Mr Wickens was really a bit of a puzzle. He was well above the ordinary run of village schoolmasters, but he did not seem to make any effort to move to anything better, though he was not contented. He just stayed on and lived with his disappointments. Whatever it was that he hoped for had not come, and he was not the sort of man to make fortune favour him.
Every year that he stayed on in Byfield the less likely he was to leave, and the more his grumbling sounded as if he never expected to do anything about it. ‘Yes,’ he would say, ‘I plod along. I plod along. There really is so little encouragement. No scope at all. The boys all go to work on the farms, and the girls to domestic service. There is nothing to be done with them, nothing at all.’ So he had given up looking for children bright enough to take trouble over. He did not think that there were any. But what he had to teach he taught well, because he was a born teacher. His greatest interest was his bicycle, which was one of the few in the village. He had even invented a new sort of saddle for it, made out of string-netting with little rubber pads in the proper places. It was going to make his fortune, when he had interested the right people. He was always explaining how much more comfortable it was than the ordinary leather ones, and pointing out that it could not make you hot, because it was adequately ventilated, or turn trouser seats thin and shiny, which were great advantages. Every summer he went off on it for a week’s holiday, and was said to have got as far away as Norfolk once or twice. When he got back he used to make little alterations in his invention, so perhaps he never got it perfect enough to show to the bicycle makers. But we were lucky to have him. He was well above the ordinary run of village schoolmasters.
There was a mystery about him that we never got to the bottom of. Every now and then, he would come quickly out of school at the end of morning lessons, with his bowler hat and trouser clips on, get his bicycle out of the tool shed, and set off towards Billington at a good pace, for him. What he did when he got there we never found out, but whatever it was it can’t have taken him long, because he had to make the five miles there and back and do whatever it was in about an hour, but he always managed it. He used to come puffing up, just as the afternoon school bell was ringing; and we always started it a minute or two early, but we could never catch him out however much we tried. I expect most schoolmasters would have set us to work, and then slipped indoors for some dinner, after a rush like that, but not Mr Wickens. He wouldn’t eat in front of his class either, that would have been unprofessional. So he had a plate of sandwiches, and a glass of milk, on the window ledge in the lobby. During the first half hour of school he would be popping in and out all the time, getting a bite of sandwich, and a gulp of milk, among the hats and coats in the brown, glazed-brick lobby.
He used to try and make it seem as if he was going somewhere else but always came back looking guilty, and brushing his sandy moustache with a folded handkerchief in his usual way. It might take him half a dozen trips of that sort before he got through his milk and sandwiches. We were not supposed to know what was going on, but we knew all about it right enough. It was easy for the boy who sat next to the door to slip out for a second, while Mr Wickens’s back was turned, and if he was pretty quick he could count the sandwiches, and find out what was in them. Then, when he was in his place again, and Wickens was looking the other way, he would pull his face into a shape as if he was saying, ‘Five, cheese and lettuce’, or ‘Four, ham and beetroot’, or whatever it was, so we always knew. But with the curious courtesy of boys for those they like, we never let on that we knew, or spoiled his little deception in any way.
Lessons dragged along as a rule. They were easy enough to learn, but nobody wanted to bother, what was the good of it anyway? Wickens had given up trying, though once a week he did make the school come alive. At precisely half past three, on a Wednesday afternoon, he would put away the book he was using, slapping down the lid of his tall, wobbly-legged desk as if he was glad to see the back of it, and unpin an exercise book that was fastened up by the door. He would carry it back to his desk, flatten it out, because hanging up all the week used to make it curl up a lot, lodge his pince-nez on to his nose and say, in a tone that suggested he was interested for once, ‘Well, let’s see what the combined intelligence of the class has produced for us this week.’ Everybody sat up and listened. This was where Mr Know-all was going to get caught out. ‘What’s this? I fear some boy has been misusing this book. I will not try and find out who it is, but if it occurs again I shall know whom to punish.’ Some idiot had tried to slip in something funny, without signing his name, but what was the good of that when Wickens knew everybody’s handwriting? ‘Ah, this is better. What is a poet laureate?’ I had put that one in, because I had read in Lloyd’s Weekly News, the paper we took at home, something about a poet laureate, and it sounded interesting. I really wanted to know.
So, for ten minutes, he let himself go on it, and education began for me. There was Ben Jonson, the butt of canary wine, birthday odes and all the rest of it. I was fascinated. My mind was being broken out of its shell. Here were wonderful things to know. Things that went beyond the small utilities of our lives, which was all that school had seemed to concern itself with until then. Knowledge of this sort could make all times, and places, your own. You could be anybody, and everybody, and still be yourself all the time. If the thoughts did not shape themselves as clearly as this, that was the sense of what lay behind the excitement of listening to Wickens at that moment. He dropped the subject, not very willingly as it seemed, for the interest went out of his voice as he passed on to the usual run of questions. ‘What makes cart wheels squeak when they aren’t greased?’ ‘What makes shooting stars?’ ‘Why can fish live in water?’ and many of the other mysteries of day-to-day existence. It was the passion of every boy’s life to catch Wickens out on one or other of these things, rather than real curiosity, that lay behind all this diverse enquiry. The schoolmaster knew that well enough, yet something in him made him go on doing it. He must have hoped that it was worth while, that closed minds were being opened a little, that children who might have gone through life incurious as the dumbest animals were being taught to notice, and ask questions, and that it would tell some day perhaps.
The question about poets laureate linked up with something else that Mr Wickens started about that time. From somewhere or other he had collected about a couple of dozen books, which were not just lesson books. They were an odd lot. Some were complete, others only selections, a chapter or two from some classic which a careful editor had thought suitable for children to read, but there was something in them all. Among them were a few poems of Tennyson, printed on brittle, brownish paper, with a gaudy cover. It said on the title page that he was ‘Poet Laureate’ and that set me wanting to read them. The coloured words flashed out and entranced my fancy. They drew pictures in the mind. Words became magical, incantations, abracadabra which called up spirits. My dormant imagination opened like a flower in the sun. Life at home was drab and colourless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
So this Friday half hour shone over all the week. When the books were given out we were left to ourselves. The only rule was that we should stick to the book we chose until we had read it, and not swap about. So, for one swiftly passing thirty minutes, I could be with Captain Dodd, brave yet anxious, as that ominous schooner, lateen-rigged, which was no doubt something tremendous in the way of rigging, slipped out from behind the island, its ports open, the guns run out, as the villainous crew flashed their cutlasses on deck or grouped round the carronade, a mass of dark faces with a glint of gold about their ears. I had a good ship, and a brave crew, but there were ladies on board, and in that portentous pocket-book, which lay just above my heart, were the anxiously won savings, the Hard Cash, which I was carrying home to my family through so many perils. How many more perils there were to come I did not know for years, as the book was only an extract, hardly more than the one chapter with that famous sea fight, but I stood on the bridge at the end of it sorely wounded but triumphant, and yelled at the crippled pirate, ‘Goodbye ye Portuguese lubber, outmanoeuvred, outfought and outsailed.’ Could anything be more satisfactory to throw at a beaten enemy than that magnificent mouthful?
Black Beauty was a favourite, though I didn’t think much of horses in real life, so was Treasure Island. I met Sam Weller first on one of those Friday afternoons, and got into trouble for laughing out loud. And there was Masterman Ready, and the Three Midshipmen, and curiously enough Cranford, which nobody wanted very much because it was only about a village like our own. The half hour was gone almost before the book was opened, and that miserable bell on Wickens’s desk, with its silly ping, ping, meant that we had got to stop, and hand in whatever we were reading. But the dream would linger if you encouraged it, perhaps for an hour or two, until the heavy reality of life encroached once more, and pushed it into the back of the mind.
Books came to me like a new sense but they were hard to get hold of. Mother had a few, Sunday School prizes mostly, though there were two that she got when she was up at Byfield House helping with the spring cleaning once, that I looked into but couldn’t make much of. They were called Miriam’s Schooling and The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, by a man called Mark Rutherford. They seemed harsh and gloomy to me, but Mother liked them, and read them quite a lot. Here and there, about the village, a book or two could be found and these I borrowed. I got hold of most of Dickens in that way, in knocked-about old copies that had been picked up at a rummage sale for a penny, or thrown in with a heap of odds and ends to make a bargain for sixpence. The Bible was one of our school books. Nobody complained about that, because if you liked books at all the Bible was as exciting as any, it was so full of turbulence and strangeness. You could feel the heat of the desert, and hear the camel bells, as the caravans passed over the wild roads to ancient cities. And the people were so much larger than the people in other books, filled with more urgent desires, so grand and yet so simple. There was Abraham, wandering with his tent and flocks and herds through the timeless past in search of the future. David and Jonathan, bound in that deathless friendship. Saul, mad and broken, leaning on his spear and waiting for the welcome stroke that would end his shame. Above all there was David, old and tired, sick of kingship and its troubles, hearing of the death of the evil son he loved so greatly, and turning to seek a hiding place for the grief he could not contain, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ Words like that did things to me. It seemed as if my heart would break with David’s.
There was the excitement of words too in the Church Catechism – the run and rhythm of it. ‘To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil speaking, lying, slandering.’ It did not matter what it was about, the swing of the sound was itself perfectly satisfying, and yet the heavy fall at the end of the sentence made lying and slandering seem the most odious of crimes. ‘To learn and labour truly to get mine own living’ had a sort of honest ring about it that was pleasing. ‘And to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call me.’ That hinted at possibilities ahead, but it was not easy to see what they were.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Edition No. 22: Richard Hillyer, Country Boy, Chapter 3 ©1966 C. J. Stranks