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  • Dougie

The Reunion Quartet

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

I.


I cannot remember the first time anyone said to me, "ignorance is bliss". To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure that any real life, actual human being has ever uttered the words in my presence; purposefully I mean, as part of the ebb and flow of conversation, or stern advice delivered by some ageing minister of the church or cantankerous relative whose best efforts were almost certainly drawn from the shorter passages on human wisdom published by Readers Digest magazine (which used to lie around my grandmother's house in scattered bundles, mostly unread).


"Ignorance is bliss" is one of those hollow sounding statements that pass themselves off as profoundly insightful. People say, do they not, that ignorance is bliss? The rest of us nod as if we understand what's meant. It is as if some deeply hidden secret finally illuminates the darker recesses of the human condition; as if the words are golden.


'They' say it, so it must be correct. “I read it in a newspaper,” so it must be true. A fortune cookie told me, so who am I to argue?


It wasn't until I reached the second semester class of my first year studies in English Literature -- the poetry semester -- that I discovered the ubiquitous 'they' never said "ignorance is bliss" at all. No amorphous ‘people’ said so. It was Thomas Gray, the 18th Century English poet (much more famous for something called Gray's Elegy) who wrote about ignorance and bliss in his poem called 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College', published in 1742. I doubt the Readers Digest mentioned that small factoid in its 'thought for the day' columns.

Thomas Gray is not one of English Literature's top tier poets (despite his Elegy) and 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College' is not one of his most memorable poems. So, I think, I can forgive myself for forgetting the poet, and the poem, for most of my adult life until just the other week when I flew ‘home’ to participate in the School Reunion: Class of ‘74.


Don't ask me why I caught that plane because I do not know myself.


Perhaps it the curse of the voluntary exile, the ex-patriate (as we sometimes call ourselves – only half-ironically). The emigree.


Perhaps it is the sound of the human clock ticking which compels us to do silly things. It grows louder and louder with each passing year. It provokes us to behave irrationally.


Or perhaps it's simply that I'm just another melancholic Scotsman yearning for the fairy-tale attractions of ‘The Old Country’, a place, like Brigadoon, that never existed. Yet it calls us home.


If you pay insufficient attention to the real world, you find yourself driving north up the Hume Highway to Sydney airport. It is your own fault, therefore, that you must endure thirty-six hours of re-cycled air in cheap seats at the rear end of planes, the mind-numbing interregnum of airport transfers in time zones that Hell forgot, and too many vegetarian lacto ovo in-flight meals served in plastic containers at thirty-six thousand feet. You have no one to blame but yourself.


And all for what? A school reunion.


So it was then, we assembled ahead of an evening of re-connecting over chicken, salmon or vegetarian buffet in a basket and mediocre wine. People who had not been near one another or the school for almost fifty years.


We prepared ourselves for a fund-raising talk by the Head Teacher, followed by a memorial concert of short musical pieces performed by a group with connections to the school. They went by the name of The Reunion Quartet. It was their final selection that brought back to mind Thomas Gray and his observation on ignorance which -- as I've understood since university -- was meant to be read with what we now call the full context.


The quartet was introduced by its cellist, Margert; a woman of roughly my own age about whom I knew nothing. I was curious, therefore, to know what her connection to the school might be. That became clear immediately she explained her father was the late Brian Tolliver, assistant head of music until his untimely death in 1975. By "untimely" everyone understood that what went unsaid was the news which saturated the school in minutes (at the time) and spread like wildfire to former pupils such as me: the bastard Tolliver had hanged himself off Carrickmartin Bridge.


II.


Brian Tolliver – Mr. Tolliver to terrified students year after year between 1962 and 1974 -- was a music teacher at the school. Even to the least sensitive among us in the cohorts of reluctant scholars dragged by the stipulations of the modern curriculum into music appreciation classes, the idea that Tolliver had any connection to the creative arts, to beauty or the life-affirming simplicity of the octave was patently absurd.


The man was a monster. Evil incarnate dressed in a teacher's flowing robe like some latter-day Mr. Chips but reared in the darkest dungeons of Castle Dracula (where, it was obvious, he had acquired complete mastery of his vampire's cloak).


That the man hated children -- or maybe feared them -- was obvious to any adolescent forced to pass through the door to the Hell of his music room. That the man felt any connection to the world of music was almost never on display.


Every student understood the drill from day one. We were required to wait in an orderly line outside the classroom door until Mr. Tolliver arrived exactly two minutes before the commencement hour. Our silence was essential.


Tolliver arrived with the flurry of Count Dracula settling on the battlements of his Transylvanian eerie after a night of blood-sucking vengeance wrought against the not-undead. He unlocked the door, entered, then slammed it closed behind him immediately. Next (for all we knew) Tolliver conducted Satanic rituals in front of the malevolent chalkboard which no student would ever see him mark with chalk. The whole school, however, knew exactly how he used the chalk.


At the appointed hour Mr. Tolliver boomed out, "Enter!" One by one we filed-in to stand next to our allotted seat. And there we waited until instructed to sit. Like trained dogs.


At the front of the classroom there was an upright piano between the chalkboard fixed to the wall and a row of high windows along the eastern wall. We learned quickly and painfully that one looked through those windows at great peril. Throughout the room, arranged with military precision, were twenty-eight seats with a flip-up writing platform on the right arm (left-handed pupils being frowned on as deviant within our antiquated schooling system). The seats stood to attention in four immaculate columns, seven rows deep.


The first time we completed our procession of the damned into the room of no-song the optimists among us expected – some even hoped – that we would be asked to sing ... the school song, perhaps, or a hymn that any Christian soul would know by heart. But no. Our first lesson in the absence of song and the rage of a man, once seen, was never to be forgotten.


Cue the chalk.


An unused, unspoiled stick of white chalk stood upright near the edge of the lid of the teacher's piano. Mr. Tolliver stood a pace or two behind the piano, focused on the chalk.

"Pay attention class," said Mr. Tolliver. "This is my domain. And I suffer no ill-discipline or lack of concentration. Is that understood?"


A few of us murmured into our chests, "Yes, Mr. Tolliver," the name fading into disinterested, rather than disobedient, silence.


"Boys and girls," he said. "Before we proceed, it is essential we understand one another completely in my class."


Tolliver reached across his chest into the left sleeve of his teacher's robe. His hand, now masked from sight, could be followed nevertheless as he reached up to take hold of something resting over his shoulder. Next, Mr. Tolliver whipped out a well-used tawse -- a leather strap more than a foot in length, three split tongues at the business end: the belt, the strap, the tool of corporal punishment preferred for centuries in Scottish schools to instill and maintain required levels of discipline, obedience and respect. It dangled from the music teacher’s tightly clasped hand like a strangled hare.


"Let me show you," said Mr. Tolliver, "what happens in my class to any pupil who declines to answer the teacher's questions with anything less than a full-bodied and respectful ‘yes, Mr. Tolliver’”.


Tolliver took two small steps to his right. He raised his arm so that the leather strap lay over his right shoulder then surged towards the upright piano. One stride, two strides then, as he reached the piano, Tolliver unleashed his hand with the power of the enraged animal he had become to bring down the belt with all the force he could muster on the helpless, innocent, inanimate stick of chalk which stood to attention on the lid of the piano. The chalk evaporated in a cloud of dust. The piano chimed out in agony like the Devil's orchestra striking the lost chord in the pit of Hell.


We sat silent. Feet together, hands on our laps, backs as straight as rods in our chairs. We were mortified.


Mr. Tolliver regained his composure, smoothing back his hair with his left hand as the tawse now hung limply by his side.


He looked out across our petrified faces. "Is my meaning clear, class?" he asked.


"Yes, Mr. Tolliver," we roared back as if with one voice.


"Good," he said, as he returned his leather strap to its perch on his shoulder, hidden beneath his monstrous cloak.


"Now that we understand each other better," he continued, "let us begin with a sight reading of Hymn No. 1b in the Church of Scotland Hymnary, 2nd Revised Edition, 1927. Miller, you begin. First eight bars."


Mr. Tolliver tapped his shoulder then added, "And remember my friend. Mistakes will not be tolerated."


Every music class thereafter felt like descending into Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell, although I could not have told you that until I reached university and the poetry class.


III.


Before the Reunion Quartet played its final piece to the polite and mostly attentive audience that we were, Margaret Tolliver turned to speak to us.


"This final piece," she said, "was written by my father while he studied music at Glasgow University after serving in the war. It is called 'Suite for A. D."


Margaret turned her attention back to her cello. The Reunion Quartet waited for peace to descend then played. And for the next fourteen minutes and fifty-four seconds of our ordinary lives the former schoolboys and schoolgirls of the class of ‘74 were transported to a place of such melodic beauty that we might have died and gone to Heaven; even those of us who were certain that no such place exists. Think Elgar and his lark, ascending. Or the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth. Except Tolliver’s ‘Suite’ was more transcendent than either of those or than both unified in some impossible way – times ten.


Tranquil. At peace. Full of love yet sadder than the lament of the last song ever sung at end of the world.


When the music was over a deep and profound silence filled the hall in which we sat. Everyone looked at The Reunion Quartet immobile on the stage, transported like the rest of us to whatever place the music had carried us. Every one of us – whether we had only sat terrified in front of the stick of chalk evaporating under the crushing blow of the teacher's rage or those of us who had actually suffered the stinging tongues of his whiplash tawse on the palms of our outstretched hands -- shared the same, uncomprehending thought, "Tolliver wrote that?"


Brian Tolliver’s daughter rose from her seat behind the cello which she placed to rest on the stage floor. She stepped forward to address us.


"My father was a complicated man," she began, "a difficult and often angry man. As I think some of you may know."


A slight, nervous ripple of laughter spread out across the room.


"Quite," said Margaret, relaxing almost imperceptibly.


"I wanted those of you who knew only the more difficult Brian Tolliver to have at least a hint of the man whom almost no one here -- not me, none of you before me -- could ever have known. The Brian Tolliver who wrote our final piece tonight." She gestured towards her fellow musicians, "His Suite for A. D."


Spontaneous applause filled the room.


"Thank you," she said, then, on the verge of saying more, Margaret Tolliver appeared to break down in tears.


For the second time, spontaneous applause filled the space.


"Forgive me," said Margaret Tolliver. "Didn't someone once say that the past is a different country where people did things differently?"


Margaret carried on speaking.


"Before I return you to the joys of your reunion," she said in a tone overflowing with ironic appreciation of the oddness of the evening still ahead of us, "I would like to introduce you to A. D. for whom my father wrote the Suite.”


She paused, turned to face the curtain to the right of the stage then said, "Arthur."


"Arthur?" we all silently asked.


Without anyone actually uttering the word, the unanimous, astonished, unbelieving enquiry from every member of the class of ‘74 filled the void of the school’s assembly hall while an elderly, silver-haired man walking with the aid of a stick emerged from behind the drape to join Margaret Tolliver at the centre of the stage.


The elderly man and Margaret Tolliver embraced fondly and kissed one another's cheeks. Margaret stepped back as Arthur turned to face the classes of our graduation year; maybe one hundred or more graying, balding, moderately overweight men and women of a certain age. Stunned as mullets.


"My name is Arthur Doncaster," he began. “Brian Tolliver and I fell in love during our second year at Glasgow University. Brian, you need hardly wonder, read music. I read law." Arthur hesitated.


"The world was not an easy place for men like me back then," Arthur continued. "And Brian, of course."


"Goodness me," he said, as if some realisation had dawned on him for the first time. "Our love was still against the law back then. Mocked. And vilified."


Arthur paused. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.


Then Arthur spoke again. "We decided it was best to go our separate ways on graduating," he said. "Brian wanted to teach and you can imagine how difficult that could become were we to remain together. I had a place in my father's Chambers back in Bath at first. Then I moved to London."


'Years passed," he went on. "They do you know. They pass almost without notice if you are lucky. Or maybe if you're unlucky, now I think on it," he added, almost absent-mindedly, as if he had forgotten we were present with him in the room.


"And then," he spoke again, drawing near his conclusion, "in 1976 I received a package from Margaret, of whose existence I had no idea. It contained a short letter telling me she had traced my whereabouts through my father's former law firm. She wrote that Brian had killed himself the year before. Margaret enclosed the handwritten manuscript of the music which her quartet played for you this evening."


And now it was Arthur Doncaster who seemed incapable of speech. Margaret appeared at his side, resting a hand on his good shoulder. He lifted his head to speak again.


"I have wanted to share this truth with others for as long as I can remember," he said. He paused again.


"I hope you will enjoy your evening,” he went on. “And as you look back on your former days in this school, I hope you will think of the Brian Tolliver who wrote this piece of music for a fool like me. And forgive us both."


"Thank you," he said. Then Arthur turned to take Margaret Tolliver's outstretched arm. Together they walked slowly off the stage.


For the third and final time that evening, spontaneous applause filled the hall.


IV.


I learned a great deal from Arthur Doncaster and Margaret Tolliver that night, although I spoke to neither. As I listened to the old man speak I wondered what their lives must have been like -- Arthur and Brian; the man who turned into a monster before hanging himself off an old bridge, over a dank canal, beside a less than glorious town, on the edge of the once great second city of an empire on which the sun was never supposed to set.


I wondered too about Mr. Tolliver's daughter Margaret, connecting – at some point in her past -- with a man she could not have known except through his transcendent music. And I thought about myself. A topic about which I still know nothing.


I also thought about Thomas Gray and his half-remembered 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College'. Later that evening, sitting alone and slightly tipsy on one glass too many of the reunion's mediocre red, lulled close to sleep by the rumbling predictability of my late-night train back to the city, I googled "Ignorance is bliss".


How much we misinterpret the poet.


How little the Class of ’74 knew of that damaged other man.


Coda


To each his suff'rings: all are men,

Condemn'd alike to groan,

The tender for another's pain;

Th' unfeeling for his own.

Yet ah! why should they know their fate?

Since sorrow never comes too late,

And happiness too swiftly flies.

Thought would destroy their paradise.

No more; where ignorance is bliss,

'Tis folly to be wise.[1]


[1] Thomas Gray. From 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College', 1742.


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First draft (not substantially different from this version) was submitted as part of the daily writing challenge named 'Like the Prose', We signed up to write one complete short story each day for the month of June. This is my response to challenge #6, originally submitted on 7th June 2019 (Australia time).


The brief we were set was this:


Write a story that pits good versus evil, with no grey area in between. Make your position clear. Your hero would be perfect and unflawed, whereas your villain would be the devil incarnate. No middle-ground. No commonality. No subtlety. And no politics! (we've done that already) Good is good and bad is bad. What is good? What is bad? And who is going to win? Well... I leave it for your own morality to decide. And yes, big, grandiose, larger-than-life plot and characters may be suitable for this task, but for bonus points, throw suitability to the wind. Make this story as small, intimate and microcosmy as possible. And seriously... no politics! Too easy.


I always send my drafts to Spike to read before submitting them anywhere. I added to the note about the challenge, "It seems I failed to meet the challenge in a way. Good and evil inhabit everyone. Right and wrong maybe, rather than good and evil."


The brief is not the point. I wrote a story. I'm satisfied with what it is, completed as it was in less than 24 hours.

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