The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

5. Master of himself

He that would govern others first should be
The master of himself.

Philip Massinger, The Bondman

Back at home, with eight weeks to ourselves — the lull before the storm, as far as I was concerned — I voiced this trepidation to Andrew.

“I’ve still got butterflies in my stomach,” I confessed. “Don’t you ever? If you do, it doesn’t show.”

“Oh, I do. Quite often.”

“What do you do about them?”

“Try to ignore them.”

“How? Why?”

“Well. Suppose you were in a car crash and you’d cracked some ribs, but everyone else was much more badly hurt. You’d do your best to help them, wouldn’t you? Comfort them. Stop them bleeding, give them artificial respiration, whatever. You wouldn’t moan about your own pain. You’d try to ignore it. It’s a bit like that.”

“You make me feel selfish, then, spilling my troubles to you. But who am I to tell my private nightmares to if I can’t tell them to you?”

That was one of my lines from Godot, and Andrew laughed. “That’s the thing about love, isn’t it? Or one of the things. No secrets. You’re not being selfish, ocelle. You can tell them to me. Anyway, your nightmares frighten you more than mine frighten me. With your, um, background, you’re more badly hurt than I am.”

I began to understand. I leant on Andrew, heavily. He was my support. He knew it. And he knew that a support which is rock-solid is better than one which wobbles. Therefore he suppressed any wobbling of his own. Typical unselfish Andrew.

“But don’t you have butterflies before a match, say?”

“Oh, yes. Always.”

“But you don’t show them. You don’t admit to them. Remember the colonel at Otterburn? He said the good leader admits to weaknesses. Yet you’re a good leader.”

“Well, I don’t know if I am. But there are two factors there. I’ve been captaining this and that for yonks, ever since my prep school days, so the terrors aren’t so great. It’s worse for you, because you’re new to captaining. And the other thing is, any captain worth his salt has butterflies. They’re taken for granted. If anyone asked, I’d readily admit to them. Anyway, are butterflies really a weakness? I’d much rather have butterflies than over-confidence.”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

“And there’s another way of looking at it, Leon my soul. You haven’t started captaining yet, not officially. But you have been leading, unofficially, these last two terms. You’ve already worked wonders in the house. There’s no reason whatever why you shouldn’t work wonders in the school as well. Be positive. Build on what you’ve done. You never thought you’d get rid of fagging in MacNair’s before you even took over, did you? But you have.”

“I haven’t. We have.”

You have. I’ve been too busy to help.”

OK, he had been busy, what with exams and games and coping with Spud’s inanities. But of course he had helped. By his example, by being there to talk to, by lending me his courage. Well, he would still be there next year, still lending his courage. Looked at that way, perhaps it was not so bad.

But the fact that he had been so busy showed up when his A-level results came in. While they were not disastrous, he had hoped for better. I was bound for Cambridge. What if he didn’t make it? At least he had been proved right in one thing. There was no way he could have added to his captaincy of rugger and cricket. At school, I would have to carry on lightening his load as far as I possibly could. At home, he plunged into his textbooks.

Our life in Park Town was always quiet. It seemed, with Mum and Dad, a complete and self-sufficient world. Like most boys at boarding schools, we made our friends at school. But although in the holidays these were scattered to the four winds, there was little need and little opportunity to make other friends at home. Time was when Andrew had had some in Oxford, but once I appeared on the scene he had not kept up with them. I had been surprised, and asked him why.

“Because I’m more than content with just you, Leon my love. None of them were close friends anyway. And remember what Dad said, that if we give any hint of being in love, then fingers will point and tongues will wag. It’s a dangerous and hostile world out there, for the likes of us. We daren’t risk people wondering why we’re so pally.”

This was before we were exposed at school. Even after we had been, the argument remained valid. We therefore cultivated no friends in Oxford. We did go with Mum and Dad to their colleagues’ parties and met their offspring, but in a casual way. Twice, as a result, we were asked out by nubile girls, and I knew exactly why: they were after Andrew. We made lame excuses. Once we were invited to a dance. We made even lamer ones. Better a reputation for stuffy standoffishness than all the other complications.


Even out of school uniform I continued to work on my appearance. I had first taken an interest in my hair and in casual clothes three years ago, when I had re-packaged my scruffy self for Andrew’s fateful visit to Cambridge. Once I had captured him, my standards had slipped again. Had I been taking him for granted? In that realm, perhaps I had. But now that he had reminded me what external appearances can do for the man inside, I replenished my wardrobe. It paid dividends.

“My, you’re looking smart, Leon!” said Mum.

Hmmm. In contrast to my usual untidiness, maybe. Or had Andrew tipped her off to be complimentary? I was not sure. But, out of the blue, an unambiguous compliment did come my way. For years, whenever Andrew and I had been in town together, I had been accustomed to the gaggles of girls who cluster yattering on street corners. When we swam into their sight they would eye us, whisper excitedly, and even call out ‘Hullo, gorgeous!’ Well, of course they would. Andrew was drop-dead gorgeous, wasn’t he?

But one day when Andrew had his nose in his books I was out by myself, and as I passed a typical gaggle I heard them call ‘Hullo, gorgeous!’ again. I looked round, but the only other person nearby was an old man in a shabby mac. I blushed to the roots of my hair, and went on my way with an absurd sense of pride. Andrew could hardly have tipped them off.

When I got home I looked at myself in the mirror. All I could see was the usual, with no obvious difference. True, not the shameful sight it once had been, but still no better than ordinary. Straight dark-mousy hair parted in the middle, a rather narrow face, a rather long nose, a slightly wary cast to the eyes and mouth. I tried a grin, but it looked disgustingly cheesy. Andrew caught me at it.

“Admiring yourself? Like Narcissus? It was Narcissus, wasn’t it, who fell in love with his own reflection?”

“Yes. It was. But I could never fall in love with that” — I nodded at myself.

“I could. I have. So could anyone. It’s in the eye of the beholder, ocelle, and your eye is jaundiced. But why narcissistic today?”

I told him about the girls.

“Well, you are gorgeous. They’ve called you gorgeous often enough before.”

“They haven’t. They’ve called you gorgeous.”

“Bollocks. Well, maybe they meant both of us. Including you. Anyway, they’re right. And I’m not jealous. So long as you don’t get seduced by any of them. Can’t allow that. You’re mine.”

His arm had been round my shoulder. Now he pulled me into a close embrace, and … well, one thing leads to another.


Still on the subject of girls … I wanted to set the Crusade rolling as soon as I could. Last term, as well as sounding out my own pollies, I had found out who the new house captains were going to be, and now I wrote to them all with an outline of my major proposals. I was not after an immediate reply, but asked them to mull it over and bring their thoughts to a meeting early next term. And until then to keep it under their hats.

One of them — Kenneth Farmer of Matthews’ — did write back at once. He was very supportive over getting rid of fagging, but warned that some of the others, being more traditionalist, might be dubious or even hostile. He suggested sugaring the pill. If I could show that dragging Yarborough screaming into the twentieth century meant replacing moth-eaten customs with new attractions, then they would be more likely to support me. If, for example, I could persuade the HM to allow us to put on a school ball, I would be wildly popular. All I needed to do was get permission in principle. He clearly did not think I had much chance. But if I succeeded, he wrote, he would gladly organise the whole thing.

Indeed he waxed enthusiastic. He had a grand affair in mind, with all the trimmings (except, sadly but necessarily, alcohol). He suggested it be held in December and be open to all pollies — about eighty boys, he estimated, plus their partners, plus perhaps a young master or two to keep an eye on proceedings. We would need the gym. He could probably rustle up girls for boys who could not find partners. To accommodate the influx, he would ask all the staff for the use of their spare rooms.

An excellent idea, we reckoned. But it raised hard questions for us personally. For a start, if it came off, should we go? I had never been to a dance in my life, I had no clue how to dance, I had no social skills whatever. I would be a fish out of water. The mere thought filled me with dread: not mere anxiety, but genuine testicle-shrivelling dread. Andrew was better placed. He had been to dances in his earlier days, he had had dancing lessons (“though I’ll be horribly rusty now”), and his social skills would carry him through. But even he would not go by choice. If the ball had been last term, we would not have gone. But next term would be different.

“As captain of the school,” Andrew declared, “you’d be expected to go.”

“So would you, as captain of everything else.”

But if we did go, in what guise? As a couple, dancing with each other? No. Far too blatant a display for the authorities to swallow. Or like everyone else, with girls on our arms, even though everyone knew we were queers and lovers? No. That would be a falsehood, a denial of our nature. Anyway, we knew no girls to invite. We would have to borrow them off Kenneth. In which case, a gauche and bashful teenager like me going with an unknown teenage partner who might be equally gauche and bashful was a recipe for disaster. We put our problem to Mum and Dad, and it was Dad who found a Machiavellian solution.

“Hold it when Andrew’s in Cambridge for the scholarship exams. So he can’t go. Leon, you go to uphold the honour of your position. And take a partner who you can’t possibly be suspected of flirting with. So nobody can say ‘Oooh look, Leon’s being unfaithful’.”

“Yes, all very well, but who?”


Brilliant. Mum was tall and fair and beautiful, very much like her son. She also looked remarkably youthful, and might almost be taken for Andrew’s older sister. She was neither gauche nor bashful. She would steer me, in every sense, with the utmost skill and discretion. My adoptive mother as my partner would in no way compromise my public image. And once she had recovered from her laughter she agreed straight off.

If this was to be a weapon to help the Crusade, the sooner I had it in my armoury the better. I wrote at once to the HM, putting the case as persuasively as I could. He replied, to my astonishment, not only by return of post but with his outline approval. Only two days after getting Kenneth’s letter I sent him the good news. He should liaise with Mr Chambers, a young master whom the HM had deputed to handle the school side of things, and the preferred date was 5 December. I did not say it was our preference, not the HM’s.

All I had to do now was learn to dance. My brow grew clammy at the thought. But off and on, for the rest of the holidays, varied sounds issued from the living room at Park Town. Gramophone music, as Mum glided and I shuffled. And patient words — “No, Leon dear. One two three. It’s a waltz, not a tango.” And cries of pain — she should have worn steel-toed boots. I was not an apt pupil.


August slipped by. We took two small steps towards adulthood. For the past year Dad had sporadically been teaching us to drive. Now we took an intensive course at a driving school and passed our tests. And near the end of the month we celebrated Andrew’s birthday, and a week later mine. We were now eighteen. Not a major milestone in those days, when one came of age and got the vote at twenty one. But a minor milestone in that we could now legally visit pubs and buy alcohol.

The evening of my birthday, Dad suggested we taste our new freedom together. He and Mum patronised the Eagle and Child, familiarly known as the Bird and Baby, which, being in St Giles, was both handy for the university and only half a mile from home. It had the reputation of a classless pub whose regulars spanned the whole spectrum from lowly to lofty.

“Hullo, Prof!” The barman was beaming at us. “Hullo, Helen! Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“Making up for lost time, Fred. And bringing you new custom. This is Andrew, and this is Leon. Just turned eighteen, and raring to go.”

“How de do,” said Fred, shaking our hands with a large and beery paw. “And welcome to the Bird. What can I get you all to celebrate?”

“Three and a half bitters, please,” said Dad.

Fred pulled at the pump. “There you go. No, nothing to pay. It’s on the house. Introductory offer to these young gents, to make sure they come back.” He grinned at us. “And commission to you for bringing them here.”

We thanked him and, finding an empty table, sat sipping and taking in our surroundings. The hum of chatter, the chink of glass, the haze of smoke, the thump of darts on the board. It seemed a friendly place where everyone knew everyone.

“No jukebox here, thank God,” said Dad. “And not much — oh, Ronald, good evening! Have they sent you the new Poetry Society programme yet?”

This was to an austere white-haired man who had come up to our table. After a few words with him, Dad introduced us, and we were flabbergasted to find ourselves shaking hands with J.R. R. Tolkien.

“Are the Inklings meeting tonight, then?” asked Dad when he had gone.

“No, surely not,” Mum replied. “They meet on Tuesday mornings. Anyway, I haven’t seen C.S. Lewis around. Unless he’s in the Rabbit Room — it’s a warren of a place, this,” she explained to us, “built in 1650, they say. Oh, hullo, Arthur! How’re you keeping?”

A large middle-aged man with a weeping moustache had stopped by our table. “Fair to middling, Helen, thank you. And you?”

“Fine, thanks. Meet our two boys, Andrew and Leon. Arthur,” she added to us, “keeps the Morris Cowley works going single-handed.”

“Pleased to meet you.” He too shook our hands. “I was wondering, now, if you could give me a hand with my crossword. I’m stuck.”

He fished a battered News Chronicle from his pocket. “There. 17 across. ‘Deadly sin — upside-down mammal,’ five letters. I’m such a saint” — he winked at us — “I don’t know much about sins. The only one I can think of in five letters is pride. Don’t you have a pride of lions? But upside down?”

Not wanting to seem know-alls, we pretended to think. “I’ve got it!” said Andrew after a minute. “It’s Leon’s sin. He doesn’t suffer from pride, but he does from sloth.” I almost stuck my tongue out at him.

“Sloth!” said Arthur. “Yes, of course! Them creatures in trees, isn’t it?” He wrote it in and muttered to himself. “Yes, that’ll set me going. Ta very much. Now, Jack, do you fancy a game of darts? I know you don’t, Helen, but what about your young men?” The board was now free.

I was shocked. I had never thrown a dart in my life. But Dad and Andrew were getting up, assuming I would follow. So I did. Arthur and Dad teamed up, leaving me with Andrew, who gave me the briefest outline of how you played. Arthur started with a modest score. Andrew went next with another modest one. So did Dad. My turn now. I tried to line my darts up, but they went anywhere except where I wanted, and one missed the board completely. My heart sank. Typical. I could never kick a rugger ball in the required direction. I could never hit a cricket ball at all.

“Sorry, Andrew,” I muttered. “Letting you down as usual.”

“You can do better than that,” he whispered back. “It’s not like a rifle. A dart doesn’t have sights. Just concentrate on where you want it to go. Start with twenties. Forget the doubles and trebles.”

My turn came round again. I concentrated, and the first dart landed clean in the outer twenty. So did the second.

“Hey, this won’t do at all!” Dad exclaimed. I was wearing new clothes — black shirt and black trousers — and as I scowled in concentration with my third dart he chanted:

Black he stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell,
And shook a dreadful dart

I giggled, and with a clang the dart bounced off the lampshade above the board.

Dad!” screeched Andrew. “That’s not cricket! You deserve to lose your turn for that.”

“Yes.” Dad was abashed. “So I do. Sorry, Leon. Sorry, Arthur.” On her chair nearby, Mum was killing herself with laughing.

Thereafter, undistracted, I found my form again. Andrew told me what numbers to go for, and we won. And all the remaining games. And I scored consistently better than Andrew.

“Thank you, all,” Dad said. “That was impressive, Leon. But the custom is that winners pay for the next round.” He surreptitiously slipped me a ten-bob note. “A mild for Arthur, right? And the same again for all of us.”

With a sense of importance and some anxiety, I bought my first drinks and carried them inexpertly back to our table. Mum and Dad were deep in conversation with Arthur.

“Andrew, how did I do it?” I asked as I sat down.

“By putting your mind to a new challenge. Like the miniature range. It wasn’t as difficult as you thought, was it? And you soon got into the way of it, didn’t you?”

No, it wasn’t, and yes, I had. Hmmm. Interesting.

“Well, I like darts. Andrew, should we get a board for the house? MacNair’s, I mean? Apart from the billiard table, we don’t have anything for indoor games. You know, for a wet afternoon.”

“That would be smashing. But where would it go? Without passers-by getting slaughtered?”

“Mmmm. True, there’s nowhere obvious. But hang on! What about the Old Dorms box room? It’s got windows. It’s narrow, but it’s long enough for darts. Put the trunks that live there now into the New Dorm box room.”

“That’s a thought. It’s wasted as it is. Turn it into a games room. But is darts really the best use for it? You couldn’t do anything else there if people were playing darts. But Leon! Listen!” He pounded me on the knee in excitement. “What we need more than a games room is a music room. With a record player. A proper one. For communal use.”

Of course, of course. The wiring in the house was antique. Our studies had no power points, and it was strictly forbidden to use the light sockets for anything but lights. Which meant we could only have battery radios. No great hardship there. Much worse, we could only have wind-up gramophones and 78s. They were dreadfully old hat, and everyone pined for proper record players and LPs.

“God, yes,” I cried. “Seats along the walls. Not too big, there isn’t the space. Continuous benches, well padded, with cushions. That way you could seat a dozen in there. And I think there’s a power point. Yes. It’s made for it. It’d be wildly popular. I can’t see Wally objecting. We’d have to find the money from somewhere, though. But good thinking, lad.”

I mentally added it to the agenda for the Crusade.

“But I’m still hankering for a darts board,” Andrew declared. “If there isn’t anywhere for one in the house, what about a school one? After all, there’s plenty of space in the buttery.”

“Yes. Between the windows, just like here.” A sudden spark was struck in my head and rapidly exploded into a full-blown idea. “Andrew! Why are we here?”

“Uh? Because it’s Mum and Dad’s favourite pub.”

“No, you clot, I mean, what are we here for?”

“What are you getting at? For a drink, of course. To enjoy ourselves.”

“And why today?”

“Because we’re eighteen.”

“And how many boys are there at Yarborough who’re eighteen?”

“Oh, I dunno. Sixty maybe? But … Oh my God! I see what … You’re thinking of the buttery selling beer!”

“Yes. Why not?”

Another thing that was strictly forbidden was to enter a Yarborough pub, unless with your parents. Anyway, in school uniform you would have no chance of being served.

“Since it’s legal for over-eighteens to buy beer,” I went on, “why can’t the buttery cater for them? In a segregated bar, of course, and you’d have to prove your age. There might have to be a limit on how much you could buy per day. But it would make money. I’m sure it would. People would jump at it.”

Andrew smiled consideringly. “It’s a lovely thought. It might be hard to get past the HM, though. He might see it as the thin end of the wedge — next thing, boys’ll be demanding the right to smoke. And it would need a licence, wouldn’t it? But go for it, lad.” He chuckled. “Just think of it! Sinking a legal pint at school while shaking a dreadful dart!”

It was a fruitful session, that evening at the Bird and Baby, and the Crusade agenda was swelling.


I bought a pocket notebook and spent a long time writing out lists in it. Lists of MacNair’s boys: who was in which study, in which dorm, in which form. Lists of masters and house captains and school pollies. Lists of jobs to be done, of people to talk to, of the Crusade agenda. The notebook was to be my compendium, my mobile memorandum, and before long it was half full. I was appalled at the size of it. Talk about Sisyphus rolling his great boulder uphill, talk about the labours of Hercules …

Dad saw me at it. He never commented on my untidy scrawl, but I knew it pained him. His own handwriting was neat and angular, like his son’s.

“Tell you what, Leon. I’ve got that portable typewriter I never use. Would it be any use to you? For doing notices and things?”

That was very tactfully put. It would indeed. Much more business-like than my scruffy fist, and much more legible. I accepted gratefully. Dad also drew some deductions from the fact that I was already half-way through my notebook.

“You’ve got a lot on your plate with your Crusade, haven’t you?”

I pulled a long face. Unless asked, he and Mum did not interfere in our planning. They merely let us know that they heartily approved, and let us get on with it. But he now saw that I needed encouragement.

“The crusaders back in the Middle Ages were no more than hooligans, you know. Most of them. Letting off steam. The Pope had told them not to beat up other Christians, so they went and beat up Muslims instead. People who were more civilised than they were. It may have taken some of the troublemakers out of Europe, but it left an unholy mess in the Middle East.

“Your Crusade’s a far more worthwhile one, Leon. You know that, don’t you? But don’t be disheartened if it takes time. Or if you don’t get it finished yourself. There’ll be people coming after you who will. After all, you’re lighting such a candle as shall never be put out.”

I looked at his kindly round face and almost hugged him in gratitude. Yes, I knew that ours was a worthy cause, a trail-blazer, whatever difficulties might lie in the way. But, down inside, I also needed frequent reassurances and encouragements to stiffen my resolve and my self-esteem.

It led me to muse on the difference between my fears now and in the past. When first I went to Yarborough I had gone in abject terror, cowed by the bleakness, the blackness, of my childhood. I had gone more than half expecting to die. My life had quite literally depended on what I found there. The outcome had lain, essentially, in other people’s hands.

But now it lay in my hands. I was going back to Yarborough to rule, not to be ruled. Active, not passive. The last two terms had introduced me to ruling, and looking back at them I was encouraged. By mid-September, with the help of Andrew and Mum and Dad, I was in a better state than in late July. I was no longer terrified. I was somewhere between scared and nervous. That was easier to overcome than terror. The captain of the school must be master of himself. Now, at the eleventh hour, I felt that he was. Just about.

All too soon the holidays were over. On the last night our bed-springs creaked longer and louder than usual.