The story so far? Well, Robert is coming to the end of his second year of teaching drama in Fitzrovia Prep school. He’s fallen for Miss Dazzle only to have her ripped away when she marries Chisel Face. Now, over the Easter holidays, he has witnessed Chisel Face in a compromising position with the French Assistante. Is it any of his business? And what else lies in wait?
I’ve just returned from a cricket match at some school across the county. My team’s off to a bright start; two emphatic wins and a good draw.
I’ve overheard God Like Status talking to Biggles on the boundary at our last home match. ‘Some decent cricketers here. Well drilled and keen.’
Today’s been warm and sunny. Proper cricket weather. In an attempt to get over the terrible news of Keith Moon’s death, I’ve also been into town at the weekend and bought a new stereo system. A proper set-up with amp and speakers. Hitachi. Take ages to decide which album track should first play on it, before choosing Wishbone Ash over The Who.
It’s early evening, balmy, and when I pop into the common room to check my pigeonhole, I can see a solitary figure hunched writing over the table. It’s Chisel Face, papers surrounding him, pen in hand. He looks up, and immediately his eyes are fire and steel. My heart zaps into overdrive.
It’s the first time we’ve crossed paths since the holidays when I saw him with Giggling Doll in that compromising position.
I busy myself at the pigeonholes, blood pumping, but hear the scrape of a chair followed by a brooding presence; close. Breathing over my head. I turn and look up into a simmering, smouldering expression on his granite face. Am I frightened? Or am I in the box seat? The silence is palpable and heavy until he speaks in a strained voice. ‘You might like to know that I’m leaving. A post in Kent.’ He’s breathing quite heavily. Fighting an inner rage?
‘Congratulations,’ I manage. ‘Is your wife going with you?’
His eyes sear, as he speaks through gritted teeth. ‘You little worm,’ he spits, and I see his hands tense into fists. ‘If I ever find out…’ He leaves the threat, heavy, dangerous.
‘Well,’ I scrabble in my pigeonhole. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
I grab the contents and leave. Scanning the envelopes, there’s one with the school crest; “from The High Master” emblazoned.
Fuck! My heart rate races once more as all thoughts of Chisel Face disappear. What can The Big Cheese want with me? Ripping it open, guts gurgling, I can see it’s handwritten. “Could you make an appointment to see me asap?”
Fuck. What’s it about? Staff cuts? “Restructuring?”
I wander over to reception next morning after a disturbed night. Hovis Hair looks up, smile stiff. ‘Ah, Robert. The HM would like to see you.’ She checks her watch and reaches for the phone. ‘Mister Hopebourne’s here. Would now be a good time to see him?’
My heart’s hammering, my throat parched, unnerving swirls in my tummy as she puts the phone down and nods towards a door. ‘He’s free now.’
The Big Cheese is standing by his desk. Dr. Aloysius Bird MA Cantab is about fifty feet tall, bald. He wears a turquoise suit. A peacock.
He’s got a reputation as being a scourge. ‘A shouter,’ says Biggles. ‘Hard line.’
I’ve never spoken to him before.
‘Come in.’ He indicates a seat across the desk from him before seating himself. His eyes are piercing; opaque. They skewer me. ‘How are you getting on teaching Prep school age children?’
What’s going on here? ‘Well, as you know, I was trained to teach secondary, but Mister Corrie-Anderson tries to give me the older ones.’ I peep over. ‘I’m enjoying it, given that.’
He nods, then resumes. ‘Well, there’s a vacancy for someone in the English department in Uppers from September.’ He mentions a venerable member of the common room. ‘Taking early retirement.’ Then tells me that God Like Status would like to ‘take a back seat with the cricket.’ He lets this sink in. Where’s this leading? ‘How would you feel about moving up to join us?’
Me? Me! Does he mean me? I find myself nodding like a dog. ‘Wow. Thanks. That would be great. Yes.’
The Big Cheese breaks into the tightest of smiles. ‘Good. I’ll let Mister Corrie-Anderson know.’ He stands up, and I follow suit. ‘Make another appointment to see me next week.’
I walk out of his office and wait while Hovis Hair checks a diary. ‘Next Tuesday. 2 30.’
I wander through the grounds in a fog. When I reach the Prep school, Spicy’s waiting. ‘The High Master’s just been in contact.’ He holds out his hand. ‘I hear congratulations are in order.’ His kind face makes me feel suddenly sad as we shake hands. He’s been so good to me, has offered me the post in the first place, uttered words of encouragement, supported me when The Wife of Parse has been difficult.
I choke back a wobble in my voice. ‘Thank you. I’m very grateful to you for showing some faith in me in the first place.’
He releases my hand. ‘I look forward to watching some top-notch cricket from the First Eleven next year. Thank you for all you’ve done for it down here. Will you be teaching drama?’
I’ve no idea. ‘Um…’
On the way to Cowdray’s I bump into Miss Dazzle. She’s carrying a racquet bag. ‘Hi, Rob. You look a bit flushed. You OK?’
‘Yes.’ I tell her my news. ‘And I hear you’re off to Kent?’
I see her cheeks redden, eyes flickering away. ‘Yes.’
My next meeting is with The Big Cheese and Gentle Giant the Head of English. The Big Cheese tells me briefly that he wants me to teach English up to O level, and run the cricket and drama as activities. ‘And produce the annual play. No lessons to be missed. Understood?’ Hands me over to Gentle Giant.
Gentle Giant takes me for a cup of tea in his study. ‘Quite relieved we’ve got you,’ he says. ‘The Master was talking of not replacing your predecessor.’ He smiles benevolently. ‘Perhaps we could consider some A level English teaching in due course. The drama component, naturally. And perhaps some drama lessons too with the middle school, though for now I think the Master needs some convincing.’ He raises an eyebrow to me. ‘And I know you like creative writing; perhaps you could introduce some of that to Lit Soc? As for the other older pupils, well, what about some modern poetry? Would that appeal? Philip Larkin’s on the exam board’s list next year. Do you like him?’
When I bump into Biggles and tell him, his face lights up. ‘Great news. How about doing a musical? Something to pull in the middle class punters? Give it some thought.’ He shakes me by the hand. ‘Great opportunity.’
BJ pumps my hand. ‘Fuckin’ hell. Can’t believe it. Does that mean you’ll be moving out of Orchard Cottage? Living in?’
‘I don’t know. No-one’s said anything. Hope not. I’ve only just painted it.’
The following morning I receive a letter from The Big Cheese confirming my appointment to Uppers, and a new salary level. It’s a little more than I’ve been earning in the Prep school. “To reflect the importance of the post,” says the letter. It also confirms that I can continue to live at Orchard Cottage “until more suitable accommodation should become available.”
I’ve heard that Walnut Avenue has been sold. ‘Desperate measures,’ says Biggles. ‘School must need the money. Tough times ahead.’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ spits BJ. ‘At this rate I’ll be living-in next year as well.’
On the last day of school at Speech Day, The Femme Fatale catches me. I’ve successfully avoided her on countless occasions, but now she appears by my side. She’s wearing heavy perfume and a pink dress, low cut. ‘Robert, I’ve been trying to catch up wiz you. You’re very elusive.’
‘Summer term’s my busiest.’ I stammer some pleasantries. Hope she’ll back off.
She mentions her daughter. ‘She’s off to St George’s you know. Won a scholarsheep. Quite a young staff zere; so zat’s ze end of our time ‘ere at Fitzrovia.’
I barely suppress a cheer. She pecks me on the cheek as a farewell.
There are also Staff sendoffs; farewells to senior staff who’ve been nudged towards the final frontier by The Big Cheese. “Restructuring?” I’m surprised to learn that there will also be a new vacancy in the French department. Giggling Doll is off. ‘To a school in Kent or Sussex,’ says BJ. ‘Och. Hope the new one’s got more about her. Love French women.’
I save my goodbye to Miss Dazzle till last. ‘Keep in touch, and if you’re ever back down this way, let me know.’ I can feel tears smarting as we hug. I’ve held my counsel, kept my nose out of it all, but can’t help but feel sorry for her. She’s been at the epicentre of my dreams for two years. A beacon.
Chisel Face is in my sightline as we continue to hug.
She smiles when we pull apart. ‘I didn’t like you the first time I met you, you know,’ she says.
‘Something in your manner; your eyes. Thought you were a bit cocksure,’ she continues, still smiling.
‘But “Darkheart” changed my mind. You’re a good teacher, and the kids respect you for your passion.’
‘Cocksure?’ I manage, still with one eye on Chisel Face.
‘I don’t think you are. Just the way you looked at me.’
‘I was frightened to death of you.’ I take my eye off Chisel Face and look steadily at her.
‘You must know why.’ From the corner of my eye, I can see Chisel Face beginning to walk over. Menacing.
‘Really?’ Miss Dazzle looks deep into my eyes and smiles again, that radiance I remember from my first visit. ‘And do you still feel that way?’
I laugh; for once I’m not even remotely blushing. Chisel Face is getting quite close now. ‘I’m not frightened any more if that’s what you mean.’ I nod in the direction of Chisel Face. ‘You should go. Good luck.’
She leans in and kisses me on the cheek. ‘Yes. Bye Rob. God bless.’ She turns to Chisel Face. ‘Coming.’
And that’s that.
I spend most of the holidays at Orchard Cottage, listening to my albums on the new stereo. Turned up. “Stairway to Heaven.” Oh yes.
I venture home only for ICI’s cricket week.
Mum’s been in and out of Nottingham, battling with something she won’t discuss. ‘Nothing to worry about. You worry about your own life.’ On the kitchen counter I discover some bottles of pills and pamphlets from a local hospice. “Palliative Care.”
I bump into our next-door neighbour at the local shop. She takes my hand. ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your mum. If there’s anything I can do to help…’
Once I come home from cricket late and find mum in her chair asleep. She starts awake and immediately grimaces in pain, clutching at her side, gasping.
‘Mum. Please. What’s wrong? Should I call the doctor?’
I also try to get in contact with Cher. Well why not? I haven’t spoken to her since going to Fitzrovia. Maybe we should have made a go of it. Though I don’t recall feeling that I was ever in love. No sleepless nights; pining. Not like with Miss Dazzle. Or Venus. But my phone messages are unanswered. Clive’s disappointed. Is that uppermost in my mind? I thought I’d got over that with the Femme Fatale.
I go to Rugger Bugger’s wedding in Cornwall. ‘Your turn next, Robby Boy,’ he laughs. He’s in a smart new suit, rose pinned to his lapel, wearing a broad smile. Proud. Linda’s in a massive white billowing thing, holding his arm. Adonis has popped over from the States and is chatting up one of the bridesmaids.
I carry my copy of “The Whitsun Weddings” with me everywhere. I’ll be teaching Larkin in September. Can already identify with his views on marriage. That wrangle for a ring. A licence for sex. Or can love really exist after all?
‘We’ll see you married before you know it,’ says Rugger Bugger.
September, and I’m leaving home to catch the train back to Fitzie’s. New year; new look. Clean shaven.
‘It’s so nice to see your face rather than hiding behind some rug,’ mum says. ‘Look after yourself.’ We hug briefly. She reaches into her pocket and thrusts some notes into my hand.
‘I don’t need this, mum. You keep it.’
But she won’t. ‘What are you putting on next term?’ She busies herself with her scarf getting ready to go out. ‘A musical you said.’
‘Yes. Just don’t know many. Need to find one.’
‘What about “The Mikado”? Your dad’s favourite G and S that was. And mine.’
Gilbert and Sullivan? I’d enjoyed “Pirates of Penzance.” Remember dad croaking round the house. ‘…defer, defer, to the Lord High Executioner…’
‘I’ll see if I can get a script. Maybe listen to a tape.’ I pick up my bag. ‘Thanks for the tip. Bye.’
The train’s delayed. It’s a stop start journey. I’m in a bit of a state; nervous about the new move to Uppers. Just as I’ve settled into the Prep. Recall Biggles’ words. ‘A great opportunity.’ Can I grasp it? Or will it be like Adonis suggested? ‘Too much expectation.’
I watch cars speeding along motorways. Contemplate dad’s Anglia dormant in a lock-up somewhere. Mum doesn’t drive any more. Maybe I should sell it. Buy another.
Given the circumstances.
End of ACT TWO
Wishbone Ash – FUBB
From an album – “There’s The Rub” - which featured a cricket ball being rubbed on someone’s cricket whites…bound to attract my attention! This is the final track, and legend has it that FUBB stands for fucked up beyond belief…recorded in one take, warts and all. Frankly, it just underlines to me what great guitarists these guys are. I was tempted to put “Errors Of My Ways” into this piece – it was the first Wishbone Ash track I ever heard thanks to my school mate Rob – but after much deliberation, went for “FUBB” instead. Hope you enjoy the ride!
Led Zeppelin – Stairway To Heaven
Well, let’s be fair, this is probably the greatest rock track of all time so why wouldn’t I want it in my novel? I was shocked that on a recent UK “University Challenge” none of the contestants recognized the piece!!! Come on!!!
Seminal. Profound. And any other such adjectives…
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!