Out of the Blue

By Colin Brezicki

I learned of the mortal health risks in reading Shakespeare from my star pupil, Henry Sprague III. You could say Henry made an impact, though the irony might offend. It doesn’t take much to offend these days, and nothing does it like the truth. That’s something else I learned from Henry — along with the need to wear a biohazard suit when you go near a play like Hamlet.

Painting: J.P. Kemble as Hamlet (1801) by Sir Thomas Lawrence

J.P. Kemble as Hamlet (1801) by Sir Thomas Lawrence

It was nothing but blue skies when I left my house this morning, and after a brisk walk along River Boulevard, turned into the school gates at Mountcrest. It was a Monday in late April — the beginning of a new week in the final term of an academic year that had already tested my classroom skills. I walked under the bright magnolias and scented laburnum that lined the cobbled pathway leading to the faculty common room. Most mornings, I arrive in time for a quick coffee and a check on my mailbox before class, but today I was early enough to attend chapel. Faculty are encouraged to go when they can, and now that I was here I decided to bite the bullet.

Chapel meant listening to the insufferable Bancroft administer his daily spoonful of spiritual wellness prior to leading the school in a martial discharge of “Jerusalem” or some other hymn of comparable zeal.  On the bright side, I thought the compulsory chapel service might forever immunize Bancroft’s comatose assembly against the virus of lifelong church going.

Coming out of the common room building I saw a van pull up at the curb outside the gates; on its side was displayed the logo of our regional TV station. Then I remembered this was Founder’s Day at Mountcrest and assumed that the media had arrived to interview staff and students on the school’s anniversary.

A hundred and fifty-two years of English public school rituals had attached themselves like barnacles to Mountcrest’s impermeable hull, among them the annual tribute to Admiral Sir Albert Iddlesleigh, whose portrait scowled from on high in the Great Hall. The scowl was whimsically attributed to the founder’s posthumous displeasure at the Board’s recent decision to admit girls to the school. At noon the Combined Cadet Force band would march the entire student body into the oak-paneled dining Hall, the Board Chair would lead the School Prayer followed by Grace, and then everyone would sit down to the Founder’s lunch of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and treacle tart. Just what the brain needs before an afternoon of more lessons in a stuffy classroom.

Flounder’s Day.

But before all that, thank God, I had my Upper Sixth class. Period one. Hamlet. Superior intellect trapped inside an adolescent body, father newly dead and buried, widowed mother speedily married to her brother-in-law who now wears the crown. Teenage angst with a vengeance — that’s the teaser I presented to the class.

My first mistake. I should have gone with something less provocative like Elizabethan soap opera.

The previous day, between taking my wife Andrea to the garden center and playing some knockabout cricket with my sons Jack and Jeremy, I had marked the students’ essays. With that done I felt ready for Monday.

That’s how it is with death — a paper cut in every cliché.

Chapel was silent when I entered. I took a seat among a sparse gathering of colleagues in the back row. They stared ahead or looked down, avoiding eye contact with the students who shuffled through the entrance. Some of the girls clung to friends and wept as they sidled into the pews. The boys just looked lost.

Pringle blew out a heavy dirge on the organ to get things under way. Then Alastair Jennings, the headmaster, entered with the insufferable Bancroft at his side, and together they death-marched up the aisle.

“Let us pray.” Heads bowed, most of the students slid forward to kneel. Others did the toilet crouch on the edge of the pew. Bancroft spoke the opening prayer and then handed over to Jennings. The headmaster spoke in a solemn voice.

“I regret to inform those of you who don’t already know that Henry Sprague died suddenly yesterday afternoon. Police do not suspect foul play, but they have cautioned us not to speak to the media. A television crew is already here and will try to solicit comments from you. You must politely refuse them. Founder’s Day celebrations are postponed for the present. Grief counseling stations have been set up in the library for students who require support. Later this week there will be a memorial service in the chapel, once the Sprague family has had time to convey their wishes. Our hearts and our prayers go out to them as we all try to absorb this terrible loss to our community.”

Then he led us in a prayer for the life of Mountcrest’s most distinguished and valued scholar, athlete and leader. Several girls broke down during the singing of The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended — Bancroft could always be counted on to milk the occasion.

I stepped out into the bright courtyard where Jennings was standing to one side, his gown fluttering in the breeze; when he spotted me he waved me over. The courtyard soon emptied as the students collected their backpacks and shuffled off to their classrooms.

“Morning, James. Awful business this, I’m sorry to say. He was your advisee, I believe?”

“Yes, Headmaster. Of course I’m shocked. Everyone is. Can I ask what happened?”

“Do you have a class now?”

“Upper Sixth. Sprague’s class, I’m afraid.” I was fond of that class, but now I dreaded going in. Hamlet of all things. Christ. “Is there anything you can tell me?”

“It seems he took his own life. Chertsey Bridge yesterday, late afternoon. A jogger spotted his body in the reeds. But we must talk. My office at recess. Mrs. Sprague will be present.”

“What’s this about, Headmaster?”

“Henry left you a note.” Then he turned and headed for the admin building, sidestepping a woman reporter in a navy suit who approached him, accompanied by a cameraman.

They shifted their attention to me, but I turned quickly and hurried down the cloisters. I strode past classrooms with lessons already under way, making for my own room at the end of the stone passage. Through the arches, I could see my open door and some students seated at their desks in the front row.

I wondered how my colleagues would pitch their lessons on this suddenly bleak spring morning. I wished now that I taught whatever they were teaching, so I too could find refuge in the binomial theorem, Boyle’s Law or the Industrial Revolution. Instead, I was taking Henry’s shocked and grieving class through the final act of Hamlet. Change the game plan, I thought; they don’t need this now. Gravediggers. Skulls. Alas poor Yorick. Ophelia’s suicide. The pile of body bags in the final scene.

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal.

What had Henry Sprague written to me before throwing himself off Chertsey Bridge into the Thames?

I greeted the class as I entered. One or two looked up. No one spoke. I took my copy of Hamlet from my backpack and walked around to the front of my desk. I glanced at Henry’s empty seat, and then at the class. A few stared at their desks; one looked out the window at Memorial Field, perhaps seeing Henry, padded at the wicket, launch another six into the row of poplars beyond the boundary. The rest fixed their eyes on me and waited.

Time to take the plunge, I thought, and immediately I recoiled at the phrase. That’s how it is with death — a paper cut in every cliché.

“This is a tough one, ladies and gentlemen; it doesn’t get any tougher. But it’s not really about us. Not today. You’ve lost a friend, and that’s hard enough, I know, but Henry’s family has lost a son, a brother, a nephew, a grandson, a cousin, and they have no idea why. For them, the worst is right now. I suggest you write something to them. You’ll feel better for it, and they’ll appreciate knowing who Henry was to you. You can be the grief counselors. Think about that over the next day or two.”

I wondered about the whole thing with grief counselors, summoned by due diligence to provide institutionalized therapy for the aggrieved. Surely, grieving was the therapy. But I didn’t say that to the class.

They wanted to speak but couldn’t find the words; so I filled the silence by returning their assignments. I praised their efforts overall and told them I was available during tutorial for individual follow-up. Henry’s graded essay remained in my folder. I wished I had read it more vigilantly; though now I’m not sure it would have made any difference.

We turned to Act V and the gravediggers’ opening banter.

Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
Stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
And drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
Goes
mark you that; but if the water come to him
And drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
That is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

I could feel their stares. Why are we doing this?

I carried on. No reason not to. Why read a play about death if you can’t read it when someone’s actually died? Drowned, in Ophelia’s case, and by her own will, which brought it excruciatingly close to home.

I picked up on Horatio’s reluctance to share Hamlet’s morbid reflections on how a great man’s corpse decomposes just as a humble man’s does. Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so, is Horatio’s guarded response.

“So, what do you make of Horatio here?” I asked. “Why doesn’t he want to talk about decomposing corpses?”

They were silent for a moment.

“He’s worried about Hamlet’s sanity?” said one.

“For sure,” said another. “Hamlet’s in shock about Ophelia dying, and maybe all this joking about decaying bodies and grinning skulls means he’s in some sort of denial, or maybe he’s losing it — I don’t know.”

I weighed in at this point. “Isn’t it Horatio who’s in denial? Hamlet seems okay. Why not let someone who’s grieving talk about the dead and even joke about death, if that’s what they need to do?”

Again they were silent for a moment, waiting for someone to say what they were all thinking.

“So, can we talk about Henry, Sir?”

“Yes. We can talk about Henry.” I was relieved that we had found our way in to talk about Henry.

He had it all, they said. Everything. A Cambridge offer. Captain of rugby, hockey and cricket. Head of school. He was the person everyone wanted to be. Why would he take his own life?

Jennings had said nothing in chapel about suicide, but they knew. Kids know lots of things before they’re told.

I let them go on.

Life’s unfair, they said. It has no meaning. There’s no point. Some said they found it hard to believe in God any more. Eventually they asked what I thought?

I said it wasn’t the time to turn this into a test of faith or a discussion about the meaning of life. We had no idea why Henry Sprague leapt off the bridge. Some people actually find life to be a fate worse than death, I said. How could any of us know what Henry was going through?

But I knew. And even as they talked, I had an idea what Henry had written in his note to me.

“This really hits home, Sir. I mean Henry wasn’t just anybody. If it can happen to him — you know what we’re saying?”

“I think I do. So why do we say life has no meaning if we’re devastated when someone we know loses theirs? And if we really think life is meaningless then why do we go on living it? We say these things, but are they what we really believe?”

“We need something to get us through this, Sir. It shouldn’t be about us when someone else dies, but it always is. We need some closure.”

Of course they needed closure, though I dislike the word because it sounds clinical, belonging more to the lexicon of bankers, solicitors and debt collectors. But I wanted to tread carefully.

I held up my copy of the play. “Shakespeare’s own son died from the plague when he was only eleven. His name was Hamnet. They say that the worst thing in life is to outlive your own child — I have two boys and I can’t even imagine — anyway, Shakespeare decided to write about ambition, betrayal, death and grieving in this play whose title is pretty much his dead son’s name. So, maybe we can learn something about what we call closure from a writer who wrote his way through the death of someone he loved more than life in order to find it. Anyone want to start? Say whatever you like — there’s no right or wrong here.”

“Okay then, Sir, why does Hamlet beat up on Laertes at the graveside? The guy just lost his sister.”

“Maybe he thinks Laertes is just feeling sorry for himself and not really thinking about Ophelia.”

“Hamlet doesn’t feel very sorry for Ophelia, does he?”

“Is there much point in feeling sorry for her now? She’s dead. Out of it.”

“That’s not cool, Sir.”

“I don’t mean to be harsh, but death’s not cool and it doesn’t play favorites. Look, we’re struggling to make sense of what happened with Henry yesterday. We’re all going out on a limb here.”

“Sounds dangerous, don’t you think, Sir? Ophelia went out on a limb and look what happened to her.”

Everyone laughed. Briefly, until they remembered again.

“Thanks for that one, Samantha.” We needed it.

“Still, Sir, the waste. The years Henry never got to live.”

“Right. But when you think about it, Henry lived more life in his nineteen years than some people do in ninety. And it wasn’t all about awards and prizes. He just lived life whole and made the most of his allotted time. That’s who he was. We all have our expiry dates, but who knows when, and who’ll be ready? I believe Henry was ready, and maybe that’s how we should remember him.” I had my own reasons for believing Henry was ready but I wasn’t prepared to share them with the class.

They wanted now to finish reading the play together. I assigned parts for them to read, and we proceeded to the end. They all read like they meant it, they really tried, and I sensed they were doing it for Henry who wasn’t here to take his part. After the bell, a few stayed to talk. “He liked you, Sir.  He spoke about you. He saw you as a friend.”

“Henry was special to everyone who knew him. We will all have our own reasons for missing him.”

It was difficult for me to talk about Henry because I already felt an accessory to his death. An accomplice. And, for that matter, so was bloody Hamlet.

I excused myself and headed down the cloisters to the admin building.

In his office, with Mrs. Sprague and the woman from Human Resources, Jennings handed me an envelope marked “Private and Confidential.” He asked me to read it out.

I unsealed the envelope, took out the note and read it to myself.

Dear Mr. Sutherland,

“Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.”

Thank you for finding me. You’re my father, Sir. You gave me a reason to live and the courage to die.

“Remember me.”

Henry.

I read it through again, the familiar bold hand, the full rounded cursive, and then looked up.

His mother was staring at me, her dark eyes sharp under the blue liner and shadow. I had expected her to look more washed out, less groomed somehow, in the circumstances. She was an attractive woman: smart lavender dress, heels, dark shoulder length hair with highlights. She didn’t appear at all grief-stricken. Maybe being of a certain class meant you didn’t allow yourself to look like you couldn’t manage.

What now? I glanced at the headmaster and then at the woman from HR sitting next to him with her notepad and pen.

Now they were all staring at me.

Finally, Jennings spoke. “I must ask you to share the contents of the letter, James. Mrs. Sprague requests to know her son’s last words. Henry left nothing else. And so I require you to read us the letter.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Mr. Sutherland, you can understand that my family is devastated. Henry has two sisters who adored him. They are beyond grieving right now. We had no warning of this terrible tragedy, and now we have nothing to explain it. I think we have a right to know Henry’s last words.”

“Mrs. Sprague, I’m so sorry for your loss. I don’t have to imagine what Henry meant to you and to your family. I’ve two boys of my own and I know this is a horrible time for all of you. But his note to me is personal.”

“James, I insist that you read out the letter. Student-teacher confidentiality doesn’t apply when there is a risk to the student’s well-being. You are well aware of that.”

“With all respect, Headmaster, there’s no longer any risk to the student’s well-being.” I was becoming a little flustered now. He was talking to me like we didn’t know each other. “I’m sorry, but the letter’s addressed to me. The envelope says private and confidential. I hope you can understand, Mrs. Sprague. Please reconsider. It was your son’s wish.”

HR glanced at Jennings.

His eyes narrowed. “Mr. Sutherland, it is you who must reconsider.”

“I’m respecting the wishes of a student and a friend, Headmaster. This is a personal matter, and surely Henry has a right to the privacy he requested.”

“You have no claim to confidentiality in this case, Mr. Sutherland. And as a teacher you may not include as your friend any student in this school.”

“Headmaster — I’m sorry Mrs. Sprague, please forgive me for saying this — Henry Sprague is no longer a student in this school. All we can safeguard is his memory, his name and his last wishes. I cannot share his letter. Now if I might be excused….”

I stood up to go, but Jennings signaled me to sit again. He accompanied Mrs. Sprague out of the office and was gone for a few minutes. HR scribbled in her pad and didn’t look at me while we waited.

Jennings came back in and closed the door. He took his seat and spoke slowly to me so that HR had time to take everything down. “Mr. Sutherland, you are being insubordinate and you have jeopardized the school’s good standing. Four generations of Spragues have attended Mountcrest. The family is a major benefactor and has most recently funded the new arts center. Mrs. Sprague herself is on the Board. You have offended her and compromised me as your employer.”

I returned his stare. “Headmaster, I’m familiar with the longstanding relationship that the Sprague family has with Mountcrest, but I’m in a situation I neither sought nor initiated, and I regret that my refusal to share a private and confidential communication has created some awkwardness. If you wish to reprimand or discipline me then I shall have to get legal counsel.”

He glared at me for a moment and then turned to HR. “Mrs. Freeland, would you please record that Mr. Sutherland is suspended with pay, effective tomorrow. He has disobeyed my directive, undermined my authority in the presence of a senior member of the Board and an aggrieved parent. He has offended that parent in the most unfeeling way imaginable. Pending further deliberation by the Board, his actions this morning could result in the termination of his contract. Finally, I grant Mr. Sutherland permission to seek legal representation.”

I could have told him I didn’t need his permission to see a lawyer but there was no point in stirring the pot any further.

He excused HR and closed the door after her. His voice was informal now. “Why are you doing this, James? Can’t you see the position you’re putting me in? Your reputation speaks for itself, but you can’t beat this one, and I wouldn’t be a friend if I said you could. My hands are tied.”

“I assume that what you’re saying to me now is private and confidential, Headmaster? Not to be shared with anyone else? Am I right?”

He stood up abruptly and returned to his desk. “You may go. I have calls to make. But I won’t forget this.”

Somehow I got through my remaining classes. A couple of absent students had gone to see the grief counselors. By late afternoon, I overheard one or two in my class already exchanging bragging rights.

He was my closest friend.

Best scrum half I ever played with at Mountcrest.

I so wanted to hook up with him. 

But most were quiet, trying to absorb their loss and seeking what distraction they could in lessons, assignments and, later, sports practices on Mountcrest’s green and well-groomed playing fields.

After my last class I took a walk down to the Thames, upriver from the rowing crews and out of earshot of the traffic on the M3. Moorhens crooned in the shallows, and I thought I heard a bittern. But I knew bitterns were rare, nearly extinct now, so maybe I didn’t hear one. I listened to the breeze rattling the dry reeds where the jogger had found Henry’s body. I felt close to him again, now I was at the river where he had set himself free.

You’re my father, Sir.

I never met his real father. Henry Sprague II. Distinguished Old Boy of Mountcrest, Cambridge Scholar, rugby and cricket Blue, diplomat, and intelligence officer in the SAS until his sudden death by misadventure. His widow, Henry’s mother, was the former Cynthia Farquhar-Blain of Old Sussex Hall, once a familiar name in the society pages, and this morning the carefully refurbished Mrs. Sprague in Jennings’ office.

I knew Henry by reputation when he joined my class in the Lower Sixth. His mother was surprised at his choice of English as a principal subject, but she told Jennings that her son had expressed a wish to be in Mr. Sutherland’s class.

He was quiet, hardly the confident extrovert I was led to expect from his other teachers. His writing was correct, if a little clinical at first. Mrs. Sprague informed me at the first parent-teacher evening that he had always been a reader. “He loses himself in his reading,” she said, adding that he had made his own way through the likes of Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene. “He admires you, Mr. Sutherland. He says you’re passionate. He loves the class.” She smiled and then narrowed her eyes a little. “He told me recently that he wants to be like you. What do you think that means, Mr. Sutherland?”

I smiled. “I really have no idea, Mrs. Sprague, but I think he can do better than to be like me, or like anyone else. He has a good mind, but he could take more risks in his writing — be less guarded. You say he loses himself in his reading, but maybe reading is where he finds himself. That’s a good thing, by the way.”

So I believed then.

“Be good for him, Mr. Sutherland. He trusts you.”

He didn’t come to see me privately until May of his Upper Sixth year. He wanted to talk about his Hamlet assignment. He’d read the play twice and watched the Branagh film, but he didn’t know how to begin his essay. He’d always known what to write, he said. It had always come easily, until now.

He trembled as he spoke, and his voice sounded small.

I said maybe he should start with a moment in the play that touched him. Write about that, I said, and it might carry him through his block.

I remember him taking a deep breath, trying to steady himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not like this, ever. I don’t know what’s going on right now, Sir. I’m sorry.”

I closed the bookand put it aside. I got up to shut my classroom door and then waited until he had composed himself. “What’s the matter, Henry?” Even as I asked I believed I knew. Another rising star burning out before its time. It happens. Everyone wants a piece of him — teachers, coaches, his mother, maybe even his dead father.

Remember me.

Everyone sectioning him off like the cuts of meat on a butcher’s chart, leaving him nothing for himself.

But I was wrong.

“The matter, Sir, is you and your bloody books.” He looked at me guardedly now, as if I might report him for insolence.

I waited for him to continue. His voice sounded stronger as he went on.

“Everything’s been easy till now because I’ve always been able to do what I have to. Learn stuff. Prove stuff. Explain stuff. I’ve got the brains and I can do it all. Good genes, you see. I’m the all-rounder, just like my father. He was man of the match too. I have his gifts, Mr. Sutherland, and I use them. The house is full of trophies and awards — my father’s and mine — and I have no choice but to walk in his footsteps because I’ve got none of my own. It’s all been so easy.” He picked up the play. “Until this.”

“Why this?” I had no idea what he meant. No footsteps of his own? He must be joking.

But he wasn’t. His voice hardened. “My problem, Mr. Sutherland, is I can’t do this anymore. That’s where you’ve taken me.”

“I still don’t understand, Henry, I’m sorry.” I shifted in my chair.

“For two years I watched you in class and I listened. You make it all come alive because you plug us into it. Writers write our lives, you say. They speak to who we are, our ‘collective unconscious,’ you say. All that. I get it. But I can’t do it.”

“So tell me why not.”

“Because I don’t know what my life is. How can I understand what I’m reading if the life all these writers are speaking to, as you put it, is a blank?”

“You’re not making sense, Henry.” But he was, and suddenly I was afraid for him.

His voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t know who I am.” He looked away, and his knee began to jounce. Up and down it went. He bent forward in his chair and placed his elbow on his knee to settle it. Looking at him with his head down I thought he was going to throw up, or maybe get to his feet and walk out.

“I think you do know who you are, Henry. But maybe right now you don’t like who you are.”

He straightened, but continued to stare at the floor, his knee going again.

“I asked you to find a line in the play that touches you so you can go from there. Can you think of one?”

He leaned back and closed his eyes. I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.”

“Why do you like the line?”

“I hate the fucking line. You asked what touches me. Touches me? It goes right through me, if you really must know. Hamlet doesn’t want just to die, he wants to be uncreated. To reverse growth, to be unborn and never have lived. For his too, too solid flesh to melt, for fuck’s sake. Melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew. That’s what he wants.”

“And you?”

“Same.”

“So, again, tell me what don’t you like about you?”

He went silent again. I thought he wasn’t going to answer. But he did.

There was only a little edge in his voice now. “I feel sick when I’m near her. The good Lady Farquhar-Blain. God has given her one face, Mr. Sutherland, and she makes herself another. So I think not on her.” He shrugged. “Even my sisters now. I don’t like to think of them. I’m not comfortable any more with the girls in our class.”

“And the boys?”

“What do you think?” He looked down at his feet.

“You like to think of them?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s disgusting.The thought of sex with a man disgusts me, but I can’t stop thinking of it. That’s all. I can’t say more. Do I have to say more?”

“No. You don’t.”

He nodded, his head down again. “I’m sorry I swore.”

“It’s okay.”

I let him sit in silence. His eyes were closed. Then he straightened and looked at me.

“One question for you, Mr. Sutherland.” His eyes misted up. “Is Hamlet queer too?”

“I never really considered it, Henry. What do you think?” O my prophetic soul is what I was thinking.

“It’s why he hates himself. Think about it. Ophelia disgusts him. And that scene in his mother’s bedroom? He hates women, full stop. But he loves Horatio who’s queer too. He worships his father. And…”

“And?”

“And that’s all. So what do you think — if Hamlet’s queer?”

“Does it make any difference if he’s queer or not? He’s who he is. A man. Take him for all in all. Queer, straight, it makes no difference. Why should it?”

“Because it does, Mr. Sutherland. You have no idea how it makes a difference.”

Maybe it was a mistake for me to read the sonnet to the class next day. How could I know? I was trying, for Henry’s sake, to address Hamlet’s despair — the feeling of worthlessness, of being in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes that he shares with the voice in the sonnet. And I wanted Henry to know he wasn’t in any way damned just because he felt attracted to men.

Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.

The class quickly took over. Who’s the “thee” that turned the poet’s despair to joy. God? His mistress, perhaps? An illicit affair? What do you think, Sir? Who’s the woman the poet’s talking to?

I said the poem might be addressed to a man and not a woman. We shouldn’t assume anything.

A couple of the boys exchanged glances, another smiled to himself.

I waited for them to settle before I continued. “Shakespeare was asked to write the sonnets for the Earl of Southampton, a young man who wasn’t much interested in women and would be unlikely to father an heir. The sonnets were written to spike the Earl’s desire for a woman. He was an attractive man with delicate features and long, fair hair. Scholars suggest that Shakespeare went from writing sonnets for the Earl to writing them to the Earl, because he became infatuated with this beautiful young man.”

The language of the sonnet was persuasive, the feelings uncontrived. I thought they might reach Henry. Again, how could I possibly know?

A week later he invited me to his rooms for tea, to thank me for helping him. As head of school he was given a flat to himself. They had been his father’s rooms when he was head of school. He made a point of telling me that.

“Do you miss your father?”

“I don’t know. I should, I suppose, but I knew him only as the person I was supposed to become.  He was never home. An important man, you know.” He laughed. “I was away a lot too, right?  Boarding school since I was ten. It’s always the same with families like mine. So I never saw much of him.”

I nodded and thought of my sons, Jack and Jeremy. When they were born, Andrea and I put their names down for Harrow. Andrea’s father was an Old Harrovian and he had set up a generous trust fund.

“Sometimes I wish you were my father, Mr. Sutherland. I hope it’s okay to say that.”  Then he smiled. “But that would mean you being married to my mother, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

The smile vanished and then everything came out, all at once, like lancing a boil. “My father was queer too, you know. He had a lover. Oh yes. A young officer in Special Forces. Mother found out and demanded a huge settlement or she would expose him. And so he shot himself. It can all happen very quickly when you have nowhere else to go. Death by unexplained circumstances according to the media. He was in the SAS, right? Anything’s possible when you work for that lot, and it’s all top secret, of course. So the truth never got out.”

I wondered how Henry knew his father had a gay lover. But it didn’t matter how he knew, and it was none of my business.

“So you see, I’m a legacy child in all ways, Mr. Sutherland. At Mountcrest, you’re a legacy child when your father’s an Old Boy.” He laughed again. “Hamlet was a legacy child, when you think about it. All those expectations. All that bloody legacy.”

I was watching him disappear. Hamlet was a fierce planet. Henry had circled it for weeks, and now it was pulling him in, sucking him through its thermosphere and burning him up.

“I saw the Branagh. Over and over. I wore out the DVD. It was Branagh convinced me Hamlet was queer. The platinum hair. Black leathers and silks. Doe-eyed Nicholas Farrell the infatuated Horatio. I can pretty well quote the play from memory now. But you get the credit for that.”

“The credit, or the blame?”

“The credit, Sir. You taught me everything. Find ourselves in what we read. Life disconnects us, but writers tell us who we are. You said all those things, Mr. Sutherland.”

“You’re forgetting something, Henry. I also said the play is a hologram. It’s who we are and not who we are, because the characters can only ever be who they are. They aren’t us, even if they sound out something in all of us. They’re flawed and they can lose sight of things. We need to be able to see around their blind spots.”

“Hamlet doesn’t have blind spots. He sees everything. He knows who he is and who everyone else isn’t.” His eyes looked feverish as he spoke.

I tried to pull him back. “Maybe Hamlet took on too much with all that thinking. Maybe he was blind to his way of seeing too deeply into things and distorting them. We all need a Horatio sometimes, Henry. Feet on the ground — that’s important too.”

His eyes lowered.

I believe he expected more of me. Now I was the one who didn’t get it right. Or maybe didn’t get it at all.

“We can never know too much, Mr. Sutherland. Or see too deeply. You taught us that too. You taught us everything. You have no idea.”

That was last Friday. On Saturday he was away with the First XI and I heard that he took six wickets. I could see him in his run up, eyes fierce, long hair flowing, then a quick release of the ball and the stumps scattering like ninepins. On Saturday night, after the team bus pulled in, he ate supper in the dining hall and then worked on an assignment, according to his housemaster, before going out with a couple of friends for a pint in the village. He was back before curfew. Sunday morning he was cross-bearer at the Sung Eucharist. He wasn’t seen after lunch until the jogger found his body in the Thames, snagged by a half-submerged branch in the shallows.

Henry had emailed me his essay before he went out that night with his friends. But I didn’t read it until after lunch the next day, Sunday.

When I got home Andrea gave me a hug and said how sorry she was to hear about Henry. I shared the details of my meeting with Jennings and Mrs. Sprague. She didn’t ask to see Henry’s note. I was right to keep his secret, she said. It would all get sorted out. The school wouldn’t dismiss me, she said.

Dismissal might be a blessing, I thought.

At dinner, Jack and Jeremy showed me their mid-term reports. They would do better next time, they said. I responded without having to think.

“I’ll tell you something about next time, boys. Don’t worry about next time because it makes you not count this time. Be proud of this time. You worked hard to get here. Next time will have its turn.”

They looked at Andrea, and she nodded. “Your father means it.”

After dinner we were playing some cricket in the garden when Andrea came outside with the phone. It was Mrs. Sprague.

She apologized for calling me at home but she found my number on Henry’s mobile. “Did my son address you by your first name, Mr. Sutherland?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“You were James S. on his mobile. That’s all. I just wondered.”

“How are you and the girls managing, Mrs. Sprague?” I was going to ask if there was anything I could do but realized that would be disingenuous as I had already refused to do the one thing she had asked.

“It’s all very difficult, Mr. Sutherland. I’m sure you can understand. The girls each have a friend staying over. We’re trying to keep distracted. You know. It’s… difficult.” She went silent for a moment.

I said nothing and waited until she was ready. She hadn’t phoned just to ask if Henry called me by my first name.

“I’ve been thinking about things, Mr. Sutherland. About our meeting today, I mean. I’m going to call Alastair and ask him to let it go. Henry trusted you, and I think I do too. I respect my son’s belief in you. More than respect — it comforts me knowing he had a special place for you in his life. So, really, I’m calling to thank you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Sprague. Henry touched everyone he knew. He was a special person that way. In time that will become our healing.” I was struggling to find the words to console a mother who never knew the son she had lost.

Then she asked the question I was dreading. “Mr. Sutherland, did Henry ever speak to you about me? I know he didn’t communicate much.  He didn’t give in to feelings. He was so like his father that way. But I wish I could have been closer to him. To my son, I mean. Did he ever mention me to you? Would you tell me that? Please.”

I was prepared. “He told me once he admired you, but he could never bring himself to tell you. He worried that you might think him weak, and so he said he would never tell you what he really felt. That’s all. He admired you, Mrs. Sprague.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sutherland. It means a great deal to me to know that.”

Of course she believed me. How could she allow herself not to?

Jennings phoned later in the evening. He was relieved that Mrs. Sprague decided not to pursue the matter. I said I was relieved too. She had asked him if I would speak at the remembrance service in chapel on Thursday. Her son would have wanted that. Lastly, she had expressed her family’s wish to fund a new sports pavilion in Henry’s name. “A silver lining in every cloud, James.”

I wondered if speaking in platitudes was part of a headmaster’s job description. “It would be an honor  to speak about Henry.”

Andrea and I stayed up and talked after the boys went to bed. I told her I wanted to take the year off. I needed a sabbatical.

She laughed. “Oh, God, yes please.” We could travel and home school the boys. Go to France, Italy, Greece. Maybe to America, and tour the country in an RV. The boys would love it. And when the time was right we would ask them how they felt about going to Harrow.

After Andrea said good night, I wrote out my request for a year off teaching, and then I worked on Henry’s eulogy. Most of it came easily enough — it wasn’t hard to write about the Henry everyone knew — the difficult part was trying to describe who he actually was.

What Henry wanted most in life was a chance to fail. To find a challenge he couldnt meet, despite his best efforts. He wanted that more than anything, so he could know what it means to come second, or even last.He wanted to know how to deal with not being good enough. And he wanted to do that on his own.

He envied us, we who envied him, because we know all about not being good enough.

In the end he met the ultimate challenge. He looked death in the face and stared it down. He could do that because he knew who he was. Maybe he felt there wasn’t much else to learn after that and so it was time for him to go. It’s not for us to say whether that was the right thing to do. We have no idea what place Henry was in when he took his life. But we can be certain of one thing: he had courage.

His hero was Hamlet, another young man who found little challenge in life until one day he did, all at once. Like Hamlet, Henry and life became rivals. For years they battled it out. Last Sunday afternoon on Chertsey Bridge they shook hands and parted on good terms — that’s the most any of us can hope to do.

Henry sent me his essay on Hamlet last Saturday night, the day before he died. The assignment was to reduce the entire play to a single moment, to choose a short passage and explain how it somehow encapsulates all that the play says. Henry chose the brief lines spoken by Hamlet as he prepares for a duel that he knows he might lose:

           “There’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come.
The readiness is all.”

Those were Henry’s thoughts in the last essay he would ever write.

He left so many years of his life unlived. Now it’s up to us to live those years for him, and live them as he would, so they aren’t wasted. He showed us how. We can do this, each of us individually, and keep something more than just his memory alive.

In closing, let me be his Horatio and say, Good night, sweet Prince. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Jennings won’t like it. Not good for the pupils — the children as he calls them — to think of suicide as a gentlemen’s agreement, an honorable ceasefire. Bancroft will squirm in his seat and get his knickers all in a twist. But it was time someone went in to bat for Henry.

After the service we’ll get on with finishing the term because that’s what we do — just see it all through somehow.

Then I’ll take the year off and travel with Andrea and the boys. I need to get away from the classroom. Away from all those plays and novels that should be called in for risk assessment.

With all that literature around, maybe we should put our schools in lockdown.

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About Colin Brezicki

Colin Brezicki came to fiction-writing a little late in the day, having spent a long career teaching English and directing theatre in England and Canada. Since retiring, he has completed two novels and a collection of fifteen short stories.

"An Original Sin" won first prize in the Literal Latté Fiction Awards in 2014 and "Out of the Blue" was runner-up in 2015. "Paris Street: A Rainy Day" won the J.K. Galbraith Fiction Award, and "Defiled" won first prize in the 2014 Bosque (the magazine) fiction contest in New Mexico, both in 2014. Several other stories have been published in literary journals in Canada and the U.S.

David Bezmozgis and Richard B. Wright have been wise and patient mentors, and he owes much to fiction writers like William Boyd, Graham Swift and Miriam Toews, whose writing doesn’t read like writing. He has a weak spot for fiction that asks questions without answering them and leaves readers in a state of composed uncertainty, which he believes is as near to understanding life as most of us will get.

Now retired from a life of teaching he lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. He cycles to keep fit and writes to keep sane. He is grateful to NOEPE, a writers’ retreat in Martha’s Vineyard that provides an inspiring location and like-minded companionable enthusiasts.

His daughter Catherine, works as an editor in Toronto and reads his drafts with a keen eye and an active delete key.

His work can be found at Brezicki.com.

7 Comments

  1. Don Rickers
    Posted December 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I very much enjoyed Out of the Blue, and have the same glowing opinion of other short stories he has crafted. I must confess that my affinity for Colin’s work stems from our association as colleagues over more than two decades at Ridley, the Ontario boarding school where he headed the English and Drama department and inspired a generation of young men and women. It is common for alumni to point to Colin as their most memorable and passionate teacher. It is wonderful that retirement from the classroom has given him the time to bring his own literary talents to fruition.

    • Posted December 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Don. Very kind words indeed. This particular story was triggered by something that happened many years before Ridley College, at my school in England. It involved a boy I didn’t teach who died suddenly (not suicide) and I was teaching Hamlet at the time. Fiction discovers its own truths.

  2. Rob Lockey
    Posted December 2015 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    In “Out of the Blue,” Brezicki contemplates the power (and bold truth) of narrative to reach into our lives and draw out aspects of our person that are so easily glossed over in the day-to-day march of life. I am deeply affected by the role of the teacher as guide in this story, but appreciate the simplicity of the message that the best gift that we give to others is in the time it takes to listen to them.

  3. Geoff Park
    Posted January 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I was riveted. It was not just the familiar territory that Colin covered – I, too, am a former colleague and the boarding school setting was easy to understand – but more importantly the unfamiliar. I am far from a Shakespearean scholar, but this story provides yet another example of the depth of the bard’s work. Colin continues to challenge us all, whether students, colleagues, or readers of his literature.

    • Posted January 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Geoff. Just finished reading James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear and came away with a new understanding of how fathomless those depths are. There are projects under way to “modernize” the language of the plays; so sad, that, when actors who know how to work the text can always make it contemporary just the way it is. Thank you for reading.

  4. Posted January 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Rob. The teacher-student dynamic can be complex, especially where literature is concerned. Impressionable readers are often vulnerable, and sometimes dangerous. Think of the young man who shot John Lennon while carrying around a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Think of all the twisted souls who read the Bible and the Koran and who launch crusades in the name of their god. As a teacher of literature I became intrigued by the way books impact on students’ lives.
    For the record, I was once the boy who wished that a certain teacher was his father; so that’s where all that came from.

  5. D.
    Posted January 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Loved it!

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