The School on the Fens (14)
May 11, 2013
HILOBROW is proud to present the fourteenth installment of Robert Waldron’s novel The School on the Fens. New installments will appear each Saturday for thirty-eight weeks. CLICK HERE to read all installments published thus far.
On Friday afternoons we ritually met after school at the Shamrock Bar, a five-minute drive from school. It attracted teachers from nearby schools, off-duty nurses from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and grad students from Boston College and Boston University.
Gilt-framed mirrors, brass lamps, and dark mahogany wainscoting created a hospitable atmosphere where we teachers could safely be ourselves. On occasion we drank too much. I once awakened without memory of driving home, and Iris and I had a furious row over it.
While we were reviewing our week, Jim happened to have the Badger’s letter, reading it aloud to the delight of all in earshot, including the regulars who’d been following our school soap opera for years. We speculated about the Badger’s identity, but because Rell had so many enemies, it could be almost anyone on the faculty.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ed at the entrance and waved to him as he zigzagged his way through the late afternoon mob boisterously cheering on an Irish soccer team on TV.
“Friday is test make-up day,” he said, scanning the bar with an approving smile. “But today no one showed up so here I am.”
He had changed into jeans and a blue sweatshirt, looking more like a senior.
“What’s your pleasure?” Jim asked, always the first to buy a guest a drink.
“I’ll play it safe,” Ed said, looking around at the Irish flags, “and have a Guinness.”
Our bartender Peg drew Ed a pint. “Are you a member of this crew?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ve just started teaching at Classical,” Ed replied.
“I’m Peg Kelly,” she said, reaching over the bar to shake Ed’s hand. “Any horror stories yet?”
“No,” he answered, warming to her friendliness.
“You will,” she said, plunking a beer in front of him.
I informed Ed that Eileen would keep an eye out for Bill’s mark-book but kept to myself Farrell’s sexual tryst with Tim although part of me wanted to shout the ugly business to the world. A cop-out, I admit, but I lacked the psychic energy to face it, let alone burden a novice teacher. Ed would have charged in where angels fear to tread. And if both were prepared to deny it, as Eileen said, neither of us had a leg to stand on.
“Wish I could help Tim,” Ed said, “his heart’s set on early decision and Ivy League… but he’d be better off waiting for his grade average to go up and apply to college later in the year, still with a chance at an Ivy.”
“Early decision is like an Olympic gold medal to Tim,” I said. “He’s dreamt of it ever since he was twelve… he has a right to his dream, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” Ed said, “it’s just that I think his dream will come true without early decision.”
Maria and Jim were conversing with two well-dressed young men who periodically peered at us. Maria’s wink signaled they were Classical grads.
One of them squeezed through the crowd, “Hi, Mr. Duncan, remember me?”
I was at a loss.
“Lee Phillips,” he said without a beat, allowing me to save face.
“Yes, I remember you,” I said.
Lee was accepted by every Ivy he had applied to. He chose Yale. His tipsy friend Mike Bryant joined us. I hadn’t taught Mike but remembered Jim’s describing him as the “salt of the earth.” Lee and Mike had met for lunch and spent the afternoon swapping stories about their high school days. Lee asked about Farrell, and I noncommittally replied that he was still headmaster.
“Asshole Farrell’s still running the show, huh?” said Mike, after a swig of beer.
“Come on, Mike,” Lee said.
“Come on yourself,” Mike said after another swig of beer. “Farrell didn’t give a shit about people like me, only you guys at the top of the class.”
“Not true,” Lee said, “Farrell’s dedicated his life to Classical.”
“If it weren’t for Mr. Ford’s recommendation,” said Mike, slamming his glass down on the bar, “I’d never have gotten into Holy Cross.”
Peg looked over concerned, and I signaled no problem.
“If you had asked, Farrell would’ve helped you,” Lee said quietly to calm Mike down.
“I did,” said Mike, raising his hand to Peg for another beer.
“And?” Lee asked.
“Said I hadn’t a chance in hell of getting into a top college and should apply to a state school.”
“What’s wrong with a state school?” Ed asked.
I introduced them to Ed. About the same age, they shared college stories until Ed repeated his question about state schools.
“Classical kids look down on state schools, they’re fall-back schools in case first-tier ones reject them,” Mike explained. “Farrell caters to the top members of the senior class who’ll go to Ivy’s or M.I.T. or Stanford, colleges that’ll bring glory to the school. He doesn’t give a shit about the rest of the class, a lot of kids considering our class was over three hundred and fifty.”
“Lee, your father’s a doctor,” Jim interjected, he and Maria having joining us. “He was also the chairman of the Parents’ Council. Farrell favored you because he was power-brokering.”
“Cynical, cynical!” Lee said, by now bored by the subject. “All I know is that Headmaster Farrell was good to me.”
Jim emitted a cackle, loud enough for Peg to stare at him, and I again signaled no problem. “I can’t believe my ears! Has everyone been duped?” Jim’s wife Sharon suddenly appeared, elbowing her way through the crowd. She was still wearing her nurse’s uniform. Dark Irish with high cheekbones and oval eyes, she juggled being mother, nurse and wife without any visible signs of wear and tear.
“Christ, Jim, I could hear you out on Market Street. How many drinks have you had?”
“Only two, dear. I heard something amusing about Farrell —”
“Please, spare me, it’s bad enough to listen about him at home but not here too.”
Her comment was like a face-slap. Were we bores to our wives? Had time reduced us to whiners?
After dinner Ed invited us back to his place for coffee and drinks. Maria, Jim and I accepted. Sharon declined, her excuse being tired, but I fear that she was weary of tales about Classical.
Ed lived in a red brick townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay. His apartment was spacious with huge floor to ceiling windows. Furniture was sparse but elegant. A baby grand piano stood at the end of the room before French doors leading to a brick-enclosed garden. And above the sofa hung a colorful seascape that Ed’s mother had painted.
“Your mother is talented,” I said, while running my fingers along the piano keys. “You play?”
“A little bit.”
Ed lit several candles and disappeared into the kitchen. After a ruckus of opening and shutting cabinet doors, clacking cutlery and running water, there floated in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Ed carried in a tray of brandy glasses and coffee mugs. Food had sobered Jim so he poured drinks for Maria and himself. Ed and I chose coffee.
“Elegant apartment, Ed,” Maria said. “On a teacher’s salary?”
“I share it with my girlfriend Veronica who’s studying music at the conservatory. All I own is my mother’s painting over the sofa.”
Maria stood up to peruse the painting, praising its golden sky reflected on the water. “You’re settling here in Boston?”
“Not sure,” Ed said, sitting in a lotus position on the carpet. “Teaching is harder than I thought, and my students constantly moan about being bored.”
“They’re bored,” Maria said, sipping brandy, “because they’re tired of thinking about themselves.” Leaning back into her armchair, she continued, “Give them something to lose themselves in. Have them read a Victorian novel, a Shakespearean play, a Keatsian ode and hold them accountable for it. Learning is an act of self-forgetting, and students have to be coaxed into it.”
“It’s exactly what I’m trying to do!” Ed said.
Maria expanded on her theories of teaching, as she was wont to do with young teachers, and when she finished, an impressed Ed said, “Your students are lucky to have you.”
“And your students are fortunate to have you,” Maria returned. “John’s raved about your teaching.”
Ed looked at me, his eyes full of gratitude.
“Maria’s right, don’t let the kids discourage you,” Jim said, swirling brandy in his snifter. “When they cry boredom, they’re pretending they’re above anything that interests adults.”
“I try to make every class interesting,” Ed said.
“And you’re succeeding,” I said. “Your class on King Lear was terrific.”
Ed shyly shrugged, “The kids knew I was being evaluated and made more of an effort.”
“Proves they like you,” I said, “So relax, you’re doing a fine job.”
We talked into the night: Books, music, movies, and then back to teaching. Maria mentioned how her students enjoyed translating Camus. Ed was interested in how she taught a novel, so she described her method.
Our conversation suddenly veered into school politics.
“I wish you three were the administrative team at Classical,” Ed said. “How come you’ve never applied for —”
“Don’t assume we haven’t,” Maria said. “I’ve applied for the head of the modern language department three times in the last ten years, and Jim has applied twice for assistant-headmaster.”
“But the best people should run our schools,” Ed said, shaking his head, “not people like Murkin and Farrell… or am I naive?”
After an awkward silence, I said, “Let’s not ruin a lovely evening talking about Farrell.”
Maria obligingly added, “Ed, please play something on the piano.”
Ed stood and grandly bowed, “At your service. What shall I play?”
Maria said, “Something upbeat.”
Ed sat on the piano bench, took a deep breath and began to play.
I didn’t recognize the piece, but it was full of light and movement, like a mountain stream finding its way to the sea.
“You like?” Ed asked.
“We’d love to hear more,” Maria urged.
Ed stood to open the piano bench and withdrew a folder of handwritten music sheets.
Arranging them on the lectern, he said, “Are you sure?”
“Okay, here goes.”
It was a long meditative piece, incrementally gathering power toward an unexpected climax to be followed by a serene coda.
Ed played most of it with his eyes shut.
At its conclusion, he gently lifted his hands from the piano keys, with the last chords quivering in the air. Opening his eyes, he had a far away look as if he had forgotten our presence.
We were silent, reluctant to mar the magic.
“Thank you, Ed, it was lovely,” Maria finally said, her face flushed with astonishment.
“You play a little?” I chided.
“Sometimes my fingers fall in the right places,” Ed said, refocusing his gaze on us.
At the sound of a key in the latch, Ed sped to the door, kissed his girlfriend and introduced her. Veronica White had a high forehead, large soulful blue eyes and full lips. Wearing a silver silk dress and a single string of pearls, she reminded me of a Pre-Raphaelite painting by Rossetti. If Ed was sunlight, Veronica was his moonlight.
She kicked off her shoes and knelt down on the carpet while Ed poured her a glass of white wine. She had been to a concert with friends, an evening of Beethoven with guest violinist Isaac Stern. She herself was a violinist studying at the New England Conservatory, her dream to play with the Boston Symphony.
She described the evening concert, including Stern’s three encores.
When Ed left the room to make more coffee, she whispered, “I’m worried about Ed.”
“Why?” Maria asked.
“He’s not sleeping, and I blame it on the phone calls we’re getting in the middle of the night. When Ed answers, there’s no one there, and it’s terrifying… I suspect they’re connected to Classical.”
“Students play pranks,” Jim said, “it’s the reason why I have an unlisted number.”
“But we have an unlisted number,” Veronica said, “and now Ed’s worried about the note he’s received from the headmaster. Perhaps he should try teaching at another school; Classical is too —” She broke off as Ed returned with a tray of cups and coffee.
“Why’s everyone so quiet?” Ed said, quizzically looking at us.
“We’re tired,” Maria said. “I haven’t been out this late in a long time. What time is it?”
The phone rang, and Ed anxiously looked at Veronica. She nodded and he picked it up.
“Hello — Hello — Hello.” Ed returned the phone to its cradle.
“Must’ve been the wrong number,” Ed said, anxiously looking at Veronica. A chill had fallen on the room, and we decided to call it a night. While Ed went for our coats, Veronica whispered to us, “Please, protect Ed, he’s a babe in the woods.”
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”