Billy and I were ten years old and standing in front of a display cabinet at the Natural History Museum in Kensington. This was a favourite place for us. Regularly we would make the journey on the train and underground to visit the museum. We were only ten years old but we were au fait with trains. Our parents thought we were competent and afforded us plenty of freedom. We lived twenty miles from London.
Billy was interested in geology. I was more into natural history and animals. So we alternated. Each week one of us would choose a section of the museum and we would both study it in detail. Billy nearly always chose minerals and I chose the displays of animals or evolution. We enjoyed ourselves and would jabber excitedly about the exhibits.
On this particular day we had found ourselves peering at a wall-display of the contents of a penguin’s gullet. It was full of stones, shells, bones and assorted debris. We were engaged in deep discussion as to why the various objects had ended up in this bird’s digestive system.
A gentleman was standing behind us. He seemed ancient, all of fifty, in a tweed suit with waistcoat, neat, tidy and respectable. Initially we paid him no heed. He was listening in to what we were discussing and then began asking questions.
We explained to him all the theories we had come up with for the presence of the stones and bones, from buoyancy, to breaking up the fish they ate, or providing calcium for egg shells. He seemed really interested. He smiled a lot and seemed very kindly – a pleasant, friendly gentleman. We talked and we told him all about ourselves. He took us to the canteen and bought us sticky buns and lemonade, sitting back, smiling benignly, smoking and watching us excitedly gulp it all down while incessantly gabbing. It seemed to amuse him. He asked us many questions and seemed to enjoy our company.
We made our farewells and clubbed together to buy him a packet of cigarettes for his kindness.
We arranged to meet up the following Saturday.
I saw the two young boys standing in front of the display cabinet. They were very vivacious and were precociously discussing the exhibit. I was smitten by their liveliness and enthusiasm.
I sidled up close so that I could listen in. Their excitement was contagious. Just the type of lads I liked.
I began asking questions and they were eager to respond. Their innocence was delightful. I was enjoying myself.
I tentatively invited them down to the canteen for buns and lemonade. They continued to excitedly discuss the exhibits as I sat back and observed. Their energy and enthusiasm was exhilarating. It amused and thrilled me. I was enjoying myself immensely.
When they had finished their food they declared that it was time to go. They unexpectedly bought me a packet of cigarettes. I arranged to meet up with them the next Saturday.
It was something I would look forward to.
‘So what did this gentleman look like?’ my Mum asked suspiciously. My Dad was listening in as I recanted the story of our encounter. I explained how we had met and how he had kindly taken us for lemonade and buns and how nice he was. I described what he looked like.
My Mum gave my Dad a serious look. I could see that they were not at all happy with this development.
They were even unhappier when I explained how Billy and I had arranged to meet up with the man next Saturday. I could see the worried glances exchanged. I did my best to explain how kind and pleasant he was but that did not seem to make an impression.
‘They’re too young to know about those types of people,’ my Mum said to my Dad.
‘What people?’ I asked, completely baffled.
Apparently I was too young to understand. They had a short discussion which I found hard to follow.
‘You’re not going,’ my Dad pronounced. My Mum nodded approval. I was extremely upset. I kept thinking about that kindly gentleman left waiting, expecting to see us. How disappointed he would be.
Billy and I never resumed those visits. That phase of our life was cut short.
In later life I often wonder about that time. If we had have met up that Saturday would it have been a day that would have radically altered our lives? Was that respectable looking gentleman a member of the Royal Society who might have taken us under his wing and helped transform our future? Or was he not as he appeared – someone who might have altered our lives in a different way?
I shall never know.