Ever fallen in love with a man because he’s told you a good story? But what if that story’s not true?
I met a man once - we’ll call him X - who was a great teller of stories. He had stories about his family, his friends, even the furniture in his flat. He was a good listener too. He wore big jumpers, he had skinny legs, he smelled of smoke. We both liked Elvis Costello. We went to see black and white films at the National Theatre. I liked him, and I liked the way we looked together - me blonde, him dark. And then he told me the 11 plus story.
The 11 plus story was a cracker. How he’d grown up in an area where success and failure was determined by the school you went to. At 11 everyone took an exam. He’d failed to get into a grammar school, but all his friends had succeeded. They went off to the good school, he suffered the humiliation of going to the crappy one. He was filled with determination. This failure would not define him. He studied hard, did well at his exams. And eventually he - the 11 plus failure – got a place at Oxford University. And a scholarship. He’d done better than any of his friends. He’d triumphed over the 11 plus.
As X told me the story, late one night, the front door of his flat opened. His flatmate came into the room, just in time to hear the last sentence. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘The 11 plus story.’ And he disappeared into his room. I chose to ignore the sardonic note in his voice. The 11 plus story had woven its spell.
It didn’t work out with X. His stories proved unreliable, too well-worn. He lent me some books and I found, underlined, witty phrases he’d learned and then served up as original. I began to wonder if he was always telling the truth (I was young and innocent. Of course I should have wondered right from the beginning if he was ever telling the truth).
We split up. We talked about getting together again. And eventually – months after I should have - I realised, painfully, that he was the sort of person who told a different story to every listener, and I moved on.
Several years later I met a new man. Let’s call him Y. A man with honest brown eyes and a refreshing lack of smoothness. A non-smoker, who liked Frank Sinatra and hated Elvis Costello. We went to the cinema. We ate noodles. And he told me his 11 plus story.
He came from an area where success and failure was determined by which school you went to. He failed the 11 plus. All his friends went to grammar school, but he had to go to the secondary modern, where gardening and metalwork were the main curriculum subjects. He was filled with determination. This failure would not define him. He studied hard, did well at his exams. And eventually he - the working-class 11 plus failure – got a place at Oxford University.
To say I was amazed was an understatement. The same story. A completely different man. ‘Umm..’ I said. ‘That’s extraordinary. Do you happen to know X?’
Not only did he know X, but they had studied together. For X had not really failed his 11 plus. He’d only failed to get into the Big Grand Important Grammar. He’d got into the OK Grammar up the road. He’d never stepped inside the secondary modern school where Y spent five miserable years. Eventually Y passed his O levels – all A’s - and was allowed to go into the sixth form at the OK Grammar. And he and X (and one other boy) were in a class preparing for Oxbridge entrance together.
I haven’t seen X for years. But I did bump into his flatmate one day. I reminded him of the 11 plus story. I told him I should have listened to the warning note in his voice all those years ago. The 11 plus story was used regularly, I gathered. It was a key seduction technique.
It was great seeing X’s flatmate again. I told him about meeting Y, about finding out that X had stolen the 11 plus story. ‘That’s bizarre,’ he said.
‘It was,’ I said, ‘Imagine, the same story for the second time.’
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘I married him.’