Public School Spirit

AN: Yes, yes, I'm shocking. I haven't updated in quite a while. Actually I've been writing loads, but because I have too many stories that I'm writing on nothing gets finished. But I've got a couple of stories which may get finished before I go on my gap year, and in the meantime you get this. The plotbunny emerged from a far longer and far more irritating story that persisted in buzzing around my head, and I wrote it simply because I was delighted to have something finishable for a change. Apologies for any roughness, it was a relatively quick effort. I hope the style - which is a bit odd - doesn't put people off.

Please be darlings and REVIEW with any thoughts or criticism.

When he comes over to my flat for the first time, he sees the photos on my wall, above the rows of books on the shelf, and he studies them while I make us both coffee. They're of my family. My real family.

In one I stand, a grinning adolescent, in a line up of blue-clad boys, each with a shiny medal hanging around our necks. We're all covered in mud. I remember that I originally came out of it relatively clean, and then the boy next to me rubbed a handful of mud through my curly hair, to even up the score. I remember that afterwards a friend and I tampered with his shower, so it gave unpredictable spurts of icy water as he tried to get clean. In another there are only three of us, rather cleaner, me and the boy who was previously rubbing mud in my hair standing on either side of a girl giving the camera a confused look as blonde hair falls in front of her glasses. The blonde shows up again with her arm looped around my neck, her cheek next to mine, and the boy returns as a man in about half a dozen photos stuck to my fridge.

The girl, Danielle, he has met. She's spilt a drink on him on three occasions, and tripped over him twice, entirely by accident. I've stopped counting the effects her clumsiness has had on me over the years. But he asks me who the boy is. He wonders aloud whether he ought to be jealous of the many photos, and what they may signify.

I laugh, and tell him that Raoul's never been interested in guys that way, and I've long since given up pining for him.

His interest is piqued. He asks me to tell him more about this Raoul, stroking a hand over my arm and sitting close to me on the sofa. I resist only a moment before embarking on the tale. He insists that I tell him from the beginning. Not being good with words, he nevertheless likes stories.

My parents sent me to boarding school, I say.

(He is indignant. How could they do that to their only child? It seems terribly cruel to send their son away to the care of some distant institution. I remind him that there is a reason I don't have a photo of my parents on the wall.)

My parents sent me to boarding school when I was eleven years old. I was somewhat alarmed, as I was a rather quiet boy who had never known anyone who went to a boarding school before. So I was eager to make myself useful and liked when I found another, equally new girl who had evidently managed to spill the contents of her bag all over the floor of the hall, and was futilely restoring the objects without noticing that a hole had worn through the fabric, allowing them to trickle merrily onto the floor again and making her task endless. This girl had blonde hair, glasses, and introduced herself as Danielle.

(He asks me if Danielle has always been so careless. Yes, I tell him, she is my very own scatter-brained genius.)

This girl and I were, much to our mutual pleasure, randomly shuffled into the same house, as were several others. One of these others had brown hair and grey eyes and the beginnings of a lopsided grin, and his name was Raoul. Raoul was in my dormitory, and he was the one who led the great pillow offensive when some of the older students, in the time honoured tradition of the school, snuck in to try and terrorise the new babies.

(He looks disapproving and asks me why the teachers didn't put a stop to it, and I tell him that he doesn't quite understand the whole public school spirit.)

Raoul, I explain, was the keenest person in the year. Long before anyone else, he knew every corridor and broom cupboard of the school, and he always arrived five seconds after the lesson bell, panting, having been caught out in a spot of skulduggery or exploring. He was never placid; he had a temper, and we always worried that he'd get into trouble one day for having a fight with another student. But - not hindered by the fact that his family was rich, and he was generous - he was very well liked, and had a great many friends, chief among them myself and Danielle. Unfortunately poor Danielle had to be excluded from a great many of the adventures we concocted, because she had dreadful habit of dropping the bucket of water or putting the glue over the wrong surface or getting distracted and leaving a vital component under her mattress, and this stopped them from being as close as they might have been, but nevertheless she had a skill with bullet-proof timing - at least in theory - that helped us immensely on our jaunts.

They were my very dearest friends. That was the true joy of boarding school, that we barely had to be apart for a moment - though I admit that it was stifling when someone was in bad mood. This was, in part, what led to a good deal of the turmoil I was thrown into during later years at the school.

Now, while I don't know about Eton or Harrow, those choked old buildings where a female must be a rare and terrifying sight, but at our school no one was having to 'make do' with their own gender, and there was very little of That Sort of Thing going on. It was just liberal enough not to forbid relationships between males and females, turning a chill eye upon anyone thinking of other options. After all, you were sharing a room with several other hormonally charged young boys, and if someone had improper notions about their dorm mates, well, there would no doubt be a good deal of unpleasantness and bullying. So when the normal sort of urges started to make themselves known with rather distracting regularity, there was a good deal of pressure on me to imitate my schoolfellows, all happily entwined with people of the opposite gender, and certainly a very large pressure on me not to admit that my urges were most urgent on those occasions when I happened to see Raoul getting undressed at night.

(He says he feels sorry for me. I tell him not to bother; Raoul and I were on the house rugby team together, and this had given him quite the physique, for a teenager. Watching him undress at night was probably worth the embarrassment.)

So in any case, I suffered along. It was actually surprisingly bearable; neither Danielle nor Raoul appeared to be interested in romantic entanglements - Raoul politely declining offers in preference to trying to sneak us all out of school long enough to go abseiling or bungee jumping or something equally dangerous that had suddenly occurred to him, and Danielle not even seeming to notice even the most blatant of flirtations. We used to go out together as a platonic trio, and as long as I minded how much I drank, there was no reason that my orientation could not remain a mystery to all concerned until I had managed to rid myself of this infatuation I had with my best friend.

Naturally, I continue with a sigh, such a plan was doomed to a horrific failure. (He laces his fingers with mine, and I smile.) When we were in sixth form, his uncle died of cancer. He hadn't even been told his uncle was sick, so this came as rather a surprise. For a long time I sat with him in the dormitory while he vented about his parents not telling him and wanting him to go to the funeral, which he didn't want to do... All sorts. Then, when he'd calmed down a lot, cheered up somewhat, as we were sitting together on his bed, he told me that I was the best friend he'd ever had, and he didn't know what he'd do without me.

Of course, I say, it was foolish. But we were sitting very close together, and it slid through my head that he'd never seemed particularly interested in girls, aside from the usual jokes and the speculations of the other rugby players. So the possibility could not be ruled out. And the fact that I was a teenaged boy rather trumped my good sense. So I kissed him.

(When I fall silent, he asks me what happened next. I say that Raoul hit me. He looks horrified, and I have to laugh.)

It wasn't a hard blow, I assure him. Closed fist, yes, but I'd received worse injuries in rugby training, not to mention in matches. It was more out of shock and as a way to remove me than any real wish to hurt. I was more upset when he stormed out of the room without a word.

It was Danielle who found me, lying on my bed in a fit of sulky distress, nursing my split lip. She never did bother much about the dormitory gender rules. She wanted to know why Raoul had just stormed out into the school gardens like a very confused thundercloud. Of course, I wasn't really in any fit state to withstand her questioning, so it all came out in a few minutes.

She was wonderful about it. She asked me if I was sure, then gave me a hug, kissed me on the forehead, and told me that I was her friend and that she'd be happy for me to sleep with whatever gender I liked so long as they were nice people and weren't going to hurt me.

As a matter of fact, I add, it was Danielle who taught me about safe sex. For someone who gets flustered over the smallest things, she was strangely unabashed about researching STDs for her gay best friend.

But of course, I rein myself in, that came later. First she went to find Raoul.

They never told me exactly what was said, but from things Raoul let slip afterwards, I think that it began with a slap, and then Danielle began to call him a hundred types of arsehole until he finally capitulated and agreed to apologise. All I know is that a short time afterwards, Danielle steered back into my presence a thoroughly penitent Raoul, who apologised profusely for hitting me, and said that while he was not interested in other men he was happy to support me in whatever lifestyle I chose. And then he beat a hasty retreat.

(He says that he wouldn't have forgiven him. I suggest that he is still jealous that I have Raoul's pictures all over my fridge. He says that he doesn't think an apology under duress is really good enough.)

I was just relieved to have it all blow over, although I admit that there was a total silence on the subject of my proclivities for a while. Perhaps, I tell him, I wouldn't have stayed best friends with Raoul, but for an incident that happened a month or so later. Danielle - presumably in the cause of getting over Raoul - wanted to introduce me to a cousin of hers, who she thought might like me. This plan was raised in Raoul's presence, and he reacted very uncomfortably. I was hurt by this, and confronted him over it, and his unwillingness to talk about things. In the end, I walked off in a bad mood with him, and we didn't talk for about four days.

That might have been the end of any friendship between us, though Danielle stuck to my side faithfully - if clumsily. But on the fifth day, when I walked downstairs in the morning, I had no choice but to forgive him. I have no idea how he arranged it, in such a short time - he must have recruited half our year. He would have been expelled if anyone was willing to dob him in. But the entire school - I'm not kidding - was covered in rainbow badges. Every classroom had a poster, he'd actually painted every twentieth panel in the hallway rainbow. It cost them thousands to fix. Rainbow streamers were all over the dining room, it looked like an explosion in a dye factory. And carved into the rugby field - you could see it from the windows - was the message 'we accept you completely.'

(He admits that this was quite the grand gesture, but he still looks a little dubious. This time I laugh at him even more.)

He really is rather jealous. I point this out to him, and after a long debate he concedes that yes, maybe he is just a little. Why do I keep all those photos?

I tell him, still laughing, that Raoul's in Africa, trying to write a book about adventuring. If he'd looked closer at the pictures he would have seen that they are not solely of Raoul, but also of lions, elephants, and gorgeous scenery. He pouts a little, but not for long, and then he joins in, rueful at himself. I tell him that Raoul's just my best friend now, nothing more, even if I do have a soft spot for him still.

He smiles at me. He says he doesn't mind me having a soft spot for Raoul as long as he gets one, too.