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Billy the Kid

This is a guest post by Golding’s grandson Roger Carver. All of Golding’s grandchildren called him Bill. ‘Billy the Kid’ is included in The Hot Gates, published as an ebook by Faber and Faber.

One hundred years ago, where my house is now was farmland; the Great War was over; the Freikorps were let loose in Berlin; civil war had set in in Russia; and my grandfather was 8 years old.

During that summer he took the train from Wiltshire in southern England to Cornwall in the far West– from his home in Marlborough to Newquay, the town of his birth, where his mother’s family still lived.  It was a pattern that would repeat throughout his life.

Sixty-five years later, he moved back to Cornwall to live in a big house near Truro. And it was there in that house, when I was 9, the morning after a party, that my dad told me that Bill had died. Unable to process the information, I ran upstairs, fainted, and wet myself. The sky had fallen in.

I came across my grandfather’s essay a few years later, while staying in that same house. A fog still permeated throughout, restricting. I am not sure of the context; perhaps Bill’s memory was discussed beforehand, or my mum had maybe recognised something in me. Either way she provided me with a copy of The Hot Gates and pointed me in the direction of ‘Billy the Kid’. I found it just as comforting then as I do now.

The essay recounts Bill’s initial bout with education and society. Up to that point, he had led a rather secluded life and was used to ‘being adored’.  Indeed, his mother declared he had ‘eyes like cornflowers and hair like a field of ripe corn’. Then one day Lily, his nurse, took him for his first day at school.

‘Lily hung my coat up, took me upstairs and deposited me among a score or so of children who ranged in age from five to eleven. The boys were neatly dressed, and the girls over-dressed if anything. Miss taught in the old-fashioned way, catering for all ages at once.

I was difficult.’

The weight in my throat began to shift. The piece continues in a similar vein:

‘I had also a clear picture of what school was to bring me. It was to bring me fights. I lacked opposition, and yearned to be victorious. Achilles, Lancelot and Aeneas should have given me a sense of human nobility but they gave me instead a desire to be a successful bruiser.’

 The last conversation I had with Bill (that I recall) was happy.  It was the suitably disastrous 1993 Ashes. The ball of the century having already been bowled, Australia were now 600-4. When I arrived in the drawing room, I repeated this score line in horror, to which Bill replied, smiling, that he didn’t know why the team (Gooch, Atherton, Gatting et al.) didn’t offer to play something else instead, like tiddlywinks”.   

In the years leading up to this, however, I had played up. Horrifying attempts at humour, such as exclaiming “Here we go again”, when my uncle was praising a passage in Lord of the Flies, had resulted in terrifying stunned silence. After the initial disbelief that Bill was gone had been ingested, the guilt and regret remained. It is a tricky age.

Meanwhile, Billy continues unabated:

‘Fighting proved to be just as delightful as I had thought. I was chunky and zestful and enjoyed hurting people. I exulted in victory, in the complete subjugation of my adversary, and thought that they should enjoy it too – or at least be glad to suffer my sake.’

Unfortunately, however, and to the surprise of our hero, the delight was short lived as Billy is singled out:

‘There were cabals and meetings. There were conversations which ceased when I came near. Suddenly in Break, when I tried to fight, the opposition fled with screams of hysterical laughter…

At the end of the morning I was left disconsolate in my desk. The other boys and girls clamoured out purposefully. I wandered after them, puzzled at a changing world. But they had not gone far. They were groped on the cobbles of the alley, outside the door. The boys stood warily in a semi-circle, their satchels swinging loose like inconvenient shillelaghs. The girls were ranged behind them, ready o send their me into the firing line.  The girls were excited and giggling, but the boys were pale and grim.

“Go on!” shouted the girls…’

The arc of the tale has an air of inevitability to it, to punish hubris and to provide a resolution. However, nothing is ever straightforward:

‘Now I saw what was to happen – felt shame, and the bitterness of all my seven beings. Humiliation gave me strength. A rolled-up exercise book became an epic sword. I went mad. With what felt like a roar, but must really have been a pig-squeal, I leapt at the nearest boy and hit him squarely on the nose. Then I was round the semi-circle, hewing and thumping like Achilles in the river bed.’

That passage brought me so much happiness.

Joy that my grandfather was with me once more; misplaced boyhood pride in the heroic feat itself,  excitement, innocence, and overall, relief. And it is this scene which has remained with me since.

However, just as with Achilles, such acts seldom bring solace.  Billy laments and flees:

‘I stood alone on the cobbles and a wave of passionate sorrow engulfed me…I began to zigzag up the alley, head back, my voice serenading a vast sorrow in the sky. My feet found their way along the High Street, and my sorrow went before me like a brass band. Past the Antique Shoppe, the International stores, Barclay’s Bank; past the tobacconist’s and the Green Dragon, with head back, and grief as shrill and steady as a siren –’

When he eventually reaches home, having had to put his tears on hold to allow for distance travelled, his emotions flood out:

‘“Why, Billy! Whatever’s the matter?”

-Balloon burst, floods, tempests, hurricanes, rage and anguish – a monstrous yell –

“THEY DON’T LIKE ME!”’

As a parent, my experience is that such instances are both routine and desperate.

‘My mother put on her enormous hat and set out with an expression of grim purpose. When she came back, she said she thought everything would be all right…

Miss called later and had a long talk with my mother in the drawing-room. As she left, I stuck my field of ripe corn round the dining-room door again and saw them.

“Bring him along a quarter of an hour late,” said Miss, “That’s all I shall need.”

My mother inclined her stately head.

“I know the children don’t really mean any harm – but Billy is so sensitive”.’

When Billy attends the next day, a quarter of an hour late, he finds that:

‘Wherever I looked there were faces that smiled shyly at me.

A boy offered me a handkerchief. Another passed me a note with “wil you jine my ggang” written on it. I was in.’

I am neither inclined nor qualified to pass comment on any overarching themes in parenting, childhood and the soul. I suspect that much of my happiness stems from the honesty and the apparent lack of invention or moralising, which, I suppose, is obvious. As is the revelation that children of this time (or at least some of them) were allowed a childhood in which their parents doted on them and hoped them to be, more than anything, happy. As the essay reflects: ‘I still refused to do my lessons, confronting Miss with an impenetrable placidity. I still enjoyed fighting if I was given the chance. I still had no suspicion that Billy was anything but perfect.’

It goes on, with amused but accepting self-knowledge:

‘At the end of term, when I went down to Cornwall, I sat in a crowded carriage with my prize book open for six hours …, so that the passengers could read the inscription. I am reading it now:

Billy Golding

1919

PRIZE FOR

GENERAL IMPROVEMENT’

There is hope for us all.