by Peter Marsh
Posters in every shop window announced that the ceremony would begin at three o’clock. No indication was given of when it would end, but past experience of Toussaint College graduations counselled me that anything less than four hours would be viewed by the public as short measure. Add to this the certainty that the exercise would not get under way until at least an hour and a half after the time announced, and it was beginning to look like a long afternoon.
The day before, I had helped Ron to take down the partitions between the classrooms, making the whole of the ground floor into one big hall. This the boys of the graduating class had filled with rows of classroom chairs, while the girls, who constituted the majority of the class, tied posies of bougainvillea to the window frames, the lights, and the edges of the stage. The back of the stage was graced by a large board bearing the inscription “Toussaint College Class of 1985”. The condition of the board bore witness to its many years of use. The figure 8 was markedly sharper than all the other characters, except for the brand new 5. The finishing touches were still being applied to this numeral at a quarter to three, when I took a seat next to Verna Checkley. The artist, resplendent in academical cap and gown, was perched on a stool. His name was Vibert Thomas. Vibert was the top student of the class and therefore the one fittest to be trusted with this last minute attention to detail. He was also the only one tall enough.
Two of the girls were tying tags to the ends of the rows of seats: “Governors”, “Honoured Guests”, “Teachers”, and finally “Parents”. Toussaint College Graduation was, after Carnival, the biggest event in the Petite Guadeloupe calendar, and anybody who was anybody to anybody was expected to be there. The class of ’85 had been hoping to get the Prime Minister himself to deliver the feature address but, the honourable gentleman having been detained by affairs of state in St Nicks, they had had to call on the services of the only man on Petite Guadeloupe willing or able to give a one-hour speech at two hours’ notice: Dennis Churchill. There was still no sign of him, but a few of the other Honoured Guests and Governors were already outside the hall, knowing that the proceedings would begin when they would begin, and glad of the excuse to dress up and fritter away a Sunday afternoon in the worthy cause of education. Father Gabriel, in his clerical robes, was in earnest conversation with Dr Jab and District Officer Clement, while Ron, the Head Master, sweating profusely in an unaccustomed collar and tie, was hurrying from point to point, testing the microphones, advising the girls who were tagging the seats, producing a hammer from under the stage and using it to nail down a loose board, and in between, giving vigorous handshakes to the island dignitaries as they arrived.
Another graduand, Zephrine Caesar, was meanwhile trying to repair a loose connection in one of the microphone cables. His efforts were punctuated by sporadic bursts of something like machine-gun fire. The audience took delight in this, but Vibert, precarious atop his stool, was getting visibly rattled. At the third salvo, he leapt down from his chair and yanked the mains plug from the wall. Zephrine, with a gesture of suppressed exasperation, snatched the cord to another power point.
“Zephrine and Vibert is something else,” said Verna. Like the two boys, she lived in the village of Milford Bay; she was probably related to them. I had taught both the boys during my three years, and had often wondered about the un-Caribbean coolness of their relationship.
“They’re cousins, aren’t they?” I said. It was a pretty safe bet on Petite Guadeloupe.
“Yes, they cousin all right, they father being brother. But they ain’t getting on like cousin at all at all.”
“They’ve certainly kept their distance in my classes.”
“In all they class. It such a pity. They both such clever boy. They could help each other to great thing. It ain’t always so, you know. At primary school they best friend. They sing together at culture show. It only these last two, three year they been so hostile.”
“Adolescence, I suppose.”
“Partly that, to be sure. But on top of that, Vibert family go and live in Brooklyn. Vibert want to go, but they say he must stay here to complete he education at Toussaint. Petite Guadeloupe people want to go to the States and England and make money, but they finding the school there too rough for they children. So Vibert have to go and live with Zephrine family. That when they stop being friend.”
A tall, willowy lady in a floral dress and an elaborate hat placed her hand on Verna’s shoulder. “Good afternoon, Miss Checkley.”
“Ah! Mistress Augustine. Mr Nash, you know Mistress Augustine? She Zephrine aunt. So, Mistress Augustine, how Rosie doing?”
“I have to tell you, Rosie ain’t doing too good, you know,” answered Mistress Augustine. “I leave her in the hospital to see the Graduation, and I going straight back as soon as ever it finish. The nurse telling me…” Mistress Augustine stooped to whisper a few confidential details. “…so we shall see,” she concluded, standing up again. Wishing Verna and me a pleasant afternoon, she continued her social round.
Verna leaned towards me, “Zephrine mother suppose to be giving birth today, only she having a few little complication. Poor Zephrine ain’t know if he right to attend Graduation, but he mother insisting he ain’t missing out on it. Ah! The programme come up from St Nicks in time after all.” She had noticed two boys in caps and gowns, racing up the driveway, carrying cartons marked “Winston’s Print Shop”. A group of girls ran to meet them, tore the cartons open and set about distributing the folded A4 sheets among the audience. Verna and I took one each, and began to study the order of ceremony.
“Valedictorian: Vibert Thomas,” I read allowed.
“The top student in the year grade always get Valedictorian,” explained Verna. “Zephrine miss tying for it by two marks. He want to give the welcome address, but by tradition we have one boy one girl do the addresses.”
I continued to scan the programme. “Zephrine’s doing the farewell song.”
“Yes. You know the song?”
“The same as last year?”
“The same as every year. People complain if they leave anything out, so every year, graduation getting longer and longer.”
The opening lines of the song had stayed with me.
“Farewell, Toussaint College, my friend;
I wish I could stay for ever, but good times must end…”
“Mr Nash. You stealing the show!”
“You remembering it good.”
“It fits me too, you know.”
“You ain’t have to go, you know.”
I had no answer ready.
Verna sighed. “It such a nice song. You predecessor Mr Darnston who write it, you know. All these children going to the States and England and other island. You remember the speaky bit in the middle, about all the time the student share together? The first time I hearing that I crying crying.”
“I guess Vibert’s off to Brooklyn, to join his family.”
“Yes. And Zephrine off to England to his uncle in Huddersfield. So they really saying goodbye, you know.”
“They’ll probably start to get along again once there’s a good sized ocean between them.”
“Maybe. They disagreeable in you class?”
“Only to each other. They’d have been ideal lab partners, if they could only cooperate. They’d work in opposite corners of the room and give each other no help at all. It was funny, though, once. You know they each had to present a project to the rest of the class? They all dread something going wrong. Well, Vibert’s project involved a long piece of hosepipe, which was fixed to a stand at the far end. Vibert must have forgotten to tighten a clamp, because it began to fall apart during his lecture. Zephrine, of course, had sat himself as far from Vibert as he could get, pretending to be bored out of his mind, which meant that he was the only one in a position to hold that end of things together.”
“I think I know what coming.”
“I thought I did too. But to my amazement, and without even looking up towards Vibert, Zephrine took hold of the loose pieces, and held them in place by hand until the demonstration was over. It can’t have been comfortable, but he did it. And do you what happened afterwards?”
“Nothing. Vibert and Zephrine exchanged one brief, hard glance, and that was that.”
“Perhaps Vibert ain’t wanting to be oblige to Zephrine. He probably wishing Zephrine ain’t interfering.”
“I doubt it. A lot of marks hung on that exercise. I tried to balance it out, but it’s just possible that Zephrine might have made it to valedictorian if he hadn’t helped his closest rival.”
I was interrupted by a howl of feedback from the PA system. While we’d been talking, the dignitaries had taken their seats in front of us. Almost every seat in the hall was occupied, the side aisles were packed, and people had gathered in every doorway and at every slatted window. Ron was now alone on the stage, and an expectant hush descended.
He tapped the microphone, looked questioningly towards the rear entrance to the hall and, evidently receiving the affirmative signal, began the proceedings: “Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Children, please stand for the grand entrance march of the Graduating Class of 1985.”
To the nobilmente strains of “Land of Hope and Glory”, Dennis and Gertrude Churchill hurried down the centre aisle, Dennis giving a perfunctory wave to the crowd and explaining loudly over the music that it was not his fault that Mrs Churchill had forgotten to wind the mantelpiece clock. They took their two reserved seats in the front row. Behind them, at a dignified slow march, came the graduating class, breaking step only to clear the occasional stray infant. Zephrine, being one of the shortest, was near the head of the procession. Vibert brought up the rear. They mounted the stage, and stood by their seats, in a wide arc around the stage.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” announced Ron, “give the Class of 1985 a big hand!”
We complied. The thirty-six graduands sat down. Those among the audience with seats sat down.
“Next up, Father Gabriel, to sanctify today’s proceedings. Let’s have a big hand for Father Gabriel.”
It was generally acknowledged in the Anglican community that Father Gabriel gave value for money; he was clearly at pains not to forfeit his good reputation. After each ‘Amen’, the graduands raised their heads and parted their hands, then reverted abruptly to the praying position as the bountiful man of God launched into the next phase of sanctification. It was beginning to seem as though no amount of prayer would be sufficient to sanctify these paticular proceedings, when Father Gabriel, reaching an impressive climax – “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death,” – blessed the air and all beneath it and, to everyone’s relief, left the stage.
“Let’s have a big hand for Father Gabriel for that amazing prayer,” said Ron, bouncing back to the mike.
The next few items aspired nobly to the benchmark established by Father Gabriel, but never quite attained it. There was a nine-minute welcome speech from Leandra Bedeau. There was a half-hour sketch by the whole class. There was a forty-five minute one-act play. There was an instrumental solo – Randy Mitchell playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, solo, on a tenor saxophone, six times. There was Ron’s annual report (dominated, as it had been the previous year, by the theft of the school hose pipe, which had still not been returned). And there was the brisk presentation of the diplomas by District Officer Clement. It was not until Dennis Churchill took the stage to deliver the feature address that the shadow of dullness once again fell across the hall. Churchill being well known for owning a book of quotations, the audience had already folded their programmes into fans before he had even begun to drone his way through a baker’s gross of Victorian homilies. It was while he was admonishing the graduands that the Devil finds some mischief still for idle hands to do that we got a little welcome relief: a car drew up outside. The driver got out, and forced his way through the crowd blocking one of the doors. It must have been quite clear to Churchill that the newcomer had poached his audience, but he pressed on regardless, switching to the next pompous ass in his book, and urging the youngsters “to thine own self be true.” Meanwhile, the newcomer, upon whom all eyes were now fixed, was whispering something to one of the audience, who responded by pointing out Mistress Augustine. She had, in any case, already gathered her belongings, and was making her way to the nearest exit. Dr Jab, too, who had been sitting in front of me, had discreetly slipped out.
On the stage, Dennis Churchill was informing the young people that the race was not to the swift, while Leandra, sitting next to Zephrine, had gripped his shoulder and was giving it an encouraging squeeze. Vibert, on the opposite side of the stage, was staring at the ceiling.
As Churchill continued to moralise without mercy, those who had been gathered outside the hall drifted away to buy cold drinks from the shop across the road. Many of these were passed along the rows to suffering relatives inside. All attempts to abate fractious infants had been abandoned, and the PA system, though gradually boosted in step with the ambient noise level, was barely able to make Churchill’s words carry above the hubbub of conversation. Only the students on the stage continued to feign interest, and the strain was beginning to tell even for them.
I could just make out that Churchill had reached Kipling’s ‘If’. As he appeared to be reciting this gem in its entirety, I took it as a hopeful sign that he might have chosen it for his pièce de résistance, and the end may be in sight. I was right. “‘And which is more,’” he intoned, pausing for an effect he had no hope of realising, and addressing the final line to the largely female class of 1985, “‘You’ll be a man, my son.’”
To a patter of applause from the stage, Churchill returned to his seat.
“Thank you, Mr Churchill, for that inspiring oration,” said Ron, who knew better than to call for another big hand.
Word was getting round outside the hall that the ceremony was getting going again, and people were jostling for positions in the doorways. “Next up, we get the Farewell Song, by Zephrine Caesar.
Zephrine, propelled by an encouraging shove from Leandra, moved towards the microphone, while the taped accompaniment provided a few bouncy bars of intro.
“I hope he ain’t too worry about mommy,” whispered Verna.
Zephrine took the mike from its stand, and held it close to his mouth:
“Farewell, Toussaint College, my friend,
I wish I could stay for ever, but good times must end.
The memories we’ve made together, I will never never lose,
And if I have my life again, it’s here that I will choose.”
I was reflecting what a tongue-in-cheek old cynic my predecessor Stuart Darnston must have been, when I noticed that Zephrine was staring at me. At least, I thought he was staring at me, until I realised he was staring at the empty seat in front of me where Dr Jab had been sitting. The accompaniment was meanwhile relentlessly bouncing on. Zephrine should have started the second verse, but he continued to stare at the empty seat. Verna pursed her lips, and there was a murmur of collective discomfort from the audience.
A different voice, though, had taken up the song:
“So long, all the things we’ve been through,”
“From now on we may be parted, but I’ll always be with you,”
Vibert, who had got hold of the other microphone, continued the second verse, as he crossed the stage and pulled his cousin back to the centre.
“Go, Zephrine!” shouted several voices from the audience.
“And the bond that holds us together can never melt away,
Though oceans unfold between us, together we will stay.”
Zephrine, anxiously watching his cousin, had begun to sing again. Vibert lowered his own voice to allow Zephrine’s to carry, then, gradually increasing his own volume, egged Zephrine into doing the same. By the end of the verse, both boys were singing and swaying and clicking their fingers. The students behind them were nudging one another, gesticulating and smiling.
“It just as primary school days coming back,” said Verna. “Oh… The speaky bit,” she added. “I know I go cry!”
Although they had never rehearsed together, the two boys shared the spoken verse without once stepping on each other’s lines:
“Five long years we have spent together…”
“We have worked together…”
“and even fought together…”
“and together we have learned so much, we can now set sail on that great uncharted sea of life…”
“so to you our dear friends, we say…”
“‘Thank you, and farewell!’”
By the time the two boys spoke the final line together, the hall was so rapt that Dr Jab was able to slip back into his seat almost unnoticed.
I passed Verna my handkerchief. Wiping the tears away, she leant forward to have a brief word with Dr Jab.
“Oh, I so glad!” she said. She and Dr Jab smiled and gesticulated at Zephrine, to convey to him the good news. His concentration was, however, by now totally absorbed in harmonizing with his cousin:
“Farewell, Toussaint College, our friend,
We wish we could stay for ever, but good times must end.
We may not know where we’re going, but we know we’re on the way,
So let’s fly on to tomorrow, on the wings of today.”
As the final strains of the accompaniment died away, Ron took the microphone, “Let’s give a…” he began.
There was no need for him to finish. His words were drowned by what the veterans later assured me was the loudest and the longest burst of applause a Toussaint College graduation had ever witnessed. At the centre of the stage, pressed together by their classmates, Vibert Thomas and Zephrine Caesar clasped hands, embraced, then returned to their seats on opposite sides of the stage.
The parting had begun.