Elaine Lennon is a film historian. She is the author of ChinaTowne: The Screenplays of Robert Towne and is widely published in international film journals.
She has a background in television production and film financing and was a lecturer for a decade in film studies and screenwriting at the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
By Elaine Lennon
The Queen had celebrated her anniversary despite The Sex Pistols phonograph record. Mrs Norris, whose basement flat was even more British than usual with Radio 4 and the World Service on twenty-four hours a day, it seemed that the elderly lady was more sprightly and even youthful since the celebrations. Wimbledon had come and gone and of course Connors had not won but Dan Maskell had declared Ooh, I say! often enough and with sufficient heart to make even the doubters believe that the brash Irish-American player would come back better than ever next year.
Summer was a mess of picnics and tennis matches and cycling and lying in the long grass and September came in slowly like an Indian Summer (whatever that means – is that what September is like in India, wondered Eugene, but he read it in Peyton Place so it must have been okay) and it was time to prog apples out at Farnham again and things went on like that, for days and days and days, or so it seemed, as the seasons drifted into one another and the juices flowed and flowers bloomed and slowly lost their petals. It was time once again to gather nuts and hibernate for the winter or do whatever it took to make the long dark evenings passable.
Nando Fitch was a disturbingly greasy creature of indeterminate age and averageness in every department – looks, height, ability, money. He was, however, possessed of unstoppable self-belief. So when the boys of the College made shit of him every English class he did not experience the dissatisfaction or crushing depression customary amongst all awful secondary school teachers, rather withering conjunction of condescension and pity and superiority entirely inappropriate to his status. He had stirrings of a Big Project that winter and decided it must come in the form of theatrical expression. The stirrings had materialised into a physical itch which made walking uncomfortable. Rather than responding in the fashion know to men throughout history the world over, he decided his satisfaction must involve his students. This, he did not realise, would be the biggest legover ever.
The Boys of the First were yawning, scratching, doodling, looking out at the rain sheeting down on the football pitch, and sleeping while Nando attempted to drill into them the words of the Bard, to no evident avail.
“What a prick,” muttered Jim to Eugene as they shuffled amongst their sweaty testosterone-stinking chums to Maths with one of the priests in the next corridor. “Shakespeare couldn’t really be that bad but that dose wouldn’t know how to teach you how to tie a shoelace or left from right or anything useful.”
“I suppose he has his place,” muttered Eugene, checking his books. “At least he hasn’t tried to fuck any of us, unlike the beetles. Damn, I’ve left my graph book somewhere. Must be in my locker. See you in there.”
He dashed down through the swarming teens, downstairs to the lower floor and found himself face to face with Nando Fitch. He towered over him.
“Mr Smith,” said Fitch smarmily. Eugene slammed shut his locker door, graph book piled on top of his other maths and science logs.
Eugene brought himself up to his full six one.
Fitch looked up at his charge. “Your work is very good. Keep it up. Make sure your friendships don’t negatively affect your approach, now, won’t you.”
“I’ve no idea what you mean, Sir,” said Eugene, taking his leave.
“Oh, I think you do,” slithered Fitch. “I think you do.”
Eugene kept walking. Really, the man was idiotic. And what was he suggesting? He looked back and caught sight of the greasy slick of red hair in an unfeasible not to mention unfashionable half-quiff that stood with the evident aid of hairspray or something unspeakable on the eejit’s pointy head. His fleshy glasses gave him the look of something rather feral. Eugene felt a shiver across his shoulder blades and laughed inwardly.
Nando got home and cooked and then confronted his inevitable situation: he looked at his miserable dinner. He lived in the flat above Joey S’s Italian Café on the Market Square (one of two in the rambling metropolis) and there was always a rancid fug of old cooking oil and chips hanging around. No amount of air freshening contraptions could alter that atmosphere of deep-fried food and Brylcreem. Fitch had made himself a delicious evening meal of sausages, potatoes and beans (from a tin that had a Best Before date of February 1975) and after consuming them with mounds of HP Sauce and a smattering of tomato ketchup, he retched up the entire wretched meal in his toilet, which was a mere three feet from the kitchen, albeit on the other side of a sheet wall.
The wind was drumming up. He had read the front page of The Anglo-Celt, which was dullsville incarnate. He had thumbed through his Man Alive collection, a well-read masturbation fantasy for a non-practitioner such as himself. He put on a scarf (it had the effect of making him looking like an artiste, rather like John Gielgud, he felt) and descended the staircase and exited from the side door of the restaurant, where he ignored the screaming laughter of some of his Third Year boys as they shouted “Queer!” and “Wouldja look at that feckin’ eejit!” through the window of Joey S’s, enjoying a piping hot tasty dish of, variously, spaghetti Bolognese (made with real tomatoes, yum!), cod and chips (with lashings of vinegar, obviously) and egg and chips (the old reliable, even for a dicky tum.)
“Snorkelly devious cunt!” shouted one particularly gifted fellow, as Nando Fitch unfortunately timed his scarf-adjustment with passing by the boy’s window seat. He harrumphed and rose above the scum and carried on with his evening constitutional past the Magnet. A poster caught his fancy which would change the course of history. And not just his.
That night Fitch was in a crowded cinema, the only man to take The Goodbye Girl seriously. He shook his head at the hapless morons helpless with laughter at the sight of Richard Dreyfuss doing Richard III. He had a brilliant idea as he shook his head sorrowfully at the brain donors that surrounded him. A simply brilliant idea. His career as a playwright would be made by the Bard’s glorious Summer. He trotted out of the cinema, oblivious to the catcalls that flooded in his wake, much to the bemusement of Eric and Ernie as they closed up shop for the night. Fitch was a regular customer. They couldn’t exactly bar the snorkelly devious cunt, could they?
Fitch paced, back and forth, in front of the two-bar fire. It was simply brilliant. He sat down with his blank page, ready for the work to pour forth. He got The Complete Shakespeare and a biro and set to write his great play. It would set him free.
He pepped himself up with a Rich Tea and the blinking electric fire seemed to him to serve as objective correlative to his fever pitch. It would be a play of music, comical interludes and history. It would be the greatest work never written by William Shakespeare. People would be talking about Cavan in the same breath as Stratford Upon Avon. Stratford Upon Cavan. There would be a Summer School, dedicated to him. But he was getting ahead of himself, slightly. He started to write.
The title? He held the Biro to his red forehead and thumbed his temple. He had it. By God he had it!
Fitch was on high doh at the School for the next few weeks. He pinned up a poster on the Notice Board in the assembly hall: on it was set out a list of characters but the name of the play was blanked out in favour of the mysterious ‘After Shakespeare’ by Fernando F. Fitzpatrick.
“What do you think the F. stands for?” mused Jim amidst a group of uninterested bystanders who were keen to see who had been picked out to kick the shit out of Gowna in the football fixture.
“Fuckwit,” said Eugene. He was not to know that same Fuckwit was standing within earshot.
“Well, well, well,” said Fitch, and the boys struggled to ignore him, shouldering him out of their way beside the Sports notices. Luckily, Fitch was somewhat hard of hearing, having heard it all before.
“I see you have an interest in my dramatic spectacle,” he sniffed. Eugene and Jim were flummoxed.
“I think this would be an ideal opportunity for artistically inclined fellows such as yourselves to get involved in the world of drama,” he simpered to the violence-inclined dudes standing head and shoulders over him. “And if you notice, there is an opportunity for female company.” He emphasised the last phrase knowing it would, sadly, elicit, the requisite level of interest that the project could not otherwise. “I will indeed be looking for some of the girls in the College to play some of the Queens and Princesses.”
“You might be better looking to the priests, hadn’t you, Sir,” suggested Freddie Graham. He looked gravely at Fitch who bore it with typical fortitude. “Or the Royal. I mean, spirit of the Jubilee, and all that.” He winked at the rest of the lads.
“You know you might have a good point there,” pondered Fitch. “Good idea, Graham!” He looked eagerly at the fellows and smiled in his disturbingly assured way, “there is opportunity here, boys! Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! We must fill these roles! I’ll have tryouts Thursday evening in the hall at 4. Be there!” He slithered off, a lightness in his step.
The bait was set.
Chance would meet fate after an ill-thought out opportunity was devised by a very foxy fink… and everyone who turned up got a part. There were a lot of parts.
The rehearsals for Henry IX were surprisingly fun.
Whole sections where lifted from Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, both parts of Henry IV and comedy was borrowed liberally to introduce the songs, some performed by the girl talent being borrowed from the Girls’ College.
The day came when the final number was being performed with the assistance of the girls’ piano teacher, Patrick Hickey, a saturnine slime who enjoyed looking at girls’ hands. His eyes were practically popping out of their sockets at the spectacle.
The boys lined up onstage in full dress, with Eugene (in the titular role) in the centre of a motley crew of hangmen, negroes, soldiers, judges, princes and noblemen, usurers, witches, Jews and magicians.
“Meet the gang cos the boys are here! The boys to entertain you!” they sang merrily, kicking their legs up.
“Now is the winter of our discontent/When, all our manhood spent/We can’t pay the rent/Unless we agree to be bent/In two!”
Fitch was nodding along in time as their knees rose and fell.
The line of fellows parted to let the girls enter the fray, doing an homage to the can-can, but with underwear. They ended their section doing the splits.
It was, in a word, raucous.
The headmaster and Fleming, Fitch’s rival English teacher, were earwigging on the postmodern fable from behind the doors that opened into the school hall.
“My God! It’s It Ain’t Half Hot Mum!” breathed Anselm. “The disgrace of it! The shame of it! The very moronism of it!”
“With beheadings,” volunteered Fleming, who had snitched on Fitch.
Anselm stormed through the doors. His jaw dropped as he watched a spectre of exuberant homosexuality mincing in a knees up, a row of Freddie Mercurys in gladiator costume. He stood in the centre aisle of the hall while the action onstage ceased abruptly.
“I won’t have it!” Anselm stood up to his impressive full six-three, enraged, fumes practically shooting from his flared nostrils. “To my office! Now!” he roared at Fitch. Fitch, duly summoned, was awakened from a type of rapture. Hickey wiped some drool off the corners of his mouth.
A silence fell upon the otherwise fully engaged students.
Eugene was busy chatting up one of the dancers but even he was awestruck by Anselm.
There was a palpable air of trouser steam being emitted on Father Anselm’s exit: an entire cast had probably liquefied its pants in a state of confusion, excitement and anticipation: Fuck Fitch was going to get his. The garden’s very flowers stiffened in fear.
Anselm was sitting at the desk in his study, a high baroque affair dominated by wooden furniture that might have looked appropriate in one of the higher offices associated with the Spanish Inquisition. The pacing had stopped. The time had come for action.
Fitch slipped into the high-backed leather chair which came to give him a distinctly false feeling of insecurity at the brief meeting.
“I’m willing to overlook the criticism,’ he offered, bringing his left hand over his greasy half-quiff.
“You what?!’ blustered Anselm. “You what?! You moron! You wrote a History play and pretended it WAS history!”
“It’s called artistic licence,” explained Fitch. “Shakespeare didn’t always adapt faithfully, you know.”
Anselm drummed his fingers on the ink blotter in front of him. Luckily, he had had a chance to swill some Johnny Walker immediately prior to Fitch’s arrival but had placed it in a drawer to his right so it was accessible. He thought a moment.
“Are you telling me – that you made up sections of English and indeed European history and thought nobody would notice?” he asked, pausing carefully where he felt emphasis was required.
“With respect, not everyone understands the dramatic impulse, it’s not everyone that has it,” explained Fitch.
There was a slight noise outside the window. In the deepening October, sunshine shadows were cast and Fitch was convinced there were eavesdroppers. His gaze landed somewhere over Father Anselm’s shoulder and once again Anselm thought, Where is this man’s mind?
“There is a case for – interpretation of facts.”
“You do know, Mr Fitzpatrick, that there has never been an English king called Henry the Ninth. Don’t you?” asked Anselm, his brow furrowing ever so.
Fitch shifted in his chair. Unfortunately, this had the effect of making a sound, not unlike a rabbit squealing. It was a rather apposite expression.
“I thought that a little adjustment of the facts …,” he commenced.
“Have you gone completely mad? And involved a classful of boys, not to mention the young ladies, in your act of suicidal mania?” Anselm chivvied a fountain pen with his left hand, all the while drumming the fingers of his right hand and then jabbing them violently against an inkstand.
Fitch gathered his thoughts about him. “It’s an attempt to contemporise Shakespeare. Bringing all the dramatic elements into the one piece. Not to mention the uniting possibilities. The boys working with the girls. And the Royal.”
It was just too much. “Contemporise Shakespeare? Don’t you mean compromise Shakespeare?!” spluttered Anselm. “And Queen Elizabeth the Third?” He jabbed a finger in the air. “Elizabeth the Second has only been on the throne twenty-five years! And you have her – what – her great-grandmother five times removed as her successor?!”
Fitch squinted up into the air and uncrossed and then re-crossed his ungainly legs.
“Are you seeking divine inspiration, Mr Fitzpatrick?” sneered Anselm. “Isn’t it a little late for that?”
Frankly, it was difficult to disagree. There was a noise outside the window behind Father Anselm and Fitch squirmed in his rabbity seat, thinking, No, the Boys couldn’t be listening to this, Could they? On the other hand, he had experienced their admiration for the first time precisely because of his daring. That alone…
“It’s a matter of the imagination, Anselm,” suggested Fitch. “Artistic licence.”
Anselm bristled at the use of his Christian name.
“You are a ridiculous man! A blithering idiot! A dithering nincompoop!” said Anselm, working himself up throughout this crescendo to his final withering comment. “Fernando Francis Fitzpatrick you are a fatuous fool! You see, I can do alliteration too. And you are no more a child of Spain than that disgraceful bastarding shit Eamon De Valera with his hook nose and self-obsession dragging us all down to his institutionalised ignorant Irish-speaking over-breeding peasantry and preposterous ideas about religiosity! Not to mention that he fucked over Michael Collins and probably had him murdered! You are Fired! Fired! Fired! you Fatuous Fool!” His eyes bulged a pleasing degree from their sockets.
“You’re being unfair. I am a playwright,” sniffed Fitch. You simply do not understand the work. And I wouldn’t have expected you to.” He preened with clear affection for his own brilliance.
“Oh learn to use your infinitives, you alleged English teacher. You have absolutely no respect for the language!” Anselm brought out his glass and knocked it back. He took the bottle from the file drawer lower down and refilled his glass.
“I’ll be off then,” said Fitch, uncrossing his legs, reality slowly dawning upon him.
“Good luck on your travels. Wherever they may take you,” nodded Anselm. “A rest cure would be what is respectfully suggested to you at this time. What you have done is nothing less than the act of an arrogant arsehole – or a deranged lunatic. You choose.”
“I choose The Spice Islands! Where I’ll do a twentieth-century production of The Tempest!” spat out Fitch. “If you can’t handle my best you don’t deserve my worst,” he yelled. Somehow, too late, he realised he hadn’t said what he’d intended.
The words, “Do you hear the drums, Fernando?” rose in a lilting half-contralto from outside the sash window, followed by the unmistakable guffaws of boys falling out of a ruck.
“Right. When you’re signing on in the dole office in Cabra, think of this moment, Mister Fitzpatrick. Spice Islands my arse!” Father Anselm raised his glass and knocked back another mouthful of the hard stuff. “You, Sir, are a pure gobshite!”
The giggling underneath the window was now inescapable and even Anselm could not deny the presence of a posse of boys. He laughed his head off with prodigious viciousness and drained his glass of whiskey as Fitch unglued himself from his chair.
Anselm wrinkled his prodigious schnozzle, frowned at the recently vacated chair, making a mental note to have it cleaned and then he looked out the window and stood up, glass in hand, and pulled up the sash. Eugene, Jim, Fat Freddie and Rocky O’Reilly (no relation to Jim, they were very particular about the O’) were sprawled in a heap of giggling glee and Anselm raised his glass to them.
“This is for you, lads,” said Anselm, glugging back a half glass. “God knows you suffered this eejit long enough. I’d give you a glass but I intend finishing the bottle by myself.”
It was too much. They were a heap of laughing boys outside the Headmaster’s Office, with not a care in the world. And Fitch slunk out of his master’s chambers, head bowed. It hadn’t gone quite as anticipated.
“You are no Bard, Fitch,” muttered Anselm, into the glass. “You – are a berk. Be gone!”
“I’ll be off then so,” Fitch whispered, mostly to himself, shutting the door behind him.
Anselm was soon in another realm with the echoing beastliness of Beethoven’s Fifth ringing out from his new turntable. A hell of a day. And there were still two more in the school week. It was at times like this he wished he had been born into the Church of Ireland. There were far fewer in competition, and thus far fewer ridiculous men. And a Protestant would never dream of insulting Her Majesty, No sir-ee. Really, what a prick that Fernando Fitzpatrick was. Thank God he had found out what was going on before there had been a public performance. But what on earth would the children tell their parents? He shuddered to think what he would hear back when he went toadying for fees on the parent-teacher evening. A cover story would have to be created. He started to practise twirling a non-existent forelock in fake supplication. Old habits die hard.
Outside, the sash being pulled shut and Father Anselm lost in a reverie of musicality after the travesty of Henry IX, the boys were pulling themselves together. Rocky dragged on a Carroll’s.
“Sad fuck,” said Freddie, pulling on his tie. “I mean, fair play, he was trying to do something. Nobody else around here ever does anything creative.”
“He’s not exactly David Bowie, now, is he,” said Eugene.
“Well, he sure as hell liked what you were doing, man,” joked Jim, tying his eternally undone shoelace.
Eugene flushed. Nando had certainly liked him. Trouble with even the dimmest teaching bulb is that they might be useful when it came to examinations. But the lads had acted like those fellows in Unman, Wittering and Zigo most of the time. When they got the chance.
“Smoke?” offered Freddie, proffering a packet of Major. The others shook their heads.
“I prefer to watch,” said Jim. They shuffled off to the bike shed, the first port of call on their way back to Bungalowland.
“Would ya get on outta that,” said Freddie amiably.
They parted company at Drumalee Cross and Eugene turned left for home and continued on his way, chugging along on his Chopper, pondering the strangeness of a lot of things and people in the neighbourhood.
It started to rain. But back then, it was always bucketing. Wasn’t it.
And on his way through the gates leading to his home, Eugene thought to himself, It might have been better policy to let Nando have his way, mightn’t it. Now he would never know.
Down the town at the Protestant Hall, Mrs. Norris opened her King George VI tea caddy, made a pot of Earl Grey and turned up the dial for the Book at Four. All was right with the world.
© Elaine Lennon