When I think of the time I could save myself by persuading that idiot, hyperventilating child in the playground not to smash his front teeth, I think of the afternoon at the dentist on Anglesey having root canal while the rest of the Biology field trip crew hung around outside with the minibus in the car park. Let’s spin away from the agony of that moment and consider that small and exclusive group.
The A level Biology field trip was a few days spent in a Bangor Youth Hostel in order to explore rock pools and sand dunes. It was properly educational: I still know stuff about sand dunes that I learned on that trip, and I have several vivid flashbulb memories of that week, which was, above all, a few days respite from my various debilitating obsessions.
The first such memory is from the journey up the A5. We’d stopped for fuel and the toilets, and most people left the mini bus for a leg stretch. Paula, though, opted to stay in the back of the van so she could dry shave her legs, which she’d not had time to do that morning. I usually hate being away from home, but I was looking forward to that week. Paula was fun to be around.
The hostel was, I think, somewhere on the edge of the town of Bangor, having enough green space around it so that it was possible to take a walk into some woods. Or so I think I remember. It remains my one and only youth hostel stay. There was a girl’s dorm and a boy’s dorm, and we’d all packed home-sewn sheet sleeping bags. I have very faint memories of almost all the others. There was me, and I think at least two other boys; and there was Paula and about three other girls, one of whom was the attractive Fiona. There were two teachers: a woman and a man, the latter of whom I think was fairly new to the school. I recollect no names. I’d taken two science subjects at A Level, but I’d grown to hate both of them. I was generally switched off as far as the subject was concerned. The only bit of a Biology lesson I remember is when one of the teachers had been to see the movie Alien, and had Things To Say about the creature therein.
Fiona was, I think, a Y-band girl, meaning she was outside my circle of friends from the X-band at school, but being in the same Biology class at least, we had a passing acquaintance. She was from another friendship group with whom I had a slight and growing connection through a kid called Steven Rose. I could feel myself, in those days, being pulled away from my normal circle into Steven’s. For a start, they seemed like nicer people. It was like that Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld. You could hang out with Steven and his friends and play records and talk and it seemed less pressurised, somehow, than what was going on with my best friends. Steven had a copy of Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit.
Anyway, I think Fiona was friends with him, and so there weren’t many degrees of separation. She was pale, freckled, with red hair down to her shoulders. A good looking girl with a nice figure. That was one of the things about the Biology field trip: you got to see people in their field trip clothes. Even as sixth formers, we wore the same uniform as the rest of the school, apart from the tie, which was gold instead of blue. So for that week I was wearing t-shirts and my heavily patched and very tight jeans. They were super-tight because I’d actually sewn up the seams – you couldn’t buy them that way very easily. These days, the world is full of boys in tight trousers and girls in clown pants, but back then my drainpipes were unusual. And they were patched all the way up from the knees to the thighs. I dread to think what I looked like.
One night, before we all went out to eat, I was in the games room of the hostel playing on a beautiful old pinball machine while everyone else got ready (me, I was sticking to my ripped jeans, of course). I love an old pinball machine: the fewer flashing lights and garish graphics the better. This one was practically Amish in its minimalism: a couple of flippers and a dinging bell, no whistles, or other sound effects, and a basic level of illumination. But it still required an electricity supply to work. Nobody else was that bothered by it, but it was my ideal machine, so I was constantly feeding it 50p coins and playing. That deaf, dumb, and blind kid… You got free balls very easily, so one 50p might last all evening. This particular evening, Paula came into the room, unplugged the pinball machine in the middle of my game and plugged in her hairdryer.
I often wonder why I wasn’t more annoyed with her. Obviously, one wants to maintain a certain coolheadedness, but still, I could have tsked at her or had a little moan, or walked away, but I did none of that. Instead, I sat down, leaned against the wall, and had a really interesting talk with her while she was drying her long blonde hair. I fancied Paula, of course I did: she was vivacious and outrageously funny. She carried herself with a confidence that few others our age could muster and was, inevitably, way out of my league. Her boyfriend was a young footballer on the Chelsea squad who would eventually play for England a couple of times. He was 19, she was 17, and she had no interest in any boy from school.
In class, she could make me laugh like no-one else. For one thing, she was an incredible, unstoppable liar, and didn’t bat an eyelid when found out. One conversation went like this.
Me (catching her in yet another lie): You should see a psychiatrist
Paula: My Dad’s a psychiatrist.
She could have been leader of the Conservative Party. She once confessed to me that what she most wanted to do in all the world was to be the girl on the Holiday programme. She could have done it, too: she had that easy charm and you could see her talking to camera with sand between her toes.
As wrapped up as she was in her out-of-school social life, she still knew what was going on with people. Clocked everything. She knew that one of the girls I fancied had no interest in me and delivered the news with brutal clarity. And she knew of my petty jealousies concerning my close friends who were going out with each other; the reason I found myself being drawn into Steven’s friendship circle. And, on this night of interrupted pinball, as she brushed and blowdried her hair, she pointed out to me something I was too oblivious to notice.
“That Fiona likes you, doesn’t she?”
‘She’s after you. You’d better watch yourself.”
Paula was right. I don’t know if I was, for Fiona, the fancy of a field trip (and what ought to have happened in Bangor ought to stay in Bangor, naturally), or whether she was taking a longer view, but she kissed me once, or maybe twice, that week.
One time was in the dorm. We were running around being kids, playing pillow fights or something, and I found myself in the girl’s dorm, with their bunk beds, and Fiona. She positioned herself in front of me, we looked at each other, and snatched a quick kiss.
The second time was in the sand dunes on Anglesey. We were sunning ourselves, I think, and there came one brief moment when we were out of sight of both members of staff. She kissed me again: it was exciting.
But then there was this thing with my abscess and everybody sitting outside in a hot minibus waiting while I had a root canal.
Those days! The lost friends and lamented pinball machines of my youth and the always redheaded girl forever kissing in the dunes.