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In the manner of a pile of autumn leaves scattered by a sudden gust, the realisation reached every corner of the playground in a trice. The moment he stepped through the gates of Millford Boys’, heads swivelled. One look revealed all there was to know. From the top of his spiky bristle to the thick leather soles of his shiny shoes the new teacher was American. So American, he could’ve stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration in one of the dog-eared copies of Reader’s Digest on shelf in my parents’ bedroom. We gaped in silent awe.
Tall and gaunt, his dark red hair sculpted into a crew-cut with sharp corners, his head resembled nothing so much as a cube. A square jaw jutted from a lightly-freckled square face.Its honey tan radiated rude health in a way that seemed unnatural to pale, little Englanders. We rarely saw such hale complexions, even at the height of summer. Advice from our mothers, allied with painful experience, had taught us exposure to strong sunlight only resulted in glowing red skin and soreness.
It’s difficult to realise now, but in the days before The Beatles, we were all so naïve. Early 1960s Leicester was a backwater where the arrival of anything American was so exciting it almost qualified as exotic. The arrival of an American teacher shot off the scale. So amazed were we, he might’ve stepped off a spacecraft from another dimension. Every single detail about the new teacher was remarkable in some way. His very clothes imparted foreignness. In our drab world he was the stuff of Hollywood. Cut in somewhat alien style, his salt ’n pepper light tweed jacket, with its narrow lapels and two buttons, was pure Dean Martin. The spotted red dicky bow sprouting from his shirt collar, Jerry Lewis. His grey slacks, a touch too narrow for conservative English tastes, were a bit on the short side. Moseying across the playground in a rolling cowboy gait, they flapped tightly above heavy black brogues, revealing a pair of bright Argyle socks. He was American all right. Technicolor American in monochrome England. As American as blueberry pie.
The grapevine had it he was going to teach us French. An American teaching French. Whatever would they think of next?
Aside from his many interesting sartorial details, initial first-hand reports held there was something even more fascinating about the new teacher. His right eye. According to those lucky enough to get close it was a peculiarly rigid orb which glared from its socket with unbridled malevolence. Despite having two eyes, this quickly led to him being dubbed Cyclops.
Whispers circulated by those in the know warned against looking directly into the weird eye. One unfortunate already had. Dropping to the ground unconscious he’d been rushed off to the Royal Infirmary. Some said it was Michael Humphries, until he turned up late having missed his bus. Several other likely victims were noted by their absence. Yet nobody could say for certain which boy it was. The poor devil. And nobody actually saw him being loaded into the ambulance. It was all very hush-hush. However much they knew, our teachers were keeping mum.
Except for the unlucky pupil, nobody else got a chance to examine the eye that day. Strange goings on in the staff-room during break led to the new teacher being sent home. Buzz was, something slipped in his tea, or smeared on his biscuits, proved too strong for the famed American constitution. He chucked up a McVitie’s chocolate digestive all over the headmaster’s jacket. A likely story. More probably he’d been taken down the nick by the fuzz for questioning over the incident leading to an innocent boy being knocked out cold.
The mystery deepened when he still hadn’t returned after a fortnight’s absence. Harry Benson pointed out even a Yank wouldn’t take two weeks to get over a chocolate biscuit, however stale. Johnny Malpass speculated that quite clearly Cyclops had escaped police custody to catch the overnight ferry to Calais where he could pass for a Frenchmen if he got rid of his clothes. More likely he’d skipped bail and was holed up with the Kray twins down in The Smoke, Alex Collins said. Alex was a Cockney and took every opportunity to refer to London as The Smoke. Whatever the truth Mr Priestly, our headmaster, knew more than he was saying. French lessons wouldn’t commence till Cyclops felt well enough to return was all he’d tell us. As if that were going to happen soon. The time could be equally well spent on some other subject, he said.
Whatever the real story, eventually he did come back. Having laid low for nearly a month he turned up looking as innocent as a newborn baby. Like nothing had happened. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? He weren’t fooling us. It was the same day the Michaelmas daisies outside the headmaster’s study window shrivelled up. The two events too much of a coincidence not to be connected, Harry Benson and I surmised once glance from the fabled eye could’ve done it. After all, the poor sod he’d stared into unconsciousness was still in a coma, as far we knew. They were keeping that quiet enough. We hadn’t heard a dicky bird. Nobody was letting on. Robert Newton, or ‘Prof’ as we called him, said the flowers had more likely shrivelled as a result of the first sharp frost of autumn. There’s always one clever bastard, who knows it all. Like the most obvious explanation would be the real reason. It was just his theory. I’d wait to see the eye for myself before jumping to conclusions like that.
As things transpired, my first encounter with it was to be delayed further. Two days after the new teacher’s return a doctor’s examination revealed an acute earache I’d been suffering was due to a tiny growth, which would have to be surgically removed and analysed for malignancy. A small enough operation, it still meant I’d have to spend a few days in hospital, followed by a period of recuperation at home. My father was even more disturbed by the news than me. Whether the thought of the operation disturbed him, or my staying at home, I couldn’t be sure. But he may have suffered some remorse from accusing me of malingering when I first complained about my earache. He’d insisted it was an excuse to miss school. If only he realised how much I wanted to be at school, just to see the eye.
By the time I was well enough to return there was only a fortnight left before the Christmas holidays. As soon as I arrived I asked if anyone had seen Cyclops. That’s when I learned his real name. Alex Collins told me Mr Touchette had only managed to turn up for a couple of weeks during my absence before disappearing again.
The playground was ablaze with gossip. Hardly anybody had dared look into the queer eye. A couple of boys who had by mistake complained of headaches and dizzy spells. Somebody said, despite that, the eye’s powers were diminishing. He’d seen something like it in a film on telly. Overuse was weakening it and Cyclops in the process. If he didn’t receive treatment from a special ray machine kept in America he would die. It all made perfect sense, explaining why he took so much time off school. I longed to see it at close quarters, before it flickered out completely. At the same time, dreading its stare. But our gazes were destined not to cross for a little while longer.
Come Christmas, Dad’s feelings of guilt over his accusations of malingering brought me more presents than usual, much to my little sister’s disappointment. But a short memory, coupled with a serious hangover, ensured his customary antagonism partially restored for the arrival of Boxing Day. His drunken bad temper returned fully in time to celebrate New Year with a tremendous family row on the stroke of midnight. How I longed for school to begin. I’d spent more than enough time at home over the preceding months.
The first day of spring term the thought of seeing Cyclops’ legendary eye was uppermost in my mind. I’d already spotted him at morning assembly. From a distance neither of his eyes looked much different from any other member of staff’s, and I couldn’t even tell which one it was. My first French lesson was the following Wednesday. I could hardly wait.
Monday seemed to drag on a lot longer than normal and Tuesday morning’s double physics lasted an eternity. I could swear we played three halves of rugger that afternoon. Finally, Wednesday dawned. French was the second lesson of the day, preceded by geometry. There had been so much talk about the eye I could hardly concentrate on my Isosceles triangle for fevered excitement. Absent from morning assembly, I became concerned Cyclops’ eye might’ve weakened him so much he’d had to be sent home again. I’d soon find out. At last, the bell marking the end of geometry sounded.
As Mr Hooper left the usual pandemonium descended. My very first French lesson was about to start. My very first opportunity to see the eye close to.
When I’d been placed next to Alex Collins at the beginning of the school year I hadn’t liked the idea one bit. Not only was our double desk right at the front of the class, but Collins was the fattest boy in school. Constantly spilling over onto my half of the bench, he smelt of rotting feet and hamster cages. My small bum kept sliding towards his big bum because of the dip it created. Sometimes they collided. There was something horribly unhygenic, vaguely immoral, and possibly illegal, about our corporal encounters. After all was said and done, he farted with the same bum. And did other things with it I don’t want to think about. The slightest bump could trigger a fart. He always giggled when it happened. Terrible at schoolwork, he was one of those boys who liked to believe farting was some sort of art at which he was a Zen master. He could do it at will, and more often when he didn’t will it. Will or not, whenever his bum let one rip he’d pinch his nose and call out my name feigning disgust. Though everyone knew it was him, I’d blush guiltily. I still squirm at the memory. He was revolting. He picked his nose and smeared the harvest beneath his desk. In spite of all that, I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone that morning.
A hush descended signalling the classroom door had opened. Framed in the doorway as a silhouette, the long-awaited figure of Cyclops. More than six feet tall, his shadow stretched across the floorboards towards the far wall darkening all in its path. Without wanting, my head fell forward, and I began staring at a pair of initials carved into my desk lid, which had suddenly become very interesting. Tracing their grooves with a pencil, I dare not look up. Billy the Kid could’ve entered the saloon in Deadeye Gulch. Some poor cowpoke’s blood was about to be spilled.
“Okay, boys!” His voice rasped through a sandpaper throat thinly coated with the rich liquid asphalt produced by continuous smoking. “French books out.” With my desk lid raised, I stole a preliminary glimpse at the fabled eye. At first glance both eyes looked pretty much alike. The most piercing blue. But as one slowly scanned our faces the other stayed fixed. Stubbornly refusing to move, his right eye stared coldly in front of itself. As though permanently cast in stony, potent anger, it seemed the eye of someone possessed. Or even worse, the eye that possessed someone.
“Quietly now,” Cyclops shouted, before we had a chance to bang our desks shut. I’d never heard an American accent in the flesh before. Tobacco tanned, leathery and scarred by years of use as a smoke duct. Away from the telly and cinema screens it sounded so strange. So out of place. It didn’t belong in Leicester.
We closed our desk lids as quietly as possible with the random lack of rhythm small schoolboys find so natural, and grown-ups find so annoying, to place our books in front of us.
Again, Cyclops’ normal eye swept along our faces like a lighthouse beam in a way which made his odd one seem all the more malevolent; staring, as it did, into the empty space ahead, as though waiting to be called into action. I turned to see what it might be looking at. When I turned back it was looking at me. Having come to life of its own accord, it was drilling into my skull. Transfixed by panic, I couldn’t accept the eye had chosen me to render unconscious. Raising a finger, Cyclops pointed at my constricted chest, confirming indeed the eye had selected me as its next victim.
“You!” he shouted. It was as if the eye had spoken. “Yes, I’m talking to you!” He jabbed his finger in my direction, and I made to turn again. “No need to look behind you! You know who you are. Yes, you. What’s your name, boy?” I was struck dumb. The eye had cast some kind of spell on me. I prayed it might lay me out quick and I’d be rushed to the Royal Infirmary like the other poor lad. “Come, on! Answer me. It’s easy enough, I asked you what your name was, boy!”
“H-Henderson,” I eventually managed.
“Just Henderson. Robert Henderson.”
“Robert Henderson what?” he repeated. “I won’t ask you again.”
“Sir. R-Robert Henderson, sir.”
“Well, Sir Robert Henderson sir, who seems to know so much he can spend his time looking out of windows instead of learning French. Perhaps you’d like to pass some of your knowledge on to your less fortunate fellows. Ree-cite the verb être, to be.” I sat mesmerised by the eye, my blood draining. Not only could I not speak French, I couldn’t speak English anymore. I couldn’t speak at all. My voice had gone and my lips wouldn’t respond. “C’mon, boy!” the eye needled me. “We just did it last semester, you can’t have forgotten already.” His can’t sounded like can. Tears welled in my eyes. I fought to hold them back. It was hopeless. I didn’t know any French. I hadn’t had a French lesson. I hated French; I hated Cyclops. And, above all, I hated his despicable eye. “Cat got your tongue, boy? Or maybe you spent the whole of last term staring out of windows, huh?”
Silence reigned over the classroom. It was Collins who finally spoke up for me.
“Please, sir!” he yelled, waving his hand in the air. “Please!”
Mr Touchette’s despicable eye held both of mine, while his good one swivelled across to Collins. He wagged his outstretched finger.
“No. Let the boy speak for himself.”
“But, sir!” Collins insisted.
“How many times do I have to tell you, boy!”
“Okay, okay, what is it? This had better be good, or you’re on a detention.”
“Please, sir, Henderson didn’t do French last term, sir. He was absent.”
“He was in hospital, sir,” chipped in Johnny Malpass.
“For an operation,” shouted Benson from the back, adding a touch belatedly. “Sir.”
“In his ear, sir,” chirped up Worthington
“Yes, sir,” confirmed Collins, feeling his limelight stolen.
“Oh,” was all Cyclops could manage for a moment. His despicable eye appeared to blink. Releasing me from its hold, it looked away, “Could’ve sworn he was sat right there last term.” His growl turned to more of a croak, his expression softened, and he gave a little cough. “Absent, huh? Well, I guess we could all take another look at this here verb être. Been absent more than a couple times myself. Okay, Collins, you seem pretty much set to go there, ree-cite the verb être for young Henderson here. From the top now. Je suis, tu es, starting over again.”
As Alex Collins stood up to stumble through the verb être, I noticed some of the drier contents of his nose dislodge themselves from beneath his desk, sprinkling from his trousers down to the floorboards. Funny how things like that stay in your memory. Cyclops paced up and down in front of the class, a finger on his chin, nodding his head in time as though he was listening. But I could see he was admonishing himself for the slip he had made, as if a man with two trustworthy eyes would’ve known he hadn’t seen me before. For the briefest moment, the evil eye had taken complete control of the man, and now he regretted it.
From that day, Cyclops worked hard to treat me differently from the other boys. There grew a tacit understanding between us; we both had our troubles. He had his eye; I had my ear. Like my father at Christmas, he was trying to make amends for his innocent mistake.
I soon managed to catch up on the little French I’d missed, and was a match for the rest of them in no time. The eye became just part and parcel of him, and we hardly noticed after time.
Avoir, aller, vouloir, ouvrir, fermer; regular and irregular, on we raced to Easter, and the end of another term, Cyclops proving to be one of the most popular teachers of our class.
Occasionally, prompted by a word or sentence, he would take time off from teaching to crack a joke, or tell a story about his childhood in the American Midwest. We became like fans or extras on a film set, supporting actors surrounding a star. Taking a chair by its rail, like John Wayne might, he’d swing it round and put his right foot on the seat. Leaning forward to rest an elbow on his knee, his good eye would crinkle mischievously, as his despicable one stared woefully out of its socket. Then he would begin.
His stories were made all the more exciting by being about a faraway place none of us had ever visited, but somewhere we could picture clearly from what we’d seen in on the telly and at the flicks.
One such story made a deep impression. As a small boy staying with his French grandparents in the Deep South state of Louisiana, he’d been caught in a hurricane. His grandparents had warned him to watch out for winds spiralling at speeds of more than a hundred miles an hour. Uprooting trees, and tossing them about like matchsticks, black funnels sucked cars up as vacuum cleaners suck up dust, dumping them down in faraway states. Entire houses got chucked about like toys. One local farmer once saw one of his cows take off into the sky. Three days later it was spotted perched in a tree in the next county munching leaves contentedly. At the first sign of a hurricane the young Cyclops was told he should make for the storm shelter by the side of the house, as fast as he could.
And the day came. As soon as the sky started to darken he set off running to the storm shelter when a massive gust knocked him to the ground. From where he lay he could see a huge dark proboscis stretching down from the sky. Wavering blindly in the distance, this way, then that, he felt as if it was searching him out. Cyclops explained it was the vortex of the storm, its ‘eye’. Here, at the storm’s centre lay an area of eerie stillness totally at odds with the mayhem spiralling around it.
His lessons were far from fun and games all the time. Cyclops stood for no nonsense yet never took the slipper or cane to us, as so many teachers did. One time he came pretty close to it. The week before Easter holidays.
Then as now, most months brought a new fad to the playground. If it wasn’t conkers, it was cigarette cards or marbles, and if it wasn’t marbles it was yo-yos. The fads went round in cycles. Most were harmless enough. But some were a little more dangerous than others.
Laggybands entailed looping and knotting brightly-coloured rubber bands in threes to make finger catapults. Pellets were formed by folding small strips of paper tightly, several times. Placing each loop of the catapult over the thumb and forefinger of one hand, a pellet was hooked round the bands to draw the elastic back as far as possible without snapping the rubber. Upon release the missile darted across the classroom this way and that, as unpredictably as a bent arrow. A squeal of pain followed by red mark would signal the rare incident of a direct hit on exposed skin.
Classroom skirmishes became common between lessons and during unsupervised breaks. Dividing into two main groups on either side of the room we would pitch into ferocious battle against one other. Under constant fire from both sides, boys in the middle rows occupied the hazardous space we knew as Tom Tiddler’s ground. Most of their time spent ducking, and sheltering beneath desks, they would occasionally shoot back in self-defence. They always suffered the worst injuries.
During one particularly fierce battle, Alex Collins caught Harry Benson rather badly on his cheek, leaving a painful-looking scarlet welt beneath his left eye. Harry swore to extract revenge at the very first chance. It arose next lesson, French.
As usual, Alex was sitting next to me at the front of the class, his old pickings drying and falling as fast as he could pick the new. From his desk at the back Harry Benson scrutinised the fat and tender, fleshy fold of pink neck spilling from Alex’s shirt. Between his collar and his hairline, it lay invitingly exposed.
One of the biggest drawbacks to laggybands, as weapons of war, was their notorious lack of precision Try as one might to line up victim and take aim, when discharged the pellet would nearly always veer off in the wrong direction. Hitting a target in the intended spot was nothing short of a minor miracle.
Benson was in no mood to be dissuaded by such secondary considerations, as sweet revenge lay in tantalising range. Convinced his anger, coupled with the justice of his cause, would only serve to increase his accuracy, he determined to let fly at the earliest opportunity.
Choosing his moment with care, he waited till Cyclops had his back to the class. The moment came when the teacher turned to chalk the verb venir, to come, on the blackboard.
Bands looped round finger and thumb, Harry Benson eyed up Collins’ neck.
“Je vien,” growled Cyclops as slowly as he wrote the letters. “I come.” Alex Collins scratched the words into his exercise book with a leaky fountain pen. One eye shut, Benson gauged the distance between himself and his target. “Tu viens,” said Cyclops chalking on obliviously. “You come.” Lining up neck and pellet, Harry Benson held the fat fold of flesh in his sights. “We already know tu is the personal form of you.” Benson drew back his pellet as far as the elastic would allow, without snapping, and took careful aim. “Il viens,” intoned Cyclops stepping sideways, his hand trailing the dusty words behind it. “He, or… ” Collins strained to see the blackboard. Cyclops was blocking his view. Collins flicked his eyes from the blackboard to his exercise book and back. “He, or… ” Cyclops repeated, his chalk squeaking. Benson let his pellet fly. Miraculously, right on target and as straight as an arrow. In the same moment Collins leaned across to copy from my notes. Over his shoulder the pellet flew, and on towards Cyclops. Benson clamped shut his eyes. Narrowly missing Cyclops’ right ear, the pellet flew, past his cheek to bounce off the blackboard just where he was swirling his final ‘s’ with a flourish. “It comes.” Cyclops finished by banging a loud full stop onto the blackboard. Just where the pellet had bounced, as though he hadn’t noticed.
A ripple of nervous laughter stopped almost before it began. Cyclops lowered his hand. Laying the chalk on the rim of the blackboard, he appeared to massage his cheek. The pellet must’ve glanced it. Probably ricocheting from the board into the side of his face. We all sat in deadly, anticipant silence.
Putting a hand into his jacket pocket, Cyclops wheeled round slowly, his good eye appearing first, shrouded by a dark and deeply furrowed brow, followed by his queer one. Or not, as it turned out. To our horror, from where it had stared out so malignantly before, was a gaping, fleshy, and above all, empty eye-socket. We all drew breath as one; thirty-nine hands shooting up to cover open mouths. My first thoughts were Harry Benson had shot it out.
Mr Touchette stood erect, his lone, good eye swivelling as it moved over each one of us in turn. By itself, it looked even more menacing than the missing one.
“Take a good look,” he said needlessly, for we couldn’t tear our own eyes away. “This is what happens when kids get to fool around throwing and shooting things. I lost this one in the war. My platoon got caught behind enemy lines. Shrapnel. I was one of the lucky ones. I got out alive”
Nausea crept over me as I gazed into the empty flesh cavern in his head where once an eye had been. It was like staring into the forbidden insides of someone’s body. Raw meat. “We were just kids. Rookies,” Cyclops went on. “A mite older than you, maybe, but just kids, all the same.” He knew there was no need to explain further, and coughed strangely as he cleared his throat. “Got me out of the war, anyhow,” he croaked, as though he thought he might’ve gone too far. Then, after surveying us all again with his good eye, he turned away. Taking his hand from his pocket, he appeared to massage his cheek once more. When he turned round to face us again his glass eye was back in place.
In that one act, Cyclops metamorphosed from circus freak into war hero. There were no more laggyband battles for the rest of term. Desperate to get back into his good books, nobody dared do anything out of turn. We laboured tirelessly with our French verbs under the delusion we might get another look at his raw meat eye socket as reward for our efforts.
We became obsessed with everything American. We plagued our mothers for cookies instead of biscuits, wore sneakers instead of bumpers, and drank soda instead of pop. I even adopted what I thought was an American twang until dad threatened to give me a clip round the ear for being so daft. I went to the movies instead of the pictures, and listened to Elvis instead of Billy Fury.
Spring came early, and with it the baseball glove and ball I’d badgered my Dad to get me for my birthday. He bought them on a trip to London. Unusual for him, he even went out of his way to a special shop.
Easter was the warmest we’d had for years. Over the school holidays I spent many a happy hour getting my younger sister to throw the baseball at my gloved hand as hard as she could. The smack of leather against leather was the best feeling I’d ever known, and I started taking my new glove with me wherever I went. My mother would have to confiscate it at mealtimes to stop me wearing it. She said I couldn’t hold my knife properly and cut with it. Even after I showed her I could she still took it away.
I wasn’t looking forward to the return to school, as it loomed ever closer. Only the thought of seeing Mr Touchette again brought consolation. I was dying to tell him how good at baseball I had become. It was only a little lie.
French was going to be our first lesson of the new term. With the glove conspicuously on my right hand I placed it on top of my desk. I could hardly wait for Mr Touchette to see it. Though I hadn’t seen him in morning assembly, I wasn’t unduly concerned; he often seemed to miss it. When Johnny Malpass had said it was because he was a Roman Catholic like J F Kennedy, Harry Benson and I even discussed the merits of converting. My Dad decided me against it with a clip round the ear for being as daft as a brush.
My books were out before he could even enter the classroom, as were every other boy’s.
We waited in eager silence. Five long minutes passed before we started to fidget and whisper among ourselves. Another five minutes passed and the initial misgivings began to set in. A horrible premonition filled me with growing dread. Something was up, he wasn’t going to come. He had disappeared again. Our whispers turned to open talk, as speculation ran rife. From there it grew to a crescendo of loud young voices clamouring to be heard. Boys started running from desk to desk. Fighting broke out, and books began flying through the air. Something was terribly wrong.
“Silence!” boomed a voice bursting with authority. All eyes shot to the door from where the order had issued.
In the doorway, stood the towering figure of Mr Priestly. His fists clenched tight by his sides, he was shaking with rage. His face bloated and red.
“This is outrageous!” he shouted, “Detention! The lot of you! Get back to your desks immediately! All of you! This instant! I’ll have the lot of you in my study for a sound thrashing! Do you hear me? And take that stupid glove off your hand, Henderson.”
There must be some mistake, I thought. But before any of us could give further voice to our thoughts, Mr Priestly had a stifling hand in the air. There was no mistake, it said. And I knew something dreadful had happened to Mr Touchette.
“I have an announcement to make,” he started uneasily. My eyes began to mist. “I’ll be taking you for French from now on.” The news was met by loud groans. “Quiet!” he shouted slamming a rule onto the master’s desk. And then, lowering his voice. “Mr Touchette, well, Mr Touchette won’t be coming back this term. He won’t be coming back at all.” Next to me, I heard Alex Collins fail to suppress a sob. And then someone else. No! No! I was unable to hold myself back. Pretty soon we were all crying uncontrollably.
“Why?” I wailed, and a chorus of unbroken voices took up the call. “Why? Why? Why?”
“Stop this blubbing immediately!” But the crying wouldn’t stop. By now we were banging our desk lids. “Touchette! Touchette! Touchette!” we chanted in unison. And we heard the cry being taken up by other classrooms till the whole school had joined. Lessons were terminated, and classes filed out into the playground for line-up with our names being called out one by one to check if we were all there, and show who was in control. We were made to stand for half an hour in drizzle before being herded back into the school building.
At dinnertime, the stories spread like wildfire throughout the school refectory. Mr Touchette had been rushed to hospital with a recurrence the malaria he contracted while a prisoner of the Japanese in Burma. He’d drowned after plunging into a freezing canal to save a little puppy dog. He’d been shot dead while stopping armed raiders from robbing a bank. While out buying half a pound of sausages, he’d been hacked to death by a mad, cleaver-wielding butcher. A cabal of jealous teachers had slipped a Mickey Finn into his tea at break again. This time, they’d dragged him unconscious through a secret passage behind the panelling in the library, and down a secret staircase leading to the cellar. There they tied and gagged him. Returning when school was dark and empty they put him in a sack, before driving to Charnwood Forest at the dead of night, while he was still alive and breathing. He was probably trying to work himself free at that moment. As soon as he did he’d be back, all right. They would pay for messing about with a war hero.
Just before the summer holidays, a new, more mysterious story surfaced. At the time, it seemed to make most sense.
The same day Mr Touchette disappeared, a US military plane had taken off from nearby Cottesmore aerodrome under cover of darkness. It was a fact. Someone had heard it. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. Its mission, to fly a war hero to a top secret military hospital in the United States. The very same military hospital where aliens were being held for observation in a secure wing. Somebody read about it in The News of The World. Although most people didn’t know, a flying saucer had crashed and some Martians had been captured alive. Putting all the pieces of the jigsaw together, we realised they had perfected a way of implanting new eyes with a special ray machine. They might even have took him back to Mars to do it, and now he was stuck there.
But the real truth didn’t dawn until almost a year later. In November 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. As I watched the grainy TV footage of his motorcade in the seconds after the fateful shot I glimpsed a figure jumping onto the back of the car. On my mother’s life it was Cyclops.
Though you couldn’t tell absolutely for certain, it was him all right. Harry Benson swears it was. From that small bit of evidence, Harry and I managed to work out what really must’ve happened. Mr Touchette was a CIA operative. It was obvious to us why must’ve ended up in Leicester. Posing as a French teacher, he’d been sent on a top secret mission for President Kennedy, to foil the original assassination plot planned by the KGB to take place at Leicester Clock Tower. It was a big conspiracy nobody knew about. They were going to put a time bomb inside the tower that would go off at exactly the moment the motorcade passed by. That’s why Kennedy never went to Leicester in the end. Lee Harvey Oswald was the back-up plan. If it wasn’t for Cyclops uncovering the plot Leicester would’ve ended up being one of the most famous cities in the world, and everybody would want to go there. Even more famous than Liverpool.
And just so all the sceptics out there know; Leicester’s most famous group of all time was the Dallas Boys. Is the name a coincidence, or what? You got to ask yourself if they knew anything. Harry reckoned they could’ve been part of a communist cell pretending to be a vocal group. Pretending? How do you pretend to be a popular quintet? But I do believe they could’ve been part of Cyclop’s back-up team. I wish somebody could tell me. Why weren’t they weren’t rounded up and questioned? Think about it. All very sinister, if you ask me.
Click for: An American Abroad – An American Trilogy 2
Copyright © 2012 Bryan Hemming
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So much rich detail here, Bryan. What struck me most is how easily a person can go from freak to hero.
I don’t know whether you browsed through all the comments, but a man called Bob Pittman contacted me saying he recognised his uncle from the name and description. He directed me to a site with a photo. Sure enough, there was Mr Touchette staring across the years. And he actually had been decorated during the war. It came as a bit of a shock to me, as I never dreamed someone in the U.S. might read the story and recognise my portrait of a relative so many years later. He was even known as “The Cyclops”, a name we never called him, but I thought would suit the story.
Woah, Bryan, that is incredible. A very clear message.
So beautifully put together. So relatable, too, as we all remember how interesting our teachers were as school kids. We spent so much time looking at them, listening to them.
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A fan of your own simple writing style, I’m flattered. You have captured the essence of it in a few words.
Bryan – loved it .-)
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Thanks a million, Wendy. It was one of those stories I loved writing. The original was completed decades ago. Nevertheless, I’ve gone back to working on it time and time again, over the years. I never fail to find something new to do.
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This was a pleasure to read, Bryan. I was transported to the post-war England, depicted in many a Public Television series. It also reminded me of Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective, also about recollections of a boy. Loved also the way you brought everything to shore with the JFK bit. For a moment, I was one of those kids, finding perfectly natural that my teacher was, in fact, a member of the U.S. President’s detail. Thanks for this.
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Dennis Potter is a favourite of mine. His TV play about a group of seven-year-olds, Blue Remembered Hills, had a profound effect on me. I knew one of the lead actors, Robin Ellis, quite well.
There hasn’t been a TV writer quite like him ever since. Pennies From Heaven and the Lazarus series were also great. I need to check that Blue Remembered Hills. It sounds like Michael Apted’s Seven Up series.
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Another anecdote (perhaps apocryphal) was that the glass eye, left unattended, was ingested by his dog – and later found only after close inspection of each pile of droppings. As they say, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. He was a rare one, indeed.
The first time I met Buddy was when I was about 12. He came to visit and stay with us for a while. One morning he came down to breakfast and stretched out his arm with his hand closed. He said “Robert, do you want to see something?” He slowly opened his hand and there was an eyeball looking up at me. He then proceeded to insert the glass eye into his eye socket. I was dumb-struck.
In case you are interested, we have uploaded several pictures of Buddy onto his profile in ancestry.com. If you are not able to see them, I can always send you a couple.
Bob, having had a lot of things to do, I let your comment slip my mind, and forgot to look up the ancestry site. Finally, I got there to day and was mildly shocked to see at least two of the photos do look remarkably like the Mr Touchette, who was our French teacher for a short time from autumn (fall) 1960 until spring or summer of 1961.
The only thing that would convince me completely would be if he taught French at MIll HIll School in Leicester, England, at the time I mention.
As I said the trilogy comprises three stories loosely based on the character of Mr Touchette, as I experienced it. He cut a very impressive figure. I liked and respected him very much during the short period our paths crossed.
But I must add with haste that only the first story contains a few true incidents, The other two are products of my vivid imagination and not intended to insult either the living or the dead.
Nevertheless, having see the photos, and realising your uncle was awarded a Purple Heart, I am prompted to ask you whether you mind me using his name in the stories, as I would hate to offend you, and the rest of the family. If you would like me to change the name I would be only too happy to oblige. I only ask because this story might just add an interesting future anectdote for your family history, in itself, and you might like me to leave the stories as they are for posterity.
I find the coincidence of this quite remarkable, as I wasn’t even sure I remembered his name correctly, it was such a long time ago.
My apologies for not contacting you earlier, and thank you for bringing this fascinating little coincidence to my attention. Phew! I think I need a rest.
Bryan, your story brings back memories of my uncle “The Cyclops”. Actually we knew him as Uncle Buddy. He was all you described and so much more. If you want to get the “true” story of who he was, which is almost as amazing as the story you so artfully told, look up Robert Francis Touchette on ancestry.com. I have been working in parallel with a gentleman named Trevor to document all we knew about him.
That’s quite incredible. I don’t remember the first name of my American French teacher.
For, though the story is largely fiction, it is based on reality, and Mr Touchette was his real surname. He also did have a glass eye, which he removed one day to the horror of my classmates and I.
The second part of the Trilogy should be coming soon.
Bob, I’d love to see photos of your Uncle Buddy, and I’m sure some readers of the story might.
Bryan, your writing is just marvellous. So, so clearly I can see those kids in class, ol’ Cyclops, him waiting for the kid to respond, the others chirping up adding weight to the fact – the fact he was in hospital last term. This was just great!
Enormously imaginative, too – true at all?? I love their imaginations, how alive they are by imagination, how an event such as a new teacher is SUCH an event. I really enjoyed it 🙂 Really, really great story telling.
( Just the second-last line, for the perfectionist though…. “Can somebody _____(?) me why they weren’t rounded up and questioned about it?” )
Thanks so much Noeleen. Your comments are really welcome.
And well spotted, the stoy was inspired a couple of real events, and the teacher was based on an American who taught us French. He really did have had a glass eye, and took it out once. I can’t remember if it was exactly for the reason as stated, but it probably was. Most of the story is fiction though. I was getting a bit tired towards the end, and it probably shows.
There are two more stories, it is a trilogy after all. The second one should be up very soon.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep struggling on with the epic ‘Enough for a Drink’. Talk about perfectionism, though the story was finished ages ago I keep on finding things I need to do.
My intention had been to post another tale this month, But ‘Enough for a Drink’ is taking much longer to edit than I anticipated.
This is a heavily edited new version of ‘The New Teacher’ one of three short stories collectively entitled ‘An American Trilogy’ which I wrote some time ago.
Still not completely sure about it, I await comments