One of the things we come across from time to time are slogans, neat little sayings designed to make us think about some point they want to make, and for a great many of us, they work. One I remember that came out during World War Two in England was, “Is your journey really necessary?” The object was to make us think before using the meagre supplies of petrol which reached our shores at the cost of many ships sunk and lives lost. Which brings me to another question, and the reason for this story: What happens to youth during their necessary journey through adolescence?
‘Round the corner of the street in the village where I lived as a boy was the Dixon family. I don’t remember much about the mother, but I do remember quite a bit about Mr Dixon and his three sons. He was a pleasant easy-going man, and there was something about the way he seemed to give his whole attention to me as we chatted, that made our friendship special from the beginning. I was about seven and half years of age when we first met, and for the next four and a half years we’d see each other in the street occasionally, and stop and chat for a few minutes. Nothing more than that, and yet I have never forgotten him.
As for the three Dixon boys, there wasn’t much between their ages with the youngest older than me by only a couple of months or so. They were slightly better off financially than the rest of the families in the village, though I never did discover what Mr Dixon did for a living. They didn’t put on airs and graces of any kind, but the boys stood out from the rest of us because they were always so neatly dressed with shoes shining, socks pulled up, shorts ironed with nice straight creases, and never with any holes in their jerseys. One other thing is they were really quite nice to me and my mates, they laughed and joked with us at certain times and so on. However, perhaps because they were a little bit older than myself and my friends they didn’t mix with us quite as freely or join in as many of the things we did together as they might have done had they been closer to our own age. But we saw them all the time, coming or going, usually together and sometimes with a friend. And always so neat and tidy.
The seasons came and went and naturally we grew taller, bulkier and more clumsy in our movements the nearer we came to our teenage years and adolescence. It was about this time that my father began his quiet sowing of seed with, “Now then Den, I don’t want thee to start smoking, it’s a mugs game,” and this was followed a few months later by another sowing tagged onto the first. “Now then our Den, remember I don’t want thee smoking, and tha can leave t’ drink alone too.” And the last thing he added not long after was, “Now look here our Den, tha can see how much it costs me to get me fags, and how it’s ruinin’ me ‘ealth. So leave the damn things alone. Don’t start smoking lad. And tha knows how I feel about tha drinkin’ beer, leave that alone too. And another thing, keep away from women!” Now that really was funny as my voice hadn’t even broken and I was still running around with my mates pretending I was a cowboy or an Indian. But that was the regular lecture I got until I left home some years later as a young man of 23. And life in the village went on, and we boys continued to grow.
One day things began to change, and I remember how shocked I was to see the Dixon boys smoking, quite openly for the first time. Most of us had a quiet puff with our mates in a quiet corner at some time or other, just to say we’d been smoking, but to smoke in public carried too many risks. Neighbours kept a keen eye on what was going on and word was certain to get back to parents with dire results for the culprits when they arrived home later. Mr Dixon would surely be angry if he knew his boys were smoking, I thought, but being such a quiet man his growing adolescent sons were quickly becoming more than he could handle. I was to learn this later, amongst other things I didn’t know then about Mr Dixon and his family. I hated seeing the boys with cigarettes blatantly dangling from their lips, for it filled me with a kind of dismay. It seemed to me that they had lost something clean and attractive about their appearance and personalities. And what was worse, not long after that they changed still more, their clothing lost its neatness, and they walked, talked or rode their bikes aggressively and from that time on, there was a constant air of hostility about them. Mr Dixon didn’t change outwardly; he remained the same pleasant, kind and quietly spoken gentleman during the next few years. I did not understand what torment of heart and mind he must have been experiencing, as his three sons made the journey through their turbulent adolescent years.
We moved away from the district shortly after, not far, about seven miles or so, but it could have been another country as far as the Dixon boys were concerned, for I never saw them again. Now began my own slow and clumsy passage into my embarrassing adolescent years without even being aware of what it was called. It wasn’t talked about openly in those days, in fact it wasn’t talked about it at all in many situations as far as I can remember. I did stumble across a few isolated bits of information about the things that were happening to me by listening to adults as I sat to one side supposedly engrossed in reading my comics. They must have assumed I would be miles away and it was therefore safe to discuss in hushed tones some things they felt I ought not to hear at that time. Anyway, I needn’t have bothered straining my ears to listen to them. What I did hear about my ‘awkward age’ as they called it, I cannot repeat as what they said made me more confused than ever. Then one day I heard my eldest sister raise her voice and looking up from the newspaper she was reading said, “Oh, how sad!” her voice conveying some of the depth of her feelings, and I stopped what I was doing as she carried on as my father and I listened. “The Dixon boys have been trouble with the police. Two have gone to prison and the youngest sent to a correction centre for causing grievous bodily harm,” and as my sister’s voice carried on, my mind went back to the village and how nice the Dixon boys had been just a few years ago. What really broke me up and brought tears to my eyes, was the way my sister said, “Poor Mr Dixon, he’ll be heart-broken, he tried so hard to bring his boys up properly. He’ll be taking this very badly.” I glanced over at my father and saw that he was struggling with his emotions as much as I was. There were still things I was not aware of, but I had worked out for myself by then that Mr Dixon’s marriage was not working. I could hardly remember Mrs Dixon at all, as it always seemed to be Mr Dixon at home caring for the boys. And for the next few days, pictures of the boys and Mr Dixon kept popping into my mind and my heart would sink as I thought of the sadness Mr Dixon would be feeling. It’s strange how things work out though, isn’t it?
I enjoyed singing in the choir I attended in those days, and revelled in controlling my breath and reaching the high notes, sustaining them in clear, vibrant tones. Then a short time after my sister had told us about the Dixon boys, came the time for paying our annual visit to the local hospital to sing Christmas carols. My father would joke with me about that. “T’ choirs only going there, because the poor beggars can’t get away from you lot. Oh aye, you’ve got a captive audience there alright.” And my sister would protest, “Dad! You shouldn’t say things like that, they sing beautifully. Anyway, you hardly ever go to church, so you’ve no room to talk,” but she’d be smiling too and I knew it was just their way of having me on and I didn’t mind a bit. There was also something fascinating about the colour and pageantry that went with the visits which began with us meeting at the church about 6 p.m., when we would get ‘dressed up’ as Dad called it. There was an unusual air about the room at first, it not being a Sunday, but this changed as we put on our choir gowns and surplices, and of course the white rufflet collars we boys wore around our necks, which Dad said was to hide the dirt. The lighting inside the church seemed warmer and more cheerful then than at any other time of the year, and the attitude of a few of the senior members, both male and female, changed their normal grumpy and crotchety manner for a more light-hearted one. When they spoke to us they did so with smiles on their faces and lights in their eyes, and I was rather pleasantly surprised to see Mr Henshaw over in one corner of the room (with his white hair cut so that it bristled like a brush) dance several little hopping steps all on his own. A few minutes later as I walked past him, I caught the delicious smell of brandy on his breath as he said something indistinguishable to me. When we were all gowned and ready we waited in the choir-room for the choirmaster and vicar to say their usual few words, and even though we boys would give each other playful little digs and slaps, no one seemed to mind at all. What was said to us before we left the church I can’t recall, but as we set off I was filled with a sense of anticipation; there was always something magical about our visits to the hospital at Christmas time.
We would leave the church in procession escorted by the church wardens carrying several lanterns on poles, with lighted candles inside, and off we’d walk down the street to the hospital about ten minutes away. As we passed people on the streets there would be low, excited murmurs of delight and calls of, “Sing us a carol,” or “You do look lovely.” On arrival at the hospital there’d be more murmurings in hushed tones as we waited to be led down long the corridors and into the wards. From time to time, a few off-duty nurses would join us, dressed in their scarlet capes and tiny white hats; they looked so breathtakingly beautiful. And as they sang with us, oh how I enjoyed the closeness and mysteries of their feminine shape as I gazed misty-eyed and innocent, wondering at what was beneath those crisp white uniforms and warm inviting capes.
Down the corridor we’d go, walking quietly but with a joyous, low level hum of chatter seeming to move slightly ahead of us in a sort of undulating wave, with a similar one following behind. Groups of people would stand to one side, pressing closely to the sides of the corridors so that we had room to pass. Then we would arrive at the first ward and it would take a few minutes for us all to enter and place ourselves where we could see the choirmaster, and when all was ready there would be a few words from either the matron of the ward, or a doctor or a senior nurse. Sometimes there’d be a few claps from those in the beds or from the nursing staff in attendance and I always felt a flush of pleasure when that happened. As we sang, my eyes would wander round the room, seeing the figures seated by the beds or propped up by pillows all round them. Some would be smiling, others appeared distant, grappling no doubt with the pain and misery that kept them thus confined. I would wonder what they were thinking as they listened to the carols, for it was at that time, that I was beginning to think quite deeply about life and its meaning.
We had been to two or three wards after having sung several carols at each and we entered the next ward, and there in one corner was Mr Dixon. We recognised each other the moment our eyes met and smiled a greeting to each other, my eyes lighting up as I mouthed his name. I could hardly sing the carols selected for the ward, my mind full of pictures and memories from the past. I remembered again the three boys and the way Mr Dixon used to greet me, with a smile and a warm and kindly look on his face and always saying my name. It sounded so nice the way he said it and I liked him especially for that. I saw again the three boys as they had been when they were younger, with their neat socks, shiny shoes and nice jerseys, everything about them had been nice. I held that picture there in my mind for a moment or two, trembling slightly for some reason as I stood in the ward and the rest of the choir sang round about me. Then I saw the boys as they had been when they had changed. I heard again my sister’s voice saying, “Oh how sad, the Dixon boys have been in trouble.” And as my mind recalled that occasion, I looked over at Mr Dixon and as our eyes met I saw the pain and sorrow there. He knows what I’m thinking, I was sure of it. Even from where I was standing, I could tell. And though I was only thirteen years of age, what really gripped my heart and brought a lump to my throat, was that Mr Dixon was still trying to smile. Our choirmaster realised that I was distracted for some reason, but I was unaware that I wasn’t singing, I was too emotionally aware of my friend, Mr Dixon.
Then the choir was moving out to the next ward and I whispered to the one next to me, “I’m going to talk to a friend for a moment,” and took the few steps that brought me to his bedside. We shook hands. I rarely shook hands with anyone and it felt strange to me. I mumbled a few words of greeting to him and blurted out in a boyish way, “I never expected to see you here Mr Dixon.” And smiling warmly he murmured quietly, “How are you, Dennis?” and we stayed chatting for a little time before we parted, never to see each other again. The thing was, just before I left and whilst I was looking into his face, I was struggling with the desire to give this man a friendly hug, and I didn’t know why. Only that since the first time I had met him, his kindly smile and genuine warmth had drawn me closely to him. I had not, as far as I can recall, ever been inside his house, yet I knew that he had a place for me in his heart. I was also grappling with the question of why his sons had turned out as they had. It didn’t seem right to me. He had tried so hard to be a good father to them, why did they have to lose that neat, clean wholesome character that had been theirs when young? And though I kept these thoughts to myself, I’m sure that he sensed how I felt. I thought he was just the nicest, kindest gentlest of men but oh, so many times since I wished I’d done what my heart was urging me to do then, and shown my affection by giving him a hug. Today of course, that sort of thing can be dangerous, for some people always look on the dark side of life. We have lost something in our race for civilisation, when, for fear of being considered a pervert, we pass each other in the street and hardly dare to say hello, or stop to chat or give each other a hug lest it be misconstrued and we get rushed off to court.
I have children of my own now, and I imagine that at that time Mr Dixon could well have been thinking as he looked at me, young and innocent regaled as I was in spotless white surplice, “I wonder how you will fare, Dennis, as you journey through your adolescence. Oh, I do hope you make it alright.” And he’d probably remember his own sons starting their adolescent journey as they used to be, neat, clean, shiny and innocent, and wonder just what went wrong. So, where ever you might be as I think and write these lines in memory of you, dear Mr Dixon, thank you for being my friend as I made my way on my necessary journey.
Dennis Crompton © 1996