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In the last Easter term, before the Hole, life was bright and good at Our Glorious School. Charged with the fresh self-confidence that steps in on the brink of adulthood, we all knew our futures as we walked out our lives under the arches and below the walls.
The story begins, though, a little later than that; and perhaps it is still not finished. At least, I have not yet felt in me that the Hole is finished. But telling this story will, I hope, move me a step further away from it, and maybe help me to forget some of what happened.
It was a clear, unseasonably warm day when the six figures made their way across the sun-washed flags of the quad to the side of the English block. Down there, in the dark hollow of a buttress, a rusted iron stairway circled its way into the ground. One after another, they followed its spiral and disappeared into the triangular shadow. A long time passed, and the sun shifted in the sky and slipped its light through different classroom windows, briefly illuminating battered leather briefcases and untidy stacks of paper. The accumulated and forgotten detritus of the spent term grew warm for a while, and then a thin cloud began to draw over from the east and the classrooms were dulled. A single figure appeared at the head of the iron staircase and paused, looking carefully around the deserted driveways and empty cricket pitches. With hands hooked into the pockets of his clean gray trousers, he set off towards the woods that flanked the pavilion, fair hair flapping gently in the growing breeze.
And although it was not yet apparent, this figuredwindling towards the late spring green of the woodswas now, from one viewpoint, a murderer.
"It's not even as though anyone would mind," Alex said, and went off to the small lavatory set back around the corner,
tak-ing her large and shabby knapsack with her. There was another small room there, which had most likely served once as a storage closet. Mike couldn't guess when this place had last been used for anything. The smell of it was dry and cool. There was dust between the stones of the floor that had set, become fossilized.
Mike doubled his sleeping bag up behind his back as a sort of cushion. The Hole was blank and harsh in the naked light of the bulb,
like a badly adjusted TV picture. Frankie was searching through her bags for something, pulling out articles of clothing and other junk,
stuffing them back in again, working seemingly at random. There was a faint, glassy sound of water into water, and then the hiss and roar of the huge gray cistern. Frankie triumphantly flourished an octagonal cardboard box.
"Anyone want some?" she asked happily. The others looked at her.
"What is it?" Geoff asked suspiciously.
"Turkish delight," returned Frankie. "Lovely. I got two boxes, just in case."
"No thanks," Mike said. He wondered idly what the second box might be in case of.
"Me neither, if it's all the same to you," Geoff said. "That stuffit tastes like . . . I don't know, it tastes . . ."
"It's rose-flavored," Frankie said.
"No, it tastes like . . ."
Alex returned, shaking her hands violently at the wrists.
"Ah, for heaven's sake!" shouted Frankie, and a small plume of white sugar powder leapt up from the box she was holding. "You got water all over me."
"Did anyone think to bring a towel?" Alex asked. Mike shook his head. It hadn't crossed his mind.
"I have," said Liz. That followed, Mike decided. You'd never expect someone like Frankie to remember towels, but Liz would. He wasn't sure why he had this impression of her; it just seemed natural.
"Thanks," said Alex. "That water's too cold for me."
"What time is it now?" asked Frankie.
"Nine. Why do you need to know?" Geoff said. "You keep on asking me what bloody time it is."
"I'm tired. And I forgot my watch," Frankie said.
"How can you be tired?" Alex asked. "All we've done since four o'clock is sit around chatting."
"I haven't," Mike said. "I joined a rather fascinating little trip to see some rock formations and then hiked across the moors for an hour or two." They laughed.
"That's exactly the sort of thing Morris and friends would get up to," Geoff said.
"Thank God we didn't go," Alex said, with a shiver. "Last field trip was a nightmare. I spent the whole week soaking wet and half-blinded by rain." She pushed her hair back from her face and continued. "And I hate mountains. I'm not a mountain person. More a living-room person, I think."
"You can thank Martyn for it all," Frankie said.
"Yeah," Mike said. "Out of the field trip and into the Hole, to coin a phrase."
"I quite like it down here," Alex said. "I know it's not exactly comfortableor big, for that matterbut you get the impression that, with a little care, it could be almost cozy. Some curtains, and tasteful rugs. You know."
"Funny," Frankie said. "Very funny. Ha ha."
By now, Mike thought, the field trip probably would have been across a mountain or two. He'd been on the previous expeditions,
and had really rather enjoyed himself. But, of course, the chance to become involved with one of Martyn's schemes was worth any sacrifice.
Which was why, he reflected wryly, he was stuck in a cellar under the
English block instead of above the snowline in the Peak District. Around him the others had arranged their possessions on the floor of the cellar. Geoff, lounging on one elbow next to him, waved a hand vaguely over his knapsack and the untidy pile of clothing and tins of food that was spread next to it.
"What I still don't get is how this place could just be here, but never be used," he said. "It would make a great common room, or music room, or something."
"Half Our Glorious School isn't used," Frankie said dismissively. "My dad says the whole place needs a bloody good change of management."
"Then your dad has the full support of the entire student body," Geoff said.
"Frankie's right," Alex said. "There are places like this all over the school. That bit behind the physics department, for example. What's it used for? Nobody ever goes in there."
"That's the butterfly collection," Liz said unexpectedly. Mike always felt a lift of mild surprise when Liz spoke. "They only open it every five years or so."
"You're joking," Geoff said, staring at her. "Butterflies?"
"Typical," said Frankie with a snort. "Betcha it's some bequest or other. People are always bequesting things to us."
"Bequeathing," Mike said.
"Whatever." "I hereby bequeath to Our Glorious
School my entire collection of compromising photographs of the teaching staff, to be left on permanent display in the dining rooms," Mike said.
"I'm hungry," Alex said. She took off her round wire-rimmed glasses and started to polish them with a hanky. "How about a nearly bedtime snack?"
"Let's see what we have," Frankie said at once. Mike grinned. "Calm down, ladies," he said. "One at a time."
"Condescending bastard," Frankie said. "This says French toast. I think I'll eat that."
"French toast?" Geoff said. "Sounds rather rude. 'Ello, darlin', how about some French toast, then?"
Mike shuffled lower on his sleeping bag and closed his eyes against the hard light of the bulb. "I thought French toast was when you stuck your tongue out and licked the butter off," he said. Alex snorted with laughter, and then stopped herself rather guiltily.
"Disgusting, Mikey," Frankie said.
"Not as disgusting as that Turkish stuff," Geoff said. "It tastes so bloody pink, that's all."
This is how it all began. But remember, we were very young then.
I can hear Martyn saying to us, before we went down there, "This is an experiment with real life." That was what he called it.
"Isn't that a bit ambitious?" I asked, and he smiled.
Martyn's smile was wide and easy, and it sat happily in Martyn's round fair face. Teachers knew what Martyn was. He was a thoughtful, rather slow boy who could be trusted with responsibility. He was always friendly, always willing to chat with old Mr. Stevens about fishing or stop by to take a look at Dr.
James's garden. He was a good boy; sensible. Stanford once said, "That boy is a damned fine head of library," which I think probably surprised the staff as much as the pupilsStanford not being known for tender words about anyone.
We also knew who Martyn was, and revelled in the complete and wonderful illusion he had created. Because we knew that it was Martyn who was behind the Gibbon incident; Martyn who orchestrated the collapse of the End of Term Address; Martyn who was perhaps the greatest rebel Our Glorious School had ever seen. The duplicity of Martyn's life was, in our eyes,
something admirable and enviable. Perhaps if we had taken the time to examine this, we might have been closer to guessing what was later to happen. But it never occurred to us that the deception might involve more than the two layers we saw.
Strange how time changes things around us.
Strange how we change with time.
Sadly, schools deal in the sale and exchange of knowledge, not wisdom. And it was wisdom that we could have used back then, all that time ago. And we were not equipped. We were not ready.
"Isn't that a bit ambitious?" I said, and the voice was a child's voice, trusting and entirely innocent. And the voice that answered it was old; far too old for the round, smiling face and pale blue eyes.
"Oh, I don't think so," Martyn said to me.