Consuming day

“Happy Christmas.” First words. An hour with the depressing Booker prize winning book already done, and the shower had, and back into bed for the only time in the year when it seems right not to get up.
Stocking: the first in fifty years. Not the old army sock of pre-boarding-school days, but a designer red felt one with Christmas images, bought online and carried from London. Contents include two bags of chocolate pennies, a kilo of assorted sweets (no gift vouchers for the dentist) in quarter-pound bags, chosen carefully to include American hard gums, midget gems, Pomfret cakes and licorice cuttings, all favourites. A jar of Marmite, which has been bespoke-labeled ‘poppa-bear’ by the enterprising company which owns the brand and understands it’s deep-seated emotional connection to it’s consumers, and a ski face and lip cream tube on a string to go around the neck (very handy if there’s snow this year). Oh, yes, and a matchbox containing a small metal puzzle which is a right brain waker-upper on Christmas morning. A stocking, rich in personal connection, chosen with care and love. Christmas is spelling out that you are loved, that people care for and about you and want you to be happy. Christmas is cutting through the crusty crust of curmudgeonly crankiness. Learn to forget your history. Learn to drink the sweet perfumed drink and learn to re-hydrate. You always suffered from too little fresh water.
Downstairs first, to feed the cat which is oblivious of the day’s significance, and there’s a strong smell of something burnt in the kitchen. This could have been caused by a fire from a candle left burning last night; there were so many to blow out it would have been easy to miss one, hiding near the tree. But then perhaps we would not have woken to Christmas morning at all. But that smell is more distinctive than candle wax. It’s a bowl of cooked potatoes, which went into the aga with the goats cheese and chestnut tart at six on Christmas eve, but didn’t come out at six twenty, with the tart. Fifteen hours’ baking may have been more than they needed. Charcoal bullets, which have their own special beauty.
Then it’s orange juice and coffee, to clear the head, though there is no sign of a hangover from Christmas eve, which is exceptional. Two pints of KPA in the Market Bar and home by around nine, then out again around ten to collect herself and finishing up with the finals of Masterchef on the planner (not a cremated potato in sight) and bed before Santa squeezed his adjustable girth down the flue into the wood burning stove and stared out helplessly through the locked glass door.
Breakfast is American-style blueberry pancakes and maple syrup and crispy streaky bacon, which, frankly, is enough food for one day. The pile of wrapped presents sits under the tree, expectant. Does that mean they are pregnant? Expecting presents. Yes we are expecting… the pancakes sit on our paunches. The anticipation is by far the best part of present-opening, and we have to anticipate them for an hour while Tanya showers and dresses in smarter clothes than usual and then we’re at the boxes and wrappers and even the cat is aware of the excitement as he raises his game to play catch the mouse with some gold ribbon. Would it be un-ambitious to limit ourselves to this sort of amusement?
“I’ve got you a ball of string for Christmas”
“Oh what fun, thanks. Here’s your charcoal potato sculpture.”
“You shouldn’t have. “
Gifts include: An Italian-style coffee maker which does everything but drown out conversation in the way they do in most cafes, a voucher for Amazon Kindle to provide reading material for Cambodia, A CD of someone I’d not heard of, but when played, I knew – one of the changes that come with deafness (or more likely from the reduced attentiveness to new things) – you absorb the world by subliminal means, because it is there in the background, but you don’t usually attend enough to pin it down in conscious ways. That, of course might be seen as a higher plain of existential being. The cloud of unknowing. The words cloud and unknowing hold great significance if you can concentrate on them long enough to think about their meaning.
Then there’s a video of Michael Macintire, who’s made a gazillion from clean humour while all about him are deep in effluvia, a book of Times Newspaper’s almost impossible Sudoku puzzles, a share in a vase, and a large box of Black Magic, and two Japanese-style serving bowls, and not to forget the box of miniature table-tennis which will be aired tomorrow, perhaps.
The handbag and diary went down well. The kitchen knife block and chopping board also. The collection of adult Ladybird books caused suitable amusements and watching the unwrapping of perfumes and ear-muffs, fancy socks, the cosmetics brushes and CDs and other odds and ends was as good as opening my own presents. All in all, for three people exchanging gifts, a veritable hoard.
And then it was time to start the phone calls of the day, interspersed with texts and whatsapps and FB messages and all the other alternatives to speaking. So much choice. The calls are placed and returned and lunches are interrupted and phones passed around. The news is positive – one can’t very well be on a downer today. Don’t tell them about the bad days. If you tell them about the floods, make light and pep it up with humour. If you feel irritated about the bitter undercurrent in someone’s repartee, or the lack of interest in their exchanges, gloss over it all. Re-awaken your interest in their travels or the plan for their retirement, or the convalescence they’re going through, or the achievements of their children, or the presents they received, and their grandchild’s level of advancement and outrageously amusing behaviour. Take the trouble to ask about those parts of their lives you spend the year ignoring – their house renovations and the job they do, the implications of the political climate for their safety, and how 2016 will be for them. It’s Christmas, and these are people you have shared a lot of Christmases with.
One of the texted greetings results in a spur of the moment invitation to a friend’s house. Driving there involves turning back to avoid a flood in Browns Mills and driving through another in Jagoes Mills, but the greeting is effusive and the prosecco cold and the conversation engaging and the re-engagement uplifting. Turning down an invitation to share their turkey on the grounds we have a duck to get through means running through the downpour at three and driving back through the pelting rain beside the torrential, swollen streams to some leftover chestnut tart from last night, topped with slices of buffalo haloumi, and tea, and an afternoon of dozing in front of Christmas movies and preparation for the duck and six vegetables with champagne and red wine, and more phone calls and more old films and more tea and desultory conversation and then the day is done. Christmas. Who’d miss it?

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Nativity

Dorothy moved to the kitchen, and poured another J&B into the small tumbler. Just a snifter and then she’d start the lunch. The turkey would have to do one more meal, though God knows it had been dry as cardboard on Christmas Day. Jane had had to rescue it while Dorothy locked herself in her room and cried, and only the four of them and the baby sat down to all the trimmings, and the home service on the wireless playing hark the bloody herald angels again. She shouldn’t have gone for a twelve pounder really, with the boys away and Jane being on yet another of her diets, picking at her sprouts. If she’d known rationing, she wouldn’t be taking it into her head to look like Twiggy. She’d eat her semolina and jam and be grateful.
Dorothy lit another Senior Service with the Wedgewood lighter, took a mouthful of scotch through the smoke and rummaged in the vegetable rack for enough spuds for six including Lizzy, who could eat them mashed with gravy. Those’ll never do us. Drew is always so ravenous these days. She shouted up the stairs to Jane to run to Cullens for her before it closed for lunch, but there was no response. She started up the four flights, and on the first landing, passed the baby’s room. Its smell of talcum hardly masked the ten dirty nappies in the bucket by the door; another job she should have done yesterday. Five years of washing nappies out of the last sixteen. Rinsing your childrens’ shit, washing and ironing their clothes, cleaning up after them. She could’ve been a doctor if she hadn’t been pregnant with Drew before the finals. And now she had five and no support. Her mother had never liked the children when they were small. That was probably down to her being adopted and one of ten, out in the railway cottage in Ffestiniog. She told Dorothy once she was born Olive Christmas but had become Peggy Franks. She’d lost her nativity.
Another flight and past the open door to Tom’s austere grey sanctum; the king sized bed with its rock hard mattress. Not that she’d been in to him for as long as she could remember. She could hear his snoring from the doorway, and she stepped quietly into the room to study his heavy features as he lay on his back, with his shoes off. The room was more of an office really, dominated by his desk. The unopened packet of Embassy in the top draw for the last two years said it all. The bastard was always in control of his emotions. Like that bitch of a mother, Miriam. Mamushu. He still calls her ‘mummy’ at 45. Twenty years since he got her out of Poland and she still won’t speak proper English. Never good enough for her golden boy. “My Tomasz vos top of zee cless, you know”.
Dorothy left the room without waking him. Give him a few more minutes. Give her a bit of peace and quiet.
Standing silently on the landing, she thought of Tom’s body. She tried to remember how much she’d wanted him at the start, but all she could think of was Michael, her first lover, and her first time. It was at Miss Dawes’ house when they were both evacuated from London in forty-two. She was sixteen and he fifteen, and neither had had any experience before. It had been tentative, delicate in the beginning, but like a bonfire of dry kindling, it had become a blaze in almost no time. Something just threw them at each other, and they couldn’t fight it. That summer was idyllic. Hot afternoons cycling the South Downs, evenings in the orchard, nights slipping quietly between his room and hers.
She’d gone back to London and joined the Waafs, before being accepted to study medicine at Guys. While she was dodging air-raids in Bloomsbury she’d met Tomasz, resplendent in the uniform of the Polish Free Army. He’d struck Dorothy as sophisticated and brilliant, and she’d quickly been whisked off her feet. By the time she saw him in a different light, they were married and she was pregnant, and he quickly lost his appeal.
She’d have to wake him to go and collect Joe from the Abbey, as she just didn’t feel up to the drive. She felt so tired. He was snoring loudly now. Always snoring. Falling asleep in his dinner, drooping over the steering wheel, the car swerving, snoring over the papers, snoring through The Forsyte Saga. Her mother-in-law, Miriam, hadn’t told her about Tom having been diagnosed with narcolepsy till after they were married. They couldn’t go to the theatre or cinema without him snoring like a drunk, or falling across the person sitting beside him. If only Miriam had told her sooner, it would have been a sure way to stop the marriage Miriam didn’t want, and save them all a lot of heartache.
She and Michael hadn’t seen one another for almost twenty years after Rottingdean. Then, quite by chance, they’d run into one another at a teachers’ conference and it had been like digging in embers and finding glowing coals. For almost ten years, they’d met for a night or a weekend every few months, between the births of his children and hers, between his commitments and hers.
The last time had been in Lyme Regis, over a year ago. “We can’t do this any more.” He’d said that before, but this time, she knew was their last. She’d tried to hide her stretch marks under the sheet in their pale blue room with sea views. God knows why. Michael and his wife had eight, so he’d seen it all before.
And now Michael had decided to stop and was gone from her life, like everything good. The only man she’d truly loved. “God, what’s it all for? What’s the point?”
She stood on the landing by the door to her own room, and felt like going to lie down, but forced herself to pass it, instead opening the airing cupboard opposite and taking out sheets for Joe’s bed, which she’d stripped six weeks earlier after half term and forgotten to make up yesterday . Another flight to Jane’s room, and that incessant rock and roll music. For three days now she’d played that Rolling Stones LP non-stop, lying on the carpet with paper and pencil, transcribing the lyrics to Satisfaction and a song called Mother’s Little Helper. What was that about?
“You, Dorothy” Jane had muttered. She was a right little madam these days; fighting for her independence, staying out after ten, snogging boys, spending hours in the bathroom. And now she’d started calling me Dorothy, not mummy, since Drew had almost choked Tom by using his first name over the Christmas pudding. Very funny really. Tom didn’t think so. Children should be seen and not heard.
“I’ve been shouting up the stairs for ages. Turn that off, and nip out to Cullens for me, will you, and pick up some spuds and carrots?”
“What’re we having? Not turkey again?”
Dorothy smiled, and knowing the shopping would have to wait till the end of side two, she closed the door on
Men just aren’t the same today
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t appreciate that you get tired….
One more flight and into the boys’ room. Jeremy wouldn’t be home for another couple of days from Worcester, but Westminster’s term ended on the 28th, after all the carol services. She might as well make up both beds, and sort out their presents. God knows who was due what. Every year she wrapped the gifts in one roll of paper, and forgot to label them, so the easiest thing was to buy interchangeable presents, lead farm animals for Joe and infantrymen for Jeremy, or the other way around. Twenty years since the war and still they play Tommies and Gerries.
While she made the beds, she listened to Drew strumming the opening bars of House of the Rising Sun in the next room, and then his voice, mimicking Eric Burdon’s nasal twang:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun….
It must have been months since she’d been in his room. At sixteen he forbade it and she respected that, though God knows what it smelt like. It was all she could do to get his dirty washing off him, and there was precious little of that since his Dylan uniform was rarely changed. She hummed The times they are a-changin’ as she tucked in the flanelette sheets.
On her way back down, she stopped at Tom’s room, balancing the small pile of presents on the bannisters and went in to wake him. It always amazed her how he woke into full consciousness after a short sleep, and pretended not to have slept.
“Can you drive in to collect Joe? I’m too busy.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.” He swung his legs to the floor and stood straight into his shoes. She touched his sleeve, briefly, while she searched his dull gaze for some sign of affection, and then turned and left the room
She brought Joe’s bag of presents down to the lounge. This peaceful room was her haven. Its high Victorian skirting, William Morris wallpaper from Sandersons, and framed prints of Utrillo and Canaletto hanging over the marble mantlepiece. She still loved the faded gold velvet curtains, and her 1895 Bechstein, waiting silently for her in the bay window. The tree was lying in the back garden. Up on Christmas Eve, down on Boxing day, its needles hoovered away and order returned to the room. When had she lost her nativity?
She went over to the lounge phone and lifted the receiver and listened to the constant buzz of the available line. Blandford 11527. She had the number embedded in her memory. Dial and listen.: if he answered, say “hi, it’s me,” if she answered, put the phone down or say “sorry, wrong number,” though Janice would recognise her voice, even after all these years. She listened to the buzz without dialling and after a few seconds, replaced the receiver.
She picked up the parcels from the velvet-covered sofa. At least there were no stockings this year. Not that they had ever been stockings. Rather Tom’s old army socks, stuffed late on Christmas eve with an orange, a chocolate penny, a Groucho mask and a bag of marbles or whatever. Oh yes, and those bloody tubs of fairy liquid with a plastic ring attached to the lid.
She arranged Joe’s few parcels in the corner of the lounge, on the Indian rug, and sat on the embroidered piano stool, resting her hands on the ivory keys before gently picking out a few chords from the Beethoven score already open. Piano Sonata Number 57, the Appassionata, slow movement. She struggled through the sonata and then the andante from Mozart’s piano concerto, the Elvira Madigan. Then she sat, smoking, drifting, before flicking back through the score to find the Moonlight, Michael’s favourite.
She stopped playing when she heard the running steps of the small boy, and looking up, saw Joe in his grey flannel shorts and grey shirt, grey v-neck and striped blue and gold tie, slightly askew. He stopped still, framed in the doorway, looking across the room at her. Hesitant, smiling. She felt lightheaded, almost sick with his anticipation and her emptiness. She so desperately wanted to hold onto that moment, to frame it as a memory. In that rosy bubble. With Michael.
He looked over to the small pile of presents in the corner. She stood up. She stubbed out her cigarette in the large glass ashtray on the piano. She left the room as quickly as possible, unable to bear the look of hope on his face, unable to stay and see it through.

Gifts

There was a good chance of snow in the morning, and they would be alone till lunchtime, when Jane’s parents were due. She’d the turkey stuffed and the ham glazed, and sitting in the dark with only the tree lights and the glow of the stove, Jane knew this Christmas was going to be special.
She thought of her mum, struggling with her arthritic hands to wrap the aftershave she bought John every year, and dad out polishing the car ready for the morning. She hoped the snow wouldn’t put them off the drive, or she’d be packing the turkey in tin foil like last year, and John would be raging about having to head out.
Still, they’d have the morning together, alone. They’d lounge in bed till she couldn’t keep him from his email or disappearing into the garden on his mobile. Nichole was her name; Jane had seen it on his texts. She wasn’t the first, but she’d be the last. This time, it would be different.
Jane was pregnant, after ten years of trying, and had only taken her second test yesterday. She’d gone straight out and bought a baby’s rattle and wrapped it for John, to go under the tree. She’d held her silence, even though she was desperate to tell him, pretending an upset stomach so as to refuse mulled wine at the neighbours’ drinks do. She was ecstatic at the news, after all the wasted hopes and the years of the clinic, and the wedge which trying had put between them. But now they could come back together and share their love again, and forget Nichole.
“No. I’m sorry I just can’t tell her before Christmas, I just can’t. She seems so happy and she’ll be devastated. Yes, I know it would, but we’ll all be together next year.” John was standing in the garden on his mobile, freezing and miserable. “How are you feeling? Have you been sick again this morning?” He’d been seeing Nichole for the last year, on and off. Jane had been so depressed by the whole IVF thing, and he couldn’t take the claustrophobic atmosphere at home. “I’ll tell her on Stephens Day, I promise, and I’ll be with you then, but you have to let me do this right.”
In truth, John had long since lost any hope of fatherhood, and Nichole had been no more than a distraction. And now she was pregnant, and John couldn’t imagine the hurt it would cause Jane, who’d wanted only that for so long.
Nichole had bought another pregnancy test kit today, and the result was negative, and part of her was relieved. Even if John said he was ready to take on the twins, Nichole wasn’t sure she could cope with another yet. She could have told him about the test just now, but she wanted someone to look after her, and tomorrow she’d be waiting for him to call and she’d be wondering if he’d come.

Dinner party

‘OK, so it’s two gins and tonic and one white wine, one red and a water. Tap or sparkling?’ All smiles and distraction. They’re new here and he’s wondering if they want to be here, whether they weighed up the invitation in their scheme of things. They seem OK and it is only five minutes in, after all. One is very talkative, and the other has launched into an intense and quiet conversation across the room. The lights are down low and the room is filled with innumerable candles, tea-lights, Christmas tree lights and small flashing displays. It is a festive dinner
“Will I open a new one or do you have one open?”
“Use the one in the fridge door – yes. It’s a white rioja. What’re you drinking? More gin?’
‘No I haven’t decided, but probably the red.’
He busies himself with the drinks and she takes coats and the new guy is commenting on the tree, which is a suitable backdrop for the Christmas dinner – not as in turkey and the trimmings, but the respectable gathering of friends and new singletons who’ve landed in the town, without any roots. This is how they pitched it, how it was going to be. They might have had old friends and the conversation might have been more dangerous or heart-felt. They might have had just two and their exposure to truth more evident.
‘So Marie this is Jeremy. Jeremy has just moved to Wandleford and he’s renting out by the Oak. Marie is up by the church, Jeremy. She’s been here… How long have you been in Wandleford, Marie?
‘Oh, I’ve been here since the spring, but I’m hardly ever around. I travel a lot, as I’m involved in a number of international NGOs and the WHO and UNHCR, on behalf of the donors. What do you do Jeremy?’
‘Thanks. I’ll have red. I’m between jobs, I suppose you’d say. I…’
‘Hi Guys!’ That’s the familiar greeting for the sandwich filling, the friends who get on with people, who are here to ensure that the newbies are made to feel welcome, and to talk about how they grew up in Wandleford and how nice it can be out of season when the tourists have disappeared, even if it is cold and wet. They’re the sort of people who always make an effort and usually bring good gossip. They’re energised and they know what they want. These people say a lot about Wandleford before they start to talk.
‘Have one of these warm cheesy things from M and S’ He offers round the plate of warm cheesy things from M and S which are not only delicate and light, but tasty and elegant. They really have perfected the nibble. They understand their target market of time poor cash rich entertainers with standards. These are the perfect nibbles to slake their hunger in the hour when it is polite to drink a G and T, and even to accept a second, but impolite to talk shop, or to get stuck into a familiar conversation with someone you know well, when others you have never met are waiting to be introduced and not just to be served. This is the subtle time of maximising the use of one’s social skills to weigh up the dynamics. It is not a time to launch into a diatribe, or to spill the best stories, or even to ask any probing questions.
‘It’s been unbelievable. All the rain. Anyway, aren’t you about to go away somewhere hot?’
‘Yes, we’re… ‘
‘Oh Wow! That’ll be amazing. Are you looking forward to it?’
‘Yes, we’re…’
‘No, Melbourne was really full-on, but I had the most healthy experience I could have had, because I was barely in when I passed a cycle shop and went in and rented a bicycle. They had two yellow ones and a green one, so I rented the green one and while I was in there, I had a call from a friend I haven’t seen in ages who lives down town and he needed someone to make up his team at basket-ball, so the guy in the shop showed me how to get there and it was right across town, so I got on the bike and played basket-ball, and I was jet lagged, but it was great.’
‘Nigeria mostly. Have you ever been?’
‘No, I do worry about being attacked, but I’ve been many times and you get used to the corruption and…’
‘Do you think so? I never found that myself but I really enjoyed…’
‘I’m home for two weeks for Christmas and catch up with my friends and sleep and it’s lovely. No. I’m not there any more. I’m living in the South, and I’m working for this really great agency and I’m traveling a lot.’
‘Yes, I heard about it. It sounds fantastic…’
The nibbles are hoovered up and the fire in the sitting room glows white hot. The three parallel conversations are starting to blur into one intermingled cascade of words.
‘Brazil would be great… but they overcharge for medicines which cost a fraction of …I know. She’s always been like that… We’re planning to go walking in the jungle and sleeping in hammocks…. I’ll check on my database about the malarial strain and the best… no, they’re not as excited as all that but Ellie is only two… so he wrote his car off in a flood last week, and now they’re going to have to drive up north in her little runabout, and he hates being in a small car… We’ve booked a resort hotel by the Mekong…. Don’t forget the bread!”
It would be overly positive to say that the conversation flowed. It is fair to say that there was little time when any one of the participants was at a loss for words or for someone to listen to, or not. It was easy to seem like you were listening, to smile and nod and make pleasantries without actually processing anything. He looks at his hands while he talks. She looks you in the eye. He likes to push a forkful of food into his mouth while listening and she is staring straight at his mouth as he enunciates. Some ground is covered. Secrets shared. Insecurities aired. Jokes told, gossip spread. No challenges are laid down. Nobody firmly disagrees, because no-one cares deeply about the statements of others. Nobody is belittled intentionally, and little is misconstrued, but it may be hard to remember what is said when all is said and done.
The buffalo mozzarella balls, avocado slices in lemon juice and halved cherry tomatoes in vintage balsamic syrup and fresh basil have been followed by the great spectacle of the layered Chicken Fataya with its crisp pitta triangles and tomato puree, chickpeas and soaked basmati with dollops of Greek-style natural yoghurt, coriander and pine-nuts, and topped off with home-made chocolate brownies (the subject of some competitive banter in the kitchen during the afternoon), fruits of the forest and whipped cream. Not to mention the Baklava from Lidl. The wine has flowed, mostly down the gullets of the diners, but some into the recently purchased golden table runner. The tea has been made, because coffee will rouse the diners when they want to be subdued, and there is a harmony, replete with platitudes and shared jokes, with the mild one-upmanship of story-telling and a sense of social equilibrium. Everyone sits back and enjoys their performance, their self-control and affability. Some are still trying to finish their stories, and others are looking expectantly at their partners in view of the winding up and shipping out signals which are sent and received. It is the safe space between rushing and dawdling, between the acceptable and unacceptable stages of consumption, between muzzy headed and beligerent. It is the witching hour.
The goodbyes happen quickly, as two rush to get back for the puppy they’re babysitting which has probably chewed their furniture and crapped on the hearth rug, and the other two share a ride back to their singledom. Then the cleaning up starts and, with three pairs of hands, is finished double-quick time and only minor resentments over the washing up roles.

Joe and Mikey

In the winter of ’55 I became a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and boarder at the choir school. The school comprised only thirty six boys aged between eight and thirteen, whose rigid timetable included as much time at choir practice as in class. We were treated like army cadets, and discipline drove us. We were at an age then when war was on our minds. Most of our fathers had fought, and one boy had been born in ’46 after his father’s death in action. He always engendered sympathy when his mother came alone on exeat days to collect him for the three-hour excursion, while the rest of us were met by both parents. Sometimes I envied the drama of his father’s death.
Exeats were scheduled every third weekend, on a Saturday afternoon, and the boys looked forward to them with a passion. Three black marks on the board for bad behaviour between-times meant an hour less exeat, in detention, while our parents waited patiently outside in the car or strolled through the cloisters, and we lived in fear of losing that time with our families. The alternative was a beating by the headmaster, which was considered by the boys to be preferable to black marks. If we could have chosen, we’d all have chosen the corporal punishment over the emotional one, but the headmaster gave beatings for more severe misdemeanors like theft or bullying, while a black mark was given by the masters for talking in class, or running in the corridors. Beatings took place in the headmaster’s study, after classes or in the evenings, with a variety of sticks or a cricket bat.
Francis Talbot, the headmaster, was a tall and serious man with bushy eyebrows and thinning hair. He had been a captain in the army, and as a fluent French speaker, he’d apparently been involved in some very secret missions in North Africa in ‘44. He had served in the Eighth Army, in Algiers, and we boys made up more stories than could possibly be true about his wartime exploits, and enacted Monty’s battles against the Gerries, involving sand dunes and imaginary grenades whose pins were always pulled in the teeth. Despite his severe style, and his military ways, Talbot was considered a fair and reasonable man, and his beatings were always meted out in the name of justice.
One evening, I had been dozing, listening to whispering further along the row of beds in the dormitory. It was a Wednesday in February, and the bare room was cold, so I had my blankets pulled well up to my ears, and the hospital corners I’d made up that morning, among the best in the dorm, held the bedclothes tight against my legs.
The dormitory, one of four, comprised 9 narrow iron bedsteads on a plain wooden floor, interspersed with upright chairs. Each boy had to fold his clothes on the chair according to specific instructions, much in the way soldiers in barracks might, and each was inspected for neatness before ‘lights out’. The bathrooms for each dormitory included two baths and six washbasins in one room, so each boy was scheduled one bath a week, often shared with another child, and we queued for the toilet before the final bell of the day was rung by the duty master. It was an old hand-bell with a long wooden handle, carried from room to room by its clanger and shaken in each at 7.30pm to signal lights out. Using the toilets after that was forbidden, and wetting the bed, while not uncommon, was the subject of merciless teasing. I wasn’t known as a bed-wetter, and if I cried at night, with homesickness or a sense of rejection, it was something I did silently, under the pillow.
Mikey Johnson, in the next bed to me, was shifting noisily. He’d just returned from the bathroom, where he’d been to wash himself, and was crying quietly. Wednesday was Clinch’s duty night, which meant Mikey had just had a visit, as he did most Wednesdays.
Mr Clinch, the maths master, or Fiddler, as we nicknamed him, liked to come to the dorm at around 10 at night, once the matron had left for the evening, and when most of the boys were asleep. He was a large man in his forties, with lank hair and long fingernails. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and a striped tie, hanging loosely over his paunch. He had a habit of pursing his lips, as if to blow a kiss, and he liked to hold boys by a shoulder while talking to them. Sometimes, when he came into the dormitory after lights out, he would just stand in the shadows, listening to the boys’ breathing and then leave silently in his crepe soled shoes.
Tonight, like many other Wednesday nights when I had been awake, Clinch stood over Mikey’s bed in silence, then slipped one hand beneath the covers to explore Mikey’s genitals, while he masturbated with the other. Tonight he’d made Mikey hold his penis when he came, breathing quickly and hard. I lay silently, shuddering in fear, unsure what exactly was happening, but knowing how scared my friend was. He’d told me this wasn’t the worst that could happen. That took place in Clinch’s bedroom on the top floor, under the eves. Now Clinch left Mikey in the bathroom and slid noiselessly from the room, presumably to go back to his own bed.
*
For over a year, Mikey’s life had been plagued by Clinch, and sometimes by a couple of his friends, who were not working at the school, but who seemed friendly with most of the staff, helping out with school trips and sports events. Mikey had always been a quiet boy, and the rumour was that his father had committed suicide when Mikey was a baby. I liked him for his gentleness, and he was generous with his pocket money when it came to the weekly trip to the tuck shop. We shared a private language and spent the hour of free time after prep each evening together, either on the roof playground, or in the school cellars, hiding from Loats, the school caretaker. Loats cleaned the boys’ shoes, and often bought Mikey sweets in exchange for some sort of game he played with him in the boiler room that Mikey wouldn’t talk about. The boys who knew about Clinch and Loats often speculated about whether they were in it together, whether Loats learned from Clinch about Mikey or vice versa. I wondered why he got the attention of both men. It was as though they both sensed he was vulnerable and accessible – but then in all likelihood, they had talked about him.
Mikey was my best friend, and he was one of the choristers in the choir. The choirmaster was always giving him the most difficult solos, which we all coveted. He had made a name for his performance of the Allegri Misereri, with its top C, which was always the subject of stiff competition among the seniors, when he was only nine. He’d also been chosen to sing the unaccompanied opening of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ on our Christmas carols album that year. He was hoping to go on to Westminster School after his voice broke, where he could train to be a tenor, and later he might get into Kings Cambridge, which had the best choir in England. Everything depended on a scholarship, as his family wasn’t rich enough to pay the fees. Mikey was bright, but I was ahead of him in class, so I always helped him with his maths, and his status in the choir gave me a reflected kudos.
I had been to stay with Mikey in Essex during half-term once, when my parents were abroad, and I enjoyed time with his mother, who was lovely, but somehow fragile. She listened attentively, and unlike my own mother, she didn’t smell of cigarettes and whiskey. My parents were always rowing, and as the fourth child, I was left to my own devices a lot. Once, they’d forgotten to come to collect me on exeat day, and had to be phoned and reminded by Mr Talbot. I sat alone in the classroom waiting over an hour for them to drive into London, and cried in self-pity, till we went to the local Wimpy for the remaining time.
The first time Mikey confided in me about Clinch and his friends, he said he trusted me not to tell stories to the other boys, though I knew that others had witnessed the Wednesday night visits, and had said nothing. He’d told me some of the terrible things that Clinch’s friends had made him do, and though I felt powerless, I sometimes fantasised about calling the police. I had considered telling my mother about it, though she never listened to me about what went on at the school. My parents actively condoned the corporal punishment, so I was not sure they would see these activities as inappropriate. I couldn’t write home about it in my weekly letter, written on Sunday evening in ‘prep’, as all the letters were checked by the duty master, who was usually Clinch. Mikey and I often talked about running away from the school together and living in the forest, but the choir school was in the centre of London and neither of us had any idea of how to reach freedom.
Some days Mikey would be called to Clinch’s bedroom for an hour or more, and would return to the dorm in tears, unable to move in bed without moaning in pain. Other times, he’d be called out in class to stand beside the master’s desk so Clinch could run his hand up Mikey’s trouser leg in front of the whole class while they kept their heads down, pretending not to know what was being done.
Mikey wasn’t the only boy who received this attention. Several of us had many times been ‘tickled’ by Clinch up the trouser leg in class while asking for his help with a maths problem. There were boys who thought this was some sort of fun, some sort of affection, even courting the experience. But I knew from Mikey how it could lead to more painful and awful punishments, and so I always held back, even when I wanted help with my work. Only the senior boys, in their long trousers, were left in peace, and they called Clinch a ‘shirt-lifter’, though I didn’t know why.
“Why don’t you talk to your mum about it?” I had asked Mikey. “Surely if she knew what Fiddler was doing, she’d come in to see Talbot and get him into loads of trouble.”
“I once told her a bit of stuff and she hit me and told me I was lying. She cried a lot, and I don’t think there’s any point, as she won’t do anything. She’s scared of coming into the school to talk to Talbot,” he said. “She’s worried he’d expel me and she’d have to have me at a day school, so she couldn’t work full time.”
*
On this particular Wednesday night, I took a chance and left my bed to sit beside Mikey in the dark silent dormitory, and ask if he was OK. Unfortunately, I couldn’t scramble back into my own bed before the Matron, returning to the surgery for something, saw me and dragged me by the ear down to the headmaster’s office. I can still remember the terror I felt as we walked the long corridor to the study door. While beatings were fairly regular for some boys, I had not been subjected to any nighttime punishment, which I’d heard was far worse than the daytime beatings, because pyjamas were less protective than trousers.
I can still feel the warmth on my legs from the small curve-backed bar fire by the headmaster’s desk that night, and even now, after sixty years, I have the urge to cough from the musty smell of books and the distinct smoke which pervaded his study, from pipe tobacco that Mr Talbot always kept in his jacket pocket in a leather pouch. The room was small and tidy, with its mullioned window overlooking Smith Street below. It was lined with shelves of cream spined paperback books in French, and wide grey ring-binders inscribed ‘School Accounts 1948’ to ‘School Accounts 1954’. On the shelves in front of the books were several small tribal ornaments, a primitively carved crocodile which must have been painted at some stage, a naked woman in ebony, her breasts pointed and her neck encircled by many rings, and a pale elephant in bone or ivory.
Across the room, behind the closed door, hung a large framed world map in many colours, identifying post-war political powers, and a green baize pin-board covered in timetables and notices. I could see the arrangement of thumbtacks there which someone had made; the shape of a question-mark, and the head’s mortar board hanging on the hook beside it, with the long black silk threads of its tassel hanging down. The image is as sharp as a new photograph, a super-real memory carrying more detail than I would have been able to describe five minutes after leaving that room. It’s a memory charged with emotions I haven’t felt since that night.
It was to be six strokes on the buttocks through the pyjama bottoms, while touching one’s toes, in silence. If you cried out, you had more strokes. If you didn’t thank the headmaster and apologise formally after the beating, that also resulted in more strokes. Six was the normal punishment for ‘talking after lights out’ in the dormitory.
“So, Weiner, what were you talking to Johnson about?”
I was surprised to have been asked anything before the beating. I didn’t expect to have any chance to explain myself.
“Nothing, sir. It’s just he was crying and I was checking he was OK, sir.”
I decided to say this much in the hope that the Head would understand I was only trying to be kind to Mikey.
“And what was he crying about?”
This question, which I saw coming, left me little choice. Either I’d have to lie, and perhaps be caught out because Mikey and I hadn’t worked out our story together, or to tell enough of the truth to help him, and myself, without spilling the whole story, which I just couldn’t bring myself to describe to the headmaster.
“Mikey…. Johnson, sir… well, Mr Clinch was… well sir, he was crying because he was upset by Mr Clinch, who was by his bed, sir.”
Was it enough? I couldn’t bring myself say more.
“What was Mr Clinch doing by his bed?”
And there it was, the perfect chance to tell the Head and be able to say later I’d had no choice.
“I don’t know sir. He was… well he was sort of undressed a bit, sir. He made Johnson…” “What did he make him do? Come on, out with it.”
“He, er, made him touch his thing, sir.”
And that was it. I couldn’t think of how else to say it, and somehow I just knew I had to say it. Talbot was silent. The cane lay untouched on the desk. He sat straight-backed at my side, his head slightly bowed. I thought then that I had done something right and in exchange, would be excused the beating.
Finally he spoke. “OK, Weiner, bend over.”
I was shocked to find out that the punishment was going ahead, despite my excuse for talking. I felt a huge injustice was happening, and I became angry, as I silently clutched my legs and heard the swish of the cane. I felt very little pain, and when I stood to say ‘thank you sir’ and ‘I’m sorry I talked after lights out’, Talbot could see my defiance.
“I know you consider that you should not be beaten for helping your friend, but you broke one of the rules, and if I didn’t punish you, others would feel free to break the rules. Nevertheless, you did the right thing in telling me what happened. Your honesty does you credit. I’ll trust you to keep this to yourself. Just you remember that there is no talking after lights out. If I hear you’ve been spreading gossip, you’ll be straight back here and it’ll be the worse for you.”
*
The next day, Mikey’s mother came to the school and after a long meeting in the headmaster’s office, with Matron present, Mikey was taken home for the weekend, even though it wasn’t an exeat weekend. He came back to the school on Monday, though he seemed withdrawn and dejected, and he didn’t talk to me. By the end of that week, he was gone, and I never saw him again.
I didn’t try to contact him, as I thought he must be angry with me for telling the Head, and I didn’t get the chance to ask him what had happened, before he left. We didn’t get to say goodbye, which felt wrong, but while I often thought of how our friendship had been important to me before that night, and what it had taken to break us apart, I made friends with other children soon after Mikey left the school. I thought of Mikey going to the local secondary modern and having to make new friends, which would be hard. I wondered if there would be teachers like Fiddler Clinch there who would recognize his vulnerability. I’d been teased a lot at home about my posh accent, and I wondered if he was being bullied and rejected out in Essex. I knew he wouldn’t be singing any more, and that he wouldn’t be trying to get a scholarship to Westminster School, or singing tenor at Kings College Cambridge. I might have saved him from Clinch and his friends, but in that moment, I had taken away his future, and I felt responsible for ruining his life, even though I knew nothing of his feelings.
Fiddler Clinch didn’t leave so quickly, and it was the end of that term before he was replaced. What had transpired between him and the Head, I could only speculate. The other boys gossiped about Mikey telling his mother and her telling the headmaster, as I held to my word and would tell nothing of what I knew, but Clinch went on to another prep school, presumably with good references, so we had no reason to assume he’d been fired. I spent the rest of that term avoiding Clinch whenever possible, as I was sure he would know it was me who had told Mr Talbot. Every time I was asked to bring my work to the front of the class in maths, I became more scared, and my marks went from the best to among the worst in the class. Fiddler didn’t engage with me at all, so I knew he knew it had been me, and he no longer visited the dormitory at night or touched any of the boys in class, and Loats disappeared, though I had said nothing about him. That made me think that Mikey had given a fuller account of what had been happening to him, during his meeting with Mr Talbot, and in a way, it helped me to get over my guilt about reporting him. Mr. Talbot took evening duties himself for a while, and he was very solicitous with me, as well as other boys who were upset by Mikey’s departure. Some of the time I felt empowered, and part of a privileged secret, and then I felt completely at sea with what happened as a result of my actions. Who was responsible for what had happened? Me or Clinch? Had Mikey wanted help? It was strange to feel so helpless once I had begun to open the floodgates, and to find it wasn’t about me. I’d have liked to have someone to share my secret with and ask whether I’d been right that night, but there was nobody.

Dear Rachel

My dear Rachel,

I want to apologise for arguing with you the other day. I know that I shouldn’t drink because it makes me say and do things which I don’t mean. I haven’t touched a drop since you left and that’s over with now. You have been so very good to me these last months, and I know it’s a strain with a family to look after.

You are, of course, right about Emily. You and I know that she took her life, and that she was deeply unhappy when she did. What makes me saddest is that she was so young and had so much more to see and do.

You are, however, wrong to think I don’t love you. I love you, and Ellen, very much. I am so proud of you and all you have achieved. You’re so strong and independent, and I know you are a wonderful mother. I know I have not been a good father to you, and God knows I was much less a good husband to Ellen, and for that I am truly sorry. When Emily killed herself, I was heartbroken, and also scared of my responsibility for her unhappiness. I thought I might infect the other people I loved with my destructive influence, so I avoided you and your mum at the time you most needed my support. I know now that was wrong and that I could have helped.

I’m so very tired now, and I can’t turn back the clocks to make right what I failed to do. But I wanted you to know how much I love you.

Joe

If you see her, say hello

At eighteen, Joe decided to take a gap year after his ‘A’ levels, and he got a job working as a porter in a small and backward South London hospital for several months in order to save some money. Living at home was claustrophobic and depressing, but he was working long shifts in the operating theatre, and spending his evenings in the local pub with school friends similarly taking their year out. After eight months, he’d saved some money and wanted to see the world before going back into education. He saw a small ad in the paper for overland tours which sounded exciting, so he bought a ticket and boarded a bus to India. He’d been toying with a summer in the Greek islands, just as his elder siblings had taken some years earlier, but opted for the Budget Bus from North Totteridge to Delhi in six weeks (price £55), because he craved the exotic, and was traveling alone.
Moving from country to country and culture to culture, he shared the 1950s St Trinians-style coach, and the taste of freedom, with thirty other young travelers. The route into Asia was a hangover of the slow-fading sixties hippy trail, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a well-trodden path. The Beatles and the Maharishi, Tim Leary, The Naked Lunch, On The Road and so much more formed the backdrop to the journey. The experience was overwhelming, both culturally and medically, and after only three months, half the intended time, he was forced to return to face quarantine for typhoid over the summer. After losing three stone in three weeks in a campsite in Delhi during the monsoon, he’d had to fly home to find treatment. He spent that summer in London and had recovered adequately by September to take his place at university.

The decision to take the trip to India had been a watershed. In making it, Joe had cut the already thin emotional ties with his childhood home, and looked to his future. He was struck by the apparent indifference of his parents to his intrepid journey, as he set out alone with his rucksack and bus ticket. It was easier to make the grand statement about independence than it was to grow up overnight. In many ways, the culture shock of the trip, let alone his health scare, was compounded by the separation. Like a steam engine uncoupled from its tender, his momentum alone would not drive him forward, and on the journey, he stoked his furnace with all manner of fuel.
When he returned, it was clear that Wimbledon and all its associations were part of his past. In his Pashtun pajama suit, a rolled Kelim rug his only luggage, he crept back into the house, unannounced and exhausted. Only his father was there, and the house was cold. His parents were already looking to separate and his older siblings were all living away by now. He felt like the soldier in The Soldier’s Tale returning, long forgotten.
Joe had applied to Sheffield, city of his birth, for a BSc in psychology, because he’d studied biology and chemistry for ‘A’ level, and he wanted to move into something that didn’t echo his school subjects, something more cool. His elder sister, Jane, was studying psychology at Cardiff, and she seemed to be loving it, despite her baby son being looked after in London by their mother, Dorothy.
He was delivered to the halls of residence, on that first cold October afternoon by Dorothy, with a car full of his teenager’s belongings. She was silent on the journey, not because she was deeply saddened by their parting, but because she was also embarking on a new life alone, and leaving Joe’s younger sister, Lizzie, with her father. He was the fourth child to leave home, and so he was unceremoniously left to his own devices as soon as he could unpack the car into his room in the men’s wing. Ranmore halls were bleak three storey accommodation blocks, set in the grounds of a large estate, somewhere on the edge of town. Joe did his best to personalize his room with the books and records he’d brought, wishing all the while that he had a guitar to lean in the corner.
He had in mind to display himself in words and images like a young peacock, in the hope, held for several years, of attracting his first mate. An all boys secondary school, a shy disposition and next to no experience of girls left him little ammunition. India had taught him about many things, but sex was not one of them. He had a folder of sketches, and some carefully chosen quotations, written on bits of paper, Bluetacked to the wall, from Nietsche: “Is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man” and Sartre: “Art is optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” He chose a selection of Dylan and Neil Young albums to be strewn ‘casually’ across the floor. His yellow, grey and black spined Penguins, colour-coded on the shelf over the desk, bore testament to his literary aspirations, and supposed maturity, while two Picasso prints, Guernica and The Blue Lady, told of his artistic temperament. Now all it needed was a good-looking girl to adorn it.
The next day, he spent in the students’ union, signing up to a couple of societies: folk music and drama.
“Hey Man, why don’t you come along on the pub crawl for new members tonight?” said the bearded student behind the table in the union canteen had frizzy orange hair down to his shoulders and wore a denim shirt under his Afghan coat. The straggling wool of the mountain goat or sheep from which it was made smelt unpleasant. “We’ve got Long John Baldry coming in a couple of weeks and Planxty at the end of term.”
The Folk society met every third week in Ranmore Hall Bar for an ‘open mike’ evening with local bitter and an earthy clutch of enthusiasts. After the first hour of the first (and his last) session, and after four pints of Sam Smiths Bitter, Joe took to the mike for a rendition of ‘Where have you been all day, Henry my Son”, to which he had already forgotten the words, and which turned out to be a favourite of the society.
Drama was much more of a success.
“Hi, my name’s Rob, and I’m Chairman of the Drama Soc. If you join, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll meet the most attractive women in college, and get stuck into participating straight away, if you get me,” he enthused.
“I’ve never acted on stage. Does that matter?”
Joe decided on the white lie, in order not to set himself up, though he’d had bit parts in a couple of school plays.
“Nah. If you can’t act, you can always work back-stage. It’s fun and there’s loads of women backstage as well.”
That was just the right thing to say. Joe signed on the dotted line, paid his membership sub and agreed to attend a series of improvisation workshops, starting the next day. Rob outlined the plan.
“Well, man, they’re designed to engender trust, which is important for working closely with other actors. They’re all about free expression, and we work a lot on improvisation, voice projection, that kind of shit.”
What he didn’t say was that they were also meant to provide a suitable opportunity for second year male students to get off with ‘fresher women’. Rob himself was a muscular, square jawed post-graduate engineer. He’d been through a lot of fresher women in his time, and preferred the loose relationships of the drama soc to the intensity of the few women in his engineering faculty.
The workshops took place in the university theatre, a converted church, behind the union, which gave the whole experience an air of authenticity. Rob was an excellent tutor, and the majority of freshers attending were women, which meant he had worked hard all day to talk them into joining.
The fact that Joe was a year out of school and had travelled, that his hair was longer and his stories more extensive than those of other boys in the workshops, conferred status on his naivety. Games included ‘trust exercises’, where attendees paired up and one of each pair called to the other across the stage, who was blindfolded and expected to run towards their calling partner. This resulted in several minor injuries and a lot of laughter. Another involved the group forming a circle around one student who, eyes closed and standing at attention in the centre, was supposed to fall backwards or forwards, to be caught by those in the circle. The distracted or weaker members of the circle were apt to fail in their catching duties, resulting in more minor injuries and more laughter. Whatever this did or didn’t do to engender trust, the first afternoon session generated immediate friendships. As these were theatre workshops, there were also voice exercises, stage whispering to practise enunciation: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” and various ‘Peter Piper’ tongue twisters.
The focus of the workshop each day was a series of improvised mini-dramas.
“Ok, so Joe, you’re a taxi driver, standing at the late night tea stand, and Nick, you’re the tea guy. Jane, you and Jenny, you’re a couple of toms looking for business.” And off we went into our reverie, smirking and stuttering our way through ten minutes of improvised drama, which normally petered out or ended in scuffles.
Jane was a slim, dark eighteen-year-old London girl, with large brown eyes and long lashes. She liked to lead the improvisations, with quick-witted repartee and a flare for the dramatic gesture.
Nick: “Right, that’ll be three bob, mate.”
Joe: “Come on you old git, one cup and a slice, that’s two and six.”
Nick: ”take it or leave it, mate.”
Joe pays imaginary coins across the counter and sips from his empty cup, making slurping noises to signify the heat of the tea.
Jane: “Hi lovey, got a light?” she sidles up to Joe and touches his arm. He looks into her eyes and there’s a slightly over-extended silence while he tries to concentrate on the scene.
Joe: “What’s your name then, beautiful? I haven’t seen you here before.”
Jane: “Why, it’s Dolores. What’s yours?”
Jenny: “Oy, keep yer hands off of ‘er ‘less you got the fiver.” Jenny lays on the accent like Eliza Doolittle, and she’s much more edgy and aggressive than Jane.
Nick: ”What’s your problem tonight, Patsy? Business a bit slow?”
Jenny: “An’ you can fuck off an’ all, Cyril” Jenny is really getting into her role, and pretends to throw Joe’s hot tea over the counter at Nick, but instead, sprays Jane and Joe with the brew. Jane, in shielding herself from the imagined shower, steps in close and wraps her arms around Joe’s neck.
“Oh dear! I’m all wet!” She gives him the biggest smile.
“Wow! I’m sure I’ve got a fiver here somewhere.” Joe’s arm slips gently around Jane’s waist and he leads her into the wings, stage right.
*
It was clear after the first day that the spark between them was strong. Rob had also paired with Jane for a couple of exercises, mostly as a way of demonstrating one or another game, and especially those involving physical contact. Jane was quick and funny, and she loved to perform. It was obvious she would go far in the drama society as a leading lady, and Rob was not the only ‘old lag’ who watched her with interest.

Walking back from the theatre Jane was animated.
“That was amazing, don’t you think?” She gesticulated wildly “I loved the one where we were made to lay with our heads in the other’s lap and have them rotate it.”
“Yeah, it was so hard to relax in someone’s hands and let them take the weight.”
He could still feel the warmth of her scalp. “You were great at it though.”
“Who’d’ve thought someone’s head could be so heavy?”
“Are you accusing me of having a big head? It’s all brains you know.” He laughed, wanting to just stop and kiss her in the street. “What’re you doing tonight?”
“Nothing much. You?”
They agreed to meet in the refectory at seven and spend the evening listening to music. Jane rolled her own cigarettes and Joe thought this particularly cool, so he would be trying to get the hang of that, among other things, and learning to inhale of course.
As the week progressed, they paired up for most of the workshop games, they began to touch more, to share private jokes, explore each other’s pasts and exchange cherished possessions. Each exchange told something. Each was a gift laid on an alter.
“Do you want to borrow Steppenwolf? It’s one of my favourite books. Have you read The Glass Bead Game? He won the Nobel Prize for that I think”
“Can I take Blood on the Tracks and listen to it this afternoon? I’ll bring it back tonight, if you’re around.”
And later, they lay close on the built-in bunk to listen to Dylan’s new album.
“ Oh God, I love this track. Turn it up a bit. He’s such a great poet . . . pass me the sleeve. ’Say for me that I’m all right, though things get kind of slow.’”

On the final evening of Freshers’ Week, after the last improv workshop and a few drinks in the Ranmore bar, they went back to Joe’s room with their new found friends, Nick and Jenny, to listen again to music. Though drinking in the bedrooms was forbidden, Nick had bought a naggin of vodka on the way back from the theatre, and they’d shared it from Joe’s tooth mug. By now, everyone was rolling cigarettes, and Nick brought out a tiny silver foil parcel of hashish. He’d scored it on his first day in the union bar – which seemed very sophisticated for a first year, but Nick was already 20, almost a mature student, and he seemed completely at ease. He pulled the gate-fold sleeve of Yellow Brick Road from the table and licked the glue on three Rizzlas to make a large joint, which he filled with rolling tobacco. He singed the small black lump of dope with his Zip lighter, and crushed the corner into powder, which he sprinkled onto the tobacco, without spilling a grain.
“I got stoned in Kandahar” Joe felt he had to lay down his marker. “I didn’t smoke then, so I just swallowed it. Afghani Black. About the size of a sugar lump.”
“Whoa…. That must’ve set you back a few quid.” Nick lit the joint and inhaled deeply. “This little baby was a tenner.”
“Nah, not in Afghanistan. It was pennies I think, ‘cos someone gave it to me. On the border, they offered to make me a pair of flip flops out of a slab of it the size of my shoe sandwiched between two pieces of leather. Trouble was, if you walked across, the guy who made the shoes would tip off the police, who’d throw you in jail and give the stuff back to him for the next dumb tourist.”
“Cool.” Jenny was pretty. She’d taken to Nick that first day, and the two of them were already inseparable. His age had been his winning attribute. In a room full of eighteen year olds, the twenty year old is king.
The air was thick with smoke, and they were all quiet as Dylan sang Tangled up in Blue and The Jack of Hearts. Joe moved to open the window to let in the cold night air, hoping that the smell of dope wouldn’t linger in the morning when the cleaners came around. Nick decided he and Jenny needed privacy for their increasingly explicit fondling, and dragging her from the bed, he took the dregs of the naggin and they left.
“That’s better. Just the two of us.” Jane was pretty stoned.
“Yes. No prizes for guessing what they’re getting up to.”
“No. Shall we see if we can work it out? An improvisation without words?”
“Mmmm, sounds fun”

And so, after the week of moving inexorably towards ‘the moment’, and when the night was dark outside and the wind blew sensuously, they made love, after a fashion. For Joe, it felt like surfing the perfect wave, surfacing after a high dive, something that had been thought of, dreamed of, for years. For Jane, it wasn’t something new, but it was nice.
Later she sat naked next to him, propped up by his pillow. He closed the window, turned down the volume on the stereo and re-started the second side of Blood on the Tracks.
Laying back against Jane’s leg, basking in the feelings of his conquest, but not wanting to talk about what had happened, Joe let the music seep into him.
“I love how he writes lyrics and his voice is great. It’s all over the place and he’d never win a singing competition, but you’d know him anywhere.”
Jane sang with the record “‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will.’ Will we?”
“Will we what?”
“Will we have a falling out? Now we’re lovers. Will I go to Tangiers? Maybe have an affair with a Bedhuin?” Ever the drama queen.
“That’s nice, just when we’ve met and you’re talking about going off and leaving me for some guy in a Kaftan.” Joe knew she was teasing, but his insecurity was close to the surface.
“Jealous? Mmmm . . . that’s kind of cute.” She laughed, stroking his hair
“What?? Cute??” He raised himself on one elbow, turned and scowled at her. She ignored him and continued to sing.
“I always respected her for doing what she did in getting free.”
But Joe wasn’t letting that one go.
“That’s the last thing I am. Cute is for lapdogs! So you want a lapdog who respects his mistress. . . ”Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m getting soft.” Strange how the lyrics seemed to mirror their thoughts.
“Do you think I should get my hair cut short?”
He was staring at their bodies in the wardrobe mirror. It was the first time he’d ever really looked at a naked woman. The first time he’d had more than a surreptitious glance at one, anyway. That didn’t count the pornographic images in his friends’ magazines at school. It was a wonderful moment. One he thought, then, he should commit to memory in every detail and hold dear for the rest of his life. The man and his woman, relaxing after making love. After sex. Intercourse.
“Why would I care how long your hair is if I was off tripping down in Fez or somewhere with my new Bedhuin man?” she said, and his mind drifted back to their conversation.
“I bet he smells like a camel. How do you like the smell of camel?”
“Do you think Dylan was in love with her?” Jane’s mind was wandering again.
“Who?”
“His sad eyed lady of the lowlands? I read he’s so rich that he’s got houses all over the states and he keeps a different woman in each one.”
Joe wanted to get back to his India adventure. It was the most important thing he had ever done, until now.
“I once ate camel steak… in Kabul – not as nice as buffalo though. ‘Sun down, yellow moon . . .’”
“It’s like all great loves have to end in great heartbreaks.” She was drifting back to Tangiers. Joe stared unashamedly at her body in the mirror as she lay back, her eyes closed.
“God you’re so beautiful. It’s amazing. Where did you spring from?”
“I know, I am amazing. Call me Ophelia.” Jane laughed softly.
*
Two days later, it was the start of term. Joe spent his day in lectures in the psychology block, half a mile from the main campus, while Jane spent hers in the Tower Block, listening to her fellow music students performing on their chosen instruments, and herself performing on the cello. The start of the term had fractured their idyll and brought them down with a crash. After a mutual debrief that evening, they were both considering the prospect of spending the night together. Joe dearly wanted this to happen, but recognized the limitations of a night in a single bed, and the early start he had in the morning. Jane was somehow more indifferent to the idea, more fidgety. She hadn’t made the first move towards him when they met at dinner, and had sat between Nick and Jenny across the refectory table, rather than next to him, where he’d held her a space.

There was a loud knock on Joe’s door and he leapt up in surprise.
“Oh Christ. Who’s that? Pass me my shirt. You get under the covers and I’ll tell them where to go.”
It was Rob, standing in the corridor in denims and a great coat.
“Hey man. Just wondering if you’ve seen Jane?”
Strange. Joe didn’t think Rob was living in Ranmore Hall. Perhaps he was.
“Oh cool. Is that Blood on the Tracks?” said Rob. Joe was immediately wary of Rob. He’d been openly flirting with Jane in the workshops, and even today, Joe had seen them talking at lunchtime outside the drama soc office in the union.
“Oh hi, Rob. I . . . ”
Jane sat up when she heard Rob’s voice and made no effort to cover her breasts. “Hi Rob. Yes, I just bought it. Great album isn’t it. I’m decent. You can come in. Let him in.” Joe held onto the door long enough to see Jane lift the sheet and cover herself.
“Oh sorry, I’m not interrupting anything am I?” Rob knew full well he was.
Jane grinned “No. We were just listening to some music. What about you?”
“Hey, Jane, I was thinking of going down to the union bar and I thought you might like to come, talk about The Importance of Being Ernest. You know I’m casting it next week. I was thinking of you for Gwendolin.”
The drama soc committee had chosen two plays for this term, and had posted dates on the notice board for casting sessions. Jane and Joe had by then made enough friends in the society to find out that casting was never a totally open thing, and that the best roles always went to ‘insiders’ on a nod. Rob was to direct ‘Ernest’, and there was only one part Jane really wanted.
“Yeah, well, maybe another . . .” Joe tried half-heartedly to distract Jane from the obvious come-on.
“Who’s going?”
“Well, just you and me so far.”
It was eminently clear that Rob was neither subtle nor coy. He had wanted to get off with Jane since day one and here he was, barging into their love nest without a care.
“Look Rob, how about . . . Jane you don’t want to go out now do you? “ Joe began to sound a little desperate, more of a whining child than the man he wanted to be.
“Sounds kind of fun. I’ll need to get dressed.”
“Oh Grrreat!” This came out more as a bitter expletive than was intended.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Jane clearly couldn’t care less how he felt
“Well actually . . .”
Rob’s rich baritone cut across his last attempt to block their plan “I’m only borrowing her, man. Keep yer hair on . . .” And that was that, the beginning of the end, the writing on the wall.
“Give me a few minutes. Meet me down by the coffee machine in ten?”
Jane was already pulling on her jeans and looking for her socks, while Joe pushed rob back from the door in the hope of shielding her body from Rob’s greedy eyes. Jane just smiled and continued to dress.
“Cool. See you round, man.”
Joe slumped back onto his bed and stared at Jane in disbelief. How could she do this to him? What had their love affair meant if she could up and leave at the first opportunity? And what did Rob have to offer that he didn’t? Don’t answer that!
“You don’t mind, do you? I mean, Gwendolin. That would be great and he’s Chair of the theatre group, so, you know, it’d be good to keep in with him. Hey, you could audition for Jack or Algie next week.” Did she really think that would appease him? Frankly, it was an insult. Rob and his fucking casting couch!
“No thanks. Not my sort of thing. I’m not into that bourgeois shit. But who am I to stand in your way?”
This time, the venom was undisguised, and in the space of minutes, Joe’s newfound happiness felt it had been dashed to pieces. More than that, his newfound manhood was withering. He dropped his head into his hands and fought back tears.
“Oh don’t be like that. Anyone would think you had reason to be jealous.”
Blood on the Tracks. What a great name for an album. What an absolutely depressingly accurate fucking song! “and to think how she left that night, it still brings me a chill.”

Call centre

You get up feeling positive. For a start, while it’s still windy, the rain has abated. The dehumidifier has been running all night in the car and there’s going to be some drying, so you run the engine with the front seat heaters on full – yes, there are hidden advantages to all those extras.
You decide to return the bank’s call from yesterday. It seems that First Direct is contacting all overseas customers to demand proof of their overseas address – it’s about money laundering I guess, and probably in light of Britain’s relationship with ISIS. They won’t accept scanned copies of passports. They want notorised copies. They want utility bills – didn’t anyone tell them that the utility no long use paper?
For anyone not in Ireland, notorisation means getting an appointment with a solicitor who will charge a fee per signature. Now the alternative in the hi-tech world which First Direct lives in is to make an appointment for a video phone call during which you have to download software and then hold up your passport to the camera so they can take a picture of you holding it. Presumably today’s newspaper in the background might be handy too – no reference to ISIS beheadings please.
So I called and the polite but passive-aggressive girl told me there was an eight minute wait for the department concerned. I am impatient by nature (really?) and so I chose to ask for a call back instead. Given that this is the fourth or fifth attempt I have made to satisfy their requirements, I thought that fair enough. Now, it seems they are understaffed and it is Christmas after all, so she let me know that it was going to be in January when they would be able to call me back. So what do I care? It’s their requirement we’re trying to satisfy here, not mine. But, she said, they will be suspending some of my bank account access until I have the video call! WTF as they say in the old US of A.
At this point I lost it. They can’t call me till January. I have to wait in an eight minute phopne queue (yes, time is somehow much more valuable when waiting than when watching Antiques Roadshow) to speak to someone for something that is for them not me, and I will be penalized if I wait till January. Then she says “It was an eight minute wait, sir (passive-aggressive emphasis on the ‘sir’) and we’ve been talking for four minutes. OK, I say, so if I join the queue, I’ll have only four minutes to wait. No, she says, the queue only starts when I transfer you (surprise, surprise). So I now have a choice: wait till January, when I’ll be in the jungles of Cambodia and not in a wifi zone, or hang on for eight minutes for the right department. I give up and agree to wait, wondering whether they really do record phone calls and whether she’s high-fiving her supervisor for a well handled call.
Eight minutes later and several times listening through Jingle Bells (all four verses), a guy comes on who is polite, considerate and friendly. I explain my frustration and he sympathises. His department has clearly had a lot of shit for this, which probably explains why they’re short staffed.
OK, so shall I book you in for your video call in January? he asks. You can, but I’ll be in the jungle till 23rd. Well, he says, that’s fine, because the first available appointment for a call is 26th.
Wow. OK, but I point out that in the meantime, I’ll be mightily pissed off if my account is restricted while I’m travelling, given that it is their resource problems which have led to this delay, and not my intransigence (intransigent, me?). Yes, he sympathises completely (no edge in his voice) and if I’d like to hold on, he can see whether they can facilitate me – good training, you see – and then he comes back. It’s fine sir (no emphasis on the ‘sir’ from him), we won’t be imposing any restrictions on accounts till the end of February. So, the bitch was lying to wind me up!
I was almost going to ask to be put back onto her so I could rant , or perhaps ask to speak to customer services complaints to point out that passive aggression is just not reasonable, and lying to make the customer jumpy is a form of bullying. But then I realized that I’m starting to become a grumpy old git with nothing better to do than make a lousy job harder for someone who had probably had to put up with the heightened security on her journey, or her mother-in-law’s miserable complaints about her lumbago or whatever. It really isn’t fair on the people who spend their days on the phone to unhappy customers. It really isn’t an issue. The day is at least dry.

Predictable

It’s been raining for days, weeks. The air is saturated and nothing is drying. The front doormat is swollen where water has seeped through the door, or under it, and the wood has swollen so that the door doesn’t open without great force. Closing up the house is almost impossible as the door no longer slams. It was expensive, but we installed it during the Celtic tiger years and it was clearly sub-standard when made. It is oak, but might as well be pine.
I got up to find all four windows on the car were half-open, and had presumably been that way all night. It seems they must have opened because of an electrical short-out, or else someone came into the yard during the night and opened them for fun. It may be that the door fob made that happen. I seem to remember being told by the car servicing guy that if you press and hold the locking button (or if it is pressed accidentally in your pocket for any length of time, the windows all open. Why, I have no idea. Is that a safety thing, in case some small child is trapped in the car you can’t get to them? The result is four soaked car seats and presumably lots of damage to the upholstery. Nice.
I made some coasters yesterday afternoon and by rights they should be too dry to impress the client’s logo on, but this morning they were as soft as they were just after I’d made them. They won’t be dry enough to turn this afternoon, so perhaps it’s just as well that everything has slowed down. No more headlong rush through the process.
At ten I’ll be hosting a meeting of the Chamber of Tourism committee on the commercialization of the website. We’ve got three potential suppliers coming in to talk to us, but they will see this as a marginal call – hardly worth the trip, and the committee will see it as a gargantuan task of great importance to ensure we find the best performing supplier – the one who will go the extra mile for us. Once the recession ended, half the world still thought all suppliers should continue to be inordinately grateful for crumbs, while the other half woke up to the seller’s market and resigned themselves to chasing suppliers. I had phone calls from customers arguing about my prices and wanting discounts, long after I had any interest in discounting. Out of fifteen agencies approached for this contract with the Chamber, only three have made any effort to respond. I don’t have high hopes.
The meeting will be attended by one or two businessmen who understand what is wanted and one or two jobsworths or justice-seekers who feel it is incumbent on them to stop others being commercial at all. They see the Chamber as some sort of club like the Round Table or the Rotary Club or the Lions. There will be arguments about what is fair and right, what is worth the money and what is not, what is progress and what constitutes loss of power. The Chamber seems to be a small pond for fish, who see themselves as too big to swim in it, who only swim in it because they’re resting or retired or bored. I might ask why I’m involved. It might be because I want to help make it better, or because I truly believe it will benefit me, or perhaps I too am resting or retired, certainly bored.
After the meeting, there will be a requirement for a little shopping for items in the market which are not needed, but which have been requested because Christmas is coming and then back to the email which will be all about surveys which are not progressing. Christmas really does freeze up all pipes. The afternoon will wear on. There will be more rain. I will not seek out the news, though there might be disasters elsewhere to spectate. I will not venture out or look for alternative stimulation. The evening will draw in, along with its rigmaroles. Lighting the sitting room fire, watching a little rubbish on TV, eating some quickly thrown-together food as herself is going to the gym and ‘don’t worry about food for me’. Time will pass inexorably.
The questions, which might otherwise insert themselves into the day: What is your purpose? Why do you do what you do? Is this it? Will rest on their combined laurels and not be asked.

Shaping up

It was 1970. Summer, and Joe had just finished five years at prep school, and chosen not to follow the majority of his class-mates into public school. They’d all sat the ‘common Entrance’ and their parents had all delved into the piggy bank for Eaton or Harrow or Westminster. They were destined to become tomorrow’s leaders – Conservative MPs, captains of industry – but Joe just wanted to fit into his anonymous family’s middling status without a sense of injustice. Know thy place. Believe that you have no entitlement and that hard work will earn you security, not fame and fortune. That came from Dorothy’s upbringing, not Tom’s. Tomasz had been privileged and his mother, Miriam, had expected more of his marriage. The chasm between Dorothy’s down-trodden father, a clerk in the civil service, and Tom’s globe-trotting business-man father, Otto, had somehow remained in Joe’s blood. You thikn it is just the expectations of your parents which you have to try and satisfy, but in truth, those expectations go way back, and Joe just couldn’t measure up to his father’s standards, while his mother had far too little expectation of him.
That July, he went home to Wimbledon from the security of his ‘home’ at boarding school and come September, after an uninspiring summer trying to adjust to home life, he followed both his older brothers to school in Kingston. Joe was thirteen and going into the third year at Tiffins, a state grammar school,rather than starting with all the other boys in first year. It was a better than average school selecting children from the local middle classes who had passed their eleven plus exams. League tables were just beginning to appear in the TLS, and Tiffins was among the top quartile of performers, ranked maybe 70 out of 300 independent and private schools, though far behind Eaton, Harrow and Westminster – you get what you pay for, and Tiffins was free.
His older brothers had both spent their prep-school years at Worcester, boarding, and both had adapted fine to the new regime, so Tom and Dorothy expected, of course, that Joe would also be fine, especially with the older boys to keep an eye on him. He just had to know his place and work hard for his security after all.

“Come on Joe, you can wear Jeremy’s old blazer. You know Tiffins isn’t as posh as Westminster, and lots of other boys will have hand-me-downs. Oh do stop blubbing. You’re far too old for that. Aren’t you glad to be a day-boy again?”

Joe almost failed the eleven plus because he had the ‘flu, and he was allowed to take the test on his own, in a small education department office in the local borough. When the tests were marked, and the educational psychologist met with Dorothy, she recommended he be streamed out of the grammar system, and put where he belonged. Dorothy wasn’t much of a fighter, and her own insecurity about educational failure was strong, as she’d failed to complete her own studies. He very nearly ended up in the local secondary modern school ,which would have placed him below the parapet,beyond the pail. Just that one moment, when Dorothy could accept the recommendation or argue against it would have changed his life.

It wasn’t as though the prep school had not done what it was set up for, at least for those who were being prepared for public school common entrance exams that is, but somehow, the eleven plus and the state school system was designated ‘infra dig’ and left to the side. While the prospective Eatonians were swotting every evening to try and pass their common entrance, Joe was excused from class because he wasn’t going to be one of the ruling class. Had he failed the eleven plus and become truly mainstream, he might have gone on to become a journalist or school teacher without a degree, or he might have become a full-time artist. Academic grammar schools certainly didn’t offer enough time to the children’s creativity, while the secondary moderns, later to be comprehensives, positively encouraged creativity, and Joe liked art more than most other subjects.

But something told Dorothy that she should push him up. Perhaps it was Tom’s expectations for him, or Joe’s fear of being dropped in the deep end with the rough kids. By the skin of his teeth and because Drew and Jeremy were already doing well at Tiffins, Joe was given the benefit of the doubt on the entry criteria, but not on whether he should be allowed into the fast stream or the slow stream once at the school. The fast stream meant more hard work and no time for art or music or dreaming, but it also meant a shot at university rather than the local poly or an HND in car repair. At 13, he hadn’t a clue about these things, but being fourth out of five children, and part of an intellectually aspiring family, he was under the cosh.

“I just can’t understand how you did so badly in the test, Joe. You might not be the brightest in the class, but I always had you down for a trier. Look, darling, it’s OK if you’re not academic, whatever daddy says. There’s lots of things you could do, you know, like umm….”

The transition from prep school to a public day school was traumatic enough. He’d long since had his local accent scrubbed out of him, along with the poor table manners, by parents and prep school alike, and been left with crisp Queen’s English and an accent that was ‘just so’. ‘Oy’d loik a sloyce of poy’ became ‘Ay’d lake a slayce of pay’ and blokes were were now chums or fellows, and fuck and cunt were not on the menu. Joe was walking a tightrope between the past and future, where bullying and ostracism were the penalty for mispronunciation or the wrong terminology. He was a quick learner when he had to be, and as soon as he arrived at Tiffins, he began to change, to become part of the scenery.

He’d led a cloistered life at the Abbey, and his naivity about all things teenage – pop music, fashion, girls, wanking and acting tough – was complete. Boys at the Abbey knew more about Carl Orf than Roxy Music, more about Billy Bunter than the Mods and absolutely nothing about the female anatomy. Joe hadn’t bought a record in his life, and his idea of stylish was green shoes and yellow bell-bottoms. But he was hungry for change. It wasn’t that he was unaware of the need to know, only the vastness of his ignorance. The new school was a huge place, and after having spent years in a school of only 36 pupils, he felt he had been launched into this turbulent sea without a paddle.

They arrived early for the interview, and standing in the vestibule outside the headmaster’s office, Joe’s mother wanted to smoke, but felt intimidated by the grandeur of the entrance, with its marble floor and ornate glass cabinets full of trophies. It was always the same, and Tom refused to take time off work to attend school meetings.
“Did you brush your hair before we left? I told you to wash your face. Come here.” And she pulled a handkerchief from her bag, wet a corner with her own saliva and went to scrub the supposed mark from his cheek. Joe recoiled , and was saved from this terrible embarrassment by the secretary calling them into the head’s office. Dorothy slipped the hankie back into her handbag as they shuffled through the secretary’s anteroom into the small, overheated office in which Brigadier JJ Harper stood to attention.
“Good morning Mrs Weiner,” he pronounced the name with its German version, ‘Viner’, rather than ‘Winer’, as if to suggest that the family had Nazi connections. Joe was the third boy with this surname to attend Tiffins, and it might seem reasonable for JJ to have come to terms with the name’s origins by now, thirty years after the Battle of Britain, in which he had fought. It might also have been reasonable that he would know by now that the family was Jewish, but his distaste had not changed.
“Good morning Headmaster. Thank you for seeing us and for taking Joe into Tiffins.”
Dorothy was not comfortable with authority, and her formal grammar and tightened diction made this evident.
“Now, we have a rather marginal score for young Joe’s eleven plus, so I’m going to take him through to our Mr Snelling in Maths to assess his knowledge. It shouldn’t take long, and you might like to wait in the staff room, Mrs Weiner.”

Joe was interviewed by Mr Snelling, the maths teacher, whom he later came to know as fartface, while his class sat in front of him with their heads bent over their problems. He asked Joe how he would establish the length of the hypotenuse on a right angle triangle, something he’d never had to do, let alone something he saw any point in doing. Maths was not Joe’s strong point – the teacher at Westminster had been fired for child abuse and none of the boys wanted to appear too keen on the subject.
Joe wanted to please, so he suggested Mr Snelling take his ruler and measure it the length of the line, if that was what he meant by hypotenuse. Joe had certainly never heard of Pythagorus. A condescending smile was all he got in return. Then Mr Snelling asked how Joe could prove that two lines he drew were parallel, and again he suggested measuring the distance between them at one end and at the other and if the two matched, they were parallel. Mr Snelling interpreted Joe’s guesses as intelligent enough to warrant a fast stream tag, and sent Joe back to collect his mother while he delivered his verdict to JJ.
Simply that. There was no need to talk history to the old dusty man in the staff room who knew all about history, nor to expound on his biological know-how. It was deemed, in a state grammar school of about 1000 middle-class boys, that maths would be a good enough indicator of intelligence, and intelligence would be a good enough indicator of success, and being successful, as far as Tiffins was concerned meant getting good enough A levels to be considered for Oxbridge or at least one of the Red Bricks.

Joe spent the years between fourteen and eighteen in a turmoil of spots and insecurities, of swotting for exams and rear-guarding against petty violence and bullying. Though nice schools hide the unpleasantness behind their facade of gentility and their uniform, and secondary moderns show the scabs and their bared teeth to the world, it’s all the same for teenage boys. They start from the position that the best form of defence is attack, and then overlay that with the wildness of their new fuel – testosterone. He started by throwing rocks and insults, and progressed to the sophistcated and cynical demeaning of others. It was a long and merciless process which lasted until he lost his virginity, at eighteen, at which point he woke up and realised that all his worst growing pains were behind him, and that there was more to the world than competing for everything. Nevertheless, it was those four years which gave him the weapons for politics, and showed him what was worth fighting for.

The school, with its high larch lap fence surrounding a clutch of pre-fabs and low-slung sixties concrete and glass structures, had only one a permanent nineteenth century red-brick building, with long wide corridors and heavy doors, wings and portico for the head teacher and senior staff only, to gaze upon their wards, grouped in the yards. The boys were not allowed through the front door, except on parents’ evenings, and then only accompanied by their parents. They used the two entrances at one or other end of this long building. At one end were the arts classrooms and the other the sciences. Joe was usually at the ‘other end’ because he chose to focus on science. Being academic meant choosing against art and geography, and studying chemistry and biology. It meant taking eleven ‘O’ Levels, when six were required and eight would have been normal. It meant a blur of teachers and lessons and homework. Joe’s form tutor was Rastus, the latin teacher. Firm but fair Rastus. It wasn’t his own name, but somehow it was how he was known. Was it Afrocaribbean? Not at all. Was it a reference to some Roman general? Probably not. Rastus is latin for rat. Rastus had hard hands and a traditional black teacher’s gown, dusty from the blackboard and conjugations, and no clear reason for his nickname. Perhaps it was his pointed nose and long top-teeth and the fact that he was usually poorly shaven enough to seem to have rat’s whiskers. More likely, he was just quick-witted and sharp-eyed. He was a stickler, born in the 1920s or early 30s, and having lived through the air raids, and by 1970, he was a dessicated fifty-something. Joe spent many a detention writing out latin verbs or translating sentences. Each time the work was done, Rastus would check it and send him back to his desk to re-write the full 10 sentences until it contained no mistakes, regardless of how long that might take.

At break-time, the boys clustered along the walls, scuffed their shoes on the paths, shoved each other onto the tidy verges with their metal edging, and ran only in short bursts to ensure that they were not stopped by the prowling duty masters. And when the bell rang at exactly eleven, set to a timer rather than waiting for a duty master to swig his last mouthful of staff-room tea before pressing a button, they reacted like pavlov’s dogs in the rush to get to their classes within the prescribed two minutes. Throngs of boys marching and dawdling, skipping and scuffing one another between the rooms in the minutes between physics and religious studies, between naked fear and torpidity.

Biggles, the physics teacher, once broke a one-meter wooden ruler across Joe’s knuckles while drilling onto him Newtons third law – something about actions and reactions equal and opposite – the force of the wood countered by the inertia of the bone. QED. And later, in front of the Rev Churchy Churcher, Joe gave a discourse on why religion is bad for people, an opiate of the masses – a quotable quote from Marx or Lenin or whoever. The Rev wasn’t a bad sort. He at least thought a fourteen year-old’s view on religion was valid enough to be given five minutes. But the seventies heralded discussion. Women’s lib and bra burning was already ingrained from the 60s, along with John and Yoko’s Bed-in and the news on Nixon and Vietnam, racial equality was coming and these middle-class educated leaders-of-tomorrow were being taught to scorn the racist comedy from Bernard Manning and Love Thy Neighbour’s Sambo and Honky, Jim Davidson’s Coons and jungle bunnies, and the skinhead chants and Enoch Powell. ‘Who’re you fuckin screwing?’ from the snarling mouth of a town boy, hanging around the gate of Tiffins, with a view to slipping in to the bike sheds to steal a bike.
Joe figured that meant ‘who are you looking at?’, rather than any reference to his virginity.
There was a union jack shaved into the boy’s skull. He wore the uniform: a Ben Sherman short-selleved check shirt and red braces and two-tone ‘tonics’, a pair of very short trouser with pressed creases, finishing above the ankel to display high laced Docs, highly polished Bovver Boots with steel toecaps and brick red shoe polish. He had a swastika tatoo on his neck. And to Joe, in his blue blazer and grey flannel trousers and ‘sensible’ black lace-ups, he was pure evil and the stuff of pant-shitting fear.

Joe began to watch the news, though his father regularly berated him for not reading a daily newspaper. Scargill was always on, making angry speeches which reminded Joe of the Nuremburg Rally footage. The family had to cope with power cuts and the three day week. Yom Kipur war and then petrol rationing in 1973, put so much on hold. Joe’s Mobylette, which achieved 125 miles to the gallon, was off the road, because of the lack of stamps.