The quick brown fox…
I have always wanted to type. When I was a little boy, my fingers would dance merrily – if somewhat randomly – across the wipe-clean plastic keyboard of My First Computer. My parents laughed that one day I would be a writer: so great was my desire that I was producing pages of perfectly typeset gibberish before I could properly walk.
When I was a little older, my father unearthed — more or less literally — an ancient Remington Standard from the cellar, where it had been abandoned by some former resident. I pecked at its keys, finger by finger, even though the ribbon had long since dehydrated beyond use and the spools turned fitfully, if at all. There was magic in the clack-clack of the printer heads on the platen: it was the sound of words being made.
Last year, I turned sixteen, and resolved that the time had come for me to put childish tapping aside in favour of a man’s typing. But who would teach me to walk this path? There was only one possible guide. Mavis Beacon. I was young, too young to acquaint myself with the heady world of stenographers and secretaries; but already I somehow knew, as if by whispers carried on the wind, that Mavis was finest typing tutor to be had.
Eagerly, I placed my order on Amazon.co.uk, thanks to my newly minted debit card, and waited for my parcel to arrive. And waited. And waited. It was unlike Amazon to be so tardy, even if I had selected Super Saver Delivery. Would it never arrive? Would my dream of fluent touch-typing go unfulfilled? I slept restlessly, had nightmarish visions of producing my first novel one painful character at a time.
I should have kept my faith.
One morning, the doorbell rang. I bounded down the stairs to greet the messenger, no doubt carrying in his hand the smile-emblazoned box in which all my hopes were vested. To my surprise, however, what met my eyes was not a surly courier, but a vision in blue. There was an angel on my doorstep, clad in a business-like straight suit whose lines nonetheless promised much.
She beamed widely and nodded at me. “I’m Mavis Beacon. I teach typing. Shall we get started?”
Reader, for all that I fancy myself a writer I am lost for words to express how astonished I was at this turn of events. Truth be told, I had expected no more than a software disc — with an illustrated manual, if I was fortunate. Still less can I express the emotions that Mavis stirred within me: here was a woman who was, yes, undoubtedly beautiful, but also one whose demeanour suggested great accomplishment: frankly, but without pride or hubris. In short: here was a great typist.
The days that followed were perhaps the happiest of my (admittedly brief) life to date. Mavis’ method was exacting, but effective. The entirety of the first day was spent merely positioning my fingers over the keyboard; I do not believe I struck a single key. Yet so enchanting a tutor was Mavis that I uttered not one word of protest.
“Typing begins in the mind, and the heart,” Mavis told me, and I could feel in my own heart that it was true. “You must first learn to become at one with the keyboard.” So great was the conviction with which she spoke these words that I longed for that blessed union to come as quickly as could be — a week, a day, an hour!
The next day, Mavis allowed me to strike my first letter. I remember it was if was yesterday. It was an H, a letter I had previously thought unremarkable but whose brilliance I saw clearly for the first time that day: its upright arms exhorting heaven, its sturdy cross-brace stiffened against all ills.
“Even the longest journey starts with a single step,” said Mavis, as she prepared for her departure. “Today, God willing, you have taken the first step on the most exciting and challenging journey of your life.” She smiled at me, and in her warm brown eyes I saw the promise of the future.
Despite my previous experience, and my assumption that I would use an electronic keyboard, Mavis insisted on talking me through each part of a manual typewriter’s anatomy: spools, ribbon, platen, carriage return bar. “You cannot understand a thing’s nature without understanding how it is made,” she said.
And then, finally, we began to type. She would tap out a phrase, her movements deliberately staccato so that I could observe their patterns and repeat them. At first these phrases were short, but soon they grew more elaborate, and sitting side-by-side our fingers would dance across the keyboard.
It was a tribute to Mavis’ teaching that it rarely took me very long to catch up with her fingerwork. But every time I thought I was on the verge of matching her dexterity, she would increase the tempo, her slim fingers pirouetting like birds in flight. I could only look on in breathless admiration. After she had gone, I would attempt to mimic her balletic movements.
But these efforts usually ended in a confusion of letters, a tangle of knuckles and joints. Even when she was there, I inevitably made mistakes. My fingers betrayed my innocence — and perhaps also my nervousness, conscious as I was of Mavis’ fragrant form beside me. But Mavis was always kind, always encouraging.
“Practice, practice, practice,” she said to me. “No matter how great your skill, you will make nothing of it if you do not practice.”
And so every morning, I would type relentlessly, for hours on end — so much so that my family pleaded with me to stop, fearful that I would contract tendonitis, or carpal tunnel, or worse — but I paid them no heed. I typed, my hair wild and my clothes in disarray; I typed, my hands aflame with agony and my eyes flooding with tears; I typed as though the devil was at my heels and my life in my hands.
I was determined that I would one day make Mavis proud. Only once did I see her lose her patience, one day as she was waiting for her customary pre-lesson cup of tea (Earl Grey, no milk, no sugar). I was struggling with the lid of the biscuit barrel, which seemed to have become stuck fast. I held it in the crook of my arm, wrenching at it with my free hand.
A flash of anger crossed Mavis’ face — a frighteningly incongruous but nonetheless beautiful sight, like lightning flashing through a clear summer sky. She seized the barrel, grabbed me by the wrists.
“Never forget!” she cried. “Never forget that these –” she shook my hands — “these are your instruments! See how they have reddened, how close the blood has drawn to the skin! You must treat them with the greatest of care, for they are the most precious thing that you own. Do you promise me that you will not forget?”
I promised. But I was thinking that it was the pressure of her cool, pearly-tipped fingers that I would never forget.
And so the days went on. I hoped that they would never end. But inevitably, our time together was to be finite, as all mortal relations are. My confidence grew: our fingers raced and danced and sang across the keys. Their clicking patterns never intertwined, but mine followed hers so closely that I thought I would — I must! — catch up: but always, always, she drew away, teasingly darting ahead as I drew close.
Finally, one afternoon as the setting sun threw long shadows across the room, I embarked on a rallentando stanza, my fingers darting unerringly to their homes on the keyboard like swallows returning to their nests — when I suddenly became aware that I was typing alone. Mavis was sitting with her hands folded in her lap. Their quietude discomfited me greatly. I stopped typing.
I looked at her, then. Her expression was calm, impassive. I knew what she was going to say. And I wished with all her heart that she would not say it. The moment stretched on. Finally I had to break the silence: “Mavis –”
She simply raised one of those marvellously sculpted fingers to her lips.
Then she replaced her hands on the keyboard, typed.
The quick brown fox …
I followed: precisely, accurately, quietly.
“You don’t need me any more,” she said, and without another word, she gathered up her coat, and her briefcase, and left.
I wonder now, what she thought of me. I had hoped for a confession, a declaration of admiration. I had hoped, secretly, that I might be the finest student she had ever had — I even thought I sensed it in her unspoken delight as I followed her fingers across the keys.
But that would not have been Mavis’ way. Hers was a humble path, one dedicated to the art of typing, not to the aggrandisement of herself or others. And that was perhaps her greatest gift to me. Mavis Beacon teaches typing. But she taught me so much more. ##