Chronicles of Halden, I
Alarms and Excursions
- Auksford, 2004 -
© Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
Colin Greatbatch had spared no effort to keep his word. His investigations of the previous day had convinced him of the futility of seeking information from his peers - the prefects had been kept in utter ignorance - and he had found no knowledge of the attack where he most expected it, among the Cowan gang. Subterfuge alone remained. As the best friend and unofficial deputy of dynamic David Little, the hyper-capable unofficial deputy and certain successor to the School Captain, Colin found scarcely any difficulty in slightly rearranging the duty roster so that he was on chucking-out duty, which involved clearing the inmates out of classrooms and corridors and forcing them out into the healthy fresh air at break. The final inspection of the classrooms to ensure their total vacuity of human occupation, could, he saw, be combined with a swift and surreptitious glance at the attendance registers of the senior forms - the information was not secret, but it could be invaluable, for among those marked absent must surely be the two rapists, who could not possibly be living their normal daily lives as if nothing had happened.
Colin's comrade-in-arms, with whom he had exchanged duties, found that patrolling the yard and field was even less necessary than usual. No boisterous games threatened to overwhelm the smaller pupils, no quarrels or fights seemed likely to break out, no footballs threatened flowering shrubs or window panes, no other thought seemed to enter the minds of the lower, middle or higher form pupils than to congregate in little groups and talk in low voices. Then groups would coalesce, exchange information in an excited buzz, break up, join other groups, compare what they knew and what they thought they knew. Names were mentioned here and names were mentioned there. Names were added together, compared, assessed, deleted from the speculative lists as new information scotched idle rumours. Some names spread rapidly, then died away; some stayed where they were, the cherished possession of a small select group; others spread slowly, then flew around the yard like a contagious disease, only to find when they had come full circle that their original hosts were now resistant to their influence; some names crashed through the throng evoking gales of laughter, only to be forgotten almost immediately, while others were passed in whispers, repeated in whispers, whispers that gradually drowned out all other names. The prefect on yard duty felt sure it was bad for his charges to indulge their curiosity in so exclusive a manner, but there was little he could do except listen for the whispered names and return to report them to his colleagues in their study.
When the bell began to ring, Colin Greatbatch allowed himself to scan one final register. Not a single boy was absent. He put it away and hurried from the room, but not quickly enough to escape the jeers of Johnny Cowan and his gang, who instantly realised what he was about.
"Who's absent, then, Greatbatch?"
"Have you found out who did it?"
"Who did it then, Greatbatch?"
Taking his tone from the super-hyper-perfect soon-to-be head prefect, David Little, Colin replied with as much hauteur as he could muster, "Be quiet or I'll put you all in detention," and walked off quickly to avoid noticing the lack of effect his threat would have.
It had been a fruitless and frustrating search. Several of the registers had been locked away in the teachers' desks, and, on those he had seen, only two boys were marked absent. One was Harold Cooper, whom he knew to be in hospital having his appendix removed. The other was the saintly Martin Nicholson who drifted round the school in a perpetual dream of holiness, scarcely knew of the existence of girls, and seemed to have no friends apart from Brian Adamson, another would-be saint. A more unlikely pair of rapists could scarcely be imagined, and, in any case, Winston knew that Adamson was at school, for, as he was crossing the yard, he had heard him inveighing against the sins of his classmates and preaching the gospel of righteousness.
The answer must lie in the locked-away registers. Outwitted by the craftiness of the Establishment, Colin composed his face to a mask of indifference and made a deliberately leisured and dignified progress to his French class without calling in at the prefects' study.
Self-consciously aware that his quest had not escaped the notice of his schoolfellows, and convinced that his known connection with the Press must inevitably focus their suspicious attention on him, he contrived to avoid the sort of conversation where he might be asked what his indefatigable researches had uncovered, indeed he passed the second half of the morning almost without speaking to a single soul. At lunchtime he extended his search for incriminating evidence as far as the third forms, after attempting unsuccessfully to open the locked desk-drawers, which had previously foiled him, with a bunch of keys which had been hanging unregarded for unremembered years on the prefects' keyboard. He even contrived to peep at the registers of the Lower Sixth (Arts), but could think of no reasonable excuse for crossing to the bottom end of the yard and taking the narrow path which led between the Mclntyre block and the small field to the distant and secluded science block. Perhaps another change of duties might be made during the afternoon; in the meantime, having nothing to report, Colin sped home, avoiding the prearranged meeting place where Winston lurked.
While Winston was listening to Rupert Todd's fourth topic of conversation - the exact point of it somehow escaped him, but it was very impressive and involved the mention of the names of a large number of eminent scholars whose intimate acquaintance Todd had made while at the Bodleian - Colin was engaged in light evasive badinage with members of the Science Sixth about the unrequited love for Myrtle Hetherington which had driven him to seek out their distant seclusion. It might not have been so bad if Myrtle herself, an immense, spotty girl, had not joined in with enthusiasm, and, softened by the tender-hearted intercession of her companions, overcome her scientific detachment and let her heart rule her head so far as to implant upon his feverish lips a warm, wet, incredibly sloppy kiss. Her saliva seemed to spread over half his face and to penetrate his grim, tight mouth. Out once more in the fresh air, he could feel it drying on his cheeks and chin, and even when he had washed thoroughly, and rinsed his mouth and gargled, he still felt distinctly unwell. But Journalism is a stern mistress, and these are the sacrifices she demands.
Rupert Todd meanwhile was speaking of the eminent Maltese bibliographer, Dr Lonzu Zammit-Cuschieri, author of Il kotba ta ziti. A large number, perhaps indeed most, of the copies of this privately printed, multi-volume work had, of course, perished in the German attack on Malta during the Second World War, and this, more than any other single factors had prevented its author from assuming his true place at the head of the twin professions of librarianship and bibliography in the post-war era. Todd, who was not conversant with the Maltese language in which Dr Zammit-Cuschieri for the highest of patriotic motives invariably wrote, had nevertheless succeeded in familiarising himself, if not with the actual content of the book, at least with the aesthetic judgement behind its author and publisher's choice of paper, typography and binding. Todd had indeed been granted the inestimable privilege of handling the author's own copy, bound in half-calf with marbled boards, and had conceived the not inconsiderable project of issuing a selection in English of those passages relating to bookbinding and book-bindings. Dr Zammit-Cuschieri had been so impressed with the idea that he had overcome his patriotic predilection for reserving the products of his mind for the edification of his own nation and had put up funds to employ a research assistant to pick out and translate the required passages. Todd, as editor, would contribute the introduction, and Dr Z. would himself write a commendatory preface. The book would be published simultaneously in English and French by the Institut Vorochilov in Dijon, of which Todd had recently become a Fellow, and of which Dr Zammit-Cuschieri was a perpetual honorary Vice-President.
"Running and shouting and screaming, they were," said the elderly lady, "I didn't know what was going on, but I can tell you one thing: it's not the sort of behaviour that I would have expected from a Church youth club."
Her companion nodded emphatically. "Running and screaming and shouting," she said, "and chasing each other round the Church Hall. I didn't get a wink of sleep all night."
"It's that Curate," said the elderly lady. "I said no good would come of having a young man as curate. I said it all along, didn't I, Mabel?"
Her companion nodded again. "It's the curate," she affirmed, "I suppose they've got to start somewhere, but this new curate's scarcely more than a schoolboy."
"I think," said the elderly lady, "that it all comes of not having National Service. In the old days a boy went into the army for a couple of years and learned how to take discipline and how to discipline others - and he came out a man."
"I don't think the new curate can have been in the army," sighed her companion.
"I'm quite sure he hasn't," said the elderly lady. "He wouldn't have allowed such goings-on if he had."
"I think it's such a shame," said her companion, "that poor Mr Williams had to retire. He was such a help to dear Canon Tollgate, and so kind to the old people."
"Most of the old people I've spoken to like Mr Mouse very much," said Minnie Hodges, "and nowadays at least the youngsters do have somewhere to go."
"Oh I do agree, Mrs Hodges," cried the elderly lady, "I don't want to say anything against Mr Mouse. It's just that _ well, he hasn't been in the army you know."
"Very few men of his generation have," said Minnie.
"Yes, that's just it," said the elderly lady. "There really ought to have been an older man in charge."
"There are very few curates as old as Mr Williams was," said Minnie, "after all he did enter the ministry rather late."
"I am sure the Lord does not think any the worse of him for that," said the elderly lady in tones which proved her more virtuous than Minnie, "after all there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth - not that I think Mr Williams was ever a sinner!"
"No, the Lord won't think any the worse of him," echoed Mabel,
"but the old order changeth, as the Psalmist says."
"Ah yes," sighed the elderly lady, "all the old values are going. I don't know what the world's coming to. You've heard about the rape at the school?"
"Wasn't it terrible?" enthused Mabel.
"It's this new style of education," said the elderly lady, "free expression, they call it. No more reading, writing and arithmatic, just free expression. Well you're bound to get something like this."
"Absolutely bound to."
"I mean half the teachers are Communists from all I hear," said the elderly lady, "I'm just thankful none of mine are still at school. They're filling the children's heads with pacifism and rubbish like that nowadays. I mean, my husband always says God help England if there's another war. That's what he says."
"Excuse me," said Minnie, "I'm in a bit of a hurry", and she moved to another check-out till whose queue had shortened. Behind her she heard the conversation continue.
"When I was a girl," said Mabel, "boys and girls were kept separated at school."
"I went to an all-girls school," said the elderly lady, "but that's all changed. It's all these comprehensive schools nowadays."
"All free expression and Communists."
"They need a bit of discipline."
"They want to bring back the strap."
"They'll sort them out after this last thing, this rape. They'll have to or people won't stand for it. It doesn't matter how much the teachers try to cover it up, it'll all have to be sorted out."
The schools were out when Minnie left the supermarket, and boys and girls of various shapes and sizes were on their homeward way under the watchful eye of the community of shoppers. The emanation of the collective consciousness of the women who scurried or loitered in the streets of Halden assumed an almost palpable form, the Housewife, hovering over the city, her bulging bags clutched grimly in her podgy hands, her feet, flattened and splayed, shuffling slightly to relieve her aching ankles, and her gimlet eyes gleaming sloe-black, as the flared nostrils above her tightened mouth sniffed out the scent of sin. Those boisterous lads who careered along the streets calling in raucous, broken voices - they spelled danger, danger to her children. Those elegant sixth-formers sauntering casually along the streets, their hands deep in their trouser-pockets - well, she knew what they were fingering as they strolled along pretending to be gentlemen, the dirty beasts. Was it from their number that the rapists came, or from the running, raucous, rough-and-ready, rough-and-tumble boys, or from the quiet boys who walked sedately in neatly pressed trousers and smart black blazers, aping their sixth-form "superiors"? Even the fresh-faced, little boys, many of them still in shorts, would open their mouths to call out in voices that suddenly plunged from dove- winged treble to rusty tenor or cracked baritone, from shrill falsetto to corncrake-creaking. The metamorphosis was under way. The Housewife shuddered as they passed beneath her.
But what of the girls? Those sweet and virginal treasures who mingled trustingly with their lustful companions, oblivious of the erectile tissue which at the sudden whim of hormonic, surging, erotic beastliness might at any moment raise itself to penetrate their dew-fresh bodies, pumping into them the burning, boiling, throbbing, scalding essence of scorching sin to wither and consume their flower-fresh innocence? The Housewife goosefleshed horripilently at the sight of their tiny feet on the pavement alongside the clodhopping weight of the boy's heavy hooves, to see their legs, protected only by sheer and flimsy nylon tights, moving in companionable juxtaposition with the massive, thickly-trousered limbs of their enemies, to see their gentle, soft, defenceless little forms at risk among the hard, heavy, massively-muscled bodies of the rapacious sex, to see their sweet little faces smiling at the boys' crude mugs, and she spread her protection over them, thankful that here at least, where she presided, and where her devotees met together, not in twos and threes but in hundreds and thousands, here at least the girls were safe.
Minnie Hodges, unconscious of the tutelary deity above her, began her homeward trek. Entering the Town Hall Square from Market Street, she crossed towards Miltons and met Canon Tollgate on his way back from the Cathedral. They fell into step.
"I hope, my dear Mrs Hodges," grumbled the Canon, "that you are not going to talk to me about the rape at the school. I have heard quite enough about it to last me a lifetime."
"I was just thinking," said Minnie, "that if one more person mentions it to me, I shall scream."
"It has been," declared the Rector of St Sweyne's, "an extremely trying day. I have been plagued with complaints about the conduct of the YPF. I have been besieged by anxious parents worried out of their lives by the total lack of discipline at the school - forgive me Mrs Hodges, I know your husband teaches there, but the increasing impression is of a tide of indiscipline, lawlessness and hooliganism sweeping through the whole place. Innumerable parents have told me of their children's subjugation to bullying and terror tactics. I have, as I said been besieged by anxious parents, and to cap it all, even though I had made my usual half-hour adjustment to cope with Archdeacon Pratt's inevitable, and eternal unpunctuality, he did not arrive at our appointed meeting place until another hour had elapsed.
"I've been talking he said, to a most intelligent and enlightening young man. Do you know who it was, Mrs Hodges? It was Thurston, the Oxford liberationist. I do not know what sort of nonsense he had been pumping into the Archdeacon, but I could not get a single rational utterance out of him. My whole afternoon has been irretrievably wasted, or would have been had I not used the time of waiting to meditate on my sermon for next Sunday.
"I owe the idea in great part to my Curate, Mouse, who pointed out that far worse than the sterile aridity of the soul cut off from the living Water of Our Lord's mercy and love is the putrescent stagnation of the soul that perverts Divine Mercy into a breeding ground for evil to infect the souls of others. I thank God that the Archdeacon's prattling has not entirely driven the whole thing out of my head, for I tell you, Mrs Hodges, that I feel increasingly the presence of evil floating over this town, infecting its streets and its houses and corrupting the hearts of its children."
Canon Tollgate was interrupted by a sudden buzz of excitement among the passing schoolchildren. They seemed intent on something on the far side of the square. He glanced in the same direction and a spasm of disgust twisted his face.
"There is that obscene youth again," he growled.
"I think he's perhaps rather to be pitied than condemned," murmured Minnie, as Lulu Transvesta Greatbatch trolled by on the other side of the square, acknowledging with a maidenly flutter of his eyelashes and a gay wave of his limp hand the greetings of the boys and girls, while the Housewife, unseen by all, shuddered to the depths of her superhuman soul at the grotesque parody of fluttering femininity below her repelled but fascinated gaze.
"The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man," rumbled Canon Tollgate, "neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for," he thundered, "all that do so are ABOMINATION unto the Lord thy GOD!"
The Housewife, possessed of this condemnation through the sensory organs of those of her devotees clustered around Milton's fashion window and thronging the pavement near it, where moved in cumulo-nimbic majesty the gaunt canon, glared her contemptuous hatred upon the unfortunate head of Hugh Greatbatch. He seemed to falter momentarily in his stride but turned his stumble into a lissome swing of his hips and pranced away down the street with a smile and a wave for his cousin Winston, who pretended not to see him.
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