(Here’s a short story I wrote almost twenty years ago.)
There has been much said and written about the following subject in the academic community, it seems almost superfluous to add my own comment to the wealth of material already published on this topic. And yet the story itself seems somewhat compelling, like all good mysteries, and more so because it is, quite defiantly, true. The fact that a senior practitioner in literary matters has attested to the honesty of all involved adds a touch of authenticity to the whole situation, and who are we to argue with the judgement of a colleague so esteemed as Professor Zazzo Thiim?
‘They were branching out, pure and simple’, he told me, one charged evening at the local pub. He leaned back in his chair and seemed, just for a second, incredibly tired, as it the events of the previous week had drained him of energy. ‘I first heard it reported to me by one of my younger students, a naive fellow whose panicked account seemed ill-judged and unworthy of comment. But then other students and colleagues began attesting to the fact. They, too, had heard and seen with their own eyes, that the local skateboarders were quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson. I knew immediately that I would have to probe deeper’.
The old man leans forward across the table and interlaces his fingers. ‘I started that very evening. With a flask of cocoa and a pair of opera glasses, I went down to the local skate ramp and watched them from the bushes. I felt like a television botanist watching the mighty gorillas of some dank, faraway jungle. How incredibly amusing their mannerisms, how obvious the social gradations and rank within their clique, that they might defer to the most able of their group, and lend advice to the weakest. I would surely have watched longer had not I felt a sudden hand on my collar and a policeman inquire as to what I was playing at. ‘We have a name for people like you’, he told me. I can tell you it wasn’t a comforting situation, but when I told him the reasons behind my being there, his face relaxed. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘The poetry thing. We’ve been racking our brains over that one, I can tell you. Come down to the station’.
‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Am I under arrest’.
‘Not at all’, he replied. ‘We’ve just found one of them trying to break into the library. Perhaps you might like to have a quiet word with him’.
The lad in question was a poor specimen, I can tell you, a pathetic, individual whose half-hearted attempt at perfecting the skater-boy look was almost laughable. On being asked exactly why he was breaking into the library he denied all knowledge that it had been such a building, that he was under the impression more that it was the off licence. When the constable slid a copy of Tennyson’s poetry across the table towards him he made a frantic attempt to grab it from his hands, only for the book to be snatched away from him. ‘Not so fast, sonny’, the constable said, in his laconic, laid-back voice. ‘First we need to talk terms. We can help you get your fix, but first you must help us. We need your skateboard’, he continued. ‘You see, there’s a little mystery here, and we need it cleared up’.
The Professor lets out a laugh. ‘I cut quite a figure on the skateboard ramp, I can tell you. Sure, I fell off a few times, but I soon won respect from the posse not only for my aerial acrobatics but also for my detailed knowledge of Romantic-era poetry. Indeed, things were going along quite fine. How glad I was to see that the stories were true – a particularly athletic turn at the board would be greeted with the words, ‘At Arthur’s ordinance, tipt with lessening peak!’, or a bad fall decorated with the expression, ‘lay low and slay him not!’ I must say, I quite enjoyed my spell with the lads, and at no time did they twig that I was a seventy-four year old academic professor, except when I passed around a packet of sanatogan in the mistaken belief that it was a bottle of alco-pops. ‘A fine pinnacle!’, I yelled, heading up the ramp at great speed. ‘And made as a spire to heaven!’ Brad was especially vocal and conversant in Tennyson’s later works and at times he would exclaim, ‘Sluggards and fools, why do you stand and stare? You are no king’s men!’, or even the ultimate insult, ‘Let this be thy last trespass, thou uncomely knave!’ As the sun started to set, the dusk spread out her silken fingers and seemed to caress the shapely ramps, and in the encroaching dark came a camaraderie I have not yet ever felt, not even in the throes of really good group discussion on Hemingway. Joining in with their masculine bravado, I put up the hood of my jacket and, feeling somewhat exuberant, shouted, ‘While Jove’s planet rises yonder, were now to rage and torture the desert!’ Oh, how absolutely wonderful I felt!
The effect, though, was immediate. The skaters stopped in their tracks. One skateboard, bereft of its rider, swung to and fro on the ramps before it, too, fell silent. ‘What was that?’ Brad asked. Flustered, I repeated my quotation. ‘You’, he said, breathing harshly through quivering nostrils, ‘Are an imposter!’
The rest of the group crowded in on me. I stumbled, and tried to make some kind of retraction to my earlier statement, but the damage was done.
‘That was Robert Browning’, Brad pointed out. ‘What are you, some kind of freak? Who quotes from Browning at a skate ramp?’
‘Yeah’, someone else piped up. ‘What kind of a sicko are you?’
I don’t mind telling you that I was scared. I escaped with my life, and for this I am monumentally thankful.
Naturally, the trouble vexed me for ages. Back at the department I toiled at my desk and tried to read into the whole episode some kind of reason, some kind of explanation behind the adoption of Tennyson. I looked at his rhythms, I looked at his metre, I looked at his rhyme scheme, but none of them matched with the rhythms I had heard on the skate park ramps. The content of his poems were also barren in their significance. I could see in his metrical skill and his lyrical genius no link to the satisfactory clatter of skateboard on concrete, no link between his romantic inclinations and narrative expression to the wearing of a hoodie. Late one night, though, thoroughly tired and dejected, I found the skateboard that I had borrowed that night, and the more I looked at it the more I could see that there was, however slight, a connection of sorts. Four wheels, I told myself, and one standing platform, just like the four isolated tenets of romanticism, the stylistically gothicism inherent, the reaction against enlightenment, imagination, vision and idealism, mixed with the surface and sureness of Tennyson’s reign as poet laureate – surely, this was what the skaters were alluding to in their adherence to his work? How relieved I was to get to bed that night’.
The Professor frowns and he lowers his voice. ‘I wrote up my report the next morning and submitted it to the head of my department. That lunchtime I felt free. In the Spring air I could hear the clatter of a distant skateboard and I nodded, knowingly, to myself. The world seemed right, somehow. The world seemed a better place. But that afternoon I received an anonymous letter.
How horrendous the news that it contained! It came from an ex-skater, whose adherance to the poetry of Tennyson had been questioned by some members of the group. He said that the skaters were not quoting from Tennyson – oh no – they were reading. There was a book stuck in the overhanging tree, he explained. And to prove their dexterity on the skateboard, the skaters in question would attempt to read a line at random as they were suspended in mid-air. If it had been a crisp packet, the anonymous writer concluded, then they would have read out the ingredients. There was no mystery.’
The Professor drained the last of his wine and made to stand. ‘The department has been embarrassed by this whole episode,’ he said, ‘As you can probably imagine. I would be grateful if you could not mention some of the more lurid details of this story’, and with that, the old man was off.
I followed a few minutes later. It was a dark night and there were a few stars hung in the sky. As I walked back to my car I was overtaken by a child on a unicycle, and he was quoting Oscar Wilde. But then, it could have been the drink.