Untitled - chapter 4Hello.
I'm working on something visceral and American Psycho-like, but as I compose that in my head and work out how you go about nailing someone's tongue to a table, here's the next chapter of my Nano novel.
Previously in our exciting serialisation: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3
Rob and I drove up to Charnborough in separate cars. He was heading straight back into Oxford after the open day, and I was heading back up to Nottingham. It was actually quite strange to be driving myself there after so many years of arguing with my brothers over who had the pleasure of sitting in the passenger seat next to my mum, and who had to sit in the back. I actually got lost at one point, but managed to find my way to the sloping drive down to the school, parked up in front of the croquet lawn and steeled myself for the hard part: meeting people.
The headmaster had changed since my time, and when I was approached by a small, weasley man with a pointed nose and a pronounced stoop, I guessed it was probably him.
“And you can only be one of the Archer clan!” Both of my brothers had also attended this school, and apparently although it had been more than a decade since any of us had last been taught here, our names were still remembered.
“Yes. Hello. James Archer”
“Andrew Meredith. Headmaster. Welcome, welcome. Drinks are on the main lawn” He was a bit of a sniffly little man, all things considered, and although he was being perfectly cordial, I couldn’t really warm to him. He didn’t recognise Rob, even though both he and his brother had also attended this school. Rob has always been fairly low-key and is generally happy to be anonymous. Maybe that was a good thing. Right now I certainly envied him anyway. We were ushered onto the lawn and helped to a glass of Pimms. It’s a funny drink really, and it’s not something I ever go out of my way to drink, but in the right place it can be just the thing. I had to remember that I had to drive home, but right now the alcohol seemed like a really good idea.
There weren’t actually all that many people there, and the ones who were there were all much older looking than I was anticipating. I suppose it’s easy to assume that a school only really exists when you are actually there, but Charnbourough had been churning out pupils to be devoured by the great English Public School system for the best part of a century. To see that some older alumni had turned up was actually quite comforting for me though, as it meant that I probably wasn’t really going to have to make small-talk about the good old days. There were a couple of familiar faces, but in the main I was able to keep them at a safe distance.
“James Archer” It was a statement, not a question. I turned around to find myself face-to-face with a small, dapper man. A little older than I remembered him, but it has been a while. My old housemaster.
“Mr. Dawson. How are you?”
“I’m well thank you very much. How are your parents? Your brothers?”
This is small talk, of course. I am capable of small talk, I really am. I don’t like it very much, but I am capable of it. This is not a difficult conversation to have. Mr. Dawson is a wonderful man. He seemed fearsome when I was seven years old, but he really grew on me. He was my housemaster, my maths teacher and my choirmaster. He used to smoke like a chimney, then he gave up, collected the money that he had saved and bought himself a car. He’s still teaching, albeit not at Charnborough. Blah blah blah. He’s a nice man, and I’m pleased to see him, but small talk is small talk and I wasn’t listening really, so I can’t expect to remember what he said. I had very similar conversations with my old science teacher, my old geography teacher and my old French teacher. Nice to see all of them. Not much to report. I’m getting itchy feet to have a wander around, and I can see that Charles Hodgkinson is edging ever closer. He was a contemporary of mine, and unless my hearing is deceiving me, he still makes that odd croaking noise which was the only thing that he was notable at school. I do hope he hasn’t waited since the 80s for this moment. That would be quite sad. Or maybe he’s just come to have a look around his old school and is pleased to see some faces from his past. That wouldn’t be sad at all. Isn’t that essentially why I’m here? I don’t make a croaking noise though, do I? I nearly ask Rob for some reassurance, but manage to restrain myself instead.
“Let’s go for a wander.” He’s sort of hovering at my shoulder, and I think he’s trying to make himself invisible. I reckon he’s happier at the idea of moving away from these people than I am.
We slink off into the main building and start to explore.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it’s all still there and everything seems to still be in the same place. I wonder if they still have two shifts for dinner, one at five-thirty and one at six? I wonder if the custard still comes in a giant vat with a crust of skin about an inch thick on the top. I bet it isn’t as nice if it doesn’t. It’s in the dining room that I realise why the Archer name hasn’t been forgotten at Charnborough. There are honours boards lining the walls detailing things like Captain of School, Captain of Rugby, Scholars and that kind of thing. Over the whole time that I was there, I must have read some of those names hundreds of times, thousands of times. I used to wonder what kind of a person Stephen Capley must have been to have appeared on those boards so many times. I’d say he must have been an unbelievable geek, but that doesn’t tally with being captain of rugby. Would you really want to know him? I think I’d have hated him. A goody-two shoes at best, and a horrible, crawling worm at worst. Of course, by the time I had left, the name James Archer was on the boards six times – one more time than Stephen Capley. God I hate myself. Heaven knows what kind of reaction the simple mention of my name must provoke in hundreds of people who once ate in this dining room. If it’s anything like the way that I felt about Stephen Capley, then it’s probably better that I don’t get to meet many of them.
Perhaps Stephen Capley is here today. Perhaps we could share a moment.
Rob and I move on upstairs to the dormitories. Each dormitory has a name. In my time they were all named after great generals: Napoleon, Wellington, Haig (yeah, I know), Montgomery, Wolfe. Going to bed was like a little history lesson. As we walk down the corridors, I notice a new one. I think this used to be a laundry room. Now it’s a dormitory called “Lennon”. I think they must have had a change of naming policy.
You know what the really amazing thing is though? The place smells the same. I first noticed it in the dining room, but now I’m picking it up everywhere: the dormitories, the changing rooms, the boot room, the classrooms, the gym… and sadly the toilets, but I suspect that toilets smell the same almost everywhere. It’s probably no great revelation to you, but I’m knocked out by how evocative the smells are; they throw me right back to be ten years old. I can remember polishing my shoes at night, just before I head off to bed. I can remember pulling on my boiler suit and Wellington boots to head off to the woods during break time.
It seems we aren’t the only people to have wanted to escape the crowds and just wander. We are approached by a girl. Although it was technically a mixed school, there weren’t very many girls at Charnborough when I was there. In a school of several hundred boys, there were perhaps twenty girls. Oh yes, they focus on a rounded education here.
I recognise this girl before she gets close enough to speak. It’s Caroline Johnson. Caroline was head girl to my head boy (well, technically she was head girl to my head of school, but I wouldn’t want you to think that the exact nature of our hierarchical relationship was still important to me after eighteen years). Inasmuch as I knew about these things, I had never considered Caroline to be an especially pretty girl. She was a farmer’s daughter, and somehow just looked it, especially after she had somehow managed to knock out one of her front teeth. By the looks of things though, she has aged into her skin.
She recognises me, in spite of the fact that at some point in the course of the last eighteen years I have grown a bit, and I’m balder than I was too (when I was a pupil here, we used to be in the habit of damping our hair down with a bit of cold water in the morning so that we could style it. Someone once told me that doing this would make me go bald in later life. I laughed this off, partly because it sounded like rubbish even then, but mainly because I knew that my dad had a full head of hair. “I’ll believe it when it happens to me”, I said, and there’s a part of me believes firmly that my subsequent hair loss can only be explained by this).
“Hello Caroline. How are you?”
I have two overriding memories of Caroline. The first was when we were both down by the swimming pool at the bottom of the grounds one summer evening. On nice days we were allowed to have a swim before we went up to bed. I can’t remember if I was actually swimming or not, but I do remember Caroline seeing a figure in a broad hat walking down towards the pool from the direction of the main school building, and she instantly set off. It was her elder brother returning from a year away in Australia. The thing that I specifically remember about this was the way that he swept his sister off her feet when she reached him, and gave her an enormous hug. The second memory I have is of the two of us sitting in the corner of the common room after games. I was feeling ill with what turned out to be a nasty bout of the measles, and Caroline was just sitting with me keeping me company. Isn’t it funny what sticks in your mind.
I think she recognises Rob, but I think I may have to do some introductions, as I don’t think that she can remember his name. Or is the cunning swine trying to disappear again to leave me with all of the small talk?
“I’m well. I never really expected to see you here”. Why the hell not? Why would I not be at this Open Day? Do you all laugh at me at the other reunions?
“Well, I was passing…” I shrug. It’s actually quite nice to see her.
It turns out that she has come along on her own, and asks us if we mind her tagging along with us whilst we wander around the grounds. Of course we don’t. We continue our stroll around the new classroom block (the science classroom smells just the same, although all of the furniture in the room looks strangely small to me). Whatever else has happened in our lives since we last spoke in 1987, we have a shared past and we can make small talk on the basis of that. I update Caroline on how I have followed the well-beaten path from prep school to public school to university to job. Amazingly she has done the same thing, only she studied at an agricultural college and is working as a farm manager. Sounds like a useful job to me, and her father (and brother) must be proud.
“I haven’t been back to Charnborough since the day I left, but when I got the invitation through the post, I thought it might be quite nice to have a look around the old place, so here I am.”
“Have you come on your own?” Rob is single, but I think he’s making conversation, rather than angling for an opening.
“Yes.” She’s not wearing a wedding ring, but one doesn’t like to make assumptions based upon one’s memories of a slightly awkward girl missing a front tooth. Well. All right. One does.
“I’ve left my husband at home with our daughter.” So much for my memory. I sneak a glance at Rob, and he seems to be taking the news well. We’re in danger of a silence.
“How old is your daughter?” I think the correct thing to do in these circumstances is to feign interest in the offspring.
“She’ll be five in March. She’s quite a handful. She starts at big school in a couple of years”. There is nothing more certain to make me feel the passage of time than the age of someone else’s kids. Five years old. At least she’s stopped counting in months. I hate that. Why say 36 months when you mean three years. I imagine there’s some guidebook that tells you at what age you have to stop doing that and start counting properly. I nearly ask Caroline, but restrain myself to asking about her brother.
“He’s a farmer, he’s taken on the farm from my dad”. Who’d have thought, eh?
I start to feel old and a little bit sad. I am thirty-one years old. I don’t have a daughter, I have a job but I don’t really feel like I have any grasp on my career. Caroline seems to be sorted on every count. She is happy and she looks it. How can this be so? She’s welcome to her happiness, but my name is on the honours board six times! Does that count for nothing?
I didn’t meet Carl on my first day at Charnborough. He wasn’t there. I didn’t meet him until I went up to the dormitory one night to discover that there was an extra person there. Term had started the week before, but here was Carl. In all the time I knew him, he never really explained this to me. I know that his father was a self-made man, and that before his couriering business really took off, he had done all sorts of things, including driving a taxi. I think that the reason for Carl’s late arrival was that his father got the necessary funds to pay the fees at the very last minute. Carl never liked to talk about money – because his father had lots and I think he was a little embarrassed by it. Naturally, at a fee-paying school like Charnborough, he was far from unique in having wealthy parents, but he always seemed to be acutely conscious of his father’s humble background.
I don’t think we were even really friends at the start, and we weren’t in many of the same classes. It wasn’t until I was moved up a class and into the year above that we began to spend a lot more time together. Because we were both a year ahead of our age group, we spent two years in the sixth-form together as the rest of our peers caught up. Instead of sitting the same classes for a second year, we were put into a scholarship stream and prepared for our Public School entrance exams. As if this wasn’t enough, our parents had put us both down for the same House in the same school, so we were likely to be spending a lot more time with each other over the next five years.
I got the scholarship. Carl did not.
Carl did get his name up onto the honours board once though: he didn’t get an academic scholarship, but he was awarded an art scholarship. He was – he is – a very talented artist, but I think he saw this as second-prize. Perhaps he had scholarship envy. Perhaps he had board envy.
Dammit. I’m talking about Carl again. Caroline hasn’t even asked me about him. She probably assumes that I haven’t seen much of him either. I don’t bother to bring him up. What could I say? We wander around the school for a little longer, posing for photos in a few places. I get Rob to take a picture of me hamming it up at the organ in the assembly room. Caroline asks if we would mind posting her copies of the pictures. Of course not. She hands me her address.
I lost it before I could remember to send her the prints.
As the afternoon begins to wind down, I begin to get a slightly uncomfortable feeling. It’s been pretty good to spend a couple of hours wandering around the place. There are ghosts from my past at almost every turn. There’s the step where Mark Jones came haring round a corner, tripped and nearly lost his eye. I can almost still see where the tell-tale drips of blood tracked his progress up to Matron and some stitches. I think he joined the RAF. I must look him up on that website to see what he’s been up to. There’s the radiator outside the dayroom that I used to sit on when it was cold, and where my friend Chris first introduced me to the “The Dark Knight” returns, a batman comic that I’m still reading eighteen years later. Much to Catherine’s bemusement. I think Chris is an artist now. All these people were an important part of my life, but they have now all but disappeared from view. How many of them do I still speak to? There’s Rob of course, but apart from him I don’t think there is anyone else now that I cannot count Carl. I am hit by a sudden wave of affection for Rob and a pervasive sadness that these people have dropped out of my life. Many of them I haven’t seen since the day I left the school. A few, like Rob and Carl, went on to attend the same public school and so we stayed in touch, the rest just faded from view. I never really thought about it before, but suddenly all I can think about is how they have been getting on, how they have been living their lives. I don’t know if this sudden wave of nostalgia is hitting me because of Carl, or simply because walking around the place has brought the memories flooding back. Perhaps it’s both. It’s a melancholy feeling, and I have the sudden urge to get home to Catherine and to seek some comfort.