Friday, 8 June 2012

Ambition's Debt by Leonard Barras

Ambition's Debt
Uncle Hal used to hanker for a sundial, but there was one of those domestic compromises and my old Aunt Emma got a black-and-white cat.
We had a grandfather clock which stood outside the gas meter cupboard and Uncle Hal stared at it uncomprehendingly every morning before checking the draught in the scullery with his wet finger and going across the backlane to manure his allotment.
'I could tell the time by the stars,' he told my old Aunt Emma, 'but you can't really manure your allotment by starlight.'

My old Aunt Emma said the clock would be perfectly all right it it had a minute hand.  'You could ask Jas Hunkers,' she said.  'I wish you'd wipe your boots.'
Jas Hunkers, Family Butcher, the first Do It Yourself man in Wallsend, had a supply of minute hands, but he kept them for customers who bought his best mince.
'You're sitting on Julius Caesar,' said Uncle Hal.
'I don't know where all the manure comes from,' said my old Aunt Emma.
Uncle Hal retrieved the warm copy of Julius Caesar and told me to hurry with it to my English master.  It was the bright day that brought forth the adder, he said, and he was going back to his allotment to find a sight for a sundial.

My English master was a tenacious man who nagged me to prune my adverbs, but Uncle Hal doubted whether academics prepared a lad for the real world in which clocks had to be altered twice a year.  There was admittedly a mention of clocks striking in Julius Caesar, but this was an anachronism, according to the English master.
I thought him infallible at the time, but I learned later that he always mispronounced 'onomatopoeia', although even to get close taxed his tenacity.

For the Speech Day production of Julius Caesar, he cast me as Cinna, who was torn for his bad verses, but I left my bald wig in the Forth Form classroom (girl's), because I was worried at the time about the North Pole, which had come up in a science lesson about longitudinal differentials.
Uncle Hal said this was a manifestation of the class structure in geography; it was enough to make him believe in the flat earth theory, except that he already did.  As it was, I was handicapped by playing Cinna without my glasses, which would have been another anachronism, the English master suspected.  After all, Caesar, who was deaf, he said, didn't have an ear trumpet.

It was rather much to expect that Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet, would stand back from controversy, and a verse entitled Certitude appeared in the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon:

Galileo perfected the pendulum clock,
After which he re-fashioned the pulley and block.
He refined hydrostatics and then, very soon,
He deduced the existence of Jupiter's moon.
But a moment arrived when his dreams seemed undone,
For he swore that the earth made a path round the sun.
So they put him in prison.  But still, to his shame,
He emerged with a highly preposterous claim:
'I shall move the whole earth, which no man can forbid,
If you'll give me a lever.'  
But nobody did.

And nobody had the heart to tell Herbert Mangle that it was Archimedes.

Longitudinal differentials were explained to me by the girl's science mistress, whom I kept in with because I had trysts at the Fourth Form radiator with one of her pupils who played Calpurnia with a false chest.  The science mistress supported the genetical theories of Linnaeus.  She anticipated a world energy crisis and dreamed of dynasties founded on the model of the Infusorian Amoebas.  As far as I know, she didn't mispronounce any of this, but I can't speak for myself.

My wig was brought into the Forum by Calpurnia, panting, and being without glasses I at once stabbed her, under the impression that she was Julius Caesar, as I explained when they prematurely lowered the curtain.
'You're a poet, not a conspirator, you fool!' shouted the English master.
'What I was thinking about, sir,' I said, 'was the North Pole, where there aren't any longitudinal differentials and so, according to my Uncle Hal, it's always any time you want it to be for manuring.'
He uttered a low moan, which I identified as onomatopoeic, and said he would see me at Philippi, if he couldn't avoid it.

Next day, Uncle Hal bought half-a-pound of best mince and called Jas Hunkers to the grandfather clock.  'It's well known, you see,' he told my old Aunt Emma, 'that sundials held their own against grandfather clocks until Willett's Daylight Saving Bill, 1908, when the difficulty of putting sundials forward an hour defeated the best Edwardian brains.'
'You'll get arthritis in that finger,' said my old Aunt Emma.

Jas Hunkers looked at the clock and said Uncle Hal must have noticed that the hour hand had now dropped off.  'You can't get hour hands,' he said severely.  'That clock will just whir and expire.'
'What I'd really like is a sundial,' Uncle Hal said.
'They don't work outside gas meter cupboards,' Jas Hunkers warned.  'You could try Walter Eames.'
What about my allotment?' Uncle Hal asked.
'It certainly needs a change of manure,' Jas Hunkers acknowledged.  'But Walter Eames can't help you there.  He's a monumental sculptor.' 
'I always thought of him as a small man,' said Uncle Hal. 'Will he do me a sundial?'
'He does a very nice headstone,' said Jas Hunkers, 'but only for cemeteries.'

I had been hanging about, hoping to redeem myself by explaining to my old Aunt Emma where manure came from, but it seemed she already knew, so it was a dispiriting time for me.  Calpurnia, once she had removed the dagger from her false chest, had put an end to our trysts, which was a disappointment to the science mistresss, who had predicted that we were genetically equipped to found a dynasty of nincompoops.

Of course, there have been other radiators in my life, but I still remember Calpurnia's chest (at least) when I think of the Infusorian Amoemas, which isn't very often these days.  Mind you, I've lived to prune adverbs and see Julius Caesar performed with an ear trumpet at the National Theatre, but I don't recall that Herbert Mangle was ever torn by readers of the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon.

Three weeks after the domestic compromise, the grandfather clock whirred and expired.
'Aye, well,' said Uncle Hal, 'I'm not getting a headstone.'