Memoirs

Six Dons, in Need of Clemency

  1. HIS COURTLINESS appealed to mothers. He stood at the school gates accepting the daily custody of small boys. The bold ran beyond, the shy hung around him. He lived in a sorrowful room somewhere, and we were his life. This was a rich school, but the only extravagance we could detect in him were his breast-pocket kerchiefs, violet, rose, buttercup.
    His smelly suit had long ago lost its symmetry, and this didn’t much concern him, but he was forever straightening out ties, pulling up socks over our slippery calves, smoothing hair. A sixthgrader set me straight about all this. So the man was a pansy, and there he was, on the sideline as we ran on to the ground for a football match, tugging me to a halt so he could give some sissy word of encouragement, but he caught a derisive thing in my eyes from which he turned away.I flew to the ball at the bounce, ruthless, defiant, hardy, a succession of virtues which lasted around a minute, I recall, when impact from somewhere extinguished thought of any kind.
    I came to, and he was standing over me, the ringed players stilled and mute. It seemed important to him that I stop crying and follow him, unaided, from the ground. Play resumed in our wake. He sat on a bench, lifted me to his lap, and his soft kerchief mopped me. Not tough enough for the game? he said, and it seemed there might be malice in such a sentence, but I could find nothing like that in the voice. He carried me off gently then in search of the nurse and her remedies. I laid my head on his shoulder.

  2. GROW FIVE years more, enter secondary, become a boarder now, and dread Sundays. After Evensong, dispirited boys are taken away for discipline by seniors, stood against the night wall, eyes blind in a spotlight, a tumbler of urine balanced on the teetering brow, while singing the school song, louder, clearer, maybe backwards next, the genitals mocked by the thrust of a cricket bat at each terrified error, and thrown out, awash, sick, grateful for darkness.
    The chaplain suspects something of this. A neat, troubled man, with a quivery pulpit tone, he directs an Evensong sermon to the seniors in the back pews, exalting compassion, but it will do no good; his gaze drops to us, so he recites from Matthew 5:44 that we might pray for those who despisefully use us, which is all he can think of to meet the circumstances, and turns from the lectern drawing tight the folds of his chasuble, as if need of spiritual warmth.

  3. THE SCHOOL had a military arm. On parade days, schoolmasters who held commission wore their decorations from battles long ago. The armory was in the west wing. A summer night, I found the lights on late, the door ajar. A senior master was sitting at the desk. He was drinking whiskey from a bottle. His tie was askew and over his civvies he wore his officer’s jacket, rank of major. He told me to sit. He had been passed over for academic promotion, we all knew that. And now his wife had left him.
    Misery streaked his cheeks. He wanted to talk about loyalties, he said, but I was in pajamas, so he ordered me into a greatcoat. I think I suddenly represented more than a barefoot boy at attention then, and he turned to face the portrait of the Queen. To his right and to his left rows of erect rifles stood in the stocks, in the attitude also correct for ceremonial tribute.
    This prompted some decision. He made his salute to her, and threw the bottle into a bin. He locked the desk drawer, where I knew souvenirs of the last war, and a poignant revolver, lay. We ascended the creaky stairs, he with resolute step to his study, and I on tiptoe through the peaceful dormitories.

  4. CAME THE McCarthy years, and opinions were passionate not least in the cloisters here. A music teacher, fat and fussy, cited Wagner in denunciation of communism, and would not allow Prokofiev. A history teacher called me to his study. He was the butt of many jokes because his crippled limbs hung at comical angles. His gift was a slim book in a plain paper bag. It was the Manifesto. I have it still. I guess he wanted to get on with the teaching of certain histories before it became unlawful.

  5. TO OBSERVE the very origin of panic, I need to recall detail of a scene at an earlier school, Sydney rural, small enough that the Anglican headmistress is the one teacher of humanities it has. The classroom holds all grades, now seated, and before them I stand in preparation for caning, punishment for talking in line, forbidden. I cannot seem to still my knees, and she allows me a steadying desk, which I am just big enough to lean over.
    The blows begin at my buttocks, climb the shirt, flay the shoulders, and I cover my head with an arm. Not all the screaming is mine, for the juniors with whom I should sit have fled their benches. Her grip on an ear jerks me to the door. The muscles in her face show the effort it took her to halt whatever terrible thing I have set in train. I make for home, legs flooded, a stinking in my britches. I live close by, with two aunts, or rather an aunt and her affectionate friend, and when I get there they sponge me down in a tub, exchanging glances, seeming to grasp more of all this than I can. When I am rested, they stand in tandem at bedside, and suggest I may have been b eaten in place of others, an adult ploy they say I shan’t understand until I am older.

  6. AND SO TO the very other end of schooldays, somehow aggregating all that has gone before. The great hall, the final assembly, the honor-boards above spoke our glided names. The headmaster delivered a vale. He was a Master of Arts, a Doctor of Divinity, crimson robes replete, a famed scholar who deserved his inevitable knighthood.
    He bade us invest our talents as in Matthew 25. But it seemed to me he might better have told us that a child’s most valuable scholarship is in what truly happens to the meek. We file outside, I watched boys wander the playing field a last time, touch the colonnades at familiar places, reluctant to leave. Some friend called my name, I ran for the gate.