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A Shout From The Attic: Miss Rushworth's Sadness

...Watching Miss Rushworth lean over the balcony to watch morning assembly, I felt a pang of sorrow for her great secret and I know that I was not alone in this. Children in small groups who knew of her sadness talked about her in reverential and hushed tones, but never openly. In some ways, there was a religious tenor to what was felt and said about her and the anguish that we knew her smiling heart was hiding....

Ronnie Bray tells of the great sadness of one of his teachers.

Miss Rushworth was, it must be said, a beautiful woman. To us, young as we were, who watched her lean over the balcony at morning assembly at Spring Grove School in Huddersfield, and who knew her secret, she was a romantic tragic figure that melted our hearts without her ever speaking of her great sadness. For a schoolteacher she looked young. Schoolteachers were, in my experience, definitely elderly, although they may not have been the ancient monuments that I recall when I survey the fading scene of my schooldays through the fog of my imperfect memory.

My school days started when I was two-and-a-half years old, ending abruptly for a short time when Hitler invaded Poland and the Town council and a large group of elderly gentlemen in Parliament thought it too adventurous to send babies to school any more. What my mother thought at this interregnum is not recorded, but it would be fair to say that she, in concert with many other harassed mothers who had their little children returned to them somewhat abruptly, thereby had even more reason to hold hard feelings for Herr Hitler than his starting a murderous war.

They started us back again in January of 1940 when I turned five. This time, the nursery stayed empty. The little beds that held us under blue or yellow blankets with fuzzy appliqué rabbits for afternoon naps were moved out and disappeared into the unknown where everything ends up and, in time, the building was turned into a kitchen as more children stayed for school dinners because, as everyone said, “There’s a war on!”

Watching Miss Rushworth lean over the balcony to watch morning assembly, I felt a pang of sorrow for her great secret and I know that I was not alone in this. Children in small groups who knew of her sadness talked about her in reverential and hushed tones, but never openly. In some ways, there was a religious tenor to what was felt and said about her and the anguish that we knew her smiling heart was hiding.

Most of the children had fathers, uncles, or brothers, away at the war that was a very present reality imposing itself into our consciousness, our play, and our perception of what the world was like. The war and its ravages were our realities. Our supply of spice, the colloquial term for sweets, was strictly governed by our supply of sweet coupons and whatever sugar could be safely brought from the West Indies by our merchant ships.

The war could be counted on the shelves of Gabriella’s Milk Bar in Trinity Street, just below its junction with Fitzwilliam Street, but on the other side. Three or four bottles stood lonely, spread out to make the shelf look full, only succeeded in emphasising the dearth of the delights of childhood.

Worse than all these were the all-too-common reports that one of our schoolfriend’s fathers had been killed. This usually shocked us into silence and marked the beginning of sympathy for the child that never ended no matter how many years passed. The casual whispered reminder, “his father’s dead,” always revived the most awful sense of loss and sympathy in us. We did not speak to them of their loss, for we had not the words and we feared to tread on their tender feelings.

Children were shielded from death by adults who spoke of it behind their hands in dropped voices to whispers inaudible to young ears, or mouthed the words in a formally confidential manner to their auditors. Death was no part of the world of children; grown-ups saw to that. When death thrust its icy dagger into the bosom of a family, it not only froze them into black and breathless inactivity but its malignant proximity stunned us.

Children, denied the realities of death by well meaning parents, formulated their own folklore about death. That lore included the dread awfulness that a great harm had been done to the bereft from which recovery was impossible: the mark of death remained on and over them forever.

And so it was that when we looked at Miss Rushworth, we saw the hand of death over her head forever damning her endeavours. Yes, she smiled and spoke cheerfully, her low soft tones magnifying in our minds the extent of her suffering. She had been engaged to be married and her fiancée had been killed whilst serving his country to make the world free from tyranny.

Many fragile hearts lost their one true love in a war waged to combat the evil aspirations of one man. Miss Rushworth was not the only one with a secret sadness. In after years when I sang in the clubs and pubs of Yorkshire as Country singer Ray Buck, I saw more than one eye moist with quiet tears and saw more than one face in the gloom of a darkened concert room betray its secret sadness for true love that long since was lost but never forgotten, and needed only the trivial song, “You’ll Never Know Dear How Much I love You” to revive all the hurt and anguish, and sorrow and pain that others thought had been forgotten or got over.

But such love never dies; it lives in the secret chambers of the heart and lights the darkest corner of the soul whose perfect love left with not enough ‘goodbye’ to satisfy the need, and whose recall in an unexpected moment by a stranger on stage is all it takes to cause that heart to bleed as if it never had before and break as for the first time.

How could we not weep inwardly when we looked at Miss Rushworth’s brave smile? How could we not share her sorrow at her melancholy? Why could I not speak of the feeling I held in my heart for this lovely, grieving woman, but only internalise my thoughts and impressions into a crystalline fixation that still haunts me when, in my mind’s eye, I see her looking down on the awkward assembly stealing furtive glances back at her and knew as well as she knew, the depth of her great sadness?

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