The Inexplicable Mechanism & Mrs Jones's Coat
Most people had a teacher or five who they acknowledge as having played a key role in the shaping of their world view.
Mrs. Jones was my teacher in the lower juniors. She taught us all about Ancient Egypt, which proved to be one of my very earliest fascinations. She read to us from Matilda and various Goosebumps books; doing all the voices and making the stories come to life.
She had a repertoire of clever word games such as Adjectives, Mime the Rhyme and a version of Timmy Mallet's great word association challenge.
It might be something of a push to suggest that “she instilled in me a love of language which has endured to this day”, but she certainly made frequently successful efforts to get us all to appreciate the power of words and the possibilities of fiction.
Earlier today I was taking a walk in some fields of which I've just become aware. There, I came across an inexplicable mechanism which, luckily, was small enough to carry home.
It looks like an electronic pulley. Said field we can safely assume to be the site of an old mine, as it's near a road called Colliers Way.
But whilst carrying that inexplicable mechanism my thoughts entered territories long unvisited. I began to think about Mrs. Jones.
One day, she brought a bin-bag into the class room. “I found this in my front garden this morning,” she said. “I thought I'd wait until I got here before I had a look inside.”
Because we were only eight or nine, we were immediately seized by a very innocent curiosity. To enter a room full of adults with a bin-bag claimed to have been found dumped in your front garden, most in the room would scowl and tell you to destroy it immediately. The curious few would, of course, assume it to be full of drug paraphernalia or disembodied limbs.
But we children were simply interested to see what could possibly be within the bag. As far as we were concerned, there could have been anything in there.
She sat on her wooden chair with the red cushion, holding court like she did every morning. We all sat cross-legged on the carpet facing her in a semicircle.
“First,” she said quite gravely. “What do you think is in here?”
So instantly it became a game. I can't remember the sort of things we shouted out, but somebody probably did speculate that there must be a dead body in there.
She teased by delaying the unveiling for as long as she possibly could. Eventually, we were begging her to open the bag.
She did, and removed a tatty old coat with a grim frown on her face. For some reason, the revelation of the coat made us all laugh and squeal. It was a grubby brown tweed, so large that any one of us would have swam in it.
“It's a coat,” she said.
“An old man's coat,” one of us added.
She ruffled the fabric in the same spirit of grave investigation. “I think there's something in the pockets,” she said. “Should we have a look?”
We wanted her to have a look, so she had a rummage.
She proceeded to produce a series of items from the coat's pockets, of which I can unfortunately only remember two or three. But there must have been about a dozen in total.
The first was a train ticket. Again, a roomful of adults would have demanded an inspection of this in great detail. But to we children, who had never used a train unsupervised before, and who had therefore likely never handled a train ticket before, the item in itself was an exotic point of fascination.
“So that must mean he's been on a train,” we said, already awestruck.
Though I can't remember precisely what items she produced, I remember we children finding the whole thing to be somehow hilarious. Each item was funnier than the last.
When she delved for perhaps the sixth time into those pockets, slowly she revealed a tin whistle. As far as we were concerned, that was the funniest thing to have ever happened in the history of everything in the world.
From somewhere she had procured a tray, on which she lay each successive item until they were all displayed before us.
“Well, that's strange,” she said, when we had all stopped laughing and the pockets had been emptied.
How had that coat got into her garden, and why were all those things in the pocket?
A train ticket. A tin whistle. A candle. I also somehow remember an empty bottle of green glass.
She was as stumped as we were. “Let's have a think about it then, shall we?”
She had us all write down our theories concerning how that particular coat, filled with those particular items, had somehow wound up in a bin bag in Mrs. Jones's garden.
I remember feeling quite irritated as I tried to weave every single item into the narrative.
My story concerned a homeless old man who was drunk with a candle who had a whistle to call a dog who wouldn't come so he died and somebody found him and stole his coat which didn't fit so he put it in a bin in Mrs Jones's garden, or something.
It would be wonderful to find my primary school notepads and exercise books. There were always opportunities to write, and children always write so brilliantly.
One of my favourite things about the writing of children is that they always start of with an unhinged, wild energy. They soon get bored, though and you can almost pinpoint the exact moment at which the child just loses interest.
It's brilliant enough when a complex chain of bizarre events is abruptly cut-off with an exhausted “and they all live happily ever after.” But it's even better when everyone dies, or everyone has to go to bed, or then there was all the food or, best of all, suddenly the whole world exploded.
So I really hope one day to find those speculations. If nothing else, it would be great to be able to narrow down, once and for all, as to exactly which items were extracted from that rotten old coat.
Whilst walking the field with my freshly discovered inexplicable mechanism it occurred to me, for the very first time, that Mrs. Jones's coat escapade wasn't just a bit of fun.
It was a creative writing exercise. A really good one at that.
Why it took me over a decade to realise this is a question for the ages, but there you go.
The inexplicable mechanism may become totemic. It may become a symbol that I need never fear writer's block.
Should inspiration ever be lacking, just go for a walk.
There's no telling what you'll find. There's no telling what will be triggered.
Every object has a story; and whilst the world isn't ready for the Italian Unification of 1848 as told from the perspective of Garibaldi's battered sword, found objects can be gateways to other worlds and other lives.
I may be insufferable for the remainder of my natural life, but thinking along these lines entails that I may never be bored again.