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.”
(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.