My brother was five years older than me and as a result from the time I was five years old he looked upon me as something of a burden.
Now that might sound a bit melodramatic but it’s not as if he had to raise me or anything although in truth I think he would have preferred that.
But unfortunately for Peter his burden took a very different form.
Ever since my fifth birthday he had to baby-sit me, whenever he went out to play he had to take me along, and he hated it, which he never let me forget.
It didn’t matter what plans he had, football, cricket, riding his bike or fishing, you name it I was there too.
It was a Saturday morning in early January 1963 when the country was in the grip of the big freeze.
Apart from the weather it was an average Saturday, my Dad was a Coldstream Guard and was on duty, my sisters were upstairs fighting over who’s turn it was to get in the bathroom, my mum was at the sink washing up and me and my brother were still sitting at the breakfast table tucking into a second bowl of cereal.
Just as I was finishing the last mouthful there was a loud knock on the front door.
“Get that Peter” Mum called
“Ok he said and he was gone about five minutes
“Who was it?” mum asked
“Colin and John” he answered “they’re going sledging and want me to go too”
“I see” mum said without turning around
“Can I go?” Peter asked hopefully
“Yes but take your brother with you” she replied
“Oh mum” he moaned “do I have too?”
“Yes” she said sternly looking up from her task for the first time.
“But he’s a baby” Peter protested
“I’m not a baby” I shouted “I’m six”
“Yes you are” Peter barked at me
“Well if he doesn’t go” mum snapped “you don’t go”
“Oh mum” he protested “That’s not fair”
“Your choice” mum said without looking up from the sink
“Ok” Peter mumbled resignedly
“Hooray” I yelled and ran to the coat cupboard and donned my duffel coat and wellies.
Apart from the duffel coat I also had to wear gloves and a grey knitted balaclava helmet, which was obligatory headgear for children at that time.
Peter was similarly equipped but he removed his balaclava once we were out of sight of the house.
“Look after your brother” Mum said as she followed us to the door
“Alright Mum I will” I said and giggled
“Have fun you two” she said and laughed “don’t do anything silly”
“Bye” I said and ran after Peter
“And stay away from the canal” She shouted just before she closed the door.
It was a cold grey day and there had been a fresh fall of snow overnight which is why sledging had been suggested.
Colin and John were waiting for us on the corner with the sledge.
“Come on Pete” Colin shouted
“Alright we’re coming” Peter replied “Sorry Col but I had to bring the runt”
“Oi” I protested
“Bad luck” Colin said “I had to bring mine as well”
And he patted John on the head.
“Get off” John said and gave his brother a shove.
He was only a couple of year’s young than Colin but unlike me John was not considered a burden by his brother.
They had a brilliant sledge, bright red with a varnished seat.
They always had nice stuff, their Dad was an officer in the Grenadier Guards.
He didn’t really like his boys playing with the progeny of the lower ranks but they did anyway.
We had the snow and a wizard sledge but we trudged around for ages searching for a good place.
It wasn’t that there was a shortage of hills in the small corner of Surrey that was Pirbright.
The problem was however finding one that wasn’t covered in Trees, Ferns and Bracken, or that terminated on a road or railway lines.
After about an hour we struck lucky when we found an old disused gravel pit which had a long straight slope that ended in a thick accumulation of snow.
We had a brilliant time and we sledged until we were utterly exhausted when we began the long trudge home which was an hour away.
“Let’s take a short cut across the canal” Colin suggested
“What on the ice?” John asked
“Yes” he replied “it’ll save us time”
“We’re not allowed” I said
“Shut up baby” Peter snapped
“Is the ice thick enough?” John asked cautiously
“We’ll soon find out once you stand on it” Colin said
“Why me?” John asked with alarm
“Because I said” Colin replied
“Well I’m not going first” John stated adamantly
After a few minutes of arguing between the brothers Peter said
“For God’s sake I’ll go”
“Good man Pete” Colin said as Peter gingerly inched his way onto the ice.
Once it was apparent that it was safe Colin followed suit then me and finally John.
“This is great let’s go down the canal to the footbridge” Peter suggested and we all slipped and slid our way the half mile or so to the footbridge.
When we got there I thought it was quite a steep bank up to the tow path for a kid my size so I decided to go the other side of the bridge where I thought it would be easier for me to climb up.
When he saw what I was doing John shouted
“Don’t go under there!”
“It’s ok” I replied “I can climb up easier down here”
“That’s not what I mean” John shouted
The shout attracted Peter’s attention and he said
“Listen to John”
“Come over here and we’ll help you out” Colin suggested
“It’s all right” I insisted “I can manage”
Then all three of them shouted in unison
“Don’t go under the bridge”
“Its ok I’m not a bab…” I began as the ice gave way beneath me and I sank like a stone.
I went straight to the bottom and then luckily bobbed straight back up and through the same hole I’d fallen through seconds before.
When I reached the surface I took in a huge breath, not because I’d been deprived of oxygen but rather more because the water was freezing.
All three of them were by the hole when I surfaced and quickly pulled me out of the icy water.
“That’s why we said “Don’t go under the bridge”” Peter said
I didn’t reply as my teeth were chattering too much so I just nodded.
Every stitch of clothing was soaked through and both of my wellies were full to the brim with icy water.
Once they knew I was unharmed the laughter began and when I squelched to the bank and water exuded from my boots with each step they were in hysterics and rolling around on the ice.
I sat on the ice and emptied each welly in turn and the cascade of water was greeted with fresh peals of laughter.
“What are we going to tell mum?” I asked soberly which silenced Peter in an instant.
“Oh bloody hell” he said “She’ll kill me”
The three of them helped me up the bank and we began to slog up the wooded hillside in the general direction of home while they all suggested excuses for why I was sopping wet.
“Can’t you just tell the truth?” Colin said
“Are you kidding?” Peter replied “We were told not to go near the canal”
“She’d be really mad” I added
“That’s an understatement” Peter corrected me “I wouldn’t be allowed out again until the cricket season”
“How about a car driving through a puddle and splashing him?” John offered
“That won’t work” Colin retorted
“Why not?” john asked
“Well Einstein if a car drove through a puddle how come Paul is the only one that got wet?”
“I hadn’t thought of that” John admitted
“Whereas he could have fallen in the puddle” Colin suggested
“Look at him” Peter said “Does it look like he fell in a puddle?”
All three of them turned to look at me as I squelched along in their wake.
“What?” I said in response
“We’re trying to account for why you look like that” Peter said
“Can’t we just say I fell in a ditch?”
When we got back to Slade Road we said goodbye to Colin and John on the corner and with a sense of foreboding trudged the last few yards to the house.
Once inside we kicked of our wellies and hung up our coats in the cupboard.
“Is that you boys?” Mum called from the kitchen
“Yes mum” Peter replied
“Did you have fun?” she asked
“Yes it was great” I answered
Then Peter ushered me up the stairs as Mum came out of the kitchen.
“You must be perished” she said “I’ll run you a bath”
“I’ll do it mum” Peter said
“Oh alright darling I’ll get on with tea then” and she returned to the kitchen.
I got in the bath first and while I was in there Peter snuck my wet clothes into the airing cupboard to dry them off a bit.
We were both on the landing ready to go down and feeling rather pleased with our management of the situation when she called up the stairs
“Why is Paul’s coat soaking wet?”
And without pausing to take a breath Peter replied
“He fell in a ditch on the way home”
“How did that happen” she asked
“Colin, John and me all jumped over the ditch and then Paul tried and fell in” Peter replied and we held our breaths until mum said
“That’s typical of the Clumsy so and so”