Watching the Olympics has got me thinking about a horrible thing that happened to me in a weird, faraway land called 1988. That was an Olympic year, too, but it was so long ago I’m not even sure where the games were held. I could look it up online, of course, but I’m not in the mood for Seoul searching.
I was studying for my A-Levels at St Philip’s 6th Form College in Birmingham (don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore). It was the site of the former St Philip’s Roman Catholic School and had an impressive alumni that included J.R.R. Tolkien and former Coronation Street heart-throb Matthew Marsden. The Lord of the Rings author was said to have based the epic Battle of Helm’s Deep on “something odd that happened during double-metalwork”, and this same incident inspired Marsden’s 1998 chart hit, She’s Gone.
When I was at St Philip’s there was a girl – let’s call her Gwen – and I really fancied her. We met during a field trip in 1987, but I never made a move as I had the self-esteem of Kafka. My best friend at the time – let’s call him Harry – decided that he, too, fancied Gwen. As he wasn’t shy or deeply insecure he proceeded to make his decisive move during a tawdry, end-of-field trip disco in a portakabin at the campsite.
A few weeks later Gwen dumped Harry and things got acrimonious, which was all the rage that term. Following the split, Gwen and I became friends. Very good friends, in fact. She became someone I trusted and as time went by the friendship became very important to me. Sure, I might have carried a torch for her in the early days, but as I didn’t want to jeopardise things I kept the flame on simmer.
Things moved on, as things often do. Gwen met someone new – a really nice guy, as I recall – and it soon became serious. Harry, meanwhile, started dating one of Gwen’s best friends. Let’s call her Mary Jane. Despite these line-up changes there was still some unresolved hostility between Harry and Gwen, and my loyalties were often divided. I can’t remember the finer details, but the broad strokes were that Gwen thought Harry was an arrogant slimeball. I thought that was a bit harsh: Harry was only mildly perplexed by Gwen’s inability to find him irresistible.
One day, while the two of us were having lunch in the common room, Harry made an odd request. He told me that, during his brief time with Gwen, he’d got to know her older sister. She was a promising athlete – an Olympic hopeful, no less – who’d just taken part in a big qualifying race. He really wanted to know how she got on, but felt uncomfortable about asking Gwen directly. He wanted me to do it for him.
“Ask her yourself,” I said, testily. Being torn between two ex-lovers was annoying enough, but I drew a line at being their messenger boy. I didn’t want to end up like that poor kid in L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. It was bad enough I had to read it for my A-Levels.
Over the next few days Harry nagged me about Gwen’s sister relentlessly, and the more this went on the more uncomfortable I felt. How come Harry knew about this hotshot athletic sibling and I didn’t? I thought Gwen and I had a pretty solid friendship – we were hanging out, chatting on the phone and constantly having meaningful conversations at the local Wimpy bar. You’d think by now she’d have mentioned it once, even in passing. Even just a footnote would do. Maybe she didn’t value our friendship as much as I did. Maybe she saved good shit like this for her inner circle.
Thoughts like that often cross your mind when you’re shy and deeply insecure.
Then one day my friends and I were walking through the college grounds en route to our respective classes. Everyone was there: Gwen, Harry, MJ… Hell, even Liz, Ned and Flash. Then, out of nowhere, came a lull in the conversation. They say that nature abhors a vacuum. Me, I don’t mind vacuums so much, but I do hate awkward silences, especially when a group of people are walking together. Groups of people should walk and talk, like they do in The West Wing. What we had here was a silence as awkward as Milhouse doing mime. I felt compelled to break it.
I turned to Gwen and, with a smile and a slightly Shatner-esque delivery, said: “So tell me, Gwen – how did your sister do in the athletics?”
Gwen stopped in her tracks. Our friends gasped. Gwen’s hand reached up to her mouth involuntarily and she went pale. With a trembling voice she asked: “What did you say?”
This was not the reaction I expected. I started spluttering incoherently: “I was, uh, wanting to know, erm…”
“What… did… you… say?”
My God, what had I said? Clearly something inappropriate. I’d never seen Gwen like this. We were friends (very good friends, in fact). She was someone I cared about, someone I trusted, someone who trusted me, yet here she was – visibly upset. And somehow – somehow – it was all my fault. Mary Jane was looking down, shaking her head in disbelief. The rest were looking at me in disgust, except for Harry, who was discretely edging away from the group and trying not to laugh.
“I just wanted to know,” I said with a nervous, randomly modulating voice that lurched perilously close to the falsetto range. “How… Your sister… Did…Do … How was she… In the athletics?”
Gwen burst into tears then ran away, screaming. Her friends chased after her, except for Mary Jane who just looked me straight in the eye and said: “Tom, you idiot! Don’t you know her sister’s got no legs?”
Oh God. Oh God, no.
My first impulse was to run over to Gwen, comfort her and beg for her forgiveness, but when I saw Harry in the distance, entering the college building with a smirk on his face, a different impulse took over. All of a sudden, I no longer felt shy or deeply insecure. I just wanted to kill Harry.
I ran to the building, burst through the doors, legged it down a corridor screaming “HARRY, YOU BASTARD – WHERE ARE YOU?!” as I pushed my way past a delegation of visiting nuns. After bolting up two flights of stairs I finally found him, standing in an R.E. classroom and wearing what Enid Blyton once described as “a shit-eating grin”.
“Got you now,” I growled. “Think you’re clever? Think you’ll be safe here?”
His hands came up in a flat-palmed gesture of mock conciliation: “Calm down, mate,” he said with a chuckle. “Easy tiger!”
“Don’t ‘Easy tiger’ me, you twat!”
He was now wiping away tears of laughter. “Oh, this is beautiful,” he said. “This is just perfect. You still don’t get it, do you?”
And that’s when Harry explained what happened.
None of it was true. I’d been stitched up like a kipper, the victim of a cruel and meticulously co-ordinated prank (or, as I preferred to call it, “a conspiracy”). Gwen did have an older sister, but she had no interest in athletics and two fully-functional legs. Everyone, it seemed, was in on the joke – half the teaching staff seemed to know about it, and I still suspect the nuns were there for a reason – and they all played their roles to perfection. A special mention must go to Gwen, who shone brilliantly in a breakout performance of great emotional intensity and depth. Sadly, she lost out to Jodie Foster at the Oscars that year.
After the stitch-up, things seemed to improve between Gwen and Harry. It’s funny how the systematic humiliation of a mutual friend can bring people together. My friendship with Gwen went from strength to strength until we went to separate universities and eventually went our separate ways. I still think of her from time to time and hope she’s doing well. Despite her pivotal role in making me look like a plum she really was a very good friend.
Some months after the stitch-up, in the early hours of a Monday morning, a skip was delivered to the driveway of Harry’s family home. Nobody knew where it came from, who ordered it, or why, but it caused quite a kerfuffle at the time.
It seemed like the right thing to do.