My last long story, A Time, descended into the dark, to which some readers reacted with howls of dismay. I have no regrets about that. But let me reassure those who howled that Kingdom Come climbs up to the light. It is in part a detective story, though not so much a whodunnit as a howdunnit. At the same time it tries to underline the conflict between the selfish gene (as in “stuff you, I’m all right”) and the instinct for justice (as in the child’s “it’s not fair”). Some people care and some do not. Simple human decency, which these days seems to be in ever shorter supply, makes all the difference.
While Dorchester-on-Thames (not to be confused with the larger Dorchester in Dorset) is a genuine and delightful place, Dorcic Hall has mercifully never existed. All of the characters too, whether virtuous or ineffable, are figments of my imagination. To some I have given surnames which, although they do exist in real life, have a nicely Bunyanesque ring to them. This tale is, after all, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.
Should you wish to follow the geography, Google Earth will take you to Dorchester-on-Thames and show you everything except Dorcic Hall, which I have placed to the north-west of the village between the River Thames and the almost rectangular lake beside the Abingdon road. I have also taken the liberty of tinkering slightly with the layout of Bridge End.
My thanks to Hilary, Pryderi, Ben, Anthony and David for offering their usual wise comments, and to Jonathan for being with me.
15 August 2012
“Christ!” cried Dad, stepping on the brake. “Will you look at that!”
He was not addressing me. I am not Christ. Nor did I need the invitation, because I was already goggling. Ahead of us lay a wide parkland of cropped grass dotted with large and ancient trees. The drive, crossing it straight as an arrow, led up to a wide flight of steps, above which rose a vast portico of honey-coloured stone crowned with a sculptured pediment. On either side, in perfect symmetry, extended long wings, each of three main storeys and, half-hidden by the balustrades on top, a further attic floor. This was no mere mansion. It was a veritable palace, and the photos we had seen did scant justice to the grand reality. Tucked discreetly out of sight behind, we knew from the blurb, was a modern block, from which further lawns stretched down to the River Thames.
For the next two years, holidays apart, this palace was to be my abode. Dad was chortling quietly. A self-made man and proud of it, he was tickled pink that his son would be living in such lordly surroundings. So too was his son. What neither of us could foresee was the outcome.
A word about that outcome. Praise makes me uncomfortable, especially when it is undeserved. Hence this account, to explain that everything sprang from chance: the chance of who my parents were, the chance of who I was thrown in with, the chance of bumping into the right people at the right time. I did no more than anyone would have done who owned an ounce of decency and intelligence. Small credit to me, although about the reward that came my way I am most certainly not complaining. And my main problem in writing this account is that I am afraid it will sound maudlin and sentimental and even soupy. The trouble is that, from one point of view, that is precisely the way it was, and I cannot disguise the fact. I will just have to take the risk.
The story begins soon after I turned sixteen. I was fortunate, I admit, to be wrapped in what is best described as a cosy cocoon. Life was so easy. My family was close, loving and enlightened. We lived a desirable life in a desirable house on the fringe of Hampstead. I was gay, I was out, and nobody minded. There were no parental worries about future lack of grandchildren because Tim was into girls — literally and frequently — and in due course could be relied upon to supply the necessary. I had some good friends, but not yet a boyfriend, or not exactly a boyfriend. I was already doing things with my best friend Doug, and I loved him. But we were still at the tentative stage, feeling our way towards commitment. Mum and Dad knew all about it, because I had told them, and they uttered nothing but words of support and practical advice on safety.
Both Doug and I went to Haverstock School in Chalk Farm, an easy commute away. I was bright and had few problems with coursework, and though I kept myself fit I was not much into the hurly-burly of sports. Reasonably self-confident yet content with my own company, I stood midway between the socialiser and the hermit. I loved books both old and new — recently (and this is not wholly irrelevant to the story) I had been deep into detective stories: not the gung-ho thrillers of a later age, but more cerebral golden oldies like Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Edmund Crispin, and early Michael Gilbert. In short, my past had been carefree, my present was serene, and my immediate future seemed nicely mapped out with a minimum of uncertainties: amble through the remaining exams and sail into university. After that … well, who knew?
A bit more here about my parents, both of whom were interested, interesting and, above all, fun. Dad was the son of a railwayman. The first of his clan to make it to university and then to medical school, he had risen through sheer quality and dedication to be a hospital consultant. Mum was similar, the daughter of a steelworker, and another consultant at the same hospital. Their parents still lived in terrace houses in Swindon and Scunthorpe respectively, and viewed their offsprings’ careers with pride but no envy.
Mum and Dad brought up their two sons with a wonderful tolerance and understanding, and from as far back as I remember they instilled into us the care and compassion which they themselves had in abundance. Without care and compassion, after all, who can work for sick children? They used to tell us of their patients’ plights and problems, careful not to breach confidentiality but with a loving concern that held our interest and made us demand regular updates on the kids’ progress. Had it not been for their input, this story would have had a very different ending.
In their profession they were surely souls of propriety. But in private they were open and down-to-earth — no prudish limit on what subjects might be raised, a bluntness of speech, a preference to call a spade a spade. I loved them for it, and imitated them, yet knew well enough how to suit my language to the company. Thus I grew up to be reasonably proper with my teachers but earthy, though not I hope grossly obscene, with my friends.
So things stood in those Easter holidays. GCSEs were coming up, but no big deal, and everything in the garden looked as lovely as ever. Until, that is, Doug dropped two bombshells.
First, he told me with many apologies, he was getting interested in girls. He had begun to date Helen from our class, and he no longer wanted to do things with me — much, he generously added, though he had enjoyed it. While desperately sad, it was not wildly surprising. As I said, we had both been feeling our way. I had long since worked out my own inclination. Now he was finding his, as he had every right to do. I understood, and wished him joy. Anything else would be churlish. At least we would remain best mates; unless, of course, he became so embrangled with Helen that I was elbowed out.
Doug’s second bombshell came if anything as a greater shock. In an attempt to sanitise their elitist image, a loose grouping of a dozen boarding schools was offering two-year A-level scholarships, all found, to supposedly benighted students in state schools. At the end of last term a leaflet about it had been pinned up on the Haverstock notice board, and Doug was intending to apply. Knowing him — he really was bright — he could very well get one.
I wished him joy, again. But it made me think hard. Where would it leave me? Two more years at Haverstock without my best mate, except in the holidays. And in September my brother Tim, with whom I got on extremely well, was off to university. The prospect looked lonely. So why, it suddenly struck me, should I not apply myself?
There was, of course, a host of queries. First, would not Tim and me leaving home at the same time be a cruel blow to our family togetherness? Second, my egalitarian principles were against public schools. I knew little about them, but if the popular notion was correct that they were snooty and privileged places for those born with a silver spoon in their mouths, would I not stick out like a sore thumb? Third, did they really provide a better education than Haverstock? Next, if I won a scholarship, would it be at the expense of some kid from a deprived inner-city dump who might have got more out of it than me? And finally, did I really have the resolve to wrench myself out of my cocoon?
When I put my thoughts to Mum and Dad they positively enthused. “Don’t bother about us,” they said. “You’ll only be going two years early. It’ll be good to have some peace in the house.” That was eyewash, and we all knew it. “We aren’t posh, but we do speak standard English. You’ll fit in fine, so long as you don’t climb onto a socialist soapbox. And all the league tables show the average public school is better academically than the average state secondary. And it’s unlikely that any kid from a deprived inner-city dump will dream of applying. And most important of all, it’ll be a challenge, won’t it? Your current life is so cushy that a challenge or two mightn’t come amiss. You’re plenty level-headed enough to cope. Go for it, Peter.”
I summoned up all my limited store of courage, and went for it. To cut a long story short, selection was by interview in London, which proved a doddle. Twelve candidates won through, one for each of the schools, subject to GCSE results. Doug was one and I was another. We had no say in choosing our school, for it was literally the luck of the draw. In the event, Doug drew Yarborough, of which I had indeed heard. I drew Dorcic Hall, a name which meant nothing whatever.
As soon as the news came through, I checked out its website, and a few days later a fat envelope thudded through our letterbox, full of glossy and over-enthusiastic publicity. But if the language of both was excessive, the information they gave was thought-provoking.
Dorcic (pronounced Dorchick), they explained, was a boarding school at Dorchester-on-Thames, eight miles south-east of Oxford and fifty west of London. The Hall was a magnificent mansion (Grade I listed) built in 1745 for Sir Augustus Pratt (who had made his packet from slave plantations in Jamaica) by William Kent, who had also landscaped its extensive grounds. Only twenty years ago it had been converted into a school with its own playing fields and sports centre. It supplied a robust and wholesome all-round education for boys between thirteen and eighteen. All the basic GCSE and A-level courses were offered. With total numbers pegged at 240, class sizes were small. Accommodation was entirely in twin-bedded rooms, all en suite with desks and computers and a small TV, and cleaners and laundry were laid on. There were common rooms with large TVs and a bar for the over-eighteens. The only facilities the spiel did not mention were room service and a telephone; but doubtless everyone had their own mobile.
The blurb went to town over the superb resources for rugby, soccer, hockey, athletics, squash, tennis, swimming (heated indoor pool) and rowing. Almost all boys participated but, in tune with the school’s policy of minimal interference in its pupils’ lives, there was no compulsion. Meals, prepared by experienced chefs, were of the highest quality. Excellent health care was supplied by the school’s own nurses and physiotherapist, a doctor from nearby Wallingford who attended regularly, and a dentist in Dorchester. As a back-up there was the world-class John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. A non-denominational religious service (attendance voluntary) was held every Sunday, and on Fridays and Saturdays transport was available to mosque and synagogue. Dorchester, a short walk away, was a picture-postcard village with an ancient abbey, thatched and half-timbered houses, and a thousand inhabitants. The basic shops were there, but a weekend minibus service took anyone who wanted to the bustling and historic city of Oxford.
Boys were welcomed (it said), provided they were proficient in English and had passed the Common Entrance Examination, from anywhere in the world. The school specialised in catering for discerning families overseas who desired an exceptional English education for their sons. Two thirds of the pupils currently came from Britain and one third from (in descending order) Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and Singapore, plus a few from Canada, the United States and suchlike (it implied) minor nations. For those without a British base, the school was entirely flexible about providing accommodation (at, of course, an extra charge) in the holidays.
The fees, for everyone bar me, were eye-wateringly astronomical. And the blurb left me uneasy, even nauseated. It was unashamedly arrogant and jingoistic. And it included — in the horrid but fashionable jargon — no mission statement. There was nothing about the school’s ethos, about how it set out to train its students, about what it expected of them, about how it cared for them as people rather than as fee-payers. It seemed to be aimed at parents with high ambitions for their sons, with ultra-deep pockets, and with little sense or sensibility. The whole set-up smacked of a first-class hotel for sporty young males, with no expense spared. Small wonder it cost so much.
And it sounded as if education was a necessary but subordinate add-on. At the very end, for example, in small print, was the note that the latest Ofsted inspection report was available on request. This was probably a legal requirement. But was the report not good enough to flaunt on the website?
It was all seriously dispiriting. Doug was bubbling with enthusiasm over what he had read about Yarborough, and by way of comparison I looked at its website too. It was chalk and cheese. Rather than over-dwelling on the mundane practicalities which dominated the Dorcic spiel, it spelled out its philosophy and how it was applied. Friendly challenge, tolerance and understanding, individual attention, cultural breadth. It sounded good. Possibly that was because Yarborough was four and a half centuries old and had learned what a school should be, while upstart Dorcic had not.
Mum and Dad agreed, but were laid back. “Having got so far, give it a go. If it proves intolerable you can always throw it in and come back to Haverstock. It won’t have cost us a penny.”
GCSEs came and went, and I got a clean sweep of A-stars and As. So did Doug. A letter came from Dorcic suggesting that I arrive a day early, along with the thirteen-year-old new boys, to settle in before term proper began. It added that I would be sharing a room with David Kingdom from Bermuda. He was sixteen like me. Having been at Dorcic for three years he knew the ropes. And he was doing exactly the same A-levels, namely English Language, English Literature, History, and History of Art. That was highly convenient. His name, too, held a curious appeal. Coming from Bermuda, he was quite possibly black. No problem if he was. I only hoped he would prove a congenial room-mate.
To a chorus of good wishes from us and of tears from his current girlfriend, Tim went off to university. Doug and I bade a fond farewell and promised to keep in touch. Bright and early on the appointed day in mid-September I put on the brand-new outfit of clothes which the school shop had mailed to me free of charge. Whereas Haverstock’s obligatory uniform had consisted of nothing but a sober sweat shirt bearing the school logo, Dorcic insisted on a white shirt, gaudy striped tie, black shoes, grey trousers, and maroon blazer with a crest emblazoned on the pocket: above the motto Vincere debes (meaning, for God’s sake, You’ve got to win) were two lions supporting a shield, and on the shield was a hand giving the Churchillian victory sign. As I was soon to learn, it would have been far more appropriate with the two fingers the other way round.
I gave Mum a last hug as she went to work, and Dad, taking the morning off, drove me to Dorcic. As our Astra droned westwards along the M40, I was quiet.
“Scared?” he asked.
“Yes, I am.”
Despite my general confidence in life, despite my mature old age of sixteen and two thirds, I was still scared. Never in my life had I been away from home for a significant length of time.
“Good. Nice and bracing. You haven’t really been scared before, have you?”
He was right. I could not deny it.
“I’m not scared at the coursework,” I added. “But I am a bit at the … the social side.”
Upper-class Brits with poncy accents. Strapping sun-tanned Aussies straight from Bondi Beach. Intellectual orientals deep in political debate. Was it really my scene?
“Take them as you find them, Peter. Let them take you as they find you. Be your usual decent and considerate self. That’s all it needs to see you through.”
Off the motorway onto the B4069 to Benson. A few miles on the A4074 with brief glimpses of the Thames alongside. A slow meander through the narrow High Street of Dorchester, quite as picturesque as the photos suggested. Out on the Abingdon road. Left through a monumental gateway. Round a slight bend, tension gripping my stomach.
“Christ!” cried Dad, stepping on the brake. “Will you look at that!”
We goggled, as I have said, and when we had goggled enough he drove up to the great portico, and there he parked.
“No sense in prolonging the leave-taking, Peter. It wouldn’t be good for either of us. I’ll help you in with your stuff, say hullo to your room-mate if he’s around, and buzz straight off. Then it’s all up to you.”
He was right, again. Short and sharp was best.
“Let’s leave the stuff in the car, Dad, till we know where to take it. I’ll just bring my shoulder bag for now.”
Up the imposing steps, through an enormous door, into a cavernous classical hallway. On one side was a counter marked Reception. Behind it was an efficient-looking lady.
“I’m Peter Truelove,” I told her.
“Oh yes. If you’d like to leave your luggage here, the porter will take it up shortly.”
As I thought, just like a hotel.
“You’re sharing with David Kingdom. Room S312, top floor, but there is a lift.”
Yes, just like a hotel.
“Here’s your room key, if you wouldn’t mind signing this receipt for it.”
Still just like a hotel.
“But David said he’d be in. The lift you want is to the left of the main stairs.” She pointed. “Go up to Floor 3, then straight along the corridor ahead, and S312 is at the end. You’ll find your folder there with your timetable and other information. You’re down for a chat with Mr Grumbold — he’s your form tutor — at ten tomorrow morning. David will show you where to go, and where everything else is.”
I thanked her. We brought in my bags and boxes and dumped them in the hall. We found the lift, and the corridor, and the room. Its door bore the label S312: David Kingdom and Peter Truelove. It was not quite mine yet, so I knocked.
A few seconds passed before the gruff reply, “Come in.”
Dad and I exchanged a puzzled glance. It had sounded for all the world like an unbroken voice trying to pretend it is broken.
I opened the door and marched in, my hand outstretched and “Hi! I’m Peter” on my lips. But, for all my good intentions, I stopped dead and did a double-take. David Kingdom was not black. Dark-haired, yes, but white-skinned. And even though that letter had told me he was sixteen, my eyes told me he was no more than eleven. He stood a good foot less than me, which made him well under five feet tall, and his face was the face not of adolescence but of boyhood.
“Hullo,” he said faintly. The voice was definitely unbroken. And he limply shook my hand.
I took another look. He seemed scared almost shitless. I may have been scared myself, but his fear was in a different league. My own trepidation changed to concern.
“And this,” I added, gathering my wits, “is my Dad.”
Dad stepped forward, hand also outstretched. “Hullo, David,” he said. “Very nice to meet you. But I’m only here for a moment. Look after Peter, won’t you?”
He turned and pulled me back to the doorway, where he gave me a heavy-duty hug.
“Good luck, Peter,” he said out loud. “I’m proud of you.” And in my ear he murmured softly, “It’s more a case of you looking after him. That kid needs help. Find out all you decently can. And keep me in the loop.”
I knew, very clearly, what he meant. “Yes, Dad. Bye. And thanks. See you at half term.”
He patted my arm, and went. As I stood in the doorway and watched him retreating down the corridor, I tried to work out how to deal with this.NEXT CHAPTER