The notice on the pin-board in the quad was received with the expected derision.
A country dance! Folk dancing, for crying out loud! Maybe that would have interested our parents' generation, but this is 1972 and we're the Disco generation, and, tempting as it might be to have a legitimate entry to the local girls' school, we wouldn't be seen dead at a Country Dance. Or so the more voluble boys in the crowd around the noticeboard before classes that morning insisted.
Actually, I used to enjoy Scottish Country Dancing before I came to the College and I would have liked to put my name down. Self-preservation prevented me, though, and as the crowd dispersed towards various classrooms I joined Jamison to walk across the croquet lawn (check for any teachers in sight, hurry past the 'keep off the grass' sign, walk across pretending you haven't a care in the world while keeping an eye out for trouble, don't run or you lose kudos) to the languages block for our first period of the day, double French.
French was always a good class. The elderly teacher with the walrus moustache and poor diction had long since given up actually teaching, and just set us lists of vocab to memorise in prep, then tested us during the next day's lesson to see that we'd learned it. And we propped the textbook up behind our desks out of his sight and copied our answers from the book and the world continued to rotate on its axis.
French lessons gave me time to think, or day-dream, and during this one I thought about the country dance club back home I had been press-ganged into when they were short of men, and feeling privileged to be the only child in the club. It was comical at eight years old to partner a woman twice my height and four times my age but we all enjoyed ourselves immensely and over the next two years I got to be good at it and the darling of the blue rinse brigade. Then we moved away and I hadn't danced since. I concluded that I wanted to go to the dance. Too bad it was impossible.
Lunchtime came and I didn't see Jamie so I walked over on my own. The lunch queue was always a trial for me because I couldn't escape the bullies, mostly Higgins and his gang, and they had free rein to enjoy themselves at my expense. I'd be stood quietly holding my tray and trying to shrink into the wall behind me, and a voice from ahead or behind would call out: “Hey, Atkins, have your balls dropped yet?” followed by howls of laughter from Higgins' cronies. Most of the dinner ladies were foreign workers with very little English but there was this one big, brassy bottle-blonde local woman called Muriel Parrish. She had a mouth on her and gave as good as she got, keeping control of the boys with her sharp tongue. I think she was aware of the taunting, and I was small and timid and she always had a kind word for me and an extra spoonful of whatever sludge was on the menu.
With her I came out of my shell a little and began to exchange banter with her. I even tried a little mild flirting and about a week previously, with her birthday approaching, I had promised her red roses. She'd called my bluff (of course) so I'd made her give me her address in an attempt to convince her. And I'd taken my meagre monetary resources into town at the weekend and found a flower shop and asked for a bunch of red roses to be delivered to her. It had turned out it would cost about ten times what I had, but the shop assistant took pity on me and promised to do what she could.
I don't know what was actually delivered but this particular lunchtime is burned into my memory because after Muriel finished her shift she dressed in her faux fur stole, white blouse with the buttons undone half way down, red leather mini skirt and black shiny high-heeled hip-boots, and marched right up to my table in the centre of the dining hall even though the dinner ladies never came into the hall during mealtime. As the usual cacophany of voices died to hushed surprise she grabbed me firmly by the shoulders, swung me round on the bench and gave me a big smacking kiss on the lips, leaving plenty of bright red lipstick as evidence, before marching out and home to her family, swinging her hips seductively and delighting the assembled multitude. A chorus of wolf-whistles began and the spell broke, the usual deafening noise of a school dining hall returned with renewed energy. My social standing rose several notches and I fell in love just a little bit with Mrs Muriel Parrish. I saw a couple of teachers looking quizzically at me. Let them wonder.
The excitement died down and the atmosphere in the dining hall slowly returned to normal. There was still a meal to be eaten and as I returned to my lunch I became aware of the topic of conversation at my table. To my surprise, some of the boys were talking about going to the dance. There were stories about boys sneaking out of school and across town late at night and climbing in through the girls' dormitory windows, but we didn't know whether to believe them. Whether the stories were true or not, it was held to be a goal worth striving for to get into the girls' school – Hearts and Tarts as it was known to the boys. Even the indignity of being expected to dance was apparently not sufficient to nullify the glory of getting in to the school. I began to think I might get to the dance after all.
Jamison, my best friend Christopher Jamison, known as Jamie, actually my only friend, wasn't at my table at lunch so I sought him out in the boarding house where we were both gathering books from our lockers for the afternoon's classes, and tackled him on the subject. Jamie didn't think I should go. He said the Higgins gang would have a field day with it. I had hoped he would agree to go with me, but I saw that was hopeless. So if I went I had to do it alone. I dropped the idea.
At the end of school that afternoon my path took me through the quad and I glanced at the dance notice, and looked again when I saw a half-dozen names written on the sheet below the notice. Allenby senior had his name down, and Sargent, and with those names on the list others had felt brave enough to add theirs. Sargent was head boy, and Allenby was captain of the all-conquering school swimming team and probably the most popular boy in school. He was also a babe magnet, tall and muscular with Nordic good looks, and he was in my boarding house. In the showers after sports it was a struggle not to look. On impulse I wrote my name on the list.
So that is how I found myself in the school minibus that Saturday evening, heading across town together with eleven other boys, all of them older than me. The driver pulled up close to a large ugly brick building and we all tumbled out, but then stood there feeling sheepish, none of us wanting to be first into the building. A tall woman with steel wool hair and a severe tweed skirt and jacket came out and exchanged a few words with the driver and then, arms outstretched, shepherded us in. In contrast to the grey gloom of the overcast early evening outside, the interior was brightly lit with soft yellow lighting. We were faced with a line of trestle tables tastefully covered with tablecloths and laden with nibbles and paper cups of what looked like fruit juice. Beyond was the dance floor and beyond that a gaggle of girls in their hopelessly unflattering school uniform, brown cardigan over white blouse and brown skirt, white ankle socks and 'sensible shoes', brown leather lace-up brogues almost indistinguishable from the ones we wore except that ours were black.
There were at least twice as many girls as there were of us and there appeared to be no other boys present. So, I reasoned, we would be in demand, but only if we managed to cross the great divide and actually interact with some of them. I needn't have worried – on sight of us, a vanguard of the girls surged across the room, each girl making a beeline for the boy of her choice. The girls were all of similar height, but we were more varied, so most of us were taller than the girls but I was shorter. My hand was grabbed and I found myself propelled towards the refreshments table. The girl, who introduced herself as Rosie, was probably three inches taller than me and carrying a lot more excess weight. Her cardigan was completely inadequate to cover her remarkable fuselage and I was fascinated.
The experience began to take on the character of a bad dream – it was all out of my control. I found myself holding a plate which contained a lot of food I knew I didn't like but was powerless to refuse. Rosie sat me on a wooden stacking chair against the wall and I ploughed my way through the food on the plate while she talked to me. I don't know what she talked about, she didn't seem to need my participation in the conversation. She just talked. In between mouthfuls I watched her. I watched her mobile face as she spoke, the full lips which would have been improved by a little make-up, the round full cheeks and the slightly piggy eyes below a greasy forehead slightly marred by acne and the mousy hair pulled back from the forehead into a pony tail tied rather too high at the back of her head so it really did look a lot like a pony's tail. No doubt she has since outgrown her puppy fat and may be a glamorous mature woman, but at the time I was not able to feel any attraction.
A short bald man with a hangdog expression stood up and clapped his hands to call our attention, and then announced the first dance. I still had half a plate of food but my partner pulled me up and dragged me to the middle of the floor where we joined the other couples. I noticed some of the couples were both girls. Allenby was on the floor with a pretty girl hanging around his neck. He seemed to be enjoying himself. I wondered if they had already known each other before this event. She seemed very forward if they'd just met. I revised my view when my partner wrapped me in her ample embrace and grabbed my bottom. I squeaked, and would have jumped but I couldn't move. Perhaps girls are like that, I wondered. Forward.
The dance was The Gay Gordons and it was a welcome point of reference for me – I knew the dance and could go through the motions with confidence. Some of the other dancers were having trouble learning the steps and began watching me, taking their cues from me. My partner was clumsy, which didn't help. Eventually everyone could do it sufficiently well not to disrupt the sets and we did it again with a sense of achievement that we all reached the end in more or less the right positions.
Two more dances followed and then there was a break. I was heading back to the chairs around the room but my partner had other ideas. She led me by the hand into an alcove where there was a cushioned window seat, out of sight of most of the room, and without any warning pulled me to her and shoved her tongue in my mouth. And I'd been thinking Allenby's partner was forward. Held firmly in the powerful grip of this amazon and with a foreign object attacking my tonsils, I just wanted to scream.
Unless you count the peck on the cheek I'd given my best friend at my previous school (and after seeing his horrified reaction I'd not repeated the experiment) this was only the second kiss I'd experienced with a person outside my family. The smacker I'd got from Mrs Parrish was a badge of honour of which I was proud. The kiss itself hadn't affected me much one way or the other but I was pleased that she'd done it. This, however, felt like assault and I was revolted by the thought of her tongue in my mouth. Her spit on her tongue, in my mouth. There was no taste to it but the texture of this living, exploring shape pushing at my own tongue made me want to pull away in revulsion. A mixture of politeness and curiosity made me hold still for a while, though. This, apparently was what all the boys raved about. This was something I could brag about when I returned to school. This was why Allenby and the others had wanted to come. So it should be enjoyable, shouldn't it?
I reluctantly decided it wasn't, and pulled away, and drew breath. Rosie's eyes were sparkling and she was grinning wickedly. She seemed not to notice my expression of abhorrence. “Come on!” she said and pulled me up and off towards a fire door. I had little choice but to trot after her. Through the door, we headed down a corridor towards the source of kitchen smells. Halting at a doorway, she put her finger to her lips, cautioning me to silence, and stealthily opened the door and pushed me in. The only light came from the opened doorway so I took a while to get used to the gloom. Rosie on the other hand knew her way around and went straight to a cardboard box on a shelf, which she reached into and triumphantly pulled out a bottle of wine. Giggling, she stood it on the shelf and leaned in for another kiss, squashing me against the wall. That was when the door swung closed, plunging us into complete darkness. I took advantage of the momentary distraction and ducked under her flailing arms with the faint whiff of body odour, and ran in what I hoped was the direction of the door. I found the handle and ran out, pulling the door closed behind me. Rosie was a slower starter but I had hardly started running down the corridor when I heard the door opening again. I didn't look back, just kept running to the end of the passage where I found an outside door and burst through it. I was a few yards down the driveway when I heard her exclaim “Oh, Shit!”. I turned as I ran and saw her sit down on the step. She was no longer chasing me.
It was a long walk home to school but I got there before the minibus arrived with the rest of the party. I have no idea how the other boys fared with their partners that night but I was badly frightened by the experience. I was given detention for going absent without informing anyone where I was. Apparently the driver made the other boys search for me before agreeing to drive them back without me.
It was after lights out when I climbed into bed, as quietly as I could to avoid disturbing the rest of the dormitory. I woke in the night sweating, after a nightmare in which a very fat woman with a bottle of wine tried to eat me and I ran from her but it was like running through treacle.
Sundays were the only day we had to ourselves and usually the highlight of my week, but this Sunday I was listless and depressed. Eventually I walked up beyond the top of the playing fields to a woodland area where there's a tree I like to climb. There are no low branches so it's not obvious how to climb it but there's a big thick branch that hangs low at some distance from the trunk and if you're agile enough you can swing up onto that branch and then walk up it to the trunk. From there you can climb higher, and if you climb right to the top you can put your head up above the canopy of the wood and it's wonderful. Jamie was the only person I'd shown how to climb it, so it became our tree.
I'd been up in the top of the tree about half an hour, trying not to think of the previous evening, when Jamie joined me.
“I thought I'd find you here. What's up?”
“Nothing much. You?”
“I'm fine. Cricket's cancelled this afternoon, the pitch is waterlogged.”
“Come on, Tommy, something's wrong. Tell me?”
I let out a sigh and looked across at my friend. We were sat astride the highest substantial branch of the tree, I with my back to the trunk, he facing me with his back against an offshoot branch that grew upwards from the the branch we were sitting on. He's a good friend to me, a really good friend. I'm lucky to have him. He was looking right back at me, willing me to open up to him. So how could I refuse him?
“The dance last night was a bit weird. There was this girl...” - and I told him the whole sorry tale, even the bit about me being revolted by the kiss. He was interested in the kiss and made me tell him again how it felt. After I finished telling my story it was a couple of minutes before he spoke.
“Kisses are meant to be slurpy, with spit and that, and people don't mind it if they're attracted to each other. Why didn't you like it? Was it because she wasn't pretty enough?”
“I don't know. I just know it was very icky. Do you think there's something wrong with me? I really hated it, Chris, I was nearly sick.” I used his first name so he'd know I was upset.
There didn't seem to be anything else to say, so being boys we didn't say anything. We just sat in quiet companionable silence, feeling the wind sway our tree a little and watching the leaves flutter. Eventually I looked up to see Jamie watching me intently. I blushed, I don't know why I did that, I don't remember blushing when he'd looked at me before and we'd been friends for years so he must have looked at me lots.
And then he leaned forwards and kissed me. First he reached his hand forward and touched my chin, and I felt his touch tingling against my face. It felt as though all my senses were concentrated on his fingertips on my face. And a moment later his lips touched mine, just gently, but he didn't pull away. I leaned into the kiss slightly, my mind turned to porridge and I put my arms around him and held him to me. I blew a fuse from sensory overload, all my usual reserve just short-circuited. My lips parted just a little and I felt his tongue tracing the line of my lower lip, so I opened my mouth and sucked it in, welcoming it, greeting it with my own. It was electric, wonderful, exciting and I felt a stirring in my trousers. His arms wrapped around my waist and he scooted along the branch until our chests were against each other and I could lean back again against the trunk, luxuriating in the weight of his body against mine, our chests and groins pressed together and our lips still docked. We broke the kiss, just long enough to catch our breath and look into each other's eyes, checking each other's reactions. In the sparkle in his eyes and the grin on his face, I read what I was looking for and pulled him back to me, mashing our mouths together with more urgency. This time we kissed with passion and need, and little groans of pleasure betrayed our arousal.
We kissed and cuddled, and talked, and kissed again, all morning until it was time to walk back to the dining hall for lunch. We exchanged a lot of spit that morning and I felt nothing remotely like revulsion. Now I knew what all the fuss was about, thanks to Jamie. My Jamie, my love. Kissing is just the best thing ever.
© Bruin Fisher July 2008