- inspiration, accomplice, son
- with my love
It all began when Catherine came to talk about the Elders Project.
Of course that’s not what Catherine would say. She’d say it began in
a time that is yesterday and tomorrow and eternally present. But
then Catherine’s a storyteller. I’m not a storyteller. I’m just the
guy it happened to.
Anyway there we all were in that dead time just after lunch, a little pale sunlight trying to push its way into Class 7R. Miss Raynham had set out a chair for Catherine and patted its seat to make her sit down. She’d said “ahem” and begun to scratch her head. None of us likes it when Miss Raynham scratches her head. Her thin grey hair barely covers her very white scalp. The merest touch of a fingernail on that creepy skull showers her shoulders with dandruff. Niker says if she ever loses her job as a teacher she could earn a living making snowdrifts for the movies. When I told my mum that story (and I made the story mainly about Niker) Mum said: “that’s nothing.” Apparently when she was at school, they had a teacher called Miss Cathart, who used to spit down the sleeves of her cardigan. Miss Cathart’s cardigans, Mum says, were the crocheted sort. Loosely knitted. With holes in. So the spit ran out.
This is the problem with stories. They run on. So - to begin again: Miss Raynham says: “Ahem”. And then. “This is Catherine. Catherine erm…”
“Deneuve,” says Niker.
“Of Aragon,” says Derek.
“Parr,” says Weasel.
You can see we've been learning about Henry VIII. Well, everyone but Niker has.
“Class,” says Miss Raynham and she shifts downwind - fast. She's big, Miss Raynham, corpulent, a blob on legs. But she moves like a spider. One minute she's standing at the front of the class with a smile and a piece of chalk and the next thing you know is she’s zigzagged to your desk and the chalk is in your neck. Or Niker's neck in this case.
“Catherine Fenn.” continues Miss Raynham without a pause, “has come to speak to us about the Elders' Project. Catherine?”
Attention transfers at once to the front of the class. Catherine is youngish, in her twenties probably, little, dark, and she seems at rather a loss. Her long hair is piled up on her head and held in place with a moon and stars clip. Only the clip isn't doing a very good job and most of the hair is making a bid for freedom down Catherine's back. She's wearing those brightly coloured clothes that look like you've dipped them at random in three different vats of dye and - as yet - she hasn't said anything.
“Catherine,” repeats Miss Raynham with that scratch and that edgy irritation we all know so well.
“Hello,” says Catherine at last.
“Hello, Catherine,” says the class.
She shifts position, as though she's Goldilocks and she can't get comfortable in Mummy Bear's chair. “Thank you for letting me be here.”
“Oh boy,” says Niker, and then seems to choke. Could be the chalk at his throat.
“I…” begins Catherine, but Miss Raynham’s patience is at an end. She strides to the front of the class.
“We're very fortunate to have the services of Catherine, who is going to lead a project between children from this class and the residents of the Mayfield Rest Home.”
“Is that the barmy bin?” asks Weasel.
“No, Wesley, it is not the barmy bin. And it is partly to counter such ignorant attitudes about the senior members of our society that this project is being undertaken. Now, since we apparently need to return to basics, can anyone tell me what a Rest Home is?”
Niker's hand goes up. “It's a vegetable shop,” he says.
“Jonathan Niker. Explain yourself.”
“Well, my Aunt Maisie was there and she was a vegetable.”
“In a time that was yesterday and tomorrow and eternally present”, says Catherine suddenly, “there lived a prince who had been silent for as long as anyone could remember.” Her voice is so low and urgent that even Niker doesn't say “Fat Chance.” “And,” Catherine continues, “his mother the Queen was heartbroken at her son's muteness and the King heartbroken at his wife's grief. So it was, that on the Prince's eighteenth birthday, the King issued a proclamation saying that any man or woman who could make the Prince speak would receive the richest reward in the kingdom. However, the penalty for those who tried and failed would be instant death.”
“Cool,” says Weasel.
“They tell nursery stories in the nursery,” says Niker, twirling the sharp point of a pencil in the palm of his hand.
“Does that mean,” Catherine asks, faster than Miss Raynham, “you think this class is too grown up for such tales?”
“Yes,” says Niker. “Except,” he scans his fellow pupils, “maybe Norbert there.”
Norbert is the class squit. He’s chin and gangly, his arms and legs like white string loosely knotted at the elbows and knees. His head is too big for his body and, where other people have hair, he has this yellow, fluffy ducks down. His eyes are blue, though it's difficult to see that through the thick glass of his spectacles. If you take his specs off him, and people do, he looks startled. Naked. His real name isn't Norbert, it's Robert. Robert Nobel. But I don't think anyone's ever called him that. In Kindergarten, when his hair was even more yellow than it is now, they called him “Chick” or “Chickie”. Even Mrs Morgan. But, since Niker arrived in school, it's been Norbert. Norbert No-Bel. Norbert No-Bells-at-all. Norbert No-Brain. Norbert No-Bottle. I don't suppose Johnny Niker, who has curly dark hair, green eyes and a fluid, athletic body, has ever imagined what it would be like to look out at the world through Norbert No-Bottle's spectacles. But I have. Because I am Norbert No-Bottle.
“Personally,” says Catherine, “I think one never grows out of fairy tales. I think fairy tales contain all of the ways we sort experience, good and bad. In fact, I think stories are the most important form of communication we as human beings have.”
“Ahem,” says Miss Raynham.
“What do you think, Jonathan?”
“Johnny,” says Niker.
“I don't think Johnny is a human being,” Weasel.
“Right,” says Miss Raynham. “That is quite sufficient, thank you. The purpose of the Elders' Project is, as Catherine will explain at greater length, to share experiences between young and old. And to learn something. Manners perhaps.”
It's Norbert No-Bottle that hurts the most. Niker started calling me that after the Grape Incident. Maybe I’ll tell that story later. Right now I can't even say the word “grape” without feeling sick. And I still get queasy going down the aisles at Sainsbury's, just in case I encounter any big, fat, green grapes.
“We're going to be telling that stories,” says Catherine. “About our lives and those of the Eiders. We might look at their childhood experiences compared with yours. Or their wisdoms and yours. And then we're going to try to make a piece of work that records the things we find out.”
“What sort of work?” asks Kate.
“I'm not entirely sure yet. Probably some sort of large picture, or pictures, a collage perhaps of writings, paintings, photos, mementoes. I think we should be looking at two pieces of work. One which might eventually hang in the school and one in the Home.”
“Groovy,” says Weasel.
“Naturally,” says Miss Raynham, “not everyone will be able to take part in the project. Working space at Mayfield limits the numbers we can reasonably send.”
“So we'll be going to the Home?” asks Derek.
“Yes. On Wednesday afternoons. For the next four or five weeks. So,” Miss Raynham chin juts challengingly forward, “I'm looking for about ten volunteers.”
That's when people look at Niker. Nothing obvious, just a quick glance, a sidelong peek. Is this project going to be for the Cool Gang or the Class Duffers? Is it a good thing or a bad? Will Niker give it his seal of approval? He sits there (I'm looking too, of course) like some Roman Emperor, imperious, disdainful, savouring the lengthening moments during which the rest of us wait to know whether the project lives or dies.
My hand goes up.
“Thank you, Robert. Robert Nobel.” She writes my name on a list.
Niker scowls furiously. I have jumped the gun. Now no-one else will volunteer, because the class pariah is going. This is power of a sort l suppose, to be able to make something untouchable by touching it. In any case there are no more hands.
“Come on, come on.” Miss Raynham is embarrassed, agitated. “Liz will be accompanying the Mayfield group. The rest of you,” she glares, “will be remaining here with me.”
Liz Finch, our student teacher, is bland, harmless and has no known habits. So, normally, this would be a good ploy. But everyone knows that Wednesday afternoon is actually PE (with Mr Burke) and double art (with Mrs Simpson), which is why people continue to roll scraps of paper between fingers and thumb and stare out of windows.
“If there are no more volunteers, I shall be forced to choose.”
“Many brave men and women,” says Catherine, “tried to make the young Prince speak. And as many were beheaded. The King and Queen had all but given up their quest when, from the woods nearby, came one last adventurer…”
Kate's hand goes up. I might be imagining it but I think I hear the grind of Niker's teeth. Of all the people he'd want not to go, she'd be top of the list. Not that I think she's challenging him, it's just that the project obviously intrigues her and, unlike some other people in the form, Kate has a mind of her own. That's why I like her. I'd like to say she likes me back. But actually I don't think she's any more conscious of me than she might be of a woodlouse. Niker she has noticed, not least because he says “Stylish,” every time she passes. I keep waiting for her to wither him with some remark. But she doesn't. Sometimes, she even smiles.
“Kate Barber,” notes Miss Raynham. “Thank you.”
Kate's friend Lucy then puts her hand up and the spell seems to break. Oliver, Tom and Mai and a couple of others volunteer. Only Derek continues to haver.
“Right,” says Miss Raynham, doing a quick count-up. “I make that eight. So, if we add in young Wesley Parr and Mr Niker here, I think we have a full complement.”
So that's how, the following Wednesday, I find myself at the Mayfield Rest Home, starting a project that's going to change my life for ever.