Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 3

Robert's new school retained little of past splendours. The two-storied brick edifice with its high, mock-Tudor gables and tiled roof, stood bleakly in a sea of asphalt. Road widening and the encroachment of suburbs had reduced the once graceful front lawns and shady trees to a narrow strip of suffering grevilleas skulking behind a wire-mesh fence. Where three hundred students had once been educated in semi countryside, seven hundred pupils now crammed the relocatable classrooms, thronged corridors, shouted, swore, fought, played, strutted, flirted and studied, amongst graffiti, rubbish bins, discarded soft-drink cans and abandoned food wrappings.

In the high-ceilinged entrance lobby a chipped plaster copy of a fig-leafed discus thrower strained on a plinth before a cheap and much faded reproduction of a cubist still life. Elaborately framed but poorly executed portraits of past headmasters lined the other wall. The smell was of polish, disinfectant and bodies. Across a wide corridor, double doors led to the quadrangle in which hundreds of students were milling, waiting to start the third term. The noise was the noise of schools everywhere. Through an archway to the right, Robert found the front office. A prettyish young woman greeted him pleasantly. He introduced himself.

'Mr Pinot, (she pronounced it pie not) looks after new students. He'll have your details. Go down the stairs at the end of the corridor and his office is directly in front of you.' She indicated the direction he should take. 'Oh, by the way, pupils are not allowed in the front entrance, they have to go round the back. The main entrance is only for staff and visitors.' Switching off the winning smile she retreated to her keyboard.

Following the secretary's directions through chipped, sour cream painted corridors, Robert eventually discovered, as promised, a door labelled Guidance. It was ajar. He knocked firmly, having been told by his father that a timid knock denotes an uncertain man.

'Come in! Welcome to the dungeon. You must be the new chap, no one else would knock.' The voice was educated, yet somehow lazy.

The low-ceilinged room was carpeted in scuffed beige with half a dozen once-comfortable chairs arranged in a circle around a low table. A few dead flowers left over from the previous term sagged in a dry vase. Four garish paintings disfigured the walls, and a photograph of a rowing team was prominently displayed behind the paper-strewn desk. The voice belonged to an old man. At least to Robert he seemed old, with a face as grey as his sparse hair. Thick-lens glasses lent his somewhat fishy, chinless head an added watery dimension. He was neatly dressed in worn tweed suit, white shirt and dark blue tie. Brown shoes gleamed. Warren Pinot was sixty-five and due to retire at the end of the year.

Although a relatively broad-minded man of wide interests and culture, his early years in the classroom had been dogged by severe control problems, caused mainly by an essential dullness combined with lack of imagination that rendered him incapable of arousing interest. His promotion to guidance counsellor had solved one problem by creating another. Unworldliness is not particularly useful when dealing with the problems of adolescence.

'Come over to the desk and we'll get the paper work out of the way. I'm Mr Pinot, and you, I imagine, are...' he checked the paper in front of him, 'Robert Karim?'

Robert nodded.

'Your file has arrived from your last school. They were sorry to lose you. I hope you will do as well here.' He turned to his computer terminal and, after several false starts and a couple of muttered imprecations, induced the printer to give birth to Robert's timetable. 'The entire school is on line now. All relevant details are entered into these things twice a day. Attendance, results, behaviour, assignments. At the touch of a button, well, several buttons, I can have an up-to-the-minute profile of any of the school's seven hundred and twenty-six students,' he announced proudly as though he had invented the thing himself.

'And a brave new world to you,' muttered Robert.

'I beg your pardon?'

'It's an amazing world, Mr Pinot.'

'Quite so. Quite so.'

The distorted chimes of a glockenspiel burst from a wall-mounted loudspeaker.

'Oh, good. We have missed Assembly,' whispered Mr Pinot in the conspiratorial tone of a naughty schoolboy. 'At the beginning of a new term, assembly always takes the whole first period, so we have forty minutes to clarify any problems - such as why you are not wearing a uniform.'

Robert blinked. 'Wha...? I mean, I beg your pardon, Sir. I didn't think I'd have to wear one, the seniors didn't at the old school.'

'Well they do here, and even though you will have only two terms with us, we can't make exceptions, can we?'

Robert decided not to question this assumption. 'I don't think my parents will be able to afford it, Sir.'

'They won't have to. We keep a supply of second-hand uniforms of all sizes. You pay a small deposit, which is refunded if the uniform is returned in good order. Now, slip off your mufti while I go and find something suitable. It is too small in there for both of us, so wait here.' At Robert's look of incomprehension he laughed. 'Mufti - non-uniform clothing! Take everything off and place it in this plastic bag.'

Robert looked at the open door.

'Don't worry, no one will come in, but you can close it if you want.' He bustled through to his storeroom.

Robert closed and locked the door to the corridor, removed his clothes, and jammed them into the bag, wondering whether the order would have been the same if Mr Pinot had known he wasn't wearing underclothes. At least there was a decent electric heater. He wandered around, enjoying the titillation of nudity in a strange place. On the desk was a photograph of Mr Pinot and his wife, with a young man and woman in black robes. He picked it up.

'Those are my two children at their graduation,' he was informed by the re-emerging guidance counsellor. 'Goodness, I didn't realise... I mean.... Ah.... Yes... Golly, ha, ha.... You modern young men are more easygoing about... ah... things than we oldies. Yes indeed.'

Robert turned to face him, hands behind his buttocks. Warren Pinot wasn't sure what to do. He coughed, looked away, coughed again and, visibly gathering his forces, smiled manfully. A multitude of thoughts raced. He glanced at the door. Thank goodness it was locked. Could this be a set-up? There had been an appalling case recently when a teacher had suicided after an accusation of sexual harassment. His heart thumped and sweat sprang from his brow. A careful look at Robert's face was reassuring; it appeared empty of guile. Tension evaporated as realisation dawned… the boy wanted to be looked at. As fear drained, the guidance counsellor found himself amused by the situation, curious as to who would falter first.

Robert's face remained modestly untroubled as the elderly man's eyes flicked from neck to shoulders and chest, lingering briefly on dark nipples before following a line of hair from the flat navel to where it broadened into a dense triangle, framing manhood. He'll have to keep up the exercise to avoid an early gut, thought Mr Pinot waspishly, observing Robert's well-muscled abdomen and thighs. Finding it impossible to extract pleasure from perfection, he had earlier noted with satisfaction the lad's slightly crossed front teeth and the small mole above his lip.

'You are going to break a few hearts, if you haven't done so already,' he said mildly, carefully eliminating any suggestion of censure from his voice.

Robert fidgeted slightly and began to sweat. He had judged Mr Pinot correctly, but this was going on too long. It was essential he didn't get an erection. He was seeking approval, not ridicule. After the previous day's confidence-undermining event on the hill, he desperately needed reaffirmation of his worth. It was easy to be praised for being a good student or sportsman, but to make someone accept you simply for yourself, unadorned by achievements – that was another thing altogether! This behaviour had been part of his life ever since he could remember. Susceptible adults could easily be charmed into complicity. Many places provided opportunities to play his game. A few weeks previously he'd torn a muscle. If the physiotherapist had been surprised to find her young patient naked in front of her desk, she hid it convincingly. 'Oh, well done. That makes my work easy. And what a wonderful body,' had been her only comment.

Robert was aware of what he was doing and, knowing it could be dangerous, had thought long and hard about his reasons. Just about everyone was shocked when confronted by nudity, especially male nudity. If he could manipulate someone into not only accepting his nakedness as natural but also approving of him in that state, that was success. However, there mustn't be any hint of conscious sexuality! He had to maintain an aura of innocence. He was starting to panic. Sweat seeped from armpits and blood began surging to his loins. Covering his genitals would be fatal. He risked a glance at Mr Pinot. Surely he wasn't getting aroused? That was never part of the scheme! The unwelcome thought calmed him. These exhibitions were for Robert's benefit alone - the witness merely a passive tool.

'You look very fit.' Mr Pinot conceded defeat.

'I am,' Robert agreed cheerfully. 'Takes plenty of exercise though.'

'Mmm. Well put these on. We don't stock underpants!' he added with a hint of reproof, handing over a pair of brown long trousers, a cream shirt, beige pullover and brown blazer emblazoned with the school's crest and motto. He had even found a pair of brown socks.

Robert dressed quickly. Everything fitted perfectly except for the trousers, which were a bit tight. Mr Pinot went to find another but they were even smaller. Robert promised that tomorrow he would wear black shoes - and underpants.

'Sit down.' The guidance counsellor, at ease with both himself and his guest, indicated the ring of chairs. 'I'll take you to your first class and introduce you to the teacher as soon as assembly's finished. We've another twenty minutes.

Mr Pinot had one excellent quality; he could listen. Robert found himself prattling on about what he had been doing over the previous two weeks, and was describing the unpleasant incident in the park on the hill, when he stopped short, biting his lip.

'Carry on, dear boy, you speak so fluently it is a joy to listen.'

It was too late to stop and Robert found he didn't really want to, so he told everything, leaving no detail out. As is often the case he found it easier to talk to a stranger than to his own parents. But as the thought surfaced, iced water trickled into his guts. Shit! Pinot's not a stranger. He's a bloody teacher!

Mr Pinot's face gave nothing away. He sat still for so long that Robert wondered if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. Eventually he pursed his lips and, taking a deep, impressive breath, pronounced his verdict. 'You have been delivered from error by your innocence,' he intoned gravely. 'That woman was clearly bent on entrapping a man. Your reaction to her, um, display, was that of someone with a pure heart. Her subsequent irrational assault on you and the insults you endured have been excellently explained to us by the Bard. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You scorned her invitation, she vented her anger.' Mr Pinot sat back, nodding his head in self-congratulation.

Robert scorned the reference to hell and a pure heart, but appreciated the positive slant. As soon as he'd seen the guidance counsellor he'd known. Funny how he could pick them. He looked earnestly into Mr Pinot's eyes. 'Thank you, Sir. I'm glad I talked with you. I was worried I'd done something to provoke her.' He sounded so sincere and his relief so heartfelt that Mr Pinot couldn't resist a smile of pride. He seldom offered advice – having too many problems of his own – but when he did it was pleasant to find approval. Robert, on the other hand, realised he had found, if not an ally, Mr Pinot's type usually followed winners, at least someone who didn't wish him ill. As good a beginning as he could hope for.

By lunchtime on the second day, Robert had met his teachers and seen all the students in the options he was taking. For the first five minutes after lunch, everyone went to their homeroom to listen to notices, pick up newsletters, and pay sports and other school fees. The din was deafening. Positive first-impressions were dimming to disillusion. So far, he'd met no one he wanted to know better. Of course the stupid uniform didn't help. Instead of presenting a unified image it looked as though they had all rummaged around in a grab bag of old clothes and only a lucky few had succeeded in snatching something that fitted or suited. His father had laughed like a drain at breakfast that morning. 'They'll make a conformist of you yet,' he'd snorted.

Wanting to forget all about it now that he had told someone the details, Robert had decided not to tell his parents about Mr Pinot's interpretation of the events on the hill. He wondered idly if he should become a Catholic. Confession seemed to suit him. With a sigh of relief he realised that his worries about a new school were unfounded and it should be plain sailing from then on. He vowed to keep his head down, be his own man and work his butt off with no distractions.

Robert's sporting reputation had preceded him, and the unconcealed relief on the faces of the football team, identical in all but names to those he'd left behind, when told he was too busy to play, was rewarding – no one was going to lose their place on the team. He had always considered himself at least a fringe-dweller of the "intellectual" brigade, but the weedy individuals huddled into a sunless corner of the common room were almost caricatures of the type; humourless egg-heads interested only in their own opinions.

A pimpled group of bible-bashers had been given equally short shrift. There was more work to be caught up on than anticipated, so he wouldn't have time for friends anyway for a while. The only person he liked so far was his Art History teacher. In his forties, Mr Rands was bald, witty, quick thinking, and treated his students as equals—a real plus in a teacher.

Miss Henderson hushed the mob, called the roll, dished out forms on Vocational Guidance, answered a few questions and then gazed around vaguely. 'Robert Karim? I have a message for you from the sports master. You are required to select a compulsory extracurricular sports activity. Go to the gymnasium now, and don't be late for next period.'

'I'm not doing sport, Miss.'

The teacher's raised eyebrows started a snigger that continued as she drawled, 'Don't argue with me, young man. Unburden your woes onto Mr Vaselly.'

It sounded too stupid to be true. Robert was starting to lose his cool. First the bloody uniform and now compulsory activities. What was this place, a kindergarten or a high school? He wasn't in the mood for any more crap. He'd dig in his heels with this Vaselly.

The sports master was in his early twenties, about the same height as Robert but leaner and more visibly muscled. Dark blond hair shorn to a short bristle, deep-set blue eyes, prominent cheekbones, small square chin, strong shoulders and the lean legs of a long-distance-runner, made him appear altogether tougher, stronger and harder than the student. After a conversation with Mr Vaselly one was left with the impression of intensity and health. Robert grudgingly admired the man's obvious fitness, but admiration turned to contempt when he snapped, 'What do you want?'

'Apparently, I have to take an activity.' Robert deliberately avoided the 'Sir', and hoped he looked as uncompromising as his opponent.

'That's right, take this list, choose one, and let me know.' The teacher thrust a bit of paper at Robert and turned away in dismissal.

'But I don't need to do sport. I'm fit enough. My other school covered slightly different topics in some subjects so I have to catch up.'

Mr Vaselly swung back as though slapped. 'Tough luck! This school has a rule that all students must do some physical activity. At your level, you're expected to use your lunch-breaks or before and after school. A minimum of one hour per week!'

Robert scanned the list. 'There's nothing I want to do.'

The PE teacher had seen the new student crossing the playground and wondered what he was like. These sporty-looking kids were usually either up themselves or riddled with insecurities. This one was already getting stroppy. Classroom control had cost him sweat and tears and he wasn't about to let a smart-arsed newcomer tell him what to do. 'Bring me your choice after school tomorrow.' He slammed back into his office.

Not wanting to be late for Maths, Robert raced off.

Between periods he studied the list in despair. There was nothing he wanted to spend five minutes on, let alone sixty. Team sports - never again. Gymnastics? Too tall. Golf? Ten-pin bowling? What sort of a place was this? Tramping? Badminton? Table-tennis? This is the point beyond which I will not be pushed, he thought, congratulating himself on an elegant turn of phrase, and here I make my stand!

Last period was timetabled for study/research, and Mr Vaselly was rostered as minder. They don't even trust us to study alone, Robert thought despairingly. It's a bloody borstal. Uniforms, compulsory activities, no trust. He was beginning to regret his decision to change schools. As soon as the teacher entered, a chill settled on the room. Like a caricature Nazi - cold, Aryan, arrogant - he gave no sign of recognition to any one, let alone Robert. At first he stood, hands on hips, in front of the blackboard as though daring anyone to disturb the peace. After fifteen minutes he wandered around, ending up at the back of the room in the aisle beside Robert's chair, leaning against the wall and writing notes on a clipboard.

Robert looked to where Vaselly's legs prevented exit and, slumping back, found himself wondering what sort of bloke the sports master really was. I'll find a way of getting around his pathetic, prison camp mentality, he thought with irritation. And if he doesn't move soon I'll shove my compass into his thigh! He leaned forward to get on with his work and let his leg sag sideways till it touched Vaselly's knee. That'll make the bastard move. There was no reaction. Refusing to give in, Robert left his leg there till the end of the period. The sole result, a dismal ache in the groin from holding his leg in one position too long. Round one to Vaselly.

At home, both Monique and Sanjay thought he was making a fuss about nothing.

'It is necessary that you meet socially with other students, chérie. It would be foolish to become a recluse. The activity will give you an opportunity to meet students from other classes and make new friends. It is unhealthy to reject others.'

His father took the same line. 'People are going to think there's something wrong with you if you avoid them. It's never a good idea to draw unwanted attention to yourself.'

'I'll spend intervals in the common room and meet other students there.' Robert was not convinced by parental argument; they hadn't met Mr Vaselly! Somehow the man had issued a challenge and Robert felt honour-bound to pick up the gauntlet. Not that he understood his motives any better than the outbursts of anger that occasionally ripped through his brain; he was simply determined to make up his own mind about whether he'd do an activity.

'Please yourself, son, you probably know best.'

Robert doubted that, but intended to do it anyway. He racked his brains for a solution. Tomorrow he'd keep an eye on Mr Perfect Vaselly, and find a chink in his armour.

Tailing his prey was easier than anticipated. Between periods he twice had time to follow Vaselly for a few minutes. At interval and again at lunchtime he tracked him from the gymnasium to the staff-room. I could get had up for stalking, he reflected humourlessly. Other teachers greeted the PE teacher in a friendly enough fashion, so they certainly didn't dislike him. As for the students, the boys either ignored him or got smartly out of his way as though nervous. Several girls made flagrant attempts to gain his attention. Two tried to brush his thigh, unsuccessfully, and there were a couple of muted wolf-whistles. Vaselly appeared totally unmoved. Basilisk-like, he walked with the articulated grace of one of Asimov's robots. Perhaps he wasn't human after all, and there was nothing to discover?

After school, Robert went to the Library to check reference books for an assignment. While waiting for the librarian, he flicked through a copy of the previous year's School Magazine. Staring at him from page three was a photo of Vaselly, followed by a short piece welcoming him as the newest member of staff. Robert scanned this briefly, then re-read a line. Represented his university in Wrestling.

An idea trickled into his head. Robert grinned, completed book issuing, thanked the librarian and smiled at the school motto emblazoned in gold on a wooden shield above the door: Per Angusta - Ad Augusta. Through hardship to glory! Huh! He'd soon see how classical the school was.

'What have you decided?' Mr Vaselly's mood hadn't improved.


'We don't do it.' Flat and final.

'Well we ought to. This school is supposedly based on classical traditions and wrestling is one of the Graeco-Roman sports. Besides, you're a wrestler.'

'Modern! Wrestling's changed over the last two thousand years. Come on, you're wasting time!'

'But, Sir, I've always wanted to learn wrestling.' A lie, and in a cajoling whine to boot. Nauseating, but all's fair in love and war, Robert rationalised. 'Do you think I'm not good enough to be taught by you?' His tone making it obvious that what he really meant was, do you think you are too good to teach me?

'Don't get smart with me!'

'Afraid I'll beat you?' This set blood pounding. He couldn't believe what he was saying. All his school life he'd been the perfect pupil – quiet, polite, thoughtful, on time with everything, never putting a foot wrong. Now here he was getting into a slanging match with a teacher.

Mr Vaselly stood calmly, legs apart, arms folded, eyes a calculating squint. Unable to hold the stare, Robert lowered his gaze and, in growing apprehension, wondered why Vaselly hadn't responded to the insult.

'I'm far too busy.' The teacher's relaxed, almost smiling response felt like a slap in the face.

Furious at the loss of face, Robert turned to go. Not defeated, just pausing to re-group. He hadn't thought far enough ahead. As he reached the door, the PE teacher's almost whispered gibe hung in the air.

'If everyone wanted things as badly as you, nothing would ever get done.'

Stung, Robert turned. 'You think I give up easily?'

'You said it. Now hurry up and make your choice, I haven't got all day!'

Something hardened in Robert's chest. 'Mr Vaselly,' he said as evenly as he could manage, 'tomorrow at interval I will put my case to the headmaster.' He stalked out, already doubting the wisdom of his campaign. He would have been even more troubled had he seen Vaselly's smile.

For the first ten minutes of interval, the headmaster made himself available to his charges. Many years previously someone had described Mr Nikelseer as interestingly ugly. Morosely cadaverous now seemed a more appropriate epithet. His academic gown, without which he felt undressed, drooped gauntly from sharp shoulders, and a bookish stoop made him seem shorter than he was. Brought up to believe in the value of traditional Christian morality, he had endeavoured, through self-discipline, self-denial, prayer and example, to inculcate in his pupils and staff a devotion to Christian virtue and love.

Standing at the top of the steps to the quadrangle, he gazed at the energetic students relishing their brief freedom from classroom repression. Searching for selflessness, he discovered selfishness. Instead of faith, he found questioning minds. Seeking purity, he saw lust. Sifting for spirituality, he uncovered ravenous appetites for gewgaws. His failure to convince his flock that the road to happiness lay via the unquestioning acceptance of God's love and commandments, had left an aching void. Over the years the desire to lead his pupils along the path of righteousness via charitable understanding and gentle warnings had been replaced by impatience, intolerance and the whip of harsh words. Each evening he begged God to forgive his failure and despair.

'Excuse me, Sir. I have a request.'

Mr Nikelseer's encouraging nods as he tilted his good ear to Robert's carefully prepared and indisputably logical argument in favour of classical traditions and wrestling as a school sport, led the youth to imagine he had won a convert. He would have been sadly disillusioned were he a mind reader. The headmaster was saved the effort of concocting a response by the arrival of the sports master himself.

'Ah! Here is Mr Vaselly. What does he think of the idea?'

Mr Nikelseer was informed that it was out of the question. Mr Vaselly's timetable was too tight to give private lessons. Robert countered by offering to be available at any time.

The headmaster raised a finger to stem the flow and turned to his supplicant. 'I'm sorry, young man. What did you say your name was?'

'Robert Karim.'

'Ah, yes… Karim. We mustn't expect too much of Mr Vaselly, he is new to the school. So, whilst it is an interesting idea, I'm afraid you will have to forgo wrestling.' He displayed pale bony hands in a gesture of defeat.

Robert couldn't believe what he was hearing. He almost felt sorry for Mr Vaselly. He ventured a quick glance. There was no reaction. Not the slightest indication that the PE teacher had registered anything amiss. Indeed, he smiled slightly at the headmaster and said equably, 'Mr Nikelseer, if you think it's a good idea for Karim to learn wrestling, then of course I will try to fit it in as a trial for this term. Is that satisfactory?'

His bluff called, the headmaster's face slammed shut. 'I expect a progress report in five weeks time!' He bustled off.

'You'll probably regret this,' snapped the PE teacher. 'Be in the weights room immediately after school.'

'Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.' Robert grinned at the retreating back. Round two to me, he thought, wondering why it seemed a hollow victory.

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