Robert Illingsworth is the young maintenance man in the Girls Boarding School. He is a jack-of-all trades, and had been there for two years, surviving on his wits. It was not an environment without significant risks for a man like him, surrounded by so many nubile, and unpredictable girls who had yet to learn about restraining their run-away hormones.
Miss Bagnold, the principal and headmistress, had hired him, and she was the only one who could fire him. She knew him well, and was not concerned about his moral difficulties with any of her girls, but was more intent on protecting him, from them.
She was aware that one day, a teacher, or an older student might be able to get behind his defenses. All she could do was to run interference for him and be very careful whom she allowed to get close to him, if she could stop it.
Being the only male in the school, apart from his cat, he was always viewed with caution and suspicion by all but one of the teachers, and many of the older girls, even after two years, but to all of them, he seemed blind, deaf, and dumb. He ignored them, heard them not, and spoke to no one. Except for the headmistress. At least, he tried to ignore them.
The younger girls were entirely unused to having a man in their school, and even in their lives, and were easily intimidated by his direct way of speaking, as well as by his obvious physical strength, maneuvering his ladders and coils of wiring that even two of them could not move, as well as removing limbs off fallen trees that must have weighed almost as much as he did. He scooted up his ladder with the agility and confidence of a squirrel in a tree, to repair the roof or to clean out gutters.
The girls, most of them, were generally cautious of him—one of those unpredictable male animals—and kept out of his way. They tried to ignore him, but couldn’t, always finding their eyes drawn to him whenever he was close by. They observed everything about him, his direct eyes when he spoke to any teacher, his face, and its amazing ability to push out a stubble before the end of the day—supposedly hinting at some deep and intense virility bubbling within him—and his well muscled sunburned arms. They were curious about him as most girls always would be, and without necessarily understanding why, except that he was different.
The older and more precocious of the girls, about a dozen of them tried to fix his gaze with their own so that he could read all that they were trying to tell him about them and what they would like him to do for them.
He ignored them all, and went unobtrusively about his business wherever he was in the school.
They were unaware of it, but he observed and listened to what was going on around him, no matter where he was. He had to. It was a matter of survival in that environment where even the most innocent of events could suddenly magnify out of proportion, explode in his face, and involve him in some way.
He knew that all girls were difficult.
They had heard Miss Bagnold warn him about them and their intentions for him, several times in the first week he was there, when she had to clear girls out of his way to let him work on an urgent problem with the ancient wiring, or the plumbing in one of the toilets.
He had first-hand evidence of their peculiar difficulties every day. They were like alien beings (she had actually told him that too, in a loud voice, as though apologizing for them). Their emotional states were unpredictable, with tears always near the surface even if one just looked at them the wrong way. If he spoke to any of them, they would become spluttering masses of quivering jelly, and probably would wet themselves in excitement, or terror.
He never spoke to them. They didn’t exist in his world. He lived in a different dimension, but he was always acutely conscious of them hanging, like the Damocles Sword, over his head.
The only one who conversed freely with him was the headmistress. She was the boss of them all, and the equal of any man. She had hired him, and no one argued with her judgment. Apart from that, she ensured that no one knew anything about him, or where he had come from. She kept his personal folder locked up in her office. She was the only one who could see it.
He kept out of the way of all of the girls and most of the teachers, but had been known to step in and help the younger girls in times of difficulty, but only when he had no choice, when there was no one else close by to help.
As for the older girls, he would never choose to get involved in helping any of them, unless it was absolutely necessary and the circumstance clearly required his intervention. He even seemed afraid of them, which was a good survival instinct. Sometimes intervening for them was dangerous for his continued health, considering what they often seem to have planned for him as to how he would interact with them, and where. They were not at all shy in letting him know what it was they wanted as they tried to torment him with a glimpse here and there of their developing bodies, as though by accident, when it wasn’t. They would always be disappointed.
It was not hard to perceive the reason for their interest in him: they were getting to that ‘difficult’ age. They already knew it was hazardous to be around most men with what they openly offered and signaled but, tragically, he gave no sign of being influenced by anything they did. They would need to rethink their approach, and bring out the bigger guns.
He had learned of his personal vulnerability the hard way after a couple of narrow escapes, and was still learning it. It would never change, there were always girls coming up through the school, maturing, and becoming unreasonably and unreasoningly intent on him, stalking him, tempting him, and then retreating, bewildered about what they could be doing wrong when he did not break down doors to get to know them.
The younger, pre-pubescent girls—how that phrase rolls off the tongue, conjuring up visions of innocence and purity in those little-monsters-in-training—were steadily and inexorably building their unmanning-armamentarium, until that explosive change of puberty revealed them in all of their mind-shattering glory to the eagerly waiting world of men.
They were no obvious threat to him for another year or two, but the developing older girls were getting to, or were at that age where he was of interest to them for other emerging reasons that even they had difficulty understanding, and which were often made all too clear to him as they monitored with some surprise, hair beginning to grow in strange places, and their need for hiding most of their wondrously changing bodies, and their hips beginning to widen interestingly. They began to sway in their walk in a way that was designed to create interest and intrigue in those of the opposite sex.
They knew what was happening to them, but still knew nothing of him, though he became more interesting every day, and damn the alleged dangers that their mothers had warned them about. What was this? Their mothers giving them advice on avoiding men, when they had not avoided them, but had sought to attract them? One, at least: their father and had let him get at her in the most intimate way. It was nothing less than hypocrisy!
They didn’t know what to make of this man working around them in their school, but they continually tested the limits to try and find out what they could, while he tried to keep them out, and at a safe distance, which meant, as far from him as possible.
What was frustrating, and an in-your-face challenge for them, was that he seemed able to ignore them no matter what they did to engage him. At least most of the time.
An older girl that had allegedly sprained her ankle after falling down the stairs, had been testing one of those ruses, as had been the girl that had supposedly locked herself, accidentally, in one of the bathroom stalls, and another… but you get my drift.
The first girl had held tightly on to him, striving to keep him close to her to encourage him to notice her, and to take advantage of certain crucial clothing-deficiencies that had to be obvious to him the way she was lying with her legs apart and her skirt high on her legs, favoring one of them, until he discovered that she was not injured at all, but would welcome his attention in any way he wanted to provide it to certain exposed and welcoming parts of her body. She’d already got rid of her panties in preparation for that. He felt lucky to have so easily escaped that particular adventure.
The second girl had waited expectantly for him to discover her once he had lifted the stall door off its hinges to reveal her sitting there, essentially naked. Where she thought it could go from there with her friends looking on, giggling and nudging each other, they had not yet thought about. That would be the next step.
The girl had hoped that he would actually go under the side of the stall, and that they could then be alone in there together for a while in close quarters, but it had not worked out that way. They would think about it before their next and more inventive attempt.
The school became more and more dangerous for him with time, and not, safer. Familiarity, bred—not contempt, as the saying said, but—much more familiarity.
They thought it great fun how they could embarrass him, except he hadn’t let them see his embarrassment at all, but had just put the door to one side and walked away, saying nothing to either the girls, or to Miss Bagnold afterward.
He’d see to the door later when the coast was clear, which might not be until all of the girls had retired. Or he could just take all of the stall doors off. What did they need with privacy when they seemed so ready to flaunt everything to everyone?
He was wise to them now, but he had been required to wade in, when a cat-fight had erupted between two older girls in a dispute over something. It was not what he would have chosen to do, but it threatened to end with injuries to one or both girls, and possibly to him too, but not in that other way, so he had not hesitated. They learned of a new side to him at that time.
He had not been gentle with either of them as he separated them before blood had been drawn, though getting scratched himself in the process.
He grabbed both girls by their hair and pulled hard to get them apart, eliciting loud complaints from them both, and then he had stepped between them without saying a word, sending one girl back, holding her nose, her eyes watering, leaving her wondering what he had done to her, and the other falling back, sitting hard to the ground when her feet refused to support her, winded, and fighting for breath, equally confused over what he had done to her.
They tried to continue their spat with a vicious war of words, conducted at a safe distance, as their friends held them back from each other, until a teacher appeared and took over.
They still didn’t know what he had done to each of them or how he had done it, other than it had been very effective, and they did not want to see a painful repeat of that. Clearly, men were dangerous.
There had also been that one time on the hockey field. It had been less of a personal problem for him, during a hotly contested game between battling 13 year-olds.
Half of the school had turned out to watch the game between the two closely matched rival teams, one from another school.
The pace was fast and furious, ranging from one end of the field and back again, as bodies came close to colliding, and the sticks were wielded with lightning fast reflexes and skill until one of the girls broke her stick against another girls stick, trying to recover the ball.
The girl had been off balance, and she had fallen onto the sharp end of it, letting out a horrendous shriek as it had driven into her side.
She fell to the ground.
There seemed to be blood everywhere. She lay there moaning and writhing in pain as her light colored shirt became more noticeably stained with blood. The intense horror on the faces of those standing around, paralyzed with indecision and panic, was clear to see. The play halted immediately, of course, and the players fell silent, rooted to the spot, indecisive, wondering what had happened.
Then, he was suddenly there, a shining knight coming out of nowhere, kneeling beside her, knowing what to do as though he had done all of this before, holding the stick steady with one hand, and lifting her bloody and torn shirt around the stick with the other, to see what he could of the wound to her side, noting where it was, as the girl lay there, pale and moaning. It had not gone through her, but the injury was still severe, and deep.
Where had he come from?
“Hold this steady, and still.”
There was no arguing with that request that was an order. A more level-headed girl who had been refereeing the game, stepped forward to do as he bid, given no choice, as others fell back, feeling nauseated and not sure what to do.
They would dream about it for many nights, seeing that stick in her side, hearing her screams, and seeing all of that blood.
He did not hesitate, but stripped off his own shirt, as those girls stood there in confusion. He wadded it tightly and held it to her side as he felt behind her, and then retrieved the stick from the hands of the first girl.
They had never seen a man naked from the waist up before, or seen so much hair on anyone’s arms or how well-developed his arms were, almost as big as their legs.
He looked at the girl on the ground. She probably would not understand a word he said with the state she was in.
“I’m going to lift this out of you. It's superficial and seems to have missed everything important. It will hurt.” He was not asking her permission, and was giving her no choice.
The wounded girl let out a shout of pain as he did that, before he pressed his shirt directly over that wound this time, putting a lot of pressure there as he pulled her against his knees for support, and looked up at those standing around.
They had never seen this man, or any man do anything so decisive before, but they knew instinctively that this was what men did. This man, anyway. He seemed unaware of her developing maturity, or that with her falling as she had, her short hockey skirt was covering nothing. He did not see. He did not care.
Until then, they had generally regarded him as unsociable (that was only one of the more forgiving words, of many unflattering descriptions that were used to describe him behind his back). Others excused him as being shy. He was clearly both unsociable and shy, studiously ignoring them at all times. He was aloof too, as though he didn’t actually see any of them, other than to try and avoid them when they ran into him somewhere in the school as classes changed, and as though they had not seen him, which they hadn’t (he was much taller than even the tallest of them) other than for them seeing a pair of immoveable legs or an iron-hard body that they had run into.
He pointed to one of the calmer girls, still pale, and another beside her. There was no mistaking that he was in control of the situation once he had seen that there was no teacher around, and no one else capable of dealing with it.
“You two. Run to the school office and ask them to send for an ambulance, and tell them why: that a girl was pierced by a broken hockey stick in her side and is bleeding, and where she is, then bring the school nurse back here, and you, with her first-aid kit”—he pointed to the second girl—“find Miss Bagnold and let her know about this. Go.” They ran off as though a fire had been lit under them. He looked directly at another.
“You, go into the change rooms and bring me some clean towels.” She ran off to do his bidding, almost wetting herself in fear (fear, not of him, but of the situation), with another following her.
He returned to the girl on the ground, seeing her eyes were open, but screwed up with pain.
“You’ll be okay. It hurts like hell I know, but I’ll keep the pressure on. What’s your name?”
“Stef. Stefanie Boltzman.” She could talk, but was breathing shallowly and was in pain.
“Well, Stefanie Boltzman, the hospital is only a few minutes away so we’ll soon have you seen to.” She was lying still now.
“Thank you.” She was aware that he was helping her far better than any of her friends could have done.
He picked up the lower part of the broken hockey stick as he kept the pressure over her wound and examined its bloody end.
One of the girls passed him the handle that went with it.
From what he could see, comparing the two, there was just a single clean break on the shaft along the grain and none of the wood appeared to be missing, though there could be cloth fibers in that wound.
That would go with her in the ambulance for the doctor to see.
Another girl by then, was gently putting a rolled up coat under the girl’s head, as others recovered their wits, and brought things over to cover her legs to trap her warmth before she went into shock. The girls on the sidelines stayed quiet, tearful, in shock themselves, and waited.
He looked at the girls who had helped, smiled, and thanked them, appreciating their efforts.
“Thank you.” They recovered enough to do more, needing to be seen to be doing the right thing by his unhesitating example.
The girls came back from their tasks soon after that, and he made Stefanie as comfortable as he could, while they waited for the ambulance. Neither Miss Bagnold nor the nurse could be found, and other girls were looking for them.
They could hear the ambulance faintly in the distance.
“Five minutes, Stefanie. Five minutes.” She had her eyes closed, but was holding his hand firmly on her side.
He had gone to the hospital with Stefanie, with one of her friends going along with them in the ambulance. No one knew when he got back, but both Miss Bagnold and the nurse had gone to the hospital as soon as they knew what had happened.
No one said anything to him about that, but the younger girls; friends of Stefanie, all looked at him differently after that incident. They had been astounded and impressed that he had not hesitated to take his shirt off and get it all bloodied as he knelt there in the cool wind, until another of the girls, seeing his need, put one of the coats from the sidelines around his back as he knelt with their friend. He had smiled and thanked them for that too. He was gracious, and well mannered, and they had not expected that. He was also deadly calm about it all and infused them with admiration and desire to become as much like him as they could be.
The girl who had put that coat over him, had seen pale marks, scars that were not normal, on his upper body. He must have been a soldier at one time, and had been wounded.
She stored her observations away, and would ask her father when she got home that next holiday, about what she thought she had seen, but the other girls had seen nothing, and she said nothing. Their attention had been only on Stefanie, and the blood, and then on the ambulance taking their friend away. They had all been sick with worrying that she might die, and spoke about it for the rest of the evening.
Robert had become like a distant, protective father-figure after that to many of the younger girls—distant, because he had to be, but always ready to be there for them—even becoming a demi-god to those younger girls in the school, and for whom he always had a smile, remembering an occasional name from that event with a kind word, while otherwise continuing to ignore them. They were not yet a threat.
They talked often about him, and that one incident, and learned why he ignored them, from some of the older girls. He had to, or he risked being dismissed, or having some parent complain about him being there with so many vulnerable girls.
He was a much older man, relative to them, and it was dangerous for them to have an older man become interested in them, or for them to develop an interest in him, yet there was that dawning curiosity about those feelings too.
How, would he become interested in them, how, would he express it with them, and why was it dangerous, as others said? They had difficulty believing that.
Other of the more worldly-wise girls soon explained it to them, and about men in general, even though she actually knew little herself, other than what her mother had tried to drill into her.
She explained how men could become like wild animals around any unwise female who encouraged him, and should not be trusted, that it was men who sometimes murdered precocious little girls like them to hide what they had done to them, describing some of it in ways that they did not yet understand.
There was also a new word (among others) that they learned in that regard, and which was ever only whispered—rape—but what that older girl had said, did not seem applicable to Mr. Illingsworth. He was not interested in any of them that way, and had shown no sign of it. Nonetheless, they became cautious around him for a while, just as they had been before. It did not take long for them to recognize that all men were not something to be afraid of.
This man was different from all other men that they had heard about. However, that is also a dangerous assumption.
They discussed all of that in that inevitable learning process that girls went through in their private gatherings. Much of what they were told and believed as they learned new things about boys and men, would need to be corrected as they learned more. That more threatening and dangerous time was not far off for any of them as they became interested, and more interesting to men.
They were always interested in Robert, Mr. Illingsworth, after that eye-opening event, but he still mostly ignored them.
When Stefanie returned to school the next day, pale and shaken up, moving slowly with a bandage about her middle and several stitches to show off, she approached him and thanked him nicely, reaching out nervously to shake his hand, unable to thank him enough, but still not sure how he would respond to her.
She was teetering on the brink of being a woman and entertained strange stirrings about what he had done for her, and how he had done it. Touching her without hesitation, lifting her shirt to be sure of what he saw, but ignoring everything else about her.
He was surprised to be thanked, not expecting it, and smiled at her good manners in thanking him, bowed to her, and actually raised her relatively delicate and small hand in his own massive one to his lips and kissed it unexpectedly, as a gentleman of earlier times would have done with his queen.
She felt like a queen at that moment, and walked on air for a week. He was her hero, and could do no wrong.
“I am pleased and relieved to see you with us again, Miss Boltzman, Stefanie.” Yes, he could use her first name now. The smile he gave her, and the words of pleasure he spoke in seeing her back on her feet again, were burned into her heart and mind.
He was her first love from that moment, and the safest one she would ever have.
In later years, she often looked at her fingers where he had kissed them, and remembered that moment over the rest of her life, taking comfort from it as she felt that same thrill all over again.
She often wondered where he was and what he was now doing. Was he still in the school? Was he happy? She had dreamed of many possibilities with him, but knew that it was all just impossible daydreaming. And then she had grown up.
He had been magnificent!
Miss Bagnold had seen that delightful exchange from a distance. Her heart sang to see it, and at that moment she knew that she had made the right decision in bringing him into the school two years earlier, but it had taken a long time for him to settle in, considering the difficulties he had to put up with from the older girls as they tried to waylay him.
He would be a good influence upon the girls. All of them, but she hadn’t been entirely sure how it would work out, until now.
The girls began to notice other things about him by then. He gave the impression of being aloof, but if they watched him closely enough, they could see that he was always aware of what was going on around him, seeing his eyes twinkle when he noticed them watching him, even winking at them. Had he done that, or had he got something in his eye? He was always ready to step in and help them if no one else was close by. He became the father that they no longer knew, but he never allowed himself to get close to any of them, or them to him, and he picked no favorites.
By that simple act that day on the hockey field, half of the school was in love with him, and would have done anything for him. He was a conundrum to the other half of the girls, those older girls in the upper school, and whom he also ignored, while they didn’t understand how he could so easily ignore them when they didn’t want him to, and needed to know why they didn’t attract him.
There were those who felt slighted and vaguely annoyed by that, that he could so easily overlook them.
They were no longer little girls, and he was only a man and should have been vulnerable to their wiles, and their developing bodies and frustrations as they experimented upon him in their own way.
He seemed to sense that he would always be a target for the more precocious of the older girls, and so had to be vigilant at all times, never getting himself trapped alone with any of them.
Associating with the younger girls was safer for him, but he didn’t do that, either.
They argued that there must be something wrong with him that he could ignore their frequently provocative antics around him, and the promise of everything they could do for him, to get him to pay them attention.
He didn’t smile at them, or kiss their hands, or wink at them. He never touched any of them in any way if he could avoid it. One would have thought they had leprosy.
Except, there was nothing wrong with him. Absolutely nothing that they could see, as they had to grudgingly admit. He was perfect. And he was immune to them. They didn’t understand it.
Then a more disturbing thought rattled their composures and caused a lot of internal reflection. Perhaps it was something wrong with them, or their way of doing things? Such critical inner reflections and doubting, were healthy lessons for growing girls to learn.
Growing up was painful, and it was all a difficult learning process.