Fear of The Maddening Crowds: a classic, re-imagined for our situation.

A continuation of my glimpse into modern-day Wessex.

Chapter 2 Where is that Maddening Crowd? by Thomas Hiding

It was Frannie, who had been barmaid at The Malthouse through the reign of three previous landlords, who figured out the practicalities of re-opening as a take-away. William stood back and watched her carry a table into the doorway, set out the blackboard on the deserted pavement and write in huge letters, Beer, bring your own container.

‘If it doesn’t work, you needn’t pay me,’ she’d said, as if she’d no idea that William had already decided that she wouldn’t fit with his plans for the refurbishment. She’d seen what his Sheffield pub was like when she Googled him, and had gone out to shop for a plain white shirt in the New Year sales. That was three weeks before he arrived for the takeover.

She’d tried it out in the privacy of her bedroom, in the flat above the saloon bar, with the grumble of tv news reports seeping up through the floor boards.

‘Hey, I can rock this,’ she’d thought, as she zipped up the black skirt from the back of the wardrobe. It had to be four or five years since she’d bought it, and she’d worn it only once, for a Halloween fancy dress night. But it was okay, it still fitted.

It was okay, wasn’t it? She’d turned, and turned, before her mirror, knowing that this was a low wattage-bulb illusion. She opened the door to let the light in from the hall, then fetched a lamp, plugged it in by the mirror and took the shade off it.

The stranger in the mirror remained even when she hunted through her makeup box for colours she’d never worn, stuff that should have been thrown away years before. She’d worry about consequences tomorrow. Who knew if it was even true, about the bacteria and infections? She patted and shaded, blended and outlined, then rubbed it off and started again, and again.

Who was she kidding?

The shirt was stained. She’d washed it before taking it, and the skirt, to the charity shop, but there were still smudges of foundation on the collar. Frannie had felt like a reverse shop-lifter as she handed the bagged clothes over.

A classic, updated and re-imagined for our situation.

This post carries an apology, in the first place to Thomas Hardy, and in the second to fans of his writing.

I deliver it with an excuse, and lay the blame for these trespasses on a much loved classic to two fellow bloggers: Ola, at Re-enchant Of The World, drew my attention to the ‘What my favourite characters would be doing in lockdown’ tag, and Chris, at Calmgrove, ‘updated’ some classic titles. When I admired them, he challenged me to create one of my own, and add a review.

Instead, I present an extract from: Fear of the Maddening Crowds, by Thomas Hiding.

Chapter one: Description of Gabriel Oak – An Incident.

The singular winning thing about Gabriel Oak, historian, was his enthusiasm. It had been the defeat of all his students, even the most resistant, throughout his twenty years teaching at the local Further Education college.

He was a man of average looks, not generally drawing notice, when walking into a room. For work he wore neat, but plain, clothes, carelessly chosen from the middle-ranges of his local Marks & Spencer department, and on first sight, particularly when seen at a distance, was often assumed to be ten years older than his actual age.

But many of those who experienced his lectures on The Children’s Crusades of 1212, or The Role of Women in The Rise of Nazi Germany, found it a trans-formative experience. Then, his blue eyes took on a warm lustre, the animation of his features could raise the senses, and his voice assumed a new and confiding pitch. In short he grew taller, straighter, and more charismatic. He glowed with an enthusiasm that sent many a pulse racing. More than one student left his classroom dazzled.

Gabriel had risen, gradually, to become head of the history department, and was assumed by many to be comfortably in place for the step-up to Education Programme Co-ordinator. His had been a steady career, once he’d found the bottom rung to it.

When he left school at sixteen, Gabriel’s one GCSE had launched him only as far as assistant janitor in a printers. It was there, though, that boredom had driven him to browse through some of the remaindered stock during his breaks. Had there been anyone else of his own age in the building, he might have found other ways to amuse himself. Instead, he stumbled upon a History of Constantinople.

After that, his ears were open and his mind receptive when, first, evening classes were mention, later, the Open University, and finally, teacher training. It was, his mother said after his graduation ceremony, what she had always known he was capable of, if only he’d listened more at school.

Becoming Head of Department made Gabriel responsible for three other tutors. The college was not so very big, after all. More importantly, it promoted him to an office all on his own.

Room 101a was significantly smaller than the large, shared history office. His desk took up most of the space, though it was only just big enough for the large desk-top computer. But it was his alone. He could heap books and papers on the floor, and shut his door on distractions. There was no one to note how much work he did, or when. If the sun shone, he was free to lean back on his chair until his head rested on the bookshelves, and bask.

His eyelids were closed, and he was not quite snoring, on the bright mid-March afternoon when Bathsheba Everdine discovered him. She paused on the threshold, rearranging the heap of plastic encased essay papers that were trying to escape what had been a firm grasp, until she opened the door, and took in the sunlit vision before her.

Quite how long she had stood there, Gabriel never knew. Room 101a was at the dead-end of a corridor, far from the bustle of tutorials and meetings.

When he opened his eyes and saw her, he sat straighter, and said, ‘Yes?’ in a way that assumed she had just stepped through the door.

‘I’ve brought your essays,’ Bathsheba said, offering the slippery heap, and looking round for a space to place them.

Gabriel frowned. ‘My what?’

Bathsheba said, ‘It looks like you’ll have plenty of work to do during lock-down, anyway. We’re just sorting out the archived ones for you now, I’ll be back up with them in a jiffy.’

Gabriel frowned. ‘A jiffy? Yes, umm, look, ah… I’m sorry, what’s your name?’

‘I’m Bathsheba,’ said Bathsheba. She grinned. ‘I know, it’s my gran’s fault.’ She held out the heap of papers, again, fumbling them slightly, as they began to slide. ‘I’m covering for a maternity leave,’ she said, ‘at least that was the pre-covid plan. Who knows what happens now.’

‘Okay, right,’ said Gabriel, ‘Bathsheba. I’m not expecting any marking…’

‘Really?’ Bathsheba looked down at the top paper. ‘Not even on global heat, and latitudinal variations in energy?’

‘No. I’m…’

‘They said you might try to avoid them.’

‘They’re not mine.’

‘They’ve got your name on: George Heart, room 201.’

‘All the 200s are up there,’ said Gabriel, pointing at his ceiling. ‘This is floor is the100s.’

Bathsheba’s eyes opened wide. ‘Oh, what a fool,’ she said, turning to back out of the room. ‘You must think I can’t even read,’ she said, turning to look at the door, and as she did so, the heap of papers slipping from her grasp. ‘Oh.’

Gabriel knelt down beside her and began to help gather pages. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘this door doesn’t have a number. Some say it’s a space that shouldn’t exist, that it’s like history, both a truth and untruth at the same time.’

Bathsheba leaned back on her heels and studied him, her mouth curving into a wide smile. ‘Don’t you like history, then?’

‘Love it,’ he said. ‘Bloody love it, Bathsheba of the oath.’

Side by side they gathered the scattered pages from under the desk and chair. ‘I don’t suppose we should even be this close, really,’ said Bathsheba, ‘who knows what the risks are…’