10 June 2024

This was our sole reason for visiting the south west, or the main reason anyway. Because the pub was within walking distance we even booked into the Bristol Travelodge (not a patch on Premier Inn)...

yellow skyblueThe Letter

December 1971

It was Tuesday lunchtime after a double science lesson with Miss Tadley. This afternoon was one my favourites of the week because we had an extra lesson with Mr Gentle.

Most of the Black Cat Gang had gathered on the same table in the dinner hall and I had just finished recounting Brown’s letter bombshell. “Potts is a slimy, rotten bounder!” JJ squealed loudly, except he didn’t use the word ‘bounder’.

“Steady on, old chap,” Hobbo admonished quietly. “There are ladies present.”

“How could he, how could he?” Pam exclaimed, and banged her fist on the table, almost upsetting JJ’s water. It didn’t need Sigmund Freud to work out that she was not simply annoyed; she was fuming, mad and fizzing angry.

 “True. But what I’d like to know more than anything is what he’s done with that letter.” This question had been lurking at the back of my mind ever since Brown had given me the news. I imagined, at some future time, the letter bobbing back to the surface like an unexploded sea mine – menacing, unpredictable and liable to go off at any moment. Put into the wrong hands that letter would have very unfortunate consequences for all of us.

Hobbo wiped the gravy from his plate with a slice of bread and popped it into his mouth whole. “I imagine he’s keeping it for the moment he and his friends will get the most fun from giving it to Old Man Terry, which, of course, they will at some point.” Hobbo was amazingly skilled at speaking with his mouth full. It saved time, he said, which was true even if it wasn’t pleasant to watch.

“Do you think they’ve opened it and read it?” I said a touch desperately.

Hobbo threw me an old-fashioned look. Of course, they had. “I imagine they steamed the letter open the same evening Potts took it. How they must have brayed and guffawed. I bet they couldn’t quite believe their luck to have something like that fall into their laps.”

Everyone was silent for a moment. I counted the plum stones, arranged on the edge of my pudding plate. Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man. I should eat fewer plums, I decided.

Then, Olivia nudged me. “So, Sam, when are we going to steal it back?” she said, matter-of-factly. We all looked at her. She was smiling sweetly but the glint in her eye told me that she was deadly serious.

Before I could speak, Pam rose from her chair and walked with small, deliberate steps over to the counter, to return her tray to the mobile rack. Although she was angry, evidently she thought that theft was going too far, even to recover something that was ours in the first place. I watched her thoughtfully, and wasn’t sure if I didn’t agree with her. Although the letter was clearly dangerous, sneaking around Potts and Miller’s dormitory was likely to be even more so, and I wasn’t convinced I had the stomach for it.

Still with her back to us, as Pam raised her arms to slide the tray onto a vacant shelf her cardigan slid off one shoulder. She caught it deftly before it reached the floor. Then she turned, but instead of heading out of the door as I had expected she walked back to our table. Her cheeks had reddened noticeably and her hair had fallen across one eye. She planted both hands on the table and grinned. “Yeh, Sam,” she said. “When are we going to steal it back?”

****

“Are you sure their coach won’t be back until seven?” I said.

“That’s what Griff said, and he should know,” JJ replied. “The only way they’ll get back any earlier is if the game’s rained off.”

“It’s raining now,” I pointed out, a touch superfluously since the noise of a heavy shower hammering on the corridor skylight rose and fell like Ringo practising a drum roll.

Pam and I had chosen this Saturday afternoon to search for the time bomb – the letter to George Harrison that might decide the future of Crow Wood and that we had to post soon if it was to have any chance of doing its job. However, this plan had problems. Everyone knew the school was falling apart for lack of basic maintenance, so what if the window to the fire escape wouldn’t open, or, even more likely, if the iron ladder outside was so corroded that it completely came away from the wall, while Pam and I were on it.

 “At least you won’t have to sneak about,” JJ chuckled as he took up his lookout position in the corridor by Potts’ door. “And it is only a passing shower. It could be a fine day in Exeter.” JJ opened his box of chalk pastels and carefully tipped them out on the floor. The colours rolled away in all directions. “There, one perfect excuse for being on all fours in the corridor. It will slow down any unexpected visitors at least, and we’ll be long gone before the teams return.”

JJ had devised a plan to enlist the help of anyone who happened to appear, to help him to gather up his pastels, which would give Pam and me time to exit via the fire escape. It was a risky plan; all sorts of things told me that. What if the inhabitants of Nelson dorm returned early and completely ignored JJ, as I thought was likely? I could barely imagine Potts and Miller stopping to help pick up his chalks.

Pam nudged me. “C’mon, now that we’re here let’s do it, for Hobbo and Crow Wood, if nothing else.”

“It’s twenty to six,” JJ said from the floor. “Best get a move on.” As usual, he’d brought a sketchbook, and sat with his back against the wall with the book propped against his raised legs. Almost opposite, a bronze bust of William Shakespeare sat in an alcove, glinting dully in the grey light.

We entered the room, unusually messy even for a boys’ dormitory. The four beds were unmade and wash bags and pyjamas lay abandoned on the blankets, early morning routines evidently sacrificed in order to reach Exeter in time for the eleven thirty kick-off. This was my first visit to one of these places. It smelt of dust and damp and feet and toothpaste, and felt distinctly chilly. Apparently, these rooms were especially sought after by parents who wished their offspring to have a Spartan schooling that ‘built character’.

As agreed beforehand, Pam took the left side of the room, and I the right. Griff had described the layout for us and even drawn up a plan. Miller’s bed was my first stop – the one on the right nearest the door. Miller, in my opinion, was the least savoury of the whole foursome, and his personal space mirrored my view in Technicolor. He was by far the wealthiest and the stupidest. Having made their money in the meat trade, his family were reputed to own half of Staffordshire. I started in his bedside cabinet. The door let down to expose a huge plastic bag of pork scratchings that had tipped onto their side, spilling on to the remaining contents of the cabinet. Their rancid grease had seeped into the covers of two library books and an atlas. It looked like several pieces of the ghastly snack had been chewed and then put back into the bag. I slid the books out, holding them by the spine and giving them a shake. No letter there.

Underneath the books were some greetings cards, but they were equally unrewarding. I opened each one, just in case, but it appeared a forlorn hope – Miller wasn’t that clever. The front of the top card showed a photograph of a Palladian mansion set in wooded grounds. It was a snow scene. Beneath were the words SEASON’S GREETINGS. I looked inside and read the message. It said ‘Darling Keith! Happy birthday! With all our love, Mummy and Daddy’. The other cards were all normal birthday cards from various relatives. One still had a ten-pound note inside it – I imagined Miller had completely forgotten it was there and I just hoped he didn’t bin it along with the cards at the end of term.

The shelf above was empty, apart from a broken wristwatch and a half-eaten Crunchie. I closed the cabinet and began frisking the bed. I couldn’t bring myself to put my hands inside the covers; instead, I ran my fingers along the edge of the mattress and then lifted it for a peek beneath, but found nothing. I wasn’t that disappointed. If I were Potts, the last person I would entrust the letter to would be Miller.

I looked over to see how Pam was doing. “Found anything?” I stage whispered. She was at the bed by the window. This was Brown’s. I ranked Brown as the least likely to have the letter, since he had told me about it in the first place.

“Nope. No letter, anyway. I’ll move on to Potts.”

I glanced at my watch. A quarter to six. That gave us about eight minutes, if we were going to make it in to dinner on time. The rain had stopped and blue sky had begun to appear. I moved on to Henderson’s bed, which was close enough to the window for me to have to crawl the last few feet. Compared to the middens of foetid socks and scattered washing gear I had just passed, Henderson’s space was a haven of neatness and order. A face flannel hung on the bed rail and beside a pile of books on his bedside cabinet stood a toothbrush in a glass. He’d even found time this morning to make his bed. I glanced at the book titles. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis; Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut; a Penguin poetry collection called The Metaphysical Poets, and on top our set book for English – The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. I’d read, and enjoyed, all of them.

Out of the four boys, I felt sure he would be the likeliest to notice any disturbance to his personal space, so I opened Henderson’s cabinet carefully and scanned the contents. It didn’t take long. Your typical monk’s cell probably held more in the way of personal possessions. Apart from a cigar box that contained some foreign coins, a few polished rocks, a bottle opener and other miscellaneous items, there was little apart from a large book. I carefully lifted it and placed it on the floor. It was a copy of the Holy Bible, and I guessed that this one was of great age and probably great value. It had a leather binding and leather straps holding it shut. I undid the straps and riffled through the first few pages. Each book of the Old Testament began with an illuminated capital that looked to me hand-coloured. On every fifth or sixth page was a woodcut illustration of a Bible story, and again these had been carefully hand-painted. It occurred to me to wonder what such a volume was doing in Henderson’s possession – a family heirloom left to him by a great aunt, perhaps. Under the circumstances, I could hardly ask him. The book was too large to pick up and dangle, as I had done with Miller’s, and I feared dropping it. Instead, I took random bunches of pages and flipped through them quickly. The first handful was enough to make me enormously thankful that I hadn’t tipped the book out, for at regular intervals, perhaps every ten pages or so, someone, perhaps Henderson himself, had used the book as a flower press.

Between leaves of white tissue paper, I discovered poppies and primroses, orchids and stitchwort, gromwell and valerian: thin seams of embalmed sunlight trapped in the pages of an old Bible. I continued searching, spellbound by the riches revealed between the turning pages, until my thoughts were disturbed by a noise coming from outside – the sound of a heavy vehicle crossing the cattle grid. It was the coach. Pam had also heard it and was hastily returning various items to Potts’ bedside cabinet.

By now, I had almost reached the end of the New Testament; a few more seconds would finish the job. My fingers trembled slightly as I gripped the last few pages and let them fall back, one by one. There. What was that? My left hand flew into the book and halted the falling pages. It was the letter, sandwiched between Jude and The Book of Revelation. Of course. Quickly I pocketed the letter and substituted another we had made as a doppelganger.

Pam was already at the window. There was no time to warn JJ and we both gripped the sash and pulled upwards. To our surprise, the window opened easily. We stepped through onto the iron landing of the fire escape, closed the window behind us and crouched low. The air was cool but I felt hot, sweaty even, and my heart beat rapidly. Anyone looking up now would see us for certain, but who would look up, especially so close to dinnertime? Pam and I exchanged looks. She breathed rapidly as if she had been exercising, her face crumpled as if trying to hold back a sob. She snorted and covered her mouth, and then glanced back at me. Her triumphant eyes told me that it was not fear she was trying to suppress, but glee. I could hear muffled yells and hoots now, coming from inside the dormitory. I glanced at my watch – it was four minutes to six. This was our moment.

Pam went first. The ladder, though old, proved to be structurally sound. Almost certainly, it dated from the time of the military occupation, and somehow that was reassuring. I allowed her to climb down to within ten feet of the ground before setting foot on it myself. It took only a few seconds to reach the ground. As soon as I had jumped down the last few feet and stood up, Pam grabbed me round the neck and gave me a hug. “Well, we tried,” she said. “Shame we didn’t find the letter. It was fun, though. Wasn’t it fun?” She eyed me quizzically.

“I suppose so,” I mumbled, dropping my head and putting on sad face. Then I opened my jacket to reveal the envelope tucked into the inside top pocket. “Not only fun, my dear. We succeeded!” I said, and wiggled my eyebrows exaggeratedly, as I had seen Harry Secombe doing on the telly.

Pam jumped in the air and gave a whoop. “All right! C’mon, let’s go and tell the others. And it’s curry night. Curry and good gossip: I think I’m in heaven!” She locked arms with me and dragged me along towards the courtyard entrance. “Hurry, or there’ll be no chips left.”

I laughed and said, “I’m posting this letter myself on the way home later. Good idea?” As we walked, I played back the events of the afternoon. It felt like we’d been in that bedroom for hours; every rumpled bed, every pair of crusty underpants and every soggy face flannel had become etched into my memory. What if a teacher had walked in? What if I hadn’t heard the coach? What if…

Pam tugged at my arm as I began to slow down, and then she slowed too and soon we had stopped and stood facing one another. The colour had disappeared from her face – it had dawned on her too. Our triumph had suddenly lost its sweetness. We had abandoned JJ to his fate in the corridor with the football and rugby first teams.

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