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Feather's Miscellany: Leonard Cullen

What happened when a brain surgeon found himself operating on the brain of the person who had mercilessly bullied him at school?

Master storyteller John Waddington-Feather creates another intriguing situation.

I entered a new world when I moved to Keighworth Boys’ Grammar School as a new boy. I left home wide-eyed and well scrubbed carrying my brand new leather satchel and wearing a brand new uniform. Gone were the clogs, patched up shorts and jersey of my primary school. I was now the proud wearer of a green blazer with the Barrett House badge on it and a little cap with a smaller version of the same badge just over its peak.

Going to secondary school was the crossing of a new horizon; in some ways a bewildering experience for a youngster of twelve. It meant leaving the cosiness of a small, self-contained, primary school where the teachers were all women, who clucked over you like hens and mothered you as well as giving you sound learning; and entering a massive building filled with black-gowned school-masters who patrolled endless, Kafkaesque corridors from which innumerable classrooms led off; a place which had a gymnasium and science laboratories, its own music and art rooms – and a huge stage which I came to love and act upon. I spent seven years at my Grammar School and left it to go to university, where the whole spatial experience began again as I crossed another horizon. What an exhilarating journey life is!

My new class-mates at my secondary school came from all over Keighworth and beyond; from schools and places I’d never heard of. Scores of them travelled in daily by train and bus from miles away, whereas I walked less then a mile up Garlic Lane to get there. But it proved a hazardous mile at first from the roughs from Vicar Street who’d not made it to the Grammar School and who used to waylay me and pinch my cap then throw it over a wall. That was the first time I ever encountered bullying. After the first episode I walked miles out of my way to get home. That lasted for a couple of years, then the bullies left school to begin work at fourteen. After that I could walk home in peace.

But bullying continued at school much longer in the person of Leonard Cullen, three or four years older than me, who enjoyed bullying younger and smaller boys. We all suffered at his hands; no one more than Gerald Levin, a Jewish boy who was my friend and sat by me in class. Having been brought up down Garlic lane I’d never met a Jew before. I knew what Catholics were, for I’d Catholic friends who were neighbours down the lane. And I knew from being in Trinity Church choir that Jesus was a Jew.

There was a large mural of him hanging on the cross painted on the east end of the church where a window should have been. It portrayed the Crucifixion graphically and at first I was frightened by it, but the older I grew the more I came to understand the agony of the crucified Christ. However, I’d no knowledge of the Jewish faith till I sat next to Gerald Levin and visited his home.

`And I certainly knew how the Jews had suffered during the war. When it ended and the horror of the holocaust became fully known, the whole school was escorted round an exhibition of photographs taken in Belsen and other death camps. That made a deep impression on me and said much about the enemy we’d been fighting; above all, what might have happened in Britain had the Nazis conquered us. Those images must have made an even deeper impression on young Levin. And for both of us, Leonard Cullen became the Nazi in our midst.

He bullied Gerald unmercifully till the crunch came when, after beating him, Cullen locked him in the airless school boiler-house and left him. Gerald was overcome by the fumes and discovered unconscious by the caretaker who’d popped in to check the boiler before he went home. What terror Gerald must have endured before he was discovered, and what might have happened had not the caretaker checked the boiler can only be imagined. The outcome was that Cullen was hauled before the headmaster and expelled. The riot-act was read to the whole school in assembly and the bullying ceased forthwith.

As for Cullen, he was sixteen and went straight into his father’s woollen business, eventually taking it over and becoming very wealthy. They say the child is father of the man and it was certainly true in Cullen’s case. He continued throwing his weight about at work and on the rugby field, where he seriously injured an opponent and was banned from the club.

As he moved into his twenties he became more and more wealthy and had a string of girl friends. He was a good-looking guy and flaunted his wealth ostentatiously: an expensive sports car, well tailored clothes, a gold wrist watch and all the usual trappings the vulgar rich display. He was snapped up by the prettiest girl in Keighworth, Mary Forbes, and he should have had a happy marriage, but he spoiled that by bullying her and showing her up in public. He’d a loud mouth and liked to air his views all the time, embarrassingly so. He was a Johnny-know-all; arguing the toss when he was wrong till he became avoided at the club except by hangers-on, whom he bought drinks for acting big. He drank heavily with them and when he was in drink he argued more loudly than ever.

It was in the golf club matters came to a head with his wife. She arrived with him one evening wearing a beautiful necklace. Gerald Levin and myself were there having a quiet drink when the Cullens came to the bar. Now Gerald’s dad had a top-notch jewellery shop in town and had passed on some of his know-how to Gerald, though he didn’t go into his dad’s business. Instead, Gerald won a scholarship to Medical School and eventually qualified as a neuro-surgeon, going right to the top of his profession. Yet he retained an expert eye for good jewellery and complimented Mary on her necklace, saying she must have paid a great deal for it.

She seemed embarrassed and said not, trying to pass it off as a cheap imitation. The matter would have ended there but her husband chipped in and insisted Gerald was wrong. The necklace had been bought at some cheapjack, Jewish stall in Leeds Market. I saw Gerald bridle at once, but he asked quietly if he could examine the necklace more closely.

Mary took it off, rather reluctantly I thought, and passed it to Gerald. He examined it carefully and was about to confirm that the diamonds were real when he caught Mary’s eye. She looked panic-stricken. He handed her back the necklace and admitted he was wrong. The diamonds were not the real thing, but a good imitation.

It pleased Cullen no end. “I said so all along, didn’t I?” he blurted out. “I can tell you, Levin, my wife wouldn’t be wearing real diamonds here. I’ve never gone to that expense with her.” Nevertheless, Gerald’s casual remark about the diamonds being expensive sowed seeds of doubt in Cullen’s mind.

He must have asked her about them when they got home and subsequently it turned out she had a wealthy lover in London, which she visited regularly when Gerald was abroad on business for long periods. He’d bought her the necklace, and when he found out Gerald beat her up. It was the final straw. She divorced him, left Keighworth and married her London lover.

After she’d left him, Cullen drank more heavily than ever and late one night on his way back from the club crashed his car. He suffered severe head injuries and ended up in the hospital where Gerald Levin worked. Fate plays us some odd tricks at times and none more strange than the hands she dealt that day to Gerald Levin and Leonard Cullen, who had such dreadful injuries it was touch and go whether he would survive.

As the most experienced brain surgeon at the hospital, Gerald was called upon to operate and what went through his mind as he made his prognosis on Cullen, I shall never know. Certainly I saw the irony of the situation, for I’d been at school when Cullen had locked the terrified Gerald in the boiler room and almost killed him. Now, Cullen’s life was literally in Gerald’s hands as he worked through a long and delicate operation; so delicate that an injured section of Cullen’s brain had to be completely removed.

It took a long time for Leonard Cullen to recover and we didn’t see him in Keighworth for the better part of a year. When we did we had a shock. He returned to the club no longer the loud-mouthed, blustering know-all but a quiet, retiring man who sat drinking tonic water in one corner with his carer. His face was badly scarred and he looked ghastly, but he signalled me over and asked how I and my family were faring; and he told me how Gerald Levin had saved his life and how grateful he was.

It took time for the change to sink in, but when I next met Gerald he explained all: sometimes a lobectomy drastically alters a person’s character.

In saving his life, he’d also cut away the evil side of Leonard Cullen’s nature.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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