Boswell Figgis had been aware of the Birds and Bees thing from an early age and he had known that it spelt trouble. When he was five, his mother had told him about ‘Mummy’s tummy’. When he was six, she told him how babies got inside the tummy. When he was seven, his father had showed him a diagram and said that if he had any questions he must be sure to ask Mummy or Daddy straight away. And the whole episode had been conducted in such an earnest, hand-on-the-shoulder way that Figgis had known that he could never ask either of them anything.
In regard to the Bird-Bee topic, his sisters Lizzy and Claire lived on planet Girl and on this subject their message was clear: ‘Go away, Boswell. You are a boy, you are an embarrassment.’
As time went by, Figgis came to realise that the Birds and Bees thing was also known as the Facts of Life. But no-one could explain how his father’s diagram applied to birds, or to bees. Especially bees. The whole thing was too confusing: really not worth the effort.
Now rising fourteen, Figgis had picked up a lot of stuff from television and in the back row at school. He had decided that birds and bees didn’t come into it: except in Biology, which didn’t count. There was the Romance thing and there was the Sex thing. If he had to choose, the Romance thing sounded a lot easier to handle – and he had certain aspirations on the Melissa Hardiman front. But, on the whole, he didn’t want to think about any of it.
However, on a recent visit to the dentist, Figgis had caught sight of a magazine article called ‘Firestorm at Fourteen’. This advised him in lip-smacking detail of ways in which his body would shortly become a biochemical laboratory, flooded with hormonal fluids and secretions. It left him in no doubt that life would become very uncomfortable.
Central to the Firestorm was the concept of ‘libido’. Figgis had looked up the word and recognised its value in expressing that which he had previously found inexpressible: ‘A vital urge, as of sexual origin; a sexual impulse: from the Latin libid: desire, and libet: it pleases’. It was an excellent word and Figgis put it aside for a time when its use would cause maximum impact.
The moment came at a family gathering. As usual, his Great-aunt Miriam pinned him in a corner, tweaked his chin and asked ‘How is my little Bozzie-angel keeping?’
He never knew what to say on such occasions, so it was good to let her know, in confidence, that his libido was in fine fettle. And that it would shortly be exercised to the full, as he unleashed his Firestorm upon an amazed and delighted world. He advised her to watch the tabloid headlines. Maybe ‘The New Scientist’.
True to form, Aunt Miriam said ‘Excellent, dear. It’s nice to hear that you’re so doing well.’ Then she pressed a pound coin into his hand and went looking for more gin and for people to share her new word. He thoroughly enjoyed the looks of alarm from the older generation.
There followed, however, a sharp session with his father on the subject of mocking the elderly. After which, Figgis thought the best thing was to forget the Firestorm. Stop thinking, stop knowing, stop feeling. Perhaps it would die down.
But, as Figgis discovered, the Firestorm didn’t intend to die down. It burst into life during Art.
The class had been asked to paint ‘a Day in London’. As ever, Figgis felt compelled to do something different – but, by the time he had thought of the London Eye, several other people were doing it. Likewise, Nelson’s column. And Big Ben. He sighed.
Miss Pringle spotted the sigh. ‘Problem getting started, Figgis?’
‘No, miss. Just taking a walk in my mind.’
‘Good idea, Figgis. Don’t forget to watch the traffic.’
‘Ho, ho,’ he thought. But then it came to him. Traffic. He closed his eyes and saw it all … He opened his paint bag and took out his biggest, swirliest brush and began … Red buses, black cabs, neon signs, red, amber and green … Never mind the shapes, never mind the geometry – he started in the middle and streaked and splotched outwards …
Then came the voice, soft and low in his ear. ‘That’s a good idea.’ He turned and angels fluttered their wings. It was the new girl, Vicky Kershaw and she was smiling.
Up to that point, Figgis had thought Vicky was OK – if somewhat on the brainy side: just another girl, tall, thin, and blonde. Their paths hadn’t really crossed, so he was surprised to find her looking at his work.
‘Interesting,’ she said. ‘I wish I’d thought of it.’
That was the moment. Ping! Pang! Feelings! She couldn’t possibly like the painting. She must like the look of him.
Her smile was warm as she went back to her seat.
Figgis’s blood-flow did impossible, contradictory things, flushing his face, rushing to his boots, churning his stomach. He guessed it was an early stage of the Firestorm and he knew that it must be kept from everyone: people at school; people at home; mother, father, and sisters.
If his mother got wind of anything approaching a friendship – let alone a relationship – she would fuss and dust things. There would be talk of invitations to tea. There would be questions about her family and her house and what-do-her-parents-do?
His father would dust off the diagrams and deliver an up-dated Talk – the man-to-man version.
Most of all, everything must be kept from his sisters, especially Lizzie, aka Looselips. Otherwise, in the twinkle of a txt, the whole school would know far more than there was to know. There would be giggling in the front row and sniggering at the back. Initials would be entwined on lavatory walls and class-room white-baords. The Year Tutor would take a dim view.
However, despite the need for secrecy, Figgis had to ‘get started’ with VK herself. He favoured the idea of something Romantic, rather than the actively volcanic Other thing.
On the Monday, he began the game of slowly-warm-it-up: catching her eye at odd moments and appearing in front of her in doorways. Her reaction was one of surprise rather than outright welcome but, by Wednesday, he felt ready to begin the gradual blossoming of eyebrow language.
Things came to a head during the Friday lunch-break. Figgis was in the Art alcove of the Library, refreshing ideas for the afternoon lesson. How could he attract serious attention from VK? Was she a pre-Raphaelite person? Quite possibly, but he doubted if his draughtsmanship was up to it.
All at once, the alcove darkened; all at once, it brightened. A slim figure entered Figgis’s world. It was VK herself: eyes sea-blue, voice calm and level. ‘Hello, Figgis. I thought we should have a quiet word.’
‘Absolutely.’ He felt his eyebrows stirring. ‘As quiet as you like.’
‘If we sit at the table, we can pretend to be at work.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Figgis. ‘A cover-up – good idea.’ He opened a couple of books at random.
She sat and gave it to him straight. ‘It’s the eyebrow thing.’
‘People will notice.’
‘Oh, do you think so? I thought it was fairly subtle.’
‘About as subtle, Figgis, as a pair of Centipedes.’
‘I’m sorry. It was just meant to be a friendly gesture.’
‘I know what it was, Figgis. You were trying it on. And I can’t say I’m not flattered, but I’m not interested.’
‘I see …’ Figgis flushed, paled and flushed again.
‘Not just ‘not you’; not anyone.’
‘Of course.’ His face became stuck on flush.
‘OK, Figgis. No hard feelings.’
‘Absolutely. Just one thing.’
‘No need to mention this to other people.’
‘Absolutely not.’ Her voice was a little firmer than Figgis would have liked. ‘There is nothing to mention.’ As she went from the room, her eyes were still sea-blue, but North Atlantic Drift rather than soft, wave-lapped lagoon.
Figgis slammed shut the books on Art and went outside. It was raining, but he felt like taking his centipedes for a walk.
Next week: “Teenage Crush”