Memoir

Encounters with Mrs L BA(OXON)


About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position....

– WH Auden

ABOUT GLAMOUR THEY were also never wrong, the Old Masters. Not that I'd seen an old master when I first set eyes on Mrs L, yet instinctively I knew what she was. The finely hinged bones, the summery skin, that glacial voice were all part of it, but the glamour was nailed in the remoteness. While everyone else flickered uncertainly in the world, Mrs L was steadily lustrous.

And as if her personal glamour were not enough, she trailed something even more glorious: the caption matching her photograph in the school magazine said "ba(oxon)".

1960, the year a plump black singer in a tight suit had the world swivelling to The Twist, Brenda Lee sobbedI'm Sorry across waves coming from new "transistors" and Albert Camus was killed in a car crash, was the year I turned thirteen. If people who had been overseas were as rare in my life as tigers, people who had gone to university were as rare as unicorns. But I read books, so I knew what "Oxon" meant: a world where tigers and unicorns, in collars studded with diamonds and rubies, gambolled on emerald lawns. I was dazed. How did Mrs L, ba(oxon), come to be teaching at a bursting, garrulous high school in an outer eastern Melbourne suburb? It was marvellous to me that the eyes which looked upon this school every day were the same eyes that had looked upon the tigers and unicorns of Oxford. Marilyn Monroe might have swayed along the corridors and it would have baffled me less.

The week before my thirteenth birthday I had feverishly re-read all the books that had been the intense love affairs of my late childhood. Children have private magical and dramatic worlds, the world that Hans Christian Andersen never grew out of, and my understanding was that on the morning of June 16, 1960, I would wake up in my bed and find I had transformed (metamorphosed?) into an adult. And being adult would mean that childish love affairs would no longer make sense. This concept "adult" didn't terrify me exactly, but I was already exhausted at its grey prospect. To be adult was to move from grass to concrete, from a dappled carelessness and ardent daily drama to a formality symbolised by the dark suits and brimmed hats that my father wore to work every day.

At thirteen, I was innocent in a manner that now seems impossible. In his essay on school days, George Orwell explains how a young boy growing up in pre-World War I England had no curiosity about sex because he had not experienced desire. Orwell, a British Edwardian boy and I, a post-World War II Australian girl, might have co-existed. I was not sexualised, so I was not curious. Orwell at least knew how babies got into women but had no idea about how they got out. I had no idea about either process. A "Mother and Daughter Night" at our local church (low-church Anglican), an unending evening of black, white and pink illustrations of no beauty or significance, had given me nothing but irritable wonder about why my mother had talked about it with such reverence.

My view of the world came from books, "the pictures", my family and several unmarried older women who always had time to show me their new hens and kittens and tell me tales of their war expeditions in Egypt or Africa. They wore long skirts with blouses held together by brooches instead of ugly buttons. They had whiskers on their faces, the hair on their heads was straight and white and they had a scent that was as soft and inquiring as their voices. I loved them and was far more curious about their adventurous lives than any sexual life of my own or anyone else's.

 

MRS L WASN'T a regular teacher for any of my classes, but we crossed paths. She taught French and English – and hockey. In those days there was a shortage of teachers, "a desperate shortage", the pink-eyed headmaster sorrowfully explained to me, polishing his glasses and issuing my punishment for causing a mathematics teacher to resign.

I was to come to school, but instead of going to classes I was to labour in the unestablished school gardens. This ghostly throwback to our convict past was doubly useful as a source of shame for the offender and a practical benefit for the school.

Did I imagine the tears in the headmaster's eyes when he told me how he had walked (did he really say "pounded the pavement"?) from one suburb to another, night after night, trying to find teachers for his school and how one wicked girl – me – could destroy it all? Now he had no junior maths teacher and it was entirely my fault. My responsibility. Did I know that I'd made her cry? Did I know that he'd had to send her home, there and then?

I was dumb with remorse. It was cataclysmic to hold such responsibility, especially when I had had no intention of being "wicked" or of doing anyone any harm. It had all started with innocent laughter and high spirits. I liked dark-haired, rosy-cheeked Miss Webster, although there was something about her – that meek droop of the shoulders in their raspberry handknit perhaps, or a certain lamblike aspect to her milky green eyes – that chafed me. She was so Sunday School, so Shall We Gather At The River. I went to Sunday school to make my mother happy, but it was becoming increasingly hard to keep going because not only did I find it difficult to believe in God but I found the entire thing embarrassing.

Still, my mocking of Miss Webster was a thing not of malice but hilarity. It was the hilarity of a spirited twelve-year-old, a terrible show-off in thrall to language and knowledge who was just beginning to test herself in the world. But this exchange had, somehow, billowed way beyond my control. I, by then stricken-to-the-heart, had last seen Miss Webster running down the corridor, her black hair streaming about her head. Now I was in the garden and she was somewhere being cared for.

Even the other 60 students in the class were shocked. At the time, their delighted shock had impelled my tongue and honed my performance, but now, digging the red clay and tearing out couch grass, I was crystal clear about the cost of those intoxicating minutes. My humiliation was exquisite because digging was specialised punishment given to the lowliest, roughest boys. Never to any girl. Many times, as I had walked past those boys labouring beneath the staffroom windows, I had felt that lurch beneath the breastbone and averted my eyes out of pity. Now I knew that if any of those boys were sent out to dig with me I would not have been able to bear it. I wasn't one of them. I was clever. I flew through the work. I made my friends laugh. But I was digging like them and, although I acted with swagger, I was containing a sheaf of tears that would be unstoppable once they started. To stop those tears, with each push of the spade into that sticky clay, I said to myself: "This is not true."

But it was. And for all the laughter and urging in class, no one came near me after that. I was only twelve but it was a bitterly learned lesson about herds that I absorbed and remembered. I also learned something far more private and useful about shame and humiliation. I thought I would never get over the humiliation of that day, but I did. It did not define me forever.

Mrs L taught my fifteen-year-old brother English. She fascinated him. He was especially bewitched by her voice. He said she sounded "like a picture". I thought so too, or perhaps that she sounded like an occasional voice on the wireless. It wasn't a voice I had ever heard in real life. Sometimes, to amuse my brother or my friends, I would mimic her.

That icicled voice with the pinging consonants (which I didn't even know were consonants, although I had heard of vowels) was easy to mimic. She always sounded as if she knew what she was saying and had meant to say exactly that and nothing else. It was a voice that carried, and I often heard it pinging above the swamp of noise in the corridor near the female staffroom. The voices of my family, of just about everyone I knew, sounded weirdly blurred and indecisive compared to Mrs L's voice. When she spoke, everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. Even the austere pines whispering together on the boundary fence trembled to attention when Mrs L's voice flew across the sports field.

There were two other crucial points about Mrs L. One was that she always wore sunglasses, even inside. Her delicate face was defined by the equally delicate, faintly tilted dark glasses through which it was impossible to see her eyes. All sorts of breathless rumours flew because of these glasses: she was losing her eyesight; she was so vain she worried about wrinkles; she was scarred from a tragic accident. I never discovered the real reason and, although for years I dreamed of catching her unawares, never once saw her without them.

The other crucial, and the most brilliant, thing about Mrs L was her husband. Mr L was also a teacher, although it was rumoured that his qualifications were not as finished as they might have been, even for a state-run school on the verge of anarchy. However, given the "desperate shortage", as an educated man he was highly employable. Thousands of students, all these years after, are grateful that Mr L was employable because he was a born teacher – or born charmer. The two are often interchangeable. Languid, dark, with brown eyes crackling with wit and melodrama, he was the ideal romantic counterpart for Mrs L. To add to his individual glamour, he had an accent. It was an unusual accent that, try as I might, I could approximate but never perfect. Mr L, who taught me French and geography through my early secondary education, was every bit as glorious as his wife but they were quite, quite different. He emitted warmth and laughter, a Cary Grant luminosity, while she remained remote, a Hitchcock fantasy.

One thing was clear. In the deep space that was outer suburban Melbourne in 1960, Mr and Mrs L were pulsars.

 

THEY WERE NOT entirely alone in their splendour. There was a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Revolution who spoke nine languages and a former Methodist pastor, Mr Davies, who, in form three, nonplussed me by making mathematics simple. And then there was everyone's favourite, Mr Irvine, an attractively manic art teacher who not only insisted on the school putting on musical comedies but cast the male sporting heroes in the lead roles.

And fizzing, gleaming through every surface of the school there was Barlow – the history teacher who was never anything else but "sir" and whom the students always spoke of among themselves as, simply, "Barlow". High-coloured, eyes a constant dance of malice, grey hair waving back across his scalp with a life of its own, Barlow had an explosive grandeur (or maybe it was the energy of bipolar affective disorder?) and this, in collusion with the common touch, made him irresistible. He knew every student by name and even the hard-core science and maths students warmed to history before his vivid flame. The boys were transparent and touching as they swaggered for his favours, although the girls were less easy. There was something about Barlow. The girls had an inkling that his allure might also contain destruction.

Barlow made me envious of the boys. Not only because history was the subject I most loved but because of Barlow's way with boys. He taught the boys, he joked with the girls.

If the innocence of a thirteen-year-old in 1960 is now unimaginable, so is pre-second-wave-feminism high school. The classrooms were strictly divided; half the room for girls, the other half for boys. These girls could have been any Elizabethan girl bending over her daily circumscribed learning. They were certainly as biddable as any Elizabathan girl as they smoothed their pages, arranged their pens and rulers, did the correct headings and copied from the board in diligent rounded hands each indistinguishable from the other. If, rarely, they wanted to ask a question, they put up their hands and waited. They wanted to learn but they wanted to please even more. Their hijab was their niceness.

Not the boys. They sniggered, made loud jokes that made my face flush with anxiety because I never understood them and drew funny faces all over their books as wisecracks streamed from their mouths. And frail, sandy-haired, incandescent show-off Bruce MacKinley had words and laughter for everything.

In fourth year, as I dragged myself each day to school, I looked forward to a performance from MacKinley, Barlow's court jester. I imagined Barlow looked forward to history lessons with him as much as I did. This was a world where the closest to real status a girl got at school was to be the girlfriend of a high-status boy. Not me. I liked and admired Bruce MacKinley, but it was his quicksilver voice and tumbling laughter that I coveted. Be his girlfriend? No. I wanted to be him.

BY THE TIME I was in fourth form I had become silent. Speech, at least the sassy talk and insolent mimicry of my early years, of trying myself out in the world, always ended in humiliations, so in classes I sat like a block of wood. I had friends, but they were watery intimacies with girls whose hearts were kind and whose brains were slow. Except for Kaye. Slightly overweight, with what my mother called a "well-developed figure", Kaye had a pretty face and a droll tongue. She had been kept back in form four and sat by herself at the back of the class. I still don't understand why she was kept back because she was certainly cleverer than most and had an extraordinary gift for drawing.

What was it about Kaye? She was different and she made people nervy. Even I could see that there was nothing innocent about Kaye and innocence was prized above anything, above intelligence and integrity and kindness, in fourteen-year-old girls. Kaye not only drew better than anyone else but she read books, very bad books with lascivious covers, and she spoke articulately. She also wore mascara on her long curved lashes. The teachers were uneasy with her and I thought they were afraid of her, although I couldn't see why this might be so.

It was Barlow, more than any other teacher, who made her the butt of his sardonic wit. And droll Kaye sat there and allowed this daily verbal vivisection with a small fixed smile on her face. She was, after all, just like everyone else. She wanted Barlow to like her. Scandalised as I was at his cruelty to her and furious at the injustice, I pitied Kaye, but there was something as strong as my pity battling against her. I despised her for taking it. All through form four she sat there and smiled while he taunted her, calling her "fatty" or referring to her repeating the year. I wanted to stand up and hurl words at him, to somehow make him stop but, like Kaye, I had been rendered dumb. Relieved I wasn't Kaye, I was mortified at my relief. But I was more grateful that I wasn't Kaye.

THE YEAR BEFORE, I had been sent to see Mrs L. I can't remember why I was sent to her that day. Maybe she was acting senior mistress. Nor can I remember what it was about. Probably for being, as they said then, cheeky or rude or bad. Possibly all three. In classes of 60, nobody had time to be forensic about what might be behind any of those annoying but usefully categorising adjectives. Trouble-free students were smiled upon, troublemakers were not. I craved to be what my mother wanted me to be – a nice girl, a good girl – but my tongue was a renegade. It occasionally said things I didn't even know it was saying. Unedited. Show-offy ideas that came directly from books.

That winter afternoon I was more bored than afraid as I knocked at the staffroom door and asked to see Mrs L. I expected a good ticking-off and perhaps the unimaginative punishment of writing lines or staying after school in a room full of other un-nice. Yet I was uncomfortable. And something else that I couldn't understand. Not surly, not peevish, but exhausted. I was exhausted with myself. I resented waiting at that door; waiting for a teacher to come out and pour words over me as people poured burning oil down from a medieval parapet on things they despised.

Then Mrs L was at the door and around me the air lightly frosted. "Yes?"

I mumbled something about being sent to see her.

"For what?" The dark glasses slanted into my face and I curled far back

into my bones.

I couldn't see her eyes but I saw her, her daintiness, her narrow tweed skirt, her blanched hair twisted into a chignon, and hands with small strong nails resting on the book she was holding.

"Well?" Her eyebrows sprang up above the glasses and I noticed her forehead had many long, fine wrinkles.

She waited, but, as I stood and stared at this burnished woman, my voice dissolved into a pool around my feet. And in the silence something took place; I saw myself as she saw me behind those fathomless glasses.

What did she see? A shapeless face, a craze of hair and vast unmoveable feet growing into the corridor. Not me. Not a fourteen-year-old radiant with life and in love with her own contagious sensibility of cleverness, but a piece of debris, something deposited rather than something that had arrived of its own will. Debris, wretched before an imperious queen. It was annihilation.

 

FORTY YEARS ON, by some bizarre weave, I have been invited to a party to which Mr and Mrs L have also been invited. I am enchanted by the idea. I would like them – no, I need them – to know who I have become.

It's been a swift 40 years. I left school in 1963, not because I wanted to but because my parents needed the money I could earn as a clerk working in the Commonwealth Public Service. My mother, a country girl who had left school to work in a city factory when she was fourteen and who was reluctant to open her mouth in company because she "always said the wrong thing" (according to my father), was guilty about this but saw no alternative. By then she was in her early fifties and, I now understand, exhausted by a life of worrying about money and of being responsible not just for herself but for her children, her parents and her capricious husband. I could study at night school, she consoled me, holding my hot hands between her long, calm fingers. I could matriculate and then go to university. Years later, when I read those lines of Robert Hayden, speaking of his parent's poverty: "What did I know, what did I know/Of love's austere and lonely offices?" I instantly recognised my mother and also aspects of my father.

My father? My father, whose charm had made him the most bewitching father a child might want? Well, he was kind and generous, but he was also a man of his time who believed, in the most casual manner, that girls had no need of an education because they would eventually marry. Marry! I wanted to snort, to stamp my feet and rip through the house like a wild young horse when he said this. I would rather die than marry! I meant it, too. Even a quick glance at the state of a married woman's life revealed it was no place to be. The happiest women I knew were the older unmarried women who had time for me and time for themselves. It confused me that the girls I knew aimed for marriage. Couldn't they see what I saw?

My clever and capable brother had left school after form five to go into an insurance company because my father had insisted that this would always be secure. My brother hadn't kicked up this malarcky, said my father, mildly, as he polished my shoes for the next school morning. He, too, said that if I wanted I could study at night. My fury towards my father was as uncontained as the wind, but from this distance I understand him. Because his own life, starting from early brilliance in anything he touched, had been a downhill journey into depression and inconsequence, he was terrified that his children might succeed. For money, for anything practical in our lives, my brother and I looked to our mother.

In January 1964, I began work as a clerk in the Postmaster-General's Department of the Commonwealth Government. I was sixteen, innocent – and I felt like a piece of meat. It was a massive humiliation because I wanted nothing out of life but to learn. I wanted to stay at school and take the path that led to university and all that shone there. Instead, I was catching the 7.15 each morning with entire carriages of the living dead, people who slept and snored through open mouths and let the dandruff fall to their shoulders as the train carried them to their work. I worked in a vast room in a Victorian building. The room, which held maybe 200 people, was divided into sections of clerks called ledgers. Dickens, whose time working at a blacking factory shaped his life, could have described it with precision – a precision fashioned from fury.

My job was calculating how much money was owed to people who were between phone connections. If they were not connected for five days out of the six-month billing period, I had to calculate the sum and then subtract it from their next account. I clocked on at 8.45am and clocked off at 5.06pm. The work was deadly and confusing; I had no idea how to calculate. Mr Davies's maths lessons seemed centuries ago. But, as the girl who sat beside me "checking" my maths always sent it on, I assumed that my calculations, by some fantastical means unrelated to anything I did, resolved correctly every time. I still had a sneaking belief in the fairytale of the Elves and the Shoemaker. Eventually we were caught and the whole ledger was thrown into turmoil. I thought daily about suicide but never, I recall, with any seriousness. But who knows? At that age, impulsiveness is always at hand.

I was rescued by the attention of a virtuous and kind man, a teacher at a private boys' school whom I knew through church. Chubby-faced, always ready with a smile and unselfconsciously stuttering, Mr Corden approached his daily Christian tasks with the gravity with which he approached everything. He saw something in me and thought I was worth the trouble to seek out and teach. His subject was English and, as the master preparing his privileged boys for matriculation, he used to give me the same essay topics. I was a phantom student, although he told me he read my essays out to his class as examples of excellence. I imagined him standing in an airy classroom reading aloud to a room of hushed, unknown, rich and very handsome boys and it was intoxicating. Never to know these boys, but to compete with them and to be judged more talented filled me with pride. It was a recognition of the single thing that gave me a sense of who I might be.

On January 6, 1964, after exactly one year as a clerk, I resigned. My mother had never seen Sydney and I had saved enough money to take us there, by bus, for a holiday.

When we returned I set about getting a job in a municipal library. In the train, on the way to the interview, I decided to change my accent. Just like that. It was a performance and I appropriated Mrs L's accent for the entire interview.

An astonishing thing happened: assuming her voice gave me her confidence, her cool distance. A little way into the interview I became aware of something unfamiliar. The panel was treating me with deference. Respect. The final question was from the oily chief librarian. "Well, dear, which part of England do you come from?" Without missing a beat I replied that I was born here but my father was English. A complete lie.

The problem was that I got the job and I spent some anguished days wondering how I could keep up the accent, the masquerade, forever.

When you are young you are malleable. Mrs L's accent stuck, although it altered subtly to become mine. Sometimes, in inventing ourselves, we create something authentic.

 

BY 1969 I had matriculated with honours in literature and history, studied library subjects and saved enough money to go to university full-time for one year, paying my fees and also board to my mother. These were pre-Whitlam, pre-free university days. After that I had no idea what I would do because I went to university certain that I would fail. University was for the brilliant and purposeful. What I wanted was modest: a chance to be someone other than myself for just one year, a chance to take what Bellow calls "a leap towards the marvellous". One year would be enough. That word "student" was marvellous in itself, another me in a shimmering and very distant mirror. "Student" gave respect to my obsession with learning and normalised my hungry curiosity.

During those years at the library I read. I was like an engine, driven and lawless. Ask me now what was happening in those years and I have no idea. I was reading. Summer of love? What was that? Dope? The Stones? Beatles? Hippies? I was more familiar with the Russia of Tolstoy, the moors of the Brontës and the Paris of Balzac than I was with Australia of the 1960s. As the books twined around my bones, my real, if disordered education took place.

That education sustained me through university because, astonishingly, miraculously, I didn't fail. I won scholarships at the end of the first year and the nag of money melted away. For the first time in my life, I felt free of a weight I was so familiar with I hadn't even known it was there: the weight of worrying about money. It was intoxicating. I bought myself some expensive dusty pink velvet jeans and, one morning, as I walked to catch the train to university, watching the sun exploding through the old gums, catching the cry of the magpies through the blue air, I wondered how this was the same track I used to walk to high school, then to catch the train to work and now to university. "University." I was a "student". My heart might have been the sun.

Later, I went to Oxford on a scholarship to do a postgraduate degree. But I was, by then, a captive of something other than education but equally powerful – love. I had been well taught, too well taught, about love by all those great books and was, unlike Chaucer's worldly prioress, sincere in my belief that amor vincit omni. I had to choose between love and education and I chose love, returning home without finishing my doctorate. I am still excavating the site of a dream deferred, but that's another story altogether.

 

IT WAS AN afternoon party on a mild autumn day and a drive across town. I was too early, so I walked around the streets for a long half hour rather than sit in the car. But it suddenly seemed hot and I was distressed that I might arrive flushed. At the gate, a gate over which roses tumbled, I stood and counted to twenty.

I saw Mr L first. If he wasn't immortal, he was a miracle in suspended time, stooped maybe, but still with those memorable eyes fashioned from laughter and curiosity. Still sexy at over 80, I was intrigued to see. Thirteen-year-olds feel the impact of sexual charm, I now know, what they can't do is identify or classify it.

And then she was there. Mrs L. For the first time I saw her without the dark glasses and I was faintly disappointed to see that her eyes were pale and in no way remarkable. She was much smaller than I remembered. Her figure, though, was still exquisite and she could easily have been decades younger than her 80 years. Forty years collapsed into yesterday as I remembered something essential about her: the way she was put together. Every bone was artful. Centuries of trial and error had gone into making her.

We shook hands, then she stood back and looked at me, pale eyes skimming and taking me in. Click.

"Well! You've changed." The ice-queen voice sliced through my memory.

"Yes," I said, taking in and marvelling, all over again, at her perfection: the hips still narrow, the hair a skilful gold and silver blend. I, who have spent much of the past 30 years as a journalist interviewing significanti in the world, felt unthreaded, fraying. "I've tamed my hair".

Another sweep of those eyes. And then slowly, "You certainly have." Whose voice had the tone? That glorious stringency? Hers? Or the one echoing in my head?

"Yes, I certainly have," I repeated in my own ice-queen voice, a softer version that has belonged to me for so long now that it is thoughtlessly mine.

She smiled and with a neat gesture, almost a non-gesture, indicated my skirt.

"Beautiful tweed."

She was perfect. Would I ever be that perfect? That artful? Something so apparent that it was immediately recognisable to an ignorant thirteen-yearold. Since the day she was born, Mrs L had the authority of knowing who she was.

Click.

I glanced down at my beautiful, fitted skirt. "You like it? It's Armani. Tweed has always reminded me of you."

She beamed and I liked her so much I instantly, girlishly, wanted to spend

the entire afternoon with her and no one else.

"Tell me about Oxford," she said.

She was real. Not warm, but curious and so interesting that I wished I had had time to know her. I might have wished, too, that she had taken a few moments more than 40 years ago to look longer at the clump of debris that had washed up before her in that chaotic corridor. But that would be expecting too much; authority is never a natural companion of empathy. 

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