The story so far…
Robert Hopebourne is now in his second year of teaching drama at Fitzrovia College Prep School. He’s produced the annual school play with Biggles as his Musical Director, made friends with staff like Taff and BJ, and fallen hard for Miss Dazzle, only to see her ripped away to be married to arch enemy Chisel Face. He’s also been seduced by The Femme Fatale, only to recognize that love is more important than sexual attraction.
The second half of Lent term starts with an Extraordinary Staff Meeting called by The Big Cheese. ‘What’s it all about?’ I ask Biggles when we meet up the night before at the pub.
He shrugs, poring over the jukebox. ‘Search me.’ Then punches buttons. ‘About time they refreshed this. Haven’t heard this for a while though. Happy music for Spring.’
We find seats as Sergio Mendes kicks in.
“...the moon is like a tangerine…”
Ha! They don’t write lyrics like that now!
Biggles wipes froth away from his ‘tache. ‘Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the meeting’s about St Benedict’s. They’ve gone to the wall I’ve heard. Closing at the end of next year. Gives the parents and kids a year to find somewhere new. Maybe the old man’s on the hunt. Our finances are tough. Numbers dropping. Needs a firm hand. That’s why he’s here and why there’s been so much upheaval in Common Room.’
‘He’s shaking things up for sure.’
No surprise then at the Staff Meeting when The Big Cheese indeed makes a short statement about St Benedict’s. ‘Their misfortune is our opportunity. Unless we want to be in the same position we need to up our numbers. Everything must be tailored to that. I can’t rule out more staff restructuring.’
Hmm. “Restructuring” eh?
When he leaves, the Bursar addresses us. ‘I’m going to be making appointments with all of you to discuss departmental budgets and requirements.’
Spicy calls a Prep school staff meeting. Tells us not to panic. ‘The Prep’s numbers are really very good. It’s at the top end there’s a problem.’
That same week, on the Wednesday evening, returning from winter nets, I find BJ standing outside Walnut Avenue. ‘Och. Look in there.’ He shakes his head. ‘Fuckin’ hell.’
There’s water pouring from the ceiling down the walls in the front room. The floor’s a flood, running out into the hall and our bedrooms. Everything’s soaked. BJ appears at my shoulder. ‘Must be the fuckin’ water tank or the pipes or something. I’ve moved some of your stuff off the floor and rung maintenance. On their way. Come on. We’ll book into a hotel. Make them pay.’
‘Shouldn’t we wait for them?’
‘Och. OK. But I’m not staying here tonight. There’s water everywhere. Fuckin’ dangerous.’
Next day BJ’s moved into an Uppers boarding House. ‘Och,’ he spits, ‘Bursar says it’s a temporary measure. I’m not fuckin’ stayin’ there for ever. Still. No rent.’
The Bursar asks to speak to me. ‘Robert. I’m sorry. We don’t seem to have much luck with your accommodation do we?’ He fiddles in his office drawer, and brings out some keys. ‘Would you mind a place on your own? It’s a bit of a way out, and needs some attention, but it’s a nice location.’
‘Can I have a look at it?’
‘Of course. Are you free now?’
Number 2 Orchard Cottage is a small semi detached, Victorian house, with sash windows, perched with its partner at number one on a steep embankment, overlooking agricultural countryside. There’s a shaggy, steep lawned back garden leading out to playing fields.
‘The fields belong to the college, but are barely used except for some rounders,’ says the Bursar. ‘You can get to Uppers quite quickly over them if it’s dry, and the Prep school’s another five minutes. If it’s wet, there are some alleyways you can find rather than going by road.’ He opens the front door to the property. It smells damp. ‘Needs airing,’ reflects the Bursar. ‘And maybe a lick of paint.’ He goes over to the front window. ‘Lovely view from here.’
True. There is. I wander round. There’s a battered stove in the small kitchen, some faded curtains at the windows. The floor in the front room is wooden, and there’s a real fireplace.
The Bursar’s still gazing out. ‘Used to belong to the Deputy Head here. Left it to Fitzie’s in his will. A remarkable man. Lifelong bachelor. Died aged 92. A good innings eh?’ He pulls himself away from the vista. ‘Shame it’ll probably have to go on the market in the future.’
I’m looking into a cupboard. ‘I haven’t got any furniture.’
‘Oh we’ll set you up with a bed and a few bits and pieces. What do you think?’
Why not? Given the circumstances.
‘Yes. Fine. When do I move in?’
‘This afternoon? Say after four? I’ll get the men to pick up any of your stuff from Walnut Avenue. You’ll still eat-in, I assume? And I’ll adjust your rent. OK?’
My first night there I set up the Dansette. Play some Moody Blues. “Gypsy.” Do I feel lonely? Or should I just embrace it? Enjoy my independence.
Towards the end of term, on another late Wednesday night following a few beers at the Flyer with BJ, I’m wandering in the gloom down towards Orchard Cottage. BJ’s still fuming about having to live-in. ‘Och. Just because you’re in the Prep school. You’ve landed on your feet.’
Idly contemplating the forthcoming Easter holiday, I spot, parked down a hedged culvert, a sports car. Instantly recognisable as Chisel Face’s. What’s he doing? I’m scurrying past, when I see the passenger door begin to open. Instinctively, I scuttle behind a tree. Peeping, I watch a pair of high heels and legs swing out. Bare. A short skirt. It’s the Giggling Doll. I press myself into the trunk. Hidden. I hear footsteps moving away before the car splutters into life. Peeking out, I can see Chisel Face wiping condensation from the windscreen, before reversing the car, and driving away.
On the last day of that Easter term, I bump into Miss Dazzle in the staff common room. She’s emptying her pigeon hole. Any ice has thawed between us since “Darkheart” and since taking the mushrooms I find I can look now in her eyes without feeling blood rush to my cheeks.
I rummage through the contents of my mail. ‘Hi. You OK? Going anywhere nice for the holidays?’
When she turns to answer I can see her eyes are quite red. Has she been crying? ‘I’m going home to see my parents for a week. You?’
‘I’ll have to head home sometime, see mum, but I’ll be here most of the time. Need to do some painting in the house.’
She nods. ‘How is your new place? It’s over the far side of town isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Come and take a look if you like.’
‘I might do. I quite like decorating.’
I ask about Chisel Face and I note her face fall, turning away. ‘He’s got some languages symposium to go to. Up north.’
A silence deepens between us.
‘Right. Well, have a good holiday,’ I say. ‘If you fancy helping with some painting, you know where I am.’
On the way through the car park, a familiar figure comes bouncing up. There’s a man loading a trunk into a Volvo who calls over. ‘Don’t be all day, sweetheart.’
‘Bye, sir. Have a nice holiday.’ It’s Fizz; bright cheeked, toothy smile, wide eyed. ‘I’m going to Spain.’ She nods at the man by the Volvo. ‘My dad’s got some work to do there. At least that’s what he says.’ She leans in to whisper. ‘I think he might be getting remarried.’ She’s at that gawky stage; puppy fat, curves developing and shaping. Like a pupae; a butterfly waiting to emerge. She throws me a beaming smile. ‘See you next term, sir.’ And bounds away.
The following week I’m at home when mum comes into the front room pulling on her coat. ‘I’m off,’ she says. She’s gone part-time at work. Seems to have lost a bit of weight. Shrunken. ‘Turn off the radio if you go out, won’t you?’
“Do the wallstreet shuffle…”
‘You’re not going to work today are you?’
‘No. I’m going to Nottingham.’
‘Really? What for?’
She fiddles with her coat buttons. ‘I’ve got an appointment there.’
‘Wait a minute then.’ I leap up out of the chair, heading for the hall. ‘I’ll come with you. Got some shopping to do.’
Mum tuts. ‘Hurry up then. I’ll be late.’ And turns off the radio.
On the train mum sits quietly, studiously looking out of the window. It’s a dull grey day; sullen with showers.
‘You all right?’ I ask. ‘You don’t seem your normal self. Nothing wrong is there? What’s this appointment?’
She rouses herself. Puts on that stoical voice I’ve heard so many times. ‘It’s nothing to worry about. Just been having a few aches and pains. I’m seeing someone today for some blood tests. Probably an infection or something.’
We go our separate ways at the station. ‘Have you got an umbrella?’ asks mum. I wander towards the centre past some University buildings festooned with banners. “Gateway to Success.” “Enterprise Initiatives.” “Annual MFL Conference.” It’s lunchtime and a steady drizzle begins to fall, so I head into a pub that’s humming with folk. There’s the smell of lunches being prepared. Pie and mash. Liver and bacon. Spotted Dick and custard.
I’m waiting at the bar, listening to Boz Scaggs –“Lowdown” - when I see them. In a corner seat. Chisel Face has his hand on her thigh. Giggling Doll is leaning into his neck. Canoodling. I stand stock-still. Glued until the barman rouses me. ‘Sir? What can I get you? Sir?’
I manage to wave a hand at him and gasp. ‘Nothing. Sorry,’ and start for the door, but not before I see Chisel Face glance up and spot me. No mistaking. Our eyes meet. His hand rushes from Giggling Doll’s thigh and he jerks up in his seat, while she looks startled by his sudden movement. I hasten out of the pub and hurry away into the drizzle and crowds before ducking through a shop doorway and in. It’s a department store, lines of perfume and make-up counters, the paraphernalia of painted ladies. I wait, eyes fixed on the door and pavement outside. There’s no sign of Chisel Face.
Of course he absolutely clocked me. Can be in no doubt that I saw him in that compromising position. And, equally, it just confirms what I’ve already suspected. Chisel Face is a cheating rat.
Now what? In time I creep out of the department store and look up and down the pavements, eyes skinned. It’s stopped raining. I cross the street, dodging vehicles, and take up a position opposite the pub, hunched in a doorway and wait. I feel like some kind of detective; Eddie Shoestring or whoever. What am I waiting for?
There’s no time for philosophising, because right then, the two of them emerge from the pub. There’s animated conversation; Giggling Doll isn’t giggling. Chisel Face scans the pavements as I huddle in the doorway, then pulls Giggling Doll away with him. I hover, then follow at a safe distance, watch them manouevre their way through the throngs before disappearing into a large grey building. “Station Hotel.”
‘What have you bought then?’ asks mum on the platform waiting for our train home.
I’m carrying a huge bag. “Moss Bros.” ‘A dinner suit. Need one for Christmas Dinner and start of term. Bought a bow tie as well.’ It’s multi coloured with one of those matching things that go round the waist to hold old men’s stomachs in. A cummerbund isn’t it? ‘How did you get on?’
Mum fiddles with her scarf. ‘Fine. They took some tests and I’ll get the results in a couple of weeks. Nothing to worry about. What else did you get up to?’
Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66
A producer who mixes bossa nova with jazz or rock, Brazilian Sergio Mendes first came to my attention with his version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Are You Going To Scarborough Fair”… great vocal harmonies and arrangement. “Cinnamon and Clove” comes from the 1967 album “Equinox” which also features the kind of writing on the album cover that The Grateful Dead and even the Beatles in “Rubber Soul” used. Cosmic! Sometimes arrangements turn something good into something extraordinary. For me, Sergio has that golden touch.
The Moody Blues - Gypsy
Love the Moodies! I must have most of their early albums – you know, the ones with those great arty covers with names like “To Our Children’s Children’s Children” or “In Search of the Lost Chord.” This track – written by Justin Hayward who’s generally regarded as the best songwriter in the group – comes from the former. Pop songs with intent from a groundbreaking band who first used a full orchestra on the seminal LP “Days Of Future Passed.”
10cc - Wallstreet Shuffle.
And here’s another much under-rated, if popular, pop group…by which I mean that they produced immense hits which perhaps haven’t been really appreciated retrospectively. “I’m Not In Love” has already featured in this prose, but I could easily have chosen half a dozen of their ditties. “Wallstreet Shuffle” reminds me of the mid/late 70’s…before the drudgery of responsibility really kicked in!!
Boz Scaggs – Lowdown
Boz occasionally played with Steve Miller, who, as readers of this novel might recognize, is a favourite 70’s artist of mine. As a solo artist, his album “Silk Degrees” from 1976 peaked at number 2 on the US charts and included the hit singles “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown.” I chose this particular track for the novel purely on the merits of the title…how low could Chisel Face get? It’s a good song!
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!