The story so far…Robert Hopebourne has completed his first year of teaching Drama at Fitzrovia College. His two friends, Rugger Bugger and Adonis have left. Now, he must move accommodation and meet his new house-mate. Enter BJ!
September 1978. Year two.
On the last day of the summer holiday, I’m whistling along to the radio; the Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”; a throwback to naive school days, when the phone rings at home. ‘Hello?’
‘Och. Is that Mister Hopebourne?’ A broad male Scots accent.
‘Och. The school secretary gave me your number. I believe we’re sharing a house together at Fitzrovia.’
Are we? We talk briefly before he brings the conversation to a halt. ‘Och. Let’s get together over a beer tomorrow.’ A short silence. ‘You do drink don’t you?’
Next day, the sun’s shining as I wander into reception, dragging bags. Hovis Hair rings for the Bursar. ‘I’m afraid he’s out at the moment. And he’s got the keys to Walnut Avenue. Have you met your housemate yet? He’s in the drawing room.’
What’s he like?
He’s balding, prematurely judging by his age, bold eyed, dressed in ripped dark jeans and Ramones black t-shirt, filthy trainers. Fidgets a hand to his crotch. ‘Och. Hello.’
Black Jock. Shakes my hand firmly. Will we get on? ‘It’s my first teaching post. Economics.’
‘I’m in the Prep,’ I say. ‘Drama and English.’
He shrugs. Before I have time to get another angle on him, he’s decided to go over to Walnut Avenue. ‘Let’s see if we can get the fuck in.’
27 Walnut Avenue’s a bungalow, not more than fifteen minutes walk away. As we saunter, he establishes something of his background. Given circumstances. ‘Och, my dad’s a miner and my mum’s a fuckin’ alcoholic.’ Is he joking? ‘We live in a wee council house in Alloa. Do you know it? Fuckin’ awful place.’
The garden at Walnut Avenue’s overgrown. Lifting the letterbox, Black Jock peers in. ‘Och. There’s about a ton of magazines on the floor there.’
I follow suit. ‘Smells damp.’
Black Jock’s hunting round the side of the building. ‘See if there’s a window I can break through.’
What’s he like? ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’
But he laughs. ‘Och. I’ve broken into loads of fuckin’ places.’
True to his word, he finds a catch on one of the windows and prises it open, then jumps up and wriggles inside. I wait by the front door, which eventually opens. The floor’s covered in weeks of free newspapers and other junk mail. The smell of damp’s more obvious. Hmm.
There are two bedrooms in the bungalow. ‘I’ll have this one,’ says Black Jock. The biggest. The kitchen’s in a state. Cracked ceiling; water marks. Has anyone thought of us moving in? The carpets are pretty threadbare as well. Nothing like Maynard Road. What’s going on?
‘Och. This’ll suit me fine,’ says Black Jock. ‘Great.’
We go back to reception. Hovis Hair looks relieved. ‘The Bursar’s back from lunch. I’ll tell him you’re here.’
The Bursar breezes in, nods at me, and shakes Black Jock by the hand. ‘Let’s go over to Walnut Avenue.’
He’s quick to cover for its state. ‘Oh. I’ll get on to Maintenance. Don’t you worry, they’ll have it ship shape in no time.’
‘You wanna get that fixed,’ says Black Jock indicating the window. ‘Someone could break in there.’
The Bursar looks at his watch. ‘Why don’t you two go into town? Come back, say, at five?’
We go to the Flyer, where Black Jock spends a small fortune on the juke box, playing a load of punk. ‘Rezillos. Fuckin’ great.’ I retaliate with the one John Martyn track on the juke box. “Dancing.” Scottish at least.
‘Och. What’s this shite?’ he asks ploughing through a pickled egg, chewing loudly, mouth open. When I tell him who it is, he nods and slurps his pint. Wipes his hand on his T shirt. ‘Och. Well, it’s not so bad maybe.’
We’ve talked. He gets worked up about stereotypes. ‘Och. I’ve met these English wankers who call anyone from Scotland, Black Jock or some such shite.’
BJ’s also keen to underline his credentials as a man of the world; tells me about his travels. ‘South American women, I love ‘em.’ He’s hitched and shagged his way round. Worked in a multicultural kibbutz, in Camp America, then tedious jobs as a salesman and barman, before “seeing the light” and retraining as a teacher. He’s got a long-standing girlfriend. ‘Och, if I dinnae like this place I’ll fuck off back to Scotland.’
When I ask about schooling he practically spits out his beer. ‘Full of wankers and scum.’
But I learn that he read lots of books as a child. He goes on and on about “On The Road” by Kerouac. ‘Fuckin’ brilliant.’
‘My dad, he reads,’ BJ continues. ‘Politics and things. Volumes of it. Intelligent man my dad. For a miner.’ He sounds tough but is he?
He’s as much into music as me. Just different stuff. ‘Och. Television, man, they’re the bollocks.’ When we return to Walnut Avenue, he’s quick to slam on more two chord crap in his room while we’re unpacking. Loud. Eventually, in a lull, when his album finishes, I throw on some Supertramp; “Fool’s Overture.” Proper music.
‘Och. What’s that shite?’ he demands.
That evening there’s a drinks reception at The Big Cheese’s house. BJ comes into the front room ready to go. He’s in a ripped T shirt, something about The Grateful Dead and grungy patched jeans. Same filthy trainers. Is he going dressed like that? But, he’s a Deadhead is he? That’s interesting. You aren’t a Deadhead without taking plenty of drugs.
This is a new development.
I point at BJ’s T shirt. ‘Grateful Dead eh?’ In for a penny… ‘You smoked dope?’
His eyes narrow dangerously. ‘Have you?’ A challenge. Touché.
The silence develops before I point again at his T shirt. ‘Have you seen them play?’
It’s like lifting a lid on him. He’s immediately animated, full of a story about seeing them at the Giants Stadium. ‘Played “Dark Star.” Me tripping on acid. Fuckin’ great!’ He runs to his room and brings out a photo. ‘That’s me.’ There’s a lad with long flowing locks like a girl with his arm round some young woman. ‘Och. Had hair then. She was from Spain. Love Spanish women.’
Eventually he stops and asks about me. ‘You done any acid?’
I shake my head. ‘Dope. But I’d like to do mushrooms. I’ve got a book, been looking occasionally in autumn, just haven’t found any yet. You ever done them?’
And he’s into another story. One about taking a heap of them for the first time at his college. ‘Freaked me out. Och. Should never have done it on my own at night. The coffee beans were bouncing on the kitchen table. Had to find a mate to talk me down. Told me it was much better to do it outside in daylight. Came with me next time. Fuckin’ great. We should go looking.’
‘Count me in.’
We’re about to leave Walnut Avenue when I decide to say something. ‘Look, don’t take offence, but I know it’s your first job, and I know you don’t know much about these sort of places, so maybe for tonight, go conservative. Don’t give too much away or stand out. Watch, learn. I learned the hard way.’
‘Och, so you’re pretty experienced then? I thought you were new to this game as well.’
I’ve hardly got a word in all afternoon.
He pulls a face. ‘Sorry, Robby, man. Didn’t know. Assumed you’d be like a new boy as well, what with living in this fuckin’ place and stuff. Och. So you’re used to all this public school shite are you?’ He gives me the once over. I’m wearing Oxford bags and a check shirt. Some new brogues. ‘Guess you are,’ he says and fiddles with his clothes. ‘You think I should change?’
‘Och. Wait a sec then.’ He’s soon back, in a shiny dark suit. White shiny shirt. Same grimy trainers. ‘Och. It’s all I’ve got. Need to go shopping.’
‘Really? No shoes at all?’
He sighs. ‘Och. I’ll check.’ When he returns he’s found a pair of shiny patent leather black shoes. ‘They were my dad’s. He used to wear them to go dancing.’
The drinks do is in the Big Cheese’s garden. He stands head and shoulders above everyone. A peacock strutting. There are tables with wine and nibbles, waiters and waitresses overseen by Queen Gladys. People dressed casually but smart. Miss Dazzle and Chisel Face are at the centre of a crowd. A photograph album out. I catch sight of Biggles and his wife. ‘Look, I’ll see you later,’ I say to BJ. ‘Your Head of Department’s over there.’
I meet up with him later. He’s walking back into the garden from somewhere. ‘Och, needed a pish. Been in the field just there.’ There’s mud over his shoes. Damp patch.
‘How are you getting on?’ I enquire.
‘Och, all right. Got into a bit of a blather about Scottish Independence with some upper class wee runt of a man. I didnae like him.’ He feels in his pocket and brings out a wine glass. ‘Let’s get another drink eh?’
There’s wine on all the tables. BJ picks up a red and tips it into his glass, full to the brim, then downs it before filling it to the top again. He takes another swig, the bottle still in his hand then proffers it. ‘Och, sorry. Here.’ He pours me half a glass and refills his own, putting on an absurd accent. ‘Pretty decent plonk eh, what what?’
‘Very good.’ I laugh. ‘You’ll soon be talking like that.’
He slides straight back into broad Alloa. ‘Away and shite. I’ll never talk like these people.’ He slips me a grin. ‘You already do.’
‘How many others came for your job?’ I’m curious. How did he get a job here?
‘Och. There was some old guy there as well. There’s a shortage of Economics teachers. Why?’
‘Och. I was probably cheap.’
‘What else have they got you signed up for then?’
‘Signed up? What do you mean?’
‘Games? CCF? Activities?’
‘Och, well I’m Scottish aren’t I? So they think I’m good at football. Said I watch Athletic every week. I’ll probably be in charge of the first team here.’
‘Really? Do you play footie then?’
‘No. I’m complete shite.’
We join a group that includes Taff, and others I recognize from the Uppers English department, including the Head of Department. I’ve chatted with him a few times over the previous year. He’s tall, dignified, erudite. ‘I’ve just delivered a small paper to Lit Soc about Greene’s Catholicism.’ Gentle Giant. With him are the school librarian and the teaching support woman.
It’s time to eat; one of those finger buffet things, with a clip to hold a glass while eating from the plate. Dainty. It’s also help yourself, so I pop a few things on my plate. Easy to eat. BJ comes back trying to steady his. Showers of crisps drop to the floor as he shovels them into his mouth.
The support woman has been to France for her holidays.
‘Great,’ says BJ, smacking his lips. ‘I love French women.’ He’s stuffing a sausage roll into his mouth, and has another ready in hand. He chews mightily then smacks his lips once more. His glass is full to overflowing as he empties the rest of the red into it. Slurps noisily.
Gentle Giant addresses him. ‘You’re from Alloa? I’ve never been there.’
‘Aye well, you dinnae want to go there.’ BJ spits pastry. ‘Och, it’s all right, but you know, the Tories tore up the industries there. Ripped the heart out of it. Now it’s full of scum.’
Gentle Giant’s chewing thoughtfully on a vol au vent. He turns to me. ‘So, Robert, I hear the Prep school’s going to be in for a treat this term. Quite an undertaking writing your own musical.’
‘I suppose so, but fortunately I’ve got an excellent MD to help.’
‘Managing Director?’ asks BJ through a piece of quiche.
‘Musical Director. The guy who writes and plays the music, bashes out the notes.’
The librarian talks about a conference in Tokyo. BJ chomps noisily and at the end says, ‘Och. Japanese women. I love ‘em.’
Later, I’m just returning from the downstairs toilet in the Big Cheese’s house when I bump into BJ again. He’s in the kitchen attacking a piece of brie. With a wooden spoon. ‘When are we going?’ he says, cheese stringing round his mouth.
‘Shame it’s a bit late to go to the pub.’
‘Och. We could stay here. There’s loads of booze left.’
‘I think it’s meant to end round about now. Everyone else is going.’
We take leave of our hosts. BJ wipes his hand on his suit before shaking hands with Sheila. ‘Great,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’
‘We must have you round,’ Sheila replies. ‘Perhaps you could address the haggis on Burns night?’
Now that would be interesting.
I have to tear BJ away. I’ve tried to keep an eye on him, but what the hell. He’s telling someone about a trip along Route 66. ‘Great. I love American women.’
Back at Walnut Avenue, he’s soon back into t-shirt and jeans.
‘There’s nothing in the house to drink,’ I say. ‘Should have thought ahead.’
‘I did.’ He disappears and comes back with two bottles of wine. They’re the same sort as at the Big Cheese’s do. ‘Stowed them under my jacket.’ He also pulls out a small pipe. Some tin foil. Unwraps it. There’s a pea size piece of dope there. ‘I’ve kept this specially for an occasion like this.’
I laugh out loud.
What’s he like?
‘Och. Put some music on then, Robby,’ he says, stuffing the pipe. ‘Put on Rush. And get a fuckin’ move on opening those bottles would you?’
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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Wouldn’t It Be Nice? - The Beach Boys
The first LP I actually bought was way back in 1966. In “Given Circumstances” I name it as “In The Court of the Crimson King” but alas, in truth it was much more middle of the road - “The Best of the Beach Boys Volume One”.
It had a load of favourites like “Little Deuce Coup”, “God Only Knows” and “Here Today.” But even allowing for the brilliance of “God Only Knows”, it was “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” that attracted my attention. Great harmonies; great melody. Seminal Brian Wilson Beach Boys. Pop music at its height.
Dancing - John Martyn
Along with “Solid Air” this has to be one of my favourite all-time John Martyn tracks. My mate from Falkirk, Graham was a fan; though “Dancing” was one of those songs that I first heard on late night radio, and couldn’t wait to get down to the local record store to grab a copy. Love the jangling guitars and his voice is at the peak of its powers.
Fool’s Overture - Supertramp
An epic track, with all those sound effects and the harkback to Churchill’s stirring war speech. I guess it’s very English! I’ve been a fan of Supertramp from sixth form days through college where I played the LP “Crime of the Century” to death. This track’s from “Even In The Quietest Moments” released in 1977. I love the big build-up, and then the runaway career to the end.
Xanadu - Rush
Totally owe Graham for unearthing this gem for me. Canadian band Rush released their album ‘A Farewell To Kings” in 1977 and this opening track makes use of synths as well as their trademark guitar sound. It’s eleven minutes of immersive sound, with an intro that gradually builds through chimes and bells to the “big” sound of the rest.
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!