The story so far…
Robert Hopebourne is about to start a new teaching job at a school for “toffs.” A fish out of water, he visits a local pub before going to keep his first appointment in the school’s dining room. Time to meet Clive...
After leaving the pub, instead of worrying about De Cock and his cronies, I hum “Isn’t She Lovely” and turn my mind to Miss Dazzle, daydreaming about meeting her again. Where? When? Tonight? I brush at my cricket sweater; scrape at a grass stain at the hem.
Eventually I turn a corner and discover an ancient building with imposing mullioned windows. Like a baronial mansion or hall. A blue and silver sign reads “The Monastic Barn. Fitzrovia College Refectory.” OK. Let’s get it over with. First contact. Like facing the first ball of an innings. Trying to ignore heart palpitations, briefly I consider turning tail and heading home, but instead push the door, taking a deep breath.
There’s a lobby that opens to a grand hall, which smells of polish, paneled walls decorated with artwork, like a museum. An impressive set of steps at the far end. Is that where I go? My shoes squeak on the glossy parquet floor. The whole of one side of the barn’s covered with school photographs going back to the turn of the century. Sepia figures stare out at me, gently smiling young men wearing hooped caps or gaiters. Men in gowns with moustaches gaze stonily at the camera. Recent photographs are in colour and include girls, and on the latest one, I think I recognise Chisel Face and, with a skip of my heart, a solemn faced Miss Dazzle.
“…isn’t she pretty, truly the angel’s best…”
Then the lobby door swings open to reveal a man wearing a red cravat. No kidding! A cravat. Didn’t they go out with the Ark? He strides over. ‘We go back a long way don’t we?’ He’s middle aged, sandy hair scraped over his scalp. Salmon pink trousers. Suede brogues. That crimson cravat. Perhaps he’s going to a fancy dress party? Or gay? His hand’s firm enough. ‘Mister...?’
‘Hopebourne. Robert.’ We shake hands, my eyes fixed on his neck.
‘I’m Housemaster of Larters. Deputy Head of Prep. Welcome to Fitzrovia. You sound as if you’ve come a long way.’ The Cravat sounds as if he teaches elocution and points at the photo. ‘That’s me there.’
The grand staircase leads to an ancient timbered ceiling and wooden polished floor shining into the distance. There are banks of heavy-looking tables with white cloths under wrought iron chandeliers, the faint aroma of cooking, like a proper restaurant. No reek of stale greens, or scrapes of Formica furniture.
‘We’re very lucky we get to eat here every day,’ says The Cravat. ‘Ah. Here are the others I suspect.’ Seated at a table on a dais are two men about my age tucking into bowls of soup. A woman in a striped apron and one of those crown things, like a queen, is fussing round a trolley with steaming trays of food.
‘Evening sirs,’ the Queen says. ‘It’s roast beef tonight. These young gentlemen have already made a start.’ For a Queen she looks and sounds homely; normal.
‘Thank you, Gladys.’ The Cravat holds out his hand to the two. ‘Don’t get up. Welcome to Fitzrovia.’
Introductions concluded I take in the two young men, who like me are new. One’s from Cornwall and speaks with a handsome burr. ‘General Science and I’m in charge of prep school rugby.’ He has thick biceps, short mousey hair and wears a polo shirt with a badge, something about a rugby tour to Wales. Rugger Bugger. He’s the sort of guy I often meet at sports clubs. Hopefully I’ll get on with him?
The other guy’s from Kent. ‘Prep school Classics and football.’ He’s got a deep voice, piercing blue eyes under dark eyebrows, sports a beard and curly dark hair, wears a sports shirt, red and white, with a blue horse embroidered. “Kent Football.” Is ridiculously good looking. Like a Greek god. Adonis.
They seem to like my cricket sweater. ‘You must be good to wear that,’ says Rugger Bugger.
I chomp Yorkshire pudding as the Cravat chatters, reeling off names and pack drills that go in one ear and out the other. He warns us about the School Book Room and what sounds like its “shit system.” What’s that?
‘Just to give you a heads up,’ he says, ‘the boys are known by their surnames and the girls by their Christian names.’ He gives a slight smile. ‘Not very fair, I know. Don’t worry. You’ll soon get the hang of it. The pupils are really very good at helping out.’
At the end of the meal, we wave the Cravat off. ‘See you at Dining In tomorrow,’ he says.
I need a drink. ‘Right. Who’s for a pint?’
‘Thought you’d never ask,’ says Rugger Bugger, and Adonis smacks his lips.
The Crown’s still busy as the three of us swap stories.
‘I worked for a couple of weeks in a small place last term,’ says Adonis, ‘but it was nothing like this. Strikes me I was wanted for the football. Hope there’s some decent women on the staff.’
Rugger Bugger’s done his teacher training in primary schools. ‘I think I got the job because of my rugby. I’ve never taught eleven years old and up. Or in this sort of place. You?’
‘No. I’m secondary trained. Maybe the cricket or drama swung it my way.’
Later, Rugger Bugger asks about girlfriends. ‘You got one, Robby Boy?’
‘That Clive’s a right cock.’ That’s what my mates said about one of the boys in my school; the sort who’d just as likely set fire to his tie during History lessons as fall asleep in PE.
Such erratic behaviour was typical of what was kept hidden in my trousers from puberty onwards. If, at twelve, I had two interests, by fourteen I had three.
It resembled Play-Dough; had a life of its own, and invaded my teenage waking life. Unpredictable. Volatile. Capricious. Clive. My best friend and worst enemy. On the bus Clive would suddenly pump, pushing the crutch of my trousers out, like a pole, and I’d have to sit awkwardly, trying to slap him down. At night I’d wake–up from some exciting dream and find him standing to attention. A sticky mess.
As a boy, my understanding of girls was that they were like the rhyme. “Sugar and spice and all things nice.”
My first girlfriend was Glad Eyes and she lived up to that moniker. We were in the same English class, both sixteen. She’d big brown eyes and rosy cheeks, a toothy smile, hair down to her waist, like Sandy Denny. I’d gawp in classes, feel my stomach churn when she spoke, spend sleepless nights thinking of her and Clive would uncoil like a snake when I lay in the bath daydreaming.
I’d scrub at my spots, desperate to stop my face resembling a pizza, racked with doubt that she would accept any invitation to “go out” even if I plucked up courage to ask. Why would she look at me? And just how interesting am I anyway? Sure we could talk about “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, or “MacBeth”, but what else? Cricket?
Then I went with some mates down to the local folk club, and lo and behold, there she was. She wore a maxi skirt, orange, with hair braided, and strummed her guitar; sang some Joni Mitchell. ‘…and the seasons they go round and round…’
Spellbound, I fumbled to find words to congratulate her, and stumbled into conversation. Learned that she went to church where she strummed her guitar and sang more happy clappy hymns. God Squad. ‘But I love folk music as well.’
‘I’ve got some folk albums at home,’ I said. ‘Would you like to listen to some sometime? If you’re not too busy?’
Maybe my blushing covered my spots, because she accepted. ‘Have you got any Ralph McTell?’
We’d meet at weekends up in my room at home and, ice broken, I’d try to fumble under her clothes, listening to Ralph McTell or Gordon Lightfoot on my Dansette.
“…If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts could tell…”
Clive would wake up and tug at my flies, anxious to be released, but he never was. Glad Eyes had strict rules, and hands that wandered were quickly removed. ‘I’m not like that.’ And I was happy to go along with it. After all, love isn’t the same as sex is it? And sex before marriage; well, that was never going to happen. ‘You’re not a Christian then?’ she’d ask. ‘My faith is at the centre of everything.’
We went out for about a year, Clive getting more frustrated, my clumsy groping still resisted, exhausting our supply of folk music, and conversation, before she went away for an Easter camp. ‘I’m meeting up with some Christian friends,’ she said. I was heart-broken for about a week. By the time she came back everything had changed.
Brown Eyed Girl now caught the same bus as me to school. She wore the shortest skirt, and tons of eye shadow, deep blue, with a Sandy Shaw haircut, fringe over fluttering eyelashes. I’d sit as close as I dared, beating down Clive’s perkiness. Stare.
I’d no idea what her personality was; just trusted to an instinct that anyone with eyes and long legs like hers might be cheerful and worldly wise. A “Go-er” as my mates might have said. She didn’t go to my school; gave nothing away on the bus where she’d sit, thighs to the fore, staring out of the window. But she became the centre of my daydreams. Daydreams involving Clive that grew wilder with the passage of time. Tongue-tied, I eventually stammered an invitation to some café. ‘After school. Waiting for the bus. Only if you want to.’
She’d shrugged at my invitation. ‘Why not? What’s your name?’
For the next couple of weekends, sitting on benches in secluded settings, we’d fumble. ‘Just be careful with my bra strap!’ But really they were the inadequate flounderings of a boy caught between Clive’s brooding throbbing presence and fright of offending, with no conversation. ‘Do you like reading?’ I’d ask, and she’d counter with comments about hair spray or nail varnish. ‘You should wear after-shave. I like “Brut”.’
I started to catch the later bus to avoid the deepening silences between snogs.
Inadequate student shenanigans at College were dominated by Clive’s dogged resolve on Ultimate Satisfaction. Then, still a virgin, beer goggles firmly in place, one night in the Union, I was invited up to a girl’s room in Halls. ‘I’ve got some new Genesis. Do you want to hear it?’
She had fluttering eyelashes, long wavy hair, wore patchouli and tight yellow loons. A white cheesecloth shirt, translucent. No bra. Swaying, eyes on stalks, I perched on the bed, as she put on “Selling England By The Pound” before proceeding to pull at her top.
“…Romeo locks his basement flat and scurries up the stairs with head held high and floral tie a weekend millionaire…”
I turned my back as she lifted the cheesecloth up. When I turned round she was laughing. ‘Are you all right?’ I couldn’t take my eyes off her chest, wobbling towards me. ‘You’re not shy are you?’ she said as Clive thrust skywards against my boxers.
“…can he fail armed with his chocolate surprise…”
We snogged briefly, Clive beating like a drum, then undressed in record time, Clive set free, pulsing, before grappling together on the bed. More snogging, saliva everywhere, hands rabid, until Clive was gripped, stumbling into a Love Tunnel for the first time. ‘Oh!’ Exploded within microseconds of entry.
“…there is in fact more earth than sea…”
And then Brewers Droop. Clive shriveled. ‘Sorry.’
I couldn’t wait to leave. ‘Got a match tomorrow. See you.’ Cold Light. I didn’t even fancy her really. Just wanted to Become A Man. Have sex. Give Clive his head. Maybe she felt the same? Certainly we spent the next few months avoiding conversation round the campus. I had to stop listening to “I Know What I Like” on the Union jukebox for a while and hold off on wearing patchouli.
Why? I’m a real man now, right?
After that, I flitted, and first felt the terrible jealous pain of rejection when another girl dumped me, out of the blue. ‘Sorry, Rob,’ she said, ‘but there’s someone else on the scene; and he’s not always playing sport at weekends. Besides, it’s not really happening is it?’ I cried myself to sleep that night. Broken. Sugar and spice? No. Girls could be cruel. Salt in wounds. Acid burns.
Then, over the summer before taking up post at Fitzrovia, I bumped into a contemporary of mine from college. I chatted with her, enjoying a joke or two; flirting without purpose. She was slim and raven-haired. Like Cher. ‘I didn’t know you were sporty,’ she said this time. ‘I associated you with English. I like sporty guys.’
I cautiously accepted an invitation for a drink. ‘When?’
Clive’s had no outings but she’s seemed keen. ‘Fancy a trip to the cinema next week?’ Now we’ve reached that awkward stage where thinking of something to say is more difficult in between hasty gropes and the reality of my departure miles away. ‘Shall we meet up again?’ I asked.
Or go our separate ways? ‘It’s such a long way,’ Cher said. ‘How often will you be coming home?’
It’s been a diversion; but is it love?
‘Cos that’s what we’re all looking for. Despite Clive. Right?
‘Give me a ring,’ I said. ‘Or I’ll be back at Christmas.’
Back at the Crown, Kate Bush is now on the jukebox as Rugger Bugger waits for my answer. ‘Nothing serious. What about you?’
He nods. ‘Linda and me are getting married in a couple of years. When we can afford it.’
‘I tend to love ‘em and leave ‘em,’ says Adonis, glancing round the bar. ‘Maybe there’s some crumpet on the staff.’
I don’t mention Miss Dazzle.
“Heathcliff, it’s me I’m Cathy…”
‘Last orders!’ We’re onto our sixth pint. We all agree that Spicy’s a good man. We’ve talked sport, and given ourselves the unoriginal tag, Three Musketeers.
At closing time Rugger Bugger and Adonis head off in the opposite direction while I grope my way back to Maynard Road, wishing I were sharing accommodation with them. Still, at least I don’t feel so alone now. All for one and one for all.
Maynard Road’s in darkness as I open the door and reel in, fumbling to find a light switch, stomping up the stairs before dragging off trousers, staggering across the room to slump on the bed. ‘Woah!’
Isn’t She Lovely - Stevie Wonder
Sometimes happy music is all that’s needed to bring a smile to your face. “Happy” by Pharrell Williams has much the same effect as “Isn’t She Lovely” I think. Of course the sugary song’s actually about a baby, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with transposing a woman of your dreams instead. Stevie’s seminal double LP “Songs In The Key Of Life” is an amazing smorgasbord of soul, rock, jazz, pop, gospel…a fantastic musical journey. It goes without saying that the guy’s a genius.
If You Could Read My Mind - Gordon Lightfoot
Canadian Gordon Lightfoot first came into my compass on Saturday nights as a teenager when I used to meet up with school friends at our houses to play music and drink Party 7. Those were the days. Most of my friends – male and female – were into folk, so I was bombarded with Ralph McTell and Fairport Convention, but there was one album that caught most of our attentions – originally titled “Sit Down Young Stranger” but retitled “If You Could Read My Mind” after the song became a surprise hit in UK 1970. I really like his 12 string guitar based stuff and his voice is like a rich Rioja rather than cheap beer. Easy to drink!
The Cinema Show - Genesis
Quite simply one of my favourite prog rock albums of all time; I heard it first pretty much as the story tells - in a Halls Of Residence, wet behind the ears, a virgin and not knowing what I was supposed to do. For days after the event I’d travel in her small car into town and the Cinema Show would be continually on her cassette player. Love that track most of all…Gabriel at his absolute best. I saved up and bought the album along with “Foxtrot” and the rest as they say is history. Nothing reminds me of my college days as much.
Love all that early Gabriel influenced Genesis. If you think they’re all about Phil Collins then think again.
Wuthering Heights - Kate Bush
I can clearly remember hearing “Wuthering Heights” for the first time. One of those seminal musical moments, rifling through scores of albums in the local record shop and being arrested by the music being played by the owner. What is that? I’d never heard anything like it before. I’m up to the counter and reaching into my pocket. I’ve just got to have a copy of it. I can count on the fingers of one hand when a song has so stopped me in my tracks – “Fly Like An Eagle”(Steve Miller) and “Aja” (Steely Dan) stand out.
Since then, I’ve loved songs like “Running Up That Hill” and “Babooshka” and and and… for me Kate’s right up there with Joni Mitchell as an innovator of the period.
About the Curator: 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!