CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, V

Les Épatants

by
Robin Gordon
*
Part I
Exposition: Sebastian
(George Walker’s story)



 Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
- Auksford, 2012 -
 
© Copyright Robin Gordon, 2012

Chapter 1: Sebastian's house  --  Chapter 2: Sebastian's gang

Chapter 3: Sebastian's project  --  Chapter 4: Sebastian's revenge


Chapter 1:
Sebastian’s house


    “Have you ever noticed,” I said to Amanda, that all the other drivers on the motorway are either shits or turds.  They’re either trundling along at 45 in the middle lane, or they’re passing everything in sight and cutting in like … well like the shits they are.  Oh-oh, here comes one now.”
    I could see him approaching in the fast lane.  King of the road?  That’s what he thinks.  I accelerated a bit to catch up on the truck ahead, then pulled out into the outside lane causing the shit to brake.  I drew level with the truck – he was engaged in one of those interminable battles of the leviathans, trying to pass another huge truck – the buggers shouldn’t be on the motorway – and it would take him about five minutes.
    Well, on this occasion that suited me fine.  I slowed and cruised alongside the trucks.  In the mirror I could see the shit looking furious.  Well, serve him right.  If one truck has the right to pass another, I have the right to pass both, and being a law-abiding sort of bloke – when it suits me – I certainly wasn’t going to break the law just so that a purple-faced shit could get to his golf-club three minutes early.
    The truck pulled in, and I cruised on in the fast lane – no sense in pulling in too early.
    “Aha!” I said.  “Shit’s about to pass on the left.  That’s naughty.”
    So I pulled back into the middle lane just in time to stop him.  It worked perfectly.  Shitto had to brake again, and before he could pull out into the fast lane a whole stream of cars that were behind us went sailing past.
    I waited till the road was clear, then, as he pulled out, I speeded up.  Shitto had to work damned hard to get past, but eventually he went roaring off into the distance at about a hundred, just where I knew there were speed cameras.  By the time I reached them, of course, I was travelling at just a fraction under 70.
    Amanda was squeaking all the time.  Words like dangerous and not safe were popping out, but all the time I knew the little bitch was revelling in it.
    She knows what side her bread’s buttered – or she thinks she does, but I’m already supporting two grasping ex-wives and there’s no way any of my new squeezes are going to get their claws on what remains of my hard-earned cash.  There’s enough there to attract them, and once they’re attracted I can satisfy their urges.  You see the difference between an experienced stud like me and some callow youth is that, while he’s finished and done in a few seconds I can roger a female for long enough without a pause to give her multiple orgasms.  I get randier as I get older, and I have Amanda gasping and grunting and begging for mercy before I come to my triumphant climax.  She enjoys it really, just like she enjoys my driving and hopes that one day she’ll enjoy my money.
    Another shit!  Tally ho!
    I’m driving north, to Halden, my home town – not that I’ve thought of it as home for many a year, but with retirement coming up and those two greedy bitches sucking my bank account dry, I need to find a part of the country where property’s cheaper if I’m to maintain my lifestyle.
    I looked on the Internet for suitable properties in Swardale, and what I came up with nearly took my breath away: Odderby House:  A fine period home circa 1895 offering generous five bedroomed accommodation, situated in a unique, elevated position with extensive views across Halden and to the fells beyond.  It was a house I knew well and had visited many times without ever dreaming that one day I might be able to afford it.  It was the house of my old school friend Sebastian, an many a time I had stood in that little octagonal turret that formed a sort of corner bay window in his bedroom, and looked down on Halden: the castle and the cathedral to the right, the main shopping centre straight ahead, then the university and then my own school as the panorama swung round to the main bridge over the Swar.
    There were pictures of the sitting rooms and the dining room, and of the extensive gardens, where I had strolled with Sebastian.  I knew that I had to have it.  I e-mailed the agent then phoned him and made an appointment.  I can’t say Amanda was all that pleased at the prospect of my moving north, but she came – perhaps calculating that if we both moved north she’d move in permanently and establish more of a claim.  I suppose I could buy her a flat somewhere in Halden, but if she doesn’t come, I’m sure there are plenty more eager to share the bed of a wealthy retired businessman from down south.

    I didn’t really take much notice of Sebastian until we reached the lower VIth.  He and his friends were on the science side while I did languages.   I knew he was drawing attention to himself in the fifth form, with his absurd posturings, and some of his friends were totally weird, Lulu Greatbatch for instance.  He continued in the VIth, posing as some sort of aesthete, which we on the arts side thought quite unsuitable conduct for a scientist.  Aren’t they supposed to be hard-working grey gnomes, tied to their laboratories and not interested in anything they couldn’t put in a test-tube and analyse.  We seemed to be the colourless ones, beavering away at our essays and our translations, while they had all the fun of posing as artists.
    I was in the school library one day, beavering away, as was my wont, at an essay in the French language, when suddenly the door was flung open and Lulu Greatbatch hurtled in squealing, “No!  No!  You shan’t have my trousers!  You naughty boys!”
    Sebastian and his science cronies came crashing in after him.  Lulu dodged around the tables, squealing all the while, and the others pursued him, sometimes round the tables knocking over piles of books, sometimes over the tables, sending books and papers cascading onto the floor.  I wanted to protest, but I couldn’t make myself heard in the din.
    At last they had him, and, before I could say anything, they hoisted him onto my table, and while he struggled and squirmed, they held him pinned to it, while Sebastian unhooked his waistband and unbuttoned his flies.
    Lulu looked up at me and giggled.  “They’re such naughty boys,” he said.  “They can’t keep their hands off poor Lulu’s trousers, but I love them all in spite of it.”
    “You mean because of it, don’t you Lulu?” said Sebastian, with a grin.  “If you want your kegs back you’ll find them hanging on the banister of the main stairs.”
    “Oooh, that’s not fair,” wailed Lulu.  “You know poor Lulu will get into trouble if the masters see him running round school without his trousers.  Give’em back.  Please give ’em back.”
    Sebastian grinned.  “OK, we’ll have mercy on you this time Lulu.  Much as we love seeing your beautiful pudgy white legs twinkling along the corridor you’d better have your nether garments back.  All in fun?”
    “All in fun, darlings,” said Lulu, pulling on his trousers.  “You know Lulu always forgives you, dear boys, no matter how badly you treat her.”
    “She loves it really,” said Sebastian to me.
    “Look at my essay,” I spluttered.  “It’s ruined.”
    “Oh dear,” said Sebastian.  “You’d better write another one.  You can’t hand that in.  It’s all crumpled.”
    “You crumpled it,” I said crossly.  “It was a good essay, one of the best I’ve ever written – and now I can’t even read it well enough to copy it out again.  I’ve a good mind to go straight to Mr Watkyns and tell him you destroyed it by acting like hooligans in the library.”
    “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Sebastian, with a glint in his eye.  “If the gang thought someone was going to shop them to the beaks, well, all hell might break out.  You see how overexcited they are.  Best say nothing more about it.  Besides, you’ve had a ringside seat at a very entertaining debagging.  Surely that’s worth a bit of extra work?”
    I couldn’t help grinning back.
    “OK,” I said.  “I’ll do the beastly thing again.  I can probably remember most of it, and it doesn’t have to be in till Thursday.”
    “Not till Thursday?” said Sebastian.  “See you tonight then?  Chip shop in Crompton Street.”
    “Yeah, OK.”

    I met them at the chip-shop, and I became part of Sebastian’s circle.  I hung around with them in break, at lunchtimes and after school.  I became an aesthete, a scorner of everything bourgeois and ordinary.  Sebastian was our leader and there wasn’t one of us not prepared to do anything he asked.  From time to time we debagged Lulu Greatbatch.  He stayed around as part of the gang and accepted that frequent detrousering was the price he paid to be one of us – or rather to be a friend of Sebastian’s.  As I said, we’d do anything for Sebastian.  If he’d ordered us all to go to school in our underpants, I don’t think any of us would have disobeyed.  There was just something about him that demanded absolute loyalty; and, of course, as a leader loyal to his followers he never did demand anything of us that he wouldn’t do himself – but that left a wide field open.
    I remember Sebastian started wearing his cricket whites to school.  The Masters weren’t pleased.  They wanted him to wear the standard charcoal grey flannels, but he pointed out that the school rules said that, while school blazers and ties were compulsory, grey trousers were optional.  “I could come into class in my shirt-tails,” he said, “or Lulu hear could wear his favourite skirt.”
    They were flummoxed – silly bastards – and the next week all of us were in cricket whites, with our school ties threaded through the belt-loops instead of belts.
    It was while this was going on that Sebastian asked me to pop round to his house after school.  I’d never been up Odderby before: that was where the posh people lived.  In fact until I met Sebastian I’d never even met anyone from Odderby – at least as far as I knew.
    We cycled out of school, took a short cut along Queen Anne Street, came out onto the main road, crossed the bridge, then up the steep bank on the far side.  I was labouring a bit on my old Hercules, but Sebastian sailed up it on his Raleigh with its Sturmey-Archer three-speed.  We both had to walk up Odderby Road, of course, but then we mounted again for the loop of Odderby Lane that brought us round to the front of Odderby Crag and to Odderby House.
    The Soare family home was perched on the very top of Odderby Crag, overlooking the town.  It was one of a group of late Victorian villas, but it was the pick of the bunch and took its name from a earlier manor house that had stood there since some time in the Middle Ages.  Sebastian told me that Odderby had been settled in Viking times.
    We abandoned our bikes in the front drive and entered through a side door.  Sebastian beckoned me to follow, and we slid quietly up the stairs and into his room.  That was the first time I saw it.  I was pretty impressed, I can tell you: at least four times the size of my own little bedroom.  I had crammed into a tiny space a bed, a little wardrobe, a whitewood chest of drawers, and a little table, no bigger than a card-table, where I did my homework.  Sebastian’s room had a very luxurious bed, a huge wardrobe with matching chest of drawers in some lustrous dark wood that was probably mahogany, acres of floor-space between these massive pieces of furniture, with expensive-looking Persian rugs, and – best of all, a huge bay window, a sort of octagonal turret stuck on to his room where the south-east corner should have been, and big enough for a leather-topped writing desk in the same dark wood.
    The view from Sebastian’s eyrie was magnificent.  The tower and spires of the cathedral rose above the rooftops of Halden, traffic could be seen moving along the distant streets, and in the foreground, below the Crag, the River Swar wound through the green parks that, luckily, were too much subject to flooding ever to be built on.
    “Well?” said Sebastian.
    I turned.  He was sprawled on the bed, smiling that mischievous smile of his.  He had taken off his blazer and was clad all in white, white shirt, white cricket flannels, the only colour being the black and yellow school tie round his waist.  Lulu Greatbatch would have flung himself on Sebastian with excited squeaks, I’m quite sure, and probably tried to rip his trousers off.  Even Rob Muncaster, who was going out with that girl from the High School that the lads said used to let him go all the way – even Rob Muncaster would have been hard put not to react in some way.
    Was it a test?  Make just one false move and you’re condemned as a queer and beaten up, or made a fool of like Lulu.  If it was, I passed it with flying colours.
    “Very impressive,” I said coolly, turning back towards the terrace.  “You must feel like the lord of all you survey, sitting up here with that panorama spread out before you.”
    “Oh, you get used to it, you know,” he said.  “Let me show you my record-collection.  Do you know Lonnie Donegan?
    I must have been a couple of weeks after that that Sebastian asked me to tea to meet his mother and sister.  I was determined not to seem common, and I’m quite sure that I impressed them with my sophistication.  I lit a cigarette as we sat around the tea-table, and I made a point of making points in the discussion, showing that I knew all about the current political scene and the latest films and music.  Whenever I scored over one of the women I leaned back in my chair, appraised her coolly, and blew a stream of smoke towards her.  I knew that women can’t resist a man’s tobacco smoke.  We’d seen it in the pictures.  The hero would lean back, his eyes would twinkle, and he’d blow a waft of smoke into the face of his interlocutrix.  Her knees would go wobbly, she’d smile at him, and they’d go off together into the sunset – and into bed.  Even if the film-makers couldn’t say it because of the censorship laws, we knew that’s where they were headed.
    So I blew smoke in Mrs Soare’s face and in Julie’s, and let it charm them.  They were duly charmed.  My sophistication impressed them, and my smoke made them weak at the knees.  I began to feel that if Sebastian hadn’t been there they couldn’t have controlled themselves – but you can’t rip your son’s best friend’s trousers off and make mad, passionate love to him in front of your son, so they had keep themselves in check.
    Sebastian knew it too.  How embarrassing to have your mother and sister drooling over your best friend.  How embarrassing to know that, if you hadn’t been there, they’d have leapt on him, torn off his kegs, and forced him to make love to them.  After that, whenever I visited him, we slipped quietly up to his room and put on a record from his ever-growing collection.


Chapter 2:
Sebastian’s gang


    I remember that, as soon as he turned seventeen, Sebastian was given his own car.  It was a sporty little number, bright red, and it got us into quite a few scrapes.
    There was Rob Muncaster’s birthday, for example.  I suppose we must have been a bit drunk, for we all ended up trouserless and drove through the town, singing and hooting, until Sebastian’s foot slipped on the accelerator and he drove through a red light, swerved to avoid a lorry, skidded and ended up sideways across the road.
    Luckily the policeman, who came plodding over to see what had happened, was a friend of Rob’s father’s, so he just got us straight again, and back into our nether garments, and told us to go home and not do it again or we’d be in serious trouble.
    By then we had a name for our group: Les Épatants.  It was a sort of pun in French: we were the stunningly wonderful ones and also the ones who set out to shake the bourgeois out of his tranquillity.  We were startling in two different senses, and our Weltanschauung was a sort of modernist liberationism based on Surrealism.  We believed the supreme aesthetic achievement was the acte gratuit.  With André Breton we believed that the simplest surrealist act would be to walk down a street, or into our school yard, with guns in our hands, and shoot as many people as possible – simply because we chose to do it and for no other reason.  There have been massacres in American high schools since then, but they were carried out by disgruntled loners with a grudge against society.  We weren’t disgruntled.  We weren’t loners.  We weren’t unhappy, inadequate losers.  On the contrary, we were Les Épatants, the most glorious manifestations of youthful modernism it’s possible to conceive.  If Sebastian had ordered us to carry out a massacre, we’d have done it as an acte gratuit, because we wanted to show that we were not bound by any of the conventions held our parents’ generation in thrall to the Mrs Grundys of the world.
    Like Gide’s hero who pushed a man from a train, just to show he could, or Camus’ Étranger, who killed an Arab for no reason, we stood outside society, ready to remake it in our own image.  How often did I stand in that octagonal bay in Sebastian’s room, looking down on Halden, like Rastignac looking down on Paris from the cemetery – Père Lachaise, was it? – and silently mouthed my defiance at the city and the world.  That was how we were: the startling ones, Les Épatants.
    Taking off our trousers on Rob Muncaster’s birthday for a bare-bummed drive round Halden was part of it, though admittedly a rather childish part.  We objected violently to censorship, you see.  Cinema belonged to the 20th Century, but Hollywood, even in the fifties was still following the Hays code from some time in the thirties: no nudity, no sex, nothing that could possibly offend Aunt Maud – and, in this country, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was even more hidebound.  So a bit of nudity on our part was conceived as a protest against prudery.  We were just lucky in the constable who caught us.
    A far more serious attack on the prevailing standards of bourgeois morality was our decision to distribute adult magazines to the rest of the school.  We decided it was every boy’s right to lust after sex and that the way our parent’s generation hid it all away was likely to make us all grow up as twisted as they were.
    As it happened we knew that Gareth Radcliffe had a stock of dirty books and magazines.  Someone had seen them in his locker, and someone else had seen him reading one hidden inside a school book.  He thought his little hobby was a total secret, but at least half the sixth form knew about it.  What we needed to know was where he got them from.
    That bit was easy.  Rob Muncaster and Gerry Bulman ambushed him after school one day.  A few threats and a bit of arm-twisting were all it took.  Radcliffe was a right weed as well as a weirdo.
    “Greatbatch gets them for me,” he bleated.
    “Lulu?”
    “No, not Lulu – Winston.”
    “Winston?  But he’s a prefect.”
    “Imagine that: a prefect getting dirty books.”
    “He’s a pornographer.”
    “Where’s he get’em?”
    “I don’t know!  I really don’t,” wailed Radcliffe.   “He brings them to school and I buy them off him.”
    “Does he give you them for what he pays.”
    “No.  He says he has to have danger money for getting them.”
    “How much?”
    “Ten percent.”
    “Orright.  You can go.”
    And off he scuttled.  Given our reputation he was probably glad to escape with his trousers.

    The next step was up to Sebastian.  He sidled up to Winston Greatbatch one morning and gave him one his famous grins.  Greatbatch was suspicious.  He knew Sebastian as a trouble-maker and, worse than that from his point of view, a friend of his cousin, Lulu – or Hugh as he’d actually been christened.  You see, Winston was one of the lads, and, to have people know that that mincing poofter that everyone called Lulu was actually his cousin, was a massive embarrassment to him.  I really couldn’t see why Sebastian kept him in the gang.  OK, he was funny when he wanted to be, and he did wonderful Goon-Show impressions – his Minnie Bannister was especially good, as you might expect: “O-o-oh Henry-y-y, we’ll all be murdered in our beds … nnnnh!”  But then we all did Goon-Show impressions – and he wasn’t all that brilliant as a skiffle player.
    Anyway, Sebastian gave Winston Greatbatch one of his most dazzling smiles, and pretty soon he had him eating out of his hand.  Sebastian really made him feel that if he did us this one little favour he’d be more or less an honorary Épatant.
    “And,” said Sebastian, “ because we know it’s a risk for you to get this stuff, we’ll pay you five percent above the cover price.”
    “Ten,” said Greatbatch before he could stop himself.
    “Done!” said Sebastian.  “Ten it is.  When can you get the stuff?”
    The deal was made.  Sebastian handed over the cash, and a couple of days later Greatbatch passed him a plain brown carrier-bag stuffed with the filthiest magazines any of us had ever seen.
    “Cor!  Look at that!” said Rob, passing Gerry a magazine with a couple engaged in a bit of naked sex-play.”
    “What-what-what-what?” said Sebastian as Neddy Seagoon.  “I don’t wish to know that.  Kindly leave the world.”
    “Can’t we just look?” said Rob.
    “You silly, twisted boy,” murmured Sebastian, swiftly changing character.  “No time for ogling female flesh.  We’ve got to get these distributed pronto.”
    So the porno mags were distributed about the school, and all that day there were little knots of sniggering boys all over the yard and the field, perusing their porn-mags and ogling the pictures.
    “Lads!” said Sebastian.  “Today we have struck a mighty blow for freedom.  Today we have brought education and enlightenment to our fellow boys and saved them from the benighted ignorance that blighted our own formative years.  Next week more of the same.”
    The next week and the one after Winston brought us more filthy books and we distributed them round the classrooms before school started.  The same happened the following week, and would have happened the week after but for the art exhibition.
    You see, it wasn’t just sexual liberation that motivated us: we had a total aesthetic.  Surrealism and Dadaism were our ideals: they freed art from the hidebound aesthetics of the fusty old academicians.  Our artistic hero was Marcel Duchamp, and we considered that his urinal was the most important work of art of the twentieth century.  No longer did artists have to slave away at the techniques of drawing and painting or concern themselves with the imitation of life and such old-hat fuddy-duddy topics as perspective.  Anybody could be an artist and anything could be a work of art if an artist said it was.
    Art was liberated, just as music was liberated by skiffle: even the poorest lads could make double basses out of tea-chests, broom-handles and string, while washboards could be found in any junkshop for a couple of bob or pinched from wash-houses.  Thimbles could be found all over the place and, since they were always getting lost, would never be missed.  Even guitars weren’t that dear, and because all this gear was easily portable, you could practise anywhere.  We used the cellar in Sebastian’s house: set up the stuff, open the beer, whip Lulu’s trousers off to get us in the mood, play a couple of Lonnie-Donegan records, then we were away – only pausing to listen to the Goon Show.  That was liberating too: humour in surreal mode.  It seemed to be all of a piece: modern youth in revolt against the has-been generation.
    Our next – well, I suppose nowadays, looking back, I’d call it a prank, but then I’d have said: our next revolutionary act was our contribution to the art exhibition at school.  The hall had been cleared of chairs and temporary boards were set up all round the edges to display the paintings of our school’s so-called artistic output: realistic daubs showing sunsets and still-lifes and portraits and street scenes.
    We prepared our own work of art.  Early on the morning of the exhibition we sneaked into the hall, removed a particularly prominent and very traditional painting of the front of the school and replaced it with our own piece of surrealist found-art.  Pinned to our board were three pieces of paper.  The first had at the top the words Cher ami, and at the bottom bien amicalement, Les Épatants, the second Ma chère, je t’adore and au revoir, jusqu’a ce soir, while the third had Madame, Pas ce soir, Joséphine, and at the bottom alarge imperial N.  Glued to the centre of each of these pages was a used condom.  The title we gave it was À-â-é-è-ê-ô.  It was another French pun: it meant French letters.
    Quite a number of parents saw it before somebody went to complain to the Beak, and dozens of boys had a good laugh before it was taken down and destroyed.  That was a Friday.  The hall was back to normal by Monday morning, and after the usual prayers the beak lectured us for about twenty minutes on the disgusting and suggestive exhibition that certain boys had perpetrated, assuring us vehemently that the culprits would be identified and punished in exemplary fashion.
    A couple of days later, when Sebastian tried to give Greatbatch money for more porn-mags, Greatbatch refused.  There would be no more ever again, he said.  He didn’t want to be associated with us.  Not even Sebastian’s most dazzling smile would change his mind, but it did persuade him to talk.  The Head had lectured all the prefects on the absolute necessity of identifying the miscreants who had sabotaged the art exhibition, exposed the school to scandal and ridicule, and who were probably the same filthy-minded guttersnipes behind the distribution of pornographic material to the innocent junior forms, the same subversive elements who were encouraging his pupils to demand an end to school uniform, compulsory Latin and their confinement to the school premises during the day.
    How useful to have an inside source of information.  Sebastian’s charm had done it again.  It wasn’t just us Épatants that were fascinated by him.  He could have charmed the knickers off vicars if he had set his mind to it.
    We had the information.  We knew they were after us.  What could we do?  Well, as members of the Halden avant-garde we were pretty resourceful, and with a genius like Sebastian at our head, naturally we came up with a plan.
    It was put into action the next time the school captain was on yard duty.  I’ve forgotten his name, but I remember he was a big lad, heavily built, a useful prop-forward those of an athletic disposition called him.  I gather his weight added significantly to the forward momentum of a scrum, but even as a schoolboy he was already running to fat.
    Anyway, this fattish fellow was patrolling the yard and the field, enjoying his own importance, when his attention was suddenly attracted by a commotion.  Sebastian had grabbed a third former and stared dragging him off to the far side of the field.  Youngster protested, of course: “Hey!  Lemme go!  What’re you doing?”
    “There’s going to be a debagging,” said Sebastian.
    Well, naturally that set the third former kicking and screaming, and that in turn set the school captain lumbering over to investigate.
    “What’s going on?” he bellows, and then he’s floored by the combined weight of Rob Muncaster, Gerry Bulman and me.
    “Told you there’s going to be a debagging,” says Sebastian to the third former, “but not you.  You were only the bait.  Sorry if I scared you …” – here he gave one of his dazzling smiles – “Stay and watch if you like.  Bring all your friends.”
    He did stay to watch, I couldn’t tell at the time, because, as I told you, the school captain was a big, heavy rugby-player and he put up quite a fight.  We hadn’t any time to see who was watching, but eventually we had him immobilised – then we took his trousers off.
    Somebody, probably Sebastian, climbed up onto the boundary wall and waved the trousers.
    “Listen!” he said to the school captain, who was roaring and spluttering with rage.  “Shut up and listen!  We are Les Épatants.  We’re the startling stunners.  We are the avant-garde, the future.  Now, you’re going to promise that our identities will never be revealed to the Beak – whatever we do – because, if you don’t, your trousers are going over the wall into the girls’ school!”
    Fatboy spluttered and protested and said things like “You wouldn’t dare!”
    Sebastian waved the trousers again and said, “The question is, do you dare risk it.  Ahah!  I think some of the girls have spotted that I’m waving a pair of trousers.  Here they come to get a closer look.  More and more of them.  Hundreds of them! Last chance!  Promise, or I throw them over!”
    That was the end of Fatboy’s resistance.
    “No-o-o-o!” he moaned.  “Please, no.”
    “Promise!”
    “Yes … yes … I promise.”
    “No matter what we do!”
    “No matter what … please … please give me my trousers.”
    “OK, but you’ve sworn an oath.  If you break it there’ll be no mercy.  The girls’ll have your trousers – and I don’t know how you’ll ever get them back!”
    So the school captain pulled on his nether garments and stumbled away through the laughing throng of spectators, knowing that his word was no longer law, and that, no matter how many tries he scored or scholarships he won, he would always be remembered as a fat boy in his shirt-tails, with tears streaming down his face, pleading to be spared the ultimate humiliation of having to beg the girls to return his trousers.
    As for us, we were triumphant.  No matter what we did, the prefects wouldn’t touch us.  Now was the time to prepare for a major coup, something that would really make the hidebound old fuddy-duddies, the croulants as the French called them, sit up and take notice as avant-garde of youth assumed control of the world.

 
Chapter 3:
Sebastian’s project


    As youthful avant-garde activists, determined to startle the world out of the old-fashioned hidebound attitudes of previous generations, we had strong views on everything.  We were against school uniforms because we believed boys, and girls too, should have the right to express their personalities through their choice of clothing.  We were against censorship because we believed that keeping children ignorant of sex would make them grow up inadequate and twisted, as we believed our parents and their contemporaries to be.  We were against realism and technique in art because we believed that art should express the irrational aspects of humanity through surrealistic experiences.  If there had been drugs around in those days we would have believed that young people should have the right to experience mind-expanding substances, and we certainly believed in our right to smoke tobacco and drink whatever alcohol we could get our hands on.
    We believed in the liberating irrationality of Dada and Surrealism, we believed in the necessity of expressing our desire to be through some acte gratuit with no possible advantage to ourselves or to anyone else, we believed in the freedom of subversive humour and of music that teenagers – was the word invented then? –  could produce for themselves without the need to learn rules of composition.  We believed in ourselves as the ultimate artists, and, for us, the absolutely ultimate aesthetic insult was encapsulated by the word Victorian.
    Victorian morality imposed censorship, called nudity unclean, hid sexuality away.  Victorian art blended realism with cloying sentimentality.  Victorian architecture cluttered the clean lines of functionality with decorative folderols, with pseudo-medieval arched windows, with pinnacles and flourishes.  It used stone or patterned brickwork instead of honest concrete, and its window panes, instead of being practical sheets of plate glass, were cut up into little diamonds held in place by strips of lead.  If there was one thing we hated more than anything else it was Victorian architecture, and a most nauseating example was foisted onto our sight almost every day of our lives – the school hall.
    We thought it a truly hideous building. It was built of stone.  Its windows were set in pointed Gothic arches between solid buttresses.  The entrance door to the corridor alongside it was at the top of a short flight of shallow steps, and it too was set in a Gothic archway.  But if we thought it aesthetically horrible, we also considered it morally intolerable, for in its arches and leaded lights, its buttresses and its pinnacles, it announced to the world that the ethos of our school was of the most repressive Victorian “decency”.  There was nothing for it: that hall would have to go.
    The first thing to do was to compose a song.  Back to Sebastian’s cellar, beer out, Lulu’s trousers off and hung up on the wall behind us like a flag, then the improvisation began.

Our school hall is Victorian,
that school hall has to go.
It’s ancient, dinosaurian.
T’will cover us with glory an’
honour if we blow
it into tiny particles,
to atoms and to dust,
that fustiest of articles
that mustiest of farticles,
and so it is our lust,
it is our wild desire
to set the hall on fire,
to see that hall combust –
we just … must.

    That was more or less how it went, with lots of booming on the double bass, rattling on the washboard and strumming on the guitars.
    Then we talked for what seemed like hours on the practicalities of getting hold of petrol and explosives and smuggling them into the storerooms underneath the hall.  Sebastian thought he could easily fill up a couple of cans with petrol every time he filled his car, and, since they were all in the science sixth it wouldn’t be difficult to nick odd jars and packets of this and that from the labs.  They knew what would be useful and how to combine them for maximum explosive effect.  It was all Greek to me.  After that we improvised a Goon Show in which Grytpype-Thynne passed lighted sticks of dynamite to Neddy, who quickly passed them to Eccles, who dallied for a while then passed them to Bluebottle, leading of course to the sound-effect-explosion and the immortal line, “You dirty rotten swine!  You deaded me!”
    Weeks passed.  We made up more songs about the destruction of Victorian buildings and the overthrow of Victorian morality, and we improvised more Goon Shows, but I began to get more and more uneasy.  It seemed to me that Sebastian and the others were actually taking our fantasy plot seriously.  Sebastian was completely wound up and over-excited, and the others would do anything he asked without question – he was just that sort of boy.  They talked about cans of petrol in the basements under the hall as if they actually existed, and their discussion of the explosive qualities of various combinations of chemicals, though I didn’t understand most of it, seemed decidedly practical.  I began voicing a few reservations about what we were doing, and I suppose they must have realised that I wasn’t really up for translating our fantasies into reality.  They were more circumspect after that, so it wasn’t for some weeks that I became aware that, as far as they were concerned, the plot was real.
    They tried not to talk about it when I was present, but I overheard one or two hints, and I began keeping my ears open and putting two and two together until I was pretty sure that they were rally making preparations for a massive explosion to destroy the hall.
    I stayed in the school library a bit later than usual one day until I could be pretty sure that Sebastian and the others were well away, then I went out into the yard as if I were on my way home that way.  I peered in at the windows of the storerooms, but they were protected by wire grilles and the glass was dirty, so I couldn’t see anything.  I went back round the corner, looked around to make sure no one was watching, then hopped down the steps to the basement door.
    It was unlocked.  I slipped inside, closed it behind me, waited a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom, then picked my way through the lumber and junk that was stored there.  In the very middle of the basement I found a pile of petrol cans.  I picked one up.  It was full.  I opened the cap and sniffed.  No doubt at all: petrol.  There was also a box packed with chemicals that I didn’t recognise, and, quite obviously, a fuse, leading back towards the door.  When the time came, all the conspirator would have to do would be to light this fuse, slip back outside, then he would have time to run across the yard and take cover behind another building, where, no doubt, the others would be waiting to enjoy the fireworks.
    I opened the door, checked that all was clear,, sneaked round the corner of the hall building, then ran for the yard gate.
    What was I to do?  Go to Sebastian’s house, catch him on his own and plead with him to come to his senses?  I knew he wouldn’t.  He was living entirely in a fantasy world.  Find one of the others?  Gerry Bulman lived out on a farm in the middle of nowhere near Geddonby, and Lulu was quite impossible.  That left Rob Muncaster, who lived somewhere near the University in one of those big houses overlooking the park.  I set off in that direction, but I hadn’t gone very far before I knew it was hopeless.  Rob, like all of them – like me too before I realised how far they’d gone – was completely mesmerised by Sebastian.  If I talked to him, he’d probably agree with me, just to put me off the scent, then, as soon as I had gone, he’d phone Sebastian.  They’d blow up the hall that very night.
    I went home.  I had my tea.  I did my prep.  I went to bed.  I even prayed – and I made up my mind.
    Next morning, after assembly, I went to the Headmaster’s study and knocked.
    “Can I see you sir?”
    “If your eyes are open, I dare say you can, but if you wish to consult me, Walker, you should make an appointment with Miss O’Reilly.”
    “It’s … very important, Sir, and urgent.”
    “Very well.  Come in and tell me briefly what the trouble is.  If I can solve your problem quickly, I will, otherwise you must see Miss O’Reilly.  I’m afraid I haven’t much time at present.”
    “I think there’s a plot to blow up the hall, Sir.”
    “I have no doubt, Walker, that boys talk about such things – I even talked about something similar myself when I was your age.  I think we were planning to kidnap our headmaster and hold him to ransom until he agreed to our demands, but what those demands were I have long forgotten.  It’s just adolescent fantasy, Walker.  You have no need to worry.”
    “But I do, Sir.  I was one of the conspirators.  I was one of the Épatants, Sir.  I was one of the boys who sabotaged the art exhibition, for which I’m truly sorry, Sir.  After that I tried to keep us within bounds, Sir, and I thought, just like you said, Sir.  I thought that when they talked about getting rid of the hall because it’s a symbol of Victorian attitudes, I thought it was just fantasy.  I went along with them, Sir, and helped them make up songs about it, and we improvised little scenes like Goon Show episodes – it’s a comedy show on the wireless, Sir, the Goon Show, with Harry Secombe and …”
    “Yes, Walker.  I have heard of the Goon Show, though you would do far better to think of more cultural pursuits, still, I suppose each generation has its comedy … Proceed.”
    Well, Sir, I began to think they were taking our fantasies a bit too seriously, so I tried to warn them, but after that they froze me out, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I found out they really meant to do it.  Sir, the store-rooms under the hall are full of petrol and explosives.”
    The Headmaster switched on his intercom.  “Miss O’Reilly,” he said, “please find Mr Ferris and ask him to come here at once.”
    He hung up.  “You say you were one of Les Épatants, Walker” he said.  “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me the names of the others.  I see you hesitate, not wishing, I suppose, to implicate your friends, but they are implicated, Walker.  If what you say is true, they have undertaken a criminal action which would normally lead to their being apprehended by the police, tried in a court of law, and imprisoned.  I would hope to deal with his matter internally, for the good of the school and to make life easier on these misguided, foolish boys.  Their names, Walker.”
    “Soare is the leader, Sir, then there’s Muncaster, Bulman and Greatbatch.”
    “Hugh Greatbatch, I take it, since he’s a friend of Soare’s and in the same form, not Winston.”
    “Yes, Sir, Hugh.”
    At that moment Scadger Ferris appeared, and the Headmaster sent him to investigate the storerooms under the hall.  He came back a few moments later and confirmed what I had said.  The Headmaster dismissed him and summoned Miss O’Reilly, the school secretary.  He instructed her to find a prefect with a free period to supervise Mr Corcoran’s class and ask Mr Corcoran to come to his office, and then to fetch Soare, Muncaster, Bulman, G. and Greatbatch, H. from their classes.  They were to wait in the corridor outside until called in.
    While we waited the Head asked me a few more questions, and I filled him in on the aesthetic, moral and political outlook of Les Épatants.  I was surprised how calmly he took it, but now I know that our views were nothing out of the ordinary among adolescents, and, but for Sebastian’s extraordinary ascendancy over the rest of us, would have passed away as these revolutionary opinions always do.
    Mr Corcoran, the Deputy Head arrived, and the Headmaster told him briefly what had been discovered.
    “What?!” snapped Corcoran.  “What?!!”
    “As I have said,” repeated the Headmaster, “a group of lower-sixth-form boys has planned to blow up the school hall as a protest against the alleged Victorian character of the ethos of the school.”
    Corcoran spluttered and gave vent to several more What!s.  He wasn’t asking for information, he was just expressing his surprise.
    “Walker here has, fortunately for all concerned,” said the Head, “discovered the plot, which he had originally thought was mere adolescent fantasy, and has made haste to alert me to the danger.  The plotters themselves should by now be waiting outside.  As I understand it from Walker, they had formed a secret society called Les Épatants with the express purpose of undermining what they conceive of as the bourgeois outlook of our generation, and have already perpetrated a number of rather foolish pranks, notably the substitution of an indecent artefact for one of the paintings in the recent art exhibition, and I believe they are also responsible for the distribution of pornographic magazines about the school.  Am I right, Walker?”
    “Yes, Sir,” I said.
    “Am I also correct in thinking, Walker,” said the Headmaster, that all these pranks were perpetrated under the leadership of Soare?”
    “Yes, Sir,” I said.  “He sort of fascinates the others.  We’d do anything he asks.  I’m sorry, Sir.”
    “Sorry, Walker?
    “For my part in all this, Sir.  I should have known better.”
    “You should indeed, Walker.  You have committed grave errors, but I am prepared to believe they were errors and that you now see that they are.”
    “Yes, Sir,” I said miserably.
    “Ask the others to come in now would you, Mr Corcoran,” said the Head, and Sebastian, Rob, Gerry and Lulu filed into the room.
    Aided by threatening cries of “What?!  What?!!” from Mr Corcoran, the Headmaster rapidly secured from the others a confession that they had indeed planned to blow up the school hall, that, as I had said, they regarded the hall as a symbol of the repressive moral code and the outmoded aesthetic outlook of the older generation, and that they intended to destroy it in a spectacular acte gratuit to show that the younger generation would have no truck with the past.  They also admitted sabotaging the art exhibition, distributing pornography, encouraging younger boys to rebel against school uniform and a variety of other minor acts of rebellion that I have forgotten in the intervening years.
    The headmaster’s judgment was swift and merciless.  “You will all go with Mr Corcoran,” he said, and receive six strokes of the cane, trousers lowered.  You Soare, as the leader of this conspiracy, will receive eight, and Walker shall have two strokes of the cane, but will be allowed to retain his trousers.  All except Walker will be expelled.  Immediately after your caning you will clear your lockers and leave the school premises.  Walker, I am punishing you for your part in the conspiracy, but, as a reward for your bravery in confessing what was intended before the disaster occurred, I shall make you a sub-prefect with effect from the first day of next term.  Mr Corcoran, I am sorry that your last year with us should include the necessity for punishments on such a scale, but I am sure your right arm is as strong as ever.”
    “It is,” said Mr Corcoran grimly, as he ushered us out and up the stairs to the small room where he kept his cane.

Chapter 4:
Sebastian’s revenge


    That was the end of Les Épatants.  Sebastian, Rob, Gerry and Lulu all left the school premises after Mr Corcoran had flogged us.  He wasn’t wrong in saying that his arm was as strong as ever.  I only got two, and I was hard put to it not to cry and to walk normally for the rest of the day.  The others kept stiff upper lips, except for Lulu, who blubbered like a girl.  As we were going out, Sebastian even turned back and thanked Mr Corcoran with something like one of his famous smiles.
    I went back to the arts building, and they went off to the science block, where I suppose, they cleared their lockers then left by the yard gate.  I don’t suppose any of them felt like riding his bicycle.  I thought it would be the last I ever saw of them, and I wasn’t entirely sorry.  Sebastian fascinated me, but I had come to see that his influence was not healthy.
    Next term I became a sub-prefect, one of only three from the lower sixth.  I was on yard duty one day when a second-former came up to me.
    “There’s a lad fallen off the wall” he said, “pointing across the field.  “I think he’s hurt.  Can you come.”
    I went, of course, only to find that there was no injured boy – only Sebastian, Rob, Gerry and Lulu.  It was Rob and Gerry who grabbed me.
    “Thanks,” said Sebastian to the second-former.  “Stick around if you want.  It’ll probably turn out quite interesting”
    “What do you want?” I said.  “You’re not supposed to be on school premises.”
    “Quite the little prefect, aren’t we?” sneered Sebastian.  “Are you going to report us to the Head?  Sir, Sir, those naughty boys have been doing bad things, Sir.  Why did you betray us, traitor?”
    I struggled to explain that if I hadn’t told the Headmaster they’d have blown up the hall, then they’d have been arrested, and they would have been in prison instead of free to find jobs – but they wouldn’t listen.
    “You stopped us doing A-levels.  You prevented us from going to university,” they said.
    “I kept you out of prison,” I said.
    Still they wouldn’t listen.  They called me traitor and slimy snake and all sorts of other insults, then Sebastian said, “We’re going to punish you for betraying us.  Remember what we told the school captain would happen to him if he blabbed to the Head?  Get him lads!”
    I struggled but they were too much for me.  Muncaster and Bulman pulled me onto the ground and sat on me, while Sebastian, sniggering in a disgusting way, unbuttoned my trousers and pulled them down, and Lulu capered about, clapping his hands and giggling.  My trousers caught on my shoes, and Lulu dived in to help Sebastian disentangle them and pull them off.
    Then Muncaster and Bulman hauled me onto my feet and made me watch while Sebastian climbed on top of the wall and began whooping and waving my trousers.  I could hear a high-pitched humming and buzzing, getting louder, and I knew the girls from the school next door, were homing in on the trousers, hoping for a sight of the victim – I knew too that Sebastian was going to throw my trousers over to the female mob and that I either have to face them and plead for the restoration of my dignity, or sneak away, and hope I could hide until after dark and then get home without too many people seeing me.  How I could explain the loss of my trousers to my mother I had no idea.
    I was wrong.  That wasn’t Sebastian’s intention at all.  The four of them heaved me up on top of the wall.  Below me I saw the excited crowd of high-school girls, laughing and pointing, then the lads gave one last heave, and I plunged down onto the grass on the girls’ side of the wall.
    I scrambled to my feet to run, but the swarm was all around me.  I hurled myself at the wall, seeing the grinning faces of Soare and his gang, all ready to push me back if I managed to grab the top of the wall, and dozens of other faces appearing too, all along the wall, cheering the girls on.
    Not that they needed any encouragement.  To have a trouserless boy thrown to them, completely at their mercy – it was like throwing a lamb to ravening wolves.
    There were hands all over me.  My blazer was torn off.  I was half strangled by a dozen or so pulling at my tie.  My shirt was up round my ribs, and my underpants came half way down my thighs before ripping into shreds.
    A squeal of excitement greeted the exposure of my private parts, and more hands came at me.  My legs, back and chest were scratched, my hair was pulled, my shirt torn as I was turned this way and that by pulling hands as they fought to see and to touch, to prod and to poke, to grab and to tug.
    The bells of both schools began to ring, cutting break short as the authorities realised something like a riot was going on.  Prefects appeared, calling the mob of eager girls and the cheering boys at the wall back to their classes, and I was left, lying alone on the grass where I had fallen, exhausted, and, luckily, unnoticed.
    Let no-one tell you being stripped and assaulted by an excited mob of girls is an experience that any lad would treasure.  It was terrifying, and, if I hadn’t been so red-bloodedly heterosexual it might have put me off women for life.
    I climbed back over the wall before anyone in authority came over to investigate.  If I was going to be caught trouserless it would at least be better to be caught in my own school rather then the girls’ High School.
    I collapsed over the wall and sat slumped against it with my head in my hands.  What should I do?  Stagger over to the Head’s office and denounce my assailants, have them charged with indecent assault?  Then it would be in all the papers and I didn’t want the adult world to know of my humiliation.  Sneak down to the bottom of the field, climb over the fence and hide in what we used to call the cockpit until dark?  Then I had an idea: sneak over to the gym.  If I was lucky I might find a pair of trousers to fit me, then some other poor sod could go home bare-legged.  At least he’d have his gym shorts to cover the essentials.
    I got up cautiously and peered around.  All was quiet.  I was about to cross the field when I spotted a dark bundle – my trousers.  In their excitement they had just thrown them aside, then, when the prefects came, they had run off and forgotten them – for I was sure that Sebastian, in his fanatical hatred of me, would, if he had remembered, have taken them away with him to cause me maximum embarrassment.
    I put them on and limped across the yard to take refuge in the prefects’ study.
    That was Sebastian’s revenge.  But for me he would have been in borstal, where, because he was a nice-looking boy, he would no doubt have attracted the attention of homosexual thugs, where he would have been expected to indulge in filthy homosexual practices, where he would have been raped, where he would have been forced to accept the protection of a gang-leader and in return submit to regular buggery.  I saved him from all that, I saved all of them, and this was my reward: to be debagged and thrown to an over-excited mob of girls who were cheered on by Sebastian and his henchmen.  I was scratched and bleeding.  Half of my clothes were lost or ripped to pieces.  If the prefects hadn’t come on the scene so quickly, obliging Sebastian and company to retire, all I would have had to wear would have been my ripped and tattered shirt.
    If the prefects hadn’t come so quickly, who knows what might have happened?  With the mob of girls grabbing and pulling on everything they could I might have lost valuable body parts.  As it was I was sore all over.
    On the other hand, I reflected, I was still in one piece.  I had recovered my trousers.  My coat would cover the tattered shirt.  I could go home with my dignity restored.
    More importantly, I was still at school.  Next term I would be a full prefect.  It would look good on my application forms: full prefect while still in the lower sixth.  I was on course for a good university: Mr Watkyns said my work had improved immeasurably since I got free of Sebastian’s influence.
    In fact I got good A-levels and a place at Manchester, from where I moved to a goodish job in London, not one of those banker’s jobs with colossal bonuses, but still, far better than anything in Swardale.  Now that I was back I could afford the best house in Halden.
    As for the others: Bulman went to work on his father’s farm, Muncaster went into his father’s shop, Lulu Greatbatch just got odder and odder and when I last saw him he was wondering round in women’s clothes with all the neighbourhood toughs mocking him.  As for Sebastian, he became a barman at a rather sleazy pub in a suburban side street.
    All in all, I had good reason to feel that I had come out on top.  Sebastian’s surname may have suggested that he would soar effortlessly above us all, but, like Icarus, he flew too near the sun, the wax melted, his wings disintegrated, he lost touch with reality, and he fell.  It was plebeian, pedestrian George Walker who kept on going and got to the top.  I was the one who returned to my native town with money to burn, ready to buy Sebastian’s house, where once I had looked out of the window at Halden and the world beyond and defied it.  I had won!

    All this I told to Amanda as we drove up to Halden, and there was plenty of other excitement for her too.  The shits and the turds were out in force.  I could hear her little squeaks of admiration as I overtook turds on the left, obstructed shits who tried to overtake me, and generally had fun with the world.  Amanda’s squeaks of excited fear would soften her up nicely.  When we got to our destination I would screw her till she begged for mercy.
    Halden, of course, had changed a lot since I lived there.  No longer could you drive in at the southern end of the town and through the centre.  Nowadays you have to follow the motorway right round to the far side then get off onto a sort of major through road that takes you round past the city centre, cutting, I may say, my old school off from the rest of the city, but I suppose they’ve got underpasses so that the kids of today don’t get squashed by the traffic thundering past.  You carry on round the north end of the town then down via an insignificant little feed-off and approach from the north.
    Our destination was the Swardale Arms, the best hotel in Halden, situated midway between the Cathedral and the Town Hall.  Nothing but the best for George Walker these days.  A night of passion with Amanda in one of the best suites, then off in the morning to buy my new residence, ready to take my place among the poor benighted provincials as one of the leading citizens of my home town.

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1: Sebastian's house  --  2: Sebastian's gang  --  3: Sebastian's project  --  4: Sebastian's revenge

Les Épatants: index

Les Épatants, Part II: Péripéties: Johnny and Norah

Les Épatants, Part III: Dénouement: Felicity

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