You’ll be familiar with the letters of Michael Wolff on this blog. They are full of wit and wisdom. Well, now for the first time you can read a short story that I have persuaded Michael to allow me to post.
I think you will agree it is charming with a beautiful simplicity of prose, a tricky thing to pull off. But he does.
Here it is.
Friendship by Michael Wolff
This is a story about friendship and how you can experience it in the nuances of a few well-chosen words.
Many years ago there was a brilliant English teacher in one of England’s well-known Roman Catholic public schools – Downside.
The teacher was called Father McKenzie. He was an extraordinary man, well loved by those he taught, by their parents and by all his colleagues.
He was also greatly admired by the Abbot who led the school because many that he taught were accepted into colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. This enhanced the reputation of Downside.
Towards the end of the war there was a series of unusual incidents at the school. Many of the students noticed that small things like pens, notebooks, penknives and a variety of intimate personal items, seemed to be disappearing. No one had thought much or said much about it until one day a student noticed that his precious fountain pen had gone and told his parents. Other parents had heard similar complaints and eventually a complaint was made to the Abbot.
After a brief investigation it became clear that there was only one explanation for all these small thefts and only one culprit – Father McKenzie.
The Abbot called Father McKenzie to his study and a stern meeting took place between the two of them in which the Abbot both praised this marvellous teacher and also rebuked him.
Father McKenzie admitted that he suffered from kleptomania and naturally the Abbott forgave him on behalf of everyone involved. But he also had to warn him that there could be no question of any reoccurrences or he, Father McKenzie, would have to leave Downside forever. He insisted that Father McKenzie engaged in some treatment for his disorder, which of course he did and after this all went well.
The war ended, the whole incident was forgotten and Downside continued to win more places for its students in Oxford and Cambridge than any other school in the land. These wonderful results were directly attributable to the genius of Father McKenzie and to everyone’s love and respect for him.
Then, after a few years, some of the students found that some of their belongings had started to be missing again, only this time, more expensive things like transistor radios and tape recorders.
Swiftly, the culprit was identified.
It was, of course Father McKenzie. There was a brief meeting after which, in no time at all, he was no longer teaching in Downside.
The years elapsed, and one morning the Abbot received a confidential private letter. It was from the Abbott of another school called Ampleforth. The subject of the letter was confidential. It was a request for a reference for a new teacher who’d applied for a position teaching English. His name, Father McKenzie, and he’d given this Abbot his former Abbot’s name.
This was a challenge for the Abbot of Downside and he wondered how he could tell the truth and, at the same time, share his deep respect and affection for a man who’s brilliance as a teacher had brought both an enviable reputation and valuable academic results to Downside for so many years.
Father McKenzie had been both a friend to the school and a good friend to the Abbot. Carefully, taking the quality of friendship into account, the Abbot crafted the reference he would send.
This is what he wrote:
“Father McKenzie was a brilliant and well loved teacher here. His unusual abilities enabled those who studied with him to take their appreciation of English literature and their skill with the English language to exceptionally high levels. Because of this, Downside has excelled in its supreme record of successful entries to Oxford and Cambridge.
However, in order to add some verisimilitude to this exceptionally high praise, I need to tell you one more thing. On occasion Father McKenzie had a tendency to take things rather too easily.”
What wisdom. The truth more or less told and a friendship, instead of being betrayed, as it might well have been, generously sustained.