A single moment fifty odd years ago convinces me that ESP is a thing, a real thing. And it has everything to do with walnut whips.
When I was twelve, my parents sent me off to a tutor in Seaford for a week or so to help me get through my Common Entrance. Tutors are what happens when your parents think more highly of your academic potential than your school does. Or are desperate, as mine were, to get you into a particular school.
All I can remember now, apart from being in the only house in Seaford without a view of the sea, was being punched in the kidneys every morning by a boy called Piers, who objected to my being double-barreled and posh, and who told me he had friends who would kill me if I breathed a word about the beatings. As my room-mate, he did a bit extra, as far as I can remember, like trying to flush my pants down the loo, and ripping pages out of The Blue Max, the book I was reading, just before I got to them. To say that it was a good passage of my life would be over-egging things a bit.
I was not overly tough and, believe me, if I had had a mobile phone or any means to contact my parents, I would have done so. But I didn’t, so I just counted the seconds till it was over, and told myself that I could always walk the 48 mile trip home if things got completely unbearable. For some reason, it never occurred to me to tell the nice lady who ran the boarding house what was going on. Anyway, no one is all bad, and Piers introduced me to Neil Young’s Harvest,which turned out to be far more life-changing for me than any of the crap he gave me.
Then one day, just after we had finished for the afternoon, my grandmother turned up out of the blue, and whisked me off to Brighton Pier, where we duly went through every slot machine in the place, ate ice cream at least twice, and sat on the seafront eating hot dogs. On the way back to the boarding house, she bought me a box of six large walnut whips to sustain me for the rest of my time. When I told her that we weren’t allowed to take food into the house, what I actually meant was that Piers would probably smack me until I had given them to him.
So I sat in her Citroen DS on the short drive back from Brighton and ate every last one, partly to show her my appreciation, but also to avoid misunderstandings when I got back to the house. Not surprisingly, I was sick as a dog, and have never been able to look at a Walnut Whip since, far less eat one.
‘You’re not enjoying yourself here, are you?’ she said gently at the door, and she gave me the best tips she could for survival until it was over. It must have been a round trip of six hours for her, and I still wonder what prompted her to drive over; she had never visited me at school before, and never did afterwards.
Fast forward 47 years to a couple of days ago when I was queueing at the BP garage to pay for my fuel and buy a paper. On my left, on that shelf they reserve for what the marketing people call ‘impulse purchases’, there was a new range of Walnut Whips. After 109 years, they remain the same, conical dog turd shape, but they now come in all sorts of flavours to suit allergies and dietary choices. Knowing that I wouldn’t buy it, I picked up a packet just to note what they cost these days (£1.65 for the assortment pack), and see if it triggered any comforting childhood familiarity within me. ‘No’ was the answer; they made me feel physically sick, and with a tiny feeling at the back of my brain that I wanted to cry.
As I drove away, I realised that this was the first time that I had given Piers a thought for nearly half a century. Knowing now, as I didn’t then, why people tend to behave like that, a tiny bit of me hoped that he had eventually found happiness…
….but not before he had failed his Common Entrance and had the daylights kicked out of him by someone else into the bargain.