In the autumn of 1967, a few months before my “Hiawatha” moment, we move house. Only a couple of streets, but a huge psychological distance somehow. We look at two houses in the same road. Nerdishly, I fancy the house with the electric waste disposal in the kitchen sink, an unheard-of, impossibly hi-tech device at the time. Instead, we move to what I quickly realize is a lovely house, much bigger than our current one and built in 1955 on what seems like a huge plot. The front garden is big but the back garden is massive, with a pond in the middle fed from a local stream.
Unlike the modern cul-de-sac we lived in before, this is an unadopted road, Britspeak for “not the council’s responsiblity”. At the time we move it has no pavements and is littered with potholes. There is nowhere on the street to play out safely – indeed nowhere to even meet a neighbour, unless you pass them walking down to the village shops.
As my asthma worsens I largely withdraw from playing with other children outside of school hours – the majority of my school friends live miles away so meeting up is complicated. At least in the cul-de-sac I could play out when I felt well enough (although asthma and my own temperament was probably throwing me back on my own resources even then). My best friend Dominic does visit the new house, though not very frequently. No other child from our old street ever visits, nor do I visit them. Somehow even this relatively minor increase in isolation combines with my shyness and developing sense of “difference” and my pursuits become increasingly solitary. Not sad though – lest you start to paint a picture of a haunted looking, melancholy child. I enjoy my toys, and records and comics, and relationships with my mum, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts are generally happy, even if things are about to get complicated with my father.
A few years previously, in the old house, I am given a cat – from a litter my uncle’s cat has just given birth to. When the cat is delivered to us, my parents put her in the front room, and then send me in to meet her, on my own for some reason. I panic her, or she panics me – whichever it is, she leaps up and scratches me. I am terrified and decide instantly that I don’t like her.
So for some time, I don’t have much to do with my cat. But my dad does. Torturing her is one of his favourite domestic pleasure. His preferred trick? He puts food down for her, and as she goes to eat it stamps his foot down, hard and quick, next to her ear, terrifying her. Following my initial scratching, and with the natural tendency of a child to mimic the behaviour of a parent, I become endlessly cruel to her myself for a while. For a year or two the poor thing leads a miserable existence, but eventually love wins out over imitative behaviour, and child and cat become inseparable pals. But my cat never settles in the new house, and every few weeks wanders back to her old home and has to be fetched back. After doing this a few times she is hit by a motorcycle and knocked into a stream by the side of the road, hopefully killed instantly. It is my first experience of death. As it happens Dom is visiting and I recall sitting in our dining room, crying uncontrollably in disbelief that death is not just something you see on TV or read about in books.
In the world outside things are changing hugely, but the cultural revolution of the sixties is something my father views from a distance with horror and disdain. My mother, on the other hand, is cautiously interested. Pop music suddenly becomes something to argue about. The Beatles, who previously seemed both harmless and irrelevant to my father, suddenly start indulging in drugs and making observations about society. So intense is his disapproval that it scares me away from pop music – so much so that I stop listening to, or buying any new records until secondary school.
Meanwhile I am spellbound by the vision of a school friend in 18th century female costume. With what in retrospect seems like crazy ambition the school mounts as its Christmas production a cut-down version of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro minus, I think, the sexually ambiguous character of Cherubino. Two boys in the year above me are cast as Susanna and Rosina and one morning there is a preview performance for pupils. Susanna has an awful dress in dark green stripes which looks like a pair of regency curtains. Rosina (played by my friend) has a much more flattering dress, gives a heartfelt performance and looks disturbingly pretty. It is my first experience of a boy looking like a girl – I yearn to accomplish this myself but have no idea how. One afternoon I find myself helping another boy to move the costumes ready for the night’s performance. He points at the green curtain dress and ask me if I’d fancy wearing it. Hugely worried and embarrassed by the question, I quickly say that it looks better on the boy performing the role and change the subject.
Of course at this stage it is all about the clothes. I know girls’ bodies are different from boys’ bodies but my knowledge of the differences is extremely tentative. So the power of clothes and make-up to transform seems very potent to my young mind.
Buoyed by the clear operatic gifts of the small boys in their care, the following year Keble decides to stage another opera – Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Cue much amusement as to us, Engelbert Humperdinck means the rather cheesy pop singer. As casting is revealed, I am stunned to discover I am cast as Gretel. I am terrified – the stage fright which has led me to try and get my meagre lines cut in previous productions has never left me so the idea of a major role, let alone a singing role, is very worrying. I sing in the school choir, but have never sung solo. However the thought of having a convincing, elaborate female costume is incredibly exciting. At one point my mum suggests that I will need a proper wig for such a major role and I am lost in excitement at the possibility of long, flowing female hair, and at the idea that she might collude in my wished-for transformation. At the same time, although I am not sporty or physically confident, I remain interested in “boy things” in terms of what I read, watch on television etc. I’m not saying (in retrospect) that adventure stories are intrinsically “boy things” but in the sixties a lot of conventions about gender hold, particularly in the suburbs, and my fascination for dressing prettily doesn’t make any sense to me in relation to the rest of my life. Secretively, I try to find out more about why I should feel this way. Meanwhile other boys involved in the production who are confident about their own sense of gender happily play with these boundaries, which makes me even more careful to try and give nothing away.
In the end this part of the story ends unhappily – due I think (it’s a long time ago) to a combination of stage fright, lack of confidence in my singing voice and not being sure how to learn/practice my part. For whichever combination of reasons, it becomes clear aftet a few weeks that I am not getting to grips with the role, and so it is given to another boy . I am relegated to the chorus, and unlike in Hiawatha there are no female characters in the crowd. I am crossly jealous of the boy who has the part (curse you Mignano, and curse your pigtails!) but realize I couldn’t rise to the challenge. Backstage on one of the performance nights, there is much discussion about whether the boy playing Gretel’s mother should have a false bust as part of his costume. The school, whose performers are 10-12 years old, has not opted for this level of realism, but my friends discuss keenly whether and how such padding should be achieved. As is often the case with me I stay silent while other boys chatter, unsure of my opinions and whether they would be of interest to others. Because of the topic I am doubly silent, if that makes sense. Oh all right, I am twice as careful to remain silent, and give nothing away.
By this time I am coming to the end of my prep school career, and the prospect of public school looms. The thought that this might also be boarding school starts to terrify me.