I’ve been home for Christmas. Mum’s feebler. Small voice. ‘Can you get your own tea tonight?’
The Lent term of 1980 starts depressingly. January blues. I can’t even bask in the reflected glory of “The Mikado.” Full houses, bursting. ‘More!’ Even buying a new album – “The Return Of The Durutti Column” - filled with optimistic spring sounds, can’t diminish my sense of loss.
I spend dank dark afternoons freezing on the hockey playing fields. I should be more motivated, but really I’m finding my concentration telescoping into two areas. Drama and cricket.
Then there are the staff cuts. Three gone in a Yuletide cull. BJ’s been hauled in to see The Big Cheese. ‘Told me that Business Studies and Economics are where the foreign market’s going. Wants boarding numbers up. Asked me what marketing I’m doing.’ He shrugs. ‘Och. I’m doing fuck all. Never been asked. Told him I’d go to Student Fairs, that sort of thing. I dinnae like him. He’s a pompous prick.’
Biggles has told me that The Big Cheese is scrutinising workloads. ‘Those that aren’t pulling their weight…’ He draws a finger across his throat.
Eventually my summons is received.
The Big Cheese seats me opposite him at his desk. What’s he going to say?
He looks up. His eyes are less flinty than I recall. ‘I thought “The Mikado” was splendid.’
Fuck me. Praise from The Big Cheese.
‘I’ve had a lot of letters from parents and from potential parents, many from St Benedict’s, and from a few Prep Heads. Inquiries for places as a result.’ He pauses and almost smiles. ‘That makes this Headmaster very happy, and I realise that this is in no small measure down to you. I’ll pass the letters on to you. After all, I had nothing to do with the performance.’ He nods towards me. ‘I’d also like you to make an appointment to see me next week with the Director of Studies. I’m considering introducing Drama to the curriculum.’
‘How would you feel about that?’ This from the man who just a few weeks ago described Drama as “lightweight.”
‘I think it’s a great idea.’
He nods and stands. The interview’s over. ‘Make an appointment.’
‘Hi sir! You look happy.’ There’s a gaggle of girls bunching in the corridor. ‘Are you going to tea?’ Fizz is all eyes and smile. ‘Fish fingers.’ She mimes being sick. ‘It’s my birthday.’
‘Oh. Happy birthday. How old?’
‘Sixteen,’ she beams.
‘And never been kissed?’
She sticks out her tongue as one of the other girls grabs her arm, sweeps her away. ‘Come on, Fizz, it’s chocolate sponge pudding!’
I can’t stop myself from smiling. Isn’t life straightforward for them? And some lucky man one day is going to have Fizz fall in love with him. And make him happy as Larry.
When I get back to Orchard Cottage that evening, there’s a letter. It’s from the fiction editor at “The People’s Friend.” My latest rewrite of “The Lamplighter’s Daughter” has been accepted! I rush round to find BJ. ‘Let’s go for a few beers. On me.’
The phone’s ringing when I open the door late that evening, whistling.
‘Robert! At last!’ It’s my next-door neighbour from home. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you all night. I’ve got some bad news for you, I’m afraid. It’s your mum.’
Mum’s funeral takes place back home two weeks later. I ask The Big Cheese for compassionate leave and join a few folk round a small plot in a graveyard close to our house, next to dad. ‘Lymphatic cancer. Once it spreads that’s it I’m afraid.’ I shiver by the plot, fight and fail to quell tears.
The house is very empty all of a sudden. There’s loads of forms and stuff to negotiate, and there’s the house to put on the market. There’s still a mortgage, but mum’s obviously squirrelled stuff away over the years, so it’ll be paid off, leaving me with the small residue. I throw out tons of stuff. Furniture. Pots and pans. Towels and sheets. Garden implements. Nick nacks. Packing her clothes, her perfume makes me swallow and gulp for air. Eventually, I pack all that remains into one box.
‘Sorry to hear about your mother, sir,’ says Balls when I eventually return. ‘The High Master told us at assembly.’
Later Fizz knocks on my study door. I’ve got some Paul Simon playing. ‘Can I come in? Are you OK?’ Her bold eyes are full on me. A pained expression on her face.
‘I’m just getting used to it,’ I say. ‘She brought me up to stand on my own two feet. That’s what I’ll have to do.’
She nods and wanders in to stand at my desk. ‘That’s what my dad says. It’s why I like boarding. Much better than home. And forces me to be more independent. More me if that makes any sense.’
‘Besides I save him money.’
‘Oh yes. I’m only at Fitzie’s cos his work pays my fees. Dad’s abroad a lot.’ She raises twinkling eyes to me. ‘I’m not a rich kid.’
‘What’s this playing?’ She wanders over to the cassette.
‘Oh. Paul Simon. “For Emily Whenever I May Find Her”. It’s quite old.’
Fizz nods, ‘I like it,’ then turns her full eyes back to me. ‘Do you believe in God, sir?’
‘Quite a question. I’m afraid not. You?’
‘I think I used to. I got confirmed when I was really too young to understand. Maybe I’ve just grown up a bit, but it feels like life’s too unfair for there to be a God. I mean, if there was, there’d be no suffering surely?’
‘You might be right. But death comes to us all. Seems to me it’s the ones who are left behind that suffer.’
‘I’ve stopped taking communion anyway. The Chaplain keeps on and on about it, trying to make me feel guilty.’
‘I’ve told him. I don’t believe in life after death. Or any of it, so why would I want to take communion?’
‘I’m no expert,’ I say, ‘but I think everything comes from within. You can call it God or whatever, but it’s from inside yourself. Don’t need organized religion for that.’
She nods. ‘Is there anyone else at home? What about your dad?’
‘I’m afraid he’s dead.’ I outline his story.
‘Oh that’s so sad. So you’re on your own?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Maybe you should get married,’ she says with a renewed twinkle in her eyes.
‘At least I’ve made you smile,’ she continues. ‘Don’t you have a girlfriend? Want kids?’
Lent term morphs seamlessly into summer. I’ve my hands full with the cricket, and exam classes mean I’m forever organizing extra study tutorials. If anything, my days are fuller than when I was working all hours in the Prep. Whatever, it means mum gently recedes into the background.
One day, I bump into Biggles in the common room. He looks suddenly sheepish. ‘Actually, I’ve been meaning to say something to you, but after your mum’s death I thought I’d hang fire. It’s about next year’s production.’ He strokes his moustache. ‘The thing is, I’ve been asked to take over as Head of Department.’
‘Thanks. But it’ll mean shuffling my time. Give me a year to get to grips with it, but I don’t think I can commit to another blockbuster.’ He tugs at a tuft on his moustache. ‘Sorry. But really, you’re probably thinking about a play, aren’t you? Variety and all that?’
‘I haven’t really thought about it. Need to.’
‘What sort of stuff do you like?’
The Durutti Column - Sketch For A Summer
Late 1979 The Durutti Column released this album, taking their name from a Spanish Civil War military unit. Post-punk, they became more musical and experimental using guitar and keyboards and reverb. One of their members came from a band whose name was “Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds.” Say no more!
Simon and Garfunkel – For Emily Wherever I may Find Her.
S and G were an essential part of my musical upbringing. If Ralph McTell and Fairport were my go-to UK folkies, then S and G were my USA counterparts. Timeless melodies that have truly stood the test of time. This song is taken from the album “Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme” released way back in 1966! Oh it’s so good!
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!