Thursday, March 7, 2019

WAGBAI: THE GOOD SHEPHERD


One more from "What a Good Boy Am I"

THE GOOD SHEPHERD
            There was a niche set into a corner of the second floor landing, right beside the long corridor that led off past the bathroom down to the other spare bedrooms. It was a perfect place for the small bronze statue of the Good Shepherd that my Auntie Nancy made. (I know of only a few other artworks that my father’s sister made in her young days—mostly drawings and sculptures—before she became a wife my father’s good Cambridge friend, Alan, and a mother to six children. There’s no doubt that she was a talented artist, and her work—as I recall those few examples—reflected something of the art deco esthetic of the twenties and thirties. Too bad that, like so many women in the course of so many male-dominated centuries, she was denied the opportunity to pursue that talent to where it might have led). But, as the French say, let’s get back to our sheep…
            I must have been quite little, no more than four or five years old. I woke in darkness, in the middle of the night, my bladder bursting with the need to pee. I stumbled out of bed in my pajamas and tapped my way along the wall and the furniture to the nursery door, opening it to find the landing just as dark, perhaps more dark than ever. It was either very late at night, or very early in the morning, because my parents were fast asleep in their own bedroom. But I knew if I could walk straight, diagonally, across the landing I would have to end up at the bathroom door, where I would be able to find the long string of the pull switch that turned on the bathroom light.
            I stepped out onto the landing. With no wall or door to cling to, I had launched myself into the impenetrable darkness of a disorienting open space. With both hands out in front to forewarn me of obstacles, I started out with a step at a time, more fearful with each step as it carried me further into that dizzying black emptiness. I lost all sense of direction. The need to pee was now so urgent I was scared I couldn’t hold it; but I was scared, too, of waking up my parents, for fear they would be angry. So I kept inching forward, one foot at a time, my heart slamming against my ribs with a growing sense of terror. Stepping forward, stepping forward, feeling my way through total darkness, one step at a time until… I crashed into something hard and cold, something human, something about my size, something truly terrifying. And I couldn’t hold the pee for one second longer, the terror finished me off, and the flooded out, squirting out into the void and soaking my flannel pajamas.
            And I must have started to cry at that very moment, because suddenly a light went on, and my father or my mother—I don’t remember which—came out from their bedroom and found me there, so scared and so cold and so wet in what had been the darkness but was now blinding light. And I looked all around and I saw that I had pee’ed on myself. I had pee’ed on the carpet on the landing, I had pee’ed on the Good Shepherd. I had pee’ed on Jesus himself.
            Did someone dry me off and find me new pajamas? I’m guessing so. Did someone help me back to bed? I remember nothing other of that night than standing there, filled with shame, in front of Jesus himself, and wondering if I could ever be forgiven for the terrible thing I had done.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

WAGBAI: WART CHARMER


Another "scene" in the "What a Good Boy Am I" series...


WART CHARMER

            One time I had warts. I had twelve of them growing down the length of my thumb, increasing in size. The biggest one was way down at the bottom, on the heel of my thumb.
            There was a blacksmith in Woburn Sands, the neighboring village, who was a wart charmer. He was reputed to have this special ability to cure warts. My father once took Hank, the dog, over there, to see if the blacksmith could cure a big wart that was growing on the top of Hank’s head. When Hank came home with my father, the wart was still there, on top of his head. But two weeks later it was gone.
            So when I got warts my father took me over to the blacksmith. We found him in his smithy, an oversized man with a friendly grin and a worn leather apron. We found him by his forge, with his sledgehammer in one hand and a burning, red hot horseshoe in the other.  He set the horseshoe back in the furnace and worked the bellows, sending out sparks. He took note, respectfully, of my father’s white dog collar and cassock and asked, “What can I do for you, padre?” Some people called my father “padre,” mostly men who had served.
“My son here has warts,” said my father.
The blacksmith looked at my hand, and ran a calloused finger over the long trail of warts. Then he asked me, “How many?”
            “Twelve,” I told him.
            “Alright,” said the blacksmith. “They’ll be gone in two weeks.” And went back to work.
            So we left. But two weeks later, the warts were still there.
            My father took me back to the blacksmith to register a complaint. But the blacksmith was unapologetic. “Count again,” he told me, running that calloused finger down my thumb again. “How many are there?”
            I counted again. There were thirteen. I must have miscounted, or perhaps another one had been growing there, unseen, the last time I’d counted.
            “Very well,” said the blacksmith. “Now they’ll be gone in two weeks. You’ll see.” And went back to his work.
            Well, this time he was right. Two weeks later, the warts had disappeared.

Friday, March 1, 2019

WAGBAI: MRS. SMITH

Caveat: this "scene" from my boyhood gets to be pretty awful at the end.
MRS SMITH
            Of all our teachers Mrs. Smith was the most fearsome, and she was our only woman teacher insofar as I recall. She taught French. A handful of the others stand out in my memory. Mr. Fletcher was a short, fat man with fleshy jowls and dark, sunken eyes that belied his outward joviality. He wore tweed suits with waistcoats (tr.: vests) and polka dot ascot ties fluffed out beneath an ample chin. An inveterate snuff-taker, he kept a silver box of the granular tobacco in his waistcoat pocket, whence he would dig it out at frequent intervals to take a pinch between thumb and index finger and give himself a snort in each nostril in turn. Then he would brush away the remnant dust with a flourish of the colored handkerchief that always spilled effusively from the breast pocket of his suit. Once in a while he could offer one of us boys a pinch, which would inevitably result in an uncontrollable fit of sneezing and great merriment all around. As best I can remember, Mr. Fletcher was our Latin teacher.
            The unfortunate Mr. Grocer was the butt of all our jokes. He was a tall, lanky, ungainly man of permanently serious mien and dark, wavy hair that protruded in an improbable tower over his narrow face. Mr. Grocer did his very best to please every one, including the unruly students who mocked him mercilessly behind his back. I always felt a little sorry for him. It was to him that was assigned the responsibility for the cabinet of supplies, which he handed out with judicious parsimony from a table at the library door. You had to bring some proof of need—an empty ink bottle, a heavily used sheet of blotting paper, a broken compass—before he would provide you with the replacement you needed. He was also the master who was given the unenviable task of taking us out on our school walks and herding the strays who fell out of line, whether from genuine fatigue or contrary rebellion.
            Then there was Mr. Ellis. Did he teach Maths (tr.: Math)? I honestly don’t recall. Mr. Ellis was a short, lean man, always neatly clad, with thinning grey hair and a deceptively beguiling smile. I will unfortunately have more to say about him shortly. And one more… a man whose name I have forgotten, but whom I can still visualize quite clearly, a man of aristocratic elegance with fine, dark features and close-cropped, pomaded, salt and pepper hair, a man who claimed—and it was easy to believe him—to be the exiled Prince of Sark, the smallest of the Channel Islands that lie between England and France. He seemed so regal as to be entirely out of place amongst our teaching staff.
            We did, perforce, respect our masters, as we called them—with the possible exception of poor Mr. Grocer—but we did not fear them as we feared Mrs. Smith. To us, she seemed so radiantly feminine and beautiful as to seem, in our little male world, unreal. With generous bosoms and a full body, her womanliness was at once unmistakable and formidable. She wore scarlet lipstick and dark eye make-up. She was rumored to have, or to have had, a husband, but he was nowhere in evidence; nor could we imagine where she lived. Not, certainly, in the bachelor masters’ quarters, in what must have been a converted stables, a short walk up the road from the main house. Unimaginable! She existed, for us, only in the classroom… and of course at the head of the French table in the dining room.
More of that in a moment. What everyone knew about Mrs. Smith was that she would tolerate no nonsense. When she gave an assignment, whether to learn the conjugation of an irregular verb or a poem by Lafontaine, you would fail to complete that assignment, and to perfection, at your risk. Her means of enforcement was the dreaded ruler that she kept close to hand, and used to mercilessly rap the knuckles of the recalcitrant or the merely lazy. As a result of those ministrations and the fear that they inspired, French soon became the subject at which I was most successful. Anything I learned with Mrs. Smith stays with me to this day. Thanks to her, I can conjugate every French irregular verb; and I can still recite, by heart, Lafontaine’s “Le Corbeau et le Renard” (The Crow and the Fox) without a hitch: Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché/Tenait en son bec un fromage./Maître Renard, par l’odeur alleché/Lui tint à peu près ce language…” And so on. I can recite it to the end. No boasting. (By comparison, I can remember not a word of the long passages of Julius Caesar I was required by Mr. Fletcher to commit to emory). In a real sense, I owe at least one of the professions I later followed—the academic one—to Mrs. Smith; a good many years later, I would earn a doctorate in Comparative Literature, with an emphasis in French poetry.
But even my Mrs. Smith story took a horribly dark turn. (You may skip this part, if you have a tender stomach…) Mrs. Smith’s French table in the school dining room was a peculiar purgatory reserved, ironically, for her favored students. When assigned to her table you were allowed to speak nothing but French, on pain of earning her withering gaze of disapproval. It happened one day that we were served a kind of stew for lunch. We were all required to take our turns at serving, clearing, and helping with the dishes, and on this occasion I was among those to be served. A dish was placed in front of me and at first taste I knew there was something wrong. Even for school stew, it tasted horrible. It tasted, indisputably, of vomit. How to express this adequately in French? I had no idea. Mrs. Smith had not taught us the words that could be used. “Madame,” I tried valiantly, “ça sent…” She waved away my objection. “Mangez,” was all she said: “mangez!”
As I said, Mrs. Smith would brook no nonsense and no contradiction to her command. I ate. I ate because she commanded it and despite that fact that I had never tasted anything so foul in my entire life. I ate, at her command, down to the last morsel.
What a good boy was I!
It was only after lunch that I learned the truth from those who had done the serving. Another boy had indeed thrown up in his bowl, and some confusion at the serving counter led to that bowl being delivered to my place at the French table. In part because I was unable to find the words in French to describe my predicament, in part because I myself was unaware of the sequence of events that had led to it, and in part thanks to my fear of Mrs. Smith and her intransigence, I had chosen to consume the inedible.

I will say for Mrs. Smith that she had the decency to apologize, and profusely, once she was made aware of the truth. I think she may have even tried to make it up to me by being especially kind in class. In any case, French remained for many years my favorite school subject.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

WAGBAI: I WAS SNOW WHITE


 Another scene from my "scenes from a very English boyhood ."

I WAS SNOW WHITE

            Funny. Strange. On my tour of the school I completely forgot one of its main features: the assembly hall. I also forget what we called it. It may have had a name, like Pevenesey, our games and homework room, but if so that name has slipped my memory. Perhaps one day, should a Windlesham boy or a Windelsham girl happen on this narrative, he or she will be kind enough to find some way to remind me.
            The hall was located, if I remember correctly, immediately above the swimming pool, and was therefore about the same size. Again unless memory plays tricks, it had one huge window, looking out over the school’s playing fields. It was there that we were summoned for the kind of gathering where general announcements are made, or for other school ceremonies than those that took place in the chapel. It was there that Mr. Roger gave his memorable talk about El Alamein, recalled in an earlier scene. And it was there we were treated to a very occasional movie. In those days, watching a movie involved a measure of patience for the changing of reels and rethreading of the film through the brackets of the projector. The soundtrack was accompanied, sometimes obscured, by the spinning of those big reels and the noisy passage of celluloid through the unclad machinery. And the powerful light made a constantly flickering cone between its source and the wobbly improvised screen. Perhaps in the spirit of patriotism, they most often showed us films about the heroism of British soldiers and seamen; the one that comes to mind, so may years later, was about a dangerous submarine mission in the Atlantic, “We Dive at Dawn.” John Mills, the epitome of the intrepid, stiff-upper-lip military man, played the part of the captain, grimly intent on his personal sense of duty and discipline for his crew. We boys in the audience cheered lustily when his torpedoes hit their target and another German ship was sunk.
            We also did school plays. Gilbert and Sullivan was a favorite. One year we did "The Mikado", with Nanky Poo, Pooh Bah, Pish-Tush and the Lord High Executioner (“a personage of noble rank and title”), not to mention those “three little girls from school are we/filled to the brim with girlish glee.” I’m quite sure that what seemed like innocent fun in those unenlightened days would today be condemned for its undoubted, unabashed indulgence of sexist and racist stereotypes. Still, with so much else forgotten, I’m amazed to recall whole passages of G&S verbatim. The doggerel makes many of them easy to remember: “To sit in solemn silence/in the deep dark dock/of a pestilential prison/with a life-long lock/awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock/from a cheap and chippy chopper/on a big black block.” How could anyone forget that outrageously absurd alliteration?
            We did “H.M.S. Pinafore” one other year. Still a Junior, I was given the part of Tom Tucker, the Midshiptmite, amongst a cast of Seniors playing characters like Ralph Rackstraw, Dick Deadeye, and the Commander of the Pinafore. My part, admittedly, was a small one. My big moment was to receive from the bounteous Buttercup ("dear little Buttercup, poor little Buttercup, sweet little Buttercup I!") a stick of “rock”—a traditional English seaside candy treat—in the disappointing form of a dowel wrapped in a sheet of pink blotting paper from Mr. Grocer's cabinet. I also learned a useful lesson that has served me well: to walk downstairs, especially down a narrow stairway from the poop deck on a rocking boat, don't go toes forward. Slant your feet sideways as you step down. Useful knowledge, I swear, when age makes staircases a challenge!
            Ah, but my most challenging role on the Windlesham stage was one that caused me the most horrible embarrassment among my peers. By this time, I was a Senior, perhaps eleven years old. It was Miss Anthea, the youngest of the Maldens, I believe, who managed to sweet-talk me into agreeing to appear in the Junior production of “Snow White.” The Juniors, of course, could play the seven dwarfs and sing their songs—“Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go” and “Whistle while you work”—but they needed someone physically larger than themselves to play the lead role. I was chosen. They dressed me up in a Snow White costume and I had to sing the Snow White songs: “I’m wishing/for the one I love/to find me/today”…  The only compensation for this abject humiliation was Miss Andrea’s gentle touch as she applied make-up to my round, freckled face and rouge to my cheeks. 
             My mother, at least, was very proud. She included the hand-drawn program in her family album where it remains, for all I know, to this day.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

WAGBAI: THE STRAP


THE STRAP
            We knew the rules. We knew there was no talking during the afternoon rest hour. But we talked anyway. We broke the rules and we were punished for it.
            There were four of us in our small dormitory at Croft House. Four beds with identical counterpanes fitted tightly into a bedroom that was designed for two. We were required to make our bed each morning. We were required to make it neatly, in accordance with a strictly prescribed and regularly enforced procedure. That was another rule. There was always the danger of inspection.
            We were not exactly talking. We were whispering, so that no one in authority would hear us. So we thought, I have no idea what we were whispering about, some little boy nonsense, certainly, something both silly and exciting, something about one of our teachers, perhaps, or something about school. We knew we weren’t supposed to be even whispering, but sometimes you break the rules.
            Anyway, the door bursts open and there is Mr. Chris. We freeze into sudden silence as he stands there, looking at us, one by one. “You know the rule,” he says.
            “Yes, Mr. Chris.”
            “You know what happens when you break the rules.” Not a question. Mr. Chris is angry. You can tell he is angry by looking at his eyes. His face.
            “Yes, Mr. Chris.”
            He steps forward into the room and we see that he’s holding a wide leather strap in his hand. He swings the strap so it slaps against the trouser leg of his grey suit. “Who was talking?” he asks.
“I was, sir,” I say. The others don’t say a word. Mr. Chris must know they were talking, too, but he picks me out. As an example.
            “You,” he says. “Off the bed. Hold out your hand.”
            I stand and hold out my hand in front of me. As the others watch, Mr. Chris raises the strap over his shoulder and brings it down with all his might across my outstretched palm. I suppose I cry out and drop my hand because he simply picks it up and tells me sternly to hold it out straight. Then he raises the strap again and brings it down with another sharp slap across my palm. The tears come to my eyes but I know this is not the moment to cry. If I cry, that will be the end for me with my friends…
            It was only three on the hand that time. Not six. It could have been worse. I could have been called down to the study and had to pull my trousers down. But it was only three. Then Mr. Chris turned and left, grim-faced, pausing long enough at the door to warn us against more breaking of the rules.