Old School Tie

Entry by: Nicholas Gill

10th July 2015
Old School Tie(s)
The Girl from “The Isle Of Capri”
Nicholas Gill

They made you wear them, those stripy lengths of cloth, a symbol of some conformist ideal yet to be properly explained. Some remnant of Victorian militarism, perhaps. My father would halt my satchelled progress to the front door to make corrections to the angle and size of knot, standing back to inspect the result like a road surveyor observing a far landscape, before nodding me on my way.

The smell of dubbined leather, shirt starch and shoe polish accompanied my crawling journey to school through the acrid morning air, satchel strap biting into shoulder and tie constricting the flow of air through the throat. And then turning into Clare Road where many hopes and hurts of an unschooled schoolboy’s life were enacted. Boys from the Hard School mocked me there and threatened violence that never actually happened. A girl propositioned me jokingly and I still shrink with embarrassment at the pompous response with which I protected myself from her. The middle class single sex schoolboy picks up a rich collection of humiliations tattooed onto the galleries of memory, never to be expunged.

But the greatest work by far in my gallery of pain was a relationship with an Italian girl who shimmered into my life out of the late summer fog in the early days of a new school term. I imagine we were fifteen when our young bodies passed each other on opposite sides of Clare Road, me on my way to an all-boys boot camp policed by an SS of Welsh rugby masters working for an establishment of decrepit toffs, and she heading for virginal instruction at the local Catholic Convent School. It is heartening to reflect how the mysterious, un-named forces of teenage lust can erupt through layers of conditioning like dandelions forcing through playground tarmac. Soon letters were exchanged and assignations in the local park arranged.

Her family came from the Isle of Capri and she was as sweet as a rose at the dawning. Our Sunday perambulations were spent in reflection on teenage music and literature. I think she enjoyed my monologues on the scientific romances of H.G.Wells and the dystopian visions of Huxley, Zamyatin and Orwell. At that time we were still heading for 1984. We circumnavigated the park’s thickly wooded perimeter and sometimes sat beneath the shade of an old walnut tree. Not once did we hold hands or talk of a future or attempt some method of bridging the deep, dark chasm that lay between our respective genders. She wore a grey blazer with blue calico dress, burgeoning black hair feathering a Romanesque face, which had a softness of natural precision that we tend to call Beauty. Several times a week letters were exchanged and I would watch her walking up the hill into the mist, that black wave of hair bouncing on young shoulders. Summertime was almost over, but she brought a blue Italian sky into the frightened spiritual greyness of my schoolboy existence. And yet I never dared to eat a peach or force the moment to its crisis, having formed a prosthetic identity from English class readings of “The Love Song Of Alfred J. Prufrock”.

One day, a sudden surplus of courage prompted me to walk up her drive and knock on her front door. The door opened a fraction and her father’s deeply suspicious face surveyed me. Perhaps at this moment I was grateful for my own father’s ministrations to my tie. I was asked searching questions about my employment aspirations and my intentions towards his daughter. I hadn’t considered either in my 15 years of life so far. I must have blustered something acceptable because I was permitted to take the girl to the cinema the next Saturday on the condition that her mother accompanied us. And so the scene was set for one of my youth’s most daring acts of self-immolation.

The mother was a short, stout, Italian Mama of the old school, quiet and warmly maternal. The film was a dismal tale of childhood being cut short by cancer and a stricken father hiring out a fun-park for the child’s last days. A flock of violins took flight over the father holding his child on a mournfully gyrating merry-go-round. The mother wept and at this moment some anarchic impulse sent from the irrational part of the teenage psyche prompted me to ask the girl if I might kiss her.

For the rest of the film the poor girl must have suffered an embarrassment that probably haunts her still, thirty-odd years later. She continuously swept back her hair and shot glances up at the ceiling and down at the floor, while her mother wept beside her.

The aftermath was not forgiving. I recall one of her letters containing in block capitals the line “OH WHY ARE YOU SO IMMATURE”. From the perspective of middle age, it might seem easy to forgive one’s inner teenager for the occasional blunder. After all, I did not send the Five Hundred riding into the Valley of Death. Why, then, are we drawn back, years later, into that torture chamber of teenage disgrace, to re-live moments that still have the power to make our cheeks burn and to eviscerate our painfully acquired years of self-esteem.

By contrast with her accusation of immaturity, I can recall one other moment that occurred towards the end of our year-long proto-romance. We were walking down Clare Road again, this time in the evening with a livid sunset before us. I was describing this sunset in poetic terms and she said to me “You sound just like an old man”. There is an innocence in youth that sometimes opens a clear channel to a source of wisdom that usually comes at the end of life.

We met once more a few years later. She was working in a bank and wore a plain golden ring on her finger. There she was, at the counter, darkly majestic in her early twenties. We had coffee later and I was reminded of an early BBC production of “1984”, in which Winston Smith (played by Peter Cushing) meets Julia in a café some time after they have both been tortured and taught to love Big Brother.

We sat in that café together for the last time, two lovers who had never loved. She had followed the intransigent rails of social and religious expectations. I was in a post-university limbo experimenting with music, not yet willing to take up the Yoke, and far from discovering a virgin forest where people beyond the system lived in ecological freedom and harmony. The impulse to love had perhaps been the most natural thing we had experienced in those days of uniforms, didactic education and social conditioning. Our bodies had felt something authentic but were never able to actualise the impulse. The old school ties were a bit too tight, and love had been strangled at birth through an absence of guidance and an immaturity born of the highest middle class principles. We sat there like two butterflies which had failed to breach the walls of their chrysalises.

And I sailed with the tide in the morning.

Nicholas Gill
July 2015