Chronicles of Halden, I
- Auksford -
Checking the facts
Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
Jessie Miller had arrived at the school before her husband. She paused in the entrance hall, uncertain which way to go, standing bewildered with the great, stone fireplace on her right and the tall wooden dresser on her left, with its piles of exercise books waiting to be marked or returned to their owners. A sudden clatter made her jump, and she found herself trembling violently as a group of heavily built youths came crashing down the stone staircase in front of her, turned across the hall, and went out into the yard, talking and laughing.
She looked around wildly ... for someone to help her ... for somewhere to hide ... and her eye fell on a door next to the book-laden dresser. On it was painted Secretary. Mrs Miller took a grip on herself, approached the door and knocked gently. She waited a few moments, then tapped again, a little louder.
The door jerked open.
"I said Come in!" complained a small, red-haired woman in a strikingly green dress, then stopped. "Oh! ... Oh, sorry. I thought it was one of the children. Do forgive me. I should have been expecting you. Er ... Mrs Miller?"
"Yes. Where's my little girl? Where's Amanda?"
"She's in here. Quite happy," said Tinkerbell O'Reilly, ushering Mrs Miller in and hovering round the tender reunion between mother and child.
The crash of the front door interrupted her thoughts and heralded the arrival of Mr Miller, whose rage, far from being assuaged by the assurance that Amanda was unharmed, was reinforced by the energy that he could divert from worry on her account. Tinkerbell O'Reilly felt that she really could not cope with so large and ferocious a man. He was more like a raging gorilla, but whereas a gorilla might be content with frightening off its enemies with a threatening display, she felt that if Mr Miller caught sight of his daughter's attackers, or, for that matter of any other boys in the school, he would tear them to pieces before her eyes. She lost no time in urging them to see the Headmaster, and, as soon as she was sure they had understood, she took them across the hallway to his office without daring to use the intercom in case her momentary inattention should allow a chance encounter and a hideous act of carnage.
On her return she found Amanda sitting in silent, open-mouthed terror. Her father's rage seemed to have frightened her far more than her original ordeal. Tinkerbell murmured a few words of comfort, then sat down at her desk to wait for the rapists' parents, who had also been summoned to the school - but another visitor interrupted her vigil.
"There is not a word of truth in it," said Tinkerbell O'Reilly crossly. "I don't know where you journalists pick up these rumours. You ought to check your facts!"
"That's just what I'm doing, Miss O'Reilly," replied Winston Greatbatch. "That's why I'm here."
"Then I suggest you leave!"
"Is this the little girl?" Greatbatch asked, smiling at Amanda.
"NO!" snapped Tinkerbell.
"There has been no rape!" insisted Tinkerbell. "I've already told you."
"Several times, but I'm interested in this little girl."
"She's been to the dentist," said Tinkerbell quickly, "and it's rather upset her. She's always been a nervous child."
"Tell me about the nasty dentist," suggested Winston.
"If you dhon't stop pestering the child and ghet out of my office I shall have you t'rown out!" Tinkerbell's moustache bristled, and smooth-lipped Winston retreated submissively.
"All right, all right, I'm going. I'll just wander round the school if I may."
"You may not!" shouted Tinkerbell, red-faced with fury at his impertinence. Amanda's mouth began to drop open again, and Winston allowed himself to be hustled to the main front door.
He smiled at her pleasantly and raised his Tyrolean hat - a necessary accessory for any journalist, he felt.
"Something to hide," he thought, walking jauntily away. "I think I'll drop round to Uncle Arthur's at lunchtime. I haven't seen my dear cousin, Colin, for weeks."
Colin Greatbatch was, as always, delighted to see his cousin Winston, for he too had set his sights on journalism as a career and hoped Winston would help place his feet on the first rung of the ladder of success when he came down from university a freshly minted graduate, the first of his family. When Winston muttered platitudes about not having been to college but getting his education in the University of Life, Colin controlled his disgust, and did not ask him, as he would have asked anyone else, when he hoped to graduate. Although he knew he would soon leave his more limited cousin behind in his meritocratic progress to the top, Colin was shrewd enough, in this at least, not to show any consciousness of his own superiority until his foot was firmly placed. He did not trouble, however, to conceal his scorn for most of the other descendants of the late William Wordsworth Greatbatch, family butcher, and of Emily née Bragg, relict of the said William Wordsworth Greatbatch. This shared contempt for most of their relations was, in fact, a further bond between the journalistic Greatbatch cousins.
Winston said little over lunch, but Colin sensed there was a story on the point of breaking and that his help was needed by the Press. It needed little imagination to connect Winston's interest with the flap at school, the absence of Miss Hardacre and Mr Lawrence from their classes, the conference in the Headmaster's office, and the air of mystery which not even the prefects had been allowed to penetrate.
"Any ideas?" Winston asked after he had outlined the awful tale of rape. Colin had ideas, in fact he knew exactly which boys were likely to have done the dirty deed, but he knew better than to give away a story before he had made it his own, so all he said was, "I might have."
They separated some little distance from the school, for, though Colin was proud of his journalistic connections, he felt it inexpedient that people should be reminded of them immediately before a story with his cousin's by-line was to rip away the veils of silence and hypocrisy which cloaked the school in spurious respectability.
Unusually for him he sought out Johnny Cowan.
"What d'you want, Greatbatch?" sneered the fourth-form gang-leadewr. "It's not pay-day yet."
"Sh!" Colin was in agony lest anyone should overhear.
"Huh! Everybody knows we pay you, except the pre's."
"There's no need to talk about it."
Colin was worried, and with good reason. If his suspicion was correct, if Johnny Cowan's gang had raped Amanda Miller, there would be a full-scale investigation into the gang's activities, past and present. Colin didn't care if Johnny Cowan were punished for fighting in the first form, for bullying in the second, for making determined efforts to seduce the newly arrived girls when the schools were amalgamated in his third year, it was the protection racket Cowan was running as a fourth-former that worried Colin Greatbatch.
He had been a very new sub-prefect when he had first seen Cowan in a detention class. He'd not been surprised, detention seemed the right place for Johnny Cowan, but he had been apprehensive. The Cowan gang were known throughout the school for their rowdy and violent behaviour. Now James Rason, Dave Black and Stanley Davidson were disrupting the detention class by talking in loud, raucous voices. When he ordered them to silence they looked at him with unconcealed contempt and curled their lips. Johnny Cowan merely smiled.
Only ten minutes had passed. It seemed like hours. The rest of the school was deserted. Colin called again for quiet.
Johnny Cowan slowly got up from his desk and walked forward. His gang rose and took their stand behind their leader. Colin's heart was thumping, his stomach churned, and his legs would not have supported him if he had tried to stand.
"It's ridiculous," he told himself. "I'm a sub-prefect. There's nothing they can do. I'm a sub-prefect."
But he was afraid. Johnny Cowan's reputation dated back to his first-form days, when he had led a successful revolt against the ritual initiation of new boys, who were forced to the bottom of the yard, shoved over the Wall, a three foot drop onto the small field, and prevented from regaining the higher ground by a line of defenders. When the enthusiastic second-formers tried to continue this game into the third week of term Johnny Cowan brought it to a sudden end. While lesser spirits sought to breach the weak spots in the line or sneak around its ends, the Cowan gang charged straight for the centre. Their target was Webb, the second-form ringleader, a doughty warrior, always in the thick of the fray. Webb rushed to meet the charge, kicking out enthusiastically at the despised new bugs, only to find himself seized by the ankle, dragged from the rampart, and ruthlessly detrousered before an amazed audience of shocked friends and cheering foes.
After that the only boys to go over the Wall, were second and third formers propelled by the vengeful Cowan gang, among them Colin Greatbatch, who had been skulking unobtrusively in a corner of the yard, and who had never forgotten his terror when the gang grabbed him.
"What'll we do wid 'im, lads?"
"Ower the Wall!"
"Bit o' torture first!"
"Naw! Fling 'im in the nettles!"
"Yeah! Get 'is pants off!"
Already they were hustling him out of his corner, across the yard.
"Debag 'im! Debag 'im!"
Out in the open, where everyone could see. Over to the wall, where Webb had met his doom. His feet were off the ground - and he was over the wall, then sprawling in the grass while the cheering Cowan gang swarmed over him ... and away to pursue another victim. He had clutched his groin in shame and despair, and found himself, to his surprise, still trousered. The memory stayed with him, haunting those fantasy hours between waking and sleeping. If they had really done it ...
From time to time rumours of their exploits revived the shameful memory. The following year's initiations went on until Christmas. By then the Cowan gang had claimed the Old Bogs as their headquarters and forbidden other boys to use them. Anyone who innocently wandered in would be made to wish he hadn't. There was even an unconfirmed but widely-believed rumour that they had debagged an unwary fifth-former.
The union of the schools when they were in the third form had brought new concerns to the Cowan gang. They courted the girls assiduously, regarding girlfriends as trophies that confirmed their status, and they boasted to each other of their conquests. Their bullying continued. It became a means of asserting their superiority over other boys in the competition for feminine favour, and through it they won the companionship of Ada Biggs, Wilma Jenkins, Rita Storey, and that peerless beauty among proud princesses, leering Norah Blackburn.
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Chapter 4: Debagging
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