I bet you’ll have come across one at some stage when you were growing up: the kid in the class who had no friends and was always alone. The kid who other kids avoided because they just weren’t right, somehow. The kid who even adults didn’t like, never asking why we didn’t invite them to our parties or to join in our games.
In my junior school class, it was a boy called Niall (not his real name). I had to sit next to Niall for a term when I was 10. I don’t recall ever hearing him speak, or seeing him write anything in his exercise book. What I do remember about Niall are the sleeves of his school jumper, stiff from elbow to cuff with snot from his endlessly runny nose. It was gross. I still feel queasy thinking about it.
With the benefit of adult eyes I understand not using my sleeve as a snot-rag didn’t come about by chance but because my mother taught me to blow my nose and put hankies in my school bag. She also made sure I had clean clothes every day. In other words she spent time with me and cared for me, as my other classmates’ mothers or fathers did for them. I imagine Niall’s home-life was very different.
Around the same time I was diligently avoiding contact with Niall’s arms (it helped he sat on my right and I’m left handed), William Trevor was writing The Children of Dynmouth, which won the 1976 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award (now the Costa Award). The plot revolves around Timothy Gedge, an ungainly, solitary fifteen year-old, whose lack of friends and general aimlessness causes him to “follow people about and to look through windows and to attend funerals”.
Timothy decides to enter the Spot the Talent Competition at the Easter Fete with a macabre comedy act based on the real-life Brides in the Bath murders. To make it work he wants a bath, a wedding dress, a suit, and curtains for the stage. Timothy’s spying means he’s seen a lot of things, and so he knows just how to ensure people supply what he needs…
It’s a compelling story and one I found difficult to put down. Trevor refuses to label Timothy as a monster “which would be nice for everyone because monsters were a species on their own”. True, there are some moments where the book shows its age, mainly around attitudes to sexuality, but overall this doesn’t detract from Trevor’s subtle exploration of a psychopath in the making.
“It’s people like that who do terrible things” is the prediction for Timothy’s future – so you could see The Children of Dynmouth as a kind of prequel to Felicia’s Journey, whose central character, Mr Hilditch, is a strange, lonely middle-aged man, “a collector…of homeless young girls”, which won Trevor the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1994.
Rating: *** Highly recommended