Patrick Fowlds’ Last Lesson

by Anton Wills-Eve

<a href=””>Call Me Ishmael</a>

 The first line of my favourite book is not in English, but that need not worry you. It’s very short.

                                                      Patrick Fowlds’ Last Lesson

“Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant.

“Johnson! Yes you, boy. Put that mobile phone away and pay attention to the text. This is a Latin class not a computer lesson. These words of Virgil were written two thousand years ago and deserve your full respect. The language may virtually be dead, but I still teach it because of the wonderful stories that have been written in it.!”

At this another fifteen year old interrupted, his questioning hand waving loftily above his head.

“Yes Mitchel?”

“Please Sir, how many years have you been teaching Latin, Sir?” Patrick Fowlds could see genuine interest in the eyes of the pupil so answered him honestly.

“Since I was twenty two.That is forty four years ago and I shall be retiring at the end of this year. I only hope my subject does not retire with me. It is full of such super tales.”

The class actually began to feel a little sorry for their teacher, so often the butt of schoolboy humour  and even laughed at when his laboured jokes completely misfired. He greatly envied those popular masters who also taught cricket and football and were the heroes of their students. In recent years he also had to compete in the popularity stakes  with young female teachers who had even more enticing ways to attract their charges. The staff in general tolerated rather than encouraged Patrick to join in their amusements, but it is probably true to say that hardly anyone would miss him when he left.

How many years had he told Mitchel? Was it really forty four? Well at least he had spent those years in the company he liked more than anything else – his classics books. He cast a glance round the form room before continuing. It was odd, he felt a bit dizzy and his tie was tighter than usual under his collar. He tried to continue the lesson but had to ask,

“Sims! Could you open that window by you please? It’s getting very stuffy here.” The boys watched transfixed as Mr. Fowlds suddenly clapped a hand to his chest and almost shouted out the first line of second book of The Aeneid again. “Conticuere omnes, intentique ora tenebant!” Then he crumpled in a heap on the floor of the dais in front of the blackboard. All twenty three boys rushed to his aid, one of them dialing for an ambulance on his cell phone. Harper tried to give him some cola which he kept in his desk, then just before another pupil suggested trying to resuscitate him, Mitchel asked the dying man, out of sympathy more than interest,

“Tell us, Sir. That line you’ve just read, what does it mean, Sir?” And with his last breath he told them,

“It says…it means ..’all gathered round him eagerly waiting to hear the story unfold.” But the boys never heard the story;not how the Greeks entered the city via a Trojan Horse,nor Cassandra’s prophecy, or Achilles dying with an arrow in his heel, the towers of Illium crashing down and killing king Priam. They knew nothing of Helen watching as her lover Paris was killed, or Laocoon being crushed to death by the sea serpent for foretelling his nation’s doom and above all Aeneas’ flight through secret passages and tunnels to escape and fulfill his life’s mission, to sail the world as it was then known, even if it meant deceiving Queen Dido, and finally establishing ‘the city of the seven hills’ that was to become the Empire of Rome.

No, Patrick Fowlds took the greatest story ever written to his grave with him. But that evening after school, Mitchel stopped off in the school library and took out an English translation of the book. He felt he owed the old man that much.

Anton Wills-Eve