The Hunchback of Sacred Heart
© Copyright 2021 by Iris Leona Marie Cross
Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels
On my bookshelf is a 1,095-page tome I was awarded in 1969 for coming first in the Cambridge Royal College of Music practical exam, grade six. Its tattered sleeve and torn pages brown with age hold so many memories. Among the abiding memories is a most humiliating experience suffered at the dark, wrinkly hands of my music teacher, Miss Millicent Roberts.
Miss Roberts looked ancient. She was at least as old as my great-aunts Gigi and Sugar and they were sixty-something. An unmarried, independent woman, Millicent Roberts together with her younger sister, Maude Hughes, ran the most successful music school in the country, Rockley’s School of Music.
Twice a week on afternoons after school, I trudged to Rockley’s, a block away, for piano lessons. My widowed mother, an accomplished pianist, felt her two children should learn to play the musical instrument she loved. Every month she withdrew money from her modest bank savings so my older sister and I could be taught by the best, Miss Millicent Roberts.
Millicent, Maude, and their younger sibling Lewellyn, a top barrister, shared a magnificent two-storey property with maid's quarters at the back and a beautiful, well-kept flower garden at the front. Maude gave violin lessons upstairs while Millicent had her piano lessons studio downstairs, adjacent to the spacious living room which housed a treasured possession – Millicent's Steinway & Sons grand piano – to be used only on grand occasions such as the annual Students’ Evening.
Once a year, girls in white dresses and boys in white, long sleeve, starched shirts and black trousers performed piano or violin solos for their proud parents. Girls curtseyed before and after their performance; boys bowed. Miss Roberts inculcated in all students who passed through Rockley’s doors her notions of civility and respect. We were expected to say “Good Afternoon Miss Roberts” when we arrived and “Goodbye Miss Roberts” when we were about to leave. In return, Miss Roberts nodded. Talent scouts, island-wide, visited the renowned music school in search of outstanding, gifted young pianists and violinists to showcase.
“Good to see you again Miss Roberts. How are you?” said the glamorous-looking woman with scooped-out dimples who, minutes before, had exited a chauffeur-driven car. We students, seated in Miss Roberts’ porch awaiting lessons, recognized her immediately.
“That’s Hazel Ward!” we whispered to one another, celebrity struck. Hazel Ward hosted the popular children’s TV program Twelve and Under that launched the entertainment careers of many girls and boys in the country. Was she looking for another rising star? Who would Miss Roberts select?
Nosy-parker students like me jumped out of our chairs and poked our heads through the open door leading from the porch to the piano lessons studio. Hazel Ward stood chatting while Miss Roberts sat in her dark brown, varnished, wooden rocking chair next to the Bentley piano, nodding in acknowledgement at whatever was being proposed. At the piano, a panic-stricken boy played Bach's Minuet in G Major, no doubt begging his fingers to “please land on the correct notes.” He couldn’t afford to receive another whack on his knuckles with Miss Roberts’ favorite accessory – her long, slender bamboo stick– worse yet, in front of none other than Hazel Ward!
“I’ll get back to you by tomorrow,” Miss Roberts said as she rose from the rocking chair to escort her visitor back to the waiting car.
“She’s coming!” I warned. En masse, we rushed to our seats. No one wanted to be at the receiving end of Miss Roberts’ trusty bamboo stick, her constant companion. I had practised my scales and piano piece every day since my last lesson to avoid becoming a victim. I’ll be damned if I let inquisitiveness undo my hard work. That bamboo stick stung.
For sure, Miss Roberts was feared. Students stood at attention when she cracked her multifunctional stick. It was used to bruise knuckles (punishment for striking the wrong piano key), keep time like a metronome, and maintain discipline. Eyes closed and head bobbing up and down, Miss Roberts focused on each student’s performance waiting for a slip of the finger. If chattering students dared to disturb her concentration, she shouted “Shush! Quiet!” while hitting the stick on the terrazzo floor with extreme force.
Boys and girls developed laryngitis on the spot when Miss Roberts asked a question, even if the question was as simple as: “What’s your name?” I too quaked. Seldom did she call me by my first name, which I didn’t mind because I never liked that name anyway. For the love of God (and my parents were deeply religious; missionaries), why did a nine year old have to be saddled with a grandma’s name? Maybe Miss Roberts wasn't fond of the name either since she chose to call me by my surname or an alias which I found unpalatable, uncharitable, embarrassing and hurtful.
“Fatty Watty where were you last week?”
“I had asthma Miss Roberts,” I replied, trembling and praying to the Almighty for my answer to be accepted. She remembered I suffered from asthma. She nodded as if to say Okay, you’re off the hook, while making sucking noises to dislodge the biscuit crumbs stuck between her teeth.
On afternoons Miss Roberts’ maid (in apron and cap) served her tea and biscuits. It was an old Victorian tradition people her age and social class upheld. She had dark skin and, as was customary back then among people of African slave heritage regardless of color shade, her jet black dyed hair was “pressed” ̶ straightened with a stove-heated iron comb ̶ then curled. She never combed out the curls but tucked them under a black hairnet, so Miss Roberts’ hair looked like a mop head of fried spring rolls.
Her Mother Hubbard-esque crimplene dresses ending mid calf, with a narrow belt at the waist, accentuated her dowager’s hump. She called me Fatty Watty to my face, but behind her back I baptized her “The Hunchback of Sacred Heart” because on Sundays, hunchback Miss Roberts, a staunch Catholic, played the organ at Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral in the heart of the capital city.
The afternoon Hazel Ward visited, Miss Roberts beckoned to me as I was about to leave.
“Goodbye Miss Roberts,” I said.
“Fatty Watty come here.” I obeyed. I had completed my piano lesson without a mistake. What did she want?
“I want you to choose a piece to play on Twelve and Under,” she continued. “The show’s Thursday. You have a few days to practise. Tell your mother you have to come here every day until Thursday. It must be perfect.”
“Yes Miss Roberts,” I replied, my voice shaking with nervous excitement. I couldn’t wait to tell those at home. Miss Roberts picked me!
A year later when I was ten years old, Miss Roberts picked me again but for a less complimentary reason. Since we couldn’t all fit in the piano studio, students occupied the porch in addition to the garden where there were rows of chairs to accommodate the overflow from the porch. One by one, we shifted from garden to porch to piano studio to the Bentley piano for Miss Roberts to assess our piano playing. Attending piano lessons at Rockley’s resembled a game of musical chairs.
Seated in the garden waiting my turn at the piano, I heard Miss Roberts shouting my surname. In a flash, I climbed the front steps to the porch where she stood brandishing her bamboo stick. What had I done?
An informant, fearing she’d be accused of the crime and appropriately punished, had approached Miss Roberts with breaking news: someone had broken a porch chair. Miss Roberts, taking leave of her rocking chair (and her senses) made her way to the porch, bamboo stick in hand. She straightened her spine as best as she could and yelled at quivering, ten-year-old me. “FATTY WATTY, DID YOU BREAK THIS CHAIR?” Students In the piano studio, the porch and the garden sniggered. A broken porch chair, a fat pupil sitting in the garden far from the crime scene, a logical question in the mind of Miss Millicent Roberts.
My interest in piano playing died with Miss Roberts’ death. Girls and boys, dressed as if it were Students’ Evening, filled Sacred Heart Church where Miss Roberts’ body lay at the altar, in a brown wooden casket. They sobbed. I remained stony-faced, not shedding a tear. All I could think about was the time Miss Roberts shamed me in their presence because of a broken chair.
at ten years old I
was able to conceal my embarrassment and suppress my tears that
evening until the lonely walk home is beyond me. Tears gushed from
the moment I left Rockley’s to when I arrived at my front gate.
Along the way, I used the sleeves, right then left, of my cotton
dress to blot my tear-soaked face and wipe my snotty
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