Remember Minnie Plowden!: John O’Leary’s 1977 Hennessy Literary Award winning story
Poor Minnie ran up to the priest and embraced him. She asked to be crucified at an angle of 185 degrees so that she could be martyred and buried all in one go
John O’Leary visiting the Saltee Islands in July, 1977
Luckily the Teachers Conference coincided with the softest week in April.
Slattery was a delegate. He was sick but he was getting better. It was almost teatime and some shuffling among the audience predicted the imminence of food. Somebody was speaking about “education”. He would eat a good meal and drink two glasses of milk. Then he would get very drunk again. McGrath and O’Donnell his friends and fellow delegates, sat by him. They inclined towards one another, swapping innuendoes in whispers.
Slattery remembered the previous night when McGrath, opening his hotel window, sang to the distant sea and announced that he was about to commit suicide. They held him by the shoulders, speaking to him gently, told him they loved him, ineluctable kinship, to cool it, for Christ’s sake to cop on. When he was quiet they listened to the ocean, to them came the exhalation of a breaking wave, and a human voice, wavering and discordant, singing “Seoithín Seo Lu Lo-Lo”.
The last speaker ended to scattered applause and the delegates began to dribble out. Slattery was looking for McGrath when he noticed a man at the door, saluting the delegate in an unctuous way, interposing himself sometimes between a group and singling out one with whom he would attempt concourse. He could not have been a teacher but Slattery was not sure. He was elderly and unshaven, tall with a stooping angular frame, and he wore a grey suit, the coat of which was reinforced on both elbows with leather coifs. His shirt was unironed and crumpled, bearing several brown stains on the collar: his shoes, black suede, old.
“Watch yer man,” McGrath said.
The three of them stopped and observed the man try with a variety of intimate expressions, to gain the attention of a lady delegate. He swept out his wrist and bowed grotesquely as though inviting her to converse in some deserted corner. She would not, and foiled his advances with a smack. She hurried on to join her companions who had been watching.
She was a large girl with strong round shoulders. She wore a blouse frilled with silk ribbing, of indecisive verdigiris, and open at the neck revealing a necklace and cross.
“Of all the cheek . . .” they heard her say.
She pursed her lips and flounced in a fashion towards the dining hall. She turned once, suddening jerking her body into a chaste vertical. But there was no bounce under the faint bulbs of her brassiere. The transparent silk held no secrets. Her breasts, if they were, Slattery thought, need not be. If they were not, she betrayed nothing. She was like a defective parachute. He held too the memory of her huge tinted glasses, and the curious innocence of her tights as they gathered in folds around her ankles.
“Dia dhuit,” the man greeted him as he passed, gripping him by the left arm. His hand, though lean and skinny, was strong and held Slattery like a forceps.
“Focal id’ chluais . . . ”
McGrath and O’Donnell slipped on, chuckling under bowed heads. McGrath turned at the dining room door and showed Slattery two fingers expressing an inverted V. He was happy.
“My [name]is Bartley Drolan. How are you? Was the Conference of interest? Come over here . . .”
The man’s eyes had a fakir’s intensity which enthralled Slattery. He felt trapped. Their glittering meshed him in electric lariats and he was frightened to find himself weaken like a child. He wanted to go away and eat his dinner but could not.
For the love a’ God, boy, don’t get excited about education. It’s unfair to yourself. It stimulates the adrenalin. Then you have to flog all round you to get it out of your system.
“I want to talk to you,” continued Bartley Drolan. He steered Slattery toward the toilets, halting him on a tiled corridor outside the Gents. There by a hand-basin jutting like a cup from a wall, Drolan placed him. He took the butt of a cigarette from his coat pocket and put it into his mouth. He never lit it. They would be serving the soup now. Slattery was annoyed.
“Look, if you don’t mind!”
He was gripped again by the arm.
“Take your hand for Chris- . . .”
“Take your ease, boy.”
They paused. He was staring at Slattery again. His eyes. Those eyes. Slattery thought momentarily of St Sebastian.
He felt the grip relax. He was listening.
“For the love a’ God, boy, don’t get excited about education. It’s unfair to yourself. It stimulates the adrenalin. Then you have to flog all round you to get it out of your system. Otherwise you come out in spots and you begin to breathe through your nose and you can’t sleep at night . . .”
He stopped, looking at Slattery fixedly in the eye.
“ . . . provoking an atavistic response to the wrong stimulus . . . ”
He pulled on his unlit butt and seemed to be thinking intensely.
“. . . and the feckin’ Department won’t sanction bows and arrows . . . for the poor bloody teacher, I mean. Sad. The contemporary dilemma . . . ya follow me . . . Mr . . . Mr??”
“Slattery,” said Slattery.
“Mister Slattery . . . A good Corkman if I’m not mistaken. We’re everywhere, God knows.”
He bruised the butt of his fag over the round grating at the base of the sink, flattening the tip into a rectangle. His fingers were black with ash and he cleaned them on the leg of his trousers.
“Fags are the divil,” he said, dividing the judgement by a quick glance between Slattery and himself.
“And I’ll tell you another thing!”
He was holding up an index finger and revolving it slowly in the arc of a single sunbeam. The light had slipped through a chink in the frosted window above the Gents. It was weak and yellow with evening.
He compressed a chrome lever and a jet of water arched out from a spout at the lip of the hand-basin. It swirled the wet ash around for a few seconds until both were drawn with a strangled gurgle into the drain. Drolan released the lever and wiped a finger savagely under his nose. Slattery looked down. He saw water in the hand-basin well up slowly, discoloured with ash and fibres of drowned tobacco.
“Minnie Plowden was a very foolish woman . . .”
Drolan did not reply. He was holding up an index finger and revolving it slowly in the arc of a single sunbeam. The light had slipped through a chink in the frosted window above the Gents. It was weak and yellow with evening.
“A classic case of throwing the Christian to the lions . . . putting the pigeon amongst the cats, with the same result I suppose.”
Slattery could see a bleb of mucus on the top of his finger and he turned aside, feeling the muscles of his gut tighten and convulse. When he forced himself to look again Drolan was biting his nails and looking profound. He was gazing beyond Slattery’s shoulder.
“ . . . putting the pigeon amongst the cats,” he hissed. “That’s it, by God!”
There was silence then until Drolan snorted. He began to breathe through his nostrils quickly and with passion.
“Inspectors were bastards in those days . . . a shower of . . . of . . . ”
“Hoors?” Slattery offered.
Drolan snorted again with a surfeit of feeling and gripped Slattery by the shoulders.
“Hoors !!” he repeated.
His face was very close and Slattery could smell the breath that was fanning around him. He saw with a slight shock that Drolan had no eyebrows. His lids were too raw and pink, the lashes fair and sparse, curiously swinelike. He released Slattery and lay back against the wall. He did not offer him a fag as he lit and inhaled. He threw the match into the hand-basin where it frizzled and quenched, leaving a momentary stalk of smoke.
“I was teaching in Culfroonsa at the time. I was a young buck then, just over the thirty mark. She was no great beauty, mind you: A quiet sort of girl with glasses. You know the kind? – you’d hardly notice her if you didn’t know she was there. An unobtrusive soul . . . inconspicuous. That was Minnie Plowden . . . inconspicuous . . .”
Drolan pursed his lips. He was thinking again.
“She wouldn’t launch a thousand ships. Is that what you mean?”
Drolan chuckled. His eyes screwed up with merriment and he began to shake Slattery by the shoulder.
“You knoo . . . you knoo . . . Mr Slattery,” he began, imperiously, until his happiness overtook him and he leaned back against the wall wheezing. Slattery was smiling.
“. . . launch a thousand ships? . . . she would . . . if . . . they saw her coming !!!”
Then both, raconteur and listener, collapsed.
Drolan rocked out from the wall while Slattery swung up and down, now clutching his hips, now his knees. He was warming to this old man with his strange blends of expression.
They quietened. Drolan was streaming tears and spluttering on his cigarette. Slattery skitted desultorily. Neither spoke, then Slattery said, “I suppose she had a lovely mind?”
“She had . . . she had. She was the finest teacher you ever saw. B’jaysus her class could spell ‘Ni gheobhaidh’ sideways.”
“What class was she teaching?”
“Infants . . . that was before the New Curriculum. As a matter of fact, and this, as they say, is the penultimate irony – it was Minnie Plowden who pioneered the New Curriculum, in a fashion!”
A squall of laughter came to them from the dining-room. It seemed worlds away. It was followed by applause. They heard the susurrus of appreciation recede into silence.
“How’s that? The bloody inspector. She was pioneered. Pioneered. That’s how’s that. That’s how that was,” he added.
“Chasing a Junior Assistant Mistress around the classroom . . . begging her, mind you!! Begging her to-wait for it-to give him a ‘Christian Education’.”
He pulled heavily on his cigarette, holding it aside as the smoke jetted from both nostrils. He blew two smoke rings. His mouth was open and he had crossed his legs.
“De Burgo . . . ” he said, splitting the name delicately and dropping the parts in distinct fractions into Slattery’s ear.
“De Burgo was the local inspector. A melted bastard if you ever met one. A small man by God, in more ways than one! – I can tell you – I can tell you!! He ended his days, as they say, in Teach na nGealt!”
“By God! How?”
“Chasing a Junior Assistant Mistress around the classroom . . . begging her, mind you!! Begging her to-wait for it-to give him a ‘Christian Education’.”
“I want a Christian Education, sez he, waving a ruler in the air and flailing every child in his way. Sure he was red mad! That’s what comes from ambition. That’s what the New Curriculum did for De Burgo. Not, I might add, before he had driven Minnie Plowden daft into the bargain.”
Drolan sucked his cigarette as his eyes narrowed to fine slits. He examined his knee which was white with fallen ash. The spell was broken. Slattery heard the clatter of cutlery and a loud babel of voices. He felt suddenly hungry and disorientated.
“Look . . . Mister . . . Drolan, my gut is a bit . . .”
“Hold on – “
He was staring at him again, down at him, for he was standing upright and Slattery was surprised at the height of the man. His neck was lean and wattled around the sinews like a mummy. He looked old, very old and yellow. It struck Slattery that he might have been jaundiced. Hardly tanned, although the April weather had been excellent.
“‘The Heuristic Approach,’ De Burgo announced one day, sticking his head around the door. The H-E-U-Ristic Approach. He was always careful of his speech, the little runt. He was what they call ‘an aspiring politeeshan’ in his youth.
“I remember he gave a speech one time down in Fiddler’s Hill before the General Election of 19 . . . The date escapes me. It’s equal anyway. Sure the crowd loved him. They clapped like mad and roared at everything he said – he fancied himself as an orator you see. Yerra, I still remember some of the things he said. Hold on a minute now . . . wait a tick . . .”
He threw his fag hurriedly into the basin and stood out at a distance from the wall. He assumed the pose of an emperor, one hand on his left hip and his right hand aloft pointing to the ceiling. He began to speak in a clipped tone, enunciating his words and savouring them, giving each individual stress, a sense of elocutionary importance, as though everything he said was incomparable and was delivered by him only with the greatest reluctance. He was a fine mimic.
“General statements concerning the purpose of education have a tendency to lose their impact, not because they are false but because they are by their very nature incomplete. The theory . . . ahh??” He hesitated and dropped his head into the cup of his hand. He was thinking. “Aha”, he said and resumed with a dramatic whirl of his wrist. “The theory they enshrine may be flawless in itself but its actual influence on practice in schools may at the same time be minimal . . .”
Drolan laughed then and began to smile broadly at Slattery.
“His last works are combustible . . . listen! ‘ . . . The scale of values in a society will determine its educational aims and priorities. We in Ireland have our own scale of values . . . ’”
“Heuristic my backside! Sure poor Minnie thought he was looking a bit of you know what !! She got a terrible fright.
He stopped. He was flushed and triumphant. He stalled Slattery, who was giggling, and quickly said. “Twas only afterwards the taoiseach took him aside and told him for the love of decency to close his fly. That was the end of that. He took the teaching a bit too serious after that. Post Trauma Reaction I think myself . . .”
Slattery waited. His hunger had gone. He watched the grained features rearrange themselves. He watched as Drolan rubbed his chin and gazed into the distance beyond his head.
“Heuristic my backside! Sure poor Minnie thought he was looking a bit of you know what !! She got a terrible fright. ‘How dare you Mr De Burgo!’ sez she. ‘Never mind your tantrums, a Mhaistreas,’ sez he. ‘Read this here and I’ll be back to you next month.’”
“He gave her a big yella book with ‘Primary School Curriculum’ written on it, and the long and the short of it was that the following month you couldn’t bid Minnie goodmorra’ without her showering you with dissertations on ‘optimum personal fulfilment’ and ‘empiric development’. They say she was at Mass one Sunday when the collector came towards her with a Vincent de Paul box and she ups and sez to the collector: ‘Every step forward taken by a taken by humanity creates its own paradox!’ That story is still news down in Fiddler’s Hill. Poor Minnie . . .” Drolan said slowly, lifting his chin and nodding in reflective sympathy.
The volume from the dining-hall increased [all] of a sudden and lessened again as a door could be heard shutting. A male figure came hurrying in their direction. Then veered to the right where he disappeared through a door on which a placard hung askew. The word ‘MNA’ without a seibhiu was printed on it. When he emerged he seemed no longer in a hurry, though a little puzzled. He looked around and saw Drolan smiling at him. His forehead creased and he glanced over his shoulder. He started and looked again quickly at Drolan. Slattery saw his face flush with embarrassment. He laughed and sidled off, rummaging desperately for something in his breast pocket.
“Minnie Plowden, thou shouldst be living at this hour!!” Drolan intoned.
“Keats?” ventured Slattery.
“Maybe . . . maybe . . . if she had a man it would have taken her mind off it, poor girl. But she hadn’t. I think the beginning of the end was when she attempted curriculum integration by defining the Trinity as ‘a Figure bounded by three straight lines.’ Sanctifying Grace, according to Minnie, occupied the space in the centre. Before that, however, she had pestered the PP to build a swimming-pool in the yard and surround it with sand-dunes, so that the Infants could attain a tactile appreciation of mass and volume. Ya know . . .”
He was stirring a match idly in the basin which was full and beginning to lap over the edges.
“Poor Minnie . . .”
I declare to God if she didn’t do a full strip to ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, backed up by half the class on tin whistles.
Slattery gaped. New worlds formed and reformed behind his eyes. He was aware, intensely aware, of himself. He saw, as if from his own spirit floating above him, his eyes, as they watched Drolan, and his ears as they heard him resume.
“De Burgo dropped in one day when the rumours were just beginning. He wasn’t very well himself at the time. Actually he was referring to himself in the plural and was suffering in general from severe delusions. ‘We will be a minister one day, so we will If music be the food of love, play on! Give me surfeit of it, play on! Play on, Miss Plowden.’”
“They say he went on like this. Minnie gave him a music lesson awright. She had a new gramophone, the only educational aid she could wheedle from the PP, and I declare to God if she didn’t do a full strip to ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, backed up by half the class on tin whistles.”
“That was it. The PP arrived to find the place in uproar. De Burgo was kneeling on his cap singing ‘Faith of Our Fathers’. Poor Minnie ran up to the priest and embraced him. She asked to be crucified at an angle of 185 degrees so that she could be martyred and buried all in one go. So Minnie went out, as they say, on a sforzando.
“De Burgo, who started the whole thing off, was given a holiday and allowed back only on a doctor’s cert. The doctor, as it turned out, was his own brother-in-law. After the affair with the JAM the men in the white coats carted him off to Cork. He rode into immortality, I’m told, reaffirming his plurality. He told the medics that he was ubiquitous and constituted of tenths. He claimed that he was only nine-tenths mad and that the fact of his sane tenth established a legal conundrum. ‘There may be half of me mad,’ he said, ‘and that may be the majority. However, this does not mean the minorities should be discriminated against because of their being different, or that they should be denied their natural rights, no matter how small a minority they happen to be.’”
“He demanded that he be examined by two doctors, identical twins, similarly dressed, and pronouncing their medical opinion simultaneously. Very crafty for a coot in his condition.”
“There y’are”, said Drolan, “that’s the way . . .”
He quenched his final butt and the water in the basin overflowed, wetting his shoes and splattering in disordered pools around the floor.
“That’s why I’m warning you about this Modern Education. D’ya get my point? D’ya see?”
“I’ll be off now so. But let me give you one bit of advice. As the man said looking at the rabbit droppings. ‘There’s a bite t’eat if only I can find it’. You are on yer own on this ole planet, boy! There’s plenty to see but nothin’ to account for it. ‘Tis a quare number. If you have an ideal, as they call it, go in there, boy . . .” he pointed to the Ladies, “. . . and vomit it up. Flush it down!!”
He gestured in an offhand way to the Gents and whispered to Slattery: “There’s no flush facilities in there, d’ya understand?? Only urinals . . . a matter of biological necessity, no more. Remember that!”
He hammered on the door of the Gents with his fist, and turned from it. His eyes were distended and brilliant.
“We’ll be off,” he said again. “We’ll be on our way-do your Nero in your way, boy. Remember Minnie Plowden when you listen to the fancy lads”, he thundered, pointing to the dinner-room.
“Fiddle yer own tune-polish the leather and to hell with the . . . with the hoors and their heurisms . . .”
Slattery was transfixed. He watched the departure of the strange raconteur toward the exit. Drolan turned once and delivered his peroration.
“Watch it, boy. Watch out for landmines . . . that gang with their fancy furry philosophies. Remember Minnie’s dictum . . . ‘Every step forward taken by humanity creates its own paradox’” and proceeded to collide with the revolving glass doors at the hotel exit.