Almost new, almost fiction

This is one of a set of stories I wrote many years ago. I guess it’s really old fashioned. . . It has never before seen the light of day. Now I’m retired from saving the world from itself, I thought I’d dust it off and send it out there.

                                          DE BREEZE

 

In his first term at Drumwhinnie Castle Preparatory School for Boys, Martin Musgrave had two teachers. The first, Miss Urquhart, had straight black hair and a mouth that looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. On the first day, she marched into the classroom, plunked her books on the teacher’s table and said, briskly, “Boys. Thank you for your attention.”

        She went to the board and wrote:

 

        MISS URQUHART

 

        She explained that it was pronounced Urkart, then said, “I want you to know that our time together can be lots of smiles or lots of tears. You have the choice. The next time I have to raise my voice when I come into the room, there will be trouble.”

The very quietness of her tone should have warned them that Miss Urquhart meant business.

The second day, when she was greeted by the same disorder, she seemed puzzled: “Oh. I thought we’d already had a little chat about this sort of thing. . . Every boy will now stand to the right of his desk and hold out his left hand. . .”

 

The slice of a heavy ruler into his palm caused an explosion of a kind of pain that Martin had never felt in his life, and left a red mark that took several hours to fade. After that, when Miss Urquhart came into the room, she was pleased to find them all so quiet: “Good morning, boys! All smiles today?” — to which came the chorus:

“Good morning, Miss Urquhart! Yes, Miss Urquhart!”

Ex‑ cellent!”

 

Two weeks into the term, Miss Urquhart was found one morning, according to the rumours Martin heard, slumped over a lavatory bowl in the senior ablutions. She was last seen leaving in a taxi during lunch. Miss MacDonald, the Matron, was overheard making dark comments about pairsons of that sort. At any rate, she had sailed out of the lives of Form One forever, to Martin’s intense relief. For two days, Miss Phillips, the Assistant Matron, sat with Form One while they drew and painted, or wrote short, laborious letters home.

Then there was a new face in the line‑up of teachers at Morning Assembly and Mr Lawson announced: “I’m sure all the boys and staff will warmly welcome Miss Nancy De Vries, whom we have been fortunate in being able to engage as a temporary replacement for Miss Urquhart, who left us so sadly, and so suddenly, due to illness. Miss De Vries comes to us very highly qualified and warmly recommended from the University of California at Los Angeles, with a Master’s degree in Music. She is rather more than qualified to be form teacher for Form One, and she has also agreed to take some of the older boys as private piano pupils.”

 

Remembering Miss Urquhart, Martin was prepared to adore Miss De Vries on sight. She had a soft, kind face, and he was certain that she was looking directly at him when she smiled that morning. She had a mass of hair of a colour Martin had never seen before, golden, of a slightly reddish shade, and eyes that in the distance were dark, but close up were greenish. Her lips were tinged with pale lilac lipstick, something Martin considered elegant and different.

Miss De Vries was given the same welcome Miss Urquhart got, but she allowed quite a riot to develop before in the end banging on the table and shouting, “O.K., O.K., already! Can it, you guys, or there’s going to be blood!”

The boys laughed, and more or less settled down, knowing that Miss De Vries had none of that cold rage that could power the weight of a ruler into soft, vulnerable palms.

 

Just as Miss Urquhart had been given the nick‑name by some of the older boys in the school, Dark Heart, so Miss De Vries was initially called De Freeze. Not for long. Martin remembered the last time he heard the expression used, only a week after she had arrived. The boy who used it looked sheepish and said, as if he had to justify himself, “Well, we got to call her something, don’t we? We can’t just call her Miss De Vries, can we?”

“I think we should call her. . . um— ” A boy named Leckie screwed up his face in intense thought, then fell silent.

“I know! I know! How about. . . I know! De Breeze!” Paterson shrilled, bouncing on the tips of his toes.

A sigh escaped the group, crowded round one of the beds in the dorm. Everyone nodded. The inspiration was unassailable, even if Paterson was someone who still sucked his thumb and sneaked his Pooh‑Bear into bed with him at night.

Then Robin Coventry, who at eight and three‑quarters was the oldest in the class, said, with the slow authority that came with seniority, “That’s good. De Breeze. I like that.”

 

“I agree for De Breeze,” Martin said shyly. He liked Robin Coventry, and hoped to become his friend.

That night, on the edge of sleep, Martin marvelled how perfect the name was. That’s just what she was, a breeze. Something restless. Cool. Refreshing. And sadly, a breeze was something that came. . . and perhaps, went.

 

 

Martin loved De Breeze’s accent and her American expressions, like Holy Toledo and blood on the floor. It became fashionable among the boys to pepper their speech with these phrases and others like goldarn it and ya yeller varmint— which came from the three or four boys, including Robin, who had television at home.

De Breeze had none of the usual coyness you got when you asked a grownup, especially a lady, how old they were. She told them that she was twenty‑six. So she was middle aged. She wore pant‑suits in exotic, electric colours Martin had only seen before in the kind of sweets that made you feel faintly sick after just a couple of ounces. She only called the boys by their surnames when one of the other teachers was around.

In the worn, grey‑flagstoned halls and corridors of Drumwhinnie Castle, she seemed to carry about her a private pool of light and a cloud of perfume that made Martin dizzy and homesick for his mother whenever he smelled it.

Martin adored the way she would lean over him from behind, gripping his shoulders gently as she checked his work. She did this with them all, and Martin wondered if anyone else had that almost irresistible impulse to turn his head and place his cheek, just for a second, on the back of her hand.

 

 

 

Robin Coventry was odd because he could sing in a way that made people pause and listen. But it was odd that in Church, at Assembly or during Music periods, Robin would sing in a breathy, off‑key manner just like the rest of them. In the bathroom, in a crowd of boys fighting over the sinks, or out in the seemingly endless woods of their afternoon rambles, Robin sang quite differently. Nobody ever sneered when he sang, and Martin wondered if it was because everybody got the same little prickle at the back of his neck that he did.

Robin’s favourite song was what he called the “Esso Song”. A day would have seemed incomplete to the boys in Form One without at least one performance of this:

 

‘Theee Esssso‑o SIGN means HAPpy MotoRING!

Theee ESso SIGN! Theeee ESso SIGN!

Theee E‑e‑e‑e‑e‑esso sign— ‘

  

One evening, Robin was singing as they got ready for bed, at the row of sinks in the junior ablutions, De Breeze appeared suddenly at the end of the corridor, with a surprised look on her face.

“Robin! Was that you singing?”

       The concert came to an abrupt end, and Robin staggered around, his face contorted into a grimace of strangulation, croaking pathetically, clutching his throat.       

        “Can it, comedian.” De Breeze said heartlessly. “From now on, Buster, I’m going to expect a heck of a lot more from you in music!”

The following evening, after tea, Martin found himself invited to De Breeze’s room along with Robin. They listened to a man singing the Toreador’s Song, from a gramophone record of the opera Carmen by a Frenchman called Beezay.     

Martin instantly recognised the Esso Song.   

De Breeze didn’t even mind that Robin hummed right along with the record, and she smilingly put it on for him again.

After that, she gave them coca‑cola and digestive biscuits, which she called ‘cookies’, and asked Robin what he thought of the song.

“It’s super!” Robin said. “Now I know the whole thing!”

 

“Oh?” De Breeze smiled quietly. “I’d like to hear that!” She laid down her glass of lemonade with an air of challenge.

So Robin grinned cheekily and hummed the tune, beating time in the air with his finger. After a while, De Breeze smiled and made a gesture of defeat with her finger. “OK, Robin. I believe you.” Then after a slight, awkward pause, she looked at Robin. Martin sensed a tinge of excitement in her.

“Did you know you were a musician, Robin?”

“Oh, no, Miss De Vries. Anybody can sing a tune.” Robin seemed embarrassed.

“Who told you that?”

“My father says anyone can sing, but not many people have what it takes to be a doctor.”

“Your father said what?” De Breeze was shocked. At first, Martin had a lurch of fear, because of the sudden stillness of her expression. He thought she was blazingly angry, but it wasn’t that. She was just surprised.

“Well. . .” Robin seemed apprehensive.

“With due respect to your father, Robin, he’s got it bass‑ack— uh, all wrong.”

“Yes, Miss De Vries.” Mechanically.

Martin had already learned that people were very prickly about anything that sounded like a criticism of their parents. Perhaps De Breeze, an American, didn’t understand such things. Martin’s father said Americans were crass.

“Listen, young man,” Now De Breeze did seem annoyed: “Very few people have the sense of rhythm you have. And very few of them have your ear for pitch. It’s a gift. You have it. That’s special. Any lump can become a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a teacher.”

“Yes, Miss De Vries.”

“Are you learning the piano, an instrument?”

“No, Miss De Vries.”

 

“Why not?”

“Because I wouldn’t be any good at it.” Robin said woodenly.

“Garbage.” She snapped. “It would be criminal for you not to use that gift. I think you should write your parents and ask them for permission to do piano with me. If they don’t agree, I’ll teach you for free.”

Robin looked down at the carpet, biting his lip.

De Breeze looked long and hard at him. Then she sighed. She touched him briefly on the shoulder and said, “Think about it, Robin. Come and see me tomorrow.”

“Yes, Miss De Vries.”

In bed, Martin felt a hot pricking at his eyes. How did she know that he didn’t have the gift too? He had a momentary surge of joy thinking he might write to his own parents, asking for piano lessons, but he knew he wouldn’t. His parents, his father certainly, would just have told him that the fees were stiff enough already without adding frills like music.

 

 

After a while, Martin felt quietly happy that nothing seemed to have resulted from De Breeze’s offer. Robin didn’t write to his parents and the music lessons didn’t happen. Martin was not quite sure why. He knew that Robin did go to see her the next evening, and De Breeze had said some stuff about his having a quite unusual promise. . . but Robin didn’t explain his reluctance to follow her suggestion, beyond a mysterious remark about there being room for only one black sheep in a family. Martin sensed that further clarifications could only be obtained at the expense of Robin’s anger.

 

 

De Breeze eventually stopped making remarks in public that set Robin aside as a fellow musician. She didn’t seem angry with him, but Martin sometimes caught her looking at Robin with a little frown on her face. Not angry. Just puzzled, perhaps, or just thoughtful.

 

 

At meals, De Breeze sat at the head of the Form One table. Vigorous pushing and shoving, and at first, even the occasional fist‑fight, determined who sat next to her. After a while, De Breeze made them take turns, though she admitted that she felt flattered by these territorial squabblings.

She told them that she had come to Scotland because she was almost engaged to a young man who had been sent there by his Head Office, in Irvine, California.

“Gary is a wonderful man,” she said. “One day, you all will grow up to be wonderful and beautiful and loving like Gary.”

“Do you love him, Miss De Vries?” Paterson asked, wonderingly.

Somebody cackled nervously.

Her answer stabbed Martin: “Yes, Nigel. I do love him. We are engaged to be married.”

Regularly, on Thursdays and weekends, she would disappear off to Aberdeen to meet Gary. At first Martin noticed how funny and tender she was with them after these trips, but then, a couple of times, she seemed uncharacteristically thoughtful and irritable. Once, she had silenced the boys with a bang of her fist on the table that made the cups rattle, accompanied by a venomous hiss: “For Crissakes, shut up! You boys are giving me a headache.”

 

 

Martin, without understanding why, found himself following De Breeze’s movements. He tried, as far as he could, to remain in earshot of her when they were on break, or when she was supervising them at soccer.

One one occasion, she and Miss Mallory had taken their form out on a ramble and sent them on ahead, Martin had secretly doubled back, and managed to come quite close to where the two teachers were, leaning up against a gate in the forestry track, smoking. A wintry sun haloed their thoughtful faces, and the smoke of their cigarettes mingled with their breath, like the steam Martin’s mouth exhaled, not twenty feet from them, as he crouched in the snow dusted skirts of the forest. His fingers were pinched white with cold, and he blew discreetly into them, rubbing them together to try to bring the colour back.

“He sounds like an utter cad to me.” Miss Mallory said, coolly blowing a smoke ring. Martin made a mental note of yet another accomplishment, like whistling through two fingers, that he intended to acquire.

“Cad? Heck, I didn’t think you English still used words like that. You mean a louse, right?”

Miss Mallory inclined her head gravely. “A louse, Nancy darling. Come to think of it, I prefer the American word. It’s so— evocative.”

De Breeze stood up and stamped her cigarette into the snow. “Oh, Penny. You don’t understand. We could straighten this thing out in a second if he’d only talk about it. And that cheap tramp—”

Their voices faded round the corner, and Martin cut, not without a shiver of fear, through the dark trees, his feet bouncing soundlessly on a carpet of dried pine needles that seemed to yield like a mattress under his feet. The snow had not penetrated here, and Martin felt as if some all‑observant malevolence followed him. At eight years of age it was so hard to believe one could be anywhere without someone, some adult with good or evil or even magical powers, watching and waiting for some failure to meet the standards of some mysterious moral code.

 

In Dorm One, the consensus was that Gary was having a Fling with Another Woman. Martin’s heart was quiet with joy, then guiltily, he remembered that De Breeze was unhappy. A True Knight would die to see the damsel he loved betrothed to the man she loved. . . were he his bitterest rival. Still, on a practical level, there wasn’t much the Knight could do if his damsel was in love with a louse who preferred the company of Cheap Tramps.

Wild schemes were hatched after lights‑out.

They could band together. They could go to Aberdeen, track down the miserable, two‑timing snake who spoke with a forked tongue and there would be blood on the floor.

Perhaps they could—

But really. No. This was out of their— out of their everything. Out of their understanding, certainly. . . and of course, out of their power. Even with eight of them and with the blessing of the most blameless and heroic motives that could be awarded for a night spent kneeling and contemplating the sword‑crucifix of chivalric love, Gary was a dragon they could not slay, not even for De Breeze.

 

 

At half‑term, Robin’s parents came for the rugby match and to take Robin home for the weekend. Robin introduced Martin to them just as the Drumwhinnie First (and only) Fifteen was being pounded into the cold November mud, by a final score of 32 to 7 by a team from another school.

 

Martin felt a swell of pride as Robin referred to him as his best friend. Mrs Coventry was a tall lady in a grey suit, grey hat and a fur jacket. Martin thought she looked extremely elegant, much more elegant, he was certain, than his own mother, who would have been sure to have arrived in a pink hat. Dr Coventry also looked very distinguished in a grey overcoat, grey trilby and black leather gloves. Mrs Coventry wanted to know why Martin’s parents weren’t there too and he explained that they were abroad, in Malaya, where the rubber came from.

“Oh, you poor boy! And all the other boys will be going away for the weekend. Robin, why don’t you invite your friend to come with you?”

Robin looked surprised, then he nodded slowly. “Can I?”     

“Of course, darling. We’d love you to bring Martin, if it can be arranged.”

It was arranged, and Martin had a song in his heart as he threw his sponge bag into his grip. As they scrunched over the gravel forecourt to the car, Robin said, “I’ll kill you if you say anything about— you know, what De Breeze said.”

“I won’t,” Martin said humbly.

       As if to lessen the harshness of what he had said, Robin smiled at him, and as they climbed into the back seat of the Coventry’s Jaguar, he drawled, “Welcome aboard, pardner. Keep your nose clean and I’ll show you a goo‑ood tay‑ime at the old fayimly rayinch.”

“You‑oo betcha cott’n pickin lay‑ife, pardner!” Martin replied.

“Boys!” Mrs Coventry half turned in her seat, smiling. “Where on earth did you pick up such awful expressions?”   

“Oh. Here and there.” Robin said.

 

It was a wonderful weekend.

 

Robin had an electric train set that Martin knew he could only covet. He had a bicycle, and taught Martin to ride it. Mrs Coventry took them shopping on the Saturday and bought them both little flashlights that could be made to shine in different colours, and they spent hours that night, till well past midnight, signalling to each other in a complex code that told whether it was safe to drop supplies to the Resistance group, or whether it was a trap, and the Gestapo had the field surrounded. They even had television and Martin and Robin exploded with laughter when the Esso Song came on in the middle of a very interesting programme called the Lone Ranger. It had a tune as well, and Robin gave Martin an impressive rendition of that one too. It was by a Wop called Rosseeny, who was already dead, apparently, according to Mrs Coventry, who seemed to have a high regard for Mr Rosseeny and a very low one of the Lone Ranger.

 

Martin understood almost instinctively the rules for staying with the family of a school friend. The first and most important rule was never to say anything about your friend’s life at school which you had not previously cleared with him. The second rule was not to be nosy about his family life. This was his territory, and you had to respect that.

Martin was surprised when Mrs Coventry mentioned at supper on the Saturday, that Robin’s brother had sent the family a postcard from Paris. Robin had never mentioned that he even had a brother. He didn’t even seem more than casually interested in reading the postcard his mother handed him. Martin feigned preoccupation with his apple crumble, noting that Robin’s father had grunted something about a prodigal something, and shrugged, when the brother’s name came up.

That night, Robin explained that Paul was nineteen, and was in Paris, the Capital of France, where they spoke French. Paul apparently spoke French like a greasy Frenchman, and asserted that it was really quite easy. The best way to learn was to take your dictionary to bed with you. Paul was also being a behemian, drinking lots of stuff called absent, and doing so‑called art, which Dr Coventry referred to as neurotic master‑painting. He was also hanging around with low‑life pimples, and cabbery musicians.

“We don’t talk about him much,” Robin admitted. “He’s a bit of a black sheep and Father was very cut up when he wouldn’t go to Edinburgh to read Medicine.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Robin.” Martin said sympathetically. “I won’t tell anyone, you know.”

“Thanks.” Robin said glumly. “It’s all been a terrible strain on Mother, but she’s bearing up as well as she can.”

 

 

Every Thursday, De Breeze disappeared in a scrunch of gravel in her rusty yellow Volkswagen, just after Morning Break. In the evening she always came back long after lights‑out, but once, just after the start of the spring term, she surprised them all by being back in time for tea. She looked terrible. Martin knew she had been crying. Then Nigel asked the question that they were all dying to ask, but which Martin considered breathtakingly tactless: “How is Gary’s promotion going, Miss De Vries?”

She seemed to think for a moment, then she said brightly, “Macaroni anyone?”

Martin thought her hand was a little shaky as she ladled out the macaroni and cheese, and the size of the portions varied dramatically from plate to plate, a thing that would normally have drawn howls of protest. But nobody said anything, and the boys made careful private adjustments without even quarrelling.

 

 

Later, the Dorm was unanimous in its analysis: Gary the Louse had been given his marching papers, and was no longer on her short‑list. She would need Cheering Up.

Martin thought he might do her a drawing of a moon‑rocket. She liked his rockets very much.

 

When De Breeze came into the room the next morning, there were several offerings of some kind or other on her desk, his drawing, a small branch of chestnut buds that would be tricked by the warmth inside into thinking it was spring, a cotton‑reel tank, an orange and an apple. Martin thought it outrageous that three of the boys had not even bothered to participate in their gesture of solidarity. . . A smile seemed to be about to warm her face, when she caught sight of what Robin had written on the board:

 

DEATH TO THE LOUCE

 

Two pink spots appeared suddenly on her cheeks and Martin had a terrible feeling that Robin’s loyal declaration was about to be ill repaid. He also had a momentary and unworthy fear that she would discover that it was Martin who had helped Robin with the spelling.

 

“Who wrote that?” De Breeze asked.

Martin wondered if the sound he heard was the first snap of one of the chestnut buds, starting to open.

“I did, Miss De Vries.” Robin said. He looked scared.

“Come here. Hold out your hand. The left one.”

Robin stepped up to the dais and held out his hand as De Breeze reached into her drawer for an object that up to now had served only to help her draw straight lines.

“That’s a mean thing to say about anyone.” De Breeze said, grasping Robin’s wrist with her left hand. “You understand that?”

“Yes, Miss.”

The whack came suddenly, as if De Breeze was in a hurry to get it over with. Robin must have been surprised by it, and he gave a little cry.    

De Breeze looked at Robin, wiping his eye on his sleeve, and at the ruler in her hand. Then the ruler clattered to the desk and she buried her face in her hands. After a few moments, she jumped up and hurried from the room.

Robin gazed at his hand, as if he was puzzled by something on it.

“She didn’t even hurt me,” he mused.

 

By lunch‑time, some of her old self was back. She thanked each boy in turn for his gift. Martin felt that she was especially grateful for his moon‑rocket painting, which she promised she would keep in her special scrap‑book.

She got to Robin last:

“And you, Robin. It was very sweet of you to give me that delicious apple. I’d like to talk to you after tea tonight, if you don’t mind, in my room, O.K.?”

“Yes, Miss De Vries.”

 

Robin didn’t get back from seeing De Breeze until after lights out. He seemed to be sleep‑walking.

He said she had begged him to forgive her for hitting him, then she had kissed him on the palm of the hand, the one she had struck, murmuring “I’m so sorry, Robin.” He had had some digestive ‘cookies’ and listened to some lovely music on the gramophone.

Martin felt breathless. It was so hurtful to him that neither De Breeze nor Robin seemed to have needed him, during their cosy little evening together. Then it seemed important to reclaim his place in Robin’s esteem. But how?

 

By the next evening Martin had a plan. He suggested they go on an expedition, to sneak down to the dining‑room after the staff had finished their dinner, to steal left‑over biscuits. An exploit boasted of by some of the boys in Form Two, one of whom had been caught last term and given ‘six of the best’ for his pains.

Robin was still so vague and dreamy after the previous night that even this enticing project didn’t seem to interest him. In the end however, after much angrily hissed provocation from Martin, he agreed.

The thrill was knowing that in the scale of crimes available to them, this one had to rate just below shouting ‘knickers’ during Assembly. If they were caught the punishment would probably be  at least a ‘sixer’. Maybe even an unthinkable ‘twelver’.

 

The two boys padded like ghosts through the cold, dark corridors, shivering a little in their dressing‑gowns, and giggling insanely on the wide stone stairs, following the dancing, coloured beams of their flashlights. The huge old doors of the dining room creaked as they opened them and that brought on further spasms of nervous giggling. In the gloom of a single light left on in the pantry and leaking through the serving window, they snatched at the biscuits, stuffed their pockets and ran.

Back in the hall, they stopped. A slab of light spilled from the doorway of Mr Lawson’s drawing‑room and they knew they would have to cross it to get back upstairs.

Then they knew it was all right. They heard the piano, and knew it was only De Breeze, who was allowed to use the Lawson’s grand piano any time she wanted. Even if she saw them, she wouldn’t tell.

Martin was just about to scurry across the lighted area when Robin jerked him back into the shadows behind a big antique blanket cupboard.

Martin’s mouth went dry as he heard steps coming from the back corridor. Every boy in the school would have recognised those deliberate footfalls. Mr Lawson wore brown brogues with steel on the edges of the soles, which made a metallic click with each step.

The noise stopped. Mr Lawson seemed to hesitate from crossing the light himself. Then Martin was horrified to see the headmaster lower himself gently onto the bench outside the drawing room, the bench where boys summoned to see him would sit and wait.

Martin looked at Robin, who had his finger to his lips. There was nothing to be done. They just had to wait in the dark behind the blanket cupboard until Mr Lawson moved on.

But why had he stopped?       

Oh Cripes, Martin moaned in his head. Mr Lawson was a music lover. He often said how he loved listening to De Breeze playing all that boring classical stuff. He might just sit there for hours, listening.

After a minute or two, the cold silence seemed to gel around them, and the faint, regular notes of the piano nagged at the edges of Martin’s hearing. Up above, notes like small glass Christmas tree balls floated delicately into the pool of light, hesitated, shattered on the freezing flagstones, and were swallowed up by the darkness and the silence.

Martin thought it odd that Robin seemed more caught up in the music than in the terrible danger that faced them. He was leaning almost far enough forward to fall over into the hallway, and his mouth was parted slightly as he turned his ear towards the music. Angrily, Martin jerked him back into the shadows, and just as angrily, Robin shook off his arm and leaned forward again.

Martin gave up. He felt cold, and quite frightened. He glared into Robin’s face, and was surprised to see there an expression that was almost dreamy. Then Robin grabbed Martin by the lapel of his dressing gown and hissed in his ear, “She’s got a record of that one too. It’s the Moonlight Something. Can’t you just see the moonbeams?”

“No, I can’t.” Martin replied angrily.

“Well I can!”

“You’re a daft pimple!” Martin hissed.

But Robin only smiled in an absent‑minded sort of way, and cocked his ear towards the drawing‑room door. His whole body was tensed up on the tips of his toes, as if he was getting ready to leap into an unknown, moonlit paradise that only he could see.

 

The piano had been silent now for what seemed to Martin to be eternity itself. . . then Martin was shocked by the sound of someone weeping. He felt tears swell hotly behind his own eyes. He saw that Robin had been startled too, by the terrible grief in those soft, jerky sounds. He wondered at the awesome, unbearable pain that could make an adult cry, for this was something utterly new to his experience.

They had not seen Mr Lawson get up, and Martin’s heart froze as a firm hand gripped him by the shoulder. He swung round and choked off the flood of explanations he had been about to release when he saw that Mr Lawson had his finger to his lips. Sshhh!

Dumbly, the two boys crept up the stairs in front of Mr Lawson, who said nothing till he got them to the door of the dormitory. Then he said, with a severe little smile, “I’m always willing to overlook crimes committed in the pursuit of good music. Back to bed, you little bandits.”

“Yes, sir.” Martin said humbly.

“And next time. . . the gymshoe. Understood?

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Robin said nothing at all.

 

The next day, after lunch, Robin was occupied with writing a letter home. It wasn’t even Sunday, when after Church, this particular chore would weigh heavily on each boy at Drumwhinnie.

He asked Martin if you spelt piano with one ‘n’ or two.

Martin thought it was probably two, because he thought it really should be one, and that usually meant the opposite. On the other hand—

“You daft Behemian.” Robin said dismissively, “I’m putting two, and if that’s wrong, there’s gonna be blood on the floor, no kidding.”

 

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