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Part Two

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« on: July 18, 2023, 10:17:10 am »

EARLY in July I was summoned by the Headmaster, who was also, as I have said, my Housemaster. It was in both capacities, he remarked at once, that he wished to talk to me. He gestured me into a chair, and coiled his own shambling frame into one which was opposite me and had its back to the evening light outside.

'It is time,' the Headmaster said, 'for certain things to be made plain.'


'Next quarter you will be head of this House. By next cricket quarter you may well be head of the entire school. Nor could anyone say that you lacked the abilities needed.'

Outside the window the evening deepened. For some days it had been intensely hot, and now thunder threatened. A dark cloud was spiralling out of the valley; there was a drop of sweat in the cleft of the Headmaster's chin.

'No,' the Headmaster said; 'your worst enemy could not say you were unequal to such responsibilities. But. But.'

'But what, sir?'

'I wish I knew more precisely where you stood. Outwardly you do us every credit: your work, your games, your ostensible behaviour. But what what is your . . . your code, Fielding? On what do you base your life?'

'It's a little early to know.'

'Well,' said the Headmaster, 'there's one particular thing we must both know now. What is your . . . attitude . . . with regard to Christopher Roland?'

So that was it. Steady now.

'The same as it always has been. I've known him for nearly four years and I'm very attached to him.'

'Yes. But now there is something about the two of you . . . when you are together . . . which makes me uneasy.'

'There's no reason why you should be, sir.'

'Can I accept that assurance? Can I be really certain that you are a suitable person to be my Head Monitor?'

Outside the dark cloud was swiftly growing, like a huge genie called out of its lamp. The Headmaster leaned forward in his chair and shook himself like a large, worried dog.

'You haven't been confirmed,' he said. 'Where do you stand---the question must be asked---in respect to Christianity?'

'Not an easy question, sir . . . I find it hard to understand its prohibitions, its obsession with what is sinful or wrong. The Greeks put their emphasis on what is pleasant and seemly and therefore right.'

'Christ, as a Jew, had a more fastidious morality. And as the Son of God He had authority to reveal new truths and check old errors.'

'Did he?' I said.

There was a long silence between us.

'The Greeks stood for reason and decency,' I said. 'Isn't that enough?'

'Reason and decency,' the Headmaster murmured, 'but without the sanction of revealed religion . . . ? No, Fielding. It isn't enough. What you ignore or tolerate, I must know about and punish in order to forgive. Please bear the difference in mind.'

'It is a radical difference, sir.'

'Let us hope it will not divide us too far . . . Will you come,' he went on abruptly, 'and stay with us in Wiltshire? Some time in September? You and I both, we shall be too busy to talk much more this quarter. But there is more to be said on the subject we have just been discussing. Not to mention practical arrangements for the autumn.'

'I should be glad to come, sir. Any time after September the seventh.'

I explained about Somerset and Peter.

'Good, good,' said the Headmaster, uncoiling himself to dismiss me. 'Meanwhile, please remember. I do not say that your position is dishonourable. Merely that it is rather too fluid for my comfort. Good night. Fielding.'

'Good night, sir.'

Lightning flashed through the window.

'Ah.' said the Headmaster; 'I always enjoy a good storm.'

We both turned to the window. A second trident of lightning forked into the valley below.

'I nearly forgot,' the Headmaster said, 'what with the very general tone of our argument . . . Please let me see you less . . . or at any rate less conspicuously . . . in the company of Christopher Roland.'


'He says we're not to be seen together so much.'

Thunder outside the window of my tiny study. Rain dashing out of the dark against the glass. Christopher sitting in the armchair to the left of the door, myself at the desk, upright, as though interviewing him for employment.

'Why not?'

'He didn't really say. He was uneasy, he said . . .'

'Uneasy about what, Fielding?'

'I don't know. Yes, I do. You see, Christopher, I'm . . . I'm . . .'

'Yes, Fielding?'

Such a small word, and yet I hadn't the courage to say it.

'I'm . . . Both of us . . . We're conspicuous people here. We must be discreet, that's all.'

'But I like being with you.'

'Same here. But we must be careful. For the sake of peace, we must be careful. Good night, Christopher.'

The thunderstorm did not clear the air. For days the heat was moist and heavy, while clouds lurked angrily round the horizon as if waiting for the moment to move in and kill. One afternoon Peter Morrison and myself, accompanied by Christopher and another boy called Ivan Blessington, took our bicyles and went for a swim in the Obelisk Pond, a sand-bottomed lake in the middle of a nearby wood, kept clean and sweet by a stream from the Thames and taking its name from a grotesque monument which an uncle of Queen Victoria's had erected to his morganatic wife.

We were not the only people there. A party of soldiers, battledress blouses flung aside, collarless shirts gaping, lolled about on the sandy shore smoking cigarettes and staring at the girls from a local private school, who were decorously bathing from some huts a hundred yards down the bank. When we arrived, the soldiers looked us over briefly, as if afraid of possible rivalry, then sneered and turned back to the bathers. An edgy mistress called to two or three girls who were swimming eagerly away from the huts as if in response to the soldiers' gaze. The girls turned back; the soldiers shrugged and swore; the four of us went into the trees to change.

When we came back, the soldiers were dressing themselves and very slowly, at the command of a rat-faced corporal, forming themselves into ranks. Bored, sweating, heavy-lidded, denied the recently promised view of young female flesh, they consoled themselves with whistling ironically at Christopher and myself, who were the first of our party to pass them. The rat-faced corporal, not above currying favour and seeing a difficult afternoon ahead, joined in the whistling, then looked anxiously at his watch.

'Eyes front,' he called: 'say good-bye to the pretty ladies.'

Chuckling morosely, the men prepared to receive orders. I walked on quickly. Christopher, trembling but resolved, turned to face the corporal.

'I'll have your name and number, please,' Christopher said.

'Who might you be?' snarled the corporal.

'A member of the public who is going to complain about your behaviour.'

'So you're going to complain about my behaviour, are you? Just you piss off double quick, my lad. before I----'

'---Will you give me your name and number? '

The corporal preened himself, inviting the squad to share his coming triumph.

'No, my lord Muck, I won't give you my name and numbah, howevah much you disapprove of my bahavlah, hah, hah, and you can just run away and play with yourself---if you've got anything to play with.'

Peter, all muscle and chest, and Ivan, who had black curling hair from his neck to his navel, had now walked down and were standing behind Christopher.

'That won't help you,' Peter said coolly. 'I know your unit. Your commanding officer comes constantly to our cricket matches. It will not be difficult for him to find out which of his men were training in these woods this afternoon. And who was in charge of them.'

'Now, look here, mate,' began the corporal with an ingratiating whine, 'it was only a joke, see, only--- But Peter, Christopher and Ivan had already walked on down to the water. The corporal looked after them, twitched, spat, turned back to his men, and began mouthing instructions in a quick, uneasy singsong, looking over his shoulder from time to time to grin and shrug in our direction.

'Shall you report him?' said Christopher.


'I don't know. Perhaps I'd sooner you didn't.'

'Then you should have ignored him. Whatever you begin with men like that must be finished. Otherwise they think they can get away with things.'

'But he'll get into trouble.'

'Exactly. Why else should you have asked for his number?'

We began swimming, black Ivan in the lead, towards the girls along the bank. Rubber-capped heads turned quickly in our direction, turned away, turned back again with intent, interrogatory looks. Ivan, twenty yards in front of the rest of us, skimmed the water with his hand and splashed the nearest girl.

'Jolly warm, isn't it?' he called.

The edgy school-mistress, who had regarded the invasion with mistrust, smiled with relief as she heard Ivan's safe public school voice. Nevertheless, 'Only two more minutes, girls,' she shrilled.

Myself, I duck-dived and swam under water until my ears roared. Now then; surface: what would I find? Miscalculation; I had come up short. Ahead of me some girls were standing in a ring round Ivan, who was floating on his back (the black hair on his chest and belly curling and glistening) and explaining how you could float for ever, if you only relaxed and got your breathing right, could eat your meals, wait for rescue, even sleep. Peter was swimming in a circle round a tall, slender girl with ripe breasts, talking gravely up to her as she stood and nodded. Christopher, like me, seemed somehow to be in the margin; peevish, he swam a noisy thirty yards on his back; petulant, he aimed a splash at one of the youngest girls, laughed raucously, went deep red as the child winced and backed away, her lips quivering.

'All out,' howled the mistress.

The girls withdrew. Ivan's group waved and giggled. Peter's solitary maiden walked in backwards, her eyes fixed on his round, solemn face. Christopher and I swam away fiercely and professionally, as if to indicate that the serious business of the afternoon was only now to begin.

Later, as we all lay on the strip of sand by the shore, Peter said: 'A pleasant change.'

Proud, easy, the well oiled male, fully equipped for his role. Ivan nodded and grunted, then turned his face to the sky; and laughed.

'They didn't believe a word of what I told them,' Ivan said, 'but they looked at me as though I'd been John the Baptist come to preach in the river Jordan.'

'One of their traps,' I said snappishly. Their biological function is to entice the male and then smother him, so that they can breed from him without fear of revolt. A little simulated worship is a well tried bait.'

Peter and Ivan grinned tolerantly.

'Who's been listening to Somerset Lloyd-James?' Peter said. Christopher looked across at me.

'I left my watch up with my clothes,' he said. 'Those soldiers . . . I'm going to make sure it's still there.'

'I'll come with you,' I said.

Peter and Ivan assumed carefully neutral expressions, Christopher and I walked slowly and silently towards the trees. Even in the shade the afternoon it was very hot . . . hot, damp, urgent. As Christopher bent down to look for his watch I put my two hands on his bare neck and started to scratch him lightly with my finger-nails. He shivered and went on searching, 'Here it is. Quite safe.'

He turned to face me, then rested his cheek against mine. 'Come on, Fielding. We must go back.'

'Let's stay here. Just a little.'


'Why not?'

'Peter and Ivan . . . they'll think it funny.'

I turned my head and kissed his cheek. He stood quite still for perhaps ten seconds. Then he shivered---just as he had when I massaged his neck---and slipped away from me.

'Back to the others.'

I followed, wildly elated by the kiss, scarcely resenting the evasion. This must be enough, I thought tenderly, for he prefers it so. Don't be greedy. Don't ask for any more.

Back to the lake.

'Peter . . . Ivan . . .'

'Watch all right?'

'Watch?' said Christopher. 'Oh . . . yes. thanks.'

'Good. I thought you looked rather flustered.'

'Of course I'm not flustered.'

'Of course not,' said Peter serenely, 'if your watch is all right.'

A double file of schoolgirls was now trotting home along the opposite shore of the lake. Peter raised himself on one elbow to wave, and was answered by a gust of giggles, which passed across the water and into the trees like birdsong.


That night I couldn't sleep.

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque ametmis . . . The words went round and round in my head.

Give me a thousand kisses all your store.
And then a hundred, then a thousand more.

Don't be greedy. I told myself. You've had one kiss and when the time is right you'll be allowed another. That's enough. Don't go and spoil it all.


'And so.' said the Senior Usher. 'we are to be governed by the Socialists. How pleased that dismal man Constable will be.'

The rest of the school was out on a Field Day, which both myself and the Senior Usher had managed to evade. We were celebrating our holiday with what he called a 'discreet luncheon' accompanied by that great war-time luxury, a bottle of Algerian wine.

'How will it affect us here, sir?'

'A lot depends on whether or not they get in again in five years' time. Just now they've got much bigger fish to fry than us. But by about 1950 the supply will be running out. And then . . .'

'But surely, sir, they can improve the state system of education without wrecking ours? Why don't they just leave us alone?'

'Socialists.' said the Senior Usher, 'can never leave anything alone. That's the trouble. They start with one or two things that badly need reforming, and jolly good luck to them. But then it gets to be a habit. They can't stop. And that's what'll do them in. As Macaulay has it, we can make shift to live under a debauchee or even a tyrant; but to be ruled by a busybody is more than human nature can bear.'

'So how long do you give them? '

The Senior Usher took a long swig of Algerian.

'Not much more, I hope, than four years. By which time a lot of people will have stopped being grateful for the benefits and started to resent the preaching. Particularly if it is suggested that their socialist duty required them to share their new prosperity with their less fortunate brothers in other lands.'

'And that'll be the end of the socialists? '

'For the time being . . . The Senior Usher looked suddenly glum. This foul wine,' he said, 'is not improved by a thunderous atmosphere . . . Yes, for the time being the end of the socialists and, I hope, of our dreary friend Constable. But just at present he's in the ascendant, and I must give you a solemn warning.' 'Warning, sir?'

'Yes. Although you made none too good an impression on him back in May, he was interested by your ambition to become a don. So he has written to me to inquire about you. He may hate my guts but he respects my judgment. In his way, he's a very just man.'

'What did you tell him?'

'That it was early days yet but I thought you showed great promise. I added that I should be very surprised if you didn't turn your minor scholarship into one of the top awards next April.'

'Thank you, sir. But what has this to do with a warning?'

'Ah. Because of your behaviour when he met you. Constable has got it into his head that you are frivolous. He suspects your motives. He thinks you want to be a don because it is a pleasant way of life.'

'There's a lot in that,' I said.

'Of course there is, and no one but a prig like Constable would resent it. But as it is, you're handicapped---doubly handicapped. As an economist, Constable in any case tends to regard us classical scholars as parasites. And here you are cheerfully admitting to the status.'

'But I don't admit to the status.'

'You admit---to me---that you're out for enjoyment?'

'Among other things.'

'Then by Constable's standards you are a self-acknowledged parasite.'

'What am I meant to do? Exterminate myself?'

'You must try to disguise the fact that you are enjoying yourself. For Constable's benefit, you must turn scholarship into a duty. You must regard a fellowship as a high vocation.'

'But surely, sir, Mr. Constable's not typical of the entire college?'

'No. But he holds an important office in it. Now I've had time to think about it more closely, it's clear that Lancaster have been very shrewd in appointing him. It's clear that they saw the way the wind was blowing and installed Robert Constable as a valuable piece of camouflage.'

'Mixed metaphor.'

'Don't be pert. Their scheme is that Constable, as Tutor of the College, should go through a conspicuous routine of labour and sorrow for the benefit of the socialist authorities, while the rest of them are left in peace to pursue their own amusements.'

'Then they'll be on my side?'

'Likely enough. But they won't put themselves out to protect you from Constable. He's got too important a function to fulfil: he's both a concession to and a defence against the demands of the socialist conscience. For the time being they'll let him have his way.'

'Like you said that Sunday? Let him sell the port and grow cabbages on the front lawn?'

'I doubt,' said the Senior Usher, 'whether they'll go as far as that. But they certainly won't make an issue over you'

As the days went on the clouds on the horizon continued to sulk there and hour by hour the air became heavier with their threat.

'Bad for the nerves,' Peter Morrison said. 'And now, Fielding, a word in your ear.'

We went to Peter's study. Although the window was wide open, the little room was like an oven and smelt, very faintly, of Peter's feet, for it was his custom to work with his shoes off.

'Your little thing with Christopher,' said Peter. 'I don't want to seem censorious. It's happened to us all at one time or another. But that's the point. In your case the time has now come to stop.'

'Nothing's really started.'

Peter shook his head in gentle reproof.

'Something's started all right,' he said; 'the only question is how to stop it before it's too late. It's not a question of morals. Fielding. It's just that you're now too important a person to be found out. At this stage whatever happened to you would affect everybody. Corruption in high places: drums beating, heads rolling. It's bad for the House, that kind of thing. It distracts people. Disturbs good order.'

'You're preaching to the converted,' I told him. 'I don't want trouble any more than you. And I've done nothing to cause it.'

'I know how easily the converted can relapse. Take myself . . . Well, no, perhaps we'd better not do that.'

Peter smiled, rather obliquely.

'If you were going to offer any practical advice . . . I prompted him.

'Practical advice of any value is hard come by in this particular field. But there's one important thing I want you to get into your head. People make a lot of fuss about all this. They talk of boys being perverted for life by their experiences at their public schools, and they then maintain that this is why, quite apart from any question of abstract morality, it's so vital to keep the place "pure". But what they can't or won't realize,' Peter said, almost angrily for him, 'is that it's not what two boys do together in private which does the permanent damage, but the hysterical row which goes on if they get caught.'

'I'm not quite with you.'

'Well, then. Two boys disappear into the bushes. Once, twice, twenty times. They get a lot of pleasure from one another, but other things being equal it does not become a permanent taste, because they grow up and go out into a wider world which offers richer diversions. All right?'

'All right.'

'But supposing they're found out. Drama, tears, denunciation, letters to parents, threats of expulsion, endless inquisition: when, how often, with whom, where, how . . . And by the time that little lot's over, what would have been just a casual experience, not much more than an accident, has become . . . momentous, obsessive. It has been branded on to the very core of memory and feeling. It has become something which is always with you, like a wound which will be there and keep reopening for the rest of your life. A trauma, I think the psychologists call it. But the wound was not inflicted, in most cases, by the original incident, only by the savage insistence . . . by the vengefulness . . . of those who chanced to find the secret out. And indeed the reactions of authority can be so extreme that they affect not only the boys immediately accused but anyone else round the place who has ever done the same thing himself. Even, perhaps, those who are completely innocent. The whole atmosphere is charged with guilt, fear and fascination. It's like this thunder hanging over us now. Can you wonder that the public schools turn out so many . . . so called . . . homosexuals?'

'You seem to have gone into it with some care.'

'It was no more than my duty. When I became head of this House. I had to determine how I could meet my responsibilities, how I would cope with whatever might crop up---this included.'

'And you decided that the best way was to leave people to amuse themselves in peace?'

'Let's just say that I wished the topic to be as unobtrusive as possible. Which is why I am so anxious that you, a person of prominence, should not run the risk of stirring up a conspicuous scandal. Others, you should remember, are less tolerant that I am.'


'In a place like this there are always inquisitive people. You don't need me to tell you.'

'No. I don't. Because I told you a long time ago---and it's still true---that I've given up . . . games in the woods. I've done nothing with Christopher. Nothing whatever.'

'Keep it that way,' said Peter briskly; 'that's all.'

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