The story so far? Well, Robert, just weeks into his first teaching post, has narrowly escaped the sack after an incident with one of his pupils…
‘There are one or two characters,’ I say to mum down the phone. ‘Every school’s got its fair share. I’m learning.’
‘And how are you getting on with Drama?’ asks mum. ‘Are you going to put something on?’
Despite my assertion at interview that teaching Drama would be easy peasy, the reality is rather different. For a start, there are no books to hand out.
‘There are single copies of Coward and Beckett in the store cupboard,’ says The Wife of Parse. ‘Or there’s always Shakespeare.’
Still, at least no-one seems to want to interfere. It’s like Drama’s a completely new and alien concept to most of the staff. ‘Wouldn’t know where to start,’ says the Giraffe. ‘No structure. Kids running amok. What do you do with them?’
Good question. In fact, I’ve started to write my own stuff about everyday life. Self-awareness; image. ‘It’s called “The Curse of Spots.”’ I don’t have a particular agenda; it just seems to be a way of keeping the content relevant. ‘What do you understand by the expression never judge a book by its cover? Shall we improvise a situation based on that?’
I try playing music as a stimulus. ‘What does this piece of music make you think or feel? Can you make up a story that might fit the mood?’ Play them something like “Albatross” getting them to act out sombre scenarios with a straight face –‘it’s a funeral for a friend’ - or lose their inhibitions, prancing about to “Hocus Pocus.” ‘It’s your eighteenth birthday, and it’s the last dance of the evening at your party. Everyone’s really happy.’
I also get the pupils to try and compose stuff as well, so they take some ownership of the lessons. ‘I want you to write a script. It’s about a girl who’s deaf who meets a blind boy. One’s fat; one’s thin. There’s one bar of chocolate. They’re both starving. No standing still; I want words and plenty of action.’
There are several keen youngsters, like Fizz and Balls. ‘When are you putting something on, sir?’
I’m not sure about that. The Wife of Parse has already made it clear that performances are her domain. But I’ve tentatively started writing a longer script with an eye to the future. It’s an idea I’ve had bubbling round that might suit the age group I’m working with. I’ve called it “Darkheart.”
I’ve also got used to the freedom of working on my own, away from The Wife of Parse’s prying eyes and ears. She seems, anyway, to be stuck in a time warp. ‘There’s been nothing of literary value written since the fifties.’
She popped her head round the door of the Old Gym once. The kids were improvising. Strange gobbledygook, howls, and screams, with arms and bodies contorted, they were doing a favourable impression of the cast of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”
‘Did you want me?’ I asked as Balls swept by, growling, peering fiercely at The Wife of Parse. ‘We’re doing first impressions.’
The Wife of Parse took in the group. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’ And left.
‘That was fun, sir,’ said Fizz at the end of that lesson.
Fun for them, maybe.
But am I teaching them the right things? Like the rugby, I’m not sure.
I’m fiddling with the phone coil. ‘I’m enjoying it. I don’t do the school play. The Head of English does that.’
‘And what about the staff? Are there any nice young women?’ asks mum. Annoyingly.
It’s a warm afternoon and I’m watching from my classroom window a group of girls gathering round Miss Dazzle on the outfield. A bag of netballs. She sends the girls off to do some warm-ups, and I watch her as she bends down to retie a lace.
I’ve taken to playing music in my lessons while the kids write. Hope it’ll soothe things; for all of us.
‘Mmm?’ I drag my eyes from Miss Dazzle and see Not So Rich Shit with his hand up. ‘Yes?’
‘Bell’s gone, sir.’
‘Oh. Right. Yes. Well, see you tomorrow then. Make sure you pack up all your things. Hand me your books on the way out. There’s no prep tonight is there?’
The class empties. As Not So Rich Shit walks past and hands me his book, I tap it in my hand. ‘Much improved piece of prep last time. Thanks. Well done.’
Red of face he nods and turns as if to leave before facing me once more. ‘Sir?’
It’s possibly the first time he’s been without a scowl.
‘What’s that music you’re playing for us?’
‘Do you like it?’
He throws hair away from his face. Glances up to me. ‘It’s interesting.’
‘Oh? Do you like music?’
His eyes brighten, his face suddenly alive. ‘Oh yes. My mum and dad are always on about me having music playing when I’m doing my prep. I keep telling them it helps, but they’re not convinced.’
‘And did you do your last piece listening to some?’
‘Sort of.’ He pulls a face. ‘Radio One. I’ve got an older sister and that’s what she listens to.’ He shrugs. ‘So. We have to do prep together. Still, I get to play what I want some nights.’
‘Well the piece today is called “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield.’
He nods. ‘Right. Thanks, sir. Actually I do like it and it kind of helps me concentrate.’ He’s still crimson.
‘Good. Perhaps we’ve got something in common then. You’d better hurry; you’ll be late for your next lesson.’
He pulls a face. ‘It’s only PE.’
‘You don’t like sport?’
‘I hate rugby.’
‘Well, I’m not sure I’m that mad on it, but sport’s a great way of making new friends.’ Is he listening? ‘There might be some lads playing who are into music as well. I borrowed a lot of stuff from my sporty friends at school. Found out a lot as a result; you know, stuff I’d never have listened to if I hadn’t known them.’ I pause, watching him further consider. ‘Just a thought.’
He nods before turning away; then pauses at the door. Faces me. ‘Sir, are you a Beatles or Rolling Stone man?’
I have to laugh. ‘Oooh. Good question, but it’s always the Beatles for me. You?’
He nods. Smiles. ‘Something else in common sir. Got to be the Beatles.’
‘See you next time.’
I return my attention to Miss Dazzle who’s got her hands raised above her head, trying to adjust her hair band. Chest out. My nose is practically plastered to the window, steaming it, watching, when she suddenly snatches a glance my way. Has she clocked me? I start guiltily back from the window. Fuck. Now what’s the best way of playing it? I don’t want her to think I’m some kind of Peeping Tom.
It’s sunny as I wander outside. The air’s thick with the sound of young girls, laughing, playing. ‘Good pass, Lottie.’ Miss Dazzle is watching them. Calls out. ‘Right, girls. Into pairs and do thirty short passes. Five yards apart.’
In for a penny. ‘Lovely afternoon,’ I say. ‘Got a match?’ I can feel my cheeks letting me down; surely crimsoning.
She turns away from the girls to look at me. ‘Later. We’re just doing some warm-ups and simple drills for now.’ She calls out once more. ‘Now, girls. Ten yards apart. Thirty passes.’
‘Do you often use the outfield here?’ A lame attempt. ‘Only I saw you out the window. Didn’t know you practised here.’
‘Sometimes. If it’s not wet.’ She calls once more. ‘Fizz! Keep your eye on the ball.’ Then turns back to me. Even smiles. ‘That’s because you’re here. Showing off.’
‘How are you settling in?’ she asks, returning her eyes to the girls.
‘Oh, OK. Thanks. Still trying to get to know all the lingo. You know. All the words that are peculiar to the place. Discovering nooks and crannies like the linen room and stuff.’
Miss Dazzle actually chuckles. ‘Yes. Took me ages to find The Wooden Block in Uppers.’ She brings a whistle to her mouth and blows it. ‘Right girls. One lap round the outfield. Off you go.’
The girls gaggle away. Miss Dazzle turns to face me and I find myself aware that I don’t know where to look. Do I look at her mouth? Her eyes? Whatever, I mustn’t look at her chest which heaves seductively under her aertex top. ‘You seem to have settled in,’ she observes. ‘You and your friends.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘You’re teaching English aren’t you?’
‘I did English for A level. Philip Larkin. What do you think of his poetry?’
Bugger. Not him again. Can I admit I don’t know his work? ‘Interesting,’ I say. ‘You?’
She turns away. ‘I think he’s a misogynist.’
Fuck. What’s one of those?
‘I like his style but not his values,’ she continues, peering into the distance. ‘Times have changed; don’t you agree?’
‘I suppose so.’
Mental note. Read some Larkin. Look up mysognist.
‘Though too many men still seem to think that sexist remarks are OK.’ She returns to facing me. ‘You’re teaching drama too aren’t you?’
‘Do you know the Uppers guys very well?’ She mentions Biggles. ‘You might get on with him. I think he’s trying to inject a bit of life into that side of things in Uppers. He’s very musical as well you know. Plays pop stuff with the pupils. And sporty. Plays cricket as well as rugby. Very popular; his tutor group’s always oversubscribed.’
‘Right. Thanks for the tip.’
Now what? She’s turned to the distance again. The first few netball girls are beginning to hove into view, ponytails swinging. ‘Look,’ I say as casually as possible, trying to ignore the developing thumps in my ribcage. ‘Do you fancy a drink sometime? If you’re not busy.’ How will she react? My chest’s a Ginger Baker drum solo.
She shrugs; eyes still on her girls. ‘What, with your friends? Or with the guys from Uppers?’
Hmm. It’s not what I had in mind. ‘Sure. We tend to go out after duty.’
‘I’ll see. I’m not really a late night bird. Not on school nights anyway.’ She turns to face me and breaks into that dazzling smile. ‘And every night’s a school night at Fitzie’s isn’t it?’ While I’m a rabbit in her headlights, she now cups her hands round her mouth to shout. ‘Come on, Lottie. Put some effort in!’
Girls begin to gather round us, panting, fighting for breath, arranging hair bands. It’s time to go.
‘Right. I’ll leave you to it. See you around. Good luck this afternoon.’
She barely looks at me. ‘Thanks. See you.’
Have I made any progress? It might have helped to ask a few questions myself. Still, at least she didn’t say anything about my peering out of the window. And she didn’t say “no” to a drink. Just not with me on my own. And at least we’ve talked. Even made her laugh.
Mum’s waiting for my answer on the phone. ‘Most of them are quite a bit older than me. It’s that sort of place.’ I snatch a look at my watch. ‘I have to go soon, mum. I’m due to stop prep. How are you?’
Just before half term, the Prep School play, “The Winslow Boy” takes place. Directed by The Wife of Parse, I’ve no part in its production and neither do any of my drama pupils.
‘She only picks people she teaches,’ says Fizz.
‘There were no auditions?’
She shakes her head. ‘I really wanted to be in it.’
I think it odd that I’m not asked to help, but secretly feel relieved. Apart from anything else, having skimmed through it, “The Winslow Boy” seems outdated, slow-paced and rather dull.
The Prep school comes to something of a standstill as “The Winslow Boy” goes into overdrive. Cast are taken out of lessons on a daily basis, and everything seems tailored to The Wife of Parse’s needs. ‘I need to have another look at a scene. It’s the only time I’ve got.’
Things come to a head when one morning as I’m sat marking, listening to “Rainmaker” on my cassette player to match the torrents drilling the windows, she sends a note demanding that three of my rugby team miss their match so that they can attend a rehearsal. At first I swallow the information, but when I catch up with one boy and ask him what role he’s playing, he pulls a face. ‘Oh I just stand at the back, sir.’
‘You mean you don’t say or do anything?’
‘No, sir. It’s really boring actually. I’d much rather be playing rugby.’
What to do? I speak to Rugger Bugger as Head of Rugby and find he’s also in a lather. ‘She only wants to take five of mine out from this afternoon’s match.’ He mentions the star of his side. ‘I mean he’s my best player. And when I spoke to him he said he’d rather play rugby than stand about on stage doing sweet FA and would I speak to Spicy.’ He shakes his head, eyes blazing. ‘I wouldn’t mind, but by the sound of it, none of them have big parts. They just stand around.’
I’ve never seen him so worked up. ‘Shall we go and see Spicy?’
Rugger Bugger blows out his cheeks. ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to control myself, Robby Boy.’
Spicy’s in his office. He looks up over his glasses. ‘Ah. I was wondering if I’d be seeing you. I was about to send you a note to come and see me. Close the door.’ Removing his glasses he indicates two seats. ‘Sit down gentlemen. Let me guess. It’s about your rugby matches this afternoon?’ He leans back in his chair, and pauses thoughtfully. ‘I’m afraid you’ll just have to bite the bullet.’
Rugger Bugger and I exchange glances.
‘I don’t necessarily expect you to agree, but the school play should be a marketing tool to us, and as such, I feel we must support the director in any way we can.’ He pauses again, letting this sink in. ‘I must consider the reputation of the school.’
Rugger Bugger’s eyes are bulging so I pluck up courage to speak. ‘I quite understand that drama’s very important, sir. But so are the major sports as well aren’t they? If we go with understrength sides we’re going to get beaten and what good will that do our reputation?’ Have I spoken out of turn? After all, I’ve never really challenged anything like this before.
Spicy raises his eyebrows, but nods. ‘I agree. It’s a difficult balance, but the play is only once a year.’
I should probably shut up. But. ‘But it’s so unfair on the boys. They’d much rather be playing rugby, and it’s not as if they’ve got big parts in the play.’
Spicy nods again. ‘I did check, but she says it’s important to have everyone for this afternoon’s rehearsal. After all, curtain up is tomorrow. I’m sorry gentlemen, but this time I feel I must accede to her request.’ He hesitates. ‘I know how you feel. It’s not ideal, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.’
I can tell the battle’s lost, but something inside makes me speak up one last time. ‘Thank you for at least listening. It’s just that we take our matches seriously.’ I glance at Rugger Bugger, who’s red in the face, before continuing. ‘I suppose I can manage without my three, after all, it’s only the Under Elevens, but…’
Rugger Bugger’s shaking his head. ‘I can’t replace our best player with someone at the drop of a hat. And he’s scored half our points this term.’
Spicy purses his lips. Is he getting angry with us? ‘And I’m afraid there’s another hurdle I’ve yet to overcome.’ Again there’s a pregnant pause. What now? ‘She doesn’t want any of the boys involved in the production to play rugby this Saturday. She’s worried that they might get injured and miss the performance.’
Oh come on!
Rugger Bugger’s running his hand through his hair wildly, animated. ‘That’s ridiculous!’ I see Spicy frown. ‘I mean we’re playing St George’s on Saturday and they’re supposed to be the best side we come across.’
Come on, Spicy!
Spicy stands up and wanders over to the window, water cascading down the pane, then turns back to us. ‘I’ve told her I need to think about it. And I will. Perhaps if I let her have her way this afternoon, then maybe we can come to some reasonable compromise for Saturday.’ He furrows his brows. ‘If that was the case do you think you could manage for this one afternoon? It’s St Benedict’s we’re playing isn’t it? I think at least they’re one of the weaker schools on our circuit. A small place, struggling for numbers I believe. Quite a different proposition from St George’s. If it keeps raining like this it may even be cancelled.’
He’s so reasonable, seems so genuinely upset about the choices he’s being asked to make that it’s impossible to feel anything other than pity for his pickle.
Rugger Bugger must feel the same way; speaks in a more controlled fashion. ‘Put like that I suppose I could manage as long as it is just this afternoon.’ He gives a wry smile.
I nod. ‘I could do with having a look at a couple of others anyway, thinking about next year’s side.’
Spicy seems relieved, smiling. ‘That’s the spirit. Sure you’ll manage.’ He comes over to us. ‘I’ll tell her she can have them this afternoon but not Saturday. Would that keep the wolves at bay?’
It’s not the first time I’ve come to understand the juggling act that Spicy must face on a daily basis. There’s so much competition for pupils between departments and I’ve heard rumblings from staff who suggest there’s too much emphasis on sport. ‘Another away fixture with an early leave? I never see the child nowadays.’ No wonder we aren’t popular with them.
We both stand up. Spicy holds out his hand. ‘Deal?’
I hold out mine and feel him grip it. ‘Deal.’ Rugger Bugger follows suit.
Later I see The Wife of Parse in the corridor. Normally we’ll pass the time of day but this time she seems preoccupied, flashing her eyes at me before hurrying away. Is she angry?
My Under Elevens struggle to beat a poor St Benedict’s side on a quagmire of a pitch. Rugger Bugger’s fifteen draw. ‘Missed too many penalties. I know who would have kicked them.’ The coach won’t start, the plugs flooded, so we’re delayed. ‘Coming for fifteen pints?’ says Rugger Bugger when we get back late.
Next evening as I arrive for duty, Baldy approaches me. ‘No prep tonight, Rob. They’re going to the play. You don’t mind accompanying them do you? There are seats reserved.’
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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Fleetwood Mac - Albatross
Heard this as a teenager and loved the whole seascape background as well as the melody, but the real back story to this is one evening in the 90’s when I was invited to a party in a garden in deepest Kent. A mini stage erected in the garden. A strange bearded man wandering round. And then, magically, he appears on the stage with a guitar and a few mates, and starts playing “Albatross.” It’s Peter Green!!! Lives locally…what a treat! What a party!
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells Part 2
Takes me back to student digs sharing with my best mate Dave. Bunk beds in a tiny room on a housing estate outside the city walls. First weekend, feeling depressed, he returned to the room with this album; confessed to never having hard it but saw it in the shop at number one in the album charts. Well…it certainly was a milestone piece of music; surely the first truly “homegrown” album, with Oldfield playing all the instruments. It gained further popularity of course as the theme to “The Exorcist.” Few albums evoke the 70’s as much as this one for me.
Michael Chapman - Rainmaker
I managed to rediscover this piece of work after years trying to remember who it was by. For some reason I had it in my head that it was John Martyn, then Bert Jansch, then John Renbourn, but no luck. Fortunately, a Spotify link to Al Stewart unearthed the track and I was able to listen to it once more. Took me back straight away to being an impressionable 16 year old, desperate to “find” myself yet struggling with the immensities of overcoming shyness, spots, or countless other ineptitudes.
The rain and guitars had a similar influence to that of “Albatross.” Somehow I seem to have kept that theme running throughout my listening. Love “Glistening Glyndebourne” by John Martyn and Acoustic Alchemy’s “Against The Grain.” Give them a go!
About the Author: Richard Parsons
I’ve been fascinated with writing since I was a youngster; creative writing in English lessons was my favourite part of school life along with swapping music with mates or playing sport.
When I decided to quit teaching after many happy years, I applied for and won a scholarship to do a Masters at Plymouth Uni in Creative Writing. Drama was really the main string to my bow, but I soon became hooked on the idea of crafting short stories, and, eventually, the longer form of narrative. After graduating with a distinction, I cut my teeth writing for women’s magazines, but this was never in my own “voice” and was always formulaic. “Given Circumstances” is the real me.
Hope you enjoy it!