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.
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.
(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.
This is one of a set of stories I wrote many years ago. I guess it’s really old fashioned. . . It has never before seen the light of day. Now I’m retired from saving the world from itself, I thought I’d dust it off and send it out there.
In his first term at Drumwhinnie Castle Preparatory School for Boys, Martin Musgrave had two teachers. The first, Miss Urquhart, had straight black hair and a mouth that looked like she had just sucked on a lemon. On the first day, she marched into the classroom, plunked her books on the teacher’s table and said, briskly, “Boys. Thank you for your attention.”
She went to the board and wrote:
She explained that it was pronounced Urkart, then said, “I want you to know that our time together can be lots of smiles or lots of tears. You have the choice. The next time I have to raise my voice when I come into the room, there will be trouble.”
The very quietness of her tone should have warned them that Miss Urquhart meant business.
The second day, when she was greeted by the same disorder, she seemed puzzled: “Oh. I thought we’d already had a little chat about this sort of thing. . . Every boy will now stand to the right of his desk and hold out his left hand. . .”
The slice of a heavy ruler into his palm caused an explosion of a kind of pain that Martin had never felt in his life, and left a red mark that took several hours to fade. After that, when Miss Urquhart came into the room, she was pleased to find them all so quiet: “Good morning, boys! All smiles today?” — to which came the chorus:
“Good morning, Miss Urquhart! Yes, Miss Urquhart!”
Two weeks into the term, Miss Urquhart was found one morning, according to the rumours Martin heard, slumped over a lavatory bowl in the senior ablutions. She was last seen leaving in a taxi during lunch. Miss MacDonald, the Matron, was overheard making dark comments about pairsons of that sort. At any rate, she had sailed out of the lives of Form One forever, to Martin’s intense relief. For two days, Miss Phillips, the Assistant Matron, sat with Form One while they drew and painted, or wrote short, laborious letters home.
Then there was a new face in the line‑up of teachers at Morning Assembly and Mr Lawson announced: “I’m sure all the boys and staff will warmly welcome Miss Nancy De Vries, whom we have been fortunate in being able to engage as a temporary replacement for Miss Urquhart, who left us so sadly, and so suddenly, due to illness. Miss De Vries comes to us very highly qualified and warmly recommended from the University of California at Los Angeles, with a Master’s degree in Music. She is rather more than qualified to be form teacher for Form One, and she has also agreed to take some of the older boys as private piano pupils.”
Remembering Miss Urquhart, Martin was prepared to adore Miss De Vries on sight. She had a soft, kind face, and he was certain that she was looking directly at him when she smiled that morning. She had a mass of hair of a colour Martin had never seen before, golden, of a slightly reddish shade, and eyes that in the distance were dark, but close up were greenish. Her lips were tinged with pale lilac lipstick, something Martin considered elegant and different.
Miss De Vries was given the same welcome Miss Urquhart got, but she allowed quite a riot to develop before in the end banging on the table and shouting, “O.K., O.K., already! Can it, you guys, or there’s going to be blood!”
The boys laughed, and more or less settled down, knowing that Miss De Vries had none of that cold rage that could power the weight of a ruler into soft, vulnerable palms.
Just as Miss Urquhart had been given the nick‑name by some of the older boys in the school, Dark Heart, so Miss De Vries was initially called De Freeze. Not for long. Martin remembered the last time he heard the expression used, only a week after she had arrived. The boy who used it looked sheepish and said, as if he had to justify himself, “Well, we got to call her something, don’t we? We can’t just call her Miss De Vries, can we?”
“I think we should call her. . . um— ” A boy named Leckie screwed up his face in intense thought, then fell silent.
“I know! I know! How about. . . I know! De Breeze!” Paterson shrilled, bouncing on the tips of his toes.
A sigh escaped the group, crowded round one of the beds in the dorm. Everyone nodded. The inspiration was unassailable, even if Paterson was someone who still sucked his thumb and sneaked his Pooh‑Bear into bed with him at night.
Then Robin Coventry, who at eight and three‑quarters was the oldest in the class, said, with the slow authority that came with seniority, “That’s good. De Breeze. I like that.”
“I agree for De Breeze,” Martin said shyly. He liked Robin Coventry, and hoped to become his friend.
That night, on the edge of sleep, Martin marvelled how perfect the name was. That’s just what she was, a breeze. Something restless. Cool. Refreshing. And sadly, a breeze was something that came. . . and perhaps, went.
Martin loved De Breeze’s accent and her American expressions, like Holy Toledo and blood on the floor. It became fashionable among the boys to pepper their speech with these phrases and others like goldarn it and ya yeller varmint— which came from the three or four boys, including Robin, who had television at home.
De Breeze had none of the usual coyness you got when you asked a grownup, especially a lady, how old they were. She told them that she was twenty‑six. So she was middle aged. She wore pant‑suits in exotic, electric colours Martin had only seen before in the kind of sweets that made you feel faintly sick after just a couple of ounces. She only called the boys by their surnames when one of the other teachers was around.
In the worn, grey‑flagstoned halls and corridors of Drumwhinnie Castle, she seemed to carry about her a private pool of light and a cloud of perfume that made Martin dizzy and homesick for his mother whenever he smelled it.
Martin adored the way she would lean over him from behind, gripping his shoulders gently as she checked his work. She did this with them all, and Martin wondered if anyone else had that almost irresistible impulse to turn his head and place his cheek, just for a second, on the back of her hand.
Robin Coventry was odd because he could sing in a way that made people pause and listen. But it was odd that in Church, at Assembly or during Music periods, Robin would sing in a breathy, off‑key manner just like the rest of them. In the bathroom, in a crowd of boys fighting over the sinks, or out in the seemingly endless woods of their afternoon rambles, Robin sang quite differently. Nobody ever sneered when he sang, and Martin wondered if it was because everybody got the same little prickle at the back of his neck that he did.
Robin’s favourite song was what he called the “Esso Song”. A day would have seemed incomplete to the boys in Form One without at least one performance of this:
‘Theee Esssso‑o SIGN means HAPpy MotoRING!
Theee ESso SIGN! Theeee ESso SIGN!
Theee E‑e‑e‑e‑e‑esso sign— ‘
One evening, Robin was singing as they got ready for bed, at the row of sinks in the junior ablutions, De Breeze appeared suddenly at the end of the corridor, with a surprised look on her face.
“Robin! Was that you singing?”
The concert came to an abrupt end, and Robin staggered around, his face contorted into a grimace of strangulation, croaking pathetically, clutching his throat.
“Can it, comedian.” De Breeze said heartlessly. “From now on, Buster, I’m going to expect a heck of a lot more from you in music!”
The following evening, after tea, Martin found himself invited to De Breeze’s room along with Robin. They listened to a man singing the Toreador’s Song, from a gramophone record of the opera Carmen by a Frenchman called Beezay.
Martin instantly recognised the Esso Song.
De Breeze didn’t even mind that Robin hummed right along with the record, and she smilingly put it on for him again.
After that, she gave them coca‑cola and digestive biscuits, which she called ‘cookies’, and asked Robin what he thought of the song.
“It’s super!” Robin said. “Now I know the whole thing!”
“Oh?” De Breeze smiled quietly. “I’d like to hear that!” She laid down her glass of lemonade with an air of challenge.
So Robin grinned cheekily and hummed the tune, beating time in the air with his finger. After a while, De Breeze smiled and made a gesture of defeat with her finger. “OK, Robin. I believe you.” Then after a slight, awkward pause, she looked at Robin. Martin sensed a tinge of excitement in her.
“Did you know you were a musician, Robin?”
“Oh, no, Miss De Vries. Anybody can sing a tune.” Robin seemed embarrassed.
“Who told you that?”
“My father says anyone can sing, but not many people have what it takes to be a doctor.”
“Your father said what?” De Breeze was shocked. At first, Martin had a lurch of fear, because of the sudden stillness of her expression. He thought she was blazingly angry, but it wasn’t that. She was just surprised.
“Well. . .” Robin seemed apprehensive.
“With due respect to your father, Robin, he’s got it bass‑ack— uh, all wrong.”
“Yes, Miss De Vries.” Mechanically.
Martin had already learned that people were very prickly about anything that sounded like a criticism of their parents. Perhaps De Breeze, an American, didn’t understand such things. Martin’s father said Americans were crass.
“Listen, young man,” Now De Breeze did seem annoyed: “Very few people have the sense of rhythm you have. And very few of them have your ear for pitch. It’s a gift. You have it. That’s special. Any lump can become a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a teacher.”
“Yes, Miss De Vries.”
“Are you learning the piano, an instrument?”
“No, Miss De Vries.”
“Because I wouldn’t be any good at it.” Robin said woodenly.
“Garbage.” She snapped. “It would be criminal for you not to use that gift. I think you should write your parents and ask them for permission to do piano with me. If they don’t agree, I’ll teach you for free.”
Robin looked down at the carpet, biting his lip.
De Breeze looked long and hard at him. Then she sighed. She touched him briefly on the shoulder and said, “Think about it, Robin. Come and see me tomorrow.”
“Yes, Miss De Vries.”
In bed, Martin felt a hot pricking at his eyes. How did she know that he didn’t have the gift too? He had a momentary surge of joy thinking he might write to his own parents, asking for piano lessons, but he knew he wouldn’t. His parents, his father certainly, would just have told him that the fees were stiff enough already without adding frills like music.
After a while, Martin felt quietly happy that nothing seemed to have resulted from De Breeze’s offer. Robin didn’t write to his parents and the music lessons didn’t happen. Martin was not quite sure why. He knew that Robin did go to see her the next evening, and De Breeze had said some stuff about his having a quite unusual promise. . . but Robin didn’t explain his reluctance to follow her suggestion, beyond a mysterious remark about there being room for only one black sheep in a family. Martin sensed that further clarifications could only be obtained at the expense of Robin’s anger.
De Breeze eventually stopped making remarks in public that set Robin aside as a fellow musician. She didn’t seem angry with him, but Martin sometimes caught her looking at Robin with a little frown on her face. Not angry. Just puzzled, perhaps, or just thoughtful.
At meals, De Breeze sat at the head of the Form One table. Vigorous pushing and shoving, and at first, even the occasional fist‑fight, determined who sat next to her. After a while, De Breeze made them take turns, though she admitted that she felt flattered by these territorial squabblings.
She told them that she had come to Scotland because she was almost engaged to a young man who had been sent there by his Head Office, in Irvine, California.
“Gary is a wonderful man,” she said. “One day, you all will grow up to be wonderful and beautiful and loving like Gary.”
“Do you love him, Miss De Vries?” Paterson asked, wonderingly.
Somebody cackled nervously.
Her answer stabbed Martin: “Yes, Nigel. I do love him. We are engaged to be married.”
Regularly, on Thursdays and weekends, she would disappear off to Aberdeen to meet Gary. At first Martin noticed how funny and tender she was with them after these trips, but then, a couple of times, she seemed uncharacteristically thoughtful and irritable. Once, she had silenced the boys with a bang of her fist on the table that made the cups rattle, accompanied by a venomous hiss: “For Crissakes, shut up! You boys are giving me a headache.”
Martin, without understanding why, found himself following De Breeze’s movements. He tried, as far as he could, to remain in earshot of her when they were on break, or when she was supervising them at soccer.
One one occasion, she and Miss Mallory had taken their form out on a ramble and sent them on ahead, Martin had secretly doubled back, and managed to come quite close to where the two teachers were, leaning up against a gate in the forestry track, smoking. A wintry sun haloed their thoughtful faces, and the smoke of their cigarettes mingled with their breath, like the steam Martin’s mouth exhaled, not twenty feet from them, as he crouched in the snow dusted skirts of the forest. His fingers were pinched white with cold, and he blew discreetly into them, rubbing them together to try to bring the colour back.
“He sounds like an utter cad to me.” Miss Mallory said, coolly blowing a smoke ring. Martin made a mental note of yet another accomplishment, like whistling through two fingers, that he intended to acquire.
“Cad? Heck, I didn’t think you English still used words like that. You mean a louse, right?”
Miss Mallory inclined her head gravely. “A louse, Nancy darling. Come to think of it, I prefer the American word. It’s so— evocative.”
De Breeze stood up and stamped her cigarette into the snow. “Oh, Penny. You don’t understand. We could straighten this thing out in a second if he’d only talk about it. And that cheap tramp—”
Their voices faded round the corner, and Martin cut, not without a shiver of fear, through the dark trees, his feet bouncing soundlessly on a carpet of dried pine needles that seemed to yield like a mattress under his feet. The snow had not penetrated here, and Martin felt as if some all‑observant malevolence followed him. At eight years of age it was so hard to believe one could be anywhere without someone, some adult with good or evil or even magical powers, watching and waiting for some failure to meet the standards of some mysterious moral code.
In Dorm One, the consensus was that Gary was having a Fling with Another Woman. Martin’s heart was quiet with joy, then guiltily, he remembered that De Breeze was unhappy. A True Knight would die to see the damsel he loved betrothed to the man she loved. . . were he his bitterest rival. Still, on a practical level, there wasn’t much the Knight could do if his damsel was in love with a louse who preferred the company of Cheap Tramps.
Wild schemes were hatched after lights‑out.
They could band together. They could go to Aberdeen, track down the miserable, two‑timing snake who spoke with a forked tongue and there would be blood on the floor.
Perhaps they could—
But really. No. This was out of their— out of their everything. Out of their understanding, certainly. . . and of course, out of their power. Even with eight of them and with the blessing of the most blameless and heroic motives that could be awarded for a night spent kneeling and contemplating the sword‑crucifix of chivalric love, Gary was a dragon they could not slay, not even for De Breeze.
At half‑term, Robin’s parents came for the rugby match and to take Robin home for the weekend. Robin introduced Martin to them just as the Drumwhinnie First (and only) Fifteen was being pounded into the cold November mud, by a final score of 32 to 7 by a team from another school.
Martin felt a swell of pride as Robin referred to him as his best friend. Mrs Coventry was a tall lady in a grey suit, grey hat and a fur jacket. Martin thought she looked extremely elegant, much more elegant, he was certain, than his own mother, who would have been sure to have arrived in a pink hat. Dr Coventry also looked very distinguished in a grey overcoat, grey trilby and black leather gloves. Mrs Coventry wanted to know why Martin’s parents weren’t there too and he explained that they were abroad, in Malaya, where the rubber came from.
“Oh, you poor boy! And all the other boys will be going away for the weekend. Robin, why don’t you invite your friend to come with you?”
Robin looked surprised, then he nodded slowly. “Can I?”
“Of course, darling. We’d love you to bring Martin, if it can be arranged.”
It was arranged, and Martin had a song in his heart as he threw his sponge bag into his grip. As they scrunched over the gravel forecourt to the car, Robin said, “I’ll kill you if you say anything about— you know, what De Breeze said.”
“I won’t,” Martin said humbly.
As if to lessen the harshness of what he had said, Robin smiled at him, and as they climbed into the back seat of the Coventry’s Jaguar, he drawled, “Welcome aboard, pardner. Keep your nose clean and I’ll show you a goo‑ood tay‑ime at the old fayimly rayinch.”
“You‑oo betcha cott’n pickin lay‑ife, pardner!” Martin replied.
“Boys!” Mrs Coventry half turned in her seat, smiling. “Where on earth did you pick up such awful expressions?”
“Oh. Here and there.” Robin said.
It was a wonderful weekend.
Robin had an electric train set that Martin knew he could only covet. He had a bicycle, and taught Martin to ride it. Mrs Coventry took them shopping on the Saturday and bought them both little flashlights that could be made to shine in different colours, and they spent hours that night, till well past midnight, signalling to each other in a complex code that told whether it was safe to drop supplies to the Resistance group, or whether it was a trap, and the Gestapo had the field surrounded. They even had television and Martin and Robin exploded with laughter when the Esso Song came on in the middle of a very interesting programme called the Lone Ranger. It had a tune as well, and Robin gave Martin an impressive rendition of that one too. It was by a Wop called Rosseeny, who was already dead, apparently, according to Mrs Coventry, who seemed to have a high regard for Mr Rosseeny and a very low one of the Lone Ranger.
Martin understood almost instinctively the rules for staying with the family of a school friend. The first and most important rule was never to say anything about your friend’s life at school which you had not previously cleared with him. The second rule was not to be nosy about his family life. This was his territory, and you had to respect that.
Martin was surprised when Mrs Coventry mentioned at supper on the Saturday, that Robin’s brother had sent the family a postcard from Paris. Robin had never mentioned that he even had a brother. He didn’t even seem more than casually interested in reading the postcard his mother handed him. Martin feigned preoccupation with his apple crumble, noting that Robin’s father had grunted something about a prodigal something, and shrugged, when the brother’s name came up.
That night, Robin explained that Paul was nineteen, and was in Paris, the Capital of France, where they spoke French. Paul apparently spoke French like a greasy Frenchman, and asserted that it was really quite easy. The best way to learn was to take your dictionary to bed with you. Paul was also being a behemian, drinking lots of stuff called absent, and doing so‑called art, which Dr Coventry referred to as neurotic master‑painting. He was also hanging around with low‑life pimples, and cabbery musicians.
“We don’t talk about him much,” Robin admitted. “He’s a bit of a black sheep and Father was very cut up when he wouldn’t go to Edinburgh to read Medicine.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Robin.” Martin said sympathetically. “I won’t tell anyone, you know.”
“Thanks.” Robin said glumly. “It’s all been a terrible strain on Mother, but she’s bearing up as well as she can.”
Every Thursday, De Breeze disappeared in a scrunch of gravel in her rusty yellow Volkswagen, just after Morning Break. In the evening she always came back long after lights‑out, but once, just after the start of the spring term, she surprised them all by being back in time for tea. She looked terrible. Martin knew she had been crying. Then Nigel asked the question that they were all dying to ask, but which Martin considered breathtakingly tactless: “How is Gary’s promotion going, Miss De Vries?”
She seemed to think for a moment, then she said brightly, “Macaroni anyone?”
Martin thought her hand was a little shaky as she ladled out the macaroni and cheese, and the size of the portions varied dramatically from plate to plate, a thing that would normally have drawn howls of protest. But nobody said anything, and the boys made careful private adjustments without even quarrelling.
Later, the Dorm was unanimous in its analysis: Gary the Louse had been given his marching papers, and was no longer on her short‑list. She would need Cheering Up.
Martin thought he might do her a drawing of a moon‑rocket. She liked his rockets very much.
When De Breeze came into the room the next morning, there were several offerings of some kind or other on her desk, his drawing, a small branch of chestnut buds that would be tricked by the warmth inside into thinking it was spring, a cotton‑reel tank, an orange and an apple. Martin thought it outrageous that three of the boys had not even bothered to participate in their gesture of solidarity. . . A smile seemed to be about to warm her face, when she caught sight of what Robin had written on the board:
DEATH TO THE LOUCE
Two pink spots appeared suddenly on her cheeks and Martin had a terrible feeling that Robin’s loyal declaration was about to be ill repaid. He also had a momentary and unworthy fear that she would discover that it was Martin who had helped Robin with the spelling.
“Who wrote that?” De Breeze asked.
Martin wondered if the sound he heard was the first snap of one of the chestnut buds, starting to open.
“I did, Miss De Vries.” Robin said. He looked scared.
“Come here. Hold out your hand. The left one.”
Robin stepped up to the dais and held out his hand as De Breeze reached into her drawer for an object that up to now had served only to help her draw straight lines.
“That’s a mean thing to say about anyone.” De Breeze said, grasping Robin’s wrist with her left hand. “You understand that?”
The whack came suddenly, as if De Breeze was in a hurry to get it over with. Robin must have been surprised by it, and he gave a little cry.
De Breeze looked at Robin, wiping his eye on his sleeve, and at the ruler in her hand. Then the ruler clattered to the desk and she buried her face in her hands. After a few moments, she jumped up and hurried from the room.
Robin gazed at his hand, as if he was puzzled by something on it.
“She didn’t even hurt me,” he mused.
By lunch‑time, some of her old self was back. She thanked each boy in turn for his gift. Martin felt that she was especially grateful for his moon‑rocket painting, which she promised she would keep in her special scrap‑book.
She got to Robin last:
“And you, Robin. It was very sweet of you to give me that delicious apple. I’d like to talk to you after tea tonight, if you don’t mind, in my room, O.K.?”
“Yes, Miss De Vries.”
Robin didn’t get back from seeing De Breeze until after lights out. He seemed to be sleep‑walking.
He said she had begged him to forgive her for hitting him, then she had kissed him on the palm of the hand, the one she had struck, murmuring “I’m so sorry, Robin.” He had had some digestive ‘cookies’ and listened to some lovely music on the gramophone.
Martin felt breathless. It was so hurtful to him that neither De Breeze nor Robin seemed to have needed him, during their cosy little evening together. Then it seemed important to reclaim his place in Robin’s esteem. But how?
By the next evening Martin had a plan. He suggested they go on an expedition, to sneak down to the dining‑room after the staff had finished their dinner, to steal left‑over biscuits. An exploit boasted of by some of the boys in Form Two, one of whom had been caught last term and given ‘six of the best’ for his pains.
Robin was still so vague and dreamy after the previous night that even this enticing project didn’t seem to interest him. In the end however, after much angrily hissed provocation from Martin, he agreed.
The thrill was knowing that in the scale of crimes available to them, this one had to rate just below shouting ‘knickers’ during Assembly. If they were caught the punishment would probably be at least a ‘sixer’. Maybe even an unthinkable ‘twelver’.
The two boys padded like ghosts through the cold, dark corridors, shivering a little in their dressing‑gowns, and giggling insanely on the wide stone stairs, following the dancing, coloured beams of their flashlights. The huge old doors of the dining room creaked as they opened them and that brought on further spasms of nervous giggling. In the gloom of a single light left on in the pantry and leaking through the serving window, they snatched at the biscuits, stuffed their pockets and ran.
Back in the hall, they stopped. A slab of light spilled from the doorway of Mr Lawson’s drawing‑room and they knew they would have to cross it to get back upstairs.
Then they knew it was all right. They heard the piano, and knew it was only De Breeze, who was allowed to use the Lawson’s grand piano any time she wanted. Even if she saw them, she wouldn’t tell.
Martin was just about to scurry across the lighted area when Robin jerked him back into the shadows behind a big antique blanket cupboard.
Martin’s mouth went dry as he heard steps coming from the back corridor. Every boy in the school would have recognised those deliberate footfalls. Mr Lawson wore brown brogues with steel on the edges of the soles, which made a metallic click with each step.
The noise stopped. Mr Lawson seemed to hesitate from crossing the light himself. Then Martin was horrified to see the headmaster lower himself gently onto the bench outside the drawing room, the bench where boys summoned to see him would sit and wait.
Martin looked at Robin, who had his finger to his lips. There was nothing to be done. They just had to wait in the dark behind the blanket cupboard until Mr Lawson moved on.
But why had he stopped?
Oh Cripes, Martin moaned in his head. Mr Lawson was a music lover. He often said how he loved listening to De Breeze playing all that boring classical stuff. He might just sit there for hours, listening.
After a minute or two, the cold silence seemed to gel around them, and the faint, regular notes of the piano nagged at the edges of Martin’s hearing. Up above, notes like small glass Christmas tree balls floated delicately into the pool of light, hesitated, shattered on the freezing flagstones, and were swallowed up by the darkness and the silence.
Martin thought it odd that Robin seemed more caught up in the music than in the terrible danger that faced them. He was leaning almost far enough forward to fall over into the hallway, and his mouth was parted slightly as he turned his ear towards the music. Angrily, Martin jerked him back into the shadows, and just as angrily, Robin shook off his arm and leaned forward again.
Martin gave up. He felt cold, and quite frightened. He glared into Robin’s face, and was surprised to see there an expression that was almost dreamy. Then Robin grabbed Martin by the lapel of his dressing gown and hissed in his ear, “She’s got a record of that one too. It’s the Moonlight Something. Can’t you just see the moonbeams?”
“No, I can’t.” Martin replied angrily.
“Well I can!”
“You’re a daft pimple!” Martin hissed.
But Robin only smiled in an absent‑minded sort of way, and cocked his ear towards the drawing‑room door. His whole body was tensed up on the tips of his toes, as if he was getting ready to leap into an unknown, moonlit paradise that only he could see.
The piano had been silent now for what seemed to Martin to be eternity itself. . . then Martin was shocked by the sound of someone weeping. He felt tears swell hotly behind his own eyes. He saw that Robin had been startled too, by the terrible grief in those soft, jerky sounds. He wondered at the awesome, unbearable pain that could make an adult cry, for this was something utterly new to his experience.
They had not seen Mr Lawson get up, and Martin’s heart froze as a firm hand gripped him by the shoulder. He swung round and choked off the flood of explanations he had been about to release when he saw that Mr Lawson had his finger to his lips. Sshhh!
Dumbly, the two boys crept up the stairs in front of Mr Lawson, who said nothing till he got them to the door of the dormitory. Then he said, with a severe little smile, “I’m always willing to overlook crimes committed in the pursuit of good music. Back to bed, you little bandits.”
“Yes, sir.” Martin said humbly.
“And next time. . . the gymshoe. Understood?
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Robin said nothing at all.
The next day, after lunch, Robin was occupied with writing a letter home. It wasn’t even Sunday, when after Church, this particular chore would weigh heavily on each boy at Drumwhinnie.
He asked Martin if you spelt piano with one ‘n’ or two.
Martin thought it was probably two, because he thought it really should be one, and that usually meant the opposite. On the other hand—
“You daft Behemian.” Robin said dismissively, “I’m putting two, and if that’s wrong, there’s gonna be blood on the floor, no kidding.”