‘The days passed.’
– Alfred Hitchcock, Downhill, 1927
We are all second, third or even fifth sons. We were sent to Wakeley Boarding School aged eight for Year Five and stayed on until Year Twenty. We didn’t count how many years that was, or fully comprehend how much time constituted a year; we were just excited to go off to boarding school like our fathers and older brothers, to leave the nursery. We were disappointed not to go to the same school as our fathers and eldest brothers, but so were our sisters, who were not sent to school at all. We were given a brochure from Wakeley: there was an illustration of a beautiful, dark-haired boy playing rugby on the cover. Our nannies packed up our teddies and toys, photos of our families, shortbread and chocolate. Some of our nannies wept; we did not know why: we assumed we would see them again soon.
Wakeley was in the middle of the countryside. Which county, we couldn’t say. Some of us remembered our fathers saying they were taking us to Derbyshire, others to Somerset, though a senior student with a passion for nature said based on the studies he did of animals and flora on the school grounds we were in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. The land surrounding the school was beautiful and hilly; the grounds so extensive we had no need to go beyond them. There was a stable with horses, a swimming pool, tennis courts, a library, a graveyard, a chapel and several dormitories each with its own housemaster and tutors. We had advanced lessons: every year for biology, a zoo donated an elephant fetus for us to dissect and for months the specimens lay in tanks and jars of formaldehyde in our classroom like wrinkled old raincoats. There was a big grey computer that could do sums. Languages we could study ranged from Arabic to Russian.
As younger boys, we had to do tuck shop runs for the seniors in our house who had their own rooms, a mark of their status. Chocolate bars, haemorrhoid cream, newspapers, boiled sweets, Gentleman’s Relish, malted milk, cigarettes. One senior would cane us if his newspaper was wet. We didn’t like the seniors and didn’t understand how they could look like our fathers and grandfathers yet were still boys at school wearing the same striped ties and caps as us. The headmaster told us they were special boys who had a lot to learn before going out into the world and that boys who entered the world too soon missed school and their friends terribly. We half forgot about these older students unless doing chores for them. We had our own classes, games, celebrations, clubs – the Cheese Club, the Ancient Rome Club, the French Club. The older boys blended into the antique furniture of our houses, red-faced and dusty like velvet armchairs or spindly and brown like side tables.
As we got older and became seniors ourselves, we were dependent on those tuck shop excursions, those moments of forced tenderness from the younger boys. We recognised the disappointment of a damp newspaper, pages stuck together, but as new, young boys we did
The main chore we had to do for the seniors was make toast and cut it into little pieces for them. We saw house tutors tie bibs around their necks for each meal and accompany them to the bathroom or push their wheelchairs throughout the halls of Wakeley, cut their toenails in the evening and insert their false teeth in the morning. Our teachers told us it was gracious to help the elderly. We had to ignore the sounds of them soiling themselves in the halls, or when they pinched our bottoms, weeping as they did so, their own backsides sagging like abandoned bowls of porridge.
The boys in the fourteenth form, who resembled our teachers and our half-forgotten fathers, were still hearty and athletic. They didn’t need our help and they ignored us completely. They had their own clubrooms where they drank and argued. Occasionally one would come into our dorms at night very drunk and the tutors had to chase them off using brooms and smiles. Sometimes they were so quiet that none of us, not even the tutors, heard them, and we would wake up in seething, mysterious pain to find one of them sleeping beside us, hulking and stinking.
Everyone competed to prepare toast for Ivor, a head boy and senior. He didn’t look like any of the other seniors: he was still beautiful, he was still captain of the rugby team, played lacrosse, swam, sang and took part in all sorts of games.
He never asked for anything from the tuck shop but we brought him presents anyway. We learned that he liked rhubarb and custard sweets and disliked the newspapers – he never read them and rolled the pages into balls he threw at other boys, sometimes filled with flour so that those he hit were left with white faces like clowns.
Ivor was the only one we served toast whole to, he didn’t need it quartered.
For breakfast, Ivor had toast with anchovy paste, a beef sausage split down the middle and filled with marmalade, and a cup of tea with neither milk nor sugar.
He ate heartily of whatever was on offer for lunch and supper: steak pie with stew, boiled fish, roast, kedgeree, wellington, rarebit, ham, puddings, and in later years, lasagne and curry, chips, baked potatoes and chilli.
Ivor had dark curly hair that never went grey, red lips, flushed cheeks and a pallor so powdery some of us thought he wore make-up.
The so-called ‘make-up’ did not come off or run in the shower or bath, nor did he sweat when he played sports.
When he was playing a rugby game, a few of us snuck into his room and ransacked it looking for make-up or hair dye, but we didn’t find any. In the drawers of his desk and under his mattress we found only old playing cards and a purple wrapper from a chocolate bar.
On his desk was an unopened Kendal Mint Cake, three Rupert Annuals and his Greek books, a cup full of pens, a tin of rusty pen nibs and a jar of blue ink, a paper bag of stale penny sweets shaped like bottles and babies. He only wrote with dark blue ink and we imitated him. Most of the teachers could not tell the difference between dark blue and black, but we could.
Above his desk he had a picture of the Queen. When the Queen died, the image was replaced by a picture of the King, then later another king, and then a queen again. No one knew where the old pictures ended up. They were always in the same frame.
He had piles of sports things: a pig’s bladder football, wooden tennis rackets and lacrosse sticks made with sheep intestine webbing, yellowing cricket pads. On his bed was a dirty teddy bear with a crooked face named Bombozine. In between Bombozine’s legs were badly sewn stitches holding a hole together. There were milk stains on the legs, the fur stiff and bunched together.
He had a small taxidermy crocodile, mounted on his wall, and a wooden African mask. These items were a source of wonder to us.
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