CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, III
- Auksford, 2006 -
Copyright Robin Gordon 2006
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The Power of Prayer
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never seen the cockpit, but John's description was enough to bring it
vividly before him as he lay in bed that night. Rank upon
rank of Halden schoolboys he saw, in neat black blazers and
yellow-striped ties, cheering and jeering, while below them, in the
centre of the amphitheatre, Ian Bailey, Chopper Malone and their gang
held fast the feebly struggling figure of Stewart Higgs.
"Stewart Higgs!" shouted Ian Bailey. "You have been
found guilty of High Treason. What is the penalty?"
"Debag him! Debag him!" yelled the multitude.
"No! Please don't!" Stew snivelled
"Yes!" cried Bailey. "We're going to debag you!"
Stew was held down on the ground. Big Ian
unfastened his trousers and pulled them off. Or would they
get stuck around his shoes? Perhaps Chopper would pull his shoes off
while Big Ian was pulling his trousers down. Then his
trousers would come off with one quick yank and Big Ian would brandish
them like a trophy while Stew crouched over protecting his
underpants. They wouldn't take those off too, would
they? No, of course not. But they might throw his
trousers up to the spectators, and there they go, thrown from cheering
boy to cheering boy, while Stew despairs of ever getting them back.
Why on earth had Stew risked such a fate? Why had
he paid Johnny Cowan? Why did he keep on paying Johnny
Cowan? Didn't he know what being taken to the cockpit
meant? Perhaps he didn't. Brian had never heard of
the cockpit, so why should Stew? But then the others in the
gang knew about it, so they must have talked about it.
Perhaps Stew thought they wouldn't dare do it. Perhaps they
wouldn't. But they probably would. All sorts of
people seemed to go in for debagging: Auksford students, the rough boys
in the streets, Trevor, and the boys at Trevor's school, and people at
Methodist Guild holiday centres, and even St Sweyne had sent Thorkel
back to Halden without his breeches. Trevor said debagging
was symbolic castration, and that was why Sweyne called Thorkel a
gelding, and why everyone laughed at him and his wife wanted to divorce
him. It would be terrible to be debagged with everyone
looking on and jeering. He would have to ask Stew on Monday
if he knew what being taken to the cockpit meant.
The same questions and fantasies whirled through his brain on
Saturday night and on Sunday night too, and images of Stew,
trouserless, weeping, mocked by hundreds of his school-fellows, kept
invading his mind at odd times during the day: at Sunday lunch, when he
blushed for shame at having such thoughts in the bosom of his family;
at Bible class on Sunday afternoon; and during Canon Tollgate's sermon
"Do you know what it means being taken to the
cockpit? Do you know what they do there?"
"Yes," said Stew.
"They debag you!" said Brian. "They pull your
trousers off in front of hundreds of boys, all laughing and jeering at
you. Did you know that?"
"Yes," said Stew.
"Why? Why did you do it? Why did you pay
protection money to Johnny Cowan? Why do you keep on paying
him when you know what they're going to do to you?"
Stew didn't want to talk about it, but Brian
persisted. Stew told him to shut up, but Brian wouldn't stop
talking. All the questions and speculations that had tumbled
about his overheated brain since Friday evening came pouring
forth. A public debagging must be the greatest humiliation a
boy could ever suffer, so why had Stew risked it? Why
continue to risk it? What could possibly be worse than having
all the boys in the school laughing at you as your enemies haul your
trousers off. On an on he went, till Stew could stand it no
"All right," he said. "I'll tell you what's
worse. I'll tell you what happened. Johnny Cowan
and them grabbed me in one of the back lanes. They had me
helpless on the ground, and Cowan said if I didn't pay up he'd let
Norah Blackburn debag me. She came forward with that grin of
hers on her face, and she started undoing my pants … so I
said I'd pay up. Anybody would."
"But," said Brian, "girls don't … do that sort of
"Norah Blackburn does," said Stew. “I was
at the same primary school as her. All the boys were scared
of her. She's mad."
"She wouldn't really have done it."
"You haven't seen that grin of hers," said Stew.
"When I paid up, Cowan made her stop, but she didn't want to.
She hates boys."
The bell called them to class, and Stew avoided Brian for the
rest of the day. Martin, seeing that he was alone, came and
joined him, sitting in companionable silence, while Brian followed his
own thoughts, but he couldn't concentrate properly, neither on his
thoughts nor on the lessons.
That night, in bed, he went over what he had heard.
Debagging was not, as he had at first thought, a strange aberration of
behaviour confined to a few of the older universities in the twenties
and thirties. It was practised everywhere: disgusting
horseplay took place on the streets of Halden and Swarrell, at
Christian holiday centres, even in his own school -- and girls joined
in. All the boys at Norah's primary school were afraid of
her, and she had been on the point of debagging his friend Stew, and
would have done so of he hadn't surrendered in time.
That grin of hers! Yes, he'd seen it. The
day of the storm, when he had confronted the Bailey Malone gang about
their desecration of the church. They had started hitting him and
pummelling him and generally scragging him. Then he'd accused
them of wanking off and that made them let him go. And then
Norah had looked at him with that grin and said What were they going to do to
you? His clothes were all pulled all over the
place. He was tucking his shirt in and fastening his
trousers. But why were his trousers unfastened?
Would he have undone them to get his shirt tucked in? Not
likely. He was always very fastidious about keeping himself
decent, always turned away to the wall when he was getting dressed in
the changing room, covering himself up as quickly as
possible. Not like some of them, who wondered round talking
to their friends without any pants on and didn't even seem to mind if
other people saw their private parts. He always tried to
avoid looking at them, of course, like his friend Martin, who kept his
back firmly turned on all such goings on, dressed as quickly as
possible, often pink with embarrassment, and hurried out as soon as he
Brian knew he would never have unfastened his trousers in the
yard, especially with girls around.
Norah's grin: What
were they going to do to you?
He knew what they were going to do with him. If he
hadn't shocked them with his accusation, they would have debagged
him. He would have been stripped of his trousers in the
schoolyard, symbolically emasculated, his humiliation witnessed and
cheered by hundreds of his fellow pupils, girls as well as boys -- and
Norah Blackburn knew it.
The scene replayed through his fevered brain. He
pushed through the crowd in white-hot fury to confront and castigate
the desecrators of his church. He accused them before the
multitude, and they attacked him. They pushed him, sent him
staggering, punched him, pummelled him. "You are
sinners! You have defiled the church of the Lord!" he
cried. Then they seized him, bore him to the ground, pulled
off his shoes, and stripped him of his trousers, while Norah Blackburn
urged them on with a devilish grin, and the whole school cheered.
Brian groaned and sought to cover his nakedness with his
hands, but it was all too much for him, and he found he had sinned
Again and again he sinned that week as Norah's grin flashed
before that inward eye that had become the curse of his solitude, and
again and again he felt the shame of the public detrousering he had so
narrowly avoided, and which might still fall to his lot; for Brian now
realised that, though his school-fellows could not throw him to the
lions or crucify him for preaching the Word of the Lord, they could
subject him to the humiliation of a public debagging. What
was more, if he could believe that dreadful book about Auksford, adults
would probably say that he must have deserved it.
Feeling sin about to overwhelm him yet again, Brian wrenched
his mind away from his fantasies and began to pray for
forgiveness. Long and earnestly he prayed: for forgiveness
for his sins, for preservation from future failings, for deliverance
from evil, for protection from his enemies, for surely the Lord would
not allow his chosen mouthpiece to be mocked and His Own word thereby
to suffer ridicule. Surely the strong right arm of the Lord
of Hosts, of the Lord Mighty in Battle, would be there to succour and
protect His saints, among them Brian as he strove mightily against all
the odds to live a Christian life and to guide his fellow boys towards
the paths of salvation. Yeah, though I walk in the valley of
the shadow of death yet will I fear no evil, for Thy rod and Thy staff
they comfort me. Would not the Lord stretch forth His staff
and smite those who ridiculed His message? Well, Brian
supposed, He wouldn't strike them dead or even afflict them with
plagues of boils, but He might cause them to stumble as they came to
assault His messenger.
"Get his trousers!"
"Lord," cried Brian, "save me from my foes!"
They rushed towards him, then suddenly they stumbled, tripped
and fell. Their trousers were round their ankles, and the
multitude of onlookers, who had been ready to laugh at Brian, now
turned their ridicule on his fallen foes, who slunk away, defeated
It would not be Brian who suffered jeers and mockery, for the
Lord was with him, and had He not promised to all who truly believed
that their prayers would be answered, that they should walk with wild
beasts and be unmolested, that the little child should put his hand in
the serpent's hole and suffer no harm, that His servants would, if they
wished, walk upon the waters of the sea. How little a thing
it would be for the Lord to make Brian's enemies' trousers fall down as
they rushed to attack him, or even to make them disappear altogether!
A buzz of conversation and then lewd laughter. More
dirty jokes! Brian advanced on the Bailey-Malone gang and
began to upbraid them. They glanced sidelong at one another
and nodded. Big Ian stepped forward.
"There's no escape for you this time, Fairyfeet," he
said. "We didn't get your pants on the day of the storm, but
this time we’re definitely going to debag you!
Bring him to the cockpit!"
He was hustled across the yard and then the field, hauled
over the fence and manhandled down the slope to the cockpit, while boys
came pouring from all over the field to watch his humiliation -- and
perhaps girls too? Yes, definitely girls too! Norah
Blackburn and her gang, leering with delight. Rank upon rank
of his school-fellows looking down on the stage at the bottom of the
amphitheatre where he is thrown by his foes.
"This is Brian Adamson!" cried Big Ian. "He's a
Christian! What do we do to Christians?"
"Debag! Debag! Debag!" yelled the
"Get him!" commanded Big Ian, but, as the gang moved towards
him, Brian raised his right hand. He murmured a quick and
heartfelt prayer, then pointed sharply at his foes.
Instantly they were detrousered.
Cheers and laughter erupted from the massed ranks of
spectators, and the Bailey-Malone gang were mobbed by jeering boys and
mocked by leering girls, while Brian, unnoticed in the furore, walked
calmly back up the slope and disappeared.
It was a very satisfying fantasy. It gave Brian so
much pleasure that he repeated it with variations time after time in
the next few days, glorying in the moment when he would raise his hand
and, with a mere flick of his fingers, make his enemies' trousers
disappear as if by magic.
But magic was forbidden. Magic was
occult. Magic was not just unchristian, it was
anti-Christian. Guilt seeped into his soul and destroyed his
joy. He knew he was misusing the power of prayer in imagining
he could use it to harm his fellow boys. He knew he must love
his enemies and forgive them, not just seven times but seventy times
seven. He knew the Lord would never allow him to use
magic. Miracles did not happen like that in modern times: a
miracle would never overturn the laws by which God governed the
Universe. His enemies' trousers might just fall down at the
precise moment needed to save him from humiliation, that was merely the
force of gravity in action, but they would never magically
disappear. His fantasies deserved punishment, but he would
even if he had the power, he would never actually debag his
classmates by magic. No matter how they teased him, his
tormentors' trousers would remain unscathed. It was just a game he
played for his own private amusement, but, (oh, that the Lord would
believe him), never would he attempt to put his fantasies into practice.
In fact in his daily life, no-one ever gave him cause to want
to take such a shaming revenge. Though, in his nightly
fantasies, the Bailey-Malone gang advanced on him with hostile intent,
in reality they rarely addressed a word to him. They were
fully occupied with their own concerns. Johnny Cowan had
still made no move against them, but his ambition was clear, and they
knew that Norah Blackburn was continually urging him to confront them.
Nevertheless Brian was tense and always on the look-out for
the first signs of imminent attack. It made him even more
sensitive to insults than before, and a chance mocking comment from
Chopper Malone set him brooding for the rest of the day.
Chopper, he decided, deserved, if anyone did, that magical snap of the
fingers that would strip him of his dignity and subject him to the
jeers and mockery of everyone who saw him scampering shirt-tailed to
shelter. Magic was out of the question, but surely the Lord
would not find it impossible to arrange a natural sequence of events to
avenge his faithful servant. Johnny Cowan's gang had seized
Stew and threatened to let Norah Blackburn debag him. It
would be a simple little miracle, wouldn't it, and one that would leave
the laws of nature intact, for the Cowan gang to seize Chopper and
strip him of his trousers? It would be permissible, surely,
to pray for something like that? After all, it would hardly
be a real
miracle at all, would it? "Oh, please let it happen!" thought
The next day Brian found himself alone at break.
Stew seemed to have gone off somewhere, and the ever-faithful Martin,
disappointed by Brian's seemingly growing friendship for Stew, had
wandered away to watch an impromptu game of football. Brian
meandered across the field, and, finding himself near the fence at the
far end, wondered if it would be possible to see where the cockpit was
without going out of bounds. He noticed that part of the
fence seemed to be broken, obviously the way the boys used to get into
the tangled thickets down the slope. He walked along to the
gap and peered through, but the bushes were too thick for him to see
very far. Glancing round to make sure no-one was watching, he
slid into the waste land. He wasn't, of course, going right
down to the cockpit. He had no intention of breaking bounds
quite so blatantly, but a brief peep around the nearer bushes couldn't
do any harm, and he would stay well within the sound of the school bell.
Then noises from the nearby undergrowth caught his
attention. Low voices, and a girl's giggle.
Obviously some boys up to no good with girls. He crept up to
the bushes, pulled aside a branch and looked through.
It was the Cowan gang! With them were Norah
Blackburn and her girls. They had somebody on the ground, a
boy: it was Chopper Malone -- and Norah was in the act of pulling off
his trousers. For an instant Brian's and Chopper's eyes
met. Then Brian backed away and fled back to the
field. His prayer had been answered. Chopper had
been punished, and he had seen that Brian had witnessed his
fate. Never again would he, or any of his friends, dare to
mock God's chosen messenger!
That night, however, as Brian lay in his bed, his sense of
triumph ebbed away to be replaced by guilt: he had misused the Power of
Prayer, not just in his imagination but in real life. He
should have forgiven Chopper his hasty words, but instead he had
condemned him to humiliation at the hands of Norah Blackburn.
Why had God allowed it to happen? To show him that prayer
must be used for good? To show him what can come about if its
power is abused? And what would happen next? If he
couldn't make amends he would be punished. But what amends
could he make? Poor Chopper had been debagged -- but no-one
knew about his humiliation. It was in Brian's power to
publish it from the rooftops or to keep it secret. He
resolved to preserve Chopper's reputation. No-one should hear
from the lips of Brian a single word about what had happened.
He swore it on his soul. He would make amends through silence.
All next day Brian lurked near the Bailey-Malone gang,
keeping an eye on the unfortunate Chopper, ready to leap to his defence
if anyone mentioned his humiliation. It was while he had to
answer a call of nature that Nigel Barber came up to the group and
spoke to Chopper.
"Now that you're
Johnny Cowan's collector for the fourth form you'd better have this
list," he said, and stuffed a hand-written sheet of paper into
Chopper's hand, then he skipped away, sniggering.
"What's this?" demanded Ian Bailey, but, before Chopper could
answer, Christopher Brown and Leonard Robinson came up to Chopper and
handed him their dues.
"You have to tick it off on the list," said Brown, "so Cowan
knows we've paid."
Chopper pocketed the money and ticked off the two names on
"WHAT'S THIS?" Bailey bellowed. "WHY ARE YOU
COLLECTING MONEY FOR COWAN? HAVE YOU PAID HIM AS WELL?"
"It wasn't my fault," Chopper faltered. "Anyone
would have paid up. They got me in the bushes and took my
pants off. Norah Blackburn!
She did it."
"Norah Blackburn debagged you?!"
"That's no excuse!" said Bailey.
"It is," said someone. "There's summat about Norah
Blackburn. The way she looks at you.
"Nobody'd want Norah Blackburn pawing at his goolies!"
"You'd agree to anything to get her off you."
"Is this true?" Bailey demanded.
"Fairyfeet saw," said Chopper. "He'll tell you."
It was then that Brian returned to his watch. Dolly
McIlwaine approached him. "Hey, Brian! Is it true
that the Cowan gang got Chopper, and Norah Blackburn debagged him?"
"No," said Brian. "Of course not."
"Over behind the field," said Dolly. "You were
there. You saw them there."
"Oh yes," said Brian. "They were all in the bushes,
just talking. All quite friendly. Nobody did
anything nasty to Chopper."
"RIGHT!" said Bailey. "First Stew, now
you! There's none of you Malonites can be trusted.
Well, we're finished! The Blood Oath's finished! My
gang'll stand up to Cowan on our own, without traitors like you
lot. You'd best keep out of my sight, the lot of you, or
we'll take you to the cockpit!"
Bailey and his followers stalked off. Sherry Croft
hesitated, then followed, only to be turned back by a jeering, "Stay
with your mates, traitor, or we'll have your kegs off."
Brian was rather puzzled by all this, but at least he had
saved Chopper's reputation.
At YPF on Friday there was no Trevor and still no
Janice. The evening passed pleasantly enough, and Brian set
off for home. He heard shouting in the distance and pursed
his lips. More of these awful street-fights!
Probably over in Swarrell. At least such things didn't happen
in Halden. Still, better hurry home as quickly as
possible. It was then that he saw a gang of youths on the
other side of the street, some distance away, half hidden by parked
cars, but briefly visible as they passed street lights. Brian
was suddenly afraid. Nails had been debagged in a
street-fight. Debagging was all around. He himself
had imagined magically debagging his enemies by the Power of Prayer,
and had actually brought about the debagging of Chopper by the Cowan
gang and Norah Blackburn. He had tried to atone by keeping
Chopper's secret, but had he atoned enough? Surely the Lord
would not permit His messenger to be made a laughing stock.
It would end his influence for good, and he was an influence for good,
despite all his weakness. He had tried not to sin in bed, and
had succeeded for several nights in a row. Surely he would
not be put to the test.
"Lord," he prayed, "turn this ordeal from me. Let
these wicked boys be stripped of their trousers that they may flee into
the darkness and leave me undisturbed."
"Nevertheless," he added quickly, "not my will but Thine be
Having thus prayed he hunched into the darkened doorway of a
nearby shop till the danger had passed.
Nearer and nearer came the boys, slinking along the road in a
furtive manner, obviously up to no good. Then, as they passed
by on the other side, Brian saw them clearly for a moment, and he
almost cried out in amazement -- they were all trouserless!
His prayer had been answered. Without looking in his
direction the lads slunk away and disappeared round the next corner.
Brian offered up a fervent prayer of thanks for his
deliverance and hurried home.
But, in the darkness of the night in bed, Brian triumphant
soon became Brian dejected and Brian despairing. The Lord had
delivered him from the hand of his enemies. The Power of
Prayer had saved him and sent his would-be assailants scuttling home to
explain to their mothers, if they could, how they had lost their
trousers. His prayers had been answered by a miracle. At his
command the immutable laws of nature had been suspended.
Material substance had melted away as if he had spoken a magical
incantation. Witchcraft! That was what it
was. He had perverted the Power of Prayer to serve his own
selfish ends. His religion had become no better than the
superstition of savages. But he had, (hadn't he?) surely he had prayed Not my will but Thine be done.
That counted for something. That must count for
something. Or it would have counted if he had meant it - but
he hadn't. All he had wanted was to conjure away his
enemies’ power to hurt him, to strip them of their dignity
and manhood so that they would creep away in shame. What he
had meant, sinner that he was, was Not
thy will but
mine be done.
He hadn't learned at all. First he had used
witchcraft to egg on the Cowan gang to debag Chopper, then he had used
it again to strip whole gangs of innocent youths of their
trousers. He was embroiled in the deepest wickedness
imaginable, for surely perverting and abusing the Power of Prayer must
be the sin against the Holy Ghost for which there could be no
"Punish me upon this earth, O Lord," he prayed, "but save my
soul from eternal damnation!"
Monday came, as Mondays will, and Brian crept unwillingly to
school. When his penance was inflicted upon him, as it must
be, it would be at school that he would suffer. Would it be
the cockpit? Would it be Norah Blackburn? Whatever
it was he would bear it, and the sufferings he bore in this life would
ensure his passage to eternal felicity.
He scarcely heard the wise words of his teachers, so deeply
sunk in misery was he, and the conversation of his school-fellows
between periods and at break went unheeded. He heard a few comments
about youths being seen in the streets of Halden without their trousers
on Friday night, and this plunged him once more into a state of
agonised anticipation of his punishment to come. News of a
great battle between the street gangs of Halden and those of Swarrell
over some trophy or other called the Banner, over which he would
normally have pursed his lips and shaken his head in disapproval,
passed him by completely. He knew his guilt. He
embraced his guilt. He waited for the Lord to cleanse him of
his guilt in whatever way it pleased Him.
Returning to school after a miserable lunch he chanced upon
Norah Blackburn and her gang in the street outside. Was his
doom come upon him?
The girls were in high spirits, Norah especially, for the
great battle, of which Brian was still ignorant, had been the high spot
of her career. The mass mutual detrousering of the Halden and
Swarrell youths, and the passing of their trophies to the girls on the
viaduct above the battlefield -- who had, naturally ensured, that they
never fell into the hands of any boy again -- had been her greatest
achievement in a life devoted to the humiliation of the male
sex. She grinned wolfishly at Brian. That leer was
enough to panic him into an involuntary movement as if to protect his
groin. Norah laughed.
"Ooh, Brian Adamson," she jeered, "where's your
trousers? Where's your trousers,
"OOOOOH!" jeered the rest of them.
Brian froze. He closed his eyes. This was
his punishment. He had used witchcraft to strip other boys of
their trousers, now his own had magically disappeared -- in front of
girls -- in front of Norah Blackburn.
He heard them laughing at him as he stood in the darkness of
his torment. Then, at last, they were gone. He
opened his eyes. What should he do? Could he go
into school without trousers? Could he sit in lessons without
trousers all afternoon? Could he make his way home without
trousers, through the busy streets? Miserably he cupped his
hands over his groin -- and discovered that his trousers had returned.
He thanked God for His mercy and promised to mend his
ways. Like St Sweyne he had been stripped of his manhood --
but then, like St Sweyne’s, it had returned.
His punishment was light. It was no more than a
message, a summons to a life of penance through service to
God. It was clear that the Lord wanted him to emulate the
holiness of St Sweyne, and to undertake some act of witness.
What that would be he did not yet know, but clearly he had to continue
his reading of the life of St Sweyne and seek guidance in the book that
Mouse had lent him.
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