I could not make sense of what the schoolma’am was saying, but watching her smiling red cheeks and hearing her motherly inflections, her impression of me seemed favorable. Finally I picked out the word “Mrs.” Which I knew indicated a married woman in English.
How Mrs. Cherret went on and on. It seemed she was determined to teach me English by saying right there and then everything it was possible to say. The method worked, however. A few minutes after she began her barrage of gibberish, my textbook views on English vowels were radically altered. At one point she said,”food,” pronounced “fEawUOeDe” by the English, not “foood” as the Iranian palate simplifies it. I said “yes” in just the way I had heard her say it, and so my friendship with the English language began with a cucumber sandwich.
As I sat at the kitchen table eyeing the odd contents of the sandwich, a tall shadow swished by the door. Mrs. Cherret called out to him. “Our new Persian boy,” she said. The black-robed figure reappeared in the doorframe, whose arch suddenly seemed sacred with infallible authority. He wore his robe with such ferocious scholarship that the rest of him mysteriously vanished in an aura of sublime learnedness. Standing rigidly in an elegant Gothic posture, he coldly scanned my face, collecting the minimum visual information necessary to identify me. Then he asked my name to provide a label for this data. It seemed his lips did not move when he spoke, his face remaining disdainfully neutral.
He didn’t say a word beyond asking my name, but somehow his brief look had told Mrs. Cherret that I needed a uniform. At the same time he had told me that much else about me needed changing.
“Howard?” Mrs. Cherret asked him. The robed figure examined me a bit more. Then he nodded and walked away. Howard was an upperclassman assigned to mentor me in the ways of the English. Soon after Mrs. Cherret summoned him, he took me to the recreation room and started teaching me billiards. Once I was used to him teaching me things, he began to socialize me in the ways of the English. What is polite, how shoes are polished, why we wear white shirts on Sundays and gray shirts the rest of the week, when to wear the cap and when to remove it, how to ask for seconds and who can tell whom what to do. I asked him who the hideous robed man was. “That’s Mr. Cherret the schoolmaster,” Howard whispered, “but you should always call him ‘sir.”
Howard was gentle, with a patient, even voice. He was not overly friendly with anyone and had no pals, but he treated everyone, even the underclassmen, with respect and consideration. This English boy was lonely in a natural and contented way. I had not seen anyone like him in Iran—except on the screen in Lawrence of Arabia-- but during my year’s stay in England I would meet more people like him. Clearly, this climate grew a crop that did not exist back home.
Five of us shared two connected dormitory rooms: Besides me there was McConachie, who had a freckled pink ball for a nose and whose voice was an eager squeak. Erikson was a blue-eyed New Zealander with movie star features. His carefully combed blond hair often tumbled down to his face and in the back kept an uneasy truce with the school’s hair length regulations. Gill was an orthodox Hindu with the serious mannerisms of an adult. His body was a straight rod which was either vertical when awake or horizontal when sleep. Finally there was “Rusty”, whose real surname had a “raast” in it somewhere. He was the other Iranian in the school. I was a year or two younger than the other boys and would have normally slept in another room with my age group. But Mrs. Cherret thought I would feel more comfortable sleeping in the same room as Rusty. She was wrong! Rusty was entirely too anglicized to be taken seriously as a compatriot.
That first night, Rusty did ask in broken Farsi if I had brought any pistachios. I told him that I had brought the entire harvest from Iran and didn’t know what people were going to do for pistachios back home. Rusty stared in befuddlement for a moment and then asked if he could have some. So much for humor! While McConachie and Erikson were as different as Lou Costello and Cary Grant, and Gill clearly belonged in a Hindu temple, Rusty was an average English boy with only one Iranian trait: on the pain of torture he would not eat pork.
He had barricaded all of his Iranianness into this one last refuge, which he defended like an Alamo. It was as though if he ate pork, the last bit of Iranian in him would disappear, leaving behind nothing but an Englishman. Moreover, he had made it his mission to protect any compatriot within his reach from this evil meat that could fatally poison an ancient heritage in one swallow. Under Rusty’s watchful mullahood, and much to the irritation of Mrs. Cherret, who sat at our table, I kept my chastity against pork.
Despite this omission, I would still have still eaten balanced meals if Gill had not been giving nightly sermons as to the perils of beef. With Gill’s spiritual guidance I also succeeded in avoiding beef. Mrs. Cherret respected Rusty and Gill as their abstaining seemed to stem from religious conviction, but there was no question of conviction on my part; I was just being impressionable.
“Dear,” Mrs. Cherret would say, “if you stopped eating whatever someone else didn’t eat, you would go hungry.” Nevertheless, before every meal, I would ask her whether it was beef or pork. Speaking softly so Mr. Cherret at the next table could not hear, she would say, “It is dog, dear, so you can go ahead and eat it.” Then she would keep her stare on me until I swallowed the first mouthful.
While Rusty and I did not quite make friends, Erikson and I actually became enemies.
It was an accident. The first few nights at the dorm I would lay awake while everyone slept. The recurring nightmare I had been having since my mother’s suicide was sure to revisit, and I did not know how things would go in a place where a close relative was not around to wake me up from it. One night I heard sobbing. I thought it was McConachie, but to my astonishment it was Erikson. He thought everyone was asleep. I asked him what the matter was. He said he wanted his mommy. This was a very different Erikson than the one in the schoolyard or the recreation room. There, social and confident, he acted several years older than his age, bragging about his girlfriends back in New Zealand. I was not sure if he was really awake now. Perhaps he too had nightmares. I told him, as well as my English would allow, that my mother had recently died. He didn’t say anything, but stopped sobbing.
The next morning Erikson seemed unaware of our conversation the night before and was his bragging self again. That night, after the lights went out, I waited for Gill’s beef sermon to end, then I asked Erikson if he still missed being away from his mother. He said he was talking about how he missed having sex with his girlfriends. Stupidly, I insisted that he clearly mentioned his mother. He said I should shut up until I learned to understand English.
McConachie’s ears had pricked at the mention of sex and girlfriends. He wanted to know what it was like. This gave Erikson the opportunity to end our argument and launch into how his girlfriends kept a hole in their pants pockets just for his fingers.
From then on it became a custom that after Gill’s sermon, Erikson would open the floor to sex questions. His advice consisted mainly of the citing of precedent, using his own exploits as examples of correct sexual behavior. Rusty sometimes challenged Erikson’s credibility and was challenged back.
“How would you know, Rusty? You don’t even have girlfriends in Iran.”
“Yes we do. Isn’t that right?”
“It is true,” I would confirm.
“Yes, but they are not common like in New Zealand.”
“Persian girlfriends are famous for being common. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, common girlfriends are everywhere in Iran,” I nodded and thought, I lied for you, countryman. Someday I may need you to lie for me in this strange island.
“Gill, do you have girlfriends in India?” Erikson asked. Gill was in deep REM, his exhortations against beef having exhausted him.
“Gill..., Giiilllll..., wake up,” Erikson insisted. Finally, he crawled over and shook him awake. Gill sat up puffy-eyed and puzzled.
“Gill, do you have girlfriends in India? We are all curious.”
“No,” Gill explained and pulled the blankets over his head.
I tried several times to resolve my argument with Erikson. It wasn’t really about being called a liar by him; I needed a friend to talk to about my mother. The attempts backfired severely. Instead of forming a bond, Erikson started acting rudely. He nicknamed me “shrimp,” since I was two years younger and quite a bit shorter than the rest of my dorm mates. Soon all his admirers were calling me “shrimp.” It was my hard luck to make an enemy who was one of the most popular boys in our dormitory wing. All of Erikson’s entourage had seniority over me, so I could not easily challenge how they chose to treat me.
The seniority concept was hard to grasp. It was the Great Loophole in the ideals of justice and fair play I was taught to uphold in Iran. Seniority capitalized Bully and underlined force; it put (ethics) in parentheses and placed “fair play” in quotes. It wasn’t so much the bullying hierarchy that was unfamiliar; it was the fact that overriding it in the interest of fairness was considered a violation of the rights of the bully. Everyone had an allotted portion of power based on his seniority. It was the law!
Soon Erikson became relentless in his needling, taking every opportunity to take jabs at me. I would find pencil shavings in my socks and mud on my toothbrush--Erikson and his advisees always smirking and giggling within sight. Rusty sat the fence on this issue. McConachie went over to Erikson’s camp, sex fantasies having totally won him over. Gill was on my side, always rebuking Erikson for acting spoiled. Since Gill had the same seniority as Erikson, his rebuke went much further than my frustrated squeaks. But still Erikson continued to escalate the tormenting.
I complained to Mrs. Cherret. She said, “Isn’t Howard watching out for you?” I said I had already talked to Howard.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
“So what are you going to do about it?” She asked.
“I have complained to Howard, I have complained to all the bishops (English school student monitors). I don’t know who else to talk to who will believe me. Maybe next time I go to the embassy I can talk to someone there.” It would never occur to me to write to Father. Whatever he had to say on the matter would likely make me feel worse.
One day at the lunch table, Erikson passed me a note. I opened it. It said, “Ugly crybaby shrimp!” He had drawn a vulgar hand gesture on the note. I saw my opportunity and immediately showed the note to Mrs. Cherret. She did not even put her fork down but said coolly, “Erikson, we do not pass notes at the table.” This was truly frightening. I had caught Erikson red-handed in his nastiness, fully expecting he would be dismissed from the table and punished. Instead, English authority seemed not a bit concerned.
Continued in Part 4
From The Mullah With No Legs and Other Stories.
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