As part of the conference, we will run a public round table on the topic of ‘Writers and intellectuals on Britain and Europe now’. Gibraltarian writer M.G. Sanchez, one of our round table participants, has kindly agreed to share his reflective essay ‘Going Back’ in advance of the conference.
Going Back, by M.G. Sanchez
On most Snakes and Ladders boards it comes at square 92 or 93 – the forked, gloopy tongue of a smiley-faced viper that plucks you up and doesn’t let go until you are back practically where you started.
It’s that moment when life throws you a sucker punch, when you are left lying on the floor, dazed and gasping for breath, barely able to see through your swollen, slitted eye.
The Greeks called it peripeteia, an abrupt and dramatic reversal of fortune.
There you are, a nobody in the middle of life’s journey, thinking that nothing will ever change, when all of a sudden Destiny pounces on you and drags you headfirst out of your comfort zone….
It may sound strange, but for a while I had no idea that I had landed on that dreaded ‘snake’s head.’ Maybe I was going through a form of denial – instinctively blocking and pushing aside an unsettling thought. Or maybe I didn’t realise just how close the south of Wakefield is to the north of Doncaster. All I know is that one evening, either out of boredom or curiosity or simple restlessness, I googled “High Melton, Doncaster” on my phone and to my chagrin discovered that the place was only nineteen miles – or six hours and thirty-one minutes by foot! – from our new house in West Yorkshire….
This is a photograph of me on the day of my eleventh birthday. It was taken in High Melton College, in the room that I shared with my seven-year-old brother Steffan. ‘Smile,’ my father kept saying as he pointed the camera in my direction. ‘Go on, smile.’ But all I could manage was the insipid, rather melancholic expression seen in the accompanying picture. In contrast, just a few months earlier, I had been in a blessedly happy mood, continually thinking about the UK and all the wonderful things I’d be doing there. I had it all carefully planned out – the High Street sports shops that I’d visit, the Division One football matches that I’d attend, the autographs of famous Liverpool players that I’d somehow manage to obtain and, in this way, become the envy of all my friends back in Gibraltar. One day, as part of my Arts and Crafts class at Bishop Fitzgerald’s, I even created a poster with letters cut out of green crêpe paper. The letters, which were shaped like space rockets, spelt out the words ‘Doncaster here I come.’ A short while later, during what was supposed to be my last week at school, I fell ill with a tummy bug and had to stay at home on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. When I eventually returned to school on Friday morning, I was rapidly surrounded by my classmates. ‘But what the hell are you still doing here?’ one of them – a lanky, nervy, perennially worried kid called Jason – asked me as we gathered in parallel rows for the nine o’clock morning assembly. ‘You can’t just tell everybody that you are heading off pa inglaterra and then turn up así porla cara. Mr Beiso’s going to be really mad when he sees that you haven’t gone to the UK.’
I left Doncaster for good in July 1980. If anyone had told me back then that I was destined to spend most of my adult life in the UK, I would have shaken my head and thought that they were out of their bloody mind. But – such are the vagaries of Fate – that is exactly what happened: I returned to the UK in 1995 and, apart from interludes in New Zealand (2004), India (2005-2008) and, more recently, Japan (2014-2016), I have lived mainly in English cities and towns. During my time here I’ve had a few ups and downs, but I have always considered Great Britain my home, the place where I feel happiest and most comfortable. This perception, though, altered radically in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. For the first time in many years, I had passers-by glaring at me on account of my accent; I witnessed complete strangers roll their eyes on learning that I have a Spanish surname. A couple of months ago, I even had some tramp verbally abuse me when he asked me for a cigarette and I replied that I didn’t smoke.‘Go on!’ he shouted, two fingers raised menacingly in the air, his face contorted with fury. ‘Get the fuck out of my country!’
The idea of revisiting Doncaster didn’t come to me immediately. For around a month it was only an abstract possibility, a prospect slowly gathering form at the back of my mind. Then one Sunday evening, as I was sitting at home watching Theresa May griping about ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ on Sky News, something clicked in me and I decided that I needed to return to High Melton and Sprotbrough. I think it had something to do with the message that she was imparting – the idea that it is good and wholesome to be insular and local. As I watched her deliver her words with the usual accompaniment of facial tics and ungainly grimaces, I found myself thinking about Doncaster and the miserable, cheerless nine months that I spent there – stranded in a school where I had been the only foreign lad, exposed every morning and afternoon to insults and acts of physical aggression, frantically counting the days until the end of the school year. Wouldn’t this be the ideal time to revisit the place where I was first made to feel like an outsider, I told myself, picking up the remote and lowering the volume on the TV. Shouldn’t I take the plunge and finally confront all those old childhood demons?
What made a Gibraltarian family of four pack their bags in 1979 and spend a year in a Yorkshire mining town? To answer this question, it is necessary to step out of this story for a moment and focus on the Gibraltarian post-war educational system. Because there was no university in Gibraltar, and because the cash-strapped colonial government could only afford to send a handful of students every year to study in the UK, there was a shortage of professionally trained teachers on the Rock. The powers-that-be tried to remedy the problem by bringing over British teachers on short-term contracts and, rather controversially, setting up teacher training courses for local people without degrees. It was via this last route that my mother entered the teaching profession in 1964. Educated to A-level standard, but never having had the chance to study at university, she saw an advert in the Gibraltar Chronicle for student teachers and diligently sent off an application. A handful of weeks later, she was interviewed for one of the posts and assigned to shadow a teacher at Saint Anne’s School. The shadowing lasted six months – and was followed by a brief written exam. Once both were completed, she was offered a contract and taken on as a non-qualified teacher.
The scheme worked well as a way of saving money, but one of its unintended side-effects was that it created a rift between the qualified (i.e. UK-trained) members of the teaching profession and the unqualified (i.e. locally trained) ones. Qualified teachers were on permanent contracts, earned better pay and were eligible for government pensions. Unqualified teachers were on rescindable short-term contracts, earned less money and had no pension rights. When the Integration with Britain Party came to power in 1969, they tried to defuse the situation by moving some of the unqualified teachers into administrative posts within the civil service. This decision put such a strain on the Department of Education’s coffers, however, that within a few years most of the new civil servants were re-employed as teachers. By 1979 the government had changed and the AACR were now in the House of Assembly. Keen on systematising the teaching profession and bringing it in line with UK standards, they turned the screws on the unqualified teachers – downgrading their status even further and making it clear that they’d have no career prospects as long as they remained ‘unqualified.’ At the same time, they offered these teachers a chance to become ‘qualified’ by means of a tailor-made course to be held at the University of Sheffield’s High Melton campus near Doncaster. The course would be divided into two components: a year of textbook tuition in the UK, and a year of teaching practice back in Gibraltar under the supervision of British University lecturers. Only eight teachers – all but one married ladies – took up the offer.
It was early on a Saturday morning when we left Wakefield. A cold wind was gusting from the east, blowing hard, pellet-sized snowflakes against our Peugeot’s windscreen. Black ice could be seen in jagged crystallised patches by the side of the road. I had wanted to drive straight to Doncaster and back, but my partner had decided that we might as well combine our journey with a short stop at Castleford Outlet, an outdoor shopping mall just off junction 32 on the M62. The outdoor nature of the venue, together with the fact that it was still only ten o’clock, ensured that there was hardly anybody around, and for about forty minutes we walked casually from shop to shop, without having to worry about the usual crowds. In one of the last establishments we visited, there was a retail assistant with a Polish or perhaps Lithuanian name stamped on her employee badge. Something like Magda Petkus or Magda Petrauskas. Turquoise eyes. High, angular cheekbones. A faint, but recognisably Northern twang to her accent. Every time I see one of these Eastern European workers, I can’t help thinking of the Daily Mail and its odious scaremongering tactics in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Going by that paper’s deliberately provocative headlines, you’d have thought that cities like Wakefield were being overrun by hordes of semi-civilized Eastern European barbarians – and yet, according to the last census, only 2.99% of the population here (that is to say, 9000 out of 301, 000folk) were born in mainland Europe. Why, then, are there so many people in the North who react to migrants as if they posed an existential threat to their way of life? My theory is that people in this region are like this because they have never had much historical contact with foreigners. All I have to do is think back to 1979, for instance, when we arrived in Doncaster and we were the only Europeans around for miles. Strangers kept asking us where we were from; heads constantly turned whenever we spoke Spanish among ourselves. One day a reporter from the Doncaster Free Press even showed up at High Melton, asking if he could take a photo of all the student teachers on the terraced steps beside the college hall. In the picture which appeared a couple of weeks later in the paper, you can see the eight Gibraltarian ladies all dolled up and sitting in relaxed poses, staring cheerfully at the camera.
Two things struck me about my new school in the UK. The first was that the pupils didn’t have to wear school uniform. The second was the lack of doors in the classrooms. In the two schools that I had previously attended in Gibraltar, classrooms could be isolated from the rest of the building by means of closable doors. In my new school, by contrast, each classroom connected doorlessly to a long, more or less circular corridor that snaked its way around the building. This meant that anybody walking along the corridor could see into your class and you, in turn, could observe anybody sauntering past. Another thing that I found strange was that all the kids used ink pens to write out their schoolwork. Not Parker-style cartridge pens, but fancy calligraphic pens with blunt brass nibs. Actually, I have a funny story about these pens. On my first day at school, shortly after we had come back from morning assembly, our teacher Mr Z— went around the class handing out copies of a children’s book called The Other Wise Man. ‘Now I want you to turn to page 27,’ he said, opening his own copy of the book and then sitting down at his desk, ‘and copy from where it says “He turned to his friends” halfway down the page to the end of page 32. Let me know when you finish.’
About twenty-five heads immediately bent down and started copying the pages before them, everybody concentrating hard on what they were doing, no sound to be heard except that of metal nibs scraping against paper. I picked up the ink pen which the teacher had previously lent me and began copying the text into my exercise book, grimacing slightly whenever the brass nib dragged on the heavy ruled paper. When I eventually reached the end of page 32, I put down my pen and, looking around, noticed that everybody else was still focused on what they were doing. After hesitating for a moment, I raised my hand and informed the teacher that I had finished.
‘Are you sure?’ Mr Z— asked, gazing up from the newspaper laid across his desk with a look of surprise.
He lifted himself from his chair, walked over to my desk and inspected the three or four messily written pages in my exercise book. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, not unkindly but with an undertone of irritation. ‘You don’t understand, Mark. We are not just copying the pages any old way. We are copying them calligraphically – like these phrases that I’ve written here on the blackboard. Start all over again and this time try and do the work a little more accurately.’
Writing pages and pages of calligraphic text may seem like an odd thing to do – but you have to remember that all this took place before the introduction of the National Curriculum, in the days when school lessons were very much dependant on the whims of the individual teacher. Actually, calligraphic handwriting was the one unfailing staple of our day, the first hour after morning assembly being faithfully set aside for the monotonous, brain-numbing activity. After that, well, it was anybody’s guess what we’d end up doing. If it took his fancy, Mr Z— would saunter up to the blackboard and guide us through some elementary mathematical calculations. If not, he’d plonk down a stuffed badger on his desk and ask us to draw the poor creature. Come on. Let’s see who can come up with the best watercolour of Bertie the badger, shall we? Occasionally, between two and three in the afternoon, he’d grab a bunch of kids and take them to the music room next door, where, sitting cross-legged on the carpet floor, his posture as flawlessly upright as that of an Indian swami, he’d practise scales and arpeggios with them on his recorder. Sometimes he wouldn’t even tell us what to do; he simply asked us what we felt like doing and let us get on with it. If you are wondering what sort of effect all this had on my education, then consider the following fact. Before leaving Gibraltar, I had been among the top students in the year, consistently scoring B+ and A- in my assignments; when I rejoined my schoolmates less than a year later, I found myself languishing right at the very bottom of the class, in serious danger of being demoted to a lower academic band.
We left Castleford at a quarter to eleven. The snowflakes had stopped falling by then and been replaced by a dirty grey drizzle that fell steadily against the Peugeot’s windscreen, leaving a smeary opaque film on the glass that the screeching wipers couldn’t get rid of. I wouldn’t say that I was nervous, but I was certainly expectant – curious to see whether my memories of the past would correlate with what I’d encounter at our destination. On leaving the A1, we took a wrong turning and ended up driving first into Sprotbrough, the village where I went to school, rather than High Melton as I had intended. I therefore decided to reverse the order of my plans and visit the school first and our former dwelling in High Melton later. Getting out of the car, I noticed an odd-looking pub just across the road from the school gates. Like many other pubs in Yorkshire, it had a George Cross flying from the roof, but the building itself was a strange mishmash of stonework, prefabricated walls and wooden balusters, the whole ensemble made even weirder by a couple of potted areca palms peering out of an adjacent beer garden. Absurdly, it made me think of a British pub in Tenerife or Lanzarote – the type that serves all-day breakfast and has Sky Sports permanently turned on. For an uncomfortable moment I wondered whether some of my old classmates ever came to the place, then I looked away and crossed the road towards the school. A low brick wall had been erected on either side of the entrance gates – which being a Saturday were of course locked – and a screen of scraggly trees had been planted behind the fence encircling the school grounds. I couldn’t remember any of these topographical features, so I assumed that they must have been added at some later point, possibly after the Dunblane massacre in 1996, when the government, acting reactively as governments always do, had decided to restrict public access to schools. ‘Aren’t you even going to take a picture of your old school?’ my partner asked me, seeing me turn around and start heading towards the car. ‘What’s the point?’ I replied matter-of-factly. ‘You can’t see my old classroom from here. Everything that I associate with this school happened on the other side of the building, not this side.’
Every bullying situation begins with an invasion of personal space, the collapse of a proxemic boundary line. In the run-up to this watershed moment, I had played the part of the sidelined foreign kid – habitually ignored by the others in the playground, never taken particularly seriously. Then came the day I collided with the class ‘tough’, an aggressive boy called X—. Whenever I think of him, I can see a stocky kid in a brown waistcoat and flared trousers. Haughty expression. Open shirt collars. Thin lips parted just enough to reveal a set of jagged, spittle-covered teeth. The reason that I remember him in such fancy garb is because he used to play snooker in the evenings and sometimes he’d come to school in his playing clothes, ready to go to the snooker hall after lessons. There was always something ostentatious about the way the little bugger strutted around in his posh attire, something profoundly self-indulgent. Head thrown back, both thumbs tucked rakishly into his waistcoat pockets, a smug grin plastered across his sallow face, he’d stand there telling people about the girls he had ‘snogged’ at the social club last night, or about how much money his family had, or about what car he’d be buying once he turned fifteen. One morning, as he loitered in the cloakroom together with his flunkies, I accidentally knocked his jacket off its peg and ended up trampling on it. Without warning, X— came up to me and, grabbing me roughly by my chin, placing his upturned palm against the top of my neck, pushed me head first against the cloakroom wall, causing several anoraks, cardigans and sweatshirts to slide off their pegs and drop to the floor. He then said some words to me which I couldn’t understand, but which sounded menacing and made the other kids laugh. After a few seconds, though, X— released his grip on my chin and took a couple of steps back, allowing me to scurry out of the cloakroom and into the adjacent classroom. Behind me I could hear hollow laughter, the usual smart-ass wisecracks. ‘Bloody Spanish idiot,’ one of the flunkies said, noisily smacking his lips. ‘Thinking that he can just come here and do what he likes!’
And with those words, a line was crossed and everything changed. Signs saying ‘kick me’ now began to be sellotaped to my back. Stink bombs would regularly be dropped behind my chair. And every time I returned from the loo, pens, pencils and rubbers would be missing from my desk. Sadly, too, these acts of petty harassment weren’t limited to the confines of the classroom. During morning assemblies, for example, it was not uncommon for some of the junior kids to throw paper pellets at the back of my head and then look away when I turned around. Similarly, on our weekly trips to the Mexborough swimming baths, children that I had never spoken to would push me into the pool or recklessly dive‑bomb into the water beside me. Contrary to what you may think, the worst offender wasn’t the odious X—, but the kid who sat directly beside me in class – a boy with recessed, button-sized eyes by the name of Z—. Until very recently Z— had been aloof and uncommunicative, sitting there with his back continually turned towards me, forcing out the odd bored monosyllable whenever the teacher obliged us to pair up during lessons. But after the debacle in the cloakroom some malevolent spirit possessed him and he just wouldn’t leave me alone. It was this that made him the most formidable of my bullies – not the fact that he was bigger or more sadistic than the others, but his sheer relentlessness, the way he suddenly made it his life’s mission to taunt and pursue me. Like a permanently agitated poltergeist, he is always perched there beside me – insulting me, goading me about my accent, pushing my elbow as I am writing, kicking at the legs of my chair, prodding me with his pencil, blowing little particles of spit into my face whenever the teacher isn’t looking. I try to fend him off – even make him cry with a few retaliatory punches – but, like a shooed-off rat that keeps returning to feast on a sick man’s sores, he reappears by my side a short while later, laughing and smirking, brandishing his fist in my face, calling me names, relishing my obvious distress. Sometimes it is five past nine or even ten past nine and he still hasn’t shown up. A nervous thrill then runs through me as I sit there contemplating the possibility that the vicious bastard may be ill and that I’m going to spend a day without this freak of nature, this evil Siamese twin of mine, sucking the life-spirit out of me. But at a quarter past nine I can hear the sound of shuffling feet and Z— is there again, damn his face and damn his beady eyes, making his excuses to the teacher about why he is late, glaring at me as he approaches our shared desk, the embodiment of everything that I fear and hate, wagging a crooked little finger in my direction as if to say, ‘Thought you’d be spending a day without me, didn’t you? Well, think again, mate.’
The drive from Sprotbrough to High Melton only took six or seven minutes. We followed the same route that my school bus used to take back in 1979 – up through the village of Cadeby and then taking a sharp right into Cadeby Lane, the isolated, mile-long country lane that brings you to the fringes of High Melton. Back in the day, I preferred sitting at the front near the driver, away from the older kids who gathered on the back seats. I always sat alone, too – having nobody to sit beside and nobody who’d want to sit beside me. The driver frequently had the radio on and I remember Terry Wogan’s rich Irish brogue greeting me on more than one occasion as I ascended the rickety aluminium steps into the vehicle. The return journey home in the evenings wasn’t too bad – but on the way to school at half eight I was in a terribly fretful state, biting my nails and staring through the window at the fog-bound country fields. Wednesday mornings were especially depressing, as we all had to be in the school gym at nine for the weekly singing assembly. Unlike regular morning assemblies, this one lasted half an hour and was organised entirely by Mrs W—-. She was the school’s music teacher, a big-boned, physically imposing woman with fringed black hair and shiny red nails. We’d trail in from our respective classrooms and then sit there in rows on the parquet floor, cross-legged and knocking knees with each other, facing Mrs W—- and the piano on which she played her songs, continually being exhorted to sing louder and louder:
We sailed on the sloop John B, My Grandfather and me
Around Nassau town we did roam
Drinking all night, got into a fight
Well I feel so broke up I want to go home.
But there was a problem: I couldn’t sing. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want the others to hear me caterwauling in that foreign accent of mine they all found so amusing. Or maybe I was intimidated by all the negative attention that I seemed to generate wherever I went. Or, who knows – this is my favourite theory – maybe I was just rebelling in my own way against everyone and everything around me. Whatever the reason, all that came out of my mouth was a raspy low croak which always irritated the bolshy, eagle-eyed Mrs W—-:
‘Come on, Master Sanchez from the Rock of Gibraltar! Sing! Or I will have to ask you to come and keep me company right here by the piano!’
And, of course, that’s where I soon find myself, there, in front of the whole school, trying to sing but still unable to dredge up the damn words, hating that woman with the fringed black hair and the shiny red fingernails, hating the kids who are staring at me and trying not to laugh, hating the other teachers who sit there without lifting a finger, but, above all, more than anything else, hating myself for not being able to open my bloody mouth and sing….
There was no security barrier at High Melton College, so we were able to drive into the premises and park up without any problems. The place was just as I remembered, but smaller, much, much smaller, all the buildings and interconnecting pathways reduced to almost toy village dimensions. I mentioned this to my partner and she said that everything must have seemed bigger because I had been a vulnerable and frightened child. As we walked down the bumpy, U-shaped road leading to the old hall, we passed several places that I remembered well: the medieval church that I could see directly from my bedroom window, the refectory where we used to go for our evening meals, the games room where my brother Steffan and I would watch the long-haired college students play pool and space invaders, the library in which I spent numerous dreamy hours, trying to escape my unhappiness via the books in the children’s section. Curiously, too, I began to recall things that I hadn’t thought about for many years. A dead bunny rabbit that I had once found beside a patch of gorse, its knotty, blood-speckled entrails corkscrewing out of a gash in its tiny stomach. The narrow alley behind the college gym where, early one Sunday morning, I came across a javelin and a set of rusty track and field hurdles. The flapjacks and pots of strawberry yoghurt saved for my brother and me by the kindly Yorkshirewomen who worked at the refectory. The deep-voiced, but always friendly and helpful lady who sat behind the issuing counter at the High Melton College library. But what I most remembered as we strolled through the college’s leafy grounds was how every second that I spent in this place, every passing moment, had been measured against how much or how little time remained before I’d be back at school again. If you want to visualise it in pictorial terms, think of an hourglass which is full at half-past-three on a Friday afternoon, but which from then on slowly begins to empty, grain after grain trickling down its tubular neck and into its lower glass chamber. This emptying hourglass, this imaginary ticking clock, is always there by my side. I could be playing football with my brother or watching a documentary in my parents’ room; tramping around in the nearby woods or reading one of my favourite adventure novels – at random intervals I am compelled to look at my watch and calculate how much time is left before the end of the weekend. Finally, it is late at night on a Sunday and I am lying on my bed with the lights turned off. Steffan is asleep in the bed beside me. Through a gap in the curtains I can see the church of Saint James and the slanted, time-blackened gravestones in the adjacent cemetery. This is the second worst moment of the week – knowing that in a few minutes from now I will fall asleep and when I wake up there will only be a handful of grains left in the hourglass. Even trudging to the bus stop a dozen-odd hours later isn’t quite so bad – because at least I am moving, and when you are moving you are not as susceptible to fear and anxiety as when you are lying in a darkened room. Only one moment tops it for sheer wretchedness, and that is when I am at the actual bus stop at twenty to nine in the morning, waiting for the school bus to come and take me to Sprotbrough. This is by far the darkest, most dispiriting time of the week – standing there with my coat hood pulled up to protect my head and my gloveless hands half-frozen in my pockets, knowing that any minute now, any second, the school bus will appear on the brow of the hill and then it will all be over: the hourglass will be empty and I will be caught in the clutches of the nightmare again….
‘Visitors from Gibraltar’ – from The Doncaster Free Press (19-10-79)
Some ladies who arrived in this country three weeks ago to start a teaching course are now on teaching practice in local schools. The party are from Gibraltar and are based at High Melton College, near Mexborough.
They have already settled into their new surroundings and are quickly making friends during their stay, which will last for 12 months.
Among the things they find attractive are the green fields and variety of beautiful trees around the college.
Among the party of ten student teachers are two husbands, Fredrick Cano and Joseph Sanchez, and four children. The two men hope to find work during their stay and the children attend a Sprotbrough school.
One of the party is a trainee teacher, Mrs Lydia Byrne, and she said: ‘We have had some experience in our country, but we have come here for further studies and teaching practice, which we are all enjoying in local schools. Then, we go back home and after a further spell of study and teaching practice, we hope to become qualified teachers. We have all been well received in the schools and are enjoying the experience of English teaching methods. What has really surprised us is all the greenery in South Yorkshire. Would you believe me if I tell you we are all looking forward to seeing and walking in the snow, which we have never experienced back home.We are all very impressed too with the friendliness of the South Yorkshire folk.’
Why did they do it? What was so great about picking on a defenceless eleven-year-old boy? For the first few years after we left Doncaster, I asked myself these questions, trying to find an answer that would enable me to understand what I went through, hoping to encounter the magic explicatory key that would help me label my experiences and safely compartmentalise them somewhere at the back of my mind. But, however much I tried – and, believe you me, I tried a hell of a lot – I couldn’t find the answer that would allow my wounds to heal and recover. Now, almost forty years later, I can understand why Z— and some of the others, at the age of eleven, might have thought that it was fun to pick on a lonely kid with no friends. But Mrs W—-? What possessed her when she dragged me, the only foreign boy at C—- Junior, out in front of the whole school? Couldn’t she see how deeply uncomfortable I felt? That I used to blush and squirm whenever she singled me out like she did? Or was there a part of her that enjoyed seeing me suffer in this way? Some racist streak, perhaps? A latent sadistic vein? For what it’s worth, a few evenings ago I decided to employ a different tack and google the people involved in this story. I don’t know what I was expecting to find – some belated evidence of karmic retribution, possibly, a recent photo where I might identify some physiognomic predisposition to cruelty. For nearly two hours I searched for all the major and minor protagonists – the little thug in the waistcoat who set the whole thing into motion, the blond-haired demon who sat by my side, the piano-playing ogress who made my life such a misery, even the decent lads in my class like Michael and Scott and Woody who never joined in the bullying – but there was only one result worthy of note. In one of the regional newspapers, I discovered that the snooker-obsessed X— had recently been jailed for four years after defrauding companies out of nearly half a million in a fake land development scheme. An accompanying mugshot showed a dark-haired forty-five-year-old man – strong-jawed, emotionally absent, possibly a bit more tanned than I remembered him, his unsmiling, frowning face thrust fractionally forwards.
After we had walked around the grounds, we headed towards the old hall, the grand, three-storey mansion house built in 1757 which sits at the heart of the High Melton campus. Nowadays the building has been divided into little cubicles and converted into a student hall of residence, but when we lived there in 1979 we were the sole residential occupants, with nobody to disturb us apart from the secretarial staff who worked two floors below us on the other side of the building and who, in any case, normally vacated the premises by five. Strolling past the old hall’s unobtrusive side entrance, I heard music coming from a room on the top floor and saw part of a One Direction poster pinned to a wall. Carelessly shut curtains. Beer bottles arranged side-by-side on a window sill. A mound of cigarette butts – squashed, lipstick-stained, still wrapped in their imitation cork skins – scattered around the base of a cast-iron downpipe.
‘That used to be my old room,’ I said, reaching into my pocket and bringing out my phone. ‘Over there – behind that stone balustrade. And there,’ I added, looking in the opposite direction, ‘is the church that I was telling you about, the one that we could see from our window. It’s called the Church of Saint James and it dates back to 1100, you know. I googled it a few days ago. That means that about thirty-five generations must have come and gone between the time it was constructed and the time I came here in 1979.’
‘I had no idea that the church was so close to your building,’ my partner replied, looking at the church. ‘That must have been well creepy at night!’
‘Do you know what I find most strange about the year that I spent here?’ I said, pointing my phone camera in the direction of my old room and taking a photo.
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘How I went almost nine months without telling anybody about how wretched I felt. I mean, can you imagine – going through nine whole months of hell as an eleven-year-old and not telling a single soul? Sure, I can understand the motivation behind this prolonged silence – I had somehow got it into my head, hadn’t I, that if my mother would find out, she’d end up worrying about me and failing her course – but to actually go ahead and bottle everything up for so long, to consciously hide every trace of what I was going through … that’s the part I can’t understand.’
‘Well, kids are surprisingly resilient, aren’t they?’
‘Surprisingly resilient and surprisingly stupid,’ I said, locking the phone and putting it back into my trouser pocket.
It was then that I heard the man’s voice ring out behind me, as loud and as unsettling as a sudden heavy slap on the back:
‘Excuse me – are you looking for something? May I help you?’
I turned around and saw him standing there with a suspicious look on his flushed face – some type of groundsman, probably, judging from his knee-high Wellington boots and his forest-green Barbour jacket, or maybe … maybe I am getting it all wrong and he was just a meddlesome nosey parker from High Melton village, the kind of bloke who takes a proprietorial interest in everything around him, a real interloping pain-in-the-butt.
‘It’s okay, thanks,’ I answered, caught somewhat off-guard. ‘We’re just walking around and taking a few photographs, that’s all.’
‘Taking photographs?’ the groundsman asked severely, his features crumpling up at the sound of my Gibraltarian accent. ‘Whatever for?’
‘He used to live here in 1979,’ my partner rapidly interjected.
‘Really?’ the man replied in a softer tone, obviously reassured by my partner’s Yorkshire accent.
‘Yes, in the room behind that window.’
The man scrutinised me for a second and then turned his attention to the part of the building that had just been indicated to him. ‘Well, not much has changed around here since then, as you can see.’
‘You’re right,’ I replied, turning away and walking up the weathered stone steps in the direction of our car. ‘Nothing has changed at all.’
There was one last thing that I needed to do before leaving High Melton, and that was to drive to the bus stop on Doncaster Road from where I used to catch the school bus every weekday morning to Sprotbrough. Though almost forty years had passed, it was still there and just as I remembered it – a squat, solid structure built out of concrete and clay-coloured brick. Switching on the Peugeot’s hazard lights, I unbuckled my seatbelt and told my partner that I’d be popping out for a moment. ‘I won’t be long,’ I said, reaching for the door. ‘Twenty or thirty seconds at the most.’ Then I got out of the car and walked towards the bus stop. Cautiously, never quite forgetting that my partner was observing me from the car, I placed my hands against its clammy old walls, marvelling at the roughness of the stone, breathing in the earthy smell of damp, wondering if I had touched these same bricks with my eleven-year-old hands thirty-eight years ago. During those awkward but highly charged moments, I remembered the way the other schoolkids from the village would never get too near me, the oppressive greyness of the Yorkshire sky, the perishing, knife-like wind that often blew up Mexborough Hill, causing the trees to shudder and shake off some of their leaves. But what I most remembered, what I couldn’t stop thinking about, what in fact took me by surprise as I had entirely forgotten that it ever happened, was how every morning I had prayed – yes, actually prayed! – for the bus to crash before reaching High Melton:
Please God, don’t make the bus come today. Make the driver fall ill, or let one of the bus’s tyres burst, or let it slide on the wet tarmac and harmlessly crash against a hedge – do whatever you want, but, please, please, please, make sure that the bus doesn’t come today.
‘Everything all right?’ my partner asked me as soon as I got back in the car. ‘You looked as if you were having a bit of a wobbly moment out there.’
‘Nah,’ I replied, fastening my seatbelt and switching off the hazard lights. ‘I was just thinking about how none of the other kids from the village would ever come near me as we all stood there waiting for the school bus … and how last year seven out of every ten people in this town voted to leave the EU. Old habits die hard, isn’t that what they say?… Anyway, let’s get going, shall we? I’m ready to go home.’
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M.G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs. More information on his writing can be found at http://www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/mgsanchezwriter/. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez/.