CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, III
by Robin Gordon
- Auksford, 2006 -
The Blood Oath
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Copyright Robin Gordon, 2006
The morning after his involuntary desecration of the church Brian's return to school went unnoticed. The sniggers which he had feared if others had shared his dream, the whispered comments, the pointing fingers, the mocking looks - none of these occurred. No-one seemed to notice Brian. Another, more interesting, topic held the attention of the fourth-form boys, and the tale that they told was of a blood oath.
The previous night, on the stroke of midnight, while the moon rode high in the sky, her attendant stars all but invisible through the high, fast-moving strands of cloud; while the wind rattled in the trees and whistled over the rooftops; while far away in the country-side owls sent forth their mysterious calls, and a dog-fox barked, menacingly, a sound of ill-omen to roosting fowl; while far across the moor, at the top of Baldersdale, the Worm-Master of Ormsgarth stirred uneasily in his sleep, coughed, half woke, and grunted some ancient spell to invoke protection against evil; while over the rest of Swardale silence reigned; nine shadowy figures, who had met in St Sweyne's Churchyard, opened the vestry door and made their way into the church.
Congregated around the altar they had sworn a sacred oath and called upon the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity to witness, and to consign them to the deepest pits of perdition if they should renege. Upon Satan, too, they had called, summoning the fiend from the depths of Hell, and promising him that he should have their souls, freely given, if they should break their oath. Then, with knives, they had gashed open their left arms and let their blood flow and mingle in the Communion Cup itself.
With this mingled blood they had signed the pact bonding them to their oath forever, and burned the paper upon the altar, so that the smoke of their fealty might rise as incense to the Lord and the smell of their roasted blood might inflame the devil and ensure his constant, slavering attention, lest any should betray the oath.
Who were the conspirators, and what the oath they swore? What danger lurked in Halden's peaceful streets, what peril poised o'er Swardale's fells and fields, that could drive men to this pass?
A solemn covenant of brotherhood in adversity had united these nine bold spirits, not men, but half-grown youths with the soft and beardless faces of boyhood. It was Brian's own classmates who had dared to call upon the powers of creation and destruction to witness their pact. Unconfirmed though they were, they had dared to approach the Table of the Lord, where the followers of Christ ate of the Flesh and drank of the Blood of the God who had hung and died upon a cross to bear the sins of the world.
For Brian, who loved Christ with all his mind and all his soul and all his heart, the crime was one of such enormity that the sun seemed to wheel about the sky, turning through crimson to black, then spinning, blood-red, to its accustomed place. When a naughty boy, who had been watching his reaction with interest, whispered to him that it was not only blood that the miscreants had put in the Communion Cup, but that for greater efficacity, and as a sign that their oath bound them and their descendents forever, they had mixed in their seed, then Brian recognised his dream for what it was: a prophetic warning of the orgy of pollution and desecration which must have been taking place even as he awoke. Then Brian groaned in spirit, cried aloud to the Lord for forgiveness, and, seemingly strengthened by this exercise (which had afforded no small amusement to his companion), squared his shoulders and would have marched forth into the fray had not the bell called him to his class.
In morning assembly he seethed with righteous indignation as the Headmaster called down the Lord's blessing on the school. It was too late for that. Their sins had overflowed the cup and punishment would not pass from them. The vengeance of the Lord would sweep down upon them. Already the distant rumbles of His thunder could be heard. The night before might have been clear and blustery, but the day was hot, close, breathless, oppressive and threatening.
Brian's mood matched the slow building up of the storm. He seethed and simmered in History, and boiled in a black rage through French, paying so little attention that, at the end of the second lesson, Mr Watkyns took him aside to ask with gentle sarcasm if he hadn't slept that night or if he was perhaps afraid of thunder. Anyone else would probably have given him a detention for his rude reply, but Mr Watkyns merely sighed and let him go. "C'est la vie," the French master might have reflected, but for Brian c'était la guerre. He set out to track down the malefactors and smite them with the wrath of God.
The opponents whom Brian sallied forth to meet in battle, the nine who held nought sacred, not even the Communion Cup of St Sweyne's, the conspirators who had summoned the devil to the very communion table of a Christian church, the nine servitors of Anti-Christ were none other than his old opponents Ian Bailey and Chopper Malone and their gangs, the heroes of the Fourth, the leaders of the resistance against the growing power of Johnny Cowan, a fifth-form racketeer who seemed to have the ambition to become Halden Comprehensive School's first Official School Bully.
Like many a successful self-made man Johnny Cowan had started small and seized his chances when they came. He had made his reputation within a few days of entering Halden Boys' Grammar School, when, as a lowly first-former he had led the only successful revolt in living memory against the age-old practice of throwing new boys over the three foot drop, called the Wall, that separated the yard from the field.
As second-formers the Cowan gang prolonged the intitiation season until Christmas. They took over the old bogs as their private headquarters, mercilessly scragged anyone bold or unwary enough to enter, and dragged in anyone who had offended them. Johnny was an expert in bullying, a true artist. There was never a mark on any of his victims, no black eyes, no bleeding noses, no torn clothes, nothing to excite the alarm of the school authorities, nothing to make parents ask questions, no evidence of any kind.
At the beginning of his third-form year the school was combined with the neighbouring girls' High School. The talent with which Johnny Cowan and his gang chose to impress the girls of their choice was the only one they had - bullying. In the competition for female favour, what better way could there be to demonstrate superiority to other males than by constantly and humiliatingly forcing them to admit their inferiority, and it was effective in winning for them the admiration and friendship of Norah Blackburn and her crew of boy-haters.
It was Gary Wilson, a victim chosen by Norah for some crime, or imagined crime, against her, who offered money to buy his freedom and gave Cowan the idea of a protection racket. Money for jam! Easier than falling off a log, and more fun than taking candy off a baby. Whenever Johnny needed money all he had to do was pick on a friendless weed, have a bit of fun with him, and make him pay to be released. The victims soon learned the rules of the game and offered money as soon as they were approached. Johnny happily pocketed it and left the donor untouched. Norah was bitterly disappointed that her avenging angel had succumbed to the lure of mammon but there was not much she could do about it.
When September reassembled the flocks, ripe for fleecing, and the newly evolved second-formers began to hurl the despised new bugs over the Wall, Johnny Cowan's philanthropic benevolence inspired him to protect them. The first-formers were at first suspicious then flattered to be offered the protection of a mighty fourth-former - until they discovered that they were expected to pay for it at 6d per boy per week. They rejected his offer with contumely.
"Getting chucked over the wall is nowt," they said. "It's just a game, like King o' the Castle. It's fun trying to get back up, and sometimes you can even chuck a second-former off."
"Getting chucked ower the Wall's only the start," said Johnny Cowan darkly. "You lot don't know anything about the traditions of the school. You'll learn, that's all."
"Go on then, tell us."
"Not allowed. You'll find out. You'll wish you'd paid for protection."
"Don't believe you!"
"Orright. Have you ever heard o' slicing?"
Next day a gang of second-formers led by Sean Maxwell swept down on the first-formers and sliced them painfully across the buttocks with the edges of their rulers. While they were still rubbing their sore behinds Johnny and his gang appeared.
"What's up," said Johnny innocently. "Don't tell me you've been sliced."
"Yes, but we'll get revenge!"
"I wouldn't, if I were you," Johnny advised. "If you fight back you get picked on worse. Not that you'll have it easy, any of you."
The following day Sean Maxwell's gang seized a couple of victims on the field and threw their shoes and socks over the fence into the wilderness of nettles and brambles. It took them and their helpers all the rest of break to find them again. They were more receptive to Johnny Cowan's next approach.
"It gets worse," said he.
"All year. They don't count you as proper members of the school till you're in the second form. But nobody'll touch you if I'm protecting you."
There were 90 boys in the first year, that made £2··5··0 a week. To save himself the bother of collecting it Johnny picked a little sneak called Nigel Barber and offered him 10%, which still left Johnny a regular income of £2··0··6 paid every Monday lunchtime at the old bogs.
Sean Maxwell left them alone after that, but a few days later the bolshier first-formers, still thirsting for revenge, surrounded Maxwell, informed him that he'd better not touch them or Johnny Cowan would get him, then jeered and jostled and pushed and hustled him into a corner of the field, where they stuffed dry grass down his neck and up his shirt and into his waistband and up the legs of his shorts.
"I wonder where they got that idea," said Johnny Cowan. "Well, la'al Maxie, there's only one thing for it. You'd better buy some protection, you and all the rest of the second form. I'll put you in charge of collecting it, and you can keep 10% for yourself."
That brought Cowan's income to over four pounds a week without the need to lift a finger.
His next move was to seek protection for the protectors. He was too well known to the prefects to risk their interference, but if he was well-known to them, they were also well-known to him, and it was not difficult for him to spot the weak link in the chain of authority.
* * *
Colin Greatbatch was a new and inexperienced sub-prefect when he found the Cowan gang in his detention class. He was acutely aware that his badge of authority offered little protection against a ruthless crew of teenage desperadoes in an empty school. Their loud and raucous voices unnerved him. The contempt in their eyes as they looked him up and down was worrying enough, but when they rose and advanced towards him his heart began to thump wildly and he hadn't the strength to stand up.
He wished he had never agreed to be a prefect. It was supposed to look good on his application forms, but he had never though it would get him into a situation like this. The Cowan gang obviously meant business. There was no way he could bluff his way out of it. What would they do? ... Thump him? ... Scrag him?
Then Cowan spoke. "Please, Greatbatch," he said, with with humble and respectful formality, "May we go now?"
He was confused. "It's only quarter past four," he stammered."
"I'll give you five bob to let us go."
"I can't," he said. "You have to stay until five o'clock."
"You drive a hard bargain. 7/6d, and that's me last offer."
His friends edged forward menacingly. Colin's mind performed lightening calculations: if he were scragged and the class broken up the Head would sack him from the prefecy, everybody would know why, his career would be at an end before it started, no university would touch him. But if he took the money no-one need know.
The coins were already in his hand. He agreed. They went, and the other detainees had to be released too, or they would certainly tell. Colin Greatbatch had escaped humiliation, but now, he realised, he was at Cowan's mercy. He had to do what Cowan wanted, take him off detention lists, tick him and his nominees of the lists of defaulters from whom impositions were still required, overlook minor scuffles when he was on yard duty. He was always paid for these favours, and every payment, however small, entangled him still further.
Thus ensured against the thunderbolts of authority Johnny Cowan was at liberty to consolidate his protection racket among the first and second formers, to arrange for the scragging of anyone who refused to pay up, and to extend his empire to the fringes of the third form. Maxwell and his gang were quite willing to duff up the occasional third-form weed to persuade him to pay his dues.
Norah thought that this was a step in the right direction. "Why don't you get Spike Thompson and them," she demanded. "What d'you wanna muck around wi' little kids for? Let's have some proper fun for a change."
"La'al kids bring in lots o' money."
"Yeah, well, older lads get more pocket money, don't they? So you could charge more? Get Spike Thompson! Do him over like we did Wilson!"
"When I'm ready."
"Look! I've got a gang of four. He's got a gang of four. He's as big as me. His lads are as big as my lads. We might beat 'em, we might not. If we didn't win we might lose our business. The la'al lads wouldn't pay up, and Spike Thompson would protect 'em. We'll do it my way. Third form next."
With that Norah had to be content. There were, she realised, some quite big lads in the third form who might not surrender their cash without a struggle. Johnny couldn't expect second-formers to deal with Big Ian Bailey, for example. He'd have to get to grips with him himself - and she would be on hand with suggestions and advice.
Unfortunately for Norah, and luckily for the third form, the summer term was a time of increased vigilance. Miss Hardacre discovered an attempted rape in the shrubbery, and even when her error was proven beyond all reasonable doubt, the vigilance of the staff and prefects was such that only the most foolhardy of school bullies would have attempted to increase his empire. Johnny Cowan, as Norah knew all too well, was far from foolhardy. He contented himself with collecting dues from the lower forms and using his chosen agent, Sean Maxwell, to dissuade his flock from straying.
By the following September the rape-scare was largely forgotten. It was true that the officious David Little had become School Captain and strode around his kingdom like a dynamic little Zeus, hurling his thunderbolts at the slightest misdemeanour, but Colin Greatbatch was Dynamic David's closest friend, almost his unofficial deputy, and good old Greatbatch could be relied on to keep the Cowan gang out of trouble. Johnny was even able to exploit his tame prefect to milk more money from the flocks. Little hurled impositions right and left, far too many for him ever to read or even look at himself, so it was possible, just by paying 6d to Johnny Cowan, to get Colin Greatbatch to tick off Little's list impositions that had never been done. 2d of that went to Colin, of course. He couldn't refuse and he got enmeshed ever more inextricably in Cowan's projects.
The initiation game was as profitable as ever. The new second formers were as eager as their predecessors to assert their superiority over the lower life forms, and Nigel Barber in particular proved a useful means of spreading alarm and despondency among the new bugs. His imagination was fertile, and he was one of those rare individuals who wholeheartedly believe their own lies. Sean Maxwell, now appointed Cowan's business representative in charge of collection from the whole of the lower school, willingly confirmed all Barber's threats and offered protection. The new boys paid up, and continued to pay as the stories and rumours grew wilder and wilder: they told of boys almost drowning and having to be revived by artificial respiration, of injuries to limbs and spines that were covered up and reported as accidental falls, of initiands being stripped naked and exhibited to the girls ...
As for the girls themselves, they were safe from initiation and they knew it. They overheard rumours, they laughed among themselves, and those who had enemies among the first form boys added a few words of their own to increase their malaise.
Johnny Cowan exerted himself not at all. The money came rolling in, and he was free to concentrate on expanding his empire into the new fourth forms - or at least he would have been if things had not changed there. During the summer term and all through the holidays Big Ian Bailey and Chopper Malone, whose gangs represented the twin centres of power in their year, had grown more and more uneasy at the expansion of the Johnny Cowan's influence. Rivalry was all right when there wasn't a third power, more powerful than either, breathing down their necks. Now they discovered a common interest, and, having discovered one, discovered others too. An uneasy alliance developed into a firm friendship and the two gangs became one, with Bailey as it leader and Malone his bosom buddy and second-in-command. Dolly McIlwaine, Bailey's former lieutenant dropped happily to number three and remained a member of the triumvirate or High Command, while Harrison and Hudsmith hardly noticed their notional demotion to numbers four and five in the enlarged gang. The only one to feel disgruntled was Stewart Higgs, Chopper Malone's ex-number-two, who had dropped to number six in the pecking order.
He was bitter, and he expressed his bitterness in sarcasm. Big Ian Bailey had no time for him. Chopper Malone rapidly tired of his constant jibes and avoided him. Dolly McIlwaine, despite his everlasting good humour, often thought he'd like to punch him. Harrison and Hudsmith lost no opportunity in putting him down and asserting their own superiority, and he soon began to realise that his place as number six might be challenged by one or more of the lesser fry.
All in all it was not a happy time for Stewart Higgs, and Johnny Cowan, who knew the value of intelligence and both kept his own eyes open and was prepared to pay others to spy for him, soon marked him down as the one weak link for possible future exploitation.
For the moment, however, Johnny preferred to keep his distance. He had quickly found that the few fourth-form weeds and loners who had been willing to pay for protection, now refused and referred him to the Bailey-Malone gang. It didn't take much mathematical genius to realise that four against nine was not favourable odds, or a great deal of tactical skill to realise that the rest of the fourth form would join forces with the winning side and the lower school seize the opportunity to revolt against its overweening protector, so he reluctantly let them go unpunished and concentrated on the firsts, seconds and thirds.
Norah wasn't happy, of course. She had little or no interest in the money and completely lacked Cowan's instinct for business. A pitched battle between the Cowanites and the Bailey-Malone gang would, to her, have been an excellent entertainment, and, though she would, on the whole, have preferred Cowan to win and then to humiliate the whole of the fourth form, even if he had lost, she would have had the pleasure of seeing boys on both sides reeling, battered, semi-conscious, possibly crying, and then punished by authority - and after that a series of further fights as Cowan, goaded on by her, sought to retrieve his fallen glory.
Johnny knew that a good general chooses his own time and place to fight, so he stayed aloof and seemed unaware of the alliance against him. He thought that, sooner or later, the fourth-formers would tire of it. So the weeks passed. Half-term came and went, and Johnny Cowan left them strictly alone. They began to think he was satisfied with his lower-school empire, with the money Sean Maxwell carried into the old bogs each week. Warnings from Ian Bailey or Chopper Malone went unheeded, and some even began to suspect the Bailey-Malone gang had it in mind to collect protection money themselves.
Cowan's spies reported, and Cowan just happened to meet a pair of his former clients.
"Have you paid your dues yet?" he asked.
"We don't have to pay you," replied Christopher Brown nervously, "You ask Bailey."
"I'm not asking for money," said Johnny. "I was just wondering if you'd paid Bailey and them. It's a shilling a week, isn't it?"
"That's what he's charging, isn't it? A shilling a week?"
"Dunno?" said Brown
"We haven't had to pay anything," said Leonard Robinson.
"Oh dear," said Johnny sympathetically. "I suppose that means he's left you out. I hope la'al Maxie doesn't find out. He's a right little bully he is. Anyway, if you have any trouble you can always come to me. I don't leave anybody out - and I only charge sixpence."
A few days later Brown and Robinson, mooching along the edge of the field together, were suddenly confronted by a gang of third formers, Sean Maxwell's gang.
"Wha'cha doin' here? This is our bit of the field. Nobody comes here unless we invite them!"
"It's just the field," said Brown.
"You can't stop us," said Robinson.
"It's not your field," said Brown.
"It's our bit of the field," said Sean Maxwell, "and if you come on it you have to pay."
"That's not fair."
"Entrance fee, sixpence each. Pay up now, or we scrag you!"
Surrounded by third-formers, Brown and Robinson had no choice. They handed over their sixpences and retreated.
The following day they found deserted corner of the yard where the outer wall met the school hall, but scarcely had they taken refuge there when Sean Maxwell's gang appeared.
"What are you doing in our HQ? This is our place and nobody comes here. You've really had it this time."
They were jostled into the angle of the walls. Sean Maxwell's hand was on Brown's throat. Robinson's arm was twisted behind his back.
"What shall we do with them, lads?" Sean Maxwell asked.
"Just leave 'em," replied a deeper voice - Johnny Cowan.
"Are they friends of yours?" said Maxwell.
"Dunno yet," said Johnny. "Are you?"
"Yes! Yes!" gabbled Brown and Robinson.
"So we have to leave 'em alone?" said Maxie. "But they're not on our list."
"They are now," said Johnny. "Orright lads. You pay your dues to la'al Maxie every Thursday. Sixpence a week. And you'll be all right. Just tell me or Maxie if anyone touches you."
Johnny left, Maxie held out his hand, and two more sixpenny bits passed into it.
So small sums began to change hands, and the Bailey-Malone gang saw their influence waning. It was this that had spurred on Ian Bailey and Chopper Malone to recharge the atmosphere and reassert their claim to be protectors and leaders of the fighting fourths, by swearing at midnight, at the Church of St Sweyne, the patron saint of Halden, a solemn blood oath, whose sacrilegious blasphemy sent Brian Adamson stalking across the yard towards them at break, with a white-hot fury in his heart.
The atmosphere was electric. It was not yet eleven o'clock, yet the morning, in complete contrast to the clear, blustery night, lay still and sultry, oppressed by heat. The temperature had climbed steadily since sunrise, and the humid atmosphere clung sweatily on the skin. Boys and girls alike had left their blazers in their classrooms. Shirts and blouses clung clammily. The young ladies had ceased merely glowing and were now perspiring freely. The young gentlemen were sweating like horses. Vast wet patches spread from their armpits. Their open shirts, fresh that morning, now hung about them as if they had been worn for weeks on end, while beneath their shapeless, sagging, charcoal-grey, regulation school polyester-cotton trousers, the sweat ran down their legs and soaked their socks. If the girls envied the boys' freedom to bare their chests, more than one youth glanced at the girls' legs, not with his usual appraising connoisseurship, but with the half-formed wish that his masculine dignity would permit him to wear some less cumbersome garment than trousers.
Everyone gasped in the heat. There were constant queues at the taps in the cloakrooms. Johnny Cowan's gang sought coolness by barricading themselves in the old bogs, with their dripping pipes and damp walls, but the atmosphere was as oppressive there as anywhere else. Girls nervously expressed the hope that the storm might break and pass before lunchtime. Boys who were afraid of thunder licked their parched lips and said nothing. All over the school anxious glances were directed at the inky mass of clouds approaching from the east. Even the saintly Martin Nicholson was aware of the storm. Like everyone else he had discarded both jacket and tie, rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his shirt. His porcelain pallor was suffused with a pink flush.
Brian alone seemed oblivious of the heat and the gathering storm. He too had taken off his blazer, but he had slammed it energetically into his locker and retained his tie. If anything he was paler than usual as he strode energetically across the yard. Heads turned lethargically to stare at him, and a third-former with whom he almost collided snapped ill-temperedly at him, but was too hot to do more than grumble to himself.
"So there you are!" Brian snapped.
They just grunted
"I suppose you're feeling proud of yourselves!" continued Brian. "Just look at you! Standing here telling everyone all about it, after what you've done! You should be ashamed of yourselves!"
They were in no mood for jokes.
"Shurrup, Fairyfeet, while you're still in one piece!"
"Yeah! We're sick of your moaning!"
"Always going on about something like some bloody old woman!"
The moment of triumph in which they had announced the Blood Oath had evaporated in the heat. The interest their classmates had shown before nine o'clock and melted away by the end of the first lesson. By breaktime no-one had any thoughts but for the heat and the coming storm. The Bailey-Malone gang were as hot as everyone else and enraged by the failure of their big plan. They had no time for the good-humoured ragging and dirty jokes with which they normally teased the over-eager evangelist. All that remained were exhaustion and an itching, insatiable frustration. Brian's verbal assault was the last straw. Chopper pushed him, and, as he staggered they pummelled him and pulled him and pushed him and swung him round. Big Ian grabbed him by the shirt front and yanked him forward.
"Shurrup! Or I'll knock your teeth out!"
Brian's arms flailed wildly and ineffectually, and his voice rose in a screaming accusation: "You've desecrated St Sweyne's church! You've polluted the lord's table! You've wanked off into the communion cup! YOU'VE WANKED OFF INTO THE COMMUNION CUP!"
His screams unnerved the gang. They let him go and he sank to his knees, muttering and mumbling still. They drew back. Their mouths fell open in shock at the accusation. Other boys around them took it up and passed it on.
"Did you really wank off into the chalice?" someone asked.
"What did you do then?"
They explained. They met in the church. They mingled their blood, nothing else, just blood, in the communion cup. Then they swore an oath to stand against the Cowan gang and defend their classmates from his depredations. The news was passed on. Brian had done them a good turn, for by the time the bell began to ring and the Cowan gang emerged from the old bogs, hotter and stickier than ever, the Bailey-Malone gang were again the heroes of the fourth and their exploit was known to the whole school.
The pupils began to file into the buildings. Brian knelt slumped on the ground, exhausted by his frenzy. Only George Batey stayed with him.
"The Lord will repay!" Brian muttered. "He will scourge them with scorpions! They desecrated St Sweyne's Church. The punishment of the Lord will fall upon them and destroy them!"
"Do you think anything will happen?" said George nervously.
"They won't get away with it," Brian sobbed. They'll be punished! Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord!"
"Is it the thunder …?" George asked.
"The Lord will scourge them with scorpions! He will strike them dead!"
Brian got to his feet again and began tucking in his shirt.
"Look out!" muttered George. "The lassies are watching you.
Brian was aware of Norah Blackburn, with a leer on her face, and her gang behind her. He quickly turned his back, finished tucking in his shirt-tails and fastened his trousers.
"The bell's gone," said George. "Come on!"
Norah was still smiling as he passed her, but Brian no longer cared about her.
"God will punish them," he told George. "The hour of his vengeance is at hand!"
As if to confirm his words there came an ominous rumble of thunder from the east.
Chapter 3: The Storm
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