The Boggart of Boggart Hole High
-Foreword from your writer-
For the sake of clarity, I wanted to make a brief disclaimer about narrative voice. Last week, when we were sat around picking out the folded prompts from the prompt box, discussing the pieces we were going to write for each other next, I made a pretty outrageous claim. Do you remember? We were sat under the window, our bellies full from a late lunch, and each reading aloud the fresh stimuli in our best dramatic voices. Suitably smug with the three prompts I had been given, it would appear my cockiness knew no bounds. Before I could stop myself; a vague idea that had not yet fully formed in my head was now spurting out of my mouth, at a disconcertingly fast rate, I was saying…
“I’m going to write my story in the fourth person”
Yep, that’s what I said, and I regretted it even before I’d seen the sentence through to the end. Because you don’t need A level English to know that fourth person does not exist. How the hell did I intend to write my story in the fourth person? And the worst part is, I was announcing my prospective ‘fourth person narrative’ to the toughest crowd of all: a group of Modern languages students. With specialised knowledge of grammar tables pertaining to the French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, Norwegian and English lexicons, there was no way in hell you guys were going to let me get away with it. And so: my statement was met with stupefied looks. I was rummaging for quick solutions in my head, to no avail. Fourth person narrative? What’s that like vosotros? No, that’s 2nd person plural, joder. Oo I know, like ‘nous’ or ‘on’ in French, like the detached ‘we’ or – no,no that’s just 1st person plural isn’t it. Putain, I was fucked.
A few desperate google wormholes later that afternoon, and I found myself privy to a depressing reddit forum, in which various internet trolls were fighting for the existence/ non-existence of the elusive ‘fourth person.’ According to the grammar nerds, there was no such thing. But, a couple of discussion threads later, after very almost crossing the dangerous threshold into the dark-web (and anyone who knows the current state of my virused laptop can appreciate that as a pretty reckless move) I finally found what I was looking for. A quote from some semiotician, spouting exactly the right kind of shit about different grammatical perspectives that I wanted to hear. He wrote in a trustworthy cursive font and said something along the lines of
Note on the fourth person: among Algonquian and Salishan languages, the speakers have been known to divide the category of third person into two parts: proximate for a more topical third person, and obviative for a less topical third person. The obviative is sometimes referred to as the fourth person.
Although I so wanted Mr Semiotician to be my shiny saviour/ my golden key to the fourth person party, his quote could not satisfy me. It was way too tenuous, I had no idea what obviative meant, for starters, and the fact that it was only ‘sometimes’ made passing reference to as ‘fourth person’ meant all hope was lost.
So I slam shut my laptop in frustration. The internet can’t help me, now, I conceded. Besides, my desktop screen had just frozen with another Richard Branston pop-up. Branston, ever the mascot to my misery, met me with goading eyes: ‘Call yourself a language student’, he seemed to taunt. I just had to figure this one out on my own. So, back to square one, then.
Where were we? Oh yes: sitting around the prompt box in the afternoon sunlight, and I have just promised to write a story in the fourth person. Okay. The Fourth person? But the fourth person doesn’t exist. Right.
What if, though, and hear me out on this one, we allowed ourselves a moments’ break from reality? A genuine holiday from the monotony of grammar class, where the dictionary rules with an iron fist and empirical truth exists in the form of language formulas. What if- (that’s right girls, put on those subjunctive hats, your writer is expressing doubt/conjecture/possibility) what if the fourth person did exist, once upon a time? And all the verb tables we were forced to write at school were just propagating this big fat conspiracy. Who was the fourth person? Why is no one willing to discuss it anymore? A pretty sweet premise for a short story, don’t you think?
Chapter one: Kimmy
Kimmy was the new kid at school. She was seventeen, characteristically uncooperative and resentful about having to transfer mid-semester. Her mum, a lunch lady by profession, had recently been promoted to the title of Head Cook at Boggart Hole High. Part of her mum’s new contract meant that Kimmy, fulfilling the role of ‘child of eligible high-school age,’ was granted free admission to the school, an exclusive upstate language academy. Sounds like she had landed on her feet, right? The issue was this: Kimmy herself couldn’t see the need for change. Why leave New York proper for a faint imitation of city life in some stuck-up suburb? Sure, they said she had fallen in with the wrong crowd in Brooklyn Heights, and that this was her last chance to start afresh. To put things right before another spell in juvie or worse, real jail. Like her mum readily assured her, transferring schools was a deal too goddamn sweet to turn down. As part of the new initiative set up by the principal, hoping to nip the reputation of the Boggart Hole High’s elitism; Kimmy was able to enrol sans entrance fees or admissions exams.
Her first day was a crisp morning in late Autumn, Kimmy’s least favourite kind of weather; where the blue sky is cloudless but the sharp wind fills your tear ducts and ruins your eyeliner. She parked her beaten up Cadillac in the staff parking lot, and because she was a teen rebel, sparked up a cigarette, before regarding the monstrosity before her. Boggart Hole High was a towering eyesore, constructed in the 19th century on the grounds of Boggart Hole Clough: a national park that boasted 190 acres of protected woodland. The building itself was typical of the Gilded age, and its stony verandas and bright white enclaves mirrored all the other porticos of all the other upstate mansions. Kimmy, never one to go in for actual articulation, opted for a disapproving eye-roll and a sad-girl grimace at the aesthetic pretensions of Boggart Hole High. Everything from its conceited colonial-style columns and ostentatious staircase- a poorman’s version of the Met Steps- made her cringe. Observing the freshly-coiffed staff that were presently dismounting their suitably flashy vehicles around her, the external décor was in line with the general poor taste of the place.
Trying not to take any notice, she couldn’t help earwigging a brash phone conversation of one of the aforementioned professors. Whilst fumbling for the keys to his Ferrari trunk, his obnoxious chat jumped from French, Arabic and Portuguese before reverting to Kimmy’s own New Yorker drawl. All of that was just showing off, surely? Her mum had warned her, and so had the school’s shiny brochure- “Boggart Hole High is an academy dedicated to the linguistics endeavours of its small student body”- as a general rule, pupils were expected to dominate at least three languages before admission. This was the catch; Kimmy had just about a grip on elementary Spanish. Even then, it was not her forte, by any means. Despite her political objection to end-of-year exams and consequentially low GPA, she considered herself as an English literature kind of girl and when pushed, could even tolerate a bit of light dramatics. Languages, not so much, she didn’t have the time to conjugate irregular verbs. Anyway, so, that was the background to Kimmy’s predicament. Her scholarship status meant she was entering the real unknown with this one; and if she had given two shits, severely risked catching imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome of the Monoglot Charlatan variety.
Principal Grogski had assigned Kimmy with a ‘buddy’ to help her settle in. Joewas waiting patiently at the front steps for her, clutching his Bescherelle and a matching brown-nosers’ grin. “Buon giorno, you must be Kimmy,” he lent in and graced her with a quick kiss on the cheek. “The name’s Joe, pleased to meet you,” She grumbled some inadequate response, embarrassed by his enthusiasm “Grogski’s got me showing you the ropes, then. So its your first day, huh?”
He was chatty, Kimmy realised the school day had already begun, the first things she learned was Joe was an Italian major, a sophomore specialising in Italian and Spanish. “ But I’m learning French now too, you see” and gestured to his French grammar guide clutched under his arm, with such gusto he managed to elbow Kimmy in the ribs.
They walked down the main corridor together, and with his free hand, Joe proceeded to gesticulate in self-styled Neapolitan fashion. “ To your left we have the Scandinavian wing, then here we have the Classics department, then on your right the centre for the Ancient languages of modern India : its mainly Sanskrit and Tamil, but there’s talk of trialling out a course in Hindi next semester, only for seniors of course,” They turned a corner and the hallway opened out onto a larger thoroughfare for staff and students. Kimmy noticed that the ratio was off, there were way more professors than kids rushing to class before the bell. Joe, meanwhile, seemed in no hurry at all, and resumed his guided tour with the leisurely ease of a well-oiled air-hostess.
“Down there, on your right, is the school of Isolated Languages: Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, take your pick; this next block is Middle Eastern Studies, and the one after that is Hausa, Ibo and Yoruba. I keep telling Principal Grogski they should put all the different classrooms in alphabetical order- it’s like they are purposefully making it hard for us, right?” Joe’s upward inflection woke Kimmy up from her haze, and his question mark hung in the air like a weight, as he met her distant stare. This whole place was absurd. Boggart Hole High, so this is what is looked like on this inside, huh? Yeah, super-accessible for your average teen, Kimmy thought to herself. It was simultaneously vast and impressive and yet shockingly quiet and underwhelming. She bluntly told him she needed to know where the Spanish class was, because according to her printed timetable, that’s where she was due to spend first period.
What Kimmy really wanted to know, though, was the location of the cafeteria, or better yet, the girls’ restrooms. She wanted nothing more than to march up to her mum at the food counter, amongst the sea of other lunch ladies, and inform them all of her of her imminent departure. That she was leaving, that this was a stupid idea anyway, before escaping to the furthest stall of the girls’ restrooms with a depressing lunch-tray of her mum’s signature Barfaroni and Lies, lock the door and cry all her eyeliner off. In that moment she was saved by the bell, saved from her own dark fantasies that, in Boggart Hole High, were relegated to the realm of subjunctive or conditional clauses. And so, the shrill of the school-bell retrieved her from the parallel universe and pushed her back into the one where she was standing opposite her well-meaning ‘buddy’. He was smiling a smile that seemed to say ‘lighten up, the average Joe is doing just fine’. Besides, he was way too conscientious to let her ruin her eyeliner on the first day. And then he started actually talking. “Spanish class, gee, Sure! So, you’re a Romance girl then. Well, would you look at that, I’m heading that direction too, come on, it’s just up here, look.”
And with those words, Kimmy was at once grateful to this strange Principal Grogski, and actually glad for the buddy scheme that sent her Joe. Yes, his relentless optimism made her cringe, and maybe he did represent everything she loathed about aspirational capitalist America. But she was at Boggart Hole High now, and she decided, you know what? She liked this Joe guy, after all.
Chapter Two: Joe
Joe took the desk next to Kimmy. Their lateness was met with the understanding nod of Prof. Sanchez, who had been anticipating their arrival. The classroom was private feeling, more like a studio office than a school: done out with warm toned feature walls, a mosaiced floor tiling evocative of Andalucía, completed by a pair of Moorish bookshelves boasting various Spanish-language tomes, amongst which a first edition Cervantes’. The handful of oak desks faced to outwardly form an open circle shape at the back of the room; the middle of which presided by the standing professor. It was a tiny group, only five of them, including Prof. Sanchez. Kimmy wondered where all the other students were. After a few introductory words for Kimmy’s benefit, he resumed his spiel about the importance of knowing ones’ grammar tables inside out.
Without paying any actual attention to his monologue about Spanish grammar, Kimmy found Prof. Sanchez’s straight-forward approach refreshing. At her old high school, she was sick to death of teachers trying get down with the kids about Nirvana or “sticking it to the man”, suddenly pulling a guitar out of the cupboard school-of-rock-style when “all that learning got a bit boring.” She would take pretending to listen to Prof. Sanchez any day over enduring any more abuse of the words “chill out,” “awesome sauce” or worst of all, “just call me Casey, I abhor that whole ‘Mr.’ label.” Meanwhile, Joe was listening to the monologue on Spanish grammar. It was a speech that he had become intimately familiar with. Principal Grogski obliged every teacher to deliver it with frequency, especially in the presence of new students. The rules, as patronising as they sounded when repeated aloud went like this:
|First person plural
|Nosotros / nosotras
|Second person plural
|Vosotros / vosotras
|Third person plural
|PROGRESS IS SACRIFICE // ONLY THEN WILL YOU HOLD THE KEY TO FLUENCY
As usual, the fourth person was highlighted in elusive gold but the box was filled in blank where simple pronouns should have been. It was common knowledge in order to master a language, one needed the ability to comprehend the fourth person with ease. Its comprehension was a right that students needed to earn, a gift of knowledge granted only after they had made the sufficient commitment and sacrifice to their education. They were told the fourth person was the key to all languages; not another useless tidbit like trying to gage the French literary past tense (which frankly wasn’t worth the effort). No, no, the fourth person was at once totally elusive and universally indispensable.
A brief pause as Prof. Sanchez’s stopped to look at his watch and Joe took this is as his cue. He started up with a fluency that would have been enviable if not for his accent: because he spoke Spanish with the same overconfident drawl he did his New Yorker English:
“ Disculpe señor, pero tengo una pregunta para ústed. ¿ústed no cree que ya estamos listos? Porque yo sí lo creo. Después de tanto tiempo trabajando así, me siento bien preparado para la cuarta persona.”
Joe peered over his shoulder at Kimmy; she obviously was not following the conversation at all. Whilst maintaining eye contact with the professor, he gestured for her to read a page form his daily planner, specifically the asterisked reference at the Principal’s Message for all Boggart Hole High School Students’. Underneath there was a translation from the original Latin into English. Whilst he resumed his debacle with Prof. Sanchez; Kimmy began silently reading in the voice of the mysterious Principal.
–In order to reach efficacy within a language, students must have a key understanding of the fourth person. The fourth person, more of a philosophical than grammatical component; encapsulates the element of oneself that is sacrificed each time they endeavour for dominion over a new tongue. Its comprehension cannot learned from textbooks; but through action alone. Progress is sacrifice.–
The two other students were eager to join in the grammar chat. But it was all gibberish to her. The mysteries of language learning didn’t reveal themselves to Kimmy: not during the Spanish seminar, nor in the equally empty second class, intermediate Italian. By lunchtime, she had reverted to her sullen and uncommunicative state. Joe figured Kimmy must have had a really rough time in her old school. She was quirky looking, alright. But he had watched enough teen romcoms to know that if you take the glasses off of someone like Kimmy, they immediately become super-attractive; the cheerleaders and jocks had probably just resented her for it. That’s what Joe liked about Boggart Hole High: it was quiet, peaceful and devoid of both varsity jackets or the muscle-bound meatheads that wore them. He wanted nothing more to re-assure Kimmy that she was in safe hands, however he knew deep down that would be lying. And he didn’t want to lie to his new friend.But, if nothing else, Boggart Hole High, was at least free from prom-kings, mean girls, surprise wedgies and the dreaded locker-room towel snap.
Only just convincing her to grab lunch with him in the Cafeteria, Joe found himself harangued by the hair-netted matron they all called Ma’am as she bellowed over the serving counter “Hey Sweet Cheeks- give us a smile.” Although endeared by the request, Joe quickly realised it was directed as his new friend, rather than himself. Kimmy retorted with a teenage scowl that seemed to say ‘Shut up, mom.’
Chapter Three: Kimmy’s Mum
Kimmy’s mum was still adjusting to the rhythm of her new working life at Boggart Hole High. Needless to say, it was unlike any other cafeteria she had staffed before. Despite the kitchen’s deluxe prep stations, marble work surfaces and walk-in fridges, it was always a struggle getting lunch served on time. It was mid-semester and they were already severely understaffed, thanks to the stress of Principal Grogski’s International restaurant-style expectations, and each week demanded that the cooks mastered a completely new cuisine. Amongst the remaining dinner ladies, there was an atmosphere of distrust, thanks to the fact that essential items would routinely go missing from the kitchen. A vat of sugar and pickled cucumbers one day, a stockpile of bread-flour the next. The tomatoes would roll off the surface, the milk would turn sour, and Kimmy’s mum was running out of people to blame for leaving the fridge door open.
Kimmy and Joe had collected their trays from the salad bar. They had joined the back of the small cluster of students and professors serenely awaiting their allotted hot slop from the tilted ladel of Kimmy’s Mum. She could hardly call it a cue- compared to her old school cafeteria, what lay before her was as quiet as a cemetery, (like the silent section of a cemetery). Where was everyone else? It made Kimmy cringe to see how her mum stood out as a ruddy faced and heavy- armed labourer in this select group of metropolitan elite, inaudibly chattering away in their unintelligable toungues. She was aproned, sweaty, heavy-handed and hardly about to interrupt a conversation about radical-stem changing verbs and lack of lexical tone in Swahili. Which is why it astounded Kimmy so much to hear her mum pronounce in perfect Malay: “saa-ma saa-ma” when Joe thanked her for his curry laksa “Te-ree-mah ka-she.” Apparently it was Malaysian week and the Principal encouraged everyone pick up some new phrases. Amused, Kimmy pointed mutely to the fried rice she wanted but, to her disappointment, received nothing more than a knowing wink from her mum. And then, in a language that she did understand, “Add a bit of salt to that, hun.”
When the pair finally sat down with their lunch, Kimmy tried diverting any attention that may have been sparked after her all-too-familiar interaction with the head cook. She sure as hell didn’t want it common knowledge that matron ma’am was her, well, ma’am. And so she started to grill Joe, using her inside voice, which even then bounced off the surfaces of their long empty table. The first thing she thought to ask about was Boggart Hole High’s reputation. Although wincing past the tang of his Malaysian style beef curry- the coconut milk was especially sour- Joe was happy to comply and began enlightening his buddy.
“Well, I’m so glad you asked, Kimmy. Our reputation, huh? What you mean with the old story? The Boggart of Boggart Hole Clough? That’s folklore, nothing to do with the school. But sure, we have a reputation, we get shat on by the board of governors, because you could call this mode of education unconventional, I guess. Boggart Hole High is the only place that guarantees that its students can become fluent in a language. Be it immersion or just the go-get-‘em attitude that’s here. The teachers just get us. They have their own kind of philosophy, Kimmy. Because learning a language is all about discipline. And sacrifice too.”
He stopped to take a swig of his black americano, and Kimmy couldn’t help but find this laughable. ‘Nothing said Malaysian cuisine like a cup Joe, Joe’, she wanted to say but he was talking at her again. This time with caffeinated fervour.
“It’s all in the fourth person. That’s why we are all here, after all, no? That’s the beauty of it- progress is sacrifice and all that. Learning a language is giving up a small part of yourself to a whole ‘nother world- it’s a way of taking your personality and pasting it onto a different universe of possibilities. Just think about the Principal’s message in the-”
And as if saying the name out loud manifested the image of the person, the half-empty cafeteria was at once filled with the booming voice on the overhead tannoy. The effect was disconcerting and disruptive.
“This is your principal speaking, could Kimmy Malone please report to the principal’s office. That’s Kimmy Malone in my office, pronto, thank you.”
She stood up and everyone present looked at her. Everyone being Joe, and the collective of about 12 students and teachers that together resembled a meeting of model UN society. They stopped their whispered chatter, and as Kimmy handed back her lunch tray and reached for the sleeve of her leather jacket, her mum shot a brave smile her way. Joe seemed truly shaken by the announcement. Without imparting a single reassuring word, Kimmy followed the direction of his outstretched arm towards the awaiting Principal Grogski.
Chapter four: Principal Grogski
Enroute to the principal’s office, Kimmy reflected on her experience thus far at Boggart Hole High. Nothing really had happened on her first day and yet she found the whole atmosphere exhausting. Within a couple of hours, reassuring herself, she would be driving down the highway home. Making the journey alone in the world; the cold wind on the steering wheel, her favourite mix-tape on the stereo and no one there to make her turn it down. She would be free once again. Because she didn’t feel quite herself here. Perhaps the solitude of the corridors made her long for some clamorous reminder that this was a high school. The noise of the cheer-leading squad maybe, the potheads, the inner-city dweebs flooding through the double doors. Only then would Kimmy be satisfied with her fill of nostalgic disdain that made her feel truly herself. She missed listening in on the insincere heart-to-hearts, the loud locker-side DMCs. The inane Newyorksisms of her old classmates, whether she despised them or not, were sorely lacking at this school. If she could even consider Boggart Hole High Hole a school, with hardly any students left, it was more of an upstate mansion. She indulged herself in thinking up the conversations she would hear:
‘You want me to schlep all the way from Central Park to Chinatown for a party? Forget about it!! Fuh-ged-a-boud-it! I’m taking the subway.’
‘I can’t believe he charged me a buck and a half for a cup of ice.’
‘You better get used to it- that’s New York, New York, baby’
After an indefinite period of time spent trawling aimlessly, Kimmy had found herself in a part of the school that Joe had not yet shown her. Past the department of Isolated languages, past the department of Dead languages even. Quieter than normal, there was nothing to be heard on the cold corridor tiles but the soft crunch of air-wear leather soles. At the far end of the hall, with her back to the veranda doors that was signposted ‘exitus,’ a woman stood smiling at Kimmy. From a distance, she was of indeterminable age and very neat in appearance. Despite the incoming breeze from an open window, the woman’s blonde-bobbed perm was still, disconcertingly so, thought Kimmy, in a way that no amount of hairspray can achieve in real life. Her powder pink two-piece suit was pristine, as was her matching lipstick. As Kimmy approached, the woman uttered the words that no one ever wants to hear outside the context of a James Bond movie:
“I’ve been expecting you.” And the door shut behind them.
The surfaces of Principal Grogski’s office were draped in lacy doyleys, and several vases of preserved roses stood on crocheted coverings around the room. One wall housed a collection of ornamental plates, each decorated with a large technicolor kitten wearing a ribboned bow around its neck. The principal’s high heeled court shoes went silent as she walked from the office door to her desk on the well-maintained cream carpet. Following suit, Kimmy sat herself down awkwardly on the opposing chair. Trying not to stare too hard at the creepy décor, Kimmy chose a spot on her own grubby boots and fixated on it, only to discover a small cat purring at her feet. Its bed was under the desk, and there it lay sprawled out. If Principal Grogski was a supervillain, then she had to be a lousy one; her evil cat was totally lame, with a floppy leg, only one eye and a shortened tail. In other words, not menacing at all. The childish thought made Kimmy smirk; she wasn’t scared of anyone; besides, she had dealt with her fair share of self-important teachers. So she lifted her chin and met Principal Grogski’s gaze.
“What that, sweetie? More of a dog person? That’s fine. We can work with that. So, tell me. What’s the deal Kimmy Malone?” Kimmy felt her whole entity was being surveyed “It’s a cute look. The jacket, the DMs. I hope they’re not real leather. You’re just not like those other girls, huh?” but before Kimmy had time to hide her reaction or search for something to say, Principal Grogski was picking out bubble-gum from her lip-lined mouth, disposing it in a sliding compartment draw of her desk, and lighting up a pastel-coloured vogue.
“Listen kid,” she puffed, “I know what you’re thinking. You haven’t got a chance here. How are you, Kimmy Malone, supposed to graduate from a place like Boggart Hole High? If I were you, I would be asking the same thing. You don’t speak any languages; you don’t care to learn any. You didn’t even want to come here in the first place. Your mum made you, right? A past history of juvie and anti-social-behaviour. How could she say no? It was such a good deal, no entrance fees/ no admissions exams- because you sure as hell weren’t going to pass any.”
The following series of events happened as quickly as this. The office door swings off its hinges, Joe crashes through with his heart beating out of his chest. Panting, he yells “I’ve changed my mind. Grab your Jacket, Kimmy, we’re leaving” In her struggle, Kimmy steps on the lame cat who lets out a disgusting shriek, comes inches away from the sour-milk breath of Grogski. Narrowly escaping the principal’s fiery clutch, losing a few strands of hair in the process, Kimmy arm reaches Joe’s and the clatter of their footsteps fill the empty corridor. When they reach the parking lot and scramble into the beaten-up Cadillac, Joe gives the simple demand “Drive.”
Only once they can make out the Brooklyn Bridge ahead in the distance does it cross their minds to put on some music. Their hands meet over the old Nirvana CD rattling around on the dash board. “Such a fucking cliché” Kimmy says, and Joe breaks into a grin as well, their laughter soon concealed by the racket of the City. ***