“You have the wrong tie on. You’ll be in trouble.” The whisper came from the boy next to him, one whom he had never met before, how could he have done? This was his first day.
He knew nothing of rules concerning ties. He was frightened by the words. Were they advice? Were they a threat? Were they simply a statement of fact? He looked around the room; all strangers, all people who made him afraid.
“It’s only seventy miles. You’ll be able to come home twice a term.”
What did seventy miles mean? How far was it? The market town was twenty miles, and they went there once a week. The city was forty miles, and was visited hardly more than once a year. Seventy miles? Seventy miles was the distance to the seaside town where they holidayed for two weeks each August. Seventy miles was a different world. Seventy miles was a place where every name and every person was unknown. “Only seventy miles,” what did “only” mean? It was only “only” if it was compared with going to Scotland, or America, or Australia; only was not a word that went with a distance like seventy miles.
The school stood amidst remote and rugged moorland. The black and white photographs from its brochure had not captured its greyness. The stern granite walls, the dark slate roofs, the heavy sky that hang low over the hills. Had the bursar allowed the expense of colour photography, the pictures would still have been monochrome.
“Hey, you, new boy. You’re wearing the wrong tie.” A sneering red haired boy loomed close; the unpleasant smell of his breath combined with an aroma of sweat.
“Silence in the line!” called a housemaster, a voice that was shrill and angry.
The bell rang and they filed into the dining hall. He hovered uncertainly, not knowing where to go. Each boy had gone to his own place at the long tables that filled the hall. “What are you doing, boy?” cried the shrill-voiced housemaster.
He looked around in a spirit of desperation, wishing for the chair in the kitchen at home, his family around the table. “Come over here,” hissed a voice behind him. He turned and was grabbed and pushed to a vacant seat. “Don’t get him cross, he’ll take it out on all of us.”
The momentary delay caused by his disorientation had distracted the housemaster to the point he missed a slap administered by one boy to another at the far end of the room. The injured boy stifled the cry he was about to make. Giggles spread around the hall.
“Be quiet! Silence!” The housemaster was a man on edge, a man who seemed to struggle for control. The new boy’s arrival was forgotten as the master turned to the victim of the assault. “What’s wrong with you boy?”
The boy who had been slapped held a hand against his cheek. “Nothing, sir.”
The giggles around the hall became more audible. Whispers began.
“Silence!” shouted the housemaster. “I will have silence!” His face had assumed a deepening shade of red. He seemed to physically shake with a growing anger.
The new boy wished for the gentleness of the family mealtimes. Why would anyone want a life like this? Why would anyone come to such a place? He had been here only hours yet could sense the brutality. He looked around the hall, boys stared fixedly at tables or chairs or the floor, none daring to catch the eye of another and so precipitate another burst of the giggling that so provoked the ire of the man who oversaw them.
There was a silence in the hall, but it was an uneasy silence; it was the quietness of people cowed by bullying and threats, not the tranquility of a group who were silently attentive. The new boy lowered his eyes, pondering the grain of the wooden table top. His parents and sisters would be sitting down to their meal; there would be no fear at their table.
“We’ll say grace,” announced the housemaster, launching into a lengthy ex tempore monologue that told the deity how good he was at producing crops and providing food for those assembled and that told the boys how grateful they should be for such magnanimity. The prayer finally drew to a close and there were a few “amens” muttered; the majority of those present stood in a surly silence.
“Sit down,” called the housemaster. It seemed a cue for a concerted attempt by some to provoke another outburst from the man whose face had begin to lose some of is redness. Chairs seemed to be picked up and dropped to the floor so as to create as great a cacophony as possible.
Their efforts achieved their object. “Stand up, everyone! Stand up!” Even if there had been a deliberate intention to achieve an even greater noise, it could not have surpassed the volume of sound that ensued. Those still standing took the opportunity to further rattle their chairs against the wooden floorboards, whilst those who had sat down made no attempt to lift chairs as they stood up. The redness returned, “I will have silence,” he shouted. “I will have silence or everyone will go straight to bed after prep.”
The new boy inwardly recoiled at the housemaster’s words, surely he had no right to send people to bed? At home, bedtime was after the ten o’clock news, what time was it here? Why was such treatment allowed? Why should a bad-tempered man be allowed to send a school to bed because he could not control the boys or his temper? There was a rising sense of indignation in the new boy’s mind.
“Now, everyone, sit down – quietly.” The threat of going to bed early had struck home. The chairs were lifted and everyone sat in quiet compliance.
The serving of the meal began, boys being called table by table to the serving trolleys. Those at the new boy’s table introduced themselves advising him to keep his head down and keep quiet and there would not be too much trouble. The advice baffled him: why would he need to go around as if he felt shame or fear? In primary school the teacher had always told them to speak the truth and hold up their heads, now doing so would bring “trouble.”
It came to the the table’s turn to go for the meal. They shuffled up the hall and lined up to be served. The housemaster stood and watched with a scowl, as if disappointed that another misdemeanour had not occurred, as though unhappy his opportunity to apply the threatened sanction had passed.
The boys each took a plate from a stack and filed past the serving trolleys. A ladle of brown meat hit the plate with force, followed by a spoon of mashed potato and another of limp cabbage: this was dinner. The food tasted worse than it had looked and he looked around to discern the reaction of others. His table companions seemed to be eating with enthusiasm. One raised his head, “you’ll get used to it.” He ate, barely tasting the food. Pudding was sponge and custard, or appeared to be. Pots of tea were brought to the table; it was drunk with numerous spoons full of sugar.
As the meal drew to a close, two boys moved around the dining hall with a clipboard and pen. Eventually, they came to him. “Donations for the principal’s present,” they declared.
He was startled at the request and answered, “I don’t have any money with me.”
“You don’t need to have any money with you; they deduct it from your pocket money.”
“Do I have to give?”
“The principal is given a list of how much everyone has given. It’s easier just to give the amount everyone else gives, if you don’t the housemaster will ask you why.” He agreed to subscribe the amount given by everyone else, realising he had been forced to concede half of the already meagre pocket money for the week.
The tables were cleared and the housemaster announced boys should fetch books they needed for prep. Being a new boy, he had no books and had no prep. He sat uncertainly, best perhaps just to keep quiet, best to take the advice to keep his head down. The other boys returned with assorted text and exercise books. He pretended to look studious, staring intently at the table.
Silence fell, disturbed only by pages being turned, or pens being scraped against paper. The housemaster prowled, like a cat waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Perhaps the moment was inevitable. “You boy! New boy! Stand up!” He stood up, his legs quivering. “Where is your prep, boy?”
“I don’t have any, sir. I only arrived this evening.”
“You only arrived this evening? Do you think that is an excuse? You know there is a rule that if you have no prep, you bring a book from the library. Where is the book?”
He was going to object that he could not know rules he had never been told when he caught the eye of a boy sitting behind the housemaster who shook his head vigorously. To protest seemed inadvisable. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“You were mistaken, boy, as you are mistaken in the tie you are wearing. Where is your uniform tie?” He wished to express the thought that he believed he was wearing the uniform, but it would seem likely only to bring a further upbraiding.
“The tie is in the dormitory, sir.”
“You will fetch it now – and the time you take will be deducted from the time you have after prep.”
On the point of tears, he left the dining hall. The dimly lit corridors gave few clues as to the direction of the dormitory. On the third attempt, the right staircase was found. At the landing, a pair of housemasters stood in conversation. One turned, “what are you doing here during dinner?”
“I have the wrong tie, sir. I was sent to change it.”
The housemaster stood silent, staring. “You have the wrong shoes. You know you do not wear outside shoes in the dormitory. You will go to the boot room and change.” To have protested would have been futile. He had passed through the bootroom to leave footwear in the locker he had been allocated, now he must find it. Turning to retrace his steps, a voice called, “where are you going?”
“The bootroom, sir.”
“Since when has the bootroom been that way, boy? Are you stupid?”
“Sorry, sir,” he said.
The bootroom was found. The black shoes were exchanged for slippers. The correct tie was found in the dormitory. An ominous silence hung over the dining hall when he returned. The shrill-voiced housemaster glared. “You are trying my patience, boy. You come to dinner not knowing where to sit. You bring no prep. You wear the wrong tie. Now you come into the dining hall wearing slippers. Look, boy, do you see anyone else wearing slippers? You will go and change into proper shoes and, when you come back, you will stay here until supper time.”
Tears ran down his cheeks as he returned again to the lockers. At home, the family would have finished their meal and be sat watching the television. He imagined himself in his favourite spot at the end of the sofa, half-watching the programme, half-reading a book. It seemed strange how such ordinary things could seem so special. Sitting in the empty hall after the end of prep, his feeling was one for which he could find no words.
The hour between prep and something called “evening prayers” passed more quickly than he expected. A bell rang and the boys gathered again in the hall. His family were not religious; he assumed the prayers would be the perfunctory form of words used in primary school.
The shrill-voiced housemaster stood at a lectern at the end of the hall. “Quiet!” Conversations ceased. The housemaster opened a large black book. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Do you hear that boys? Do you hear what the Bible is saying to you? God will not despise us if our spirit is broken. Do you know what that means? Unless our spirit is broken, God will despise us. Unless we give up our own ideas and our own thoughts, God will despise us. And, boys, we all know what that means, we all know what will happen to us if God despises us, we will be thrown into the lake of everlasting fire.” The shrill-voiced housemaster seemed to grow visibly excited as he repeated what he had said and had proceeded to give a vivid description of what it would mean to be thrown into the lake of fire.
The boys sat looking indifferent, impervious to the words being spoken. Did this happen every evening? The harangue continued for fifteen minutes. “Boys, what would happen if you died tonight? Would you go to that lake of everlasting fire? Would you burn forever?” The housemaster closed with a supplication that the deity would make the boys listen to what they had heard.
After prayers, fifteen minutes were allowed for tea and biscuits. Then a further fifteen minutes was permitted before lights-out. By half past nine, the beds in the dormitories were occupied and there was silence.
He stared into the shadows across the room and listened to the breathing. Did people always remember the unhappiest day of their life? This day would always be the worst.