Communication is complicated. sometimes. When I say something out loud, I know what I mean to say. When i write something down, I know what I want the words to mean. But somebody else might listen to me or read what I wrote, and put an entirely different meaning on my words. There was an example of this kind of thing recently when Torsten posted this sentence on the Forum -
and he asked what people thought it might mean. In the end we discovered that there were three possible meanings all of which were perfectly acceptable and all were different in meaning. Any word, sentence. phrase, fixed expression can often be interpreted in more than one way.
The title of this piece Old Masters is an example of this. It can mean - retired male school teachers or famous paintings from the past. I have deliberately chosen that expression to create a humorous effect. I have made what we call a pun - a play on words. Now read my story and see which one you think it is.
I’d never really dreamt I’d do it. I suppose if I’m honest, it’s because I was flattered. I had been invited to be guest speaker at an Old Boys Reunion at my school. It was to be a special farewell party for a very old teacher I’d known when I was a pupil at the school. I had agreed because I considered he had been the best of the bunch. I was shocked to learn that Old Rusty was going to retire. He seemed ancient when I was at school but somehow his great age suited him. He was the sort of person you could imagine looking wise and grey even when he was a baby in nappies.
I felt strangely uncomfortable as I walked up the school drive that I hadn’t trodden on for a dozen years or more. I was just waiting to be pounced on for not wearing a cap. At the entrance hall I was met by a recently appointed master. “Oh, hello. I’m Worthington. Science fifth and six forms. Have a sherry”.I took his scientific sherry and went in. Standing in the hall grouped decorously in a semi-circle was a bevy of my past teachers looking absurdly smart. It was like dreaming you were taking your entrance exam again. There they were in their dinner jackets and smartly pressed black trousers. I thought of the old familiar baggy trousers lying neglected at home. The senior English Master lunged forward to meet me. “Ah, Tow- Al- “ ….he just couldn’t decide whether it should be Christian or surname and in the end settled for “ dear boy, how nice to see you”. How benign he seemed. In his heyday it was rumoured he used to throw chairs at boys he didn’t like. Fortunately he was never very accurate. “Won’t you take a chair?” We chatted, mainly about me. I learnt about the latest group of bright sparks in the school and tried very hard to share his enthusiasm for the up and coming candidates about to take their advanced exams. I dutifully did the rounds of the old familiar faces, drank far too many glasses of sherry and noted with pleasure that the gym master had put on a lot of weight. It wasn’t long before Old Jarvis, the caretaker interrupted the proceedings with - “Please take your seats, Gentlemen. Dinner is all but ready”.
I had been placed between two of my contemporaries, Herrington and Gadsby, both of whom I suddenly remembered had been notorious cheats. They both looked terribly prosperous and I couldn’t help wondering whether they were still up to their old tricks in adult life. I didn’t enjoy my meal one little bit. It was partly the anticipation of making my speech and partly Herrington and Gadsby reverting to childhood as they continually flicked rolled up bread pellets at one another. I watched Old Rusty tucking into his cream caramel and I knew that when the last drop of juice had been lapped up, I should have to start. There was a stillness in the hall and I began. Herrington and Gadsby had a last flick and sat back to listen. It was like reading your essay out aloud to the class. The guests adopted their listening expressions and I battled on with my prepared jokes and loyal comments. Old Rusty sat there motionless. I couldn’t be sure whether his deaf aid was switched on or not. Then gradually I began to develop the eulogy and was glancing in Old Rusty’s direction. I noticed then he was slipping away into sleep. As he gently slumbered, I had reached the bit about all of us remembering how he had always been so patient in listening to our different problems. Still, he knew I meant well. As the applause fitfully greeted the end of my speech, I sat down. The party began to break up. I thought it fitting now to go over and shake Old Rusty by the hand and wish him a happy retirement. “A most interesting speech and charming tribute” he wheezed. He tottered slightly as he spoke. How frail he looked. There was no denying it he was a genuine old master. Why, I don’t suppose he even remembered who I was. Still, it was really nice to have seen him before he finally passed on. We wished each other the best of luck and I felt quite sad as I watched him hobbling ou of the hall. He stopped for a moment in the doorway and came back towards me. Poor old fellow, perhaps he didn’t actually know where he was. “By the way,” he said “be a good chap and let me have that history text book back soon I lent you, I’ve been waiting twelve and a half years for it.”