The Scholar’s Tale

Part 2: The abler soul

9. Without being too serious

All the world’s a stage, and a game. Either learn to play without being too serious, or else put up with the anguish.

Palladas, in Greek Anthology

Captaining the rugger XV and working for his Cambridge exams kept Andrew very busy indeed. Routine and the Crusade kept me very busy too. Knowing that our lives would be full, we had carefully steered clear of drama for this term, and were merely in the audience for the boys’ As You Like It and the school-cum-town production of The Pirates of Penzance. Andrew thought I should have taken more time off.

“You know what the Pirates’ subtitle is?” he asked meaningly. “The Slave of Duty.”

“Do I hear a pot,” I replied, “calling the kettle black?”

But I did not give up the choir. I enjoyed it too much, despite the time that practice took. Musical life at Yarborough was vibrant and of high quality, and young Nick Marjoram was already making his mark on it. He had settled in well and was proving a cheerful scamp, though not an irresponsible one. He and the quiet Bob Freshwater had become great buddies and were constantly seen around together. Nick’s treble was remarkable. Bob’s voice had settled down into an very competent tenor, verging on a baritone, and he was back in the Special Choir. This choir, as such, sang only in Chapel, but it formed the core of the much larger Concert Choir in which I sang bass.

Every term saw at least two orchestral concerts and one choral one, staged in Hall. The choral one, this time, was held on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November. The first half was Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia, in which the treble soloist’s role is relatively minor. But the second half was Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, which is scored for treble and tenor only — Nick and Bob — plus chorus and orchestra. If I had not had to sing, Handel’s music in conjunction with Dryden’s words would have had me in tears.

That night in the dorm, though their tishes were too far apart for us to talk as a threesome, I complimented Nick and Bob on their performance. Both were modest about it, but both were obviously on a high. It was the first time that either had performed solo in anything like this, and a singer knows when he has sung well.


Early in December Andrew disappeared to Cambridge for his exams. My thoughts and hopes went with him. If he got a place at King’s without a scholarship, no great problem. If he did not get a place at all … we had no strategy for that. For once he admitted his fears, and I did my best to encourage him, as he encouraged me.

“God, Leon, I’ve got cold feet.”

“Of course you have. Follow your own advice and ignore them. Just like you do before a rugger match which you go on to win. You can do it. You will do it. And I’ll be thinking of you all the time.”

Not quite all the time, I am sorry to say. Next day was the prefects’ ball, and my own fears were on the rampage and took precedence. In the evening, in the privacy of the dorm, I changed into my hired finery. I had never worn a dinner jacket before. Nor, I suddenly realised, had I ever tied a bow tie. Help was needed. Mum was staying with Wally, which was handy. I scuttled round to the private side by a short cut and found her ready. Do not ask me to describe her dress. I hardly took it in. All I knew was that she looked out of this world, and I said so.

“Thank you, Leon. That’s very sweet of you. Right now, this tie … ” She fiddled deftly. “There you go.”

She stood back and looked me up and down.

“You’re a stunner! But you’ll never believe that, will you?”

I smiled wryly. “No. Even though you say so.”

“How are the butterflies?”

“Flapping frantically. I’m as terrified as on my first day as a new boy.”

“Oh no, you’re not. You were terrified then. Your life hung on what you found, didn’t it? It doesn’t tonight. Not by a long shot. You’re only anxious now.”

I was being ungenerous. “Yes, that’s true. I’ve got you to hold my hand tonight, and I’ve known it for months. Then, I didn’t know I was going to find Andrew. I didn’t know he was going to hold my hand. What is it the Goodharts do to me?”

“Nothing complicated. We just love you.”

I kissed her carefully, to avoid disturbing her make-up.

It was time to go. I had arranged to meet the others in the archway. We went down, and there they were, Buv and Good, Hez and Julian, each with his partner. That cleaned all the pollies out of the house, and I had left Colin Hitchcock in charge, who was at the top of our list for promotion. I introduced Mum to the others as Helen.

“Right, shall we go?”

Blow me. Outside was a crowd of boys lying in wait. Half the house, it seemed. The moment we appeared they started clapping. We were a fine sight, I must admit. But I got the feeling they were applauding more than that. And was there a touch of envy there too? Fair enough. Why should the pollies get all the plums?

“Would you like your own dances laid on too?” I called to them. The butterflies had calmed down a little now.

“You bet!” came the reply.

“No promises, but I’ll see what I can do.”

It was little more than a hundred yards to the gym. The stark functionality of its ropes and bars had been transformed with decorations, the band was at one end, drinks and food in front, tables and chairs down the sides. Kenneth Farmer, twittering like an amiable magician, greeted us as master of ceremonies. Before long the HM turned up with Mrs Vaughan, and Kenneth guided him to the mike into which he spoke a few words of welcome. I think he stayed for a couple of dances before tactfully disappearing.

Kenneth took over the mike. “The first dance, ladies and gentlemen, will be led by Leon and Helen. It was Leon, after all, who made tonight possible.”

Christ almighty! That was very generous of him, but unwittingly cruel. The butterflies became manic. This was where the captain of the school was going to make a total ass of himself. I turned to Mum in sheer panic. But she pressed my hand and the Goodhart enchantment came into play. And the band struck up the Blue Danube. Ah, a waltz! I knew it was a waltz. I could have a reasonable stab at that. Out we sailed, and it was mercifully only a few bars before Kenneth waved the others in and we were lost in the crowd.

I remember few details of that evening. I remember Mum telling me when I ought to dance with someone else. I remember, when I was flagging, catching a glimpse of her tucking something away in her little bag and the rest of my orange juice tasting very distinctly of gin. I remember her being my salvation, just as her son was my salvation. I remember walking her home when proceedings ended at the decorous hour of midnight. I remember, once we were back in her room, burying my face in her shoulder and sobbing with gratitude and relief. Not for the first time, or the last.

I cannot say I had enjoyed the evening. But I almost had, and I had not after all made a total ass of myself. Next morning I said goodbye to her in the privacy of Wally’s sitting room. We would see each other again in a fortnight, but we might have been parting for years.

Then I sought out Kenneth to thank him, and found him over the moon about how the ball had gone. When I sounded him out over others for the younger boys he was enthusiastic. Yes. Two more should cover it, one for the in-betweens in March, one for the juniors in July. There would not be so many takers because fewer had girlfriends, and fewer could afford it. Yes, he had enjoyed himself so much that he would happily organise them too. With last night’s experience under his belt, it would be less than half the work. The HM, having had good reports, proved amenable. And so a new tradition began. I believe it continues to this day.

And that evening Andrew returned. He had not done too badly, he thought, and was agog to hear about the ball. We paid one of our rare visits to Steve’s bolt-hole to catch up in privacy.


Thinking of Steve, our relationship was becoming ever less that of teacher and pupil, ever more that of friend and colleague. His support was invaluable. One day, for example, we were working together on Cicero’s clausulae: his penchant for ending sentences with a resolved cretic and trochee such as esse videatur, his preference for a sonorous quadrisyllable such as comprobuit over two disyllables such as ipse dixit. It left me as bored as it will the reader of these lines. I had an innate dislike of Cicero’s historical character, his content, and his style, and I sighed.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Steve confessed. “It’s artificial and arid, isn’t it? Like Cicero himself, the pompous and opinionated old ass. Let’s drop it. What would you like to talk about instead?“

The Crusade was, as usual, in the forefront of my mind, and I brought him up to date with it and with my anxieties. At that early stage things were still in a state of deep uncertainty.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “On any count. You were afraid the lure of the cosy scholarly nest might seduce you from your Crusade, weren’t you? It turns out there’s been no risk of that, for you are constant as the Northern Star.”

“But it’s such uphill work persuading the people who matter that there’s a need for change.”

“Don’t worry about that. To anyone who thinks, the need’s self-evident — where there is no vision, the people perish.”

“But it’s taking so long for it to become self-evident.”

“Don’t worry about that either. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

“But there’s precious little to show so far.”

“Oh no. There’s plenty. Isn’t a third of the school behind you already? Times are changing, and we’re changing with them. I seem to be encouraging you with quotations, don’t I?”

Yes, he was. All nice and erudite and up my street; and all comforting.

Nor was my academic work only with Steve. As I had promised myself, I had signed up for three broadening subjects. In English, where Brute Armstrong proved inspirational, we read a wide range of authors and wrote prose or poetry in their various styles. I began to get the hang of German. And in science I made no progress at all.

The master here was another pompous ass, saddled with the unfortunate name of Proops and commonly known as Poops. He was supposed to cover, in terms comprehensible to the non-scientist, the hot topics of the day — nuclear power, space travel, genetic biology, all then novelties — which should have been hugely interesting. But though a highly competent scientist (or so I was told), he was a lousy teacher. He illustrated his discourses with pictures from books projected through a massive and ancient epidiascope. Next to the epidiascope sat an irrepressibly mischievous boy named Bill.

Once old Poops had safely got the right picture on the screen, and then the right way up, he would stand facing us at the front and hold forth about it. Bill, in the murk of the darkened room, would gently slide a slip of paper in on top of the book, and on to the screen would creep a little sketch of — usually — an elephant seen from plumb astern. Occasionally it was of something rather more risqué. The class would titter. By the time Poops had turned to the screen to see the cause of the mirth, there was nothing there but an innocent picture of a Sputnik or whatever. Poor man. He never cottoned on.


I knew, I thought, when to turn a blind eye. There was a pub on the corner of High Street and School Lane called the White Hart. I was passing it one damp mid-December day when I saw Nick and Bob loitering surreptitiously nearby. They were doing nothing obviously wrong. They could hardly be contemplating nipping in for a quick one, not in uniform, not at their age. Odd, but I had no reason to question them.

After breakfast next morning old Bert the houseman had a word with me. Somebody had been into his shed in the garden, which was never locked. Nothing was missing, but his ladders had been moved. Did I know anything about it? No, sorry, I didn’t.

Then on the way in to Assembly someone grabbed my arm, grinning.

“Leon! Have you seen the White Hart?”

No, I hadn’t, not today.

“Then go and have a look!”

I had no time until break when, despite the drizzle, I found quite a crowd of boys assembled outside it, looking up and laughing.

The pub’s hanging sign was a rather boring one: a picture of a stag with the words WHITE HART, all in white on a black background. Except that today the H of HART had been replaced with an F, and a white cloud was issuing from the stag’s rear end. Looking carefully, I saw that they were only stuck on. Probably paper. The sign was a good ten feet above the ground. A ladder would have been needed. Then I spotted Nick and Bob giggling on the fringe of the crowd, and the penny dropped. Lord knows how they had done it without being noticed, or when. I went over.

“I hope you used paste, not glue,” I said quietly.

A wave of guilt crossed their faces. And a wave of terror as they looked past me.

“Ah! Michaelson!” said the HM’s voice behind my back. I turned round and took off my hat. “Mr Love is a little worried about this, ah, amendment to his sign, and is wondering if we know anything about it.”

He was standing at the pub door, and beside him was the fretful publican.

“I’ve only just seen it, sir. But it looks to me as if the rain will soon have it off. Or if Mr Love has something long enough, he might speed things up.”

The publican promptly disappeared inside.

“I am reminded,” said the HM, looking up at the sign with a faintly wistful eye, “of my Cambridge days. You are a native of Cambridge, Michaelson, are you not? Do you know that pub down towards Ely, on the river beyond Upware?”

“You mean the Fish and Duck, sir?”

“Yes, that is the one. Its sign was equally, ah, tempting.”

I was still trying to frame a suitable reply when Mr Love came out with a long garden cane and scraped at the stag’s rear end. We watched as the fart peeled neatly off and fluttered down to his feet. The HM seemed disappointed.

We used paint,” he said.

All the boys had scattered, but I saw Nick and Bob peering cautiously out of the school gate at the end of the lane. After lessons, as I held court in the colonnade, they seemed to be shadowing me. When I got back to the house and told Andrew about it, he nearly wet himself with laughing. Then there was a knock on the study door. Bob and Nick again, very nervous, but possibly encouraged by the laughter.

“Please, Leon. You haven’t shopped us, have you?”

I fixed them with a steely eye. “There are pranks and pranks. This was definitely one of the second sort.”

That confused them, as intended. Andrew glanced at me and I nodded.

“Many years ago,” he said, gazing dreamily at the ceiling, “there were two boys of about your age. They had a whoopee cushion. It made a splendid noise, but of course no smell. Until one day they filled it with genuine fart. And put it on the master’s chair in a classroom. Unfortunately the master who sat on it wasn’t the intended victim …” He tailed off.

“Well, who did sit on it?”

“The HM.”

Gosh! And were they caught?”

“No. Not even pursued.”

Comprehension and delight were spreading over their faces. “How did you get the fart into the cushion?” demanded Bob. He was the technical brains, I suspected, while Nick, the scallywag, was the master-mind.

“How did we get it in? Who said anything about us? Anyway, you don’t expect us to reveal trade secrets, do you?”

They were grinning broadly now. “Well, OK. Then how did you know it was us who did the White Hart?” This was addressed to me.

“Advice to criminals. Don’t be seen while you’re casing the joint. And if you borrow equipment, put it back exactly as you found it. But a question to you. How did you do it without being seen? And when?”

“You don’t expect us to reveal trade secrets, do you?”

Cheek. But I laughed, and they went away in high content. Andrew was smiling his impish grin as he clapped my shoulder.

“MacNair’s has come a long way since Spud’s day, Leon my soul.”


The end of term approached. Three pollies were due to leave at Easter, and in anticipation we now negotiated with Wally for two new ones, which for the time being would bring our number up to eight. One was Colin Hitchcock, whom we wanted to groom to be house captain next year; he was the boy whom, many years ago, I had rescued from a bully. The other was Duncan Finlay, a soft-voiced Scot.

But with only two days of term left, disaster struck. In the matter of games, Yarborough had the admirable policy of allowing boys a choice. Whereas most schools at the time, I believe, insisted on all boys taking part in all the major sports the whole way through their careers, Yarborough recognised that you had strengths and preferences. After two years you could opt out of some games and concentrate on those you were better at, or enjoyed more.

So with me. I was a rabbit at almost everything. Though I quite enjoyed cricket, I was useless at it, and I hated hockey and rugger and running. Though I had just about learnt to swim, water is emphatically not my element. The only game I was any good at, unless you count shooting and darts, was fives. Not good enough to make the house team, let alone a school one, but I did positively enjoy it. Most of my exercise, then, I took in the fives court, in company with like-minded friends.

I was playing that day with Buv and Good and Julian in one of the courts behind the swimming baths. Fives courts, though roofed, are open-backed, and the floor was wet with wind-driven rain.

“Is this too slippery?” I wondered, sliding my gym shoe tentatively along the smooth cement.

“That remains to be seen,” replied Buv, “as the monkey said as he crapped behind the piano. Let’s get on with it.”

So we did. We reached the first game ball. Julian served, one foot below the step. I was cutting, and returned it. Because it was game ball the blackguard line rule did not apply, and my return whizzed past his ear, straight to the front wall. A very good shot, though I say so myself, for the ball dropped back clean into the dead man’s hole where it killed itself instantly. But as Julian tried frantically to twist round to deal with it, his feet went from under him and he fell sideways, cracking his head hard on the angle of the pepperpot.

He twitched and lay motionless. Christ! Concussion, maybe worse. There was nobody else around. Luckily the San was next door and Good ran there hotfoot for help. Buv and I covered Julian with our sweaters and cushioned one under his head, which was bleeding profusely from a deep cut. Presently Good returned with an armful of blankets, a first aid kit, and the Battleaxe.

“Yes,” she said, bending over him. “Concussion. Possibly a fractured skull. I’ve phoned for an ambulance and the doctor. We must keep him warm, and not move him more than we have to.” She gently supported his head while we eased blankets between him and the cold floor. The doctor turned up but could do nothing more. I sent Buv back to MacNair’s to tell Wally, who also came. We all waited miserably until the ambulance arrived and carted Julian off to Binchester.

Andrew, returning from rugger, found me in agony of mind, cursing myself for allowing us to play on a wet floor.

“Don’t blame yourself, ocelle. These things happen. In rugger, quite often. Even in cricket — remember when I got brained by a bumper?” That had been a couple of years before, and had taken him to Binchester too.

That evening, Wally brought us up to date. The X-ray showed a slight fracture of the skull, and Julian was still unconscious. His parents were coming up to be with him. That raised another problem. Hez went home to Kenya only in the summer holidays, and habitually spent Easter and Christmas with Julian, for they had been close friends ever since sharing a study as new boys. Rapid consultation with Hez and, on Wally’s phone, with Mum and Dad and the Grindlings resolved that problem. Hez would stay with us instead.

Christmas was happier than we expected and, in my eyes, than I deserved. We were hardly back in Park Town before news arrived that Julian had recovered consciousness, and two days before Christmas the three of us drove up to Binchester to visit him. We found him chirpy. The prognosis was good, though they would be keeping him in hospital for most of the holidays. And he was not in the least inclined to blame me.

“It’s just one of those things, Leon. Nobody’s fault. Except mine for forgetting about the floor.”

Though I still blamed myself, that was a huge relief.

Hez got on famously with Mum and Dad. No surprise, considering that all three were such gentle and kindly people. During the war, Dad had served for a time in East Africa where he had picked up a bit of Swahili, and you sometimes heard him trying to converse in it. Hez, moreover, had already got his place at Oxford and would be coming here next year, and was glad of the chance to get to know the town.

On top of all that, Andrew’s result came through from Cambridge. Better than we had dared hope — not quite a scholarship, but an exhibition at King’s. We breathed another monstrous sigh of relief and got on with Christmas. The term had knackered us both, and we felt we deserved a break.