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Our Library => Roy Fuller - The Ruined Boys (1959) => Topic started by: Admin on August 03, 2023, 11:41:10 am

Title: Part Two, Chapter Eleven
Post by: Admin on August 03, 2023, 11:41:10 am
ONE afternoon towards the end of term an annual ceremony took place, strange to Gerald but familiar to those who had been longer at the school. In front of a clump of trees on the border of the First Pitch a row of chairs was set out, and behind it a line of benches. Facing all this, while the whole school stood looking on, a smiling, bearded, old man set up a camera which was mounted, at the top of its tripod, on a cogged, brass semi-circle.

“We shall certainly miss first period,” remarked Thompson with satisfaction, “and probably a good bit of second as well.”

“It’s a very curious camera,” said Gerald.

“My dear fool, this is a panoramic photograph we're going to have taken.”

The masters came out in their gowns and sat in the middle of the row of chairs, the prefects occupying the rest of the row. Directed by Mr. Norfolk, the taller among the rest of the boys stood behind the chairs. Small boys perched on the benches at the rear or squatted at the masters’ and prefects’ feet. The amiable photographer emerged from under his black cloth and requested Mr. Norfolk to squeeze the group closer together. There was a good deal of horseplay in which boys were pushed off the benches. Miss Pemberton and Mrs. Watt came over from the House and took two of the three vacant seats which had been left in the centre of the chairs. With a loud whirring sound the camera was set off by the photographer on a dummy run and Thompson, who was standing with Gerald at one end of the row immediately behind the chairs, said: “After it starts I think I shall run round the back and stand at the other end of the row and be taken again as it comes round.”

But such remarks and the fooling about ceased as the Headmaster appeared. In his hand he carried a mortarboard which, in the same way as the ribbon on his Sunday pince-nez, was not only utterly appropriate for the occasion but revealed fresh depths in his persona, like the wearing, on a ceremonial occasion, by a long-known business acquaintance, of a decoration for some past military gallantry. Already there was on the Headmaster’s face the smile necessary for the moment when the camera would swivel past him. He took the vacant chair between the two ladies.

There was something melancholy about this event that so unmistakably marked the approaching end of the school year, the slackening of tension, impending departures---despite the stainless blue skies and the sense that it was impossible for the breeze to strike chill. In the centre of the group the Headmaster seemed like a constant star in a cloud of planets that each over a few brief years moved in from its outer orbit to ever closer ones until, at last in its highest place near the source of light, it suddenly vanished.

As the photographer gave his final warning to be still and the sweeping camera eye started to make its irrevocable observation, Gerald thought how impossible was the conception that the school—so numerous, so brilliantly headmastered, capable of these unpredictable traditional occasions—was “going downhill”. His astonishment and sense of doom at the revelation in the chip shop had become dulled with the passage of the days, just as the citizen of an empire threatened suddenly by barbarians or the strangulation of its grain supply reassuringly finds after the announcement of the catastrophe that he can still stroll on the city walls and sit down to his usual breakfast. Nevertheless Gerald continued to watch anxiously for signs that would confirm or deny Howarth’s father’s diagnosis, though he was at a loss to imagine precisely what would indicate any impending disaster, short of some obvious and Poesque symptom like a great fissure in the school walls. It had occurred to him that the phrase indicated some moral malady with which the school was riddled, evidenced by that strange nocturnal commerce between Mountain and Blakey he had heard of last term or even, indeed, his own occasional feverish searchings of dictionaries, old novels, books on art, for graphic information about the sensual life his body demanded with obvious depravity in this world which was designed to cater for its spiritual and hygienic welfare alone. But on reflection he realized that Mr. Howarth could know nothing of this secret life at Seafolde House, since it was unthinkable that his son, involved in it as fully as anyone, would bring himself to reveal it.

“Going downhill” therefore, remained a mysterious term, ludicrously associated with such trivialities as the size of Matley’s sausage at the end of term feast and the absence on Sports Day this year of the silver band of previous years---indications, like a giraffe’s long neck, as much of accident as of design. It was a conception as far from the realities of school as that of “economic crisis” from the realities of everyday existence. This latter phrase appeared to be, like a celebrated murder trial or a foreign war, an illusion created to fill certain pages of the newspapers, and not---as were the protagonists and scores of the cricket page---capable of verification in fact. For one could with confidence announce, say, one’s intention of “seeing” Hendren in the holidays, but this grave state of affairs in which the whole civilized world was alleged to have been plunged was incapable of discernment either in the streets or at home. One day Gerald had discovered that the art master, a small man with a red nose who visited the school twice a week, made his lunch on these occasions off sandwiches in one of the class-rooms, but on opening up the subject with Howarth he ascertained that this habit was of too long standing to be a symptom either of “economic crisis” or of the school’s “going downhill” and was therefore to be regarded, as so many phenomena had to be regarded, as evidence merely of the essential eccentricity of human behaviour.

Indeed, there was no lack of signs that far from the school declining it bore within itself, and particularly in the character and activity of Mr. Pemberton, potentials of expansion and new ambition. For instance, about this time there appeared on the main notice board a sheet of white cardboard to delineate, in the form of a graph, the progress of the Chapel Fund and which week by week showed a steeply ascending line. The explanation of the graph, at the foot of the notice, was written in red ink in the Headmaster’s admirably clear hand and bore his signature, “G. Howard Pemberton”. Gerald had often pored over this signature (and, indeed, could produce a passable imitation of it), never failing to be impressed by the brilliant invention which continued the G in an abruptly different direction to form the first upright stroke of the H and had made the d a Greek d which again could be continued and bent to make the pillar of the P, whose pediment was an almost perfectly drawn whorl. And how bold it was of the signature to reveal one of its owner’s Christian names in a world where Christian names were slightly disgraceful! There was, however, about “Howard” a tantalizing and enviable ambiguity so that it revealed less than it promised, for it seemed scarcely to be a Christian name at all but an additional surname which gave to the Headmaster additional masculinity and ferocity, like a fairy tale’s two-headed giant. Nor was this effect detracted from by Gerald’s knowing, in fact, Mr. Pemberton’s first Christian name, for the Headmaster’s practice of invariably representing it by its initial letter took away from it almost every association---of weakness, say, or vulgarity---it might have had in conjunction with another person, rather as the letter W may be abstracted from and seem to stand for something much politer and more spiritual than the water-closet of its origin.

Other evidence of the school’s continuing fertility was also forthcoming by Mr. Pemberton’s purchase of a rain-gauge, which he displayed and explained one morning at assembly. It was installed in a corner of the vegetable garden, and for some weeks the Headmaster’s hat could be observed from the playground appearing and disappearing as he took the reading before morning school, the result of which he subsequently entered in yet another graph on the notice board. But a boringly dry spell of weather persisting, Mr. Pemberton eventually delegated the task appropriately to Matley, who he knew was reading Geography for the School Certificate and whose statistics were immediately thrown awry by Thompson one night micturating in the rain-gauge.