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The Black Cat Gang Chapter 1

Black Cat Gang coverEndings and Beginnings

July 1972

As we had hoped, the quarry gate was unguarded, and we slipped through unnoticed. Thankfully, the padlock was still only being held shut by a wad of JJ’s chewing gum. The lock had been dealt a fatal blow by the sonic weapon on our first visit two weeks before - an act that had remained undiscovered. So far. Olivia and Pam led the way into Crow Wood. I came next and Hobbo and JJ brought up the rear. The scramble up the path to the top of the quarry face was difficult, partly because today had been rainy, and that made the clay surface slippery, and partly because Hobbo was so out of shape he needed constant coaxing and even pushing to get him up to the top.
The sky had cleared, and a waxing quarter moon hung above Half Moon Hill. It was about half an hour before sunset. We moved quietly between the tall oak and ash trees and briefly paused for breath at the top of the hill. I looked back through the trees. Below, still clearly visible in the ripening corn, was that huge, naked scar of bare earth. Sterile and black, it marked the spot where a Wessex helicopter had crash-landed and caught fire. The Army had not bothered to clear up all of the wreckage after the accident, and we walked past twisted aluminium panels and jagged pieces of rotor blade, ripped from the craft as it spun downwards and struck the treetops.
The boys caught me up. “What do you think would happen to us if we were found in here?” JJ said.
“No idea,” I replied. “Nothing good, that’s for sure, so let’s not get caught, eh?”
Hobbo slumped against a tree and took a puff from his inhaler before adding “Well said, old thing. Although, what could they do to us that would make it any worse? At least after this we will have done everything possible to find out what really happened up here last night. Let’s push on, chaps.”
When we reached our destination the girls were already picking their way gingerly among the jagged lumps of concrete and piles of rusty ironwork that randomly populated the clearing. The tower still stood, but one leg had twisted and buckled, and the whole structure now leaned in a way that seemed to defy gravity. Its weatherproof coating had been burnt away by the scalding blast, and rust had quickly moved in to create a false impression of antiquity. JJ leapt on top of one of the larger chunks of masonry and looked about, then danced a little jig around us. “I’m the king of the castle!” he sang, his high, fluting voice echoing across the empty glade.
“Oh, shut up, JJ; nobody’s in the mood,” Olivia said, and took a half-hearted swipe at his legs with her shoulder bag.
JJ dodged nimbly out of the way and then jumped down beside her. “OK, sorry. So, where should we look first, do you think?”
“They were heading for the ventilation shaft, remember?” Hobbo said. “That’s where we’ll start.”
It soon became apparent that this was going to be easier said than done. The entrance to the shaft, which Griff had discovered eight months previously, seemed to have completely disappeared. It should have been easy to find. For one thing, it was not that far from the pond, and for another its entrance had been protected by a steel roof shaped like a Chinese hat, but some six feet in diameter. The cover must have weighed several hundredweight, and now it was nowhere to be seen. We spread out and poked about in the scrub for a few minutes, but with no result. Then Pam gave a shout. “Over here!”
We congregated on either side of her, near the foot of a large oak tree, and gazed at her find. Olivia gave a low whistle. “In the name of God, Hobbo. What on earth is it?”
We were looking at a cube-shaped metal object. It lay on its side, partly buried in the soft ground. It was enshrouded by a tattered cargo net, damaged most probably during its journey through the tree canopy. This was what the helicopter must have been carrying on the night of the blast. The object was painted the recognizable light grey of industrial electrical apparatus, and when operational it would have stood about five feet high. Hobbo bent down and wiped some mud from the manufacturer’s information plate. Then he stood up and took a notebook and pencil from his pocket. “Well, obviously, it’s a step down transformer,” he said as he scribbled in his notebook. “Let’s see, three phase, 11000 to 415 volt ratio, 200 KVA rating. The kind you get in small electricity substations, near the end of the distribution chain.”
“What would they want with that in the tunnels?” I said.
Hobbo shrugged. “I’ve absolutely no idea, old fruit. Your guess is as good as mine. Makes you think, though, doesn’t it?”
We searched for another twenty minutes for any sign at all that Anna and Griff had ever been here. In the end, it was I who stumbled on the site of the air duct. The surrounding ground had collapsed into the shaft. It had filled with a slurry of liquefied mud, and was now little more than a shallow depression. I hoped upon hope that our friends had not been caught down there.
It was beginning to get dark. Crossing to the centre of the clearing, I stood on the edge of the huge pit that had once been the round pond. It fell away below me, black and gaping like an eye socket left staring blindly skyward, its sense organ gouged out by a shocking force. I found it impossible to grasp the hugeness of the energy that had caused such total destruction, even though at the time, deep underground, I must have been within a few feet of its source. Pam joined me; dear, lovely Pam, who had been there with me in the tunnels on that appalling night. Our eyes briefly met, and then she glanced down. Her hand opened to reveal a mud-smeared tube. “I found this lying by the track. It’s Anna’s lip balm, I’m sure of it.”
She held on to my arm as we looked into the vast hole. The hood of her parka was pulled well forward, and I couldn’t see her face. Instead, I felt her expression of horror and, yes probably, wonder as her grip on my arm tightened. “Oh, my God, Sam,” she said at last. “Oh, my God.”

The Black Cat Gang Chapter 2

BCG pussyIntroductions

July 1972

Anna would like this day, I thought as I hosed and swept the concrete pathway behind the milking shed. It had rained during the night and the morning was fresh and breezy with ragged fair-weather clouds tipping speedily eastwards at low altitude. It would soon be the summer break. I could remember previous holidays when I’d dearly wished I was still back in school, but not this summer. Farm jobs had kept me busy so far, and I did anything that Dad asked me to and more, just to tire myself out, so that for a while at least I would be able to stop thinking about Anna. I had already creosoted the chicken sheds, and the stable had never looked so tidy and well-tended. I longed for contact with the others, but we had agreed to keep apart so as not to arouse suspicion. Hobbo for one was convinced he was being watched.
And so I turned over the past in a search for lost information that might help to fill in some of the gaps. Back in the house I raked in my chest of drawers and found a journal I had begun nearly a year ago. I sat on the edge of the bed and began to read.
My name is Sam Smith. I am eleven years old, just. My friends are Olivia, JJ, Hobbo, Pam, Griff and Anna. I attend St Mungo’s School.
I had written this in a large, dark brown hard-backed ledger I’d picked up in a bargain bin the previous year at the Larksbridge WH Smith. It had cost me 4/11d. The pages had closely-spaced lines and several annoying red vertical lines dividing the page into columns of various widths. For lack of anything better to do I read on.
I’ve got straight, blondish hair, the kind that looks like it needs a wash even when it doesn’t. I prefer it cut fairly short. I’ve always had short hair, apart from when I was a tiny baby, and everyone has strange hair then. I’ve got a thin, slightly crooked nose and quite full lips. My skin is typical English peasant – stark white in winter and red and freckly in summer. Mum says I have nice teeth. She has always made us brush our teeth so I’m quite proud of mine. I’ve only ever had two fillings, unlike some of the children in our year that I could name who are practically ready for false teeth. Mum says I’m slim, but not thin, and I think I’m quite strong – all the haymaking and animal feeding over the years, I suppose. Oh, and George is my favourite Beatle.
When I’m not at school my favourite clothes are jeans and a T-shirt, and either plimsolls (if it isn’t muddy) or wellie boots (if it is). This is partly for convenience – who can be bothered changing every time a farm job looms up – and partly because a lot of my clothes were once David’s. Just as well I’ve never taken much interest in fashion, I suppose.
People say I’m tall for my age. Until David suddenly grew about a foot overnight I had almost caught him up, and he’s three years older than me. We shared a room until I went to St Mungo's, when Mum decided I should have my own. I’m not a boarder, unlike my friends there. Mum insisted on my living at home as a condition of her agreeing to me going there. David’s fourteen now and intends to leave school next year and work full time at the farm. Dad says he should stay on at school and get some more qualifications, but secretly I think he is looking forward to having David around all day.
I live on Dikeway Farm in the village of Finlow-on-Teal. You won’t have heard of it or ever been there because it is very small and off the beaten track, as they say. It’s probably not changed much in a hundred years. There is no street lighting beyond the few lanes around the middle of the village, and that was put in not that many years ago. Many of the cottages still have outside lavatories and nothing much in the way of heating, apart from a fireplace in the living room. There are still fields separating many of the houses and the centre of village life is a pub called The Boat. Grandad told us it’s called that because it was built from the timbers of a sailing ship.
Dad’s farm is at the end of the village high street, which isn’t much of a high street any more since it is now a dead end. For centuries there had been a ferry over the River Teal but it stopped in the 1930s when the bridge was built. Over the years most of the businesses have closed or moved into Larksbridge, and now only the Post Office and The Boat remain open. Nowadays, most people by-pass the village altogether, and as a consequence Finlow-on-Teal has become a quiet, forgotten place frequented only by locals.
I was born on the farm, as was my brother, David, and so naturally all my earliest memories are farmyard-related – sights, sounds, touches and smells. From the time we were old enough to walk and hold a pail of hen feed, Mum and Dad encouraged us to help around the farm.
Of course, I’d heard of St Mungo's long before I went to school there. It’s quite famous in this neck of the woods, and one of the places that cropped up regularly in Grandad’s war stories. David and I used to listen avidly to his yarns, even though he was usually talking to Mum at the time. He said St Mungo’s only became a school after the war when the Terry family demanded it back from the Army. The ministry had taken the place over in 1941, and by the end of the war had made themselves very cosy there, thank you very much.
I had read enough for now. I turned the page and ruled a margin. I wrote the date and then a title: The Black Cat Gang. I underlined it and then closed the book. Tomorrow, I would make a start. I had resolved to spend any spare time I had writing the story of the past year, if nothing else than as a testament to the bravery of my friends and as a record of the incredible, unbelievable story in which I played, and still play, a part. For this story is not yet over. It will not be over; I will not let it be over until every question has been answered.
The story begins more than a year ago; long before I had met Anna, long before I had even set foot in the grounds of St Mungo’s School.

The Black Cat Gang Chapter 3

Black Cat Gang coverMy Interview at St Mungo’s

March 1971

I never imagined I would go to a posh school, and sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I’m still here. I came here because I won a scholarship – my parents could never have afforded the fees – called The Dame Nellie Blenkinsop Award for Outstanding Good Looks. Actually, I made that up because, to be honest, I don’t know why I won the scholarship. I remember that when I was ten, and still attending our little village primary school, our teacher Mrs Russell telling me one morning that I had been given a chance to go to St Mungo’s School, but only if I managed to pass a special test. She gave me a new pencil and a ruler and sent me off to Miss Trent’s office.
Still clutching my pencil and ruler, I turned into the front corridor. I knew that this was going to be a big deal when I saw my mum and dad sitting on the waiting bench. It was the first time my parents had ever come in to school together, since normally the animals could never be left unattended. Dad was wearing his demob suit and had brushed his hair, and Mum had on what I called her Christmas coat, the one with the rat fur collar and the big sparkly brooch pinned to the lapel. Miss Trent ushered us all in and began pouring cups of tea without asking whether they were wanted or not. Mum and Dad sat awkwardly on the edge of the headmistress’s armchairs, while I stood between them, wondering who was looking after the farm. Before very long the smell of silage had begun to overpower Mum’s scent and I could see Miss Trent’s nostrils starting to twitch as she viewed us over the top of her spectacles. Then she cleared her throat and smiled.
“I know you need to get back to your farm, so I will get to the point. Sam has been given the opportunity to attend St Mungo’s School, subject to passing the entrance exam. I don’t need to tell you what an exciting opportunity this is. Since the war, it has established an enviable reputation for mathematical and artistic scholarship as well as giving many young people excellent openings into the worlds of technology and the military arts, not to mention sport.”
At this last declaration I must have pulled a face. She looked at me and opened her mouth as if to say something, but must have thought better of it, because she returned her attention to my parents. She spent the next couple of minutes explaining the entrance procedures, sitting the exam and the need to leave home to become a boarder. My parents didn’t say anything, but nodded at various points. Dad sat very still and rested his gaze on the face of the headmistress, while Mum gripped the clasp of her handbag and alternately glanced at Miss Trent and then at me.
Miss Trent went on. “The scholarship is very generous and will cover all conceivable expenses; you won’t be a penny worse off and in time will no doubt benefit greatly as Sam embarks on a successful career in, well, practically any field that you care to name.”
“What about farming?” My dad had been quiet up to now, but I knew what he could be like when he got going. “I was rather hoping Sam would join me in running the farm in years to come.”
This was the first I’d heard of it but instantly I quite liked the idea, even if I was rather puzzled. I suppose I had always assumed that my older brother, David, would be the one who Dad would want to take over the farm, not that I had really ever given it that much thought. David is three years older than me and built like a bull terrier. When he was eight he could lift a full bale of hay and throw it over the railings into the calf pen. He had been helping Dad with the milking for the past year and absolutely loved any farm job, including cleaning out the byres. Dad said that when his feet could reach the clutch and brake he would be allowed to use the tractor, and that ought to be any time now.
I liked farm jobs but there were quite a number I just couldn’t do, either because I wasn’t strong enough or because I didn’t have the stamina to be of much use. My best jobs, when I felt I was really being useful and not just getting a go because I had sulked after my father’s polite refusal, was bringing the cows in for milking, crow scaring, and, my favourite, feeding the hens and collecting the eggs. I quite liked apple picking in the autumn holidays and I was allowed to use one of the wooden ladders now. As I thought about the farm it started to sink in a bit what it would mean to become a boarder at St Mungo's.
It was my mother’s turn to speak. “This exam – what kinds of questions will Sam be asked? Will we be able to see the paper?”
I might have been mistaken, but on hearing this question I thought Miss Trent looked a bit uneasy. But the moment quickly passed and she trilled through one of her atomic grins “Well, I don’t think you need worry too much about the test paper. It won’t be anything that Sam will struggle with, or the college wouldn’t be going to all this trouble, now would they?” That seemed to silence my mother for a moment, but I could see that she was still thinking about it.
At this point, I thought it was time I got a bit more involved in my own future, so I spoke up, as Mum is always encouraging us to do. “I’ve got a question, Miss Trent, if it’s alright?”
Miss Trent looked slightly pained at my interruption, but after a tiny pause replied “Of course you may ask a question, Sam, but anyone would think that we were trying to sell you into slavery, rather than give you the opportunity of a lifetime. What is your question?”
“Why me? I’m not that clever, so I don’t understand why they’ve picked me.”
My father joined in. “It’s a fair point, Miss Trent. Why has Sam been chosen for this ‘opportunity of a lifetime’? I mean, we think we know what makes Sam special, but I shouldn’t imagine there are many chances in school for that kind of thing to show up. I would be surprised to hear that the child’s true merit has showed itself in a classroom, of all places.”
Miss Trent sighed, slightly indulgently I thought, before fixing Dad with an icy stare. “You might be surprised by what teachers notice about their pupils, Mr Smith. As I am sure you are already well aware, Sam has a rare gift with machines and mechanisms; better than most adults, and probably better than most adult engineers. Given the right environment, who knows what the child might be capable of? In addition, Sam is a natural leader, not to mention an excellent tactician, and, believe me, I can identify such qualities with a great deal of confidence. Indeed, it was once my job to do just that, admittedly with older persons than Sam. Nevertheless, I have seen abilities in Sam that are rare enough in the adult world to deserve cultivation by those who value such aptitudes.”
That seemed to silence everyone for a moment. Mother put her hand on mine and bit her lip, while father stared at his trilby and looked thoughtful. Even Miss Trent thought better of adding anything else for the moment.
The meeting ended with pleasantries and handshakes. We left the head’s office in silence and journeyed home in more silence. Back at the farm, a long discussion between Mum and Dad ensued. I don’t know what was said because I was not present, and I still don’t know, but the conclusion led to me being an official candidate for entry.

Miss Trent’s predictions had been completely accurate. It was only a fortnight, once Dad had filled in the application form and sent it off, before an invitation to come for interview appeared one day on our doormat. That was over a year ago now, and I remember the day of the interview like it was yesterday. A car came to the farm one Friday morning, just as explained by Miss Trent, to take Mum and me to St Mungo's.
The driver was very polite and held open the door for us, and we travelled in the back like royalty. The car was incredibly quiet compared to ours and I might not have realised we’d set off if it hadn’t been for the potholes on the farm track making the car sway gently from side to side. It was strange being in the back with Mum because normally it was David and me who shared the back seat when we all went out together. The seat leather was shiny and very slippery and I slid backwards and forwards for a while until Mum told me to pack it in.
After twenty minutes, our car turned off the Larksbridge road and sped down the main drive of St Mungo’s, which was lined on both sides with tall trees. You can’t see much of the school from the main road because the Hall is at the end of a long, curving driveway. Mum remembered that when she was a girl she had been in here with Grandad once or twice when he ran the coal merchants, and had gathered acorns in her jumper to take back for her pony while he delivered coal to the Hall. According to Dad, the main part of the Hall was rebuilt after the war because part of the original building had been destroyed in a fire. The St Mungo estate had been in the Terry family for generations but during the war it was all shut up and most of the family had flitted to Canada to sit out the war. Then in 1941 the place was commandeered by the Ministry of War and began to be used as a research establishment, all top secret of course. Grandad used to deliver supplies there: eggs and milk and so on. He said you had to be careful where you drove because there were wires up in the trees and between the buildings and you had to mind you didn’t snag one with the top of the lorry.
Then, one night in 1943, the south side of the Hall got hit by an incendiary bomb during an air raid and burnt down, or so went the story in the local paper anyway. But the military carried on using the place just like nothing had happened, and would probably still be there if they’d had their way. After the war most of the Terry family never returned from Canada – they liked it there so much – but Julius Terry, the man I saw at the interview, was, by the end of the war, a colonel in the British Army. When he was demobbed he returned to Larksbridge and decided he wanted to keep the family estate, even though the government were keen to buy it from him; but he wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to rebuild the Hall exactly as it had once been, except that the rooms would be set out like a school. That was his plan; to start a new school, and that is exactly what he did. The Ministry had to take down its wires and pack up its contraptions and move out. That was in 1946 and since then Julius Terry had fulfilled most of his ambitions. The Hall was mostly rebuilt and finally opened in 1949 as a day school; at first with only seventy pupils but this soon increased, as did the school’s reputation.
As we drove on I could see football goals and rugby posts off to the right, and a lake shining in the distance. We passed cattle grazing under clusters of ancient, stag-headed trees, but they weren’t a common breed cattle, like we had at Dikeway. These beasts were huge and pure white; on our farm they would have looked stupid and out of place but here, pastured under the ancient oaks, somehow looked completely at home.
You couldn’t help but be impressed by St Mungo's Hall. Because the drive is curved, it wasn’t until we had almost reached our destination that I got much of a look at the building itself. At the front, I could see tall, fluted stone columns supporting a classical Greek pediment, and steps leading up to massive double doors. Three rows of tall windows looked out over neat geometric gardens; a stone balustrade edged the roof. There was some writing in block capitals carved into the pediment, but I wasn’t able to read what it said. Above many of the windows, I noticed the pale stone was smudged faintly grey. It brought back to me one of Grandad’s war stories. During the war the Hall had suffered a serious fire, caused by a stray German incendiary. Many of the soldiers stationed at the Hall were killed. It was months before anyone was allowed on to the estate and by the time Grandad next called with a potato delivery repairs on the building were well under way. Oddly, none of the local builders or tradesmen had been invited to help with the initial clear up and were only allowed in to begin work when all traces of the explosion had been cleared away.
The car didn’t stop in front of the house, as I had expected, but veered sharply right and drove through an opening about half way down the side wall, emerging into a large courtyard that was surrounded on three sides by more windows, and on the fourth by some less tall buildings. So far we hadn’t seen a single person, let alone the swarms of schoolchildren I had imagined seeing, all dressed in their smart St Mungo's blazers and walking purposefully between classes clutching armfuls of books. I wondered where they might all be hiding.
We parked in a line with five other cars. “Do you think we’ll get the grand tour?” my mother said, and giggled, rather nervously I thought. The driver jumped smartly out and opened the car door. He gestured for us to join a group of people, both adults and children, who were standing in the middle of the courtyard, blinking and looking up at the blinded windows. No prizes for guessing that these were the other interviewees. I wondered if I looked as lost as they did.
We must have been the last to arrive because almost immediately a smartly dressed woman emerged from the hall and crossed to where we stood. “Good morning to you all” she began, “and on behalf of the St Mungo's Trust I bid you welcome. My name is Mrs Spencer and I am the Principal’s secretary. I would like to welcome you to our school. If you would like to follow me I will take you to the Principal’s suite. We have prepared some lunch and I expect you would welcome the chance to refresh yourselves after your journey.”
Mother needed no second bidding and immediately fell into step behind Mrs Spencer, as did the other adults. One or two children clung to a parent as we trooped up the steps, but most were content to bring up the rear. The interior of the house was noticeably cooler than the day outside. I don’t know what I had expected to see exactly, old furniture and chandeliers I suppose, but it was nothing like that at all. Some of the rooms we passed through had the high ceilings and ornate plaster mouldings I had seen in pictures of stately homes, but others were just ordinary-looking and contained unremarkable office furniture or looked more or less like the classrooms of our village school.
Eventually, we emerged into a huge open space that was truly impressive. High above us, a glass dome admitted brilliant shafts of light. Two wide, richly-carpeted staircases swept up opposite walls. As we crossed the entrance hall I detected the low rumble and occasional shout of massed children’s voices, and when we passed a set of open double doors I discovered why there had been no children about when we arrived: it was lunchtime.
I only had time for a quick glance through the open doors, but what I saw made a strong impression. Boys and girls, both younger and older than me, queued patiently at a serving hatch, or sat eating and chatting. And they did look smart in their blue St Mungo's blazers and striped ties. They also looked wonderfully carefree, for the most part. In the end, Mother had to tug at my sleeve to get me to move. After a further walk through several more rooms we were finally shown into a long, sunlit room that looked out over the front gardens. It contained a row of enormous tables set out with a buffet that looked like it could have fed us twice over. Against the opposite wall was a row of dining chairs. The only other time I had seen anything like this much food in one place was at Aunt Helen’s wedding reception, but even that was pretty skimpy in comparison.
Mrs Spencer gave us no indication as to what we should do, and promptly disappeared through a door at the far end, leaving us standing in the centre of the room, silent and slightly uneasy, judging by the adult foot shuffling and darting glances at nothing in particular. None of the adults was particularly well-dressed, I noticed; they just looked ordinary. I suppose I expected us to stand out, but we didn’t.
After a moment, Mrs Spencer reappeared and walked towards us, followed by a tall man dressed in an Army officer’s uniform. He had a full head of iron-grey hair brushed back off his forehead and a grey moustache. Under his arm was a leather-bound book. I guessed that he was probably a few years older than Dad, which put him in his late forties or early fifties. Our group parted as he reached the centre of the gathering and we reformed into a semicircle around him. “May I introduce you to Sir Julius Terry.” Mrs Spencer announced.
The man looked down at each of us children and smiled, and it was a kind smile. His first words sounded warm and hospitable, his voice rich and deep. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and welcome to St Mungo’s School. My name is Julius Terry and I am the Principal of St Mungo’s. I also founded the school, as many of you will know, and although I am answerable for my decisions to a board of trustees, you can be sure that at St Mungo's the buck always stops with me. Please excuse the uniform, by the way. I don’t normally dress like this, nor do I march around the school giving orders, you’ll no doubt be pleased to hear.” He leaned forward toward a girl near the front and smiled benignly, then winked. There was some polite laughter before he continued. “I have a meeting with the MoD this afternoon and I’m hoping the uniform might help with the negotiations. The Army are interested in leasing part of the estate to test new vehicles and to train their drivers; something to do with the terrain being of ‘a sufficient degree of ruggedness’.”
He turned to a girl standing in front of me, who looked startled at the sudden attention. “That means it’s quite hilly!” he stage-whispered to her, to more polite laughter. “Myself, I think the likeliest reason is that we are situated right next to Warchester Barracks and the Army can’t be bothered to drive any further. But whatever the reason, it could mean some much-needed extra income for St Mungo’s.”
I wondered how much longer we would have to stand here before we could eat. I think Sir Julius must have noticed me fidgeting, and he fixed me momentarily with a penetrating look over the top of his half-moon reading glasses, his blue eyes still and curious. Then, he returned his attention to the group and continued. “So, please don’t finish the food, ladies and gentlemen or I will have twenty hungry soldiers and civil servants to appease later this afternoon. After you have eaten, each of the children in turn will receive a call from Mrs Spencer. After the interview you may tour the school. I have some young people ready to show you around. You may go anywhere in the school, except for occupied classrooms or offices marked private, and you may talk to anyone you wish to, adult or child, providing they are not obviously busy. Enjoy your meal, and children, I will see each of you again a little later.” He turned and retraced his steps towards what I guessed was his office, stopping to help himself to a cocktail sausage as he passed the table.
“Well, he seems nice, doesn’t he?” Mum said as we sat eating. As she held up a cocktail stick containing a square of cheese and a pineapple chunk, I noticed that her hand was trembling slightly.
“Mm,” I replied through a mouthful of sausage roll. I had put far too much on my plate and thought suddenly about the hungry soldiers. I imagined them looking incredulously at a sea of crumb-strewn platters with just the odd curling fish paste sandwich or Scotch egg sitting here and there. “Bloody kids!” one of them would bark. I wondered if anyone would notice if I tried to sneak a couple of the chicken legs back on to the table. I knew that I couldn’t possibly eat six, but then everything had looked so appetising. Fortunately, everyone else seemed to have been far more sensible, and there remained a mass of food still untouched.
We were, I felt sure, in the part of the Hall that was restored after the wartime fire. The ceilings were plainly plastered and the walls had been painted an institutional shade of beige. No red wallpaper or fancy plaster mouldings in here. The marble fireplace was cracked in several places and lacked the ornate carvings that surrounded those we had seen on the other side of the grand staircase.
I tried to picture the Hall buzzing with Army personnel, bustling here and there as secret scientific work of great importance to the war went on all around. I wondered where the great radio transmitters had been housed, and imagined rooms filled with huge metal cabinets, stiff with dials and gauges and glowing radio valves. I also wondered vaguely if I would turn out to be clever enough ever to work on anything secret, doing something that no one else could do but me. I thought of myself marching around in a starched lab coat, a forest of pens and pencils sticking out of the top pocket, stopping here and there to peer at a dial and flick a switch or push the odd button. That’s when I wasn’t barking commands or giving sage advice to my eager staff. I hoped we would get a chance to look at the science labs while we were here.
My imagination was about to run away again when I heard my name and was brought back to the room. “Sam Smith. Would you come in, please? It’s your turn to see Sir Julius,” Mrs Spencer had called me from the Principal’s door. There were only a handful of children left – I had been daydreaming for some time, obviously.
The Principal’s office was rather plainly furnished and not unlike Miss Trent’s, except by comparison this room was enormous. Some long tables stood against the back wall and a suite of soft furniture had been arranged around the empty fireplace. On the opposite side of the window to Sir Julius’s desk sat Mrs Spencer, with her telephone and typewriter. Behind Sir Julius hung a painting of a huge black horse. Its mount was a man in an Army officer’s uniform. I thought I could see a family resemblance and deduced the man might be either Sir Julius’s father or grandfather; probably the former, to judge from the fashion of the uniform.
“Do you like horses Sam?” Sir Julius began. “It’s just that I can see you’ve taken an interest in the painting of my father.”
“Well, yes, I suppose so. We’ve got a couple of ponies on the farm for David and me to ride. He’s my brother...”
“Yes, I know. Another clever child, I believe, although not in your league.” Sir Julius looked behind him at the painting. “It was my father’s dream to start a school here, you know. He came back to St Mungo's in 1928. When he returned from his Army service he was convinced by what he’d seen that the British Empire was being run by pen-pushers, crooks and ninnies. He had decided that the only answer was to educate and train a new elite who would administer the Empire with wisdom and compassion. A rather unfashionable aspiration in these times, don’t you think? Turn on the TV and every chat show is filled with people spouting claptrap like ‘there’s no such thing as right or wrong’, and ‘if it feels good then do it’. As if a moral code was a matter of personal choice.”
“So, is that why I’m...?” I faltered.
Sir Julius looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression, and then sat back in his chair and gave a dry chuckle. “Good heavens, no! You haven’t been invited to come here to learn how to run the British Empire. For one thing, there is very little of the British Empire left! For another, that was an idea from my father’s time. Still, something of his enthusiasm for education must have rubbed off on me, because here we are.”
“You always were the idealist of the family,” a disembodied voice announced from behind the back of a wing chair that faced away from us towards the fireplace. A man dressed in an Army captain’s uniform rose and turned to face us. He took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, took one out and tapped it on the box.
“Sam, this is Alec Terry, my brother. He’s the brains of the family, according to him that is. Alec, please don’t smoke in here, there’s a good chap.”
Alec Terry thought about this, and then put the cigarette away. “I hear you’re good with machinery, Sam. Think you can fix this?” He reached under the chair and brought out a brightly coloured cylindrical box about the size of a large waste paper bin. It was covered with pictures of a fairground and had emblazoned on the lid the words ‘Le Manège enchanté’. “It’s a mechanical toy I bought in Paris for my daughter, but it doesn’t work. Must have got damaged on the flight. Take it with you and see if you can fix it. You can give it back next time we meet.”
Never one to refuse a challenge I took the box. The man’s hands had incredibly long, bony fingers and very white skin. His face held a smile but I didn’t feel any warmth behind it. He turned his back and sat down again.
I realised I had hardly said anything during the interview, but Sir Julius seemed quite happy. “It was good to meet you, Sam. I like to meet all our new students before they start here. I don’t teach in the junior school, so it might have been a while before I could have put a face to the name. You’ll begin on the 4th of September. A letter will arrive for your parents with everything you need to know. It was a pleasure to meet you, Sam.” We shook hands and Mrs Spencer showed me back to my waiting mother.
It was settled then. I would begin at St Mungo's after the summer. That gave me a few months to get used to the idea and a whole summer break to feel nervous. Mother asked how it went, and then suggested we go for a wander before we ran out of time. The car was due to return us to the farm at four o’ clock. Mrs Spencer introduced us to our guides; a boy and girl of about my own age, to judge from their heights, but who, dressed in their smart blue uniforms, seemed to radiate confidence. They made me feel quite young by comparison.
They introduced themselves. “I’m Paul Hobson,” the boy said, giving a stiff bow. He was of a similar height to me but about three times my girth and obviously someone ‘who liked his food’, as Mum would say. He had a pleasant face, cheerful and avuncular, like a miniature adult almost. He squinted through round, wire-rimmed glasses at his list of names. “And you are Sam?” I nodded.
Then the girl performed a small curtsy. “Olivia Casey.” At first I thought she’d said ‘oh leave yer case here’, and must have looked a bit confused as I put the toy-box down on a chair. She spoke with an accent I did not recognise but it was definitely not local. Only later did I learn that Olivia was a Dubliner, born and bred. The whole introduction thing seemed a little eccentric and I wondered distantly if that was how St Mungo's students were expected to greet every visitor.
“Anything in particular you’d like to see?” the boy asked.
Immediately, I said “The science labs.”
“Good choice!” he replied enthusiastically. “To the science department first, then. Olivia, lead on!”
Mum said “Sam, I’ll see you in the courtyard at four. No point me coming with you; I wouldn’t know what I was looking at. I’m going to look for a cup of tea.”
The boy and girl led the way along corridor after corridor, then down some stone steps and across a grassed area to a separate building, with the boy talking all the way. “So, you’re interested in science?” He then answered his own question. “Well, obviously you must be. What’s your poison? Biology, physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy?”
I was unsure what to say that wouldn’t sound hopelessly ignorant. The truth was, I felt completely out of my depth. I actually knew very little about science, I realised, but I’d long had a feeling that its study would be exciting; a lot more exciting than finding out about foreign countries or famous battles, for instance. It was something you did rather than just looked up in books and then wrote about afterwards. After all, science was about how my world, or the universe even, actually worked. Fortunately, the girl spoke before I could think up a reply. “Give Sam a break, Hobbo. We’re not all science nuts like you,” she said. She was a slim girl, thin almost. She wore her black hair centre-parted and pushed back behind her ears. It hung straight down almost to her waist, an unmoving black cascade. Her skin was pale; not white exactly but translucent. At the temples you could see faintly the blood vessels beneath. I imagined she would be quite freckly in the summer months, and it would suit her.
“What do you like, if it’s not science?” I asked her.
“Me first love’s poetry,” she said. “Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning, the Liverpool Poets. What about you? Any poets you admire? Do you write any poetry?” She smiled a warm, infectious smile and waited placidly for my reply.
By this time, I felt I was almost definitely in the wrong place. I realised how little I knew about anything, really. How was I going to stay afloat among such knowledgeable children? My unease was not lost on the girl. She clashed shoulders and smiled. “I’d never heard of any of them poets when I started here. Don’t worry; we all feel like that at first, us scholarship kids. You’ll be surprised how quickly you pick things up and begin to find out just a bit who you actually are. Most of the teachers are great. Some are a bit old fashioned, but they all know their stuff.”
“These are the senior labs,” Hobbo announced as we pushed through a set of double doors. “Science isn’t one of St Mungo’s strongest suits, it must be said, but the labs are well-enough equipped for all that. They’re locked, of course – some dangerous gear inside.
I stared in through a window of reinforced glass. Rows of long, dark wooden benches filled the room, each work place incorporating a sink and twin gas taps. Built into the bench at the front of each work space was a varnished wooden rack containing a dozen small bottles of variously-coloured liquids. In glass cabinets along the side of the room I saw what must have been weighing scales. I knew that because they looked rather like the kitchen balance we had at home that Mum used for cake-making, but only in the way that a Model T Ford bears some resemblance to a Ferrari. “A chemi. lab, obviously,” I heard Hobbo saying. It may have been obvious to him, but what did people actually do in there, I wanted to know.
When I turned back my face must have shown my excitement and disappointment. “We don’t get to use these labs until senior school. We use general science labs downstairs, but I thought you’d like to have look up here first. Want to go inside?”
“I thought you said they were locked,” I said, puzzled. I was still trying to work out what ‘kemmy’ might mean.
The boy tapped the side of his nose and reached into the inside top pocket of his blazer, brought out a Yale key on a piece of string and let it dangle between us.
“Yer thieving tink,” I heard the girl say. “We’ll have to be quick, mind.”

Back at the farm that evening, I told David all about my visit as we washed down the milking parlour. “They even have a telescope – a big one that can see the outer planets, and other galaxies. There’s an astronomy club, and I can join if I want to.”
“Sounds fun,” he replied. “Tell me again about the cattle in the park.”
“They’re huge and pure white and have proper horns. White Parks are supposed to be the oldest breed of cattle in England, going back to the Saxons.” Trust David to be more interested in the farming than the science labs.
We finished our jobs and went back inside for supper. Mum had disappeared off to the living room to watch Coronation Street and Dad had gone out to a darts match at The Boat, so we had the kitchen to ourselves. David helped himself to a slab of bread pudding to have with his cup of hot chocolate, while I finished the last of the peanut butter biscuits along with my milk. We sat together at the big table, and as we ate I searched my memory for more things to tell him about St Mungo's. He munched contentedly and hummed quietly to himself. “Think you’ll like it there, then?” he said between mouthfuls of bread pudding. “Better than Finlow Primary?” There was no envy in his voice, only curiosity.
“It’s different, that’s for sure,” I said. “Children come from all over the country to go there, imagine that. And I’m only from around the corner.”
“So, what was the best thing you saw?”
I thought, and then remembered something. Reaching under my jumper and into my shirt pocket, I pulled out a small folded envelope. I squeezed the envelope so that David could see inside. He peered down, and then took the envelope from me and tipped some of the contents out on to the Radio Times. After a few moments spent examining the bright blue crystals he said “It’s copper sulphate, right? Not plutonium or something? Well, why is that special? There’s a tub of it in the chemical shed outside.”
“I know that,” I replied. “But this is contraband; stolen copper sulphate. The boy who took me round pinched it from a science lab. He thought it was pretty special, so I guess that does make it special, doesn’t it?”
“Sounds like he was trying to impress you. He a townie?”
I nodded. “He’s from London; he builds his own radio sets.”
“What’s that written on the envelope?”
“It’s the name of a book. The girl said I should read it, that I’d like it.”
David read the envelope. “Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I’ve heard of it; never read it, though. Hang, on, I think it might be in Dad’s ‘Readers’ Digest Classic Book Collection’ in the living room.
“The ones that have never been read, do you mean? Probably sandwiched between Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“Sounds painful. Well, seems like you’ve made a couple of friends, anyway.” He finished his drink and rose from the table. “Eddie was round looking for you earlier. I said you’d phone him.”
“What? Oh, yes. I’ll phone him. Tomorrow, it’s a bit late now.” I tidied up and put the envelope back in my pocket. It was Saturday tomorrow. Eddie could come over and I’d tell him all about St Mungo’s and he could tell me how the Beatles Club went today. Perhaps I’d even make a start on Tom Sawyer.