Nathan & Miss Pettigrew

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The first thing that little Nathan did when he found out about “school” was attempt to discover the origin of the word itself. Collections of letters intrigued him far more than groups of people. In fact, he found people to be alien and awkward — something which shouldn’t be there but which, through a freak of nature, happened to be so. The strangest thing of all was the way that the expressions on their faces and the words they spoke were totally at odds with the exploded diagram of their thoughts which he could see around them. This was a mystery. How was it possible for words and body language to misrepresent their source? Through this he was able to understand that there was a schizoid basis to the social life of what seemed like the whole of humanity (though at his age he thought of it like a fork in the road fighting to be brought together again). To be human seemed to involve having a fundamental divide between an inner and outer being. He saw it in his parents. He saw it in their friends. He saw it in his friends; and, to his horror, he saw it in himself — which was a major catalyst in the deepening of his insight. Observing his parents and their friends, not one of them ever spoke their heart (unless they were drunk, in which case it came out as some kind of slurred insult or emotional wallowing). They seemed to be cut off from themselves, living only as a vague cloud of cobbled-together emotions and whims. In some small sense, they partially knew what they felt inwardly but it never occurred to them to match that knowledge with what they expressed outwardly and it never seemed to them that their outward expressions contradicted their inner thoughts and feelings. At that tender age, it had not occurred to him that there were also many for whom the inner life had become so removed that in fact it no longer existed. That discovery still awaited him.

So the next time his mother took him to the library to obtain some childly little illustrated books, he asked the librarian, Miss Pettigrew — who he noticed had a kind and generous face, which he thought matched the person she was on the inside — how he could find out where the word “school” came from. He also noticed that her face seemed very gaunt and he felt both a struggle and a shudder coming from her shining blue eyes. In spite of this and her age she seemed extremely beautiful in a haunting kind of way and it would be no exaggeration to say that Nathan fell in love with Miss Pettigrew, notwithstanding the age difference of forty-eight years.

She looked at the mother who gave her one of those conspiratorial winks which made him feel self-consciously awkward and shy.

“I know,” said the mother. “I don’t know where we get him from!” Her face expressed that mock exasperation, like a ham actor trying too hard. How Nathan loathed those masks. He wondered if he wore masks himself and the thought depressed him. For it was obvious to him that mask-wearers had no awareness of their masks and therefore he might have masks and be oblivious of the fact. He squeezed his face manically with his fingers. His mother noticed and wrenched them to his sides, smiling exasperatedly at the librarian as if to say “You see what I mean?”

“Oh, it’s fine,” said Miss Pettigrew. “I’m only too happy when a child wants to know such things.”

“He wears us out with his endless questions,” said the mother.

“You should be very proud,” and with that she gave an encouraging look at Nathan. There was fire in her eyes and a natural sense of love and commendation. Just for an instant, Nathan wished with all his heart that she was his mother and not the woman standing next to him. He wanted to hurl himself into her arms. He imagined doing so as all her orderly piles of books went flying from the desk, spinning over and over in the air around them. He imagined them both in each other’s arms orbiting with the books around the room like those models of the solar system he had seen on television, then finally bursting through the library wall to an unknown destination in the blue beyondness. That seemed to trigger a deep sense of longing in him. From that time on, he looked forward with immense pleasure to his next visit to the library. Later in life he wondered if his love of books and literature stemmed from the connection he had felt from that moment with the librarian, Miss Pettigrew. Each time she had served him — and he always hoped it would be her — she had guided him to some wonderfully imaginative works which had left a lasting impression on him, not least of which was “Treasure Island” by the adventurer, Robert Louis Stevenson, which he read hundreds of times, even as an adult.

On one library visit there was another librarian at the desk and he was hugely disappointed. When he asked where Miss Pettigrew was, he was told that she was ill. A feeling of dread came over him.

“Is she going to die?” he asked the librarian, making her laugh nervously and his mother gave another of those conspiratorial winks, as if to apologise for her son’s alacrity.

“No, of course she isn’t. She’ll be back next week.”

In fact, Miss Pettigrew was dying of cancer, from which she was already suffering when Nathan first met her. When he found out about this and her death a few weeks later, he couldn’t understand why no one had told him. Now he knew why he had that feeling of dread when they said she was ill. He had a feeling inside him which felt like stripped tree bark on a winter’s day. It was a feeling he could draw out of himself at any time in his life thereafter. That stripped tree bark was like a ghost which tormented him for the rest of his days. He never got used to it. Something in him had died with the librarian. But the name, Miss Pettigrew, would somehow live on within him, like a talisman or power object accompanying him everywhere. She was his first totem.

That night, as he lay in bed, he imagined Miss Pettigrew lying on the covers next to him, her half-moon spectacles on the end of her nose (and that inscrutable half-smile on her mouth), her greenish tartan kilt with its huge safety pin contrasting with the floral quilt beneath her, reading some crazy book to him — a grown-up, science-fiction version of “Where the Wild Things Are” — the two of them giggling till their sides hurt and then they fell asleep, exhausted by laughter and adventure.

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© Alan Morrison, 2014

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