Summer term. 1981.
I’m in my study listening to Pat Metheny on the cassette player, holding a letter from The Big Cheese, countersigned by the Bursar confirming a rise in salary next year. “In recognition of your contribution to drama at Fitzrovia.”
It’s warm June sunshine outside with the aroma of fresh mown grass through the open window; a presage to cricket nets in half an hour. At the sound of footsteps in the corridor I thrust the letter into my pocket.
BJ breezes in with an armful of papers. ‘Fuckin’ hell. Got a ton of marking to do.’ He clears his throat loudly, and turns to the window before gobbing out of it.
I have to laugh. We’re poles apart in so many ways. ‘Och! You’re so fuckin’ English,’ he’ll say when we talk politics. ‘Och! What’s this shite?’ when I get to put on my choice of music. We argue and fight over everything and nothing. But the trips to the woods in Autumn and our time together in Walnut Avenue mean we’re tight as tight. Proper mates. Nothing to hide.
Now, he’s twitchy. His eye on the new French Assistante, Mademoiselle Fifi. ‘I fuckin’ love French women.’ His old girlfriend has disappeared from the equation. ‘Och, we’ll always be friends, but, she’s in fuckin’ Inverness. Too far, man.’
Over the years I’ve known him he’s had a succession of dalliances. An American evangelist type, all smiley smiley, happy clappy; a red head Irish girl from London he’d met on holiday somewhere, quite hippie; an Italian from a summer school; a barmaid from somewhere. ‘Fuck man, I needed to get my end away.’ And I know he’s had a dangerous flirtation with one of the upper sixth girls. ‘She’s got the eye for me. I might have to do something about it.’
Mademoiselle Fifi laughs a lot. Is already popular with the older kids. And with BJ. ‘French women; I love ‘em.’
He idly flicks through an essay. ‘Have you sent that invite out for your party at the end of term?’
I’m inviting some people round to Orchard Cottage. An end of year thank you to cast and crew of “Bouncers”, and others from the common room. My older cricketers who are leaving. Mademoiselle Fifi. Letting down hair.
‘What did she say?’
‘She said, ooh la la, that would be tres jolie as long as that naughty Scotsman gives me a good seeing to.’
‘Away and shite.’
There are more footsteps outside. A brief knock on the open door. Fizz appears with Twinkletoes. Both are in games kit. Tennis gear.
I see Fizz regularly in my study now. Every day after mealtimes, or break, for as long as I can recall, she and someone else will come in and she’ll plonk herself on a spare chair. ‘This is Sarah,’ she might say. ‘She’s new and wants to do some drama but was a bit frightened to talk to you.’ Hard to admit but there’s always an added thump in my chest when she appears. Why?
She’s always a mass of energy. ‘Hi. Can I put some music on?’ She’s an expert, sliding open my cassette and slamming something in before jumping theatrically on a chair, talking about whatever’s happening. ‘What are we doing in rehearsals tonight?’ All eyes, smile and positivity. Like a drug. A natural high. ‘I’m reading “Wuthering Heights”; have you read it? Does it end happily?’
She hardly ever calls me “sir” any more.
Now at the end of her first year in Sixth Form, she’s been touted at meetings as a potential Head of School for the following year though has ended up as Major Barker’s next Head of House. He confided in me. ‘Always volunteers. Wish there more kids like her here. Of course, you already know that.’
Twinkletoes throws herself into a seat. Fizz is at the cassette player. ‘Brought this for you to listen to. The Stylistics. Have you heard of them?’
BJ glances towards Fizz. ‘You here again?’ He taps his papers speaking to Twinkletoes. ‘Just going to mark your test essay.’ She goes bright red. Then he turns back to Fizz. ‘Change the music then.’
She’s fiddling. ‘What’s this playing?’
‘Pat Metheny,’ I say, and I see her raise her eyebrows theatrically, turning her big blue eyes to me.
‘Och. He’s obsessed,’ says BJ. ‘Keep telling him it’s not the only answer.’ He grins at her. ‘Have you heard “Julia” by Pavlov’s Dog?’
‘No. Should I?’
‘I’ll lend you a copy,’ he says. ‘Great. Of course he thinks it’s shite. But then he’s got no taste, eh?’ And off he breezes.
‘Are you here for something in particular?’ I ask as the two girls settle.
‘We want to talk to you about uni choices,’ says Twinkletoes. ‘Before we apply. What do you think of Westchester?’
It’s a redbrick uni no more than a couple of miles away. ‘It’s got a good reputation I think. Would it mean living at home for you?’
‘Yes. Don’t mind that.’
‘I was just saying. I couldn’t do it,’ says Fizz. ‘Need to live away.’ She pulls a face. ‘There’s a baby on the way. I’d end up having to do a ton of sprog sitting if I was there.’ She fiddles with the hem of her shorts. ‘I’m thinking of Westchester too,’ she says. ‘Or going travelling. Have you travelled much?’
‘Not as much as I’d like. I’m going to try and use my holidays more. Now mum’s gone. Long haul. See something of the world.’
Fizz nods. ‘I’m thinking of a GAP year. Maybe after uni. I’d like to go to New Zealand. Go whale watching.’
‘Wow. Yes. Sounds great.’
Twinkletoes peeks at her watch. ‘We’d better go. One other thing, sir.’
‘Do you know anything about jobs in summer school?’
‘Oh yes,’ exclaims Fizz. ‘We’ve been asked to do it.’
Fitzie’s holds a summer school for local children. It’s manned by an assortment of teachers, some from Fitzie’s; employs older or former pupils to deal with the day-to-day stuff, checking clothing, sunscreen, seeing to their every need. It’s sports based, but there are clowning sessions, juggling classes, music workshops, arts and crafts, and drama. I want no part of it, jealously guarding my summer holiday.
‘I believe the money’s pretty good,’ I say. ‘But that’s about it. Try talking to the Bursar.’
‘Right. Will do.’ The girls are up and away. ‘Bye. See you later,’ calls Fizz. ‘You can keep the tape to listen to.’
Later that afternoon, after nets, there’s a note in my pigeonhole. From the Bursar. “Could you pop in and see me?” I hope it’s nothing to do with Orchard Cottage.
‘Thing is, Robby, I’m in a bit of a hole.’ The Bursar’s wringing his hands. ‘Summer school’s worth a lot of money to us, and I really need someone to plug the drama gap. I’ve been letdown by my man. Not entirely his fault; he’s been offered a summer season at the last minute, but it leaves me short. Are you sure you wouldn’t consider it?’
I shake my head. ‘I don’t like to let you down, but it’s my holiday.’
‘I’ll pay you double.’ He raises his eyebrows. And the stakes.
Double? I know that’s a lot of dosh. I glance out of the window. I’ve been trying to save up to replace the unreliable Allegro, thinking of buying the car I covet. Hmmm.
‘For two weeks, yes?’
The Bursar nods.
‘And I can do whatever I like?’
I glance outside again. Picture a black Saab. A pair of magnetic blue eyes?
The Bursar’s looking hopeful.
‘Go on then.’
He thrusts out his hand and pumps mine. ‘Thanks, Robby. You’ve saved my bacon.’ He purses his lips. ‘Cash in hand?’ And winks.
‘You’re mad,’ says BJ. ‘Work? In the holidays? No thanks, not even for the money.’
And he’s right of course. So why have I agreed to do it?
It’s the evening before Speech Day. Last day of the academic year. A hum of conversation in my garden and the stereo playing quite loudly. Dire Straits. It’s just going dark, so it’s late. I’ve been for a walk in the fields at the back of Orchard Cottage, catching BJ’s eye. ‘Have a word?’ Pipe at the ready, mints in pocket. Looking back into the garden from the field, I can see the lights Gandalf’s rigged round the trees like some fairy grotto. ‘Got a few spare outdoor lanterns,’ he growled. ‘You can keep them up over the holidays.’
There’s a glow from the small campfire, groups standing, talking, others sat on the grass or deck chairs. Biggles, Taff, the Commander, Gentle Giant, Gandalf, the Undercarpets, Matron, Major Barker, The Bursar and those chosen few leavers or older pupils like those who’ve featured in “Bouncers” or at cricket.
‘Pupils?’ exclaims Major Barker, eyes popping, when he arrives and I tell him there are some here.
‘Practically former pupils,’ I say, filling his glass. ‘Mostly.’
Well why not? They’re like friends to me.
The music’s suddenly turned up. BJ emerges from the house.
“…the sultans of swing…”
My neighbours are away. No one’s going to object to us letting our hair down. ‘Oh yes!’ Major Barker’s laughing with Twinkletoes. Re-filling his glass. He’s on the raz.
BJ’s immediately plugged back into Fifi. Good luck mate. Everyone seems very relaxed and happy.
And looking at those twinkling lights, I catch a glimpse of Fizz and my heart bumps while a smile rushes to my face.
There’s gales of laughter from a group on the grass as I return to the garden. Fizz is trying to drink upside down from a glass, egged on by Balls and Rubber Man. I shake my head in mock horror. ‘Right. That’s enough. She’s bad enough on oxygen without a vat of wine as well.’
She shakes her head. ‘It was a bet. I’m not really drinking.’ Throws me that smile. Those eyes.
‘I’ve got to shut up shop anyway I’m afraid. Early start for us all tomorrow, and then I’ve got a full day.’
Almost immediately she bounds about, comically hauling up the remaining younger guests. ‘Come on then, everyone. Let the man get to his bed. Poor old man.’
‘There’s no need to remind me of my age.’
She flicks me a smile. ‘It’s just a number.’
Eventually, when even the old lags have gone, BJ and I have another pull on the pipe. ‘Thank God it’s end of term.’
He blows out smoke. ‘Made some progress tonight.’
‘Told her I was going to Greece. She said she’s always wanted to go.’
‘Only fuckin’ invited her.’
‘Fuck. What did she say?’
He takes another firm pull on the pipe, exhales loudly. A fog of blue smoke. ‘She only fuckin’ well said yes.’
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
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It’s For You – Pat Metheny
From the album “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” released in 1981 with sidekick Lyle Mays on keyboards, this is a seminal album from this greatest of great jazz guitarists. The title song lasts well over twenty minutes, but it’s the others that really express the beauty of Pat’s compositions. “It’s For You” and “September 15th” both feature in the 1985 film “Fandango” which was an early vehicle for Kevin Costner – and I recommend as a watch in its own right.
People Make the World Go Round - The Stylistics
I’ve already put this song on my music blog “Music To Blow Smoke Rings Across The Floor” but feel no compunction for adding it to this curation, despite The Stylistics being universally regarded as a pop/Philly sound of the 70’s. I was introduced to them by a girlfriend at college – and hated them for the sugary content – but rediscovered them later…particularly this version of ‘People…”
The Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits
The first single that attracted my attention to a band that would take the 80’s by storm. If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t listened to “Love Over Gold” or their equally fab live double album “Alchemy” then do so NOW!
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!