The Yellow Peril
Nothing brings out hysteria like a wasp in the classroom, old man (said Donnelly). I recall trying to get through Culloden and the Clearances one sunny afternoon, while everyone was falling asleep over their desks and the thought of getting hold of Tom Hobbes’s magic hollow stick and taking a deep draft of its contents was highly distracting. Some reckless wean had left a jam sandwich half eaten in the room, and in came a wasp to investigate.
Old man, you’d think I’d been using enhanced interrogation techniques to get them to answer questions! The screams! The confusion! It was like the Last Helicopter Out Of Saigon. They were cobbling makeshift flyswatters out of textbooks and jotters, and flapping and batting around them, often hitting innocent by-sitters, who responded with oaths and blows. The boys who had been sleeping woke up and joined in, but Mister Wasp was just too clever for them, keeping well out of the way of their various forms of wasp ack-ack, and still managing to get a goodly fill of the offending sandwich.
Now, I was in the army, as you know, old man, and this was a challenge to my tactical skills and abilities to master the situation. I availed myself of the sandwich, and hurled it out of the window, and the wasp followed it, but not before the vicious little bastard had stung me on the thumb.
“There now,” I said to them, once the nuisance had vanished, “You were all made to look silly by a small, insignificant insect!”
“You’re the one it stung,” some young baggage said.
“Yeah, you shouldn’t of let it in,” said another, “You’re supposed to be the responsible adult, innit.”
Honestly, old man, sometimes I wonder why we bother. I mean, these weans today are so knowing, they’ve nothing to learn. There are people with strings of degrees stacking shelves in Tesco’s these days, while people with no qualifications at all run businesses worth millions of pounds. It’s all so absurd. Sometimes I think our job’s just to keep them out of Borstal as long as we can. (What’s that smell, old man, have you trodden in something? Oh no, it’s me.)
Anyway, exams. You know we’re all trying our best to shunt the chislurs through the hoops set by the exam board? We all have to give of our best to make sure it all happens. We were learning our lesson, finding out what the likely questions would be and teaching our subjects to drink from the same deep Pierian springs of knowledge and wisdom that the examiners were. The hierophant guiding us through this process was Beryl Middleton, a severe matron who taught maths in a Birmingham accent so broad that it could strip paint. She was a great one for designer clothes and diamante ornaments. She came in one day in a short blouson jacket she ascribed to some French or Italian bozo who was supposed to be a whiz with the scissors. Such things were important to her, you see. It had three diamante snails crawling up it to add élan and pizazz and so forth. The point was that she knew how to teach exams, and she had the smack of firm government, all right. She didn’t put up with any nonsense. What’s more she didn’t have any time for lead swingers and skivers. Well that was fair enough, but one of the planks in the St. Geoffrey’s platform is giving all the chislurs a fair crack of the whip. Everyone’s got something to contribute to the body politic, don’t you know, and the ones who don’t shine academically can bring other qualities, and so forth. You know the drill. Beryl would come in looking haggard and worn, complaining about some class or other of folk who had all the other qualities, but didn’t quite live up to her high standards of achievement, and sigh, “Eet’s loike watchingue paint droy,” with the West Midlands accent giving pith and weight to her utterance. She was definitely a materialist, and had married an insurance man fairly high up in his revolting trade, so all the talk of kama rupas and so forth fell on puzzled and then deaf ears. She avoided all situations where questions concerning the spiritual and ethereal were discussed, like old Peter Potocki’s study groups, and maintained her own corner of rationality and plain common sense. It was a lonely place, sad to say, but she was too set in her ways to emerge from it. I mean, she did hazard a query from time to time, asking for an explanation of, say, Harmony of the Spheres, but she received no very clear answer, to be fair. Malcolm Tregorran was still with us at the time, and he would pack his briefcase with marking and say, “Speaking for myself, Beryl, I find questions far more stimulating than answers.” Then he’d sweep out, smiling mysteriously to himself. No wonder she got fed up with the whole thing, and concentrated on what she was good at, which, old man, was teaching. She called it all ‘a lot of bloody nonsense,’ and that was that. She had staked out her territory, and woe betide anyone who tried to challenge her. Yorick Warwick once referred to her as ‘Beryl the Peril’ within her hearing, but even a hardened sociopath like him only did it once. She was implacable, old man, a force of nature with a brummy accent.
The trouble was that her presence engendered a spirit of competition among those teaching exam subjects, old man. Everyone wanted to show that you could be a real Schnellentaten teacher and get the weans through the tests. St. Geoffrey’s became a real crammer, old man! People were bringing their offspring to us to get the benefit of a holistic – whatever that may mean – education and a good tranche of exam results. But old Tregorran’s were not coming up to scratch! He was already slamming doors and stiffing and blinding in front of the chislurs, and this new spirit abroad in the school was another nail in his boot, or whatever the phrase is. He had begun whispering to himself. Larry Snudge found his old battered trilby one day, and told us that it was lined with silver foil, old man! Edmund Mitchell said that he had come back one night to pick up something he’d left behind, and found Tregorran in the sports hall, chalking pentacles on the floor and muttering in dim candlelight. All most unnerving, as you can imagine.
Now, Tregorran was a devious old rascal, and he manoeuvred himself into a position where he could arrange the room allocation for the exams. There was a gleam in his eye at this juncture that was alarming to see. I guessed that he was up to something, nor was I wrong!
Exams are always held in the summer term, as you know, old man, and the windows are wide open so that we can all breathe. The same was true of the exam room for maths, which was up at the back on the first floor, you remember, the one over the kitchens.
The flaming youth, the ones to be tested you know, shuffled into the room and took their allotted places, and all went well for half an hour or so, but then…
Ingmar Svensson, the melancholy Swede, told me in confidence that he had noticed the problem at once, but chose to say nothing. The thing was that under the roof of the upper back room was a wasps’ nest, and the rules had allowed for the examinees to have nourishing glucose drinks to help their cerebral processes while wrestling with Pythagoras and Euclid, and so forth. The smell soon percolated up to the wasps, and in they came like the Luftwaffe over Kent.
All was chaos and confusion, old man. Some of the girls and mimsier chaps ran screaming from the room, while others waved their exam papers in a feeble attempt to swat the blighters. The invigilator was stung several times in his attempts to cope with the nuisance. One of the more enterprising lads closed the windows, but this shut in much of the yellow striped nuisance, and they decided to turn their approach to kamikaze.
Iain Donaldson was one of those who ran up to see what he could do to help matters, and he found Tregorran in the girls’ lavs, next door to the exam room, listening through a crack in the wall and cackling dementedly to himself. He believed that he had scuppered Beryl’s chances of wonderful results. Meanwhile there were teenagers sobbing and trembling in various corners of the place, and all was the most hopeless stramash.
The upshot was, of course, that the invigilator’s report meant that they all passed with distinction, and Tregorran was trundled off to share digs with Mrs. Minchinhampton in the Funny Farm. She was matron by this time, and made sure he got the best helpings of custard and so on, but it was a sad come down, old man.
Beryl, of course, goes from strength to strength. There’s a new spirit in the land, old man, and we’d better get used to it. Yes, I’ll have another of these – Damn! This was clean on this morning!