remember when you have thoughts from way back in your childhood or early youth, thoughts or images which haunt your brain and will not go away? It is back in the past and there is nothing you can do about it now and yet you wish you could go back and retrieve it and lay it to rest? Mine hangs like a rag doll by one arm at the back of my memory and it comes to me in the name of Theodore Heppenstall. Maybe it is the amazing sound of that name, maybe the very unreal feel to the whole story that somehow attaches itself to my life. It is a story I cannot sit down and tell a friend because there is no proper meaning or morale to it. Yet, the rag doll is too precious to be entirely forgotten. So I blog about it. That is why blogs exist, right?
Theodore Heppenstall was at school with me. He was not a special friend but he hung around with our group, and he seemed to take to me, possibly because I was not so dismissive of him as others. We were all in our late teens then and teens could be cruel to people who did not fit in. This was at a school in Colombo and Theodore with his very white skin and red hair with pink spots on his face did not exactly merge in among a school full of brown skinned pupils. Not that white faces were unusual in that school There were a few like him, descendents of the old Dutch and Portuguese colonial races. But in addition to his colour Theodore was also stick thin and moved in that curious jerky way that in today’s schools, if kids were allowed to, they would call “spastic”. He wore white un-iorned shirts, limp trousers, white broken trainers and a tie, always a tie. He did not come through as the brightest spark in our group; he would mostly be quiet and when he spoke his words were non committal and harmless.
But Theodore, and his family, especially his father evoked such pity and yet such reverence in my heart. That is the point of this story.
Theodore’s father also was called Theodore Heppenstall. He was a doctor, a very skilled one, and he worked at the General Hospital in Colombo. He was the kindest of men I was told. He worked all hours without extra pay, to alleviate the ills of the desperately poor. He too, like his son, wore a white shirt, loose trousers and the thin silk tie round his neck. But he worked in and walked about in bare feet. You can imagine what the wagging tongues thought of that. This was before the time of the hippies. He was worshiped by the poor but only just tolerated by his colleagues who were trying their hardest to attain that standard the late British Raj had set, and here was a white man letting them down with his grubby shirt and bare feet. From the first moment I saw him I was mesmerized. Now there was a man! He resembled Theodore Junior in every way but in his face there was passion and yet it was detached and pre-occupied. His face said his mind was on higher things. To my teen aged mind this was sainthood. I don’t know what I would think of him if I saw him now, but that thought of Theodore Senior as this self sacrificing Albert Schweitzer like figure working among the poor starving of Colombo set my heart skipping.
If you needed any more romance to this story, the one and only love his life, his wife Pauline died early. This left the good doctor a broken man. It may have been that his eccentricity got worse after that. Pauline was ethereally beautiful and she was a capable mother. After she died, Theodore Senior brought up their three children, one boy and two girls to the best of his ability. But he never stopped mourning her. Long after she died he would inscribe books he bought with the words “Pauline and Theodore” and the date. They were a reading family with books spilling out of rooms.
Then suddenly, one day, Theodore Heppenstall Senior, died. He was far too young to die but I think he so wanted to join his beloved Pauline. I went to the funeral. Theodore Junior hung around like a bystander at the funeral. He wore his rumpled white shirt and tie and his broken trainers. When I went up to give my condolences, he asked me if he could stay with me that night. I was naturally taken aback. I was not his best friend, but then he had no friends at all. I asked if he should not be with his family. But he had no family place to stay as it were. His sisters were being cared for by friends and he had nowhere to go. But what about his house? He suddenly had no house. I was stunned. Here was this middle class family keeping up appearances, the doctor father sending his children to the best schools in Colombo and suddenly they had no father, no home and no people. I was secretly flattered that I had to provide a bed for the scion of a family that I thought was rich and well appointed. Don’t you know, white folk were supposed to be superior and richer than brown folk!
Just to put my comment in context, this episode happened not many years after I passed the Queen’s Club in Colombo with my friend and looked in. Through the gates I saw immaculate lawns with waiters in white serving people with tinkling smiles. There was the sound of clinking glasses and the smell of wealth. I was fascinated. I had never before seen such a sight. Right then my friend woke me out of my dream. “Forget it” he said “the only way you will go though those gates my friend, is, as a servant”.
To come back to my story, Theodore joined me that night in my bed-sit. I gave him a towel to have a shower. He asked me what it was for. Not quite believing it all, I explained to him it was to dry himself after his shower. Theodore had never used a towel. This family who lived in a large rambling house full of books and had the use of a car did not use a towel. Theodore used his shirt tail, or any old cloth he could find. He just did not have the use of a towel. I still do not believe it. But then if you had never seen a towel before you would ask what it was for wouldn’t you? I did something very similar myself. On my first visit to a very high end hotel, I saw this immaculately white, soft cloth hanging at the end of the bath and of course used it as a towel, till I saw the words “BATH” in woolen white letters in the middle of it.
I did what I could to help my new friend Theodore with food and accommodation till he eventually drifted out of my life without a word of goodbye, but that was him all over again. Emotions did not feature in his life. Him standing like a rag doll at his father’s funeral, all detached and unaware was what Theodore was all about.
Well, there it is. I did say there was no meaning to this story. But this rag doll had to be put to rest. As I said before, the name Theodore Heppenstall comes to the surface of my thoughts every now, and then, completely out of the blue and I don’t know what to do with it. The image of this particular rag doll hanging there throughout history, unattended and uncared for irked me and I set out to find a closure; but I find in the end the doll still hangs there. At the very least the story is open to the public; the burden is not solely mine anymore. Theodore Heppenstall Senior and Theodore Heppenstall Junior and that beautiful Pauline will not go un-remembered.
I still have somewhere, a book inscribed with the words “Theodore and Pauline Heppenstall – 1956”. Call me sentimental!