Thilo

by Andrew Foote

Chapter 1

Things I didn't need to think about before, had, during this last year at boarding school, become worries that I could no longer ignore.

I come from a very wealthy family, and my parents, not needing to have a brat, spoilt and lording it around at some State school, sent me to an expensive residential place in Cumbria.

This school's ethos revolved around a diet of intense physical discipline together with academic excellence which was okay, but why they insisted that all us boys had to sign up to the Army Cadet Corps was something I never understood.

So far as sports was concerned, we had to take part in everything, although later, and depending on what we showed an aptitude for, we were selected for various teams which in my case included Rugby, Cricket and Gymnastics.

No academic masterpiece me, but I was surprised with my achievements so I wasn't on the receiving end of extra work or disciplinary measures, but this brings me back to my problem.

This place was barren, and made deliberately so. It was designed to toughen us up, make us aware of life beyond our privileged backgrounds, and mould us into better people.


Depending on our year group, dormitories were shared by up to six boys then slimmed down until you graduated to having somewhere by yourself at the age of fifteen.

I rather liked sharing as it had this atmosphere of camaraderie and of course, the inevitable horseplay before lights-out, but then, when I turned fourteen, I was shipped out to a two-bed room which I shared with a lad named Robin Kirstow-Atherton.

Robin was cool. I really liked him! He bore an uncanny resemblance to Rupert Grint (Ron Weasely of Harry Potter fame).

He had at his disposal, a comprehensive lexicon of curse words that were far and away superior to mine. He had a mop of ginger hair which was so fly-away that if that were me, I'd have it shaved off.

His school uniform that despite it being tailored for him and no doubt very expensive, never seemed to fit him properly, and together with all of that, his sense of humour and the way he made me laugh made us very close friends.

I'm not sure what I brought to the party, but we were almost inseparable until the end of the summer term 2013 when he announced that his father had been relocated.

A senior naval officer; his ship had been posted to the Caribbean, and Robin's education, together with being nearer to his family during holidays, could be better served by attending a school in Florida.

It had been decided, but that didn't help me. We exchange email addresses and phone details and actually, we never lost contact even up to the present day.

It would be many years before we would meet again.


Summer holidays are too short, and following three weeks of spending time in Sicily where my parents owned a villa, then what remained of the summer back out our estate near Malvern in Worcestershire, it was time to go back to Cumbria.

This term I'd been allocated a single-bed room on the top floor of my House which overlooked the Cumbrian fells.

There were just two rooms up here, and the second room was unoccupied, at least for the first week of term, after which I could make out noises from behind the door.

Being now a senior, it was up to me to make the introductions, but when I knocked, all noise stopped abruptly and with no answer to my calls, I decided to wait for another opportunity.

After about a week, I still hadn't been able to discover who my neighbour was.

He had to be about my age given he was in a single room, so I used to take a look around the refectory during meal times to see if there were any new faces other than the junior intake.

There were none, unless whoever it was had his back to me.

There had always been talk of the school being haunted, but having been here since the age of ten, - impressionable and naïve to the degree I might have believed such rumours, I'd never seen or felt anything that gave credence to them, so no.

There was definitely someone in there.


I woke with a start.

Had that been a cry of pain?

I listened and could just make out something that reminded me of the sound that an injured dog might make.

Taking the tooth glass from the washstand, I used it like a stethoscope against the studding wall.

There it was again, the unmistakable sobbing of someone, - not homesick or frightened, but more as if they were ill, or in pain.

Bollocks to this, I thought. Get yourself into that room and find out what the hell is going on.

The door was locked, but whoever had locked it hadn't thought to remove the key so it was a simple matter of grabbing a sheet of paper from my printer, a long watchmakers' screwdriver and fiddle about with the key until it fell out and landed on the paper which I'd slid under the door.

I unlocked and went inside.

The smell was awful and I could feel bile rising in my throat which somehow, I managed to keep from making me sick, but lying face down on the bed was a boy, naked apart from a pair of boxers. He hadn't noticed me entering his room, but each time he moved, his whimpers of pain were almost heart-breaking.

I didn't have to be a medic to understand the reason, because on the back of his thigh was a gash about four inches in length. By torch light it was obvious it had been stitched, but it was very badly infected which would explain the stench.

I did no more than career down the six flights of stairs to where the duty housemaster slept.

He opened the door on my first knock.

"Stephen? What on earth is the matter?"

"The boy. The boy in the room next to mine Sir. He's injured, and from what I managed to see, pretty badly."

"Injured? What makes you think that he's hurt himself?"

I briefly took him through the events of the last couple of weeks, the noises coming from the room which stopped as soon as I knocked the door, culminating in the cry of pain.

"Then there's this stench in the room. It smells like putrefying flesh in there. I don't even think he's fully conscious as he never noticed me breaking into his room, but that gash on his leg looks bad, and if I might say Sir, he's a hospital job rather than something the sanatorium could cope with."

"Very well. You go back to your room and leave it with me. We'll talk later."


Curiosity yes, but also, I was concerned about my new neighbour, so leaving my door ajar I waited until I heard voices, those of the Headmaster, my Housemaster and the sanatorium's duty nurse.

They weren't there long before I heard our Headmaster on the phone.

"Air Ambulance might be wise. This boy is very sick, and given we are about two hours from Carlisle, I'm not sure if he's able to last long enough to make the journey by road."

A pause, then

"Thank you."

There was more talking before I heard a knock on my door.

"Stephen? I want you up and dressed pronto, and once you're done, I need to see you in my study please."

"Yes Headmaster. I'm on it."

I didn't bother about dressing in school uniform as I guessed this wasn't going to be a Best Bib and Tucker thing, so I threw on the tee shirt and jeans I'd been wearing the previous evening while slobbing around watching telly, before making my way to the teaching staff's quarters and the Headmasters study.


"Well Stephen. I'm not in favour of boys breaking into other's sleeping quarters, but you did the right thing.

I understand from Mr Amos that tonight is the first time you've seen our new lad.

Am I right?"

"Yes Sir. I did try to introduce myself, but he refused to answer the door to me.

Is he going to be okay do you think?"

"Not for me to judge. The Air Ambulance should be with us shortly where he'll be taken to Carlisle Royal Infirmary where they'll assess the situation and do whatever they can for him.

Perhaps I've been remiss in not telling you of his arrival here, but given the circumstances, we thought it right that it was kept low-key. More than that I'm not about to tell you other than he's had a terrible time of late, but now our problem is that with the arrival of the helicopter, the whole damned school will be asking questions, so this is what I propose.

Once, and all assuming he's out of danger, I will tell you everything chapter and verse but on one proviso.

You make any reference to him, whether that's regarding what you already know or concerning the information I'll be furnishing you with, and so help me, I'll expel you with immediate effect.

Do I make myself clear Stephen?"

"Perfectly clear Headmaster."

"You've been a first-class student at this school and I don't need to lose you, but mark my words, there's plenty riding on this, so please don't let me down."

"You have my word Sir. I'll say nothing."

"Good man.

Tonight, or rather what little remains of it, we'll be deep cleaning his room, and as this will make for an even more disturbed night for you, I want you to try and get some rest by finding something half comfortable to use in your common room.

I'm suspending you from all classes tomorrow…… ur…… today. That way we can talk things through, and later you can catch up on lost sleep.

If you feel up to it, go for a run, use the shooting range, or just take a bus into Keswick. Your choice, but it'll be business as usual come Friday.

Now get yourself to the common room as that sounds like the helicopter arriving."


Sleep?

No? you're having a laugh, aren't you?

By the time I'd watched the helicopter land, its cargo loaded and make a hasty getaway, my imagination was in full drive.

What was going on?

There's a boy, resident in the room adjacent to mine, who by all accounts doesn't play any part in school life, and worse, I'll be instantly expelled if I so much as squeak about him?

I find him injured in a way that warrants calling the Air Ambulance and they feel the need to deep cleanse his room?

I mean, what should I read into that lot?

I watched TV.

BBC News Twenty-four.

Fine, if all you want is to catch the headlines, but the news coverage rolls over every thirty minutes, so I was mightily relieved when the breakfast bell sounded.

Of course, there were the inevitable questions about why I wasn't wearing school uniform and why I looked like shit, but I just acted all non-committal by saying I had a special assignment given to me to complete and I had been excused all classes for the day in order to get it done.

Notch in my belt time. I can lie and get away with it!

Next up was chapel, and this would be rather difficult to handle.

No matter what, all students had to wear jacket and tie, even the teachers were expected to wear their gowns, but here I am, in a tee shirt which sported a very dubious message, together with jeans and not a particularly smart pair either!

My first test of keeping schtum without having to tell a teacher to fuck off was saved by Mr Amos' appearance in the corridor.

"No chapel for you this morning Stephen. Go find yourself some coffee, but make sure you're at Mr King's office for about half-nine."

"Okay Sir, but I feel out of place dressed like this."

Mr Amos laughed.

"Most boys would love to get away with such a breach of school rules! Don't worry about it, and if you do get any grief, refer them to Mr King or indeed, myself.

Lucky you, I say. I'd much rather join you than have to suffer chapel!"


Sitting in the refectory drinking coffee, dressed in very iffy casual clothes when everyone else is singing Psalms in the chapel is one weird sensation.

The kitchen orderly hadn't been at all happy about indulging me, but I prevailed, and enjoying the caffeine and sugar hit that I hoped would get me through the day, I once again turned my attention to the previous night's events.

No doubt Mr King would make some sort of announcement in an attempt for quell speculation, but schools, and especially boarding schools, run amok with rumours about the most trivial things, so to have a visit from an Air Ambulance would be right up there in the rankings of, WTF?

I checked my watch, placed my mug in the dirty plate container, thanked the orderly and took a stroll to Mr King's office where I was met by his secretary.

"I'm Stephen Broadhurst. Mr King is expecting me directly after chapel."

"Hello Stephen. I know about the appointment, so if you would like to take a seat, he should be with you shortly."

To be summoned to appear in front of the Headmaster generally meant that all other avenues to do with discipline were exhausted, meaning suspension or even expulsion was inevitable, but this morning I had taken breakfast wearing scruffy casual clothes, been ordered away from attending chapel and now this.

If I'm seen sitting here, then tomorrow I reappear as if nothing untoward has happened, who isn't going to guess that I've been made aware of stuff that the rest of the school aren't privy to?

Had it been me, I would've sent myself to wait it out in the sanatorium where there would be no questions asked, but my musings were cut short as both Mr King and Mr Amos appeared.

I was un-nerved. Both of them looked worried.

"Ah good. You're early Stephen.

Come on through to my sitting room and I'll have Mrs Spencer organise some coffee as I suspect this might be a lengthy meeting."

Another first as I had no idea he had a sitting room attached to his office, but then he reappeared with Mrs Spencer who placed a tray of coffee and biscuits on the table.

"Okay. Where to begin.

So far, only Mr Amos, Mrs Spencer and myself are party to what I'm about to tell you, and I hope I don't need to remind you of the measures I'll take should you go repeating any of what you hear.

Stephen? This is a very delicate situation, so whilst I'm sure you'll have plenty of questions, I would ask you to hear me out before voicing them. Alright?"

"Yes Sir."

"Fine. Then let us begin.

The boy you discovered? His name is Thilo Roker. Not German as his name might suggest, but rather he hails from Namibia.

Do you know where that is?"

"South West Africa, It borders South Africa to the east and Angola to the north. I don't remember the other countries, but the Democratic Republic of Congo might be one, maybe Botswana?"

"Any idea what Namibia is known for?"

"Wow. Difficult question, but if memory serves, it's sparsely populated, mostly given over to agriculture and mining, although now that it has a stable government committed to democratic rule, tourism features as an important source of revenue."

"You quite obviously know far more about the place than I did up until recently.

Well done. Yes, you're absolutely correct.

The government, together with the President is elected on a five year tenure. The President is head of the government but all legislation must be approved by all Ministers.

Since gaining autonomy from South Africa in 1990, tribal disputes have become a thing of the past, however, there are still cross-border skirmishes, mainly from the Angolans.

This is where young Thilo comes into the picture.

You see, his family were invited by the Namibian government to move there, invest their not inconsiderable wealth in helping them develop as a nation.

Thilo's parents were landowners in South Africa – still are, but they upped sticks and bought land near the Angolan border and set about the task of improving it for farming. His uncle put his money into mining, and up until recently, all was well. They paid their workers decent money, provided housing, educated their children and provided medical attention should they need it.

Most of Thilo's friends were black African kids he got to know during his time there. He played alongside them, received his education in much the same way because his father believed that integration was the only way to go, and especially knowing the damage that apartheid had done to Society in South Africa.

Up until recently, everything was fine, but then one of their farms was raided by bandits from across the border in Angola.

Mr Roker, Thilo's father, was incensed. He blamed himself for not allowing for more protection, the upshot being? He went after those who murdered his workers and their families.

That must seem to you Stephen, to be something of a cavalier attitude, but what you have to bear in mind is, Africa is littered with armaments. Guns, weaponry and ammunition is as easy to lay your hands on as it is for you to buy fish and chips in Keswick.

Anyway, by all accounts he managed to do some damage, but succeeded in angering the warlord over the border in the so-doing.

They came after them again, but rather than attacking the outpost farms, they went for the throat and stormed the main complex.

The loss of life was unimaginable.

Most of the villagers were shot, but special treatment was waiting for the Roker family.

They hacked them to pieces using machetes, - little bit by little bit starting with hands and feet, working their way up until those poor souls died.

Thilo had taken refuge in an empty diesel tank, but he witnessed his entire family being slaughtered in the most horrific manner I could possibly conceive, then once the marauders had taken flight, he found the only serviceable vehicle left and drove to a neighbouring village, but he crashed this as he approached it, - well, he is only fourteen, but anyway, the medicine man treated that cut on the leg that you saw, stitched it and managed to get the bleeding under control, make a call to his uncle, who in turn called the President who had Thilo on a helicopter to Pretoria followed by the journey to Newcastle courtesy of his private jet, then onwards to here.

That's about as much as I can tell you.

Questions?"

"The President?"

"The President of Namibia's son was educated here. He graduated a few years before you arrived.

He believed it would be a safe haven for him, so much so, that he insisted that any form of special security measures were unnecessary, and indeed, such measures might only bring with them increased speculation. Thilo was to be left alone to settle in. He could eat in the refectory, but he was excused chapel and all classes until such time as he decided he was ready.

Oh God. This is such a mess!

You see, we knew about the injury to his leg, and with hindsight we should've insisted that we had it looked at, but Thilo told us that it had been seen to and it was healing to everyone's satisfaction.

We accepted this at face value, along with him refusing any sort of trauma or bereavement counselling. He told us that he just needed time to think, and with counselling only being effective if the one receiving it willingly participates? Well, we went along with it."

"How's Thilo doing?"

"Poorly but making progress.

They had him in surgery and cleaned out the wound which, by the way, was badly infected. They've taken blood samples and so far, nothing untoward has been flagged up. Pumped him full of antibiotics to the extent that he's now out of intensive care."

"All assuming he makes a decent recovery, will he return here?"

"That's the plan."

"Then I want to help Sir."

"In what capacity Stephen?"

"I don't wish to sound disrespectful Sir, but after all he's been through, and with the only people who were aware of his circumstances being authority figures much older than him, maybe as his room was right next to mine, you might have considered telling me he was here so I could've been a friendly face to talk to? Keep an eye on him?

Had you done so, he mightn't be in hospital, and as for counselling? Perhaps just having someone around his own age to talk to? Someone who was in the loop?"

"Are you telling me off Stephen?"

"Yes Sir. I do believe I am."

Yes, well, I'm going to be making calls to Namibia later today. If I can have it sanctioned, then I can't think of any good reason why you shouldn't be involved, but that means a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.

Are you ready for such a commitment?"

"Who else is there Sir? I know of his circumstances, we're around the same age and he needs help.

I'm sure you're aware how some new boys get very homesick? They get through it because they have people to cling to who are in the same situation, but Thilo is on his own. I know his background, therefore it makes sense that I'm his point of contact, and dare I say, should've been from the outset."

"I think you've made your point clear enough.

Very well. If you're sure it won't disrupt your studies, then I'll make the appropriate representations."

"My room. When am I allowed back Sir?"

"This afternoon.

We've had his room cleared of what personal possessions he had, all the carpets, curtains and bedding have been incinerated together with all soiled clothing. The room is undergoing a thorough clean, so you can get back just as soon as they're done.

One other thing? What's left of his things have been stacked in your room. There isn't much, but just so as you're aware."

"One last thing Sir?

Could I visit him before he returns?"

"All assuming we get the necessary clearance, then yes, I think that would be a good move.

Does your mobile phone work here?"

"In my room, yes, but otherwise not."

"Then leave it switched on and in your room at all times. You might well be getting calls."

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