New story Old Friends and Cornfields New 2018
The flaps on the letterbox banged loudly, heralding the arrival of the mail.
I recognised the writing on the yellow and white envelope, colours of the Vatican flag, and singled this out to be the first I would read. I picked it up, opened it and read the letter. It was from Father Arthur Wellington Boote SJ, inviting me to visit him at his new prep school, The Spinnaker. Father Isaac Spender- Penny, another old friend, would be there, also. Wellington pointed out that the school was still full of Jesuit tradition, but there was a more relaxed atmosphere nowadays as the powers that be didn`t wish to frighten off the more valuable customers. I looked forward to my visit, and as the morning wore on I made some plans. I sent Wellington an e-mail that I would be there on the dates he had suggested and got on with my day.
A few days later, I was on my way, travelling by car to a remote place in Derbyshire, where the Jesuits had founded this particular prep school, many years before. As this was my first visit to the school it was going to be something of an adventure.
` Wellington `
I arrived mid-afternoon, and Wellington greeted me as I got out of my car. “Mine looks a bit of a wreck, compared with yours, John,” he said ruefully, “but it gets me where I need to be. Vow of poverty, you see. By the way, is it true that the Archbishop of Liverpool has the letters OP on his number plates, in honour of being in the Order of Preachers? Come on,” he said, smiling. As he opened the boot for me and took out my bags, I said, “I heard that one monsignor, who wanted advancement in the Church, spent a great deal on procuring `VAT 69` as his registration number.” Wellington replied with a smirk and said, “I`ll show you to your room.” The building was an old stately home, used by a family years before but now converted into a school and living quarters for the Jesuits and staff and occasional guests.
I followed him up two flights of stairs. He opened the door to a spacious bedroom and placed my luggage on the floor. “I`ll bet you could do with a cuppa,” he said, “I know I could.”
He led me to his room, a flight down. Father Isaac Spender- Penny was already there. He had just made the tea, which he poured out into some fine china cups. The tea was as refreshing as it was meant to be. “We`ll be dining with Father Rector Richter, this evening,” said Spender-Penny. “He`s off the scale with his humour; he would have to be with a name like that. We have known him for many years. He`s from Bonn and we studied with him at Heythrop College.” Wellington sipped his tea and said, “I`ve just joined the staff here, as Chaplain. It`s a real godsend after those years of teaching. Many of the boys are pleasant and good natured and are still Catholic, unlike some of those in the senior school, who are still `deciding`. Spender-Penny said, “I`m here to teach History, which is quite interesting for me, but we are hampered with all these new Education Department regulations.”
“What`s on the telly?”
Isaac poured out some more tea and opened the newspaper. “Ah, yes. The television page,” he said. “I see there is an old film on this evening. I wonder if you could guess what it is called from the description I am going to give it.” (My friends would often mention a film and give a cryptic crossword clue as to its name.) “I`ll have a go,” said Wellington. “Very well,” said Isaac. “It`s a story by Charles Dickens. Here are the clues. A couple go house hunting and come across one which they both like a great deal. Having gone from room to room they return to the large, almost baronial, dining room where the wife admires the fireplace. “I would improve on it, somewhat,” she said, “by widening it, and by adding a black marble mantelpiece. Finally, I would cap it all with a large mirror.”
“I know,” said Wellington, “I reckon it is `Great Expectations`.”
“Well done,” said Isaac. “Now, it`s your turn, John.” I glanced through the programmes, and decided that the best thing to do would be to make one up, which I did.
“This is a very interesting film,” I said. “It concerns a newly- wed couple, Peter and Gill, on honeymoon, who retire after their first day of married bliss. Gill goes into the bathroom, having realised that her scalp had been itching for several hours and brushes her long, brown hair. She discovers that it contains nits. “Oh, no!” she exclaims. “I got rid of them years ago. I thought that they had gone forever! And here they are, back again!” “Easy one,” said Wellington. “I reckon it could only be, `Bride`s Head Revisited`.”
“What did you do with the bells?”
Wellington made some more tea. “John,” he said, “I was telling Isaac, before, of some interesting and funny incidents in which I was involved, this week. I was invited by the head teacher of a local boys` comprehensive, Saint Borrel of Lemo, to say mass for them, as their regular chaplain was away, on yet another course. The children were well behaved on the first morning, so no complaints there. After the mass, I said to the two young altar boys, “I thought you must have been asleep during the mass, because you did not ring the bells nor sound the gong. So, what did you do with the bells?” “I put the bottle back in the cupboard with the altar wine,” replied the older youngster, trying hard to hold back a smile. They both rushed out of the sacristy before I could say another word.
“Did you see the Teachers?”
The head entered just then and asked if I would say another mass for a special intention, the following morning. I arrived just as the children were coming into the hall. I must admit there was a lot of noise. Then, one of the previous day`s servers arrived. I asked him, “Did you see any teachers out there?” and he replied, “Not out there father. I put it in the cupboard with the altar wine, yesterday.” I had to look. There were the bottles right next to the altar wine.” (Could that word have had the spelling `alter` wine if the Lord had changed it from water?) The tea finished, Isaac and I went to our own rooms to freshen up for the evening meal.
At seven thirty, the gong announced dinner and the three of us went down to the Jesuits` dining room. This contained a table large enough to seat fourteen people, and the walls were covered in green William Morris paper and several portraits of previous rectors. A large crystal chandelier hung above the table. Wellington, had already warned me of Father Rector`s name, and reminded me, by saying, “Please don`t laugh when I introduce you to our reverend Rector. As I said before, he has a name of seismic proportions.” Isaac, Wellington and I entered the dining room together. Father Rector was already there with some other priests, one of whom was introduced as Father Deal. “Hello, John,” he said, “call me Jelly, everyone else does.” Then, Father Rector Richter greeted me. “How are you, John?” he asked, smiling broadly. “Wellington and Isaac have been telling us about you. Come and sit next to me. I hear you have some interesting stories, and I was hoping you would share some with us, this evening.”
Dinner at last
“I will do my best, Father,” I said. “You must call me Herman, my dear fellow,” the Rector said. “Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to John. Now, let us say `Grace`.” The room fell silent, except for the sound of rumbling stomachs. Father Rector said `Grace`, and paused. He looked at us all, a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Judging by the sound of borborygmus, coming from so many of us, I don`t think we should delay starting any longer.” We all sat down, and as the priests took their napkins, poured water and buttered their bread rolls, the soup was brought in on a trolley, by Edna, the maid, one of the women who lived in the nearby village. (She did not suffer from scalded thumb tips having learned the knack of carrying soup bowls correctly). The priests engaged in conversation. The headmaster, Father Francis Xavier Sharpe, sat next to the Rector. Sharpe was a somewhat stern looking man, who, it seemed, God had not endowed with a sense of humour.
I noticed that somebody had placed a box of dental floss and one of dental sticks, in the centre of the table, beside the condiments, and remarked to the Rector, “It`s very thoughtful of Chef to provide a means to encourage dental health, namely the floss, isn`t it, Herman?”
“No, not Chef, John,” he replied. “There is a more profound and deeper meaning behind the floss.” Everyone went quiet at this point, so that they could hear what the Rector was going to say. He continued, “Several years ago, a previous rector, Father John Bull, was in Rome, during the Papacy of John Paul the Second. As you know, England suffered at the time from an outbreak of mad cow disease, which the Pope knew about, because he too wanted to be well informed. Anyway, Father Bull, and some bishops, maybe a cardinal or two, were invited to dinner by His Holiness, in his apartment. The Pope said `Grace`, followed by an Act of contrition. The dinner went well, with good wine and good conversation. As coffee was being served, Father John said, “May I be as bold as to ask you a question, Your Holiness?” Everyone became silent as one of the cardinals translated for him. The Pope nodded. “Holiness, I noticed that you said the Act of contrition, before we started the meal. I wondered why,” said Father Bull. “Well,” replied the Pope, in his best English, “I could not afford to take any chances. I knew we were having English beef.” Then, the Pope deftly pushed a small tray, which contained a box of floss and some dental sticks, to Father Bull. “Please help your- self, Father,” he said. Father Bull brought the box back from Rome, at the Pope`s insistence and left it here, having made sure that at least one of us knew the story. After some laughter and brief applause, Herman said, “Hence the dental floss. It is here to honour the occasion.”
Conversation resumed as the main course was served: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, of course. The head`s old, black Labrador, Jasper, wandered in, taking up station under the table at his master`s feet, hoping, no doubt, that he would drop a morsel of beef onto the floor near him.
As we settled into the main course, one of the priests, Ivor Sermon, (a good name for a priest) wanted some pepper. “Could somebody pass me the pepper?” he asked, several times, speaking louder each time so as to be heard above the noise of conversation. “Where is the pepper?” he demanded, finally. “Over there,” replied another, “it`s in the mill on the floss!”
As coffee was being served, (a usual time for asking silly questions) the Head said, “It is so gratifying to see that our boys, perhaps one in particular, are taking heed of what we are teaching them, especially in the field of Information Technology. Whereas in days gone by, we would see` Kilroy was here`, written on a wall, our central hall and main corridor feature the word `Wikipedia` several times.”
“May I suggest that it is something else, Headmaster,” said Father Melville Wright, a rather nervous, newly ordained priest. “I would venture to say that it has nothing in particular to do with I.T. studies but rather, more to do with your dog.”
“My dog,” said Father Sharpe, looking rather puzzled. “What makes you think that?”
Melville continued. “I have discovered that the boys have their own name for Jasper. They prefer to call him `Wiki`, ever since he was seen making a puddle in the main corridor, some weeks ago. And we can work out for ourselves what `pedia` means, from the context of the whole business.”
“Well I never,” said the Head, trying hard to ignore the laughter of the others. Suddenly, he stood up, nearly pushing over his chair, his face breaking into a grin, as he began to see the funny side of the situation. “Come on, Jasper, or should I say `Wiki`. Out. I must go and change, gentlemen. He`s wet the bottom of my trouser leg.” The old dog followed his master out into the corridor. “It`s the vet for you tomorrow, old fellow,” Sharp said as he closed the door.
Choice of name
I asked Herman why the name `The Spinnaker` had been chosen for the school, and he replied, “One of the priests who founded the place was a keen yachting enthusiast, and wrote down several yachting names and terms, for approval by the governors. He encouraged them to choose Spinnaker over Painter, and Spanker was ruled out at once, because of its connotations.” He paused and then continued, “The priest didn`t want people to get the wrong idea about our disciplinary methods, although, of course, we still had the ferula, (the strap), in those days.”
Wellington saw an opportunity to get me to tell them about one of my experiences, and so I obliged. “I have been doing a bit of social work, recently, in a parish near my own,” I said, “with some misfits, namely young arsonists. One Sunday, the parish priest, Father John E van Gelist, a Dutchman, was concerned about having Benediction for them in the church, because of the risk with the contents of the thurible, and so he just gave a short sermon, not even mentioning Moses and `the burning bush` and `fire and brimstone`, as such talk might have incensed them, firing their enthusiasm for forbidden activities. Anyway, two probation officers, Arthur Wiledstan and Frank Tritton were there, and had come up with an idea to integrate the youths more into the community. This was to have a football game between `young arsonists` and a mixed team of probation officers and social workers. There was also to be a female team to play against the female officers.
“That`s me Dad”
Both games were played with enthusiasm, one warm spring afternoon, at the local football club, with a good number of supporters cheering them on. At half time, I overheard two of the younger arsonists chatting. “Do you know that guy who keeps shouting at you, whenever you go near him?” one asked the other, pointing to an older man standing against the rails. “Oh, yeah,” came the reply. “That`s my dad. He`s always kicking off on me. He must think I`m a football pitch.” The young arsonists, to the chant of `Dan T, Dan T` from the supporters, ran rings round their opponents and eventually won, five two, and the female arsonists side won six nil.
Afterwards, in the church hall, when all the players had showered and dressed, our local Mayor gave out the trophies, trying to make the presentation resemble the events at a national cup final. He remarked on how well every person had done, and then called the captains of each winning team to receive their cups. The female team were called up to the stage, first, amid catcalls, wolf whistles and general shouting. “I now present the captain of the Swan Vesta team with their hard won cup,” the mayor said, enthusiastically shaking the young lady captain`s hand. He continued, “Our Cinder Ella, our little match girl, Lala Lande, also gets a trophy for scoring the six goals.” The well- built player, a vertical knot of hair resting precariously on the top of her head, accepted the cup and held it aloft to the cheers of everyone present and went back to her place, followed by her team.
After the noise of applause and shouting had died down, the Mayor said, “And now it`s the turn of our men`s team. I call to the stage the Bryant and May side, all young men who have trained hard to achieve a very good and hard won victory over the probation side.” He paused to pick up the trophy and consult his notes. “I now present the cup to the captain of the arsonist team, who is also the man of the match, our striker this evening, Daniel Tudhope, known to his team as `Dan T`, because of his many Infernos.” (I could tell it was the alcohol that encouraged my audience to laugh at my story.)
The maid brought in the dessert, a Tesco trifle and a selection of `profit`s earholes`, as the cakes were known by all at table. Father O.Vine, a rather sheepish man, who had remained quiet during the meal, spoke up and said nervously, “Did anyone hear about the cannibal who `desserted` his wife?” The others were so surprised by this unexpected contribution that they did not readily respond to the remark and the poor priest said, “Well, I just thought I would mention it.” As the evening was young, some of us adjourned to the common room, while the maids cleared up.
The priests sat and read newspapers while Wellington, Isaac and I chatted. As we did so, some of the others, glass in hand, came and joined us. Wellington brought some fresh coffee and sat down with us. “Isaac and I thought we would take you out for lunch, tomorrow, at a little place a few miles from here,” he said. “It is quite different from the hotel we went to, last time.” He sipped the coffee, put his cup down and said, “You never told us where you stayed while at college. It was with the Vincentians, wasn`t it, I mean they ran the place, not that you stayed with their community?”
“Well,” I replied, “you seem eager to find out so here goes. In the first lodging house, there were eight of us, not all students, crammed into a family house, near Twickenham, while the landlady, a widow, lived in a gazebo at the bottom of the back garden, so as to make more space for the extra paying customer. I stayed in that house for the first year, and then I stayed in a house a few yards from the college. This time, the landlady`s husband was present.
Mr and Mrs Worth had two teenage sons, Wayne and Garry, who had separate rooms, and the three students, all of us from Saint Mary`s. The younger son presented no problems, but the older one was just sixteen and a large lad for his age. Bert, the father, would always enjoy a glass or two of cider in the evening, and would be sitting in the kitchen drinking it when I arrived `home` near bedtime. He always invited me to join him, and then proceeded to give me an account of his day, which usually included some misdemeanour committed by his elder son. One such was after the first half term break.
A little knowledge
Wayne would not get up, one morning, resulting in his mother, Aggie, throwing a pan of cold water over him while he was still in bed. We (the students) had noticed how he was behaving when he came down for breakfast. He could not eat his cereal properly, and his spoon never met his mouth. The cereal was slopped over the table.
It was concluded by us, (erudite students), that he was intoxicated, and we left for college. Bert told me later that Wayne had taken a substance which he had bought from some friends the previous evening.
Another time, Wayne disappeared overnight, causing the police to be called. Only when they had gone, did he reappear. He had been sleeping on the roof. Then he went missing again. On this occasion, he had cycled to the south coast, and another time when I got back to the digs, the police were just leaving. Later, I was told that Wayne had been arrested for firing an airgun in the street.
“The passenger had lost his head “
The story that really got to Bert was told to me one evening near the end of the summer term. “John,” he said solemnly, “Wayne came home late again, last night, because of what happened on the way home. He was out with his girlfriend, on the train, one of those whose carriages were made up of separate compartments with their own doors. Suddenly, there was a bang as a train passed in the opposite direction and their train stopped. After a while, the train moved into the station and the police told everyone to get out. They were told that a man had been leaning out of their train and had been decapitated by the opposing one. Well, he said that the police wanted statements from the passengers, and that`s why he was late home.” A couple of weeks later, as I went into the kitchen, Bert asked, “Do you remember that incident Wayne had with the train? Well, it was a lie. Wayne told me it was just an excuse he had made up, to avoid trouble for coming home late.” Fortunately, I was able to leave that house at the end of the year.
In the third year, I stayed near the college, with an elderly, married couple, Mr and Mrs Radnor. I hardly ever saw the husband because of his work, but his wife was more in evidence. One of the first things she said was, “If any of the neighbours ask who you are or what you are doing here, don`t tell them that you are living here, as I shall get into trouble with the council. As tenants, we are not allowed to take in lodgers.” Although she said this, I never ever saw any of the neighbours. I wondered if they were taking in lodgers on the sly themselves.
In the summer term, a local mixed choir was to perform in a production of Verdi`s Requiem, with an amateur orchestra. At breakfast, one day near the occasion, I asked Mrs Radnor if she and her husband would like tickets for the concert. “I don`t think so, Dear,” she said, and walked out of the room. That Sunday, I went to the large college chapel for the concert. I sat with the Vice Principal, Father Beirne, and a few friends, in the choir loft. Then, the ladies of the choir started filling up the seats, placed in the sanctuary. Suddenly, I realised that the last lady in the front row was Mrs Radnor. “The sly old dog,” I thought. “No wonder she did not want any tickets.” The performance went off very well and the next morning, at breakfast, the landlady brought in my scrambled eggs and toast, as usual. On the way out, she paused, turning slightly. “Well, did you like the performance?” she asked. “Not really,” I replied. “I only liked the orchestral parts. I don`t really like choirs, myself.” As she left, she said, “It`s a good thing I didn`t buy any tickets, then, isn`t it?” We never mentioned the concert again. My audience were both entertained and amused by my contribution, and, as it was becoming late, they went off to their rooms.
Before retiring for the night, Wellington and I watched the television.
The next morning, I attended Mass in the school chapel, after which, Wellington showed me to his office. We had to follow the path through the gardens, bushes and trees. Isaac joined us as we walked. Wellington kept stooping and picking up what appeared to be shiny stones. He did this several times. “I have an idea who belongs to these,” he said. As we reached the end of the path, we came across one of the younger boys, in his uniform, briefcase on the ground, next to his right foot. He was scratching his head in bewilderment, and holding a tattered cloth bag. “You seem rather puzzled, Leo,” said Wellington. “What`s the problem?” “I, I, think I am going mad, Father,” he said. “Indeed, I think I am losing my marbles. When I left the house, this morning, my bag was full of them, but now it is empty.” Wellington reached into his pocket and held out his hand. It was covered in marbles. “I think these must be yours, young man. The boy took them, mouth wide open in amazement, and put them into his pocket. “Gentlemen, I would like you to meet Leo Ginn, our own L.Ginn. Like the other one, he is famous for his marbles.” “Thank you very much, Father,” said the delighted lad as he hurried off along the path to his first lesson of the day.
The Railway Children
Just then, we heard the sound of a train horn, “Heehaw, heehaw.” “I know that sound,” said Wellington. “Gentlemen, we are about to meet the Railway Children.” And there they were. Marching closely together, in single file, brief cases by their left side, the three uniformed boys hove into view, and stopped in front of us. Wellington said, “Gentlemen, I give you the Railway Children.” “Yes, that`s right,” said the leading boy. “I am Blundell.” “I`m Sands,” said the second. “And I`m Crosby,” intoned the third. “We call ourselves the Railway Children because our names are that of a station, on the Northern Line in Merseyside,” said Blundell.”
“We have just got time to hear that interesting story you told me about your Uncle Derek,” Wellington said to Blundell. “Well, if you are sure, Father,” said the lad. “I`m not so sure I understand it, myself.” He paused for a moment, and continued. “My Uncle Derek is a guard on Southern Rail, and has been making his lunch sandwiches for himself over many years. Now, on one occasion, some of his colleagues were travelling on the train with him, and they were all crammed into the guards van when the train arrived at a particular station, as usual, at twelve noon. Uncle always had his lunch at that time. He was aware that the others were watching him as he opened his lunchbox. `Oh, no, not Effingham, again`, he called out, for effect, looking somewhat surprised. I think his colleagues missed the humour, because one of them remarked, `You told us you made your own sandwiches, so why were you astonished that they were made of ham`?” Then, Sands said, “I think that the story would have lost some of its clout if he had brought `Egg an` ham Pie` for a change.” “The odd thing is,” said Blundell, “I can`t, for the life of me, see what`s so funny about it at all. Come on lads, we had better get off to class,” he continued. “Bye Father.” The boys hurried off in formation. We continued towards Wellington`s office. Yet another boy appeared in front of us.
“This is Peter Piper, John,” said Wellington. “Yes, sir, I am he. I picked a peck of pickled pepper, so they say. If only I had a pound for the times I`ve heard that one.” The annoyed boy went on his way and we entered Wellington`s office.
There was a large, brown desk, covered in books and periodicals, in front of the double glazed window, and a brown, wooden armchair. In front of the desk were three wooden chairs on a tatty, green carpet. Wellington said, “Sit down, both of you, while I make some coffee.” This we did. Isaac consulted his timetable. “Only one lesson this morning, after break,” he said, “and I`m free this afternoon, while the boys are busy at games. Where are you taking us for lunch, Wellington?” “I thought we could go to that old stately home, now a restaurant: `The Coddled Egg`. It`s not too far away.” He placed the coffee on the desk. Isaac left when he had finished his, to do some marking, and I left Wellington to prepare his sermon for the Sunday Mass. I wandered into the school library to read the papers and near lunchtime went to meet Wellington. Isaac arrived and we went to Wellington`s car. Father Sharp was talking to Wellington. The dog was not with him, but the Head explained that the vet was keeping it for observation in his clinic. “Well, I`ll leave you to it,” he said, “to use an expression that seems to be in most TV scripts these days,” and walked away.
The Coddled Egg
The restaurant was a few miles from the school, but we made good time and were soon there. “What are the odds on meeting that awkward woman we came across the last time I was visiting?” I asked. “No chance at all,” said Isaac, as we entered the premises, and went into the large reception area. At the desk, Wellington told the young receptionist who we were, and she called over a waiter to show us to our table. We entered the spacious dining room.
There were several people already eating, and we were shown to a table near the window. As we sat down, two boys, about fifteen years old, dressed in black trousers and white shirts, with black bow ties, entered the room, used two chairs as ladders and stood on two tables, dislodging all the crockery and cutlery. Everyone went quiet, just watching. Suddenly, a tall moustachioed man in a dark suit rushed from the kitchen and shouted at the boys, “Just what do you think you are doing up there? Get down at once!” “The chef told us to come in here and wait on the tables,” said one of the lads, but they both got down, and followed the tall man back into the kitchen. Everyone could hear the row which erupted between the tall man and the chef and then all went quiet. Moments later, the dark suited man re-entered the dining room, introduced himself as the manager, and explained that the boys were on `work experience` and had misunderstood their instructions. He apologised for any inconvenience and left the room. Another waiter took our order. As we waited the boys reappeared, and under supervision, stripped the tables they had soiled and reset them.
“It`s that woman again!”
Things settled down as we worked our way through our meal, until Wellington said, “Don`t look now, but I do believe our friend is at the table in the corner near the fireplace.” Naturally, Isaac and I turned to see `our friend`, the woman who had caused a disturbance at a previous restaurant. “Now, fancy that,” I said, with a smile, “let`s listen carefully, we might witness something amusing.” A waiter came out of the kitchen and went to her table. Later, we found out that he called himself Jules. “Has Madame chosen something for her dessert?” he asked in a passable French accent. We knew that there would be some humour. “I would like two éclairs please, with extra chocolate poured on,” she said, and the waiter took the plate from her first course and left. We could just hear him muttering, “Presumably she wants the chocolate poured over the pastries and not over her head.” Moments later, he returned with her order on a silver tray, placed it in front of Madame, and asked if she would like coffee. She nodded and he went to get it, returning within the minute. He placed the cup and saucer on the table poured the coffee and left as she began to scoff her first éclair. This one seemed to go down a treat. Then she started.
She tried the coffee. “Waiter!” she called out, “Waiter!” He returned and said, “You `ave ze problem, Madame?” “You know it,” she replied in her loud complaining voice. “This éclair tastes like old boot leather!” “Maybe that is because it is made from choux pastry, Madame,” Jules said, with a wry grin. “Well really,” she said and continued, “There is one other thing, waiter.” “Only one, Madame?” he said, a sarcastic note in his voice. “Yes, this coffee tastes like soil,” she said, pointing at her cup. The waiter took two paces away from the table and stopped. He turned towards the woman and said, “No doubt you were expecting me to say, `That is because it was ground only this morning`. But I am not going to insult my intelligence. I will say this, however. I have never tasted soil, though it is obvious that you seem to have done so. Perhaps you should undergo some therapy. Goodbye. Roll on closing time. I am now off duty for my break.” He left the room, and our complaining `friend` finished the coffee and approached our table. “Hello, fathers,” she said. “I didn`t expect to see you here. As you can see, I didn`t succeed this time in getting a free meal. See you again.” She left rather hurriedly, leaving us to enjoy our meal. Clearly, the old buzzard had bittern (deliberate) off more than she could chew, this time.
Expertise in tray carrying
I observed Jules at work. It seemed to me that he was something of an expert in the art of using the salver, and told the others to watch his behaviour each time he entered the dining room, and how well he performed his job as a waiter. “Notice in particular, how Jules enters, having perched the tray precariously on the tips of his fingers, using either hand, and leaves with the same amount of precision, weaving in and out of the tables, avoiding customers` feet, and not spilling a drop of liquid or cutlery on his many` trips`.” It was the same with the many wine bottles he brought in on the salver. “His ability with this tool of his trade has put me in mind of the title of a book, by the writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, and I wonder if you could think of its name, knowing your penchant for cryptic clues,” I said. “Perched trays,” mused Isaac, pausing from cutting his beef, “now that`s a hard one.” He cut the beef, and said, “Any ideas, Wellington? I just can`t, for the life of me, work that one out.” Wellington swallowed his mouthful. “Got any more clues, old chap?” he asked. “I`ve given you the most obvious clue,” I said, “but I`ll not give you the answer just yet. It may suddenly come to you,” (and to you, Dear Reader).
A final clue
The work experience waiters came to our table and as one took away our plates his companion asked if we would like dessert. We chose the ice cream followed by coffee. Soon we had finished, and the lads came and cleared our table, leaving the bill on a saucer, as is customary in many restaurants. We watched Jules make one more return trip. “A real master of his craft,” I said as we left the room, giving them the final clue. Wellington paid at the desk and we left the building.
Tales by the riverbank
“We could go for a short walk, in this lovely weather,” suggested Isaac, and we followed him along the path down to the river. “You haven`t told us any of your tales out of school, yet, John,” said Wellington. “Do any spring to mind?” I thought for a while and said, “Well, there was one school, in Liverpool, where I taught French to unwilling children. I needed to resort to bribery to induce them to learn anything. After several weeks, in one mixed class I tried yet another quiz, based on words and expressions they had learned that day. I had come prepared with prizes, namely a packet of Kit Kats, which I had in my briefcase. I had used such prizes in other schools.
The Kit Kat plan
The Kit Kat idea had come to me the day before, when I was having my morning break, by myself in a vacant classroom. I had poured out a cup of tea from my flask and started on a Kit Kat, which I had taken out of a packet and put back into my briefcase. Suddenly, Mrs Breckfield entered the room and strutted over to the table next to which, I was standing. She leaned into the briefcase and said, “Oh, I like Kit Kats,” assuming that she was about to receive one. She was out of luck. “Get your own Kit Kat,” I said, somewhat abrasively, “after all, you are a head of department, and are on more money than I am.” She spun on her heel and made for the door. “Well, really,” she said as she flounced out into the corridor. The bell rang for the next lesson at that point, and the class lined up outside the room.
Once they were quiet, I invited them in. During the second half of the lesson, I told the children, aged thirteen and fourteen, we were going to have a quiz, and that there would be prizes. I took out an unopened bag of Kit Kats and placed it on the table. Without being told, the boys and girls sat up straight and folded their arms making themselves ready for action. I asked the first question and picked one of the better behaved boys to answer it. He got the answer correct, and so I opened the bag in front of him and allowed him to take the first biscuit. “Can I eat it now, Sir?” he asked. “Of course you can,” I replied. I chose another well behaved boy to answer the second question, and duly offered the bag to him. He ate the biscuit, also overcoming the comments such as, “Giz a bit,” or, “I would have shared it with you,” coming from those sitting next to him. Then I chose another boy to answer the next question. He got the answer wrong, but I offered the bag, saying that he had made an effort. He took out the Kit Kat and I watched him open it as I was asking the next question. The boys next to him went silent, as did he. The lad gave me a quizzical look, as if to say, “I don`t believe it.” One of the others asked, “Are they all made of wood, Sir?” “You saw for yourself that I opened a fresh bag, in front of your very eyes,” I said. I can only suppose that somebody in the factory was having a joke at our expense.” Just then, the bell rang, saving me from their wrath, and they all left the room. The interesting thing is that they never mentioned the incident again. I did keep the bag of Kit Kats, however, for another time.
Revenge is a sweet biscuit or the Kit Kat that nearly caused a break
The next morning, I chose to have my refreshing break-time tea and biscuit in another room. I summoned a passing boy and handed a Kit Kat in an envelope to him. “Would you find Mrs Breckfield and give this to her, please?” I asked. He went off to find her. That afternoon, I was in the staffroom preparing to go home, when in walked Mrs B. She came straight over to me, opened her handbag and took out the envelope I had sent her earlier in the day. From it, she took out the red cover and foil and produced what looked like a biscuit made of wood. “I almost broke my tooth on this,” she complained. “I was in a staff meeting and took this out of my bag, ready to enjoy a snack, when I noticed that this was made of wood.” “Well, you can hardly blame me for that,” I retorted. “You must take it up with the manufacturers. And why stop there? Maybe the boy I sent to you changed it, so he could enjoy the real thing.” She left the room without another word and I went home.
Behind the scenes
At this point, I feel it is worthwhile to explain about the Kit Kats. Some years before, the idea to make my own Kit Kats had come to me while driving home from work. I went to my workroom, where I knew there was some wood which matched the dimensions of such a biscuit. I opened a two fingered biscuit very carefully and covered the prepared wood with the foil and red wrapper. Then, I put it back into the fresh packet which I had just bought, and sealed it. Then I took it to school. You know the rest.
Miss Carole Singers
I left that school a day later to work at another. Again, there was another teacher working with problem boys. One morning, I was preparing some lessons in an empty classroom when the bell rang for change of period, but I stayed where I was as the room would be empty until break time. To my amazement, among the teenage boys who gathered outside the room were two who resembled Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. None of the other boys seemed to notice them, as all were preoccupied with their own business: arguing and rowing about the previous night`s match on the telly, for example. A harassed female teacher, Mrs Carole Singers, arrived, opened the door to the adjacent classroom and told the boys to enter. The unruly mob piled in, elbowing each other to their places. Then, they stood still and waited for `Miss` to put her bags on the table and address the group. She paused behind the teacher`s table, took a mark book from her hold all and told the boys to sit down, which they did, with the customary scraping of chairs on the unpolished wooden floor. The boys put various books and folders on their wooden desks and she started to explain some maths to them all.
A call from on high
After a few minutes, a timid, small boy arrived at the door with a message. He knocked quietly and sheepishly entered. “Please, Miss,” he bleated in front of this intimidating group of large boys, “the Head wants to see Troutbeck in his office.” The lad disappeared as quickly as he had arrived, and Troutbeck , a surly, tall lad, with a severe haircut stood up and sauntered to the door, making the freedom sign to the class, as he smirked. He left the room and went along the corridor.
Music Hall antics
As soon as the door was closed, noise broke out in the classroom, which the woman seemed unable to stop. To add to all the confusion, `Laurel and Hardy` stood up and donned a couple of old, black bowlers, which they had taken from their bags. Hardy stuck on a false moustache. “Have you got a barber, Ollie?” asked Stanley. “I most certainly do, Stanley,” replied Ollie, fingering his tie just as the actor did. “He is a cut above the rest.” Their antics mimicked those of the film stars, with Laurel scratching his head and distorting his face while Hardy gave him a kick in the backside, causing Laurel to fall headlong onto the floor and end up under the teacher`s desk. The noise of the others became unbearable.
Enter Groucho, stage left
Suddenly, yet another boy got up, put on a plastic false nose, moustache and glasses set, and ran, crouched, around the room in the style of Groucho Marx, holding a large cigar in front of his mouth. He ran circles round the poor bemused teacher. She didn`t understand what was happening. The roar from the boys rose to a crescendo, and, as the boy circled her he repeated the words from one of Groucho`s films. “Hey, Lady, I wouldn`t stand still if I were you. I hear they are going to demolish you and build two blocks of skyscrapers on the same spot.” Now, it is not usual practice for one teacher to go to the aid of another, but I got up with the intention of doing just that.
However, before I got two steps, the Head arrived with Troutbeck, opened the door, and blew his silver `Acme Thunder` whistle. Silence reigned. `Thrasher` Cane walked to where Miss was standing, shaking, by the table. In a calm matter of fact voice he said, “I deliberately waited outside the room to gather as much evidence as possible, and now I have it.” He paused as he glanced around the room.
`Another fine mess`
“Never, I repeat never in all my days, have I ever seen such a display of bad manners,” he said quietly, as he looked at the miscreants. “I noticed Laurel and Hardy, trying to remove their hats unobtrusively,” said Mr Cane. “We will see how well our actors perform in detention after school, tonight, won`t we, Mister Marx and Laurel and Hardy,” he said, as he stared poignantly into each face. He finished by saying, “Another fine mess you have got yourselves into and no mistake.” He told them all to sit down. “Does that mean I have to stay in detention tonight, too, Mr Cane? After all, I was downstairs in your office with you,” said Troutbeck, with a smirk. “Don`t push your luck, Troutbeck,” said Mr Cane. He stayed until the end of the lesson and sent them all out for break time, being careful to stop Groucho, Laurel and Hardy.
A well -earned Oscar
“Not so fast, you three,” said Mr Cane. “You favoured Vaudeville in the lesson. Now go and wait outside my office and I will reward you for your efforts.” The three slouched out and walked along the corridor talking to those who had waited for them. I found out later that the Head confiscated the bowlers and Groucho`s kit, saying, “I forbid you to enter the talent show.”
A plea for leniency was heard
Our trio was shocked by the Head`s reaction to their high-spiritedness, and Hardy asked if he would reconsider if they apologised to Miss at the staffroom door, in front of all the teachers. Miss was informed of this, as were many of the staff, and, after school, the boys knocked on the door and asked for her. Mrs Singers opened the door wide and waited. The teachers were all silent, straight faced and looking intently at the boys, who felt extremely embarrassed. Sheepishly, they apologised, and the Head told them to leave. As soon as the door was shut, a burst of laughter erupted in the staffroom which made the boys feel exceeding silly. Mr Cane insisted on the detention, although he rescinded his decision to prevent them appearing in the talent show.
Cane the ditherer
What Mr Cane had done that afternoon would go down in the annals of the school for it was the most decisive action he had taken for a long time. Indeed, he had left all the real decisions to his trusty deputies, who had virtually run the school for years. Another matter which caused a problem in the school was the Head`s indecision over taking early retirement. He was well over sixty and could have gone at any time, on a good pension and a large lump sum, but he was always holding out, hoping that he could get that extra bit. His hesitation caused annoyance and consternation at the top, especially with Mr Lines, his first deputy, who was first in line for the job of Head. Indeed it had been intimated by some councillors and the chair of governors that he would get the job. Needless to say, after the incident with the comedians the subject of Mr Cane`s retirement was again mentioned, and it was suggested that he should quit while he was still a Head.
“You are not the only one to have interesting times in school, John,” said Wellington. “Recently, I had gone to see the Head of a local comprehensive, and as he showed me around the school, we met some of the pupils. Two boys were sitting outside the first aid room, their heads bandaged, and plasters on their noses. “And just what have you two been up to?” Dr Day-Kerr asked. One of the boys replied, “We were in the RE lesson, and we began to argue over what Miss had just said, when Nathan `saith` unto me that he was going to smite me, which he did. So I smote him on the head as well. Miss sent us here, Sir.” “A simple matter of learning the Bible the hard way, eh, Father,” said the Head.
“I can`t stand sitting at the computer”
We continued the tour and came across a large lad, who was absent-mindedly bouncing a basketball, as he half listened to one of the teachers. “I really was hoping that you would have received a higher grade for your GCSE Information Technology exam, Key-Ring. Can you explain what happened?” asked the teacher. The lad stopped bouncing the ball and said, “I, I just can`t stand sitting at the computer, Sir.”
We continued on our tour back to the Head`s office, outside of which was a younger boy sitting on a chair, his legs across another, and his shoes on the floor. His socks were in his hand. “What are you doing here, lad?” asked the Head, quietly but firmly leaning over the boy from behind. “Have you started your summer holidays early?” The boy could not turn fully, and said, “I was in the Art lesson with another boy, when the teacher asked why Van Gogh had cut off his own ear. I said he was suffering from `lobal warming` and a row broke out with another boy, Sir, and I was going to land one on him when, Miss told me to go and cool my heels outside your office, Sir.” The head told the boy to put the chairs by the wall and sent him back to class.
We decided to head back to the school, at that point, and so we returned by a different route, which took us past a pub, which Isaac wanted to visit. This pub was called The Pulpit. It had been a church at one time, and the Anglicans had sold it due to a decline in the number of parishioners. The new owners had `converted` it into a modern building. Inside, we sat near the window, with our drinks. The sudden appearance of the waiter from the kitchen reminded Wellington to ask me to tell them the title of the book about the waiter in the hotel where we had had lunch. “Remember how the waiter had weaved his way in and out of the tables without dropping anything?” I prompted. “His salver perched on his fingertips?” I continued. “I think I`ve got it,” said Wellington. “The title is `The Master of Balanced Tray`.” “Well done! Easy when you know how,” Isaac said as he finished his beer.
As we drove back to the school, Isaac remarked that at one of the schools where he had taught there was an Art teacher, Mr Sturt by name, but called` Wiggy` by the pupils, simply because his hair looked like a toupee, and it never seemed to grow. “Some `smart alecs` had decided it would be funny to play a trick on him,” said Isaac, “and one day, they all entered the room wearing wigs identical to his. They could see it enraged him, and were glad, because he had often humiliated some of them and would talk about other teachers in class, for want of something better to do. To further taunt the teacher, some of the boys asked awkward questions. “Sir,” said Quick, “why should bald men slap polish on their heads before they get up?” “Get on with the work I set you,” he replied. “Sir, I know, Sir,” called out Stint. “It`s so that they can rise and shine.” There was laughter all around the room, and then the boys returned to their work. Some minutes from the end of the lesson, Wiggy told Boulton, the monitor, to collect the work, giving him the chance to ask what the homework would be. “The teacher told them and asked, “Are there any more questions?” to which Boulton replied, “Sir, if ten bald men got on the bus, which ones would have to tender the fare?” Wiggy paused in his tracks, so to speak. “Why, Sir,” continued the boy, “the one with the wig would have to pay.” “Wiggy was within a hair`s breadth of exploding but the class was saved by the bell,” said Isaac as he finished his contribution.
`English as she is spoke`
We arrived at the school some hours before dinner, and went to our rooms for a rest. Later, we met in the common room, where we looked at the newspapers, with the television on in the background. We watched the news and the weather forecast. This prompted me to mention one forecast which had stuck in the mind. On that occasion, the forecaster had said, “The snow which fell today, will be creeping slowly south in all areas tomorrow.” Yet another forecaster said, “We will divide tonight`s weather map into two halves. (Could there be more than two halves?) The larger half will be the area to the north of Manchester.” It is interesting that you should say that, John,” said Isaac. “Only the other evening I heard the newsreader refer to the `Alantic` Ocean, and `terrism`, apart from using the word `ter` for `to` and `fer` instead of `for`.
“Another annoyance I came across,” said Wellington, “is the way some nouns have lost their meaning. I heard a woman, in a television programme, declaring that she was not an `actress` but an `actor`, another that she was a `post master` but not a `post mistress`. I wonder where it will all end. Heaven help us when princesses declare themselves to be princes.”
I joined the conversation by saying that I had looked at some torches, on sale in a large bookshop, in Southport. Each torch had information printed on attached cardboard. “This torch is for reading in the dark”, proclaimed the headline.” The others laughed. “We could probably get a philosophical essay on that one,” said Wellington.
The last Supper
The gong sounded soon enough and we made our way to the dining room. We managed to get to the table before Father Rector and the Head. Another priest had arrived at the school, and was standing next to the Rector`s chair. He was introduced as a theologian. “I`m Jacob Seal, aka… `Seal of the Confessional`,” he said, grinning, as he made the `Bugs Bunny` sign in the air with his fingers. I wondered if he also signed question marks, commas and full-stops, to mention but a few.The others chuckled as we waited. The top brass came in together. There was still no sign of old Jasper. Grace was said, and the maid came in with the meal. We were to have noodles, which put me in mind of something which had happened to me, some years before, and I related the story when we sat down.
On growing up
I had been at a school where I had let one of the teachers borrow some books. This was Margaret Foy, who had failed to bring them back, due to forgetfulness. On the day I was to leave the school, she suggested that I drive to her house to get the books, and she invited me to tea, to make up for the inconvenience. I parked on the road, and she parked in her drive. “My twins have promised to make tea,” she said, as she fumbled in her deep handbag for the door keys. She inserted them in the locks and pushed open the door. We were greeted by the noisy smoke alarm and the smell of burning plastic, coming from the kitchen. Her daughter, Nivea, rushed to the door in tears. “There, there, whatever is the matter, Dear?” Margaret asked, hugging her daughter. In between sobs, Nivea managed to say, “It`s that beastly brother of mine, Mummy. He has just destroyed two of my most cherished dolls in the microwave.” We all hurried into the kitchen, to find Freddie holding a small shovel covered with melted plastic. “What?” he said. “You did say you wanted `crispy new dolls` for tea.” Margaret was really angry, but managed to keep her composure. “My goodness, children, you really must learn to stop this childish behaviour,” she said. “After all, you are both nineteen, now. You are nearly twenty, for Heaven`s sake!” I left the house right away, with my books of course, not wishing to be the victim of another meal which Freddie had cooked up, and went home. “You have certainly had some exciting events in your life,” said Father Rector.
“I feel a good deal better for that”
“Before we start, I believe that Father Deal has something to tell us all. Over to you, Father.” “Thank you, Father Rector,” replied Father Deal. “I received word today that I will be leaving you all tomorrow to take up my new appointment in a parish in the East End of London.” “They will eat you alive, there, Father,” said the Head to the applause of everyone else, knowing the propensity of certain Londoners for eels. The maid brought in the first course, straight after `Grace`, and, as everyone tucked in, Father Rector said, “I believe Father Seal has something to relate.” “Why, yes,” said Father Jacob, “I`m not called `Seal of the Confessional` for nothing.
Bishop de la Bedoyere`s advice
A certain Bishop de la Bedoyere, a noted theologian, himself, consulted me on a confessional matter. He had carried out a visitation at a parish and the priest had posed him a question. “My Lord, Bishop,” he said, “perhaps you can help me on a problem which has arisen. For years, I have listened to confessions, coming up with some good advice and suggestions for the penitents, but now, perhaps because I am becoming older, the brain is not providing me with the answers which used to flow so freely, almost instantaneously, if you like. Do you have any advice or suggestions for me?” The Bishop told him that he would seek such advice and ended up at my door. I told him my suggestion right away: “The priest should leave the confessional and think more outside the box.” This satisfied the Bishop who left quite pleased. Some of Father Seal`s audience appreciated his humorous story and asked for more, the others were content to finish supper and go on their way.
Saint Burn a debt
After supper, in the priests` parlour, Father Seal told us another story. One day, a priest, Father Oakwood, had been waiting in the confessional for an hour, before a very worried, desperate man entered. “Father,” he said, “I owe £2000 pounds, and I can`t pay it. What can I do? You`ve got to help me.” “You must calm down,” said the priest, playing for time, trying to think of an answer. Inspiration came into his mind and he told the man to leave the box and follow him. The man did this and the priest said, “We are going to pray in front of the statue of the Saint of Lourdes. The man was told to kneel on the step into the chapel. The priest gave him a small blank card which he took from his Breviary. “Write on it the sum that you owe,” he said. Then the priest took the card and placed it in front of the statue. “Close your eyes and pray hard,” he said, not realising that the card was precariously near to a burning candle. Suddenly, the card was on fire! “Open your eyes, man!” the priest shouted in excitement, “look, look! Our prayers have been answered. I knew Saint Bernadette would save the day for us!” The bemused man stood up, muttered his thanks and left the church.
That afternoon, Father Oakwood did his chaplaincy rounds in the local hospital. In one of the men`s wards, he saw a middle aged patient whom he recognised as one of his parishioners. “What are you in for, Mr Lace?” he asked. “Well, it was like this, Father,” he replied, “I was writing a poison pen letter to my neighbour, when I licked the nib.” Not knowing whether to believe him, the priest left the ward and went into A and E, where he encountered the man from the confessional, whose arm was in a sling, his face covered in cuts and bruises. “What on earth happened to you?” asked the priest, astonished. The man replied somewhat angrily, “You and the saint may have thought what you did was funny, but the men who lent me the money didn`t.” I was to leave the next day, and so we all retired for the night and to observe the long silence, which most houses of religion observe.
Out for lunch
The next morning I went into breakfast. Wellington and Spender-Penny were already there. They had concelebrated Mass in the chapel. “What time are you leaving?” asked Wellington, as he put several kippers on his plate. “Later on this afternoon,” I replied. “There is just time to take you both out for a final snack, somewhere of your choice.” “That`s good of you,” said Spender-Penny, “I know just the place.” That afternoon, I took us all in my car, allowing them the opportunity to have a drink with their meal. As we headed for our pub of choice, I noticed some horses running round in one of the fields which we passed.
Del and Rodney
“Have you ever wondered where the title of that David Jason comedy set in Peckham came from? Apparently, Del Boy and `Wrodney` had gone out into the country for a drive, one sunny day, and after a while they saw some horses running about in a field. Rodney became excited and begged Del to stop. This he did, and Rodney ran across to the fence, followed by Del. “Wouldn`t it be nice to do some of that grooming we saw on `Black Beauty`, Del?” said Rodders. “You`d need a special brush to do that,” said Del. “Pity is, we don`t have one.” He paused, `all thoughtful like`. “On second thoughts,” he continued, “I think I have just the thing in the van.” He returned to the fence a moment later and handed his brother a sheet of emery paper. “Go on, rub the horse with this,” he said with a grin, handing it over to his brother. The young man climbed over the fence, cornered one of the horses and started to brush its back with the paper. Suddenly, the beast reared up in pain, and kicked him, causing Rodney to fall to the ground. Del was laughing hysterically as he shouted, “I did try to warn you…only fools sand `orses, Wrodders.”
We arrived at The Rainbow Inn shortly after. The car park was almost full. Inside, we jostled for service, the crowd, mainly soldiers from the nearby training camp, being so dense. One squaddie shouted at the barman, “Swift half, please, lad.” The barman returned the shout, “Sorry, pal, no swifts left. We`ve got chicken!” Eventually, we sat down with our drinks and sandwiches. The pot man came over to collect glasses. “Don`t you have your own pub, a few miles away?” Isaac asked. “Yes, I do,” replied the man. “I`m Farr, from `The Madding Crowd`, he said. “I often come here to help out my brother, especially when the soldiers are in.” “I noticed that these troops are from Territorial Army regiments,” I said. “Oh, yes,” replied Farr, we lost all our regulars due to the Government cutbacks. You`ll have to excuse me. I`m expecting some trouble to break out,” he said as he moved away and headed for the bar. We left as quickly as possible, having noticed some jostling and arguments starting between rival groups of troops. As we weaved our way to the door, through the mass of people, I wondered how the waiter would have coped with such an obstacle course.
“He would have taken it all in his stride,” I thought.
We got onto the lane just as several military police vehicles rushed into the car park.
The Redcaps debussed and dashed into the pub, batons at the ready. “I would hate to be on the receiving end of that lot,” said Isaac, as we sped away. “That`s their headache,” said Wellington.
An hour later, I was ready to leave. Father Rector and the Head came to wish me well. They hoped that I would return soon. I said my goodbyes to Isaac and Wellington and drove away.