Wasted Opportunities (part two)

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

One of the few things I actually do remember doing during this officially sanctioned twenty-four month work avoidance scheme was to write ‘articles’ which I posted on the Sixth Form Notice Board for the entertainment of my peers and educators.  The internet (along with mobile phones, laptop computers, pocket calculators and Salted Caramel Mars Bars) did not exist, but this cork wall became my blog.  I was regularly encouraged by tutors to stop ‘posting’ on it, but I was never prevented from doing so.  I live with the hope that somebody gleaned something from what I was doing, other than the conviction that they were in the wrong job. 

On the first day of my Sixth Form studies, the impossibly old history tutor told me that he considered that ‘as I was now an adult’ he would be setting no home work, but he would rely on me to hand in essays on subjects of my own choosing for his appraisal at will.  Consequently, adult that I was, I didn’t hand in a single one and failed the subject abjectly*.  I did scrape a pass in Art despite handing in ‘coursework’ all of which was started the night before in an orgy of Coca Cola, Chipitos and poster paint.   Believe me, I take no pride in this, I am ashamed of my behaviour, but I can’t go back and change it.  I am stuck with that past and it has dictated my present.  The ‘missed opportunity’ has provided the framework for my entire adult life.  I have had only three full-time jobs in my life, giving me a total of forty four years continuous employment without even the slightest hint of ambition.  I have only ever attended one job interview and I vowed that, despite getting the job, I would never attend another.  I have been head-hunted twice, which probably says far more about the paucity of heads around here than it does about me.

Having seen both my children through University I decided to find out if I was capable of doing it myself and, having discovered that I really can apply myself when there is no conceivable benefit in doing so, I now have a Degree of my very own, of which I am very proud even though it merely makes me ever more aware of what I could have achieved forty years ago with just a little application.  (No, I am not talking about Clearasil.)  Who knows what I could have become (a pompous prig I fear).  Would I have been happier?  No, I’ve been married for more than forty years and my wife still talks to me from time to time.  We have two brilliant daughters and four life-enhancing (though energy-sapping) grandchildren – I’ll definitely settle for that.  Would I be richer?  Possibly.  I may have retired much earlier, but then again, I may have died.  Would I be more fulfilled?  It’s very unlikely unless my university education involved developing strategies for not losing interest in what I have written at the very second I have stopped writing it.  I don’t really bother with even the pretence of ‘sending stuff off’ these days.  Old Git Lit has never proved to be the Book Club  draw I thought it might be and TV and Radio are currently only interested in what you have to offer if you are already famous for doing something else – tying knots in cherry stalks with your tongue on Tik-Tok or being third-last voted off Love Island.  I fear the proof that it is not merely my lethargy that forms a barrier to success, but a complete lack of talent, might just kill me.

At least as it is, I always have something to write about.  Let’s face it, disappointment is always good for a few hundred words.

*I offer, as some kind of mitigation, the fact that the set text was the God-awful ‘Origins of the Second World War’ by A J P Taylor, an exciting subject for a post-war eighteen year old, rendered into blancmange by an English academic – the foremost historian of his time – of, I estimated, at least a thousand years old, with all the writing verve of a Grattan’s Catalogue compositor. 


Well, I’m on there. Take a guess.

Unless I am living, unsheltered, beneath the silent, star-lit canopy of the ever-expanding universe (I have never done this) and beyond the reach of all civilization (indoor toilets) I shower at least twice a day.  I never take a bath.  When I was very young I remember my father saying something about sitting in your own dirty water.  Of the very many truly strange words of wisdom that my dad shared with me over the years, this one, for some reason, has imprinted on my brain like a hot fork on a marshmallow.  It is always with me, like a phantom dog: I never know it’s there until I tread in something it has left behind.  If ever I am forced to take a bath, I feel the need to shower both before and after.  (I have just read that through and I can confirm that what you are thinking is correct.  It is odd.  I am currently waiting for the knock on the door from Her Majesty’s Weirdo Protection Squad – I will go quietly.  They have my number.)  Today I took a bath.

Baths, according to my wife, are just the ticket for bad backs.  I have a bad back.  I was reminded of this whilst moving the furniture in the midst of my wife’s current post-Lockdown redecorating fervour, when someone shot me in the lumbar region.  I think.  It felt that way.  I crumpled to the floor and waited for the second, fatal slug that would put me out of my misery, but it never arrived.  There was no blood.  What there was, was a large fluffy blanket of Pins & Needles that covered the entire lower half of my body and something (I know not what) twisting, corkscrew-like, through my spine.  Everything functioned as it should, although accompanied with the kind of bright flashes of crippling pain that remind you that, back in the day when you were fit, strong and a bleedin’ know-all, you really should have listened to those who told you to be careful.  Oh, come on, who actually bends at the knee when picking up a box?

Now, regular readers of this blog (if you are one such, you might wish to take a long, hard look at yourself) may remember that this is not the first time I have suffered such back spasms (see ‘Back to the Future’ from July 2019 here) but, somehow, they do not happen often enough for me to be ready for them when they arrive.  They always take me by surprise – grab me when I’m not looking and flick me with a spoon before I can prepare myself.  Today they hit me whilst I was in the process of moving boxes of photographs which are stored in a cupboard in the corner of a soon-to-be repainted guest room.  You, like me, may have visited this cupboard before (‘A Cupboard Full of Memories’ in June 2019) the last time I trawled through this Kodacolour past.  Today, the pain struck me before I had the opportunity to wallow in the nostalgia of the 6×4 snippets of my yesterdays, although my melodramatic slump to the floor was accompanied by the silent flutter of an old school photo.  It was lodged at the back of a recently excised drawer where my grandson had left it some time ago after asking me what the world was like in black and white.  I tried to explain that the world of my youth was in colour, it was only the photographs that were monochrome, but he wasn’t falling for a tom-fool story like that one!  Who did I think I was kidding?  I must admit, my seven year-old self and my class of contemporaries do have the general demeanour of something that belongs in a museum.  We do appear to come from a different world to the one we now inhabit, and there is a hint of desperado about us all.  I look at the photo and I remember most of the faces; I remember some of the names – although I’m not at all certain of how they fit together.  (I tried to recollect as much as I could in ‘The People We All Went to School With’ this time last year.)  Clothes and haircuts are all vaguely reminiscent of ‘The World at War’.  I think Woolworth’s must have had a run on plastic sandals in the preceding week.  My own ensemble of sandals, long socks, shorts, checked shirt and sleeveless ‘V’ neck pullover would appear to have been chosen on the strength of being all that was clean.  Most of the boys have hair, so I presume the nit-nurse had not been around for a while.  The teacher, whom I do not recall, looks like a broken woman.

Of course, back then, a shower would not have been an option.  I do not recall encountering a shower until I went up to grammar school at eleven when, with all the other boys, I was thrust under a cold one after ‘games’ as it was ‘good for our development’.  It was ‘character-building’ apparently, although quite frankly, I would have given almost anything not to build such a character.  It was like a freezing, tiled tunnel of hell from which you tried to exit with all haste*, especially as there was generally some psycho waiting at the end with a wet towel and, if you didn’t get out quickly, your clothes were liable to join you in there.  Schoolboy showers were somewhat like I imagine prison showers to be (although a little lighter on the sodomy, perhaps); something to be survived and forgotten.  You did, occasionally, encounter warm showers at the public swimming baths but nobody ever went in those because… well, you know.

Anyway, life moves on.  A class full of tough, resilient little bodies becomes thirty five disparate adults with bodies that become daily less tough, less resilient.  Backs become somehow more brittle.  More prone to saying ‘enough is enough’ every now and then; more prone to taking you out at the knees.

So, I lay in my bath until it started to get cold.  I read my book.  Nobody brought me whisky to ease my pain, but it was ok generally: I didn’t hate it.  And then it was time to get out.  And then I remembered why I’d gotten in…  How do you get out of a bath with a bad back?  Well, you don’t, for a while anyway.  You lie there considering the possibilities.  You run some more hot water.  You regret only bringing the one book.  You regret not getting yourself a whisky before you got in.  And then finally, when your skin begins to crinkle like an ironed plastic carrier bag, you haul yourself up and out with a groan that, whatever Ridley Scott would have you believe, may well have been heard in space.

And then you have a shower…

*School in a nutshell.  My Grammar School recollections – such as they are – appeared in ‘The Never Diminishing Bond parts one and two’ in May of this year.

I’m cutting branches from the trees
Shaped by years of memories
To exorcise their ghosts from inside of me – David Sylvian ‘Nostalgia’

A Little Fiction – If…

grammar school
Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

…Staggered through the heavy, creaking iron gates shortly before 9.30 a.m., heavy eyed and stiff limbed. Slight suspicion that tongue may have been sand-papered overnight. What a party it was! Seven straight dandelion and burdocks and two helpings of trifle from those crinkled paper bowls. Also Marmite sandwiches and Cheese & Onion crisps. Sausages on sticks. And red jelly. Sally, the short freckled girl with braces on her teeth and unevenly pierced ears, made a big play for me during Postman’s Knock. It took me a whole two hours to get the jelly out of my ear. Also partial night brace from my left nostril.

Glanced up through designer sun-glasses to meet the stare of “Hoppy” Hopcroft as I stumbled gingerly towards the school entrance. Smiled sweetly at him as he spun away on his black leather-luk swivel chair. Have never been afraid of Hoppy – his school needs me: best runner in school, demon centre forward, ace seam bowler, opening bat and all round sporting hero. Anyway, the photos I took of him and Miss Denby in the senior cloak room have always given me the edge.

Morning break. Sat with Alison Penderford whilst others chased a threadbare tennis ball around to a final score of 47 – 33, twelve grazed knees, one badly sprained ankle, two fat lips (both, strangely, attached to the same face) and an already neurotic playground monitor taken to matron’s office with whistle fatigue. Meanwhile, I took Alison behind the bike sheds and gave her the full benefit of my training as a doctor’s nephew. She promised that I would be first to know if she suffered a sudden attack of breasts.

Sat through geography with Mr. Laing, vainly trying to concentrate on his lecture about watersheds, or anti-cyclones, or something, but unable to wrench my eyes away from his armpits. Has he never heard of anti-perspirant? He must be single. No partner would allow him to sweat like that. Nor wear those socks. Or the purple toupee. Nylon I shouldn’t wonder. Probably attached with Copydex. Like my eyelids.

Shared a table with Linda James at lunch time. She is a sweet girl and almost certain to embark upon puberty at any moment. I do not want to miss it. I gave her one of my luncheon meat fritters and she agreed to notify me the moment there are any developments.

Summoned to Hoppy’s office at 1.30 p.m. He did not mess about. He immediately offered me ten pounds in return for which I was to tell the rest of the class that I had been reduced to tears by his erudite and fearsome wit. I enquired whether this was a bribe and he said `No’. I said, `Good,’ and showed him the photos.

He made a renewed offer of fifty pounds, which I was pleased to accept. We shook hands amicably and I made a mental note to look out the snaps of Hoppy in an extra-curricular romp with Mr. Wynecroft, the school janitor. I intend to email a copy to myself in case of accident. Also if Mr. Wynecroft attempts to show me up in front of Betty Smith again.

Fought with four uncouth youths from 7C during afternoon break, confirming my belief in the efficacy of a brick-loaded satchel. The reason for this unseemly brawl was a loudly intoned slander on my good name. I prefer not to go into detail, but suffice it to say that the question of my sexuality was raised, owing to my preference for spending the games session in the gym with the girls rather than out on the cold and muddy rugby pitch with the boys, none of whom are conversant with the game’s etiquette, preferring on most occasions a swift kick in the groin to the more orthodox flying tackle. Anyway, I am allergic to mud.

Walking home with Valerie, she suggested that we could find something interesting to do in the woods. Blood coursed through my young, unfurred veins at a pressure that made me fear the imminent explosion of my upper cranium. Scenes from ‘Don’t Stop Now’ flashed through my mind. Or was it ‘Toy Story’? I can never be sure, I slept through both. “Hurry up,” lisped Valerie, leading me away to pleasures unknown. Visions of two naked bodies, dappled with late afternoon sunlight as it filtered diaphanously through the autumn-brown leaves; relaxing contentedly entwined, leaning back against the trunk of an ancient oak, sharing a gob-stopper, one colour change apiece…

Picked thirty two conkers and found an old kettle which is probably solid gold. Part of Captain Kidd’s hidden treasure I shouldn’t wonder. Valerie took it home to her dad. I’m sure a skilled craftsman could fashion a new lid, replace the spout and repair the hole in order to return it to its former glory, and Valerie’s dad has just bought a new hammer.

Past dark when I got home. Mum yelled in a muffled sort of way (her teeth were soaking in a mug of bleach) and tried to hit me with a box of fish fingers. I ran upstairs and wedged the bedroom door. Below, I could hear my parents discussing what to watch on Netflix and arguing over the last tin of lager. Attempted to read one of dad’s magazines under the bedclothes by the light of my phone. Perhaps my battery is going, but I couldn’t make out the pictures at all. I could not tell if I was holding them the right way up. Certainly there was something amiss with the man whose beard had slipped, and I wouldn’t want to meet Doreen from Devon on a dark night. Downstairs, not even the gathered might of Fast & Furious 73 could disguise the fact that mum and dad had settled the dispute over the lager and were now setting about the contents of mum’s secret gin bottle (not as strong as it was, since I discovered it). Strange rustlings and giggling as I dropped off to sleep.

Slept fitfully, waiting for the inevitable thump of parents attempting to climb the stairs quietly; faint echoes of whispered abuse; pleas to come out of the bathroom quickly, and the distant twang of the Slumberdown.

Sex, drink and violence, that’s all adults ever think about…