“Well, here we are,” I said, ominously as the limousine pulled noiseless up to the curb.
“Yes, sir,” said James, my faithful and long-suffering chauffeur who was nothing if not agreeable. He cut the engine of the limousine, no doubt so as to not draw any attention to ourselves. He knew the gravity of the situation.
In spite of the ordeal that awaited me, I spoke philosophically. “It certainly calls to mind the words of that chap who was trying to buck up the ol’ troops in the face of a bleak future.”
“Which chap would that be, Sir?” asked James, looking at me in the rear-view mirror.
“Oh, you know. The one with the wall.”
“Wall, Sir?” he said.
“Yes. King Henry. At the siege of Harfleur. He attempted to rally the troops ‘round by offering them a unique opportunity for advancement.”
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that one, Sir,” said James, whose interest in Shakespearean history-plays seemed tepid at best.
“Oh, sure you are,” I said confidently. “It was in all the papers. He said, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.’
“Sounds pretty grim,” he replied.
“Oh, it was,” I agreed wholeheartedly. “That’s what put me in mind of it, in light of the task that was given me by my darling wife. Still, I cannot put it off forever. So, I shall take to heart the words of King Henry himself and ‘imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood’.”
“That’s the spirit, Sir,” said James.
“One finds that one needs to stiffen the sinews quite often whenever my darling Alexis asks a boon of one. You’d think by now that my sinews would be as stiff as a starched whalebone corset.”
“One would think,” said the redoubtable James.
I took a deep breath. “And so, I must ‘set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit.’”
“If you think it will help, sir.”
“It can’t hurt,” I said, as I put my hand to the door latch. “You’ll wait here, James?”
“That’s the plan, Sir,” he said.
“I would say to keep the engine running, but that would be wasteful.”
“Carbon footprint and all that.”
“Go green, or go home. That’s my motto, Sir.”
I started to reply, but I was already feeling plenty green as it was.
I gripped the door latch tighter, not quite like, as King Henry put it, a greyhound in the slips, but as close as I could muster under the circumstances. The time had come to saunter casually into the breach. Besides, the thought of facing my Darling Alexis with the news that I had failed to carry out her request was far more frightening than what lay beyond yon neo-gothic walls.
I debouched from the back of the limousine, shot my cuffs nervously, adjusted the tie, and began walking up the well-manicured flagstone path that led up to the imposing doors of the Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux Académie pour les Jeunes Filles , which is the fine institution in which my darling Evangeline, aged 5, is enrolled. Even though I adore my precious daughter with all my being, I would not normally even think of tearing her away from her impressionistic finger painting, or from singing Frère Jacques in the original French, or from learning to make croissants (also in the original French).
But, what else could I do? Alexis can be very convincing, especially when she looks at me with those big green eyes of hers. Even King Henry would have found it difficult to say no to her, even if he had an important siege to get to.
Once standing in front of the imposing, Fort Knox-like doors, I extended the ol’ digit and pressed the bell. A tolling deep within the faux neo-gothic structure vibrated the flying buttresses and rattled the gargoyles. I am man enough to admit that my courage nearly failed me. In that moment I felt, if this were Harfleur, King Henry would be using me for insulation in his latest wall breach.
After a few terrifying moments, the door creaked open and there stood before me the specter of my old nemesis. I quailed like a rabbit who’d just seen the shadow of a hawk. I could therefore have been forgiven if I had turned tail and bolted in a serpentine fashion for the relative safety of a nearby patch of gorse bushes. But we Callingtons are made of stern stuff and so I made an attempt to hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to his full height.
“May I help you?” asked the gatekeeper with a faint hint of an Irish accent. Her voice brought me out of the momentary stupor I’d been in, brought about by so many traumatic childhood memories.
In spite of my trepidations, the speaker was a smiling, kindly-looking woman who gazed up at me from underneath her habit with a pair of ice-blue eyes. She stood all of 4 foot 9 in her stocking feet (though she wore a pair of brogues at the moment). She could not be very much taller than the students that fell under her dominion. I myself towered over her, not unlike Goliath towering over David, and we all know how that worked out for Goliath. There were a lot of bookies who lost a lot of money that day.
“Ahem,” I said, clearing my throat preparatory to speaking. “I am Allington. Callister.” I cleared my throat again. “That is to say, I am peer to hiccup my … um …”
Since the word escaped me, I held up my hand about waist high to indicate the approximate height of my daughter. “Yes. My … um …” I snapped my finger to help me remember. “My Evangeline. To take her … you know … to her … um … ornithologist.”
“Oh, yes,” said the diminutive sister, broadening her smile. “We have been expecting you, Mr. Callington. Step inside, please.”
“Thank you, Sister,” I said. I felt as if I should genuflect, but I resisted the temptation.
I stepped inside the reception area of the school and looked about. It had not, according to my darling wife Alexis, changed at all since she had gone to school there as a wee lass. I half expected to see a roomful of sisters bent over wooden desks illuminating manuscripts. Or at least setting type in a Guttenberg press, or banging away at Underwood manual typewriters, or at the very least cranking away at the mimeograph machines. Instead, they were all, disappointingly, tapping away on computers and speaking on sleek, modern phones.
My knuckles throbbed with the memories of the various sisters who taught me Latin and trigonometry and the catechism at the Saint George’s School for Boys, just across town from where I stood right now. They probably bought rulers by the gross back then, for it had apparently been discovered that the best way to teach Latin to a restless boy was to crack rulers over his knuckles. To this day, though my Latin is still a bit rusty, my knuckles will throb on humid days. And the sight of a ruler can cause me to bolt like a skittish horse.
And, I may ask, of what use is Latin to a boy on a playground about to have his lunch money appropriated by brawny boys in higher grades? I could not very well say, “Obsecro, mihi nihil nocere. Suscipe pecunia, et vade.” Among the things that might have been lost in translation would have been my lunch money and my general good health.
“Sister Abigail,” asked the door-answering Sister, “Would you please buzz Sister Genevieve’s room and have Evangeline Callington sent here to the office?”
“Certainly, Mother Siobhán.”
I was shocked. The Mother Superior of this fine establishment barely came up to my navel. Other than the fact that she looked like she had taught the cha-cha on the Lido Deck on Noah’s Ark, she might be mistaken for one of the students.
Sister Abigail finished signing for a stack of boxes that had just been delivered and, as the delivery man left, she pressed the buzzer, delivered the instructions, and returned to her boxes. Suddenly there was nothing for me to do but stand idly by as the five Sisters manning … or rather, sistering … the office gazed at me and smiled.
This caused me no end of nervousness as I smiled sheepishly. I first crossed my arms. Then, thinking that might be a bit rude, I uncrossed them and instead tried to stick them jauntily in the pockets of my tweed sports jacket. However, I found I had failed to cut the tailor’s stitching from the pockets and so only succeeded in lifting the pocket flaps for no apparent reason. So, I put my hands behind my back instead and whistled a nervous little tune as I rocked back and forth in what I hoped was a carefree manner from my heels to my toes.
“We don’t often get fathers here,” said Sister Abigail as she paused in her box-opening activities long enough to watch me fidget nervously. She appeared to be the giggling, curious, and forthright one of the bunch.
“Don’t you?” I asked. “I would have thought they’d be over quite often to teach the little ones Latin or something.”
“Oh no,” she said, shaking her head back and forth. “Not Fathers. Fathers.”
“Oh yes,” I said, feigning comprehension. “I’m sure they are … um … quite … you know. Busy. Consecrating things. And exorcising vigorously.”
There was some mild tittering amongst the Sisters, though I don’t know why.
But Mother Superior Siobhán put an end to that soon enough. “Sisters,” she said, glancing over her readers at them. “Please attend to your duties.”
“Yes, Mother,” they all murmured in unison and turned their attentions back to their box-opening, typing, filing, manuscript illumination, typesetting, and whatever else they had been doing before I arrived.
Her stern tone of voice had not been lost on me, either. I was so spooked that I nearly leaped over the counter to set my hand at whatever tasks were handy. My years at college had not really prepared me to do anything in the nature of useful work, but my spirit was willing, even if my skills were weak. I might be all thumbs when it comes to illuminating a manuscript, but I might be able to fill inkwells or something.
But at that moment I heard an excited little voice yell out, “Daddy!”
I looked around and I saw my little Evangeline walking down the hallway towards the office in the company of yet another Sister. She looked absolutely adorable in her school uniform (Evangeline, not the Sister) and carrying her little book satchel. She had her red hair done in a lovely ponytail and held in place with a bow (of the school color, of course).
Then, horror of horrors! She broke away from the sister and, in direct defiance of house rules, she began to run to me excitedly.
Time seemed to stop and I remember trying to yell “noooooo!”, but I was frozen in that moment of time, unable to speak or act or even think. Instead, for no useful purpose whatsoever, my brain decided to take me back to my own youthful days at St. George’s, where running in the hallways carried punishments that were swift and sure. Most of us boys were much less frightened about Judgement Day than we were of having to go to Father Gribble’s office with a note that simply said, “Running in hallway.” St. Peter, we believed, would go easier on us for any of the mortal sins we might happen to commit in our lifetime, than Father Gribble would for us running down a freshly-buffed hallway.
Evangeline managed to make it to me without being apprehended by any of the nearby sisters and, when she was about three feet from me, suddenly leapt, entirely confident that I would catch her even though, up to that point, I had been doing my impersonation of Lot’s wife. I might just as well have been a pillar of salt that she flung herself towards for all the good I had been doing up until then.
But I managed to bend down and catch her (as I always do) at the last second. As I straightened back up with her sitting on my arm, I could not help but smile as she kissed my cheek and said, “Hi Daddy!”
“Hi, Princess,” I said, eyeing the sisters warily, certain that we would be, if not incarcerated, then at the very least, fined.
“Oh look,” I heard Sister Abigail say behind me. I turned to see her staring into a box she’d just opened from a recent delivery. “The new rulers are here!”
She pulled out a stout-looking wooden ruler and held it up for all to behold.
Back in my more athletic days, my time in the 100-meter sprint, even when unencumbered, was never anything to write home about. It always landed me squarely in the list of “also rans” in the small column of the school newspaper dedicated to sports no one cared about.
On this particular occasion, however, even with the added drag coefficient resulting from carrying a 5-year old girl with long red hair and a simulated leather book satchel, I would not only have moved up to the top of the column, but would have even walked away with the little plastic loving cup given to those that are outstanding in their track and field. What’s more, even if they’d added high hurdles to the track, my time would still have stood as a school record for many generations to come.
Fortunately, James was standing by the car with the back door open as I roared up to him like the Roadrunner being pursued by Wile E. Coyote.
“Start the car!” I yelled to him as I approached the car at a high rate of speed.
He dove into the driver’s seat and started the car as I jumped into the back seat and begin buckling buckles in a flurry, buckling anything and everything that had a buckle on it. It might take us an hour to extract ourselves by the time we got to the orthodontist.
James sped away from the school and then glanced at me in the rear-view mirror. His brow was furrowed and more than a little confused.
“Pardon my asking, Sir,” he said finally.
“Yes?” I asked, trying to strike a casual tone.
“Did you just rob the school?”
“It might appear so,” I said, looking over at Evangeline and reaching over to straighten the bow in her hair that had moved a bit due to the high winds I’d created during my sprint. “I certainly left there with the most valuable thing in heaven or earth.”
Story is Copyright ©2019 by Biff Sock Pow
The title and characters “Alistair and Alexis” are copyright © 2019 by Biff Sock Pow
All characters, character names, fictional place names, fictional products, and fictional companies and organizations used in the “Alistair and Alexis” stories are copyright © 2019 by Biff Sock Pow