St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys
Michaelmas Term, September 7, 2005
Ah, yes. There she blows. St. Oswald’s, a metaphor for eternity if ever I saw one, heaving into view like something from a boys’ adventure book—a Jules Verne, perhaps, as the mysterious island peers over the horizon. Or a Rider Haggard, in which sinister natives cower and lurk at the gates of the Forbidden City. You can see the Bell Tower from the road, the peaked turret that has never housed a bell a haunt for pigeons—and lately, mice. And behind it, the long spine of the Middle Corridor, mullioned with light, and the illuminated front of the Chapel, the rose window casting its fugitive gleam across the walk of lindens.
Home at last, I tell myself, and the thought is at the same time a benediction and a curse.
Silly old fool, comes my silent retort, in a voice eerily like that of my colleague and longtime adversary, Dr. “Sourgrape” Devine. I’ll be sixty-six on Bonfire Night, with a hundred and two terms under my fast-expanding belt—what will it take to keep me away?
Good question. It’s a drug, of course. Like the occasional Gauloise, taken in secret behind the door of my office, it helps to keep me going. And my ticker pills, of course, prescribed for me by my doctor after last year’s little incident—along with a good deal of unwanted advice on smoking, stress, and pastry.
My doctor is an ex-pupil of mine (the Village is full of them nowa
days), which makes him hard to take seriously. He means well, for all that, and I do try my best to humor him. But stress is a part of the job, and besides, what would the old place become without me? Thirty-four years I’ve served on this ship. I know it from every angle. Master and boy; teacher trainee; form tutor; Head of Classics; and now, Old Centurion. Might as well try to knock the gargoyles off the Chapel roof as dislodge old Straitley, and if the management doesn’t like it, at least they have the sense to keep quiet on the subject. I did the School a service last year—the year that, after a promising start, became our annus horribilis—besides which my Latin results were the best we’ve had since ’89. At the time, I’ll admit it, I was close to giving in. But murder, scandal, deception, and fraud have driven the old ship onto the rocks. How could I leave St. Oswald’s to the scavengers and the wrecking crew?
So here I am again, two days before the official stampede, watering the plants, clearing my desk (well, I aim to), and generally planning next year’s campaign with the cunning and precision of a Marcus Aurelius. Or so I hope my colleagues will think, when they arrive this afternoon for the ritual preterm staff meeting to find me already installed in my room in the Bell Tower, smoking a quiet cigarette and fully conversant with the new term’s class lists, timetable, gossip, and dirt, the stuff on which St. Oswald’s dines like the graveyard kings of old.
I owe much of my insider information to a single source. Jimmy Watt. My secret weapon. Reinstated after last year and promoted to the position of Assistant Porter. No intellectual, but sound, and good with his hands—besides which Jimmy owes me a favor or two, and through him I hear much of what is denied my more elevated colleagues.
“Morning, boss.” His face is round and good-natured, lit now with a brilliant smile. “Good holiday?”
“Yes, thank you, Jimmy.” I try to remember the last time I went on holiday. Unless you count that School trip to France in 1978, when Eric Scoones took the boys on foot to see the Sacré-Coeur by night, blissfully unaware that the famous basilica sits in the middle of the most notorious red-light district in Paris.
I suppose I must have had a holiday—if you can call it that, with its burden of wasps and cricket and bare midriffs and unseasonal rainstorms, with tea in the afternoons and the mantelpiece clock ticking
away the long and somnolent summer days. Gods, I think, it’s good to be back. But how long for? A term? A year? What next? What then?
Holidays, I suppose. Leisure activities. Novels. An allotment, perhaps, somewhere up by the Abbey Road estate, where I will grow rhubarb and listen to the wireless. Hobbies. Pub quizzes. Sudoku, whatever that is. All the things I postponed in the name of duty, back in the days when such things were still to be desired. Depressing prospect. A St. Oswald’s Master has no time for frivolities, and it is far, far too late for me to develop a taste for them now.
“Yes, back in the jug for another stint,” I told Jimmy, with a smile so that he would know that I was joking. “You’d almost think I liked it here.”
Jimmy gave his honking laugh. I suppose it must seem strange to him; but then, of course, he’s still young. He has his pastimes—such as they are—and the great white whale of St. Oswald’s has not yet consumed him entirely.
“Any sign of the new New Head?”
“He’s in his office. I’ve seen his car.”
“He didn’t introduce himself? Pop into the Lodge for a cup of tea?”
Jimmy grinned and shook his head. I expect he thought I was joking. But a good Headmaster knows his staff before he takes the helm of the ship—and that means the cleaners, the Porter, and the ladies who make the tea. A good Head values the rank and file at least as much as the officers. But since his appointment in early June, sightings of the new New Head have been infrequent, to say the least. We know him by name and, to some extent, by reputation. But only a privileged few have seen his face. Rumours abound, however. Meetings held behind closed doors; whispers of insolvency and academic failure; all compounded by a far from friendly School Inspection which, added to the most appalling set of exam results in St. Oswald’s memory, has brought us to this all-time low; a Crisis Intervention.
The dreadful events of last year; the murder of a schoolboy, the stabbing of a member of staff, and the scandal that split the Common Room still reverberate, even now, and there have been many casualties. We lost our Second Master, Pat Bishop, as a result of those events, and since his departure there has been unrest, unease, and downright rebel
lion among the rank and file, while Bob Strange—the Third Master, a clever administrator, but with no flair for people—tried to keep the old galley from sinking with the help of computers, management courses, and internal assessment.
It didn’t work. Our Captain, the erstwhile New Head, unaccustomed to command, began to flounder. There were mutterings in the ranks; some staff deserted (or walked the plank) and finally, in June, came confirmation from the Governors of what they called an “emergency management restructuring.” In layman’s terms, the hemlock bowl.
Not that I cared much for the man. Suits come, Suits go, and in sixteen years he’d achieved little for us, and still less for himself. St. Oswald’s tradition dictates that a Headmaster shall always be known as the New Head, until he has earned the respect of the crew. The old New Head never managed this. A state-school man in shades of gray, whose tendency was to dwell on the smaller transgressions of St. Oswald’s dress code rather than turn his mind to the general health of the corpus scolari.
The new man, rumour tells us, is very different. A Super Head, trained in PR—and sound, according to Bob Strange, which makes him eminently qualified to take the helm of our leaky old ship and to steer us triumphantly into happier waters. I personally doubt this. He sounds like another Suit to me—and his absence throughout the summer term, when he could have been getting to know his staff, suggests that he will be one of those men who expects the menial work to be done invisibly, by others, while he enjoys the benefits; the publicity and the glory.
His name, we know, is Harrington. It happens to be the name of a boy I once disliked very strongly: not the new man’s fault, of course, nor is it such an uncommon name, but I can’t help wishing that his name had been Smith or Robinson. We know little else about him, except that he is a guru of sorts, having already saved two failing schools in Oldham and in Milton Keynes; is a prominent member of Survivors, a charitable organization dealing with child abuse; and has an MBE from the Queen. We also know, thanks to Jimmy Watt, that he is young, good-looking, well dressed, and drives a silver BMW (a fact that already ensures him Jimmy’s wholehearted support and admiration).
“That’s what St. Oswald’s needs,” says Bob Strange. “A new broom, to sweep away the cobwebs.”
Well, I, for one, liked the cobwebs. I suspect that to Strange I am one myself. But our Bob has hopes of promotion. At forty-six he is no longer a Young Gun, and his flair for technology, which might have been unusual twenty years ago, is now the norm for the new generation. Failing the Headship, he covets the post of Second Master—and with reason; he’s been doing Pat Bishop’s job since Christmas. Of course, a post at St. Oswald’s is always more than the sum of its parts, and the things that made Bishop a success—his heart, his humanity, his genuine affection for the boys and for the School—had nothing to do with his job description. Strange has never quite grasped this, and the rest of us have long since given up hope that he might emerge from his cocoon of paperwork as a flamboyant Second Master. On the other hand, it could be that the new man will need inside help; someone to show him the ropes, perhaps, and to give him the dirt on his pirate crew.
Strange most certainly fits the bill. His glaucous eyes see everything: who is late for lessons; who has trouble with the boys; who steals the Common Room copy of the Daily Mail to read in his form room during Prep. He keeps to his office most of the time, and yet his ears are always open. He has his spies among the staff (some even suspect him of using hidden cameras), and as a result he is respected and feared, though seldom actually liked. He runs the timetable, and those unfortunate enough to be out of favor get more than their fair share of Friday-afternoon cover and lower third-form sets. A sneak, in short. A management stooge.
This morning as I made my way up the stairs to my form room, I wondered—with some small apprehension—what the coming term might bring. So many things have changed since last year; so many colleagues reshuffled, or gone. Bishop; Pearman; Grachvogel; the Head—and, of course, our own Miss Dare. I could have been among them—in fact, I fully intended to retire, but for the state of the dear old place, and the gnawing conviction that the moment I left, Bob Strange would delete my subject from the curriculum.
Besides, what would I do without the perpetual soap opera of St. Oswald’s to sustain me? And my boys—my Brodie Boys—who else but I could look after them?
The scent reached me as I opened the door. “Eau de Room 59,” a
blend so familiar that for ten months a year I barely notice its presence. And yet here it is again, as nostalgic as burning leaves; a comforting scent of wood, books, polish, geranium, mice, old socks, and perhaps a hint of illicit Gauloise. I lit one in celebration, knowing that when Dr. Sourgrape Devine—Head of German, Head of Amadeus House, and (more’s the pity) Health and Safety Officer to St. Oswald’s and the world—made his entrance, such luxuries as a quiet smoke, a pasty, or even a licorice allsort (of which I have a small supply hidden in my desk drawer) would be once more forbidden to me.
Speak of the devil. Damn and blast. He must have got in early this morning, because I’d barely blown out the match when I heard a sound of footsteps at my door and glimpsed the end of Devine’s sharp nose behind the panel of frosted glass.
“Morning, Devine!” I disposed of match and cigarette under the lid of the Master’s desk.
“Morning, Straitley.” The nose twitched, but refrained from comment.
“Yes, thank you.” He and I both know that Dr. Devine hates holidays. On the other hand, as a married man, he has, I suppose, some responsibility to Mrs. Devine, and so grudgingly, once a year, he packs off to the French Riviera and spends two weeks planning lessons in the shade while his wife—a well-preserved fifty—sunbathes, plays tennis, and goes to the spa. “And you?”
“Oh yes. Great fun. Been here long?”
“Been coming in since last week,” he said, with a casualness that filled me with suspicion. “Things to do. You know what it’s like.”
I certainly do. Any excuse to get back to St. Oswald’s. He’s an ambitious chap in spite of his age (sixty, damn him, and looks younger), and he must have guessed that there might soon be a Third Master’s job going begging, or if not, some new and highly paid administrative post. Besides, the New Head will surely need a friend on the ground, and Devine sees no reason for Bob Strange to be the only contender.
“Inducting new staff?” I said slyly.
I know that this year, appointments have been mainly overseen by Bob Strange, the New Head, and the Bursar; and that as Head of German, Devine feels that he should have had a more central role in
the department’s restructuring. Kitty Teague’s promotion to Head of French, for instance, he feels to be inappropriate, and he is aggrieved at the fact that two new appointments have already been made, largely at her discretion. For myself, I’m rather fond of Miss Teague, whom I’ve known since she was a teacher trainee. I think she’ll make a splendid Head of French, and I suspect old Devine knows it too.
As for his own department—well. The new German Master, his protégé, already strikes me as dubious. His name precedes him—Markowicz—though apparently his busy schedule means he won’t be in School until next week. I know that kind of member of staff—the sort who puts administrative work before the lowly business of actually teaching his subject—and I’m not sure his appointment will reflect well on his Head of Department.
“I’ve not seen much of the new staff,” said Devine in a frosty voice. “Even the New Head—” He sniffed. Some say the eyes are the mirror of the soul, but in Devine’s case it is the nose that expresses most fully the hidden emotions. His had turned pink, like an albino rabbit’s, and twitched resentfully.
“Have a licorice allsort,” I said.
He looked at me as if I’d offered him cocaine. “No thanks,” he replied. “I don’t indulge.”
“A pity,” I said, selecting a yellow one. “I’ve always thought a little indulgence would do you the world of good.”
He gave me a look. “You would,” he said. “Have you seen him? The New Head, I mean?”
“I’m beginning to think he’s the Invisible Man. Still, he’ll be here at eleven o’clock for the Headmaster’s Briefing. I imagine everyone’s curious to see how he’s going to handle the situation. It’s not every day you get to meet a Super Head.”
Devine gave a percussive sniff.
“I take it you’ve met.”
“We exchanged a few words.”
It struck me then that there was something distinctly odd about his manner. Dr. Devine has never been the most outspoken of people, especially where criticism of the management is concerned. I wondered what the new man had said to him to provoke such a reaction.
“And?” I prompted.
But Devine had regained his usual composure. His allegiance to the management means that whatever his personal dissatisfactions, he does not discuss them with the baser element. “You’ll see,” he said, and left the room, leaving in his wake an unmistakable odor of sanctity.
• • •
I spent the following couple of hours going over my records, writing in my diary, and enjoying the occasional licorice allsort. St. Oswald’s has its own diaries, distributed to boys and staff. The boys use theirs for class notes and Prep; the staff, for planning lessons. Or rather, they did, until three years ago, when the Bursar decreed that the expense was too much of a burden. One more of our traditions gone, although I have kept a small supply of diaries, for personal use, in my stockroom. It’s not the expense I begrudge, but the fact that, on my shelf at home, I have a neatly matched set of thirty-odd School diaries, with our crest in blue and gold, and the School’s motto beneath it. It seems somehow immoral now, at the end of my career, to adopt a new design. The boys may choose what they like, of course, but I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that Prep belongs in a Prep diary, not in a Filofax, or (in the case of my boy Allen-Jones) a shocking-pink notebook with Hello Kitty on the cover.
Tomorrow, the boys return to School. It’s the moment for which I’ve been waiting all summer. Unlike Devine, who has been known to say, without a trace of irony, that the School would be far more efficient without a single boy in the place, I’m very fond of my boys, which is why I have always refused to take on extra administrative tasks, preferring to teach in room 59 rather than push papers in an office. This year, however, the first day of term will mostly serve as a vehicle for various Briefings, plus as a time to digest (and dispute) aspects of the timetable; including free periods, and extracurricular duties.
My new timetable is unusually sparse, I notice with disapproval; only twenty-one periods a week compared with the usual thirty-five. Of course everyone knows that Bob Strange (a physicist) views Latin with suspicion, and would like nothing better than to see it vanish from the timetable. So far, however, I have managed to keep control of my one-man department, and in defiance of probability, the results have
remained consistently good. Still, this year I see that (no doubt with the help of the New Head), Bob has finally managed (using the National Curriculum as his low excuse) to relegate Latin to an optional subject, and moreover, has placed it in direct competition with German, which means that the serious linguists—those who want to read Languages at A-level and beyond—will have no choice but to opt for German as their second language, and either delay their study of Classics until the Sixth Form (absurd) or (worse still) choose to study Latin at lunchtimes, as an extracurricular activity.
Extracurricular! There was a time in St. Oswald’s history when everything was conducted in Latin, including Break, and boys were caned for getting their cases wrong. Rather before my time, I’ll admit. Nevertheless, how dare they?
I spent the next few minutes cursing both the New Head and Bob Strange in Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon. Then I cursed Dr. Devine, who doubtless will benefit most from the decision, and who has resented my subject since the day he arrived. Devine and I go back a long time—thirty-four years, to be exact—and during that time he has made it clear that he considers Latin obsolete and possibly subversive, interfering as it does with his Teutonic ambition. He is, if not a friend of Strange, at least a fellow traveler; and I suspect that this relegation of my subject to the option pool is at least partly due to his influence. Still, id imperfectum manet dum confectum erit, as I think Clint Eastwood may have said. There may be one more showdown before either of us hangs up his guns.
At twenty to eleven, I collected my gown from its brass hook at the back of the stock-cupboard door. Twenty years ago, all members of staff wore gowns in School. Now I am more or less alone in continuing the tradition. Still, an academic gown conceals a multitude of sins—chalk dust, tea stains, a copy of Vergil’s poetry set aside for the more tedious meetings. Not that this one would be dull, I thought as I slung on my battered old gown and made my way down to the Staff Common Room in good time for tea and a chocolate biscuit before the Headmaster’s first Briefing of term.
To my surprise, I found the Common Room already crowded. Curiosity, I suppose—besides which there’s not a lot of space when all the
staff get together, and, today of all days, no one wanted to miss the chance of a ringside seat.
My favorite chair was unoccupied. Second from the left, under the clock, at a comfortable angle of sixty degrees. Years of judicious lounging have molded that chair to my exact measurements, and it will take more than a change of Head to affect its contours. I poured a cup of tea from the urn and settled in happily.
Eric Scoones was already there. My colleague for over thirty years, and a friend since childhood, he has the same concerns as I—except that, being a Modern Linguist, he is considered more of an asset to the department, and therefore feels himself to be in a superior position to mine—a fact he likes to emphasize when he is feeling insecure, which, to be fair, is most of the time.
The years have left their mark on us all, but on Eric Scoones they have settled like barnacles. The boy I knew at eleven years old—small, clever enough to have skipped a School year, mischievous and quick to flee in the face of trouble—has become a brontosaur; a large, slow half Centurion with a drinker’s nose and an alarming tendency to wheeze when climbing stairs. The mischievous boy has become a man who sees every setback as a direct blow from the Almighty. A bitter man, who believes that Life has robbed him of pleasures as yet unspecified, and looks upon the success of his friends as a personal defeat. And yet, I’m fond of the old ass, as I believe he is fond of me.
“Good holiday, Straitley?”
Even after so many years, he calls me by my surname, just as he did when we were boys, more than fifty years ago.
I gave a noncommittal shrug. “I’m not sure holidays are my cup of tea. Too stressful.”
Eric gave me a look of weary superiority. “I wouldn’t have thought you could ever be stressed. Not with your workload.”
Eric sees my timetable, with its small class sizes and emphasis on the Upper School, as a kind of hobby; a pleasant escape from the realities of teaching Modern Languages. Thus, Eric maintains a pretence of being perpetually overworked, in spite of the fact that he has no form, and
therefore claims five extra hours a week to himself, while I have to cater to the needs of my boys, their work, and their parents. Having been an indifferent form tutor for the first ten years of his career, Eric now refuses to have a form, and rather despises, I suspect, the affection in which I hold my boys—a sentiment he feels to be undignified, inappropriate, and which will one day lead to trouble. In spite of this, he has a warm heart, which he hides (rather badly) beneath a facade of gruffness.
“Spotted any newbies yet?”
This was not an idle question. We lost quite a few people last year, including our Head of Department. This has left the Languages Department sadly depleted, with only the League of Nations (a husband-and-wife team of almost unbearable smugness), plus Eric, Devine, Kitty Teague—and, of course, myself—to man the departmental cannons.
Eric huffed. I took this as an expression of general dissatisfaction. I suspect he had his eye on the Head of Department’s post—in spite of the fact that he ought to be planning his retirement. But Eric is one of the old school, and the promotion of Kitty Teague seems to him unnatural. In our day, women were secretaries, or dinner-ladies, or cleaners. For one to be his superior now goes against every principle.
“It might as well be a girls’ school,” Eric said morosely. “Two more women appointed for French. That’s what you get when you appoint one as Head of Department.”
I drank my tea and forbore from comment. Male Languages graduates are like hens’ teeth in the teaching profession, and I’m sure Kitty’s judgment is perfectly sound. Still, I’m afraid the appointment of two women to our department is likely to result in a spate of ribaldry from certain of our colleagues—and I don’t expect the Bursar (who considers himself a wit) to refrain from comment.
“What about the Germans?” I said.
“Haven’t seen the new man yet. Apparently, he’s on a course. Won’t be here for another week.” Eric’s voice was listless. His opinion of members of staff who choose to go on courses, rather than stay in the classroom, is both salty and well documented.
“What about the New Head?”
Eric shrugged. “Not seen him yet. No one has, except the Inner Circle.”
“What about Devine?” I said, thinking back to the morning’s brief, uneasy encounter.
“Oh, he’s over the moon, of course. He thinks the Crisis Team walks on water.”
I shook my head. “I saw him today. He seemed a bit—preoccupied.”
“You mean, he was nosing around again. Sucking up to the Crisis Team in the name of Health and Safety.” Devine and Eric have never been friends. Eric holds Devine responsible for his own lack of promotion, and Devine considers Eric to be moody and inefficient.
“Not this time,” I told him. “I got the feeling that somehow Devine wasn’t too impressed with the New Head.”
Eric looked skeptical. “Oxbridge man; education guru; charity worker; Superman. What else does he want?”
What else, indeed?
“Of course,” said Eric mournfully, “some might think that a Head should have spent at least a few years in the classroom. Some might question the wisdom of letting a state-school Yes-man into a place like St. Oswald’s.”
I could see his point, of course. A Head starts out at the chalk-face not in some PR hothouse. And yes, St. Oswald’s traditions are not those of the state sector. But crisis measures (and their Heads) are usually short-term investments. St. Oswald’s has stood for five hundred years. State-school man or not, I thought, how much damage could he do?
By now it was time for the meeting to start, and yet the famous Super Head still hadn’t made his appearance. What was the fellow waiting for? I suspected a showman, and pouring myself another cup of tea, I settled into my armchair and prepared to watch the show.
Five minutes later it began. The door opened; silence fell; a phalanx of Suits entered the room in arrow formation. Bob Strange was among them, his face oddly expressionless, flanked by Devine and the Bursar; but no one paid them much attention. Instead, all eyes were on the newcomers. Two men and one woman—all three smart and so well pressed you could have cut yourself on the creases. The New Head was at the tip of the arrow (I assumed the two Suits were his Crisis Team), and I had time to take in the cut of his suit, the shine on his shoes, and a smile that would have made a piano keyboard look narrow before
recognition surprised me into a muffled oath and the contents of my teacup soaked my trouser leg and began to trickle inexorably toward my shoes.
A Master never forgets a face, though boys’ names often come and go. I’d put down the name to coincidence—in over forty years of teaching, one tends to encounter most names more than once. But as soon as I saw his face, I knew that my instinct had been right.
Because I knew the man, you see. Dr. Harrington, MBE—Johnny Harrington of 3S—returned after twenty years’ absence to inflict fresh misery. There was no chance he wouldn’t recognize me; as he scanned the little crowd our eyes met and his smile broadened still further. He gave me a nod, as if greeting an old friend, and my heart sank like a doomed frigate.
Johnny Harrington, ye gods. My nemesis; my bête noire; the boy who almost cost me my job and cost the School a whole lot more. And now he’s a Headmaster, forsooth—not just a Head but a Super Head—and I could almost find it in me to regret the old New Head, brittle and ineffectual as he was, because a weak Head can easily be carried by a competent deputy or two, but a Super Head allows no one to be his bearer. A Super Head follows through. A Super Head steers his own ship—proudly, yea, even unto the rocks.
And unless young Harrington has changed beyond all recognition over the past twenty years, my guess is that those rocks are precisely where we’re heading.