A Minstrel in Spain

Chapter Four

Coventry Tech.

 I arrived home to discover that my Aunt Flo had disappeared. As far as I can remember nobody ever mentioned her again. My mother had moved into a new house and Flo wasn’t in it. I never saw her again.

Many years later I played a one–night stand in Coventry with Jack Parnell’s band. As I was just about to sign in at the hotel I was astounded to see my mother’s signature on the last line of the register.

Enquiries established the fact that she had been there only days before, to attend the funeral of my Aunt Flo, who had been living in a home for the blind, right next door to the hotel, for the past ten years.

I went to the Technical College to learn how to become an engineer.

We had German classes, and we all fell madly in love with the teacher, Miss Cotterell. What she taught us was completely useless. She gave us all names. Mine was Otto.

‘Otto,’ she would say, ‘Schliessen Sie das Fenster mit der Fensterstange.’ I would dutifully shut the window. On the few occasions when the sirens went, and we had to go down into the shelters to continue, I thought of how ironical it was to be sitting down there learning German, while people who already spoke the language fluently were overhead, doing their best to kill us.

I studied German for the next ten years, privately as well. When I finally went to Germany I found them speaking a different language altogether. No one understood my German at all. On the other hand, the Germans I met who had learned English at school all spoke it perfectly, with hardly a trace of accent.

It was a great school, that one. We had several characters as teachers, not too many kids in each class, and the atmosphere was casual. How we ever learned anything I don’t know. The idea may have been to get us to build up our own initiative. If that was so, then it was a success. I didn’t learn anything there that I hadn’t known already.

There were one or two brighter souls amongst us, and we had to sit at the back of the class, while the wooden-heads sat up front. We at the back never got called upon to answer questions because we already knew the answers. The school books had the answers to all test questions at the rear. I don’t think the kids up front had discovered that. It wasn’t the answers that interested the teachers, but the way they were worked out.

There was a class bully, of course, name of Derby, and he used to pick on a kid called Goldstraw to give him his homework book every morning, so that he could copy everything. He used to twist poor Goldstraw’s arm and pinch something terrible. When we intervened he would do it to him again somewhere else after school.

The headmaster’s name was Knocker West, a little runt of a fellow, whom we hardly saw at all. He didn’t teach, or seem to fulfill any purpose whatsoever other than to be there as a sort of mysterious threatening figure.

Only Knocker could give a boy the cane. I only ever heard of him once actually doing so, but the threat was there. The school was kept in order by a system of black marks, which were given by class prefects. Three black marks were supposed to lead to a caning by Knocker.

The prefects chalked up the black marks on the blackboard to try and keep order in the classroom before the teacher arrived. The classrooms all had windows on the corridor side. As soon as the teacher’s head appeared in one of the windows all black marks would be swiftly erased. The teachers approved of this system, and always delayed entry into the classroom to allow the erasure. Thus everyone was satisfied.

The head teacher was Ned Sparkes. Ned was the chemistry master, and greatly feared by all. He was tall, desperately thin, stooped and hawk-like. He used to call the whole school in for prayers first thing in the morning and he did this by simply appearing in a remote corner of the playground, by a small door. No one ever saw him actually open the door and emerge—he just materialised there suddenly, as if by magic.

Motionless and forbidding, he stood there like some awful figure of doom.

The result was always electric. As if someone had hit a switch, every single boy in the playground, which up to that moment had resembled a menagerie full of screaming animals, would stop dead.

Kids would scramble into lines, and the entire school would troop past Ned, zombie-like, on into the Great Hall.

During his chemistry lessons you were likely to be either gassed or blown up. Ned was more dangerous to us than the Germans ever were. ‘Collect your dusters and follow me,’ he would snarl, and off we would troop into a land of Bunsen Burners, sulphuretted hydrogen, and chlorine gas.

The English teacher, Miss Dean, was a sadist. It was unfortunate for her that the only one allowed to give the cane in that school was the headmaster himself. But she had her own little torments. One day she sent us all home during the lesson, under threat of dire punishment, to get a book which she said we had all forgotten to bring that day. My mother was amazed to see me so early, and immediately thought that the school must have caught fire.

Only half the class managed to get back to school before lunch. The rest straggled back later. Then she told us, with her sadistic smile, that we didn’t need the book after all, but that it was wonderful what a bit of fear could do to a boy.

She had a long thin yellow cane with a curved handle on her desk, a real brute of a thing, which she used as a blackboard pointer. This cane hardly ever left her hand. When she wasn’t pointing it at something or other on the board she would swish it in the air suggestively, and slam it down with a terrific whack on her desk. It was obvious that she was dying to use it on us.

The story went around that she used to take sixth form boys home with her for extra tuition, chain them to the wall of her torture chamber, and thrash them in private, breaking the cane each time. We used to gloat over such rumours with a kind of fascinated horror, speculating as to which one of us would be her first victim, once we got into the sixth form; each tale adding to the monstrous image we had of her.

She was late into class one day, so one of the boys down front sawed halfway through the cane with his penknife. The very first time she swished it, it broke in the middle, leaving the top half hanging down by a thread. She stared at it for a moment, threw it disgustedly across the room, and stamped out.

We didn’t see her again for a while. On her return she just stood for a while with her hands on her hips, looking at us, and nodding with a weird twisted grin on her face. Then she said, sinisterly, ‘You don’t know just how lucky you all are.’

After that there were no more canes on her desk.

She used to stand over by the window while she was talking, and quite often the sun would shine right through her dress, and we could see a silhouette of her bandy legs. This led to much half-concealed sniggering, which used to annoy her no end. She used to keep looking down to see if her dress was caught up, or whether there was a spot on the cloth. She never caught on, though. On a good sunny day we could even make out the shape of her bloomers.

She got fired suddenly, when Knocker chanced upon the Physics master, who must have had something seriously wrong with his eyesight, knowing her, in the Biblical sense, on top of her desk during the lunch break. That’s the story that went around, anyway. Like most schoolboy stories it was highly improbable.

Chapter Five >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved