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The Measure of Gary Mooney

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The Measure of Gary Mooney
This story was awarded third place in the New Zealand’s 2007

  Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition.

  The Measure of Gary Mooney

  Jonathan M Barrett

  Copyright 2010 Jonathan M Barrett

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  Jonathan M Barrett. Thank you for your support.

  Miss Davis had noted in her practice diary the ways the children in her class used the qualities of one another as yardsticks: Kevin Brown's cricket ability, Stephan Mackie's weight, Susan Amm's propensity to exaggerate. 'Not as', 'the same as', 'better than' the relevant measure, and the finest of gradations allocated around and in between. In this system, Gary Mooney, who was almost as tall as the shortest of the teachers, a head and more above any other child in the class, was the meter of tall for eight-year-old boys. But he was also the benchmark for slow movement.

  Gary Mooney, was not, Miss Davis had decided, slow-witted. In fact, she had first thought him more mature and wiser than his years. But later he had come to remind her of an adult whose apparent wisdom, on reflection, amounts to no more than dipping into a store of proverbs. She found the child to be curiously lacking in enthusiasm or energy. He would never join the others in running home from school, leaping – momentarily flying – over tarmac patches on the pavements. Gary would always keep up the rear; his gait as short as if he were hobbled; steady, but inevitably falling behind, alone. It was not, she felt, that the other children excluded him; rather Gary failed to include himself. She had watched him as he, in turn, observed the other children's foibles, always slightly aside from the fray, then smiling gently, as though he were a grown up gathering examples of playground idiolect for amusing letters to mothers' magazines. That behaviour did not endear Gary Mooney to Miss Davis: perish the thought, she considered it sly.

  Hastings Street Primary School, Miss Davis's first teaching post after graduation, lay in the imperial shadow. The roads around the school had been named for Empire builders: Hastings, Clive, Raffles, Rhodes and so forth. The map of the world on the classroom wall, distorted in the Mercator projection like a hydrocephalic, was twenty years out of date and a good part still as pink as a powder puff. There were the great blocks of Canada and Australia, of course, but also distant Bechuanaland, Nyasaland and dustings of pink in the oddest of places.

  Like the Empire, the last world war, just twenty-five years finished and remembered by some like yesterday, loomed large over the school. Rumours of unexploded ordnance lying around the pillboxes at the local aircraft factory agitated the imaginations of generations of boys. The old folk used to recount how a squadron of Spitfires would take to the sky to ward off the raiding Luftwaffe. To them, as they told it now, this had been a municipal function no more remarkable than the arrival of the orange lorry that came to grit the road when snow occasionally fell and settled. Black helmets of the air-raid wardens, with their wearers' stencilled initials still faintly discernible, but chin straps mouse-gnawed to threads, were stacked in the sports storeroom to be used as markers, mostly for games of rounders.

  Miss Davis's class had studied time in the first term. Almost all of the children had mastered the hexadic division of time, recognising how the clock face was marked off into sixty seconds, sixty minutes and twelve hours. It never occurred to them that time might be divisible in units of ten. But Miss Davis had, during a liberated hitchhiking holiday around Europe last summer, become most familiar with Continental practices and the metric system. And so, she fancied that sooner or later, when Britain became part of Europe and all the quixotic imperial units of measurement had been unlearnt, a bright child – like David Thompson – but in a class she would take in the future, when children understood themselves in centimetres and kilograms, might make that very decimal proposition: "please, Miss, shouldn't there be a hundred seconds in a minute?"

  Despite her efforts, Miss Davis understood that the children did not measure their lives in the adult units of time. The intervals of their lives were set by the clatter of the electric bell that announced and brought lessons to an end; and the weekly cycle of favourite television programmes. If it weren't for the festival treats of birthdays, Easter and Christmas, contemplating a period much longer than a week might be beyond them. Adult time was no more than a ghostly cage, something that the children could faintly perceive but simply walked through.

  It was not only time the children measured differently from the adult world. She had observed how volume, for them, was primarily gauged by reference to the one-third of a pint of free milk they drank just before the morning break. This was dispatched through barbershop striped straws: in summer, by warm slow sour sips; in winter, the ice pick head rush of a bottle gone in two gulps. Sometimes she would notice a giggling conspiracy of bubble-blowing and, other times, studious, pipette slow drops onto extended tongues. And so, as if conforming to some Einsteinian proposition, volume and time became variable according to the moods of the children and the temperature of the season.

  In the second term, Miss Davis's class embarked on a novel project of measurement. During the break, she'd had an inspiring meeting with her supervisor, Keith, from the teaching training college. Keith had a beard and a corduroy suit, and had been to India. He told her that he was pretty much a Buddhist these days. They'd discussed her observations about the children's systems of measurement.

  "Then, tap into that alternative knowledge system," Keith said, as he tapped his own forehead."They already have the experience, now give them the conceptual tools for applying that experience to the wider world."

  "I was thinking of using themselves to measure their height, velocity et cetera," she ventured.

  "Brilliant." Keith became really quite animated. "You know, kids have this incredible innate knowledge, an instinct for cosmic truths. In the West, we spend too much time teaching kids to un-learn their natural wisdom. We have so much to learn from them."

  Miss Davis didn't know what to say.

  Keith coughed and said, "I'll look forward to reading your report, Jenny."

  Today, the culmination of the class's measuring project will be to measure and compare different normal walking speeds, "your own natural vel-o-cit-ies." Miss Davis enunciates each syllable disjunctively as she writes on the board. The air wardens' helmets will mark the start and finish of the course for the class's velocity calculations. David Thompson, a reliable and attractive boy, has been charged with marking out one hundred yards. And all the class, even Miss Davis, watch from the classroom window, as David, confident as an imperial surveyor, paces the playground with an official measuring wheel that clicks each yard.

  Mr Collins, the headmaster, comes out of his office to watch proceedings, amiably of Miss Davis, sternly of the children. He too has a memento of the war – a deeply cherished shrapnel wound. The limp from the wound sends a ripple up the billowing cloth of his Churchillian trouser leg as he marches about the school keeping order. At her interview, Mr Collins had warmly approved of Miss Davis's disguise of charity shop tweeds and severe bun. He'd said, "it will be so pleasing to have a nice young lady join the school, who has not been caught up in the follies of the time." Once he had stroked her striped college scarf that lay over the back of her chair in a gesture that repulsed her. Occasionally, the nice young lady feels a shiver of delight as she recalls last summer's backpackers' Bacchanalia in the Greek islands, and how, on the beach at Ios, she had given herself to a Frenchman, whose name she couldn't remember in the hangover morning, but who'd made her laugh by pronouncin
g Davis as d'avis. What, she wondered, would Mr Collins make of that little folly.

  Gary Mooney's velocity is measured last. He finally ambles to the mark, the reliable standard of slowness. But, instead of his special dawdle that everyone expected, he shoots off from the start, elbows pumping furiously. His normal fetters have been thrown off, and his long legs stride heroically across the playground. Like an Olympic walker, his hips twist as his face contorts with concentration. The other children, shocked at first into silence, hear a snort of exhaust as he passes them, his face as pink as the Empire, and traces of an unaccustomed sweat on his forehead.

  The first whispered cheat falls unnoticed behind his heels but the second, louder, catches him and he turns.


  Gary meets the accuser's eye, and, turning, somehow manages to increase his pace.

  "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!" All of the children now join in.

  The sound of this unsporting word echoing around his playground moves Collins to turn his head away from the close inspection of the perimeter fence. (He has told the staff that he suspects that knots have been deliberately pushed out of the fence in a pattern of rebellion. He'd vowed to get to the bottom of it.)

  Had he not been moving at such speed through the gauntlet, Gary would surely be knocked to the ground by the weight of the taunts and buried beneath them. But he manages to cross the line without faltering. He looks exhausted, and his pace slows to normal. His legs wobbling from the effort, he approaches Miss Davis with her stopwatch. He smiles victoriously; she thinks, perhaps, insolently. Unavoidably aware of the protests of the other children, she confirms that Gary hasn't misunderstood her careful instructions.

  "You do understand, don't you, Gary, that it was supposed to be your normal walking pace? We wanted to measure your natural ve-loc-ity. It wasn't a race, you do understand that, don't you?"

  "Yes, Miss." He meets her gaze without flinching.

  "Perhaps, you would you like to have another go?"

  "No, Miss." He seems puzzled by her offer.

  "Then, fine," she says, "I'll write your time in. You were actually ten seconds faster than anyone else," she tells him, giving him one last chance to relent. But, when she sees that he is resolute, she adds, "still, you are taller than anyone else, I suppose."

  There is outrage: the girls gather in muttering knots of tricoteuses but the boys are not so sanguine, and mill around Miss Davis like petulant soccer players protesting the decision of a foreign referee.

  "But, Miss, he cheated," David Thompson pleads, and Miss Davis feels a maternal pang when she sees tears at injustice welling in his roe deer eyes.

  "It's not a matter of cheating, David," she says.

  Before David can protest further, his ear is gripped between Collins's gnarly thumb and index fingers, still creosote stinky from his investigation of the fence, and the sweet boy is marched off towards the headmaster's office.

  "But Mr Collins," Miss Davis protests, "Harold."

  "Don't worry, Miss Davis," Collins says, "I'll soon put a stop to that sort of insolence."

  Miss Davis does not record this in her practice diary, but, she observes, like their idiosyncratic units of measurement, the children have their own system of justice. No arraignment or trial is necessary; Gary's perfidy speaks for itself. Only the punishment remains to be decided. If they cannot exile him from the class, the children can treat Gary as though he is not there: they send him to Coventry.

  Naturally, Miss Davis notices the operation of the sentence, but there is little she can or particularly cares to do. Unlike David Thompson, whose position as her favourite has become unassailable after his caning by Collins, Gary isn't exactly an attractive or likable child. In fact, she now finds his mask of maturity and old-fashioned ways quite unpleasant. She's also revised her initial view that his unnatural velocity was a matter of misunderstanding or forgivable vanity. She is now convinced that it had been a premeditated and selfish undermining of the whole class's measurement efforts that term. Nevertheless, Miss Davis makes half-hearted efforts to force or even trick the other children into talking to him. But this tactic can only work in the classroom, and she is well aware that any conversation she manages to contrive will not continue beyond the bell for playtime. She consoles herself that the children will forget the punishment soon enough, but they prove to be remarkably obdurate. Besides, he doesn't seem to be bothered by his punishment. In fact, Miss Davis becomes convinced that Gary Mooney had planned all along to become the measure for exclusion.


  About the author

  Jonathan M Barrett lives and teaches in Wellington, New Zealand. He has written plays, novels and short stories.

  Fifth Season

  The Ball

  Accident Report

  Uses of Agapanthus

  House Hunting

  Key Note Speaker

  Connect with me online

  Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Jonathan-M-Barrett/

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