miss valentineTuesday, March 19, 2013 |
Although he was only a few years our senior, Tucker Tom looked much older. The sides of his face sagged, but his head was shaped like a trophy with cow-like lugs for handles that made me just want to grab one in each hand and lift his head aloft in celebration. He had innocent rose cheeks and hair that stood astonished like the bristles of a toilet brush. He came from a family of construction workers and later, he too would follow them to the construction sites. He was built that way. They all were; mother and all.
He stood silently at our front door with something we had learned was his smile, but to others it seemed like a permanent grimace at a bad smell. “They’ll be out in a wee minute, Tucker Tom,” said my Ma.
In case you are wondering, a lug is what Ma called an ear, and Tom had two humdingers. Many a time Ma threatened to raise me too in the air by the lugs, or to leave the palm of her hand there, if you know what I mean, after a fierce swing, and for good reason. Not that much reason was needed for a smack on the lug by Ma, for seemingly, at that stage, badness had grown into me.
“Watch these pair, Tucker Tom, for badness has grown into them,” and at that Tucker Tom turned his prize fart-face to signify the start of our trek, and my brother and I marched out to follow him. Badness had grown into me. You’d probably agree with her if it was all your furniture, not hers, I tried to take out into the back yard and burn.
Tucker Tom’s mission was to get us to the safety of school, and when we reached the junior section –we called the juniors the wee bucks– he turned and crossed the wee buck’s yard to the big buck’s yard and that was that, nothing said.
But words didn’t matter to me for my head was otherwise filled with thoughts of love. And what did I know of love? The object of my affection was the most exquisite creature. Dreamy, she blinded me, like I was looking directly into the sun; she smelled of a happy good morning and fresh fruit; she had the warmth of a cuddle. When I closed my eyes, I saw her, and she smiled at me, her head tilted, the ends of her short red bobbed hair curling as if to tickle her cheeks.
With Tom gone, my brother and I marched into the wee buck’s school in our matching clothes (knitted everything: socks, sweaters, ties, hats, gloves). We wouldn’t see Tom again until 3:30 for the silent return journey home.
School to me was the best place on earth. My earth that probably amounted to a square mile of grey, often bombed, soldier polluted, fear filled landscape, part Irish dampness, part apocalypse, but my wonderful universe nonetheless. While Ma used the softly-softly approach to our well-being, knitting us into a cotton wool comfort, Da used shock tactics and gave us the stuff of nightmares. After a local youth was blown up planting his own bomb, Da told us that parts of his body were found a half a mile from the explosion.
But such things remained behind me as I entered the school gates, and in front of me I anticipated only beauty. You see I was in love with my teacher, and as odd as it might seem, her name was Miss Valentine. Of course the irony of that meant nothing to me at five, but later, I checked with old school friends to make sure that I had not made her name up. And I knew they would remember, for they loved her too. Joe McGrath, the most likely to become an outstanding athlete, was forever climbing ropes and standing on bars and swinging like Tarzan to catch her affection. What an ape!
Unable to climb or swing particularly well, I had taken to sliding around on my back on the wooden floors of the classroom. I wore short trousers and knee length socks, and I used my legs to drive around, polishing the floors with the back of the sweater Ma had knitted for me, so I could eventually park myself between Miss Valentine’s feet and look up her dress. I was five years old. What the hell was I looking for? I guess I might not have known what I was looking for, but I certainly knew where to find it.
It was a Tuesday. After morning prayers, the class was drill-marched to the gymnasium to watch educational programs on the television. There was only one television, and it was on high stilts in the corner. Medicinal doses of programs about basic mathematics would be administered and Miss Valentine would tell Joe McGrath to stop swinging on the gym ropes and sit still and pay attention. What an ape!
Before the little sliding doors of the enclosed television were opened to start the morning shows, the curtains of the gym had to be closed to block out the daylight. There was always a chorus of “Miss, Miss, Miss, Me, Miss” as little adoring leeches vied to be selected for the task of closing one of the thick green velvet curtains. And I would just hold up a finger at the side of my head, no “Miss, Miss, Me, Miss”, for I knew she would pick me. She always did.
She turned her head and her rays blinded me and she pointed and simply said, “Paul,” with a smile only I could see. She did this every Tuesday and I skipped towards the curtain I usually closed, looking back over my shoulder at my Miss. I skipped towards the special window, the one that was different from the others, a half-window high above the school piano. I skipped. When I got there, knowing her eyes were piercing my back, I did the only acrobatics I could do, and put a hand on the closed piano lid, kicked my legs up, and in my most graceful moment, hopped on it, and stood looking down over my shoulder at the class, and Miss, and started to close the curtains.
As the thick curtains closed the gym got darker, but suddenly there was a deeper blackness behind, as if her sunbeams were no longer trained on me. I felt a sense of dread, and turned around to see a dark silhouette in the mouth of the gymnasium doors. The evil Nosferatu shape, curled and hunchbacked, the long deathly black robe, and polished-white bald head introduced the headmaster, Brother Ignatius. My eyes adjusted to focus on his face, pale and pointy; I traced the curl of a smirk formed by wet earthworm lips and the dark fissures of a squint suspicious of everybody. He hovered in that black robe, and moved with a deftness that was impossible to outmaneuver. No evidence of feet, yet he was by your side before a bad thought had even time to register. He inhaled deeply and slowly through thin nostrils and began to vomit fury at me standing on top of the piano.
“Get down o’ this minute you little skithering get, or I will cut the legs from un-under you, you little skither! Get into my office now, boy!”
I was frozen. My time was up. I had been out on the lake with a girl and my number had been called. Time to bring the boat in. Happiness over.
I had forgotten about Brother Ignatius, so adrift I was in my own wee fairy tale. I’d packed him away along with the bombs and violence and killings and instead forged my own little idyll. His voice was a fierce explosion, and brought instant fear from the very tips of my blond hair, to the dirty scuffed toes of my old school shoes. I slid down off the piano, polishing it too with me shorts-covered arse, and immediately paced towards his office, quick-smart, knowing that dallying would make something bad even worse. The gym was completely blackened by my tunnel vision except for the shaft of light that led to his office. I heard no sound, but the echoes of his, “Get into my office now, boy!”
As I entered the office, I couldn’t mouth any words of explanation, or rat on the real culprit who had asked me to do it, and just thought of the beating I was about to receive. Where was Tucker Tom when I needed him? And Miss Valentine? It didn’t come as a surprise that she stayed in the shadows, didn’t fling herself forward, arms outstretched with all the melodrama of certain stage actresses to stop the injustice. I knew that to Tom, and even to Miss Valentine, Brother Ignatius was venomous, and scared the bejasus out of them too. The power of the headmaster was witnessed in the trance induced by his scrawny index finger topped with nail bayonet, slowly curling back and forth, beckoning. The power. How the hell had I forgotten about this monster? Love blocks the most obvious things.
He grabbed my arm before I was completely in the office and nearly pulled it out of the socket as he dragged me in front of his desk where his sadism held court. A large bamboo cane was swung in an arc and whipped down catching the very tips of my fingers held out in front of him. The follow through of the cane slapped the side of his black robe and the plumes of chalk dust that emanated filled the room with a light fog of Christian education. He had much practice in all things corporal punishment, and was very good at it. Never missing, but barely hitting the tips of my fingers, inflicting the most pain possible. Six times, each hand. My hands were balloons, an ocean boiled from within but I was determined not to cry. I clenched my teeth, felt I could drown in the retained valley of tears as Brother Ignatius sent me back to the gym yelling after me, but I don’t remember the words, because they were probably more for his own justification than any worthwhile warning for a sinner.
As soon as I left his office, I walked slower, a fierce fire coming from the ends of my arms where my hands used to be. Even at five, I knew that it was always held in high regard to take a flogging from the headmaster and not to show it. Joe McGrath, caught swinging on ropes like an ape when she told him not to, about a month earlier, took the same beating and came in crying like a church requiem. But not me. I wasn’t going to let her see me crying. After all, I had taken a beating for her.
A show about addition and subtraction was already on, and all the kids were sitting on the wood gymnasium floor in semi-circles around the raised television. The T.V. was like a lifeguard up there in the highchair, with all responsibility for the little arched necks below. The Brother Ignatius incident had made them more attentive than usual. Joe McGrath was seated still, his arse firmly on the floor and not flashing it in her direction, as he would usually do under normal circumstances, the fecking ape!
They all turned as I walked in. There was a spot at the foot of the tall T.V., and holding myself carefully, I slowly walked forward to fall the first and only time to plant myself there. There was nothing said, and I saw my love standing at the back of the semi-circles of little innocence, and she had her elbow in one hand, and the other hand covered her mouth. The light from the broadcast lit up her face and, as she turned to me, I could see streams of tears; a flood flowing from her eyes, her adoring eyes. Tears for me: Brave hero, who had taken a beating from the devil and didn’t reveal it. Tears for me: I was her bodyguard, her Tucker Tom, she loved me as I loved her and her tears for me would wash my scuffed and dirty shoes once and for all.
No one said anything as I sat down on the wooden floor, crossed my legs, and arched my head to watch something on the television I didn’t really see. The others stopped looking at me, slowly turned their heads and trained their eyes up there too. It all seemed to pass too quickly, show over too soon, but in the glare of that black and white T.V., I knew that she was mine, and would be mine forever.
Tucker Tom picked me and my brother up at half past three as usual, except on this day Tom actually spoke. I didn’t ask him where the hell he was when the devil himself was beating the shite out of me, and I wouldn’t tell my parents either, for they’d say I must have doing something wrong, and would try to beat the very same shite out of me again. Nevertheless, my head was filled with gorgeous memories, and the physical pain I endured that day had already transformed into a grander love, but I was always sad leaving Miss Valentine. We had walked silently for about five minutes, my head down, bottom lip big enough to lick all the stamps for the Queen, and I was looking at my shoes, when I turned to Tom and said, “Tucker Tom, I don’t think I need you to take me to school anymore.”
He looked at me and held my stare for a while, his ugly mug covered with that fart-faced smile.
“We’ll see,” he said, “we’ll see.”