8 – The Stuffed Crocodile
Tell me this, (demanded Donnelly) do you remember that creature Croft Stuckedahl at all? American fellow, leathery skin, mouth full of perfect, tiny teeth? Voice that droned on in the most tedious monotone? Sounded like a bluebottle stuck in a hot room on a summer’s day. Got him? He belongs to the Golden Age of St. Geoffrey’s, old man, when we just meandered on in our own sweet way, before we had to buck our ideas up and actually teach anything. Now we’re in the League Tables game, and cram our poor wee mites like geese for pate de foie gras, stuffing it down their throats, you know, with all the violence that derives from the thought of feasting on all those lovely exam results at the end.
Well, Stuckedahl came to teach Physics. I mean, we met him! We interviewed him! We heard him talk! We heard that dreadful bluebottle drone, and yet we gave him a job! So we had only ourselves to blame. He ticked all the boxes otherwise, I suppose. Knew his stuff, and had a list of degrees like a bagful of Scrabble letters. He said a lot of high minded stuff in the interview about the need to ‘nersh and enkerge young people’, which we took to mean ‘nourish and encourage.’ He looked good on the staff list, there’s no doubt. But as soon as he opened his mouth – Gee and Jay! Here, give us a fill up there! Thanks.
Larry Snudge, of course, thought he was a “character”! He would, the worm! He’d sit hanging on Stuckedahl’s lips, waiting for what he called ‘the Mark Twain Moment’, when the dreadful Yank would say something either witty or wise. Well, Snudge was a dyed-in-the-wool Americophile, or whatever the word is. He worshipped all things Transatlantic, even Canadian! So the awful drone of the fellow’s voice didn’t seem to phase him at all. Whenever Stuckedahl started on any topic whatever, people would look at their watches, mutter about time pressing on, and the staff room would empty, except for Snudge, grinning like a porpoise in hope of a fish.
One day old Tom Hobbes was consulting with Ingmar Svensson, the woodwork teacher, about getting his Mucvishk Distillery souvenir walking stick rebored, in the hope that it could contain even more of the drop that revives and stimulates. Stuckedahl overheard the conversation, and decided to add his two-pennorth.
“Of course, what you could do once you’ve drilled out the cane is to fill it with sherry, or port, if you will, but some kind of fortified wine, preferably from the Iberian peninsula, and leave it for a few years, or several, actually – “
Hobbes turned and looked at the man in disbelief.
“Fill it with sherry?” he roared, “Fill it with sherry? What the hell would I do that for?” This was tampering with things close to Hobbes’s heart, old man; a thing no one did lightly.
“Many of the more reputable or better class, if you will, of Scottish distilleries pour their whisky into barrels that have contained sherry or a similar fortified wine. It is said to impart a certain flavour to the finished product that is sought after by certain aficionados or connoisseurs, if you will, of whisky – “
Hobbes interrupted him again, his eyes beginning to boil over with rage.
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?” He bellowed, his fists clenching and unclenching as he tried to decide whether to throttle the man or simply rain blows on his head. “I leave my stick standing, according to your scheme, letting sherry – “ (he gave the word all the contempt he could muster) – “letting sherry soak into the works, for several years? What, in the name of all that’s holy, do I do in the meantime? Answer me that!”
Stuckedahl, apparently completely unaware of the threat of total immolation that stood, turning slowly beetroot, before him, took up the challenge without batting a leathery, reptilian eyelid.
“You could always follow the example of the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. He would, according to some authorities, fill his pockets with miniatures, small bottles of spirituous liquor, so that he would never be caught without the necessary means of – “
Hobbes was visibly giving off steam now.
“I don’t give a damn about the Irish fucking playwright Brendan Behan,” he thundered, just as poor Daisy Barnet came in. “Would you have me going about clinking like the morning milk wherever I go? YOU MUST BE BLOODY INSANE!”
Daisy went pale and fell into a soft chair, overcome. The beautiful Deborah had to rush round with chamomile tea, while Snudge fanned her with his silk scarf. Hobbes crashed out to terrorise the fourteen year olds in his History class, effing and blinding as he went.
“From Class Nine to that,” poor Daisy moaned, massaging her temples with a few drops of eau-de-cologne.
“I really don’t see what he had to get so upset about,” said Stuckedahl, with Buddha-like composure. He was right in a way, of course. What he wasn’t able to factor in, as we have to say now, is his reputation, richly deserved, as a crashing bore. He had no idea, old man. No idea at all. He was as the babe unborn when it came to insight and self-knowledge, like most of us, as it happens.
“I tink he take his valking-stick very serious,” Svensson explained with Scandinavian conciseness.
“Well, I wasn’t trying to undermine his sensitivities in that regard…” Stuckedahl droned on as he stuffed a few papers into his bag before going off to push back the frontiers of knowledge.
“Mind you,” said Daisy, when Stuckedahl had left to anaesthetise the Higher Physics class with his soporific tones, “if he has that effect on us, think what he does to the kids!”
“They just fall asleep,” said the lovely Deborah, who had an inside connection to the pupils through a niece, who relayed a lot of useful information that, between ourselves, influenced a lot of unofficial policy, such as which bits of the campus to avoid during breaks, so as not to catch the smokers and romantic pairings. What the eye doesn’t see, don’t you know.
Well now, do you remember the visit of His Holiness the P. a few years since, and how he blessed, or broke a bottle of champagne, or whatever it was, over some sort of concrete erection in Fife dedicated to World Peace? No, very few people do. Anyway, this was a very big event, telly cameras and so forth. Stuckedahl had the notion of having a similar ceremony on our side of the Forth.
“It could seriously raise the profile of our school in the local community and even city-wide,” he began in his affectless drone, and his idea was passed on the nod, or just before we all nodded off, anyway. So Svensson, who could turn his hand to that sort of thing, got to work, and eventually produced a sort of roughly octagonal block of stone with eight polished surfaces. On each surface he had chiselled ‘Let Peace Prevail In The World’ or words to that effect, in eight languages. Or at least, he thought he had! But mark the sequel!
The Press were invited, and all the mums and dads, of course, and various local dignitaries. It was quite a swell affair, old man. The kids were all decked out with flags of all nations, and we sang songs and generally pushed the notion that world peace is a good thing. Malcolm Tregorran read out a piece in sonorous vocables he had composed about burying hatchets, turning swords into ploughshares, getting on with each other, and all that rhubarb, and a little band of Senior School students gathered round a battered old guitar, and sang a Bob Dylan song without looking too embarrassed or sounding too feeble. Then came the speeches from the Visiting Dignitaries!
One of these was something in the Procurator Fiscal’s office, and a fluent Gaelic speaker. He couldn’t forebear to mention that the side of the rock that had Gaelic on it had nothing about letting peace prevail, or anything of the sort. Instead, it read in English translation: “The Badness of the Dog is On the Ground.” He merely mentioned it in light-hearted spirit, expecting that a few strokes with a chisel would sort the matter out. But it was true enough. Poor old Svensson had copied the text wrongly. He’d put in a couple of wrong letters, left off an accent or two and exchanged a C for a G, or something, and the result was there for all the world to see. Poor old Svensson didn’t emerge from his woodwork shop for days. He was in a complete Scandinavian melancholy tailspin, old man. Pitiful to see.
The Press loved it, of course! The young reporter from the Evening Echo asked who was behind the whole jamboree, and we credited Croft Stuckedahl, with one voice. The Echo piece ran something like: “The event was the brian-child – sic, old man – of US teacher of Physical Training, Stoft Cruckedahl.” And on and on in the same vein, skating lightly over the facts entirely within its own world of fantasy, as these things so often do! It raised the profile of the school, all right, not only in the local community, or even city wide, but all the Gaeltacht knew about our joke rock, too. The Gaelic column in the Glasgow Bugle had a lot of fun at our expense, but fortunately, very few of our mums and dads could understand it, and lived in Edinburgh anyway, where the readership of that paper was minimal.
Well, this was something that woke up the senior Physics students. Stoft Cruckedahl became Stuffed Crocodile, which they began calling him, or Mister Crocodile to his face. At first Stuckedahl took it in fairly good grace.
“I think the energy of anarchism in the young is a very good thing to nurture and nersh and enkerge. I believe that the Reverend Spooner himself showed the way tord a method of subversion that has a potent satirical edge. For myself, I welcome the…The…”
And then he stopped! Amazingly, he’d run out of steam! Those of us who were heading out of the staff room as his monotone began remained poised on the threshold. Stuckedahl was lost for words! Old Stuckedahl was as silent as a real stuffed crocodile. It was a strange and marvellous thing to see, old man; a consummation devoutly to be wished, and it had come true before our wondering eyes!
The kids weren’t silent on the subject, though. I myself heard one eight year old ask him what he was doing outside Chambers Street Museum where all the other stuffed animals lived. Stuckedahl gritted his tiny teeth.
“Brace up, old man,” I whispered to him; “nersh and enkerge! Nersh and enkerge, don’t you know!”
But the die was cast, old man. He left shortly before the end of the Summer Term, mourned only by Snudge, who clung to his Yankomania, and belief in the Mark Twain moment, though to my knowledge, it never came. But it just goes to show, old man. It just goes to show! Yes, I’ll have another of those.