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Part Two, Chapter Six

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« on: August 03, 2023, 08:45:30 am »

AN extraordinary and for Gerald harrowingly memorable episode occurred on a Saturday afternoon later in the term during the progress of the games on the various cricket pitches. A car came up the sea road and parked on the verge behind the hedge that formed one of the boundaries of the playing fields. It disgorged three men and two girls who came through the hedge and sat in the uncut grass just beyond the actual playing area being used in the game in which Gerald was engaged.

“That lot have got a bloody cheek,” said Howarth, as Gerald passed him between overs.

“Trippers from the town,” said Gerald disgustedly. Later he saw that a man and a girl had detached themselves from the group and were wandering towards a broken-down and disused structure in the corner of the playing fields known as the Shed, in which Blakey had once been caught smoking. Despite the ambiguous shame he felt, Gerald yearned to watch every movement of this couple, who could be seen even at this distance to have their arms round each other as they walked. At last they reached the back of the Shed and there, though they were partially hidden by the building, it was evident that they were lying together in the grass.

By now all the participants in the match were aware of what was going on, but Gerald could not join in the sniggers. He asked himself incredulously if behind the Shed could really be taking place the unimaginable happening which he had nevertheless so often attempted to imagine and with results far other than the unrolling of this casual and sordid incident. He wished himself in the place of the man and at the same time wild thoughts came to him of trying to preserve the girl’s innocence.

“Wake up, Bracher,” someone shouted, and he saw as in another existence that the ball had been clouted in his direction.

It was not long before one of the two men near the car also rose and walked over to the Shed. The remaining man repeatedly and incoherently shouted after him. The man making for the Shed was in his shirt sleeves: the afternoon was very hot. A wicket had just fallen and Howarth came up to Gerald. “They’re all absolutely tight,” he said.

“Are they?” said Gerald. His fear for the girl increased. “Somebody ought to clear them off.”

When Gerald’s side had dismissed their opponents and he was reclining among the cricket bags and the blazers, the girl who had been behind the Shed came towards the playing pitch. Now it could be seen that her hair was dishevelled, her face puffed and pale. Before she had got very far one of the two Shed men came after her, caught her up and restrained her from proceeding. Twice she broke away from him. Then followed a long and earnest conversation, the man with his arm round the girl’s neck, his head bent very close to hers.

What could be going on? What could be the relationships between this quintet? Gerald, his head propped on his elbow, feigned somnolence while his half opened eyes devoured every nuance of gesture of these abandoned creatures. At last it came his turn to bat and when his innings was over he saw that the group had gathered together round the car and that one of the men was offering a bottle to a girl. Soon afterwards they drove away.

During his visit to the town in the evening of the same Saturday Gerald bought, set the example by the enterprising Howarth, a pound of plums as well as the usual pie and potato crisps. They ate the fruit as they walked back to school. In the middle of the night Gerald woke with griping pains and hastened along the corridors to the lavatories. As he sat there he remembered in great detail the suggestive and disgraceful events of the afternoon.

He had never wholly conquered his childhood fear of the dark: when he had turned out the light in the lavatories he moved as quickly as he could to the comparative safety of the landing, lit as it was by a naked, low-powered, violet electric lamp. Before he reached it the dim sight of a moving white shape stabbed him to the heart. “Who’s that?” he quavered involuntarily.

“It’s me,” said a small apologetic voice.

“Slade,” said Gerald, immediately recovering his official personality. “What are you doing here?”

The boy came up to him and Gerald reached back and switched on the light in the lavatories. He was impressed to see that Slade was wearing completely white pyjamas of a superior material. “I’ve got toothache,” replied Slade. “I was just going to brush my teeth.”

“What good will brushing your teeth do, you ass?” said Gerald, but recalling his own hours of torture by toothache he could not help feeling pity for the sufferer whose face, he saw, was pale under the disarranged hair and whose eyes glittered with a suspicion of tears.

“Well, brushing your teeth is supposed to stop them going bad.”

“You are an ass.”

“I suppose it was a silly idea, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”

“Is there a hole there?”

“Yes, Bracher.”

“Chew some blotting paper and make a plug for it.”

“The hole isn’t big enough, I don’t think.”

“Slade, Slade, you’ll be the death of me.” It was a fashionable catch-phrase, picked up from the Assistant Matron.

“I’m sorry, Bracher.”

“Why be sorry? It’s your toothache.”

“I wish I was you,” said Slade, “with no toothache.”

Gerald considered the boy, surprised by the humour implicit in his last remark. The strange hour of the night and his infirmity seemed to have caused a blossoming of character in Slade. Gerald found it momentarily hard to attach to the slim white figure the usual reaction he had on the rare occasions when they met---the reaction compounded of Gerald’s feeling that here was someone whom he could with impunity dominate, who ought to be dominated; of his knowledge of Slade’s cowardice at football and timidity at the time of the weights episode, and that Slade was excessively likely to be guilty of leaving his slippers in the vestibule or a slice of mutton on his Sunday plate---a character, in fact, which almost completely failed to measure up to the school’s arduous and elevated code. Perhaps, Gerald thought, he was being indulgent on this occasion because of the gnawing possibility that Slade had observed his momentary terror at encountering him in the dark.

“You wouldn’t like to be me,” said Gerald. “I’ve got the quirks.”

“Have you?” said Slade sympathetically. “I wondered why you were up.”

“Well, now you know.” And seeing Slade yawn, Gerald added: “Go off to bed. Sleep’s the best cure for toothache.”

“All right, Bracher. Good night.”

“Good night.” How odd it was to be saying that to Slade! The white pyjamas vanished and as he went back to his dormitory Gerald began to think again of the afternoon’s happenings on the playing field.

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