In Competition No. 2376 you were invited to describe autobiographically or quasi-autobiographically a memorable ‘first’ in your life.
Despite the stubble, albeit a little down-like, the deepening voice and the three hairs on my chest, it slowly dawned on me that my masculinity was as yet incomplete. Listening to the gleeful boasts whispered between half-open school locker doors, it became apparent that everyone had had the experience except me. The tension mounted as each day passed and I had failed to master my passage into acknowledged manhood. I felt inadequate. All my peer group seemed to have been there and, in doing so, accrued a certain kudos with the fairer sex. If it were offered me, would I have the courage to take that bold step? And so it came about, amid much furtive fumbling and stricken with a mixture of guilt and fear, that I found myself there, behind the cricket shed, sucking on my first and, happily, last cigarette.
‘It’s piss easy,’ said Graham, ‘once I’ve chopped the fucker’s head off,’ whereupon he chopped said head off. ‘Put a finger here and your thumb there. Go on!’ Blank with disbelief, I obeyed, feeling the inside of the nostrils still alive with warm mucus. ‘It’s easier to carry to the sink and rinse in the water, see? Then piss back here with that wheelbarrow quick.’ I pissed back, quick. With a rapid upward movement he sliced open the hoisted cow’s underbelly, and then freed its contents. The whole steaming, stinking dead weight of the stomach, intestines and lights slid smoothly and heavily into the wheelbarrow. ‘Here’s your knife, open them guts up, turn ’em inside out, clean out all its shit under that tap. Then back for the next one pronto.’ My first summer holiday job: cleaner in an abattoir.
My stepfather was a composer and conductor. During the war he was musical director of Free France Radio. Every week he wrote or arranged music for transmission to France. One Christmas, it was carols. It was during the school holidays and he took me to Broadcasting House; I was 11. In the studio was an ad hoc orchestra. Adela Katowska was the harpist, James Blades was on drums, the singer was a Frenchman, Gaston Richer. The other players I don’t remember. I was awestruck. It was a magic cave. The musicians, in ordinary day-clothes, rehearsed and recorded there and then, straight on to wax. I was especially taken by Jimmy Blades, virtuoso percussionist. And he let me help him!
That evening in occupied France, as families secretly listened, they heard, during ‘Il est né le divin enfant’, one ‘ting’ on a triangle, coinciding with the word ‘né’. My radio debut.
As I pushed the door open I knew the room was empty. He was dead. No breathing. No pulse. I opened the eye of the body in the chair and poked it. No reaction. Despite the bright morning light the iris stayed wide open. The doctor blew in briefly. Mr Hollis came, warned me about post-mortem gasping, and zipped him into a bodybag. Days later, I got in the front of the hearse, leaving aunts to snivel in the limos. We cracked corny jokes. ‘Don’t worry, people often feel like laughing,’ said the driver. In the busy town centre a ridiculous Ichabod Crane figure in a top hat ponced along in front of us. All I remember about church is Marlene’s elaborate genuflection, and a trapped sparrow flying along the nave. At the graveside I threw down the ace of hearts before the first spadefuls thumped in. Grief came later.
I was 11, on a ‘school cruise’ on Dunera, a converted troopship ferrying hundreds of children round the Mediterranean for the Easter holidays. Our last respite from sea-sickness was Vigo, in northern Spain, where the Generalissimo had a summer palace. We tramped round its grounds. I’d never seen an orange tree before; I’m not sure I even knew that oranges grew on trees. I picked a good one, and stashed it. Back on the bus after this improbably ‘educational’ excursion, I saw that our convoy had suddenly been surrounded by aggrieved policemen wearing comical hats — and carrying machine-guns. I heard apologetic teachers use the word ‘orange’. The sound of Spanish anger grew louder. Frantically, I pushed the whole orange, pith, peel, pips and all, into my mouth and ate the evidence in one go. This was my first blow against fascism, and the end of my relationship with oranges.
She said that I was just a kid
No. 2379: Modern types
The 4th-century bc Greek writer Theophrastus wrote The Characters, amusing prose descriptions of contemporary types. You are invited to do the same in rhymed verse (maximum 16 lines), describing the Grumbler, the Boaster or the Superstitious Person. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2379’ by 10 February.