The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

2. The threatening tyrant

Iustum et tenacem propositi virum
on civium ardor prava iubentium,
Non vultus instantis tyranni
Mente quatit solida.

If a man holds steadfastly to a rightful cause, his firm resolve is shaken neither by the frenzied clamour of malign colleagues nor by the threatening tyrant’s glare.

Horace, Odes

After house prayers on the first night of term, Wally made a simple announcement, “Tonight we welcome two new praepostors. Leon Michaelson and Andrew Goodhart.”

He shook our hands. So did the existing pollies. Everyone else clapped, a little puzzled, perhaps, that I had been put above Andrew. And that was it. We were now members of a government we had little taste for. It did not prove an easy term.

Oliver Mayhew was our prime minister. It was not clear how he had acquired the nickname of Spud, but it fitted, for he was well-rounded and definitely stodgy. He liked it — perhaps he thought it suitably no-nonsense — but only his inner circle might use it to his face, although everyone else used it behind his back. We had called him Oliver until we joined the front bench, when he graciously gave us permission to call him Spud.

Hitherto our paths had hardly crossed, for we had little in common. He had always treated us neutrally, and had shown no outrage when our love was exposed. Even when first made a polly he came across as a stolid and unremarkable character, and when he took the helm in September he seemed likely to turn into an unremarkable house captain. But power went to his head. He had six pollies under him. Two had just left — it was common in those days to join the school or leave it in mid-year — and we had stepped into their shoes. The others were Simon, Rex, Dave and Victor, easily-led characters with whom Spud had quietly hobnobbed for years. Now they were his yes-men, eating out of his hand.

Discipline became his watchword. Over two terms, from September to Easter, his regime became steadily harsher, and he became correspondingly more loathed. Had he known the emperor Caligula’s motto, he would gleefully have adopted it as his own: oderint dum metuant, let them hate, so long as they fear.

He ruled by intimidation, especially of the fags. In the house, the standard penalty for misdemeanours was confinement. A polly could confine anyone for a specified length of time, which meant that the malefactor had to stay in his study, except for house or school routine, until he had served his sentence. He had to ask permission to leave it, and nobody could visit him there. Used properly, this was a reasonably fair and effective punishment, and was normally inflicted in moderation, a day or two at a time. But under Spud it grew beyond measure and was often quite unfairly applied.

When a polly called ‘Fag!’, for example, fags had to drop everything and run to the caller. The call was usually made from the bottom of the New Dorm stairs, the hub of the house where the pollies’ studies were concentrated. The two wretches whose study was furthest away inevitably arrived last. Spud and his gang habitually picked them, until one of them burst into tears and protested that it was unfair. “The worm turns, eh?” said Spud, who liked clichés, and he confined the boy for a week. This was much resented, and not only by the victim.

But the unfairness of picking the last arrival evidently penetrated Spud’s mind. He started picking the first arrival. The fags, as soon as they cottoned on, not surprisingly hung back. Spud blasted them and started to pick whoever he thought was dallying, which accelerated the stampede again.

When in the house we wore what were called slippers: not soft cloth ones with rubber soles, but sturdy black leather shoes with elasticated sides and leather soles. Because the floors were polished and rather treacherous tiles, it was very sensibly forbidden to run in the corridors. Except, of course, for fags answering a call. Much the easiest way for them to stop when they reached the polly was to skid to a halt.

This was not military enough for Spud. He forbade sliding. The fags found it difficult, when running at full tilt, to stop dead without losing their footing, and several tumbled and bruised themselves. One day the leader of the pack lost balance as he arrived, lurched forwards, and butted Victor hard in the stomach. When Victor recovered his wind, he confined the wretch for a week, as well as two others suspected of laughing at his plight. “Quite right,” said Spud. “The only way to learn is the hard way.”

The whole regime was downright inconsiderate. Between breakfast and school, for instance, fags, like everyone else, were likely to be finishing their prep. Fag calls every few minutes gave them little chance, even if they were not picked. And many fag calls, now, were quite unnecessary. At half past eight Spud might send a fag with a message to so-and-so in Hamilton’s, the furthest house, a twenty-minute round trip, even though he himself would be sitting next to so-and-so at Assembly at nine. He did it deliberately. “The devil finds work for idle hands,” he said.

Nor did the older escape his zeal. Junior boys’ trouser pockets, as I have said, had to be sewn up. Seniors’ did not. Now, if a senior was spotted with his hands in his pockets, he was yelled at. “Slovenly devils,” said Spud. “Give ’em an inch and they take a mile.”

When the bell rang for a meal or for prayers, what normally happened was what you would expect. You came out of your study or wherever you happened to be and headed for hall. Except on the way to prayers, when for some reason you were not allowed to talk, you chatted as you went. You moved in irregular clumps, with gaps between.

This offended Spud’s orderly mind. “Discipline must be maintained,” he said, and the decree went forth that when the bell rang you must wait outside your study door. If you happened to be in somebody else’s study that was nearer to hall you went back to your own. When everyone was in place and a polly gave the word, you now proceeded in single file without talking at all. It was surprising that Spud did not insist on marching in step. It wasted time, it was plain silly, and it was resented.

The idiocy and inhumanity of Spud’s regime will doubtless appal. It was not, it must be emphasised, typical of Yarborough. It came about because of the remarkable freedom given to the boys to rule themselves. The nature of this freedom — to rule benevolently or, up to a point, to misrule — will emerge as the story unfolds.

Among schools of its kind, Yarborough’s ethos was broad-minded and even enlightened. Not here the cult of scholarship to the exclusion of all else, for it deliberately took in boys of widely differing ability. Not here the cult of athletic prowess, for it equally respected the scholar, the actor, the musician, and the ordinary member of society. Not here the bullying, physical or verbal, which was endemic in most other schools. Nor here the spartan and sadistic discipline of cold showers and of the fag-master with personal fags and the power to thrash them as he would.

In short, Yarborough’s version of the fagging system, when used considerately, was nothing like as burdensome as it may sound. When used inconsiderately — and this is the point — it was. Under Spud it amounted almost to licensed bullying. Under his predecessors, or most of them, we had been a cheerful community, and on the whole, even among the fags, a willing one. No longer. People became disgruntled and morose. There was no point in appealing to the pollies. Nor did there seem any point in going over their heads and complaining to Wally, for he had appointed them and would surely not undermine their authority.

He must have noticed the slump in morale. But he had never been known to intervene in the house’s organisation or discipline, and how much he knew of the misery he had unleashed was open to debate. Why had he made this lot pollies? To be fair, because he had had no alternative. It was the luck of the draw. A year’s intake might occasionally be all stars. It was usually a mixture. Occasionally, as in Spud’s year, it was all duds.

Mercifully there were few potential successors of that calibre. We had overheard the pollies talking about Bill Langton, a boy a term above us who toadied to them, as promising material. But Andrew and I did not toady. We were not promising material, not in their eyes, and we could not have been their nominees. Yet we had been leapfrogged over Bill. That must be Wally’s doing. Surely he consulted the existing pollies about new appointments, but equally surely he had the final say.

It was in January, then, halfway through these two sad terms, that we joined the front bench and were plunged into a tricky situation. We had known it would be tricky, and had spent half the holidays chewing over our strategy. We were outsiders, we recognised, in a minority of two to five. But we refused to blacken our names and our consciences by kow-towing to these idiots. We decided to treat them politely — we were already talking of ‘them’ and ‘us’ — but to keep our distance and avoid confrontation.

As it turned out, they treated us in much the same way, though Spud was clearly puzzled and irked that we did not conform to his philosophy. Truth was, we reckoned, he did not understand us and was therefore wary of us. “You’re strange blokes, you two,” he once said. “Stand-offish. Oh well, it takes all sorts.” And he shrugged his shoulders.

We saw as little of them as we could. At meals Spud insisted that the pollies behave as if in an officer’s mess. At lunch we all sat with Wally and engaged him in courteous and gentlemanly conversation, as a mess might do with a visiting general. At tea, when we sat by ourselves, Spud forbade talking school or house shop, thank God. Conversation might be about anything else, but was dominated by politics. Whereas Andrew and I inclined to the left — liberal rather than socialist — the others were all Tories. There were therefore plenty of arguments, not about the Mayhew government at MacNair’s but about the Macmillan government at Westminster. That was tedious, but preferable. And to them our odd political views went a long way towards explaining our odd behaviour.

We religiously did our duties of policing, supervising and organising, but strangely never happened to be handy when the crocodile was marched off to meals. While powerless to do anything about the others’ excessive demands on fags, we did not exercise our own right to use them. Spud never, I think, woke up to the fact that we continued to clean our own Corps gear. It could take a fag three hours a week to bring a polly’s kit to the required state of perfection. It took us only took five minutes to brush up our boots and blanco and brass, for in the Corps we were our own masters, and while we did not want to be shabby we did not have to be resplendent.

We also continued to clean our own studies, and in the whole term we never once called for a general fag. Spud did notice that, and asked us why. We don’t need to, we said. You ought to, he replied. Why keep a dog and bark yourself?

Spud and I were both in the New Dorm. One morning he spotted that his clothes had been folded but mine had not. He asked the dorm fag why, ready to tear a strip off him. Because Michaelson had told him not to, was the reply. I confirmed it, and when we were alone Spud’s irritation burst out.

“For God’s sake, Leon, you’re a drip. You’re a pansy … ” He actually blushed, and evidently felt the need to explain. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean … I mean you’re soft. Nothing against you being queer. Nothing against queers. I was reading about those Greeks. You know, that squadron of lovers, fighting in pairs. Best soldiers ever, because they’d never let their, um, friends down. Called the Sacred Band, weren’t they? At Sparta.”

Well, at Thebes, actually, but never mind. And interesting that budding dictators had their soft side too.

Another thing which bothered Spud was that we maintained our old friendships with those below us, and most notably with Jim, our best friend and the most outspoken critic of the regime. Here too we flatly refused to toe the line. Nobody would bully us into ditching friendships.

“Officers don’t fraternise with other ranks,” declared Spud.

“Sorry, Spud,” we said. “These officers do.”

None the less we were very careful not to court a charge of disloyalty by criticising the regime, even to our friends. Except to Jim. With him we could be nothing but totally frank, though we got him to swear to keep it to himself. Our other friends seemed to understand our reticence, and did not hold it against us. But the fact that we maintained old friendships did not go unnoticed. Nor that we kept our distance from the regime. Nor that we made no use of fags. Quite the opposite. Where people glowered at Spud & Co behind their backs — to do so face to face was asking for trouble — they openly smiled at us. And Spud noticed it.

But if Spud was concerned by our nonconformity, there was little he could do about it. If he complained about us to Wally, Wally never passed the complaints on. And soft though we were, Spud was wary of getting on the wrong side of us. Andrew, by virtue of his sunny nature and his sporting prowess, was much the most popular and most respected boy in the house, and as Andrew’s acknowledged partner my standing was not bad either. Should Spud be seen to victimise us, open rebellion might erupt, and he knew it.

For two months we managed to maintain a precarious state of neutrality. We spent hours discussing tactics, and we felt that our moderating presence helped to curb the worst excesses. But we were balancing on a tightrope, trying to fall neither into betraying our principles by collaboration, nor into an outright rift with the regime. It was a life far from my ideal of retiring peace, and I hated it. It was nerve-wracking and exhausting, and it took so much time. That was not so bad for me, more or less a free agent, though it gave little chance to plan the Crusade, as we were now calling it. It was much worse for Andrew, deeply involved in his rugger, frustrated in his efforts to prepare for the summer’s cricket, and distracted from his A-level work.

Throughout those difficult days, we took great comfort from each other. We were hugely lucky in Yarborough’s tolerance. Since our traumatic exposure two years ago, it had been common knowledge that we were in love. The authorities knew and did not disapprove. Nobody else seemed to disapprove either. Our side of the bargain was that we neither had sex at school nor made public demonstration of our love. Abstinence in both departments had at first proved painful.

Our salvation had been Steve Phillips, chaplain, head of classics, my form master, and the most human and humane of mentors. He had provided us, quite unofficially, with a bolt-hole, a shed behind his house, where we could do what we dared not do in our studies for fear of interruption, where we could keep up the necessary bodily contact of hugging, kissing or just holding hands. But no sex: he trusted us on that, and we honoured his trust. Over time, we grew accustomed to our curious lifestyle and needed the bolt-hole less and less. But the stresses of our first term as pollies revived the need, and we returned more often.

On one typical occasion we were there in search of mutual comfort, our arms around each other.

“Thank God,” I sighed, “I’ve got you to lean on. It would be impossible otherwise.”

“Thank God we’ve got each other, Leon, my love … “ he tailed off. “I always seem to call you ‘Leon my love,’ don’t I? I mean it, because you are. But it does get a bit monotonous. What else can I call you? Dearest? Angel? Sweetheart? My own?” He laughed. “All a bit gooey.”

“All far too gooey. Especially angel.” I shuddered. “I’m no angel. No halo, no wings.”

“What about something more appropriate for a scholar, then? Something Latin?”

“Well, Plautus has got a good range of endearments. Mind you, they can be pretty gooey too, when they’re meant to be funny.” I chuckled. “But I’ve just thought! There’s a bit in his Asinaria, where one of the characters is a slave called Leonidas — how appropriate can you get? Someone says to him, ‘Give me the money, Leonidas, my little eye, my rose, my soul, my delight.’ And he replies, ‘Only if you call me your sparrow, your chick, your quail, your lamb, only if you tell me I’m your kid or your calf, only if you take me by the ears and give me a smacker!’”

Andrew hooted with laughter, took me by the ears and gave me a smacker.

“Leonidas, my … No, I’m never going to use your full name. And I’m not going to call you a bird or a beast, either. Or a rose. But what’s ‘delight’ in Latin?”


“No good. Wrong association, voluptuousness. What’s ‘soul’?”


“Hmmm. A bit too like ‘animal.’ Though I like ‘my soul,’ in English. But why ‘little eye’? And what’s the Latin?”

Ocelle. In the sense of ‘apple of my eye’.”

Andrew rolled it round his tongue. “Ocelle. Apple of my eye. I like that. Along with ‘my soul.’ OK, then, you’re re-christened, Leon ocelle, Leon my soul.” He sealed it with another smacker and grinned his impish grin, which was rarely seen these harrowing days but, when it did appear, was as impish as ever. We went happier back to the house.

Life, mercifully, was not all confrontation, or avoiding it. There was of course academic work. There were of course games. There was the Concert Choir, in which I had sung bass more or less since my voice broke, though Andrew had given it up when his life became too busy. And there was drama, in which we both continued to dabble.

Every year at the beginning of February a modern play was produced by an enthusiastic and ambitious young English teacher named Bruce Armstrong, known behind his back, rather unfairly, as the Brute. We had been dumbfounded when he asked us to play the lead characters in his forthcoming production. That was back in December, before we knew we were to be made pollies, and we had incautiously said yes.

The play was Waiting for Godot. It is an easy one to stage, as it demands only a single almost empty set, but hideously difficult in every other way and, so soon after its first publication, a controversial and courageous choice. Our parts as Estragon and Vladimir were large — we were on stage the whole time — and it was a challenge to learn them. With the new stresses in the house we began to regret taking on the job but, because most of the play was a dialogue between the pair of us, at least we could run through our lines together at odd moments.

Moreover, Godot has been described as ‘the play in which nothing happens, twice,’ and it is a challenge to keep the audience alert. Yarborough actors, in addition, were not helped by the quirks of Hall, where drama was staged. Its diabolically uncomfortable seats made the audience fidgety, and its acoustics were dreadful, with a dead patch in the middle which even Laurence Olivier would have difficulty in reaching. But the Brute was a good producer and helped us enormously in projecting our voices and in trying to understand what Samuel Beckett’s message might or might not be. Nonetheless it was exhausting work.

The other pollies were curious — they had heard of Godot, of course, who hadn’t? — but uncomprehending.

“What’s it about, then?” asked Spud.

“Difficult to say. Perhaps that there’s no obvious reason for anything. Like life. But you have to make your own mind up.”

He snorted. “Oh. One of those!” He visibly made his mind up there and then.

For the half hour between the bed bell and lights out, boys were free to chat in the dorms, standing in their tishes or sitting on their bed ends with their curtains drawn back. The dorm pollies were expected to be in attendance. My dorm, the New Dorm, was a very long one which accommodated all the lower half of the house. Spud normally held sway at the senior end of it, pontificating and sometimes driving the boys under their bedclothes in sheer boredom. My practice was to join in the chatter at the junior end where my tish was. The boys there asked the same question about Godot, and I gave the same answer.

“After you’ve seen it,” I suggested, “you tell me what you think it’s about.”

The performance went off well enough. There was generous applause, led maybe by those who pretended they had understood it and supported by those who appreciated our stamina. The drill, after school plays and concerts, was late prayers, then straight to the dorm. A very good thing tonight, as I was utterly knackered, and I sat gratefully down on the end of my bed.

In the tish opposite was Freshwater, a new boy with a good voice — he sang alto in the Special Choir — who was also a pianist. His unassuming round face and wide mouth under straight mid-brown hair might be described as pleasantly ordinary, and when he arrived he had been quietly cheerful. Now, only six weeks into term, he wore a browbeaten air. He had been the regular victim of Spud & Co’s injustice in picking the last arrival at fag calls, for which reason I tried to be especially considerate with him. On top of that, I positively liked him. For a thirteen-year-old he was unusually thoughtful and articulate.

“Did you know you’ve got greasepaint on your neck?” he asked. “Here.” He pointed to his own.

“Thanks.” I scrubbed with my towel. Someone asked about greasepaint. Someone else asked if our boots really smelt as bad as we’d pretended. They chattered about this triviality and that and, as I might have guessed, came to concentrate on the titillating bit which goes:

Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?

Vladimir: Hmm. It’d give us an erection.

Estragon (wildly excited): An erection!

Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls, mandrakes grow. That’s why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?

No, they did not know that. They demanded to be told everything about the natural history of mandrakes, in fact and in legend. They enquired more coyly about hanging and erections. I was not too happy pursuing the topic, not that I knew much about it, with boys on the border of puberty, and before long I changed the subject and challenged them to tell me what Godot was about. A few ideas, hardly profound, were thrown out. Boredom. Futility. Nothing. Freshwater was silent, but gave the impression he had something to say. I looked enquiringly at him.

“It’s about us, I think. Stuck in the routine of slavery, and getting accustomed to it. Pozzo is a tyrant, Lucky is a slave. What was that line of yours? ‘The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener.’ And surely Godot is meant to be God. We wait for him to come and save us. But it looks as if he never will.”

His expression was half resigned, I thought, and half pleading. At the other end of the dorm, Spud bellowed for lights out.

“I know exactly what you mean,“ I said quietly. “But it takes time. Don’t give up hope.”

The others, if they heard, probably had no idea what we were talking about. But Freshwater did.

In those days we still had winters, and in late February, after Godot was out of the way, the snow lay thick. Snow, at Yarborough, meant bogtrotting — to the uninitiated, tobogganing. The town lies in steeply rolling country perfect for the purpose, and we had the use of some fields a mile or so out on the Binchester road. The house owned a small fleet of bogtrots, home-made but adequate, and many a happy afternoon was spent on the slopes.

One such afternoon was nearly my undoing. When almost at the bottom, I went over a hummock and was sent flying. Just behind me, at full tilt, was Spud, and as I lay winded in the snow his bogtrot hit me amidships. It was not in the least his fault, but he was no lightweight. Had I been lying on my side he would have got me in the goolies, which would have been infinitely worse. As it was, I was on my back and he got me on the left hip. I saw stars, literally. Andrew spotted my plight and came to help. When he tried to stand me up, my left leg would not work. All he could do was lay me on my bogtrot and tow me home, not to the house but to the San.

Each house had a very small sick-bay run by its own matron, for accommodating cases of minor illness. At the other end of the scale was the Royal Infirmary at Binchester. Yarborough, for all that it lay near the centre of England, was quite remote. Its inhabitants liked to call it a small town. In reality it was a large village. It ran to a fire station with one engine manned by volunteers, but no ambulance, let alone a hospital. Greetham, seven miles to the north, was similarly ill-equipped. Even the industrial centre of Boulby eight miles to the south had no hospital. Serious illnesses or injuries therefore went to Binchester, twenty miles west.

Filling the gap between sick-bay and Infirmary was the Sanatorium, the school’s mini-hospital. It was little used except when an outbreak of mumps or measles caused the houses’ sick-bays to overflow. But it was permanently staffed, under the charge of its own matron. And what a matron. Of the old breed, stocky and steely, girded in layers of white aprons under a navy cloak, iron-grey hair pinioned under a ridiculous little starched headpiece, narrow mouth, basilisk eyes from which grown men had been known to flee gibbering. Her nickname was the Battleaxe.

To her tender mercies Andrew delivered me. She called the doctor, who tut-tutted over my hip. The San had no X-ray facilities, so it had to be Binchester. An ambulance was summoned. It took hours to arrive because of the snow, and hours to carry me there. The X-ray showed nothing broken or cracked, only heavy bruising. Rest was the only treatment, and another ambulance carted me slowly back to the San. Andrew and Jim, bless them, came to visit me there. So did Wally and Steve. It was a relief to be out of the hurly-burly of house politics. After three days, mobility began to return and I was moved to the sick-bay at MacNair’s. Another two days and I was released to limp around the house and school.

Back on the tightrope, not long before the end of term, we had a typical wobble. Jim, riled beyond endurance when vainly requesting something from Rex, had incautiously quoted the barrister’s immortal words to the judge: ‘If your Lordship would be pleased to revolve the matter in what your Lordship is pleased to call your Lordship’s mind,’ and for his pains had been confined for a week. It was unheard-of for the senior non-fag to be so punished. The rules decreed that nobody should visit him. Andrew and I decided that, as pollies, we were above the law, and continued to call on him. Spud saw us emerging from his study and challenged us.

“We were trying to persuade him not to shoot his mouth,” we said. This had the merit of being entirely true. Spud eyed us very narrowly, but did not pursue it.

Next day Wally called Andrew and me in to talk about appointing new pollies. Soon there would be only six, because Simon was leaving.

“We want two more, and no more than two,” he said, “who really need to be staying on for most of next year, because they’ll be at the core of your team. I’m consulting you first because they’ll be with you for several terms, but with Oliver only for one. So I’ll put more weight on your views than on his. Think about it.”

This was difficult, because there were three obvious candidates. Two of them were Good and Buv. When John Lord and Bryn Evans had first arrived, a term after us, the house captain had a sense of humour and put them to share a study. People instantly and inevitably dubbed them Good Lord and Good Evans. But you could hardly have two boys with the same nickname. John remained Good. Bryn, by way of Evans Above, became Buv. They were inseparable — not in the way that Andrew and I were, but just damned good friends — and it was inconceivable for one to be a polly without the other. They were a cheery pair, full of fun but yet dependable, and we knew they were disgusted with Spud & Co. They had a year to go. They fitted the bill perfectly.

Except that the other candidate was Jim. He was our first choice. He was older than us, we had felt bad about leapfrogging over him, and we knew very well that he was pure gold. But if we had him, we would have to choose between Good and Buv, which was impossible. And we were not sure that he would want to serve in the government of his pet hate. We did the only thing we could. We went to his study and put our cards on the table, and he had no hesitation.

“Thanks very much, chaps. I appreciate that. But no. I’d rather stay a rebel backbencher than sit on the front bench with those buggers. Especially Rex. After all, it’ll be four of them to four of us. Better than now, but they’ll have the seniority and’ll have their way. If it had been three of them to five of us, you might have twisted my arm. But in any case I’ve only got a term to go. I don’t meet the specifications. No, go for Buv and Good. You’ve got to build up your team for next year.”

“Jim, are you just being decent and honourable?”

“I’m never decent and honourable.”

“Bollocks. OK, then, Jim. Thanks. But keep it under your hat, about Buv and Good. Rebel backbenchers aren’t supposed to know things like this.”

Once again Spud saw us leaving Jim’s study. “You at it again?” he demanded in deep suspicion.

“House business this time. Excuse us. We’ve got to see Wally.”

Wally, when he heard our preference, said, “Excellent. That chimes with my thinking. I’ll see what the others think.”

A couple of days after that, on the last Thursday of term, we finally fell off our tightrope. Simon was Spud’s deputy. That morning, not long before Assembly at nine, I was coming down the stairs from the New Dorm when he emerged from his study with his Corps boots in his hand, in an obviously foul mood. Thursday was Corps day, and I stopped where I was, smelling trouble.

Freshwater!” he yelled, and Freshwater came at the gallop.

“Look at these!” shouted Simon, waving the boots in his face. “Do you call that a polish?” They looked perfectly OK to me. “It’s the third time I’ve had to throw them back at you in three days. Do them again, damn you. Bring them back by one o’clock. Properly done this time.”

For good measure he scraped the toecaps along the rough wall of the corridor, ruining their surface. It would take hours to restore the polish. The corners of Freshwater’s mouth went down, and he took the boots and ran.

“And don’t you pull faces at me!” Simon bawled after him. “You’ll pay for this!”

I was incensed, but Assembly was looming and the first priority was Freshwater. I followed him to his study where I found him in a flood of tears, his study-mate trying to console him.

“Don’t worry, Bob,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder and hoping he was called Bob. I was not well up on fags’ first names. “Simon had no right to do that.” There were limits to my loyalty to colleagues. “Look, leave them with me. I’ll take the morning off and work on them. Come and collect them at one. OK?” He gave me a watery smile. “Right, we’d better get to Assembly.”

I dumped the boots in my study, and after Assembly buttonholed Steve, who I was timetabled to be with for the next three and a half hours. “Sir, will you excuse me this morning? Please. I’ve something very urgent to do.”

He gave me a keen look but asked no questions. “Yes, Leon, of course.” He was a jewel among masters.

It took the whole morning to build up enough layers of polish to get those damned boots back into reasonable shape. Shortly before one Bob knocked on my door and I handed them over. “Take them along now, and come back and tell me what Simon says.”

He returned to report. “He said, ‘Well, they’re a bit better now. Why couldn’t you do that first time round?’”

“Nothing else?”

“No, nothing.”

That was a relief. I had been afraid Simon might have confined him for the rest of term. And he had not even bothered to wonder where Bob could have found the time.

“Thank you, Michaelson. I could never have got them done myself. But please, why …? I mean, I know you do your own Corps stuff. But pollies don’t get fags out of holes.”

“Bob, do you reckon Simon has a down on you?” He nodded. It was typical, this indiscriminate victimisation, and I had to be honest but not overly critical. “Bob. We’re none of us perfect. But if a fag’s put in a hole by a polly, quite unfairly as I see it, then it seems only fair for a polly to get him out of it. Anyway, it’s all over now. Simon’s leaving next week. Just forget about it, if you can.”

Bob gave me a long look. “Well, thanks, anyway.”

I told Andrew what had happened, and we agreed that, because Simon was going, there was little point in taking it up with him. I was mightily relieved to be clear of the mess without further hassle, and got on with my day.

That evening, prep had just started when Spud put his head round my study door.

“Come on. Bit of exercise. It’ll do you good. We’ve got a bimming.”

My fears leapt back to the surface. “Who?”

“Freshwater, impudent brat.”


“Persistent inefficiency at Corps fagging. And insolence to a polly.”

I pushed past him. His henchmen were in the corridor, brandishing canes. I pushed past them too, to Andrew’s study.

“Andrew, they’re bimming Bob Freshwater. For what I told you about. We refuse, OK?”

We went out to face them. “I’m not bimming Freshwater,” I said quietly.

“Nor’m I,” Andrew added.

Spud’s face flared red. “By God, insubordination!” he yelled. “Disloyalty to the regiment! Do the decent thing and resign your commissions! If Wally doesn’t cashier you first!” He really was a caricature, was Spud.

“I saw what happened,” I declared when I could get a word in. “It’s not Freshwater should be bimmed, it’s Simon!”

I was angry now, beyond self-restraint, and was shouting too. Everyone a dozen studies either way must have heard every word.

The yes-men joined in, in chorus. “Namby-pambies!” we heard through the din. “Collective responsibility.” “Feeble drips!” “Spare the rod … ”

“Come on, Leon,” said Andrew, grabbing my arm and jerking his head towards the private side, “we’re going to Wally,” and we left them staring after us.

To put you in the picture, let me repeat what I explained in the first part of this history where I told of our own unjust bimming three years before. None of the staff ever beat anyone. All discipline was left to the pollies, and bimming was the severest punishment available to them. But before bimming anyone, the house captain had to get clearance from Wally, who would listen to the prosecution’s case and give his verdict. The accused was not present, nor was there a counsel for the defence.

Permission once granted, the ritual was that during prep the pollies armed themselves with canes and marched in convoy down the corridors, rattling the canes against all the study doors and radiators they passed, so that everybody knew what was afoot. At the changing room door the house captain bellowed the name of the criminal, who would slink up, listen to a shouted reprimand for his sins, bend over with his head among the stinking jockstraps in a locker, and receive a whack from each of the pollies before being released to nurse his wounds. It was a humiliating business, and was meant to be.

Bimmings were normally rare, averaging one a term if that. One could normally say, if one finds this sort of treatment acceptable, that they were deserved, in the sense that the victim really had committed a fairly major offence. Last autumn term, however, there had been six, way above the norm. So far this term there had been none because, we liked to think, Spud could not be sure of our support. But now it seemed that Simon had forced his hand.

As on that occasion three years before, Wally was surprised to see us.

“Sir,” I said. “Oliver’s just told us about beating Freshwater. He guessed we wouldn’t approve, and tried to bounce us into it by telling us at the last minute. But we won’t be bounced. I was there when it all happened. Simon’s got a down on Freshwater and deliberately wrecked his own boots. And Freshwater didn’t pull a face at him. Not that sort of face. His mouth went down because he was bursting into tears. In despair. It’s Simon who should be in the dock.”

Wally’s own mouth was hard as he listened. “Send Simon and Oliver here. And come back yourself. Andrew, stay here.”

I went back to the boys’ side, expecting to find them sulking. But as I passed through the swing doors I heard the distant bellow of “Freshwater!”, the sound of running feet, and the slam of a door. I ran too. It seemed an astonishingly long way, and my hip still hurt. At the changing room door I skidded to a halt and flung it open. Just in time. Bob was already head-down in a locker, jacket off, bum sticking out, and Spud was flexing his cane.

Stop!” I bellowed. “You and you” — I pointed to Spud and Simon — “to Wally. The rest to your studies.”

It must have been an absurd and melodramatic sight, this twerpish whippersnapper heaving with righteous indignation. But blow me! All five looked at each other, picked up their jackets and left without a word. Never before had I given peremptory orders like that, to anyone. I had no right to give them now, not like that. But I had given them, and had been obeyed. Was this what leading was? No. It was driving. It was hateful.

Bob was still in the locker. I pulled him out and stood him up, and we regarded each other. He brushed tears off his cheeks. And he did two totally unexpected things.

First he reached for the nearest towel and wiped sweat off my forehead. I had not known it was there.

Then he said, “Godot has come, at last.”

I blinked. “Well … if he has, almost too late. Sorry about that. But Bob. I think this is the end of it. For you, not for them. If you’re bimmed now, it’ll be over my dead body. Look, are you OK? Then back to your study.” I clapped his shoulder, found his jacket and handed it to him. “I’ve got to get back to Wally.”

Spud and Simon were already there, complaining loudly and bitterly about my behaviour, and Andrew’s too. As I came in, Wally cut them off short.

“I hear they went ahead without you,” he said to me. “Is Bob all right?”

“Shaken. But they hadn’t started.”

“Good. Simon, tell me exactly what happened this morning.”

Simon did so, sulkily; or his version of it, heavily distorted. “I didn’t know he was snooping,” he ended, jerking his head at me.

“Leon, your turn now.”

“I wasn’t snooping. I was coming down the New Dorm stairs. In full view.” I told my tale. “Simon deliberately scraped the toecaps of his boots against the wall,” I said at the relevant point. “In front of my eyes. This was just before nine. He told Freshwater to polish them again by one. Which was impossible.”

“But he did them,” Simon put in. “So it wasn’t impossible.”

“Don’t interrupt!” barked Wally.

“If he wants to know how they got done,” I said furiously. “I did them. I asked Mr Phillips for the morning off, and it took me three hours to repair the damage.”

Spud uttered a snort of disgust. At my conduct, of course, not at Simon’s. I finished my account and Wally cogitated, then looked at the clock.

“It’s almost time for prayers. Leon and Andrew, I’ve finished with you for the time being. Oliver, send Bob to me as soon as prayers are over, and be ready to come back when I’ve seen him. Simon, you wait here. No, you’re not coming into prayers.” Simon seemed to be staring into a chasm that yawned in front of him. So did Spud.

For once the crocodile into prayers was abuzz with chatter, and for once Spud did nothing to stop it. Even while we were waiting for Wally in hall the buzz continued. All eyes were on the pollies, and nobody could miss Simon’s absence. When, prayers over, Wally had left, Spud called out, “Freshwater, Wally wants to see you.”

Then the wonder happened. As Bob made his reluctant way up hall, the whole room broke into applause. Only four pollies did not join in. The noise — and its implications — must have reached Wally. Spud, turning bright red again, cut short the clamour and dismissed the house.

Half an hour later we were called back to Wally. He was now alone.

“Leon. Andrew. This is what has happened. With the HM’s agreement I have requested Simon to leave the school. He hasn’t been expelled, but I’ve made it plain to him that he has lost my trust and it would be best if he went a few days early. He behaved disgracefully this morning and, as I understand it, he lied to Oliver about what happened. Oliver believed him, in good faith. Oliver passed it on to me and I believed it, in good faith.

“Now. What Yarborough tries above all to instil is responsibility. We trust you — the boys in general — to be responsible, because learning to carry responsibility and to honour trust is a vital part of growing up. Far more important than learning Latin verbs or chemical formulae. Usually everything works smoothly and you don’t let us down. You vary, of course. I know your rulers sometimes wield a rod of iron. But, provided they don’t wield it too hard, I don’t interfere. It’s also part of education to learn to take the rough with the smooth.

“Therefore, as long as they don’t overstep the mark, I always trust the pollies. Therefore I will not undermine their authority, not without very good cause. On this occasion I have not censured Oliver, and I will not censure him, either publicly or privately. That would do nobody any good. But I think he has learned a lesson, and I think you may find that his yoke will now become a little easier.

“You may feel that today’s dénouement should have come quite a while back. But I’ve long known the views you hold on justice and equity, and I was confident that if things became too bad you’d bring them to my notice. Which you have done. Thank you.”

For the few remaining minutes before the bed bell, Andrew and I talked it over. We took Wally’s point about trust. We took his point, even, about the rough and the smooth — real life, after all, was not always a bed of roses, though our recent bed of nails had proved bloody uncomfortable. We felt guilty, indeed, at not having raised the alarm earlier. But we had not realised how far he left us to determine our own fate. It was up to us, it seemed, to say ‘thus far and no farther; we’re not going to take any more.’ That was interesting, and had a bearing on our plans for the future.

And, much though we disliked Spud, we understood Wally’s reluctance to censure him. His power, we agreed, had already been broken, or at least compromised, by his own acts. Which was a huge relief.

I was a little late in arriving in the New Dorm. Everyone had washed and pumped and changed into pyjamas and was at the entrance to his tish. There was no sign of Spud, who was no doubt licking his wounds in private. The moment I stepped in the door Bob started clapping and cheering. Everyone followed suit. The noise was deafening. Spud in his study below must have heard it and drawn his own conclusions. Even Andrew heard it in his own dorm at the other end of the house.

“Was that you they were cheering?” he asked next morning.

“Yes.” I pulled a wry face. I had been horribly embarrassed. “Led by Bob.”

“Good for him. You’ve got a slave for life there.”

“I don’t want a slave.”

“A friend for life, then.”

“OK. I’ll settle for that.”

After Assembly I apologised to Steve for skipping his classes.

“I’m very glad you did,” he replied. “It was much more important than Demosthenes.”

“How do you know, sir?”

He smiled. “Masters do talk to each other. Didn’t you know?”

That evening Wally called Andrew and me in once more. “A happier subject this time,” he said. “I’ve now spoken to the others about new pollies. I didn’t ask them. I told them. But I won’t let Bryn and John know until the last day of term, so don’t talk to them about it till then.”

Excellent. We heard the others grumbling peevishly that Bill Langton had been passed over yet again, but they remained subdued. On the final day Buv and Good came to us, grinning broadly. It was not exactly difficult for them to work out that they were our nominees, not Spud’s.

“We can say it openly now,” said Buv. “We’ve been admiring your efforts to stem the worst of the tide. And we’re glad of the chance to wade in too. We’ll do our best. Dunno how good our best will be. But every little helps, as the monkey said as he piddled into the ocean.”

After a pretty chilly and solitary term, that warmed our hearts no end.