Les Épatants

Robin Gordon

Part III


(Conversations at the Swardale Arms, 2

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
- Auksford, 2012 -
©  Copyright Robin Gordon, 2012

Chapter 8: Cash for Honours  --  Chapter 9: Felicity's tale

Chapter 8:

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 offer.”
    “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 it.”
    “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 election fund.
    “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 top.
    “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 admirable.”
    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 his mind.
    “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 was.”
    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 mean.”
    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 Halden.
    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, like me.”
    “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 on, Amanda.”
    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.”
    George gasped.
    “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.”

Chapter 9:
Felicity’s tale

    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 played.
    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 the gang.
    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 did.
    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
it’s really dinosaurian,
we hate that hall and so
that hall will have to go!
    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.
    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 wept.”

    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.  – Amanda.”
    “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 magnetism.”
    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 station.
    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!

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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

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