CHARLOTTE BINGHAM -           Novelist and Playwright
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WHOSE IDEA WAS IT?


       I remember I was playing hopscotch, by myself, having been left friendless by no more sinister occurrence than the odd numbers in my class - eleven, as it happens. 'We're all running away,' the voice said.  I looked up, it was my cousin.  Only too glad to be included in whatever game it was that was on, I ran after her.  I remember I was wearing my school apron, well, we all were, which somehow enforced the idea that running after them was a game, a piece of make believe. 
       Then suddenly there was a fence and we were all jumping it, and it really wasn't a game.  As we walked along, in that Just William sort of way that school children always do, kicking stones, plucking at passing leaves, and generally frowning in concentration at whatever they are not doing, the story evolved that one of us was actually running away in earnest.  She was worried about her younger brother who had eye problems due to their mother having had German Measles in pregnancy.  He was dependent on her.  She had to get home. 
        I felt sympathetic to this; I had a young cousin and I often thought of him.  We had been shipped off to our first boarding school when he was four and I was six.  The chauffeur had brought us to the school door and left us outside with our suitcases, driving off minutes later, leaving us alone in the fog of evening.  My little cousin had cried.  I was older, so it was up to me not to cry  I remember saying to him, 'we've just got to get used to it, we're on our own now.'  I had left that first school for this second boarding school, but with divorcing parents he had been forced to stay on at that wretchedly unpleasant place until he was older.
      So on we walked.  It was an hour's train journey to home from this second boarding school, so even I realised that if this was running away for real, there was a great deal of walking to be done.  I thought of my parents.  It was not a nice thought. They were exceptionally strict.  I posited the idea that it might be better if we ran away to sea?  This idea was only favourable to me.  We walked on, hiding in roadside bushes whenever we heard a car coming.  Finally by the afternoon, having covered some fair mileage, we were hungry.  We gave ourselves up at the local police station.  The policeman went at once to telephone the school, his wife served us tea.  It was the first time any of us had eaten for hours, but more than that she served us such a tea, warm bread from the oven, honey and butter.  Biscuits and cakes such as we never had at school.  Finally her husband returned us to school. My cousin's friend was picked up by her parents, never to return, and the remaining three of us were left to face the music.  And what music there was.  A crescendo of fury, a demand to know why we were so ungrateful, but most of all - the sword of Damocles hanging over us - Whose Idea Was It? 
       Omerta. Silence. Not even being locked in our rooms on bread and water, threatening letters from parents, being turfed out of the Girl Guides, put into Coventry, nothing, no information.  Never ever would we reveal Whose Idea It Was.  We had been brought up on war films, we practised, almost daily, the idea of being tortured for information which, in my case at least, I would have surely forgotten anyway. 
     At home for the holidays parents of every description sympathised with the still furious victims of this outrage perpetrated by four small children.  No one now asking Whose Idea Was It?  Only saying, over and over in cold tones, 'a good thing you never reached home ...'..

     My father was grim in his silence.  My mother speaking in her fury.  For some reason the idea that we had covered such a vast distance and been rewarded with tea having particularly infuriated her.  My grandmother thought I had been 'a fool' but picked me up from the school train, walked me in the Park, and talked of other things, which my parents certainly never did.  And still the question hovered over us Whose Idea Was It?  I would not say, my cousin would not say, the others would not say.  We were intransigent.  Do what they could to us, say what they did to us, threaten us with what they could - and they did - we would not say!  We were heroes in our own eyes, if not in theirs.  We would never let down our friend.  
      Some years passed, and eventually, very eventually, my father brought himself to speak to me.  It was a great moment.  I felt quite faint, half thrilled, wholly frightened.  What was he about to say?.
      'You can tell me now,' he said in his smoothest tones.  'Whose idea was it to run away from school?'
  .     I stared at him.  . 
        'Very well, if you won't tell me, I will find out anyway.'
        I continued to stare at him.
        I said nothing.
        'Very well,' he said again.  'But mark my words, I will find out.'
        But, despite being a trained MI5 officer, and I daresay pretty used to the idea that he could obtain information whenever he wished, he never broke me.  Back into familial Coventry I went, soldiering on, my grandmother silently sympathetic, my mother still bubbling with suppressed fury. But they never did find out, and right up until now, no one ever has, such is the loyalty of children, such is the stupidity of grown ups.  Tell on your friend?  Rather eat a worm! 
Besides, the memory of that tea, that kindness, that was finally all that mattered, and still does..

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