'Tilly-vally, Lady!'

Michael Rosen (pictured) always wanted to be an actor. Or a pop star. Or maybe a politician. But his real ambition, as he reveals in a new short story from a forthcoming anthology of school memoirs, was to become a writer

If there was one thing I wanted to be, above everything else, it was to be an actor. No, that wasn't strictly true. If I could learn to play the harmonica a bit better, I could be like John Lennon in the Beatles or Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones. No, no, no, what I really wanted to do was play for England. No - actually that wasn't true either. If there was one thing I wanted to be, it was to be a politician. Yes, that was it. To be a politician and save the world from poverty and nuclear bombs. Oh no, wait a minute. There was something else. If there was one thing I wanted to be, it was to be a writer.

I was thinking all this instead of learning my lines for the play I was in. It was Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. I was Sir Toby Belch. It was three nights to go to the opening night and I hadn't learned my lines. The director was getting twitchy; Mr James. Mr Dickie James, the chemistry teacher. Short and plump, he smoked a pipe and he was a diabetic. This meant that sometimes he would doze off in front of us. If this happened, we were under instruction from him to rush up and immediately give him something to eat, ideally a sugar lump or a bit of chocolate. He told us that he had a sugar lump in his jacket pocket. We just had to dive into this pocket, find the sugar lump and get it into his mouth.

But now, he was enjoying himself, directing the play. He strutted about waving his arms in the air. I had to bawl out, "Tilly-vally, Lady!" I'm not sure even now what it means. Something like "stuff and nonsense", perhaps. Sir Toby Belch is old, drunk, fat and mischievous. He's also a sponger - someone who lives off other people's money and kindness.

"Tilly-vally, Lady!" shouts Mr James, waving his arm in the air. "Say it to the whole world, Michael. It's a big hall. They all want to hear it. Do you know the words to this scene?"

I didn't. Mr James is getting seriously twitchy. "Let's do the catch," he says.

A "catch" is what these days we would call a "round", like "London's Burning". I had to sing the catch with two other people. They could both sing. I couldn't. I'm OK when I'm singing along with others, but in a catch, like a round, you have to sing against the others. While they're singing one thing, I have to sing something else. I was having trouble getting it right. I had to sing, "Hold thy peace, I prithee hold thy peace, thou knaveI Count twoI Hold thy peace thou knaveI Count fourI Thou knave."

"You get it, don't you?" said Dickie. "What?"

"Hold thy peace," he said. "Look, I think we can get away with this. 'Piece', in Shakespeare's time meant your thing. You know, what do you call it?"


"All right, all right. Well, you could look like you're holding your piece, while you're singing it, couldn't you? OK, try it, and try and enjoy the damn thing, will you? You're all supposed to be drunk, and we're all supposed to think it's hilariously funny. If you can't count the beats to yourself, you can count them out loud if you like."

"Hold thy peace, I prithee hold thy peace, one twoI" "Good!" roared Mr James from the back of the hall. "You're getting it. OK, now get yourselves off home. Learn those lines, Michael, and we go for a first dress rehearsal tomorrow night."

Fair enough, except this night, there was something else on. The school rugby team had challenged the local girls' school's netball team to a game of basketball in the gym. Tonight. In fancy dress. Even now, they would be getting ready.

I slipped out the back and over to the gym. And it was already underway. I had in my bag parts of a Dracula outfit: including a top hat that lies flat. When you bash it against your chest it pops up into a proper hat. I stepped out into the middle of the match, banged the hat and put it on. Applause.

I was useless at basketball and that was the point. I was the useless one. They passed me the ball and I would give it to the girls. Again and again. Laughter. Applause. Then it was time for home. Out into the night. Only a week to go until Christmas. At home, the house was decorated. But now, the same old nightly problem of getting there. The walk to the train station, the last on the line.

You could see it across the field at the back of the school. The lights from the platform made a globe in the dark, and then the luminous caterpillar of a train would crawl in and wait. If it was already there, I'd have to run for it, hoping that it wouldn't pull out before I arrived panting on to the platform. If I missed it, there would be half an hour to wait for another. At this time of night, I'd be on my own. Then it was four stops down the line. Out, wait for a bus, and then the final walk home, along an unlit road to where our house stood, alone at the top of a hill, overlooking fields and woods.

Not that this was the country. This was the suburbs. The kind of place that's full of long, lonely streets where nothing happens. On the edge of the big city where everything happens, and where I'd like to be.

I ran towards the white globe of the station. The train was waiting. I could hear the mini-mini-mini-mini-mini of its electric engines turning over. Down the steps and into the train, the doors closed with a sigh and thud. My brother could do all these noises. He was away at university now, but he'd be back soon for Christmas. We'd have a good one this year, I was sure. People would come and see Twelfth Night and if I was good enough maybe my parents would say that, yes, one day I could be an actor. They wanted me to be a doctor. Funny that, being a doctor wasn't on my list of great things I wanted to be.

On the train, I peered out into the night. I could just make out the canal as it picked up the lights of my train. Away in the distance, cars flicked along the new road, dashing from one pool of light to the next. I was glad they had liked the top-hat trick. It was a real 19th-century hat that posh gents took to the opera. It seems as if they could sit on them while the opera was on, and then when it was time to go, they stood up, popped them out and put them on. The end of an opera, after the applause, used to be full of the sound of hats popping.

In my rucksack was homework, homework, homework. Big exams were coming up and all the work I had done, should have done, might have done, wouldn't do, was all sitting in a big spring-back file. My old grey rucksack, the one that smelled of camping holidays.

The train rambled on to my stop and I climbed out and up the steps to the bus stop. Why did my parents move here? Why did we move further away from the city, out to this place that was nowhere? Yes, I know we were "evicted". That word. The landlord threw us out of the flat over a shop where I had always lived. Even so, I didn't know what we were doing stuck out in this place overlooking nothing, next to nothing.

When I got home, I would sit down and work on my lines. "Tilly-vally, Lady!" And that burp thing. I had to burp and then shout, "A plague upon this pickled herring". The herring was supposed to have made me burp. And wasn't it amazing - I loved pickled herring! Apart from my parents and grandparents, I was the only person in the world I knew who liked pickled herring. I loved hoisting the slimy grey herring out of the jar and chewing it up with the bits of raw onion. Sometimes a whole peppercorn would hide among the onion and explode in my mouth.

The bus ground up the hill to the hospital. The hospital where men from the RAF who had been burned up in their planes had had their faces re-made. I spent a week here when my nose was broken. In the ward there was a guy with scarcely a face on him. He showed me a photo of himself before his car accident. He had looked like Elvis. And just across the road, opposite the hospital itself, hadn't our friend Andy been killed? Ride on round the bend, past the arch which you could see in the background of that famous film about a veteran car race from London to Brighton. That's where I had to get off, because the bus turned off there and I had to walk the rest of the way home.

No pavement here, just heathland. A pub, with coloured lights in the tree outside and then nothing. Just the road, and the night, and me walking towards the light of our kitchen at the top of the hill. Once, just as I was walking past the pub, two men jumped out from behind the tree and grabbed my bag. I screamed and they explained they were policemen.

But now I was on my own. Should I walk on the path? No, the branches from the hawthorn bushes, full of prickles, were overhanging too low and I didn't fancy walking along bending down, ducking under the thorns. Especially as I was so tired. No, I would walk in the road. It was only a few hundred yards and there was our kitchen light up ahead. I'd make myself a big fat sandwich. Maybe there'd be some pickled herring and I could practise the burp.

I woke up in a hospital ward. By the side of my bed was someone in a wheelchair. In the beds all around me were young blokes with their legs hanging from the bar over their beds. Motorbike accidents. And I was hanging from the bar too. Lying in a kind of sling round my middle that was swinging from the bar.

My mother was there. And soon more people were there too: everyone who had been at the basketball game, and everyone in Twelfth Night and everyone who used the same train home and everyone who knew me from the old school and all the people who worked with my dad and all the people who worked with my mum and all the cousins and the uncles and the aunts andI Mr James.

They told me that I had been hit in the back by a car. The driver had driven on until he got to the police station. There he had told them he had hit someone. They drove back to the spot and I wasn't there. The police told my father that they thought the man was drunk. Perhaps he had just imagined it. They were just about to go when they heard a noise from down the bank by the side of the road. Someone talking. They said it was something to do with pickled herring and something else about a lady called Tilly or a valley. They went to look and I was lying there talking. With not a scratch on me. I talked to them, told them who I was, where I had been, where I was going. My parents had spent the night with me, waiting for the x-ray, the x-ray that showed I had broken my pelvis. The bit at the front had come apart. Just like when a woman has a baby, they said. And now I was in a sling, hanging from a bar, to help it come together and I didn't remember a single bit of the story. Last thing I remembered was deciding to walk in the road instead of under the thorn bushes.

"It seems like your rucksack saved you," my father said. He showed me the spring-back file full of the work I had done and should do. It was smashed in.

Mr James asked the nurse if she thought I'd be well enough to do the play. "What?" she said. "Well enough?" She was very small and Danish. "Well enough?! He's going to be in that sling for 10 weeks."

Poor Mr James. He looked down at the ground. It had all gone wrong.

"So who's going to do it?" I asked.

"I'll have to," he said.

"Do you know the words?" I said.

"As well as you do," he said.

And so Mr James played Sir Toby Belch, the family had Christmas in the house on the hill, the Beatles brought out their "All My Loving" album and the whole world went mad for them. And I lay in bed thinking: if there was one thing I wanted to be above everything else it was to be an actor. No, that wasn't strictly true. If I could learn to play the harmonica a bit better, I could be like John Lennon in the Beatles or Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones. No, no, no, what I really I wanted to do was play for England. No - actually that wasn't true either. If there was one thing I wanted to be it was to be a politician. Yes, that was it. To be a politician and save the world from poverty and nuclear bombs. Oh no, wait a minute. There was something else. If there was one thing I wanted to be it was to be a writer.

'Tilly-vally, Lady!' is published in 'Ten of the Best: school stories with a difference', an anthology for children edited by Wendy Cooling (Collins Children's Books pound;5.99).Michael Rosen's many books for children include 'Shakespeare: his work and his world', illustrated by Robert Ingpen and published by Walker Books. His next book is 'Carrying an Elephant', a memoir for a general readership, to be published by Penguin in November

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