Sergeant Standedge’s state of mind was worrying, and Adrian not only told Tom about it but took his worries to Major Lydgate, the Commanding Officer of the Corps.
“He’s got some big chips on his shoulder, sir. The sufferings of POWs in the Far East — God knows I sympathise with that. Lack of official recognition for their sufferings — and I take his point. And a bitter hatred of the Japanese which I don’t go along with. But they’re more than chips, they’re obsessions. He’s an angry man, and he’s after revenge. That’s hardly possible on the Japanese, not now, but he’s got a grudge against Whitehall, and the Binchesters, and even Yarborough. He’s bottling things up. If he lets go, he might hurt someone. Or hurt himself — he says he’s twice tried to kill himself.”
Major Lydgate listened carefully. “Thank you, Longley. He’s always been like that, you know, to some degree. He’s always been moody, but it’s fluctuated between the better and the worse. He isn’t good at social relationships either, and he isn’t married. The trouble is, he isn’t under my command. I’m employed by the school as a master, with an honorarium for supervising the Corps. But he’s on the army payroll, just as the RSM is, seconded to us from the Binchesters. He arrived here before I did, but I’ve seen his paperwork — a full account of his history and a strong recommendation — and he’s done very well by us. They periodically check his physical and mental state, and so far there’s been no cause for concern. But I didn’t know about the suicide attempts, and from what you say it sounds high time for another check. I’ll phone their MO and suggest he’s given a psychiatric test.”
The upshot, he reported ten days later, was that the army still deemed the sergeant to be fit for his post. “I’m not wholly comfortable,” he added, “with a candidate for a nervous breakdown in charge of an armoury, but it’s out of my hands. It has to be the Binchesters’ decision, informed by the view of their medics. None the less I insisted on them giving me specific authority to suspend him instantly should the need arise. I’ll keep a close eye on him myself, and tip off the RSM, and if you see any further cause for concern, let me know at once.”
February dawdled by, and most of March, and no further cause for concern did arise. Kim was pensive after remembering his mother’s death, but only for a while. Rehearsals for Hamlet intensified and made his life even busier. And Tom’s birthday arrived. Kim gave him a long thin parcel. Inside was a bone flute, about fifteen inches long, with a mouthpiece but no finger holes, and it rattled when shaken.
“Gosh! Thanks! It’s lovely!”
“It’s Mayan. About 550 to 700 AD, I’m told. I found it on a market stall in Belize.”
“How do you play it?”
“You tilt it one way or the other. It’s got beads inside, and they roll up or down and change the length of the tube.”
Tom experimented. The sound was mellow and haunting but the pitch was fiendishly difficult to control. “It’s weird! It’s going to be a challenge to learn.”
“Like our way of life.”
“Not much more to learn there, Kim. I’m fourteen now and in the clear. Less than a week and we can let ourselves rip!”
It was also on Tom’s birthday that Lord Montagu and his friends appeared in court. The two airmen with whom they had had it off turned Queen’s evidence and were acquitted, but the others were convicted and sentenced to gaol. For two hours all those concerned were kept inside the courthouse, because there was a large crowd outside and the authorities feared violent demonstrations against such abominable criminals. How wrong they were. When everyone finally emerged the crowd was still there; and it booed and spat at the airmen and cheered the abominable criminals.
That was on the last Wednesday of term. Next morning, everything began to happen at once.
Adrian ate his breakfast quickly and went to the private side to be ahead of the queue of boys wanting Wally’s initials on order forms for books or socks or jam. The final of the inter-house rugby competition was coming up on Friday, and with Duncan Slaithwaite he had selected the team. Or rather Duncan, as its captain, had selected it while going through the motions of consulting him; and as another matter of courtesy Adrian took it as usual to Wally, who might make comments but never suggested changes. As he passed the front door he picked up the day’s bundle of mail from the mat. He knocked at the door of the study, where Wally habitually had his breakfast.
“Morning, sir. The team for tomorrow. And the post.”
“Morning, Adrian,” said Wally through a mouthful of toast. “Let’s have a look. Thanks. And sort the post, would you?”
Adrian dealt the letters into two piles, the smaller for Wally and the larger for the boys.
“So you’ve put Copley at fly half,” Wally observed. “He’s fit enough to play, then?”
There was no answer.
“Adrian?” he said, looking up.
Adrian was holding an envelope and staring at it with a puzzled expression.
“Sorry, sir … There’s a letter for me. From Downing Street.”
“Oh good!” said Wally incautiously.
“You know what it is, then, sir? I’ve had one before, but it can’t be the same again.”
It was almost the end of term. He had been summoned to Mr Cracoe’s study, where he was staring at the identical envelope, addressed in a large typewriter face to Adrian George Longley Esquire at Kirkby Preparatory School, and embossed at the top left with the words ‘10 Downing Street’. He had not the faintest idea what it might be about, and said so.
“Well,” replied Mr Cracoe, “hadn’t you better open it and find out?”
So he borrowed Mr Cracoe’s paperknife to slit it open, and read the letter inside, and handed it over for elucidation. Mr Cracoe explained what the George Cross was, and what an achievement, and how utterly well deserved. And Adrian sat down, small and almost lost in the expanse of Mr Cracoe’s vast armchair, and buried his face in his hands.
“It can’t be the same again,” he repeated. “What for?”
“Well,” replied Wally, “hadn’t you better open it and find out?”
So Adrian borrowed a knife from the breakfast table to slit it open, and read the letter inside, and handed it to Wally without a word.
The writer had the honour, it said, to inform him that an announcement would be published in the London Gazette on Friday 26 March (“tomorrow!” Wally exclaimed) in the following terms:
The Queen has been pleased to award the George Cross to Adrian George Longley in recognition of his gallantry in the following circumstances: —
In April 1945, Adrian George Longley, aged 9, was a resident of the Tai Po Internment Camp in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, almost all of whose inmates, to the number of 165, were suffering from acute and potentially fatal dysentery. The camp’s doctor urgently requested medicines, but the Japanese commandant consistently refused to supply them, and on the 19th April Longley, of his own initiative, illicitly entered a storeroom which he knew contained the necessary remedies. He was apprehended in the act by the commandant, who sexually assaulted him at gunpoint and warned him that, should he be found in the storeroom again, he would be shot. Selflessly, despite this threat and despite great pain, he twice that same night broke into the room through the floor and removed medicines and food which saved the lives of all but ten of the patients.
Further, on the 31st August, 1945, while the camp was being liberated by the Royal Marines, Longley came upon the same commandant about to throw a grenade into a crowded dormitory. Singlehandedly and with great resource he forced him to drop the grenade, which exploded, killing the commandant but causing no injury to others. He thereby saved about 40 lives.
On both occasions Adrian George Longley risked his own life and displayed courage of the highest order.
Until the announcement was gazetted, the letter said, it was not to be made public. The award, it ended, would be presented at Buckingham Palace on 18 May, and detailed instructions would be forwarded in due course.
“Excellent!” said Wally, finishing the letter. “Most excellent! Many congratulations!”
He looked up. Adrian was now sitting in the scruffy old armchair, his face buried in his hands.
“Oh dear.” Wally recognised with a sinking feeling that he was in for another display of modesty from this strange boy. “You’re not happy about this one either, are you? Why not? I can just about understand your reservations over the Kirkby episode, where in your view you’d failed. But in this case you succeeded gloriously.”
Adrian shifted uncomfortably.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Wally. “I must get that broken spring seen to.”
“It’s not that, sir,” Adrian said, leaving Wally uncertain whether he meant the spring or the success. “It’s just that there are so many people who deserve it more than me. Far more … You knew about this, sir, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Wally admitted. “I knew about it, but I played no part in the process.”
“Who else knew?”
“Your guardians. They felt your deeds deserved recognition, and as soon as they rediscovered you, and discovered your name, they set the ball rolling. With the assistance, I believe, of Captain — what was his name? — Cragg? And of the marine commander. The Headmaster is also aware, though he won’t yet know that the award’s been made. And the same goes for Tom Wardle. And all of us approved … But I’m sorry, Adrian, I really must get on now. There’ll be a queue outside waiting to see me, a mile long. Look, the first thing you must do is talk to the Headmaster, about how this is to be announced to the school, and about how to handle the press. Go round and see him now. I’ll give him a ring and forewarn him.”
“Thank you, sir.” Adrian dazedly stood up and moved to the door.
“Saturday’s team is fine by me. And don’t forget your letter. And the boys’ mail.”
Adrian picked them up and left. Outside, there was indeed a queue a mile long, to which he apologised for holding it up. As he returned to the boys’ side more memories came back.
“I’m sorry, Adrian,” Mr Cracoe said, “but there’s no escaping it. The Times is coming, and the Telegraph and Manchester Guardian. And the Mail and Express and Mirror and News Chronicle. And the Yorkshire Post and Craven Herald. Oh yes, and the BBC.”
“But how do they know where I am?”
“Easy enough. The citation mentions Kirkby, and they had only to look back at the reports from the time of the flood. They were clamouring to talk to you then, but the hospital wouldn’t let them in, and by the time you were released the news was stale.”
So, with Mr Cracoe metaphorically holding his hand, he confronted a bevy of reporters, and answered questions, and blinked as the flashbulbs went off, and hated every moment of it. He spoke haltingly into the BBC’s microphone and that evening listened, cringing with embarrassment, to his own treble voice on the Home Service. Next day — next Friday, in the case of the Craven Herald — he was shown the resulting reports, and within a few days was presented by Mrs Cracoe with a scrapbook neatly filled with the cuttings.
And now he had to go through the whole rigmarole again. But there was not much time left before Assembly. He made a beeline for the Headmaster’s study, where the reaction was similar to Wally’s.
“I ought to be congratulating you on this magnificent news. But Mr MacNair tells me you are not happy about it.”
“No, sir, I’m not. Is there any way I can turn it down?”
“As I understand it, no. This is an honour from the Crown, which can only be declined at the informal stage. Not once the Queen has been advised to confer it.”
“But there hasn’t been an informal stage, sir, not that I’ve known of. People have simply assumed that I’d want it. But nobody’s asked me.”
“Well, there it is, for better or worse. And it can not be kept under wraps. Nor, now, can your previous award, because willy-nilly the press will be on to that too.”
“How will they know where to find me? The citation doesn’t mention Yarborough.”
“Oh, I will inform them. They are bound to find out sooner or later. They always do. And it will be infinitely easier to deal with them together than in dribs and drabs.”
“All right, sir. I understand.” Adrian sighed. “It can’t be hidden. Neither of them can. And I suppose,” he added with a hint of cynicism, “it’s good publicity for the school.”
“I can not deny it. And I am relieved that it is you, not I, who has raised the point, because I would not like you to think that we were using you. But time is now short. We may not publicise this before it is gazetted, but I have a plan of action to suggest. In a few minutes’ time I tell the school that the first lesson tomorrow is cancelled. And after Assembly tomorrow I announce your award, and indeed the earlier one too. I then leave the stage to you for forty-five minutes, to speak of your deeds on both occasions, and anything else you may want to say. The press will be invited to be present, and afterwards will be given access to you for questions and photographs. How does that strike you?”
“With foreboding, sir. But I have to agree.”
“Good. But I do beg you to be positive about it. I know it is not in you to boast but, whatever your private reservations, this is cause for public celebration. You have, after all, made history.”
“You do not know? Well, you will hear tomorrow. The school will want to celebrate. Please help us to celebrate. May I borrow this letter for my secretary to copy the citation, and would you let me see the earlier citation as well? And now we must hasten to Chapel.”
When prayers were over, the Headmaster stood up.
“News,” he announced, carefully not looking at Adrian, “has just arrived which will gladden every heart in the school. I may not yet divulge it. But tomorrow I will, at this time, and the first lesson will be cancelled.”
He swept out amid a subdued buzz of chatter as people calculated which lesson they would be spared and speculated whether the school had been bequeathed a fortune by some millionaire. Of all the boys, only one began to glimpse the truth. After breakfast Tom had looked for Kim and failed to find him. There could be many explanations. But news of glorious news made him wonder. He had almost forgotten about this. Mum and Dad had reported at Christmas that things seemed to be going well, but since then there had been no word. And, as he was spewed into the quad amid the heaving throng, he found Kim himself lying in wait for him.
“Tom,” he said, pulling him into a relatively quiet spot. “You should’ve been the first to hear, but I’ve been closeted non-stop with Wally and the HM. I’m being given another blinking GC. For Tai Po.”
“Ah! Smashing!” Tom was bursting with pride for him; and bursting to hug him, though that was unthinkable here. But he sensed something amiss; which Kim confirmed.
“Wally told me John and Mary masterminded it, and that you knew and approved. Thank you for that. Yet I’m not comfortable — lots of people deserve it more than me. Infinitely more. But you must get to your class, and I must give John and Mary a call. See you later.”
He went off; and so too, sighing inwardly and feeling somewhat deflated, did Tom. Kim would be thanking Mum and Dad nicely for something he really did not want.
After morning school Adrian delivered the Kirkby citation to the Headmaster and collected the latest one.
“I am surprised,” said the Headmaster, pointing to the letter, “they went so far as to say that you were sexually assaulted. But I suppose it is an essential part of the story. Dealing with that aspect in your address will be tricky, but I leave it of course to you. As I do everything else. Have you decided what to include?”
“I’m still mulling it over, sir.”
“I trust you to make it memorable. There should be at least a dozen reporters present. My secretary has been on the telephone all morning.”
Adrian’s introduction of the autumn’s new boys to the ways of the Corps was by now completed. It had proved so popular and successful that Major Lydgate had asked him to repeat it for the present term’s intake, which was very much smaller and could be handled in a quarter of the time. That Thursday afternoon his group included Charles Bottomley and Malcolm Stones. They followed the usual circuit but, being a little behind schedule, Adrian led them straight through the armoury to the indoor range before the shooting should finish. Sergeant Standedge was morose and cantankerous. They returned to the armoury where, as the shooters cleaned their rifles under the sergeant’s jaundiced eye, Adrian introduced his group to the Lee-Enfield .303s. The youngsters were a lively bunch. They knew better than to fool around, but they asked many questions, light-hearted and serious, and Adrian’s attention was fully occupied.
“Right, that’ll do for today,” he said when enough time had been spent. The shooters had all left. “Put the rifles back in the racks and … Where’s Stones? Anyone seen Stones?”
“The sergeant was talking to him,” Charles offered. “I think they went into the range.”
The door was ajar, but as Adrian approached it was pulled shut. Seized with a sudden fear, he tried the handle. It was locked.
“Sergeant, open the door!” he shouted through it.
Nothing happened. And the range had no windows.
“Off you go,” he said to his boys. “But not you and you,” he pointed to two brighter-looking ones, “or you, Bottomley. I’ve got jobs for you. You two, run and find Major Lydgate and the RSM. As fast as you can. They’ll probably be in the HQ on Scale Hill. Tell them I sent you and ask them to come to the armoury as a matter of urgency. All right? And Bottomley — please would you find Tom Wardle and bring him here? He should be back at MacNair’s by now. And come back with him.”
All three ran off, leaving Adrian by himself. He went to the range door and listened. The sergeant was talking, but he could not make out the words. They might be harmless. But why was the door locked?
“Open the door!” he yelled, hammering on it. Still nothing happened.
Then he heard Malcolm unmistakably whimpering, and the sergeant’s voice rising in frustration. “For God’s sake stop blubbering!” he was shouting. “Don’t bother about Mr Longley out there — he’s got guts, but he seems to think you’re a babe in arms. Christ! You’re thirteen, not five! You’re plenty old enough to know about your Dad. You need to know. He’s someone to be proud of.”
Adrian hammered again before leaning in despair, palms against the door, as he listened to the sergeant describing the horrors of the march from Sandakan and Stones senior’s hideous end, bayoneted in the stomach when his bleeding feet would carry his skeletal frame no more. Malcolm was now sobbing his heart out.
“But how do you know?” was his shrill and anguished cry.
“Asked my mate in Oz. He looked up the records for me. Don’t you worry, it’s from the horse’s mouth. For Christ’s sake, don’t you want to know? Your Dad was a hero. He had guts. You’re his spitting image, but he’d be ashamed of you. Namby-pamby! Spineless as a jelly! Do you think he blubbered as he died? Or when he spent a week in the punishment cage at Changi where there wasn’t even room to stand up? Do you think Mr Longley blubbered when his foot was smashed by a Jap? Or when he was raped by a Jap? Do you think I blubbered when I was slaving on the Burma Railway? Or when I was a boy and got buggered by queers? You little runt! For all I know you’re a queer yourself. They’re all namby-pambies too.”
For all his distress, that caught Malcolm on a raw spot.
“That’s just not true!” he wailed. “Longley isn’t a namby-pamby!”
Realising that he had betrayed a secret, he burst into another bout of bitter weeping; and as he did so, Tom and Charles arrived hotfoot.
“The sergeant’s flipped his lid,” Adrian told them. “Locked himself in with Malcolm. Described in gruesome detail how his Dad died. Malcolm sounds in a mess. When we get the door open, will you take charge of him, please? Get him to the house and look after him as best you can. Don’t leave him alone. I’ll be along as soon as I can.”
As Charles went to the door to listen to the wailing, Adrian added under his voice, “Malcolm told the sergeant I’m a queer, Tom. Not you. Just me.”
Then Major Lydgate arrived panting — he was a tubby man — with the RSM in tow. Adrian filled them in. The Major tried his own key, but the lock was blocked by the key inside.
He too hammered. “Sergeant! This is Major Lydgate. Open up! That’s an order!”
This time the door did open. The sergeant was unashamed, but recognised defeat.
“All right, sir. You needn’t tell me. I know.”
“Give me your keys,” said the Major. “And get home. I’ll speak to you in the morning.”
The sergeant looked back disgustedly at Malcolm, a quaking bundle on the floor. “Namby-pamby!” he snarled. He passed Adrian. “And as for you …”
He slammed his keys down on the desk and left without a further word. Adrian, after a brief conference with the Major, followed the boys back to MacNair’s. His first task there was to put Wally in the picture. Then he took the still tearful Malcolm to Wally and sat in while Wally sympathised and offered Malcolm the chance of going home early, which was emphatically turned down. He listened while Wally unhappily phoned Auntie and Malcolm spoke bravely to her. Then he spent half an hour alone with Malcolm, and what was said between them nobody ever learned. Finally, after tea, he managed a word with Tom.
“How’s he doing?”
“It’s a shame. He’s been getting on so well, but this has set him back by months. He’s calmer now, especially after you talked to him. But he still needs reassuring. Comforting. I’ve been with him all the rest of the time, and so’ve Charles and Alan Gregory for some of it. But it’ll be worse tonight, when he’s by himself. He might have nightmares. Could he sleep in the sickroom till the end of term?”
“Good idea. Yes, I’ll organise that.”
“And Kim … do you remember that night at Tai Po when old Mr Rishworth died? How you squeezed into my bed and cuddled me? That’s what Malcolm needs. Someone to hold him, all night. Not Charles — he’s sympathetic, but not in that way. And I don’t think Alan knows him well enough yet. The best person would be you, but that’d look very odd, and he’s ashamed he betrayed your secret. But I’d do it. We wouldn’t do anything, of course.”
“I know you wouldn’t. Well, that’s very kind of you, Tom. But it’s so unusual we’ll have to clear it with Wally. And check that Malcolm would like it.”
Wally took some persuading but, to his huge credit, gave permission, and Malcolm jumped at it. Finally they picked up their conversation again.
“What’s happening tomorrow morning, Kim?” Tom asked.
“Ohhh!” Kim groaned and rubbed his face. “I haven’t had a moment to think about it. Nor about the dress rehearsal, which is tomorrow night. Why do these things always happen at the same time? The things where I have to pick up the bits?
The time is out of joint; O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Sorry, Tom, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed … Well, after Assembly I’ve got to hold forth for forty-five minutes.”
“What the HM calls my deeds at Tai Po and Kirkby. That’s what he wants first. Beyond that it’s up to me. Something to the effect that I was only doing my duty. I know I’m always going on about it, but it’s important. But I think I’ll spend most of the time on the raw deal the POWs got in the Far East. Not just during the war but after. Everything the sergeant was ranting about. All right, he’s got a bee in his bonnet that’s buzzing madly out of control. But to quote Polonius again, though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. He’s got a very fair point. That there are masses of people who saved lives in hideous conditions and often lost their own in the process. That there’s been no recognition for any of them. That they deserve medals far more than I do. It’s a good cause. Half the country’s press is going to be here, so it might hit a few front pages.”
That same evening Sergeant Standedge went to the White Hart. This was a rare event, for he was not a sociable person, but he wanted to drown his sorrows. His plan failed, as such plans usually do. But as he sat solitary in his corner, brooding over his beer, he overheard a nearby conversation. The Headmaster’s secretary’s husband was telling a crony (strictly between you and me, old man) about Mr Longley’s George Cross and the programme for tomorrow morning. The sergeant ground his teeth, abruptly emptied his glass, and left. Little did Major Lydgate know, he reflected grimly as he limped down the High Street, that the previous CO of the Corps had entrusted him with a spare set of keys.