In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after Caesar is stabbed to death by conspirators, Marc Antony, a Caesar supporter, steps up to address an angry mob. He calls them to attention with the famous lines, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears …’ I have since learned that people have different opening lines for calling others to attention.
Mrs. H was a retired teacher in my hometown. Staunchly single, she’d taught my mother’s generation, and she’d taught mine. She must have been eightysomething when I was a youthful nineteen-year-old. By that time, of course, her secondary reputation as ‘a gossip’ had become well known. Along with her one-word formula for arresting anybody’s attention: “Psst!” People used to see her heading in their direction and quickly dive down the nearest alley, because everybody knew that one ‘psst’ often led to a long session in the middle of a railway colony dirt road, listening to the latest gossipy morsel Mrs H had to impart.
Even back then — days long before mobile phones — people valued their time. At the same time, though, lots of people valued a good ‘chit chat’ — which was a common euphemism back in the day for ‘gossip’. So those that didn’t manage to find a convenient nearby side-lane, just gave in and ended up with some juicy titbit of information which, in turn, got spread around the colony. Like many peers of my time, I ran for my life whenever I espied Mrs H on the horizon. My mum, who was in the habit of instructing us kids to ‘never run from trouble, stand up and face things’, forever found herself trapped by Mrs H’s ‘psst’. To mum’s credit, as far as I know, she never repeated whatever innuendo she picked up. Whenever my father used to ask, in his own quiet detective fashion, ‘What on earth were you two talking about for so long in the hot sun?’ Mum would say, ‘Oh, you know Mrs H! She’s just lonely. Her children are all away in England, Hubli, Bengaluru, Goa. Every year they promise they’ll visit but find some excuse not to. So, she’ll find anything, even something imagined, to tell you about, just to have your company.’ And that was all mum would say.
So, in this way, I played the professional escapee while mum played the victim to Mrs H, until one day, mum handed me an electric light bulb and trapped me by saying, ‘Here, take this to Mrs H’s place and fit it up in her dining room. The poor thing’s been eating her dinner in darkness for a week.’ As I recall all these years later, myself just two decades short of octogeneria, that visit to fit a light bulb took all of three hours. But not for the obvious reason. No. Mrs H had a cryptic crossword open on her dining table. One partly-filled-in clue remained. It read: — A — — — K -. ‘Could the answer to 19 down be ‘bazooka’?’ I remember inquiring, whereupon Mrs H leapt like a cat from her easy chair and gave me a bear hug. ‘It was there on the fringes of my mind, but you helped bring it out,’ she exclaimed.
I assured her it was accidental, only because I’d been reading a lot about rockets and launchers and stuff like that. ‘No, don’t underrate yourself. Sit down. I’ll show you how the clue is parsed,’ she said, and from there, there was no side alley to duck down. To be honest, I was so interested I realised I wasn’t looking for a side lane. To this day, I cannot open a cryptic and not thank Mrs H for passing on an addiction without, even, her customary ‘psst’. I am indebted.
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.