Having spent the Second World War with his adored mother Lizzie in their country village, ten-year-old Lewis Aldridge is thrilled to welcome Gilbert, the father he barely knows, from the fighting. Unlike free-spirited, gin-loving Lizzie, Gilbert is reserved but Lewis is not an unhappy child, making a special friend of Kit, rebellious daughter of Gilbert's partner Dicky Carmichael. Then disaster strikes. Lizzie drowns in a swimming accident, for which Lewis feels largely responsible, and, within the year, Gilbert has married the younger Alice, who tries to befriend Lewis though the boy feels alienated, a state which continues into his teens and he hits out at anybody who criticizes his mother. His only friend, Kit, is herself damaged whilst Alice unsuccessfully tries to keep Lewis's self-harming from his father. A despairing Lewis finds himself in a church where he starts a fire and he is imprisoned for two years for arson.
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