6 – The Harmony of the Spheres
It was always called ‘Harm’ on the timetables, of course (said Donnelly), and there was no end of little jokes made on the strength of it. Making sure the children came to no harm; putting children in harm’s way, and so forth. Mildly amusing the first time you hear it, and bloody irritating every time thereafter. Edeltraut Runkelstirn was the teacher; no doubt you remember her, old man? Tall, blonde Norwegian, with a faraway look in her eye? Used to roll her Rs like someone doing a satirical attack on Scotsmen? She would sit in the staff meetings, and whenever a knotty problem raised itself, there would be a lot of discussion back and forth, getting nowhere, of course. Then, when a hush made of frustration and exhaustion in equal parts would fall on the assembled ushers and dominies, old Edeltraut would pull her purple mohair shawl a little tighter round her shoulders, gaze into the middle distance and say: “Well, you know, where there is a shadow there must be a light.” Then she would leave us to apply this bit of wisdom as we thought fit to the situation in hand, sit back in her chair with an air of a job well done, and smile serenely at us all.
It was Malcolm Tregorran who broke her of that habit. She came out with it once when one of the perennial bits of organizational gristle had got stuck between our collective teeth; I don’t know what it was; dress code or curtains for the School Hall, or something. Old Tregorran waited for a few seconds before saying into the reverential calm, (for the Oracle had spoken, don’t you know): “Yes, that’s all very well, Edeltraut, but it doesn’t exactly get us anywhere. Does it!”
She never spoke to him again. Absolutely mortified, old man.
Well, the years rolled by in their ineluctable fashion, and Edeltraut got older and older. Now, it’s a truism in the Schnellentaten schools everywhere that the two things that are the most difficult to teach are languages – especially French – and Harmony of the Spheres. The younger element sometimes just doesn’t take to it, old man. And Harm involves a lot of running around with graceful arm movements, all dressed in long nighties and chiffon curtains. There comes a time when that sort of thing no longer sits well in the pre-adolescent mind. I mean, imagine if you’re painfully aware of your gangly appearance or big fat tummy, or whatever it is, and you’ve to perform a lot of slow arm waving and wandering about a stage with no fixed aim in view that anyone can distinguish, and you’ve to do it wearing this Miss Havisham get-up, in front of the while school, whom you know to be the sternest bunch of critics outside of the Académie des Beaux Arts. It’s what they call these days challenging, old man. It takes them right outside their comfort zone, as we have to call it these days. But what I’m getting at, old man, is that old Edeltraut had her work cut out for her, and very exhausting it was! I mean, fair play to her, she certainly earned her money. Of course, she cheated by having another teacher in the Harm class with her, so that she could do all the beautiful stuff, and the other teacher could keep order. Well this went down like a cup of cold sheep dip with the rest of the staff, I can tell you! I mean, it was hard enough to find teachers enough to cover the timetable needs as it was, without doubling up in this profligate manner. But old Edeltraut used to become very operatic whenever the subject was brought up at staffing meetings. Her eyes would bulge out of their sockets in the most terrifying way, and her Rs would rattle like a buzz saw.
“These childrrrren need Harrmony of the Spherrrres! It is imporrrtant not only for them but for the worrrrrld!”
Then old Larry Snudge, or whoever it was would say, “Yes, but Edeltraut …”
Never got any further than that, old man. She would come back at him with all the strength of her Viking ancestry. “Forr the WORRRRRLD, Larrrrry! Forr the WORRRRRRLD!”
And that would be it. Game set and match to Edeltraut. The thing is, you see, old Jakob Schnellentaten had more or less invented Harmony of the Spheres, and said a lot of things about how it was an important new art form and so on, and it was generally thought among the nibs that it was a necessary part of the Schnellentaten School curriculum. And she was the only teacher of it for the whole school, so she had us over a barrel. She had carved out a place for herself in the Moral High Ground that was unassailable, old man! Positively unassailable! Other Harmony of the Spheres teachers came along from time to time to help spread the teaching load, but she saw them all off, one by one. She would say: “I mean, what she is doing is not Harrmony of the Spherrrres! I don’t know what it is, but it is NOT Harrmony of the Spherrres!”
Well, what could we say? She was the expert. And so the poor young neophyte had to go. Did you know there was a place in Norway called Hell, old man? There is. Larry Snudge used to say that Hell must have been Edeltraut’s home town, as she was the colleague from it.
Well, things got to a bit of a pass when Edeltraut took exception to the way school assemblies were going. One class sang a Beatles song at a Founder’s Day assembly, and for Edeltraut, this was the Slippery Slope, old man. She decided that she would take things in hand, and look after the assemblies from now on.
In our innocence, we supposed that this would mean that she would go round, asking colleagues what their classes would be doing at the next Swansmas festival, or what they’d be cooking up for St. Geoffrey’s Day: a few folk songs, a French poem here, a German song there, a few minutes of torture on the recorders. Is there anything more like an hour of root canal treatment than a concert of children of varying expertise playing the recorder, old man? I’ve yet to come across it. Still we would all screw our faces up into encouraging smiles and wait till it was all over.
Then Edeltraut took over. After a brief burst from the school orchestra, the assembly was all Harmony of the Spheres! I mean every single item! Except one: Class Two Recorders.
But then came the finale. It was Edeltraut herself, doing what she called a Humoresque. What it amounted to was herself coming on stage with a mask on the back of her head, and walking backwards with little skipping steps in time to some music by Erik Satie, or something similar. Her idea of a joke, you see. The trouble is, once you’ve grasped the nub of the gist of the gravamen that it’s some eccentric old lady with a mask on the back of her head pretending to walk forwards but really walking backwards, the gag has pretty much run its course.
But this went on for what seemed like an hour or two, though it was probably not quite as much, to be fair. And finally the music came to an end and Edeltraut made her way backwards towards the wings – and fell off the stage. She landed with a loud series of crashes among the timpani in a flurry of petticoats and stout Norwegian bloomers of the Noli Me Tangere type, you know.
Of course she leaped up at once, crying, “I’m all right, I’m all right. I walk across the Pentlands every Sunday!” Malcolm Tregorran used this in his classes later as an example of the non sequitur. Anyway, up she got, and promptly tripped over into the kettledrums again. There was a near riot, old man! The school orchestra was in a blind panic. Cymbals were rolling all over the floor, music stands were flying in all directions, the strings were exchanging blows with the woodwinds, orchestral scores were filling the air like snow, and in the midst of it was Edeltraut, clambering out of the melee, and into the grand piano, where the lid immediately fell, and there she was, engulfed and devoured by the Bechstein, with her feet sticking out.
Iain Donaldson, sitting on the piano stool, just cradled his head in his hands and groaned. It was Irmgard von Bösendorfer, the school valkyrie, who waded through the chaos, lifted the piano lid with one hand, yanked Edeltraut out by the scruff of the neck with the other, and set her on her feet again. Sending Edeltraut off with a little shove between the shoulder blades, she demanded calm in a voice that brooked no argument.
We all resumed our seats, and carried on with the most spirited rendering of the St. Geoffrey’s School Song that I’ve ever heard. Oh Happy Band Of Pilgrims was never given the brio that it had on that day, old man. It almost brought the ceiling down! It was a St. Geoffrey’s Day to remember all right, and no mistake.
Edeltraut spent the rest of the morning lying down with a cup of chamomile tea, waiting for the diagonal lines across her face from the piano wires to fade away. But her time was over.
She’s still at St. Geoffrey’s, of course, but only teaching the tiny tots. She’s Learned Her Lesson, old man. Others run the assemblies, and no Harm done, if you see what I mean. Another one of those, old man?