Best, I decided, to act as ordinarily as I could, without too much deception. So back I went into the room and closed the door. David was hovering uncertainly.
“Sorry about that,” I said. “I’ve never really been away from home before, so this is rather new.” That was hardly signing my soul away. “I hope you didn’t have to come back early just to nursemaid me.”
He hesitated, sizing me up just as I was sizing him. His face was a little less frightened now, but in it I saw a wariness, a lifeless weariness, and maybe a touch of envy. There must be major problems inside that young head. I had learned enough from Dad talking about his own patients to deduce that this boy’s small stature resulted from growth hormone deficiency. On top of that, he evidently suffered from delayed puberty, which meant sex hormone deficiency. Or — horrid thought — was he castrated?
“Oh no,” he said at last, with rather more confidence but a bitter tone. “I’ve been here a week. And before that I was trekking round youth hostels. Nothing better to do.”
Very odd. I was on the brink of asking jokingly if his folk didn’t want him at home. But just in time I realised that, should the answer be ‘no, they don’t,’ I would have opened a can of worms. If I was to win his confidence I must not probe too hard or too fast, or even at all. Let him tell me what he wanted when he wanted, and not have it winkled out of him. It threatened to be a slow process. Meanwhile, keep the conversation low-key.
“I like this room,” I remarked, looking around.
It was indeed pleasant. You could have found the furniture in any hotel, but the carpet and curtains were cheerful and, with windows in three walls, it was spacious and well-lit. Being at the end of the corridor it spanned the full width of the top floor. In one corner was the door to, presumably, the bathroom. I crossed to the window which, according to the sun, faced east. From this height you could see a long way. A distant view of gently rolling countryside. Below, the parkland bisected by the drive we had come along, beyond it the Abingdon road, and beyond that again a sheet of water fringed with trees.
“What’s that lake?” I asked.
“Abandoned gravel pit,” came the soft answer from my side. He had followed me across, but while I was looking over the balustrade outside, he was so short that he was looking between its columns. “When they dug it they destroyed a Neolithic henge and cursus.” He sounded resigned and disillusioned.
We moved to the opposite window, on the west. An even bigger vista here. On the remote horizon, low rounded hills.
“The Berkshire Downs,” he said, nodding at them as if it was his tedious duty to make the introductions.
Nearer, perhaps five miles away, the cooling towers of a large power station.
“Didcot. Ghastly eyesore.”
Nearer still, lush green water meadows advancing to the willowed bank of the Thames which cut across the view. A narrow boat was gliding downstream. On the far side a fisherman was sitting hunched and motionless, as fishermen do. Between us and the river were manicured lawns and, off to the right, a low building which must be the school’s boathouse. Inland from it, a vast modern structure I knew from the blurb to be the sports centre. Beneath us, the roof of a large single-storey block I knew to be classrooms.
We moved to the south window, through which the sun was streaming. The view was different again, down the Thames valley, and included two lumpy little hills close together.
“The Sinodun Hills.”
“With the clumps of trees on?”
“Yes. The one on the left’s an Iron Age hill-fort.” At last he was showing a hint of enthusiasm. “And immediately this side of the river, inside the big loop, was an Iron Age town. Defended by a long rampart across the neck of the loop. The Dyke Hills.” I sensed a catch in his voice. “And this side of the Dyke Hills was the Roman town which came next. Buried under modern Dorchester.”
Dorchester indeed dominated the foreground, a wide cluster of red-tiled and grey-thatched roofs well under a mile away. I tried to work out the geography.
“Isn’t Dorchester actually on the Thames, then?”
“No. Half a mile inland.”
“They’re lovely views,” I remarked, and meant it. The power station apart, they were placid and quintessentially English. “Especially this one to the south. Far better than the views from my old school.”
I half-hoped that might prompt him to ask questions about it, and me, which might prompt him to open up about himself. But he did not reply.
“And this countryside obviously means a lot to you.”
“It’s the only good thing about this place.”
Odd, again. Better than anything in the school? Or did he mean in the village? Or both?
“In the countryside,” he added very quietly, “you’re safe.”
Oh Lord. That implied that he felt unsafe everywhere else.
“But then it’s in my blood.”
I looked a question. David’s hair, highlighted now by the sunshine, was not black as I had first thought but a very deep chestnut, curly, thick and long. Dorcic evidently had no rules about hair length.
“I was born here.” he explained. “And grew up here.”
“What, at Dorcic?”
“No!” He seemed to think I was daft. “In Dorchester.”
I waited for further explanation, but none came. All right then, shift the conversation back a step. At least he seemed interested in local history.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering about,” I ventured. “Dorcic Hall. It’s a strange name. Any connection with Dorchester?”
“Every connection. Nobody knows what the Romans called the town. There’s no written record until Saxon times. In 635 the king of Wessex gave a plot of land there to St Birinus, and on it he built a cathedral, which later became the Abbey. And the Venomous Bead gives its name. Dorcic. Hence Dorceceastre. Hence Dorchester. And the Pratt who built the Hall borrowed the name.”
I was hardly listening, in relief that for the first time there was real sparkle in his voice and that he had unintentionally been prodded into making a joke, of a sort. But I smiled.
“What’s so funny?” he asked suspiciously.
“The Venomous Bead. Yes, I know, it comes from 1066 And All That. But it always makes me giggle.”
There was yet another relief. Anyone who enjoyed that marvellous book enough to quote from it was all right.
David actually smiled too. A watery smile, but the room seemed to grow warmer. And with the smile I thought I saw a trace of appreciation. Then there was a knock at the door. It was the porter with my luggage, and we brought it in.
I looked at the desks, which were against the south and west windows. Both had keyboards and monitors, but the southern one was otherwise empty apart from a folder with my name on it, and on the western one was stuff that was obviously David’s.
“You want me to have the south window?” I asked, surprised.
“If you don’t mind.”
“I’m not fussy. Either will suit me fine. But it means you’ve got to look at Didcot power station. It’s a better view over Dorchester. Over your birthplace. Wouldn’t you rather look at that?”
He hesitated, as if suppressing an instinct to blurt something out. “No. I’d rather not.”
“All right then, if you’re sure, not just being polite.”
“Last year,” he said patiently, “I was alone in here for most of the year. I could have used the south window. But I preferred the west one.”
Another mystery. Why had he been alone? As if to forestall my asking, he abruptly changed the subject.
“It’s half past twelve. Leave your stuff for now. We’d better get some lunch before the snotty little new boys scoff it all.”
There was something still alive in that small head. He led me down to the stately dining hall on the ground floor, to which a number of the snotty little new boys were also being shepherded. My instinct was to smile because David, while he might not be snotty, was more little than any of them, but this time I had to keep a straight face. There were also a few older boys around, but he did not so much as nod to them, or they to him. We sat by ourselves, and the food was very good.
“Much better,” I said, “than at my old place.”
Again he refused the gambit. “Mmm,” was all he came up with. So I asked who would be teaching us for the two modules next year and the two modules this. He answered with brief and wonderfully derogatory comments.
“Next year, History with Mr Laws. Well-named. Interested in nothing but Acts of Parliament. And English Language with Mr Bottomley. Called Bumley, of course. An arse. A flatulent one.
“This year, History of Art with Mr Prew. Known as the Prude. He pretends nudity doesn’t exist. And English Literature with Mr Wetwang.”
David supplied no nickname, but I could guess it. Maybe he was too modest to utter the word. He was surely too young to know what a wet wank was … or was he?
“He spouts. Feebly. About postmodernism and deconstruction.”
“Oh Lord!” I groaned. “That’s old hat! I thought every sensible critic had dropped that nonsense ages ago.”
“He’s not sensible. He worships the ground that Lacan walks on.”
“That nutcase!” I snorted. “You know Lacan’s profoundest contribution to philosophy?”
David shook his head.
“He proved, to his own satisfaction if to nobody else’s, that his penis was the square root of minus one.”
Perhaps that was not the most tactful thing to say. The square root of minus one, should such a thing exist, must be pretty small, and it was a fair bet that David’s penis was pretty small too. But, being interested to see how he might react, I was watching him carefully. He was startled, but that little watery smile appeared again on the young face. The nose was quite long for a boy, far from snub, but the cheeks were on the chubby side and the mouth was almost a cupid’s bow. I could swear there was mischief in the smile it wore.
“Pity his poor wife,” he said.
This time I could laugh out loud. It was yet more evidence that not everything was dead inside. And it showed that he knew at least the most basic facts of life … But I caught myself up sharp. He looked so young and innocent that it was all too easy to think of him as an eleven-year-old. Yet I had to treat him as the sixteen-year-old he was. Anything else would be arrogant and cruel. But it was going to be difficult to remember.
When we finished we returned to S312. I picked up my thick folder.
“I’d better get to grips with all this bumph, I suppose. Could you talk me through it, please?”
He sat beside me at the desk by the south window and answered my many questions succinctly, even curtly, but helpfully. I do not intend to let the nuts and bolts of school life intrude into this account. They proved to be boring, uninspired, even off-putting, and I would rather concentrate on what really mattered. All you need to know is what I deduced on that preliminary afternoon and, though this is jumping ahead, what I came to confirm by experience.
At Dorcic, it seemed, the function of the whole staff — teachers, office ladies, cleaners, cooks, sports coaches, groundsmen, gardeners alike — was simply to supply the material services on offer. Teachers of course taught, or rather went through the motions of teaching. But they did so distantly, unimaginatively, almost as detachedly as the cooks in the kitchen and the gardeners on their lawnmowers. They did not try to relate to us, and there was no encouragement for us to relate to them. It was all utterly impersonal. It was, once again, like a hotel, where the guests are not expected to relate to the manager or cooks or whoever.
Discipline was minimal. If anyone got over-boisterous and noisy, for instance, it was up to their neighbours to quieten them down. In my folder was a page with a few basic rules. If drugs of any kind were found, the culprit was out on his ear. But the only explicit ban on smoking was indoors, and in practice if anyone puffed outdoors it was winked at. Pubs and off-licences were out of bounds. It was forbidden to bring any girl (other than family) onto the premises, and anyone transgressing was also out on his ear. There was little about anything else. Nothing was said about doing things with boys. Given that everyone shared a room, there was nothing to prevent you climbing into your room-mate’s bed; or, come to that, into anyone else’s. Indeed the only staff who ever entered our rooms or even our corridors were the cleaners, who operated while we were in class.
The boys, when the rest arrived on my second day, proved a very far cry from Haverstock and rather different from my prediction. None of them, not even the orientals, could be called intellectual. The Brits were not after all particularly poncy. Most of the Aussies were indeed strapping and sun-tanned but some, to my surprise, outdid the Brits. Once, later on, I saw the strange sight — strange to one from Hampstead and Chalk Farm — of a character in full hunting pink, complete with riding boots and silly hat and whip, holding forth in exaggerated Etonian tones. On enquiry, I learned that he was from Queensland. And without any exception that I ever discovered, every single boy was self-centred and self-important.
Socially, the school in no way operated as a unity. The boys gravitated into a variety of cliques. Of loud and hearty rowers, for example, or of national groups such as South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders, who were bitter rivals. The Brits, in winter, split up into cliques of rugger buggers, soccer knockers, and rowers. Rugby, the major winter sport, was a World Cup in miniature. In the summer cricket, which almost everyone played except for bemused Americans, became a series of Test Matches.
In short, Dorcic was sports-mad, at the expense of pretty well everything else.
There was no drama and very little music. There was no chaplain. Attendance at the Sunday service was, I heard, microscopic, and I doubt if anyone ever requested transport to the mosque or synagogue. More astonishingly, while there were form tutors with academic duties, there were no personal tutors. There was nobody responsible for looking after the welfare of the individual. And apart from supporting the school teams, community spirit was non-existent, for nobody took any interest in anyone outside their own clique.
Most of the dismal detail remained for me to find out for myself, but already, that very first afternoon, the outline was becoming clear.
We finished ploughing through the bumph, and I sat back to think.
“What games do you play?” I asked out of the blue.
I sensed David shudder. “None.”
“So you don’t take part in any activities?”
“Only classes and meals.”
The implication was that he would skip them too if he could.
“And I spend a lot of time in the library, though it isn’t up to much. But that’s hardly an activity either.”
“Don’t you take any exercise at all, then?” While he might be on the chubby side, he was certainly not overweight.
“Oh, I go for walks. Long ones … What,” he asked, “are you going to play?” It was almost his first question to me, and it was hesitant.
“Dunno. I’ll have to think about it.”
Rugby was not in the least my scene. A bit of squash perhaps, enough to keep myself in trim. But already I was wondering … Already the terse explanations uttered in that soft voice had confirmed all the unease I had felt at what I had found, or had failed to find, in the blurb. Already I was feeling sure — and this brings us at last to what really matters — that this was a place which simply did not care.
If so, did I want to be part of it? I could phone Dad that very evening and get him to take me home to Hampstead and Haverstock. It would be an admission of defeat, and wildly over-hasty. But already, in my heart of hearts, I knew I could not do it. Because already it was dawning on me that at Dorcic a boy with a problem, a boy who belonged to no clique, had nobody to turn to. Except perhaps, if he was sympathetic, his room-mate.
Already it was crystal clear that David was just such a boy, cruelly, almost criminally, neglected. He was a loner not by choice but by evil necessity. Not a soul in the school paid him any attention, not a soul gave him any support. But I was now his room-mate.
I made up my mind. “I’m not going to play anything. But I would like to join you on your walks. If I may.”
He said nothing. He gave no sign of approval or disapproval. His fears seemed to have returned. I gazed out at the Iron Age hill-fort and its clump of trees and decided it was time to take the bull by the horns.
“David. You said you spent most of last year alone in this room. Would you tell me why?”
Like a threatened snail retreating into its shell, he withdrew into his, and looked at the carpet.
“Because,” he said finally, so softly that I could hardly hear, “the boy who started with me demanded to be transferred. After a day.”
I was appalled. “But why?”
David stared as if I was a halfwit. His mouth fell open, and without any warning at all he exploded.
“Can’t you see?” he screamed, leaping to his feet. “I’m sixteen. But look!”
He unbuttoned and unzipped, and in a single movement pulled his trousers and pants down to his knees.
I looked. I had to. As I had guessed, his balls and cock were small, little-boy-small, and not a single pubic hair was to be seen. But at least everything was there. He did not seem to be castrated.
“I’m a freak!”
He flung himself face-down on the nearest bed and sobbed.
I sat beside him and put an arm over his shoulder.
“You’re not a freak, David. You’re a human being. And a damn good one too.”
He was quivering under my arm.
“You may be a bit out of the ordinary, as a late developer. But that doesn’t make you a freak. And something can be done about it. But this place sounds pretty macho. Narrow-minded, even. Do you mean the boy who walked out on you couldn’t cope with what you are?”
He was struggling to pull himself together. “Partly that,” he muttered.
Only partly? Was there some other problem? But one thing at a time.
“I see.” I remembered his face as I first saw it. “When I arrived you were afraid I’d be a brute. And now you’re afraid I’ll walk out on you too. But don’t worry. I won’t walk out. I promise.”
What was I letting myself in for?
“Easy for you to say that,” he said bitterly. “You don’t know the worst yet.”
It was increasingly clear that I didn’t, whatever the worst might be. But I had to persevere.
“And I think I may be able to help. Medically.”
He forgot his anguish enough to roll over, sit up, and gape at me unbelievingly.
“Medically? What the hell do you know about it?”
“Not much, myself. But my Dad’s a paediatric endocrinologist.”NEXT CHAPTER