The Rotter's Club
November the 15th, 1973. A Thursday evening, drizzle whispering against the window-panes, and the family gathered in the living room. All except Colin, who is out on business, and has told his wife and children not to wait up. Weak light from a pair of wrought-iron standard lamps. The coal-effect fire hisses.
Sheila Trotter is reading the Daily Mail: "'˜To have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health–"these are the promises which do in fact sustain most married couples through the bad patches."
Lois is reading Sounds: "Guy, 18, cat lover, seeks London chick, into Sabbath. Only Freaks please."
Paul, precociously, is reading Watership Down: "Simple African villagers, who have never left their remote homes, may not be particularly surprised by their first sight of an aeroplane: it is outside their comprehension."
As for Benjamin . . . I suppose he is doing his homework at the dining table. The frown of concentration, the slightly protruding tongue (a family trait, of course: I've seen my mother look the same way, crouched over her laptop). History, probably. Or maybe physics. Something which doesn't come easily, at any rate. He looks across at the clock on the mantelpiece. The organized type, he has set himself a deadline. He has ten minutes to go. Ten more minutes in which to write up the experiment.
I'm doing my best, Patrick. Really I am. But it's not an easy one to tell, the story of my family. Uncle Benjamin's story, if you like.
I'm not even sure this is the right place to start. But perhaps one place is as good as any other. And this is the one I've chosen. Mid-November, the dark promise of an English winter, almost thirty years ago.
November the 15th, 1973.
Long periods of silence were common. They were a family who had never learned the art of talking to one another. All of them inscrutable, even to themselves: all except Lois, of course. Her needs were simple, defined, and in the end she was punished for it. That's how I see things, anyway.
I don't think she wanted much, at this stage of her life. I think she only wanted companionship, and the occasional babble of voices around her. She would have had a craving for chatter, coming from that family; but she was not the sort to lose herself in a giggling circus of friends. She knew what she was looking for, I'm sure of that; already knew, even then, even at the age of sixteen. And she knew where to look for it, too. Ever since her brother had started buying Sounds every Thursday, on the way home from school, it had become her furtive weekly ritual to feign interest in the back-page adverts for posters and clothes ("Cotton drill shirts in black, navy, flame-red, cranberry–great to team with loons") when her real focus of attention was the personal column. She was looking for a man.
She had read nearly all of the personals by now. She was beginning to despair.
"Freaky Guy (20) wants crazy chick (16+) for love. Into Quo and Zep."
Once again, not exactly ideal. Did she want her guy to be freaky? Could she honestly describe herself as crazy? Who were Quo and Zep, anyway?
"Great guy wishes groovy chick to write, into Tull, Pink Floyd, 17–28."
"Two freaky guys seek heavy chicks. 16+, love and affection."
"Guy (20), back in Kidderminster area, seeks attractive chick(s)."
Kidderminster was only a few miles away, so this last one might have been promising, if it weren't for the giveaway plural in parentheses. He'd definitely blown his cover, there. Out for a good time, and little else. Though perhaps that was preferable, in a way, to the whiff of desperation that came off some of the other messages.
Excerpted from The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan Coe. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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