Picnic at the Old Dam
The day had dawned flawless, with just the slightest of breezes to ruffle one’s hair. The air was still cool, but warming rapidly and he knew that within an hour it would be almost uncomfortable. With each breath of the sweet air Martin grew more intoxicated. It was a heady mixture of freedom from classes, midsummer joy, and the pleasure of a whole day stretching before him, with the additional pleasure of sharing it with Robin.
The six Tutorial boys lolled on the lawn outside the classroom window, waiting for Mrs Lawson to appear and lead them off. In the distance, they saw other groups of boys disappearing into the dusty haze.
Martin grinned at Robin, who was staring at his reflection in the diamond-leaded classroom window, trying on a fishing hat that an uncle had given him. It was a green canvas one, a little large for Robin, decorated with fishing flies. Martin made a mental note to ask his mother to send him a hat just like it.
“Super hat!” Robin said.
“Can I try it?” Martin begged.
“Oh— oh, all right. But only for a sec. . .”
Martin looked at himself in the window and liked what he saw. He thought he looked a bit like those photographs of Australian soldiers during the War.
“Vanity, Musgrave! Vanity, saith the preacher!”
Mrs Lawson had appeared out of nowhere, and was actually smiling. Even she seemed to be off duty today. She wore casual slacks and a silk headscarf.
Martin smiled non-committally, and handed the hat back to Robin.
Mrs Lawson clapped for attention. “Now, boys, un-fortunately—” She let the word hang in the still air.
Martin held his breath. So much misery could be introduced into one’s life by that little word.
“I won’t be able to supervise your picnic today. I have a friend visiting unexpectedly. . . however—”
She gazed at them with a thoughtful smile.
Martin thought, Ssshh. . . Sugar! They couldn’t keep them back from the picnic, could they? Surely they’d let them go without a staff member, or at the very worst, have them run after one of the other groups. . ?
“I’m almost certain we’ll be able to persuade Mr and Mrs Renton to take you instead. . . It’s their day off, but I’m sure they won’t mind. . . Ah! Here they come now. . .”
Martin quickly read in the glassy politeness of Michael Renton’s smile, that he was far from not minding this unexpected change of plan.
“I am so grateful, Michael, for this. Naturally, I’ll make it up to you—” Mrs Lawson trilled.
“Not a bit. Not a bit, Amanda.” Renton muttered, through barely moving lips. “Always a pleasure to help out. Daphne and I weren’t planning much anyway.”
Martin and Robin exchanged significant glances and went into Imbecile Expression Mode. Having initially arrived as Mr Renton and Miss Stevenson at the beginning of the school year, Mr and Mrs Renton had been married, the rumour went, in urgent haste during the Easter holidays, in order to allow the first Renton sprog to have some sort of credible gestation period. The wildest stories of the Rentons’ intimate activities circulated, and Martin and Robin needed only the code of their heavy-lidded vacuity to exchange heavily sarcastic, silent dialogue:
“Not much planned! Only a verrr-itabllle shag-athon!”
“Oh, God. Lucky dog! Llllll…uckyyyyy dog!“
Martin allowed himself a brief glance at Daphne Renton. She was a small woman with an open, girlish face and a trim little waist. So far there was very little to back up the rumours of a little bun in the Renton oven. If she didn’t show some sort of bulge by mid-term, there would have to be some revisions of current gossip. Somebody would be sure to speculate, if it wasn’t Martin himself, that Mr Renton might be furious for having been taken in by a phony pregnancy.
Mrs Lawson was already by the French windows of the drawing-room, going back inside; Renton was looking over in her direction and Martin could have sworn he heard the soft, but clearly articulated word, Bitch.
“Excuse me, sir?” Martin said innocently.
“I said, Musgrave, you radio-telesope-eared goblin, Noblesse oblige.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, sir. That’s what I thought you said, sir.”
“So you were right, then, weren’t you, Musgrave? You occasionally are.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Robin said owlishly. “What does that mean, sir? Noblesse oblige?”
“Idiot! Ask your friend Musgrave. Stop pestering me.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
Martin and Robin exchanged precisely attuned warning glances, and immediately dropped the subject. Masters could be goaded only so far before awarding the Order of the Slipper, with its bleak and painful ceremony of Investiture.
Mr Renton first went back inside with Gordon Fraser; when they reappeared, Gordon was carrying a battered rucksack on his back. Martin heard the clink of glass, then Mr Renton bawled irritably: “Not like that, you blockhead! If you shake them like that they’ll explode, and if I lose my beer, you are going to be an old man before you make it out of puberty!”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir!”
“We’ll rotate the beer detail every fifteen minutes. . . who’s got the food? Oh, right, Dawson. We’ll rotate that too. Come on, let’s get on with it.”
Mr Renton waved vaguely towards the back drive, and the cavalcade started. Alex Leckie was bubbling with excitement; he skipped on tiptoe in front of the Rentons, slowly precessing backwards as they moved towards him.
“Leckie, you miserable wet rag! What do you think you are doing?”
“Please, sir! You haven’t said where we are going!”
“How do I know where we’re going? I just got off the boat!”
“Aw, si-ir! You’re supposed to decide!”
“Because— ” Leckie was momentarily nonplussed, then the anxious skipping movements started again. “Because— how can we get there if we don’t know where it is?”
“Good point.” Mr Renton pushed Leckie gently aside and moved inexorably on towards the unknown destination.
“And furthermore,” Martin added in a ringing barrister’s voice: “And furthermore, Gentlemen of the Jury, how are we to know that we have arrived there? I put it to you—”
“I put it to you, Musgrave—”
Martin felt a sudden chill and glanced swiftly at Mr Renton. Then relief. Mr Renton was smiling. You never knew with masters, how much clowning around they’d take. Sometimes, if they were in a really foul mood, you could end up being beaten for the most innocent remark. But Renton was smiling. That meant he was beginning to recover from his initial bad temper at being hijacked by Amanda Lawson.
“I put it to you, Mister Musgrave, that you’d better put Leckie out of his misery and decide where it is we’re supposed to be heading.”
“Me, sir?” Astonished.
“You, sir. Get on with it!”
“Where I’d like to go, sir, is the Old Dam.”
Renton pursed his lips. “That’s out-of-bounds, isn’t it, Musgrave?”
“Well, I’m not too sure, sir.”
Martin explained that although the Old Dam had been explicitly out-of-bounds the previous summer, after that clot in 3B had broken his toe slipping on the slimy bit, Mr Lawson hadn’t said anything about it this term. And surely if Mr Lawson had meant there to be a permanent ban on going to the Old Dam, he would have said so.
“Wouldn’t he, sir?” Martin said innocently, discreetly eying Daphne Renton’s tiny bosom. She had a brightly flowered shirt on and Martin knew it was going to be difficult to decide the bra question.
“So, if I understand you correctly, Musgrave, you are telling me that there is some doubt as to the current status of the Old Dam, and that in the event of fertiliser becoming airborne in the future, some case could be made for honest uncertainty. . .”
“I think you put that very well, sir.” Martin said admiringly.
Renton made a sudden lunge and Martin reflexly bounced back, avoiding the swing of Renton’s hand. The master smiled, but Martin knew that if he hadn’t dodged it, he’d have received a fairly solid cuff.
“All right, you cheeky squirt, you win. If everybody agrees on the Old Dam, and everybody swears to keep his mouth shut. . .”
“Oh, yes, sir!”
A chorus of cheers accompanied the decision, and Leckie, relieved that at last the expedition could proceed in good order, swooped off to the front, to lead it.
Martin and Robin hung back a little, just a few steps in front of the Rentons. Martin knew that if they tried to walk behind them, they’d be called to order, and forced back in front. Not for nothing were the adults determined to bring up the rear, as Martin guessed from the giggling and whispering he could hear. He stored up the precise intonation of Daphne Renton saying, “Stop it! Not now, darling!” and, as paraphrased by Martin, “O-o-oh, naughty, naughty, notty-notty-bo-iy! Stop it!” These phrases would form the centrepiece of some hilarious after dark frolics in the dorm, and Martin savoured them.
The dusty forestry road climbed at a gentle angle; to the right it was overhung with yellow plantagenet broom in full flower; to the left, a swell of pink rhododendrons dipped sharply down to the abandoned sawmill and the Old Stables. It was hot, but Martin knew that at the top, where the road made a right-angled bend into forestry land, it would be shaded, deliciously cool.
Alex Leckie came running back to announce, distraught:
“Sir, sir! You said fifteen minutes, sir! It’s been nearly sixteen minutes by my— “
“Leckie, will you stop behaving like a bloody— girl!”
“Right! Leckie, since you’re so keen, you take the beer. Coventry, you take the food. . . And Leckie, I’d keep the contents of that rucksack very cool and moving very gently, if I were you. The slightest excitement and one of those bottles will explode for sure, and we might have to scrape you off the bushes to find enough bits to bury.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Leckie apologised automatically.
Martin pounced on that too for his aural scrap-book. He grinned at Robin, who winked, shrugging into the harness of the bag containing the sandwiches.
Martin sighed deeply. It was a perfect day. If only they could figure out some way of walking behind Daphne Renton, so they could study the bra question at leisure, and from there, move on to more complex problems, such as how many garments she had on in total, including shoes, and how long it would take her to take them off at three point five seconds per itsy and four point five per bitsy.
The Old Dam had been built by the Forestry Commission in the Thirties, but nobody seemed to know why. Its twenty-year-old slime-draped mass blocked the outlet of a pool that was perhaps forty yards across and six feet deep at the deepest point, the dam itself. The Old Dam just stood there, in an isolated spot about an hour’s gentle stroll from the School, and its still shores had nursed the joys of generations of tadpoles and of generations of small boys, their natural predators.
When they arrived, Mr Renton gathered the boys together and issued instructions: “Right. I expect responsible behaviour. Nobody is to climb on the dam itself—” Mr Renton pitilessly waved aside the moan of protest “. . .and I mean nobody. Is that clear? Good. You can swim, you can fool around in the burn, or whatever, but no climbing on the dam. Right. At ease, men. We might as well eat the food now before somebody conceives of the brilliant idea of dropping it in the water.”
The Rentons installed themselves a little way off, under the shade of a small weeping willow. Mr Renton tenderly put the two large lemonade bottles of Mr Cunningham’s home-brewed beer into a tributary of the burn, to keep them cool. Alex Leckie had the temerity to go over to them, probably to ask if he could sit with them, and then was seen to scurry back, under a hail of bellowed invective from Mr Renton. Martin and Robin found themselves another shady spot and settled down with their sandwiches and paper cups of lemonade.
Martin said judiciously, “What do you think? I say no bra.”
“I think you’re right. . . so if we agree on shirt, shorts, two shoes and. . .”
“Do we count the shoes as one or two?”
“Two, I’d say. So, two shoes and—”
“Knickers!” Martin breathed reverently.
“. . .that makes five items. We count the shoes as bitsies, because of the laces, and the rest as itsies. . . that makes. . . mm— nineteen point five seconds, tops.”
“What it must be to have a mathematical brain.” Martin murmured respectfully.
“Oh— it’s nothing, really.” Robin shrugged modestly.
Martin giggled, and gazed fondly over at Daphne Renton, who lay back on her side, gazing adoringly at her husband. She reminded Martin of a picture he’d seen in a book, of a slave-girl at a Roman orgy. Then she threw back her pretty little head and her mouth opened in a peal of delighted laughter.
Martin sighed. He wished to God he could be Michael Renton. Just for the afternoon. Just for one measly little afternoon. . .
Mr Renton came over and clapped his hands again. “All right, you lot. . . lend an ear. Mrs Renton and I are going to take a little walk. I’m going to leave you, uh— Leckie, in charge. No climbing on the dam. No horseplay with sticks, no throwing stones. And, very important— If you want to explore, you must stay within earshot of this point. When I come back, I’m going to give a shout and anyone who is not back here within two minutes is in for a beating. Got that?”
“Yes, sir.” The voices were subdued. Only Alex Leckie showed evidence of being pleased with this arrangement. Martin gritted his teeth at the affront. Leckie was a year younger than the rest of them. He wasn’t due for his CE exam until the following year. How could Renton do this to them?
Apparently, without second thought. Soon the two adults were round the bend of the road, hand in hand, giggling like children.
“Well, you heard what he said.” Leckie started cautiously.
Brian Dawson grabbed Leckie by the front of his shirt and half lifted him to stand on tiptoe. “Yeah. We heard, squirt. Any shite from you and you get to be mincemeat.”
“But Mr Renton said!” Leckie was on the verge of tears.
Dawson shook him gently. “Some advice, dung-britches. Go and play and keep your mouth shut. Otherwise. . !”
“I’m going to tell!”
“Are you?” Dawson pulled Leckie closer to him.
“Let me go!”
Dawson obligingly let Leckie go, and since he had been pulling vigorously to get away, he fell clumsily back and ended with his backside in the water. He wailed, “Now look what you’ve done!”
He was met by a wave of callous laughter.
Martin and Robin exchanged nods and began to head away from the dam, after the Rentons.
“Hey, you two, where are you going?” John McKean, the oldest in the class, was the real leader, if there had to be one. He called out to them from the water’s edge, where he was getting into his swimming trunks, and Martin called back, “Not far!”
“Don’t get lost, otherwise shite-knickers gets blamed.”
“Oh, dear!” Robin yelled back.
Once they got round the bend, and the shouts from the dam became faint, Robin pulled a crushed cardboard container from his pocket. Martin gazed in awe at the two cigarettes, only slightly bent and misshapen. Robin had spotted the box lying in the bushes two days ago. One of the masters must have dropped it. Probably Mr Whittaker, because they were Players Filter, his brand. He was so absent minded that he wouldn’t even have missed them.
“Shall we light up?” Robin asked.
“Let’s get further away, where we can relax and enjoy them.” Martin suggested.
“Kay.” Robin shoved them back into his pocket. He grinned and began to mimic an entire orchestra doing one of their favourite pieces, Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto:
“Pah TUM, tiddely om pom pom pom pom pom POM, pom pom POM, POM pah POM! POM pa pom pom POM pa pom pom.”
Then his hands abandoned the neurotic gesticulations of Herbert Von Karajan, to undertake the soloist’s part:
“Teedely eedely eedely tateedely eedely eedely. . . something!”
“Oh, I bet!” Martin yelled derisively. “I bet! something! Yeah. Just what Beethoven wrote. I can just hear him saying, “und here, mein freunde, ve haf tah pom piddeley- somsing!”
Then they were both laughing so much they had to hold on to each other for a few moments. Martin felt very close to Robin then, and so sad that nowadays, they seemed to touch so little. It was something to do with the ‘business’, he thought. The little hairs they both had started to grow, the confused dreams they had of Daphne Renton taking off her clothes and murmuring, “There now, my lovely boy, my lovely big boy. . . yes, my dear, darling boy. . . yes yes yes!” And the stains of cold ‘stuff’ they found in their pyjamas when they awoke. They often talked about it, puzzled over it all, and wondered whether it was quite normal.
Subdued, they continued to walk, in no particular hurry or direction; then at an unspoken query from Robin, and a shrug from Martin, turned off the road and clambered up into the forest. Just inside the treeline, they paused. Martin always felt something like a kick in his stomach when he entered the forest. Even if they were only six yards from the blaze of the road, the sense of being dominated by something ancient, something so very, very— awesome, overpowered him.
“Pan!” Robin muttered, placing his palm on his stomach. “D’you feel it too, Martin?”
“The Great, goat-footed God. Or Bachhus! Makes me want to have a crap.”
“Yeah!” Robin said. “On the other hand— it could be the spam sandwiches! Ooooo! I think I have to—”
Martin smiled, went off to find a suitable spot for himself. It wasn’t the spam. And Robin’s remark seemed almost sacreligious.
After an interlude in which they made separate obeisances to Pan (or to the Great God Spam) they found a little glade not far off, and lit up, sitting on a couple of rotting logs. They watched each other hungrily for signs of impending nausea, and grinned, as they puffed shallowly, and inexpertly at the cigarettes. From time to time, they coughed, and discreetly converted the sounds into manly throat-clearings.
“This is the life, isn’t it, Martin?” Robin sighed.
“Is it ever!”
“These are better than Woodbines, eh?”
Suddenly, Robin, who had the hearing of a dog, stilled. He extended his hand warningly, and with the other, hastily butted out his fag. Martin followed suit and they both crouched down. Even then, in what was clearly a dangerous moment, Robin had the presence of mind to put their fag-ends back into the crumpled package. Martin still couldn’t hear anything. Robin carefully turned his head this way and that, and eventually nodded. He pointed significantly in a direction that led deeper into the forest, and silently crawled into the trees in the opposite direction.
They held a whispered conference.
“It’s them. I can hear her giggling.”
“Gosh. Are we lucky!” Martin muttered. “We must have nearly fallen over them. Let’s get the hell—”
Robin shook his head impatiently. Martin’s eyes widened. “Robin! If he catches us, we’ll get beaten to a pulp!”
“Nah!” Robin’s eyes sparkled. “He won’t catch us.”
Suddenly, Robin’s eyes were cold and contemptuous. “Listen, yellow-belly, if you back out now, I won’t talk to you ever again.”
“Back out of what?!”
“You’ll see. Let’s just move very quietly, keep off the dry sticks and head in that direction. We’ll catch them at it!”
The carpet of needles was so thick that their feet settled almost an inch with each step. Martin felt sick with fear, and dizzy from the delayed effects of the cigarette. His misery increased as the sound of Daphne Renton’s laughter became audible to him, then, further on, the lower tones of Michael Renton as well. Michael Renton’s voice was slow somehow, as if he was speaking through a mouthful of honey. Robin moved with the grace and stealth of a jaguar, pausing every few steps to listen and reorient himself. Martin just followed.
Then, with startling clarity, Martin could see them. The couple were standing in the centre of a tiny, mossy glade, about sixty yards away. They were picked out by a brilliant shaft of sunlight, like actors spotlit on a stage. The analogy was closer still, because the glade sloped gently up, away from the audience.
Martin felt terribly afraid now. If Michael Renton were so much as to suspect they were there, his wrath would be murderous. But Robin just smiled, motioned Martin to come over to where he was, behind a loose clump of dried roots. There they could see perfectly, and were hidden by the roots.
Robin whispered, “The light’s in their eyes. They can’t see a thing.”
“Oh, God, Robin! Please! Let’s go!” Martin begged. He was sure now he was going to be sick. He prayed to be spared that humiliation.
Robin stared at Martin with that awful, cut-off kind of expression, and shrugged. Miserably, Martin stayed. He stared at the scene on stage with the awful knowledge that surely, God would pluck out those eyes that feasted on. . .
Daphne Renton stepping out of her shorts and undies in one liquid movement, and lifting her shirt up, over her head, and dropping it on the ground. Michael Renton, kicking off his shoes, was like a bronze statue of Apollo.
Martin’s mouth was dry. An erection had appeared so suddenly that he almost doubled over. Miraculously, the nausea had gone.
Daphne went to Michael. His hand was a square brown blot on the tall pale oval of her buttock. The hand sought her centre, split her thighs and lifted her up. Then, for a moment, she hung skewered on him, head thrown back, breasts offered to Bacchus. Michael spun slowly, then he dropped to his knees and laid her shoulders on the ground. He held the centre of her close to him as he began to rock and then he fell, very slowly, into her centre. Then the urgent, gentle rhythm of his body matched the little cries she made—
Oh, the cry she made!
Martin ran. He seemed to have run for miles, but he knew it wasn’t more than a few hundred yards, back to the road. He burst out of the forest and sat down on the bank, panting.
Then, after a few seconds, Robin appeared. He too had been running. Martin half rose, thinking that Robin was pursued by the devil, or by someone much more malevolent than the devil. . . but Robin shook his head and slumped down beside him.
For quite a while, neither of them spoke. Then Martin said, jerking his head in the direction they had come, “Did you get—?”
“A woodie? Like concrete!”
“More—? I mean—”
“Spunk?” Robin said coolly. “All inside my shorts.”
“Me too.” Martin lied.
Robin squeezed Martin’s shoulder affectionately as they walked back towards the dam. “Wow-ee!” Robin said grinning. “That’s one for the school mag, eh?”
Martin stopped, puzzled. He had to know something. “Robin?”
“Yes, Sir Martin?” Robin said quizzically.
“Robin, what did it all mean, to you— the stuff that happened back there?”
“Starring Michael and Daphne?”
“It was— It was, I think, Sir Martin, and I hate to admit it, but it was kind of— beautiful. Magnif. A sexquake.”
“Sexquake? God, I love that word!” Martin laughed. “Yes. It’s great. It was a sexquake for me too. I’m glad.”
Robin grinned, and began to bellow: “Pa POM, tiddly om pom pom pom POM pom pom pom POM, pom pom pom POM pa POM!”
Martin took it away: “Teedly eedly pateedily eedily eedily . . pateedily. . . something!”
Robin roared: “Vot! Zomsinks? Zomsinks? Zinse ven haf ve been doink zese ungeschedulated cadentzas, Meister soliste penis pianneest? Zinse ven?”
“Zinse venever I vant to, Meister Herbert Von Karavan!”
Martin thought, it was the most wonderful day of his life. He didn’t even have to ask Robin to know that there was no question of sharing that. . . that thing with the rest of the boys in the dorm. Oh, they’d tell about the smokes. . . make up some bull about Renton almost catching them in flagrante cigaretto. . . but not, never, not ever— the other thing.
Surprising, really, all things considered. Who would have known that Michael Renton had the soul, well— the cock of a poet, anyway. Who would have thought that the much sniggered-over body of Daphne Renton, in real, naked, vulnerable life, spread wide to welcome the poet, and the poet’s thick, strong cock. . . who would have thought that the sight of her body thus would rip tears from his eyes and even— he knew that was why Robin had also run away— from Robin’s eyes too.
God bless you, Daphne Renton. Long may you draw the poet to your pale, frail altar, and long may we all weep as we pump our very souls into your chalice. . .
“What?” Robin bellowed.
“Nothing.” Martin said.
“Stop muttering to yourself. Let’s get in some swimming before they come back. Come on, let’s run!”
Martin smiled, but he thought it was much too hot to run. And anyway, there was almost the whole afternoon left. No rush.