Chapter 14, the final chapter, appears later today, the 11th May. The previous chapters are the posts immediately preceding. You can always contact me about anything, including your response to this novel, at email@example.com
The new teacher was coloured a deep and tender brown, like some smiling Indian goddess, and was certainly as beautiful. She was perhaps 24, was hopelessly mesmerising, and I was only four years old. This was in 1955, so if she is alive today she would be an inconceivable 85. Miss Georgina Salmon had a missing middle finger on one hand, and that was at least one symbol of her radical allure. Her absent digit, that notness, was almost as hypnotising as the plenitude of her wasness, by which I mean her Istigkeit or isness, the rest of her body that was whole and perfect. I thought that something from heaven had arrived in my bleak village and assumed she was here for ever. For goddesses are permanent and enduring, not capricious, or at least not the ones that I knew of or imagined. Besides her arched bow smile was so infinitely kind and so full and so brown. She wore a deal of make-up on her sumptuous tan, and was more exotic than anything I had ever seen. Some twenty years later I found her kind again in the pages of Sanskrit poetry, women with their chariot wheel hips and plantain tree thighs and water pot breasts, and their mrinala filament lips. She was also a nitambini, for her skirt held a perfectly curving and sinuous behind, one even an infant would be riveted by. At four I might not desire her sexually, but to be sure I still desired her. For years afterwards, up until I was about 8, I would dream of being there in my bed with Georgina Salmon, the pair of us naked, and she hugging me to her breasts with consummate and endless tenderness.
She was the first woman I ever fell in love with, and I thought she would be there in my hampered world for evermore. She disappeared one day and her dreary opposite, Miss Ball who was twice her age, dark and sour yet amiable by unpredictable turn, returned to the infant school. I grieved but only for a while as four year-olds with few exceptions cannot predict tomorrow, nor think of the future, and are sited in a kind of eternal present of which Miss Salmon had been a tender, delectable part and Miss Ball the obverse. Miss Ball was as mad as the best of them, and as well as giving huge slabs of cake to the children who did their sums well, thus leaving the innumerate hungry and envious, even murderous, she had rules so arbitrary she should have run a prison camp. One day we had to practise writing the numeral 4, and I wrote it down with the top angle joined as opposed to open. Unfortunately, she had done it on the blackboard with it open, and at a less acute inclination. We had been told like her to write ten of these numerals and Miss Ball indulged a sullen rage at my unorthodox beauties, and accused me of being a little clever dick who could not do what he was told.
“Why do you always have to be different?” she snorted, parading her twitching old snout a half inch from mine. “Why not be like the rest of the world? D’ you really think you might be too good for us?”
She disliked the fact I was very clever, but was also vicariously boastful, as if it was largely down to her splendid pedagogic means. In all good faith I had intended to please her with something different and original, and present her with a visibly more attractive number 4. She made me write them all twenty times her way, cross out my heretical efforts, and generally wish I were anywhere than in this listless and primitive hothouse. On the hypnotic shore of the Solway Firth for example, opposite the hazy peak of Criffel in Dumfriesshire, or up in the scented forests which surrounded the village and enclosed the woodland pits closed and sealed up over fifty years ago.
I knew plenty of bliss in those days, as well as plenty of melancholy. The forests and the seashore were both a kind of paradise, especially the woods, as they were nearly always empty of people. There was some fallow pastureland called Bottlefield that lay beyond the colliery, and in the lee of the forest. It was massive and sloping and fertile and cut off from the world, and there I experienced the profound tenderness of the natural world, especially in the generous mist of solitude. I might have been accompanied by an older brother, but I was always happily and profoundly by myself. On its edge and close to the village was polluting industry at its ugliest, a sprawling chemical works that produced carbon disulphide and made everything around it streaked with tar. The tar was diverted into the sea below, just as the pit sent much of its detritus there. Hence the existence of the tar beck and the pit beck, with no less than three bedfellows, the comically rickety shit pipes that released raw sewage into the innocent Solway Firth well into the late 1950s.
In 2016, I still dream twice a month of the nearby Grammar School which I left in 1969. I dream of the infants’ never, and of the junior school only once a year. The two buildings were contiguous, a massive nineteenth century edifice, with malodorous outside lavatories and massive tarmacked playgrounds. My dreams of the junior school are always about its perplexing geography, and doubtless this represents my questing and puzzled inner journey of the time. It was a poor village with a notable population of gipsy kids who had settled in some rank former pit terraces just outside the forests. One of them Benny Warcop, a permanent inch of foul snot on display, started a schoolyard fight with me, and was egged on by his bawling acolytes. The two of us closed for the combat like two gormless apes, but both were such cowards it was in effect a protracted war dance. Benny tried to distract all eyes from his panic by resorting to boastful hyperbole.
“I’m gonna knock this ugly bugger till the bloody moon and back!”
What he actually said was, Az ganna bray yon uckly bugger till t’bliddy myeun an back! but the trouble with faithfully rendered dialect is it has as many detractors as admirers, unless you happen to be DH Lawrence and hit the nail on the head as no one else has ever done. In any case it was all pure baloney, and in 1961 the gipsy lad was praying for intervention as much as I. Our salvation was booming Willy Dane, the dry and unflinching Deputy Head, who grabbed our necks and frogmarched us scornfully to the Headmistress, Millicent Hogget. We might have been caned on the hand, but instead she simply harangued us in a bored kind of way, and admonished me for being a fighter when really I should be a peacemaker if only to go with my enormous brains.
“Have you heard of the CND, Sonny?” she asked me with a frown and of course I hadn’t a clue. “The Campaign for ah. Have you heard of what do you call them, Willy, are they called Sputniks with the hair down to the ground?”
Willy realised she meant Beatniks though true to form he himself preferred Sputniks to Beatniks.
“Beatniks? Sputniks? I don’t understand,” she sighed with eyes firmly closed as if communing with the wisdom of her sacred inner self. Whenever Milly harangued or argued a point it was always with eyes tightly shut, and she is not the only one who uses this beguiling narcoleptic technique as a lifelong strategy. Milly the Hogg was a spinster of 58 born 1902 and would remain one till her dying hour. The most joyous day of her entire life was on the 6th of May 1960, when Princess Margaret wedded the eminent photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, which is curious on reflection given our Head who kept her eyes firmly closed was not the uxorious kind. Perhaps she thought of the sole acceptable union as one involving colossal social, nay regal elevation, which in a village like ours was not even a distant dream.
I could go without end on about my childhood, the deep joys as well as the insoluble agonies which were so much a part of being a late and unplanned child. But I have already done it copiously elsewhere, and there is no point in duplicating what everyone knows. The best description of early childhood in any known literature past or present or future, is Jean Le Bleu, by Jean Giono of Provence, translated perfectly into resonant English as Blue Boy. The book could never be bettered, as every word and every line and every page, is imbued with the pure and penetrating spirit of someone who has been vividly a small child like no other. Giono has been dead for nearly half a century, and Blue Boy is read by almost no one outside of France, and even within his native land there are few who would care to peruse it.
If you are a prose genius, you can of course sing till you are blue in your face, blue as a blue boy in your bursting blue face, and no white nor pink nor anaemic and zestless bastard will willingly consent to listen. They would sooner check their phone or check their heart or check their cholesterol or check their internet bank balance. If they have a small child and the surly rebellious child defeats them, they will check the child with perhaps a clout and an admonition. They will check the urgent flow of blood from and to the heart, of both their children and themselves, and their incredulous spouse. If you are one of those laudable ones who are always wary and ever canny and put your precious family first, you keep things in check and you monitor the ebbs and flows of your fiscal security, and if you are an American you write a check to confirm it, or at least you did so when Jean Giono was in his prime.
Everybody hates these antique things called cheques these days, which is a story in itself and will be so until the end of time.