Donnelly’s Tales – 5 – The Call
It’s a strange thing altogether (said Donnelly, holding his glass to the light and turning it this way and that) this need some folk have to Get Up On The Stage And Perform. Thanks, old man, very decent of you. I’ll have the same again. Yes, very rum altogether. And from the oddest and most recondite of reasons, I might add! Egoism, you’ll say; the drive to show off? Plain old-fashioned hysteria? No doubt, in many, such is the case. But for some, it’s a way of bringing healing to the whole community. Like in Ancient Greece. Take old Edeltraut Runkelstirn as a case in point, now. As nice an old body as you’d hope to meet under normal circumstances, though what normal circumstances are at St. Geoffrey’s I have no idea: there was always Something to set the doocots a-flutter, old man.
You remember old Larry Snudge? Taught Drama and Literature? Tall, thin chap; thought a bit too much of himself? Blue velvet jackets and scarves? He was a ghastly show-off, if you like! Well, he’s happily married now to the charming Deborah, and he’s calmed down a lot. Probably all that exhibitionism was a desperate cry for love. When they first got together, old man, they set up home in a flat in Stockbridge. She was separated but not divorced. It was Flying in the Face of All the Decencies, of course. Well, nobody minded or cared very much about that. It wasn’t the Victorian era, after all. Stockbridge was full of common-law liaisons, and a few less permanent pairings. They were both over twenty-one and all that. Of course, it had spread ripples through St. Geoffrey’s: Snudge and Deborah holding hands as they turned in through the gates; kissing each other as they passed in the corridors; that sort of thing. Nauseating, but tolerable on the whole.
It was Edeltraut who objected, of course. She came from a family of strict something-or-others; God knows what. Something irremediably Viking, Protestant and as strict as a tight corset. No ice-cream on Sundays and Christmas Carols held to be a frivolous abomination. Edeltraut had Broken Away and embraced Jakob Schnellentatenism, leaving her parents grieving somewhere in the mists of the fjords. Ah, but what’s bred in the bone, old man, and all that.
She raised the issue at staff meetings. Nobody much echoed her sentiments. We all shuffled our feet and looked elsewhere. She talked to the governors. They took to jumping up a close or diving through a hedge if they saw her coming. Those that she managed to grab she fixed in an iron grip round the upper arm, which hurt like hell and left a nasty bruise. You’d see the governor thus arrested striving to undo himself from this octopus-like grasp while nodding and smiling through teeth gritted in pain. She was not to be fobbed off, old man. Tenacious as a ferret.
Finally, a couple of them came, rubbing their afflicted biceps and asked if something might not be done to assuage the old serpent’s wrath. Old Peter Potocki had a Quiet Word with them, you know, along the lines of: tone it down a little, friends; think of the tiny tots, and so forth. For that was, to give Edeltraut her due, what was rankling; what she was grinding her teeth about. Or so she said. Some remembered that old Edeltraut had carried a bit of a torch for Snudge herself at the beginning, but, like all her other idols, he proved to have Feet of Clay, old man, especially when he fell for the lovely Deborah.. Well, Snudge and Deborah nodded and smiled at Potocki, and continued gazing into each other’s eyes, and that was that. Quite sweet, in a sick-making kind of way. But in the end, it was Edeltraut who was thought to be the problem, after all. Snudge and Deborah finally got married and had a couple of kids who both happened to be good at Harmony of the Spheres, which was Edeltraut’s pidgin, as you know, and so she eventually forgave them. At the end of a long frost she thawed. The fact of the matter was: she’d fallen for the charms of another! You may remember Yorick Warwick? Well over six foot, flowing white locks? Both ears pierced? Dressed himself exclusively out of Oxfam? Ah, yes! I see by your expression you do. A teacher with Flair, and there’s no more dangerous creature at the chalk face. Oh, the chislurs love them, of course, but they’re a dreadful liability. He had the Call, you see; he was an Artist with the capital A, you know. Had a few poems published and all that. He’d spent some time walking around Norfolk with a plank on his head, along with a couple of other like-minded beatniks during the sixties. This was to wake people up to the reality of living with the Bomb, apparently. He attributed his rolling sailor’s gait to that little exercise in consciousness raising. Oh, he was the Cutting Edge of something, all right.
He taught Drama and Literature. Larry Snudge had been shunted away from those subjects, and was being made to teach French, in order to teach him a sharp lesson about Life’s Stern Realities. The noise from Warwick’s lessons – he called them ‘workshops’ of course – was appalling! It wasn’t just his booming, Oxford tones; oh no. Poor old Daisy Barnet was showing some parents round one day, and blundered in to one of his drama lessons. The kids were all stripped to their underwear, old man, and rolling around, grooming each other like apes and making barking and howling noises.
“Come in! Come in and welcome,” cried Warwick: “Come and join us! Tear off those trappings of conformity and embrace the daemon at the core of your being!”
“I think we’re more comfortable with our trappings on,” said Daisy, and withdrew. She had the daemon of her being nicely under control, thank you very much, and she wasn’t going to be persuaded by Yorick Warwick to let it out. Needless to say, none of those parents sent their weans to St. Geoffrey’s. Poor old Graham Ridgeway, the Maths teacher, was sent to have a few serious words with him when this got around. Warwick was found teaching A Tale of Two Cities with a makeshift guillotine rigged up out of parts of an old wardrobe, bicycle parts and what-have-you. The blade was something that looked like an old ploughshare that Warwick had picked up from somewhere.
“Erm, isn’t vat a bit dangerous?” said Ridgeway. Always had trouble with his Tee Haitches.
“Dangerous? Damn all dangerous about it,” says Warwick, shoving an iron crowbar into the neckpiece. The ploughshare, of course, at once slid down quick as lightning and severed the crowbar in two equal parts, clean as a whistle. The boy who was to play Sidney Carton in this episode went ghostly white and was incapable of speech for about a week afterwards. Warwick was quick to defend himself.
“Well, it would have been quick! I mean, he wouldn’t have suffered,” he said, but Ridgeway pointed out that that would hardly have been mitigation enough if the boy had been sliced up like a cucumber in the pursuit of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
Well, we managed to put up with him. These were different times, of course. We didn’t have parents and Care Commissioners and Haitch Emm Eye inspectors breathing down our necks all the time. As long as the weans arrived home safe in a reasonable state of repair, and a fair percentage of them passed their exams, nobody seemed to mind what we did. Halcyon days, old man; halcyon days. Now, of course, we have to do risk assessments on the flowers in the herbaceous borders in case some enterprising young scientist decides to eat them. Political Correctness gone completely apeshit. But I digress.
Edeltraut couldn’t see the harm in him. She took a shine to him; but then she took a shine to every new male member of staff that turned up. We tried to encourage it. We did everything short of locking them in a cupboard and leaving them there for the weekend, but of course, Edeltraut was never really that sort of girl. Still, she got old Yorick to read for one of her Harmony of the Spheres turns. It was a bit of Eliot; Fried Saus-Ages, or whatever it is; you know:
At the still point of the turning spit,
Neither flesh not fleshless…
I can’t remember the rest, but you know the sort of thing. Well, Warwick started to read the lines in his booming bass at funereal speed. You have to read these things slowly, with a lot of wobble in the throat, you know, for Harmony of the Spheres. Otherwise the performers on stage can’t keep up with the arm movements and running about.
As I said, Warwick started off in the right style, and the audience of assembled weans and mums and dads were pretending that all was pure rapture and delight, when suddenly, Warwick broke off, leaving Edeltraut stranded in mid-flight.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I haven’t warned Miss Runkelstirn about this, but I know she has the inner flexibility and courage to go along with this. Eliot’s a dry old Episcopalian fascist, and in this school we are striving for new forms and radical ways towards the future. I’m going to recite some of my verse, and Miss Runkelstirn will interpret it for you extempore.”
Edeltraut was dumbfoonert, as we say in Scotland! She was struck all of a heap. She came down to the footlights and said in a whisper audible as far as Princes Street: “But we have rrrehearrrsed this, Yorrick! We have rrrehearrrrsed it!”
“Just try it, Edeltraut,” Warwick whispered back; “just give it a shot!”
And then he launched into his verse. It went something like:
The guts are spilled on the black-tarred road,
Crows draw long strands from the bloody mess…
Up with that, old man, none of us was prepared to put; least of all Edeltraut. At first she essayed a few tentative gestures, but then she said: “Faugh!” I’ve never actually heard anyone say that in real life before, but she did. At least, I suppose that’s what she said. I don’t suppose…No! Impossible. Anyway, she swept off the stage in a cloud of high dudgeon and chiffon, and poor old Peter Potocki had to leap up in front of the audience and pretend that the whole thing was another of Edeltraut’s humoresques. The audience applauded long and loud, mostly out of sheer relief that the thing was over. Warwick was crossed off Edeltraut’s list of possible chaps forever. But the feeling was mutual. In fact, he’d had it with the lot of us. We looked for him everywhere, and finally found him in the library, packing a cardboard box with a pile of stuff, some of it his.
“It’s no good,” he said, “this place is stifling to the creative forces. I’m leaving. I’m going to follow Alan Jackson’s advice and stand in my own fire!”
And so he did. He went off to wait for the muse to descend and quicken his oat, but we never heard anything of him for years. We all assumed that the divine afflatus had puffed his artistic flame right out, but in fact he was living in a shed at the bottom of old Tom Hobbes’ garden until he upset a paraffin lamp over his papers and a lit roll-up. He stood in his own fire then, all right. Terrible thing, the Call, old man. It can reduce you to ashes. Literally. Drop of water with that?