It was not the first time in my life, when receiving letters had meant so much to me; had been a lifeline, for me.
That first time had been when I'd started boarding school in Switzerland; and the letters had come from Grandmother. For a while, her words were the only loving words, or even the only friendly words, I ever encountered.
I did not start out well, at school.
For one thing, the School In The Sky — L'École dans le ciel — was officially bilingual; but the languages spoken were French and German. English was only taught as a foreign language.
Theoretically, I could speak French well enough, even at the age of seven … I'd been tutored in it for years; and my grandparents both speak French fluently, as people of their status so often do. French is the international language of business and diplomacy, after all.
But in practice — there is a difference between making polite dinner-table conversation with one's grandparents, and other guests — and, doing coursework and reading and composition, at grade level …
And, understanding the coarse vernacular of one's fellow-students. And, understanding shouted French, laced with imprecations, on the athletic field … Particularly when that shouted French comes in a heavy Swiss accent; and comes from one's teacher.
I was marked down by my teachers and fellow-students as slow; if not actually stupid.
Oh, of course, it could have been much, much worse; I've met boys at my current school whose stories put mine to shame. Boys' schools are far too often operated as institutions designed to toughen-up their inmates through privation and harsh discipline; the extent to which the theme can be taken, is astonishing. By way of contrast, the School In The Sky was never actively brutal. We even had tepidly-heated water, in which to bathe; I've heard of boys in other schools having to break the ice in their bath-tubs, before plunging themselves in, on pain of being beaten, if they hesitated —
Still. It was not a pleasant time, at first.
At seven years old, I was in the youngest cohort, far younger than even the First Form; and I was small for my age, even then.
It certainly did not help, that I was morbidly shy, as well as morbidly sensitive, and consumed with homesickness. I missed Mrs. Kelliher, and my grandparents, horribly.
'L'américain', I was called, in my presence, and it was not meant as a compliment. Generally, an exasperated, European eye-roll, went with the epithet; along with a pursed-out, 'Pouf!' of the lips. 'Le gangster' was another popular nick-name; and often enough, the other boy would make his two hands, forefingers extended, into a tommy-gun shape, and make rude, 'eh-eh-eh-eh' noises, as if it were firing …
It was the height of Prohibition, back home, and Europeans were fascinated by American gangsters. I found out later, there was even a serious rumor going around that I was an American crime-boss' love child, parked in Switzerland for my own protection.
I wish I'd known it, at the time. I could have put that rumor, to good use.
Grandmother's letters — loving, chatty, and long — were my lifeline. They arrived weekly, and the happiness I felt upon receiving one of her letters is something I will never forget.
Time passed, of course; and my position slowly improved.
I picked up French, real, colloquially-spoken French, readily enough … but I remained quiet; more of a listener, than a talker. I gained a bit of a reputation, as someone who could bide his time, in a conversation, and interject with a tart or pointed comment, when called-for.
It is easier, after all, to be pithy in a less-familiar language.
The friendships too, came in due course.
As I said, English was taught as a foreign language; by chance, I was the only English-speaking student in my class, or the one above mine. I was generous with my time, in helping my classmates with their English studies; (I also found it very pleasant, I confess, being an expert in a language they regarded as difficult). And so, as I helped my classmates, and did better at my studies, I slowly gained their respect. 'L'américain' became a nick-name, rather than an epithet.
I became very close to one student I helped, in particular. Or rather, we became close, as we helped one another. It happened in my second year at school.
One of the true virtues of the School In The Sky, was that that it was non-sectarian; one in fact did not even need to be Christian, to be a student, and that was and is a rarity. Thanks to the proximity of the League of Nations — whose world headquarters were in Geneva, close by — we had a wide variety of students, from different countries and different religions; from Hindus to Mohammedans, from Buddhist to Catholic Christian —
Emile was a Jewish boy in my class; his family originally hailed from Strasbourg, in German Alsace, but had moved to Berlin before the Great War; and he and I became good friends. Best friends, in fact.
Emile's father was a musician, an extremely well-regarded and talented conductor of classical music … but his talent did not shield him from the increasing anti-Semitism of Germany, and especially, Austria.
Of course, all that was in 1928 — the year after I'd started — when we first met. It is far, far worse, in both countries, now.
Emile's father had received a job offer from a major motion-picture studio in Hollywood, where musical talent of all sorts was being desperately sought-after, with the advent of 'talkies', of sound in films. And so, he'd taken the family to Switzerland; and he'd begun the grueling and time-consuming task of getting entry visas, for everyone, to the United States.
Emile, naturally, was fascinated by anything American.
I vividly remember, telling him about America, about New York — what little I could tell him, with my eight-year-old's knowledge — in my fractured German; as a way to practice that language. I can remember his eyes, ice-blue under black curls, getting bigger and bigger, and his mouth opening as he listened on, eventually forgetting to correct my mistakes …
In turn, he'd told me about their lives in Germany; speaking in English, practicing his English. And while much of it was wonderful, and fascinating … his family's reasons for wanting to emigrate, were not.
As I said — gaining entry visas to the United States, for an entire family, is a time-consuming process; particularly, and especially, when the family involved is Jewish.
Emile was my classmate and closest friend for five years, until 1933; when they finally received their papers. We write one another, still, periodically; and I have a standing offer to visit him, and to tour a studio, an actual sound stage, in Hollywood.
I would love nothing better than to see such a thing, with Jack.
I would love nothing better, than to see Emile again, to hug him, and feel him in my arms, again. I would so love that.
* * *
I had not exaggerated, when I'd told Tom how striking the setting was, of the School In The Sky. If anything, I hadn't done it justice.
It truly was a magnificent place, of stunning natural beauty.
Mont Blanc did indeed loom over everything, white-capped and massive and majestic. The peaks of the Alps speared up into the blue sky in a semi-circle around us, jagged and rock-faced and shapely, and impossibly beautiful in their own right. Far down and to the right, Montreaux and Lake Geneva glittered in the sun, on clear days; Geneva itself was out of sight, to the left. Mountain-meadows, and fir-clad slopes and deep valleys surrounded the gray-stone school buildings; the mountain-road climbing up to the School crossed eleven bridges and many small mountain streams, some with waterfalls, before arriving in the School's impressive forecourt.
In the Summer and Fall, the world was brown-green, the green of snow-fed Alpine meadows and evergreen trees, of brown bare earth and green moss on gray stones and fallen gray tree-trunks, all under the bluest sky one could imagine.
In the Winter and Spring, the world was white; the white of deep, soft, muffling snow, snow everywhere, snow in enormous, rounded drifts, relieved only by black tree-trunks, the occasional glimpse of a green tree-branch, and the even more occasional glimpse of a patch of blue sky …
The entire setting was beautiful beyond compare; as we were regularly told by our teachers, the Headmaster, and the non-sectarian Chaplain.
It was also cold. Life at the School In The Sky was deeply, pervasively cold. An experience of cold.
In the beginning, it was also an experience of hunger, of near-constant hunger.
Experiencing these conditions … taught me a great deal. The experience is part of who I am; again. It is part of who I have become; perhaps, even, physically, although I hope not.
Addressing the situation — or watching the intolerable conditions, being addressed — taught me even more.
As I said — boys' schools, boys' boarding schools, anywhere, tend to be rather austere. The austerity, is part of the curriculum.
Add to that, the natural frugality of the Swiss; particularly, in this instance, of the Familie La Grange, the owners and operators of the School In The Sky for two generations …
Food did not go to waste, at the School.
Meals in our House were served in the Refectory, a large, plain room on the lowest floor; students were seated by dormitory-room, at tables set for ten.
Luncheon and Dinner — déjeuner and dîner — were served family-style. This usually involved a common soup-tureen, and a large round of bread in the center of each table; first helpings were served out equally, and gravely, before the Chaplain's non-denominational blessing —
Our soup-bowls were rather small.
One portion of the soup — which tended towards potatoes, and barley, and was always on the thin side — was never enough. And second portions were first-come, first-served; which in practice, favored the older and larger boys; the ones who ate the quickest, and were closest to the bread, and the soup tureen …
There was competition for the food, and we all knew it; even if we did not discuss it.
And I — seated at the end of my table, the smallest and almost the youngest — was far from the only boy who went to bed hungry; night after night.
Jack was outraged, seriously outraged, when I told him all this, years later.
"Didn't you have any Prefects? Didn't you have anybody looking out for the younger boys — ? The younger ones should have gotten first crack at the extra food — !"
I can still see him, blue eyes full of outrage, under his flaxen-pale hair; and I had never loved him more, than at that moment. It takes a lot to break through Jack's cheerful equanimity, but hearing about harm done to the weak is one thing that will do it.
"Well, no … We didn't have Prefects; we had … Tutors, is how the idea translates; student teachers, is what we would call them, perhaps. But they didn't involve themselves at meals, they didn't eat with us. Madame — that is, Madame La Grange — watched over all of us, at mealtimes … but she only looked out for misbehavior. We were all perfectly correct, at meals; we just … gobbled."
"Some of you did!" he'd said, his eyes flashing. "And the rest of you went away hungry. That's revolting! It should never have been permitted."
Our school — Jack's school and mine, our current United States school — has a very strong ethic, about treating fellow-students as brothers, and looking out for the younger boys. It is an ethic reinforced by the community; and Jack was right, such a thing would never happen, at our school; it would be unthinkable.
"Well," I'd said in return; shrugging a little, uncomfortably. I'd felt, absurdly, as if the School In The Sky needed defending. "You have to bear in mind, we were in the youngest House; ages seven to ten, then, younger than the youngest students, here. We didn't really know any better."
"You would have shared your food; even then. I know you, Rhys."
I think I'd blushed … and Jack picked up on it, immediately. He does know me.
"Well … I did share some food out, a little later. But that was all thanks to Grandfather and Grandmother; and their visit. I can't claim any real credit … "
"Hah!" from Jack; triumphantly.
* * *
In my second year at the School In The Sky, Grandfather and Grandmother crossed over to spend Christmas with us. I had turned eight, the previous summer; it was December, 1928.
I was delighted, overjoyed, really, to see them; it was the best possible Christmas present I could have wished for.
At the same time … I hadn't realized, quite what a gift their presence, really was.
A winter crossing of the North Atlantic is no joke; it is nothing to be taken lightly, even by the youngest and fittest, even on the largest and most comfortable ships. Winter weather in the North Atlantic is reliably horrible; freezing cold, stormy and rough to the point of actual, physical danger. Broken bones are common enough, due to the ships' violent movements; and some passengers spend the entire crossing strapped in bed, seasick, trying desperately to keep down water or tea or broth … And, my grandparents were not young.
My grandparents made the crossing that year, and then again for every Christmas after that; until Father and I finally returned to the States. It is a token of their love that I cherish, very much.
I love them, very much.
I have vivid memories of that first Christmas we all shared in Switzerland.
We were in Geneva; and to me, after the severity of the School In The Sky, Geneva at Christmastime was an explosion of light, and color; of lavish decorations and music and glittering foil, of cooking-smells and unaccustomed warmth … There wasn't even any snow on the ground; although in the mornings, frost would coat the roof-tops and wall-tops, like icing.
It was the interval between school terms, naturally; I had two weeks free. But Father had no such vacation; he worked from the Bank's Geneva office, while I spent days in company with my grandparents.
And the days were wonderful; they reminded me of the New York days we'd had, before Father and I had come to Europe. We visited the Musée d'art et d'histoire, and the League of Nations' temporary headquarters — Grandfather, I could tell, was unimpressed by this last. Unlike many of his class, he'd set great store in the League, and had thought it an enormous mistake for America to refuse to join …
And they'd taken me shopping, of course. They'd helped me pick out and buy Father's Christmas present; and then, Grandfather had taken me shopping, alone, to buy Grandmother's present; and Grandmother had then done the same, for me to pick out Grandfather's gift … And always, the light and warmth of the shops, and the beauty of the decorations, had been almost overwhelming, almost fairy-tale beautiful …
The food was memorable, too.
We took meals together, the four of us, when we could; but usually Luncheon consisted of my grandparents and myself, dining in a restaurant or café.
It was one such meal which, I believe, led to their direct intervention at the School In The Sky.
* * *
I remember the occasion, quite well; it was only the second day of my vacation, and I was still not used to the freedom, or the wonderful presence of my grandparents … or, the abundance of food.
We were having a late luncheon, in a small but very nice café near the lakefront. The café was warm and steamy, and cozily dark, lit with strands of green and red and blue Christmas lights. I was devouring my meal — a chicken cassoulet; so much meat seemed like a miracle, to me — when an aproned waiter appeared at my left elbow.
"Chocolat chaud, Monsieur," he murmured; and he leaned over to set down a pot of hot chocolate, and a pot of whipped cream … And, he whisked away the empty remains of my first hot chocolate; which I'd downed much too quickly.
"Oh, merçi!" I'd said, delighted; I hadn't ordered it, Grandfather must have signaled him while I was busy with my food; he was very good at such things. I'd waited a polite moment; then, I'd reached for the whipped cream —
And Grandmother had taken my hand, very gently, as I had extended to my full reach; my wrist, exposed, showed beyond the cuff of my jacket.
"Rhys, dear, you must be growing … Look, Claude; he's all skin and bone."
I didn't say anything; but it struck me, right then, that my wrist did look thin … I was embarrassed.
Grandmother didn't let go; she just squeezed my hand and held it for a few more seconds, and I could feel her eyes searching my face.
"Claude," she said again; releasing my hand, finally —
And then, she and Grandfather entered into a conversation in German, in lowered tones; as I blinked.
I had only recently befriended Emile, and my school German-language classes were still at an elementary level … I did not understand much of what they said.
But I understood more than they knew. I heard references to 'his mother', which naturally caught my attention; and to clothing sizes, and to bones, oddly enough —
And then, Grandmother's final, simple sentences, came across, quite clearly:
"Yes, he does have his mother's bones. But she was never so thin. I'm sure of it."
A pause, for a moment.
"Rhys," from Grandfather; gently, and in English. He looked down at me; and I thought I could see worry, in his expression. "Are you getting enough to eat, at your school — ?"
Another pause; the colored lights, reflected in the window-panes.
His question put me in an impossible situation.
The ethos of school, of any boys' boarding school, is … one does not complain. To do so is … unmanful. One becomes less of a man, in everyone's eyes, including one's own.
On the other hand — I did not want to lie, to my grandparents. They were the last people on Earth, to whom I would wish to lie …
I was eight years old. I remained silent, caught between the warring imperatives.
I have become much better at prevarication, at dissembling and evasion, since.
Grandfather rescued me, ultimately; he must have seen the conflict play out in my face.
"But there, there," he'd said at last, kindly, and a little awkwardly. "I'm sure everything's just fine at this school of yours, isn't it? It has a fine reputation. L'École dans le ciel, I believe it's called — ?"
"Yes, sir," I'd said, gratefully. "It's a wonderful school; Father said we were lucky to have found a place in it for me, there is usually a waiting list."
"Hm," from Grandfather. His eyes slid over to Grandmother's; and there was a pause. Then — "More coffee, Mary — ?"
* * *
Christmas passed, wonderfully and warmly; and then New Year's, and the novelty of the new date, 1929! Only a year away, from 1930 — ! I didn't know if I would ever get used to it …
And then, finally, the Feast of the Epiphany passed; and it was time for my grandparents to leave for Paris, and Le Havre, and home, and for Father to leave for Zurich, and for me to return to school.
After the light and warmth of Geneva, school seemed colder than ever; and more starkly defined. The blinding-white of the snow, the beauty of the Alps — on the clear days, at least — and the drab realities, indoors.
The surprise came on the third day of the new Term.
It was one of the clear mornings. I was in class with my fellows, studying a list of Latin verbs written in chalk on the blackboard in beautiful cursive, when Mademoiselle Thérèse knocked softly, and slipped into the room.
Mademoiselle Thérèse was one of our Tutors; she was perhaps seventeen, and slender, with brown eyes, and she was always very nice to us. She approached the teacher, Monsieur Boncart, and whispered into his ear.
"Eh — ?" from him, a little shortly; he seemed annoyed. Then, he looked over at me.
"Monsieur Williamson? Rhys?"
"Yes, sir — ?"
Like everyone else at school, he mangled my Christian name; it came out, 'Rise', or 'Riiize', rather than 'Reese'. I'd gotten quite used to it.
"It appears that you are to accompany Mlle. Thérèse to the Headmaster's office. At once, please."
I heard a stifled snigger, as I stood up.
Mademoiselle Thérèse, on the other hand, was reassuring as we mounted the stairs up to the Headmaster's office.
"No, no; there's nothing wrong … " She'd smiled down sideways at me, warmly, for a moment. "I think that you will find it a pleasant thing, in fact."
"Grandfather! Grandmother — !"
They were actually there, in their heavy traveling-clothes, standing in the Headmaster's office; Monsieur Heurault, the Headmaster, was standing with them.
"Hello, Rhys, dear," from Grandmother; and in a flash I was in her arms, hugging her, and getting hugged tightly in return. Then I turned and shook hands, enthusiastically, with Grandfather; delighted.
"I thought you were leaving for Paris, this morning!" I said; eventually.
"We decided to take the night train, the wagons-lits, instead," from Grandfather; "it is much more comfortable. That left us a free day; so we thought we'd come surprise you with a visit. I hope you don't mind — ?"
"No, no, of course not — !"
At the same time — I'd blinked.
I'd spoken English to them; of course. But Grandfather had answered in French; and there was a certain look in his eyes, that was — serious. Not whimsical. Not indulgent. Or so it seemed to me, anyway.
"We had thought to give your grandparents a little tour of the School," said Monsieur Heurault. "Perhaps you would like to give us your company?"
He spoke in English.
"Of course, sir! Very much — !"
And so the tour had begun.
Several things became apparent, rather quickly.
The first was, that Monsieur Heurault was not happy.
He was a dark man, rather heavy, and prone to scowling at the best of times; the corners of his mouth characteristically pointed down. But, although he was extremely polite to Grandfather and Grandmother, it was clear to me that he was especially uncomfortable, right then; and perhaps even resentful.
It did not help, that my grandparents' French was clearly much better than his English. Monsieur Heurault continued speaking to them in English, as a courtesy, I supposed; but as they politely answered him back in fluent and easy French, he eventually gave up, and switched to that language …
It was intensely interesting, and intensely odd, listening to my grandparents speaking French.
When I'd left America, I realized, now, I hadn't really spoken French; I'd been far from fluent. But I'd grown fluent over the past year-and-a-half; and I was now truly understanding my grandparents' French — not in mental translation, but as originally spoken — for the first time. It was eye-opening.
Grandmother, in particular, spoke in a beautiful, cultured accent; she had been to a finishing school here in Switzerland, after all. Grandfather's French had the merest trace of an American accent; but not much of one, and he was quick and pointedly witty in a way that I later learned was rather characteristically Parisian …
At the same time, though, he was also rather pointedly restrained; restrained, and perfectly polite as Monsieur Heurault led the way.
" … and this, as you can see, is a typical classroom, not presently occupied, of course. Notice, if you will, the large windows, and the abundance of natural light … "
"Yes, yes; particularly with all the snow, outside. It is quite blinding, in fact … "
The kitchen came next, a place I'd never seen; it seemed very old-fashioned, and full of steam in the cold mountain air. A uniformed man, who must have been my grandparents' driver, saw them through the steam, and made to stand up, hastily; Grandfather motioned for him to sit down. I noticed, however, that the man sat very straight, and did not return to his soup and bread, while we were present.
"And here is our Library; it is an essential resource for our School, we are quite proud of it … Go ahead, feel free to browse, if you would like — "
As libraries went, it was modestly-sized; Grandfather's own library in Long Island was larger, I thought.
"Thank you, we will," from Grandfather; and he moved casually along one of the shelves, reading book-titles with pursed lips. "Ovid, of course; good, good … the Aeneid … Xenophon, in the original Greek!" he'd said, with just a hint of surprise.
"But of course. We are known for our Classical studies," Monsieur Heurault said; with more than a touch of pride. "All of our students are proficient in Greek and Latin, by the time they matriculate."
"Excellent, excellent," Grandfather murmured, as he continued along the shelves. He continued peering at titles for a moment. Then — "Have you any volumes in English — ?"
Monsieur Heurault's mouth pointed down at the corners, again.
"Well, yes, of course … We have the complete works of William Shakespeare; in translation, and in the original English." His lower lip thrust forward, just a little. "And we have, Milton. John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' … " He walked to one of the shelves, and began walking along it, scanning the titles; then he turned to the Librarian, who had been standing quietly by. "Where would we find the Shakespeare? And the Milton?"
"They are in the special collection area, Monsieur." She'd half-turned to Grandfather and Grandmother, next. "But they are always available, by request."
"Ah," from Grandfather, neutrally.
"Tell me," asked Grandmother, a little apologetically — "Would you have any books which are, shall we say, recreational in nature? Boys' stories, I mean; Jules Verne novels, perhaps, or any of the works of Dumas, father or son — ?'" She smiled a dazzling smile at Monsieur Heurault.
"We are a school, Madame." Monsieur Heurault's lower lip thrust further out, in disapproval. "Our Library would not contain any works quite so — frivolous — as that."
A slightly-awkward pause.
"But surely your students are not forbidden to have such books — ?" This, in Grandmother's gentlest, most gracious, tones.
"But of course not, Madame. Students may have books of their own — as long as they fit in the lockers, underneath their beds."
"Ah," from Grandfather, again; benignly. "Speaking of such things — I wonder if it might be possible to see Rhys' dormitory-room? He has described it in his letters; my wife and I are very curious to see it in real life … "
My House had two dormitory rooms; each held twenty beds, in two rows of ten.
My own room had windows facing South; there was a large, stone fireplace in the wall opposite the windows. It had clearly been intended to burn wood; but it was now inhabited by a small coal-grate, and fender. The fire was lit every afternoon before dinner; and it was banked, at bed-time. The cold ashes were raked out each morning.
The room was cold now, in the late-morning light; the windows were open, and our breaths smoked in the frosty air.
"Which bed is yours, Rhys, dear — ?" asked Grandmother; and I went to stand beside it. Grandfather looked around, at the high, beamed ceilings, the fireplace, and the open windows; then he and Grandmother moved to join me.
"As you can see, the health of our students is a primary concern to us," said Monsieur Heurault. He gestured around the room, with his hands. "These quarters are kept perfectly clean; and the beds are widely-spaced, in accordance with modern principles. The rooms are thoroughly aired, each day, with our beautiful mountain air, the finest and cleanest in the world. We have never had a student contract tuberculosis while in our care; not once."
"That is admirable," from Grandfather; he reached down, and lightly took a corner of my top blanket in his gloved fingers. It was an older, slightly-frayed blanket, if clean; and it was not thick.
Grandfather and Grandmother are used to nice things, beautiful, simple, well-made things; Grandfather's gloves were of thin, fine, leather. The contrast, between them and my blanket — between them and the whole room, in fact — made me feel vaguely ashamed, somehow.
I saw Grandfather look up, and out the open window, to where long icicles hung from the deep Alpine eaves, glittering in the sunlight.
"And each student has his own bed, I presume?" He asked it in a mild tone; and I saw Grandmother's eyes give just the slightest flicker.
"But of course … Ah; I perceive Monsieur is having a little joke." Monsieur Heurault's smile was strained, and did not reach the downward-drooping corners of his mouth.
"A very little joke; please forgive me." As he said it, I saw his eyes travel again to the coal-grate.
Monsieur Heurault offered my grandparents luncheon, with the Faculty; Grandfather politely declined, and just as politely requested the privilege of dining with the students. He was very persuasive; he and his wife, he said, saw so little of their grandson, that it was a shame to miss the opportunity to dine together …
Back home in America, Grandfather was — and is — a powerful man, in both business and Society. He is an imposing figure; tall, impeccably-tailored, impeccably-groomed, gray-bearded, lean, and very accustomed to getting his own way. One can almost feel his authority, in his presence. Monsieur Heurault acceded to his request; reluctantly.
There was a ripple of excitement in the Refectory, as we all sat down to déjeuner, to luncheon.
"Oooh, la! Regardez tous les pains!" ("Look at all the loaves of bread!") The same reaction, or variants on it, from all four tables; each table had two large round loaves of bread, rather than the usual single loaf.
Those whispers turned into a kind of awed silence, when the soup came out. Three of the tables had the usual-sized tureens, steaming in the chill air … but our table received a large pot, at least twice as large as the others …
"In honor of our guests," pronounced Monsieur Heurault, to the table at large. Grandfather and Grandmother thanked him, graciously; and sat, quiet and composed, as the non-sectarian blessing was read, and as most of my fellow-students peered up and over at them, surreptitiously.
The usual happy chatter broke out, again, as the bread was broken — literally — and divided out, and as the first helpings of the soup was ladled. There was some excited discussion, at the other tables, of what to do with the extra loaf; one table kept theirs for seconds, two divided theirs up immediately, passing chunks happily around to all.
The awed silence persisted at our own table. Monsieur Heurault prompted some conversation; "Javier, why don't you ask Monsieur et Madame where they are from — ? They speak excellent French — " For their part, Grandfather and Grandmother conversed politely, and with very real, unfeigned interest, with my classmates; but it was all hardly spontaneous.
My classmates were all perhaps a little surprised, I thought, that L'américain actually had such people, such imposing people, for grandparents.
I was immensely proud of them, both.
Eventually — quickly, actually — the first bowls of soup were consumed, and the usual scramble for seconds commenced —
"Children — !" from Madame La Grange; she'd loomed up from the back of the room, black-haired, almost black-eyed, wrinkled and ancient. "Your manners — ! Our guests must be offered more soup, first."
This put my grandparents in a dilemma; they'd eaten slowly, and were far from finished. For myself, I was just happy to have the extra bread.
"No, no; please go ahead. We insist."
"Merçi, Monsieur!" called out one high voice, as the soup-pot was attacked. There were exclamations over the size of the thing; and even Emile, next to Grandmother, on my right, held his empty bowl out, hopefully.
Through it all, throughout the rest of the meal, Grandfather and Grandmother presided over the scene with perfect manners, with perfect equanimity. Grandfather, in particular, watched the proceedings with a smooth, bland, benign expression.
It has struck me, in the years since, that I have a similar expression all of my own; and that I can use it, to hide a great deal. And that I can use it, in fact, as … something of a weapon.
I do not think I learned it, from Grandfather; I believe I inherited it. It is an interesting realization.
I said goodbye to my grandparents in the school's fore-court; the driver was already behind the wheel of their Daimler, and the engine was running, spewing clouds of exhaust and condensation from the tail-pipe.
They told me, then, that they'd be back in July, in Paris, and would be seeing me there; they'd already arranged it with Father. It was a second Christmas present, all over again, unexpected and priceless.
Grandmother hugged me, hard, for a long time; and her eyes were moist, when she let me go. Grandfather shook hands with me — both hands, for each of us; bare-handed, and emphatic — and then, they'd climbed into the car, and they were gone, tires crunching through the snow.
I have always been too sensitive for my own good.
I'd cried, then — even though I was eight years old, and I'd been at school for a year, and more — I'd cried, quietly. And Mademoiselle Thérèse, who had accompanied us to the fore-court, stayed discreetly back, pretending not to see, until I'd wiped my face and brought myself under control.
* * *
Father's visit — equally unannounced, equally a surprise — came three days later; Friday of the same week.
I have wondered, since, how Grandfather communicated his concerns to Father; and what exactly he said. It had to have been by telephone, or by cable; Father had already left for Zurich.
It was almost certainly a telephone conversation, I think; and it cannot have been very pleasant, for either of them. There can be a certain tension, between Father and my Grandfather, at times; as I've said …
Father's tour was much the same as my grandparents'; except, perhaps, in tone. Monsieur Heurault's politeness barely concealed his hostility; there could be no question of Father's visit being an innocent jaunt, clearly someone thought something was wrong at L'École dans le ciel.
If Father felt the hostility, he did not react to it. In fact, he seemed completely oblivious to it; as if he did not have time to pay attention to such an insignificant matter.
As, perhaps, he did not; it was January 1929, after all, and stock markets were booming all across Europe and in the United States, and banks were struggling to keep up with the demands of business. Father, I learned later, was deeply overstretched, overworked, and very much worried about his bank's exposure, worried about the consequences of the inevitable reaction to the overheated run-up of wealth —
Although even Father could not have predicted the magnitude of the disaster which was to come, in October. Perhaps that was for the best.
During his visit to the School, Father was brisk; and impatient, and — although well-mannered — rather short. He was also pale; he was developing the stomach-ulcer which has plagued him, intermittently, to the present day —
Well. I should say, I assume Father was well-mannered. Early on, he became impatient — I'm guessing — with Monsieur Heurault's imperfect English, and began addressing him in German. Father's German is excellent; much stronger than his French.
German is a language which is well-suited, for being brusque.
Eventually, of course, we wound up in the Refectory, for luncheon.
As with my grandparents' visit, two round loaves appeared at each table, rather than one; and if there was less surprise, there was perhaps more happy chatter. I could easily hear calls of, 'Bravo!' and, 'Just like Tuesday — !' There was even a burst of applause, from one table.
And as with my grandparents' visit, the large soup-pot came out for our table, in place of the usual tureen. It was, I recall, potato-bean-and-barley; I overheard Monsieur Heurault tell Father that it was, of course, meatless, it being a Friday, and some of the students being Roman Catholic …
I'm sure that's what he said; and I'd blinked. Meat in the meals at the School In The Sky was rare at any time, and generally added for flavoring purposes, rather than as sustenance …
Father said little enough during luncheon, either to me or Monsieur Heurault; but he heard and saw a great deal, his eyes flashing about the room, taking in details.
For their own part, my fellow-students at our table seemed shy of speaking to him. It is true, Grandfather and Grandmother had been imposing figures … but they had also been, well, grandfatherly, and grandmotherly. Father was instead younger; with an almost military posture, unsmiling and rather intense. And, Madame La Grange, the wizened house-mother, was just short of openly glaring at him …
There may have been a touch of disappointment behind the silence, too. Father was dressed well, and conservatively; and he had no obvious scars, and no armed henchmen with him. Alas, he was evidently not a gangster. Quel dommage.
After luncheon, Father and Monsieur Heurault retired to the Headmaster's office, while I waited outside, in one of the chairs usually reserved for miscreants.
They were closeted together for some minutes; and when Father came out, Monsieur Heurault was not with him. As before, Mademoiselle Thérèse accompanied us to the fore-court.
Father rather pointedly drew me off to one side, as his driver waited in the car, as it warmed up in the frosty air.
"Rhys," he began, rather solemnly; "I owe you an apology."
"Sir — ?"
The sky was leaden, overhead, thick with clouds; a few fat snowflakes spiraled down, lazily, between us. Father's face was pale, and unhappy.
"I chose this school for you on the basis of its reputation for academic excellence, and on the strong recommendations of my colleagues … but I was a fool not to come inspect it for myself. As," he went on, his eyes sliding away from mine, "has been pointed out to me."
I said nothing. I believe I gaped.
"The academic excellence is real enough. There are certain other, obvious — deficiencies — here. These will now be corrected." This, with a degree of flat finality.
"Sir — " I began; and Father held up his hand.
"I want to make it very clear, son, that you are not to blame for any — disruptions, or unpleasantness — which might take place here, in the near future. In fact, if any of the faculty or staff gives you any trouble — or if you or any of your school-mates suffer from any inadequate living conditions, such as insufficient food or warmth — I want you to tell me about it, right away. I want you to consider this a duty; and a responsibility to your peers."
That word, again. Responsibility. There was only one response.
Many more flakes were spiraling down, now; some landed on Father's hat, and on the collar of his overcoat. It would be snowing heavily, soon.
Father glanced up at the sky; then back down at me. The sadness was back, in his expression.
"Rhys — I need to leave for Vienna, tonight; I will be there for three or four days, and it won't be a very pleasant time, believe me. But I will be in Geneva next weekend, and I would like for you to join me. I could send a car for you, Friday … we could spend the weekend together, with no business; perhaps we could go to the cinema … ?" He paused. "Would you like that — ?"
He asked it, gently; and he asked it as a real question, whose answer he did not know. He scanned my face, as if he was afraid of what he might see.
I remember being slightly shocked; Father worked hard, every day, including Sundays. We had not spent much time together the previous year, even when school had been out; I'd been left in care. In fact, except for outings with Grandfather and Grandmother, and Christmas holidays, we had not really spent much time together, since the year after Mother's death.
"Yes, Father," I'd answered; even as I'd felt my mouth open, in wonder. Then I'd looked down a little shyly; but I'd remembered, it was the manly thing to do, to meet the other person's eyes, so I looked up at him. "I would like that, very much."
I'd meant it, very sincerely. I'd tried not to look too hopeful, as I said it.
Father's face, under his hat, relaxed a little; and slowly softened into a smile.
"So it's agreed, then; I'll send a car for you, one week from today." A pause, as the snowflakes swirled. "Right — ?" he held out his bare hand.
"Yes, sir!" I took his hand, and we shook. We shook hands for some seconds, actually …
* * *
After Father's visit, our lives at L'École dans le ciel began to change, in certain subtle, and not-so-subtle ways.
The changes happened rather quickly, actually.
Some changes were quite basic. The two-loaves-per-table bread ration became a permanent standard, much to everyone's delight. And, after a few awkward substitutions, our soup and stew tureens were replaced by large, gleaming stock-pots, one for each table. The rule was, enough for everyone; every day. More delivered upon request.
After the initial astonishment, meal-times became a much happier, slower affair. The tension of competition for food, evaporated. The luxury of having enough to eat, was profoundly appreciated.
The soups themselves did not much improve, unfortunately … but they grew a little thicker, and perhaps a little tastier. As I said, the Swiss are frugal; anything left in the pots from one day, was added to the next day's batch. The combinations could be a little unusual; but overall, it was a good thing.
There was more astonishment, in the dormitory rooms.
Several days after Father's visit, each and every one of us — all forty students in the House, in both dormitory rooms — received a new blanket. Or, not a blanket, actually; rather, a quilted, down-filled comforter, a duvet. They were well-made, and thick.
The impact upon our lives, was tremendous.
As I said, life at L'École dans le ciel was an experience of cold; as a school in the Alps, it probably always would be.
But with the new comforters, for the first time — we were warm, at night; even when frost etched the insides of the dormitory windows, as happened often enough in winter. We were warm, and comfortable; there was no more waking up shivering towards dawn, as the banked coal fire turned into cold ash …
It was a profound, and wondrous, change.
As it happened, the new comforters arrived just a few days before the visitors from Bern.
The timing was perhaps not a coincidence.
There were three of them, men with overcoats and briefcases, and they stayed with us for several days. 'From the Government!' was the whisper amongst us; they visited classes, the kitchens, our dormitory rooms and the gymnasium, and they spent a considerable amount of time with Monsieur Heurault, in his office.
Monsieur Heurault left us, resigning to go to a new school, in February. He was replaced by Herr Kuntzler.
Madame La Grange stepped down as House Mother even earlier, in January; we were told, due to her desire to retire.
I had the impression — based on what, I do not know — that many of the faculty were glad to see them go. Mademoiselle Thérèse, at least, grew much more cheerful, with us all; and that was a wonderful thing, in itself.
As it turned out, my grandparents made a rather personal contribution to the changes in our fortunes, at school; and they did it, through me.
On the Monday after Father's visit, I received a package.
It was a straw basket, actually, a very large and sturdy one, lined and covered in plain linen; and it came with the inscription, 'From your grandparents, with all their love'. The address-tag on the basket was that of a very expensive, and very well-known, food-shop in Geneva.
The basket was filled with treasures.
Practically every kind of desirable food one could imagine, was represented. Baguettes and croissants, fresh-baked that morning; jars of jams, preserves, and honey, to put on them. Cheeses, round in rinds, or wedges wrapped in wax-paper; potted and canned meats, and pâtés, of different kinds, and dried, cured sausages. Fresh-baked cookies — my classmates called them 'biscuits', in the French tradition — and candy, in tins —
Even fresh fruit. Even oranges, actual, fresh oranges, from who-knew-where, in January!
It was an enormous trove of food, far more than I could eat by myself in a month — as I'm sure Grandfather and Grandmother knew full well.
The next basket came the next Monday; packed with care, by someone hoping to offer similar quality, along with some variety …
The baskets were to continue arriving weekly, every Monday while school was in term, for my entire time at the School In The Sky; almost five more years.
Is it any wonder, that I love my grandparents, so much?
Of course, all that food had to be dealt with.
We solved the dilemma by forming a Mess, a traditional, military-style Mess, in my dormitory-room; and we distributed the food out, fairly, to all. Some of the boys even added their own food-parcels to the mix, which made the largesse go farther.
Still; if, in my position as President of the Mess I made sure that the younger, smaller boys received just a little more than their fair share … no-one objected.
Being President of the Mess was an interesting experience.
All in all, I learned a great deal; about fairness, and equality; about the popularity that material wealth — in this case, extra food — can bring. About the very real pleasure of giving, to the less well off …
I wonder if these were all lessons my grandparents had intended, when they arranged for the baskets to be delivered.
They are wise and worldly people; I suspect they had.
The food baskets came early on, as I said; the books came a little later. But they meant much, much more to me.
They came in boxes, from London — London, England — once a month; and they meant the world, to me. I can't adequately describe my feelings, whenever I received a box; wrapped in brown paper, string-tied, boldly addressed to me …
The boxes came from a bookstore in the West End; and whoever chose the books, and packed them, had clearly been told to include an eclectic mix. There were novels, and magazines; histories, and biographies —
Most, although not all, were in English. In a year-and-a-half, I'd almost forgotten what it was like, to read in English. A year is a long time, to an eight-year-old.
The books meant everything, to me. It was like receiving the gift of the whole world; or of multiple worlds, really.
Many of the works were for adults; popular novels by Ernest Hemingway, Juan Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald … and in that, I saw Grandmother's influence. Neither she, nor Mother, ever believed in keeping me away from adult writing. And if, in truth, I was too young at eight for 'The Sun Also Rises' — I've read it since, and understood it better. And perhaps the next time I read it, I'll comprehend more of it, still.
Some of the magazines were geared towards adults, too. I received the 'New Yorker'; which was a rather poignant inclusion, I think …
But many of the books and magazines were intended for younger reader. I found that, thrilling.
There were the works of Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, of course … they were in French, and my classmates devoured them as greedily as they did the extra food from the shop in Geneva —
Not that 'Mysterious Island' or 'The Three Musketeers' are juvenile works, exactly; of course. But they certainly appealed, to a school House full of boys.
But there were also the works of H.G. Wells, and Da Foe's 'Robinson Crusoe'; of Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs — all in English. And, other authors, still; I collected many, many books, over the years I spent at the School In The Sky …
I collected some of the magazines, too.
Some I have, still, in our house in Connecticut. I have shown them only to Jack; and while he laughs at me, a little, and gently, for keeping them — he understands, completely.
There were several different magazine-lines, actually; one was called 'Chums', another was called 'Boy's Own'. As their titles suggested, they were written for, and about, boys; boys my age, or usually a little older … Most had stories, serialized stories like Dickens wrote, with schoolboys having adventures, fighting bullies or pirates, finding treasures …
'Penny Dreadfuls' was the term for such magazines, I found, later; although the label encompassed more than just boys' stories. And the stories, and the writing, were pretty dreadful; I knew it, even then.
But the stories moved me; they moved me, profoundly.
When Francis and Howard stood up to their thuggish tormenters from the upper Form together — standing, literally, back-to-back, with their arms raised, their fists clenched — I wanted to be there; to join them, to help them …
Even more so, when Chad and George raced down the footpath along the river, frantic to rescue their chum Freddy, adrift in a boat with no oars, with a weir fast approaching …
But when Dick stripped off on the pebbly Cornish beach, determined to swim out to the rusty wreck of the tramp steamer just offshore, that he thought was being used as a nighttime lair of pirates —
When he stripped off, bare, revealing a boyishly slender, but wiry, frame; and he stood for a moment at the water's edge, afraid, but determined, gathering his courage —
There was a reason, that the stories moved me, so.
I'd had crushes on other boys, before; I could vividly remember the first one, an older boy who took me out sailing on a skiff in Newport, at my grandparents' place; he'd been the son of one of the gardeners, he'd been fifteen, and very nice to me, and he'd taken off his shirt, in the warm of the day …
I was always having crushes, on boys.
And I was also very sexual. I remember sexual feelings, and playing with myself, at the age of five; at eight, the impulses were more powerful — although it would be another three years, before Emile and I made our first, hesitant explorations, together …
The point is, I was very much focused on boys, emotionally, and sexually, from an early age. And the Boy's Own magazines helped me to frame my feelings, and desires; and to come to terms with them. They were a priceless gift.
* * *
The entire episode with the School In The Sky — my grandparents' visit, Father's visit, and the aftermath — had one other lasting benefit.
It was an extraordinary benefit, one that reshaped my life, and affects me to this day.
I got my father back.
I was very young … I hadn't realized how distant we'd become, one to another. But he did, to his credit, and to my love; and he moved to correct it.
The car from Geneva had come for me, the next Friday; and we had indeed spent the weekend together.
And we'd spent many other weekends, together, afterwards; not all of them, not by any means … But.
We'd slowly grown closer; once again.
There was no real template, no pattern, for what Father was attempting; a widower father, with a young son … In our world, everywhere that I know of, actually, it is women who take care of children; a mother, a relative, a governess. But between my school schedule, and Father's frequent travels for his position with the Bank, a woman's role in my care was impossible. If Father and I were to spend any time together, at all … we needed to do so unconventionally.
We both made it up, as we went along.
We played chess; and by dint of spotting me pieces, the games were interesting, and competitive. We worked crossword puzzles together, in French, in which I had the advantage. We would take turns reading aloud to one another; something, I discovered, that he and Mother used to do …
And when the long summer school break came, Father would take me with him.
Increasingly, over time, he would hire a car, and drive it himself; and en route to Brussels or Amsterdam or Paris, wherever he needed to be, we would take side-trips, excursions. And as time passed, I became more and more adept at map-reading and route-planning, and ferreting out interesting information and stories and histories of the places we visited …
We formed a partnership, of a sort. In our own way, we became a family, again.
It was a priceless benefit; even if, in large measure, it is responsible for my predicament today, sailing to China, away from Jack …
No. It is still a priceless thing, to regain one's father.
And it would be a terrible, terrible thing to lose him again, if I had to run off to rejoin Jack, somewhere. It would hurt more than almost anything I could imagine. I could only pray that we wouldn't come to that pass.
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