The story so far…
Where have you been?
Robert is starting a first teaching job at Fitzrovia College…but first he must go to a formal social function after recovering from a night in the pub with new friends.
Next morning I wake late, gulp water and hunt out some aspirin, before spending the afternoon finding my feet. Trying to think ahead. There’s a sports shop where I splash out on a new tracksuit to supplement my college gear. Royal blue. Three white stripes. The biz.
At practically every turn there are signs in the familiar blue and silver; imposing buildings. “Faraday Science Labs.” Every time anyone passes I wonder whether they work in the place.
At five o’ clock, I walk back into The Crown having changed. What exactly does “formal” mean? I don’t have any of that penguin suit stuff.
Eventually I opt for my blazer and blue bell-bottoms. Platforms. Cricket club tie. The other Musketeers sit in one corner, jackets draped over their seats, while 10cc’s “Life is a Minestrone” is playing.
“…love is a fire of flaming brandy upon a crepe suzette…”
Rugger Bugger’s in a light grey shiny suit, fiddling with his tie. A huge knot; on trend. ‘Hello, Robby Boy. I hope you were as hung over as we were. Had a mouth like the bottom of a bird cage this morning.’ He sniffs. ‘What’s that you’re wearing?’
‘Smells like you’ve been gardening,’ he says. ‘Earthy.’
Adonis is peering round. He’s in a dark suit; white shirt; blue tie. Dapper. ‘There might be some totty here.’
“…I’m like a gourmet in a skid row diner…”
There are several groups dressed in black tie and penguin suits or long dresses, talking loudly. De Cock’s one of them. ‘And how was St Lucia?’ Standing by him I think I recognize Chisel Face. Tanned.
‘That’s the lot I was telling you about,’ I say to the musketeers. ‘Complete cocks.’
We buy a round each, trying to eavesdrop, checking watches umpteen times.
‘Better be some fizz at the do,’ I hear De Cock say. ‘Shall we go?’
Gradually the pub seems to empty. ‘I suppose we’d better,’ Rugger Bugger says as I drain my third pint.
The refectory lobby opens to a seething mass of people all impeccably dressed, most in black and white, the faint aroma of perfume. I fiddle with my tie. Wish I’d given my platforms a polish. There’s a hubbub of conversations, small groups gathered comfortably, glancing over. Here goes. A new role to play. The start of another innings. At least I’m not alone.
‘Would you like a sherry, young sirs?’ Queen Gladys is dressed in black with a white apron, holding a tray. I’ve only tasted sherry at Christmas in mum’s trifle. I wrinkle my nose. She winks at me. ‘You’d probably prefer a beer, eh?’ Another younger woman in an apron sweeps up with a tray. ‘Canapés, sir?’
The three of us stand, gulping sherry, nibbling cheese and pineapple until, trying to locate Miss Dazzle, I pick out some faces, recognising the Cravat standing by a familiar figure. ‘Shall we say hi to Spicy?’
Spicy’s in full flow. ‘Plenty of new blood, all bursting with ideas and energy.’ He breaks off and his face lights up turning to hold out his hand. ‘Ah! Here they are. I was just talking about you.’
Soon a gong’s banged. A man in dinner suit and bow tie stands on the grand stairs.
‘Welcome,’ he says in a cut-glass voice, ‘especially to our new members of staff and their partners. I do hope you enjoy your time at Fitzrovia and that tonight we’ll get to meet you all.’ He sweeps his eyes over the gathering. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.’ There’s a cheer.
I’m initially sat between the mousey wife of someone who teaches in Uppers and a man whose name I don’t catch after he introduces himself as ‘Housemaster of Cheetahs.’ Or does he mean cheaters? I would ask but he turns away, indifferent to me as soon as I say I’m working in the prep school. Tosser.
Assorted waitresses keep my glass topped up under Queen Gladys’s watchful eye as I munch on prawn cocktail gazing round.
The Tosser’s declaiming. ‘The new High Master’s under no illusions. Belts need to be tightened.’
Rugger Bugger’s nowhere to be seen and Adonis is away across the other side of the room. Once I think I catch a glimpse of Miss Dazzle dressed in a spangled black dress, deeply tanned, laughing. I strain my neck. Can I get to speak to her? Is she sat next to Adonis?
‘Tough times ahead,’ says the Tosser.
At the end of the first course there’s a rap on a table and the guy from the stairs stands up. ‘Gentlemen, could you all move six seats to your left? Please take your glasses with you.’
I peer hopefully, trying to spot Miss Dazzle. I’m now next to a white haired woman with penetrating blue eyes and a pleasant smile. ‘Hello,’ she says, ‘how are you coping?’ She has an Australian twang. Sheila. ‘More wine?’ Fills my glass.
I introduce myself. Opposite is a pastry-faced man; looks as though he hasn’t seen the sun in years. He’s got hangdog jowls and doleful eyes. Droopy ‘tache. ‘Living in Maynard Road.’ I do a double take. Of course, my fellow housemates must be here.
‘I believe we’re sharing Maynard Road.’ I reach out my hand.
‘So I’ve gathered.’ Mister Pastry barely grips, his fingers flaccid and floppy. ‘I tend to go to bed early.’
I turn to Sheila. Mum has always drilled it into me that I must show an interest in others. ‘And what do you do here?’
She seems slightly surprised. ‘I’m the High Master’s wife. Have you met him yet? We must have you round.’
Shit! I feel about a millimetre tall. The High Master’s the Big Cheese isn’t he? And Sheila’s his wife. She must think I’m a complete nincompoop.
But she’s actually almost conspiratorial, leaning in close. ‘I know what it’s like when you’re new, everything’s strange. We only arrived last year. I’ll try and fill you in on a few people if you like.’ She hesitates. ‘That’s a distinctive after -shave,’ she says. ‘Is it foreign?’
The main course is battered fish. I saw away at it and take a mouthful. Chomp.
‘It’s skate,’ comes an Aussie twang. ‘More wine?’
It takes ages for me to find a time when I can spit the bones out. Sheila’s expertly sliding white flesh from the skeleton, distracted by the man next to her, and Mister Pastry is chewing thoughtfully into space. I abandon the rest of the fish and pick at my vegetables, still searching for Miss Dazzle.
‘Where did you go to school?’ asks Mister Pastry eventually. ‘I went to Wellington.’
‘New Zealand?’ I glug back my wine. ‘I’ve always wanted to go there.’
Mister Pastry raises his eyebrows. ‘I think we may be at cross purposes,’ he says, as there’s another rap on the table.
The ladies are now moved and I find myself joined by someone with long grey hair and breathy voice who works as a technician in the Art department. ‘Have you been to the Tate? There’s an exhibition by Hockney that’s rather fun.’ Er…
She wears a perfume that reminds me of apples. Opposite, next to Mister Pastry, is a Biology teacher from Uppers. Stockily built with short dark hair she speaks about her summer in the Highlands under canvas. ‘I’m in the TA.’ She talks flatly. ‘Will you be doing CCF here?’
Spicy’s mentioned the Cadet Force, but told me that my “sporting and boarding commitments” would keep me “busy enough.” ‘Unless you’d like to of course?’
No chance. I hate all that stuff.
‘Pity,’ she says. ‘You might enjoy it. We’re off to Camp next half term. Ten Tors training. It would be good if it was cold and wet so we’re properly prepared.’
After a fiddly dessert of poached pears, further moves bring me opposite a tall young Welshman with a heavy beard. ‘New to Uppers. Art and ceramics.’ He blows out his cheeks, speaks in a sing-song voice. ‘I don’t know about you, boyo, but I could murder a pint.’ Pulling a face, his eyes dart. ‘These people, what are they like?’ He’s from Tenby. Tenby Taff.
I ask about his background and he tells me about his schooling, playing rugby at Tenby College. ‘Pretty good standard. You played hockey did you, boyo?’
I arrange for him to meet us in the pub afterwards. ‘Where are you living?’
Taff growls. ‘I’m away in Cheatles, boyo, one of the boarding houses.’ That name again. ‘Living in.’ He drains his wine glass. ‘I’ll be getting away from there a.s.a.p. I can tell you.’ Queen Gladys comes over and refills our glasses.
‘What do you make of the Head?’ asks Taff.
‘I don’t even know who he is. Never met him.’
Taff blows out his cheeks. ‘I’m not sure I like him, boyo, but he gave me the job. I think he’ll be a hard task master.’
Dining In eventually comes to an end. The stairs are quite difficult to negotiate and the photos downstairs seem quite blurred. The Crown’s already busy and there are several other Fitzrovia people there. My heart leaps, like hitting winning runs, as I spot Miss Dazzle in the corner. She’s sat next to Chisel Face who’s now wearing glasses. Blue bow tie. Rod Stewart’s playing.
“…I don’t wanna talk about it, how you broke my heart…”
De Cock’s at the bar. Penguin suit and multi-coloured dickie bow. He turns to me and holds out his hand. ‘Ah, think I saw you just now. Prep school aren’t you? Played much rugby?’
Is now the time to admit I’ve never played? ‘I’m more hockey and cricket.’ I give a nod towards the Musketeers and Taff, my eyes still flicking to Miss Dazzle. ‘I think they might do.’
‘Only I normally get a side up to play the First Fifteen as a pre season pipe opener. It’s good to see some more young blood about the place.’ He hands over money to the barman. ‘Next Saturday.’
‘Um…’ Miss Dazzle’s getting up. She’s got an empty glass and is heading our way. Could this be my chance? My chest thumps.
De Cock and she hug briefly as I hover. ‘What ho,’ he says. I catch her perfume.
‘Hello, Marco.’ She barely glances towards me, though I catch her wrinkling her nose when she does. ‘Funny smell.’
“…if I stay here won’t you listen to my heart…”
I’m left, listing from a sea of beer, wine and sherry as they make small talk, until De Cock once more peeks in my direction.
‘I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name,’ he says.
I can feel myself colouring as I try to combine smiling with speaking while suspending swaying. ‘Hopebourne. Robert.’ I hold out my hand to Miss Dazzle. Seem to lurch in. ‘Hello. Do you remember me? I met you at interview.’
She furrows her pretty brow, grips my hand briefly and lightly, stepping away. ‘I’m afraid not.’
De Cock speaks. ‘Just asking this chap if he’d play rugby next Saturday.’
Miss Dazzle nods. ‘Kit played for Quins in the sevens over the summer; did he tell you?’
‘Yes. Said he might be off to Honkers at Christmas if he’s selected.’ De Cock turns back to me. ‘So I’ll pencil you in shall I?’
Miss Dazzle glimpses my way.
What to say? ‘Of course. Great.’ Will that impress her?
I’m formulating an opening gambit – ‘ …and how was your summer holiday?’ – when Chisel Face steps in by Miss Dazzle’s side. ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow. Might call it a night.’
Yes! Go on. Piss off.
‘Just saying, old bean,’ says De Cock to him. ‘I’ve put you down for Saturday.’
‘Sure.’ Chisel Face flicks his eyes down at me. Wrinkles his nose. Patently doesn’t recognise my face. Turns to Miss Dazzle. ‘Coming?’
“…won’t you listen to my heart…”
Rocking in front of Miss Dazzle, it’s quite difficult to form words. ‘Can I get you a drink? It’s early yet.’
I see her raise her eyebrows. Chisel Face steps in front of me, looming. His eyes seem steely. ‘I don’t think so.’
Miss Dazzle also shakes her head. ‘No. Thanks.’ She leans into De Cock. ‘See you, then Marco,’ giving him a peck on the cheek.
Chisel Face slaps De Cock on the back, glares at me, and turns to leave. I watch Miss Dazzle, resplendent in her black dress, bare backed, arse wiggling, threading her way through the throng with him. Chemicals rage.
“…woah my heart…”
De Cock leans in as they reach the door. ‘Lucky so and so,’ he says, before calling across the room to Biggles. ‘Your round!’
Adonis comes over. Nudges me, knocking me off balance. ‘No chance.’
‘I saw you.’ He winks at me. ‘Best of the bunch though.’
By the time the pub’s closing, I’ve met several other teachers, mostly from Uppers, including Biggles, who seems more welcoming than the others. ‘Thought I’d introduce myself. Rumour has it you might be teaching Drama.’ Speaks in a considered, understated voice. ‘Old man Corrie-Anderson’s trying to get a grip of the Prep. Drag it out of the dark ages,’ he says. ‘Taken a punt on young staff from state backgrounds. It’ll be interesting to see what effect that has on the place.’ He smiles, froth on ‘tache. ‘Between ourselves there’s plenty of deadwood up at the top end.’ He raises his eyebrows at me. ‘Ripe for pruning.’ Then frowns. ‘The new Head’s going to have to make some interesting decisions.’
‘We could do with a few more like you in Uppers to take the strain,’ says De Cock. ‘You didn’t go to a rugby playing school, then?’
Walking home, I’m staggering, kicking at stones, picturing Miss Dazzle with Chisel Face.
There’s a sheet of paper pinned to the doorframe at Maynard Road. “Do not disturb. Staff Meeting tomorrow a.m.”
I rip it off and rifle through my trouser pockets. ‘Oh come on.’ Picturing a night outside, I search my jacket. ‘Bollocks.’ Looking up, a light goes off in one of the bedrooms. There’s only one thing for it. I ring the doorbell.
Life Is A Minestrone - 10cc
If there’s a better pop love song than “I’m Not In Love” then I’m not sure what it is, and anyone who can produce a masterpiece like that must have the collective ability to produce other great pop songs. Well, for me, 10cc did just that. I loved all their output, from “The Dean and I”, through ‘Wall Street Shuffle” to “Dreadlock Holiday.” Tongue in cheek, melodic and catchy, “Life Is A Minestrone” follows easily in their catalogue, and comes from the excellent album “The Original Soundtrack.” Happy, foot tapping music for the 70’s.
I Don’t Want To Talk About It - Rod Stewart
Hard to ignore the power of that gravel voice of Rod’s. I first heard the “Every Picture Tells A Story” LP at a party I was invited to at Reading Uni, when I was about 16 years old. Got drunk all too easily listening to “Maggie May” and also his version of “Reason To Believe” which I already knew from the original by Tim Hardin. “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” comes from “Atlantic Crossing” (1975) which I listened to, marveling at “Sailing” when I’d first heard it on holiday in Greece…played to death at a local bar! Only true legends can re-invent themselves as often as Rod’s done. Songs like “If You Think I’m Sexy” stand easily alongside “Stay With Me” or “Dirty Old Town.”
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!