Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young.
Philip Larkin, Sad Steps
Usually we travelled to and from Yarborough by train, our trunks going by luggage-in-advance. This time we needed to be there early. Andrew had an appointment with Bull Stephenson, the master in charge of games, to discuss the coming season, and he wanted to confer with the head groundsman. I hoped to ease myself gently back into school and into my new job. And I needed to have a chat with Wally, before the late afternoon and the rush of boys arriving by car and special train.
Dad had meetings all day and could not help. Mum was also busy but offered, if we drove ourselves up, to come with us and take the car back, provided she could get home by mid-morning. So at a penitentially early hour we squeezed our trunks and ourselves into the car and set off, pursued by Dad’s good wishes. We reached MacNair’s at half past eight. There was nobody about. Andrew and I unloaded, Mum kissed us and wished us well, climbed into the driving seat, and was gone. We carried our trunks up to the dorms and our loose clobber to our studies. Andrew looked at his watch.
“I must be off. I said I’d be at Bull’s by nine.” I went out with him. “Tell Wally I’ll pop in later. Have a good day, Leon my soul. Settle yourself in. If you start off comfortably, it’ll be easier later. Be your natural self, and it’ll be a doddle. You’re going to be a hit. And remember. I’m right behind you. And I love you. And respect you.”
We should have gone back inside, but a glance round showed nobody in sight. We had never yet kissed at Yarborough, except in our bolt-hole at Steve’s. But now, at this defining moment, we did. Not just a peck, but a proper kiss and a hug. Andrew ran off. Strengthened, I squared my shoulders and headed for the private side to make my number with Wally, the first overture to my new reign.
I found him finishing his breakfast. With him was a smallish boy in school uniform that was too large for him, sitting very upright on his chair. A real heart-stopper, too, with curly fair hair and classic features, not at all unlike Andrew at that age. Wally welcomed me warmly and poured me a much-needed cup of coffee, and I relayed Andrew’s message and Mum’s apologies for not having time to look in. Wally then turned to the new boy.
“Nick, this is Leon Michaelson, the house captain. And captain of the school. It’s all right, he doesn’t bite. Far from it. And Leon, this is Nick Marjoram.”
Here was my first test. Spud would have fixed this infant with a steely eye, barked, and then ignored him. What would Andrew do? I held out my hand — Spud would certainly not have done that — and Nick, though doubtless as frightened as I had been at this stage, shook it with a surprisingly firm grip.
“Welcome to Yarborough, Nick,” I said. “I hope you like it here. It’ll take some getting used to, but if you have any problems, bring them to me. That’s what I’m here for.”
Oh dear. That was stilted and corny, wasn’t it? I tried again. “You’re the music scholar, aren’t you?”
He nodded. I had not set eyes on him before, but his name was enshrined in my notebook, and last term Wally had told me a bit about each of the new boys.
“What’s your speciality, Nick? Singing, or an instrument?”
“Singing, sir.” His voice was treble.
“Hey, not sir. Please. My name’s Leon. The only sirs here are Mr MacNair and the other masters.”
Wally smiled. “Nick will be in the Special Choir,” he explained, “and he’s due to meet Mr Brocklesby” — the director of music — “and the other new members after lunch. His parents couldn’t bring him over this morning, so he arrived last night … Look, Leon, one or two important things have cropped up over the holidays and I need a session with you before too long. I’m tied up until this afternoon, but could you drop in some time after three?”
“No problem, sir. I’m going to spend the morning looking around, checking on things, doing various odd jobs.”
“Fine. I’m afraid there’s no lunch here — I’ll still be out — but I think the buttery will be open. But Leon, as you look around, would you mind showing Nick around too? Otherwise he’d be by himself. And get him to the music school for two o’clock?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” I would much rather have been by myself, but I could not possibly say no. That was what I was here for.
“Good. Right then, Nick. I’ll leave you in Leon’s hands. See you both later.” He bustled off.
I turned to the new boy. “Where were you at school before, Nick?”
“St Cuthbert’s, in Durham.”
“Good. Then you’ve already got an idea of how boarding schools tick. But there’s no two ways about it, Nick. You’re going to find it utterly bewildering at first, learning your way round the house, the school, the timetable, the music, games, everything else. Every new boy does. But don’t worry. It’ll soon become second nature. I can’t hope to explain everything in one morning, but feel free to ask me anything you like. OK?
“Now, to put you in the picture, every new boy has his own tutor. That’s a boy a bit older than you, and it’s his job to help you find your feet, and make sure you’re at the right place at the right time. Your tutor is … ” I fished out my notebook and found the right page, “Bob Freshwater. He joined us two terms ago. He’s in the Special Choir too — that’s the choir that sings in Chapel. An alto, and a very good one. He’ll be arriving this evening, and he’ll search you out when he comes. Right?
“Then you’ll have your study mate. You’ll be sharing a study for your first year. With …” I flipped a page, “Emrys Cadwalader. He comes from Wales, you’ll be surprised to hear. Apparently he’s an ace at rugger, surprise again. And I see he’s in the same form as you. UpperVa(i). That’s handy.” Hmmm, they must both be bright, to be in that form so soon. Last year they would have been exempted from fagging. “I’m afraid I don’t know anything else about him. But both of you will be in the same boat. Both equally likely to get lost, and that’s much better than being lost by yourself, isn’t it? Are you scared?”
Nick looked me full in the face with wide and honest blue eyes. “Yes. I am.”
“Don’t worry. So was I. Scared out of my wits. I was lucky, though. I found myself sharing a study with … ”
I hesitated. How the heck did I describe Andrew? As a paragon? As my saviour?
“With a splendid boy,” I extemporised lamely, “who supported me no end. He made me much less scared.”
The taut and frightened youngster in front of me was visibly relaxing. “You said I could ask you anything?” he asked.
“Then is that the same boy you were with? Just now?”
That was a blow in the midriff. We had thought nobody had been there to see us. What had this stripling seen? What was behind his question?
He seemed to sense my caution. “I saw you out of the window,” he explained apologetically. Then he added guilelessly, “And he still supports you?”
I had to give a low-key answer. “Yes. He does. The whole time.”
“Are you still scared, then? You don’t sound it.”
This was an unbelievable conversation. Spud, had he been listening in, would have blown a gasket. An apparently innocent youngster was asking apparently innocent questions, but putting his finger on my secrets as unerringly as an expert psychologist. And somehow I did not think he was finding them by accident.
I remembered the colonel at Otterburn. The good leader does not claim perfection. He wins the hearts of his men by being seen to be human, weaknesses and all. And while I was scared of almost everything else, I was not scared of talking to this slip of a lad. My relationship to him was protective, almost paternal, or at least fraternal. I could not stand on my dignity with him. Anyway, I had precious little dignity to stand on.
“Yes, Nick. I am scared. I’m like you. I’m a new boy. A new boy at being captain of the school. And of the house. So I am scared. But less scared than I would be without Andrew.”
“The boy I was with just now. Andrew Goodhart. He’s captain of rugger. And captain of cricket. And my deputy in the house and the school.”
A dreamy look came into Nick’s eyes. “And you’re in love?”
That was a direct hit in the solar plexus, and again it showed.
“Shouldn’t I have asked that? I’m sorry. But I’m interested. I saw you kissing, and you did say to ask whatever I wanted.”
“That’s all right, Nick. I did. Yes, we’re in love. We have been for years. It’s no secret. Everybody knows. Even the headmaster and the staff. They don’t mind.”
“You don’t mean they allow … ?” He tailed off incredulously.
I was beginning to understand, or thought I was. “Nick. You’ve been asking me questions. May I ask you a few? Why are you interested? It’s OK, you can trust me. I won’t pass on anything you tell me, to anyone, not without your permission. And I’m not, um, a predator.”
He gazed back at me with his wide eyes, weighing me up. “Nobody else knows. But I’m sure I can trust you. You see, I’m a homo too. I wish I weren’t, but I am. I know I am. Even though my … even though I’m still so young. Is that strange?”
It was becoming more unbelievable still, that a new boy and the captain of the school should be talking in this vein within minutes of meeting. But my heart went out to him. For his candour, for his trust, for what we shared.
“Not in the least. I knew I was, too, when I was your age.”
“But I, um … my voice hasn’t even broken yet. Had yours?”
“No, it hadn’t. So there’s nothing strange there … Look, Nick, I’ve got to be blunt, simply because I want to help you. You’re a homo too, so of course you’re interested in this. But are you interested just in sex? Or in love?”
“Well, both. If I could get them both. But love comes first. You see, I’ve got these, um, ideals.” He paused, as if wondering whether I really understood. “Leon, have you ever read the Symposium?”
I gazed back at him with affection. “Nick, you’re a man after my own heart. Yes, I have. That was my bible too. Look, now I know where you stand, I’m going to preach you a sermon. Listen hard, because this is vitally important.
“First, no sex at Yarborough. Please. Love, yes — I’ll come on to that. But no sex. Virtually none goes on here. By yourself, yes, but not with other boys. Andrew and I have never had sex here. If you were caught, and you very likely would be, you’d be out on your ear. Expelled without ceremony. If I heard you were having sex, I’d have a dreadful choice to make. I hope to God I never have to make it. Should I send you to your doom, even though I sympathised? Or should I turn a blind eye and break the trust the school puts on me?”
I was leaning forward in my earnestness, both arms on the table, and he was indeed listening hard. “You see, Nick, this place runs on trust. More or less whatever we do, we do it on trust. The boys run the house. We hardly see Wally — ”
“Oh, sorry. Mr MacNair. That’s what we call him. Not to his face, of course. We only see him at lunch and evening prayers, and during Saturday prep he goes the rounds of everybody. That’s all. He trusts the pollies — that’s the praepostors, the prefects — to look after everything, and in our turn we trust the boys to be reasonably law-abiding.
“So when Andrew and I fell in love, we agreed we couldn’t have sex in term time. And we asked Steve Phillips for advice. He’s the chaplain, and a wonderful man too. No” — Nick had pulled a face — “he doesn’t push the religious line at all. He’s just a wonderful human being. Anyway, he advised us to keep our love under wraps. Not to hug or kiss or hold hands, not in public. We’ve stuck to that, religiously. Pun not intended. The one and only time we’ve ever been careless was just now. When you had to see us at it.
“Well, we told only one friend. But a few months later somebody snooped and found out about us. He exposed us. It went to the headmaster, of course, and he consulted the staff. And between them they decided they couldn’t punish us for loving. They trusted our word that we’d never had sex at school, and never would. And we’re still bound by that trust. Everybody knows our position, and nobody minds it. If it had been held against us, we wouldn’t be where we are now. It’s a liberal and tolerant place, is Yarborough. But there are limits to its tolerance. So please, Nick, no sex here.
“Now, love’s another matter.” I sat back for a quick think. “May I make a request? No, two? May I tell Andrew what you’ve told me? He’s safe as houses.”
Nick nodded firmly.
“And if you do find love, or think you’ve found it, would you let us know?”
“And if and when that happens, we’ll tell you how we handled it, and give what advice we can. We’ll recommend, I’m sure, that both of you talk to Steve Phillips. But that’s all in the future. For the time being, Nick, take it slowly. Don’t rush. Make sure first, on both sides. I fell head over heels for Andrew the moment I saw him, but it took over a year of patience before I, um, landed my catch.”
In saying all this, I was wearing two hats for the first time: as a fellow-queer drawing on my experience, and as house captain offering a helping hand to one of my flock. I found to my relieved surprise that neither role gave me any difficulty.
“So does that all make sense? And does it help?”
“Yes. Yes, it does. You see, I thought there’d be sex in every corner. That’s what I’d heard from boys in other schools. I know I’m, um, attractive, and I thought someone was bound to, er, well, want me. In a way I wouldn’t mind, but I was afraid it would hurt. And I wouldn’t like it if it was, um, furtive. I’d rather have proper love, and you make that sound much more, well, responsible. But Leon, may I ask something else? If you don’t have sex here, where … ?”
“Oh, at home. In the holidays. You see, Andrew’s parents took me into guardianship, and so we live together. No problem. The school’s ban only operates when we’re in the school’s care. But Andrew’s parents support us all the way.”
A look of envy, almost of disbelief, came into Nick’s eyes. “Blimey! I could never even think of telling mine. Daddy’s a canon at York, and very, um, puritanical.”
“Well, my real parents were like that, or worse. Let’s hope that if you find your soul-mate, his parents will be like Andrew’s. Look, Nick, if you’re happy so far, time’s getting on, and I’ve got things to do. Let’s go to the boys’ side and I’ll show you the geography.”
The house, fresh from the holidays, smelt of polish and cleaning fluid. Before long it would resume its usual undertones of mud and dust and sweaty boy. I gave Nick a conducted tour. All the way I was thinking to myself, this is now my kingdom. I’m not sure I really want it, but for better or worse it’s mine. I showed him the changing rooms, and his study, and his tish in the New Dorm where B-Jack and her gang were unpacking trunks. B‑Jack, I explained, was the hereditary nickname of the house matron — a distant predecessor of hers, so legend said, had earned it by habitually dishing out a noxious medicine called blackjack. B-Jack was also the housekeeper, a job which normally fell to housemasters’ wives; but Wally was a bachelor.
Finally I showed Nick the drying room in the bowels of the house. Old Bert the houseman-cum-handyman-cum-gardener, a friendly and obliging soul, was tinkering in the boiler room alongside. An idea struck me, and I poked my nose in for a chat. Wasn’t he always on duty first thing in the morning, dealing with the boilers? Yes, he was, regular as clockwork. Please, would it be possible for him to ring the waking bell at half past seven and then at five minute intervals until breakfast? No problem at all, Mr Michaelson, he’d do it with pleasure. So that spelt the end of dorm fagging. How easy.
I sat Nick down in my study while I set up my new typewriter and typed some notices. That done, I took my boater off the hook and put it on. It is a ludicrous form of headgear, and Nick smiled.
“Badge of office,” I explained. “Worn by school pollies. Let’s look round the school.”
On the way out I pinned up some of my notices on the house board, and at the archway we bumped into Julian and Hez unloading luggage from a car. It was good to see them again, and we shook hands. I introduced Nick and was glad to see that they shook hands with him too.
“Why aren’t they wearing school uniform?” Nick asked as we went on our way.
“Because boys in their third year and above have the privilege of coming to and from school in ordinary clothes, if they want to.”
“Why aren’t you wearing them, then?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I do, if I come by train. One feels such a twit wearing this rig-out in public. But I came by car. No point in disguising myself. And I’d only have to change into uniform before this evening.”
But why, I asked myself, shouldn’t younger boys be allowed the same choice? What a petty discrimination. Another item for the Crusade agenda. I took out my notebook and added it to the list.
We were crossing the quad in front of School House when the HM emerged, clutching a bundle of papers. He hailed me, and as we veered towards him I took off my hat.
“Michaelson! A fortunate encounter. And, ah,” he turned his attention to Nick, “yes, Marjoram. You’ve arrived early to see Mr Brocklesby, I take it?”
“It is good to have you here, Marjoram. Now, Michaelson, I would like a word with you before the afternoon is out. About lessons in chapel. But not now — I have to confer with the bursar. Could you come to my study at, ah, three o’clock, for five minutes?”
“Yes, sir.” I swallowed hard. “But there’s a lot I’d like to talk to you about quite urgently, if I may, which would take much longer than that.”
“How much longer?”
“A good hour, sir, I should think.”
His eyebrows rose. “About what, may I ask?”
This was his first notice of the manifesto I was committed to launch, and I steeled myself. “Some thoughts, sir, about possible changes in the way the school is run.”
It sounded a trifle presumptuous, no doubt, and he stared at me, his eyebrows still up. But I thought I saw interest, appreciation, and even amusement in his face.
“Yes. That might well take a good hour. Come to dinner tomorrow, then, Michaelson.” He looked back at his front door, as if confirming the date with his wife by telepathy. “Yes, at half past six. That will allow proper time for discussion.”
He strode off towards the Bursary, and before I replaced my hat I let out my breath and wiped my forehead. That first step had not been too bad after all, but the crunch would come tomorrow.
Nick was looking at me curiously. I felt he already understood something of what was going on, but all he said was, “He’s only seen me once, when I was here for the scholarship exam. But he remembered my name!”
“He’s famous for his memory,“ I replied, but abstractedly, for another bell was ringing in my head.
The scholarship exams were in May, and candidates came to Yarborough for three days to take them. But for some reason they were segregated, staying in the private side of their houses and meeting only masters, not boys. They were given no chance of sitting in on classes, of witnessing ordinary day-to-day life in a house, of eating in hall. In my case, once I had got my scholarship, my forebodings and my ignorance of what to expect had preyed on my mind for the best part of a year, and my fears of the worst had driven me to the brink of suicide. It was only when I arrived as a new boy that I found they were baseless. I could so easily have been spared those months of anguish.
“Nick. When you were here for the scholarship, if you’d seen how we lived in the house, what the music was like, that sort of thing, would you have been less scared today?”
“Oh yes. I would. It was just that I didn’t really know what I was coming to.”
“Same here.” Out came the notebook again. Nick gave a faint smile. I suspected he would be quizzing Bob Freshwater about me. And what would Bob be telling him?
We progressed around the school. Here too I felt a proprietorial glow. It was all mine, for the year. There was no time to point out houses other than School House, or shops, or the games fields, but I showed him the colonnade, which was the hub of the school and where I pinned up more notices on the board. The HM had already posted one, I saw, listing the new school pollies. Then I showed Nick the classroom block, the science block, Hall, Chapel (where he took a professional interest in the organ and the choir stalls), and we ended at the library.
There we found Steve, who greeted me like a long-lost son and enquired after Andrew and Mum and Dad, while Nick stayed discreetly by the door.
“And what about you, Leon? Are you in fine fettle for the fray?”
“Moderately, sir. But still quaking at the knees, now that the day of reckoning is at hand.”
Steve smiled. “I can well understand that. It’s inevitable in a sensitive soul. But it’s a good thing to tackle what you’re afraid of. It may be some time, though, before you discover your fears are baseless. Possibly that’s a good thing too. Anyway, I’m off for lunch. Can I tempt you to my humble table? Alice is out and it’ll only be bread and cheese and suchlike.”
“Well, I was going to take Nick to the buttery.”
“Nick? Oh,” said Steve, noticing him. “He’s with you, then?”
I called Nick over and introduced them. Steve invited him too, and took us to his house by way of the garden gate.
“It’s still yours,” he said under his breath as we passed our bolt-hole.
“Thank you, sir. But I’m not sure where we’re going to find time to use it!”
Over lunch, talk flowed freely, ranging over the choir, and music, and York, and Oxford. Nothing, of course, about Nick’s nature, or mine, or the hazards of my new job. But I could see Nick sizing Steve up in the light of what I had told him, and I could see him being impressed. Shortly before two I took him down to the music school where we found Mr Brocklesby assembling the new members of the choir.
“I’ll leave you here, then, Nick. Can you find your own way back to the house?”
“Yes. Thank you, Leon. Very much. It’s … civilised here. I’m going to like it. I’m much more confident now. A million times more than I was at breakfast.” He looked it, too.
“Good. OK, see you later.”
Outside the door of the music school I paused in thought. I was grateful to Nick for unwittingly easing me into my new role. He was a remarkable character with great promise. He had expected to be seduced within a week, and was relieved to hear that he would not be. He was honest. And he was trusting — not over-trusting, I hoped, and not over-hasty, for it was all too easy to come to grief. Already there was a bond between us: no threat to my bond with Andrew, but a fellow-feeling.
But without the breeze of Nick’s or of Andrew’s presence to keep it at bay, the fog of my self-doubt was descending again. I had to dispel it, but how? As I looked up at the buildings on the crest of the hill above me, the mullioned Tudor domesticity of Old School House rubbing shoulders with the neo-gothic Victorian solidity of Chapel, an idea swam into my mind. My problems lay not only in myself but in the present school. Yarborough had four centuries of history behind it. Might it put my own uncertainties into perspective if I communed with the certainties of the past?
There was an hour before I was due at the HM’s, and I ambled off on a pilgrimage, poking my nose in here and in there. Imposing grey limestone ranges of classrooms and labs and Hall proclaimed the great expansion of the last hundred years. Beside them survived the sleepy rural school of the previous three centuries, its modest buildings mellow in the orange of the native sandstone.
As I wandered my way, boys spoke to me across the years. Names scratched in the soft stone of ancient walls. Steps worn hollow by generations of feet. Spartan and long-disused studies, redolent of construing Greek by candlelight on frosty evenings, built before America even had a constitution. The library annexe converted out of the one-time dining hall and dormitories which were new when Beethoven’s Choral Symphony was new. The old headmaster’s house where stern discipline had long ago been meted out. According to legend, for instance, notice was once posted of an intended cricket match between Those who have been thrashed by Mr Thrale and Those who have not. ‘Ha!’ snorted old Thrale as he read it, ‘if that goes ahead, they’ll all be on the same side!’
Ah well, that sort of thing had been run-of-the-mill, then. The world had moved on. But it had not moved on in every respect. I lingered in the shrines to the dead of two world wars, with their heart-stopping acres of names. The First War, with the help of idiot generals, had killed 450 old boys. The school’s annual intake, at that time, was little more than a hundred. The equivalent of four whole years had been wiped out. Never again, please God.
My tour ended under the venerable elms of the churchyard, at the little schoolroom that bore the date of 1584, four years before the Spanish Armada sailed. This had once been all there was. The school, then, had comprised perhaps two dozen boys. Compare the present Hall which, at a pinch, could seat a thousand. What would the old archdeacon who had founded the place make of it now? What would he make of Leon Michaelson, its current leader? I sat down on a box-tomb and pondered.
The past left not only visible signs. It had also bequeathed traditions which, over the generations, had solidified to trap us like flies in amber. For a century Yarborough had professed to be a liberal school. It had indeed been liberal for its day, very liberal. It still was, more so than most of its kind. That was good. But for our own sakes, and to maintain that lead, it had to be updated. At Founder’s Day last term, without saying why, I had asked a number of old boys about life in their time. In forty years, it transpired, little had changed.
Tradition has a massive inertia. The task of attempting to budge it had fallen to me, to poor contradictory Leon, who wanted it budged but who feared the attempt. Out of all the hundreds, the thousands, of possible people, why Leon? Diffident and unenterprising. An armchair theorist at best, not a banner-waving revolutionary. By principle reformist, but conformist by temperament. With a conscience, yes, but with the feeblest of motors to drive it. There are strange conflicts deep inside that funny young head. How to reconcile them? Where do they stem from? What is the spring that makes Leon tick? Leon? Who is Leon?
Kipling has a wonderful passage in which Kim, his schooling done, is at Lucknow railway station en route to independent life. He finds himself, self-mesmerised into a trance, puzzling over his personal identity, speculating about who he is.
‘Who is Kim — Kim — Kim?’
He squatted in a corner of the clanging waiting-room, rapt from all other thoughts; hands folded in lap, and pupils contracted to pin-points. In a minute — in another half-second — he felt he would arrive at the solution of the tremendous puzzle; but here, as always happens, his mind dropped away from those heights with the rush of a wounded bird, and passing his hand before his eyes, he shook his head.
So it was with me, exactly so: in a brown study, gazing unseeingly across the valley, wondering what manner of thing my contorted soul might be. The answer, of course, eluded me.
Heaving a big sigh, I gave up the search and came back to earth. I became aware that I was being watched, by two clergymen. I recognised them both: the rector of Yarborough and little old Mr Venables, the vicar of Alvingham nearby. I stood up.
“We are sorry to interrupt your thoughts, my boy,” said the vicar. “I am not mistaken, am I? You are Leon Michaelson?”
“That’s right, sir. We met at Alvingham some years ago.” On that memorable day when our love had been exposed, though he would not know about that.
“Indeed we did. Er, are you acquainted with the rector?”
“Only by sight, sir. We’ve never met.” Having our own chapel and chaplain, the boys had little reason to go to the church and rarely crossed the rector’s path. We shook hands.
“But how did you know my name, sir?” I asked Mr Venables. I was fairly sure I had not told it to him when last we met.
He chuckled. “We have few young visitors at Alvingham so scholarly as you, and I confess I was curious enough to ask Mr MacNair about you.” I had forgotten, till he mentioned it, that he was a friend of Wally’s. “I understand that you are now captain of the school?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“We stopped because — forgive us if we are being intrusive — we were concerned for you. You appeared to be in some perplexity of spirit, and we wondered if we could be of assistance.”
With them, as with Nick, I found I had to be honest. They might even be able to help.
“Well, thank you. Yes, I am perplexed. Er, would you like to sit down?” The frail old vicar looked as if he ought not to be standing up. I waved a hospitable hand at my tomb, and we all perched ourselves on it.
“You see, sir, I want to push through changes. My conscience tells me they’re needed, but I’m doubting my ability.”
“But Mr MacNair tells me that you have already followed your conscience and initiated laudable changes in his house, with singular success.”
“Well, yes, sir. But the changes I want aren’t just in the house. They’re in school as well.”
“And in school you fear that your conscience is not shared?”
“Yes, sir, that’s exactly it.”
The rector spoke for the first time. “As my illustrious predecessor Jeremy Taylor put it, ‘Conscience in most men is but the anticipation of the opinion of others.’ You may well find that you are sowing on fertile ground. The headmaster is no enemy of progress. What is it that your conscience is dictating?”
“Well, my ambition is to create a more just and equal society. Primarily by abolishing fagging. And the people who have a vested interest in fagging are the senior boys. That’s where opposition is likely to come from.”
“Your cause is noble, then,” Mr Venables assured me. “I shall never forget the horrors of my fagging days.”
I tried to visualise him as a fag, and failed.
“Do you recollect that inscription of 1682 upon a stone in my churchyard?” he went on.
“Here lies John Beaver, that honest man,
Which stood up for the Common of Alvingham.
“We debated, you may recall, whether it referred to common land or the common people. Perhaps it hardly matters. But the moral, my dear boy, is this. Have the courage of your convictions, and one day — may it be many decades hence — your epitaph shall read, if less euphoniously,
“Here lies Leon Michaelson, that honest man,
Which stood up for the Common of Yarborough.”
Hmmm. Not a bad memorial, if only I had the courage to justify it. Standing up for a cause, though, did not guarantee success. I thought of Leonidas, the Spartan king after whom I was named, and of his hand-picked band of three hundred warriors. Sent on a do-or-die mission to stand up for the freedom of Greece, he had led them to the pass of Thermopylae. There they had gloriously tried to stem a myriad host of invading Persians and, in glorious failure, had perished to a man. Their epitaph read,
Go, tell the men of Sparta, passer-by,
That here, obedient to their word, we lie.