…the greatest happiness of the greatest number
Henry had a moment to reflect upon the bigger questions in life: Why are we here? Where do we come from? To what should we look for moral guidance? What is the good life? How can we live life in all its fullness? How can we ensure that our homework is completed to the best of our ability every time?
Such bigger questions were the topic of Mrs R P Merryweather’s junior school assembly. Though Henry tried, he couldn’t entirely block out her every word, each of which echoed in the empty space at the back of the hall where he sat against a radiator.
Henry had never made a conscious decision that he would never, not on any account, consider such issues – life, morality, etc. It might have been the case that Henry gave only the most fleeting of nods of approval or the briefest shake of his little head when these questions came up for discussion. But he wasn’t being dismissive. Henry didn’t dismiss these big words in so far as they related to his life. Henry simply couldn’t stand back far enough from himself, not without falling over, couldn’t stand back from his situation enough, his place in the world, his existence in it, in order to consider himself, his actions, his omissions and his span of thirty five years in any regard whatsoever. Henry couldn’t ask himself these questions.
These questions were never on the agenda. And when the agenda presented such weighty issues as the existence of Julia Madden, whose smiling red face was just then levitating over the heads of a group of half asleep third form girls, Henry must be excused from matters philosophical.
Henry’s mind was dominated by the little questions, such as: What next? What the hell do I do now? What am I meant to do with this? What will I do if she finds out? How long do I have left? Will it hurt? Can pigeons sing? What was that? Where did he get that from? Is she looking at me? Can I get away with this? How much will that cost? Will anyone find out? Where the hell are my keys? What can I do now? What happens if I do this? Why isn’t mine bigger? What’s the worst that can happen? Why do the worst things always happen to me? Where can I go to get this fixed? Why me? Which of my limited options is likely to lead to less pain, embarrassment and suffering?
Julia Madden, the well-built, ruddy-faced, stocky-legged, heavy-chested, short-pleated-skirt-wearing, wide-watery-eyed, heavy-breathing, wall-leaning, grass-smelling, word-whispering, generously-fleshed-out gym teacher, did consider the bigger questions. At least, she considered one of them, and in her own special way.
She was making a point of smiling now, and of Henry seeing her smile. This intention manifested itself in her whole body rising from where it had been seated, and in causing the lines of girls seated on the floor to part like a biblical sea, as she made her way towards him, her ruddy face and exaggerated smile, lit up by a beam of sunlight which assiduously tracked her approach.
Julia Madden’s mode of “consideration” of this “bigger question” was a rather shallow and fleeting affair, but at the same time a monumental and wide reaching affair. It was both shallow and deep, weighty and light, considered and thoughtless as well as sharp and blunt. Firstly, it consisted of the repetition of her mantra “the greatest happiness” every day, first thing in the morning when she hurled herself out of bed, during particularly gruelling hockey and netball training sessions, at the base of steep rises on long distance runs, and after her one very large glass of the heaviest red wine before she went to bed each night. Secondly, it consisted in a peculiar manner of looking at the world; she briefly weighed up the known consequences of each of her actions, or omissions, and acted where she thought that she would increase “the greatest happiness”.
It was with this thought ringing in her head – “the greatest happiness” – that she approached Henry and sat herself beside him on the radiator. So there they sat, the whole of lower school and Mrs R P Merryweather, looking on. There they sat, sitting snugly together, the curve of her calf muscles, thighs, hips and chest, touching Henry’s highly tensed legs, waist and ribs.
And it wasn’t just her own “greatest happiness” that concerned Julia Madden. The “bigger question” which was the basis of her frequent, though fleeting and shallow, consideration, was the amount of happiness in the whole world. It was towards the increase of this quantity that Julia Madden’s actions always tended.
The nervousness chiselled out on Henry’s face would be seen as clear evidence by Julia Madden – clear evidence, there could be no doubt, of the great potential for her increasing the amount of happiness in the world through focusing on his person, his hopes, his dreams, his fears, his nightmares, his preferences, his peccadilloes, his two spoons of sugar.
It was the case that Julia Madden’s awareness of the world around her, also fleeting and shallow, didn’t allow her to come to any accurate estimation of which of her actions would lead to her own greatest happiness, let alone to the maximum amount of happiness being felt in the inhabited portion of the universe, but the intention was there. It was this intention which made up Julia Madden’s moral backbone. It was this intention to increase happiness by each of her actions which proscribed what she could and could not do. It was this intention that aimed and fired her at Henry Bridgewater. She had him in her sights for quite some time now; how better could Julia Madden increase the level of human happiness in the known world but by settling on the person where its inverse seemed so deeply entrenched.
“A bit of moral guidance for the day,” she whispered into Henry’s ear, by way of a joke, a claim of his affections, an earnest statement, a stake of her ownership, an amorous aside, a promise of her love, a cheeky comment, a reminder of their last sweaty encounter, or god knows what else, but a voluble whisper, a whisper whose husky syllables would no doubt echo through most of the rear of the hall, fail to be absorbed by the dusty flock wallpaper, and come rushing back to assault Henry once more.
Henry smiled, thus securing Julia Madden in her delusion, and also ensuring that the whole of the lower school were aware of something going on between Mr Bridgewater and Mrs Madden, and also ensuring that Mrs R P Merryweather began to be suspicious of the pair. Amorous relationships between members of staff at her school would not be tolerated. Not by Mrs R P Merryweather.
On the final word of “Amen”, Henry darted towards the male staff toilets, knocking over two girls and their hymn books on his way. A faint knock at the door was enough to undo the peace of mind he gained from the forty seconds of hyperventilating at the mirror.
It was Julia madden. Of course it was.
“Mr Bridgewater, are you ok?” Julia looked genuinely concerned. “The girls and I were worried by the manner in which you left assembly. Is everything all right? I hope you aren’t ill?”
It was the look of genuine concern which most worried Henry. He could deal with the baser instincts in another. He was personally familiar with them. But genuine concern was something which scared him. It was fear of the unknown. Henry was lost. Julia was found. The amount of human happiness in the world would remain unchanged… at least if Tommy Kilpatrick, whose almost smiling face which hovered in the distance above Julia Madden’s shoulder, would just then disappear.