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Nº23: Red Room request ‘Back to School’: An Education In Exotica

Not a word I like – ‘exotic’. Or, at least, not in principle. Just as ‘erotic’ generally denotes not sex but a commodifiable parody of sex, so ‘exotic’ is applied not to what is genuinely and interestingly alien, but a product that somebody, somewhere is peddling and wants you to spend money on. And yet I am tempted by exoticism, a lapse I blame in part on rugby and cricket, but above all on Mister Terry.

Until the age of eleven, I was very happily if somewhat sketchily uneducated at state schools. The clown of the class, I sat at the back, messing about, paying no attention to the teacher until I was carpeted, whereupon I withdrew into a dogged silence that was actually shyness, but which most teachers construed as insolence. Voluntary imbecility notwithstanding, I was bright enough to pass from year to year. I was not, however, bright enough to sit at the back, messing about, paying no attention to the teacher, and pass any significant exams. So, come adolescence, I was packed off to boarding school.

This was a dreadful shock that would be tedious to describe in detail, but among the lesser traumas entailed in this transition was the encounter with boarding school sports. I’d previously played football, very badly, and had run at athletics meetings, quite successfully since I had longer legs than anybody else, but rugby and cricket were a mystery to me. I didn’t have a clue what you were meant to do in either and, as the rugby season loomed, I reckoned it would be wise to find out what was required of me, because I already felt like a misfit in this new world that had been so rudely thrust upon me, and I didn’t want to misfit myself further by making a complete cock up of things on the rugby field. So I asked my dad about the game.

Dad had played rugby as a young man and was still a keen supporter, even though the loss of a limb meant he could no longer play, so he duly trolled down to the school on a Sunday afternoon to put me straight on a few facts. It should be said that, at that stage of my life –probably at most stages, all things considered– Dad and I liked each other well enough, but we didn’t really understand one other. When I was about six or seven, for instance, Dad asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a big fan of movie stars like John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Steve McQueen, and I thought it would be rather nice to be around my heroes, so I said I’d like to be an actor. There was a little pause then before I clarified this ambition . . . .

“But not one of the stars,” I added. “I wouldn’t want to have to learn all those lines. Just one of the people who stand around in the crowd, near the stars, but don’t say anything.”

So, basically, my aim in life was to be a bit part player, an aspiration that has, though I say it myself, been accomplished triumphantly, carried off with a verve and grace rarely encountered when it comes to achieving more challenging goals. That’s not quite how everybody would see it, of course. Even at the time, I was dimly aware that Dad was vaguely disappointed.

“Yes,” he said, slowly. “Normally, the idea is to get the biggest part you can.”

Was the man mad? No, but it was a disparity of viewpoint that carried through in many things, rugby among them. All I wanted to know was how to get through this ordeal without making myself look like an utter prat, how in short to be a bit part player on the rugby field, unnoticed and unhurt. My heart sank as Dad launched upon a complicated exegesis of strategy, complete with diagrams and sketches, explaining how rugby was a territorial game and the idea was to gain ground until you were in a position to score points. I didn’t want to gain ground. I didn’t want to score any points, either. I just wanted to survive.

Survival was particularly paramount because the teacher in charge of rugby was Mr. Terry. That was his name, but it could have been a diminutive for terrifying, because the little bastard put the fear of God up me. In retrospect, I can see that I was right to be frightened of Mr. Terry. There was something seriously inadequate about that man. He was young, in his early twenties, but instead of being out and about in the world, exploring all the wonders that are open to a young man, he had returned to his former prep school to pass himself off as a teacher – not, I hasten to add, as his chosen career, but simply for something to do before he settled down, much as anyone else might go hitchhiking to Katmandu or climb Kilimanjaro. You see what I mean about ‘inadequate’? Worse, he was a ranter and a raver and took sadistic pleasure in screaming at whimpering children. I think he used to hit kids, too, though I was so appalled by the screaming –we weren’t what you would call screamers in my family– that I’m no longer entirely sure what he did and did not do. Either way, though I was stubborn enough not to give the little turd the satisfaction of whimpering when he screamed at me, he still scared the bejeezus out of me. So having Mr. Terry in charge of rugby was not auspicious.

Come the fateful day, I stumbled out onto the field in a daze, still none the wiser as to what was meant to be happening, and started tottering about, vaguely following the crowd and praying to God that the bloody ball didn’t come anywhere near me. Of course, it did. I was right in the middle of the field, distressingly isolated and visible to all, when some little sod on my side flung the bloody ball into my arms with such hideous precision that there was simply no way I could avoid catching the thing. Then I saw why he’d been so quick off the mark. Harvey was on the other team. And Harvey was standing directly in front of me. And Harvey was huffing and puffing and lumbering into action.

It should be said that Harvey was not an unpleasant child. He wasn’t a bully, though he might easily have bullied everyone in the school from the headmaster down had he been so inclined. Moreover, as best I remember, he was kind to younger, smaller boys, and we were all smaller than Harvey. He was the biggest boy in the school, absolutely humongous, so chock full of testosterone that already, at the age of thirteen, he was obliged to shave about five times a day. He was a decent kid, but he was built like an ambulatory bombproof bunker.

And he was on the opposite team.

And he was coming after me.

I can picture the moment to this day. In fact, I’m not sure writing about it won’t give me nightmares. Being so bulky, it took Harvey a little while to get moving, but he was leaning into it with a will, giving it all he’d got, and he was swinging his arms and shoulders to get his momentum up, arms as big as my thighs and shoulders that wouldn’t have gone amiss on a youthful buffalo, and his massive legs were pumping up and down, and he was getting into his stride, and I had the sodding ball, and sweet-bleeding-Jesus he was coming after me!

I was transfixed. You know the cliché about rabbits and headlights? It was like that. Appallingly like that. Nearly forty years later, when a rabbit is trapped in my headlights, I still slam on the breaks, regardless of what’s behind me, rather than risk killing the little blighter, because I feel for them, I really do, a feeling full of empathy and kinship. All I knew at the time, though, was that I just had to get rid of that ball. Didn’t matter where. I didn’t care. But I needed, desperately needed, to create as great a distance as possible between myself and the ball before Harvey reached me. Otherwise, I was going to die. No question about it. So I summoned all my energy, every last iota of strength, and I pulled back my arm, and I hurled that bloody ball as hard and fast and far as I possibly could . . . forward.

I knew you weren’t meant to throw the ball forward in rugby, but I was way beyond considering such niceties by then. It was a good throw, too. If we’d been playing piggy-in-the-middle, I’d have got a place on the Olympic team with that throw. The ball sailed high over Harvey’s head and both teams came to a standstill as everybody raised their eyes to gaze at this magnificent pitch majestically winging its way through the skies in completely the wrong direction. In retrospect, I’m quite proud of myself. It was one of those moments when all the accepted laws of life are suspended and the world grinds to a halt because the breach of norms is just so outrageous that there is nothing else to do but stand back and stare and wonder whether the sky is about to drop on your head or the ground fall away from below your feet since nothing certain can be relied upon anymore. Best of all, though, Harvey had stopped running.

Yes!

Then I noticed Terry bearing down on me from stage left. He was incandescent. As with Harvey, I can still see every detail of his contorted, screaming face (For crying out loud, what was an allegedly grown man doing playing games with little boys?), his frizzy blond hair contrasting rather nicely with the glistening pink skin of his glowing brow, while the engorged globes of his blazing red eyes bulged above the flushed flesh of his tumescent cheeks, and the dark hole of his pinched little mouth frothed with gobs of white spit. Come to think of it, he looked a little like a penis in a wig. I don’t know what he was screaming, I was past caring by that time, though I think it might have gone along the lines of What-the-fuck-do-you-think-you’re-doing-you-useless-idiot? I do, however, remember Harvey giving me a pitying look and my thinking perhaps I might have been better off being flattened by Harvey than blasted off the face of the earth by Terry. He stormed up to me, still screaming, I stepped back in horror, he shoved me hard in the chest, and I went sprawling, after which I rather gathered that my presence was no longer welcome on the rugby field, so I made a discreet withdrawal. Never did tell my Dad about it.

“How’d it go, son?”

“Urrr. Orright.”

There are some things you don’t want to share.

Well, Dad, I was totally humiliated then attacked by the teacher . . . 

Won’t do, will it?

You see, Dad, I was a coward, frightened of this big boy, and Terry shoved me to the ground . . . 

Nah. Best draw a veil over it.

After that episode, I decided I had to sort myself out before the cricket season started, because I didn’t want anybody throwing those nasty hard balls at me (knowing my luck I’d have Harvey bowling at me), and besides, Terry was in charge of cricket, too. The man was everywhere, like God, only with a more genital look.

Parenthetically, I should point out, just to give you an idea of how scared I was of Terry, that he was the only person or thing –‘thing’ is better– that has ever moved me to fervent prayer, uttered at the end of every morning service: Oh, God, please don’t let Terry blow up – Oh, God, please don’t let Terry blow up – Oh, God, please don’t let Terry blow up . . . repeat for three years. Looking back on it, it would have been quite diverting had Terry actually blown up, just like that, one big bang, after which diffuse bits of Terry fluttered through the treetops like so much confetti while all the little boys danced about the playground applauding politely and pleading with him to do it all over again, but at the time I was too frightened for wordplay.

Unfortunately, the headmaster was a cricket fanatic and there was no way he was going to miss the chance of converting a heathen oik like me to the noble game or whatever they call it in cricketing circles, so come the summer I was forced into my whites (the sight of a cricket jumper still sends shudders down my spine) and out onto a field where Terry was orchestrating the game. He’d obviously been thinking about this initiation, too. Thinking with all the considerable malice and cruelty at his disposal. He set me up.

I was fielding, I don’t know what they call the position, silly mid-off probably. Anyway, I was standing to the left of the batsman, the right-handed batsman. Yup, that’s it, precisely in the direction that it would be most natural for him to swing his bat. I hung back, well back, acutely aware that cricket balls were a lot harder than me, but with a nasty little smirk on his face Terry urged me forward, closer and closer, insisting I get ever nearer to the lethal weapon until I was within spitting distance of the batsman and the near certainty of death he represented. Then Terry tipped the wink to his henchmen. An easy ball was bowled, the batsman swung at it with all his might, and hit it directly at me.

Another image burned indelibly on my memory. The distance was short, but I can still see this fatal little missile racing toward me like a cannon shot replayed in slow motion, and not a damn thing I could do about it. Rabbits and headlights again. Meanwhile, Terry and his acolytes were howling delightedly at their cunning witticism, Terry so taken with his own cleverness that he was actually clutching his ribcage with glee (you’d have thought he might have had the decency to have a heart attack or something). As it happened, I was lucky. The ball hit me in the chest, which hurt, but didn’t break anything. I’m not even sure I ended up on the ground this time. That was enough, though. After that, I just knew that, cricketing mad headmaster or no, I had to get out of this. My life depended on it.

Then I struck upon an idea that I believe is the nearest I’ve ever come to genius. The headmaster had two other passions beside cricket: theatre and maths. I couldn’t very well offer to stage a play every afternoon, but maths would be my salvation. I was rubbish at that, too, and would have been equally frightened of it had it not been for the extraordinary good fortune of not having Terry as a maths teacher. I think the combination of Terry and maths would have been just too much. I’d have topped myself. Anyway, after all those years of messing about at the back of the class, I was way behind everybody else in maths. So throughout the summer I nobly volunteered to spend the afternoons inside, in the library, while the rest of the school was outside in the sun playing cricket, and I would do extra maths! It worked, too. There were exams to be passed and thankfully cricket wasn’t one of them. It was agreed that I would forego summer sports in favour of maths.

Now, I maybe backward, but I’m not stupid, and I soon realized that if I was going to be spending the afternoon on my own in the library unsupervised because everyone else was playing cricket, I didn’t want to be wasting that time doing maths. So my maths improved rapidly and got so good that I could do all the extra work in about half-an-hour, leaving me a good ninety minutes to browse through the library, which was stocked with about thirty years worth of National Geographics. My hormones were doing daft things to my head at the time, and all my other bits, too, and I knew what I wanted to look at – women with bare breasts.

So, for two glorious summers, while everyone else was out on the cricket field getting screamed at by Terry and risking brain damage from that bloody ball, I spent my time leafing through back issues of National Geographic, looking for reports from far flung places where the women wore little more than a skimpy loin cloth. True, the breasts tended to sag a bit, were better described as dugs than breasts, but I didn’t mind. I was young and I had a lot to learn.

Years later when I was messing about (some things never change) in remote villages in the African hinterland where the women all went bare chested, I had the strangest sensation of safety, of coming home, of having pulled the wool over the eyes of the rest of the world, securing for myself a small hideaway where there were no hard balls flying through the air and nobody would ever scream at me again. It was heavenly. There was nothing lubricious about this. It wasn’t a question of some leering, lewd, adolescent, “Guuur, get-an-eyeful-of-that!” voyeurism. I was just back in the library browsing through the exotica and glad of my good fortune.

The cricket cultivated passion for warm places where clothes are superfluous has seeped into my reading and, to a lesser extent, my writing, too. Give me a book that revels in the colours of  a world other than my own and I’m gone, lost in the must and the dust and the heat and the light, enjoying the balm of being elsewhere, anywhere so long as it is far, far away from the cricket field of an English preparatory school. I also like writing books set against an exotic background, whether the exoticism be geographical or temporal, because by a curious kind of alchemy, the further away I go from my immediate world, the easier I find it to write about that world, as if displacement is a prerequisite for locating myself and seeing clearly what is around me. Fleeing the terrible Terry, I found comfort in images of strange women from unfamiliar places. Distancing myself from my immediate surroundings, I discover perspective and a measure of clarity concerning those surroundings.

I think it is the way of many writers, writing about one thing in order to write about another, cultivating exotic plants to conceal the earthy roots of your real subject. For the most part, it is a conscious decision, setting up an elaborate metaphor that allows you to masquerade one quest with the narrative of another, but it’s not always intentional. Frequently, a writer will think they are writing about one thing, whereas in fact they are really revealing all sorts of other stuff. These involuntary divulgences are to be the subject of an extended blog (sometime in November, I think). But in both cases, willed or otherwise, the disjunction is at once enlightening and enriching.

Perhaps I ought to be grateful to Terry for pushing me away from the cricket field and into the exotic arms –and other anatomical apparatus– of the National Geographic. Had it not been for him, I might have followed a more conventional path, the one mapped out for clubbable men who knew their cricket and never threw the ball the wrong way. But, frankly, the man was a wanker and I find it hard to dredge up gratitude for a wanker, no matter how terrifying or inspirational.

So, wherever you are, Mister Terry, I trust you are still playing with your balls. It always was an eminently appropriate activity for a man of your ilk.

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Your story brought back fond

Your story brought back fond memories of my worste nightmare, Basket ball.

I was tall for my age so naturally the coach had me play center and everyone but me had visions of my going to college on a sports scholarship even though I was only 13 at the time.

Long story short, I faked a heart attack or at least a 13 year olds version of one.

My father died early on from a heart attack so if I so much as had a sniffle it was straight to the doctors office for a shot. Well a year earlier we were told I had a slight heart mur mur and would probably out grow it but I knew it was my only chance. So one day when we were running laps up and down the bleachers I told the coach I felt sick and laid flat out on the floor. Much excitement later, it was decided that "In my best interest and the schools," I should not attend P.E. and go to study hall. Not as lucky as you, Charles but it worked. In fact most of my life I've felt a little weak when certain tasks were asked of me.

Dennis

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Lying down and faking a

Lying down and faking a heart attack seems like an eminently sane response to much of what we encounter in the modern world.

Be well.