Who Had a Mind
Like a Damp
Box of MatchesWe were boys in a boy's school, elementary school, windy and asphalt. I was tough, sturdy, hard, full of zest. There is a gap between the pictures of Sammy Mountjoy with Evie and Sam Mountjoy with Johnny and Philip. One was a baby and the other a boy; but the steps have vanished. They are two different people. Philip was from outside, from the villas. He was pale, physically an extreme coward and he seemed to us to have to have a mind like a damp box of matches. Yet neither the general nor the god on the airfield, nor Johnny Spragg, nor Evie nor even Ma, altered my life as Philip altered it.
We thought him wet and violence petrified him. That made him a natural target for if you wanted something to hurt, Philip was always to hand. This was sufficient for the odd kick, or scragging; but anything more elaborate required careful preparation and Philip found a simple way of avoiding this. To begin with, he could run very fast; and when he was frightened he could run faster than anyone else. Sometimes, of course, we cornered him; and he evolved a technique for dealing with this too. He would cower without fighting back. Perhaps it was an instinct rather than an invention, but a very effective one. If you find no resistance you do not become suddenly one with your victim; but after a time you become bored. Philip crouched like a rabbit under a hawk. He looked like a rabbit. Then, as he said nothing, but jerked about under the blows that fell on him, the savour went out of the game. The scurrying victim had become a sack, dull and uninteresting. Philip achieved the end to be desired. He turned the other cheek and we wandered away to find a sport with more savour.
I am anxious that you should not make too simple, too sympathetic a figure out of Philip. Perhaps he sounds like the hero of one of those books which kept turning up in the twenties. Those heroes were bad at games, unhappy and misunderstood at school --- tragic, until they reached eighteen or nineteen and published a stunning book of poems or took to interior decoration. Not so. We were the bullies but Philip was not a simple hero, He loved fighting when anyone else was being hurt. If Johnny and I were fighting, Philip would come running and dance about, flapping his hands. When there was a heaving pile in the playground, our pale, timid Philip would be moving around the outside, giggling and kicking the tenderest piece he could reach. He liked to inflict pain and a catastrophe was his orgasm. There was a dangerous corner leading to the High Street; and in a freeze-up, Philip would spend all his spare time on the pavement there, hoping to see a crash. When you see two or three young men on a street corner, or at a country cross-road, at least one of them is waiting for just this. We are a sporting nation.
Philip was --- is --- not a type. He is a most curious and complicated person. We said he was wet and we held in him contempt; but he was far more dangerous than any of us. I was a prince and Johnny was a prince. We had rival gangs and the issue of battle always hung in doubt between us. I think with rueful amusement of those two barbaric chieftans, so innocent and simple, who dismissed Philip as a wet. Philip is a living example of natural selection. He was as fitted to survive in this modern world as a tapeworm in an intestine. I was a prince and so was Johnny. Philip debated with himself and chose me. I thought he had become my henchman but really he was my Machiavelli.
With infinite care and a hysterical providence for his own safety, Philip became my shadow. Staying near the toughest of the lot he was protected. Since he was so close, I could not run after him and my hunting reflexes were not triggered off. Timorous, cruel, needing company yet fearing it, weak of flesh yet fleet of fear, clever, complex, never a child --- he was my burden, my ape, my flatterer. He listened and pretended to believe. The fists and the glory were mine; but I was his fool, his clay. He might be bad at fighting but he knew something that none of the rest of us knew. He knew about people.--- From Free Fall
©1959, Faber and Faber