2. The Valkyrie
Old Peter Potocki used to say to me (said Donnelly) that the kids are always reasonable, teachers sometimes and parents never. But the ones you had to watch out for, old man, were the combination: parent and teacher, all rolled into one ugsome bundle. Quite often these were great allies; people who Knew What It Was Like, don't you know. But there were some, and one in particular...
I don't know whether you remember Irmgard von Bösendorfer, old man, the terror of the German department? No? Before your time perhaps. She was a big woman; tall and broad-shouldered; fists like hams and an eye that could open an oyster and turn the milk at fifty yards. Her hair was blonde and done up in braids on the top of her head, like Brünnhilde, you know, and she was implacable, old man; a force of Nature. I found her once all alone in the photocopy room with a tear in the corner of her eye and a strained look. Ah, I thought, she has a tender, melting side after all, and advanced with hankie outstretched to proffer the soothing word and put a friendly arm round her muscular shoulders. Well she hauled off and gave me a sock on the jaw that sent me sprawling among the bales of copy paper with my dentures rattling round in my head. By the time I'd picked myself up, she was gone, swept out in the very highest of dudgeon. Edeltraut Runkelstirn saw me afterwards nursing my face, and Irmgard rubbing homeopathic ointment into her knuckles, and put two and two together in a feat of logic quite uncharacteristic for her. She told me that old Irmgard had been passing a kidney stone, my dear man! Hence the silent tear! Stern stuff, these Teutons, old man; cut from heroic cloth.
Now you and I were brought up in less tender times. The basic pedagogical approach of the place where I was educated, as far as I can work out, was: A Little Bit Of Kindness And A Lot Of Cruelty. The Christian Brothers, you know; very pious men with the Bible in one hand and a pandybat in the other: but that was all a long time ago now. Times change. But old Irmgard, now: there was an item! She was fierce for the Jakob Schnellentaten education, and could reel off the names of the subtle bodies that we were supposed to be familiar with: I can't remember them now, all Hindu names you know, gleaned from theosophical works and suchlike. Were you aware for instance, old man, that your Kama-Rupa works directly on to the Linga-Sharira of the pupil? Oh, I'm not joking! It's not that I'm at all sceptical about it, old man, I assure you, but there's so much of it! You'd never get a GCSE in the thing; it's all just too unwieldy to remember. But the point is that Irmgard had it at her fingers' ends, any time of the day or night! She once said to me: “Sometimes, Ignatius, I vonder if you are haffing at all an active Kama-Manas altogezzer!” Strong stuff, old man, and rather hurtful. Just because I'd been teaching one of the younger classes to sing the cleaned-up version of Madamoiselle From Armentières for a Swansmas-tide assembly. These old medieval festivals are taken very seriously, and always celebrated at St. Geoffrey's; it's de rigueur, as you know. But there she was, drilling me to the wall with her unswerving gaze, and the most terrifying thing was that there was a tiny twitch just under her left eye that gave her a look of incipient madness. I made an excuse and left, but could feel her scrutiny boring through the walls after me as I scuttled away.
Her husband was a little, defeated-looking chap who worked in one of the libraries in the town. We never saw him, and she never mentioned him, or at least, not without a sneer of cold contempt. He'd brought her back from
after his stint in the army, and I suppose he wished sometimes that he'd left her behind; but there you are. It doesn't do to cry over spilt schnapps. Anyway, their union was blessed, if you can call it that, with a frightful little creature called Siegfried-Johannes. Well, he was impossible to deal with. Any time he was checked for some piece of blatant delinquency and he went straight to Mutti to complain about the evil teacher who gave poor Siggi an essay on the value of not smashing windows, or whatever it was that had driven the poor dominie to distraction. Well, whenever that happened, it wasn't safe to go into the staff room if Irmgard had cornered the luckless colleague responsible for her son's disciplining. Blood and snot all over the place, old man. It was terrifying. Germany
One day, dear little Siggi brought an air gun into class. Not one of those little Diana pistols that we used to shoot at sparrows with to eke out the meagre school rations; oh no! This was a great big engine of destruction that took a slug the size of a champagne cork and was lethal to rhinoceros up to seven miles. He'd brought it into poor old Larry Snudge's lesson for Show 'n' Tell. Larry was rather fond of American usages, and he thought this was a legitimate thing to import into St. Geoffrey's. Well, under normal circumstances it might well be, but trust Siggi to find the loophole. It was a thing he was “interested in”, you see. The class at the time was camped out in one of those temporary workman's huts that you see on building sites. We were struggling for space in those days, just as we are now. The ghastly child had no sooner pulled the thing out of its canvas bag than the whole class, knowing him of old, dived for cover under their desks. Larry Snudge was half-way out of the window himself. And then dear little Siggi demonstrated the power of his ballistics, and blew a hole the size of a dinner plate in the ceiling of the temporary classroom. You remember Larry Snudge; tall, big nose, glasses, an air of being just a bit too pleased with himself? Well, he was looking pretty crestfallen and humble that day, I can tell you! He hadn't realised how scared he had been, until he took his cycle clips off, if you follow me. There were letters to the Council of Teachers, and a few to the Board of Trustees, as well. It was all we could do to keep it out of the papers and soothe shattered nerves. But the thing was: What to do about Siggi? Yet more interesting and stimulating a problem was: What to do about Irmgard?
Normally under these circumstances we'd turn to old Peter Potocki, who was old, wise and experienced, and one of the very few mortals on this planet for whom Irmgard had an iota of respect. But he point-blank refused. He was too old, he said, to go belling the cat, especially such a ferocious and carnivorous sabre-toothed feline as this one was. No; what we needed was a Trouble-Shooter: someone who could arbitrate reasonably and sensibly, and stand toe to toe with Irmgard without giving away too much weight.
It was I who thought of Carlotta König, old man. I must claim the credit for that. Did you ever meet Carlotta, old man; used to wrestle under the name of the Austrian Fireball, according to some dubious authorities? If Irmgard was an aircraft carrier, Carlotta was a pocket battleship. She was small in stature, but a mighty personality. She was attached to one of the Schnellentaten schools up north and the terror of the Inter-Faculty meetings. She was the irresistible force that was needed to shift the immoveable object of Irmgard. I was dispatched to take the train to
to persuade her to make the journey southwards to take on the might of the von Bösendorfer. I never thought that she would agree, but no sooner had I outlined the situation than she was cramming a few things into a canvas duffel bag, putting on her studded mountain boots and driving a pin the size of a meat skewer through her indescribable hat to fix it to her iron grey locks. She regaled me throughout the train journey with tales of her successes and triumphs in the field of personnel arbitration. False modesty was not one of her failings, I can tell you. She was no stranger to this sort of thing, old man. From Here to Aberdeen Hong Kong she had sorted out difficult and tense situations, such as rescuing submarines stranded on the bottom armed with nothing more than a pair of rubber gloves and a can opener, and that sort of thing. But I was still dubious, knowing Irmgard.
“You may be punching above your weight here, Carlotta,” I warned her; “This is a tricky customer. A double first in Theosophy, and Candle-Dipping, Pure and Applied, from Tübingen and a track record like Muhammed Ali. Even Peter Potocki is loath to cross swords with her!”
“Potocki – pooh, my dear, a lightveight. Tell me, vot has he ever accomplished apart frghom his book on Frgheemasonry?” There were no Rs more retroflex and Mitteleuropan than hers, old man; a sort of aggressive gargle, you know. “No, no. Don't vorry my dear,” she reassured me; “Ve vill Sort Somesing Out.”
I sank in my British Rail fauteuil, dreading the worst.
The following day, I waited for Irmgard outside the classroom where she was teaching. I heard the scraping of chairs within, and the chorus of: “Auf wiedersehen Frau von Bösendorfer;” cracked out like an elite squad of Prussian cavalry. No doubt about it, old man, she had them well-trained. Here she came like a Norse goddess, and I handed her the slip of paper, inviting her to a meeting in the Interview Room. A sudden horrible thought struck me: What if she didn't want to go? My heart was pounding like the engine rooms of the Queen Mary, old man, and the cold sweat was running down from my oxters in rich streams.
“Ah, Irmgard, there you are,” I began, rather lamely, I'll admit. “We wondered whether, that is, I wonder if, er - ” and I handed her the slip. Her eyes positively lit with inner fire, old man! I've never seen anything like it. She squared her magnificent stevedore's shoulders and the battle-light blazed.
“So!” she said; “Ze summons has arrived!” She strode away towards the Interview Room, her attitude summed up in the word “Achtung!” I swear I could hear strains of Wagner on the air, but it may have been Iain Donaldson adding atmosphere from the shelter of the Music Room. He wasn't above such behaviour. Well, I tiptoed along in her operatic wake, and watched her enter. Old man, I swear there were about seven of us all crowded round the door, pushing and jostling for position, all trying to get nearest the keyhole. I found myself nestling rather closer to Madame Léfèvre, the French teacher, than perhaps was quite consistent with discipline or decency, but these were unique times, old man. We just had to put up with it, though she gave me some very warm and melting looks in the days following...Ahem! But back to our muttons.
It started softly, you know. Just a few spikes and waves on the Richter scale, but after a few minutes, we were all hanging on to each other as the storm gathered in intensity. The building began to shake and the windows rattled. Then it all erupted in earnest. We were hanging on to the fixtures and fittings with one hand and trying to block our ears with the other. Somebody yelled out that somebody ought to see whether the kids were all right, but we were all too busy trying to save our own skins. My dear man, the noise! The language! Well, it was mostly all in German by this time, but we got the general drift all right. It was unmistakeable in any language. And through it all came Edeltraut Runkelstirn, serene as a carnival float representing Maidenhood, showing round a pair of prospective parents! This wasn't a job that we usually gave her. She didn't quite have the common touch, you know. A bit too ethereal for most people. Parents would embark on a conversation with her and emerge rather mystified, under the impression that something slightly mystical had taken place. Still, she covered for this situation remarkably well. Here was all this row and ruction, walls shaking and floors rumbling; and Edeltraut calmly said: “Oh, these play rrrehearrrsals! They can be so noisy!” Trilling the Rs like a little songbird. Maybe she believed it was a play rehearsal. I wouldn't put it past her.
Finally the door opened and we dived for cover: not because we didn't want to be seen eavesdropping, old man; we were afraid of radiation burns! But out came Irmgard, looking statuesque and tragic. What had happened? Where was Carlotta? We all waited with bated breath. The Irmgard took a deep breath, sobbed, and ran from the building covering her eyes with her arm. Carlotta came out after her, rolling down her sleeves with a broad, gap-toothed smile.
“Vell, I sink she can see a little bit vhere she might begin to rgheconsider her position,” she said simply, and we took her to the staff room and feted her in digestive biscuits and the ghastly brown sump oil that passed for coffee in our establishment. She was deep in confab with old Potocki, probably about some of the more obscure aspects of Schnellentaten education, or possibly what they fancied for the at Musselburgh; we never found out.
But it was the finish of Irmgard. She left before the end of term, taking the appalling Siggi with her. We had to draft in a supply teacher to cover the German lessons, and frankly, the standard dropped cataclysmically. But it was worth it to be rid of the scourge of the von Bösendorfers.
We never heard from her again. But one day, herself and meself were on holiday in the
Highlands, and there was a little craft fair, right in the middle of nowhere, so I suggested to the missis that we swing by and sneer at the driftwood sculptures and lumpy knitting. It was all much as you'd expect, except, there at a stall selling brightly lurid paintings of Highland sunsets was – yes! The horrible Siggi. He'd discovered his talent, and was trying to cash in on it at the expense of the cash-paying public. I wandered over and asked how he was doing.
“I've sold a dozen today alone,” he said: “I've made over a thousand pounds.” The smug little whelp.
“How's your dad?” I hazarded. Siggi smiled and said he was now running a mobile library and doing frightfully well, thank you.
“And how's your mother?” I hardly dared to ask but did. He made a little moue, as if he neither knew nor cared.
“Ja, she's okay.”
“Uh-huh. What's she doing with herself this weather?”
“She runs the bar at the Caber-Feidh Hotel,” he said. Irmgard von Bösendorfer, running a bar? And one of the most unruly places this side of the Yukon Gold Rush, old man! You could have absolutely poured me out with a spoon. She used to rail against the demon drink if anyone ever suggested opening a bottle of wine at a staff party. And here she was pulling the pints for the teuchters! It just didn't add up, unless she'd had some sort of
experience in reverse , and was now all for grape and hop and barley! It just goes to show that You Never Can Tell. Perhaps there's some good in everyone, after all. Damascus
“Not a rowdy sort of place, I hope?” says I.
“Ja, it used to be, but she pretty soon changed all that.”
I'll bet she did! I was almost tempted to go along and see what the place was like, and what she was like now, but wiser counsels, old man; wiser counsels. My round old man. Ready for the other half of that now?