Playing truant from school and what we got up to.
Bunking off, simply means playing truant. The problem there, is that when lots of separate occasions of playing truant are all packaged together, it might appear that my friends and I were hardly ever at school. Well the truth is that I rarely ever truanted because every time I did, it always ended up in some kind of trouble and let's be honest about this, that’s the only reason you would read a non-celebrity book. There's no," the torture before I made it big bit" or, "my troubled journey to fame and fortune." That's just not going to happen, so the good bits for you the reader are generally speaking, the bad bits for me. So most of the time we were to be found on the right side of the school gates. But here is the odd occasion when the gates just weren't strong enough to hold us back.
I started at Crayford Secondary in the September of 1972 and before my twelfth birthday in October I was already on report for playing truant, or more to the point for getting caught playing truant.
I can't actually remember the exact circumstances of why we decided to take the afternoon off, but I hadn't made any real friends yet. I was hanging round with two of the boys I knew from primary school and I didn't want to be seen to be a wimp in our new "grown up" surroundings. It was one of those things that, when we left school that afternoon to go to my house for lunch, it just sort of evolved from there.
This all happened before my father started spending his days working from home, so as both my parents were at work it was decided that we'd all go to my house. There was Julian Smith, Stuart Nichols and myself. I'd made us all a sandwich and during our lunch, and without any planning or forethought we decided to bunk the afternoon off.
" It would be a laugh," I heard someone say.
With the benefit of hindsight I would have known that three eleven year olds weren't going to sit still and play nicely for four hours, and once it was too late to go back to school, we quickly became bored. It was suggested by one of the others that we should go to London for the afternoon. Although we lived in a London borough, it was still about forty minutes into central London by train, and there was no way any of our parents would have allowed that.
Even though I was earning money from my paper round, on this particular day I was broke. I think I was rather hoping that my lack of funds would get me off the hook, but it wasn't to be.
Stuart's parents ran the Bear and Ragged Staff, which is a big old pub in Crayford, and although I didn't know this at the time Stuart had a habit of stealing money from the pub safe. He used to steal change, not hundreds of pounds, you understand. Just enough so that it wouldn't be noticed by his parents, or so he thought. But it was a lot for an eleven year old to be carrying round with him.
So the first mission would be to go to the Bear and get some train fare and spending money without getting caught.
"My parents will be busy in the bar and the safe is upstairs in the office, so all we've got to do is get up stairs and we're home and dry," he said.
"So how are we gonna do that then?" I replied, somewhat derisively.
“We'll get in through my bedroom window, up there,” he pointed upwards towards an open window.
His window was at the back of the pub on the first floor. So like three intrepid mountaineers, off we set. There was a wall that separated the pub car park from the garden. The wall was about twelve feet high, and we had to get on this via the garage that was right at the end of the car park, and about eighty feet from the bedroom window. We climbed on the garage, one at a time and then shimmied up on to the wall. That was the easy bit. Once we had all scaled the wall we had to walk along its entire length to the open window.
Now it was obvious that Stuart wasn't doing this for the first time. He sauntered down the entire length of the wall as if he was on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. Julian was behind him walking as if he was on a high wire a thousand feet above the Grand Canyon, arms stretched out to the sides. I Wasn't quite as bad as that, but tentatively we both edged our way down the length of the wall to where Stuart was standing, laughing at the pair of us.
The wall wasn't attached to the pub, but ran alongside it. This formed an ally and the window was at ninety degrees and a three foot leap of faith away. Stuart leapt from the wall onto the window ledge and dived head first through the open window, all in one agile movement. He immediately poked his head back out and was trying to encourage us off the wall. Because I was behind Julian I had no choice but to wait while he got his nerve up and all the time Stuart was coaxing him like he was trying to get a stranded cat out of a tree. I only think he jumped in the end because he couldn't face the long walk back to the garage.
I jumped across, onto the ledge and in one movement I was in. The landing on the other side was not as expected, because he had his bed positioned directly under the window. Of course he knew this all along, that's why he wasn't afraid to go straight through. It was a half roll over the soft mattress and a gentle drop onto the carpeted floor. Stuart had already been to the safe and got what he wanted and was ready to make his getaway by the time we had got ourselves straightened out.
We watched in disbelief as he climbed back out through the window onto the wall, and then straight off to the car park below. Again he got to his feet and beckoned for us to follow. I did as ordered, when I Jumped I instantly realised that there was not a cat in hells chance of landing on the wall and staying there. My feet hit the top and I made a half arsed attempt at sitting down, but my backside landed with a wallop on the wall, and my momentum carried me right back off, and straight to the ground below. As I got to my feet I looked up, and there before my very eyes stood Julian.
“How did you do that?“ I said, still quite bewildered.
“Simple,” he replied. “I Walked down the stairs and out of the back door, no way was I gonna do that again.”
It had finally dawned on me, this had been a test. A test to see if I had the bottle to go along with them and to make sure that I was sufficiently involved so that I couldn't grass on them. I never would have anyway. It was so obvious Stuart didn't need either of us to help him do something he had already done alone hundreds of times before. So anyway I had passed the test and we were on our way to London.
On the way to the station we stopped off at the newsagents to stock up on goodies for the journey, and it was there that I saw exactly what Stuart had taken. He spent loads on sweets and cigarettes for all of us, and then he pulled two ten pound notes from his pocket. I couldn't believe my eyes. To put it in perspective twenty pounds was about half a week's wages for the average working man in 1972, and he'd stolen it, and Julian and I were the willing accomplices. I might have been easily lead, but I wasn't stupid. I knew that amount of money wouldn't go unnoticed and that we'd cop for it later. But for now I couldn't do anything, so I took my share of the sweets and cigarettes and kept my mouth shut.
We eventually arrived at Crayford station, where Stuart purchased three return tickets to Charing Cross, and after a short wait we boarded the train.
As an adult I have caught this train many thousands of times and like everybody else on commuter trains going into London every day, I do it on autopilot. No thinking, or wanting to communicate with anyone, just get on, get there and get off.
But like the first time for everything it seemed so exciting, a great big adventure was about to unfold. We'd got on the train at the first carriage that had pulled up in front of us, but it was occupied and non-smoking. We wanted to be alone to muck about and smoke without being hassled. On those old style trains it wasn't possible to pass through from one carriage to the next, not like on the modern trains. So at the next stop we got off and ran down the platform for as long as we dared, then jumped back on board before it pulled away. We had done this three more times, without finding the perfect carriage. Finally a single compartment without a “no smoking” sign stuck across the window appeared. We dived in and as we passed round the cigarettes, Julian was busily climbing up on to the luggage racks that were above the seats, when the carriage door opened. It was the guard and he seemed really pissed off.
“The next time you get off this train will be the last time, stop getting on and off, sit in the seats properly and put those cigarettes out at once, and why aren't you lot in school?”
He bellowed this out all in one breath, then without waiting for a reply, he slammed the door shut, the train pulled away and we carried on without taking a blind bit of notice. We soon tired of clambering over the furniture and settled down to staring aimlessly out of the window, until we arrived at Charing Cross.
We left the train and made our way out through the station and on to the Strand. Where we were instantly stopped by a policeman, who wanted to know what we were doing and why we weren't in school. Julian told him that we had to go and meet his father at the office where he worked, and that he was going to show us round as part of a project we were doing at school. Brilliant one, he bought it hook line and sinker. So he let us go and we wandered away laughing our heads off.
We made our way to Trafalgar Square and hung out there for the next couple of hours, climbing on the lion statues and feeding the pigeons. Before we knew it, a few hours had slipped by and we would have to get a move on if we wanted to get home before any parents became suspicious.
We'd taken off our school jackets and ties so we wouldn't look like little school boys wandering around London. The settee in the living room had a storage compartment under the seat, so before we had left my house I stashed all the clothes and book bags in there. The problem that had just dawned on me now was that if we didn't get home in time, the rest of my family would be sitting on all their stuff and I wasn't going to be able to get it back without explaining why it was in there in the first place. So we rushed back to the station and made our way home.
We didn't get back to Crayford until gone five, so it was decided that we'd leave all the stuff where it was and I'd bring it all to school in the morning.
When I got in my mother stopped me in my tracks and the first thing my she said was.
“Have you been to school today?”
“Yes of course I have, where do you think I've been?” I replied somewhat indignantly.
" Well where's your jacket and bag then?”
I tried to look surprised and I said. “Oh I've been round to Stuarts, I forgot and left it all there. I lied. “I'll go and pick it up tomorrow.” She seemed to buy it and she let me pass.
As I approached the school gates the following morning, laden down with three school bags stuffed with the other two's clothes, I knew we had been rumbled. And after I'd been so careful getting it all out without getting caught. Getting up extra early and moving their gear from the settee to the garage, before any of my lot got up and sat their fat arses back on it all.
I knew we'd been rumbled, because Stuart was standing by the gates with his father by his side. He would never have allowed one of his parents to take him to school under normal circumstances. He would never have heard the last of it. So you see I just knew. I thought about turning round and heading back the way I had just come. But that would have been a waste of time, they'd just come and get me. So I braced myself and carried on to meet my fate.
Before I could get through the gates Stuart's dad stopped me.
“Give him his jacket and tie back and wait here, we're all going in together."
The tone of his voice was so stern, and Stuart was so subdued that I knew we were in really deep shit. So I did exactly as ordered. I pulled his crumpled jacket and tie from his bag, handed them to him and stood in silence by his side while he hastily put them on. He looked like he'd spent the night sleeping under a hedge and we would have surely laughed about it, had the situation not been so dire. By the time he had got himself dressed Julian had come into view. He stood out a mile. Everyone else was dressed in the correct school uniform, but he was ambling along without a care in the world, also with no tie, no jacket, and no heavy book bag to weigh him down. The moment he caught sight of us three, his demeanour changed, the penny had dropped for him too.
By the time he reached us he had removed his hands from his pockets and was ready to receive his stuff. I had already taken it from his bag in anticipation of his arrival. He took it from me and put it on without saying a word and straight away we followed Mr Nichols through the gates, like three obedient sheep.
He led us right to the headmistress, Ms. Wakrel's office. He knocked on the door with one loud rap and without waiting for a reply went straight in. We all trailed in behind him and lined up in front of her desk.
It had come to pass that the second Stuart had got home from his London away day, his father was waiting to confront him about the stolen cash. As it appeared he was as scared of his father as I was of mine, he'd spilled the beans completely. He'd told him everything, about the money, playing truant, going to London, the lot. His father had only phoned the school because he wouldn't tell him where we lived and he didn't have a clue.
Ms Wakrel was already up to speed with the story and she was busily encouraging Mr. Nichols To call the police.
“You do realise this is too serious a matter for the school to deal with,” she said to him, without so much as a glance in our direction.
He was nodding his head in agreement.
I thought. That's it, I've had it, I've already been done for shoplifting at the beginning of the summer. I'm definitely going to get put away for this . Even though he was nodding his head the words that came out of his mouth were such a relief.
“No police,” he said. “I've dealt with him about the stealing.” He was pointing at Stuart. “And he won't be doing that again. I just wanted these two here.” Pointing at me and Julian. “I want to make sure that their parents know exactly what they've been up to.”
So it turned out that tough old Stuart wasn't so tough after all, and his father was a bit of a softy too. Didn't want to see his precious little boy in trouble with the police. To be fair to Stuart he'd kept us out of the stealing bit as much as he could, and so when the school phoned my mother, they only told her about the playing truant part and about going to London.
So as it turned out in the end, we got the kudos of being the first in our year to get the cane and the first in our year to go on report, and at home I got a good hiding from my father, but as that happened every other day once more was neither here nor there to me. Shortly after this Stuart, Julian and I seemed to go our separate ways. We each made new friends and we mixed in different circles.