The Brave and the Bold

It was the main event of the morning, and Mr Blaides, the head teacher, was the star performer. Haffezar Khan remembers a schoolyard tradition

Illustration by Wendell McShine

You had to know when it was nine o’clock. If you didn’t hear the school bell ring, you would surely see the children running, as if Mr Peter’s cow had jumped the fence again. Everybody in Bagatelle knew that if it wasn’t Mr Peter’s cow, then it had to be Mr Blaides, the headmaster of Bagatelle Primary School.

Mr Blaides used to stroll down to Five Roads Junction and stand there at nine o’clock, sunshine or rain. Nobody dared look at his face, but the lucky ones knew that the back of his bald head resembled the jowls of a depressed bloodhound. That is, if they had managed to cross the road before nine o’clock. They couldn’t take the chance to laugh out loud at their friends who were being collared by Mr Blaides, because they might pass in the brew too. It was always safer to snigger at them while they were on display in front of the whole school, waiting for Mr Blaides to come back from the rum shop.

This was the ritual they all gleefully looked forward to every day of the school term. Mr Blaides would swagger into the rum shop at five past nine every morning, after rounding up a small herd of tardy pupils. He would then call out to the Portuguese shopkeeper: “Aie, Francis, bring mih a jigger a rum. Just a jigger to wet mih throat, so I could deal with these juvenile delinquents.” Mr Francis knew very well that Mr Blaides never drank anything less than two shots at a time, neat. He also knew that he would have to wait until month-end for his money. But he could “trust” Mr Blaides to pay. After all, as head teacher, Mr Blaides was a respected member of the community.

Mr Francis and Mr Blaides would discuss politics and corruption in Her Majesty’s colonial government. Sometimes they might talk about cricket, carnival or some local scandal that the shopkeeper had heard from one of his drunken customers. He used to get the latest news from the drinkers or from the housewives, who would come to “trust” their mid-week groceries. They always felt obliged to divulge some saucy gossip in return for the credit. Besides, none of them could have afforded to buy a newspaper. Why waste money like the rich people, when Mr Francis could tell you who got arrested last night and who pawned their wedding ring to buy new curtains for Christmas?

“Time to go, Francis,” Mr Blaides would bellow from the front door, before Mr Francis could remind him of last month’s bill. A lookout would race back to the school yard to inform the latecomers that Mr Blaides was on his way. This was the signal for the whole school to circle around the culprits and wait for the performance to begin.

Mr Blaides would choose his canes with the eye of a connoisseur. His favourite weapon was a switch, made from a piece of mangrove wood and well-seasoned over the years by the briny waters of the mangrove swamp. It was flexible enough to rebound off a boy’s bottom without much effort from Mr Blaides’s wrist. The second stroke would deliver itself, saving him the bother of lifting his arm. Besides, after a nip of Kill Devil Rum in 90° temperature, he couldn’t stand the exercise. It was pointless exerting oneself too much because they would be back again tomorrow anyway.

Some of them seemed to enjoy a good cut-tail from Mr Blaides’s favourite whip. There was something heroic about catching a swift flick with a defiant grin. That was impressive, but if you could stop your body from stiffening before the blow and look nonchalant, well … that was champion, man. So it was that the brave and the bold contended for the crown of stoicism, to look cool before their friends and the entire school. Only the truly decent boys and the really wimpy ones would not take up the challenge. It was always the boys though, never the girls. Girls had a sense of shame and they took great pride in their good name and dignity.

That was in the early sixties, a long time ago. Things are very different now.