I make an appointment to speak to Spicy about “Darkheart” just before my first Christmas term concludes. He’s sat at his desk surrounded by a pile of reports on which he writes personally. I’ve had to write tons of the things too; days and nights of slaving. “He seems to enjoy the subject and his gregarious nature helps create character, but he might do well to occasionally consider thought before action.”
‘Come in, Robert.’ He waves something at me. ‘Just been reading some of your reports. Well done. Sounds like you’re doing a grand job.’ He smiles. ‘I like your style as well. Very positive, but with that turn of phrase that tells its own story.’ Our eyes meet.
He waves me to a seat. ‘What can I do for you? Nothing wrong I hope?’ He peeps over his glasses. ‘You seem a bit down in the dumps. Not that other affair still?’
‘Good. Don’t let the place suck you in. It can take over. Give yourself some space.’ He adjusts his specs. ‘Christmas soon.’
‘Good. Now what can I do for you?’
‘Actually, I wanted to ask if I could put on a musical next year.’ I tell him I’ve spoken to Biggles. ‘He’d like to write the music, and I’ve got an idea for a story.’
Spicy furrows his eyebrows. It isn’t quite what I’m expecting. I’m assuming he’ll be only too happy with the initiative. Instead he sounds cautious. Why?
‘That’s an interesting thought, and of course, I’d like to encourage you, but, the thing is, the play’s really the Head of English’s domain and I happen to know that she’s already got plans for next year. “The Crucible”.’
That’s why. You’re kidding! Come on, Spicy!
‘You don’t like it?’ Spicy’s peering over his specs at me.
‘I do. It’s a fantastic play.’ I hesitate. How can I put it diplomatically? ‘Maybe a little solemn for the age group.’ I need to think on my feet; I’m not going to go away empty handed. ‘What about us putting something on second term?’
He seems to need time to let this sink in. ‘Don’t you think it might be too much for the pupils? Many of the ones you’ll want will have already been in “The Crucible”?’
Right. I don’t care now. I’m going to make him understand, overwhelmed by my desire to put on “Darkheart”, to work with Biggles, to enthuse the pupils. Make a name for myself? ‘She can have whoever she wants, I’ll use only those pupils that don’t get parts in hers. And I’ll hold auditions, and include anyone who wants to be in it. And I promise I won’t disrupt any lessons.’
Good one, Rob. Sound educational theory. A first. How could those arguments fail? Come on, Spicy.
He takes off his glasses and looks out of the window for a long time, before turning to me. ‘Leave it with me.’
The last event, on the final evening of Michaelmas term, is the Carol Concert that takes place in the chapel. At my school there’d been a perfunctory afternoon event attended by few parents or pupils. A couple of carols and “Jingle Bells.” Here, there’s a stream of cars, exhausts belching.
I’m walking to chapel with Biggles who’s dressed in his gown and hood. ‘Where’s yours?’ he asks. ‘You’ve got a degree haven’t you?’
‘That should count,’ says Biggles. ‘There’s a lot of teachers here with a subject degree and no teaching qualification.’ He cites Chisel Face. ‘Went to Oxford. Then came here. Never taught.’
‘Oh? I thought he had an MA.’
‘He does, but only cos Oxford and Cambridge award honorary Masters after two years of graduating. I had to do two years extra work for mine. You should just buy a second hand gown, and not worry about the hood. Or I’ve got a spare one. You could wear that if you like. It’s from Nottingham. Ever been there?’
All the pupils from Prep and Uppers are in chapel in full school uniform. Tonight, even the Uppers sixth form girls have to wear their school blazers, neckerchiefs, knee length skirts, many looking uncomfortable in stuff they’ve probably not dragged out from wardrobes since the beginning of term. Young women in schoolgirl clothes. Odd. The boys are universally in dark grey suits, white shirts, House or Colours ties.
Is anyone looking at me sans gown? Wandering down the aisle, I see that Taff and Rugger Bugger are wearing the whole regalia, and even Adonis has spirited a gown. ‘Found it in the changing room.’
The chapel lights dim at the start and we all stand up as a small voice intones the opening bars of “Once in Royal David’s City.” It’s like being in a proper church service, the sort my mum might have watched on “Songs of Praise”, or my dad listened to every Christmas Eve. “Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College.
At the end of the service, filing out, Fizz bounces up to me, all blue eyes and cheeriness. ‘Bye, sir. Happy Christmas.’
‘Thanks. You too.’
‘As long as there’s chocolate,’ she says before grinning and disappearing.
The Balls twins arrive. Hand me a card. ‘Happy Christmas, sir.’
‘Wow. Thanks. You too.’
I’m watching, raging, as Miss Dazzle and Chisel Face hug, when Spicy appears by my side. He takes me by the arm, and leans in conspiratorially. I can smell Christmas on his breath. ‘Ah, Robert, hoped I’d catch you. Just thought I’d let you know, our mutual friend has decided she’d like a break from the school play next year. The slot’s all yours. Hope that cheers you up.’
‘Wow. Yes. Thanks.’
He pulls away, eyes darting round, then leans in once more, breathing bonhomie. ‘Probably best to steer clear of our mutual friend for now.’ He peers down at me. ‘Have a good Christmas.’
It’s snowing when I reach home. Not that white stuff that settles, but mushy, slushy. It’s dark and I can see the lights are on in the front room.
‘I’m back,’ I call as I open the door. The radio’s playing. Probably the best Christmas hit ever. “I Believe In Father Christmas.”
Mum appears, fussing. ‘Horrible out. Get your shoes off then, and let me hang your coat up. Don’t let them drip on the carpet.’
It’s like being back at school. ‘It’s all right. I can manage.’
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
‘Go on then.’
Mum’s bustling with tea bags and biscuits. ‘How long are you home for?’
‘That’s nice,’ I laugh. ‘I’ve only just come in through the door and you want to know when I’m going.’
‘Well, you’ve your own life now, haven’t you? Down there.’ She throws tea bags into a bin. ‘Friends.’
‘I’ll be here for a while if that’s OK? Might go back for New Year. Might not.’
‘Right.’ Later, she mentions Cher. ‘I’d no idea who she was. Rang out of the blue. Asked after you. Wanted to know if you’d be back for Christmas. I didn’t know you had a young lady friend here.’
I spend the rest of the evening trying to answer mum’s interrogations. ‘Aren’t there any nice young ladies?’ My room seems like a time capsule from a time I barely recognize though the Dansette’s still to hand. I could do with taking it back with me.
I try to ring Cher’s number, but there’s no reply. Oh well. It might have been an outing for Clive. Have to reprimand myself for thinking of her merely as a sex object. Do I?
Christmas Day I spend in front of the TV. “White Christmas” brings tears welling up. Then it’s “Casablanca.” ‘…you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…’ More lumps in the throat. I picture Miss Dazzle with her family, or with Chisel Face. Happy. In love. I wonder what Venus might be doing. Whether she’s ever given me a second thought.
‘You’re not having another drink are you?’ queries mum.
‘It’s Christmas Day,’ I say, pouring myself another beer.
‘It’s half past four,’ says mum.
The day after Boxing Day I make a decision as I sit watching a repeat of a Christmas “The Old Grey Whistle Test” on TV, beer in hand. Andy Fairweather-Low. Apposite.
‘I’m thinking of going back tomorrow,’ I venture as mum sits knitting. ‘Got some lessons to plan, and stuff for drama. Do you mind?’
‘No. You go. I’m fine.’
‘What will you do on New Year’s Eve?’
Her needles click clack. ‘Oh, I’ll probably stay in. When you reach my age these things aren’t so important.’ She stops and looks over to me. ‘You go.’
‘OK. As long as you don’t mind.’
How guilty do I feel? But I need out. Feel claustrophobic; am used to fending for myself.
‘What will you do for food?’ asks mum.
‘I’ll be all right. There’s a kitchen at Maynard Road. And there’s always the pub.’
Next morning mum’s in a rush. ‘I’ll be late for work.’ She pecks me on the cheek. ‘You need some new pyjamas.’ Reaching into her bag she brings out some notes, thrusting them into my hand. ‘Buy yourself some new ones.’ And she’s off. ‘Bye.’
The Dansette’s got a handle, but is still awkward and heavy to carry, banging against my leg. The train journeys down to Fitzrovia too are delayed, so I’m grateful for my headphones, but for all of that, nothing diminishes the sense of relief I feel at returning. Have I outgrown home? Broadened my horizons?
I’ve survived a whole term at Fitzrovia, and learned a lot. But there’s more that’s still a mystery that I’d like to solve.
Like finding out some facts and figures about numbers of pupils; why it’s so crucial. At other schools, staff ask questions; make mental comparisons. ‘We’ve got a few Germans this year. You?’ In the main staff room I overhear strained conversations about ‘cuts’ and ‘staff reallocations.’ Rumours circulate about the state of St Benedict’s in particular. ‘I’ve heard they’re really struggling,’ says Biggles. ‘Might even close.’
Where does this leave Fitzrovia?
‘We need to up our numbers that’s for sure,’ says Biggles, ‘to stay in the game.’
Then there’s the lingo some of the staff use. The talk of Old Boys reunions in London, ‘full on fizz at the Carlton Club.’ De Cock speaks about Riojas and Tokays, (‘lovely nose’); or of acidity and provenance, (‘Gloucester Old Spot. Can’t beat it’). Others talk of holidays in the Dordogne, villas in Umbria or generous parents with double barreled names who invite them to their weekend houses for a few days, slumming it down in Lymington or Hamble or wherever. ‘They’ve got a small sloop.’
So there’s still a long way to go, but that now includes working with Biggles, and of course, the cricket. And surely I’m over Miss Dazzle now? And Venus? Over all that love nonsense.
Maynard Road’s in darkness when I reach there. Feels very empty. I dump my bag and head down to The High Flyer for a pint or two and some uplifting Hawkwind on the jukebox.
Greg Lake – I Believe In Father Christmas.
Let’s face it there have been some terrible Christmas hits; Clive Dunn; Cliff Richard; Jackson 5. But this one, with the King Crimson legend at the helm, surely captures the essence of the time and occasion. Not too preachy; not too schmaltzy; strong melody. This is my desert island Christmas song…
Andy Fairweather-Low – Wide Eyed and Legless
Amen Corner were one of my favourite pop bands of the 70’s with hits like “Bend Me Shape Me” and “If Paradise Was Half As Nice”. And they had the distinctive gravel sound of Welshman Andy Fairweather-Low at their centre. Going solo, this became his best-known hit; a homage to getting drunk. His CV’s impressive too, having played with Clapton, Joe Satriani, Roger Waters and The Who. “Wide Eyed and Legless” was actually A Christmas hit in 1975.
Hawkwind – Hurry On Sundown
Another of those LP covers that was immediately arresting with its ultra bright colours that were oh so of the moment…purple and orange with those lime green creatures…”Hurry On Sundown” was the final track on their first 1970 album, “Hawkwind.” The drumming’s spot-on; I marvel at how Terry Ollis –just 17 years old - can keep going for so long, bashing it out. Get those feet tapping!
Best known for their hit “Silver Machine”, Hawkwind have long trodden the “space rock” boards, plying their trade. Lemmy – he of Motorhead fame – played bass for a while, though Dave Brock, the founder member is the only one to have survived a variety of culls. This is early 70s rock at its best.
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!