Michaelmas Term 1963
The Rocks Preparatory School for Boys lived in its own world. One hundred and forty odd boys and sixteen teaching staff inhabited the school, mostly isolated from the outside world not just by the boundaries but also by the society they formed for themselves. Like all communities, most conformed, but some did not.
The two twelve-year-old boys confronted each other across the row of pegs that divided the now busy changing room. The noise of about a hundred and forty prep school boys mingled with the smells of wet towels, steam, mud and adolescent sweat in the warm, moist and windowless confines of the long room.
"What do you want, Longhurst?"
Christopher Pierce had just returned from the showers soaking wet. A long limbed and lithe boy, a natural athlete, Captain of The Rocks First XI football team, all broad smiles and easy in movement, a summer's worth of suntan apparent on his body. The boy's short blond hair plastered into spikes atop his head like a young Caesar. His opponent, Longhurst, sturdy rather than athletic, suddenly emerged through the clothes hanging on the pegs and now stood facing Pierce, no more than a foot in distance between them, blocking Pierce's path to the changing room exit. Even though all Pierce was wearing was a towel wrapped around his middle he remained confident and defiant in the face of this challenge. Not many would be so bold to take him on. All the other boys deferred to Pierce's status as one of the most senior boys at The Rocks and acknowledged his presence with respect by stepping out of his way as he had made his way back from the showers. Longhurst, Pierce's fellow Sixth Former had no intention of showing such respect to his classmate. He now stood in the central corridor directly blocking Pierce into the end cul-de-sac. Longhurst stood in the middle of the corridor in just his football shorts facing Pierce, his towel brandished as a weapon, and already being flicked this way and that.
"About that tackle."
The other boys sat or standing either side of the corridor of pegs listened intently. Finally there was some sort of an explanation for the confrontation, but Pierce was not going to back down now, as he had not done so on the pitch.
"Oh nonsense, it was perfectly fair. Mr Wallace didn't blow his whistle, did he?"
"He was at the other end of the pitch, he couldn't see. You tripped me, Pierce, in front of the goal. It should have been a penalty. I was clean through."
"I was going for the ball, fair and square, I kicked it wide and you tripped over my left foot, that's all. So back off, Longhurst, and go back to your own side." Pierce moved towards Longhurst, with one easy tug he removed his towel and made to enter into a flicking competition. Longhurst stepped back.
"Come on then." The challenge came from Pierce. The two boys squared up to each other, staring into each other's eyes. In fear, eight-year-old Pip shrank into the corner out of the way, making himself small, hoping to avoid any stray towel ends as they hurt, as he already knew to his cost. Pierce snapped his towel at Longhurst, some of the water sprayed out as Longhurst flinched and moved back another pace. As Pierce drew his towel back for another shot, Longhurst moved forward and flicked his towel in turn, dry. It produced less of a noise as Pierce neatly side stepped this advance and let loose again, this time striking Longhurst on his side.
"Ow!" Longhurst instinctively leapt to one side. Confident Pierce moved forward, his towel menacingly ready to strike again.
Pip watched the typical changing room drama from the sidelines, half hidden in the clothes hanging from the pegs. Pierce obstructed his view. All around, the other boys were in various stages of changing amidst the noise and steam of an early September day. All of the boys were older than him and to Pip's eyes, slightly scary. Pip slowly undressed for his shower, something he did not enjoy, being a naturally shy boy.
In the depths of the changing room, the boys ruled themselves. Out of sight of the masters, the rules of the changing room were unwritten, unspoken, but they existed handed down from one generation of boys to the next. Smarting Longhurst retreated further to stay just out of reach as Pierce continued to advance. One final flick to halt the advance and then Longhurst made to climb through the pegs to the other side.
"You won't get me, Pierce." In an instant he was gone, through the hanging clothes to the other corridor of pegs in the changing room rubbing the spot where Pierce had caught him with the towel end. Christopher Pierce looked at where the other boy had disappeared and considered following, but then thought better of it.
"There'll be next time, Longhurst, just you wait," Pierce turned and called over his shoulder as he went back to his own peg.
The windowless labyrinth that was the changing rooms at The Rocks was situated on the ground floor of a converted barn, long rows of pegs and footlockers either side of three corridors. There was an entrance and exit at the front of the room and at the back. There was a communal shower sometimes used after games like today when it was muddy. The two external rows were for outside wear, the uniform duffel coat, and a shoe locker to keep smart shoes and outdoor shoes. The four interior rows were for games kit and PE kit, gym shoes and football boots. Each boy was assigned a peg when he joined the school and kept it throughout his school career. Pip always felt lucky. He had been given peg number one. That meant his duffel coat was right by the entrance door and his games kit was right at the back in the centre, the warmest spot to change.
With Longhurst now safely the other side of the row of pegs, Pierce lorded it over his end of the corridor where he had peg number two next to Pip. The boy was still glistening. Water drips, shower warm, cascaded from his hair as Pierce dried himself. His hair, now towelled into finer spikes, was bleached tow-blond by the hot Cornish sun of last term. Pierce began to rub himself dry, his back to Pip, as he rubbed himself down from head to feet before finishing by rubbing the area under his arms dry. Pierce's body was a contrast between the brown of his suntan and the paler, unexposed areas of his skin. By contrast, Pip was conscious that he had only the faintest of tans, fading rapidly from just a brief two weeks on the beach that summer. Along with many other things: his age, his small size, his comparatively pale complexion, Pip felt that he did not fit into his new school with its army of sun kissed boys.
Trying to remain inconspicuous, Pip examined Pierce at close range. Pierce was interesting to him in a way that he did not even partly understand. Pierce's body was that of an adolescent, he was part boy, but part something else, a balance between athlete and something more intriguing. A dancer perhaps?
When Pip looked around the humid semi-darkness that was the changing room at the other boys, his was an expression of open-eyed awe, fear even. Their bodies were changing, their limbs longer, their muscles now defined. In contrast the younger boys like Pip were still soft and pale and yet to reach the grace of movement of some of the older boys.
Despite the changing room supposedly operating in monastic silence, the room was now filled with the noise of boys. Pierce, now sitting down to dry the balls of his feet, decided to up the stakes with Longhurst. He tipped his head back and shouted another challenge over the barrier created by the clothes.
"I'll get you, Longhurst. Just you wait until later."
"I will be waiting, Pierce, if that's what you really want."
The other boys grinned; another battle would be fought shortly, if not in the changing room itself, then probably just outside in the Quad that marked the centre of the school. As Pip was a new boy, Christopher Pierce ignored the First Former sitting beside him for the most part. Another Sixth Former, perhaps goaded by Pierce's display of omnipotence, flicked his towel at Pierce.
"You're a fine one, Pierce."
Caught unawares, Pierce instinctively moved sharply sideways until he pushed up against Pip, now firmly trapped in the corner.
"Mind your own beeswax, Hawkins."
Pip felt the warmth of Pierce's wet body brush against him as Pierce used his purchase to push himself back up. Pierce turned briefly and smiled at Pip.
Pip hated being called by his surname, even if it was being used in a friendly way. Pierce went after Hawkins, the other boy. A brief flurry, a whirl of limbs and the other boy surrendered his towel, which Pierce promptly threw on the floor.
"Now clear off."
Pierce returned triumphant, sat on the lockers and started to dress. As he did so, he turned to Pip.
"You'd better get into the shower, otherwise, you'll catch a cold."
Pierce was, like most of the older boys, naturally kind to new boys. After all, they too had been new boys only a few years earlier.
The skirmish between the Sixth Form boys was over in an instant and was the only time Pierce ever acknowledged the younger boy in the one term they were neighbours in the changing room.
With Pierce now engaged further down the corridor, Pip was left alone to contemplate this all too brief encounter before joining his class mates in the shower. That left Pierce and company to dress in the now enforced silence that Mr Barnes, the elderly master in charge, decided to enforce. Exasperated by the rising din Mr Barnes blew his whistle and shouted for silence.
"Boys, cut the noise. I can hardly hear myself think! The next boy who makes so much as a single squeak is going to find himself outside the Head's study, dressed or undressed. Now silence the lot of you."
The threat from Mr Barnes did its trick. The changing room rapidly descended into silence apart from the sound of dressing and undressing.
"Black lace shoes for going outside of school, brown sandals for inside, brown lace up shoes for playing outside on the grass, white gym shoes for PE, football boots for outside sports and a pair of slippers for bedtime in the dormitory."
Pip listened as carefully as he could and tried to take in what Matron was telling him and the other First Form boys. So many pairs of shoes for Pip to remember, but he knew he would soon got used to it. He was good at that, getting used to things, like moving to a different house or to a different town with his family. He was what they called 'adaptable'.
Boarding school was something that Pip knew was coming. Eventually, that hot September day almost a week ago, he had bade his parents goodbye and started on his first day at boarding school. His father shook his hand in an encouraging grown up way.
"Goodbye Pip, you will get used to it in no time at all. Believe me, I did."
His mother at least kissed him.
"Goodbye, son, do look after yourself and do write to us."
"Don't worry, Elizabeth, he has to. It's compulsory, isn't it, Pip?"
"I suppose so."
Pip didn't really know, but he looked up to his father as expert in all things. That was what fathers were to their young sons, infallible. Within a few days, Pip found himself becoming used to his new school and its rituals and practices. The Rocks Prep School was situated aloof and alone off the St Ives to Lands End road on the north coast of Cornwall. The converted farm buildings of the estate surrounded the main schoolhouse. The playing fields in turn extended down to the coast to the headland known locally as Parson's Leap. Between the school and the sea lay the coastal path from St Ives to Zennor.
The grand main building had been the home of the local squire until his premature death in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. The house was then purchased by a local parson who swiftly became involved in a scandal. After the death of his first wife, the parson found a young and pretty second wife. Unable to consummate their relationship, the marriage failed when the second wife sought the comfort and attention of one of the estate's stable lads. When this relationship was uncovered, the lovers fled the country. They were last heard of catching a boat to Newfoundland, a baby on its way. Shortly afterwards, ruined by drink and unable to bear the shame, the parson decided to end it all. Fortified with whisky he leapt from the headland, which was now forever to bear witness to his fate as 'Parson's Leap'.
Following the parson's suicide, the estate fell into ruins because of a dispute over the parson's will. Eventually, two generations later, the estate was finally sold in 1938 just before the beginning of the Second World War. The purchaser was a Hampstead based school, whose headmaster saw Cornwall as a safe place to escape the looming threat of a war in Europe. The buildings were refurbished and in September 1939 the estate reopened as a school called St Finian's, taking its pupils from the dangers of wartime London to the comparative safety of Cornwall.
After a successful incarnation as St Finian's, the school slowly declined after the war in the hands of an increasingly grim fixed-faced headmaster. In the late 1950s, after over a decade of decline, the old headmaster admitted defeat and put the school up for sale. This sale attracted the attentions of a young naval captain looking for a new challenge. Captain Porter aimed to turn the school into one that he would have wanted to attend himself as a boy. Freed from the constraints placed on such schools in the competitive market in London and the South East, Captain Porter set about making the school an attractive option for parents seeking something slightly less formal than the schools they remembered from their own childhood. To start with, he chose a new name, 'The Rocks'. Then Captain Porter set out his ambitions in the prospectus.
"Our location on the North Cornish Coast has been chosen to provide the best atmosphere not just for learning, but also for adventure surrounded as we are by landscaped grounds and the stupendous site right by the sea."
The brochure was full of promises of 'adventure, exploration, and self development' and the like. It was designed, successfully, to attract those parents who wanted something slightly different for their sons – sufficient to justify the undoubted inconvenience of a day's journey by train from London and the Home Counties.
The conversion of The Rocks into its new more easy-going atmosphere was much aided by another important event in Captain Porter's life, his marriage to his new young French wife, Annette. With his new wife taking responsibility for the domestic side of the school, Captain Porter worked hard to change the school from its austere post wartime existence into something more welcoming. With the advice of his wife, Captain Porter shrewdly gambled that he could attract the approval of mothers looking for something more genteel than the schools their husbands had attended. As a result of their endeavours The Rocks began to attract the sons of all sorts of parents to its slightly nonconformist existence.
The appeal started with the uniform, which was heavily influenced by the Navy with navy jumpers standing in for jackets and ties and duffel coats instead of raincoats. The idea was to promote a more informal existence at the school. But more important than the uniform were the staff, recruited not just for academic excellence, but also for their abilities to handle the boys entrusted to them with humanity and perhaps something more.
The school, built mainly of the local granite with the exception of the timber framed barn, was arranged around an open quadrangle facing northwest looking down over the sea across a formal garden. There were playing fields to the west stepping down to the coast path in a series of ever-smaller levels, until the slope ruled out any semblance of a flat field at which point Mother Nature was allowed to take its own course down to the cliff edge. In this wild, untamed area, full of peaty bogs, large boulders, reeds, bracken and the occasional small copse was the area where the boys were sometimes allowed to play the sorts of unstructured, but intricate games boys often choose to play. The school's land went right to the coast. The only other human intervention was the coast path that came inland at Wicca Cove cutting across the headland at Parson's Leap with its ruined chapel, Celtic Cross and burial mound and skirting inland above Chapel Cove. The inland routing of the path meant that the school controlled the access to the coast at this point and therefore had exclusive use of its own private beach at Chapel Cove before the path returned to the coast at the next cove beyond Star Point.
The rather grand granite built squire's house was now restored as the school's offices and senior teaching block directly facing the sea over the formal lawn. To the west side of the Quadrangle was the big wooden and stone barn, the south end with the gym with changing rooms underneath and the north sea facing end with the assembly hall with dining room underneath. The east side of the quadrangle was the junior classroom block, converted from stables where most of the classes were situated. The top two floors of the main house and the junior classroom block were devoted to twelve dormitories for the boys. Slightly separated from the main school complex, to the east was the original more humble farmhouse now providing living quarters for those unmarried masters who did not have accommodation in the dormitory blocks. In front of the farmhouse were a tennis court and a small changing room. Yet farther to the east was a walled vegetable garden, off limits to the boys. Lastly, right at the eastern edge of the estate, perched on its own promontory near the road with its own private garden looking out to sea, was the former estate manager's house, a fine granite building, now the Headmaster's accommodation. The whole site was a wild, but friendly place, much loved by boys and staff alike.
"Come on, shuffle over me, we all have to sit in this line."
Pip felt himself grateful to be guided by Clancy. They sat cross-legged on the floor in the first row in the assembly hall for the school. It was all very strange at first, assemblies, boys called shadows who followed you about, and the various adults who ran the school. Gradually Pip found a few anchors to help guide him through the unfamiliar paths. The bookish Clancy acted as one anchor and the blimpish Owen acted as the other. Evening prayers were the most formal gathering of the day at school. The boys gathered by year, First Formers at the front and Sixth Formers at the back. The hall echoed with noise when the boys first entered, but soon silenced once the twelve teaching staff arrived and lined either side of the assembled boys.
Captain Porter stood at the centre of the stage, a lectern in front of him. Although not a believer, he led the boys in prayer as always. As it was the beginning of term, his wife Annette, known as Mrs Porter by the boys, was in attendance. Apart from working as the school's administrator Mrs Porter also acted as a part time French teacher. The junior dormitories were an area Mrs Porter ruled serenely with Matron. Together they worked to make sure the younger boys coped with separation from their parents. By this time of the day, Pip was not alone amongst the younger boys in blinking with tiredness as he held his hands together in prayer. He went through the words tonelessly, never stopping to think what they meant in the slightly archaic English in which they were spoken.
"Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and
the glory forever and ever.
Once prayers were finished, the boys stood up in a shuffling cacophony whilst announcements were made, either by Captain Porter or Mr Durrant, the Deputy Headmaster.
"In view of the weather, there will be no outside time this evening. Everyone is to stay in their respective teaching blocks where they will be supervised by their form masters."
Mr Durrant spotted something out of the corner of his eye.
"Phillips, keep still boy!"
All eyes turned to the Third Former, who tried to look innocent, fooling no one. At The Rocks, apart from Mrs Porter there was only one other female teacher, Mrs Prince. Mrs Prince stood out in her artist's smock. Pip would develop a soft spot for Mrs Prince, as she was defiantly unorthodox as a teacher. For Mrs Prince teaching was merely something to pay the rent. Down in St Ives her pottery was being sold in some of the top galleries at very respectable prices. One of these days she was going to be discovered and leave, she told herself, but in the meantime Mrs Prince taught at the school in the morning and spun her potter's wheel in the afternoons. Pip's artistic ability was something that she soon picked up. She quickly enrolled him in her art club, keen to develop his skills as a modeller and possibly sculptor in due course.
"Pip, dear boy, I have got all these new fabrics to try out. I want you to do a collage of the sea and the coast for me. I think you will be good at landscapes."
Pip allowed himself to be volunteered. He liked art and he liked stories, mostly told to him by Mr Barnes, the oldest teacher at the school who would teach Pip Latin and English. Mr Barnes was so old his weather beaten face was cracking into fissures. A life long teacher with an affinity with the minds of boys, Mr Barnes was the sole survivor of the school's Second World War evacuation from London. At the beginning of the War, Mr Barnes was considered a non-combatant in view of a slight limp. True, he missed the capital, its discreet bars with obliging male companionship, but he had grown to like his peaceful existence amongst the cacophony of boys in Cornwall. Over time Mr Barnes built a life of tea dances amongst bored divorcees and widows and had set upon regular visits to the cultural delights of Europe as a way of filling the gaps that existed between terms at the school. He had long ceased yearning to return to his native Vancouver as what family he once had, had now all died out. As he approached retirement, Mr Barnes acknowledged to himself that The Rocks was his home, the staff and especially the boys his family. The rest of the teaching staff were made up of men, many fresh from the better universities, sprinkled with older teachers such as Mr Durrant. Third in command was Mr Wallace, the science and PE teacher. Together these two also ran the dormitories.
Currently Mr Durrant as Deputy Headmaster looked after the senior boys with Mr Wallace looking after the juniors with the help of Mrs Porter. With this job came a study and their own accommodation for each in their respective blocks. The Rocks settled into its normal bedtime routine. The boys were put to bed by age. The First Formers went to bed at seven thirty and Sixth Formers by nine thirty. Before lights out, the junior boys were separated into their dormitories where they spent the last half hour with their dorm colleagues before Captain Porter or his wife came up and said prayers. Mrs Porter always visited Pip's First Form dormitory last thing at night. She had a calming influence, checking that all was well and looking for any signs of distress or worry.
"Well what have we been up to today?" she would invariably ask. The boys would answer with tales of games or sport or funny things that happened. Listening to their responses, Mrs Porter would cast her eye around the dormitory and look for the quieter boys and gently check. As with most evenings, she sat on the corner of Pip's bunk and spoke to him personally.
"So what have we been doing today, Pip?"
"Lessons, Miss, and I scored a goal."
"Oh, that's good, isn't it?"
During the week, the morning bell went at seven fifteen. With that the older boys trooped into the first of their two daily showers a day. For junior boys like Pip, they just showered in the evening or after games.
"Come on, boys, rise and shine. There is a whole new day ahead of you." Mr Wallace came in and pulled the curtains and prodded the feet of any boy who still seemed to be sleeping. For Pip mornings were an agony having to be prised unwillingly out of bed almost every day. He followed the other junior boys to the dormitory washroom, which they shared with 1W. Toilets one side, showers the other with a twin row of sinks facing each other in the middle where the boys had to fight for room or wait for another boy to move out of the way. Pip invariably found himself one of the last boys to find a place at the sinks.
After making their beds, something Captain Porter himself taught them how to do, it was downstairs and across the Quad for a substantial breakfast, probably Pip's favourite meal if it featured bacon, which it did at least twice a week.
Captain Porter was keen on porridge, not a food overly admired by others in the school.
"Owen, pass the sugar quick."
"The Scots put salt on theirs."
"Well, I want sugar if that is all the same to you."
"Oh, as you wish Pip." Clancy was full of information, even if it seemed useless at the time.
Morning assembly quickly followed breakfast. Assembly was a tedious affair given over to at least one hymn and two prayers, followed by various announcements to the whole school. As an added ordeal, most of the older boys were expected to read a short lesson once or twice a term.
Once the morning ceremonies had been completed, the real purpose of the school came into being. Five lessons before lunch: three before morning break and two after. Captain Porter correctly decided that it was best to get most of the lessons out of the way before lunch. Lunchtimes followed the lessons, never soon enough for most boys as they were ravenous by the time a quarter to one came. It was the main meal of the day, soup or salad followed by a main course and desert or fruit. Mrs Porter made sure it was healthy enough to keep most mothers happy even if the boys complained about the quantities of cabbage and greens they were forced to eat. Pip along with a lot of the other boys, could not stand cabbage or even worse, broad beans.
After lunch there was a brief period of quiet whilst there was a reading period, older boys with their choice of books. The youngest, Pip included, were given reading material suited to their age and progress at reading, some slower than others. Pip had been identified early on as a slow reader. At home he had only really started reading at the age of six. Twice a week Mrs Porter or Mrs Prince would sit Pip down in an otherwise empty classroom and hear him read for fifteen minutes or so. Pip fumbled with his words to begin, but he was now beginning to make rapid progress spurred on by the school's set of illustrated Tin-Tin books. After the relative peace of the reading period, the pace picked up as all the boys went to the changing room to prepare for an afternoon of sports or at least sports like activity.
The First Form boys bobbled around the team list on the wall in the changing room.
"Clancy, you're Captain again."
"That's because I can at least kick the ball."
"So can I."
"Yes, but how far and in which direction?"
Pip felt crushed, but then Clancy smiled. "Not that I can either. It is all a bit tricky isn't it?"
Games were followed by biscuits and squash, then two further lessons. Once the school day proper finished, there was an evening meal, prep and then a period of free time, often devoted to more sport in the warmer months and indoor club activities in the colder months.
It was Owen, already slightly plump and pompous. He was sat at a small table in the dormitory one evening, a draughts board set up. Pip, not otherwise engaged, came down from the bunk above.
Owen was still in his full school garb with his shoes still on. Pip had long since lost his school kit to the locker at the end of the bunk.
"A game of draughts?"
Pip, never one to be unsociable, agreed. Apart from Clancy, Owen was his first proper friend. Pip stuck with Owen even when the other First Formers decided that he was the odd one out.
To Pip draughts was a new game. He let Owen teach him the rules and the dodges of the game. It was a satisfying way to end the day before Pip ascended to his top bunk, a Tin-Tin comic book in hand, his current choice of reading material. Mrs Porter came up as usual, fifteen minutes when she would hurry them into pyjamas and get them into bed before her accented goodnight, always the same.
"Good night, boys, sweet dreams."
"Good night, Mrs Porter," would come a ragged chorus. A quick look around the dormitory to satisfy herself that the boys would settle and then Mrs Porter would put the lights out. Silence was absolute to start with, but in time whispered conversations would start. At the centre of the conversations were the Johnson twins from Form 1B. Identical and inseparable in every way, they had the luxury of never being lonely as they were always together.
"Kit, why did you put our books on the second year pile for Mr Barnes?"
"Because he said to do so. He said put them on the left of the desk."
"He didn't half get in a bate with you, though. You went bright red."
"Well, he meant his left, not my left."
A third voice came in after Kit and Robbie. Clancy was the dorm's brightest boy, normally quiet, but occasionally revealing a streak of mischievousness, which he kept well hidden from the teaching staff. "Since neither of you know left from right, how can you be sure?"
The natural leader of their year was Pip's Shadow, Peter Morgan, another boy from Form 1B, a full half year older than Pip. For some reason Pip didn't like Peter even though he was a fellow member of the art club and could sketch anything in a few deft strokes if he so wanted. "You could always mark yourselves, left and right. A big L and a big R on your wrist, that would do the trick."
Pip sometimes listened to these conversations, but more often than not he was one of the first boys to fall asleep. That night however, Pip awoke pre-dawn and puzzled over his vision of Pierce in the changing room the previous afternoon. It was a pleasant vision, something Pip could not explain to himself. Pip suddenly awoke with a jerk from his dream state, all pleasurable thoughts forgotten, drowned out by the ringing of the morning bell and the familiar prod from Mr Wallace.
"Come on, Cox, wakey, wakey."
Pip was now stood at the front of the class reading slowly from a book. It was Friday afternoon, the last lesson of the week. Mr Barnes watched. The passage was difficult and Pip was struggling. With increasing frequency, he intervened to correct Pip's stumbles. The boy was tired and the class was beginning to fidget as Pip was going so slowly. Eventually Mr Barnes stepped in. "Okay Pip, that will do for now."
"But I haven't finished the page yet, sir."
"I don't think we have time today, perhaps on Monday?"
The bell rang, to save Pip, already flushed and flustered, any further torment. As the other boys rushed off, Pip fumbled over his things. Mr Barnes was his favourite teacher and he had failed him. Pip opened the lid to his desk, he wanted to hide, his vision blurred as he felt tears start to well up. Mr Barnes looked up and then came over when he saw Pip rub his eyes.
"Oh, Pip, it wasn't that bad. It was too hard for you. One for Clancy, I think. Here."
Mr Barnes took out his large monogrammed handkerchief. Pip took the handkerchief and dried his eyes. He looked anxious. Perhaps he was never meant to be a good reader. Mr Barnes was upset that he had knocked some of the confidence out of Pip. Taking pity, he decided on a special treat, some cake in his room in the Master's house. Not strictly allowed, but then again not banned either, he reasoned. After tea and before prep started, Mr Barnes caught Pip as he left the dining hall.
"Pip, dear boy, I have got something to show you. Why don't you come with me?"
"Oh what, sir?"
"It's a little surprise."
The word 'surprise' pricked the ears of Peter, who was walking just behind with the twins. He wondered what the surprise might be? No one questioned Mr Barnes leading Pip towards the old farmhouse. In deference to his seniority, Mr Barnes had a sizeable corner room downstairs overlooking the sea. As well as a bed and sink tucked in one corner, there was a sitting area and a desk. In the opposite corner was a large cage with two budgerigars. The birds were the surprise that Mr Barnes had for Pip. Pip admired the two birds, gently tapping the cage and placing a small amount of birdseed into the cage.
"What are they called, sir?"
"Oh, the one on the left is called Fimbo and the one on the right Pipsqueak because he complains all day long."
"Like me then?"
"I named him after you, not that you complain I hasten to add."
"Well, not really, it's Philip, but everyone calls me Pip, even my parents."
"Well, you are not a Pipsqueak, you're Pip. That is quite different, let me assure you."
"No, sir. I mean, yes sir."
"Come here and sit down. We have a little bit of time."
Pip's curiosity satisfied, Mr Barnes sat in the more comfortable of the armchairs with Pip in the smaller chair. A half eaten cake sat between them on the coffee table. Pip had been a model of politeness and surreptitiously had even cleared up his crumbs whilst Mr Barnes rattled on about birds, ancient relatives and the like. The boy glowed in his company, his earlier reading agonies now forgotten. Time passed and then Mr Barnes realised that Pip should be elsewhere by now. He groaned theatrically and picked up the plates.
"Come on, Pip, you should be in prep. I will have to make up some excuse for you."
Pip stood up and went ahead to the door. As he turned the doorknob, Mr Barnes did something he had never done before with any other boy. He leant forward and kissed Pip chastely on the top of his forehead, just once, just briefly. Pip looked slightly surprised. He was not used to being kissed by anyone other than his mother.
"Thank you, sir. I mean thank you for the cake."
Mr Barnes paused as he realised the enormity of what he had just done.
"Come on, boy, enough. Time for you to be in prep." Hastily Mr Barnes opened the door. Pausing he checked to see that no one else was around and then he sent a slightly puzzled Pip on his way.
"Off you go, quickly now." Mr Barnes turned, his thoughts in turmoil.
"Playing with fire, you stupid old fool," he muttered to himself as he carefully picked up some of the crumbs from the carpet and fed them to the two birds, sitting patiently side by side on their perch.
As Pip raced into Prep, he bumped into Peter Morgan who had been sent to find him.
"Well, the adventurer returns, does he?"
"You, silly. What have you been doing with Mr Barnes?"
"Oh, nothing. He just showed me his birds, that's all."
"He's never done that before that I know of."
Pip didn't wait, but made his way into prep. He felt special. That same evening Mr Barnes sat in his room in front of the electric fire, a bottle of whisky half drained on the table beside him, full of regret at inviting Pip into his room. In over forty years of teaching he had not done that before.
Mr Barnes talked to himself a lot these days. "After all this time I am becoming a sentimental old fool." Mr Barnes thought the matter through. "It mustn't happen again. Indeed, I must act as though it never even happened." He made up an excuse, if the subject came up.
"Oh, I was just brushing some crumbs off his forehead. My hand was damp. That's all."
With that excuse, Mr Barnes hoped that it would not go any further than that, even if Pip did say something. However, Mr Barnes guessed correctly that Pip was not going to say anything about the visit to anyone.
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