In the last of his three humorous posts for us, Conn Iggulden shares the story of his first kiss…
When I was twelve, I’d been in a boys’ prep school for about two years. Stop worrying, it’s not that kind of story. I can’t exactly say it was a happy time. With the experience and hindsight of thirty more years behind me, I realise the problems were mostly my own fault. I was, in short, a very odd child indeed. So much so, that when I recently described something I used to do in primary school, a friend of my wife said she felt hugely relieved. She’d been worrying about her own son, but he wasn’t anywhere near that odd.
As I write, I’m sensing I can’t just leave it at that, so I’ll mention it briefly. If you were a kid in the seventies, you’ll remember a particular coat. I think it was called a ‘Parka’ but we all called it a ‘snorkel’, because if you zipped it all the way up, it would form a sort of tube in front of the face, a small, fur-lined circle to look out of. Freud would have had a lot of fun with ‘snorkels’, I suspect. They really should have called it the ‘Freudian Zip’.
Anyway, I used to zip it all the way up as playtime began, forming my breathing tube. I would then walk up to a wall and press that tiny circle against the bricks – cutting off all light. I’d stand like that, staring at brick and darkness, for the fifteen or twenty minutes of playtime, then unzip and go back inside. As I said, my wife’s friend found that memory hugely reassuring. If I hadn’t grown up to be a serial killer, she could pretty much stop worrying about her own boy – that’s the way she reasoned it out, I think.
When I went from primary school to a boys’ prep school, I was still a pretty miserable kid. I thought I was surrounded by monsters. The headmaster actually was one, but that’s a story for another day. This blog isn’t about monsters, or even the way I dealt with them by working harder than I have ever worked before, or probably since. I do much better work if I’m miserable. I think everyone does. Misery is a greatly underrated human motivator, yet what could be simpler? If you hate who you are, or the people around you, work like mad to rise, to escape. The best revenge is seeing your enemies destroyed. As Heinrich Heine said: “You must forgive your enemies, but not before they have been hanged.”
His name was Barnaby North and he was so ridiculously ‘Greek-God, square-jawed handsome’ that no one ever thought to laugh at a boy named ‘Barnaby’.
At the end of two years at Prep school, we all took a ‘Common Entrance’ examination over a week. I remember being pretty worried during my history paper because I’d had a tooth pulled the night before and the hole in my gum was still bleeding. I had the tooth on the desk as a mascot. I hated that tooth. I hated it so much, I took it out to my garden and shattered it to dust with a hammer. That was my approach back then, to all enemies and obstacles. As I said, I was not a happy kid. One of the strangest things about having a son, for me, has been the constant revelation of watching him interact with others and then thinking: “Oh, it wasn’t them. It was me. Good God – I was a seriously dark little boy.”
So it was 1983 and the school had the idea that after the stress of those exams, what we really needed was to be put on a coach and taken off to a Welsh activity camp in a place named Celmi. There, we would do blindfold assault courses, potholing, abseiling in darkness, all sorts of physical stuff to take our minds off the results.
The results were not simply pass or fail, by the way, but whether we had got in to the school we wanted. For some reason, I’ve always remembered the guides: Marlborough: 70% and above, Merchant Taylors: 60% and above, Harrow: 55%, Aldenham 40%. No one wanted to go to Aldenham. Aldenham was where the ‘thick’ kids went. As daft as it all sounds now, it seemed the entire world at the time.
I don’t know if it matters, but both of my parents were teachers. They didn’t have the money to send me to private schools, though both of them had apparently decided it was a good idea with the son who pressed his snorkel against the school wall every break. To do it, they approached an insurance company and set up a deal that probably doesn’t exist today. From an early age, they paid a small monthly amount to the company. When I started Prep and then Secondary school, the company paid the fee cheques. When I left, mum and dad continued to pay for some years afterwards, up to the age of twenty-one, I think. My dad was a maths teacher and he was always coming up with things like that.
[He also calculated how many years he had to live after retirement to be ‘in profit’ from all the pension payments over his career. He then bought a chest freezer and told us to put him in it and keep claiming the payments if he died before he’d got it all back. I am not at all sure it was a joke. I seem to remember he only had to live until he was seventy to be in profit. He’s ninety this year, which is the whole ‘pensions crisis’ in a nutshell, when you think about it.]
At Celmi, I quite enjoyed abseiling in a Welsh tin-mine, rescuing a sheep drowning in a bog and generally enjoyed myself, which surprised me. On the final night, our results arrived and they were given to us then and there. Looking back, I must say I’m quite surprised by that. It feels of a piece with writing about being caned, or the fagging system at Eton. Still, that’s the way it was done then. I learned I was ‘in’ to Merchant Taylors and I still remember the tears of one boy who’d failed even to get into Aldenham. I imagine he is now a happy and successful man and father, but at the time, I looked at him as if he’d confessed to devil worship, as one to be pitied more than scorned, cast into the outer darkness and so on.
On the way home, we were put back into the coach – a classic fifty seater, with the teachers at the front and a bench seat along the back, all in orange velour and brown plastic. Now, for some reason, there was a girl on the coach with us. I have no idea who she was, or what she was doing there. She was older than us, that much I understood – fifteen is the number my memory provides.
To tell it right, I’ll need to explain about one particular boy in my year. His name was Barnaby North and he was so ridiculously ‘Greek-God, square-jawed handsome’ that no one ever thought to laugh at a boy named ‘Barnaby’. Think about it. Barnaby. Seriously, that’s how cool the kid was. Admittedly, we called each other by surnames, but still. Barnaby.
Everyone else was an ordinary twelve year old kid: either with puppy-fat, all pink rolls and a mop of black curls, or a ridiculous set of braces that extended to wires and a sort of skull-cap, or spots, or weird body-hair, or like me, so skinny I could have doubled up for the xylophone at school concerts. I whipped my shirt off once, changing for rugby. Another boy turned to me with a look of horror and said “Oh, put it away, would you Iggulden?”
North though, looked about sixteen. Perfect, bronzed skin, muscles, the lot. I complained to my mother once about how unfair it was that I looked like a mobile toast-rack and Barnaby North looked like the model for Michaelangelo’s David. She said: “Don’t worry about such silly things. He’ll probably run to fat.” Comforting stuff. Unfortunately, I met him twenty years later and he had grown even more handsome.
The thing was though, that yes, we were all twelve or thirteen and yes, the girl was fifteen, but because Barnaby North was present, it wasn’t as odd as you might think that she came up with the idea of a ‘kissing competition’ on the back seat of the coach. I could sort of see through my quickly fogging glasses, that her interest was in only one of us, but I’d never kissed a girl before and I wasn’t going to turn down the possibility of it happening just because a) we were on a coach with forty boys and b) she was probably the daughter of one of the teachers asleep at the front.
She kissed two boys on the cheek and gave them marks out of ten: five and six, as I recall. Then it was North’s turn and we all watched in amazement as they kissed with open mouths! There was even some lip and tongue movement as well! I’d never seen anything like it, though I’d bought a porno mag in France while I was still in primary school and understood the basics. (Another story: see The Best French Trip of All Time.)
She gave Barnaby North ten out of ten. Well, of course she did. I was looking on and might never have had a go at all, if North hadn’t spoken. I have no idea why he did, not really. We weren’t friends and I can only wince when I imagine my fogged-up, pink stare.
“What about you, Iggulden?” he said. The girl…perhaps I should explain that I can’t remember her name. I don’t think I ever knew it, but I thought of her as ‘the girl’ for a long time afterwards. (I also want to make it absolutely clear that putting ‘the girl’ in inverted commas isn’t because I think she might not in fact, have been a girl. As I said, it just isn’t that kind of story.)
The girl seemed keen enough. She leaned towards me, at an angle that gave me the choice of cheek or lips. I remember very clearly saying ‘Oh, what the hell” out loud and kissing her on the mouth. I do not remember anything else about the kiss though. I think I probably blacked out for a moment with sheer excitement. She broke off and solemnly awarded me ten out of ten as well.
Now, I think you know as well as I do, that I was pretty vulnerable at that moment. If she’d said “Yuck! Horrible! Two out of ten!” I’d probably have worked so hard I’d have my own island in the Carribean by now, like Richard Branson. Yet she didn’t. I’d had a moment that I can still recall with perfect clarity and one that still gives me joy thirty years later. Ten out of ten! I… am a good kisser.
Conn Iggulden, for Waterstones.com/blog
Wars of the Roses: Stormbird is published in paperback on 24th April
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