Quite some excitement was generated by Monday’s announcement that the school photograph was to be done during the final period before lunch on Friday morning. Mr Lawson had a sarky little smile as he said, “I hope you boys will all be able to get over the bitter disappointment of having to ah. . . forgo, as it were, a whole period of instruction.”
The teachers all thought this was terribly witty and giggled, or, in the case of Mr Hill, guffawed in manly appreciation of the headmaster’s humour. A few of the older boys laughed politely, whilst Martin merely allowed his mouth to hover ambiguously in the direction of a smile. He was beginning to understand the workings of something Mr Hill called repartee— which meant something insulting said by a master to a boy, whilst any traffic of the sort in the other direction was called cheek, and subject to stiff penalties. It was, for example, extremely clever for Mr Hill to call Martin a ‘cretin’, but just plain dangerous for Martin to call Mr Hill anything but ‘Sir’. The thing about repartee was, the older you were, the better you could appreciate it.
At teatime, Mr Hill was explaining something called the panoramic camera to them. Mr Hill knew everything about photography, and was able to rattle off dates and things about its inventors, as if he had known them all personally. A well-timed question about the pioneers of the albumin print (whatever that was) or about the early years of the ‘talkies’, could save a Latin class from descending into an abyss of contemplation of the ablative absolute. It didn’t always work, but it was worth a try, and most of the boys in Martin’s form had memorised a few key words that might serve to prime Mr Hill’s pump.
At teatime, however, Mr Hill’s explanations were not saving them from anything, and were thus simply boring. To compensate for such trials, Martin and Robin had developed a way of gazing at Mr Hill with glassy reverence, concentrating on the task of responding to the lecture with such extravagant servility that it hovered on the edge of insult: “That is so incredibly interesting, Sir!” or perhaps, “I wish I knew as much as you do about photography, Sir.” One of Robin’s favourites was “Sir, could you recommend a book I could read?” But Robin had once perilously overworked this line, using it only a week after Mr Hill had lent him a book on the very subject under discussion, the History of Early Colour Photography.
Right now, Robin and Martin sat on either side of Mr Hill as he expatiated on the panoramic camera, and both were intent on a brisk auction:
Robin opened with, “Incredible!”
Martin countered, “What a genius idea!”
Robin refused to be dismayed by this fine riposte, and came back swinging: “Sir! You’re not just teasing us, are you?”
Martin flicked a slight smile of contempt in Robin’s direction. Weak! Feeble! He laid down an ace: “Well, I must say it’s beyond me, Sir.I just don’t understand how it works. . .” He nodded sombrely.
Mr Hill’s eyes lit with a missionary flame: “Oh, Musgrave, you clot! How can you fail to understand?”
“Well, I sort of do. . .” Martin retreated. “Um. . . I mean, you explained it so well, and yet, and yet— I just can’t quite get it, Sir.” Robin recognised the stroke of a master in the poignant humility of Martin, apparently on the verge of tears of frustrated incomprehension.
“Oh, come.” Mr Hill said kindly, “Let’s go over it again. Now, instead of an iris diaphragm, the camera has a narrow, vertical slit, and a motor turns the lens-assembly and the slit slowly in a clockwise—”
“Sir! Sir!” As if agonised with doubt, Martin started slightly up in his seat, with his hand upraised in urgent question.
“Sir, I don’t want to interrupt, but— I just want to make sure I understand. . . could it go anti-clockwise?”
A murmur of approval from the other boys at the table greeted this reasonable point. Mr Hill seemed irritated, and pointed a finger at Martin, who wondered if he had gone too far.
“Ass. Cretin. Moron, Musgrave! Of course it doesn’t matter if it goes anti-clockwise. It would work just the same. It just so happens that the one Mr Gordon is going to use on Friday goes clockwise.” “Oh, thank you, Sir. I think I see it now. . . so. . . as the slit moves round, over the emulsion, an image of what the camera is looking at is laid down as a continuum of vertical strips, so you can take a very wide picture without having to use an excessively wide-angle lens, with a lot of spherical aberration and a small image on the negative. . . sort of?”
Robin acknowledged as much with a slight inclination of his head. It always unsettled Mr Hill when a densely miscomprehended topic suddenly flooded into a concise, accurate precis, which a boy would suddenly gabble, after much well dramatised puzzlement. It was always risky to unsettle Mr Hill, but a swift change of subject usually sufficed to prevent him wondering if the boys were poking fun at him.
This time, Mr Hill looked carefully at Martin. Then he said, “Yes, Musgrave, that is a fairly good summary of what I said. However. . . I wonder where you got the term ‘spherical aberration’? Did I use it tonight?”
A chorus: “Oh, yes, sir!”, “Oh, very distinctly, sir.” And “Yes sir, you just said that the first time you explained it. . . and pin-cushion thingummy too.”
Mr Hill shrugged. He stared hard at Martin. “Perhaps. Watch your step, Musgrave. If you think you can extract the Michael from me, you’ll come a cropper. Understood?”
“Oh, yes, Sir! But Sir, I—”
There was silence at the table 8, in a sea of noise from the other ninety or so boys in the dining room. At the High Table, Mr and Mrs Lawson presided, their grave heads bright pink blobs wavering in the steamy air as they condescended to a coterie of polite, awkward senior boys, stiff with manners and opinions on the auspices for Scotland at Twickenham.
Martin breathed the heady aroma of triumph, mixed with just a hint of toad-in-the-hole and of excitement, of disaster narrowly averted. Repartee was a heady wine when you were just twelve and three-quarters, and Martin hoped to become a connoisseur. How lucky they were to have Mr Hill to instruct them in the nuances!
Mr Hill let it be understood that it was entirely due to his guidance that Mr Gordon, the local photographer who always did the school photo, had sent away to Aberdeen to rent a panoramic camera for this year. He let it be further understood that he fully expected to have to help Mr Gordon with it, since Mr Gordon was quite out of his depth in anything more challenging than weddings and christenings.
Mr Hill then smiled and wagged his finger at them, “And by the way, I hope nobody gets the bright idea he’s going to get his picture taken twice, as somebody in my form did when I was your age.”
“His picture taken twice? How, Sir?” Martin asked, puzzled.
“All right, let’s say a boy is standing on the far left of the assembled school. Once the camera has passed him, he could duck down, then run round the back and pop his head up on the right hand end, just in time to have his picture taken a second time.” “And that really works, Sir?” Robin was astonished.
“Certainly. But I remember that the boy who did it paid for his enterprise with a rather stiff beating. . . still, it was quite funny at the time. Bewick was his name. The School Joker. He was always getting into hot water of some kind or other, but you couldn’t help liking the chap. Never a dull moment. Quite a good friend of mine, by the way. We still keep in touch. He’s a very successful barrister in London now, and we often talk about the Good Old Days, and about the School Photo of 1938. . . What a card!”
Martin recognised instantly, from Robin’s thoughtful expression, overlaid with a certain factitious attention, that Robin was already planning his own stab at immortality. Martin staked out certain dissuasive arguments, which he would advance later, when they got down to private discussions. As far as he was concerned, everlasting cardhood was no consolation for a hefty thrashing. Six of the best? Better make that twelve. Maybe even expulsion,for such a premeditated act of hooliganism. Mr Hill might well consider the actions of Bewick in 1938 through a veil of nostalgia, but Robin Coventry would be shown no mercy for aping them in 1958. Of that Martin was sure.
“Oh, tosh.” Robin said, while they strolled round the grounds after prep. “They can beat me. I can take it.”
“They’ll sack you, Robin!”
“No. I may not even get beaten. You’ll see. The Killer will do all he can to prevent the Beak finding out he gave me the idea.”
“What if the Beak deals with it himself?”
“Why should he? He always gets Hill to do the flogging if he can get out of it. And he certainly can’t sack me if I tell him his Assistant Beak told me how to do it. How would that sound to my parents?”
“But you don’t know that, Robin!”
“No. But it’s reasonable, isn’t it? Anyway, it all depends what fate decides, not me. . . If they put me at the wrong end, I can’t do it, can I? Or if I have to stand on a table in the middle or something.”
All Martin’s arguments were dismissed. The best he could get out of Robin was that fate would decide. He wasn’t going to go out of his way to go through with his plan, but if the circumstances were propitious. . . well, Mr Hill had almost issued a challenge in recounting Bewick’s exploit, and Robin Coventry would never forgive himself if he didn’t take it up.
On Tuesday, after morning assembly, Martin passed quite close by Mr Lawson and Mr Hill in the Hall and caught a snatch of their conversation:
“. . . if you wouldn’t mind doing the logistics and so forth?”
“Delighted, Headmaster. Just a matter of using the older boys to carry out some chairs for the staff. We won’t need tables.” By that evening, a detailed plan was on the notice-board, giving the precise position of every form and staff-member for the photograph, with even an arrow to indicate True North, and a little line marked off in feet and inches to give the scale. The staff each had a little box with their initials, starting with the Lawsons in dead centre, Mr Hill on Mr Lawson’s right hand, and trailing out to the wings with the rest of them, in strict order of importance. Robin pointed this ordering out to Martin, who might have missed the significance of Matron being on the extreme right-hand end, and Mr Kelly, the pink-shirted Art Master, on the left, viewed from the camera. It was well known that Mr Hill had no time for Matron, whom he considered too soft, and too eager to exercise her privilege to excuse boys from games, or ‘shirk’, as he put it, and he had even less time for Mr Kelly, whom he called a ‘pansy’, making a modest effort to not be overheard doing so by the boys.
On the Plan, the boys were indicated with an elongated box to represent an entire form. Martin noted with a twist in his gut that 3B were on the far left of the arrangement, behind Mr Kelly. Robin winked, and gave every indication that he was delighted with the arrangement, but Martin wondered if he was really feeling as brave as he made out. He pleaded: “Rob, why don’t you leave it? It’s crazy. No-one else knows about it, and I won’t tell.”
This was important. Had it been generally known what Robin’s plans were, he could not have gone back on them without considerable loss of face.
“I’m going to do it. Nothing can stop me now.” Robin said, with a jut of his chin, and certitude in his voice. Martin backed away from further argument, knowing that the more he said, the more Robin would paint himself into a corner, and the likelihood of a last minute attack of sanity would diminish.
On Thursday evening, Martin and Robin strolled in front of the school, over the cracked, uneven paving stones.
“You’ll be heard,” Martin observed, clicking his shoes against the cement. “How are you going to get around that?”
Robin was thoughtful. “Yes. . . I hadn’t thought of that. It’ll be quiet. My shoes will make fearful— that’s it!”
“I’ll undo my laces, then I’ll slip off my shoes while nobody’s looking. In stocking-soles, nobody will hear a thing!”
“Then how do you plan to explain your being at one end and your shoes at the other?”
“Wet! I’ll run right back, as soon as the camera stops moving, and before Hill or anyone has a chance to get up and see me.”
“And Mr Gordon? What about him? Won’t he get a teensy bit suspicious if he sees all this activity?”
“Oh,” Robin shrugged. “I’ve got to take some risks. Anyway, it’s the idea that’s important. The game’s the thing!”
That night, just before lights out, David Latimer dropped a bombshell. He was sitting propped up against the head of his bed with his hands clasped behind his head. He waited until most of the boys were in bed, reading or, in the case of Martin and Robin, playing pocket chess, then said, “I’ve got news for you lot.”
Assured of everybody’s full attention, he continued, “I’m going to do a Bewick’s Run tomorrow!” He scanned the room for a reaction. “Won’t Hill be shirty!”
Silence. Then a murmur of admiration as the realisation sank in. Martin scanned Robin’s face. He almost felt Robin’s grief. Then he nudged Robin and winked, whispering, “Well, tough luck, Rob. He’s got it now.” Martin was referring to that unspoken, but definite clause in the code of honour, by which the first boy to suggest a project had exclusive rights to it.
Robin shrugged angrily. He snapped the chess-set shut with a vicious gesture and said, “So am I.”
Howls of disapproval greeted him. “You can’t!” Latimer hissed. “I said it first, so I baggsed it!”
“How can I help it if you can’t resist bragging about something you won’t even dare doing! I’ve been planning it since Monday. Ask Musgrave. He knows.”
Martin nodded, reluctantly: “Yes. Covvy’s been planning it.” “Oh, I bet! I don’t believe you!” Latimer said angrily. “You just—”
“Who’re you calling a liar?” Martin flared uneasily, hoping this wouldn’t end in a tussle. Latimer was a good stone heavier and an inch taller than he was.
“Hang on!” Robin said. “You keep out of this, Martin. Don’t waste your breath on that idiot. We’ve proved we had it all planned, and I’m going to run whether Latimer does or not. What are you going to do about it, Shatimer?”
“You’ll see,” Latimer breathed, Laventry!”
Laughter greeted this witty twist of Robin’s surname. Robin shrugged, reopened the chess set and offered it to Martin, who sensed that honour was pretty well even now, and that neither Robin nor Latimer wanted to risk a fight. Judging from the lack of further input from anyone else, he guessed that Robin had established a reasonable claim on running, whatever Latimer said or did.
He felt considerable sympathy for Robin. It had to be galling indeed for Robin that his name would be joined to Latimer’s and that he would be beaten alongside him, tarnishing his glory.
The day dawned sunny and clean. Massed rhododendrons in pink, white and mauve swelled like a tide up the lower flanks of Finella Hill, to the misty line where moor and forest cut them off. Martin, tying his tie at the window of the dorm, sighed. Of course, Robin would be the one getting the gym-shoe, but what if— horror of horrors— what if a beating was considered insufficient?
Life at Drumwhinnie was hard enough with a friend. Without Robin, Martin was sure it would be unbearable. What if he could somehow, casually, open up the plot, so Mr Hill would suspect something, and say, put 3B at the wrong end of the group? No. Robin would kill him.
Robin, at any rate, seemed in good spirits, humming as he added a last minute lustre to the perfection of his toecaps.
“The auspices are excellent, O Martinus!” he declaimed.
Martin said grumpily, “Martin-e. The vocative of Martinus is Martin-e. And for your information, the auspices are terrible.”
“Oh, ye of little faith!”
“Better put some blotch in your pants.” Martin was referring to a frequently quoted adage that several thicknesses of strategically located blotting-paper dulled the impact. It didn’t work, and painstaking research had showed that as little as two sheets showed up quite well through taut corduroy. Mr Hill would certainly double the penalty for even so paltry an attempt at protection.
All through the morning Martin found his attention drawn to the window, which overlooked the forecourt, where Mr Hill, armed with clipboard and tape-measure, oversaw a gang of sweating seniors setting out chairs in a neat, gently curved line. Each chair was millimetrically adjusted to be exactly the same distance from the camera position. A green van drew up. It was marked “A.D. Gordon, Laurencekirk 385, Professional Photographer.” Mr Hill strode over to assist in the opening of the back doors, from which The Camera, then The Tripod, followed by The Equipment Bag, were successively and tenderly taken out. It was a French class and Mamzelle Pierreux seemed content to allow them to crowd round the windows and watch, instead of insisting on more Lectures Pour Débutants.
“Quite extraordinaire, no, boys?” she said. “So complicated! Such genial things!” Martin felt much as Charles the First might have felt, watching the construction of the scaffold.
Finally, Mr Hill sent off runners to summon the boys, form by form, the most senior ones first, so that the youngest would have less time to fidget. A breathless courier arrived to invite 3B to take their places. Mamzelle Pierreux clapped her hands and said gaily, “Allez, venez, les amis! Veuillez bien— ne pas courir, Stewart!”
With breathtaking suddenness, it seemed, they were all ready. The staff stopped milling around the camera and took their appointed places, the last to do so being the Lawsons, obsequiously shown to them by Mr Hill himself. Mr Gordon was hidden beneath the traditional black cloth of his trade, the combination of man and machine looking eerily like an extraterrestrial insect, gazing balefully at them through its single eye, which squinted off to the left of the group, where 3B waited breathlessly, frozen behind Mr Kelly and Mamzelle. She bubbled something at him in French and Mr Kelly murmured a reply which made her go pffff!— drawing an immediate scowl from Mr Hill. Only pansies spoke the kind of fluent French Mr Kelly did. Mr Hill was scanning the line slowly, seeking out untidiness and imbalance: “Your tie, Scott Major! . . . Allan, a bit closer to Dennison— not that close, dolt! Right! Stand up straight, Barnes. . . Graham Minor! I thought I gave strict instructions that all boys were to comb their hair! Oh, thank you, Matron. . .Now. . . That should just about—”
Martin held his breath. Looking down, he could see that Robin’s laces were undone, as were Latimer’s. This was it. Mr Hill would sit down, then—
“Oh, I forgot.” Mr Hill clapped his head in annoyance. “I’m sorry, Mr Gordon. Just one moment more— Right, 3B, change places with 3A.”
Martin gasped. 3A was at the far right of the line.
Robin looked unbelieving. Thunderstruck. So did the rest of 3B.
“Come on, get a move on! We haven’t got all day! And without pushing and shoving, Latimer, you oaf. . .”
As 3B threaded through 3A, behind the line, a certain amount of secretive elbowing and tripping occurred. If Mr Hill noticed he didn’t remark on it, apart from fuming at them to get a move on. Then it was done. Mr Hill made last minute adjustments to both groups of boys, a final, approving survey, then, it seemed to Martin, just before he took his own place, he awarded 3B a particularly affable grin.
“Ready when you are, Mr Gordon!”
From the corner of his eye, Martin tried to gauge Robin’s reaction, which seemed quite mild. The laces were still undone. Then— Robin was gone. Comically, where he had stood, the empty shoes remained as if glued to the ground, while their owner had been blown to bits, like a clip from the Keystone Cops. Martin could almost see the wisp of smoke rising from them. Then he edged over to cover the gap, straddling the empty shoes, as agreed. The only sound was the whirr of the camera motor, the only movement, apart from the steady rotation of the big brass lens, was Mr Gordon crouching sideways to light a cigarette in his cupped hands.
Panicked, Martin watched as the lens reached the mid-part of its trajectory, and in response to a grin from Dalziell, who was now next to him,winked, a gesture of much more casualness than he felt appropriate to the circumstances. A scarcely felt movement at his right, as Robin squeezed back in, his face impassive as he slipped into the shoes, then the insect eye was upon them, savouring them, then rejecting them as inedible. It was done.
An audible sigh escaped from the whole school as the motor stopped. Mr Gordon had his hands under the cloth, fiddling with the back of the camera, a limp cigarette hanging from his lips. Robin was serenely, and modestly accepting the surreptitious tributes of 3B:
“Oh, wow! Well done, Cov!”
“Yes. It was well done.” Latimer said grudgingly. “I should’ve realised it could be done either way. . .”
“Thanks.” Robin said, warily eyeing Mr Hill, who was now standing up and gesturing to everyone to stay in their places.
“I bet 3A got a shock!” Martin said.
“They didn’t even notice. Or not till I left, then some idiot nearly gave it away. . . That Zawadski twerp almost tripped me up—”
Mr Hill was saying, in a voice that crescendoed with authority, “One— moment, everybody! Your indulgence, please, Collins!” Mr Hill smiled sunnily as he retreated to Mr Gordon’s position. Martin didn’t know why, but he felt a pang of fear as Mr Hill bent his head to Mr Gordon’s level. What was particularly ominous was that Mr Hill said absolutely nothing, merely raised his eyebrows, to which Mr Gordon shrugged and said something in a low voice. Mr Hill nodded and looked directly over to 3B. He was still smiling as he said, “Well. Mr Gordon tells me we’ll have to do another one—”
Groans from the staff. Cries of ‘Hooray!’ from the boys. Robin was biting his lip.
“Once more from the top, then, shall we?” Mr Hill said in a sweet tone that made Martin’s blood curdle.
“And this time, perhaps we could have less fidgeting from 3B?”
“Cripes.” Martin breathed. “He knows!”
Robin’s face was set, unknowable in expression. It remained so until the motor stopped a second time, and thus it was frozen for ever in the Drumwhinnie Castle School Photograph of 1958, which was issued as a fold-out in the Drumwhinnie Castle Citizen of that year. This time, Mr Gordon nodded, started packing up. Mr Hill had one more announcement as the school broke up: “I would like to have a word with Form 3B, after lunch, in their form-room. That is all.”
Lunch at table 9, where Robin, Martin and David Latimer were the only representatives of 3B, was charged with foreboding, but Mr Hill was uncharacteristically benign and cheerful. He ladled out the portions of greyish stew without the usual accompaniment of ironic remarks about feeding-time at the zoo. Martin and Robin said nothing, and Mr Hill seemed disinclined to draw them into conversation. At one point, one of the 2B boys asked point-blank: “Sir, what do you want to talk to 3B about?”
“Ah.” Mr Hill said, archly. “Perhaps you’d care to ask them about it afterwards. . . Or perhaps Coventry, Musgrave and er, yes, Latimer too, would like to guess. They’re in 3B, if I remember correctly.”
Silence. None of the three named seemed even to have heard.
“I bet you’re going to give them all punny runs for pushing and shoving during the photo.” Gregg said sententiously. “Trust them to let the School down. My form—”
“How interesting!” Mr Hill said, with a bright, menacing tone that shut Gregg’s engines down cold. “Pushing and shoving? Was there any of that? I’m sure everyone here would like to know how you saw that, Gregg, without contravening my strict instructions and craning your neck round to look behind you. . .”
“But, Sir, you said! About them fidgeting!”
Robin managed a resigned smile as Martin and he simultaneously abandoned their semolina puddings, after eating the blob of jam in the middle.
What Martin remembered most about Mr Hill during that afternoon meeting, was his superb aplomb. They were waiting for him, sombrely reading, or playing cards and Monopoly, in almost total silence, broken only by the most half-hearted exchanges: “Pontoon.” “Banker wins.” “Pall Mall. One House. A hundred and fifty.” “Thanks.” — when he came in suddenly, smiling and rubbing his hands: “Right, 3B. Curtain time! In your places. Cards, books and games stowed, please. . . Good.”
“Now. Gentlemen.” Mr Hill surveyed the closed faces before him. “Gentlemen. It appears we have a card in our midst. . .” Martin felt sick.
“. . . and we meet here now to give him his recognition, his due. Do you follow me so far, gentlemen?”
A nervous shuffling answered him. Nobody actually spoke. Even when responding with some kind of servility to Mr Hill, it was risky to draw attention to yourself. You kept your head down and waited for the storm to pass.
“Good. Perhaps he would like to stand and receive our accolade now?”
Robin slowly stood up. His face was pale, his lips bloodless.
“Oh, Bravo!” Mr Hill clapped his hands ironically, deliberately for several beats, then he nodded. “Yes. . . I thought as much. Mr Gordon did say the third or fourth boy from the end, so that either had to be you or Musgrave.”
Mr Hill walked slowly towards Robin, but not directly, and not looking at him until whirling on him suddenly as he came close. Robin flinched. Mr Hill smiled reproachfully: “Think I was going to wallop you, Coventry? Tsk, tsk. We’re not savages, after all. There are, fortunately, certain protocols laid down in the Ministry of Education Guidelines on Capital— I beg your pardon, Corporal Punishment, which prescribe a definite ritual, with which all of you are by now only too familiar. Oh, no, Coventry. You will undoubtedly receive a beating, but in good time, and when I have sufficiently recovered my composure to be able to enjoy it fully . . . What do you think, boys? How many whacks for a boy who, against all odds, even after I had suspected something from the transparently obvious hints of his behaviour, and tried to give him an honourable way to save face— Oh, yes— I know all about the Unwritten Code. You seem to think I was born a Master. I know, Coventry. I know what goes on in your scurrilous little minds because— because, I too was once twelve years old. . . You, Musgrave? How many whacks ought I to give Coventry? How about twelve? One for each sin-packed year of his so-far pointless existence? Answer me, boy!”
“I don’t know, sir.” Martin whispered.
“Is twelve reasonable, Musgrave, for your pal, Coventry?”
“I think it’s. . . too much, sir.” Martin tried to stifle tears.
Mr Hill was astonished. “Too much? Too much, Musgrave? So I must be un-reasonable, then, mustn’t I? If I suggest twelve— perhaps you think I must be a sadist— (Years later, Martin remembered that Mr Hill pronounced ‘sadist’ like ‘saddest’) to give a twelver to your poor, misguided friend, who had such a deprived childhood. . . being sent to an expensive private Borstal in the heart of Darkest Scotland, instead of to the Elysium of the State-School System?”
Mr Hill studied Robin’s face hard. Robin wiped his sleeve across the corner of his eye.
“Oh. Contrite, are we? Stricken with grief at our misbehaviour? Answer me, boy!”
Robin shook his head defiantly, but said nothing.
Then Mr Hill seemed spent. The energy was gone. He waved Robin back into his seat. “All right, sit down, you little lout. When I dismiss the rest to go to games, you will accompany me to my study, where I shall beat you. The rest of you will do a daily punishment run for a week, for knowing all about the plan and not having the sense to stop him.
There was a murmur of muted protest— Sir!. . . But!
“Talk to Coventry if you don’t like it. . . as for you, Musgrave, you can do a daily punishment run with Coventry for each of the twenty-two days remaining in term, and think yourself lucky I’m not beating you too. . . Oh, yes, Coventry, I do know that you’ve been using that time for your piano practice. Too bad. It seems you’re not going to become a concert pianist this term, doesn’t it?”
Mr Hill turned towards the door, beckoning Robin as he did so. “All right, the rest of you, get out.”
Dispiritedly, the boys crowded out, and Martin moved slowly enough to leave last, just before Mr Hill and Robin.
He wanted to say something encouraging to Robin, but in the end, didn’t dare. Just as they reached the turn in the corridor, he heard Mr Hill say, in quite a normal tone of voice, “Oh, by the way, Coventry. You’ll be glad to know I told Mr Gordon not to waste a plate on the first attempt. Just in case. And you so obligingly proved again that I do know my boys! What price doing a Parslow’s Run now, eh?”
“Parslow’s run?” Robin murmured, surprised.
“Yes. Don’t you remember? I told you. He’s the boy at my school, who did it in 1938. . . Quite a successful barrister now, at the Inns of Court, if you’d believe it! We still keep in touch.”
Once it was established that Robin’s life and his future mobility were not in the balance, Mr Lawson allowed his irritation to show through: “I’m beginning to regret giving you two licence to endanger life and limb in aimless ramblings. The result: a thoughtless tree climbing exploit, ending with your leg in a cast and likely the loss of a week’s schoolwork while you lie in hospital feeling sorry for yourself.”
“Sorry Sir,” Robin muttered, eyes downcast.
Robin was allowed two visitors at a time in Stracathro Hospital. His parents had left, and Mr Lawson had spent about twenty minutes privately with Dr and Mrs Coventry prior to their leaving. Now the two regulation metal folding chairs were occupied by Mr Lawson and Martin, one on each side of the bed. The ward was half empty. Martin was surprised and secretly amused by the headmaster’s evident discomfort at being reduced to the humble status of hospital visitor, whose function was simply to impede the orderly accomplishment of Sister MacNeill’s duties. The Beak wore a heavy overcoat, with a silk cravat and his bony hands rested on a grey tweed cap in his lap. Everything about him spoke eloquently of the fact that he was just passing through and that he would soon be much relieved to find himself elsewhere.
The Sister’s movements seemed to be a precisely calculated compromise between expedition and dignity. Her trajectory from her lair to Robin’s bed like the motion of a billiard ball, geometrically straight, purposeful, inevitable. She tugged the corner of Robin’s bedclothes furthest from the visitors into a regulation hospital corner. Her voice was an efficient murmur, almost a whisper, but guaranteed to carry clearly from one corner of the ward to the opposite: “Young man, are you needing anything?”
“Oh, yes!” Robin said quickly. I need to—”
“Yes. I see. Perhaps your visitors—?”
The hint was all Mr Lawson needed. He signalled to Martin with an economical motion of his eyebrows and they moved a little way off as Sister began briskly to draw the curtains round Robin’s bed.
Mr Lawson stood there, his thoughts unknowable, rocking on his heels as they listened to the only audible side of the dialogue that accompanied the medical sacrament being conducted behind the curtain:
“You will not find any use for modesty here, Robin. The staff of this ward are quite familiar with the human body, and you need to turn a wee bit more towards me to get everything lined up. . . There! Good! . . Excellent! Well done, Cutty Sark! . . Well, yes, just a wee bit. We’ll get you a clean sheet when your visitors leave. . . Is that all? Are you sure, now?”
Then the curtains were swept apart and Sister surged out of Robin’s alcove with some kind of mysterious treasure covered with an immaculate linen. As she passed the two visitors, she said, “You can go back in, but be sure and not overtire him.”
Mr Lawson’s eyebrows drifted upwards in silent comment that Martin immediately understood, since it was exactly the response his own father would have had: It’s only a knee, Sister!
Mr Lawson didn’t sit down. Instead, he held out his hand to Robin. “Goodbye, you hooligan. I understand you won’t be here too much longer.”
“No Sir. That’s what they told my parents.”
Martin got up from his seat.
Mr Lawson waved him back. “No. Why don’t you stay and keep him company? I have a little chore to do before the drive back, so I’d like us to meet in twenty minutes in the car park.”
After Mr Lawson left, Robin said, “I was bursting. All the time my parents were here. My nurse went off for a break. She said she told the Sister but—”
“I’m sure they’re very busy,” Martin said.
“They’re always busy,” Robin said crossly. “Meg is the best but she has the whole ward. The Sister took ages to come.”
Martin said, “So you’re going to get out?”
“I think they might let me go tomorrow after they put on a new cast in the morning. Apparently the student doctor put on the wrong kind.”
“So you’ll go home?”
Robin sighed. “The doctor says there’s no reason I can’t go back to Drumwhinnie and keep up with my schoolwork. I’ll just have crutches.”
“Pity you won’t get to go home,” Martin said.
Martin was trying to look sympathetic, but was secretly delighted Robin was not going to have an extended break at home. He said, “How are things, Rob? Is it painful?”
“Painful? Of course it’s painful!”
“You don’t look like you’re suffering too much.”
“What? Oh. Ooh! Aaah! Oh! I can’t take it!—”
“Master Coventry!” Suddenly Sister MacNeill was there, her uniform crackling, the watch bouncing on her starched front, her eyebrows a straight line: “What is this commotion?”
“I take it the noise has more to do with amateur dramatics than actual pain?”
“I was just joking.”
Sister MacNeill energetically clapped the spare chair shut and wagged a finger at Robin. “Pain, real pain is not a joking matter, young man.”
“No, Sister. I’m sorry, Sister.”
“Right, well, see you are.” She left, her head held indignantly high.
After a brief, embarrassed silence, Martin said, “You’re looking much better than yesterday.”
The image Martin had for yesterday was the terrifying image of Robin, pale as flour, lying like a broken doll at the foot of the tree with the upper part of his right leg making a strange angle with the lower half.
Collateral something of the knee, said the doctor in A&E. He’ll need a couple of days of our hospitality.
“It’s boredom mostly,” Robin said listlessly.
Martin thought Robin was playing it up a little. Then, why not? Wouldn’t he be milking the sympathy udder too?
After a brief pause, Martin whispered, “Rob, can’t you smell it? It smells of pee in here.”
Rob giggled. “Loony! It’s me. It’s pretty hard to aim properly when your leg has a ton of plaster all the way up to your willy.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your feelings.”
“Tell you what, Mouse. I’m having a lot of trouble in that department. The peeing department.” Robin nodded his head significantly.
“Oh, Rob!” Martin said sympathetically. “It’ll be better with the new cast.”
A nurse Martin had not seen yet came to check on Robin. She was one of those fresh-faced Scottish lasses, no more than a couple of years older than themselves, and had a different uniform from the other nurses, with a plain white blouse rather than a fine pinstripe. She had green eyes behind enormous, thick lashes, freckles and mischief in every muscle of her face. She grinned as she made an unnecessary adjustment of Robin’s bedclothes. “How’s Master Robin?”
“Fine, Meg.” Robin said blushing. “Martin, this is my nurse, Meg.”
“Hello, Martin. I was on my meal, but I had to hurry back to take care of my young gentleman.” She looked at Robin and smiled. “Are you needing anything special?”
Robin’s face was beet red and he stammered something incoherent. Meg just patted his hand. “Tell you what. I’ll come back after, so I can get you comfortable, without you missing any visiting time.”
“Thanks, Meg.” Robin said, “. . .sweetheart.”
Meg seemed embarrassed, annoyed: “Och, now, Robin. You cannot call a nurse sweetheart. It’s not allowed. Sister—”
“Shoot me!” Robin said.
Meg moved away. It seemed she was trying to appear hard and professional. She said, severely, “Maybe I will! And don’t think I won’t!”
Robin sighed, his face dominated by a big grin. “See what I have to put up with, Mouse?”
“She’s going to bully me and push me around to get my gown off, then she’ll have to get Barbara or Teresa to help change my sheets, but I think she’ll manage to wash me all over with a wash cloth by herself.”
“Poor you. How embarrassing.” Martin said. “All over?”
“All over. And I’ll tell you something else.”
“It’s not just the peeing I have a problem with.”
Martin giggled. “Rob, I just stopped feeling sorry for you!”
Robin whispered, “I’m serious. I’m going to get all dislocated.”
Martin laughed. He said, “You fell out of the bloody tree but you landed pretty damn well, Sir Robin.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Robin sighed. “But. . . all good things come to an end. I’m pretty sure they’re letting me go tomorrow. . . where are you going?”
Martin looked at his watch. He bolted up from his chair. “Sorry. I’ve got to go. The Beak will be waiting for me in the car park. He’ll be annoyed of he has to wait. See you tomorrow, you lucky pig.”
Martin wasn’t sure how he felt about the Beakess, more properly the Ice Witch. Up to the moment when he was transferred along with Robin into her Tutorial class, she had been a remote figure gliding about the school in a severe tweed suit with a starched white blouse and frayed academic gown, scarcely deigning to notice him. She had abundant hair of a brilliant white that was almost hurtful to the eye, although she was not that old. She couldn’t be too old because Jessica, the youngest of the Lawson children was only ten.
She had been taking him for Latin for two weeks, during which time he had apparently become a constant source of disappointment to her. A typical remark, delivered in a sad, wondering tone might be: Your people have worked hard to send you here, Musgrave. I wish I could say that the effort you have put in has been commensurate. Or: It may require more than your own good opinion of yourself to get you a decent scholarship to Strathallan, Musgrave.
On the day that he and Robin were moved into the Tutorial, Mrs Lawson suffered, for about ten minutes, the noise and the disruption of wholesale cramming of desks and belongings of six boys into a space previously occupied by four, then her expression hardened. “You will just have to make do.” She said. “I don’t want to hear any more of this chaos. Put some of the tuck boxes on top of the others to make room.”
Once the dust of the physical move had settled, she announced, “The aim of the Tutorial Class, for which I am responsible, is to prepare boys for scholarship examinations. There is no other reason for you to be here. Miss Fraser will take you for mathematics, Mr Lawson will do French, the Reverend McLeod will give Greek to those boys whose chosen schools offer a Greek paper. I will have you for Latin and English. Between morning break, sometimes referred to by people who don’t know any better as elevenses, and lunch, the two periods are mine, and will be dedicated to English and/or Latin at my discretion, depending on where I feel you need more emphasis.”
Mrs Lawson had certain expectations. When she came into the room, at ten-forty-five precisely, the boys were expected to rise and chant, “Good morning Mrs Lawson!”
She would answer, “Good morning, gentlemen! You may be seated.”
The boy closest to the door would close it behind her as she placed her books on the desk and checked the date, which one of them would have written in Latin, neatly, on the top left hand corner of the board. This was a duty that was assigned in rotation, and was feared and detested cordially by all. The Roman calendar system was to say the least, complicated and unintuitive.
On the morning of the day after Robin came home from the hospital, Martin was tense. The two of them had worked on it collaboratively after prep the evening before and eventually, using the model in Kennedy’s Latin Primer, had come up with:
PRIDIE IDVS MARTIAS
Icewitch glanced at the words and gave a wintry smile. She said, “The grammar is fine, but today is not the pridie— the day before the Ides of March, is it? That was yesterday, I think you’ll find. So?”
Stewart, put up his hand and said, smugly, “It’s the actual Ides of March. Idibus Martiis.”
“Thank you, Stewart. Today is the fifteenth of March, thus the Ides. Idibus Martiis, in the ablative, is correct. Who did today’s date?”
Martin raised his hand. He and Robin had decided that although they would do their date duty together, they would alternate admitting ownership. He was furious that nobody had thought fit to warn them that in their effort to get the grammar right, he and Robin had done yesterday’s date by mistake.
But the Ice Witch was inclined to be merciful: “Well, Musgrave, it’s lucky for you it’s one of the models in Kennedy. But date wrong. So slapdash as usual. Pass. Take a moment to write that down, everybody, and Musgrave, correct the board. . . Now, let’s move on to our Aeneid, Book Six. Dalziell? Start us off, please.”
They were learning that being asked to construe was a minefield littered with the mutilated corpses of the timid cannon fodder of Latin scholarship. The best way to avoid being volunteered for it was to be sitting straight up, book open at the correct page and finger at the appropriate line of the text, and making frank, confident eye contact with her. The worst way, guaranteed to get oneself invited into no man’s land, was to be staring into space or out of the window. Mrs Lawson had a sixth sense for identifying boys who had failed to prepare.
However, that particular day, Icewitch paused and sat back in her chair, marking her place with an index card. She asked, “The Ides of March. An interesting date. Who can tell me why?”
Icewitch frowned. Scanned the blank faces before her. “Oh, come! Surely you’ve read Shakespeare? Somebody, surely, must have read some Shakespeare? Julius Caesar? Nobody?”
Stewart, the resident swot, put up a timid hand: “Caesar was born?”
Stewart flinched as the dart of the Icewitch’s sorrow skewered him: “Tsk, Stewart! Don’t just make a blind guess when you don’t know. No, it was not the date of Caesar’s birth. It was—?”
“How? How did he die?”
“Oh? Against whom?”
The ironic amusement of her tone told them all that Caesar did not die gloriously in battle. Martin was about to suggest In bed, when Robin took up the standard: “Wasn’t he murdered?”
“Yes, Coventry, thank you. Yes. At last. He was murdered. Where?”
“In the Agora?” Robin hazarded.
Mrs Lawson shook her head in long suffering surprise, as if Coventry had proved himself even more doltish then even she had suspected. “Well, Mr Hill did say you and Musgrave were shaky, but I see we have quite a bit of work to do to bring you up to Tutorial standard: No, Coventry. He was not murdered in the Agora. It would have been a miracle if he was, since the Agora is in Athens, and Julius Caesar lived and died in Rome. He was assassinated on the floor of the Senate, on the Ides of March 44 BC by conspirators led by a man called Brutus. According to Shakespeare, his dying words, as Brutus thrust his dagger into his heart were—?”
After a long pause, during which she scanned their faces from one end of their hypnotised semicircle to the other, then back. She sighed again, then with deliberation she reopened her Aeneid: “We will return to our contemplation of the beauty and the genius of Virgil. For homework, you will all research Caesar’s last words, and I want them in Latin, by tomorrow. If any boy thinks he can give me an actual contemporary citation, I will award him a large bar of chocolate. And by the way—” She said in her loud, most significant voice: “44 BC. Does that ring any bells? Anybody? What is 44 plus 1957?”
Martin said, “Two thousand and one.”
“And since we go straight from 1 BC to 1 AD, we have to subtract one, which gives us. . .?”
“Thank you Musgrave. So what happened exactly two thousand years ago today?”
After the period was over and the Ice Queen had swept from the room, gown billowing behind her, her final challenge was addressed communally by consulting Shakespeare and writing et tu, Brute in all their exercise books. Then Martin volunteered to trawl the Encyclopedia Britannica for the contemporary citation.
Stewart giggled. “I wouldn’t bother, if I were you, Musgrave. If she’s offering a bar of chocolate it means there is no contemporary quote out there, so save yourself a ton of work.”
Martin was puzzled. “So if she knows there’s nothing, why does she send us out looking for it?”
“That’s the Icewitch,” Stewart said.
“The Ice-Bitch.” Dalziell corrected.
One day, about a week after Robin came home from hospital, Mrs Lawson appeared to be in an unusually good mood. She was actually smiling and made no sour comment to find her board contaminated by Miss Fraser’s neat geometric speculations. She made a gesture to stop Dalziell from erasing it: “No. Leave it up. It takes me back to see Pythagoras. That diagram is exactly as I remember it in my textbook from far too many years ago, when I was a girl in pigtails and pinafore. I remember when our mathematics teacher, Mr McKay made me come to the board to prove it.”
“Really?” Robin said, surprised.
Robin said slyly, “Do you think you could still do it? I bet you couldn’t ”
“Oh?” She said smiling. “What makes you think that?”
Mrs Lawson’s smile became a little uncertain. She said, “Do you have our date, Dalziell?”
“Yes, Mrs Lawson.” Dalziell was printing in the top left corner:
ANTE DIEM DVODECIMVM KALENDAS APRILIS
“Good. A good start to the day. I hope you can keep it up.”
She sat down and arranged her books neatly in front of her, placing her elbows on the desk and folding her hands in an attitude of prayer. “First, how are you feeling, Coventry?”
“Very well, Mrs Lawson. It hardly hurts at all.”
“Very well, Mrs Lawson, thank you!”
“Yes. Sorry. Thank you.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Now. . . Virgil. Aeneid Book Six, line 187, I believe. You can start us off, Coventry.”
Robin said, “Yes, but could you? Prove Pythagoras, I mean?”
The Ice Witch’s expression clouded and her eyebrows came together in the middle. All the boys were familiar by now of the warning signs.
She said evenly, “Of course. That proof is a classic and I’m sure that you’ll remember it too, thirty years from now. But— Don’t let us get distracted from our task. We are doing Latin. Virgil, young man. Execute! Aeneid Book Six. Line 187, Si nunc se nobis. . .”
After the period, as Mrs Lawson was leaving, hugging her gown to herself, Robin intercepted her, grinning and bouncing on his feet as if he were a much younger boy, “I bet you a chocolate bar you couldn’t.”
Mrs Lawson looked surprised. She said,”Couldn’t what?”
“And you want to wager a chocolate bar on it?”
“Just for fun.”
“Oh, fun!” Her lips sketched a smile, as if fun was a distant memory. “I wonder if the Headmaster would approve.”
“You could talk to him.”
“I could indeed. . .” She paused a moment for thought. “All right, I accept. I’ll wager you a chocolate bar. If I succeed, you will owe me, of course. You realise that?”
It was as if the entire period, twenty-two lines of Virgil, had been nothing but a comma in her conversation with Robin about Pythagoras.
The following morning, Miss Fraser confided that Mrs Lawson had expressed an interest in having a look at the geometry textbook to check something.
She said, “Mrs Lawson is a very clever woman, you know. Much cleverer than me. I only know mathematics and science, but she knows all that Latin and Greek and quite a bit of mathematics too. I’ve promised to lend her a copy, and perhaps one of you could take it to her at lunchtime?”
“I will,” Robin said.
“You’re sure you can run around like that with your cast?”
“Oh, yes. On crutches, I’m Speedy Gonzalez!”
“Well, thank you, Robin. By the way, how are you feeling?”
“Very well, Miss Fraser, thank you.”
Robin told Martin he had a special reason for volunteering, but would not say what it was.
The following day, Miss Fraser spoke to Robin at the beginning of the mathematics period: “I hope your leg is better, Robin. You didn’t forget to give Mrs Lawson the book, did you?”
Robin slapped his forehead dramatically. “Oh bother! I knew I was forgetting something! Sorry. I’ll do it after morning break, shall I?”
Miss Fraser’s eyebrows rose millimetrically. “That’s not like you, Robin. See you do. . . Maybe I should ask someone else?”
“Oh, please don’t, Miss Fraser. I promise I’ll do it. It’s no bother. I’m sorry I forgot.”
“Apology accepted. Please do it before you have your cocoa.”
Still Robin seemed in no hurry to perform his commission. As he sipped his cocoa and stuffed bread and jam into his mouth, he said to Martin, “I’m going to get that bar of chocolate.”
“Wet! She’ll never remember how to prove Pythagoras, of course.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. She was pretty clever about the Julius Caesar thing, The Beak even mentioned it during Assembly, when he asked for a moment of silence in memory of Caesar.”
“Well, he’s on her side, isn’t he?”
At the beginning of the Latin period, Robin put up his hand in that peculiar way they had when they were eager to give some brilliant, urgent response to a question, with the elbow rigidly straightened, the hand waving like a semaphore. “Please, Mrs Lawson!”
“Miss Fraser wanted me to give you a book. Would you like it now?”
“After the period will be fine, Coventry.”
“And did you have any more thoughts about Pythagoras? About our bet?”
The realisation dawned on Martin. Mrs Lawson was trapped. If she suggested they do the bet tomorrow, she would have suffered a moral defeat, even if she managed to prove the ancient theorem, because everybody would know she had borrowed a book to refresh her memory.
She smiled ruefully, as if to acknowledge a fine move in a game of chess. She said slowly, “But I have to do it right now, don’t I? Otherwise you might argue I had looked it up.”
Robin’s face was expressionless. He said, “Oh, no, Mrs Lawson. Tomorrow will be fine.”
But everybody would know that if she accepted the delay, even if she won the bet, she would automatically forfeit the game. Her best strategy, in Martin’s mind, was to do it right away, then if she failed to prove Pythagoras after a creditable effort, cheerfully accept defeat, giving Robin his prize.
She said, “No. We’ll do it today. After we finish Latin.” She was looking at Robin carefully and Martin thought he could detect a certain respect.
Martin was having an odd reaction. It was strange, like the feeling he got in his stomach when he was about to have a beating. It was unpleasant. It felt like it had something to do with what was happening between Mrs Lawson and Robin, but he did not know what it was. The unpleasantness, and the feeling it was linked to Robin made him feel disloyal. Robin was saying, “When you were showing Mr McKay, did you have to do it at the board?”
Martin’s discomfort increased. The whole idea of the bet seemed soiled somehow, and Robin’s suppressed glee, indecent.
Mrs Lawson frowned. “We need to move on. Let’s say I undertake to demonstrate Pythagoras’ theorem at the blackboard in no more than 10 minutes.”
“You can have fifteen if you want.” Robin said generously.
“Ten is all I need, young man, and all you can afford to miss from this Latin period. Now. Back to Virgil.”
Her voice was taking on that loud tone, like a steamroller, which she sometimes used when she wanted to get the lesson back on track after an exuberant diversion.
Martin again felt some admiration for Mrs Lawson. Her insistance on doing it in ten minutes was not so much arrogance, as a refusal to allow Robin to control the conditions. She didn’t want his fifteen minutes. She preferred her own ten. If she lost it would have been that she herself had demanded the most rigorous parameters.
She did not call on Robin or Martin for the rest of the period, a good thing as far as Martin was concerned, because he was feeling quite scattered. An odd metamorphosis was taking place in his image of the headmistress. He realised he could never again call her the Ice Witch. Even her facial features were softened, made more youthful. He wished he could do something to make her like him.
Precisely, at eleven minutes to twelve, she snapped her book shut and announced, “Now This elderly teacher of the Classics will attempt to make good on her rash wager regarding the proof of Pythagoras’s theorem. I have to do it before the lunch bell, is that it?”
“Go!” Robin said.
At one point Martin really thought she was going to do it, but in spite of getting the diagram right, she missed some subtle logical step and when the lunch bell rang, she shrugged, dropped the chalk into the little shelf under the board and smiled. “Well, I guess I lost!”
Stewart said, “But you were very close, Mrs Lawson!”
A chorus of voices consoled her.
“I agree,” Martin said eagerly. “Very close.”
Robin said slyly, “A very creditable attempt,”
Mrs Lawson seemed not to notice the almost insolent use of a phrase she herself used when one of them got something almost right.
She looked steadily at Robin and said, “I assume I can have twenty-four hours to pay this debt of honour?”
“Of course,” Robin said. “You can take a week to pay up if you want. Or as long as you want.”
“Tomorrow will be fine,” she said. She held out her hand. “You won, fair and square.”
“You played well too.”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?”
Martin was fascinated by the sight of her hand, resting very lightly in Robin’s grip. He knew how cool, how light it would feel, and how coarse and sweaty Robin’s would be.
Then the moment was gone. She gathered up her books, and swept out of the room. An aristocrat.
Martin was silent over lunch, thoughtfully attending to his beef stew, listening to Robin celebrating his victory with what seemed to him to be indelicate triumph. After lunch Robin wanted to get his games kit on and head out for a walk to the stables, which was about the only adventure he could manage on crutches. He seemed hurt that Martin had other plans, but said nothing.
Martin said he felt like he needed to run. He would run a slow circuit round the grounds, then do his prep.
He was fed up with Robin always bossing him around.