Friday, 26 October 2012

Hallowe'en Short Story: The Gnu by Philip Womack

 It's almost Hallowe'en. I wrote this short story a year ago, and thought I'd put it up to celebrate everyone's favourite scary festival (bar Christmas.)


Whenever the annual summer term concert came round, it was always one of the boys in the top year who took the lead in singing the Gnu song; and if one of the Forrester boys happened to be in the top year, then it would, by law (or rather, by the deep pockets of Mr and Mrs Forrester), fall to him.

The Forrester boys were all - nearly all - good at singing, and had a tall, lordly bearing that suited the absurdity of the song's lyrics. It was a tradition. When I joined Malton House, there were four of the younger Forresters in the school; three of the older had already performed, as if by ancient ritual. There looked to be no sign of them stopping.

They were all good at singing, that is, apart from Edwin Forrester. He happened to be in my year, and had fallen victim to some unlucky gene – or, as his brothers used to privately tease him, had been adopted. He was, in the eyes of the school, without any use at all. He had to wear a veiled hat in the sun, was constantly attended by tubes of pills, and was once found crying over a dead mouse. He couldn’t even swim. He sat on the back bench in assembly, quite close to me, and belted out the hymns so tonelessly that the music master would shudder.

So, as summer approached, an undercurrent of whispering began: would Edwin be the singer, or would the unbreakable law be broken? Attempts were made to pacify the Forrester matriarch. Edwin was made a prefect; he was given a role in a play (which even allowed him to speak); when photographers came to the school to commemorate some opening of a computer room or art department, it was his gormless, acidic face that would adorn the pages of the local papers. But Mrs Forrester took it all in her stride. It was only the rightful due of a Forrester. She would refer to the coming concert, and Edwin’s role in it, with such forthrightness – her plump hands gripping the headmaster’s – that it was taken as read. ‘Oh but of course, Thorpe Place have got a much nicer tennis court,’ she would say, looking meaningfully at her other offspring, when things looked edgy. Nothing could be done about it, and the school collectively resigned itself to watching Edwin Forrester’s fat face bawling out the Gnu song.

This was all rather annoying for me. I had a beautiful voice, and was leader of the choir; and I was the best looking in my year. A drunken mother had even once made a pass at me. (At least, I think that’s what she was doing.) Clearly, it was I who should be taking the lead in the Gnu song. I knew all the words, all the gestures. I had a top hat and had been practising with my grandfather's cane. I was really good at enunciating the G's when it goes:

"I'm a Gnu
I'm a Gnu
The g-nicest work of g-nature in the zoo
I'm a Gnu
How do you do
You really ought to k-now w-ho's w-ho."

But what could I do against an army of Forresters?

The answer, though I wish I’d known it earlier, was nothing. One foggy day in May we were sent out on a cross country run, which was one of the peculiar tortures our school liked to inflict on us. All around banks of whiteness rolled and swam, for all the world like clouds seen from an airplane. It was also raining: that constant, slight drizzle that is never enough to stop masters from sending boys out to play. We jogged our way down the side of the river. I was never much of a good long distancer: my talent lay in sprinting. So I lagged behind, and ended up not far away from Edwin, who was, as usual, last. I fell back, until I was puffing beside him.

‘Why are you such a loser, Forrester?’ I said.

‘Shut up, Dartmouth,’ he wheezed. He stopped, and bent over, his hands on his knees. His plump stomach was spilling out of his house t-shirt. His podgy legs were blotched with red. He breathed deeply. All around us the fog thickened, the distant shouts of the games master appearing as from miles away.

I can’t remember exactly what happened, or who started pushing; all I know is that soon I was watching Edwin slip down the river bank towards the river with a pained expression on his face. I watched him for a second, thrashing about. Then I remembered: he couldn’t swim. A sudden icy worry grabbed me, and I cast around for a stick, or something to throw him. But on that reedy bank, there was nothing. The fog rolled behind me. I gritted my teeth, and ran on.


The school was closed for a day, naturally. The younger Forresters were sent home on compassionate leave, although I expect they didn’t have too bad a time of it. And when the music master took me aside the day after, and told me that I would be singing the lead now, I looked as worthy as I could, wrinkled my brow, and said, ‘I’ll do it for Edwin.’

The school, Forrester-less, seemed to take on a buoyant hue. The days were longer, brighter, our laughter shriller. It was my last term, before I went off to a large, nearby public school which specialised in the arts. I had little to do: I’d won a scholarship, so I didn’t have to sit Common Entrance with all the other top years. So instead I practised.

One morning, I was in my usual practice room, before breakfast. I’d been learning a new piece, which I thought I was rather good at. I saw the music master doing his rounds, and began to play in order to impress him. But something was wrong with the keys: when I pressed them down, they would not come back up. I pressed harder; they stuck. I had the curious sensation that I was pushing down into mud. The music master opened the door: there was I, banging my hands furiously down on the piano. No sound was coming out; my face was scarlet. He coughed, and I turned to look at him. He was regarding me rather oddly.

The keys are stuck,’ I said, by way of a rather pathetic explanation.

He clicked his teeth, and moved towards the piano. I made room for him; he put his hand down in a chord. It rang out beautifully.


‘All right, Dartmouth, get on with with,’ said the master, resignedly.

After he’d left, the piano played again without any bother. I gave no more thought to it.


            The days passed, each thick with the richness of excitement. My mind seemed to expand with the glorious possibilities of the future. We played cricket every day; and when we didn’t play a match, we would be out in the nets for hours, till just before bedtime. We drank orange juice in the sun, and basked, like lizards. About a week before the concert I’d been bowled out in the nets by someone in the year below, so I was feeling a little annoyed. As we were trooping along, someone said,
            ‘Hey, look at Dartmouth!’
            I began to feel an unpleasant sensation of dampness.
            ‘Look! He’s pissed himself!’
            I looked down at my cricket whites. There, on the back, was a large, damp stain, getting wider and wider.
            To the laughter of the boys I fled, and secreted myself in a lavatory. I tore off my trousers. The back was thick with wet, dark, muddy water. I must have sat down in a damp patch, I thought. That’s all that it is. I washed the worst of it out with water, and then stood with my backside up to the handdryer for about ten minutes; then I returned as quietly as I could to the dorm. Luckily it was silent reading by then so there was nobody to mock me; and in the general hubbub that attended the duty master’s round, the incident seemed to have been forgotten.
            Would that it had been; the next morning my dormmate leant over, prodded the sheets, sniffed, then said,
            ‘Dry as a bone.’
            The dorm exploded into laughter.
            That day, everywhere I went I felt as if I were squelching in some dank, dark marshland. I seemed to hear the ooze of slime as my steps went along. I was castigated by the matron for leaving muddy footprints all over the laundry room floor. She expressed amazement, as there hadn’t been rain for weeks.
            But still I practised. I knew the Gnu song off by heart. I’d been trying out some rather good twirls with my grandfather's cane, throwing it up in the air and catching it. The fact that it seemed to slip out of my hand whenever I held it for long periods didn’t worry me. It was nerves, I thought. Just nerves.
            The day of the concert arrived. Mrs Forrester, tactless as ever, chose to attend, wearing a large black hat. She sat on a bench in the front row. My own parents I saw sitting demurely behind a pillar. The concert went on: first the mewling younger boys, barping out their saxophones and their C clarinets. I wonder how the parents stood it; yet they clapped with wild enjoyment. Then the better boys: a good flautist, and a pianist who could play Chopin. There was hushed silence for a second or two, as if we had been in the Wigmore; and then furious applause.
            My song was last on the program. I waited, calm, in the wings. As I stood about to go on, I felt somebody embrace me: their touch was cold. ‘Good luck’, came a whisper: when I turned, nobody was there.
            Onto the stage I went. I was wearing tails, and a top hat, and held my shiny cane, all ready to twirl. I felt wet. Perspiration, of course. The music struck up. The audience was whispering urgently. I opened my mouth, took in the faces of all those parents, saw the other boys sitting reverently at the front. This was my pinnacle. I smiled, bowed, and opened my mouth.
            They told me what happened, afterwards. As I stood there, a long stream of water issued out of my mouth. The music master stopped playing and looked up, puzzled. Some parents stood up. All I recall is that I seemed suddenly to be floating in the arctic grip of a body of water. The parents had tranformed into waving weeds. I struggled to move my legs, and felt the inevitable pull of the current as it dragged me downwards. And the face, the piggy, malicious face of Edwin Forrester, his mouth open in triumph, as my consciousness departed.
            They say that the stage quickly filled with water; that the boys were hurried out. Nobody dared approach me as I lay collapsed, surrounded by water, my top hat and my cane drifting inexorably away. The matron, and a parent who was a doctor, stayed: the cold water flowed out over the sides of the stage, and continued until it filled half the hall. The matron and the doctor stood on chairs: I floated. It was some time until the mysterious source ebbed away and the water retreated. I sank back to the cold stone of the floor. I saw the matron, who wrapped me in a blanket; a doctor took my pulse. And then a frog hopped by, croaking. I could have sworn it was making the first few bars of the Gnu song.
            The audience returned, splashing damply in the remaining water. I was rescued. My mother held me to her chest, not caring about her dress. They carried me out on a stretcher and put me in an ambulance. I remember seeing Mrs Forrester's black hat bobbing up and down. I spent the rest of the week in a hospital under observation. They talked about faulty pipes; about flash floods. But I knew. I knew what had happened.
 It didn’t help that I talked during my sleep. When I woke there were some concerned faces around me. I’d said I’d pushed Edwin; I knew that I’d done nothing at all. Even now, as I walk through the corridors of this place that they laughably call a hospital, that’s what I tell people: that I did nothing at all.

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