Old School Tie
‘So what year did you leave Gordoncroft?’ Davina kept her voice high and her eyes were locked on George’s soft face. She wanted to see if he reacted to her question. Most of her conversations were body language based nowadays. People seldom had anything to say to her verbally.
‘1985.’ He yawned as his gaze twisted away to escape from hers. The blue of his eyes was an exact match for the Gordoncroft school tie. Perhaps that was why he chose to claim he went to that particular school. Davina suspected George hadn’t actually been there at all. Just another idiot who thought it would open doors.
When she thought of her time there a series of doors swung shut in her mind. Trapdoors with her always on the wrong side. Boys giggling like girls and being bullied until they became smaller and smaller. They shrunk in on themselves until they were nothing at all. The ghost of a giggle, stopped in the night.
‘Same year as me. It’s odd that I don’t know you. Do you remember me?’ She steeled herself as George scrutinized her face. She’d checked her reflection so many times but there was something missing in her taste. A sort of lacuna, a guide to knowing what went together well. Other women just lashed on cheap lipstick and looked fantastic. Davina was plastered in expensive make-up she'd been taught to apply but she still worried about facial hair.
Why was she concerned about this conman’s opinion? It seemed he was his own creation, just as she was. At least she hadn’t lied about her background but she hadn’t had to. George had shown no interest in her at all. Yet he was still staring at her now, as if he recognised her features but didn’t know her.
‘There is something familiar about you.’ He leant closer. ‘I assume you were St. Mary’s?’
At least he'd researched the School House names. But how much did George really know? ‘St. Mary’s? No. I was St. John’s.’ Davina indicated George’s empty glass. In a long, elegant step she took it from him and strode off towards the bar. St. Mary’s was the girls house. St. John’s was all boys. Let George put that in his pipe and smoke it.
Were people staring at her? She concentrated on walking straight-legged from the hip the way the movement coach had taught her. Did it make her bottom sway too much? Walking as if she was proud, rather than mortified, with her face on fire again. Davina stopped as Emma, her old school-friend and today's hostess, bore down on her.
‘I see you’ve found another old Gordoncrofter in George. I thought you’d have a lot in common.’ Davina twisted her mouth in a silent reply. Why was Emma going along with George's lie? Davina sometimes thought Emma pretended to be her friend because it made her seem tolerant and right-on. Yet Emma's arm around her shoulders, her way of drawing people in, felt genuinely warm right now.
‘Are you all right, Dav? He can be a bit much, can’t he? But such fun.’
Perhaps no one was fun with Davina. Perhaps there was a tension inside her that sucked all the joy out of other people. Her self-fulfilling habit of expecting the worst in people, defending before the attack. She leant across the bar like a man would, beyond caring, and demanded service with her eyes. That was the first thing she’d noticed about becoming a woman. How often you were ignored in bars.
Oh, and all the other examples of the arbitrary bias of an inequitable world. Not much of a topic for conversation for North London parties. No wonder she was always alone. She was hardly an advert for the old boy network. How ghettoized her existence now was. She could almost forget that right at the back of her underwear drawer was the same school tie George wore. It was rightfully hers but it was never a card she could play.
What would it feel like to be part of a group of like-minded people? Maybe it was time to realise that her old longing to find someone similar to her was just a dream. There wasn’t anybody on a parallel path, let alone feeling their way along her chosen route. There wasn’t a cypher to help her make sense of her life. All she had was an over-powering sense of injustice. That someone, somewhere had got it terribly wrong. That everything she'd done to try and distil her essence was pointless, she'd never find the key.
She jumped as George coughed next to her and held his hand out for his drink. His hands were much smaller than hers. There were some things you could never change. Davina looked up and caught his blue gaze, their eyes exactly level. True blue, she knew him now, someone who'd been on her journey but coming the other way. She matched the force of his grin before they started to laugh.
‘I think we might have a lot to talk about, Davina. I remember you now. You could have helped me out by saying you used to be called John. I know exactly why you didn't because I didn't tell you either. Do you remember me too? Back in the day I was a girl called Sally.'
Paul coasted to a halt on the school car park. As always, he was early. As far as he was concerned, arriving late for anything was bad manners, nothing more.
"Never late in eight years as a pupil: I'm not going to get myself a Detention now!" he thought to himself, with a wry grin. A vivid image blossomed in his mind of Fr. "Butch" McMorrow SJ, standing at the school gate to record the names of the latecomers. Repeat offenders could expect a painful appointment with the Ferula swaying ominously at his hip, looped to the rope ceinture around his waist.
This would be his first Old Xav Reunion: he'd spent most of his thirty-plus years teaching a long way from Liverpool, and almost all of them abroad. He eased himself out of his Motorbility car checking from habit to be sure that his Blue Badge was correctly displayed. The discreet logo identifying the Disabled bay was the only difference he could see in the Car Park, compared to when he'd been a pupil.
He caught himself caressing the bare toes of the statue of St. Francis Xavier, keeping a careful watch over the outdoor Chapel. Although he'd seen visitors do this many times, it hadn't been a conscious decision on his part to copy them - at least, he didn't think it was. He glanced swiftly to all sides, and breathed a sigh of relief. There was nobody else in sight.
But there was another vehicle, and the massive jolt of adrenaline unleashed as he recognized the personalised number plates almost stopped his heart. After so many years, could it really be ...?
SMC 1D Bold, clear and unmistakeable, front and rear on a flawless 1966 MGB GT convertible, separated from Paul's modest runabout by two empty parking bays.
It had been a seven-day sensation when School Captain Steve McVeigh turned up with the birthday present his father had given him the day after they'd all finished their "A" level exams. Steve had already had acceptance letters from Oxford and at least two other universities: his future seemed assured.
"That's got to be worth gazillions!" Paul thought, but without envy or bitterness. Had the popular Head Boy managed to cossett, maintain, repair and insure the same now-classic car for almost thirty-five years? The insurance alone must be a killer was Paul's next thought. In the late evening sunlight, the flawless, pristine paintwork looked as if it had been freshly applied that very day: the MG coupé simply glowed health and opulence.
I'll enjoy a good natter with Steve, assuming he remembers me, he thought. His ear caught the rumble of more cars arriving, distracting him from the simple pleasure of appreciating the MG's elegant lines. He straightened his perfectly-knotted Old Xav tie as he waited for the new arrivals: he felt too self-conscious to enter on his own.
Steve McVeigh seemed to have discovered a magic elixir granting him the fabled gift of Peter Pan. In Sixth Form he'd been tall for his age, and there was still barely a wrinkle on his features. His mid-length blond hair still flopped rebelliously over his left temple: he had the lean, athletic look of a man in his mid-twenties. He stood with a couple of soutane'd teachers, greeting everyone who arrived with a genuine warmth. His female companion had a similar deceptively youthful appearance.
"He's married someone who's lasted the course just as well ..." was Paul's first thought, but a split-second later he was rocked by another hormonal thunderbolt. She wasn't married to Steve, she was ...
"Nuala? Really? After all these years ...!"
Paul couldn't help himself. His exclamation was muted, but only because the shock had kicked the breath out of his lungs and almost paralysed his vocal cords.
Steve turned and smiled.
"You've not changed that much then, Paul! Physically, maybe: but you were always sweet on my sister. Both of us knew that, of course ..."
" ... and I always hoped you might, you know ... " Nuala added, shyly.
Paul looked from the one familiar face to the other, dumbfounded.
" I never really thought ... " he began, but was unable to construct a coherent end to the sentence.
Steve murmured a few words to the priests welcoming a steadily increasing number of Reunion guests and led Nuala and Paul into the main Hall. Several groups were forming and reforming as memories and anecdotes were shared.
Although St. Francis Xaviers had been an all boys school, there were a number of female guests in the room. Paul assumed that these were the 'plus One' partners of returning Old Xavs, but Nuala smiled at his comment.
"The last few years, the Reunion has been run jointly with St. Julie's Girls ..."
"Which was how our paths first crossed!" Paul found his voice and his nerve simultaneously. "It was the first time Poppa Doyle allowed us to have Girls singing in the year's G&S production: you were Yum-Yum to my Nanki-Poo in The Mikado!"
"And yet you didn't have the nerve to ask her out?" Steve teased. "Because I can tell you, a love-struck kid sister isn't funny to be around ...!"
Nuala poked her brother in a not-too-ladylike fashion.
"Bossy big bruv's are no laughing matter, either! I can't even begin to count the number of blokes I might have dated if you hadn't scared 'em off!"
The exchange of sibling banter was halted (at least temporarily) by a general invitation for the guests to be seated for the meal. Nuala made a demonstrative point of linking her arm with Paul's, not Steve's.
"I'm not ignoring you, brother o' mine, and I sincerely hope you'll sit and share our table while we enjoy the meal! And although I love riding in your car, it's a bit cramped for me when I'm wearing a 'posh frock'."
" Also," she added, with a smile which was unquestionably mischievous, "I'm guessing Paul and I have a lot of catching up to do. If he has no objections, this Cinderella would prefer to ride home from the Ball with her new-found Prince ..."
A Short Story in Search of a Novelist
Much can hang by a thread, one man's self-esteem or another man's life. Roger Farrant had spun the thread of his life from almost nothing and this was beginning to show. Seen from the outside his life was a series of baffling contrasts. He had shone at boarding school, dazzled at Cambridge and then faded. He had a record of succeeding at dreams but failing in practice. The idea that shaped his life was spun froma dream, deeply felt, worthy, intelligent but only a dream. The world had seen a priviledged young man following an erratic downward course. He, however, had seen , as clearly as if it had been already achieved, the full life of a writer.
Can somebody suffer so much, feel so much, dream so much and not be a beacon to others? Had not his uncle achieved this as a painter? after the motorbike accident that killed his uncle, Max Maslow, a leading figure in early 21st century British art, Roger had inherited much along with a considerable fortune and the mangled motorbike, he inherited the mantle of artistic expectations. The motorbike, the Thunderer, had been his uncle's trademark, his talisman. roger had it restored and gloated. He smelled it, hecaressed it, had himself photographed astride it. It invoked its spirit. He told himself that he had only to ride the bike to an adventure to give birth, finally, to the great work he knew was within him.
A man lacking spirit would have basked in the kudos , spent the fortune and kept his feet on the ground. a talented man would have ridden it to some purpose. But a man with nothing but dreams risked disappointment at best.
At the time of the following events Roger had ridden the bike dream as far as Pamplona and had taken a small house on a sun scorched hill a few miles to the west in the tiny village of Cizur Minor. With his front door opening onto the pilgrim path to Santiago Roger had immediately sensed that this was the perfect place for a writer. A year passed and then another as he sat in daily conversation with his deliberately old-fashioned Remington typewriter. Many writing projects were finished, many more started and he was surrounded by the detritus. Endless papers, paperback novels in, now, two languages, his old school and college graduation photographs, and opened letters. these last were almost only rejection letters, the most hurtful from old school friends now making it in the media companies. So much for the old boy network he mused angrilly over endless glasses of the local Rioja. The bitterness of the strong tannins mingling with that of increasingly obvious failure.
The thunderer now measured not his hope but his frustration and was half forgotten in an outhouse. his dream of being a writer was kept alive only by a belief that a man of his calibre, his privileges and his education and connections surely must, one day, gain recognition. Even though his old school tie meant nothing in the backwater of Cizur Minorhe started wearing it, sometimes just over a T-shirt. It identified him with the elite he felt, distinguished him from the common man .
One day in early October one such commoner arrived in his life. Sitting almost aimlessly at his Remington Roger noticed the short figure of a back-packing pilgrim nosing around the church, like the hundreds who passed each week. At first Roger had eagerly conversed with some of them, expecting to be envied in his writers' lair. Thruthfully most had been glad to get away. This one was different. He approached Roger saying,
'What a place for a writer!'
He was ushered in. Roger felt, for a while, that he had been recognized, finally, for what he felt himself, sometimes knew himself, to be. He had been called a writer. A writer!
The pilgrim looked around Rogers study, read a page here, a paragraph there and some lines designed to be the blurb on the back of novels yet to find a publisher and promotion. Then the pilgrim mentioned his own work. He announced that Cizur Minor would be where he would stay for a month, perhaps two, to finish his own novel. He expected Roger to be thrilled to be in the company of a talented writer on the verge of success. He was wrong.
As Roger read the outsider's work he was entranced and appalled in equal measure. This common man ( he hadn't even recognized the proudly worn school tie) had a straight forward style that could reach many and an uncommon way of showing readers their own inner thoughts. He realised that the pilgrims initial remark had been self-referential. The pilgrim stood with the many others who had not seen his dream as a reality. The other man's talent burned his eyes like the scorching Spanish sun.
Roger removed his tie and held it taunt as he stood behind the pilgrim who was laughing as he wrote up his writers' diary. He knew that the old school would strangle one of them - but which?
He imagined the police finding the body at the desk, finding his own gorged by one of the Thunderer's handlebars inthe bull run streets of Pamplona. What luck tomorrow was St Firmin's day, the bull run day ,Hemingway's ,bull run day.