The myth of British reserve is as universal as it is inaccurate. This I know first hand, having once upon a time taken to wife a nineteen-year old English girl who was even less ready for marriage than was my then twenty-two year old self. Here’s a scene from that short-lived marriage, set in the small Hertfordshire community where I’d taken my first teaching job.
“Are you having a good time, then, Alan?” asked Richard Sparks, head of the history department at the Hartland School, Upper Bingsford, Herts.
“Great, thanks, Richard. It was really nice of you to invite us. Helen hasn’t had a chance to meet anyone since we got here.”
“Speaking of Helen,” said Richard, feigning nonchalance. “There’s something I wanted just to mention, Alan….Let me see; how should I put this? We at Hartland have…well I suppose you’d call it a club of sorts. And I was just wondering if perhaps you and Helen mightn’t like to join?”
“Club?” I answered. What sort of club?”
“Hmmm. I’d be inclined to call it a friendship club. Yes, that’s the ticket. Here it is, then; in a nutshell. When the evening comes to an end, and it’s time for us all to depart, you, Alan, rather than going home with Helen, might instead leave with my Barbara.”
“And you would go home with Helen?”
“No, not necessarily. That’s the beauty of it, mate. I might very well go home with Helen, but, by the same token, Ken over there might leave with Helen and I might go off with Ken’s wife. It’s a wonderfully flexible arrangement.”
Was Richard off his rocker? Still, I didn’t want to be impolite. I surveyed the room like a boy at dancing school, and noted, in so doing, that Helen, my newly wed swan, was entirely surrounded by a pretty dowdy looking flock of geese, “Richard, I’m sorry; but I’m going to pass.”
“Ah, well,” said Richard, his tone indicating disappointment and resignation. “I merely thought it worth mentioning…. Cheers, mate.”
I would probably have written this wife swapping “club of sorts” episode off as the fantastic ramblings of an inebriated colleague had it not been for what happened the following Monday morning. Arriving at school bright and early, I found a note in my mailbox asking that I stop by to see the school nurse. As I had a good half hour to kill before classes began, off I went.
Nurse, as she was affectionately called by staff and students alike, had a luxuriant mane of black hair that she kept neatly tied up in a bun. At least she had always kept it neatly tied up in a bun until that morning in her office when, in true librarian-like fashion, she shook it loose, even as she removed her glasses, kicked the door closed behind me, and kissed me ferociously on the mouth.
“What was that about?”,” I asked embarrassedly, wondering if maybe I wasn’t on the English version of Candid Camera.
“Part One of your fitness physical,” she said with a smile. And I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed that she didn’t seem inclined to take matters further. “Richard told me that you weren’t interested in our little club; and he thought that maybe I could whet your appetites.”
“I didn’t see you there on Saturday,” I said.
“I was visiting my parents in Cheltenham.”
“So,…. was Richard right?”
I didn’t know what to say. The plain truth was that Richard was right, and I would gladly have ravaged Nurse on the tiny cot in the next room were it not for the fact that I had a date with twenty-six twelve-year-olds in about ten minutes. “He was right,” I had to admit as I stumbled out her door and into the hall.
The morning was an absolute torture, so torn was I with guilt by the feelings that were welling up inside of me for Nurse. I was a newlywed, for God’s sake. I decided to go to see the headmaster of the school at lunch. I needed a father confessor, and he had told me when he’d hired me that I should come to him if I was having problems of any sort.
Unfortunately, he was not in. Nor was he expected back any time soon. I decided to go home and report my encounter with Nurse to my wife. Don’t ask me why.
Perhaps I should have called. How could I best describe the scene I walked into when I arrived home? Good news and bad news, I suppose. I did find the headmaster.
But was it really bad news? Or was it just the writing on the wall? Still, the whole scene was too visually stunning for me to digest. I needed medical attention. I needed a Nurse.
So I slept with Nurse. And Helen got me back by sleeping with a French gym teacher who had brought a group of kids over on a two-week exchange. So I slept with Nurse again. And I played tennis with the gym teacher, who never told me that he had slept with my wife, but did confide that he’d been having sex with Nurse.
It took us a while; but before too long Helen and I were fitting in at Hartland School. It was a hollow and shabby existence; bound to lead two otherwise sensitive and intelligent people to disaster.
Which, before too long, it did.