Dean Castle.1

Peter Tovell with the James' children - Deana James, Alasdair James and Hillary James. The Dower House is seen behind, with the wall of the Castle to the right. Dean Castle. January 1945

 

Dean Castle.2

From left - Alasdair James, Deana James, Catherine Tovell (school matron), Peter Tovell and Hillary James. Dean Castle. 1945

 

Trearne House, Gateside, Beith. 1945. One of the homes of Gresham House School.

 

Trearne House, Gateside, Beith. 1945

 

wh.f

Mr Hite, roof of RAE Farnborough. 1945

 

Catherine Ross/Tovell/Hite, Peter Tovell, Mr Hite. Trearne estate, Gateside, Beith. 1947

 

h.br

Mr Hite, garden of 28 Burrowmoor Road, March. 1968

 

wpph.2010

Mr Hite, Ely, April. 2010

 

 


Short Stories etc

 

This is for Mr Hite, WPP Hite (Bill).

 

THANKS FOR ALL THE HAPPY DAYS

 

"Would you like some of Mr Hite's pepper on that?"
     That's my wife asking the question.  It's 2014, late November, we're in a rented villa somewhere in the Canary Isles.  Having lunch.  What's on offer is Tesco's 'coarse ground pepper' conveniently stored in an old glass pepper pot, 1940's cafe-style, quarter-full, screw-on plastic top and a label 'CT BAKER LTD' stuck on squint.  One of the culinary accoutrements we take on holiday,
     Who the hell is CT BAKER LTD?  Not that it matters.
     It was Mr Hite who mattered, my step-father, now no longer with us.
     Going back seventy years, he first mattered the day he started courting my war-widowed mother.  When, fresh-faced from Cambridge and RAE Farnborough, he took a teaching post in a Glasgow boarding school for boys.  A city school surrendered to the countryside to dodge the German bombs.  And that included my mother and me because my brother died shortly after my father died and she, as a kind of therapy, became the school's matron.  She looked after the boys.  At night she tucked them up in bunk beds like the ones I'd slept in during the Portsmouth air raids, except theirs were indoors, in dormitories, not half-underground in shelters made of soil and worms and corrugated iron that dripped and tasted of what must have been zinc.  And then the sirens fell silent, the war ended and none of that mattered any more.
     Mr Hite mattered when there was a wedding of some sort.  When we had cake with icing and he married my mother.  Gosh, icing in 1947.  And I was knee-high to everyone except Deana, one of the headmaster's daughters.  She'd been named after Dean Castle, our previous home, and I loved her so very much.  Even though we were only six.
     He mattered when we moved into 'The Stables' together, Mr Hite, my mother and me, on the Trearne estate by Gateside, the school's pre-penultimate resting place.  So to speak.  Coach-and-horses doors, cobbled kitchen, milk in churns, loose-boxes either side and a groom's flat upstairs, where we slept.  And a scary hayloft with our chemical loo at the very furthest end hiding behind a towering lime and cobweb chimney stack.  And ghosts.
     He mattered when we talked and talked, when we went for walks and he taught me things.  He mattered when we left 'The Stables' and steam-trained south all through the night to a new home in 'The Fens'.  Our exodus to Outwell, a land laid low beneath its lofty sky.  And I never saw Deana again.  On my last night I left her something in our secret place, but she probably never found it.  So, there was another thing that didn't really matter.  I s'pose.
     We lived with Mr Hite's Fenland mother, and with his Fenland father, a lovely man.  The Hites were farmers, more or less.  Chaff merchants, mainly, and straw, along with whatever they could turn a hand to.  Their territory spread out from the edge of a rural council estate, a 'scheme' they'd call it in Glasgow, common kids, bags of mischief, endless summer nights.  'Are you comin' down the Pingle?' they'd ask.  Oh, yes!  And haylofts brimming with chaff.  'Don't fall in, you'll drown,' people said.  No ghosts, though.
     He mattered right up to the day it was decided I should go to boarding school.  An enterprise concocted by my mother and my father's mother.  My real father's mother.  It was to be his old school, the father who died.  And Mr Hite didn't approve.  At all.  Of private education, not of bereaved institutions.  I was nine by then, half-brother to my mother's new son and daughter, and we'd moved to March, a flat Fenland town where Mr Hite taught at the local Grammar - and another school for me, five and counting.  Last batch of common kids before being banished to that boarding school. 
     And I never played with the common kids again.  No more endless summer nights.  Instead, it was 'survival of the fittest', 'chin up', 'don't show you're scared'.  Cliché Hell.  To start with.
     And Mr Hite didn't talk to me like he used to, not for ten long years.
     Ten long years, for a nine year old, is a very long time.
     Like CT BAKER LTD, he came not to matter like he'd never mattered.
     Then all of a sudden, aged nineteen, ventured into a junk shop and bought a jug.  Brown, it was. Cracked, Wedgewood, applied cream classical decoration, missing its metal cover.  Ghastly.  It seemed I'd been harbouring an interest in antiquities.  So, apparently, had Mr Hite.  Like a tap too long turned off, we bonded in a gush of intellectual analysis over the jug.
     He mattered again, after that.
     I'd had friends at school - comrades in arms.  Friends at university - thinking, drinking chums.  I'd have friends in later life - mature and precious.  But for the next fifteen years I had Mr Hite too, for we became the best of friends scouring the countryside for junk.  'Junking', we called it.
     Then in 1974, my fault, I moved back to Scotland and he, except for the occasional telephone call or visit, came to matter less.
     "I've gone off junk," he said.  That was 1999, twenty five years later, and I'd moved south again to well within 'junking' range.  But, it'd been too long.  He'd been selling off the favourite stuff.  Nailsea glass, English clocks, Bristol blue, Lowestoft porcelain, Asiatic pheasant, Delft tiles, you name it.  Auction lots and fair stalls had etched away the euphoria of the Sixties.
     But back to one-to-one, we re-bonded over past times and the moans and groans of grumpy old men.  And a new obsession emerged.  Paintings.  Fine art replaced the appetite for junk.  No daubed canvas worth its salt, and offered at a knockdown price, could escape our grasp.  We reckoned.
     He mattered again, just like I'd never been away.
     Next, when he became free to make his own choices, and before his mind went squidgy, our interest turned to literature and writing.  Out came his book, exhumed from its burial place beneath the coal shed.  The one that might've been published but for some changes he'd been stubborn about.  Typical.
     We chewed over this and that.  Nothing productive, the chewing was the point.  And we had a particular venue, a forum for two, a confessional - lunch at the self-service 'restaurant' in a nearby Tesco superstore.  There, amongst the clatter of plates, the whiff of simple fare and the anonymity of merging with Joe Public, we talked and talked.  We pondered over 'where it all went wrong', or 'right', as literature and writing gave way to the ultimate topic - the philosophy of life.
     And that's where the pepper came in.  And CT BAKER LTD.  Indirectly.
     While he hobbled to his seat, I'd attend the dumb waiter - cutlery, sauces, napkins, salt.  He did love salt.  His sense of taste was poor, but their 'coarse ground pepper' in tiny paper sachets seemed to hit a spot.  So I'd grab maybe more than we needed.  Sorry, Tesco.  And, waste not want not, some ended up back home decanted into an old glass pepper pot, the one we'd take on holiday, 1940's cafe-style, quarter-full, screw-on plastic top and a label 'CT BAKER LTD' stuck on squint.
     It'll last and last, I shan't waste a grain so, "Yes please," I will have some of Mr Hite's pepper to remind me how much he mattered.  Like that letter he sent before he left us.  I'm sure everyone had one.  Out of the blue, hand-written, no date, no address, no salutation, just a single sentence.  I remember every word.  How could I not?

     'Thanks for all the happy days,' it said.  'Dad xxx.'     

 

(Tovell PWA, 'Thanks for all the Happy Days', December 2014)