The Writer or Burn the English: A novel by Denis Brian
“Do what you will, this life’s a fiction
And is made up of contradictions.” William Blake
Chapter One: London Suburb
Our vicar was a master of shock tactics. Take, for example, his Christmas sermon: "Imagine her surprise," he said, "when Mary opened her legs and out popped God." Now the vicar was popping out of our house as I arrived, prodding me on the shoulder in passing. "Just heard the good news from your mother. You'll have the time of your life. My half-brother went to Oxford and had a splendid time. Everything was downhill after that. So make the most of it."
His stormy-weather eyes and slightly bent stance, as if stuck part way to prayer, had been replicated in the third of his five daughters. I had once shuffled her around at a church dance. Smelling of disinfectant, clinging like a limpet, she remarked that I had no sense of rhythm--no news to me--and said "Shit!" when in lighting her cigarette I almost set her eyebrow alight. Until then I thought of vicars' daughters as cast from the same mold, long-suffering like their mothers, mealy-mouthed like their dads.
The Reverend Hubert Applegate gave a discreet wave, while mother, cheeks flushed, fiddled with her handbag and waited with me in our doorway. We watched him fix bicycle clips carefully over his black silk socks then wobble down our Crescent and out of sight.
I followed mother into the kitchen. "Now what the hell's he collecting for?"
Knowing mother deplored double-entendres below the waist I resisted "fucking hypocrite" for a mild, "obviously doesn't practice what he preaches."
Her light, bright blue eyes were agleam with tears. "He had heartbreaking photos of starving children in Africa."
"Why not send them food?"
"I didn't ask any questions. Only encourages him."
"What would Jesus Christ think of His church financing the rubber good industry?
"I've had enough sex talk from the vicar." Mother moved to the living room and turned up Handel's Largo on the radio to purify the air. "He's got sex on the brain," she said. "Even tried to sell me a book on how to control Christian children.
"You bought it?"
"No. He just left it."
I skipped to the chapter titled Sin and Sex, in which the author warned parents to inspect with care their children's undergarments. Pieces of fluff, he wrote, might do the devil's work by stimulating the little animals to carnal desire.
As we ate dinner--being Tuesday, stew--mother stared serenely through a diamond-lattice window to catch the evening's Epiphany when the street lamp popped on and suddenly illuminated the nearby silver birch. Our Crescent of fifteen detached and semi-detached two-story houses crowning a wooded hill gave us a King-of-the-Castle view of arrivals and departures.
"Here they come," mother announced.
Adam and Norman, nicknamed Nobby, had arrived in tandem for our regular Tuesday night gabfest. Nobby, the son of elementary school teachers had the build of a rugby forward and the disposition of a Saint Bernard. He was at the height of his Quietism phase: do not exert yourself, do nothing to bring attention to yourself, not even to gain salvation.
Adam, also an only child, was an optical illusion. Only five foot six, he looked gawky. At attention--Adam was rarely at ease--he was a pencil. In action, a stick insect. Under tension, he flapped his arms and the rest of his body went along for the ride.
Mother thought that his oval face, bovine eyes, blue=black eyelashes and fresh complexion were "wasted on a man." So did his classmates, who tainted him with, "In a dress you'd be the belle of the ball." And by calling him Madam instead of Adam. He responded with bony knees and elbows. His father had been a detective, retired early and sold ties. His mother was partly Greek and taught Sunday School at Applegate's church. She had raised Adam to believe that God was like a rich relative: don’t annoy him and you may get lucky.
My brother David interrupted our discussion on Nobby’s recent conversion to quietism, by sticking his head in the living-room doorway and challenging us to define existentialism and when that failed to arouse us, to explain why the world kept turning. Just back from a futile job-hunting expedition in London, he had tanked up for a nighttime tour of local “country clubs” where he hoped to meet willing women.
Is that you, David?” mother called from the garden.
He adopted his angelic voice: “Yes mother. I’ve already eaten. Just off to look up more job prospects.”
“Good luck!’ She called out.
He lingered in the doorway. “So none of you morons can answer my questions.” he said.
“Why don’t you go and fornicate with your fucking job prospects?” I invited him and moved to shut the door.
But he grabbed my wrist. I jerked free, stepped back and kicked for his crotch. He had marvelous reflexes even when tipsy. Moving just enough to escape injury, he grabbed my foot, and twisted it until I was forced to fall onto the couch, where he held me. Nobby ignored my plight, showing interest in the sepia print of Liszt on the wall above our upright piano. Adam sighed.
“You’re too slow,” David taunted me. “At everything.”
Mother entered the kitchen and must have heard the heavy breathing ”What’s going on in there?” she asked,
“We’re discussing the pathetic fallacy,” David answered.
“Don’t break the furniture,” she said. You couldn’t put much past her.
”You’re a good argument for birth control,” I told David as he continued to use my foot as a fulcrum. He soon tired of torture and left us.
We resumed our Bloomsbury-Group stance, pulling the world to pieces in a detached manner, as if the God we hypothesized had been a property developer and we were morally superior government inspectors. We left the Almighty suitably rebuked to discuss why the most rewarding questions began with the letter W. For example: Where? What? When? Why? Who’s? Whose? What the Hell? I said that I often wondered, “Why birds chose to rest on phone or power lines. rather than on nearby tree branches?” “Whatever runs through those lines must give them a thrill, “ Nobby suggested. “Maybe it’s like getting a free massage.”
We even kicked around mother’s complaint that God’s two biggest mistakes were sex and teeth--because of the troubles both caused.
My brother returned late that night soused, accidentally let himself in Mrs. Willet’s identical house next door—
those were the days when it was safe to leave your doors unlocked—and slept in the hall. When he woke, desperate Mrs. Willet with three unmarried daughters offered him breakfast which he declined.
Mother sometimes entered the fray to prevent our “Bloomsbury Group” meetings from becoming Tuesday massacres, even laughing at David’s provocations as if they were funny, or hoping to blunt his poisoned darts with tranquilizing extracts of wit and wisdom she’d picked up from the wireless as we called the radio in those days.
And yet as a kid I had idolized him. Once, meeting me in the street when I was wet and muddy from puddle splashing, he invited me to a cowboy movie in the local flea pit.
“Don’t I have to wash first?”
“Why bother? No one’ll see you in the dark.”
Ah, those golden days!
Mother regarded David as a fallen angel, or a man of great potential derailed; a victim of fate; or bad timing; or the infamy of others. “He’s a natural athlete,” she said proudly. “And if he didn’t drink, he would be playing cricket for the county.”
Ask him and he’d say he was always on the brink of a great job, great adventure, great love affair. He excelled at brinksmanship. Attracted to women more willing and daring than most, he got one pregnant in his last school term. When she had a miscarriage their wedding was called off.
He had mother’s light blue, luminous eyes, that seemed equipped with their own lighting, and a lopsided grin. He’d also inherited dad’s nervous system that made him jumpy and restless. The combination was progressively less charming and at times alarming. A hair under six feet, lean as a lizard, but with broad shoulders, David was slightly taller than I, though I denied it and stretched or raised my heels whenever we stood together.
People were surprised at first to know we were brothers. Where he looked as if he was about to do something illegal, I had an expression you’d expect on the arresting officer. Unlike him I didn’t appear to be on hunger strike.
His response to my acceptance at Worcester College, Oxford, was, “At least you’re not going to a school for traitors” referring to Cambridge men Burgess and MacLean who had betrayed our country and long since hopped it to Russia. And to Philby of Britain’s M.I.5, likewise a product of Cambridge’s Trinity College. “The unholy trinity,” David called them.
Having anticipated an arduous trip to Oxford with multiple changes for cabs, buses and trains, David surprised me. Although broke, he had borrowed a car from a new acquaintance to drive me to college in style. Mother came along for the three-hours plus drive. And to share the glory.
My task was to spot ladies lavatories in small towns en route. A concession to mother’s weak bladder, another of God’s goofs. It was like being in a car race and frequently stopping at the pit for repairs.
No one in mother’s extended family had made it to college, so this was a gala day. And as we approached the Oxford outskirts she repeated like a litany, “Your father must be so proud of you.” He had been dead for almost ten years—-a heart attack—-but she still spoke as if he was alive, as if by saying it would make it so.
The college looked marvelous, built of stone, and with its own lake and playing fields. A young man in a white turtle-neck sweater and wielding a riding crop like an orchestra leader, directed a dress rehearsal of The Knight of the Burning Pestle on the college’s smooth lawn.
A bald, bent old man in a cubby hole like a railroad ticket collectors office, showed us to my room up a flight of stone steps. It was a warm afternoon, but I shivered in the small cell-like place, to be my home for four years. “The cold will keep you awake if you don’t freeze to death,” David reassured me cheerfully..
He borrowed cash from mother and treated us to lunch in an Olde English Inn among what I expected to be Oxford’s best and brightest.
Quite illuminating. The waiter put his dirty thumb in the soup as if doing me a favor, and a regal-looking lady with a lorgnette ostentatiously removed her false teeth before attacking a banana.
”Obviously a direct descendant of Henry the Eighth,” David said so loudly that mother shushed him but she couldn’t avoid laughing.
He left a big tip and the waiter said it was a nice change not to wait on gentlemen. Which David took as a compliment.
“Have a wonderful time,” he said on leaving and shook my hand formally. There were tears in his eyes.
Despite that encounter with the scruffy waiter and toothless crone, I felt like a pious tourist walking breathlessly through a Cathedral. But soon the secular and seedy intruded. Mother often ticked off God for teeth and sex. Nietzsche seemed nearer the mark with his damning: “The world is beautiful, but has a disease called Man.”
That’s the sidewalk where Evelyn Waugh threw up. And, see that “Rooms for Rent” sign? That’s where a few days after my arrival, a High-Church clergyman invited me to continue our coffee-shop conversations about Proust in his digs. He locked the door with a mumbled excuse about “break-ins” and asked me to kiss him for the love of Christ.
“Christ!” I exclaimed. “You’ve got the wrong man. I’m an agnostic.”
He looked aghast as if I had carried perversity too far and unlocked the door somewhat testily, saying that I obviously had a weak grasp of religious symbolism. However, he was still willing to cater to my literary interests. Would I care to see where Lawrence e of Arabia had parked his bicycle?
“Thought he rode a camel,” I said flippantly, but accepted his offer to ease our mutual embarrassment and make a quick exit. My brother shared Churchill’s admiration for Lawrence as one of the world’s great men. I thought he was a bit of a fraud, and an interesting pathological case.
Outside in the street, the clergyman flicked back his lank hair and adjusted his glasses as if uncertain whether to give a mini-sermon, look for someone else to kiss, or to pursue his tour-guide role. As promised, he pointed out where Lawrence as a student had stacked his bike and, as a bonus, where martyrs had been burnt at the stake, one, at his request, hands first.
“Over there”-–he indicated a spot being approached by a gaggle of nuns—“Welsh and North of England students teamed up and fought to the death against students from the south of England.” God knows why, and I would, too, I suppose, if I studied medieval mayhem. His parting whispered words were, “And the survivors even pissed on the corpses.” Let’s have a big hand for the old Oxonians of the thirteenth century! Wonder when we Brits earned the reputation for fair play.
Seven hundred years later we post-World War 2 students were much less aggressive. And we were both less eccentric and more sober than the pre-war sodden sodomites in Evelyn Waugh’s circle. Most of us were pallid puritans, cautious Catholics, or like me, nothing, a lack of belief raised to crusader status on official forms as Agnostic.
Stuart Leigh was an outstanding exception. Claiming to be a wizard, he adopted a stray gray cat, baptized it with beer and called it his Familiar. The only preternatural feat I witnessed was when he swallowed a raw egg while smiling. He had the cell adjoining mine and was continually borrowing things. I annoyed him with my frequently repeated, ”You’re a wizard. Teleport it.” His father was something in the Foreign Office and the conventional wisdom was that Leigh was overcompensating by going native.
Another wacko was John Kendall, who looked like and kept a ferret which, after a few days and nights as his houseguest, bit its way to freedom. Soon after he had an influx of mice. He used to keep his used unwashed socks out of his ground-floor window to discourage casual visitors, and as a self-proclaimed expert on French history claimed that we had poisoned Napoleon. “And you’re trying to poison us with your stinking socks,” Bill Stokes protested.
Stokes was generally admired and envied for cuckolding his tailor every Thursday evening—what one wag called “giving the tailor’s wife a fitting.” If you passed a church during the week and heard organ music it was probably Stokes at the keys. His ambition was to put his hands on every church organ and on every willing woman in Oxfordshire. And to hear him talk, he had almost made it.
My eyes were opened at Oxford. Before I went there I assumed that the upper classes were something like meat—metaphorically stamped “choice cut”—isolated from hoi polloi by traveling in first-class railroad carriages, when their Rolls Royces were laid up or their horses hobbled. And that the working class betrayed their lowly status by their godawful speech and atrocious eating habits. If they could fake those, I identified them by their opposing attitudes—either Bolshie or servile. What might be called the British version of the Hun as ridiculed by Churchill: either at your feet or your throat.
Yet the scruffiest student at Oxford with rotten teeth, nails in perpetual mourning, and a penchant for letting others pay for his drinks and his girlfriend’s abortion, turned out to be a peer of the realm. And of all my acquaintances there the one who appeared to be an aristocrat, with a voice so far back he seemed to be strangling himself, tall, lean, and languid, a wine connoisseur and expert on the history of falconry, was the issue of a Liverpool cab driver and a cleaning woman. This was long before Maggie Thatcher, grocer’s daughter, of the ladeeda voice and haughty air, became prime minister.
Still I remained uneasy among upper class individuals of all three sexes who spoke without moving their lips and even when looking up, to my mind¸ were looking down on me. As if I was from another inferior species. Had their been a course in social sophistication I would have flunked it.
Take my tutor, Lord George Teddington. I was supposed to phone him to arrange my first tutorial. But I shirked it for weeks because of the multiple choice: whether to call him Your Lordship, M’Lord, Lord, George, Lord Teddington, Teddington, Sir, or Professor. And I was too embarrassed to ask anyone for advice. When, after a few drinks, I dialed his number, I responded to his curt “Yes?” with, “Is that you?” He replied, “Who am I supposed to be?”
I sensed that he wasn’t moving his lips and was looking down on me.
“I’m Stephen Elliot. I believe you’re my tutor.”
“Belief isn’t enough, Elliot. You should know, dammit. Just a moment.” Sound of shuffling papers and a dry cough. “Yes, you’re on my list. Can you make it on Thursday at three?”
“Three in the afternoon?”
Pause. Sigh. “I’m usually asleep at three in the morning.”
Which was sometimes also the case at three in the afternoon.
He doubtless thought I wasn’t very bright. I modestly judged myself brighter than him. At least more open minded. Despite his international reputation as THE authority on Shakespeare and Marlowe he turned out to be fossilized, challenging any new ideas with an unfailing, “Who’s your authority for that?” Once responding to my, ”I am,” with a snort and a limp hand wave of dismissal. So I saw as little of him as possible.
I learned more about sex vicariously from poltergeist noises in the room above mine occupied by Richard Craig and many years before by Thomas De Quincy author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Craig was in the manic phase of his manic-depression, with more on his plate than an entire school of scholars. He was launched on several enterprises at once: rewriting all Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, the comedies into cockney rhyming slang, the tragedies and histories into Mafiosa-style lingo; turning James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake into a TV series—perhaps for a select audience of three; composing the words and music for an opera about Gandhi; and in worldwide correspondence with experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Craig had practically no forehead and put a sizable dent in the theory that the higher the brow the loftier the mind, being as close to a genius as anyone I ever met.
How he found the time to entertain so many women was part of his genius, I guess. He as good as gave me his rejects. And I soon had a coterie of dejected females desperate to re-arouse Craig’s fickle but fervent id. I nearly persuaded one to spend the night with me—at least for mutual warmth--we were both shivering with the cold. And got as far as lying together on my narrow bed. But after the first kiss, she looked up at the ceiling and whispered. “I simply can’t. Craig might hear us.”
For chrissakes I heard HIM at it all the time! In fact, the next evening I was startled from a doze by a female shriek followed by frantic footsteps stumbling down the stone steps past my room. The shriek developed into an anguished cry, “Ca brule! Ca brule!”
It was no burning martyr but Craig’s Parisian conquest. For all his genius he had mistaken Vick’s Vapor Rub for an aid to intercourse and had handed it to her in the dark before their projected romantic interlude. What I in my drowsy state had thought to be Craig rehearsing for his opera was more like the opening scene in a morality play.
Several of Craig’s castoffs hung around with me to be near him, and I got the reputation as a lady killer. Some even showed signs of overcoming their obsession with Craig and settling for me. I had a brief fling with a dynamic young woman who wanted to be a novelist, worked backstage at Oxford Rep. Took her punting on the Isis and pub crawling. But when the flu laid me low for a week I found that she had dumped me for an Australian sheep farmer she met on a blind date.
I decided to avoid attractive females until an irresistible charmer turned up with Garbo’s voice, Vivien Leigh’s flawless face and figure.
And then I met Sylvia.
Oxford and London
We met during a mid-term break at a party in a London suburb where the evening’s high spot was when Sylvia, giving yelps of pain, unscrewed all the light bulbs. Trying to reach her chair in the sudden darkness, she tripped over my foot and damaged both wrists. So I felt Obliged to drive her home to Earls Court in her disorderly little car with a whining stick shift and stink of stale tobacco.
Her large, tired husband insisted that I stay for instant coffee, which I sipped tentatively while Sylvia dipped her fat wrists in a bowl of water and shot me conspiratorial glances. I felt like the innocent dupe—or was it dope?—in a triangle: the square on the hypotenuse.
While he stumbled his way upstairs to subdue their bawling kids (one of each), she kissed me goodnight with such fervor it would have been churlish not to respond. She was obviously bored with her engineering-type husband because he had a crush on his new computer, one of the first on the market.
When she phoned me the next day mother answered.
“A woman,” she announced, red in the face, as if the police were after me.
Sylvia had tickets for Brahms at the Albert Hall and her husband wanted to play with his computer. Could I escort her? It might take her mind off her swollen wrists.
I thought I was in for an agreeable liaison with a woman of the world, cool, calm, and sensual. And safely married.
Her car turned out to be the best guide to Sylvia: hysterical. Often without apparent cause; and demanding constant attention or it would imitate Mount Vesuvius. And her sunshine roof was stuck shut.
By the time I knew Sylvia to be a reflection of her car she was my mistress--in the back seat, the porch of her house, after seeing Coward’s “Brief Encounter,” in her best friend’s apartment. And, like a jalopy you’ve had for some time, despite imperfections, I was attached to her.
Sylvia’s best feature was her cavity-free white, sharp teeth, to which a small purple scar on my shoulder bears witness. Of average shape, with dark-brown eyes, small and feverish when aroused, she sometimes looked as if she’d been nudged when applying her lipstick. Her hair was black and when she shook her head in anger—instant sheepdog. She was intense, her whole body joining in an argument. Nervy, did a dance marathon in her sleep; high-strung, gave a passable simulation of sticking her finger in a light socket--simply because she’d flooded the carburetor. If you knew her you might mock her as a child out of sync with her age, reacting only to things she felt personally and leaving others to take care of the Bomb, the poor, the hungry, and the exploding and increasingly explosive population.
Though, to be fair, she did parade in Trafalgar Square with an environment protection group long before it became a popular cause; walk ten miles for charity, her mother having pledged a pound a mile; and write a monthly letter to a Korean orphan she supported out of her housekeeping allowance. “Repaying the Yanks for their Bundles for Britain,” she quipped. The orphan was half American.
Sylvia’s religion was eclectic, a bit of this and a bit of that, like a visit to a salad bar. But her God was uniquely Sylvia’s, with X-Ray vision, and so concerned with keeping sex within marriage that a few sparrows must have kicked the bucket while He was otherwise preoccupied. When we were comforting each other—her euphemism—she glanced anxiously at the ceiling, car roof or overcast sky. No need to ask her why. She was silently begging His forgiveness.
Otherwise she was a normal, healthy, neurotic young woman who wept indiscriminately through TV news and TV commercials. Even an attentive waiter with a pained expression had her wet-eyed with sympathy.
Although I usually pictured the Creator, if there was one, as a combination of electricity and some celestial substitute for brains, in weak moments I imagined Him staring down at His creations screwing or coveting their neighbors’ wives, putting up bookshelves, and weeping at waiters with hemorrhoids, Sylvia, I realized, was influencing me.
She never stopped pressing me to get down to my planned novel. After our most trivial experiences, searching, for example, under parked cars for a stranger’s lost cat, she urged me to “write it before you forget it.” I resisted. “Has to stew for a while. Otherwise it’s just journalism.”
We found the cat but I tore my pants and borrowed a pair of her husband’s that made me look like Charlie Chaplin.
Embarrassing for a man who was already borrowing his wife.
Sylvia wanted me to write an account of my farewell meeting with my tutor, Teddington. Then I sat uneasily in his armchair listening to church bells chime three, as if he had deliberately timed it to inform the world that I had just scraped through with a third-class degree. And, of course, he had to rub it in. “Most surprising to learn, considering your performance here, that you’ve got a job offer. You must be surprised, too.”
I nodded reluctant agreement.
Sylvia had glimpsed Teddington on a brief trip to Oxford and thought he looked sensitive.
“Your euphemism for dyspeptic, I suppose.”
She laughed and said, “He can’t help being a lord,” as if it was an infirmity.
“Just luck I suppose,” I said to Teddington. I didn’t explain that the job meant teaching kids in a dangerous, decaying section of London’s East End, where apprehensive policeman paroled in pairs, or that the pay was pitiful.
“How did you do with extracurricular activities?” Teddington asked. “I recall something of your flawed nighttime production of The Taming of the Shrew.”
“Yes. I directed that on the college grounds.”
”With no lighting as I recall.”
“There was a full moon.”
“And quite a few clouds.” He pursed his lips as if to smile, then thought better of it. “At least it shows you don’t mind taking risks.”
As he spoke a mouse sniffed at his antiquated Victorian-style boots, then scuffled off to savor something more appetizing. Quite unaware of the uninvited guest, he got up and moved to the lattice windows, saying, “Lewis Carroll had room near here, you know, much like these. So he, too, enjoyed this marvelous view of medieval cottages.” I joined him. His large, drafty study let in the scent of lilacs and overlooked, not only the cottages, but Christ Church meadow and chestnut trees in full flower. I nodded with fake amiability.
During my four years at Oxford I had avoided, by various stratagems, addressing my tutor by name. And the longer I put it off the tougher it became, until it was almost a full-blown phobia. Propernameitus. This was my last chance to show I was no longer intimidated by his social prominence. Otherwise I’d always think of myself as at one with the mouse who had licked his boots.
Now, in saying goodbye I was determined to redeem myself with a confident, unequivocal “Lord George.”
“Well.” He held out his hand. “Good luck.”
“Thank you. And thanks for all your help, Lloyd George.”
He seemed not to notice my having confused him with the late lamented British Prime minister, already looking over my shoulder at the open doorway through which the next graduate, Edward Hardy--destined for the Foreign Office—was about to genuflect and murmur polysyllabic platitudes.
As I strolled across the college lawn, Immaculately cut as if by a hairdresser, Hardy called out to me. I waited for him to catch up, hoping he wouldn’t notice my flushed face.
“That was quite a gaff,” He said, with a superior smirk. “You got it quite wrong. His name is Lord George Teddington.”
“To you, perhaps.” I said. “But he’s an old friend of the family. And I always call him Lloyd George. Seems to amuse him.”
His manner changed. “Oh, really,” he said. “Must have been his influence that got you the substitute teaching job.”
London’s East End
The school had the air of a Dickensian sweatshop with iron bars over windows not yet completely cleared of their World War 11 blackout paint. Opposite, in the doorway of a drab rowhouse three women in hair curlers and bedroom slippers stopped gossiping to give me the once over.
“And you are?” the wiry, bowlegged headmaster greeted me in the school corridor.
“Huh!” he responded, pointing his cane at the room where I was to test my nerves on 10-year-old cockneys, a sprinkling of West Indians and Pakistanis, and a red-headed boy from Belfast.
“You’re substituting in there,” the headmaster said. “Book’s on the table.”
“History or English?”
“You’ll soon find out.” He dismissed me with a tap of his cane.
A girl already has her hand raised as I entered the classroom taking deep breaths as nerve tonic, surprised by the smell of baking bread, from what turned out to be a nearby bakery.
“Please sir, can I change my seat?”
A shrieking chorus followed. I waited for it to fade.
“Take a look, sir.”
I did. Dead frog. “Sure,” I said to a howl of approval.
I raised my hands for silence and to my surprise almost got it. “What was your last history lesson?”
“Friggin boring,” someone yelled.
“The Boer War?”
Cheers and jeers.
I pointed to the dead-frog girl: “What are you studying now?”
“Middle evil times.”
“What do you know about them?
She spoke as if in a trance: “Middle evil people were violet. Everyone killed somebody else. Then merchants sprang up and organized street fairies throughout the land to sell their goods. Finally, the Black Death come over from Europe by inflected foreign rats who polished off most of the middle-aged people.”
“What does that teach you?”
“It’s best not to be middle-aged.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that.” I pointed to a boy in the front row who was picking his teeth. ”What happened to those who survived the Black Death?”
“They reformed. After Martin Luther had nailed a lot of democrats to a church door. And he called monks who didn’t go along with his views a lot of worms.”
“And what happened to Luther?” I asked the boy sitting next to him.
“He died a horrible death after communicating with a Papal bull.”
And what happened in England at the time? Anyone.”
A kid at the back stood on his chair. “The government of England was a limited mockery And Margaret Carter said that no free men should be hanged twice for the same crime. Later, King Henry the Eighth who had too many wives gave birth to Protestants.” Another boy cut in with, “When his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, a virgin, exposed herself before her troops they cheered. Then she ordered Sir Francis Drake, who had circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper to stop playing with his balls in order to defeat the Spanish Armaadillo.”
“This is all news to me,” I said. “You certainly make history come alive. Any Shakespearian experts in class?
Three boys raised their hands.
“Okay. You first, then you, then you.”
“Hamlet’s the p[ay where he relieves himself in a long talk to himself, his mind being guilty of the filth of incestuous sheets whenever he thinks of his mother.”
“Close enough. Next.”
“Romeo’s dying wish was to be laid by Juliet. It’s a love story.”
“To die together. Right. Anything more?”
“Shakespeare was supposed to be born on his birthday, but his death put an end to a promising career.”
“Uhuh. Now you.”
“He wrote tragedies and comedies. Like when Lady Macbeth tried to talk her husband into bumping off the king by attacking his manhood,”
“I have a feeling some of you get our information from TV comedies. You’ll probably get it straight when you grow older.”
A few days later I gave them a few paragraphs to read on the American Revolution and asked a girl in pigtails: “Why did the colonists in America fight against us?”
“Because we put tax in their tea. The French were revolting, too, And then Lenin revolted the Russians.”
“I see you’ve skipped ahead and almost brought us up to modern times. Queen Victoria and the British Empire. Any experts here on that period?” I pointed to the nearest hand.
“The sun couldn’t set on the British Empire because it’s in the east and the sun sets in the west. And Queen Victoria, who reigned on it, was the longest Queen, sitting on her thorn for sixty glorious years.”
“And in more modern times?”
”Dimocrats took over,” the redhead volunteered. “They set in an anal parliament led by a primal minister like Winsome Churchill.”
“And Hitler had only one ball,” a boy called out. “That’s why he lost the war. Not enough ammunition. So he shot himself.”
“The Germans needed more room,” yelled another. “And Hitler let them do it with a lot of anti-semantics in the rear called a filth column. Nukular fashion then took over and the Japanese used it to blow up Hitler in his bunker.”
“Let me ask you all a question. Let me…” I bowed my head, waiting for the noise level to dip below my shouts. “Hands up those who believe we can trust history books to give us the facts?”
A battle of hands and voices followed. I held up my hands in supplication, a primal minister unable to control his anal parliament.
Driven by cheers and jeers to the blackboard I pretended to ignore flying paper planes, the airborne ink and godknows what else spitballs, slamming desk lids, shrieks of pain real and assumed, and having my IQ and parentage loudly questioned.
As the chalk broke, I wrote with a progressively small stick: MY HISTORYWRITE ABOUT AN EXCITING EVENT IN YOUR LIFE. I underlined YOUR LIFE and turned to face the enemy. A boy was leaning forward and strangling the boy in the desk ahead. I hurried to them not sure how to handle it. “Let him go at once,” didn’t work so I tried, “I’ll give you to a count of three to let him go.” The class counted along with me At three he was still holding on to his sputtering prey, so I grabbed him in a neck hold my brother had taught me and pulled the two of them, still locked together out of their seats. One kicked backwards and anesthetized my kneecap. When I let go, the pair separated like falling chestnuts.
An eerie silence announced the headmaster’s arrival. He blocked the doorway, arms crossed nodding his head, as if confirming that I had lived up to his low expectations. Glancing at the blackboard, then at the two boys scrambling back to their seats, he sucked in air through his teeth.
“Mister Elliot, in this school we never resort to violence. If you have any trouble with the little darlings...” He paused for a raucous response, and got it, and I lip read his, “then report them to me.” He waited for silence but didn’t get it. Then, his face suffused with blood as if from a massive infusion: “SILENCE you little bastards!”
He joined me at the blackboard, the quiet now an accolade. “You can’t treat them like little ladies and gentlemen, Mister Elliot, because they haven’t had your advantages.” He stepped back and pointed at me with his cane. “Mister Elliot is from Oxford University.” One kid hissed. “Well, no doubt you’re from Cambridge.” He gestured for me to come closer, then put his arm on my shoulder. “It is a great privilege for you boys and girls to have this bright young man as your teacher and counselor. Don’t waste the opportunity.”
He briefly waited in the open doorway before moving out of sight. But I sensed that he was still hovering within earshot. And so, I assumed, did the kids, who remained almost subdued.
“Are they all snobs, like my dad says, at Oxford, Mister Elliot?” a girl asked.
“Some are. Others are wonderful human beings like you.” That brought a good-natured titter.
The bruiser I had disentangled from his victim Now sat rigidly in his seat, arms crossed, demonstrating that he had no intention of committing his most exciting experience to paper for my benefit. Several others went through elaborate preparations, licking their pen nibs, flicking through their exercise books, and squinting at the ceiling as if it were a memory bank.
A girl raised her hand. “Please, sir, how do you spell abortion?”
I spelled it, appalled by the thought that I was encouraging pornography and that their accounts would have me jailed for perverting the morals of minors. Or that she was writing about a sister or other relative who would learn of it and sue me for libel.
“Remember,” I pointed out, “the sordid side of life is not necessarily the most exciting.” I sounded like mother.
The piercing end-of-class bell was as welcome as the all-clear air raid signal. I took their mostly unfinished exciting experiences with me to read in the Common Room. I had fifteen minutes before my next shock-treatment session. Its sole occupant handed me a cracked cup of stale, pale, cold coffee.
“Tastes like cat’s piss but it’s on the house,” he said. A prematurely gray man, with gray complexion, and gray suit. “Name’s Sanders. Mathematics. How’d it go, then?” His Yorkshire accent was thick and succulent as Yorkshire pudding. “Little buggers give you any lip?
“As well as a kick in the knee, spit ball in the neck, and a dead frog.”
“Is that all?” He looked disappointed. “Par for the bloody course. You’ve got to control them from the kick off or you’ve lost the game,” he warned. “Can’t blame the little creeps. It’s their modus operandi. They see dad bashing mum or his girl friend or vice versa, and it gets imprinted.”
“What’s your advice?”
“Don’t take any nonsense. The head’ll back you up. If you can’t handle them, threaten to send them to him. He looks like a squirt—looks a bit like General Montgomery, doesn’t he?—but he’s okay. You’re from Oxford, I hear.”
“What went wrong?”
“Aren’t too many jobs around.”
“Yes, but this is the last stop before purgatory.”
“I don’t intend to stay here for ever.”
“That’s what we all say. Anyway, good luck”
I glanced through the pitiful-hilarious efforts of my class—“My sister thawt it was shiek to where the latest fashuns”….”My hole life is exiting”…”My dad cuming home from the war all in wun peese is the top of my list.” “Seeing a fight in the street and one man never got up.”
I was about to leave when a fat woman literally danced in humming a Cole Porter tune. ”Don’t go,” she said. ”We must get acquainted. I’m botany and biology. If you want to pick up extra cash you can help me take some youngsters on field trips sometimes as far Orpington.” She rested her hand on my arm to reach for a stale doughnut. “I hope you can stand it out here in the Gulag,” she said. “We need a few people with class to compensate for this Marxist maniac.” She looked at him with obvious affection and I noticed her face unlike her body was quite beautiful.
He patted her rear and she squawked on leaving.
Soon after I had to sub for Nellie Anderson, the bouncy biology/botany teacher who was at home babysitting her sick cat with diarrhea, or her arthritic mother. Standing too near their cage to feed the hamsters was a mistake. One of them, maybe to change my religion, bit me on the prick. What a way to go? I panicked and rushed to the can to inspect the damage. No blood. Blessed relief.
The kids were so stunned by emergency exit that only the chronic agents provocateurs were going through the motions on my return.
Several times, especially that winter when the smell of damp rubber overwhelmed the aroma of baking bread, and when the kids hawked, sniffed, and spoke in the same adenoidal voice, I thought of quitting. “Do whatever you think best.” Mother advised. “Why not teach private students, like Adam?”
Adam had taught the son and daughter of an affluent import-export merchant in Chislehurst, a leafy stronghold of stockbrokers, lawyers, and retired lieutenant-colonels. And Nobby, though working for a member of parliament in a menial capacity, was getting to know the political leaders and losers of our time.
My brother, David, wasn’t much help. “It’s all experience,” he said once. “Sylvia’s right. You should take notes. One day you’ll turn them into a novel or a TV series.” But later he taunted me with, “You’re a sucker to stay.”
Had he been alive I’d have asked Sam Houston for advice. Our most interesting neighbor, he lived in the first house in the Crescent. Ours was the eighth. Sam had died suddenly of malnutrition, victim of his self-inflicted inadequate diet. He could have married several times but fought for his bachelor state with the vigor of a Victorian spinster defending her virginity. A wife and good home cooking would certainly have prolonged his life past fifty-three. He had fired a series of housekeepers including a cousin when it became clear that they had “designs on him,” as mother put it. So, the last few years he took care of himself. And that proved the death of him.
Eighteen avaricious relatives claimed Sam’s Pontiac. Because it guzzled gas it went for a song and they barely got a grace note each.
At the funeral service in our local church, Applegate gave him a syrupy sendoff: “A loving and generous man, a man of spirit and of good intent. His life was noble and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world: This was a man.” He’d pinched that from Shakespeare, of course, and without attribution. I had to applaud Applegate, though, for saying anything positive, knowing as he did that the dead man had been a Spiritualist who bypassed Applegate to speak directly with Higher Authority.
Sylvia came to the funeral saying that she felt she knew Sam because once when she was passing his home he raised his hedge clippers in salute. Of course, she wept all through the service. But what a change outside. Then she literally hit the roof-- of the car--when I implied I was fed up with trying to train animals.
‘Restless, eh? Want to get away from it all? Me especially.”
“Why do you always take things personally?”
“Why do you always avoid answering direct questions?”
”Try me again.”
She repeated her innuendo.
“Nonsense,” I said.
“If you ask me you’re simply scared to death of little ten-year-olds.”
“But I’m not asking you.”
I went back to school to prove that I wasn’t scared, though I was, especially the morning a girl tried to knife the Marxist math master in the groin, a near miss. And I decided to leave for good before she improved her aim.
Oxford and London
Sylvia drove me back to Oxford one June scorcher on a tip from Nobby. He’d heard of a place there that found a whole range of temporary work for Oxford graduates, from sitting babies to walking dogs.
I’d told her of my brief encounter with the kissing clergyman and as we drove over familiar ground I said, “Look, quick. That’s where Lawrence parked his bicycle.”
“Are you mocking me?” She was in a very touchy mood.
“Ah, yes. Sons and Lovers.”
“That was D.H.”
“I thought he called himself Shaw.”
“Not at Oxford”
She waited outside the nondescript hole-in-the-wall job placement office in her tormented car, her head stuck out for air, while a wizened little woman questioned me at a wobbly table. “I don’t know about this one,” she said, doubtfully. “We’ve sent several promising prospects down there. Mister Underwood must be hard to please.”
“What’s he after?”
“He’s a poet and needs a literary assistant.”
“Sounds up my street.”
“And immensely wealthy, I understand, though he’s obviously not willing to share his wealth.” She gave a sweet smile. “Five pounds and all found. But look here. this may have more appeal to you. A small film unit off to a location in Portugal. Need what they call a go for. I take it that’s a jack of all traders.”
“Poetry’s more my line.”
She handed me a phone and a phone number. “Call Miss Randolph. She’s his secretary. See if she likes the sound of you.” Miss Randolph had a husky voice and an easy manner. They’d be pleased to see me that weekend.
“Just take a toothbrush and a change of clothes,” the appointments woman advised. Then leaned forward and shielded her mouth. “He’s something of a mystery man. Said to be connected to the Royal Family. But don’t say I said so.”
I decided not to tell Sylvia anticipating her response: “You’ll have to take groveling lessons.” Or, “If he’s a poet and royalty then he’s probably a queen.”
“Rather exciting,” I said on emerging. “They gave me a choice. Portugal on location with a film unit Or I could be a poet’s literary assistant.”
“What a waste of time,” she protested. “How ridiculous it will look on your job resume. I held a poet’s hand while he was composing. Or I looked up what rhymes with moon in a thesaurus.”
“If that’s what it is I won’t take it.” I sat beside her, sticking to the hot seat, “We could toast bread in here,” I said, “Instead of stopping somewhere for a bite.”
She was in no mood for banter. With a twist of the wrist she started the car, and trembled towards the road back to London.
“Look at that beech tree,” I said after a long silence. “Flanks like. . .What dogs are gray with blue eyes?”
“I’m driving,” she snapped. “Keeping my eye on the road.”
“Just take a quick look. It’s fabulous. King Charles might have hidden in it.”
“And you taught children history,” she scoffed.” Charles hid in an oak, idiot.”
“You haven’t got gray flanks.”
She handled her loose little car as though taking a driving test. Intent. Uptight.
“All right, Sylvia, let me describe the rolling countryside to you.” I hoped to divert her with my travelogue. “The shining towers and spires, majestic beeches and chestnuts, the sparkling Isis, cool and calm, and the air rich with the scent of lilacs.”
“Which d’you fancy?” she asked, her eyes locked on the road ahead, “Film floosy or poet’s flunky?”
“With that alliteration I fancy the poet might fancy you.”
“Be serious, idiot.”
“I’ve already arranged with his right-hand woman to meet him so he can give me the once over.”
“When did that happen?”
“On the phone. In the job placement office.”
We hit cobblestones. She spoke shakily. “You might have discussed it with me first.” She waited until we stopped doing the rumba. ”How can a poet afford you? Unless he’s getting you cheap. Poet’s are all raggedy assed types who live off women in garrets.”
“Who are in the garrets? The poets or the women?”
“Be serious, for chrissakes.”
“He isn’t poor. Worth billions, apparently.”
She braked hard with nothing ahead, and our long slide betrayed the almost tread-less tires. The car stalled. She started again at a crawl. “Sounds screwy, to me,” she said, playing the brake as if it were a trombone.
“Take your foot of the break, love.”
”Who’s doing the bloody driving?”
“Couldn’t describe it better myself.”
She stopped the car, hitting her head on the windshield and got out. She was aquiver, I gave her the suicide seat. Though she never articulated her criticism of my driving for the rest of the way, her breathing and body language spoke volumes.
We cooled off later that evening in Leicester Square’s Lyons Corner House, the poor man’s Savoy Grill. Sylvia’s eyebrows looked sorry for themselves. “Just coffee and a small slice of fruit cake,” she ordered, as if her appetite was shot. In fact, that’s all we could afford. Spirited gipsy music filtered to us from the more expensive steak-and-imported-wine section overhead, and changed Sylvia’s mood.
“My dear,” she crooned in a flutey voice, ”his lisping will drive you to distraction. He’ll obviously be queer.”
“It’s an old tradition. Carried on by Oscar Wilde. He was one of you Oxford types, too, wasn’t he? And all his pals will be queer, as coots too. What is a coot, by the way? Didn’t your Oxford buddy keep one?”
“Kendall kept a ferret, but not for long.”
“So, you know everything. What’s a coot?”
“A Scotsman’s coat.” I quote myself verbatim with confidence, because for once I took Sylvia’s literary advice and made a note of our loony-tunes conversation before my memory grew furtive.
At two in the morning her menthol cigarettes got the better of her voice and my eyes. We searched Covent Garden for her car, and finally found it, lights on and battery near death.
“Push, darling! Push!” she croaked like an exhausted Tallulah Bankhead, as I almost ruptured myself moving the car. The last I saw of her was a shower of shooting stars from the car window as another menthol cigarette hit the dust. If she didn’t break down she’d reach home just before her husband returned from his poker game with the boys. No need to worry about their kids, who were safe with her mother-in-law.
After walking the few miles through deserted London streets to Blackfriars railroad station, I caught a train lightly peopled with nightshift Fleet Street reporters and editors going home, with a few partygoers carrying wrinkled balloons, Some women carrying their high-heeled shoes, looked whacked out
Just this once, I resolved to reach my room without waking ever-alert mother. I got as far as my bedroom door, gently turned the handle an. . .”Is that you, Stephen?”
I sat on the foot of her bed. She put on her reading glasses. “You look tired.”
“I’ve landed an interview. Looks promising.” I gave her a brief rundown.
“What a wonderful chance,” she said, eyes alight.’ He might turn out to be another Yeats or T.S. Eliot.”
“Then you can turn him down.”
I was too tired to laugh.
When I woke next morning, Nobby and Adam had already phoned and hearing the news from mother left messages wishing me luck. Sylvia phoned as I was half way through a boiled egg and the news headlines.
“A woman for you,” mother announced, handing the phone over without looking at me. Sylvia was off to Spain with husband and kids for at least three weeks, sure that we were finished. She began to sob and I couldn’t always make out what she was saying, I imitated her still husky voice, and I think the sound she made was more a laugh than a groan.
I slept fitfully the night before my weekend at the billionaire poet’s estate in Wiltshire, waking up answering questions in my head. I crept downstairs and rearranged books in the shelves to keep occupied, putting Madame Bovary next to Renan’s Life of Christ, which fact which fiction? Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom next to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, which fiction, which fact?
And Shelley’s poems and Mary Shelley’s prose. Cover to cover, keeping them in the family.
At the first stab of dawn I began to make breakfast, suppressing the whistling kettle before it woke Mrs. Willett and her three daughters next door. Mother was down in her dressing gown before I took my first bite of toast, reminding me that her father came from Wiltshire She had a beatific expression whenever she mentioned “my dear old dad,” and wondered if fate was taking me back there.
“With what in mind?”
“Why, you know what I mean.”
“No I don’t. Your mind is rarely an open book.”
Had I pressed her I feel sure she would have come up with some theory, wacky enough to make me scoff or laugh. But I knew what she meant. I was the one to redeem the family’s failure to somehow make its mark.
As I was leaving she tried to persuade me to take two more shirts.
“For godssake, I’ve already packed two. This isn’t a trip too the moon.”
We stood in the doorway of our suburban home six cloned station stops from Charing Cross. As I pecked her on the cheek, she tried to flatten my hair with a gesture of benediction, but I was too quick for her.