‘I’ll cane you, boy.’
The voice – baritone, resonant, strangely sorrowful – comes from the school library. The word ‘boy’ is elongated, with a slight flourish upwards, like a verbal serif, ‘I’ll cane you, booooooyyy.’
The new first-year boy hurries past the library door, trembling, near tears: what kind of place is this, where even libraries threaten you with the cane?
‘I’ll cane you, boy’ follows him down the corridor.
At the end of the corridor there is a prefect, who snarls at him that he’s gone the wrong way round the one-way system, ‘Go back. Outside. Otherwise…’
The boy goes back, hurrying past the library door again, ‘I’ll cane you, boy!’
Eventually, he finds a door and bursts into daylight. He breathes in deeply, and looks up: the playground, a lunchtime battlefield, stretches out before him.
‘I heard your dad was a scab,’ hisses a fifth-year girl, ‘a scab from Scabland – Derby or Nottingham, somewhere shit like that.’ She shoves the new boy backwards. He crashes into a fifth-year boy, who seems very, very tall when he turns round to see what’s going on.
‘Oi, what d’you think you’re doing?’
‘He’s a fucking scab, Terry,’ says the girl. Two of the older boy’s friends also turn round at the word. They’re both wearing frayed NCB donkey jackets.
‘Who’s a scab?’
‘He is. Well, his dad was. Is.’
‘Is that true?’ ask the fifth-year boys, closing in.
The girl closes in too. ‘You calling me a liar?’
‘No. Please. I mean…’
‘What? Go on then: what do you mean?’ she says, shoving the new boy again. He stares upwards – the sky above him is all angry faces.
‘I mean, didn’t that finish two years ago? And my dad…’
‘It’s not finished. Never will be. Once a scab always a scab.’ She sneers at the boys, ‘Just listen to him. You can hear it in his accent. So fucking posh. Scab’s voice.’
‘Oh come on, what’s his voice got to do with it, Kez? You and your old man think everyone’s a scab, or a faggot.’
‘His voice’s got everything to do with it, Terry.’ She stamps down hard on the new boy’s foot. He yelps. ‘He’s not from round here. He’s come over from Scabland – you know, UDM country.’
‘But my dad wasn’t a scab. He couldn’t have been.’
‘Because he wasn’t a miner.’
She frowns. ‘Wasn’t a miner? What was he, then? Management? Pig?’
‘He was a teacher.’
‘And what’s he now then?’
‘He’s dead. He died.’ The new boy speaks breathlessly, not wanting to be stopped till he’s finished the story, ‘It was a few months ago. We didn’t live here then. We lived near Derby. He had a heart attack. That’s why me and my mum came here. To stay with grandpa. That’s why I’ve come to this school now, in June.’ He slows, out of breath, and adds quietly, ‘That’s why: because my dad died.’
The fifth-year boys glance at one another, back off slightly – as if he might be infected by something. ‘Okay, well then…’
The girl, though, isn’t about to give in – isn’t about to lose Terry’s attention now she has it. ‘He fucking deserved it. Fucking deserved to die. Scab.’
‘Hey, Kez, bit harsh. P’raps we ought to le…’
‘Nah. His dad was a scab. We can’t leave it.’
‘But my dad wasn’t a scab,’ says the new boy, desperate. ‘He wasn’t. Honest. I told you. He was a teacher.’
She spits on the new boy’s blazer at the word ‘teacher’. ‘A bloody teacher – that’s as bad as a scab. All of them’re against us. Scabs. Tories. The lot of them.’
‘I don’t think my dad was Conservative. I think he voted SDP or something.’
‘It’s all the same. Tory scum. Scab.’
She pushes the new boy into Terry. Terry pushes him back.
‘Come on, Kez. Leave him. He’s not worth it.’
The girl can’t leave it alone now she’s got this far. She pushes the new boy into one of the other fifth-year boys. They all start shoving him – the boys half-heartedly, Kez much harder. ‘My dad would’ve beaten the shit out of yours. Alive or dead,’ says Kez.
She shoves the new boy so hard, he stumbles and trips in Terry’s direction. Terry backs up, lets him fall to the ground, head-first.
The new boy is crying. One arm of his glasses is bent and he has a graze on the side of his head. Kez takes a step towards him, ready to stamp on him. Terry blocks her way, holds her arm. ‘Let him go, Kez, for fuck’s sake. He’s not worth it. And look – ’
Terry tilts his head to the left, and Kez glances in the direction he’s indicating. Across the playground, above the heads of the children, the deputy’s reptilian stare is slowly turning towards them.
While Kez is distracted, the new boy gets up, tries to put his glasses on straight and runs.
The new boy is back in the corridor, panting, leaning against the closed door. He touches his forehead. There’s a bit of blood on his fingertips. His head is stinging.
He looks up. The prefect from earlier has disappeared. The corridor is deserted, dark, quiet.
The new boy tiptoes down it, hoping he might get away with passing the library unheard.
‘I’ll cane you boy.’ The voice seems louder this time.
The new boy starts running, round the corner, straight into the prefect and Kez. How she got here so quickly, he has no idea. It’s almost spooky, he thinks, like a lot of things in this strange school.
‘You again!’ growls Kez, pushing him away.
‘You’ve been told before,’ says the prefect, who’s obviously one of Kez’s friends.
The new boy backs away, then turns and dashes round the corner, along the corridor again. He can hear footsteps coming after him.
He doesn’t know where to go: behind him are Kez and the prefect; outside, in the playground, are the fifth-year boys. He stops, trapped.
Kez and the prefect are right behind him.
He darts through the door to his right, into the library.
‘I’ll cane you, boy.’
Kez and the prefect skid to a halt in the doorway.
‘I’ll cane you all.’
They glare at the new boy, as he backs away from them, into the library. They don’t cross the threshold – as though it is enchanted, as if there’s some invisible barrier between the library and the outside world. The boy wonders what fresh hell he’s stepped into.
He bumps into something soft and swivels round to see what it is: a tatty armchair. A tall, painfully thin man is slumped in the armchair, wearing a beige suit and waistcoat, his fly-away hair wavering indecisively between blond and white.
The man in beige splutters something – somehow he’s managed to doze off in the few seconds since declaiming ‘I’ll cane you all’ – and half rises to his feet. His left hand reaches for a cane propped next to his chair.
‘What on earth are you doing in here, boy? I’ll cane you for this.’
The new boy now backs away from him, and then stops, realising he’s in another trap, stuck this time between a cane on the one hand, and Kez and the prefect on the other. There seems to be nowhere in this school which isn’t a trap, where he can be safe. He wants to go home. And even there are tears, shouts, his grandpa’s belt.
‘Sorry, sir, I…’
‘And what are you two staring at?’ the man in beige declares at the library doorway, brandishing his cane at Kez and the prefect. ‘Get away from there, or I’ll cane you too.’ He steps over to the door and slams it in their faces.
Then he turns on the new boy, tapping the cane against his other hand, testing it out, rehearsing for a beating. He advances towards the boy, who shrinks into his over-sized uniform.
‘Please, sir, I… Please…’
The man in beige glowers over the new boy, testing the cane on his own right palm with increasing force – almost as if he wants to hurt himself.
‘Please, sir, I was only…’
The man glances down at his palm. ‘My skin’s so tough these days. Can’t seem to get through to it, however much I try. Your skin, though, is nice and young and tender. It’ll hurt a lot. Well it would do if…’
The new boy is trembling, wishing he were back in the playground. At least he understands the kids there. He lets out a sob.
In response, the man’s shoulders droop – he seems to lose height in front of the boy’s eyes.
‘Oh, for goodness sake, less of that.’ The man props the cane against the side of the armchair, reaches into his breast pocket and takes out a handkerchief the size of the boy’s head. ‘That’s quite enough. Blow your nose, boy.’ The boy does as he’s told, and hands back the handkerchief. The man takes it, folds it neatly, and puts it away. Then he steps over to his armchair and slumps into it. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘that’s better. Enough excitement for one lunchtime.’
The boy is still sniffing. ‘I thought you were going to cane me, sir.’
‘Oh, do be quiet,’ the man says. ‘Stop snivelling. Empty threat and all that.’ He’s staring at a television in the corner opposite, sandwiched between library shelves. A test match is on. The volume is down low: all the boy can hear is a hum, the odd crack of ball on bat, funereal commentary. The man in beige seems hypnotised by the TV: his eyes move, indeed, his whole head moves, almost imperceptibly, with the ball, following it each time it’s bowled, each time it’s shot across the field.
‘I don’t understand, sir,’ he says, looking from screen to man and back again.
‘Empty threat, boy,’ says the man, still staring at the screen. ‘Like most things in life.’
‘What’s an empty threat?’
‘That,’ says the man, nodding his head to one side, in the vague direction of the cane. ‘I might threaten you with it – so used to doing so after a whole lifetime, I can’t seem to stop – but technically I am not permitted to use it any longer. I’m told it’s now against the law, boy. The law is an ass, of course. But my opinion and experience notwithstanding, the trusty cane, teacher’s long-time friend and ally, is obsolete, out of time – a bit like oneself.’
‘Oh,’ says the boy, nodding slowly. In theory, he is aware that corporal punishment has been banned; in practice, though, he cannot quite believe it – and the ghost of violence seems to haunt the whole school, top to bottom. There are threats, empty or otherwise, everywhere.
‘Empty threats, you know, can be very effective. For instance, they keep people out of here.’ For a moment, the man turns to the boy, an eyebrow raised, ‘By and large, that is.’ The man’s gaze returns to the test match.
The boy shifts his weight from one leg to the other. He would leave of his own accord – he knows he isn’t really welcome – except for the thought of what’s outside, beyond the enchanted library. He suspects the man will tell him to go any minute; and he half-expects that Kez and the prefect will still be standing outside the library door when he opens it.
Instead, the man sighs, ‘Ah, the good old days, boy. The cane. Discipline. Culture. What have we done?’ His voice quietens, deepens, ‘“Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintances are dead.”’
‘What’s that, sir? I don’t understand, sir.’
‘I’m sure you don’t, boy. No-one does any longer. People keep telling me they don’t understand me – that the pupils don’t understand me. At some point, I seem to have lost the ability to communicate with a younger generation, to work out what is an appropriate register for youthful ears. Or perhaps I never had it. It was hardly a priority years ago. During my own school years, I don’t recall any of our masters ever adapting their diction or syntax to suit different age groups. Communication has become so difficult, so stratified, don’t you think?’
The boy shakes his head and nods at the same time.
‘Well never mind.’ The man looks up again at the boy, then leans over to his right, and draws a plastic chair over, next to his. He pats it. ‘To return to your question, boy. It was a quotation from some long-forgotten playwright called William Shakespeare. You may have heard of him, you may not. One cannot be certain these days. Anyway, while you are here, you might as well sit down and watch some of this godforsaken test match with me. England, naturally, is losing to one of her ex-colonies.’
The boy sits down next to the man in beige. The man reaches over – without taking his eyes off the screen – and offers the boy a long finger. The boy looks down at it and then decides he’s meant to shake it. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ says the man. ‘I am Mr Chandler. And you?’
The new boy hesitates.
‘Come on, spit it out,’ says Mr Chandler. ‘You must know who you are.’
‘It’s not that, sir,’ says the boy. ‘It’s just…’ It’s just that the question is unexpected: this is the first time since the boy arrived at the school that anyone has asked him his name.
At half past three, Kez and Terry are standing outside the school gates, as crowds of kids – most of whom are smaller than them – swarm past. Terry is about to light Kez’s cigarette, when the latter suddenly lunges away and fishes out of the crowd, by the collar, the new boy.
‘Trying to sneak past us, scab?’ she asks, shaking him.
Terry yawns. ‘Oh, come on, Kez, leave him. Let’s have a smoke in peace.’
‘I can’t leave him. He’s a scab. My dad won’t ever leave scabs, won’t ever forget what they did. That’s what he says.’
Kez shakes the new boy. She’s strong – the boy isn’t sure his feet are touching the ground. It’s hard to breathe.
‘Please, let me down.’
She shakes him a bit more, then lets go of his collar. He drops down, gasping for breath; but before he can escape, she grabs him by the ear instead – in the same way she’s seen teachers grab pupils, in the years it was allowed. In the same way her dad grabbed her a few weeks ago, before he squashed her head against a wall.
The new boy squirms, tears rising to his eyes. ‘Please…’
‘Kez, come on,’ says Terry, exhaling smoke into the new boy’s face, ‘for fuck’s sake.’
‘No, I won’t come on. Look at him. Bloody worm.’ She squeezes, twists the new boy’s ear harder. He cries out. A few kids surging past peer over to see what’s happening. None intervene.
‘You got away from us at lunch, didn’t you – probably thought you’d get away now, too.’ She holds him down by the ear, almost twisting him into the ground – and speaks over his head at Terry, ‘You know where the runt escaped to? The library. He hid in there with Chandler. Chandler, for fuck’s sake.’ She laughs, like it’s a joke. Terry doesn’t join in, so she speaks directly to the new boy again, ‘Did you enjoy being in there with Chandler, scab? Two scabs together. Yeah, we know what he thinks – he’s a fucking Tory scab too.’ She speaks through her teeth, ‘Did he use the cane on you? Did he take down your trousers and beat the shit out of you? Did you enjoy it? Bet you did. You and Chandler are just the same. Gay scabs. Everyone knows about him. Everyone knows why he’s shut in the library. Can’t help himself touching boys, dirty bastard. And you’re the same. Fucking queers.’
The new boy is crying now, tears dropping onto the pavement. She’s still twisting his ear with one hand and is pulling his tie back with the other. He’s choking.
‘Kez, leave him,’ says Terry, taking one last drag of the cigarette and stubbing it out on the wall next to him. ‘He can’t breathe.’
Kez pulls the tie even harder. Her face is screwed up in anger. Terry looks at it. It reminds him of her father, who called him a ‘fucking queer’ last time he went round. He decides he doesn’t fancy Kez after all, never really has.
‘I said stop it.’ He grabs Kez’s wrist, wrenching it away from the new boy’s tie. She yells in pain and lets go of the ear as well. Terry pushes her hard – much harder than he’d intended – and she falls backwards. The crowd parts, and she lands on her back. One or two kids stop and point, giggling.
‘That’s enough,’ says Terry. He stares down at her for a moment, thinking he’s about to say sorry for hurting her, for pushing too hard. In the end, he doesn’t bother, he turns and stalks off.
The new boy doesn’t see any of this, because he’s already legged it in the other direction.
Next day, the new boy hides in the library again. He can’t think of anywhere else to go, and – after an initial ‘I’ll cane you, boy’ – Mr Chandler doesn’t seem to mind. He makes the boy a cup of tea and they sit watching the test match together. One of the English batsmen is bowled out.
‘Out again,’ says Mr Chandler. ‘What a shower this dear old England of ours is.’
‘Mr Chandler, sir,’ says the boy, who’s been shuffling awkwardly on the chair, mulling over some of the things Kez said yesterday. ‘Please can I ask you a question?’
‘You may indeed, if it helps you to keep still and stop that damned wriggling,’ says Mr Chandler. ‘You may ask me any question, as long as it is not “To be or not to be”. That one I cannot, in all honesty, answer.’
‘I don’t think that’s the question I want to ask,’ says the boy.
‘Go on then, out with it,’ says Mr Chandler.
‘I was wondering why you’re always in here, sir,’ says the boy. He knows – without quite understanding why – this is a big question to ask, and that it might hurt Mr Chandler’s feelings. But he needs to ask it, because he’s obscurely worried by Kez’s accusations, both about Mr Chandler and himself.
‘I am not always in here, boy,’ says Mr Chandler. ‘I do not spend the nights here, and I do sally forth on occasion to teach.’ His tone quietens, and he frowns a little. ‘Though admittedly, in that latter capacity, I am now restricted to teaching proletarian dullards how to spell their names, rather than leading intelligent pupils such as yourself through the grand corridors of Western culture. In that sense, yes, I am certainly confined, pedagogically speaking, to a small space, a room no bigger than this, as it were.’
The new boy doesn’t follow everything Mr Chandler says but knows that his question has not yet been answered. It makes him even more uncomfortable.
‘Why are you still shuffling, boy?’ asks Mr. Chandler, after a few seconds’ silence.
‘I know you’re not here all the time,’ says the boy – although he didn’t know, hadn’t thought about it, ‘but why are you in here most of the school day, sir?’ The boy takes a big bite of his tongue sandwich, and waits for the answer.
‘Because, to be frank,’ says Mr Chandler – and the boy wonders what’s coming, ‘to speak to you man to man, or rather man to boy, I am in the process of being rendered obsolete.’
‘I don’t understand, sir.’
‘That is to say, I am yesterday’s man, a relic of a bygone era, consigned to a state of semi-exile. Like Dante’s Virgil, I am banished to this armchair limbo, somewhere between employment and retirement.’ The boy jumps, as, all of a sudden, Mr Chandler stands, towers above him, declaiming:
‘I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.’
Seemingly exhausted by the effort, Mr Chandler sinks back into the armchair, breathing heavily. ‘Enough exercise for today,’ he says, picking up his cup and saucer, and sipping his tea.
‘In short,’ continues Mr Chandler, in a voice which reminds the boy of sunsets, ‘the powers that be will not grant me early retirement, but simultaneously abhor my teaching methods. Hence, I am to spend the twilight years of my so-called ‘career’ ensconced in this armchair, overseeing an under-used library, with occasional sallies to lead imbeciles towards the Holy Grail of a grade 4 CSE – or whatever they call these things nowadays.
‘Some teaching careers end on a high with a grand leaving-do, slaps on the back, a carriage clock. They are the comedies. Some careers end on a low, with nervous breakdowns, suicides. They are the tragedies. Then there are the careers, like my own, which merely fade away. There’s no term for those careers, no genre. They defy literature: they are neither comedy nor tragedy, neither Goodbye Mr Chips, nor The Browning Version.’
‘Oh,’ says the boy.
There’s something in that ‘Oh,’ which makes Mr Chandler angry – which causes him to slam down his cup and saucer on the low table in front of him. The boy jumps for a second time.
‘I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean…’
‘Of course I know what everyone says about me behind my back,’ sputters Mr Chandler, sending spittle flying in all directions. ‘Of course I am not unaware of the vile rumours which circulate this godforsaken dungeon – rumours which persist even when everyone knows they are malicious and entirely false.’ He hits the arm of his chair, and the broken blood vessels on his face turn pink, then red.
The boy tries to reassure him. ‘Please, sir. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’ve not heard any rumours.’ He swallows, quickly moving on from the lie. ‘Please, sir, don’t think about it. Have a Custard Cream.’
Mr Chandler glances down at the biscuit barrel, which the boy has opened and is offering to him. His shoulders relax. ‘Why am I being offered my own biscuits?’ he asks grumpily – and slumps back into his chair, muttering, ‘Of course, boy, I know what they say about me. I know their vile calumnies: that I still cane boys; that I enjoy caning boys too much to surrender the privilege; that I enjoy the pain and degradation of young boys in, shall we say, some kind of immoral or Wildean fashion.’
The boy shuffles to the edge of his chair. His face feels hot and he wants to leave.
Mr Chandler slowly turns his head towards the boy.
The boy really wants to leave now. ‘I’d better…’ he starts. He doesn’t get to the end of his sentence, though, before Mr Chandler interrupts. In this room, indeed, in this school in general, the boy hardly ever seems to reach the end of sentences.
Mr Chandler’s tone has changed again – he seems to combine so many different voices, so many different moods – and now he sounds like he’s giving a rehearsed speech, or defending himself in an imaginary courtroom. ‘While I readily confess my nostalgia for the good old days of canes, grammars and Latin; while I confess I believe wholeheartedly in the use of corporal punishment, and can see no future for educational discipline without it; while I view its renunciation as a symptom of the same left-wing lunacy which advocates unilateral disarmament on a national scale; and while I would also confess that I feel too old, too set in my ways to adjust to the new dispensation; despite all this, I can assert that my conscience is clear, and I have never once laid hands on a boy without good reason. I may be as full of sin as the next man, I may not be what in common parlance is known as a “pleasant person”, whatever that is; but the very thought of gaining sadistic pleasure from the act of disciplining another human being is utterly repugnant t to me. I would rather beat myself than have to administer punishment to others. It only causes me distress, that such a thing is necessary. But unfortunately sometimes it is necessary – I truly believe it to be so. As a final resort, it is our stay against confusion, our last line of defence against educational anarchy.’
Having reached the peroration of his speech, Mr Chandler pops the Custard Cream he’s been holding into his mouth and sinks back into the armchair. He mutters while chewing, ‘That “right-on” daughter of the 60s, Mrs Yaël, with her flower-print dresses and hippy songs, often takes great pleasure in telling me I am wrong, out-of-date, a dinosaur. “Mr Chandler,” she says to me, “you need to put that cane away. Those days are gone. Violence begets violence, don’t you know.” Clearly, boy, I do not, cannot agree, and happily tell her so: violence stops violence, I tell her. Look at the War.
‘I am aware I am being rather, shall we say, unprofessional, at least in the conventional sense, in speaking of another, and rather dubious, member of staff in this way. Nonetheless, I am assured, boy, of your tact and confidence in these matters.’
The boy nods. It’s not as if he has anyone to talk to about it, and only comprehends half of what Mr Chandler says.
‘Careless talk, you see, has been the ruin of me,’ continues Mr Chandler, ‘the ruin, I tell you. I cannot abide it. Of course, I know what Mrs Yaël and her like whisper about me behind my back. And I also know from whence the rumours about my alleged sadistic predilections originate.’
‘From Mrs Yäel?’ asks the boy, who’s relaxed a little and is biting the crust off one of his sandwiches.
‘No, boy. Even a hippy would not be so malicious as that. No, indeed, rumours in teaching are an omnipresent curse; but in my case the curse gained a certain momentum two or so years ago.’
‘How?’ asks the boy, his cheeks full.
‘It was during that damned strike, boy. Unfortunately, I happened to make clear my opinions on the industrial action to some of the pupils, through a few minor hints I dropped during one particular lesson. I would admit, with hindsight, that these hints may have been slightly ill-judged. I may have underestimated the passions of those involved. Still, by no means did I deserve the violent reaction I received in response, from both parents and pupils alike. After all, it should hardly have come as a surprise that I, a man of education and culture, from a different social class to most of those whom I teach, should be opposed, on principle, to their misguided cause. I was hardly going to align myself with Communists, Militants and the appalling violence of so-called “flying pickets”, was I?’
‘So what happened?’ asks the boy.
‘I’m glad you ask. You are probably the only person who has asked for my side of the story thus far. Even my wife will not listen, seems uninterested, these days.’ He pauses, waiting for a quotation to come to the surface that’s been nagging at him:
‘Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies…’
Afterwards, he smiles, murmuring ‘Beautiful, beautiful’ under his breath, nibbling the edge of another Custard Cream – his only lunch. He seems to have forgotten everything else, apart from Custard Creams and King Lear.
The boy reminds him of the original question, which prompted the quotation, ‘So what happened?’
‘Oh, I don’t know really,’ says Mr Chandler. ‘Some of the parents complained, I believe, about my comments. The Head – who, between ourselves, is a lily-livered knave – compelled me to retract the statement in a letter to the parents concerned. It should have ended there – that was humiliating enough – but the parents were not satisfied, had expected the Head to terminate my employment. I suppose passions were, as they say on the News, running high. Because I was not dismissed, my suspicion is that pupils and a few irresponsible parents fanned the flames, as it were, of calumny – as a means of undermining my position in a more circuitous fashion.’
‘What does that mean?’ asks the boy.
‘Rumours. Ghastly rumours, dear boy, they spread them, and are still doing so. They continue to despise me even now. And I will tell you something else, boy, I can’t help feeling that the school governors and Local Education Authority, who are all in each others’ pockets, and who are all signed-up members of Her Majesty’s Opposition, are – directly or indirectly – party to this vile conspiracy of whispers.
‘“Foul whisperings are abroad,” boy,’ Mr Chandler mutters, distracted for a minute. He looks away from the TV, the Custard Creams, above the head of the new boy, to his right – where the window commands a view of a whole landscape, laid open like a wound – across the football field, over the fences, over the roofs of the housing estate, to the horizon, on which is silhouetted a derelict pithead.
‘You know,’ says Mr Chandler, ‘they assail me, yet sometimes I want to tell them that, despite our (very great, of course) social, ideological and intellectual differences, the miners and I have much in common. We are both leftovers, as it were. We are both obsolete. We have both been consigned to the rubbish bin of history.’
‘I don’t think that’s true, sir, on the News it said…’
‘The News, like the law, boy, is an ass. In the words of our greatest Poet Laureate: “a thousand types are gone / I care for nothing, all shall go.” We are all consigned to history’s rubbish bin eventually.’ Mr Chandler sighs. ‘Sometimes I think perhaps I was wrong about the strike, about everything. Who knows. Perhaps, in retrospect, history will judge them better than myself.’
He turns back to the TV, picks up another Custard Cream, and waves it at the boy. ‘And it’s not all bad, is it, boy? At least it’s a comfortable form of obsolescence in here. At least there are Custard Creams, cricket and my trusty cane nearby. At least I can sit in peace and quiet, and not have to listen to Mrs Yaël spouting “aspirations” and “mutual respect”. Thankfully, you don’t say a great deal, boy, which is a quality in yourself and a blessing to others. You should keep it that way.’
They’re waiting for him on the way home from school. There are three of them – three girls, this time: Kez and two of her friends. They surround him in the alleyway, which leads down to the main road.
‘If you say anything, or make a noise,’ says Kez, ‘it’ll be worse.’ She’s holding him by the wrist. She twists it, and pushes him down to the ground, as hard as Terry pushed her the previous day. He lands on his side, and looks up at the three girls, eyes wide. They lean over him. All three of them have sticks.
‘Cos of you Terry won’t talk to me,’ Kez snarls. ‘It’s your fucking fault, scab. Queer. You ruined it.’ She grinds her teeth to stop herself from crying in front of the others.
He’s crawling away – but knows it’s futile.
‘You won’t get away this time,’ says Kez. ‘There’s no library to hide in round here. No Chandler to run to. You’re on your fucking own, queer.’ She spits on him. One of the other girls kicks him in the stomach for good measure.
‘Please…’ he murmurs.
The girl kicks him again. ‘Shut your gob and listen to Kezza.’
‘Don’t you worry your little head,’ says Kez, ‘we’re not really going to hurt you.’ All three of them are standing up straight now, flexing their sticks – which are canes they’ve taken from someone’s garden – testing them on their palms, like Mr Chandler.
‘I’ll cane you, boy,’ sniggers one of the girls, in a deep, posh voice.
Kez glares at her, and says to them both, ‘Take down his trousers.’
The boy tries to crawl away again. He’s crying as they pull him back, and rip his school trousers down.
‘Yuck,’ one of the girls says, ‘yellow Y-fronts.’
‘Please,’ the new boy whimpers.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Kez, ‘like I said, this won’t hurt. You obviously enjoy it. You must do, spending all that time with pervy Chandler.’
She steps back. ‘Hold him down,’ she commands the other two girls. ‘It’s my turn first.’
She flexes the cane, judges the distance, the best angle. She thinks of how Terry has hurt her, how her father hurts her, how everyone seems to hurt everyone else.
Afterwards – after they’ve all finished with him, and Kez has had a second, third go – she steps on his fingers. ‘If you tell anyone about this,’ she says, ‘it’ll be worse next time. And we’ll tell everyone about what you and Chandler do in that library. Everyone.’
She takes her foot off his fingers, and he scrambles to his feet, whimpering, dazed, holding his trousers up. She looks from him to the cane in her hand. Then she throws the cane away from her, down the alleyway, and rubs her hands on her skirt. She doesn’t say anything to the two friends – just turns her back on them, on him, and strides away, disgusted by everything.
That evening, the boy sits on his grandpa’s sofa, pretending to watch TV, pretending to be doing his homework, pretending he isn’t hurting.
‘Stop that bloody wriggling,’ grunts his grandpa, every time he wakes up. The boy doesn’t tell him he can’t help it – no-one can see the cuts and weals under his trousers. Now and then, the pain echoes through them and he grimaces, tears rising to his eyes. No-one notices and he doesn’t yelp, doesn’t say anything in response to his grandpa – just waits for the snores to return.
From the corner behind the boy, to his right, he can hear his mum knitting, crying quietly about dad. She thinks he doesn’t know.
Open on his lap is his English homework. He can’t concentrate on it. Instead, he keeps thinking of a letter he’s been trying to write for some months now. He’s drafted it dozens of times, but never reaches the end before he screws it up. It never sounds quite right; he never knows how to put it, or what exactly needs saying.
He sighs, gets up from the sofa. His grandpa mutters without opening his eyes, ‘Stop that bloody wriggling, or I’ll…’ The boy hovers for a moment. His grandpa’s threat ends with snores.
The boy tiptoes out of the room and comes back a minute later holding a notepad. His mother looks up. ‘For an English project,’ he whispers to her, waving the pad. ‘I have to write a letter.’ She nods and returns to knitting, sniffling.
He sits down and opens the pad. He writes his address in the right-hand corner, as the teacher showed him in his previous school – though now, of course, it’s a different address, almost a different life.
Dear Jim, he writes, a year ago my dad died and… – and then he stops, sucking the end of the pen.
The letter is addressed to a white-haired guy on the TV who looks a bit like his grandpa, but with more smiles, fewer snores – a guy who grants wishes to kids. The wishes on the programme, though, are all things you can see or do, like riding on an elephant, or meeting Daley Thompson. How can the boy write what he wants, how can he put it into words: a safe place to go, a place where his mother isn’t sad, and where no-one tries to hurt him. Places like that exist only on the telly, he thinks, only in the enclosed, bleached world of a BBC studio.
Next lunchtime, the new boy walks awkwardly – still sore – to the library. There’s no shout of ‘I’ll cane you, boy,’ as he approaches, because the door is closed.
The boy hovers, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, wondering what to do. There’s no-one else around, the corridor is quiet, except for muffled sounds from behind the door. He puts his ear against the wood.
He remembers the last time he did this, in a house a long way away, in a different life. Back then, he’d overheard crying and two voices, one high-pitched, one low, from within, ‘How on earth can I tell him?’ ‘You’ve got to. He needs to know. He needs to be a man.’ ‘He’s eleven, dad.’ ‘That’s old enough. His father’s dead. You can’t molly-coddle him any longer. There’s been too much of that.’
The boy shakes his head, as if to shake the memory out, and puts his head back against the door. This time, what he hears through wood is indistinct, ambiguous. He thinks there is a voice, someone who may or may not be Mr Chandler mumbling, grunting; and there’s also a noise – a swishing noise, and a thwack, as of something hard hitting something softer. The boy’s body remembers that sound for him, and he almost falls over with sudden pain.
He backs away from the door, staring at it. Then he turns and runs down the corridor and out into the playground.
He spends the rest of lunch break standing alone in a corner of the playground, his sandwiches untouched. No-one speaks to him; no-one lays a finger on him. Terry and his mates aren’t interested, and Kez almost winces when she sees him, as if she’s been caned too. She walks quickly past, trying to laugh at something one of her friends is saying.
The following day, the new boy passes the library door on the way to the playground. It’s half-open, and a voice booms from within, ‘I’ll cane you, boy.’
Then Mr Chandler is suddenly there, next to him, in the doorway, ‘Ah, is it you, boy?’
‘Yes, sir. I think so.’
‘I thought it was.’ He pauses, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels. ‘Well, boy,’ he says, umming and ahhing, ‘are you watching the last day of the test match?’
‘I suppose so, sir,’ says the boy, and he follows Mr Chandler into the library. Mr Chandler pushes the door shut behind them. The boy hesitates, stops halfway towards the chair.
‘What’s wrong, boy? Why are you standing there, gawping? The over is about to start.’
The backs of the boy’s legs are throbbing.
‘I think I might go outside instead, sir.’
Mr Chandler frowns. ‘Why? Don’t you want to watch the cricket with… with your sandwiches?’
‘No, sir, it’s just…’
‘Spit it out, boy. What’s wrong with you?’
Not knowing how else to respond, the boy spits it out, ‘It’s just that I heard something yesterday, sir.’
‘Heard what? What did you hear?’ demands Mr Chandler. ‘I told you, it’s all lies, defaming an upstanding member of an honourable profession in his declining years. “One doth not know / How much an ill word may empoison liking.”’
‘No, sir, I don’t mean I heard one of the rumours. I already know about them. I mean, I heard something coming from in here.’
‘I fail to understand you, boy.’
‘I was listening at the door. I know that’s the wrong thing to do, sir, but the door was closed and I didn’t know if you were in or not or if I should disturb you. So I was listening and I heard… noises through the door.’
‘What kinds of noises?’
Again, the boy’s legs throb. ‘Cane noises,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But I don’t want to be caned, and you’re not supposed to do it anymore, and I thought you didn’t, and you said you didn’t, and…’ The boy runs out of ‘ands’ and breath at the same moment.
Mr Chandler nods slowly, and mutters, ‘I see.’ He turns away, and steps over to his armchair. He lowers himself into it. ‘I see. You heard these “cane noises”, as you put it, and assumed that I was administering, illegally, corporal punishment to some other boy.’
‘Or girl,’ says the boy, ‘I thought it might be K…’
‘Girl?’ asks Mr. Chandler. ‘Girl? I have never in my life laid hands on a girl. What do you take me for?’
‘I don’t know,’ says the boy, honestly.
‘I’m not a monster,’ says Mr. Chandler. ‘God forbid I, a gentleman who once taught in a grammar school system which was the envy of the world, would lay hands on a girl.’
‘But, sir,’ says the boy, feeling that they are – as usual – drifting away from the subject at hand, ‘you’re not supposed to “lay hands” on a boy either nowadays.’
‘Indeed,’ says Mr. Chandler. He hesitates, purses his lips, seems to be mulling something over. Then he nods, as if he’s come to a decision. ‘Boy,’ he says. ‘I want you to see something.’
The boy is tempted to turn and run.
‘Boy, come closer.’
The boy doesn’t move.
‘Boy, come here, or I really will cane you.’
The boy takes a couple of steps towards Mr Chandler.
Mr Chandler has taken off his jacket, and is rolling up the right sleeve. The boy is ready to run.
‘Look,’ says Mr Chandler. The boy doesn’t know what he’s meant to be looking at. ‘Look, for God’s sake,’ says Mr Chandler, pointing at his own right arm.
The arm is very hairy; clearly visible through the hairs, though, are half a dozen white and red welts, just like the ones on the boy’s legs and bottom.
‘It’s surprisingly difficult to cane oneself,’ says Mr Chandler, in a matter-of-fact voice, ‘but practice over some years makes perfect, as they say.’ He looks up at the boy and shrugs his shoulders. ‘And, as far as I am aware, it is not yet illegal.’
He rolls his sleeve back and puts his jacket on. The boy doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t really understand, so just steps over to his usual chair, and sits next to Mr Chandler. He considers asking, ‘Why, sir? Why would you do something horrible like that to yourself?’ but the question remains unspoken. From his own eleven years of experience, he knows that the question ‘Why?’ is sometimes a dead-end.
Instead of asking dead-end questions, they both sit for a while, in silence, watching the cricket. Now and then, Mr Chandler makes an approving or disapproving noise in response to what’s going on. As the boy noticed on his first visit, Mr Chandler’s head moves slightly with the ball, as by instinct.
Between overs, Mr Chandler mumbles: ‘Of course, you can now go away and laugh with your friends at poor Mr Chandler, who threatens everyone and instead hurts only himself.’
‘Oh no, sir, I won’t do that. I haven’t got any…’
‘Soon, no doubt, everyone will know. But what does it signify to me? It is a mere bauble in comparison with other crimes of which I am regularly accused.’
‘Honestly, sir, I won’t tell anyone.’
Mr Chandler raises his hands, palms upwards, as if beseeching someone or something. ‘How can I believe you, boy, when I have believed so many, who have gone on to desert me? “My friends forsake me like a memory lost.”’
The boy is quiet for a few seconds. Then he bends over and rolls up one of his trouser legs, above the knee. ‘See, sir. I’ve got the same marks.’
Mr Chandler looks down, and frowns. ‘It is my turn not to comprehend now, boy.’
‘I’ve got the same marks as you, sir. And like you, sir, it’s a secret. The marks, they go all the way up my legs and on… and on my bottom, sir.’
‘Why?’ asks Mr Chandler. ‘Have you been hurting yourself too, boy?’
‘No,’ says the boy. ‘Some girls did it to me.’
‘The girls who were chasing you the other day?’
The boy doesn’t say anything in response. He rolls his trouser leg back down to his ankle.
‘Why did they do this to you, boy?’ asks Mr Chandler.
The boy doesn’t mention Mr. Chandler’s part in the girls’ motivation, just says: ‘Because they said I was from Scabland.’
‘Yes, sir. Something like that.’
Mr Chandler frowns. ‘But that’s ridiculous, boy. You’re English. You can’t be from Scablands. As far as I understand it, the Scablands are located in the godforsaken nation known as the United States of America. I can appreciate, maybe even share, your tormentors’ anti-American feeling, but they’ve clearly taken it out on the wrong victim.’
‘But, sir, I don’t think they mean…’
‘In fact, we can look it up. What is this library for – other than watching test matches, of course – than the deepening of our knowledge of the world?’
Mr Chandler gets up from his chair, and strides over to one of the shelves in front of him. He slides out a large book, Encyclopaedia of World Geology and Geography. Flicking through it, he mutters to himself: ‘Q… not much there… R… S… S… Salt Mining… Saskatoon… Saudi Arabia…’
‘But, sir, I don’t think they mean Scabland in Amer…’
Mr Chandler isn’t listening – as though deliberately ignoring any suggestion that ‘Scabland’ might refer to something closer to home.
‘Ah, here we are. Yes, I was right: Scablands, also known as Channeled Scablands, a barren plateau of approximately 2000 square metres in Washington State, USA, marked by deep fissures. Some of these fissures, which are called coulees, are hundreds of feet deep and many miles in length. Geologists believe the coulees may have been formed by cataclysmic floods during the last ice age.’ Mr Chandler glances up from the book. ‘Your leg looked a bit like Scablands, boy,’ he says.
The boy nods. Mr Chandler shuts the book and slides it back onto the shelf. He sits down.
‘Would you like me to bring this… incident to the attention of the lily-livered headmaster, so he can half-heartedly reprimand the culprits?’ he asks.
‘Would you like me to reprimand them instead – wholeheartedly with my cane? I would undertake such a commission with relish, whatever the consequences.’
‘No thank you, sir. And please don’t tell my mum. I’d prefer no-one but you and me know about it.’ The boy thinks for a moment. ‘If you don’t tell anyone about my legs, sir, I won’t tell anyone about your arms.’
‘Agreed,’ says Mr Chandler, proffering his index finger for the boy to shake. ‘And thank you, boy.’
‘Why thank me?’
‘Because your discretion in the small matter of my own, shall we say, injuries is greatly appreciated. Until today, only my wife has seen the state of my arms, although, with characteristic tact, she never mentions it. For the most part, they are covered in shirt or pyjama sleeves, anyway. These days, my skin is rarely exposed to hers and vice versa. “Even the dearest that I loved the best / Are strange – nay, rather stranger, than the rest.”’ He squints for a moment at the TV, as if he’s staring at something very small, very far away – and when he speaks again, his speech seems similarly aimed at some distant point, something out of reach. ‘In that sphere, you see, I find it almost impossible to perform these days.’
‘But sir, you’re very good at performing,’ says the boy, confused. ‘You talk Shakespeare and poetry and stuff like no-one I’ve ever heard.’
Mr. Chandler comes back to earth, and half laughs, half coughs, ‘Well, well, that’s very good of you to say. Perhaps I would have been better suited to the acting life, after all. “A high silk hat and a silver cane,” et cetera et cetera.’
He pats the boy’s hand, which is resting on the arm of the chair. Then he glances down at their hands. ‘I suppose I’m not meant to do that either,’ says Mr Chandler. ‘Everything’s so confusing nowadays, boy. I can’t seem to get a handle on it. Mrs Yaël et al tell us we shouldn’t administer corporal punishment, and spout claptrap about love and respect for children; yet at the same time if we – and by we, I mean people such as myself – express the slightest so-called affection, we are immediately under suspicion for other outrages, perpetrated on the innocent. Sometimes, I feel I am in a bubble, unable to touch anything or anyone. Or rather, to mix my metaphors, I am between a rock and hard place, the frying pan and the fire, Scylla and Charybdis, in everything I do.’ Mr. Chandler shakes his head, and mumbles like an echo, ‘Scylla and Charybdis, Scylla and Charybdis,’ over and again, quieter and quieter – until his lips are moving, but no sound is coming out.
On the television, someone bowls, and the batsman swings. The ball connects with the bat and is lofted high, high above the cricketers. The camera follows the ball’s flight – as it arcs for six over fielders and spectators. Mr Chandler’s eyes, then head, follow it too. The ball sails over the crowds – as though heading out of the stadium, heavenwards – and finally disappears from shot, lost to the camera. But Mr Chandler’s head carries on following its imagined trajectory – and now he’s leaning over the side of the armchair – and now he’s bent over, almost perpendicular with the arm – and now he’s sitting on the arm, his whole body stretched out in a diagonal line, as if he’s reaching out, to catch the ball – and now he’s sliding, falling onto the floor, his feet still on the arm of the chair, his left arm outstretched – and now –
‘Mr Chandler?’ The boy laughs then frowns. ‘Mr Chandler? The ball’s gone, Mr Chandler.’
The boy gets off his chair, and crouches down by Mr. Chandler’s face. The side pressed against the floor looks stretched.
‘Mr Chandler? Why are you on the floor, sir?’
‘Please,’ comes a croak from the stretched face on the floor. ‘Please. Find another teacher.’
The boy hesitates. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
‘Please, boy. Get another teacher.’ He grinds his teeth: ‘No ambulance.’
The boy gets to his feet and runs. He runs out of the room and down the corridor. He runs past the prefect, who tries to grab him. ‘You’re going the wrong way down…’
‘Oh shut up,’ says the boy.
He runs round the corner, down another corridor.
He runs past an art room, which is empty.
He pushes past a group of girls. One of them is Kez. ‘Get out of the way,’ he shouts. Kez flattens herself against the wall to let him through.
He reaches a music room, and skids to a halt, because he can hear piano playing, and a teacher’s voice inside.
He doesn’t bother to knock.
‘Mrs Yaël!’ he shouts.
The music is broken off. A pupil peers round the side of the piano. Mrs Yaël strides up to the new boy. ‘What is the meaning of…’
‘Please, Mrs Yaël,’ says the boy, panting, bent double, ‘please come. It’s Mr Chandler. In the library.’
Mrs Yaël nods at the piano player, ‘Continue with the Lennon,’ – and then allows herself to be led by the new boy back to the library.
They find Mr Chandler still on the floor, next to his armchair.
‘What on earth are you doing there, man?’ asks Mrs Yaël.
He looks up at Mrs Yaël from the floor, and slurs, ‘Oh, God, it’s you.’
She kneels down in front of him, saying to the new boy, ‘Go quickly and tell the office we need an ambulance.’
Mr Chandler’s hand shoots out and grabs the boy’s leg before he can move. ‘No ambulance,’ he hisses. ‘They call my wife. But no ambulance.’
‘You need a doctor, Mr Chandler,’ says Mrs Yaël.
‘No,’ hisses Mr Chandler, with some difficulty. ‘Haven’t seen a doctor in twenty years. Not going to start now.’
Mrs Yaël tuts, ‘Such an exasperating man.’
The half of Mr Chandler’s face which isn’t flattened against the floor tries to grin. ‘I know.’ He groans. ‘First, get me up. Please.’
The boy and Mrs Yaël aren’t sure how to do this. First, they pull him by the arms along the floor, so his legs are no longer propped up against the chair. Then they roll him onto his front, and hold him under his arms. There’s a lot of grunting, puffing and panting from all three of them; but eventually, Mrs Yaël and the new boy put Mr Chandler’s arms round their shoulders, and manage to pull him to his feet. The boy is bent double, shaking, almost crying – crushed downwards into the floor. Adults, adulthood, growing up, growing old: these things seem very heavy, he thinks.
Mrs Yaël kicks Mr Chandler’s armchair round with one foot, so it’s behind him, and they drop him into it.
‘I don’t care what he says,’ Mrs Yaël gasps between breaths. ‘Go and call an ambulance.’
As he’s leaving the room, the new boy looks round to see Mr Chandler slumped in the armchair, his lips moving automatically, muttering some incomprehensible Shakespeare to himself. Then the boy turns away. He doesn’t know that this will be the last time he will ever see Mr Chandler: that the bell will soon go, and he’ll be sent back to lessons after telling the office to call an ambulance; and that the ambulance will take Mr Chandler away from school for good, to permanent retirement and a different kind of limbo.
No-one will tell the new boy, of course, what has happened. No-one will give him a second thought. For years afterwards, on passing the library door, the boy-who-is-no-longer-new will expect to hear, ‘I’ll cane you, boy,’ as if the threat might linger as an echo, a ghost, a school’s repressed past. But he never does, and the threat has gone.
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