This is the very first episode of Muselings. It is a story about knocking and shyness and, in a very oblique way, the general unfairness of the world.
A transcript of this episode is below.
You can find the podcast and subscribe on Apple Podcasts here.
Hi! Hello! I’m Charles Adrian and I just want to quickly introduce this new podcast that I’m putting out. It’s called Muselings for reasons that I won’t go into here except to say that, like muesli, I think it’ll be perfect first thing in the morning or last thing at night and, like muesli, it might get a little flaky towards the end because I haven’t recorded all of the episodes yet. And yes, some people eat muesli last thing at night: get over it.
Anyway, the plan is that it’ll be 8 episodes to start with, each between 12 and 13 minutes long and… I’m going to be the protagonist of all of those episodes. On the website, muselings.uk, I’ve put it more poetically – I’ve written ‘Muselings is a podcast that accepts that I am the lens through which I experience the world’ – but, essentially, what I’m saying is: don’t be listening to this podcast and expecting me to talk about you, OK? I’m almost certainly not going to talk about you. Unless you’re one of the people I do mention in passing – and, I mean, obviously, you’d have to listen to find out – but it’s very unlikely, is what I’m saying. So that’s a kind of warning, I suppose. This podcast is all about me, is the point.
Each episode is going to be a little essay about something that’s happened to me, or something that’s occurred to me, or… something like that. They’re the kinds of things that I might previously have written down and hidden in the back of a drawer. Or screwed up and thrown away. And… I suppose it might be important to say that some of the episodes are going to be more confessional than others. This first episode is not particularly confessional – it’s just about a thing that happened. I recorded it a while ago so the sound quality might be different. I hope that doesn’t annoy you. In any case, it’s called Knocking and… here’s the jingle, which I made myself.
[Jingle: Four descending piano chords and the word Muselings]
So, the other day, I had to go down and talk to my neighbours about building work that I’m planning to have done on my flat. I really like my neighbours – luckily. They’re a man and a woman, about my age; they have a young daughter. She was born a few days before they moved in three Christmases ago. Which is useful because it means that I always know how old she is and I can ask intelligent questions on the surprisingly infrequent occasions that we cross paths.
So, yeah, don’t run away with the impression that I’m an especially friendly neighbour. We often make noises about me coming in for a drink one day soon or about them coming up for tea once I’m back from my next bit of traveling but it doesn’t happen and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. Two Christmasses ago, they did come up for mulled wine and then I went down for champagne before going out on New Year’s Eve. And it was really nice and we haven’t done it again. I suppose, my fear is that we might fall out and then have to carry on living on top of each other. We share one of those typical Victorian terrace conversions that you get all over London – and perhaps in other cities. My neighbours have the ground floor and the garden at the back; I have the first floor and what used to be the attic. It’s now the kitchen. It’s a lovely room. It’s really light and airy. It’s where I spend most of my time while I am at home. The only reason I’m not recording this there now is that the dishwasher is running. So, instead, I’m at the back of the house, nearer the railway. You might have just heard a train go past.
Anyway, so my neighbours and I share the front door and a very small hallway so it’s really quite surprising that we don’t bump into each other more often.
In any case, I’m always a little nervous about having to go down to speak to my neighbours – it seems a little formal to have to solicit their attention. And I never know how hard to knock on their door. I’m worried that, if I knock too hard, they’ll think I’m annoyed about something and that I’ve come down to complain. On the other hand, if I knock too quietly, they don’t necessarily hear me. Sometimes that’s because they’re at the back of the house or in the garden but more than once I’ve stood in the hallway, listening to the vague hum of conversation coming from their sitting room, just the other side of the door, and gradually having to admit to myself that they haven’t heard me. And then I start getting nervous that they’re going to suddenly decide to go out and they’ll open their door and discover me lurking, apparently for no reason, in the hallway.
But this whole shyness about knocking has been with me ever since I can remember. It has nothing specifically to do with my neighbours. And, while I was standing in front of their door the other day, I remembered that, when I was about nine or ten years old, at prep school, I was sent by my form teacher to give something to the history teacher, a Mr Foster, who stuttered and had a reputation for being very bad tempered. He was quite a scary figure for us younger boys. So I had to go from the classroom block up the steps into the main house. The school had originally been a farm and so the main house would have been the farmhouse, the big house. Don’t imagine anything too grand – it was no manor house – but it was a modest three-story building with a basement where the kitchens would originally have been and where Mrs Tointon, who had a toy poodle on an extending lead, taught special English and special Maths. Being assigned to Mrs Tointon’s class was called ‘being sent to the dungeon’. I was sent to the dungeon for both Maths and English until my mother pointed out that, not only was I not learning anything but, in any case, I was quite bright: I’d done really quite well on the IQ tests that children were forced to take at my school. So I was rehabilitated.
And she was right, actually: I wasn’t learning anything. The only lesson that I can remember was on group nouns – you know, a herd of cows, a flock of geese, a murder of crows and so on – and I remember that Mrs Tointon had given me a sheet of paper with a list of these phrases on and, in order to test me, she had crossed out the group noun with a black pen. But the ink in the pen was no match for the ink in the photocopier and the words were clearly visible. She didn’t seem to have noticed. So, while her poodle ran around weaving the chairs and tables together, I just sat there writing ‘herd’ next to where it clearly said ‘herd’. And ‘flock’ next to ‘flock’. And ‘murder’ next to ‘murder’. This may have been the lesson that I told my mother about, prompting her intervention. Thinking about it now, though, it could be that it wasn’t entirely wasted. I mean I still remember those nouns. You should test me! Tweet me animals. See if I can remember the group nouns. @charldrian. I promise I won’t Google them.
But, um… yeah, so that’s all by the by.
The point is that I had to go up to Mr Foster’s classroom, which was two floors above the dungeon. I’d never been up there. I remember you had… so I had to creep past the staffroom, I had to go past the headmaster’s study, and then up the staircase – it was quite a narrow staircase, oddly, with this weird brown, plasticky flooring – up to the first floor. And then I remember standing outside Mr Foster’s door, absolutely terrified. I was really shy as a child. I used to blush all the time and I was teased about it mercilessly. And any interaction with people – particularly people I didn’t know – was very, very scary. And, eventually, I knocked. But too quietly. So, on the other side of the door, I could hear Mr Foster teaching without any interruption. He clearly hadn’t heard me. So I knocked again, a little louder. And Mr Foster stopped teaching to accuse one of the boys – who would have been two or three years older than me and therefore a terrifying creature in his own right – of banging on the desk or something like that. “I heard you making a noise,” Mr Foster said. The boy denied it, obviously. And a couple of the boys said “I think there’s someone at the door, sir.” But Mr Foster was having none of it. I think they’d probably played that trick before. Possibly earlier in the lesson.
So I just… I waited a few minutes and then I knocked again. And again Mr Foster stopped teaching and told the boy to stop messing around or he’d get into trouble. And the boy denied it more vehemently than before, with all the unconvincing heat of the falsely accused habitual prankster. And the boys were saying “There’s someone at the door, sir!” And Mr Foster was threatening punishment. With that terrible stutter he had.
So… so I waited again, to let all of this die down. And I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go back to my form teacher and pretend that Mr Foster wasn’t in. He was clearly teaching. It was in the timetable. And I would never have dared to open the door without being invited. Especially not Mr Foster’s door. He was… he was terrifying.
So I knocked again.
And the boy got a detention.
Two years later, when I was about eleven or twelve, I was in Mr Foster’s history class myself. And He turned out to be rather a sweet man. The kind of teacher boys threw chewed up gobbets of paper at when his back was turned, writing on the white board or whatever. And, you know, other small horridnesses. So, really, it was no wonder that he was occasionally bad tempered. I also found out that he had a habit of handing out detentions. He would write out a list of names and then tear it up before the end of the lesson. I don’t think anybody actually ever got a detention from him. So I could finally stop feeling guilty about the boy I’d got into trouble by knocking all those years before.
I remember Mr Foster always wearing an old, baggy tweed jacket. And I remember that the digestives in his cupboard were always somewhat limp. And that he wrote slowly and illegibly with his right hand. And I think he might have kept his dog in his car. He used to go out during the lessons sometimes and we would run to the windows to watch him go to his car and make sure his dog was all right. I think that’s right. That might be a false memory.
But I definitely remember, once, during a break time, when most of the other boys had gone out to play aggressive games with each other, presumably, and I’d stayed behind, as I often did, with my best friend Robert in the hope of getting an extra digestive, which we often did, I remember I asked Mr Foster whether he’d been left-handed as a boy. And he took the question very seriously. I remember he thought about it and then, after a while, he said that it was quite possible that he had been left-handed. I don’t know if he realised that I was doing some private detective work into his stutter but, even if he did, I like to hope that he would have realised that I wasn’t trying to make fun of him. Even then, it seemed to me unthinkably cruel that somebody could be condemned to a lifetime of stuttering and all that that entails because they’d once upon a time taken up their pen with the wrong hand. Robert was left-handed and I was always a little envious of that: it seemed to me glamorous and artistic.
Anyway… So, my neighbours were out when I went down to see them the other day. So it wouldn’t have mattered how loud I’d knocked. I know they were out because, eventually, I went outside and rang their doorbell.
So there we are. Thank you for listening to the first of my Muselings. You can find out more about the podcast at muselings.uk. Dot uk is the future, incidentally. You can subscribe via iTunes and Soundcloud so far. Actually, I don’t know if you subscribe on Soundcloud or follow but, anyway, you can work it out. And you can find me on Twitter as @charldrian, which is Charles and Adrian mashed together.
Next episode coming soon.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020