John Folly House in the late 1950s was a place where raw talent was sought out and nurtured by a staff of strong-willed tutors. John Folly himself, the surprisingly youthful founder, taught woodwork and practical history, but he wasn’t often there. He made Billie Klassen uneasy, for reasons she couldn’t explain. She loved her drama teacher, Altansarnai Bichmoses, even though the teacher was discouraging about Billie’s career chances. Then there was the motor vehicle maintenance tutor, Jim Kelly, who, according to Billie’s classmate Donna, growled when spoken to.
When Billie’s best friend from her schooldays arrived to take her for lunch, it set off a chain of events that still echoed in Billie’s psyche decades later.
Billie’s favourite tutor was a ferocious woman whose Lady Macbeth and Ophelia and Desdemona were weirdly moving, even if she was old enough to have grandmothered the lads—and sometimes girls—portraying Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello.
She famously took away one Othello’s makeup, telling him to ditch the turban and use your balls.
Her name was Altansarnai Bichmoses, surely a challenging name to put up in lights.
Her harangues of Billie and her fellow thespians were awe-inspiring and fascinating, but they went on so long that some of the classmates were in danger of falling asleep. They were rest-deprived students of the rock ‘n’ roll era, after all. Quiffs and leather jackets, poodle skirts and acres of petticoats abounded. The air tanged with Violet Veritas, Dodge ’57, Big Band and Suzy Sue.
Billie acquired the habit of breathing deeply to oxygenate herself.
This not only kept her awake but improved her lungpower which was already pretty good from a childhood spent racing about in pursuit of a hockey ball, escaping heifers and various naughty dogs.
Unfortunately, although her inhalations were nothing but a distant rushing of air through flaring nostrils, her exhalations came out in half-voiced sighs.
Billie’s breathing habit came to Altansarnai’s attention. She stopped her monologue and focused her flashing gaze on the student in the second row.
“Am I boring you, Miss Klassen?” Her A was a masterpiece of brassy clarity.
Billie unglazed her eyes in a hurry. “No, Miss Bishmoses.”
“Then may I ask what you were doing?”
“I was practising my breathing exercises,” Billie answered.
“Elucidate. No! Demonstrate. Not just for me—for the class.”
Again with the cutglass A.
“Up you go.” A large gesture, which would have been clear from the gods, and up into the flies, pointed Billie at the stage.
Unwillingly, Billie got off her stool, tucked her hips forward and stepped forth.
Her socks, she noted as she stepped onto the stage with her swing skirt adding its accompaniment to her action, were not quite level. Her Mary-Janes were not perfectly or patently polished. Nevertheless, she took up her stance without fuss.
It was a tribute to the respect, or possibly the terror, in which Altansarnai Bichmoses was held that none of the other students smirked.
Billie put both hands on her midriff. She raised her chin and fixed her gaze on the tutor’s forehead.
If there’s a snake in the room, better to watch for sudden strikes.
She inhaled slowly, with the air whispering into her lungs for the count of twelve. She held it there for another slow count before releasing it with the half-voiced sigh.
Billie did it again.
If Altansarnai meant to shame her into staggering or becoming faint from hyperventilation, she would be disappointed.
Wilhelmina Klassen could breathe until her father’s cows came home.
As the tutor remorselessly commanded her to continue, Billie was just getting warmed up.
In…for the count of thirteen this time.
Hold…for the count of twelve.
Out in a long, controlled sigh with extra volume.
In. Hold. Out.
Billie allowed her eyes to roll.
I’ve got this, she might have commented to herself if the catchphrase had been invented.
She continued to breathe for fifteen minutes straight and would have been willing to do so for another fifteen had Altansarnai not called a halt.
She held and exhaled unhurriedly, removed her hands from her diaphragm and waited.
“Remarkable,” the tutor commented.
“Why? It’s just a breathing exercise. We do them all the time,” Harry Arturo objected. Harry liked Billie and had definite hopes of taking her driving when he achieved a car, but he was naturally competitive in class. One had to be if one was to succeed in a fickle profession. They might not be up for many of the same roles, but spear carriers could be male or female and spear carrying was that first foot on the ladder of fame.
Buxom Donna Fordham nodded vigorously, inhaled, and let loose a beautifully modulated F5.
It went on forever.
Billie had to hand it to Donna—she was an artiste in the making, as well as a jolly good sport.
The drama class at John Folly House was full of charming extroverts who had washed up there because they didn’t fit anywhere else. Ahead of or behind the times, rooted in other eras, beamed back from the future, through the gates from over there or down from some other planet—that was the general air in John Folly Drama. They were never homogenous.
Altansarnai held up her hand like a policeman directing traffic. “Enough!” She sang it out on a high C6.
For a few seconds, a youthful contralto and a mature lyric soprano duelled it out until Donna, remembering her place, elected to stop.
Altansarnai copied her and silence reigned, but for the ringing in everyone’s ears.