A Roundabout Love
Read, he said.
Tongue-tied, I fumbled.
Open your mouth, I can’t hear you.
I was too ashamed to begin again, so I just looked at the page, silent.
Here was his prize pupil, honed on choral speaking and belting out revival songs, gone ‘dotish’. The poor man was crestfallen. I had not only lost the art of calling words, I had also lost my voice. Without a trace of anger, he lumbered off.
Reading was an obsession with my father, so when he found out on my report card that I was failing every subject, and even Literature among the ignominious crowd, he had to satisfy himself with his own ears and eyes that his hard-wrought effort, a painstaking investment accumulated from the time I could talk, had all come to nought.
So that’s how I came to be standing in the corner with Lorna Doone between my sweating fingertips, while he sat at the dining table as of old, a good way distant. Lorna Doone was one of the texts on my Form One syllabus, along with Men and Gods, and The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
The fact was that in one year, during which I had grown amulets on my chest, plus pubic and armpit hair, I had become a dunce.
Standing in the corner – this is how I had learnt to read – bellowing out from a far-out spot while he was occupied with something else, him shouting correct pronunciations and exhortations, “Break it up into syllables!” “Louder, I can’t hear you!” when my faltering voice dropped.
Over the year I had even lost basic common sense. My brother knew to wait in the front yard for the postman. And having intercepted his report, delayed its presentation till after Christmas, until the week before school re-opened.
Mine would be a bleak Christmas. They wouldn’t starve me; I would get the same amount of black cake and ham, but shame and silent glances would taint my entire holidays and cramp my style for the rest of the month. In those days, by the way, the academic year ran from January to December, not like now from September to July before the long holidays of August.
Worse, my mother was concerned more than she was distraught, about the overall comment of my form teacher: Talks too much.
So what are you talking about, she asked me every time we met over the long drawn-out December month. I held my head down over the dead pullet with steaming hot feathers we were plucking between us. My finger tips were scorched. She was softly picking the downy breast and inner leg regions, while she had left me the quills on the wing and fowl bottom to wrestle out.
She was genuinely worried. Even more worried that I had no answer. Was I revealing the business of the house? Exactly what and what and what?
Sometimes she would modify the question. Who are you talking to? Is any teacher in earshot?
What a paradox!
As far as I knew I was N-E-V-E-R talking! I didn’t know what that malicious form teacher was talking about. If I had been talking I would have remembered what I was talking about. She just didn’t like my head. That was what this was all about.
And look at what she had caused – my mother thinking that what we did at home was being judged by her educated betters. After she had tried so hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, there was I going down to college in town running my mouth.
I was on government scholarship, so I was guaranteed 5 years of education and a shot at Senior Cambridge, so there was no way the school was going to make me repeat the year, but I was demoted a rank. From Form I A, among the cream of the crop, I was transposed to 2B, among the less endowed.
To tell the truth, after a while I didn’t mind, because thereafter came four years of peace in the shadows. Too stupid to understand, certainly not one of the front- runners. Eyes turned to jockeying my more promising brothers and sisters.
But make no mistake, read I did: Twin book, one book in the gutter of another.
And I was an avid, and fast and silent skimmer. Show me a teenage girl of my day who did not devour the electric parts of the total Mills and Boon repertoire – those scenes in dark gardens and on ship decks in the moonlight among fair maidens and dark and handsome lovers – show me such a teenager, and I will show you a liar.
I also read A Basket of Flowers and all of Marie Corelli, whose books I learnt my church had banned. I borrowed them and left them under lock and key in my school desk for during the week. They were so pleasurably gothic, and I still went to church, so I didn’t know what the fuss was all about.
Nevertheless, although I still loved languages, formal English had betrayed me, so I threw my love behind French. I even went so far as to go down to Muir Marshall and have Mr. Ramdeen put on special order from his catalogue, a French missal. It took six weeks to come by boat from Europe. That was the process one took for books not kept in stock, like The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The King James Bible with the coloured streamers for page markers, and Hymns Ancient and Modern that my father had ordered. These books were the Holy Grail. Their print was stippled on translucent vellum, and you turned the pages delicately, with a touch to the lip with the triangle of the thumb.
No love lost. I was still in love with words, but canon and lofty school prescription had dropped into the background.
I have never doubted the vagaries of life, though. And here is one of the reasons:
Ironically, although I finished my pubescent years with French literature as my greatest love, and with Latin and Spanish as close backups, because I ended up doing a double major in English and French, and French became phased out, I ended up of all things earning my bread and butter as an English literature teacher.
This is how it went. At university I had signed up originally for a French and Spanish double major, but with the glut of Spanish graduates and the potential for employment becoming increasingly slimmer, (since Latin was a no-no and we were too far from Martinique, Guadeloupe or Cayenne to make French viable, especially with dying patois populations), I had to make a hard choice. I had enough English credits to qualify for a first-year class, so I enrolled in a British Literature survey program.
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
Revenge for an adolescence of neglect made those the four bitterest years of study I have ever had.
But I survived every torture and even elected to do teacher training to become an English teacher. There was the Beowulf (Bare Wolf), the Chaucer, the conceit of Donne and Herbert’s proxy-copulating flea. Among other DOM, I found Pamela and the satire of The Rape of the Lock. My father would have cheered at my likely redemptive exposure to The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the staples of Swift and Defoe. A prayerful man, he would have appreciated that I could put into context his choral speaking favourite, Blake’s “Little Lamb”. He would have frowned on my penchant for the sentimentalism of the Brontës, preferring the edification of The Mill on the Floss and the street-flavoured humanitarianism of Dickens. But I had no choice in the set survey material. Nevertheless, by the time I had got past the romantics to an avatar of his, the school-masterly Mathew Arnold, I was not far from the madding crowd – Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Auden, plus the rousing of The Angry Young Men had honed a bit of the dullness away from my seven years of neglect.
How did I get from that point, those survey years, to the point where I would have elected to repeat a path of more concentration and specialization – not once, but twice and thrice?
The long and short of it is that over my four initial years of Stockholm, I had fallen in love with the power of words: to command, to enrage, to pacify, to victimize, to love, to create war, to bless, to worship, to perceive, to paint, to scandalize – to bring alive all the endless infinites that human beings have put it to service for, from the cliched time immemorial.
Literatures in English and in translation have enhanced this voyage of mine.
I wouldn’t exactly say that I had won the lottery, but each additional assault was like the fire next time – as if my eyes were watching god and fuelling an urge to go tell it on the mountain.
In my travels, without pride and prejudice, I have come upon the tempest and the sound and the fury countless times. I have looked across hills like white elephants, and beloved, walked with the book of sand in my open palm. In crossing through the mangrove, an overcoat I borrowed early on still protects me through what feels like more than one hundred years of solitude.
Love after love, things have not fallen apart. My teaching days are almost over, but I’m far from done. These days I am basking in half of a yellow sun on unaccustomed earth, gazing up and loving the sun, the moon, the stars.
Cynthia James © October 2013