It was not many weeks after the beginning of the term that I got a call from Chloé’s school. It was from the assistant head, no less, and she wondered if, as a local author accustomed to regaling the public on the subject of my books, I might like to give a talk to the Instituto classes?
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to talk about?’
‘Oh, whatever takes your fancy, really. We’ll leave the subject up to you.’
‘You’ve got to get this one right, Dad,’ Chloé insisted. ‘The Instituto class is only a year below me. They’re my friends, or at any rate the younger brothers and sisters of my friends.’
I wondered abut this for a while and then, as so often happens at the eleventh hour, inspiration struck. I had long admired the way in which Chloé and her friends, both boys and girls, seemed to treat one another as if they belonged to the same species. Having been to a single sex boarding school in England, I had harboured a certain envy for boys who went to school with girls, and consequently knew how to deal with them on a more or less equal footing. I decided there and then to address the school on the great benefits of co-education.
The great day arrived and I was led up the steps of the assembly hall and confronted with a great rabble of youth milling about in the passages and aisles. Chloé was in the senior building, safely (as far as she was concerned) out of the way, but I could pick out a few friendly faces from the younger siblings of her friends and the families we knew in town.
There was a not altogether fruitful call to silence as the last few miscreants scrambled noisily to their seats. The teacher, called Dori, introduced me and I was left alone. I looked out for a moment across the heaving sea of girls and boys, waiting for the muse. And then I was away like a clockwork monkey, relishing the Spanish idioms that sprang to my aid and using my foreignness to advantage. I managed to raise the odd snigger and giggle, but if the truth be told it was like getting blood out of a stone (to be fair, not much of what a fifty-something-year-old has to say is funny to a teenager). I talked about the advantages of small town life; I told a little moral tale; I recommended the road less travelled, and extolled, briefly – and cautiously – some of the virtues of the wild side; and then I launched into my great paean to co-educationalism.
I wasn’t far into it when a minor linguistic problem presented itself: I was suddenly seized by a doubt that such a word actually existed in Spanish. Why should it? Just about all education was co-educational, so why should there be a special word for it? This thought brought me almost to a standstill. But I soldiered on.
My preferred strategy for this sort of situation is to slide neatly into the circumlocution. Forget the grammar and the vocabulary, and, if things are getting really out of hand, even the meaning; I just launch myself confidently onto a tangential track. The muse carried me along as I talked in ever more discursive mode about the pleasures of the sexes mingling, the masculine conjoining with the feminine, both coming together to create a well-rounded person.
I’m not sure that even I had much of a sense of what this blather was adding up to, and the slightly bemused expression of my audience did little to reassure me. But I plunged heedlessly on with my peroration, ending with my certainty that it was going to a sixth form college with both girls and boys that had rescued me from the warped confines of my earlier single-sex schooling and that I was sure it would be the making of all of them, too.
‘And that’, I said, by way of winding up, ‘is it.’
There was that dread pause while my local reputation as a speaker hung in the balance, and then, to my relief, a spattering of polite applause laced with a puzzling undertone of sniggering from the older kids, and Dori came up on stage, gave me a kiss and bundled me off.
‘Phew,’ I said, ‘tough gig.’ Or rather, I thought I said ‘tough gig’. Dori was looking at me uncertainly. ‘Un bolo duro’ is what I said, and that, as I subsequently discovered, does not mean ‘tough gig’ at all, but rather ‘a hard skittle’.
However, a hard skittle turned out to be about right, when on the following day reports of my speech reached my daughter. She climbed off the bus with an uncharacteristically sour, if not hurt, expression on her face.
‘Dad, don’t you think there are some things that you and Mum might want to discuss with me first before going off and announcing them to the whole of my school?’
‘Er … to what might you be referring?’ I hedged.
‘To the fact that you’re bisexual?’
This was news to me. ‘Bisexual?! I’m not bisexual … I mean, I’ve got nothing against bisexuals, but I’m not one, or at least not that I’m consciously aware of,’ I spluttered. ‘Whatever gave them that idea?’
‘You did. Apparently that’s what you told everyone in your speech yesterday before urging them to celebrate their own bisexuality. Or at least that’s what they reckoned you were saying. Apparently you waffled a lot.’
‘Aah …’ I said as the penny began to drop, ‘I think these poor benighted young people might have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.’
To add to my mortification, she enlightened me as to the correct word for co-education. It was coeducación … Who would have thought it?
Last Days of the Bus Club by Chris Stewart (Sort of Books) will be published on June 4th 2014 – but if you like this extract you can pre-order a copy now... Read our review of the book in issue 147 - on sale now!