The crowded red double-decker bus inched its way through the snarl of traffic in Aldgate. It was almost as if it was reluctant to get rid of the overload of noisy, earthy char-women it had collected on its run through the city - thick-armed, bovine women, huge-breasted, with heavy bodies irrevocably distorted by frequent childbearing, faces pink and slightly damp from their early labours, the warm May morning and their own energy. Their was a look of indestructibility about them, from the tip of each tinted head in its gaudy headscarf, tightly tied to expose one or two firmly fastened curls, to the solid legs and large feet which seemed rooted in the earth.
The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck - they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants. Their cows were motor-driven milk floats; their tools were mop and pail and kneeling pad; their farms a forest of steel and concrete. In spite of the hairgrips and headscarves, they had their own kind of dignity.
They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me - a Negro, and the only other male on the bus. The conductor, a lively, quick-witted felllow, seemed to know them all well enough to address them on very personal terms, and kept them in noisy good humour with a stream of quips and pleasantries to which they made reply in kind. Sex seemed little more than a joke to them, a conversation piece which alternated with their comments on the weather, and their vividly detailed discussions on their actual or imagined ailments.
I sat sandwiched between a widow and a very large woman whose great dimpled arms hugged her shopping bag in her lap. She kept up a ribald duet with a crony sitting immediately in front of her.
"What've you got for the old man's dinner, Gert?"
Gert's square body remained ponderously immobile, but she turned her head around as far as her massive neck would permit and rejoined: "He'll be lucky to get bread and dripping today, he will."
"He can't do you much good on bread and dripping, Gert."
"Feeding him on steak and chicken won't make no difference, neither, Rose. Never mind, he keeps me back warm"
All this was said in a tone intentionally loud enough to entertain everyone, and the women showed their appreciation by cackling loudly, rocking their bodies as much as the crowding permitted. Rose turned her head to look fleetingly at me, then leaned forward to whisper rather audibly to Gert.
"Wouldn't mind having this lot in me stocking for Christmas, Gert."
The chuckle which accompanied this remark shook every ounce of her like an ague, and I could feel it being conducted through the bus to me. Again Gert was forced to perform the trick of rotating her head against the uncompromisingly thick neck; her beady eyes slanted backward to bring me into orbit. She retorted, not so loudly.
"Aw, give over Rose, you wouldn't know what to do with it, you've been a widow too long."
"Speak for yourself, Gert," Rose replied gaily. "'s like riding a bicycle, you never forget how. You wouldn't credit it, but I figure I could teach him a thing or two."
"Hark at her," Gert enjoined the bus at large, who were sharing delightedly in this byplay. "Never mind, Rose, I'll send me Alfie round to see you one of these nights; he's not too bad when he gets around to it."
Unable to resist the amusement I felt, I smiled inwardly at the essential naturalness of these folks who were an integral part of one of the world's greatest cities and at the same time as common as hayseeds. There they sat, large and vigorous, the bulwark of the adventurous.
The smile must have shown on my face, for Rose glanced at me in some surprise, then leaned forward to whisper in Gert's ear. She in turn whispered to her neighbour and soon there was a chain reaction of whispers and giggles and nudgings, as if they were somewhat surprised to discover that I had understood every word. I felt sure they could not care one way or the other; these people who had lived too intimately with poverty and danger and death would not be easily embarrassed.
The bus swung around Gardiner’s Corner and along Commercial Road. Its pace was quicker now, and the chit-chat began to flag as other thoughts intervened. At each stop now they were disembarking, returning to their homes in the strange, rather forbidding deep tangle of narrow streets and alley-ways which led off from the main thoroughfare in a disordered unpremeditated pattern. Through the window I watched the fleeting panorama of dingy shop fronts and cafes with brave large superscriptions telling of faraway places. The long Commercial Road lay straight ahead, fluttering like an international maypole with the name ribbons of Greece and Israel, Poland and China, Germany and Belgium, India and Russia, and many others; Semmelweiss and Smaile, Schultz and Chin-yen, Smith, Seibt and Litobarchi.
The bus eased to a stop. Rose shifted her shopping bag off her lap and with a grunt levered her ponderous body upright; she smiled broadly at me, and with a cheery “Ta Gert, ta girls,” she waddled towards the exit while I eased my shoulders in relief from the confining pressure of her body. God, what a huge woman.
As the bus moved slowly on, a bright-eyed little boy in school cap and blazer paused momentarily beside the vacant seat and then quickly moved a little way on in courteous deference to a slim, smartly dressed woman who followed behind. As I looked up she smiled her thanks to him and was preparing to sit when her eyes met mine. Surprise flickered briefly on her face as she straightened up and moved forward to stand in the narrow aisle beside the boy, who looked up at her with a puzzled expression.
The conductor approached with his cheery “Any more fares, please, free ride only after midnight.” He had been keeping the charwomen entertained by such witticisms throughout the journey. The woman reached into her bag, and the conductor casually remarked as he took her fare: “Empty seat beside you, lady.”
She received her ticket with a murmured “Thank you,” but gave no sign that she had heard him.
“Seat here for you, lady.” The conductor indicated the vacant place with a turn of his head and moved on to examine the boy’s school pass and exchange a word with the youngster. On his way back he paused to look at the woman, who returned his glaze with the cool effrontery of a Patrician.
“No standing on the bus, lady.”
The conductor’s voice was deliberately louder, with an angry rasp to it; the charladies twisted and craned their necks in their efforts to discover the sudden reason for his brusqueness. The slim woman remained standing, cool, remote, undismayed by the conductor’s threatening attitude or the pointedly hostile glances directed at her by the women in their immediate sympathy and solidarity with the conductor against someone who was obviously not of their class. My quick anger at the woman’s undisguised prejudice was surprisingly tinctured by a certain admiration for her fearless, superior attitude. She was more than a match for them. What a superior bitch! She looked the conductor straight in the eye and around her mouth I could discern the muscular twitchings of a suppressed smile. I guessed she was secretly enjoying herself. What a smooth, elegant, superior bitch!
Just ahead I saw a nameplate on a building, New Road. I quickly rose and said to the conductor, “Next stop, please.” He gave me an odd disapproving stare, as if I had in some way betrayed him by leaving before he could have a real set-to with the woman; I sensed that he would have liked to try humiliating her, even putting her off the bus. He pulled the bell-cord and the bus jerked to a stop, and as I stepped off the platform I saw the woman take the seat I had just vacated, stiffbacked and unruffled. By leaving I had done that conductor a favour, I thought. He’d never get the better of that female.
The bus pulled away from the stop, but I remained standing there, feeling suddenly depressed by the prospect around me. I suppose I had entertained some naively romantic ideas about London’s East End, with its cosmopolitan population and fascinating history. I had read references to it in both classical and contemporary writings and was eager to know the London of Chaucer and Erasmus and the Sorores Minores. I had dreamed of walking along the cobbled street of the cable makers to the echoes of Chancellor and the brothers Willoughby. I wanted to look on the reach of the Thames at Blackwall from which Captain John Smith had sailed aboard the good ship “Susan Lawrence” to found an English colony in Virginia. I had dreamed. …
But this was different. There was nothing romantic about the noisy littered street bordered by an untidy irregular picket fence of slipshod shop fronts and gaping bomb sites.
I crossed Commercial Road at the traffic lights into New Road. This was even worse. The few remaining buildings, raped and outraged, were still partly occupied, the missing glass panes replaced by clapboard or brightly coloured squares of tinplate advertising Brylcreem, Nugget shoe polish and Palm toffee. There was rubble everywhere, and dirt and flies. And there were smells.
The smells arose from everything, everywhere, flowing together and remaining as a sickening, tantalising discomfort. They flowed from the delicatessen shop with its uncovered trays of pickled herrings, and the small open casks of pickled gherkins and onions, dried fish and salted meat, and sweaty damp walls and floor; from the fish shop which casually defied every law of health; from the kosher butcher, and the poulterer next door, where a fine confetti of new-plucked feathers hung nearly motionless in the fetid air; and from sidewalk gutters where multitudes of flies buzzed and feasted on the heaped-up residue of fruit and vegetable barrows.
I felt sick and dirtied; only the need of reaching my destination forced me along past the shops and the smells and the multi-racial jostle of hurrying folk who ignored the flies and smells in single-minded pursuit of their business.
Near the railway viaduct the line of buildings on both sides of New Road came to an abrupt halt; the bustling thoroughfare now bisected a desert of rubble and rubbish which nature had hurriedly and inadequately tried to camouflage with quicksprouting weeds, sbhrubs and ragged grass. Here and there could be seen the rusty skeleton of a spring mattress or a child’s pram, a cracked toilet bowl and a dented steel helmet, American style – relics of peace and war humbled together in rust and decay. The flies were here, too, and so were several small children, too young for school, but old and venturesome enough to grub in this perilous playground. Their eyes shone happily in grimy faces as they laughed, screamed and fought in rivalry with each other.
The games overflowed on to the sidewalk and I walked wide around a “ring-a-ring-o’-roses” who smiled happily up at me without interrupting their noisy chant. They could not have known that from their happy faces, dirty but unafraid, I took courage for the new experience I was about to face.
I soon located the narrow alleyway with the legend: Greenslade Secondary School, A. Florian. Headmaster.
This alleyway opened on to a small macadam forecourt, along one side of which was a green outhouse labelled “boys”. From it emerged a small, dark-haired, elfin-faced boy. He was dressed in blue jeans and a discoloured once-white T-shirt, and on seeing me he attempted to hide the cigarette stub which he held pinched between forefinger and thumb of his right hand.
“Looking for somebody?” His Cockney voice was high-pitched and comic.
“Looking for somebody, mate?” he said again. The right hand was now safely in the pocket of the jeans, though a tell-tale wisp of blue smoke tendrilled its way up the skinny forearm.
“Where can I find Mr. Florian, the headmaster?”
I could hardly keep the amusement out of my voice at the ill-concealed cigarette.
“Straight up those stairs,” and with a casual gesture the boypointed, cigarette stub and all, towards a half-closed doorway, across the forecourt. I thanked him and moved towards the door.
The stairway ended outside a green door on which was a small white card bearing the information: "Alex. Florian. Headmaster. Please knock and come in."
I knocked and hesitated; a somewhat impatient voice said, "Come in, it's open."
Behind a large desk sat a small man whose large head was decorated with a fine crop of carefully groomed curly white hair; the face was either tanned or olive-skinned, lean with high cheekbones and surprisingly smooth, as if the youthfulness which had deserted his hair had found permanent accommodation around the aquiline nose and full sensuous mouth; his brown eyes were large, slightly protruding, and seemed filled with a kind of wonder, as if he were on the verge of some new and exciting discovery.
I approached his desk and he stood to greet me, but that produced very little difference in his stature and I noticed that he was short and somewhat hunch-backed. He was carefully, even nattily dressed, and there was about him and the room a very pleasant orderliness quite at variance with the external surroundings. He extended a pale, strong-fingered hand and remarked smiling, "You're Braithwaite, I suppose, we've been expecting you. Do sit down." I was later to learn that the remark was typical of the man; he considered himself merely one of a team engaged in important and necessary work; he was spokesman and official representative, but sought no personal aggrandisement because of that. I shook hands with him and settled down in the chair, pleased and reassured by the sincere warmth of his greeting. He opened a box on his desk and offered me a cigarette; when we had both lit up he leaned back in his seat and began: "Hope you found this place without much difficulty; we're rather hidden away in this little backwoods and many people have had a hard time locating us."
"I have had no difficulty, thank you. I followed the rather detailed directions I got at the Divisional Office."
"Good. Anyway, we're glad to have you. I hope that when you've had a chance to look at us you'll be just as pleased to stay."
"Not much doubt about that, Sir," I hastened to assure him.
He smiled at my eagerness and said, "Anyhow, I think it would be best if you had a good look around the school first, and then we'll talk about it. Things are done here somewhat differently from the usual run, and many teachers have found it, shall we say, disquieting. Wander around just as you please, and see what's going on, and if you then decide to remain with us, we'll talk about it after lunch."
With that he got up and led me to the door, his eyes dancing like those of a mischievous imp; I stepped out and he closed it behind me.
From the headmaster's office a short flight of stairs led down to a narrow corridor between the auditorium on one side and some classrooms on the other. I paused for a moment outside the first of these classrooms, not sure where to begin, when the door was pushed violently outwards and a tall, red-headed girl rushed out into the corridor closely pursued by two others. In such a narrow space I was quite unable to dodge her wild progress, so I quickly grabbed her by the arms both to avoid being bowled over and to steady her. Quickly recovering herself she shook loose, smiled impudently in my face, and with a quick "sorry" raced down the corridor and out of sight. Her companions pulled up hastily, stopped a moment to look at me, then quickly re-entered the classroom, letting the door bang loudly shut behind them.
I was staggered by this unexpected encounter and remained where I was for a moment, unsure of what to do next. Then, deciding to take a closer look at what went on in that room, I knocked on the door, opened it and walked in. There was a general hub-bub and and for a little while no one seemed aware of my entry and then, very gradually, one by one the occupants turned to stare at me.
There was no sign of anyone who looked like a teacher. About forty boys and girls were in the room. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them young men and women: men, for there was about most of them a degree of adulthood, not only in terms of obvious physical development, but also in the way their clothes were worn to emphasise that development wherever possible. They stood around the room in casual postures; some were clustered around a large open empty fireplace in one corner; a few were sitting on desks or chairs in careless unscolarly attitudes. They nearly all wore a kind of unofficial uniform. Among the girls, proud of bust and uplift brassiere, this took the form of too-tight sweaters and too-long clinging skirts and flat-heeled shoes. A wide variety of hairstyles paid tribute to their particular screen favourite. It was all a bit soiled and untidy, as if too little attention were paid to washing either themselves or their flashy finery. The boys wore blue jeans and T-shirts or open-necked plaid shirts.
A large, round-faced, freckled girl left the group by the fireplace and approached me.
"If you're looking for Mr. Hackman, he's not here, he's in the staffroom," she announced. "He said when we are ready to behave one of us can go and call him."
The various groups began to disintegrate and reform on either side of this self-elected spokesman, and I was subjected to their bold, unabashed scrutiny. God, I thought! What a crowd! Suddenly they were all talking at once, as if a penny had finally dropped somewhere; the questions came thick and fast.
Are you the new teacher?"
"Are you taking old Hack's place?"
"Is old Hackman really leaving?"
Taking my cue from the fat girl's first remark I said: "I think I'll look in at the staffroom," and slipped quickly through the door. I felt shocked by the encounter. My vision of teaching in a school was one of straight rows of desks, and neat, well-mannered, obedient children. The room I had just left seemed like a menagerie. What kind of fellow could this Hackman be who would stand for that sort of behaviour? Was it the accepted thing here? Would I have to accept it too?
With these disturbing thoughts I walked down the corridor towards some double doors which I guessed would lead in the general direction of the staffroom; as I approached them they were opened by the red-head, who swished imperiously past on her way back to her classroom. I turned to look at the retreating figure topped by long auburn hair caught up in a pony-tail which jerked in time to her vigorous, hip-swaying stride. Mr. Florian's cryptic remarks were beginning to make a lot of sense; things were certainly different around here.
The staffroom lay up a short flight of stairs beyond the end of the corridor; the door was open. Reclining in an easy chair, fingers interlocked behind his head, was a large, hairy, cadaverous, young man, in baggy grey flannel slacks and a well-worn hacking jacket with leather patches at the elbows and wrists. A maroon shirt and yellow large-knotted tie did nothing to dispel the air of general untidiness which enveloped him. As I entered he looked up at me and remarked: "Ah, another lamb to the slaughter - or shall we say black sheep?"
In appreciation of his own witticism he smiled broadly, exposing some large, uneven, yellow teeth. I have always been subject to quick explosive anger, but for years I have been making a determined attempt to exercise close control of my temper. So now I watched this fellow, ready, willing and, I hope, able to take a joke about myself.
"My name's Braithwaite. I'm from the Divisional Office."
"So you're the new teacher," he replied. "Hope you have better luck with the bastards than Hackman did."
"I thought you were Hackman, because some of the children said he was waiting here until one of them called him."
"He was, for about ten seconds, then he girded up his loins and departed." He grinned. "I expect that by now he is pouring out his woes to the Divisional Officer."
"What happens to his class now?" I enquired.
At this he guffawed loudly. "Without being too prophetic, I'd say you're for it."
While I digested this little bit of frightening information he got up and left the room.
For some time after his departure I stood there watching the door. This was all very different from anything I had expected and far from reassuring. But I had no intention of being scared away so easily. This fellow with his air of studied carelessness and his chatter was evidently a poseur; perhaps he'd improve on acquaintance. No harm in hoping.
The door opened to admit a tall blonde woman, dressed in a close-fitting white overall which somehow succeeded in flattering her already attractive figure. Her face was saved from plainness by large clear grey eyes and shapely mouth which denied the severity of the tight bun at the nape of her neck. She smiled and moved towards me with outstretched hand.
"Oh, hello! I suppose you're the new teacher from Divisional Office?"
"Yes, my name's Braithwaite."
"Mine's Dale-Evans, Mrs. Grace Dale-Evans. The hyphen is very important, especially when I use it to impress my grocer in the middle of the month." Her voice was low-pitched and pleasant. "Have you seen the old man?"
"Mr. Florian? Yes, I've seen him; he suggested I take a look around to sort of see what's going on."
"Have you seen any of the children yet?"
"Just a quick look. I popped into Mr. Hackman's classroom on my way up here."
"Oh, did you? A bit rough, don't you think? I take them for domestic science, not very scientific but domestic enough for them."
While talking she was busily collecting cups from the mantelpiece, floor and windowsill and placing them in the small sink which occupied one corner of the room. An ascot heater supplied hot water over the sink, and soon she was washing up and talking over the clatter of crockery.
"Some teachers are as bad as the kids; leave their cups wherever they sit. Oh, sorry, please take a seat."
I sat and watched her deft movements with the tiny dish mop and later the dishcloth.
"Been teaching long?"
"Not really. Actually this is my first appointment."
"Ouch." She grimaced. "Don't go too highbrow on me. We call them jobs, not appointments," and she laughed, a pleasant lazy sound, unexpectedly at variance with the staccato crispness of her speech.
"Yes, R.A.F. Air-crew. Why?"
"Oh, just something about you. Staying to dinner?"
"I hadn't thought of it, but if it's usual I'd like to."
"Good, I'll pop across and have a word with the school secretary. She'll be able to fix it, I'm sure. Stay here if you like and meet the others at recess. Nearly time now. See you then." She went out and closed the door quietly behind her.
I looked around the room. It was small and untidy with piles of books everywhere. One wall was occupied by a large open cupboard, cluttered up with a miscellany of sports goods - footballs, netballs, and table tennis gear, plimsolls, boxing gloves and string-tied bundles of soiled denim P.T. trunks. In and around the cold fireplace was a litter of cigarette butts with and without lipstick. Coats, umbrellas and satchels festooned one wall. Seven or eight easy chairs, two straight-backed wooden chairs and a large centrally placed table completed the furniture. It was stuffy from stale cigarette smoke and a mixture of body smells, so I walked over and opened the two sash windows which overlooked the gutted remains of a bomb-wrecked church, squatting among a mixture of weed-choked gravestones and rubble. A rusty iron fence separated this peaceful chaos from a small well-ordered park, trim with neat flower beds, and restful with a variety of large trees now in heavy foliage; but that this little park had also once been part of the churchyard was proved by the rows of headstones arranged with military precision along one wall of the park, overlooking the tiny lawns and flower beds beneath which long-forgotten bones still lay in peace. A high brick wall separated the school from the churchyard.
I left the staffroom and followed the stairs down to the ground floor and passed through a doorway out into the macadam courtyard. It was littered with crumpled paper bags, apple cores, sweet wrappers and bits of newspaper; great blobs of mucus everywhere indicated that nearly every child was probably suffering from a heavy cold. This courtyard-cum-playground ran along three sides of the school and was about twenty or twenty-five feet wide. The high wall surrounding it met the churchyard wall at right angles and separated the school premises from a rag-merchant's yard and a firm of contractors on either side, and also from the untidy backyards of a long row of dilapidated lodging houses which, except for two narrow alleyways, completely sealed off the front of the school from the busy street. Although it was a bright, sunny morning, the courtyard was partly in deep shadow, and the atmosphere of the whole place was depressing, like a prison. The school rose out of the courtyard, a solid, unpretentious, rather dirty structure, no taller than its neighbours. Its two entrance doors, one opposite each alleyway, were painted a dark, unfriendly green, as were the boys' and girls' lavatories which squatted in separate corners of the courtyard, as if aware that, like the large, ash-filled dustbins, they were usurping precious playing space.
My depression deepened and I thought how very different all this was from my own childhood schooldays spent in warm, sunny Georgetown. There, in a large, rambling wooden schoolhouse, light and cool within, surrounded by wide tree-shaded lawns on which I had romped with my fellows in vigorous contentment, I spent rich, happy days, filled with the excitement of learning, each new little achievement a personal adventure and a source of satisfaction to my interested parents. How did these East London children feel about coming to this forbidding-looking place, day after day? Were they as eagerly excited about school as I had been when a boy?
The sound of a handbell interrupted my thoughts, and shortly afterwards there were the sounds of banging doors, hurrying feet, clattering of milk bottles, talking and laughter as the children erupted out of their classrooms for the morning recess. I hurried inside and up towards the staffroom, but halfway up the gloomy stairway I was forced to stand against one wall by the crush of children which spilled down the stairs towards the playground in a noisy, jostling tangle, pushing me aside with no more consideration than was shown to their fellows.
When I reached the staffroom Mrs. Dale-Evans was preparing tea. She looked up at my entry and remarked: "Oh, hello! Tea will be ready in a moment; the rest of the staff will soon drift in and then I'll introduce you."
I walked over to a window and stood looking out across at the ruined church, and the innumerable pigeons which strutted in and out of its damaged cupolas.
One by one the teachers turned up and were soon seated about the room, sipping their tea and exchanging chit-chat on the morning's activities. On seeing me they murmurred the usual sounds of greeting, and when they were all there I was introduced to each one in turn. As we moved from one to another Mrs. Dale-Evans both surprised and embarrassed me by commenting on each individual in a barely audible aside.
Miss Josy Dawes, short for Josephine, was the first to be introduced. She was a shortish strong-looking young woman, whose plain square face was unrelieved by make-up and fringed by dark hair cut very short, which added to her rather mannish appearance. She wore an open-necked short-sleeved man's shirt, against which her prominent breasts clamoured for attention, a severe skirt in heavy grey flannel, ankle-length socks and sturdy low-heeled brown brogue shoes. Her voice in greeting was deep, resonant and quite pleasing.
Next came Miss Euphemia Phillips, youngish and mousy. There was something of an immature school-girl about her round face, in which her large grey eyes held a mixture of helplessness and expectancy. Her rather gay woollen dress emphasised the immaturity of her slight figure.
"Good lord," I thought! "How does this one cope in a school like this?" Those girls I saw earlier on were much taller and out-weighed her by a wide margin.
As we approached Theo Weston, he smiled in what was meant to be a friendly manner, though it was hard to discern it behind the thicket of ginger-coloured hair.
"Fancy being able to shave off your manhood whenever you like," murmured Mrs. Dale-Evans in my ear. "I had the pleasure of welcoming Mr. Braithwaite to our midst," said Weston. His voice was surprisingly thin and squeaky. "He mistook me for Hackman."
"By the way," someone asked, "where is the dear boy?"
"Escaped," Weston replied. "Fled, quit. I don't think he even tarried long enough to bid the old man a fond farewell."
"When did all this happen?"
"I had a free period this morning," Weston continued, "and soon after ten Hakcman barged in here looking like all the furies, collected his coat and the newspaper I was reading, and departed. I'll wager we never see that colleague again."
"Oh, well," Mrs. Dale-Evans shrugged, "they come and they go. "Let's meet the others."
She took me by the arm and led me up to Mrs. Drew, a white-haired matron, elegant from the tip of her softly permed head to her neat well-shod feet. She looked capable and as solid as Gibraltar.
"One of the best. She's the old man's deputy," whispered Mrs. Dale-Evans.
We passed on to Miss Vivienne Clintridge, art and drama teacher, a chubby, well-formed thirtyish brunette who exuded a certain brash animal charm. As we shook hands I was amazed to see myself reflected in her large smiling brown eyes. Her voice in greeting was silvery with acceptance and immediate friendliness.
"Clinty's an excellent artist, but teaching has to provide the bread and butter." I wondered if anyone had overheard these comments from Mrs. Dale-Evans.
The last to be introduced was Miss Gillian Blanchard. Every man has his own idea of beauty. Many years ago I visited the Carribean island of Martinique and there saw what I still believe to be the world's most beautiful women; tall, willowy, graceful creatures with soft wavy raven hair and skin the colour of honey. Gillian Blanchard was lovely in the same kind of way: tall, her hair cut in a black neat skull-cap, full-figured, elegant. Her skin had a rich olive tint which hinted at Jewish or Italian parentage. Dark eyes, nearly black in the depths of them. Lovely.
"She's new here," Mrs Dale-Evans whispered, "came last Wednesday."
When I had met them all I moved over to the window nearest the sink and stood listening to the rise and fall of talk, which was mainly concerned with classroom goings-on. Miss Clintridge leaned against the fireplace and held forth in a rather loud voice on the artistic endeavours of her morning class, with here and there an amusingly Freudian interpretation. Miss Dawes and Miss Phillips sat in a corner, somewhat removed from the group around the fireplace, in earnest whispered conversation with each other. Presently Mrs. Drew came over to me, a cigarette held daintily in her long, manicured fingers.
"I hope you're going to stay with us, Mr. Braithwaite."
I looked at her kindly, earnest face and smiled without replying.
"We've had a succession of men teachers here in the past year, none staying longer than a term or two," she continued. "It's been hard on the boys, especially; they do need the firmer handling of men."
At this point Miss Clintridge left the group by the fireplace and came over to us.
"Did I hear someone say 'men'?" she enquired, as she perched her behind on the edge of the sink.
"I was telling Mr. Braithwaite how really hard-up we are for some good men teachers. Now that Mr. Hackman's left things would be rather difficult without a replacement."
Miss Clintridge snorted. "I wouldn't use the words good men teachers and Hackman in the same breath. Anyway, talking of being hard up, you speak for yourself, ducks! I'll tell him my own hard luck story, if he's interested." Her laughter was sweet, friendly and guileless.
"Do be serious, Clinty." Mrs. Drew was smiling in spite of herself. "The idea is to encourage him to stay, not frighten him away."
"Goo, why didn't you tell me? I could be very encouraging if I tried," and she suited action to words with puckered lips and arched eyebrows. The laughter bubbled out of me at these antics, in spite of my intentions to maintain my reserve.
"You will stay, won't you?" Miss Clintridge continued in more serious vein.
"I think I'd like to," I replied rather lamely, secretly amused at these enquiries, because actually I was so pleased to land this appointment that the likelihood of refusing it would hardly have occurred to me. But these people evidently expected some hesitation on my part, and I considered it more prudent to humour them.
"Good." She jumped down from her perch on the sink as the bell sounded the end of recess. "Now the bigger girls will have something else to think about for a while; that should keep them out of our hair." She winked at Mrs. Drew and rushed off to her duties, as did all the others except Miss Blanchard, who was busy marking books from a pile on the floor beside her chair.
After the noisy chatter of a few moments ago the room was so quiet that the scratch of her pen and the rustle of turned pages sounded quite loud. After a while she turned and looked up at me.
"Won't you sit down?"
I moved over and sat in the chair beside her.
"This your first appointment?" Her voice was low, well-modulated, a brown voice. She'd said "appointment". As she spoke she closed the notebook she had marked, set it on the pile beside her, and leaned back in her chair with her hands lightly folded in her lap. Quiet, controlled hands.
"Yes. But why is everyone so doubtful and concerned about my remaining here?"
"I couldn't answer that, I'm afraid. You see, I've only been here a short time myself - three days, to be exact." Definitely a brown voice; molasses, corn-pone, sapodilla brown. A nice voice.
"They said the same thing to me," she continued. "And now I'm beginning to understand why. There's something rather odd about this school, something rather frightening and challenging at the same time." I had the feeling that she was speaking more to herself than to me.
"There's no corporal punishment here, or any other form of punishment for that matter, and the children are encouraged to speak up for themselves. Unfortunately, they're not always particularly choosey about the things they say, and it can be rather alarming and embarrassing. Not every teacher's cup of tea, I imagine, though Miss Clintridge and Mrs. Dale-Evans seem not to mind that sort of thing; I think they're themselves both East Londoners, and are not too easily shocked."
"Are the children difficult to manage?"
Even as I asked it I realised how trite the question was, but I wanted her to go on talking, less for the information I might acquire than for the sheer pleasure of listening to her.
"I find them difficult, but then, you see, I've no real experience of teaching. They're so frightfully grown-up and sure of themselves, I think I'm a little bit afraid of them. The boys are not bad, but the girls have a way of looking at me, sort of pityingly, as if they're so much older and wiser than I am. I think they're more interested in my clothes and private life than anything I try to teach them." Her voice quavered and she closed her eyes; the long lashes were a fringed pattern against her tanned skin.
The door opened to admit Mrs. Dale-Evans, who smiled at us and began bustling about in what was evidently her familiar routine of collecting cups and washing them.
"Got to fix a bath pressently, for the Murphy girl in Clinty's class. Kids complaining again, won't sit near her. Some mothers ought to be shot. Child stinks. A pity."
I felt that she expected some comment from one of us.
"What's the matter with the child?" I asked. "Enuretic?"
"God, no. Been wearing the same sanitary napkin for days, I guess. Fourteen years old and as helpless as an infant. You men teachers don't know how lucky you are; the things we women have to do for these kids." And she lifted her eyes in mute supplication to heaven.
The washing done, she came over to us, wiping her hands with a towel. "Show you around my domain if you like."
I stood up, excused myself from Miss Blanchard, and followed Mrs. Dale-Evans out of the staffroom.
The domestic science department was a large well-equipped room on the top floor and evidently her pride and joy; she showed off the gleaming gas cookers, pots and pans, the rows of well scrubbed heavy deal tables, the pedal sewing machines and the washing machines all spick and span in their places like guardsmen paraded for inspection. Along one wall were rows of drawers containing cutlery and all the paraphernalia of the housewife's art. From the roof, at intervals, hung about a dozen rubber-sheathed electric cables each of which ended in a protected socket ready to receive an electric iron. In a tiny alcove sectioned off from the rest of the room was a child's cot in which lay a life-size baby doll, and on a table nearby were neatly llaid out the general equipment for the care of the baby. She kept up a running commentary on everything I saw, and at this point remarked, waving her hand at the cot in the alcove: "Some of them know more about this lot than I do; regular bunch of little mothers they are; call this 'fancy stuff'".
As we were speaking a group of girls arrived for their cookery lesson. They were ordered to scrub their hands thoroughly at the sink, after which they stood quietly behind the deal tables while Mrs. Dale-Evans explained the simple recipe she wished them to follow.
I remained with her, marvelling at the high standard of cleanliness and order she was able to achieve with the children. If she could accomplish such near perfection without recourse to beatings, then I would most certainly have a shot at it. This woman with her ready, listening ear and proven, sound advice, was both teacher and mother to these girls. But I felt certain that, should the occasion arise, she could also be tough - very tough.
The dining hall-cum-gymnasium extended over most of the ground floor. We entered and sat at a table slightly apart from the rows of folding tables occupied by the children. When everyone was assembled, Mr. Florian stood up and said grace: "For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful." The chorused "Amen" which followed was lost in the din of rattling cutlery, chatter of children, and clanging of pots and pans as the kitchen staff filled and refilled the tureens.
The children were seated in groups of eight, two of them in turn being responsible for collecting and distributing the food for their particular group. Both boys and girls took turns at this and showed remarkable skill in portioning each course evenly and quickly. At the end of each course the day's two servers stacked the dishes, collected the cutlery and rushed them away to the kitchen staff. At the end of the meal the tablecloths were shaken and folded, and each group sat quietly awaiting the signal of dismissal. When we were all finished Mr. Florian rose and there was an immediate hush; at a signal from him the children stood and group by group left the dining hall quietly. I followed the others up to the staffroom, where Mrs. Dale-Evans was soon busy preparing a cup of tea.
I stood at a window looking across to the ruined church, until a loud blare of swing music from close at hand caused me to turn round. Noticing the look of enquiry on my face, Miss Clintridge said: "That's the midday dance session. The kids are allowed to use the hall from one to one forty-five each day; they play the records on a gramophone pick-up through the wireless loud-speaker. Sometimes I join them, and So does Grace. Even the old man shakes a leg on occasions."
"That, my dear newcomer, is the understatement of the year." Weston's voice was as shrill as his person was untidy. "It is grossly unfair of you, Clinty, to mislead our sunburned friend with so innocent a remark. One look at those energetic morons should convince him that they're not dancing for the fun of it." He slowly pulled himself out of his chair and leaned indolently against the fireplace. Everyone was now watching him. "They're ever so cute. Dancing is the voluntary exercise by which they keep themselves fit for the more exciting pastime of teacher-baiting. The music seems somewhat louder than usual, so one can suppose they're having a sort of celebration jamboree over the abdication of our late but not lamented colleague."
"What a ham you are, Weston," Miss Clintridge remarked.
"Take no notice of Mr. Weston," Mrs Drew's voice was even and controlled. "He will have his little joke."
Weston smiled sweetly. "Well," he said: "One way or another our fine feathered friend will soon learn for himself. Let us hope that he fares better than some of his predecessors."
"Don't you think you might be a little less discouraging, Weston?" Mrs. Dale-Evans cut in.
Weston raised both his arms heavenwards in mock solemnity. "You do me an injustice, Grace dear," he bleated pleasantly. "The last thing I want to do is discourage him. After all, none of us would want to be saddled with that crowd of, shall we say, blithe spirits, would we?"
"I wonder if they'll advertise Hackman's job," interrupted Mrs. Drew. Her remark set them chattering all at once, and I moved towards the door, remembering that the headmaster expected me in his office. Miss Blanchard reached it ahead of me, and together we went out into a barrage of sound.
"Odd fish, don't you think?" Even though raised above the intruding blare of trumpet, her voice was pleasing, and warm.
"Do you mean Weston?"
"Him, and others. I strongly suspect I would have slapped his face if he had dared to speak to me like that." She spoke with a quiet confidence which left no doubt that she would have done just that. "He hasn't scared you off, I hope?"
I turned to look at her, but could read nothing in her frank, impersonal glance. All the same, I felt a bit irritated by that remark.
We moved a little way into the auditorium and the rush of sound hit me like a blow. Four couples and about twenty pairs of girls were jiving to the music of an inspired trumpet player. Faces taut and expressionless, mouths slightly agape, skirts cartwheeled out, they spinned and reversed in the spontaneous intricacies of the dance, with an easy confident dove-tailing of movement which suggested long and frequent practice. Several boys were seated on low forms set alongside one wall, watching the dancers and whispering among themselves, pointing with their eyes at the generous leg exposure which their worm's eye view afforded. The dancers, I thought, were well aware of this, and strove to outdo each other for this attention.
Against the insinuating pulsation of the drums the muted trumpet urged the dancers on: even the low-level watchers kept up the tempo with a soft, rhythmic clapping, or a quick twitching of haunches and shoulders. I felt a desire to join them growing on me.
"They're good, aren't they?" Miss Blanchard's whisper was close to my ear. "I wish I could dance as well as that."
I turned to her. "Would you like to try?"
"What, me, here?"
There was both surprise and a certain disgust in her tone, and I turned again to watch the dancers, as they disengaged themselves to move into little groups, chatting and laughing while awaiting a change of record. One of them moved away from a group and approached us; it was the red-headed girl with whom I had collided earlier that morning. There was something uncomfortably compelling about her full figure, clear skin, and casual wide-legged stance as she stopped in front of me and enquired: "Can you jive?"
I was quite unprepared for this, and quickly muttered something in what I hope was polite refusal. The girl looked coolly into my face, then pirouetted lightly on her heel and sashayed back to rejoin her friends, her clear laugh floating back in her wake with the opening bars of the next record.
I turned to Miss Blanchard, but she must have slipped awaywhen the girl approached me, so I quickly steered my way through the dancers, disturbed and excited by the prospect and challenge of having to cope with such nearly adult individuals.
Mr. Florian was sitting at his desk juggling with a small object. When I was seated, he extended it for my inspection - an ugly little nude statuette in green mottled earthenware.
"Terrible, isn't it? Picked it up in Austria some time ago. Been trying to break the damned thing for ages." With a sigh he set it down with exaggerated care on his desk.
"Well, what is it to be?" His glance was kindly but direct.
"I'll have a shot at it," I replied, carefullly moderating my enthusiasm.
"Now, let's get you into the picture." And with a crisp economy of words he outlined his policy for the school. "You may have heard some talk about this school, Braithwaite. We're always being talked about, but unfortunately most of the talk is by ill-informed people who are intolerant of the things we are trying to do.
The majority of the children here could be generally classified as difficult, probably because in junior schools they have shown some disregard for, or opposition to, authority. Whether or not that authority was well-constituted is beside the point; it is enough to say that it depended largely on fear, either of the stick or some other form of punishment. In the case of these children it failed. We in this school believe that children are merely men and women in process of development; and that that development, in all its aspects, should be neither forced nor restricted at the arbitrary whim of any individual who by some accident of fortune is in a position to exercise some authority over them.
The children in this area have always been poorly fed, clothed and housed. By the very nature of their environment they are subject to many pressures and tensions which tend to inhibit their spiritual, moral and physical growth, and it is our hope and intention to try to understand something of these pressures and tensions, and in understanding, to help them.
First of all we must appreciate that the total income of many of these families is quite insufficient to provide for them the minimum of food, warmth and dry shelter necessary for good health. Some of these children are from homes where the so-called breadwinner is chronically unemployed, or, in some cases, quite uninterested in seeking employment. As a result, meals are irregular and of very poor quality. A child who has slept all night in a stuffy, overcrowded room, and then breakfasts on a cup of weak tea and a piece of bread, can hardly be expected to show a sharp, sustained interest in the abstractions of arithmetic, and the unrelated niceties of correct spelling. Punishment (or the threat of it) for this lack of interest is unlikely to bring the best out of him."
While Mr. Florian was speaking, something was happening to me. I had walked into his office full of high regard for himand ready to fall in with any plan he was likely to propose, but I found I was becoming increasingly irritated by his recital of the children's difficulties. My own experiences during the past two years invaded my thoughts, reminding me that these children were white. Hungry or filled, naked or clothed, they were white, and as far as I was concerned, that fact alone made the only difference between the haves and the have-nots. I wanted this job badly and I was quite prepared to do it to the best of my ability, but it would be a job, not a labour of love.
"The next point I want to make," he continued, "deals with their conduct. You will soon discover that many of them smoke, use bad language and are often rather rude. We try our best to discourage these things without coercion, recognising that it is all part of the general malaise that affects the whole neighbourhood and produces a feeling of insecurity among the children. Instead, we try to give them affection, confidence and guidance, more or less in that order, because experience has shown us that those are their most immediate needs. Only a small part of their day is spent in the supervised security of this school; for the rest they may be exposed to many very unsatisfactory influences. A quick look round this neighbourhood will show that it is infested with a wide variety of social vermin: prostitutes, pimps, and perverts."
I sat watching him, carefully attentive, impressed in spite of myself, by his deep, enthusiastic concern and undoubted love for the children. My irritation passed, but a feeling of doubt remained. He was speaking as if they were all tiny, helpless children, a description very much at variance with what I had seen of the husky youths and girls jiving in the auditorium. Evidently Mr. Florian had the children's welfare very much at heart, but did he really believe all that he was saying about them - or was it all laid on for my benefit? Was every new applicant given this same sermon? Had Hackman received similar encouragement? I liked this man; his fervour and integrity gave him a stature which more than compensated for his lack of inches; his voice went on, deep, intense, spell-binding ...
"It is said that here we practise free discipline. That's wrong, quite wrong. It would be more correct to say that we are seeking, as best we can, to establish disciplined freedom, that state in which the child feels free to work, play and express himself without fear of those whose job it is to direct and stimulate his efforts into constructive channels. As things are we cannot expect of them high academic effort, but we can take steps to ensure that their limited abilities are exploited to the full." Here he smiled briefly, as if amused by some fleeting, private reflection. "We encourage them to speak up for themselves, no matter what the circumstances or the occasion; this may probably take the form of rudeness at first but gradually, through the influences of the various committees and the student council, we hope they will learn directness without rudeness, and humility without sycophancy. We try to show them a real relationship between themselves and their work, in preparation for the day when they leave school.
As teachers, we can help greatly if we become sufficiently important to them; important enough for our influence to balance or even outweigh the evil."
He got up and walked over to the large single window which overlooked the churchyard and remained there in silence for a while, his hands clasped behind his back, his leonine head resting against the cool glass. After a while he turned to me with a gentle smile.
"Well, there it is. I'm afraid I can offer you no blueprint for teaching; it wouldn't work, especially here. From the moment you accept you're on your own. All the rest of the staff, myself included, will always be ready to help and advise if need be, but success or failure with them will depend entirely on you. So long as you work within the broad conceptual framework I have outlined, I shall not interfere. Unfortunately, we have had a number of teachers at one time or another who, though excellent in themselves, were totally unsuited for this type of work; and, as you'll appreciate, too frequent changes of staff neither help the children nor advance our work. Anyway, on behalf of the school and staff, I welcome you. You will have charge of the top class, beginning tomorrow, and will share the boys' P.T. periods with the other men on the staff. Mrs. Drew, my deputy, will give you all the relevant information you need. I would suggest that you spend the afternoon finding your way about."
He came towards me, hands outstretched. I rose, and he took my right hand in both his own with a firm, friendly grip. "Remember," he said, "they're wonderful children when you get to know them, and somehow, I think you will. Good luck."
I left him and wandered back to the staffroom. They all looked up enquiringly at my entry. Mrs. Dale-Evans closed her newspaper and said: "Well, what's the score?"
"I'm taking over Mr. Hackman's class tomorrow," I replied.
"And may the Lord God have mercy on your poor soul," Weston intoned with mock solemnity.
"Lucky girls," chirped Miss Clintridge. "Along comes a man at last and they cop him all to themselves."
"Don't look now, Clinty, but your psyche is showing all over the place."
Weston's hollow voice pushed its way through the hedge of reddish beard; there was no noticeable movement of his lips. But Clinty's Cockney humour was equal to his barb.
"It always does whenever there's a man around." The emphasis she put on the word "man" was devastating.
As the bell sounded for class, Mrs. Drew came over to me and offered to brief me on the routine of registration, the collection of dinner money, and other duties which I would be expected to fulfil. I spent the afternoon, therefore, in her classroom, observing and admiring the skilful way in which she blended patience with firmness, order with bubbling activity. The youngsters were engaged at different tasks in small groups, resulting in a constant hum and buzz, which I found somewhat irritating. I asked Mrs. Drew about her reaction to it and she replied that she did not mind it; as long as they were busy they were learning, even though it seemed rather chaotic; and as they grew older they would see the need for greater concentration and quiet.
I remained with her until the bell sounded for the end of the school day. On my way home that evening I felt an effervescence of spirit which built up inside me until I felt like shouting out loud for the sheer hell of it. The school, the children, Weston, the grimy fly-infested street through which I hurried - none of it could detract from the wonderful feeling of being employed. At long last I had a job, and though it promised to tax my capabilities to the full, it offered me the opportunity - wonderful word - of working on terms of dignified equality in an established profession.
Today I was a teacher, employed. True, I was also a teacher untried, but that could also be an advantage. I would learn, by God I'd learn. Nothing was going to stop me. Mrs. Drew coped, Mrs. Dale-Evans coped, Miss Clintridge coped, so I'd also cope, or bust. Four years ago I would not have even considered it possible. I did not become a teacher out of any sense of vocation; mine was no considered decision in the interests of youthful humanity or the spread of planned education. It was a decision forced on me by the very urgent need to eat; it was a decision brought about by a chain of unhappy experiences which began about a week after my demobilisation from the Royal Air Force in 1945.
At the Demobilisation Centre, after the usual round of medical inspection, return of service equipment, and issue of allowances and civilian clothing, I had been interviewed by an officer whose job it was to advise on careers. On learning that I had a science degree and varied experience in engineering technology, he expressed the opinion that I would have no difficulty in finding a good civilian job. Industry was re-organising itself for post-war production and there was already an urgent demand for qualified technologists, especially in the field of electronics, which was my special interest. I had been very much encouraged by this, as I had made a point of keeping up with new trends and developments by borrowing books through the central library system, and by subscribing to various technical journals and magazines, so I felt quite confident of my ability to hold down a good job. He had given me a letter of introduction to the Higher Appointments Office in Tavistock Square, London, and suggested that I call on them as soon as I had settled myself in “digs” and had enjoyed a short holiday.
While operating at the R.A.F. station at Hornchurch in Essex during the war, I had met and been frequently entertained by an elderly couple who lived not far away at Brentwood; I had kept in touch with them ever since and had promised to stay with them after demobilisation. I now went to live with them, and soon felt completely at home and at peace. They both professed to be atheists, but, judging by their conduct, they exhibited in their daily lives all those attributes which are fundamental to real, active Christianity. They were thoughtful for my comfort in every way, and shared many of my interests and pursuits with a zest which might well have been envied by much younger people. Together we went down to Torquay for a two-week holiday and returned to Brentwood completely refreshed.
Shortly after our return, I visited the Appointments Office, where I was interviewed by two courteous, impersonal men who questioned me closely on my academic background, service career and experience in industry. I explained that after graduating I had worked for two years as a communications engineer for the standard oil company at their Aruba refinery, earning enough to pay for post-graduate study in England. At the end of the interview they told me that I would be notified of any vacancies suitable to my experience and qualifications. Two weeks later I received a letter from the Appointments Office, together with a list of three firms, each of which had vacancies for qualified communications engineers. I promptly wrote to each one, stating my qualifications and experience, and soon received very encouraging replies, each with an invitation to an interview. Everything was working very smoothly and I felt on top of the world.
I was nervous as I stood in front of the head office in Mayfair; this firm had a high international reputation and the thought of being associated with it added to my excitement. Anyway, I reasoned, this was the first of the interviews, and if I bombed here there were still two chances remaining. The uniformed commissionaire courteously opened the large doors for me, and as I approached the receptionist’s desk she smelled quite pleasant.
“Good morning.” Her brows were raised in polite enquiry.
“Good morning,” I replied. “My name is Braithwaite. I am here for an interview with Mr. Symonds.”
I had taken a great deal of care with my appearance that morning. I was wearing my best suit with the right shirt and tie and pocket handkerchief; my shoes were smartly polished, my teeth were well brushed and I was wearing my best smile – all this had passed the very critical inspection of Mr. And Mrs. Belmont with whom I lived. I might even say that I was quite proud of my appearance. Yet the receptionist’s smile suddenly wavered and disappeared. She reached for a large diary and consulted it as if to verify my statement, then she picked up the telephone and, cupping her hand around the mouthpiece as if for greater privacy, spoke rapidly into it, watching me furtively the while.
“Will you come this way?” She set off down a wide corridor, her back straight and stiff with a disapproval which was echoed in the tap-tap of her high heels. As I walked behind her I thought: Normally she’d be swinging it from side to side. Now it’s stiff with anger.
At the end of the corridor we entered an automatic lift: The girl maintained a silent hostility and avoided looking at me. At the second floor we stepped out into a passage on to which several rooms opened; pausing briefly outside one of them she said “In there”, and quickly retreated to the lift. I knocked on the door and entered a spacious room where four men were seated at a large table.
One of them rose, walked around to shake hands with me and introduce his colleagues, and then indicated a chair in which I seated myself. After a brief enquiry into my place of birth and R.A.F. service experience, they began to question me closely on telecommunications and the development of electronics in that field. The questions were studied, deliberate, and suddenly the nervousness which had plagued me all the morning disappeared; now I was confident, at ease, with a familiar subject. They questioned me on theory, equipment, circuits, operation; on my training in the U.S.A., and on my experience there and in South America. They were thorough, but I was relaxed now; the years of study, field work and post-graduate research were about to pay off, and I knew that I was holding my own, and even enjoying it.
And then it was all over. Mr. Symonds, the gentleman who had welcomed me, leaned back in his chair and looked from one to another of his associates. They nodded to him, and he said:
“Mr. Braithwaite, my associates and I are completely satisfied with your replies and feel sure that in terms of qualification, ability and experience, you are abundantly suited to the post we have in mind. But we are faced with a certain difficulty. Employing you would mean placing you in a position of authority over a number of our English employees, many of whom have been with us a very long time, and we feel that such an appointment would adversely affect the balance of good relationship which has always obtained in this firm. We could not offer you that post without the responsibility, neither would we ask you to accept the one or two other vacancies of a different type wh