Memoir — From the September 2018 issue

The Fountain Pen

From the journal I did not keep

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This essay is part of a collection of Lore Segal’s work, to be published by Melville House.

Iwas not keeping a journal in the fifth form at Guildford High School the year my fountain pen went missing. It was the last year of World War II, and to account for events so many decades later is to write anthropologically about people doing what people do in a changed vocabulary. Are there readers to whom I should explain the fountain pen? It was the precursor of the ballpoint and the felt-tip. You dipped the nib into an inkwell and pumped the inner tube full of as much ink as it could hold, and got ink on your fingertips. As little kids, we assembled small squares of cotton to make pen wipers to give as Christmas presents.

Two Ink Pens, a collage by Marzia Colonna © The artist. Courtesy Portland Gallery, London

The tallest girl in the class—call her Regina—was taller by two heads, maybe, than the next tallest, which would have been Patsy, our fifth-form tennis star, or my best friend, Ann. Regina was taller, and she was older by almost two years, having been kept back twice—was it because of a natural incapacity or because she never did her homework? Who knows what was eating her. Today we would look for “dysfunction” in her background. She was very tall and slender, a beautiful girl who had acquired a sizable clique of hangers-on and terrorized the fifth form. Walking past me she would snap her fingers against my forehead; the clique watched and grinned.

Internalizing a common belief that people didn’t like you if you knew the answers and got the prizes at prize-giving was a better bet than thinking it was my being one of two class refugee girls, which I could do nothing about. What I could and did do was stop doing my homework. It puzzled Miss Stone, the teacher, who liked me. Was that why Regina and her gang hated me? At any rate, dropping my grades turned out not to do a bit of good. Regina stood towering over me, messed with the things on my desk, fingered my fountain pen, pushed my notebook with the purple cover onto the floor and did not pick it up. The clique laughed.

How was it that my friend Ann, the daughter of Dr. and Lady Hurstwood, continued to do her homework and get prizes at prize-giving, yet she was voted head girl?

So I had this idea, which I communicated to Ann, who came with me to carry it to Miss Gent, the headmistress.

Miss Gent was then a woman in her thirties, a scholar and High Episcopalian. Her perfectly round face shone as with a high polish; her person was round, with the legs attached at each side in a way that gave her a waddling walk, falling from one foot onto the other. I thought she was interesting and desired her notice.

Miss Gent’s study was at the end of the passage to the teachers’ common room. I have a memory of a window on the right and Miss Gent, behind her desk, listening to my project for making the world a better place. It was a plan that would have made every kind of sense in the Sixties: The fifth form, according to this plan, would organize itself into a Friendship Society. Members would swear friendship each to each and each to all; all unkindness was to be outlawed.

Miss Gent heard me out. When my enthusiasm had exhausted itself, she asked me whether I foresaw no difficulties. No! I said, no, because all difficulties would have been eliminated by the original oath of friendship!

My projected Friendship Society was aborted by the event indicated above, the loss—the theft, as I believed, as I knew—of my fountain pen. It had been a Christmas present to me from Ann’s mother, Lady Hurstwood. I walked to the front of the room, stood before Miss Stone’s desk, and told her, with a significant look to where Regina sat at her desk, that my fountain pen was missing.

Miss Stone was a small, lumpy woman in her mid-thirties with untidy dark hair and magnificent eyes. Miss Stone was what I would not have known at the time to call an intellectual. It was she who had introduced Ann and me to Jane Austen, making no attempt to hide the fact that we were her favorite pupils. To me she assigned the writing of an essay from a Robert Bridges quotation: “I too will something make and joy in the making.” And she talked to us about having “a sense of proportion.”

Miss Stone clapped her hands. There followed a significant silence. Miss Stone asked the class whether anyone had seen Lore’s fountain pen. Blue, was it? Yes, blue. She walked with me to my desk and made me take out every object not once but twice. She had me turn my school satchel inside out. Might I have left the pen at home, where I lived with Miss Ellis and Miss Wallace, my elderly foster-mothers? Could I have lost it between Miss Ellis’s front door and the gate by which the day girls entered the playground and crossed to the school’s back entrance? No, because here was my purple notebook in which I had taken notes, with my fountain pen, that morning. Might the fountain pen have fallen onto the floor? The girls at the desks in the vicinity of my desk all looked under their desks.

There was a fountain pen on Regina’s desk, but that was her fountain pen, said Regina.

I said, “Mine was blue.”

Regina’s fountain pen was also blue.

“Mine,” I said, “had a clip with which you could clip it to your shirt pocket.”

So had Regina’s fountain pen. Didn’t all fountain pens have such a clip?

The next days and the following week remain in my recollection as intensely, excruciatingly, continuously unpleasant. I was embarrassed at the fuss I was creating. I wished the fountain pen to hell, and I wished to have it back. I wished I had never said anything, and I wanted revenge against those who had bullied me and laughed.

Miss Ellis was asked to come in and sat in Miss Gent’s study with Miss Gent and Miss Stone. Miss Ellis perfectly remembered the fountain pen, and that it might have been blue. Lady Hurstwood, reached by telephone, testified that she had given me a blue fountain pen at Christmas. Unlike Ann and I, who were day girls, Regina was one of Guildford High School’s boarders. Whoever was responsible for her was contacted or supposed to be contacted and might or might not have responded. Finally Regina was summoned and spent some time in Miss Gent’s study. When she returned to the classroom, she approached my desk, stood over me, and laid the fountain pen on my desk.

She said, “You can have this one. They are going to get me another one.”

“All right,” I said. I remember not looking into her face.

“All right, everybody,” Miss Stone said. “Now let’s get back to work.”

I looked at the blue pen that had a clip with which to clip it to your shirt pocket. This was not my pen. I got up and walked to Miss Stone’s desk and said, “It’s not my pen.”

Miss Stone said to me, “Go. And. Sit. Down.”

When, at a time in the 1890s, my great-grandfather Ben­e­dik moved the family from a small Hungarian village to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was thought safest to leave Michel, the youngest child, temporarily behind. The three oldest girls, Berta, Frieda, and Rosa who was to become my grandmother, remembered their mother’s terrible grief and distress at the separation from her baby. In Vienna, the family lived in two large rooms during the years the father established himself in business. I have a yellowing photograph of a mustachioed man standing in the door of his wine shop. And they sent for little Michel.

The blissful reunion of the mother with her child is not what happened. Berta, Frieda, and Rosa observed their mother’s dislike—a physical distaste for the child from whom she had been forced to separate. They frequently had to intervene to protect the little boy from his mother’s impatience, irritation, and rage—from her cruelty. They prevented her treating the little boy’s chilblains with water that was close to boiling. And yet my grandmother remembered taking her little brother to the nearby Prater—Vienna’s permanent fun fair, with its famous Riesenradand her mother running after them, weeping, with a scarf to fix around the little boy’s throat.

It was not an uncommon event, later, in the Hitler period, for parents to save their children’s lives by sending them to another country or farming them out to Aryan foster parents. The reunions after the war were sometimes difficult and bitter.

Shall we dare to look to my fountain pen story to throw light?

The pen Regina laid on my desk when she returned from Miss Gent’s study did not look like my pen. It had the disagreeable look of a thing I might not care to touch. What had happened—happened to it—happened to me, had attached to the object, and misshaped it into something alien. This was not the object that had been an important pleasure for me to own, and I stood up, the blood rising into my head, and walked to Miss Stone’s desk and said, “It’s not my pen,” and she told me to go and sit down.

I asked to see Miss Gent in her study. I told her that I didn’t think this was my fountain pen. I did not look into Miss Gent’s face on the far side of the desk, in order not to see in her look the image of the nuisance that she must be thinking me. Miss Gent said that in any case I should keep the fountain pen. She said that a member of the board of governors had a spare fountain pen that he was going to give Regina.

At the end of the school year Miss Gent left Guildford High School and we got another headmistress. Ann said that Miss Gent and Miss Stone had moved into an apartment together.

The war was over. After my three years at the University of London, I joined my family in the Dominican Republic, but that’s a different story and ends with our immigrating to the United States and becoming naturalized New Yorkers.

In 1964 I published my first novel. I wrote to Ann in En­gland, and she found me Miss Stone and Miss Gent’s new address. They were living in another city. The day after the publisher sent me my author’s copies I packed one and took it to the post office to mail to Miss Stone. I never heard from her.

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