My son Paul is in the same class at school as Robin Hood. Not the Robin Hood, of course, that would be ridiculous, he’s a semi-mythical hero from the twelfth century. No, this Robin Hood would be his son.
Paul brought home a couple of kids from school one day, and one of them was Robin Hood. At first, I’ll be honest, he didn’t seem much to look at – I wouldn’t have given him a second glance in the street. Short, square-jawed, a little meanness around the eyes – but they all look mean at that age, don’t you think? But I looked again, and I don’t know, I suppose I could see something of the celebrity in him. And he had a stud in his ear, but not in the lobe, stick into that bony bit at the top, that’d be more painful, wouldn’t it? I didn’t know whether to shake him by the hand or not. I didn’t.
I said to the other kid, “What about you, you got a famous Dad?” I was only joking. The kid said, “No.”
Paul said they were all working together on a school project. I asked what the project was about, and they said it was heroes. Each group had to pick a hero from history, and the best essays would be read out at Speech Day. I said, “Can I help?”, Janet had told me I should take a greater interest in what Paul was up to, but they said that they weren’t allowed to get external assistance from a parent, this was something they had to do on their own. I asked them which hero they had chosen, and they said Winston Churchill.
“Well, can I get you boys anything to eat?” – but Paul said they were all right. So I left them to work on the kitchen table, and they helped themselves to snacks from the fridge, cola and ice cream and peanut butter sandwiches.
A couple of hours later the boys went home. Robin Hood didn’t come and say goodbye, but why should he have done, really? I waited until the coast was clear and then went into the kitchen. I asked Paul whether I should fix something for his supper, but he said he wasn’t hungry any more.
“Winston Churchill,” I said. “Well. So, what’s your favourite thing about Winston Churchill?”, and Paul sort of shrugged.
I said it was nice he had made some new friends, and at that he just rolled his eyes. They weren’t friends, they’d all been put into groups by the teacher, Paul Hiscock was next to Robin Hood in the register. “I don’t even like Robin Hood,” he said. “Robin Hood’s a spaz.”
In my defence, it hadn’t been anything serious, and I’d never meant to hurt anyone. If I had thought anyone would have got hurt, I wouldn’t have ever got involved. That was implicit from the fact she was married, I’d have thought. If you have a fling with a married woman, it should be pretty clear it’s only temporary.
So when the husband came over, and he was a lot bigger than me, I thought he was going to hit me, and I suppose I might have deserved that – when he came over and he said, “You stole my wife!” – my first thought was that it hadn’t been theft, I was only borrowing her for a bit. I didn’t say that, though. And the husband didn’t hit me, in fact, he just burst into tears, and the fight went out of him, and I felt very sorry for him and didn’t know what to do.
Janet left me. She said if I was going to cheat on her, the least I could do would be to show a little discretion. Sleeping with the next door neighbour had been rubbing her nose in it rather. It was my own fault, I’m not saying it wasn’t, I don’t think I come out of this story well at all. But Janet works long hours, and travels a lot, I don’t think she’d even met the neighbours very often, what difference did it being the neighbour make?
She takes Paul at the weekends, I get him for the school days. I work pretty locally, so it makes much more sense that way. I gave her a call. I told her that Paul had made new friends. I knew she’d been concerned, Paul had been so withdrawn since the break-up and her moving out and the lawyers and things.
“That’s good,” she said.
“You’ll never guess who his friend is. His name’s Robin Hood! You know, the son of the actual Robin Hood.”
Janet said she was pleased, and she sounded pleased, but would it have killed her to have sounded more interested? Excited, even? She said, “They’re thinking of cutting back on my overseas contracts, I should be based in the city much more come the spring. I think I should take custody of Paul when I do.”
I told her it was funny that our son was hobnobbing with famous people! Who would have thought it? And Janet laughed, I’ll give her that. And she said she’d once been at school with a girl whose sister was a backing singer for Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I told her that wasn’t the same thing at all.
I asked her how she was, and she said she was all right, working too hard of course, but that was as per usual, wasn’t it? She laughed again. She asked me how I was doing, I said I missed her. I said again that I was sorry.
I see the woman from next door sometimes, of course, but I’m not allowed to speak to her. I promised Janet I wouldn’t. I don’t think she’s allowed to speak to me either, she’s still with her husband, I think there were conditions to that. We don’t speak, but I want her to know it’s nothing personal, so if she’s out in the garden I’ll raise my hand and give her a sort of half-wave. She half-waves back, mostly.
Speech Day came. They said that Paul’s Winston Churchill project was one of the best of his year, and it was selected to be read out in front of the entire school. I was very proud, and told Paul so, and he seemed to believe me for once, he grinned from ear to ear.
I didn’t go, though. Janet was supposed to be out of the country on business, but at the last minute her trip was cancelled, and she phoned up and asked if she could go and see Paul instead. She felt it’d be important for their relationship. To be fair to her, she didn’t insist, she said she’d quite understand if that inconvenienced me too much – she’d be bitterly disappointed, but there it was. I said that we could both go, it would be all right; she wouldn’t even need to see me, I could sit at the back. But Janet thought she wasn’t quite ready for that yet. “Maybe next year,” she said.
I found out after that Robin Hood had been there as a special guest, and had given out the sixth form prizes! I called Janet, asked her how the evening had gone. She said Robin Hood had been quite charming, and he’d given a little speech, and told the kids that stealing was a bad thing and not to follow his example, and that besides what he’d done hadn’t been stealing, he had taken from the rich to give to the poor, it had been a political act, he called it ‘reappropriation’. I asked Janet if he had been dressed in Lincoln green. She said no.
I told Paul I was sorry to have missed him. I told him he could perform the Winston Churchill speech to me, if he liked, privately, in our front room. He said he hadn’t performed it at all. He’d written the essay, and that other lad had read it out, that’s how they’ve divided up the work. Robin had barely been involved in the project at all, Robin had skived off as usual. I told Paul to perform it for me anyway, I wanted to hear it. And Paul huffed a bit, but said all right. At the end I gave him a round of applause, and told him I was proud, but Paul didn’t look too pleased. “You already said,” he told me. But I was proud, I meant it. It was a good essay, there was more to Winston Churchill than I had realised, like Robin Hood he’d been a proper hero.
Mr and Mrs Hood had the pleasure of inviting my son to young Robin’s birthday party. Paul said it was nothing to get excited about, everyone in his class had got an invitation – but it had come in the post, and it was nicely done, and it asked us to RSVP. It told Paul to bring swimming trunks, so that meant Robin Hood had a pool! I asked Paul whether he thought it would be a fancy dress party, and Paul said, “Why the hell would it be fancy dress?”, and I didn’t know, I just thought it might have been.
Before the big day I asked Paul whether he was going to get his friend a present. He said no. I told him he had at least to buy a card. The card Paul bought wasn’t good enough, I had to go out and buy another. I told him to write something nice inside. I hope he did, he wouldn’t let me see.
We drove all the way to the Hood house, the other side of town. I suppose I had expected a castle or something, maybe a mansion. It was just a semi-detached. But it was on a quiet street, the front garden was well-tended and a little bigger than ours, no, it was nice, it was nice. Paul looked quite smart, I looked smart too, I’d put on my best jacket even though it was rather a warm day. A harassed man opened the front door to us. “Hello, Mr Hood,” I said, and I put my hand out. It wasn’t Mr Hood at all, it turned out he was just one of the other parents dropping his own kid off; they were all out the back, he said, and then pushed past us and made his escape. I was glad he hadn’t been Robin Hood, he hadn’t been how I’d have pictured him at all.
In the sitting room all the furniture had been pushed against the walls to create a larger play area. On the patio outside there was a barbecue going, and there were the drinks, and there on the lawn was the swimming pool. It wasn’t a proper pool. It was quite big, I suppose, but it was still made of plastic, at the end of the day you could drain it and flatten it and roll it up and put it away. I was a little disappointed.
There were lots of kids everywhere, all shapes and sizes, and I just think it would have been nicer if someone had thought to make it a fancy dress party, they could have been Robin Hood’s merry men, you could have have Friar Tucks and Will Scarlets and Little Johns (the tall kids could have been Little Johns). I can’t see why someone hadn’t thought of that.
There were a few parents milling around too, all of them obviously hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous man himself. “He’s not home,” a woman told me when I asked, and she sighed, because she’d obviously been asked a few dozen times already. I told her I supposed she was Maid Marian; “I’m Stacey,” she said, “Marian is the ex.”
She suggested that the adults should go, and return to collect their children at six o’clock. I asked if I could stay. “I told you, he’s not here, and he won’t be back til late.” I told Mrs Hood I didn’t care.
Some of the kids had smuggled in cans of beer, and Mrs Hood and I had to keep going around confiscating them. We’d take them indoors and drink them in the kitchen, and when we’d finished, we’d go outside and confiscate some more. Every once in a while one of us would pop out anyway to check no one had got burned on the barbecue or drowned in the paddling pool.
Robin Hood’s house had a big widescreen TV and off-road parking. I told Mrs Hood it wasn’t as grand as I’d expected, and I supposed Robin must have given to the poor and not kept much back for himself. She found that very funny. She laughed a lot. I decided to laugh too, so it’d look as if I’d been witty on purpose.
About half past five the parents started arriving for their kids, and I’d go out into the garden to help find them. I’d ask for the kids’ names, and I’d stand in the middle of the lawn, and start calling. It was funny how they all looked the same.
And eventually Paul was the only kid left. A thought occurred to me – “But where’s little Robin? Where’s the birthday boy?” Robin had left the party ages ago, apparently, he’d gone down town with his mates. I asked Paul to thank Mrs Hood, and he did, very politely, and I thanked her too. We had to get a taxi home, I was a little over the limit. I asked Paul whether he had enjoyed the party, and he said he had, very much; he thanked me for making him go even though he hadn’t wanted to; he said he was sorry, he said he hadn’t been nice to me lately, he loved me, he said. He was very good, he wasn’t sick in the taxi, he waited until we were safely home.
I went back the next day to pick up my car. All the balloons and streamers had been taken down out front, Robin Hood’s house looked like any other. I supposed Robin Hood was inside, he’d probably come home by now, and I waited for a bit, but I didn’t see him.
I was asked to come into the school and see the deputy headmistress. I waited outside her office on a little plastic chair, and I felt nervous, as if I were the one in trouble!
She was very stern. She told me that Paul was a very promising student. She said that his take on Winston Churchill had been good, the words she used were ‘spirited’ and ‘rousing’. But, she said, Paul was mixing with the wrong sort of company. He’d been seen in a gang. There’d been lots of complaints about this gang, they’d hang about the shopping precinct, and drink, and be noisy, and play with traffic cones. They hadn’t done anything illegal yet, no one said they’d stolen anything, but it was only a matter of time.
She told me the ringleader was Robin Hood, and advised me to keep Paul away from him. “Don’t let Paul give up on his future,” she said. She told me she knew he was going through a difficult time, that there were domestic problems, and that she was sympathetic. But the school couldn’t condone anti-social behaviour. “How do you think it’s going,” she asked me, “the relationship you have with your son?” I didn’t want to discuss relationships. I didn’t want the school to know about my problems with Janet, what had Paul been saying about me?
I spoke to Paul that evening. He told me that the gang didn’t have a leader, it wasn’t that sort of a gang, and that if the gang did have a leader it’d be Nicky Culshaw, it wouldn’t be Robin Hood, Robin Hood just hung out and did shit the same as everybody else. I told Paul that maybe Robin Hood was a bad influence, all the same; could I rely on him, could I trust him, that if he went out with his mates down town to play and Robin tagged along, could Paul make his excuses and come home? “Sure,” said Paul.
In retrospect, I felt angry, and ashamed, and I phoned the deputy headmistress the next day. I told her that whatever ‘relationship’ my son and I enjoyed it was none of her business, her business was to teach him, that was all. And besides, it was all a storm in a teacup, the gang wasn’t doing anything wrong, they were just kids having fun. What was wrong with having fun, if no one got hurt? Couldn’t she remember being young once? She didn’t answer. Maybe she couldn’t.
It was in the local paper – a cat had been shot with an arrow. The owners found it in the morning when they were taking their kids to school; the cat had dragged its way to the house, and tried to get in through the cat flap, but with an arrow sticking out of its side it had got stuck, and it’d spent the night half inside and half out. The arrow was in its flank, just above the hind legs. Miraculously, the cat had survived, the arrow hadn’t gone in too deep, that was one lucky animal. Though, mind you, it had to have one of the legs amputated, there was a photo in the paper, nasty.
A few days later a dog was found, and this one was dead, chained up to a kennel, an arrow through its neck. This one had been a more expert kill, and the only consolation the owners could find in the interviews they gave – because by this time the national press had got hold of it, it was even on the telly in the evening news – was that at least the kill had been quick and the dog wouldn’t have suffered. The police urged people to keep their pets indoors and safe, although they were certain whoever was responsible would be caught soon, and there was no need for panic. It was odd seeing pictures of our town on the television; I know those streets, but they looked bigger on the screen somehow, and all the signposts and wheelie bins looked like movie props.
Young Robin Hood confessed the very next day. It’s said that he didn’t offer any explanation, or show of remorse; he just went up to a policeman and said, “I did the pets,” and as proof showed his bow and his quiver. ‘I Did The Pets’ was one of the headlines the next day; others used ‘The Face Of A Monster’, alongside a photograph of Robin. He looked calm and insolent, and that meanness around his eyes was plain for all to see.
He wasn’t sent to prison the way the public demanded on chat shows, he was too young for that. He was expelled by the school, of course. And he gave a statement to the papers that said he was bitterly regretful of all the distress he had caused, and that he blamed temporary insanity – it was only a written statement, the press weren’t allowed to interview the lad. They tried to track down his father for comment, but the family had gone into hiding – the one time they got him on camera he kept silent and tight-lipped, pushing his way through the reporters towards his car, and I was surprised at how ordinary Robin Hood looked, really, how thin, how old.
I didn’t see Stacey again after that. I suppose we both used the scandal to put an end to things, but in truth it was on its way out already. The last time she’d come to my house she’d asked me where I thought our relationship was headed.
“Is it a relationship?” I asked. “I didn’t know we’d got that far!” I was only joking, I was only trying to make her laugh.
“I just don’t know what it is we’re doing,” she said. I didn’t know what to say, and she sighed, and got out of bed, and got dressed.
And I said to her, that she was lonely, and that I was lonely, and that there was nothing so evil in two lonely people meeting up every so often to make themselves feel better. What was wrong in having fun?
“But I’m married,” I went on. “And I love my wife, and one day we’ll get back together. And you love your husband, don’t you? And it’s not as if you love me.”
She just said, “I don’t know what we’re doing, if it’s never going to mean anything.”
We’d only ever met up at my place. Saturday afternoons, when Paul was safely with his mother. I thought that was simpler, and she’d agreed. Better that our sons didn’t know we were seeing each other, after all our sons were close friends. But there was more to it than that. I just didn’t fancy going to the great Robin Hood’s house and having sex with his wife in his own bed. I suppose you could say there’s a moral ambiguity surrounding Robin Hood and the way he pursued a life of crime for a greater good, but whichever side of the argument you come down on, Robin Hood as folk hero or as social menace, surely the man deserves better treatment than that.
Paul brought me the bow, and the remaining arrows. He’d taken them from the Hood house, but insisted he hadn’t stolen them. There were so many bows and arrows just lying about there, how could it be stealing if no one would notice they were gone?
He didn’t know why Robin had confessed. He told me that if Robin hadn’t confessed, he would have done so. In fact, he’d just been on his way to confess, and then Robin had got in, just ahead of him.
“He doesn’t even like archery,” he said. “Any of that stuff his Dad was into, he thought it was all bollocks.”
Paul was sorry about the cat. He hadn’t meant to hurt anything. He was just mucking about, he never thought he’d actually manage to hit the thing. “What about the dog?” I asked. He didn’t say anything to that.
“Are you going to tell the police?” he asked.
And he stared at me, and he seemed frightened. Or maybe it was just another sort of defiance, one I wasn’t used to.
“I don’t think we should even tell your mother,” I said.
I took the bow and the arrows. I said I’d get rid of them, I’d dispose of the evidence. I put them upstairs, nicely under my bed.
I asked Paul if he wanted any supper. Normally he’d say no, he’d go out with his mates. That night he agreed to stay in.
Neither of us quite knew what to say as we ate.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is all my fault.”
He looked genuinely surprised by that. “Is it?”
“I just wish,” I said. “I don’t know. I’ve always wished. You’d be the sort of son who’d want to take after his father. That I’d done something, achieved something, worth taking after.”
He said nothing, just toyed with his apple crumble. That was probably the kindest thing.
After supper Paul asked if he could be excused from the table. That was polite of him. So I said yes.
The next evening, when Paul came home from school, I asked him if he wanted any supper. “No,” he said. “I’m going out.”
There was still a gang, but no one pretended that Robin Hood was in charge of it any more.
I had rather hoped Paul might stay in, that the two of us could do something together. I told him this. And he said we’d do something soon, yeah. But he had to go out, he’d promised, and the others wouldn’t know what to do without him.
I watched some television. I went upstairs, from under the bed I took my bow and arrow. I wondered whether Robin Hood had ever killed anyone with them. I wondered whether he’d ever killed anyone famous, like King John, or one of the Sheriffs of Nottingham. I texted Stacey. She didn’t reply.
On Thursday night, Janet called and told me she wouldn’t be able to fit Paul in this weekend, she’d be at an impromptu conference in Frankfurt instead. I said I’d tell him.
On Friday morning, I broke the news to Paul. If he felt rejected, he didn’t show it. I asked him whether he had any plans for Saturday. I knew he wouldn’t have had time to make any, that got him.
On Saturday, I showed Paul what I’d found.
From the attic I’d brought down whole boxes of my past, I’d been through them to find all the best bits. There were photographs, of me as a child, me with my parents, the brother I hadn’t spoken to for years. My wedding day. Janet looked so beautiful. I looked a bit fat.
And things I had forgotten. My Cub Scout badges, one for orienteering, one for knots, one for helping the old folk cross the road. A little medal I’d won at school for swimming. Certificates proving I was a qualified chartered accountant. A prize-winning essay about the great hero Francis Drake. Valentine’s cards.
“This is who I am,” I said to Paul.
“No bows and arrows! Ha! Nothing as exciting as Robin Hood could show his son. Ha!”
“I’m no one special. But. Maybe there’s something here that might inspire you.”
Paul didn’t look very convinced. I sort of smiled at him, encouragingly. He sort of smiled back. He put his hands deep into one of the boxes, as if it were a lucky dip, and he pulled out some old postcards from somewhere or other.
“I’ll leave you to it,” I said.
“This is all shit,” he said. Not even unkindly.
“I’ll leave you to it,” I said again. And I walked out of the room. And I closed the door. And I locked it.
“Hey!” said Paul. “Let me out!” He banged his fists on the door. They were heavy fists, Paul was already so strong, stronger than me. But I thought the door would hold.
I went upstairs to my bedroom. I decided I wouldn’t free Paul for a while. It was tempting, he’d be so angry when he got out. But if I wanted this relationship to work, I had to believe in it, give it a fighting chance.
I pulled the string from the bow, and I broke all the arrows, I snapped them in two.
I went to sleep for a while. I don’t know how long.
And at last I went back downstairs. I trod softly, I didn’t want to disturb my son. He had stopped shouting and banging at the door, I hadn’t heard a sound from him for ages. I stooped, I peered through the keyhole. It was hard to see properly, and I could only guess at the expression on his face, but he was holding that swimming medal to his chest, hugging on to it tight, and I thought it might have been with pride and with awe and with love.