Monday 5 November 2007

before I knew how much it cost to play it safe....

Remember, remember the fifth of November.

It was on Bonfire Night, exactly seventeen years ago today, that a good friend of mine asked me if I would look after her stash of vodka and some other assorted spirits. We were both not quite yet seventeen years old and such things were not only illegal in the eyes of the law of the land, but, of far more immediate concern to us both, it was also strictly forbidden in the school rules. As I stowed it away in my study, I knew that the consequences of being found with this contraband would be severe - most likely involving a letter to my parents and if not suspension, then certainly a period of confinement to the House (for obscure reasons, this was known as 'gating').

So why did I do it? I'd only actually known Catherine since the start of that term in September, so why risk punishment on her behalf? Those of you who did not attend a largely single-sex school will probably laugh at this, but this was a period of significant change in my life. Up until that point, I had gone through all of my schooling since the age of seven with classes made up almost entirely of boys. As I entered the sixth form, however, our routines and friendships were disrupted by the arrival of girls. The girls stayed in their own houses, of course, but they joined us for classes and were assigned to a boy's boarding house for their meals. This meant that when I arrived for the first lunch of the academic year, the fourteen boys in my year in my house were joined by four girls. Of course, as you might expect of some extremely emotionally retarded sixteen year old public schoolboys, the arrival of these interlopers immediately divided us into three main camps. In the first group there were those of us who treated these girls with disdain; as somehow lesser people who were only worthy of any attention if they were deemed to be attractive, otherwise they were to be at best ignored and at worst actively abused. A second group panicked completely and were like rabbits caught in the headlights; unwilling to accept that something had changed, but unable to stop looking and equally unable to open their mouths in the presence of such a thing as a girl. The third group probably liked to think that they were sensitive souls and actively repudiated the loathsome behaviour of the first group and the desperately pathetic reaction of the second group. These wiser boys would attempt to engage these girls in polite conversation and to otherwise acknowledge their existence, never letting a complete lack of any conversational experience with women get in their way. All three groups were divided in their reaction to the arrival of the girls, but all were united in the immaturity of their reactions. I was in the latter camp, incidentally, as if you wouldn't have guessed.

God knows what the girls made of all of this. Although they would only have arrived at the school a day or so before, they would probably have had ample time to experience the wonders of walking just in front of a group of thirteen year old boys who would loudly pass judgement upon you, making kissing noises if they liked you, and coughing or retching noises if they did not. Over time, they would develop survival strategies. A few lucky girls would find universal acclaim as being 'fit' and would be placed upon pedestals so high that they could only ever hope to be reached by members of the first XV rugby team - their survival would depend upon having a boyfriend who commanded respect. Others would be deemed 'alright' and generally left alone as long as they kept their heads down. The unfortunate majority would be openly and unsubtly abused for their perceived failings - their survival strategy would be to develop a thick skin. All would be judged on a daily basis by boys who outnumbered them ten to one. It was horrible.

I'd got on well with Catherine pretty much immediately. At that awful, stilted first meal, we had discovered that our parents lived about four miles apart and that we had bus routes into town in common. That had been enough to get us talking, which had been a great relief to me as my conversational gambits with girls were (and probably still are) somewhat limited. Over the course of the next few weeks, we became friends. Catherine proved to be intelligent, dignified and fiercely independent. There was no way that she was going to conform with anyone's expectations of how she should and should not behave, and she had the courage - at some cost - to try to retain her individuality in the face of a smotheringly chauvinist environment and some oppressive rules. She kept this up for the best part of two years as we studied for our A-Levels, and however vulnerable and insecure she must have been feeling, she managed to convey at all times an air of icy calm and disdain. I thought she was great and used to love meeting up with her during the school holidays, when I discovered that she had the same awkward air of non-conformism with her parents.

I think Catherine asked me to stash her booze that day because she had been seen smoking or out of bounds or something like that. Instead of taking part in sport or any of the other activities that Thomas Arnold deemed improving for the young men at his school, she would often go wandering around town with a couple of her friends, sitting in coffee shops and smoking. On this particular occasion, she had been out buying booze to drink that Saturday evening and was worried that she was going to have her room searched and be caught red-handed. Even then I was something of a loudmouth, but I had the happy talent of keeping my head below the parapet and generally avoiding trouble. I'd like to say that this was because of a brilliantly cunning survival strategy, but really it was because I was pretty square and didn't really do anything much that might land me in serious trouble... the odd drink, the odd cigarette... but nothing particularly out of line. When Catherine asked me to look after her booze, I didn't hesitate and tucked it away without a second thought. She kindly said that I could help myself to as much as I fancied, but needless to say I didn't touch it.

The town's firework display and bonfire was taking place that evening in the park quite near to our House, and for some reason we were given permission to attend. I can remember walking over and standing around in the dark watching a half-decent display of fireworks and wondering if Catherine had got into any serious trouble or if I would bump into her. At the time, it seemed to me that she was reckless and hellbent upon self-destruction, and perhaps she was. She defied the the rules so blatantly that it seemed impossible that she would be with us for long. I remember realising, perhaps for the first time, that perhaps it was cruel to put a person like Catherine into an environment like that school where she would be crushed (the school would probably prefer the term 'moulded', but crushing is what it was). Perhaps it's cruel and damaging for anybody to be into that kind of an environment, but where I had the ability to conform and to survive, I don't think that Catherine had the ability to conform or the will to survive.

She did survive though, and went on to Cambridge university and a career in publishing. The last time I saw her was six or seven years ago at a coffee shop outside Baker Street tube station. She seemed content (she was about to get married) but still happily carrying that fierce intelligence and slightly prickly air of non-conformism. We've lost touch since, but all the fireworks over the weekend have reminded me of her and that weekend half a lifetime ago, as they usually do.

Never mind Guy Fawkes: it's my friend Catherine that I choose to remember at this time of the year.


  1. I've been quite afraid of fireworks since I was little, and they remind me that my dad was a bit of a hero - or at least my hero. His work always organised a big display for staff and their children, and it was far better than the public bonfires - plus it had a wee shop that sold wonderfully forbidden sweets and things.

    One year, when I was about ten, some fireworks went a bit awry and a man was injured. People were panicking and screaming all over the place. I can clearly recall my dad rushing to get an ambulance (this was long before mobile phones!) and then sitting with the hurt man and calmly talking to him until it came. I thought he was brilliant.

    Since then, I don't think I've ever gone to a fireworks display, and they make me pretty nervous. But they always make me think of my dad, which has to be a good thing.

  2. I always used to look forward to the 5th of November as usually my older brothers would come home laden with fireworks. We'd have a meal together, then they'd go out into the back garden set up one or two and light them, before scurrying back to cover.

    After they moved out, I was still quite tempted to carry on the tradition but it wasn't the same.

    This year the 5th has passed me by completely unawares. No Guy Fawkes in Australia. No bonfires and definitely no fireworks as they're illegal for home use. You have to attend public displays if you want to see any, but no one over here have any displays on the 5th of November.

    "Guy Fawkes? Who the bloody hell was he?"

  3. That was a great story. :)


  4. I have no idea what the significance of November 5th is.

  5. That was a thoroughly wonderful bit of honest writing. I think I saw the film version in my head as I read it.