INTERESTING TIMES 2: SCHOOLDAYS

By Andrew Maben

KestrelsIdyll of childhood, such as it had been, was about to come to an end, though of course I had no forebodings. One cold, misty, drizzly, January afternoon my father loaded my newly packed trunk and tuckbox into the car and we set off, driving through the bleak winter landscape of the Devon dairy farm country, a journey that seemed to be going to the ends of the earth. Up, up into the gloomy bleached grey-brown hills of Exmoor we drove. A strange new mixture of emotions filled my young heart: fear and excitement; dread and longing. I felt a churning nervousness in my stomach that was almost a pleasure. I felt a fierce love for my mother, whose trembling heart I could sense as she sat beside me. My father drove with silent concentration, strong and stern, his occasional gentle smiles made my heart almost burst with pride, and the determination to live up to him. I wanted to be independent, free of the nest, to live up to the ideas I had taken from Kipling, Masefield, of what it meant to be a man, an Englishman. It was a few weeks before my seventh birthday.

I was almost shaking with the excitement, fear and anticipation of the great adventure of boarding school as we pulled into the driveway. I had never before been separated for any length of time from my family. I swallowed hard to hold back my tears. The school, Kestrels, was in an old manor house, gothic, ivy-covered, forbidding. Then, as we parked in the courtyard in front of the porch and its great double doors, I had a wonderful surprise.

There was Peter, from kindergarten! I had never expected to see him again after our goodbyes at the convent the previous summer. In spite of our vows of eternal brotherhood I had all but forgotten him within a week or two. But now here he was, and it seemed to me almost a miracle. The turmoil in my heart and stomach instantly subsided in a swell of good fellowship. I would not be all alone after all. In my eagerness to be in my friend’s company I hardly noticed saying goodbye to my parents, my mother’s ill-concealed tears.

Peter and I swapped tales of our adventures since our last parting, an eternity that in reality was only a few short months, world shaking adventures so inconsequential that I now remember them not at all. There must have been supper, a welcome speech from Mr. Stapleton, the Head. Trunks must have been carried to dormitories, tuckboxes to a locker room. Between the joy at rediscovering my friend and the humiliation to come I remember almost nothing.

Peter and I were assigned to the same dormitory, called Peregrine Falcon, our beds adjacent. As we prepared for bed he explained a school tradition. At the end of every term there was a dinner at which the boys in each dormitory sang their dorm song. A prize would go to the best performers.

“Our song is ‘Daisy’, do you know it?” he asked. As I did not – in fact I had never heard it, music had no prominent place in my life at home – we decided I must start to learn the words and tune right away. But first I set off down the dimly lit hallway to the lavatory to pee. I opened the door, turned on the light. There on the floor, between me and the toilet, crouched a huge fearsome spider. It was too much for me in the nervous condition I was in. I turned out the light, slammed the door and fled in terror back to the dormitory.

Egged on by the other boys. Peter and I climbed up on our beds and began to practice.

 

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.

I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.

Jumping up and down, louder and louder, over and over. Until the other boys suddenly seemed to lose interest in the show, Peter stopped singing. I finished the last few words of the verse, my voice tailing off, and sensing someone behind me, I turned. At the door stood Mr. Stapleton, red faced and steaming with rage.

“What’s all this noise?” he roared.

“I’m teaching Maben our dorm song, sir,” stammered Peter.

I just stood there, uncertain, scared and embarrassed, on my bed. I really would have been happy to be swallowed up by the earth.

“We were just singing,” I managed, in little more than a whisper.

Another roar. “I won’t have it!”

The next thing I knew he had us each by the collar of our pyjamas and was dragging us out of the room.

It made no sense to me. What had we done wrong? Such a towering rage was surely not caused by our innocent happiness?

“We were just singing,” I whimpered over and over again, terrified, not knowing where we were being taken or why, what might be in store for us. I was aware only of this rough, red faced man’s malevolent bad temper.

He dragged us bodily up a narrow flight of stairs that led to another bathroom. Pushing Peter inside, he hissed at me to wait my turn on the landing.

“My turn for what?” I wondered.

Now. I am well aware that what follows is fairly mild compared to the suffering of far too many other children. It was traumatic for all that, not so much for its physical aspect as for the sudden exposure to malice, the loss of trust in the benevolence of adults, the sense of abandonment. Whoever claims that words cannot hurt has absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Physical blows can harm the body, permanently if sufficiently violent, but words can damage the soul just as deeply, just as permanently. However I hope I have never pretended that this is an excuse for any of my deficiencies of character, for any of my misdeeds. It may offer some part of an explanation for my choices, but I have tried to accept the responsibility for all that I have done. Let us not forget that by now I had already experienced my own capacity for malicious cruelty. They used to say this kind of thing was character-building. It certainly is character-forming, character-distorting, crushing compassion, generosity, kindness to turn out generations of heartless military men, sadistic colonial administrators, captains of capital always ready to put profit before people.

I did not have long to wait for the revelation of what was in store for me. The unmistakable sound of blows, Peter’s muffled yelps of pain, came to me through the closed door. My fear grew, anticipating the punishment to come. Worse, I now felt responsible, that I had betrayed my friend, if not for me he would not be in there now, suffering. If only I had never come to this place, if only I had known the words of the song, if only. If only something were different.

The door opened, Peter came out, pain and humiliation in his eyes, but he managed a brief small smile of encouragement for me as he passed by. My heart shrank, surely this was all my fault.

“Come in here, Maben.”

He grabbed my ear and forced me to bend over the rim of the bath. The cold enamel dug into my stomach, as my feet were lifted from the floor I felt I would teeter over the side and into the tub. He let go and I balanced awkwardly, face against the metal, struggling not to show tears. I hung there for an eternity, uncomprehending of this punishment so out of proportion to what was surely no crime, and in those moments was born my contempt for injustice and those who carry it through.

The first blow fell. Delivered with all his drunken strength, the sole of a leather slipper struck my buttocks, a sharp stinging, burning pain. But it was not the pain, but the humiliation, the injustice, that truly hurt. The pain, the anguish, the pressure of all my weight supported by my stomach, my still unemptied bladder, were too much, and all the pent up tension suddenly was released. To my shame, hot piss streamed between my legs, my pyjamas were soaked. Worse yet, warm soft wet sticky shit spewed out, flowed over my buttocks, between my thighs. I would gladly have crawled down the drain, wished I could disappear forever into the sewer pipes, if only I could escape this shame, this humiliation. I no longer tried to hold back my tears, indeed tears seemed cleansing in comparison to those other foul excretions.

The beating stopped as he realized what was happening, but I would not counsel any child that this is an effective counter measure to avoid a beating. He reached down and dragged me upright by my collar.

“Stand up, you little worm!”

I stood, shaking, stinking, as he bellowed at me, heaping shame upon humiliation onto my quaking heart. Somewhere inside I wondered if it could have been the morning of this same day that my mother held me, told me she loved me. How could love send someone to suffer this?

At last he pushed me out of the door: “Get out of my sight! Go to bed!”

I crept down the stairs, crawled under the covers, curled up and lay in my piss soaked pyjamas, legs still smeared with cooling, congealing shit. Aware of the other boys’ attention I struggled to sob silently, mouthing the words over and over again: “But we were only singing, but we were only singing, only singing, we were only singing…” Filthy. Worm. So I suppose it is not all that surprising that it was almost thirty years until I would sing out loud again.

Who knows what thoughts were in that little boy’s mind as he cried himself to sleep that night? One thing is sure, the shame and the fear would remain with him. The sense of injustice, that he surely did not deserve this fought with the suspicion that it would not have happened if it was not supposed to. Above all there was a desperate loneliness that has never entirely left me. I was completely bereft, there was no one to offer comfort and love, perhaps that was what I deserved. Yet somewhere I clung to the notion that I did deserve to find love, that I was not completely worthless, not a worm. At that moment perhaps the idea formed that in order to be loved, I must strive for goodness. If only I could discover what “goodness” might be.

The next morning I awoke to face, from some, taunts at the evidence of my shame, my soiled bed, from others embarrassed avoidance. And I knew I was alone. Not knowing what to do, I tried to hide the stains with carefully placed creases in the bottom sheet. I went to the bathroom, washed, dressed. When the bell rang I went with the others to breakfast. No one spoke to me. After breakfast we went back to the dormitory to make up the top covers of our beds. On the dorm roster I saw a black mark next to my name: “Untidy bed”.

I soon discovered that four black marks added up to a beating. And so a wretched spiral of misery began. Fear, shame, pain, repeat. For years. Too frightened to leave my bed, in case I met the Head – or the spider – I would wake in the night, struggling with my bladder. Sometimes I would manage to hold it, sometimes not, and of course everyone knows the relationship of fear and pissing. So my bed was untidy as often as not, so the black marks would mount up. Then would come the evening when my name would be called after supper, a supper that I would scarcely have touched, because of the knot of fear in my stomach. The lonely, fearful walk down the cold passageway, knocking timidly on the great oaken door.

“Come in.”

Opening the door, closing it behind me.

“Bend over. Lift your dressing gown.”

The four, or six vicious blows with a hair brush, bristles to skin. Refusing to cry. Walking back to the dormitory, feeling the welts blossoming on my buttocks. The covert stares of the other boys as I crept into bed and pulled the covers over my head. And so on…

As I went on, although the prevailing mood of the years that follows was one of low grade terror overlaid with a generous helping of shame and self-disgust, I kept in my heart a fierce and stubborn certainty that one day it would be different. That certainty, based entirely on a faith that came from who knows where, a faith that ran counter to any evidence, allowed me to preserve the notion that this whole system was wrong. Deep within I kept an idea of myself that I protected, as best I could, with an attitude of sullen resistance. While it is true that Mr. Stapleton used to stalk the halls in the evenings, looking for pretexts to mete out arbitrary beatings, none of the punishments I was dealt in the ensuing years had quite the taint of cruelty or injustice as that first night so I will make little mention of them, beyond saying, now, that for the next nine years I was beaten on a fairly regular basis, with hair brush, slipper, strap or cane.

Once again my recollections are fragmented, shards thrown up with no sense of continuity or relatedness. Not all are entirely negative and there was even one moment of ecstasy. Must I repeat that looking back from so many years later, knowing something of the current state of the world, the utter horror of the twentieth century, and all the dismal crimes of which humanity has been guilty through all the centuries that it has blighted this paradisal planet, knowing this, of course I know that my pain is inconsequential next to what so many millions have suffered, and are suffering at this very moment. Listen though, my suffering was perpetuated, not by any individual who may have performed a particular act, but by those who chose not to see, or seeing chose not to intervene. To be a witness of injustice and to remain silent, whether from fear or self-interest is to be guilty of the crime. Perhaps the greatest injustice of all is to “bring to justice” the individual perpetrators and to pretend that assuages the guilt of all the rest of us who created the conditions that allowed the crime to occur. These ideas were coalescing somewhere within, barely understood, totally incommunicable, but the bedrock of my education. Everything that followed built upon that, gave me the means to understand and express those ideas. My crime is to have not spoken up loudly or clearly enough.

I developed a bizarre capacity to fall into hysterical fits of giggling with very little prompting. One afternoon, with a group of three or four other boys, “When I’m getting a beating, all I have to do is have a fit and I don’t feel a thing,” I boasted.

Naturally they were skeptical. “No, really, I’ll show you. Peter?”

Yes, somehow Peter and I were still friends of some sort. Several years later I would subject him to a wanton, petty and cruel betrayal, but for now we were at least allies.

“Fit,” he taunted, “fit, fit, fit!”

On cue I began to giggle uncontrollably. The other boys had all gathered switches from a nearby tree. Gleefully they beat me. Beat my legs, my back my arms. I just giggled. They beat me till my bare legs and arms bore a pattern of red stripes. Still I giggled.

“Stop!” commanded Peter. I stopped giggling, the boys stopped beating.

“See, I didn’t feel a thing.”

My resistance to the whole sick system mostly took the form of minor acts of disobedience. In particular I made a point of always being last to arrive anywhere, usually managing to arrive late enough to be noticed, but just in time to avoid another black mark for tardiness.

On afternoon, later than usual, I was on my way to a cricket game. The playing fields were a half-mile or so from the school. I was running. Somehow – did I mention that my nervousness made me rather clumsy? – I managed to slip my bat between my legs and trip myself. I went tumbling. My knee struck a sharp pebble in the road. Rather an impressive little gash, from which there came a satisfyingly copious flow of dark red blood, which soaked into the tops of my white knee socks.

As I stood bent over my wounded knee I realized that there were several benefits to this mishap. Firstly, I would not have to play cricket today, such a boring, pointless game. With luck I might even be excused from sports for a week or more. And I could pass myself off as brave, even a martyr of sorts, which might well afford me a little respite from the near constant teasing.

Day in, day out I was teased. Teased about my ridiculous rabbit teeth, teased as a bed-wetter. I was, I think, too fierce to be victim to much physical bullying. But the psychological torment was virtually non-stop.

There were two Danish brothers, Dan and Bo Lundgren, both older and bigger than me. One day Bo was leading a group of boys in a round of taunts. Boys usually have a fine sense of how far to push without provoking a physical response. Bo must have been enjoying himself a little too much, enjoying the encouragement of the crowd that had gathered round. And I reached a breaking point. As the hot tears of torment came to my eyes I was filled with rage and hatred. I flung myself at him.

“You… foreign devil!” I screamed. You may find it hard to credit, but even as I screamed those words, I felt a pang of guilt. But I tried to get my hands around his neck. It was not hard for a boy so much bigger and stronger to deflect my attack. To the cheers of the onlookers he threw me to the ground, knelt on my chest. I writhed and struggled, tried to kick.

“Stop,” he hissed, “give up. Lie still.” I continued to struggle until a teacher arrived to break us up. Black marks for both of us, of course, but neither Bo nor his brother Dan ever came near me again.

On another occasion, much later, a fat boy with the unfortunate name of Dobbin, and who was himself the victim of much teasing, was tormenting me. He too did not know when to stop, and I attacked. He fled. I pursued. We ran all over the school until I eventually cornered him against a table. Dobbin was older and bigger than me, but a coward. I managed to get him in a neck lock, but then I had not the first idea what to do. He was so much bigger than me, if I let go he would surely thrash me. I squeezed his neck.

“Stop it, Maben,” shouted someone in the watching crowd – there was always a watching crowd. “Stop it, you’re killing him! Look, he’s turning blue!”

I looked, his face was turning a rather frightening shade of puce, and he was not struggling very hard. I had no wish to kill anyone. Still frightened myself, I let go and fled for my life. He did not follow. And from then on he left me alone.

I promised a moment of ecstasy. I do hope this is not a disappointment, it may seem trivial, even trite. Nevertheless it was ecstasy, an ecstasy deep and genuine enough to offer a little sustenance to my starved spirit for years to come. At one end of the school was a little grassy knoll. The story was that until recently it had been overgrown with nettles and the bullies would strip their victims naked and toss them into the thicket of nettles. Let me repeat: I know my sufferings have been relatively mild. That’s still not the point. OK, OK, back to ecstasy. One game I liked to play was to run full pelt down the side of the knoll, arms stretched out and back. I was a Spitfire diving from cloud-cover, sun at my tail, to attack the massed Luftwaffe bombers approaching across the channel. One morning I was repeating this game. Somehow I became so swept up in my running, the green of the grass, the blue of the sky, the brightness and warmth of the sun, that for a moment I lost myself. Somehow I was no more, just a joy, life, a world. Ecstasy. Unplanned, unasked for, love, acceptance. Most of all, belonging. Laugh if you like, dismiss it as the delusion of a lonely, wounded child. It was real enough for me. Now I knew that I belonged, as much as anyone, to the world, in the world. And I knew that the world belonged as much to me as to anyone. I do have the right to be here, even a right to make my claim for happiness. That small bright flame has burned in my heart, sustained me through all the pain, the loneliness, the cruelty that I have seen and lived through. Do you think a mere illusion could have done that? No it was pure, heaven-sent ecstasy. I reached the bottom of the slope. The moment was over.

My schooling continued, and I have a memory of an English lesson that must have been in the very earliest days. Our teacher, pretty, young, oh so well-meaning was giving a spelling lesson.

“Marmalade”, she wrote on the blackboard.

“I’ll tell you a story that will help you remember how to spell it. Once upon a time Marie Antoinette – she was the Queen of France – was sick. Nothing seemed to help. Until one day one of her ladies-in-waiting brought her a bowl of jam made from oranges. Placing it beside the Queen’s bed she said, ‘Pour ma malade.’”

She wrote on the blackboard again: “Ma malade.”

“That means ‘my sick lady’ in French.”

She erased the board.

“Now I want you all to spell ‘marmalade’.”

We boys all set to carefully scribbling in our notebooks.

“Has everyone finished?”

She walked around the classroom, looking to see what we had written.

“Very good. No that’s not right. Good. Good. No…”

She arrived at my desk.

“No, Maben, it’s M – A – R…”

Brilliant, so why go to the trouble of all that French? She said M- A – M – A – L – A – D – E, didn’t she? Why distract us, me anyway, with the wrong spelling?

Surprisingly there was one teacher who inspired my liking and admiration, sparked a tiny flame of intellectual curiosity. His name was Mr. Hamilton. At the first Geography class that he taught, he had two of the boys distribute atlases to the class. I was one of the first so I had the chance to thumb through the pages before Mr. Hamilton began his lesson. I have a faint recollection of turning pages dominated by the pink of the British Empire. Perhaps it was simply the absence of that pink that attracted me to the map of South America, could it be that I had already developed an instinctive loathing for the oppression and exploitation that were the basis of that empire? It seems a stretch, I was, what, seven, perhaps by now eight years old? More likely just the existence of a whole continent I knew nothing of beckoned my curiosity. Whatever the reason, I was transfixed, I spent the entire lesson staring at that map. I vaguely heard the outline descriptions of Europe, Asia. I traced the course of the Amazon, tried to envision the peaks of the Andes, to pronounce the exotic names. When the rest of the boys came at last to the same page, Mr. Hamilton finally had my full attention. And so was born an obsession. Within a few weeks I could draw a passable freehand map of the continent. I sought out books – Tschiffely’s Ride in particular captured my imagination, inspired me with an urge to travel, alone, dependent on the kindness of strangers.

One winter, snow on the ground outside, shortly before the Christmas Holidays, Mr. Hamilton broke away from the regular syllabus to tell us an epic tale of adventure from his life in Canada. Midwinter in Labrador. A settlement struck by an epidemic. As a fearsome blizzard blows, the brave and dashing young Hamilton loads a sled with vaccine and medical supplies, harnesses his faithful dogs. With a lusty cry of “Mush, mush, my dogs!” he sets out alone to travel hundreds of miles of barren white wilderness. After days of hardship and mishaps, the death of the lead dog, his most faithful friend for years, at last he reaches the beleaguered settlement. Many lives are saved, he is modest in his heroism, will not allow the grateful townspeople to greet him as their savior. A true life adventure, or a tall tale fed on imagination and Jack London? Even had the question occurred to us, we boys would surely not have cared. We were rapt, eyes shining with admiration. And in the end does it even matter? He managed in one short hour to plant in our hearts the seeds of the ideas of honor, courage, self-sacrifice, modesty. It is true that it was after this that I set out to devour the works of Jack London.

Though certainly the knowledge acquired in other classes has remained with me, those are the only three lessons I recall with any clarity from my years at Kestrels.

And, if it was so unpleasant, you may be wondering, why did I not make some effort to escape? Do you not think that if I could see any possible opening I would have taken it? We were obliged to write weekly letters home on Sundays, why not just tell my parents? But our letters were carefully inspected for grammar and spelling mistakes. Such at least was the pretext. But woe betide any boy foolish enough to attempt to describe the true misery of his lot. His letter would be torn up and he had to rewrite it in a more acceptable form. To make the lesson perfectly clear to all, his name would be called after supper.

Then why not run away? The school was isolated on the edge of Exmoor. It’s not as if a boy could just jump on a bus or a train, there were none. No, running away entailed exactly that. Running. Away. Across miles of hilly farmland and woods. It is true that every term one or two boys would be driven to make the attempt. None managed to stay away for more than a few hours, a day at most. The one child who actually reached his home was returned to the school by his own parents. And running away was punished. Naturally a beating, by all accounts even more savage than usual, would be inflicted on the first evening. But of course it did not end there, privileges were suspended and black marks awarded at the least excuse. No, escape was not an option.

Why not simply unburden myself to my parents, my mother at least? Well, on the one hand I no longer placed an unbounded trust in their care. On the other, I was still, somewhere buried, the boy who had been so protective of his mother that day in the hospital. When they asked how was school, I would smile and say, “Fine.”

I do not know if it was after two or three years, but I think it was three, that it finally dawned on them that the reason, every time we approached the school, that I would have to get out of the car to vomit at the roadside, to get back in white and trembling, was not car sickness but terror.

So at last they moved me to Ravenswood.

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