AT A PUBLIC SCHOOLCategory: Education
Mr. Chaplin glanced up from his exercise books. His round glasses and high bald head gleamed through the twilight. “Switch the light on, Slade,” he commanded. [...]
For the boys the light was like an injection of adrenalin. There was an excited murmur. One boy leaned his head far back, pulling a grotesque face: the boy behind lifted his desk-lid suddenly and gave the intruding occiput a brutal crack. A paper dart floated down one of the aisles. Mr Chaplin’s sharp call for silence was obeyed: he was the Second Master and feared. He screwed the tap on his bottle of green ink and wiped meticulously his pen nib on the blotting paper. He said: ‘Are there any more letters?”
It was the first Sunday evening of the Spring term. The Anglicans had marched in crocodile to morning service: the few Dissenters had gone off to their chapel in anarchy. All had eaten mutton and cabbage and walked afterwards by the sea under Mr Chaplin’s gold-rimmed eye. The period immediately after tea was set aside for letter writing.
Mr Chaplin was reading the last of the letters. “Snape minor!” he called. A small boy stood up. “What on earth does this mean, Snape? ‘I swolled a marpell.’” A balloon of laughter went up, as though Mr Chaplin had made an exquisite joke.
“I did, sir,” said Snape minor.
“Did what?” asked Mr Chaplin.
“Swallow a marble. On Friday.” The laughter broke out again, this time with horrible falsity.
“Good gracious!” said Mr Chaplin. “Did you report to Miss Pemberton?”
“Hm,” said Mr Chaplin. “Well, youxan’t put it in a letter home. Don’t you see that, Snape. In any case the spelling is disgraceful. You’ll have to write the letter again in the common room.” Mr Chaplin piled his ink, pen and blotting paper and the letters neatly on top of his exercise books. “All right, boys. You can go over,” he said, and then added vehemently: “Quietly,” as the noise began its Rossinian crescendo.
A playground, partly cobbled, partly cindered, lay in the L formed by the school buildings, where the letter writing had taken place, and the House, which contained the common room, the studies, the dining room and dormitories. The boys ran or drifteb across it in twos and threes.
“What’s up, Bracher?” said a plump boy with two protruding front teeth to a tall dark boy standing, hesitantly under the marble war memorial tablet in the lobby. “You look a bit putrid.” “Nothing,” said Bracher. “I’ve got toothache coming on.”
“You ought to go to Miss Pemberton.”
“She couldn’t do anything,” said Bracher. For a moment he felt that life could never hold out pleasure again.
“Do you think there T1 be dripping toast for supper?” said the plump boy, Howarth by name. “There used to be sometimes on Sunday last term.” [...]
“Don’t know.” [...]
Howarth and Bracher strolled over to the House. Bracher’s tooth had stopped throbbing: for a moment he, too, wondered about dripping toast. He said to Howarth: “What happens now?”
“The Librarian opens the Library. Then wTe read in the common room until supper time.” [...] The two boys passed through the lighted hall into the changing room where already some others were putting on their slippers. Howarth and Bracher got theirs out of their lockers. Mr Chaplin’s tall emaciated figure tripped into the hall: he had prudently worn his hat for the journey across the playground. He said: “Hurry up, boys,” and put his hat on one of the masters’ hooks. [...]
The House Prefects were in their studies: the rest of the boys sat round the tables in the common room. The Librarian, an older boy called Cropper, unlocked the cupboard which contained the Library. From his register .he then called the boys two at a time to come and take out a book. Many of the books on the four shelves were so battered that it was impossible to read their titles from the spines and Bracher crouched before them helplessly. His companion at the shelves changed and then disappeared, and he was left conspicuously alone. [...]
Cropper turned his head to look at him. “What on earth are you doing — what’s your name?” Cropper consulted the register. “Bracher. I’m not going to stay here all night.” [...]
“Sorry,” said Bracher, in a panic. He immediately pulled out a book almost at random and took it to be entered. As he wrote, Cropper sniffed. He said: “You want to buck your ideas up, Bracher. I know the best books go first but, after all, every book is new to you.” “Yes, I see that.”
“Well, don’t take so long next week.” Cropper shut his register. There was some scuffling until Mr Chaplin appeared once more.
A place had been kept for him at the head of one of the tables: he sat down and polishfed his glasses. [...]
“Snape minor,” he said.
“Have you written that letter yet?”
“Well, stop picking your nose and write it.” Mr Chaplin hooked the flexible gold side-pieces of his spectacles over his small white ears, and hushed the howl of derisive laughter. [...]
He looked up again when the entry of one of the maids gave rise to a subdued hooting and barracking. [...] The maid, moustached and diminutive, whispered in Mr Chaplin’s ear.
“Bracher,” said Mr Chaplin, “you’re to see the Headmaster at once in his study.”
There were a few long-drawn whistles of mock-terror.
“Whack, whack, whack,’- said Howarth. Bracher followed the maid out of the room, his breast full of agitation.
When he saw the maid about to go through the door that he knew led to the kitchen quarters, he called out in terror: “Lily! How do I get to the Headmaster’s study?”
“Why, straight along the corridor,” she said, and disappeared. He had never before been past the entrance to the dining room: beyond it the corridor ended in a door which he went through to find himself in a short passage lined on one side with windows. Opening yet another door at the end of the passage he came to the pictures and carpet of a normal hall, and realised that he had now passed into the real house — Mr Pemberton’s dwelling… He stood for a moment, as awed as a savage at this sudden civilization, and then knocked at the nearest door. Miraculously the Headmaster’s voice said: “Come in.”
Bracher turned the handle: a heavy curtain hanging behind the door made his entry as sluggish as a movement in a nightmare.
“Sit down, Gerald,” said Mr Pemberton. [...]
Bracher sat down at the side of the Headmaster’s littered desk which was illuminated by a reading lamp. [...]
“We have to consider the feelings of others in this life,” said Mr Pemberton in a kindly voice. “Don’t you agree, Gerald?” “Yes, sir.” Bracher said uncomprehendingly.
“And we ought to look at the person to whom we are speaking, you know,” added the Headmaster in the same tone.
Bracher nervously turned his eyes towards the Headmaster for the first time, and saw with amazement in Mr Pemberton’s hand the letter he had written that evening to his father.
“Mr Chaplin thought I ought to see your letter home, Gerald,” said the Headmaster. “He was quite right as I’m sure you’ll agree when you’ve thought about it. This is a very sad and depressed letter. It can’t help but make your father sad and depressed. Haven’t you enjoyed any part of your life since you came here, Gerald?”
“Oh yes, sir,” Bracher said, thinking of the unfamiliar appearance of bacon at the morning’s breakfast.
“Isn’t that what you should have told your father about?”
“Yes,” said Bracher, seeing that it was.
The Headmaster’s tone became even more kindly.
“Your father has suffered a great loss. You know what I mean, Gerald?”
Bracher blushed and nodded. Once again he felt astonishment at the strange juxtaposition of emotion and milieu: a stranger, remote and awful, alluding to what he nursed in the deepest recess of his mind — his mother’s cruel and inexplicable abandonment of him and of his father, the reason which had precipitated his leaving his home and employment in South Africa and thus seeking a boarding school for his son at this awkward point in the scholastic year.
“You have to be a support to him, not a burden,” the Headmaster was saying. He looked down at the letter. “We only have bread and jam for tea,” he read. “Now, Gerald, your father doesn’t want to hear of such things — trivialities which must give him a misleading picture of A our life here. There are more important matters to write to him about. And you must show him, as I’m sure is going to be the case, that you’ve quickly become at home here and found a multitude of affairs to interest you.”
When Howarth had told him that envelopes must be handed in to Mr Chaplin unsealed, Gerald had thought of the direction as part of the often-inexplicable discipline of school life and had never conceived that his letter would be taken out and read — and by the Headmaster. And those few critical observations which had seemed to him so natural and proper for his father’s eyes now appeared despicable and profoundly out of place. [...]
“When you have written another letter,” said the Headmaster, “hand it in to Mr Chaplin.” He tore up the offending sheet and dropped the pieces into a waste paper basket at his side. [...] The envelope he gave to Gerald saying: “Go back to your reading now,” and for the first time — though his manner had never during the interview been severe — broke into a wide smile. Gerald dared not smile in return for that would have seemed to indicate that he had not taken to heart the Headmaster’s reproof. But he slipped from the chair very quietly and almost imperceptibly closed the door behind him.
(From The Ruined Boys by R. Fuller)