BREAKING BOUNDSCategory: Education
One Saturday night towards the end of term Gerald went into a stationer’s shop with Howarth so that the latter might buy a bottle of purple ink which some quirk of aesthetic fancy demanded he should henceforth use in his fountain pen. At the back of the shop, in an alcove labelled “Library,” were some shelves of brightly- jacketed novels.
“That’s the sort of library the boarders need,” Gerald remarked, dazzled by the promise of so much readable literature.
“Why don’t you take a book out?” asked Howarth, with his enviable mastery of the mechanics of life.
“They wouldn’t lend me one.”
“I’ll ask them,” said Howarth.
It proved a simple and inexpensive matter. But in, the face of such abundance the choice was not simple. Should one stick to an author one knew and take out, say, a new Edgar Wallace, or go for something adventurous, an author, for instance, that one had seen older boys reading, E. Phillips Oppenheim?
“Buck up, Bracher,” said Howarth, wTho had already filled his pen with the newr ink and was eager to get to the fish and chip shop.
Gerald quickly changed his mind twice and at last tore himself away from the shelves. By Sunday evening he had finished the book and it then occurred to him that he need not wait until Wednesday before borrowing another book but might slip into the town on Monday, during the convenient interim between the end of afternoon school and tea. That this action was illegal (the town was out of bounds to boarders except on Wednesday and Saturday evenings) struck him with little force for his imagination was almost wholly occupied with the purpose of his visit. [...]
With the book in his overcoat pocket, he went down the drive among .some knots of day boys. Most walked to the bus terminus but he took the sea road and had soon outdistanced the others who were going same way, occupied as they were with cap snatching and stone throwing. [...]
All wTent as he had planned it: among ladies carrying shopping baskets he changed his book, and he was on the road back to school with more than half his time unexpired. [...]
It was therefore without the fullest sense of alarm that, as he was hanging up his overcoat, he received from Goff, one of the House Prefects, the intimation that the Headmaster wanted to see him. Even at thejnoment of knocking at the door his mind was still vainly searching for advantageous reasons for his presence there.
“Come in, boy,” said Mr Pemberton and at once a terrible dread filled Gerald’s stomach. That the occasion was not one for surnames, let alone Christian names, meant the end of illusion.
Gerald stood in front of the desk. The light outside was failing but the Headmaster had not yet switched on his desk light. The time of day, the objects in the room, the moment in Gerald’s life, all seemed to exude a chill cruelty, a future without happiness. “Have you anything to tell me?” asked Mr Pemberton.
“I don’t think so, sir.” It was not bravado or deceit but a desperate hanging on to the remnants of normal existence. [...]
The Headmaster came simply to the point. “Then it wasn’t you w7ho was seen half an hour ago in the town?1’
For a moment the possibility of delaying longer the assumption of disgrace hovered in his mind, and then he said: “Yes sir, it was!” “Then why prevaricate, boy?”
“I only went to change a book, sir.”
“To change a book?”
Gerald in awkward sentences, tried to dissipate the Headmaster’s bafflement, but the more he said the more conscious he became of the preposterousness of his conduct.
“Have you read all your English set books, then, and the books in the Library?”
Gerald thought of Quentin Durward and The Last of the Mohicans and realised the utter futility of E. Phillips Oppenheim. But the Headmaster’s thoughts had already taken another turn.
“I wonder,” he said, “if you realise anything of the responsibility of looking after the Boarding House — sixty boys who have been entrusted to me in confidence by their parents. Those boys, even the senior boys, cannot be allowed to wander into the town at all hours so that nobody knows where they are. There is an adequate time twice a week for shopping. I’m disappointed in you, Bracher, that you hadn’t the thoughtfulness to understand this.”
Mr Pemberton’s last sentence was spoken in a warmer tone: Gerald’s heart leapt at the possibility that he was to be forgiven. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said and almost without the necessity of exaggeration the words came out vibrant with emotion.
“Bend over,” said the Headmaster.
In the moment before he complied he realized that the Headmaster had moved to the corner of the room where a cane stood against the wall — the cane which Gerald could not have failed to observe during this and his previous visits to the study but which, no doubt through some lack of psychic apprehension he could not lemember seeing before. The command itself he received with fearful surprise, yet he complied with it promptly and familiarly. [...]
The Headmaster’s hand lifted up the tail of Gerald’s jacket and two swift strokes descended. The noise was far greater than Gerald could have imagined but it seemed to him that there was no pain at all. In a moment he had straightened up and the Headmaster was leaning the cane back in the corner and saying: “You may go now, boy!” The whole operation, violent and radical as it was, had been compressed, like the extraction of a tooth, into a phenomenally and almost disappointingly short space of time.
But when he had fumbled through the curtain hanging in front of the door itself, he realised that he was hurt, and his throat and nose became liquid with emotion…
(From The Ruined Boys by R. Fuller)