Untitled - chapter 3Hello. I still haven't got anything new to say to you really, although I am going to spend some of this evening writing something up which I may cross-post over here in the interests of sharing.
Thanks to [ahem] overwhelming popular demand, here's the next installment of my as-yet still untitled novel from last November's NanoWriMo.
Maybe I should offer up a prize for the person who suggests the best title. To be honest with you, "Narcissist" is looking good at the moment.... I really need to get over myself!
Anyway. Here it is.
Previously in our exciting serialisation: Chapter 1, Chapter 2
“I can’t take this any more. Will you stop bloody going on about your bloody friends?” It seems that I have finally discovered the limit to Catherine’s patience. I decide to opt for a tone of slightly wounded innocence.
“What do you mean?”
“You have done nothing this week but harp on about your friends. I’m sorry that Carl has ditched you, and I can see that it has upset you, but you have started to fret about whether any of your friends actually like you, and it’s beginning to drive me mad. If you’re worried, why don’t you just ring some of them and have a chat? Whatever you do, please don’t just stand there talking at me whilst I’m loading the dishwasher, hanging out the washing or carrying out all the bloody chores like I’m some sort of skivvy. You could at least help me.”
She has a point, of course, but I take it with all my normal poor grace and manage to help hang out some wet shirts from the machine whilst also stomping about the kitchen with a face like thunder. I’m not sure that this really helps.
In the weeks since I received that email from Carl, I’m afraid to say that I have wallowed in it a little bit. I have allowed myself to be far more upset about this than I should have done. It’s not even that I have been limiting myself to the end of my friendship with Carl – sad though that is. I have widened the scope of my worry and seem to be wondering if anybody really likes me at all. A few years back, I loaded my details onto Friends Reunited. There’s a certain amount of weird pleasure to be drawn from looking up people from your past and seeing whether they went to University, and reading between the lines of their empty little profiles.
“Married. Mortgaged. Cat. Dog. That’s as exciting as it gets.
It seems to me like there’s a lot of pain in that little message. It’s a cry for help. It’s only a short step from there to something like:
“Hi there. After school I spent a long time running a bookshop, but then my wife left me, my business collapsed and I’m a border-line alcoholic. I’d love to hear from any of the old gang if they fancy a drink.”
Needless to say, the note against my own entry is a strictly functional one.
“Working as an IT Consultant”
There’s not too much tragedy that you can read into that, I didn’t think.
I very rarely go there, but since the email from Carl, I have logged on a couple of times and found myself gazing at the names from my past. Some have notes, some do not, but almost all of the names there are incredibly evocative. Sarah. She was the girl who left suddenly in the sixth form and I never knew why. She was lovely – no notes left here though. Alex. Ah. He was the hopeless fat guy. Working for Deloitte in London. Hugh. Oh he was an idiot. It’s fascinating. They have some functionality on there that lets you send a little note to someone to ask how they are and what they are up to. I’ve never done it. It’s not that I haven’t been tempted, because I have. It’s just, well… I left that world behind me. In the main I am still friends with the people from that time that I want to still be in touch with. The others were mainly idiots who I have little or nothing in common with and little desire to ever see again. But I’m not still friends with everyone I want to still be friends with any more, am I?
Maybe I can’t afford to be so sniffy any more.
A few people from school have sent me notes through this website actually. There’s one guy who keeps trying to get me to come along to some reunions. I left school in 1992. That was more than a decade ago, so I suppose it’s not totally ridiculous to be holding “Class of 1992” type reunions. It’s just that I don’t want to see any of these people any more. Or at least I don’t think that I do.
I think my resolve is weakening.
In the end, I am spared from having to making a decision about this by a phone call from another old schoolfriend of mine, one who I am still in touch with.
“Jim. It’s Rob. How are you mate?”
Oh hello Rob. I’m doing alright thanks. You remember Carl? Of course you remember Carl. You’ve know him since you were ten. Well Carl has dumped me. He doesn’t want to be my friend any more. Has he spoken to you about it? Has he dropped you, or are you still in with the in-crowd? How is he? Is he alright? Has he gone off the rails and fallen in with a bad crowd who are holding him hostage and are siphoning his bank account whilst forcing him to cut the ties of friendship with anybody who might come and rescue him, to unchain him from the radiator.
“I alright thanks mate, how are you?”
“I’m good. Look, John told me about Carl. Sorry to hear about that.” Ah yes. I’d mentioned it to John.
“Did you get that letter from Charnborough?” Charnborough was the little preparatory school that Rob and I both attended. It is also where I met Carl. They don’t send me post very often, as I haven’t really been in much of a hurry to give them my address, and as a result they tend to correspond with my mum and dad. This one I have seen though.
“The Open Day and reunion?”
“Yeah. What do you think? Might be fun. You could come down and stay with us in Oxford on Saturday, and then we could head over there on Sunday afternoon and have a look around the place.”
Part of me thinks that this would be an excellent idea. Who wouldn’t be interested in poking around their old school? I could have a look at the old classrooms, the dormitories, go out into the woods in the school grounds where I spent hours and hours fighting other people with sticks. On the other hand, I would be in serious danger of running into people that I actually went to school with. I wouldn’t say that I was especially shy, it’s just that I don’t actively seek out this kind of situation. I’m the guy at the party standing in the corner looking at the books on the bookshelves and making instant value judgements of someone I don’t know based entirely upon their record collection.
“Well, look. You’re down that weekend anyway..”
Oh, what the hell.
“Go on then.”
“You have to fill in and send them back the form they sent you to let them know that you are coming”
“I’m going off the idea already”.
“And you might want to bring something a bit smarter to wear. Not a suit or anything, but perhaps a shirt.”
“Ok, Speak to you later mate.
And that was that. A date in my diary to go back to the place where as a child at the tender age of seven I was first left by my parents to fend for myself as a weekly boarder. It was also the place where I first met Carl.
I wonder what your mental image of an English boarding school is. Perhaps it’s of an old English manor house made of a crumbly, orangey-coloured stone, set slightly back from a small village in the rolling countryside. It’s likely to have its own grounds, complete with playing fields, croquet lawn, tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool. I’m also willing to bet that you mind’s eye also has it fringed by a small wood. Is that Jennings and Derbyshire I can see scampering away in the fringes of your imagination? Am I far wrong? Give or take a couple of more modern classroom buildings off to one side and whacking great fire-escape, then that’s more or less what Charnborough looks like. In the early blush of an English summer, you might just be able to get away with using the word “idyllic”, and you definitely can if they are playing cricket, and you can hear the distant ripple of applause echoing off the old pavilion. Well, anyway. I don’t know if Charnborough is a typical English Private School, but it is certainly the English Private School that I attended from 1981 to 1987.
For some reason, I remember the summer of 1981 really clearly. The weather was gorgeous, and I spent an awful lot of time out in the garden playing soldiers or cowboys and Indians with my brothers or with my best friend. I was seven years old, and I didn’t have a care in the world, except on that sad day when the peace of my bedroom was terminally disturbed when my three year old younger brother learnt how to reach the door handle by standing on a chair. According to my memory, I was dressed up in a grey suit with a bright yellow tie and loaded into the car with my elder brother and with two trunks. It was a glorious day in late-September, and my life was about to change forever as I was driven away from the house and driven to a new life as a weekly boarder at a new school. My memory must be playing tricks on me. I may not have understood the significance of the moment, but there is no way that I cannot have known where we were going. I must have spent a lot of time that summer being taken around various shops picking up all of those little bits and pieces that are necessary: a suit, school uniform, a trunk, a tuckbox, sports kit, shoes, Wellington boots, gym shoes, rugby boots, slippers, dressing-gown, a boiler suit, a duvet, duvet covers… and so on. It cannot have been a surprise to me that I was dressed up in my new suit, my new shirt, my new tie, my new shoes and no doubt my new pants and socks, or that I was put into the car with my new trunk filled with my other new clothes. That’s how I remember it. The journey took about an hour, and then there we were. I was shown around, introduced to the housemaster and to the matron, and then my parents had to leave me. I was seven years old and quite small for my age. I cannot for the life of me think if there can have been any occasion prior to this where I had spent the night away from my parents before. It’s only now that I think about this that I begin to realise how hard this must have been for my mother.
But I adjusted. Other children got terribly homesick and cried their little hearts out for hours every night, but I never did. I once felt that perhaps I ought to feel something, so I tried it on for a while, but it didn’t work for me, and I soon abandoned it. I just adapted to my new environment, learnt the rules and made some new friends. Within a couple of weeks it must have been second nature to me. After the emotion of waving goodbye to our parents, we were quickly introduced to the routine of bedtime: get changed into pyjamas, dressing-gown and slippers. Wash face and clean teeth. Off to see matron to have our fingernails checked for cleanliness and then off to the dormitory for lights out. All tucked up and in bed by 8pm. I remember that first night clearly: there were about fourteen of us packed into the one dormitory, Ten iron-framed hospital beds with squeaky springs, a two bunk beds. Thirteen seven or eight year old boys and a twelve-year-old Prefect assigned to look after us. I lay awake for what felt like an age but was probably only ten minutes. Everyone else was awake too, but we had been told that there was no talking after lights out, and we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to test the rules out.
Actually, the whole thing sounds a lot more daunting to me now than it ever felt to me as a seven year old. I was at Charnborough for six years in all, and my memories of it are mainly happy ones. Although I really didn’t’ have much of a pressing desire to meet any of my old school-mates again, it would actually be quite nice to have a look around the old place again to see how different it looked, nearly twenty years on from when I was last there.