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Friday, 18 February 2011

Mr Moon's Trip to Evreux

This is George Moon’s 186th Parents’ Evening, all of them at the same school.  The same school in name, anyway.  Today's Heathfield Girls hasn't much in common with the Girls’ Grammar in which he began teaching History and Classics forty years ago.  These days, Heathfield Girls is Comprehensive, though George finds much of what happens within it far from comprehensible.
There is something of the Medieval Fair about a Year 10 Parents’ Evening, George always thinks.  Part social event, part freak show, part trading opportunity.  Some parents are here to test the teachers; the rest are hoping to soak up praise for their daughters and gloat.  No one is expecting anything to actually change.
A few weeks ago, for the October half term, George took his bicycle to Normandy.  He crossed on the night ferry, docking at four in the morning.   It was both too late and too early to find somewhere to stay, so he started cycling straight away.  It was very cold and very dark, and the hill out of Cherbourg seemed to go on forever.  As did the night.  On and on.  Darker and darker, the further he worked his way into the countryside.  He stopped, took the half bottle of whiskey from his pannier and had a couple of mouthfuls.  It didn’t make him feel better, it just made him feel more tired, and a little more afraid.  By a quarter to seven George knew that this was the night that would never turn into dawn.  Mankind had been anticipating it for thousands of years.  It was just bad luck it had to be today when George was stranded in the French Nowhere on his bike.  He took another swig of whiskey and carried on his way, asking himself vaguely why he’d come, but too tired to find an answer.  He thought he noticed the sky becoming very slightly grey.  He cycled on and realised he’d been mistaken.  Then, an almost invisible string of light threaded along the horizon and within minutes, France appeared.  He pulled into a café for schnapps with some labourers.  Thank God, he whispered to himself.  Thank God. 
Mr and Mrs Broome and their daughter Kylie are heading for his table.  George thinks of an adolescent in relationship to its parents as isomorphic, of closely similar form but independent origin, a word used regularly at Crufts.  But Kylie is more like a product of asexual reproduction, like a baby mushroom.  All three of them shuffle into the seats and wait for him to speak, all three mouths open about a quarter inch.  The problem with Kylie isn’t so much that she’s thick, George thinks, as her supernaturally good behaviour.  He tells them that she’s a pleasure to have in the class, which isn’t a lie if pleasure can, in some circumstances, have a certain confluence with nothingness. They move off with their mouths still open.
There’s a woman by the fire exit he’s seen before.  It’s Cassandra Brigstock’s mother.  No sign of Cassandra.  George teaches Cassandra History, by which he means she’s in his History class.  If the school still offered Latin, which sadly it does not, he’d have insisted she took it.  He wouldn’t have put her near the Gallic Wars, with their tedious details of ramparts, fortifications, sallys and excursions, but Ovid and Catullus would have shown her how to turn maths into poetry which is exactly what she needs.  Cassandra is clever and bored.
Cassandra’s mother is tall, smooth skinned with a neat shiny bob.  She’s wearing an elegant mid grey suit which gives the impression she’s come straight from work, except there’s a glow about her which suggests she’s been home for a shower.  He’s willing to bet there’s nothing in her briefcase useful for this evening and thinks he knows, also, why she didn’t leave it in the car.  She is like Dido, proud in the face of what she knows will be her imminent destruction. 
“I think she’s aprosexic,” Cassandra’s mother says.  Close up small cracks are visible.  Her fingernails are rather uneven and there are more lines round her eyes that he’d noticed at first.  “She has no interest in anything at all.”
“They’re all aprosexic at this age,” he says.   This doesn’t seem to comfort her.  “It’ll get better.  No parent of a fourteen year old thinks the dawn will ever break.  But it does.”
She’s picking up her briefcase.  She’s heard enough of his platitudes. 
“I want to tell you something,” he says.  She checks her watch, rather obviously George thinks, but he’s begun already, telling her about France. 
Once he’d slept off the first night, he headed straight for Evreux.  It took him three days.  He’d heard about a dig that had uncovered a mass grave from the third century - skeletons of about 40 humans and 100 horses all mixed up.  He wanted to see it for himself before they built the bungalows.

Cassandra’s mother is checking her Blackberry.  George waits for her to put it away.

“The Romans had been in the area for 300 years by then, and this is not how they buried their dead,” he said.  “Roman cemeteries are rigorously organised, and they never mingled human with animal.  I’m not the foremost expert on the period but it seemed to me something pretty extraordinary was going on.”

She raises one shapely eyebrow, just a touch.

“The chap from the Collège de France said the site probably arose from a violent epidemic of some sort, the bodies of the sick simply thrown hurriedly in together.  I don’t agree.”

“What do you think, Mr Moon?”

“George, please," he says.  "I agree with the Institut National.”

“And what’s their feeling on the matter, George?”

“They think it points to the worship of Epona, the goddess of horses and warriors.”

“How very interesting.  Now, I think I have about four teachers left to see, so if you don’t mind-“

“The interesting thing is...,” George says.  He doesn’t hurry to get it in; in fact he slows down.  It’s very effective, “...that the worship of Epona had been forbidden by the Romans since the time they arrived in Gaul.  And you didn’t disobey a Roman unless you were both extremely brave and the rebellion was of the utmost importance to you."

“I suppose the fact is either interpretation is plausible,” Cassandra’s mother says.

“I don’t think so.  I saw a human skull wedged between two horses’ heads, like a pearl between shells.  They were not diseased carcasses thrown in a pit.”

“And what do you take from all this, Mr, ah, George?”

“The spectacular courage of the Eponans,” George says. “It made me shiver to witness such resistance,” he replies.  “And always,” he adds, “carry spare batteries if you’re cycling at night.”

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