What’s In A Name?
Some are born Rupert, some achieve Rupert, and some…… well, wait and see.
My parents were delighted when I was born. They already had a daughter, Doreen Joyce, and now had a son as well. I was christened Rodney Cecil. My father, Brian, was a postman, and my mother Mavis worked at home, doing sewing alterations. There was always someone knocking at our door when I was growing up, wanting trousers shortened, or skirt zips replaced, or waists let out. Mam was never short of work. People came from miles around, because her needlework was so good.
I went to the local First School, where my best friend was Douglas. His parents, Margaret and Robert, were friends with my parents, and his sister was friends with mine as well. Had it not been for Douglas, my life would have been complete hell when we transferred to Middle School when we were nine.
Before that part of my life started, though, I went with my family on holiday to Rhyl. I suppose that visit changed my life, really. We stayed in a caravan, and didn’t do very much, until we went to Llandudno for the day. Doreen stayed behind, with a girl she’d met on the campsite, so it was just me with Mam and Dad. Llandudno looked a lot posher than Rhyl. The sands looked golden in the bright sunlight, and along the promenade were vast white palaces, which Mam said were hotels for rich people.
My parents hired deckchairs, and sat back in them, the sun on their faces, whilst I played in the sand with my bucket and spade. A boy, a bit younger than me, came up and asked if he could play, too, and we began to build a quite elaborate sand-castle together. He said his name was Rupert. I hadn’t realised it was a real name; I had supposed it to be a type of bear, in my ignorance. He said he was staying at the enormous hotel, which was just behind where we were playing, and that he was there with his Nanny and his dog Tarquin, who was a retriever. I’d never come across that name either.
“Do you have a dog?” he asked.
“Yes. He’s called Rex.”
“What breed is he?”
“I’m not sure. I think he’s a mongrel.”
Rupert looked impressed. “I’ve never heard of a mongrel before,” he said. “It must be quite a rare breed. Where is he?”
“He’s with my Nan.”
“Do you mean your Nanny?”
“Well, where is she?”
I thought it an odd question. “At home with my Grandad,” I said.
“Who’s looking after you then?” Rupert enquired.
Rupert looked puzzled. “That’s my Nanny over there,” he said, pointing to a young woman sitting reading in a deckchair, a large golden dog asleep at her feet.
“She looks young to be your Nan,” I said.
“Oh, no. She’s quite old; about twenty-three, I think.”
It was my turn to be puzzled. This couldn’t be right.
“Where’s your Mam and Dad then?” I asked.
“They’re sailing somewhere in the Med. We keep our boat down there.”
None of this made sense to me. I thought I’d ask Mam about it later.
When I did, she said posh people pay someone to look after their children, instead of doing it themselves, and that these people are called Nannies. They are nothing to do with grandmothers, which is what I thought Nanny meant. I began to see there was another sort of life, another way of living, albeit a strange one.
Douglas and I started at the Middle School about a week after I got home from Rhyl, and my life became a nightmare every day. The problem was my name. Don’t parents ever think, when they’re choosing what to call their kids? There were children at Middle School who’d come from other First Schools, rough children too. There was a big boy in my class, Gerald Sampson, and he was a bully. Like many school bullies he had a group of sycophants who took their cue from his behaviour.
We hadn’t been there more than a couple of days when Gerald came past our table, and saw one of my exercise books. I’d written my name on it – R.C. Mackie. It was a gift to someone like him.
“R.C.! Arsy!” he called out. He began to chant, “Arsy, arsy, arsy,” and his followers joined in. All the other children laughed. I felt myself going red, and it was all I could do not to cry. Douglas stuck up for me. “Leave him alone!” he shouted.
“Ooh!” mocked Gerald, “ Arsy’s got a friend! Let’s see.” And he grabbed one of Douglas’s exercise books.
“Douglas! Dug-less! Where’s your spade then? “
He clutched one of his followers, doubled up with laughter, and everyone joined in, as though he’d said the wittiest thing imaginable. Thank goodness the teacher came in at that point.
From then on, my school life was a misery. Had it not been for Douglas, I truly think I’d have tried to kill myself.
It was nearly two years of dreading every day before I saw the possibility of escape. In our area at that time, the 1970s, two systems of education were running simultaneously. We all started in First School at five, and transferred to Middle School after four years. We were supposed to spend another four years there before moving on to the Comprehensive School. However, there was an anachronism. The Grammar School was still in existence. This was a subject of controversy in the local authority, mostly on party lines, and, rather than choose, they’d opted for a compromise. Schools encouraged pupils to stay in the new three-tier system, but parents could, if they wished, enter their children for the eleven-plus. In other words, it wasn’t compulsory, but optional. It also meant that a lot of the brightest kids got creamed off, which, looking back, I can see was not fair to the Comprehensive schools. At the time, however, I was thinking only of me. If I could pass for the Grammar School, I could escape from Gerald, who had no chance of passing, even were he to sit the entrance exam.
First, I needed to persuade my parents to let me take the eleven-plus. When I broached the subject to my mother, I got nowhere.
“Oh, no, Rodney. Our Doreen’s been perfectly all right at the Comp., and I think you would, too.”
My dad was just as adamant. I said I was being bullied by another boy, and Dad said, “Stand up to him then!”
I could not just let this chance pass me by, so I put Plan B into action. We had a neighbour a few doors away whose house was filled with books. I’d seen them, shelf after shelf, when I walked past and gazed in at his window. We only knew him to say, ‘Good morning’ to, but my dad had stepped inside when he’d delivered parcels, and he said Mr. Avery was a real bookworm, and he must have been to university, as he had letters after his name.
University! Oh, to go there! First, though, I MUST get to the Grammar School. With every bit of courage I could muster, I went and knocked on Mr. Avery’s door. When he opened it, everything I’d planned to say went out of my head, and I blurted out, “Please, sir, will you help me? I need you to get my mam and dad to let me go to the Grammar School, and then to university!” I was almost sobbing.
“You poor child! You’d better come in and tell me what all this is about,” Mr. Avery said.
He led me through the hall, past the book-lined room, and into a brighter room at the back of the house. French windows opened onto a small pretty garden, with a weeping willow tree. Just outside the door, on what he called the terrace, was a white wrought iron table, with two chairs. Mr. Avery indicated one of them, and I sat down whilst he went inside. He came back with a glass of milk and a chocolate digestive biscuit for me, and then sat in the other chair. I sipped the milk, and nibbled at the biscuit, and gradually felt calmer.
Mr. Avery then said, “Now, young man, you’d better tell me all about it.” So I told him about Gerald, and how awful he made me feel. I even told him about a song Gerald had recently come up with, when he’d somehow discovered my middle name was Cecil. He and his friends kept singing it. The tune, I know now, was the Eton Boating Song, but the words were different. I will always remember them, and the humiliation of it.
‘0h, my name is Cecil, I live in Leicester Square,
I wear my shoes with buckles, and rosebuds in my hair.
And we’re all friends together, I’m Cecil from Leicester Square,
Yes, we’re all friends together; I’m Cecil from Leicester Square.’
This was accompanied by him doing a mincing walk. “No wonder you’re called Arsy,” he said.
I hadn’t thought it could get any worse, but it had. Gerald had even started to mock my surname, Mackie. If it was raining, he’d say, “Ooh, Arsy Cecil’s in his Mackie!”
All this spilled out, and all the pent-up emotion with it. Mr. Avery just sat and listened, and then he asked me what subjects I was good at, and what sort of books I read. After that, he sat thoughtfully for a while.
“What makes you think I can help?” he asked eventually.
“My dad’s your postman, and he said you’re very clever, and he and my mam look up to clever people. And I don’t know anyone else that’s clever,” I added. I suppose I meant I didn’t know anyone else who was educated - which is not the same thing at all.
“All right, young man, I’ll have a think, and see what I can do.”
I went home with the stirrings of hope, vowing to work really hard to pass the exam. I had no doubt Mr. Avery would get round Mam and Dad somehow.
A couple of days later, he came round to our house. Doreen and I were banished to our rooms, so I don’t know what was said, only that when I came down, Mr. Avery had gone, and my parents looked very solemn.
“Rodney,” my dad said very formally, “Mr. Avery has very kindly talked to us about the advantages of going to university, and how it’s easier to get a place there if you’re at a Grammar school. We know that’s not fair, but we aren’t going to hold you back, if that’s what you want. You can sit the eleven-plus, and if you pass, you can go. And always remember you owe this chance to Mr. Avery, so make sure you don’t let him down.”
(Strangely – to me at any rate – my dad and Mr. Avery became firm friends. They even went to the Railway pub together on Friday nights to play in the dominoes team, which neither of them would ever have done, had it not been for their friendship. Mr. Avery was now known as Ted, and came to tea on Sundays. He was a widower, whose wife and only child had died in a car accident many years ago. He had been to Oxford, and encouraged me to go there.)
That, though, was in the future. Now, when Dad said I could try for the Grammar School, I could hardly speak for happiness. Somehow I managed to get out a ‘thank you’. The end of bullying was at last in sight! After that, Gerald’s taunts didn’t seem to affect me as they had. I worked hard, and passed the exam easily. In September, a whole new world opened up to me. There I was, at the Grammar School, learning Latin and French, Physics and Chemistry, in a smart uniform, and mixing with boys whose fathers were doctors, bank managers, and the like. In our Midlands carpet-weaving town I hadn’t known those sort of people. They weren’t the class we mixed with. I was an anomaly at the school.
I soon realised my accent was too pronounced. I listened carefully to how the other boys spoke, and then practised when I could be sure no-one else could hear. Before long, the way I spoke began to change. I still saw Douglas occasionally, as our parents were friends, but our previous closeness had gone. I made new friends, and was invited to their houses, where I watched closely to see how they held their knives and forks – not as my parents had shown me when I was young – and all the other differences between their class and mine. I never invited anyone back to my home. I couldn’t help it: I was ashamed. Supposing someone came, and then mocked me at school for how my parents and sister spoke, or what our house was like? I could be bullied all over again.
One thing helped. Boys were known by their surnames, so no-one knew my Christian names – and I made sure I only put ‘R. Mackie’ on my exercise books, never R.C. Gradually I realised that my name might hold me back in the future. I was going to get rid of Rodney Cecil as soon as I could.
I worked all the time, even in the holidays, and was rewarded by being accepted at Oxford, though at one of the newer colleges. It seems a lot of the older ones had places which were only open to boys from certain schools, under the terms of endowments, which narrowed opportunities for the rest of us. It didn’t matter too much though. I’d got a place! I was on the way up! Nothing, but nothing, was going to stand in my way.
It helped that my dad was only a postman, and not well paid. As for Mam’s earnings, they were all cash-in-hand, so no-one knew what they were. Thus I qualified for a full maintenance grant. (It wouldn’t be so now!) This gave me independence from my parents. I went home for the first vacation, but thereafter made excuses. As time went by, they presumably expected less and less from me. I couldn’t keep up my relationship with them; it would have dragged me down. In any case, I changed my name. I became Rupert Charles Mac Kie. They’d never have understood.
I read P.P.E., and got a decent 2:1, and then worked in the City as an economics analyst. I decided I’d wait until I was twenty-four before embarking on the next stage in life, when I would select a suitable young woman, and marry at twenty-five. I thought it would be better to move out to the London/Kent margins, where I could rent a flat much more cheaply than in central London, and get into work on the trains which ran to London Bridge. There would be more of the kind of people I needed to meet, at Tennis Clubs etc., to establish some sort of social background for myself. Again, I watched and listened carefully, and absorbed the slang and attitudes of these people. I had become adept at fitting in, like a human chameleon.
I was fortunate to meet Angela Tennyson-Roberts at a drinks party arranged by one of my associates at the Club, and we married six months later, at her family’s local church in the North Yorkshire village where her parents had their county house. I felt no compunction lying about my own parents, saying they were both dead, killed in a motoring accident when I was very young, and that I’d been brought up by my elderly eccentric Uncle Jeremy, who also was no longer with us. The only guests on my side of the church were work colleagues, and a couple of Oxford friends. Jonathan Willoughby was Best Man. We had been on the same staircase as undergraduates, and got on all right.
Angela and I settled in an apartment in the then up-and-coming Islington – a good move, as the area went on to become very chic, and we made a packet when we eventually sold it and moved to Chelsea. If I were to be honest – as in this account I’m trying to be – I wasn’t in love with her (whatever that means). We had little in common, but she was eminently presentable, very attractive, a good cook, and an excellent hostess at the drinks and dinner parties we held. We had a contented and civilised relationship: I provided the material comforts, and she provided mine.
When our children, Guy and Annabelle, were born, we didn’t have a nanny, just an au pair – well, a series of them, usually for a couple of years each. Of course, the kids went to fee-paying schools. I prospered in my career. We had a cottage in Oxfordshire we went to most weekends, and a wide circle of ‘friends’. Life was very sweet, and if I were ever tempted to stray, I resisted. What I had was hard-won, at great personal cost, and I had no intention of risking it. Thus life went on, fairly uneventfully.
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When Annabelle was twenty-five, and flat-sharing with a friend, she came round to our house one evening to say she’d met ‘the love of her life’, Edmund, and they hope to marry next summer. She’d like it to be at the village church near our second home.
Angela and I met Edmund, and found him quite satisfactory, but a little dull, which I thought would suit Annabelle very well, as she was fairly dull too, though a lovely young woman nonetheless, both beautiful and kind.
We’d hoped to meet Edmund’s parents before the wedding, and had invited them for a weekend, and they’d accepted, but Edmund’s mother, Marian, went down with a stomach bug the day before they should have arrived, so they’d had to cancel.
Angela and Annabelle spent all their time in elaborate preparations for the momentous day. I just paid the bills! I left everything to them. I didn’t want to be bothered with all the piddling little details. Every so often my opinion would be sought as to which invitation cards should be chosen, and such like, but by and large I kept out of it.
The weather in May can be unreliable, but we were lucky. The sun shone, and it was pleasantly warm without being too hot. The lovely mellow Cotswold stone of the church glowed softly in the sunshine, the scent of flowers filled the air, and I was suffused with pride and affection as my beautiful daughter took my arm, and we began our procession down the aisle.
The ceremony couldn’t have been better. The Vicar spoke clearly, and the bride and groom made their responses audibly. After the register was signed, Angela and I joined the procession following the Annabelle and Edmund out of the church, to the wonderful joyous Wedding March by Mendelssohn. Outside was the official photographer, arranging members of the wedding party for the formal photographs, while guests stood watching. It was then, at what should have been a triumphal moment, it happened.
I really looked round for the first time, and I noticed a man staring at me intently. I knew I recognised him from somewhere, but couldn’t think where.
“Do you know who that man is?” I whispered to Angela.
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s Edmund’s uncle.”
Before I could pursue this, the photographer intervened, to organise yet another group picture. Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the man gazing at me. A horrible feeling of recognition swept over me. It was nearly forty years since I’d seen Douglas, but I was sure I was looking at him now. My heart thumped, and I hoped I wasn’t going red – or, indeed, white. I’d deny ever seeing him before, if the occasion arose. I had too much to lose. After all, he couldn’t know for sure who I was. I looked a lot different, I sounded a lot different, and my name was different. I thought I was safe.
As soon as the photo session ended, Angela and I rushed off to our cottage nearby. I say cottage, because that’s what its name is, Magnolia Cottage, but in fact it’s quite a large house, and the reception was to be held in a marquee in its grounds. Our local gastro pub was doing the catering.
As the guests began to arrive, sauntering over from the church, Angela and I, Annabelle and Edmund stood in a line to greet them. Waiters stood by with trays of full sherry glasses. I was waiting for Douglas, or his doppelganger, to appear, and I composed my face into what I hoped was a pleasant smile, with nothing to hide.
A few minutes’ grace, and there he was, an ordinary-looking woman at his side. Edmund said, “This is my Uncle Douglas and Aunt Gillian.”
“How do you do?” I said.
“I’m sure I know you,” Douglas replied, looking at me quizzically. “You’re a dead ringer for my childhood friend Rodney.”
“Poor Rodney!” I laughed.
Still he hesitated. “It’ll be interesting to see what Auntie Mavis says!”
At last he moved on.
I began to feel more and more uneasy. I turned to Edmund. “Who is Aunt Mavis?” I asked.
“She’s not really an aunt,” Edmund answered, “A few years after my uncle Robert’s wife died, he married again.
His second wife is the widow of someone he knew. We call her Aunt Mavis. “
My mother’s name was Mavis. Surely he couldn’t mean her! That would mean my father was dead. I felt quite ill.
A moment later, Douglas appeared again, with two very old people in tow. “This is my dad; I expect you remember him. He’s Edmund’s Uncle Robert; and this is his wife Mavis,” he said.
I was looking at my mother’s face, and she was looking at mine.
“Rodney?” she whispered tentatively. “Is it you, after all this time?”
I forced a slight laugh. “You’re the second person to ask me that,” I said. “Actually, my name’s Rupert.”
She just stood there, and stared at me. I found I couldn’t look away. I knew she wasn’t deceived. She knew very well who I was, and she knew that I knew this. I watched in shame as two tears trickled down her cheeks, before she turned away wordlessly.
What can I say? I had denied my own mother. I can think of nothing worse I could do, but I’d done it, nevertheless.
I didn’t see her again. She and Robert must have left straight after that. Somehow I got through the rest of the day, even managing to do the father-of-the-bride speech.
I suppose I shall have to live with this for the rest of my life, knowing what a monster I have turned into. My mother’s face is the last thing I see at night, and the first in the morning. There’s no going back, though. There’s nothing else to be said. What I did was final. I am Rupert, for ever.