M I C HAEL S M AL L, W RITER MONDAY, 7 FEBRUARY 2011
A LEGEND LAUNDERED ‘I notice at mass, Nora, you mangle your hands instead of holding them palms facing in the traditional gesture of reverence. You must show far more self-control and genuine contrition when you pray for your trespasses to be forgiven. Otherwise you will never find salvation, only exacerbate your nervous condition.’ Am I truly penitent? I know that my Redeemer liveth, yet I’m bid go down on my knees as soon as the morning bell rings and say that many Hail Mary’s til’ I’m ready to pass out, while those nuns what are supposed to be watching over our souls, even if it be too late to guard our bodies, these pious old biddies wear their pride on their sleeve, always seeking to find fault, hardly ever smile, their lips pinched uncharitable and mean. In the shadows of these cold, grey walls they grow whiskers and rustle like rats. At times my anger bubbles up like a steaming copper and it’s me as wields the stick, but the nuns are that strict you don’t dare answer back. Forgive and forget, as the saying goes, but I can’t forget and forgiving is terrible hard to come by, that’s what I confess to my Maker, even as I seek forgiveness from Him. Those hard-boiled harpies and the other crows, them what helps, what trimmers they are, calling us unmarried girls in trouble, them what’s expecting, bad girls. But it’s themselves that wears black, inside and out. Do they truly pray for our salvation? So I says to them I wouldn’t sign the adoption papers asked of me on my day of admittance. I wouldn’t give no consent. What, give my baby up to a complete stranger! Whisked off as soon as bub sees light of day. Huh, didn’t they half kick up a stink, by jingoes! I know for a fact Ernest will come to the Convent and take me away. So starving hungry am I that several times I’ve brought up a yellowish bile as soon as I get a sniff of breakfast, huh, so-called, porridge bubbling away in a large vat in the refectory kitchen. What gluggy lumps gets left over then gets thrown in to thicken the watery soup for lunch. The nuns show no pleasantness, no feeling, not to no-one, saving Sister Bede, who’s kind and caring and permits herself a slight smile of encouraging but can speak harsh when the other nuns are having a sticky, but they
do boil up some cabbage to fill the pit in my stomach and nag me to drink lots of water. O how I miss cook’s home-made bread and pies and fresh eggs from Mrs Forrester’s poultry yard. I don’t understand why Mother Our Lady keeps insisting on me signing those bloomin’ official papers. No, I won’t give them no satisfaction. After all, when Cassie, my mistress’s spaniel, was giving suck to her litter, we was warned by the gardener, never go near her til’ she was proper ready and weaned. Still not a word from Ernest. He fell off his perch, winged something awful, when Mrs Forrester dismissed me. Never before had I seed him so much in the vapours, worried out of his skin. Could barely speak, poor dear, his mouth so dry, his head cast down and pale. Usually he’s got the gift of the gab, full of it he is, and a sparkle of mischief in his eye. Oh yes, he can be a tease, all right. Mrs Forrester dismissed me, ‘summarily’, she said, which I understood to mean ‘quick smart’, but almost reluctant. That’s the way of it for girls in my delicate condition. Wayward. She didn’t rub it in like most of these nuns do, stuck-up, as if they can’t bear to breathe the same air as us girls with child or them that walks the streets starving for a crust, ‘less they get contaminated. P’raps they can’t bear to witness the fruits of the sins of the flesh. They’re always watching for us girls descending the stairs in case they spy a bosom not laced up tight enough by their stays. ‘Who is the man responsible?’ Mrs Forrester asked. ‘Has he agreed to marry you or pay the ransom or take care of you within his means? What arrangements for your lying-in has he made?’ At this frightful list of questions, I got myself in a right conflabberation and burst into tears. ‘Oh please don’t write home to my pa,’ I begged, ‘for he will kill me sure as God put worms in sour apples and it will break mama’s heart. I know the gentleman will do the right thing.’ Albert did warn me, the butler. He was handing down the chandelier, straining with the weight and balancing awkward but careful with his tongue popping in and out like one of them blue-tongues rattling in among the flower pots in Mrs Forrester’s garden, but staring down at me very steady through gilt crown and clusters with those big, droopy eyes. All of a sudden he blurts out, ‘Nora, have you got jack in the orchard?’ Quick sticks, I turned to look out the bay windows toward the fruit trees, lemon, apple, cumquat and loquats for the jam. ‘I don’t understand you,’ I said, but
felt a flush roll down my face like I’d seed that nude likeness of Venus hidden under the antimacassar. My giddy aunt, didn’t he look grim and flustered! He must’ve fancied me a bit or maybe had expectations there too. The weight of concentration bushing his brow, Albert set down the chandelier on a dust-sheet, real deliberate. Eventually, he mumbled without looking at me, with some difficulty, raspy like he was sawing up his words: ‘Has he bin and got you with child?’ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said, keeping my face averted, and began soaking the crystals in the crystalbath, cleaning and polishing with more vigour than what was called for. ‘Welcome to the puddin’ club, you whore!’ Whereupon he spat on the Axminster pile, ‘You an’ your hoity-toity ways, thinkin’ you’re too good for the likes of us,’ and stormed off, leaving me with an attack of the shudders. Such a blinding my tears give me that the lights of the crystals shattered into a thousand splinters. At last, when I was able to bung up the sobs, my mince pies made out a screwy flaw in one of the large crystal teardrops. I just hoped Mrs Forrester didn’t suspect nothing. Never thought I’d be so fortunate having morning sickness because I’m spared from doing penance kneeling on the flagstones in the courtyard. Neither do I have to get down on hands and knees to scrub floors with scrubbing brush and rags. Instead, I sew torn sheets or work in the drying room. The worst thing I did was when we put the old ladies’ clean, dry drawers on our heads as veils and pretended we were Sister Tough-as-Nails and Sister Snobbery. Sometimes I clean the bathroom in Holy Angels, where the old and infirm ladies live and jaw away. By Christopher, they smoke like chimneys! I collect their meals from the kitchen, where I do enjoy a bit of a chinwag and even a laugh with the postulants and novices. Sometimes I used to have a yarn when the swaggies knocked on Mrs Forrester‘s door, shamefaced or shifty-eyed but polite and quietly spoke before the mistress, cap in hand, offering to chop wood or turn the vegie patch for some roast what was left over or piece of pie in the servants’ quarters or at a bench in the garden. They’d lay down their bedroll in the outhouse or sleep with Mrs Green and tramp off next morning, an apple or two and a crust of bread and cheese in their nosebagger. They was a sad and sorry sight, so full of despairing, all grizzled and whiskery and a bit on the nose, at times off their crumpet, though they cussed but rarely, so as Mrs Forrester could never bring herself to turn them away. Oh I do so miss Ernest, his good grooming and manners, a right swell in his well brushed grey suit and buttoned weskit, his watch chain tucked in his natty fob, the little coil of auburn hair at the hairline and
such a bashful smile, but behind those gold-rimmed spectacles what an owl he looks at dusk! At our last meetings, though – what did he call them? Rondeyvooz, very toffee, and tristes or trysts – there was a blank look about his eyes. Fretting his fat, he was, poor dear, but I know’d he’d never do a bunk ‘cause he’s the sort that has a soft spot for his little ones, the prep boys, what was so upset they showed him their parrot that was still shuddering to his death after a butcher bird had got its eyes out. Once in a while along Woodville Street I’d see my Ernest in his spanking new fancy car with mudguards like the curl of a smooth wave and big square eyes for headlamps and a windscreen that opened up on warm days but it must’ve got a bit blowy inside. Cheeky monkey’d honk-honk the horn when he caught sight of me in my straw cloche hat and cherry pink coat-frock I’d run up, rayon’s quite the go nowadays and cheap, with yoke below the neck, embroidered cuffs and skirt trimmed with braid, my ma being a seamstress and drafted the pattern. I striked a pose just like Mary Pickford on giggle juice. ‘Will I do?’ He seemed not to notice for he was awful proud of his motor car and looked spiffing. Mind you, it was that grand it made a dwarf of him, but I didn’t say nothing. Once when he paid a call on Mrs F, he invited me to hop up onto the running board and said he’d take me for a spin all the way to Black Rock. He never did, though, on account of him being so terrible busy. Still, I must bear up. I go dull and slow about my light duties, just scraping dried bits off dishes in the refectory kitchen. They say my hair what once was raven has lost its sheen now it’s cropped short and spiky and my face is all pasty and spotty. I feel proper run down, but I can’t help smiling when the littlun kicks and cling to the hope that somehow with the help of Almighty God I can provide for both of us. Ernest must’ve caught cold over our rondeyvooz, ‘just our little secret’ he’d call it, for he never walked out with me proper-like or in company. He’s got a nerve. At least he could’ve had the decency to write. My time has come and I’m all dished-up, brought to bed for lying-in, very much afraid and sick at heart. Ernest will not . . . No, he could never’ve come for me. I realize that now but still do a sniff. Can’t help myself. After all said and done, he’s top of his trade while I’m too far beneath him. O how far I have fallen, Lord knows. Not even my own pa sends word. Great God, what will become of me? And my precious baby? And what makes it worst is neither of them have no idea of what I dread. It’s
not my place to grouse, for Ernest is so bound up in his work, his very posh position, his book learning . . . clever chap that he was. Used to teach me his wise old sayings and such-like: ‘The life so short, the craft so long to learn’ by Hippoc . . . rasees and blasted Sue . . . ay . . . Suetone . . . Suetonius . . . ‘Make haste slowly’. What’s the jolly use of them now? The rotten blighter has cut me so terrible. May the Lord have mercy on my poor soul!
In his four-door open tourer Crump became animated to a fault, even transgressing the traffic lights and his odometer. ‘What sport!’ he chuckled, as he gunned through the main entrance gates up the narrow, sinuous lane shaded on either side by the over-spreading hackles of palm trees that shielded his domain, tooting his klaxon up to the very porch of the School, whose façade was covered in climbing tendrils of Virginia creeper with leaves a purple blush. Even Matron, just beyond the silver poplar, hanging out the boys’ linen, white collars and footie knickers, glanced up from her fret over another case of scarlet fever breaking out in the boarding house and raised eyebrows at the Head’s gay spirits, carrying on just like at brekkie, when he scoffed her piece of toasted brown bread while she was spooning out the boiled eggs. ‘Cave!’ he boomed at the boys playing rough-and-tumble tag by the corner redbrick pier, who stopped to gape in open-mouthed wonderment as he screeched to a halt in a flurry of dust. ‘You boy, come here,’ the Headmaster called. ‘What moral have I taught you a propos of dust?’ ‘Please, sir, beware of the motes in your own eye lest you be blind to the motes in others.’ ‘You ignoramus, Wotherspoon! St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 7, verse 3. Write it out one hundred times in neat copperplate, not a sloping spidery splodge, and bring it to me before lights out tonight!’ There were many times in those foundation years when Crump agonised about the tone of his new school. The slate was clean enough, in fact bereft of any charter or
even stringent guidelines from the board. Those worthies trusted him with moral authority, a burden that nowadays appeared to sit heavy on his padded shoulders. It went without saying that his task was to instil Christian values in his young charges. In a world of strong temptation, he groaned at the thought, it was imperative to train character . . . May our footstep never falter, he’d mutter to himself . . . And the bedrock of these young men’s character was purity of soul, an ideal that his headmasterly self aspired to. Young Ken Fawcett was quivering outside the Head’s study, the dark brown door thick and impenetrable as a postern gate, and made to wait, as if those moments of dread might in themselves form part of his reformation. It just wasn’t fair that he had smacked another blue. When he finally heard the Head’s booming voice, his trembling hand jiggled then wrestled with the bulbous brass knob every which way before the handle released and he bumbled into the study. Again he was obliged to wait, at the extremity of the plush red carpet that ran the length of that sombre room, and look suitably contrite as he peered at the fearsome little man who could be expected to somehow pump up his slight frame for the occasion. The Head was still poring over some papers, apparently oblivious of the lanky eleventh-former, who was already carving a hero’s name for his reckless attack on the ball for the first XVIII. ‘You may step forward, Fawcett.’ It was an unnecessarily long walk down the red carpet to the Head’s desk. Crump reached behind a row of favourite Roman authors on his bookshelf, deliberated over his choice of cane, extracted three lengthy specimens from the pile and lay them on his desk, ran fingers and thumb up and down the lower half of each rod, tested for flexion, swished the air more than once and at last seemed satisfied with the appropriate ruling. ‘Bend over!’ Ernest G. Crump had no compunction when it came to caning. He possessed a generous arm and cracking follow-through. Even for minor misdemeanours. His ideal of justice was an abstract concept when it boiled down to punitive measures.
But after administering three strokes more heated than customary, he stopped in mid-swing and acknowledged to himself that his grim-jawed frustration might not be solely due to the lad’s slouching about with top shirt button undone. ‘If you expect to be full-back next year, Fawcett, you’d better pull your socks up and ameliorate your idiosyncratic kicking-off.’ ‘Thank you, sir.’ As the nights lurched by, like the scratchy branches of the stolid old oak tree casting sinister cross-barred shadows against his bedroom curtains, Crump wondered if he was imagining the boys’ muffled whispering and sniggering and ratty scuttling in the dormitory above his own quarters. And ‘cease talking’ was 9.45! Boys are incorrigible, he mused, contrary to his professed philosophy. Then he recollected that Matron had warned that ghosts might walk that night, traditionally in white dressing-gown and white sheet, initiation for a new arrival in the dorm. ‘Thou shalt be damned!’ Crump started at the immediacy of a senior’s menacing growl raking across the ceiling. ‘Thou shalt be damned!’ even more guttural and drawn-out. Seldom could he escape the presence or even presentiment of these boarders, eighteen this year, mainly from the western districts, what with games, activities and clubs arranged for Saturdays and Bible class on Sunday afternoon, not least at night when his own deeply personal needs wriggled to the surface in spite of himself. When particularly fagged, often his dues after teaching a full day of Latin, Grammar and Scripture from the Authorised Bible, classes reciting in rows the verses learnt for homework, in addition to attending to matters administrative, his mind would drift to that two-storey mansion with features so delightfully classic . . . stained-glass windows above the neo-baroque entrance porch . . . swan-necked scrolls overhanging a phalanx of tall, narrow, arched windows . . . ornamental brackets beneath the grey-slated gabled roof . . . not a quarter of a mile away on the corner of Woodville Street, where Nora lay down her rosy-red in her cubby beneath the attics, sleeping, he presumed, soon to be rising after four o’clock to lay kindling and coals in upstairs grates, cold fingers smudged with ash, for Mrs Forrester’s large brood of children. O how can I possibly speculate on ideals and pure minds when I have lust in my heart? he dared admit to himself. And yet the high-minded teacher in me does in all
sincerity yearn to strive for such values because this is my ordained role, I do believe, ergo it is beholden upon me to act the headmaster at all times; moreover, I am by temperament a reserved man who prides himself on his conscientious attitudes and understanding of boys. I’m no dashing gallant with the ladies. And yet . . . and yet . . . that charming girl’s coy peep from beneath the rim of that cloche hat she’s so proud of. Dash it, she does amuse me so with her colourful way of talking and her remarkable ignorance of the world that knocks me sky-wise and crooked. How exciting, how breath-taking that rush of feeling when a girl takes a shine and you catch a glimpse of the curve of an ankle in flesh-coloured stocking and get bowled along with your own pleasure and . . . and . . . self-importance! And Nora did have a lovely straight figure. Such a pretty little corker - he allowed himself the idiom he would never dare utter in public - even in her frilly white apron set against the black ground of dress and white lace bonnet, fastening onto a mental picture of her ink-black hair with curls tumbling over her ears and the knowing sparkle in her green eyes, the shade of his mother’s emeralds, and the delicate pink of her mouth, so unlike the heavily redded cheeks of those other women, the tarts with painted mouths that his mother with a toss of the head crossed the street to avoid. And what would his dear mother think of him now, the son of a minister, canoodling with a mere maid fifteen years his junior, who must surely be deemed complaisant crackling and lacking true virtue, fast and flighty? It was unspeakable, though his ma would speak about it at length, no doubt, reproving him in a stern lecture that he himself could have given in the pulpit as lay preacher. Oh, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. If I were game, I’d bolt to a funk-hole and bury myself. He even began to doubt the veracity of his beloved Book of Proverbs: ‘The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul.’ Huh, what equivocation is here? ‘Open rebuke is better than sweet love.’ Yes, no doubt, but what an ignominious fall from grace for a man in public prominence.’ And slammed shut his much-thumbed Bible. Oh my God, it can no longer be said of me, I know not the way of a man with a maid. It’s fruitless. The struggle for honour is beyond me. Proverbs may tell us how good is a word spoken in due season, but . . . My good name has been constructed over a falsehood, dissembler that I am. Can I ever again look my trustees or staff or parents in the eye, or urge the charges in my care to a morally upright life? Would that I were invisible; yet Nora, poor girl, is all too transparent. I must steel myself to write to her,
something to cheer her spirits. Yet I fear my torch is gutted.
I got the cuts today but on the hand. We weren’t supposed to make a noise, but I was on pins lest I did and dropped my pencil. Mother Madonna got thundering mad because the class below would hear our bad behaviour. Anyhow I wasn’t told to bend over the desk and get a belting with the bamboo end of the feather duster. My punishment was ten thousand lines to write out: I must not drop my pencil. Marjorie, my best friend, her pa put her inside when he’d got tired of his plaything, she was sitting six rows back and she didn’t know the answer to a question, poor girl. ‘How can you be so stupid?’ Mother Madonna twitted, her pointy nose and skinny lips making a shrew of her. ‘I’m not stupid,’ said Marjorie, pulling the face she makes over lukewarm porridge and stale bread and stewed tea at breakfast. She can give cheek, I know, and it was her that taught me to spit, but she usually spit the furthest and won, but we was caught spitting in the freezing dorms and got spanked by one of the crows. When she sees me glum and peaky she’s always saying, ‘O lawks, Ernestina, chin up! We can do a break through the laundry window whenever youse like.’ But all I could see was those huge iron gates at the entrance to this . . . this prison. She’s the independent sort who has to stand on the slab in the middle of the room for refusing to work and stays there all day without a bite to eat, though sometimes one of us will try to smuggle out a bit of stale bread. ‘How dare you answer back, you wicked creature!’ Mother Madonna carries on shouting the odds, rushing batwings at Marjorie, pushing and poking her back to the rear door. Then all us heard a sharp scream and dull thuds as Marjorie must’ve fallen down the stairs. Our own shrieks and whimpers choked in our throats, so scared we was. We never did hear of Marjorie again. Poor Marjie. To my lasting shame, I didn’t dare ask. My picture of a really good nun is Sister Immaculata but I’ve never got up the courage to say boo to a goose. A novice is what she is and teaches the day girls music. Very tall and slender as the willow in the grounds and so pretty, not like these crabapples got up in mourning black, and now and then she wears some scent that smells stronger than rosewater, p’rhaps essence of violets, even on the very day that the priest, who’s really wet behind the ears, happens to pay a visit. So strong, and I’m not fibbing, this perfume makes you near giddy and gasp for breath as she swishes past. The day girls are not allowed to look at us orphans when we’re in St Joey’s yard.
Instead they hang their heads to the ground, as if we were dirt or diseased something horrible or mere slaveys. Once in a blue moon if the nuns and crows are nowhere about we gabble through the fence, in low voices, mind you. If a new girl joins our group, it’s me the nun tells to de-flea her with a nit comb and a mixture of kerosene and water, then make sure she has a bath. The rest of us are lucky if we get one bath a week in water that’s already been used over and over and has scum round the rim and clots of hair in it. Then these newies would be ordered off to the mangle room, the laundry, ironing room or the packing room. Me, I slave away in the ironing room, ironing my little heart out over two hundred and fifty shirts a day, Monday to Friday. Except when I have a load of waiters’ white shirts that are stiff as boards ‘cause of the starch. On one of them terrible sweltering days, if you’re lucky, they might give us a glass of sal vital in case we collapse with all the steamy heat and lack of air. I’ll never forget the scaring I got when one poor girl that was feeding the sheets into the presser had the hot metal roller come stamping down on her hand and you could hear the screams all through the Convent, but the nuns never said nothing, the cows. I don’t know how long I’ll be shut inside. Mother Madonna once explained to me years ago that my ma had gone to heaven and was watching down on me and expecting me to behave proper-like. They thought a custody rellie was to come for me so as I could be discharged. But not a soul came. Just like poor Marjie, I wasn’t wanted. No-one cared a fig. The nuns say I should be very grateful for being allowed to attend school here and to remember them in my prayers to the Good Shepherd.
‘Gareth, I simply cannot accept this biography for your master’s thesis.’ ‘Why ever not, may I ask? I have carried out exhaustive research and spent my longservice leave double-checking and refining it.’ ‘How can you possibly claim this of anyone: “There was not an impure instinct in his body and not an unsavoury thought in his head!” Did the man never lust after matron in nights of extreme loneliness?’
‘I say, Dr Wolfitt, that’s a bit rich. I mean to say, if I may be so bold, that’s an impertinence. It doesn’t do justice to a gentleman who was the soul of integrity and renowned for his moral leadership in the educative field.’ ‘Come now, surely you glossed Freud in Psychology of Education?’ ‘With all due respect, Dr Wolfitt, Ernest Crump was a highly esteemed, noble-minded and honourable gentleman, who espoused and embodied the Christian virtues that he practised, primus inter pares, in the School community.’ ‘I grant that how one was perceived was an essential attribute of the bubble reputation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certainly for the upper-class and rising middle-class, but surely the notion of honour as a signifier of reputation is a quaint concept in the twentieth.’ Bottling up an apoplectic fizz, Griffith-Jones harrumphed testily. ‘The walls of Big School are decorated with gilt honour boards. Furthermore, during every Anzac Day service the roll of honour is read out to commemorate the Old Boys who fell in action. With great gallantry, no question. The notion of honour is one virtue we in the tradition of the private school will never despise and always treat with dignity. Ernest Crump himself bitterly regretted having to send so many of his fine young proteges off to war for the honour of his country.’ ‘Quite,’ replied Wolfitt, somewhat chastened. ‘And then you categorically assert, without any reservation, that your much-vaunted pedagogue, who has been dead a quarter of a century, had a “puritanical soul”, yet whose character was scarcely glimmered beneath his magisterial mask. What’s more, you didn’t even know him personally. By the bye, could you objectively characterise your own soul? Honestly now.’ Griffith-Jones shuffled as his eyes glazed over the array of novels on the shelves above his supervisor’s crown . . . Flaubert . . . Proust . . . Dostoevsky . . . To The Lighthouse . . . ‘Well, I err, do put great store by humility and -’ ‘Your treatment is far too materialist, Gareth, a catalogue of superlative character traits for Crump, the School’s avowed ethical values, the never-ending sporting
achievements in excruciating detail and an anecdote or two on the main players in his career. Did the fellow have no inner life?’ ‘Of course he did,’ the plaintiff snapped. ‘But the evidence is thin. The rest is pure hypothesis, speculation.’ ‘But there’s no dialectic here, in spite of Foreword’s defiant claim that “Controversy is not ignored.” I should have thought controversy was the last ingredient to be overlooked if you wished to compose an enjoyable or insightful or even a provocative read. I certainly overlooked it, unless it figured in the footnotes.’ ‘I grant that the biographer has to tread warily between certain vested interests in any large organisation but trenchant –‘ ‘Exactly. Enough said. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m frightfully busy marking these fresher papers for first thing tomorrow.’ ‘Of course.’ Griffith-Jones almost clicked his heels in making the curtest of deferential nods. ‘Oh err by the way, Doctor Wolfitt, I beg to crave your indulgence over the slight matter of an extension for my essay on “Addison and the Augustan Panegyric”. The fact of the matter is I had to drive first eleven hockey down to Geelong on Saturday and, well, you know how it is, and -’ Dr Wolfitt waved him away with twitchy fingers and a sudden vision of Uriah Heep leering in tormented contortion. ‘Gareth, I believe any excuse you offer me, really I do. But I simply must have your exegesis in my office by eight o’clock, Tuesday evening. Without fail, if you please.’
The Archivist was another Old Grammarian, a foundation scholar who’d sat at the high lace-up boots of the Foundation Head in the inaugural photograph on that historic first day, whose provenance unwound all the way back to the preparatory school and whose memory was a vivid resource for the School’s history. And its barometer of retrospective tonality. In his wisdom he had crafted the Foreword of Griffith-Jones’ authorised version. All too frequently he’d buttonhole busy staff rushing off to class across the quad, their brows knitted with focus on opening
gambits for next period, with ‘I say, Gareth, old chap, this story’ll interest you. . .’ and assume you knew Fotheringay minor who’d left in the 1930s, a chum who’d had the temerity to plug the exhaust pipe of the Head’s tourer with a raw potato, those distant glory days pre-war of Fawcett and Pyke, Buntine and Rowbotham, the School’s golden age when school spirit really was something you could slice and suck on. As he glossed over the annals of sepia then black & white photos, his dewy eyes misted with visions splendid of Ken Fawcett soaring heavenward above the pack for a plucky mark in the last gleam of twilight or Ken Fawcett on bended knee driving a six over cover and through the staff room window and Ross Pyke concussing himself against the goalpost and losing two front teeth when all the goose need do was toepoke a point to clinch the premiership and become an instant legend . . . before their oval of dreams had been crimped over the years for practice cricket nets and sandpits for jumps then volleyball nets and pashing with girls in the hollows of the embankment and then latterly ravaged to make way for a carpet of asphalt for a staff car park.
Standing by her display cabinet on the first floor, Zoe Zeller, Head of History, all brisk efficiency in black trouser suit and black bowtie against a tamarillo blouse, was pinning up two posters on a baize board that illustrated the theme of propaganda in World War II: a still from Leni Riefenstahl’s idealized ‘Triumph of the Will’ and George Grosz’s acerbic mockery of Hitler sitting despondent on a heap of skeletons. ‘Ah, Tim, just the man.’ ‘I say, Zoe, this display dovetails nicely with my lessons on biased reporting in Issues. Did you know that ‘propaganda’ was originally Latin for the Propagation of the Faith by Catholic missionaries?’ ‘Listen,’ she said softly in the echoey corridor, furtively looking about, ‘you’re the only bod I can trust in this gossips’ paradise. This biography of Ernest Crump . . .’ ‘Who?’ ‘You know, Crump, the Foundation Headmaster.’
‘Oh, of course, the flogging Head. So what’s the goss?’ ‘It turns out, would you believe, my mother remembered him. Vaguely. She was only about five or six at the time. Crump would occasionally pay a social call on nanna in Woodville Street. When I happened to mention I was reading the biography of the Foundation Head, who seemed to me a venerable old stick, mum choked on her glass of sherry. “What! That unscrupulous bounder! You don’t mean Chump . . . err Crrrump? It was due to his shameful deceit that one of our maids was dismissed because he’d got her with child!”’ ‘Jeez . . . cunning old devil . . . but there’s never been a whisper,’ said Tim. ‘Or has there? Mind you, I can’t come to terms with one or two principals of private schools today, married males, of course, having it off with women half their age or mothers at leisure who shamelessly drive up in their four-wheeled juggernauts for a spurious appointment with the Principal because after their tennis foursome or a rubber of whist, that’s all there is. What is it about power and status? When mothers sail up to see me, it’s to complain bitterly that I haven’t given them value for money.’ ‘What gets me,’ said Zoe, through gritted teeth, ‘is the boards of these independent schools appear to turn a blind eye, in spite of their religious foundation and oftboasted ethos. Mainly businessmen, I suppose. Support one another and the old school tie, blindly. I wonder if Gareth knows about Crump’s shenanigans.’ ‘I doubt it. As a true son of his alma mater, G.J. would have been an ideal choice as biographer.’ ‘Yes, Gazza certainly wanted to make a name for himself in the School’s rich tapestry.’ ‘So what happened to this lass?’ ‘St Joseph’s Convent took her in as an unmarried mother. She was housed in the magdalene, literally a home for the reformation of prostitutes, which meant she probably lived cheek by jowl with promiscuous girls desperately searching for a husband or girls adjudged simple-minded or physically challenged or who were deserted by their parents.’
‘So as far as we can gauge then, the girl wasn’t a prostitute or had a quickie with another admirer. Enjoyed a bit of hanky panky, maybe, but who doesn’t?’ ‘I guess so, but got caught out. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, she was certainly a sinner and treated as a fallen woman. Then these marginalised young women became objects of the male primate’s prurient curiosity!’ ‘Even if Crumpo hadn’t jilted her, such a flagrant scandal would put the kibosh on the old gaffer’s reputation, shock the School community shitless and leave the Old Grammarians gutted. I can barely credit it.’ ‘The triumph of image superimposed over objective truth,’ replied Zoe, in her matterof-fact lecturing voice. ‘And the wheeling out of ever more hoary old male legends.’ ‘Sounds like another whitewash. But deliberate or accidental?’ ‘Whatever, but for God’s sake, keep it under your thatch. Any whistle-blowing and you’ll be charged with seditious conspiracy theories, labelled a muck-raker for life and be intimidated out of your job when management put the frighteners on.’
Now in his eighties, Dr Kenneth Fawcett PhD, once a scientist of no mean repute, was slowly if unsteadily forging his way through the quad teeming with spirited adolescents, bewildered by this ridiculous new socks-down regulation and by the blonde wave of bubbly, gabbing girls whose admission to his Old School in the previous decade he had vehemently opposed, tried unsuccessfully to shut his ears to that obnoxious ‘fuck’ word so frequently and shamelessly spat out by today’s students, when in his time that one word could strike more anxiety into a young man’s heart than a thrill repressed. Even now he could clearly envision Ernest Crump seize upon a foul-mouthed miscreant with the fearful incantation, ‘Procul, o procul este profanum sunt!’ and lob him straight into det class to prove an insoluble maths theorem. ‘Oh, excuse me. Mr Fawcett?’
‘Dr Fawcett, yes.’ ‘My name’s Tim Safire, a member of the English department.’ ‘Well, young man,’ the former champion paused, glaring incredulous at the stud in Tim’s nostril and the tonsorial ring of straw tints in his dark hair, ‘I hope you’re still teaching these young . . . err people some grammar.’ ‘Absolutely. By the seven intelligences method.’ ‘Eh? What’s that? Another permissive cop-out?’ ‘Oh, very droll, sir,’ replied Tim, with an edge of sarcasm. ‘I believe you were acquainted with Ernest G. Crump in your student days. I’ve just been dipping into Griffith-Jones’ bio of the great man. A fascinating read.’ ‘A fascinating man. Great headmaster. He was the captain of my ship, you know. Liberally dished out the stick and certainly knocked some sense into me. I was one of his prefects. Knew the Boss like a father.’ ‘I‘m curious as to why he didn’t get married till his early fifties?’ ‘Choice of celibacy,’ said Ken Fawcett. ‘Had great self-discipline, you know, a quality you rarely witness today. Could have trained for the ministry. Classical pedigree, a Renaissance Man.’ ‘But why leave it till the middle ages?’ said the smartie, but grew impatient in the pause of another louring stare. ‘Why leave marriage so late?’ ‘Obviously, he was married to the School. The boys were his family. Second point: he suffered from a sporadic tubercular condition. In those days, it was believed to be a hereditary disease. Felt he couldn’t have children, I’m sure. Quite naturally he married for companionship. Why wouldn’t you at that age?’ ‘Mm, I wonder.’
‘Yes, he had a breakdown in ‘29. Obliged to take sick leave for eight months. The stress of being a foundation head got to him. Hardly surprising, really.’
‘Hey, Zo, Zoe, you know the old man’s portrait hanging in Big School?’ ‘Come in, close the door and keep your voice down. Walls have ears.’ ‘Oops, sorry. Well, I asked Gareth, half-joking but straight-faced, if he had detected any bumps of compassion on Crump’s cranium. “Of course not,” he said, most indignant, getting on his high horse again. “Aesthetic criteria would have precluded them.”’ Tim smiled his lop-sided smug smile and shook his head dismissively. ‘I suppose that’s what you have to do when you engage to write a biography of someone employed by a private institution with a public face – turn a blind eye,’ replied Zoe in a quiet monotone, looking past Tim down the corridor through the glass door of her watch-tower. ‘Or hope to high heaven you won’t turn up something that’s going to offend. No institution will permit you to wash its dirty linen in public.’ ‘And guess what? Fawcett, remarked that old Crumpy became morbidly taciturn and uncommunicative through the thirties and withdrew behind his gown and mortarboard. Neither he nor the Archivist finds that odd, but I smell a rat. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was tormented by a guilty secret.’ ‘Hey, steady on, Tim. Don’t be such a self-righteous prig, especially when you don’t know the truth or even the facts. People, institutions, all of us create our own mythology. You, for instance, have already gained a high reputation as a teacher, but when I take a gander at your eighth form there’s often pandemonium swinging from the rafters. There are gut-wrenching times when teachers have to pinch themselves they’re doing valuable work, otherwise they’d have a blue funk and go on sick leave in droves.’ ‘Point taken. But it’s not simply an issue of selecting or omitting certain facts, is it. If you determine to bury the past, it’s just possible to believe an alternative version fervently enough to make it the new reality. But there may be a price to pay deep down.’
‘Right. Fuhrer’s Law. Now,’ she chirped up, ‘I did a recce on nanna’s old property. Of course, it’s been sub-divided into flats and car parks with a lone straggly fig tree and patches of tired old flower beds, while the house itself has shrunk, almost hidden by a nondescript block of orange-brick flats riveted onto its flank, washed a ghastly liverish pallor and converted into a warren of units.’ ‘And I drew a blank at St Joseph’s. Their Archivist advised me not to refer to ‘laundry slaves’ or even ‘inmates’ but ‘laundry girls’ and to watch my tone when speaking to the nuns. It stinks that many of their conventual records have been shredded or lost. In any case, the nuns won’t let anyone gain access to what’s left of them. Another cover-up! To make matters worse, the official History of the Sisterhood speaks only of self-sacrifice, marriage to the Church and humble service; nothing whatever of the systematic exploitation of very young, impressionable working-class girls utterly dependent upon them. And a superb piece of irony,’ he hooted, ‘is that even those embittered survivors amongst the laundry girls from the sixties, several of whom became staunch feminists stung by the betrayal of their Sisters, have closed ranks and won’t give anything away to outsiders sniffing about who, they say, can’t possibly imagine the extent of their suffering.’ ‘So, liberty plucks justice by the nose and Crump’s image remains sacrosanct. But then I suppose we’ve also hung onto a semblance of dignity and compassion by seasoning justice with mercy.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Come on, Tim, think about it.’ Zoe’s smile of resignation with eyebrows raised revealed a growing sense of relief. ‘We’ll never suss out the fate of Nora or her baby.’ ‘Well, certainly not from Griffith-Jones’ official biography of Ernest Crump.’
Nora, my dear,
I humbly and abjectly go down on my knees to beseech your forgiveness. I have
done you great wrong. I have come to ascertain that within my heart – dare I use that word where you are the object of so much concern? – there is something of the cad and something of the coward. How I do despise myself!
I’m afraid, Nora, that I possess neither the courage nor the inner fortitude to make you an offer of marriage, even allowing for the propriety of such blessed union. You see, my dear, not only do I stand accused by my own conscience, but the very notion of being dismissed by those most worthy persons who have placed both trust and faith in me, who have elevated me to such a responsible position – my dear, I cannot fail them now. In spite of my recent poor form, I believe that I am still capable of doing some social good and thereby gaining some measure of redemption.
In the interim I have sought and been granted leave of absence for eight months. It is my intention to go to Europe and observe the current methodology of teaching in private schools. I have informed the board that I am in dire need of some respite from my duties, exacerbated by the recurrence of a tubercular lesion – temporary, I am lead to believe - that has deprived me of the energy required to execute my duties in a school of growing repute.
Dear girl, I bitterly regret that it is only now in losing you that my stony heart tells me how fond I was – and still am – of you. Always I shall treasure those little gifts – how you stole into Mrs Forrester’s hothouse with audacity that you might pin a white rose in my buttonhole; and those dried and pressed flowers that you deftly conjured with an embarrassed laugh – azure forget-me-nots from the rock garden, orange petals of bird of paradise with bright blue tongues; and the clumps of fourleaf clover that you showered on me for luck. Not to mention the apples and figs and fresh brown bread straight out of the oven for my treat of toast . . .
Oh God, Nora, please, you must forgive me! Even in my heartless betrayal, will you not grant me a modicum of pity to alleviate the black cloud I labour under? I wrestle with my demons in such torment that . . . that I simply cannot bring myself
to send this letter . . .
For many years thereafter Ernest Crump would dwell in the shadows with the spectre of Nora in full fig. Those haunting green eyes never failed to question him: Shall I do?
Michael Small April 2-26, 2010 P O S T E D B Y MICH A EL A T 02:59 EMAIL THISBLOGTHIS!SHARE TO TWITTERSHARE TO FACEBOOK
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SNUFFLING FOR BLACK GOLD
THE SCORN OF BECKY PILBEAM
THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR
WHERE THERE’S A WILL
A LEGEND LAUNDERED
BRIEFED FOR BERLIN
ROAD TO KAROL BAGH
A BITTER SPACE
BEYOND THE GIRRAHWEEN STEPS
THE BOUNCING STONES
HER MASTER’S VOICE
DUST IN YOUR EYES
RAKING THE ASHES
HARVEST–TIME IN PROVENCE
I DON’T TELL STORIES
THE ODD FLUTTER
THE MODEL UNVEILED
HER NATURAL LIFE
THE PLAY’S THE THING
BETWEEN TWO STOOLS
MI C HA EL V IEW M Y CO M P LETE P ROF ILE