The Return of Morton Gruyere

The Return of Morton Gruyere

Class 3A slept as Miss Svankbom tried to teach them her new language.

"Remember, the subjunctive expresses doubt," she told them, as they snored away. "At least, I think it does. Iím not sure. Thatís why it has to be the subjunctive. Whereas the indicative deals with pure facts. If youíre telling lies, you have do it in the subjunctive. Anyone caught lying in the indicative mood will have their lies accepted as truth, which would be disastrous for history."

Mr Botfrob coughed next to her. "Are you sure sleep-learning is the best way to do this?"

Miss Svankbom was in a bit of a subjunctive mood about it herself if the truth be told, but then again, if the truth be told, it should be told in the indicative. She looked confident as she replied. "Have you ever tried teaching them while theyíre awake? This can hardly be any worse."

"I suppose so," said Mr Botfrob. A typical lesson involved him losing all the knowledge he had on a subject, but without the students taking any of it on. It just seemed to vanish. Somewhere, he thought, there must be a realm of pure information, which expanded as the knowledge was lost to mankind with every passing lesson.

"Placing the entire class under hypnosis and implanting knowledge by suggestion is at the cutting edge of pedagogical research," said Miss Svankbom proudly. "I can think of no other way of imparting such a radical new language."

The new language had been the saviour of the whole department. The pupils at Saint Street Comprehensive had such ethnic diversity that it was impossible to work out which languages they should actually learn. The schoolís English as a Foreign Language course had been highly popular, but it had eventually been realised that it was most popular with native English speakers. But the problem had been the same with any language. The school had experimented with French, Urdu, Russian, Mandarin, and even Esperanto, always with the same result - some of the pupils were native speakers and therefore had an unfair advantage. Even the introduction of Latin had brought to light an unexpected community of Ancient Romans, whose contribution to school life had been undeniable - everyone was looking forward to sports day, now that the Romans had built a new arena with exceptional drainage facilities.

But it had taken a teacher with the genius of Miss Svankbom to solve the language problem. She had simply invented a new language called Gruntish, which absolutely no one could speak. Consequently all students were on a level playing field, and had the same educational opportunities. It wouldnít be much use, but at least the pupils would be able to talk to each other.

The only problem was that it was a nightmare to teach, which is why she was experimenting with hypnosis. "And while youíre all under," she told the class, "I believe Mr Botfrob would like a few words."

"Thank you," said Mr Botfrob. "Now listen carefully. Mr Botfrob is your friend. Mr Botfrob doesnít want to hurt you. Thereís no need to tell stories about Mr Botfrob to your parents. And forget about the police, they know about him already."

Mrs Svankbom looked at him strangely. "Is there something you need to tell me?" she asked.

"You canít be too careful," explained Mr Botfrob. "I wouldnít want to get into trouble for something I didnít do."

Mrs Svankbom was about to reply when the door opened. Outside was a man in his forties, old before his time, with grey hair and a face cut deep with lines. He strode in to the room as if he had every right to be there, and he sat at a spare desk. Something worried at Miss Svankbom - there was a reason why that desk was unoccupied.

The man was wearing a Saint Street uniform. Miss Svankbom frowned. The uniform was changed every three months, in order to stimulate the economy and allow wealth to trickle down to poor families. But this uniform was decades old.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked.

The man spoke. "I have come to reclaim my rightful place at my rightful desk," he said. "After years of wandering, I have returned. I have returned to take my place in the lesson, that I might fail my end-of-year exams, and spend the rest of my life in a dead-end office job."

The two teachers gaped. Could it be true? "And what is your name?" asked Miss Svankbom, frantically consulting the register.

"My name is Morton Gruyere," said the new pupil.

*

Morton Gruyere. The name had been handed down through the decades at the school, part of its history. The man was a legend. Even the pupils knew about him, without getting his name wrong. His desk had been kept free, his locker still contained his mouldy lunch from that fateful day in the 1960s.

It was rumoured that when he returned, the school would enter a new age of prosperity and happiness. "But ... youíre back!" said Mr Botfrob.

"Indeed I am," said Morton. "Awaken this class. I shall tell them of my labours."

"Oh, they learn better when theyíre asleep," said Miss Svankbom.

"Just the same," said Morton.

"Class, awaken," said Miss Svankbom. Slowly, the class began to stir, rub their eyes, yawn, and make various attempts at convincing their teacher that they had regained consciousness.

"I trust you have taken in the lesson?" asked Miss Svankbom.

"Yes, Miss," said the class, as one, using the subjunctive mood. In fact, no one had heard anything because they were too worried about the trouble theyíd be in if Miss Svankbom realised they werenít asleep. They hadnít fallen under her hypnotic spell because they were too busy worrying. They worried because each member of the class knew that they, and they alone, werenít susceptible to the hypnosis. They only had to look around to see that the rest of the class had succumbed, and had no choice but to pretend that they too were in a deep trance.

"We have an unscheduled talk for you," said the Gruntish teacher. The class sighed with collective relief. Talks were boring, but as long as you didnít throw anything at the lecturer you probably wouldnít get into trouble. Carefully the pupils moved potential missiles out of the way of temptation.

"I, too, was once as you," intoned the old boy. "I remember it as clear as day. We were just coming to the end of a PE lesson ..."

*

Morton Gruyere placed the oval-shaped ball in front of himself and took a few paces back. The two posts stood in front of him. He ran to the ball and kicked. It spun into the air and struck the left-hand post on the head.

"Ow," cried the post. Morton sighed. It was very bad form for a post in the game of Bugry to exclaim. As team captain, Morton got to choose which boys would be the posts, and he had chosen Goblieb Minor for his stoicism and stamina. As usual, heíd let himself down.

Gruyere was not only captain and star player of Bugry, but he was also the inventor of the game. He had designed it to be character-building, and to build as big a character as possible. He was therefore careful in choosing which boys would act as targets. Many of the larger boys had big enough characters already, it was the smaller ones who needed the kind of nurturing that only Morton and his game could provide.

This was especially evident in the scrum. In this part of the game, the larger boys made the smaller ones run at each other head first while they kicked the ball at them until only one, the "prop", remained standing. It made Morton proud to see the boys overcome their mental obstacles as they fell to the ground. In his nightmares, Morton foresaw a world in which schools banned such contact sports, and made boys do girly things like dancing or cooking. Worse, he could foresee a day in which the school allowed girls as pupils. That was wrong. It gave him a funny feeling in his stomach. Brrr.

(Mr Botfrob interrupted his story. "We do still play this game," he said. "But in a non-contact manner. The pupils give each other detentions instead."

Morton stared at him with a look of infinite grief, then continued.)

As usual, Mortonís team had won, and had wiped the floor with the smaller team. They could use the showers to get the mud out of their hair later. Their chests stuffed with pride, the team marched back to the changing rooms, where the PE teacher cowered in his office.

"Five minutes and you can have your job back," Morton told him.

"Yes sir," said the teacher gratefully.

"Wasnít impressed with Goblieb Minor," said Morton. "Some kind of reparation might be in order."

"As you will," said the PE teacher. One of Saint Streetís innovations had been to introduce the rough and tumble of sporting life into the whole of the academic curriculum. If the A team were after you, you never knew when they were going to strike.

Morton stripped off and entered the showers. His muscles rippled beneath the jets of water. Other boys soaped him and rinsed him, grateful to have been chosen for the honour. His personal assistant oiled him up and scraped him down with a strigil, bottling the used oil which could then later be sold as an aid to virility.

Morton Gruyere was a Greek god made flesh. He strode out of the changing rooms with his entourage in tow. Teachers nodded to him respectfully and stood aside to let him past. Ahead of him was the new Physics teacher, Mrs Heartburn. She was a popular teacher among the boys, because she was a woman. Although Morton felt that female teachers were a bit of a hippy fad, the Headmaster had felt that she would be a valuable addition to the school. She had made important contributions to the understanding of sub-atomic physics, for which her husband had been nominated for the Nobel prize, and the Headmaster felt that it would be useful to have someone to do the washing and ironing.

"Morton," she said. "Would you do me a favour, please?"

Morton was nothing if not chivalrous, although none of the male teachers would have dared address him like that. "Of course, madam," he said.

"Just carry these books to the office for me."

One of Mortonís flunkies came to carry them, but Morton waved him away. This was a job he would do himself. Gallantly, he took up the burden, and strode towards the office, where he deposited the books. The entire school watched in admiration, and learnt that he was not a man who was above helping a damsel in distress.

"Thank you Morton, that was very kind," said Mrs Heartburn. But Morton noticed movement from the corner of his eye, and turned to see. Goblieb Minor! Why was he watching him so carefully?

"Mmm?" said Morton, as the smaller boy ran off. What sort of punishment should he inflict?

"I said that was very kind," repeated Mrs Heartburn.

Morton had other things on his mind now. There was a lesson to be taught. He replied to Mrs Heartburn absently, without thinking. "Yes, Mum," he said. Then he realised what heíd said. "I mean, Mrs Heartburn," he corrected himself quickly. What on earth had he been thinking?

(Class 3A gasped as they heard his mistake. All had heard rumours of such a thing, or had even, God help them, come close to saying the same thing themselves. And Mrs Svankbom herself remembered a time when ... but no, it wasnít for thinking about. No one in the classroom would meet anyone elseís eye.)

Quickly Morton looked around to see who had been in earshot. He had left his entourage outside. Mrs Heartburn herself merely laughed. "Did we not wake up properly today?" she said.

Morton never blushed, as he never needed to. This was the first time in his life he had shown the slightest imperfection. He blushed, and, embarrassed to be doing so, blushed further at his own blushing. Each new blush seemed to provoke another, more intense blush. He was caught in a feedback loop which would never end until his face reached Absolute Red, a physical constant that represented the total amount of redness that could ever be reached.

Morton bowed, in a bid to hide his mistake. "I apologise for my transgression, madam," he said. "If you need my help in any other matter, do please ask."

And slowly, with as much dignity as he could regain, he began to walk from the office to the outside door. And then was amazed as a smaller boy pushed past him. Automatically, Morton curled his hands into fists, then saw that the boy was pointing and grinning at him.

Goblieb Minor had heard.

*

Morton decided to put the incident out of his mind. Goblieb Minor could be dealt with at his leisure. Besides which, he had his court to attend. The Headmaster had been happy to delegate minor matters of discipline to him, and Morton would spend much of his school day ruling on disputes between pupils. His was a civil, not a criminal, court, and major infractions still remained the responsibility of the establishment. But he knew that with his wisdom and sound judgement, he had prevented many situations from developing into major confrontations.

His wisdom was legendary. Once, two boys had come to him disputing ownership of a small puppy. Morton had ordered that it be torn in two so that they could have half each. He knew that the real owner would then have given up his claim to save the creature.

That had been one of his failures actually, but how was he to know that neither was the real owner? Not even Morton was perfect. He took his seat in his assembly and called for the first case.

First off was the case of two sorry-looking specimens who had been caught by Mortonís police grappling outside the science block. It appeared that one of them had scribbled over the otherís Latin book, and worse, had used medieval Latin rather than classical. The use of a "j" rather than a consonantal "i" made Mortonís blood surge with injured pride. Quickly, he calculated the likely injuries the boys would incur in the ensuing fight, inflicted them himself, then made the two shake hands.

"Next," he said, glancing at his watch. He had an appointment with the Headmaster at midday.

"Goblieb Minor," said the clerk of the court. Morton watched in astonishment as the boy strode insouciantly in front of him.

"And what is the nature of this complaint?" he asked thickly.

"I just need some advice," said Goblieb. "My Mum made me comb my hair before coming here. But I think that the times call for us all to loosen up and do our own thing. So I was just wondering, who takes precedence - me or my Mum?"

Morton stared at him. For a moment he actually considered ruling in Gobliebís favour to avoid the trap. But the thought of the entire school turning into long-haired drug-taking unhygienic girly hippies was a dreadful one. Finally he ruled, as quietly as he could, "your Mum."

Goblieb Minor pretended not to hear. "My what?"

"MUM!" bellowed Morton, determined not to be undermined by this wretch. But he heard sniggering from among his courtiers. He stared at them in anger, but couldnít work out who was the culprit.

"This court is closed!" he shouted. "Take this boy away and have him flogged!"

And as Morton stormed out of the assembly, he heard someone say behind him, "just like mother used to do."

*

"I heard about your little difficulty this morning," said the Headmaster of Saint Street. "A very bad business, Morton, very bad."

Morton stood as tall as he could and stared straight into the Headmasterís eye. "A tiny slip of the tongue," he said. "A matter of no importance."

"Undermines the confidence of your troops, though," said the Headmaster. "Cigarette?"

"Thank you, but I donít," replied Morton.

"You should. It helps steady the nerves. You see, Morton, we at the top have a responsibility to our underlings. Whisky?"

"Not before lunchtime," said Morton.

"Shame. Thereís nothing like a drink to fortify the spirit. Makes a man of you. Morton, there are mutterings among your troops. Some of the chaps are wondering if youíre the man for the job. Marijuana?"

"I donít have time for it," said Morton.

"You should find time! It frees your mind from the mental slavery of Babylon. Morton, to you it may seem a minor infraction, but the chaps donít like it when their idols turn out to have hearts of clay. You need to reassert your authority. Tab of acid?"

"Goblieb Minor," said Morton. "Heís the cause of this outrage. I shall make an example of him. Tell the school there shall be a show trial tonight. The little creep will learn his place once again."

"Thatís the spirit, Morton!" said the Headmaster. "Now, I trust youíll stay for a wee snifter?" From the drawer he pulled two hypodermic syringes, and rolled up his sleeve.

"Thank you, but no," said Morton. "There is work to be done."

*

"Mummyís boy," read the graffiti on Mortonís locker. He got one of the first-years to clean it off. The boy simply didnít show the kind of respect he demanded. Throughout the day he seemed to find himself the butt of other peopleís unspoken jokes. He was sure that some of the boys were calling him "Ma-ton".

"I want to hear no more of this nonsense," he told one of his lieutenants.

"Mumís the word," was the reply.

"We need to devise a new strategy," said another. "After all, necessity is the mother of invention."

"Thatís just mumbo-jumbo. I say we just attack Mortonís enemies. If we die, weíll all be maters."

Morton had to tolerate this all afternoon. And throughout, he could see Goblieb Minor, sauntering through the school as if he were Morton himself, drunk on his new-found power. Morton would make that power short-lived.

*

The entire school turned up after registration in the afternoon. It was always entertaining to watch Morton teach someone a lesson. But this time it was different. There was a more threatening atmosphere. Morton realised that the audience wasnít entirely behind him. Perhaps it was the murmuring that persisted even after he entered the arena. Perhaps it was the way some of the kids were looking at him as if seeing him for the first time. Or perhaps it was the many placards in the audience, all bearing the same legend: "Hello Mum".

Morton could see that the situation had deteriorated much further than heíd realised. If he was to retain his standing in the school, he would have to act quickly and decisively. He turned to his valet.

"I choose to fight with the sword," he said, loudly. "It is the weapon of a gentleman. A weapon whose use will, I fear, be beyond my opponent."

As Morton took the blade in his hand, the crowd fell silent. That was more like it. Morton made a few practice thrusts: it was as if the weapon was an extension of his own arm. Stunned, the audience watched in fascination.

"Bring the wretch on," said Morton, once more in command. And Goblieb Minor walked into the arena.

He was dressed in high heels, a skirt and a blonde wig. He also seemed to be wearing make-up. "Now then, Mortie," he said in a high-pitched falsetto. "Iíve made your sandwiches and packed your bag for you. Now come and give your mummy a big kiss." And Goblieb Minor walked up to Morton and planted a sloppy smacker on his cheek, leaving two lipstick semi-circles.

The crowd went wild. Laughing, pointing, jeering, Morton heard their vague noises slowly coalesce into a single chant: "Howís your mother?"

Morton had never been a quitter. Heíd reached his position by his natural indefatigability, by persistence and a refusal to admit defeat. But there was something more important than this: his dignity. Some fights could not be won. And there were higher considerations than his own pride. For all his life he had worked to make Saint Street the finest, noblest, most successful school in the country. But now he had failed it. If he were to cling on, desperately trying to kick the pupils into some kind of order whilst hearing the secret insults behind his back, his achievement would deteriorate and he would become king of nothing. His day had passed: for the sake of the school, it was time for someone else to take over.

Sadly, his face burning with shame, he returned his sword to his valet and turned his back on the arena. The jeering reverberated in his ears as he began to walk, but with distance the noise began to fade, until finally all that was left was the echo in his head, an imagined and remembered noise that almost drowned out his only thought: "one day, I shall return."

*

"And now, that day has arrived," said Morton to the captivated class. "For four times ten years have I wandered this earthly realm, seeking enlightenment and forgiveness. I have swum the deepest oceans, climbed the highest mountain, wandered the deserts and skated the icy wastes of Antartica. I have purified myself in the sacred rivers, and drunk holy milk from the breasts of priestesses. I return now, humbled but renewed, ready to take my place once again at the bottom of the class, and hope that I can again win your respect and acceptance."

Morton bowed his head low. Miss Svankbom looked on him with pity.

"On behalf of Saint Street Comprehensive," she said, "we forgive you."

Tears began to roll down Mortonís face. "My gratitude will be endless," he promised.

Miss Svankbom decided to carry on as normal. "Right, we were practising the subjunctive," she said. "Back to sleep, everyone."

Morton watched, astonished, as the rest of the class immediately fell into a trance. What kind of teaching was this? Still, he didnít want to get into trouble on his first day back. Quickly and convincingly, he pretended to follow the class into the trance.

"Isnít it terrible that he could punish himself so much just through teasing?" said Miss Svankbom.

"I suppose so," said Mr Botfrob, although really he was thinking about those priestesses.

"Thank heavens weíre more enlightened these days."

"Mmmm?" said Mr Botfrob.

"I said, thank heavens weíre more enlightened these days."

Mr Botfrob wasnít really listening. "Yes, Mum," he said.

*

Everest loomed above him. Good grief, thought Mr Botfrob, how on earth was he supposed to climb that?

Still, he thought, Morton had managed it. With a sigh, he continued on his wanderings.

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