CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, V
(Conversations at the Swardale Arms, 2
- Auksford, 2012 -
Cash for Honours
The trouble with parading a luscious trophy girlfriend around
Halden is that, while Londoners may look down on towns and cities
outside the metropolis as incurably dull and provincial, and, in
particular the cities of the north as uncouth and primitive, there is
in such places a great deal of solid, unflashy wealth, and, though they
may not have the internationally known shops, what they do have offers
a range of good quality goods that cannot fail to impress the
discerning shopper. It did not take Amanda long to realise the
extent of the merchandise on offer, and George’s perambulations,
though intended merely to have the inhabitants of his old home
wondering about the identity of the wealthy-looking man with the
curvaceous beauty on his arm, were often, at Amanda’s insistence,
diverted into dress-shops and jewellers. At the end of the day
his bank balance was somewhat lighter and his mood considerably sourer.
After dinner he left Amanda titivating herself and went down to
the bar of the Swardale Arms. It was almost empty. Looking
round he noticed an elegantly dressed lady of about his own age, whom
he had seen there before. Quite well off, he thought, judging by
the quality of her clothes. Conversation with her might prove
balm to his soul after the inanities to which he had been subjected by
his gold-digging companion. He might even add her to the list of
females he’d bedded. It would do no harm to Amanda to
realise that a man of his wealth and sexual magnetism was desired by
other women as well as herself, and, when he finally went off with
Amanda again, he’d have the pleasure of knowing that he’d
broken another heart.
He’d heard her name the previous night.
“May I buy you another drink, Felicity?” he
said. “I know we haven’t been formally introduced,
but what the hell? I’m George Walker. I used to live
in Halden as a boy, and I’m hoping to move back. In fact
I’m hoping to buy Odderby House. It used to belong to a
friend of mine, and I got rather attached to it.”
“How fascinating,” said Felicity. Her voice had
a deep, throaty, rather sexy quality. Quite promising, George
thought. Despite her age she’d probably shag rather
well. He could have quite a lot of pleasure before he dumped her.
He bought her a drink and one for himself, and told her about the
problems he was having getting Johnny Cowan to accept his offer.
“I met his asking price, even though it’s more than
the house is really worth,” he said. “It’s
worth it to me because, as I said, I had a friend who used to live
there and I spent many happy hours up there on Odderby Crag – but
the days keep on passing and I’ve had to stay on here much longer
than I intended, and still Cowan has neither accepted nor rejected my
“Johnny Cowan is a very difficult man to pin down,”
said Felicity. “I don’t know of anyone who
hasn’t come off worst in dealing with him. You’ve
heard how he treated poor old Sir Lionel Robson who’s such a very
nice man – but Cowan cheated him out of Geddonby Hall.”
“And yet,” said George, “they say he’s in
line for a seat in the House of Lords.”
“What can you expect with a Prime Minister like
Blair,” said Felicity. “He seemed to promise so much
back when he was first elected – things can only get better, and
all that, but he’s all show and no substance. I remember
that first conference he had with the French, how he turfed all that
wonderful antique furniture out of the Admiralty and brought in
Formica-topped tables and stacking chairs from Habitat. The
French must have laughed their socks off at the impoverished image he
managed to project, but he thought it was cool.”
“Cool Britannia,” murmured George.
“Exactly,” said Felicity. “I’m
inclined to think Blair is just about the worst Prime Minister
we’ve ever had. It’s taken centuries to build up the
machinery of government in this country, and he’s sabotaged it in
less than a decade. Look at the way he’s undermined the
Civil Service by bringing in all these cronies of his as political
advisers with authority to overrule civil servants; look at the way he
introduces initiative after initiative without ever thinking about the
consequences; look at the way he set about abolishing the right of
hereditary peers to sit in the Lords without ever making it clear how
he would replace them – probably just thinking of stocking the
place with his own cronies. And then there’s the Iraq war,
where our country is just expected to do the bidding of a madman like
Bush. Cash for Honours is all part of it. The only policy
Blair ever had was to get into power and to stay in power as long as
possible – and to cream off as much wealth for himself as he can
while he’s there. So it really doesn’t matter that
Johnny Cowan’s a crook: if he gives money to Blair’s
re-election fund he’s worthy of a seat in the Lords”
“Goodness gracious,” said George. “I
detest Blair, but I had no idea other people felt so strongly about
“Sorry, sweetie,” said Felicity.
“Let’s get back to more cheerful topics. If Johnny
Cowan gets his peerage he’s likely to move to Geddon Hall, and
you’ve put in an offer for Odderby House. Lovely
place. I always think it’s the best house in Halden.
Wonderful views over the whole city.”
“You know it then?”
“Well, like you, I used to have friends who lived up in Odderby …”
There was a loud squeal and a little girl aged about three came running into the bar.
“Auntie Flissie!” she squealed, and hurled herself
into Felicity’s arms. “Come up and see us we’ve
been to the pictures with Granny and Grandpa we saw dancing penguins
and all sorts of other things and Granny says come and have some dinner
with us …”
George seethed inwardly. What were little kids doing in the
bar? The Swardale Arms was a place for quiet adult conversation,
not for squealing little brats.
A tall, handsome man in his sixties came over and scooped up the little girl.
“Sorry about that,” he said to the bar in
general. “Yes, do come up, Felicity. We’d love
to see you.”
Felicity rose and kissed him.
“Yes, I will,” she said. “I’d love
to see the children again, even you you little darling …”
and she tickled the little girl who giggled delightedly, but
there’s someone here I’d like you to meet. He’s
planning to buy Odderby House, but he can’t get Johnny Cowan to
close the deal.”
“Ah, well, I happen to know something about that,”
said the man. “I’ll just get this little mommet
upstairs and then I’ll be right back.”
“John is the owner of the Swardale Arms,” Felicity
explained in his absence. “He’s also chairman of the
chamber of commerce, and he knows Johnny Cowan quite well.”
John came back and Felicity quickly explained George’s situation.
“Ahah,” said John. “I don’t know if
you’ve heard any news today. Johnny Cowan has, and
he’s spitting sparks. You may have heard that the House of
Lords Appointments Commission has been looking at some of the names on
Blair’s list because there’s some suspicion of a direct
connection between their inclusion and their donations to the Labour
Party, or, at least, not donations because Blair’s cronies have
come up with a scheme whereby their wealthy supporters make loans,
which don’t have to be declared, but then aren’t ever paid
back. Now this is why Johnny Cowan has been delaying accepting
your offer for Odderby House: he’s afraid that any investigation
will reveal that his nomination is a reward for one of these
gift-loans, and if that happens and he’s rejected, he might not
move to Geddon Hall. “Anyway it seems
that today a man called Chai Patel complained that he’d given
money to the Labour Party in good faith and that, if he doesn’t
get the peerage he expected, the Committee will have infringed
his human rights. So the whole sordid business is right out in
the open and it’s as clear as it can be that Blair has been
rewarding people with peerages in return for contributions to his
“I met Johnny Cowan at lunchtime and he’s in a total fury.
“Yon bloody Paki, he yelled. He’s got no idea
how things are done in this country. He’s ruined it for
everybody. If he’d only just kept his bloody trap shut
we’d have been passed over this time but Blair would have got us
in next time round. Then there was a whole lot more swearing and
racist stuff about Pakis and niggers coming over here and buggering up
the country – well you can imagine it.
“Anyway, the upshot is he’s probably not going to
sell his house. He had all these great plans of moving to Geddon
Hall and setting himself up as a country gentleman, Lord Cowan of
Geddon or something of the sort, but he says he’ll probably turn
it into an old people’s home and make some money out of the place
– he made a rather nasty joke about moving poor old Sir Lionel
and Lady Robson in and charging them for a room in what used to be
their own house – and no dogs. Can you imagine it,
exploiting Sir Lionel like that and not even letting him have his dog?
“As for his gift-loan to the Labour Party, he says
he’s having that back right away. He’s not paying out
good money for nothing, and if he can’t have his peerage,
Blair’s not having his money.
“So there you are. Sorry about it, but it looks as if
Odderby House won’t be for sale after all. You’ll
come up now, will you, Felicity?”
Amanda joined George just as they left. She had probably
heard some of what John said, thought George, for she had a very
self-satisfied little smile, though that might have been the result of
her successful day’s shopping. George bought her a drink
with bad grace. All this time wasted, all his hopes of getting
Sebastian’s old house and lording it over his home town, all gone
down the drain.
An inoffensive looking elderly clergyman entered the bar, bought
a small whisky and sat down at a table. George swaggered
over. Someone was going to pay for his disappointment, and this
gentle little fellow seemed as good a victim as any. He dragged
Amanda with him and sat down uninvited at the clergyman’s table,
where speaking in scornful tones he proceeded to insult him. He
boasted about his own wealth and status. He let it be known that
he was a local boy made good, now returning with enough money to buy
the best house in Halden, contrasting his well-stocked bank account
with the pitiful stipend enjoyed by the average vicar. Not for
George the careful watching of every penny. Look at the necklace
and bracelets Amanda was wearing, all bought for her today, all impulse
purchases, because George could afford anything he wanted, and
that’s what you get for hard work and determination to get to the
“Oh, well done! Well done indeed!” the cleric
murmured in pleased and congratulatory tones. “Where was it
you lived as a boy? … oh really? That’s in my own
parish, of course, but I don’t remember you at all. Before
my time, I think, but you probably knew Canon Tollgate.”
The name suddenly shocked George. He’d been terrified
of Canon Tollgate. While the Headmaster had accepted his heroic
denunciation of the plot to blow up the school hall, Canon Tollgate had
always looked at him as if he suspected him of some dishonesty or
hypocrisy, but then Canon Tollgate looked at everyone as if he knew his
or her besetting sin.
“I was frightened of Canon Tollgate as a boy,” he admitted.
“Yes,” said the clergyman, “he did have a
certain reputation for severity, but he was a good man – yes, a
good man. But, you know it is really very splendid indeed to hear
of a boy from my own parish who has done so well, so very well, in
life. You must have been very dedicated, and that’s really
George couldn’t help basking in the gentle cleric’s
foolish admiration, perhaps even exaggerating his wealth, and stressing
how much better he had done than those of his contemporaries who had
been content to stay in Halden.
How the conversation turned to the need for funds to repair the
roof of St Sweyne’s Church he wasn’t at all sure, but
somehow it seemed that his saintly interlocutor, and indeed all those
who had entered the bar and listened to his boasting, now expected him
to make a substantial donation to the roof fund. Well a fiver
should do it and shut them up. He took out his wallet, only to
find that, after his earlier shopping expeditions with Amanda had
cleaned him out, the cash machine had given him only twenties. He
pulled one out and proffered it, but somehow more seemed to be
expected, and it wasn’t until five notes were in his hand that
the smiling priest’s fingers closed around his offering.
“Very generous, very generous indeed,” he murmured,
and had slipped away before George could think of any way of changing
“Smart operator, that Canon Mouse,” chuckled a nearby
spectator. “I’ve even seen him charm a contribution
out of Johnny Cowan – and there’s not many can do
that. Cowan’s nearly as tight-fisted as Robert Maxwell
George turned away and came face to face with a sour-faced, disgruntled-looking woman.
“Poor Victor Mouse,” she said. “He had
such potential in his younger days, but he spent all his working life
of St Sweyne’s. When he was a young curate, you know, he
was deeply in love with me – deeply, deeply in love, but we
drifted apart. So much the worse for him. They say that
behind every great man there’s a determined woman. If
he’d married me he’d have been a bishop years ago, living
in a palace, and with a seat in the House of Lords.
“I’m Janice Greatbatch, by the way, and this is my
husband, Winston. He used to be deputy editor of the Halden
Courier, though if everyone had their just deserts he would have been
editor-in-chief, but there are wheels within wheels, if you know what I
Winston Greatbatch, thought George, well, I know quite a bit
about you – but luckily Mrs Greatbatch, in her eagerness to make
herself known to the wealthy stranger, hadn’t bothered to enquire
about his name, so George merely shook hands with Winston, nodded and
grunted some inarticulate sound of greeting.
“So you’re expecting to buy Odderby House,”
Janice prattled, “when the Cowans move out to Geddon Hall, such a
lovely place and in such a nice part of the county, so very suitable as
a nobleman’s residence, not that we’re supposed to know
anything about that, at least not officially, but in my husband’s
position, you know, we keep a pretty close eye an what’s
happening in Swardale, don’t we dear?”
“We do,” said Winston. “in fact, and I
know you won’t let this go any further, I’m preparing a
pretty big spread on Johnny Cowan and the benefits he’s brought
to Halden. As soon as the Honours List comes out I’ll be
ready to send it off to the nationals as well as the Courier.”
“There’s no doubt about it then?” George queried.
“Doubt? Not the slightest,” said Winston.
“After all he’s done … services to the construction
industry, not to mention the new football stadium. Lord Cowan of
Geddon Hall deserves everything that’s coming to him, and the
Courier will be there to celebrate with him. I’m pretty
sure I’ll be able to get a piece into one of the nationals
– by our special correspondent Winston Greatbatch.”
“I’m sure you will, dear,” said Janice.
“It’s only professional jealousy that’s held Winston
back,” she explained to George. “Time after time
he’s come up with a good story only to have it stolen by some
reporter on one of the nationals who presents it as his own. But
he’ll get it this time, because, you see, we know all about
Johnny Cowan. We’re sure to get it this time,”
“Good luck, then!” said George in what was almost a
snarl. The information in his possession might have helped the
hapless journalist, but George was in no mood to be helpful. He
grabbed Amanda’s wrist and pulled her away.
“Come on!” he snapped.
“Where d’you think? Bed!”
He spoke loudly enough for the spectators to hear. They
could at least envy his possession of this pretty piece of crumpet.
Amanda found his love-making more like war-making. He was
like a besieger battering his way into the fortress. His thrusts
were like warrior spearing his opponent or a vicious hoodlum stabbing
the victim of a mugging. His orgasm was like gunfire. It
was as if he wanted to kill her to express his fury against the world.
When it was over she lay in the darkness smiling. All in
all it had been a very satisfactory day. She had acquired new
clothes, expensive jewellery, shoes and a handbag, and some expensive
perfume and make-up. She had arrived in the bar in time to hear
that extremely handsome elderly man telling George that Johnny Cowan
wasn’t going to sell his house after all. That meant they
would go back to London. These provincial places were all very
well, and they had a few quite nice shops, but London was the centre of
Amanda’s world, London was where it’s at, as George might
say using that frightfully dated slang that he thought made him so
wickedly cool. Back to London then, and the end of this silly
fantasy of his that he could find happiness lording it over his former
acquaintances, looking down on them from that house on the hill, not
even in the town but right out in suburbia, miles away from the shops
and nightclubs – if there were any nightclubs in a place like
Even his rough love-making had its bright side. When they
awoke next morning she would arouse him, make him want her again, and
then she’d complain that he’d hurt her, both physically and
mentally. She would complain that it was so very hurtful just to
be treated like a punch-bag. He’d have to promise her
whatever she liked to make up for it – and there were a couple of
shops that he’d hustled her past yesterday, very
expensive-looking shops where she was sure she would find something she
desperately wanted. A man who had treated her so badly, and who
could afford to give away a hundred pounds to some church roof fund
just to impress the bystanders, could hardly claim that he
couldn’t afford a little present for his partner – and she
deserved it after letting the old goat have his way with her body all
these weeks. She was beginning to wonder if he’d ever
propose, but if she couldn’t get a lien on his wealth, she could
at least make sure she was properly treated while they were together.
All in all then, a very satisfactory day, even if it hadn’t
turned out so well for poor old George. Poor old thing. His
home town had treated him badly in the past, and now it was going to
disappoint him again. He would be much better off forgetting
about Halden and about lording it over his former friends, and
forgetting their ingratitude. He had used his chances and escaped
to London. He was wealthy, he’d made his pile. Why
waste his life in such a backwater. London beckoned, and in
London they would have a good time.
The following day when she awoke, she stroked George’s
naked chest as he lay in drowsy half sleep, till he stretched out his
arm to embrace her. Then she moved away.
“You weren’t very nice to me last night, George,” she said.
“You hurt me quite badly with your roughness, and I’m
not very happy at all at being treated just as some sort of thing you
can use to work off your frustrations. I don’t think you
love me at all.”
“Of course I do,” he protested, but he realised even
as he spoke that, if he didn’t want a day of sulking and nagging
and general unpleasantness, he was going to have to let her have her
own way about how they spent it.
“After we’ve been to the estate agent’s,”
he said, we’ll do whatever you want.”
The woman at the estate agent’s wasn’t helpful
– as usual. Still nothing from Johnny Cowan, neither
acceptance nor refusal. George left his mobile number again and
extracted a promise that they would contact Cowan with a request for a
decision and then phone him as soon as they had any word.
After that they went shopping again. Amanda had noticed a
very up-market shop called Muncaster’s, and she dragged George
round, admiring expensive china and costly crystal glasses.
George seemed uneasy the whole time, and when, as they were
passing a door marked Staff only, a teenage boy came out, he gave a
sudden jerk and turned away as if he were ill.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just that that boy
reminded me of someone, but of course he would be in his sixties now,
“Muncasters,” she said. “Oh George,
I’m so sorry. I didn’t remember, but this shop must
belong to your friend Bob Muncaster.”
“Rob Muncaster,” he said impatiently.
“Yes?” said the boy, suddenly appearing behind them.
“What?” said George.
“I thought you called me,” said the boy.
“Are you Rob Muncaster?” said Amanda. “Called after your father?”
“No, my grandfather,” said the boy. My Dad’s called Tom.”
“Oh, George, he’s your friend’s
grandson,” said Amanda to George. “That’s why
he looks like him.”
“Let’s go,” said George, dragging her away.
“Shall I tell Grandad you were asking after him,” said the boy.
“No, said George. “It doesn’t
matter. Used to know him when we were boys, haven’t seen
him for years, decades. He wouldn’t remember me. Come
Towards the end of the afternoon George’s phone rang.
It was the estate agent: Mr Cowan had decided not to sell after all.
“We leave tomorrow morning,” said George and tried not to notice Amanda’s pleasure.
He paid his bill before dinner – another good one, the
Swardale Arms had an excellent chef – then they repaired to the
bar. Felicity was there, talking to the owner and another two
men, one tall, thin and grey-haired, the other shorter, thick-set,
balding and with the ruddy complexion of an outdoor man. Felicity
smiled at George and he decided to join the group.
“You were right,” he said to the hotel-owner.
“Cowan has decided to hang on to Odderby House. I suppose
that means he’s not getting his peerage.”
“The whole thing has blown up,” replied John.
“Questions in Parliament, all over the press, Lord Levy to face
an enquiry, but you can bet Blair will get off scot-free.”
“Teflon Tony escapes again,” murmured Felicity.
“But you won’t be sorry to leave Halden, George. The
bright lights of London call you back again.”
“I’ll be glad to get back to London,” said
Amanda. “Halden’s a lovely place for a holiday, and
you’ve got some wonderful shops, but all my friends are in London
– and I’m sure George will be glad to get back too, even
though he was born here. The way people treated him when he was a
boy is absolutely awful.”
“Really?” said Felicity.
Amanda ignored George’s frantic signals and
continued. “He got in with a gang of bad-hats when he was
in year twelve,” she said. “They had this plan to
blow up the school hall, only George found out and stopped them.
He saved them from prison, but instead of being grateful they stripped
him of his trousers and threw him over into the girls’
school. Can you imagine it?”
“I don’t need to imagine it,” said Felicity. “I was there.”
“What?” George gasped. “Were you one of
those screeching harpies from the high school?”
“Indeed I was not,” said Felicity. “You
don’t recognise me, do you, darling? It’s hardly
surprising. We’ve all changed a lot since we were
seventeen, but none more than me. In those days, my sweet, I was
unhappily trapped in a fate almost worse than death. I was a boy
named Hugh, though you knew me better as Lulu.”
“I wasn’t until I was about forty,” Lulu
continued, “that I was able to escape my fate. My parents
died, believing that I’d always be a monstrosity, a transvestite
trolling about the streets in women’s clothes, mocked and jeered
by all the louts in town. But I wasn’t a
transvestite. The women’s clothes were an expression of the
real me, and when I had money of my own I was able to have gender
reassignment surgery. The real me was freed. I was happy at
last, and I chose the name Felicity to express my new state.
“In those days, however, I was a boy, and I was one of the
Épatants that George has obviously told you about – though
heaven knows what it is he’s told you: not the truth at any
rate. I think, perhaps, since this is probably your last night
here, I ought to tell you what really happened. These gentlemen
will bear witness and correct me if I get anything wrong. This is
Rob Muncaster. I believe you met his grandson when you were in
his shop, so, you see, he didn’t do too badly. This is
Gerry Bulman, who took over his father’s farm, and he did quite
nicely too. As for Sebastian, as he was known then, well, do you
know what happened to him?”
“George said he became a barman in a sleazy pub,”
said Amanda, “and I hope he’s still there. He sounds
a real rotter.”
“It was quite a nice pub,” said Felicity, “and
he worked hard, was good at his job, took extra training, and now
he’s the owner of quite a good hotel – this one in
fact. Meet John Soare.
“As for his being a rotter, well I think you’d better hear our side of the story.”
The year that changed our lives, said Felicity, was the year we
were in the lower VIth at Halden Grammar School. We four were on
the science side, and, as you might expect, we were keen, hardworking
students, though, being boys, we had our puerile side. We liked
jokes and fun. We were keen on the Goon Show, in fact I
don’t think I exaggerate when I say my Minnie Bannister was as
good as the real thing – and we were keen on music too, and, just
like teenagers today, on making our own music. The difference was
that, while today’s youngsters have guitars and amplifiers and
computers that can record CDs, we had to make do with what we could
scrounge. Well, we had a couple of acoustic guitars, but apart
from that we made a double bass out of an old tea-chest, a broom handle
and a piece of string. Gerry played that. And we had a
washboard and some thimbles nicked from here and there, which poor Lulu
Now, I said we had our puerile side, and the boys did like
larking about quite a lot, chasing along the school corridors for
example, and very often the object of the chase was poor Lulu’s
trousers. It was all in fun, of course. If you’ve
read Simon Knuckleweed’s piece in the Telegraph a couple of weeks
ago, you’ll know that debaggings are carried out for all sorts of
reasons: initiation to a school or a boys’ gang, punishment,
expulsion from a gang, or just for fun, more or less as a bonding
ritual within a group.
I don’t suppose you know anything about Simon Knuckleweed,
dear, she said to Amanda. He was a couple of years below us at
Halden Grammar, and he went on to become Professor of Vestiary
Semiotics at Auksford.
Anyway, one day poor Lulu was being pursued by these absolute
hounds and he decided to take refuge in the school library, thinking
they would respect the code of silence – but what happened?
They grabbed poor Lulu, hoisted him onto a table, and, ignoring his
impassioned protests, stripped the trousers from his lower limbs with
much hilarity and guffawing.
You were naughty boys, weren’t you? she said to the three
elderly gentlemen, but Lulu forgave you – unlike the boy who was
sitting at the table.
“You’ve ruined my essay,” he shouted, so John,
to try and calm him down, apologised. You had a lovely smile in
those days, didn’t you John? Then he invited him to meet us
at the chip shop, and somehow that boy, George Walker, became one of
That was what changed us, and changed us completely. We
were mesmerised by George. As I said, we were humble,
hard-working science students, but George had sophistication and
culture. It was George who gave us a complete aesthetic, a new
outlook, a sort of theory of life that pulled together all our
interests and subordinated them to his own Weltanschauung.
We had never heard of Surrealism. As scientists we dealt
with reality, with logic, with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, though
things we were beginning to hear about quantum mechanics and the
unusual things that could happen at that level, may perhaps have
prepared us to accept some of what George told us.
Anyway, to begin at the beginning: we met in the chip shop and
George had us enthralled with his grasp of culture and aesthetics and
philosophy and revolutionary theory, so John invited him back to his
home up in Odderbury. You were really quite proud of that eyrie
of yours overlooking the city, weren’t you John? So he let
George have a look round, and, as he expected, George went straight
into the bay-window and looked down over the castle and the cathedral
and the town centre, and right round to the east where you could just
see our school.
John knew he was impressed, so, when he had pulled off his blazer
and shoes and flung himself down on the bed, just as he always did, he
said, “What d’you think of it?” or some such
question. George turned round and took a couple of steps towards
John, with his eyes blazing. You were quite alarmed,
weren’t you John? For a moment you thought you were about
to be raped – there was always something dangerous about George,
but for teenage boys that was part of his attraction. With George
about, life was likely to be disrupted in unexpected ways.
We thought he was fascinating, but not everyone shared our
view. John invited him to tea one day, and he showed off
abominably to John’s mother and sister. You’d think
he’d never met any women before. He behaved as if he was
some kind of film-star, smirking and winking, and at the same time he
was trying to score off them and show how superior he was; but the
worst thing was: every time he thought he’d put them down, he
would blow smoke in their faces and then smirk and wink at them again
as if he though he was God’s gift. After George had gone,
John’s mother said to him, “I could barely keep my hands
off that nasty little twerp. I’d really like to have taken
his trousers down and given him a good thrashing.”
After that John kept him away from his family. We all
visited John’s bedroom to listen to his collection of records,
and we made our own music down in the cellar. The pattern was
always the same. We would meet up at Odderby in the
evening. Someone would bring some beer. Then we’d go
down to the cellar, get out our instruments and make a start.
George, with his superior knowledge of poetry, usually made up the
songs, and he and John were our chief vocalists. It was at one of
these sessions that George christened John Sebastian. He said
John reminded him of St Sebastian in a Renaissance painting, suffering
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but with an otherworldly
smile on his lips, as if his life as a boy was a form of martyrdom that
he knew would lead eventually to heavenly bliss.
It was George, too, who decided that our little gang should have
a name, and it was George who gave us the name Les
Épatants. He told us it was a French pun, meaning at one
and the same time “the shocking ones” and “the
magnificent ones.” We poor benighted scientists could never
have made up a name like that. We had no French to speak of and
had never heard of épater le bourgeois, which, as we all now
know, thanks to George, means “to shock or scandalise the
bourgeois.” Until then we’d never thought of
ourselves as a gang, and, since our families were all pretty middle
class, it never occurred to us to question their values or regard them
as enemies of the people.
As I said, it was George that gave us a completely new view of
life. He explained to us that our beloved Goon Show was based on
Surrealist humour, and that Surrealism freed progressive chaps like us
from the toils and trammels of realism. He convinced us that
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was the greatest work of art ever,
because it freed the artist from the need to learn techniques of
art. Henceforth, he said, anything an artist said was a work of
art became a work of art, and, because artists no longer needed to
learn to draw or paint or concern themselves with the rules of
perspective, any of us could be artists. We already were artists
because we made our own music, an art form we had liberated from the
classical rules of harmony and composition and freed from bourgeois
restrictions. Henceforth, he said, every boy was a musician.
It was George who persuaded us that we should use our freedom
from bourgeois morality to free our younger contemporaries. He it
was who told us that the way our parents generation made sex into a
mystery hidden from adolescent boys and girls was a scandal. He
it was who preached sexual liberation, something the raging hormones of
John, Rob and Gerry were all too eager to embrace – not poor
Lulu, of course. He had no idea of what he wanted in those days.
Now George knew that someone in the arts sixth, a boy
called Gareth Radcliffe, was obsessed with pornography, and he also
knew that my cousin Winston, was getting hold of it and selling it to
him, so he came up with the idea that we should get Winston to supply
us and then distribute the stuff all around the school. We were a
bit doubtful about using our pocket money, but George pointed out that
John, or Sebastian as he was now called, was pretty well off and could
easily afford it. We were, as always, swayed by his enthusiasm,
and the first distribution was such a success that he easily persuaded
us to continue.
Has he told you, dear, about our contribution to the school art
exhibition? The used prophylactics attached to letters in French
and entitled E-acute, A-grave, etc. I don’t think you need
look too far to see whose idea that was.
That, of course, made the Headmaster furious and we knew the
prefects had been told to track us down. Winston wouldn’t
supply any more dirty magazines. He was in a complete blue funk
that if anyone found out he had got them for us he’d be stripped
of his prefecy and probably flogged, otherwise he might have sneaked to
the beak. Poor Lulu was in a bit of a funk as well, I can tell
you. These tough boys might have been able to take a caning from
the strong right arm of Mr Corcoran, the deputy head, but poor Lulu was
a delicate flower. Even Sebastian thought we ought to lie low for
a while, but George came up with the idea of grabbing the School
Captain, debagging him and threatening to throw his trousers over into
the girls’ school unless he promised to leave us alone, whatever
We didn’t think it would work, but, as always, George
overcame our scruples. We grabbed some innocent bystander. George
told him there was going to be a debagging, which set him screaming for
help and brought the School Captain lumbering over. Then the rest
of the plan went like clockwork: George told the trouserless head
prefect that if he ever betrayed us we’d debag him again and
chuck him over into the girls school. After that he made us swear
an oath that anyone who betrayed Les Épatants would be chucked
over to the girls without his trousers. We were in such high
spirits by then that we’d have sworn to behead a traitor if
he’d asked us.
By now we were convinced that under George’s leadership we
were about to overthrow the whole of bourgeois morality. Realism
was replaced by Surrealism, reason by irrationality, artistic technique
by freedom of expression. Liberty for all was our motto and
especially sexual liberation and the freedom to read pornography and
watch explicit films. The Victorian morality of our
parents’ and grandparents’ generations was to be
overthrown, and George’s next target was the school hall, which
he condemned as an example in stone of all that was wrong with society.
He started off with fantasies. We reset the Goon Show in
Halden Grammar School, with sketches of Grytpype Thynnne plotting to
assassinate the Headmaster, and whichever way the plot twisted it
always ended with a satisfyingly loud explosion as the Victorian gothic
school hall was dynamited, often followed by Major Bloodnok exclaiming,
“Ghaaa! No more curried beans for me!”
After that we moved onto songs. George was our poet, producing lyrics like:
Our school hall is Victorian
He was very good at blending fantasy and reality until we really
began to think we were actually on a mission to destroy Victorian
morality by blowing up the school hall. That’s when he
began to talk about how we would go about collecting the
explosives. Sebastian had a car by then, so George suggested he
should fill up an extra can or two every time he got petrol. Then
he suggested that as science students we could easily snaffle suitably
explosive substances from the chemistry labs. He urged us to try
it, just to see if it were possible, so we did, and we performed more
sketches and songs, and Sebastian got of couple of cans of petrol; and
whatever we got, George spirited away, and it wasn’t until
sometime later that we realised he had stashed them in the store-rooms
under the hall.
it’s really dinosaurian,
we hate that hall and so
that hall will have to go!
By now we didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t,
so somehow we found ourselves sneaking off with more chemicals and
piling them up in the store-room, until, at last we began to realise
that we were getting out of our depth – but whenever anyone
raised doubts, George reminded us that we’d sworn an oath to
carry out the great project of destroying bourgeois morality and that
we’d sworn to cast anyone who betrayed us to the girls –
without his trousers.
We raised more and more doubts and told him at last that things
had gone too far. We said the only thing we could do was to
smuggle the explosives out before they were found. The very next
day we were called out of class and summoned to the Head’s
office, where we found that good old George had denounced us to the
authorities. No-one listened to our dumbfounded attempts at
explanation. We were flogged and expelled, and George was
promoted to sub-prefect.
Now dear, do you still think we were cruel to throw George to the girls without his nether garments?
“I certainly don’t,” said Amanda.
“He deserved all he got if what you say is true.”
The others nodded.
“Is this true, George?” Amanda demanded.
“I … I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.”
“So it is true. What you told me was just a pack of lies.”
“George was always very imaginative,” said
Felicity. “I suppose that was part of the fascination he
exerted over the rest of us. Well, as he has no doubt told you,
after he betrayed us we carried out the sentence he had made us swear
we would: we debagged him and threw him over the wall into the
girls’ school, where he was subjected to an undignified few
minutes of mockery by screaming, squealing, screeching girls.”
Amanda felt a sudden twinge of pity. “They attacked
him,” she said. “They ripped his clothes to shreds
and almost castrated him!”
“Is that what he told you?” said Felicity.
“As I said, he was always very imaginative. In fact most of
them stood some distance away and screeched with derisive
laughter. Only a few actually touched him, and they were much too
ladylike to get their hands near any inappropriate areas.
“After that the bells began to ring in both schools, and
posses of prefects appeared to quell the riotous noise. We left
George’s trousers on the ground where he would find them, but not
in such an obvious place that they would be seen by the prefects, then
we sneaked off down to the scrubland below the field and made our
escape. Poor Sebastian was crying his eyes out by this time,
weren’t you John? He’d been so very attached to
George you see – and teenage friendships are incredibly intense
– and then it had ended in betrayal and punishment. Lulu
had to lead him by the hand or he’d just have sat down and
They returned to their room. Amanda was silent.
George slept in just his boxers as usual, but Amanda didn’t
cuddle up close. She seemed determined to put as much distance as
possible between them.
“Silly bitch,” he thought. “She’s
believed everything they’ve told her. It might have been
something like that. I don’t remember. They
don’t remember either. It was a long time ago. It
might have been somewhere between what I remember and what they said,
but it doesn’t matter now. The past is another
country. It’s all water under the bridge. We were
just boys. It’s all behind us. I’ll tell her
that tomorrow, that none of us can recall exactly how it was.
She’ll come round.”
His sleep was plagued by dreams. Neddy Seagoon placing
explosives, not Neddy, himself, George Walker, piling up explosives in
the storerooms under the hall, while Lulu, or Minnie Bannister, wailed,
“We’ll all be murdered in our beds,” and girls
screamed with laughter as he told them that he couldn’t get the
wood, and Sebastian sang something that might have been the Major Denis
Bloodnok rock and roll-call rhumba. After that he slept heavily.
Amanda was already up when he awoke, probably in the
bathroom. She would understand that neither he nor Felicity could
remember what had happened all those years ago – especially not
Felicity. How could anyone believe a weird transsexual creature
like her? No wonder Lulu had been so odd. Now he thought
about it, blowing up the school hall was probably all Lulu’s
idea. Lulu hated the school because he was a misfit that everyone
mocked. Obviously it must have been all Lulu’s idea.
He rolled out of bed and stood for a moment in front of the
mirror. Pretty good for a man of his age. If he pulled his
stomach in he could probably pass for a man of fifty or even
younger. Amanda was damn lucky to have got him.
He made for the bathroom. It was empty. He called
her, but there was no reply. Then he noticed the envelope propped
up on the dressing table.
“Dear George,” he read. “After what I
heard last night I now know what sort of person you really are.
It’s all over between us. I have caught the early morning
train to London, and I must say it’s a relief not to have to go
back with you. The way you drive is terrible, and it’s
quite in character too. I hope you will drive carefully on the
way back – which I am sure you will. Enjoy the trip.
“Drive carefully!” he thought scornfully.
“I’ll be back in London before she expects me. Then
we’ll see. She won’t be able to resist my animal
He pulled in his stomach and surveyed himself in the
mirror. “Good figure, muscular pecs, you sexy devil!”
– but his mood changed as he dressed. Good figure –
when he sucked in his stomach, but he knew his belly normally
sagged. Muscular pecs – when he clasped his hands together,
adopted a Charles Atlas pose and flexed his muscles, but otherwise they
were flabby man-boobs. His receding hair and his bald patch,
which in triumphal mood he called signs of virility, were the marks of
aging. Even his increasing randiness and the sexual stamina of
which he boasted were probably no more than symptoms of prostate
enlargement. His body was aging, and he knew the only thing that
attracted girls like Amanda was his money.
He should never have brought her to Halden. He should never
have come back himself. His version of the events of that
critical year had convinced the Headmaster and the adults who were in
authority then, but what people believed now was Lulu’s version
– and somewhere within his brain a voice seemed to whisper that
Lulu’s version was the right one. He could feel the black
sludge of depression seeping into his head. Halden was forbidden
territory to him now, and, if Amanda spread Lulu’s tale among
their mutual acquaintances in London, he would be equally uncomfortable
there. He would have to move, and he couldn’t return to
Swardale. It would have to be some reasonably priced area where
he knew nobody and nobody knew him.
For now he would have to go back to his flat in London and try to
lie low. He would leave at once. No breakfast: he
couldn’t bear to meet anyone in the hotel breakfast room.
It would be bad enough facing total strangers at a motorway service
He flung his remaining clothes and toiletries into his case, and
pulled on his coat. Luckily he had already paid his bill.
He could take the lift straight down to the garage area and collect his
car. Amanda was right: he would drive carefully. He
would make sure he approached that roundabout in the correct lane so
that he didn’t cut across other lines of traffic. When he
reached the motorway he would drive safely. If turds obstructed
him he would be patient, he wouldn’t react if shits tried to
provoke him. He would stay within the speed-limits all the
way. He would be a model driver and try not to attract attention.
He had no option: the little bitch had stolen his trousers!
Please remember that this story is copyright. See Copyright and concessions for permitted uses.
Chapter 8: Cash for honours -- Chapter 9: Felicity's tale
Les Épatants: Index -- Les Épatants: Part I -- Les Épatants: Part II
Robin Gordon's works: Index (top) -- Robin Gordon's works: Index: Chronicles of Halden
Auksford index -- Send an e-mail to Robin Gordon