The Scholar’s Tale

Part 3: Captain of my soul

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

W. E. Henley, Invictus


The first part of  The Scholar’s Tale, posted in November 2001, was designed as a simple love story, complete in itself. So many readers demanded a sequel that after a few months, reluctantly, I obeyed. End of story, I thought, quite literally. But once again the pressure has built up, and once again I have succumbed. It will help to have read the first two parts before reading the third.

This new part pursues the same love story, offers a sidelong glimpse into another, and pays tribute to a remarkable school and its way of life. Against this background is set the dominant theme: a portrait of a young man torn between diffidence and initiative. Because he is older by now than in the first two parts, his portrait is more complex.

In all this, I would ask the reader to bear two points in mind. The present part opens in 1959, when Leon and Andrew were seventeen, and follows them through to the end of their careers at Yarborough in 1961. That, in social terms, was a very long time ago, and it is important to read the story in the context of those distant days when long hair and disillusionment lay in the future, when youth only rarely challenged Establishment and Authority, when attitudes nowadays commonplace were seen as daringly liberal.

To many readers, moreover, the traditional way of life in a British public school fifty years ago will seem complicated and even bizarre. For it to be understood, the scene has first to be set and the complexities explained. To begin with, therefore, the plot unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace. The action comes later.

Yarborough is real, or largely so. While I claim my ration of artistic licence to tinker with details, the school which I depict — its geography, its customs, its ethos, and its population of (mostly) good people — is very much as it was when, for five years and more, I basked in its beneficial atmosphere and thereby built up a debt which is beyond repaying.

In the previous two parts of the story I disguised its identity by suppressing both its true name and some of its more distinctive features. This time I venture to strip most of those disguises away. One result is that Yarborough, while still lurking under its false name, is now identifiable: readily so to those who went there, with a little research to anyone else.

Another result is an inconsistency with the earlier parts. Among the most distinctive features of any old public school is its slang. In Parts 1 and 2, I deliberately avoided Yarborough jargon. Here in Part 3, I deliberately incorporate it. Hitherto, for example, prefects were boringly labelled as prefects. In fact, as is now displayed, they were known officially as praepostors but in practice as pollies. A tish was our sleeping cubicle in the dormitory. Pumps and rears were our inelegant terms for where we respectively peed and crapped. A pump and a rear were what we did there. Other snippets of slang will be translated as they crop up. But one point is essential to remember: the ancient English word fag, to be explained later, has nothing whatever to do with the American fag or faggot, which was a term that we had never then heard.

While the setting, then, is more or less true to life, the rest is a blend of fact and fiction. Quite a number of the events and situations recorded did actually take place, while quite a number did not. Some of the characters too are based, to some extent, on real-life people; I cannot deny it, for no writer of fiction can avoid appropriating this facet or that of people he has known. The closest portrait, however — or is it a caricature? — is of myself.

Two technical notes. First, sports. Some readers will not be deeply conversant with cricket. Its niceties are immaterial to the story, but to those of enquiring mind I commend the Seattle Cricket Club’s lovely website at and especially its page on Explaining Cricket to Americans. With the more esoteric game of fives, a greater number of readers will be unfamiliar. They will find their questions answered at

Secondly, drugs. Amyl nitrate should not be confused with amyl nitrite. Amyl nitrate suppresses erections and is prescribed after adult circumcision. Those familiar with poppers will know that they are commonly called amyl nitrate, but may not know that they are actually amyl nitrite. This, of course, has the opposite effect.

As always, I am deeply indebted to others. Neea has read a draft and made her usual invaluable comments. So has Stephen, who has also comforted me through a long bout of writer’s block. So too has one Chris, who by pure coincidence is currently not only at Yarborough but in MacNair’s. And so has another Chris, amicus litteratissimus, to whom I owe so much that, on his eighteenth birthday, I have dedicated the story to him.

Above all, Hilary and Jonathan have been beside me throughout, holding my hand and serving as their usual towers of strength.

17 August 2004

1. The same direction

L’expérience nous montre qu’aimer ce n’est point nous regarder l’un l’autre, mais regarder ensemble dans la même direction.

Experience shows us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terre des Hommes

Fire fascinates me. It always does. It did that evening, as I lay on the hearth-rug at Oxford staring at the ever-dancing, ever-changing orange-yellow of the flames. Ilay pondering their contradiction — at once benign and malignant, warming but devouring, life-giving yet a pyre. I lay entranced by that no-man’s-land of wavering nothingness between coals and tawny tongues, by the grace of those spear-heads tipped with blue, by the flame-flakes flickering free. I lay wondering at their mysteries. What makes them so beautiful? What makes them happen at all?

Ignorant layman, I had no answer. But Andrew was a chemist. He would know. He was behind me, that six-foot hunk of male beauty who was my other self, the life-giving fire of my own being, sprawled in an armchair and ostensibly reading the paper but in fact, I suspected, thinking hard. As I was too, when not distracted by idle curiosity.

“Andrew, what is fire?”

It was a few days before Christmas. We had just travelled on the school train to St Pancras, changed to Paddington and the Oxford line, and arrived home to Park Town in the late morning. Mum and Dad were both at work in the university but promised to be back as early as possible in the evening. On the doormat we had found the second delivery of post, including a letter for me. It came from Cambridge, where a couple of weeks before I had been sitting the exams; and it announced that I had been awarded a major scholarship at King’s, though I would not be taking it up until the year after next.

That was a relief. I had been fairly sure I would get it, and would have been bitterly disappointed if I had not. So, while it was a relief, it did not throw me into ecstasies. But Andrew was over the moon on my behalf. We went upstairs, not only to celebrate the news but, as we always did at the beginning of the holidays, to start catching up on a term’s abstinence. These occasions were usually a delirious release of pent-up pressures, but this time I was under pressure of a quite different kind. I did not perform well.

I apologised, but Andrew, being Andrew, understood. We cut our losses, ate a scratch meal, lit the fire in the living room, and settled down to think. Only the day before we had been confronted with a big decision, and had agreed to chew it over independently for twenty four hours before digesting it together. We were still thinking; and because my thoughts were unpalatable and even bitter, I was easily side-tracked by irrelevancies.

Hence my question. “Andrew, what is fire?”

He put his newspaper down and explained the chemistry of it, enough to satisfy my casual query, though I still did not fully understand.

“Leon, talking of fire,” he went on with the air of grasping nettles. “Metaphorically now. You haven’t got fire enough in you. OK, you’ve got fire in your heart — God knows, it sets mine alight. And you’ve got fire in your head — God knows, you drive yourself academically. But you haven’t got fire in your belly. You don’t drive yourself in other ways. Nowhere near as hard as you could. You know that really, don’t you?”

For Andrew, this was strong stuff, more direct, more robust, than his usual kid-glove style. The trouble was that he was right. I did know it, deep inside me, but I did not want to admit it.

He was a rock of stability. He was the type who turned his hand with confidence — and usually with success — to any challenge that came his way. He fostered his strengths, all of them, by driving himself hard. He was the born leader. He had been lucky, too, in having the love and support of the most splendid of parents.

I too knew my strengths and worked on them. But they were very private strengths. I was an academic success, no argument about that. And I seemed, though for the life of me I could not tell why or how, to be a success as Andrew’s lover. Another thing I was a success at was side-stepping challenges, because I also knew my weaknesses. When initiative and enterprise and drive were being dished out, I had been at the back of the queue. I was a diffident member of society, and the prospect of shouldering heavy public responsibilities repelled me.

“Andrew!” I was almost wailing in my anguish. “I know what I’m good at. At Greek and Latin. And at loving you. I’m not cut out to be a leader. You are. That’s the simple answer.”

“The simple answer to that is bollocks! Oh, Leon … ”

He slid himself to the edge of his chair and pulled me up until I was kneeling between his legs. He hugged me tight, and I clung to the rock of his body.

“Why do you think I fell in love with you?” he asked.

I could feel his chest vibrating with the words. But, so worm-like was my mood, I could only mumble abjectly.

“I often wonder.”

He sighed, his breath warming my ear. “Then I’ll tell you. For the umpteenth time. I fell in love with you because you led the way, gently and patiently. You showed me what love could be. You brought me to fulfilment. You set me on fire with that funny old chemistry of yours, that mix of honesty and understanding and unselfishness and fun. It still sets me on fire, and it always will.

“But it’s never on public display. Hardly anyone sees it. Only Mum and Dad, and a few friends. Who all love you for it too — love you in the other sense. If you showed it in public, then the public would love you for it, and you would be a leader of men. Trouble is, you’re wise about others but not about yourself. There are other worlds out there for you to conquer. Other people for you to inspire. If only you put your mind to it. But you’re too damned modest to see that.”

“Hmmm.” I mulled it over.

He was all of the things he had listed. He was patently honest and understanding and unselfish and fun. He conquered, he inspired. And he was modest about it as well. I had never spotted a hint of arrogance in him.

But my modesty was different. My soul was still branded with the horrors of my childhood, when I had been browbeaten to the brink of suicide. My modesty was the survival of the shell I had grown, during those years of loneliness, of lovelessness, to protect my feeble self from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I had been lucky too, mind you, in being rescued from the pit of hell by Andrew and his parents and taken under their wing. But, after living so long in a hostile world, it had not been easy to reach out, to relate to people, to make friends. It still was not. I was less timid, to be sure, than I once had been, but my low self-esteem was deep-entrenched.

I had a private life, now, of love and worldly security and academic achievement, for which I was grateful beyond measure. It was all I wanted. Not for me a public life, where there was no security. While I sheltered behind my defensive walls, Andrew strode out and challenged the world. That was the difference. It was simply not in my nature to lead, as it was in his. To lead, surely you had to be confident and extrovert. I was neither. To abandon my safe and cosy certainties for the unknown hazards of the public stage would demand massive effort and massive courage. Could I summon up either? Did I even want to try?

Andrew was challenging me to, and I was resenting his challenge. I sat back on my heels to glower at him. I loved him, I loved him desperately, but I still glowered, and not in fun. He glowered back in exasperation.

At that awkward moment Mum and Dad came in. Although they could hardly miss the tension in the air, they gave us their usual warm welcome and asked us how we were.

“Oh, OK, thanks,” I replied. Not even they could lift me out of my dumps today.

“Leon!” cried Andrew. “Why can’t you blow your own trumpet? Look!” He thrust the letter from King’s into their hands.

They erupted in delight. “Oh, Leon my dear! Well done! Well done indeed!” Mum gave me a huge hug and passed me on to Dad, who held me at arm’s length to look quizzically up at me. Although I was an inch or two shorter than Andrew, Dad was five or six inches shorter again.

“Leon. Your face ought to be one big grin. It isn’t. What’s up?”

Ashamed of my melancholy frame of mind, I hesitated, and Andrew answered for me.

“Dad. You’ve caught us at loggerheads, for once. For all his triumph, Leon’s in a hopelessly pessimistic mood. He’s being modest and obstinate. More than usually so.”

They smiled. “Spill the beans, then. Provided you both want to.”

“I will,” I said at once, sighting potential allies. “You see, yesterday Wally called both of us in” — Wally was our housemaster — “to tell us that at the beginning of next term he’s going to make us house pollies. Well, no problem …”

I had to break off as Mum and Dad hugged us both again.

“But he had the headmaster with him. And he said he was looking ahead to next September. He wants one of us to be captain of the school, and the other to be vice-captain. But he can’t decide which, and he’s leaving it to us. He must be daft. And Andrew’s insisting I take the top job. That’s plain daft, too.”

“So you’re at loggerheads because you insist on giving way to each other?”

“That’s right. It’s obvious it should be Andrew. It’s been obvious ever since I met him, that he’d make it to the top. Look at him! He’s got all the qualities. He’s well-known, and respected, and efficient, and forceful when he has to be, and experienced — look at all the cricket and rugger teams he’s captained already. I’m none of those. I’m cut out to be a backroom boy. I didn’t even expect to be made a house polly, let alone a school one. I know my limitations.” I was almost crying in my frustration.

“And to me,” Andrew countered, “it’s obvious it should be Leon. I was telling him before you came in. He’s got everything it takes. Honesty. Tolerance. Wisdom. Fairness. Respect for others. Decisiveness when it suits him. A sense of humour. He’s made for the job, if only he weren’t so damned modest. If only he pushed himself.

“Anyway, I’m already going to be captain of cricket next summer. And the summer after, if I don’t make a hash of it. And captain of rugger next winter. There’s no possible way I could captain the house and the school as well. I wouldn’t have time to do any of the jobs properly.”

“You won’t be captain of rugger and of cricket at the same time,” I said, feebly and defensively.

“No. But I still wouldn’t have time. Look, away matches take me out of Yarborough often enough already. Even a home cricket match takes me out of circulation for the whole day. On top of that, I’ve got A-levels next summer, and Cambridge exams a year from now, and S-levels, with luck, the summer after. But you’ve already got all of those under your belt.”

“Hang on,” Mum put in. “I’m getting left behind. Leon, that letter from King’s says they’ll hold your scholarship for a year, so you won’t be going there for nearly two years. You do want to stay on at Yarborough, don’t you?”

“Oh yes.” I couldn’t contemplate being separated from Andrew, the centre of my existence. And it wasn’t a question of sponging off Mum and Dad, because I paid for myself out of my inheritance.

“Then what’ll you be doing all that time?”

“Well, school doesn’t stop with your last exams. I’ll carry on. Next year there’ll only be me, at my level. So it’ll be one-to-one sessions with Steve, like tutorials at Oxbridge. Plus a few broadening subjects. I’m thinking of English and German and science. Lord knows I ought to know more about science.”

“All right, that sounds great, and well worth staying on for. But not having been to a boys’ school, I don’t really understand the set-up with house and school pollies. And why has the captaincy of the school arisen now? You’re talking about next September. That’s nine months ahead.”

“Oh, it’s quite simple really. The school’s made up of twelve houses, as you know. Scattered around the town. More or less independently run. Each with its own pollies, six or eight of them, and its own house captain. Who only have jurisdiction in their own house, enforcing their own house rules.

“Then the school has its own rules which apply to everyone. And its own pollies and captain. A house captain automatically becomes a school polly, and there are about ten others, so a house can have more than one.

“And it’s all blown up now because Wally needs to know whether to make Andrew polly above me or below. Whichever is the senior will become house captain when Spud Mayhew leaves in the summer. And captain of the school, the HM says.”

“Oh, I see. It’s a sort of federal set-up, then, a bit like America. But there you aren’t president and state governor at the same time. Why can’t one of you be captain of the school and the other of the house?”

“We asked that. But it would make one subordinate to the other in school, and the other way round in the house. They couldn’t swallow that. There’s a fixation on seniority. The captain of the school always has been a house captain, so it seems he always will be.”

“Hmmm. And what do the jobs entail?”

“Well, the house captain has more work. Much more. He pretty well runs the house, with help from his pollies. All the day-to-day organisation. Supervision. Discipline. Arranging house games. Selecting house teams, in consultation with the experts. Ideally a sort of father-figure.”

Andrew and I both pulled gloomy faces. Spud, the current captain, was far from that.

“Wally’s there in the background, of course, keeping an overall eye on things, but he doesn’t interfere.

“The captain of the school, now. He’s more of a figurehead. The school pollies are policemen who look after law and order on school premises as opposed to the houses. Keep an eye open for smoking in the school rears. Crowd control at school matches. That sort of thing. And they read the lessons in Chapel and Assembly. The captain of the school co-ordinates them. But overall it’s much less work.”

“I see. So now you’re both campaigning to avoid the top job. Both top jobs.”

“That’s right. Vice-captain’s far further than I ever expected to go. But Andrew, you’ve always had ambitions to get to the top, haven’t you? I know you have.”

“Well, yes, I have hankered to be captain of something. Especially cricket. And I’ve got there. And got there in rugger too — I didn’t expect that. But I’ve never wanted to be captain of everything. That’s not practical politics.”

“But if I were your deputy I could do the donkey work in the background. The admin stuff. You’d be the public face.”

“Then you’d be de facto captain, and I’d be captain only in name, but get all the honour. I’d never agree to that. It wouldn’t be fair.”

I turned in despair back to Mum and Dad. Surely they ought to wade in on my side.

“Can’t you persuade him? Don’t you want your son to be captain of the school?”

They threw a smile at each other. “Yes. We do. And he will be. One of our sons will be. And the other will be vice-captain. We don’t mind which, because we love them both. Equally. And we’re proud of them both. Equally. So we’ll do no persuading. Except try to persuade you, Leon, to remember that you’re our son too. You have been for more than two years. Had you forgotten?”

I blushed. I had not forgotten. How could I? But it was still hard to come to terms with it. I loved them infinitely more than I had ever loved my real parents. I knew that they loved me as a son, though I could not fathom what they saw in this disjointed creature, this ugly duckling, any more than I could fathom what Andrew saw in it. The maggoty feeling still niggled at the bottom of my mind that I was just a waif whom they had taken in off the street in the goodness of their hearts. But if I seemed slow in accepting the love they showered on me, then something was wrong.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“Don’t be sorry, Leon,” said Mum gently. “We understand.” I was quite sure they did, too, which made me feel even more apologetic.

“Look, you two stay here,” she said, “and we’ll rustle up some food. We didn’t expect the news from Cambridge so soon, and it’s caught us on the wrong foot. There isn’t time now to prepare a real banquet, but we’ll do our best. It’ll be about an hour. Jack, we haven’t got any bubbly in — we were going to get it tomorrow — but what about cracking a couple of bottles of the Ch√Ęteauneuf and letting them warm up?”

We were left looking at each other, wondering how to make any progress. Presently Dad popped in with two glasses, a sherry bottle, and an invitation to help ourselves, and disappeared again. I poured a glass apiece.

“Leon, my love,” said Andrew abruptly. “Let’s leave it for now. Not the sherry, you twit. The Big Question. There’s still a fortnight before we need decide and tell Wally. Let’s follow another tack.

“Look, if I were in charge I’d consult you, and I guess you’d consult me if you were. So let’s suppose we were both in charge together. Like the kings of Barataria in the Gondoliers.” That had been last term’s Gilbert and Sullivan at school. “Remember how we used to bellyache about what’s wrong with Yarborough? Well, soon we’ll have influence. With the boys, and with Wally and the HM too. And we’ll have the chance to improve things. Let’s think about what we’d like to do.”

My spirits rose. This was a realm where we did look together in the same direction. We held the same opinions, or we used to. There would be no battle of wills in airing them.

“Good thinking. Yes, let’s. Well … ” I drew a deep breath as I changed gear. “Let’s try and get this in order. We’d be reformers, not revolutionaries, wouldn’t we? We’d take the line that Yarborough’s basically a good place, a damned sight better than most others. But it could still do with improving. Right?”


“Well, there’s no way we could interfere on the teaching side. And no need to, because it’s good. So we’d concentrate on how we run the place. After all, the staff input is only into teaching, and to some extent into music and drama and games. We run virtually everything else. But we seem to be in bondage to rules and traditions that we’ve inherited from Lord knows how far back. Some of them are OK, but some are totally out of place nowadays. It’s high time they were questioned.”

I was getting into my stride.

“Let’s start with the house. So much there depends on the captain and pollies, doesn’t it? They’ve got power, and if they’re a weak lot they abuse it. The whole atmosphere’s so much worse. Just compare the good old days of Doug Paxton and Alan Gregory with the misery under Bill Jessop. And under Spud now.”

We both pulled faces again. Spud was something of a tyrant, with reactionary views on discipline and punishment.

“He runs the house as if it were the army. We’ve plenty enough army discipline in the Corps. And now we’ve got to survive two terms as his underlings. But as soon as he’s gone, we need to get rid of the opportunities for abusing power.”

“Such as?”

“Abolish bimming, for a start.” Bimming was our slang for beating. “It’s barbaric.”

We both thought back to that distant occasion, before we had been in the place a year, when we were unjustly bimmed. Andrew nodded emphatically.

“And the whole system’s so caste-ridden,” I went on. “So … hierarchical. At the top, the pollies who give orders. At the bottom, the wretched fags who obey. In the middle, the non-fags who can’t give orders and don’t have donkey-work to do, but still have to toe the line.”

“But there has to be a hierarchy of some sort,” Andrew objected. “There have to be pollies. It would be anarchy, otherwise. There has to be a rule of law.”

“Oh yes. There does. But we want a more egalitarian rule.” I was firmly on my soap-box by now. “A rule based on humanity and respect. On equity and justice. On responsibility and consent. On trust. And a much more open society. Without the barriers there are now.”

“And how would you set about that?” I was too busy being radical to notice that he said ‘you,’ not ‘we.’

“Abolish fagging.”

Andrew’s jaw dropped. “Good God!” he said.

In all our bellyachings over the years, we had never been iconoclastic enough to go that far. But, in the egalitarian utopia we were now contemplating, it was essential. Andrew thought about it.

“Well, yes, I suppose it does make logical sense.”

At this point I had better interrupt myself to explain about fagging. It was a system that went back to Victorian times if not before, and was presumably intended to introduce boys to the supposed principles of leadership: that before you learned to command you had to learn to obey. In theory, at Yarborough, you fagged for your first two years. But there was a complicated set of rules — based on academic and sporting prowess which allegedly absorbed more of a boy’s time — for complete or partial exemption. Both Andrew and I, for different reasons, had escaped fagging altogether, which is why it has not hitherto figured in these chronicles.

If you did not escape, you were liable to different forms of servitude. To Corps fagging, whereby you cleaned a polly’s cadet force kit — brushed his battledress and blancoed his belt and gaiters and polished his buckles and badges and boots — to a ridiculous degree of perfection.

And to study fagging, whereby you cleaned a polly’s study and swept the corridors.

And to dorm fagging, whereby you rose early, folded the dorm pollies’ clothes and set out their shaving tackle, rang the waking bell at half past seven, and sang out the time at intervals down to breakfast time at eight.

And to general fagging, whereby you were at the beck and call of the pollies. A yell down the corridors instantly assembled a motley crew of youngsters from whom a polly selected one or more for any chore he wanted done.

On top of that, all boys in their first two years were subject to petty restrictions. Under house rules, they could not leave their study door open, they could not talk in the corridors or changing room or washrooms, they could crap in only two of the eight main rears. Under school rules, they had to sit in a segregated part of the buttery, their trouser pockets had to be sewn up to stop them shoving their hands in them and slouching, and so on and so forth.

“It’s one thing to have public servants,” I said. “Someone’s got to sweep the corridors and get people out of bed for breakfast. That sort of thing would have to stay, though it needs modifying. For the rest, well, private servants are an anachronism in this day and age, aren’t they? Menial jobs. Second-class citizenship. Utterly demeaning. And unnecessary — why can’t a polly fold his own clothes, for heaven’s sake, and clean his own study? Why should he waste a fag’s time sending him out with unnecessary messages? Corps fagging will end in the summer anyway, now that they’re winding up National Service, and compulsory Corps with it. Good riddance to the lot. It’s high time all fagging went as well.”

“Well, all the current fags would agree. But how many older boys would say ‘We’ve done our stint at obeying orders. Now we want our turn at giving them’?”

“Some, maybe. They’ll just have to be persuaded.”

“But fagging isn’t really a house matter, Leon. I mean, you could hardly abolish it in one house but not others. You couldn’t do it through Wally alone. You’d have to do it through the HM. And he’d have to consult all the housemasters, if not all the staff. Maybe the governors too. It would be a massive job, persuading everyone.”

“It would. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

“Hmmm. Anything else on the school front?”

“Yes. A lot. Our real community’s the house. We make most of our friends there, because we live there, because we get together at meals, in the dorm, dropping in to people’s studies. That’s inevitable, and it’s good. But in the school there’s really no sense of community, is there? All right, we know people in the same form, or in games or music or plays, but in nothing like the same way. We don’t meet up with them socially because there’s nowhere to meet.

“OK, there’s the school pollies’ room.” This was our small and scruffy common room in Old School House. “But it’s a disgrace which needs totally revamping. And it’s only for pollies. What I’d like is a central common room for everyone. The buttery’s the obvious place — there’s plenty of space there — but it’s so tatty and unwelcoming, and you can only use it if you buy food or drink. It needs to be done up and made comfortable, the sort of place to go just to talk, or even to read. It’s not so bad for us in MacNair’s, because we live on the school’s doorstep. But if boys in the further houses have time to kill in school, there’s nowhere for them to kill it. There ought to be.

“And I’m beginning to wonder about a school forum where anyone can raise problems and suggestions. It’s quite easy in the house, or should be. You can take a problem to the house captain, unless it’s Spud. Or even to Wally. But what do you do if it’s a school problem? How many boys beard the captain of the school with one? Virtually none. And surely nobody ever beards the HM. There’s no recognised channel to follow.

“So there ought to be a sort of School Council. Made up of boys from every level. A channel of communication. To receive requests and complaints, chew them over and, if they’re sensible, pass them on to the school pollies or the staff. The HM’s got to see it as a responsible body, so it needs to be designed very carefully. Setting it up would take a hell of lot of work, but I reckon it’s worth exploring.

“And on top of that, most people see the captain of the school as a pretty remote figure. But he ought to be available for all and sundry to talk to, every day, at a given time, at a central place. It would take a lot of time. But isn’t that what he’s there for, to serve the school? We ought to listen to the boys more, ask them what they want, what they think, both in the house and the school. It’s their house, after all, it’s their school. In other words, more democracy.”

“Leon, my love.” Andrew was deadly serious. “There’s a whole crusade lined up there, isn’t there? To drag Yarborough screaming into the twentieth century. Even into the second half of the twentieth century. You really believe in it, don’t you? That it needs to be done?”

“Yes. I do. I really do.”

“And so do I. I’m behind you all the way. It needs to be done. It must be done. All of it. And it’s you who’s got to do it.”

It hit me like a blow between the eyes, but he went remorselessly on.

“It all points to you. You said it would take a hell of a lot of time. Yes, it would. And who has that time? The captain of rugger and of cricket who’s often out of circulation and is saddled with exams? Or a certain young gent who’s on fire with reforming zeal, who’s finished all his exams? Who’d otherwise live a life of lazy luxury discussing Plato with Steve?”

Oh God, oh God. I picked up my sherry which I had had no chance to touch, downed it incautiously in one, and belched shamelessly.

“Leon, my love,” said Andrew gently. “Haven’t you just talked yourself into the job?”

I had. I couldn’t escape it. Not now. I had swallowed the bait. Hook, line and sinker.

“You cunning sod! You lured me into shooting my mouth. Deliberately. Didn’t you?”

Andrew was no good at lying. “Well, yes,” he admitted with a hint of shame. “I did.”

“But, Christ, Andrew, it puts me in a cold sweat. It terrifies me silly. Rabbiting on about it’s one thing. Doing it’s quite another. Can I do it? Can I do it?”

“Yes, my love. You can. And you will. And you’ll do it very well. As only Leon can.”

“No. You’d do it much better.”


“Not bollocks at all. But if I did it, you’d support me?”

“Silly boy! Of course I would.”

I sat back and closed my eyes. I was in danger, I saw, of taking on the job by default, as a substitute, a proxy. That was negative. It was not good enough. Andrew had not used love as a bargaining counter. He never did. His own unselfish love never demanded anything. But he had asked, using persuasive practical arguments, and I must give. I must give not grudgingly, but of love. The task might be herculean, my blood might run cold with misgivings, but I would do it for love. It would be a small gift, after all, when weighed against the life and light that he had given me. I drew a deep breath and took the plunge.

“You can’t do it yourself,” I said slowly. “All right, then. I’ll do it, as best I can. Because you trust me to do it. Because you’ll be beside me. I’ll do it because I love you. I’ll do it for you, Andrew.”

In token of my pledge I flung the dregs from my glass into the fire, like a libation to the gods. The flames sizzled and spat.

I’ll do it for you, Andrew,” I repeated.

When Dad put his head round the door to say that dinner was ready, he found us back in each other’s arms.

Once we were settled round the table, Dad formally raised his Ch√Ęteauneuf.

“Helen. Andrew. Here’s to Leon, the scholar-elect of King’s!”

As I blushfully studied my plate, they drank my health. Then Andrew lifted his glass again. In the look he gave me there was nothing but love and respect, for he never crowed over his victories.

“Mum. Dad. Here’s another toast. To Leon, the captain-elect of the school!”


Andrew’s words — and no doubt plenty of others throughout these pages — may seem mawkishly reminiscent of old-fashioned boys’ stories. I cannot help it. I have thought hard about how best to depict myself and others, and have settled for the naked truth. I am an odd blighter, I know, and must leave it to you to decide how odd. To purloin Othello’s words, I must speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate. That being so, I must speak of others in the same way.

If, therefore, I myself come across as insufferably highbrow, so be it. I am a scholar and not much else.

If in places my story comes across as soupily sentimental, so be it. I am undeniably a sentimental creature.

If I seem vainglorious in reporting the praises of others, so be it. I report them simply because they all had a bearing on my state of mind.

And if my diffidence and my enthusiasm seem contradictory, so be it. This is indeed the tale of a paradox. It is the tale of a mouse with a mission.