Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hard to Bear

I wrote this story a few years back but it's been dormant. I came across it tonight and it seems to have stood the test of time reasonably well. Grateful thanks to Joel, a hip-hop artist in Birmingham, who spotted a duplication of the word 'mangled' when I read it to a local Christians-in-the-arts support group which I used to attend at the Custard Factory. Now corrected. Warning. 2,000 word post. Come back when you have seven minutes.

Tragedies happen. When older people die it can be filed under ‘expected tragedy’; tragedy with extenuating circumstances. Everyone agreed that this particular tragedy went beyond conventional misfortune. It plumbed new depths. Sadness max. The cortege stopped at the imposing gates of the school and Mr Johnson, the top-hatted funeral director walked ahead of the procession down the long drive towards the main entrance.

Barry Thompson had been a much-loved member of the fourth form. This was not the type of school where ‘Year Ten’ was common parlance. Here there were Shells, Removes, Upper Middles, Fourths and Fifths. Following GCSEs, which everyone passed with As or A stars unless they wanted to be despised, almost all stayed on for Divisions and then Upper Sixth. Traditional names for a traditional place.

Barry had fallen off a mountain in Wales during a geography field trip. Nobody had been negligent. The party had informed the mountain rescue station of its departure. All appropriate first aid and survival gear had been taken. The weather forecast had been checked and good. Barry simply lost his footing on some loose shale and tripped. He grabbed for a shrub which came away in his hand and he disappeared over a drop of about twenty metres. He broke his legs on the way down, banged his head on a sharp rock at the bottom and that was it. From larger than life to deader than dead in twenty metres. No blame - just a shocking and horrible accident.

Fourteen and fifteen year old boys are not easy company. In an ideal world lads aged thirteen to sixteen would be managed from a distance, left only with same-generational support. They would re-emerge as young men aged seventeen with the worst excesses of adolescence resolved. Barry Thompson and his mates were the same. Almost without exception they annoyed their families, bullied younger siblings and borrowed clothes off older ones of the same gender. Happy when herded together - uncommunicative when separated.

Lined up respectfully on either side they watched the cortege move solemnly down the school drive and then, as rehearsed, trooped into Big School and took their places near the front, leaving the very first row for family. The school assembly hall, known to its users throughout history as Big School, had been deemed the most appropriate place to hold the funeral as so many wanted to attend.

Barry Thompson had been a teacher-baiter. Over the years the older teachers at King Henry VIII’s School had experienced the full range of teenage humour but Thompson – this school had not yet reached the liberal heights of using boys’ Christian names – was especially good at it. As he was bright and achieved academic success he was allowed greater leniency than someone who might appear to allow pranks to interfere with study.

He had an excellent line in put-downs. Teaching Barry Thompson involved searching for a certain precision of language open to no misinterpretation. Mr Jones the geography teacher remembered well the occasion he had rebuked, ‘You may well laugh now Thompson,’ only to hear the reply, ‘Thank you very much sir, ha ha ha.’ In fact now he remembers it with a tear in his eye having been the first on the scene after the fall.

It was Thompson who, on learning of a new maths teacher in one of the parallel forms, changed into jeans and T-shirt and entered a lesson for which he was not timetabled. There he pretended to be a French exchange student. Discovering that the maths teacher spoke excellent French he adopted an outrageous accent and insisted on speaking in English as that was why he was in the Country.

It was Thompson who masterminded an enormous drawing on the West Field in fresh snow. Many practical jokers have great ideas but only the really professional will find the dedication to set an alarm for five a.m. to carry out their plan and recruit volunteer help from the vast army of deeply-sleeping fourteen year olds. That January morning the teachers were greeted with an excellent cartoon of the Head and the slogan, ‘Mr Wilson why were you late?’ Mr Wilson was always first in and would have been expected to foil such a prank.

Who worked out how to send a booming, echoing voice into another classroom from a deserted one, having discovered that the compressed air ducts used to power the cleaning machines would, when inoperative, conduct noise? Who daubed the rims of safety goggles in the chemistry lab with anti-vandal paint? Who solved quadratic equations with a methodology so complex it took hours for teachers to agree it was correct? It was all Thompson. For this and other misdemeanours he was nicknamed ‘The Doc.’ by less imaginative friends.

‘Who did this dangerous re-wiring in the school phone box so it always dialled the secretary’s office?’
‘Please sir, I don’t want to dob on my mates but who else could do it?’

And now he was dead. At first there was some vain hope that this was another stunt by the king of twist. ‘Have you heard? The Doc’s faked his own death.’ But his co-hikers had seen the evidence in all its grimness of his body mangled by the fall. Even hardened pranksters, who had once sent an undertaker round to the very-much-alive Mrs Fulsome’s to collect her not-quite-yet-deceased body, knew that there was finality here.

One of the stranger habits amongst the fourth form, and especially Thompson’s class 4C, was the hilarity with which any word ending with the sound ‘air’ was greeted. This was not a Thompsonism. Indeed no-one could place the origins of the custom. But when a teacher said, ‘Have you got a spare pen?’ or ‘Will you share books today?’ the whole class would be overcome by the need to shout ‘spaaaaaiiiiiirr’ or ‘shaaaiiiiiirrrr’ elongating and twisting the vowels before dissolving in mirth. Teachers would generally cope with this silliness and try to sidestep the sound, although avoiding the name of pupil Steve Adair was somewhat harder and his nickname, ‘Adaaaiiir spare crere mare bear’, defied all conventions that such monikers are short and convenient.

For many of the pupils in 4C this was their first experience of bereavement. Some had sent off grandparents. The really unfortunate had been through more intimate brushes with finality but for most this was new. School uniform was deemed appropriate dress. The atmosphere was so sombre that no-one needed to be told not to misbehave. Nobody wanted to. Barry Thompson had been a nutter, but a well-balanced and much respected nutter with many friends and few enemies.

Not coming from a Christian family Barry’s parents had decided on a secular, humanist ceremony. There were going to be some words of introduction and welcome and an explanation of what the boys could expect during the service. Then two people, one a teacher and one a friend were going to read short eulogies followed by a re-telling of the events of April Fool’s day the previous year during which the dining hall had been given, courtesy of Thompson and his mates, a make-over into a fast-food franchise. It would be good to laugh at a funeral. Barry Thompson had made lots of people laugh during his short life. The service was due to conclude with some poems, a reading from a novel Barry enjoyed and then a time of silence for reflection or prayer.

Choosing music for the service had been awkward. Light and classical seemed to fit the mood; hip-hop was more Barry. Since some of the older teachers thought hip-hop was a side effect of debilitating arthritis it was agreed to save the gangster rap for the end. It would accompany the beginning of the journey to the crematorium where the family had requested a private committal.

King Henry’s was a magnet to the bright young things of the area. A demanding entrance examination ensured it worked with only the best. The King Henry Foundation arranged scholarships for those without the means to pay. The facilities were excellent. It was an all-male school with only a very few female teaching and ancillary staff. It regularly topped the examination results’ league tables although it was a school which became peculiarly embarrassed at only coming second.

Barry Thompson had been expected to progress into a science specialism at Sixth Form. He had expressed a preference for maths, further maths, physics and chemistry at A level although few teachers were willing to let him go without a fight. He had been under particular pressure not to forgo biology and geography in particular. Fact is he would have enjoyed a great career in whatever he chose, even crime. The depressing thing about a life cut short is the failure of such wonderful possibilities to unfold. They all crashed to the earth in a few seconds on a cold hillside. So futile.

The hearse and cortege arrived at the bottom of the drive and Barry’s family were lined up by Mr Johnson, holding people by the elbows and gently manoeuvring them into position. Just before the coffin was removed from the hearse a whisper from Barry’s Mum to the Funeral director and an, ‘I’ll see what I can do’ back in her ear. At this he walked briskly into the school and up the steps towards the waiting congregation.

If Barry had been alive would he have considered a funeral off limits for a practical joke? Hard to say. Perhaps the imposing portraits of former head-teachers on the walls of the corridor along to Big School would have grown captions? Maybe the simple addition of a halo here and a sceptre there, blu-tacked to the frame, would have been attempted. Co-operating with a musical friend, Barry had once entered a competition to produce a new school song. In their version there were two sets of words - one had been distributed to the staff and another to the pupils. It was about verse three when someone rumbled and stopped the proceedings but not before the chaplain had been exalted in rhyme to get off his hassock, lift up his cassock and show off his surplus requirements.

The spirit of this occasion demanded something but none of Barry’s friends felt that they had the appropriate bravado. Mucking up a funeral would have risked expulsion. Perhaps only Barry could have got away with it.

The waiting congregation saw the austere Funeral Director marching up the centre of Big School, having a word with a master on the way and then continuing to the front. Something to say at the beginning? Some announcement of how things were going to proceed? Most of the boys assumed a word from the undertaker must be the normal way to begin a funeral. Perhaps something about a collection or where to send donations. Barry’s friends had already decided that a TV comedy charity would get their cash. Get the funeral out of the way and then do something really daft for sponsorship. Fitting memorial.

Mr Johnson moved to the microphone and placed his top-hat and gloves on the floor. He’d seen everything death had to offer so although not the world’s greatest gift to public speaking he knew that his brief request would be quite straightforward. He had no idea. He waited for the volume of the music to be lowered and then spoke. ‘I’ve had a special request from Barry Thompson’s mother and father,’ he said. ‘They feel it would be much more appropriate.’ Nothing had prepared him for the inappropriateness of the moment that was to follow. It was invested with a sacred inevitability. ‘So instead of my regular assistants, would four of Barry’s strong friends like to come and carry the coffin. It shouldn’t be too hard to bear.’ And at that moment, the whole of Big School went spare.

Steve Tilley
January 2001

1 comment:

Mr Gnome said...


How wonderful to be able to tell a story so well.

But, in my view, how miraculous to be able to invent them.

Simply can't do it myself.

The novelist Susan Hill said (recent interview in Church Times) that about twelve years ago she dried up in terms of ideas for plots.

She asked God to help her. Since when she has simply had to work as hard as she can to keep up with the ideas that flood in.