When I was six

When I was six the teacher said: “We’re going to learn a poem today. It’s called Ding Dong Dell.”

I knew that poem. Surely everyone knew it. But I’d also heard a Revised Version, much better than the original. I think it was my elder brother who taught it to me.
I said: “I know that poem”

“Good boy, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

So I did:  

“Ding Dong Dell

Pussy’s in the well.

‘How can you tell?’ 

‘Go and have a smell.’”

 

It was funny but Mrs Paulette did not smile: “Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. Leave the class. Go to the storeroom.”

 

I went to the storeroom, a narrow room lined with shelves stacked with classroom necessities. 

I stood there alone and listened to the silence. I felt a thumping, fast and hard, in my chest.

I knew perdition. I knew exile. I knew terror.

I stood in fear and misery. When would a captive be released from the storeroom? How would Mum know where to look for me when she came after school?

 

A sound at the storeroom door. I shook harder. The door opened and I stopped shaking. I knew the face, the freckles, the buck-toothed grin, the red, red hair. I knew my older brother Dennis.

“What are you doing here, Howard?”

I shook my head.

Dennis went to a shelf and selected a piece of red chalk, one of blue and a white one.

“What are you doing, Dennis?”

“Mr Frobisher sent me for chalk.”

Dennis opened some packets, discovered a treasury of pristine plasticine. Methodically he peeled off thick strips and pocketed them.

“Does Mister Frobisher want plasta too?”

“Nope. I do. You can have some. I’ll leave a bit for you.”

Dennis left.

I looked around and saw riches. I saw Aladdin’s cave. I saw opportunity.

I touched nothing. I stood and trembled at my own thoughts of wrongdoing.

 

A sound at the door. Mrs Paulette’s face and pony tail and round bosoms appeared in the narrow space. I saw what she must see, the open package of plasticine. I saw the signs of theft and I thought  – not of Dennis’ actions – but of my own wicked impulse.

 

Mrs Paulette said, “It’s recess, Howard. Go outside and play.”

Mr Jones has a Great Big Carrot Between His Legs

“Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot between his legs.”

John Wanklyn, Johnny Wank, my oldest friend in the world, is addressing an audience of venerable country folk in the Yellow Room of the Leeton Library. Wank is launching My Father’s Compass, the memoir of my father. This excellent book describes memories of the childhood years that Wank and I shared; now he is treating the audience – which includes my ancient Mum – to an anecdote.

Johnny begins: “Our teacher in Fourth Class was Noel Henry Jones. Noel Henry Jones was a kindly man who liked children and wouldn’t punish them, even when that would have been a wise and a fair thing to do.

There were two boys in his class for whom Wisdom and Justice would have prescribed punishment frequently.

“One morning, Howard arrives early. On the blackboard he draws a large stick figure of a man, whose legs are in the position that the military calls “At Ease”. In the space between those two great limbs, Howard draws a long cigar shaped object. He writes some words above the picture, then operates the hinged mechanism that folds his art work out of sight behind another blackboard.

The class arrives. Noel Henry Jones arrives and brings the class to reluctant attention. Instruction commences, with Mr. Jones writing on the vacant blackboard.

So far, so good.

In time the board is full. Mr. Jones swings the hinged mechanism, ready to write on the second board. The text and the artwork swing into view.

Howard’s classmates look and read.

Mr. Jones looks and reads.

Noel Henry Jones surveys his pupils, identifying at a glance the Usual Suspects. Noel Henry Jones looks hardest and longest at John Baikie Wanklyn and at Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.

He knows John Wanklyn cannot spell carrot correctly. He knows there is only one person in the class who can…”

I confess that I had forgotten entirely the events that Johnny describes. His description is accurate.

I do remember Mr. Jones.

We enter Fourth Class after the summer holidays, a period of healing from the year-long winter of Mrs. Savage’s Third Class.

Mr. Jones is tall. He bends over us and his long body is like a shelter above and about us. He does not shout.

Mr. Jones creates an orchestra. People who are musical are given instruments to play. Others play percussion. My instrument is the triangle.

No-one is left out. As a result, there is an audience of one, namely Noel Henry Jones. Mr. Jones conducts, we play, he hears the sounds, but he does not complain.

It is hot. Summer blazes on the tin roof of our schoolroom. The windows along the side of the classroom are opened. The sills are precisely at the level of our desks. Just down the road from Leeton Public School is the municipal swimming pool. Its turbid waters are cool and inviting.

Mr. Jones turns his back on the class to write on the blackboard, a modern, hinged affair with a series of boards that fold, one behind another.

While Mr. Jones writes, Wanklyn and Goldenberg exeunt by the open window.

This is the naughtiest act of our lives to date.

We take with us provisions, in the form of the large  lollies that you buy at the Milk Bar. I have funds, liberated from the desk in Dad’s consulting room.

Wanklyn and Goldenberg swim and suck, all the hot afternoon.

At school the next day we front Noel Henry Jones, who makes no mention of the events of yesterday.

He must have told our parents.

After school we front our parents. Mister and Missus Wanklyn say nothing, ask nothing about yesterday afternoon. My own parents seem pleased to see me. No questions.

Noel Henry Jones becomes a father. On the day of the baby’s birth, Mr. Jones is absent from class. This is a good opportunity to examine the contents of his desk. Nothing much of interest there, mainly pens and pencils. One pen has a silver cap, with a clasp in the form of an arrow.

Upon his return to class, Mr. Jones smiles a lot. His baby is a little girl, but he does not complain.

From time to time, Mr. Jones walks around the class as we do our written work.  He pauses at my desk and admires my pen. It has a silver clasp in the form of an arrow.

“Nice pen, Howard.”

(It is a nice pen. I chose it myself.)

“I believe that’s my pen, Howard,” – a remark tantamount to an accusation of theft.

“No, Mr. Jones. It’s mine.”

Mister Jones looks unconvinced.

“My parents gave it to me.”

“Really? Is that your name?”

Mr. Jones points to the engraved words that read, Noel Henry Jones.

For the sake of peaceability I surrender the pen.

It is the same Noel Henry Jones who opens the hinged blackboard and reads his name and confronts his likeness.

When, a short time later, I leave that school and my hometown, it is that same N.H. Jones who prepares a report for my new school. He writes of my excellent results in the half-year tests. He writes of my charm. He writes warmly and he wishes me well.