(Staring into the Heart of Darkness… or any of the ISEB examination papers tbh)
Working for the rich is an otherworldly experience, of the sort ordinarily reserved for science fiction plotlines or black ops. Like heading up stream with Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, journeying to the interior of planet rich is the kind of venture that only gets weirder the further you go. Because you’re getting paid to fight, or teach (depends on what sort of day you’re having), you take it all – the kilim-coated walls, the self-illuminating ensuite sink spout, the shelves of books about Ayn Rand – until there comes a point when you stop and realise that if you don’t leave immediately you will turn as mad as Kurtz, miles from civilization, wide-eyed, rocking back and forth and squatted on a chintz bedspread in an ornamental gazebo.
In this job you get used to being given an address and told to turn up, even when such an address sounds like the sort of destination that could only cater for a Lamborghini show room. You might ask yourself – but how is it possible to live off Park Lane? Where can you nip out to get a pint of milk? To which of course the answer from planet rich is simple: Selfridges.
Mrs. Rosie Bell greeted me in person. She was a large woman and had the look of a Tory boy wet dream about her: all pearls, paddles and failsafe recipes for custard.
“Ah, you must be the tutor!”
She charged towards me as she charged into sentences, as I imagined she would charge through both the jungle and the agenda at one of her charitable meetings. As I trailed behind her up the three flights of stairs, past floor to ceiling experiments in modern art, I felt the first stirrings of take off; that giddy sensation that comes both from climbing too high up a single house and sensing an undetermined absence from reality.
Primark might have been but a few streets away, but this far off the ground we were deep into the heart of darkness.
“So, this is Armaminta,’ Mrs. Bell sung, pushing open the door as though she were welcoming me into the Colonel’s temple.
“But positively everyone calls me Minty.”
I looked at eleven year-old Ara-Minty-Minta, who was perched on a bed so stuffed with beaming, peachy-faced toys that I wondered where she might sleep. Minty and her room were as fresh and bright and white as an advert for skin bleaching. Her neatly pony-tailed hair was the shade of blonde that other people merely point to in the hairdressers, the kind of blonde that made Hitler happy.
“Now, Minty. Mr. Elliott has come to help you prepare for your examination.” Mrs. Bell sat on the end of the bed and looked at me expectantly.
I asked if she were planning to stay to supervise the lesson.
“Of course,” she boomed, curling up amid the lobotomised toy dogs and smiling fur fruit.
I took out a comprehension and set Minty to read it. It soon struck me that Minty had inherited her mother’s forthrightness as she addressed me as one would the infirm or slow.
“Now,” she asked me, “Let me tell you exactly what I need to do.”
She directed me to each word she was reading with the same sort of brusque, well-executed efficiency that doubtless was responsible for the rainbow of dressage rosettes that starred her headboard. This is how the rich are bred to do it, handling humans as they handle their horses, with blinding teeth and a short lash.
It was towards the end of the second paragraph when she stopped.
“I’m very sorry but I absolutely cannot read this.”
I asked her what was wrong.
“I simply can’t read a story where anything as yucky as this happens.”
Despite a frequent urge, sometimes unconscious, other times uncontrollable, to set more avant garde pieces of writing, the comprehension I had picked was an average paper from the Independent Schools Examination Board. It concerned an argument a mother was having with her daughter about some of the family’s racing pigeons that had ended up in the casserole. It was scarcely ‘The Bell Jar’ but Minty seemed aghast.
I asked whether it was the death of the birds that upset her or conflict in general?
“No, thank you,” she squirmed, as though I had offered her to smear raw offal across her face.
“But all stories have conflict in them,” I tried to explain.
“No but you’re not listening to me,” her voice spiraled even higher than the house. “I don’t want them. Nothing at all like that, where awful, horrible things happen.”
“But what about all the stories where people struggle to overcome…”
“Yuk absolutely not!”
She pursed her lips, folded the paper shut and exclaimed a final “No!”
I felt Mrs. Bell start to uncoil like a waking snake, and thought about all the great books I was used to teaching kids. The upheavals of Animal Farm, the loneliness that suffused Of Mice and Men, even Harry Potter, for fuck’s sake. I wanted to explain to Minty that life was as much about sadness, despair and loss as it was about bunnies. How else were we to understand death? How could we be helped to cope with failure?
But as I looked around me: at the plush spines of brand new books, which dazzled in happy pastel tones on shelves lushly populated with shells, trinkets and the endless smiling portraiture of family happiness along a foreign beach; at the confectionary of cuddles covering her bed (undented, even by the force of Mrs. Bell); at the sheer wealth of her world – just off Park Lane – I realised that there was little point. Hers was a life long ago engineered to avoid any scent of unpleasantness, far removed from the poverty that cheapens and stains any life that suffers it to ugliness. In its own way, such a life as Minty’s was horrific, distorted from the common experience to such a degree as to beggar belief how the poor girl would manage should anything more severe than a broken pencil occur. But with an ample armoury of staff ready to drive, feed and clean her, that danger was the kind of terrifying adventure reserved for fairy tales – as unread as any other hardship. I dutifully smiled, put away the comprehension and brought out something much more tame about a boy on a bike.
“Well that went very well,” Mrs. Bell informed me when she called later that week. “Minty absolutely adored you. Next time you should come down to the country to work.”