The School on the Fens (16)

By: Robert Waldron
May 25, 2013


HILOBROW is proud to present the sixteenth 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.



Mary O’Leary ordered us to wait for the headmaster in his suite. I advised Ed never to underestimate the importance of school secretaries, who often wielded more power than assistant headmasters and invariably knew all school-related dirt. He laughed, assuming I was being facetious, but I was deadly serious.

“Take a seat,” she commanded,” pointing her plump index finger toward two wooden chairs, “Mr. Farrell will be along in a few moments.”

The office was a big square room situated in the northwest corner of the building, receiving little sunlight during the day. Bare white walls and stark wooden furniture made the room look larger than it was. Dozens of gold and silver trophies collected dust on a shelf running the perimeter of the room just below the high ceiling, awards for every high school sport, including chess. At the north end of the room stood a long seminar table before a window through which Simmons College and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum were visible.

We sat in front of the headmaster’s immaculate mahogany desk.

“What’s that?” Ed asked, pointing to the shelf behind the desk.

“An eighteenth century bronze.”

“Of what?” Ed stood up for a closer look.

“Romulus and Remus, suckling a she-wolf. It’s the school’s symbol.”

He grimaced.

The sound of Farrell’s jangling keys announced his arrival. When he challenged my presence, I recited section seven of the contract guaranteeing Ed’s right to a union rep at any meeting with an administrator. He slammed his keys down on his desk and sat down, “Goddamn contract!” His complaint was ritualistic, a well-rehearsed scene.

Failing to elicit any response from either of us, Rell finally said, “I’ve called this meeting for several reasons. First, Mr. Horgan, why did you access Timothy O’Donnell’s transcript?”

“To check his grades,” Ed said quietly. “Timothy received a failure in English on his first term report card, but he insists he had an honor grade when Mr. Thompson died.”

Farrell stared at Ed, and Ed unflinchingly stared back.

“Mr. Thompson was a scrupulous man,” Farrell said, as if he revered Bill. “If he flunked O’Donnell, then he deserved it.”

“Timothy thinks it’s a computer error,” Ed said.

“As I said, Mr. Thompson was a scrupulous teacher about his grades. Have you any proof O’Donnell passed?”

“Miss Murkin couldn’t locate Mr. Thompson’s IBM grade sheets,” Ed said.

A long silence followed.

“Couldn’t I retest Tim on the first term literature?” Ed said, offering the fairest solution.

“It would be unfair to the other students who worked hard for their grades,” Farrell said, assuming his Solomon-like voice.

“But Timothy’s telling the truth,” Ed said. “His records prove he’s an honor student, and he’s never before received any grade below B- in English; the failure jeopardizes his chances for early decision to an Ivy.”

“Ivy League won’t accept him anyway,” Farrell said, sneeringly. “He’s a mediocre hockey player. I grant that his academic record is good, but if you examine his transcript, you’ll notice he’s never joined any clubs or involved himself in our school council.”

“Timothy’s S.A.T. scores are excellent,” Ed added, “and he’s a talented writer.”

Before Ed’s shining integrity, the headmaster seemed to shrink into his dark suit. Picking up his keys, Farrell flipped them in and out of his palm.

“Bring me proof that he passed Thompson’s class, otherwise the failure stays.”

He sank back into his black leather chair. “It’s been brought to my attention,” he continued, still flipping his keys, “that you’ve been late to school on three occasions.”

“Every day I set my watch by the radio,” replied Ed in surprise. “The school’s clock is fast.”

“Set your watch by our time. Understand?”

A disbelieving Ed stared at Farrell.

“I also understand,” Farrell continued, “you’ve been testing the seniors too much.”

“The curriculum guide says students should be tested weekly,” Ed said.

“Is it true, Mr. Duncan?”

“It is,” I said, secretly pleased by Ed’s checkmate.

“Then I’ll to speak to Henshaw. By the way, Mr. Horgan, you’re not to bring coffee into your classes.”

A quizzical look crossed Ed’s face, wondering how this meeting about Timothy’s grade had turned into a petty critique of him.

“Have you discussed O’Donnell’s grade with anyone besides the Registrar?”

“Only with Mr. Duncan.”

“Keep it that way.” Farrell stood. “You both may leave.”

We stood silently in the school foyer near the statue of Alma Mater. Ed seemed disturbed.

“Are you okay, Ed?”

“Sure,” he said, raising his eyes to mine “but how the hell did he know I brought coffee into class?”

I smiled in relief, fearing Farrell had unnerved him.

“Rell the Spy has spies everywhere,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “Even students spy for him. You know, the promise of strings pulled for services rendered.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Wish I were.”

Ed shook his head, “This place is a Byzantine court.”

“With Rell as its emperor.”


Stay tuned!

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”