2020 was to be the class of 1970’s 50th reunion, and in 2021 the school was supposed to celebrate its 100th anniversary., both cancelled by covid.
with my classmates in mind as an audience, I have written a few short stories loosely based on our high school experiences.
I have vaguely copied the format of a master of the short story, South African writer Herman Charles Bosman. Instead of Oom (Uncle) Schalk Lourens telling his stories in his ‘Voorkamer’ (Living room), or while waiting for the mail bus to arrive from Neitverdient in the dry dusty Marico district , I have the ghost of Lady Mary- Anne Hulett relate the stories.
She was the wife of the schools founder, Sir Leige Hulett, and she is now the chapter head of ‘Our Ethereal Ladies of the Valley’.
The stories are set in the 1970’s at a school looking down on the rolling ggreen hills
of the Valley of a Thousand Hills on South Africa’s east ccoast.
Lady Mary Anne Hulett wasn’t sure that she was really happy about being a ghost. Often she thought it would be preferable to be a saint. But then, like in life, she hadn’t been given a choice. Her fate was settled when she accepted Sir Leiges hand in marriage. He a handsome capable 23 year old and she a pretty, buxom ‘Balcomb’ lass.
Of course, at that stage, facing a handsome young man brimming with prospects, religious denomination had been low on the list of her considerations. But Sir Leige, being a Wesleyan had obviously been protestant in outlook, and as everyone knows Protestants are not big into Saints.
On the other hand, if he had been a Catholic, the chances of her eventually getting to be some sort of saint would’ve been far brighter. But, if so, it would not have been a given that her Calvinist family would have supported a marriage to a Catholic.
Closing her eyes, LadyH thought back on those early days. Lordy, Sir Leige, despite his protestant affiliation, had certainly behaved like a catholic, fathering the first four of her children by the time she was barely into her 30’s, and then adding another two to the tally after a modest break. If for nothing else she should’ve been granted saint hood for that feat! But how could a girl resist such a good looking man.
Actually she thought, maybe she was lucky that her husband had been knighted, and become so successful and involved with his company and the politics of the province, as well as the founding of what is now one of the most prestigious schools on the continent of africa. All this had kept him away from home. Barring his absence she may have ended up producing twice the number of children.
However, now as president of the KC chapter of ‘Our Ethereal Ladies of the Valley’, LadyH had the privilege of occupying the lovely building that came with her position, the schools Chapel. The ‘housing’ committee of ‘Our Ethereal Ladies’ had allocated this gracious building to the ‘chapter head’ as soon as the building was constructed, and she had occupied it ever since.
LadyH was reasonably certain she would remain in residence for as long as the building stood. After all, which other of the spirits had a better pedigree for the position than herself, the wife of the schools founder. Considering the others, there was Val H, although never a staff member, she had been the wife of a Headmaster. Being a determined pushy type, it was said that she was the one behind her husband’s achievements, for what they were. As the wife of Jimmy she was the only real contender. Quiet retiring Thea R certainly could not, nor did she aspire to be chapter head. She had never been more than a teacher’s wife. PixyM on the other hand. Well she had been staff, but in an administrative position. So she did not have the ‘street creds’. . She had always been a feisty little lady in life, and was still so. If LadyH needed some ‘skriking’ to be done, PixyM was her ‘go-to-gal;’ with a sly smile and a mean Boo. As for Stella F, it was still hard to say. She had always been in his shade when hubby Ken was around. But now, without that cloak, Ken having been elevated to a minor celestial oversight position, Stella F still remained in the shadows.
Being a ghost, Lady H had the ability to move between her favorite venues faster than the speed of light. She could set on the upstairs balustrades of the old family house at Kearsney, on the north coast, surrounded by rolling hills of sugarcane and patches of verdant forest. Or in the blink of an eye, she could will herself into the gardens of the home on the Berea in Durban, where over a century ago, after 76 ‘productive’ years, she joined the ranks of the other ethereal characters populating the afterlife.
But now of course, with the obligations that come with Association, it was the chapel at the new school that she had grown to be fond of, and felt at home in.
As far as churches go, it certainly was a lovely building, in a lovely setting. Standing somewhat aloof to one side of the daily school bustle, (making it a haven for cigarette smoking schoolboys) it was surrounded by wide lawns, beyond which were wide green-grass sports fields edged by a combination of tall borders of Eucalyptus and coniferous trees. Big broad leafed Plane trees arched over the approach to the chapel itself. This gave it an old English village atmosphere, augmented by its ochre brick color, and lichen flecked roof tiles.
The chapel’s high lofted arches ribbed down and out beyond the walls to give strength to the roofline. In between them on the sloping ceiling, a decorative latticework of wooden beams imparted both a sense of an inspiringly spacious connection to the heavens, as well as a hint of humility, by suggesting the lattice tabernacle roof of a wandering prophets’ booth.
But its interior was what she liked most. With austere wooden benches and subdued lighting, the only color was provided by the back-lit mosaic windows. With these being place high in the walls at each end of the nave, above the altar, and entrance, the overall impression was devoid of ostentatiousness. It somehow reflected the no nonsense attitude to life that Sir leige had imbued his peers with.
“Bravery!” Lady Hulett pursed her lips as she frowned, as if trying to remember something.
She was not sure how the topic had come up.
Simultaneously she thrust out her chin while tilting her head upwards. Her translucent gaze scanned over the cobwebs festooning the low rafters of the attic. It was as if she was rolling her recollections backwards until the right one slid aft to glow in the beams of her memory.
Yes,” she said reflectively, “I can tell you about bravery!”
If the others in the little group, and there were five of them altogether, had been looking, they would have seen how, like with an old pinball machine, after a hundred years, with only two faded bulbs left to light up, Lady Hulett’s eyes glowed as a reminiscence tumbled into the pocket of her pensiveness.
‘There are very few brave people,” she said contemplatively.
LadyH looked around at the other spirits in her little group, then let her gaze seep through the faint impediment of the slate roof , which capped one of the turrets of the old Rob Roy hotel.
It was the view from this little attic, out over the Valley of a Thousand Hills which made it the favorite venue for the weekly gathering of ‘Our Ethereal Ladies of the Valley’.
“It is not just those who perform acts of heroism on the battlefield who are brave.” she said.
The others nodded in agreement.
LadyH often wished that they would have stronger opinions, and push back at her assertions. It would be nice if some lively debate would ensue, because the problem with being a ghost was that they had the time of all eternity to fill, with boredom being the biggest challenge to the mental health of the spirits. In many cases this boredom led to mischief. Which was one of the reasons ghosts had such a bad rap amongst the mortal recipients of spooky pranks.
“The really brave are not those who react unthinkingly, performing acts of heroism on the spur of the moment, without time to consider the danger of their actions.”
She looked around for a reaction, but once again her gaze was met only by the slow not of agreement. All that is, except one. Thea R seldom added much to any discourse. Even in life she had been a timid mouse of a woman, with a retiring personality, very comfortable with being virtually shut away from the world behind the stone walls of the drab square house she shared with husband Jack.
“Mary-Anne,” she said, Thea R had a habit of addressing Lady H with her full name, “Do you remember the incident with NickB?
This time all of the lady spirits were looking at LadyH and saw how the pinball like light in her eyes flashed alive as if registering a jackpot.
“Yes, Yes. That was the one I was trying to remember.” She said, “It has been a long time. When was that?” she asked.
TheaR wrinkled her brows as she thought back. “In 1968 or maybe ’69. Certainly not after that, because that group graduated in 1970, and what made his performance even more remarkable was that he had to weigh the possibility of being detected by the prefects, so it was surely not in his senior year.”
LadyH looked suspiciously at TheaR. “How do you know about it? You were not one of us in those days!”
TheaR contritely smiled back at her ladyship, “I read it in the archives when I was doing some research for our next ‘Clairvoyance Society’ meeting. As you know it is my turn to give a presentation.”
“Surely you must remember the incident in detail.” Thea said in polite, yet slightly affected surprise, “You were there, were you not?”
LadyH tossed her head and made a dismissive motion with her hand. Despite her marriage to Sir Leige, and her move up the social ladder, her family had definitely been of blue collar stock,. As such she was touchy about shows of academic superiority. After all TheaR had been the wife of a Latin teacher. “Of course I remember the incident.”
The others could see that her mind was still scratching around to put the pieces together. “It was a new moon and pitch black outside, and in the chapel only the little night lights were on,” she said.
Lady H frowned and rested her chin on the brace afforded by the knuckles of her hands which were clasped together, as her elbows rested on the arms of a big tattered rocking chair. Her ‘throne’ as she called it.
“NickI B.” She spoke the name with her cheeks ‘sucked in’ as if flavoring a peppermint. “It is coming back now.” She paused for a moment. “
A skinny lad with a funny way of walking. Each step ended with a imperceptible fop down of the sole of his shoe, which gave a sloppy look to his gait.”
“Also,” she went on, “he almost always had his left hand in his pocket, partially to hide the nicotine stain on his fingers. Or maybe it was to stop them restlessly searching for a cigarette.
I had plenty of opportunity to study the lad. The chapel’s little side room was a favorite secret smoking place for many of the ‘rookers’, as they were known.
StellaF interrrupted LadyH’s flow. “Ahh yes. Being in Finningley House I bumped into him frequently. What I remember is the infectiousness of his gravelly laugh. I guess his smoking habit was already having an effect on the chesty roughness of his chuckle.”
StellaF pointed with a knitting needle.
“He was well-liked amongst his peers. Not very athletic if my memory serves me correctly. Nor was he top of the A class academically. He just sat comfortably at the back of Whiteford’s B class.”
“Didn’t he have an older brother, a prefect, a good one, who unfortunately got into trouble.”
The others could see that LadyH was once again casting her mind back over the decades.
“It seems they were both boys who liked taking risks. The sort of stuff one would think a school like this would foster. But obviously at the time obedience was enforced with six lashes of a cane. It quashed out most risk taking spirit, a trait most needed for entrepreneurs.”
TheaR spoke up again. “He certainly was unique from what I read in the archives. Who would have thought it from such an unassuming lad.”
PixyM interrupted with a slight tone of impatience. “Well what did he do that makes it all about bravery?”
Lady H Rose from her rocking chair and floated across the attic to sit on the window sill. She crossed one leg over a knee, and supported herself with her arms placed slightly to the rear, fingers pointing away, so that she leaned back as she spoke.
“In those days, we didn’t have resident spirits in any of the dormitory houses. I had to rush around to make sure that all the gremlins and goblins were out of the way before the boys came back upstairs to sleep.”
“On that particular evening.” Lady H suddenly stopped. “Did I mention it was a Saturday, and it was late because they had been showing a long movie. A scary one, Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ I think it was. And the boys were talking about scary things and how brave you had to be to do some things, which would otherwise seem so mundane.
At least that was the comment of one of them. Another boy asked what would be considered mundane, which in other circumstances would be very scary.
Running around the altar in the church the boy suggested. “We all use the chapel to smoke during the day. But I bet nobody would run around the altar at midnight. Too scary with the ghost there.”
“You see ladies that is why we need to stop these riffraff ghosts from doing mischief, because it gives our ethereal sisterhood a bad name. Not for the life of me, so as to speak, would I want to ‘skrik’ any daring young man. Taking a risk is the sort of thing that Sir Leige would’ve liked to seen encouraged in the school he founded.”
“Well what happened?” it was Pixy M interjecting once again.
Lady H gave Pixy a ‘don’t be so impatient’ type of look.
“That was when, out of the blue, and to everyone’s surprise Nicki B ssaid he would take up the dare. But with a condition, what would they give him to do it.
A cigarette, one of them offered. Not enough said Nicki. Two! No, also not enough. Three? Four? Finally they settled on eight. It was all they could scrounge between them.
The boy doing the lead negotiation on the reward side of the bet wanted to know how they could all be sure that they were getting their cigarettes worth. How could they be guaranteed he had run all the way into the church and around the altar, and not done a fake run. Only running around the admin block instead.
Here again there was some discussion. One of the boys agreed that he would tag along part of the way. He would watch to see that Nikki entered the chapel.
But what if he only hid in the vestibule for a minute, instead of doing the full act of bravery, to run around the alter table at the stroke of midnight.”
Here Lady H paused and looked at the others, “On the strike of the clock, rumor had it that I could be found resting on the altar, with my cloak of invisibility discarded for a moment.”
LadyH almost added that if she had, NickiB would have gotten an eye-full. Ghosts could assume any age, and the ghost of LadyH had her form as at the time of her marriage. With a figure like hers, it was not surprising that Sir Leige had fallen for her and been inspired to father so many babies.
But instead LadyH continued by saying, “Obviously the lead negotiator was a clever lad. He probably would have gone far as a negotiator, if he had chosen such a career. Maybe he did!
Nicki had to come back with one of the flowers from the arrangement that was invariably set up next to the altar. They would all check the flowers the next day to see if one had been picked, and was the same type as the one brought back.
On the particular evening, Nicki had to wait an hour until midnight. All the boys in on the bet lay sleepless in their beds.
Clearly Nikki was scared, I could see the tense worried frown on his face.
His nervous expression persisted as he and the other boy prepared themselves by donning black track suits, and lacing on some running shoes.
It wasn’t going to be an act of courage performed on the spur of the moment.
Almost as soon as it had begun, the whole mission was nearly aborted when, slipping across the lawn from Finnignley, past the Bell steps, the two boys, Nicki and his spotter, nearly ran into the night watchman. They ducked behind the low walls alongside the steps up to the bell until the guard had walked on towards Pembroke House.
Nearing the target of the mission, as the spotting boy crouched under the overhead concourse of the Oppenheimer Science wing, Nikki dashed across the remaining lawn to the chapels vestibule and disappeared into it. From there he scurried down the nave betwen the wooden pews and around the alter table.
Nicki had brought a flashlight, borrowed from one of the other boys, to aid his way,.
After snatching a flower from the bouquet, he flew back up between the wooden benches.”
Lady H gave a small giggle of delight.
“I was so surprised and taken by the whole affair that I was a tad careless.
I actually was not on the altar, I was sitting in the back pew on the right at the nave’s entrance.
As NickiB ran past I stood up. Unfortunately I was so rushed I bumped into the pew in front, making it creak.
Hearing the creak, Nicki shot out the chapel and across the lawn, heedless of caution for any night watchman.
LadyH gave another dramatic pause, as she took a deep breath.
“The next day NickiB spent a whole half hour in the chapel. Anyone would have thought him a religious little soul. But I saw that he had brought two cigarettes this time, instead of the customary single.”
Lady H took off from her window seat and floated towards the low cubby dorr out of the attic.
“Well ladies, would you agree that to be a unique show of courage?” she queried. “I always thought that this was a very brave act. Nicki needed to conquer his fea. He had to prepare himself mentally for his feat. Finally he had to dive off into the depths of the night, into the unknown, into a very scary place.”
A thoughtful expression passed over LadyH’s face.
“I wonder what became of him.”
Thea R looked up from her knitting.
“He kept on going into the deep dark places, where most people are fearful to venture.” she said, “He became a deep-sea diver.”