Adrian spent a wretched night. So too did Tom.
“He did try to do things,” he reported in the brief moment they had together next morning. “The little goat. He wanted me to wank him. So I moved into the other bed. But he started whimpering, so I had to go back and cuddle him. I didn’t wank him, though. And in the end he slept quite well.” He chuckled resignedly. “But I didn’t.”
“Tom, you’re a saint. And at the risk of sounding gooey, I love you.”
“And me you. And I’m proud of you. Good luck, Kim!”
Wally, as the only other person in the know, had been given the job of keeping the reporters under control. He installed them as early as he could at the back of Hall and sat guard over them. Boys and staff, as they trickled in, cast curious glances at the strangers and their cameras. At last the clock struck nine, the doors were closed and Assembly began. When held in Chapel the service was sung, but when it was in Hall, as today, it was said. The Headmaster announced Psalm 91. Tom, sitting beside Malcolm in dutiful but yawning support, had no idea whether this had been specially chosen. But, by accident or design, it could hardly have been more appropriate.
He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers; his faithfulness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day; for the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee in their hands, that thou hurt not thy foot against a stone.
How appropriate, too, the verses from Philippians, read by the prefect of the week.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
The passage was so clear a reflection of Kim that it must have been picked deliberately; and this was confirmed by the prayer with which — wonder of wonders! — the HM ended. All three were surely a tribute from one good man to another.
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.
Then the Headmaster stood up.
“Now for the news,” he said, “which I promised you yesterday. You will of course know that the Victoria Cross is the highest award for valour in the face of the enemy. It has been in existence for a century, and seven have been won by Old Boys of Yarborough — one in the Boer War, four in the First World War, two in the Second — of whom the school is rightly proud. But with the George Cross you may not be so familiar. It was instituted only a dozen years ago as the highest award for gallantry not in the face of the enemy, and may thus be given to civilians as well as to servicemen. And it ranks equal with the Victoria Cross.
“For nearly five years now, unbeknown to you, we have had in our midst the holder of a George Cross. Unbeknown, because he is the most modest of people and did not wish the fact to be made public. Only Mr MacNair and I have been privy to his secret. But now it can — and must — be revealed. The award relates to an incident almost exactly seven years ago, when the person in question was at prep school at Kirkby in Yorkshire.”
The eyes of the few at the top of the school who knew and remembered that Adrian had been at Kirkby swivelled towards him.
“Let me quote to you,” the Headmaster went on, “from the London Gazette, a journal which you will rarely find on the newsagent’s shelf. It is the official government newspaper, published every weekday since 1665, and the issue for 21 July 1947 carried this announcement.”
He read it, and a storm of applause broke out. Adrian remained seated, his eyes on the floor.
“In 1947,” the Headmaster said once he could make himself heard, “Longley was eleven years of age, and the youngest ever to win a George Cross. But that achievement is only the half of it. Today’s London Gazette carries a further announcement, a retrospective one because full details have only recently emerged. Let me read that too.”
He did so, and there were whoops and another gale of applause.
“Thus Longley has beaten his own record. When these events took place, he was nine. And he has set another record. Three people have won a Victoria Cross and bar — in other words two Victoria Crosses. But nobody has hitherto won a George Cross and bar. Until, that is, today. Today Adrian Longley has made history. But record-breaking pales into insignificance beside the courage and sheer selflessness which he displayed both at Kirkby and in Hong Kong. We are hugely proud of him, proud beyond words. And although he is, as I remarked, the most modest of men, he has consented to talk to you and tell you how he views his heroic achievements. Let me now hand over to Adrian Longley.”
He stepped down to occupy an empty seat in the front row, and Adrian stood up.
Major Lydgate’s night had also been disturbed, haunted by unquiet memories of the afternoon before. Was it possible? Was it possible? At first light, much to his wife’s annoyance, he got out of bed, dressed without bothering to shave, and made his way to the armoury. Everything looked normal. He considered rousting out the RSM to help, but decided not to. He was probably on a wild goose chase. He sat down at the desk and set to work. There was a constant stream of equipment sent to the Binchesters and returned after servicing or repair, and, although the sergeant’s bookkeeping was meticulous, checking the inventories and vouchers was a time-consuming task. After two and a half hours he sighed with relief. The number of rifles present was the number there should be.
That left the Bren guns, many fewer and thus an easier job. After half an hour’s work his heart sank. One was missing. He lifted the telephone and called the police. Then he called the Binchesters to inform them. Then he called School House, only to be told that the Headmaster was already in Hall. Then he ran the three hundred yards to school, as fast as his short legs would carry him. But as he neared it he tasted all the bitterness of defeat. From the direction of Hall came intermittent sounds of gunfire.
The police had moved smartly. Yarborough, for all that it liked to regard itself as a small town, was really no more than a village and was served by only two constables. But the police station was just round the corner, and one officer was already outside Hall.
“We tried to go in, sir,” he said, “but we was fired at.”
“You don’t have any guns here?” the Major panted.
He might have been asking for atom bombs. “Oh no, sir! But I believe there’s some at Binchester. Constable Hebden’s gone to phone, and ask for ambulances too, in case.”
Single shots turned into rapid fire. The Major, sighing for the ways of the United States where, he had heard, all policemen carried guns, was in an agony. Binchester was half an hour away. He summoned up his courage — he had won an MC on D-Day, but that had been in the heat of battle — and cautiously opened the door. A voice yelled “get out!”, a bullet ricocheted off the frame beside him, and he hurriedly closed the door again. There was another volley of rapid fire. He was contemplating returning to the armoury for a rifle when the rat-tat-tat inside stopped, and instead there arose a triumphant roar. This time he flung the door wide and went in.
Adrian stepped up on to the stage and stood facing the assembled school. It was now on its collective feet, clapping and cheering wildly. Flashbulbs were going off in the back row where the corralled reporters were standing on their chairs in the hope of a better view. To the audience, Adrian looked small and alone. He felt small and alone. To him, the audience looked enormous. The building itself was enormous, with its lofty hammer-beamed roof and seating, at a pinch, for a thousand. The stage was enormous, large enough to accommodate in comfort a full-sized symphony orchestra. On either side, at the front corners, steps climbed the four feet up from the main floor. To his right was the great oriel window. Behind him rose the tiered seats for the absent choir, backed by the organ at the centre and flanked by stairs leading up to two doors which gave access to a warren of practice rooms beyond. He wondered how many times he had been on this stage, playing in the thick of the orchestra or, with the Headmaster enthroned beside him, reading the lesson at Assembly. But never before had he stood here alone.
This had gone on long enough. He located Tom alongside Malcolm near the back, threw him a half-smile, and was rewarded with a grin of encouragement and love. Then he raised his hand, the clapping died reluctantly away, and the school sat down. Adrian drew a deep breath.
“The Headmaster called me a hero,” he began, “and you seem to agree.” He had acquired the actor’s knack of projecting his voice which, someone had told him, could be heard clearly even in the acoustically dead spot in the middle of Hall. “But I’m not. I’m an ordinary bloke …”
“Ordinary my arse!” came a bellow from behind and to his left. “You’re a freak!”
The door from the practice rooms had swung open and Sergeant Standedge had come through. In the firing position by his right hip he held a Bren gun, suspended by its sling from his shoulder. On his left side hung a canvas bag. He was in civvies and unshaven, and looked as if he was another who had not slept. He pulled the trigger and a pane shattered in the window at the far end of Hall.
“Don’t anybody move!” he shouted. “Least of all you!” That was directed at Adrian, past whom he sent a bullet which brought glass tinkling out of the oriel window. He limped down the stairs and stopped at their foot from where, by swinging his gun through less than a right angle, he could cover the whole stage and the whole of Hall. He shrugged off his shoulder bag, which gave a clank as he dropped it to the floor. Spare magazines, most of those present deduced. A third shot rang out which sank into a bench at the back, and a nearby master who had half stood up sat rapidly down. “I said don’t move!”
A flashbulb went off. “And no pictures!” A fourth bullet splintered the panelling above a reporter’s head. Then “Get out!” One of the main doors had been part-opened by someone outside. A fifth bullet slammed into it, and the door immediately shut. A shrill scream went up from near the back. “Christ, it’s that runt of a redhead!” For the sixth time the sergeant pulled the trigger, and another scream suggested that this time he had found a human target.
Adrian meanwhile was thinking fast. He must draw the fire away from the audience, which meant he must draw it on himself. In the centre of the stage, towards its front, was the Headmaster’s chair, more like a throne, mercifully unoccupied, massively made, its back a good six feet high. Relative to the sergeant, he was just beyond it and full in view behind it. So while the sergeant was distracted he moved slowly forwards into its shelter.
“Where the hell?” the sergeant shouted, noticing his absence.
Adrian had momentarily poked his head out in front of the throne. He was not afraid, but absorbed. There was a job to be done, and only he could do it. The school, sensing a duel to the death, sat spellbound. Except for a whimpering from the back, there was for a moment not a sound.
Adrian’s ploy was a risky one. It might have lured the sergeant sideways, behind the throne. Instead, as he hoped, it lured him downstage, firing from the hip, away from his spare ammunition, until he was at the top of the steps down into the body of Hall. To remain under cover Adrian retreated slightly upstage, crouching behind the throne. As three bullets thudded into its woodwork he seized it by the arms, twisted it through ninety degrees so that its back faced the sergeant, and began to push it towards him. The sergeant switched to rapid fire and the din became overpowering. The volley hit the back of the throne, some rounds penetrating deep enough to send splinters flying into Adrian’s face. But he pressed on, and when he was halfway towards the sergeant he glanced to his right and made a curious gesture.
In the front row the Headmaster was struggling to stand up. On his right sat Duncan Slaithwaite of the rugby fifteen. On his left sat Dennis Cornholme, another hefty member of the team. Each of them had a hand on his arm, holding him down, and Duncan was muttering urgently to him out of the side of his mouth. He knew, as did anyone in the Corps who was more than a rookie, that a Bren magazine held thirty rounds and that normally, to avoid any risk of jamming, you loaded one or two fewer. Soon it would run out. That was what Adrian had meant with his gesture, a little curving movement reminiscent of the curve of the magazine. And when the magazine ran out, you had to change it. If you had a co-gunner, you could do it in two seconds. By yourself, it took at least four. Separated from your spares, it would take an eternity.
The sergeant’s reactions were still sharp enough. The main door tentatively opened again and he swung round. “Get out!” He fired a single shot which hit the frame, and the door promptly closed. Adrian seized the opportunity to edge closer. The sergeant continued to fire desperately at him. The back of the throne was disintegrating and there was blood on Adrian’s face and shirt front.
Abruptly, shockingly, the din ceased.
“Now!” yelled Duncan. He raced up the steps while Dennis vaulted onto the stage. The sergeant did not stand a chance. Before he could move two yards he was tackled to the floor and pinned down by two large bodies. A roar of triumph arose from the school and people leapt up.
The Headmaster too leapt up and faced them. “Sit down!” he bellowed. “Two masters at the back — phone for the police and ambulance.”
“Already done, sir,” called Major Lydgate from the door.
“Then bring the school doctors here. Both of them. The press — stay where you are. Any masters with first aid experience, up here. Is there an injury at the back? Then some of you go to him.”
Organised chaos ensued. The Yarborough constables were wholly out of their depth. All they could do was handcuff the sergeant and remove him, spitting obscenities, to their cell. Adrian was laid on his back, bleeding profusely from his head and chest. The master in charge of drama, a qualified first-aider, bent over him.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Adrian muttered through his pain. “I doubt I’ll be fit for the dress rehearsal. It’ll have to be Hamlet,” he fought down an idiotic desire to giggle, “without the prince.”
But consciousness was ebbing away. His impressions became sporadic. He was aware of a school doctor cutting off his jacket and shirt and pressing something on his chest. He was aware of the jab of a hypodermic needle. He was aware of Wally’s distraught face looking down at him. He was aware of someone saying “GC and two bars, now.” He was aware of a new commotion as the ambulance men arrived and moved him on to a stretcher. He was aware of being carried out of Hall to resounding if anxious cheers.
So the poor blighters had been kept waiting. And Tom had been kept waiting too … but Tom had been waiting for months … Tom had promised to wait for as long as it took.
“Tom?” he asked vaguely.
There were grunts and heaves as his stretcher was slid into the ambulance. There were more grunts and heaves as a second stretcher was slid in, on the other side.
“Who …?” he began, but could get no further.
“Take it easy, son,” said the ambulance man. “We’ll soon have you in hospital. You’re going to be all right.”
They set off for Binchester, bell clanging.
Intermittently, through waves of pain, his past swam back to him. Tom … Yarborough … prep school … the flood … his spasmodic life with his father … Tai Po … and what came before Tai Po …
Raining futile five-year-old pummels on the bare thigh of the Japanese soldier who was raping his mother … a thigh distinguished by a tree-shaped birthmark … not knowing what rape was, but knowing it was evil because Mum was screaming … knowing that Dad, when he came home, would go out of his senses and blame him for not protecting her … being brushed carelessly aside when the soldier was satisfied … watching, too shocked even to whimper, as he shot Mum in the head … wandering empty out of the house … somehow finding himself on the ferry …
Further back still … sitting on Mum’s knee … a beautiful, dark-haired, loving Mum, the equal of Mary …
“Remember this, darling,” she was saying. “Treat other people just as you’d like them to treat you. It may be hard. It may even hurt. But it’s the only way. It’s what you have to do. It’s your duty.”
That had lodged in his mind, unrecognised, and subconsciously he had tried to obey. He hoped he had succeeded. Tai Po … his father … Kirkby … the flood … Yarborough … responsibilities of office … Tom and love … desire suppressed by duty … the sergeant.
The sergeant … The pestilence that walketh in darkness might have been vanquished. But the arrow that flieth by day had proved too strong.
He felt he was on the way out. But it was not time to go. He could not leave Tom alone. He must fight on.
“Kim!” he heard a voice cry, a thin voice, but one recorded on his heart.
Tom! Tom with him in the ambulance!
He tried to sit up, but could not. He tried to turn his head, but could not. He tried to stretch out an arm, but it was firmly tucked back.
Less than a minute passed before the ambulance man called to the driver. “The young ’un’s gone, Bill.”
Oh Mary! Oh John! He had promised to look after Tom … and he had failed them!
It was time to go. Time to join Tom. A time to die. It was his destiny.
For the first time and the last, Adrian gave up.
“You can ease off, Bill,” called the ambulance man. “The other one’s gone too.”
And the clangour of the bell died away.