short, reaching only halfway down my thighs. People thought he was the elder brother but in fact he was only twelve.
Austin was the only other boy in my year still in shorts. They’d looked extremely short on him at eleven and he’d since grown a lot taller so now they stopped near the top of his thighs – virtually unheard of in 1959 England. Only on the Continent would you have seen boys of fifteen in grey shorts of such thrilling brevity.
Austin was a willowy blond, a little taller than me, with piercing blue eyes and a way of moving that was graceful but not effeminate. He looked like a girl but he didn’t act like one. To me he was incredibly attractive and I couldn’t help staring at him. In sports kit he looked fantastic but his sports shorts were much longer than his grey school shorts so it was in the classroom where my prick would get stiff as I observed his beautiful, smooth thighs just a yard or two from my very slightly hairy ones. He knew I liked looking at him and said he didn’t mind. Of course we never did any touching or anything, except when we were sitting on adjacent stools in the physics lab and our bare legs would somehow get tangled up and mine wasn’t the only prick to stiffen. I had a secret wish to kiss Austin but I couldn’t tell him so we were just pals.
The weather in January 1960 was bitterly cold. A raw northerly wind blew up the Mersey for days, making the grey surface very choppy, with lots of white horses. We wore caps, scarves and gloves but for boys in grey shorts, the only protection for your bare legs came from your dark blue gabardine raincoat. Mine reached just below the tops of my long woolen socks but Austin’s reached nowhere near his knees so he had several inches of leg bared at all times, and that was before the wind whipped up his raincoat to direct its icy blast to an even greater expanse of his beautiful thighs.
Shivering beside me in the dinner queue one day, he was rubbing his legs to try to warm them. “These are the longest shorts I’ve got, Alan and see how far they reach – nowhere!”
It was true, his pink thighs were bare almost to the top. In this arctic weather it seemed really cruel but next day he told me he’d be getting long trousers at last and they’d be with him in a week. I should have been happy for him but selfish old me just worried that I’d now be the only boy in my year still in shorts. Also, I’d no longer have that dreamy view of his delicious legs, something to brighten up the dullest of lessons.
I wasn’t alone among Austin’s classmates to be aroused by Austin’s body. The bully John was always pestering poor him. The other bully, Gareth, told me his mate John had a crush on Austin but if I told anyone I’d get thumped. John had an odd way of showing his affection for Austin. He was always slapping his bottom in the showers or pinching his bare thighs in the classroom. On the rugby field, he’d tackle Austin and pull him to the ground for a wrestle – even when he was on the same team. John was much the stronger and Austin gave up trying to fight back. He would have liked to complain to somebody but John told him if he made as much as a squeak it would be all over the school about Austin and me. Gareth and John knew how Austin and I liked to sit together with our naked legs touching. They’d blackmailed me and that was the root cause of my terrible public caning back in November. Now John was blackmailing Austin not to make a fuss whenever he molested him. It wasn’t fair.
One morning before Austin got his long trousers, John was sitting next to him in class after a PT lesson, being his usual bothersome self. Sitting the other side of the aisle, I could see John’s hand making furtive forays beneath the desktop until it was touching Austin’s leg. He must have been giving painful pinches because Austin was wriggling about, trying to move John’s hand away. The teacher was Mr Adams and whenever he looked up, John quickly placed both his hands on his books. Meanwhile, Austin continued to wriggle about, scratching inside his shorts.
More than once Mr Adams told him to stop fidgeting but Austin couldn’t seem to stop. During a lesson, it was quite usual for Austin’s grey shorts to ride further and further up until you could see the start of his bottom. This never failed to get my prick hard and I sometimes wished he’d get long trousers and stop distracting me but mostly I was grateful to the ludicrous little shorts for offering sights I’d think about in bed, often with messy results. I assumed John felt the same.
I hated to see Austin’s discomfort but I couldn’t help observing and my prick was pushing desperately against my tight little shorts. Austin now had one hand right up inside his shorts, giving the side of his bottom a vigorous scratching. He looked really uncomfortable. Mr Adams was writing something on the blackboard when there was a sudden yelp from Austin. I saw John’s hand dart away from Austin’s thigh just as Mr Adams span round and glared at Austin.
“Right! That’s it! I will not have this constant disturbance to my lesson! What’s wrong, boy?”
Mr Adams was already halfway to Austin and my heart flew to my mouth. Adams wasn’t supposed to cane boys but I had a horrible feeling…..
He grabbed Austin by the scruff of the neck and frog marched him to the front of the class. “Jacket off!”
Austin had no chance to explain and in a second Adams was ready with his cane. First, he grabbed the back of Austin’s waistband and yanked the little grey sorts as high as he could. The only sound in the room, as Austin leaned over the front desk, was my pulse beating frantically away in my temples. We had a rear view of Austin: I could see two long, bare thighs topped by a glimpse of white briefs, then a tiny patch of grey Terylene. My mouth was dry and my prick had gone all floppy as the fear I’d felt at my own caning came swiftly back. Tears came to my eyes as I realised there was nothing I could do to help my poor Austin, the nicest-looking boy I’d ever seen. Keith and I exchanged anxious looks.
When caning boys, Adams usually brought his cane down at an angle but this time he stood in a different way and the cane came horizontally at Austin. Rather than striking his clothed bottom, it crashed mostly into the bare, hairless skin at the top of his thighs and the base of his bottom and we could see the way the skin flinched and shook with every impact of the cane. It was shocking and I felt sick. After three strokes Austin was heaving as if with sobs but I couldn’t yet hear any sniffing or choking. I wanted so much to gather him in my arms and love him. John, his tormentor, was blatantly massaging his prick through his trousers, his mouth fixed in a sort of grimace of ecstasy.
Adams brought his cane down a fourth time, straight onto a thin red line that had formed precisely at the point where Austin’s legs turned sexily outwards to form his bottom. This time Austin gave an almighty “Aaaarrrgh!” and followed it with a rapid intake of breath terminated by a choking sob. Adams had broken him.
John was coming revoltingly to climax in his trousers. He too gave a gasp and his hand stopped moving so rapidly. I hated him. Afterwards I wondered how many of my other classmates had been aroused by the show. As for me, I thought about it in bed that night and after I was sure Phil was asleep, treated myself to a good work-up and then a cracking good wank, telling myself I was doing it not out of desire for Austin but pity.
Adams stopped at four and Austin rose shakily to his feet, wiped his face, tugged his shorts down a bit and slowly put on his jacket before staggering back to his desk and perching gingerly on the wooden seat. An angry red mark on the front of his thigh showed where John had pinched him. For the rest of the lesson Austin was rubbing away to try to sooth his blazing skin. That red line, now much enlarged, must have been hurting like hell. At the end of the lesson he shot to the back of the classroom and nipped behind a cupboard.
Gareth came up to me and whispered “The reason he’s scratching is because John did something to his pants during PT.”
What could he mean? Now I despised John even more. Keith and I went to find Austin, who’d taken off his grey shorts and was pulling off his little white underpants. He shook them and whitish powder fell away to the floor. “I can’t wear these !” he hissed. “Bloody itching powder! John did it!”
Austin wore no underpants for the rest of the day, a courageous choice in such bitter weather and in shorts of such astonishing brevity. The pain from his caning gradually subsided but the itching continued unabated until he was at home and sitting in his bath. You can see why I had so much to think about in bed!
The next week Austin appeared in long trousers and was transformed from a little boy into an elegant young man, while I remained a little boy in short shorts and permanently frozen knees. All but four of the boys in the year below me were now in long trousers, so you can imagine how conspicuous I felt. Gareth told me John had lost interest in Austin now that he didn’t have bare legs to grope and pinch. I could no longer spend my lessons Austin-leg-watching, at least not in the same way. My attention turned from his legs to his face. Such an expressive face, such long eyelashes, such arresting blue eyes; Austin was getting more beautiful with each passing day. With the bullies watching me, I dared not get too close to Austin, although he still liked me sitting next to him and having our legs touching. But I wanted more than this. Keith had been my confidante for years but he and I were drifting apart – he even had a girlfriend now – so I couldn’t expect him to understand what I wanted from Austin.
Three months later Dad relented and my long trousers arrived – just in time for warmer weather. My voice had now properly broken and although only rarely needing to shave my face I felt I was at last looking my age. I still wanted to get to know Austin better. I thought about him in bed, regularly reliving that day of the itching powder caning. I’d often fantasise about going with him to the local cinema and having a little grope in the back row but whenever I suggested doing something on a Saturday he always seemed to be otherwise occupied and he wouldn’t tell me what it was. Then one day in late June he took the initiative.
“Alan,” he said, “fancy going to the flicks on Saturday?”
Austin didn’t mean the local cinema; he meant a big one in Liverpool. He said the film was about rich Americans and was a musical. He thought I’d enjoy it. That I rather doubted but I jumped at the chance for some time alone with him. The film was ‘U’ Certificate and I said we could try to get in for half price.
“I get half price on the train,” I said. “By wearing shorts I reckon I can still look thirteen.”
“That’s it!” chirped Austin. “We’ll both go in shorts and get half price! Let me do the talking though – your voice makes you sound too old.”
I hardly slept the night before our assignation. This was partly because I was excited but mainly because Phil was having more tummy trouble. This had started three months earlier and was recurring every few weeks. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with Phil and just told him to be careful what he ate. Phil would get dreadful stomach ache and quite often would be sick as well. I felt really sorry for him but all I could do was let him groan until Mam’s aspirins made him feel better again.
I had to devise a way of getting out of the house without Dad seeing. If he saw me choosing to wear my little grey shorts he might make me go to school in them so I asked Phil to create a diversion after breakfast, to allow me to nip upstairs to change in secret. He was dead tired and couldn’t be bothered to help me.
“Phil, please help me,” I begged. “Just this once, if it’s the last thing you ever do for me!”
“Oh, alright, Alan, I’ll pretend to have another tummy ache.”
After breakfast, on cue, Phil doubled up and started to groan. Dad took him to the bathroom while Mam faffed around as usual. Good old Phil, he was putting on a tremendous show. I owed him a favour. I stole into our bedroom and two minutes later left the house and set off to meet Austin at Cressington Station. I had my stripy sweater over my shirt and had squeezed into my grey shorts. I wondered what Austin would be wearing.
My heart missed a couple of beats when I saw him. He was in those grey shorts! His blue windcheater came well below his waist so you could only see three inches of shorts before your eyes met the magnificent bareness of his long, slender thighs! My prick responded at once and I had to shove both hands into my pockets. At the ticket office Austin asked for two half returns to Liverpool Central. Gone was his tenor voice and out came a childish treble in the broadest Scouse I’d ever heard! He sounded like a little kid from Toxteth!
The train was crowded so we didn’t say much in case our normal voices betrayed our age but in our tiny grey shorts and long socks we looked only thirteen. I was glad I’d secretly used Dad’s razor the night before to get rid of the few hairs on my upper legs. I had to ask Austin about his voice and I did that once we were in the city centre and walking to the cinema.
“Oh, I’m always practising different voices,” he said, in his normal, grown-up voice, patting the wallet in his windcheater and adding quietly “And now we’ve got enough for dinner!”
We had pie and chips in a café and I was able to study him properly. He was really beautiful! Our bare knees were touching as we sat close together on the bench and the lumps in the front of our shorts grew bigger and bigger. I asked him if his parents had seen him wearing shorts when he left home.
“Yeah, but they often make me wear them at weekends when it’s warm so they didn’t say anything,” he said, adding with a grin “You’re looking at me like you always used to. Remember physics practicals?” He rammed his thigh hard against mine.
I was in for another surprise at the cinema, when Austin asked for two children’s tickets in his childlike voice but with such a refined accent he could have been a posh kid from down south. I suddenly noticed he was wearing a tie; it hadn’t been there in the cafe. Then, whipping off his tie, he steered me to the refreshment kiosk and asked for a box of chocolates, sounding exactly like a Liverpool Irish kid. So authentic was he that the woman looked very carefully at the ten bob note he proffered. He was priceless!
There weren’t many in the cinema and we found some privacy well away from other people. As soon as the lights dimmed our knees met. The fixed armrest would make it impossible to let our legs get tangled so I had to content myself by looking left and down at Austin’s beautiful thighs, bathed in reflected light from the screen.
The first film was a documentary about somewhere in Africa which would have held my attention because I liked geography but soon after it began Austin calmly reached over, took my left hand and placed it on his right thigh. Crikey!
I had the palm of my hand on his smooth, silky skin, gently tickling his knee with my finger nails. I’d never felt anything so wonderfully sexy! Austin put his hand back on my hand and pulled it slowly up to the top of his leg, so that my little finger touched the hem of his shorts and my fingertips sloped down between his legs. Resting on Austin’s firm, warm flesh, my hand was but an inch from his balls, while his prick strained away at the front of his shorts. I was nervous, so just kept my hand moving tiny amounts as I stroked his inner thigh.
Inevitably, Austin’s hand soon ended up on my leg. Although my shorts were longer than his, he had loads of bare thigh to stroke and tickle. It was just the most amazing feeling! Keith and I had had little fumbles and a bit of wrestling but nobody’d ever just caressed me like this. I felt Austin’s fingers trying to work under my hem but my shorts were too tight. I took the hint and my little finger slid easily beneath his hem, instantly touching his briefs at the point where they bulged outwards in an effort to contain his swollen prick. Now I was tingling with excitement and breathless with emotion. Austin’s hand closed over my crotch, as if to see if I was as worked up as he was. Then the lights went up.
We quickly withdrew our hands. Austin opened the box of chocolates and laid it on his lap. I could see why. Something was sticking out of the right leg of his tiny shorts! His prick wasn’t exactly huge but in its present state was far too big for his shorts and had gained its freedom. I wished I had something to put on my lap, if only to hide the huge bulge in the front of my own shorts. We watched the Pearl and Dean adverts feeling somewhat embarrassed, then a couple of trailers for new films.
At last the big film began. It was High Society. Austin had told me I’d enjoy it but I couldn’t see the point of all these rich Americans prancing about until I recognised some of the songs. I liked Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Well, Did You Ever? I was getting into the mood and Austin and I were happily munching the chocolates. Then Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby sang True Love . As the song began, I felt a smooth, slim hand slip into mine and hold it firmly. The images on the screen were spellbinding and the music wonderful. I found myself smiling with happiness. I even thought fondly of Phil, who’d put on a really good show that morning to divert attention from me. I loved him but I’d never told him; brothers don’t do that. Then I felt something on my face and it was Austin, popping a chocolate into my mouth. I held his other hand even more tightly.
Along with everyone else in the cinema, I finished the film on a high. Austin had thoroughly enjoyed it and so had I. We didn’t go straight back to Central Station but walked about the busy streets chatting until we came to a quiet corner with a park bench.
“I get a kick from singing,” said Austin, before running through Well, Did You Ever? He was word perfect, as if he’d known it for months, singing each part in a different voice. I sat on the bench and watched him in amazement. Some passersby stopped and smiled. “That’s not all,” he said, cheerily. “Have you seen Singin’ in the Rain ?”
Well, I knew the song but not that it was danced as well: from that moment it became my favourite song ever and you can guess the reason. Austin borrowed an umbrella from an old lady watching and performed the whole Gene Kelly thing there and then, using a handy lamp post and the lady’s umbrella as props. It was so magical – in one sense he looked like a little boy, in tiny grey shorts, dancing down the pavement, yet he was 5′ 8” tall, singing in a tenor voice and in an American accent! There were a dozen people watching and we all clapped when Austin finished his routine. He bowed expansively, handed the umbrella back and grabbed me by the arm. “Come on, Alan, or we’ll miss the train!”
On the train home, Austin said he’d loved singing and dancing since he was little. He went to tap dancing classes most Saturdays: “I can’t tell anyone at school – the way I look they’d all think I was a fairy !” He even attended ballet classes: “If you think these shorts are rude, you should see what I have to wear at ballet class!” Now I knew why he’d been so hard to get hold of at weekends. Now I knew why he moved with such poise, such grace. He was simply beautiful and I now had so much more to admire him for, love him for. There was fire in my heart!
At Cressington, we had to go our separate ways. It was about five o’clock. There was a footbridge over the railway and Austin beckoned; we could have five more minutes together, looking at the trains. I’d just had the happiest day I could remember and I told him so. We stood looking down onto the tracks. I wanted to hold his hand again but people might see. Suddenly he moved to face me and putting his arms round my neck, gave me a whopping great kiss on the lips. It was over in a flash and he scampered off, yelling “Seeya Monday!”
I was in a right state as I walked home. Exhilarated as I tried to remember Singin’ in the Rain, tearful as I hummed True Love, thrilled that I’d got such a fantastic friend, flattered that he’d confided in me. I constantly relived the feel of his warm flesh, the touch of his hand, the kiss….. I’d never been so happy!
It was only as I neared home that I wondered how I was going to explain my shorts to Dad. I hoped he’d be out. I was nervous as I reached the back door. Then I found it was locked. Strange. I got the key from under the flowerpot and let myself in. Nobody about. Nothing on the stove. I went to the bedroom to get out of my shorts. They’d served their purpose and had served it very well. Phil’s bed sheets were all tangled, Mam and Dad’s bed all neat and tidy. No sign of anybody. Then a voice from downstairs.
It was the lady next door. Now in long trousers, I went downstairs.
“You’re not to fret, love, but your brother was taken bad and ‘ad to go to hospital. Your Mam and Dad are with ‘im.”
My chest felt tight, I felt faint, I couldn’t breathe.
“You’ve to come in with us till they know what’s ‘appening.”
I felt about to collapse but an arm went around my shoulders and I was led next door.
Five minutes earlier I’d been the happiest boy alive; now I was the most distraught. The neighbours told me all they could. Phil had been horribly sick and there was blood. The ambulance came for him and Mam and Dad went with him. That’s all.
Please forgive me if I gloss over the details of that awful time. Decades later, it still upsets me. Mam and Dad came home, sat up all night and returned to the hospital next day. I was sent to live for a few weeks with my grandparents. One evening they told me as gently as they could that Phil had died. I didn’t know it was possible to cry so hard and for so long. They hugged me and tried to console me but without success. I felt so desolate – and guilty. The last time I’d seen Phil he was pretending to be ill so I could dash to meet Austin in my little shorts, only he wasn’t pretending. It was just as I’d pleaded – it was the last thing he ever did for me.
I’d always taken him for granted but now I missed him so very much. I’d never see him again. I was angry my parents wouldn’t even let me see him when he was in hospital.
The funeral was on a misty July day, with ships in the river mournfully sounding their hooters, as if in salute to my dead brother. Keith and his family were there, and a few of Phil’s friends from school. I was spirited away by my grandparents before I could see the coffin going into the ground. I hardly saw Mam and Dad for weeks. I was sure they blamed me in some way and all I wanted was for them to say they didn’t. At school, I found it difficult to talk to Austin, as part of me associated our amazing day out with Phil falling fatally ill, as if we had caused it. There was just nobody I could talk to about it, not even Keith, and I became more and more withdrawn.
Eventually, Mam and Dad brought me back home. It was a silent home. Nobody seemed to speak and the wireless was never on. The bedroom Phil and I had shared was just the same. His bed was kept made up as if expecting him to return. His Airfix aeroplanes still hung from their cotton threads. His latest model was half-finished and when I told Dad I wanted to try to finish building it he snapped at me and told me never to touch it. So I had to sleep in a shrine, a shrine to my poor brother. Sometimes I kept the light on all night, as I was terrified of the shadows. One night I could stand it no longer. After lying there for hours I suddenly panicked. I got up and rushed into Mam and Dad’s bedroom. I cried out “Mam – I can’t remember his face !”
For the only time I can remember, Dad began to cry. Mam and I were crying already. I climbed in between them and they cuddled me tight. Dad had never cuddled me before. I don’t know why but that night changed us all. In the morning Mam turned on the wireless. Dad came and we looked at Phil’s models. “Nobody’s going to finish that one, son, but if you want, you can choose a finished one and keep it.”
I chose Phil’s pride and joy, his Spitfire, and took the greatest care of it. He’d made a beautiful job of it. To this day, it sits on my desk. I often pick it up and study it. If it looks a little clean for a fifty-year-old plastic model it is because it gets washed from time to time – by my falling tears.
In September I joined the Fifth Form at Thorp Grammar. My classmates knew about Phil’s death and showed their sympathy. Even John and Gareth left me alone, not that I gave them any reason to bully me, because I kept clear of Austin. I felt horribly guilty that I’d been satisfying my lust for Austin while poor Phil was being rushed to hospital, never to return. I still admired Austin, of course. He was letting his blond, wavy hair grow longer now and the way it framed his beautiful face, emphasising his cute little chin and fine cheekbones, made him look like a film star. OK, it was more than admiration, it was still physical lust but I tried to keep the lid on it.
As late summer gave way to autumn and the Mersey became shrouded in mist, I was drawn once more to the great river. I gazed at it from the classroom window, from the top deck of the bus and, on a few Saturdays, from the Mersey Ferries. I’d become so withdrawn it seemed natural to want to spend a solitary day just watching the world go by. Some ships navigated up-river to Ellesmere Port or further on, to Manchester, while others would steam down-river to Liverpool Bay and the rest of the world. Now always in long trousers, I’d take the train to James Street Station, walk to Pier Head and, as always, mumble ‘hallo’ at the Liver Birds high above my head.
Phil had often talked about joining one of the services or the merchant navy. I missed National Service by a whisker and was very thankful but Phil had actually liked the thought of wearing a uniform and being tough. Even though two years my junior he’d been bigger, stronger and more practical than me. Had been. Beside the Cunard Building at Pier Head is a war memorial. A warrior is thrusting forward, naked but for a cloak over his shoulders and a strategically positioned fig leaf. The expression on the warrior’s face reminded me of the way Phil would sometimes look when he was arguing with me: determined and powerful. I’d stand and stare at this statue and think of Phil. I’ve always hated graveyards and paying homage to my brother at this larger than life statue seemed much better than standing looking miserably at his grave. I could think of Phil not in death but in life; life as a grown man, healthy and fearless.
Since that time, I have never been to Pier Head without visiting what I call my Cunard Man.
The autumn of 1960 darkened into winter and my regular visits to the Docks became important features of my life, giving me a chance to be alone and think. Sometimes I just walked, sometimes I took the overhead railway that in those days ran along the Liverpool side of the river and sometimes, especially when the fog was down, I’d take one of the ferries across the Mersey.
One Saturday in late November I went over to Wallasey and walked right to the mouth of the river at New Brighton. I’d not been that far before and I could see where the ships turned west into the Irish Sea. A big liner I knew I’d seen before was coming from the west, towards Liverpool.
“That’s the Cilicia , young man, home from Bombay.” A man walking two husky dogs had stopped to speak to me. I told him how I loved identifying the ships and finding out where they went. “Nice to see,” he said. “I’d better get on. Goodbye, young man.”
At four o’clock I was on the Seacombe ferry, heading back towards Pier Head. The Cilicia had just docked in her usual berth and her deck lights shone brightly in the gloom, giving the ship an almost festive look. Leaning on the rail, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hello, young Alan.” It was Mr Curtis, one of the masters at school. “All by yourself again?”
“Yes, Sir. I like looking at the ships.”
“Oh, I know, Alan; I’ve seen you before, remember? What say we have some tea and a bun at Pier Head?”
Mr Curtis was the master who’d sympathised with me after my public caning a year before. We recognised each other as loners. It was almost dark and I was glad of his company, and his offer to buy me my tea.
“You’ve had an awful year, Alan, with your brother dying so tragically. But I hope you’re not going to hide away from people. We all need friends at times like these, you know.”
I naturally assumed that Mr Curtis was suggesting he and I became friends and I knew that wouldn’t be right but he carried on: “Don’t turn your classmates away, Alan. That’s my advice. Austin, for example – he thinks the world of you.”
After months of feeling guilty about Austin, I felt my prick twitching at the sound of his name. Then I wondered if Mr Curtis knew about us and I went all cold. After a little while I’d guessed he thought there was nothing untoward in my friendship with Austin so I relaxed over a mug of tea and a couple of Eccles cakes while Mr Curtis chatted away gently. He had contacts with people in Cunard and told me things about some of the ships I’d never have read about in the papers. On the train to Cressington he was asking me what I wanted to do in life and for the first time in ages I felt positive about my future. There’d been times when all I could think of was stowing away on a ship and when discovered, pleading to work as a deckhand. Now I was keen to get some decent ‘O’ Levels and make my parents proud of me.
That foggy evening, Mr Curtis didn’t know it but he turned my life around. In bed that night, I allowed myself to think about Austin and instead of feelings of guilt, waves of optimism dominated my thoughts and I wondered if I could feel again the ecstasy I’d felt in that cinema. In the still of the night, I translated those thoughts into a seemingly endless series of thrilling orgasms, with Austin’s supreme beauty and sexiness acting as catalysts to the exciting mental and physical activity I’d denied myself for too long.
The following Monday I made sure I sat next to Austin in the classroom during a film about atomic bombs and in the darkness my leg once again found his. In no time our hands had joined and there were tents in our trousers. I was so happy; I thought he’d have every reason to reject me. Later I asked him if he wanted to go to Liverpool again, this time for me to show him the ferries and the docks. He said yes!
It would have to be a Saturday and he couldn’t manage it until December but knowing how he was occupied on Saturdays I was certain he wasn’t playing hard to get. Then Mr Curtis stepped in and provided the perfect solution.
“Alan, do you want to go to a party? You’ve seen the Britannic ? Well, she’s due in from New York on the second of next month and then she’s going for scrap. She’s the last of the White Star liners, the last representative of Titanic and all the others. White Star’s been part of Cunard since 1949 but Britannic has always carried the White Star livery. It’ll be a sad day.”
“So why is there a party, Sir?”
“Well, the ship will be de-stored in Liverpool and most of the crew paid off. All the paying passengers will have gone. The company’s putting on a party in one of the saloons for the crew and their families and I’ve been invited. It’s really just a tea party but there’ll be a band and speeches and it could be fun. It’s also a very historic moment, the last of the White Star Line, and I know you’re interested in that sort of thing. Would you and a friend like to go with me?”
On a cold, foggy Saturday in early December, a week after my sixteenth birthday, Austin and I set off on the train together. We were to meet Mr Curtis at the Cunard Building at two o’clock. No grey shorts this time, but in school uniform and raincoats, looking like proper Fifth-formers. I delighted in showing Austin around Pier Head and he sang Bye bye, Blackbird to the Liver birds, which had me giggling. The old magic had returned. We stood looking at the grey old river, taking in the smells of salt water, pitch, diesel oil and dead fish. There were ships in most of the berths and I pointed one out to Austin.
“There’s the Britannic ,” I said, looking at a black-hulled ship with white superstructure and two oddly squat, buff-coloured funnels.
Austin gazed at it and then turned his piercing blue eyes to me. “Going to Scotland for breaking up, is she? Fancy stowing away with me?”
The image of us two huddling together for warmth in the bottom of a lifeboat as the ship steamed north must have hit us simultaneously as we both thrust hands into pockets to cope with our instant erections – our own pockets, that is!
It was time to meet Mr Curtis so I took Austin to the Cunard Building but first I had to pay my respects to my Cunard Man. It may have been a trick of the light but I was sure he was smiling down at me and as we headed for the big front door, he winked at me! So, dear Phil approved of Austin! I felt I was walking on air.
Mr Curtis had the necessary passes and escorted us up the gangway of the Britannic . We were directed to the Tourist Class Saloon, the biggest of all the saloons in the ship. Lots of people were gathering and huge tables were covered in starched white tablecloths. I saw about twenty men in uniform, presumably members of the crew. One came and shook Mr Curtis’s hand and asked to be introduced to us. He was the Chief Purser and he offered us a tour of the ship. He waved one of the crew members over.
“Mr Curtis will stay with me but Andy here will show you the bridge and some of the other important places. Andy – meet Alan and Austin. Look after them.”
Andy was about seventeen, a tall, well-muscled cabin boy with short blond hair and a fantastic body. How did I know that? Well, it was because his dark blue uniform was skin-tight, everywhere. It was made of thick, very hairy material and the bum-freezer jacket undulated with the movement of the muscles in his torso. The trousers stretched incredibly tightly over his bottom, which stuck out miles, while the contours of his thighs were defined so clearly you could see every little swelling and hollow. He looked incredibly sexy.
We raced after him, up to the bridge, then up even higher to the radio office, situated actually inside the forward funnel, which was a dummy. We visited many more rooms, which Andy called compartments and were about to descend to the engine rooms when Andy looked at his watch. “No time now but maybe later.” As he said that, he looked Austin up and down and leered – that’s the only way to describe it. I felt a slight shiver of danger.
Back in the saloon, the party had started. The Chief Purser came over and said Mr Curtis had been called away urgently but Austin and I were welcome to stay and enjoy the party, with Andy as our host. We piled our plates high with food and there was limitless lemonade and stuff like that. Andy didn’t eat as he was on duty but he chatted to us and it was obvious to me he was taken with Austin. Who could blame him? To look at Austin that day was to be dazzled with beauty. He looked wonderfully dapper in his slim-fitting suit, his blond hair was sparkling and his eyes shining. Andy called another cabin boy over and they had a few words, none of which I could pick up. Having discovered Austin enjoyed singing and dancing, Andy was looking visibly excited. I reckon if his wickedly tight trousers had allowed, we’d have seen a massive tent in the front!
He asked me what I enjoyed doing and when I said I could neither sing nor dance, instead of looking disappointed he said “Well, Alan, we’ll get Austin to do a little act and you and I can sit back and enjoy it!”
And that is what happened, an hour later. The feast was concluded by everyone being given a glass of something sweet and fizzy and various important-looking men made speeches about the demise of the White Star Line, about what a great ship Britannic had been and what a marvellous crew she had had. The brass band that had been playing during the meal gave us a few more tunes, a very fat man in uniform played The Post Horn Gallop on a bugle, and a very thin man with a ukulele gave a George Formby impression, which had Austin and me in fits. Then Andy stood up and introduced Austin.
“Ladies and gentlemen! A young man is going to give us his impression of Gene Kelly! Please welcome the delightful, the delicious – I mean delirious – Austin!”
The showman in Austin couldn’t resist and up he went and gave that amazing rendition of Singin’ in the Rain , with the addition of some frantic tap dancing on the dance floor, just as Mr Kelly had done in the film, on the drenched sidewalk. Austin received thunderous applause and came back to sit beside me, his lovely face all pink and his hands damp with perspiration. It was impossible for Andy to disguise his excitement and I suddenly felt jealous. Austin was mine, not some cabin boy’s. That shiver of danger returned when Andy said we should now continue our tour.
“Ever heard of the golden rivet, boys?”
Austin and I shook our heads.
“It’s the duty of every new crew member to find it!” said Andy’s mate, who was looming over me. “And bein’ as you’ve just performed in the crew concert, Austin, you’d better bring your friend and try to find it.”
Before I knew what was happening, we were descending ladder after ladder into the bowels of the ship. The starboard engine room was a huge, cathedral-like space, with a vast diesel engine sitting motionless in the middle. It wasn’t quiet in there, as there were motors and fans and things humming away and it was very hot indeed. I was beginning to sweat uncomfortably. Austin was looking around the place in total awe. Then Andy started taking off his tight little jacket. He wore no shirt so was bare-chested.
“It’s hot and dirty in here, boys, so best take off your smart clothes,” said Andy, now pulling off his skin-tight trousers. At the sight of the cabin boy standing in nothing but shoes and boxer shorts, Austin and I removed our grey suits. I desperately needed a pee.
“The golden rivet’s somewhere down there,” said Andy, pointing at a metal grating in the deck, below which was a sort of channel filled with oily water. “So best get your shirts and ties off, eh?”
I was suddenly aware of another person, a man as ancient as the very river itself, in an equally ancient uniform, greasy and filthy. On his head, a vile-looking cap, once white but now every shade of brown. “Aha, me hearties,” he croaked. “After the golden rivet, are ye?” He pointed at the silvery drive shaft leading aft from the engine towards the propeller. “I’ll take ye down to see the stern gland after,” he wheezed.
I’d never heard of the stern gland but it didn’t sound very polite. The next thing I knew, I was down to my underpants and Andy’s mate was steering me towards some duckboards lying on the steel deck. “Some say the golden rivet’s over this way,” he said. “Down you go, lad; see if you can find it.”
I groped about on my knees for a bit and then looked up at him. “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“And even if you did you’ll never find it. It’s an initiation test. We all had to do it as lads. The best bit comes next.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, suspecting I already knew the answer.
“Come over here and I’ll show you,” he said, undoing the fly zip on his monstrously hairy trousers. We were now about twenty yards from Andy and Austin, well out of earshot.
“Right then, get on yer knees, stick yer bottom up and I’ll show you.”
He grabbed me by the waist and lifted me off the deck, intending to lay me tummy down on the filthy duckboards, for what purpose I dreaded to think. I cried out to warn Austin but before I could say anything a hand clamped itself over my mouth. My fears were not for me but for Austin. The awful cabin boys could have me but not Austin! I couldn’t allow it!
As my feet and then my knees met the duckboards I remembered I was as good as naked. But so was Austin. I guessed Andy had planned this all along and now he was going to do terrible things to Austin, unspeakable things. How could I fight off Andy’s mate and rescue my dear Austin? I’d begun to struggle like crazy when I heard an appalling sound.
At first I thought it was the sound of a whistling kettle coming to the boil but the sound built into a shriek of ever-rising pitch that sounded like the wail of several devils about to meet horrible ends. Well, that’s how I described it later. The wheezing roar rose clearly above all the ambient whirring of machinery and then fell away, spluttering into a dying cadence that sounded – as I explained later – like Satan himself giving up the ghost. Andy’s mate let go of me and I scrambled to my feet and ran towards Austin.
It was only then that I realised the noise had come from Austin and that Andy was fleeing up the nearest ladder, still clad only in his boxers. Oh my God! What had possessed my sweet Austin? The boy was on his feet, hanging onto a steel railing, his chest heaving and a look of madness in his eyes. I rushed up and put my arm around his shoulders.
“What the hell is wrong?” I croaked. “Are you dying?”
Austin turned to face me, breathing heavily but no longer making those horrendous noises. Indeed, he was smiling as he strove to catch his breath.
“I saw what he was doing with you, so I thought I’d better put on one of my asthma attacks but when I’d started and saw how Andy reacted I thought I’d pretend I was being possessed by devils. Look, it’s worked. They’ve both buggered off!”
Austin didn’t look to be in agony and I slowly realised what a fantastic actor he was. I just looked at him, in wonder.
“Oh – you’re out of this world!” I said. We were now breathing more or less normally and stood facing each other, grinning mischievously. Simultaneously, we realised we were undressed and looked hastily round to find our clothes. I saw the ancient mariner, lurking in a corner, the rapid movement of a bundle of cotton waste at his groin giving away what he was up to. Filthy old man!
Twenty minutes later, shaken but not stirred, my best friend Austin and I presented ourselves to the Chief Purser to thank him for the party and to say that we had to leave. Of Andy and his mate there was no sign. We walked quickly off the ship and back to Pier Head. At a safe distance we stopped and looked back at Britannic .
“I wasn’t expecting it to turn out like that !” I said. “I’m sorry, Austin. Will you forgive me for bringing you?”
“I’m not likely to forget it! I’m glad we didn’t tell the Chief Purser what happened though. Andy and his mate would probably get keel-hauled.”
I didn’t respond. I wanted Austin to answer my question first. In the fog, a siren sounded hauntingly. Austin turned to me, put his arm round my shoulder and drew me close as we turned our backs to the Mersey and walked slowly on.
“And all that stuff about stern glands!” he chuckled. “One day, when we know each other better, we could look for each other’s stern gland!” At that he squeezed my shoulder. I’d had my answer.
I felt myself melting and quickly said “I never knew you had asthma, Austin.”
“I haven’t. But I can put it on sometimes. One day I’ll show you my death by strychnine poisoning.”
As I sensed the closeness of his body the aching in my heart became a warm, buzzy feeling and spread all over. We walked slowly on, arm in arm. Then Austin spoke again.
“You’ve been away from me far too long, Alan. Thanks for coming back.” He gave me a quick but wonderful kiss on my lips. “Today’s been a bit scary but it’s been worth it cos you’ve come back to me. Hey, let’s enjoy the trip home!”
Realising we were passing my Cunard Man, I looked up at him. It was dark but I’m convinced he was smiling down at me. Thank you, Phil.
Towards James Street Station Austin and I walked, now silent but still arm in arm. As I was reminding myself how much I loved him, and as the Christmas lights in the streets came mistily into view, I felt again the fire in my heart. Then, as if to fan the flames, Austin started to hum the tune of True Love .
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