Pull Out All the Stops!
Geraldine McCaughrean, Oxford, 272pp, 978 0 19 278995 2, £12.99 hbk
Extract from Chapter One: Absent Friends
Dear Class Three
How are you? Aint life grand? Last week we playd Nuorleens. More cokrowches out back than faces out front but foke seemed to lyk us. Leestways they did not thro things like in Toosson. Dearest Everett says not to wurry when they thro things cos some times they thro the most yoosfull obgeckts — suspenders and froot and reel munny even. Says one time a lady throde a cat at him and it was in kitten and the Company kept it and soled the kittens and raysed a good prys.
Torking of wich some one of your akwayntens is also in a interestin condishun. What do you no?
Little Annie May (she plays the pretty herroins if you recall?) is leeving us to marry a bank tella next munth. We wish her well naturly. Still it leeves a hole in the Company. A pretty ingenoo is hard to find. Dearest Everett says wors things happan at sea. O Lor if you coud just see him playin Cyrano rite now! He is magin mangif magnee sub lime.
Sorry to heer how Sara Waters is sick. Give her a kis from me and say hunny and wisky is best for a bad throte.
Will rite from St Paul. Hope Miss May March is still makin moovs to improov on wot God made you.
Loucien Shades Crew
Cissy folded the letter and gave it back to Miss March whose thin white face,
like a tea towel resting on a puddle of wine, had grown pink round the edges.
‘Thank you, Cecelia. You may return to your seat.’
Miss May March did not approve of the letters Class Three received from their previous teacher. To give her her due, she never actually binned them, but she did not dwell on their contents either. Talk of cockroaches and ‘pretty ingénues’ and ‘interesting conditions’ were not on her curriculum.
One year earlier, ‘Miss Loucien’ had taught the children the sum total of everything she knew. But she had married a travelling actor and left Olive Academy for a life in theatre. Miss May March was well aware of the mark her predecessor had left on Class Three, but to her way of thinking it was the kind of mark that should have been quickly washed away, like the soap ring round a bathtub. There was something shocking about the woman, with her chaotic handwriting and her creative spelling and her gypsy existence. Her mis-spelt letters always put the children into a restless, contrary mood. This very minute Miss March knew perfectly well they were comparing her with Miss Loucien…
and marking her a very poor second. Knowing this sometimes made her spiteful.
‘Take out your slates and write the following proper nouns: New Orleans . . . Tucson . . . St Paul . . . Fuller Monterey, pray tell me: what does a proper noun have?’
She knew he would not know. (The Monterey boys had less than one brain between the two of them.) Miss Loucien would not have known either. Perhaps this was a chance to impress on Class Three that Miss March alone had the power to make of them literate, civilized citizens. Fuller Monterey drew in his tortoise-shaped head and refused to answer. He looked even more sullen than usual.
‘Habbakuk Warboys, then. What does a proper noun have?’
Kookie, however, was quite equal to the challenge. ‘Panache!’ he said.
‘Hexclamation marks!’ said Tibbie Boden, sticking up her hand.
‘Clean linen!’ said Barney MacKinley.
‘First use of the washroom!’ said Fred Stamp.
Cissy Sissney took no part in this. Her soul was still held between the folds of Miss Loucien’s letter. She was imagining the footlights, the gilt mouldings of the opera boxes, suspenders and kittens flying through the air, the noise of applause . . .
Cissy lived for the days when a letter arrived from her old schoolteacher. Miss Loucien’s letters were an Event, an Occasion almost. Cissy was always given the honour of reading them out because her reading was best. And afterwards she liked to sit and savour what she had read – to imagine she was there, on the road with the Bright Lights Theatre Company, seeing all those charlatans and celebrities, seeing all the big cities and out-of-the-way settlements, singing for her supper.
Read the BfK review of Pull Out All The Stops!