December was well advanced and only two days remained before the end of term. Tom was in the house library, reading the paper before tea. The news was a mixture. The good news was that the charge against Lord Montagu and his friends had been dismissed because the police had been shown, in their zeal to secure a conviction, to have doctored the evidence. The bad news was that a second charge was imminent.
He had got that far when the door from the private side opened and Wally came in. This was highly unusual. He left the day-to-day running of the house wholly to Kim and the prefects and, except for doing the rounds once a week, he scrupulously avoided encroaching on the boys’ side.
“Oh Tom!” he said. “Good. A telegram’s just been delivered for Adrian. Would you be very kind and take it to him?” He held out a small orange envelope.
“Of course, sir.” To Tom, as to most people, telegrams spelt emergencies, and he could guess the news which this one brought.
He found Kim in his study in conference with Duncan Slaithwaite, who captained MacNair’s rugby team.
“Oh, hullo, Tom,” said Kim. “Sorry, I’m busy at the moment. Would you mind …”
But his eye lit on what Tom was holding, and flickered. Slaithwaite saw it as well, and his reaction was precisely the same as Tom’s. Politely excusing himself, he left. Tom handed the telegram over and also made to go, eager to support but not to intrude.
“Please don’t go, Tom. I … I think I know what this is.”
Rip it open then, Tom said to himself, rip the damned thing open. But Kim never ripped. He inserted his paperknife under the flap and meticulously slit the envelope. With a glance at Tom as if for reassurance, he pulled out the form. He read, nodded, and passed it over.
Father in hospital, it said. End near. Come soonest. Booth.
“That’s very kind of him,” Kim said tonelessly. “Jack Booth’s the Director of Agriculture.” He tapped his teeth with the paperknife. “But there’s no point in changing my plans. Even if I left this minute I wouldn’t get there any earlier. The flight into Belize only runs twice a week.”
How can you be so calm? Tom wondered. He’s dying. He’s your father.
Kim read his thoughts. “It worries you, doesn’t it? That I don’t go into a frenzy or burst into tears. I would, if it was Mary or John. For my own selfish sake, and for yours. But my father … well, I am sad. I am sorry for him. And I hope he isn’t suffering. But it’s no bad thing that he’s going, you know. No bad thing at all. Not for my sake, but for his. He hasn’t had a life since the beginning of the war, when half of him died. It would’ve been better if the rest of him had died too. There’s a time to die, Tom. There’s a time to lose, without too much heartache. There’s a time to mourn, but this isn’t it. Nor of course is it a time to dance.”
None the less, one of Kim’s few personal links was about to snap, and Tom had to show his support. He put an arm round him. It was surely a time to embrace, so long as it was in a brotherly way. Kim acknowledged it by putting his own hand on Tom’s. Yes, he was in need of support. He was about to start on a long and lonely journey. But did all of it have to be lonely?
“Kim, the day after tomorrow. How easy is it to get to London Airport?”
Kim was surprised at the question. “Oh, it’s an absolute pain. School train to St Pancras. Tube to Westminster. Tube to Victoria. Then Green Line coach. It takes an age. Why?”
“D’you mind if I tell Wally about this?” Tom pointed at the telegram.
“Not in the least. But why?”
But Tom was gone. Wally, as soon as Tom explained his plan, said “Yes, of course.” So Tom rang Mum and Dad on Wally’s phone, and they too said “Yes, of course.” Thus it was, on the day term ended, that Mum — by herself because Dad could not take the time off — left home in the car at four in the morning and rolled up at Yarborough at eight. Tom’s massive trunk and Kim’s modest suitcase were loaded into the boot. The boys sat together in the back, hand in hand for the first proper time; and the pressure of Kim’s showed his gratitude. But it was emphatically not a time to let passion rip.
“What’s your route, then, Kim?”
“Five changes. Lisbon, Havana, Mexico City, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Overnights at Lisbon, Havana and Tegucigalpa. So four days in the air. But at least I’m starting fresher than I otherwise would, thanks to you. And I’ve plenty to do, like learning Hamlet by heart.”
They sent him off from London Airport with hugs. Their Christmas was muted, ears cocked for the expected ring of the doorbell. It finally came on New Year’s Eve.
Father died, said the telegram. Funeral Monday. Return as planned. Love Kim.
All three met him at London Airport. Everyone fell into their new roles as guardians and as ward without conscious effort. Both the quiet sympathy on one side and the quiet gratitude on the other were unspoken. His father, Kim reported, had been alert and pain-free to the end; he had recognised his son; and his last words, true to form, had been a slanderous reflection on the workings of the Directorate of Agriculture. Only a tiny handful of government officials had put themselves out to attend the funeral; but, Kim added with a meaning glance at Tom, Gloria Ramsbottom had been there. He had given away his father’s few effects, and the only personal items to bring home were financial and legal documents, and his own letters spanning eight years.
En route back to Yarborough they stopped at the great-aunt’s in Slough. Kim called it a duty visit, and only he went in.
“You’ll have to meet her before long,” he said. “But probably best not now.”
Instead of the ten minutes he expected, it was half an hour before he emerged, wearing a bleak expression and carrying an envelope.
“Sorry to have taken so long,” he said as he slumped into the back seat of the car. “But she’s another person whose life has been ruined by the war. I only wish I’d known about it when I was staying with her in ’45. I’d have been less critical of her. I’m ashamed now that I wasn’t more charitable.”
“Kim,” said Mary, “you were only nine. All you had to go on was what you were told. I don’t see how you can blame yourself for not knowing more.”
“But I should have guessed there was more to it than met the eye.”
“To repeat, Kim, you were only nine. Anyway, how was her life ruined?”
“By more horrors. She was in Dulwich that day in ’44, visiting her brother and sister-in-law — my father’s parents. She was down the garden when the V2 hit the house, and by some miracle she escaped unhurt, physically. But hurt in her mind. Scarred. Rather like my father.”
Rather like you, Tom reflected, Kim’s hand tight in his. Except that when you’re hurt you don’t scar, not like that. You ride triumphant over whatever horrors come your way.
“I must visit her more often,” Kim declared. “I can now, now that I don’t have to spend the holidays abroad. And she gave me some family photographs.”
When they stopped at a cafe for lunch they inspected them. Kim’s roots were growing deeper still. There were formal and informal pictures of Longleys and of Todds and of both intermingled. There were pictures of Edmund and Erica growing up and being married. And there were a few pictures with Kim.
“This is a good one,” said Mary. “You and your mother on the beach.” She glanced at the back. “Hong Kong, September 1941. You look exactly the same as when we first met you. The only difference is that you’re laughing. At Tai Po, the only times I remember you laughing were when you were playing with Tom.”
In those days, Tom recalled, that was the only time to laugh. At Easter it will be a time to love without restraint. But now it’s a time to embrace … the last time for months.
For the rest of the journey Kim slept, safe in Tom’s arms.
Tom was no longer in the lowest stratum of the house, for MacNair’s had two new boys. As always, they were allocated mentors from a term or two above to introduce them to the ways of the school. At the end of the previous term, Kim had asked Tom if he would take one under his wing.
“They’ll be sharing a study, of course. One’s called” — he consulted a piece of paper — “Charles Bottomley, who apparently verges on over-confidence. But the one I’d like you to take on is Malcolm Stones. He’s got a brilliant voice, I’m told, and will be in the choir. But he’s an orphan — his Dad died in the army in the war and his Mum was killed in the blitz — and he’s in the guardianship of an aunt. Shades of my own family. And at his prep school he was a day-boy, so being away from home may prove a bit traumatic. I do wish people wouldn’t send kids here without any experience of boarding. It’s unkind. Wally says he’s very unsure of himself, so he may need more nursemaiding than usual. But I know you’ll do it better than anyone.”
A high compliment, and a responsibility he would do his very best to honour. A mentor’s role usually lasted only a week or two, until his charge had found his feet. In this case it sounded as if the job might go on for considerably longer.
Malcolm proved to be a mouse of a boy who looked more like ten than thirteen. Apart from his red hair, he resembled a mouse; and he acted like a mouse, small and cowering, disorganised, overwhelmed by his surroundings, with nothing to say for himself, and prone to tears. Charles his study-mate was relatively large, with a gruff voice and a budding moustache of bum-fluff. He was also a sportsman, extrovert to the point of arrogance, and entirely at home. Tom’s heart sank as he compared them. He worked hard to get his charge to the right place at the right time, and within a couple of days had so won his confidence that Malcolm clung to him as the one fixed point in this strange universe. But Tom could hardly spend the whole time in the new boys’ study acting as a buffer. Charles was not the most considerate of youngsters, and in his presence Malcolm subsided into a jelly. When Tom got Charles by himself and pleaded with him to show more goodwill, Charles did not mince his words.
“Why? He’s a drip. A weed. A cry-baby.”
“He’s a human being.”
“But what’s he got going for him?”
“Well, he sings. Very well, or he wouldn’t be in the choir.”
“Singing bores me. That sort.”
“Don’t write anyone off, Charles. Everyone’s got something going for him. Something you mightn’t expect. I wouldn’t have expected you to be into stamps, for instance.”
Charles had an album open in front of him and had been interrupted in the act of sticking a hinge on a stamp.
“Why not? It takes a lot of know-how to make a decent collection. Look, I’ve got a Penny Black. It has got a little tear in it, but I reckon from the catalogue it’s worth at least ten bob.”
He rattled on, showing off his prize specimens. Tom knew nothing at all about stamps, but even he could guess that Charles’s collection was not a bad one for a thirteen-year-old.
“What else are you interested in?” he asked.
“Oh, films. Cricket. Jazz.”
None of those seemed in the least likely to be in Malcolm’s repertoire.
“Well,” said Tom, almost despairingly, “I’m sure he’s got something you can respect him for.”
He went sadly away to collect Malcolm from choir practice and make certain he returned to the right house. Even that could not yet be guaranteed. And on the way back to MacNair’s he asked what his hobbies were.
“But you must be interested in something.”
“Well, singing.” That was known to be a non-starter.
“And I do collect sea-shells.” Oh dear, even more unpromising.
“And I like reading Enid Blyton.” Oh Lord!
“And I have got some stamps.” Aha! Was this gold at last?
“I don’t actually collect them, but I’ve got my Daddy’s. Well, I think they came to Daddy from my Grandpa, or even from his father. They’re rather old.”
“Have you got them here?”
“Charles is into stamps as well. Would you like to show him yours?”
Malcolm hesitated. “If I do, will you be there?”
Tom had a pile of prep awaiting him, but this was a duty that came first. “If you like.”
So together they went to the new boys’ study. Charles was now reading a film magazine.
“Malcolm’s got a stamp collection too,” said Tom. “Would you like to see it?”
“Festival of Britain and Coronation sets?” asked Charles sarcastically. Even Tom knew that those, being from only a year or two back, would be as common as mud.
“I’m afraid they’re all rather old,” Malcolm quavered. “There’s nothing after Victoria.”
Hard though he tried to conceal it, Charles was obviously interested. “Let’s see, then.”
Malcolm produced an ancient album and fearfully handed it over. Charles opened it.
“Bloody hell!” he shouted at the first page. “A block of eight Penny Blacks! Unused!” He frantically flipped the pages. “Oh, Christ! A £5 Orange! … An Inverted Swan! … A … a …”
Beyond speech, he pointed at a blue stamp. It was a wretched thing, with a crude head of Queen Victoria and the words ‘Post Office Mauritius Postage Two Pence’. Malcolm was smiling uncertainly, apparently in relief that Charles was at last impressed by something of his.
Charles fumbled in his desk for a magnifying glass and inspected the stamp closely. He swallowed hard and found his voice.
“A Twopenny Blue Mauritius,” he said flatly. “1847. It looks all right. It’s got a clear margin all round. It’s lightly franked. Do you know what it’s worth?”
“Nor do I. It won’t give a value in the catalogue — you can’t buy these things over the counter. But many thousand quid. At least. There are only about a dozen in the whole world.”
So did Tom. “And what’s the whole album worth?” he asked.
“Lord knows. I don’t know what’s in it. But several times that.”
“Well, I know what’s in it,” said Malcolm, his voice faint. “But I don’t know what they’re worth. I just like looking at them.” He seemed overwhelmed.
“Sit down,” Charles ordered, “and take me through it.”
And Malcolm did. Tom was quite touched by the sight of two young heads together, on common ground at last, Malcolm pointing, Charles explaining. He nipped to his study for his camera gear and surprised them when the flashbulb went off.
“Malcolm,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s too valuable to keep in your study? Suppose Vimto or something got spilt over it.” Or suppose it got nicked; but he did not say so.
“But I like looking at it.”
“And so do I,” said Charles. “If I may,” he added as an afterthought.
Tom knew he had to be firm. “Give it to Wally to look after. I think he’s got a safe. That’s where it ought to live. I’m sure he’d let you and Charles take it out whenever you like, and work out how much they’re worth, and do whatever stamp collectors do. All right?”
They both took his point but, to make sure, he went with them to the private side. Wally, as well he might be, was impressed. Tom stayed long enough to hear him accept it into his care, offer them access whenever they wanted, and say that he’d have to raise the question of insurance with Malcolm’s aunt. Hugely relieved that the two new boys had found common ground, Tom went straight to Kim’s study to report. He had to, if only to warn him that another and far greater public sensation was about to break.
“I think he’ll be all right now,” he ended. “He isn’t a nobody any more, or he won’t be once the news gets out. And he and Charles have got plenty to talk about. Charles respects him now — not for the best of reasons, mind you — and I reckon things’ll grow from here. A friendship.”
“A time to heal,” Kim said. “Well done, Tom. Very well done. Mentoring’s a vital job, especially in a case like this, and I knew I could safely leave it to you … You know, I never seem to say I love you. Have you noticed? Does it bother you?”
“Yes, I’ve noticed. But it doesn’t bother me, because I know you do. I don’t say it either, even though I do.”
“Why don’t you?”
Tom wrinkled his nose. “Because it seems … well … a bit gooey.”
“Exactly the word I’d use. And that’s why I don’t say it either. But maybe we will say it when we aren’t at arm’s length any more.”
Arm’s length. That was their trouble, Tom reflected. Their purgatory. They were in love but quite unable to do anything about it, which made it strangely hard to say anything about it either. They were unfulfilled, and it ached. Ached with two aches: one permanently heavy on the heart, one sometimes insistent in the groin. Easter was still a long way ahead. Life seemed unreal.
“Yes,” he said sadly. “We’re only part-way there, aren’t we? At half cock, sort of.”
“What a very appropriate way of putting it. Our guns are ready and loaded, but we can’t fire them …
“Which reminds me. Did you see that Lord Montagu and his friends have been arrested again? For gross immorality with two airmen, this time.”
Kim went to Binchester Royal Infirmary to see a specialist about his foot. The verdict, he reported, was that the bones had been growing distorted for so long that it was unrealistic to expect any operation to improve matters. He shrugged it off.
“I’ve lived with it for ten years,” he said, “so I can live with it for the rest of my life.”
Tom was in his lowly seat near the back of Chapel. Being musical, he enjoyed the hymns and anthems, especially now that Malcolm was in the choir. He listened to the sermon only if it sounded worth listening to. For the rest, he let his thoughts wander free. He had grown fond of the building, which was not in the least dim and religious. Despite its uncompromising Victorian Gothic and its hideous stained glass, it contrived to be light and airy and welcoming. The HM had described Yarborough’s attitude to belief as broad church, and the atmosphere of Chapel was fully in tune with that. It smelt of tolerance, just like the school itself, which had thrown so many surprises at Tom.
The list was topped, needless to say, by Kim himself. Next came the masters — or the great majority of them — whose humanity, after the martinets of his prep school, was an eye-opener. At their head stood Wally and, ponderous though he could sometimes be, the HM. They understood. Then there was the complete absence of bullying — he had never heard of any physical bullying here, and if people like Charles occasionally hurt with words it seemed the result of thoughtlessness rather than malice. Then there was … well, the list could go on. Yarborough was a wonderfully civilised and supportive place to be.
Tom was no more religious, in the formal sense, than Kim, and without even Kim’s belief in destiny. But he had his values, and today his attention was caught by a prayer which he had not consciously heard before. It brought tears to his eyes.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest:
To give and not to count the cost;
To fight and not to heed the wounds;
To toil and not to seek for rest;
To labour and not to seek for any reward
Save that of knowing that we do thy will.
During the hymn that followed, Tom did not even open his book, and only a nudge from his neighbour prompted him to stand up. That prayer encapsulated Christian values which, he readily admitted, were not to be sneezed at. But it encapsulated Kim’s values too; provided you stripped away the first line and the last, for Kim’s motivation was not love of God but love of his fellow men. He would tell Kim how much he had been moved. No, on second thoughts he wouldn’t. It would embarrass him. There was a time to keep silence. But the simple fact remained: it did not matter what you believed. What mattered was what you did.
A few days later, as soon as morning school was over, Tom came across Malcolm hovering outside the Chapel door, biting his nails and on the brink, it seemed, of tears. Choir practice was about to start.
“You don’t look very happy,” he said. “Something bothering you?”
“The anthem,” said Malcolm falteringly. “I’ve got a solo part, and I don’t know what to do.”
“But you’ve sung solo before, haven’t you? Is this a specially hard one?”
“It’s not hard. It’s just wrong. Look!” He thrust a score into Tom’s hand: Exultent caeli, the title said, by Monteverdi. “This bit. ‘Elegit eam Deus’.” Malcolm pointed to a note. “It’s got an E here. But I can’t sing it as an E.” There was panic in his voice. “I just can’t. It sounds completely wrong. It ought to be E flat.”
Tom looked at the score. For that bar there was no accompaniment, which didn’t help. But it was an E, and you were expected to sing or play what the composer wrote. Yet he was musician enough to take Malcolm’s point and to understand how his artistic soul was offended.
“No,” he agreed, “it doesn’t seem right. So why not sing it as E flat?”
“But Mr Brocklesby will blast me for doing it wrong!”
“Then ask him about it beforehand.”
“But I daren’t!”
At that juncture Mr Brocklesby himself went past, a bundle of music under his arm. “Come along, Stones,” he said. “Time to get started!”
“Excuse me, sir,” Tom put in. “Malcolm’s got a problem with his solo in the Monteverdi.”
“Oh? Oh, you mean that misprint? I was going to point it out. Yes, it should be E flat. Very well done, Stones, for spotting it! Come on!” He bustled into Chapel.
“Easy after all,” said Tom quietly. “Like a lot of problems, if you face up to them.”
Malcolm gave him a grateful smile and followed Mr Brocklesby in.
Later, Tom told Kim about it.
Kim’s eighteenth birthday fell due. Tom had spent hours agonising over what to give him. He did not want to go over the top — not that he could afford to anyway — and in the end he bought a book whose blurb looked promising. Before wrapping it up, he read it. This confirmed that, though horrifyingly close to the bone, it was appropriate; for it was a tribute to people who never give up. To people like Kim.
“Thank you, Tom,” said Kim. “Very much. It feels like a book.” He carefully took the paper off. “It is a book. Russell Braddon, The Naked Island. Oh yes! I saw a review a couple of years ago but never got round to buying it. By an Australian prisoner of the Japanese, isn’t it? Who was a slave on the Burma Railway?”
“That’s right. And about prison life in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I’ve read it, and it’s very well written. But it makes your hair stand on end.”
Next weekend they discussed it. “I’ve finished it,” Kim reported, “by dint of staying up later than I should. You’re right, it’s brilliantly written, and it does make your hair stand on end. Remember the bit where he’s just been captured and sat on the edge of a ditch to be shot? ‘It was my twenty-first birthday and I was not happy’ … You know, Tom, I’ve never asked you what you feel about the Japanese.”
“Same as you. What they did to those poor blighters on the Burma Railway was horrible, and you can see why Russell Braddon still hates them. But what’s the point? If I hated them, I’d be the only one to suffer. And their mind-set’s so different from ours that it’s hard to blame them. If it had been the Germans, now … well, they did kill all those Jews in the concentration camps, which was just as horrible. But our prisoners of war in Germany didn’t have too bad a time, did they?”
“No, on the whole they didn’t. But then Germany had signed up to the Geneva Convention, which Japan hadn’t. And your Mum’s right — we had it easy at Tai Po, compared to people like Braddon.”
“The rest of us did. You didn’t.”
“Hmmm, that’s arguable. But still, I’m with you. I can understand why Braddon detests them, and I sympathise, even if I don’t agree with him. But then he goes on about the Japanese only losing the battle, not the war. He thinks they’re liable to burst out again. I can’t go along with him there — it doesn’t seem likely at all. Japan’s demilitarised. It’s officially pacifist. The occupation ended a couple of years ago. It’s another time to heal, and Japan knows it as well as we do. But it’s going to be a long time before everyone agrees. I told you what my father said as he was dying, didn’t I? Slanging the Directorate of Agriculture. By that stage I could hardly make out what he was saying, but I think his actual last words were ‘they’re almost as bad as the bloody Japs’.”
“You’re a genius, Tom.” Kim was looking at Tom’s photo of Malcolm and Charles bent over the stamp album. “There’s a whole story in this single picture. And this one of Holmfirth’s superb as well.” Tom had captured Graham talking to someone out of sight, with the lewd look that goes with lewd words. “And there’s this one” — he pointed at John and Mary framed on his desk — “and, if you insist, there’s that first one of me, which is still the best. You ought to build up a collection for June.”
“Speech Day. There’s a big exhibition. Anyone can enter anything he’s done himself, from sophisticated artwork or photographs like these down to amateur little models in dirty plasticine. All to be viewed critically by the boys and droolingly by proud parents. Why not take a few more pictures of boys, and a few of masters — Wally and the HM, say — and a few school scenes? I reckon you’d win a prize.”
“Wally and I have been having a chat, Tom. Every so often we compare notes about people in the house — anything which might be of interest to each other. And Wally reported that Mr Midgley had told him you’d skipped your flute lesson before lunch on Tuesday. Mr Midgley wasn’t too cross about it, apparently, because you apologised very nicely. But hang on, I thought — I already knew you’d missed it.”
Tom was blushing. “How did you know?”
“I saw you through your study window when you should’ve been with him — I know when your flute lessons are — and I wondered why. You’re too efficient to forget them, and you enjoy them too much to skip them deliberately. So I assumed Mr Midgley was ill or away. But Wally also told me something about young Stones. According to Mr Smallbridge, his maths has suddenly improved out of all recognition. Not just his written work, but he can now explain principles that have so far totally failed to sink in. Well, I began to put two and two together, and asked when he first noticed this miracle. It was on Tuesday afternoon. There is a connection, isn’t there?”
Tom was still red in the face. “Yes. You see, Malcolm was trying to finish his prep — trig, it was — and he was almost in tears because he just couldn’t get the hang of it. He’s bright, you know, and really tries, and he’s a sight more confident than he was. But he hasn’t done any trig before, and Mr Smallbridge isn’t much of a teacher, and Charles is nowhere near that far. So I took Malcolm to my study, away from Charles who’s always talking stamps, and helped him out. Not with the questions, but the rules behind them. And once he’d hoisted those in, he did the questions quite easily.”
“So you sacrificed your own enjoyment for the sake of a fellow mortal in distress.”
“Well, I couldn’t do both. He had to finish his prep by lunch.”
“I wish I could give you a hug. Assume I have. Mind if I tell Wally? Not about the hug. About your maths tuition. I’ve already told him about Malcolm and the anthem. He likes to be kept abreast of how the new boys are shaping.”
They were out for a Sunday walk along the Gresford road, chatting of this and that, when Tom suddenly stopped.
Somewhere close ahead, incongruously, a voice was singing, high and pure. Tom recognised the music, the treble line of a Praetorius chorale. They smiled at each other and walked softly on. Round a bend, and there was a small figure, oblivious, perched on the top bar of a field gate, hands tucked between his thighs for warmth, carolling across the winter countryside. It was Malcolm.
Hast mir mein Herz besessen! he was singing. Lieblich, freundlich, schön und herrlich, gross und ehrlich, reich von Gaben, hoch und sehr prächtig erhaben.
You have possessed my heart! Lovely, friendly, fair and splendid, mighty and honest, rich in gifts, set on high in sublime glory.
It came to an end. Tom and Kim clapped. Malcolm started, swung round blushing, teetered, and fell off the gate.
“Sorry!” Kim was all apologies as he helped him to his feet and brushed him down. “We didn’t mean to surprise you. But it was so good!”
“How do you know it?” Tom asked. “They sang it here in Chapel. But that was before Christmas, before you came.”
“Oh, we used to sing it at Southwark,” Malcolm muttered, still blushing and not looking at him. “At the Cathedral. I was in the choir there.”
“Well, it was damn good. But we’re going on. It’s too cold to hang around. Want to come with us?”
“Er, no thanks. I’ll stay here.”
He climbed back on the gate, and when they looked back he was gazing wistfully after them. Kim did not speak until they were out of earshot.
“You know what, Tom? I think he was singing about you. Lieblich, freundlich, schön und herrlich. Just what I’d say. Or sing, if I could. And you’ve unquestionably possessed my heart. I wonder if you’ve possessed his too.”
Returning the same way twenty minutes later, they were surprised to see him still on the gate, but not surprised to see him shivering.
“Heavens, you must be frozen!” cried Tom. “Come back with us. A brisk walk’ll warm you up.”
This time Malcolm accepted the invitation and fell into step with them.
“Tell us about your time at Southwark,” said Kim. “How long were you in the choir?”
And Malcolm began to talk; hesitantly at first, but at last he was communicating.
Thereafter Tom persuaded him to join him for walks. Sometimes, too, Malcolm would walk instead with Alan Gregory who, to Tom’s immense relief, was beginning to take some of the pressure off his shoulders. Alan, a quiet and gentle boy, was also in MacNair’s and sang tenor in the choir. His heart was in the right place and, although a year older, he seemed happy enough to have Malcolm under his musical wing and to talk choral shop.
When Tom was walking with Malcolm, conversation was easier than in one of their studies where Charles or Graham might interrupt. Usually it was just the two of them together — Kim, Tom appreciated, was deliberately leaving this job to him — and they chatted almost exclusively about trivial matters. Malcolm shied away from anything deeper and Tom was unwilling to probe. Only once did Malcolm venture a personal question.
“Tom, why do you see so much of Longley?”
Tom thought he understood what lay behind that. It was highly unusual for so junior a member of the school to spend so much time with a senior. And although the reason was common knowledge, Malcolm was evidently still too isolated to have heard it.
“Oh, Kim and I spent the war together — I always call him Kim, even though his name’s really Adrian — and when Kim’s father died my parents became his guardians. So we’re sort-of brothers.”
“Oh, I see. I wish I had a brother.” Malcolm might have left it at that, but Tom prodded him into saying something about his pallid and lonely life with Auntie, and in return related something — heavily edited to suit delicate ears — about his own past, and about Kim’s. But because Malcolm was not a good conversationalist, his silences invited Tom to keep talking, and sometimes Tom felt he had revealed more than he intended, both about himself and about Kim.
Around the middle of term many parents visited their offspring to see how they were getting on and to deliver fresh supplies of cake or jam; but it transpired that Auntie was not coming. In his letters home Tom had been reporting regularly on how his mentoring was going; and now, with a visit imminent from Mary and John, he suggested that Malcolm be invited to lunch at the Red Lion. They readily agreed; so too did Kim; and Malcolm — to everyone’s surprise including, it seemed, his own — accepted. The meal went well enough, although the conversation included nothing of significance and Malcolm, despite plenty of opportunities, contributed little to it. But he listened to the others with what looked like reverence. Tom, to him, was of course Tom. He was already thinking of Kim as Kim, although to his face he would never dare call him anything but Longley. And Tom’s parents — Kim’s guardians — were more loving and caring than Auntie or any other grown-ups he had met since his grandparents died. He wished they could be his guardians too, and that Tom and Kim could be his sort-of brothers.
Thus his rehabilitation continued.
Tom was leaving a flute lesson with Mr Midgley when he passed the open door of a practice room. Inside was Kim with a tin of polish and a duster, rubbing up his cello.
“Ready for the concert,” he explained when Tom put his head in. “Can’t look dowdy for that.”
“Could I have a go?” asked Tom. “At playing it, I mean. I’ve never tried a cello.”
“Why not? Better close the door, though.”
Tom sat down, set the cello between his knees, and drew the bow experimentally across the strings. It made a nasty scraping noise. They both laughed.
“That reminds me,” said Kim, “of the story about Sir Thomas Beecham the conductor. He was rehearsing his orchestra one day when he blew his top with a lady cellist. Granted, you’re not a lady. But what he said could just as well apply to you.” Kim looked as sly as Tom had ever seen him. “He said, ‘Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it’.”
A very good thing, thought Tom, that the door was shut.
Together they headed back to MacNair’s for lunch, and on the way they caught up with Malcolm. A short distance behind followed the Headmaster and Wally, returning to their houses from a meeting. Wally watched the three heads, dark and blond and red, bent together in friendly chat.
“Methinks,” he said abruptly, “I am a prophet new inspired.”
The Headmaster, always respectful of his colleague’s judgment, waited with interest.
“Look at that trio,” said Wally, nodding at the boys ahead. “One is the current leader. My prophecy is that the others are future leaders. If Adrian is a paragon, so is Tom. They might almost be brothers. As in a sense, of course, they are. True, Tom is not yet a mighty man of valour, though I’ve no doubt he would be should occasion arise. But in all other respects they’re peas in a pod. Both are mature far beyond their years. They think alike, they talk alike, they visibly belong to each other. And in terms of goodness, Tom is another Adrian. He’s mentoring Malcolm Stones, and in a few weeks he’s wrought miracles. I’ve never had so cowed and shy a boy as Malcolm. He’s a walking example of insecurity, and when he arrived I despaired of him ever fitting in. Yet already he’s emerging from his shell. And that’s all Tom’s doing, with Adrian behind him.”
“Excellent,” the Headmaster observed. “Old John of Gaunt’s prophecy came true, and I can well believe that Wardle will make yours come true. But are you foretelling that young Stones will also be a leader?”
Wally laughed self-consciously. “That’s a far longer shot, I admit, because he has so much catching up to do. But he worships the ground Tom walks on, and the ground Adrian walks on. They’re his role models, and their virtues are already rubbing off on him. His future is bright … I hope …”
The Headmaster, who knew his Wally, heard how his voice trailed off. “But you have a reservation?”
“More of a qualm than a reservation.” Wally’s tone bordered on the apologetic. “Headmaster, I’m frightened. Don’t ask me why. It’s only a pricking of my thumbs. And don’t ask me what I’m afraid of. It’s simply that it all seems too good to be true. That it all may end in tears.”
The guardian angel of the Yarborough Combined Cadet Force was the Royal Binchester Regiment — colloquially known as the Binchesters — which oversaw its doings, supplied it with equipment, and acted as its intermediary with the armed forces at large. It was therefore to Binchester that Adrian went off again, this time for his National Service medical.
“Chances are, Mr Longley,” Sergeant Standedge told him before he went, “you’ll get sent out to Malaya to fight the Commies.” There was a glint in his eye.
“Chances are,” Adrian replied, “I’ll opt for university first.”
“Chances are you’ll still get sent out to Malaya, even after university. It’s going to take years to grind those bastards down. The jungle’s a hell of a place to fight.”
Binchester was only twenty miles away, and Adrian was back the same evening. He seemed for once confused, and immediately got Tom by himself.
“They turned me down, Tom. Because of my foot. No National Service for me.”
Tom sympathised, if in a limited way. Nobody, least of all Kim, liked to be labelled as defective. “But it does mean,” he elatedly pointed out, “three years of holidays together!”
“Yes. And more, maybe. If you go to university first, it’ll be a good seven years before you graduate, and by then National Service may well have finished altogether. They’re already talking about it.”
Another joy to anticipate.