Peter And Karen

I pretended I liked the Bee Gees but I was really into Motörhead and Punk. On Wednesday afternoon I’d bunked off maths, nicked a copy of God Save the Queen from Menzies, and hid it in my wardrobe. I was going to play it for Karen on Saturday afternoon when my mam was out but then couldn’t find it amongst the junk. It didn’t matter because we got distracted. It was the first time we’d been as distracted as that. Karen had been doing ballet since forever, so sidelining Lemmy for Barry Gibb was a price worth paying.

We’d started going out on sports day when Anne-Marie Rigby collapsed onto the parched grass after winning the 1500m. Her pounding stomach was mesmerising. She’d her legs bent and was too gassed to realise that every lad in my form could see the curly black pubes sprouting from either side of her maroon knickers. Karen followed me over to the long-jump pit and asked why I’d moved. I told her it didn’t seem right to gawk at someone like that, she smiled and that was it. Love.

*

Peter, someone who knew you from school rang’. My mam explained about the planned reunion.

When I got there everyone looked the same, just 20 years older. I stood at the bar wondering about Karen, then a voice behind me. ‘Pete, it’s me, Kaz,’ she looked different but her smile was still the same, ‘I’m glad you turned up, I’ve something that belongs to you…’ she held out the Sex Pistols single, ‘I shouldn’t have taken it. Sorry. Probably worth a fortune now.’

‘It’s funny how some things appreciate over time, Kaz. You married?’

‘Divorced. You?’

‘Still single,’ I held up the record, ‘tell you what, let’s see if they’ll play it for us.’

Count Them

Count everything, quantify it all

weigh it, measure it

decide on it; strip it down

it’s an exact science.

Find them, those facts

facts empirical facts one and all.

 

Certainties.

 

Everyone likes certainties.

 

Reliable at a 99% confidence level

that’s a 1/100 chance of failure

of being wrong

of fucking up

 

I’d take those odd, wouldn’t you? No? Still not convinced?

 

Well let me explain;

 

you buy a lottery ticket every day

for a hundred consecutive days and you lose

 

once

 

bummer eh?

 

So count, yeah count

 

count the truck’s wheels rotations between Kobane and London

count the grains of sand that record its tread, count the cash

count the footsteps, trees, sleeps, deaths, rapes, births, tides

count the kindnesses, clothes, food, shelter, water, protection

count the moons, the suns, the heat, the cold, the raindrops, the tears.

 

Words outnumber the people they’re written for

 

count those words

weigh them

pile them

stack them

quantify them

measure them

judge them

 

but just remember,

 

There’s only a 1% chance of it all turning to rat-shit.

 

Someone should have told Aylan and Ghalib’s dad.

Softening Shell

He had improvised a method, a system of entrapment I’d called it, from a red synthetic mesh bag that had originally contained nectarines but was now baited with scraps of bread.  It lay submerged between the blocks of a shattered concrete jetty that provided the perfect, if man-made ecological environment, to support the bio-systems of his prized decapods.

The boy was catching crabs.

He sat flat-footed on his haunches under a shock of blond hair bleached ever whiter by the Istrian summer waiting for the outcome of his deceit.  Jenny and I were provided with ceaseless commentary, a millimetre-by-millimetre account of a crab’s journey towards incarceration.  His mother grumbled about the peace and quiet being ruined but it wasn’t as if he was disturbing anyone else.  The rocky cove was otherwise deserted, the Adriatic to the front and pine forest rising steeply behind.

When we’d examined the map in the coolness of the chalet our unspoken goal had been to find somewhere away from the crowds attracted by the convenience of the campsite pool.  We agreed that it would be worth the effort of preparing a picnic and a shortish car journey if we found the real Croatia.

The walk down to the sea had started easily enough but the flinty path through the trees became progressively steeper.  In places we’d had to face inwards and scramble down using hands and feet.  The boy shrieked from somewhere far below that he could see the sea.  I’d have shouted back that he should be careful but I didn’t have the wind for it.  Yet another winter spent correcting a fundamentally flawed thesis on the life-cycle of oceanic crustaceans belonging to a ridiculously wealthy PhD student from Saudi Arabia.  The Dean had intimated at the disaster that might befall if Yusuf’s defence proved unsuccessful.  I’d spent the rest of the semester knocking out a paper for the Journal of Life Sciences exhorting the need to consider the confounding effects of heteroscedastic error in meta-analysis.

‘What’s it all for Mike’ Jenny had asked when I’d returned home too late for dinner again one evening at the end of January.  I just didn’t have an answer, at least not one that made any sense.  When I got into bed I knew that she was still awake but neither of us had the humility or the compassion to say goodnight.  The thought that I should reach out and touch the hollow between her shoulder blades seemed utterly ludicrous.

And it had been worth it.  The cove was secluded, the sea safe and accessible.

Jenny insisted that she put sun-block on little Mike, it looked like he thought the sea might disappear if she made him wait a second longer.  When she was done he bolted across the shingle without waiting for an answer to his question about how big I thought they’d be.  Massive.  Really hugely massive Mike – claws like gigantic secateurs I shouted after him, his response inaudible.  I asked Jenny if I’d heard correctly that he’d said yeah whatever dad.  She giggled and said that he was growing up.  I shaded my eyes against the sun and looked at him.  She was right.

I said to Jenny that she should mind the sun too.  I expected her to say that she was going to stay covered up but instead she asked me if I’d put some sun-block on her back.  I sat on a rock behind her and rubbed the cream into her shoulders and then down between them.  I said I was finished and that she was fully sun-proofed but she asked quietly if I’d keep rubbing.

Mike squealed that he’d caught a crab with a soft shell.  Jenny asked me if that was normal and I told her that some of the rarer species’ shells become soft when they wanted to reproduce.  I continued to rub, her back slowly softened. She whispered that she hoped the one Mike had caught was in a loving relationship.

The Lymington

Dickon, William and Thomas had arrived at St Barnabus at the same time and now, as they neared the end of their second full year there were few places that they had not explored.

The three boys were running and when Dickon went even further ahead Thomas shouted.

‘Dash slow down a bit, Will’s got a stitch.’

Dickon stopped and turned, he could see that William was holding his side and struggling to keep pace. He waited for them to catch up.

In contrast to the preceding stillness a late-afternoon breeze was strengthening, it took some of the keenness out of the day’s heat. The distant forest canopy was disturbed, forcing a steady flow woodpigeon onto the wing. The boys watched them as they crossed in twos and threes, fast and low taking advantage of the change in the air. When William got his breath back he mimicked the swing of a shotgun and shouted bang bang.

‘Father’s gamekeeper says that pigeon are quicker than grouse if they have the wind behind them,’ he said.

‘Well they’re bloody fast. Watch them go,’ said Dickon.

‘Even faster than you, Dash,’ said Thomas.

‘It’s not like you to catch a stitch Will,’ said Dickon.

‘Hardly done anything since rugger finished, Dash. I must’ve lost my wind.’

Thomas said he’d sounded like a steam loco trying to leave Brockenhurst station. William closed his eyes, tilted his head in Thomas’ direction and arched both eyebrows to feign deep insult, he said he would treat the comment with the contempt that it deserved.

‘Let’s go to the big bend. It’s not rained for ages I bet we could get on to the gravel bar,’ said Dickon.

‘If someone’s fishing the pool and glide we won’t be able to go anywhere near it, Dash. It won’t matter whether the river’s down enough or not,’ said Thomas.

‘No one’s fished the Lym’ for days and days, this dry spell and all the sunshine has killed it. It’ll be deserted unless some clueless millionaire’s managed to wangle his way into the syndicate,’ said William.

‘I heard old Hastings has allowed two new members,’ said Thomas.

‘Well come on anyway, if someone’s there we’ll just have to find something else to do,’ said Dickon.

*

The headmaster and his wife accompanied by Christian led the masters to high table. Each assembled behind their allotted seat and waited for Mr Hastings and his wife to sit down, when they did everyone else including all the boys followed suit. High table was waited on by pupils about to enter the lower sixth, when they’d served the masters and guests the rest of the school was catered for in descending year order. When the headmaster picked up his cutlery it was taken as a signal that everyone else could begin.

The headmaster sat between his wife and Christian who both agreed to his suggestion that they might like a glass of wine. Bottles of reasonable quality white and red were provided at dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. The three of them wished each other good health and Christian praised the clarity and bouquet before he sipped.

Whilst several of the staff had joined the school since Christian had left a number of them remembered him well and were keen to discover what he’d been up to in the intervening years. They were all suitably impressed to be told that he’d gained a first from Cambridge and when the headmaster remarked that Christian should be officially referred to as Doctor Blundell they all congratulated him with raised glasses. The news of Christian’s doctorate caused quite a stir with one of the older masters remarking that old boys who held a doctorum philosophiae were automatically elected in to the school’s alumni. The headmaster agreed and said that he would see that Christian’s name was added to the board in the Great Hall as soon as possible. Christian thanked the headmaster but insisted that people simply continued to call him Christian.

In the time between the main course and pudding the headmaster stood up. When boys noticed they tapped on their glasses until the hall was filled with the sound.

‘Thank you everyone. There are a couple of notices to get through. Firstly I’d like to congratulate the second year 1st 11 for beating Hambledown College.  Well done.’ A spontaneous round of applause commenced. ‘I want to praise the captain for a commendable innings and a particularly fine display of sportsmanship that did St Barnabus proud. Thank you, Dickon Ash.’

Boys on Dickon’s table engaged in the school ritual of thumping in unison on the table whenever a boy was individually cited for commendation. The thumping would only stop when the boy in question got up, stood on the bench and bowed his acknowledgement toward high table. Dickon got up and completed the tradition.  Whilst he was standing on the bench he noticed Christian raise his glass and Dickon smiled in appreciation.

The Noble Course

Dickon had assumed that the voices were of boys late getting changed but then he realised they belonged to adults. He thought it best to let it be known he was there so he forced a cough before leaving the storeroom. When he saw the headmaster and the young man that had watched the match earlier he straightened his back and arms and wished them a good afternoon.

‘Ah, Dickon, someone said this is where you’d be.  I want you to introduce yourself to Mr Blundell,’ said the headmaster.

Dickon walked to Christian and held his hand out. ‘How do you do sir? My name is Dickon Ash, sir.’

‘I’m very well thank you. Jolly good show from you today. That you walked on 49 was sportsmanship of the highest order.’

‘Thank you sir but I have to be honest and say that I did think twice.’

‘But the point is you decided on the noble course and that’s really all that counts, Dickon.’

Dickon smiled and said thank you, ‘People call me Dash for short sir. I don’t mind it.’

‘And a well-deserved nickname it is given the way you get along the wicket,’ Dickon said thanks again, ‘Mr Hastings said you were quick and by Jove he’s right. How’s your bowling?’

‘Not as good as my batting sir but I didn’t have to bowl today after Johnson took the last wicket.’

‘Well perhaps that’s an area that Mr Blundell can help you with, Dickon,’ said the headmaster, ‘he was also captain of the 1st 11 during his time here. His record for most wickets still stands.’

‘Were you a fast bowler or a spinner sir?’ asked Dickon.

‘I’m not quite over-the-hill yet, I do still play a little,’ Christian smiled to show that he wasn’t in the slightest put out by the boy’s presumption, ‘but for the record I’m a spin bowler, Dickon.’

‘That’s what I prefer to play sir even though I’m a fast runner,’ the boy’s tone suggested a little more enthusiasm for bowling.

‘Mr Blundell is going to be with us for at least the last half and much longer if I have my way,’ the two men smiled at each other, ‘he’ll be teaching you RE, Latin and perhaps some Classics and he will be taking over as master in charge of cricket so we might make a bowler of you yet.

‘Now that you’ve been introduced we’ll leave you in peace.  Mr Blundell and I have much to discuss. Oh by the way, what were you doing in the storeroom?’

‘I was putting the cricket equipment away but it took longer because I wanted to sand and oil the bats, sir.’

‘Ah, I see. Don’t be late for dinner my boy.’

‘No sir, of course not, they’re all finished now. Thank you sir and thank you too, Mr Blundell.’

‘It’s a pleasure to have met you Dickon. Goodbye for now at least.’

Dickon watched as the two men left the changing room. After a couple of seconds of solitude he walked through the actions of a spin bowl delivery.

*

Apart from the lower and upper-sixth pupils who roomed in pairs the rest of the boys at St Barnabus shared dormitories. For those already used to boarding at their prep schools it seemed completely normal but for some experiencing life as a border for the first time it could be an uncomfortable experience.

The dormitories were housed in a redbrick building that had been built as an infirmary and convalescent home for wounded officers during the Great War. Dickon’s dormitory was the largest. It contained two rows of fifteen beds that faced each other across a gap just wide enough for two boys to pass without pausing. Each boy had a bedside cupboard for personal belongings.

Dickon found the dormitory empty except for two boys washing at the line of basins at the far end. He took his shirt off, got his wash bag and towel and went to join them. Neither of them played cricket but word of Dickon’s near half century and fair play had got out and they congratulated him.

Dickon filled one of the basins and found a sliver of soap in his bag, one of the boys told him there was no hot water left. Dickon laughed and said that there’d probably never been any in the first place.

‘You’re right, Dash. I don’t mind it so much in summer but the winter’s a different matter.  The second half of Michaelmas was bloody miserable.’

Dickon laughed again, ‘They said it was Hampshire’s coldest ever, Tom. I suppose it would be unusual for it to happen twice in a row so this winter might not be as bad.’ Dickon finished washing and then brushed his teeth. The three of them went to get changed into fresh clothes and the dormitory started to fill with noisy boys.

Dickon checked the time, there was nearly 2 hours before they needed to be in the dining hall so he, Tom and the other boy decided to go for a walk.

Whilst St Barnabus House School couldn’t boast the prestige of any of the Clarendon nine it nevertheless enjoyed a reputation for academic and sporting excellence. It drew pupils from all over of the south of England, their well-off parents suitably impressed by the Pugin designed 19-century Gothic renaissance architecture.

The estate in which the school sat comprised of rolling parkland and several acres of ancient New Forest woodland. The Lymington, a renowned Hampshire chalk stream cut through the grounds and offered 3 miles of double bank fly-fishing. The school had its own angling society but apart from that the fishing was private.  Several of the best trout beats in Hampshire ensured the school enjoyed an additional lucrative income. It was to the Lymington that Dickon and the two other boys now made their way.

By Rail

The stationmaster closed his watch when the sound of the locomotive reached the platform. Spot on time. He alerted the porter to the train’s imminent arrival with a pip on his whistle.

London had given way to arable farmland and then open moorland but now, with every passing mile, the young man’s view of the journey west became a constancy of seemingly uninhabited chalk downs on the right and glimpses of white cliffs and gleaming sea on the left. Motion and noise were in concert and somehow he found it comforting. At Waterloo he’d been disappointed that the journey to Hampshire would be by steam but now, especially in the solitude of the compartment, an advantage that would have been unavailable in a modern diesel, he felt at ease and was enjoying the trip.

His letter of introduction was tucked in the inside pocket of his sports jacket. It was sealed and so he hadn’t read it but that hardly mattered because he’d been party to its composition. It gave an outline of his academic and sporting achievements, particularly regarding his cricketing prowess and then it went on to support his suitability for a scholastic career.

The open countryside that had prevailed for the past two hours eventually gave way to woodland that hemmed the train in on both sides. Occasionally there were clearings splashed in sunlight and once the train’s whistle disturbed a herd of deer, the animals leaned off, disappearing into the forest. It made him smile. A short while afterwards he heard the guard announce Brockenhurst as the next stop. He disembarked with his case and umbrella and his woollen coat folded over his arm. The train doors thudded shut, the stationmaster checked his watch again and signaled for the locomotive’s departure.

The man made a call from the public box outside the station. He introduced himself, said where he was and received an assurance that a car would be sent to collect him. He waited on a wooden bench dappled by the shade of a huge oak and became aware of a constant hum. It took him a while to work out that it was coming from a bee’s nest somewhere high in the tree. It made him think of the relentless freneticism of London and how the tranquillity of this New Forest village enhanced its Home Counties charm. After a short time a newly registered Solent blue Austin A40 pulled up. The driver, who was dressed in groundkeeper’s livery collected the man’s belongings, put them in the boot and then opened a rear door.

Apart from their initial greeting the driver didn’t speak again until they got into the school grounds where he asked if his passenger would like to be shown to the headmaster’s house. The man declined saying that he thought he could remember the way well enough.

‘Christian dear boy, come in, come in. How pleasant to see you. Come in.’

‘Thank you sir,’ Christian handed his coat and case over to the headmaster.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘That would be very nice. Thank you, sir.’

‘Please, Christian, I know old habits die hard and all that but I insist that you call me Aubrey. You’re a grown man now,’ said the headmaster.

‘Oh. Very well,’ said Christian and they both laughed at the awkwardness.

‘What year did you go up?’ asked the headmaster.

‘Just after victory over Japan was declared.’

‘1945 eh? So that makes you what, 25 now?’ said the headmaster.

‘24, I’ll make my quarter century this year,’ Christian held his hands up and stepped his left foot as if playing the forward defensive shot. They both laughed.

‘You were one of the best cricketers the school has ever had, Christian. Were you captain all the way through?’

‘Yes, I was made captain after the first trial and was lucky enough to remain so.’

‘Luck had nothing to do with it, dear boy. You got it on merit; that was down to sheer talent,’ said Aubrey, ‘we host Hambledown today, so you’ll have a chance to see what the third years’ captain is made of. The head of PE says he thinks he might be as good as you were. I find it hard to believe myself.’

‘Oh please. Without the school’s support I would never have developed as I did.’

But that’s what St Barnabus is all about, spotting a boy’s talent whatever it might be and nurturing it. But it was delightful to see a boy such as you excel academically as well as on the field. What with a first, and now your doctorate in theology from Cambridge you’re able to take yourself in the direction of your own choosing. What’s it to be?’

‘Well I think I’ll have a better idea at the end of this half sir, sorry, Aubrey. If teaching is for me I should know it by then.’

‘And if not, is it still to be The Church?’ Christian nodded, ‘I see. Well whichever path you choose I know that you will excel. Now let me pour the tea.’

Not Out

It was an outswinger. The batsman attempted to play at it but misjudged the movement and caught an edge. The ball flew on to second slip who dived to the right, arm outstretched, before skidding to a halt ball in hand.

       ‘Howzat?’

The umpire signaled out and the batsman walked to a ripple of applause from his teammates who were lounging in striped deckchairs or lying propped on elbows on the grass near the white-painted pavilion. The next batsman got up on to one knee and retied his laces. Then he rummaged in the kitbag before turning his back in order to arrange the protective aluminium cup. When he was satisfied that it was in place he turned round and tapped it theatrically, the hollow knock made everyone laugh. Someone joked about it sounding much too big and there was a ribald consensus that it was undoubtedly true. The dismissed player swapped pads with the incomer, handed over the bat and said good luck.

‘Only 4 balls left before lunch, try to make sure you’re still batting after the sandwiches, Dickon.’

Dickon raised the bat in acknowledgement and someone shouted that he should watch for the outswinger. The returned batsman flopped down on the grass and then lay stiff-legged to ease his own protective cup out of his trousers. He tossed it towards those seated on the deckchairs where its arrival caused a good-natured over reaction that gradually subsided.

The reclining player next to him nodded after Dickon and said he was a good player and then continued, ‘Dickon was captain of the 1st 11 at prep too, we were in the same class together.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Dovecot, Wiltshire. You?’

‘Lark Hill. Bloody awful place. Cost a fortune apparently.’

Everyone looked up at the sound of a bat’s heavy contact. They saw Dickon and his partner passing each other in the middle of the wicket and then slow down to a walk as it became obvious the ball would make the boundary. The seated players clapped their appreciation and sledged the chasing fielder as he puffed towards the ball. It had come to a halt quite near. After the final delivery of the over the laden umpire redistributed the players’ previously discarded jumpers and everyone made their way off.

During lunch the two teams mingled, chatting over plates of sandwiches and cups of tea. A member of the visiting contingent dropped a vol-au-vent and was mercilessly teased about having dropped a sitter during the first innings. A man dressed in a charcoal grey suit with a matching waistcoat and a winged-collar shirt clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep it brief,’ he said, pausing to let the sarcastic expressions of disappointment end, ‘thank you gentlemen,’ he said to laughter. ‘The fixture between Hambledown College and ourselves has been played every year since 1904. That unbroken run was nearly scotched by the Luftwaffe-’ he waited for the hissing to end, ‘when a spitfire was shot down and everyone had to run for cover. Luckily the supermarine crashed into the Solent and mercifully the pilot managed to bail out. I’m sure that you are all aware that the two 1st 11’s playing that day were the first to find him dangling from the oak tree by his canopy. St Barnabus’ captain remonstrated with the unfortunate fellow that attendance was by invitation only and would he mind leaving at once, a remark that earned him a drubbing but forever a place in Barnabus’ folklore.’ The home 11 broke into song;

‘The Bosch were all over

The white cliffs of Dover

Barnabus

Knocked the ball for six

*

We made fine silk knickers

Gave them all to Vickers

He wore them

During assembly.’

The man raised his hands eventually bringing the cheering and laughter to a halt.

‘Thank you for that St Barnabus, would that you would only sing the official school song with such gusto. Yes the parachute silk was indeed presented to the school by squadron leader Hawkesmore where I am happy to report it remains unmolested to this day.

‘There is absolutely no truth whatsoever in the rumour that undergarments of any sort were manufactured from it or that the then Master, the venerable Dr Vickers, disported himself in any such way.’

Everyone booed.

‘So let me just finish by saying how delighted we are to host Hambledown once again for the first of the two fixtures of the 1952 summer term. Welcome Hambledown. Hip hip!’

*

Dickon emptied the creased and age-softened brown leather holdall onto the floor. Bats, balls and stumps lay in a jumbled pile amongst the grass stained canvas covered pads and keepers’ gloves. As first-team captain he didn’t have to organise the kit, he could have made someone else do it but he’d decided to deal with it himself. It was a choice which he put down partly to the room itself. Its oblong windows were set high up along one wall. On sunny July days their position allowed the light to angle down in streaked golden bars that Dickon imagined seemed solid enough to grasp.

Today was just such a day.

The windows’ shapes, 3 warmed amber parallelograms of precise angularity, were cast on the parquet floor. To preserve the floor it was accepted that cricket spikes weren’t worn so Dickon was in stocking feet. He shuffled flat-footed into one of the patches of light and smiled at the warmth. He would have remained for longer but he’d decided to sand and oil the bats before putting everything away. He opened the cupboard where the tins of linseed and emery papers were kept. Taking a cheesecloth he wiped the edges of one of the bats and then used a paper on its face and toe. The patina was gradually transformed from a deep smudged straw colour to a much paler almost bleached appearance. As he rubbed the dust mushroomed and eddied, sparking through the columns of light. Dickon sanded both bats and then killed the dust with the cloth before applying the oil in the way the master in charge of cricket had shown him at his prep school, bare fingers rather than a cloth, so that the oil would find its way into any nicks that the emery paper hadn’t removed.

He had just finished repacking the cricket equipment into the leather bag when he heard noise coming from the adjoining changing room.