About Paul Toolan

About Paul Toolan

I first got bitten by the acting bug when I was in secondary school in England.  The school put on a yearly production of a Shakespeare play and of course at first I was cast in supporting roles which gradually grew in size until I was cast as hylock in The Merchant of Venice.  I attended university where I became a very active member of the dramatic society. The society put on at leastone production a year and took a play and a late night revue to the Edinburgh Festival fringe. I particularly enjoyed one year at the fringe when I played a sizeable cameo in the play Antigone  by Jean Anouilh and then took part in the late night revue which had been written by a very talented graduate who was trying to make his way in the show business scene in London. For a while after I graduated I combined teaching and acting at The Mountview theatre club in north London which put on amateur theatre of a high quality. After I emigrated to Canada I continued to teach and took part in the amateur theatre scene in Winnipeg. Then I married and had a family and decided to commit myself fully to teaching. Only recently since I came to Vancouver as a retired teacher have I revisited my theatrical self. I¹ve taken part in several productions over the last few years and finally decided to put together a one person show which explores Shakespeare¹s life and times and how they are reflected in his plays.
A Short Story by Paul Toolan

Mrs. T

It was the voice that struck him at first, high pitched and at the upper end of the register just a little quivery. Reminded him of that eerie singing he had heard at pow-wows. She was very upbeat and talked almost obsessively, occasionally addressing him with a smile, head cocked to one side. She spoke only Cree so Violet, the teaching assistant who made up the threesome, interpreted. During the course of the walk, he found out that her pronounced limp was the result of being hit by a school bus on the reserve which was one of the very remote ones some 700 miles north of the city. She was not really dressed adequately for the weather. The coat she wore looked as though it had been provided by a social service agency or maybe purchased at a Thrift store. It had a dated trendy look as did her knee length boots which with their flamboyant fold-over tops gave her an incongruously piratical look. The family was in town temporarily so that Mr. Turtle could receive treatment for a kidney condition. Marvin had been placed in Tom’s class where his size and persistently awkward unhappiness stood out like a sore thumb. Over the last three weeks his attendance had been sparse. He hadn’t shown up this particular morning and Tom had decided to see if something could be done about it. He had left Violet in charge of the room very briefly and gone to the office where he had found Mrs. T. She was having some difficulty making herself understood so The VP was dispatched to Tom’s classroom and Violet acted as interpreter.

It seemed that Marvin’s mom had had difficulty rousting him out and had come to school seeking help. And so here were the three of them walking to the house where the Turtle family were staying while in town. It was a bitterly cold January morning so that when they crossed the wide four-lane road at the foot of the bridge over the marshalling yards there was a wind tunnel affect and Tom not only regretted his lack of long johns, but marveled at Mrs. T’s apparent indifference to the icy blast that came sweeping down off the bridge. She set the pace for her two companions and chatted to Violet with an urgency that showed how relieved she was to be able to talk to a fellow Cree speaker. Occasionally Violet would keep him abreast of the conversation with rapid asides. At one point in the flow of talk there was a pause and the native woman looked very pointedly at Tom and rather than turning to Violet as the go between addressed him directly and fired off a question at him which was accompanied by a quietly ironic smile. Tom smiled back and then turned to the TA with a questioning look. Violet smiled too. “Well what she said, sort of, was ‘So, young man where are you from?”

Tom looked at Mrs. T and said,  “ I’m from England. I’ve been here a little while.”

Violet passed his answer along and quickly recounted her gently mocking response. “ I thought you weren’t here long. You don’t like the cold very much do you?”

Tom who thought he had made a fair job of concealing his discomfort with the weather laughed and said, “ So you noticed.”

She replied with a wry smile and a nod of the head and continued to lope along at a brisk pace. Without looking at him, she tossed a question over her shoulder enveloped in a little cloud of condensation. Violet first answered her and then said, “ She asked if you were married and I said as far as I knew you weren’t.” The native aid grinned and shrugged her shoulders.

Tom smiled at the diminutive parent. “ No Mrs. T, I’m not.” He paused and chuckled before he asked, “So did you have somebody in mind?”

She turned as she walked and smiled her broad gap-toothed smile and gave him the once over twice head to toe, and then in very arch fashion replied, “Maybe.”

Tom was bowled over by her humor and sharpness. He laughed out aloud and pressed on toward the house in Mrs. T’s wake. She shot a sparkly glance over her shoulder at him. She was quite irresistible. As if to share his reaction with Violet he looked over at her and she smiled a broad smile back at him. She was enjoying the show as much as he was. The bubble of warmth that the tiny native woman carried round with her had been extended to include her and Tom and suddenly it didn’t seem quite so cold. No wonder she wasn’t bothered by the wind.

They arrived at the house which looked like one of the many slum landlord specials which characterized much of the neighborhood around the school. There were huge icicles hanging from the eaves troughs indicative of poor insulation. The troughs themselves were barely hanging on to the roof. One of the ground-floor windows was boarded up and the wood siding was thoroughly rotted away in several places. Mrs. T ushered her companions into the house and then walked through to the front room where there was a small group of people with whom she was obviously quite familiar. As she entered, she waltzed with the practiced ease of familiarity around a couple of buckets strategically placed on the floor to catch water that was dripping from the ceiling. Then she introduced Violet and Tom to the assembled company. As she introduced Tom she turned to him and winked and whatever it was that she said to her friends there was obviously more to it than a mere introduction since she cackled loudly as she did it and then the group of fellow Cree speakers including Violet all echoed her laughter. Tom turned to Violet with a questioning smile and was told that Mrs. T had introduced him as her new boyfriend. They all looked at him waiting for his response and when he put a good-natured arm around her shoulders and winked at her, everybody laughed again. For a long moment, Tom didn’t see the sparsely furnished room or the leaky ceiling and enjoyed the shared joke. And then he and his parent had to get down to business. She led the way upstairs and he stood in the narrow hallway and watched in silhouette a scene played out between Mrs. Turtle and Marvin. First she stood over his bed and harangued him waving her diminutive arms to punch home her points. Eventually and with great reluctance the boy put his feet on the floor and rose very slowly; she herded him toward the chair where he had tossed his clothing the night before. As the process of getting him rolling gathered a little momentum, Mrs. Turtle became more placid and Marvin looked to be resigned to going to school. All went well until Marvin having given himself a hasty grooming in the bathroom was allowing his mother to take him by the hand to the head of the stairs when the boy grabbed first one and then another of the banister railings. Mrs. Turtle with great difficulty pried one of his hands away. As she did this, she encouraged Tom to follow suit and help her. So he reluctantly joined in the little charade feeling a little foolish and between the two of them they slowly moved the boy downstairs two railings at a time. They reached the bottom of the stairs and were about to get Marvin’s parka on when suddenly there was another older boy at the bottom of the stairs sounding off very loudly in Cree directly at Tom who paused to scan this new arrival. As he reached the boys hands he felt an adrenalin rush and froze with his eyes fixed on the big pair of scissors that he carried in his left hand. Mrs. Turtle followed his wide-eyed gaze until she too spotted the scissors. Immediately she stepped in front of Tom in a protective way with her arms outspread and presumably explained in her own inimitable and animated fashion that this white intruder intended no harm to anyone. There was no one to interpret since Violet had left as soon as they headed upstairs to rouse Marvin. But Mrs. Turtle’s passionate little speech in defense of Tom needed no interpretation and fortunately had the desired effect of calming the boy down. He pouted, gave the scissors to her and returned disconsolately to bed.

Mrs. Turtle turned to Tom, heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief, shrugged her shoulders and said something to him which her face indicated was by way of being apology. Marvin had stood to one side while all this was going on with a look that was somewhere between blank and bemused. His mother shepherded him to the hallway where he donned his parka and mismatched mitts. At which point Mrs. T shooed them both out of the house as though they were a couple of errant siblings. Tom turned and smiled at her as they walked down the steps and she replied with a stagy mock frown then smiled and closed the door. Tom and the boy at first walked in silence. He thought Marvin understood a lot more English than he let on and was tempted to talk a little to him and see if couldn’t coax the boy into some kind of conversation. He knew that there was a reservoir of pain and unhappiness under the veneer of stoic resignation that he tried to maintain.

“ You know Marvin I think I know a little bit about how hard this time in the city is for you. When I first came here just a short while ago I knew nobody and I was very lonely. At least you’ve got your family and your mum seems like a real nice lady.”

Marvin registered little or no response. Tom wondered how to get some kind of comeback from the silent child. The fact that he avoided eye contact would have irked him six months ago, but now he knew that many of the native students new to or not long in the city would do so as a matter of cultural course. It was a mark of respect so that directly eying an adult would have been considered a challenge. Tom thought about the brother standing at the bottom of the stairs ready to wield the scissors who had had no difficulty fixing him with an angry, narrow-eyed stare. Tom smiled a wry smile at the thought.

They walked on in silence and the teacher thought about how little he knew of the boy’s life on the reserve, a world away from the grimy surroundings which were the backdrop of their walk to school on this raw January morning. Tom continued with his monologue occasionally pausing to see if he had said something that might prompt a response from Marvin. By the time they arrived at the school the boy had not broken his silence. And so since the midmorning break or recess as it was rather formally known here was already on the go, he ushered Marvin out to the playground and paid a quick call to the principal’s office to report on his visit.

“Well it was quite the experience. The mum is a real character: introduced me to the assembled company when we got to the house as her new boyfriend.”

“Really? By way of being a compliment I suppose.” They both laughed.

“There was almost a nasty little incident which I suppose was really my fault more than anybody else’s. Mrs. T and I were, how should I put it, steering? Marvin toward the door of the house when an older boy showed up armed with a pair of scissors. I suppose all he saw was this strange whitey acting a little too free with his brother. I shouldn’t have laid a hand on him, but Mrs. T called on me to help and so I did although I felt not right doing it.

“You want to pursue it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean press charges. Call in the police?”

“No I don’t think so. The boy reacted on the spur of the moment and as soon as his mum explained who I was and what was happening, he gave over the scissors and went back to bed. No. No need to call in the police. I’ve got to go. Recess is over. See you later. Bye.”

The principal grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “Ok. As long as you’re satisfied.”

At lunchtime, afraid that if the boy went home he wouldn’t return, Tom slipped out with him after all the other children had left and bought him a burger and fries at a local greasy spoon, Fred and Gert’s, known among his fellow staff members as “Fat and Grease”. Despite its unappetizing nickname, they both enjoyed their lunch and Marvin treated Tom to a half swallowed murmur that sounded distinctly like,  “Thank you.” He felt he was making some progress however small it might be. The afternoon held something in store that would by far eclipse Marvin’s mumbled acknowledgement of lunch.

The portion of the afternoon following recess was reserved a couple of times a week for creative drama which most of the students had over time grown to enjoy. Some had at first been painfully self-conscious, but most had overcome initial nervousness and looked forward to the afternoons spent playing theatre games. This particular time around the planned activity was to show the class one of your favorite things to do by miming it well enough so that the group could guess what you were doing. There was no shortage of volunteers and some of the participants gave ample evidence of their recently acquired expertise. Tom had been watching Marvin during the presentations and noted his interest which presently grew to the point that his hand slowly, hesitantly went up. Tom called on him and the group went more than usually quiet as some of them realised along with Tom that this was a special moment, the first time that Marvin had taken a part in the happenings of the class. They all watched as the native boy went through the motions of a routine with which he was obviously very familiar. At one point Tom coached from the sidelines. “Slow down a bit Marvin.” The boy did as he was asked and went into slow-motion mode. And that was when his ease and facility with the mime became really evident. He had a talent, so obviously had a talent that the more discerning of members of the class were about as wide-eyed as was Tom. It was almost to the point that what Marvin was trying to represent was beside the point as he caressed the various items that were involved in his dumb show with a gentle care that gradually made them apparent to the audience. Marvin completed his show and was headed back to his seat when Tom without any forethought asked him, “ Marvin would you mind doing your show again maybe even a little bit slower than you did this time around.”  He nodded and again started in on his routine. Again the amazing facility which by now was enhanced by the fact that the boy was discovering that here was something which he enjoyed, which came to him with an ease that soothed his anxiety. Nobody had ventured a guess as to what Marvin was up to. Tom was suddenly alert, out from under the hypnotic effect of Marvin’s movements, “ So Marvin you’re working with something here. What is it? String? Wire?” Marvin nodded with something very close to enthusiasm. “ You’re making a loop, a circle, a round shape with this wire? Yes?” The boy nodded again. One of the students suddenly stepped in and almost shouted, “ He’s setting up a trap. He’s on a trap line.” Obviously the eureka moment came from a child who had spent time on a reserve in the winter when the trap-lines were set out to catch fur-bearing animals. When he realised that he had communicated with at least one person in his audience Marvin looked up at the other native boy who had guessed what he was doing and smiled a smile which gradually became a very short lived beam. And then he quietly fled back to his seat. One of his classmates started to clap without any prompting from Tom and then there was a more than just polite round of applause from everybody. Marvin was so overwhelmed that all he could do was look at the floor and blush. Tom was equally overwhelmed! He had never seen anything like this display of untutored courtesy from this group of street hardened little characters.

“Thanks very much Marvin and thank you all for giving him a well deserved round of applause.”

After the buzzer marking the end of the school day, Tom asked Marvin to hang on a minute, put on his own parka and then he said, “ Marvin I want to come home with you and just tell your mum how well you did in school this afternoon. OK?” Marvin nodded and half smiled. As it turned out the walk to the boy’s house was unnecessary. They walked by the office and Mrs. Turtle stepped out to meet them in the hallway accompanied by Violet. Mrs. T launched into a heartfelt speech directed at Tom. There was no hint of hostility and after the first minute or so Tom guessed that she was apologizing for the morning in particular the threatening behavior of her other son. When she had done Tom turned to Violet with a questioning look and the assistant said, “ Mrs. T is saying that she’s sorry about this morning and she’s hoping that you didn’t find her too forward or cheeky.”

Tom turned to her and with a smiling shake of the head assured her that he was in no way offended. “I’m glad you’re here Mrs. Turtle, because I wanted to tell you about this afternoon and how well Marvin did.” He paused to allow Violet to translate. “ Marvin told us about how he likes to go on the trap-line in the winter and he did it without saying a word. He mimed it; he acted it out for us. And he did it so well that the other students gave him a big round of applause.”

Marvin obviously knew what was being talked about and put on an “aw shucks” routine which if it had been conscious and knowing would have merited a good full throated belly laugh. Tom put his arm round the boy’s shoulders and felt for the first time since he had arrived in Tom’s room that he was at ease being touched by his teacher. By the time Violet was done describing Marvin’s star turn Mrs. T was beaming and nodding. She said her thank you’s and farewells and loped away in her lopsided fashion towards the front door hand in hand with boy who looked back at Tom briefly before they disappeared out into the fading light of the late winter afternoon.

As he drove home from work, the thought occurred to him not for the first time that Marvin’s stay was only temporary, that he would be gone very shortly. Where before Tom had hoped that the boy’s leaving would come sooner than later now he now felt that he wanted to hold on to him long enough at least to help him develop his obvious talent for mime and see if the self belief gained from that couldn’t be a way for him to explore some other admittedly more mundane avenues like the three R’s. Tom wasn’t sure what Marvin knew in the way of academics and what he didn’t know. The stay in the city had obviously thrown him for a loop and the boy had retreated inside himself, but now that Tom had won a measure of trust from him maybe the barriers could be dismantled a little at a time. Problem was that he didn’t know how much time he had. Probably enough to make some kind of a start, but likely no more than that.

As it turned out Marvin was gone within the week. Mrs. T came to the school on Thursday morning with Marvin in tow and with the assistance of Violet explained that they would be leaving the following morning on the long journey back to their reserve in the north. Tom was taken aback and then genuinely upset. He was caught unawares by the depth of his emotion and although he made what he thought was a fair attempt at a stiff upper lip, the native woman when she turned to him to say goodbye recognised what was up and extended two boney little hands which enveloped his in an icy grip. She didn’t say anything, just looked and grinned mischievously at him as though he were a co-conspirator in some nefarious undertaking she had in the works. The unadorned warmth and courtesy of her gesture moved him to a point where he had to swallow hard.

“Thank you Mrs. T. Thank you.”

When he turned to Marvin the boy looked him full in the eye for maybe the first time since he had arrived and nodded. And then the two headed to the front door and were gone. That was that. The children asked where Marvin was and Tom explained that he and his family had gone back to their reserve since Marvin’s dad had been fixed up at the hospital and was now OK. By this point in the school year, halfway, fully half of the kids who had started the year with him were gone and had been replaced by others as families moved around searching for or fleeing from he knew not what.  Marvin with his talent, discovered too late, for mime and his mother with her impish smile and her sense of humor had made an impression on him that was out of all proportion to the shortness of their stay. They were like a technicolor interlude in the grey parade of migrant families.