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Double Life Extracts

 

 Chapter 1

 

Invisibility 

The lesson plans were making poor progress.  Sadly, Simeon looked down at a few untidy handwritten notes together with a scattering of textbooks and judged that he should have made more headway in the time available.  But how much time had that been?  Was it weeks, or months, since his nervous breakdown?  His counsellor euphemistically referred to this life changing event as a ‘break-through’ rather than a break-down.  In order to answer his own question, he perused assorted typewritten sheets with little success and, to tell the truth, little interest. 

The problem was memory.  Everything was in a haze.  When did he last see his counsellor?  He tried to remember his face.  It was a blur.  Fragments of their conversation floated in and out of his consciousness.  He’d been warned the therapy might often feel this way.  Did he admit to that counsellor that he was homosexual?  He couldn’t remember.  Sometimes he doubted there ever was a counsellor: so confusing, like living a dream, swimming in treacle. 

Where was it all going anyway?  All this nonsense; wouldn’t it put him right back in the classroom, again to endure all the familiar misery?  At least in his present situation, Simeon appeared to be protected by a shield of invisibility. 

He was still Mr Hogg.  But this was a pathetic Hogg who had lost his power.  The nasty elements had lost interest and simply ignored him as they might ignore a caretaker or a cleaner.  There was no fun in attacking ancillary staff.  Simeon had become invisible – and was that such a bad thing?  He was located next to his old classroom.  He was established in a small room all to himself with a view down a corridor the full length of the block shared by Humanities and the Sixth Form.  Nearly two thousand pupils filled the Valley Comprehensive School staffed by nearly a hundred teachers.  Here he could observe school life passing by. 

There was the problem of his pension.  Simeon would have pressed for a clean break with teaching altogether.  He wanted out.  However small, he needed an income to survive and was forced into the option of therapy and counselling for six months on half pay.  And then what?  The mounting uncertainties exacerbated his mounting anxieties.  But at least, regarding his erstwhile tormentors, Simeon was at peace.  Simeon was invisible.  

For most of the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, like most secretive gay men, Simeon had always sought invisibility.  He spoke little of himself and avoided social contact in and out of school.  In a staff of a hundred, there was a probability of at least four other gay teachers.  He easily identified one in the Art Department, one in the English Department but other masculine men could hide and blend in with the generality.  They might be bisexual and appear to he happily married.  They could stay hidden forever, except, of course, when Simeon came face to face with a butch colleague from the Technical Department at a Manchester gay sauna.  After fleeting eye contact, both were in denial at that venue.  Back at school, they conscientiously avoided each other. 

Simeon might have met other members of staff (including lesbians) had he been a frequenter of queer pubs - or, if he had been a ‘scene bunny’, at a gay disco.  His revulsion of late nights, alcohol and loud thumping music had limited his activities to public toilets, certain notorious woodland walks and Turkish baths.  As his 30s blended into 40s, the dangers of toilets and woods became more and more unacceptable making the Turkish bath a favourite comfort zone. 

The Harrogate Royal Baths, a safe distance from Worksop, were like an eastern temple dedicated to the god of pleasure and sensuality.  There was the richly tiled Plunge Pool, together with Hot Room Chambers - Tepidarium, Calidarium and Laconium.  The bather entered the dry area, padded over soft, thick pile carpets and progressed through exotic, tranquil halls.  These areas of rest beds were resplendent with crafted wooden partitions sporting occasional Arabian motifs to complete the fantasy for recumbent fat bathers – most of them retired with all the time in the world.  

These were the guilty ones, the soft, flabby, shapeless, old men who furtively observed any firm body in that plush silence, that serene restfulness which could have been a gentleman’s club in London.  Much was hanging in that humid air, but little was said.  

Simeon knew the rules.  Like the Derby Turkish Bath, the Harrogate Baths were open to the general public - caution and discretion were the watchwords.  According to Kinsey’s figures, 5% of the population were exclusively homosexual, but the reverse was almost always true inside any British Turkish Bath where perhaps one in 20 male bathers attended exclusively for the pleasures of hot steam, relaxation and therapeutic benefits.  For many decades before the advent of ‘the gay bath house’, poorly paid bath attendants gladly accepted big tips to look the other way should they stumble upon any illegal activity. 

Most baths had a café area where tea, coffee and tasty main meals could be enjoyed in the comfort of hushed peace and quiet.  Here, polite conversations were whispered between gentlemen who might have recently been carnally acquainted. 

In and around elaborate oaken cubicles with luxurious maroon curtains, Simeon soon encountered Mr Bill Bulman who was a regular fixture and gentleman of character with a rough manner, but very popular with the staff.  Underneath a hard shell, he was courteous and always generous. 

Pushing on a heavy door, a bather was hit by an angry, gurgling hissing which seemed to emanate from the subterranean depths of Harrogate.  Gingerly, he moved into an opaque blinding fog of hot steam with visibility further limited by inadequate, low powered, amber bulbs.  Carefully, slowly, step by step, his eyes gradually became accustomed to the nebulous atmosphere.  A cavern was discerned, longer than it was wide, occupied by occasional lumps of flesh, Lords of Lard who silently lurked on stone benches, in dark Turkish recesses on either side. 

Simeon selected a vacant seat and sat down.  The heat felt good.  The shower was great, but after hours cycling in cold rain, these lovely minutes of hot haze penetrated deep into his cold bones.  Warmth and relaxation brought him to a point where he closed his eyes, drifted into a lethargic reverie and, for a few minutes, came very close to sleep. 

Suddenly the touch of flesh!  He looked up to see a fat face smiling encouragement to engage in … well, Simeon was no innocent.  It reminded him to progress further.  He was expected in deeper, denser steam and had yet to reach his objective.  He advanced into an even darker section of the long, dimly lit chamber of erotically charged vapours.  The first indication of an oversized bather was the faint glint of something shiny and metallic leaning next to the mosaic wall.  On closer inspection, it resolved into the top of an expensive, stout, walking stick – silver, in the image of a bull’s head. 

Peering into the vapours, he could hazily discern the vague outline of what appeared to be two figures.  The first was no fat man and [unusually in that establishment] he was anything but soft.  It was the rear view of what Simeon usually described as ‘a real, solid bloke’.  A well tanned hairy torso was well supported above perfectly formed muscular buttocks.  Strong tattooed arms suggested a rough working man, the sort often referred to as ‘hairy arsed miners’ by coarse, drunken slags who staggered over Heanor Market Place in Simeon’s early teenage days.  He never thought he would see such a macho bloke, standing to attention, mouth wide open, intoxicated with carnal delight.  

The voyeur drew closer and was excited hearing a deep purring of mounting rapture.  At the same time, this real rugged bloke started to arch his back, surrendering his manhood for the delectation of another macho man, a big man, who was seated.  Two hands, big hands with pleasure-giving digits, were busy, wantonly stroking those firm beautiful buttocks.  They wandered further, around dangling genitalia and sought out secret places out of sight.  Also out of sight, hidden deep inside a fat throat, was a stiff cock.  It was begging for release inside a salivating grotto, complete with an experienced muscular tongue, greedily extracting drops of dribble before the final bliss – that final, creamy jet of completion. 

None of these extracurricular activities could ever be discussed with colleagues at the Valley School.  When the public corporation baths in various provincial towns and cities began to clampdown on their homosexual bathers, the exclusive gay sauna emerged and grew in popularity.

 

Chapter 2 

Ronnie, Bobbie and Freddie 

Simeon taught as he was taught in the 1950s.  He was too strict, too formal, too unwilling to modernise and reluctant to embrace progressive, child-centred trends in state education which arrived in the 1980s.  This ‘Mr Chips’ mindset was a cloak to conceal the continuing anxiety of leading a double life.  Inside, he was a frightened homosexual trying to look like a confident heterosexual on the outside.  It had to look like a teacher easily fitting in with pupils and staff but more often than not, the stern schoolmaster was sabotaging his efforts to look human and come across as an effective educator. 

In two decades, only once did he achieve a breakthrough and enjoy a friendly, meaningful relationship with a group of pupils.  They were a boisterous bunch of ruffians with an appalling reputation throughout the school.  Progressive staff referred to the Ronnie, Bobbie and Freddie mob as ‘challenging behaviour’.  Hard-nosed traditionalists abused them with loutish language and occasional violence to keep order and impose discipline.  Mr Hogg identified himself with this ‘old guard’ but never condoned corporal punishment. 

This gang of three, by popularity and sheer force of personality, imposed on the rest of the class an influence which could make life very difficult for a teacher who took his work seriously.  On one occasion, after an onerous hour, Mr Hogg dismissed the class but detained the terrible trio.  Unwisely perhaps, they were ordered to remain behind, explain their disruptive attitude and suffer a reprimand.  Simeon had little confidence in his strategy - but it was worth a try. 

Many years on, without success, he tried to recall and reconstruct this extraordinary conference of four and locate the exact point when everything changed between the teacher and his charges.  The sea change happened during a moment when a criticism of Ronnie was interrupted by an effective heartfelt defence from his number two – Bobbie.  In plain language normally considered disrespectful to a member of staff, despite limited articulation, Bobbie managed to paint a picture of his best friend who was experiencing all the stresses and chaotic adolescent miseries which could have been a 14-year-old Simeon. 

Effectively, the atmosphere of this detention, this coerced punishment suddenly transformed into a voluntary and valuable meeting between four equals.  It was a magical moment, a sudden switch from monochrome into glorious Technicolor where three boys wanted to stay and further explain their lives to an adult who was now more counsellor than schoolmaster. 

It was a dodgy situation for Mr Hogg!  He was hearing confidential information about his colleagues which was verging on ‘unprofessional conduct’.  He was hearing distressing details of their home life.  His sympathetic ear encouraged further trust to the point that his teacher status had morphed into the confidentiality of the confessional.  Now treated like a newly acquired friend, Simeon was begged to guard the secrets which had been entrusted to him for safe keeping. 

Were these revelations true?  Were these boys telling lies?  In the weeks which followed, cautiously and casually, Simeon cross-referenced the accounts with a few friendly colleagues and one trusted deputy head who had access to private files.  Although the boys hid behind a veneer of defiant swagger, their new confidant concluded that there was indeed a case to answer.  They were victims of an insensitive system all too willing to exploit youths from a deprived background and give three dogs a bad name.  Bobbie said,

          ‘I can’t help the way I speak, sir.  It’s me voice, it irritates folk.  It’s not my fault, sir.  Honest.’ 

Simeon had always been annoyed by a certain element of insolence in the utterances delivered by Bobbie.  There was a sardonic tone which, at a low level, challenged authority and continued to chafe.  Notwithstanding, he accepted that the pupil’s lilt of speech was natural, a part of Bobbie’s personality.  It was not intentionally disrespectful. 

The new friendship was affirmed, enjoyed by all four, but did not really solve any problems.  It reduced the stress of teaching in that particular class and, by osmosis; improved Mr Hogg’s standing in the whole of that 4th Year. 

So now, somewhere into the start of a new academic year, Ronnie, Bobbie and Freddie will now be 5th years.  He had not seen them.  And that was a pity.  They were worth looking at, especially Freddie, the cute one.  Of the three, he was the least assertive, not to mention his perfect bottom well displayed in close fitting trousers. 

Simeon mentioned Freddie’s tempting anatomy to a repressed married friend who, like himself, was carefully navigating around a secretive double life.

          ‘I’m a bit concerned about your lust!’ said the friend.

          ‘What do you mean?’ responded Simeon.

          ‘Well ... As teachers, aren’t we in a position of trust?  It’s not on is it - leering at boy’s bums.’

          ‘I was not leering.  A lifetime of caution has taught me the art of the crafty shufti.  You are a teacher.  Are you telling me that a desirable teenage arse has never titillated?’

          ‘I suppose it depends on thoughts remaining thoughts and never being put into action,’ said the friend backing off.  ‘Anyway, what would you do with Freddie?  You don’t do back passage.  You’ve been americanised.  How did those butch numbers in Detroit put it - hitting the dirt road?’

          ‘True enough.  Penetration is not on my menu.  What really irritates me is the inequality, the injustice, the double standards of our double lives.’   

          ‘What’s that supposed to mean!’ countered the gay colleague.

          ‘It means you, a gay man, as randy as me coming over all moral, tut-tutting because I fancy Freddie’s nice bum when you never said a dicky-bird after that odious performance we all witnessed in the staffroom last week!’ 

Simeon was referring to a few minutes of light hearted banter between a few macho, ribald, coarse colleagues.  One, a senior staff member, had allowed his office to deteriorate into an unworkable state of chaos.  He asked a much lusted after nubile 6th form girl to rescue him from his self-inflicted shambles.  In a naughty narrative of soft porn proportions, he aroused his heterosexual all male audience into a raucous mob of salivating sinfulness. 

Simeon was particularly revolted by repeated references to the girl being told to pay special attention to the lower shelves - making it necessary for her to bend down and bend over.  The senior member of staff delighted in a graphic description of the way her knickers revealed her ‘sexy bum’.  Hoots, cheers and loud guffaws encouraged further indecent comment. 

Simeon condemned and berated his hypocritical homosexual colleague for laughing along during this prurient performance.

          ‘Well!  Didn’t you join in with them?

          ‘I’ll be damned if I did!  My head was deeply buried in The Guardian.  I’ll admit to cowardice, but not to any complicity.  I’ll also confess to envy in that people like us could never enter into such banter... ’

          ‘Which,’ interrupted the other, ‘could not be condoned in a situation where a professional is employed in a position of trust?’     

          ‘Touché,’ parried Simeon, concluding a rather fractious exchange between two repressed gay men.   

During this time of the late 1970s in the Valley Comprehensive School, discipline and respect for masters was rapidly deteriorating.  Corporal punishment was still available to the Head and his Deputies but, to the relief of Simeon, forbidden to other teachers.  A minority of macho ‘old guard’ staff regularly applied a violent fist to quickly correct any irritation such as casual insolence.  This type of transgression having reached the ears of senior management usually resulted in a gentle reprimand and advice along the lines of - ‘Don’t get me wrong, I know Bobbie and his scumbags can infuriate, but just go easy.  Stand back.  It’s not worth it.’ 

Detention after school was used with increasing frequency.  But it was a formal detention of one hour from 4 to 5pm.  To punish a pupil required the completion of a detailed Incident Report in triplicate to the Head of House who would send a letter to the parents.  Overwhelmed with work and stress, most staff already bogged down by red tape simply could not find the energy and time to cope with ever mounting bureaucracy.  Some hard cases (like Bobbie) would make sure the letter never reached his parents anyway; or he might simply refuse to attend the detention.  In the mid 1980s in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, to Simeon and many of his beleaguered colleagues, it just felt like the world was falling apart.  

Some months after that extraordinary impromptu detention, which magically morphed into a constructive conference of equals, a history master was whispering with the terrible trio in the library.  Seated in front of written notes and open books, it was intended to look like a teacher helping his pupils.  Actually, it was Simeon enjoying a casual chat with Ronnie, Bobbie and Freddie when the subject of school punishments came up.

          ‘Do you remember that time, big bust up, when I ordered you lot to stay behind in class?’ asked Simeon.

          ‘We’ll never forget it!’ responded chief spokesman Ronnie, slightly abashed.  The others displayed a degree of embarrassment and a short silence forced Freddie into respectful speech.

          ‘We’re sorry we upset you, sir.  Honest.’

          ‘Yeah,’ mumbled Bobbie.

          ‘It’s just that ... well ... I wondered ... well, you, all three of you, could have just refused to stay behind.  You’re known for refusing detention.  Not to mention disrupting other detentions.  You could have simply walked out of the room.  Why didn’t you walk out?’ 

They looked at each other for a lead.

          ‘I expect ...’ started Ronnie. 

          ‘I think it’s because we liked you, sir,’ said Bobbie.

          ‘Liked me!  After I’d pitched into you all!’

          ‘Well, we knew you’d got a temper ... I mean ...’ stumbled Freddie.

          ‘Tantrums don’t amount to good discipline or good teaching, lads.  I wish I was a good teacher.  Afraid I’m not.’

          ‘I’ll tell you what, sir,’ said Ronnie, ‘We were sorry to have upset you so much.  We felt bad about it.  That’s what it was.’ 

This thoughtful exchange with boys from a rough, chaotic, dysfunctional troubled background was very affecting to Simeon.  He thought on it deeply.  So, all along, could it have been that the trio unconsciously engineered this extraordinary reconciliation?  For this stern master, it was a sort of Damascene moment, one shining flash, the most significant instant in his whole teaching career.  The mask of Mr Chips had slipped and revealed a useless stressed-out Mr Hogg who had suddenly stepped back and was staggered by the futility of his position. 

Fast forward ten years and see an older broken Hogg in a small classroom, half-heartedly presiding over untidy notes spread out on a table before him pondering that special conversation with Freddie, Bobbie and Ronnie.  By coincidence, suddenly, there was Ronnie!  It was Ronnie, large as life, mischievously grinning at Mr Hogg through the glass door.  Immediately Simeon summed up the situation.  The disrupter had been ejected from his classroom.  He was bored, wandering around the block heading for even more self-inflicted aggravation, not only on himself, but staff who already suffered enough from that terrible trio.

          ‘Get in here, Ronnie!’ barked Simeon.  ‘Kicked out of class again?’

          ‘Well … not really, sir …’ ventured the boy eternally in denial attempting to justify his conduct.  Recalling good relations and the need to build on past success, he smiled and put the lad at ease.

          ‘Never mind.  I’ll take responsibility if questions are asked.  Sit yourself down.  I could use a bit of company.  Nobody seems to notice me these days.  How are you?’

          ‘Not too bad, sir,’ beamed Ronnie, settling into his chair, clearly delighted to be back with his former teacher.  ‘Not teaching this period, sir?’ 

          ‘I’ve been poorly, Ronnie.  Took bad, as we say in Derbyshire.  Not physically, it’s ... well ... a mental breakdown.  You lot have finally driven me crackers,’ smiled Simeon enjoying his own joke.  ‘Seriously, I’ve been in this room for months scribbling away at this stuff.  The idea is to get me back into the classroom eventually, get me better - something like that.’

          ‘I’m sorry ...’ said Ronnie, concerned, sincere, inadequately trying to express himself.  Writing stories?’ asked the visitor after noticing an untidy spread of papers.

          ‘Supposed to be lesson plans, but I’m thinking it’s all a waste of time.  Perhaps I should be writing my life story.’

          ‘That would be interesting!  When you come back you could read it to us.  We’d enjoy that, sir.’

Simeon smiled a sad smile.

‘I don’t think I’ll be back here teaching you, Ronnie.’  Briefly, in simple terms, he explained his breakdown and problems of memory.  ‘But enough about me.  Tell me your news.’

‘Got meself stabbed, sir!’

‘Stabbed!  You mean …’ 

At this, the victim jumped to his feet, lowered his trousers and jerked up his shirt proudly revealing his milky midriff and several inches of ugly scar just above an adolescent waist.  This was serious violence, and recent violence at that.

          ‘My God!  Cover yourself, lad, quickly.  Anybody walking by will wonder what’s going on in here.  How did that happen?

          ‘Knife fight.’

          ‘Oh Ronnie!  Will you ever learn?  It must have been a hospital job.’  Recalling the brutal reality of this boy’s chaotic life, Simeon was alarmed.  ‘Were your mates involved?  Did they get hurt?’ 

The reference to Bobbie and Freddie seemed to discomfort Ronnie who slumped back down in his seat.

          ‘I can’t remember.’

          ‘You can’t remember!  But you must remember!’

          ‘I was in hospital a long time.  Do you still live in Clowne?’

 

Now it was Simeon’s turn to be discomforted.  The abrupt change of subject turned his mind to recurring anxiety.  Had he locked the door when he left his house that morning?  Why was he plagued with visions of piles of unopened letters and a neglected overgrown garden? 

Another unwelcome thought intruded: the cycling club which was strangled at birth by a deputy head.  He was alarmed on hearing about an impromptu visit to Mr Hogg from three enthusiastic cyclists.  Ronnie, Bobbie and Freddie turned up at his door urging the formation of a school cycling club run by their favourite teacher.  Affording them hospitality demanded by basic courtesy, Simeon, serving up three mugs of tea in his living room, knew he was on dodgy ground – and told them so.  But exuberant innocent youth could see no such subtle obstacles.  The boys wanted to experience the mysterious nooks and crannies of the High Peak Simeon often mentioned when describing his weekend excursions.  Bobbie and his cheerful claque often greeted Simeon with friendly banter regarding his sexy McEnroe shorts when cycling into school.

          ‘Ope ya didn’t mind that bit o’ cheek this morning, sir?  It’s just us being a bit daft.’

          ‘Don’t worry, Bobbie.  I know the difference between genuine disrespectful abuse and a compliment - albeit inappropriate.  Anyway, a bloke my age should be grateful his legs get noticed.  Don’t wolf-whistle; that’s all I ask.  It might catch on and be embarrassing.’ 

Did Simeon cycle to school this morning?  If so, did he still park his bike in the history book cupboard, the usual place?  He had no memory of how he had arrived at school, no memory of parking his car. 

Thoughts went back to the deputy head incident.

          ‘Try to see it from my point of view, Simeon.  You, a single man living alone, were entertaining male pupils in your home.  Of course, I’ve full confidence in your professional conduct.  That goes without saying.  Fortunately the three lads concerned, carefully questioned, spoken to separately, breathed nothing of any impropriety.  It’s not me; you have to see how others might interpret this visit to your home. 

          ‘You must also consider the reputation of these rogues.  They begged me to permit this cycling club.  Of course, it’s out of the question.  They were dismayed when I pointed out the need for an extra member of staff - even if I were to tolerate such a club.  It’s nice to be popular but, believe me, Simeon, unless this business is squashed at the outset, you are on the road to disaster!  I’ve made it clear that no further visits will be sanctioned and expect to hear no more on the subject.’ 

Simeon was annoyed.  He had no intention of agreeing to such a venture and hoped the surprise visit would have passed without comment.  Senior management had seized an opportunity to indulge in unacceptable, unchallenged homophobia.  Walking down the corridor, minutes after the reprimand, too late, he rehearsed a defence of several sound bites.  Simeon’s weekends were precious.  His time was valuable.  Solitary cycling in the Derbyshire hills was restorative, his way of recharging the batteries, combating stress and building up fresh reserves for Monday morning.  The boys might have been congenial company, but the main purpose was fresh air and exercise away from school and responsibility.  Cycling in a group also constituted an unacceptable risk of collision with possible grievous results.  All these points Simeon should have made in his defence.  Under the threat of bigotry, prejudice and ignorance, he was paralysed into an abject silence. 

During these lengthy cogitations, Simeon realised he had not answered Ronnie’s question.

          ‘Yes, I still live in Clowne.’

          ‘Good!  I’ll bike over and see you like last time.’

          ‘I’d enjoy that but … your last visit gave me a bit of bother with the bosses.’

          ‘It’ll not matter now, sir.  Who’ll see us?’ 

Before he could respond, Simeon, with a sudden rush of realisation, was overwhelmed by the profound truth of that statement.  Who indeed would know?  He had been reduced to a nonperson, a former teacher who simply did not matter anymore.  Then he noted the singular ‘I’ll bike over’.  The other boys were not mentioned.  Ronnie responded,

          ‘I don’t see much of them these days.’

          ‘That’s a shame.  Friends are important.  You, of all people, need as much social support as possible.’

          ‘Yes.  I get lonely since the hospital stuff.’

          ‘They came to visit you – I hope!’

          ‘I saw Bobbie and Freddie there once, just once, but they couldn’t find me.  I was too weak to call out.  You were there, sir!  That meant a lot.  You were the only teacher who cared enough to bother.  But it was the same thing; you looked straight at me, but didn’t recognise me.  I must have been a bit of a mess with tubes and stuff in me.’ 

Simeon had no memory of such a visit.  In truth, he was experiencing his own difficulties at about the same time, but did not have the heart to disillusion Ronnie.  Possibly he was reliant on that mistaken belief.

          ‘Anyway,’ thought Simeon, ‘for all I know, I might well have shot off to that hospital on hearing such dreadful news.  If only my memory were not so bad.  I’m sick of this perpetual fog.’

 

Ronnie came back to the subject of his teacher’s lesson plans which inspired such little enthusiasm.

          ‘Forget this stuff, sir.  If nobody’s checking up on you, what the hell!  Write about something we’d all like to know about.  Best part of your lessons was when it became personal, when you spoke about yourself.  That’s when it was real!  Sometimes you used examples, your mates, that American bloke Walter who was brainwashed by the Jehovah's Witnesses.’ 

Too true!  That was real all right!  It triggered another painful memory.  A girl in the class, who was a Jehovah's Witness, complained with the result that Simeon suffered another reprimand from the Deputy Head. 

But there was something odd about this teenager.  Teacher studied pupil.  Something was wrong.  After a few seconds, he realised it was his speech.  It was a touch too sophisticated for Ronnie?  He was never so articulate.  Yet it was Ronnie.  As he stared, momentarily Ronnie aged – and then returned to normal.  Was Simeon going mad!

          ‘Something wrong, sir?’

         ‘Nothing really.  It’s just that … look … my memory’s horribly vague.  It is correct, isn’t it; I was teaching you, Bobbie and Freddie last summer?  Or was it the year before?  I can’t seem to reconcile the good times with you chaps and those appalling incidents with the sixth formers which, well let’s face it, drove me out of teaching.’

          ‘Driven out!’  Ronnie was genuinely horrified.  ‘It’s news to me, and I’m sorry to hear it.’ 

Simeon took a deep breath.  He made a decision.  It was motivated by increasing loneliness to the point of desperation.  Emboldened by the boy’s maturity, his compassion and heartfelt empathy – for the first time ever, Mr Hogg would admit his homosexuality to a pupil.

          ‘We all knew that, sir,’ said Ronnie in some sadness and a wan smile.  ‘But it made no difference,’ he added cheerily.  ‘You’ve always been well respected and well liked.’  In a sudden change, he spoke softly in low menacing tones, more to his hand as it became a fist.  ‘Course, we ‘ad ta give a bit of strong advice to one or two youths, just now and again, you know, when they forgot their manners.  Those sorts, well, they learn quick – never said it again.’ 

Simeon looked at his bodyguard with mixed feelings and chose his words carefully.

          ‘Yes.  I’m fully aware of your considerable influence in the school,’ he said sardonically.  ‘Much better to have you, Bobbie and Freddie with me rather than against me.  It made life easier.  It was a brief golden age in my career.’   

          ‘You should have told us about them yobs.  Why didn’t you?  We could have sorted it in seconds.’ 

Simeon explained.  He detailed gay hate at the Valley Comprehensive School in Worksop which, effectively, terminated a 17 year teaching career.

‘You see, Ronnie, my private life had to remain very private.  I was leading a double life, but some pupils began to speculate on my sexuality.  They turned me into an object of fun.  In the last months there were humiliating hurtful episodes.  I might have survived a few, but there were too many.  A steady torturous drip destroyed my credibility and confidence.  At the edge of a breakdown, a shell of my former self, there came a point when my position was impossible.  I couldn’t do my job properly.  These appalling attacks were never taken seriously by senior management.  One culprit was told – “That was a silly thing to say.”  A colleague commented on continuing misery, my appearance and exhaustion.  She advised a few days off.  At the end of that day, I walked out of that classroom determined never to come back.

          ‘All those years, I did my job quietly.  I kept my head down, kept my private life very private and did nothing for the gay cause.’  Ronnie looked a question.

          ‘Gay cause?’  Simeon tried to explain. 

          ‘Some brave folks in far off cities were sticking up for me and others like me.  Homosexual teachers are isolated, terrified of being exposed as queer, frightened of being humiliated by ignorant pupils and colleagues especially in Worksop, a deeply conservative colliery community.’

‘I don’t remember anything like that,’ said Ronnie in puzzlement.

          ‘No,’ replied Simeon slowly.  ‘Look here, Ronnie, we have both endured trauma and both have memory problems.  Let me ask you a simple question: can you remember who the Prime Minister was when I taught you and your mates?’

          ‘Mrs Thatcher.’

          ‘Mrs Thatcher indeed!  She was the PM in the 1980s.  What year are we in now?’

          ‘I’m not sure,’ said Ronnie - after a troubled pause.

‘I’d say 1995 - sometime in October - but I’m not sure.’ 

During a difficult silence, they looked at each other for some moments.  Simeon broke the silence.

          ‘I might be having difficulties, but I’ve not lost my critical faculties.  You see what it means?  If I’m right about the current year, I’m in conversation with a man in his early twenties!  I thought you’d been kicked out of a class?  Is that right?  Or have you just walked along Valley Road and into the building?’ 

Ronnie, mystified, was stunned into silence.  In that silence, Simeon cast his mind over the Thatcher years.  He grieved for people who suffered under her appalling 1988 law, Section 28.  It was the first anti-gay legislation passed in a 100 years!  Like living in a police state; it prevented any positive mention of homosexuality in schools, banned Local Authorities from publishing material expressing the acceptability of homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationship’.  In other words, it told gay children, lesbian and gay parents – ‘you are not a real family, you are unacceptable, you are inferior.’ 

At the 1987 Conservative party conference, she mocked people who defended the right to be gay in her keynote speech, insinuating there was no such right.  During her rule, there was an explosion of queer bashing and murder, whilst gay men were demonised for the AIDS pandemic.  In that year, after a bout of flu, Simeon returned to his classroom and was greeted by a scrawl on the board – ‘Hogg’s got AIDS.’  Simeon felt under siege.  It was a dreadful time.  The Conservative government’s ‘family values’ and ‘Victorian values’ campaigns whipped up hysterical levels of homophobia aided by the moral panic over AIDS which was dubbed the ‘gay plague’. 

Ronnie attempted to answer Simeon’s question.

          ‘You thought I’d been kicked out of class, so that’s what I thought.  I’m not sure which class it was … I might have walked in from the street?’

          ‘Aren’t we a pair of crocks?’ replied Simeon with a wry smile. 

The bell sounded for the lunch hour.  Immediately corridors filled up with youthful humanity pressing and crushing to exit the building.  Ronnie turned round to see if he recognised anybody.  Columns crowded towards the main exit on the left colliding with pupils emerging from classrooms down the corridors on the right.  At times the jam came to a halt.  Nobody took notice of the two men observing from that small classroom. 

And it was two men.  Ronnie was no longer a boy.  As if by mutual consent, both were reluctant to pursue further the taboo subject of mental problems.  They had pushed the analysis as far as they dared.  In silence, teacher and pupil assessed areas of agreement and gave voice to a safe way forward.  Simeon, the more articulate, spoke first.

          ‘I’m delighted to have been reunited with you today, Ronnie.  We’ve agreed I’m wasting my time with lesson plans and should write an autobiography.  It’ll be a lot easier to do that if I can tell it to somebody.  Will you come again and discuss it with me?’

          ‘Of course!  I like your company and, let’s face it; I’ve nothing else to do.’

          ‘If you can ask the occasional question, make the odd comment from time to time, it’ll be really helpful.  Don’t be reluctant to criticise.  I’m on my own in this eternal fog and need feedback.  Steer me in the right direction if you feel the need.’ 

It seemed like the present spate of conversation had been exhausted.  Warm goodbyes were exchanged in the comfortable knowledge that a framework for future meetings had been established.  Ronnie was excited by new responsibility which gave his life new meaning.  With youthful enthusiasm, he declared his intention to return the following morning.  Even so, he was reluctant to leave the room.  Slowly, very slowly, he walked to the top of the stairs and descended at a snail’s pace. 

Simeon became painfully conscious of their shared loneliness as an excessive melancholy descended on him.  Had he dismissed Ronnie too soon?  Where would he go?  Would he know where to go?  Would he remember the arrangement?  Would he remember anything?  Yet again a great emptiness intruded together with a fear of that taboo subject – don’t question, don’t try to analyse, don’t dig too deep.  The truth might be too dreadful.

 

Chapter 3 

Winter of Discontent 

The following morning, sunny and bright, was a complete contrast.  At the first sight of Ronnie, Simeon jumped out of his seat and very nearly hugged him.  A firm hand shake was probably the first time he had ever touched any pupil.  As a gay man, he had to be especially careful with boys.  Ronnie’s face, wreathed in smiles, displayed equal enthusiasm.

          ‘I must warn you that these meetings will uncover personal details which might embarrass you.  Hope you can cope with that?’

          ‘No problem,’ replied Ronnie, ‘I’ve knocked about a bit meself.  I’ve had my bit of fun.’

          ‘I wasn’t particularly thinking of sex, although, I expect that will come into any homosexual biography.  No, I was thinking of the sensitive issue of our shared memory problem.  For example, I can tell you that I’m haunted by a horror of my pigeon hole.’

          ‘What?’ 

Simeon explained the communication system of pigeon holes, more than one hundred small mail boxes located on the wall in the main office block next to the headmaster’s office.  Staff were expected to check them every morning.  Vaguely, he recollected going there a few times on his return after the long absence.  Was it embarrassment?  Or his increasing tendency to reclusiveness which accounted for a fear of going near the main office?  Mr Hogg’s pigeon hole might well be overflowing with dozens of uncollected notes and general staff instructions.  Somewhat hesitantly, Ronnie offered to walk down there and pick up his mail.

          ‘No!  Thank you, it’s ... err ... a kind thought, but I don’t want to know what’s in that bloody box.  Anyway, if seen, you’d likely get into trouble.  And another thing, what do I want?  I want out.  I should have got the hell out when I was really bad, when they bullied me into those counselling sessions.  Do you know, Ronnie: as time goes by, I remember less and less about those meetings.’

          ‘Fine,’ said the other, eager to diffuse increasing anxiety.  ‘They’ve probably forgotten you anyway.’ 

A short exchange of ideas established Ronnie’s preference to keep the biographical focus on Simeon’s teaching career.

          ‘When did you start?’

          ‘I’d lived in America for 13 years, qualified out there and just wanted to settle in England teaching English history in a cosy school,’  concluded the master with a grim cynical snigger.  ‘I was looking for a quiet, comfortable life - some hope!’

          ‘Why didn’t that happen?’

          ‘Several reasons.  Firstly, Worksop is a provincial colliery town where every ‘proper’ bloke is expected to fit in.  You had to be keen on football, swill beer with the lads in the pub and, most important of all, be able to fancy a lass.  I always thought I’d be safe in a community of educated schoolmasters who’d respect a gentleman’s privacy.  The British have a reputation for accepting the status of a bachelor.  Intrusive questions are considered bad form; not so at this school.  It simply wasn’t possible to keep up a double life.  I was in for a rude awakening!

          ‘Double life!  It’s a joke.  When you think about it, I had all on to lead a single life.’ 

Simeon never invented girlfriends to satisfy his curious colleagues.  As far as possible, he was honest about his personal life, waxing eloquent about his love of cycling and walking in the Derbyshire hills and dales.  Tea shops were sought out and, where possible, public houses avoided.  Occasionally he stayed at youth hostels, more often at a Bed and Breakfast.  It was in his nature to retire early and rise early - after being assured his accommodation would be quiet. 

Homosexuality had turned him into a recluse.  Indeed, Simeon’s austere lifestyle of healthy abstinence hindered his efforts in meeting other homosexuals.  The Turkish bath was the best way.  Other venues such as notorious lascivious lavatories or certain infamous woodland walks were, to his cost, found to be much too dangerous. 

Ronnie was intrigued about how a gay made contact with another gay.

          ‘Catching a kindred eye,’ said Simeon, philosophically recalling a line from a half forgotten poem.  ‘I’ve spent my whole life doing just that.  Pretty boys in the street or even here at this school.  Briefly you snatch a quick look at a handsome face and instantly look away - for safety.  I ask myself, is it lust?  Will I be satisfied with a simple kiss, a fumble up an alley or a minute in the steam room?  Or do I want something more, something more edifying - a relationship?’

          ‘I expect most men like you would want that, to actually get to know and love another man,’ said Ronnie.

          ‘Yes,’ sighed Simeon, in a faraway voice.  

His mind went back to 1966 in a gay sauna.  A slight turn to the right revealed the profile of a light skinned young Negro who, after a few seconds, turned a beautiful full face.  It was an appraisal, a close-up to confirm his selection for the evening.  Here was a boy of stunning good looks fixing Simeon with his considerable power.  Here was a chicken-hawk who was accustomed to hunting the chickens of Detroit City.  Here was a boy who was accustomed to getting exactly what he wanted - and he wanted Simeon.  In those few magical moments, Derbyshire eyes scrutinised Detroit eyes.  Both pairs were full of wonder, full of desire.  Under pressure of enchantment, each countenance melted, slightly, very slightly into a half smile. Simeon was drawn into an alluring face.  He supposed that this strapping lad with an Adonis body was about his own age.  It was a face of softened Negroid features: not a wide nose: lips not thick, yet temptingly full: coal-black hair, not exactly frizzy, yet with short tight curls, suggesting African ancestry.  And big round eyes - yes - beautiful brown eyes, firm of purpose, holding, bayoneting their prey. 

Later that evening they were walking the streets of Detroit when a turn took them into a narrow street.  He stopped.  Simeon stopped.  They looked at each other - enjoyed the look when, suddenly, roughly, the Adonis pushed him into a recess, up against a dilapidated doorway and, with arms outstretched leaning on the door, he created a small area of confinement.  Simeon was in a trap.  It might have been a mugging.  They looked at each other.  Easy, sweet and slow, the hard strong youth breathed out a few words.

          ‘You think ... I'll lock you in a cage like a little bird, all for myself?’  He smiled, leaned closer and kissed his captive, oh - so - very - gently.  ‘And, if I opened the cage door ... would you fly away?  Would you?’ 

Simeon was frozen mute by the greatest sexual power he had ever encountered.  It was a thrilling combination of menace and magic.  He could not run, had no desire to run.  Seizing the initiative, with supreme poise and self-assurance, the ruffian continued to weave his enchantment.

          ‘I don't think so.  Know why?  Because I can get inside you.  I can eat you up.  I can drain you ... and, yes, boy, you'll beg me for it; you'll love me for it.  Does my boy love me?  Does he?’ 

As if with a broken spirit, Simeon heard himself whisper an affirmative as the lover dropped his arms, descended to a squat, fumbled and concluded his magic spell with physical expression and physical expertise, ending in a long, slow, paroxysm of acute pleasure which the English prisoner would remember all his life. 

‘Hello!’ said Ronnie, trying to be cheerful but noticing the abstraction and sudden moist eyes.  ‘You’re miles away!  Come back.  Hope I didn’t upset you?’ 

Quickly Simeon rallied and returned to the task at hand.  He was pleased the biography was disciplined and focused on the period of 1978 to the present day.  He took a breath and lunged into a start.  More correctly, they made a start.  Simeon knew he had suffered a catastrophic collapse of confidence.  Ronnie’s encouragement was essential.  It would be a conversation.  One would occasionally chip in whilst the other made rough notes to write up later.  The reality was two people, isolated by recent trauma, needing the warmth and comfort of companionship. 

Simeon couldn’t recall much about his first months of the 1978 autumn term, but had vivid unpleasant memories of the dreadful ‘winter of discontent’ in early 1979.

          ‘Is it all going to be misery, sir?’ complained Ronnie.

          ‘Absolutely not!  Despite many difficulties in a life dodging daily assault, the slings and arrows of constant bigotry, prejudice and ignorance, there’s a lot of fun and laughter in the gay world.  The very nature of hardship compensates with comedy acted out by some bizarre people.  As we go along, you’ll meet my circus of curious characters.  It was the same in Detroit.  Black people could be most amusing.  By the way, do you know my first name?’

          ‘Simeon,’ said Ronnie, slightly embarrassed as if he had uttered a taboo word.

          ‘It’s just that it’s beginning to feel a touch silly, a bit pretentious being addressed as a master.  Those days are long gone.  We’re now equal.  We’re friends.’

          ‘Okay, Simeon,’ replied the former pupil with a cheeky grin.  They both grinned like two naughty boys. 

Ronnie remembered with some pleasure the chaos and disruption caused by the period coined ‘winter of discontent’.  It was so cold the school occasionally closed due to a shortage of fuel.  There were paralysing strikes causing Worksop’s dustbins to overflow, its streets piled up with rubbish.  Cemetery workers refused to bury the dead.  Food and petrol supplies were disrupted. 

Worst of all, Simeon recalled the stress and danger driving out of the pit village of Clowne, a scruffy coal blackened community exposed to the elements perched up high on a Derbyshire ridge.  His fragile little Mini car precariously descended down an icy main road towards Worksop several hundred feet lower in Nottinghamshire.  Surfaces needed grit but militant road workers were on strike and his tyres, fully locked, simply skated down and rubbed across the kerbstones.  He hated being late, but often was during that dreadful winter.  Fear of a sharp tongued unsympathetic dictatorial headmaster locked into a 1950s mindset caused intolerable anxiety. 

School closures, of which there were several, were a godsend.  Some of this precious stolen time was due to lack of fuel.  Striking ancillary staff gifted a few extra days for this beleaguered teacher to catch his breath.  It was possible to manage without cleaners and dinner ladies, but caretakers, with boiler house expertise and multiple keys to navigate the buildings ... Well, they were essential. 

There was mounting discontent with a dying Labour Government.  An insensitive comment from Prime Minister James Callaghan infuriated a freezing strike-bound Britain shuddering to a halt.  Returning happy and tanned from a tropical Caribbean summit, he exclaimed, ‘Crisis!  What crisis?’  Little did Simeon know these blunders would pave the way for 13 years of a right-wing homophobic Thatcher Government taking gay people back to an age of prejudice and bigotry, even worse than their current malaise. 

During Margaret Thatcher’s time, the few enlightened teachers were afraid to challenge homophobic bullying.  Indeed, the word homophobia had yet to be coined.  From that time, up to and into the 21st century, 41 % of gay pupils were beaten up and were six times more likely to commit suicide.  From 1978 to 1995, at the Valley Comprehensive School in Worksop, fearing exposure and humiliation, Simeon Hogg kept his head down, said nothing about his private life and tried to be invisible.  It didn't work.  A series of painful incidents, homophobic abuse from some pupils together with the indifference of senior management effectively terminated a teaching career.  The repeal of Section 28 in 2003 came too late for 20th century teachers who shared same-sex attraction.  Such was the Thatcher legacy.  Her eventual passing in 2013 provoked an outpouring of adulation from some and scenes of ecstatic dancing in the street from others.  Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead from the Wizard of Oz shot to the top of the pop charts in the days prior to her funeral. 

But Britain was not the only country to inflict retrospective punishment on its gay population.  Simeon’s gloom increased when the Shah of Iran was deposed by violent gangs of religious fanatics followed by the dread arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini who plunged that nation back to a medieval darkness.  This evil, grim-faced pitiless old man precipitated a gay hating witch-hunt of executions devouring untold numbers of hapless homosexuals.

          Simeon was horrified by distressing reports of Iranian gay men who suffered their anuses being medically sewn up closed by doctors.  The inevitable result was a slow agonising death.  When it came to light that a compassionate surgeon cut through the stitches to help some of these victims of rabid homophobia, that brave doctor was promptly arrested by the (extra judicial) Religious Police and thrown into jail.  

A combination of Thatcher, Khomeini and the forthcoming AIDS epidemic released an unprecedented wave of terror driving the gay community back to an abyss of bible blackness. 

In spite of this decade of stygian gloom, gay men like Simeon were getting on with their lives.  Religious fanatics need to recruit new members whereas those who share same-sex attraction are born at a rate of one in ten if bisexuals are included.  Most of them are able to hide within the heterosexual majority by marrying and / or repressing their natural urges.  Many years later, a sympathetic policeman said -

          ‘Let’s face it, Simeon.  You were born illegal.’ 

A shining light in such bleak times was the entertaining Mr Toad, an old friend from the 1960s.  One weekend in early 1979, Simeon was invited to meet Toad’s notorious mother, known in gay circles as Mother Ghoul, nicknamed after her home town, the busy Humberside port of Goole, 50 miles inland from the North Sea.

          ‘Good!’ said Ronnie, ‘This is getting interesting.’

          ‘Not so good for me.  It was a big mistake.  I’d been warned she was a harridan of the first order.  A monster of a woman!’ 

She was a hideous version of her ugly son.  The first sight of Toad some 14 years before was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.  Yes, certainly a toad.  His pupils had christened him well.  He looked like a toad.  His exuberant bulging eyes, full of ardour, were set wide over a tight mouth which seemed more like a long crack.  ‘Crack in a pie’ was a regular comment.  He inspired something of the repulsion felt at the nearness of a reptile.  Like Kenneth Graham's Mr Toad, he was comical, eager, impatient and entirely puffed up with his own importance.  Catching sight of a teenage chicken, the little creature ran, actually ran up to Simeon who, trying to look innocent, sauntering around a certain public park, was forced to retreat several steps. 

After a few minutes conversation, Toad registered a childlike delight when the newcomer found this funny little man interesting.  Years later, Simeon had grown fond of his toad who was utterly repulsive and, at the same time, utterly compelling. 

Toad loved to laugh.  He was a funny man and could show surprising erudition in quoting the classics with a homoerotic subtext.  Boasts about his sexual conquests included ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’ and ‘There’s corn in Egypt’.

 

Mischievously, Simeon amused Ronnie with an account of an outrageous episode in a gay bathhouse one busy afternoon.  Toad was crowing about his tremendous success in the orgy room.  Having completely drained himself dry after servicing so many willing bottoms, oral activity was the only possible option left.  Keen customers were queuing up for quick relief from his talented muscular tongue of exquisite skill and the thousand thrills delivered by dexterous digits delighting dozens of onlookers anxiously awaiting their turn.

          ‘I sucked, slurped and slobbered,’ bragged the reptile, ‘completely satiated with a tummy filling with spunk.  How does that song go?  Yummy, yummy, yummy I’ve got love in my tummy ...’ 

The audience loved it as much as the participants, but repetition was getting a little tedious when, not wishing to disappoint his adoring voyeurs, he was inspired by a scene from a comedy film seen a few years before in 1960 - Bottoms Up staring Jimmy Edwards as the corrupt incompetent Headmaster of a failing school with abysmal standards.   

Entirely consistent with the standards of the day, harsh discipline was brutally imposed by thrashing a boy’s bottom with a bamboo cane.  Toad was titillated seeing Edwards (a gay man himself) wantonly striking the buttocks of five boys selected for a public punishment in front of the whole school.  Just before the beating, sadistically, Edwards carefully aligned each backside to make a neat row to improve the presentation. 

With this arousing memory in mind, Toad carefully picked out five alluring bums to be presented to his crude crowd in the orgy room.  With instructions, he arranged them into a neat, straight line.

          ‘Number two in a bit.  Number four out a tad ... Yes that is perfect!  Ready gentlemen?  I’ll now begin.’ 

Unlike the Headmaster, Toad was inflicting exquisite pleasure by rimming each anus in turn with his powerful prurient tongue.  After a few minutes, his face buried in buttocks, all, moaning in ecstasy, were brought to a delicious milky conclusion assisted by clever toadal fondling fingers.

          ‘That is vile!’ complained Ronnie who had never before heard of this particular sexual activity.

          ‘Agreed.  I was shocked when it was first done to me by Ahmed my first love in Detroit.  I could hardly believe it was happening at all.  It is extreme and can be dangerous with a risk of contracting hepatitis.  Come to think of it, Toad was put out of action for several months in the 1970s with that disease.  But, Ronnie - aren’t we missing the point?’

          ‘What do you mean?’

          ‘Toad boasted his sexual prowess to me in 1965.  It was not until sometime in the 1980s that I actually saw Bottoms Up on TV and realised that his bragging was inspired by that 1960 film.’

          ‘So he was lying!’

          ‘Possibly, the bit about neatly lining them up.  I would use a different word.  I would call it fantasising.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve seen Toad rimming in the Brighton bushes in front of an audience.  It does happen.  You, Ronnie, are horrified by your perception of a disgusting performance.  I can understand that.

          ‘I too am sickened and nauseated - but not from an act which gives pleasure - from an act which inflicts pain with impunity.  In this very school, the Valley Comprehensive, it was normal practise to punish boys by beating them on their bottom or hand with a stick.  You should know!’

          ‘Too right!’

          ‘My point is this - it was considered OK, quite legal, to impose discipline by inflicting physical suffering on little children and even teenagers.  On the other hand, if those teenagers or grown men expressed affection by fondling, fucking, sucking or rimming - they were breaking the law!  If caught, they would be thrown into prison.  Once in that confinement, it was considered quite reasonable to stand back and let other ‘disgusted’ inmates beat the shit out of them.  Reduced to emotional wrecks, many self harmed.  Some committed suicide and some were murdered.’ 

Ronnie was staggered by his former teacher’s descent into the use of foul language.  His countenance clearly showed sufficient disapproval to elicit an apology - which was given fulsomely.

          ‘Sorry, Ronnie.  You are quite right to expect better of me, but I feel very strongly about this issue,’  

After a slightly tense interval, the conversation returned to Mr Toad, a deeply damaged man after a lifetime hiding his true nature from the heterosexual majority.  Tragically he was also reviled by many of his own kind.  Trendy young men, familiar with the gay scene, viewed him as a piece of slime creeping around the dance floor - but to Simeon, oh no, his funny little friend was more than that - much more. 

In the years of their friendship, Toad became quintessentially the very essence of old-fashioned Englishness in its purest form.  He was as salty and as vulgar as a seaside postcard.  The best times in Simeon's life would not be in the company of intolerant chickens.  No.  The best times would be spent with his old friend being tossed and blown about on the North Sea on board the Yorkshire Belle.  Toad was quaint.  Toad was funny.  Toad was a bundle of fun, a barrel of laughs.  He represented an amusing character in caricature - perhaps one of the last of the type.  He did not know it at the time, but for Simeon, these precious hilarious moments were the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Mr Toad, nay, a love affair; a love affair which would last for decades. 

Toad was one thing, Mother Ghoul was something else!  Weekends away from the daily slog of teaching were precious, especially in the spring after the winter of discontent.  One Friday after school, Simeon heard the approach of an ugly little ‘toadmobile’ announced by a constant and urgent - toot toot, toot toot.  He liked his tooter, all part of an immature pushy personality pugnaciously huddled over the wheel.  It was a hideous slug-shaped foreign contraption which suited the slug-shaped owner. 

Eventually they reached the best part of an otherwise grimy town.  Mother and son lived in a substantial Victorian town house overlooking the narrow town park bordered by the River Ouse.  This pretty well-kept park dramatically terminated in a black confusion of cranes - massive long arms, beams, cables and cruel looking hooks blending into the darkness of a cold winter evening. 

The invitation from the son was given gladly, but, unbeknown to the guest, had to be wrenched from mother who gave Simeon a reception as icy as the inky blackness from whence they came.  When he complained, Toad said:

          ‘Don’t take it personally.  Mother hates my gay friends.’

          ‘But I did take it personally,’ he told Ronnie.  ‘I’d heard of her reputation but at least expected a modicum of formal courtesy if not warmth.  Scowling in tantrum, she plonked down my dinner in an ill lit ancient kitchen grunting a half audible - “Folks can’t afford to entertain at these prices.”’

          ‘I’d have told her to stuff it,’ said Ronnie.  ‘It’d choke me!’  

          ‘It nearly did.  This was Friday evening.  I was going to be in Goole all Saturday until Sunday evening when he would drive me back home.  I was determined somehow to escape that obnoxious woman.  If necessary, I’d get a bus or train back to Clowne that evening.’

          ‘Did you manage it?’

          ‘No I didn’t.  I was trapped and had to sleep in the maid’s accommodation in the attic area.’ 

The one time maid had escaped her miserable servitude in the 1950s when Father Ghoul, a bank manager, suddenly died.  Mother Ghoul decided she would pocket the miserly £4 per week and sacked her wretched little servant who had suffered abuse from mother and son for the previous two or three decades. 

The next morning, brilliant sunshine illuminating a hard frost, was a welcome contrast to the lowering Dickensian atmosphere within that soot blackened edifice.

          ‘Thank you for that nice breakfast, mother.  I’ll take Simeon on a Grand Tour of Goole starting with our park.’  She received this cheery toodle-oo with a grimace and grudging grunt of disgust.  In a vain attempt to sweeten the old battleaxe, Toad added - ‘Don’t trouble to make any lunch, we’ll have a bite at the pub and Simeon will pay for himself.’

          ‘Aye, see that he does,’ she snapped.

 

Yes - he fully intended to pay for himself and, if possible, not to return to further insults with the help of his trusty rucksack.  Toad was used to seeing his friend clad with that familiar accoutrement on his back and did not notice the complete removal of all personal items from the residence of Mother Ghoul.  Effectively, Simeon had checked out. 

A few steps from the front door, the neat park presented itself with a well preserved bandstand and several ornate comfortable benches thawing under the warming sun.  The two friends progressed through the park until an ivy clad public lavatory came into view.  In sudden excitement, Toad broke into a run.  His little arms came up to shoulder level, podgy hands gesticulated with waggling fingers as he disappeared into his favourite and conveniently located ‘cottage’. 

He was so candid.  It was this childlike honesty which always impressed Simeon down the years.  A total contrast to the pretentious types he knew in Derby and Nottingham.  It was too early.  The cottage was empty but it afforded an opportunity to boast of wonderful days in which he sat next to that wonderful glory hole in that wonderful lavatory.

          ‘I’m never refused!  Lorry driver after lorry driver, van driver after van driver, I can get real men in this place.  Quite adequate for my needs.  I'm not ashamed to admit I’m often here with sandwiches and two flasks of tea.  You've to be here early before an old queen gets in.  They won’t budge once they get established - so I beat them to it!’  He giggled and gloated. 

As they made further progress, the cranes loomed larger and the park deteriorated into a scrubby area of weeds and shrubs fighting against the pollution of a place which had worked for its living over the previous 200 years.  It was protected from the treacherous tidal river by an embankment nearly twice human height.  This levee, stretching many miles inland, supported a footpath giving views on swirling dark waters to the southeast and the town of Goole to the northwest.  Toad mentioned several notable tragedies of victims swallowed up by merciless mud banks.  Remorselessly, sluggishly, the central murky current flowed on.  Suddenly, they were startled by screaming birds swooping overhead.

          ‘They say seagulls are the tormented souls of sailors long dead.  I’ll introduce you to a regular fixture in the tavern.  He can spin a few yarns about folklore and legends of bygone Goole.’

          ‘An old seaman?’ suggested Simeon.

          ‘An educated chemist actually.  Kenneth the Chemist, he’s quite a colourful character.  Knowing your inclination for ancient toothless types, you might find an opportunity for quick pleasure in the cellar.’ 

After negotiating a dreary muddle of cranes and untidy cables, they emerged into an intrigue of dismal warehouses and dwellings, derelict in appearance, linked by a tight knot of narrow cobbled lanes suggesting a culture of criminality.  Simeon was seized with a curious mixture of fear and fascination.  Isolated in a time warp, this bizarre little port appealed to his fondness of the weird and ugly.  He had the same taste in men which is why he was with Toad rather than a beautiful young man.  It was no mystery.  As a 12-year-old, he had been sexually imprinted by a paedophile known in a Derbyshire pit town as Granddad to the boys at a Dickensian Church of England school.  Several powerful pupils were regular visitors to his primitive terraced home almost completely smothered in ivy. 

They walked past an inn which would not have been out of place in a horror film.  A silent dark facade suggested closure for the last 100 years.  Despite his aversion to alcohol, Simeon was pleased to learn they would be eating in that old ale house later.  Equally as prominent as cranes on the Goole skyline was a tall slender spire, pointing to God, piercing a freezing heavenly vault of pure blue.  In contrast to showing Ghouls (as toad dubbed the citizens of Goole) the way to a better world, the church itself had been blackened by decades of soot and smoke.  Toad patiently followed his guest as he mooched around sombre grave stones perversely enjoying a sweet sadness in this strange haunting town.  He perused names and epitaphs in a futile attempt to glean some meaningful understanding of the deceased.  The monuments only confirmed ignorance and servile obedience to the bigotry and stranglehold of religion. 

A short walk took them into the main high street where they enjoyed a pot of tea and a hot teacake in a plain but clean and popular cafe.  It was so crowded, no tables were available.  Toad and his chum stood uncertainly holding their trays, scanning empty tables where they might beg permission to share with others.  One table with four chairs occupied by two men looked promising.

          ‘Excuse me,’ said Toad politely, ‘do you mind if we sit here?’

          ‘We certainly do!’ came the alarming and unexpected response. 

Toad’s reaction was a surprise.  He seemed not to notice this hurtful conduct and immediately asked at another table where two elderly women simply ignored the request.  Silence was interpreted as consent and the little man plonked himself down, ordering his chum to do likewise.  In a conversation later in that day, Simeon learned that Goole was a close knit community where almost everybody knew everybody else - and everybody knew the infamous Toad.  The little man avoided pain by living in denial of nasty comments, pretending not to hear an insult.  An empathetic instinct, common to most gay men, instructed Simeon not to interrogate or remark on this appallingly unkind incident.  In this way the two homosexuals were protecting each other.  

The two women speedily paid up and left the cafe, leaving the two good friends with their own table free to chat.  Simeon asked about Kenneth the Chemist.  A curious character in his late 70s made him about as old as the century.  His well-known homosexuality had been cruelly established in the public mind by the tragic death of his 21-year-old lover decades earlier.  An innocent friendship between two young men exploded into scandal when the boy’s suicide note, intended for Kenneth’s eyes only, was read by his outraged devout Pentecostal parents.  So vehement were these flames of shock and disapproval that the secret of Kenneth’s degeneracy leaked out of the family circle and became common knowledge in the town.

          ‘With such a hostile population, how did your friend manage to become the respected chemist of Goole for over half a century?’ queried Simeon. 

Toad explained.  Kenneth was the only son.  There was no other option.   From boyhood he had been trained to carry on in a trusted family business which had served the needs of the old port since the early 1800s.

          ‘Pious heterosexuals are always prepared to hold their noses and accept services and skills from queers when needed.  They tolerate me, don’t they?’ 

Indeed they did.  When Ghouls needed an organist for their weddings and funerals, they called on the talents of Mr Toad who was not only a music specialist in a good school, but also an acclaimed church organist whose fame had spread many miles beyond the small minded population of Goole. 

Further perambulations took them into the afternoon through sombre deserted streets but for an occasional sad figure of bent back and uncertain foot.  Vile alleys lurked behind high wharves.  Simeon heard about slop shops and slut stops for quickies in this appalling place.  Finally they trod across steps worn hollow by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet.  Toad pushed aside a doddering loose-lipped senility who was blocking the tavern entrance.   

It still looked forbiddingly derelict, but a creaky door which gave on to the hum of cheery companionship within.  They were cold, so a large plate of hot food was welcome.  A central table afforded views around assorted regulars, an equal mix of gender and types.

          ‘Look at those rough looking women; they’re known as Dock Fairies, prostitutes for the comfort of these gorgeous randy sailors.  They also get comfort from me - for free!’ added Toad salaciously licking his lips.  ‘It’s true!  Our crude cave is so black; they’ll even accept pleasure from men they can’t see at all!  Such as that ancient pile of rags sat by the fire.’ 

Simeon noted a shabby old man deeply reposed in an arm chair carefully observing other patrons.  Everything about him said - ‘this is my chair next to my fire secure in my pub’.  His was a face, worn with time and trouble, yet thoughtful and pleasant.  Intelligent calm eyes studied Toad and chicken knowing full well that he was the subject of their discussion.

          ‘You are looking at the famous Kenneth,’ announced Toad.

          ‘I don’t understand!’  Simeon was confused.  ‘Goole, as you’ve made clear, is populated by respectable small minded moral bigots, yet they tolerate prostitutes and homosexuals in an orgiastic room in a public house.  How do they reconcile that situation?’ 

Toad talked his friend through that conundrum.  In the Goole code of ethics, there was a distinction drawn between honest red-blooded sailors in need of quick heterosexual relief and filthy perverts who, unfortunately, might sneak in to assist in that process.

          ‘It’s grown up over the years,’ explained Toad.  ‘The dark room at the back is for the girls where money is involved.  Downstairs they get it for nothing in a cellar.  Many seamen prefer a mouth and not too fussy who it belongs to.  Sluts like me and Kenneth are highly skilled in the fine art of extracting semen from seamen.  They know what a good time is!  They come downstairs and often have to queue up - a line of tasty tars waiting their turn.  Let me introduce you to Kenneth.’ 

They walked over to an old man who greeted with half smile and brief comment.

          ‘Decided to slum it again, Toad?’

          ‘This is my friend,’ replied the complacent reptile.  Leaning over, a lascivious whisper entered Kenneth’s ear.  ‘Simeon likes your sort.  You’ll be able to have him.’

          ‘What makes you think that I want him?’ was the reply in a surprisingly cultured accent assisted by hands with an involuntary tremor.

          ‘He’ll want you.  He’s wanted to meet the talented toothless old chemist of Goole for several years.’

          ‘Old chemist indeed!  I shall have to see what Elizabeth Arden cosmetics can do for me.  Would your friend care to ascend?’ 

At this point, Simeon understood that Kenneth’s chemist days were long gone.  In retirement, he occupied a small suite of rooms on the first floor making him the sole resident apart from the landlady who tended to his simple needs.  Toad, not invited to ascend, informed his guest that he was honoured to be serviced above, alone, rather than in the cellar where others might be present.  The honour was not appreciated.  Simeon was more excited when hearing sounds of pleasure escaping the lips of fellow participants, not to mention anonymous touches in total darkness. 

However, nobody was looking.  Critical and disgusted eyes would never see Simeon sucked by this ancient Ghoul from Goole.  They would never know.  His reputation was safe.  And, yes, it had to be acknowledged, there was, deep in his sexual psyche, a perverse desire to be touched by this vile, mouth-watering fossil reposed on his sucking stool, wanting and willing to work.  And work he did.  He worked well with tongue and clever, crafty hands.  Naughty fingers sticky with drool searched and slid around the nooks and crannies of bliss, as the young man’s half focused eyes idly explored the dark recesses of a dowdy, dreary room reverberating with crashing ecstasy.  All these sensations were enjoyed, greatly enjoyed, safe in the knowledge that the worker would remain low, far away, far below navel level.  After a few precious minutes of pleasure, Simeon finally succumbed.  He succumbed to the succulent sounds of slurps and slobber.  He succumbed to overwhelming touches, tickles, titillations and the distant sounds of a North Sea busy port.  It all ended in that last familiar sound, that finality, the escaping sigh, the last, long, low murmur. 

Back down in the tavern, Simeon was assaulted by quick fire questions.

          ‘How did you get on upstairs?  I had a marvellous time in the cellar without competition from Kenneth,’ boasted Toad.

          ‘He’s a very interesting man, a survivor no less’

          ‘Has he talked about that awful suicide, his boyfriend of many years back?’

          ‘That and much more.  I need extra time to hear that man’s extraordinary philosophy on gay life.  I don’t want to offend you or your mother, but I’ve been invited to spend the rest of the weekend here.  Now don’t get upset!  Face facts, your mother will be delighted to be rid of me and Kenneth wants you to be with us in whatever we do.  I insisted on that - no exclusions.  After all, first and foremost this is a weekend with my dear friend Mr Toad.’ 

On that Saturday afternoon they motored to a deserted and cold Bridlington where Toad spent an hour in a toilet leaving the others free to chat.  Looking for a sympathetic ear, Simeon explored his suffering at school and mentioned Toad’s behaviour earlier in the cafe which led to Kenneth making a comparison.

          ‘You and Toad are like turtles.  When bad things happen you both go into a shell.  You go silent and stoic.  It’s the way you deal with hurt.’ 

         ‘Is that bad?’

          ‘No, it’s natural to resent an unkind comment, but brooding on it should be avoided.  That’s the difference between you and Toad.  I’ve only known you for a few hours, but you’re inclined to mull over things.  Toad just moves on.  That’s a good quality.  He’ll not fall out with anybody.  I ignore people who offend me, Toad ignores nobody.  In that way, never cutting anyone adrift, he receives more social support and makes better use of life.  He can teach us both a lesson.’ 

Time spent with a new older, wiser friend was a valuable experience for Simeon.  There were other weekends enjoyed at Goole, but always with Kenneth, never again with Mother Ghoul.

 

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Heanor Schooldays

Copyright 2006 Narvel Annable. All Rights Reserved.