A young man takes up a teaching post
by Hilary Wilmington
I found this memoir among a box-full of papers in my boss’s office after his untimely death. I say ‘untimely’, which it was in a way, but he lived to a good age. Since it was his own business, he kept on working to the end, to the occasional frustration of his employees.
His widow, who was devoted to him, as he was to her, asked me to destroy all the papers in his office. She wanted nothing kept. She was an impetuous person. I managed to persuade her to let me go through them for her, in case there was anything important of a financial or scientific nature that should be preserved. That was when I came across it. I’m sure she had no knowledge of its existence and I did not tell her about it.
It was written in longhand in an exercise book and was headed ‘Life, Business and Technology’. He had been fond of discoursing on how these three were intertwined. I think it was probably intended to be the first chapter of a longer work telling the story of the invention for which he became well known in the field of domestic electrical circuit breakers.
A likely explanation would be that this first chapter turned out more personal in nature, and rather more revealing, than he had intended it to be. It is therefore of interest for more human than scientific reasons. I have waited some years before publishing it in order to minimise the risk of anyone living being identifiable. I have given it the title above but otherwise I have faithfully reproduced exactly what he wrote.
I had been out of the army nearly three months and I still hadn’t found a job. I had been in the Royal Engineers, into which I had drifted more or less by accident after leaving university. It had awakened in me an unexpected liking for the practical side of things which had not figured much in my background. I was now looking for a job which included a combination of mental and manual skills. I also wanted it to be well-paid. My efforts had not so far borne fruit. Such jobs as I was offered were either somewhere near the bottom of the ladder (if there was even a ‘ladder’) or involved sitting at a desk all day. I did get interviews for one or two jobs that I really wanted but sadly the interviewers did not share my estimate of my prospective worth.
I counted my remaining funds and found they amounted to seventeen pounds, four shillings and eight pence. That wasn’t going to last long. Admittedly the gratuity I had received on leaving the army was still sitting intact in the bank but I was determined not to spend that on everyday living. That was going to be put to good use.
Just when I was beginning to think I couldn’t hold out any longer, I bumped into an old army chum who put me on to an agency for people wanting to teach in private schools. I was not keen, but teaching was a respectable, professional occupation and I thought it might tide me over while I thought out a feasible plan for my career. It would keep the wolf from the door while at the same time not doing a great disservice to my CV.
So, I paid the agency a visit, saying I was looking for a post teaching physics. A man interviewed me for a good half-hour and then asked if I thought I knew enough mathematics to teach it at school level. I had no doubt of that, I told him. Had I ever taught? The answer was no, but I gathered this was not a great obstacle. If I was offered a post, when could I start? The sooner the better, I told him. He asked me to wait while he went away and made a phone call.
When he returned, he told me there was a vacancy for a mathematics teacher in a girls’ boarding school. He had checked with them and been told that, since they were desperate, they would be willing to accept a man for the post, on a temporary basis. As soon as a female replacement could be found, however, my job would be terminated. I objected to the insecurity this placed me in and asked if he would negotiate for me a guarantee of a minimum of three months’ pay. He said he could try, but advised me it was hardly worth it: female mathematics teachers were in short supply and he would be very surprised if they found one before the end of this term, if not later.
“I told the headmistress that I thought she would find you to be a suitable person,” he said. “Apart from being the wrong sex, that is. Well educated, nice manners, nicely spoken, that kind of thing.”
Probably the ‘kind of thing’, I reflected, that led to me being regarded with suspicion when I was interviewed for engineering jobs.
So it was that I found myself on a train to the depths of the West Country the very next day. The agency had fixed up digs for me in the local village, which was about two miles from the school, down a quiet country road. There was a bus, but I would be able to walk it easily and I needed the exercise. There was a pub where I would be able to get an evening meal. I felt I had landed on my feet. I must admit I did not give much thought to the job I had taken on. As far as I was concerned, it was just a temporary meal ticket. Whatever the school was like, it would be over in three months; or if I stayed on for the summer term as well, six months at the most.
Public school, Oxford and the Army were poor preparation for entering what was very nearly an all-female institution. I was the only man on the teaching staff. There was a janitor, who lived in the gatehouse by the main entrance, and there were three gardeners and a handyman, all of whom lived in the village, and who I sometimes saw in the pub of an evening. There was also a school bursar, a retired accountant, who worked only in the mornings. He and the headmistress ran the business side of the school between them. He had a house somewhere in the countryside round about. He kept himself very much to himself, having dealings only with the headmistress.
After a few days, I undertook to emulate him, and more, by having no dealings with anyone else at all, insofar as I could help it. I found the atmosphere in the staffroom most unwelcoming. In their behaviour towards me, the mistresses used a skilful combination of refined politeness and unmistakeable hostility.
I had difficulties with the pupils as well. I had not anticipated any discipline problems with girls, and at first my expectations seemed to be confirmed. They were quite in awe of me and anxious to please. As a result, I didn’t feel the need to prepare the lessons very thoroughly, largely making things up as I went along. At the same time, I strove to put them at their ease by adopting a casual and friendly manner. However, this honeymoon period hardly lasted more than a week. My lessons gradually disintegrated into noise and inattention and sometimes a situation not far from chaos prevailed. On one embarrassing occasion, the deputy headmistress, who happened to be passing in the corridor, came in to restore order. I realised I had been too relaxed in my approach. I had been comprehensively taken advantage of. I could imagine that after this incident the deputy and the headmistress were inclined to write me off.
I was determined that this should not happen. I thought out a strategy and tried to put it into practice. I prepared every lesson up to the hilt and made sure the girls knew what they were expected to do in every minute of every lesson and that they had the ability to do it. I swapped my mostly friendly, casual manner for a mostly strict and forbidding one, but at the same time I tried to introduce some light relief every now and then. To this end, I got hold of a book of silly jokes, one of which I always had ready for the end of the lesson if I felt things had gone well. They tended to be greeted by more groans than laughter, but the girls were nevertheless quick to remind me if they thought they were due one.
My strategy didn’t work instantly, but I persevered and gradually I managed to assert control. Imposing the occasional punishment was a necessary part of this. On my very first day of adopting the new regime, I called a girl out to the front, gave her a dressing down and then ordered her to stand facing the wall for the rest of the lesson. It was a risk and I could see her weighing up whether to refuse or comply. If she had refused, or even if she hadn’t taken it seriously, I would have had to send her to the headmistress, which would have done nothing to boost my authority. Luckily for me, she chose to comply. It was a punishment I imposed from time to time after that and I found it was effective, despite it not being painful or involving any extra work (in fact, it involved doing less work!). It was purely the humiliation of it that made it effective.
Once, the deputy headmistress came into one of my lessons to tell me something while a girl was undergoing this punishment, standing with her hands on her head and her nose pressed to the wall. These were refinements I sometimes introduced into the procedure. The deputy headmistress made no comment, either at the time or afterwards. A week or so later, however, she did say that I seemed to have the girls in good order “at last”, and about a week after that I had an interview with the headmistress in which she asked me if I would be able to stay on for the final (summer) term of that year as well, since “after a wobbly start things seem to be going well and the upper forms in particular are making good progress in mathematics. I know they appreciate your jokes as well. I’m afraid the other teachers are tired of having to hear them repeated!”
She had obviously been monitoring me more closely than I’d thought. She then went on to say that she was pleased that I had managed to establish good discipline without the aid of corporal punishment. She said it as a statement, but there was a questioning tone in her voice which invited me to confirm that this was the case, which I duly did. To be honest, the possibility of using corporal punishment in a girls’ school had not occurred to me.
“Very good,” she said. “It would obviously have been a little awkward in the circumstances. With you being a man, I mean, and rather young as well. I didn’t quite know how to raise it with you and I’m afraid I ducked the issue, for which I apologise. But,” she added, “If ever a girl’s behaviour becomes too tiresome you must not hesitate to send her to me.”
I had remained in ignorance of this aspect of life in the school because I had pretty much kept my vow to have nothing to do with the rest of the staff. In fact, outside my own lessons, I had virtually nothing to do with anything else in the school at all. Nevertheless, looking back on it, there had been occasional clues I might have picked up. I remembered a girl arriving late for my lesson saying she had been to see the headmistress. She was in tears. She could have been tearful after a severe telling-off, of course. But in that case would the rest of the class have been in such a state of excitement about it, whispering among themselves and giggling behind their hands?
On another occasion, I remembered hearing a teacher say to a girl, as I was passing: “You watch your P’s and Q’s with me from now on, young lady. Next time, I’ll have something else in store for you and you’ll find it a lot more unpleasant. I think you know what I’m talking about.”
Again, that did not necessarily imply corporal punishment. But the archness of the teacher’s tone and the blushes of the girl made that now seem the most likely interpretation. I admit that my interest was aroused by the headmistress’s words. ‘Corporal punishment’ covers a lot of possibilities and I was curious about the details.
Not so curious, however, that I was inclined to take the headmistress up on her offer of returning for the summer term. I was getting sick of the lonely life in my digs, stranded in the middle of nowhere, with an evening in the pub as my only distraction, and I was looking forward to the end of term. The glimmerings of an idea were coming to me of what I might want to do with the rest of my life and I was keen to get on with it. I explained some of this to the headmistress, who was dismayed because she had been counting on my staying on until the end of the school year. She asked me a number of searching questions and once she felt (as she told me) that she fully understood my position, she asked me to consider some suggestions that she had, which she hoped might change my mind.
She had heard that I never went to the staffroom at breaks and had hardly spoken more than two words to any of the mistresses. She obviously could not do anything about there being no other male teachers on the staff and she acknowledged that she herself had been averse to taking on male teachers but there had, she told me, before her time at the school, been at least two male teachers for several years, so it was not that all the mistresses were entirely unused to such a thing. Perhaps I had over-reacted, she suggested.
With regard to my living situation, she had an offer to make. The school owned a small former farm-labourer’s cottage on the other side of the school grounds (she meant the opposite side to the main entrance), accessed through a side gate and across an unmade-up road. It was in a poor state of repair and suffered from damp, but in the summer months it should be habitable for a “robust young man” like me. I would be welcome to live in it rent-free.
As for the urgency I had expressed about getting on with my future career, didn’t I think I was launching into something for which I was insufficiently prepared? My teaching duties were not onerous, she pointed out (perhaps she had been thinking, up till then, of increasing them!), and I could use the spare time on preparation for my future. Would I think about it and let her know my decision in due course?
The headmistress could not have been nicer and her advice did give me pause. I had been developing the idea of starting up a business of my own, using the knowledge I had acquired at university and the engineering skills I had gained in the army. However, the idea was still in embryo. I knew I had a long way to go to construct something that would get off the ground and make money. There would be plenty of research of a mundane nature to be done, including where to locate, how to secure a loan, and what legal requirements I would have to fulfil. If I stayed on for the summer term, I could be making considerable progress with all that while at the same time still having a salary. The offer of rent-free accommodation was particularly tempting. My salary was modest but not having anything much to spend it on had allowed me to save up a bit of money. Not having to pay for the roof over my head and having cooking facilities would allow me to save even more. The upshot was that I decided to accept the headmistress’s offer.
I moved in to the cottage over the Easter holiday. The ground floor consisted of a single room with a small kitchen off it. Upstairs, there were two rooms both of which had originally been bedrooms but one of them had since been turned into a bathroom. I didn’t like to think what hygiene must have been like for the farm labourer and his family. The garden was tiny and the original outside toilet was now used for tool-storage; it was kept in a tidy state by the school gardeners. There was damp, as I had been warned, but what I had not been told (I don’t think the headmistress could have known) was that the electricity wasn’t working.
A cursory investigation convinced me it was beyond redemption. My first thought was that I would have to abandon the idea of living there. Then I decided that electricity wasn’t necessary for my survival, with the days getting longer and the weather warmer. I bought a portable gas stove to cook on and resorted to torches and candles for lighting. Then I conceived the idea of re-wiring the place myself. I was fairly confident of being able to achieve it, working from first principles, with help from a book and the school handyman.
I went and put my proposal to the bursar. I got the strong impression that he already knew there was no electricity in my cottage. He agreed that I could go ahead with the job if I paid for all the materials as well as doing all the work myself, pointing out that I was living there rent-free. I rejected this out of hand and we parted on bad terms. In the course of the following day, he contrived to bump into me in order to tell me that I could go ahead after all and the school would pay for the materials and the handyman would be put at my disposal. He would want to see the invoices for everything I bought. I guessed that he had felt obliged to tell the headmistress about it and she had overruled him.
So, the handyman and I got down to work and with the combination of his practical ability and my electrical knowledge (some existing and the rest acquired as we went along) the job was finished within ten days, just before the beginning of the summer term. It was then I hit a snag.
The inspector from the Electricity Board condemned the existing fuse box as unsafe, saying it would have to be replaced. I made enquiries and found out that there would be a wait of three months after the order had gone in before it could be delivered. There was, it seemed, a national shortage of fuse boxes for house wiring. I had to go back to the bursar and report the problem. I’m sure he was secretly pleased, feeling he had got his revenge. I had re-wired the cottage but would get no benefit. As it happened, however, the same Electricity Board inspector saved the day. I met him in the village pub that same evening and he told me of a house that had just had its fuse box replaced and its old one would be perfectly adequate for my cottage. I contacted the owners who turned out to be a charming old couple who insisted I have it for nothing. The next day, I encountered the headmistress in the corridor, who expressed sympathy for my plight, which she had heard of through the bursar. I was able to tell her the story of its solution, at which she was delighted and undertook to give the news to the bursar herself.
Since it had been understood as part of the deal that I should appear in the staffroom more, I took to having morning coffee there most days and sometimes afternoon tea as well. I’m sure the headmistress had conveyed a message to them that I was to be tolerated, but there was a definite air of constraint in the behaviour of most of the mistresses towards me. They still managed to convey to me that they resented my presence. One exception was the physics mistress, who was delighted to hear that I was a physicist myself. She confessed that her first subject was chemistry, which she much preferred, and she had been dragooned into taking over the physics teaching because she was left as the mistress with the most knowledge of it when the previous physics mistress retired. She often consulted me, and in the course of time I would take to going into her laboratory sessions and helping out with demonstrations and explanations, which I really rather enjoyed doing.
One day, a new, young mistress, who had only started at the school at the beginning of the summer term, hurried into the staffroom during break-time and made straight for a cupboard in the corner, looking flushed and determined. She took out a short, thin cane, the existence of which I had no idea of. I tried not to look too interested in the arresting sight of an animated young woman wielding this instrument, but the more indifferent I tried to appear, the more self-conscious I felt.
“Uh-oh!” Someone said. “Who’s for it, Mary? Your first time, I think?”
“That wretched Amy Jenkins!” Cried Mary. “I’m at the end of my tether with her.”
There was a chorus of support from the others, which obviously cheered Mary up. She gave the cane an experimental swish through the air and said: “I’m going to enjoy this!” and the others laughed.
Then I saw one of them nudge her neighbour and give a discreet nod in my direction. Somehow, the concern was transmitted round the group and the laughter ceased. When Mary returned, triumphant, to announce that Amy Jenkins was now crying her eyes out, she was met with silence. She replaced the cane without another word, having gathered that the topic was now to be avoided.
Avoidance of the topic did not last, however. I think the mistresses must have detected my self-consciousness about it, and people’s reactions in such a situation tend to go through phases. It was rather similar to the change that had taken place in the pupils’ reactions to me, from extreme caution at first to taking all the liberties they could shortly afterwards. So it was with the mistresses, or a certain group of them anyway, who went from avoiding the topic of corporal punishment completely when I was present, to deliberately dwelling upon it. I detected an undercurrent of glee now when the subject arose (which it did all too frequently), with many sly looks in my direction.
I would try to concentrate on talking to another mistress, usually the physics mistress, who was not engaged in the conversation, or immerse myself in a newspaper. For example, a debate once started up when one mistress asked the others she was sitting with what they did when they gave more than one stroke. Did they give them all on the same hand or did they give half the strokes on one hand and half on the other? One said she always caned the left hand only so it didn’t interfere with the girl’s ability to write afterwards. Another objected that if you gave the maximum of four strokes, one stroke was almost bound to land in the same place as a previous one, to which the first teacher responded with an exaggerated smacking of her lips and the comment: “Hmm, delicious!” to appreciative laughter and lots of covert glances across at me.
Through overhearing such conversations, I learned a number of facts about the practice of corporal punishment in the school. Namely: the mistresses could avail themselves of the cane kept in the staffroom cupboard as and when required; they administered it on the hand; and four strokes was the maximum they could give. I also learned about an ongoing issue between the headmistress and some of her staff about whether corporal punishment should be used for poor academic performance.
One of the older mistresses sparked off a lively debate one day by recounting how she had that morning caned four girls in front of the rest of the class, because they had got less than twelve out of twenty for a spelling test. Another mistress observed that she had better not let the headmistress hear of it.
“Oh,” said another, “Are we not supposed to cane them in front of the class?”
It wasn’t that, someone explained, the objection would be to caning them for poor spelling.
“I think I’m capable of distinguishing between lack of ability and lack of application,” said one.
“I’m not even sure that’s the point,” said the original mistress, the one who had started it all with her story. “If a girl is not very bright she needs to make more effort and what better way to encourage her to do so?”
Although this anecdote revealed that girls could get the cane in front of the class, I think it was more usual for them to be taken out to the semi-privacy of the corridor. I once saw this happening. I was walking down a corridor when I saw a mistress some distance further on, standing with her back to me. A girl was standing just beyond her, mostly obscured from my view by the mistress’s body. Then I saw that the mistress was in the act of raising the cane above her shoulder. She must have heard that someone was approaching behind her but she continued regardless. The cane flashed down out of my sight. This must have been the girl’s last (or only?) stroke because the mistress then said something to her which I could not catch and she shot back into the classroom.
The mistress herself turned round to look towards me. She had a half-smiling expression on her face, which changed to embarrassment when she realised who it was and she turned back again towards the classroom door, which was standing ajar. As I drew level, I heard: “You’ve got to go next,” from inside the classroom and another girl emerged, evidently destined for the same treatment. I strode quickly on down the corridor, pretending to ignore what was going on and I was soon out of earshot. I hadn’t seen anything much and it was all over so quickly that I hardly registered what was happening until afterwards.
After hearing that four strokes was the maximum mistresses were allowed to give, I wondered if the headmistress reserved for herself the right to give the more traditional maximum of six. This would make sense. After all, what would be the point of sending a girl to the headmistress if not for the prospect of more severe punishment? This seemed to be confirmed when I heard a mistress say that she had sent two girls to the headmistress after catching them riding her bicycle round the tennis courts, where she had left it propped up against the wire mesh fencing.
This mistress was a rather strange woman, prone to unpredictable outbursts of temper. The girls were half afraid of her and half amused by her. They would sometimes egg each other on to provoke one of her outbursts, just for the fun of it.
“And what did the headmistress do?” Asked one of the others.
“Nothing! Absolutely nothing! When I protested, she said I should have dealt with it myself.”
“Well what did you expect?” said another. “They didn’t do any damage, did they? It was only a bit of harmless mischief.”
“She should have given them six of the best!” was the indignant reply. “That’s what I sent them to her for. They wouldn’t have felt like riding my bicycle after that!”
These words confirmed that the headmistress did maintain for herself a right to give as many as six strokes. The observation that the girls would not have felt like riding a bicycle afterwards suggested to me that she also caned girls on their bottoms. If so, she must have to use a bigger cane, I thought, than the one I had seen being taken in and out of the staffroom cupboard; or require some adjustment to the girl’s clothing, at least; most probably both, I thought. But my imagination was running away with me, I told myself. After all, those girls would have found holding the handlebars uncomfortable after a caning on their hands. In fact, the bicycle-owning mistress might not have had anything specific in mind at all. She might have meant no more than that the girls would not have felt like recreational activity after being punished. It was all thoroughly inconclusive. Not only inconclusive, but also irrelevant to me, I reminded myself, and therefore not worth thinking about.
Not entirely irrelevant, as it turned out, on account of an incident that occurred shortly afterwards. I was walking through a wooded area in the school grounds one Saturday afternoon, on my way from my cottage to the village to get some supplies. There was no-one else about because everyone was watching some tennis tournament that was being hosted by our school; cheers and clapping reached my ears now and then. Almost everyone, anyway.
I rounded a corner to be confronted by the sight of a girl swigging from a small bottle of vodka. I say ‘swigging’ because that is what she was doing, but the word probably gives rather a wrong impression. It was more than sipping, but her actions in bringing the bottle to her lips and taking its contents into her mouth were really quite elegant. I stood and watched as she half closed her eyes, tilted her head right back and allowed the liquid to run down her throat. She choked and spluttered when it did so, looking not at all elegant now. I chose this moment to make her aware of my presence. I recognised her and I knew her name, although I had never actually taught her. She was a prefect.
She was horrified at seeing me and was incoherent at first, but after a few minutes she managed to give an account of herself. She had confiscated the bottle from a fifth-former the day before. She ought to have reported it but she had never drunk alcohol before and couldn’t resist the temptation to keep the bottle for herself. So she had let the girl off with a warning.
I asked her if she would get the cane if I sent her to the headmistress. Yes, she said, it would be six of the best for certain, but she wouldn’t mind that. Well, she would mind it, she hastily corrected herself, she would mind it a lot, but far worse than that, she would lose her cherished status as a prefect. She would be shamed throughout the school. She might even be expelled, she added, the tears starting as this thought occurred to her. The consequences of such a thing were so much more serious if you were a prefect, she explained to me miserably.
“I ought to send you to the headmistress, though,” I said. I realised this sounded as though I nevertheless wasn’t inclined to do so, which was true. I thought it unlikely that she would be expelled, but almost certain that she would have to give up her prefect’s badge. I did not want to condemn this pretty girl, who I was sure was basically good and well-behaved, if a little too curious for her own good, to anything worse than a beating. She said nothing but she stopped her tears, obviously given hope by the form of words I had used.
“What if I was to offer you six strokes of the cane from me as an alternative?” I asked. “Right here and now. Then we can forget all about it.”
“Oh yes, sir, thank you sir!” she said eagerly. “I don’t know what came over me. I just couldn’t resist. I promise I won’t try alcohol again until I have left school.”
“I will have to go to the staffroom and fetch it,” I said. “And you will have to wait here until I get back.”
“I won’t move till you’re back, sir,” she assured me.
It must have taken me a good fifteen minutes to go to the staffroom and back. I hid the cane up one sleeve of my jacket. It stuck out a bit, though not much. It must have been only about two feet long. Luckily, I didn’t meet anyone. I half expected her to have gone by the time I returned, but she was still there.
“I was frightened you wouldn’t come back,” she confessed.
We found a clearing among the trees, well away from the path, where I turned her to face me. “Alcohol is strictly forbidden in school,” I reminded her.
“You have no business enforcing the rules on younger girls and breaking them yourself.”
I thought of a few more things to say along these lines, all of them requiring a “yes sir” or “no sir”. She was obviously familiar with this form of ritual humiliation and cooperated fully in it, standing with her hands clasped together in front of her and her head down, giving her answers clearly and promptly. I eventually ran out of material and decided it was time to proceed.
“I have no wish to see you stripped of your prefect-hood,” I said. “But I cannot let you go unpunished. Do you accept that?”
“I do, sir,” she replied.
“Pull your dress up at the back and bend over,” I told her.
“Oh!” She sounded shocked. “But…”
Whatever she was going to say, she obviously thought better of it because she suddenly did just what she was told, presenting a pair of tightly stretched school knickers, maroon in colour, upon which I inflicted six crisp strokes, applying the short, thin cane with some vigour. Half-way through, there was a sudden loud cheer from the tennis courts. It was a good two hundred yards away but it sounded much closer. I froze, cane poised in the air, and she reared up. Then we realized it was nothing that need concern us and she pulled her dress back up and bent over once more.
After the sixth stroke, I told her to stand up and turn round to face me. She had made no sound and I did wonder if I had been severe enough, but now I saw that her eyes were watering. Also, before rising upright, she had clasped her hands to the seat of her knickers, where they remained.
“You took that well,” I told her. “You have had your punishment now and I don’t want you to feel any more guilt about what you did. Just enjoy the rest of your time at school.”
“Oh yes sir, thank you sir!” She gazed soulfully back at me, eyes still swimming and with her hands still clasped behind her under her dress. I would have liked to say further reassuring things but I could not think of anything that would be appropriate. “Off you go,” I said gently. “And be a good girl.”
She turned away from me with her hands still clutched behind her. She walked off, seemingly oblivious in her distress that her dress was still raised. Or perhaps the reason was that after the way she had been punished, considerations of modesty were temporarily suspended. Whatever the reason, I was able to watch her hands massaging her shapely, maroon-clad bottom until she disappeared among the trees at the other side of the sunlit glade.
By a strange coincidence, we met again three years later. I was walking across a park in the northern town in which I had set up my electrical business (which has succeeded very well, I’m glad to say; I trust that for the foreseeable future there will continue to be a demand for fuse boxes). I rounded a corner among some trees and almost bumped into her. Perhaps if we had seen and recognised each other from afar, we would have avoided each other. As it was, there was nothing to be done about it. The parallel with our previous encounter was so obvious that it was impossible to avoid.
“We meet again; déja vu!” I said, with forced jocularity.
She laughed. “I don’t have any vodka on me this time, sir,” she said. She seemed less embarrassed than I was.
“You mustn’t call me ‘sir’ now,’’ I said. I told her my first name.
“I can’t call you that, sir!” she said. “I can’t stop myself calling you ‘sir’, I’m afraid.”
“Then I won’t stop calling you ‘My naughty prefect’!” I warned her.
She laughed again, blushing too this time. “I wasn’t naughty afterwards!” She said. “I was very good for the rest of term.”
Our talk became awkward for a few moments after this but then the situation between us seemed to ease. She was a nurse now, as I could see from the uniform under her coat. She had taken a job at the main hospital in the town. We ended up sitting on a bench and talking for the rest of her lunch break. She knew nobody in the area and I learned that she had taken this job on impulse after a broken engagement.
“I decided on the spur of the moment as soon as I saw it advertised,” she said. “I don’t know a soul here. I just wanted to get away from the mess I’d got into. I’ll probably regret it, as usual. I never seem to learn.”
“I sympathise,” I said. “I’ve just broken up with someone too.”
“Your wife?” she asked.
“No, just a girlfriend.” There had been a few of those. This particular break-up had happened because I had not wanted to get engaged, but I didn’t mention that. I offered to show her the sights of the town that Saturday, but she took it the wrong way.
“I’m perfectly capable of fending for myself,” she said, frowning. “I don’t need charity.”
“There is no need to take offence,” I told her reprovingly. “I am asking because I would like your company.”
“I’m sorry,” she said immediately, looking contrite.
“If it will reassure you,” I said, “Let me tell you that my motives are purely selfish and entirely uncharitable.”
To my great pleasure, she burst out laughing at this. “I don’t think that’s very reassuring!” she said. Then she looked serious again and there was silence for a few moments before she spoke again. “I’m not on duty,” she said frankly. “But let me think about that. You see, I am feeling a bit low at the moment and I am not sure I am ready to go out and enjoy myself just yet.”
I made no attempt to persuade her and allowed her to steer the conversation onto a different tack. Soon we were chatting away again normally. Then she stood up and said: “I must be getting back to the hospital now. I’m sorry I was rude. If your offer still stands, I would like to meet you on Saturday, just for the afternoon if that is all right. I have my evening meal at the nurses’ residence and I’m meeting up with one of the other new nurses.”
I walked her back to the hospital and, before we parted, I ventured another reference to the incident in the school grounds. I was worried the reservation she had shown about meeting me at the weekend might have something to do with it, despite what she had told me about her state of mind being due to her broken engagement.
“I hope you are not too aggrieved over what happened that time at the school,” I said. “I suppose I ought to apologise for it.”
It turned out that whatever her reservation was due to, it was not that.
“Why on earth should you apologise?” she said. “I deserved it. Besides, you saved me from a much worse fate. My last weeks at school would have been quite horrible otherwise. That’s what that kind of discipline is for, isn’t it? It saves you from something worse. I sometimes think it would have been good for me to have got it a few times again since leaving school.”
We had a nice time that Saturday and one thing led to another. Suffice to say, we are now very happily married.
© Hilary Wilmington 2019