CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, III
by Robin Gordon
- Auksford, 2006 -
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© Copyright Robin Gordon, 2006
Few days are as eventful as the day of the thunderstorm in Swardale. Afterwards Halden< Comprehensive School settled back into its normal routine. The chestnuts scattered by the storm were swiftly gathered and the conkers season got under way a little early. Andy Hodges ceased to hanker for a linen suit which would not have had the advantage of the capacious and distended pockets of his habitual garb. Mr Ratcliffe's temper was re-established in its old uncertain and dyspeptic fashion, though after his prodigality with the chalk, Tinkerbell O'Reilly had strictly rationed him, so that missiles were in short supply and their fragments had to be returned to him at the end of each lesson for further use.
The return to normal autumn temperatures led to renewed activity in the gymnasia, and in the classrooms Miss Hardacre's eagle eye could not detect a button out of place or a tie unacceptably loose. The girls had resumed their tights, and the boys' glances at their legs were no longer envious. Life, in short, had returned to normal.
The Bailey-Malone gang, after the evaporation of their brief hour of glory, were lying low. No-one cared to mention the Blood-Oath fiasco in their presence, except a couple of girls who knew that their sex would save them from the pummelling a boy would have received. After that tempers got rather short among the gang, and, when Stewart Higgs began his usual litany of criticism, he found the whole gang ready to snarl at him. Harrison and Hudsmith were spoiling for a fight. Wisely Stew avoided them. Unwisely he began to torment Croft and Robinson who ranked below him in the pecking order, only to find, when Croft hurled himself at him and began a real set-to, that the generally accepted estimates of who could beat whom had been founded on mistaken premises. It was Higgs who was the underdog, with Croft on top bashing the living daylights out of him. Worse still, he found that the Englishman's proverbial sympathy with the underdog was merely a myth. The rest of the gang cheered Croft on until Higgs had to admit defeat. Not soon enough, however, to save combatants and onlookers from an imposition handed out by a squad of prefects led by the ever vigilant David Little: lines for the spectators and double detentions for the fighters. And Stew, of course, got the blame.
Brian, when he heard what had happened, pursed his lips, tut-tutted, and gave his classmates to understand that he considered their punishment richly merited and their brutal brawling a further stage on their godless path to perdition.
Brian had not been present at the fight, for, after his sin the previous night, he had made a vow to devote his energies to converting the unhappy heathen of Baldersdale to the true faith of Christ Jesus. As soon as morning break began he had sought out George Batey and Specky-Four-Eyes Irving.
"I've come to thank you for standing up to Ian Bailey and William Malone," he said. It would have been terrible if they really had desecrated the church."
Neither George nor Specky wanted to talk about it. Brian persisted.
"I was really surprised that you care so much about St Sweyne's when you don't even belong to our parish," he said. "Do you often go there to pray at lunchtime?"
"No," said George.
"Anyway," said Brian, "it was very nice of you. I … er … I wonder if you'd like to come to the YPF on Friday night …"
"No buses," said George.
"Oh … er … no, I suppose not. Still, if you are ever able to come we'll all be glad to see you. Mr Mouse is always ready to welcome new members - that's the curate, you know - Canon Tollgate doesn't often come in. He mainly deals with the services and that sort of thing. I expect you met him when you came over for the blessing of those sticks."
"Yes," said George.
"I didn't," said Specky unhappily. I wasn't in the beating of the beck."
"It was your own fault," said George grumpily.
"I know," said Specky miserably, "only somebody told me what happens and I didn't want …"
"Yellow!" said George.
Specky was silent.
Brian was puzzled.
"Is it like beating the bounds?" he asked.
"Beating the beck," said Specky gloomily. "The boys all have ash rods, and they start at the Balder Stone and …"
"And they beat the beck," cut in George, "and that's all. Isn't it, Specky?"
"Yeah," said Specky. "Making sure it isn't obstructed, like."
"But why do they have to have the sticks blessed at St Sweyne's?" said Brian. "Why not at your own church?"
Brian found the conversation unhelpful. Neither boy would tell him why St Michael and All Angels, Baldersthwaite, could not bless the ashen rods. They could not, or would not, tell him what connection there was between St Sweyne's Church in Halden and the beating of the Baldersbeck. They tried to walk away when he mentioned their Worm-Charmer, and, when he followed them, talking of the beneficence of the Lord in sending a thunderstorm just when it was needed to scotch the rumour that one of His churches had been desecrated, they became very uneasy and gave him the impression that they did not believe the storm had come from the Lord at all.
"Surely you don't believe in devils and monsters, do you?" he asked, putting the question to Irving. “It's all superstitious nonsense. You must see that."
But Specky had been so thoroughly frightened by the lightning that he merely stuttered evasively.
"You don't mean to tell me," said Brian incredulously, that you think your Worm-Charmer raised a storm to strike you with a thunderbolt just because you said you didn't believe in magic?"
"No, of course not!" Specky burst out angrily. You don't understand anything about it or you wouldn't say such things. The Worm Master doesn't raise the evil, he …"
"Sh!" said George.
Brian was exasperated. He spoke sharply to the Baldersthwaite boys about superstition and its evils, but the bell began to ring and he had to let them go before his sermon had really got into its stride. He was cross, angry and frustrated when he entered the classroom, and the news of the fight gave him just the outlet he needed. From lip-pursing and tutting he moved on to a rapid catalogue of his classmates' vices, and a wholesale condemnation of their way of life.
"Shurrup, Fairyfeet!" they yelled, and a barrage of books, rubbers and rulers forced him to take refuge under his desk. The owners of the missiles were busily engaged in retrieving and sorting out their property, when David Little appeared in the doorway, informed them that they could be heard all over the school and that he would not tolerate such undisciplined behaviour, and gave them all 500 lines.
Brian did not care to hang around at lunchtime. He sped off as quickly as he could to the bosom of his family, where he ate even more morosely than usual. On his return to school he deemed it prudent to walk alone in the shade of the trees in the furthermost corner of the playing field.
There it was that Johnny Cowan found him. Politely but concisely, in well-chosen, winged words, the fifth form gang-leader informed him that he ought to pay sixpence a week protection money, or he might be beaten up by fifth form bullies, lads like Dave Black, James Rason and Stanley Davidson, lads bursting with adolescent aggression who could be restrained only by Cowan himself.
Brian declined and offered instead to teach the Cowan gang how, by giving up all their worldly goods to the poor and laying up for themselves treasures, not on Earth, but in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, they could earn themselves eternal salvation in the love of Christ Jesus. Unfortunately for him the Cowan gang had become so thoroughly obsessed with the things of this world that they failed to appreciate the significance of his offer. Their replies suggested that they thought that Brian himself placed too low a value on the here and now, and, without further ado, they proceeded to a practical demonstration of its importance by twisting one of his arms behind his back.
Brian was forced to admit the reality of pain. So vivid did it present itself to him that he made no further attempt at evangelism. Direct Divine Intervention having become so rare in the modern world, he felt he had no option but to surrender, hand over his sixpence, and buy immunity from further torture with weekly payments to the Cowan gang. When the pain in his shoulder had subsided enough to let him speak he was on the point of announcing his submission, when he realised that events had moved on.
Facing the Cowan gang in battle array were Ian Bailey and Chopper Malone, with McIlwaine, Hudsmith, Harrison, Martin, Croft, Robinson and Higgs.
"Let him go!" ordered Big Ian.
Johnny Cowan patted Brian's shoulder.
"We were only funning," he said.
Brian shrugged him off. Cowan laughed and spread his arm across Brian's shoulders, giving him a friendly squeeze, like a football manager encouraging a player. Brian winced at the pressure on his recently twisted shoulder.
"I said, let him go!" said Big Ian loudly. His gang stirred menacingly.
"We were only funning, weren't we, Fairyfeet?" said Johnny.
"Gerroff!" muttered Brian.
"Let him go!" repeated Big Ian.
Cowan held on to Brian's upper arms.
"Are you looking for a fight?" he asked.
"Maybe," replied Bailey.
"Right!" said Cowan.
"Right!" said Bailey.
"Right! You asked for it!" said Cowan.
"Right!" said Bailey.
"Come on then!" said Cowan.
"Right! Come on!" said Bailey.
"I'm ready for you!" said Cowan.
"Right!" said Bailey.
There was a pause.
Cowan glanced surreptitiously at his watch.
Bailey glanced surreptitiously at his watch.
"Right!" said Bailey.
"Right!" said Cowan.
"Come on then!" said Bailey.
"Right!" said Cowan.
Cowan pushed Brian away and swung his shoulders into fighting posture.
"Right!" he said.
Bailey moved forward a pace and crouched slightly.
"Right!" he said.
They faced each other in silence. They glared into each other's eyes. They breathed deeply.
"Right!" they said in unison.
The ring of boys round them held its breath.
Cowan and Bailey breathed deeply. They edged forward half a pace.
The bell began to ring. The spectators let out a groan of disappointment and began to move away.
"Right!" said Cowan with a threatening nod. "Wait till next time!"
"Right!" said Ian Bailey.
Still glaring balefully at each other the two combatants allowed their supporters to lead them away.
Honour was satisfied.
Brian was still in possession of his sixpence. He was surprised and delighted to be rescued. He joined the triumphant fourth-form progress into school. He looked admiringly at Ian Bailey.
"There," he thought, "is an example of true Christianity. He doesn't like me, yet he loves me enough to risk his skin for me."
That night, as he lay in bed, he glowed with virtuous resolution and vowed that he would do all in his power to bring Ian Bailey and his gang to salvation. Next morning his zeal was undiminished, and he set off to school with the praise of the Lord ringing in his joyful heart.
Bailey wasn't interested. Chopper Malone told him not to bother them. Dolly McIlwaine told him to piss off. Harrison and Hudsmith turned their backs on him. Peter Martin, known as Ketchup, moved away at his approach. Croft and Robinson switched their talk from the fuel-injection system of their latest model to the adrenalin-stimulating properties of the breasts and thighs of Raquel Russell and Yvette de Commynes. Mason and Wallace joined them. Brian backed off and sought the company of Stewart Higgs who was idly chipping at a bit of loose cement in the wall with his fingernails. After he had gone the animated conversation soon turned from the topic of which he so disapproved to Halden United's chance of avoiding relegation. Brian would not have been interested, but at least he had not yet declared football a sin.
Stew was the only one willing to talk to Brian. Big Ian's success in standing up to Johnny Cowan had given the lie to his predictions of gloom and disaster. He had given his leaders loyal support during the crisis, but, now that it was over, no-one seemed to have any interest in him. He felt friendless and alone.
By the end of lunch-break he was even more alone.
The fourth-formers were in a group on the field. Johnny Cowan's gang were watching them from a distance. Stewart Higgs came slowly across the yard and over to the fourth-formers. He didn't try to join the Bailey-Malone gang at the centre but hung about on the fringe. Brian came over to him and began to talk. Stew seemed uneasy. Then Johnny Cowan came over and clapped him on the shoulder.
Stew smiled nervously.
The crowd parted and the Bailey-Malone gang came through to confront Cowan. The crowd closed behind them and watched. There was still some time to go before the bell would ring.
Cowan and Bailey looked at one another. Cowan smiled.
"Y'orright, Ian?" he said.
"Good," said Cowan. He beamed round. He ruffled Stew's hair. Stew didn't move.
"Leave 'im!" said Bailey.
"He du'nt mind," said Cowan. "Do you, Stew? He's my friend is Stew."
Cowan clasped Stew's shoulder in his friendly football-manager's embrace. Stew's lips fell into a sickly grin.
"Nobody's gonna touch Stew while I'm around," said Cowan proprietorially. "He's paid his dues, see? Haven't you, Stew?"
Stew blinked blearily and his grin became even more sickly.
"He's a good lad is Stew," continued Cowan. He knows what's best for him. That's why he's paid his dues. So he's under my protection now, and nobody better touch him! Right?"
And Cowan swaggered off.
There was a silence.
After a while Big Ian said, "Is it true? Have you paid him?"
Stew let his breath out in a sort of indeterminate noise.
"Have you paid him?" said Big Ian sharply.
There was consternation in the crowd.
Big Ian took a step forward, swinging his fist.
"You …!" he snarled.
Stew dodged, but Harrison and Hudsmith were behind him, Croft and Robinson to his left, McIlwaine, Mason and Wallace to his right. Big Ian came at him again, but Chopper and Ketchup held their leader back.
"I couldn't help it," Stew sobbed.
"Dirty … yellow … stinking … COWARD!" snarled Bailey. "I'm gonna smash you to a PULP!"
"Easy … Easy …" breathed Chopper, as if to an excited stallion. Bailey slammed his lieutenant aside and grabbed Stew's shirt-front.
"Don't fight in front of them!" hissed Chopper.
"What's it matter? snarled Bailey. The Blood Oath was in ruins and he knew it.
"He's under Johnny Cowan's protec…" began Ketchup nervously.
"So what?" snarled Bailey. He shook Stew then flung him away into the arms of Harrison and Hudsmith who held him fast.
"N…nothing," said Ketchup, retreating a step.
"Got to pull the others together," muttered Chopper, "convince 'em we're still going to keep our oath.
"Make an example of him!" growled Bailey.
"Yeah!" muttered Harrison and Hudsmith, tightening their grip.
"Can't fight among ourselves!" shouted Chopper.
Dolly McIlwaine grabbed Stew by the tie.
"He's not one of us!" he yelled, and jerked it.
Dolly thrust his face against Stew's.
"He … broke … the … Blood … Oath!" he grated, giving Stew's tie a jerk with each word.
"Nngh …couldnnnngh …'elpi' …. k-k-k-rrr…" spluttered Stew, choking and swallowing snot.
Hudsmith punched him in the kidneys.
Harrison kicked him on the shins.
Croft and Robinson yelled insults at him. Big Ian yelled at him. Chopper yelled at Big Ian. Stew was in the midst of a maelstrom of noise, confusion and chaos.
Boys and girls came streaming from all sides, eager to watch the fray. Only one small centre of calm seemed unaffected. There walked the duty prefect, Colin Greatbatch, who had for some time been engaged in conversation with lovely Rita Storey, attractive Ada Biggs, adorable Wilma Jenkins, and, outshining them all like the moon among the stars, like Venus among the planets, like an electric light-bulb among candles or a neon sign among glow-worms, leering Norah Blackburn, consort of the kingly Cowan.
It was Cowan who had suggested that they should amuse Greatbatch and keep him harmlessly occupied but near at hand until needed. Greatbatch himself had become more and more uneasy. He found Norah's conversation uninteresting, disjointed and difficult to follow, and, in spite of the innocence of her manner, he felt that she was somehow making fun of him. His self-confidence, such as it was, ebbed rapidly. He began to feel awkward and embarrassed, exposed even and ridiculous. He was casting round for an excuse to move away when he became aware of a commotion on the field. Instantly all thought of departure left him. He concentrated his attention most politely on Miss Blackburn's discourse, ignoring the noise, the hot flush that crept up his neck and tingled in his ears, and the ever more open contempt of Norah and her companions. Cowan was making it very difficult for him to ignore the tumult. He edged around slightly so that he could just see the window of the prefects' study. If David Little appeared he would have to leap into action and break up the fight to protect his own reputation.
It was then that Johnny Cowan appeared at his elbow.
"Hey, Greatbatch!" called the fifth-former, "there's a gang of bullies beating up some lad over on the field."
"Um… oh?" muttered Greatbatch unhappily.
"I think you should protect him!" said Cowan.
"Ah!" Greatbatch understood, more or less. "Can you point out the ringleaders?" he asked.
"Course I can," said Cowan. "It's Bailey and Malone and them."
"Right!" said Greatbatch with decision.
He strode towards the fray, hesitated on the outskirts, glanced back at Cowan, who urged him on, moved forward, looked round, then suddenly grabbed a little first-form boy and pulled him aside.
"Go and find the School Captain," he commanded. "You know where the prefects' study is?"
The child nodded.
"Tell him to come quick! It's urgent!"
The child sped away.
"Um…" said Colin as Cowan came up to him," … I want to make sure they don't get away. I'll just watch so that I can be absolutely sure who's doing what."
"Good idea," sneered Johnny Cowan, who gave a detailed description of the scene as he had left it, then melted quietly away as a posse of prefects arrived.
Colin led them into the fray. At its centre they found Stewart Higgs, still held by Harrison and Hudsmith, dishevelled and crying, but essentially undamaged, while, around him, the Bailey-Malone gang were still shouting at him and at each other at the tops of their voices, unaware that the cheering crowd had suddenly fallen silent.
They were carried off captive to the prefects' study, where David Little informed them that, as this was the third time they had been in trouble that week, they could expect no mercy. A couple of prefects began to question them closely, but Little accepted Greatbatch's view that the whys and wherefores were unnecessary. The bullying was obvious and admitted. Justice should be summary and punishment severe. Little rather regretted that the school rules did not allow him to administer a flogging, but, since corporal punishment was out of the question, he gave them a thorough verbal castigation, one thousand lines each and a double detention. Stew, their victim, received a mere five hundred lines and was sent off to clean himself up while Little moved on to the second half of his harangue.
Outside Stew found Cowan waiting for him, full of sympathy. He told his new protector what had happened, and, to his surprise and the unbounded admiration of the throng of silent listeners, Cowan promptly pulled out a handful of coins and offered to pay a shilling per hundred lines to any of the small fry who would undertake to write Stew's imposition for him. Five volunteers immediately stepped forward, said they were prepared to write a hundred lines each and assured Cowan that their handwriting was so similar that not even their own mothers could tell it apart.
It was not lost on the crowd that Cowan was four and sixpence out of pocket on the insurance of Higgs. The Protector's generosity was praised on all sides. Members and prospective beneficiaries of his wonderful scheme congratulated themselves on their foresight. With the strength of Cowan insurance around them what could harm them? More than one uninsured fourth former crept shamefacedly up to Cowan's lieutenants to ask humbly whether Mr Cowan were still willing to accept their subscriptions, and, such was the mercy of the Protector, that he at once forgave and forgot their allegiance to his opponents, and not one was turned away.
The Bailey-Malone gang had little time to call their own over the next few days. Their evenings, after completion of the tasks allotted by their schoolmasters, were taken up by the sterile exercise of writing over and over again:
I must not indulge in fisticuffs or other puerile horseplay.
I must not indulge in fisticuffs or other puerile horseplay.
They saw nothing of the traitor Higgs outside school hours. At break he kept well away and they eyed him with unconcealed hostility and talked of revenge. Boiling in oil was suggested. Some felt it might be too merciful a death, but most voted it suitable. The problem was where to find enough oil and a suitable cauldron. Perhaps the victim could be smeared with honey and staked out in the desert for the ants to find and strip to the bone, or flung into a tank full of hungry piranha. The problem in both cases was where to find the livestock. Piranha don't grow on trees, and English ants, though they can deliver a nasty bite if threatened, would probably content themselves with licking off the honey, while the English autumn sun could not be relied on to broil the victim alive.
There was also, of course, the inconvenient efficiency of the British police, who apparently took exception to the assisted demise of even the meanest citizen and invariably sent along a detachment of detectives, a squad of sergeants and a clutch of constables to investigate the crime and apprehend the villains. The fourth form had no wish to have their collars felt by myrmidons of the law, and so they reluctantly lowered their sights to slightly less murderous objectives.
Stew would be beaten to a pulp. The ambulance attendants would have to collect his scattered limbs from the gutters and scrape up his innards from the road. They would have to transport him to hospital in bottles and jars, and they'd be lucky if they found enough of him to put back together again.
He was to be beaten up good and proper. If his arms and legs weren't broken, at least his whole body was to be covered in bruises, black and blue, purple, green and brown, until he could neither sit nor stand nor lie without suffering the agonies of the damned. Both his eyes were to be so thoroughly blacked he wouldn't be able to see for a week, and the blood would flow form his nose in torrents.
When he recovered - if he recovered - he was to be banned from decent society forever. He was to be harassed and hazed, badgered and booted, punched, kicked, shoved and generally maltreated. He was a traitor and all who knew should treat him like one. To spit on him would be not merely permissible, it would be a pious duty, and anyone who omitted to do so would be called before the fourth-form inquisition to explain himself. Higss was the eternal outsider, banished forever, the outcast on whom every indignity would be heaped.
Chapter 5: Brian borrows a book
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