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It's Friday. It's SIBA time again!
No, really. This one is different.
Before I begin, I will point out that there is a character that (ab)uses the N-word. You know the one, it isn't Narnia. Before sensitive types freak out, read to the end of that part and know that there was a kid (at a different school, I should add!) who tried to sound like a rapper, only he hated blacks. Which seemed to me a bit odd, but racist people are usually not the brightest. Turns out he didn't hate blacks. He hated everybody. Skin colour, hair colour, place of birth, gender, accent, religion, political views - you name it, he hated it. It kind of makes you wonder what massive parenting failure led to a pre-teenager with attitudes like that.
But you may not quite notice that, given what else is going on...
Here's the playlist:
3 - Dalliances
|Dalliances by Richard Murray
First version © 2017 Richard Murray
Contains content from “Betrothed”, 1990/1997.
© Copyright 2017 Richard Murray.
Richard Murray is asserting his right to be identified as the author of this story.
This story is not to be republished anywhere else in any form (electronic, paper, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the author.
It was bloody cold.
No, I mean really really cold. David and I were on the final stretch of our P.E. lesson. The sadistic teacher had sent us on a jolly jaunt around the woods with snow up to our knees and us wearing shorts and short sleeve shirts as was our P.E. uniform. The general consensus of freezing your goolies was - and I quote “It makes a man out of you”. That’s why we wore what looked like a summer P.E. uniform in the middle of winter. If you wanted a tracksuit and sweatshirt, you were clearly “a girl”. It’s easy for the teacher to say that, he kicks back for an hour in front of a portable gas heater reading Penthouse while we go and prove we’re “man enough” not to drop dead.
I wondered how the first formers coped with doing this. Really, it’s a surprise that nobody ended up hospitalised.
Yesterday was the return day after the winter break. It was fun watching all the kids coming back for another term at school, especially the weaker ones that sobbed everywhere. The best ones to watch were the strong type that behaved like nothing at all was worthy of mentioning, with mothers that would show less emotion pleading for their lives. Tell me, how can you make an impression to all your mates when your mother is acting like everybody she ever met just died?
I returned back to Sunnyvale College about half an hour late. Of course I didn’t exert any effort in actually running. Not in this weather. Not that I would in good weather either. I knew we had to do a really cheesy news report this evening. At the start of each term we were expected to welcome everybody back, encourage them to try extra hard with their exams and other tests, how our end-of-term reports could be improved, how we all needed to push our noses to the grindstone and buckle up and other hideously mixed metaphors. And then we’d hand over to the headmaster who would say the exact same thing all over again in flowery language.
The thing that got me, was me - me - telling everybody that they must try harder. I mean, it was pretty much as if the phrase “must try harder” was invented for me, given that’s pretty much what it said on every single report card from every single lesson ever.
It was quarter to seven in the evening. We had finally convinced the headmaster to push the news broadcast to 7pm as having it when everybody was in the dining hall was not the best idea. He had, for a while, taken to turning the TV on and turning the volume up loud, but everybody just talked over it.
Dinner (or Tea as some of the kids called it) was a disgusting soup. Cream of tomato was what it said on the board. Congealed snot with ketchup mixed in would be a more accurate description. This was accompanied by a piece of bread with grated ham and grated cheese, toasted, and a tinned pineapple ring thrown on top. That was marginally better. I snuck a few of them and went upstairs to study 11, the studio.
I looked at my music recordings that I’d made over the winter break - “Stop!”, “Buffalo Stance”, “Loco In Acapulco” “Waiting For A Star To Fall”, “The Living Years”, and “She Drives Me Crazy”. Which ones should I play? Actually the current number one single was Kylie and Jason, but hell would freeze over before I allowed that to be broadcast. I settled on Neneh Cherry followed by Mike and the Mechanics while I reviewed the script for the broadcast. This was going to be a really simple broadcast because I was doing it alone. David was in a stress about something, he tore by and slammed the door in my face so I left him to calm down. Anna was still at her school in the village, having volunteered to do something, Amy was forbidden from being involved with SIBA having brought back a report card so poor she started wetting the bed, though that might have had something to do with her mother’s reaction. Accordingly, I didn’t fancy having any reason for seeing Matron right now, in case I got an earful as well.
The script was not good, it contained a number of words that I had to look up in a dictionary, plus phrases that might have been in vogue in Shakespeare’s time. I made a few corrections and underlined key points. I pushed the button to select the studio camera, then went and sat at the table in front of the camera to read from the paper I was holding. No intro music, no autocue, normally David does that along with camera changes and video inserts, or I for him if he is broadcasting. It’s quite a bit harder to do it all alone.
The broadcast passed incredibly slowly. Maybe that was my perception. I kept glancing at the clock on the wall, which would make me lose my place, but I managed to deliver my piece with some inflection and not just like a robot reading a shopping list. I finished a couple of minutes late and introduced the headmaster. We swapped seats, and he waffled endlessly. I popped out, went into my study, made a cup of tea for us both, came back, and he was still waffling.
The tea I placed on the table for him was stone cold and he still hadn’t shut up. We had nothing in particular to broadcast as it was the first day of term, so it didn’t matter if he went on all night. I just had to be there and it was incredibly boring. He was going on about Christian values now, so I figured I’d play him out with that cheesy Christmas contender “Mistletoe and Wine”.
I knocked on David’s study door. The reply was muffled, and rightly so as it was very rude. David was supposed to be designing film classification screens in teletext, based upon which forms the film was suitable for - a kid’s film would be “1st”, a film with more mature themes would be a “3rd” and a film with some degree of violence or swearing would be “5th”. It wasn’t lost on me the irony of two fourth formers rating a film as being suitable only for fifth formers. Underneath we were supposed to have star symbols to denote what we thought of the film, and that’s where we got unstuck. David wanted from one to five stars, while I wanted three. My three would be the same as stars three to five in David’s scheme. The point being that a film so bad as to only garner one or two stars, we just shouldn’t broadcast it at all. David didn’t seem to be able to get his head around that. James, on the other hand, said we only needed one star - either we liked it or we didn’t. He also said it would be cool if we had little videotape symbols instead of stars, but none of us knew how to draw videotapes in teletext that even remotely looked like video tapes. After Edwina Curry opened her mouth and terrorised the country over the horrors lurking inside raw eggs, I wondered if we ought to have eggs instead? Of course, Curry’s Egg Catastrophe was pushed aside by the event that mainstream channels covered in morbid detail - the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, a story that started off horrible and just got worse.
A few weeks had passed, our actual video output had dropped a fair amount as our second term as fourth formers showed the prep piling in, and at the start of the Summer term after the Easter break we would be sitting mock exams. We had a lot less time to dedicate to running SIBA, so we broadcast our fish tank and a selection of music more frequently. I wondered if we shouldn’t set up an FM transmitter so people could hear our ripped-off music in stereo. Then I remembered that all our mixing equipment was monaural as that was all that our inexpensive cameras offered, and all our transmitter accepted. There was a stereo audio system for television called NICAM and allegedly some broadcasts on BBC 2 used it, but there was no official broadcasting of stereo audio, just test transmissions and articles in the Maplin magazine.
The physics teacher showed off his new CD player, an expensive box hooked to obscenely large speakers. It sounded good, and the ability to switch tracks instantly was impressive. He let us take a feed from his player when he was mellowing, so long as we were okay with Genesis, Dire Straits, and Bowie. Well, it wasn’t Minogue and it freed us from looking after tape players, so yeah, we were cool with that. Bowie was actually kind of groovy, once you got over the fact that he seemed to change style with every album he released.
David made a new VHF transmitter. We didn’t need one, he just liked building it. It’s a shame it’s not so simple to sort out the picture roll when switching cameras.
But what I did notice was David didn’t talk much any more. Granted, he never was much of a talker but he could engage in mindless banter with us. However if I were to write his dialogue down now, it would mostly consist of ellipses in quotation marks.
“Is David okay?”, Anna asked me over something trying to pass itself off as spaghetti bolognaise.
“How about his home life”, she pressed.
“He never talks about that.”
Anna twirled her fork, playing with the soggy horribly overcooked spaghetti.
James walked up, pulled a chair, and sat down on it backwards as he tends to do. He rested his elbows on the chair back and opened his mouth.
“If it’s your fantasies of the naked music teacher playing banjo while yodelling in French while standing under a waterfall, nobody wants to hear it”, Anna said.
James closed his mouth.
“Actually”, he eventually said in a small voice, “something is going on”.
Back in my study, I closed the door and put on Erasure’s “A Little Respect” to make enough noise that we wouldn’t be overheard. We being Anna, James and myself.
“Well?”, I asked.
“When I was new here, you remember I started in second term?”, James said.
“Yeah, you had big eyes and your hair made you look like a girl”, I said.
“Well, the bloody hairdresser got rid of that didn’t he?”, James retorted a little angry.
The hairdresser was brought in by the school to deal with any student with hair over a proscribed length. The result of his work was a crew cut. And the more you complained, the shorter the hair would be cut. A lot of boys went in shouting about their rights, and came out looking like army rejects. I’m guessing the staff in the school must still be in denial over the fact that they’d have grown up with the hippies, like our parents did.
James continued, “The thing is, when I was a new kid here, I got invited to the headmaster’s private quarters and he’d have loads of money around. Not big money, coins, but not coppers. And we could just sort of help ourselves. I must have picked up about twenty quid, while being told that we were all special, better than the others, and so on. I wasn’t going to complain, it was basically some old git handing out cash, right? Well one day I asked why he was doing this and one of the prefects... uh... that Barnes guy... I think... he showed me the door, told me to never come back and never speak of this, then he slammed the door in my face. I’ll admit, I was a bit annoyed, I should have taken more coins. But, you know, maybe that was some weird fagging ritual? I don’t know, I never thought about it again until this week”, James explained.
Nobody said a word, so he continued his thoughts.
“I saw David three nights ago. He went to the headmaster’s room. He knocked really meek-like. That was a bit weird, I though maybe he was in trouble and was going there for a caning or something. The door opened and that Barnes asshole just booted him in the stomach. I mean he fell to the floor and puked down himself. I waited until the door closed and went over to help and he bloody punched me in the face for it.”
“I dunno what the hell is going on, but since you two seem to be about the only friends he has, you might want to tell him to get a grip and stop punching those trying to help.”
With that, James got up and left.
Anna and I looked at each other. “The hell?” we mouthed.
Since I’m a tactful person, I took my slippers off, put my school shoes on, and then opened the door to David’s study with a running kick. As the door was neither locked or blocked, I pretty much ended in a crumpled heap on the floor. Anna quickly stepped over me and sat down waiting for me to compose myself. I sat on the floor and pretended my knee wasn’t hurting. Oh, no, no pain at all, wince wince.
I pushed the door closed.
“What we know is that something happened with you and the headmaster”, Anna said, “and what we know is it isn’t going well for you.”
“Get out”, David said.
“Talk to us, we can help”, she continued.
“I think I know what might be going on here, and if I’m right, you don’t need to deal with this by yourself.”
I have no idea what happened next. David started shrieking, called Anna all sorts of obscene things, then tried to punch her. As I was rising to come to her defence, David was falling to the floor with both arms twisted behind his back.
“I’ve had just about enough of this, I’m not here to be your punching bag. So this is how it is going to be. We are going to go back to his study”, Anna said, pointing at me, “and we will be waiting. If you trust those people who think of themselves as your friends, you will come and talk to us, and if you prefer not to do so, we will never raise the topic again and you can deal with it by yourself. All by yourself. Do you understand?”
“Mpht!”, is what the reply sounded like.
“And if you ever call me that again, I will kick you in the nuts so hard you’ll be the only pensioner in the boy’s choir. Do you understand?”
She sat, waited, and when David didn’t reply, she stood up and walked out. “Come” she said as she passed me.
Back in my study - “What the bloody hell? Bloody...? What?”, I spluttered, “weren’t we supposed to be there to help?”
“He either wants help or he does not”, Anna said.
“You didn’t make him exactly sound welcome”, I said.
“No, I took care to emphasis the by himself part. As in, this is clearly something he is keeping inside, he can either come talk to us, or let it keep on tearing him apart. I emphasised that to tell him there is another option.”
Anna got into bed in the bunk above me, still wearing her uniform. I got into my bunk. We waited some more.
I could hear sobbing so I stood up. It was Anna failing at trying not to cry. “Maybe I did mess it up?”
I stroked her hair and played with the shoulder strap of her pinafore dress. What could I say? Yes? It’s what I believed, but I also believe she didn’t want to hear me saying that. So I said nothing at all. I just stroked her hair until she fell asleep, then I retired to my bunk.
Four o’clock in the morning the door burst open. The last time I’d experienced that was a dorm raid in second form that ended with an unfair pillow fight. Unfair as many of the pillows were loaded with P.E. socks filled with sand, one in the gut would knock you down and one in the head would knock you out. I shrunk to the back of my bed. It was David. He threw an empty beer can at me and said “Get up, and your whore girlfriend too”.
“You want to know what’s going on? Okay, I’ll tell you. And if you tell anybody else...”, he began, then trailed off. I’m sure he wanted to throw out a few threats, but nobody had expected Anna to pin him to the floor quite as effortlessly as she made it look.
“It started okay, a bunch of us would go to the headmaster’s room and he’d have plenty of money and sweets and stuff, it would be like a private party.”
“Yes, James told us that”, I said.
“How did he know?”, David asked.
“He was an invitee until he started asking questions. Then he got shown the door.”, I explained.
David broke into laughter. It was surreal, but good to see him laughing. “Oh no, you don’t ever ask questions.”
I got up and put the kettle on.
“So after a while I got invited to leave the living room and go back to the headmaster’s bedroom. That’s where he kept his TV. So we’d watch videos - stuff he had rented, new films, stuff we’d like to broadcast. Hell, some of it was on his video before it was in the cinema. And he’d talk about his expectations of me because I was better than those other kids, I had something, you know? Well, maybe you don’t because I never quite figured out what made me so special. But he’d take my hands, hold them, and tell me that really sincerely. He’d mess around with my hair like you do with hers”, gesturing to Anna, “and he’d tell these really pervy jokes. I mean, you or I telling them wouldn’t be a big deal so long as we didn’t do it in front of her or Amy, but coming from an old codger it was just a bit gross. But even so, he seemed to really understand me. And I know I’ve said little about my home life, let’s just say it is a mess. And he seemed to completely get how it was affecting me, you know? So then he’d just... I dunno, he knew how to say the right things to make all that crap seem a lot less critical. My life wasn’t falling apart, theirs was. Let them deal with their mess, I should concentrate on my own hopes and aims. It just made so much sense, you know?”
I glanced over and saw Anna was fairly openly sobbing.
“So what changed? It sounds to me like you’d found a decent father figure”, I said. Anna squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head away, had I said something wrong?
“That’s what I thought. So we’d watch films, he managed to break that crappy little sofa that he had in his room so he sat me on the bed. I kept my uniform on, though a few times he said it was weird to wear school clothes in bed. So a couple of weeks ago I was sitting on the bed, on his lap, dressed of course, and he goes and puts his hand down inside my pants.”
Anna wailed, like she knew this was coming. I didn’t, so it knocked my senses askew. “He...what?”, I gasped.
“Yup. Just like there was nothing weird about it, hand in my pants reaching for my cock. So I jump up and I’m like what the hell are you doing you bloody pervert. I might have said it a bit ruder but you know”, he gestured again to Anna. The Anna that he had earlier said even worse things to. “And you wouldn’t believe how he suddenly changed. He told me he would kill me if I told anybody at all. He told me that even if I did he was the headmaster and nobody would believe me. That I’d be telling tales and at my age I would be locked up for making allegations like that. He told me I was a failure, that it was clear that failing was part of my genetic code, and I’d fail just like my parents. He got dressed, went into his party room, and calmed down. I didn’t know what to do but he seemed to get over the rage. He said to me it was a shock, nobody ever did that before, it was normal to want to do that with him, and that there were others who could make many many problems go away in return for a little bit of that. He told me that he thought I just wasn’t right. It wouldn’t work. No hard feelings, sometimes it doesn’t work out, don’t worry. I gotta say I was relieved at that point. So he says to me there’s a little something for me under the table by the door, think of it as a parting gift. So I go over to the table and look under it. There’s a fifty quid note lying there in between the plimsolls he uses for punishment. But you know my hearing is really good, right? I can hear a faint mechanical noise so I glance up and find that there’s a crappy old video camera up under the table. Seeing that... the whole thing felt way too creepy so I just left the money and excused myself. Then, man, he tore across the room as I was leaving and got me from behind so hard I bounced off the wall on the other side of the corridor. He told me I was supposed to take the money, and then he kjcked me in the gut.”
I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, speechless. Anna was by now operating in Amy mode.
“So I feel bad, I leave you in the lurch to run stuff by yourself, it all goes wrong, right? Well, I think maybe I made a mistake? People have off days. This should be fixable, don’t you think? So I know from my regular visits when the parties happen and I knock on the door. I don’t entirely know what happened next, I’m puking and everything is all white and spotty and I hurt in places I’ve never hurt before.”
“I think... you were lucky to be out”, I say, after a few moments of hesitation, “you know where it was going, right?”
“I’m not entirely certain I made the right decision”, he replied.
“Wait, what? You want to have taken that relationship further?”, I spluttered, “If you want to chill out on a bed and watch films, you’re welcome to do it here. Nobody’s going to grope you, and you can even wear your clothes in bed”, I gestured to Anna, still wearing her school outfit at four in the morning.
“No, I didn’t want that”, David said, “but recently my scores in history, geography, and some other subjects have tanked. You know I used to get As and Bs in history and could tell you the entire boring line-up of British monarchy since forever, and not just the usual crazy nutjobs Henry the Eighth and Queen Vic? Did you know the first King of England was the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan who created the Kingdom of England in 927? Okay, you probably don’t care but that gives you an idea of my passion for history. Well, I can barely scrape a D now. I’m basically going to fail. Multiple subjects. Failing. Failed. Failure.”
He sat down on my bunk and one-shot his tea, then tossed the mug across the room where it shattered on the wall. I’m not sure if that was dramatic effect or hopeless desperation.
We said nothing for an awkwardly long time. It was Anna who broke the silence. “We need to ask you something”.
“Go on”, David said, “and please know that I’m really sorry about the things I said to you earlier.”
Anna nodded, forced a smile, then said, “This is happening to other people as well?”
“I think so. I mean, there’s bugger all special about me so I’m guessing everybody in my party group is getting the special-special treatment. I wasn’t aware of James, so there might be other party groups?”
“We need to do something”, Anna said, “but... staff? police? What’s our next move?”
“We do nothing right now”, I said.
“Silence like a cancer grows”, Anna retorted.
“Don’t you quote Garfunkel lyrics at me. This is not something SIBA can deal with by marching in with cameras and saving the day.”
“I can see you are thinking”, David said.
“Let’s lay it out. David is getting penalised by some of his teachers which implies that they may be involved in some way, or at least aware of things and on the head’s side. Head also messed up a bit when he said to David that there ‘were others’. We must assume that these are outside people otherwise he would have said other teachers or something. And finally it looks like the prefects are complicit in their role as Prætorian Guard.”
“Damn, that’s a lot of thinking”, David smirked.
“In other words, Anna, we should assume that we are surrounded by the enemy, and we shouldn’t make any obvious moves until we can lay our hands on enough evidence to make any judge want to hang the bastards”, I said. “and we must also disconnect ourselves from David’s story here and work purely on the basis of an allegation and proof of such. Sorry.”
“What? He had his friggin’ hand in...”, David said, starting to raise his voice.
“Sorry, but shhh, quieter. I know what you said, but you don’t have any way to prove these events.”, I said.
“All that and you don’t believe me?”
“If we didn’t believe you, mate, we wouldn’t be thinking of how to go forward. We do believe you, but belief and evidence aren’t the same thing. But for what it’s worth the smartest damn thing you did was getting out of that situation, and the second damn smartest thing was not picking up the bribe. I’m sure it would have been used against you had anything come up.”, I said, trying to calm him down. It worked.
“Yeah, but getting into that in the first place, dumbest damn thing.”
“Nah, sometimes everybody needs a person to tell them they’re special. I’m guessing your parents don’t?”
“Point made. Whatever is going on, you completely refuse to talk about. That’s not how it is supposed to be.”
“A lot of things ain’t exactly how they’re supposed to be.”
“We’re going to attempt to go to sleep now, and will need to think of our next move in the coming week”, I said.
“Don’t you want to know who else was in my party?”, David asked.
“No. Don’t want us acting weird around anybody”, I said.
“Were they fourth formers?”, Anna asked. I really wish she hadn’t, it’d be weird in class.
“No, mostly first and second formers. I think they might ‘graduate’ or something? I was the old one by a mile.”
That started Anna crying again, so David apologised to me and then left, closing the door behind him.
The cupboard door clicked and James stumbled out.
“Holy bloody what the hell?”, I exclaimed, “If David finds out he will kill you.”
“That would be a relief compared to what just went down”, James muttered. He was pale.
“Stop, I don’t like this anymore”, Anna sobbed. I put my arms around her. “I’m really hoping you can keep your mouth shut”, I was glaring at James. When did he sneak in anyway?
“You’re going to need a camera or two in there, leave it to me”, James said.
“Dude, no, you don’t...”, I began.
“Silence! You need a camera and you need deniability. It won’t be one of our cameras, you won’t know when or how it is being fitted, and you won’t know who is doing it”, James said.
“Huh? You mean you...?”, I began.
“Oh God no. If head didn’t kill me, David probably would. And if they didn’t, the moonlight hit squad would.” He was referring to the prefects.
“So just to clear up that little niggle, who is going to fit them”, I asked.
“You ever watch the A-Team?”, James asked.
“Somebody like that. Dressed in black. With ropes. And they won’t be carrying a box of chocolates.”
With that, James left too.
Anna and I looked at each other. “Did you understand any of that?”, I asked her.
“The words, yes. What they meant, not so much.”
I knew how she felt. I mean, a boy’s boarding school you’re always going to get stories of how so-and-so is a bender and it is usually the pupils/prefects/staff most disliked at any given moment. But nobody took these sorts of things seriously.
Now... Now I’m no longer certain. Of anything.
“Want to go back up?”, I asked Anna, indicating the upper bunk.
“No, I think I need to be cuddled to sleep after that”, she said.
“Oh, okay”, I said a little too quickly.
“I’ll ask Amy. Soz.” And with that Anna left, leaving me alone in my study. I flicked the desk lamp off and sat on my bed. I wanted sleep, I needed sleep, but there’s no way I’d be able to get sleep.
“How did Amy take being woken at half four?”, I asked Anna the next afternoon.
“She was great. I got her up, showered her, changed the sheets, then we took our clothes off and got into bed and hugged each other really tightly.”
I could see she was watching James, who was listening but barely interested.
“Then we started, you know, girl stuff. Comparing breast sizes. Fondling. Looking for each other’s G spot. And, of course, nothing beats snogging another girl.”
Anna looked at me and shrugged. James just wasn’t interested. We all knew what he was imagining. Who he was imagining.
“On a more serious note, what did you tell Amy?”, I asked.
“I told her something terrible was happening and if I was freaking out, it would be better if she just didn’t know.”
“She accepted that?”
“Hey, did you say she groped you?”, James asked.
Anna burst out laughing, saying “Really, what? You perv!”. I smirked. So at least some of that had permeated James’ one-track thought process.
To be honest, my mind wasn’t really on SIBA any more. What with my seemingly ridiculous pile of prep, the never ending “you must learn everything in preparation for the snap tests we’ll drop on you weekly” and knowing what nearly happened to my friend, I just... I just didn’t want to be wasting time on such trivial things as working out what songs to play in idle time, or presenting a hosted interview on subjects such as the construction of the human eye. I wanted to ask, right in the middle of the discussion, “are you one of the arseholes marking my friend down because he didn’t want to get boned by old codger and God knows who else?”. I let David do the interviews while I busied myself with the behind the scenes stuff. He didn’t like presenting but I think he knew my interpretation of “tactful” was quite different to most people’s. And if that teacher was one of them, one of them, he hid it well.
The weekend came and went, and a little box turned up on our control console. On top was a switch. One end held a figure-eight mains socket, like the ones commonly found on hi-fi equipment, the other end had phono sockets. One with a red inner ring, one with a white inner ring. As that colour combination usually meant left and right audio, I plugged them into my not-quite-hi-fi and got silence on the left speaker and screechy noises on the right speaker.
“Hang on a sec”, David said. He disappeared and returned a few moments later with a lab oscilloscope. He probed the sockets and the white ring one was mostly nothing. “This is probably audio”, he said. The red ring lit up the trace on the oscilloscope. Clicking around the timebase and sensitivity options, he adjusted the trace on the screen to fit nicely, then set up automatic triggering on the falling edge of a regular pulse. That nasty noise was... a composite video signal. They’re quite distinctive, so David knew he didn’t need to bother saying anything when it appeared on the oscilloscope screen.
I patched it into a TV and we both stared at a picture of “the party room”. David reached over and flicked the switch and it was a picture of the head’s bedroom. The headmaster was there, alone, arranging flowers and carefully stacking videos. Then he made the bed.
“I’m so upset that you didn’t let me in on this”, David muttered.
“Promise not to be angry?”, I asked, “I mean, really.”
“This wasn’t me. It was James. He was hiding in the cupboard. Please don’t beat the crap out of him”, I said.
“That’s why he’s been weird around me”, David said, “Well, frankly I’m extremely angry with him that he hid in the cupboard, but that must have been the worst half hour of his life and, gotta hand it to him, he did good with this.”
“So-so”, I replied, “Your little transmitter is way better than this picture.”
David burst out laughing. Thank God. That could have gone ugly, but I trusted David to deal with it better. He was actually getting better now that he knew he had people on his side.
“Tell you what”, I said, “We can’t sit watching this all night, so let’s leave it on the bedroom shot and plug it into one of the VCRs to tape what goes on.”
“How long for?”
“An E-240 tape on long play mode can give us eight hours. Think that’ll be enough?”
The next morning we were both fidgeting like hell in our lessons. I had stashed the tape, but we hadn’t watched it yet. My first lesson after lunch was a free period for most of us fourth formers. Time we were supposed to use wisely. Time everybody dossed around because “revision” was something fifth formers got all nuts about, not us. I could have watched it then, but didn’t as David was off at one of his elective lessons. The history that he was failing. So I sat in my study with a large mug of tea staring at the cupboard I’d put the tape into. I couldn’t watch it. If there was nothing, I’d be like “dude, was a waste of time, better luck tonight” and David would be angry with me, and if there was something... oh my god. I don’t think I wanted to watch that alone.
I pretended to pay attention in chemistry class and then when I realised that the teacher was asking in exactly which bed her daughter had slept last night, I realised that I was expected to say something. I said she slept in the upper bunk until four, then went to sleep with Amy. When asked why the change, I said she fell asleep in her uniform and I guess she felt like it would be better to get undressed for bed, but not with me in the room. The chemistry teacher stared at me for a long time, then went back to talking about the orbit of electrons. The hell? Dropping that on me in the middle of class? Okay, it was not news to anybody that Anna and “the soggy one” (for Amy’s reputation was a little weirder) often hung around with us, but still...
Four o’clock seemed to take forever to arrive. Eventually it did so I went up to the studio and did the fishtank camera along with the physics teacher’s audio feed. Ooh, a new CD, Roy Orbison. Could be good, but I’ll need to catch it another time. I walked into my study and...
David, James, Anna, and Amy were waiting and sharing a pack of multi-flavour Walkers. “I got you a Walnut Whip on the way back from school”, Amy said to me.
“Uh... David?”, I asked.
“What happened to all the secrecy?”, I mused to myself.
“Well”, Anna explained, “He knows, he knows, you know, I know, and she’ll wish she didn’t know.”
Fair enough. I closed the door, propped a chair up against it, closed the curtains, and said that there would be no sound.
“Anna”, Amy asked quietly, “Is this a banned video or something?”
“Or something”, Anna replied.
I pressed Play, then held down the fast forward button. We must have gone through an hour or two of static induced hallucinations before something happened. I quickly hit rewind and backed it up a little, then pressed the button on the tape counter to reset it to zero.
A man entered. A dapper looking man. Suit. Coat. Hat. Briefcase. He was being escorted by a prefect who took his coat and hat and hung them up. The prefect went away, closing the door. The man got undressed and sat butt naked on the bed. The picture quality wasn’t impressive, but it was enough to give the impression of a man past his prime. The white flare that was the very obvious bald noggin said that.
“Uh, guys? Girl here? Really not interested in watching a porno”, Amy said, pointing emphatically at herself.
“Shhh”, Anna said. Amy looked at her, surprised that she appeared to want to watch this.
After a few moments a prefect escorted a young boy in. The prefect departed. The man waited as the boy undressed himself and then bent over the corner table, holding firmly onto the sides. The man then briskly walked up behind the boy. He reached over to a tub on the table and scooped something out of it. What happened next was thankfully not visible as the man was facing away from the camera. What happened after that was visible.
“Oh!”, Amy cried quietly.
“My!”, James said.
“God!”, Anna finished.
Well, that answered that question. In colour. With way more detail than I wanted to know.
“You people are sick. What is this?”, Amy said, raising her voice a little above her habitual whisper.
“Well”, David explained, “that’s the head’s bedroom and that looks like Tom...whatshisface in second form, the bald bloke we don’t know, and this was recorded last night.”
A light went on in Amy’s mind, and then promptly went out again. I picked up her unconscious body and carefully laid her down on my bed.
“Is she anorexic or something? I swear she gets lighter every time I pick her up”, I asked Anna.
“Nah, she weighs less ’cos she just pooed herself”, James suggested unkindly and incorrectly.
We went back to watching the video. I could see the others had their hands in the crisp bags, except Anna who had dropped hers all over the floor, but nobody was eating. It looked like nobody was daring to breathe.
It got worse.
The horrible act finished and the boy was escorted out by a prefect while the man dressed himself. He was shown out by a prefect while another prefect tidied up the room. Exactly how the hell many prefects were in on this? Then, another man entered, followed shortly by a different boy. Anna went over to the video player and poked the fast forward button. We watched in fast forward as this happened three more times. Five men in all. I called out to Anna and she returned to normal playback.
“Isn’t that the first boy?”, I asked.
It looked like it.
We stopped the tape when the head himself came into the room, remade the bed, got into it, and then turned out the light. We left the player to rewind the tape. When the tape counter reached zero, the player clicked and turned itself off. The tape should be somewhere near to the start of the night’s events.
We sat in silence.
“Well, we have this, but we can’t trust anybody with it”, David said.
“And we can’t hand it over to the rozzers as we don’t know who these people are”, James continued.
“Does the portable video player work? Is the battery good?”, Anna asked.
“Should be, why?”, I asked.
“Come with me.”
Amy was awake by the time we sorted out the portable deck. She made it quite clear that she didn’t want to come with us. As the others trooped out, I knelt down beside her and stroked her hair the way I did with Anna. “We’re going to try to find a way to fix this, okay?”
“You can’t fix something like that”, she whispered.
“Making it stop is the first step. Then getting those kids some help.”
“Won’t work. It’ll just begin again.”
“That is why we aren’t going to concentrate on the headmaster, we need to find out who those men are and how they came to be here.”
She opened her eyes a little wider.
“We already had the exact same thoughts as you, we can’t go for the easy pickings if the people doing the damage get away. But the problem we have is we don’t know who these people are or what they are capable of.”
She closed her eyes. “How can I ever go anywhere near a prefect ever again?”
“That’s easy. You’re a girl. You appear to have gender specific immunity.”
“These sickos like boys, you’re a girl.”
I left her with that thought and went to join the impatient group. “Where now?”, I asked.
“My ma”, Anna replied.
“Can we trust her?”, James asked.
“For God’s sake, she’s my Mom!”, Anna answered angrily.
“Hello Mi... um...”, I began. The chemistry teacher made it extremely clear that it was sexist and insulting that men are called “Mister” while women are known as “Miss” if unmarried or “Mrs” after marriage. And under no circumstances was she ever to be referred to by her given name. Accordingly we were never quite sure what exactly to call her, pretty much everything usually ended up with a comment on the derogatory status of modern woman. Some of it made sense, but it was a peculiar mindset to have in a school full of boys. Thankfully her daughter, Anna, was quite happy to be called “Anna”. It was grossly informal, but practically nobody ever puts prefixes in front of given names, she was only “Miss Anna” to people wanting to make a point about them being older and wiser or something like that. And anyway, female teachers were just called “Miss” regardless of age or marital status, and male teachers were just called “Sir” despite not a one of them ever likely to qualify for a knighthood. It’s just what they were called. But I did agree that it was abhorrent to refer to teachers by their given names. They can hardly expect to command respect when they’re like “Yo homey, call me Dave” or something that no actual living person would ever have said seriously.
“We need to ask you a question and we need a completely honest reply”, I said.
“No, you cannot date my daughter. You’re both too young.”
Damn! Did anybody in this place think of anything other than sex? I brushed it off and went straight to the question, “What do you think of the Headmaster?”
“It is not for me to...”, she began.
“Mom! Just answer the goddamn question!”, Anna shouted.
“Anna-you-listen-to-me-NOW-if-you-ever-use-language-like-that...”, came the quick-fire bollocking.
“Excuse me”, David said.
“Please, answer the question and if the response is correct, we’ll have worse language coming out of your mouth in a matter of minutes”, David explained.
I pulled up a lab stool and sat right in front of the teacher. “Here’s how it is”, I said, “There’s something really shitty going down and we need an adult as frankly we’re lost and we don’t know who to trust any more.”
Fire burned in her eyes, but she remained silent.
“Your daughter says we can trust you, and I trust her, but we still want to confirm as this is so shitty. And yes, I am using the word shitty right in front of you three times now. I remember exactly how much detention you gave me last time I said a swear word in class, so believe me, we’re not here looking to pick a fight and I don’t want detention until the end of term. We. Need. Help. Please.”
The fire in her eyes was now replaced with mild but growing surprise.
“Would it be sufficient if I said he was a weasel and I never feel comfortable being in the same room with him?”
“Anna will stay here and put her arms around you, trust me, you’ll need it. We’ll be in the cloakroom. Watching this once was once too many”, I said. David placed the portable video player on the table. James pulled and rolled the blinds while I hooked the video player into the TV up in the corner of the room. Anna waited until we had scarpered before pressing Play. Then she hugged her mother extremely tightly and said “Seeing this twice, it’s torture” before bursting into tears.
After twenty minutes, the chemistry teacher came and sat down in the cloakroom. “I recognised both of the boys”, she said. “Where was that recorded and how many times more?”
“Head’s bedroom. Five times in total. Different men. Different boys, except we think the first boy was also the fifth.”
“Fu....dge”, and I could see that took quite a lot of self control.
We sat in silence for a few moments.
“I’m Abigail, by the way. I think after this, you boys have the right to call me by my name. I’m Abigail and I am going to kick his goddamn ass.”
The chemistry teacher, Abigail, stood up. I grabbed her arm, and shook my head.
“No? So how will you feel if it happens again tonight, huh?”, she asked.
“About as sick as we feel right now”, David said, “but we need to find out who these people are.”
Abigail sat down slowly. “I cannot permit my daughter to come here any more.”
“She’ll be okay, she’s a girl”, I said.
“Amy needs her”, I said.
Abigail’s eyebrows went up. I bet she was thinking I was the needy one.
“Amy knows. Right now she’s on my bed quivering. She... took it about as well as you might imagine”, I said.
“Well that was mighty stupid of you.”
“She invited herself. So did James and your daughter, for that matter.”
“So you and David were planning to watch this alone?”
“Yes mis...ma...um...Abigail mi... yes”, David stumbled.
“Why? Why you? I’m starting to wonder exactly how you two got involved in this. Where ever there is trouble, you two seem to be right in the middle of it.”
“Oh, that’s easy”, David said, “It was very nearly me getting reamed up the butt.”
Abigail took her glasses off. Put them on. Took them off. Then burst into tears.
I took her hand and said “Yeah, that about sums it up.”
We waited for Abigail to compose herself. I glanced in at Anna who was still sitting with her head over the side of those big ceramic sinks. I think she’d thrown up.
“There’s something else”, David said.
Abigail put her glasses on, then held her head in her hands.
“Firstly, because there are actually two things you need to be aware of”, I said, “firstly if you watched the video all the way through you’ll see quite a number of prefects involved. At this point we don’t know how many, but the best approach given their extremely cliqueish behaviour is to assume all of them.”
“And secondly”, David continued, “several of my scores have fallen through the floor following my... uh... departure from this incident. Where I used to get As and Bs I now get Es and if I’m lucky a D.”
Abigail jerked her head up, an expression of aghast horror on her face.
“Yeah”, David said reacting to it, “It looks like some of the teachers may be involved in some way.”
I threw in a disclaimer, “But we need to stress that we are basing this on his scores being unexpectedly marked down in a manner that seems to be vindicative, we have not actually seen any of the faculty directly involved and the only member of staff known to be a part of this is the Head himself.”
“It’s pretty suspicious, don’t you think?”, she asked us. We nodded agreement.
She then asked David to list the subjects where his scores were lower than he thought was justified. He wasn’t sure about maths because he did feel he was struggling a bit with maths, and none of us would believe the fun loving Irish bloke would be involved in such things. The other subjects, the other teachers, it was more clear cut. Good scores to rubbish scores overnight. Abigail said she would see if she could pull the result history from the school server. I told her that her user login would have administrator access by this evening. When pressed to explain, I went into long geeky length about the general lack of security on the Econet network. She shushed me, getting the point. I told her that the data on the wire was not encoded in any way, and if we could snoop on the backbone cabling to pick up passwords as people logged in, so could others snoop. She was not to look for anything to do with David, she was to pull the entire fourth form and dump it to floppy disc. Then do the same with the third form. That was to help be a cover, make it a little less obvious. Then just look at the data off the floppy. The software would do that if the machine was disconnected from the network, just load the software, then unplug the network lead when it asks what file to open.
And whatever she did, she had to act exactly the same as before. In every way. Not a single whisper of hope to the boys involved, nothing.
I went back up to my study, slammed the door shut, then sat on Amy. I’d forgotten she was still there. She sat up behind me and put her arms around me. I kind of thought I was probably supposed to be doing that to her, but it felt good so I just sat there. And burst into tears. My friend. My... a lot of expletives bounced around in my head, but even they didn’t express how I felt. I’m not sure I even had the language to describe my feelings.
That evening Anna was nowhere to be found. I wonder if Abigail had changed her mind and decided to keep her daughter away? Amy took her place, helping to make jokes while we were setting up everything for the evening news bulletin as we tried to “act normal”. Amy usually turned up in her school uniform, the same as Anna’s, a brown pinafore dress over a mute orange blouse, so it was quite a surprise to see her dressed in a basic black outfit - black ballet flats, tights, skirt, fuzzy jumper, blouse, all of it black. Actually, Amy was bordering on hyperactive. So unlike her normal self I couldn’t help but wonder if she had taken something? Or maybe this was her version of getting smashed? The news report started well, but about halfway through the Head turned up to make an impromptu announcement and Amy promptly fainted. He gave her a withering glare and then ignored her as he went on at length about the consequences of young boys taunting geese. There were indeed geese around the pond, as well as ducks and the other sorts of fauna usually associated with ponds. And, yes, from time to time some of the pupils decided that taunting the geese would be a fun thing to do. The best way to handle the geese was apparently to stand still. They would threaten, peck, and then get bored. Running away was not much use as an angry goose can outrun an adult in full-flapping-attack-mode, never mind a child. And the best example of what not to do? The number of boys that tried to evade the geese by running into the pond, receiving a sharp reminder that geese are water birds so considerably more at home in the water than a human. There was a saying about saying “boo” to a goose, implying that it takes a brave or stupid person to do such a thing. We, unfortunately, had plenty of people who tried. And failed.
Speaking of boo to a goose, that expression could also be used to describe Amy, so the fact that she fainted the moment the Head appeared didn’t seem particularly unusual. We knew why, but we just passed it off as him appearing from nowhere and scaring her.
The following afternoon I received message that we were to go to the chemistry lab. Anna was waiting there wearing a rather spectacular outfit. Black ballet flats like Amy’s, black leggings, and a black skirt with a yellow and green pattern, a matching blouse, and a jumper that was black with gold bits in it. And for the first time ever, an Alice band. That was a pretty standard hair accessory for Amy, this was the first time I’d seen Anna wearing one.
She led us to the minibus. Us being Amy, David and myself. She politely told James that it was a short outing for working out some programme details for an article on fourth form chemistry and since he was a third former... Abigail started the engine and we departed. This was all a bit sudden, but I had a feeling that it had nothing to do with schoolwork.
We drove in silence to Basingstoke, which was a considerable distance. Pulling up outside of a chemist on the outskirts of town, Anna went in. A couple of minutes later she returned with a small paper pouch.
“Photos?”, I asked.
“Why here? Why not somewhere like Worthing or Littlehampton?”
Anna got into the minibus and we started off again, heading north east on the A33 towards London. We didn’t get far, turning right just before the Wellington Country Park, through Eversley and then Finchhampstead. On the way up towards Wokingham we went right at a pub to end up on this little country lane. Through a ford, and then a sudden sharp right to end up on an embankment beside the ford.
“Anna used to like to come here when she was younger”, Abigail explained.
“I...haven’t been here in ages!”, Anna said, hopping out of the minibus and sitting on the embankment wall.
We joined her, and she carefully opened the paper pouch she was holding. I recognised the photos, even in the twilight. The men that were in the video. Photos of their cars with registration plates clearly visible.
“I took these last night”, Abigail said, “Made an excuse for absence and then drove to that chemist this morning, told them I needed these photos quickly, they said they could courier them and they will be ready mid afternoon. I had to pay up front and it was shockingly expensive, but it was worth it, don’t you think?”
“They’re pretty good”, David replied.
“It’s out of your hands now boys”, Abigail said.
“Excuse me?”, I replied. Secretly I was glad that this whole problem could be pushed onto somebody else.
“I will be going into Worthing tomorrow to meet up with a kind of a policeman. He deals with these sorts of things. We’re going to meet up at the library where I will slip him the photos and the video”, she explained, adding, “Anna slept yesterday afternoon so she could get up when everybody was in bed and copy the video.”
“You’re handing over a copy?”, I asked.
“No, I have the original. And the copy. You have nothing any more. Anna also removed that little receiver box. It’s best that you have nothing that can tie you to any of this”, she said.
“Fair enough. Isn’t it getting late?”, I asked. It was starting to get hard to see.
“It’s okay. I already talked to James. We left him behind to run the evening programmes.”
“Give him a chance, he might take over once you take your exams and leave.”
“That’s a year and a half away.”
Abigail took the photos and put them into the glovebox of the minibus. Then she said to Anna, “Go on then, play like you used to”, and gave her a shove. Anna landed knee deep in the water.
“Oh my God Mom, it’s January, it’s freezing cold!”
Anna tried to splash Abigail and ended up with most of it landing on Amy. Being brave boys we scarpered back into the minibus and watched as Amy and Anna got into quite the water fight. Despite the obvious cold, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.
By the time vision was all but impossible, the two soggy girls climbed into the minibus and sat in the seats at the back, leaving puddles all over the floor. Nobody would be bothered by this, the minibus often brought the football team back from away matches and they did pretty much the same thing on rainy days, the difference being that they wore their studded football boots which left piles of mud all over the place. I had once, as punishment, been given a hose pipe and told to wash the back of the bus.
I watched the streetlights on the way back. I was actually surprisingly glad that this was no longer our problem.
It was David that said it, late that night as we were shutting down the transmitter and packing up the equipment. “Feel’s like a huge weight has been lifted, doesn’t it?”
Days came, days went. We had half term and I went home knowing full well that David was staying there. He wasn’t alone though. Amy turned down her mother’s offer of a holiday to hang around. Matron didn’t fuss or comment, so I suspect Abigail had told her. Well, that was thankfully a discussion I wasn’t involved in. Actually, thinking about it, Matron had become quite a bit friendlier, and seemed to practically push Amy in our direction. Amy, of course, was about as much of a flake as usual, but she tried really hard. Even managed to stay conscious when the Head came to make his stupid announcements. Well, most of the time.
David had devised an ingenious little system that monitored the state of the buttons on the control panel. If none of the main camera buttons were pressed, it would randomly choose either the fishtank camera, or the camera mounted on one of the chimneys looking down over the oval. Then it would start a song playing. In between each song was a short tone. The tone would be detected by the controller which would use it as an indication to repeat the cycle, playing the next song and possibly changing the camera. If, however, a button marked “pre-roll” was pressed, it would stop the tape playing and switch to the teletext character generator which was expected to be displaying some sort of message. By doing this, we had a system that would start playing music automatically, and could be gracefully brought out of that state prior to broadcasting an actual programme. The tape player was a modified Walkman that was able to automatically play the tape backwards so the listener could hear both sides without turning the tape over. This gave us an hour and a half of playback using C-90 tapes. Unfortunately the tape would then start to play normally, in other words repeating everything. David was working on adding a second tone in order to switch one tape player off and start a second one, to theoretically expand the playback time to three hours.
My problem was that I felt it might make us more responsive if people could send us messages, so I wrote a small program for the BBC Micro machines that would deposit messages on the FileStore to be picked up by the MailMan software on my new Archimedes computer. Well, it was actually an A3000 so was the baby of the family, with a correspondingly lower price tag. The problem was that there were many messages, and most of them said exactly one word - Kylie. The does-anything-ever-actually-happen soap Neighbours was ridiculously popular, but I really hated the song “Especially For You” with a passion so said it would never ever be played on SIBA. The song was plummeting in the charts as well, being in the thirties or the like. I guess everybody else was getting bored of it by now too. So look, I was doing a public service by not playing it. Click, delete, click, delete, click, delete. I really ought to write a filter to automatically delete anything with “Kylie” in the text.
A message that caught our attention was a third former calling himself “Rad” who wanted to do a program about tracking down who has been stealing from the school changing rooms. Set up some cameras, watch to see what turns up, go and interview the culprit. I wasn’t so sure that charging in with cameras running was the best way to solve a problem like that, but the headmaster had dropped a few hints that if we are to continue then we ought to let other people contribute. I sent back a message and arranged for James to instruct him on how to set up the two cameras we loaned him.
That Thursday lunchtime, David and I were trying to enjoy that cream slop with aubergine in it that I can’t remember the name of when James ran in and said we’d better put the TV on.
“Aren’t you supposed to be...?”, I asked.
“I was, until our new friend booted me out and blocked the door.”
Somebody else had already turned on the TV.
The picture jerked to the right. There was somebody sitting with a sheet over them. Beside them was a TV supposedly showing the thief in slow-motion. The TV was little more than a flickering ghostly blue blob on the screen. Rad obviously didn’t realise he had to turn the brightness down for it to be visible to the video camera.
“Yo, check this out. It’s the asshole who’s been stealing all them fings outta locker rooms. And check this out...”, said Rad, “He’s a damn nigger!”, as he pulled off the sheet to reveal a second former bound and gagged and tied to a chair.
Rad switched off the ‘evidence’ TV, and walked behind the kid.
“The only good nigger is a dead nigger. What d’you reckon I should do with this scum?”
“Ah, I got it. Let’s have a trial. I shall be judge, jury and executioner”. Rad said the word “executioner” in a really slow and haunting way. “Nigger - are you guilty?”
Rad placed his hand on the kid’s head and rocked it forwards and backwards.
“Well, court done with. You are sentenced to death by being thrown outta dat dere window. Any last requests? No? Right then...”
It took us a surprisingly short time to make it back to study 11. I noticed a camera in the hallway beside a TV. I guess Rad was expecting this.
“Here come the SIBA heroes!”, Rad shouted, then sung out “Here! To! Save! The! Day!” like the theme to some cartoon from the fifties.
James pointed to a fire extinguisher. I nodded. We picked it up and walked back to the door. It was locked. James and I grabbed a side of the extinguisher each and walked back, then ran at the door. A little bit of property damage would be trivial compared to keeping this broadcast running.
The door crashed open and we fell through. David stepped over us and delivered a fist into Rad’s face. As I picked myself up, James took hold of the camera and David pinned Rad to the floor. I went over and untied the kid.
“It wasn’t me you asshole! I was at home that weekend!”, he yelled.
“Whoa, calm down!”, I said.
“Okay Rad, how do you know it is him?”, I asked.
“He’s a nigger.”
“He’s a nigger. What more do I have to say? He is a god-damned nigger. He did it. They all did it.”
I nodded. So it was like that, then.
I sent the black kid back to his dormitory and faced the camera.
“Rad didn’t know this, but the kid in the video has already owned up and been suspended for a month. Oh, and the kid was from Southend, and white.”
I turned to Rad, “Do you hate everybody that isn’t like you?”
“Hey dude, I thought you were a friend. But you’re just like them. You are just...like...them”, Rad spouted. David released his grip so Rad could sit up.
“Let me take a guess. If you had thrown that kid out the window, you wouldn’t be a murderer because it was only another black kid. Is that about right?”, I asked, taking care to avoid using the offensive N-word.
“Wow dude! So you do understand the big deal. You got it exactly.”, Rad replied.
“You make me sick”, I said, “Sick!”.
“You backstabbing nigger lover!”, Rad yelled. “You defy the meaning of freedom of speech!”
Why is it always that numpties with idiotic opinions turn to some supposed rules of freedom of speech when people want them to shut up? Freedom of speech trumps hate speech? I don’t think so...
I nodded so David grabbed Rad and pushed him onto a chair. James quickly set up a camera on Rad and a camera on myself, then lit us with the studio spotlights and turned off the rest of the lighting. David set up a third camera to cover both of us, then stood beside Rad in case he got any clever ideas. James manned the control panel.
Quickest damn studio change we’ve ever done. And live.
Switch to me. “So you think I deny the idea of freedom of speech?”
Switch to Rad. “Yes.”
Switch to me. “Why? Because I don’t think your diatribe is suitable material for broadcast?”
Switch to Rad. Silence. Switch to both.
“You what? Dia-what?”, Rad said.
Switch to me. “Diatribe. You are spouting offensive rubbish. You picked on that black kid... why? Because it was an easy score?”
Switch to Rad. “Why do those niggers want to be treated as equal? They are not.”
Switch to me. “Good, ignore my question. Okay, well, we are entering the nineties with stronger minority rights, women’s lib and all. D’you know why? It’s all because of bigoted people like you.”
Switch to Rad. “Yes, I am a bigot and I’m proud if it. My dig is the chicks should serve the guys. From making dinner to washing up, even sucking on my...”
“Yes, well... You are proud of being a narrow-minded intolerant git?”, I asked.
“What’s wrong with hating niggers? And Jews. Hell, Yanks and Spiks and Krauts and Commies...”
Switch to me. “So, in short, you hate everybody?”
Switch to Rad. “Yes.”
Switch to me. “What about if somebody hated you?”
Switch to Rad. “I’d kick their ass.”
Switch to me. “Interesting opinion. You can hate, but cannot handle being hated. Well, assuming you manage to stay as a pupil at this school, there is no way in hell you are coming into this room ever again.”
Switch to Rad. “You did exactly what I thought you would. You walk in, throw big words around, and try to kick me out. Where’s the freedom of speech in that?”
Switch to me. “Freedom of speech is an illusion. It is a concept designed to allow you to say things against the leadership without being punished for it. I can state that I don’t like Thatcher and doing so won’t land me in prison. That’s what freedom of speech is about, it isn’t a concept that gives you some sort of right to offend as many people as you can in one sentence.”
Switch to Rad. “Hah!”
Switch to me. “You want freedom of speech? Okay... I loathe you. You are a sick bastard and the sheer thought of you makes my skin shiver. You are brain-damaged. The blacks aren’t defective. The Jews, women, and whatever other nationalities you insulted just now... they aren’t defective either. It’s you.”
Switch to Rad.
Switch to both.
“Furthermore”, I said, “you are speaking normally now, not that bizarre speech pattern you used earlier. Heh, I bet you don’t even want to be called Rad right now.”
Rad leapt for me. David leapt for him. It ended up with a broken table and Rad bleeding from the nose. Just as David was easing up, Rad broke free and tore out of the room. James followed with the high-band transmitter, so we could see him vault the banister, twist around, then swung himself onto the floor below. Which was actually kind of impressive. We lost sight for a few moments as James was nowhere near that athletic. We caught sight of him by the bursar’s room, he was passing through the door to the oval. Gone again, until James reached the door. Rad was halfway across the oval. He veered to the right, ran into Amy, and decked her in the face. Seed scattered on the ground. Amy was so utterly inoffensive that she was the only person who never ever had trouble feeding the geese and ducks. And now she was lying face down on the grass.
Some of the skateboarders were running towards Rad, but they were beaten by a flock of extremely angry geese who mobbed him to the ground. He tried to throw a few punches but had to defend his face from a barrage of beaks. Once he was down the geese started to drift away so one of the braver skateboarders approached and smacked him across the head with the board.
James caught up with Amy, still out of it, but being picked up by some of the other skateboarders. James approached Rad, knelt down, pushed the camera into his face, and said “Now you know what hate feels like.”
Some of the prefects arrived and dragged Rad to the staff room. Twenty minutes later, he was taken off in an ambulance, treated for superficial wounds and several broken bones. He never returned.
I looked at David, “Abigail is right. We always seem to end up in the middle of trouble. Why is that?”
“Easy”, David replied, “Cameras. Arseholes just can’t resist the temptation to be arseholes.”
“That’s a scary thought.”
“Just wait until people like that are older and get the ability to vote.”
“Very well done, Johnson”. The craft and design teacher held up a workbook. Johnson’s workbook. The logos of the car manufacturers Renault and Citroën were visible, along with annotations of size, angle, and such.
“Johnson understood the question, didn’t you boy? He understood what I was asking for when I set you the task of comparing the simplicity of these two well known logos, and the feelings and brand recognition that each invoked. Johnson understood.”
He placed the workbook on the front desk and it was passed back in a line to Johnson, who sat there smug as anything.
“For the rest of you...”, he picked up the next workbook, “...Smith, pathetic!”. He flung the workbook at Stuart Smith, who was hit in the face with it as he failed to catch. We were allowed to catch. We were allowed to deflect. We were not allowed to duck. “Henry, miserable!” Another workbook flew through the air.
“Horrible! Abysmal! Tragic! Unfathomable! Feeble! Woeful! Pitiful! Deplorable! Lamentable! Wretched!”, a volley of workbooks flew across the room, one of them mine.
“And this final one. Peterson, stand up boy. This worthless excuse of a boy is fourteen years old and still writes using different colours.” He held up the admittedly colourful page for all to see. “Nouns are red, verbs are green, adjectives are blue, everything else is black. Is that right, boy?”
Peterson mumbled an affimative reply.
“It’s just pitiable that you don’t seem to be able to tell which is which, I see green nouns and black verbs”, came the scathing criticism, “so if you have not figured this much out by your age, you should just quit school and make yourself useful collecting rubbish. I’m sure there is an appropriate YTS scheme to abuse your inconsiderable talents.”
“Come on mate, this is a school for...”, Peterson attempted to argue.
“The only mates I have come in packets of three. Sit down boy, and shut up. You are useless and I’m not interested.”
So, this was going to be a lesson where little will happen except our teacher will derive a perverse pleasure in insulting us in every way imaginable. And we were expected to sit and take it. Which most of us did, as we figured that if he was that bloody brilliant, he’d have a real job, not failing at teaching us how to draw other people’s designs. That said, it takes a certain type of asshole to call a person useless for colour-coding their words in a school of special needs students, a large number of which suffered from some form of dyslexia. We even had a synesthete, though I very much doubt that this particular teacher would have a clue how to spell the word, never mind know what it meant.
Leaning back on my chair with it resting on just two legs, I rested my own legs on the study desk. I heard the kettle click off, but I ignored it for the moment. I was going to read Anna the brief outline of my chemistry prep, all six lines of it. “Aspirin traditionally comes from the insides of a certain type of tree. More commonly, such medicines are created from coal tar derivatives. The chemical composition and breakdown are identical. However it is known, but not shouted about, that synthetic medicines are much more carcinogenic than their natural counterparts. There are many many things we do not understand. There are many things we have to just accept without proof...... Well, how was it?”
Anna looked at me. I got the feeling she thought my short essay on organic chemistry was taking a few liberties. “Try this... Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds. Because of the strength of carbon bonding, it can form many different compounds. These compounds are known as the homologous series.”
“Nah”, I shrugged, “I know what organic is, your mother knows I know. So I want to challenge chemistry. The compounds are the same but somehow different.”
“You know, a polish priest called Nicholas Copernicus had some ideas about the universe back in 1514. He suggested that the sun was at the centre and the planets spun around it. This was in marked contrast to the earth being in the centre. Originally, his ideas were circulated anonymously because he didn’t want to be marked as a heretic.”
“Science and medicine know exactly what is going on, and anything else is either a side-effect or irrelevant. There is a well-known quote which goes something like ‘Medicine provides drugs, which doctors know little about, to treat illnesses, which doctors know less about, in human beings, which doctors know nothing about’. You may be right in what you say but the powers that be will ignore you. Your speech doesn’t fit in to their cosy little idea of how the world is.”
“Whoa, are you selling out?”, I asked.
“No. After my last essay was marked down on political grounds, I feel I’m no longer a girl but one of these angst-ridden adolescents. Honest... The teacher wrote ’I disagree entirely with your point of view, F’. I went home and cried. That F will kill my A average.”
“Why not appeal? I mean, if you screwed up you deserve an F... But over a difference of opinion? Get real!”
Anna made me rewrite my prep to be something that vaguely resembled what we were being taught. Bo-ring.
I was rudely woken at half past three in the morning by the fire alarm. As we all mustered around the oval in the rain, noting that nothing was on fire and then realising that police cars were everywhere, Matron shouted into the P.E. teacher’s megaphone, then backed away surprised by the result. A little more softly she said we were to go back in, get changed into whatever the hell we liked, and then go on a woods run and preferably walk it. Anybody still in the school building in five minutes would be expelled.
There was a stampede back to the dormys. I walked over Matron.
“You’re seriously sending us around the woods in the middle of the night in a rainstorm?”, I asked.
“Five minutes counts for you too. No cameras, no excuses.”
“Is this about what I think it’s about?”
“Please take Amy with you.”
I sprinted back to my study, noting that the police had cordoned off the lower study block. I got changed into uniform. I don’t have a waterproof coat so if I’m going to get wet, it won’t be in casuals. Four minutes fifteen seconds, I was back at the oval. Amy ran over to meet me. She had chosen her uniform too. I wonder if we were expected to be out of the way until into morning time?
Then, as a big group, we all set off making jokes about the stupidity of us going around the woods in the pitch black. I wasn’t the only one to notice the prefects were absent. Most people put that down to them being the ones enforcing the rule about what happened if you stayed too long. We turned to the left and headed down the lane. I could hear everybody but could barely see a thing. A few thought to bring torches. I could have kicked myself, but I wasn’t thinking anything much when I got dressed.
Up ahead I saw the music teacher, Sarah, waving a lantern and indicating the way to the track through the woods. Oh boy, her light blouse was drenched, nearly transparent, and she still wasn’t wearing a bra. I’m sure that will have made James’ entire life worthwhile. We turned as indicated.
A little further on was Anna. She had thought to wear a plastic rain jacket with a cute kitten design. She was indicating the way too. When she saw us, she gave Amy a hug and apologised, then pushed the two off us in the other direction, towards the old camping ground.
“Why’s she sorry?”, I asked.
“That’s my jacket. I was supposed to stay in my room but mummy thought I’d be better out of the way too.”
A few more steps and Amy gasped. “My shoes are full of water, there’s a really big puddle here.” She pushed me to the side and I could hear her splashing around as she looked for the side. Together we walked into the hedge, so we tried the other way and ended up walking into another hedge.
“Here, climb on my back”, Amy said.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re tiny”, I replied.
I took her hand and walked into the puddle. No way I was getting a piggy-back from Amy. We walked through and out the other side. A little further on, I suggested we sit down beside the hedge and wait for sunrise. I sat cross-legged on the ground. Amy felt me to see how I was sitting, then she lay down on the ground and put her head on my lap. I reached down and felt mud. There’s no way she’d be wearing that to school today. Nor me, come to think of it.
“What do you look like?”, Anna laughed.
I looked up. It was daylight. I had fallen asleep sitting up. Amy had turned over in her sleep several times so her brown dress was now a different sort of brown. It was still raining.
“Most everybody is back at school now”, Anna said.
“What time is it?”, I asked.
Amy squeaked and stood up, whispering something about being late to school. Mud and stuff poured out of her clothes so she just stood there looking confused.
“Uh... What happened?”, she asked.
“Don’t you remember? Fire alarm, everybody kicked out, we laid up here instead of walking”, I explained.
“Don’t think you’ll be going to school today”, I added.
Back at school I wasn’t that messy so I got changed and dried my hair with a towel. Anna took Amy and stood her in the shower. Wasn’t the first time Amy has had to do that, probably won’t be the last. At least this time she could say it was only mud. Afterwards, Anna undressed Amy and put her into a dressing down that looked like a kimono. We got together in my study, everybody leaving their shoes on the barely-warm radiator.
“I guess that’s that then?”, I asked.
“Looks like it”, Anna said. She didn’t know any more than we did.
As lessons were cancelled for the day, we just stayed in the study. Others in their dormitories. The weirdest thing was when lunch was prepared and the teachers brought the trays out to the dormitories. There was a strict rule about food in the dormitory that was thrown out the window. The rules were less strict for study users, but they were only permitted snacks not entire meals. That rule too went out the window.
Matron brought us our lunch. She thanked me for looking after Amy, then said the kimono bathrobe looked good on her. It did. Unfortunately she did not volunteer any further information. Maybe she didn’t know?
We watched children’s TV, then Newsround, then turned the TV off. I sat on my bed reading “Just as Long as We’re Together”. Anna sat on the chair still engrossed in “A Brief History of Time”. Amy just sat on the edge of my bed and rested her head on my shoulder. She seemed content not doing anything.
Matron returned once again, this time with a tray for dinner. She brought up a big bowl of spaghetti, a pitcher of sauce, and three plates. We could serve ourselves. She placed the tray on the fitted desk and burst into tears.
“Mummy?”, Amy asked.
Matron took a moment to compose herself. “Well... uh... um... I... you... I’m sure you know why what happened happened, yes?” It was a rhetorical question as she continued with, “The police came. You saw that. There was only one prefect left. The rest were taken for questioning. The men were apprehended. Some are school trustees, I think they said one was a banker. There are others too, but that’s for the police to work out. Somehow the headmaster evaded the police. His last known location was a ferry to Calais. There’s an arrest warrant out for him if he ever comes back to this country.” She started crying again, “We have spent most of the day contacting the families of those children involved. Thirty seven of them. Thirty two have already withdrawn from here, and at this time another twenty seven parents have removed their children. I don’t blame them, but that’s a third of the school gone in one day.”
“The Head got away?”, Anna asked.
“What about the teachers thought to have been involved?”, I asked.
“From what I heard, the police were offering immunity from prosecution in return for evidence as they think the other staff were only involved in a peripheral sense. They will almost certainly be asked to leave. It’s just a matter of who comes forward.”
Matron excused herself.
“Bastard!”, I said, “Head got away!”
“Doesn’t matter”, Anna replied, “looking at who the other men were, the Head was probably small fish, not the big instigator.”
“Still a bastard.”
“That was never in doubt.”
We ate, preferring not to talk too much about what school life might be like tomorrow. Instead we wasted time imagining what sort of messages we would receive. Today there was no school, and no broadcasts either. I mused that with SIBA and everything else shut down, maybe I ought to fire up the transmitter and broadcast “Especially For You” on a loop for the next couple of hours.
At quarter to nine, Abigail came in and pinned “Prefect” badges on Anna and Amy. Then she left without saying a word, until Anna caught her by saying “Prefect? We aren’t even pupils here!”
“No, but you’re around all the time and we really need trustworthy people.”
“Thanks”, I muttered under my breath.
“When you are a fifth former, you’ll be one too”, Abigail told me.
I gestured to Amy. A prefect. A girl. A non-pupil. And... actually I wasn’t certain how old Amy was, if she was a second former or a third former.
“Special dispensation. She’s really really nice. Even the geese rose to defend her. She can wear that with pride.”
“And all of you”, Abigail continued, “Well done! Jolly good show! What! They would have got away with it, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.”
It was weird hearing Abigail mock Britishisms with an American accent, but I couldn’t help giggle at the Scooby reference.
“Well girls, there’s a bunk up there if you wanna crash here tonight”, I said, getting into bed. Weird day, but really glad it was all over. Now just the aftermath to deal with.
“Amy will stay, I have prefect duties to attend to!”, Anna said, rushing out and leaving a flustered Amy staring at the door.
She turned to me, then looked down. “I... top bunk... bad?”
It took a moment to realise that she wasn’t asking a question. I reached up and pulled down the duvet and laid it on top of mine. Amy crawled in the space between the two duvets and fell asleep pretty much the moment she was horizontal. I put my arm around her and stared at the ceiling.
Yeah. Really glad it was over. Now I can go back to worrying about normal things like which prep I’d forgotten to do and which teacher was going to spring a snap test on us.
This is the story I wanted to write in 1990 or so. But I didn't feel that I had the maturity or the cynicism to do it justice. While the SIBA series is somewhere between lighthearted and weird, a factor of the boarding school environment is that you're going to eventually run into a lunatic whose defining characteristic is an incredible amount of hate; and then there's the problem of a group of young boys, some of whom will be emotionally needy (if not plain unstable), and that such an environment is a magnet for certain types of people. Both of these comprise the heart of Dalliances, for it would be remiss to say that such things never happen. As I write this right now, there are plenty of stories in the news about a former (long dead) Prime Minister who may have been a kiddie fiddler. Sadly, it happens. Probably more than most people would think possible.
This is the story I wanted to write in 1990 or so, but because I didn't have the maturity of cynicism to do it justice, I instead wrote an execrable story about devil worshippers, which pretty much makes my entire point for me.
Flash forward to 2017 when I decided to dust off the SIBA series, and since I would like this to be the definitive release, I felt that I had to buckle down and tell this story. It had been simmering for a quarter century or so.
As it happens, I have never in my life written a story as easily as this one. I didn't plan anything. No rough, nothing. Over the course of two long evenings during the latter half of my summer holiday (you know, the part after pay day when it rained non-stop), I just sat at my computer, fired up OvationPro, and this story poured out. I patched in some scenes from the earlier "Betrothed" story for continuity, but otherwise it was as if this story was ready. The oven went ping, and out it came...
What surprised me most, asides from how quickly this story came together, was how easily I could remember the layout of a building I've not walked within since 1990.
And, as usual, lots of real-life anecdotes for added richness. Dorm raids with sandbags? It was how the third formers introduced themselves to the first formers...when I was in first form. So, yeah, no lovely midnight feasts like in the books and movies. Just older kids running into the dorm in the middle of the night screaming and wielding loaded pillows, and running away just as quickly leaving some of us angry, some of us in tears, and some of us unconscious. And as for teachers who enjoyed victimising the weak - I think I could name one or two of those from every school I've ever been to.
I hope you enjoyed the story.
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|Commenter, 7th October 2017, 10:38|
A remarkable change of mood to highlight some of the less attractive issues of boarding school life. I especially like how one can feel the pain of the members of staff who were not aware of what was going on.
|Clive Semmens, 14th March 2019, 17:52|
This is superb and deserves a bigger readership than I think it's getting.
Or, from that other teacher, F-.
(Felicity? Marte? Find out!)
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Last read at 19:53 on 2021/04/16.
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