by Rafael Henry
I have written about my early years in diary form which I collectively called 'Schooldays', aptly named I think, which was concerned with that particular period of my life. If you read it, it might make you feel uncomfortable…or disgusted even depending on your point of view, but I can assure you that it all came from the heart. Yes…..that is where it came from……from the heart. I've enjoyed writing it all down as it happens…..probably some sort of therapy…….but it's also a celebration of most of the people I talk about.
I want to talk about someone very special. Talking of schooldays, I made a bit of a balls of mine right at the very end, but managed to salvage the situation enough to gain a degree in English, and subsequently, much to my surprise, a teaching job. I have often wondered if I should have gone for a career in music, probably ending up as a teacher of some sort again, because it has had such a major impact on my head, and my heart of course.
There is no way I could not be profoundly affected by my years as a chorister at the Abbey in Granchester, otherwise known as Granchester Cathedral, and I am so grateful to that Mr Brown chap who played the organ at our local church for guiding me towards my taking up the offer of a choristership there, and to my mother for making sure it all happened. We always called it the Abbey……..just tradition I suppose, and less long winded than the other name. I can tell you that it was hard work, and we never deserved the stick we often got from some of the other boys, calling us all manner of uncomplimentary names whilst questioning our sexuality. When it was all over, at just fourteen and a little way into puberty or 'voice change' as they like to call it these days in boy soprano singing circles, I felt like I was on some kind of permanent holiday. It was that much work.
After gaining an upper second at Exeter, I taught in a state school for starters, preferring to learn my trade in the 'real' world, and then have the option later of 'retiring' into the private sector that I had grown up in. I did learn my trade, and when I arrived in calmer waters I was very well equipped to do the job.
It came as a bit of a surprise on my arrival, or to be honest, a bit before, to find out that I was to be second in command of a boarding house for more than a dozen pre-adolescent boys. That part of the job turned out to be a total joy, confirming my long held belief that boys could be utterly delightful provided they were encouraged to be civilised, or rather made to be…….they should not be given the option to be anything else in my view. Boys will show you their worst side if you let them. I'm sure that girls are just as rewarding…….it's just that boys are more interesting, at least to me they are. I have known tons of them of course in my line of work, and in all shapes and sizes, and as a boy myself, some of them intimately. As an adult, it's a different matter. As an adult, we are still free to think what we like, but not do as we like.
Do you remember Johnny? He came and did my garden on a Saturday out in the fens of Cambridgeshire. He was a pupil of mine in the school where I first learned my craft, and he found me interesting which I took as a compliment. I was very flattered actually, and I admit that I found him interesting too, but there it stayed, more or less. Yes, he was one of those who possessed a certain beauty, within and without, and he possessed qualities that I could relate to strongly. There was a physical temptation which was by and large resisted leaving both of us perhaps wondering what might have been had events turned out differently I'm sure. I have never heard of him since, but I do hope he has been happy……….I do miss you Johnny. Honestly, I really do.
I've completed four years now at Waylands, and believe it or not they have agreed to my taking a sabbatical year so that I can develop my creative writing in order that, when I come back, my developed skills and ideas will inform my teaching positively. In other words, it will be good for everyone. One of the School's governors, a nice and evidently persuasive lady, took up my application for the sabbatical year and got it through on condition that a suitable replacement could be found………..and if it was found, off I will go.
We advertised early in April with quite a good response, and a young graduate was chosen, a young man keen to get a start to his teaching career in relatively comfortable surroundings. Moreover, he was also very willing to take over my housemaster duties too. He was a perfect fit. There was another condition…… that I would come back at the beginning of the year for one week to induct the new man into the job.
Actually, I shall miss the boys rather badly. I look after some smashing kids who seem to appreciate the extra attention I give them, like playing table tennis with them in the evenings and so on, or running clubs. I like to keep reasonably fit, so Running Club is popular, and available to the other more senior boarding house boys, and particularly aimed at the more athletic boy……….about half a dozen of them usually. We use the same changing room, and although I wouldn't personally use the boys' showers obviously, I'm usually there when they do, to provide necessary supervision of course. Richard is the star turn in every sense of the word.
I didn't want to waste time, so well before the end of the summer term, I made Sunday trips to the Norfolk coast. Saturdays are out as everyone does some sort of sport which the more able bodied staff supervise. There are several villages on the north Norfolk coast and I was looking for a cottage to rent for the year. I went to all the letting agencies in the nearest decent sized town of Holt, which by coincidence had been much favoured by my father in his younger days, and the Prince of Wales Hotel in particular, where I stayed whilst on my search for a good place to hang out for the year. I eventually found a two bed brick and flint cottage just off the main street in Blakeney……about twenty yards down a narrow opening known locally as a 'loke'. It was furnished sparsely, but in reasonably acceptable taste, and in good working order. I'm single, employed in a job where it was virtually impossible to spend any money because there was no time to, so I had saved enough cash to finance the year.
From my boyhood I have had an interest in art, and although the school thought I was off to write for a year, I had other ideas. I don't think they really minded what I did, especially as it wasn't costing them any money. I had decided that I wanted to further develop my painting skills. I figured that if I could sell the occasional picture, life ought to be good. With all the 'goodbyes' and 'goodlucks' over with from colleagues and boys, I duly set up camp in Norfolk. Do you know the village of Blakeney? Put it this way……it can be a zoo……a popular place for families to hire cottages by the week, and loads of day visitors too. The sailing fraternity go more for places like Brancaster and Burnham Overy Staithe, but Blakeney is the crab catching capital of the world, and all the youngsters love it there. Take a stroll along the edge of the Quay and it's hard to avoid the bare brown legs of the boys, clad in shorts, oblivious to the rest of the world, lying on the tarmac dangling their crab lines over the side, ready to haul up the next rather bored and frequently caught little green crab known locally as a gilly, and drop it gleefully in the plastic bucket placed beside his doubtful looking sister, who may think her brother has other ideas………and terrified that her horrid sibling is planning to 'accidentally' drop the unfortunate creature into her lap. There are several benches along there, and if you're lucky, you'll find a space on one of them and you can watch the fun at your leisure.
I met Linda at church on the first Sunday I was in Blakeney. It's a big building that dominates the landscape for miles around, and like Cromer church, and others along the coast, it has acted as a navigational guide for mariners for centuries. I'm not a gay man, usually, and I enjoy the company of women, and I can relate to them very comfortably. She's tall, dark haired, perhaps very slightly masculine looking which I quite like, and very attractive. An ideal new friend I thought…..or rather my only friend here, and not to be passed up under any circumstances. One of the reasons I have chosen Blakeney, and please don't groan when I tell you, is that it has a good music tradition. Oh yes, we get a proper Evensong with a resident choir of six ladies, another six or so gentlemen, four girls I think I counted that first evening……and four boy trebles. That's a good balance considering the size of the place, and they are especially lucky to get the boys. Getting them interested in the first place is a trick these days, and of course keeping them interested is another matter. Very often they already have a connection, for example, a father sings so his son gets involved that way.
I'd been round the church quite a while ago when I was looking for a place to live and although it's a large slightly impersonal place, it's still an impressive space, and looked like it was active in the community judging by all the activities mentioned on the notice board. I arrived about ten to six and there were already about ten people sitting at the front of the nave quite close to the choir stalls. I'd strolled up the south aisle and spotted a seat at the end of the third row back on the right. About four seats in was a youngish looking woman who turned towards me and smiled as I sat down leaving two seats between us. I was of course keen to make contact with anyone, so we got talking for a minute or so about nothing really until I asked her if she would mind if I sat next to her. She smiled.
'Of course not. So what brings you to Blakeney then? I've not seen you before.'
I told her exactly what brought me to Blakeney.
'There's coffee or tea after the service. Perhaps you'd like to join us?'
I did, and it was the usual sort of thing…..general chit chat about nothing much, but not an unpleasant experience by any means. I recognized the man who conducted the choir, who weren't at all bad incidentally, and got chatting with him for a while about the pieces they had sung. When I came out with 'I thought they handled the Dyson Magnificat very well' we were well away as you might imagine. There's nothing like being specific in musical circles, but I thought I'd keep matters choral to a minimum for now because I had another matter to attend to……..Linda. Yes, we had exchanged names by this time, but I wanted to know more.
It was a warm August evening and she was dressed appropriately in quite a fetching loose yellow summer dress. I'd say she's about a couple of inches shorter than me…say five ten at a guess, so quite tall. She has a longish face, very slim in build and held herself very well I thought…….yes, very attractive, and with almost imperceptible breasts. I didn't look too hard, but she appeared to have something quite light on underneath, like some sort of tee shirt maybe……not much anyway.
I caught her eye and moved the few yards to where she was standing at the back of the church……alone now. She noticed my approach, holding a tea cup and saucer, and turned towards me, smiling.
'So where do you paint then?'
'Oh, nowhere yet, but my plan is to paint just about everything around here. I'll start by walking around all the obvious places……..have a go at them……and then delve a bit deeper. I've got all year. I like jogging so I should find plenty of places to work that way, and I have a large scale OS map too which is a bonus…..all the footpaths and stuff like that. I go early when there are less people about…..and later in the evening…..like tonight. I'm going after this service for an hour or so. The light is better then, and fewer people to natter at you, not that I mind them.'
'Don't they annoy you then…..people watching you…….asking you random questions?'
'No……not at all. I always hope they'll come and have a look, preferably when there's something on the board……not just a blank. I hate it when I'm just about to start and someone comes up……you feel like a fraud somehow. I tell them to come back later when there's something to see.'
'So I'd better be careful then……make sure you've been at it a while!'
'No, it's fine any time. So what about you?'
Linda's a teacher at the primary school next door…….a music graduate, so she's responsible for all the music in the school, plus her class of twenty three nine to ten year olds. She had a question for me……..
'May I visit you……..where you're painting this evening? Would that be alright? I'm quite interested and I'd quite like to see what you do. Would that be ok? And I could bring Max too if you didn't mind.'
Max? Bloody hell…….she's married. Why the hell did I think she was single then? What an idiot! Typical. I had to ask……….
'Err, sorry…..Max……..is he…….'
'No…….not my dog……..or my husband…….not even a boyfriend. He's my son.'
I decided not to go far, so I settled on a view up the river from the car park across the marshes towards the old lifeboat house near Blakeney Point, including some parked and moored small boats……..nothing too challenging because I wanted to have enough spare brain to engage with my casual visitors in conversation properly……if and when they turned up.
I must have been working a half hour or so before they arrived, so I had the bones of the painting down in simplified form, the shapes ready to be qualified in due course, as an adjective qualifies a noun, with as much detail as I could be bothered to include. I'm not a detail merchant as a rule, preferring to suggest rather than pedantically describe…..more of a Turner than a Pre-Raphaelite if you like. I want atmosphere…….mood……a bit of soul in it, and definitely not a photographic representation.
They looked, Linda and Max, for a minute or so before walking on the lower path that takes you out towards Cley. I watched them disappear, Linda with her arm around Max's shoulder, just for a few yards. Nice…….I like that……..and I can tell that they're close. If they had stood still, I would have painted them there and then. I'm excited.
Excited about what exactly? You may well ask. I'm not even sure myself.
I didn't look at Max on their first visit, but I did watch them walk away from me. He's going to be tall like his mother………I doubt if he's five foot right now, but close to that probably. He's slim like his mum, and dressed in a curiously old fashioned way……..just a grey jumper, 'V' neck school style, possibly cashmere, nothing underneath that I can see, and light brown cotton shorts with side pockets like boys wear here……no socks……..just open toed sandals. His hair is the same tone of brown as his mother's…….quite dark, perhaps with just a hint of red in it, and combed straight forwards, and probably three weeks since it was last cut. His age? Maybe twelve? Perhaps a bit less.
Turning back to my work, I found I couldn't think about it. I stared into the landscape. You know when someone looks at you and it's not just a glance, but they really look at you…..like they're looking through you….right into you? It was very much like that. That's very rare in a boy his age. I tried to think of who he reminded me of. About five minutes later and absolutely no progress made on my rather bad painting, I realised who it was. It's the boy actor who played the part of Ralph in Lord of the Flies, but with a slightly narrower head.
When they came back along the foreshore, Linda is wearing the same yellow summer dress, but with a sweater over the top…….one of those quite chunky ones. This time I do look properly at Max…….I smile and he smiles back, but we don't speak.
'Do you recognize him……..from church?' Linda asked me.
Of course I do…….and not only do I remember the face…..I remember the sounds he made too.
'You've got a nice voice Max……a nice ring to it. Do you enjoy singing?'
His voice, when he answered, had that wonderful mellow tone I associate with a boy who is a couple of years or so away from voice change. Not that shrill piping sound that comes from an eight year old, but a softer, albeit louder, deeper ring……..with an ephemeral quality to it. It's not going to last long like that, but when it's here, especially at the age he is, it's captivating. Choir trainers often refer to that stage in a boy's voice as 'breathy'…..an odd word to describe the quality of sound, but actually very apt. It's a soft velvety quality that goes with a body that's emerging from childhood into youth, and embodies everything that that process physically involves. Limbs begin to develop alongside intellectual advances. He begins to engage with his own development…be interested in it……more aware of it……and how he might exploit it. Max responded to my question after a couple of seconds of thought.
'Yes I do, very much.'
'Why do you ask?'
'Because I just wondered, that's all. You looked like you do when you sang this evening. I could hear you above those other boys.'
'Yes, I'm a bit louder…….I have to be, but not too much otherwise the younger ones won't be heard at all.'
'That's exactly right.'
'Did you then…….I mean were you ever in a choir?'
'Yes……at your age I was…..and like you, I enjoyed it very much.'
'Where was it……where did you sing?'
'At the Abbey in Granchester. Well it's the Cathedral really, but we called it the Abbey for some reason….everybody did.'
'V' necked………I couldn't see it from behind, but when he was facing me I could see that it was. Nice…..the mid grey suited his skin tone perfectly. It wasn't an old school one…..it looked quite new and rather smart. It is cashmere. The shorts weren't old ones either…..good quality, and nicely fitting. I notice these things. His eyes are unusual in their colouring too……..a grey green, which looked interesting with his dark brown hair which fell straight forwards into a very slightly ragged fringe an inch or so above his eyes.
I had to be careful not to look too long. Artists do tend to look a bit too hard at people at times. I continued to work on the painting, but under the circumstances I was finding concentration difficult. Max asks…..
'So how long will you be here then……..I mean tonight……doing that one?'
'Not much longer. I can feel a pint of beer coming on. Do you guys live locally?'
'We live just off the main road to Cley…….up there, and then down the hill, and we're in one of the farm cottages on the left. We rent it from them. We walk home through the farm and then up through the fields….it's about a ten minute walk. You can see Cley Mill from the upstairs windows. Mum…….can I stay for a bit longer please?'
She didn't let him, but she did invite me back to the cottage. Did I want to try Max's ginger beer? He makes it himself and then puts it out on a table by the road for sale to passers-by. Good idea.
'That's very enterprising of you Max. Do you sell much or does it all get stolen?'
'No…..and I do sell some……..a few bottles a week…..don't I mum?'
It's a lovely walk through a couple of gates, and then up to the fruit farm at the top, and then through a small wood and down to the cottage….the end one of three nearest the road. It's very pretty with its pale blue painted windows and door, and with quite a big garden behind. Max produced two bottles of his home brew, whilst Linda arranged three glasses. I watched as Max, sitting on one of the garden chairs on the terrace, opened the first one, levering the wire stopper sideways to release the gas within with a slight pop. He noticed me watching…….and as one does when it feels awkward, I Iooked away quickly, but unable to resist for any length of time, I looked back as he carefully poured the ginger beer. He looked up and smiled.
I saw Max and Linda several times in the next few days….the first full week of the school holidays. Sometimes it was Max on his own……and the last visit was from Linda with an invitation.
'I just thought you'd like to know.'
'What's that then? Something bad?'
'No…….just that you've been a bit of a hit with Max. I think he's rather taken to you.'
'Oh…….that's nice. He seems like a very nice chap. He had some quite interesting comments on my painting…….not always complimentary I might add, which is good. Shows he's thinking about it properly, and confident enough to risk an opinion……an informed opinion too. In fact he can be quite critical.'
'That sounds like him. So, would you like to come to dinner one night…….any night…..your choice? It won't be very grand I'm afraid. Max would like it if you said yes.'
'Then I will……I'd love to. I'm available any time so just say when.'
'Excellent…….well there's no time like the present. How about tonight?'
'Perfect! I've nothing in the fridge as it happens so that'll suit me perfectly. Can I bring something…….I'd like to……..wine or something?'
'Ok, whatever. Sixish?'
That's a good time……sixish. I walked up and felt pleasantly warm from the exercise, and from the pullover around my middle which I would need for the walk back, whenever that would be….ten…eleven……one in the morning? I like Linda, and I'm harbouring hopes……and I want to get closer to Max intellectually…..in fact I'm intrigued by both of them.
I arrived with a half decent bottle of white……not a good idea to turn up on a first date with a rubbish bottle. It was the best the deli just down the loke on the High Street could offer.
Did I say date ? Maybe it is………but with whom I wonder? I chuckled to myself on my walk as I pondered that one. I think if I had my way, it would be with Max, not just Linda……but needs must……..play it straight Raphael Kelly. Tonight I should get a far better insight into life at Blue Cottage. The really good thing is that I've established, I think, an ongoing social contact always assuming I don't mess it up with Linda. There's something distinctly Charleston about her…..you know, a bit Bloomsbury. I could imagine Max as Quentin Bell as a child…….and Linda as Vanessa. It could be a very lonely year unless I make a big effort at the start so I'm going to try hard tonight. I'm also going to choir practice on Fridays. Alan said it would be fine to observe to begin with……anyway, it's worth a look.
Blue Cottage is full of books, and one or two quite nice paintings of local scenes. The front door leads straight into a small drawing room……..apart from the paintings, both watercolours, there were several photographs of a girl about twenty……very pretty. I just had the feeling it wasn't her sister. Lover maybe?
Max wanted to show me the garden. He's still in his grey jumper, and the same shorts……bare feet and golden calves. It's approaching God's hour…..that time of day when the light fades to a warm glow as twilight approaches. I have a strange feeling in my stomach that somehow I have struck gold myself…..and that there's so much more to know.
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