The school, the classrooms and its corridors, they all smelled of powdery water-coloured paints wrapped in dried-out dish cloth. My desk, my bare knees tight underneath, had its own smell, rich and oily from the wriggly blackened grooves in its hinged wooden surface. At the back of the hinges an inlaid white inkwell with a brass sliding top and stained with a flaky blue gave off its own inky smell. The wooden pens with the scratchy nibs that we used sat in an indent next to the ink.
It was two years after the Suez Crisis, a War that hadn’t happened but which had been on the radio a great deal, that Miss Dunbar came into our lives. That winter saw the last or one of the last great London smogs, a greenish yellow damp hard even on young lungs, brutal on my father’s. Like many men he wore a trilby hat and with scarves up to the eyes men looked like desperadoes. On the open tube platform they loomed up in touching distance. It was what they called a pea-souper which thrived on connections to a cosy world of comfortable rooms, pipes, oriental rugs, horse-drawn carriages and an acute intelligence in the stories of Sherlock Holmes that Miss Dunbar sometimes read to us in moments of softness. It became known the coal fires that heated our house was a cause, or was the cause of the smog and a few years later laws were introduced that insisted on smokeless fuel. Supplementary heating was from a paraffin stove that stank the house out.
The previous summer one day sat at a desk next to the south-facing windows of the classrooms I’d been dizzy and my neck with an ache. Back from home and when my mum was back from work and me still the same there was a sudden rush; there was much talk of polio at this time and the very word evoked the same horror that Cancer was beginning to do at this time, something irreversible. For a short time I’d been at the centre of a drama at the doctor’s and then it was back to same as before spells of the brain working happily and long stretches of boredom waiting for half an hour and more for 4 o’clock to come around.
Miss Dunbar was a hard-faced leathery lady and with her we had our geography books open. They showed men with black skins carrying bulging sacks and smiling under the gaze of a white man in shorts and a funny hat. It all looked clean and tidy even though I thought it must be very hot and, us all having understood ‘therefore’ by this stage, our last year in Primary school, sweaty and, another ‘therefore’, itchy, We turned the page and it was somewhere else, a gaunt-looking place, full of sheep. It was the Falkland Islands Miss Dunbar said with pride, she had been a teacher there for many years. The sheep seemed to be surviving on hardy shrubs that were somewhat like the teacher herself. I knew nothing of sex, coming up to a first masturbation, except for dreams involving wanton women who wanted me in long silky embraces, but there was something about the picture, the sheep themselves, the poor quality grey reproduction of the photograph and the grim smugness of the people in it, that made me image-think – there was no ‘therefore’ involved – of repression and denial in which there was nothing silky.
I am exaggerating I’m sure how instant and worked out this feeling, but later and just-as- words I felt there was a connection between virtue and a mean hardness. The geography book talked of hardiness but it was one of stringy missionaries not of the characters of Kidnapped I had read, hidden out on the moors for hours waiting for the King’s men to pass and be gone. I could not imagine the inn with the fire and the wizard fiddle player that would be their reward, or their rebelliousness in the Falkalnds. Besides it was all tied up with Miss Dunbar herself and her sour aggression. Sometimes a warty spot near her nose would quiver with rage and her face went whiter still.
In this last year of primary school we had a lot of Comprehension: the subject and the object and the predicate which was whatever was left-over in a sentence. Me and Stan, we were whispering our faces down eyes close to the desk blackened grooves in its surface. Knowing nothing of sex I still fancied Ingrid, I knew the word, and we were country dance partners priming up for a borough-wide show. Stan said, whispering, that he supposed she was all right.
Not paying attention and what you got, and that’ll-learn-you, you would learn, whack, the ruler down on my knuckles or the cane on the bum. Bravery not required or felt, it would not have looked good, boastful, when we’d all seen the belt marks on the back of Winston, the boy with the black skin from the West Indies who’d joined the class the year before. He said nothing of it. But a leather belt, the width of it and maybe a buckle, that had to be real pain.
Coming up to Christmas in this thick-smog winter we were to have a Christmas tea-party at the school. We all had to bring something to contribute to it. I lived on what was then the right side of the Bakerloo Line in London, the branch that is now the Jubilee and my mother was a very good cook. She told me she would make a chocolate cake, and the very words she used made me feel good.
It seems we were always at our geography books. The morning of the party one minute we with Erik with hair that in black&white was blonde with his reindeer and cosy cabin, and the next in the Gold Coast that had me picturing the North Sea coast of sea and sand only hot with it, a heat which no one had experienced except, I guessed, Winston. More grinning men carrying fat sacks. Cocoa beans, the words said under the smudgy photo in the book. In this instance there was no ‘therefore’, no cause and effect, no Oh-my-mother’s-chocolate-cake-and-the-cocoa-beans.
Besides my thoughts were already turned to the party.
When the time came Miss Dunbar stood there with a list taken from the register.
“And you Beverly, what will you be bringing, she asked.”
“A trifle Miss.”
I had already told of the chocolate cake with pride in my voice.
“And you Brian?”
“What kind of cake?”
A sponge cake miss.”
She carried on around the class and Stan nudged me. He grinned and did a parrot imitation. I forced my knees up into the underside of the desk just to feel something, an opposing force that made me real.
“Only three days left,” he whispered.
I looked up, that Miss Dunbar she had ears in the back of her head but she was with her list.
Denise was from the other side of the tracks, a mystery for whom I had a lust of the heart with her wild curly hair and sharp London face, looking somehow older than our ten to eleven age group.
“Er..Er… I could..maybe I can bring some broken biscuits.”
She said it, Miss Dunbar, like a dowager; like she had never heard of such a thing. Denise blushed. I felt myself blush.
“Yes,” Denise said.
Miss Dunbar left it there, left Denise standing there, and moved on, making it clear that she was moving back to things as they should be, decent things, asking Adele what she would bring.
But the blush wouldn’t stop rising in me, shame at what had happened, I had somehow been willing Denise to do battle for herself and there was no getting away from it, to do it for me. Shame too at my ignorance. for it was the time when we had never had it so good, the government would win an election on this very claim and my mother was talking of how it wouldn’t be long before we had a fridge.
I was gripping the edge of the desk with all my strength, the blush still there. Stan was giving me a shrewd look like he’d guessed everything and was surprised only at my shock.
Hard to live with, shame but it was not for Denise herself that things escalated over time to the point when Miss Dunbar clout