I sat in the railway carriage, listening to the rhythmic sound from the wheels as they went over the joints between the tracks. My luggage, consisting of a rucksack and a somewhat battered old suitcase, was safely stowed on the luggage rack above my head. I wasn't sure if I had packed everything I needed. After all, I had never actually left home before. Sure, I'd been away from home quite a number of times during the previous four years or so - like holidays, either by myself or with one or more of my various friends - but this was different. This time I was actually leaving home.
I had also, just the previous Easter, actually left the island of Great Britain by myself, if only to travel to Jersey in the Channel Islands for a week. That had been a bit of an experience for a number of reasons. A plane had crashed just two days before I had travelled there, killing, if I remember correctly, all the passengers and crew. It had crashed into the electricity pylons supplying the airport, and as a result, the airport was closed. This meant that on the ferry over the passengers were packed like sardines, since all those people who had booked to fly had been switched to the ferry. And the seas had been atrocious, with huge swells, so I was to experience my first ever bout of sea sickness. I had stayed in a hotel for the first time in my life. And I had seen the remains of the aeroplane by the side of a football field whilst watching an amateur football team from London who were staying in the same hotel as myself playing against a Jersey team. I had found that quite grotesque; seeing the broken and scorched remains of the aeroplane, and knowing that all those people had died in it just a few days before.
The reason for my visit had been an interview for a job at the Jersey Zoo, which had been founded by the famous naturalist and author, Gerald Durrell. I think I had read all his books in the previous couple of years, having borrowed them one at a time from the school library, as far as possible in the order they had been written. The book I really remember was called My family And Other Animals, which was an autobiographical account of a part of his childhood which he had spent in Corfu. His zoo on Jersey had been designed not to be a place where animals were to be caged simply for display to the public, as most zoos up to that time were, but to be a home for endangered species; and a place where they could be kept from going extinct, breed, and hopefully be eventually released back into their natural environments. I think it was the first zoo, certainly in the British Isles, to operate such a policy. And that was why I had sent a letter of application in reply to an advertisement seeking staff to work there. I had received a letter back asking me to ring them, and to reverse the charges. When I did they had asked me to travel over for an interview, and offered to pay all my expenses.
Much to my disappointment I hadn't actually been interviewed by my hero, but by his assistant, who, after showing me around the zoo itself, announced that they were offering me the job, and that they wanted me to start the following week. Even though he promised that within two years of starting I would be travelling the world on safari, I turned the job down, mainly because I was just a few months short of sitting my A-levels, and saw no sense in not finishing out the last term of my fourteen years or so of school education. I'd naively assumed that, since I had made it clear in my letter of application that I was about to do my A-levels, they would hold the job open until I had actually finished them. Fortunately they still kept to their promise to pay my expenses. Had they not, I wouldn't have been able to pay back the money that Paul, the Italian guy who owned the café where I worked part time, had lent me to make the trip, and would probably have had to work for no wage for the next few weeks.
When I finally arrived home from that trip and explained to my mother what had happened, she surprised me by saying "Well when you walked out of the door last week with your suitcase in your hand I thought to myself 'That's the last time we'll see our Daniel now apart from holidays, weddings and funerals'". I couldn't believe that she thought I'd walk away from my A-levels just like that. Nor could I believe that she could seem so unconcerned that her fourth-born child would have simply left home without at least making some sort of prior announcement.
So I'd got back to my studies. The summer turned out to be one of the sunniest and hottest that I could remember since the drought of 1959. And that certainly made sitting in the house trying to revise difficult, as I would far sooner have been out in the fresh air enjoying myself. I had nearly died from the heat sitting in the examination rooms doing the actual exams, and by the end of them all had convinced myself that I had made a complete balls-up of Chemistry and Physics, but might just have passed Biology. I persuaded my mother that I could spend another year at school repeating my A-levels, as I certainly wasn't going to get to university on the strength of this year's exams results. But, with the end of the exams, I at least had the pleasurable thought of the best part of three months of freedom before I would have to start back at school to repeat the year again.
And the summer had not gone away. Day after day of sunny weather came and went. There was the occasional rainy day, but even those just seemed like some sort of blessed relief after all the dry ones. Most days would see myself and my best mate, Peter, out and about getting up to some sort of mischief or other. Often we'd get the bus out of town and just head off into the country for the day. Sometimes we'd hang around the shopping centre where the air-conditioning at least made it easier to breathe than outside in the hot and dusty city streets. And, more often than I care to admit, we'd head off to the local open-air swimming pool, climb over the wall to avoid paying in, and spend hours just horsing around in the water. My naturally pale skin first got badly burnt by the sun, then great flakes of it peeled away, and finally I actually managed to get a suntan.
I tried to put the thought of the impending exam results out of my head as I just revelled in the excesses of being young and not really having a care in the world. There was nothing I could do about the exams now anyway, so it just didn't seem to make any sense to let any unnecessary worry about them spoil my enjoyment. And Peter wasn't doing his exams till next year, so we also celebrated in the knowledge that the dynamic duo weren't going to be split up for another year yet.
But the middle of August, and the dreaded results day, finally dawned. I tried suggesting to my mother when she woke me that I should just wait until the results arrived in the post in a day or two's time, but she insisted that I actually head up to school to find them out. I tried arguing that I had been camping in the Lake District two years earlier when my O-level results had come out, and hadn't actually found out how I had done until I got home more than a week after the results had arrived. But she insisted that A-levels were much more important than mere O-levels, and that I should get my arse out of bed and get down to the school to find out just how badly I had done. And she said that in that tone of hers that I knew meant that any attempt on my part to refuse would not only be unsuccessful but would also be extremely unwise.
So I dragged myself out of bed at what at the time seemed to be the ungodly hour of almost nine-o-clock in the morning. I almost forgot myself by putting on my old school uniform, but then remembered that I was no longer actually officially a pupil at the school so decided to just wear my faded jeans and T-shirt. After a hurried bowl of cornflakes and a mug of coffee I stepped outside the house to face the world. And less than thirty minutes later I found myself getting off the bus and walking in through the school gates; portals that I had hoped less than two months ago that I wouldn't have to pass through again until September. A couple of my old school mates were heading out of them, and I could see a group of people gathered near the main entrance.
"Hey, Spud!” David Jones, one of the two, called out to me. "Come for the bad news?”
"How's yourself, Taffy?” I responded. "Something like that. Just how bad was yours?”
Nicknames abounded. Just about no-one at school got called by their real name. Taffy had got his quite simply as a result of his Welsh surname. Some people were less lucky and had got a nickname as a result of some physical disfigurement or some embarrassing thing they had done, or it was rumoured that they had done. Sometimes the exact origin of a nickname might not be apparent to an outsider. Duke might seem like a nice enough nickname to give someone. But John Stevenson had got that nickname because of a rumour that had gone round school at the beginning of the fourth year that he had admitted to having had sex with sheep at his uncle's farm in Cheshire during the previous summer holidays. He'd apparently claimed that he'd needed to put their back legs down the front of his wellington boots to stop them running away. Hence the nickname Duke – from the Duke of Wellington.
"Three grade C's. Not what I'd hoped for, but they'll do,” replied Taffy.
"So what you doing next year?”
"Was hoping to go to Edinburgh, but I needed better grades. I'll get my second choice though. Geography at Leeds.”
"Not the end of the world, so. Reckon I'll be just repeating my A-levels in this dump next year.”
"You and me both,” said Bob Fairhurst, Taffy's companion. "Unless I can find a job before next term starts, it looks like I'll be repeating as well.”
"As bad as that, Blondie?” I asked.
"Three grade E's. Bare minimum passes. No hope of uni with results like those. Not looking forward to what mater and pater will have to say when they hear the news.”
"You've probably still done better than me. Neither of you happened to see what my results were, did you?”
"Didn't even bother looking, old bean. Once I saw my own results I just turned on my heels and left.”
I looked at Taffy, but he just shrugged.
"When Blondie here almost burst into tears in front of everyone I just quickly checked my own results and then suggested we head down to the Dog and Partridge to drown his sorrows. God knows what some of those uncaring sods we have had to share our lives with in this place for the past seven years would have said or done had they actually seen the poor bugger cry. And I'm actually talking about the teachers, not the kids. You should follow us down when you get your results. We'll help you drown your sorrows as well.”
"I'll think about it,” I laughed. "I suppose I'd better get it over with, anyway. Check the old results. Well done, Taffy. Hard luck, Blondie. Might see you later.”
I trudged up the driveway to the main doors of the school. Although I really did want to get it over with, I oddly found myself at this moment in time to be in no actual hurry to physically see the results. I mentally cursed my mother for making me actually come into school today to face the humiliation of having my old school chums publicly sympathise, and possibly secretly gloat, over my pathetic results.
When I finally got there it turned out that the doors were actually locked. The exam results had been affixed with Sellotape to the inside of the glass window of one of them. There was a crowd of a couple of dozen or so ex-pupils gathered round the door, some leaning over other's shoulders, each trying to check his own results. Another eight of so had already got theirs, and were talking excitedly about their plans for the future. A few of them nodded in my direction. Several teachers were also in evidence, but fortunately none of mine. If I could only get to the front of the queue and get my results before any of those turned up, I would be able to put off having to suffer their sarcastic comments until term started again in another few weeks or so.
A minute or so later saw me with my finger tracing down the sheets of foolscap paper, desperately trying to find the line that my results were on, whilst being jostled from behind by others more anxious than myself to see theirs. The names were listed alphabetically by surname down the left hand side, with the subjects listed, also alphabetically, along the top of each sheet. My surname was about half way down the third sheet. As there were no lines ruled on the sheets I found it difficult to keep my finger on the correct row beside my name as I moved it across the page, whilst at the same time having to move my eyes up to actually see the subject names at the top of the sheet.
The first time I tried I reckoned I must have made a mistake, for I read: Biology A; Chemistry B; Physics B. I moved my finger back to the beginning of the line and tried again, only to get the same results. "Damn!” I muttered; not because I would have been upset with those results, but because I was obviously reading the wrong line.
"Come on, Spud! Get a bleeding move on. There's other people want to see the results as well, you know,” said a voice from behind me. It was Alan Hayes, or Carrots as he was known, on account of his mop of ginger hair.
"Sorry, Carrots,” I replied as I stepped to one side. "I'm having trouble stopping my hand from shaking. Do us a favour and check my results when you've got yours.”
I stood to one side of everyone in a state of shock. 'I must have made a mistake and read the wrong line. Those results can't possibly be mine,' I thought to myself. 'Carrots will come over shortly and give me the real results.'