CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – THE SCHOOL OUTING

12 Oct

Another chapter to be squeezed in. Do you see what I’m doing?

“It seems I remember things from back in the old days better than you do,” smiled Susan. For some reason he couldn’t properly explain to himself Bernard had invited her to stay for tea, “just a bite and a cup of something hot like beans on toast,” he had suggested, and “It’s cold outside and it’ll warm you up…” he added, uncharacteristically enticingly.

And she had agreed. “But I mustn’t be too late,” she said, reflectively, knowing that it didn’t really matter if she was.

He wasn’t at all sure what too late might be, but let it rest. He’d find out soon enough and for some reason he actually wanted this woman to stay a little longer. After all, however hard he tried to penetrate back through his own life he couldn’t remember talking much to any woman. There had been nurses in hospital, of course, but he was an old man and they were merely doing their jobs. And there was the fear of sin, of course…

And he felt as if he had a whole lot of his own life to understand. Had his time in the Afterlife been no more than a dream? He didn’t know, but if it had been then the whole substance of it must have been lurking inside his head ready to leap out.

And the bus, the one that linked Heaven and Hell, where had that come from? His mother had never suggested that there was a bus tootling around Eternity, bouncing over celestial pot-holes and crashing violently inside tunnels. She’d never mentioned any form of transport, just angels and singing in Heaven and endless torture in Hell, both very static and hardly mobile at all.

So where had that bus come from? Did it have roots in his life, or was the whole episode and his experiences in the Afterlife and Eternity more than a sleeping vision but a reality that a return to the land of the living had rescued him from? So was it real and had he honestly and truthfully been allocated an Eternity in Hell, and why? Was he evil? Was it that bad, living the sort of isolated life that he had? Or was it punishment for the kind of life he’d always wanted, deep down, but never dared to taste?

“Do you remember the school outing?” asked Susan, pouring tea from an antique tea-pot.

“School outing?” What school outing? He couldn’t remember a school outing that Susan would also remember because, although they had gone to the same school at the same time, there had been a rigid division between boys and girls back then. It had been a division that his mother had warmed to when she discovered it. Her Bernard, she assumed with a warm feeling in her heart, wouldn’t get corrupted by any girls at school, then.

“You’ll be happy there,” she had said, “with no young whores to distract you. You’ll be safe in that school, and I’ll thank the Lord for that!”

“I went on some school outings…” he replied thoughtfully, straining his memory and failing to find any connection with Susan. “To boring places…”

“When we were, what, fifteen?” she hinted.

What had he done when he was fifteen? It was around that time that his mother had diagnosed a brand new physical sin and prescribed aspirin tablets on the off-chance of something unwanted happening in his pants. She’d never said what it might be but he’d known all right because he’d long experienced the embarrassment of unwanted erections and once, a year or two earlier, she had forced half a dozen tablets down his throat in order to rid him of a lump in his trousers.

It had been a battery torch in his pocket and not what she thought, but he had got the message.

He’d read at night in bed by the light of that torch. It was one of the things he did that was more likely to ward off unnecessary excitement “down below” because he got so involved in the exploits of his fictitious heroes that he forgot that anything else could fascinate him, like unwanted things happening to his own body. So that’s why he had a torch, though he couldn’t remember why he kept it in his pocket.

“I can’t remember,” he confessed after a good half minute of screwing his face up and concentrating. But it had all been so long ago. He was seventy now and back then he’d been an innocent fifteen.

“I can,” she sighed. “It was one of the few times the boys and girls did something together. That and the Christmas play.”

“I was never in one of those,” he muttered, remembering with sadness how he’d always wanted to explode onto the school stage equipped with Shakespearian speeches only to be obliged to do something less interesting, like prompt the main performers by following their lines in a tatty copy of the script from the shadows of the wings.

“We went to that castle,” she said, thoughtfully smiling.

“What? In a Christmas play?” he asked.

She giggled. It was such a sweet sound, the way she laughed.

“No,” she said, “the school outing. Don’t you remember? I think it was to Nottingham castle. There was a statue of Robin Hood there, and we posed by it while one of the teachers took photos! I think I’ve still got a copy somewhere. The boys’ school had arranged it and the bus was only half full because not that many boys could go, I think there was something more important like an exam, and some of us girls were allowed to fill the places. They still kept us divided on the bus, the girls at the front and the boys at the back. Looking back it was so silly, though we just accepted it as normal.”

Like a shadow show in his mind he could remember something like that happening. It hadn’t seemed so important at the time but he did remember making a firm decision not to explain the circumstances to his mother because she would immediately see everything from the wrong perspective and instantly assume he’d been led to a cauldron of sin by a teenage whore with more interest in the contents of his trousers than was either proper or decent. And that would lead to him being punished yet again for the sins of others.

“I think… maybe…” he muttered, frowning.

“I can picture it so clearly!” she exclaimed. “And I was on that outing, with some other girls! We were excited because for once there wasn’t any strict separation and anyway one of our teachers … I forget her name … had a thing about one of the male teachers and sat next to him. We all suspected she was breaking the rules, but back then it was best to keep quiet and get on with things.”

“It was…”

He knew what she meant. There was still the possibility of heavy duty punishment for insolence and it was best to keep such observations as the private lives of teachers to yourself.

“I was sitting right in front of you,” she said, quietly. “Don’t you remember?”

He didn’t. Why should he? He could barely remember that particular school outing let alone who was sitting near him on the bus.

“I remember that I wanted you to notice me and talk to me,” she whispered reflectively. “You were the boy who lived next door to me, and I was almost obsessed by you because, I suppose, you were a huge mystery. And none of the other girls seemed to know anything about you, either. Now, I don’t want you to think that we talked about boys like … like romantically or anything like that, because we didn’t. But occasionally … you know…?”

He didn’t, though he guessed what she was talking about, but he didn’t actually know the sort of things teenage girls talked about because, back then, he’d never actually spoken to one, not properly, not like boys can. Instead, his only friends had been other boys, and those friendships had been transient things because nobody had liked him. No, correct that, nobody had wanted to befriend a boy who had a mother like his!

“I peeped at you,” she smiled, “over the back of my seat and you looked so serious. I wondered what you’d look like if you smiled. I don’t think I ever saw you smiling.”

“I probably didn’t notice you,” he murmured. “Sitting behind you and all that, I wouldn’t, would I?”

“Not even when the bus almost crashed?” she asked.

“It almost crashed?” He couldn’t remember anything about a school bus almost crashing! Could he?

“I can still remember it as clear as day! The girls all squealed and screamed and the bus lurched as one of its wheels struck a gigantic pot-hole! Don’t you remember? I’ve never liked riding in buses ever since!”

“No. I can’t remember … maybe I was talking to someone or something, maybe I didn’t notice…”

He knew he hadn’t been talking because not so many people had wanted to talk to him back then. Or ever, come to think of it. But he couldn’t remember anything to do with girls squealing because a bus hit a pot-hole.

Not on a school trip, anyway.

But maybe in Hell…?

© Peter Rogerson 12.10.16

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