I am ten. My best friend is Simon Parker-Rhodes. Simon lives round the corner with his parents Frederick and Damaris who are Quakers, Communists and Bohemians. Simon’s brothers Adam and Marcus go to Bedales and Simon attends Dunhurst, a junior department of the famous progressive school. I attended a progressive school for a few months once: Byron House, up on the Huntingdon Road, a large ivy-clad place with a gravel drive. It’s full of hollow booming and wooden balconies that loom over you. The excitation of the infants is mad and buzzing. The teachers, now without faces, make you lie on the hard floor under blankets after lunch.
I see Simon only in the holidays, when a piercing whistle draws me to my bedroom window and he’s up against the fence on his battered, mudguardless bike, hair shocked, jumper full of holes, yelling an invitation to come to the playing fields to throw spears or skid our grids across the grass. My timorousness dissolves, I hare out on my Rudge and we chatter and holler excitedly until my supper-time. Simon has no supper-time. He can do what he likes. ‘Got in some trouble this term,’ he announces. What? ‘Buggering. Caught buggering Fatty.’ What did they do? ‘Told me not to.’ My mother doesn’t approve of the Parker-Rhodeses. For me, Simon is the beginning of the end of still, slumbrous life among the laurels of Luard Road, where I live with my quietly respectable parents.
The Parker-Rhodeses don’t give a fuck. Their Dad doesn’t even wear socks. He is both a computer scientist and a mycologist – a student of fungi. Adam and Marcus, fifteen and thirteen respectively, tear around shouting attractively, collecting things and playing dangerous games.
Simon and I are inseparable. We ride our bikes into hedges, onto cricket pitches and along ditches. We invent a game wherein bowling balls are lofted to the sky by a ballista fashioned from planks, weights and a bucket.The balls land on the lawn from such a height that they vanish beneath the surface of the turf. Simon’s mother observes the devastation imperturbably, murmuring ‘That’s probably enough now, boys.’
The way Simon’s mother dresses is all wrong. Damaris wears a calf length plaid skirt and a heavy knit pullover. Her legs are bare. Other mothers of my acquaintance had hair do’s, earrings, makeup and fitted clothing. This mother wore no adornments at all and her clothes were worn and homely. But she didn’t look like a poor person. I had no references for this mother.
I asked Simon what they did when they went to Quaker Meetings. ‘Oh, you sort of sit around and if someone wants to say something they sort of say it.’
One of their family friends was Atom Spy Klaus Fuchs. Before his arrest in 1951 for giving detailed plans of the plutonium bomb to the Russians, Fuchs would stay the odd night in the Parker Rhodes house while visiting Cambridge from the Atomic Research facility at Harwell. In the eyes of the neighbourhood this tidbit was ample proof of the leprous unsuitability of the ill-dressed sockless commie clan.
Our best game, the most incredible game, is quite simple. You have a small piece of paper each, one with David on, the other with Simon on. And a drawing pin. You select the tallest, most climbable silver birch in Simon’s front garden and you see who can get the highest and then stretch up and pin his name there.
This game took us through the summer before he died. Every day we got higher than you would ever think. I’d go home for supper humming with excitement, my face and forearms glowing from the sun whose remoteness we had so diligently reduced by increments of inches. After a few days we had moved body lengths beyond our first footholds and were standing on finger thick branches. The trunk was now no stouter than a boy’s wrist.
When Simon shinned up the whole of the top of the tree would bend towards the street then sway back in over the garden. When it was my turn I’d clasp the white trunk to my chest and stretch my arm to its limits. Once tip toes had been applied to the support branch there was really nothing more I could do. My body was not parallel to the street below but I’d passed the 45 degree point.
As soon as I was down Simon would clamber up and beat me. Maybe I should say he was fearless, that he could not appreciate danger, that he had in spades the twelve year old’s obliviousness to mortality. This would then begin to suggest that in some way he embraced his own death. But that’s a bourgeois argument. Simon was carefree rather than careless. He hadn’t been taught that the world was unreliable.
While I am on holiday in Sicily with my parents that summer, I receive a letter from a girl in our road, addressed to the Hotel Jolly, Palermo. Inside is a cutting from the Cambridge Daily News. Boy Drowns in Ouse. Simon is dead. He had gone on a canoeing holiday on his own. I was going to go with him. He had started to put his mac on whilst floating along. His arms had got tangled and the canoe capsized. He was wearing wellingtons and they dragged him down. I sobbed in my parents’ arms. Simon’s mother gave me his knife which I have in a box in an attic. He made no will, of course, but he left me a sense of possibility that I built on year after year. I looked for things that would give me the excitement and the lightness that Simon brought on his bike, in his cries, his life outside the law. I found books and music that celebrated this lawlessness and I found friends with whom I could refine this spirit of disobedience.