Scotland Street Volume 17, Chapter 53: Down Among the Children
Sheila agreed. She had thought about doing just that herself – especially after a tiresome conference at which people were arguing about something and there was tension just below the surface. There were times when the strain on the interpreter was just too much, and one had to resort to saying things like The speaker has just expressed extreme displeasure, and the remarks are untranslatable. That was an admission of failure, but sometimes there was nothing for it but that. She and her colleagues called those white flag moments, and although it was unprofessional to give up in extremis, you had to preserve your sanity.
And interpreters, she reminded herself, were only human – as were the speakers themselves – as events in the United Nations all those years ago confirmed. Harold Macmillan had been speaking and was interrupted by protests from Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev took a shoe off and started to bang it on his desk. Macmillan, the embodiment of suavity, paused, and then said, “Could we have a translation of that?” The effect of an interpreted joke is like a Mexican wave: the laughter runs slowly round the room as it is rendered into languages of varying complexity and brevity.
“I’ve been tempted from time to time,” Miss Campbell went on. “I almost applied for a job in the educational arm of an arts organisation, but I decided against it. And I was once offered a position teaching grammar to … Well, I shouldn’t say to whom, but I turned it down, anyway.”
“And are you pleased that you did?”
This required a moment’s thought. But then Miss Campbell replied, “I’m glad I didn’t make the change. Teaching is my vocation. It’s not just any job – you have to believe that it’s worth doing. And obviously it is. Ignorance is one of the worst things there is. Wars occur because of ignorance, after all. People die of ignorance. It’s probably the biggest cause of death there is.”
“Then you should stick to teaching,” said Sheila. “It’s really important work.”
Miss Campbell sighed. “True,” she said. “But we’re going through a rough patch at the moment. It’s most trying.”
Sheila reached out to place a hand upon her friend’s wrist. “Tell me about it,” she said.
Miss Campbell hesitated. Technically, a teacher shouldn’t discuss her charges – not by name – but there were times …
“I’ve got some lovely children in the class, you know. There’s a little boy called Bertie – I’ve probably mentioned him.”
“The one with the mother?” asked Sheila.
“Yes. I suppose you might describe him that way. She, by the way, went up to Aberdeen. I almost couldn’t believe it. She upped and offed, leaving not only Bertie, but his little brother, Ulysses, with the poor father. Fortunately, there was a grandmother in the background, and she took over, and I believe the mother has condescended to come back – dividing her time between Aberdeen and Edinburgh. But …”
“I’ve heard she’s difficult.”
“Well, Bertie has survived the whole thing because he’s composed of pure goodness. He puts up with all sorts of things. He has a close friend now, of course, who’s very good for him. Ranald Braveheart Macpherson looks up to Bertie. His mother is fine – quite a nice woman, in fact, but the father is a bit iffy. He’s works in finance somewhere and was up in front of the Sheriff Court recently – for some Companies Act offence. He was given a community payback order – over one hundred hours of Scottish country dancing. There was something in the papers about it. Enough to deter anybody, I’d have thought.”
“But once you move on from Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, it becomes a bit more complicated. The other boys are a mixed bag. One of them is a real little operator. He’s called Tofu. Yes, that’s his name – these kids have got the most extraordinary names – and it’s getting worse. Tofu’s parents are both prominent vegans, but Tofu himself doesn’t sign up to that – at least when he’s at school. He bribes the other children to bring sausages into school for him. And they do, although they’re not above spreading the rumour that Tofu’s mother has died of starvation. I try to suppress that one – she looks very peely-wally to me, but it’s none of my business.”
“Tofu has an enforcer. He’s called Larch, and he has a broken nose. He throws his weight around and I have to watch him like a hawk. He likes pulling girls’ hair. He’s the closest thing we have to anything feral.”
Sheila was fascinated. “It must be grim down there,” she said.
“Down among the children? Yes, you’re right. One or two of the boys are all right – in small doses. There’s a boy called Moss, who has some artistic potential that we might be able to bring out. And Socrates Dunbar … He falls into the Tofu camp, I’m afraid, but we shall see.”
“And the girls?”
Miss Campbell winced. “They’re less physical than the boys, but they have their little campaigns on the go, and I think that some of them make the boys’ lives a misery. And vice versa, of course.” She paused. “It all starts so early, doesn’t it? The jockeying for position, the psychological power plays – it all starts so early. And if anything, it’s more overt with the girls, it’s more dramatic. We have our real little drama queens, you know.”
There was a short silence while Miss Campbell reflected on the children under her charge. How could she describe Olive and Pansy, in order to convey the subtleties of their characters? She closed her eyes briefly, and pictured Olive, in imperious pose, with Pansy, her faithful lieutenant standing behind her. Olive’s look was a familiar challenging one – the look of one who knew that her vision of the world was completely right, and completely defensible.
“The point about Olive,” Miss Campbell said, “is that she prevailed. She wanted things to go her way, and she kept a sort of control over what was going on in the playground. Even Tofu respected her – in his way – and none of the girls would have dared to question her authority. So there was peace of a kind, I suppose – as long as nobody stepped out of line. But then …”
The pause was ominous.
“Galactica MacFee arrived.”
“Indeed. Galactica MacFee.”
© Alexander McCall Smith, 2023. The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee, published by Polygon, price £17.99, is on sale now. The author welcomes comments from readers and can be contacted on [email protected]