My teacher in the Second Class is Miss Paul. She is tall and slim. She has very fair hair, which she bundles high on her head. Her bosoms are not large, but in her case this does not matter.
Miss Paul speaks in an unusual manner, rather like the news reader of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It is a very precise sort of diction. Although her speech is different from ours, I can understand whatever Miss Paul says quite easily.
Miss Paul is beautiful. And precise. And exacting. I look up to her and I want to please her. She requires her pupils to sit up straight. I sit very straight. I follow her with my eyes and I do as she says to do.
Mum says Miss Paul is English. Early one morning in 1953, while I am a student in Miss Paul’s Second Class, something happens in England. Dad is listening to the news on the ABC. He says something to Mum that I don’t catch. My older brother, Dennis, says, “I’ll run down to the Council Chambers and look at the flag.”
A few minutes later, Dennis is back: “The flag is at half mast.”
That means the king has died and someone else will wear his crown and sit on his throne and be our ruler. The king had no sons, so the new monarch will be our queen.
Miss Paul loves and admires the Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. She has shown us a large photograph of the two. Like all photos of my childhood, this is black and white. “Notice the beautiful posture of Princess Elizabeth. She carries herself almost like a queen. Only her knees are a little apart. ”
Now the princess with parted knees will become the queen.
Miss Paul arranges for us to view facsimiles of the Crown Jewels. I cannot believe that these robes, the crown, the orb and the sceptre are not real. Miss Paul teaches us everything we should know about the coronation. It is very splendid.
We children of Second Class at Leeton Public School are intimate with royalty because Miss Paul is herself from England. She is England, with all the authenticity and superiority that England means.
Miss Paul lives in the elegant Hydro Hotel, the highest building in the town. Her suite is on the second storey, looking out at the water tower that gives the hotel its name. It is a long and arduous task to walk up the hill to the Hydro.
One Saturday morning, Dennis decides that we should pay a call on Miss Paul. His initiative is audacious beyond imagining.
What if she’s not home? What if she is at home? What if they won’t let us in?
What I really mean is, What right have we commoners to pay a visit to royalty?
Dennis is certain it will be alright. All the way up the Hydro hill, I lag behind. I voice my doubts, I threaten to turn back, I tell Dennis this is wrong.
Dennis plows on. My fears cannot touch him. This idea of his is too frightening for my tiny courage, but I cannot resist it. This is the land of Danger, where Dennis always ventures, where I cannot help but follow.
The Hydro Hotel is a large building set well back in spacious gardens. It sits behind its high stone wall like a castle, a palace. Dennis leads me into the foyer. There is red plush everywhere. A grownup appears. I want to run, but Dennis strides forward and speaks to the grownup. He says. “We have come to visit Miss Paul.”
“Whom shall I say is calling upon her?”
“Dennis Goldenberg. And Howard Goldenberg.
It is too late for me to run. Now Miss Paul will certainly know that I have done this thing that is not right.
The grownup, a man, disappears up the stairs. I need to go to the toilet. But there is no-one to ask. There are the gardens of course, but this is not the sort of place where you could pee in the shrubbery. The word for that sort of wrongdoing is treason!
Movement behind the balustrade above the staircase. Blonde hair like a scarf of white silk crowns a fair face. Miss Paul looks down from her height at two boys in the foyer. I cannot see her expression. She flows down the stairs, her voice is heard, that elegant diction: How delightful to see you both. Good morning, Dennis. Good morning, Howard. Will you join me for a drink?
My lips are trying to work, to say, No thank you, Miss Paul, we really have to go home now… But Dennis is walking ahead, walking alongside Miss Paul, thanking her, moving towards a table of polished wood. The grownup man appears, moves Miss Paul’s chair out from under the table then slides it forward a little as she descends. He does the same for Dennis and for me.
He converses with Miss Paul, who will take tea. She asks us, Would you like some lemonade?
Of course we would like lemonade. That means it would be impolite to say yes. I am preparing my polite, No thank you, but Dennis has accepted on behalf of us both.
The man returns with a silver tray covered with a crisp white cloth. On the tray are our drinks. The man sets down a silver teapot, a cup and a saucer, and a silver sugar bowl and milk jug before Miss Paul. Miss Paul says Thank you, Herman, and waits while the man places large glasses before Dennis and me and fills them with the clear, fizzy liquid.
I sense touch between my princess-parted knees. Herman bends above me, making himself free with my body. I look down. There on my lap is a white linen serviette.
Dennis has one, Miss Paul another. That is how they do things at the Hydro.
I sip, Dennis conducts a conversation with Miss Paul, who inclines her face to listen. She smiles at Dennis, replies, shines her countenance upon me and favours me with a smile.
Our call passes, impressions float and fly, as in a dream. I leave Camelot, dizzy, with one concrete recollection: Miss Paul favours tea as her beverage of choice.
My parents are among the aristocrats in our country town. Leeton elevates the doctor and his consort to this unwonted status.
My mother takes it into her head to invite our teachers to take Afternoon Tea at our home. I deliver an envelope to Miss Paul, Dennis delivers another to his teacher.
On the day of the visit, Mum dresses me in the fawn suit that she bought in Melbourne for me to wear in Synagogue at the High Holydays. No-one wears a suit to Leeton Public School, not the students, not the teachers, not even the Headmaster. I suspect that mine is the only suit in Leeton. I know that this is the suit of social death. I tell Mum I cannot wear it. She is firm: ”You look lovely in that suit, Howard darling.”
I wear it to school. Everyone looks at me as at an exotic specimen. Is this how the black boy feels who turns up from time to time? I wish I did not own the suit.
I hurry home after school. I wish Mum had not invited Miss Paul. Our house is not like the Hydro. And what will Miss Paul think if e sees Mum’s knees slightly parted?
When I arrive, I find that our house has become a palace. There are flowers in vases, exquisite little china cups with floral patterns sitting on crisp white linen. We too have a silver teapot and sugar caddy. We have linen napery. It occurs to me to wonder why we have used ordinary china all my life until now.
Miss Paul arrives. Mum and she smile a lot. They wear lipstick and they speak as grownup ladies do about how happy they are to see each other. Mum is equally charming with Dennis’ teacher. As that lady does not come from England, Mum’s charm and good manners are not strictly necessary.
The guests take seats on armchairs in our lounge room. Dennis and I sit on armchairs too. From the depths of my chair it is hard to see Miss Paul. I have to lean far forward and crane to my right. This is not, I sense, a princely posture.
Mum pours tea for the lady guests. She asks Dennis to carry a cup to his teacher. He does so.
“Howard, darling, would you carry this cup to Miss Paul?”
I rise, take the cup, walk the four or five steps across our narrow lounge room to Miss Paul’s armchair and trip on the footstool. The exquisite teacup sails gracefully onto Miss Paul’s lap, upsetting its contents onto her legs, and, as I stumble forward into her lap, onto the accursed fawn suit. I brace myself against the long, ineffable limbs of Miss Paul.
The tea feels tolerably hot as it soaks through the detested fawn fabric onto my legs and genitals. My face burns.
The ladies are anxious to put each other at ease: “No, Mrs. Goldenberg, I am not hurt at all. I do hope dear Howard is not scalded.” And, “Oh dear, Miss Paul, are you alright? Please let me help you dry that lovely skirt.”
After the anxiety passes, the voices are kind and calm, and the smiles are beautiful again with pearly teeth and lipstick mouths.
Mum pours a fresh cup for Miss Paul. She does not trouble me to pass it. Everyone else has a delightful Afternoon Tea.
No-one blames me but me.