A few weeks into the new academic year, I’m still grappling with teaching Uppers English literature. Some of them catch me out. ‘What do you think Larkin means when he describes work as a “toad”, sir?’ Good question. Warty? Slimy? Buried under rocks? I’ve taken the idea of playing music in lessons into Uppers while they write. Have still to work out whether the older pupils find it a distraction – a snigger? - rather than a help. ‘It’s by someone called Michael Hedges.’
Drama activities, Club meetings and, of course, “The Mikado” rehearsals take place in the concert hall. Maintenance have already been in with sledgehammers. ‘Takin’ the back wall out,’ says the foreman. ‘We used to get contractors in to do this ‘eavy work. What’s goin’ there then?’
‘Um, a sound and lighting box I believe.’ I mention Gandalf. ‘It’s more his baby than mine.’
“Mikado” rehearsals are already at that stage when the novelty’s worn off. ‘Stop! Let’s do it properly. More energy please. And why are you still on your book? We’ve done this bit before. Please try and learn the lines. I can’t learn them for you.’
The Head of School has taken the role of Ko Ko after I audition him. ‘Great. You’ve got good intonation. Expressive gestures.’ When I tell him he’s got the part he breaks into a big smile. ‘My father will be very pleased.’
He looks a bit sheepish. ‘Oh. Don’t you know, sir? He’s the Bursar here. Very keen on the Arts.’
‘He’s not got the greatest singing voice,’ says Biggles. ‘But he’s musical and really expressive; can hold the note.’
Balls comes up to me after his auditions. He’s morphed from Prep school boy into a solid figure. Is already taller than me. ‘Sir; I think I might pull out.’
‘Why? You’re a promising young actor.’
He colours deeply. ‘Thank you, sir. But the thing is I can’t sing for toffee. My voice has only just broken really. And I know I’m too young for any of the speaking roles.’ He shakes his head.
‘I see. But look, a part in chorus will at least keep you involved won’t it? Better than not being in it at all. And really I thought your singing was pretty good.’ I see him raise his eyes to me. ‘What about doing a bit of understudying as well? The speaking roles? Ko Ko? Pooh Bah? It would be good practice for when you get a bit older. Not that you’re too young now. You came close at audition.’
His face brightens. ‘Can I? That would be great. Thanks, sir.’
Later, I’m walking down an empty corridor leading from the concert hall. Along it I see a lone figure coming my way. Head down. Fizz is already hurrying past when I stop her. ‘You OK, Fizz?’
She avoids my eye. ‘Yes, sir.’
I asked Biggles to consider her for a small individual role. ‘She’s really keen on drama and pretty good. I’d like to encourage her. If she can sing at all.’ She’s got a part as one of the Three Little Maids. ‘A natural tone,’ said Biggles. ‘Not coached. Though she’ll need to get more confident in her delivery.’
‘How are you enjoying “The Mikado”?’
‘Oh. Lots.’ She frowns. ‘Not sure whether my singing’s up to it.’ Tight as a clam shell. ‘I’m trying.’
‘Good. And how was Spain?’
Her face briefly brightens. She peeps at me. ‘Oh it was fine. My dad’s been posted there. Got married. Seems happier.’
‘And do you get on with her?’
She creases her eyebrows. ‘As long as dad’s happy.’
A silence develops. ‘Well. Nice to see you,’ I say.
What’s going on?
The following morning, I’m humming Janis Ian – “At Seventeen” - when Ma Baker comes up to me in the common room.
“…I learned the truth at seventeen that love was just for beauty queens…”
As well as being Head of Girls’ PE, Ma Baker runs a girls’ boarding House and teaches a bit of Extra English. ‘Rob, have you got time to look at this?’ She’s holding a pupil exercise book, open. The page has spindly but well formed handwriting.
‘Sure.’ I read the title. ‘“First Love” eh?’
I raise my eyebrows theatrically, obviously teasing.
Ma Baker smiles. ‘I’m not very original I’m afraid.’
‘No. No. It’s a great title.’ I start reading.
“My pen drops to the floor and he picks it up as he passes. I breathe in the smell of his aftershave and feel my heart lurch. It smells foreign. He isn’t as good looking as the PE teacher that all the girls fancy or Brett the Aussie gap year student, but there’s something about him that makes my insides tremble. Why does he make me feel like this? Is it love? I watch him smile at everyone. That kind smile and twinkly eyes. He must have a girlfriend.
He’s a good teacher, plays music in lessons because he thinks it helps. He’s popular with everyone from the nerdy geeks to the sporty lads, always laughing and joking with them. But he’s mysterious too, asking lots of questions and leaving me wondering what he’s thinking.
The other day I saw him put up a notice about a play and plucked up courage to put my name down. I was standing right next to him and my legs were like jelly. He even gave me his pen. I told him I love drama and really want to be in the play, but then he turned to talk to a pretty sixth former. It’s hopeless. If this is love then it’s not fair.
Mister Henderson will never be interested in me.”
‘It’s good.’ I turn the book over to read the name on the front. ‘Fizz?’
Ma Baker nods.
‘What’s the significance then?’
‘You don’t recognise Mister Henderson?’
‘It’s obviously you.’
‘You wear patchouli don’t you? And you’re well known for playing your music in lessons. Sporty. Putting on plays?’ She smiles, eyes twinkling. ‘She means you.’
‘Did she talk to you like this once?’
‘Well I’m just keeping an eye on her.’
‘What do you mean?’
Ma Baker smiles again. ‘She’s had a bit of a rough time; mum and dad had a bit of an acrimonious divorce and I think she was caught in the middle.’ She pauses. ‘I’m just saying beware of erratic behaviour. She could go off the rails; at an impressionable age.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind. Though I don’t really come across her apart from at rehearsals.’
Ma Baker flashes me a look. ‘That’s another reason I wanted to speak to you. I’ve had a word with her. Told her she should do drama. She doesn’t need to do extra English. Can’t think why she wants to.’ She lets this sink in, taps the exercise book. ‘Except that now we do.’
“…when dreams were all they gave for free to ugly duckling girls like me…”
I’m in the concert hall the next week. There’s an addition to the group. ‘I gave it more thought. I love drama. Hope you don’t mind.’
Mind? I turn to the group as a whole. ‘Come on, let’s get started then. Who wants Fizz in their group?’ And all hands go up.
I’ve heard she went out with Gay Terence for about a week. Then, more recently, a stream of boys more her own age. She wasn’t wild, but she wasn’t tame either. She was at the hub.
At the end of the session, the kids are filing out and Fizz comes bounding up. ‘That was great. Thanks.’ Her face is alight. Alive. ‘I used to hate you.’
What? Where’s this come from? But Fizz’s smiling, sunny. She mocks my voice, deepening hers. ‘Run away little girl. This play’s not for little girls.’
I have to laugh. ‘Is that meant to be me? Is that what I said?’
She laughs. ‘No. But it’s what you meant.’
I protest, but we both know it’s a joke.
‘See you sometime,’ she says. She’s got that scar on her chin. And those deep pools of blue, infinite. Why do I feel cheered up? Happy?
The first half of my first term in Uppers whizzes past. If I’m not teaching I’m on duty, or at rehearsals, or taking winter nets with the senior boys. I crawl to bed after pub, and barely get time to listen to the stereo. The same LP’s been on the turntable for days. “The Captain and Me.”
I’ve also tried to write a short story in any spare time with a view to getting something, anything, published. Have taken the plunge and sent it off to an address in Dundee. It’s titled “The Lamplighter’s Daughter.”
The lighting box is now being kitted out. High pitched drills. Wires everywhere. I’ve decamped to the Old Gym several times for some peace and quiet. ‘Phaw! This place is terrible,’ the pupils complain. Fizz bounces up to me after one session there. ‘The smell of here always reminds me of your first lesson with us. Do you remember it, sir?’
‘I do as a matter of fact.’
‘What is your after shave?’ She’s got that amused look in her eyes. Teasing.
‘Um. It’s not actually an aftershave. It’s an oil. Patchouli.’
‘That’s what I remember.’
Balls comes up too. ‘Can I go through some moves sometime, sir? I’m shadowing Ko Ko and Pooh Bah in rehearsals, and Fizz is helping me learn lines and songs, but there’s still some bits I don’t get.’
‘Sure. Let’s meet. What about after tea tomorrow?’
A blur of rehearsals and preparation.
When I ring home, mum’s voice is more scratchy than I remember. ‘It’s such a long way,’ she says. ‘Don’t bother at half term. I’m fine. Save your money.’
‘You sure? I can come you know. Maybe just for a couple of days.’
‘Oh, it’s up to you.’
First few days of half term, I sleep; make more notes in the score of “The Mikado”; try to make up some simple choreography; spend evenings in the Flyer, raiding the juke box before fiddling with another short story. BJ’s gone back to Scotland. ‘Need a shag.’
Biggles and his wife invite me round for a drunken evening. Another musical bonanza. I’ve brought round The Doobie Brothers, Joni Mitchell and John Martyn for him to try.
‘Yes I like this,’ he says over the chilli con carne. Then, ‘have you heard?’ and proceeds to tell me that Chisel Face and Miss Dazzle are having a tough time. ‘Not sure why. Heard she wanted kids. He didn’t. Or couldn’t. You’d have thought they’d have thought about that before.’
Over coffee, Biggles’ wife engages me. ‘What do you make of Fitzie’s then? You didn’t go to this sort of school did you?’
‘No.’ I wrinkle my brow. ‘I mean it’s hard work; long hours. But I appreciate the opportunities I get to try things out. Do things I like; cricket and drama. And small classes make a massive difference. I was one of thirty at my school; just a number. Here, what with boarders and staff on site all the time, everyone knows everyone; I already know the names of just about every pupil. What about you two? Where did you guys go to school?’
Biggles laughs. ‘Went to St George’s actually. Good school, but a bit up itself. Grand ideas; perhaps above its station. Likes to think of itself as a first division place.’ He turns to his wife. ‘Would you agree?’
‘Yes. From what you’ve said.’ She turns to me. ‘I went to a state grammar in Kent. All girls. Went a bit doo-lally at uni catching up.’
‘If St George’s is first division, what’s Fitzrovia?’ I ask.
Biggles laughs again. ‘Oh crikey. Where to start?’ He furrows his brow. ‘The thing is, we’re not really in competition with SG. It’s ancient and well endowed; attracts all the most wealthy and intelligent. It’ll never be short of money. Fitzie’s runs on a shoestring. Needs numbers to make money.’ He shrugs. ‘It needs to position itself in the market. Compete with those similar roundabout. We’re not big enough to really compete with some at sport; and we’re never going to be top notch academic cos we accept all sorts, so it seems to me, we should try the Arts as a marketing tool. Especially with St Benedict’s closing. It attracts arty types.’ He mentions Taff. ‘He’s already stirred things up; he’s tip top and passionate. It’ll be up to us with “Mikado”.’
I do rush home for two nights. I’ve sold the Anglia and bought a second hand orange Allegro. ‘What on earth do you want with a car?’ says mum as I polish it outside. ‘You don’t need one. More expense.’
‘It’ll save me time. Means I can come home more easily.’ Do I mean that?
While I’m there I also try to contact Cher again. Leave a message. ‘It would be good to catch up if you’re around. Give me a ring.’ But there’s nothing. How disappointed am I?
The Allegro breaks down on the way to Orchard Cottage. Typical. I’m left at the side of a busy road, steam pouring from the bonnet. Have to ring Biggles for help.
When I tell mum, I hear her sigh down the phone. ‘More money than sense. What do you need a car for? By the way, some young lady rang. Said to say she got your message and was sorry to miss you. I gave her your number at school. Is that OK?’
‘I didn’t know you had a lady friend here,’ says mum. Annoyingly.
Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries
Well I do love a guitar virtuoso, and Hedges doesn’t disappoint. He’s said to have bridled at being labelled “smooth” instead describing his music as…wait for it… “violent acoustic”, or “new edge” or “heavy mental” or “deep tissue gladiator guitar.” And who am I to argue?
Hedges himself was Californian, born in 1953, so I can readily identify with his age as well as his music! His album entitled “Aerial Boundaries” won him his first Grammy nomination in 1984.
Sadly, he was found dead in 1997 by the wreckage of his car.
Janis Ian - At Seventeen
Surely one of the great teenage angst songs of all time? It captures the internal dilemmas and pain of growing up, feeling ugly, feeling like a loser. It came out in UK in 1975…bang in the middle of my college days when I was still feeling an inadequate 21 year old, finding my way. A catchy song with a bossa background, it takes me back to that period as if it was only yesterday.
The Doobie Brothers - The Captain and Me
Was released in 1973 by the Doobies and I loved it with songs like “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove.” The title track is a rambling piece which bursts into life as it nears the end. Is it trendy to sneer at the Doobies now? Were they “middle of the road”? I think not... I think they pushed The Eagles…discuss!
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!