Chapter 1

June 1997

"Look, Paul ... the new neighbours are here, and it looks like they have young children ... someone for you to play with! I'll go over later and say hello!"

The little boy held his mother's hand as they walked the short distance to the next house. She rang the bell and they waited.

"Oh, Hello! I'm Carol Jennings, I live next door. I just popped over to introduce myself and see if you needed anything, and this is my Paul!" A little boy with light brown, curly hair peeked out from the shelter of his mother. " ... He's a bit shy!"

"Hello, Carol! I'm Christine Palmer. And how old is Paul?"

"He's five. He starts school in September."

"Oh, that's a coincidence ... my Penny's the same age! Is Paul going to St. Thomas'?"

"Yes, it's only about a fifteen minute walk from here. We can walk together."

"Penny, Stevie, come and say hello to Mrs Jennings from next door and her little boy ... he's going to St. Thomas' as well."

Two children ran up to her from where they had been playing. Stevie Palmer was a head taller at least than Paul, the little girl with her blonde hair tied in two bunches, was about the same height.

"This is Paul."

The older child snorted in derision and ran off again.

" ... Sorry about that, Carol! Stevie is seven, going on thirty!"

The little girl looked at Paul and smiled. She took his hand, which he wasn't entirely sure about, but he allowed himself to be led away by her.

"She's lovely!" Carol said, "I think they're friends already!"

Penny had led Paul to a big box of toys. He had picked up a book, but no sooner was it in his hands, than the older boy took it away from him. He didn't cry, he just stood there glaring at Stevie. Penny stood with her hands on her hips looking at her brother.

"That wasn't very nice, Stevie! It's my book and Paulie is my friend ... now give it back, or I'll tell Mummy!"

The older boy frowned, then tossed the book back into the toy box, before running off through the French doors into the garden.

"You looking forward to school, Paulie?"

"Hmm ... sort of ... What you going to be after, when you're bigger ... I'm going to be an engineer, like my dad ... or a spaceman."

"I'm not sure, actually. A ballerina, or maybe a princess. Or maybe I'll get married and stay at home and have babies."

As their parents also got friendlier, they often played together after that. Stevie rarely joined in their games, though: he seemed happy to amuse himself doing something else. The Palmer's indulged their children with a big paddling pool, and on the hottest days of that summer the two youngest children romped and frolicked in the garden without bathing costumes, and without inhibitions!

Come September, and the three children were dressed in their new school uniforms and walked to school by their mothers: Stevie Palmer was content to trot on ahead of the others, while Penny held Paul's hand all the way there in the morning and back again in the afternoon. Stevie was also happy at last, as he soon made friends in his class of other seven year olds; even though most of them had known each other since the age his sister was now.

In some primary schools, it is usual for the reception class and Year 1 children to be encouraged to nap in the afternoon. This was the case at the St Thomas Aquinas school in Harrow, in 1997. And that particular day was the very first day of the children's schooling: the first day of a compulsory eleven year period of their lives.

Ellen Thomas was the school's Year 1 class teacher and she had one full-time teaching assistant to help her, Samantha Collinson. This wasn't their first year working together, so at the prescribed time every day, Sam, as she was more familiarly known, was used to laying out the thick, cushioned floor mats, the pillows, and the blankets, in preparation for the school's youngest children's 'siesta'. The window blinds would then be closed, to shut out the harsh daylight; whereupon the children would be invited to find a mat and lie down.

Ellen was in her late twenties, then, and had been a teacher at St Thomas Aquinas Primary ever since obtaining her B.Ed degree. The school had been the one where she had undertaken her teaching practice period; and fortuitously for her, a vacancy arose at the school which she was offered. Although still nominally responsible for her class during this children's rest time, it was also a welcome chance for her and Sam to review and plan the next day's activities together.

After about fifteen minutes of this quiet time, Sam walked around to make sure that all the children were sleeping, or at least resting. This was routine practice, but today she walked quietly back to where Ellen was sitting. She smiled at her colleague and beckoned to her to follow her. They stopped when they got to one of the mats, which was now missing its intended occupant: the little blonde-haired girl was now curled up under the blanket of the boy with brown-curly-hair on the mat next to hers. They were both asleep. Ellen just smiled and walked back to her seat.

"That's Penny Palmer and Paul Jennings, Sam. They live next door to each other and came to the school's open day together with their mothers. Apparently they've only known each other a few months, but they're practically inseparable! We don't have to worry about them too much, but we'll have a quiet word with Penny tomorrow morning. But you have to admit, Sam ... it's rather sweet, isn't it!"

In the Year 1 class, Paul and Penny tended to stick together: not only because they were already friends: but because, educationally, they were both more advanced in some ways than their peers. Penny, as well as being bright, was also very outgoing and sociable, and during the breaks from lessons she was always at the heart of play activities. Paul was still shy and reserved, but he often found himself being, literally, pulled into games by his friend.

And of course there were the out of school activities. For example, when the other children in their class had birthday parties, Penny was always one of the first to be asked ... to which her usual reply was: 'Yes ... and Paulie, too!' This happened so often that he was seldom asked to attend directly ... it was just assumed by everyone that any invitation to Penny automatically included her next door neighbour as well.

There is that time in most children's lives, though, when they stop being just small people: biologically and emotionally similar in so many ways; and they start to become characteristically boys and girls. Increasingly, thereafter, were the times when the different genders went their own ways, and even Penny Palmer appreciated that Paul Jennings didn't always want to do the things that she did with her girl friends! He sometimes ran around the playground with the other boys: kicking tennis balls, or pretending to fight battles; but he was equally happy to sometimes sit on his own and read. But if he and Penny just happened to be looking in the direction of the other and their eyes met, they would invariably both smile warmly, before going back to whatever it was that they were doing. And although Paul rarely initiated it, Penny still liked to sidle up to him sometimes and take his hand in hers.

"So is Paul your boyfriend, Penny ... do you love him?" her friends would ask. At such times she just giggled.

"No! He's just my friend, like you!"

"So why do you hold his hand if he's not your boyfriend?"

At this she just wrinkled up her nose and shrugged her shoulders.

" ... Don't know ... it's just nice!" But she didn't stop doing it...

"Do you like me holding your hand, Paulie? Do the other children tease you?"

"Well ... your brother, a bit ... but it's all right..."

"Good!" she said, " ... Do you want me to punch him, Paulie ... I will if you want me to!"

"No! I don't want you to punch anyone, Penny!"

"Okay!" she said, smiling.

Penny and Paul were now both six and had been at school for nearly two terms, and during that time they had continued to become very close.

"We're taking the kids away for Easter this year, Carol," Christine Palmer said to Paul's mother, Carol Jennings: her friend and next door neigh­bour. "Penny wants to know if Paul can come with us. Frank and I don't mind, but I don't know if he'll want to leave you."

"I'll ask him, Chris. He's stayed at his grandparents without us before, and he and your Penny get along so well ... Where were you thinking of going?"

"We've already booked: Center Parcs, Elveden Forest, in Suffolk. We've been thinking about it for a while, but Penny wasn't really old enough before."

Paul was naturally shy, but since Penny and her family had moved in next door and he had started school, he had begun to get bolder. He was also intelligent and curious, and once he'd seen the glossy brochures he had decided that he'd like to go.

It took just over an hour for them to get from their home in Harrow to Brandon, in Suffolk, and for the children: especially the youngest two, used to the streets of North West London; it was a strange environ­ment. Neither Paul, Penny, or her older brother, Stevie, were really familiar with forests ... let alone living in one! After checking in, they found their accommodation and unloaded the car, then Frank Palmer took it to the nearest parking area.

When the Palmer's had booked their break, they had of course only thought they needed two bedrooms. Christine Palmer had anticipated that now Paul was joining them, Penny would be sharing with her brother, while Paul would have the second single bed.

"But why can't I share with Paulie, Mummy? He doesn't mind and Stevie's much too big to share with!"

Her brother never said anything; but Chris knew her son well enough to know that he wouldn't object to not having to share.

"What do you think, Paul?" Mrs Palmer asked him.

"It's all right," he replied, "I don't mind." Penny beamed.

"Okay ... we'll see how it goes tonight, then!" Christine said, "Leave your coats on, we'll go and have a look around the place."

There was a complex of facilities on the site, and with hardly any cars being used they could walk safely. Penny usually held one or both of her parent's hands when they were out together; but with Paul there she preferred to hold his, as she did when they walked to and from school. Christine and Frank Palmer held hands, too, while Stevie hurried off on his own ... as was his custom.

With so many tall trees around them, the two smallest members of the party seemed even smaller than usual, and while not afraid of her surroundings, Penny held on tightly to her friend's hand. Even Christine, who took her daughter and son to school everyday, accompanied by Paul and his mother, and who had seen the sight many times, never failed to be gladdened by seeing it!

The amount of activities on offer was very impressive: as were their choices of places to eat. They could have a meal somewhere different every day that they were there and Christine wouldn't have to cook at all ... which certainly impressed her!

There were supervised outdoor things for the older child to do, and lots of indoor things for the two youngest. And while the children were being looked after, the adults could indulge themselves in some more grown-up pursuits ... either organised activities; or private and spontane­ous ones back at their lodge...

On that first day they ate their main meal in the afternoon, and in the evening they just stayed in and relaxed. The adults had a bedroom with its own bathroom, with a bath, and there was also a shower room. The Palmer's had relaxed their children's bedtime schedule for the holiday, so at about 7:30 Penny and Paul shared a bath before getting into their pyjamas. The eight year old Stevie, like his father, preferred showers.

By nine o'clock both younger children were becoming weary, so they went to bed. Both had obviously shared their parents bed at some time, but now they usually slept alone; but sharing didn't seem at all strange to either. They both started off on their backs, but they were soon on their sides, facing each other ... which is how they slept for most of the night.

Some time, quite early the next morning, Penny woke up to go to the bathroom. When she got back, she snuggled up as close to Paul as she could, then went back to sleep.

For the first two years that they were at school, Penny Palmer's and Paul Jennings' mothers walked them to school, along with Penny's older brother, Stevie. However, before the start of their third year, Carol Jennings and Christine Palmer agreed that they were now all responsible enough to try to undertake the fifteen minute walk unaccompanied.

Within minutes of meeting Paul for the first time, on the day that her family moved into the house next door to his, Penny had taken his hand and led him off to her toy box. They played together for most of that summer and on the day that they started school she held his hand for the whole of the journeys there and back. This had been repeated every school day since: excepting those infrequent, if inevitable, days when illness prevented either of them from attending. And even though they didn't always play together at school, there were often occasions when Penny sought the familiarity and comfort of her friend's hand in hers.

During his journeys to his previous school, before they moved to Harrow, Stevie Palmer, two years older than his sister, had often held her hand, too, but since they moved he had not wished to do so ... which might explain her eagerness to be coupled with Paul ... but by seven years old, there was also a real affection that existed between the two friends.

So on the first day of their third year at St. Thomas Aquinas Primary School, the three children set off together ... although after only a short time Stevie was some way ahead of them and for the rest of the short journey only occasionally glanced backward to see if they were still behind him.

"Stevie doesn't talk much, does he, Penny."

"No, not much. He's always been like that. Mummy says it's cos there's no one his own age, apart from school. Before school, I only used to talk to mummy and daddy ... but now I've got you as well, Paulie!"

"But school's good, isn't it ... you've got lot of other friends, Penny."

"Mmm ... yes ... but you're my special friend, Paulie."

"And you're mine, Penny! You're my bestest friend..."

" ... Better than Peter Wilkins?"

"Oh, lots!" Paul exclaimed, "And he's gone now, anyway ... his mummy and daddy have gone to live in Canada."

"Where's that, Paulie?"

"Mmm ... not sure! But you have to go in an aeroplane, and it takes days and days to get there, I think!"

"And he's never coming back, Paulie?"

"Don't think so ... it's called 'emigrated' ... you take all your toys and all your furniture and stuff with you."

"Mmm ... we did that when we moved from our other house ... where was that place?" She thought hard. "Oh, yes! Chelmsford ... it's in Essex ... a long way from Harrow. But it didn't take days to get here."

"I've always lived in our house. My mum comes from Chiswick, that's in London. But my dad comes from Harrow."

"I don't know where my mum and dad are from ... but I think I was born in Essex. Do you like coming to school on our own, Paulie?"

"It's all right, I suppose."

"I like it when it's just you and me best! Do you want to be my boyfriend, Paulie?"

"Mmm ... all right! Do I have to kiss you, Penny?"

"No ... not if you don't want to! But holding hands is nice!"

"Yes, that's all right ... and kissing ... sometimes," said Paul, "Sometimes is all right..."

"Yes ... sometimes..."

"Well, here we are, Penny. Are we in the same class again?"

"Yes, Miss Jones' ... don't you remember."

"Oh, yes ... I remember now."

Considering the amount of energy expended, and the generally incau­tious nature of its users, it's a wonder that there aren't more accidents in a primary school playground.

Seven year old Paul Jennings stood helplessly by as his best friend and next door neighbour, Penny Palmer, was sent sprawling by the accidental collision.

"I'm sorry, Penny ... are you all right?" the boy asked her.

Clearly she wasn't, as her tears attested. Paul had come sprinting across from where he stood alone. His friend was still on the ground.

"Don't cry, Pen!" He was almost in tears himself, such was his empathy for her.

"But it hurts, Paulie!" she sobbed.

As she had fallen forwards her instincts had made her put out her hands to stop herself falling on her face, and as a consequence these, together with her knees, had come off worse, after contacting the playground's surface.

"Can you stand up, Pen ... I'll take you to the nurse." It hurt, but despite the stinging feeling, the wounds were fairly superficial. "Penny's fallen over, Mrs Greening ... I'm taking her to the nurse," he said to the woman who had seen them walking slowly towards the school building.

"All right, Paul! Break will be over in a few minutes: you take Penny, then go back to your classroom. Tell Miss Jones I sent you with her."

"Do you have to go back, Paulie?" Penny asked him, tearfully, as they walked along the corridor.

"Mmm ... got to, Pen ... Mrs Greening says! But if you aren't back by dinner time, I'll come and get you."

"All right..." she said, in a small voice. Before he knocked on the nurse's door, he quickly kissed her cheek.

"You'll be all right, Pen ... I 'spect they'll wash the hurt places and then put plasters on ... that's what mum does when I fall over."

He knocked on the door and then they waited. After a little while a youngish woman in a blue nurse's uniform and a cardigan opened the door.

"Hello! And what have you done!" the nurse asked: although she had already seen Penny's abrasions.

"Please, Miss ... she fell over!"

"Don't you worry, Love ... I'll soon have you fixed up! What's your name?"

"Penny Palmer, Miss."

"Excuse me, Miss ... I have to go back to class now. I'll see you later, Pen!" She smiled and nodded.

"He's a nice boy!" the nurse said, "Is he your friend?" Penny nodded again.

"And what's your friend's name, Penny?"

"That's my Paulie!"

"Oh! A special friend!" the nurse exclaimed. Penny nodded yet again.

"I'm going to put something on your grazes, Penny: it might sting a bit, but not for long." Penny winced, but she didn't cry again. "That's it ... worst bit over! I'll just put some plasters on, to keep the dirt out. Now, do you want to wait here for a while or go back to your classroom?"

"Go back, please..."

"All right ... I'll walk back with you. Which class is it?"

"Class 5 ... Miss Jones."

Penny and Paul smiled as she took her place next to him.

When Stevie Palmer was ten he was taken to the Natural History Museum by his mother, as a birthday treat. Stevie's younger sister, Penny and her best friend and next door neighbour, Paul Jennings, went too: they were both eight. The adventure started at Harrow & Wealdstone Station, and ended after the children's first taste of the London Underground, in South Kensington.

The children were, as always, quite well behaved: except for Stevie's tendency to wander off on his own if he saw something that interested him; but as he was ten years old Mrs Palmer wasn't too worried about this. Also, as was natural for them, Paul and Penny stuck together ... her hand hardly ever leaving his from the moment that they left home.

It had been quite a few years since Christine Palmer had visited the museum herself, so knowing that her charges were all quite safe and sensible, she allowed herself to become engrossed in the exhibits. Thus it was that somehow mother, son, and two youngest children somehow lost touch with each other. Penny had wandered over to look at something, pulling Paul along with her, and it wasn't until she wanted to ask her mother something that she realised that she could no longer see her.

"Where's Mummy and Stevie, Paulie?"

"Hmm ... don't know ... but I don't suppose they're far away."

Although Penny wasn't alone, she found her mother's absence discon­cert­ing, and still holding her friend's hand tightly, she hurried off to look for her.

After several minutes of fruitless searching she was becoming quite distressed.

"Oh, where is she, Paulie!" He was sure she was about to cry and he could think of nothing worse than seeing her upset like this.

"Don't cry, Pen! ... My Mum says that if I ever get lost, I should just stop in one place and then they'll come and look for me ... I 'spect your mum will do the same thing."

He had always been quite a level-headed child, so taking the initiative, he gently led Penny over to somewhere that they could sit and wait to be found.

"Want some chocolate, Pen?"

The pretty blonde haired girl smiled feebly and nodded. Paul took the confection from his little backpack, broke it roughly in half and gave his friend the bigger piece.

Although it probably seemed longer than it was, they didn't have to wait too long before the sound of running feet alerted Penny to the approach of her brother, followed shortly after by the smiling parent.

"Hello, Darling! Are you all right?" Mrs Palmer asked her daughter. Penny smiled at her mother.

"Yes ... my Paulie's been looking after me!"

The rest of the visit carried on without further incident: although Penny now walked holding her mother's hand on one side and Paul's on the other. Towards the end of the afternoon, Mrs Palmer asked him if he would like to stay for the little birthday tea that she was giving her son: he hadn't wanted to invite anyone of his own age, but although he and Paul weren't exactly friends, Stevie had no objections to him attending the family celebration.

"Can Paulie stay over tonight, Mummy?" Penny asked her, "He can sleep in my bed with me."

Since Paul had done this several times since both of them were both five, Christine Palmer said that she didn't see why not.

"I'll give Carol a ring and make sure it's all right, but I don't think there'll be any problem." Carol was, of course, Paul's mother. As Mrs Palmer had assumed, it was fine. Paul was just told to collect his pyjamas when they got home.

Once back in Harrow the pyjamas were duly collected and then Penny and Paul played together until her father returned from work. The meal didn't differ too much from that which they normally ate in the evening ... it was just enhanced with a few extra treats that Stevie liked, plus the obligatory birthday cake with the appropriate number of candles.

After the meal everyone sat in the living room watching television: Stevie in one of the armchairs, his father in the other, and Penny between her mother and Paul on the sofa. Penny had been allowed to stay up later than usual, but by just after nine-thirty it was obvious that she was tired.

"I think it's your bedtime, Darling!" her mother announced, "You can have a bath tomorrow." The girl kissed first her mother then her father, then waited for Paul.

"Goodnight," he said, "Thank you the tea, Mrs Palmer."

"You're very welcome, Love! Goodnight to you, too!"

Penny and Paul undressed, leaving their clothes neatly on the chair in Penny's room. They stood at the sink in the bathroom and brushed their teeth before returning to the bedroom and climbing into bed. Penny got as close to her friend as she could get. She kissed him lightly and briefly on the lips, then she gave a big yawn, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

Chapter 2 »

Story tagged with:
mt/ft / boy / girl / Romantic / Fiction / Slow /