Robert Illingsworth was the young maintenance man in the Girls Boarding School. He was 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, and were far too eager to learn about men, and what they could do for them, and to them.
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, always interested in everything he did. 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, and that whatever happened anywhere near them of an unusual or questionable nature, he would be the first to be viewed with suspicion.
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 (or thought 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 accidental at all.
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, growing 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, she had let get at her in the most intimate way for them to be here on earth, and in this school. 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.