Losing My Religion

Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.

As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.

Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.

Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.

There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.

The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)

The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.

Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.

Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.

(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident caused the headmaster to encourage him to move on.)

My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?

My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.

The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.

Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.

The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.

This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.

I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.

A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?

My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?

Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.

In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?

Sallie

At about 5pm on February 1st 1971, Rob and I got off the 335 bus and started walking home up the rough surface of Park Avenue. We were surprised to see Mum and Dad walking to meet us. We knew something had happened. When we reached them, they told us that Sallie – our grandma, or Nana as we called her – had died. We would soon learn much more about her.

Sallie and her husband Jack had lived at 22 Malpas Road in Wallasey, a neat little road with low brick walls and tiled front paths. Mum would often take Rob and me there on the train for a week in the summer holidays: Dad’s miserly allowance of holiday precluded him from making the trip. I remember it as a modest but tidy house. There were few toys there, but I remember Jack finding a strong magnet and some paper clips which kept us amused for some time. Mum would often take us to the beach at New Brighton: once I remember her getting us home in a violent thunderstorm. She was probably more scared than we were. Mum would be sure to arrange to meet up in Liverpool with her best friend Speff, who sealed the affection of her godchildren with generous presents.

In 1963 our Dad’s mother, known to us as Nain, fell ill. Mum and Dad planned to move from Oxhey to a larger house in Chorleywood, intending to bring Nain and Taid – Dad’s parents – from Dolgellau to live with us. But Nain died in December, and when our move went through early the next year, Taid decided he would rather stay in Wales. It was decided to invite our other grandparents, Sallie and Jack instead, and they arrived some time in the summer of 1964. Soon after we got a dachshund, named Tumbi after the dachshund she had owned in Wallasey, in turn named after a dog Philip had encountered on service in India.

Chorleywood Tumbi

Mum was a qualified nurse and a dutiful daughter, and although both her parents were in good health, she was no doubt motivated by a wish to be sure they were properly cared for in their old age. But it probably didn’t hurt that they could also help to look after the children: we would have been about eleven and eight years old.

Sallie was a small, warm and cuddly woman with soft features. Her hair had been white for many years. In contrast to the shy Jack, she was chatty and sociable. She was always vague about her age – I don’t for example recall an eightieth birthday celebration – and about the date and number of their wedding anniversaries. Later we would find out why.

But I know that she was 77 when they came to live with us, and she had lived long enough and been through enough that she no longer cared – if she ever did – what people thought of her. She could be blunt to the point of rudeness, and made instant judgements about people on very little information, but was seldom wrong.

On being told that the man engaged to her niece was a lay preacher, she opined “Lay preachers! Hypocrites, the lot of them!”

On meeting the charming and pretty girlfriend Rob brought home, Sallie offered her view to Mum, at high volume: “A shallow girl!”

She was older than Jack, and once told Mum that marriages were better when the woman is older.  I wondered what Mum, five years younger than Dad, was supposed to say to that.

Here are some of Sallie’s sayings:

“Drink plenty water!”
“I’ll believe you, thousands wouldn’t!”
“Would I thump!” (as in “would I hell!”)

“Stir it and stump it, and blow your own trumpet, or trust me, you haven’t a chance!” (From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore)
“Go on Kath, it won’t hurt the boy!” (when being an indulgent grandma).
“Can’t stand the man!” when the wrong person appeared on television.

Here are some of the things Sallie did:

She sat rocking her chair, passing comment on the television news.
She drank tea from her favourite floral design china cup and saucer.
She washed her hair using rainwater collected in a metal pail, because she didn’t like using our hard water.
She put her false teeth in a glass of water with Steradent by her bed every night.
She talked politics with Mrs Caradine when she came for tea, especially at election time. (Both were strong labour supporters.)
She walked Tumbi through the woods and over Chorleywood common.
She squashed chocolates between her thumb and forefinger to test if they were hard or soft. (luckily she liked the soft ones).
She set a fire in the dustbin when the contents were overflowing.
She surreptitiously fed Tumbi with cake at tea time and scraps from her plate at dinner time, thus encouraging the dog’s appalling table manners.
She knitted jumpers for Rob and me.
She smoked the occasional cigarette, always with the appearance of a novice smoker and a guilty schoolgirl. Very occasional, compared to Mum’s forty a day.

Here are some of the people and things Sallie liked:

Harold Wilson (She was very excited to go to hear him speak in Watford)
Pears Soap
Harry Worth
Dachshunds, preferably black and tan
Danny Kaye
Songs of Praise
Wordsworth
An occasional sherry
Rose’s Lime Jelly
Tennyson
George Eliot

Here are some of the people and things Sallie did not like

The Rolling Stones (“dirty!”)
Jimmy Savile (“horrible man!” – my god, how right she was)
The Queen Mother (“waving all the time, with that silly grin on her face!”)
Loud music coming from our bedroom (“thump thump thump – it sounds like the washing machine! They all sound the same!”)
Edward Heath

Sallie’s natural sociability no doubt eased her transition to life down south, although Jack sometimes seemed ill at ease. Life in our home was harmonious for a few years: Sallie made cakes, knitted, read books and drank tea. Jack, who had been a ship’s carpenter, made beautiful and useful things out of wood, and carried out the more skilful part of the work in building a swimming pool in our back garden.

In 1968 Jack became ill with arteriosclerosis, and he was moved to the downstairs living room where Sallie and Mum nursed him with dedication. This must have been physically and emotionally exhausting for both mother and daughter, and they may have felt some relief when his struggle ended.

Sallie outlived her husband by two years, a period I remember as turbulent. Mum didn’t enjoy sharing her kitchen with Sallie – perhaps jealous of her more confident cake baking skills. Rob recalls a ferocious argument when Sallie secretly baked a sponge cake and stashed it under her bed. Mum was upset at the suggestion that her cakes weren’t good enough.

For Mum the combination of friction with her mother, the arrival of the menopause, an overactive thyroid and differences with Rob – now going through a lively adolescence – could make an explosive mixture. Dad, Tumbi and I tried to keep our heads down.

The day Sallie died, our cleaning lady Mrs Galloway, known to us as “Gorgeous Gus” found her in her favourite rocking chair, with Tumbi at her feet.

Written by Kath and Aelwyn

After Jack died, Sallie told Mum part of their history which she hadn’t shared before, and when Sallie died, Mum in turn shared it with Rob and me, now 17 and 14. Jack had not been her first husband: she had previously been married to David, known as Davy. Her older brother Tom, fighting in the Great War, met Jack and brought him home to meet his family, and Sallie must have taken a fancy to him. She left Davy and went to live with Jack, causing quite a scandal. Her divorce from Davy took some years to come through, and Mum told us that her parents were married between the birth of her brother Philip and her own birth.

I found it difficult to picture my kindly white-haired grandma getting up to these shenanigans, but Rob and I enjoyed the romance of the story and imagined the handsome young Jack rescuing Sallie from Davy’s evil clutches.


Sarah Emily Cooper was born on 19 March 1887 in Chirk, just inside Wales. Her father John Cooper was a brick and tile maker who had moved there from the Potteries in Staffordshire.

John Cooper, in his Besses o’ th’ Barn Band uniform

Sallie had two older brothers, Dick and Tom, and an older sister Bella. When Sallie was just fifteen months old, her mother Alice died of typhoid fever. John was left with four children to care for, and it appears that Alice’s mother Sarah came to help out. But she developed cancer of the womb, and it might have been with her encouragement that Alice‘s younger sister Edie moved in – probably in the early 1890s – and became John’s common law wife. They couldn’t be officially wed, because until 1907 it was illegal for a widower to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

(This prohibition arose from canon law, which regarded brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law as siblings, and hence viewed sex between them as immoral. From the 1860s onwards there was a campaign to get this archaic law repealed, along with the corresponding law prohibiting a widow from marrying her deceased husband’s brother. This became such a perennial theme that Gilbert and Sullivan satirised it in Iolanthe, in which the Queen of the Fairies sings:

He shall prick that annual blister
Marriage with deceased wife’s sister.
)

Aelwyn on John Cooper (1997)

Edie had two children of her own from her first marriage, and it seems there was no room for the two younger girls with their father and their stepmother/auntie. Bella was sent to live with her aunt Annie and her husband John Stanford, a prosperous couple in Wrexham. Sallie was not so lucky. She and her brothers were sent to live with their Uncle Tom – Alice’s brother, and his sister – her auntie Emily, who was disabled, and worked as a seamstress.

So before she was seven, Sallie had lost her mother, been sent away from her father, and separated from her closest sibling, Bella. The three children were now living with an uncle and auntie who may well have resented their new responsibilities. By all accounts, hers was not a happy childhood.

Tom never married. He was a coalminer, and apparently a heavy drinker. Sallie is said to have hated him. One story is that Tom would walk for miles to reach England go to the pub – at the time pubs in Wales were closed by law on Sundays – and his route back took him over the Chirk Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, perhaps arriving home in a foul mood. Mum said Sallie used to pray for him to fall drunkenly to his death.

In 1910 at the age of 23 she married Davy Hughes, described as a terracotta model maker. Surprisingly the 1911 census shows them both living with Tom and Emily, when they might have had better options. Family stories do not support the evil persona Rob and I had invented for Davy, instead painting him as sweet natured and gentle, happy to give Sallie’s niece Marjorie a ride on his bike.

Sallie and Davy had no children. Perhaps they were happy together for a while, but when her brother Tom came back from the war and introduced his friend, Sallie must have seen something in Jack that won her over.

Sallie’s brother Tom, with Jack. Taken during WW1

In 1920 she left Davy for Jack. This was not an easy choice for her. Her behaviour was regarded as scandalous, and was frowned upon by some in her own family. But Bella was supportive, even at the cost of fierce arguments with her husband Ernest, and the two sisters remained close until Bella’s death in 1956. Davy sued for divorce, and the papers, describing events of a hundred years ago, are interesting reading.

I now see Chester and Runcorn in a new light.

Sallie and Jack set up home together: Philip was born in 1922, and Kath (my Mum) in 1925. Kath was so small at birth that the midwife doubted her chances of survival, and prepared the couple for bad news.

Sallie and Kath

The divorce was a lengthy process, and was not finalised until January 1927. Two weeks later when they married, Sallie gave her age as 34, shaving off five years, and perhaps Jack never knew her true age. Hence her reticence on the subject.

Sallie and Jack

Years later when Jack died, Sallie must have decided that Philip and Kath should hear the story of her first marriage from her, rather than perhaps from their older cousins Marjorie and Mollie. Kath now understood Sallie’s vagueness about their wedding date. But Sallie still didn’t quite tell her the full story: in her later years Kath always believed that she was born after her parents were married, and this seemed important to her in an old-fashioned way. Perhaps Sallie was sparing her feelings.

It appears that Sallie and Jack tried hard to conceal their “scandalous” history from their children – not, I imagine, out of shame – it was just love – but to protect Philip and Kath from feeling any stigma. According to her niece Maureen, Sallie burned all her old photographs, presumably to prevent her children finding them and asking awkward questions.

A couple of years ago, my daughter drew my attention to an intriguing dedication inside a volume of Tennyson’s poems which we had passed on to her.

Why would Jack dedicate the book to his “wife” Sallie in 1919, when she was still married to Davy and living with him? Perhaps he was promising Sallie that he would marry her when he could. But probably this inscription was added or amended retrospectively to deflect questions about the date of their marriage.

Without question, their life was tough, and Jack often struggled to find work in the shipyards during the depression. But they worked hard and were frugal, and my Mum’s stories from childhood suggested little money but no shortage of love and care. Sallie loved reading, and set much store in the value of education. This attitude bore rich fruit, especially in Philip, who became a Professor of English Literature and a world renowned authority on Shakespeare.

Sallie and Philip

By the time of my first memories of visiting Sallie and Jack, they seemed settled and content. As Sallie lived with us for seven years – and because she had a strong personality – she is the grandparent I recall most vividly. She was ruthless when she encountered dishonesty or pretension, and – at least at the age I knew her – made no effort to be tactful. She made rapid judgements about people, but was fiercely loyal to friends and family. She was a warm and kind person, and a loving and much loved grandma. I never knew how much she’d been through.

The Laboratory in Chestnut Avenue

Mum thought she was doing me a favour, and perhaps she was. Shopping in Rickmansworth one Saturday morning she had seen a notice at the newsagent: Paperboys/girls required. The same afternoon I was signing up for duty. It wasn’t perfect – the nearest available round was Bridle Lane in Loudwater, a hilly two miles from our home in Chestnut Avenue. But it paid thirty shillings a week – one pound ten! That was better than five bob pocket money.

It was November, and the dark mornings had arrived. Next morning I switched on my battery lamps and cycled down the rough of Park Avenue, freewheeling joyfully down Troutstream Way, and pedalling laboriously up the other side until my legs could do no more, and I had to get off and push. Mr Ward met me there and showed me the round: Bridle Lane was, and is, a genteel and quirky private road, with names not numbers if you please, and more than its share of thatched roofs and swimming pools. Presumably the children who lived there had no need of extra pocket money, or else attended boarding schools.  “This can be a great job” Mr Ward confided, “when you’re up before everyone else, and the sun is shining. When it’s cold and wet, though…”. He showed me the hidden entrances and pointed out where the aggressive dogs lived. “Get it done by eight during the week, nine at the weekends.”

A few weeks in, I found a manilla envelope sellotaped to one of the front doors, marked For the Paper Boy. Inside was a ten shilling note. A decent Christmas tip for about twenty deliveries.

But the first winter was tough. The roads were frequently icy so I had to take the downhill very gingerly. Going up Troutstream Way there was grand looking house with a large window, showing a rich red carpet adorning two flights of stairs. It looked so warm and luxurious in there, I felt like an orphan boy, shut out in the cold.

And there was a girl, a pretty one, who rode with her bag of papers in the opposite direction, but we didn’t acknowledge each other. I invented scenarios where she had fallen off her bike and I came to her rescue, but it didn’t happen.

By the time I had reached Bridle Lane, my fingers were numb from clutching the handlebars, and could barely open the stack of papers, or separate them. The only effective remedy, I found, was sheepskin mittens.

Sometimes if Watford had been playing the night before, I would pounce on the pile, and pull out a tabloid to find the score inside the back page – back then newspapers actually contained news, sometimes. I would also make straight for the Daily Sketch, so I could read Peanuts.

If a customer had cancelled their papers for a holiday, still half asleep I might accidentally put the next paper in the stack through their door, at which I cursed myself. I hated to get it wrong. Someone complained that their paper was soaking wet on delivery, and I worked out that, on rainy days, it might be better to keep the paper in the bag until I reached the front door.

Sundays were good and bad. Good, because I had an extra hour in bed. Bad, because the papers were huge, especially the Sunday Times. At least they seemed huge to a small thirteen year old boy, and the narrow bag strap cut into my shoulder. If a house had a tiny letterbox, sorry but the paper was left on the doorstep, rain or shine. Fridays were heavy too, back when everyone took the Watford Observer.

Bridle Lane

We never took a bath in the morning back then, and a shower was just something I had at school after rugby. I just got back from a forty minute paper round plus a strenuous four mile bike ride in my school clothes, washed my hands – filthy from newsprint if I wasn’t wearing gloves – ate breakfast and went off to school. Did I stink? In winter probably, in summer definitely, but hey, all the boys did in those days.

Saturdays were the best. The start was late and the stack was light. And I could pick up my pay in Rickmansworth. It seemed like a fortune. I think now I should have spent it on adventures with friends, bought classic pop records, even spent it on girlfriends if only, but I was a prudent little fellow and “invested” it in my coin collection, convinced that the old coinage would soar in value after decimalisation. I still have the collection, and I’m still waiting.

Cycling four miles each morning before breakfast must have made me fitter, but I was envious of my older brother Rob, who had taken on the paper round in our road for a rival newsagent. He just had to roll out of bed and walk for five minutes to pick up his papers: sometimes I wondered if he finished the round without waking up. So I asked Mr Ward to let me know if the round in our road came free. At last it did, so I quit the Bridle Lane round and took it over. My pay went down by one sixth but the time went down by one third, and Rob and I would pass each other in the road with our bags.

Eventually, with his A-levels approaching, Rob decided to give up his round. The opportunism and ruthlessness later to characterise my business career was already taking shape, and with his cooperation I hatched a plan. Without either of us telling the shop, I took over his deliveries for two weeks, and turned up at the newsagent in Chorleywood – then on the corner of the Rickmansworth Road and Solesbridge Lane – to claim my pay.

The shop was run by a sour-faced lady with a disconcerting habit of shaking her head doubtfully while you were addressing her. At first she demurred, but I explained that Rob had quit, and I had already been doing the round for a fortnight. Her small eyes narrowed in concentration, and she must have reasoned that, indeed, the pay had not been collected, there had been no complaints from customers, and that I had saved her the inconvenience of finding someone else for the round. The job was mine, and at just fifteen, I controlled the newspaper delivery racket in Chestnut Avenue.

I experimented with doubling up: I put one bag on each shoulder and tried to complete both deliveries in one circuit, but I limped like an overburdened mule, and on Sundays the weight was impossible. In addition I would frequently have to retrace my steps when I forgot to check one of the bags for the next delivery. In the end, scientific study showed that it was no slower, and much easier, to do the rounds sequentially.

This had consequences for the disgruntled customer who, leaving for work unreasonably early, complained that his Telegraph was often arriving too late. I offered a perfunctory apology and walked on. He must have escalated his complaint to the shop, who probably reassured him that the delivery was being made before the required deadline. Soon his daily paper appeared in the rival newsagent’s stack: sadly for him this was the batch I delivered second. I like to think he saw me walk past his house, knowing that it would be another half hour before I got round to bringing him his paper. That’s what you get.

Power corrupts, they say, and hubris was setting in. There was a local evening paper, the Evening Echo, and we had a daily delivery by car. I couldn’t tolerate the presence of these incomers on my territory, so I volunteered to take it over. I was shown the round on a driving tour of Chorleywood and half of Rickmansworth, four miles, perhaps, with deliveries to about fifteen houses, dotted around the Rickmansworth Alps of Valley Road, the Clump and the Drive. It took two fellows to give me this tour: perhaps one fellow was showing me the ropes, and showing the other fellow how to show the ropes to other fellows.

Echo newsboys and newsgirls collected the money from each subscriber on Friday evening, and handed it over at base camp less their bit of pay, so pay was proportional to the number of houses on the round. With the help of a sales promotion, I hatched what seemed a brilliant business plan. I energetically canvassed my road for new subscribers, and signed up about ten. Then I toured round to the five most isolated and awkward houses on the route, and informed them that deliveries would be discontinued. I had turned a widely scattered round with fifteen subscribers into a compact one with twenty. Brilliant, no?

You might have spotted the flaw in my plan. When I returned to base next Friday, I was given one week’s money in lieu, and told that my services were no longer required. A customer had kicked up a fuss at being told he couldn’t have the Echo delivered, and the sales team had taken his side. I learned, perhaps, that the smartest business plan will fail if it upsets customers.

About this time my grandfather, a retired headmaster, expressed in a letter to my parents his disapproval at me having three paper rounds, and his concern that I might be too busy and too tired to apply myself properly to my studies. Ah, that’s why I couldn’t do calculus. Still, it gave me cover to make a graceful retreat.

By now my own A-levels were approaching, but there was still time for one more experiment on my remaining rounds in my Chestnut Avenue laboratory. I learned that some school-friends distributed Christmas cards on about the 10th December, to remind their customers that t’was the season to be generous. Cynical? I suppose. More cynical, though, (but perhaps it could be excused as a contribution to economic science?) would be to distribute cards only to the even numbers, and then keep a careful tally of the returns.

I estimated that the delivery of a cheap Christmas card boosted tips by an average of about 50%, which was nice to have, but this insight came too late to be useful, because before long I hung up the old shoulder bags for good. And that would have been that, but for Mrs H, a family friend who lived at number 45. She had heard that her friend across the road had received a Christmas card from the paperboy, and enquired gently with my parents whether she had upset me in some way. Er, no, sorry about that, Mrs H.

Bit Nicer

Jessica didn’t want to come in from the balcony, where she was looking down between the rails at something.

“Come on darling, we’re all ready to go” said Robert irritably.

She continued to peer through the rails.

“It’s just…that daddy looks bit nicer.”

It was a gleaming modern hotel in Tenerife, extravagantly fitted out by an award-winning Spanish architect.  Robert still found it somehow oppressive.  He walked onto the balcony to take a look.  Outside a ground floor room, a young dad was settling a small boy into his pushchair.  He could see what his daughter meant: the man was good-looking, and had a friendly and patient look as he attended to his child.

Ouch.  The ways of fatherhood had not come easily to Robert: he knew he wasn’t the most empathic or relaxed dad, and if possible he tended to leave most of the work to Helena.  But he did his best, or thought he did, and this unsolicited piece of feedback was difficult to take.  And “bit”…the affecting childish attempt to soften the blow only confirmed the sincerity of her comment

Well, on we go, thought Robert, as the family headed for the crazy golf course.  This at least was a chance for him to show off his pack leader credentials.  Or it would have been, but Helena was enjoying a lucky streak.  An elderly German couple watched indulgently as Jessica carefully took hold of the full size putter half way down the shaft and prepared to take her shot.  They widened their eyes in delight and applauded when the ball hit the angled bend and rolled to within three inches of the hole.  Then Jessica slumped to the ground.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Robert parked the car, paid the £7.80 parking charge and walked with Helena into the hospital.  They held hands as they approached Jessica’s ward, but let go their grip before their daughter could see them.  Jessica looked tiny in the bed, in her outsize hospital gown.  Her wrist was attached to a drip.  She sat up carefully and gave a small smile of welcome when her parents came in, and they gently hugged her.

“The doctor says they’re going to make me go to sleep, and when I wake up my heart will be better.”

“That’s right” said Helena.

“The girl in that bed over there says some people die when they have an operation.  Is that true?”

Helena stroked a curl of blond hair from the girl’s forehead.

“It will all be fine, darling, I promise.”

Jessica considered this for a few seconds, then bit her lower lip and nodded slowly.  Her mother squeezed her hand.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Three months later the family was in Cumbria.  Robert found himself at last getting into the holiday mood, as they strolled round dramatic scenery in the spring sunshine.  Lauren and Jessica scampered ahead exploring the rock formations, and Helena and Robert walked behind.

After a while they heard the scrunch of stones and a wail: Jessica had tripped and scraped her shin.  She hopped back to her mum.  Helena, ever ready with the first aid kit, cleaned and dressed the wound in no time.

Robert looked down at Jessica’s face, and saw how tired she was.

“Shall I carry you?”

She looked up and met his eyes, and nodded.  She reached up her arms, and as he bent to pick her up, she put them around his neck.