From the start of my first year at the academy in 1966 -67 my art teacher singled me out as a candidate for progressing to art college. She was the only person who ever set me a goal to aim for that was appropriate for my artistic talent. I endeavoured to honour her confidence and investment in me. However, as something of a wayward boy I was also a candidate for the oldest schoolboy profession.
I started playing truant in 1968. My partner in crime was my neighbourhood pal and fellow truant, Mike.
It was a fine bright sunny morning, not the kind of weather to be cooped up in class. Our preferred destination on days like this was by the river that flowed from the west and skirted along the south side of the village. First things first though. We went to the shop and stole our day’s menu of chocolate bars and biscuits, headed for our riverside spot beneath the shady hawthorn bushes, dumped our school bags and were about to luxuriate on the gentle grassy incline when I spotted something floating down river towards us. I went to the edge of the river to investigate. ‘Heh, Mike, look, a log!’ ‘So what,’ Mike replied. ‘I’m going to grab it and pull it out.’ ‘What for?’ ‘I don’t know; make a raft, maybe.’ ‘With one lousy log?’ ‘It’s a start.’ ‘You’re daft.’ A branch protruded from a tree trunk embedded in the riverbank and stretched across the surface of the water. Gripping an overarching branch I stepped down onto this branch and slowly crouched down reaching out my other arm as I did so to grab the underside of the partially sunken log. As I crouched down lower and reached further I suddenly slipped and plunged into the water up to my neck. Mike laughed aloud. ‘It’s not funny,’ I protested as I clambered out of the water onto the riverbank. Not only was my school uniform totally drenched it was also stinking thanks to the surrounding coal mines that used the river as a repository for discharging waste. ‘What are we going to do now?’ I cried. ‘What do you mean we?’ Mike replied, ‘You got yourself into this mess,’ he added. ‘Come on, I can’t go home like this; dad will kill me; he’ll know I’ve not been to school.’ On the other side of the river was a farmstead where Mike worked after school hours. He suggested that we go there in order for me to get cleaned up. ‘Will he not tell on us?’ I asked. ‘No. Leave it to me; I’ll make up some excuse before we get there.’ John, the farmer, was walking across the yard towards the milk parlour when we arrived. He stopped when he saw us and waited until we drew nearer. He was a friendly looking man, slim but sinewy, smiley eyes, sported a neat moustache and wore a well weathered light brown cap. He was dressed in a thin denim work jacket and dungarees bottomed off by steel toe cap boots that were ringed around the soles with cow dung.’Hello, Mike, what are you doing here? Should you not be at school?’ he said. ‘We’re on holiday,’ Mike replied. John smiled and simply said ‘Oh, and what happened to your pal?’ Mike explained everything and asked if we could spend the day working on the farm. John paused for a moment: ‘Aye, I suppose you could.’ He then instructed me to take off my uniform and give it to his wife Jane – who had come out from the house to see what was going on – for cleaning and who would give each of us a pair of overalls. After we changed John gave us some tasks to perform but before we started he made one condition: that if Hamish the policeman called for his eggs that as far as John was concerned we were on holiday. No wonder he had smiled at Mike’s excuse. Mike and I relished feeding the calves and the hens, collecting eggs and other jobs. I even learned to drive the tractor and reverse with a trailer. We were also well fed at dinner time and in between. Thankfully Hamish never arrived and my uniform was clean in time to go home as if from school. Before leaving I asked John if I could also work on the farm after school. ‘Aye, I could always do with an extra pair of hands,’ he replied with a smile.
Date June 1969. Place: school corridor. My first year art teacher Miss Richie approached me, her arms folded as usual being one her distinct features: ‘Is it correct what I have heard, David, that you are not going to art college?’ ‘Yes, Miss,’ I replied with barely the courage to look at her. ‘And why not?’ ‘I’m going to work on a farm, Miss.’ I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was disappointed in me. No wonder; my future in the end had been decided by that abandoned, worthless log floating downriver. I often wonder where I’d be now if I had just left the thing.
The moral of this story: it’s the seemingly insignificant things that could determine the major turning points in our lives