The Nonsense Filter © Peter Giles
CHAPTER ONE: CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1, 2
The class of five huddled over their desks intent on reproduction, absorbed in various stages of the conception or manipulation of their medical ethics coursework. Vernon, Head of Beliefs and Values was bored, distracted, and bitterly cold. Bitter and cold in fact. He pulled the illicit school scarf a little tighter around his neck, checked his incongruous poacher’s hat self-consciously, and empathised with the frozen sperm his class had discussed with evident distaste the previous lesson. He speculated momentarily, but the effort required to conjure up the ‘what it is like’ to be a frozen sperm, was too much. He was too cold.
How could it be so cold when the winter sun lit up the park outside the old sash windows of his third floor classroom with all the vividness of painting-by-numbers? The profile of each denuded tree appeared distinct and sculptural, spotlighted in the bright heatless sunlight. It was as if the little stripy-jacketed ones from the Prep school had taken a field trip through the Park livening up the colours. Oh the joys of modern boarding school life; pleasant surroundings, good food, lousy heating. He’d become a small fish in a moderate-size pond and the pond was freezing over.
Vernon watched resentfully the aeroplane flying overhead. Where were they off to, somewhere where things happened, where people made a name for themselves? Somewhere, beyond this poster-paint park, where the grass was even greener? He roused himself and looked around. Hell, what was the point of it all? Lovely though his class undoubtedly were, who’d regard as significant the investment of his all in this little stage of their growth from blastocysts to blasted pensioners?
Vernon tugged his beard in silent self-rebuke. How ungrateful to complain so about the School in The Park and its students . He looked across at them but needn’t have; here you could daydream without one finger on a panic button and another on a ‘tazor’. The School supposedly owed its weary country house charm and gently sloping acreage to the designs of Humphrey Repton; a 450 acre estate circled once a week at break neck speed by Vernon and his ‘runners and fitters’, the ubiquitous activity group he’d been lumbered with. The estate’s first owner, Sir Nicholas Bacon, Keeper of the Great Seal, completed the present Hall in 1591, so boasted the school’s prospectus. As Vernon had joked lamely with his girlfriend, it had housed a lot more animals since the Great Seal. She hadn’t laughed.
Over the next 300 years the Hall had passed through the hands of only three other families. The Earl who had owned it died in the early 1930s and a year later the entire estate was bought by the school.
After a quick glance at the clock, Vernon treated himself to a little more reflection. He recalled his strange encounter the previous evening at the Woolpack and the excited conversation that had erupted. “But what’s a nonsense-filter?” the intense bookish newcomer had asked with a startling display of urgency and a somewhat archaic thump of the arm of his chair. “How does it work and how did you discover it?”
His reverie was interrupted timidly by the one remaining boy in the class. “Can we go sir?” It was time, and the loner was evidently asking on behalf of the rest who had taken themselves off to lunch. “Mmm, yes sure, off you go. Don’t forget the debate next lesson will you?” he called vainly after the retreating footsteps.
Later that Wednesday evening, on the way to Ely to pick up his girlfriend from the train, Vernon’s worries returned. The fog rolled intermittently in off the fields as he neared the Island, the aimless drift of existence’s will, and the landscape reflected his mood perfectly; flat and inscrutable. From this fog rose the cathedral, God’s solid, decorative paperweight. Why wouldn’t this sense of bitterness lift? He was sure his first words as a child had been “It’s not fair”. It wasn’t the realisation that life was hard as such that bothered him now though. Sure the car was a financial liability and something in the kitchen was leaking gas. Sure he desperately missed his children day in day out and had been so impoverished recently he’d been reusing tea-bags and accepting food parcels from his mother. What bothered him was that his relative success didn’t make him happy. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d had to claw his way out of an Aids-ridden township was it? Vernon had to admit nevertheless that he was not content; Arthur’s insatiable striving was palpable. But here was another problem. He was lost.
“Bollards” Vernon muttered grimly, turning the car around. Getting lost in a tiny market town like Ely was as stupid as losing your way in a jumper you’ve tried on in the store only to find your head’s stuck in the arm hole. The Jewel of the Fens only had one orbital road, one town centre and one train station. He’d obviously been daydreaming again. Retracing his route in the early dark of the January evening as the temperature plummeted, Vernon drafted a memo to himself. Knowing other people were worse off than you was no comfort at all. It didn’t matter what Schopenhauer said, that was no consolation. What was the point of being better-off if you couldn’t be happy? How could you feel happy if advantage made you feel guilty?
Vernon crashed back into the present moment and found that Nsansa was peering at him quizzically through the steamed-up car window. “Iwee. What were you thinking about? You were miles away darling.”
“I wish I was,” he intoned mirthlessly as he embraced her on the incline outside the station.
“It’s cold. You been here long?” he asked.
On the way home, Vernon listened impatiently to Nsansa describing her trip to Birmingham. The little part of his consciousness with attention deficit, the bit that critically examined all incoming data, kicked into life like the gas boiler at home with an almost audible thump. While Nsansa described her morning’s study, and her frustrated attempts to meet her supervisor, he considered what she had achieved to get to that point. Her story was a battle of wits and will. She had overcome poverty, loss of her parents and migration to the West for work. Compared to her what did he have to gloat about; a catalogue of excuses for his disappointments and a highly polished sense of self-pity? Self-Pity, but not depression, not yet…
Vernon considered himself lucky to have found Nsansa. She’d begun as an exotic prospect, an image on the dating website; beautiful and out of reach. He’d described her as the beauty to his beast, and she’d replied. Maybe the disarming way he’d described himself as a fit, fun and friendly forty-five year old who could sit on the pavement and swing his legs was the thing that had endeared him to her. She’d metamorphosed into an excited foreign voice on the telephone. Many lengthy conversations later they’d met. He still wasn’t entirely sure who the real Nsansa was, but he intended to find out. After a string of hair-raising web derived encounters he was relieved she at least fit her picture and didn’t really mind the fact that she was taller than him. Along with his unruly hair and heroic beard it was only something he noticed in the extravagant mirrors of shopping centers anyway.
The School in the Park was unique in location, but not dissimilar to other English boarding schools. Vernon had adjusted to its curious blend of stern protocols and indulgent tolerances. The taboo that forbade students to step across the threshold of the Staff common room even when empty, the requirement that staff wear academic dress, the declaration of summer’s ‘shirt-sleeve order’ and the stern training of new generations of prefects in river craft. Idiosyncratic practices at odds with the pranks attempted by the ‘after dinner club’, the discipline that really only criminalized hard drugs and stealing, and the liberty students invariably enjoyed on trips abroad. It was a community, beset by all that’s good and bad about English communities; a mutual sense of pride in belonging offset by a peculiar acceptance of random prejudices and inevitable gossip. And where was an Independent school without a motto? If it hadn’t been so sexist with a tune registering cringe-factor ten he might have taken some comfort from it,‘Viriliter Agite Estote Fortes’, ‘Quit Ye Like Men, Be Strong’.
Thursday, Beliefs and Values; more coursework. “What’s this?” Vernon read a student’s first draft for the third time. “Many couples have difficulties conniving children”. Well true, he thought, correcting the error… conceiving. Children are awfully hard to fool, especially your own. After many weeks of trying to convince Claire, Daniel and Pippa to visit him, and stay a few nights, things hadn’t gone well when they had. It had been impossible to convince Daniel that the cat was displaying affection by depositing a plump flea in his tea. On top of that, just as they had been getting off to sleep the neighbours had started having a row.
Vernon smiled ruefully and jotted the student’s mistake down in his little book of errors. Not as good as the last treasure he thought. ‘AID is when the male is infertile and an anonymous sperm donor is inserted in the neck of the womb to fertilise the egg…’ “Mmm, now there’s a job for Gyno-boy”. Vernon wasted several minutes creating and dispatching a new comic book hero only to be rudely interrupted by a small voice. “Sir, can we leave? The lesson finished five minutes ago.”
“Uh – yeah sure; Completed second drafts next lesson please”. The lone conniver departed.
Nsansa arrived at five and they chatted over fish and chips bought from the local. “You know I had this weird conversation at the pub while you were away.” Vernon said, stretching across the table for the pepper.
Nsansa smacked his hand playfully, “Iwee. Mind your manners mzsungu. What was weird, the fact that someone spoke to you?” Vernon grimaced his appreciation and continued.
“Seriously, this guy I’ve never met before joined me at my table. Said he’d seen me at the school Open Morning. We got talking about our jobs and he was bemoaning the fact that people keep sending him manuscripts full of gibberish and bad grammar.”
“Well I suppose that is a bit weird, how do they get his address?”
“He’s a publisher. They respond to his adverts I suppose. That wasn’t the weird bit.”
Nsansa shot one of her exasperated looks.
“He asked me how I cope with the nonsense that students write and said he figured that was surely pretty maddening too. Anyway, I said I wrote the nonsense down in my little book of errors and then later fed it into my nonsense filter.”
Nsansa smiled, “Neat. Want another beer? What did he say?”
“He got really agitated. Couldn’t grasp that I’d been joking. He kept wanting to know how it worked. I had to leave shortly after that as I had to do assembly the next day. He accompanied me out to the car and I started to get a bit apprehensive. Odd guy.”
“People just don’t get your humour Vernon; you’re too clever by far.”
If only that were true Vernon thought, oh to be too clever.
Knowledge, health and virility, the gifts of the Norse gods. Was that what life was all about? ‘Stay young and beautiful, if you want to be loved’. Health and virility. Vernon lay in the dark having died and gone to heaven several times in the last forty minutes. His senses were alive and he was aware of Nsansa next to him in the way that he’d first seen phosphorous with his peripheral vision. Just at that moment she ran her nails gently down his spine and he jumped involuntarily. “Uli ulusuma, you’re beautiful”, he murmured luxuriously, stating the obvious.
“You like?” replied Nsansa easing herself on top of him and spreadeagling his limbs. “Naalitemwa… I like” he said with difficulty as she kissed him slowly and deliberately.
As Vernon drifted off to sleep his thoughts returned to the intense stranger in the Woolpack. He could recall discussing the man with a colleague as they queued for lunch in the refectory and a brief mention of impending bankruptcy and looming battles with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officers. As sleep tiptoed mischievously around his skull, he fancied he saw the publisher loading suspicious packages onto a dray under cover of darkness. The dray was not harnessed to a horse however, but to a forbidding minotaur with human face. Vernon shuddered involuntarily as the demon turned to him and snarled ‘IVF treatments can differ from clinic to clinic.’ As the publisher commanded mammon to be silent, and shouted out in his direction “It’s not what you think…”, a number of parcels slipped from the cart. The shattering of test tubes filled Vernon with dismay; he was violently awoken by the alarm. It was Friday.
Friday, Beliefs and Values. Vernon heard members of the class approaching along the uncarpeted corridor discussing Celebrity Big Brother, the social risks of eating Doritos and what it would be like to have Ricky Gervais as headmaster. He gave up trying to text his ex, Lindsay. The Park was like the land that technology forgot. No signal, no software.
“Hiya. Morning. Hello.”
The class entered drowsily, finding their places, rummaging in their bags, exchanging banter. Vernon started as he meant to go on. “You’re all gonna die” he announced.
Eight forty five on a frosty Friday and still he was quite pleased with the disinterested murmur that met his remark. “You’re all gonna die, but will you enjoy the same control over dying as you do over life?” Silence. He’d got word to them too late about their mortality.
After a short introduction, and some preliminary indifference about the arguments for and against euthanasia from the fifteen apparently comatose bodies before him, Vernon turned on the video player.
“This programme follows the last day in the life of Reg Crew, a onetime merchant seaman, Ford car factory worker and devoted husband to Wynn for fifty years. Please treat this with respect and listen carefully.” There was some spark beginning to return to the class and Vernon was relieved.
The class watched the news feature fronted by Trevor McDonald with growing interest. Reg Crew, suffering from Motor Neuron Disease, acknowledged he had had in his own words, “…a good innings.” He likened himself to a car with two hundred thousand miles on the clock that had suddenly packed up, and described bitterly the alienation from friends and colleagues caused by his terminal illness.
“Health is everything.” Reg concluded.
The class was noticeably touched by his story and the unselfish support of his seventy six year-old wife. Reg sought to end his pain and trauma in Switzerland where euthanasia was legal. The final moments before the prescribed drugs were administered by a nurse, were profoundly moving. In an unassuming rented apartment not far from Lake Geneva, Reg died and once again Vernon was moved to tears. As far as he could tell a number of his students were shaken too.
So what was that all about? Suicide used to be a sin, and a crime. Now neither the church, nor the state seemed able to decide, apart from the Catholics of course, for whom inflexibility was a virtue. The discussion that ensued began to melt the icicles from the picture rail but the class still seemed trapped in a relativistic swamp. He says this, she says that; ‘It’s how you see it sir.’ Would Reg’s life have had meaning still if his struggle had gone unnoticed? Did his story have value because of its educational utility? If health and utility gave your life its meaning, could that meaning be stolen by death?
Vernon wished he knew, oh to be clever enough.
The next day Vernon was late for work. Though a teacher he could never bring himself to employ the phrase ‘late for school’, it seemed loaded with dread. He decided to miss the usual morning bath, fed his insistent cat Chucky and carefully put the spoon somewhere that would prevent him accidentally stirring his coffee with it. Taking his coffee into the lounge he grabbed the post from the letter box intending to cram it into his bag and noticed indecipherable writing on one of the letters. He was intrigued, slowly it dawned on him that this was a reply from Lampeter. His university application; of course. It would have to wait.
Saturday morning school passed quietly enough though faintly in the distance could be heard the approaching ominous hooves of the four assessments of the apocalypse; teacher predictions, target grades, reports and tutorial reviews. But Vernon reasoned, why give your pound of flesh today when you can give your pound of flesh tomorrow?
That evening he spoke to Nsansa on the phone. She seemed both excited and apprehensive in equal measure.“Vernon” she said, “as if use of his Christian name was a belated resolution. “Do you remember I mentioned Aunty and Uncle. The ones who live in Newmarket?” Vernon did but admission seemed tantamount to some kind of culpability. “They’re invited us to dinner to discuss marriage. You don’t mind nshima do you? We’ll have barbecue chicken too and ndiwo so it will be very tasty.” Vernon nearly missed it. The shock reduced his natural verbosity to
“Why ours my love. Forgive them, they’re like mother and father to me, it’s a natural concern and they’re traditional. It’s not as if we have to get married but they will wish us to be dating with that in mind. God forbid if they knew the half of it. You’ll like the food and all you’ll need to do is listen respectfully.” Over the resounding hoof beats of a new horseman on the block Vernon could hear his own heartbeat. “I’ll think about it” he said as graciously as he could manage, knowing full well that for the foreseeable future he would think of little else.
He hadn’t slept at all well. His dreams had been hazy yet he distinctly remembered a visit from the philosopher of pessimism, conspicuous and ominous in his high-collared undertaker’s black and white muttonchop whiskers, who had stood by a jukebox grimly feeding coins into the slot. “Can’t get no, satisfaction”, Arthur’s favourite he guessed, was still ricocheting around his brain and it followed him downstairs. As if this hadn’t been enough he had felt all night that there was someone he had to get somewhere on time but the key to the puzzle escaped him.
He was due to call on Nsansa that afternoon following church but in his present state of mind he decided to give church a miss. The problem with gathering with those who care about you is their persistent pastoral questioning. Sometimes there’s nothing more guaranteed to unhinge you than a kindly “missed you Vernon, how’re you doing?” Anyway, he’d get plenty of gospel with his grub that evening. He shuddered as he poured breakfast flakes into a bowl; what could be worse than a fatherly chat except a fatherly chat from someone else’s surrogate father.
“Natemwa pakukumona, Muli shani” – I’m pleased to meet you, how are you?
“Bwino naaiwe?” – I’m fine thanks, and you?
“Bwino. Inaileni.” Fine, please come in.
Aunty and Uncle lived in a small but comfortable flat in a small but comfortable housing development on the edge of Newmarket. Their Zambian hospitality was genuine and Vernon could not help likening Uncle to a rotund and preacherly Nelson M. They ate heartily and shared pleasantries until someone gave a secret sign and Aunty retired to the kitchenette to clear things away with her helpers.
Considering the fact that Vernon had dated Nsansa barely more than four months and she had not yet met his children, considering the fact that they had only spoken of marriage as a conceivable development neither would rule out, the fatherly counsel was hardly timely. They both listened carefully, modelling respect, glad that no intrusive questions arose, and wore somewhat uncomfortably the mantle of virtuous innocence, and marital longing ascribed to them by their elders. One’s identity, he thought, might be personal but it cannot be regarded as private. Vernon, Head of Beliefs and Values had the feeling that anything less than impeccable cultural sensitivity would bring his Lower Fourth Religious Studies class out from their hiding place behind the sofa to indict him for fraud. This was after all, how it was done in Africa and wasn’t everyone entitled to their way of doing things? There was just that mysterious mention, left tantalizingly unexplained, of the small matter of Lobola.
They were silent on the drive home and uncertain of each other’s thoughts until Vernon dropped Nsansa home. The day’s prenuptial niceties having dampened any erotic ardour and the thought of Monday morning school gave Vernon little desire to prolong his stay. “I have to be going darling, do you mind. I’ll ring tomorrow.”
Nsansa seemed somehow in buoyant mood to Vernon’s surprise. “Iwee; you too girlie girlie, you just a flash it round a worldie”, Nsansa sang good-naturedly wagging her finger and ululating. “Him have one up here, one down there, while I been to church to say my prayers.” Her movement around the tiny kitchen was provocative and tempted him to change his mind but he wasn’t ready for any forensic rerun of the fatherly chat just yet.
“Nice touch. But there’s only Chucky, and he doesn’t count.” he said, kissing his goodbyes. Though he began to feel his interest return and his spirits lift Vernon knew he had some thinking to do. Marriage, mmm.
When he got home Vernon opened an ‘I’m still my own man’ protest beer and sat on the sofa in the dark. What on earth. Nsansa was beautiful and exotic but she was at times cagey about her roots and African connections. “You won’t want to meet my family.” She’d said. “Be a long time ‘for you’re ready.” He had to admit he’d still got too many questions.
Pushing the cat off his lap and moving in to the study, Vernon gathered an armful of unmarked school books and set about packing his bag for the next day. In doing so he saw crumpled at the bottom of his bag the letter from Lampeter.
‘Dear Mr Jules
We are pleased to tell you that your application for M-Phil study at University of Wales Lampeter has been successful. Please return the reply slip attached, indicating how you wish to pay. We will contact you in due course to discuss supervision, please also confirm your contact details below.’
It had arrived. The dance that ensued was as ungainly as Nsansa’s was rhythmic but Vernon suddenly felt some of the cloying bitterness that had dogged his steps lately begin to lift.
That Monday morning, with undeniably pretentious musings about degrees and prestige Vernon drove onto the Park. The swathes of green greeted him afresh, and he prayed a prayer of thanks as he always did. Indeed, sometimes he wondered if that was why he stayed in teaching. As Vernon prepared to attend the morning’s staff briefing he tried to text Nsansa. How she was going to get to Ely for the train to Birmingham this week he didn’t know; he had parent’s evening. He quickly reviewed the topic for his next lesson and ran for the stairs. Whose idea had it been to install concrete staircases in a country house, they play havoc with the knees? God, he hated concrete. Why couldn’t there be stairs of grass?
Upper Five were in fine form after break. The topic was Life after Death. “Christians believe that good comes from God. If you reject God then you have, by default, chosen a life in which goodness is absent.” explained Vernon. “Yes Sarah?”
“So sir, does that mean everything good… like your tie is good, would be absent? So hell would be without all good things like that?”
Looking squarely into Sarah’s innocent brown eyes, Vernon could not discern whether she was being ironic, complementary or provocatively profound. She was certainly intelligent enough for any of these. He decided to play it straight.
“Aesthetic judgement and creativity are ‘goods’ attributed to God, but this is primarily referring to moral ‘goods’, nevertheless I suppose they’d be missing too. “However,” Vernon added, “I don’t suppose aesthetic details will be your primary concern in hell, though shell-suits, comb-overs and yellow Formica are pretty hellish.”
“What’s a comb-over Sir?”
“Right, page 122 to 123; revision notes please.” said Vernon hastily, tugging his beard for emphasis as he reasserted control.
End of March, and things had been going well with Nsansa. Despite nearly a month’s absence with her stay in Africa and the stress-inducing burden of shopping to meet the demands of her extended family who had been eagerly anticipating her imminent arrival. ‘Bring me these trainers; I’m size nine.’
‘I’m expecting a Prada handbag’ from one… and ‘Levi jeans would be nice’ from another. It was not just the gargantuan suitcase that had nearly fallen apart, Nsansa was a wreck before she left and Vernon had found it hard to empathise.
“How can they make demands?” he’d objected. “They don’t know how hard you work or the cost of living here.” In the end Vernon and Nsansa had managed to procure convincing, economical alternatives, but he still felt outraged on her behalf.
On the last day of his Spring half term they’d had another landmark conversation. She’d baked in foil a fish he’d never heard of, native to Africa, and he’d decided you didn’t need to be well acquainted with food to enjoy it, indeed sometimes the less well you knew the better. Afterwards, as they finished a bottle of wine and drawing the blinds, Nsansa blocked out the Newmarket street lights, turned on a lamp and turned to Vernon saying, “I don’t know how to say this but we’re close aren’t we and we’ve discussed marriage yes? I need to talk about the traditions of my homeland.” After the meal they’d eaten it was only his metaphorical belt that would tighten but Vernon suspected a bumpy ride was ahead. “I’m listening he said.”
“Lobola, the dowry. My family will expect me to be worth a respectable sum and so we will need to negotiate with the Shikombe to fix the right amount.” Try as he might Vernon could not avoid remembering the insatiable demands of Nsansa’s relatives, some of them she’d portrayed as pretty reluctant workers, he could see in his mind’s eye her suitcase overflowing with Western goods they’d instructed her to bring.
“How does this work Nsansa?” he asked. “You know I’m not the rich mzsungu they imagine you’ve met. Is this a ransom? A love gift? Is there a ‘going-rate’… in cattle?” Given his ongoing struggles with the greedy banks and the debts from his previous marriage, Vernon found it hard to keep the panic out of his voice.
As his voice climbed an octave hers reduced a decibel. Nsansa withdrew into a characteristic silence after muttering, “I knew you wouldn’t understand. You wouldn’t want to shame me would you?”
The Lobola was not Vernon’s only concern. There were others, out there beyond the everyday challenges of teaching. First of all there was the book man. He’d had a call recently at work, in one of those uncompromised free periods; a rare occasion to say the least, for it was usually only parent’s that hounded him and they often found their way to his third floor office unannounced. ‘High there Vernon, I hope you don’t mind me calling you.”
“Who’s calling?” Vernon asked, partly distracted by the worksheet on the Ontological Argument he was preparing for the sixth form.
“You met me at the Woolpack remember.”
“What’s your name and why are you calling me at work?” Vernon was attentive now.
“My name is Tarkey and I have a proposition to make that I hope you’ll be interested in.”
“Nobody’s called Tarkey, what’s your name?” intoned Vernon, Inquisitor General, senses attuned.
“Okay fine. My name is Tarquin and I’d like to offer you a publishing deal.”
“Look Tarquin, I’m not writing anything, that is unless you want an exclusive on my Upper Four reports. What’s this all about?” The humour at the end of the phone seemed rather forced as ‘Tarkey’ replied
“I’d like to discuss your invention and be the first to bring it to the world. Remind me how it works. You remember, the nonsense-filter, most intriguing. Does it merely eradicate nonsense or can it do more.”
Accustomed as he was to ridiculous conversations utterly dependent on harmless nonsense, Vernon could not bring himself to treat this enquiry as anything else. Without sufficient thought he replied, “It doesn’t just eradicate nonsense, it renders it meaningful and full of sense to the listener.” He remembered a little too late to interject, “But it’s not something I’m ready to go public with at present.”
“Marvellous, marvellous. As I thought. Well perhaps we could meet over a pint and I could induce you to bring the literary unveiling of your discovery forward. Tell me, is it a machine, a formula, a meditative practice; I don’t suppose its dependent on illegal substances is it?”
With the sense of returning an escapee to Strangeways Vernon replied. “I have to go; I have a lesson in ten minutes.”
“My this must be secretive. Nevertheless what harm can a discrete conversation do; if you’re concerned about ironing out details or establishing patents and copyrights I can help. Meet me at the Woolpack?”
Against his better judgement, Vernon made a second date with his Strangeways escapee. “I’ll meet you one more time if only to reiterate that this was just a figure of speech. You can buy me a drink at the Fox in Pakenham next Tuesday at eight and I’ll repeat all this with slurred speech if you insist.” As he put the phone down Vernon knew that it was wisdom he needed, not cleverness.
Beginning of April, emergent Spring and another school assembly. Complications with Nsansa and the hectoring oddity that was Tarkey was beginning to get Vernon down. On top of that he really needed to make some decisions about the University place that had come up. Whilst ushering students toward the assembly hall he’d been haunted furthermore by the memories of better times and a previous love, echoes reached him of the good will and romance he’d enjoyed. Long shadows, hoarfrost, familiar corridors, haunting tricks of the light, and certain events in tandem all tended to ambush him with memories. He tugged his beard to keep him focused on the here and now. Even so he wondered how she was coping. To mask his continuing sense of loss, Vernon, like most dedicated teachers, feigned a buoyant mood. “Zippety Doo Da” he advised profoundly to a couple of bemused Chinese students whose puzzled expressions encouraged him further. “It’s official, did you know that?”
“You’re confusing the foreign students.” said Jean Luc as Di-Chien and Kwok walked away shaking their heads. “Imagine someone saying that to you in Cantonese.”
Jean Luc would have made a good guru, though he’d need a beard and a bed-sheet. Vernon generally liked to follow his advice to see where it would lead. He was sure that the Head of Mathematics, a fellow philosopher, must have taken a course in creative thinking, or someone else’s medication at least. Linguistic gymnastics occupied him on his way into assembly.
In assembly the Chaplain was talking about the meaning of life. No Monty Python alas, to introduce the topic, but a fairly lively presentation nevertheless of Ecclesiastes. The Chaplain had made a stir when he’d arrived at The School in the Park. He was young, though conservatively and, in his own muddled way resembled a cuddly John Travolta. His accent fascinated the students, as did his university derived systems of discipline. They’d smiled on non-uniform day to see him walk around the school in a sweatshirt which read ‘chaplain’, but the Reverend had a shout that could wipe the smile from any distracted sloth.
Vernon heard, and echoed, the lament ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.’ ‘’Tis true’ he thought, wondering whether he had remembered his trainers for that evening’s running and fitness? What’s my first lesson today? Did I need photocopying? Will there be a queue? Hadn’t Solomon the King embarked on a search for meaning? Hadn’t he turned over every stone under the sun? Pleasure, wisdom, work, travel, wealth, good deeds, success, religion. He felt the stirrings of an epic Quest in his soul. Life seriously lacked real meaning. Even though inspired, Vernon frittered away a few long minutes remembering the horseless knights that say ’Ni’ and he sent up a quick prayer of thanks to the blessed Monty Python. Once a high-flying theology graduate, Vernon was hermeneutically intimate with Ecclesiastes, and thus, because in familiar airspace, had been on autopilot. As a result, he missed the full import of the next verse the Chaplain read to the school; ‘I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this is also but a chasing after the wind.
“Vernon” the chaplain interjected into his thoughts causing a momentary panic and the fear that he had mumbled them aloud. “The hall is clear. Do you have lessons today?” “Bless you, I do” intoned Vernon mildly.
“Hey Jean Luc, have you got a minute?”
“None that I own outright. But I have shares.”
“Ever the philosopher. Can I have a word?”
“Sure is this off the record?”
They were walking to dinner across a park bathed in promising sunlight and rippled by a balmy Spring breeze. It was hard not to feel your spirits lift as a result, though Vernon and Jean Luc were veterans. Nothing a little Schopenhauer or Nietzsche couldn’t dissipate.
“What’s up Vernon; someone found your whisky still behind the bike sheds?”
“No, and I don’t beat my wife either. I’m thinking of leaving.”
“What now. Before dinner? But seriously, what’s up?”
Vernon tried to thread together his sense of alienation from his children, the frustration of getting to see them and his sense of ineptitude when he did. On top of that there was the increasing pressure of marriage talk shrouded in cultural mystery that recent exchanges with Nsansa had introduced and the letter from Lampeter offering a route to doctoral studies in philosophy. “As if that wasn’t enough Jean Luc, I can’t get on with the new deputy head. She’s so brittle.”
“You could kill yourself, or her” Jean Luc offered unhelpfully, “got a penknife?”
“This is serious Jean Luc. I want to get a PhD. I want to be able to write something that isn’t nonsense. I’m fed up with killing time waiting for my children to notice my existence. I’m frightened of losing them and really not sure I’m ready for marriage.”
Jean Luc listened thoughtfully spooning his gravy around the plate. He’d admitted doubt that he would be able to offer any solutions, but talking was helpful at least. “You ought to read a little more Randy Ayn” Jean Luc finally remarked. “How’d you get on with that book I lent you, ‘Atlas Shrugged’?”
Unaware of the irony Vernon shrugged. “I enjoyed the book. It makes a change from that haunting Sunday-school mantra I imbibed as a child ‘Please God and keep looking over your shoulder’. The trouble is, I agree with her that selfishness isn’t always evil, but can’t help feel humans are definitely sinful by nature. Me and her at least.”
“You can see what I’m getting at though can’t you?” said Jean Luc.
“Well I can guess. I’ve got into all these troubles by trying to please others. The debt that broke the marriage, the scary path to a new one, my third, and this marriage African, and the postponed PhD I never stopped wanting. Are you advising me to be selfish Jean Luc?”
“If I advise you I’ll have to send the bill. Rational self-interest that’s your only hope as far as I can see.”
“I suppose. It’s either that or gloomy duty as far as the eye can see.”
That afternoon Vernon introduced the Ontological Argument to his Upper Sixth. “Imagine you could define something and in doing so, that definition would guarantee the existence of the thing defined. An approach like this in philosophy is called deductive reasoning and the idea it starts with is an A Priori.”
So far so good. The impending examinations were concentrating the minds of his students and they were scribbling furiously. He only hoped some of that scribble would be revision relevant.
“Can’t be done” said Danny busy finishing his sentence. “You can’t define something into existence. I might just as well define the money in the bank of England as ‘Money wot is mine’.”
Vernon acknowledged that this was a fair point. Any definition, for it to have cash-in value, surely needs to make a statement congruent with real life. “Let’s try this then.
According to Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, God is, in the minds of theists and atheists alike ‘That than which no greater can be conceived’. Whatever God is for those who consider the possibility of his existence, he’s the ultimate.”
“So, you’re saying that Anselm thinks this definition relates to reality because he can be conceived of by everyone?” Molly was bright and keen to learn. A girl specialising in the sciences and newly arrived at the school, she was giving Danny a run for his money, Bank of England or not. Vernon tugged his beard to shake off the memory of errors of conception his Lower School students were currently accumulating.
“Good way of putting it Molly. For Anselm that’s just the beginning. As soon as the skeptic, depicted as a fool in Psalm 14, says in his heart ‘There’s no God’, there God is in their thinking. What is more the God in their thinking is ‘That than which no greater can be conceived’.”
“But that’s hardly proof for God; just because he’s in the mind doesn’t mean I have to believe in him. Aristotle said didn’t he, that the educated mind can entertain a thought without accepting it. The skeptic doesn’t accept it.”
“Good point Danny, but Anselm goes further. If God is that than which no greater can be conceived he won’t only exist in the mind. It is greater to exist in reality, in re, than in the mind, in intellectu, therefore God will exist in the mind and in reality. Therefore, God exists.”
The lesson on the Ontological Argument had gone well and as Vernon looked out over the Park he knew he would miss the place if he dared to leave. The long shadows and crisp well-tended formal gardens gave him a satisfaction few other things did at the moment. Except sex perhaps, but even that needed replenishing. His thoughts returned to the letter from Lampeter and Jean Luc’s comments. He’d nearly done a PhD with Cambridge, but lack of funding and an abundance of young children had decimated those plans. From PhD to PGCE. What a climb down he’d felt at the time. Thinking back over the lesson, Vernon wondered what God might make of such things as the Ontological Argument; If God existed in the mind of God, Anselm’s usage of ‘existing’ would be tantamount to the positing of two Gods. Never mind the friendly rivalry between Molly and Danny was good for the class and he was keen for that to continue.
His thoughts were interrupted by the buzz of his mobile which set off a not unpleasant rhythm against his leg accompanied as always by a delayed and peculiar sense of guilt. He did not recognise the number.
“Hi. Who is this?”
“Afternoon old chap. It’s Tarkey. You still on for the pint at Pakenham?”
“How did you get my number? Last time you called on the school land-line.”
“Reception gave me your number. They had it from a school trip I think. You still on for tonight”
“I guess so but listen. No more calls, land-line or mobile. If I want to speak to you I’ll look you up. Don’t call me again.”
No dent it seemed could be applied to Tarkey’s morale today. “As you wish. See you at the Fox.”
Vernon parked the cabriolet next to the oversize Chelsea assault vehicle in the car park, hoping that his Golf looked more exotic than it was. He was a bit reluctant to spend the evening with some self-congratulating millionaire in his present punctured state of mind. He slowly made his way through the narrow wood-paneled corridors and into the bar.
Waving good-humouredly to the regular barman and his assistant Vernon looked around for Tarkey but could not see him. “What’ll you have?” He was asked. Vernon never found it easy to choose. Pulling at his beard in panic he ventured; “A broadside?” “Sure but are you asking or telling?”
“I’ll have a Broadside thanks.” He stood at the bar considering whether or not to add peanuts to his order when there was a by now familiar voice at his elbow.
“Vernon, well met old chap. You just arrived?”
Vernon and Tarquin sat down near the windows in an upholstered bench at the fireside end of the saloon. Tarkey, for he still insisted on the ridiculous nickname, seemed full of bluster and bonhomie, but beneath the surface Vernon fancied he could sense a kind of animal fear or panic, as if his companion were not just in the corner but cornered. Tarkey had a pint of cider in his hand which Vernon thought a little incongruous with his floppy-haired bookish image. Never mind let a person create their own identity.
“So then ‘Tarkey’ how’m I going to persuade you that the nonsense-filter is a figure of speech for a frame of mind or way of thinking? It’s nothing.”
Tarkey was already writing in a small leather bound note-book. “I see, I see, it’s a figure of speech for a thought experiment which stems from a special technique or is enabled by a unique computer programme… ?”
“Neither.” It doesn’t exist in any other form than as a way of describing my determination not to hear non-sense in what someone is saying and my commitment therefore to find some way in which to derive contextual or conceptual validity in the rubbish they are saying.”
“Impressive, impressive. Can you really do that. How clever. So they might speak like a fool and you can extract the words of the wise from what they say. This might not just be a best-selling novelty but a society enhancing breakthrough too.”
“No Tarkey. It’s me playing silly mind games with words and that’s all. There is no more to tell and nothing to market. Hear me straight; there is no such thing as the nonsense-filter.” Vernon took a long draught of beer and was thankful for its dark strength.
At first Tarkey seemed deflated. Swiftly however his dismay was chased from his face by a look of cunning in the way that clouds scud past in quick succession across the expansive skies of Norfolk. “Yes, Yes. I see it now. The non-sense filter is not actually a thing. Silly me, as if you could manipulate the spiritual with the material. Look this technique of yours. How long does it take to teach and what languages does it work in? Where are you going?”
“I’m leaving Tarkey. That’s what people do when the beer and the conversation have both dried up. I told you I’d meet to tell you there is no nonsense-filter and I’ve kept my promise.”
Tarkey’s avaricious cunning gave way to clouds far darker. “You’re double-crossing me I know it. You’ve made a deal with another publisher. You’ll regret it you know. I might be on my uppers but I’ve friends in high places you mark my words.” Vernon walked out to the car park. The Range Rover had already gone, though he fell over a badly placed bicycle beside the back door.
Monday, first week in May and Vernon signed off the last of the medical ethics coursework with some satisfaction as the heavy tread of his Upper Fifth ethicists left the resounding oaken boards of the corridor and were swallowed up by the conspiratorial silence of the concrete stairs. Who’d put concrete… never mind? He glanced at the antiquated desktop in front of him just as an email pinged into his inbox.
‘Dear Vernon, don’t forget to come and see me period two. I’ll be in my office on the fourth floor. Mrs McGuin, Deputy Head, School in the Park.’
Vernon checked the date. Today. Don’t forget? Monday morning one week to go before his most favourite school holiday and he had been summoned to the dragon’s lair. He called through to the Head’s PA. “Is Mrs McGuin expecting to see me today? I’ve just got an email telling me not to forget?”
The redoubtable Maureen replied. “She’ll see you just after break Mr Jules, don’t be tardy.”
After break in the gold-ceilinged staff common room with its expansive windows overlooking the South Front, and with several blisteringly strong coffees inside him Vernon felt somewhat fortified and made his way to the higher echelons of school society. He knocked on the large, panelled door, and waited.
Though a large office, provided with fabulous views over the formal South facing gardens, the river and its fringe of rushes beyond, its furniture was worn and mismatching, the carpet frayed. Similarly Mrs McGuin, newly arrived at the school, had once been pretty, even alluring, but that was beginning to fade. There was no doubting her resolve however, she wore it like an Asmovian force field. You could never properly study the deputy Vernon thought without being studied yourself. Consequently he could not guess her age; she maintained a bird-like attentiveness to any person in her sights and right now he was it. Glancing, as he felt she intended him to do, at her long slim legs and unnervingly short skirt, he crossed the room to the table at which she sat.
“Morning, you wished to see me Mrs McGuin.”
“Yes, I do, sit down please” she purred in a way that was both steel and syrup combined. She leaned forward to fill his vision and her opening words took him by surprise. “Vernon I want to thank you for being such a dear with T. He can be such a lost soul when his adventures go array, but you’ve given him a boost with this business proposition you’re discussing and I’m sure it will be just the thing to lift him out of his fiscal doldrums. I must confess, I didn’t think of you initially as an entrepreneur or inventor. ”
“Vernon’s surprised bewilderment at the syrup gave way rapidly to a chilling realisation of the steel beneath. T! She must mean Tarkey.
Vernon knew that when you died your whole life flashed before you. What flickered distractingly in his mind’s eye however was all those past memories of ‘heroes in a tight spot’, Indiana Jones, Frodo Baggins, Winston Smith and Biggles. Vernon raked his beard cautiously at a loss for something to say. Thankfully those in authority often prefer to do the talking.
“I’m aware of course that you can’t make promises and disclosures until you’re ready to publish, but I do think it’s sweet the way that you’ve refrained from playing the field with such a sexy idea. I do hope you’ll maintain this working relationship and I’d be happy to help in any way I can. It might be that you need a short sabbatical in which to develop this for example. T thinks it will revive his publishing business; he’s beside himself with excitement. Anyway you’d better run along now as I’m sure you have revision classes with your sixth form groups.” With that final comment Vernon found himself discarded from her microscopic gaze and glare like a slice of bacteria on a rejected slide that no longer yields any clues.
As Vernon lay awake that night, listening to the village silence that never failed to make him thankful, he pieced together the recent developments in his life. His children were too young to know how deeply and desperately he loved them. Claire was now nearly sixteen, and Daniel was nearly fourteen, Pippa was only eleven. But for four years they has been discouraged from seeing him and discouraged by his desperation when they had seen him. They lived four miles away and he saw them once a month if that. The regular fortnightly visits had a tendency to be cancelled at the last moment.
Then there was Nsansa. Beautiful, exotic and complex. Their intense relationship had begun to stall. Vernon knew that loving funship was fine, he could be relaxed about that, but marriage brought out of him all kinds of cautious questions. Why was that? When was this ? How would you feel about the other? For Nsansa, in her mixed persona as dark woman of mystery and loving ally she oscillated between candid disclosure and infuriating silence. Did you ever get engaged before; “not really”. He imagined asking a suspect, “Was this man an accomplice?” and the criminal replying “not really.” Who could deny that begged further questions?
As Vernon began to drift, his thoughts turned finally to Tarkey and his publishing expectations. How had that happened? He now had an obsessive neurotic as a partner, though he didn’t have a product, and the partner’s mummy long-legs turning the screws like a mafia matriarch. Time to leave he thought drowsily. Perhaps they’ll all miss me when I’m gone. Perhaps they’ll stop writing my identity for me and let me audition the things I wish to be known by and reject the rest. He fell asleep as his Lower Sixth assembled on the stage announcing they would be singing their self-penned banjo song ‘I never wished to be a teacher so I’m returning to my palette and paints.’
CHAPTER TWO: THE DARK MISTRESS MAKES DEMANDS
‘Objects are demands, and man is nothing in himself but the passive obedience to these demands’
Wods! Wrds? He said with difficulty, putting down the glass. Woord sarmye life.”
Friday evening. Vernon needed company. As arranged he drove over to Newmarket and relaxed as Nsansa cooked. He usually enjoyed their expansive, often competitive conversations and their wide-ranging walks. Tonight, if truth be told, all Vernon really wanted was stir-fry-‘nd-sex. Nsansa shimmied across the room, taken up with the rhythms she heard in her head; he had a front row seat and reason to be content.
After eating, Vernon revived a little. They drove to Cambridge to see a film and parked in the Grafton Centre. Making their way through the shopping complex, they paid for tickets and the socially obligatory popcorn, that signifier that said, ‘hey onlookers we’re having a good time’. They found their seats. Muccino’s movie ‘Pursuit of Happyness’, turned out to be a stylised portrayal of life in 1980s San Francisco. Happiness with a Y? Vernon couldn’t remember the ’80s being quite so sexy and said so. Nsansa pretended she couldn’t remember the ’80s at all. They watched the highly edited story about one working man’s determined struggle against poverty and indifference, though few of the world’s oppressed could have seen it as particularly disadvantaged, nevertheless, the feel-good-flick entertained.
As Nsansa sank into her seat and draped her long legs over his, and he tried to sink into the plot, Vernon thought that perhaps the philosopher Bentham was right. Jeremy with a Y. It all boils down to a pursuit for human happiness, only… well the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Can’t have too much happiness can you? But hang on, didn’t George Bernard Shaw say ‘a lifetime of happiness would be hell on earth’? Grumpy old git; grumpy with a…’ he quickly squashed that refrain. Boiling things down, Vernon was sure that life’s meaning was not a matter of physical or mental health. But what if it was about finding happiness? Happiness, whatever that is.
They liked the film, but Vernon recognised that beneath the feel-good-factor this was yet another celebration of the American Dream. Capitalism rides again. Only this time the rider is black and sporting an Afro; sylised and ready for business of course. And what was essential to the identity of Chris Gardner? Black; Poor; Talented; American; Father; Male, Inventor? Where would he sense his identity in all of that? Philosafro…
On the way home, Vernon asked Nsansa, “Do you know of any African philosophers?”
“Mmm, maybe, but most are religious.”
“Well, there is no assumption in African philosophy that truth has to be objective and universal. That means the philosophy often reflects uncritically the beliefs of the society it springs from.”
“Bakafundisha, you sound like a teacher!”Vernon said impressed, “Where’d you discover this?”
“I did go to school kutumpa” Nsansa retorted after feigning outrage. ‘I have actually heard of a muntu called Yacob, but all I know is that he was Ethiopian. What did you think of the film and what has that to do with this?”
“Is that Yacob with a Y?” Vernon chanced to ask. The thump on the arm told him yes. “Considering the philosophy underlying the movie was that life’s meaning is found in a pursuit of happiness but not contentment, I wondered whether African philosophy has a Utilitarian tradition.”
“Serves me right for asking; I liked the film.”
Vernon resolved to look into this Yacob character and African Utilitarianism. Though he hadn’t yet told Nsansa of his study plans, he was on the hunt already for something philosophical to get his teeth into for a thesis. Somewhere he knew he’d read of ancient African kingdoms. Wouldn’t they have philosophers? He might find a little practical meaning for life and get himself a scholarship in Africa into the bargain. Was Africa the cradle of civilisation, or had they thrown the philosophical baby out with the religious bath water?
The next day, at home after Saturday morning school,Vernon remembered where he’d first encountered the ancient civilisations and kingdoms of the African continent. Upstairs! He ran up the stairs two at a time, tripping over Chucky the performing cat at the top of the stairs. Chucky promptly demonstrated the quickest means of getting to the bottom. Why was it cats always appear guilty of something? Entering the spare bedroom, he realised why. Cats always are guilty of something. Chucky was in the process of turning the green Habitat throw on the spare bed into some kind of moulting archive. Nice and hairy does it.
Vernon took down the storage box from the old oak wardrobe, an heirloom his mother had entrusted to him, and rummaged impatiently inside. There, as he thought was the feature map from the National Geographic Magazine dated February 1980. He’d known it would come in useful someday. Thanks dad for the hoarding genes, and thanks mum for the wardrobe. He read with interest and more than a little skepticism. How paradoxical he thought, Africa is believed by anthropologists to be the cradle of civilisation,yet most of its nations are the world’s youngest and poorest. As the sunlight circled the room and the light gradually waned outside Vernon read, absorbed.
‘The colonial era has not been a complete disaster for Africa as it has hastened the building of communication infrastructures and the development of natural resources. What has been problematic, however, has been the imposition of foreign political systems and arbitrary territorial boundaries’.
So colonialism kickstarts the African economy with the tyrant’s boot. We promote throwaway economies, concrete, and elevate our poorly chosen favourites. Vernon shuddered at the black holocaust underlying the optimism; here was an accidentally matter-of-fact narration of Africa’s visceral and conceptual violation. A forensic report of rape almost.
His back began to ache and he sat on the bed after switching on the light. He felt a sense of resonance with the words of a poem that accompanied the account. Diop warned of a continent ‘whose fruit little by little learn the bitter taste of liberty.’Vernon stood there, tugging at the strands of his beard absent mindedly, the ‘Overlord gives and the Overlord takes away’. How portentous. He thought back to the tragically ironic strife he’d read about in the aptly named ‘Poisonwood Bible’. How readily people learn from the oppressor how to be their own worst enemy. He made a mental note to Google Diop at the earliest possible opportunity.
The phone rang. Vernon got up suddenly feeling hungry and rushed for the stairs. Remembering too late the cat’s hasty descent he slipped the first few steps and made himself slow down. Shaken he got to the phone just in time.
“Whew. Hi, Hello whose there?”
“Erm, hello. My name is Dr Floot. Miles Van der Floot. Is this the number for Mr Jules? May I speak to you in Welsh?”
“Speaking” said Vernon, now able to fulfil the claim. Just managing to phrase the English Vernon continued, “Ur no, Yes it’s me, but Welsh is not something I’m fluent in.”
“Never mind I understand. We have received your completed application form at Lampeter and I understand that you’re keen to start next Semester. Do you have a research proposal? I understand you wish to explore a topic related to philosophy. I also understand that you will be paying for your part-time studies yourself. Is that right?”
“Evening Dr Floot. Yes that’s correct. Part-time, thank you yes, but I haven’t yet identified a thesis question or even a particular area of study.”
“Not to worry, sometimes it takes a year to establish the thesis direction. Good. Well I phoned to welcome you and let you know that although things tend to get going rather slowly here in West Wales, the place is run by sheep, hah aha, someone will contact you to introduce themselves as your supervisor. It might even be me in fact but that’s still being decided. Hwl fawr am nawr. Goodbye for now. ”
The irrepressible and understanding Dr Floot rang off, and Vernon sensed himself adrift in a Dutch barge somewhere between colonial Africa and the craggy rolling hills of West Wales. His hunger slowly broke down the door to his consciousness and he went into the kitchen to heat up a curry.
After eating, and watching a rerun of ‘Black books’, whose main character Bernard Vernon aspired to be, Vernon cleared up and phoned Nsansa.
“Iwee, mzungu you sure find a tricky time to call when you call. Aunty and Uncle are here; now I’ll have to make up someone or admit we’re no closer to marriage when they interrogate me.”
Feeling somewhat deflated Vernon said huffily, “Want me to go away?”
“No of course not” Nsansa replied, her voice softening. “By the way my physiotherapy exam went well and I’ve only got a thesis to go.”
“That’s fantastic” Vernon said guiltily, knowing he’d forgotten to pray for her as he’d promised. “You deserve it, you worked hard. I’m sorry I forgot to pray for you. Seems you didn’t need his help after all.”
“Don’t say that, anyway Aunty and Uncle prayed. When can I see you?”
“Let’s meet up and go for a walk next Tuesday. I have no after school commitments and that’s your half day isn’t it?”
There was a pause but Nsansa relied nevertheless with agreement. “Let’s drive to Cambridge and walk along the Backs.” She spoke briefly to someone, shielding the phone with her hand, and then in his direction. “Okay sweetie, see you Tuesday. I can see your new hairdo if it’s done by then. Byee.” With feigned frivolity she was gone.
Sunday tomorrow. Vernon hadn’t been to church for some time. He hoped God had found someone else to sit with. He tugged his beard in self-reproach. It wasn’t that he had anything against God. He often prayed thankfully for the beauties of nature and in remorse for his darker deeds, it was just that he had never gained an appetite for church. Perhaps he liked to talk too much; didn’t like to listen, like those rowdy women Timothy and Paul colluded against in the New Testament. Perhaps they’d been playing Bingo at the back; 72 –not a word outa you; number 3 –I’m humility, me.’
Vernon read a little of John’s gospel to cleanse his soul and went to bed with a glass of red and Fountainhead.
Sunday morning was beautiful. After a breakfast of croissants and coffee, outside on his worn and patchy decking, tamed and mollified by the sun, Vernon prepared to meet his maker. He lowered the canvas roof by hand, since the automated mechanism no longer worked, and spent a few precious moments finding his shades. The blue East Anglian sky chimed with the car’s metallic indigo; his mood was anything but blue. It felt good to be alive.
The short journey to church took him through the village and for a short spell through open country. Vernon never failed to be entranced by Spring and its optimistic newness; vivid, riotously green leaves, sugar coated blossoms and the sounds of birds that could be discerned above the sound of the car, marvellous.
He pulled in to the church surprised at how full the car park was. He found a cramped spot rather too near the road for his liking, and made his way over to the low ugly building that housed a friendly Christian fellowship. Just as he neared the entrance, in a fashion reminiscent of a Tongan Royal welcome, the worship band struck up the final song. Vernon looked at his watch. What on earth ?
“Come to pick Daniel up have you?”
Vernon turned round.
Robert’s dad was there. Robert was Daniel’s best friend from school. “Uh, mm yes right. Are they nearly done?” He’d no idea Daniel had spent the weekend with his mate and would be at the church.
“Last hymn. Thought you came to this church, been on holiday?”
“Nope” Vernon replied decisively, the penny dropped and he cashed it in, “the clocks went forward and I’m too backward to notice it in time.” Once again his jollity veiled regret. He could at least have seen something of Daniel if he’d been in the service. What if Daniel had hoped to meet him there?
He needn’t have worried. “Hiya Mr Jules” Robert called out as he passed en route for the door. “Daniel left before the service. His team called a football match at the last minute and picked him up already. See ya.”
Vernon stepped inside. Once again he didn’t feel equipped to handle all the goodwill and agape he was sure awaited him. Glancing at the notice board to see what he’d missed he saw there’d been a missionary from Africa speaking, her text was from Jeremiah. ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Sounds good, thought Vernon glumly. But the future seemed to hold more gerrymandering than Jeremiah; did God’s gift of a future and a hope require tampering with his boundaries, it had begun to look that way.
Vernon arrived home and the sun was still beautifully ablaze. He drank a few glasses of water and retrieved his running kit from the airing cupboard, shifting the cat from its new hideout. Vernon was on a mission of his own. He needed time to think and he needed the thinking to be aided by endorphins and rays. He set out from the house cautiously, too experienced a runner to begin too swiftly. He cut down through the village and across the railway cutting in the direction of town. Four miles there four miles back; he figured that would at least put the blues back in the sky where they belonged. He was glad of the cycle track that ran alongside the aerodrome and into Moreton Hall, and the air in his lungs began to do the trick. On the return journey he felt tired but stimulated and the buzz was only interrupted when he thought he saw the dragon in her McGB GT. Though the car’s interior was too dark to decide, the driver certainly hooted and waved. Creepy.
On returning home, Vernon ran a bath, peeled an orange and made a coffee. He sat in the bath and read some more about Africa, once again losing track of time. He read of the waning dominance of Egypt, the rise of Kush and its enigmatic alphabet. He read about untamed jungles, rocky river beds with cavernous gorges and his imagination ran wild. He read of the ancient Christianity of Ethiopia introduced by the Axumites and empires that felt the full force of subsequent religious incursions. He pictured himself hastily deciphering, as best he could, their sophisticated texts while hot on his heels the feral baying of ecclesiastical bloodhounds drew nearer. This was pretty nearly all news to him.
The Ghanaian king, described as the ‘wealthiest of kings on the face of the earth’, the judicial superiority of Mali and the entrepreneurial success of the Songhai Empire. What intellectual loss of face the invaders must have shied away from, what righteous indignation they must have harnessed to their pride to avoid learning lessons from the unsophisticated tropical sophisticates they had stumbled upon. Vernon read on wondering if perhaps this was the best kept secret in the world, apart that is, he thought satirically, from his beloved nonsense filter of course. There had to be some philosophical bedrock amongst these soaring peaks. Vernon became aware of a disturbing sound inside his head. He grabbed the nearest towel and then another, his teeth were chattering and the water had gone cold.
Vernon tried hard to quell the reverberations in his heart and in his skull. Wrapped up in his duvet against the chill he felt coming on, and munching on a Naan bread he’d heated in the toaster, Vernon’s thoughts turned to the children. It was nearly Six and they might be in. He put on his dressing gown and went downstairs to find his phone. On the way back upstairs he grabbed a Stella and the Fountainhead.
“Hi. Its Vernon, Are the children about? Would you mind if I speak to them?”
“Oh it’s you. Vernon they’re busy. Dan’s playing the drums and Claire’s over at Milly’s house. Pippa would speak to you but she’s watching Friends. Shall I leave a message?”
“Can’t you ask if they’d like to chat?”
“I suppose” Jenny answered reluctantly. “You know Claire’s been ill again don’t you. Two days in Addenbrookes and the diagnosis looks bleak. Infusions most likely. Perhaps she’d like to talk to you in hospital next time she’s there.”
Vernon stifled a sigh and stroked his beard for reassurance. “How could I know she’d been in hospital again? Nobody phoned to tell me. Is she better now, have her lesions gone down?” Claire had suffered from an inoperable and rare blood disorder since the age of six. “I’m sorry.” Hyper-complicated hypo-something or other.
“I’ll tell her. Pippa’s just come past, here have a word. Be nice”
Before he could respond the voice at the other end said “Dad. Hi. Why are you ringing? Is everything alright? Have you crashed the car?”
“Hi darling, yes everything is fine I just wanted to say hello. Why do you ask about the car?” Vernon was puzzled.
“Oh nothing.” Pippa paused for a moment. “Dad have you changed your name?
This time Vernon unleashed the sighed and said, “No darling can I ask why?”
“Mum calls you Vermin that’s all and the others laugh. Why does she call you Vermin?” Vernon swallowed hard and imagined the little girl at the other end of the phone. How could he explain that his ex-wife’s hurt feelings sought relief in punishing him? Pleasure gained in another’s pain. He was speechless.
“…Never mind dad, lovely to talk. Friends is on again. Must go. See you.”
Monday school and his Upper Fives were slogging through mud somewhere in a collective bid to render the Duke of Edinburgh memorable for something other than blunt remarks, horses and more mud. They’d be lost by now, or absent without leave on a beach somewhere.
He marked his Lower Five exercise books wondering at the inventive spellings that sullied the word‘sanctity’ and the clumsy definitions they’d offered for adoption. ‘Reads more like a description of kidnap’ he scribbled for the final time. Wearily flinging the last tiresome book on the ragged pile, and noting that there were twenty minutes still to lunch, he decided to give Diop a try. The internet was slow here in the Park, but he might come across something of interest.
David Diop it would seem,was born in Bordeaux France to a Senegalese father and Cameroonian mother. Despite his French upbringing and education, he spent his life longing for Africa and empathizing with the African plight, bitter against French colonialism. Permeating his work was a deep seated hatredof colonial rulers and his hope for an independent Africa.’ Heavy start, thought Vernon. In conflict with the glorious green of the Park beyond his spacious office windows, Diop’s harsh and rancorous poetry conjured up exotic menace.
Africa tell me Africa
Is this your back that is bent
This back that breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying yes to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answer me
Impetuous child that tree young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently obstinately
Whose fruits bit by bit acquire
The bitter taste of liberty.
Vernon walked to lunch, across the North front where the cadets drilled, past the science block, ever new in its Painterly simplicity, past the back of the English block, a monstrous pile of 1960s brick punctuated by metal windows; but he saw none of it. He passed the four hundred year old tree, the King of the Park and sat down to a lunch which he did not taste. As his thoughts flickered in and out it was as if he saw beneath a giant baobab tree, hazy in the simmering African heat, Daniel, Claire and Pippa dressed in colonial attire and surrounded by bones. Vanity all is vanity; what kind of world had he brought them into?
Later that evening Vernon attempted to put pen to paper. Was this philosophical bedrock or just rubble? The idea of self-determination denied, of territorial ownership, the idea of linear time and of the tree as a metaphor for the silently strong waiting Africa; to what extent would these concepts just be Western perspectives turned towards the tropics? Profound words they were. But Vernon wanted to find the real Africa.Could there even be a real Africa any more than there was a ‘real’ Englishman? He suspected that if he was going to examine Africa with African eyes he might have to go a long way further back. African philosophy; where to begin? What if there was no such thing?
An intriguing thought occurred to Vernon as he spooned some chocolate powder into a cup; what might be called philosophy by one tradition might be called theology by another. He tried to map out a few other areas in which definitions depend upon context. Manners, morals, aesthetics, values, ironically even forensic evidence could acquire sense which is dependent upon the lens through which it is examined. It was a little like seeing the world through one of those contraptions you’re made to wear at the opticians; endlessly variable interpretations might offer themselves. Vernon was lost in thought and jumped when the microwave pinged. As he stirred his drink he tried to retrieve the idea that was hovering just out of reach but it eluded him.
He jumped again when his mobile pinged and spilled hot chocolate over his hand. “Shih tzu” he swore putting the cup down clumsily. The text was a calendared reminder from Jenny. ‘Uhv a daughter calld Pppa. Brthdy Wdsday next don’t 4get.’ Vernon found it hard to drink his chocolate through gritted teeth after that.
The land-line rang and Vernon jumped sufficiently to scare Chucky from the room. He was feeling exhausted now. Who would ring at this time? Perhaps it was Jenny, or even worse Tarkey. He decided not to answer it… nevertheless found somehow that he had the handset in his grasp.
“Darling can I see you tomorrow? I have to go to Birmingham for a supervision Wednesday. I don’t want to go without seeing you.”
Vernon knew he couldn’t put it off. Though their relationship had stalled a little, he still cared and they had important things to discuss.
“You finish early Tuesday don’t you? I could come straight after work I suppose. We need to talk.” Vernon had a suspicion that Nsansa needed a lift to the train station, however he had his own favours to ask too. If they were going to discuss marriage and Lobola it was high time Nsansa met Claire, Daniel and Pippa. “How does that sound?”
“I can’t hear anything Vernon. How does what sound?”
“Never mind, I’ll call after work. Love you.” He hated himself for the way his spoken endearments always seemed expectant, speculative, anticipatory, fragments for furthering negotiation.
“Love you Mzungu, chow.” Nsansa rang off “Got to get my beauty sleep.”
Vernon breathed a sigh of relief as he put down the phone following it with a self-deprecating shake of the head as he trudged up the stairs to bed.
Sleep brought with it an optician’s appointment. He sat in the leather chair encumbered by the cold metal of an optometrists’ frame. He could not find the right lens, though he exhausted the lenses supplied, and as a result could make little sense of the chart on the wall. Just as he finally picked out the words TURNLEFTANAKIN the optometrists chair banked sharply and far below him he saw zebra and gazelles running panicked across the plains. The crash when it occurred seemed inevitable and Vernon awoke to find that he had fallen out of bed.
Vernon noted grumpily that the milk was lumpy. He tried coffee-mate on his cereal for the first and last time, a bowl of woodchips sprinkled with fine cement, and remembered the occasion when his sister had gleefully stirred corn flour into his father’s tea. Bubbly sister, bubbly tea, longsuffering father. Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say. Hey, did she have some weird children?
During the war his mother had drawn a line in eyebrow pencil down the backs of her legs to imitate the stockings none could afford, his father, in the RAF and desperate for a smoke, had resorted to smoking tea-leaves. Vernon noted that necessity was not the mother of satisfaction. Checking his tie for the third time and grabbing his work bag he raced for the car and set off for the Park.
As he drove out of the village Vernon realised that in his haste he had sat on his cling-filmed sandwiches. The distraction took his attention from the road and he had to brake dramatically to avoid hitting a bright orange taxi at the blind-spot in Church Lane. The taxi meanwhile managed to stop and the driver indicated vigorously he should go. Vernon waved his thanks and simultaneously his car lurched forward, his heavy files and folders slid from the seat to the floor just as his silver ring leapt from his finger towards the open window. Necessity is the mother of expletives he thought grimly rehearsing them silently.
In the tutorial assembly for Russell House, certificates for sponsored swims vied with certificates for attainment in history and certified nonsense about everything else under the sun. On the way back to the Hall, Vernon fell in step with Jean Luc.
“Ah well’, said Vernon, ‘back to the frivolity that is the Beliefs and Values department; do’s and don’ts and death. Abortion last week, Infertility last month, Euthanasia and the Problem of Evil looming. Perhaps I should put up some balloons. The student’s like balloons.”
“Have you thought of tantric sex?” said Jean Luc.
“Actually you’re not my type but thanks” said Vernon.
“No, I mean on the syllabus. It’d boost your recruitment.”
“Perhaps there’s a way of combining the two, balloons and…”
Vernon quickly rounded off his flippant reply with; “afternoon Chaplain.” as they were joined by the Reverend. Vernon wondered if the Chaplain had become used to stifled conversations in his presence and walked back to the hall silently contemplating the synthesis he’d recommended.
Later that day saw Vernon in a decisive mood. Although it was one of his busiest, in terms of teaching, he was determined to catch up with some research, check out some of the ideas that events of the last few weeks had provoked and move them forward.
First of all he had to settle his sixth formers.
“What do you think Tom?” Vernon optimistically quizzed one of England’s finest, thumping a textbook on the desk for effect. “Happiness is the greatest good. Happiness is the criterion, the gauge of goodness.”
“I don’t mind” said Tom shrugging his shoulders generously.
“Tom don’t be a jelly.” Drew groaned. “You mean Bentham don’t you Sir?
“Yes in the first instance. He formed the Utilitarian assumption that the basic human need was for happiness in the form of calculable pleasures. On the basis of this you could gauge the extent of an action’s goodness.”
“In that case I don’t mind either.” said Drew smugly.
Tom showed signs of stirring his mighty brain. “The problem, it seems to me, is how you can calculate a pleasure… when do you start, when do you stop? Also, does everyone stub their toe to the same extent or enjoy Led Zeppelin equally.”
“Nobody enjoys Led Zeppelin. Anyway how can they” Lizzie chimed in, “when most people are too young to have heard them and those who heard them once are now deaf?”
“I think this is a digression” Vernon volunteered stroking his beard, nevertheless Tom had a point, what is happiness anyway? Doritos, tantric-sex, liberty? Can one have surgically embedded, a sensitive gauge that measures pleasure objectively?
Vernon jumped as Lizzie turned and said, “Sure Sir, but I’m sceptical about Bentham’s efforts to provide a methodology to underpin his assertions of measurability.”
Vernon’s faith in the class’s ineptitude was restored when he saw that Lizzie was merely reading from the textbook. “Go on” he intoned, “don’t stop.”
“Okay then.” Lizzie said shutting the book to unnerve him. “Bentham claimed it was possible to decide scientifically, with his principle of utility, that actions were right if they tended to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. But when is an action complete and when can assessment begin? Aren’t his measurements, something about propinquity or such like, oh and intensity, aren’t they subjective in the extreme?”
She was right and Vernon beamed. When did you decide an action was sufficiently measured; when the taste was gone, the orgasm subsided, hindrance to freedom withdrawn? Pleasure and pain said Bentham were the only real motivators in human life; anything that increased pleasure was morally acceptable, anything that increased pain was not. In Bentham’s words, ‘…nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone… to determine what we shall do.’ Sure thought Vernon, two masters, the deputy head is the former, and the other?
The time had clearly come.
Vernon gifted his sixth formers with a surprise timed-essay, ‘Utilitarianism: unlikely philosophical foundation for building ethical social happiness’ Discuss. There that ought to do it.
Vernon stood at the window. The Head’s lodge stood grandly within its manicured grounds, these were in turn set in the formal splendour of the South Front with its Cedar trees and ivy clad walls. There was something soothing about the Park, even in its wildest manifestations it seemed to tip its hat and wink saying, ‘A pox on your petty agendas, cry fie and take a deep breath, we’ll have assessment out and reality in.’
“You alright Sir, breathing okay?” Drew was looking at him closely.
“Yes sure, carry on.”
What was he going to do about Tarkey? He had no nonsense-filter. What could he do about Nsansa? He loved her but hadn’t the bovine wherewithal to marry into an African tribe. And what was he going to do for his PhD study? Philosophy sure, but what? So far the only clues he’d had seemed contradictory. Saint Ayn recommended self-interest. Saint John recommended washing the feet of others. On top of that Africa was beginning to haunt him.
In the reflection of the window Vernon caught sight of a movement behind him.
“Ah Vernon, do you have a moment?”
Vernon followed Mrs McGuin into the hall under the watchful gaze of the whole class.
He waited. Sure enough the Deputy waded in, like an Egret disputing fishing quotas. “Vernon, Vernon, Vernon.” she breathed stepping closer on each word, head on one side marking time. “You’re trying my patience. You haven’t been returning T’s emails; he’s beside himself with concern that you’ll take the deal elsewhere. Now listen; I’ve released you from teaching tomorrow. Go and meet him at the Bedford Lodge, have lunch, the school will pay, give me an update, something to celebrate. By the weekend.”
Vernon stood with only his beard for company as the haughty Egret strode away long-leggedly and the sixth form class flowed down the wooden stairs around him. All dressed down and nowhere to go he thought gloomily.
Upper Five were in fine form after lunch. The topic was again Life after Death; how apt, life after lunch was life after death.
“Sarah what are the primary differences between Plato’s life after death and Aquinas’?” Sarah was pulling ahead now and locked it seemed in some kind of intellectual oneupwomanship struggle with Molly. She looked reflective.
“Well Plato talks about the immortality of the Soul, so life after death is inevitable because the Soul can’t die. And…” Her confident speech now took on the momentum of pyjama-trousered legs ploughing through water, “Aquinas, felt – that, the Soul could move, into… the next life naturally without death if… if aided by God’s power?”
“Mmm, it seems from your inflection you have become Australian Sarah. Nevertheless well done. Disembodied existence of the kind envisaged by Plato is automatic, of the kind envisaged by Aquinas and those who later developed the idea of purgatory, it is not.”
“What were the two terms we encountered last time Molly? The latter comes from Aquinas’ disagreements with Aristotle.” Vernon glanced across at Molly in time to see her pocket her mobile and glance up guiltily.
“Sir aren’t you forgetting that Aristotle and Aquinas were in different centuries? Don’t you mean Plato’s disagreements with Aristotle?” Vernon stroked his beard affectionately. “You’re stalling Molly. You know what I mean.”
Well, perhaps the terms you’re looking for are substance and subsistence.”
“Good.” So the Christian church, however much it liked the metaphysics of Plato and disliked the materialism of Aristotle, wished to emphasise that life after death depended on God.” Vernon wrote the summary on the board and the page numbers the class needed to work through.
“Just one thing Sir?” Sarah said with an eye to the finishing line. Didn’t Plato’s view support the idea of re-incarnation, Aquinas’ didn’t?
Vernon smiled. “Yes my dear smug Antipodean. Well done. Answer the questions on the page… in English please.”
What was he going to do, what was he going…? Vernon ran through the tyrannical urgencies that pressed in upon him like the stifling crush in a rush-hour tube train arriving at a crowded platform. He had to talk to Nsansa; marriage, and dowries, and the need to travel, for that was what this crisis was beginning to constitute. This crisis talk furthermore, would have to be shoehorned into her lift to Ely no doubt, as she would be heading for Birmingham tonight. On top of that he needed someone to confide in regarding Tarkey. More scarily, how on earth was he going placate this long-legged bird goddess? Unless he wished to end up under the earth, in the underworld no less, he had to devise an escape. Fusing his Egyptology with his schoolboy Latin Vernon concluded he was in tribulatione, in Re. On top of that Bedford hotel, the least auspicious venue possible beckoned. Vernon groaned under the combined weight of religious antiquities and could only nod in agreement as his class dispersed to their extra-curricular delights and prep.
On the way to the car Vernon hit on a plan. He stood there in the middle of the swiftly emptying North Front, oblivious to the cars heading for home and tried to phone Jean-Luc. There was a signal. It was a sign! A signal, in the signal-free School in the Park car-park.
“Hello Vernon. Hi. What’s up?”
“Hi Jean-Luc. I’m in a spot of bother and I can’t talk for long. I need your help. What’s an algorithm?”
“Do you want my two second explanation reserved for panicked beardy friends in car-parks, or do you want the shortened inadequate version I reserve for shallow student enquirers?”
“Jean-Luc how did you know I was in the car-park?” Vernon paused to ask bewildered.
“You’re standing next to my car you nutter. Get in. It’s the Grey Mondeo.”
“What’s an algorithm?” Vernon asked breathlessly as he bundled himself into the car. “Asimov stories are full of them. Aren’t they the basis of apps and all that?”
“Kind of Vernon. What d’you want with an algorithm, or an app for that matter?” Jean-Luc had both hands on the steering wheel as if waiting for the starting flag to fall. He looked at Vernon with a mixture of affection, pity and puzzlement.
“Just give me a snapshot now as I have to rush off and get Nsansa to Ely Station tonight. I’ll give you all the gory details next week. Suffice it to say I’m being lent on by McGuin. So if you help me, you’ll be saving a life and sustaining the revolution.”
“Hell’s bell’s Vernon. Well… an algorithm is the programmable set of step-by-step instructions that tell a computer what to do in a given set of circumstances, or given set of stimuli, so that it takes you to a particular end result with the job done as you’d like it. The computer follows the instructions mechanically and doesn’t deviate so the programming has to be thorough. It sorts through incoming options so it’s also important that you choose the right sorting method. Does that make sense?”
Like most of the mathematicians Vernon had ever met, Jean-Luc did not talk with his hands. Vernon had decided this was because writing as little as possible was the math-mantra most applied to their teaching. Jean-Luc’s hands remained where they were.
“Yes Jean-Luc” Vernon sighed gratefully. “Given that I’ve read almost everything written about Empires and Robots I could build my own R. Daneel Olivaw with this information. Wish I could build a new Deputy Head. Look, I’ll catch up with you next week, I’m not in tomorrow.” He paused unsure what to divulge. “Could an algorithm instruct a computer to make meaning somehow out of everything fed into it?”
Jean-Luc started the engine saying, “I don’t know about that Vernon. But I’ve got an Upper Fourth student who can do the opposite if that’s any help.”
Vernon climbed out of the car momentarily unsure what to do next. Then he remembered he had to get someone somewhere on time.
There were two routes to Newmarket open to Vernon and he sighed as he drove around the Prep School and out of the Park; it was going to be a long night. The traffic on the country roads was moving primarily in the opposite direction, and although the dual carriageway was busy he knew traffic would remain steady until he got to his destination. He didn’t dare try and phone Nsansa whilst driving, not only was it now illegal, but he knew he needed all the concentration he could get. All things considered he made good progress.
“Iwee. Darling. You converting to Africa-time or something ?” said Nsansa who was waiting in the narrow alley behind her terraced house. On seeing the poorly masked fatigue and concern in Vernon’s expression she cupped his face in her hands and asked “Ulishani… are you alright?”
Vernon was beginning to feeling overwhelmed and had parked the car badly but managed a feint “Ee ndibwino.” Yes okay, I’m fine.”
Nsansa drew him by the hand slipping his bag over her shoulder saying “come, come ikaleni,” sit down, “food, then we go.”
They had pizza, for the sake of time, and some kind of fruit juice that seemed to revive him. “Nsansa we need to chat on the way okay? There’s a few things I haven’t had chance to talk to you about but…” Vernon faltered. “Okay?”
Vernon found it easier to talk now the driving necessitated that he keep his eyes on the road ahead. “Darling don’t be angry but I think I need to get away. Travel, work abroad or something. I’m feeling trapped and things at work, well… they’re awkward.”
Surprisingly Nsansa did not immediately accuse him of being fearful of marriage the way he’d anticipated. She was quiet, but not it seemed in protest.
“I need to broaden my horizons. And I’m being hounded by that publisher and his mother. I told you who it was didn’t I? I…”
“Where are you thinking of going? Nsansa asked softly.
“Don’t laugh, please don’t laugh. I want to try and do something worthwhile in Africa somewhere.” Vernon chanced a glance across at the dark statue in the seat next to him as they approached the Station. “Twalava bonse? he said hesitantly …”could we go together?”
Nsansa and Vernon held hands and entered the compact Ely Cathedral Station. It was still a little fresh. When was waiting for a train ever comfortable? On the platform two community wardens, one little, one large, were keeping a close eye on a handful of loud but harmless youths. A longsuffering porter trundled past with a wheelbarrow containing grit. Vernon was momentarily puzzled, the threat of snow had long gone. Minutes later the station echoed to the announcement that the five minutes past six had been cancelled.
“After all that”, said Nsansa in disbelief, “now what? The next is at five minutes to seven.” They decided to share a portion of fish and chips, as they frequently did, and ended up braving the cold snap on a bench overlooking the canal by the granary complex.
“Which half is your half?’ asked Vernon.
“Iwee, mzungu. The half with vinegar on.”
“Well I can’t taste which half has it.”
“Then it doesn’t matter does it?” said Nsansa triumphantly. Vernon began to wonder who was in fact the philosopher. Nsansa however, unlike Jean Luc, was best without a beard.
Suddenly Nsansa turned towards him deliberately. “Are you serious about moving? Is this the end of us? You don’t have to move away to end it you know. I’m not a chocolate Barbie, all legs and no brain. I’ll cope.” The words tumbled out and fell around him reproachfully like the fragments of a raided piggy-bank.
“I’m not running from you Nsansa. I’m walking slowly towards something I have to do and I’ve felt it for some time. Daniel, Claire and Pippa don’t seem to need me, at all. I’m in limbo. I’ve outgrown my job and now there’s some kind of bankrupt neurotic trying to actualise a metaphor at my expense. I’m also desperate to get started with my PhD before my brain turns to mush. Come with me.”
They hurried back to the station noting that there were considerably more people milling about. A number of people were seated outside the coffee bar in an unseasonal cold-induced torpor. “It’s busy”, observed Nsansa with surprise. “Lawdy-gawdy this train is going to be crowded.”
As the train approached they kissed tenderly. “Bye darling” Vernon said. “I’m not running from you. Africa might never happen but I had to tell you.”
Vernon drove home in morose mood. He’d more guilt than you could shake a lapsed Catholic at. Guilt about the children; Daniel, Claire and Pippa. Guilt about Nsansa. There was the hint too of some kind or rumbling subterranean, or maybe submarine guilt, such as Jonah might have felt in refusing his summons to Nineveh. He sensed growing doubts that his African yearnings were really much more than a transcontinental pipe-dream. Was it ‘a calling’ to Africa he bristled against, or was he just fleeing from his entanglements here? These questions were particularly acute for a sceptical son of missionary parents.
What was he going to do moreover about his thorn in the flesh?
Tarkey, Tarkey, Tarkey. In the silence he started at the realisation he’d been toying with a play on words about ‘going cold Tarkey’. Chance’d be a fine thing. Quickly the idea went stale and he turned on Radio Four to clear the air. It was some late-night talk show with the enviably named James Naughtie, the one that looked naughty in print. Bookclub was just getting underway. He listened aghast as Chimamanda Adichie discussed her award winning novel Half a Yellow Sun. A novel set in Africa!
She described the story, set in the troubled conflicts of Biafra… a part of Africa that has since passed away. “Its story about defeat… and awareness… and how patently absurd tribalism is.” Vernon shuddered and turned the radio off; there was Africa, an idealised Africa, pushing its way into his psyche again.
The next morning Vernon got up early, just to savour for a little longer the joy of knowing he wasn’t going to… work. He ate his breakfast flakes in the study, lit by the warming morning sun. A Whole English Sun. He had to be at the hotel for eleven and for now felt somewhat complacent. A cunning plan had begun to turn promiscuously into a promising possibility. The nonsense filter might just make an appearance after all, all being well. The fact that today’s venue was his fated honeymoon hotel brought back distracting thoughts of a Jenny less jaded, he brushed them aside. He had work to do.
Vernon drove home in morose mood. He’d more guilt than you could shake a lapsed Catholic at. Guilt about the children, Daniel, Claire and Pippa. Guilt about Nsansa. There was the hint too of some kind or rumbling subterranean, or maybe submarine guilt, such as Jonah might have felt in refusing his summons to Nineveh. He sensed growing doubts that his African yearnings were really much more than a transcontinental pipe-dream. Was it ‘a calling’ to Africa he bristled against, or was he just fleeing from his entanglements here? These questions were particularly acute for a sceptical son of missionary parents.
What was he going to do moreover about his thorn in the flesh? Tarkey, Tarkey, Tarkey. In the silence he started at the realisation he was toying with a play on words about ‘going cold Tarkey’, but quickly this went stale and so he turned on Radio Four to clear the air. It was some late-night talk show with the enviably named James Naughtie, the one that looked naughty in print. …Bookclub was just getting underway. He listened aghast as Chimamanda Adichie discussed her award winning novel Half a Yellow Sun. A novel set in Africa!
She described the story, set in the troubled conflicts of Biafra… a part of Africa that has since passed away. “Its story about defeat… and awareness… and how patently absurd tribalism is.” Vernon shuddered and turned the radio off; there was Africa, an idealised Africa, pushing its way into his psyche again.
Vernon got up early, just to savour for a little longer the joy of knowing he wasn’t going to… work. He ate his breakfast flakes in the study, lit by the warming morning sun. A Whole English Sun. He had to be at the hotel for eleven and for now felt somewhat complacent. A cunning plan had begun to turn promiscuously into a promising possibility. The nonsense filter might just make an appearance after all, all being well. The fact that today’s venue was his fated honeymoon hotel brought back distracting thoughts of a Jenny less jaded, he brushed them aside. He had work to do.
As Vernon turned off the wide avenue and parked the cabriolet outside the whiter-than-white Georgian façade he had his guard up and shrugged off the opportunity to wallow in morbid self-pity that offered itself. He and Jenny had been good for a while and focused on their children for a good while longer. But that was then and this is now he told himself sternly.
“The Duke of Bedford will see you in the rose garden” he muttered to himself vainly. Lunch was not available in the restaurant until noon so Vernon made his way to the bar. Sadly he would not be alone or important. Dressed in a rather shabby Harris tweed, a crisp white shirt and Levi’s, with polished brogues that cost him a good deal of research time in assorted charity shops, Vernon was confident he would not look too out of place at this time of day in the bar. He also knew that a teacher’s ego was undernourished and easily dented, ill-suited to run on the straight against the slick wealth of Newmarket’s horse owners or the pugilistic powder kegs in miniature that were Newmarket’s jockeys. He decided to keep his mouth shut or fill it with food or beer. It was for reasons of isolation therefore that the strangest thing happened next. Seeing Tarkey across the bar he sensed a camaraderie that surprised him.
“Tarkey, over here. Tell me what you’re having?” Vernon called waiving his chance to remain aloof. His wave caught Tarkey’s eye and the bookish young man clambered over obstructing chairs, and around leather-clad feature handrails enthusiastically.
“Vernon, Vernon, well met I say. How the devil are you?” Vernon’s sense of collaboration evaporated as swiftly as it had come, leaving him despondent and mindful of the tricky job in hand. He gestured to the seat opposite and, assuming some kind of expenses account was his reward for humouring this gangly Mephistopheles asked, “What’ll you have?”
“Ah no, no no. Drinks are on me.” Tarkey replied, sounding like a poor impersonation of the ‘Milky Bar Kid’. “Got to oil the wheels of Industry now haven’t we?” He rose up as abruptly as he had sat down and said, “I’ll go set up a tab. Whiskeys?”
“Phew no. Never touch the stuff” said Vernon feeling absurdly unmanned in saying so. “I’ve work tomorrow, at least for the morning, so I have to get myself home afterwards; a couple of beers should do it.” As Tarkey loped off to set up a tab and confirm the table for lunch the sceptical missionary’s son considered his impending pact with the unholy one.
“Right then, shall we commence?”
Vernon grabbed his beard for support and turned to Tarkey startled. He was not alone.
“This is Jarvis. My partner. Jolly, jolly good friend Jarvis. We go back to school days don’t we Jarves?” Tarkey thumped his ruddy complexioned companion on the back and bade him sit down. The taciturn newcomer, an advert for the game of rugby if ever there was one, filled the chair and wiped the sweat from his wrists.
“Look Tarkey. This is not what I had in mind.” Vernon surprised himself with an assertiveness he hadn’t known was there. Perhaps it was self-preservation. “My arrangement, if it comes to that, is with you initially, and I’m not prepared to undertake negotiations with a third party at this stage.” Vernon felt the world slow down on its axis. Silence reigned in the bar for a nanosecond or two.
“Hmm, got me there Vernon. Not to worry, not to worry. Give me a minute will you.” The two men retired to the other end of the bar and Vernon could see them in discussion. Tarkey, animated as always, Jarves rotund and red and reticent.
As if this was some kind of charade or role play, Tarkey returned shortly after having smoothed things over with his partner.
“Not to worry”.
Vernon decided to get things over with. He was determined to eat the free lunch and get home while it was light. “This nonsense-filter. I’m still developing it Tarkey, but I think it has the possibility of being something you can develop in the form of an app. The nonsense-filter is an algorithm.”
“Ah now, well well. That’s jolly interesting. Is it an algorithm I’m aware of? My favourite non-numerical algorithm is Hoare’s happy-go-lucky Quicksort algorithm and its jolly old strategy of divide and conquer; often solves the problem. It’s the ‘pivot’ that’s the key so I’m told.” Tarkey ran his fingers through his fine thinning hair and licked his lips. He was just getting started. “’Pancake sorting’ is quite intriguing too, though I never met an algorithm I didn’t like to be frank…”
Vernon’s heart sank beneath the waves and he quickly sorted through his favourite distress signals without the aid of an algorithm. He’d judged Tarkey to be a bookish nerd, not a mathematically clever one. Oh to be cleverest.
“No, er, you see, what I’m saying is that the nonsense filter is a method. A series of instructions that can be applied to all incoming qualitative data which will dispense meaning at the other end. You just have to construct the right set of instructions …I think. Yes, that’s how it works, but I’m not finished constructing yet. The nonsense filter is an algorithm in the making” Vernon stated, and quite without irony finished lamely, “sort of.” He swiftly downed his pint and sought another.
As they sat down at their table in the self-consciously stylish ‘Squire’s Restaurant’ for lunch, there was one irony that did not escape Vernon’s attention. The restaurant was named after its previous owner, George Alexander Baird, another man who seemed to accumulated inappropriate accomplices. Never mind, the controversial Squire, aggressive Jockey and extravagant lover of Lily Langtry had enjoyed a full life even though he too tended to squander his successes on hopeless causes.
“Ah yes, the Asparagus soup, jolly nice, oh no, no no, the Wood Pigeon it has to be…” Vernon observed how Tarkey, his dread of a rival appeased, his curiosity sated for now, threw himself into his dinner. It vexed Vernon that this was but a metaphor and he groaned at the bluff he was now committed to. What if Jean Luc failed him?
“Yes, well I think I’ll have the Asparagus soup and then the Scotch Sirloin Steak.” Funny how despair gave him an appetite.
Tarkey settled for the Pigeon, followed by Halibut with artichoke and sultanas. He ordered a bottle of the recommended Sauvignon Blanc for himself and a bottle of Chablis for Vernon. Vernon groaned again, he’d be sleeping in the car at this rate. When the food had arrived Tarkey turned to Vernon and said, “Look Vernon the nonsense filter sounds like jolly good fun but how’s it going to be useful?”
Vernon saw his redemption like a lighthouse beckoning to a careless mariner and steered towards it. “Well Tarkey I guess you’re right which is why I’ve been so hesitant. Anyway its hardly my job to persuade you of its merits. Shall we call the whole thing off?”
“True enough, true enough, no need Vernon, no need. Let’s thrash out some broad terms, you know, advances and royalties and such like, and maybe a calendared action plan. We can consider outlets and distribution and so on can’t we. We’ll schedule some application and marketing meetings in as well yes?” Calling to mind the deputy’s veiled threats Vernon put up little resistance when they ‘shook on it’ and over two slippery Banana Mille Feuille, two coffees and Petite Fours, they crunched the numbers. Following purgatorial negotiations and some indeterminate drinking time later, Vernon left the cabriolet at the Lodge and fell into the taxi, worrying about who’d pick up the tab. That night, as sleep approached hesitantly, Vernon wondered how many other things he’d be paying for in the morning.
Vernon was not his best the next day. Saturday school however was the price one paid for long holidays. To top it all he had an appointment with Mrs McGuin. He virtually sleep-walked through his preparations for work, noticing only in the taxi to Newmarket that he had suit trousers on that did not match his suit jacket and that his tie had a loose thread right in the middle of it.
By the time he had driven cross-country from Newmarket to school he was late. Though it was probably ill-advised, given the thrumming headache that he couldn’t shake off and his dread about the imminent appointment with Mrs McGrim, nevertheless Vernon introduced Schopenhauer to his lower-set sixth formers. As he hadn’t the energy to think of plan ‘B’, plan ‘A’ it was.
With blurred vision Vernon glanced again at the lesson plan in his hand. Arthur, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, seemed to be championing the rights of a meat dish.
‘A quick test of the assertion that ‘enjoyment outweighs pain in this world’, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another, with those of the animal being eaten.’
Feeling like a meat dish himself Vernon stirred the murky intellectual soup that was his lower set Ethics class and tried to get them to see that assumptions about whether the world is mostly good or mostly bad depends on who is making the judgement. Those living on the fault-lines of ‘project earth’ or those spectating from a safe vantage point
Drew put his hand up.
“Wouldn’t you say Sir that some people don’t really suffer? Not like we suffer.”
“Explain Drew. How d’you mean?” Seated at his desk, Vernon held his sore head hoping he looked like Rodin’s intellectual colossus and not a crash victim.
“Well sir, some people have never really known what it is to be free. They’ve never enjoyed really good food or holidays…”
“Or technology, or a sexy threesome in a bed, or Viz magazine…” Added Uri, uninvited. Uri was new to the school, washed in on the tide of Uzbek oil money. Of Russian descent he seemed proudly assertive of his rights to get along with no-one.
“Yeah well, if they’ve never had these pleasures how can they know what they’re missing? Apropos, how can they be truly suffering? ” Drew, somehow simultaneously, managed to throw a smug glance of triumphant academic at Vernon and a withering look of ‘bourgeoisie pities the peasants’ at his classmate Uri.
Vernon cringed. “So you don’t think you can intuitively miss something you’ve never actually experienced?”
“No, well it’s not as if they’re educated is it, the world’s poor I mean?”
“Well Drew” said Vernon with a sigh of regret. “I won’t be giving you a good report this term but I’m sure you won’t mind, as you’ve never had one you’ll not suffer low self-esteem.”
“We could always cut his ‘wheehoo’ off too.” Uri offered, interrupting again, he won’t miss sex will he Sir, seeing he’s never had it yet.”
Sharpening metaphors and looking daggers at his protagonist, Drew retorted “What was it the Tsar declared; ‘The Russian peasants are revolting?’” Vernon’s groan was heartfelt; he imagined the tabloids full of gruesome headlines. ‘Pubic School Shock Revenge’
What was it exactly that Vernon liked about sixth-form teaching? He really couldn’t say. “Let’s see if Schopenhauer can answer your question Drew, he was a Hell’s Angel once did you know?” Uri stopped cleaning his muddy nails with his compasses and looked up. Once again Vernon had both brain cells right where he wanted them. The sooner the biology field trip got back and he had more than one fully formed intellect in the class again the better. They finished off with a comparison of Bentham’s optimism and Schopenhauer’s lack of it.
If Schopenhauer was right, that we find pain more painful than we find pleasure pleasurable, Bentham’s books would never balance. What’s more, Dostoyevsky would wait until his calculations were done and proffer a napkin on which he’d demonstrated that the suffering of just one child outweighed all the good you could stack against it. Perhaps even these transnational oiks ought to read Dostoyevsky; where was his copy of ‘Crime and Punishment’? Though he’d intended to reprimand Uri, Vernon merely had time to grimace his usual ‘enjoy the weekend’ at the receding students. He glanced at his insistent mobile…the text message read.
‘dling what hv we done? Im on th wrng train call me’
But he could not. That was Thursday’s train and this was Saturday’s appointment. Wearily and guiltily Vernon trudged up and down the stairs that led to the Deputy’s office. Thankfully Tarkey had covered the cost of last night’s meal and it was only the taxi home and back to Newmarket he needed to claim for. ‘Here goes’ he thought dismally and knocked.
“Enter… Ah Vernon.”
The Deputy did not invite him to sit down so he did.
“Tell me some good news Vernon, Tarkey’s a little worse for wear this morning I trust you’ve struck a deal.” Mrs McGuin carried on scrutinising the files on her desk. The elaborate, coaxing tone, had gone.
“We discussed the nonsense filter. It’s still in development, but we’ve scheduled another meeting, worked out an action plan and discussed terms. Subject to mutual satisfaction I’ll give Tarquin first refusal to publish and he will support further development. I have these receipts that need paying.”
Mrs McGuin looked up. “Well now that’s all jolly good news. Leave the receipts there. I think there’s a review of subject options coming up. I’m so glad to be able to defend the cause of Beliefs and Values, especially the philosophy programme. I would have hated for it to become marginalised, or get compromised as in other schools. Hopefully we’ll be able to avoid it being unfairly squeezed in the timetable; not all parents recognise its merits you know.”
Her capacity to threaten was as sharp as her son’s mathematical acumen. How on earth had Tarkey got into financial difficulty and how in hell was he going to get out of this mess? And… where was Nsansa now?
Vernon stopped in the church car park on his way home. The first opportunity to get a signal on his mobile. Her phone was ringing thank God.
“Darling where are you? Are you ok?” Vernon enquired.
“I’m back at Ely now, waiting for another train to Birmingham, but I was stranded on a desolate station at Littleport waiting for a return train. Since then I seem to have spent all my life in a taxi! The train was heading for Milton Keynes! Oh darling it’s all gone wrong.” Nsansa’s voice oscillated dramatically between tired despair and hysterical laughter. Life was a roller-coaster, life was taxing.
Two days later Vernon was frantically busy. He’d rushed to school and still missed assembly. By morning break he’d received a promising email from St Andrew’s School Nairobi inviting him to apply for a part time Head of Religious Studies post. He’d also spotted a humanities opportunity from Isamilo School in Tanzania. In the afternoon confirmation came through inviting him to the Council for International Schools Recruitment Fair. He hoped the Head hadn’t noticed his absence at assembly, he’d need to apply for a day off for the conference.
Vernon had distanced himself from the missionary societies and Christian charities in Africa since finding in a letter of reply that he was ‘damaged goods’. He got the jitters every time they attempted to discuss commitment with him because he could never display the jubilant fundamentalist certainty they were looking for. Indeed he had taken to heart the warning one society had given him. ‘You’ve been divorced Vernon, twice , conservative churches in Africa are going to have a problem with that.’ His philosophical scepticism and… and his doubts, his swearing and his appetite for sex, they were liabilities and he wasn’t proud of them. To them could be added his distaste for hymns and religious jargon, his mistrust of religious rhetoric and fundraising machinations. Vernon was, he felt, well on the way to being an infidel. Nevertheless Africa still beckoned.
….46 End of Chapter Two
Chapter Three: Rejection
“Some days even my lucky rocketship underpants won’t help.” Calvin and Hobbs
“Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection. ”Martin Luther King Jr.
On Tuesday evening Vernon met Nsansa again from the Birmingham train. That night they rekindled the weakened flame of their desire. Her long limbs, her arched back, the sheen and texture of her skin with its smell of exotic oils and its coffee colour, a sensual alliance that aroused him so readily. Their love making ebbed and flowed like the incoming tide. Waves of passion lapping tenderness and giving way in turn to resurgent passion. Her kisses were searching, and they paused together, poised dramatically on the brink of relief like a diver energised and sensitive to the resonance of the diving board before the plunge.
When satisfaction finally came and they climaxed together, Vernon was mesmerised by Nsansa’s gaze. “Come. Tuleelala nomba, We sleep now.” Nsansa urged as they disengaged, “time for talk later.
Vernon drifted blissfully from the world of pleasure and pain, measures and methods, applications and assemblies. He felt himself falling and was grateful. “Mwalitemwa? You like?” he asked sleepily.
“Emukwai, yes, I like.” Tonight he felt like a sanctified sex-god, not an infidel.
They awoke uncharacteristically early thanks to the sun streaming through the curtains and Chucky the cat making insistent inroads into their collective consciousness. Vernon explained, as tenderly and coherently as he could, his conversation with Tarkey, his brief introductory discussion with Van der Floot and his invitation to the recruitment fair. He explained his fear that if he didn’t go work abroad he would stagnate, he raised his suspicion that though Africa seemed to be calling it might yet reject him. He needed to be on the move and he might be pushed before he could jump. It might even transpire that the Deputy would marginalise his department before ever he got chance to leave.
“Why don’t you come? You still love Africa don’t you? You have talent Africa could use.” Vernon tried to keep his voice even and his expectations minimal.
“Sure I love Africa darling, but Africa – Zambia, Botswana, South Africa… nooo, Africa has not been kind to me and I’ve only just escaped. As soon as I finish my certification I intend to get my residency in the UK. I’ve worked hard for that stability. I’ll come and visit. I’ll wait for you. Maybe when I’ve got residency I’ll stay with you awhile for some of your term abroad. You’re not planning to stay in anywhere in Africa forever are you?”
Vernon looked into the unknown and didn’t know.
“Who can say what will happen Nsansa. I only intend to go for a few years. I need to broaden my horizons. I feel trapped in the Englishness of English schools and badgered by all I’ve described. I need to breathe, to explore, to find myself.” Vernon held his breath waiting for her well-deserved dismissal of his clichés. When it didn’t come he saw that she was tearful. They hugged and finished breakfast in silence, a silence that continued as he put his things in the cabriolet, folded the roof down and drove to the School in the Park.
As the boot of the cabriolet had shut with a clunk and Vernon waved his goodbyes to Nsansa, his heart felt leaden. Suddenly as he drove out of the village he was ambushed by malevolent memories. Another goodbye; possibly, just possibly the worst day of his life so far.
Vernon put the last portable item in the back of the Vectra and cautiously shut the tailgate. The car was crammed full of all of his belongings; all his clothes, his pictures and paintings, his acoustic guitar and the Fender Strat. The books that were not already in storage, his personal accounts, his art portfolios and the various items he would need for the new school term were shoe-horned into every nook and cranny. Two plants, his CD collection, his laptop and his tools, glimpsed in various incongruous groupings, looked like some kidnapped still-life from his art school days.
Vernon was aware that packing like this had drawn stares from passers-by. He was on view to those whofiled past in the traffic or skirted on foot their spacious drive that was open to the public on two sides. His neighbour waved innocently, having just pulled up next door. He felt like a failed asylum seeker.
He went back in into the bungalow and said goodbye to Claire. She was polite but distant, holding it all together, and he imagined it was his daughter’s thirteen year old strategy for coping.
“Bye darling.”he managed to choke out, commanding himself to be strong. “I’ll give you a ring and you can come and see me as soon as I’m moved in.”
Claire nodded vaguely; reluctant it seemed to commit an act of betrayal by showing disloyal emotions. “Ok.” He gave her a final embrace, softly, tentatively, so as not to aggravate the painful lesions on her skin and the swollen joints in her elbows. “Love you”, he whispered hoarsely.
“Love you too”, she whispered in reply.
He’d tried to give Pippa especial attention that day, now she was asleep and would not understand if he’d disturbed her. Daniel was also in bed. Vernon knocked on his door and went in. Two and a half years younger and less inhibited, Daniel held on to him fiercely. He did not speak at first, or cry. His intensity was some comfort however, like the flickering indication of responsive life in a comatose loved one. When Daniel spoke it was a practicality. “Can we come and see you?”
“Yes darling, yes.”Vernon could sense the colour draining from his face, just as the last traces of hope drained from his soul. His bones seemed to lose their solidity and it was all he could do to remain standing. “I need you to do that. Love you Daniel. See you soon, ok?”Vernon extricated himself from his sons grip and with a final kiss moved away aware that Jenny was standing in the hall beyond the open door.
How the final moments on enemy soil were played out Vernon could not recollect. He remembered driving hunched over the steering wheel for lack of space, steadying the bed frame that lay on top of his belongings. It was some moments, as he drove towards his temporary lodgings in Whepstead, before he realised that it was not raining; it was the tears of the dammed that obscured his view.
Vernon shuddered as he wrestled to free himself from the oversized underwear he’d walked into. He hadn’t been looking where he was going as he came out of the pantry. The fridge was a dwarf but still it appeared cramped as it crouched in the corner of the tiny alcove;he’d had to back out to get out. All over the kitchen intimate old-women’s clothing hung out to dry. Every available space in the kitchen was taken up with tins of food, stacked crockery, cooking utensils and sundry items. There were no cupboards to speak of. Thank God the tea tasted like tea. Precious little else was familiar.
Vernon took the familiar tea in the unfamiliar cup back to his tiny room. Like a freezer compartment stuffed with the remnants of an unsuccessful car boot sale, the room was only just big enough to accommodate his grief. He coped by wearing his sunglasses for there was less to see by doing so. It had no heating and contained a single bed, a black and white TV with poor reception and the contents of his car. Things were not looking good and Vernon rubbed the scratchiness of his unshaven chin in distress. Difficult though these disadvantages were, these things he could cope with. It was the demon under the bed that unnerved him. The sprite that had dogged his footsteps through life at every turn had now come of age. The sprite had metamorphosed into a life-choking monster. That demon was Rejection.
Two thousand and three might have been his hardest year. But Vernon didn’t have that sympathetic audience granted to the Queen of England as she televised her lament. No banquet had been laid on for him where he could reminisce about his Annus Horribilis.
Whilst most of the staff at school had been very understanding, those he’d told, he remembered the previous Headmaster’s response when he intimated that the school’s Head of Beliefs and Values was likely to be a divorcee. It was as if the Headmaster had just found an inferior cheese on the cheese-board. He’d wondered what it would take to tap into the man’s subterranean emotional reserves – deep cast mining perhaps. As it turned out the Head had proved to be a man possessing genuine compassion and tungsten composure in equal measure.
Almost four years later, Wednesday, and early evening. Vernon looked at his watch. Jean Luc was late, not that it reflected badly on the maths teacher’s timekeeping, they had not arranged to meet. Vernon took out of his pocket the little MP3 recorder he’d borrowed from Gladys Gail in the language department and replayed some of its recording. The speech was blurred and hard to distinguish, this did not reflect badly on the technology however for the poor quality was in direct proportion to the quality of the alcohol in Vernon’s blood at the time, and of course, its quantity.
“Turkey, Turkey, Turkey…” long pause with only the background chink of cutlery and the metallic clatter of dishes against an industrial-scale kitchen sink, a theatrical hiccough and a rather effeminate giggle. “You’ve gottundder shtand. I mushtav mning, no’nonsnus. Wods! Wrds? …” Another long pause punctuated only by the disconcerting clatter of glass on metal tray.“Woord sarmye life.” Hopeless. Vernon only had himself to blame for his signature against a promise to develop the nonsense filter in partnership with a Mr Tarquin McGuin.
Jean Luc drove the grey Mondeo into the suburban drive as if chased by the hounds of hell. But no, Vernon could here said canines baying for blood in the neighbouring house. The mathematician sprang from the car and rushed to the front door, leaving it open behind him in his haste. Vernon clambered out of his car and stood at the threshold rather uncertain whether to intrude or not.
“Jean Luc?” He called and his friend and colleague emerged from a downstairs cloakroom.
“Vernon? What’re you doing here? I’m not home long, I’ve got Ballroom and the missus is meeting me there.” Jean Luc struggled into a linen jacket as he spoke. “How’d you get on with that guy you met? You said you’d tell me more about your uncharacteristic interest in algorithms. Want to meet up Friday lunchtime?” Vernon got the distinct impression as Jean Luc ushered him out of the door, that this was not the time or place.
“Yeah, yeah sure. It’s a long and complicated story which gets less clear as it proceeds. I’ll catch up with you Friday at lunch. Have a good rhumba, or do Maths teachers do the rhomboid?” Vernon stroked his beard to mask his frustration and wearily made his way back to the car.
Thursday school had been fairly uneventful. Of course no children threw chairs at him, his tyres had not been slashed that would be uncharacteristic of the school. More to the point no boats had been suspended from the assembly hall ceiling and none of his reports had been trashed as incompetent by the English department. Uneventful, unless you included an accidentally broken window and the fortuitous bagging of a thief.
His lower Fourth class were tackling one of his least favourite topics, as was he; Marriage. Christian Marriage in particular. The class arrived hot from the press of the changing rooms and the socially divisive choices of cricket, netball and table-tennis. The boys, the girls and the Koreans.
Christophe was first up the stairs and his triumphant ‘whoop’ at beating the others turned immediately to a ‘whoa’ of dismay as his book-filled bag slung onto the diligently polished desks, skated the width of the room and out the window taking a pane of grade II listed glass with it. “Shi… sorry Sir.” Christophe muttered. The bag, falling as it did, several stories, and distributing several more with force, fell onto the bonnet of the school minibus which was just embarking on an unauthorised outing for one.
When calm was restored and the tearful Christophe had been assured that nobody was dead, Vernon did his best to ‘spice up the rice’ but failed.
“Amy, tell me, what is a sacrament, and why is marriage one?” Who wrote this stuff Vernon thought hiding a yawn and stifling the addition of ‘and who cares?’.
Amy looked sheepish for a moment. “Don’t know Sir, but Daddy says marriage is sacrilege because it violates his rights to smoke in the house.”
Vernon rolled his eyes as professionally as he could and turned to Christophe, “Throw the bag at me next time okay?”
As he drove home Vernon fretted characteristically about another relationship. Did it always have to get to this point? How could you really love someone and make no demands, alternatively how could you love someone if you would never on any account set them free? The conversation with Nsansa had revealed that despite the electrical charge that crackled and jumped when they were together, they were energised by different aspirations. He didn’t regret the connection they had made for a moment, but for how long would their paths converge? He wanted to broaden his horizons, she wanted to secure her residency in the UK. Could they marry? Should they marry? Should they do it before the proverbial cows came home and how many heads of cattle would it take?
Vernon had spent the previous night burning the midnight oil, applying for his dream job. Head of Communication, United World Colleges. But writing required thinking, thinking unlocked doors in his mind, and some of these were shadowy and sinister little apertures. Increasingly of late, behind any one of these doors Vernon had feared his Nemesis might lie in wait. Rejection.
What a treacherous minefield communication was. You only had to inform someone you were good at communication and you could guarantee they’d say, “What d’you mean?” Ironically too Vernon was writing a detailed application for Head of Communication with a global network of colleges sited on each of the world’s continents and nowhere on their website had they communicated what the deadline was. Hey ho.
Getting the hang of irony now Vernon grasped additionally that whilst his self-description, as an effective communicator made some sense, his biggest blunder had been the breakdown in communication with Jenny, though the fiasco with the nonsense filter might turn nasty too, his deepest wound was the strain of communicating with Claire, Daniel and Pippa, and his most immediately pressing challenge now was communicating effectively with Nsansa.
Forget road mending and such like, communication was hard work. Nsansa and Vernon had argued on the phone Wednesday. He was too insecure, she was too insensitive. He was very negative, she glossed over the facts. They’d argued at length about the difference between ‘Zambian Time’ and ‘English Time’ Underneath the affection and attraction other currents flowed and lately they’d come closer to the surface. She said he was scruffy but vain, he said she was a flirt. They’d gone around the houses discussing what it meant to be obtuse. And sarcasm: neither could accuse the other of being ignorant there. Manners too; that was a hot potato they were always tossing back and forth at the meal table. Compatibility; were they meant to be together? Vernon just didn’t want to plough on regardless if the wheels had come off their relationship. Sometimes Nsansa made him ecstatic and then there were other times.
He looked hastily at his watch. Nsansa would be arriving soon, even if he factored African elasticity into his space-time continuum equation. Lindsey had asked him to call and if he was going to get in touch with Lindsey now was a good time before Nsansa arrived. Nothing was going on between them, and he didn’t want to imply there was. Some time ago Lindsey had been the antidote which had drawn the poison of divorce flooding his system. A colleague, a friend and a woman who turned out to be twenty years his junior once they came to talk about it; Lindsey had become his confidante and lover. He supposed he was naïve but he hadn’t known about the taboo regarding dating friends and colleagues. Young colleagues. What other taboos had he inadvertently broken he wondered. Oh they’d been discreet at work, in fact so discrete it had been six months before most people had become aware. They were still good friends. He hoped they always would be. Deep down, generally very deep down, Vernon knew how inconsistent this made him and suspected that if Nsansa was still good friends with a former lover he might not prove to be such a libertarian. In his defence he would insist, ‘It’s our inconsistencies that make us human.’
He called her number.
The smug sounding voice on the other end said “Hi this is Lindsey. I’m so sorry I can’t take your call. Leave a witty and scintillating message that gets me off the other phone and I just might get back to you.”
“Good afternoon” said Vernon, ‘I’m calling, on behalf of the Scintillating Call Allowance Centre. Our records show that your Scintillation Quota is inadequate for your needs. Please call us to remedy this shortfall and ask for A. Tickle.’ He disconnected. There, that ought to do.
A short while later there was a knock on the door and Nsansa entered. “Hi girlie, girlie” she sang teasingly. Her tone of voice relieved him, big time, and Vernon mentally shrugged off his body armour. They had a cup of tea together and spent an hour or so in his study searching online for cheap fares or flights to Edinburgh.
“We need a romantic break Mzungu” Nsansa had suggested “we can talk things over much better on neutral territory. They planned to go away for part of the three week break. Vernon’s fears of relational meltdown were allayed. For now at least.
Later that afternoon Vernon tried to impress Nsansa with his performance in the kitchen and though there was scant chance of impressing her with his cooking, he had his eye on best supporting role. Though keen to learn how to cook, and a very biddable assistant, his brain froze when culinary decisions had to be made. He could follow a recipe, but when an expert was present his brain disengaged. With a combination of Zambian resourcefulness and British bluff they got there in the end and enjoyed an exotic mix of all the spices and vegetables he had to hand with a centrepiece of experimental Pork Chops spiced with peppercorns, gravy granules, lemon and garlic. Easy when you know how.
As they dressed to go out Vernon again tussled with Nsansa, “Why can’t you just decide what you’re wearing and wear it?” she queried. “If I don’t like it I can say. You are the most consultative Mzungu this side of the mountains.”
“I know, but I prefer to know if you do like it, not just to suffer knowing if you don’t. Is that so odd?” Was it odd? Is it strange for a person to care about how their ‘significant other’ feels about them? Are you just a puppy dog if you want to please?
On their way to the cinema, they strolled down Angel Hill towards the Abbey. It would soon be getting dark but the air was mild. The trees fringing the Abbey gardens, now closed for the night, shed papery blossom over the ancient ruinous walls as if weeping for its demise and its uneasy relationship between the market town and its Abbey. Cambridge could not lay claim to the only town and gown showdown.
At its zenith, the Abbey had illuminated the town and given it reason to thrive; the town had provided it craftsmen and labourers to build its pilgrimage site and administrative centre. By 1214 the Abbey was important enough to be the rendezvous of militant, mutinous, English barons. Though swearing was never kindly tolerated in the Abbey, on this occasion it took centre stage. Canterbury, London, Runnymede, St Albans; the fight for a broader distribution of the rights and privileges enjoyed by the King had finally culminated here. England’s barons swore an oath in the Abbey to force the king to accept the Magna Carta. This constitution made the King accountable to the law and established basic rights for the King’s subjects regardless of status.
But time rolls ever on, and though the Abbey controlled the local trade and imposed its moral code, burning at the stake protestant heretics whose untimely calls for reform fell on deaf ears, this pre-eminence could not last. When the common people finally gained the upper hand, they rejected the Abbey. It was torched and its great buildings dismantled by the locals for personal dwellings. If only art did imitate life; Vernon would rather have rerun the sacking of the Abbey than sit through a sugar-coated tale about a washed-up musician. He rather dragged his feet after that.
Is sugar good for you? The film they watched lacked historical anchorage and social significance, but it he’d had to admit it was funny. By the time ‘Music and Lyrics’ had skipped blithely across the screen with its pithy script writing and lame but ham-less acting, Vernon and Nsansa were again comfortable with each other. He’d enjoyed the frothy romp through the shallows of pop and in a way the film and the walk through town had been therapeutic. The demon Rejection, his African neurosis and his finely honed parental guilt must all have stayed at home to play with the Nonsense Filter.
Vernon had been waiting impatiently for an opportunity to speak properly with Jean Luc. He looked at his watch for the fourth time; all that stood between him and lunch was one more Beliefs and Values class. The theme? Religion, the Elderly, and Death; a balloon free zone. Just at that moment his class flooded down the corridor like a swollen river driving a protesting, well-heeled flotsam and jetsam before it.
Sarah and Molly had found a new territorial struggle to fight over and a transparent flag of truce flew over their academic rivalry. Suffering as the privileged centre of their most recent competitive focus was Archie. Shy, able and lanky, Archie’s broad shoulders bowed under the weight of their attention though his reckless hope of coming out of it unscathed buoyed him up. In comparison the other-worldly scourges of loneliness, dementia and I-couldn’t-less care-homes faced by a growing population of elderly people, were firmly out of sight and out of mind. In class the two girls worked quietly, on surreptitious love-notes Vernon suspected, and he turned his attention to a heated discussion between Toby and Archie at the back of the room.
“No, but listen, it says here ‘We may carry our mother on one shoulder, and our father on the other, and look after them for a hundred years… we will still be in debt to them.” Toby looked intensely puzzled. “Well that’s not right is it? If we looked after them they’d be in our debt wouldn’t they?”
“Don’t be dense Toby.” Archie retorted. “You can’t look after your parents for a hundred years any more than you can carry them both on your shoulders.”
Vernon drew closer to the promising exchange only to see his interest wain as Archie went on to say, “Anyway, let’s say you look after your parents, they’d die soon enough and you’d inherit their shares and stuff. This Buddhist poetry is obviously nonsense.”
Nonsense. It was everywhere. Could you escape it? Perhaps there really was a need for a nonsense filter. Vernon collected his pork cutlet and spring vegetables from the serving hatch and went to sit with Jean Luc.
“I’m in trouble Jean Luc. I need to develop an algorithm that filters nonsense and renders the incoming data meaningful. More than that, I’ve promised to develop one. Did you listen to the recording I left with you?”
“Yes Vernon. I’d need a nonsense filter to decipher most of it, but the gist is clearly that you sometimes drink too much, there are people who will abuse you when you do, and you’re in too deep. What role did you say ‘old long-legs’ had in all of this?”
Vernon stroked his beard as if clearing away deadwood; “She’s Tarkey’s guardian angel and my nemesis, what’s more she’s his doting mother.” Articulating the last phrase vehemently, as if an expletive, caused several students to turn and glance their way.
“Okay, okay. Hell’s bells Vernon, keep your shirt on. We can’t discuss it fully here. Come round tomorrow night and I’ll give it some thought before then. Come after eight, the missus is going to the theatre. Try and think of something we can test the algorithm on. Something that seems entirely nonsensical but has meaning beneath. You know, like your department handbook.”
Vernon barely registered Jean Luc’s attempt to lighten the tone. He was under pressure. “What’s Ari off to see? At the theatre I mean?”
“Alice. Alice Through the Looking Glass I think. She’s doesn’t have a Maths Olympiad to prepare for, I do.” It was Jean Luc’s turn to sound bitter.
“Mmm.” Vernon intoned absentmindedly. “I wonder. Thanks Jean Luc, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When Vernon got home that evening he went and sat in the garden with a ‘spoil-yourself’ glass of red. He’d considered a run but the sky promised an ominously ardour-dampening downpour. The words rolled off his tongue like droplets and he wondered momentarily if he had a alliterative equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome. Perhaps a run tomorrow would clear his head of word clusters and dread.
The phone rang indoors, making Vernon and Chucky jump simultaneously. Spilling wine as he sprinted for the call Vernon wondered what wine tasted like through one of those runner’s hydration contraptions.
“Mr Jules. Ahh. Noswaith dda. Sut ydych chi? Mae’n bleser gennyf gadarnhau bad eich er, erm, bad ydw eich Cyfarwyddwr Astudiaethau. Felly, os oes gennych unrhyw gwestiynau neu os ydy rhwbeth yn aneglur…”
“Dr Van der Floot, please, please. I don’t understand.” More nonsense, Vernon thought momentarily. “In English please, in English.”
“Neem me niet kwalijk” Van der Floot replied seamlessly in Dutch. “Sometimes my Welsh the better of me gets. I phoned to say that I am pleased to confirm that I will indeed your Director of Studies be. Thank you for all your paperwork; perhaps you would put into writing a thousand word outline for a topic of interest? So that we can get started.”
Perhaps it was the linguistic display, perhaps his present obsession pushing its way forward. Whatever it was, once again, echoing the manner in which the whole sorry saga had begun, Vernon opened his mouth before putting his brain in gear.
“Well yes Dr Van der Floot…”
“ Call me Miles… please, Miles is miles better ha aha.”
“Well yes Miles, I am keen to explore philosophically the way that humans establish meaning out of nonsense; the relationship between the human discovery of meaning and construction of meaning. How do humans filter nonsense?” Vernon’s courage failed him and he realised that he was standing on one leg holding his glass at a precarious angle over the leather sofa.
“Mmm, semiotics, symbolism and epistemology all rolled into one and peppered with anthropology too. Ddim yn ddrwg, not bad, as they say in these hills. We’ll see, we’ll see. Well, Pob lwc, good luck. I’d better go. I look forward to hearing from you in writing. Bye voor nu.”
“Bye voor nu” Vernon muttered, feeling outclassed. English, Welsh, Dutch. It put his efforts to speak in Bemba to shame he thought. Oh to be clever in more than one language. All he knew he knew, was that the nonsense filter would need to be multi-lingual for nonsense knew no boundaries. Hearing in writing! Kutumpa!
Saturday school presented its usual lackadaisical sport legitimised challenges. As usual Vernon found teaching on Saturday was not so bad. His tutor group were rather sleepy and that was fine. Occasionally he had to send one boy back to change out of his flip flops and sometimes they even had to be roused out of bed. Even Uri could be manoeuvred into compliance on Saturday if your expectations were not too high. And sometimes… nuggets of gold sprung polished and pristine from the rock face.
Tom studied the textbook intently for some minutes and then replied to Vernon’s question.
“I don’t really see what the problem is. Miracles are either ridiculous sensationalist claims made by crackpots, or events we need to factor into our understanding of the Laws of Nature. It’s just a matter of waiting to see what comes to light.”
Vernon was impressed but the glow was tarnished as usual by Uri’s outburst. “What did he just say? I thought you people spoke English.”
“He said that miracles are either fake or something we’ll soon explain away” Vernon offered. “The problem however is that some miracle claims are made by scientists of great standing, like the physicist who helped develop quantum theory, and if miracles are only new Laws of Nature, we cannot claim their regularity is far-reaching and well understood.”
Once Lizzie, Drew, Hume, Swinburne and Holland waded into the debate Vernon was tempted to declare a Saturday morning miracle had occurred at last. Of course the class did not find their philosophy resolved the issue with firm answers. Philosophy rarely does.
Vernon left school, buoyed up by the lesson whose glow had not been eclipsed by planet Uri. After a light lunch he filled his water bottle and set off for a run. Rather than follow his usual trail over the rail line and into town, Vernon sought a more challenging route, one which wound its way through quiet village lanes toward Great Livermere. Though some distance, the run would do him good and clear his head ready for his talk with Jean Luc; or so he hoped.
He arrived at Jean Luc’s ten minutes early that evening and sat in the car as the light was waning. He could see Jean Luc’s house a little further down the suburban street and used the time to write down some questions and some suggestions. He felt as if he was preparing for an interview, an interview for a job he desperately didn’t want.
At eight he locked the cabriolet and walked over to Jean Luc’s front door, inevitably setting off the neighbour’s dogs.
“Ahh Vernon. Better timing I think, come in. I’ve just opened a beer, want one? Or are you now on a vow of abstinence lest I trick you into signing a contract? Come through everyone’s out.”
They went into the spacious conservatory which looked newly built and Vernon sat down wearily on the rattan sofa. Though his mind was racing his thighs ached and his knees felt strained.
“Thanks Jean Luc” he said as he was handed a beer and a glass. “How did you get on with working out how an algorithm is written?”
Jean Luc threw himself into the sofa opposite and said “basically the task is to determine how to instruct the computer to get or distinguish the data, then what we want it to do with it, and finally how we want it to display its results. These things the computer can’t decide, we have to.”
“Sounds reasonable, is it something you can do? For a fee of course.” Vernon began to feel hopeful.
“I know it’s something to do with read, display and write Vernon, but to be frank, you need someone who is fluent in programming language. I can’t write it fluently, but to employ a worn out cliché, I know a man who can. Well, not a man as such.”
Vernon’s racing mind hit this new hairpin bend at break-neck speed. He’d heard of ‘read, display and write’ but was Jean Luc in possession of a humanoid robot, or did he hope a chimpanzee would solve the problem? Was he referring to an hermaphrodite or a team of programmers? “Spill the beans Jean Luc; who?”
“Émile? Émile your son who goes reluctantly to the local comp and spends most of his time buying shares on the stock market or fleecing his mates out of their pocket money with financial opportunities? That Émile? ”
“Alright, alright.” Jean Luc replied, sounding a little peeved. “D’you know any affordable computer programmers who are any good? Emile has already won a Young Enterprise Initiative single handedly, to do it he somehow faked additional input from imaginary team members; he’s also written an answer machine app that sounds like me excusing him from going to school. I can instruct him and he can write the programming using the right syntax, variables and loops. What have we got to lose?”
“We’ve got everything to lose Jean Luc. Remember ‘Jarves’ that rugby-playing, tight-head, no-neck minder of his? Remember the contract, and ‘mummy long-legs’? Remember the police?” Vernon began to sound a little panicked as he itemised the opposition.
“Take it easy Vernon. All we have to do is write the algorithm or prove it can’t be done. We make sure everything we charge for is speculative, and developmental, and talk it down as we go along.”
Jean Luc was right, as usual.
“Did you write some common speech guidance as to what you wanted?”
“I did, it’s here under those three task headings you mentioned, I came across them online.”
“Good. And what about data? Have you got a suggestion for something that appears completely nonsensical but has meaning underneath it?”
“As it happens I do Jean Luc. You gave me the idea. It’s the ‘Jabberwocky’.”
“It’s from Alice through the looking glass, you know. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. It’s a nonsense poem.”
“It’s certainly nonsense. Think it’ll work Vernon? Don’t forget we can’t programme in all the historical, geographical and scientific background to every piece of literature. That sounds like something for Artificial Intelligence.”
“What can we do? If it doesn’t work it’ll at least achieve that secondary goal of yours … you know, to prove it can’t be done. And, if it does work we’ll both be jolly beamish and chortle with joy. A frabjous day indeed.”
Jean Luc shot a glance at Vernon that he normally reserved for the criminally insane and said, “Right then we’d better write out instructions for Émile and find out his price. I hope Tarkey’s got some spending money. Want another beer?”
Vernon chanced the drive home later that night. He could not afford a taxi and the streets were deserted. Jean Luc promised he would phone the next day when he had spoken to Émile.
On Sunday morning Nsansa had agreed to meet him at church. The speaker turned out to be a Kenyan missionary to Glasgow. They were amused as the preacher enthused about the ‘Livers of riving water’ that flowed from the ‘pleasance’ of God. He had prefaced his sermon with a good humoured admission that his elocution was confused. Vernon could empathise. He and Nsansa had laughed over his attempts to distinguish between the Bemban words for plate and breasts; he’d said he feared accidentally asking her venerable aunt to bring her breasts over to him so he could make sure she was satisfied. Nevertheless, for all the good humour Vernon hadn’t found the morning sermon entirely persuasive in its claim that God was at work in everything and a mighty revival was underway. ‘Hey ho’; ‘bring it on’, Vernon thought, he’d be the first to admit he was wrong if God paid him a visit.
That afternoon the couple visited friends near Newmarket. An eclectic group of guests had gathered and Vernon found yet again, to his dismay, that he was the only one present who had not worked in Africa. More specifically the only one who had not experienced the beauty of Green Point and its surrounds in Cape Town. Nsansa caught his glance and smiled sympathetically. Why was he being haunted so? One of the guests referred positively to the United World College in Swaziland. His spine tingled hopefully.
Nsansa sensed his excitement. “See darling” she whispered, “you were meant to be here this afternoon.”
His heart jumped hopefully when the guest offered to put him in touch with his contact there. ‘Just forward me your email and I’ll send you a number of addresses, ok?’ ‘Couldn’t come at a better time’ thought Vernon. He was revelling in an unfiltered nonsense-free day in which he had been both entertained and goaded by nostalgic allusions to Africa. As Nsansa made her way back to Newmarket for work in the morning, he drove home wrapped in thought. Finally, by the time he pulled the duvet over his head and sleep enfolded him , he was well and truly cocooned in the mists of Africa.
Vernon waved his white handkerchief vigorously and became aware that it was pulling away from him and turning into a dove. In its beak it held a fresh olive shoot. It flew falteringly in an arc over to the majestic ocean-going liner docked at the quayside and alighted on the polished rails. Straining his neck to do so, Vernon saw that many of the passengers were familiar; members of the school common room, church friends, karate mates, family, and rather disturbingly, a juvenile Freud holding the hand of a paternal Jung. Just then Vernon’s phone vibrated; he opened the mobile and read the text.
“Hi its Lindsy. Fmily nd frnds al abord. Yr mum sys hi nd so ds Nsansa. Shp is crowded with al th animls 2by2 bt thr wil b plnty v rm in Africa. Shme u decided not2 com. Hp u wnt be lonely”
Vernon felt rivulets of sweat, combined with the falling rain, channelling down the centre of his back. Though the sun shed its blessing upon the ship, overhead the clouds spat contemptuously. Sombrely the brass band on deck played his tune ‘Why does it always rain on me?’ Was this punishment for not marrying Nsansa?
His tears mingled with the rain which was falling very heavily now. He watched with disbelief, as a pair of tardy badgers swum ponderously towards the ship which was pulling away from the quay. A rainbow emerged glistening from the clouds ringing the bright sky. He rubbed his neck which was sore, noticing that his head was resting on the bedside table and he’d knocked the bedside lamp to the floor.
Monday. Rainy Monday; but of course. That same morning during Vernon’s only free period, he accessed his emails only to find a message from the director of United World Colleges. ‘We regret to inform you’ it said, ‘that although your interest is genuinely appreciated, UWC are happy to have made an appointment last weekend for the post of Head of Communication.’ Another lucky candidate aboard the Ark, thought Vernon, recalling his dream with unusual clarity. He knew he was slipping into desperate romanticism about Africa but he could not help it. Everyone he met seemed to be saying, ‘What! You haven’t been to Africa; better go while it’s still there old man.’
Tuesday, the day before the recruitment fair in London, and Vernon was nervous. What if no jobs he fancied were on offer and no school he liked picked him? He had heard of no-one that wanted damaged goods in any of the African schools that were recruiting. Instead, in the course of the day, Vernon received an invitation to an interview for a job in Thailand. He wondered irreverently whether God’s grasp of geography was slipping. Thailand! Oh well, it looked as if Africa had rejected him anyway.
The day descended into Beliefs and Values with Lower 5. ‘Only God has the right to interfere with our genes.’ He reckoned Uri would have written enough smutty innuendos from this to fill a whole edition of Viz; though it would have had to have been ghost written by someone literate. Thankfully Uri was in another class.
The coursework had come to an end and most of the work submitted had improved. While the class worked diligently on their research into religious thinking, Vernon put the finishing touches to his annotation of the Jabberwocky. He intended to drop it in to Jean Luc on the way home, but had yet to decide how to programme the answers in so that the nonsense would be appropriately filtered. Was this Fraud?
If he hadn’t been so churned up with the turmoil of his roiling thoughts Vernon would have enjoyed his task. The absurd arrogance of the know-it-all egg-head was laughable…“Let’s hear it,” said Humpty Dumpty to Alice in response to her enquiry, “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.” Vernon looked around the room. A good many teenage boys approached their exams with the same extravagant optimism.
He jotted down the helpful interpretations of Dodgson’s portmanteaus, composites such as ‘slithy’; there you go, ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’.
Vernon caught himself looking out the window to check that yesterday’s rains had stopped. He’d been refused admission to the Ark, and because the dream still haunted him, his thoughts had been distinctly ‘uffish’ since. Sorting out his panicked deliberations about whether he should stay or go, and how he’d make his escape, was akin to carrying sand in a sieve. The details kept escaping him, and even as they did so, they somehow obscured his vision.
Vernon stroked his beard and indulged in a brief daydream. In his mind’s eye he pictured Jean Luc greeting him on steps of the Old Baily. Chortling in his joy at finding that the Nonsense Filter worked… and was theirs legally. His friends words rang out clearly;
And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
Vernon looked about him suddenly. He was alone. The students had all gone to lunch the slimy ‘toves’.
When Vernon looked into his own looking glass that night he realised his thoughts were still uffish. What if he got offered a job? Could he take it? Should he take it? Would Nsansa come too? There was something else… another question which hovered over his head like a visitation from the grave or a sighting at sea of the dreaded albatross. It was something he’d forgotten, something niggling, like a splinter that snags on silk; only now, with the conference tomorrow had it made itself distinct. It stepped into the limelight and he gasped.
Vernon shuddered involuntarily and sat down heavily on the edge of the bath. He hadn’t mentioned his plans to Claire, to Daniel or Pippa. Not explicitly. Sure, one day when they’d been braving the bitter cold at Colchester Zoo, somewhere between the narcissistic orang-utan and the manic meerkats, he’d asked if they would mind him going away for a year or two. Daniel had only shrugged; Pippa alone had truly registered his remark.
“You can go daddy, if you really want. We’ll be alright. It’s not as if we see you often is it?”
“Wouldn’t you miss me?”
“Do you want me to?” said Pippa.
The question mark that had hung over Vernon’s thinking for quite a while then, returned now with a vengeance, smiling with spritely spite. He’d written a song at the time. ‘Don’t return till I’m missing you.’ Wasn’t this somehow parasitic too? And yet, art often flowed from his deepest wounds. Should it? Still in front of the mirror, Vernon stroked his beard and pondered this second question; should it?
That same question had hung over the article he’d read in the morning funnily enough; an article which he had retrieved from the Independent supplement entitled, with black humour, ’The Art of Darkness’. It sounded like a category his music would be archived in. The article reviewed an exhibition which presented itself uncomfortably as the truth about the shadow of slave trading on contemporary art and design. The review questioned the validity of an exhibition which could gloss over the sins of the British Empire as if its historic crimes no longer cast a shadow into the present. As Vernon climbed exhausted into bed that night, he made a mental note to speak to his children as soon as he returned from London. As his consciousness began to hand over the night-shift to his subconscious he drowsily pondered visiting the Victoria & Albert exhibition. Both were to feature in his dreams.
…64 End of Chapter 3
CHAPTER FOUR: PUSHED ASIDE
Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. Jerry Garcia
Well remember what you said, because in a day or two, I’ll have a witty and blistering retort! You’ll be devastated then.” Calvin and Hobbs
On his way down to London Vernon could see he had a choice. He could fret about his inconsistent triad; Tarkey’s demands, his own personal development and Nsansa’s aspirations, one of which would have to give. Or, he could escape. Escapism, because it was hard to read and drive, entailed the further choice between listening to Radio Four or his newly acquired Rolling Stones CD. Forty Licks in forty ticks he concluded and turned the radio on.
He tuned in immediately to a debate chaired by Melvyn Bragg, exploring the characters and context of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Four academics were discussing the underbelly of colonial rule as portrayed fictionally through the eyes of merchant seaman Marlowe. Like football commentators the academics were in danger of chewing the flavour out of the thing they were taste-testing, but it was still a good yarn, and it kept his grey matter out of the red.
The most telling observation Vernon gleaned was their criticism that the book is often portrayed as a psychological study of the slide into madness experienced by a particular European. Africa meanwhile is relegated to an exotic backdrop to this dramatic and tragic case study. Vernon found Chinua Achebe’s criticism compelling, and uncomfortable. Was he about to relegate Africa to an exotic backdrop to his own particular narrative? He hoped not. As he drove on Vernon mentally added Conrad’s book to his ever growing list of must-reads.
Just as he’d feared he couldn’t park at Redbridge. He tried Newbury Park, unsuccessfully, and ended up as a paying guest of the borough in a municipal car park near Gants Hill. He needn’t have been concerned about time as it turned out, as he got to the conference in good time. Immediately he felt a sense of anti-climax. It was as if he was invisible.
The hotel was grand enough. But at £125 per night for a single room, and £4.00 for a small bottled beer at the Glen Miller Bar, the smoked glass mirrors and carpets as thick as meadow grass were an inadequate compensation. Although he had to admit that the hotel’s close proximity to London’s Oxford Street, with doormen who wore top hats and coat tails, lent a certain cachet, he felt he might just as well have been a doorman as a delegate. He had about as much chance of exciting the recruiting schools as one might have selling punishment canes, blackboard chalk or spectrum computers. No-one was looking for a Beliefs and Values Teacher. A divorced one at that.
When he had registered at the Albert Suite, identified his‘mail box’ and retrieved the invitation to interview that he’d already received by email, Vernon was at a loss to know what to do next. He distributed eleven copies of his CV as optimistically as he could to the mailboxes of the schools located in countries he had an interest in. And then, having lit the touch paper he withdrew to a safe distance to wait. And wait. And wait.
Feeling severely underwhelmed, Vernon took a look around the hotel. After stumbling into an induction conference for the personnel of a major high street discount chain store, and being politely ushered out of the‘engine room’ set aside for recruiting schools and not candidates, a spot of window shopping was all he could think of to fill the non-event with action. He had two hours to kill before the interview.
The shops didn’t help much. Even he, with his zealous tolerance for other cultures and religions was sorely tempted to recant after the third shop in which no English was spoken and there was no hurry to serve him. Vernon returned, rattled, to the refuge of the hotel. Next time he’d borrow a top hat and stand around with the doormen.
Knocking on the hotel bedroom door in which the interview was to take place, Vernon had a brief unsettling and awful dread that the interviewers might be casually decked out in pyjamas and dressing gowns, or worse, towels. Perhaps he’d wedge his briefcase in the door, so he had an open escape route. Who would interview in a bedroom? A Pimp?
“Wait a moment please. We’ll be with you in just a moment Mr Juliet.”
Nice. Nice start that, thought Vernon. There was rustling inside that sounded like the unwrapping of Christmas paper or taffeta petticoats, and a flustered girl emerged and surged down the hall without a word. ‘God what was going on?’
Vernon entered the room. Mr Snapper sagged in the room’s only armchair, in that kind of uncomfortable slouch you adopt when you want to hide your middle-aged spread, or you’ve struggled to get out of the chair and have failed. It looked as if the seat was slippery and he was sinking fast. His haircut was reminiscent of a hairpiece accidently worn back to front, and he sported a droopy handlebar moustache that hid his emotions effectively and slurred his Californian drawl. Perhaps he had no teeth.
“Ah Virgil …Vernon. Vernon right?” Mr Snapper consulted his clipboard hastily.
“It’s Vernon. Vernon Jules.” He’d like to have said Bond, James Bond, and brandished the Magnum or Beretta or Luger, or whatever Bond was killing with just now. Just for effect.
“Well hey, forgive me man. It’s been a long dog of a day. This is Father Attaporn.” Mr Snapper slouched sideways and motioned with his clipboard to a young man who also seemed to be struggling; struggling to emerge from his teenage years into adulthood.
Attaporn, who was seated on a vanity stool beside the dressing table, managed nevertheless to smile mysteriously and incline his head in a dignified bow.
Vernon was nonplussed. After a poor start it seemed his CV had been read very, very carefully. A few easy-peasey questions indicated that they were holding him as a prime candidate subject to the next job fair in Los Angeles. When given an opportunity to ask questions of his own, Vernon could think of very little. He wanted to go home. He asked about the Catholic foundation and what kind of autonomy he’d have in the classroom. Freedom with philosophical ideas and ethical questions over topics like abortion and all that.
“Neat question Vishnu …Victor.” Mr Snapper said smiling with Stalinist concealment, “We don’t use handcuffs and restraints now man, though the Fathers are very liberal, am I right Father?”
Attaporn’s smile seemed frozen and indeed, his gaze seemed to have sighted nirvana in the top left hand corner of the room. He inclined his head in a dignified bow.
“Don’t you worry Vincent …Vernon. The flock will receive catechism and religious teaching from the Fathers and Sisters. You’ll have the others.”
The ‘others’ in Vernon’s career so far had been a euphemism for the delinquents, the dregs. Didn’t sound hopeful he thought. The interview wound up as interviews do, with a race for the last laugh and the final word.
“Well thank you Mr Snipper …Snapper. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.” He wouldn’t though. He was heading home to the beer of forgetfulness and not coming back. Let fate do her worst.
Vernon decided to pay a visit to the design exhibition of art derived from the time of slavery’s abolition. Actually as he thought about it, the exhibition title was a devious circumlocution for art derived from Slavery. He got as far as Green Park on the Jubilee line, with its Rubik-cube-red wall tiles, before he thought to check the exhibition’s date.
The exhibition commenced in five days’ time! He would not be in London then he reflected, scratching his beard in silent frustration. In the end a circuitous tour of London’s tube stations had to suffice. Marble Arch to Bond Street. Green Park to Holborn, avoiding South Kensington and its V&A, and finally a return to his starting point.
Holborn seemed the poorest cousin of tube stations with its featureless tunnels and screen printed Roman columns on the platform walls. At least none of the stations were ‘Nanny Zones’ like the station at Heathrow. When he’d picked Nsansa up after her overseas aid to that many-mouthed family of hers, he’d been advised to get back off the train until a safety check had cleared it to depart. He’d also been advised patronisingly to stand three metres from the tracks for his own safety. When he’d finally got on, a poster had informed him on the train to take care as hot coffee burns when it spills. Dur!
He sat on the underground train on his way back to the car, careful to avoid the eyes of his fellow passengers. Occasionally his surreptitious glances coincided with those of people taking a peek at him. When this happened he felt as if he had been caught with his hand in someone‘s handbag.
Mile End caught Vernon’s eye too on the way through. Its platform pillars were taped like some art installation imitating the draping of the Reichstag, or as if some manic road repair crew had presented it as a gift to British Rail done up in yellow and black striped tape. It suddenly occurred to him that it symbolised the way Africa seemed just as wrapped up and off limit. He’d begun to think of the dream about the Ark as a message from God, or at least a nag from his subconscious. At Stratford Vernon realised with a start that it was still light. Funny how soon you can forget. His mobile vibrated, informing him that he had missed a call from Nsansa. The noise of the carriage and the train’s sudden plunge back underground made him abort his attempted reply.
All in all it felt like a wasted day. Nothing had happened. Lots of nothing. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be offered the only job he’d interviewed for. He didn’t even have so much as a crumb of cultural interest to justify the money he’d expended on the drive to London, just some anecdotal tidbits nobody would believe …eh Victor …Vernon?
Vernon disembarked at Gant’s Hill with a resigned air. Once again noting the peculiar platform furniture as he passed; the lights impersonating inverted plumber’s plungers and wooden benches that somehow reminded him of Toblerone. Finding his way out of the station into the daylight, he consoled himself with a bagel from a place called Golan Bakery in Cranbrook Road. It caught his eye too, this time because it had a queue outside; oh the power of curiosity, he didn’t even like bagels.
On the way home Vernon admitted to himself he hadn’t heard the voice of Africa calling after all. It was just some kind of neurosis. Or, perhaps, he had merely been seduced by the wanderlust that had flirted with him after his mid-life crisis had led to some flattering encounters with exotic single women. Maybe it was just jealousy that others were returning from Africa with stories to tell combined with the growing media fanfare about the abolition of slavery. He doubted that King Solomon, or whatever his name was really, had suffered from self-doubt in the same way. From the sound of Ecclesiastes the king-with-a-quest had seen what he’d wanted and taken it.
It had been a long Wednesday, another Black Wednesday even, and Vernon fell into bed exhausted after feeding Chucky the cat and gnawing on a pitta and peanut-butter snack washed down with a strong cup of tea. In an odd way there was some comfort in realising that he’d been spared the presumptuous blunder of trying to rescue Africa single-handedly the way Wittgenstein had attempted to bequeath his blistering intellect to the rustic Austrian village of Trattenbach. Vernon was no more a missionary than Wittgenstein had been a primary school teacher. Probably the only thing he shared with Wittgenstein was the capacity for delusion. Never mind he told Chucky sadly as he set the alarm on his bedside clock; ‘at least I’ve still got you.’
Vernon got up on Thursday morning somewhat light headed. It felt good not to be carrying the weight of Africa on his shoulders and he scribbled an addition to the brief memo on the marker-board in his kitchen; ‘Atlas shrugged’ writing beside it ‘…Africa off.’
He had a free period before meeting with his Lower Fourth class and settled to do some marking in his usual mercenary way. That is, he did it to the best of his ability until something better came along. As his eyes rose from the book in front of him to the park he cherished outside the window the phone rang heading off a marking-resistant reverie.
“Vernon. Are you there classless? Fiddlesticks! How can you be, this is England; what I mean is are you free? Accept an invitation to my humble office won’t you? Till then old chap.” The phone line went dead and Vernon smiled enlivened. There was something benign about a command issued by Dr Gumtree. Never to be taken as a soft touch, the Academic Director was nevertheless, never heavy handed. He made his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the school to Dr Gumtree’s office whose décor, though hardly salubrious,was lifted by yet another stunning view of the Park. He knocked and waited.
“Come on in.” He did.
“Vernon come in and sit yourself down. By the way, what do you call a kiddie in the Prep School eh?”
Vernon had grown used to the Academic Director’s penchant for school related jokes. He smiled for the second time that day. “Tell me Arthur, put me out my misery.”
“A Stri-ped. ”
With an exaggerated sigh Vernon said, “Yes I saw what you did there. What was it you wanted me for? I am but a humble lower-class classless teacher.”
“Two things Vernon. Firstly I need you to teach a few lessons in the Prep School. It’s to cover for Frau Carnap who’s off on maternity leave. Give you a chance to, erm rummage in her drawers as it were, and excavate any ancient schemes of work they have. Oh, and tell me… how did the interview go? Are we about to lose you?”
Vernon thought for a moment.
Whether it was safe or not to do so, he believed Dr Gumtree had as much integrity as Mrs McGuin seemed to lack. He decided to be candid; “I thought I’d go and teach in Africa as some kind of humanitarian gesture, but I think I was kidding myself. Maybe my parents left some residual missionary fervour in my genes. Anyway, Religion is divisive in Africa and no-one in the whole continent wants a divorced teacher of Religion. Instead I’ve been headhunted by a school in Thailand!”
“Jolly interesting but don’t you mean Papua-New Guinea? Just kidding Vernon. Terrific place Thailand. I have many fond memories of working there.”
That was news to Vernon. “Did you work as a teacher?”
“No I was a beach-bum bar tender. Even helped to set up Cheap Charlie’s Beer Bar. For a little while I was a waiter at Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok.”
“Mmm, just until an unfriendly traffic cop started looking elsewhere. I backpacked all around the area and back. Highly recommend it.”
“I’m on a very short shortlist and re-thinking my aspirations.”
“Don’t you like it here?”
“I love the Park, like the students, enjoy my subject and you’re not so bad either; there are a few obnoxious recent additions however. I feel a bit stagnant after six years and in need of broader horizons.” Immediately Vernon wondered if he’d gone too far in any number of directions.
“Has anyone spoken to you about your continuing professional development since you’ve been here Vernon?” Dr Gumtree ventured suddenly, appearing professionally serious for a moment.
“Not so much as a whisper and it seems a bit late for that now.”
Apparently unaware of the nonsense filter fiasco looming, the Academic Director supplied his own reason. “Ah the wanderlust, the wanderlust. And why not Thailand?” Dr Gumtree chuckled, his habitual jollity returning, and in a squeaky oriental voice that alarmed Vernon he said “You ve-ly hansome.”
Returning to his normal register Dr Gumtree patted him on the shoulder reassuringly, and said enigmatically “I’ll think how we can encourage you, you decide what you want in the meantime, and if you go to Thailand remember, meet lots of women and make sure their women.” Vernon left his office as always, chewing on food for thought.
As He made his way back to his classroom and Lower Four, his legs felt a little shaky, but his concern gave way to curiosity when he realised it was just his mobile vibrating. The text message was brief. Nsansa was coming round as agreed that evening, and bringing dinner. Vernon hoped it wasn’t nshima. That had tasted like semolina last time, semolina with chicken.
Christophe, sensitive soul that he was, was in a pensive mood when he arrived and Vernon could tell at once. “Christophe what is it, what’s up?”
Christophe confided in a troubled voice to Vernon. “Sir, I’m not sure I should stay for the lesson. I think perhaps I should go to the library.”
The subject was Rites of Passage and Vernon had given his usual health warning about the emotive nature of the topic. He had wondered whether any of the Lower Fourth might recently have had a bereavement that would render them too fragile to watch the educational film on Hindu funeral rights “I’m so sorry Christophe. What is it.”
The likeable boy motioned extravagantly, now unable to speak. Finally he gasped, heart-broken, and said, “Amy, you tell him.”
Amy shrugged and put the small vanity mirror back into her pencil case. In the manner of a cold bureaucratic announcement she said, “I understand Christophe’s gold-fish died yesterday. I buried it this morning.”
‘Ah the burdens of the young’ Vernon thought as he switched on the projector and found the class-clip he needed.
Nsansa arrived on time. English time. Vernon, habitual recluse though he was, found he was glad of her company. He surrounded himself in her work woes and church intrigues and celebrated with her the completion of her thesis. There was no doubt she was a survivor. What’s more it was good to step out of the ‘Verniverse’ for a while.
Over dinner, being careful not to mind his manners, Vernon told Nsansa about his recruitment fair. Worried however, that she might raise indignant objections, it all tumbled out in a rush. As always he found he had wrongly anticipated what her response would be. Her exasperation was directed solely at his haste.
“Amuti? Landeni panono panono… please speak slowly.” And, with a shuddery shake of the head, “Lordy gordy, I don’t speak hundridmileanhour.” Placing the lasagne she’d bought in front of him, and rotating the oversize salad spoons creatively, she mimed in slow motion, a very slow train. “Mwati… shani… say it again… slowly”.
Vernon sighed.”Banjeleleko mukwai, excuse me please. I, I’ve been approached by a School in Thailand. In Bangkok. They want an ethics teacher. I’m not going to Africa. What do you think?”
Nsansa got up again from the table and began mincing around; sticking both of the salad utensils into her ample hair, and looking like a negro geisha she said “Me kathoey; you like?”
Vernon grimaced, none the wiser, and picked the wispy pieces of salad out of his beard. “Nice. What do you think? About Thailand?”
With an unmistakably sincere grin Nsansa replied, “I liked it. We should go.”
To Vernon’s surprise Nsansa began to sing using the oh so versatile salad spoons for percussion. “Kabiye kukuso, kabiye kukulyo, kabiye kuntanshi, Kabiye Kulyaaaa. Go to, the left, go to, the right, go-o forward, go the-ere.” Irrepressible and infectious as she was, Vernon joined the carnival.
The carnival continued after they’d eaten, while they listened inattentively to Snow Patrol and then as he chased her up the stairs playfully with the artefacts-of-the-evening.
“I have a long reach with these” Vernon laughed breathlessly, snapping them like jaws and closing the gap between them. They tumbled into the bedroom together and shed their clothes rapidly as if on fire. And so they were; there was no call now for him to slow down. Vernon admired her sculptural beauty even as he ran his beard down her spine. The tremor that ran down her body as he touched her oh-so-sensitive ears excited him further and he knew she was happy. They made love ferociously, rolling and rolling across the bed and eventually onto the floor. “Nde sambilila iciBemba. I’m learning Bemba…” Vernon gasped, and vigorously, “…and you’re a fantastic teacher. Nali kutemwa.”
“Mulanda iciBemba, You speak Bemba… with flames” Nsansa breathed.
Much later that night, smelling the sweeter for a shared candlelit bath, they again made love, languorously, filling in the gaps they had missed in their haste before. Afterwards, as they both lay in the semi-darkness, finger-tips touching, satiated at last, Vernon felt that with the exception of this slender Zambian, Africa was indeed very, very far away. And truly, he thought, it must be said that Thailand is an aphrodisiac. Afro-dizzy-act.
Awarded a free Friday, in honour of some distinguished guest or other, to the School in the Park, Vernon and Nsansa had the day off together. It was clear that she had holidayed before in Thailand with her previous boyfriend and, feeling ridiculous, Vernon nevertheless felt some childish irritation over the sense that yet again everyone had already been there. Imagine being an Arctic explorer who gets to the Pole on foot only to find three American coffee franchises awaiting you. Nevertheless, Vernon was intrigued. Perhaps she’d come and spend time with him in Thailand if he went.
It was about time Nsansa met his mother. If they were good together she’d need to be involved; if they weren’t, meeting her would render that more apparent. And so they headed off to their prearranged visit. Though she said she wanted to go, he could tell Nsansa was apprehensive. She seemed to focus on some horizon far beyond the grey Norfolk landscape they were driving through.
“You ok?” Vernon asked.
“Mmm. Yeah I’m fine. Ndee Bwino.”.
It was a long time since Vernon had found his mother intimidating, but there had been a time. As they travelled they discussed the new turn of events, his offer and her previous Thai adventures. Despite the thrill of the unknown stirring in him, Vernon felt uncertain with it. Where did Nsansa fit into all this? He was resigned moreover, to the probability that if he accepted the job in Thailand everyone would think his passion for Africa had merely been a romantic pipe-dream.
He was glad to be heading for his mother’s. Once a practically minded staff-nurse, a seasoned traveller, a missionary in India, and not given to impulsive decisions, she’d probably talk him out of going. Teetering on the brink of uncertainty Vernon was startled to find that this was what he wanted, someone to talk him out of it. She didn’t however; she was delighted.
“Hi mum” Vernon greeted his mother warmly with a kiss. At 72, and living alone in a sheltered complex, she was a woman with a vibrant network of friends and commitments. Her women’s meetings, her painting lessons, her Marathi translations and her needle craft creations, all kept her busy, connected, and independent. “Mum this is Nsansa.”
Vernon’s mother craned her neck dramatically and said, “Hello dear, aren’t you tall? Come in. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve made an apple pie Vernon, we’ll have that later.”
The couple sat down on the chintz settee and looked around the room.
“Bushe! Mbelelako uluse… er sorry, excuse me Mrs Jules. Vernon tells me you paint. Are all these paintings yours?” Vernon could see that Nsansa was not faking her appreciation, nor should she, the water-colours were small but they were good. Mrs Jules smiled, pleased at the compliment.
“Yes, and there are many more. Sometimes I keep repainting a theme until I get it right. I’m giving lessons now, did you know Vernon?”
The conversation was warm and innocuous, the tea hot and strong. At last Vernon explained the present situation with his probable job offer in Thailand; he said nothing about the Nonsense Filter. Whilst he had not yet confirmed he was taking it, he knew the school was likely to come back and appoint him.
“I think it’ll do you good Vernon. Get you away from those ungrateful children of yours and that nasty Jemmy. You still paying off those loans of hers? It’s a disgrace. Perhaps they’ll realise what they had when you’re gone.”
“It’s Jenny mum. And yes I’m still paying, though a settlement is due soon that should help things. Every time I’m scheduled to see Clair, Daniel and Pippa they seem to have another commitment and cancel; as a consequence I haven’t checked my going with them yet.”
Turning to Nsansa Mrs Jules explained, “I call her Jemmy because she forces her way into things and takes what isn’t hers,” and glancing meaningfully at Vernon, “serves her right too if she calls him Vermin.” Though Nsansa’s family had its share of rogues Vernon doubted she would know what a ‘Jemmy’ was and, though his mum explained with a smile, Vernon knew his mother understood how bereft he felt as a result of the gulf between him and his children.
Turning to him his mother said, “You don’t need the children’s permission you know Vernon. Like you said before, you need to look after yourself. You can’t just live in limbo waiting for their affection. More tea Nsansa.”
Vernon’s mother, though polite, was not afraid to speak her mind. He was glad he had put Nsansa in the picture concerning the children. Meeting them was the next hurdle to overcome. On the way home they discussed once again the possibility and made a decision.
As they were getting ready for bed that night Vernon wondered what all the changes in his life signified. Was he clearing the way for marriage, or for a hasty retreat? He couldn’t tell, but his mum certainly liked Nsansa who, though feisty, could be quite charming. Just as his thoughts turned inevitably to the Nonsense Filter and the question of Émile’s progress with the algorithm, Nsansa called him to the bedroom window.
“Look. Down there. See that guy. He just let his dog mess on the drive.”
“What a turd. I’m going to speak to him.” Vernon said, unaware of the blend of distaste, disbelief and confusion in the glance Nsansa shot at him. The usual vigour with which he exercised his role as defender of the realm dissipated instantly when the man turned toward the house and waved, and then, sauntered away throwing a confectionary wrapper into the hedge.
“Vernon did you see that?”
“Its ‘Jarves’, Tarkey’s minder. That rugby playing thug I met at the Bedford Lodge. He’s been watching the house… I’m phoning Tarkey.”
He did. At the other end of the signal a phone was ringing. Vernon would not have been surprised if his call went unanswered, nevertheless he heard Tarkey speak silkily in the manner of a well-schooled parrot “Ah yes. Tarkey’s on board. Can I help? Can I help?”
“Tarkey its Vernon, call off Bill Sikes and his dog or I’ll call the police. And when you get through to that no-neck, get him to clean the dog mess off my drive.”
“Oh dear. Oh dear. Vernon you are being literary and dramatic all in one go. What are you talking about? Nevertheless I’m glad you called. How’s the Nonsense Filter coming along?”
“It’s coming along just fine. I’ll get back to you regarding progress next week. In the meantime what the hell is vigilante Jarves doing at the end of my drive?”
“Ah yes, Jarves, Jarves. Always so overzealous. He’s merely being vigilant as you say. Still I’m glad he nudged your memory and that’s all he’s had to nudge, so overzealous; I’ve been waiting for your call Vernon. Tut tut. We’re partners don’t forget.”
“So sorry you’ve missed me.” Vernon replied, exasperated, with a sarcasm Jenny would have been proud of. “I’ll call at the end of next week.” And, even though he wasn’t, he heard himself say “I’m sure we’ll have something a month from now. Call off both the dogs and clear up after them.”
“Speak to you then Vernon. I’m sure our pleasurable little chat will help clear up the little misunderstanding at the end of your drive.” And sounding like a belligerent nanny, “Don’t forget now. Sleep tight.”
As Vernon reversed the cabriolet out of the drive the next morning, on his way to collect the children, and after a rather fitful sleep, he noticed the drive was clear. Had they both imagined it? No, not at all, there was the chocolate wrapper in the hedge. Great, thought Vernon. Just when I need to be relaxed and content I’m uptight and pressured. He pulled the car back into the drive and phoned Jean Luc, masking his unease with easy banter.
“Brother Luc hi. Is it okay to speak to you on a Sunday, you’re not off to the tabernacle are you?”
“The whaternackle? I’m about to read New Scientist religiously, and sup a cup of irreligious full roast, does that count? How can I help?”
Vernon quickly described the conversation with Tarkey the previous night and the visit from Jarvis that had sparked it off. “Can Émile handle the Nonsense Filter app? What does he need to make speedy progress? We need to arrange a demonstration as soon as possible I’m getting pressured.”
After some strongly spiced invective from the other end Jean Luc gave him the reply he hoped for. “He says it’s fine. He reckons he can have something to demonstrate within a month. Want me to phone Tarkey and set up something? It’d give me a chance to tell him to grow up.”
“That’d be helpful. But listen Jean Luc, don’t forget to reduce his expectations… and nothing public until I’ve seen it working alright? Oh and one other thing; he won’t actually programme in the answers will he?”
After the conversation Vernon waved reassuringly to Nsansa who had appeared at the front door with a bag of potato peelings.
“Be back soon darling. Nalikutemwa sana… I love you.”
On his way into town Vernon shoved a CD into the slot wondering again at its poor suitability to in-car entertainment. His mind was too busy for Radio Brillig so he got rolling stoned instead. By the time he reached town he was wondering what Ya Yas were and his head was as full as his wallet was empty.
Daniel was waiting on the front door step, bouncing a football when he arrived. Pippa was in the house watching Friends, ‘in lieu of real ones if she’s not careful’ thought Vernon. Claire was nowhere to be seen. He pulled up onto the sloping bricked drive and clambered out of the car.
“Hiya dad. What kept you?” Daniel stood up and reached into the house to fetch his and Pippa’s bag. “Come on ‘Pipsqueak’ dad’s here.”
“Where’s Claire? Is she upstairs making herself glamorous?”
“Chuh. Not upstairs… She’s in her make-up trailer at the theatre. Mum’s got her auditioning for a musical. She’s not coming. It’s too good an opportunity to miss apparently. Dad we’re not going to sit around politely drinking tea with Jesus all afternoon are we?”
As they drove back to his house in a village a few miles from theirs, Vernon described Nsansa to Daniel and Pippa. He explained how they’d met online, her job and their shared interests. As he did so Vernon felt a sense of vertigo; as if negotiating a slack tightrope. He struggled with his usual sense of doubt that any of his children cared much about his domestic arrangements or personal wellbeing.
“After we’ve met perhaps we’ll all go to the village green for a while and then after dinner perhaps we’ll go take a look at the Devil’s Dyke seeing as it’s a nice day.” The Devil’s Dyke was a cheaper option than any high wire outward-bound activity. The children said nothing and Vernon faltered on his own high wire. At least Daniel was not given to smutty innuendos like Uri.
“How old is she?” Pippa finally said, as if she had lifted the lid on an internal conversation that had obscured all he’d been saying.
“Who?” asked Vernon still thinking about the lurid woman Uri might conjure up.
“Dad… Nsansa of course. Is she the same age as Lindsay?” Vernon explained that she was not and went on to explain that she was Zambian consequently some of her customs and English words might appear unfamiliar to them.
She met them all at the door. Dressed casually in a white tunic top, fashionable jeans and sparkly court shoes, her hair was braided tightly against her scalp in an attractive pattern and the extended strands fell freely at the back from a black and silver hairband. Vernon could see that Pippa at least approved.
The food smelled good. Roast Lamb, roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, carrots and peas. He poured the children lemonade and they went out onto the decking just beyond the kitchen. The weather was fine and warm, for which Vernon was thankful and they sat on the garden chairs in the sun.
“Can we go and play football on the green soon? Daniel said.
“Sure, soon,” said Vernon marvelling at the capacity of the young to diminish any sense of occasion.
“Do you play for the school?” Nsansa asked Daniel. “I never played football, rounders was my school sport, but I like West Ham football team.”
“Mmm. I play for the school team, but they’re always putting new kids in the team so we usually lose. My uncle supports West Ham. I don’t.”
Nsansa had made a good start. They went on from football, to the world cup the previous year and then to travels in Europe. Daniel was happy to talk about his holidays and the places he fancied visiting in the future. Pippa listened in, though to all appearances her attention was on Chucky the cat. There was tense uncomfortable moment at the table, after they’d been to the green, when both Pippa and Daniel explained that they liked roast, but not roast Lamb. They walked along Devil’s Dyke in the afternoon, from Woodditton to Newmarket and beyond; they chatted about the Romans and Daniel was pleased to explain the reason for the fortifications that stretched all the way up to the Fens. Even Pippa listened with interest, her school history projects being related to this period.
In the late afternoon, on their way back to Daniel and Pippa’s home, Pippa suddenly lent forward and addressing Nsansa stunned them all by asking in her forthright manner. “Do you love dad? Are you going to marry him?”
On Tuesday Jean Luc called round for an emergency session of Desperados Anonymous. Desperate because despite their assurances to Tarkey, they had made no substantial progress that gave warrant for confidence. Anonymous because it was the first time Jean Luc or Émile had been to the Vernon’s house and he was relieved that Nsansa had gone in to work. What on earth would she make of the shambles this fiasco promised. Vernon was not convinced even in his most optimistic moments that you could install a piece of software that would filter out non-meaning and irrelevances, whatever they were, leaving only meaning. How could it be possible… the Nonsense Filter was born out of a rash throwaway joke and reinforced with an ill-advised bout of drunkenness.
Vernon Put the kettle on and plugged in his laptop.
“Make yourself at home Jean Luc, I’m making coffee, okay? Émile, is there anything I can get you to drink?”
The teenager looked up from his i-phone and waved the calculator in his other hand vaguely. “Unless you’ve got a beer I’ll have a coffee too…” After a discrete nudge from his father the precocious boy added without conviction, “Thanks?”
When the coffee was made Vernon suggested they sit on the decking alongside the house and take stock of where things stood.
“Tell me Émile, can you really write an algorithm that can be used as an app to filter nonsense from data keyed into it? And, if you can, what would you charge?”
Jean Luc seemed at ease in conference with this juvenile consultant but Vernon was still acclimatising himself to having a teenage expert in their midst. At least he hoped Émile was an expert.
“So I can write it, if you can conceive of it. If you want me to design the thing from start to finish it will be more and I keep the copyright.” For a moment or two Vernon was tempted. He’d love to inflict the bookish mummy’s boy mathematician and this underage upstart entrepreneur on each other. Like Pilate, wash his hands of the whole sorry affair. He wasn’t sure however what get out clauses there were in the contract he’d signed. He no doubt was ultimately liable and Émile might screw the whole thing up letting him carry the can.
But Émile was still talking. “Like, I don’t think it can be done without it being embedded in a Search Engine and all that; that means lots of negotiation, yeah? You’d be swallowed up, they’d eat you for breakfast. Besides, I have a big project on with a time-share biz in Spain at the moment. I might not even have time for my GCSE’s.” Vernon was baffled how his best friend Jean Luc could have spawned such a conceited monster. “So I’ll have to write it according to your input. Soz.”
Vernon shouldered the task wearily. “What I need is for me to give you an outline of what the Nonsense Filter is, with maybe a couple of scenarios and for you to turn that into programmable instructions that we can test on just about any data, including words, numbers and other symbols. Can you write it with a view to interfacing with Search engines at a later stage? How much to do that? And how long would it take?”
Émile had been focused on stirring his coffee to see how much of the liquid could rise up the wall-of –death in his cup. “Well… seeing as you and dad work closely together I’ll do it for an hourly bite of £50 yeah. On top of that like I want a disclaimer in case of conflicts, with integrated software and stuff, and I want to be credited too.”
Jean Luc poured himself another cup of coffee and took a shortbread biscuit from the open packet. “How long Émile; roughly how many hours? We have to bill Tarkey quite precisely don’t forget. Two hours, ten hours, thirty, more?”
Vernon felt like a weary traveller sucked into a search party for a missing citizen he knew was dumped in the boot of his car. At least, he felt the way he imagined such a compromised unhopeful might feel. If his morbid fears of failure had not been so compelling he’d have been compensated with the secondary option of submitting the Nonsense Filter as a contribution to Kenji Kawakami’s Shin Dogu project. He could hear angel voices and they were singing sonorously ‘It’ll never work, It’ll never work.’
“Vernon. Vernon.” Jean Luc was pulling him back to attention. “Focus Vernon, Émile thinks it’ll take about twenty hours of work but he’ll need to see your instructions first to be sure.” With a heavy heart and ‘It’ll never work’ reaching melodramatic strains in his head as he did so, Vernon handed over his notes. Can you firm up your costs Émile. Email me if you need more guidance. My address is included. I plan to email Tarkey and tell him the costs to get started and advise him of probable failure. Wish me luck.”
Only one response followed him into the houses as he went to retrieve his laptop from the lounge; the angelic choirs were no longer singing and Jean Luc and Émile were silent; it was the voice of his mother saying “Be sure your sins will find you out Vernon.”
On Tuesday afternoon, when Jean Luc and little Lord Fauntleroy had departed and Nsansa had returned, they went back into the garden. Vernon cut the small lawn and pottered around trimming the corkscrew-willow and the lavender, both of which tended to get out of control. Nsansa swept the decking and watered the various shrubs and planters and when the garden once again gave delight and not a summons to labour they sat down with a glass of Californian red.
Vernon was reading Atlas Shrugged and Nsansa was, as was her habit, browsing through a book she had lifted from his shelves. Vernon had read Full Circle with great interest and he was pleased that Nsansa was discovering it now too. Given the extensive travelling she had undertaken, some of it involuntarily, he was interested to find out whether Palin’s observations rang true with her or not.
Nsansa looked up from her book; “Listen to this joke a Korean told Palin whilst he was there. Its set in a restaurant. The waiter says “Excuse me there’s no more beef. The North Korean replies, “What’s ‘beef’?” The Japanese asks, “What’s ‘no more’?” The South Korean responds “What’s ‘excuse me’?”.
Vernon laughed and said, “Very good, and the uptight Beliefs and Values teacher asks ‘What’s a stereotype?” I suppose it all goes to show how relative everything is.
Nsansa chuckled over the joke a few minutes more and then quizzed him earnestly; “Do you like travelling Vernon, does anyone actually like travelling or do they like arriving and swapping memories?”
Vernon thought carefully; it would be a moment that would come back to him randomly, fragmentally or whole, on a number of occasions in the years to come. “I don’t know. I think I’d have to say that I often do consider travelling as part of the fun as long as airports aren’t part of the process. For that reason if we go to Edinburgh let’s not fly, I’d rather drive than queue up for the privilege of being treated like a criminal.” They talked for some time and when it began to get cooler Vernon made a hot chocolate and took it back out with a couple of blankets. Their talk inevitably turned towards his travel plans, the still unconfirmed opening in Thailand and her aspirations for residency in the England.
At nine forty five the phone rang.
“Hi Claire. This is a nice surprise.”
“Oh, er. I’m sorry, like I missed you and your girlfriend Stanza. I got the part, you know – at the theatre. It’s a musical.”
“Well done. Which one Claire?”
“It’s Calamity Jane. You know the one. ‘Whip crack away’ and all that. Mum’s in it too.”
“That’s fabulous, I guess there’ll be lots of rehearsals but I’m sure they’ll be fun. By the way, my girlfriend’s name is Nsansa. It’s a Zambian name.”
“Okay. Dad… mum wants to talk with you about driving lessons for me. Can you ring her sometime?”
“Mmm, I’ll do my best Claire, though it’ll probably have to be next week.”
“Thanks dad. Are you going to come to the musical?”
“Yes, if you give me warning when it is and if I’m not already committed. I’d love to.”
“See you dad.”
Wearily Vernon put down the phone and sat in a contemplative haze. His head seemed full of cotton wool as if synapses were firing vainly into an absorbent cloud of futility. His constant dull pain of loss was keener now. Every time he returned the children to their home, or even at times such as this, when he put down the phone and terminated a tense conversation, it was as if something in him expired. Right now however, the pain was like a metal splinter beneath a finger nail; piercing and impossible to ignore.
He trudged upstairs to bed, for once hoping that the amorous fires of Africa had cooled. He’d happily settle for the enveloping reassurance of an unasking embrace. Nsansa was asleep when he turned out the light. She stirred and caressed him erotically, almost speculatively, but there was little conviction in it and eventually the day ended well with her closeness supplying precisely the comfort he craved.
In the morning, though Vernon was still on holiday, that contentious perk that alone suffices to make teaching tolerable in some schools, Nsansa was due back at work. The day was scheduled around the many tasks he needed to catch up with both in and around the house, but after breakfast Vernon vowed also to put some thought into his PhD research question. Right now however he needed to clear his head and run.
Vernon waved Nsansa goodbye having thanked her with feeling for her efforts and successes with the children. He stretched, rather absent mindedly as always, out the front under the pergola whose Russian vine was beginning to flower, and set out for town. The weather was mild with a very slight misty rain that looked set to clear. Once again he chided himself for his inability to remain buoyant in mood.
He launched into the first mile, always for the distance runner a matter of effort balanced with judgement. Pushing beyond the comfort zone in order to loosen up, but remembering not to ignore the body’s subtle hints; not too fast not too heavy. Vernon found pleasure in attending to a challenge refreshingly disconnected from all else that was troubling him. Very soon his breathing steadied and his head began to clear with the lubricated rhythm of the experienced runner finally kicking in.
What was worthy of study philosophically? He was interested in memories. But they were so dependent on the filter of the present. More than that, some fundamental human experiences do not submit to memory at all. Birth and Death for example. The philosopher Merleau-Ponty recognised these as pre-personal horizons. Heidegger insisted moreover that no-one could die your death for you and probably you wouldn’t experience it either, only its approach. The trouble was that these capable continentals seemed to have said so much he wanted to say already.
Vernon wiped the rain out of his eyes, noticing with satisfaction that the sun was winning the battle of titans. It was drying up. His thoughts turned to borrowed memories. If you can’t remember formative events that are your ‘birthright’, do you have any kind of right to them at all? His parent’s recollections of Pune in India, the veranda and the ayah, the mosquito nets and the Holy Men, these potent images he’d inherited. Forgetting for a moment that he was running he shook his head vigorously and wavered around on the path to the consternation of a pensioner waiting for the bus.
“You okay dear?” she said with concern.
“Fine thank you Mrs Chortly.” He called over his shoulder.
Vernon knew that his early memories were dependent in part on re-runs of family slide shows and collective reminiscences. In truth they were hardly memories at all, more like family archives. He was also interested in what made people who they were. What made everyone unique? Perhaps there was something worth exploring there.
The smooth, wide footpath was bordered by wild grasses, Cow Parsley, Bird’s Eye Speedwell, the ubiquitous and emotive Corn Rose and the occasional common crisp packet. The rain had stopped and Vernon thrilled at the Englishness of the Suffolk countryside. As the path crossed the road he skirted around the mangled carcass of a rabbit and his thoughts changed direction.
What was it, he wondered, that had killed the rabbit? Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he immediately assumed the rabbit’s name was Roger. How strange? Did that rabbit’s passing change the world one jot? Perhaps not, unless you held onto some kind of chaos theory. And, like the jolt of a locomotive passing over rusting points, he wondered suddenly, would his own?
As Vernon watched the actual train that was actually speeding toward town several fields away on a course parallel to his own, he sensed another mental branch line pulling away from his thoughts, and was intrigued by the brain’s mental gymnastics which allowed it to utilise such randomness. Pulling himself back onto the rails of his initial stream of consciousness, Vernon speculated as to how the human being instinctively laid such store by its own species.
Apart from distaste, he wondered, would many people sanction him for killing a wild rabbit and putting it in the pot? Perhaps they would. But how many people would really and sincerely sanction him if he killed another human? He guessed that depended on the circumstances. To kill and eat another human being however. Well, that would surely be abhorred universally. As Vernon ran around Moreton Hall Estate, he mused pensively; was humankind’s aversion to the killing of its own kind more strongly motivated by disgust than compassion? How conveniently and absurdly humans throughout history had redefined other humans as not of their own kind so that the killing might begin. Cambodia, Rwanda, and of course, Germany. The human sense of what constitutes humanity seemed so relative. Perhaps that was a fruitful albeit tragic area for academic research.
Unsurprisingly as the sun fought through and defeated the rainclouds Vernon found his thoughts darkening and his mood becoming heavier. He’d enjoyed the run and on his return home vowed to think of lighter things.
He searched his memory and quizzed himself about Thailand. Undoubtedly the place had for a time been called Siam. He associated it rather romantically with carved wood buildings surrounded by humid swamps and precipitous mountains, beautiful proud people, pretty children and a rather gaudy kind of Buddhism. As he thought about Thailand his spirits lifted and the gloom was replaced with anticipation.
Arriving home in lifted mood, Vernon turned on the water for a bath, poured a glass of water and put the kettle on for a coffee. As he peeled an orange, wandering around the house and humming ‘getting you know you’ he noticed the light blinking on the phone indicating a message.
Vernon pressed play and listened curiously.
He could hear Mr Snapper’s Californian drawl as if from under a pillow. “Ah erhem. Hey Vinnie… er Vernon. Listen man. The Ethics post, at Ramkhamhaeng International. Got you on the waiting list y’know. Don’t like doin’ this man but I had to phone and say we’ve appointed. Thought you’d want to know right away man.”
Vernon felt the sky fall around him. They had pushed him aside. He wasn’t going to Thailand after all. He stood in the living room stroking his beard in consternation as if comforting a small frightened animal. Now what? Carried in his thoughts to the edge of a clearing in the humid Thai jungle he wondered what the almost imperceptible rumbling noise in the distance signified. Crashing back into the present he gasped, cried “Wa-ater”, and raced for the stairs.
….84 End of Chapter Four
CHAPTER FIVE: OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY
“My dear, there are some things better not told; my present trouble is one of these.”
Guy de Maupassant, His Confession
“…to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind…”
Marx, Das Capital
Vernon was, by his own admission, poor company. The job in Thailand had not materialised. Of the people who knew about his plans to go abroad, he had told no-one of the change in his plans. Indeed, he had not yet made it clear to Claire, Daniel and Pippa how serious he was about working overseas and so he had not yet told them of the change to the plans he had not yet told them about. Of course Nsansa did not know this; she thought they knew and cared. He was therefore, about to travel up country with a woman who did not know he had not told his children of his plans and therefore could not tell them that these plans had changed… and so on. It was a heavy burden and heavy burdens made him as irritable as a donkey endlessly promised an early retirement just as soon as this last tiresome load of brick dust is shifted.
As the end of the three week half term break drew closer Vernon and Nsansa were taking the opportunity they’d planned to get away, to Edinburgh. Vernon had dithered over the job offer and now perversely the offer had been withdrawn. Relief and rejection played good cop bad cop inside Vernon’s skull and through stress his heroic beard was beginning to grey. As the couple prepared to depart he quickly emailed Mr Snapper saying that if the job at Ramkhamhaeng International became available again, he’d take it. ‘You’re like a dog in a manger’ said the voice of his mum inside his head as he and Nsansa loaded the car.
They’d agreed that he should drive; in order to save money, which was always in short supply thanks to Jenny and her retail therapy debts. And also, in order to avoid the stress of long queues, short tempers, tight security and the loosened belts and laces that was air travel. The added bonus, Vernon had allowed Nsansa to convince him, was that they could work on shaping up her curriculum vitae now that her Master’s study was done.
“Have you got your lights on?” Nsansa asked pointedly as she corrected his blinking indicator.
“Ye-ees,” Vernon replied.
How far was Edinburgh? The spray from the lorries cast the roadscape in a cold steely grey, matching his mood. He needed to get on with Nsansa on this trip but his head was spinning with thoughts about Thailand and Zambia, Bahts and Kwatcha. As the miles rolled by and conversation waned, he glancing at Nsansa beside him and could see that she was absorbed with a job supplement. Not much chance of conversing about things right now. Later, as the rolling hills of Yorkshire slid past in the murky rain Vernon felt his emotions slide beneath the waves of numb resignation. He wondered in fact whether his real gripe was that she was not begging him to stay and Thailand was not begging him to accept. Surely he wasn’t that shallow.
A song rattled around in Vernon’s head and he rummaged around in the door well for his CD case. He couldn’t locate it with his fingers and dare not take his eyes from the glassy smear of the motorway.
“What are you doing kutumpa, ‘Cenjela’ Careful, keep your eyes on the road.’
Surprised at her intensity, Vernon rolled them dramatically instead, realising his search was futile. His CDs were in his car not this one, and Nsansa’s had a cassette tape player.
The song wouldn’t go away and Vernon started to sing it approximately.
‘People in love get special treatment. People in love get everything wrong. People in love, their hearts get eaten. People in love get everything wrong… but at least they’re not lonely. At least they’re not lonely-ee’
“Ensha, wipanga icongo, Drive, don’t make noise” Nsansa snapped.
Vernon’s faltering singing hung in the air. He couldn’t shake off his damp mood and this didn’t help. He turned on the radio for some distraction. And, as ‘The Archers’ theme tune faded Vernon sighed, anticipating the next exchange correctly.
“This’ll do. This is relaxing.”
All Vernon’s recent girlfriends had liked the Archers and he knew just how intense its devotees could be, with many miles to go he saw no alternative than to sink further into a private morass of his own.
Vernon and Nsansa checked into their bed and breakfast accommodation, in a quiet Georgian residential street in Edinburgh, tired and jaded. Gilmore Street; it looked promising. Though they’d both approved of it online admiring it’s modern mock-authentic farmhouse chic, they were less enamoured late that night with the bedroom. It was as if the second story of the house had refused to leave the era of 1980s décor; fruit n’ flower borders competed with brocaded pelmets and curtains whose tie-backs would have passed as epaulettes on the parade uniforms of a South American Junta. In return for its stubbornness this floor of rooms seemed to have been sectioned into shoe-box sized compartments and divided again to provide each with a matchbox sized en suite.
“Chuh” Vernon grumbled miserably as he cautiously inserted his head into the tiny space to find the sink, “there’s not enough room to do a ‘number two’ in there, only a ‘one and a third’.”
Though he was shattered from the drive up from Suffolk, Vernon found sleep evaded him and contrarily he wished for the fires of Africa he had spurned not so long ago. Though it sounded little like English or Bemba, Nsansa’s response to his speculative caress clearly translated as ‘Get some rest’. Counting sheep achieved next to nothing and eventually Vernon fell asleep counting the setbacks he’d experienced since meeting Tarkey in the Woolpack and anticipating what it was going to cost him.
They rose the next morning anticipating the fortifying late-starter’s breakfast they’d negotiated; according to the website this was ‘legendary’.
“What’s the view like?” asked Nsansa somewhat wedged into the bijou bathroomette. Vernon swept back the industrial-grade velvet curtains and gasped melodramatically in appreciation.
“Y’get a g’d view of monumental Scotland” he intoned in his best Scottish accent.
Freeing herself with difficulty from the confines of the en suite Nsansa took a look and exclaimed, “Lordy Gordy the building’s moved in the night.”
From the over-dressed window they looked out onto the back of the massive bronze patina stained head of one of Edinburgh’s finest. Something of the neighbourhood could be glimpsed under the left ear.
“David Livingstone” mused Nsansa who had read the accommodation’s self-congratulatory description.
“I presume.” said Vernon cryptically, “He didn’t wash behind his ears naughty boy, they’re pretty Verdi-grimy thanks to the pigeons.” He was forced to dissect his witticisms on the way down to breakfast, proving unnecessarily the adage that an explained joke is rarely funny.
Vernon and Nsansa’s conversation as they sat at the breakfast table was a matter of deciding what to do with their day. As their landlady shovelled farmyard-diminishing portions of a full-Scottish grilled breakfast onto their plates and Vernon poured the filter coffee they contemplated their plans for the day.
“Walk or shop or walk and shop, what’s it to be lover-boy?”
Vernon wondered if he’d ever get used to Nsansa’s tendency to play to the gallery. Particularly as he never quite recognised any of the cast of characters in her head that she rehearsed for those watching. Once in Wales she’d played at breakfast a misused and disreputable moll; she’d flirted at an indifferent guest and given the impression that Vernon roughed her up sometimes. Now she was the satiated lover singing the praises of her beau. The thought that had nested in his psyche sang again the familiar refrain …sometimes Nsansa made him ecstatic and then there were other times.
“I’d rather walk till I drop than shop till I drop.” Vernon said .
Nsansa giggled alarmingly and suggested they head for the Pentland Hills. “Let’s do it” she said grabbing his arm affectionately as Vernon imagined her smiling for the final close-up before the director said ‘cut’.
When the couple had changed into their best estimate of all-weather hiking attire and laced up their walking boots, Vernon took the flask downstairs for some more of the stomach preserving coffee he’d enjoyed at breakfast. They set out for the Harlaw visitor centre and the highly recommended circuitous route which would take them high above the Threipmuir and Harlaw reservoirs.
The weather was kind for the most part and with their route maps in hand they set out across the rolling hills. The grass was springy and coarse underfoot and the sheer size of the regional park pushed the city of Edinburgh to the fringes of perception. Vernon soon realised that his hopes of a long and candid chat with Nsansa regarding her upbringing in Zambia and her convoluted journey to England was not going to be an easy one to bring about.
He found too that, like many Africans, Nsansa did not enjoy walking as much as she told herself she did. Each incline was greeted with a melodrama worthy of the music hall.
“Pull me up Vernon, my legs are dropping off.”
“You’re kidding Nsansa. You’ve legs that are longer than mine and they’re still attached. You go running too.”
“But there are no hills in Newmarket.”
“There are; what about the heath? That’s a hill isn’t it?”
“Lordy Gordy, you expect me to waste my breath while I’m dying here on this steep incline?” Nsansa wiped her brow with a sense of desperation. Grabbing the back of his coat she gasped, “Pull Vernon pull.”
As they struggled up the hill in this comical fashion Vernon was mortified when a runner overtook them at speed. He was fit and fast and would be, very soon, over the hill Vernon was forcing Nsansa to climb.
When they too arrived at the brow of the hill the view was breath-taking. Not craggy, in the manner perhaps of the Himalayas or the Rockies, but undulating as if they were observing the recumbent forms of primordial giants clad in ancient furs. The reservoirs beneath them mirrored the restless sky creating a stirring contrast with the stillness of the contours around them, their movement almost lent to the hills the rhythmic breathing of sleeping forms. Vernon stood bewitched.
“Come on kutumpa, race you to the bottom” Nsansa yelled charging down the grassy slopes, breaking the spell. And so the pattern repeated itself for twelve weary delightful theatrical miles. Hurrah for Scotland, Vernon thought, entranced.
On returning to Edinburgh they ate wearily and Nsansa reminded Vernon that they had walked, and now she was ready to drop. When they had finished their rustic pub lunch they headed back to their accommodation.
“Ensha mukwai. Ndinobulanda e Ninaka. Ndefwaya powertulo. Waumfwa?”
“We panono, yes a little, you said ‘drive’, ‘you’re tired’, bweno, but what was it you said you needed?”
“What’s that? Do I have to connect you up to the electric blanket somehow and plug you in?”
With a wan smile and some puzzlement Nsansa asked “What’s an electric blanket?”
“Touché? Nshumfwile. I don’t understand. Ensha mukwai. Drive please…” With that Nsansa adjusted her seat into the reclining position and severed all contact with the outside world.
Vernon sighed. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that the least romantic thing in the free world was a romantic weekend.
When they got to their room Nsansa clambered into bed and Vernon wondered what to do with himself in the darkened room. A moment later he noted that lying on top of Nsansa’s sleeping form in the bed was the room’s ‘Do not disturb sign’.
“Chuh” grumbled Vernon as he lay down on top of the duvet, ‘bet there’s no word for ‘tact’ in Bemba. Worn out from the driving, the walking, the second guessing and the mess he’d left behind at home, Vernon plugged into a power nap of his own.
Later that evening, the room was dark as they awoke. Twelve windswept miles in the Pentland hills had been fun, though not without more verbal sparring. Nsansa reached across brushing Paul with her hand in a vague sweeping motion.“We getting up? she mumbled. “Want to go out?”
Looking through the Edinburgh guide they found a number of possible restaurants. On their third attempt at making a reservation, they had to settle for a table at the Thai Orchid in Johnston Terrace. It was as if some kind of offshore current from the coast of Africa had deposited him on Scotland’s most cosmopolitan rock only to find that all there was to eat in exile were South East Asian delicacies.
“Let’s park near the Castle again” Vernon suggested, as they dressed for dinner, “We got away with it last night.” Unsure of their bearings, it was a relief when Nsansa glimpsed the restaurant by chance as they drove down the sweeping descent from the Royal Mile. Because it had begun to rain profusely she insisted on clambering out of the car so as to shelter in the restaurant. As with all their driving around the capital that weekend, they again got lost, and found their destination accidently precisely at their point of giving up. ‘Is this going to be a metaphor for our life together wondered Vernon?’ as he slammed the car door shut and ran after Nsansa back up the ancient rain polished flagstone street.
He was greeted at the door by a pretty, manicured doll. “Sa was dee. Sa-bai-dee-mai. Ka? Hi. How are you?” Her smile seemed so tantalisingly genuine. Thailand. Welcome to what you could have had Vernon.
As Edinburgh became a diminutive blur on the horizon behind them and they began the long drive back to East Anglia, Nsansa and Vernon agreed that it had been worth the effort. They’d discovered traces of Glasgow’s architectural genius to be found around the capital, the taste of the East and the sometimes priceless trinkets of the commonwealth offered to royalty. They’d both enjoyed the cosmopolitan feel of the city, with its bars and theatres, cinemas and art galleries, palaces …and castle. Vernon had been torn between awe at the impregnable bleak grandeur of the castle and a sense of its vulnerability to time. Given time every bastion of human advantage or prowess eventually buckles, rusts, withers or ruins, or just becomes plain irrelevant. Who’d expect to hole up in Edinburgh castle now for very long? There was no place to hide any more, consider Waco, Texas, or the bearded fugitives Karadzic and bin Laden. Nevertheless the city was dignified and the castle guarded over that dignity with an impressive stony decorum.
It was a long drive. And, eventually Vernon was able to quiz Nsansa about her intentions and her background. An impression had already formed in his mind regarding her family and this was strengthened as she disclosed the sums of money she sent home to support the meandering fortunes of her unemployed brothers and the sense of resentment that hit her like a wall of humidity whenever she visited them in Lusaka.
“The lawyer. They call me the lawyer and say I’m only interested in procedures and money. I get no thanks and I stay away.”
Vernon was saddened to hear of her sister’s visit to Newmarket shortly after Nsansa’s successful employment there.
“She came hoping for permanent accommodation. Even wanted me to adopt her. Didn’t tell me she was pregnant however until she went back home and the poor little might was born. Now you see how hard it is to turn them down. Them and their demands.”
This admission prompted a deep and mournful lull in their conversation. The romantic weekend had been as far from romance as Edinburgh is from Lusaka but somehow the conversation had bought them closer and the silence was characterised by a resigned solidarity rather than discomfort.
“Ahh! Eyamukwayi, I’m fine.” Nsnasa sighed with a shrug. “Iwe, I’m checking my emails, want me to check yours?”
As Vernon drove Nsansa switched on her laptop hoping for some job details or replies to applications. Vernon reminded her of his email password and anticipated a batch of unsolicited messages destined for the trash.
“Mmmm. Cintu nshi, What drama is this? You’ve a message from Thailand from Mr Snapper. Want that I read it?”
Though Vernon wasn’t happy to have that turmoil return, he gave the go ahead and listened, trying to keep his eyes on the line of cars trailing off into the distance.
“He says the other candidate has pulled out due to family difficulties, do you want the job ‘man’ and if so can you call urgently. Better check if it’s really for you, he calls you Vaughn.”
By the time Vernon got home, after dropping Nsansa off in Newmarket and swapping cars, he was exhausted. As he shuffled in the dark through the bills and flyers, those pathetic paper ancestors of spam, and locked the front door behind him, he knew he had mixed feelings about being back. What would the final half of the Spring term hold for him? What would he do about Thailand especially as Nsansa had not allowed herself to be drawn on that resurgent issue?
On the mat was a note from the neighbour who’d kindly fed Chucky while they’d been gone. It seemed she’d left a dossier on his movements and habits. ‘…Day two looked morose and slept in the bath’. Mad cat.
Also on the mat was a letter whose handwritten script Vernon found vaguely familiar. It could wait another day. Tarkey maybe, or Jenny’s eccentric solicitor. He had tomorrow in which to investigate its secrets and he thrust it simultaneously to the back of his mind and into the letter rack on the bookshelf. Parking his suitcase and other luggage in the spare room and clambering into bed wearily after a brief encounter with the toothpaste, Vernon was out like a light.
In the morning he awoke to find the sun streaming in through the hastily drawn curtains. It was six and there was washing, shopping, and lesson preparation to do among other things. He breakfasted on the decking with the cat sprawled at his feet and began to write a list. Perhaps with just three more days to go before the weekend and then a return to work his priorities were to get the house in order and then tomorrow attend to some curriculum planning. Maybe a run would help too after the grilled breakfasts and gastronomic excitements each evening had ended with. He’d had plenty of walking exercise but there was nothing like a run.
Something began to tickle his memory like wayward nasal hair and it bothered him as he loaded the washing machine and cleared the fridge of items no longer fit for human consumption. ‘The Letter’; that was it.
Vernon retrieved the letter from the bookcase in the lounge and opened it with the same sense of impending disaster that accompanied any missive from the bank. ‘Dear Mr Jules, the letter said. ‘I hope the Easter weekend was an enjoyable one. I am delighted to inform you that our mutual business partner Monsieur Jean Luc Géron has confirmed that the Nonsense Filter is now ready to launch. I take great pleasure in inviting you therefore to the formal presentation of the Nonsense Filter to the press and business interests at the Athenaeum reading rooms. A buffet will be served. Please bring a guest… Tarquin McGuin Esquire’
Vernon was aghast. He felt as though the whole world was spinning centrifugally around him with the letter in his hand being the only uncompromisingly fixed and certain reality. His legs felt shaky under him and as he scanned the page for the date of the launch he realised to his dismay, that it was… tomorrow.
Tomorrow. Never mind lesson preparation he was going to be thrown to the lions. What on earth had Émile produced so that Jean Luc could make this arrangement so confidently in his absence? He would have to phone Monsieur Géron and put things straight. The event could not go ahead… how could it, there was nothing to launch?
Vernon went back out into the garden wondering if his neighbours were keeping a record of this, yet another crisis conversation. It’d make intriguing reading for a blackmailer he thought as he listened to the ringing at the end of the line.
“Jean Luc, Hi look its Vernon. I’ve just got back from Edinburgh and there’s a pretentious letter from Tarkey which amounts to a fanfare announcing the launch of the Nonsense Filter. What Nonsense Filter Jean Luc?”
On the other end of the call Jean Luc sounded troubled and tired. “Hi Vernon. Glad you called. Look I’m sorry. My megalomaniac son went behind my back and phoned Tarkey assuring him that we were ready to go public. They’ve booked the athenaeum at great expense, and though I’ve tried to call it off, he won’t cancel. You will come won’t you?”
“Should’ve booked the coliseum” Vernon grumbled, “my days are numbered.”
Vernon sat down heavily in the flower bed, flattening a promising lavender and twisting his ankle. After a pause that clearly concerned Jean Luc who was repeating ‘Vernon, Vernon, are you there? Allo.’ he found his voice and replied.
“Uh. Erm, well yes of course Jean Luc. I’ll be there, but what a fiasco, what a fiasco. We’ll be the laughing stock of the county and far beyond that I’m sure. Is there anything to show them? Does it work?”
“Émile assures me that anything inputted which is more that jumbled alphabet is disentangled or interpreted in a very promising manner. He assures me Vernon and says he won’t ask for more money until this capability has been demonstrated.”
“Assurances from a precocious truant with entrepreneurial tendencies. I should’ve known better.” Vernon moaned glumly.
There was no answer from Jean Luc and Vernon realised that his friend was hurt or deeply embarrassed.
“Sorry Jean Luc, he’s a bright boy and any mess is my own doing. Shall I meet you there tomorrow or call for you?”
“Better meet me there Vernon” Jean Luc finally managed to say quietly, “Ari has bought a smart outfit. She’s been told TV cameras will be there so I’ll have to arrive in a manner suited to attract their attention. Sorry I didn’t get chance to demonstrate it to you first; It’ll all work out in the end, these things always do.”
Vernon ended the call and realised that he was still sitting in the flower bed. He got to his feet creakily and went into the house. What was he going to do if it didn’t work, if it fed out spurious lies or incendiary racism? What was he going to do if it gave the same interpretation to every piece of data? What was he going to do if it did work? He shuddered and shook his head bitterly at that false friend. It wouldn’t work… the Nonsense Filter couldn’t filter out nonsense anymore that he could master underwater hang-gliding. Oh well, if the cameras were there he’d better decide what to wear.
Vernon looked across the expansive space with its over padded chairs, its elaborately painted ceiling and swarming egos and sighed. Tarkey was excited; over excited and impatient. Despite laying out £1500 to Émile, incurring significant expense besides, and due to receive another similar bill imminently for a product he’d been advised would fail, he had insisted on this dramatic launch for the Nonsense Filter. Vernon could not understand the rush.
Tarkey had at first proposed that this unveiling should take place at the School in the Park, not least because he would get rooms for free in a glorious setting. Vernon would not hear of it. Destined as he was sure he was, for the village stocks and public ridicule, he was not keen that this should commence where he worked. He had in the end resisted the temptation to programme the nonsense filter with the answer to their test pieces. At least he’d avoided fraud; failure would be harder to give the slip.
They were at the Athenaeum, seated in the spacious well lit Georgian chandeliered ballroom. This recently renovated grandeur, costing the local council around £600,000 made exactly the splash Tarkey was seeking. The site had been the home originally of the quaintly named ‘the heart of the hop’ Inn. Vernon, locked as he was into his morose thoughts had renamed it ‘heart-stop-inn’ while he waited for them to build the scaffold, or the stocks, or whatever was causing the delay. He’d been waiting since he arrived at 5 o’clock. and now it was 7.30. Though a best frock ballroom was as suitable a place as any for him to defrocked as a charlatan, that did not mean he was insensitive to the disgrace.
Originally developed in the 18th century as Assembly Rooms, and later playing host to several readings from his works by Charles Dickens, it was a curious mix of the popular and the elegant. Unsettling the balance decisively, were the inelegant popular press who were there in force. National and Local; Vernon expected sensationalist exaggeration from the former and bad spelling from the latter. But hey, what damage could either do to the press release he anticipated, ‘Filter is nonsense.’ As he sat there fretting and tugging his beard, ‘It’ll never work’ kept running though his head. Thankfully Émile their computer wizard was elsewhere.
Suddenly without warning it seemed everyone was primed to go. Tarkey, looking fit to steward Henley’s regatta was decked out in lemon yellow chinos and a double breasted navy blazer that shouted out loudly, “you can’t afford me.” The pink of his tie would have outshone any summer sunburn. He stepped up to the microphone positively aquiver with energy.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I welcome you all to the unveiling of the Nonsense Filter. This new app will revolutionise international cross cultural dialogue and become as necessary to education as Google. It can be developed for any digital platform including mobile phone technology and tablets…” The murmur from the expectant crowd blended with the chink of wine glasses and the muted sound of traffic outside the building. The decor lent a lazy, crazy respectability to the madness, not unlike the meticulously surreal interiors created by Salvador Dali.
Tarkey was enjoying his moment of glory.
“We have loaded the app into this mobile phone; it is compatible with all types of device and will interface successfully with all known search engines but take us far beyond their guesswork. We will feed into it a well-known piece of nonsense literature and you will see the sense it makes of it. I am assured by my team that no programming has given the device the answers. The app uses the internet and swiftly searches the archives of human meaning-making in order to provide a best fit picture for the researcher. We envisage that it will eventually search the airwaves directly too. When we have run this test we will distribute a limited Nonsense Filter ‘Light’, on these scanned memory sticks, for members of the press to experiment with. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you Ladies and Gentlemen that the Nonsense Filter is copyright.”
Vernon let out the breath he had been holding involuntarily and groaned quietly. All the speculation the three of them had voiced in their private meetings seemed to have found its way in to Tarkey’s boasting speech. He glanced nervously across at Mrs McGuin, who was seated close enough for him to observe how fastidiously she had dressed for the cameras. Not merely the happy-snapping press photographers, but local TV too, enticed in from the wilds of Norfolk. She glanced his way, head on one side and he winced. Her smile was conspiratorial but he did not regard her as an ally, there was a limit to his folly.
To Vernon’s great surprise the app was launched with a design interface he’d have been proud to have designed himself. Who knows how much additional outlay Tarkey had expended and with whom. The ‘Jabberwocky’ was uploaded into the software and he heard an audible gasp, a palpable suspense and the prickle of heat on his neck. He daren’t look around him.
On the projected screen the app could be seen laying out sentences in neat paragraphs; each stanza of the poem annotated in a different colour with explanatory text. At four in the afternoon when the evening’s food was broiling, the lively fantastical badgers energetically skewered the promising grassy shadows around the sundial… Vernon was torn between immense relief that his reputation was intact and sadness that yet more mysterious kinks in human knowledge were about to be ironed out. Captain audacity was reeling in audience like an old hand and revelling in it.
Vernon had no recollection of what kind of distribution plan they’d agreed or his cut in it all… all he knew was that Mrs McGuin was clapping coquettishly and smiling in his direction. He hoped she wouldn’t come over.
Just as she seemed about to Tarkey again took the microphone. “Ladies and Gentlemen as you can see this test has been successful. Are there any questions member of the press would like to ask?”
The microphone was handed to a balding, heavy jowled man in a 70s pattern checked jacket. “Ah, very slick, very slick indeed Mr McGuin. Can you tell me if the nonsense-filter is multi-lingual and whether it can be used for translation?” The man seemed a little too easily pleased and Tarkey seemed prepared already for his question.
“Yes indeed Mr Verisimilitude. Yes indeed, though of course sophisticated programming of this kind will need to be rolled out in a phased programme.”
“Quite so, very good.”
A sharply dressed diminutive woman whose size belied the range of her voice boomed into the microphone making Vernon wince “Tell me Mr McGuin, what use does this have as a Nonsense Filter to deal with data that has not yet been rendered meaningful through the hard work of others? Isn’t the Nonsense Filter merely a glorified search engine sampler with a heightened dictionary function? “
Tarkey sensed that for all his mathematical proficiency here was an intelligence he had better take seriously. “Mmm, interesting observation. Quite interesting. I’d like to invite to the platform my friend and co-developer Mr Vernon Jules. Vernon perhaps you would field this one?”
With his heart stopping, and restarting erratically, Vernon trembled over to the platform framed by the well-proportioned staircase either side of him, and surveyed the audience. Struggling with the moralising voice of his mother, it was all he could do not to break down and confess in a sobbing voice ‘I’ve been taken advantage of.’ Instead Vernon stroked his beard to buy for time and located the challenger in the audience.
Stooping, Tarkey drew close and whispered, a little too loudly Vernon thought, “She’s Ms Negativa”. Vernon felt as if the whole event was sinking into farce. He whispered back to Tarkey, “for real, Negativa?” Tarkey looked again at his guest list and corrected his mistake, “Ms N. Egatvia.”
Vernon pulled himself up to his five foot five and spoke calmly into the microphone, “Ms Egatvia, I am sorry to say that until humans have given something meaning, all is nonsense. Not being human the nonsense filter does not render things meaningful it filters out that which has no meaning.”
Looking back at the occasion through the soft warm glow of certitude known as hindsight Vernon always told himself he should have stopped there at the safety rail of truthful anti-climax. But he had not.
Back at Jean Luc’s house he threw himself despairingly into an armchair and held his head in his hands. “Why Jean Luc, why?”
“Because Vernon, you’re either a fool, a genius or destined to be an a fugitive.”
Vernon cupped the coffee with his hands and let the steam flood his face. At that moment Émile sauntered in. “Hi. Got my money?”
Vernon handed over the cheque without looking at wonder boy.
“What’s up with you?” Emile asked, not caring particularly.
In answer Vernon pulled out his MP3 disaster recorder and pressed play. A booming confident cajoling voice rang out. “Mr Jules, what I am looking for is apparatus that will filter out all nonsense, revealing meaning in way that artfully skirts around tedious research and painstaking investigation. Can the nonsense filter do this? If not good day to you.”
Vernon had had the opportunity to say ‘no sadly this can’t be done.’ Instead, in a cavalier act of bullet-headed revenge he had said “Mmm, an interesting proposition. I’ll offer that question to my co-developer Mr Tarquin McGuin. Tarkey perhaps you would field this one?”
The recording caught something of the over-excited enthusiasm in Tarkey’s voice as he said, embellishing his moment of glory, “I’m so glad you asked Ms Negativa, we’re working on that and will no-doubt roll out phase two shortly.”
Vernon looked at Emile despairingly and shrugged. Wonder boy at least returned the shrug companionably before retiring to his counting house and calculations. “Soz I’spose” he said as he walked away.
“C’mon Vernon. Cheer up. We could be rich, or at least shot of Tarkey. I’ll buy you a pint at the Brewery” Jean Luc suggested, “…fancy a curry?”
Oddly enough Vernon thought to himself it would do very well as the condemned man’s last meal. Things didn’t seem so bad after a little lubrication however and Vernon hummed contentedly, and tunelessly, in the taxi on the way home late that night.
When Vernon awoke on the final Thursday of his three week long Easter holiday he knew there was work to do. The sun was streaming through the curtains and his stream of consciousness was but a tentative trickle of possibilities with dimly considered consequences following further upstream. Most urgent was the question of who was going to feed Chucky the pestering cat; most momentous was what he was going to say to Mr Snapper who had texted a terse reminder to him whilst he was soaking in the Brewery.
Vernon knew in his heart of hearts that the answer to both the urgent and the momentous was ‘get on with it’. As he opened a can of cat food, perplexed as always how post-quantum mankind could not yet produce an inoffensive smelling cat food, he came to the decision that he should say yes to Thailand but that it would be unfair to do so without letting Nsansa know first. Whilst in Edinburgh she had urged him to ‘go with the flow’ the way that she did and in the spirit of that advice he had emailed Claire and Daniel to let them know that the plans he had finally put to them were now quite likely to become reality.
Breakfast over and a cursory evaluation of his teaching commitments the coming week completed, Vernon gave Nsansa a ring on her mobile.
“Hello” Nsansa sounded formal and reserved, unusually so.
“Hi darling, it’s Vernon. Look I need to confirm something with you; it’s quite important. Is it convenient to talk”
“Hello sir, I’m glad you returned my call yes the patient is fine and with me now.” Was this another of Nsansa’s role plays? No, surely not, they were reserved for an audience and it didn’t make sense to fake her role to an audience who knew it already.
“Darling sorry, following our conversation about Thailand while we were away I have decided to ring Mr Snapper and snap up his offer. Are you okay with that or do we need to talk some more.”
“Yes sir the trials were a success, excuse me…” Nsansa interrupted her charade with an aside to someone in the room which was shot through with urgency. ‘No Mr Bannall, please do not remove the gown completely, you have nothing on underneath and we have all the access we need for the sensitivity test already.’ To him Nsansa said cryptically, the mask slipping a little, ‘Sir you must do what you will and I will do what I can, that will bring the best results no doubt.” ‘Please Mr Bannall I must insist that you do not eat the feather, no nor insert it into any orifice, it is needed for the physiotherapy.’ To someone else it seemed Nsansa was now saying; “No Frau Pinnelig the call was vital but the consultant has finished, please restrain the patient for a moment more and we will continue with the observation.”
Like a tidal wave charging through his consciousness Vernon realised that Nsansa had a therapy session underway, he remembered something vague about spinal injuries being tested by appraising genital sensitivity. To top it all by the sound of it she was being assessed by a senior member of staff. Vernon shuddered at his own incompetence and Nsansa’s probable annoyance. Better leave the country he thought.
Vernon decided to stop for lunch before his vital call to the Californian. Feeling quite the cosmopolitan man as he did so, he heated a couple of pitta breads, having chopped a pepper and mixed a little oil and balsamic vinegar into dipping bowl. Just as he sat down to enjoy them with a rocket salad the phone rang.
Good diction he found was difficult with one’s mouth full and Vernon swallowed hard to clear his cosmopolitan fare.
“Hi, who is it please?”
“Hey Vinnie how’re ya doin’, Mr Snapper here. Wait; I know I get ya name wrong, am I right? It’s something distinct… Vladimir Yeah? Er no wait, Vanya. Look Vanya I’ve been trying to get in touch with you, man. I’m putting together this terrific team and I want you aboard. The job’s yours if ya want it, all yours. Fired-up?”
To be honest Vernon was just relieved. He could not abide Mrs McGuin, the Nonsense Filter however it ended would be a fiasco and probably Nsansa had already written him out of the plot of her life. To make matters worse the mother of his children called him ‘Vermin’ and refused him access to the email of his youngest daughter. His elder children had concluded his trip abroad would be good for them.
“I’m interested Mr Snapper. Tell me. Given the experience I have as a head of department, the Master’s degree in Education and your obvious need to fill this position is there something you can do to improve the offer?”
“Hey man, that’s something I’d love to do but the Buddhist fathers are not commercially minded ya know. There’s no so much as a gnat’s whisker between the bomber’s wing and the hanger doors.”
Vernon could see the general lie of the land but tried to re-map it with the power of his will all the same. “Sure. Look, you can see from my application that I’ve requested IB training and experience in my initial two years. Can you guarantee that?”
“Hey dude that’s something for curriculum control. I wouldn’t impose my inexperience on them. Can’t guarantee it therefore man though it sounds like a treat to me. It is Vanya isn’t it?”
After a barely perceptible pause for the sake of decorum Vernon replied. “Actually no. My name’s Vernon but I’ll be glad to take the job.”
“Well bust my britches man that’s a scoop Van… er Vernon. I’ll get the paperwork to ya. Formal offer to sign, Visa procedures and so on. Have a great holiday. Come early to Thailand man, take a look around. It’s a small place but you’ll like it.”
The deed was done. He was on his way to Thailand via an ill-advised romance with an unspecified role in Africa which was now but a shed skin. Vernon felt some weight lift off his shoulders. He had made a decision that needed to be made. Donning his running shoes and downing a couple of glasses of cold water he celebrated the fact with a circular run under the railway bridge, left and up and over it , past the cattery and down the avenue of trees that always conveyed a flavour of France. He returned past the donkey paddock and the austere Anglican church, tired and in good spirits. After a bath he retired with a beer to the garden and sifted distractedly through a selection of the growing number of philosophical books on his shelves. He’d have to contact Miles van der Floot. Good job he’d picked a distance learning course for his PhD studies. He’d have to write a letter of resignation too having obtained permission from the Head to submit one rather later than usual when he knew Mr Snapper was heading off to the second recruitment fare and speedy response would be unlikely. Vernon went to bed more relieved than he’d been in ages, and yet more uncertain of what was coming next.
The phone rang and rang downstairs, like the muted clatter of a houseman’s surgical tools. Vernon slowly tumbled out of the womb of oblivion, down the birth canal of night-time awakenings and into the rude delivery suite of reality. Just as he surfaced from his deep sleep, and staggered on to the landing, the downstairs phone gave up only to be replaced immediately by the mobile under his pillow. When the fog cleared Vernon would find it was Friday morning.
“Nnnuh”, Vernon groaned as he snatched at the mobile fumblingly and flipped the lid.
“Uhuh?” He said slowly. “What, who? Why now?”
“Vernon, its Jean Luc.”
“Uh huh” Vernon managed, extending his night time vocabulary. “Jean Luc? You and Ari okay?”
“Mmm, not really. Look things aren’t good with the Nonsense Filter. Some of the results are coming back from those journalists who installed a copy from that CD. It seems Émile hooked up some kind of Bayesian algorithm which he stripped out of an open source spam filtering programme and linked up with google via gmail. He tied it in a network of search engines and online dictionaries, and fed in the notes you provided regarding the Jabberwocky. So far one journalist’s complete digital archive has been erased and his computer only accepts rhyming nonsense, another has sent millions of garbled versions of the Jabberwocky to all his contacts.”
Even though he was still wakening it seemed to Vernon that it could have been worse. He said so. “Could have been worse Jean Luc.”
“It is.” was the terse reply.
Vernon scrabbled around for his glasses and then scratched his beard with puzzlement, “It worked for the others though didn’t it? You know, it recognised the data keyed in as sense or not sense? They could say ‘this is meaningful if I research it’ and ‘this isn’t worth researching’? Tell me he got that much right.”
Jean Luc sighed mournfully. “All I can tell you Vernon is that I am worried about whether Emile stayed this side of the law; I think he went too far this time. You can’t recognise sarcasm and emotion with statistics, you can’t discern what something really means to each user’s context and the Nonsense Filter’s never going to give meaning to something newly encountered the way that woman wanted? I think Emile knew that but had his own agenda.”
Vernon deduced that Jean Luc must have been up a lot longer than he had by the extensive vocabulary at his command at such an unsociable hour. In fact the technical jargon continued to flow jarringly down the line and over Vernon’s head.
“Emile had joked about strapping up some spam filter derived Bayesian-inspired classifier to a search engine. He reckoned nonsense words could be sieved out by employing a switch option in the parser that recognises and sorts bigrams and trigrams. Something fancy like identifying contextual polarity in phrase-level sentiment and idiosyncratic term analysis.” Jean Luc was beginning to sound like an Asimovian robot with a serious language malfunction.
“Hold it Jean Luc, stop, stop. Tell me, was it only three journalists who found it didn’t work?”
Suddenly Vernon realised he had never heard Jean Luc sound so distressed. Clearly the rush of techno-speak was the result of an unconscious pressure release mechanism opening to disperse a rising tide of panic.
“Nn-no Vernon, that’s not all by a long way. Most of the journalists have begun to confirm a suspicion that their computers have been hacked and their financial details phished. Some have confirmed withdrawals from their accounts. The Nonsense Filter is a Trojan horse. Don’t ask me how that came to light. But it has.”
Vernon sunk to the floor in dismay. “This is a disaster. What does Émile have to say about these allegations?”
“Jean Luc struggled to make a reply. “I don’t know Vernon; he’s gone missing.”
Friday had now raised its head above the parapet and looked like being shot to pieces. Vernon sighed. Though perhaps not as bad as the worst day of his life this was raw enough.
“When did you last see him Jean Luc?”
“I was careless enough to take a ranting call from Tarkey; Émile was listening in from the kitchen.”
“Last night Vernon.”
Though painfully obvious the sentiment needed expressing. “Jean Luc this is tragic. Is there anything I can do?”
Now that Jean Luc had faced up to the worst of it, the liquid rush of vocabulary was drying up. It was as if the incidental complexities he offered initially represented the dubious sludge at the bottom of a reservoir that has been dredged to recover a body. The technicalities and subsequent emotions were both now running dry.
“I doubt it.” sighed Jean Luc, “I’ve let the police know. Ari is beside herself with worry. Émile’s got the money you gave him and as you know he’s a canny sod.”
“I have to ask this Jean Luc; do you think he did it?”
No measurable hesitation was evident. “He’s arrogant and self-assured, and he’s technically capable Vernon, but I don’t think he did it, no.”
“D’you want me to come round? Bring some food or something?”
Now the hesitation was palpable. “Nnn… Nah, not today. Ari’s a little highly strung and I’m the cause. Plus we have a detective coming around in the afternoon to get more details. They may contact you too Vernon. Perhaps we could meet up for a beer in the evening?”
“Sure. Look I’m sorry Jean Luc for involving you in all this. Is the Cannon Brewery close enough to home?”
“That’ll do fine Vernon” Jean Luc said with a heaviness that hung there like the sense of a third person eavesdropping.
“Before you go; is there anything you need me to do about Tarkey? I guess he’s baying for blood.”
“You’d think so but one rant seemed to satisfy him and anyway, he can’t do anything at the moment because the police are involved.”
“Keep in touch Jean Luc. I’ll see you at the Brewery, about seven o’clock okay?
Jean Luc’s sigh of affirmation was as eloquent as it was heart rending. Vernon threw his phone onto the armchair across the bedroom and fell back onto the pillow in despair. What a mess.
The chance of sleep was as unlikely as a simultaneous win on the lottery and the horses for a person who never buys a ticket or places a bet. After several strong coffees, and a bath of cogitation, Vernon got dressed at 6pm and went downstairs to kick Friday into shape. He had a letter of resignation to fabricate and a number of people to inform.
He was just putting the finishing touches to the letter, singing the praises of the very ‘ship’ he was jumping and was carefully addressing the envelope, for the attention of Rev Dr Albright when there was a loud knock on the door that rattled him more than it did the metal and wood.
There was a large tidy looking man at the door whose establishment hairstyle and look of practised disbelief marked him out as a detective, or a Jehovah’s Witness. Assuming it was the former, he was very early. Even as he opened the door Vernon wondered if anything in the house could be misconstrued as contraband; “Hello?”he said blandly.
“Mornin’ Mr Jools, detective constable Constable ‘ere. Is this ‘ere a convenient time for conversation? That’s a shame oi’m ‘ere so early but can’t be ‘elped oi’s afraid. Do you let me come in sir?” Vernon realised he was gawping and shut his mouth hastily. The broad Suffolk accent had taken him somewhat by surprise.
“Come in, come in. I’ll put the kettle on.”
“Oi’ll just come in the once.” the detective said wittily, “Do you lead the way sir, that shouldn’t take too long.”
They sat down at the table in the lounge and Vernon gave the detective his tea.
“Don’t drink much tea a’tome as a rule; ’ave to leave space for do-tea, if you get my meaning. A haar. Now then, we ‘ave a missing person, a minor by the name of Émile Gèron, who’s somehow tied up in the design and distribution of a piece of software written for you and your partner Mr Tarquin McGuin. A product you rightly advised wouldn’t work yet your partner was ’appy to pay for and which, ’as played a role in digital fraud and theft and wot-not. What can you tell me about these strange goings-on then?”
It looked bad put like that and Vernon suddenly felt like a criminal. He outlined the absurd, unbelievable details, explaining that Émile had designed a product he Vernon didn’t want to promote, didn’t believe would work and hadn’t seen tested. At no point in the conversation did a propitious moment arise in which he could also say, “Ah yes and I’m leaving the country just as soon as I have a work visa”.
“You’ve been most ’elpful Mr Jools” Detective Constable assured him on the doorstep as he departed. “Be straightforward to clear up oi shouldn’t wonder sir. Even so, all the while oi’ve been sayin’ to myself it’s a rum’n, It’s a rum’n. Have a pleasant day, no doubt oi’ll be in touch afore long.”
In the afternoon Vernon found an officious looking parcel on the mat from The Founding Father’s High School in Thailand. In addition to the extensive advice they had provided about what he needed to bring, what officialdom insisted upon and how best he should resolve his accommodation needs, there was a contract he needed to sign and have witnessed. It was clear from the details they had sent that he would need a working visa for Thailand which would have to be renewed frequently.
Vernon decided to get the contract signed on Sunday at church as there were a number of professional people who knew him well there; responsible types.
He planned to post his letter of resignation on the way to meet Jean Luc at the Brewery, but when he stopped at the post box he found frustratingly that he had picked up registration documents sent by Professor van der Floot which were in a similar manila envelope.
Vernon squeezed the cabriolet capably into a roadside cranny in Cannon Street and walked the short distance to the Brewery which was busy but not uncomfortably so. Jean Luc was already there and seemed as well as could be expected given the circumstances. Surprisingly, Ari was there too. He bought himself a Broadside, the dark bitter seeming to match his mood, and went over to join the couple.
“Ari, Jean Luc, hi. Can I get you anything?”
Both heads shook and both of them raised their glasses in acknowledgement of his arrival.
“Vernon hi, you’ve met Ari before haven’t you. In the end we both wanted to come.”
“Hi Ari, good to see you again, I regret the turmoil you must be experiencing, I hope it’s soon resolved satisfactorily. Have you heard from Émile yet?”
He glanced at both as if they represented two different options for the wayward teenager.
“We’ve heard nothing from Emile, no sadly, but we did speak to the police; a Detective ‘Constable’. What an ironic name. He seemed nice enough but I don’t trust him to be unbiased. Sorry.”
Ari seemed to have the odd habit of apologising for the facts she related and the opinions she offered regarding them. Vernon wondered what lengths she went to when bad news was really her fault.
“I met the guy this morning, DC Constable that is, I’d only just got up. The way he read my statement back to me cast a very suspicious light over it. Has Tarkey been in touch? I couldn’t tell if he was under suspicion to the same extent as me or somehow off the hook.”
“I can’t see how he’s off the hook Vernon unless he’s concocted some kind of lie to achieve it. After all he commissioned the Nonsense Filter and hired in additional people to embellish what we gave him.”
“You’re right Jean Luc, and you know what, we always wondered how he could be bankrupt and rolling in it. I bet when they trace the missing millions it will be found in a fund controlled by Tarkey.”
Vernon’s momentary excitement evaporated when he glanced at Ari.
“I’m sorry, but I think you two are forgetting something” she said gesturing, “our son is missing, wanted by the police and the mess that caused it all was you’re quick tongue, gullibility and avarice.” The first two charges were clearly aimed at Vernon, the latter at Jean Luc. Silence descended over the table and they drank introvertedly for some time having nothing to say in return, until Ari excused herself from their company with the words; “I’m going home. Maybe he’ll call. Get a taxi home Jean Luc.”
Vernon had the papers for the Founding Father’s School witnessed and signed on Sunday and posted along with his resignation letter to the school in the Park; he supposed that was what you did with resignation letters. It seemed a bit daft to hand someone a letter telling them what was inside ‘I’m leaving and it says so in the letter’. Daft unless of course you’d written yourself a elegy in dactyl pentameter or hidden your meaning in a treasure map.
Vernon had already thanked Rev Dr Albright for his flexibility in allowing him to apply for a post overseas beyond the deadline for serving notice and the reason he’d given for his decision to work abroad was the desire to experience teaching from an Internationalist perspective.
Monday was, unusually for a summer term start, a training day. Vernon dressed casually and gathered a few school documents he planned to resolve during the day and set off for the School in the Park with mixed feelings. How much longer would he be doing this? Today would be a light mix of whole-school initiatives, department meetings and various forms of compliance with government edicts. He parked the cabriolet on the sunny North front and felt glad to be back, for now at least. Crossing the Old Hall with its secret panel doors and oak floors he checked his pigeon hole before heading up to his office.
In his pigeon hole were two bombshells as yet unexploded. The first was a local newspaper with the headline, Teachers at prestigious school in software fraud scandal. The second was a memo from the head’s PA. ‘Please be sure to meet Rev Dr Albright in his study after morning coffee’. The explosive force of these two communications propelled Vernon up to the sanctuary of his lofty office and forced everything else from his mind. As a result he found himself worrying unnecessarily, ‘were they going to give him the sack?’
Vernon hurried up to his office and sat down with the newspaper. Two teachers at the school in the Park, it read, have been named as the brains behind a local scandal in which members of the business community have seen their bank accounts embezzled and a young computer whizz-kid go missing. Vernon sank back into his chair and absent-mindedly braided his beard glad of its reassuring texture like a frightened child clinging to its comfort-cloth. His thoughts had melded into an indeterminate goo; he was no longer thinking, he was a consciousness on the very edge of thought, a consciousness pulled backward through the hedge of thought itself.
Vernon made his way down to the grand hall with its atrium and balconied upper levels. He knocked anxiously on the Headmaster’s massive panelled door and stood vulnerable and alone in the marbled hall waiting for a summons inside. His sensitivity to the grandeur and heritage of the place took him back years, and looking down, he was surprised in his woe to find that he was not in actual fact wearing short trousers.
The Head came up behind him unannounced and unflustered like the special forces operative he’d once been. “Let’s go inside shall we? Have you had tea or coffee? I’ll order some shall I?” Vernon followed the Head into his inner sanctum and gasped once more at the buttoned leather sofas, the carefully chosen oils, the oil-tanker of a desk and the ivy framed views of the manicured South front. Last time he’d been here the drapes had been drawn and a roaring fire had been set.
“Ah Vernon, you’re a bright boy you’ll have seen where this is going I’m sure. Now then, how long have you been with us, six years is it? I suppose you’ve seen the papers this morning?”
So far Vernon had not spoken. He wondered whether academic, ecclesiastical or military protocols applied here. Should he stand to attention and say ‘permission to speak sir’? No. He was being ushered to a leather sofa whose hide looked fit to protect a centurion from the barbarian hordes.
“Vernon what do you think we should do now? Mrs McGuin is most upset about her son’s predicament, I’m not too happy about the school’s reputation and Dr Gumtree is puzzled about what to do with your professional development. He had the bright idea of giving you a sabbatical but I think that chance has gone. Ah here’s the coffee, do help yourself to a croissant.”
Awash with rhetoric and regrets, Vernon could not reply and so as was his habit he made the most of the freshly ground coffee and croissant. They were so good that he forgot momentarily the occasion that had given rise to the treat.
“I’ll need you to assist us in finding a replacement for you Vernon. When that task is done you are free to enjoy ‘gardening leave’; I will be providing a generous severance sum but you will need to sign an agreement that you will not draw members of the school into your difficulties nor visit the School in the Park until this has all been resolved.”
The Head stood up abruptly and looked out onto the lawn. “It looks bright out there, a fine day I think.” Whilst the Head was busy forecasting, Vernon quickly put the rest of the croissant, and another, into his jacket pocket. Turning on his heel with military precision Rev Dr Albright (Captain probably) marched silently to the door and opened it wide. “Shame to see you go Vernon” he said, “you’re a bright chap; you might want to hoover some of that French pastry out of your beard eh what. Nice plait though; very Anglo-Saxon.” At a much quieter volume, and leaning forward to say it, the Headmaster delivered the final bombshell of the day. “When you’ve cleared your name Vernon, and that of Monsieur Géron, do come back and speak to me. Perhaps then Mrs McGuin will be Mrs McGone eh what?”
As Vernon walked back to his office and whatever the training day held in store, the complication that was his resignation letter suddenly hit him like a runaway train. The question was, had he jumped or was he pushed?
…. Section 110. End of Chapter Five
CHAPTER SIX: FLOATING FREE
“When a love comes to an end, weaklings cry, efficient ones instantly find another love, and the wise ones already have another one in the wings.” Oscar Wilde
“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage” Thucydides 460-404 BC
“Freedom is not worth having if it doesn’t include the freedom to make mistakes.” Mahatma Gandhi
Vernon woke up on Tuesday morning having gone to bed relatively early. He couldn’t be sure if he had resigned from the best job he’d ever had or been sacked; either way when he had phoned Nsansa it had been hard to explain. The conversation had begun with an examination of his interruption of her patient observation and declined in health from there on.
“Why did you call me at work?”
“I called your mobile and your mobile was at work… with you. I asked if it was okay to phone and you didn’t say no.” Vernon could tell Nsansa was cross but the edge to her voice was mitigated by a hint of patronising disbelief. She spoke to him the way one would speak to a child who has just flushed his favourite toy down the loo.
“Kutumpa. Waumfwa? You understand? Wasn’t the charade obvious; when I referred to you as a consultant, wasn’t that obvious?”
Vernon suspected that Nsansa had been put on the spot because she shouldn’t have had her phone on in the examination. She was still speaking…
“Mbelelako uluse, anyway I’m sorry but why did you ring to consult me on a decision you’ve now made without me? Nshumfwile, now I don’t understand.”
“You’d suggested I go. I was confirming I was going, and I’m going. There’s more you don’t know however… ” Vernon felt himself digging in his heels. “I resigned just before I was given the sack so I’m glad I took the Thailand job. It’s because the Nonsense Filter was a public fiasco.”
Though Nsansa didn’t know much about the Nonsense Filter she had developed an exasperated air that she deployed whenever it came up in conversation. “Oh that. Ulechita inshi, what are you doing? You ruin the success you have for the sake of a success out of reach. Lordy Gordy.”
All things considered he’d felt a fool, and though quite practised at feeling a fool, he ended the conversation feeling bruised and took his pain to bed. They agreed to talk again.
Jean Luc had not been at work on Monday’s training day and Vernon was concerned for him. He dressed for work, fed the cat and backed the cabriolet out of the drive feeling like a character from a TV Soap. Who else, on their way to the School in the Park, had a job abroad but no permission to enter the country, a job terminated here by indeterminate means and an implicated guilty involvement in the disappearance of an over-confident teenager? Who else had embarked on a PhD with no idea what to study and had a partner who answered the question ‘Do you mind if I leave?’ with ‘Not really.’? He mulled over these absurdities and what he was going to say to Claire, Daniel and Pippa as he drove through the sunny English villages to School.
Vernon registered his tutor group on the North Front as was his habit in the summer term. His lessons began with the slow rekindling of learning that was necessitated by the long Easter break. The coaxing was especially tricky when it came to building resolve in his sixth formers who were about to sit their external examinations. There were the boys …so over confident, “Why work sir? I’m going into business with my father and I won’t need ethics then will I?” There were the girls, “Why work sir? Exam boards have their quota of A grades and they give them to the underprivileged to get them into university don’t they, I don’t have a hope against them do I?” And then there was Tom. “I don’t need to work now sir, I’ve done all my revision already. It’s in the bag.”
The revision trail was trod nevertheless with grudging but growing attention from Year 12 and 13 alike. They would soon be leaving for study leave and warning lights kept coming on as they realised the gaps in their learning. For example his Upper Sixth or Year 13. Edmund, Lilly and Flo were struggling to dredge up something useful about Religious Language…
“Edmond; tell me, what makes talking about God harder than talking about everyday things?” They’d been watching a video and practising a communication exercise. Vernon had his fingers crossed.
“It’s more difficult because God’s watching?”
“That’s a start” Vernon sighed, longing for the hills of Thailand. “How’d you know he’s watching?”
“Erm.” Edmond stalled as always and Flo stepped in. “It’s more difficult because there’s no proof he’s watching. He’s an entanglement.”
Vernon smiled, “You mean an intangible. Okay, if God’s invisible and hard to agree on, how can we say meaningful things about him? Why is this a different challenge to saying things about historical events, things like ‘Napoleon ate mutton pie and chips just before his final defeat at Waterloo’? Lilly?”
“Did he Sir?” Flo asked interested as always in food.
“I don’t know I wasn’t there…” Lilly said, and brusque though this sounded, Vernon was sure there was more to come. “If I was there I might verify it by asking him, consulting witnesses… or even killing him and doing an autopsy.” Lilly wanted to be a vet Vernon knew, God help us is she becomes a medic he thought.
“Good, good. Well done, so the key is Verification. A claim is meaningful if it can be verified… or what?”
Lilly’s face was as blank as the cheque of an indifferent benefactor. “Ugh?”
Vernon re-trod the path for her. “A claim, religious or not is meaningful if it can be verified empirically, or shown in principle how it can be verified. The Logical positivists regarded truth as something determined by a thing’s relationship with the world. Speech is pointing to things in that world and meaningful speech is verified by demonstrating the existence of the things you are pointing at.”
“So what about Napoleon, assuming we can’t disembowel him for the sake of a demonstration” asked Edmond, stifling a yawn probably resulting from night-time capers. “How would you verify in principle whether he ate mutton pie and chips?”
“Well it’s unlikely he ate chips as we do because that would be an anachronism but in principle, if we could go back in time, and if we could meet him, and if we could believe him the claim is therefore verified in principle.”
Having found an expression to wear on her face, Lilly re-entered the debate. She wore an expression of disbelief. “That’s a whole lot of, what’d you call it, ‘special pleading’. If we could get to God’s dimension, and if we could see him, or her, and if we could understand Gods peak, the claim that he exists is also verified in principle. Logical Positivists are naff.”
“Were naff Lilly; nevertheless you’re right.”
As soon as the sixth formers filed out for their trek across the park to the dinner hall Vernon’s anxiety about Jean Luc and Émile resurfaced.
Knowing there was unlikely to be any mobile signal Vernon opted for a trek of his own to the Mathematics department. He entered the featureless 1970s block and climbed the stairs fretting over the possibilities.
In Jean Luc’s office was Mrs Threedy. Ancient and inevitably the focus multidimensional jokes. It was well known however that she could give as good as she received. “Afternoon Joan; have you seen Jean Luc by any chance, is he in d’you know?”
Solid, substantial and with strong foundations, Joan Threedy sat at the desk marking exercise books. Flick and tick, flick and tick. After a moment she looked over the rim of her tortoiseshell frames and said, “He’s not in here as you can see. What’s a Philosopher of Religion doing in Mathematics? Are you lost?”
Vernon wondered if his puzzlement was what his students felt when they didn’t know if he was joking or not. “I’m looking for Jean Luc. I’m worried about his son. Has he taken the day off or has he gone to lunch?”
“Well now. As to Jean Luc’s Émile, he’s not likely to be at school, this or any other from what I know of him; always taking the day off and probably out to lunch too I’d say. Ah but here’s Jean Luc now.” And to her mathematics colleague she said, “Jean Luc your priest is here for confession.”
Vernon turned to see a wan smile linger on Jean Luc’s tired face. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t sleeping well. They left and Jean Luc managed to quip, “No wonder physicists are constantly looking for more dimensions, “‘old 3D’ is tiresome don’t you think?”
As they walked by common consent to the dining hall Vernon said “I wasn’t sure you’d be in. Have you found Émile?”
Jean Luc sighed and shook his head briefly. “No, but he contacted me and then refused to say where he is. He seems to think he uncovered some kind of scam that Tarkey was up to when he re-tested the Nonsense Filter App on its return from ‘fine tuning’. Émile won’t say where he is only that he’s fine and comfortable; of course Ari doesn’t believe me.”
As they joined the queue for food Jean Luc said quietly “Sorry Jean Luc. I’m glad at least the boy’s okay. You must have been beside yourself with worry. I’ve been fired you know, at least I resigned and before my letter arrived I was fired.”
It was Jean Luc’s turn to offer comfort. “Sorry Vernon, I had no idea.”
The next day as Vernon hurried into assembly he wondered if he’d be missed when he was gone. His contract in Thailand was for two years, with an option to stay only for one, but what if he never returned? Some people didn’t. Thoughts such as these were hastily abandoned as he joined his tutor group near the back of the assembly hall.
The Chaplain, resplendent in a luminous yellow tie and light green shirt that made him stand out boldly against the navy blue uniforms of his school audience, was already warming to his subject… ‘depression’. ‘The darkest moment of my life’ the Chaplain began…
Vernon listened with interest as the Chaplain recounted a hundred mile an hour teenage joyless joyride in a condemned car, brought on by unrequited love. He listened with alarm as the Chaplain itemised the tell-tale symptoms of depression and checked them off. Loneliness. A desire to be alone. Tiredness. Mood swings. Bad eating patterns. Negativity …towards everything. They might as well spell out his address; he’d be easy to spot with that description and people would avoid him. Depress-shun; it was a resonant assembly topic with far reaching implications. After a school hymn the students began filing out to classes.
Jean Luc, who seemed more buoyant this morning, was standing just in front of him. He turned and remarked irreverently, “He’s had an easy life if that’s his darkest moment.”
Vernon smiled grimly and whispered, “He should try losing his children, his father, a home and two marriages, then I’d be impressed, perhaps he’s holding something back.”
“What like five regrettable years as a rent boy?” John Luc suggested with a grin.
“Funny you should say that” said Vernon chuckling as they left the auditorium. “Now you mention it he did tell me of his lederhosen and perfumed-letter days, but he didn’t sound remorseful.” They fell about laughing, much to the consternation of the nearest House Master; Vernon felt better. Though he sincerely believed empathising was ‘worthy’, it was so much effort, and to be honest, it made one more prone to depression.
Vernon found that morning he had an appointment with Dr Gumtree. The advert for his job had gone in the paper and he presumed Dr Gumtree must want to speak to him about it.
He knocked on the familiar door and waited.
“Ah come in. There you are Vernon, on time as usual. Well well. Are you trying to get rich quick eh? Better not tell me in case I’m interrogated. Be sad to see you go though. By the way, how is a school of children different from a school of fish?”
“I have a feeling you’re about to tell me venerable joker.”
“Its also collection of harassed and witless individuals that can’t keep their heads above water; just like a school of children but it has less legs.”
“The sixth form can get pretty legless at the weekend and that reduces the difference even further I’d say.” Vernon joined in the banter but his heart wasn’t in it. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes Vernon. You’ll need time off I suppose for getting visas and such like. Next week we want to interview for your post; the headmaster would like you involved. He tells me a resignation letter turned up. Your severance conditions look pretty generous to me. I’d stick to the way things are if I were you.”
It was not often that Dr Gumtree was grave. When he was he spoke with a gravitas that was hard to ignore. Vernon conceded his point.
“Just let me say this for the record. I have not embezzled anybody and neither has Jean Luc. As for his son we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Quite so Vernon, quite so. Perhaps you’d give some thought to some lessons your potential successors can take so that we can observe them. You’re a hard act to follow you know.”
Vernon left the office thinking just how useful a nonsense filter would be and felt just confident enough to head for the common room for high tea.
Granting himself the luxury of tea and crumpets in the staff common room, he was aware that the plush chairs, the gilded ceiling and his beloved view of the park were soon to be but a memory of the past. Sensing an agitated presence next to him brought him swiftly back into the very real presence.
“Jean-Luc, what is it? Have you found Émile?” Vernon whispered.
Jean Luc shook his head despondently and thrust a mobile phone into his hand. “No, but this is from him.” Jean-Luc whispered in conspirational tones, “I don’t get it; it seems to be in some kind of code. Why would he do that?”
Vernon studied the text which said; ‘Watch out for Bear with sore head. Bear with sore head bites deepest. Everybody knows his name.’
“He could be texting his mother to reassure her” Jean-Luc was saying, “and instead he’s writing cryptic messages. I think his role in the drama’s gone to his head.”
“Wait. Don’t be despondent Jean-Luc.” Vernon said excitedly, “Émile is showing more intelligence than I credited him with. This is something you need to know but he can’t tell you explicitly.”
Vernon felt his certainty dissipate a little. I’m not quite sure. Something about the big bear who everybody knows. We need to find which bear has a name everyone knows. Is it Paddington? Is it Tai Shan, that Panda?”
“The last one’s a long-shot.” Jean-Luc sat down heavily. “I suppose we’re going to have to identify all the bears Émile thinks we’re likely to know.”
“Good point. What bears will he think our generation have heard of? Yogi? Boo-boo? Smokey?”
“You need to get out more Vernon” Jean-Luc said glumly. “I don’t know any bears that everyone knows the name of. Oh wait; what about Fozzie Bear?” Jean-Luc sat quietly for a moment. “What about… what about a bear whose publicity makes that claim?”
“What d’you mean? Be quick, Mrs McGuin is heading this way.”
“I mean is there a bear associated with a jingle that claims universal fame or something?”
“Hello boys. Stilling plotting and scheming? How about channelling that energy into lesson planning instead? Sorry to see you’re leaving us Vernon. Still, I can’t say I’m surprised.” Mrs McGuin balanced on her high heels, head on one side, like a stalk eyeing the fish below the surface of a garden pond or an animated tripod topped with a badly mounted camera. When neither teacher took the bait she added crisply; “Step lively, you have bright young minds waiting and societies to enthuse.” Both grimaced involuntarily at her back as she strode out of the room in a manner that would have inspired Giacometti to sculpt.
“We’re onto something Jean-Luc. Let me know what you come up with but don’t make it explicit in any reply to Émile. He’s distancing himself from it somehow, I’m sure of it.”
That evening, after an otherwise uneventful day, Vernon revised his list of world famous bears. It was impressive. Yogi Bear and Boo boo, Fozzie Bear, The Berenstain Bears… no that was a long shot, he doubted Émile would have encountered them. Paddington was a favourite of course, and then there was Baloo. Bungle and Sooty were also outsiders; they were hardly bear-like. Suddenly a jingle popped into Vernon’s head like a dislocated shoulder repair on the rugby touchline… ‘Rupert, Rupert the bear, everyone knows his name…’ Involuntarily Vernon danced around the kitchen singing the jingle and shaking a tea-bag ineffectually for percussion.
“It’s Rupert” he declared to no-one in particular. “Rupert the bear.”
Just then the phone rang. Must be Jean Luc, Vernon thought, it’s occurred to him too. It wasn’t however. It was Nsansa.
“Hi Vernon. Remember me? I’m your girlfriend; or do you only call me at work now?” Thankfully Nsansa’s tone was light-hearted. “How’re things darling?” She said.
“Oh they’re okay. As bright as can be for an imminent exile who’s reputation is shot.”
“Whose shot a reptile?” Nsansa quipped and they exchanged an easy banter for a few moments. Nevertheless, a question was gnawing at Vernon whilst he chatted and he heard himself interject into the light-hearted conversation, “Nsansa have you any idea of a Rupert whose powerful in the business world, perhaps in the media business?”
“Uh-uh” came the swift unconcerned reply. “Looking for your next victim?”
Something clicked in Vernon’s brain but he could not bring it to the surface. “Something along those lines. Hey do you fancy coming to stay over sometime this week?”
“I’d love to my sweet but I phoned to say that I have a placement in Wales again till next Monday. Abergavenny or something like that.”
“Have I got any what?” Vernon joked returning the favour. “That’s a shame. I’ll miss you. Can we meet up when you get back?” His desire to see her was genuine and he found himself teetering on the brink of nostalgia for the good old uncomplicated days of Ely and chips. They left on good terms and Vernon promised to email and phone once she had confirmed her arrival the following day.
In the afternoon of the following day, and after a quiet morning freed up by extra-curricular initiatives and games, Vernon made his way to the dining hall. He heard hasty steps on the gravel path behind him and turned to see Jean-Luc waving as he jogged unconvincingly to close the remaining gap between them. When he had caught his breath he turned to Vernon and said, gasping for air… “Rupert? Since when … since when did Rupert the bear have a media interest in the Nonsense Filter… that could be abused? …Or is this a cryptic reference to another Rupert?”
“Come on Jean-Luc, now it’s you that needs to get out more. I worked it out this morning. ‘Rupert Mudrock. Media mogul? A very, very big bear. Even politicians relinquish their integrity to ‘get into bed with him’.”
“What d’you mean even politicians? Especially politicians. I know who you mean now… phew… what has Émile got himself into?” They walked on a little way and as they approached the buzz of the dining block Jean Luc added, “Tell me this, how does this help me at all, or Émile? You suggested he had something I needed to know which he had to say cryptically. What?”
“I don’t know, not with any certainty, but what about this? Is it possible that Tarkey bit off more than he could chew and Émile is instructing us to wait and watch it bite him back?”
“It’s a compelling idea.” Jean Luc mused, his expression brightening . He helped himself to cutlery as they queued for food and, feigning a sword thrust towards Vernon said, “I think you’d be careful only to cheat Baron Mudrock when you were assured it couldn’t be traced to you.” Like a cloud passing over the sun another thought followed swiftly in the train of the first… “Hell, let’s hope Émile is never implicated.”
Vernon did his best to project an affirming look of sympathy while admitting to himself there was probably no guarantee nor would there ever be.
Five interviews and five lesson observations for the new Head of Beliefs and Values stretched ahead of Vernon. It all commenced with an interview in Dr Gumtree’s office with candidate number one. He was undoubtedly nice. Six foot four and bewhiskered, like a clergyman naturalist from Hardy’s country.
His respectable grey suite and rimless spectacles co-ordinated well with his grim grey complexion. His rare but genuine pastoral smile however was disarming, and if that wouldn’t give incentive to work-shy students his height certainly would. BDs, MPhils, DipTheols, PhDs and other accolades vied for attention on his CV., though there was no teaching certificate to speak of. Reverend Nice’s curriculum vitae seemed more alive than he did until that smile pushed the greyness aside; Vernon only saw the man smile twice however. This man of the cloth had woven solitary contemplation and protracted periods of study, and maybe even gurning into the fabric of his life alongside faith. Vernon wondered what Mrs Nice was like. Did she have rimless spectacles and whiskers too? He sighed within as Dr Gumtree took over the questioning.
The interview went well enough. Complicated only by a message from Nsansa. Like her, he should have switched off his phone. Touché my dear. The message read…
Hills r alive to snd of boozng. Wales drunk nd noisy. Missing u r u missing me? Cll 2night ples Wll be in after 6.
Though Reverend Nice answered in a manner that was extremely… pleasant, his responses were characterised by a sanctified vagueness such as is only nurtured in establishment churches such as the Anglican Church. Vernon could imagine asking whether Rev. Nice had finished his class reports and the following exchange ensuing;
“In His wisdom the Lord will provide, let us wait on Him with peace in our hearts.”
“Hell yeah get ‘em done Nicey.
In the observed lesson, this first candidate had been briefed to contribute to his lower sixth revision efforts about the way religious experience can be regarded as evidence for the existence of God, with specific reference to William James. Dull job, but somebody has to do it.
“James categorised religious experiences looking for a common core to them” Rev. Nice intoned pleasantly. Vernon looked glumly into the dull dead eyes of his class and Thailand floated into view once again as a seductive tropical mirage. “Can anybody tell me what famous religious experience is recounted in the New Testament?”
“In Acts chapter 9?”
All quiet on the North Front.
“On the road to Damascus? It involves a bright light?”
A touch of hysteria had crept into Rev. Nice’s voice. Please God, don’t let one of them start on about the star over Bethlehem, or missiles over Syria Vernon prayed.
Vernon was completely unprepared for the changeover of candidates when it came. Dr Gumtree escorted candidate number one away to his next engagement in the interview process, Nice and Albright, and Vernon prepared the class for the next topic. Freud. Freud; a gift for any red-blooded male teacher with a radar for drama and a sense of the absurd, a goad to any red-blooded female teacher with a critical awareness and sensitivity to patriarchal condescension. There was a knock on the door and the Director of Studies entered and returned to his seat with an enigmatic smile.
Now what? thought Vernon. From the corridor he could hear the sound of sandpaper being drawn across a wooden block. It seemed to be drawing closer. Moments later the doorway was completely filled by the widest man he had ever seen. A man in a black suit, with a worryingly blue-grey face.
“Hi” he wheezed “You … able to… plug this… in?”
Pause. Beseeching look.
“You have …a connection for my laptop?” wheezed Mr Watts.
The candidate seemed oblivious to the open-mouthed stares of the class as he squeezed himself with difficulty through the inadequate space between the desks. He sloughed off his jacket like a snake his skin and Vernon experienced a childish compulsion to try it on. The cavernous jacket, like the mantle of Elijah, was pregnant with an aura of mystery. Instead he busied himself with connecting the educator’s life-support machine.
“So, Isn’t life great? Here we are. I’m going to talk to you about Freud. While I get this PowerPoint set up, tell me in your own words what God is for. What does he do? What’s his job? Write it down for me.” While candidate number two bent over the laptop, dwarfing the student beside him, the class hastened to comply.
You might well ask what God does, thought Vernon uncharitably. What does he do? And yet, for all his cynicism, the candidate’s voice was so compelling that he wanted to join in. He wanted to fill a blank piece of paper with speculation. He glanced over at the Director of Studies and felt as if he was looking into the face of a man transfixed.
In an enchanted sing-song voice that seemed to blend windy city with Forbidden City, candidate number two stirred the sleepy class into life from entropy into a state akin to orgasmic enthusiasm. They skittered and pranced around the task like a colt released into pasture, glad to be doing something at last. The PowerPoint was tolerable, but as the candidate elaborated on Freud’s quirky obsession about obsessional neuroses, Vernon forgot it was there. He forgot to take critical notes. He just wanted to listen. This man could have sold Rentokil shares to the Pied Piper. Vernon glanced over at Dr Gumtree who hadn’t moved. So that’s what an Epiphany looks like he thought.
The dynamic candidate was warming to his theme. “Freud was sexist and really only focused on the psychological development of boys. Sure there was the Electra complex, I’ll tell you about that later. But it was boys that revealed the most”. Vernon realised that despite of the candidate’s probable twenty stone bulk, he was springing up and down on his feet as he spoke. Oscillating Mr Watts.
In defiance of the laws of physics, Mr Watts nimbly moved to and fro around the desks. Electrified, the student’s faces glowed and their mouths hung open.
“So Freud says there were five developmental stages.”
No detail went to waste as Mr Watts described, brazenly, the significant Anal Stage of a child whose prolific gift of poo to mum and dad is unaccountably flushed down the loo. Boo-hoo to loo coup.
“And that,” he sang, “is what is meant by anally retentive.”
Here’s a charismatic teacher Vernon thought, tidying his beard. Here’s a man whose disability disappears when he is doing something that has meaning for him. It’s not health and virility that gives meaning, its finding one’s niche. It’s finding a place to doing something you love that brings meaning. The student’s laughed, responding to all the cues, they wrote copious notes and let themselves be carried along. Bouncy Mr Wats joyfully expounded the dark concepts of a child’s obsession with its bowel movements, the giddy heights of penile envy supposedly found in girls, through the labyrinthine story about mother-love and patricide and beyond. ‘Boy’ was Vernon ready for coffee break when it came?
As the end of the day approached, Vernon was beginning to feel that he had paid his dues to the School in the Park, no matter what disrepute the school might blame him for attracting to it. The thought of going through this interviewing ordeal again to fill his own vacant position filled him with dread; the last lesson for the following day was a typical GCSE Religious Studies topic. The ethical issues relating to nuclear warfare.
When Dr Gumtree returned with the last candidate his generally polished and smiling countenance seemed somewhat dulled and his eyes frosted over. The new set of guinea pigs were already caged in the classroom and briefed to perform as students. The chaplain had busied them with tales from the North whilst Vernon had been observing the previous candidate. What a great alternative to a bedroom farce, he had mused as the two men approached. All it takes are interconnecting doors and deft timing.
It wasn’t. It broke its promise.“Hi there” said the candidate warmly. He was a small robustly built catholic priest, an exile from the peat bogs of Ireland, who might have made an alternative living in sitcoms Vernon thought – as a catholic priest. He was an unlikely cross between Father Ted and a grizzled Paul Newman. Father Newman. This promised to be fun.
It wasn’t. It broke its promise.
The lesson started badly and unravelled. A ‘Who wants to be a nuclear millionaire?’ quiz swiftly failed to engage the students. Vernon gulped a mouthful of air in his attempts to stifle a groan and proceeded to cough uncontrollably into his beard. A shallow but meandering lesson on events from the Second World War through to the Cold-War quickly identified this candidate as a junior school chaplain with a desire to teach; history.
A number of times in the lesson Vernon failed to avoid the gaze of Flora. Her expression was almost as hard to read as the worksheet candidate three was holding aloft. There was something in her eyes however that made Vernon want to dissolve with laughter. He daren’t look sideways at the director of studies, slumped disconsolately in his chair, a look of disbelief tempered with despair. He knew he’d explode leaving a hole of megaton proportions in the floor.
“And these weapons. These weapons. Well, these weapons I won’t tell you how powerful they are. Or how hot.”
‘Oh go on’, Vernon wanted to interject, ‘Go on tell us one fact at least’.
“And hot. They’re hot. I won’t tell you how hot they are? They’re very hot. Hotter than the sun.” Vernon began to feel now that Father Newman’s initial disinterest in facts was preferable.
“Does anybody know why America dropped two bombs?”
The lesson was ninety nine percent parenthetical and one percent ethical. Vernon tuned out and wondered whether perhaps another five years in the Park was a price worth paying to avoid being an interviewer again. No, he told himself. Nuke-Leah-Milly-on-air. He had to escape from the calaboose.
Having satisfied the school with his efforts on their behalf, and while the leadership team, desperate to appoint, waited for Rev Dr Albright to return from his recruitment expedition to China and Korea, Vernon took several days off school to obtain his visas. He intended to visit India on the way to Thailand and both destinations required permission. After his interviewing ordeal he felt he’d earned the concession.
As every teacher knows, taking time off school responsibly is much harder work than staying and teaching, maybe with a few exceptions. Sadly thought Vernon, there were no romantic fairy tales regarding the ‘elves and the schoolteacher’. Leave the paper and pens on the desk, go to bed and in the morning they’ll be lesson plans and worksheets… not likely. The elves would rebel. In the morning there would be paper aeroplanes, sniper’s pellets and gossipy love notes. Or worse. You might not wake up in the morning.
It was Thursday. Predicted to be warm and sunny, this was as close as Vernon got to gratitude for being alive. Up early and prepared for the usual trek to Redbridge to get the tube, Vernon lost precious time dithering in front of the mirror fretting over whether the time had come to shave his beard. It was going to be hot in India, and humid in Thailand. Should he shouldn’t he?
As he stood in the bathroom, razor poised, he found himself reflecting on the decisions he was making. Either this was the bravest step he’d ever taken, or the most wasteful. Was there any difference? Climbing inhospitable mountain peaks because they were there, visiting islands inhabited by remote tribes who already knew of their own existence – thank-you very much – being the first non-Muslim explorer to penetrate the secrets of Mecca …were these brave acts? In the end Vernon shrugged, and the image reflected in the glass shrugged too. He had a growing suspicion that Nsansa was travelling on a divergent path to his but he had not yet found the courage to address these fears. Surely losing her would be wasteful? A glance at his watch gave him the excuse to put off the reflection he really dreaded, and he hastily went downstairs to collect his documentation, the image of his startled, bearded self, brandishing a razor, was etched into his memory.
Vernon was still determined to stop over in India on his way to Thailand. He had to admit there was something unhinged about going to India for three days only, but he could not resist returning to his place of birth if the fare was being paid, and it was, by the Founding Fathers. Maybe he would experience a sense of homecoming, a sense of belonging; maybe he would find that definitive key to his identity.
He was eager to get to the Indian Embassy to set in motion the process that would fulfil his lifelong dream of returning once again to Pune. He left his home in the English quiet and dark of 5.30 am, with a sense that the adventure proper had begun, begun that was if he was allowed to leave the country. Émile had still not returned home but surprisingly there was little of the expected hullabaloo in the media. Surely the bear that bites loudest was not still hibernating.
The A14 and M11 were both relatively clear and so the trip was unusually uneventful. He’d given himself much more time to get parked at Redbridge this time and the attendant remembered him from his previous recruitment fare fiasco. He joined the Central Line successfully and was relieved to find that there were no accidents or repairs underway preventing him getting to Holborn directly.
India House; the name filled him with a kind of childlike thrill. It conjured up turbaned officers and the palaces of the Raj. As a matter of fact the Indian high commission in Aldwych was surprisingly as he’d anticipated. Situated in a dignified white stone fronted building on a wide, tree lined street, it was easy to find due to the rapidly growing queue developing outside even as early as 8.00 am.
He had read online that he needed to get a ‘queuing ticket’, so he joined the well-mannered queue and lined up outside with everyone else. After five minutes an official of some description asked him his business. Inclined to resent such questions, he stifled his indignation and learned that the ticket booth was by the side entrance further on and the queue itself was upstairs. And then, the fun began.
Clearly there was no such thing as an absolutely right queue and huffing about his lesson in relativity Vernon climbed the narrow steps that led to the interior of the building. He entered a dingy corridor and squeezed awkwardly past the suspicious attendant seated on a stool at the foot of the staircase by a cast iron gate that might have been purloined from Pilgrim’s Progress. The doorman and the attendant shrugged their shoulders at his request for directions and seemed about to question his ancestry. Vernon wondered if there was a machete sticking out of his belt, wires trailing from his or maybe he just had the remains of a snickers bar in his teeth.
When he got to the top of the stairs he was unprepared for the heaving mass of bodies that filled the large room. Old and young, rich and poor, male and female, united in boredom and resignation like something out of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The room was lined on one side by grimy windows overlooking the pleasantly planted courtyard outside and by glass-enclosed counters on the other. What wasn’t glass was panelled in dark grimy oak. The setting reminded him of a Victorian train station, the clientele reminded him of a doctors waiting room. He stood for a full ten minutes not sure what to do next, realising eventually that the ticket he held tightly in his sweating hand corresponded to the numbering system for calling clients to the booths at the far end of the room.
When Vernon’s number was up, after a wait of half an hour, he quickly made his way to the counter. He showed his tickets and his documents “You have photocopy?” The attractive but severe girl behind the glass asked.
“Photocopy of what?” Vernon said.
“You want to make application; you leave copy of all documents with form.” This was news to Vernon; there had been no indication of this online.
“Oh,” he said, taken aback, “Can you do a copy for me then and I pay for it please?” “No” the woman replied forensically, “not possible.” Vernon waited for an apology for the inflexibilities of bureaucracy, none came.
“So, can I go and get these copied and return?” The cashier nodded her head indifferently and then looked over his shoulder, a glance interpreted by the next two people in the queue, as an opportunity to settle, by jostling forward, which of them had got there first.
Vernon crossed the road cross. There must be a steady supply of unfortunates to keep a copying business going around here he thought, and so there was. He got the documents photocopied at Imran’s business supplies and returned breathless to the counter, easing himself back to the booth’s glass window with more tenacity than tact.
Looking at his documents reluctantly, the woman said, “That will be £30.”
“No,” Vernon ventured to say, correcting her, “No, actually I want a Transit Visa, short stay, that’s why I’ve written Transit on the form. Here is £8 to pay for the visa.”
‘Then you have come to the wrong counter” she replied dismissively.
Pointing vaguely to the mass of humanity behind him she said to Vernon, “Go there.” And to the mass of humanity, “Next.”
The influx of new applicants had not diminished and the air of resigned disquiet in the room had not lifted. Vernon quickly joined the end of the new line and waited impatiently for thirty minutes. He shared frustrated glances and occasional commiserations with other applicants. When he eventually got to the front of the queue his papers were snatched abruptly by a small officious looking man who then withdrew behind a glass door and commenced an apparently unrelated conversation with two colleagues. The room was getting hot and he had not eaten.
After another forty minutes the man reappeared and called him forward barring his way abruptly when he mistook this as a signal to pass through the door to the holy of holies beyond.
“This” the man declared eloquently, “no good. This wrong visa, your stay more than 72 hours. Not Transit visa. Pay £30.”
“No” insisted Vernon, I’m arriving at this time, here, and leaving here look and that is clearly less than 72 hours.”
He wondered gloomily if different time zones had different lengths of time measurement. The officious man took his application and consulted his two colleagues who were still in discussion. Another 30 minutes elapsed and the man reappeared. “Here” he said, “go there and pay.” Vernon’s gaze followed the direction of his stabbing finger. He was indicating the particular counter Vernon had begun at. “So I can apply… and pay… and settle this?” Vernon dared to ask.
“Yes, Transit Visa, Pay there” Vernon battled his way through a crowd of shiny students, threadbare paan-chewing business men, wild troglodyte new age travellers, leather –clad couriers for fast-track visa application companies and the extended Punjabi family who were struggling to placate their tetchy offspring.
Returning again to his starting point after two hours and forty minutes he resigned himself to more interrogation.
“I have approval to submit this application.” Vernon said. “It’s for a Transit Visa; £8” Pulling himself up assertively to his five foot five, he handed over a £20 note and waited.
“How long is your stay?” the cashier asked taking his money reluctantly as if it were a soiled nappy.
“Less than 72 hours” said Vernon, losing the will to live, but holding on nevertheless by instinct rather than choice.
The woman subjected his banknote to intense and resentful scrutiny, looking closely at the silver strip and said, “We are not taking £20 notes.”
“I don’t have anything else” Vernon insisted defensively.
“Then you will have to get someone to change it for you.”
Women, he thought, so practical. “Ok I will, but please let me back in the queue promptly I’ve been waiting nearly three hours.”
Unimpressed, the guardian of India’s vulnerable borders looked at him as though he were a very lightweight invader of the realm, “Very well” she said.
Vernon’s next move startled even himself. He clapped his hands together dramatically and said loudly to those assembled in the room, “Excuse me does anybody have two ten pound notes for this twenty? They’re not taking twenty pound notes it seems, and that’s all I have.”
Insensible to the fact that his words might invite panic and certainly not encourage help, Vernon was nevertheless surprised to find that the response was generally sympathetic from his co-sufferers in purgatory. The quickest response however came from two Indian Muslim women wearing burkas. One rummaged in her purse and said, ‘”You’re welcome” in response to his profuse thanks.
There, goddess of doom, thought Vernon approaching square one, do what you can with that. Kali, in human form, inspected his proffered money sceptically and then, to his astonishment, retrieved another £10 note from her cashbox and compared the two. “This is not correct. I cannot accept it.”
Vernon, expecting to awake any minute with his head on the bedside table or his face in his beer, failed to appreciate the joke. He said so with the words “What do you mean you can’t accept this I’ve just changed it as you advised me to.”
“It is the wrong picture” The cashier replied.
“No” Vernon insisted daringly for a lightweight, “British Pounds have been like this for years. I live here, I know.”
“I cannot accept this” Kali decreed, “I do not recognise this note, it is the wrong picture.”
Tempted to advise her to get out more, Vernon realised that it was the wrong Charles. Apparently Charles Darwin was acceptable Charles Dickens was not. Both his £10 notes championed the wrong Charles. Trust him to pick the wrong side. Trust him to have Charles the lightweight. Wondering if he had become a new chapter in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Vernon insisted that the cashier consult her supervisor. She was gone for fifteen minutes and she did not bring Vernon’s anticipated vindication with her when she returned.
“Get your £20 back. I will change it.”
Centuries worth of philosophical debate about Evil and Suffering were articulated in the sigh that escaped him. Women are so practical, thought Vernon, hating this one. “But there is nothing wrong with these notes.” He did not bother to wait for a reply and his previous surprise was bumped up to first class when he found that his Muslim Samaritans were still willing to rescue the monetarily disadvantaged.
With a sense of diminished worth he submitted his money and received in exchange a receipt.
“Wait over there for your Visa to be signed and presented. Don’t go anywhere, you will have to return tomorrow if you miss this. Your number will be called out. Collect it then and only then. Check it; mistakes cannot be corrected.”
Feeling as if he was a prisoner of war, Vernon marvelled at the intelligence gathering powers of Indian bureaucracy. Obviously they knew about his every sin since childhood and this was the payback. A pound of flesh for Pune.
He joined the cautiously-optimistic queue gathered around the door he had first entered and for the first thirty minutes he was entertained by the checkout assistant’s indecipherable pronunciation of numbers, his aggressive abuse of anybody who stood in the wrong place or came at the wrong moment and his running commentary, in what might be a blend of Hindi and Urdu, denigrating the dregs of humanity he had to nanny. When his number appeared to be close he was ready in the starting block to sprint forward and collect his prize. ‘Zee-rore Eeet Treee’.
Aha 083. Vernon stepped forward and time seemed to drag its heels. With the boom-in-a-barrel acoustics familiar to a drowning man he reached out for his passport. He actually touched it. As he did so the assistant cried with horror. “Oh goodness me no. I cannot let you have that no. Too bad. No.”
The assistant promptly withdrew his passport and carried on dispensing justice to his other unworthy clients. When Vernon remonstrated he shook his head as if to dissuade a persistent fly saying, “No, no Mr. Cannot have. Look it is not being signed. Please to be waiting there, there, there.”
The assistant pointed with hair-splitting precision to an exact spot at the corner of his counter, as if he had checked these coordinates minutely, and Vernon waited tensely, like a coiled spring. And …waited. He could see the administration staff drinking tea and milling about apparently aimlessly. After forty minutes had elapsed he noted that the department closed business for the day in quarter of an hour. “Please”, he said to his unlikely ally, who had checked on his colleagues twice already, “I have a long drive home. Please can you get this signed?”
When the passport finally arrived Vernon accepted it meekly, the fight knocked out of him. You had to admit it. The British having invented bureaucracy seemed to have left it behind in India like volatile unspent nuclear fuel. Vernon now knew that the path to Nirvana led through purgatory.
The next day was Saturday and normally the occasion for morning school, but Vernon, since his implication in the Nonsense Filter fiasco, was more dispensable than previously. ‘Don’t come back until the visas are fixed eh Vernon’ Reverend Albright had remarked after their plenary discussions about the interviewees, ‘make yourself scarce eh what?’ He suspected that dignitaries, or the press, were on the school estate and this was something to do with damage limitation. One thing he did know was that somehow he had the weekend and half the following week on paid leave; who said crime doesn’t pay?
Vernon had decided therefore to go and see his mother in Norfolk and then to spend some long overdue time with Nsansa. After that he would be heading to Hull of all places for a golden ticket to Thailand. While he had been occupied with interviews Nsansa had been back and forth from Abergavenny on placement with an interruption in the middle caused by a close friend’s funeral. They had, as always it seemed, lost ground to recover.
Vernon had returned from London by his own now familiar and arduous escape route, his ‘Chemin de la Liberté’. Numb with fatigue and frustration he had endured the congested tube all the way to Redbridge, changed a flat tyre in the rapidly emptying car park and then sat in a traffic holdup on the M11 near Harlow for more than an hour and a half. Relieved and exhausted, he had cherished the tame rural embrace of Suffolk as it enveloped him at his journey’s end. There was something to be said for home, he thought ironically, as he teetered on the brink of abandoning it.
There had been a parcel on the mat when he returned containing the university’s regulations and a warm letter from Dr Miles Van der Floot. ‘My dear Vernon’ the letter enthused, ‘please find attached the procedures for study. I am delighted to tell you that the university has approved your tentative research proposal regarding Relativism, and I can confirm that I am to be your supervisor, though I understand you are headed East. We can keep in touch via skype I am sure, happy travelling and hwl fawr am nawr.’
As he drove through the East Anglian countryside Vernon ruminated on the cheerful certainties his new supervisor exuded. If he knew that Vernon was haunted with the possibility that he would prevented from leaving the country, and, consequently unemployed, would not be able to pay his fees, that understanding certainty might dissipate. As he drove through Swaffham, a market-town hemmed in by swarms of triffid-like turbines, and he’d read somewhere, one-time home of the ill-fated Howard Carter who turned up more than he’d bargained for in discovering Tutankhamun, Vernon wondered what his expedition would unearth. He drove through the genteel and quirky market square, pausing at the traffic lights to turn right onto Norwich Road, glancing as he did so at a newsagent’s rack of papers. ‘Media mogul offers revenge reward’ was emblazoned across the front page of one, ‘Hunt begins for giant slayer’ he read across another. As the green light beckoned the traffic forward Vernon knew he had some unexpected discoveries of his own in store and vowed to buy a paper on his way home if not before.
Vernon parked the cabriolet outside his mother’s bungalow, having resisted the temptation to stop for a paper in Dereham for the sake of time. She came to the door and greeted him cheerfully, returning his kiss and saying, “Liz is here you know”.
Vernon’s elder sister Liz was warm, sensible and kind to a fault. He frequently worried that people took advantage of her good nature and more than once he and his brother had found it necessary to be the firewall around her that she failed to build for herself.
“Hi Liz. How’re things?”
They embraced with genuine affection and gathered in the cramped kitchen as his mother put the kettle on for tea.
“How are your plans for Thailand?” Liz asked smiling. “Been buying Bermuda shorts?”
Considering the worries Vernon carried concerning Tarkey, the Nonsense Filter and the police, he felt his reply was convincingly upbeat and carefree.
“You don’t sound too sure?” Vernon’s astute mother responded to his assurances as she placed the steaming cups on the side-table. “Are you running into difficulties? It’s not that woman again… stirring up trouble?”
At first Vernon thought it was Mrs McGuin his mother was referring to but suddenly remembered she would be anticipating Jenny’s involvement and probable ire at him being so far from the children.
“No Jenny’s kept her distance thank goodness, though she’ll no doubt be fashioning a spanner out of plutonium to throw in the works at some point, no its just getting visas and all that malarkey.” Vernon didn’t like bending the truth but the Nonsense Filter was a jolly complicated saga.
They went out for a meal at a local café and chatted over family matters. Liz and his mother agreed to liaise with his letting agency and he gave his mother power of attorney to manage his mortgage account if necessary. Something suddenly occurred to Vernon which he had overlooked in view of his complicated troubles. “Mum” he ventured uncertainly, “would you look after Chucky while I’m gone?”
One his way home after a morale boosting visit, Vernon turned his thoughts to Émile. Something was bugging him about the unfortunate irritating exile and Vernon could not think what it was. It was something his sister had said when their discussion had turned to Jenny.
“So she has Claire, Daniel and Pippa most of the time. So what; if she’d let you share them less grudgingly your input would be less part-time.” For some reason it had reminded him of the exile, and his worries about his own escape too. Turning it over and over like a restless tide, Vernon pulled up outside the local cinema, risking a double yellow line and hastened over to the newsagent nearby.
Forgetting to collect his change, Vernon paid for the newspaper and stood reading the article which appeared in various forms throughout the national press.
‘A spokesman for Media Mogul, Rupert Mudrock, has made public the tycoon’s fury regarding the far-ranging embezzlement of nearly three million dollars from private accounts. Police are investigating the missing funds which have surely targeted one of the most powerful forces in the business and, speaking on behalf on Mr Mudrock, solicitor Mr Minchin indicated that an award would be offered for information that boosted police enquiries. Mr Minchin affirmed that business interests of the media tycoon had also suffered loss; “He will not rest until the perpetrator is identified and bought to justice.” Police have said that they are following a number of leads regarding promotional software distributed to journalists working for Mr Mudrock’s various companies which may have contained Trojan elements.’
Suddenly aware of an irritated knocking on glass beside him Vernon also noticed that the sales assistant had been trying to get his attention. “Hev y’got to stand in the way of door Mr? Please take the change and move aside.”
Vernon jumped out of the way feeling intense embarrassment, and leaving his change fled to the relative security of his car. He re-read the article with growing alarm and turned down the sun visor in a futile attempt to be inconspicuous.
Vernon took a different route to Thetford, intending from there to join the A11 back to Nsansa’s home as agreed. As he twisted and turned through the Norfolk countryside he was in turmoil. Clearly Émile had targeted a dangerous foe. Had Tarkey known anything about it? Were they complicit in any way? There it was again; something to do with sharing.
He drove through Watton passing as he did so a signpost advertising some kind of time-share; Golf apartments or something. And then the penny dropped. Émile was in Spain. What was it he had said? ‘I’ve got a big project on with a time-share biz …in Spain.’ Was Émile really there? He must be. More importantly, was he safe?
Vernon squeezed his little cabriolet with difficulty into the parking space next to the Chinese restaurant. He fancied that the air reeked with the smell of grease and Mono-sodium-glutamate as he walked the short distance to Nsansa’s back door.
He knocked and waited, and as the key rattled in the lock and the bright colours of her blouse created patterns in the frosted glass, Vernon realised that his head was spinning so fast it made it difficult to remain in the present moment.
“Ah Romeo, ingeleni mukwai.” Nsansa’s injunction to come in was hard to comply with however as she had stepped forward and kissed him firmly, holding onto his beard to prevent him pulling back. “Shani tu tea, or coffee? Finshi ukalya? I’m making scrambled eggs on toast. ”
She was obviously pleased to see him and her glee was like a tonic. She pulled him into the room playfully and kissed him again, and Vernon, for the first time in quite a while, felt horny. As they fixed a light meal together refused visas and ongoing fraud investigations seemed very remote.
The meal was followed by a relaxed conversation in which Vernon found that Nsansa was very content in her new placement, as besotted with Wales as was himself but planning nevertheless to come out to Thailand for a holiday once he was settled there.
As Nsansa attended to night-time preparations in the bathroom Vernon played distractedly with the numerous beads of a broken necklace lying on the bedside cabinet. He formed the beads into a shape while he mused over the events of the evening and quickly gathered his toiletries for his turn. When he turned out the bathroom light and re-entered the bedroom he found it swathed in candle-light and Nsansa draped over the white bedspread like a fallen statue. She beckoned him to the bed and whispered “The heart, in beads, and the ‘I missed you’. You have melted me.” Confidently she pulled his night clothes from him. She whispered erotically as he tumbled onto the bed and allowed her to massage his weariness from him, “Oils my love; to help you relax, but don’t relax too much. It’s your turn next, and then…”
Vernon woke up feeling pleased with himself. On reflection that in itself was remarkable, not just because he was by nature melancholic and pessimistic, but because his philosophical reading, tinged as it was with a curiosity about neuro-science, had alerted him to the observation made by Proust that awakening generally entails the gradual reassembly of self from the oblivion of sleep. Nevertheless, and despite his recent setbacks, Vernon awoke this morning knowing who he was and knowing that he was lucky.
He turned and looked at Nsansa lying next to him, breathing in as he did so the rich scent of the oils with which she conditioned her coffee-toned skin. He stroked her back in appreciation and from somewhere beneath the pillow heard a murmur of approval. Further reasons to be cheerful in three parts were that his mother and sister approved his trip to Thailand, his research proposal had been accepted by Dr van der Floot and he had survived the walk across hot coals that his India visa required. Things were looking up.
Most of all, Vernon reflected drowsily, his feeling of self-satisfaction was derived from the news story of the previous day, the one that had unnerved him profoundly, and the subsequent text on his phone that had woken him up this morning. The text was from Jean Luc. Five words gave him hope. ‘Tarkey has handed himself in’.
Tarkey, by doing so had confirmed the link between Mudrock’s losses and his own actions. It was a short step from there to suppose it was a guilty link. Snug in his thinking-nest, though somewhat distracted by the lazy hand that was exploring his left thigh, Vernon doubted that this turn of events was merely because of the newspaper reporting which was in the public domain. He didn’t know yet, but he considered it likely, Tarkey had been ‘lent on’.
Later that morning, as the sun took control of the day and they cleared away the breakfasting debris, Nsansa and Vernon considered going to church. Both admitted their sense of hypocrisy. They were, as Nsansa put it guiltily, ‘living in sin’. Their response to that burden was not the same however. Nsansa declared that she was preparing for marriage, and Vernon already knew how seriously her culture held that obligation. He was pretty certain she believed it and did not therefore see it as insincerity on her part. Vernon on the other hand was still undecided about their compatibility and was striving for integrity of a different sort, though he doubted his mother would see it that way; the analogy he used to convince himself, in those more critical moments of self-doubt, was that he was endeavouring to ‘occupy every room in his house’. Too long he had felt his childhood beliefs had curtailed this or that form of self-development. Now as an imminently divorced adult who had long ago left innocence behind, he wanted to find what it was really that ‘the landlord’ allowed. Let him turn up on Vernon’s existential threshold and make it clear. This was not so much an act of defiance but rather an ‘an experiment of living’. Of course, Vernon’s upbringing had furnished him with plenty of scriptural awareness and so, the human heart, he knew only too well was deceitfully wicked. And so, although his sunny mood had not entirely been forgotten, it was through a broiling sea of conflicting emotions that Vernon eased the cabriolet out of the alley and set off mid-morning with Nsansa for her Liberated Church of the Pentecost.
They pulled up at the nondescript brick-built warehouse on the outskirts of Cambridge, squeezing the car into a slice of air between an upbeat Chevy and a downtrodden Beatle. The menagerie of vehicles in the car park promised a veritable zoological jamboree if their owners were as diverse. Vernon wondered if he would need a shoehorn to ease them both out of the cabriolet and, to his shame, swore uneasily under his breath. Humans he felt were overrated and there were just too many of them. As they approached the entrance the vibrant music he could feel in his chest contradicted the functionalism of the retail-park foyer.
“Hi there; good morning.”
Just inside the entrance the welcoming committee stood poised to dispense practised empathy and anointing. The pleasant American voice was owned by an attractive woman of Japanese descent and Vernon was handed a printed welcome pack by her vivacious Hispanic colleague. Their greeting seemed genuine and for a moment Vernon and Nsansa were bathed in heaven’s beam of love.
On realising that it was directed toward the weary pensioner grappling with the door behind him, Vernon stifled his response to the other woman’s “Lovely to see you thees morning” Their moment had passed.
They found their seats in the auditorium, and as Nsansa stood swaying and soaking up the rhythms and melodies of the worship band, Vernon looked around him curiously. Jesus had always managed to draw an international following he thought, hadn’t Palestinian shepherds and Iranian kings rubbed shoulders at his birth in a building as nondescript as this. It all seemed to make sense somehow and so he too stood, soaking up the music with more than a little interest directed towards the band’s very competent drummer.
As the final strains of ‘Lord I lift your name on high’ hung in the air like the vapour trail of a passing jet, a black pastor jumped to his feet and prayed that his words would be God’s words. Vernon hunkered down for the inevitable sanctified stream of consciousness, resolute the way he had been in school assemblies, to see it through to the end whilst enduring the foot persistently kicking the back of his chair. There was of course no seat kicking now and though the address was undoubtedly fast-paced it was not what he’d expected.
A fiery apostle’s ancient letter to the Christians in Rome bore a disarming message… it was not presented as a call for Holy War but an invitation to inner peace. ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ Entranced, Vernon lowered his world-weary defences and absorbed the spirit-lifting antidote to the poison of self-reproach. ‘He who gave up his own Son for us all… will he not also graciously give us all things?’ Vernon held his breath, dreading the hollow promise of a prosperity gospel… and released it with a sigh of contentment. Here was the heart of religion surely; ‘It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns?’ The dubious testimony of answered prayer that followed, the several unsolicited offers of prayerful counselling, even the church–grade coffee-with-chicory failed to rob him of his glimpse of heaven. How to hold on to the gift of faith without becoming a debtor to religion that was the problem; how to occupy every room in the house with a God who liked to Spring clean?
Vernon and Nsansa ate a leisurely lunch together at the King’s Head, Fen Ditton, a rustic pub just a short stroll from the river Cam and the Ditton meadows. The food was good and they busied themselves with the hearty portions over a companionable silence punctuated with, but not punctured by, practical conversation and occasional musings about the service that morning. Before heading home they took the time to meander along the banks of the river, Nsansa paying a professional interest, so she said, to the muscular oarsmen in their six-man coxless boats. As they sliced through the water like a hot-wire through polystyrene, Vernon suggested she might actually like to be on board conducting a hands-on measurement of the pronation and supination she claiming to be so interested in. Along with the banter Vernon explained his commitment to travel to Hull the following day in order to obtain his working visa for Thailand. A necessity if he was to acquire the document in time for his departure. In addition to this obligation, though he did not tell her so, he was keen to speak to Jean Luc and hungry for news. They parted affectionately and Vernon used the rest of the afternoon and evening to prepare for his trip. Before going to bed he phoned his colleague.
“Hi Jean Luc, long time no see. Have you heard from your agent?”
Though they doubted phone-tapping would provide admissible evidence in court both had decided to take precautions. Émile must not be traced or implicated by them.
“No news directly Vernon; all is secure that end I believe, though Tarkey is stirring things up. Far from seeking amnesty as a guilty party he’s told the police that he fears we tampered with the software he commissioned and leaked the results to Mudrock’s cronies.”
“What rot. What motivation would we have?”
“Apparently you yourself kept on insisting to him that the project would never work but failed to dampen the expectations of the media at its launch. You wanted to get out of the contract and damage Tarkey in doing so.”
“How do you know all this Jean Luc?”
“I’ve had the police around again. Watch out you might be next.”
As always it seemed, Vernon went to his rest with a restive brain.
On Monday Vernon arose early to a crystal-clear morning which promised to mature into a balmy day. He had slept surprisingly well considering the possibility of another visit from DC Constable. Inwardly he sighed and as he breakfasted hurriedly he resolved to enjoy the day; what would be would be.
His journey presented itself as a swift exit from Suffolk through Cambridgeshire, a leisurely drive through the fens of Lincoln, and on through to Hull. It looked pretty close on the map and he wondered if he might get the top down for a bit. He had collated his documents the evening before and figured an early start giving him two and a half hours to get to the visa office would be time enough. When he left the house the consistency of the weather was warm and smooth with an undeniable edge, rather like lemon cheesecake, the night’s cold lingered and so it had taken some time and effort to clean the frost off the windscreen of the Cabriolet. As far as he could ascertain from the relaxed ambiguity characterising the personnel in the Thai Consulate they would see him at 12.30am.
With a new found truce between him and God in place Vernon offered up a speculative prayer for help. Perhaps God would pull some strings this time and not pull his leg. Moments later Vernon amended his prayer to a petition for more progress, fewer National Tour coaches, and and a cessation of the farming community’s full deployment of heavy machinery. As he crawled behind the widest tractor he’d ever struggled to overtake he wondered if in fact literally crawling might be faster? He had more opportunity than he wanted to note that the scenery was not so featureless as he had anticipated. Small market-villages formed remote islands in fields of sea-green vegetables. Train tracks like tributaries converged and dispersed. Canals and rail lines necessitated stone bridges that were a towering feature in the flat landscape. As the morning wore on the expansive East Anglian sky became moody and its sulkiness resonated with Vernon’s concern about the time. When he finally got to it Lincoln was attractive but under refurbishment, giving it a messy unfinished appearance. Though his route North was well marked Vernon sensed he was running out of time and pulled in to a lay-by to make his apologies. The mobile call went straight through; a pleasant voice on the other end assured him all was well and the appointment time was completely flexible. Not a thing to worry about he was assured, all is well.Like a heroic lead in a silent movie who springs from one train to another, he had jump in the nick of time, from his failing job to another which promised to be far more exotic. He had also survived, so far, the bear with a sore head, and he persisted in the belief that Tarkey had brought about his own demise. Over the weekend he had rekindled his romance with Nsansa and yesterday recharged his spiritual batteries. What could go wrong… if God was for him who could be against him? Of course, he was he knew, walking blithely into the jaws of international bureaucracy for a second time and he had little proficiency in Thai to speak of. Hopefully it would not matter, the British Empire had not tutored the Thai administration in obfuscation and dissembling; the glut of pedant’s terms with which to distinguish degrees of officious hindrance showed how capably the British ‘bureaucratted’.
‘Nothing to worry about.’ Compared to the intensity of his previous visa application this augured well for his trip. He drove at a more leisurely pace for the remainder of his journey glad to feel the stress subside.
At odds with the opulent and cultured interiors conveyed on the Consulate website, his destination turned out to be an expressionless pre-fabricated structure on an industrial estate outside Hull; it was nestled comfortably amongst car showrooms, packaging, haulage and manufacturing businesses …all contained in nondescript modern units. He had driven up and down the utilitarian street searching for something more exotic but to no avail. Though a somewhat disappointing site it was, he admitted, more than compensated for by the entry into Hull itself. His pulse had quickened as he had crossed over the vast span of the Humber bridge just minutes before, an engineering feat par-excellence. With leaving in mind, and already sensing England’s shores receding from him, now that the countdown had begun, Vernon vowed to return and pay homage to the bridge when his business was done.
As he parked the cabriolet he saw that the building opposite was still under construction. Entering the Consulate he was immediately aware that it was well designed, like a demure Timex, classic in its functional understatement. The door furniture was solid and expensive and each space made the most of available light; where there was carpeting it muffled the noise in the room.
He stood alone in reception trying to anticipate what kind of Siamese metamorphosis the English language was about to undergo and rang the bell for assistance. Almost immediately and out of nowhere, like the emergence of Punch at a seaside booth, a large red-bearded Canadian appeared and took his application documents, acknowledging him in a deep resonant voice.
“Hey buddy. Make y’self at home. Browse the leaflets, they’re mighty helpful… oh and get y’self a coffee too. Won’t be long with this; we’re not exactly swept off our feet presently”
He only had sufficient time to locate the coffee machine, fill his cup with the promisingly dark brew and commence reading the first of the brochures when the friendly giant returned.
“Alrighty then. That seems to be in order have a good stay.” And that was that. That was that. If the Indian continent had a monopoly on bureaucracy perhaps the Thai had cornered the market in smiling efficiency; for the sake of his adventure he hoped so.
He stepped outside the building pausing to look at his documents and a little shiver of excitement shimmied its silvery way up his spine like a snail on speed. As he turned towards his car something all the more sinister played with his nerves. Someone was watching him from across the carpark. Someone vaguely familiar.
As the youth walked over, Vernon gasped involuntarily, and stroked his beard, as was his habit in a crisis. “You; what are you doing here?”
Émile sauntered towards him a smug smile playing across his face. Behind him Vernon now noticed that there was a taxi waiting, its engine running. “How did you find me? Does your dad know you’re here?”
“Ola. Questions, questions. Hey listen. I’m not stayin’ long. I got a flight in, never mind where from; best ya don’t know. I gotta message for dad…” he paused “and mum. Only don’t write it down.”
Vernon didn’t know whether to hug the delinquent or slap him; cocky git. He chose instead to apologise. “Look I’m sorry I got you into this. Are you okay?”
“Never better. I’ve found my true vocation. Looks like your invention filtered out all the nonsense from my life, stuff like school. I only ever wanted to be a super-hero or a mathematical genius, now I’m both.
Before Vernon could deliver the slap he had decided on Émile spoke again, this time with restrained emotion.
“I’m covering my tracks, watching my back. Tell dad’ nd mum I love them. If they want to know what I’m up to think of Robin Hood. In the end Tarkey will trip himself up and I’ll get a job with Mudrock, or better. Take care and hold on tight. Gotta flight to catch. Laters.”
With that the incorrigible show off had turned on his heel and was getting into the taxi. Vernon shuddered. He just hoped that Émile was spending money that couldn’t be traced and didn’t have the kind of strings attached that would have some kind of Mafia enforcer reeling in the other end. He stood bewildered in the car park for some time.
As he sat in the cabriolet drinking from his ubiquitous flask of coffee, Vernon felt numb and his thoughts turned without his consent to the nonsense filter. Its ‘invention’ had caused nothing but nonsense to spring from every nook and cranny of his life. So much for Anselm’s dictat that something is better if it exists in re as well as in intellectu; the nonsense filter was all in his mind yet its fallout was contaminating reality all around him. More than ever he needed to visit that bridge, he needed to bring to this trek a positive climax.
He started up the car and worried at a bar of chocolate like a spoilt rat. It took him some frustrated moments but eventually he found his way by a circuitous route to where the Humber bridge began; Hessle. The anchorage of the massive structure was situated in a wooded conservation area on the Northern end of the great span; gingerly he skirted a severe landslide, caused by recent rain, which had made some of the paths impassable. Emerging from a narrow footpath Vernon came out unexpectedly onto the banks of the river Humber. A beige swell which somehow evoked the unsettling mirage of pulsating and restless desert sands.
The vast open sky formed a luminescent ceiling. Though the expectant air was heavy with moisture the occasional break in the cloud cover brought unseasonably hot flushes of sunshine. The elements seemed to be in competition now, the sun contending with capriciously high winds, and their primitive contribution called forth the primordial awe of a prehistoric encounter. The bridge, if not a dinosaur, then a god. Vernon felt himself transported trancelike into the brooding presence of some monolithic Industrial demigod. His suggestive and restive mind discerned another gargantuan contest underway; the breadth of the river, so dramatic from ground level, seemed to present an incessant challenge to the audacity of the bridge and its wilful super-human attempt to span nature’s boundary.
Suddenly he came to his senses and looked around furtively. Had he voiced any of this naturalist epiphany? Vernon recalled that he had read somewhere that a suspension bridge was preferred because the navigable channel for watercraft kept changing. He’d read that it had evolved out of a design used initially for the Severn Bridge near Bristol, and that the original idea of a tunnel had been rejected as too expensive. Still the emotively primordial vision persisted and he preferred to think instead that this serpentine river needed another behemoth to tame it and the solution had evolved from that necessity. It was as if he had stumbled upon the struggle to the death between a giant lizard and a colossal snake. The legs beneath the belly of the beast, onshore and in shallows, carried an awesome weight. The graceful arch of its back was incongruous with a structure so solid. Like a time traveller he had trespassed onto the territory of Humbersaurus Rex.
With a little more exploration Vernon, found his way onto the bridge itself. He had time on his hands, thoughts to keep at bay, and a strange sentimental reluctance to leave this raw English landscape behind so he set about walking the length of the bridge. Vibrations literal and emotional continued to communicating something primitive to him. Each section of the bridge had a different resonance. From his brief verbal exchanges with pedestrians and cyclists along the way, Vernon could tell that this bridge was regarded with affection by those who traversed it regularly. Returning to his car, and his coffee flask, he felt as if he had had an inexpressible religious encounter.
His inspired encounter notwithstanding , on journeying South, Vernon caught up with his worries about Émile and the nonsense filter. Was the boy really clever enough to elude capture and to resolve this crisis without entering a life of crime? It was his own silly imaginings in the pub that had started all this and Vernon vowed to censor them in future, knowing full well he would be unable to.
Would the police recall him for questioning? If they stopped him leaving the country he’d be jobless. Batting away the long arm of the law which seemed to be closing in, and causing an oncoming driver to wave in response, Vernon knew his first practical task on returning home, must be to contact Jean Luc, undoubtedly he could not risk anything other than face to face communication. ‘Hell’s bells’ he thought, what must Émile’s parents be going through?
Like a fungal bloom the spoors of his anxiety spread rapidly to the far reaches of his fertile imagination. He was uneasy about leaving Nsansa behind, and could not understand the equanimity with which she considered his departure. Greater self-belief might have allowed him to see that she considered him worth waiting for. Less self-obsession might have enabled him to see her orphan’s resilience and hard-won pragmatism. On another substrata of anxiety he worried too whether he would succeed in renting his house out and in covering the mortgage.
Supressed even further down, was the alarm that he might not see his children again? Since 9/11 2001, and then 7/7 2005, life was lived under the shadow of a brooding terrorist menace of a kind that had largely been considered in the UK as restricted to the desperate legacy of the Irish Question; the troubles. It wasn’t enough nowadays to thank your God, or your lucky stars, that you lived far from the Falls and the Shankill; what if a jihadi attack divided them all?
To drown out the clamour of his private folly, his paranoia about life the universe and everything, Vernon turned on Led Zeppelin and lost himself in noisy homage to John Bonham’s art.
When Vernon got home it was late in the day; his mind was in turmoil and the restlessness threatened to swamp him, to douse his wanderlust and replace it with a foetid sense of helplessness. This dismay was compounded by the letter on the doormat, formal in appearance and terse in its tone; an appointment with DC Constable; a summons to the Police Station the following day. Things were getting worse. Late though it was Vernon had something urgent to attend to. He had to get word to Jean Luc and it had to be verbal.
He grabbed a couple of biscuits and an apple from the kitchen, and quickly drank a glass of milk. It was a beer he craved; beer and peace and quiet. As he reversed the car out of the drive it occurred to him to wonder, were they watching him, would his emails or phone calls be monitored, would they be following him? With stern words he forced himself to calm down and drove as quickly as he dared to his friend’s place.
Jean Luc was at home, he explained that he had just sat down to some marking and, unsurprisingly, he displayed a mixture of relief and impatience at being interrupted. His speech was somehow a little frantic, Vernon thought, as if he was building a barricade against the quiet.
“Vernon… Funny time to call. Is everything alright? Did you get your visa as planned; don’t say they also refused British currency? The name Charles doesn’t have the cache it once did.” Jean Luc forced a wan smile.
“Hi Jean Luc. I can see you’re busy I won’t trouble you for long.”
They were still on the doorstep and Vernon was struggling to concentrate. The neighbour’s barking dogs, Jean Luc’s jazz, pulsating out of the living room, his own tumultuous thoughts; it was hard to be coherent.
“I’ve seen our absent partner but I can’t put in writing anything he said so I’ve called to see you face to face. Can I come in briefly?”
“How cryptic. Yes, yes of course… for a while. Ari’s out.” Nothing new there then, thought Vernon, he was still public enemy number one.
They stepped inside the door but Jean Luc did not take him into the lounge.
“This is becoming something of a merger between a spy movie and a farce Vernon. Don’t you think so?”
Jean Luc’s rhetorical comment set up an awkward, expectant pause, the soundtrack of which was still an unrelenting Jazz crossrhythm.
To prevent Jean Luc filling the airwaves with his nervous clamour Vernon hitched up his fraying thoughts and told Jean Luc the little he knew and the little he surmised.
“I met him in Hull. He’d travelled in by plane. Iberia I reckon if you know what I mean. He said he loves you, both. He told me he’s taking care and the role model for his modus operandi is Robin Hood. Did you – did you catch all that?”
Jean Luc looked at Vernon bleakly, like a starving dog glad of any scraps thrown his way all of which were swiftly consumed.
“Did he look well? He’s a cocky boy but he overestimates his abilities sometimes. Do you think he’s safe?”
“For now Jean Luc …He plans to behave in such a manner that Mudrock will want to employ him when this is all done. Beats me how he’ll manage that. He insists he’s covering his tracks. His final comment was ironic I think. He says he’s always wanted to be a super hero or a mathematical genius and now he’s both.”
Jean Luc let out the breath he’d been holding in with a sigh.
“Thank you Vernon. Let’s hope he’s right. And you? Are your contingency plans working out?”
“I got permission to enter Thailand with smiling Thai-Canadian efficiency but I won’t know till tomorrow perhaps whether I have permission to leave the country.”
Jean Luc looked puzzled now rather than weary. “Why?”
“I’ve got an appointment at the Police Station at DC Constable’s convenience. Who knows how that will go.”
Jean Luc made a face indicating fellowship in suffering; “You know what boy wonder would say to that, only, I mean it sincerely, ‘soz’.”
The following day Vernon got dressed with a heightened sense of his usual self-consciousness. It was not just a matter of ‘what should he wear?’ but how what he wore, would be perceived. He wanted to be taken seriously without appearing out of touch; he wanted to look relaxed and comfortable without appearing cavalier. He needed something that would help his mood.
A myriad recurring thoughts assailed him, his appointment that morning, his return to work tomorrow. He now had his visas and the removal of these obstacles had merely enabled clearer sight of the next. Just as Schopenhauer claimed, acquisition of something registered as the ending of one’s need for it rather than any exultant sense of gain. True as this was, each time he donned his Harris Tweed he was transfixed by its colours, each thread drew him in, evocative as it was of the highland landscape that had inspired it. Its colours conjured up the texture of wild heather, icy streams and slate. He put it on for the sake of this emotional lifeline. At least acquiring it had meant something that was not entirely negative.
Because he did not have to return to work until tomorrow, a formality to finalise a strategy for replacing him, something to his delight that the school was struggling to achieve, Vernon decided to walk into town. A footpath led directly from his home into the centre and a convenient branch led off to the green where the Police Station was now situated. Its many-windowed façade conveyed sober efficiency; he wondered to what extent its officers did.
A little out of breath, and warm from the exertion thanks to his substantial jacket and Oxford shirt, he mounted the marble steps to the municipal building and pushed open the heavy glass door. The duty sergeant, he presumed, was leaning over the desk engrossed in paperwork. Vernon approached unsure of himself.
“Excuse me. I have an appointment with Detective Constable Constable.”
The duty sergeant did not look up but merely continued with his writing.
“Excuse me. I…”
The policeman raised a hand, flat-palmed, towards him, like a traffic policeman from a ladybird book.
“Now then.” He said at last. What’s the problem?
“I have an appointment with…”
“So you said. What’s the problem?” The policeman spoke with a world weariness suggestive of an eternity marshalling imbeciles and delinquents from one problem of their own making to another.
Vernon shrugged, reluctant to give anything away. He felt the same resistance as when a doctor’s receptionist or counter staff at the bank invite you to broadcast your private matters in the public foyer.
“That’s what I’m here to find out officer.”
In response to the bell activated in consequence of this exchange nothing happened.
“Wait there. While you’re waiting, fill out this form.”
It was hard to comply with this instruction given that the only pen was attached to a ledge some distance from the chairs for waiting he’d indicated. By the time Vernon had filled out the form DC Constable had at last arrived.
“Ah hahrr. We meet again as I thought we might. Do you follow me sir.”
With a Suffolk accent sufficiently broad as to impede his progress through the corridors of power perhaps, DC Constable strode unchallenged and purposefully enough here until he eventually paused at a solid black internal door. The door of what Vernon assumed would be an interview room and hoped would not be a cell.
“Now then Mr Jools. You ’ava seat there and we’ll ’ava little talk alroit.”
Constable directed Vernon to an uninviting metal framed chair whose leather seat was more fake than faux. The fifties functionality of the chairs and table in the room seemed anachronous given the technology mounted on the wall that became more apparent as Vernon stepped inside.
“Ahhr. Oi see you’ve noted our window on th’world. Brand spankin’ that is.
Vernon sat down wondering when nasty city cop would burst in armed with a tazor, or iron bar, to complement his nice ’nd rustic colleague.
Constable Constable drew a remote control from his pocket, locking the door as he did so. As if talking to himself the detective said “Video conference interview commencin’ at 10:56, with Detective Constable Constable, Mr Jools and accomplice.”
Vernon, who was listening intently hoping for clues tried not to display his puzzlement.
He failed. “Don’t look so confoosed Mr Jools. We’ve many prosthetics to length’n the arm of the law.”
The screen sprang into life and Vernon nearly tumbled from his chair.
“Émile?” He said, failing also any spymaster’s test of mute non-compliance. At least Émile was looking smug.
“Mr Jools shows ’is recognition of ’is accomplice on seein’ the screen.” Enjoying the moment Constable glanced at Vernon; “Mr Jules go ahead, speak to our accomplice. E’s somewhere in Spain ’elpin’ us with our enquiries d’you see?”
“Say nothin’ Vernon, I’ll tell you all you need to know. Game plan is this…” Émile had clearly retained his sense of being in control. “Turns out Mr Mudrock’s millions have found their way home to his account, but all the other stolen money hasn’t. I’ve been helping the police find it; and… Mr Mudrock has been alerted to the wolf in sheep’s clothing he was about to do a deal with. He’s dropping charges and helping the police, discreetly of course. As we promised, we’ve cleared up a lot of stuff ’nd nonsense.”
Vernon had only one question for Émile. At least, only one he was burning to ask. “Robin Hood, Émile? How does Robin Hood fit into all this?”
“Wait and see Vernon. For now it’s rather complicated, wait and see.”
Émile just had sufficient time for an uncharacteristically friendly wave, perhaps one that was ironic, before disappearing as the digital wall panel went blank and the room returned to the 1950s.
“There we are then.” Constable Constable said. “That’s all in hand oi’d say. Afore y’go however oi’d like your assurance that you’ll say nothin’ until our operation is done. As an accomplice to some suspicious goin’s on you’d best sign the papers oi give you and be done with’t. Say nothing to the press now.”
Constable Constable put a number of printed sheets onto the table in front of Vernon.
What could he do? Read them carefully.
When he had read the documents with care, and assured himself that there was little threat of delayed incrimination, Vernon pushed back his chair and faced Constable squarely.
“Firstly, tell me, because it will strengthen my resolve to tell no-one else, have you been somehow in contact with Émile all along?”
“Ooh. Ahhr. Now then, that’s classified don’t you see? I can say ow’as we knew sooner than you that your accomplice was on the right soid a’the law. Bright lad underneath all that gob ’nd gall”.
“Okay, so you or someone recruited him. I guess I’ve been slow to see through his cover. Secondly and finally detective, seeing as I’ve never been very important in all of this you won’t mind if I disappear off to Bangkok to teach Ethics like I intended to will you?” And, gesturing energetically at the screen to express a surge of newfound anger Vernon concluded, “Especially as I’ve lost a good job in the process of your collaboration with boy wonder here.”
“Free to go sir; as you ever was. Oi think you’ll be harder to hear from that distance too don’t you?” It occurred to Vernon that distance had not prevented Émile from being heard loud and clear but he suppressed the observation resigned to the probability that it had probably occurred to Constable Constable too. Vernon signed on the dotted line and left.
Free to go, and with a mind to do so, Vernon could not barricade his thinking from the noxious mix of elation and misgiving that seem to accompany most people’s unexpected triumphs. He got ready for work feeling as if he was now free to leave just at the point that there was little need to. Did he really want to forsake ‘Old Blighty’ and travel East?
When he got to the School in the Park he found in his pigeon hole a missive from Dr Gumtree. He was as surprised to find his pigeon hole still in place as he was unsurprised to find a message there. It bore the hallmark brusqueness of the Head’s P.A.. …Vernon- be pleased to attend a meeting in Dr Gumtree’s study at 8.45 am, prompt…
For all his oscillation Vernon felt somehow heady with the hubristic helium of a crisis survived. He knew they’d not found a replacement for him and also knew he had to honour his contract with the Founding Father’s School in Thailand; perhaps he’d saunter in after a coffee, there was hardly much to lose by doing so.
Though tardy, Vernon’s thunder was dulled in its dramatic effect by the fact that both Mrs McGuin and Dr Albright were made late by an intractable parent whose son was to be suspended for concealing drugs in a teacher’s desk. Where the school saw this as a crime compounded by malice, the parent saw it as an outrageous attempt to frame their offspring, or perhaps a marked sign of initiative, whichever would waive the charge of a full terms’ fees that extended beyond the offender’s departure. The Head and Deputy arrived therefore in conversation about a bigger nuisance than Vernon to find that Vernon too had been softened by the sincere charm of Dr Gumtree. All this said, Vernon knew to his cost that Mrs McGuin had the emotional consistency of a stick of rock; neither warmth nor pressure made her conveniently malleable, she remained brittle, only more unpredictably so… and she exuded …a palpable stickiness.
In a tone whose coldness chilled the room she said. “Well then let’s get underway.”
Dr Gumtree shuffled his papers to claim the attention of those present.
“The landscape has changed since we last surveyed it. We have interviewed three candidates for the post of Head of Religious Studies, and found them most noticeable in turn, for being aloof, bizarre and loveable. We could, I think, have got that from the Marx Brothers. And so, I have their C.V.s right here…”
Dr Gumtree raised his hand in mock apology saying “Just a jest, just a jest. Each of the candidates have respectively ruled themselves out by being bland, inept and unfit; at least Vernon cannot be attributed these characteristics.” He smiled around the room amiably, as if attaching his colours to the proverbial mast by doing so. I’ll miss you thought Vernon.
A biting chill blew in from the Northernmost wastes of the room in the words of Mrs McGuin, his nemesis.
“I don’t entirely agree with your simplistic summary. Vernon’s bizarre behaviour bought the school into disrepute after he revealed his inept handling of an initiative he could have taken care of. In addition to this, we are not back to square one in view of the fact that we are rid of him. Though painful, this is progress.” Her words hung in the air like icicles and Vernon, having been referred to in the third person doubted whether his presence was apparent to anyone but himself.
Always ready to be the peacemaker, when he wasn’t blowing up bridges and storming enemy encampments as in a previous incarnation, Dr Albright cleared his throat profoundly. He was still an intelligence officer of a kind
“Ahem. Let’s not be too hasty we don’t want to go beyond the evidence now do we? There have been some developments in the initiative you speak of Mrs McGuin and it doesn’t take a bright spark to see that Vernon may well be in the clear. I wonder in fact Vernon whether you might like to reconsider your resignation in the bright light of these erm… er, new configurations? As a compromise I might be able to offer a sabbatical for one year what do you say?”
Vernon glanced across at the ice maiden, measuring the impact of these words, sad that he might ameliorate her discomfort in replying. He was not sure who he most felt put out by, haughty Mrs McGuin, or smug Arthur S.
“I’m sorry Dr Albright. Your generous suggestion, though very tempting, is one I can’t take up; I have now, a contract with a school in Thailand for two years, and there are penalties in breaking that contract. In addition to this, though I think things might change soon even more dramatically,” Vernon looked pointedly at McGuin, “I am loth to work alongside a colleague who charges me with being inept, without offering professional support, and bizarre, because I said no to a deal with her son.”
“Ah, quite so, quite so. I guess then we will have to re-employ that Minister we had before- temporarily Dr Gumtree, -temporarily. What was his name, Reverend Sloth?”
….146 End of Chapter