Monday, 3 September 2007

Life class

Tall, brisk and confident, Brother Sreenan teaches chemistry and religious education as if they are the same subject.

Whether dispensing facts and formulae, or rules and rubrics, he expects maximum attention and minimal interaction. We need information. He has it. What’s to discuss?

‘Boys, now that your upper-sixth year has arrived, we shall divide our RE lessons between two vitally important topics. The first is to prepare you for the trials and temptations that will assail you as you enter the world beyond the sheltered confines of your schooldays. The second is how to fill in your UCCA form.’

So here we are, an assortment of middle-class youths from nice enough homes in a school that, though private, is far from pretentious. Outside, the Vietnam War is cranking up, the Beatles are recording Sergeant Pepper and 1967’s summer of love is bursting into leaf.

Meanwhile, pacing to and fro in front of us, Brother Sreenan has information to impart.

‘Boys, I need to warn you about a particular kind of man.....

'I mean the homosexual.

'Boys, be on your guard. And read the signs. Beware the mohair sweater. Give the suede shoe a wide berth. And should you chance to find yourself in hospital (following, perhaps, an injury sustained in a vigorous game of rugby) be careful lest you find yourself prostrate and alone with a male nurse. I say no more.’

Chalk dust floats in midday shafts of sunlight and my thoughts drift.

I see myself gasping helplessly in mangled wreckage, my life ebbing away.

Then, ‘Don’t worry, pal. We’ll soon have you out of here. You’re safe. I’m a nurse.’

I look to my rescuer. But relief turns to horror as my gaze takes in the moral nightmare that confronts me: maroon mohair – and Hush Puppies.

‘Boys, you need to realize how very different women are from men in their attitudes and assumptions. For instance: you return home at the end of a taxing day at work. Your wife serves your dinner. You eat it with a good appetite. And then, to your astonishment, your better half bursts into a flood of tears.

'“Whatever is the matter?” you inquire. And through her sobs you learn the cause of this contretemps: “I have spent the whole of today making and hanging a new set of curtains for our dining room. And you have not even noticed!”’

There are guffaws from around the room.

‘Yes, boys, amusing enough. And yet how very much a part of the natural scheme of things. It is in the female nature to prize and cherish such domestic matters. And it is equally a part of the male psyche to fail to notice them.

'It is your duty as a man and as a husband to make allowances. Always remember: that is how she is; that is how you are.’

‘But, Brother, the thing is…. Well, actually…. I would have noticed. We’d probably have chosen the material together. A jokey design with a pop-art theme. Maybe in the sale at Habitat.’

My interjection, of course, is silent.

I’ve decades ahead of me in which to work out what it means to be a man.

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