‘Be sorry to see you go.’ Biggles is fiddling with his ‘tache as we sit in the staff common room. ‘Are you sure you want to leave?’
‘It’s only an interview. No guarantee I’ll get the job.’
‘What are they looking for?’
It’s a new post.’ I wave a piece of paper. ‘Director of Drama.’
‘What’s the name of the place?’
‘St Radigund’s. Have you heard of it?’
‘No. Devon eh? Nice. We’ll come and visit.’
‘Give me a chance,’ I laugh. ‘I’ve not got the job.’
‘Got to be in with a shout. Your CV must make them sit up and notice.’ He sighs. ‘Be sorry to see you go.’
‘Seamouth! This is Seamouth.’
The train journey from Fitzrovia to Seamouth takes me three hours. I sit listening to Pat Metheny - “Last Train Home” - fading as the train pulls in to the station. A sign?
St Radigund’s School turns out to be dominated by a huge Victorian building with a gravel terrace. It sits, perched on a hill, and the distant sea glitters as I survey the landscape below, my breath steaming in the cold, clear and crisp December day.
To my right a few church towers and other flat-roofed edifices dominate the town’s rows of terraced houses. To my left, in the dip, tree-lined, are modern buildings, large. A university. Grass green is the predominant colour. Soothing.
The walk up from the station has still left me time to scout round the grounds before finding the school reception, trying to get some sort of feel for the place. I might be keen to leave Fitzrovia, but no way do I want to escape the frying pan only to land in a fire.
But it’s easy to see that the school estate will be leafy come summer; paths meander past airy looking buildings, more glass, more modern than Fitzie’s, but still pleasing on the eye. Signs point to a Sports Hall; Theatre; Music School; Art. There are tennis courts and netball posts; hard areas for winter training and a CCF shooting range. A wooden pavilion with balcony overlooks an enclosed playing field. Hockey goals.
Reception is a small office in the main building where three women clack away on typewriters or answer a telephone switchboard. ‘Good morning; St Radigund’s School. How may I help you?’
I’m wearing my charcoal suit, brown brogues. Red socks for that touch of je ne sais quoi.
I introduce myself and a youngish blonde secretary nods and smiles. It feels like a genuine welcome. ‘Hello. There’s tea and biscuits in the drawing room. I’ll take you there.’
The drawing room, which overlooks the terrace, has French doors. In the corner’s a trolley with a small urn steaming; the smell of coffee. A pile of tea bags and a plate of bourbons and digestives. Lounging in one of the comfortable chairs, legs crossed, is another chap, dark haired, in a pin stripe suit. Another candidate. He sips at his cup, looking up, and nods towards me.
Stirring a cup of coffee I stare out across the terrace to the distant ocean.
‘Nice view isn’t it?’ says the chap in the pin stripe suit. ‘Have you come a long way?’
‘Oh I’m Head of Department at Brannigan’s.’ Is he waiting for an acknowledgement from me? ‘Do you know it?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
Pin Stripe raises eyebrows. ‘I’m an OB of Raddie’s too.’
The door opens and a tiny, dark haired chap in a blue suit enters. A pixie. He breaks into an enormous smile and hurries over to Pin Stripe who rises from his slouch, hand outstretched.
‘Hello, Rodders,’ says Pixie, pumping his hand.
‘Hello HM. You’re looking dapper.’ Pin Stripe’s all smiles.
‘Looking forward to catching up,’ says Pixie, before turning my way. ‘Mister Hopebourne?’ Striding over, a scurrying beetle, he holds out his hand. ‘I’m the HM here at Raddie’s.’ He peeps at his watch. ‘I’ll see you in an hour, but I’ve organised a guide to take you round.’ Heading off, he calls to Pin Stripe. ‘See you in five, Rodders. You don’t need a tour do you?’
It’s a stitch-up job. A done deal.
I’ve travelled all this way, set such store by having a fresh start, and now look. I’ve wasted my time and expended a lot of nervous energy.
As a result, my tour, and interview with the Head of English, come and go. I walk sullenly round the grounds. Autopilot. When the Head of English asks about my preferences for teaching, I shrug. ‘I don’t mind. Whatever you want.’
At my interview with Pixie I sit, one eye on the view from his window. It’s only when I cross my legs that I see my left brogue has holes not just in the top. Oh well.
‘You’re obviously very busy at Fitzrovia,’ he says.
I go through the motions or speak recklessly.
‘What would you do if you found one of the pupils smoking drugs?’ asks Pixie.
‘I’d confiscate it,’ I say. ‘And burn it.’
When he asks me where I want to be in five years, I shake my head. ‘Who knows? I might be dead.’
He tells me that the school is sending a party on some sports tour. ‘Very enterprising. What about your extra curricular, Robert?’
What about it? ‘I want to cut back on hockey and I’m only interested in First Eleven cricket; concentrate on drama. And as Head of Department I assume I’ll be on a reduced timetable?’
I criticise some facilities. ‘The theatre at Fitzie’s has a capacity of more than three hundred. This one’s rather small isn’t it?’
Just get on with it so I can go.
Eventually Pixie closes the manila envelope with my stuff. He creases his forehead. Purses his lips. Speaks gently to me. ‘I get the impression that St Radigund’s is a bit of a disappointment to you, Robert. Would I be fair to say that?’ He turns his eyes to mine.
What does he expect?
‘I can see you’ve got a lot of potential. For the right person.’
He nods. ‘And what if I thought you were the right person?’
‘I think that’s unlikely.’ I look him bang in the eye. ‘I have met the other candidate.’
Pixie nods again. Meets my eyes. ‘Yes.’ Then gets up and peers out of the window. ‘He’s a good chap. Worthy candidate. Would fit the place like a glove. Perhaps too cosily.’ He turns to face me. ‘You see, Robert, I want new blood here. New ideas. Somebody to enthuse the pupils. Make them sit up and take notice.’
He hesitates. Purses his lips again.
‘I hope you don’t mind, but your reference mentioned your affection for the poor girl who died, and how it might have made you justifiably angry, but that beneath that anger, was… let me see…’ He reaches to the desk, back into the envelope and pops on glasses. ‘”An energetic, good humoured, positive young man who galvanises his young charges to perform above their own expectations. Popular with staff and pupils, Robert will be our loss and someone else’s immense gain.”’ He pauses. ‘And of course your department at Fitzrovia was deemed outstanding by HMC.’ He peers at the paper. ‘”A change of scene will do him the world of good.”’
I gawp goldfish-like.
‘The point is, Robert, you are the outstanding candidate for this position, and I’d like you to consider it.’ He smiles at me. ‘What do you think?’
‘Um…thank you for the offer.’
Fuck. Now what? ‘May I have some time to think about it?’
‘How long would you like?’
‘Umm.’ I shrug. ‘Just a walk round the grounds? Would that be all right?’
‘Of course.’ He holds out his hand. ‘Take as long as you like.’
I’m on a path, hastily re-assessing everything, when a chap in a blazer and slacks comes scurrying over. ‘Oh hello.’ He’s got a polished voice. Sweeps slicked dark hair away from his face. ‘Are you here for the Drama job?’
‘You’re not from Fitzrovia are you by any chance?’
‘Only a friend of mine’s in the music department at St George’s and said he’d been to see a production of “The Mikado” at Fitzrovia. Was that you?’
‘Well, he said it was the best school production he’d ever seen.’ And his eyes are positively shining.
He’s got cow eyes, long lashes. Early twenties? ‘I’m in the music department here. So, if you’re looking for an MD anytime, I’d like to volunteer. Give me a role in the department here.’ He takes my arm. Leans in. ‘Are you married?’
‘Oh good,’ he says releasing my arm. ‘I think the best teachers here are the bachelors. There’s a couple who are Housemasters. The Head’s not at all sticky about that.’ He glances at his watch. ‘We’re quite a small place, but very friendly.’ Pulls a face. ‘Though, alas, I must be gone. Good luck.’
I poke my head into the theatre. Take a better look. Plenty of room in the wings for large productions, but a stage that could easily be made intimate. Backstage, a few bits of scenery are neatly piled. There’s a huge wardrobe labelled “Costumes.”
The lighting rig’s shiny; new-looking. There’s a proper lighting box at the back, like Fitzie’s, though the door’s locked so I can’t get inside. Wharfdale speakers in the corners. Raked seats. 250 plus capacity. Not so bad. Plenty of rehearsal space next door in some sort of gallery. Classrooms.
Back outside I take in the view from its steps. There’s a shaggy grass field rolling down to the hedges that boundary the school. A pond. A couple of golf greens carved and shaved. As I return to the Head’s study, the sun breaks through silvering the ocean in the distance. A bell rings.
There are streams of pupils meandering paths as I thread my way back. ‘History next. Have you done your prep?’ Younger ones wear red and black uniforms. Older boys and young women wear suits of sober colour. Some of the girls wear black maxi skirts. ‘Hi there,’ says one as she wiggles past with her friend, and I hear them giggle.
Pixie sits me down in a soft chair. ‘Well, Robert. Any further questions?’
‘Thank you for offering me the post. I’ve got a couple of questions.’ I smile towards him. ‘What accommodation do you offer? And what’s your opinion of bachelor Housemasters?’
‘Och. Does that mean you’ll be moving out of Orchard Cottage?’ asks BJ at the pub later that night.
‘Maybe we could take it over.’ He slurps noisily. ‘Och. I’ll see the Bursar first thing.’
‘Why not? I’d like to think of the place falling into good hands.’
‘Aye.’ He reaches for a packet of peanuts, shoveling them into his mouth. ‘What are you doing for Christmas?’ he splutters.
‘Getting away from it. Rang the travel agent and she offered me this place; really cheap. There might be a catch.’
‘Excellent!’ Peanuts splatter. ‘Where?’
‘Somewhere hot where Christmas doesn’t exist.’
‘Och!’ He chews mightily. ‘It’s probably a hut on the beach or something. On your own?’
‘Of course.’ I pull a face. ‘Just not interested, mate.’
He nods and swallows then leans in and squeezes my arm. Speaks gently; kindly. ‘Got to get over her, Robby man. Start again. It’s what she’d want.’
It’s late afternoon. End of Summer term 1983. My last at Fitzrovia. In half an hour there’ll be a leaving do. Mine. Choice words encapsulating my time at Fitzrovia. ‘Hope you don’t mind,’ says Biggles, ‘but I volunteered.’ Then it’ll be down the pub with BJ and Taff and a crowd of others for the Final Fling. The Last Hurrah. Curtain Down.
The theatre’s quiet as I sit in Row L. Centre seat. I peer round, breathing in the familiar air. Try to recall the sound of applause and laughter.
That’s it. How to reflect?
Nothing for it. Time to go. I wander down the aisle, open the door and take one last glance back.
My study’s completely bare. Bookcases like skeletons, devoid of life except for the battered cassette. I switch it on; one last time. Simon and Garfunkel.
“…Time it was and what a time it was it was…a time of innocence a time of confidences. Long ago it must be I have a photograph, preserve your memories they’re all that’s left you.”
A knock on the door makes me turn.
‘Thought it might be you, Mister H.’ Topdeck’s carrying a plastic bag, dressed in a jacket and tie, looking slightly awkward with the get-up.
‘What are you doing here?’ I remove the cassette. ‘You don’t work today do you?’
He nods slightly. ‘Come to say goodbye.’ Runs his hand round the neck of his shirt, pulling at it. ‘An’ cos Bursar’s asked me to come to some sort o’ gatherin’. I’m leavin’ today as well.’
‘’Ad to see the Quack again. Told me I needed to slow down.’ He chuckles. ‘Act me age,’ ‘e said.’ He dangles the plastic bag. ‘Bit different from your clear out.’
‘Yes. They’ll miss you here.’ I puff out my cheeks. ‘Thanks for all you’ve done for me. Always reliable. Always with a smile.’
‘Oh it were nothin’. Just doin’ me job. Like yer say.’
‘I’ve always enjoyed hearing about your travels. I hope your ticker’s OK. How does your wife feel about it?’
‘Dorry? Oh she’s all right. Just means I’ll spend more time on the buses. Maybe I’ll persuade ‘er to come more often.’
I reach out a hand. Take Topdeck’s; feel brittle bones under gnarled skin. ‘Good luck.’
‘And you Mister H. You stayin’ in the area?’
‘Right.’ Topdeck taps his pocket. ‘Got me specs.’
‘Hope it all goes well. Sure it will.’
He’s about to leave when he turns back to me. ‘Oh, almost forgot. Found this backstage. Thought it might belong to yer.’ He hands me a well-thumbed slim volume. “The Whitsun Weddings.” With a heart lurch, I see the name inside is Fizz’s.
‘Right. Bye.’ And Topdeck leaves. A trace of polish left on the air.
It’s hard to shuffle the pages, trying to fight a tremoring lip looking at familiar handwriting.
When I reach my pigeon holes for the final empty, there are several envelopes. One from The Big Cheese. Probably my reference. One from the Bursar. That’ll be pay slip. P45. One, already familiar and open, with a crest of red and black. Formal. Deepest Devon postmark.
“Dear Mister Hopebourne,
Thank you for your reply. I am delighted to confirm your appointment as Director of Drama at St Radigund’s School…”
And another. Totally new. Another crest. “Open University.” I rip it open.
“Dear Mister Hopebourne, I am pleased to inform you that your application for a place on the Creative Writing course has been accepted…”
I slip the envelopes into my pocket, then thumb Fizz’s poetry book once more, turning to the last page. The last poem. The last line. “What will survive of us is love.” There’s a doodle. A heart. “RH” in the middle. Lifting it to my nose, a hint of “Hope” grows a picture in my mind, remembering those magnetic, magic eyes so blue.
I pop the book into my breast pocket, close to my heart, and walk away.
It’s the best I can do.
Given the circumstances.
Soundtrack - The Back Story!
Follow The Back Story On Your Favorite Streaming Platform
Last Train Home - Pat Metheny Group
Anyone who’s been following this story will know that Robert’s a mad keen fan of Pat…so into the 80’s was I. I first heard the “Travels” album and was hooked…not least by the definitive version of “Are You Going With Me’ which is still my favourite song. “Last Train Home” is however, still more accessible. When I was in Japan in 2015 I was amazed to find that it was the signature tune for a popular cartoon series. Hence Pat is a mega star in Japan!
Bookends Theme - Simon and Garfunkel
Well, what else to bookend the story? From the most amazing of albums (“Bookends”) this is the final song…and fits so perfectly. Thanks for reading.
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!