Senior Rugby, St Bee’s School, 1939. Peter Nixon, top row, fourth from left
To the Lighthouse: Part 111. One Mean SOB
I think, once again, of the thick- legged cads on the colliery team. Tough as nails. It would be a shame for them to beat us on the rugby field – or on the battlefield.
A pair of kittiwakes soars sand shriek 15 feet over us, just as the eight students approach slowly from the south, at a jogging pace, two of them cupping their pockets and looking very self-satisfied.
“We got three big eggs, and one just for you, Nixon,” speaks up Armstrong in a flattering tone. He’s normally the most belligerent of my young charges. Another with Border Reiver blood. It’s a bribe and a most worthy one.
The Nixon clan was once in thrall to the Armstrong clan, I recall Grandfather Nixon, a sawmill worker, telling me a few years ago as we walked the well-trod path from his home in Helmsley North Yorkshire to nearby Rievaulx to see the stone quarry where he had laboured as a young man, the famous cathedral ruins and the small thatched cottage, Abbot’s Well, where Mary Ellen Richardson, his wife, my grandmother, grew up. She was a tailor’s daughter.
Abbot’s Well Rievaulx, North Yorkshire
“They are falcon’s eggs, we think” interrupts Bell, Armstrong’s sidekick, also of Border Reiver blood. You should have seen the mother. She attacked us with her enormous beak and flapping wings.” Falcon? I now understand this to be a ruse. Or is it?
Can miracles of nature happen? Can schoolboys steal some eggs from a falcon’s nest? Might the war in Europe never really start?
The smirk on the faces of all the young chaps tell me there will be no eggs, gull’s or falcon’s, for luncheon today. It is all a big joke.
“Well, let’s turn around them, we’ll never make to the lighthouse and back with those falcon’s eggs intact,” Armstrong says, stubbornly sticking to his story. I can taste the savoury most-likely fictitious fried eggs and it STILL makes my mouth water.
“The headmaster told me to take you to the lighthouse and back,” I say, nonchalantly exercising my power over them as is my right. The boys groan. I start to run, outpacing them but staying close enough to make sure they don’t delay.
We pass the ruins to the entrance of the old King Pit, once the deepest shaft in the world. 160 fathoms deep built in 1750 by the Lowther family. Or so says a plaque next to it. I once again think of the boys on the colliery team and their ancestors who worked within these mines. The rise of all the towns around here, Whitehaven, Maryport, Workingham is thanks to the 18th century coal trade with Ireland. The collieries on the coast once covered thousands of acres. I must have read that on another plaque somewhere else.
I have no coal miners in my family tree. We are too tall. I come from farmers, mostly. My father, Robert Nixon, was a footman at elegant Dunscombe Park in Helmsley before he took the Lutzer ocean liner out of Southampton to Singapore in October, 1912.
He probably already was acquainted with my mother, Dorothy Forster, as her father, John, was preaching in Helmsley at the time. Who knows when they got engaged. Dorothy, a land girl during WWI, a titch of a woman tasked with leading the enormous Clydesdales through the forests with their loads, followed him to Malaya in December 1921, a mere ten months before I was born.
Robert is 6 foot 4. The gentry like their footmen tall and presentable. Still, Robert preferred to try his luck out in the bug-infested jungle. Perhaps it was Dorothy who insisted, she not wanting to be married to a lowly servant. He started out as a labourer, wielding the whip, but soon rose to be manager of the Batu Caves Rubber Estate in Selangor with almost life and death power over the Indian workers. He was born a servant in England but became a demi-god in Malaya. His imposing height helped him there, too, no doubt. And the fact he is one mean SOB.
Right now, he has the management of two rubber estates in Selangor, just to make ends meet. The economic downturn has made it hard on him and my mother. My mother has taken on a job as the librarian for the Kuala Lumpur Book Club.
Batu Caves Religious Resort, Selangor, Malaya
This war in Europe will not affect them, thank goodness.
I continue to run into the past, toward Whitehaven on the Cumberland Coast. Sandstone cliffs and igneous outcrops and beaches covered in pebbles. Geologic time, historical time, genealogical time, historical memory, family myth. The rest of the boys follow with Cowen, his cheeks as red as a robin’s chest, slipping behind. I slow down the pace just for him. My little friend.
We pass ‘the candlestick,’ the old chimney of the Wellington Pit. We’re almost at Whitehaven now.
But an armed guard, an old man in his grey-blue denim LDV jacket, with a gold star on the sleeve, waves at us with his rifle and says, “ Go back! The lighthouse is off limits. There are motor launches out on the water looking for German subs. Can’t you see?”
The boys gather in a circular group and they all cup their eyes with their hands to look out to sea. A few with very good eyesight, like mine, point in the direction of the boats.
The old armed guard waves us on.
“Haven’t you St. Beghian’s heard?” he says. “The Huns have attacked Denmark and Norway. The war is on for real.”
And just as he speaks, a lone steel and wood bird buzzes into view. I am the first to see it with my impeccable long range vision, but soon all ten of us stop running and turn our eyes toward the misty sky to gaze into our future.
- My father ended up in the RAF, posted at Dorval in Montreal, headquarters of the Ferry Command, where he met my French Canadian mother at a meet-and-greet at the Mount Royal Hotel.
As it happens, one of the St Bees Village boy, a printer’s apprentice, signed up in 1939 and distinguished himself early on. He was then posted in Dorval and died on a flight mission to the Bahamas in 1941. I have no idea whether or not my father knew him, before or after enlistment. He never mentioned this. There is information on this man, Alan Rodgers, posted on the St. Bees Village website.
In January, 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbour, the Japanese invaded Malaya, dropping bombs on the ‘green’ in Kuala Lumpur, also hitting the building housing the Kuala Lumpur Book Club. Four died there in the rubble, but Dorothy, my grandmother, hid under a desk and survived. She and her husband, Robert, ended up interned at Changi Internment Camp. Read about it in Beads in a Necklace, our book. Also here at the Globe and Mail. Read or LISTEN TO a one act play about John Forster’s dementia in A Stranger in his/her Bed.
Or read the complete story of Dorothy Nixon’s life in the colonies here in my e-book, Looking for Mrs. Peel.