1. A Bit Of An Obsession
Obsessions can be terrible things (said Donnelly) and I’ve seen many a fellow come to the most awful grief over the most unlikely thing. Take old Tom Hobbes, for instance. I don’t know how he came to be scraping a living at the chalk-face; he’d been a staffer on the Daily Scream and done a lot of freelance stuff for such august organs as the News of the People and Wakey Wakey Soldiers, and so forth. Deeply esoteric stuff, old man: his pieces usually ended with the sentence: “I made an excuse and left”. He was ex-navy, and sported a full beaver, ginger and grizzled, and a nose like an overripe raspberry; eyes glazed like china, crazed with red, and a definite whiff of the peaty glens on his breath first thing in the morning. Used to drive old Edeltraut Runkelstirn wild.
“In frront of childrrrren,” she’d say, hitting the old rhotics like a circular saw; always a sign of deep distress with Edeltraut. “Smelling of alcohol! In frrrrront of the childrrrrrrren!”
She, you’ll remember was the Harmony of the Spheres teacher; rather a rococo name for what’s basically music and movement. She lived alone with a collection of Sir Walter Scott; never listened to the wireless. Innocent as the babe unborn, most of the time. She couldn’t stand poor old Tom. Took him for a thoroughly bad lot, and who’s to say she was wrong?
Discipline was never a problem for Hobbes. He wasn’t above a swift wallop round the head of a miscreant, though he was as appalled as the rest of us at St. Geoffrey’s at the idea of bending a child over to deliver six of the best in the old-fashioned style. Discipline is always what they call nowadays an issue in schools. I was educated by the Christian Brothers, of course; as subtle and vicious a bunch of sadists, in my humble opinion, as ever lurked in the darker corridors of pedagogy, so I was used to having the living daylights beaten out of me for such transgressions as momentarily forgetting the supine stem of confiteor. Not a mistake you make twice, old man. Old Tom Hobbes, though; the kids loved him. He’d stagger into a class at the beginning of a morning, gaze round with a wild surmise through eyes like boiled eggs; stagger out for a quick stiffener from a walking stick that doubled as a flask, and march back in full control. He’d heave a dictionary at the head of some kid chattering to his neighbour, to gain silence and attention. Nothing serious, you understand; no more than a flesh wound usually, or a slight case of concussion. Nothing to excite the notice of Haitch Emm Eye; Her Majesty’s Expectorant, old man, of whom we are all In Awe.
Of course, this was all a long time ago. At St. Geoffrey’s we’d always been in the forefront of the spare the rod movement, in favour of not thrashing the little darlings black and blue, I mean, but in those days, a quick cuff of the head or a clip round the ear was standard practice. I once flung a blackboard duster at a noisy young layabout in the back row of a class of fourteen year-olds, and I gather he bears the mark to this day, but this was in the dear dead days beyond recall. Beyond his recall, anyway: I understand that he walks round bumping into the fixtures and fittings with his shoes on the wrong feet. Not my fault, old man; that was the result of all the wacky baccy he’d been smoking in the bike sheds. But I mean, I don’t hold with all that flogging. A man never looks so big a bloody fool as when he’s wielding the pandybat. Everyone is diminished by it, old man; flogger and floggee. And you could pull an important muscle. But I digress.
“Where were we?” Hobbes would bellow, bringing his stick down loudly on the desk, and leafing through The Lyric Poets or Middlemarch or something. “And wake up at the back there! Silence, you there, Magillicuddy!” He never knew their names. Called all the boys Magillicuddy and all the girls Desdemona. But the kids had the measure of him, all right.
“Did you have much time for reading on the battleships during the war, Mister Hobbes?” some bright spark would ask, and he would gaze into the middle distance and go off into a stream of reminiscence about life on board HMS Superfluous and tell them about the drunken boatswain and the three whores from Port Said and other such toothsome tales for the tiny tots. That, or stories he’d reported on for the more gutter-situated press. Not that I suppose they listened, or not all through to the end. They’d heard them all before, old man. They drew pictures in their jotters. I’ve seen some of them, too: not for the faint-hearted, old man; not for the squeamish. Water off a duck’s back for old Edeltraut, of course; she’d look at a great blast on the pornograph from some teenage reprobate and say: “Lovely! Those mountains are delightful!” or some such. Simply couldn’t see it, old man. Never twigged. Cognitive processes too angelic to register the gory details. Too blue-eyed for words.
Of course, what gave Tom his great popularity was his extraordinary hospitality. He lived in a cottage south of the city, deep in the Pentland Hills. His wife used to go off on her old bike, squeaking and grinding the fifteen or so miles to the nearest shop to buy the groceries while he worked on his illicit still, so that there would be something to put in his flask during the week, and something to mix into cocktails for his visitors. His wife Myrtle was a wiry but colourless old streel, sometimes to be seen at school events, smiling wanly and gradually growing paler for lack of food and drink as Tom told one of his interminable stories. Well, Tom Hobbes used to invite the more enterprising and experimental element of the senior girls round to his place for the weekend. Oh, don’t get me wrong, old man; nothing untoward happened: he never laid a lascivious finger on anyone, let alone poor old Myrtle. One of nature’s non-combatants in the war of the sexes. I believe I heard a waif word of a Terrible Injury, but never had it confirmed from the horse’s mouth, as it were, and it’s not as if you’d ask, anyway. No, no. He’d simply show them how to mix cocktails and play strip poker, or teach them the tango to an old wind-up gramophone that he’d stolen from Hannen Swaffer or Cassandra, or someone or other from the old days in the street with no shame. You can see that this was bound to lead to trouble sooner or later, old man. But in fact, his downfall came from quite a different direction.
He had an altogether unhealthy interest in the occult, old man; quite an obsession, in fact. Perhaps that’s what attracted him to our school in the first place. Old Jakob Schnellentaten, the founder of the school, was rather an expert, don’t you know. Hobbes had even written a couple of books, potboilers, you know, about Hitler’s secret chambers under the Reichstag where the Führer and a fuliginous squad of the darkest and worst of the Nazi crew would strip down to their beswastika’d underpants and bite the heads off chickens by the light of guttering black candles, invoking the Great Goat. Apparently he’d got the gen from a man loosely connected with SIS. Very loosely connected with anything very much, I should have thought, let alone the Real World. But old Hobbes lapped it up like cream, old man; like mother’s milk. But anything that smacked of secret rites or Our Druidic Past had him pop-eyed and straining at the leash like an old boxer dog, sighting a bone.
Now, I don’t know whether you remember old Peter Potocki pronounced Potosskey? The old Polish gent; your man with the cigarette burn just left of centre in his moustache? Bald and rather kippered-looking? He used to run Study Groups, old man; a grisly sort of entertainment to introduce younger members of staff to the more abstruse aspects of the writings and works of Jakob Schnellentaten, whose idea our school, and the others like it all over the world, originally was. Well, old Hobbes got tremendously excited after one of these study evenings, and went straight to the Hermitage Bar to calm himself down enough to hail a taxi to take him back out to his cottage. The thing was, old Potocki had given old Tom a clue that tied together a lot of threads that had puzzled him for years about an historic building known as Old Craig. It’s all absorbed by the new university now, of course, but in those days it was in the grounds of the old mental hospital, and used as an administrative centre. Hobbes, on the basis of what Potocki had said – don’t ask me what – had become convinced that the true Liath Fàil, the stone on which the Kings of Scotland were crowned from time inconceivable, lay underneath this old building in a secret chamber. Meanwhile, the stone that had been taken away to England in the Middle Ages and stolen back again by a trio of Scotnats in the fifties, was a ringer, old man; a fake.
“The blasted Stone of Destiny! It was the very stone that Jacob lay on while he had his dream of the Ladder,” he told me at lunch, flecks of his sandwich flying and stippling my waistcoat: “It was brought from Egypt by Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh, to Ireland, and carried thence to Scotland. It’s the single most important treasure in the history of this poor benighted country, next to the Declaration of Arbroath!”
Apparently, he took to railing about this to his young weekend visitors, who grew rather bored with all this, and started going round to young Edwin Mitchell’s house instead; the drama teacher, you know. He was rapidly gaining a following among the younger element, showing off his collection of after-shaves, and practising his handsome lessons on them. It all ended in tears, of course, but that’s another story I’ll tell you some other time. Hobbes would march up and down his little drawing room, waving a bottle of Highland Park and damning the authorities who refused him permission to get busy under the foundations with mattock and pick.
“Who knows what treasures are buried there,” he’d fume: “why, the Holy Grail itself, for all they know or care! It’s flying in the face of unbiased historical research! There ought to be a law!”
Well, there was, of course, and it was against him. Meanwhile, the senior lassies rolled their eyes at each other, and dealt another hand of whist.
He came in one morning, looking astonishingly clear-eyed for a Monday; a dangerous gleam, you know. All full of purpose and derring-do. I feared the worst.
“It’s all sewn up, Donnelly,” he hissed in my ear at break time.
“What is?” I asked, full of the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the dubious task of describing it to a bunch of prepubescent children leaving out the fruitier sections. Hobbes just placed a lumpy finger alongside his raspberry nose, and winked one glaucous eye in a way that was hideous to watch.
“You’ll see,” he promised; “just follow the public prints!”
Two days later the story broke. It made page seven of The Caledonian, about half-way down, just next to an advertisement for foundation garments: “Husband Chains Wife To Railings To Demand Opening Of Crypt.”
There followed a picture of poor old Myrtle, shackled to the railings of the mental hospital, while droopy-looking individuals from the wards gazed at her with their mouths open and in more than one case, a rather lean and hungry look. Evidently, old Tom had decided to draw the attention of the media to his Deeply Held Conviction, or bloody mad obsession, that old artefacts of incredible antiquity and importance were to be found mouldering away under the building where, allegedly, Mary Queen of Scots had spent the night while skittering to and fro to escape the clutches of her bloodthirsty cousin. Meantime, he’d gone off to see his MP to demand support for opening up the crypt below Old Craig, and had alerted the gentlemen of the fourth estate to take snapshots of his scrawny spouse, attached like a reluctant suffragette to the ironwork. I suppose it was a blessing the whole fence wasn’t electrified, old man. She’d have been like a toasted anchovy.
Well, the next thing was that one of the more svelte and willowy senior girls got in touch with the Evening Bleat to add some colour to the Caledonian story. She just meant to give a little cheerful background, and make a few quid for herself. But she mentioned the poker sessions and the tango lessons, of course, and this prompted an outcry that rang echoing through all the regions of St. Geoffrey’s School. There were scruffy, rat-faced little reporters with cameras and notebooks and fags stuck to the lip, shouting at us through the school railings and taking flash photos of Edeltraut, who of course had no idea what was going on. Larry Snudge took to posing for them, showing his best side, but he was never quite One Of Us, you know. It was a judgement, in a way. I mean all those years as a Fleet Street hack, and now here was Hobbes, at the epicentre of his own controversy, quite unable to Make an Excuse and Leave.
The headlines were not something to be proud of: “Do-As-You-Like School Teacher Held Orgies With Senior Girls. Pictures inside.” You know the sort of thing. Poor old Hobbes was given a right royal hauling over the coals by the Council of Teachers and the Board of Trustees, and made to hand in his red pen and blackboard dusters. Myrtle learned the news of this while still attached to the railings of the mental hospital , and it did nothing to brighten her disposition. She just wilted in her gyves, old man; simply wilted. It was a terrible thing to watch. I gave her a friendly pat on the back and slowly walked away, sadder and wiser. I think one of the male attendants finally took pity on her and jockeyed the lock of her handcuffs with a bent pin, but she was never the same again. She went off to Lanzarote with the sewing teacher, one of those women who prefer the sensible brogue to high heels, you know; and the two of them scratch a living making woollen dolls and taking in summer visitors. Not the worst of fates by far, old man.
Oddly enough, our pupil roll went up after the event, old man. I suppose all publicity is good publicity, after all.
Old Hobbes vanished off the face of the earth for several years, and turned up just the other day in the Caledonian obituary columns. Spontaneous combustion, apparently. He’d been reading a book about Göring’s attempts to reintroduce the mastodon to Lüneberg Heath, and just burst into flames. Nothing remained but his feet and ankles and a room full of greasy soot. He was identified by his Argyll socks, poor old sod. It pays not to let your obsessions get on top of you, old man. Have another of those..?