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My primary school was placed in an area where the council housed the elderly people who weren't incapacitated enough to need care. There was row on row of bungalows - little houses with no stairs and nice, easy to maintain, little gardens, filled with pink and white little old ladies, in tweed skirts and twin-sets.

Except Mr Poole's house. Mr Poole was the local 'mad bloke'. His garden was wild and untended, and the curtains in his house never seemed to be open. He shuffled around, unshaven and unkempt, dressed in a collection of clothes than any scarecrow woud have turned his nose up at. And he muttered to himself constantly, an unceasing flow of conversation, animated, but inaudible.

Of course, to the kids at the school, like me, he was the bogeyman.

We would run past his house, never walk. We would never, never catch his eye, in case he 'got us'. I don't know what we thought he would do with us - the horror was non-specific, but even so, horror there was.

One day, when I wa eleven, I was walking home, late-ish in the afternoon. I'd stayed late for something - a netball practice, a rehearsal with the choir or something like that, and so I was alone, not in the usual sea of bodies.

I turned down the alleyway that was my shortcut and halfway along I ran smack into Mr Poole, standing in the middle of the path. I couldn't get past him on either side, unless he moved, and to turn around and run away would have felt wrong and rude, and I couldn't have done that, it wasn't how I'd been brought up.

He looked into my face.

"Will you talk to me?" he asked.

"Mum doesn't like me to talk to strangers," I replied.

"You know who I am, and I know who you are," he said. "You're the school secretary's daughter, and you are captain of the netball team. I'm not a stranger."

I couldn't really argue with that, so I said "Okay."

For the next twenty minutes, he talked at me. Not to me, because he didn't seem to need me to make any kind of response. Sometimes what he was saying was clear, and I could follow him easily; other times it rambled off the topic and made no sense at all. Every so often he'd stop altogether, look at me and ask again "Will you talk to me?" I just nodded.

I was so scared. I didn't dare say "No" in case he got angry and did whatever it was that mad blokes did do to their helpless victims, so I just kept nodding and saying "uh-huh" at what I thought were the right places.

In the end though, I had to say something.

"Um, Mr Poole, I have to go. I'm late and Mum will be getting worried."

He smiled at me. "Yes, you're right," he said, "you're a nice little girl, you know, a good girl. Tell your mum that." And he stood aside and let me past.

I walked to the end of the alleyway, and then I ran all the way home (and it was a long way too) as fast as my legs would carry me. My mum hugged me, and said I'd done the right thing, when I told her.

Mr Poole had got me and I'd escaped. It was the talk of the school for days.

I'd like to say that the incident made me realise that he was just a sad, lonely old man, harmless and a little senile, and showed me how scared people always were of any little oddity - how we demonise the different. I wish I could tell you that I showed some compassion and went to visit him afterwards, to ease his loneliness.

But I didn't. I just gloried in my escape.

In wasn't until much later I understood how badly we'd treated Mr Poole, simply because he wasn't the traditional grandfatherly type of old person - and worse, how our parents had tacitly approved of this treatment -- they had certainly never discouraged it.

Revelations don't always come until years after the event - often when they are too late to be of use. But one lesson I did learn - I help my daughter to challenge assumptions and fears and to try to discover if they have any basis in fact. Hopefully, she'll grow up less close-minded than I did.

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