The Scholar's Tale

by Mihangel

Part 1, Chapter 4 - Deflation

September saw the start of the new term. Andrew had had a more varied time than me, swimming, cycling and larking about with his local friends. But one thing had thoroughly got his goat. A gang of them had been playing impromptu cricket in South Park when Andrew had hit the ball clean through the stained glass window of a nearby house. All his friends had scarpered, leaving Andrew alone to face the irate owner. The cost of repairs was considerable. His parents chipped in generously, but his pocket money was mortgaged for weeks. His friends refused to contribute on the grounds that he'd hit the ball, not them. While this case was at least arguable, Andrew found it hard to forgive them for deserting him in a crisis. His sense of loyalty was outraged. So was mine, on his behalf, and I told him so. And since I was temporarily the better off, I could treat him at the buttery from time to time. At first he demurred, so I threw back at him the argument he'd used on me before, and he gave way.

We had both automatically moved up a step in school, into different forms where I specialised in arts and particularly in classics, while he was moving into the sciences. He had the right sort of probing and practical mind, and was often to be found tinkering with gadgets like a radio set he was building, or even conducting mildly chemical experiments. The next episode worth recording gave a foretaste of the successful research scientist he was ultimately to become. A local shop got in a large batch of whoopee cushions, a novelty to us, which were eagerly snapped up and widely employed, at least between friends (and enemies) of the same sort of age. Andrew, indeed, ventured to instal one on the chair of Jessop, a sadistical and unpopular prefect. Unfortunately he'd forgotten that he'd written his name on it as a mark of ownership. He was rewarded with the unduly hefty punishment of a week's confinement, which meant that, except for normal school and house routine, he couldn't leave our study without permission, even for a pee. But as with most crazes, the novelty of whoopees soon wore off. One day, soon after Andrew's sentence had expired, I sat on one that he'd put on my study chair.

"Y'know, these things are getting old hat now," I said, not in the least surprised. "I mean, they make a pretty convincing noise. But when anyone sits on one, everyone knows it's only a whoopee. If only it made the right smell too, what'd people think then?"

"That's a thought. That is a thought." Andrew put his chin on his hands and gazed at nothing with a calculating look.

"Penny for them," I said after a while.

He looked across with his devilish smile. "Leon, you're a genius."

"Eh?"

"You've given me a brilliant idea. How to get a whoopee to make a pong. Listen. I'm going to need your help." And he told me how. I couldn't fault him on the technical side but, timid and law-abiding citizen that I still was, I was aghast at what he proposed to do with the finished product. But his enthusiasm swept me along.

The plan went smoothly ahead. He waited for a day when the infamous baked beans reappeared for lunch, and scoffed his own and the rest of the table's. He spent the late afternoon and early evening in increasing discomfort, fighting against premature explosion. At last, during prep, he waddled off in distended agony to his statutory twice-weekly bath, carrying hidden in his towel a funnel and jar he'd borrowed from the chemistry lab. At this stage I couldn't help: to be caught present when another boy was bathing was disciplinary suicide. He came down again, considerably more comfortable, clutching his achievement, a firmly stoppered jar full of gas. The next step, in the quiet of the study, did need my help. With the assistance of a bowl of water and a bicycle pump we transferred the contents to a whoopee cushion, and the first half of the job was done.

Next day was Saturday, when we had lessons only in the morning. Andrew's last class was to be French, and his chosen victim was Buggy Butterworth, the French master and the most despised member of staff. He was ineffectual and weak, ragged unmercifully and lacking the balls to do anything about it. As it turned out, this weakness was not to be tested. As the boys streamed into the classroom, a couple of his mates whom Andrew had let into the secret kept cave while Andrew installed his lethal device under the stuffed cushion on the master's chair. So far so good. But sadly it wasn't Buggy who came in, but Doc Fellows, a firm disciplinarian and highly popular besides, who announced that he was standing in for Mr Butterworth, who was ill. Andrew spent the period with his heart in his mouth. But miracles do happen, and Doc never once sat down. Andrew had only to retrieve the whoopee and all would be well. Alas for fond hopes. While Andrew hovered on tenterhooks in the background, Doc remained beside the chair, haranguing some boy on some totally different matter. Until the school porter came round to lock up the classrooms for the weekend, and shooed them all out, including an empty-handed Andrew.

We were stymied, and spent the weekend in anxious debate, with no practicable ideas at all. The porter's key cupboard was inviolable, neither of us could pick a lock, and we couldn't find out who used that room for the first period on Monday. We had to get in before then. But when we tried the door immediately before assembly, it was still locked: the porter evidently unlocked it during assembly, and for us to miss that would be death. Assembly over, the headmaster swept out first, as always, and we fought to emerge as fast as we could. We got to the right corridor just in time to see the headmaster's back disappearing into the room, followed by one of the sixth forms about to receive, we later heard, its weekly dose of religious education. All hope faded, and we crept to our own classes with our tails between our legs. If Buggy was the most despised member of staff, the HM was unquestionably the most feared.

Later we heard what happened next. The HM spent a few minutes writing on the blackboard before plumping his portly frame into the chair. It's pleasant to report that the Goodfart Blaster Mark I, on its first and last test run, performed with devastating success. The noise was perfect. So was the smell, which reached four rows back. The HM turned beetroot red. History doesn't record what went through his piggy mind, but one can guess. First, he had to identify himself as a victim, not a perpetrator, and so he got up, fished the whoopee out and uttered something like "Ptchah" before dropping it in the bin and opening the window. Then his mind began to move, detective-like, along the lines of opportunity, motive and suspects. He recalled the porter's routine and his own progress from assembly to classroom, swept his eye around his stunned but responsible audience, and said, "I presume none of you is responsible for this. Are you?" Deathly silence. And he carried on with the class.

The news, disseminated at break by gleeful sixth-formers, spread like wildfire. Andrew's classmates who were in the know immediately leaked his name as the criminal. We both quaked.

"Don't you worry, Leon. Nobody knows that you're involved."

"Come off it. If you're caught, I'll go down with you," I replied staunchly. I'm not sure he believed me.

In the event, he (or we) escaped scot-free. Doubtless the HM concluded that the crime was committed on the Saturday, but found the trail too cold or the possible suspects too many to pursue. Nobody ratted. Andrew was too popular among the younger boys, and not even seniors liked the HM. Among the boys, it was a nine days' wonder, and Andrew's standing was never higher. But the main beneficiary was our relationship. Companionship in crime and adversity forges a marvellous bond.

Not long after, Andrew had his shoulder muscles pulled in a rough tackle at rugger. Rather than submit to Matron's unsubtle ministrations, he appointed me his physiotherapist. For a week, whenever we had the time, he'd take off his shirt in the study, and overall I spent hours massaging, kneading, and applying liniment. More than once I strayed, not entirely by accident, as far as his nipple, and though his baggy school trousers were an effective screen, more than once I thought I saw signs of movement down there. If so, neither of us remarked on it.

Mid-way through the term, Andrews parents came over again. Same drill, same tip. This time I bought Monteverdi's Vespers. It began to look as if they were deliberately and systematically funding me. And we had some discussion about the Christmas holidays. Andrew was determined that the fiasco of the summer should not be repeated, and this time the Goodharts interceded directly with my parents by writing to ask if they could steal me for at least part of the time. Confronted with this appeal from respected colleagues, Father and Mother grudgingly gave way. Partly, I suspect, because they would necessarily be at home over Christmas and were happy enough that I should be out of their hair. Something much to be looked forward to.

Our study was a content and happy place as our friendship consolidated, with only brief spasms of discord, as when I accidentally sat on his favourite record or he spilt his Tizer over my book. We talked, played music, helped each other with homework, simply larked. My horizons broadened. My shell was steadily dissolving; almost entirely with Andrew if more slowly with others. My self-esteem had never been higher: I no longer felt myself the lowly worm, the downtrodden insect. I don't mean I got cocky. I hope - I'm sure - I didn't. If I had, Andrew would have slapped me down. He was still my mentor, supporting, encouraging, yes, educating me too. He didn't drop his other friends; I just seemed to have priority. His confidence and poise were rubbing off on me, and I never ceased to thank the fates for throwing us together and giving me a purpose in life and a love, however secret, to strive for.

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