Yesterday, I met up with an old school friend. We caught up on 20 years worth of love, loss, career, family and friends. He was warm, charming, friendly, happy and looking very well. I’ve missed him, and I longed for my old school days and what seemed simpler times. School reunions can be a bit of a minefield – memories are tricky magicians, and people change through circumstances, relationships, realisations, life’s little intricacies. Thankfully, neither of was too different from the couple of classmates from a Catholic boarding school we both knew 20+ years ago. We were able to step back.
My nickname at school was Betty Bones, given to me by my best friend Mary Harlot. We were camp and bitchy and dramatic, protective and ‘sisterly’. Mary died very suddeny in 1999 and I’ve missed him ever since. I was explaining Laurie Anderson‘s description of grief or loss as a ‘library being burnt down’ one of the truest descriptions I know – a whole load of memories, connections, networks and relationships become ashes,suddenly gone. And for a couple of hours, in the company of an old friend, I was Betty Bones again, and Mary was alive with us too.
I had a great time at school, full of scandal and gossip – Mary and I used to write a weekly ‘Scandal Top Ten’ of rumours, gossip and half true events.The truth hurts but is always respected he would say. Recently, another friend and school colleague, Simon Mason, has written a compelling and harrowing, brutal account of abuse and subsequent drug addiction, Too Far, Too High, Too Soon. He sent me a picture of us both in a school play. where I was surprisingly butch as Huckleberry Finn. My first line was Hello yourself, and see how you like it. School wasn’t as happy and sparkly, though, for other people, and I’ve since heard several stories of abuse and unhappiness while I stomped, minced and breezed my way through.
I’d moved there after a traumatic and difficult first year in the local comprehensive, inhabited by bullies and a cloud of despondency. I started off a bright, creative student and ended up being a recalcitrant, disillusioned and unhappy child forcing my parents to move me. It’s not that it was necessarily a bad school, but it was too big for me, and I got lost and frightened in its inability to see me. Although I was never bullied (‘you would have eviscerated them’, my friend told me over tea), it was painful watching the effects on others.
In my first term at New School, a History teacher suggested we write a creative story after his history lesson. I seized the chance, he gave me an impossible mark of 10+ and read my story out to the year. I was suddenly a writer, a weaver of tales, and haven’t stopped writing since. Unwittingly, ‘Humble John’ is probably responsible for my first historical queerotica novels Hot On The Trail and Legion Of Lust, where I reimagiined history from a queer perspective. Most of what I experienced at school got reimagined by Betty Bones and Mary Harlot. So much so that I’m never quite sure what was real and what wasn’t. Truly,there was murder, and drunken nuns, and beatings, and imposter clergy who were surreptitiously ghosted away one night… some of which I might write about in later blogs (spoilers!)
One year, there were a spate of incidents in our library , ruled at that time by Mary Harlot and Betty Bones under the guise of Head Librarians, deciding which pupils would or wouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to take out books. It was an old library in a converted part of a beautiful chapel, with a simple shelving system involving boards held up by metal clips inserted into a metal frame. Like meccano. Someone discovered that you could remove the clips and prop the shelf above up with a larger book. Unfortunately, if the book was taken away, the whole shelf of books fell down on the unsuspecting reader as onlookers stood by laughing. Thus was born The Phantom Clipper Nicker, fearsomely striking on many, many occasions. Our staff librarian, nicknamed Old Mother Diptheria for no other reason than she was elderly, noticed a reference book in the wrong place and attermpted to remove it, only for a shelf full of books to topple on to her. Help Me, she begged ,from under dusty tomes, her weak, wizened old hand was attempting to hold up. Unsuspecting new boys were directed by The Phantom and his/her accomplices to ominous looking tomes, unwaware of the fate that was due to befall them. Bodies In The Library. Rather appropriately, I last saw the library used for a location for the cosy clerical murder mystery series Father Brown – but there was no sign of The Phantom Clipper Nicker.
When I left my friend, after a couple of hours of tea and gossip, I found myself crying for no apparent reason. I do that these days. Perhaps it was another ‘Brokeback Moment’, perhaps it was just the events of the last three months catching up with me, perhaps it was 20 years of life being crammed into a couple of hours of tea and gossip. Or perhaps The Phantom Clipper Nicker had struck once more ….