Many modern novels have a beginning, a muddle and an end.
— Philip Larkin
 

*

 I’m considering tidying my study at the end of that summer term 1980. Three years almost done and dusted, it contains anything of my world that isn’t at Orchard Cottage. The detritus of school admin lies cheek by jowl with correspondence; lesson plans; old essays; class lists; mark books; cricket scorebook; paraphernalia. There are piles of play scripts, scattered across the floor. A box labeled “Mum.”

Simon and Garfunkel play quietly on the cassette.

“…old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends…

Where to start with it all?

A tuneless whistle and knock on the door announces the arrival of Topdeck. ‘Busy, Mister H?’ Brown overall, grey haired, gnarled and withering, he moves round, sprightly despite advancing years, emptying waste bins into a black sack. ‘Wanna ‘and?’

‘Thanks.’ I pick up some loose papers. ‘Need to go through this lot. Make some decisions.’

Topdeck nods, and tells me about yesterday’s adventure on the bus. Part time at Fitzie’s, he wanders the county, length and breadth, every day, rain or shine. ‘Top deck, front row. Me favourite seat.’ He ties a sack. ‘Found a nice pub in Freckle’urst yesterday; you ever bin there?’

‘Some time ago.’

‘Good beer. Nice pint o’ “Waddles” there. ‘Oppy. I’ll get yer some more bags shall I?’

‘Thanks. There’s more here than I thought.’

“…can you imagine us years from today sharing a park bench quietly; how terribly strange to be seventy…”

He disappears briefly, returns, rustling bags. ‘Always like comin’ ‘ere,’ he says. ‘There’s not many on the staff what passes the time o’ day with the likes o’ me.’

‘Oh.’

‘Still thinks we’re a bit beneath ‘em so to speak.’

‘I’m sure they don’t mean to be rude.’ Reaching into the recesses of mum’s box, there’s something tinny. ‘I hope not.’ I rummage.

Topdeck mentions Chisel Face. ‘Did you know ‘im, Mister H?’

‘Sort of. We didn’t really hit it off.’

‘No? Can’t say I liked ‘im. ’E was a rum ‘un. I used to do for ‘im; you know, round ‘is study an’ that. Never said a word to me.’ He hesitates. ‘‘Cept once.’

I’m turning a pewter tankard round in my hands. ‘Oh yes?’

‘Yeh. Walked in on ‘im.’

“…silently sharing the same fears…”

‘‘E weren’t alone, neither.’

      ‘Oh?’

      ‘No. An’ not ‘is missus.’

      ‘Oh?’

      ‘Some other bit o’ stuff.’

‘Really?’

Topdeck comes over, conspiratorially. Lowers his voice. I can smell polish. ‘Well, it were pretty obvious summat were up. She were all over the shop. Red faced an’ that, showin’ ‘er knickers. An’ ‘e were in a tizz ‘n all. “You should ‘ave knocked,” ‘e said to me. The only time ‘e’s ever spoke. Well, Mister H. I did knock. Always do. Between you an’ me I think they was too busy if yer know what I mean.’ He moves away. Speaks normally. ‘Anyways, she said summat in a foreign language, an’ so did ‘e an’ I left ‘em to it.’

‘Interesting.’

Topdeck gives a good-natured grunt. ‘That’s a nice tankard.’

‘Should say “ICI Cup.”’  

‘I’ve got some Brasso somewhere. Leave it there an’ I’ll give it a go.’

“…preserve your memories they’re all that’s left you…”

‘Thanks.’ Picking up a large brown envelope from the mess I tip out the contents. Formal letters. “For the attention of Mr. R. Hopebourne.” ‘I’ll get started with this lot. See what I should keep or throw out.’

‘Yeh, well my advice is, don’t throw out yer mem’ries, Mister H. When I cleared out me mum’s place there was loads of old photos. Letters. Other things. Never knew what I should do with ‘em.’

‘But you kept them?’ Sifting documents, I discover the school prospectus.

‘No. I threw ‘em out. Course now I wish I ‘adn’t.’ He chucks some bags on the floor. ‘I’m goin’ next door. Tidy up. I’ll find that Brasso too. Shame to let it get like that. You wanna pop that in ‘ere?’ He proffers a bag, and I hand him the prospectus. ‘That’s ‘ere ain’t it?’

Topdeck opens the glossy pamphlet, popping on his glasses. ‘Posh.’ He grunts. ‘Nothin’ like where I were at school.’

‘Me neither.’

He’s flicking pages. ‘You didn’t go to a school like Fitzrovia then? Sort o’ thought yer did.’

‘No. Nothing like.’

‘Posh kids eh? Don’t know they’re born. All that money.’

‘I suppose so. Where’s it all come from do you think?’

‘In’erited. Mummy and daddy. Got it on a plate for the rest o’ their lives.’ He takes off his specs. ‘You into politics Mister H?’

‘Not really. But I do think if you’re lucky enough to have money you should be able to spend it however you like. Might be on cars or a house or gambling or holidays or schooling for your kids. Anything.’

Topdeck grunts. ‘I dunno. Still don’t seem fair to me.’

‘You think they’re that much different? The kids here?’

His forehead creases. ‘From normal kids? Prob’ly not. ‘Cept they get to go to places like ‘ere. ‘Ave teachers like you.’

I have to laugh. ‘I’m nothing special. There’s plenty of teachers out there.’

‘Maybe so.’ He wrinkles his nose. ‘Me ‘istory teacher, ‘e were a bit like you. ‘Ad a joke with us, like. Almost ‘uman.’ He chuckles. ‘Quite liked ‘istory. But the rest I could take or leave. Some was complete bastards, ‘scuse me French.’ He pauses. ‘Mind you, ‘spect we was a rum lot. Some of me mates was tough on ‘em.’

‘Did you get the cane in your day? Or the slipper?’

‘Oh yeh. Never complained though. Well, yer didn’t did yer? Me old man, ‘e’d have taken ‘is belt to us anyways if I stepped out o’ line. You?’

‘My parents were pretty strict about me making a go of it. Old fashioned.’

‘Yeh? I weren’t mad on school. Couldn’t ever remember stuff. ‘Ad no int’rest maybe. Like me dad. Couldn’t wait to leave.’

‘I was rubbish at exams. No memory. Made it an unfair test. But I think teachers play a big part. My English teacher, like your History one, he found the key to me. Made me laugh, which made me listen and learn. He was - I don’t know - entertaining. Made me want to do better for him.’

‘Yeh? Most o’ mine was borin’.’ He points at the prospectus cover. ‘What’s this all about then, Mister H?’

‘Dum Cresco Spero. It’s Latin.’

‘What’s it mean then?’

‘Um, something like, where there’s life there’s hope.’

‘Right.’ He waves it. ‘I’ll chuck it.’

I fiddle with papers. ‘You ever been somewhere you felt out of your depth?’

Topdeck considers. ‘Did a postal round once. Postie. Got moved round the district, so each new area were different, like. New ‘ouses with their dogs an’ that. Dangerous bein’ a postie, sometimes.’ He considers. ‘Rather that than teachin’. Don’t know ‘ow anyone could be a teacher. Need nerves o’ steel an’ patience like a saint. That’s it. Throw ‘em out if they’re no use.’ Topdeck’s holding the bag open.

I pop papers in and rummage on my desk, pulling out more. Topdeck disappears. Returns with a tin and a yellow cloth.

I’m scanning a crumpled document as the music’s changed. “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright.”

“…I can’t believe your song has gone so soon…”

Topdeck pops on his glasses. ‘The…what’s that?’

‘Winslow.’

‘”The Winslow Boy.” What’s that then, Mister H?’

‘One of those plays with a moral.’

‘Any good? Me missus is always goin’ on about goin’ to see more plays an’ things. Can’t seem to get into it unless it’s funny. No offence.’ He picks up the tankard. Opens the tin of Brasso.

‘None taken.’ I throw the programme into the bag. ‘Not my cup of tea either.’

‘What’s it about then?’ He’s putting stuff on the cloth.

‘Too long to tell. But basically about a lad who’s falsely accused of stealing, and has to defend himself. At least that’s what I remember. Not too many laughs. Bit static.’

‘’Ave to be funny for me to like it.’ Topdeck starts to rub at the pewter. ‘An’ lively like.’

 I’ve found a small box tucked away. One of those ring boxes. Red. Opening it, there’s the faintest familiar scent from a piece of cotton wool that’s yellowed. A trace of Venus. ‘Funny isn’t it, how a smell can take you back to something as if it was yesterday.’

Topdeck’s still rubbing. ‘Like with me mum. She used to wear this perfume. Je Reviens it were called. French like. I used to buy ‘er some for Christmas or birthday or the like if I were flush. They still make it yer know. If I ever want to think about mum, I go into Boots an’ use one of them tester things, yer know? Brings ‘er back, clear as day.’

‘I don’t even know if this stuff’s still on the market. Might check out Boots next time I’m in town.’ I throw the cotton wool and box into his bag. ‘Might not.’

‘’Ere you are, Mister H.’ Topdeck’s shone up the pewter tankard. ‘Come up nice, that ‘as.’

I turn it in my hand. ‘Bloody hell.’

‘Yours?’

‘Yes. Single wicket competition winner.’

‘Yer don’t wanna throw that out do yer?’

‘No. No I don’t.’

‘I used to ‘ave one of ‘em. Belonged to me dad, like. ‘E used to be regular at The Red Lion when we was livin’ over that way. Kept it be’ind the bar.’

 I’m turning it round and round. ‘This was at home with mum. I don’t really like the taste of beer out of them. Prefer glass.’

‘That’s what I said to me dad. But, ‘e loved that tankard. Given ‘im by mates in the Merchant Navy. Bin ‘alf way round the world with ‘im.’

‘I’ll find a spot for it somewhere. On a shelf perhaps?’

‘Yeh. Come up nice that ‘as.’

‘What about wedding invitations? Do you think I should keep hold of them?’ There’s one on my desk. Silver and gold writing, flowers embossed.

‘I would,’ says Topdeck. ‘If they’re close friends or the like. Or your own?’ He gives a little chuckle. ‘Got married meself at nineteen. Well, yer did back then.’

‘How long had you known her?’

‘Dorry? Oh a long time. Went to school with Dorry an’ she only lived round the corner. Quite a lot o’ me mates married girls they’d met at school. Like they trusted each other cos they’d bin through child’ood together, if that makes any sense.’

‘It does.’

‘Good days. Me an’ Dorry’d go down the Palais. Sat’day night. It were like a ritual. Fish an’ chips for supper, like a treat, then change into us goin’ out clothes, an’ down the Palais. Course we was too young to drink in them days. ‘Ad to be twenty one, like. Still, there were always some’un could spin a yarn at the offie. Get us somethin’.’

‘And you got married.’

‘Yeh. In them days if yer wanted a bit o’ slap an’ tickle so to speak, you ‘ad to get married.’ Topdeck smiles. ‘One thing leads to summat else before yer knows it. You not married, Mister H?’

‘No. Can’t seem to find the time.’

Topdeck chuckles. ‘More important to find the right ‘un. My Dorry, she’ll tell yer she’s long sufferin’, but really she’s just pullin’ yer leg. Don’t know what I’d do without her, God’s truth.’

I put on my best teaching voice. ‘Oh no one can deny that Arnold is less selfish than I. He married a woman to stop her getting away. Now she’s there all day.”’

Topdeck wrinkles his nose.

‘Philip Larkin. He’s a poet.’

‘Oh yeh? Not keen on marriage then?’

‘Why do you need a piece of paper to prove you love someone?’

‘Money, Mister H. Money. My Dorry gets some pension if I snuffs it. That’s no small sum to ‘er. Least I could do.’ He fiddles with a bag. ‘Don’t yer want kids neither, then? If yer don’t mind us askin’?’

‘Hold on.’ I hunt my bookshelf. ‘Can’t remember it word for word.’ I skim pages. ‘Yes. Here it is. “Dockery, now; only nineteen, he must have taken stock of what he wanted, and been capable of…No, that’s not the difference: rather, how convinced he was he should be added to! Why did he think adding meant increase?”’

Topdeck looks puzzled. ‘What’s ‘e on about then Mister H?’

‘Sorry. But Larkin seems to be saying that having children might be a bit selfish. Of the parents.’

Topdeck grunts. ‘Selfish eh?’

‘Have you got kids?’

‘Two lads.’ He breaks into his laugh. ‘One’s a sparky, other’s in the Army.’

‘Grown up then.’

‘Not sure they ever does. But they’re good lads.’

‘You’ve got to have something about you to do what they’re doing. I wouldn’t know where to start with electricity. Scares me to death. And as for the Armed Forces.’ I puff out my cheeks. ‘Couldn’t do it.’

‘‘E might ‘ave gone off the rails without it to be fair. ‘Ad a brush with drugs an’ that. When ‘e were younger like. Well, they all do now don’t they? It’s like booze were for us.’

‘But he kicked it?’

‘Ooh knows? Not sure I could tell. I mean, what ‘e does in ‘is spare time’s up to ‘im ain’t it?’ He pops his specs back into his glasses case. ‘You ever come across drugs, Mister H?’

‘Yes.’

‘What do yer make of ‘em then, if yer doesn’t mind us askin’.’

‘Not at all. Um, well I think if you’re in the right head space and things grow naturally then I can’t see why we shouldn’t use them. If they somehow enhance our experiences as well, what’s the problem? Makes no sense to me to make them illegal. Fungi. Beans and pods. Leaves. Tea and tobacco, for instance. If we want to. Marijuana’s got medical benefits as well as anything else by all accounts.’ I smile at Topdeck who’s nodding. ‘Personally, I’m happy to experiment with anything that grows naturally. Why not? I’d just avoid manmade stuff. You know, pills and things.’ I meet Topdeck’s eyes. ‘I’ve had my horizons expanded; no bad thing. Learned a lot about myself. Quite life changing actually.’

Topdeck nods again. ‘Speakin’ o’ tea, I’m goin’ to ‘ave a brew. Fancy a cuppa?’

‘Great. Thanks.’

At the door he turns back. ‘Yer know Mister H, I can honestly say it were. Love, I mean. Me an’ Dorry. It were like it were meant to be. Can’t explain it. But there yer go. We knew each other inside out. Nothin’ to ‘ide. Got married. Bin together ever since.’ He chuckles. ‘That there poet what you read, ‘e don’t sound as if ‘e found the right ‘un.’

Later, I’m still in my study; seem to have been sidetracked from tidying by starting to read a play from the scattered tomes on the floor. ‘Ha! Ha!’ I throw my head back. ‘Great!’

S and G are still playing on a loop. “America.”

“…let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together…”

There’s a knock on the open door. ‘Come in.’

Fizz comes bounding in. ‘You sound as if you’re enjoying yourself.’

I tap the script. ‘Just reading this. Really funny.’

      ‘Can I see? Are you going to put it on?’

‘Maybe.’ I hand it over. ‘What can I do for you?’

      She flips the script and glances at the back cover. ‘I just came to say goodbye. Might not see you at Speech Day tomorrow, ‘cos my dad’s coming early specially.’ She scans the synopsis. ‘”Bouncers” eh? Only four parts?’

      ‘All males.’ I see her wrinkle her nose. ‘I haven’t decided on it yet, don’t worry.’

She smiles and raises her big blue eyes to me. An artful pause. There’s something about her mouth, amused but at the same time enigmatic yet demystifying; play acting and admitting the pretence. Always the suggestion that my leg’s being pulled.

‘You can’t put something on without me, sir.’

There’s another knock on the door. Topdeck peeks round the frame. Fiddles with his tie. ‘Right, Mister H. I’m off.’ His eyes flick to Fizz and back to me.  ‘Won’t be in tomorrow.’

‘Oh?’

‘Got an appointment with the Quack. ‘Ospital job.’

‘Nothing serious I hope?’

‘Me ticker.’ He shuffles in, taps his chest. ‘Dad went that way. Bin ‘avin’ palpiwhotsits, yer know.’

‘Palpitations?’

‘That’s them. Doc said not to worry, but got me an appointment with the Quack.’

‘Right.’

He turns to the door. ‘Right.’ Turns back. ‘What were the name o’ that there poet? The one ‘oo went on about marriage an’ stuff.’

‘Philip Larkin.’

‘”They fuck you up your mum and dad they may not mean to but they do.”’ Fizz looks pleased with herself. ‘Philip Larkin.’

‘Indeed.’

‘Right.’ Topdeck tips me a nod. ‘See yer sometime, Mister H.’ He bobs at Fizz. ‘Bye.’

When he’s gone, Fizz turns back to me. ‘Right. Have a great holiday. Are you doing anything nice?’

‘Um, playing a bit of cricket. Finding a play to do next term. And then I’ve got the little matter of preparing for exam classes. You?’

‘Holiday with dad. They’ll be at it all summer trying to make a baby.’ She mimes being sick. ‘Then I’ve got my results in August.’ She frowns. ‘We always go to France right at the end of the holiday so we have to drive through the night to get back for term.’ Then beams. ‘Then I’m back for sixth form. I’m doing Drama. And English and History.’ She raises her eyes at me, challenging, amused. ‘And the school play of course.’

‘Of course.’

We hug briefly. Seems perfectly natural under the circumstances, though when she pulls away she’s bright cheeked. Is that blood tell-taling in mine as well?

‘Bye,’ she says. ‘See you next year.’

‘Bye.’

When she’s gone it’s like a light’s gone out.

“…and I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…”

                                    *


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Soundtrack - The Back Story!

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Old Friends – Simon and Garfunkel

The concluding song on “Bookends” it’s got that poignancy about growing old that I suppose echoes The Beatles “When I’m 64.” Hard to believe I’ve reached that milestone myself while still recalling the first time I listened to “Bookends” as a teenager and marveling at the brilliance of the songwriting, production and hose oh so sweetly matched voices.

So Long Frank Lloyd Wright -  Simon and Garfunkel

Who could argue that Art Garfunkel hasn’t the sweetest of voices? This song showcases that rare beauty, and the song’s melody is class itself. Frank Lloyd Wright was actually an architect…


America – Simon and Garfunkel

Possibly the first S and G song that really got under my skin after “Mrs Robinson.” It’s reflective and melancholic, going to “look for America.”



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About the Author: Richard Parsons

 Richard Parsons - Musicto Curator

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!

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