It is late afternoon at the Chelsea Froebel School. Outside the window, the playground is no longer visible. Darkness and fog have together swallowed it. We don't notice. We are singing. We stand in four lines on one side of the big downstairs classroom, facing Mrs Godley's back. She is at the piano, her hands galloping over the keys. We belt out the last notes of our song and she smashes her fingers down to produce the crashing final chords.
There is a moment of quiet and then she swings round to look at us. My heart sinks. I can guess what is coming. 'Marvellous,' she cries - unlike any choir mistress I ever encounter afterwards, she believes in the power of encouragement - 'magnficent effort - you all deserve a reward.'
And already I know what that reward will be. It will be the same thing it always is. It will be the chance to choose a song ourselves.
'"The Bird-catcher's Song"', I mutter, 'or "Down Yonder Green Valley"?' But it is no good. With one voice the rest of the school roars out its decision, not one soul dissenting, except for me.
My so-called best friend, Susan Fisher, gives me a triumphant grin as Mrs Godley turns back to her instrument - for being best friends doesn't mean you actually like each other and, since she not only pinched my pet rubber, (doesn't everybody have one?), whose name was Ariel, because that was what was printed across its front, but also attacked the poor thing with a compass in an attempt to remove the incriminating lettering, we do actually hate each other, (although, of course, looking back now, I see how trivial and petty such concerns were, hem, hem, hem, hem - what me, hold grudges?)
The decision is unanimous. The consensus is overwhelming. It is also completely baffling. As my companions launch into the opening lines of their beloved ditty, I experience for the first time the true loneliness of being human. "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" they belt out with gusto. Why do they like it? "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" Why don't I? "What shall we do with the drunken sailor earl-ay in the morning?"
And on they go, roaring out ever nastier suggestions for the handling of the inebriated mariner - "Put him in the bilge and make him drink it", "Beat him with a stick until his back is bleeding", "Put him in the scuppers with a hose-pipe on him" - their relish increasing with each new ghastly idea .
I am seven years old and, surrounded by my classmates, I feel as solitary as perhaps I ever will.
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