Ghosts of Christmas Present(s)

by David Hill / 25 December, 2004

Christmas comes but once a year? Clearly, Mr Proverb has never flown Auckland-LA across the international dateline.

However, bearing the usual 1:365 ratio in mind, it's not surprising that when I taught for two years at two UK public schools a mere ... my God, it was 25 years ago ... I had two lots of Christmas holidays. And before each holiday, there was a Christmas present.

We'll call the first of my schools St Larry's. St Larry's had brick-and-ivy buildings and an old boys' chapel with stained glass. There was sherry for masters before Saturday luncheon. I sank three before finding out that I had to pay. There were 19th-century dormitories in dark brown for 20th-century boys in grey suits, white shirts and house ties.

A lot of those boys were the sons of eminent/affluent Iranians, Nigerians, Saudi Arabians. After compulsory Saturday afternoon games (preceded by compulsory Saturday lunch of baked beans plus potato crisps), Mohammed and Affir and Omar were picked up by chauffeur-driven Rollers and Mercs, and taken home for the night.

They returned on Sunday evenings with supplies to last them through the coming week. Affir would bring back seven pressed grey suits and 14 laundered white shirts, and take them all away crumpled the following Sat.

Their St Larry's education was monolithically English. They studied Corio-lanus for O Levels. They played rugger in Michaelmas Term, hockey in Lent Term, cricket in Summer Term. The 1st XV's front row was Eftekhari, Zayenderoudi, and Sayeed. Opening batsmen for the 1st XI were Kagwa and Annimashaun.

They had the profiles of princes, the eyes of eagles, the tread of panthers and the riches of Gateses. One of them lost his wallet between limo and front door one Sunday evening. It held his week's pocket money - the equivalent of $NZ500.

Three days before Christmas, at the end of the Michaelmas Term, they came up one by one to shake my hand as I lurched on to another stage of my 1970s OE.

I was wheeling my pushbike down the drive when something gold and about 50m long with a chrome jaguar on the bonnet sighed to a stop beside me, and 17-year-old Omar Ansari unfolded from the driver's seat. He wished me good luck, with the shy stateliness of all these glorious young men - some of whom probably ended up destroyed in the revolutions to come.

"Nice wheels, Omar," I said, as we were parting. "Driver's day off?"

"Oh no, sir," chided Omar. They all called me "sir"; it made me shuffle and simper. "It is my car, sir. A Christmas gift from my father."

The kids at the other UK public school where I spent my second Christmas didn't call me "sir". They called me David.

Glensides (another fictitious label) wasn't a world away from St Larry's. It was several galactic clusters away.

Glensides was a liberal co-ed with no uniform, no bell times, no compulsory sport. No cash-flow problems, either; ex-pupils had donated so much dosh that the school couldn't find anything else to spend it on.

There was a library slightly smaller than Auckland Central; 10 squash courts, 18 music suites, two theatres, a sculpture room, a staff-pupil ratio that almost made the latter a minority group.

Academically, most Glensides kids were phenomenal. Year 9s spoke three languages. Year 12s put me right about disease imagery in a Shakespeare tragedy that they reckoned I pronounced "Hemlut". Year 11 Drama staged Brecht and Aeschylus.

In my 1970s terms there, I taught Frederic Raphael's son and Ted Hughes's daughter, Laurence Olivier's youngest and Peter Hall's eldest. And I met only the English Lit classes.

I taught another kid, too. We shared the same first name, and made a jokey ritual out of it each day. "G'day, David"; "Hello, David."

The other David was a small, pleasant, non-academic Year 9. His spelling was rotten and his punctuation was Pleistocene. His younger sister Sarah, also at Glensides, was a lot brighter. Their bodyguards followed them around the place at discreet distances. "I'll be next door in the sickbay if I'm needed," a face straight from the SAS told me.

Things were rumoured to be going sour between David's Mum and Dad. A few months later, their marriage cracked apart in a couple of curt court bulletins and weeks of tabloid headlines that various of their nephews were to reignite 20 or so years later.

The other David was keen on woodwork, and spent a lot of his time in the Glensides carpentry room. A quarter-century on, he's a master joiner or master hinger or suchlike. You've probably guessed that his Mum was the one who died unhappy and unmourned a couple of years back.

Anyway, just before my second UK Christmas holidays, I was admiring a nice little inlaid wooden box that my namesake had made. "Present for someone?" I asked.

"For my aunty," David told me. "Would you like to sign the card for her? Heaps of other Glenside people have."

I swallowed. I took my 20p ballpoint from Boots the Chemist and signed the card for David's aunty. I wrote "Merry Xmas, Your Majesty."

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