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Part Two, Chapter Twelve

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« on: August 03, 2023, 11:57:46 am »

IT sometimes seemed to Gerald that the impedimenta of existence at school had a greater reality than those of the outside world. In one of the washrooms in the school block, for instance, there were several enamel mugs each of which soon acquired for him a distinct and immediately recognizable individuality, so that he would avoid drinking from one which had a permanent brown stain for a couple of inches up its interior, put up with another which although very chipped had sufficient of its rim unscathed to accommodate oneís mouth, but would always, if he could, choose a mug ostensibly identical with the others but which in fact had a slightly larger and lighter handle. Occasionally, in the tranced condition in which he lay in bed after the morning rising bell, the images of all those mugs would rise up, for no reason, in his mind---or other images of trivial objects which had nevertheless through constant familiarity in a closed world acquired some obsessive, significant quality, as the very stones of an island beach might impress themselves on a shipwrecked sailor.

And yet this furniture of school---the chalk-eraser belonging peculiarly to each blackboard, the grain and carving of every desk at which he had ever sat, the shapes of scrubbed but indelible inkstains on the floorboards---was capable of being transformed in an instant into an unusual, even exotic setting by being called on to function for some purpose out of the schoolís everyday routine. So it was on Speech Day when the assembly hall had been arranged so that parents could sit in the body of it and boys along the side walls, while, on the dais, Mr. Pembertonís desk, a Union Jack thrown over it and affixed neatly to the floor with drawing pins, bore several piles of new books and a carafe of water. This transformed milieu was all the more exciting to Gerald because of his fatherís absence: he gazed around with uncommitted interest, like a foreigner in the midst of a civil war.

Spilling over from the dais were the seated masters, those with degrees wearing not only gowns but also their hoods, whose varied fur and colours seemed not predetermined by the respective university authorities but to have been chosen at the whim of the wearer, so that, for instance, the primrose folds along Mr. Chaplinís back were like some hitherto unrevealed prankishness of character, a determination to show at once that learning was important but could be lightly worn. When the Headmaster appeared it could be seen that his hood was not purple or dark red as one might have supposed, but pale blue, and this, too, by enlarging oneís conception of Mr. Pemberton, at once became his appropriate colour. With the Headmaster was a stout man in a morning coat whom Gerald knew to be Alderman Cole.

Mr. Pemberton sat at the desk, Alderman Cole on his right. They both stared out for a few moments over the quietening audience in the manner of practised platform men and then, as though they were about to play a duet, they turned slightly to one another, the Headmaster indicating a barely perceptible question and Alderman Cole an almost invisible assent. Mr. Pemberton rose and began to deliver his report on, as he put it, the schoolís year at work and play.

His fluent and confident public manner which Gerald, having heard it so often at morning assembly, took entirely for granted as though it were a natural attribute of headmasters, was suddenly felt by him under these circumstances to be a source of intense pleasure and pride, like the beauty of oneís mother revealed at a party. And the slow and often tedious day-by-day surmounting of the obstacles, and assimilation of events, in oneís life at school was similarly shown by Mr. Pembertonís words to be a swift and progressive flight towards virtue, health and wisdom. The labours of the staff, scholastic routine, examination successes, matches played by the school XIs---even the matches lost---all these themes the Headmaster developed and gradually amalgamated until, as in a symphony of Sibelius, he was able to enunciate the grand and extended statement for which they had been the mere preliminaries, a statement no less impressive on this occasion for being familiar---that though the things he had been speaking of were of great importance yet they did not constitute the real work of the school which was, which must be or the school had failed utterly, the inculcation in the boys of a true moral sense, the ability to choose the good and reject the bad, to leave the school clean in mind and body, ready to serve as citizens of a still great nation.

Then Mr. Pemberton introduced Alderman Cole, who was to present the prizes and who rose to make some remarks in a manner and tone which Gerald felt fell short of the standard set by the Headmaster. He could not help thinking, too, that Coleís parents were quite unjustifiably monopolizing these official occasions. Mrs. Cole at Sports Day and now the Alderman: it was a bit much considering that their son was a mere junior. Remembering also Mr. Pembertonís leniency over the matter of the weights, it flashed ludicrously through Geraldís mind that perhaps the Headmaster was being blackmailed by the Coles.

If it were not so Mr. Pemberton was certainly guilty of a quite unjustifiable indulgence towards this corpulent family. Gerald hesitated at such a conception, refusing, unable, to formulate the fresh scale of values that its acceptance implied, as one who feels that his rejection of a life-long belief in the artistic supremacy of Omar Khayyam will force him to admit the validity of the extreme and obscure poets he has always scorned. For despite his admiration of the Headmasterís address it had struck him that during the review of the yearís sport no mention had been made of the irregular events of the Westport match, a dubious page in an otherwise honourable history, nor had Mr. Pemberton from his Olympian viewpoint indicated how delicately poised was the struggle between good and evil.

Alderman Cole ended his speech and began to distribute the prizes as Mr. Chaplin, standing by his side, called out the names of the winners. The fortunate boys threaded their way to the dais through the applauding be-hatted mothers, groomed fathers and the occasional attractive sister, under the smiling gaze of the Headmaster whose legs and lower torso being cut off from view by the beflagged desk appeared like a commemorative bust of himself.

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