This is an extract from one of the books I'm writing, with a female protagonist. Though not related to our school life at all, it's set in the same era and is based on real events when I was in the Cub Scouts, as many of us were in those days.
I hated being around the Skipper now but put up with it for nearly five years before I got up enough courage to just go. By then I’d left school and was about to start Teacher Training College.
It was 1972, and I was eighteen.
But dammit, I missed the Sea Scouts. It had been part of my life for the past ten or eleven years, and now there was a void I needed to fill. A friend of my mothers, whom I’d always called Auntie Lil, had three boys, all of whom had been through the Boy Scout movement. In fact, one was still a Rover. “Why not,” said Auntie Lil one day, “become a Cub Scout leader?”
“What do you have to do?” I asked.
“Just go down to the Scout Hall Saturday morning and ask to speak to Akela. That’s what they call the leader of the Cub pack. It’s something to do with a story about wolves.” Auntie Lil was always a bit vague about details. “She’s a nice lady, and I’m sure she’ll let you have a go. You’ve got nothing to lose, and if they take you on, they pay you something.” My ears pricked up at this. I had a Teacher Training Bursary that paid me enough to live on – just – but I was always running out of money. I was desperate to buy a car so I didn’t have to go everywhere on public transport or rely on friends whose parents let them borrow the family car. I’d had my eye on a little 1962 Morris Minor that the local car yard had for sale. It had been there for two months and I thought that maybe the dealer would be happy to see it go. I was sure that if I skipped a couple of meals each week I could manage the repayments out of my bursary, but the problem was the deposit. I just couldn’t put it together. The prospect of some extra money that I could put aside to make the deposit was very attractive.
“How much?” I asked Auntie Lil.
“Oh, I have no idea,” she said unhelpfully. “Just go along and find out.” So that’s where I headed the following Saturday.
Auntie Lil was right. Akela was a nice lady. I found out that the Cub Scouts were just called cubs or Wolf Cubs, that altogether they were called a cub pack and it was all based on a story by Rudyard Kipling called the Jungle Book. The Jungle Book was set in India, where Kipling had spent much of his life. It told the story of an Indian baby named Mowgli (the Mow rhymes with cow, not crow as in the awful Disney cartoon Jungle Book, made years later) who’s adopted by a pack of wolves and brought up as a wolf. The wise leader of the wolf pack is named Akela and Mowgli learns about life and survival from his animal friends, particularly Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. There are enemies too. Shere Khan the tiger had killed Mowgli’s parents and would kill him too if he could. Our Akela lent me a copy of the Jungle Book to read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would have liked Mowgli to be a bit tougher, like Tarzan, but it was still a good story.
The cub leaders all had names from the Jungle Book. Akela was the leader, and she was assisted by two matronly ladies who were known as Baloo and Bagheera. Appropriately enough, Baloo was a large, heavy set woman and Bagheera was sort of sleek and cat-like but in a matronly sort of way, if you know what I mean.
These three women made me feel wonderfully welcome, though I realized later it may have had more to do with the sheer exhaustion that comes with looking after some thirty eight to eleven year old boys for an entire afternoon than with my natural charm.
I came along to meetings on a trial (no payment) basis for two months, then had to submit to an oral examination to display what I’d learned about the cub movement. Apparently I passed muster, because I was duly sworn in at a ceremony one Friday night in front of all the cubs, and given my official Cub Scout name. I was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose. The boys called me Ricky.
I have to say cubbing was fun. For the most part the boys, especially the little ones, were great. Some of the older ones were a bit too smart for their own good, and of course there were those who were natural bullies and they were drawn by some sixth sense to those who seemed born to be bullied.
Joel was a little sweetie. One of the younger boys, and certainly one of the smallest, he was quiet, shy and sensitive. Not effeminate in any way, you understand, but destined to grow up into one of those sensitive men that women don’t necessarily marry, but love to be in the company of. All of us leaders loved him. To someone like Cameron, he had the word “victim” stamped on his forehead.
Cam was thirteen, taller than me and heavy to go with it. He was the Brown Sixer. A Wolf Cub pack is organized into groups of six, though sometimes you’ll have four, five or seven, depending on the total number in the pack and natural attrition. Each six is identified by a color and the members of that six wear their color as a patch on their sleeve. Each six has a leader, who’s called the Sixer and a second in charge, called unsurprisingly the Second. The Sixer wears two stripes around his sleeve to denote his rank and the Second gets to wear one. The Scout movement was created by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a British army Colonel and then Major-General stationed for a time in India, so it tends to be organized along army lines, with ranks and orders and so on.
At thirteen, Cam the Brown Sixer should have been out of the Wolf Cubs and into the Scouts proper, but for some reason had professed a reluctance to move up and his mother, who was a tireless helper for any fund-raisers run by us leaders, had prevailed upon Akela to let him stay for one more year. Privately, I believed that the problem was that Cam was simply reluctant to move to a situation where there were other boys bigger and older than he was.
There was no doubt about it. Cameron Campbell was a bully and somehow his six (who were actually five) consisted of the only other four kids in the pack who looked up to him. None of them missed a chance to knock the little kids round a bit, usually as part of a game or in the name of ‘sport.’
It was one of our special Friday nights, and we’d had a campfire with grilled (or rather burnt) pork sausages wrapped in slices of bread for dinner. After dinner, Baloo announced that we’d play “Hoppo Bumpo.” This was the sort of game no one would stand for now on the grounds that it could destroy a kid’s self-esteem, but that sort of thing just wasn’t thought of then. The way it worked was this. The boys were put into two lines facing each other, three of the sixes in one line and the remaining three in the other line. So although the game was one on one, the boys kept score to see which six had done the best. Baloo would call out two names, a boy from one line and a boy from the other. The two named boys had to hop out on one leg, holding the other up against their backsides and, in the no man’s land between the two lines, repeatedly crash into each other until one managed to knock the other over. I guess you’d call it a primitive gladiatorial contest.
It was made for a bully like Cam. Strong and heavily built, he could legitimately satisfy his innate desire to hurt others.
The setting was surreal. The sun had set, so most of the light was coming from the camp fire, still glowing fiercely off to one side. The boys’ shadows were huge on the trees. Baloo called out two names. The boys came hopping out, circling each other like boxers looking for an opening. They crashed together, but were evenly matched and neither went down. Again, and then again. This time, one lost his balance and put his other leg down on the ground and their contest was over. Someone yelled out “That’s one to Tawny Six.” The boys were keeping tally. Baloo called out two more names, with a similar result, then two more. One of the names was Cam, which caused me to pay a bit more attention. Contemptuously, Cam went straight for his opponent and bowled him over. “Another for Brown,” he laughed.
And so it went on. None of us was paying much attention any more, not even Baloo, who seemed to be calling out names at random. “Joel and Cameron,” she said. “No,” I whispered under my breath, and tried to catch her attention. But she was looking away, chatting to Bagheera. She hadn’t even noticed what she had done. I couldn’t shame Joel by stepping in. He had already gamely started hopping out into the firelight.
I walked round to Baloo, and tugged at her sleeve. “What?” she said. I pointed to what was happening. Cam was showing off. He’d hop up to Joel, and then away again. Joel would try to follow, but looked awkward and ungainly. Cam was now hopping circles around Joel, while the rest of the Brown six laughed uproariously. I could see Peter, the Black Sixer, glaring at Cam, scowling furiously. Joel was tiring rapidly. You could see that he couldn’t keep it up much longer. I willed him to put his other leg down, or even to fall over. Then it would be over, but at least he’d had a go. It looked like it was about to happen. Joel’s breath was coming in gasps. He was wobbling precariously. Cam saw it too. He’d stopped circling and was now hopping like an express train straight at Joel. Joel was toppling anyway when all of Cam’s weight crashed into him at top speed. His whole body left the ground and he came down with a thud and lay still.
Bagheera ran over to him. Baloo stood unmoving. In that moment of sudden quiet, I heard Peter’s voice say quietly and clearly, “You’re an arsehole, Cameron.”
Bagheera looked up. “I think he’s OK,” she said. Joel was sitting up. The side of his face was dusty where it had hit the ground and his nose was dripping blood, but in those days if you didn’t actually have concussion and no bones seemed to be broken, you were expected to get on with it. “Game’s over, I think”, Baloo said, but I shook my head. “No, these things happen. The boys will want to keep going.” Baloo looked at me in surprise. I walked over and whispered to her. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Are you sure,” she asked, quietly. I nodded.
Baloo called out the names of two boys who were more or less evenly matched. They played the game as it was meant to be played. A lot of determination, a lot of bumping, a lot of laughter and eventually one knocked the other off balance. “That’s another to Tawny,” called out the Tawny Sixer. Two more names were called out and the match was again carried out to its logical conclusion amid a lot of cheering and some catcalls. Then Baloo took a breath, looked at me once more for confirmation, and called out “Cameron and Ricky.”
The boys went quiet. They knew what was going on. Cam’s mouth fell open, then shut again as an anticipatory grin spread over his face. One of his henchmen whispered something to him, which Peter told me much later was “Get her in the tits, Cam.”
Cam was half a head taller than me and must have outweighed me by at least twenty pounds, or about nine kilos. And leader or not, I was after all just a girl, so he was confident. I was hoping over confident. Two things that being in the Sea Scouts for more than ten years had given me, besides knowing how to sail and navigate, was a great sense of balance and being much stronger than I looked.
Even so, Cam’s speed and aggressiveness took me by surprise, and it was nearly over almost before it had started. If he’d just been content with hitting my shoulder with all his weight I probably would have gone down. But his lapdog had given him a challenge and he swiveled round awkwardly and he tried to get his shoulder into my chest. He connected alright and a jagged edge of pain went through my right breast. Then I was backpedaling as fast as I could go, with Cam after me and a look on his face that I can only describe in retrospect as lust.
I was faster than Cam and better balanced. We circled each other in the firelight and I could see that he was sweating. Every few seconds, he would lunge at me again, but now I easily hopped out of his way. I even started hopping within range, inviting him to have a go, and then retreating at the last minute. His breath was starting to come in ragged gasps and he looked more haunted than lustful. His henchmen were silent. I heard a small voice say from beyond the firelight “Get him, Ricky.” I recognized Joel’s voice and was glad he was watching.
I must have fallen into a bit of a reverie, because I missed the start of Cameron’s lunge. I looked up and he was bearing down on me like the proverbial express train. I didn’t have time to think, just react. As Cam literally launched himself into the air at me, I planted both feet on the ground, bent my knees and swiveled my shoulders, so that the sharp edge of my shoulder planted itself in the soft space just under Cam’s breastbone. All the air went out of him in one great whoosh and he fell to the ground, writhing in pain and trying to draw breath in great sobbing gasps. I clasped my left leg back up against my buttock, trusting that in the poor light and the heat of the moment no one had noticed my blatant transgression of the rules. I needn’t have worried. Every eye had been focused on the point of impact, as every eye was now watching Cam on the ground.
In the end, much to my surprise, it was Peter who walked over to Cam and offered a hand to help him up. None of Cam’s henchmen, not even his second, had moved towards him. I don’t know whether it was surprise, shame that he’d been beaten by a girl, or just plain fear of how he was going to react. Cam didn’t look at whose hand it was. He just grabbed Peter’s arm, pulled himself up and hobbled away, out of the firelight. I raised an eyebrow at Peter. “I couldn’t just leave him there,” he smiled. “He was messing up the place.” Peter turned away and rejoined his Six.
No one wanted to do anything more, so we just put out the fire, tidied up and did our end of day ceremony. Cameron was nowhere to be seen, and the Brown Second led them in the responses.
My heart jumped the next day when I saw Cam’s mother in close discussion with Akela and Baloo. She was a formidable lady with a Scottish accent. I don’t think Akela was afraid of her, but the rest of us were. After she’d gone, Akela called the leaders together and announced simply “Cam’s gone. His mother has decided he’s too old for Cubs.” “What about me?” I asked. “What about you?” Akela responded. “You weren’t mentioned, and I suggest we leave it that way.”