He Touched Me
(Another episode of the saga. In this one, Robin and Martin are four years older, in their last year at Drumwhinnie)
HE TOUCHED ME
There was a time when Robin seemed to be unable to do anything right as far as Mr Hill was concerned. He only had to open his mouth at the table for Mr Hill to scowl and say, “All right, Coventry. See me afterwards.” Then Robin would say, “Sir! I wasn’t doing anything! What did I say?”
“You know perfectly well what you said, Coventry. And that kind of cheek is something I won’t tolerate.”
“Do you want me to award you a bonus, on top of the six you’ve just earned?”
“Then shut up.”
Once it was because Robin had asked Mr Hill if he’d been a swot when he was a boy. Then the time Robin had said under his breath, “Oh, fugg it!”, when he got the rugby ball on his thumb and wrenched it. Once he had said something rather witty at Mr Hill’s expense. Oh yes, Mr Hill had divided the form up into two teams for a quiz contest in Latin vocabulary, the morons and the cretins, and Robin had asked him, if he could choose, which would Mr Hill rather be, a moron or a cretin?
Something like that.
Anyway, it always seemed to end the same way, with Mr Hill inviting Robin to his study for what he called an Investiture of the Order of the Gym-Shoe. Six whacks, with the first two taking your breath away, making you almost lose your balance as you touched your toes and swayed under the impact, the faded pattern on the carpet going all blurry as you fought back tears. Robin thought it was partly because Mr Hill was still angry about the school photo thing, and partly because Robin used to talk about his big brother, the one who went to Paris to be an artist. According to Robin, Paul said that schools like Drumwhinnie explained the existence of the Labour Party and Communism, and that Team Spirit was a lot of merde.
Mr Hill said Robin should follow the example of someone who’d done a little more with his life than abstain from the twin vices of coherent thought and regular washing. Then, even when Robin shut up about his brother, Mr Hill still went after him.
Maybe it was the last straw when Mrs Harris, the music teacher, got annoyed at Robin because he had cheeked her, when he said how did she expect him to practise when Mr Hill made him waste all his spare time doing punishment runs and extra Latin? Anyway, she said she wouldn’t punish him herself, but she asked Mr Hill to, so Robin got another sixer. Then it wasn’t any good her saying she was sorry, she didn’t really mean for Mr Hill to beat him.
“I hate her too, Martin.” Robin said viciously, his eyes still swollen from crying. Martin felt intensely unhappy, and embarrassed. He understood, of course, but if the others caught him crying, they’d be unmerciful, then Robin would get in a rage and fly at some tormentor like Latimer. Mr Hill would hear the din in his study, and then Robin would be in for more trouble.
It was terrible.
After a week during which Robin had had two or three beatings, plus or minus a couple of punishment runs, Robin was irritable. He wasn’t sleeping properly. He almost stopped saying anything at all in Latin now, unless Mr Hill asked him directly, then he had to have got it almost perfectly or he’d get some extra Virgil to do. Mr Hill used to say that unfortunately, School Policy didn’t allow beating for poor work, even if it was due to pure laziness.
Martin felt, and of course was, powerless. If hating Mr Hill could have done anything for Robin, then Martin’s silent prayers would have caused Mr Hill to keel over, clutching his chest, blood spurting from the hole made by the magic bullet in the centre of his forehead.
One day, Robin and Martin were walking up the path towards the pre-fabs, where they had their next period, English with the Beakess. It was just after elevenses, and Martin was trying to be cheerful by saying how the bread had been particularly soft and fresh, the cocoa particularly sweet and delicious. Mr Hill was walking towards them. Martin got a heavy feeling in his chest. Mr Hill was frowning. Just as he passed them on the path, forcing them to jump smartly sideways over a frozen puddle, he said, “Hands out of pockets, you two!”
“Yes, sir.” Martin said mechanically.
“Yes, sir. No sir, Three bags full, sir.” Robin said cheerfully.
Martin stopped dead.
It was comical. Well, no. Not comical. Awful. Terrifying. Had Robin really said that? To Mr Hill? Martin shook his head. He must have mis-heard. Mr Hill had stopped dead in his tracks too, but Robin was still walking on, as if nothing had happened. Could Robin be unaware of what he had just said?
It was sharp roar, like a terrible animal, thirsty for blood.
“Come here, boy!“
“Sir?” Robin had stopped, turned round with a puzzled look on his face, like he really didn’t know what Mr Hill wanted.
“What did you say?”
Mr Hill seemed suddenly doubtful, and Martin realised with a surge of relief that perhaps Mr Hill hadn’t really heard what Martin thought he’d heard, clear as anything.
“Yes. Did you say something to me, Coventry?”
“Oh no, sir! I was talking to Musgrave. I was saying about Mother Goose. . .”
Oh, Cripes! Cripescripescripes! Martin breathed. Mr Hill was coming slowly back towards them, his face actually going quite red, then white around the mouth. . . then he said, slowly, “So, Coventry. You think I’m going to lose my temper and hit you, against regs? Or perhaps I’ll get you expelled? You’d like that, wouldn’t you? The easy way out, like the way your idle, no-good sibling got out of Fettes?”
“Sir! I was only—”
“Coventry. Do you think I’m a complete idiot?”
Robin paused. Then he said, slowly, “No, sir. You are not a complete idiot.”
Martin could see that Robin was having trouble looking Mr Hill in the eye. Everyone had that trouble. At twelve years old, it was pretty difficult. Mr Hill breathed heavily. Two deep breaths. It was cold, and Martin shivered, but he was almost giggling because steam was coming out of Mr Hill’s nostrils, just like the drawing of the Minotaur in Myths of the Ancients.Then Mr Hill looked at Robin, pointed his finger at him and said evenly, “See me, Coventry, before bedtime, in your pyjamas and dressing-gown.”
Robin just shrugged, turned and walked away. Mr Hill looked puzzled. He scratched his head, looked some more at Robin’s retreating form, then he shook his head and began to walk away. Martin only felt released from the paralysis which had rooted him to the spot, when Mr Hill stopped looking his way. By now Robin was inside, and Martin had to fly to get to a desk under the boom of Mrs Lawson’s unfriendly glare.
All afternoon, Martin was in a rage at Robin: “You fugging ass! What did you do that for?”
Robin just had a secret sort of smile, shook his head, said Martin would understand soon. Anyway, Robin said, Hill was a pervert. Well, Martin said, doubtfully, what was a pervert exactly? Come to think of it, what was a sibling? Robin said a pervert was a dirty swine and a sibling was probably just a word for lout or layabout or something. But anyway, after games, Martin looked up both words in the dictionary and found that sibling was just a fancy word for brother and pervert was something to do with unnatural sex something. It was all extremely puzzling. Robin had probably learned the word pervert from his sibling.
Everything went normally enough until bedtime. Of course, there was no mystery about the timing of Robin’s appointment. The beatings you really remembered were the ones you got in your pyjamas. Robin didn’t have far to go; Middle Dorm was at the end of a dim corridor and Mr Hill’s room was the only other door leading off it. Martin said, “Good luck!” as Robin slipped out. Martin stood at the door of the dorm, surreptitiously watching as Robin knocked. Almost immediately, he heard Mr Hill call out, in his Sergeant-Major voice, “Enter!”
Then the light from the study slashed across the corridor, Robin went in and there was silence for a few seconds. McNeill saw Martin standing there and came over “What’s up, Mouse?”
“Covvy’s getting another sixer.” Martin said.
“Coo! Again? Hasn’t he got any marbles? What did he—”
McNeill fell silent as the sound of voices in Mr Hill’s study rose. They could hear the powerful voice of Mr Hill, rising in volume, getting angrier. Once or twice, Robin’s voice could be heard, saying something short and sharp like no or stop.
Then something amazing happened.
The door flew open, making a bang like gunshot as it slammed against the wall of the corridor, and Robin stumbled out, tripping over his pyjama bottoms as he fell into the corridor. Then he recovered his balance by scrambling on all fours towards them, and he dashed, naked from the waist down, into the dorm. He flew past Martin, shouting, “No! Get away from me, you dirty pervert!”
Omygawd. Oh mygodogodogod.
Mr Hill came flying out of his room, shouting, “Get back in here, you little bastard! I’ll teach you— my God, I’ll teach you to say no to me!”
“Get away from me! I’ll scream! I’ll tell Mr Lawson! I’ll tell my parents what you did!”
Mr Hill had taken three energetic strides to cover the distance to the dorm, and he stood just by Martin, in the doorway, looking puzzled. “What. The. Hell— are you talking about, Coventry?” Robin was breathing deeply, half crouched, with his back to the far wall, with both hands in front of his crotch. He said very distinctly, quietly enough but awkwardly, as if he was having trouble breathing, “You touched me. You stroked my bum, you fucking pervert! If you come near me, I’ll bite your fucking hand off!”
“Are you mad, Coventry?” Mr Hill whispered. Maybe he was starting to look a bit uncertain now. Why?
Martin wondered. Why did Mr Hill seem so—
With a flash of delight, Martin knew then that Mr Hill, for some reason, was not at all sure what to do. He had a sort of crookedness in his grin when he kind of shrugged, opened his hands, as if to say, the boy’s mad, of course.
What he actually said was, “Look, the rest of you. It’s very important you understand what went on. Nothing went on. Certainly not what Coventry— that disgusting—”
“Liar!” Robin hissed. “Pervert Liar! Bum-toucher!”
Martin could hardly believe it. Mr Hill suddenly looked. . . what? Afraid? He was actually shaking as he left the room. But his voice was firm enough as he said, “We will talk about this in the morning in front of Mr Lawson, Coventry. Then he will no doubt expel you.”
The strange thing was, Martin felt that Mr Hill was not really talking to Robin at all, but rather to the rest of them.
“Good!” Robin shouted excitedly. “He can expel me! Then I won’t have to have a pervert— beating me every day just so he can stroke my private parts!”
The corridor became dark again as Mr Hill closed the door of his room very quietly. Martin scurried up to the door to retrieve Robin’s pyjama trousers, along with the slipper Robin had lost during his exit. As Martin picked them up, Mr Hill opened the door and threw out the dressing-gown and the other slipper. Martin gathered everything up and scampered back to the dorm.
Robin put his pants back on.
Amid stunned silence, Latimer said, “Did he really—?”
“He touched me.” Robin said quietly. “He touched me, all right. And he’ll be sorry!”
Martin sat down on his bed. His head was spinning.
“Excuse me,” Ferguson said plaintively, “Could someone tell me what this is all about? Why would Mr Hill touch Coventry’s bum?”
“Yeah! Oh, yeccch!” McNeill said.
“Don’t you know anything?” Latimer crowed. “What a wet you are, Fergie! Because he’s a pervert, of course. That’s what perverts do. They touch people’s bums and things— you know, their privates!”
“Ooo! Pee-ryvateees!!” somebody cackled, hysterically.
Martin shook his head. He really wasn’t much further forward than before. Robin looked excited. His face was flushed as he climbed stiffly into bed. He hardly seemed to be listening to the babble going on around him, and just before McNeill switched the light out, he gazed at the ceiling and murmured firmly, as if this was something he had to remember for an exam tomorrow, “He touched me.”
In the dark, Robin said it again: “He. Touched. Me.”
The words spun around in a reverent silence and then faded. Somebody chuckled unbelievingly. A bedspring creaked. Troubled, Martin tried to sleep, but he couldn’t relax until he’d rubbed himself to get stiff. He still couldn’t get stuff out, like Robin claimed he had, but he thought he should keep practising. It helped when he thought about getting Angela Pepper to rub him, but even she was unable to conjure forth the ‘stuff’. He was determined to look up pervert in some other books, maybe ask— No. Matron wouldn’t know. Well, she’d know, but she’d probably tell him it was a dirty word and he shouldn’t use it. Pervert. Had quite a nice ring to it. He envied Robin’s authoritative command of it, the clipped, dismissive sound of it—
Oh, Cripes! Had Robin really said all that stuff to Mr Hill?
Very early in the morning, long before the seven-fifteen bell, Martin woke; In the gloom he saw Robin getting dressed. The rest were still asleep. There had been, some minutes earlier, the thump of Mr Hill’s door in the corridor, so he was up.
Martin whispered, “Watch out! He’s awake!” Technically, it was forbidden to get up before the bell, just as it was forbidden to be still abed at seven-twenty, though the former regulation required far less frequent enforcement than the latter.
“So?” Robin shrugged.
Then Martin remembered. A sick feeling came over his stomach as he realised that after last night Robin had more to worry about than Mr Hill bawling him out for getting up at— Cripes, six-thirty! It was just after dawn. And it was cold. The heating didn’t come on till seven.
“Where are you going, Rob?” he whispered.
“Out. For a walk. Coming?”
Martin bounded out of bed and was dressed, with his bed made, in under two minutes. Martin hesitated when he heard footsteps coming towards them, but Robin continued on, so he followed. Mr Hill was coming up the stairs from the staff bathroom, in his dressing-gown, with a towel round his neck. Martin was reminded of the sheer power of the man as Mr Hill stopped, his arms bulging in the sleeves of his dressing-gown, and the partly bared muscles of the neck rippling with health and strength. A tiny square of tissue paper right next to the dimple on his chin marked where he had nicked himself shaving. The master happened to be coming upstairs just as they got to the landing, and so he had to stop one step below them, putting his eyes exactly on a level with theirs.
“Good morning.” Mr Hill seemed surprised, but polite.
“Morning, sir!” Martin chimed, smiling uncertainly.
“Morning.” Robin said coldly.
“Ah— one moment, if you please, Coventry.”
Robin arched his brows.
“I’d like to have a word with you— privately.”
“No.” Robin said, promptly. It sounded prepared.
Mr Hill breathed deeply. He seemed to be having some difficulty with words. “That is— You are— Jesus! “
Then he shrugged: “Very well, Coventry. Fine. Have it your way. No reason why Musgrave shouldn’t hear this anyway. I have given some thought, Coventry, to your extraordinary outburst last night. . .”
“So have I.” Robin said tightly.
“. . .And I have come to the conclusion that you have been under pressure lately. No doubt I should have realised that and not leaned on you so hard— perhaps I was partly to blame for pushing you to breaking. If that is the case, then you have my sincere apology. After all, we try to maintain discipline here for reasons which will probably only be clear to you when you have boys of your own to worry about.
“Anyway, that is by-the-bye. You are obviously emotionally overwrought. I propose to take no further action, on condition that you ask Matron to let you see the doctor today. It’s one of his days to be in, fortunately, and no doubt, he will be able to advise us on what the best course will be for you. Perhaps you should even go home for a week or two, to rest. Whatever.”
Mr Hill even managed a smile, which looked quite genuine. Martin wondered if he was actually going to reach over and tousle Robin’s hair. He felt an enormous surge of relief. It was all over! It was all over, and Robin was not going to be expelled. He flashed a look at Robin, as if to say, ‘There, Rob! See! Hill is not such a bad sort, after all!’
But Robin seemed not to have understood the amazing generosity Mr Hill was showing. He was just staring at some point on the wall half way down the staircase.
“Well, Coventry?” Mr Hill said impatiently. “Does that sound fair?”
“Oh, yes, sir, very fair!” Martin blurted eagerly.
“Musgrave! I’m not talking to you.” Mr Hill snapped.
“No.” Robin said quietly.
Martin could not believe his ears.
Mr Hill’s eyes narrowed. “Do I hear you say, ‘no’, Coventry? Think very carefully. I have been a master here for fourteen years, and Assistant Head for eight of them. My record is absolutely blameless. Do you really think anyone is going to believe the rantings of a hysterical, emotionally fragile youth, against me?”
Robin shrugged. “We’ll see, won’t we?” he said dully.
Mr Hill sighed, shook his head. Then he shrugged. “Very well, Coventry. We will indeed see. I suggest we meet to discuss this matter with the Headmaster after Assembly.”
“Fine.” Robin nodded.
“Then you will excuse me.” Mr Hill pushed past them, smelling of Imperial Leather soap.
It was just unbelievable that Robin would fail to see the good sense of what Mr Hill had said. After a long silence, during the brief walk before breakfast, Martin said cautiously:
“Rob, maybe you should think about—”
But Robin said, “Not fucking likely. He touched me.”
“But he didn’t hurt you, Robin! What’s a stroke on the bum? You’re mad! The Beak will probably beat you and sack you!”
“We’ll see.” Robin said, mysteriously. “But he certainly can’t do both, can he? I mean, if he cans me, then what’s to stop me from doing what I want? Wrecking his drawing-room, throwing a chair through the window? Grabbing a poker and going for him with it? I mean, what can he do?”
“But the sack, Robin!”
“We’ll see. But I’ll tell you something, Mouse. Nobody. Nobody. Ever. Is going to beat me again. I’ll kill the first man who tries. Or I’ll certainly give him something to think about!”
“Oh, Cripes.” Martin moaned. “The Police’ll come. You’ll end up in jail. This is terrible, Robin. Please! Please, just think about it. Don’t decide now. Think about it. You’ll see. And if you go to the doc and say you’re under a strain, he may send you home for a holiday, you lucky pig! Think about that!”
“I’ll think about it.” Robin said, as they joined the queue for breakfast. At table 9, Mr Hill did not come to breakfast. This in itself was not unusual, but Mr Lawson wasn’t in either, and that was. Mr Lawson used to say that breakfast was his favourite meal, and even used to lecture the staff about the dangers of going to work on a cup of instant coffee, as some of them did, making a first, bleary-eyed appearance, yawning, at morning Assembly.
There was a great deal of interest in the events that had taken place in Middle Dorm. People kept asking Robin what was up, to which Robin just shrugged. Highly dramatic accounts were already in brisk circulation. Apart from a couple of versions which bore some slight resemblance to the truth, there were others: Mr Hill had flashed his cock at them; Robin had flashed his cock at Mr Hill; Matron and Mr Hill had been caught ‘doing-it’ in the corridor outside the dorm by Robin; Matron and Robin had been caught ‘doing-it’ by Mr Hill, who was insanely jealous, and so on, ad rather interesting nauseam. A couple of the masters had retired from earshot of the boys and were talking quietly as they leaned against the wall and studiously avoided directly looking towards table 3. Then Matron came over and took Robin aside. She seemed to be asking him some searching questions, unsmilingly, then she beckoned him to follow her. Martin caught up with Robin at Assembly, but refrained from asking him anything.
“She wanted to look at my backside.” Robin said, offhandedly. Martin frowned. There were quite a few bruises, he remembered. He said slowly, “And?”
“She said ‘tsk, tsk’. . . ‘oh, dear!’— stuff like that.” Robin winked. They hushed. Mr Lawson, followed closely by Mr Hill, strode in smiling and Miss Fraser bravely struck up the first chords of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers!’
After the hymn, the Lesson nervously read by one of the prefects, then the Lord’s Prayer, and Mr Lawson’s brief Dedication of the day ahead, he dismissed them, adding, “All members of the Middle Dormitory to my drawing-room now, please.”
First, it was just Mr Lawson and Robin.
They were inside for twelve long minutes, with hardly a sound coming out, until just at the end, Robin’s voice could be heard saying something in a high voice, something like never, or could it have been pervert? Martin wondered. The four of them who were outside looked at each other and giggled nervously. Then the door opened suddenly and Robin came out, almost pushed by Mr Lawson, who snapped, “Right, Coventry, upstairs! Wait for me outside my office. Musgrave, in here! At the double!”
The door to the drawing room was old and heavy. It shut with a sound of satisfaction and finality. In his four years at Drumwhinnie it was only the third time Martin had been in this room. Two years ago he had had a sixer here, but most of his beatings had been administered in the office upstairs. He gazed with interest at the floral coverings, the photographs of the Lawson children on the grand piano. Outside, through the tall French windows, The light of a sharp winter’s day blazed, edging the slender twigs of a chestnut tree like the bony fingers of a witch.
Mr Lawson, standing with one hand on the mantelpiece, was evidently irritated. “Sit down, Musgrave. I’m going to ask you some specific questions, and I hope that I can count on truthful answers.”
“I have heard some very disturbing things about certain events of yesterday.”
“For instance, that Coventry was extremely rude to Mr Hill, even using certain words that are normally automatic grounds for expulsion. I won’t repeat those words, but I think we both know what they were.”
Mr Lawson was staring at Martin. “Well?” He snapped.
It was strange, but that was the instant that something changed for Martin. It was all so unfair! Mr Lawson was not even trying to hide the fact that he was on Mr Hill’s side.
Martin felt his face flush as he said, “Mr Hill was rude too!”
“Example?” The headmaster snapped.
“He called Robin a— a. . . bastard, Sir.”
Lawson’s eyes narrowed. “Careful, Musgrave! Think very carefully about what you are saying. Do you expect me to believe that—”
“He did! He called him a bastard!”
The headmaster seemed to shrink a little, looking suddenly tired as he took a seat on the big wing chair by the fireplace, putting him on a level with Martin. His voice seemed dispirited, devoid of the anger that had been there moments before: “Tell me the truth, Musgrave. Did you discuss this with your classmate Coventry at any time, to get your stories— ah, straight?”
Mr Lawson nodded. Then he sighed. “All right, Musgrave. You can go. I’m not finished, and I may have other questions for you later. You will go to whatever you have until I call you, and you will discuss this matter with no one. No one, understood?”
“Yes, sir, No one.”
He found Robin leaning against the wall by the Beak’s office. From inside came the clatter of Miss Bryce’s typing. The corridor was deserted.
“Well?” Martin hissed.
Robin shrugged. “Just what I thought. The Beak’s ganging up with the Pervert. What’d you think would happen?”
Martin felt as if his breakfast, small as it had been, was in rapid retreat from his stomach. He mumbled, unhappily, “So. . . you’ll maybe get sacked?”
Robin’s eyes flashed briefly. “I can take that.”
Martin felt as if he had been stabbed. His vision blurred. “But, Rob, I can’t! Don’t you see? I can’t!”
“We’ll see.” Robin said. His hand reached over to touch Martin briefly on the shoulder, and when Martin’s eyes met his, they found an expression that was at once defiant, and choked with pity. “Go on, Mouse.” He said gently. “Don’t get caught here. O.K.?”
Robin was at elevenses, but looked grim and distant.The Beak had just said he’d decide Robin’s fate later, then the two masters had gone into the drawing room together. That morning, irrelevantly consecrated to the liturgies of Mathematics, French, and Latin, went by somehow. Mrs Lawson took them for Latin instead of Mr Hill, and she was particularly contemptuous. If anyone had prepared the appropriate passage of The Aeneid, then the excitement of the Pervert Affair had as if wiped their minds clean of all contamination with Virgil’s allegedly lustrous verses.
“Um—” Martin stumbled hopefully: “er. . .reginam er. . . queen?”
“Not ‘um’ or ‘er’ anything, Musgrave. After a mere three years of Latin, I suppose we ought to congratulate you for knowing the meaning of’ regina. But then, most Post-Office clerks have that much knowledge and since it is not my mission in life to train postal clerks, you may sit down, and we’ll see if somebody else has loftier ambitions.”
Somehow, they got through her indignant corrections of their imaginative free translations slash parodies of Virgil. As she gathered up her books she said, “Well, thank you, gentlemen, for a really new experience. I hadn’t realised it was possible to do so much damage to the cause of Latin Scholarship in so short a time. It has been a most instructive morning for me. In more ways than one,” she added ambiguously, as she swept out of the room.
After lunch, Mr Lawson, as if by chance, caught up with them as they were leaving the dining-room: “Ah! Coventry. . . and Musgrave. I’m glad I’ve caught up with you both. I’d be grateful for a few moments of your time, if you don’t mind?”
“Yes Sir!” Martin said, suddenly invaded by an almost visceral happiness. He stared at Mr Lawson, smiling and avuncular. This was not the angry and dismissive Mr Lawson of a scant four hours previously. Something had happened, and whatever it was, there was no doubt it was good news for Robin. Martin felt almost loving towards the Beak, who had always been, in his experience, firm but fair.
Martin could never get over Mr Lawson’s laboured efforts at courtesy, which he maintained in all but the most strained of circumstances. For example, when they were imitating him beating a boy, the script usually went something like: “And now, Carter, if you would be so good as to touch your toes? I do hope you have no prior engagement? Are you quite comfortable, Carter? Perhaps you would like a magazine to read, while I beat the shit out of you?”
Martin wondered what it meant that Mr Lawson had recovered his celebrated urbanity, and exchanged a significant glance with Robin as they followed the Headmaster into the drawing-room. As the door thudded to, the Beak said, “Now, Coventry, this largely concerns you, but I have asked Musgrave to be present because I know he’s your friend, and you might like to have the opportunity to talk things over with him afterwards, while you think over your response. Is that all right? Of course, if you prefer—”
“That’s all right, Sir. I’m fine with him here.”
Mr Lawson waved them hospitably to the sofa.
The boys sat down, and Mr Lawson took the big wing armchair by the fire, stirring absently at peevishly smoking logs with the poker as he did so. He gazed at them thoughtfully. “Good. Now. After exhaustively investigating this matter, and questioning all the principals, including yourself and Mr Hill, and having had some information from Matron, I think I can say that I have a better idea what happened here.”
“Sir?” Robin said, blankly.
“It would appear that there has been a regrettable personal animosity between you and Mr Hill, for which Mr Hill has to accept major responsibility, as the adult, and the master. There may have been much insolence from you aimed at Mr Hill, and in the other direction, some possibly heavy-handed discipline. Mr Hill was quite shocked to hear from Matron that you had sustained bruising from the er— ah—”
“Beatings.” Robin supplied helpfully.
“Beatings. Yes. However—” Mr Lawson paused for effect. “One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that whatever else happened, and many things did happen, Mr Hill did not—”
“He touched me.” Robin said mechanically.
“Please let me finish, Coventry. Mr Hill has been a master and Deputy Headmaster here for may years. Do you honestly think that if Mr Hill were a fondler of adolescent boys, he’d have lasted that long without some sort of previous incident?”
“Sir.” Robin said in that tone of voice they all used when speaking to authority, deliberately wooden and colourless.
So. Martin noted for future reference that his sketchy understanding of the word pervert was filling in rapidly. So that’s what it was: Fondling.
“How does that sound to you? A man like that fondles a thirteen year old boy? One for whom he had a certain rather well advertised antipathy? A regrettable antipathy, I grant, but—”
“I don’t care. I hate Mr Hill and he hates me. He has never given me a moment’s peace all term. I’ve been so busy doing punny runs and extra Latin, as well as all the beatings, that I couldn’t even practise my piano. Even when I had the time, I could hardly sit down.”
“That is a shame.” Mr Lawson said gravely. “A real shame. I know how much your music means to you.”
“So.” Robin said truculently. “He touched me. You can sack him. Or sack me. I’m sick of this place, anyway.”
“Robin. . .” Mr Lawson said urgently.
Martin noted with fascination the use of the Christian name. He had never heard Mr Lawson do that before.
“Robin, listen to me. I know that there have been faults on both sides. You have already been punished more than enough. I have a proposal which I think will satisfy you. It will also avoid the catastrophe which awaits both you and Mr Hill if you continue to make your allegations.”
Robin’s eyes widened, in rather impolite skepticism. “I’m listening.”
“First, let me outline for you what will happen if you continue to allege that Mr Hill touched you. First, I will immediately ask your parents to withdraw you from Drumwhinnie, not as a punishment, but simply because I cannot, and will not dismiss a master of Mr Hill’s standing on unsupported allegations such as the ones you are advancing. Your parents, if they are good, supportive parents, will insist on bringing charges against Mr Hill and a suit for damages against the school. The press will no doubt make everybody’s life miserable and you will be The Boy Who Was Fondled by Derek Hill for the next ten years or so, until the matter comes to Court. At that point, if your solicitors have not already recommended you drop the suit when they see the strength of Mr Hill’s defence, you, by then at University or beyond, will lose your suit and the inevitable countersuit, ruining your parents, in all likelihood.
“But perhaps your parents will just let the matter drop, in the interests of your own reputation and sanity and their finances, in which case, you will effectively have been expelled from Drumwhinnie—”
“And Mr Hill?” Robin said, unbelievingly.
“Mr Hill will continue to teach here until he resigns, or until something convinces me he has lost the right to be a master at Drumwhinnie. Derek Hill one, Robin Coventry nil.”
“Well, that’s what I expected.” Robin said dully.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way.” Mr Lawson said urgently. “It doesn’t, Robin. Let me tell you what I propose, to clear up this mess. First, I do not wish to get into the matter of whether Mr Hill did in fact touch you. I don’t know. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that in the highly charged emotions of the event, you misjudged what happened. You misinterpreted. That is not a crime. No-one will punish you for making an honest mistake. So let’s say for the sake of argument that this is what happened. The resultant drama should then alert me to the fact that you have been quite egregiously over-punished by Mr Hill, who should have known better. I will reprimand Mr Hill. Mr Hill will henceforth have to clear all punishments meted out to you with me—”
“No.” Robin said, in a clipped tone. “He’s not going to beat me again. Nobody is. I mean it.”
“I said all punishments.”
“Careful, Robin.” Mr Lawson said, but mildly enough. “As for beatings, I am instructing Mr Hill in particular, and the staff in general, that you,Robin, are to be dealt with by me, personally, in the case of all infractions of discipline. And I assure you, I won’t be beating you. Nor do I expect to have to, or that you will require any kind of punishment. I think I detect a certain, ah, maturity in your outlook. An appreciation of um, worldly matters which is quite surprising, ah, in one your age.”
Mr Lawson smiled thinly. “In addition to that, you will be moved, along with Martin here, into my wife’s Tutorial form. We had planned on you both going there next term anyway. So Mr Hill will no longer be taking you for anything.”
“Except ‘rugger’.” Robin said, with insulting emphasis on the word.
“Ah, yes.” Mr Lawson looked as if he was either restraining himself from exploding with anger, or perhaps just stifling laughter. “What shall we do about rugby? I gather that neither you nor Martin is in serious danger of being chosen for the First Fifteen. Perhaps you would both be better employed getting healthy exercise, say, bird-watching, or collecting botany specimens and the like?”
There was a pause.
“Cricket too?” Robin said, warily.
“And cricket.” Mr Lawson conceded gravely.
Another silence. Robin seemed to be thinking hard. Then he said, slowly, “Maybe I did sort of misunderstand. Him touching me. It could have been what you said, sir. I’d hate— I mean, I’d hate to accuse somebody without being absolutely positive—”
“I am so glad to hear that, Robin.” Mr Lawson said, his shoulders visibly untensing. Martin thought irrelevantly, how like a skull Mr Lawson’s face was, like the skull on the Jolly Roger, with tiny beads of sweat on the tall, shiny forehead.
“And of course,” Mr Lawson said, breezily, “as a gentleman of the Tutorial, with all the implied responsibilities and privileges, you will want to make an apology to Mr Hill, in the presence of all the other members of your dormitory, for the bad language, just as Mr Hill has suggested to me that he would like to apologise to you for any intemperate speech on his part.”
Robin looked suddenly as if he would choke. Then he muttered, “I’m not making a— a public confession at Assembly. Anything like that.”
“Confession?” Mr Lawson looked blank. “What would you have to confess? Oh, no. I would just ask you in all fairness to do what you can to undo some of the damage. Perhaps let it drop here and there, that you might have been mistaken— at any rate, you will cease to accuse Mr Hill. The matter will, as things do in the fullness of time, fade. The boys will have other, more interesting things to gossip about. When parents write to me for clarification, I will tell them substantially what we have discussed. It was a mistake. A boy got overworked, and overwrought. Things were said— etcetera.”
“Etcetera.” Robin still seemed deep in thought.
“Even then, I grant you, we may have some unpleasantness. A couple of boys may be withdrawn. We can weather it. And believe me, Robin, one way or the other, we will weather it. With or without your help.”
Martin felt a kind of admiration for Mr Lawson.
Not for the first time, it occurred to him that things were definitely stacked in favour of the adults in this world. Then he made a little personal vow, that when he had all the cards, he would never use them against the young. It was hard to see himself married—
God! Perhaps even to the cool and superior Miss Angela Pepper, age fifteen, who had played so many fine supporting roles in the torrid films he himself had written and directed, like Night of the Swimming Pool, Summer Days in The Secret Garden, and his favourite, Marooned in the South Pacific.
Yes. Well, to someone like Angela, surely. His children, and Angela’s children would never have to yearn for adulthood as he and Robin had. Promise.
“Well, Robin? Do we have an agreement?”
“I suppose so, sir.”
Funny. Robin sounded almost relieved, then he said, abruptly, “I want to go home.”
“Home?” Mr Lawson was smiling, but edgily.
“For the weekend. Martin too, if he wants to come. I want to catch up on my piano. Then I’ll come back.”
Mr Lawson smiled. Suddenly, he looked relaxed. Then he sort of chuckled and shrugged his shoulders.
Later, as Robin and Martin strolled up the side of the burn, throwing stones through the thin ice of its surface, they totted up their winnings. Their shouts, cheers and laughter echoed against the dilapidated walls of the abandoned stables. Martin screamed, “Goodbye, gym-shoe!”
Robin howled, “Goodbye, good-old-ruggah!”
“Goodbye, team three cheers! Goodbye for he’s a jolly good fellow!“
“Mr Hill— fixed!” Martin heaved a half-brick through the ice, making a dull, satisfying splash.
Robin took a smaller stone and hurled it through one of the much broken windows of the Old Stables. “Perv Hill— fixed like. . . like a randy cat!” he crowed, adding, “Goodbye, randy! Hello, so-oo-opranooooo!!”
“What do you mean, ‘soo-oopranooo’?” Martin asked.
“Paul says, one way you can tell when a man has had his balls cut off is when he sings so-oo-pran-ooo.” Robin’s voice rose several octaves.
“Oh. . . What’s randy, anyway?” Martin said, frowning. “Oh, Cripes! Hello, free weekend! Dispassionate leave!”
Robin threw his arms wide, embracing the fine universe. “Hello, gone-fishing!”
“Hello— Oh, hello. . . the rest of my life!” Robin yelled.
“Hello. . . um, Angela Pepper.” Martin said, looking quickly at Robin to see his reaction.
“Who’s Angela Pepper?” Robin asked, interested.
“I um. . . well, someone I’m planning on fondling.” Martin said, reddening. Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing again.
For years afterwards, Martin had a vivid image of Mr Hill’s bright red face, muscles working as he said through clenched teeth, “Naturally, Coventry, if I used any. . . intemperate. . . language. . . I freely and sincerely apologise.”
Strange, Robin’s own apology had almost sounded like a claim of total victory, which it probably was: “I said some things to Mr Hill. I believe that maybe. . . in the heat of the moment, I may have been, er probably, I was mistaken. I also used language which— um, words I should not have used. . . I apologise for that to Mr Hill and to the whole dorm.”
Robin’s voice had been clear and rather defiant as he stood there in the Beak’s drawing-room, facing his adversary across the length of a faded, antique hearth rug, which Mrs Lawson never tired of telling them, the Lawsons had bought for a song in a bazaar in Bokhara, wherever that was.