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Part Two, Chapter Four

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« on: August 03, 2023, 08:17:04 am »

IN the light of day Cropper dwindled back to his real stature: at meal times, Gerald, to Mountain’s inexhaustible amusement, resumed his fantasies about Cropper’s home life, his wit, it seemed to him, brilliantly sharpened by the memory of the blow Cropper had dealt him. And yet his whole school life was coloured by the knowledge that someone essentially stronger than himself detested and lay in wait for him. One day Blakey idly mentioned that this was Mountain’s last term. To Gerald it was incredible: Mountain was quite far from the top level of the school. “He’s going into his father’s business,” Blakey said. And of course it was true---it made rational Mountain’s attitude to his life here, already half detached from it as he was. Gerald left Blakey with a feeling of sick apprehension, for he was convinced that only Mountain’s presence kept Cropper as essentially a figure of fun and prevented him from assuming his true character, as the future mad, cruel and despotic monarch is indulgently regarded as a mere womanizer and idler while he is Crown Prince.

The landmarks of term took on for Gerald, therefore, an extra significance, as of time for an examination candidate. Sports Day arrived, welcome as a day of unusual happenings, of proving one’s long nurtured ability to compete, and yet too soon slicing off an irretrievable part of term.

The strings and little flags marking out the track, the deck-chairs and marquee and tables of refreshments, were familiar to most from previous years but Gerald regarded them as sentimentally as one might creamy blossom on gnarled boughs or some energetic activity from an octogenarian---heart-warming evidence of the school’s vivid hidden life, stemming, as Gerald recognized, from the inspiration, money, even, of the Headmaster. The masters, too, were transformed: by blazers, or white flannel trousers, and the badges that indicated their official roles.

The boarders were on the field early: some, non-combatants like Matley, to hand out programmes and show visitors to the deck-chairs, but all with the apprehension of seeing their parents against the background of school. Gerald took a programme from Matley. “ ‘Mrs. Henry Cole has graciously consented to present the prizes,’ ” he read. “Now who the heck is Mrs. Henry Cole?”

“Cole’s mother,” said Matley. “And don’t dirty that programme: I want it back.”

“Cole’s mother,” Gerald repeated with astonishment. “That fat slug.”

“Didn’t you know that his father was an alderman?”

“I don’t see that that gives his mother the privilege of presenting the prizes.”

“Wheels within wheels,” said Mountain, who was standing by looking strange and muscular in a roll-neck white sweater.

“What do you mean, Mountain?” asked Gerald.

But Mountain had suddenly seen that Cropper was within earshot. “What I’m waiting for,” he said in a penetrating voice, “is that team of dogs rushing up the drive dragging the famous Cropper automobile.”

“I see they’ve been thoughtful enough to put up a kennel in the car park,” said Gerald.

Mountain laughed and walked away. The first, the on the whole humbler, parents began to arrive---unsure, perhaps, of securing a seat near the finishing tape or at all. Gerald regarded them with outward contempt, but scrutinized them all as they came into view, willing them not to be his father. And then, as the groups began to thicken and the chairs to fill, the Headmaster could be seen moving slowly and purposefully about, and for Gerald he was like the protagonist in a newspaper photograph whose image alone among other images has not by some technical process been rendered pale. When Mr. Pemberton made as though to come near---and then it could be seen clearly that he had marked the day by putting on a suit of a much lighter grey than the usual clerical shade which had no doubt given him his nickname and by leaving off his hat, so that the breeze ruffled slightly the long hair above his ears---Gerald himself moved away, interposing between them a few knots of people, for he feared that his father might arrive and the Headmaster catch them together. In such circumstances it seemed inconceivable that Mr. Pemberton would not bring up the beating he had given Gerald for breaking bounds last term, an event of which Gerald had allowed his father to remain ignorant.

It was on such an occasion as this that Gerald realized the extent of the gulf between his father’s conception of him and the reality. The beating and the crime from which it had resulted were not perhaps in themselves utterly venal, but for the Headmaster to reveal them to his father would be an indication of the whole gross scale of behaviour on the part of the boys for which Mr. Pemberton had evolved an appropriate penal code and against which he conducted his ceaseless battle. How much less a deceit was his relationship with the Headmaster than that with his father, though even from Mr. Pemberton he believed he was able to conceal the greater part of his affairs.

Blakey strolled up with the nonchalance of one whose parents were safely in the West Indies. “Haven’t your people come yet, Bracher?” he asked.

Gerald shook his head, too embarrassed to say that only his father would be coming since that would surely mean that he would not be able to withhold from Blakey the astounding fact of his parents’ separation. He cast desperately round for a subject to divert Blakey’s attention. “My word,” he said, “Percy looks pretty scruffy, doesn’t he?”

The pavilion had been outlined with bunting: Mr. Percy was leaning against the rail wearing a tweed jacket familiar from weeks of ordinary days, and grey flannel trousers whose shape was determined only by the bulk of the master’s lower anatomy.

“They say he’s getting a bit sweet on Evie,” remarked Blakey.

Gerald, whose attention had been attracted merely by Mr. Percy’s disgusting refusal to make any sartorial concession to the importance of the occasion, saw now that the master was talking to Miss Pemberton and was immediately envious to think of the possibility of the girl’s affections being engaged, though in reality he had not the slightest regard for her. “Balls,” he said.

“That’s what they say,” Blakey affirmed.

Then Gerald saw his father coming through the crowd and felt a sharp, anxious pain in his solar plexus as though this were the start of one of the races in which he was to be, later in the afternoon, engaged. Mr. Bracher was looking about him in a way that momentarily puzzled Gerald until he realized that it was he for whom his father was searching---that this place and these people were utterly strange and perhaps embarrassing to his father. And he foresaw in a flash how he would greet his father who immediately would wrongly see him as the centre of this world, wanting to know when he was running, what chances he had, whether or not he would be free to be taken out for tea. An immense burden of responsibility descended on Gerald, the responsibility of being the object of love, of cherished possession, and all he could feel in return was an unutterable and awkward pity.

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