Donnelly’s Tales 9 – The Conversion
There was a time (Donnelly confided) when a crisis in my financial affairs coincided with cataclysmic events in my Personal Life; no names no pack drill. In fact she packed her bags and quitted these shores never to return, and now runs an ostrich ranch in Provence. Have you ever seen goods made of ostrich leather, old man? Cowboy boots all over pimples! Still, there’s no accounting for taste, as Yorick Warwick’s wife said when she heard he was wanted by the police. But that’s another story for another time. No, the point was that I was all set to make a dash for Sweden, and thought I’d better acquaint myself with the language if I was to spend any appreciable length of time there.
I got hold of a set of Linguaphone records and sat down, all earnest endeavour, you know, pencil and pad in hand, and out of the loud speaker there came the most dreary tale, told in a dismal monotone by one Herr Lind, who gradually vouchsafed the secrets of his domestic ménage in a voice that hinted at woe and tragedy unfathomable. Well, it was as much as I could do to listen to more than a couple of these discs without losing the will to live.
I took the Linguaphone records back to the library, put my last couple of quid on a horse in a desperate mood of devil-may-care, and the animal romped home at a hundred to eight! My money worries were dealt with and the other difficulty sorted itself out, as outlined above; but all that’s neither here nor there. Ingmar Svensson, now, the woodwork teacher: that’s the point. He’s a Swede, and he ran true to the type of his tribe. Gloomy, don’t you know; morose. He had only to enter the staff room for the joy factor to decrease by several points. Even the temperature dropped, old man! He carried misery around with him like an old mackintosh.
I’ll give you an example. Malcolm Tregorran had hit upon the notion of taking a bunch of twelve year-olds out to a neighbouring farm, to see how things grow, you see, and where potatoes and such come from. Well, all this was very educational, and Svensson went along for the ride to help keep the chislurs in order, stop them from self-immolation under the wheels of combine harvesters and so forth, you know the drill.
The dairyman there offered the weans the chance to milk a cow, but none took him up on the offer, so Svensson stepped up to the mark, having grown up on a farm in Skåne and knew a cow’s bag from one end to the udder, if you, er. Hmph. Well. All went well at first; there was clearly rapport between man and beast. All was serenity and union between them and the bucket was filling with the white and foaming, when the creature stepped back and placed a hoof squarely on Svensson’s toe. It must have been sheer agony, old man, and you or I would have bellowed a ripe and choice selection from the Chief Petty Officer’s Book of Common Prayer. But Svensson was too melancholic for that. He just grunted, and sat for a while contemplating the appropriate course of action, I suppose. Then, all of a sudden, he stood, emptied the contents over the cow’s head, hung the bucket on its horns and limped off, muttering darkly in Swedish, probably something along the lines of quietus making with a bare bodkin; you know the score, old man. (By the way, what is a bodkin? Is it? Good God! Well, there you are; it just goes to show!)
Well, one day, old Peter Potocki drew Svensson aside into the cobwebby little cubbyhole where we keep the boxes of chalk and the photocopy machine, and there in the gloom, he invited him to take on the teaching of R.E. Religious Education, old man! The Kiss of Death! I saw him as he emerged from the cubbyhole. It was pitiful. He simply hadn’t had the strength of will to Put Up A Fight. He came out with the round-shouldered mien as one who would say, who would fardels bear, and so on, you know. He met the school cat at the door, and didn’t so much give it a sly nudge with his toe as convert it, rugby style, over the high branch of the beech tree in the drive. The look of startled affront on its face as it landed among the hollyhocks is stamped on my memory as an archetype of the emotion, old man. According to Mrs. Hodge the cleaner, the cat was right off its milk for a week.
Poor old Svensson took to carrying an enormous great big, black Bible around with him everywhere he went. He would sit and read it in the staff room, sighing with increasing miserability as he turned the pages. Sometimes he would mutter: “Terrible! Terrible! Such a scoundrel!” Somebody, such as Daisy Barnet, would ask who he meant and Svensson would reply, “God! He is the most dreadful fellow!”
This kind of thing went on regularly. Svensson would read another bit of Scripture and ooze out into the corridor like toxic waste.
Graham Ridgeway the maths chap with the tee-haitch trouble would try to put an alternative view.
“I fink you’ll find vat vere are uvver interpretations vat show vat it’s not all to be taken quite so literally…”
But it was no good. Svensson continued with his fundamentalist reading, and we all watched helplessly as he spiraled ever downwards into wretchedness. He was still teaching woodwork, of course, but a cupboard that he was helping one of the senior girls make was taking on more and more the lines of a coffin. He would be seen polishing it late at night, and singing lugubrious Scandinavian psalms. It was reaching the Tipping Point, old man, and no mistake! Hobbes claimed to have seen him sleeping in it, but he may just have been over-imbibing from his home brewed spirits.
Then, one day, Svensson came into the staff room with a strange glint in his eye, and an unfamiliar set to his features, as though he was bent on some outrageous course of action, like a Mormon considering drinking a cup of coffee. All reckless abandon, don’t you know. We all held our breath and waited. He was silent for a while, and then, he spoke.
“You know Ignatius, Moses rode a motorbike!”
Well, that was unexpected if you like! Holding my briefcase in front of me for protection, I edged towards the door, ready to make a bolt for the phone to summon the Muscular Gentlemen in the White Coats. It had clearly all become Too Much for the poor man. He went on, his eyes gleaming with unholy light.
“Willie McGlumpher in the Eighth Class pointed it out to me! It says: ‘The roar of Moses’ Triumph was heard in the hills!’ ”
There was a ghastly moment of silence, and then Svensson burst out into loud, shrieking maniacal laughter! Daisy Barnet went deathly white; the lovely Deborah started rummaging in her bag for Bach Flower remedies for the bewildered Swede; Yorick Warwick stared at him for a full thirty seconds before realising that he had decanted the contents of his mug of tea into his lap and had no time to change before his next lesson. (That caused some talk among the fourteen year olds, who already thought him, quite correctly, capable of anything!)
But the change was astonishing! And it had Set In, old man! He met me a few days later wearing a terrifying grin, and told me that an epistle was the wife of an apostle. And again, he went off into those unearthly shrieks of laughter.
In the coming weeks he was full of them. Joshua knocked down the walls of Jericho with his horns; one of the first opossums was Matthew, who was also a taxi man; Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark; in the Book of Guinness’s, God made the world in six days, got tired and took the Sabbath off; Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day but a ball of fire by night: and so on. Larry Snudge made a habit of passing by the room where Svensson was teaching R.E. and always reported the same thing: howls of laughter, the loudest coming from Svensson. I think the pupils weren’t so much laughing at the howlers but at Svensson’s reaction to them. Well, it was a case of sink or swim! Stand back and be horrified by the spectacle of a middle-aged Swede holding his ribs together and gasping for breath as the hilarity threatened his health and well-being, or join in. For the most part, they joined in.
The fact of the matter was that Svensson had Seen the Funny Side. The rot was setting in, old man. I knew the signs. Nor was I wrong, as you shall hear.
All was different in the staff room! Svensson would read the Bible as usual, but now, instead of sighing with pain, he would be chuckling. One day he turned to me and said: “You know what faith is, Ignatius? It’s the quality that allows you to believe what you wouldn’t in your right mind. That’s Willie McGlumpher’s view. But it’s true, isn’t it! The kid’s perfectly right!”
There was no answer to that, of course. Not on the spur of the moment, anyway.
I got hold of young McGlumpher by the ear one lunch break, and asked him what was going on.
“Well,” says he, “Mister Svensson always seemed so sad, so I thought I’d try to cheer him up. I’ve got a book with some jokes in, and I tell them to Mister Svensson.”
It cheered him up, all right. But it didn’t stop there, old man! More was to come! One day, I caught him reading the Bible, and he was neither groaning with existential agony nor chuckling with mirth. He was sitting with raised eyebrows, nodding and looking thoughtful. Well, from there on in, it was all downhill, old man. He joined a church and became a lay reader, known for his cheerful and sunny disposition. I spotted him one Sunday, coming out of St. Asaph’s dressed in a suit of sober black, carrying a Bible and surrounded by a gaggle of blue-rinsed molls who obviously adored him. One of them was saying: “He makes it all so lively and interesting!” “And such a lovely smile!” said another.
“Come down to the Glenbogle Hotel and have a sharpener,” I called to him, meaning to rescue him, you know, from the clutches of these harridans.
“I can’t,” he said, “I’ve got a Bible study group!”
He did! That’s exactly what he said. You could have sucked me up with a Hoover, old man; you could have crumpled me into a ball.
It was a sort of miracle, I suppose. I collared Potocki about it, and said I laid the blame squarely at his feet. He just shrugged and lit his eighty-fifth cigarette of the day.
“Who can tell how the Call will come?” he said, and I suppose that about covered it, though I thought it was a pretty shifty answer myself. Potocki went round humming to himself and smiling seraphically, which rather made me wonder whether he hadn’t been the Hidden Genius behind the whole thing. I wouldn’t put it past him. Thanks old man, I’ll have another of these.