Chronicles of Halden, I
Alarms and Excursions
- Auksford -
Chapter 2: Battleground
Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
The news reached the Halden Courier (establ. 1848), where the editor had a brief but happy vision of bold headlines announcing rape, mayhem and possibly murder. Which of his team of ace reporters should be given the opportunity of covering the story. The answer was obvious: Winston Greatbatch. He had a cousin still at school who might prove a useful source of information, and, besides, he was the only one in the office.
By such chances are reputations made and Winston seized his with both hands. His cousin might well prove useful: he was a school prefect and bound to know what was going on. Winston's inner eye saw his by-line not only in the Halden Courier, but in the national dailies under screaming headlines:
rape victim's screams
By Winston Greatbatch
He pulled on his capacious American-style raincoat and hurried off, licking his lips.
"I have notified the little girl's parents of this atrocious occurrence," said Miss Hardacre.
"Er ... thank you, Miss Hardacre," the Headmaster replied with a weary, worried air. "I .. um .. hope you didn't alarm them."
"Unduly, I mean."
"Headmaster," said Miss Hardacre with icy determination, "I hardly think any alarm Amanda Miller's parents may feel could be described as undue. Their daughter has been raped, brutally raped!"
"As to that," cut in Mr Lawrence, "I take leave to doubt it."
Fury blazed in the depths of Miss Hardacre's soul as she faced the Deputy Headmaster, the usurper, and her eyes glowed with burning hostility.
"A girl has been brutally assaulted," she insisted. She was forcibly stripped, and, but for my intervention, would have been savagely raped by these revolting hooligans, and you say you take leave to doubt it!"
"Penetration did not take place," he said, "and besides ..."
His crudity disgusted her. It was, she knew, deliberate. He would take the part of the rapists to spite her."
"Only because I stopped them in time!" she blazed. "I knew something like this would happen. You can't expect otherwise in the circumstances."
"What circumstances? I really don't see ..."
"No! You wouldn't. You think it's just a bit of fun when these lascivious louts slake their wicked lusts on defenceless little girls."
"Miss Hardacre!" rapped Lawrence. "These boys ..."
"They're all the same," she broke in, a Cassandra justified by events. "They're like animals when they break out! Like animals!"
Miss Hardacre stopped on this climax. Mr Lawrence made no attempt to reply. The Headmaster, sunk in misery, saw his previously certain prospects of promotion to the headship of the fully unified and expanded comprehensive school planned by Halden City Council receding and being overshadowed by the likelihood of an ignominious early retirement. He gazed abstractedly before him into his own imagination, hearing but not attending to the customary quarrelling between his deputy, Mr Lawrence, and the embittered Miss Hardacre. Their arguments were well-known to him, and it was neither amusing nor edifying that so much of their conduct should be motivated by their conflicting ambitions and mutual dislike.
When, two years previously, the first stage of the Council's comprehensivisation plan had been put into effect, and his Boys' Grammar School had been united with the neighbouring Girls' High School, a neat and tidy scheme for combining the staffs had been devised. Some teachers had left rather than lose their departmental responsibilities, or because they feared the effects of non-selective intake. Others had transferred as heads or deputy heads of department to Parkside School, a mixed secondary modern whose facilities were being expanded, and the remainder, even those who still had some lingering grievances, had soon settled down quite happily under his benign rule.
The departure of the girls' headmistress to a happy retirement in a cottage by the sea, with rambler roses round her door and the scent of lavender and thyme wafting on the heady breeze - or such at least was how he liked to think of her, though it was equally possible that she lived in a London flat, existing frugally upon a diet of baked beans and black coffee, supplemented now and then by such more exotic delicacies as her meagre pension might procure her, (a packet of petit fours, say, or some rock cakes, or even, on high days and holidays, a quarter of a pound of sausages), while she slaved over her typewriter, or, more probably, wrote out in longhand, (in a beautifully neat script, round and full, the upstrokes as delicate as the finest human hair and the downstrokes bold and true, as she had been taught by her own schoolmistresses so many years ago and had instilled into so many of her own pupils), another of her gifts to posterity, perhaps a slim volume of poetry, rather dry but with a distinct and characteristic flavour, like a fine sherry - her departure had been chosen as the moment for the amalgamation of the schools, and he had been put in charge of the new co-educational school with the prospect of bigger and better things to come.
Under him his deputy, Lawrence, was to have ranked equally with the deputy head from the girls' school, but at the last moment she too had departed, to become a headmistress in her own right somewhere in Devon or Cornwall. Miss Hardacre, the most senior of the remaining mistresses, had thereupon asserted her unassailable conviction that the post of deputy head was hers. Somehow it appeared that her old headmistress had promised her that if ever it fell vacant before the school was swallowed up into the comprehensive giant, she would most definitely succeed to it by right of seniority.
It was this unlikely promise, if promise it were, extorted by who knew what indefatigable prolonged insistence on the need to exert a firm control over the course of future changes and their effects on the girls, which brought the Headmaster's satisfaction at his promotion crashing in ruins and raised continual dissension not only in the staff-room but among the School Governors, who had split rapidly into two camps. Councillor Mrs Evadne Snellgrove, Councillor Willie Thompson, Canon Tollgate and Lady Margaret Hall all insisted that the vacant post should be filled as soon as possible and that Miss Hardacre was the obvious person to fill it if the moral decline of the mid-twentieth century were not to infect the school in their charge. The Bishop, Councillor Ernest Bairstow, Councillor Norman Polstead and Councillor Mrs Christine Pardoe were equally adamant that Miss Hardacre's inflexible puritanism entirely unfitted her for the post. The Chairman, Dr Gibbon-Moneypenny, maintained his usual, determinedly neutral line, in which he was ably supported by Councillor Mrs Ethel Rycroft, when she attended meetings, Councillor Eric Little, when he was awake, and that most consummate of pragmatic politicians, Councillor Mrs Virginia Lambert.
Miss Hardacre had strong views on everything concerned with the running of a school, from the teaching of Mathematics, Biology or French to the maintenance of discipline in an unruly second form, from the planning of timetables to the enforcement of rules on school uniform, and from the management of the School Governors and the Education Committee to the policing of the lavatories and the elimination of smoking and smut. The strongest of her views by far concerned the relations between males and females of the human species, and in particular the dangers to the girls in her charge of their enforced association with boys.
Sex she regarded as a battleground, a war, a campaign in which no quarter could be expected from the aggressors. For centuries women and girls had been degraded by masculine lust, and, although many women found within the sanctity of marriage a modus vivendi by which they might co-exist, sometimes extremely comfortably, with their husbands, men in the unmarried state, or even, sadly, those temporarily out of their wives' control, were to be regarded with suspicion: at any moment thay might give way to the base carnality of their natures. Whatever suave sophistication or cultured good manners they might affect, underneath they remained ravening wolves, seeking whom they might deflower.
Miss Hardacre's position as a schoolmistress had made her especially aware of the dangers to young girls represented by the uncontrolled bestiality of adolescent boys. The new thrills of sexual passion surged in their blood, uncontrolled by even the superficial civilising processes that curbed older men. Where a prominent businessman, a politician, a lawyer, a headmaster would be restrained from giving free rein to his lewd desires by the realisation that his wealth and social position would be jeopardised by any unseemly act, where even a common working man would hesitate to risk his marriage and his job, a schoolboy, having gained nothing would have nothing to lose and would abandon himself entirely to the pleasures of his carnal lusts.
It was far better for boys to be segregated into their own schools, she thought. Among themselves their bestiality might pass for no more than animal high spirits. Their smoking, gambling, masturbation, bullying, initiation rites, fighting, and all their other nasty habits would harm none but themselves. It was wrong that young girls in the confusion of adolescence, emotionally disturbed in many cases by the operation within their ripening bodies of those hormone-controlled processes which would bring them to the full flower of womanhood, should be thrust into situations where they might fall an easy prey to the insistent demands of male sexuality most unfairly reinforced by the boys' greater strength.
She had viewed with considerable misgivings, which she had by no means kept to herself, the union of the two schools and the consequent throwing together of the two sexes during the critical period of adolescence. She had predicted dire consequences. She had done her best to protect her girls, looking after their interests at every turn, without a word of thanks from anyone. Though she had failed to protect her flock, though one of them had been taken, could there have been in the depth of that steely soul a hint of satisfaction at the realisation of her prediction? The Headmaster and his clique, Mr Lawrence in particular, had affected to scorn her fears and used every means in their power to thwart her accession to the deputy-headship from which she might have prevented the tragedy. Well, now they were proved wrong. No matter how they wriggled and squirmed to prove that the rapists were good lads at heart, no matter how they sought to represent the attack on little Amanda Miller as a one in a million chance, henceforth she would be in a position to see that no more little girls in Halden School suffered Amanda's cruel fate.
She fixed her opponent, Lawrence, with her glittering eye, holding a pause in her tirade like a red cape, challenging him to charge again and glorying in his reluctance. He was beaten, she thought, and since the Headmaster was a mere puppet, a dreamer, she would control the school. The votes of the School Governors were already being counted in her imagination when there came a knock on the door, and Tinkerbell O'Reilly, the school secretary, ushered in the Millers.
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