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Boy Wonder

by Griselda 

Posted: 01 February 2006
Word Count: 2628
Summary: My brilliant schoolfriend invited me to tea, but her mother humiliated her and me because the little brother was so much preferred.

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Boy Wonder

I was asked home for tea to my friend Olga Vernier's house. When we got there I found it was not actually a house, but a flat in West Hampstead, a huge place, with long corridors leading in three different directions from the front door. It was all done out in white and gold, with fitted carpets and a quiet, padded atmosphere, almost stifled. Olga was a clever girl. In fact, in a school crammed with clever girls she was outstanding, always coming top in her exams, and being completely at ease in that academic forcing house, but she was really quite ugly, apart from her eyes, which shone with a clear golden intelligence and humour. She was somehow lumpen and large, with a sallow, pockmarked skin, lank hair and awkward movements, but she had beautiful italic handwriting and a lovely voice, low and musical. Her commentaries on the world were caustic and illuminating. She seemed older than her years, scornful of idiocy, and wise in ways I was only fumbling at. She was not intimidating, exactly, but she did not have many friends. I found her fascinating. She was top of every set in my year - Classics, Natural Science, Modern Languages, Music, Mathematics and Art. She spoke French fluently as a matter of habit, and was also quite at home with Russian, German and Polish. Her father was an English diplomat, her Russian mother was well-connected, and for some unaccountable reason, she liked me.

Her father was almost never at home, or even in England. He had some sort of roving commission. He was tall, grey-haired and very handsome, completely terrifying because of his height and immaculate manners and accent. He sometimes appeared at school concerts, which he seemed to enjoy very much, perhaps because he seemed able to command attention from every part of the building without even trying, but I had seen how his eyes scanned the hall. I had only ever seen Olga's mother once, at a school prize-giving. That had been, of course, in Friends' House in the Euston Road. It was another of those unutterably dull and wasteful afternoons spent under the dull and festering lighting of that large square hall, where we sat in dimly lit rows and wore our hands out with clapping, and were not allowed to go to the lavatory. But Olga's mother had livened things up on that particular afternoon by wearing a very large hat and a very low décolletage, so that all the eminent fellows on the platform visibly leered towards her. She had engineered her way up onto that platform by donating a new prize for Most Promising International Student, and insisting that it should not go (for the first year at least) to her own daughter.

Our headmistress, a wobbly-fleshed woman with an academic reputation in Hebrew Theology had handled the situation in her usual fashion - by extending a limp handshake, using the ear-prop of her spectacles as a gouge for her inner ear, and flapping her academic gown around her as if the parade of latent sexuality behind her could be literally extinguished like some vapid candleflame.

Olga said, "You can come for tea today if you want", quite out of the blue or, rather, out of the back of the changing rooms after netball one spring afternoon. "My mother says it would be alright." I rang my grandmother from the phonebooth in the covered playground and said I would be having tea at Olga's and not to worry. My grandmother asked for Olga's phone number and told me not to be late. She didn't really like me going out anywhere.

Olga and I drooped off up the Finchley Road. We talked about Freud, and what we imagined passed for Freudian symbols. We listed various objects of interest: click-biros, petrol fillers, six-shooters, pop-guns, pressurised insecticide-sprays and the like, and giggled at the innocence of those who thought of these as sexual. We discussed what we wanted in men, what we would wear at our first ball at Oxford, whether shaving our legs would be correct at our age, and whether or not the art teacher was a lesbian. She certainly allowed smoking in the studio after hours, which seemed a pretty clear sign. The walk along Finchley Road in the golden light of the early afternoon seemed to take a long time even though I was used to walking up the hill of Fitzjohn's Avenue, but eventually we reached the leafy shadows of West Hampstead and her mansion block.

Up the stone steps, through heavy glazed doors, across a mosaic lobby we went, and then into her apartment. It really was enormous. Olga dropped all her things on the carpet, went straight into a lavatory, and left me standing in the passageway. Her mother swooped down on me. Apart from the fact that she looked much older than I expected, her black hair streaked with grey, she was very glamorous. She was wearing an angora sweater printed with leopard spots, and an old-fashioned necklace of opals and diamonds which almost took my breath away. She took me by the shoulder, wrenching me backward, and stared into my eyes. With an astonishingly deep voice she said something in Russian, then forcibly swivelled me round to look me up and down. She lifted the hem of my skirt - was it to look at my legs? She took my left hand in hers and turned it over and over, looking at my fingers and palms, my nails and my thumb. She tut-tutted at my shoes, tugged at the rubber band which held my hair back in a rough pony-tail, and finally let go of me at the same time that Olga came out of the lavvy. Olga didn't really see any of this, but her eyes flared for a moment and then she said something to her mother in Russian which must have been an introduction, because I heard my name pronounced in a thrillingly Russian accent, and then some other half-English references to 'class', 'Hampstead' and 'chemistry'.

Olga's mother led the way to her kitchen. It was tall and dark, fitted out with innumerable cupboards and shelves and there in the centre was a table covered with a white damask cloth, and set out with what seemed like dozens of dishes and salvers. There was a beautiful elegant silver teapot in the middle, and white porcelain cups, and a spreading bunch of white roses in a shining clear glass vase, just about on the point of shedding their petals. We sat down and Olga's mother spoke to me again, this time in English, though with a ravishing accent. "My darlink, you want tea? Or champagne?"

My jaw must have dropped. She immediately interpreted. "No, of course, you are right. It is too early. School is tirink, you need sustenance. You will work with Olga, help her with her homework. She needs help."

I felt I should stick up for Olga but I was wary - I did not want to contradict her mother or be rude. I said, "Um, Mrs. Vernier, Olga is top of all the classes......." but she said, "Darlink, you should call me Lady Vernier, not Mrs Vernier. Didn't Olga tell you?" and she handed round some of the plates of tiny meatballs and pastry cakes.

The meal was really exquisite, rich and dainty, but it all became rather uncomfortable. Any topic of conversation which we started was somehow turned by Olga's mother to belittle us - or at least, to belittle Olga, as I seemed to be excluded from her rather scornful responses to everything. We were talking about the gym teacher and her method of teaching us to swing upside down. Lady Vernier said, "Darlinks, it is easy to do, what is it called? Ah yes, a gate vault. We learned to do that on horseback, much more difficult if your 'gate' is moving around, I can tell you. My riding teacher was very strict, Olga knows, darlink, don't you? He was an Irishman, Patrick Murphy. He taught all the White Russians." To me, she added, "You like lemon in your tea, darlink?" Then we talked about the new French text book we had been given, and Olga's mother said, "It is ridiculous trying to teach languages from books. They should start when children are small, and just speak to them. These books are for examiners, they cannot teach idiom. You should throw it away. Olga has learned nothing at that school, from books like this. Useless."

I was hoping she would go away and leave us to have this delicious tea in peace, but she had clearly decided to preside over the meal, and whatever subject we started she rapidly drove it into the ground. Then I noticed some photographs of a very pretty young boy and asked who he was. Olga said, in a very even tone of voice, "That's Maxim. My little brother."

Her mother beamed broadly at me, and patted her bosom with two or three affectionate little taps. "He is a musician, darlink. A very, very talented boy. A soloist."

I said "Oh, like Olga then. She plays solos in assembly, they - "

"Maxim" broke in Olga's mother, "Maxim is by far most talented child in whole family. Better than his cousins in France even though they are at Conservatoire. He has just won London Junior Performers Competition. He started at school, you know, boy's school up the hill, and that was only a year ago. He sang in Christmas concert and never looked back. He has remarkable range, and such deep voice for child. And he is still only ten years old. He is giving concert soon, at St Paul's."

"The cathedral?" I asked. This seemed extraordinary.

"No, no darlink. St Paul's, Covent Garden. He is singing with symphony orchestra...." and she gazed affectionately at me, as if I had hit on her favourite subject. "He takes after my side of family, so beautiful, not like Olga who is just like her father's sister, and really not an ounce of talent, but Maxim, he is genuine little star. We have high hopes of him, don't we, darlink?"

Olga nodded, with a frozen look on her face. I was trying to think how to bring this Mozart of a brother down to size, to make more room for my friend. I said, "I suppose, being a boy, there is only a limited time he can sing like that before his voice breaks."

Mama said, looking at me, "I can see you understand problem we have. And you are right, darlink, we have to establish him and create recordinks to make sure he captures his audience. He has to appear with right ensembles. We have entered him in competitions all around country and he has never failed to win top prize. Blackpool, Milton Keynes, Weston-super-Mare. He has sung in front of two thousand people. Of course he specialises in Russian repertoire, Rachmaninov, Glinka, Tchaikovski......"

Would she never stop? I was feeling so bad for Olga, and she was making silent signs to me across the table that we should leave the meal and the room. But her mother noticed. "Olga, your friend is very clever. She knows how these things work. She would not disagree with her mother as you do......" It was hateful, the way she was comparing us, and there seemed nothing we could do except acquiesce in her dominance of the conversation. It had become a rout, and the moment the tea was over we fled to Olga's room, taking our satchels with us.

Our easy companionship had been fractured, however, and we spent some time just picking things up and putting them down. I found an ornament which had a maker's mark underneath which said 'Limoges', which name I pronounced 'Lime-oh-gees' which thank God had the effect of making Olga laugh. We started mis-naming everything in the room, pile-ow, hayndlee, wah-droob, roogue, my-roar, wal, sigh-lin-gee. This process of of re-ordering the world brought us back together, and we settled down to look at her jewellery. She had some old boxes made of leather which opened with sturdy little click-catches. The insides were lined with shining silky fabric, folded and caught up in pleats. There was some writing, in Russian. "Fabergé", she said, pointing out the script to me. Each box held a little golden egg, enamelled and with tiny lacework patterns traced onto it, all in different colours. They were beautiful, and we held in them in our hands for a few moments. One had pearls set into it, all the way round. She had a diamond bracelet with matching earrings, all the sparkling stones surrounded with tiny emeralds. We tried them on, trying to imagine what we might look like when not crammed into school uniform. Olga said she wore these things at Christmas, but not otherwise. They had belonged to her grandmother, she said. Our two fat flat little faces stared back at us out of her huge gold-framed mirror, her hair hanging lankly down, and mine scraped back into its ponytail with whispy bits escaping around my forehead. We each had spots, and used her Clearasil to dab over our blemishes. The room was quite large and naturally it too had a fitted carpet, unlike my own which had a thin rug surrounded by splintery black boards. We lay down on her floor and stretched out all our arms and legs to see how far we could reach. Olga grabbed my hand, and said "Round and round the garden. Like a teddy bear. One step, two step, and tickley under there", diving for my armpit, so we squealed and rolled over, she trying to tickle me, and I trying to get a dig in to her in revenge, and this lasted for a few moments till the door silently swung open and Olga's mother stood there, looking disgusted.

"Olga!" she hissed, and then threw something in Russian at her daughter. We crawled back up to standing. She said to me "Darlink, I am so sorry, you should not have to endure this sort of thing. Olga must apologise, she is not to be trusted." Then she reverted to Russian, and Olga, blushing crimson said to me "I am sorry I tried to tickle you and pushed you over." And I did not know what to say or where to stand, but I stood as close as I could next to Olga and said, "Oh, really I don't mind, we were just playing. It was just a game. It's alright." And she said "Olga, you see how generous your friend is, she is so kind. Alright, young lady, you had better do some work now", and she left us again, standing silently in the middle of the room.

"God, Olga, never mind. I don't mind." She threw me a look, and started to spread her workbooks out over the table by the window. "Come on,' she said. "Let's do some fucking maths then."

For an hour or so we sat, side by side, working through the quadratic equations, settling down into the pleasure of the solutions and barely saying a word. Then along the length of the carpeted corridor we heard Lady Vernier crying out a welcome as someone - clearly Maxim - arrived home. Olga did not move from her work. Then, after another short while, I heard the clicks and ticks of a gramophone record starting very loudly, something orchestral, presumably in one of the great open drawing-rooms at the front of the apartment, and a strange deep hoarse voice billowed out in accompaniment. Maxim was practising his songs.

2589 words

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Comments by other Members

rogernmorris at 14:43 on 02 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Griselda, well, you hooked me in and captivated me with this right from the start. It has a leisurely, slightly old-fashioned style, which seems right for the story somehow. The characters, Olga's mother and father particularly, seem to come from another era, and the style also seems appropriate to the idea of the girls' school. It's a kind of a genteel style, is what I mean. But also very personable, with a real sense of the narrator.

A general feeling I had was it took a little to settle down - and there was a lot of background stuff, set-up rather than story, at the beginning. The kind of thing that would work at the beginning of a massive novel, but feels a little too much in a short story. Also I got a bit lost on the prize-giving day. That may have been me, but I was having trouble with the flashbacky aspect of it.

Overall, though, I thought you really captured the mood of this period of adolescence beautifully - loved the picking up and putting down of objects, the saying things wrong, the tickling, the weird tense dynamic between the friends and Olga's mother. Olga's mother is a brilliant creation, by the way. I have nothing to back this up, but she seems authentically Russian to me!

I kind of forgot the premise and the promise of the title (Boy Wonder) and was a little bit surprised that you held that back so long. It was kind of like, oh, yeah, it's about the brother, when he started to be mentioned. So I wondered if you could have some kind of intimation of Maxim's existence/presence right from the start. Maybe a studio portrait (photo or even in oils of him when he was maybe a few years younger?) in pride of place in the entrance hall.

I didn't spot many typo type things. Apart from one sentence where you have the word 'dull' twice.

Thanks for posting it. I really enjoyed it.


Griselda at 14:53 on 02 February 2006  Report this post
Hallo Roger
Well,thank you very much for that critique, very useful. I will have a real hard think about what you say. Actually I think you're right!

darrenm at 15:16 on 02 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Griselda,

I agree with Roger. I've read your story twice and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I reached the end you describe Maxim's 'strange deep hoarse voice' I assumed his voice had broken (to the joy of the girls) but on second reading find the mother commenting on his deep voice anyway, so not sure.

There is a wonderful atmosphere about the whole story, obviously the Russian aspect is a great contribution to this.

The characters are very realistic, and are drawn out skilfully (are they real? your intro seems to suggest so). The mother in particular I feel I know personally after reading.

You've stressed that the boy is pretty and Olga is ugly, which seems to suggest that behind the mother's front she is very superficial, showing preference to Maxim purely on the basis of looks and ignoring the true genius of the family.

I enjoyed the humour too.

The headmistress..

..flapping her academic gown around her as if the parade of latent sexuality behind her could be literally extinguished like some vapid candleflame.' is hilarious

and also the mother..

"My darlink, you want tea? Or champagne?"
My jaw must have dropped. She immediately interpreted. "No, of course, you are right. It is too early.

How old are the girls by the way? I imagined around 15.

I also liked how the girls assumed the art teacher to be a lesbian because she allowed smoking after hours!

There are some weird symbols in the second paragraph and in the scene in Olga's bedroom. I'm assuming these are russian words that haven't formatted properly.

I thought maybe Patrick Murphy was a bit too cliched for an Irishman, or is this irony that I'm missing?!

A couple of lines towards the end jarred a little:

I found an ornament which had a maker's mark underneath which said 'Limoges', which name I pronounced 'Lime-oh-gees' which thank God had the effect of making Olga laugh.

..do you need 'name' in 'which name I pronounced'? And also you use the word 'which' four times in this line. What about something like:

I found an ornament with a maker's mark underneath that said 'Limoges', which I pronounced 'Lime-oh-gees'; thank God this had the effect of making Olga laugh.

Of course it's your story, so feel free to disagree!!

Also, the girl's 'fat, flat little faces' seemed a bit of a tongue twister!

But apart from these minor picks its hard to fault a great story and welcome to the group.


Griselda at 15:28 on 02 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren

Thank you for this, and again I think you are picking up really good points which I had not particularly noticed.

I am so glad to be in this group! Thanks!

I don't know why the formatting is so odd, compatibility with my Mac? Not sure what to do about it. I did notice it but had no idea what to do. It does get in the way though.

This is not really autobiographical in terms of the characters, though I did go to a school like that. The girsl are 14 in my mind, still just about pre-pubescent. The mother is purely imagined. Patrick Murphy actually is real, long dead now...but he was very Irish and did teach the White Russians how to ride.

I will do some more work on this, cutting it a bit I think. Perhaps I can do this over the weekend.


Becca at 17:44 on 02 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Griselda,
I enjoyed reading this very much, there were some lovely descriptions, and the Lady Vernier character who came out just through the dialogue seemed really credible and solid.
Is this a short story or part of a novel? That it ends with the entrance of Maxim seems to imply more to come. I also liked the lurking humour behind it, ... Milton Keynes, and fucking maths.
I would say though, that it reads more like a narrative account, or part of a memoir, than like a 'story'. I don't know if you know what I mean by that, but here you've got really rich material to make a dramatic story from. Maybe thinking about the central theme of Lady Vernier's treatment of her daughter, and over-love of her son, you could create a very shapely and interesting story out of it. The set up reminds me of a Henry James scenario, I was thinking of 'The Pupil.'
Even if this was a real experience, I think it's worth manipulating the material into a more story-like form.
(I was just reading the other crits before posting this and see that in your reply to Darren, you say the mother is imaginary, Well done you!)

Account Closed at 08:06 on 03 February 2006  Report this post
I love the description in this and also the density of it - there's a lot packed in a short space! I did think it ought to be the start of a novel, when maybe you could ease out some of the tensions a little more? The 2 girls are great characters!



Griselda at 08:36 on 03 February 2006  Report this post
Wow, I am really impressed. This is the only place I have ever offered up any work for scrutiny, which is scary but - due to all your remarks - turns out to be ok!

I am finding it very useful to hear both the 'wide-view' responses (short story/novel?) and the detail ('which' 4 times in one sentence, aagh!).

I WAS partly thinking of Olga as a central(?) character for a longer work....later in 'my' life I have her living in a box on a beach, based on something I read in the newspapers about 15 years ago, so maybe this really is the start of a novel. I also want to do lots more with Lady Vernier who I see as a real baddie. She is the sort of person who might take the whole project by the neck and end up running the show. I have met very powerful glitterers like her and I was interested in the damage they do to people around them.

You have given me a lot to think about.


Becca at 10:10 on 03 February 2006  Report this post
It really does sound like interesting material Griselda, love the box on the beach and the destructive mother figure. Could a longer work, a novel, be about the relationship between the daughter and the mother?
Writing about parents as they really are rather than what we learn through experience to pretend about them is always interesting to readers. 'Running with Scissors' comes to mind, or 'Reckless Driver.' Or, a lot of Lorrie Moore's work, (brilliant short story writer, - 'Birds of America').

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