Suffer the little children

Robert Pine was a man until age 64, when he became Rebecca. It started when he was a young boy, and loved his sister's underwear.


Reg McKay
March 29, 2001 1:11AM (UTC)

By education most have been misled; So they believe, because they so were bred. The priest continues what the nurse began, And thus the child imposes on the man.
-- John Dryden in "The Hind and the Panther"

Oldbury, Midlands, England. 1937

The seven-year-old boy stood at his bedroom window and stared out at the empty street.

It was a hot July day and he loved the feeling of warmth and freedom. Wearing light shorts and his favourite shirt, matching ankle socks neatly folded, just as Mother had taught him. The final symbol was permission, requirement even, to wear his sandals, all brown leather and heavy side buckles. This was surely summer and holidays. Time for play.

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On the way, he had skipped and hopped, avoiding the lines and escaping the bears.

Reaching the gate he stretched up and pushed the metal latch free. He had to be careful passing through the front garden where children were not allowed. Watching his toes take every step, he followed the path around the side to the yard at the back. As he passed the gable end, the girls' chatter swelled and increased into voices and an involuntary skip escaped his guarded toes.

Robert was too innocent to notice the looks of exasperation passing between the girls. Instead he heard only the words that they would play hide and seek and he was first. Leaning against the shed door, arms covering his head, eyes clamped shut, he counted slowly and deliberately. Robert Pine played fair just as Father had taught. "Here I come, ready or not!" and off he searched in all the usual places. Searched and searched and searched. Then he looked in the most unusual places. Along the street to the edge of parental limits and hovered there looking up and down the busier thoroughfare. The girls should not have gone that far. It was against the rules.

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The girls were gone. They did not want Robert with them. Robert wandered home, dragging his sandals on the pavement, using his toes to slow him down. The child's despair increased, realising the scolding he would get from Mother that night for the scuff marks on his footwear. Homewards to his room where he would soon forget the girls, for the moment.

Robert usually played with his sister, Bettina, and her friends. Played with them all, joining in all of their games. The best times were when they could be all together, like now in summer or weekends. They would play skipping rope and queue up in long lines, jumping in on turn, and the verse of the rhyme would change, sing-songing on for ever, it seemed; or houses when they made believe they were a family each with his or her part. The themes would go on all day and sometimes the next. This was one of his favourite games and he did not mind much who his character was -- mother, father, daughter, son, shopkeeper, neighbour. While the others bickered he would set about the props and the outfits. Laying out the empty Ovaltine tins, Persil packets, tobacco tins, jam jars and the chipped cups, he busied himself till the others steeled and the game began.

Rain and confinement indoors did not bother him at all. Then they would read, dress up in the oversized clothes of dead relatives and, when allowed, listen to the wireless. As the youngest, Robert felt privileged to be part of the group. In summer he'd wake up with a buzz of anticipation, whirl through his ablutions, gulp down breakfast and go looking for his friends, the girls. As he had that morning, only to be excluded.

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Alone in his room he quickly forgot the slight. Robert forgave the girls most things. When they giggled and whispered to each other he did not mind or make a fuss. He giggled and whispered too, though he did not have their secret and they would not share it. Robert admired the girls.

Opening the drawer, Robert touched his sister's clothes. He drew his hand across white and grey socks, over folded, white underwear and on to the blouses decorated with raised flowers at the borders. Leaving the drawer open, he crossed to the large, shiny wardrobe, the one shared with Bettina. Standing on tiptoe and twisting at the key, it hurt his hand, as always, leaving angry red ridges on his thumb and fingers. Using two hands was easier, but still hurt. Mother would lean a shoulder against the door and unlock it with a quick, crisp click -- one-handed as her other arm cradled the freshly ironed clothes, still smelling warm and welcoming.

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Clunk. The wardrobe door sprung open as he leaned over and rubbed his hands together between his legs. Blowing on hot fingers as he had seen workmen do as they bent to lift picks and shovels and excavate deep, mysterious holes in the road, he approached the clothes hanging in an orderly queue. To the left, his Sunday best. To the right, his sister's finery and dresses too long to fold into drawers. Stepping into the darkened cell he felt its dark, musty atmosphere engulf and comfort him. Reaching up, he pulled a dress and hanger down and held it to his body.

Leaving the bedroom, he turned and checked, "Drawer closed. Wardrobe shut and locked." All was as it had been. The secret was important though Robert did not know why.

Herefordshire, England. 1938

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The Pine family was doing well. Father's job as Personal Assistant to the director of Birmingham and Midlands Omnibus Co. and Mother's in the Tax Office were steady, clean and well paid. Robert, the child, had a sense of this as he met other children at school who did not have as much as the Pines.

Some children always wore the same clothes or the same pair of boots whatever the weather. He envied the boots as they crunched and sparked on the road, more iron than leather in the soles. The boys had no Sunday best, the girls no party frocks. In summer they looked as drab and muffled as they did in winter. Even then, Robert sensed he did not want to be without and to live a life that was impoverished. No more than a sense since he was still engrossed in that self-centredness that is childhood when every boy believes he is a prince, every girl a princess. He knew what he wanted and in summer that included a holiday. Even some people who lived on his street could not afford a holiday. Some of them pretended they could by sending their children away to an aunt or uncle while the adults continued life at home and at work as usual.

The Pines were going on a real holiday. A farm in Herefordshire for two weeks, the whole family. This was an event for all of them and preparation started weeks before. Cases were dragged down from the loft and wiped free of dust. Summer clothes, swimming trunks and special purchases were to be packed away in good time. Mother believed in preparation and planning ahead. Last-minute scramblings were "an unnecessary hindrance, irritating and avoidable." All were to play their part and did so willingly with care, precision and anticipation.

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Young Robert made some special preparations. He wanted to be sure he had everything he needed. These were special items and not simply a matter of working through the lists written in Father's fine script. Choosing the items was easy and he wrapped them individually, alone in his room. Sheets from the newspaper pile, stored for fire lighting and unlikely to be missed, made the parcels anonymous. Each little bundle was folded, covered and placed in the case. A task well done. Mother would approve.

The day of departure passed smoothly and they set off on bicycles happy, relaxed, released. Mother, as ever, had been right. Herefordshire was all he had hoped. But his special little newspaper-shrouded packages were not there in the case where he had placed them. Someone had not trusted the packing and checked. All his surprises had been removed.

Bettina did not mention the purloining of her underwear. Mother said nothing. Father said nothing. Robert said nothing. He enjoyed the holiday.

Oldbury Midlands, England. 1939

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Bedtime was strictly adhered to in the Pine house. By 8 o'clock each night, both Bettina and Robert were washed, fed and snug in the thick, heavy blankets of their bed. Striped cotton pyjamas were a signal that the day had come to a close, save for brushing teeth, prayers and a short while reading. The house took on a hushed, reverential tone peculiar to the business of bedding down. Mother and Father would sit in the front room quietly reading, talking or listening to the wireless. No noise or disturbance was allowed after that hour.

Father would write his works' magazine, draw or read. Sometimes he would make additions to his scrapbooks. Carefully, he snipped around the magazine articles -- sometimes cutting square, sometimes curving around the heads of the people, the steam engine or aeroplane in the picture. Working on the table, he flattened the thick, dark pages of his book and laid out the cuttings in a proposed montage. Satisfied with his composition, he tested the bottle of glue on a piece of waste paper, shaking the bottle and pushing down firmly on the amber rubber, ensuring a smooth and even flow. As he pressed delicately on the damp additions with a folded cloth, the scraps did not buckle or blister.

Mother would sit by the fire sewing or knitting. More often she would read or chat to Father. Sometimes she would speak of politics, the Conservative Party and the war. She would do something, she would help but not quite yet. The wireless murmured in the background. Evenings were a hallowed time broken only by sickness, civil commotion or disaster.

The cotton-lined cocoon that is a child's shape in bed was warmed and ready for the night's comfort when Robert was called downstairs. Traipsing down the dull stairwell, he stopped to pull up his slipping cotton trousers high at the waist. Holding the cord with one hand he walked firmly and deliberately, one stair at a time, careful not to trip. The sitting room was bright and warm from the coal fire. The blackout blinds were drawn and created a feeling of being shut in, safe and sound. Sitting and waiting for some special purpose, the two adults dominated the room. As he stood on the linoleum before them, tugging his trousers up, he smiled and waited for the warmth expected from his parents.

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He could not recall what he had done. Whatever it was he must have been bad. Both parents spoke but it was Father's question which hung in the air: "You don't want to be a girl now do you, Bob?"

Standing on the cold floor, rubbing the sole of one naked foot on the arch of the other, Robert's brow felt fevered and fingers light and useless as they fidgeted with the thick, cotton cuffs falling short of his thin wrists. The child's gaze stared down at somewhere in the pattern of the fireside rug, seeing nothing. His lips were dry and would not move. Little Robert stood fixed to the spot by a question he did not understand from parents he loved. What had he done? What was so bad to deserve this audience? What did the question mean? What answer did they want? Yes or no? Yes or no? Fixed for ever it seemed till he gasped a lung full of air, drew his chin to his chest and squeaked, "No."

The answer was rewarded immediately by Mother. "Of course you don't, Robert. That's a good boy. Now off to bed with you and no more of this nonsense."

What nonsense? Little Robert Pine lay in bed that night relieved but worried. The boy did not know what he had done, did not understand the question nor his answer. The child felt he had cheated and let his parents down but did not know how.

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Little Robert Pine lay in bed that night and cried himself to sleep.


Reg McKay

Reg McKay is the author of "None So Pretty: The Sexing of Rebecca Pine."

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