Read Educating Peter Online

Authors: Tom Cox

Educating Peter (19 page)

When Peter flabbergasted me, he tended to flabbergast me because of his sheer teenageness – a kind of awkward adolescent essence that, in the aftermath of the American teen flick revolution and Harry Enfield's Kevin The Teenager sketches, seemed almost too clichéd to be true. Sometimes, when he hunched his shoulders or buried his hands in his sleeves or overslept in a comic fashion or grunted unintelligibly or repeated a catchphrase from
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
, I'd assume he was making some kind of post-modern statement. I'd forget, for a moment, that he wasn't one of my own twenty-something mates, mimicking one of the classic teen qualities for effect. Then it would hit me that he was just being a typical fourteen-year-old; that to him, these actions weren't yet clichés, and that, even if they were, clichés had a
slightly different meaning when your chief priority in life was gaining acceptance. Then I'd take some time to ponder this, momentarily awestruck by this weird state halfway between childhood and adulthood that I, bafflingly, had also occupied not too long ago.

Oversleeping, in particular, was almost a point of adolescent pride for Peter. He talked about getting up in time for the Sunday
EastEnders
omnibus with the same fervour that I talked about getting up in time to hear the dawn chorus. The logistic preamble to our trips had a pattern to them: I'd initially speak to Jenny and make an arrangement, then, later, speak to Peter, who would adjust our meeting time by a couple of hours, claiming that this mum had forgotten that he had ‘coursework' to do in the morning. I found it strange that Peter, who was yet to begin his GCSEs, would have coursework, and even stranger that someone with so much energy who didn't work for a living would want to waste so much of the day in bed. I also wondered exactly who was in charge here. As the teacher, wasn't I the one who was supposed to set the starting time for the lesson?

I'd known for a while that it was only a matter of time before Peter's lethargy ate into our schedule to detrimental effect, so, as I stood outside Sloane Square tube station, peering anxiously towards the exit gate, I couldn't say I was surprised. Thirteen times in half an hour I'd looked up the number listed under ‘Thardoz' in my mobile phone's address book. Thirteen times in half an hour I'd scolded myself for not buying a phone with a redial button on it. Thirteen times in half an hour I'd been met with Peter's singularly unmoved
answerphone message: ‘Er. Yeah. This is Pete. Now
you
say something . . .'. Perhaps he was stuck in a tube tunnel with no reception, but instinct told me otherwise. If I was being totally honest with myself, I'd seen this coming the previous evening, when Jenny had called to inform me that Peter would be spending the night at Zed's house and making his own way to our rendezvous point. I had, after all, witnessed Peter in inaction in the morning and, helpful as I'm sure Zed's parents were, I couldn't imagine them coaxing him into his start-the-day bath with quite the same zeal as Jenny. Not, that is, unless they owned a particularly high-powered set of electric cattle prods.

I looked at my watch. Then, remembering I didn't have a watch, I looked at my mobile phone. In minus five minutes, Peter and I were scheduled to meet Jenny Fabian, one of the world's most famous former rock and roll groupies, next to the July issue of
Golf World
in the Sloane Square branch of W. H. Smith's. I gave Peter's number one last try then finally moved away, immediately going to work on excuses for my charge's absence.

Fabian represented something of a last-minute addition to Peter's curriculum. It had struck me, as I'd reached the halfway stage in my adventures with him, that his education was somewhat lacking in female perspective. In order to rectify this, I'd immediately made an attempt to contact some of the hippest, best-known female stars in the music industry. Then, when their agents had asked me to put my request in writing and thrown my fax in the bin without looking at it, I'd attempted to contact some of the least hip, lesser-known
ones. These included Stacia, the buxom nude dancer from prog rockers Hawkwind, Stevie Langer, the woman with the big voice who'd sung the theme tune for the Bodyform sanitary towels advert, and Fabian.

Langer had either failed to get or decided to ignore the message I'd left at the music shop she was affiliated to, and Stacia, from what I could ascertain from the many sci-fi-obsessed fansites devoted to pictures of her breasts, had married a blues musician and relocated to Germany, but Fabian had returned my call within the space of an hour. She spoke a saucy hippy version of the Queen's English, made tongue-in-cheek references to ‘getting the old fishnets out', and remained in good humour when, while I was describing the thesis for my project, she fell under the misapprehension that I had described her as ‘a British rock landmark'. I was impressed, and more impressed still when she actually seemed
more
keen to partake in an interview
because
I had a teenager in tow.

But now he wasn't here.

A fortnight earlier, with Peter's mum's approval, I'd passed my copy of Fabian's autobiographical 1969 novel,
Groupie
, on to Peter in order to prepare for today, and I was starting to think that maybe this hadn't been such a smart move. The book, which tells the tale of a well-heeled nineteen-year-old who shags her way through Swinging Sixties London, is full of references to ‘plating', ‘getting high', ‘kinky sex' and a myriad other activities a fourteen-year-old probably wouldn't dream of imagining people older than his parents indulging in. Sure,
I
might have been able to get past the fact that the book had been written
thirty-odd years ago and that its creator was now old enough to relate to an episode of
Last Of The Summer Wine
, but in Peter's mind it probably fell under the catch-lots category of Strange Old People's Stuff That It's Best Not To Know About. It was quite probable that he saw the prospect of meeting Fabian in the same way that the sixteen-year-old me had seen the prospect of having my cheeks pinched by Doris, the over-affectionate, overperfumed, middle-aged checkout supervisor at the Tesco supermarket where I once worked. In truth, I imagined Peter had read the first few pages of
Groupie
, got to the bit where Katie, the heroine, plates the lead singer of the Satin Odyssey, cast it onto the same pile that he'd cast most of the other texts I'd given him, and turned his attention back to mastering the riff to ‘Enter Sandman'. And, to be honest, I couldn't blame him.

As it turned out, though, he had little reason to be frightened.

Over the years, I'd got used to interviewing people who didn't look much like my mental image of them, but in the flesh Jenny Fabian looked so little like my impression of Katie that, upon shaking her hand, it was impossible to conceal my double-take. A frighteningly petite woman with a pink streak in her grey hair and the legwear of an early Nineties grunge fan, she resembled the world's coolest grandma, but certainly not the obvious grown-up incarnation of the spirit of headstrong Sixties free-living. Strolling along the King's Road next to her, I couldn't help feeling like some form of lumbering security guard, employed to protect something brittle.

It was embarrassing, after Fabian had been agreeable enough to meet me, having to explain to her that the whole reason for this encounter was probably at this moment asleep on someone's kitchen floor using a can of Silly String as a pillow, but she took the news well. For the following two hours, the two of us walked the length of the King's Road, stopping as Fabian pointed out her old hang-outs – bohemian coffee houses, hairdressers that specialised in giving you ‘the Brian Jones' regardless of your sex, and boutiques, most of which had now been replaced by travel agents or branches of Pizza Express. The world of
Groupie
– a plethora of chicks, pads and casual plating – was gone almost without a trace, and as she indulged me in a game of Name The Inspiration, it transpired that many of the thinly disguised real-life stars of the book were now dead (one of the few who wasn't was Syd Barrett, another of Fabian's sexual conquests). I'd assumed that revisiting her old haunts was something Fabian was used to, but, as we stood outside the house she used to share with the whiney psychedelic rock band Family, she revealed that she hadn't actually been back here since the late Sixties. For the first time, she seemed emotional about her past, and for the first time, I really, really wished Peter was here, too. Later, she took me to a shoe shop and let me help her pick out a pair of bright orange slip-ons, and I wished Peter was here considerably less.

In the Seventies, Fabian had forsaken the rock and roll life to hang out in the country with equestrian types with ‘Sir' before their name. These days, she was dabbling in music journalism and coming towards the
completion of a sequel to
Groupie
with her co-writer Johnny Byrne, but she talked more like an unusually clued-up member of rural high society than a washed-up hepcat, enthusing about hare-coursing, and recalling classic psychedelic bands in the same way that pundits on retro TV programmes recall slightly kitsch toys that they've grown out of.

Before meeting her, I'd been unsure of the kind of lesson she could offer Peter, but now I understood – sort of. As an example of rock and roll moving towards the end of middle-age, Fabian was a great illustration of how, today, the Sixties seemed so far away yet simultaneously so close – a living lesson in the passage of time in a musical world and its attendant pathos. At one point in the none-too-distant past she'd needed all the proximity to fame and talent and hip, happening things she could get – not to mention the concomitant plating – to feel fulfilled. Now she bought a pair of garish shoes and went home happy. At one point her generation had wanted to change the world with peace and love. Now they were deliberately nasty to small furry animals and didn't feel bad about it. It got me thinking about how the moral and artistic values that I'd held onto as if my life depended upon them ten years ago already seemed silly, and would soon probably seem even sillier, and about how the same thing would happen to Peter before too long, whether he liked it or not. The whole thing gave you a unique sense of perspective. Well, it gave me a unique sense of perspective, anyway. I had my doubts as to whether Peter would have been willing to stop thinking about computer games, crisps and
Swugelbacker Airbuses for long enough to dwell on it. And besides, wasn't ignoring what adults told you about how you wouldn't be young for very long the whole point of
being
young?

About an hour after I'd met up with Fabian, I finally received a call from Peter, who was still at Zed's house and claimed that he'd run out of credit on his mobile phone and forgotten what tube station we were supposed to meet at, yet failed to explain why this had prevented him from calling me from a landline ninety minutes earlier. At this point I made it quite clear to him that, if he was going to at least say hello to Fabian, he had to hotfoot it over to Chelsea from North London in under an hour. True to my expectations, he turned up sixty-three minutes later, lolloping (less true to my expectations) cheerfully into the King's Road branch of Waterstones in a manner more redolent of a fan of
Herbie Goes Bananas
than
The Crow
.

‘You're too late,' I told him. ‘She left about two minutes ago.'

‘Oh, bummer. Soz. But this thing's shit.' He dangled his miniature phone scornfully between his thumb and forefinger. ‘Was she pissed off?'

‘Not really. She's really quite—'

‘Cool. That's a relief. Hey, guess what? It was dead funny. There was this kid at this party last night, Nigel. We call him Nozzle Man, 'cos he's got this weird nose. Anyway, you should meet him, he's dead cool, he likes a lot of the music you like – Aerosmith, you like them, don't you? Well, he lent me this tape – and his dad's like this film director or something. Well, like films for TV. But yeah . . . His dad's got this garage full of space
hoppers. They're these Seventies inflatable things with ears that you hold on to. I guess you remember them, but I hadn't heard of them and they are sooo cool. There were about nine in all, and me, Raf and Nozzle Man and a couple of other kids just started bouncing down his road on them. It's a cul-de-sac so there are no cars really. It was so, so cool – there were all these grannies looking out of windows and stuff. Then we went in and had this game of Rude Scrabble and I had the top, like, word score thingy – a triple, with ‘Bumcake'. You know, from that song in
This Is Spinal Tap
? I know it's not a word and stuff, but that was kind of okay . . . I can't even remember what time I went to sleep.'

He paused at last to catch his breath.

‘So you had a good time then?' I asked him.

‘No. Yeah. The best. Like, dead funny.'

‘And you got around to watching
This Is Spinal Tap
? I'm impressed . . .'

‘
Yeah!
I've seen it six times now. Well, six and a half, really.'

‘What about
Groupie
? Did you get chance to have a look at that?'

‘Oh, no, shit. I forgot.'

It was nice to see Peter so upbeat, and I felt a dilemma approaching. On the one hand, I felt slightly hurt about how little he seemed to care that he'd let me down, and felt that some sort of penance was in order from him. On the other, it was gratifying to hear him talking so enthusiastically and embracing the universe above shoe level, and I sensed that I should be taking advantage of this.

I'd seen Peter in a post-party state before, but today was different. The signs were immediately familiar to me: the sunken yet euphoric eyes . . . the delayed reaction times . . . the uninhibited anecdotes . . . the lazy smile that seemed to look at the world from a slight angle and find it a thing of unlimited surreal wonder . . . the slightly stale aroma wafting up from his leather jacket. I was suddenly glad that Peter hadn't met Jenny Fabian – and not just because of the odour of his jacket. The last thing he needed right now was a yawn-inducing lesson from me about the transience of youth. He was too busy experiencing his own epiphany, and I was too busy feeling grateful to be caught in the middle of it to deny him.

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