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Saturday short story: Refuge in the present, by Owen Marshall

 We continue our weekly series of New Zealand short stories with a new story by the master of the form, Owen Marshall. Photography by Peter Black.

When I started teaching there were still a good many Second World War men in the profession: some taking the lead, some happy just to relax and resume a normal life. There were a few at the boys' secondary school I went to after Training College. Their background didn't come up much at all, certainly not from them, but as time went by you gleaned bits and pieces casually referred to in conversation, and realised that the Deputy Head had trained as a pilot in Canada, but the war had ended before he got to fly in combat, and that the HOD social studies had been on torpedo boats in the Pacific. And Neil Pike, who taught maths, bore a visible history in the puckered machine gun scars on his left arm.

Ray Shallish had been in Europe too, but like Neil didn't talk about it. Maybe though they did when they were together, but I doubt it. I never saw any particular huddle of ex war guys: some of them didn't even get on all that well. Ray was the metal work teacher and a very heavy smoker. Often when I went past the workshop he'd be sitting on the concrete step, puffing away. A small, thin man with the darkened complexion that some heavy smokers have. He rolled his own because it was cheaper that way. While the class fooled around noisily inside, riveting the sides of their fourth form tool box project, or whatever, Ray would draw on his ciggie, rub his bony elbows and look into the far distance across the playing field.

At several staff meetings the Head had emphasised that under no circumstances were classes to be left unsupervised in labs and workshops, but Ray took no notice. Maybe he thought the door step was close enough to pass as a place of control. Probably he knew he wouldn't be that easy to replace anyway. Staffing was always an issue, and Ray was quite popular with the boys. He treated them with distant casualness, but nevertheless almost as equals. He would get them started, wander off, and reappear at the end of the period to make sure they tidied up. Unless it was raining, most of  his time was spent smoking on the step and in a far scrutiny. Around the pale doorway steps were the stained, squashed butts of his roll your owns, like bird droppings.

The school inspectors’ reports specifically commended the woodwork programmes, but mentioned that elsewhere in the manual department the projects were out-moded and the students not sufficiently challenged. I liked Ray, most people did, but he was lazy alright, no denying that. It was easy to feel a bit superior to him because of his laziness and lack of professionalism. Condescending even I suppose, though he was older than most of us. Ray had been married I know that. Whether his wife had died, or they'd split up, I'm not sure. He had a daughter and grand-children in Perth and went over there a couple of times I remember.

Despite the difference in our ages and in the length of time we had been at the school, I got to know Ray reasonably well because we were paired up to look after the bus boys. I think Ray was even made Dean of the bus boys. Dean was a title new to secondary schools then and introduced to give spurious dignity to additional tasks that paid little, or nothing. Ray made an unreliable list of the boys and routes at the start of each year, and I did all the work after that, including any hassles with the boys' behaviour, or changes to the pick up points. Ray was strong on delegation and comradely in its application. At any formal gathering of the busboys, he would yarn to one or two seniors about farming, while I coped with what was required with the throng.

Anzac Day wasn't such a big deal then as it's since become, perhaps because there were still many who knew first hand the reality of war. There was a dawn service in the town if you wanted to go and usually an invited speaker at the morning school assembly. Poppies of course, but if you hadn't got round to buying one, nobody much cared. On one Anzac morning I happened to be talking with Ray by the staff lockers when he opened his, and rummaged in the top shelf until he found a crumpled fabric poppy. `Ah, knew it was somewhere,' he said casually. `Had it for years, but I never seem to find the pin. You haven't got a spare have you?'

The Head had a variety of ways to encourage the involvement of staff in school activities, from flattery to vague promises of promotion: from veiled threats to appeals to professionalism. Putting people on the spot publicly was another. I've been caught by that myself. It's difficult, when you're not expecting it, to refuse a request to perform an obviously worthy task. Ray wasn't taken in however. He had greater experience in deflection I suppose.

It was at one of the Head's impromptu staff addresses on a rather dour July day when the southerly flurried the puddle surfaces of the main quad outside, and groups of students stood listlessly beneath the building doorways and overhangs. The Head only came into the staff room at morning tea time when he had special reason. He didn't wear his gown day to day, but tended to hold the lapels of his suit if speaking formally, as if in academic dress. A few latecomers padded quietly to the sink bench to make themselves tea, or coffee, offering a smile of obeisance as they passed him.

`There's gratification in selfless endeavour,' said the Headmaster grandiloquently in conclusion. `A reward in itself.' He was exhorting us to volunteer for greater involvement with sporting teams. Masters competed for the coaching of the top rugby and cricket teams, but the Head's enthusiasm for broadening the scope to badminton, hockey, soccer and volleyball wasn't shared by many at that time in traditional schools. There was no spontaneous up welling of offers after the Head's appeal. `Let Mr Collins know if you can help the school in this significant way,' he said. Norm Collins was the sports master, coach of the First Fifteen, and considered any boys who dodged rugby as slack twerps, but he smiled grimly to show willing. He once told me he disliked sponge cake for being all bloody fluff and air like a bouffant hairdo and that a man needed solid fruit cake in the belly.

The Head had turned back on his way to the door, apparently struck by an after-thought. `Travel, that's right. That was the other thing,' he said emphatically. `Travel for the inter-school fixtures is quite a time consuming task, and I'm sure we'd all like Mr Collins to be relieved of that at least. You came to mind, Mr Shallish, with your existing rapport with the bus companies.' The Head stood still, eyebrows slightly raised in an interrogatory way, and looked directly at Ray.

`I have sufficient on my plate, thank you,' said Ray, quietly, yet without embarrassment, as if he were refusing the offer of another sausage roll. I remember that he was smoking. Strange now to recall how natural it seemed then to have people smoking in the staff room. Several teachers smoked pipes: you just don't see  pipe smokers these days do you.

Ray became sick , but said nothing about it: not to me anyway. I only found out because I heard him retching in the staff toilets. I'd come in during a free period just as he disappeared into one of the cubicles and closed the door. He sounded pretty bad and it went on for some time. I didn't know whether it was better to wait for him to come out, or just go so he'd never know he'd been overheard. In the end I stayed. It was a bit awkward for both of us, but I wanted to make sure he was okay. I offered to go over and supervise his class, but he said it wasn't necessary. `I've had this crook guts quite a bit recently,' he said. `I'm having a few tests to check things out. I can manage alright, but it's not getting any better.'

It got worse, not better. An advanced cancer, oddly enough not of the lungs despite a lifetime of smoking, but further down. `Spleen,' Neil Pike told me, who had known him for a long time. `Not good in the spleen.' Ray didn't talk about it, but we could all see that he was slipping quite quickly, and he left teaching and the school at the end of that second term, went into hospital and soon after transferred to the Hospice by the public gardens. I visited him a couple of times. He looked smaller each time, but was quite calm lying there. There was a television in his room, but he said he didn't watch it. He never asked me anything about the school, but talked about his daughter who had come over from Australia to be with him. She and her husband had evidently done well and on both my visits, Ray told me the same story of their flash home in Perth, the matching BMWs, the business trips her husband took to advise on distribution hubs.

`At least I never held her back at all,' he said. `At least I can say that.'

He didn't talk much though, and I didn't stay long. Most of the time we just sat there and he seemed to forget about me unless I started up a conversation. The sun was setting during my second visit, and I remember looking over the gardens and duck pond to the hills `where the dying sun made sullen embers of the western cloud.' That's what seventh former Peter Craddock wrote in a story that won the Guthrie Huddlestone English Prize that year. I judged it. He was inclined to romantic excess as the young are, but a talented boy nevertheless.

A good many of the staff went to the funeral, and we missed him although he'd been a quiet man and less than dedicated as a teacher. It was strange to walk past the metalwork room and see a new animated teacher inside with an attentive class, instead of Ray smoking on the step and the boys within mucking around and talking.

Some time afterwards his daughter donated his medals to the school and among them was the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry. The Head was delighted  and tracked down the citation and Ray's service record. He decided to make the library foyer a memorial alcove and display Ray's medals there with other World War material the school had gathered. It was almost as if he found Ray more interesting and worthy dead than alive. At a staff meeting the Head told us Ray had been a sergeant and distinguished himself particularly in Crete. The Head rattled everything off as if he'd known all about it all along. As if they'd been staunch comrades and confidants.

Afterwards I talked with Neil, who knew Ray best of all of us. `He had an absolute shit of a time in Crete,' Neil told me. `He was captured and escaped, led a small group who hid out in the hills, but was caught again and badly beaten. He got away a second time and did some desperate hit and run stuff with partisans. He was a wreck at the end of the war I gather. Never really came right. Everything afterwards was pretty much just a shelter I think, from what he'd been through.'

So that had been part of Ray's life too. An idle man and a poor teacher, who had risen to an extreme, exacting challenge in the past, and sought only refuge in the present.

Next week’s short story: The Spare Room by Jackson Payne.

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