I wasn’t sure how to categorise this little number – memoir or fiction? The people, places and background are all real enough, but I can state with certainty that the scene recounted here never happened and is therefore, technically, fiction.
But memoir – in its most literal, most French sense – simply means to remember, and there are thirty 38-year-old British men who can recall these events with varying degrees of clarity. Thirty men who’ll say “Oh my God, yeah, with the…” and then pause, and wonder, and conclude: Urban myth, or whatever you call a myth that stayed on school property.
So yes, it’s a memory of a time when something didn’t happen, except in our heads. This event didn’t take place in my last year of school, which was –
The number, another summer (get down!)
Sound of the funky drummer…
…and of willow on leather.
There’s a grey area, a ten year fogbank. I was at the same school from eight to eighteen; junior, senior and Sixth Form. A decade in the same building; it all seems vague and flat. Surely something happened in that time, other than a few changes of classmates, teachers and uniform.
A long-established British public school – echoing dormitories, regular cold showers, canings and buggery. Or…
Yes, it was a boys’ school. Yes, it was fee-paying. No, it wasn’t boarding. There was no school song, there were no initiation rituals, Nuremberg Rallies or sticky biscuits. There were traditions left over from its origins as one of Henry VIII’s cathedral schools; four houses, which were only used in sporting events. First year seniors were Removes; second years were Shells. Other than that, not much. The place wasn’t exactly progressive, just oddly realistic, to some extent, anyway. We fell somewhere between St. Custards and Grange Hill.
There was a consensual feeling of superiority, and…not fear, but certainly a mistrust of otherness. There was an acknowledgement of an outside world in which people weren’t necessarily British, white, middle class or male but there was no need to be unduly concerned about it. Not smug, but certainly complacent.
While we lacked the variety of the US high school as documented in The Breakfast Club, we settled into fuzzy-edged social strata, with the Rowing Club, party crew, computer geeks, lunchbreak smokers, Oxbridge groomees, irredeemable nerds and just-us-lads all blurring together. Nobody really bothered anyone else; even the Bad Boyz were alright, jokers more than bullies. They just messed about and smoked more.
Now and then, the fog lifts.
Wob was a good lad. Technically he was a Bad Boy, always hovering on the edge of expulsion, but he was friendly and funny, and he was in my class for most of that ten-year haul. His finest hour came one morning at the swimming pool, as Viv, Arnie, Sim, Bowie, Baz, Chaks, Charlie, Bob, Diggs, Doddsy, Gray-ham, Fletch, Muth, Hughesy, Kempy, Knowlesy, Wob himself, Lewis, Mort, Pooley, Cam, Kev, Space (hello), Teas, Rab, Nathe, Ash, Cass, Worm and Farmer Willy lined up along the side, all transfixed by the large turd sitting on the bottom of the deep end.
On the other side of the pool, Mr. Bamford was similarly mesmerised. Picture a white Australian Lionel Ritchie, staring at a submerged log.
Wob ran into the changing room. “Bruce!” shouted Bamford, “Where are you going?”, but Wob was out of there. “Didn’t think he’d be so sensitive,” he told the rest of the class, but everyone’s attention was still held by the brown trout, drifting lazily against the white tiles. Nobody moved; nobody spoke.
“Well,” he began, “Looks like swimming’s off for-” and Wob burst back out of the changing room, clutching a huge wad of toilet paper. “Got it!” he shouted, and leapt in.
I should mention that Wob was not short for Wobert, but Wobble. He was tall too. The impact of a 200 pound schoolboy hitting the water shook the class out of its trance. Cheers, whistles and shouts of Wob! Wob! Wob! began as he waded down towards the six-foot end, holding the mass of bogroll aloft.
Bamford just shook his head and watched, grinning under his ‘tache, as Wob approached the stool and plunged below the surface with the toilet paper held out ahead of him. There was even more cheering as he disappeared and the water swirled in his wake and then, after a few seconds, sunbeams pierced the clouds and heavenly choirs sang as a hand emerged from the pool, wrapped in translucent soaked paper and clutching the Turd Excalibur.
The woefully crumbling dump rose from the water, followed by Wob. His expression told us that he’d made an error of judgment, and he knew it. He paddled furiously to the side, holding one hand aloft, and laid his rank burden at our feet.
Cheers, Wob. This story is as full of holes as a hole-filled metaphor. The distance from the pool to the toilets, for instance, much too far for even a fast mover like Wob to make a return trip while the rest of us stood around doing nothing. And I was in the same class as Wob, I loved swimming – yet I was told the story. If it had happened I would have been there. And Wob wasn’t a complete idiot, and certainly wouldn’t have leapt into the swimming pool to save a drowning poo.
But hey. I have no truck with the idea of the truth being subjective. It’s absolutely absolute; shit happens, or (as in this case) it doesn’t. Stories are another matter, though. There’s a scene in No Country for Old Men which I suspect was written by a Coen, not McCarthy: Carla Jean Moss asks Sheriff Ed Tom Bell “Is that a true story?”
“Well,” he replies, “It’s certainly true that it’s a story.”