Searching recently for a good read-aloud children’s story, I pulled from the bottom of the bookshelf How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. Young Tom lives with his aunt, Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She’s no soft-hearted dearest Auntie Fidge. She is aways, strictly, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, a woman who “wore an iron hat, and took no nonsense from anyone.” In Quentin Blake’s illustrations she’s a big-beamed human battleship wearing a rivetted-on grey dress and a high grey helmet. Tom – colourful, cheeky, cheerful – is clearly dancing circles around her. Readers naturally side with Tom. He’s all risk and movement. He’s teetering and testing, nimble, flexible, curious and persistent. He’s full of life. Poor old Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong makes flowers droop and trees shiver. Ridiculous in her rigid posture, bound tight by her unbending rules, she represents a fatal stillness of the soul, a kind of living death.
When I was eighteen, I found myself in the presence of a someone very like Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She taught anatomy at the school of physiotherapy where I was enrolled as a first year student. Wide-hipped and waistless, with an imposing ledge of a bosom, whenever she walked into the room we tender blossoms drooped. She stomped, each footstep an insult to the floor. I would eventually learn to figure out where a person was hurting by watching them walk: low back, tummy, ribcage, shoulder, neck, head, hip, knee, archilles tendon – the site of pain always lends a signature adjustment to the gait. But even as-yet untrained, I could tell that Ms Anatomy Wonkham-Strong was through-and-through sore. Some long-ago irritation had lodged within her, had spread through her entire body, and vibrated out into any environment through which she moved.