An area originally of London which was a fashionable rendezvous for those with a taste for the Bohemian life.
The two chimneys belch smoke and the ICI building’s shrouded in smog as I try to start dad’s old Ford Anglia on the morning of the interview. The engine turns over several times before the spark fires; a cloud of exhaust from the back. The grimy terraces are still festooned with red, white and blue after the Jubilee celebrations and parties.
Mum’s getting ready for another day, tying her headscarf. ‘I wish you’d had a haircut; and allowed me to sew that badge on properly. It’s not straight is it?’ She shakes her head. ‘Put your headlights on then. Have you checked the oil?’
I pick up my old school blazer with its grand lapels and hastily stitched gold filament college cricket badge that I’ve kept, pristine, in a box. Credentials. I’m in some Crimplene blue trousers, turn-upped and flared, platforms, blue polyester shirt, and sporting one of dad’s old cricket club ties.
‘Just think before you speak,’ mum concludes. ‘Good luck. Be yourself.’
Be myself? Who am I?
The landscape transforms itself from terraces and pitheads caked in industrial grime, past peaks and moor to picture book pasture with honey hued dwellings. “Welcome to Buckinghamshire.” There’s no radio in the car, so I’m listening to my portable cassette player. I’ve only got three tapes. “Aja”, “Zero She Flies” and “Days of Future Past.” The Moody Blues. That’ll do for starters. “…Tuesday afternoon, I’m just beginning to see…” Can I take it as a sign? It’s a Tuesday after all.
I test myself with interview questions I’m hoping to be asked. Which desert island book would I request? “Wisden Cricketer’s Almanac”? No. Too offbeat to be seriously considered, however truthful. No. I could use a good lie. Something impressive. Intellectual. Something existentialist perhaps, like Kafka or Sartre. But what if they ask me questions about them? Like, “have you read any?” What then? Miles pass before I decide on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”; at least I’ve read it.
And what’s my favourite Shakespeare play? (Which one do I know best?) Or my view of corporal punishment? (Can I say a good slap never hurt anyone? Last resort? Never?) Hope they don’t ask about modern literature, or pry too deeply into the fibs on my CV. What did I say about Drama?
In time I pull off from a main road and disappear down winding lanes into countryside. Black and white cows on green grass. The middle of nowhere. Who the hell would go to school in such an out the way place? I glance at my watch – bugger - before pulling out Al Stewart and popping it on the cassette. “Zero She Flies” – a reference to flying an aeroplane blind, though exactly on course, through fog or darkness. Hmmm.
Eventually I turn through gates and come to the end of a long graveled drive. In the distance lit by the sun is a grand old building, covered in ivy. Parking up there’s sweat trickling down my back, a flurry in my chest, an old rhyme running through my head. “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date...”
‘Useless directions.’ Pulling my letter out to check, I note blue flags fluttering on greens and a lake glittering. A golf course?
A sports car draws up alongside scrunching gravel and a guy wearing tweeds emerges. Bollocks. My heart sinks. No one would dress like that unless they were playing golf.
He glances over. ‘Lost your bearings?’
‘I’m looking for Fitzrovia.’ I tap my letter and tut.
‘Look no further. Reception’s in the main building.’
What? The guy in tweeds has a chisel face, as if carved from granite; speaks a bit like Trevor Bailey on Test Match Special. Clipped.
I do a double take of the mansion. Is he taking the piss? Can this really be the right place?
‘Mark my footsteps.’ And he’s off. No golf clubs, but something black clutched in his hand. A lawn mower drones as I tear my blazer from the passenger seat, yanking it hard when something catches somewhere. A rip?
Chisel Face glances at me when I catch up. ‘Are you visiting Fitzie’s?’ He’s not so much older than me, but is a foot taller, with this sort of sneer, as if there’s a bad smell nearby. ‘Or delivering?’
In the distance tennis courts and cricket bays stretch. A sign reads “School House.” Can it be the right place?
I drag on my blazer. ‘I’m here for an interview.’
‘Oh yes?’ He reaches into a pocket, withdraws a pair of half rimmed glasses and gives me the once over. Raises an eyebrow. ‘Grounds? Maintenance?’
What’s he talking about? He unrolls a black gown and pulls it on. Like Dracula.
‘Teaching,’ I say.
Chisel Face clicks his teeth and mutters something in a foreign language. Transylvanian? ‘I didn’t know there were any vacancies in Uppers. Or are you Prep?’
Mumbo Jumbo. Uppers are pills aren’t they? Prep’s short for prepared isn’t it?
‘Oh, excuse me.’ Chisel Face now hails someone.
A giant youth wearing a short version of Chisel Face’s cloak appears. He looks young to be a teacher and dresses like someone out of the “The Field” magazines mum brings home. “Viscount Ashbury at the Walsingham shoot.”
A complete style catastrophe.
‘Sir?’ Can he be a pupil?
Chisel Face speaks rapidly. ‘ETA Upper Fifths JCR fifteen thirty; tell them it’s shirt sleeve order would you?’ More gobbledygook.
Viscount Ashbury nods. ‘And I’ll ask Johnners to do the Line, shall I sir?’
Maybe they’re on drugs.
After dismissing the Viscount, Chisel Face turns to look down at me again. ‘Have you come a long way, Mister...?’ Like he’s got a mouth full of marbles. Or fangs.
‘Hopebourne,’ I say. ‘Derby.’ Glancing down, something catches my eye. My blazer badge. It’s ripped, flapping, threads showing. Bollocks.
I hold out my hand.
Chisel Face looks at it as if it’s covered in shit. ‘Martin Leicester.’ Firm but briefest grip.
Reception’s like a library with a photocopier, phone and BANDA machine. A well- preserved woman with Hovis hair sits at a desk.
‘Un complètement dèpaysè,’ says Chisel Face, raising an eyebrow, indicating me, as I fiddle with my badge.
Should have listened more in French lessons.
Hovis Hair giggles, and primps herself. ‘You are naughty,’ she says, before he disappears, gown flapping.
‘Are you being looked after?’ Hovis Hair’s voice is like that Valerie Singleton on “Blue Peter.”
I look to where Chisel Face’s vanished. ‘Martin helped.’
‘Who?’ She follows my gaze. ‘Oh, you mean Kit.’ What? Airfix? ‘Christopher Martin-Lester, Head of Modern Languages.’ She busies herself with papers as I feel myself colour. Sod it. I hope it’s the last I see of Chisel Face.
She looks up from her papers. Is her hair glued in place? ‘You must be Mister Hopebourne. I’m Francoise Le Chevalier. HM’s Sec. We spoke on the phone. You’re actually going to the Prep.’
That word again. Be prepared. Like scouts.
‘We’ve organised a guide for you.’
Another young giant introduces himself as my guide. ‘I’m about to be a Valedictorian.’
Where to start? Like Viscount Ashbury, he’s another corker with black hair, crew cut, dark eyebrows, and wearing clothes like someone from a nineteen forties film. I wouldn’t be seen dead in any of it.
‘Mister Corrie-Anderson’s really friendly.’ He speaks like Prince Charles; towers over me. ‘Spicy,’ he chortles.
I pluck up courage to ask the Prince. ‘What exactly does Mister, er, Spicy do?’
‘He’s Head of Prep, of course.’ He has this way of looking down at me, single black eyebrow raised.
Leading me past emerald lawns and along colonnades there are more signs. One reads “Oppidans.” What the hell does that mean? Is it an anagram? Pain pods?
‘We get some weeklies,’ says Prince Charles, ‘and a few Oppies.’
We’re stopped by someone called something incomprehensible who asks the Prince if he fancies ‘a few holes after a spot of tea.’
The one girl I see wears stuff like my gran. Kilt skirt below the knee, hair tied back, thick cream blouse tucked in. Flat shoes. The Prince calls over to her. ‘Anastasia. See you at Jacko’s later?’
The sound of an organ playing filters through the air. ‘That’s the Chapel,’ he remarks as we pass a building with stained glass. ‘Will you be staying for evensong?’
Is it a church school?
Oh my God that might explain it. It’s some sort of religious cult. Holy Moses; a place for weirdoes.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I mutter.
‘Yes,’ says Prince Charles. ‘And that’s the theatre. We did a bit from “Godspell” last term in House.’ And he starts to sing quietly. ‘…day by day, day by day, oh dear Lord three things I pray…’ before smiling at me. ‘I was John the Baptist.’
Enough said. It’s some sort of bizarre religious sect.
The Prince then gestures to another huge ivy covered building. Some of the windows appear to have bars. ‘And that’s the San.’
San? Isn’t that short for sanity? OK. Maybe it’s one of those schools for disturbed kids rather than a religious one. That might explain their clothes and hair. They’re nutcases.
Then there’s another sign saying, “Range”, with a group of youngsters marching in combat gear. Someone holding a stick under his arm shouts, ‘Atten-shun!’ Wait a minute. A military school. That’s it! Not sure I fancy that. All those early starts, press-ups at dawn, cold showers, square bashing, short hair. And that’s just the staff.
‘Middle Fifth do rifles in CCF in Uppers,’ says Prince Charles.
Who? CCF? Christian? Children? Fighting? Does the Salvation Army run schools for crazy kids?
What sort of place is this?
‘This is it,’ the Prince says as we turn a corner.
It’s a smart building with a small cricket field where a game’s being played. The boys playing look very young but it’s obviously a Majorly Important Match because all of them are wearing whites, jumpers and proper boots. Dad saved hard to buy me my first pair of spikes. ‘Now you’re fifteen. Hope they’ll help you become a proper cricketer,’ he’d wheezed. ‘Happy birthday, lad.’
‘Looks a good wicket,’ I say. ‘Short boundary.’
‘I don’t play cricket,’ the Prince replies. ‘I’m in the eight.’
Eight a side? What game’s that?
‘Here we are.’ He knocks on a door. ‘I’ve got someone else to show round and then I’m going for a paddle.’
Spicy’s heavily built, dressed in a crumpled suit with owl-like glasses. He smiles jovially and holds out his hand to shake mine.
‘Thank you for coming at such short notice. I know it’s a long way. Lived a bit further north myself after university. Played a bit of Midland League cricket. Good grounding for anyone I think, don’t you?’
He indicates a seat in a battered armchair. A Labrador’s slobbering over a rubber bone by his desk where a kettle boils and “Test Match Special” is on his radio, the familiar theme tune and voices of John Arlott and Brian Johnston from Trent Bridge. ‘You don’t mind if I keep this on, do you?’ asks Spicy.
Is it a catch question? ‘Great.’ I cross legs, sitting listening to commentary from Nottingham, keeping one eye on the Major Match outside. I can see Spicy taking my CV in hand and a percussive flutter starts in my chest. What fibs did I tell?
Featured songs. Back Story.
“Tuesday Afternoon.” Moody Blues.
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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“Tuesday Afternoon.” Moody Blues.
From the concept album “Days Of Future Passed” released in 1967, and famous for the Moodys biggest hit, “Nights In White Satin,” it featured a full orchestra fused with their soft rock. All members of the band wrote songs, though there doesn’t seem much argument that Justin Hayward was the real creative genius. I first heard the album again through my bro’s open door - lost count of how often that happened - and was hooked, not just by the obvious immensity of “Nights...” but “Peak Hour” and “Tuesday Afternoon” as well. Some of my friends were into the Moodys as well; Saturday nights in front of the Dansette listening to “Threshold Of A Dream” or “To Our Children’s Children’s Children” with one of those vast cans of “Party 7.” Those were the days!
“Burbling.” Al Stewart.
Have to thank my bro again for Al. We were living in Beckenham at the time, and Al played one of our local pubs. ‘Wanna come?’ It was possibly the first proper gig I ever went to as a teenager, and my memory is how great a guitarist Al was. Properly underrated as a matter of fact, so I hope this instrumental track might give you some idea of his virtuosity. I’ve subsequently bought a load of his early albums, enjoying his oh so English voice on “Bedsitter Images”, “Orange” and my favourite, ‘Zero She Flies.” Later albums also proved how he moved with the times, including his best known song, “Year of the Cat,” while the album “Time Passages” always hits the spot.
About the Curator: 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!