Brian's Saga

by Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
-  Auksford, 2006  -

Copyright Robin Gordon 2006

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    Chapter 11
    The Power of Prayer
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    Brian had 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 at evensong.

    "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 longer.
    "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 thing."
    "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 could.  
    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.
    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 Fairyfeet!"
    "Get his trousers!"
    "Debag him!"
    "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 laughing-stocks.
    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 multitude.
    "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 never, never, 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 Brian.

    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 the list.
    "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!"
    "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 done."
    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 forgiveness.
    "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, Brian Adamson?"
    "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.

 Chapter 12: Odd's End

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