Summer 1973 –
Bean is not a good name for a boy. In fact, it’s not a good name for anything. Bean’s parents have never told him why they named him after a vegetable. For some unfathomable reason, one year after Bean was born his parents got a Springer Spaniel and called it Bob. Bean and Bob grew up to be great friends despite the boy being envious of the dog’s name. When Bean was eleven years old, Bob leapt from the back of a farm truck and into a river that swept him away. It was a sad day. A week later Bean met Mandy Brown, the farm-owners daughter. Mandy is a better climber than Bean, but he can ride his bike faster.
Bean is about to be thirteen and something strange is going on. His parents have not yet asked him what he wants for his birthday. Does he want friends round? Actually he doesn’t, except Mandy. Does he want a new bike? His parents said months ago that they would get him a new bike when he reached thirteen. Not that he ever thought he would reach thirteen, not after the series of accidents that have recently befallen him. First, he burnt his hand on the stove in the kitchen. The following day he left the kitchen door open and four cows wandered in from the adjacent farm-yard and nearly trampled him to death. A while later he fell into the bull-pit and was saved by Bill Bright, the cowman. Two days ago he was pecked by a chicken and then tripped over a flowerpot outside Ted’s door. Ted was not pleased at all as the flower-pot broke. ‘That’s a daft place to put it,’ Bean shouted, trying to avoid Ted’s arms which were waving about as if he were swatting a thousand flies. ‘I’ll tell your dad,’ said the grumpy old man. Yesterday, while playing alone in one of the tractor sheds, he stumbled upon a nest of rats, some were as big as a cat. They didn’t seem too bothered by Bean. He thought he was going to be eaten alive. When he told Mandy she laughed. Bean sulked until Mandy tickled his neck with a long blade of grass and found a huge grasshopper which she let Bean keep in his jar.
Bean is sitting on his bed listening to the milking machine and Bill Bright’s whistling. Now and again a cow interrupts with a loud moo. Three large, black flies are banging their heads against the bedroom window. Bean stands up and opens the window for them but the flies buzz back into the bedroom. ‘If I get a bike for my birthday, Mandy will have to get a new one too,’ he says to himself. His dad has not yet left for work and has turned the radio on. The music distracts Bean who wants to think about what sort of bike his parents might have ordered him. ‘It better not have a basket on the front. Mrs Pink said I shouldn’t be doing mum’s shopping.’ Bean sits back down on his bed. ‘I wish dad wouldn’t listen to that classical stuff. Mrs Pink said poor people don’t listen to classical stuff, they listen to pop music. Mrs Pink knows quite a lot.’
‘Come down for toast,’ Bean’s mum shouts from the kitchen. ‘And bring your dirty washing with you’, she adds. Bean’s dirty washing is spread across the floor and takes several minutes to gather together. When he arrives in the kitchen his mum rolls her eyes. ‘I haven’t seen you wear a single item of those clothes, in fact, you’ve been wearing the same clothes all week. I told you to change last night, don’t you remember?’ Bean shrugs his shoulders. He sits at the table. His toast has gone soft. ‘You put too much butter on,’ he says. His dad smiles and puts his cap on. ‘I’m off now,’ he says. He kisses Bean’s mum and lightly punches Bean’s arm. ‘It’s your birthday soon,’ he says, as he disappears into the farmyard. ‘Don’t let the flies in,’ Bean’s mum shouts.
‘You should ask for a television for your bedroom,’ says Mandy, as they sit on a wall watching Mandy’s horse run about like a lunatic. Mandy is already a teenager, by three months. ‘Mum says that when I’m fourteen I’ll be allowed a television,’ says Bean. Mandy has a television, a record-player and a piano in her bedroom. ‘I think I’m going to call my horse Boris,’ says Mandy. ‘My dad said that I should have found a name for it by now.’ She smiles and then mimicking the voice of her dad she says: ‘You’ve had the bloody thing three months.’ Bean doesn’t like Mandy’s dad or the horse. Boris bites. He bites very hard. Mandy sighs. ‘I don’t know why I wanted a horse. I could have had a dog like you,’ she says.
Bean’s new dog is called Squit. It had diarrhoea for the first week after it was picked up. It hates being outdoors as it’s afraid of cows and chases tractors until it’s sick. It stays in the garden and goes mad with joy when Bean gets home. ‘Do you think it’ll be okay to say bloody in front of my parents when I’m a teenager?’ says Bean. Mandy laughs. ‘My dad doesn’t mind and my mum just frowns a little,’ says Mandy. ‘It’s up to you really. Most men swear but you don’t have to. I’m not sure I like swearing. My dad does it all the time. It makes him seem angry.’
Bean and Mandy walk along the track that leads to the bridge over the disused railway line. It’s a fine, sunny day. Bean can see his dad on his tractor cutting grass. He feels proud of his dad when he sees him at work. None his friends have dads who drive such huge machines. Mandy stops beside a bank of stinging nettles and dares Bean to grab one and pull it up with his bare hands. Bean puts his hand out and then withdraws it. ‘I’m not stupid,’ he says.
They continue their journey along the dusty track to the bridge. Bees and wasps buzz by as they stand and look down at the rusting railway lines below. ‘Something funny’s going on at home,’ says Bean, as he presses his arm onto the old railings of the bridge to see what pattern it might leave on his skin. ‘I think they’re divorcing or something. They’re acting strange. Mum keeps getting angry with the calendar and dad is far more cheerful than usual. Mum’s also been redecorating the spare bedroom and put bars in the window. We’ve had loads of deliveries of big boxes and they all get hidden away. Mum cries when the boxes arrive and sends me down to the shop so I don’t see her. It’s definitely nothing to do with my birthday. She says its hay fever.’ Mandy is silent for a few moments. ‘I hope they don’t divorce because your mum will move out and take you with her. It happens all the time,’ she says. ‘The bars in the window make no sense. Are they to keep people out or keep people in?’
Bean’s mum is called Cheryl. Bean likes to hear her name being spoken by others. She fries fish-fingers, which Bean hates as he prefers them grilled, and she always buys smooth peanut butter, which annoys Bean’s dad as he prefers crunchy peanut butter. She serves cabbage with almost everything. Bean expects one day to be served cabbage with cherries and custard. Cheryl is always busy doing housework and never has time to play monopoly. She is obsessed with fruit and forces Bean to eat three portions a day. Despite these things, she’s special. There’s no other mother quite like her. She’s beautiful and always smells nice except when she’s been cleaning the rabbit hutches. She smiles even when she’s not smiling.
Bean’s dad is called Ronnie. He has big muscles on his arms and wears a cap. Sometimes he forgets he’s got his cap on and sits watching television with it stuck on his head. He works on Mr Brown’s farm driving tractors, a combine harvester and the farm truck. Ronnie is also an inventor and has turned the big cellar under the house into a workshop. He is currently designing an airship. He built a car once that ran on sewage. It smelt horrible and was banned by the local council. He’s a funny man and makes people laugh. His mother, the grandmother Bean has never seen, is in prison for embezzlement. Bean doesn’t know what embezzlement is but thinks it sounds pretty awful.
Mandy wants to put the tent up in the garden camp out overnight. The Brown’s have a huge garden which overlooks the hop fields. Mandy wants to put the tent up near the big greenhouse where the grape vines are. She wants Bean to sleep in the tent with her and has dragged him up to her house to discuss the matter with her parents. Both parents say no. ‘I don’t want to hear any more about it,’ says her mum. Mandy pushes Bean forward. ‘You really want to don’t you Bean.’ Bean smiles. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I think it’s a good idea because of the fresh air,’ he mutters. He doesn’t know what else to say. ‘I mean,’ he continues, ‘it’s not so fresh indoors.’ Mandy’s dad looks up from his newspaper and grunts. ‘I suppose more fresh air will help you concentrate on your piano lessons and help you choose a name for that bloody horse.’ He grunts again. Mandy chuckles. ‘Of course dad,’ she says, ‘It’ll help me concentrate more.’ Mandy’s mum frowns. ‘I’ll leave the back door unlocked, just in case you get frightened.’