[author’s note: this story was originally conceived in response to a June 2016 monthly story challenge on the “BatBland” website; the requirements for the story were that 1) it had to begin with the words It is a truth universally acknowledged, that 2) it had to have somewhere in it the short sentence, ending with a period, Vincent rolled his eyes. And 3) the story had to end with this: “Not exactly…” –meaning, in quotes, i.e. a bit of dialogue. The other two requirements were not in quotes, meaning they had to be text, not dialogue spoken by a character in the story.
The original version I submitted to that site’s challenge remains there on the site; the version below is the one that reflects my freedom, here on this site, to improve the story as the spirit moves me.]
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when teaching the classics to children, no matter the brilliance of the story (or of the children), makeup and wardrobe are key;
What is less widely known is that the imaginations of young minds can be further ignited by the application of what is known in the theatre as non-traditional, or “colorblind,” casting. Simply stated this means that a role can be cast with an actor of such gender, race, age, orientation, and/or state of physical ability that he or she would not— traditionally— have been considered a viable candidate for the part.
But some traditions, thank heavens, are made to be broken; and that— to make a very long story very much shorter— is how Jaime ended up as Mister Collins to Vincent’s Missus Bennet one memorable morning in early spring when the class was working its way through Pride and Prejudice.
* * *
“VINCENT NO NO NO NO STOP STOP STOP STOP.”
This was from Nyla. She was perched where Vincent had gently placed her, atop a pile of yellowing phone books on her chair, and on top of that, an old Jetson’s lunchbox, so she could see over the other children. Even though it was her first time directing she was already in despair over the lack of artistic vision she detected in her colleagues.
Vincent stopped, again, his imaginary fork in mid-air. This was the eighth time in as many minutes that Nyla had abruptly halted the rehearsal, always right on his line, and with a tad more vehemence than he suspected was actually necessary to get the point across. His entirely enjoyable experiences looking in on the rehearsals of professional theatre productions from his safely hidden vantage points had clearly been inadequate preparation for the slings and arrows of pent-up artistic temperament suddenly set loose on the Tuesday morning English class.
He took a deep cleansing breath.
“Could you be more specific?” he asked as pleasantly as his mood would allow, lowering his imaginary fork to the scratched and battered surface of the old desk that had been called upon to impersonate an early 19th century rosewood dinner table filigreed with inlays of ivory and mother-of-pearl.
“GET MAD,” bellowed Nyla. “BITE HIM AND SCRATCH HIM AND BEAT HIM UP.”
At this, Jaime threw up her hands and swooned melodramatically over the arm of her chair. Her own (flawless) performance as Mr. Collins had been grievously overlooked by Nyla all eight times so far and Jaime now felt she had nothing left to give, artistically speaking. It took all the strength she had just to turn her wan face toward her scene partner and fasten her suffering gaze upon his stoic one.
“Vincent… can’t you call an intermission or something?” she whispered.
“NO TALKING.” shouted Nyla. “I TALK.”
Nyla was forever being urged not to yell but her terrible twos had been going on for four years now with no end in sight. Vincent wondered again about the wisdom of allowing her to direct the short scene but for some reason the rest of the class had seemed very satisfied with their choice. He wondered if their enthusiasm had anything to do with the child’s penchant for delivering even the simplest of utterances at the uppermost volume her delicate little lungs would allow.
“Madame Director, it occurs to me that it is nearly time for lunch,” said Vincent, to wild applause from the class. “Might I suggest we improvise the scene during our own meal. Perhaps this will—
“LUNCH!” thundered Nyla joyfully, forgetting all about the scene, and, in her excitement, not waiting to be collected from her perch but instead launching herself off it without looking, in the process taking the whole pile down with her as she fell.
In the split second it took him, petticoats notwithstanding, to close the distance between himself and the suddenly airborne child in order to catch her before she hit the ground, it occurred to Vincent that the capacity of such a small body to emit sound with such skull-shattering force must surely defy all known laws of physics. But in his experience it seemed in the nature of children to regularly defy any number of natural laws, and he wondered to himself, not for the first time, nor for the last, how any member of the human race survives to adulthood.
However, the sight of Nyla squirming helplessly in Vincent’s grip miraculously restored Jaime, at least, to her usual good spirits. She leapt to her feet and reached for their thwarted tormentor’s chubby arm, pretending to bite huge mouthfuls of it with great gusto while shouting out her lines:
And what excellent boiled potatoes! It’s been many years
since I had such an exemplary vegetable! To which of my
fair cousins should I compliment the cooking?!
Vincent was ready for his line however it came, and, turning Nyla upside down, he pinned Mr. Collins with a withering glare, and taking care to avoid the child’s kicking feet, pitched his voice above her roaring:
We are perfectly able to keep a cook!
Booming through the laughter from the class, an adult voice rang out.
“Finally, a story about the cook!” exclaimed William. He seemed to have simply materialized at the door to the classroom chamber; Vincent had noticed that for a big man William could exhibit an impressive amount of stealth when he believed it to be to his benefit to do so. “About time, too,” he added. “Wait…. Vincent?”
“IT’S NOT ABOUT A COOK,” corrected Nyla, still upside down. “IT’S ABOUT LOVE. TELL HIM VINCENT.”
“Food is love,” countered William. “You gotta project, Nyla honey, I can barely hear you. ‘Sing out, Louise,’ remember that scene? No? No one saw Gypsy?” Then he fixed a gleeful eye on the imposing figure portraying Missus Bennet. “Heaven help us— Vincent is that you?”
“Not eggplant,” said Eric with a shudder. “Eggplant is not love.” He was playing Lizzy Bennet and his bonnet kept pushing his glasses askew on his small face.
“Maybe not the way your grandma made it but you haven’t tasted mine,” said William. “And we don’t wear our hats at table young lady, you know better.”
Eric started to argue that the bonnet had certainly not been his choice of attire for the role but the cook’s attention was drifting.
“I declare, Vincent that is you!” said William, plopping heavily into a chair designed for someone a quarter his size. “Oh, my bum knee! Well now I’m down, I won’t be able to get up for awhile.”
Gauntlet thrown, certain of his victory, he decided to go in for the kill, just a little. “Vincent, honey, come on over here and let William have a good old look at you.”
“Oh, I would very much like to get you within arm’s reach right now, William,” replied Vincent, “but we must finish today’s lesson first I’m afraid.”
“Hush! Don’t mind me,” said William. Looking expectant, he fanned himself with a tattered copy of Emma, and leaned over to the freckled sophomore from whom he’d appropriated it. “Isn’t this exciting? I can’t remember the last time I went to see a show.”
“I’m sorry that your long journey up here was wasted,” said Vincent. “Before you go, might we know to what we owed the pleasure of your visit?”
“Suddenly I can’t remember,” answered William, ignoring the warning in Vincent’s tone. “By the way I think your skirt is caught up on something there…. whoa! Are those bloomers, m’lady?”
Vincent tried a different tack. “As it happens, William, we were just about to break for lunch; surely if you scurry along now, it will be almost ready by the time we get there.”
“Oh I wouldn’t trust myself around a stove right now,” said William, eyeing the daringly cut bodice of Vincent’s gown. “I’ve just seen something that will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
“However brief that life is about to be,” said Vincent. He turned to the children. “Class dismissed. Will someone please alert Mary that William is indisposed but that she is not to trouble herself and that we shall be making do with cold sandwiches today.”
William lurched to his feet as the classroom erupted into a whirlwind of chatter and scraping chairs. Smiling sweetly at the children all the while, he sidled closer to his old friend with a twinkle that Vincent had learned meant trouble. William bounced a little on the balls of his feet, taking his time.
“May I tell you something Vincent, man to man?”
Vincent waited, his face impassive but his eyes deadly.
“You missed your calling, old buddy.” The cook adjusted the muslin neckline to drape a little more modestly over his friend’s barrel-chested bosom and tugged the drooping lace of the matronly cap a little farther down Vincent’s stony brow. “I’m thinking I could really get into this ‘great literature’ thing.”
Vincent watched the last few stragglers as they slowly trailed out of the classroom chamber.
“William, old friend,” he said, low enough that only the cook could hear him and with a hint of a growl to underscore his point, “you might wish to step back at this juncture.” And with that, his upper lip cinched up ever so slightly over his canines. Subtle, he thought, but still enough to add a nice edge to his suggestion.
William roared with laughter. “We both know I’d be in more danger from a newborn baby in a bassinet. What else ya got? I could do this all day.”
But before Vincent could compose a suitably crushing rejoinder, his sensitive eyes were momentarily blinded by the sudden bright blue flash of a polaroid camera. Reeling, Vincent raised one crochet-swathed arm in front of him and shook his head, trying to determine where the flash had come from.
“It was in the lunchbox,” said Gord excitedly, waving the camera in air. He had stayed behind when he’d spied it on the floor, trying to figure out if it was beyond repair. The very newest addition to the tunnel community, and anxious to fit in, the earnest eleven-year-old had no idea that he had just inadvertently trespassed against an admittedly unspoken tunnel rule concerning Vincent and cameras. “It still works!”
“I was certain by now you’d heard all about it.”
Vincent seemed… embarrassed? Catherine was unable to discern his mood with any precision and she found herself at a loss. Although she had not seen or heard from him for some weeks, to her dismay he did not immediately come to her as she slipped out to her balcony to greet him when he arrived after eleven one night.
“Heard about what?” asked Catherine, confused. “Vincent, is something wrong? Tell me.”
But he kept his own counsel, and seemed unable to meet her eyes.
“I shouldn’t have sent for you like this, I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I just… I didn’t know…. I hadn’t seen you in so long,” she trailed off.
To his relief her voice was low and intimate and he allowed himself some hope. Then she said, “I’ve missed you.”
Was that a slight nod of assent, that he knew this to be true? or of admission, that he had missed her, too? The latter, she hoped.
Catherine saw the muscles of his jaw unclench a little, or hoped she did; and, judging that to be sufficient invitation, held out her arms to him.
Once inside the beloved harbor of his body, the force in her embrace as she clung to him surprised her. Will I always wonder if every time I see you or touch you it might be the last? she thought, and willed herself to stop trembling. Then she remembered: it didn’t matter if she trembled.
This was Vincent.
So she nestled in closer against him and, abandoning restraint, let loose the waves of pent up love and relief from the anxious days and weeks of his absence. It took a moment for him to catch up with her mood, but soon he did, his grip tightening, the hard angles of his body shifting into her soft ones in response to the mounting intensity between them.
“I even went to the tunnels on Sunday and asked for you,” she lamented against his chest. “Everyone was so polite but I could tell they felt sorry for me. I was starting to think you’d met someone.”
She meant it jokingly but as she said the words aloud it struck her all at once that in fact this possibility actually had begun to haunt the edges of her mind. Oh my God! I know what this feeling is, she thought; —I’m jealous! Followed by well why shouldn’t I be? I’m in love. Vincent I’m in love with you and I find myself beginning to be frightened of losing you. Have you?! Met someone?!
Vincent pulled back slightly so she could see his face. “I have,” he said simply, looking deeply into her in his way, the one that pierced her to her soul.
Undone by the depth of his feelings so evident and so overwhelming, Catherine thought she might faint, or something else even more inappropriate, she realized, and to stop herself she reached up and brushed her lips very softly against the corner of his mouth.
“So have I,” she murmured against his lips. In answer Vincent tightened his arms around her and shifted his weight back a little so that her legs fell more closely against his own. After a moment he spoke again.
“I confess I have only my pride to blame for staying away. I was… embarrassed. There was an incident in class… quite harmless, in hindsight; entertaining even, but… it has forced me to conclude that perhaps I… ‘take myself too seriously at times.’”
The slight but unmistakable emphasis sounded to Catherine’s ear very much like a Southern accent, and made it clear that Vincent was quoting someone directly. Intrigued, she waited to hear more, unable to imagine where this might going. Vincent pressed on.
“In fact it has been suggested to me that I ‘lighten up.’”
At this Catherine laughed out loud. “Oh— I see; they want you to ‘be funny.’ Well boo hiss to them. I’m afraid that your brand of sly wit is just over some people’s heads. They want shtick.”
Vincent searched her dear face for any hint of teasing but found none; she was looking at him with her usual warm candor, so he closed his eyes again. What happens in rehearsal, stays in rehearsal, he thought, relieved.
“Shtick,” he said, with little enthusiasm.
“Yeah,” said Catherine, warming to the subject. “It’s Yiddish for… well, shtick. You know, very… broad. You know, the lowest form of comedy. Or wait, is that the pun? Anyway, most definitely not subtle. Think vaudeville. ‘Borscht Belt.’”
“…shtick,” repeated Vincent, with, if it were possible, even less enthusiasm than before.
“Absolutely,” said Catherine firmly, “especially if you’re dealing with teenagers. Oh my God. Well, you remember, growing up. Stuff teens do.”
“I may have been distracted by other things,” said Vincent. “But I invite you to instruct me.”
Catherine laughed again and popped up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “See, now, there’s the perfect example— the dry, subtle humor, very underplayed, plus charm. Irresistible. You could be very dangerous, you know, if you wanted to.”
She couldn’t decipher the expression on his face as he processed that idea, so she pressed on gamely, wriggling out of his embrace to illustrate her words.
“So. Put your hands on your hips like this,” she ordered him.
“Okay now tilt your head to one side,” she said, demonstrating, “and let your mouth hang open like this.”
Vincent hesitated. “Does it matter which side?”
“Nope,” said Catherine. “Let me see.”
Vincent gave it a try.
“More,” commanded Catherine. “Tilt it more… and slack jaw.”
After another moment of hesitation, longer this time, Vincent did as he was told. Catherine had to give herself a good shake, mentally, to stifle a laugh.
“Good,” she said briskly. “Now roll your eyes. Like this.” She demonstrated for him, adding a little upward puff of breath to flutter her bangs while she rolled her eyes a couple of times. “Oh my God am I ever channeling my snotty teen years. My poor father. I should call him first thing tomorrow morning and apologize. Okay now you. Don’t argue! Just do it. Man we should have Edie here, she is the Queen of Eye-rolling. Show me!”
Vincent rolled his eyes.
“Aaaaand— you’re good to go,” announced Catherine. “Congratulations, you now have the keys to the kingdom. At least with kids. Just pull that on ‘em when they tell you that you should lighten up. That’ll get ‘em. That’ll get ‘em. They’ll never see it coming.”
“That is certainly true,” answered Vincent. He leaned against the railing and looked out at the skyline so she would not see the sadness in his face, the sadness that always closed in on him whenever he left her balcony. “I should let you get some sleep.”
Catherine threw her arms around him. “You know I hate to let you go but I probably should hit the hay. This is so much more fun though. And you are fun, exactly as you are.”
Vincent made a small sound that sounded to Catherine as if it might be a chuckle, then kissed the top of her head.
“….I just desperately wish I’d been there for all the real fun,” she added softly.
“So you do know.” He gripped the railing and stared straight ahead, the sensitive skin of his face, as far as he could tell, now on fire. Dear Lord I’m blushing, he realized with horror.
“I’m sorry Vincent, I know you’re embarrassed but you shouldn’t be— pride be damned. I would have given anything to have been there. You’re a marvelous teacher; those children don’t know, but they will one day, how fortunate they are to have a teacher as, as—“
“Ridiculous?” supplied Vincent.
“—as openminded— and openhearted— as you,” Catherine rushed on. “It’s not a passive or rote teaching style. You foster their creativity, and their sense of active engagement with the world—“
“So who blabbed?” interrupted Vincent.
Catherine jabbed a finger at him. “Now that,” she said, “that, was funny. That word, coming out of your mouth. Comedy is ‘the unexpected juxtaposition of opposites,’ I read that somewhere.”
“So who blabbed?” repeated Vincent. “I had the solemn oaths of every last one of them not to utter one word on pain of no desserts for the rest of the year.”
Catherine gasped in mock outrage at the heartless injustice of such a punishment. “The children didn’t say word one to me Vincent. Not one word, I swear.” Torn between laughing and trying to protect Vincent’s injured pride, she added, “please don’t deprive them of William’s cobbler on that account!”
Vincent was naturally forgiving with children— it was simply in his nature; but in addition he felt a singular identification with them, partly because of most children’s reflexive identification with him. So it pained him greatly to realize that he felt betrayed. There was no other word for the feeling and it distressed him that he couldn’t shake it off.
“Alright,” he said finally. “The no-dessert penalty is rescinded. Who blabbed? And yes,” he added before Catherine could interject, “the comedy ‘rule of threes,’ I’m well aware.”
Feeling that they were now at an impasse, and that it was her fault, Catherine guiltily reached into the pocket of her robe, feeling for the folded envelope there. As she ran her fingers lightly over the raised outline of the Polaroid picture it contained, she remembered something.
There was a droll quip scribbled on the back of the envelope that, now she thought of it, had a distinctly Southern syntax to it. William! So it wasn’t one of the children after all; all this angst on Vincent’s part was the result of some guy-thing that had gone awry; an ostensibly friendly game of oneupmanship that had simply gotten out of hand somehow. She knew that Vincent and William had been close friends for a long time and that this rough patch would surely sort it self out in time…. but at what cost? Clearly Vincent’s increasing sensitivity about protecting his dignity in front of her was due to his increasing sense of vulnerability because he was in love; but now it seemed to be causing friction in an important friendship of long standing.
It seemed she should just tell Vincent she’d seen it— that someone had slipped the photo under her door– and get it over with.
But if she did that, what were the chances Vincent would consent to let her keep the photo? Very low, Catherine decided.
Vincent watched her wrestle silently with some unknowable question and wondered whether to simply wait her out until she was ready to put it to words; he could sense through their bond that she was in the grip of conflicting emotions that all revolved directly, around him, yet he was hesitant to rush her.
Just then Catherine gave a great sigh, and he braced himself.
“You asked who it was that told me about the, about the…. marvelous costuming of the, let’s call it a skit,” she said slowly, trying hard to hold back the smile she could feel creeping up the corners of her mouth every time she thought about just what was in that picture.
Vincent realized he was holding his breath, and released it softly. As Catherine stepped in closer to feel his warmth, he was already holding open his cloak for her. Instead she reached for his hand, and drank in the kaleidoscope of emotions on his beautiful face as she guided his fingers slowly down her silk-covered hip into the pocket of her robe.
“The thing is, my love, no one ‘told’ me,” she said. “Not exactly…”