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Feather's Miscellany: A Repaid Debt

John Waddington-Feather tells how a passionate teenage girl was able, in later life, to repay the handsome teacher who preserved her honour.

There are lines drawn which cannot be crossed in dealing professionally with the opposite sex. In professions like teaching rules are set down for the smooth running of practice, if the minefield of human relationships is to be crossed safely. One false step and a career is ruined or a young life blighted.

As a young male teacher I was fortunate to have good advisors when I started my career; for the down-to earth, Yorkshire headmaster in my first teaching post quietly took me to one side and listed the do’s and do-not's of dealing with adolescent girls. “Adolescent girls have very vivid imaginations,” I was told bluntly. “They’ll think things have happened when they haven’t, especially when they want them to happen. So always have a chaperone handy if you’re alone with a girl. If you’re seeing a girl after school, leave the classroom door open and check the cleaner lady or a lady member of staff is about.”

Wise words! And just to make sure they’d sunk in, the headmaster would stroll unannounced into my classroom and pretend to read the thermometer. Satisfied all was well, he’d mumble as he left, “Can’t have the place too hot. Wastes money.”

In those early days of teaching, I’d a colleague, Andy Flecker, who taught French and was a great hit with the girls. He was tall and handsome and had a rich baritone voice which he put to good effect in the school choir and on the stage. Staff sang in the school choir as well as acting in many of the drama productions. He was unmarried and nearing forty; greying round the temples which gave him a distinguished look, while the thick mane of dark hair on top was a positive lure to the opposite sex. Earlier, he’d played rugby for a local team and still turned out for the town cricket team, which made him popular with boys and girls alike, as well as the staff. Indeed, he was renowned for the sixes his brawny shoulders larroped into the crowd when staff played the school. The girls positively adored him – one girl in particular.

At fifteen pushing sixteen, Penny Doonan was a precocious girl rapidly approaching womanhood. She was besotted by Andy, embarrassingly so at times for she followed him everywhere, hanging about the staff-room door on one pretext or another just to speak with and get a glimpse of him. It became a bit of a joke among the staff but there was nothing Andy could do about it short of being downright rude to her, and he hadn’t in him to be rude to anyone. Anyhow, he had to keep her French up to scratch for she was a bright girl and needed it for the future.

One year he took a school group to France, accompanied by two lady members of staff and myself. We toured Paris: the museums and art galleries and other sites of interest, then at night we’d sit on the terrace of a nearby bistro and sip wine while the youngsters had soft drinks. He valued the help of myself and the two lady members of staff, and there was one occasion when he especially was glad of our presence. It was on the very last school trip he organised, before he left the school to take up another teaching post in the south of England.

We’d been staying in a French boarding school on the outskirts of Paris, while the French students were on holiday. It was rather Spartan, but was clean and the food was good. We’d all had a wonderful holiday in Paris, visiting the usual sites before returning to our lodgings to enjoy our evening meal and the drinks afterwards in the warm evening outside. Only later did we discover some of the older girls had taken a bottle of wine to their dormitory and made merry; worse still, they’d dared Penny to visit Andy Flecker after we’d turned in.

She appeared at his door in an off-the-shoulder see-through nightie, tipsy and passionate. She’d ravishing Titian hair down to her shoulders and a very full figure for her age. She already turned men’s heads when she walked along the street, and we’d had our hands full keeping the local lads at bay during our stay. That night her long hair flowed free in auburn ringlets over her white, naked shoulders and her face burned with desire.

As Andy opened the door, she blurted out, “I must see you, sir!” Then she rushed past him before he knew it and waited for him to follow. Fortunately I was next door, so before following her, Andy tapped on the wall urgently, leaving his door open.

“Mr Flecker…Andy, I’m in love with you!” she exclaimed, clinging to him. “Please don’t leave me!”

Andy gently prised her away, so she flung herself on the bed and gasped, “Do with me what you will! I’m all yours!”

He stood by the bed and quietly told her to sit up and calm down. “You’re a naughty girl, Penny,” he said. “You’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”

She began to weep and it was then I appeared. He turned to me, gave me a knowing look and said, “Penny doesn’t feel too well. Would you get one of the ladies to look after her, please?”

I guessed what had happened and left, returning with one of the lady teachers who took Penny in hand and led her back to her dorm. Of course, it was all the gossip the next day, and when the lady teacher remonstrated with the older girls the truth came out about Penny being dared to go to Andy’s room.

Nothing more was said, except Andy remarked over breakfast how glad he was I’d turned up so promptly. “Heaven knows what might have happened if you hadn’t come,” he said with a relieved smile. Yet beneath that flippancy he was deadly serious. Both of us knew what would have happened if Penny had made any accusations, but she didn’t. She came to her senses and apologised before we went home.

She left school to go to university and did very well for herself making a career as an almoner in hospital. In time she married a successful and very rich Harley Street surgeon who also ran a private, expensive nursing home in Sussex. They had a family and when they grew up and left home, Penny devoted herself to charitable work in the area where she lived

She was appointed chairman of a committee which monitored all the nursing homes in the local Health Authority. In this capacity one day she visited a rather dingy place near the coast. It was run on a shoe-string by a miserly couple helped by poorly paid ancillaries and it fell short of regulation standards in hygiene and general cleanliness, as Penny pointed out in her report. There was no stimulation for the inmates who simply sat in a circle in a dreary lounge all day staring vacantly at television or dozing. Several were senile and gibbered endlessly to themselves. When they became too noisy they were given tranquilisers and packed off to their bedrooms. The smell of disinfectant and stale urine pervaded the place.

Penny became more and more depressed as she wandered round. She tried to look cheerful and attempted to chat to some of the residents. She didn’t have much luck till she let on an old man dozing with his head on his chest. What caught her attention first was the book he had open in his lap. It was a copy of Voltaire’s life. “Hello,” she ventured, and the old man raised his head and stared at her blankly a moment with sad, watery eyes. Then recognition dawned on both of them. He was her old French teacher and teenage heart-throb, Andy Fletcher, now in his eighties and a shadow of the handsome man she’d last seen.

His hair was white and he hadn’t shaven; his frame was bent yet it was him all right. Both said nothing for a moment as they stared at each other, then as recognition dawned the old man said, “Why! It’s…it’s Penny Doonan, isn’t it?”

She was no longer the ravishing beauty she’d once been, but in her early sixties she was still very attractive: a slim figure, well groomed and coiffeured and an engaging personality to match.

As she looked at the frail man huddled in the chair her heart went out to him and she felt a strange pang of emotion go through her from the past. Here before her again was her adolescent love alive but no longer young. They spoke at length but neither said anything about the time in Paris when she’d flung herself at him. Indeed, he may well have forgotten all about it, but she hadn’t; and afterwards, as she grew up, she’d been ever grateful for his conduct at the time. As a mature woman, she fell deeply in love with the man who became her husband and with whom she had a family and a very happy, fulfilling, lifelong marriage.

Before she left the home, she enquired discreetly about Andy Flecker’s life from the time they’d parted nearly fifty years earlier. She discovered he’d married in his forties and a very happy marriage it was. They’d had one child, a son, Adam, who’d done well at university and entered the army for a career. Then tragedy struck. Shortly after he’d been commissioned, the Iraq debacle broke out and he was sent there to keep the peace. When he was just twenty four he was killed in an ambush.

Of course, his parents were devastated and Andy retired from teaching shortly after to throw himself into charity work for wounded army personnel and their families. Then when he was in his seventies, fate was to deal him another blow. His wife contracted cancer and died within months. His old colleagues rallied round and helped him, for he never re-married but soldiered on alone till he became too infirm to look after himself. After a severe stroke he was placed in the nursing home where Penny had found him two years later.

She acted quickly and had him transferred to the private nursing home her husband owned. There he stayed till he died, looked after by Penny as she would have tended her own father. It was Penny herself who told me all this at a school re-union last summer, looking straight at me as she remarked casually that she was merely re-paying a debt of honour from fifty years before in Paris.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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