10 – St. Geoffrey’s Passes the Test
Look around you at St. Geoffrey’s now (said Donnelly, standing at the bar of the Glenbogle Hotel) and you see a couple of verdant acres with fine old trees, several square yards of tarmac, three large Victorian dwelling houses now serving as a school, complete with classrooms and administration offices, a beautiful new gymnasium and a custom-built snug little dwelling for the tiny tots, with grass growing on the roof like something out of Tolkien, and all very neat and tidy. To the south you see, reading from left to right, Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, the Old Town, Edinburgh Castle and the Pentland Hills. Not far away are the Royal Botanic Gardens, while on the western horizon you can make out the jagged peaks of Fettes College. Some of our staff used to look yearningly over in that direction, wishing that they could leave St. Geoffrey’s Independent Co-Educational School from Kindergarten to University Entrance and go to work in a proper school, with uniforms and all that sort of thing. That was in the days when our clientele, or Customer Base as we are forced to call it now, was largely the homoeopathy and theosophy crowd; all hand-woven bread and sandals, you know. Then came the hippies and the so-called alternative mob. There were times, I can tell you, when an Open Day looked like Glastonbury.
Nowadays of course, we are a decent place. Good exam results, not much of a drug problem, high in the League Tables and so on. Not that that cuts much ice with the Haitch Emm Eye, you know. They still suspect us of being too different for comfort. Well, perhaps we are, and vive la difference, say I.
The place was started by a fellow called Tigger Birnam and his widowed sister, Mrs. Minchinhampton. She taught singing, knitting and French, and Tigger filled in the blanks as well as he could. He had a glass eye and a wooden leg. He used to introduce the topic of his leg whenever he could.
“Now many of you know,” he’d begin, and their little hearts would sink, knowing what was coming; “that I have a wooden leg, or to give it its proper name, a prosthetic device. You, Farquharson! Can you spell ‘prosthetic’?”
“Sir, yes sir, please sir. Pee, arr, owe, ess, tee, aitch…”
“All right Farquharson. No need to show off. Now, this is my sound leg,” he would bellow, catching his good leg a hearty thwack with his stout blackthorn: “Nothing wrong with this one!” Another wallop with the blackthorn, causing every pupil to gasp and jump. “No, this is the wooden one!” he’d bawl, giving it an even heartier whack.
One day he gave his wooden leg such a wallop that it came loose from the parent stump. It slipped its moorings and slithered down his trouser leg to clatter to the floor. Half the pupils passed out cold, and Tigger keeled over sideways, stiffing and blinding all the way, coming to the earth with an almighty crash that caused a certain amount of cheering and a few more to faint dead away. One lad had to throw up the window and be sick into the camellias.
Mrs. Hodge the cleaner came to the rescue, having heard the tumult, and took over while Tigger hopped out of the room to the gents, to strap the fugitive limb back in place.
“Open your books to page fifty-eight and do the exercise!” she yelled, one hand holding on to her mop and the other akimbo. This was a formula that had served her well whenever she had been forced to step in to cover if Tigger or Mrs. Minchinhampton was indisposed. It was a throwback to her own schooldays, I suppose, and she made the best use of her education. Whether the weans actually had any books, or any with as many as fifty-eight pages in was immaterial. They just preferred the smack of firm government and the sense that someone was In Charge. They settled down with a sense of relief that the Grand Guignol had stopped, and that Tigger hadn’t started going on about his glass eye!
Tigger had read a book by Jakob Schnellentaten, the Swiss educationalist, and it had tickled his fancy to the extent that he claimed his school was run on Schnellentaten principles. It wasn’t, of course. It was just him and his sister dong their best according to their fairly dim lights. It wasn’t until Tigger employed old Peter Potocki that the place really became a Schnellentaten school. He had not only read the Helvetian scholar’s works, he had understood them. He persuaded Tigger to employ Edeltraut Runkelstirn to teach Harmony of the Spheres, the Schnellentaten version of Music and Movement, you know, all done with nighties and lengths of chiffon, and more and more people started sending their chislurs to the place. Tigger watched gloomily, doing less and less as other, more qualified people came along to teach, including myself.
What a crew we were, old man! Edeltraut, the lofty Norwegian with no sense of the real world; old Tom Hobbes, who kept his Gentleman’s Standfast walking stick with the detachable handle filled to the brim with stimulants to sharpen the concentration between lessons; Malcolm Tregorran, who thought that he was the only person in Scotland truly to understand the teachings of Jakob Schnellentaten, and quoted him whenever he could; Yorick Warwick, a man who had turned down several invitations from Insane Asylums all over these islands, and was generally one jump ahead of the law most of the time; Ingmar Svensson the Swedish woodwork teacher, who went round enveloped in a thick, impenetrable fog of melancholy; Irmgard von Bösendorfer, a strapping Wagnerian heroine: what a galère, old man! Some of them were more or less normal, of course. Daisy Barnet, for instance, or Iain Donaldson the Music teacher. Larry Snudge was more or less human, most of the time, as was Graham Ridgeway.
Well, the years rolled by and no one got any younger, but the place was now established firmly on Schnellentaten lines, at least, when Peter Potocki had anything to do with it, and wasn’t hampered in his endeavours by Tigger.
Then, one day, the bombshell dropped. The Haitch Emm Eye was coming to visit, the Inspectorate itself! Their coming was announced in a flurry of paper that turned out to be a vast number of forms that had to be filled in and sent back by return, so that the inspectors knew what to look for and how to sneer at us with the greatest effect. Most of this work fell to Potocki and Daisy Barnet, who both beavered away into the small hours, while Tigger poked his head round the door to shout words of encouragement.
“Non Illegitime Nil Carborundum,” he’d bellow, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!” and he’d toy with his moustaches for a moment or two before stumping off. It became clear that the main thing would be to keep Tigger Out Of Sight while the Expectorant was going about its lawful but bloody irritating occasions.
In fact, when they turned up, three men in suits and spectacles, and a sour-faced woman in a black two-piece, Tigger hid himself in a cupboard and stayed there. The female among the mob actually tried the cupboard door, looking for ghastly secrets, and couldn’t open it. She rattled the door; until Tigger said in an uncharacteristically querulous alto, “Go away!”
She raised her eyebrows and went on her way, making copious notes in her HMI stationery. In fact, she didn’t last long. Fate intervened with her in an unexpected way. She had made her way over to the Tiny Tots department, and found Mrs. Minchinhampton gathering the mushrooms that grew on the lawn.
“Have you done a risk assessment on the plants that grow in the garden here?” said this female.
“Oh,” said the Minchinhampton with a smile that would have been winning if it hadn’t exposed a row of yellow fangs; “they’ve all been chosen for their safety as much as for their beauty!”
This was no way to soothe the female’s savage and concave breast.
“And what are these?” she demanded, pointing at the basket full of fungi. “They look like mushrooms to me!”
“Oh, they are,” gushed Minchinhampton. They’re absolutely delicious!”
“Hm. You’re sure that they aren’t poisonous?”
“Oh, no. No no no no no. They’re wonderful. Come with me and I’ll show you. It’s all in the preparation, you see. They are quite exquisite! Much more flavourful than chanterelles.”
The Inspector woman was won over, and allowed herself to share the mushrooms with Mrs. Minchinhampton, and after a couple of hours they were both rushed to the local looney bin, raving. The Minchinhampton had gathered the wrong mushrooms and was now paying the price, along with the dour female.
A lesser incident occurred when one of the younger inspectors was sitting in on one of Tom Hobbes’s lessons. This weedy streak of sewage suddenly started to engage one of the pupils in conversation. Hobbes boiled over with wrath.
“Kindly don’t talk while I’m giving instruction!” he yelled, in a voice like a pirate captain issuing orders to a crew of dangerous cutthroats. The fellow went white and apologised profusely. Hobbes slammed out of the room and took a snort from his Gentleman’s Standfast. All the inspector could see was his shadow on the corridor wall outside the classroom as he did so, and could make no sense of it. He saw the outline of Hobbes’s figure raising an object of some size, and thought Hobbes was coming for him with some terrible weapon. He went white and collapsed. Luckily some of the pupils in the class had a first aid badge, and managed to revive him. While they were at it they practised their bandaging, and left him in the staff room, trussed like a mummy. That left two, and Potocki and Daisy managed to satisfy their questions, at least to some extent. Whether the fate of their colleagues had any effect on them we don’t know. It hasn’t come down to us, old man. They don’t vouchsafe much, these Inspectorate people, except reams of bad news. We didn’t come through with flying colours, as we didn’t follow the guidelines that they were familiar with, and there was a sort of sneaking suspicion that their unfortunate colleagues had not been treated with sufficient respect. But we weren’t closed down, and Potocki managed to put the most positive spin on what they did say for the benefit of the parents and the Board of Governors.
We learned much later that the female of the troupe had recovered from her episode, but had left the profession and joined the Scottish Nationalists, advising them on education, with a lot of frowning and pursing of lips, particularly where we were concerned. The other chap, the pale, sensitive one, we heard from a roundabout source, had received the Call, and gone off to a distant island to convert the natives. Perhaps it was all for the best, but he didn’t seem to me to have any of the crusading zeal or fire of conviction. I hope he didn’t give them indigestion.
Mrs. Minchinhampton never returned from the asylum, but worked her way up through the ranks from bull-goose looney to matron, where she was very happy. Tigger withdrew more and more from public life, ending up living on a houseboat on the Union Canal. Evidently he put his foot through a rotten floorboard one night, and it sank with all hands. He was never seen again, old man. They fished out a wooden leg from the canal at Ratho one day a fortnight later, but it wasn’t his.
Anyway, one way or another, we’d passed the test, and that’s what matters in the long run. It isn’t the Haitch Emm Eyes of this world that matter so much as the strength of character one brings to them, after all. Yes, it’s a demanding life at the chalk face, old man, especially at St. Geoffrey’s. And this here glass, and many others like it, is the way to deal with it. Cheers.