20191013 001054 12 minutes
Power, Nature, Memories, Boatding School

One Saturday morning, when Brenda was about thirteen, three classes – about twenty five pupils – had been grouped together for homework with an ineffectual teacher in charge. Everyone seemed to be walking round the room, asking each other questions, not sitting quietly working at their desks. Brenda had a question about the homework, so she tried to be law-abiding and put up her hand for permission, but when the teacher ignored her she eventually got up and went over to ask the question. The teacher singled her out, from all the other transgressors, and shouted, “Brenda Smith, go and sit in your desk.” So Brenda did so. She went back to her desk, opened it, and sat in it. Definitely not the way to make friends and influence teachers.

The students erupted into gales of laughter, but the poor teacher nearly had apoplexy. She raced over to Brenda, grabbed a large handful of her long fair hair, and dragged her forcibly out of the room, along the corridor, to the room where the acting head mistress was supervising a group of older girls, also of three classes of homework. Brenda popular? No. The envelope had slipped off the table this time, and she had to pay. For the next three weeks she had to spend any homework periods she had, in that teacher’s classroom, where ever she was teaching, sitting in front of the class by herself.

Around this time Brenda was summoned to Miss Tarkington for some other egregious flouting of one of the rules in the dreaded ‘Rule Book.’ During her emphatic monologue, Miss Tarkington asked, “Brenda, what do you think rules are made for?”

Drawing herself up to her mighty four foot ten inches, Brenda replied, “To be broken.”

Miss Tarkington should have known better than to ask a thirteen-year-old such a question. She should have known what sort of answer she would get – especially from Brenda. After all, she wasn’t exactly new at the job.

Brenda was always late for meals, classes and bed. Even getting books back to the library before the return date was impossible – and anyway, the fines would buy more books. One semester they tried to reform her perennial lateness by making her the ‘bell ringer,’ which meant she had to remember to leave class a few minutes early and walk round ringing the bell for the change of classes. That was not a problem because a girl, either not enthralled about the class they were in, or impatient to get to the next class that she enjoyed, would remind her.

One semester they caught her talking in the library three times. The punishment was to surrender her prefect’s badge. They held the humiliating ‘de-frocking’ ceremony in front of the whole school. She had to walk up to Miss Tarkington’s table after morning prayers and give the badge back. No one should see her crying so, with straightened back and head held high, after walking up the aisle, instead of going round the table she slid the badge across it. Miss Tarkington had to catch it. If this very public spectacle in reducing her to the ranks had been for a worthwhile cause, Brenda would have understood better. Everybody talked in the library, and had been doing so on that particular occasion, not loudly, in fact they had only been whispering very quietly. Anger and frustration followed the de-frocking, but no one saw her feeling of humiliation. The following term, despite problems with the library’s rules, they made her head librarian. It was the job she most enjoyed, and probably succeeded best at, in her ten years at the school.

Brenda enjoyed being out in the grounds, which were utterly beautiful and a wonderful environment to escape to, where she could be by herself. She loved both the formal gardens, watering the flowers in Miss Tarkington’s herbaceous border year after year, and the natural ‘wilderness.’

By keeping a nature log one year, Brenda discovered patterns in nature that hadn’t been obvious before. By the pond, surrounded by trees, a moorhen built a nest, anchored to the reeds, and laid four eggs. Following the course of the incubation of the eggs and waiting for the baby black fluff balls to appear was exciting. Brenda had a little free time in the afternoon and could only visit them then. After the first chick arrived she couldn’t wait to go down the following day to see if all the chicks had been hatched, running from lily leaf to lily leaf, so light they hardly made them quiver, as she had seen others last year, on the river at home.

The next morning an enormous thunderstorm flooded the gravel paths beside the school building, and struck one of the great cedar trees with an enormous crash. One girl was upstairs, and saw it split straight down the middle and whip back together again. They were told it would be thirty years before anyone knew if the tree had died. Brenda wanted to go to the wilderness to help the mother take care of the tiny babies. As soon as she could she raced down to the pond.

Arriving, she saw the nest, detached from the reeds in the middle of the pond, with the babies floating in it, dead. They had been too young to withstand the power of the pelting rain. She was devastated. The mother had learned to trust her, but Brenda never saw her again. Nature’s power can’t be bargained with, only respected and, hopefully, provided for. It can be devastatingly cruel as well as beautiful.

Mummy and Miss Tarkington never approved of her. She disturbed their equilibrium by undermining their authority. According to them, individualists should be squooshed, like snails or slugs. They considered their rules important to be obeyed, but Mummy and Miss Tarkington didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye either. Both of them had extremely strong personalities and expected the other person to kowtow. Neither expected to yield to anyone. Ever.

Although Michael’s twenty first birthday fell on a Saturday, Brenda was not allowed home for the party, although this is the official coming-of-age rite in England. It wasn’t a question of punishment, no suggestion of wrongdoing. Girls simply could not leave the school grounds during term time. Round one to Miss Tarkington. The party was postponed to the weekend after the term ended.

The following semester, when her mother telephoned Miss Tarkington on a Sunday evening, that the doctor had said Brenda should be sent for, to come home because he did not expect her father to survive the night, Miss Tarkington still demurred: “but she can’t come tonight, the girls have already gone to bed.”

This time her mother reacted differently: “Brenda’s brother has already left and will be there in about half an hour. Wake her up. She must be ready when he gets there. Her father is dying, and she’s entitled to be here.” Brenda was ready when Michael arrived. Round two to Mummy.

When they got home she went upstairs with Mummy. They went into the bedroom and heard Daddy take a little sigh, in the summer darkness, and then silence.

After the funeral she was sitting in the lounge, looking at a photograph of her on the wall. She remembered how happy she had been on that vacation, when she was four years old, shrimping on the beach with Daddy. The earnest expression showed how much she wanted to catch some shrimps for him, for his supper that night. It was a good snapshot. But memories of the frustration and anger at having to turn around as Mummy instructed, and walk into the bright sun which shone straight into her eyes, had spoiled it for her. And it showed in the picture. Brenda was a pretty, but pouting, angry little four year old. That was the last picture taken of Brenda with curly hair.

Even her beloved father could be arbitrary at times. He decided Brenda should learn to swim, which would have been wonderful had they not been on holiday by the North Sea. Think cold. Very cold. When he dunked Brenda in the water she screamed. By the time they returned home her curls had vanished and her hair had become straight. Dead straight. The color didn’t change – so fair it was almost white – but the curls vanished. Previously bubble curls all over her head, now, none. It stayed straight until, during her first pregnancy she first noticed the waves coming back She was excited that she wouldn’t have straight hair any more and called her husband to come and see.

“Look, James! My hair is going curly. See, I have curls!”

He patted her head.

“Yes, dear. Sure. Your hair is definitely going curly.”

She could hear from his patronizing voice that what he really meant was “You’ll be all right. I’ll humor you. It isn’t a dangerous hallucination.”

Brenda was furious.