Something triggered it. Of the five senses, it’s usually smell that gets the ol’ memory-machine cranking into overdrive. Today it was sound.
I sat at my computer and listened as the washing machine spun itself into a tizzy. Then, through the open window, in flew the caw of seagulls and slow, distant traffic. From the upstairs flat, came the muted waffling of daytime television hosts talking about walk-in wardrobes and post-natal depression. Behind me, my own television, despite being in standby mode, randomly clicked (the way dormant televisions do), as though flicked by the finger of a poltergeist who was short of ideas. And to top it all off, a postman cycled past, whistling something or other from the Rogers & Hart back-catalogue. Whereas I should have been planning lessons and working on my new book, these sounds all combined to create the perfect storm of nostalgia. I could think of nothing else but a dark, joyous chapter of my past.
You might laugh when I tell you this (there’s a first for everything), but I was something of a rebel in the early days of High School. Not a proper rebel. I wasn’t one of those hairy-lipped kids who swore at teachers and smoked Bensons. Nor was I the type to get expelled and then hang around the school gates at 3pm on my mountain bike, claiming that I dint never like school anyway. My rebellions were all attendance related. For the first two years of secondary school, I just really hated going.
My attendance in Year 7 was especially rotten. I would regularly have one day off a week, two if the telly was good. Unlike now, though, there were no repercussions to skiving. It was the early 90s, after all. People were too busy listening to All-4-One and trying to work out how to use VideoPlus. Back then, schools didn’t employ special ‘engagement monitors’ who called parents when their child’s attendance slipped below the cataclysmic 95% mark. Such innovations are a post-millennial construction. My own attendance floated at around 70% after my first fortnight and never recovered. There were times, in that first year, when it must have dipped as far below the waterline as 50%. And the closest the school ever came to an initiative was to offer us a fun-sized Mars Bar at the end of the week if we attended all five days. As much as I liked Mars Bars, the deal wasn’t sweet enough. I doubt even a now-defunct king-sized one would have coaxed me in.
It wasn’t all skiving. I was a sickly kid. My nose was so regularly jammed that I almost forgot what air smelt like. That aside, though, my excuses for missing school were shameful. I had everything from headaches to toe-aches. I think I even tried claiming I had morning sickness. If that wasn’t bad enough, there were the urban myths of skiving which I willfully used as excuses. These ranged from such nonsense as ‘you don’t have to go to school if the bus is more than twenty-minutes late’ and ‘they don’t let you in the building if you can’t find your tie.’ None of these legends carried even the remotest ring of truth. Did that stop me?
But my worst excuse, and, in retrospect, the saddest, was that I just didn’t fancy going in. Why sit in a classroom being taught about commas when I could be sat at home writing original Fawlty Towers scripts in the back of my exercise book? Why learn about quavers and minims when I could listen to Now 28 whilst eating some actual Quavers? Why practice home economics when I had the art of cheese on toast nailed? Mother, bring more grapes.
I wanted to want to go to school in those early days. I was envious of the 95%-ers with their boundless enthusiasm and coloured pencils. If they were ever absent, the teachers would look at them compassionately when they returned and ask if they were feeling better. Whereas whenever I deigned to put in an appearance, the teachers just assumed my video player had broken again. They were usually right.
It was the liberation that I loved most about skiving. The whiff of soap suds and the tie of the apron strings that the day offered. A feeling of homeliness that, as the world laboured to turn, I was pardoned from the struggle. To this day, as the intro to this piece will testify, the sounds and smells of a modern house in the daytime release all the right chemicals in me. There’s a section in one of the early chapters of Birdsong that so captures the beauty of an empty house during a working day that it actually makes me weep. Mind you, so does the smell of Zoflora.
There was a familiar pattern to days off. First, I’d have to convince my mum that I had a sufficiently unpleasant illness. Then, once she’d been duped, it was uniform off and straight to bed where the ruse would continue until midday. God, that intense, shaking excitement of pulling off the heist. I could barely unbutton my white shirt quickly enough. The thought of those hours of high-quality morning television all laid out before me: Kilroy, The Time The Place, Win Lose or Draw, This Morning (live from Liverpool Docks – with seedy Fred leaping from England to Ireland on the weather map, casually symbolising the mid-90s defusion of tensions between those two quarrelsome nations). If I was feeling particularly educational, I might watch some of BBC Two or Channel 4’s schools output, usually a documentary about yeast or a drama about a boy from Leicester who couldn’t read. And, to cap it all off, something from ITV’s long-since abandoned lunchtime children’s programming: Rosie & Jim, Allsorts, The Riddlers, Rainbow.
Not quite. Although it was bone-shakingly exciting to pull the duvet over my head at around 9am – thinking of those poor suckers at school, getting educated and bettering themselves – it wasn’t long before the shame kicked in. The thrill of having seen the yellow clock go from 8.59 to 9.00 on The Big Breakfast couldn’t alleviate the grimness of the sun piercing through the closed curtains. Soon, the bed would get too warm. Eventually, I’d have to go downstairs and face the wrath. ‘You can go to school tomorrow,’ my mum would snap. I’d nod in return.
The shame ran right through the afternoon, through Call My Bluff and Neighbours. The darkest hour was when my sisters came home, loaded with homework and smiles, free to watch CBBC sans guilt. It was then that I’d really regret my decision. Watching after-school cartoons when you hadn’t gone to school left a gruelling taste; as though you were dining on an undeserved, stolen treat. I didn’t deserve Potsworth & Company. I didn’t deserve Rude Dog & The Dweebs. I didn’t deserve any of it. Worse still, friends wouldn’t come to the door if you’d been off school. They knew the unwritten rule: no school, no after school. When the release of bedtime finally came, my room was stuffy and clouded with the day’s sin.
I found my Record of Achievement the other day, that rouge coloured document that teachers assured us we’d carry to every job interview through to retirement. I’d built up a myth in my mind that by Year 10 and 11 I’d turned a corner. I guess I had. My final attendance was recorded as 85%. Better, yes. But I still wouldn’t have got that fun-size Mars Bar.
Anyway, I better snap out of this daydream and get back to planning those lessons. It’s funny how things work out.