Acrylic painting of Buscot Park woodland, given the Prisma treatment by
John Boothroyd-Smythe took his half term envelope out of his
rucksack and gave it to his mother. This was a miracle in itself.
Usually it would fester among his rugby socks for weeks on end,
until his mother suddenly realised that she was deficient in some
vital piece of information for the following weeks. Then she would
launch a search party to discover the whereabouts of the said
missive, which, by then, had semi-biodegraded.
A red slip fell out of the envelope. She picked it up and
expostulated: They’ve got another think coming!
The piece of paper was headed: En Retard! She was being fined
ten pounds as she had seemingly been late on at least three
occasions in the previous half term. Late in picking John up
in the afternoons.
They must have got the idea from that school in the news…what was
it? Oh yes- Henley Green in Coventry.
Don’t pay it, mum, her delinquent son advised. Who shopped you-
Mr Milford-Haven? He has to wait till every boy has been collected
from the yard.
Yes, that snivelling Junior Master, apparently. That is his signature
on the form, is it not? They’re probably trying to raise money for a
cushy new armchair in the staffroom – one into which they can sink
at the end of a particularly hard day while we parents battle through
the rush hour traffic to pick up the children that subsidise their lotos-
John concurred. He didn’t know what lotos-eating was, but it
reminded him that he was hungry.
Well, I’m going to complain to his line manager…
John looked blank.
Mr Snodbury. He is sure to support me in this infringement
of human decency.
John was not so confident.
Well, the old duffer is behind the times himself. But, leave it till
tomorrow, mum. What’s for tea?
Three times. When? How had it happened?
There was the Tuesday when she had had a puncture after hitting
that pothole and she had had to wait ages for the Roadside Rescue
chap. But when else?
Oh, she remembered that she had got her shoulders stuck in a dress
that she had been trying on and had had to solicit assistance from
one of the salesgirls. She was embarrassed as she had only had her
second best bra on.
But when was the third time?
Ah. She had been delayed when she had been stopped for
doing thirty-five mph in a thirty zone and had had to agree to go
on a speed awareness course, or take points on her licence. She
was being punished twice.
Mr Snodbury picked up the phone in the office of The Head’s PA, Virginia
Who is it? he mouthed to the silk-stockinged one.
That dreadful Boothroyd-Smythe woman, Virginia whispered.
Well, Mrs Boothroyd-Smythe, as my own venerable Housemaster
used to say: ‘Life isn’t fair’. In fact, Mr Quentin Stickland, or ‘Stickler’
as we were wont to call him, did once address me on the matter of
timekeeping, in my days of callow youthdom. He looked pointedly
at his pocket watch and reminded me that punctuality was- and indeed
is- the politeness of princes. And once, when I was thirty seconds late
for hymn practice, he admonished me with his personal recollection that
he had never been tardy, even throughout The General Strike of 1926,
so he could not comprehend my problem.
Gisela knew that she was on a losing wicket.
But Snod was in full reminiscence mode now. You know, that dear old
boy was in Registration before 9am every morning, for forty-five years.
The only occasion that he didn’t quite make it was when he collapsed
outside the Form Room at 8:59 am and breathed his last.
That was when the hour hand on the school clock-tower froze, in 1962.
So, you see, Mrs Boothroyd-Smythe, your contribution, along with those
garnered from the-ah-less punctilious parents, will go some way to the
restoration of the clock, in his honour.
Who knows? I may even have the privilege to honour his memory once
again, as I did at his first Memorial service when I recited a bowdlerised
and truncated version of his favourite poem by Marvell. The lines about
hearing at one’s back the wings of Times’ chariot seem especially apt in
these days of casual dilatory behaviour…
But there was no back-channelled response. At his back, Snod could only
hear the buzz of the dialling tone.
Gisela would pay up. She just didn’t have the time, nor inclination, to
Bourbon biscuit, Carpe Diem, cojones, Eliza Doolittle, Gobi Desert, Harley-Davidson, Humber, hypogonadism, John Humphrys, Larkin, Low T, Marvell, Mastermind, Sarah Montague’, Stephen Colbert, Today Radio 4
Hypogonadism, Snod read.
So, The Head”s not coming back, he said to himself.
‘It means he needs to have continued treatment for the condition.’
The Headmaster’s wife added that her husband had self-prescribed a
Harley-Davidson and a trip through the Gobi Desert with a friend who
had been similarly challenged. Apparently she seemed very happy
about the outcome, as he should be away for some weeks, if not
Virginia came into Gus’ office quietly and put his rolled tie on the desk
and left him his tea tray, before exiting like a shadow.
He had removed the said garment at her house the previous night, but
had not removed much else and he had left ( in the early hours it must be
Being of the old school, he had not stayed the night chez Virginia.
In the morning he had nearly been late for the first time in his career, as the
only tie he could find was one that Diana had given him, which bore a tiny pig
and the initials MCP.
He thought that had been a joke. Had it?
He looked in the mirror in his private loo. He had felt an old rush of
testosterone last night. He knotted his favourite tie and smoothed his hair.
He looked younger; his skin looked fresher than John Humphrys’ and yet
that old dog had scored in later life. What did the presenter have to be
grumpy about? He was raking it in from Mastermind, no doubt. Mind you,
he had to work with Sarah Montague on the Today programme.
So, the job advertisement would have to be published in order that interviews
could be held in May. Would he apply? As Eliza Doolittle nearly said:
Not By our Lady Likely! ( Snod always censored himself, even in quotations, which
amused his pupils.) But was that adjustment blasphemy instead? Hmm..
He sat down to drink his tea and eat his Bourbon biscuits- ‘Back to two now’,
he noticed. Well, Lent was over and the flesh was operational again.
He typed ‘hypogonadism‘ into Google. Yes, he had been tired recently.
Apathetic, even. Grumpy? Well, he had been irritable for years. Pupils- he
would not use the term ‘students’ for boys in L5-9- such as Boothroyd-Smythe
had been grit in his oyster for decades. No wonder he was a little impatient.
What didn’t kill you made you stronger, however.
He read a comment from a comedian called Stephen Colbert who quipped that
Low T, or a dip in manly hormone, was ‘a pharmaceutical-company-recognised
condition affecting millions of men with low testosterone, previously known as
Was that why he had bought the leather jacket in Turkey? It didn’t look the
same in this cold Northern light. Maybe he should get it out again?
Smiling to himself, he thought that he would ask Virginia to High Tea at
Bradley Manor some time. It was a seduction technique that would
overpower most women, he suspected, never mind any age-related
inevitabilities of Low T.
And he was getting to be such an expert on women. Anthony Revelly’s genes
were still spiralling around his son’s DNA, like moths round a guttering flame.
Anyway, if Life was Too Short to Stuff a Mushroom, as he had read
somewhere, and goodness knows, he had never felt a desire to perform
such an activity, one’s mortal coil was definitely too short to allow his
vegetable love to grow vaster than empires yet more slow, or however
Marvell had cavalierly put it. He should seize the moment- by the cojones,
if necessary. Where had he learned that word? Carpe diem and all that.
He could even take up fly fishing. He didn’t have 30,000 years to appreciate
Virginia’s quaint honour. (He was uncomfortable with the etymology of this
adjective, but no matter..) No, they would make the sun run.
Complaining by the side of Humber he would leave to miserable poets, such as
Larkin, so he would serve out his time as Senior Master only. Let others take
up the accursed mantle of Headship; he was going to take up his life-and walk,
He may even apply to be on Mastermind. Maybe it was the moisturiser he had
taken to using recently, at Diana’s insistence, but-yes!- he definitely had fewer
wrinkles than the Today presenter. It couldn’t be attributed to post-coital
relaxation, as the activity had not yet taken place.