The enemy that returns

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A friend and I were talking the other day. You’ve always lived in London, haven’t you, I said. Except for those five years I spent in prison, he answered. I laughed awkwardly. It seemed so exaggerated; if you’ve been inside real prisons then what right… But I knew what he meant.

I used to think that it was the place I hated: the book of rules, the wooden walls into which six centuries of predecessors’ names had been carved the letters as sharp as teeth, the fifty thou a year fees, the high walls of class and gender and race apartheid which determined who got in, the small mindedness of the teachers, the thousand different plans the institution had for making everyone inside that bit smaller than we’d been.

But as I get older I acknowledge it wasn’t the place: it was the people. It was the way money swirled around them, the six square streets of London (never more than six) to which everyone retreated when the terms ended. Their idea of the world that it consisted of people like them and no-one else, no-one, came close to counting.

I was there for five years. I survived only in the company of people who were as uncomfortable there as I was. The bitter, the bright, the angry, the ones whose parents had borrowed the fees from more successful cousins, the ones who escaped in their dreams to Soho.

We were at one extreme. Another group, the large majority, got on with it. Played cricket, football, the field game, the wall game, fives. Planned the career they’d have, their Daddy’s bank.

At the far side of them there was another group: the ones the least comprehensible to me. The boys for whom this place was the best imaginable, the best of times, its emptiness its snobbery a utopia, a nirvana, their own private Petrograd and this was their October 1917.

Boris wasn’t even my contemporary, but he returned to the school every year after he’d left, sounding out his favourite teachers, seeking out the titled children five ten years his junior. A flash of blond hair, unmistakeable. Even then he was looking for allies, a better class of servant to advance his future glittering career.

I saw him later, once. It was the night the Law Lords had determined Pinochet should remain in jail. I watched as he wooed a drinks party full of ageing London leftists 68ers gone to seed. Between drinks, Boris would scour the room, work out who was standing furthest from him, who was averting their eyes. Those he wooed, a very British Clinton, passing on some quip he’d used a hundred times before. Don’t underestimate his skill at causing potential antagonists to tolerate him.

For five years I ran, round a track I escaped and then! in crowds our fists raised. Thatcher fell. When I left my best happiness was the certainty that I’d never see Boris or Rory or Jo or Jacob again. Their return is the cruellest trick life ever played.

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