House of Fools: A Short Story by Rob Mimpriss
It must have been the professor’s death that upset her, for want of any substantial cause. She read his wife’s email during the hour before her last class; her lips tightened when she realised what it contained, and she pushed back her chair, getting up to stand in the window overlooking the quadrangle. The nearby hills were capped with cloud; the autumn day was drawing to an end, and it was going to rain. Two of her students were playing the fool, giving piggy-back rides near the Head of Department’s car, and she opened the window and called down to them, ‘You two! Get away from there!’ They ignored her. The students in the warmth of the reading room sighed over their computers. Mallt shut the window before her attic room lost its heat, and let herself sink down in one of the chairs she had set out for her students.
It was not that she and Herbert had been close since he took the chair at Oxford. She had seen him at the launch of his festschrift two years before, and had spent a few minutes near the wine glasses chatting with his wife. He had refilled his glass enough times to draw notice. And Mallt, who had never married or had children, whose flesh was sinking into the bones, had flattered herself that an onlooker might see in her face the fruit of dedication and uprightness and work, and in his the rotten leavings of a talent.
Perhaps there had always been something rotten in Herbie. She could remember the group from her student days that had formed around him and his activism: an inner circle within language circles, mostly girls, with Mallt and Eleri vying to be foremost. He had known of that rivalry and used it, just as he had used them: Mallt for the planning and the driving and the work, Eleri photogenic and long-suffering at sit-ins, leading the rally after their trial.
She got up with a snort and opened the door, denying herself the privacy to brood.
The corridor was quiet. The students were still in their classes. From the classroom opposite came the hum of recitation, Hywel Thomas reading to his students from Morgan Llwyd, and the department secretary came round the corner and walked past Mallt with the brisk sound of heels. A tattered advertisement for the festschrift was still pinned to Hywel’s door, and it struck Mallt that perhaps no one else in the building knew that Herbie was dead.
Their crime itself had not warranted prison, though it was provocative. They had broken into the county offices to overturn the desks and paint their slogans on the walls, but they had left the equipment and papers unharmed. The office had been functional in a matter of hours, and the judge had commented in amazement how lax their security had been. He had set a fine. They refused to pay: Mallt politely, explaining her reasons, and Herbie in a contemptuous silence as though being rude showed courage.
Yet a few weeks in prison had broken him. When she came to visit him after her early release he had turned, not rising but gazing at her with strained hope, and cried, ‘You must get me out of here, Mallt!’ A warden called, ‘You! Speak English!’ and there was a bruise under Herbie’s right eye. It had been a long walk to his table past prisoners with lust in their eyes. And Mallt, who always did what had to be done, sat down and explained that she could get his fine paid, and that the donor would be anonymous.
No one had known she had spent all her savings: not her parents or Eleri, and in a way perhaps not Herbie. As a gift from some nationalist it proved his importance to the cause, and of course he preferred importance to debt. He and Eleri had begun to withdraw, leaving the activism to Mallt. She was in prison the day Eleri and Herbie got married. Then by degrees she too had dropped out, studying and finding herself teaching in a college so small that even she could not remember its name.
‘Why do they release Beti Jones?’ she asked her students.
The rain fell steadily on the glass. The students gave off a damp smell. Sioned, the pretty one, coasting for a third, glanced at her handout to show she was willing, and as though the answer might be there; Gruff rifled carelessly through his copy of the book, a rather attractive first edition. Mallt sighed. ‘Why do they put her in Denbigh in the first place?’
There was a silence. Mallt reached for her own copy, opened it at the bookmark, and read aloud: ‘I became disheartened and low-spirited when I saw that there was no meaning to life. I could no longer believe that God was ruling the world when I saw all the cruelty in it, and I could see that there was no difference between the people of the chapel and the people of the world. I was the minister’s wife, you see.’ She glanced at her students. ‘Well?’
‘No, miss.’ Sioned called all the female staff ‘miss,’ as though this were a primary school. ‘Well, she gets on a table and shouts at everyone.’
‘I’d like to stand – this is the author herself speaking, Sioned: I’d like to stand on some great stage on Pumlumon and shout against every injustice… especially that the British Empire took the monoglot children for their wars, and then sent the telegrams home in English.’ She stopped. ‘Should you be put on a mental ward for shouting, Sioned? Should Kate Roberts have been put away?’
There was a silence. Sioned crossed her pretty legs and pulled a face imitative of thought. Mallt glanced at her watch. ‘Why do they let her out?’
‘She tells us,’ Guto said impatiently. ‘Well – she tells the doctor. She’s got her religion back and she misses her husband.’
‘Right, Guto. And listen: It came back just in the same way it went, quietly. Not gradually or anything of that sort, but like turning on an electric light… So she sees the doctor and says she wants to go home and see her husband, and organise her little play for the children in church, and have a noson lawen with the ministers. Just like turning a switch.’ They watched her. There was no way of telling whether they thought her a keeper of mysteries or not. She reached for the other book on her desk, and began to read. ‘But nothing happened. I’d get up in the morning. Eat my breakfast, dinner and supper, and then go back to sleep. And between mealtimes I started cleaning the house again, going for walks, going to meetings, reading the paper, and everything else the Welsh do between mealtimes. And then suddenly it came to me–’ Mallt stopped reading. There was a catch in her throat. ‘That’s the narrator of Yma o Hyd after coming home from jail.’
‘We know, miss,’ Sioned said.
‘Professor Herbert Morris died of throat cancer today. Herbert always loved his whisky.’ Mallt put her head down and started to sob. They got up, leaving the room with the stealth of teenage boys. She felt an arm round her shoulder. ‘We all look up to you, miss,’ said Sioned. ‘We all think what you did was really brave.’
‘We were fools,’ said Mallt. She controlled an impulse to stand up screaming, to shake off those childish fingers sneaking through her hair.
‘Oh no, miss.’ But the girl was already plotting her escape. ‘Would you like me to call someone for you? Maybe the professor? Or maybe you’d like the secretary to bring you a cup of tea?’
‘You can go, Sioned. Off to the Black Lion with you; go and find your friends.’ Mallt dried her eyes and stood up. ‘Did you enjoy the lesson?’
‘Of course, miss.’
She let the girl go, and put her books in her bag, and turned off her computer and left the building. Geoff had finished work ahead of her and let himself into her house, and from the kitchen came a fragrance of baking aubergine. He smiled at Mallt in his borrowed apron. ‘Did you have a good day?’
‘No.’ She dropped her bag on the floor.
‘All right. Are you going to tell me, or do I have to guess?’
‘Herbert Morris died. Someone from the old days, someone I campaigned with. He went on to marry a friend of mine and take the chair in Oxford.’
She sat down on the sofa and flicked through the channels until she found a game show, not thinking about the programme or Herbert or anything she could name.
‘Mousaka’s ready,’ he called.
Later, in bed, he groped for her arms. ‘Are you angry with me, Mallt?’ he asked.
She laughed suddenly, thinking of Sioned. He seemed to hesitate, afraid of her scorn, but finally he clasped and held her.