Chronicles of Halden, I
- Auksford, 2004 -
Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
"My secretary has just had a message from Canon Tollgate," said the Headmaster, "saying that he has been unavoidably detained, but that he hopes to be here before the meeting is very far advanced."
"Dear me," said Lady Margaret, "I hope nothing dreadful has happened. I know how anxious Canon Tollgate was to be here. The general decline in discipline and moral standards all over the country is something on which he feels very strongly. In fact he was dreadfully angry yesterday when a most extraordinary young man from Oxford argued that morality was artificial and that Man's authentic nature consists in giving way to his basest appetites. Quite extraordinary. You know, he even had the effrontery to use this rape case as an illustration. According to him the two rapists are shining examples of all that is best in the new humanity."
"I can't see how anyone could maintain any such thing," growled Councillor Bairstow.
"I assure you he did," replied Lady Margaret. "He would have considered your disciplinarian approach hopelessly out of date and wrong-headed. According to him it's all to do with the superego having taken too rigid a control."
"Psychology, you mean, Lady Margaret," breathed Mrs Lambert, with just a hint of too much stress on the word Lady, "I do find it all so interesting. I'm sure there's a great deal of truth in Freud."
"There may well be truth in Freud," fluted Lady Margaret, "but Mr Thurston's exposition of his own peculiar Weltanschauung is not one which would recommend itself to me, nor, I think, to anyone else here. Canon Tollgate was so angry that he walked out on the spot, and I felt obliged to leave too."
"Do you mean," Bairstow asked, "that this fellow Thursby...
"Thurston then, that he actually defended these louts? Said they were right to rape this girl?"
"I do," said Lady Margaret.
Murmurs of shock ran round the table.
"I also heard Mr Thurston's views," said the Bishop quietly, "and I am quite convinced that his position with regard to the present case was one of the utmost and purest ignorance. Canon Tollgate was extremely angry over a number of amoral and atheistical statements made by Mr Thurston, but he prudently withdrew from the argument when Mr Thurston made reference to this case, to avoid engaging in discussions which might well have prejudiced his opinions and possibly those of myself and Lady Margaret. I am not always in agreement with my colleague on educational matters, but in this instance I believe he was entirely in the right and that no good can come of our discussing this rather strange ethical system, which can certainly have no bearing on the case, and would in any case not even have been heard of, let alone understood, by the children whose behaviour we are here to investigate."
"I think I can state that I entirely concur with everything the Bishop has said," interjected the Chairman of the Governors, and the baldness of such a statement from Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny, lacking as it did his usual qualifications, concessions, cheeks and balances, so surprised the company, that the question of Mr Thurston's moral philosophy was at once dropped. It had, however, already become apparent to the open-minded Mrs Lambert, who had come prepared to see both sides of any question raised and to abide by the decision of the majority, that there was a general feeling that the rot must be stopped and discipline restored. She wondered if the question of the appointment of the Deputy Headmistress would come up, and concluded that if it did Miss Hardacre's accession must be virtually certain. Mrs Lambert, whose shrewd politics had kept her on the winning side for most of her career, debated quietly within herself whether she might not get one jump ahead of the meeting by proposing it herself, but caution triumphed and she decided, as usual, to wait for the opportunity to second a popular proposal.
Sporadic conversations had arisen around the table, and, unusually perhaps, the subject of each of them revolved around the matters the committee had met to discuss. Some talked of the decline in the standards of discipline, others of the need for greater staff vigilance, some hinted at disciplinary measures against the culprits, others at investigations into the running of the school, and Mrs Lambert, with a word here and a nod there, managed to convey her agreement with everyone.
The Bishop and Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny exchanged a few quiet words, then the chairman called the meeting to order.
"I ... er ... think," observed Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny, "that, in spite of the absence of our esteemed colleague, Canon Tollgate, who, it might perhaps appear, may have been delayed for rather longer than he, or indeed any of us, had anticipated, though, of course, we do expect him to join us very soon, as he indeed had, I believe, indicated - is that not so, Headmaster?"
The Headmaster nodded, but Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny scarcely paused to acknowledge his confirmation.
"... - that we should perhaps consider whether we might not profitably open the proceedings and at least make some progress towards the, as it were, preliminary consideration of the matter in hand, on the understanding, of course, that, since Canon Tollgate has indicated his desire and indeed, I think I may say this without fear of contradiction, his intention to be present at our deliberations, so to speak, we shall, of course, unless, that is, the committee, or rather, I should say, board, feels otherwise, for I am, of course, entirely in your hands on this matter, but I do feel, though I am, it almost goes without saying, open to correction, that the feeling of the board is, on balance, that no final decision can be taken until Canon ... um ... Tollgate has in fact joined us, or, of course, on the other hand, as may very well happen, signified, in whatever manner, that he is unfortunately unable to partake in our enquiry."
"Agreed!" said the Bishop firmly, and a murmured acquiescence ran round the table. Mrs Lambert took the opportunity to include both the chairman and his episcopal neighbour in one of her most endearing smiles.
"Very well then," continued Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny, "since this does appear to be the consensus of the meeting, I think I may without exceeding my authority, (such as it is), and in the hope that the Canon will understand the motives which have led us to this decision, (which I am sure he will), declare this meeting open, and, without further ado, place before you the rather unusual circumstances, indeed I think I might, all things considered, go even further, I ...ahem... I might go so far as to say the rather extraordinary circumstances which have, unfortunately, led to and indeed necessitated this extraordinary meeting of the Governors of Halden Comprehensive School, and I really must apologise for the somewhat short notice, but I think I may venture to state that, when we are all thoroughly familiar with the events leading up to this meeting, we shall all agree that it was a matter of some not inconsiderable urgency, requiring, indeed I think I might almost say demanding, a decision so to speak, or at least due consideration from us."
"I understood, Mr Chairman," put in Councillor Bairstow, "that we were here to discuss a case of rape."
"That is substantially correct, Mr Bairstow. By and large, what we are here to consider is the implications arising from the discovery by a member of the staff of this school on whose governors we all, I believe without exception, take considerable pride in serving, even though some here present may not have been entirely satisfied with the policy which, rightly or wrongly, led to its establishment - in its present form, I mean, for, as we all know, its constituent parts have a long and noble history: the boys' grammar school goes back, I believe, to the eighth, or was it the ninth, century - the Headmaster would know, I am sure - and was indeed founded, or so at least we are led to believe by both oral and written tradition, though unfortunately the latter does not stretch back so far as to include documents contemporaneous with the origins of the school - if not by St Cuthbert himself, then at least by a colleague, pupil, or, if one might so describe him, a disciple of that worthy man, and so indeed antedates by some two to three hundred years the first Royal Charter granted to this city, with whose life and interests it has ever since been closely bound, and, I think I may say this, has always been and remains to this date - in spite of the present unfortunate little mishap, or perhaps I should not denigrate the importance of a matter which is and must be of not entirely inconsiderable consequence to those of us gathered here around this table, though in the light of history I am sure it will be seen to be of no more than passing significance, however grave we may, and indeed must, consider it - a credit to us all."
"Hear, Hear." said Mrs Lambert. She had entirely lost the thread of the chairman's remarks some time earlier, but felt dimly that someone was being praised for something and wished to ensure that her generous appreciation of the merits of others did not go unnoticed. She was rewarded by a ripple of approbation as the others followed her lead.
Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny beamed and adjusted his spectacles. It did not always happen that his scrupulously fair presentation of all the aspects of every side of any question received such heartfelt welcome. The task before him might be less unpleasant than he had imagined if the meeting remained in such a good mood. He even felt a warm glow of friendship towards Mrs Lambert, who, noting his mellowness, caught his eye and gusted towards him all the charm she could muster.
Chairmanship of the Swardale Gas Consumers' Council was all very well, but, though she enjoyed her role as mediator between Cyril Honnington, (the Chairman of the Gas Board), and the Great Unwashed, it was time she moved on to higher things. With the reorganisation of local government coming up, rapid advancement to the chairmanship of Halden Education Committee was necessary if she were to make her mark in the new, enlarged Swardale Council. Diplomacy, tact and charm - these were her weapons, and everything might hang on the next few months. Gibbon was getting old. He had to go sooner or later. She hoped it might be sooner. Even she might have difficulty keeping her diplomatic elegance if she had to deal with the petty annoyances of complaints against the Gas Board for much longer.
Take this fellow Dixon for example. She had told him that the Gas Board had left his central heating in perfect working order, yet the bloody man wouldn't take her word. He insisted that there were faults that hadn't been corrected. He'd actually insisted that a member of her Council should visit his beastly little semi and inspect the installation. Still, the Board had him right where they wanted him. He'd have to shut up and pay up, just like all the others. In the early days she had sometimes wondered what would happen if someone with influence came into conflict with the Gas Board and its Consumers' Council, but now she knew that only people of no importance got themselves entrapped.
Still, it was beginning to get irksome. If only Gibbon would retire! She saw herself as Chairman in his place, as Chairman of the Swardale Education Committee, perhaps, (who knows?), as Chairman of the County Council in a few years time. Her OBE would be certain. It all depended on Gibbon. The old fool couldn't last forever, but he was well-liked and influential in spite of his perpetual hovering above the fence - he wouldn't even commit himself to sitting on it - and. even if his was not to be the dominant voice in the choice of his successor, it would certainly do no harm to have his approval. Her neatly be-hatted, carefully tinted head nodded its approbation and admiration to the Chairman.
Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny's satisfaction at the general benevolence the meeting displayed towards him might almost have been described as euphoric. He beamed over his spectacles at the assembled company and felt sufficiently emboldened to embark on the next stage in the opening of the proceedings.
"In view of what I ... er... think I must describe as the ... ah... delicacy of the situation, it seemed to me, and I may add, without, I hope, giving too much offence to those of you whose valuable opinion on this matter I have not in point of fact had the opportunity of ascertaining, that I have sought, and, I may add, received, the helpful advice not only of my good friend the Bishop but also of several other distinguished members of this Board of Governors, (though not unfortunately, of Canon Tollgate, whose unavoidable absence through delay will, I trust, and I think I may consider myself to speak for most of us here assembled in expressing that hope, prove to be of short duration), and all of those very distinguished people whose opinion I most heartily respect, were in complete agreement that the fewer people privy to our discussions the better, so to speak. Therefore, without in any way wishing to denigrate the sterling service of the excellent, (for I think most of us would agree that she possesses that quality in considerable measure), the excellent Miss O'Reilly, I have indicated to the Headmaster, who has, I may say, accepted the suggestion with a most becoming modesty, that the Board of Governors may wish to ask him to take the minutes himself, though, of course, neither he nor I, nor indeed those distinguished members of the Board to whom I referred earlier, would wish to take it upon ourselves to pre-empt the decision which ... "
"Propose 'eadmaster tek minutes," grunted Councillor Bairstow.
"And I should be most willing to second that proposal," slurped Mrs Virginia Lambert, OBE in spe.
The unanimous approval of this ticklish point, over which he had feared there might be interminable procedural wrangles, so encouraged the Chairman that, without so much as a glance at the legal system of the ancient Babylonians, or for that matter the Code Napoléon, he pressed straight to the nub of the affair and proposed that the Headmaster should summarise, so far as they were known, the facts of the case, for, although, as Councillor Bairstow had so perspicaciously observed, what they had met to consider appeared to be a case of rape, yet it must, he hoped it would be agreed, be appropriate to discard the rumours which surrounded the case and seek to penetrate to the truth. He contented himself with adding: "In so far as it might be ascertainable," and nobly forwent the digression which sprang unbidden to his mind, on the nature, or indeed the possibility of the existence, of truth, whether absolute or qualified.
"A member of my staff," said the Headmaster, "Miss Hardacre..." (Here several heads nodded sagely and approvingly Mrs Lambert's, after a very slight pause for rapid calculation, among them, and Councillor Bairstow grimaced with distaste). "... discovered two boys in a state of partial undress allegedly trying to unfasten the clothing of Amanda Miller."
"Shocking! Shocking!" murmured Mrs Lambert, and was delighted at the frisson which ran through her colleagues. She felt herself to be their natural leader. The Chairmanship would be hers. Dame Virginia Lambert, DBE, BA, Chairperson of Halden County Borough Education Committee, Chairperson-Elect of Swardale Education Committee ...
"Is this all we have to go one" snapped Councillor Bairstow, "the word of a half-crazed old spinster!"
"Withdraw! Withdraw!" cried Mrs Evadne Snellgrove
"Going too far," growled Willie Thompson.
Lady Margaret merely looked disapproving.
"I know, Mr Chairman," observed the Bishop, "that my colleague, Canon Tollgate, would be very upset to hear Miss Hardacre so described..." (The pro-Hardacre-ites nodded vigourously, Mrs Ethel Rycroft joined their approbation, Mrs Lambert was there too). "... for, as we all know he has taken a close interest in the school since its foundation, but I think I can speak for him as well as for myself when I say that we really ought to have more evidence."
"Let Miss Hardacre tell us exactly what she saw," put in Mrs Snellgrove before the Chairman could collect his thoughts, "I know for a fact that she is waiting outside and that she is most anxious that we should hear the story from her own lips."
"Ahem," began Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny, polishing his spectacles on a clean cotton handkerchief which he kept specially for the purpose, "If I understand the feeling of the committee, or rather, Board, aright, and I feel I have a certain amount of experience in such matters, though perhaps I shouldn't say so, mmh? Mmmh?" He peered round short-sightedly, unable to appreciate the encouragement that his colleagues sought to convey and unable to perform an action so crassly betokening a wish to ascertain their opinion of him as replacing his spectacles. He busied himself with their gleaming lenses for a moment, letting them disappear momentarily one by one into his open mouth so that he could breathe on both sides simultaneously. After this little piece of displacement activity, he replaced them on his nose and resumed command of the meeting.
"That being, so to speak, so," he declared, ignoring his unfinished last sentence, "it might not be entirely inappropriate, (but I am, of course, entirely in your hands on this matter, entirely in your hands), to ascertain whether we might not discover more details, and perhaps not entirely impertinent details, by requesting, if such is the consensus of the meeting, Miss ah... Hardacre to ah ... "
He saw that he was rapidly coming to a point at which a decision would be necessary and glanced quickly round the room. The only dissenting face seemed to be that of Councillor Bairstow, although the Chairman, whose long years of medical practice had accustomed him to every detail of the human physiognomy, could not even be sure that it was dissent. If it were not so totally out of place in such a context, he might even have thought Councillor Bairstow looked bored, though he would never have said so, of course. Courageously Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny came to his conclusion: "to... ah... tell us in her own words, so to speak, exactly what she witnessed."
"I propose, Mr Chairman," said Mrs Snellgrove.
"And I second," said Mrs Lambert
The vote was unanimous. Could the Chairman have been wrong about Councillor Bairstow's expression?
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Chapter 10: Just what Miss Hardacre saw
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