20.8.09

Stan Frost

A week or so ago, maybe last Thursday, as I was wandering back from Ashfield to Summer Hill, I suddenly found myself talking out loud to no-one in particular - the first sign of madness, we used to say. This is not a habit of mine and I'm not sure what prompted the episode, beyond my having recently noted a resemblance between a friend and colleague I've been seeing a bit of lately, and my old Godfather. His name was Stan Frost and the inadvertent monologue, which I'll try to reconstruct some of here, was about him. Stan was the art teacher at Ruapehu College when I was growing up in Ohakune in the 1950s. He was a real Cockney, which I understood then to mean that he had been born within the sound of the Bow Bells; but he didn't speak Cockney: rather he had the smooth, educated tones of so-called Received Pronunciation. He was a dapper dresser, usually in a tweed jacket, grey trousers with a knife-edge crease, well-polished black brogues; and had a penchant for colourful patterned knitted sleeveless pullovers worn under the jacket and over the shirt. He also had fascinating hair, intricately crinkled, its natural dark brown turning, seemingly before the eyes, to grey, which he wore oiled and combed back from a high forehead; and his skin, like my own father's, was quite swart, as if there had been somewhere back amongst the generations an admixture of Mediterranean or even Moorish blood. Stan drove a Model T Ford and for most of the time I knew him, lived alone in one or other of two dark and mysterious houses, the first behind high macrocarpa hedges next to the College, the second, similar, at Rangataua. He was, my parents said to me seriously on more than one occasion, a Bachelor. But I knew that he hadn't always lived alone: for a period he had a companion, another Bachelor, another teacher (but of what?), another Englishman by the name of Bill Pawley, who wore little round rimless glasses and three piece suits; they had a place together at Rangataua, a silvery paintless two storey wooden building that had been a shop which they called Wenceslas Towers and fitted out with a bar - unheard of; us kids were sometimes allowed to play with or around it while Stan perfected an exotic omelet for our parents to eat. Bill Pawley departed for parts unknown, perhaps back to the old country, perhaps to Canada, at some point in the decade, leaving Stan alone. Stan was a much-loved teacher, an exceptionally charming man but also a very private one. I remember my mother telling me once (I must have asked her) that, yes, there had been a woman, in England, but something had happened and they never married; curiously, whenever I bring this particular piece of information to mind, it comes along with an image of a blue bonnet with a wide brim and trailing ribbons that are meant to be tied under the chin: whatever happened between them was specific and encapsulated in this image, which was one of loss. I think Stan may have remembered her by her hat. A later attempt to pair him off with the Infant Mistress also failed. My parents and their friends - the Lawns, the Watsons, the Brunings, Nancy Leggatt, Stan Frost, Bill Pawley - used to stage amateur theatricals in their own homes, that they wrote themselves, and in which each of them adopted a persona not wholly distinct from their selves in real life. They were musicals, with piano accompaniment, and were performed with great gusto and many shouts of laughter at their own wit and bravado. Also lots of smoking and drinking. The only piece I remember of any of these musicals is a snatch of song that begins: My name is Flan / I am your man / A problem does delight me / For I suppose ... then trails off into doubt and supposition. Stan was a good cook and lived well; the first liqueur I ever tasted (Cointreau) was at his house. He was also keen on hunting and fishing, and used often to go after trout at nearby Lake Taupo. Sometimes he would give us a fresh one he had caught, to be, invariably, fried in the heavy blue and white iron pan on the coal range. I remember, in 1973, when my father was in the midst of one of his breakdowns and I was a bit sideways myself, after an abortive visit he had made to Auckland driving Dad back in his own car, a Chrysler Valiant, to Wellington. We broke the journey at Ohakune and stayed the night with Stan Frost. I recall Stan's perplexity at the shattered state my father was in, his well-meaning helplessness and his English reserve that prevented him making any but the most oblique remarks about the situation; and I also recall how his house had become even darker, more mysterious and more cluttered than it had been when I was a child. But the food (a stew) was excellent, and the wine, and, yes, we drank Cointreau after dinner. That was I think the last time I saw him. When he retired from teaching he left the district and moved to a house he had built, or bought, on the shores of Taupo, so that he could indulge his love of fishing. Later I heard, from the Lawns, that after the move he became reclusive and hardly saw anyone, not even old friends. At the same time, the clutter I noticed in his house in 1973 increased, until it was only possible for one man to make a single track from room to room to room: piles of newspapers I believe, and books, and cardboard cartons of things that could not be thrown away. He's dead now but I don't know (although I could certainly find out) when he died or anything much else about his last years. Nor do I know quite what else to say; beyond this: from when I was a very small boy I loved and admired Stan Frost, and was always proud to be his Godson; and nothing related here, and nothing else that has come to my notice about him since, has or could change that feeling. And yet, while I can remember clearly how he looked, the sound of his voice, his physical presence, he seems, as time goes by, to become more and more mysterious, like a puzzle that looks simple on first glance but gradually discloses an intricacy and a depth and a strangeness that means, in the end, I will have to give up trying to solve it and content myself with mere contemplation of its elegant inexplicability.


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3 comments:

Elisabeth said...

As we grow older we wonder about these folks from childhood, at least I do.
I wonder about the people I remember, people like my own godparents and what became of them.
The generation pre-fifties was such a 'close to the chest' generation. The generation that followed, only now maybe, is beginning to wonder - what went on?
As ever Martin, beautiful and evocative writing.

Kay said...

Wonderful as always to catch up on your beautifully evocative writing Martin. You certainly prove that life is stranger than fiction, and weirdly, more delicate for all its brutality.

maggie said...

The blue ribbon, the hat, that sat, upon that, of Jemima Puddle duck.