CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, III
By Robin Gordon
- Auksford -
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© Copyright Robin Gordon 2006
Throughout the rest of the morning the Lord's promise to repay was confirmed and repeated. The heat increased. Miss Hardacre sent two senior girls to the Headmaster because they had removed their bras and their blouses were partly unfastened. She made the boys button up their shirts, told them that the sight of the bare skin of their chests was sickening and obscene, accused them of deliberately exposing themselves in a disgusting attempt to exasperate the girls and provoke them into uncovering their own bodies. In short: the boys were to blame for the unfortunate fall from grace of the two girls, and it was the boys who ought to be punished.
Under the desks the girls spread wide their legs, bereft of the nylons they usually wore, (or, in the case of the case of the younger ones, with their school socks turned right down), and prayed for a breeze to stroke their legs, while the boys shuffled uncomfortably as their trousers grew hotter, sweatier, stickier and increasingly unbearable. At least the first and second form boys had their legs bared to the knee, the older ones were imprisoned in the symbols of their adolescent dignity, and almost wished they could swop their once prized longs for gym shorts.
In the gymnasium the boys on circuit training were doing press-ups at the rate of about twelve an hour, stepping languidly on and off the bench along the wall-bars, or gazing with a sort of apathetic puzzlement at the vaulting horse. The gym-master, stripped of his usual track-suit, stood in shorts and singlet, fanning himself gently with his time-sheet and neglecting to blow the whistle for the next change-round. In the girls' gym a balletic gymnastics class had started off as trees swaying gently in an imaginary breeze and failed to move on to anything more energetic.
Mr Ratcliffe had thrown the contents of a whole box of chalk at his class and sent a blackboard duster crashing against the back wall. He now sat glowering at them while they glowered back in sullen resentment.
For Andy Hodges' class the spectacle of Pyrrhus, glittering like a serpent and leading the assault on the walls of Troy, held no attraction. Construing slowed to a somnolent pace. Even Scott, who never scored less than 90% in Latin tests, hesitated and cogitated long and silently before sluggishly translating the simplest words. Andy made no attempt to hurry him. He was not surprised that his class was half-asleep. For most of the lesson he was snoozing himself. He failed to hear the strangely muffled tintinnabulation of the bell and might have snoozed till lunchtime, if one of the girls, whose nervousness of the approaching thunder storm had made insomniac, had not wakened him with a plaintive, "Sir! The bell's gone."
That was Doreen Bullock from Baldersthwaite
Lights were on in all the classrooms and corridors. Emerging into the yard, Andy found that it was almost dark. The thunder was much nearer now, rumbling sometimes overhead. Far away to the east he caught sight of a flash of forked lightning, which was followed by a dull rolling boom. No birds sang. Not a breath stirred the leaves of the great chestnut trees in the yard. The air was as hot as ever, and clammier. It was like walking through a vast, dark, steaming bath-house. The air seemed saturated, but no rain fell. The children were changing classrooms in silence. Even their footfalls were deadened by the moist air. Andy seemed to have trouble breathing. A sense of menacing doom urged him to hurry far more effectively than any fear of getting soaked by rain, but the heat and the tightness across his chest held him back. He plodded slowly towards the distant door, wishing he had taken Minnie's advice and bought a lightweight linen suit.
A sudden squall rattled the trees, and he started back in alarm as a missile hurtled past his face, bounced off his shoulder, and struck the ground, bursting as it did so into two spiky half-shells and a magnificent shiny conker.
Andy paused to catch his breath, his left hand pressed against the middle of his chest, listening to the beating of his heart. He breathed out, "Fffooogh!" laughed at his momentary fear, and continued. A heavy drop of rain bounced off his bald head as he came to the door.
Andy was late for his final class that morning, but so, too, were most of his colleagues and their pupils. Every brain seemed oppressed under a heavy weight. Some of the staff had taken aspirins to banish their headaches - but in vain. Their skulls pounded as painfully as ever. It was dark in the classrooms, and, even with the lights on, the flickering of distant lightning gave a sense of Transylvanian menace. The most sanguine of youths had ceased to speculate on the likely ferocity of the storm and kept their eyes turned away from the windows.
Mr Ratcliffe no longer threw chalk. His head felt as if it was bursting. He needed all his efforts to keep his voice from failing as he explained the theorem of Pythagoras. Circuit training and ballet movements continued in the gymnasiums, but master and mistress gave scant attention to their pupils, who made no attempt to take advantage of their freedom. Andy Hodges took the first form through the first declension very, very gently and went on to translate with them a simple passage whose message was that there were snakes in the wood: viperae sunt in silvā.
"Odd," he thought, "so many snakes today. Pyrrhus, viperae …"
The rumbling and flickering continued. That drop which had fallen on Andy Hodges' head was not the herald of rain. A few more had fallen, but the storm had still not broken at the end of the morning. It was as hot as ever when the schools got out, but many a sweat-drenched shirt or blouse covered a back with cold shivers running up it.
On his way back to school after lunch, Brian went into St Sweyne's to pray. The great church was cool, and he paused inside the vestry door to breathe its air. At that moment he became aware that there were others in the building. The sound of a boy's voice came to him.
"I tell ya, it's a' nonsense!"
Brian's head began to spin with fury. The rafters wheeled above him and a red mist clouded his sight. He leaned his hand against one of the massive pillars, then moved forward silently, clenching his white-knuckled hands. What new devilment was afoot?
There was a whole gang of them at the back of the church, near the font. One of them was reciting a rhyme, probably dirty, profane and obscene. Brian padded closer.
"Wasted the worm the vale,
Wrought warlike woe,
Worm-wrought work wastes Balder's Dale."
"It's in the Bible, too," squawked a second-former. ""It's in Revelations. The Great Beast!"
"What," asked Brian icily, "are you doing here?"
"Oh, it's only you," said George Batey. "We … we came to see if it was all right … you know … after … after what they did."
"We came to see if there was owt we could do," said Doreen Bullock.
"We're not doing anything wrong," piped up little Mary Batey, dipping her hand hastily in the font and touching her forehead with the water. "Honest …"
Brian gasped. "This is not a Roman Catholic church, he snapped. We don't approve of that sort of thing."
"What sort of thing", George Batey asked.
"You'll be genuflecting to the altar next," said Brian peevishly, "well it's not an altar, it's a communion table, and you're not supposed to genuflect to it.
"Ah dunno what you're on about," said George.
"Tell your sister not to dip her hands in the font and cross herself," said Brian.
"Ah never crossed me'sel'," wailed Mary, "Ah never! Tell 'im Ah never, our George!"
"She didn't cross 'ersel'," said George. "We allus tek a dip o' watter in 'ere. It's St Sweyne's Well. It's …"
"Sh!" said Doreen Bullock.
"I'm not interested," said Brian. "You've got some funny habits in Baldersdale. I don't think you're even Christian, sometimes."
He looked at the font with distaste. His puritan conscience objected to its pre-Christian antiquity. Legend had it that St Sweyne had set up an altar to the Lord and called on the people to be baptised, but the Norsemen had mocked him in the name of Odin and threatened to drown him in the Alebeck if he tried to use its waters for Christian baptism. St Sweyne had prayed for guidance, and, on being told, like Moses, to strike the ground with his staff, had found a spring of pure water springing up at his feet, and on that spot he had founded his church. But there were other legends that claimed the well had been opened, not by a Christian saint, but by Odin or Mithras or Lug. The stonework at the base of the font through which the water bubbled spoke for its pre-Christian origins. It was worn away by time; its carvings were indistinct, but seemed to include things that had no place in Anglican iconography.
Brian was one of those who supported the proposal that arose from time to time that the well should be routed directly into the drains, and that a new, entirely Protestant font should be purchased, which could be filled, when necessary, with the pure, healthy, chlorinated water supplied by the Swardale Water Authority and on tap in every household. Although he knew that there was no virtue in idols, and that what had been sanctified to them remained as unaffectedly normal as if nothing had been done to it, yet he knew that such things could trouble the weaker brethren, and, since whosoever causeth one of these to stumble, it were better that a millstone be tied around his neck and he be cast into the deep, he deprecated to the depths of his soul that these old stones, with their half-obliterated carvings of fabulous serpents should still be allowed to remain in the church, even if their monstrous images could be interpreted as a reminder of the companion that lurked in every Eden to lead astray the unbaptised or those who rejected the oaths made on their behalf by their parents and godparents.
In his sterner moments Brian regretted and considered as weakness Canon Tollgate's failure to cast out these antique relics and purify the church building. He regretted too that the Rector should have allowed the survival of picturesque traditions such as the septennial service of the Blessing of the Rods, which had nothing to do with St Sweyne's parish but seemed to be preliminary to one of the peculiar Baldersdale customs. The boys of Baldersthwaite apparently used the ashen rods, that they had had blessed and dipped in the waters of St Sweyne's Well, for some ceremony like beating the bounds, though who would want to trespass in Baldersdale he couldn't imagine. The whole thing ought to have been swept away at the Reformation along with all the rest of the papist mumbo-jumbo.
He looked with scarcely veiled hostility at the little group of Baldersdale children. George comforted Mary. Some of the others were muttering among themselves.
"We've gotter tell somebody," said one.
"Fallen to the floor the blood
in Wormbane's hut …"
"I wish you'd stop it," said Brian.
"Dust to mud,
worm-wrought work wastes all in flood."
"We've got to tell the Worm-Master!"
"We can't. We can't tell anyone. You know we can't."
"We've got to. It's not like snitching on someone for messing around. This is serious. If the Worm-Master dun't know he won't know what …"
"Sh!" said Doreen Bullock.
"I'm not interested in your stupid Worm-Master or his silly spells," said Brian, "but you're right: we ought to tell someone. We ought to tell Canon Tollgate."
"Mebbe he'd tell t'Worm-Master," whispered Tim Routledge.
"You tell him," said Doreen Bullock to Brian.
"Or maybe we should tell Mr Mouse," said Brian, who did not exactly relish revealing the sacrilege to the Rector.
"We can't," said George Batey. "You know what the Worm-Master's lore says: Blood guilt …"
"Sh!" said Doreen Bullock.
"They've got to own up themselves," George said. "We've got to make them."
"It's rubbish!" said Specky-Four-Eyes Irving.
"It's not," the others protested.
"It's nothing but a fairy-story," said Specky.
"You'll get struck by lightning," little Mary Batey prophesied.
"Huh!" sneered Specky and swaggered towards the door.
"You'd better come on," he said, "if you want to get back before it starts raining," and he disappeared into the porch.
They heard him him open the west door, then the church was lit up by a flash that seemed all around them, and there was a tremendous crack of thunder that followed almost without a pause. Brian whispered a quick prayer, and all the Baldersdale children swiftly dipped their hands in the water and touched their foreheads.
They rushed to the door. It was hanging open. Of Specky there was no sign. They looked outside. No rain was falling yet. The street was empty. They hesitated, half in, half out of the porch. A noise made them turn. Specky's rump was wriggling backwards from under the bench. They rushed to help him up.
"What were you doing under there?"
"I dropped something. It rolled … My glasses! I've lost my glasses."
Two small boys dived under the bench to retrieve the missing spectacles, while the others burst into a rousing chorus of
My eyes a-are dim, I cannot see,
I have no-ot brought my specs with me,
I … have … no-ot … brought … my-y …
SPECS … WITH … ME!
"How did you lose them?" asked George Batey when Four-Eyes was safely respectacled.
"I was blinded by the flash … and I took 'em off to rub me eyes … and I must 'av dropped 'em …"
"And they rolled under the bench," finished the sceptical George.
"Hey, but listen," said Specky-Four-Eyes Irving, changing the subject as quickly as he could, "how are you going to make Bailey and them own up?"
"I don't know," said George. "We'll just have to tell them we'll report them if they don't."
"Come on then," said Brian, who thought that the recitation of mumbo-jumbo verses and the singing of rude songs in church was most undesirable, but fully agreed that those who had desecrated St Sweyne's must be made to confess.
It was as black as night as they hurried back to school. Lights were on in every house, and many curtains were drawn even though it was not yet two o'clock. The heavy air swathed them, held them back. To run was too much. Just to keep moving seemed an immense effort. Brian's legs felt like as if they were stuffed with hot sand, with neither bone nor muscle to power them. He felt as if he were crawling on his knees through a desert of warm mud. The rumbling and grumbling of the thunder was almost continuous, and the flickering of the eastern lightning made the solid houses dance like shadows. Still the rain did not come.
The big bike shed was a covered area intended as a shelter against rain, with bicycle racks along the wall at the back and the old bogs and the "new" boys' toilets behind. A similar shelter stood in the former girls' school. Into these two spaces about a thousand children were crammed. New arrivals dragged themselves across the open yard and squeezed among the overcrowded, sweating throng, anxious not be left alone and unprotected beneath the threatening sky. The largest and most powerful had thrust their way to the very centre. Even Johnny Cowan and his gang preferred the sweaty proximity of the hoi polloi to the splendid isolation of the old bogs, with their dripping walls and the metal pipes that might attract lightning.
Minor quarrels disturbed the edges of the crowd as small boys and girls, displaced from the interior by bigger schoolfellows, pressed in at the fringe and tried to avoid being ejected into the open. At times the whole side of the shelter seethed like a solar corona as first or second formers were shot out into space only to dive back elsewhere into the throng. From time to time a louder crack of thunder would send the crowd packing closer together, or a brighter flash would bring a sudden stillness and a whispered counting, until the muffled roar of a still distant strike brought momentary relief.
Brian and the Baldersdalers heaved themselves across the yard like spent marathon runners. A bright flash closed their eyes, then they came on again. The younger ones were trembling and near to tears. Over in the east they could see the centre of the storm, its inky mass like a bloated monstrous spider darting its venom at their homes.
George Batey and Doreen Bullock plunged wildly among the crowded children, pushing and shoving their way into the throng in a frantic search for the Bailey-Malone gang. Brian and the others followed. Angry protests and altercations broke out as boys and girls were thrust rudely aside, noses bumping against skulls or shoulders, smaller children squashed, toes trodden, shins barked, schoolbags spilled and kids left staggering. George and Doreen were already past by the time their victims could react, and Brian, as the largest of the following group, received the full blast of their invective. He was held back by his coat, pushed in his chest, legs were hooked round his legs, arms round his arms, angry voices yelled insults into his ears, hands mussed up his hair and pulled at his clothes.
He struggled to free himself, using his elbows with all the aggressive energy of a fully trained housewife at the January sales. He heard gasps as his blows sank home beneath ribs, and cries of anguish as his well-shod feet cracked against the ankles of those inconvenient legs that seemed intent on tripping and trampling him. Somehow he fought his way through to where the Baldersdalers and the Bailey-Malone gang were already in angry confrontation.
Brian joined in with all the fervour of a Christian defending his Master. He seized Stewart Higgs by the arm and began to shout at him as loudly as he could that to call up devils and profane the house of the Lord was a sin against the Holy Ghost, and that, unless he repented and made amends immediately, he would be cast into the uttermost pit of Hell, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and where their worm dieth not. What the Baldersdalers were saying he could not tell. Everybody was shouting except those who were yelling. The crowd surged and heaved as the big-uns shoved their way to the centre of interest and pushed the little-uns out of the way. Somebody was yelling for quiet. Little Mary Batey was hanging on to her brother's coat and screaming, not words, just high-pitched squeals.
A flash and a sharp crack. Very loud. Very near.
George Batey was the first to recover.
"If you don't own up," he shouted, "we're going to report you!"
The Baldersdalers regrouped. Doreen and the other girls began comforting little Mary. The Bailey-Malone gang muttered among themselves.
"Well?" said George. "Are you going to tell the Rector, or do we have to do it?"
"You wouldn't dare," said Big Ian.
"I'm going to the Headmaster right now," said George.
"Me too," said Doreen.
They began to push their way into the crowd again, followed by all the other children from Baldersdale.
"Wait!" said Ian.
They paused. The Bailey-Malone gang conferred briefly.
"All right," said Big Ian. "We'll come clean."
"Come on then! To the Headmaster!"
"No, there's no need for that. You see, we … we didn't really go into the church at all."
An astounded buzz agitated the crowd. Big Ian was pressed to tell all, and an indignant Johnny Cowan heard for the first time of the Blood Oath against him -- as the Bailey Malone gang admitted that, far from having met at midnight in the chancel of St Sweyne's church to summon up angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, principalities and powers, to call the Lord Himself to witness, to raise Beelzebub from the pits of darkness, and dedicate themselves to Satan's lust if they should fail to keep the promise they had made while drinking their mingled blood from the sacred chalice of St Sweyne, they had met in a furtive group at half past eight in the churchyard, made a schoolboy pact to stand against the bullies, written out their promise on a page torn from a maths exercise book, pricked their fingers to squeeze out one drop of blood each on to the paper, which they had then burned in the shadow of the churchyard wall. To seal their covenant, having no pipe of peace like the Sioux or Apaches, they had then passed round a communal cigarette.
Then the storm broke. The world lit up in a sheet of flame. The shelter rocked in the blast. The rain rattled and crashed across the roof like the breakers of a rough sea and bounced head-high off the ground. The lightning flashed and the thunder roared again, and the rain settled into a monsoon downpour. At that moment the bell began to ring and the school doors were flung wide open to minimise delay. Little groups broke from the bike-shed and hurled themselves across the yard. When the way was clear other followed, until the shed and yard were empty.
The rain continued stotting down. The storm crashed and roared. Already it was cooler. Hailstones bounced on the yard in an icy blast., rattled against the windows, peppered like machine-gun-fire the slate roof of the assembly hall, and then the rain poured on and on for the rest of the afternoon and all night.
"Freak weather conditions brought widespread flooding in many parts of the north," the BBC reported on the radio news at six o'clock. "There were violent thunderstorms in Swardale, and several buildings were struck by lightning. Princess Margaret's visit to Manchester had to be cut short when …" Later that evening the popular astronomer, Dominic Callaghan, cancelled his scheduled programme on the Orion Nebula to cover sunspots and their baleful influence on earthly weather. Few people in Baldersdale had televisions, and most of those had them firmly switched off and their aerials unplugged.
The Baldersdaler children, if they had heard Dr Callaghan, would probably not have believed him anyway. They had had a nerve-racking journey home. At the last bridge, where the beck came tumbling and rushing round the base of the Balder Stone, the water was foaming over the road, and the bus had to crawl through at walking pace. Then, as they entered the narrow entrance to the dale, they could see the swollen beck frothing and churning along the base of the massive granite spit as if it would sweep away everything in its path. It was a relief to them to find, as the dale widened out before them, that nothing was changed under the grey clouds and constant rain.
Brian reviewed the day's events as he lay in bed. Things had started badly with his dream, but perhaps it had been a warning, for the church had, it had seemed, been desecrated. He had certainly stood up to the Bailey-Malone gang, even though they had used violence against him. He had spoken out in the name of the Lord even at the risk of being punched, pummelled and persecuted. He had begun the process that led to the confrontation between the gang and the Baldersdale kids, he had urged George Batey on to take action, and he had been the real cause of the gang's recantation and denial. The cleansing of St Sweyne's was due entirely to the voice of the Lord in the roar of the thunder and in the words He had put into the mouth of Brian Adamson.
Brian, Son of Man, the servant of the Lord, was proud of the part he had played - and the part he would play. He would stand up to the Bailey-Malone gang again the next day and berate them for their sins. They would inflict hardship on his body, but his soul would shine ever purer. He hugged himself with pleasure at the thought of the sufferings he would endure. His hands ran over the body he would sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel, over the arms the gang would twist and the legs they would kick. He rehearsed the words he would say, felt the blows they would give him, the dunts and the pokes and the thumps and the kicks, knew what he would reply, and was unaware of where and how his hands had strayed until he felt the familiar heat glowing in his face and the pressure that could no longer be denied, as a further offering of the essence of life surged forth fruitlessly into his pyjamas.
Chapter 4: The Traitor
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