For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be …
Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
Alfred Tennyson, Locksley Hall
A day or two later Hez caught me alone. “Leon, I’ve had a letter from my father. He says you phoned him immediately after the fire to tell him I was all right. Why did you do that?”
“I phoned all the parents.”
“But why him? All that way away?”
“What difference does distance make? He’s a parent too. I couldn’t possibly miss him out. And now that I know about, er, your own fire, I’m extra glad I did ring him.”
“Thank you, Leon. He was very touched. So am I. Do you know why I came to Yarborough?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You’ll find this odd. Where shall I start? Oscar Wilde described English rule in Ireland as ‘stupidity aggravated by good intentions.’ It’s much the same in Kenya. The English who rule it mean very well, but so many of them don’t understand the people they rule. They see themselves as superior. They’re colonialists. Caricatures, some of them. Paternalistic. Stiff upper lip. Old school tie. The speaker of the Legislative Council is the Honourable Sir Ferdinand Cavendish-Bentinck. That says it all.
“If I’d stayed in Kenya the obvious place for me to go was the Alliance High School in Kikuyu. It’s the best school for Africans there is, but Baba was dubious about sending me there. Because it’s run by the English.”
“Then why a school in England, for heaven’s sake? And why Yarborough? Typically English, run by Englishmen, old school tie and everything.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Baba’s a member of the Council. An MP, in effect. Almost all the ministers are English, of course, and very few of them understand us, or even respect us. But one in particular did. George Cornish, who was Minister for African Affairs five years ago. And Baba deeply respected him. Independence was already on the horizon then, and Baba wanted me to help run the country when the time came. So he consulted Mr Cornish about the best place to educate me.
“He surprised Baba. He didn’t suggest Alliance High School or anywhere else in East Africa. He suggested a public school in England. Not any old public school, where at best I’d learn how not to rule. He was right about that. I’ve talked to boys from Eton and Rugby and Winchester and suchlike, and I’m mightily glad I didn’t go to any of those. No, he suggested Yarborough, because it wasn’t typical, because it was about the least paternalistic school there was. He was here himself.
“And there was another reason. You know that our house was burned by the Mau Mau. When Baba came back he took me into hiding, for fear that they would hunt us down as well. The Mau Mau were nearly suppressed by then, but they cast a long shadow, and Baba wanted me out of the country. So he followed Mr Cornish’s advice and sent me here.
“It does seem to be true, you know. Yarborough isn’t typical. It wasn’t typical when I came, and it’s even less typical now. Of course it’s had its ups and downs. Spud taught me how not to rule. But I’ve also learnt how to rule. And most of that, Leon, I’ve learnt from you. When I first came here, you’d never met a black boy before, had you? You didn’t understand my culture. Why should you? But you respected it. You respected me. And from the moment you set eyes on me, sweating with fear under my brand-new collar, you helped me in every way you could.
“And look at me now, with a white hat. An African with responsibility for white boys. The reverse of anything I’ve ever come across before. In a school which respects people. Which listens to what they think. Which rules them with sensitivity. With integrity. That’s the lesson I’m taking back to Kenya next month, to apply there. To teach there. I’ll probably go into teaching. Your Lord Brougham said something very wise. ‘Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave’.”
“But Hez. You’ve got Oxford first.”
“No. My place is in Kenya. We have a saying, msahau mila ni mtumwa — forget your culture and you become a slave. I don’t want to risk that. I’ve decided to drop Oxford. Independence is just round the corner now, and I’m going straight home to help Baba. Armed with your philosophy, Leon. It’s exactly what Kenya will need.”
“Not my philosophy, Hez. Yarborough’s.”
“Partly. But yours above all.”
Founder’s Day came, when Old Yarburians descended in droves to slap each other on the back and see if the dear old place was going to the dogs. This year the guest of honour was not an O.Y. as such, but a former headmaster.
Sir John Wolfenden was now vice-chancellor of Reading University and, more interestingly, had been chairman of the committee whose landmark report, four years earlier, had recommended decriminalising male sex between consenting adults in private. The HM invited Andrew and me to breakfast. He warned us against the obvious topic of conversation, unless Sir John should raise it himself.
The breakfast itself proved an eye-opener — kidneys and kedgeree rather than our usual fare of over-boiled eggs or soggy kippers — and Sir John proved an interesting if donnishly philosophical man. The topic was not raised. Later that morning, however, it was. The centrepiece of Founder’s Day was a service in Chapel, and the centrepiece of the service was an address — not a sermon — delivered from the pulpit by the guest of honour.
Only a couple of days previously, a private member’s bill to reform the law had been debated in the Commons. It was one of a succession prompted by the Wolfenden Report and, like its predecessors, it had been easily defeated. Andrew and I had read in the Times report the predictable posturings of the Tory die-hards — ‘the homosexual is a dirty-minded danger to the virile manhood of this country,’ for instance, and ‘a couple of hairy old males sitting on each other’s knees and liking it.’ Two dirty-minded dangers, two hairy old males, had looked at each other and hooted with laughter.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that Sir John should raise the subject in his address. His message was two-edged. On the one hand, he admitted, he had a personal distaste for homosexuality. It was with sorrow that he had learned that his own son was queer. Like the rest of his committee, he saw homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals.
On the other hand, he firmly believed that private morality or immorality was not the business of the law. This view was endorsed by the church in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, and by a number of influential names. It was supported by newly-formed pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society. In the foreseeable future, Sir John predicted, this view would come to prevail in parliament. Like it or not, times were changing.
Six months ago, he pointed out, when the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was in the dock on obscenity charges, the jury had not hesitated to acquit. What had effectively decided that case was prosecuting counsel’s words to the jury,
Ask yourselves the question: would you approve of your young sons, young daughters — because girls can read as well as boys — reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around the house? Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?
These days, so insufferably patronising a line cut no ice at all. The line which would prevail was the jury’s line: responsible freedom of choice in what one read, in what one did.
That was an encouraging prospect. Chapel was followed by a reception, where I was quizzed by a host of O.Y.s about what was afoot in the school. A few asked ‘Isn’t it all going a bit far?’ But ‘High time too’ was the comment of many more. Given that public-school man, as a species, is distinctly inclined towards nostalgic conservatism, that was also encouraging.
The following week, the summer concert took place in Hall: Haydn’s Creation, not in English but in the original German, Die Schöpfung. Nick sang the part of Eve. As he had promised me, his voice held up; but for how much longer? Bob sang Adam. Their long-drawn-out duet in Part 3 is, to my mind, among the most moving music ever written, and they sang it superbly.
Bob, moreover, tampered with the text. German has genders, and he changed the feminine Gefährtin to the masculine Gefährte,
Nun folge mir, Gefährte meines Lebens!
Ich leite dich, und jeder Schritt
Weckt neue Freud’ in unsrer Brust.
‘Follow me now, my life’s companion! I shall lead you, and every step will awaken new joy in our hearts.’ In the next verse, too, he addressed Nick not as holde Gattin, dear wife, but as holder Gatte, dear husband. Mr Brocklesby, facing the choir on the conductor’s rostrum, raised his eyebrows, but I very much doubt if anyone else noticed. Except Nick.
A week later was Speech Day, when the prizes were ceremoniously handed out and an improving speech was uttered by some visiting dignitary who was usually as dull as ditchwater. The HM had long since told me who it was to be this year, a certain Brigadier Sir Charles Petherick, an Old Yarburian who had recently been knighted and promoted as a director of the Imperial General Staff. The name meant nothing to me. The HM invited Andrew and me to dinner the evening before. We assumed, in our ignorance, that it was standard practice for the two senior pollies, ex officio, to meet such visitors in advance.
We duly rang the bell at the private side of School House. The HM opened the door and ushered us into the drawing room. Only Mrs Vaughan was there and, chatting to her with his back to us, a man in a dark suit.
“Sir Charles,” said the HM, “meet the captain and vice-captain of the school.”
The visitor turned round and our jaws dropped. It was the colonel from Otterburn.
“Leon and Andrew. So we meet again. I understand that first names are now de rigueur.” He shook our hands. “I took the liberty of asking the headmaster to invite you here tonight, and I also asked him not tell you why, because I had a whimsical desire to keep it a surprise. Please forgive the deception.
“I knew from our last encounter, of course, that you came from Yarborough. Not long afterwards I read in the Old Yarburian newsletter about your elevation. And the headmaster has been telling me of your deeds over the past year. None of it surprises me, and all of it encourages me. I only wish you had chosen the army as a career.”
It was a very pleasant evening.
Speech Day itself, however, was not so pleasant; or not at first. It was attended, as always, by hordes of proud parents. After a short service in Chapel, the speeches were delivered in a Hall packed to bursting point. The HM traditionally started with a state-of-the-union message. This time it included a wholly unnecessary tribute to the leadership shown by Leon Michaelson, who would surely go down in history as one of the great captains of the school. I curled up with embarrassment.
He ended by inviting the visitor to dish out the prizes. There being scores of them, this took some time. Andrew had two and I, I’m sorry to say, had four.
The brigadier then held forth. Such orations are pretty predictable, but I listened with more than usual attention, at first because I respected him, and soon because of what he was saying. To my alarm, he spoke in some detail of the events at Otterburn. His moral, expanding on his words to us as we sat there on the heather, was the need for leaders to be seen as human, the need for common sense in life, and the need to stand up for what one knows to be right.
He had named no names or even any school. Fair enough. Andrew and I, sitting next to each other, exchanged a glance. As far as we were aware, the Otterburn story was not known at Yarborough outside the dwindling band of ex-Gunners. But the brigadier’s closing words spoiled everything.
“The gun-crew in question was from the RA section of the Yarborough CCF. The two who had the gumption to disobey orders were, to give them the ranks they held at the time, CSM Andrew Goodhart and Sergeant Leon Michaelson. Then, as now, examples and credits to the school.”
I wished the earth would swallow me. During the applause which followed, a school polly went up on the stage. This part of the agenda had always struck me as intolerably corny. I had pleaded with the HM to change it, but he had stuck his toes in.
“Three cheers for the visitor!” called the polly. “Hip, hip, hooray … ” He was succeeded by another cheering the prize-winners, a third cheering the ladies, Kenneth cheering the staff. Then came Andrew with three cheers for the headmaster. Lastly, me. “Three cheers for the school!”
As the third hooray died away, I breathed a sigh of relief. But before the organ could launch into the finale, an unidentifiable voice from the back of Hall called out loud and clear, “Three cheers for Leon!”
The HM might purse his lips at the irregularity, but the response was tumultuous. Oh God! Not more! May the venerable hammerbeam roof fall on my head! The din might bring it down anyway. Isolated on stage, the impotent victim of applause from a thousand pairs of hands, from a thousand voices, I almost died.
Then and only then, much too late, did the organ embark on the school song which, unlike the beginning-and-end-of-term hymns, is best forgotten. It opens with ‘Ho, boys, ho!’ It ends with ‘Yarborough, hurrah, hurrah!’ Enough said.
With that, the formalities were over. I felt queasy with a spiritual indigestion.
A prestige First XI match against Masham School, our neighbouring arch-rival, was about to begin, and Andrew went straight to the Upper. He recognised my state of mind. “That was thoroughly deserved, ocelle,” he said quietly as he left, “but totally unwelcome. I can see that. Get it out of your system. Come to the Upper as soon as you can. I’ll be looking out for you.”
There was a stand-up lunch for all the guests in a monstrous marquee in the School House garden. That was where my duty lay, to be polite to parents. Dozens of junior boys scurried around with trays of sandwiches and quiches, strawberries and wine. Having scurried in that capacity myself, I had a fair idea of the proportion of their cargo which failed to reach its proper destination. This was never a fag’s chore to be evaded, but a privilege much sought after. I wished I were in their shoes now.
I had a quick word with Mum and Dad, who had come up for the weekend but knew that we would have little time to spare for them until the evening, when we were due to dine together at the Red Lion. Then I forced myself to plunge into the mêlée, where I was buttonholed by the chairman of the governors. He shook my hand warmly and picked up the HM’s theme.
“I’m told you’re a modest man, Michaelson,” he said. “But, as the Bard says, be not afraid of greatness. Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Hmmm. There was no way the first two applied, and if I had had greatness thrust upon me, it was against my will and inclination and desert.
I escaped from him and talked to Nick and his parents, who thanked me for rescuing their son. I was not taken with them. She gushed, he was monosyllabic and dour.
I escaped from them and talked to Bob’s parents. They thanked me too, and I found myself liking them, for they appeared the perceptive and open-minded sort. I recalled saying to Nick, aeons ago it seemed, ‘Let’s hope that if you find your soul-mate, his parents will be like Andrew’s.’ Bob was with them, and I raised an eyebrow a millimetre at him. He understood, and nodded almost invisibly back with an almost invisible smile.
Good. Very good. But, as far as I was concerned, that was the only good outcome from the reception. I was polite to dozens of parents which, I found, meant listening to endless plaudits. Sonny Jim had told them all about my doings and, what with everything they’d heard today, my goodness, how impressed they were. At intervals I spotted Mum and Dad talking to a different assortment of parents, to Hez, to Wally, to the HM, to the brigadier. No doubt they were collecting plaudits too, and in due course would pass them on.
But all these tributes were splashing off me. I was being unresponsive and ungrateful, I knew, but I hated them. They were too many to absorb, too concentrated, too fulsome. My mind was saturated and I could take no more. The day was hot, the marquee claustrophobic, and my blasted stockings were too tight. Damn my duty. Get the hell out of this bloody bunfight. But I could not abandon Mum and Dad without explanation. They were talking now to Steve. On the verge of panic, I caught Dad’s eye and signalled frantically. He came over and saw at a glance that I was near the end of my emotional tether.
“You clear off, Leon. Find somewhere quiet. We understand.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll be at the cricket.”
I had to be near Andrew. Not talking. Just near, within sight. As I sidled out, I looked back to see Mum’s and Steve’s eyes on me, full of concern, and gave them a pallid smile. After dropping in to my study to rip my stockings off, shed my waistcoat, and find a book, I made my way to the Upper. Yarborough was batting, I found, but Andrew was not yet at the crease. I could have gone to the pavilion, where the captain of the school had his own seat. But that meant being sociable. I needed peace and anonymity. In a flimsy attempt at disguise I took off my tails and white hat and ambled round the boundary. Boys smiled at me as I passed and said hullo, but I did not stop. Finding an empty space, I hid my hat under my tails and lay down on my belly on the grass.
Desperately lonely, yet desperate to be alone. Trying to think, but in chaotic frame of mind, disorientated in a trackless jungle. I could not accept the approval that people showered on me. They did not know the conflicts, the feebleness within. They did not know that I had merely stretched out my hands and others had heaped the fruits of success into them. I did not deserve praise. How, then, could I accept it?
My tumbling thoughts refused to fall into order. To quieten them down I tried dipping into the E.M. Forster I had brought. A passage caught my attention. Then a batsman was bowled and Andrew was in.
I lay, chin on hands, admiring his confidence and grace, aching with love and desire. He rapidly reached his half-century. There was loud applause, amply earned. I leapt to my feet and joined in. As he raised his bat in acknowledgement he was looking straight at me. On to my belly again, suddenly sensing a signpost to a path out of my jungle, grappling with a dawning hint of liberation.
After a while someone lay down beside me. Oh damn. Who? It was Hez, giving me a wordless smile. Now that was good, and pure coincidence. I slid my book across to him, pointing to the paragraph.
Public schoolboys go forth into a world that is not entirely composed of public-school men or even of Anglo-Saxons, but of men who are as various as the sands of the sea; into a world of whose richness and subtlety they have no conception. They go forth into it with well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and undeveloped hearts.
Hez read it. “No,” he said. “No. Not all of them.”
Minutes went by. He reached out a long finger, pink underneath and chocolate brown on top, and wiped a tear off my cheek.
“Not by any means all.”
Some time later Bob and Nick flopped down beside us, having disposed of their parents somewhere, and very cheerful. They carried a bottle of Vimto, from which Nick took a swig and belched.
“Oops. Sorry. But it does save wear and tear at the other end.” They exchanged a grin, as if sharing a private joke. “I’m going to stay with Bob in the holidays,” he added.
Inconsequential, but I thought I saw the connection. I was glad for them, but quite incapable of saying so. Of saying anything.
Nick noticed my silence. “I think I know why you’re not in the pavilion,” he observed.
“So do I,” said Bob. “Because he’s Leon, and his heart is in the right place.”
With that, I saw into the future. Here were the leaders-to-be. Three years from now Bob would be at the top. House captain, probably captain of the school. Nick, very likely, would follow him. All our hearts were in the same place. The future was in safe hands.
Before long Mum and Dad and Steve, searching along the boundary, found us in our anonymity. They said nothing, but smiled at me, and smiled in approval at my company. Presently Andrew was out. Forsaking his duties in the pavilion, he too came to join us. He knelt down, one hand holding mine, the other over my shoulder. With that touch, my cup ran over.
I was surrounded now by friends and more than friends, by the people closest to me in the whole world, who understood my contradictions infinitely better than I did myself, who loved me. Who loved me … not despite my personality, but because of it. Because of it. Here … now … in their silent communion … I came at last to terms with my soul.
Face-down in the grass, his bodyguard loyally shielding him from curious gaze, the captain of the school wept uncontrollably.
I was dimly aware of sporadic applause as the match progressed. “Oh hell,” I finally heard Andrew say. “All out. I must go.” He sounded a mile away. “He needs care. Look after him. Please.”
His hands left my body. They were replaced by a dozen others. There was a period of quiet as I lay almost inert, racked by the occasional sob. Then more prolonged applause and, after a minute or two, a feeling of presence such as I had never known before. I slowly lifted my head. Andrew normally fielded in the slips, but now he stood at deep extra cover, only ten yards away. He was looking at me, his eyes signalling encouragement, tenderness, understanding. My body replied with a surge of urgent desire, my soul replied with an explosion of acceptance, gratitude, love.
The bowler began his run-up and Andrew turned to the game. But he had read my soul. I was a new Leon. I had been born again. Spiritually naked, physically drained, feeble as the new-born babe I was, I rolled over to face my friends. They too read me, and rejoiced. Tears trickled afresh.
During the tea break I managed to retrieve some energy and poise. Masham, I learned, was making a solid reply and the game looked set to run its full course. Dad nipped round to the pavilion, where I saw him talking to Andrew, presumably with the news that the patient was recovering. But when play resumed there was an immediate change of tactics. Andrew put himself on to bowl, something he very rarely did. He was justified, for he was inspired. Wickets tumbled before his onslaught, and within five overs Masham had been annihilated. The crowd, leaping to its feet and applauding wildly, began to disperse in exhilaration. The old Leon, bent on rushing to the pavilion to congratulate Andrew, put on his tails. The new Leon, desperate to keep the reunion private, tried to hold him back.
Dad, seeing the struggle, made the decision for them. “Stay here,” he said. “Let the maelstrom subside.”
Our little group waited until the boundary was empty, when Hez and Bob and Nick hugged me in turn. They and Steve shook hands with Mum and Dad, and left without fuss. Mum and Dad alone remained, resolutely talking cricket, their eyes cocked at the pavilion. After a while the Masham team climbed into its coach and was driven away. The Yarborough team trooped off towards the buttery. The ground was now deserted. Except that Andrew was walking across the grass towards us.
I went to meet my love as if for the first time. I had the sensation of being outside my body, of looking down on the Upper from on high. Two older figures were striding briskly away. Two younger figures were converging on the centre of the pitch. One, radiant, curly-haired and blond, was arrayed in an angelic white broken only by the blue edging of his First XI blazer. The other, with darkish hair and straight, was clad in almost demonic black. But as he walked he took off his tail-coat, and he too now shone with glory. Both seemed strangely shy. They smiled. They held hands and kissed, tentatively at first, then with passion. They discovered, as they ground together, that both were rampant.
“Leon, my soul. Come with me.” That was precisely what I most wanted to do.
He led me not to the buttery, nor to the house, but to the Red Lion, upstairs to Mum and Dad’s room. I cast him a bewildered look. I still felt as if I were not really there.
“They’re leaving us to ourselves,” Andrew explained. “They won’t be back till dinner time. They reckon that while we’re in their room we’re their responsibility. That our promise to the school doesn’t apply here.” He sounded dazed and unbelieving. “Hang on a moment.”
I could hardly believe it either. Blessing their consideration, exulting in their unconvention, I sat on the bed, nursing the need in my groin as it expanded into an insistent ache. Andrew rummaged in their wash-bag and found what he was looking for. We undressed frenetically, flinging clothes hither and yon.
I badly needed a shower, but what the hell? So, even more, did he — fast bowling in summer heat hardly keeps one fragrant — but the distinctive odour of Andrew had never repelled me. It drove me now to wilder heights; and he was as taut as me. We writhed together, hands stroking, tongues wrestling, until we were near the edge.
“Oh God!” he cried. “Leon! Come into me!”
I could not argue. He lay on his back and I applied vaseline. I lifted his athletic legs and entered him, and he took himself in hand. After nearly a term of reserving our bodies, our work did not last long. We locked eyes, and in his I saw myself reflected as I had never done before. Fire spread white-hot through my being. His muscle, contracting as he came, squeezed the volcano of my loins to eruption. Simultaneously the internal fire reached a node in my brain and exploded in a burst of piercing brilliance. I too came. Not with diffidence, not with anxiety, but, for the first time in my life, with pride. There gushed out, in that moment, all the pent-up years of inferiority. As my body was purged, so also was my soul. I had first been baptised four years ago in Cambridge. Now, reborn, I was rebaptised.
Our pumping slowed and stopped. For time uncounted we remained motionless, eyes closed, half-aswoon with the intensity of release, savouring the carnal ecstasy as it ebbed away, glorying in the spiritual ecstasy which flooded in to replace it. At last I pulled carefully out, mopped the mess, and curled up with my head on his nobly odorous chest, my nose tickled by the few hairs that sprouted there, my ear an inch from his pounding heart. He held me tight.
“Thank you, Leon ocelle,” he finally said. “I needed that. And you needed it still more. Today’s been your turning-point, hasn’t it? I think I know. But tell me.”
“Yes. It has. Thanks to you. Thanks to all our friends. When everyone was singing my praises, I was in the pits. Then you accepted applause for a job well done. That made the scales fall from my eyes. I used to be a mouse, didn’t I? Today’s turned me into a … well, not a lion, I’ll never be a lion, but a …”
“A cat?” he suggested. I squinted up as if from the south pole, and saw him smiling. “Proud, independent, loving and gentle, but indomitable when challenged.”
I laughed a little. “OK, I’ll settle for a cat. But watch out. I might caterwaul in the middle of the night. Or use my claws on you. ”
He chuckled too. “You’d never do that to me. I know that. Any more than I would to you. But did it hurt at all? Your cock, I mean.”
“Not a bit. Only the ache of love.”
“Like mine. That’s good.”
“And Andrew. I’m sorry …”
“Andrew. You’re my other half, and I’m yours. Together we make a whole. We’ve known that for years. I used to think that my half was the complete half. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t giving you all of me. Part of me was missing — that’s what I’m sorry about. It’s only today that I’ve realised it was missing. It’s only today that I’ve found it. Or rather you’ve found it for me.”
He knew. He had known all along. He bent his head down and kissed my cheek.
“But,” I said, “you’ve got the complete Leon at last.”
“I’m glad of that. Glad for both of us. I’ve always thought the world of Leon. He’s my ocellus, the apple of my eye. So the more Leon there is to think the world of, the happier I am. And do you think better of the complete Leon?”
“Yes. I do. Already. I am proud now, like a cat. I’m beginning to hold my head high.” But I did not want to give the wrong impression, and hastened to explain. “I don’t mean I’m cocky. I hope I’m not that.”
“But you are cocky.” He reached down and felt. “Yes. Very cocky. You are holding your head high. I think it needs attending to again.”
A week later the annual match against Hambledon School fell due. It was at home this year and, Hambledon being far away, their team arrived the previous day and was put up in housemasters’ spare rooms. Andrew being our captain, MacNair’s hosted their captain. They arrived very late on the Friday night, and Andrew and the other hosts met the coach and collected their guests. Out of courtesy, Wally having already gone to bed, I was waiting in the private side to welcome ours. Andrew introduced him as Gavin Danby, and as we shook hands he studied me with interest.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, Leon, and your reforms here. We’re trying to improve things at Hambledon, and I’d love to hear more about what you’ve done and how you’ve done it.”
“Anything you want to know. But who’ve you heard it from?”
“Oh, Bob Freshwater’s my cousin. He’s been keeping me posted. Could I have a word with him some time?”
“Of course, no problem. It’s too late now, but at breakfast? I’ll get him on to the pollies’ table. Sorry, prefects’ table.”
“Good God! You mean fags can sit at the prefects’ table? They wouldn’t allow that at our place, not in a month of Sundays.”
“Oh, we don’t really have fags any more. And we make our own rules, more or less.”
“Music to my ears. And when can I pick your brains?”
“Any time tomorrow. The pavilion will be crawling in the afternoon, but almost empty in the morning. If you bat first, we’d have all morning, except when you’re at the crease.”
“I’ll wangle the toss, then,” said Andrew, deadpan.
“But don’t you have school in the morning?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I can wangle that too.”
We showed him his room and went to bed ourselves. “Are you going to wangle the toss?” I asked Andrew on the way.
“If I have to.”
Bob breakfasted with us. Assembly over, I once again asked Steve to excuse me for the morning, and explained why. He was an ardent follower of cricket who never missed a match, and was happy for us to sit together during the afternoon and make up for lost time.
I went on to the Upper, and at the pavilion found Andrew about to lead his team out to field.
“I didn’t have to,” he murmured to me. “Gavin won the toss anyway. And all the Hambledon lot want to talk to you. Their master in charge is a bit snotty about it, but he’s umpiring, so he won’t get in your hair.”
I spent the whole morning with the Hambledon team. They plied me with endless questions, and explained something of their own set-up. Tightly regulated, unlucky in their headmaster and staff and traditions, they had small scope for initiative. But discontent was rife, especially since word of our reforms had filtered through via Bob and Gavin. Their senior boys had made a little headway but, now on the point of leaving, were having to hand the baton on. Three of the next generation were in the team, though, listening as avidly as any. Yes, the seed had been sown but, without the authorities on their side, it seemed that the harvest would be long and difficult.
I spent the whole afternoon in the sun alongside Steve, discussing — strangely enough for the first time — Plato’s treatment of love in the Symposium, with frequent interruptions for applause. When the match was over — it does not matter who won — I went back to the pavilion to collect Gavin and Andrew.
“Gavin, come to the buttery for a drink.”
“Thanks,” he said, shouldering his bag. “Though what I really need is beer. I’d sell my soul for a pint.” Behind his back, Andrew and I swapped a smile.
The door to the main part of the buttery was open, and hordes of boys could be seen inside drinking fizzy drinks, eating buns or ice creams, playing darts, just talking or reading. On the other side of the corridor was the door bearing a large notice, Admittance only to boys over 18.
“So you do still have some segregation, then,” Gavin observed as we led him in.
In here, there were no other customers yet, and he did not notice the bar itself, which was in the corner behind the door. Andrew steered him away to admire a picture of some ancient cricketer while I did the needful.
“There you go, Gavin.” I plonked the mugs of beer down on a nearby table.
His eyes almost fell out of his head. “Bloody hell!” He looked around, taking in the civilised atmosphere, the comfortable chairs, the carpet, the curtains, the darts board, and finally the bar.
“Bloody hell! Is this your doing too?” We nodded. “Well I’ll be damned! I wish I’d come here, not Hambledon. Then here’s to Yarborough! And here’s especially to you!”
Other members of the teams rolled up, hosts and guests alike. Gavin had a second pint, and we then took him for tea at MacNair’s. As we passed through the billiard room en route to hall he cast an idle eye at the magazine rack and did a classic double-take.
“I don’t believe it! Tit-Bits! On public view! Does your housemaster know?”
“It’s delivered to the private side. For all we know, he reads it.”
“Dear God. If we were caught even glancing at the front page in the newsagent we’d get whacked.”
As we saw him to the coach he was profuse in his thanks and his praise.
“Another thing. Bob told me about his boyfriend. And about you two. I’m not that way inclined myself, but I’ve nothing whatever against it. The point is, that couldn’t happen at Hambledon. Well, it could happen, I suppose. There’s loads of sex there, hole-in-the-corner stuff, and anyone caught at it is out on his ear. Once we had ten expulsions in one term. But if our headmaster heard of a chaste love affair he’d treat it in exactly the same way. Yours must be remarkably broad-minded.”
The last night but one of term, Andrew and I were invited to School House for dinner.
“And has the year gone as you hoped?” the HM asked conversationally as he passed the port. They had laid on all the trimmings.
“Better by far, sir, than we dared to hope. What we don’t understand is why you fell in so readily with everything we proposed. We expected much more resistance.”
He smiled. “Because you thought we were conservative and hidebound? I think the time has come to let you into a secret.
“Like every other institution, schools have to change. They have to modernise. On the academic side, of course, change has to be led by the staff. That is our profession. On the social side, it may surprise you to hear, we like change to be led by the boys. We want them to be, ah, the architects of their own society.
“Most boys, even the nominal leaders of their day, are happy to accept what they find. They are happy, in effect, to be led. But every so often we get movers and shakers. Boys with both vision and mission. If we spot them, we try to give them their head. Sometimes they are self-centred and ambitious. Occasionally they are modest, even reluctant. It is these who are the best modernisers, the real reformers, because they are moved not by selfish motives but by their consciences.
“Mr MacNair and I have long had our eye on you two as potential movers and shakers. When you told Mr Phillips — was it nearly four years ago? — about your, ah, inclination, you also revealed an idealism, a self-discipline, a dedication, rare in boys so young. When, therefore, we left it to you to decide which should be captain of the school, we did so with our eyes open. We foresaw reluctance from both of you. But we felt that both had all the qualifications to do what was needed, and we knew that each would support the other.”
He sipped his port. “So it has turned out, beyond our expectations. As Gibbon remarked, the wind and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators. The Yarborough you leave is more humane and equitable than the Yarborough you found, more relevant to this day and age. The old order changeth, yielding place to new. You led that change, we followed. That is how we think it should be.
“The school aims to produce good citizens. Only occasionally, in the nature of things, does it produce outstanding ones. Not just good run-of-the-mill citizens, not just good sportsmen or good scholars, but real leaders of men. We are in debt to both of you, the supporter and the supported.”
Good grief. How in heaven’s name did one reply to that?
“If we’ve done any good, sir, it’s only because you’ve allowed us to. I remember saying, when you sanctioned our love, that … ”
“… that you knew Yarborough was a good school. You reckoned that was because the staff were good. Not only good teachers, but good human beings. Yes, I remember you saying that. I remember it vividly. Not merely because unsolicited testimonials from boys are as rare as rocs’ eggs, but because it revealed where your values lay. From that moment you were marked men.”
I was thinking, with pity, of Gavin. “I wish other schools were run by good human beings.”
“That reminds me. The headmaster of Hambledon has been in correspondence with me. His first letter was querulous. His master in charge of cricket, who was aware of the, ah, laxity of our discipline, had reported that my captain of the school spent hours haranguing his First XI and distracting them from the match, and that he suspected subversion. And that on the way home he smelt beer on the breath of his team and suspected debauchery in a Yarborough public house. Was that, he asked, the way I permitted my pupils to behave?”
We could not help smiling.
“I replied that subversion was the last thing I expected from my captain of the school, in whom I had every confidence. And that while debauchery in public houses was no more permitted here than at Hambledon, our team had no doubt visited the buttery bar, which is authorised and indeed funded by the school, and as good hosts had no doubt taken their guests with them.
“In his next letter he changed his tune. He had called in his captain of cricket — what was his name?”
“Ah yes. And he had quizzed him about our way of life here. He was now asking me to confirm it. In reply I shamelessly plagiarised your exposition of your philosophy, Leon. He seems to be, if not yet converted, at least impressed and interested. And this may prove a straw in the wind, you know. No fewer than three members of staff inform me that they have been approached by colleagues in other schools who have heard of what is happening here.
“I may possibly be premature in my prediction. But I rather fancy that you have started a movement throughout the public schools of Britain. What is the modern term for it? The snowball effect?”
Andrew and I looked at each other in open-mouthed astonishment.