Over the brow of the hill and into the valley the car sped. The countryside was splendidly green and fragrant in high summer. It was very remote – woods and meadows all around. Then suddenly – a gargantuan complex of grey buildings on the far side of the valley. That was the monastery school – always very striking.
It was a clear August afternoon was Sean got out of a taxi in North Yorkshire. He stepped onto yellow gravel outside a handsome grey stone double cottage. Sean stood up to his full height of 6 feet. He had pale skin, blue eyes and a few pounds too many. His thick brown unbrushed hair swayed in the brisk breeze as he lifted a suitcase out of the boot. The bluff old taxi driver grumbled that the tip was insufficient. Sean blithely ignored him and dragged his two suitcases towards the 18th century cottage. He was a self possessed man in his mid 20s: not pleased to be starting to teach at a school so remote and so full of the academically subnormal. But he was gritting his teeth: determined to make the best of it. It was this or unemployment. Had he chosen the right option?
Miss Jenkins opened one door of the double cottage and came out to greet him.
”Sean! Ah you are here!” said Miss Jenkins in her pukka voice. She wore a matching pale blue blouse and trousers. Her sensible laceup mid brown leather shoes had seen better days. The woman was some way over 70, 5’8” and very upright. Her messy silver hair surmounted a face that was not too wrinkled despite eschewing moisturiser. She was a retired headmaster’s secretary with all the poise and severity that the role had demanded.
Sean greeted her with a handshake. Miss Jenkins then went and unlocked the door to Sean’s cottage. She walked very rigidly.
She stepped into the dining room at the front. ”Put your things har” she commanded as Sean dragged in his battered suitcases.
”Yes, certainly”, he said sheepishly.
”Would you like a wash?” Miss Jenkins interrogated him. He noticed how sprightly she was.
He paused unsure whether to answer truthfully though he understood the euphemism.
”Go upstairs” she told him. He duly obeyed. Sean was beginning to perceive that this old woman was accustomed to having her way.
A minute later Sean was down again and feeling relieved.
”Why don’t you settle in and come around to mine for tea in 20 minutes?”
Sean did not especially want to have tea with this woman though he could see that she was decent in her own hectoring way. Nor could he think of a way to politely decline.
”Yes please, that would be very nice?” his fake smile did not fool her. He surmised that she was the sort of person who liked to control everything in minor detail.
Sean collapsed on the bed. He had come up from London. He then rolled off and forced himself to do a little unpacking. He flung his items here and there. His distinguishing feature was his bohemianism. He feared this would not sit well with Miss Jenkins’ exacting standards of correctness. Sean was the untidiest person you would meet. He was clever, cultured, inquisitive and shrewd but contemptuous of bourgeois domesticity. Sean would not be called an aesthete.
There were two bedrooms. The place was sparsely but tastefully furnished. He thought of the cum rag he had bought in Croatia. Better find a place to chuck that out clandestinely. Mrs Jenkins had mentioned a cleaner coming around – he did not want her seeing it in the bin.
Where had his gilded youth gone? His days as a stellar undergraduate and holding forth at the Oxford Union were long behind him. He knew all the History that was worth knowing and more besides. He was well grounded in languages. He had a wide but superficial knowledge of literature. He had felt splendid future had been assured him. He called to mind Cyril Connolly’s dictum – whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.
What a summer it had been? Working in a summer school for a pittance. Flying over to Germany to see his girlfriend. It was not a long sojourn in Germany. Yet she had jilted him after only a week. She told him she had met a better prospect. Then he had travelled to Hungary and Slovenia on his own. At least he had seen Hungary at last. Hungarian History was now a monomania of his. The past 2 years had seen one catastrophe after another. Failing his driving test. Again. Now marooned in the middle of nowhere. Failing his Master’s degree. Again. Being dumped by the only one he had ever loved. He had found his last teaching job in Berkshire stressful and been none too successful. Please God this one would turn out all right. His parents had been nagging him to read for the bar but his self-belief was at a very low ebb. Enough of exams. He was never going to fail again because he was never going to try again. The past year seemed to have been one long epicedium to his ambitions. Perhaps he was better off up here – away from the scene of his past glories and calamities. Moreover, at his last school there had been disgusting, football like toothless children. These cardiac arrest candidates seemed to have been force fed deep fried sugar all day such that at the age of 11 some of them could not jog 50 yards. These spherical kiddies of indeterminate sex peopled the London connurbation. A growing child needs exercise and at least Amblefifth would ensure that.
20 minutes later and Sean was in another outfit – black chinos and a blue and white striped shirt – deodorant freshly applied.
Miss J invited him in.
”Do come in”, she said in her loud and commanding voice. Sean stepped over the welcome mat. Her cottage was full of bric a brac and Catholic imagery. It was very much a spinster’s house and almost ornately furnished.
He was ushered into the drawing room. The smart sofas were a few decades old and all the better for it. To his surprise he saw a bald old man sitting in one of the armchairs.
The old man was wearing regulation geriatric slacks and a brown jumper with a rumpled white shirt under it. must have been in his 70s. He wore those special black leather slip on old man shoes designed for hammer toes.
”Hello Sean – I am Father Julian. Forgive me if I do not get up. At my age it is such an effort.”
”Good afternoon Father Julian” said Sean. He stooped to shake his hand.
”Why don’t you sit thar?” Miss J told Sean. He mused that she could easily have been an army officer’s wife.
”Um yes, certainly” he said sitting on a sofa perpendicular to Fr Julian’s chair.
Miss J then disappeared into the kitchen.
”I was headmaster until a few years ago and Miss Jennings was my secretary”
”Oh I see.”
”Terribly good woman.”
Miss J re appeared carrying a tray. She set it down and announced ”My father was the head of a Catholic prep school you see. Then in the war we were evacuated up here. I was the only girl at the school. I was brilliant at cricket and everything. Then I turned 12 and had to go off to a girls’ school.”
”I am not much use at cricket I am afraid. I am rather hoping they will get me into rugby.”
”Well I am sure they shall use you for rugger” said Fr Julian. ”Tell me you are Irish aren’t you?”
”Yes, I am. From Limerick.” Sean was the sort of Irishman who took the trouble to put the fada in his name. He was known to sport an Irish rugger jersey from time to time. This was more out of ethnic identity than any enthusiasm for the magnificent team in green.
”But you picked up that public school accent here?”
”Yes, I was at Winchester” he answered a little nervously.
”Ah Winchester – fabulous. Then Oxford was it?”
”That’s right – Balliol” he was relaxing a tad.
”Ah Balliol. Fr Adrian was there” said the monk pensively.
”Now Sean” said Miss J ”there is a fete on at the parish church tomorrow. Fr Reinhold is running it. You should come. It would be a good way to meet people.”
”Yes, good idea.”
”Now you will notice that there is a door from my cottage to yours. That is because officially this is a single dwelling so one council tax bill. I can keep the rent off the books. But don’t worry I shan’t come around and bother you.”
Sean returned to his gaffe. He remembered the Croatian porn he had with him. He had better dispose of this illicit material.
Next day Sir Charles Goode came around. This diminutive man was an old boy of the school and a local worthy. He signed the lodger agreement as a witness. As a former high commissioner to Bangladesh he was someone whose signature carried sway.
Later that afternoon he took a long walk. The harvest was on. Combine harvesters were scooping up grain. He walked all around the village. It only housed 500 people. There were two pubs and a post office shop. That shop was a lifeline to him. The chip shop was only open three nights a week.
He walked up the hill and on the round that wound up to the right. He turned around and found himself overlooking the many shades of green across the verdant valley. There were holts and tares over the uneven surface of the land. The land was littered with sheep sheds, cow byres and outhouses. He was in deep countryside. It was open woodland. Some fields were filled with grazing ovines. He took a rest under a tree. Later we walked all the way to the ruined abbey. There was still a little rock debris left centuries after Henry VIII’s men had expelled the monks and torn down the roof.
That night he repined for Oxford. Those storied streets. The sandstone buildings that had witnesses centuries of youth. Oxford was life and fun. he had been an assiduous student as an undergraduate. What had gone wrong as a post graduate? But he had to turn the page. Here he was in lonely exile. He was far from all the gossip and the merry scandals of his chums. England was the Thames Valley for him. Old Father Thames flowed through his life. Now he was banished to the northern wastes. But at least he had a job. Better makes a good fist of it for the two year contract. His mother had said – you stay there until they make you headmaster. He would not do that. But in two years he could have a PGCE, a driving licence, a mortgage and more.
That night he pined for his German ex-girlfriend. She was not unobtainable. She was his city of Lyonesse.
The next morning it was time to walk to school to meet the head of Department. Sean had only met him once before – at interview back in June. He walked in through the front door and into the main hall. The front hall connected to the abbey church and the monastic enclosure on one side. On the other it connected to the school buildings. Sean was surprised to see two middle aged monks walk by. Those well tailored black habits. It threw him. This was the religious tradition he was brought up in but to see these men wearing such anachronistic garb was discombobulating. Were they very strange people to wear that? What must it be like for those who were not raised as Catholics to see men wearing these curious garments?
Sean walked through the school – down a long corridor to the History Department. The parquet tiles were light brown. Windows to the left looked up the slope to the dining halls. To the right were the doors of half a dozen classrooms.
Sean got to the end – the Head of History’s office. He knocked at a polite volume.
Through the window in the door Sean saw the man he had met at interview. Andy Murphy was 6’4” – skinny as a snake and twice as poisonous. Some light brown hair was clustered to the rear of his egghead. Apart from that he was bald. Malevolent brown eyes bored out from the front of his skull. Murphy wore a pale blue V neck sweater with diamond shape designs on it. He wore brown corduroy trousers and shiny grey slip on leather shoes with white socks. The man thought he looked natty. But Andy Murphy had the manners and appearance of a failed funeral director. Sean remembered when he had come up in June – after his interview. He had come all the way from London to discuss the forthcoming term. Murphy had then told him he would not be paid travel expenses and nor would he be provided with lunch. It set a tone miserliness and spite. But Murphy had unwittingly supplied Sean with boundless comic material. Murphy was a very easy man to do an impression of and Sean was a gifted mimic. He would have his mates in stitches doing impersonations of this fiend.
Murphy came to the door and opened it with his long face. He appeared to be conspicuously stressed. Sean was to learn that Murphy always wore this expression.
”Hello Sean.” he hissed in his southern English accent..
”Hello Mr Murphy” he said in a deferential tone.
”No need to be so formal. Well – call me what you like” said Murphy in his low monotone. Murphy began to sniffle.
Murphy sat down behind his desk. There was one in front of it. Sean stood by the chair.
Murphy made himself comfortable and was about to talk. Then he realised Sean was still standing. Sean had expected to see reference books in the office but there were none. This man called himself and academic but had no books – just files. It was telling as to where his priorities lay.
”Please sit down” he was discomforted by Sean’s decorous behaviour. Murphy snuffled some more,
”Thank you Mr Murphy.”
”So here you are. You are 25. Do you want to be here when you are 55?”, he droned. Murphy twitched his mouth to the right.
Sean thought to himself he did not even want to be here now but knew it was unwise to say so.
Murphy continued ”That’s why I want you to make a success here. I do not mind you knowing I had a very long conversation with all your referees. So you need to work hard. If I have to speak to the headmaster and say it is not going well then it will be very bad news for you. It is not rocket science. We are a flagship department for the school.”, he threatened. ”But we have a lot in common. We are both 20th century historians.” He said in his expressionless hiss. Sean knew that he was radically different from Murphy but sought to humour him.
”And both Irish” said Sean.
”I am not Irish” Murphy looked insulted. Murphy sniffed again. He pushed his lips out and then to the right.
”Oh sorry just judging from your surname.”
”I am not Irish. I am English. I am not even Catholic.” Murphy twitched his mouth to the right.
”Oh sorry – not even a little bit. Several generations back.”
”No. Not at all. I am from Sussex. Murphy is not Irish at all.” Andy Murphy stretched his mouth to the right again. Twice.
Sean was learning to be a bit more inhibited.
”Now get your file out” he demanded. Murphy twitched his mouth to the right again and snuffled.
Sean handed him a yellow folder with notes for the pupils that he had spent days typing.
Murphy eyed them disdainfully for a moment. Sean felt deeply gauche. Murphy scrutinised them as though his job was the most important of all.
”These are crap. You will have to use mine. You need to learn to write decent notes. It is not rocket science. ” Murphy twisted his mouth to the right.
”I see. Ok” Sean strove to convey respect he did not feel.
”It is not ok!” Murphy scolded the young man. ”One thing you will learn about me is I never smile!” He tweaked his mouth to the right and snuffled. ”A teacher stands or falls on the quality of his notes.”
Sean was guessing he fell then. ”Should I just use a textbook?”
”No textbooks are crap. Use my notes they are superb. I am the last one they invite to a party but my notes are out of this world. My real enthusiasm is the Holocaust. I love it. I teach about it in America. My wife’s American you see.” Murphy appeared to think he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Sean was beginning to see that retaining his job would be no easy matter. Was he really suitable for this place? Why had he put himself forward for this? If only he had gone for that Quaker school instead. Pacifists and vegetarians – better than this lot. It seemed portentous. He hated Murphy’s guts already. Sean could have been reading for the Bar at the moment but he had made the fateful decision to accept this job.
Murphy had a horrendous facial tic – pursing his lips out and stretching his mouth to the right. Only ever to the right. Sean suspected that Murphy had adinoidal trouble. He came to notice that Murphy never, ever went to the loo. Anal retentive? In on year Sean never saw Murphy going to or coming from the lavatory.
It had been a baptism by fire. He realised that humouring and pampering his tempermental boss would be his chief challenge. Murphy was not a man to be gainsaid. He was also a man of brittle ego. Sean would have to hide his erudition. Emotional astuteness would be as important as anything else.
For Murphy it was all about style not substance. It was about organising and labelling things and not knowing things or even imparting facts or skills in an engaging manner. It seemed like this man did not care a rap for History. A fantastically
nit picking civil servant was lost in him. Sean feared this was not the last time that Murphy would remonstrate with him.
Later that afternoon it was sunny. Tea was taking outside one of the boarding houses. The pupils would not be back for a few days. Sean felt a little relaxed and admired the magnificent backdrops of fields and coppices on the hills.
There was a chubby middle aged monk. ”Hello nice person” he said with a manic facial expression. Sean shook the man’s flabby hand.
”I am father Jerzy” he said in an English accent.
”Jerzy I see. Unusual name”
”Yes, I am half Polish.”
”I see. Do all Benedictines wear this habit”
”Yes we all have elephant ears” he said holding onto the flaps that came over his shoulders.
Later Sean fell into conversation with a slim young man – about the same age as himself.
”Hi, my name is Abel Kennington.” he said smilingly almost madly.
”Hello I am Sean.”
” I teach CT.”
CT – Sean thought. He must mean ICT. This bloke did not seem the geeky type.
”CT wow – that is useful. I was terrible at that.”
”Well Christian Theology is what it is all about.”
”Christian Theology. I thought you said ICT. Ah – I get it CT.”
”Ah I see. So did you have a good summer?”
”Oh yes very nice. We moved up last month. Hanging around here.”
”Right. We? Are you…”
”Yes, I am married. Two children.”
Sean was surprised as this man could be no older than him.
There was an afternoon lecture.
Sean was busy photocopying – getting ready for term. The deputy headmaster walked into the photocopying room. Paul Brown was his name. The Scotsman was average height and had very thin brown hair – he would have been better off shaving it.
”You are in there mate” he said – he indicated a lecture room ”There is a talk on”
”Oh thanks” said Sean. He was always absent minded. Could never remember where to be and when.
Sean hastened into the lecture room. Brown did not look troubled that Sean had almost forgotten.
Sean looked along the rows of new colleagues. Most of the staff beginning that year were in their 20s. Some were middle aged. Who was that half way along? A young woman. He recognised here. No! It couldn’t be. No? WHat? It was. It could only be here
Her cerebral endowments were much better than her physical ones. She was 5’4” and very dumpy for a woman her age. She had grubby teeth and very pale skin. Her jowels were unbecoming and here curly hair was auburn. Curiously, she was a person of pronounced left wing opinions.
It seemed no one had troubled to inquire into her background. Like most people who are superlatively clever the Griffin was also barking mad. Not always in a harmless way either. Sean remembered Wiffen confronting her boyfriend with a knife. She had been rusticated and sectioned. Surely she had been less than honest about her time away from education. Despite missing a term of a three year degree she had still come out with a double first. A razor sharp mind. She was often grubby but had chosen to scrub up. She was a driven woman. He could well imagine her interviewing well. Barking mad – as the thought. This might also be why she was now rabidly religious or so he had heard tell.
The lecture began. Up stepped an epicene person who might have passed for a woman. Her wrinkles were elephantine. Her short dark blonde spit end unwashed ropey hair hung limply down to her chin. It was her one concession to her sex. Her black corduroy trousers did nothing for her. She at least had the decency to hide most of her skin with these. She croaked out;
”My name is Rachel Arrowsmith. Welcome to Amblefifth” she said in her hoarse and graceless voice. She was a battleaxe with a pukka accent. ”I am an English teacher and I have been here over 20 years. I am head of new staff development. Make sure you dress right. We are constantly going on to the girls about modesty. So women dress in trousers and long skirts. And no cleavage.” She was champing a little.
Sean could not believe that this woman had mentioned decolletage in the presence of monks. For men utterly deprived of female society the mere mention of decolleatage could provoke them to sustain a hard on. Sean remembered as a pupil in an all boys school if he saw so much as the outline of a bra strap through a blouse that gave him an instant erection. Could she not have modified it? Mrs Arrowsmith continued her harangue. ”We must challenge the students on their prejudices. Many of them are Tories. People who are young should be left wing. Some of them say the most frightfully Tory things. I can hear my husband spinning in his grave when they talk Tory rubbish. My sister is a journalist – you probably know her work. Everyone will tell you who she is. So it is our job to challenge right wing bigotry.” She foamed around the edge of the lips and dripped self-righteousness.
It struck Sean as very bizarre that an avowed left winger should teach at a public school. Someone could be left wing or work at a public school but not both. Not if this person had any morals at all. There was no warmth, no charm and no feminimity in this female. Mrs Arrowsmith’s speech was all discursive and never informative. Were his right wing views to be muzzled? For a place anchored in Catholicism the school seemed very intolerant of traditionalism.
”We must be PC. I am very proud that my daughter is in the police and advancing the politically correct agenda. We must have zero tolerance of any name calling especially by Tory bigots.” Was that not a contradiction in terms? It was all delivered in such a self righteous tone. In his pique he wanted to tell this woman what he thought of her screed. Sean was a man very fertile in ideas. Rarely being stuck for an opinion he found it difficult to keep them to himself. He sensed this could be his downfall. He recalled Matt at university had said ”Your mouth is going to get you into trouble one day”. Prophetic words.
Mrs Arrowsmith lacked eloquence for an English teacher. Her speech certainly did not energise Sean. He had better not be obstinate. Was his time here going to be a fiasco? He had already taken a violent dislike to Mrs Arrowsmith.
Sean mused that perhaps he had been wrong to turn down a part-time position in Bedford. Being a historian he always raked over the past. He tormented himself forever by asking whether a decision was right or wrong. He told himself – turn the page. Except he kept turning it back.
Afterwards at tea Griffin saw him and bounded up to him.
”I saw you and could not believe it” he said.
She giggled ”I could not believe it was you.”
She seemed to be in a good state of nerves. ”I know so much about you. You know so much about me. It is mutually assured destruction” he quipped.
Griffin laughed raucously at that. He had got her on a good day but observed that she was still swivel eyed.
”I have converted to Catholicism!” she trumpeted.
”Oh I see congratulations. I am a cradle Catholic”
”And lax – so I heard.”
Emily then treated him to her sermon on why Catholicism is the way. It was delivered with trademark panache. Her intellectual hauteur also shone through.
”What do you think of Lefebvre”
”Well my father confessor always suspects me of being one of those but I am not one of Lefebvrist;s coterie. I was at world youth day this year! Wonderful to see his Holiness!”
”Pope’s had to swear to maintain all the doctrines of their most illustrious predecessors and not to admit any novelty but popes have.”
”That is tradition not dogma. ”
Her lunacy and her religious fervour amused him. These two were a usual combination he thought. She could do really well here so long as she does not have another breakdown.
The conversation wandered to other things and she said ”I have a boyfriend”
”Well done you.”
”His name is Bob. He is teaching CT at Manchester Grammar. Met him at a wedding last month.”
”Well done you.”
”I am going to be an assistant housemistress in a girl’s house.”
”Are you really? Well done you.”
”Do you want to come around and see my place?”
”Yes, sure I do.” He knew they did not need to be anywhere for a few hours. Was this a sufficient margin of time to seduce her? She was a notorious flirt. He found her unattractive but also subscribed to the any hole’s a goal philosophy.
Emily led him to her flat. There they snogged and petted. It turned out there was no call for extravagant sweet talk. It all got out of hand with clothes coming off. Events unfolded as did her labia. They ended up indulging in a soixante neuf. Soon his tongue was burrowing like a squirrel into her vulva. He reflected how the bulk of boys at Oxford had done her. It was said that there were three things no boy at Oxford could avoid: matriculation, exams and sex with the GRIFFIN. Her raddled meat did not taste bad considering that she had more than likely picked up several STDs.
After resting a while Sean decided he had better go.
”Are you coming to the pub quiz down the Horse?”
”Um no I don’t feel like it.”
”All right then” said Sean getting dressed. It was time to make a strategic retreat. He spotted a half empty bottle of vodka in her bedside table. It carried him back to Oxford. He remembered the first time he had met Emily – 5 years earlier. It had been at a Conservative drinks party. She had got blind drunk. She sat down. The lights were flashed on and off to tell people to quieten down. Then a speech began. Emily started shaking. She had to be held in her chair. Her drunken paroxysms had been so wild that she had had to be escorted out. Plus ca change.
Sean was not keen to repeat his misadventure with the Griffin. He realised that desperation might get the better of him. How far would she push him to come back? He then recalled the old adage – it is the height of ill manners to have sex with someone once. It suggests that one did not derive the keenest pleasure from it. Out of courtesy perhaps he ought to bed her a second time solely for form’s sake. What would Debrett’s say? Sean knew that he spoke before he thought. Trouble is he fucked before he thought too.
Sean knew that the Griffin could pivot either way. She was high as a kite at that moment. But next moment she could be suicidially depressed. She could also become dangerously unhinged.
Sean found himself down the White Horse for a pub quiz. He walked into the small and dimly lit country pub complete with oakbeams and wooden floor boards.
A short young man greeted him ”ee oop”.
”Hello” said Sean nonplussed. ee oop. He could not believe it. That was out of James Herriot – did people really speak like that in Yorkshire still?
It was time to shed his class blinkers. He noticed that everyone in this alehouse either spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent or else in a cutglass accent. Nothing else.
He was on a team with the evil Murphy. People are normally insouciant in pubs but not Murphy.
Which surname is common to a British PM and an American President? Wilson.
What is the name of the German pilot who shot down the most British planes in the Great War?
”Bastard” someone shouted to raucous laughter. The answer was the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
”Anyone got any plans for the weekend? If not get some it is your last weekend for a long time” said Murphy.
Michael Jackson came up in conversation. ”How about a school trip to his neverland ranch?” Sean quipped
”Yeah” said Murphy bitterly ”would you like to do the risk assessment for it?”
Sean’s team won the ten pounds prize. He was too self effacing to say he had been on University Challenge. ”lET’s donate it all to RNLI” said Murphy
The prize would have been split three ways otherwise.
”What would we get for 3 pounds 33?” Sean jested.
”A lot of guilt” said Murphy morosely. Murphy went home to his lanky American wife and two sprogs.
Sean chatted to his new pal from C T – Abel Kennington. He was wearing brown tweed trousers and a white shirt with brown lines. It was a deliberate archaism. He cultivated the young fogey look with a fedora which mercifully he had hung up on the hat stand.
”I was at Oxford too.” Abel was in his cups
”Just graduated 3 years ago” said Abel between gulping down a pint.
”Contemporaries then. I took an extra year though – had time off for being academically crap.”
”Ah I see. So how long you been married then?”
”Well this far into the conversation” Abel Kennington was almost shouting as he was half pissed ” I mean Nigella and I met. We decided to get married. We would not do it until we married. But then in a moment of weakness we lapsed. She got pregnant straightaway. Anyway – my son was born a month before I sat finals. Then we got married 4 months later.”
”Oh right good for you.” he said.
” You must come around some time. I live in St James’s/ Come over for a drink tomorrow at 7.”
Abel clearly like a drink – a little too much. ”Yes, fabulous I will come over.”
”I am fucking good at CT” said Abel ” no point in hiding it.” Abel then treated Sean to a rodomontade of ultra right wing diatribe. He expounded on the need to expunge all reforms made in the Catholic Church since the First Vatican Council. ”I am a member of the Society of Pius IX” he said with evident pride. The odd thing was that Abel’s loony tunes opinions were expressed with a certain rationality and coherence. He showed great ingenuity in voicing these off the wall opinions in a manner that did not seem overly objectionable. The curious thing was his views did not correspond with anyone of his generation. Abel also affected the style and mannerisms of a country squire.
LECTURE FOR ALL THE STAFF.
All the teachers gathered in Big Study. It was not just the staff who were new that year.
Fr Augustine got up to speak. He was 6’4” and wore his black monk’s robes. His dense thatch of blond hair surmounted a kindly face framed by thick rimmed glasses. Augustine spoke in an endearing voice, ”Hello I am Fr Augustine. I teach History and I am housemaster of St Olaf’s. So a bit about me. I was born in London. My dad was an oil executive. I went to St Paul’s and then King’s College, Cambridge where I read History. Then I went to do another BA at Oxford in Theology. I joined the NHS and worked as a manager. I was brought up and Anglican but I converted to Catholicism. I came up here for several weekends to try out the monastery. When I was 27 I joined the order. So I have been here for 15 years. So this session is about being a house tutor. As a housemaster and a monk I am busy. Tutors are assigned to each house to help the housemaster and the assistant housemaster. It reminds me of how every year or so a monk dies. The other monks carry the coffin. It seems like some of those carrying the coffin are carrying none of the weight, some of them are carrying half of the weight and some of them are carrying all of the weight. Well we do not want that in a house situation. We need all of the tutors to carry an equal share of the weight. I go to mass as much as I can. Should be 5 times a day. But when I am there I want to have the confidence that whoever is in charge of that the house is running it well. So I also want the tutors of the boys to be in regular touch with the parents. The secret of being a good tutor is record keeping. If a parent phones you to ask about something they have discussed previously they expect you to have taken notes. You need notes to help you and not a half-remembered phone conversation from six months ago.” He carried on in a similar vain. He was fairly engaging and came over as humble though not to the point of self-effacement.
The next evening Sean found the door of the St James’s assistant housemaster. It felt bizarre to walk down long half lit corridors of wooden tiles in an empty school. The walls were lined with images of Catholics who were liquidated for their faith. Uplifting indeed! Would this make pupils dutifully comply with school rules? Sean doubted it. There were troublemakers in every school. Of course Catholic governments had seen Protestants as renegades and the unbending ones had been burnt. Oddly that did not rate a mention in this school.
Sean knocked delicately on the door. A hefty man some way past middle aged and about 6’4” in height opened it. ”Good evening” he said in a Mancunian accent.
”Hello; my name is Sean Gallagher, Abel invited me around this evening.”
”Oh come in then” said the
muscular oldish man. He was soft spoken.
Sean stepped into an entrance hall which led onto a small, bright and sparsely furnished drawing room.
”Ah Sean – good to see you old bean” said Abel.
Old bean – thought Sean. Affected?
Bob wore trademark green tweeds.
”I am Dean by the way” said the older man ”Melanie’s father.”
”Ah so you are Abel’s father in law.” Sean confirmed.
”That’s right” he giant was soft spoken and his clothes were very orderly. ”I thought you were one of the older boys.”
”They are not back yet. I am 26 but I shall take it as a compliment” he laughed.
Dean chortled too. He was a gentle giant.
”Come sit down” said Abel who had clearly started early.
”What will you have ? ” Abel continued ”Beer?”
”Yes any beer” said Sean obligingly.
”Yorkshire bitter?” asked Abel standing. He was so cheery he was climbing the walls.
”It is isn’t it”’ Sean joked.
”Oh ain’t it half” said Dean ”I am from the other side of Pennines you see.”
Abel went and got some tinnies they all sat down for a chat.
”I was in the police for 40 years” said Dean ”now I run the pension fund.”
”Oh I see. Terrific” said Sean straining to find a compliment to pay.
A few minutes later Nigella came out.. She was 26 and had dark brown lustrous locks past her shoulders. Her skin was alabaster. There was delicate beauty to her and her cheekbones were prominent. She had dreamy blue eyes and a soft, distant voice. She was lightfooted and slender. Abel had done very well for himself. Sean would like to get into Nigella’s inner sanctum.
”Hello, my name is Sean” he said standing. He shook her hand
”Well pleased to meet you. Welcome” she spoke with a light Mancunian accent ”I just had to put the children to bed.”
”How old are they?”
”Our eldest is 3 and the other one is 18 months”
”Good for you.”
”Now I am a fervent Catholic. Not always so. I was brought up an Anglican. I was passionate about it – wanted to be a vicar. I was in the Church Army. Became and atheist. I was a radical one but I still went to read Theology out of intellectual curiosity. This Ulster Prod said to me ‘Have you heard the good news about Jesus?’ I said, ”Yeah – he is dead.” But then I came back to Christianity. I became a Catholic and I am proud to say I am devout.”
Dean smiled indulgently. Nigella seemed faintly embarrassed – she had heard this homily many times over. Sean was puzzled – Abel had been through three different religious positions by the age of 20. He seems to have embraced each of these fervently. Was this evidence of an unstable personality?
”So you are Catholic too?” Sean asked Nigella.
”Well, no.” she said in her tinkling voice, ” I was baptised an Anglican like most people but we did not really go to church.” Her personality was so temperate. It was so at odds with that of her husband. He was a driven man and no doubt a man of demons.
”We are not a religious family” Dean commented.
”But I got to mass with Abel and the boys are being brought up Catholic.”
”Oh yes. We carry them on a sofa as the pope used to be carried and should still be carried” said Abel ”I want to work in Catholic education my whole life. I spoke to Fr James about doing a full tridentine mass. I shall be acolyte. There was an Anglican priestess here last week for a conference. She said she hoped I accepted her . I said accept you as an Anglican but as a priest – I do not accept you at all!” He looked very pleased with himself for that witticism. He was sanguine in his manner. ”You should real Missale Romanum. I find it invaluable to my spiritual life. It sets out why it was so wrong of the Church of England to have women priests. It was a tactical manoeuvre. Women priests are wrong – always will be wrong. That was why so many good Anglicans crossed the Tiber to us!”Did that constitute sufficient pretext to change church, Sean wondered?
Melanie seemed a little distant. She joined the soiree but did not engage much. Sean coveted her. Abel – having two children by this age. Seemed a nightmare. On the other hand he got to climb into bed with Melanie every night. Cannot be bad. Sean felt he could gauge her character – equable. She had inherited her father’s temperament. He was also on an even keel.
Abel seemed dissipated: he was a maelstrom of emotion. There was something maniacal about his facial expressions and voice. He was slim whereas Sean was fleshy faced. Nigella had internal stability to her. What was this inner tranquility?
Abel continued to hold forth. It was unadulterated reactionary invective against modernism in religion and politics. The entire 20th century had been one gigantic error! He talked incessantly. Sean was amused by him. He could not call him an interlocutor as he was seldom able to say anything. Despite this Sean was not bored. He sensed that Abel was glad to have found someone who would indulge him by listening to his zany opinions. Sean could detect a bolshy adolescent in Abel. Was he still at pains to shock? Abel said almost nothing about his last place except ”We were short staffed so I had to teach History too. Magnificent subject!”
Sean walked home with his heading buzzing. He had given up the faith years ago. He still had a soft spot for Catholic aesthetics. As for the Church – he considered it tedious but sometimes amusing for loonery. Overall it was grandmotherly. There was something wrong with a young man like Abel who was so mad keen on reactionary Catholicism. At least he was upbeat about it and not quietistic. He was increasingly apprehensive about the job.
On Sunday Sean went along to the village fayre. It was held outside the tiny grey stone Catholic chapel. A courtyard around the church face onto the one street in the village of 800 souls.
A few score people were milling around a few stalls. Miss Jenkins was there in a floral print summer dress complete with bonnet. She saw Sean and made a beeline for him.
”I am glad you made it.” Then she turned from him ”Father Reinhold” she called to a middle aged slender bald monk in a black cassock.
The monk turned around ”Yes, Miss Jenkins” he said in a notably Teutonic accent.
”I wish to introduce you to a new parishoner.”
”Ah hallo” Fr Reinhold said.
Sean shook the man’s hand. What hair Reinhold had clustered at the rear of his scalp. ”So vat brings you here to Amblefifth?”
”I am teaching there.”
”Ah very nice. I am in the monastery but not involved in the school. I run the orchard. Sometimes the students are scrumping from it. I make cider.”
Sean was impressed that the priest knew a word so precise as scrump.
”Ah I see. Are you from Germany.”
”Yes, I was a surgeon there. Then I had a vocation so I came here to become a monk. Now I am parish priest here.”
”I see. A surgeon wow. And do you treat the students or anyone?”
”Oh no. I have given up Medicine. The work of God is far more important than healing the sick.”
Sean was stunned. Had this man not got his priorities the wrong way around? Would healing the sick not be doing God’s work? But logic did not seem to go far here.
”I see. Well I hear there is high mass in the abbey church the first day that the pupils are back and all the priests from the abbey will be participating. ”
”Yes, it will be a wonderful mass. It will be led by the abbot – he says a lovely, warm mass. It is great for people to see the real glory of the church.”
”Yes, it can be very impressive” Sean was straining himself to say something complimentary. The glory of the church – he thought. What about the glory of God? Was this not all about worldliness? It amused him that Fr Reinhold reviewed masses as though he was reviewing films. Some were more entertaining than others.
”Excuse me – I must say hello to zat woman over zere” said Reinhold and was gone.
”Ah someone else you should meet” said Miss Jenkins. ”The Pinfolds.”
An obese middle aged woman was there. Her mass of brown hair did not sufficiently distract from her fat, unattractive yet kindly face. Her heavy jowls were reddish.
”Hello my name is Meg Pinfold.”
”Hello Mrs Pinfold.”, he shook her hand.
”This is my son Mark.” He was about 15. He was unbearded and skinny as can be. He was deathly pale and had dark brown freckles. His loose brown hair was wild as can be. He wore a sulky expression and looked around furtively.
”Ah hello Mark” said Sean shaking the boy’s hand.
”Ah hello sir” the boy said through closed lips. Mark was not tall and he stooped over – making him seem even shorter.
”Mark goes to Amblefifth” said Mrs Pinfold.
”I see good to meet you then” said Sean, ”I am about to start teaching there.”
The boy looked at him again – differently; Faintly afraid. It was as though he was accustomed to falling foul of authority.
”Oh right”, said Mark Pinfold. His accent was difficult to discern since he spoke through a closed mouth but it seemed to be RP. ”Which house you in?” Mark mumbled as he foostered.
”I am going to be in St OlAF’s”
”That is my house.” The boy seemed even more worried. He looked down and fidgeted. Mrs Pinfold glowered at him. As though he had done something very wrong. There was patently froideur between them.
”And this is my daughter. Lily” said Mrs Pinfold.
A brunette of 13 greeted him. She was also pale but had no freckles. She had a serious mean and shook Sean’s hand.
”hello” she said in a Yorkshire accent ”I am pleased to meet you sir.” She stood up straight and looked him in the eye. She spoke clearly and there was none of the foostering of her brother. Mrs Pinfold looked on Lily benignly.
”I was at the prep school last year so I am pleased to be moving on to the senior school now.”
”Oh well it is great that you are keen on the move. SOme people are a touch nervous about anew stage and all that. I am!”, he chuckled. Mrs Pinfold laughed with him but Lily did not. Mark seemed nonplussed. ”What did you do for the summer?”
”We were in Spain for a week but mostly I was here riding and looking after our horses. I was in a gymkhana”
”Ah tremendous ” said Sean. He did his best to keep the conversation going. He noticed there was no Mr Pinfold on the scene. The chat soon petered out and he moved on to mingle with others.
Mark Pinfold reminded him of Tom Sawyer – mischievous, none too keen on school and far from bright. Lily was clearly the golden girl in her mother’s eyes.