Read an Excerpt
C h a p t e r 1
Sussex, February 1933
Carrying more than a hint of snow, a southwesterly wind gusted up from the Channel, spattering the school’s plate glass windows with sleety drops.
Mr. Rapson began to shout. Not a natural disciplinarian, he found he kept better control this way and was gratified by the knowledge that most of the boys at St. Magnus School, Seaford, were frightened of him. He affected a military style that most were familiar with from their own fathers. Peremptory and predictable.
“Come along! No footer today, so we’re going for a healthy walk. In pairs! Morrison! I said pairs! How many boys go to a pair? Two? That’s right. Not three! Drummond? No one to walk with? Walk with Spielman. Come on, Spielman! Get a move on!”
Jackie Drummond didn’t want to walk with Spielman. He didn’t like Spielman. He had sticking-out teeth, and he never stopped talking, mostly giving rambling accounts of books he’d just read. At least he didn’t expect a reply. This left Jackie free to work on his new plan: to run away as soon as possible.
Running away. The biggest sin you could commit, they said. But Jackie had heard of boys escaping from school—the older boys still talked about Peterkin, who’d run away ten years ago and never been brought back. Then there was Renfrew, who’d been in the year above Jackie. They’d said he’d been sacked for bad behavior and sent to another school, but his best friend had other ideas.
“Done a bunk,” was his judgement. “Skipped off in the dead of night. Never even told me he was going.” The best friend’s knowing smirk gave out quite a different message. He’d collaborated. There were things he could tell. And probably had told—to the staff. Jackie learned from this. Even if he’d had a friend, he wouldn’t breathe a word of his plans to him. If you’re going, just go. Confide in no one.
For the hundredth time he reviewed the possibilities and consulted the list his mother had given him. He’d copied it into an exercise book to be on the safe side, but he carried with him the original in his mother’s familiar handwriting. A charm. A talisman to be consulted when life got tough. There were Aunt
Florence and Aunt Dorrie in Brighton, only five miles away. This option had the advantage that he could walk there, but the disadvantage that he could swiftly be brought back again. It was the first place they’d look. There were Mr. and Mrs. Masters in Camberley, but he wasn’t sure where Camberley was, and he didn’t like them very much anyway. His preference was for Uncle Dougal and Auntie Jeannie, his father’s Scottish cousins in Perthshire. But Perthshire was a very long way away. And traveling on the railways over here was expensive. The fare alone was over two pounds and, even with the best expectations of cash from his birthday, it would be weeks before he had the necessary funds. Not for the first time he doubted his capacity but a second look at Mr. Rapson, standing four-square in his college scarf and porkpie hat, ginger-coloured Harris tweed plus-four suit so nearly matching his foam-flecked and bristling moustache, convinced him that he had no tolerable alternative. And Rappo was shouting again.
“Before we set off we’re going for a little run. All of you—down to the corner and back again when I say go. Go!”
There was a wailing cry: “I’m cold, sir!”
This was Foster. Foster was recovering from a mastoid, and the biting wind gave him earache.
“Cold?” shouted Mr. Rapson. “Cold? Then run! That’s the way to keep warm!”
The run took its predicted course (Smithson fell and scraped his knee and had to go in to Matron), and the walk followed in the teeth of the rising wind, down to the end of Sutton Avenue. Jackie hoped they’d turn right and then with any luck the walk would lead past the station and give him another chance to check his escape route. He liked the phrase “escape route” and said it over to himself. “My escape route!”
“Yes,” he decided, “I’ll walk down Sutton Avenue, turn right at the bottom, go through that lane beside the biscuit factory. There’s not many street lamps here.” And if he wore his cycling cape over his uniform no one would know he was from one of the many preparatory schools in the town. As Spielman rambled on, unheeded, Jackie thought to himself, “Three weeks. That should be enough. I’ll go in three weeks!”
Back in the school changing rooms, Rappo called a halt to the shuddering, sniffling procession. “All right! Dismiss!’”
The boys began to peel off their wet overcoats and hang them on the pegs to drip in dank rows.
“I said, ‘Dismiss!’ Don’t loiter about! Move!”
Spielman stood, looking goofy, as the boys would have said. Mr. Rapson’s voice rose and became shrill. His stomach ulcer made him tetchy. He was glad to discharge some of the tension on to a victim: Spielman had sat down—still talking—on a bench.
“Blithering idiot! I told you to dismiss. I didn’t tell you to sit! Did I? No!” He leapt forward and seized Spielman by his prominent ears and lifted him bodily to his feet. Spielman screamed in surprise and pain.
Jackie, hardly aware of what he was doing, rushed forwards. Indignation screwed his voice to a high-pitched squeal. “Leave him alone!” he shouted. “Pagal!” The Hindi word of abuse came easily to him. “Leave him alone!”
Mr. Rapson turned towards him in astonishment, and Jackie found his face within a few inches of Mr. Rapson’s waistcoat, girt with his watch chain. Rocking back on his heel and using all his small strength, he plunged his fist into Mr. Rapson’s midriff. He was crying with rage.
For a moment, time stood still. This was blasphemy of the most extreme kind. Such an outburst was totally without precedent. Masters hit you, you didn’t hit them. Rapson was big and powerful, Jackie was small and insignificant. God only knew what would now ensue. The boys unconsciously began to back away, leaving Rapson and Jackie at the centre of a blighted space.
Rapson eyed Jackie, grim with menace. He inflated his tweedy ginger chest like an aggressive robin, and the boys shrank back farther. Smythe hid his face behind a damp coat and whimpered. Finally, with chilling control, Rapson spoke: “I’ll see you in my study after tea, Drummond. Six o’clock sharp! The rest of you—how many more times? Dismiss!”
The bell rang for tea. An audience gathered round Jackie. “You hit him! You actually hit him in the bread-basket! Gosh, you’ll catch it, Drummond!”
“Did you see Rappo’s face!”
“Six of the best,” said Spielman, unimpressed by Jackie’s intervention on his behalf, “at least. That’s what you’ll get. Six strokes on the stroke of six!” He began to titter.
Mr. Langhorne, one of the senior staff, was passing by on his way to supervise tea. He’d heard enough to guess what was going on. He gave Jackie a smile, saying jovially, “Take my advice. Fold a copy of the Daily Sketch in two and stick it down the back of your pants. I always used to. It helps.”
The boys standing by laughed sycophantically, and Jackie went in to tea in total dismay.
He’d thought the day couldn’t get worse but—wouldn’t it just be his luck?—they’d been given luncheon meat, potatoes and beetroot, and he’d been put to sit next to Matron. Jackie was a well-brought up boy, and his father had taught him that good manners demanded that you make conversation with your neighbour. He did his best: “Do you know, Matron? Until I came to school, I thought that only servants had beetroot.” He was aware that the remark had not gone down well, though he could not exactly see why. But then so many things had puzzled him since returning to England from his Indian childhood. The inevitable followed.
“Beetroot may be seen as only fit for servants from your elevated colonial viewpoint, Drummond, but some of us actually enjoy it. Be thankful for what you are given. You will stay here until you’ve finished what’s before you!”
Jackie looked down at the mess on his plate. Beetroot juice seeping into the potato, turning it pink, luncheon meat slices curling at the edge, and a stale glass of water poured out a long time before. Matron went to whisper to Mr. Langhorne, and Mr. Langhorne said, “All dismiss except Drummond.” And Jackie was left alone in the empty room, his plate still full before him.
But relief was at hand. Betty Bellefoy, who was in the estimation of the school the prettiest of the three parlour maids, took advantage of Matron’s inattention and swept down upon him to whisk his plate away, replacing it with a dish of stewed plums and custard.
“Thanks, Betty,” Jackie said, grateful.
“Ah, go on with you,” said Betty comfortably.
Jackie spent a long time over his stewed plums. The longer he took, the longer he could postpone his encounter with Rapson.
Anything might happen. The school might catch fire. Perhaps his parents would appear in the doorway, or perhaps Uncle Dougal or perhaps the Brighton aunts. (Not impossible. They had once made an unscheduled visit.) But relief did not come. There was no way out. He was Sydney Carton on the scaffold; he was Henry V at Harfleur; he was Brigadier Gerard. What had he said?—“Courage, mon vieux! Piré took Leipzig with fifty hussars!” He passionately wished that fifty sabre-waving hussars would come clattering into the dining room and raze the school to the ground.
One by one the last remaining staff left. Matron went out closely followed by Mr. Langhorne. Matron was often closely followed by Mr. Langhorne. And Jackie was left alone in the darkening room with Betty. Three plums eaten and the stones carefully arranged on the rim of his dish. Tinker, tailor, soldier. . . . He counted them again. That was a good place to stop. He’d settle for soldier today. Jackie had been rather taken with the one in the verse Mr. Langhorne had made them learn last week. The swashbuckling chap who was “full of strange oaths . . . bearded like the pard . . . sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth.” He wanted desperately to be old enough to swear and have a beard. He’d shown already that he was quick in quarrel. The whole school would be talking about his punch to the Rapson midriff. But, now, in the outfall, he felt much more like the frightened child his father had once hugged and called his “chocolate cream soldier.”
He screwed his eyes shut in an attempt to fight back tears. In his imagination his father’s big hand tightened around his, rough and reassuring.
Two plums remaining . . . sailor . . . rich man . . . Settle for ‘‘rich man’’? Money was a good way of getting out of trouble. He would make a lot of it, buy up the whole school and close it down. That wouldn’t be bad. Perhaps he should force down the last two plums? Betty looked anxiously at the big school clock and back at Jackie, her eyes wide with appeal. She sighed.
Good manners overcame even the paralysis of terror, and Jackie roused himself. Never keep a lady waiting. He handed his plate up for the maid, and she dashed off into the kitchens in a gust of relief, muttering a word of thanks.
Time to move on and take his medicine.
He got up and put his chair away. What had Lloyd 2 said?
“Don’t worry too much. It’s only a tickle. It’ll be over in five minutes. Brace up, Drummond! You’re a toff! Everyone’s saying so!”
A toff. At least “the bubble reputation” seemed to be coming his way. All he could do was shape up and try to deserve it. On wobbly legs Jackie crossed the darkened hall, turned into the deserted corridor and began to climb the stairs to Rappo’s room. Into the cannon’s mouth.