There is a sting in the tail of this tale. It happened one August evening. We had returned well satisfied from Italy where our Cecco look-alike had caused quite a sensation in the galleries. Our exam results had just come in, and they were pleasing — both David and I, despite the best endeavours of the Wetwank and the Prude, had got the highest grades. The five of us were desultorily watching the news on telly. It had dealt with the current and predictable headlines — the latest round of the eurozone crisis, yet another car bomb in Baghdad, the American elections — when we all sat up with a jolt.
“Last night a fire swept through the Grade I-listed Dorcic Hall in Oxfordshire, which was the home of a well-known public school.”
A clip showed the place with flames licking from the windows.
“The blaze was started by lightning and was fanned by strong winds. Fifteen fire engines attended but were unable to control it. Nobody was hurt, but the buildings are completely gutted.”
A daylight shot showed an empty shell with wisps of smoke still rising from the ruins.
“It is thought unlikely that the school will reopen.”
The newsreader moved on to England’s performance in the Test Match. We looked at each other. A grand specimen of eighteenth-century architecture was gone, and with it an abysmal specimen of twenty-first-century education. The loss of the second, I felt, more than compensated for the loss of the first.
“A lightning strike,” I muttered. “A thunderbolt. Plenty of vengeful gods up there, waiting to come down hard on arrogance. I wonder which one. Zeus, perhaps? Or Thor?”
“Jehovah, surely,” Charles suggested. “This smacks of the destruction of Sodom, with fire and brimstone.”
“Sodom? But that was destroyed for, um, what they used to call sexual deviation.”
“No. That’s the popular misunderstanding. Did I tell you that at Bullingdon I started reading the bible? Only started, because I got bogged down in Leviticus. But Genesis makes it pretty clear that Sodom was destroyed for abusing the laws of hospitality. For failing to care for those in need.”
His eyes swung to Mum and Dad.
“Don’t worry. This house is safe. Its priorities are very different.”
David smiled his brilliant smile at us, found my hand to squeeze it, and recited.
“So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.”
“That’s right,” said his father. “In this sad world there are plenty of bastards. But there are saints as well, not to mention all those in between. It’s a pity we met the bastards in the first place. But thank goodness we met you three saints in the end.”
I felt myself blushing. Mum and Dad are saints, no argument. But not me. I’m an ordinary bloke. And, as I said at the outset, praise makes me uncomfortable, especially when it is undeserved. The reward I already had was the only reward I wanted, and even that was far beyond what I had earned. On the brink of tears, I squeezed my love’s hand in return.