I moved into a class with a new English teacher: Mr Phillipps. In a Canberra private school in the 1970s, he was everybody’s image of an old-fashioned British academic. The final two ‘p’s in his name seemed to pprove it. He would address each student as ‘old boy’ and endlessly read aloud from his collection of ancient Penguin paperbacks.
In retrospect, I can see he was pretty delighted by his own sonorous voice and upper-class accent. Mr Phillipps certainly gave his voice, and his credentials, a real workout. Rather like my mother, he was a ‘lavatory’ man. And a ‘sofa’ man. And a ‘spectacles’ man. He had wiry dark hair and a clipped DH Lawrence-style beard, like it was copied from the photo of Lawrence on the back of the Penguin paperbacks he was reading.
In retrospect, I can see he was pretty delighted by his own sonorous voice and upper-class accent.
Summer and winter, he would wear an ancient blue jacket onto which was stitched the crest of the Oxford college he had attended decades before, teamed with fawn trousers and an Oxford tie. He would mention, quite often, that he had been personally taught by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Occasionally, on a sports day, the jacket would be exchanged for a white cable-knit jumper, also bearing an Oxford logo – one which, he said, indicated he had a‘blue’. In the Australian schoolyard of the ’70s a ‘blue’ still meant an argument, normally involving fists, but we did our best to look impressed.
One night, Mr Phillipps appeared at our house for dinner, dressed in his usual Oxford jacket with crest, fawn trousers, blue shirt and Oxford tie. I don’t recall the dinner – tense, presumably – I just remember the explosive moment on the front steps as Mr Phillipps was taking his leave and my father began to warn him off. ‘Don’t come again. I don’t want you making contact with my wife.’
It got heated. A raised voice from my father; pomposity from Mr Phillipps: ‘I say, don’t you dare raise your voice to me.’ There was pushing. Mr Phillipps left and then my father shouted at my mother, grabbing her arm. I stepped between them but he kept yelling, his hand still on her. Effete boy me, I punched my father in the face. He stopped shouting and looked sad. He didn’t punch me back. The whole thing defused. I went walking.
What followed was a period of constant disputation. It was obvious there was something going on between my mother and Mr Phillipps. My father, always an enthusiastic drinker, started hitting the stuff pretty hard and my mother rewarded him with ever larger servings of contempt. My father was never physically violent towards my mother, but he did take out his anger on the household’s doors, slamming them repeatedly. Our otherwise presentable home ended up with dramatic cracks around the architrave of each doorway, as if the whole place had suddenly been shifted into an earthquake zone.
A month or two after the dinner, the argument, and my ill-considered punch, Mr Phillipps and my mother ran away together. I’ll say that again, just so you can savour my humiliation: My mother ran off with my English teacher. In term two, my mother disappeared, and so did Mr Phillipps. Presumably, he’d fallen for her at parent–teacher night, which somehow made it worse.
My mother ran off with my English teacher. In term two, my mother disappeared, and so did Mr Phillipps. Presumably, he’d fallen for her at parent–teacher night.
My fellow students were so flabbergasted they couldn’t bring themselves to tease me. The situation was clearly so hilarious and embarrassing and awful that even a group of rowdy Australian schoolboys thought: ‘Nah, too easy.’
The day before she left, my mother came into my room to tell me of her decision. I was sitting on my bed and she stood in front of me. She and Mr Phillipps intended to go first to Sydney and then to a country town about ten hours north. She said she loved him. My mother reached out and held both my hands. She looked into my eyes. She said: ‘Thank you for finding him for me.’ It was as if the whole thing was my idea.
Going through my father’s papers years later, I found the note she left that next day:
Have left everything as tidy as possible. Please be everything Richard
wants of you. Let him be able to admire your strength, please the boy
needs this. Keep your chin up + help Rich. Give Marie the gloves left on
PS: As an afterthought I have taken the sherry decanter.
Richard Glover is a guest on Insight's look at why some mothers choose to leave their children - and the impact their decision can have.
Published with permission from Harper Collins.