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David and Goliath

Petworth Upper Lake Boat House
Petworth Upper Lake Boat House

Petworth is a place of which I have many fond memories. First and foremost is the surrounding countryside, which was predominantly rolling hills of lush grass, with streams and rivers which Anthony and I spent many happy hours trying to dam.

Secondly I remember Petworth House and its adjoining park. The house itself was barely visible behind the walls of the park, but inside it was a veritable treasure trove of valuables. Some of Turner’s best paintings and some fine pieces of antique furniture were lost within its maze of rooms and landings. Or so I was always told: personally, I thought the house was boring beyond belief, but then I’ve never been keen on art – especially oil pantings.

Anthony Hazelden was my best friend from the days at Petworth. He was at least half my size and had, it seemed to me, no fear or conscience. It was his suggestion that we go to the upper lake in Petworth Park and skim stones. Foolishly I agreed.

The park was one of the great “Capability” Brown’s creations, and covered miles and miles of countryside. Of the two lakes, the Upper Lake was closest and had its own boathouse, an ornate stone construction with a viewing platform from which cowards were able to watch events on the lake with complete safety. The Lower Lake was where fishing took place and was, frankly, too far away for us to walk to.

We arrived about three in the afternoon and began hunting for perfect skimming stones. Our search over, we knelt on the far shore of the lake and began what would turn out to be a disastrous afternoon.

It went well at first – for Anthony at least. From my point of view it went historically badly right from my first attempt; Anthony would launch his projectile with ease, skill and absolute precision. His stones barely made a sound as they bounced gracefully an infinite number of times, before plopping gently into the muddy waters of the lake. Mine acted like lead bricks twanged from an inexpertly operated trebuchet.

Boredom was slower in coming to Anthony than it was to me, but when it did – and the duck had finally had enough and swum away – we began a game of “make the biggest splash”. My previous efforts had made me a master at this and I began to regain my confidence. My mistake was deciding to get a really big stone and land it in the water near Anthony. To my horror it absolutely soaked him, and as he picked up a stone to get his revenge, I was already running away in an attempt to hit light speed.

Biologists say that the brain is the most advanced form of computer ever made, but I find that difficult to believe. Suddenly my head received a sharp jolt and I suffered an immediate systems failure. Apparently I just stood there, slowly rocking back and forth on my heels. Presumably my various input devices were attempting a reboot as I came back on line with the information that: firstly, someone was laughing uncontrollably (it wasn’t my laugh, I knew that); and secondly, there was something warm, wet and sticky oozing its way down the back of my head. Instinctively I raised my hand to confirm what I already knew.

“BLOOD!” I yelled in a way that, with hindsight, I can see would have made me a contender for a role as the heroine of a Hammer Horror movie. Abruptly the laughing stopped. In fact even the sound of birdsong and gently lapping water ceased. My brain finally managed to work out that the pounding in my ears was not an earthquake. It was my heartbeat.

Overcome by sudden realisation, and hopefully a little measure of guilt, Anthony collared some dog-walkers, and we enquired whether they had any tissues I could borrow. (Yes, borrow.) By the time he had deprived them of a packet of tissues, I had vanished over the horizon.

The next thing I clearly remember is trying to explain to my parents that I had fallen and hit my head on a stone. I vaguely recall Anthony persuading me that his version of events was best for everyone while he helped me home and it’s a sure sign of the depth of my concussion that I agreed to it. Mum was very calm throughout the cleaning up procedure, and, using a shower, blasted bits of splintered rock out of the wound before dabbing iodine on it.

I never told her, and she never learned, the truth and Dad still doesn’t know. It’s too late now, of course. Doubtless watching over me from above she now knows what really happened. The trouble with that sort of religious symbolism is that now I feel horrendously guilty about not telling the truth at the time.

Still, I enjoyed picking the scab off.

The remainder of the year passed relatively peacefully. My friends and I had the usual disagreements – usually over absolutely nothing, and usually leading to a temporary termination of friendship – but life threatening incidents were thankfully kept to a minimum.

Nonetheless, arguments with Anthony and co. surprised me at first. I hadn’t realised that in moving from Portsmouth to Petworth, I had been leaving my loyal-to-the-death groups of friends in favour of friendships which were about as stable as Chernobyl. Slowly, however, we all got to respect each other better and by the next year, when we were preparing to go to move up to the local comprehensive, we were all “good mates”.

As testament to this I invited Anthony to stay with me at my Aunt’s flat in London. This was eagerly accepted and both of us spent the long weeks of the summer holidays planning our stay in great detail, alongside our usual activities such as cycling excursions.

On the way back down my winding drive after such a journey, Anthony demonstrated his ability to perform a rear-wheel skid. As he picked himself up, I expressed my admiration at this feat in no uncertain terms and, in doing so, instantly sealed my fate; there was nothing Anthony liked better than taking on the role of tutor to the physically inept and mentally unsound. My common sense, once again, utterly failed me.

With hindsight I can see that there was no way any good could possibly have come out of it. But I still agreed. I still stood and watched Anthony come hurtling down the driveway, slam on his back brake and shift his weight so that his back wheel would describe a perfect arc in the grit. I still followed his example and cycled to the top of the drive, turned my bike around and accelerated rapidly towards the house. I still had time to pull out of the running, but instead I pricked up my ears and patiently waited for Anthony’s order to “hit the brake now.” I was determined not to goof.

The order came.

I goofed.

It occurred to me at that precise moment that I had forgotten to ask the single most important question, which in turn related to the single most important part of the plan: I had forgotten to ask which lever controlled the back brake.

Faced with an impossible decision and now filled with extreme and unutterable terror, my fingers squeezed both handles. It says something about the superior quality of British Workmanship that my ancient, rusty steed was stopped sharply by its equally ancient brakes.

I, however, wasn’t.

Somehow I defied the laws of physics and flew sideways off my bike and landed heavily, and with much momentum, on my knees. It was then I realised then that wearing shorts had not been such a good idea after all. The gravel ripped my legs to shreds.

Anthony didn’t actually see me go into the house. He simply had to follow the blood trail.

Naturally my mother came once again to my rescue. Sitting on the edge of the bath I was horrified to see that she had the shower in one hand and a can of iodine spray in the other. The locals must have thought that someone was being tortured in our bathroom. In a way they would have been right.

Eventually Dad turned up and carried me into my bedroom where Anthony showed due tact and diplomacy by ensuring that the smile he had doubtlessly been wearing, was removed from his face. Sadly, I was not very good company and gave Anthony his leave.

To give him his due, he did call round the following day to see how I was. To his, and my own, surprise, I was not completely paralysed. In a valiant attempt to make up for his inadequacies as a stuntman trainer, he instead attempted to teach me cricket. Naturally, my confidence in him not totally restored, I flinched from every ball he bowled me.

In 2001 I finally forgave him for both incidents.