My frantic efforts to spare myself this frightful indignity were unavailing. In these days of the easy mixing of young people of both sexes it is hard to credit the conditions that prevailed seventy years ago. At school no females were allowed. Even the maids, unless they were grey-haired, had to operate out of sight of the boys. Consequently, unless there was a good social life at home, boys and young men were awkward in their relationships with girls, even singly. Now I was to be put in with a whole college of them!
Like some rare oddity, I was placed at a desk facing two rows of girls and was so busy watching for slights and suspecting all kinds of indignities that I never got to know any of them. I was to become aware before leaving that these girls had a much better idea of natural behaviour than I did.
The women in charge of the place had pulled a few strings, and a few days before my departure presented me with an official-looking but vague document. This declared me to be indoctrinated, both as to the keeping of books and typewriting, though not accepting any responsibility for the outcome of my activities.
After the presentation, one of the other pupils, a small plain girl whose nose was slightly flattened as though having been pressed against a window pane too long, rushed forward and pushed a small package into my hand. It was from them all, she said, to wish me well in whatever outlandish part of the world it was to which I was going.
This sudden expression of goodwill from my contemporaries, and girls at that, quite overcame me. The unexpected kindness never faded from my mind and the gift, a small silver propelling pencil, remained one of my prize possessions for many years.
The Hudson's Bay Company apparently expected me to transform myself from a schoolboy into a practical handyman in the few weeks available between leaving school and the departure for Canada. They sent a list of the more important arts which it would be wise for me to cultivate. Apart from the bookkeeping and typing, it was desirable, they wrote, to gain a knowledge of the combustion engine, some idea of first aid and experience of simple cooking.
The far northern districts of Canada, being so isolated, were totally dependent on sea travel by motor boat for summer hunting. There were no mechanics as such, so it was important that as many people as possible should be capable of keeping the engines running. The lack of doctors meant that the post staff would have to deal with accidents and illness and a knowledge of basic first aid was vital. Apparently, few Eskimo women had any idea of cooking, so we would have to do our share of preparing the meals.
As the list of necessary accomplishments grew, doubts began to creep into my mind. Had this apparently ideal solution to our problem blinded me to the reality of the situation in which I was going to find myself ? Not even my mother, always prepared to believe the best about me, would have claimed any practical virtues for me. Yet it seemed that it was practical people who were wanted. Of what use would it have been to be top of the German class when the motor boat broke down? How could a sound knowledge of history stop me from being sick when someone came to see me with a bone sticking out of their arm and blood everywhere? Would the promise that the form master had assured me I had shown in English give me any confidence to prepare a meal for the weary traveller?
These fears subsided when the final documents arrived for my mother and sister to sign for their passage to New Zealand. Amid the excitement at the prospect of an early release, my natural optimism reasserted itself. When the last day came, it seemed unlikely that we should ever spend time together in England again, so the three of us took a picnic and hired a boat to laze down a river through the quiet Somerset countryside, where we had passed many happy hours in days gone by.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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