04 May 2006

Callous Callas

They surface in the end. Those deep dark memories of shame.

The house probably has hi-fi worth more than the car and cottage thrown in.

I'm listening from one end of the house to Maria Callas soaring from Wharfedale speakers the size of radiators pumped from Magnavox/Ferrograph/Vortexion equipment.

The Diva of divas sounds as if she's singing right here, personal recital just down the corridor.

No idea what she's singing from: my bro sent mum a rip of a "Gallimaufrey of Callas" (spelling?).

I am reminded of my hated school days. Hated.

  • Hated being across the other side of the world from home
  • Hated the beatings
  • Hasted and feared the 6-days-a-week compulsory thumping on the games field, wimp.
  • Hated being skinny
  • Hated how Mr Peters always took after-games showers and stroked our backs.

    Hated the sadist prefects who had it in their power to cane sans needing permission. (Thank god i wasn't a *pretty* junior like Ellison or Taylor.

  • Hated the teachers' sarcasm and the way the headmaster was so unctuous to our mothers and so mean when Exeat Sunday was over.

    I was Exhibit A crud weed spaz crybaby.

    MARIA: My housemaster at my second school was a Callas fan and we'd hear him playing her as we did prep.

    Perfectly nice codger but spineless and never questioned the prefects' punishment rosta.

    Tipping point came (thank you Mr Gladwell) when a little combo I put together - me on rhythm nylon string guitar, Dyer-Smith on acoustic bass, Dupe on steel string lead and Bastard (yes, his name) on very cool bongos. Now *there* was a pretty boy.

    We entered Yellow Bird in the open ensemble class, versus all the string quartets and piano duets etc - and we won.

  • The big cheese adjudicator judge up from London reckoned we were the best.

    He even mentioned my "firm command of the situation" which was reference to my re-starting us.

    We sat and I whispered encouragement and I waited for Dupe to count us in so we could all start with that big chord and bongo roll - and the blood fool just started on his own.

    "No no no," I said. "Come on Dupe. As we've rehearsed a thousand times, you count us in." I peered into the lights in the direction of the judge and said, "Do excuse us." Titter of laughter from the assembled school.

    We were superb. Really. Not a note out of place and not speeding up out of nerves.

    When we did that final C to B flat and back to C and ran the glissando  down to the bass BASS note, I knew we had performed it perfectly. Possibly more perfectly than it had ever been played before.

    "That's it," I muttered sotto voce  to the lads.

    "That. Is. It."

    And we walked off the stage to our seats, tumultuous cheers.

    When the result were announced, Big Cheese adjudicator said,

    "And the winner of the ensemble ... as the leader so rightly put it, 'That's it.'

    Eagle House for their rendering of the very charming and deceptively simple 'Yellow Bird'. And my admiration to them for having the presence of mind to start again. We all make mistakes and it takes courage to wipe the slate.

    Eagle House. Messrs Dupe, Bastard  - and I hope I pronounced that right - Dyer-Smith, and last but not least, their quietly assured captain and, I suspect, brains behind the operation, Master Holmes."


    Dyer-Smith: captain of rugger, captain hockey; school colours in boxing, judo and every other brutal sport on the curriculum. Five foot five of squat muscle, who only took up the guitar to pull the chicks. Someone who normally gave weeds like me narry a second glance. He leaned over and pumped my hand.

    "Holmesy! - Brilliant! You did it. You f****** did it. F****** hell, man! You did it!

    (Crooned) 'House colours for Ho-o-lmesee, house colours for Holmeseee.' "

    Alas for the school admin, triumphs in school comps carry honours such as 'colours' and a flash tie to wear that sets you apart from the ... well, jerks like me.

    Didn't matter to Dyer-Smith who had so many ties he could wear a different one for each day of the miserable week we were locked there, but for the rest of us it was one in the eye for The Man.

    That night in the dorm, our house master came up and, eyes blazing with insincerity, congratulated us.

    Next morning in Mr Holloway's Geography class - a nasty red-faced man - he actually started the class with a pointed reference to how ridiculous and misguided had been the verdict and that it was a disgrace that we had been awarded first prize.

    I got up, gathered my books and started to walk out.

    "And where do you think you're going, boy?!! Sit DOWN this instant."

    "I'm going to the head's study to await my beating for leaving this way. Then I'm writing a letter to our distinguished judge, thanking him for giving up his time to travel down here to judge and apologising for the dismissive attitude of the school."

    "Sit down this instant."

    "Good morning, sir. You know where to find me."

    I was beaten and made to deliver a written apology to the asinine Holloway. My housemaster was totally feeble and took the side of his colleague, even tho' we'd brought honour and valuable points to the inter-house scores.

    Something clearly snapped because I set about concocting a delicious repast of revenge for which, no thanks to being cooped up there for the next few years, I had all the time in the world to execute.

    Sometimes he locked his study, sometimes he didn't. There was constant traffic of boys leaving work for him to correct or permissions for him to sign to go out, come back, sneeze, breathe, jerk off, screw the village girls who worked in the kitchen; myriad stuff.

    We'd sometimes have study sessions there, so I knew where stuff was: his vinyl discs, fine books, alabaster figurines, photos.

    I'd taken to missing chapel - inconceivable hence rarely monitored, rather like lesbianism never joining male homosexuality in being outlawed in England because Queen Victoria refused to believe that women did too.

    I'd lurk somewhere and then emerge to a wonderful emptiness and just the sound of the assembled school singing or praying in the handsome chapel.

    With my Hong Kong-made burglar's torch emitting a pencil thin beam, I'd sneak down to Il Maestro's study and pull out a Callas and key it; or I'd break one over my knee and replace it; or take a book and rip some pages out; trample on a photo; empty the Quink bottle into his Underwood typewriter.

    In one inspired moment, I entered with a spool of thread, attached it to a porcelain figure and typewriter and other objets lourds which I balanced at the very edge of the shelves and then trailed the nylon out thru the ¼" gap in the half-locked window and along the grass and into my own study, which I shared with Braithwaite, an other-worldly swot who lived in his own world of calculus, Homer and brewing up stinky concoctions on the bunsen burner.

    Teacher: "Er, do we have the privilege of your attention, Braithwaite?"

    "With you in a jiffy, sir. Just need to distil this mezereon so it keeps its viscosity."

    "Well, you'll be the first to do so-"

    (Head down, sans looking up) "Just needs keeping at 80°, sir."

    "Hrrmph. Very well. The rest of you turn to page 83 in your Turner and Lyle.

    B: misprint in para 2, sir.


    (Still not looking up.) Para 2, sir. The formula's wrong. It should be 4 not 8."

    "Aaahh .. quite so. Page 83, everyone, and correct - neatly now - the 8 to a 4. Thank you, Braithwaite."

    Good man to share a study with.

    "You're a bloody fool, Holmes." (nose in math book)

    "Shut your cake trap, Braithers."

    "Still a bloody fool."

    "OK, what've you got for the Latin prep?"

    "What've you got?" Scribbling formula.

    "I can't get what Alcinous is saying; doesn't make sense:

    "Gaze on ... because ... something about a rope ... tie up your troubles in your old kit bag? ... Tie your money together? Because, let me tell you, this whole thing will end in tears ... can't be that."

    B: Sigh

    "Yet, lo - at such a moment your heart prompts you to seek the tale of my dismal fortunes, whose telling will wring from me yet deeper tears."


    Still a bloody fool.

    I'd hear the housemaster come down with his loud click-clack shoes and just when I calculated he was in ear-shot of his study, I pull on the thread and hear the eminently satisfying tinkle of breaking china and general destruction.

    The thread would then be pulled clear and in thru my window and tucked away.

    House master would enter to apparently locked window and scene of devastation.

    We had enquiries and grillings and threats and pleadings and even the fuzz at one point.

    The trick is to remember what you don't know and stick to that ignorance.

    The cop asked us "So what do you think about the records?" (about which we'd never been told). Good old Dyer-Smith thought he was talking about *atheletic* records, of which he'd broken a few, so he'd preen modestly and say it was just luck and a good wind behind him. I interpreted it as archives and said I didn't realise Mr Alban kept the school records in his study but that they were jolly useful if anyone came to update the history of our hallowed seat of learning.

    And now I'm listening to Maria singing her heart out and just loving it and thinking what a terrible thing to do to the old fart: gingerly removing the sacred disc only to see it cracked in twain or horrendously mutilated.

    Pure vicious uncalled-for act of hooliganism of a lonely boy lashing out at a world he neither understood nor wanted a part of.