A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall: “Coventry & Cressida”

Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, Chapter 2, Edgbaston,  September 1960,  “Coventry & Cressida, Rockers & Wreckage”

Cressida[Notes: (1) The featured picture is of a bombed-out theatre, similar to that played in by Stan and Reggie; (2) To be “sent to Coventry” is to be ostracized.]

Rehearsal proceeded with no further incident. I asked Stan to join me at lunch. But my having rehabilitated the choir director’s appraisal of me didn’t mean Stan and I were out of the woods. I steered him to a smaller, out of the way table, one seating only six, anticipating that some of our classmates might well send us to Coventry.

And they did.

We’d been seated a good five minutes, maybe more, before Ian Tippins, a nervous, cherub-faced lad from choir, who looked like a kid who’d wandered in from some Campbell Soup ad, uneasily approached us and sat down. Jenny Yao, a tiny, bespectacled, bookish girl from Hong Kong who boarded nearby and went to our school as part of “a proper English education,” stared at the three of us a minute or so, as if we were some kind of natural curiosity, before she too hesitantly joined us.

No one else did by the time lunch was served to us. Yes, served—at the table, on serving dishes. I’d no idea at the time that most schools didn’t do this, especially not from any serving dishes or gravy boats. Our school was almost 200 years old. A prep school for students who’d placed at least an academic year above their age level. This was the minimum to be considered for admission, twinned with an independent grammar school having similar academic standards. We were bright and studied hard, with more than our fair share of swots. But we were also rather spoilt. If “spoilt” meant we were afforded certain comforts, advantages, even luxuries, not enjoyed by the majority of students elsewhere, particularly in state schools.

We ate in silence for several minutes before Stan introduced himself.

It turned out he’d newly arrived from India. His father, like mine, was a professor at Birmingham University—in fact, they were most likely in the same department.

Stan had learned conversational English whilst at school in India, supplemented with a modicum of home tutoring on the side. But he had it in his head that the best way for him to make the leap from conversational to fluent English was to memorize each and every Goon Show routine, recording and radio transcription in existence. He gave us a demonstration. I chimed in after a couple of minutes, taking the Spike Milligan roles as Stan concentrated on Peter Sellers, throwing in Harry Secombe when we had to.

After several minutes, we not only had Ian and Jenny in hysterics, but managed to generate smiles from those at several surrounding tables. Best of all, I found myself smiling too. No one came over to join us but it was abundantly clear we’d no longer be pariahs either. I won’t say it shook off my blues completely, but it was the best I’d felt in quite a while.

Stan and his lunacy were just what I needed; we soon became inseparable.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the conflict between showing up at school to collect me on time and staying with me, on the one hand, and suitably dedicating herself to her new community outreach programs on the other, was stressing Mum out. So, Stan and I convinced her we were old enough to take the local bus safely. With Cressida, our family’s new housekeeper—a thin woman of indeterminate age, who looked like a whippet with a bun-in-the back chignon—keeping an eye on us, she needn’t be home before nightfall.

We usually did take a bus right home and do our homework. Cressida did keep her watchful eye on us, usually with her in the role of the hawk, ourselves in that of the barn mice.

But beneath her austere exterior, Cressida could be rather indulgent. She frequently had a treat ready for us when we came in the door.

But once or twice (occasionally three times) a week we’d not go straight home. Usually we’d take off, eschewing the parks in our area for bombed out buildings near downtown Birmingham. Our favorites were a site close to the Bull Ring and an abandoned cinema about ten minutes further away. But there were many others. We’d play at cops and robbers, or at our being cowboys, wizards, pirates or—this last was Stan’s idea—archaeologists. We’d see ourselves in Dracula’s Castle or in the subterranean lair of the Phantom of the Opera. Sporadically, we’d run into some of the older Teddy Boys and Rockers—ones who remembered Uncle Roddy. Even, on some occasions, remembered me—usually complete with a bit of a ribbing about the former length of my hair.

But it was all in good fun, and generated healthy respect from classmates who’d seen us together, and were both in awe of, and terrified by, what their parents considered dangerous “outlaw” types.

© 2014, 2015 G.H. McCallum and Duvanian Press. All rights reserved

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.