Making the Grade by Sue Clark

Everyone fancies the coach driver. But it’s me he’s staring at. I notice as soon as I clatter up the metal steps. You know how it is when you’re seventeen. Your antennae are constantly twitching, picking up signals, sending them out. Do you fancy me? Do I fancy you? The air fairly crackles with it.

Author Sue Clark

He’s quite good-looking, the driver, if you’re into the Ray Davies type, which I am. He has thick, dark hair that curls over the collar of his blue uniform shirt, in a way that would give Dad apoplexy. But I note in passing that he’s also got an acne eruption and a peppering of dandruff. So I’m not that taken, not really.


I hear his seat creak and know he’s leaning out to watch me walk down the aisle to join my giggling mates. The back of my neck prickles and, playing to the audience, I sway my hips.


Soon I’m caught up with the loud girls in the back seat, drooling over pictures of David Warner, the dishy actor playing the ‘student prince’. In three hours’ time, we’ll be seeing him live on stage in Stratford-on-Avon doing Hamlet, and my antennae will be going bonkers.


I’ll be a student myself before long. I daydream the scene. Me, at an ancient college where the stone steps are worn down into hollows, discussing Shakespeare and John Donne with a group of serious, stooped young men a lot like David Warner. Some of them have striped university scarves twined round their necks. All of them hang on my every word. That is, as long as I get the grades.


The driver’s got the radio on. The Animals are singing, ‘We gotta get outta this place...If it’s the last thing we ever do! We gotta get out of this place...Cause girl there’s a better life for me and you!’ We sing along at the tops of our lungs. The aptness of the lyrics is not lost on me. June conducts, standing on a seat.


Miss Tyndall turns round. ‘I thought better of you, Susan.’ her frown says.

‘Just because I’m going to university,’ my steady gaze shoots back, ‘Doesn’t mean I can’t have fun’.


‘What’s up, Miss?’ Yvonne calls down the coach. ‘Don’t you like The Animals?’


‘Probably a Stones fan,’ June smirks behind her hand. ‘You know, can’t get no satisfaction.’ We roar.

The driver’s name is Graham, Yvonne tells me, shouting over the laughter. Don’t ask me how she knows. She nudges me. ‘Go on, talk to him.’


‘See his wedding ring?’ June sniggers, ‘He’ll know what to put where.’


We roar again and Yvonne whispers in my ear, ‘I triple-dare you.’


I tease up my hair, put on an extra slick of pink pearl lipstick, and stick up my hand. ‘Please Miss, I feel sick. Can I move to the front?’


I’m sitting in the single seat, so close to the driver, I can smell the nicotine on his fingers and catch the glint of the gold band on the hand gripping the steering wheel. He turns up the radio. Engelbert Humperdinck oozes out, ‘I have found a new love, dear...And I will always want her near. Her lips are warm, where yours are cold..Release me, darling, let me go.’


‘You like this one?’ he says to the windscreen.


I don’t. ‘I prefer classical’, I tell him.


‘Such as?’


I have to think. ‘The Swingle Singers.’


‘Meet us in The Swan at half-time, Luv, for a snakebite?’


David Warner doesn’t stand a chance after that. I see the flash of his blond hair under the lights and the scarf trailing across the stage. But the lanky prince’s words have no impact, his actions are a confusing blur. All I can think of is, ‘I’ve been asked out by a married man!’


We’re on our way home. I’m in the back seat again, watching raindrops chase each other down the steamed-up window glass. June tries to get another sing-song going but no-one joins in. Graham, I see, is hunched over the wheel, eyes on the road.


We’re nearly there when Miss Tyndall weaves her way towards me. ‘We need a list of where to drop people off,’ she says. ‘Get a piece of paper, there’s a good girl.’


'‘Why me?’ I think as I scrabble in my schoolbag. I find an envelope from a postal book club I’ve just joined. I go up and down the aisle, poking girls awake, writing a list. Highworth. Cricklade. Blunsden. Stratton. Gorse Hill. When I go to hand it to her, Miss says, ‘Not me. Give it to the driver.’


Face on fire, I wobble to the front and drop the envelope in the tobacco tin put out for tips. Graham stares ahead. I say nothing.

***

It’s six weeks later, a Tuesday night and I’ve just come in from church youth club. I don’t go to the actual church. I’m an atheist or maybe an agnostic. I’m still weighing up the arguments but I like table-tennis. Mum and Dad are sat either side of the fireplace. The telly is off. It looks bad.


‘What’s up?’ I ask over the gas fire’s hiss, ‘Is granddad dead?’


Dad shakes his head, disgusted at my callousness.


‘You ask her,’ Mum shudders, eyes down, ‘I couldn’t bring meself.’


Dad clears his throat. ‘A woman come round earlier, while you was out. She said …’


‘For goodness’ sake, Bill!’ Mum looks up, eyes burning. ‘Have you been carrying on with a married man, our Susan?’


Dad holds up a dog-eared envelope. ‘His wife found this in his jacket pocket.’

It’s the book club envelope, with my name and address on the front.


‘He’s got two kiddies and another on the way,’ Mum sniffs, tears threatening.


‘Answer your mother,’ Dad snaps. ‘Have you?’


I smile. It’s easy to wind them up, too easy for someone like me, a bright girl with a bright future. Cambridge has been mentioned. But not by my parents.


‘As the Bard famously said,’ I reply, ‘that is the question.’


‘And what’s the ruddy answer?’


‘Mum, Dad,’ I say, looking from one to the other, ‘I’m disappointed in you. How could you think that I would have it off …’ Dad winces ‘...with a coach driver?’


Mum swallows, her mouth a line.


They look so solemn, I have to laugh. ‘When everyone knows,’ I say, throwing my arms out and twizzling round on the spot, ‘that I am destined for greater things.’


Dad kneels to turn off the fire. ‘Only, my girl,’ he grunts, ‘if you give over playing the fool and get them grades.’


I drop my arms and hear the flames dying one by one, each with little sigh.


I didn’t realise it then but with each little ‘pop’ a dream faded. I didn’t get the grades, nowhere near. I didn’t get to discuss the finer points of Hamlet at an ancient college with foot-worn stone steps. I didn’t get to do any of the things I imagined for myself as we rattled our way to Stratford-Upon-Avon. My punishment for playing the fool─ secretarial college in Coventry.


I should have met the coach driver in the Swan for that snakebite. I see that now. That, at least, would have been something.


Author Sue Clark

Comedy has always been Sue Clark’s first love. Over the years she’s penned funny lines for the likes of Tracey Ullman, Lenny Henry and David Jason, and contributed to many BBC radio and TV light entertainment shows. Alongside her scriptwriting, she’s had a more conventional career as a journalist, copywriter, editor and PR.


She’s met and failed to impress no less than three James Bonds, and lives in the sort of quiet Oxfordshire market town that traditionally spawns many fictional murders.


And she’s written a novel, a humorous one, of course. Note to Boy was published by Unbound in July 2020.



Abingdon comedy writer Sue Clark on her first novel Note to Boy



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