"Mum," I shouted, "when will dinner be ready?"
• • •
Being around Cleo was great. She was the perfect playmate. I think the best way to describe our relationship would be to say that I was like a smitten grandparent with my first grandchild - I got to enjoy all the fun stuff, but at the end of the day I could walk away. And when I did tire of canine company, searching out other kids in the neighborhood, Cleo never complained or bore a grudge, happy to pick up wherever we left off on my timetable and not hers.
I should mention that this was England in the 1960s, an era when children led "under-scheduled" lives, kicked out of the house at eight o'clock in the morning, only allowed back in if there was no more daylight, you were suffering from clinical dehydration, or you had sustained an injury requiring nothing less than a blood transfusion or surgical removal of an appendage. Exiled kids, forced to use their imagination, tended to gravitate toward one another, mergers leading to friendships and the emergence of something we were all proud to be a part of - a gang.
Across our street and a few houses down lived Timmy and Keith Toenail. Timmy was a terrier of a boy: squat, scrappy, and determined, cursed with disobedient locks of tightly curled platinum blond hair, making him look a bit like Shirley Temple in Heidi. He and his older brother, Keith, demonstrated all the physical similarities of brothers like Prince Harry and Prince William, that is to say they were both male and that was about it. Keith's hair was jet black, overly conditioned to a greasy shine, and meticulously maintained in the style of a German World War II infantryman's helmet by his doting mother. Unlike his younger brother, Keith was prone to tears and a trembling lower lip, a feature accentuated by an overbite that would forever vex his orthodontist.
Across the street and one house up lived a girl several years my senior. Her name was Amanda Ravenscroft and she was my first crush (after the cartoon character of Daphne on Scooby-Doo, of course). Amanda was tall, blond, and muscular. She favored braided pigtails that made her look as though she had just stepped off a conquering Viking ship.
For the most part our playtime together was predictable, rotating between cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians (the term "PC" had yet to be coined), and, of course, "war" (we always fought "the Germans," not "the Nazis," since England lacked a significant Germanic component to its general population). Amanda's maturity made her leadership material and on the whole the rest of us were putty in her hands, as easy for her to manipulate as a group of dolls at a tea party. Strangely, every plot she concocted seemed to include a damsel in distress, Amanda happy to step into the role, living a little fantasy, no doubt enjoying the fierce competition among the three of us boys trying to come to her rescue.
When we tired of make-believe, we would break out our bicycles and tricycles and the four of us would prowl the nearby streets in search of adventure. On one memorable day, we hit pay dirt. It was Amanda, leading our formation, who made the discovery, noticing something white and writhing tossed into the bottom of a hedgerow. I heard the squeal of her brakes as her bike clattered to the pavement and she dismounted, and watched as she retrieved what appeared to be a dirty old pillowcase.
"Look what I've found," she said, raising the bag in the air like a trophy.
And even before the rest of us had peeked inside, it was obvious what she had discovered given the chorus of muffled cries coming from inside the case.
"Kittens," Amanda proclaimed, as though the hapless threesome who finally caught up to her might need help identifying the four angry newborn mammals crawling over one another.
It was a good job there were four of them - one all black, one all white, one black with white patches on his paws and chest like a tuxedo, and one white with a black swatch under its nose like a mustache. We all knelt down, formed a circle, and passed them around among us, constantly changing our opinions as to which one was the best, the strongest, the runt, or our personal favorite.
Excerpted from Ever By My Side by Dr. Nick Trout. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Nick Trout. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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