Root Memory

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Prog And Passion

Not long after arriving at his new school in Oxford, Nigel had been fascinated by the muffled, distorted twangs of guitars and thundering crashes of drums that he regularly heard leaking from the music room during lunch breaks. They were older lads, sixth formers, who swaggered about the school wearing shades and growing their hair as long as the headmaster would allow.

Nigel had the benefit of a fairly long neck, so would stretch it as high as it would go when Mr Jefferies, his young but balding maths teacher, regularly took him or any other rebelliously hirsute boy to one side and got them to perform “the collar test” in front of the class: any lock straying below the top of a shirt collar would result in the transgressor being humiliated and ordered to visit a barber by the end of the week – preferably one of the traditional type who specialised in short-back-and-sides.

In an attempt to simulate the long sideburns he was not yet capable of growing, pubescent Nigel cultivated his wavy blonde hair so that it hung longer in front of his ears, resulting in the unintended effect of bleached Hasidic peyos framing his innocent face.

For months, Nigel hung about in the path of the incipient rockers, trying to pluck up courage and think of a way of catching their attention as they strode towards their regular rehearsal space, perfecting insouciant cool while clutching vinyl albums under their arms; badges of their progressive musical tastes and generally perceived superiority over their peers.

Then, one lunchtime, Nigel spotted some sleeve artwork he actually recognised: the distinctive bent chrome bar hovering over crashing waves of Tubular Bells. He’d seen an item on the telly about a shy and mysterious bearded bloke who recorded all the parts by himself. So, on impulse, he stepped in front of the album’s owner.

“That’s Mike Oldfield isn’t it?” commented Nigel, pointing at the sleeve.

“Yeah. What of it?” replied the greasy-haired and round-spectacled one.

“I’ve been learning it,” improvised Nigel, hoping to impress.

Sixteen-year-old Simon Geary could scarcely disguise his disdain for the younger boy making such audacious contact with him.

“Oh, sure – I bet.” he replied, with imperious sarcasm.

“I can. I play guitar,” insisted Nigel.

Simon brushed him aside.

“I’ll prove it. Let me come in and I’ll show you.”

“Go on, Sime,” challenged one of the bunch, Rob, who sported an attempted moustache and a thickly-knotted tie carefully lowered to below his opened second shirt button.

Simon didn’t say anything but simply carried on, pushing the door open to the room with his foot, letting him and his mates in. So Nigel followed them. One of the group was already there setting up the equipment. A large speaker cabinet crackled and then shrieked as Steve’s bass guitar jack plug was pushed into the amplifier socket. Deep and rumbling notes resonated in Nigel’s chest as a heavy and primitive riff filled the room.

“Yeah. Silver Machine!” shouted Simon as he veered towards his keyboard set-up.

Simon’s dad worked on ‘hush-hush’ missile guidance systems and had built a colour TV from scratch at home, so he’d taught his son to be handy with a soldering iron, and with a bit of expert help, Simon had assembled his own basic Maplin ETI synthesizer from instructions out of an electronics magazine. It was an unprepossessing angled metal box with knobs on that looked like a collision between an old telephone exchange console and a gas cooker – but it worked. Like Eno on Ladytron, Simon used both hands and twiddled, as squeals, squawks and malevolent oscillations issued forth. By now, Rob was sitting on his drum stool and pounding out the beat of the Hawkwind hit as another lad, Kevin Baxter, fumbled a boogie barre-chord on his cheap Les Paul copy. The others cringed at the discordant cacophony coming out of it. Nigel pointed at the abused pseudo-Gibson, then to himself, and flashed pleading looks at the others, who nodded. Reluctantly, a dejected Kevin surrendered his instrument to an impatient Nigel. He knew the riff and joined in.

This was his first ever go with a guitar plugged into an amp. It was instantly and utterly exhilarating. Phrases and scales he’d learned on his previously un-amplified semi-acoustic now came alive to his touch. Bristling with pleasure, he chugged and churned the simple chords as Simon conjured psychedelic swoops and wobbles from his fingertips. They were connected and tribal. In that long moment, nothing else in the world existed for them – until the bell rang, marking the end of lunch. They juddered to a close and glanced at each other with unconcealed satisfaction. Time for chemistry.

So Nigel was now a member of Atrium – the name dreamt up by Rob the drummer (who’s dad was an architect), and suitably pretentious for a progressive rock group of the day. After a few weeks they began sounding like a proper band, and one or two of the older girls began to turn up at their lunchtime rehearsals. Though they were amused when Nigel could give them a few bars of Ziggy Stardust, or Eighteen by Alice Cooper, it was the older group members that became the objects of their interest; smiling flirtatiously and stroking their hair in expectation of being asked out. However, the boys misread their overt signals and unwittingly bored them with Tales of Topographic Oceans.

Though they never mentioned it, the other members realised Nigel was a much more proficient musician than they were. He couldn’t read a note of music, but could listen to a track off the radio a couple of times and then pick out the tune by ear. He’d then pass on the chord shapes and melody to the others.

Nigel was fourteen, but he looked younger. The other lads were more developed and closer to becoming men, while he was still scrawny and boyish. Hair growth in his armpits was well behind schedule. Only one girl in his class at school had shown any interest in him: Laura Chambers; she’d recently turned fifteen and was a little taller than Nigel. She wore her hair in a mousey, pageboy style and, in his opinion, bordered on the plain side, looks-wise; only reaching position number nine out of sixteen on Nigel’s libidinous list of ‘Girls in the Class I’d Like to Screw’. The list was often discussed furtively in school corridors during Top Trumps card games amongst the other boys (who each had their own lists), though most likely to spring up after mixed swimming lessons, when Nigel and his eager and aroused male classmates rushed inside, dripping, to the changing-room wall in a frustrated and prurient attempt to glimpse naked young flesh through the most unrewarding of improvised spy-holes.

Laura and Nigel lived on the same street in Old Marston and would sometimes share the twenty minute walk to school. He kind of got on with her all right, but he didn’t think she was girlfriend material; not one of the predictable type the other lads lusted after, those girls seen draped over bonnets on the covers of hotrod car magazines, or buxom and bikini-clad on a TV aftershave commercial.

In Nigel’s year, an approximation of this look was held by Lorraine Pearce: typically blonde, leggy, large-breasted, giggly – she also possessed the regulation Britt Ekland pout. Lorraine knew she had it, and the boys all wanted it; only the cute, good-looking lads got it.

On one of their walks, Laura asked Nigel if he could show her a few guitar chords as she was going to ask for a Spanish guitar for Christmas. She had no intention of doing so, but realised that this was probably the only way of getting Nigel’s attention and seeing more of him. It worked. After three lessons in the Bains’ living room, Nigel realised she maybe wasn’t that bad after all, and actually started to fancy her a little.

Next day at school, Laura was visiting the stationery cupboard when Nigel walked past. “Thanks for the lesson last night, Nigel.”

Nigel had slowed his pace on catching sight of her and was tongue-tied in her presence, though he managed to mumble a reply: “Oh, it’s OK. I enjoyed it.”

“I enjoyed it too,” she whispered.

Not having properly heard what she said, Nigel instinctively leant towards her with a questioning look on his face. Laura quickly looked in both directions along the corridor, then slowly moved her head towards his, and kissed him deliberately and delectably while at the same time reaching around Nigel’s waist with her hand and pulling him tenderly into the open cupboard, shutting the door behind them.

After less than a minute of blissful snogging, a pleasantly shocked Nigel emerged from the cupboard and tent peg-trousered his way to double maths, his Adidas sports bag discreetly slung in front of him. His state of arousal showed little sign of subsiding, even towards the end of the lesson, so he was forced to leave his soft pencil case sitting on his lap. It attracted a few curious looks, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

Unlike Nigel, Laura was in the top streams of Maths, English and the Sciences, so his next opportunity to see her wouldn’t be until morning break. She was with a couple of friends in the playground when Nigel eventually caught sight of her, so they just swapped syrupy grins at one another from a distance.

The pair went on their first date that weekend: Santa’s Grotto followed by holding hands in the back row of the cinema watching That’ll Be The Day. Laura fancied David Essex, and Nigel was into his character’s rock lifestyle. They both blushed and felt a bit awkward at the fairground scene. Laura’s hand made a sensuous substitute for his pencil case. Afterwards, Nigel suggested they walk across the golf course as a short-cut. He knew it was a popular haunt for courting couples after dark, having often stumbled over them and apologising when he’d made his way back home from town in the evenings. At the appointed spot, Nigel stopped and decided to try his rudimentary knowledge of astronomy out on Laura by pointing at and naming a few stars and constellations in the clear night sky.

“See that one? That’s Orion – the bright reddish star above it’s called Betelgeuse. And those three stars together are his belt – the fuzzy patch below them – that’s the Orion Nebula; you can see it better through binoculars.”

Laura knew already, but patiently let him carry on.

“Don’t you think it’s romantic, the two of us here staring at the heavens?” she whispered.

“Yeah. It is,” replied Nigel, realising for the first time in his life what the word actually meant.

They kissed – a really long one; the longest one they’d had. Nigel (with a randy plan in mind) suggested it would be more comfortable to lie on the grass. While chilly, there’d been no rain for days, so the ground was quite dry. More snogging was followed by exploratory squeezing of his beloved’s breasts, through her coat and a couple of other layers, and then a gently roving hand inched up her skirt.

“No, Nigel. No. No!”

“All right! Sorry.” he replied contritely, his hand braking on the spot at the stop sign.

She’d met with decidedly stiff opposition, but Nigel obligingly moved his hand away and they returned to chastely passionate kissing.

In spite of having his amorous advances thwarted, Nigel had experienced the best week of his life so far. He had a girlfriend at last, and he was in a band.

The week of his fifteenth birthday, Nigel was leafing through Betty’s copy of Old Moore’s Almanack while she was cooking his tea, and looked to see what famous people had been born on the same day as him in the “birthdays” section. He saw Dave Clark of The Dave Clark Five was thirty-one that day; the multi-millionaire, John Paul Getty was eighty-one, followed by assorted scientists and politicians he’d never heard of. Then, last on the list, was the Emperor Nero, born December 15th 37 AD. Nigel had only vague recollections of who he was and what he did from half-remembered school history lessons, but Nero’s image of him was that of an exciting, powerful and crazed tyrant – a “rock” Roman. He played around with the image in his mind and came to the conclusion the name Nero was perfect for him: unlike his own, a cool first name that began with a letter N. So for the band he would now be known as Nero; he’d inform the others at next band practice. And he reckoned too that Nero Bain had a good ring to it. He stretched out of the armchair and jumped to his feet, announcing the decision to his nan, who seemed unmoved, concentrating her attention on a Jimmy Young Christmas cake recipe on Radio Two.

“Ah, I see. So that is how you came by this other name; your alter ego?” said Alain, with enlightened interest.

“Yeah. If you like. The other lot in the band thought it was a bit poncey and took the piss out of me for a while, but they got use to calling me it in the end. So it just stuck.”

By the summer of 1974, Nigel and Laura were a couple and had been going steady for over six months. Laura was intent on remaining a “nice girl” and not going the whole way with Nigel until she’d attained the legal age of consent. A few of the other girls were doing it already and teasing her because she wasn’t. With their parents not allowing the pair the luxury of privacy up in their bedrooms, Nigel and Laura’s evenings together usually involved kissing and heavy petting out on the golf course. However, she refused to massage his ego too and call him Nero.

At last, Laura’s long-awaited sixteenth birthday arrived, just before autumn term started. Nigel had the keen look of a chap on a promise. It was just as well the summer holidays were still on, as there was no way he’d have been able to concentrate on school work. Laura had a party of course, and Nigel attended, with the grudging acceptance of her parents. They’d long hoped she’d dump Nigel, seeing him as a useless loafer, wasting his life doing that horrible rock music; dragging their little girl down when she was so obviously bright and destined for great things academically, just like her much lauded older sister. There was no opportunity for them to see each other alone that night, so they arranged to meet the next morning and have the whole day out together in the countryside.

These final days before the dreaded return to school were precious to Nigel. He begrudged this enforced interruption of his freedom. Not for Laura though, she was perversely – in Nigel’s opinion – itching to get stuck-in to the looming Michaelmas term.

He arrived at Laura’s house, which was another plain and pebble-dashed semi a few doors down from his own, and walked around the parked caravan that jutted out a couple of inches onto the pavement, then rang the fussy little bell on a chain in the porch – no traditional push-button bing-bong affair for them. Laura opened the door almost immediately, smiling and holding up a small wicker picnic basket. They shared a quick kiss on the doorstep. The living room net curtain twitched and Nigel caught a fleeting glimpse of Mrs Chambers sniffily tortoising her head back into the darkness.

“I saw you walking up the drive; I was waiting at the window.”

Nigel peered into the basket. “You’ve done some food, then?”

“That’s all you think about, your stomach.” she chided him, lovingly, “Mum did a few sandwiches and there’s some cans of Fanta too. It’ll be great!”

The morning was bright and warm, and it was shaping up to be a perfect late-summer day. They climbed over the stile to the fields bordering the edge of the estate and set off in the direction of the riverbank opposite the Cherwell Boathouse – there was little chance of being disturbed too following that route. The couple held hands as Nigel kicked dandelion clocks along the edge of the path, the furry florets slowly parachuting into the parched meadow grass. Far above, with happy wings, a skylark hovered, in heaven or higher; its soaring and ceaseless song accompanying every step of their stroll.

Laura had let her hair grow since they first started going out, and the low morning sun backlit and beatified her. She was wearing a knee-length gypsy-style blue cotton dress he hadn’t seen her in before. The combination made Nigel imagine she resembled one the girls from a Cadbury’s Flake advert. He told her. She laughed and started to over-act her part as a dreamy maiden wandering in the idyllic countryside, farcically miming the phallic fantasy of her moist red lips surrounding the crumbly stick of chocolate.

Nigel’s thoughts were now far from confectionery. He started chasing her across the meadow. Laura pretended to be a damsel in distress and started shouting “Help, help”, with an affected American southern states accent, like the Penelope Pitstop character from the Wacky Races cartoon series. She giggled and swerved into the longer wild grass at the edge of the field close to the riverbank. Heart pounding now with the effort to catch her, Nigel scooped the stems and flower heads aside with both hands as he ran. Suddenly, Laura’s head dipped down out of sight. Within seconds he’d reached the spot where she now sat, leaning back with her outstretched arms supporting her and panting from the exertion. Nigel landed and rolled alongside her. Both were too out of breath to say anything for a good minute.

“Stop it, Nige,” she gasped, eventually.

“Stop what?”

“You know. Staring at my legs like that”

“I can’t help it. I fancy you, don’t I.”

Laura brushed her dress down towards her knees, blushing slightly.

“I think you’ve made that quite obvious, Master Bain,” she replied, with the mildest of rebukes.

Nigel stretched up to periscope his head above the grass and do a quick three-sixty of the field. Not a soul. He launched himself towards Laura on all fours, across the little hollow they had flattened out, and playfully puckered his lips, asking for a kiss. He knew she wouldn’t be able to resist. And she couldn’t. One peck became a smooch. Laura slowly sank down onto her back towards the flattened grass as Nigel gradually lowered more of his weight onto her. Without the cover of darkness on the golf course, lying there together in the daring daylight was so much more sensual and exciting. Their fingers followed familiar paths across each other’s bodies, and Laura felt Nigel’s excitement grow between his legs, pressing into her belly. She squirmed with pleasure and pushed against it slowly and repeatedly.

“Lift off a minute, Nige.”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter, silly.”

He obliged. In one movement, Laura lifted her dress and pulled it up over her head and tossed it towards the picnic basket. Nigel watched as her small breasts wobbled deliciously to rest.

“You’re not wearing a bra,” Nigel said with transfixed astonishment, “And no – ”

“Knickers. I know. I thought it would be a nice little surprise.”

Nigel swallowed, and tried to say something intelligible, but failed.

“You could try I love you.”

“I do. You know I do.”

Laura leant forward and unbuttoned Nigel’s shirt, as it was clear to her he was likely to be all fingers and thumbs at the task. Nigel gazed at her bare breasts, examining how their shape subtly changed as she moved, and at the pale pink upward-pointing buds of her nipples; then at her triangle of light brown pubic hair. Shirt now accessed, Laura passed the palm of her right hand over his smooth, hairless chest, and then slowly down the side of his boyish body to his waist.

“Kiss me, Nigel.”

Nigel moved his mouth towards Laura’s lips and they fell slowly sideways into their warm nest. Nigel’s hands passionately explored and fondled his girl’s soft skin. They snogged with pushing tongues as Nigel gently rolled Laura onto her back.

“Take them off, Nige,” Laura ordered seductively.

“Yeah, right – do you mean my pants too?”

Laura nodded with an expression combining allure and puzzlement at Nigel’s slowness of uptake. She helped him with his belt as Nigel bent backwards to squirm out of his jeans. When they were down, Laura was in no doubt of Nigel’s state of desire for her. His yellow Y-fronts were at bursting point. She grinned lasciviously and pressed down her hand, squeezing his lemon bulge, then held it through the straining polyester and began to play with it. Nigel was gasping with frustration at this point. Then, with one movement, Laura jerked his pants over his erection and down over his pale thighs. She’d never seen it in daylight before.

“You do know, Nigel, that technically this is rape.”

“What do you mean, you’re old enough?”

“Well, you’re only fifteen. You’re jailbait. I’m corrupting you.” she laughed.

Nigel had never felt more alive and in the moment.

Time just slipped as the consummate sweethearts learned to prolong their pleasure. Every coital cloud nine brought them closer, learning new caresses and erotic anticipations. During that ebbless drift of ecstasy through the passing hours, nothing in the world existed outside their cosy crop-circle: not the sporadic whip of distant anglers’ lines through midges, nor the straining oarsmen gliding by, and not the nearby swaying willow dipping its leaves into swirling eddies.

Absorbed in dreamy recollection, Nero realised he’d been silent for some moments and found himself staring at the front of Alain’s desk, the abridged version of distant adolescent events now shared with this curious secular priest.

“The first time is always special, no.” Alain smiled wistfully. “Nigel... Nero,” he said, rotating his left hand clockwise, “our time is almost up. I want to ask you one more thing before we finish.’”

“OK”, said Nero, slightly narrowing his eyes in anticipation.

“I wonder if you can you tell me why you became agitated the other day; what led up to your episode do you think?” Nero was silent once again for some time. Once more Alain had stumped him, and he’d used another circumlocution, ‘episode’, to avoid saying he’d freaked-out, lost his mind, or whatever.

“Well, I wasn’t sleeping properly because of this bloke who lived in the flat upstairs always playing his video games through the night; it was like living under a fairground arcade. Bloody non-stop thumping. I don’t think he ever slept.”

“And I expect it made you feel tense.”

“An understatement. I’d bang on his door but he never answered. I’d have cheerfully murdered him.”

The split second after making it, Nero had expected Alain to show alarm signals at this last remark but instead he gave a congruent, knowing grin. “I know what you mean. There are similar problems in my apartment block. I sometimes lie there plotting just how I will do away with them. So, any other signs you can think of, leading up to what happened to you?”

Nero licked his lips and his eyes went flat and glassy as he tried to recall. “Well it was things, like, I’d find myself in tears watching a film or something – feeling miserable.”

“Fine,” said Alain, patiently, realising there was something Nero was holding back from him, “was there one thing in particular do you think; one event?”

Nero shuffled uncomfortably in his seat and unconsciously covered his mouth with his hand, wiping it slowly from left to right as he glanced towards the window.

“Yeah, there was. It wasn’t something I’d ever see myself doing. You know, I’m not that type of person.”

Alain could see that Nero was looking agonized and distressed by whatever was in his mind. “In your own time, Nigel. It’s OK.”

“I was doing my usual rounds. I collect debt payments, rent money from pubs and restaurants; that sort of thing. There’s always a few who’ve got an excuse why they haven’t got the money; sob stories and the like. I don’t get heavy with people or anything. If they don’t cough up, my boss, Dixey, or his brother, Lorcan, sort it out. I don’t know what they do, and don’t want to know.

“Anyway, the day before last I was doing my usual visits; I’d just come from doing an inventory at one of his pubs. It was out in the sticks; been broken into while the tenants were away. They’d even ripped the gas cookers from the pipes in the kitchen; everything of any value was gone. It looked well planned. I’d sat down and had a chat with the couple that were renting the place. They were overwhelmed by it all. It was the final nail in the coffin for them. They’d sunk everything they’d got and more into the place, refurbishing it and that. They were just sitting there, defeated – and still owed Dixey loads in back rent.

“I saw the same pattern again and again: he’d get the new tenants in on a low-ish introductory rent, they’d fit the place out, get some quality beers in – they’d be really enthusiastic and passionate about the job – then he’d just keep pushing the rent up, way beyond what they could realistically pay, saying they needed to do more to get the punters in. They’d struggle for a few months and then he’d force them to buy shite beer from his own supplier; trade would fall off, they’d go under and get kicked out. So Dixey got his pub smartened-up and modernized for nothing.

“It got me really down, and thinking of some way I could jack it all in, you know.”

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