CHRONICLES OF HALDEN, V

Les Épatants

by
Robin Gordon
**

Part II
Péripéties:
Johnny and Norah

(Conversations at the Swardale Arms, 1



Auksford crest: a great suk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
- Auksford, 2012 -

©  Copyright Robin Gordon, 2012

Chapter 5: Odderby House  --  Chapter 6: Simone  --  Chapter 7: The Cockpit



Chapter 5:
Odderby house


    The Swardale Arms lived up to its reputation as the best hotel in Halden, and even George Walker could find no fault with its rooms, its décor, its toilet facilities, the comfort of its beds, the quality of its food or the standards of its service.
    He had no complaints about his performance in bed either, and was quite sure that Amanda was impressed.  Poor girl, he thought, having had to make do with those drippy young men whose love-making is over in seconds.  Fortunate girl, he thought, to have captured the interest of a real man like himself, comfortably moneyed, able to give her a good time, able to give her pleasurable terror by his skilful driving, able to drive her body to the heights of passion.  Deluded girl, he thought, if she had hopes of getting her claws on his money.
    The morning after their arrival George and Amanda drove up to Odderby.  In his youth that would have been a quiet, easy drive up Castle Street, along Swar Street and over the bridge.  Now it involved feeding onto the stream of traffic on what was virtually an inner-city motorway and negotiating a colossal roundabout with five or six different exits, and continuing along a busy main road over the bridge until he reached Odderby Road.  George got into the wrong lane on the roundabout and cut across the line of traffic on his left, making two-fingered signs at the horn-blasters, while Amanda shuddered and buried her face in her hands.
    “Bloody shits!” he shouted.  “Don’t know how to use a roundabout.  Obvious I’m turning left.  Stupid bloody buggers!”
    He accelerated up the steep hill of Odderby Road and slewed his car into Odderby Lane with a screech of tyres that set Amanda shuddering again.
    The gates of Odderby House were open, and he swung his car in and jammed on the brakes, stopping a couple of inches from the car already parked on the drive.
    The estate agent waiting for them was a young man in a dark suit, with a pale blue shirt and a bright pink tie.  George looked at it with distaste.  If the agent had had any sense he would not have parked right there where George, if his reactions hadn’t been so remarkably good for a man of his age – for a man of any age really – might have dented his Jaguar.
    He saw the smirking young bastard looking admiringly at Amanda, and he put his arm proprietorily around her and smiled, expressing at the same time greeting and superiority: I’ve got the girl, you haven’t.
    They shook hands; the agent handed over the particulars and then began to describe the house.  George cut him short and led the way inside.  The owners, of course, were absent.  Modern agents insisted on that.  George knew it was only to prevent their clients doing private deals behind their backs, but still, it was better for him not to have the owners around, not to have to suppress his disgust at their execrable provincial taste or force himself to express admiration for what they had done to Sebastian’s house.
    In fact it wasn’t in too bad condition.  The owners, a family called Cowan it seemed, obviously had money and they had kept the fabric of the building in good nick.  He commented on it to the agent.
    “Mr Cowan is a builder,” said the agent, “or at least, I mean, he’s the owner of the biggest building and property development firm in Halden.  He’s kept the house in tip-top condition.”
    “Why is he moving?”
    “He’s bought Geddon Hall.  It’s a big country house between Geddonby and Geddonthwaite.  There are rumours …”
    “Rumours?  What rumours?”
    “Oh, nothing to do with the house.”
    “What rumours?” George insisted.
    “Well, don’t let it go any further, but there are rumours that Mr Cowan may be in line for something in the next honours list.  People are saying that’s why he wants to move to a country residence … of course it is only a rumour and there’s probably nothing in it.  He’s probably just become so wealthy that he thinks he deserves the life of a country gentleman.  Anyway, as far as you are concerned, it means that there is no chain.  Mr Cowan has already secured Geddon Hall and can move at any time.”
    “Good,” said George and started moving round the house.  When at last he came to Sebastian’s room he went straight over to the octagonal bay and looked out.  “Halden!” he thought.  “Can you hear me?  I have triumphed.  I have gone out into the great big world and made lots and lots of money, and now I am about to buy the best house in town.  I am the master of all I survey.”
    He turned back to the room.  There was a bed where Sebastian’s bed used to be, and a pink carpet on the floor.  Striped wallpaper covered the walls, and the furniture, though expensive, was not entirely to his taste.  Amanda was looking at it admiringly.
    “This,” thought George, “will be my private room.  I shall furnish it as it was in Sebastian’s day, and I shall sit at my desk in the window and look down on the town, but when Amanda visits it will be the master bedroom we use.  Silly cow doesn’t realise yet that she’s not living here with me.  Our love-nest she called it.  Well, there’ll be plenty of love-making, but she’ll actually be living in a flat somewhere in town.  Her hands on my money she ain’t getting.”
    “I’ll meet the asking price,” he said to the agent.  “I know it’s rather high, but I have taken a bit of a fancy to this house, so you can tell Mr Cowan that I won’t haggle.  I’ll meet his price, and I want a quick acceptance or I’ll look elsewhere.  I’m staying on in Halden for a few more days, at the Swardale Arms.”

    For the next few days George strolled about Halden with Amanda, or drove out into the country.  Nightly he proved his sexual prowess.  But as the days and nights passed he began to get impatient.  He visited the estate agency.  The young man with the lurid tie was never there, but a middle-aged woman who seemed to be in charge, assured him that Mr and Mrs Cowan were considering his offer carefully.
    “What is there to consider?” he demanded.  “I met their price.  If they want to sell all they have to do is say yes and I’ll arrange a survey.”
    “I really don’t know why there’s a delay, Mr Walker,” the woman said.  “I’ll try and find out and let you know as soon as possible.”
    But the next day there was still no answer from the Cowans.
    “What the hell are they up to?” growled George.  “They can’t possibly hope to get more for that place.  I’ve looked into property prices and they’re already asking more than it’s worth.

    That evening he and Amanda went into the bar at the Swardale Arms, as they did every night – he liked to have people wondering how a man of his age could have such a glamorous, sexy trophy girlfriend – but this time he had a particular aim in view: to find out what he could about Mr and Mrs J.M. Cowan of Odderby House, Odderby, Halden.
    “I knew him,” said a man at the bar.  “I were at school with him and we were mates for a bit afterwards.  I can tell you how he got started, anyway.  When he left school he joined his father’s firm.  Cowan’s was just an ordinary little building firm in them days, but doing quite nicely.  Anyway, they had a couple of houses that needed doing up, and so he asked his dad if he could take one of them over.  So evenings and weekends the whole gang of us would be there, working away under his instruction.  It was fun at first, and we got paid for it too.
    “Well that first house sold, and his dad let him have another one, and we all worked on it every evening and every weekend, and it sold too, and we all got money in our pockets.  Then another house came up, and another, and it wasn’t for a couple of years that we realised while we’d been getting just pocket money, he was raking in a thousand or so each time.  He was buying the houses cheap himself by then, completely independent of his dad, getting us to do the work for peanuts, and keeping all the profit for himself.
    “We dropped out then, but he didn’t care.  He had enough money then to employ proper builders at proper wages, and his private business just kept on expanding till he was as rich as his dad.  Then, when his dad retired, he took over the main business too.”
    “His biggest coup,” said another man, “was the football ground.”
    “What do you mean?” George asked.
    “Well, Halden United used to play at the Geddonby Road ground, but it didn’t belong to them.  Seems it had been left in perpetuity to the citizens of Halden as open recreational space, but it somehow got carved up among various sporting sorts of interests, and nobody really knew who owned what.  Well, Cowan got himself elected chairman of the club, with promises to put money in and buy in new players.  Then he came up with the idea of building them a completely new stadium just outside the ring road, so, as chairman, he persuaded the other directors to sell him the lease of the Geddonby Road ground dirt cheap in return for a special deal on building the new stadium.  Now, what no-one knew was that he’d discovered that, for some reason of bureaucratic convenience, the City council had vested the freehold in the bowling club that occupied a corner of the site.  He offered the bowlers £30,000 for the freehold, and the silly chumps sold it without even considering that it wasn’t even theirs to sell.  So Cowan had the whole site at a fraction of its value, and he soon had planning permission to cover it with flats.  He must have made millions.
    “As for the new stadium, when it was built, complete with cinemas, restaurants and shops, it turned out that it was Cowan that owned it, so the football club, swindled out of their own ground, is now paying him rent to have somewhere to play, and he’s raking in rents from all the shops and restaurants as well.
    “Not a pleasant man, our Mr Cowan, so if you’ve got business dealings with him, you’d better keep a sharp watch.”
    “Always been the same,” put in a third man.  “I was at school with him and I know.  He used to run a protection racket.”
    “They say he’s expecting a peerage,” said another.  “That’s why he’s bought Geddon Hall.  Going to set himself up as a landed gentleman.”
    “I don’t suppose he paid a fair price for Geddon Hall,” someone remarked.
    “He didn’t,” said the man who knew all about the football ground.  “Poor old Sir Lionel went looking for a builder to redo his roofs and he had the misfortune to hit on Johnny Cowan.  Cowan promised to do everything cheaply, gave him fair-sounding quotes, then found all sorts of extras.  The Robsons had been hit over and over again with death duties, and now there’s old Sir Lionel, late seventies, not quite with it any more, just the sort of victim Cowan likes.  The bills keep on mounting and Sir Lionel realises he has no way of paying them, so he agrees when Cowan offers to take the estate off his hands in exchange for a smallish detached house in Swenby.  I often see him wandering round the streets looking pretty glum, and you can meet Lady Robson in Tesco’s most days, looking for reduced goods on their sell-by date.
    “As for a peerage, you’d have to have a pretty twisted sort of Prime Minister to offer anything to a con-man like Cowan.”
    “A Prime Minister like Tony Blair,” someone remarked.
    “True.  Perhaps there is something in it after all.”
    Having bought their drinks the men moved away from the bar, leaving only George and the man who had mentioned Cowan’s schoolboy protection racket.  George asked him for more details.  Anything he could find out about Cowan might come in useful.
    “He was in the same year as me,” said the man, “at Halden Grammar, as it then was, though it was joined to the girls’ school in our third year.  Johnny Cowan made quite a name for himself from the start.  They throw first formers over a sort of wall, as an initiation rite.”
    “I know about that,” said George.  I went to Halden Grammar – before it was merged.”
    “Ay, well, Johnny Cowan put a stop to that right away.  His gang charged the wall, grabbed the leader of the second-formers, hauled him down onto the grass, and took the trousers off him.  How we laughed.  There he was, trying to hold his shirt down and begging for his pants.  Cowan and his gang threw them around, making him chase them, with everybody laughing at him.  Then, when the bell went, Cowan threw his pants up into one of the trees, and we left him there trying to get them down while we all went into class.  After that the Cowan gang started throwing second-formers over the wall.  We thought he was a proper hero.
    “Anyway, it was in the third form that he started his protection racket.  We had girls in the school by then, and he took up with Norah Blackburn.  She really hated boys, and she thought she could use Johnny Cowan to bully and humiliate other lads.  He was already pretty well-known as a bully, you see.  Anyway, she had something against some lad once, and she got the Cowan gang to ambush him – and she was just about to debag him, when he offered Cowan money to let him go.  That’s how the racket started.  Cowan realised that lads would pay him not to bully them – especially if they thought Norah had her eye on their trousers.  He got younger bullies to threaten boys in their own year, and then charged them for protection.  It ended up with collectors in all the younger forms bringing Cowan his fees every week, and he even had a prefect working for him, keeping him out of trouble.
    “It didn’t affect our year till the fifth form, then Cowan thought he had a chance to complete his empire by making all of us pay protection, even Spike Thompson’s gang – I was in that.
    “Spike was the only lad in the school that Cowan was scared of, the only one people reckoned could beat him in a fight, and he was determined that Cowan wasn’t going to make our class pay.  So it was stand-off for a bit, then things started going wrong for us when Simone came.”
    “Simone?” queried George.
    “Simon,” said the man.  “New boy, good at French.  French master pronounced his name Seemong in the French way.  We hated him, so we called him Simone.  If you want to hear the full story, come over and meet my wife.  She was in Norah Higgit’s gang, and they  idolised Simone.”
 


Chapter 6:
Simone


    George went over.  The man’s name was Peter Johnson, and his wife was called Margaret.  Peter explained briefly that George wanted to buy Johnny Cowan’s house, couldn’t understand why Cowan hadn’t accepted his offer, and was interested in any information about Cowan that he could get.
    “I was telling him about Cowan’s protection racket at school,” he said, “and how he started trying to force Spike Thompson’s gang to pay up when Simone arrived.”
    “Yes,” said Margaret, “that was when things began hotting up.”
    “You girls all fancied Simone something rotten,” said Peter, “especially Moira Higgit – and she was Spike’s girlfriend up to then.”
    “Thing was,” said Margaret, “Moira and Spike had had a row the day before Simon appeared at school, so she took up with him just to show Spike she wasn’t just always going to be available whenever he snapped his fingers – and then, when we really got to know Simon, he was really lovely.  He spoke so nicely, you know, like the people on the BBC.”
    “We all thought he had a poncy southern accent.  It made him sound a bit of a sissy,” put in Peter, “and then he was so good at things like French that we all thought he was a crawler.”
    He had a lovely French accent,” said Margaret, “just like a real Frenchman.  Mr Watkyns said it was a joy to listen to.”
    “Yeah,” said Peter, “it was because of old Watkyns that we called him Simone.  We all had to have French names in class and old Watkyns wanted us to talk in French.  I was Pierre, which was all right, and Maggie here was Mar-gar-et, but when old Watkyns started calling Simon Seemong we all decided to call him Simone and treat him like a girl.”
    “Did you lot really think boys were better than girls?” Margaret asked.
    “I suppose we did – back then,” said Peter.  “I wouldn’t dare say so now.”
    “Not if you want any dinner tomorrow,” said Margaret.
    “Anyway,” said Peter, “the girls went crazy for Simon, and the more we objected the more they idolised him”
    “It was mainly because you lot made such a fuss that we were all over him,” said Margaret.  “I mean, he was lovely and so polite and gentle that we really did like him.  He made you lot look like a lot of bumptious oafs, really, but Moira was really enjoying how jealous Spike was, so she made sure to really look like she adored Simon whenever Spike was anywhere near.”
    “Like that time,” said Peter, “when we came out on to the school field and all you girls were sitting round in a little group and Simone was just lying there with his head on Moira’s lap, and she was stroking his face and treating him like she loved him more than anyone in the world.”
    “Oh, yeah, sort of like the dream of dreams – and didn’t you all wish it was you lying in some girl’s lap being stroked and caressed?”
    “Course we did.  Spike was furious.  He grabbed Simon’s ankles and pulled as hard as he could so Simon’s head went bouncing down on the hard ground.”
    “Yeah and then that little beast – that one that was your best friend …”
    “Budge Hargreaves.”
    “… yeah, Budge Hargreaves flung himself on Simon, and you know what he tried to do?”
    “He tried to debag him!” said Peter jubilantly.
    “Yeah, he flung himself on poor Simon and started undoing his trousers!  Then we all grabbed him, and pushed him away …”
    “… and started yelling at us as if we’d done something.”
    Anyway, by the time we’d got you all hustled away Simon had got his trousers fastened up again and none of the other girls saw except me – and they wouldn’t believe it when I told them.  They said no-one would dare do anything like that to Simon, and they didn’t see why boys thought trousers were so important anyway.”
    “But Simon knew what Budge intended,” said Peter, “and it must have given him summat to think about.  Yeah, trousers were important to boys.  The thing is: to be debagged means you’re not considered fit to be one of the lads.  I suppose in them days when hardly any women wore trousers they were considered a symbol of manhood.  After all when you were little boys you had to wear short pants, and getting your longs was an important step towards becoming a man.  So if the other lads really wanted to humiliate you, they wrestled you down and pulled off your trousers.  It wasn’t just nudity, at was a sort of symbolic emasculation.  So when Simone realised the lads thought he was the kind of boy who deserved a debagging, well he knew he had to do something about it.”
    “I don’t see what this has to do with Cowan,” George interrupted.  “I’m sure these memories of your schooldays must be fascinating, but I really want to know about Cowan.”
    “He comes into this story – in a big way,” said Peter.  “The tale of Simon Parr leads to a major confrontation between Spike’s gang and Cowan’s mob and it all ends with …”
    “Don’t spoil it, Peter,” Margaret said.  “It’s a good story, so tell it properly, everything in order.”
    “OK,” said Peter, “well, we got to where Simon realises that his pants are in peril, so he looks for an opportunity to catch one of us by ourselves, and he manages to catch Mike Armstrong – whatever happened to Mike Armstrong?”
    “I think he’s in Birmingham or somewhere.”
    “Oh, yeah.  Well Mike was always a cheereful, friendly sort of lad.  Some of us would probably just have punched Simon in the face, but Mike listened to him, and Simon convinced him that he wasn’t just a stuck-up sissy and it wasn’t his fault that the girls were all over him, so Mike agreed to bring him along to meet the rest of us and talk it out.
    “Well, the trouble was, after the – what did you call it, the dream of dreams? – After that little episode, Budge said to the rest of the gang, “If you’d all been ready and jumped in to help me, we could have got Simone’s knickers off – debagged him in front of the girls, ’cos that’s what he deserves!”
    “Of course none of us had thought of debagging Simone – Budge had a thing about trousers, you remember? – but when he said all this, we all agreed that debagging was exactly what Simone deserved.  Well just then Mike came round the corner bringing Simone with him, so before either of them could say a word we had Simone flat on his back on the ground and Budge was busy undoing his kegs.”
    “Yes,” said Margaret, and you’d have had them right off him if we hadn’t come on the scene.”
    “How did you happen to come round there just then?”
    What-is-name told us, you know that little sneak that we all hated …”
    “Aitken Sneath!” cried Peter.  “Well that explains a lot.”
    “Anyway,” said Margaret, “we came rushing round to the corner of the field, and we grabbed Mike Armstrong and pulled him off Simon.  He managed to get Simon’s trousers down almost to his knees, but we shoved him away and surrounded Simon so he could pull ’em up again without you lot seeing …”
    “Actually,” said Peter, “Mike was trying to stop us pulling Simon’s pants off.  He pushed Budge out of the way and he was pulling Simon’s pants up and trying to protect them from us when you lot grabbed him, so in fact it was you girls that pulled Simon’s pants down.”
    “Really?”
    “Yeah.  Knowing Sneath he probably timed it so you’d arrive just after we got Simon’s trousers right off – too late to stop us but in time to have a blazing row.  It was Mike that stopped us, and after you’d gone he told us what Simon had said and how he was bringing him to meet us for a reconciliation – and that led to the next confrontation.”
    “I still don’t see what this has to do with Cowan, George objected.
    “You’ll see in a bit.  We’re coming to Cowan right after the next episode.”
    “All right.  What happened next?”
    “Well, after Mike explained what Simon had said we thought we should give him a chance, so Mike went off to find him …”
    “… and Aitken Sneath came and told us you were planning to lure him on to the field and attack him again, so we rushed over and found Mike and Simon talking and it looked as if Aitken was right, ’cos Mike started leading Simon back out onto the field, so we grabbed him, and Moira and them were spinning him round by the arms like a maypole, and somebody shouted: Get his trousers off!  So they started pulling at his trouser-legs but they weren’t getting anywhere because they were too ladylike to get anywhere near any sensitive areas – but I had seen how Budge unfastened Simon’s trousers, so I grabbed for Mike’s waistband and ripped it open, and his zip ripped open too, and his pants started coming down, but then Simon pushed me out of the way and yelled, No!  Not his trousers!
    “That,” said Peter, “is when we arrived – and guess who told us what was happening.”
    “Aitken Sneath?”
    “Yeah,  Aitken Sneath!  Anyway, we came on the scene just in time to hear Simon yell, …t his trousers!  Then we saw him dive at Mike and pull his kegs right down to his ankles and all the girls gave a great shriek of mocking derision.”
    “Though actually,” said Margaret, “Simon was trying to stop Mike’s trousers going down.  He just fell over when we swung Mike round, and he pulled them down by accident.”
    “But we thought, he’d said Get his trousers, so it looked to us as if Simon had deliberately led Mike into an ambush and helped the girls to debag him.  So, after a certain amount of yelling at each other, the girls and Simon went off one way, and we went off the other with Mike, but we all knew that Simone had gone too far this time and there was only one possible punishment – he’d have to be taken to the cockpit.  It’s a sort of wooded area down the hill below the school field, where …”
    “I know about the cockpit,” said George.  “Lads used to say if a boy really pissed off the other boys, they’d take him to the cockpit and debag him in front of the whole school.  Did they still do that even after the girls came.”
    “We never heard of it,” said Peter.
    “And we certainly didn’t,” said Margaret.
    “We put the word around among the boys,” Peter continued, “and I was sent to tell Simone that Spike challenged him to a fight in the cockpit and that fighting Spike was the only way he’d ever be accepted in the school.  Only, of course, when Simone got to the cockpit, we told him it wasn’t a fight.  We said, You’re going to be debagged!  And that’s where Johnny Cowan comes into the picture.”

 
Chapter 7:
The Cockpit


    After four-o’clock the girls all went home as usual without suspecting anything, but the boys all congregated in the cockpit, and Simon arrived ready to defend his honour by fighting Spike, only to be grabbed and told that he was to be debagged in front of all the male half of the school as a punishment for his behaviour.
    Naturally he protested that this was unfair and offered to fight Spike or anyone else his angry schoolmates cared to nominate as their champion.  They laughed at him.  They sneered.  They jeered and jostled him.  They told him his luring of Mike into an ambush by the girls deserved far worse than a mere debagging.  They said he was lucky they hadn’t decided to disentrouser him completely, for that was what his treachery deserved.  A conniving, cheating, stuck-up traitor shouldn’t be allowed trousers at all, and this debagging might just be the first of many.  In fact, whenever and wherever they saw him wearing trousers they might rip them off him.
    That was when Johnny Cowan stepped forward.  His protection racket had gradually expanded from milking smaller boys for their pocket money towards exploiting the upper forms.  Only a few weeks earlier he had undermined and defeated resistance in the fourth form, and now he saw his chance to conquer the fifth – for Johnny knew that Spike Thompson, probably the only boy in the school who could take him on in single combat, had hurt his hand in the last confrontation and could scarcely touch anything without wincing with pain.
    “Nobody touches Simon,” Cowan said, and there was a groan of disappointment from the spectators.  Most of them had nothing against Simon, but the prospect of a good debagging meant entertainment, a laugh at someone else’s expense.
    “No-one touches anyone unless I say so,” Cowan announced.  “If he’s paid his dues he’s under my protection.”
    “Skunk!  Traitor!  Treacherous little stinker!”  Spike’s gang’s insult were aimed at Simon.
    “I haven’t paid anybody anything,” Simon said.
    “You will, though,” said Cowan.  “You don’t want to be debagged by this lot?  You don’t deserve that, do you?  So you join my insurance scheme and nobody’ll touch you – or they’ll have me to contend with.  Orright, Spike, you want his pants, so I’ll fight you for them.  Better than that, winner wins the loser’s trousers.”
    “That’s fair, innit lads?” he shouted to the spectators.  You wanted to see someone lose his pants – well, you will!”
    There was a cheer.
    “Come on then, Spike!” Cowan jeered.  “You’re not scared are you?  Get your fists up – unless you want just to hand over your pants!”
    Mike and Jonno tried to protest.  It wasn’t fair.  Spike could beat Cowan, everybody knew it, but he had hurt his hand.
    “One of you fight me then,” said Cowan.
    Mike was tough and wiry, but Cowan was bigger and heavier.  Jonno was obviously no match for the bully, nor was Budge.
    “Come on!” shouted Cowan.  “They’re all waiting!  Who’s gonna fight me?  Who’s brave enough to risk his trousers?  Come on!”
    “I’ll fight you!”  It was Simon.
    “You?!
    “Yes, me.  I came here to fight, and I’ll fight you.”
    “Orright,” grinned Cowan.  “”You lot happy with that?”
    Spikes gang nodded and retreated.  If Simone lost his trousers to Cowan, their object would have been achieved just as much as if they had debagged him themselves.
    “Good!” shouted Cowan.  “Well let’s have some real entertainment.  “He’ll fight for Spike’s gang, and I’ll fight for mine.  Loser and all his gang get debagged!  Right!”
    There was a slightly puzzled cheer.  No-one quite knew what was going on, but it looked as if Simon was going to be debagged after all and a whole lot more trousers might fall.

    Aitken Sneath hugged himself with glee.  He’d wondered how to cope with the cockpitting of Simon.  He’d been very successful up to that point.  He’d brought the girls to rescue Simon just a bit too soon, hoping they’d arrive while the boys were throwing Simon’s trousers around and taunting him as he tried to catch them.  Mike’s attempt to prevent the debagging had spoiled that, but when the girls had hauled Mike away Simon’s trousers had come down to his knees and it had looked as if Mike had pulled them.
    Even better: when he brought the boys to witness the debagging of Mike by the girls, Simon’s attempt to rescue Mike had brought Mike’s trousers to his ankles, and the boys were convinced Simon did it deliberately.
    He couldn’t play the same trick when Simon was lured to the cockpit.  If he told the girls in advance, they’d put a stop to the debagging, and Sneath didn’t want that.  There was no way he could get them to hang around so that he could bring them in just too late to rescue Simon, so the only thing to do was to let Simon be debagged, and then report it to the girls the next day.  He would then have the double pleasure of embarrassing Simon in front of the girls by describing the forcible removal of his trousers and of escalating the enmity between Spike’s gang and Moira’s girls.
    He’d been thinking quickly during Cowan’s intervention, wondering how he could cause maximum mayhem from whatever happened; now it looked as if both Simon and Spike’s whole gang would be humiliatingly stripped of their trousers.  He would be able to embarrass them all by reporting the scene to the girls, and to slant it so that Spike’s gang got the blame.  So he sniggered and hugged himself and watched.

    Cowan charged at Simon and swung his foot viciously at his balls.  If he had connected that would have been the end of the fight.
    Simon sidestepped and spun round – and Cowan’s kick continued skywards, tipping the bully backwards onto the ground.
    Cowan lumbered to his feet, charged again, and hurled himself on top of Simon.  The smaller boy fell backwards, and Cowan somersaulted over his head to land on his back again.
    “Ju-jitsu,” someone said.
    It was judo, the gentle way.  Again and again Cowan’s own furious momentum was used to bring him crashing down, till, at last, he was face down on the ground with Simon sitting on him and twisting his arm behind him.
    “Give up!” said Simon.
    Cowan roared and struggled, but Simon’s grip grew ever more painful, till at last the bully howled his surrender.
    The cockpit erupted into tremendous cheering.  Spike’s gang surrounded Simon, clapping him on the back and congratulating him, while Cowan climbed groggily to his feet.
    The spectators hadn’t forgotten what they’d been promised.
    “Gettim!” they yelled, and Cowan disappeared under a mob of eager debaggers.
    His gang hesitated.  Rescue their leader?  Impossible!  Flee?  Too late!  The jubilant boys were upon them and every one was debagged.  Then the mob turned on Cowan’s collectors, the boys who had come round each week taking payment and passing it to Cowan.  Squealing they fled, and were brought down and stripped of their nether garments.  Nigel Barber, shot up a tree in his efforts to escape, and his trousers were hauled off his limbs as he hung in the branches.
    Someone produced matches, and a pair of trousers was set alight.  Other pairs were thrown on the blaze or lit separately and waved around as they burned.  Then in high good humour the debaggers and spectators made their way down to the bottom of the slope, pushed through or climbed over the rickety fence and set off for home, leaving the Cowan gang and their allies to wait for darkness to fall, and to hope they could sneak home unmolested, though with little prospect of gaining entry to their houses without having to explain to their parents their lack of trousers.

    “Surely,” said Amanda, “if all those boys went home trouserless there would be an investigation and all sorts of trouble.”
    “I suppose there might have been,” said Margaret, “but nothing much seemed to come of it.”
    “Their fathers would have known,” said Peter, “that for a lad to be debagged in the cockpit meant he’d really been a bit of a stinker.  They would know better than to make a fuss and suffer the publicity.  Anyway, as far as I ever heard, nothing was ever done about it. 
    "None of the Cowan gang was at school next day.  I think some came back for their O-levels, but Johnny Cowan just left and joined his father’s building firm, and you’ve heard what happened next, how he used his friends as cheap labour and built up a business of his own.  He still gets away with murder.  He’s got friends on the Council, and that little stinker, Aitken Sneath, well he’s now chief planning officer for Halden, and it suits him to fix things for Cowan just because it upsets so many other people.”

    “Yes”, said Margaret, “my sister lived in a lovely quiet close, till Johnny Cowan bought the house just behind her and put in for planning permission to double its size and make it into two separate dwellings.  The meeting was fixed for a certain day, and the residents started getting their material together so they could make a proper protest, but the meeting was brought forward with no-one being told anything about it, so when they rolled up to the Council offices to present their petition they were told it was already decided and there was nothing more they could do.  I bet Sneath really enjoyed that.”
    “I dare say he gets a bit of a back-hander from Cowan to keep him sweet,” said Peter.  “Cowan used to have a prefect at school on his payroll – we all knew about it ’cos things used to happen when he was on yard duty and somehow he was always occupied somewhere on the other side of the school.”
    “And what about Mrs Cowan?” George asked.  “Is anything known about her?”
    “Plenty!” said Peter.  “He married Norah Blackburn.”
    “She stayed on at school,” said Margaret, “and got her A-levels.”
    “I heard,” said Peter, “that the day after the cockpit she was throwing her weight around as usual and some lad told her he didn’t have to pay any attention to her now that Cowan was finished.  Way I heard it, he’d hardly finished speaking when he found himself flat on the floor with Norah’s gang sitting on him and Norah pulling his trousers off.  He started yelling that he’d pay up just like before, but she told him things were different now: she wasn’t going to let him pay to keep his pants, she was going to have her fun and then make him pay to get them back.”
    “I don’t know if that’s true or not,” said Margaret, “but, like I said, she stayed on at school and got her A-levels.  After that she got an office job at Collerfords – started the same time as me.”
    “I bet she enjoyed the intitiation of the apprentices,” said Peter.
    “She did!” said Margaret.  “We girls in the office didn’t get involved in any of that sort of thing.  That was the packing department lassies and they were very common.  We didn’t even talk to them – we had a separate canteen for office staff, and we came in by the front door so we hardly ever saw them – but Norah made a point of making friends with them and got them to let her know when there was going to be an initiation, and then she went down to watch.  She asked us if we’d like to go down too, but we certainly didn’t want to see things like that going on.”
    “Or coming off,” said Peter.  “I suppose the new lads got debagged?”
    “Debagged, measured, prodded and manipulated, and then covered with grease,” said Margaret, “with all of them common little sluts looking on and screeching with laughter.  It’s a wonder any of those poor lads ever wanted anything to do with women again after that – but I suppose their hormones took over.
    “Anyway, this went on for a few years, and Norah married Johnny, but she still wanted to watch the initiations.  The packing girls used to tell her when it was time, but gradually they began to think it was a bit funny, a married woman who was a bit older than them, taking such an interest.  So they stopped telling her and she eventually realised that she wasn’t going to have any more fun at Collerfords.  Well, by this time she had qualified as an accountant, so she left Collerfords and joined Cowan’s firm as company secretary and that’s where she’s been ever since.”
    “Yeah,” said Peter, “and you can bet there’s a lot more money passes through Cowan’s hands than ever gets recorded on the balance sheets.”
    “And yet you say he’s in line for a peerage?” said George.
    “Well,” said Peter, “you know as well as I do that with a Prime Minister like Blair any rich bastard can buy a peerage just by giving money to the Labour Party.”
    “Oh surely not,” Amanda squeaked.  “Not in England, not these days.”
    “Don’t be stupid,” growled George.  “That’s exactly how it’s done.  Blair’s got only one policy and that’s to make sure he stays in power as long as possible.  That’s why he set up separate parliaments in Scotland and Wales, because he thought he’d have a permanent Labour majority there.”
    “As it is,” said Peter, “he’s just opened the way for Alex Salmond.  You know, there have been so many Scottish ministers and even Prime Ministers since the Union, and English wealth and Scottish brains made the UK number one in the world for a couple of centuries.  Now you get a self-seeking shit like Blair destroying the country for his own gain, and a fifth rate politician like Salmond, who knows he’d be out of his depth in London, trying to create his own little pool where he can be the fattest frog.  Don’t get me started on Blair!  Anyway, all Cowan had to do was slip a few thousand to Blair’s mob and it’s all hail Lord Cowan, Duke of the Muck Heap.”
    “Come on Peter,” said Margaret.  “You’ll be awake all night with indigestion if you’re not careful.  It’s getting late.  Time we went home.  Nice to meet you, George, and I hope you get your house.”

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Chapter 5:  Odderby House  --  Chapter 6: Simone  --  Chapter 7: The cockpit

Les: Épatants: Index  --  Les Épatants: Part I  --  Les Épatants: Part III

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