The story so far…
New teacher, Robert Hopebourne, has ended up on crutches after drunkenly agreeing to play rugby against the school 1st XV. What further disasters might await as he takes his first inter-school matches? Or can he bluff it?
I stumble into a routine and round the campus until ditching the crutches, preferring to hobble in classes and wince during rugby practices.
I’m up before the others in Maynard Road, in the bathroom and out, dressing to whatever’s on the cassette from the night before. Steve Miller’s my go-to at the moment, so that’s often playing.
“…time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future…”
Most mornings start with some sort of religious service. ‘Thanks be to God.’ I try to keep a low profile so I’ve taken to bowing my head more during prayers and occasionally mouthing hymns. ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’ It’s all an act, but, hey; if it helps avoid attention…
Two mornings a week there are House meetings and I wander over to Cowdrays to listen to notices after prayers. ‘There’s a debate in the library after school. The motion is, “this House believes that the monarchy is not outdated.”’
Lessons start at 9 o’clock. My morning timetable’s packed with English and Drama. Any free time I fill, marking or grappling with ideas for lessons. Scribbling thoughts. “Write a script that starts, ‘What are you doing here?’” Or reading up on rugby, before tackling Rugger Bugger. ‘Can you explain the offside law again?’
At morning break I wander over with the other musketeers to the main staff common room. It’s the only place where I might catch sight of Miss Dazzle. If she’s there she’s often at the centre of things, surrounded by others like Biggles, Chisel Face and De Cock. All laughing and joking. ‘He said what?’ The musketeers, Taff and I, form another close-knit group.
‘Very disappointing on the totty front,’ says Adonis. ‘Except we know who.’
After lunch, another time spent hoping to spot Miss Dazzle, I change into my tracksuit for rugby. ‘Where’d you get your trackie bottoms?’ asks Rugger Bugger. At least I must look the part for sport. Wearing the right costume. Occasionally I bump into Miss Dazzle on her way to lacrosse or netball. ‘Hello,’ I might say, aware that my cheeks are annoyingly burning, stomach churning. ‘Oh. Hi,’ she might say, before scurrying past.
Three evenings a week I go off to Cowdray House to look after the boy boarders, meeting up afterwards with the musketeers whose duties are in other Houses. By now “The High Flyer” has become something of a regular. ‘’Ello, my darlin’s,’ from Norma, fixating on Adonis. ‘I might have to do her a favour,’ he says. ‘Gagging for it.’
In the second week I take my first rugby match, an hour’s coach journey away. I watch the countryside slip by, then slip headphones on, dipping in and out of the radio. Brian Protheroe comes on. A hark-back to playing cricket at college, humming the song going out to bat.
“…and I’ve run out of pale ale and I feel like I’m in jail…”
Our opponents’ school is an imposing ancient set of buildings with magnificent grounds stretching as far as the eye can see. Rugger Bugger’s with the first fifteen and he leans over to me as the coach pulls in. ‘Blimey. This lot must be good.’
As soon as we disembark, a young fresh-faced lad in light blue tracksuit comes solemnly up to us, holding out his hand. ‘Hello, sirs. I’m your staff liaison. I’ll take you to the common room. Your boys will be taken by the captains to get changed.’ He speaks like that “Horse of the Year” commentator; Dorian somebody?
On the way down manicured garden paths Dorian chats amiably. ‘What sort of side have you got this year, sir? Who have you played?’
The Common Room’s a stand-alone building; more modern. Dorian knocks on the door. ‘Someone will be here soon, sir.’
A tall, dark haired man comes to the door and acknowledges the boy. ‘Thank you, Williams. See you down at the ground.’ He’s wearing an extraordinary multi coloured rugby shirt.
‘He must have been a good player,’ Rugger Bugger whispers to me. ‘That’s a Leicester jersey.’
The Leicester Jersey holds out his hand to us both and gives us his name. ‘Did you have a good journey?’
The Common Room’s quite busy. There’s the familiar smell of freshly ground coffee and the faint aroma of cigarettes.
‘Can I get you a beer? Or a sherry? Or would you prefer a coffee?’ asks the Leicester Jersey.
Alcohol? Rugger Bugger seems unsurprised. ‘A beer would be great. Thanks.’ Is this what happens?
We pass the time of day; gentle comments about rugby, the state of the national team. ‘Could do with a decent hooker and blind side flanker,’ says Leicester Jersey. I gulp beer unable to join-in, instead watching the rest of the teachers in the common room. Most of the men are in some sort of sports clothes; the older ones in mackintoshes, faded yellowing cricket sweater or cotton drill, the younger ones in polo or rugby tops.
There’s a gathering of twittering females, including two young ones, hair in pony tails, wearing light blue sports gear. Someone’s bent over pumping up a white ball. A middle–aged woman, she lobs the ball towards one of the others when she’s finished. ‘We’ll be playing indoors this afternoon, all right?’
‘Another beer, Robert?’ I see the Leicester Jersey look at his watch. ‘We’ve probably just about got time before we’ve to get down to the ground.’
‘Better not,’ Rugger Bugger says, glancing at me. ‘Should really speak to the boys before kick-off. Make sure they do a proper warm-up.’
‘Of course,’ says Leicester Jersey. ‘Follow me then.’
We trail down a hedged path and reach the grounds. ‘How are numbers at your place?’ asks Leicester Jersey. ‘I’ve heard St Benedict’s are in a spot of bother.’
I exchange glances with Rugger Bugger. ‘I’m afraid we’re both new, so can’t say,’ says Rugger Bugger. ‘You?’
He nods. ‘Steady. More foreign boarders. Not good for the rugby.’
Several sets of rugby posts stretch into the distance and there are already some games under way. A mish-mash of colours. I can see our lads ready and waiting. They look very small. Limbering up. Fitzrovia teams play in navy blue and yellow, our opponents in sky blue and white quarters. Leicester Jersey points out a middle-aged man in a light blue tracksuit. ‘He’s in charge of the under elevens. I’ll introduce you.’
I’m in a heightened state of nerves waiting for kick-off. I have no real idea still of the rules, and no notion of how good our side might be when faced with proper opponents. They’ve got a couple of big lads. ‘Good luck,’ says the guy in the light blue tracksuit and heads off to referee.
Our rivals score first. And second. By half time we’re well adrift. Time for my pep talk. The boys suck on their oranges and look to me for guidance.
Hmm. What would Rugger Bugger say? ‘Well done. That was a tough half and you kept battling. They’ve got one or two quite a bit bigger than you, but you know what they say; the bigger they are the harder they fall. Tackle round the legs. Move the ball quicker in possession. Keep going.’
The second half starts more brightly and we score a try. I find myself cheering wildly. ‘Yes!’ I’m still none the wiser why the ref blows his whistle, however. ‘Dead ball line. Five yard scrum.’
The comeback’s rather short-lived and our opponents run-in two more tries before the ref blows the final whistle. He shakes me by the hand. ‘Plucky display by your boys,’ he says. ‘We’re not a bad outfit this term.’
The first fifteens are still playing on the adjacent pitch so I join the under eleven boys cheering them on. Rugger Bugger’s red in the face, blowing out his cheeks. ‘We’ve done a decent job to hold them, but their fly-half’s a good player. Out of our league.’
‘What’s the score?’
‘Down. Fifteen nine.’
Eventually the ref blows for full time and the teams cheer each other. ‘Hip hip…’
We wander back to the staff common room, Rugger Bugger and Leicester Jersey immersed in the minutiae of the game. Comparing notes. ‘Your fly-half’s a good player,’ says Rugger Bugger. Leicester Jersey preens himself. ‘That’s my boy,’ he says. ‘Tigers have picked him up. Your number eight’s got something about him.’
After more drinks we decamp to the dining room. I’ve had three beers; feel quite mellow about the afternoon’s defeat. The boys are devouring a grand tea of sausage and chips. ‘I can recommend the treacle pudding, Robert,’ says Leicester Jersey. No wonder I fall asleep on the coach journey home, despite having the headphones on. “Sounds of the 60’s” David McWilliams; a throwback to Radio Luxembourg, and nights under the sheets listening.
“…the days of Pearly Spencer the race is almost run…”
My first home match soon follows. The opposing staff are brought to our common room where the bar is duly opened.
‘You all right, Robby Boy?’ asks Rugger Bugger when I refuse a drink. I’ve got a gurgling stomach, mouth dry. Like going out to bat for the first game of the season. Except that playing cricket’s a doddle compared to the thought of reffing a game of rugby. In my tracksuit pocket I fiddle with the Acme Thunderer that’s going to be my companion for the next forty minutes.
‘Just blow the whistle hard and sound confident,’ advises Rugger Bugger. ‘Don’t worry. It’s only the under elevens.’
Our opponents’ master in charge wears a raincoat and galoshes. ‘Can never be too sure about conditions under foot,’ he says. ‘What are your numbers like? Boarders?’
‘Only I’ve heard that things at St Benedict’s are tough.’
The game kicks off and I spend my time running backwards and forwards trying to interpret the game. ‘Your put in.’ Is it? ‘Offside.’ Is it? ‘Penalty.’ Is it?
After the game, which ends in a draw, Galoshes trudges back to the common room with me. ‘I was interested in your interpretation of the offside law,’ he says. ‘And is there a new law I’ve missed about rucking?’
Hmmm. Need to keep reading, keep watching, learning.
After tea in our grand refectory, we wave our opponents away. Rugger Bugger’s in a good mood. ‘Had them on toast in the loose. Fancy a few beers tonight?’
I pull a face. ‘Love to, but I’m on duty. Have one for me.’
I ring home that evening. ‘You’re still alive then?’ mum says.
‘I’ve been busy.’
‘Where do you live then? What’s it like?’
At Maynard Road I hardly meet either Mister Pastry or Someone Double-Barrelled who disappear after Saturday school leaving the place to me. They go to bed early, leave after me to go to work, and spend a lot of time in their respective rooms. Have their own TV’s. Some nights I can hear Mister Pastry with his train set. ‘Toot! Toot!’ Most nights, anyway, I meet up with the other musketeers or Taff. If my music’s an annoyance to my housemates, well, so be it. Occasionally I’ve got back late from the pub and slammed something on, only to find the following morning the volume’s been well turned up. Oh well. Work hard; play hard. Isn’t that what I said at interview?
My walk to and from school is through suburban grass. Butterflies are still enjoying autumnal sunshine, basking on the path in front of my feet, fluttering away at the last second. The air’s fresh.
Past a local church with an arched yew gate, along a leafy lane, I encounter substantial houses before crossing playing fields to the Prep School. Birds sing, insects buzz and it’s a green world away from grimy Grimston. Whatever my misgivings about working at Fitzrovia, I can hardly ignore its physical attractions.
My board and lodging includes breakfast, but more often than not I cut this, preferring to sit with a coffee in the Staff Room, getting my head round the day ahead. Break time I devour bourbons and custard creams in the main common room, eyes and ears peeled for Miss Dazzle.
‘It’s fine,’ I say to mum. ‘Only a few minutes from work.’
‘And what’s the discipline like there?’ she enquires. ‘Are you on top of it?’
Fly Like An Eagle - Steve Miller
This is an album that will feature quite a bit in this story. Steve Miller was at the peak of his powers in the late 70’s, and could mix styles easily.
I distinctly remember hearing “Fly Like An Eagle” on a late night radio show, and being utterly captivated; obsessed. Had to find out more by rushing to the local record shop and scouring for an album with it on. After that, I recognized several songs that I’d never computed as being by him – like “Swingtime” and “Jet Airliner.” Catchy, melodic and fun; Steve Miller’s a big hit with me.
Pinball - Brian Protheroe
Released in 1974, Brian’s song was a one hit wonder from a guy who went on to become a well known actor, and - less well known - a regular voice-over for TV documentaries. “Pinball” was actually a song he wrote for a small-scale repertory theatre production which was heard by someone from Chrysalis records…and the rest as they say…
The 60’s and 70’s produced many one-hit songs, and this is one that sticks in my mind as a proper melody with decent lyrics as opposed to those dreadful one-offs like “Simple Simon Says” or “They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha Ha.”
Days of Pearly Spencer - David McWilliams
Ah Radio Luxembourg! Those were the days when I was a nipper and listened to the portable radio under the bedclothes in the dark. Who else can remember Horace Batchelor and Zebra Kitten? Horace advertised the football pools on Radio Luxembourg…a surefire method of winning money pre lottery. Not! But also I remember the station plugging particular songs, and “Pearly Spencer” was the one that sticks in my mind and had me humming along most. Pure nostalgia for being young and impressionable.
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!