Barry had to queue at the Rex to get in to see National Velvet. At least it was only a U film so he didn't have to hang around to ask an adult to take him in or, worse, bunk in at the side door when no-one was looking, as his best friend Maurice used to do when he was out of funds.
He came out of the cinema smitten. He could still see her eyes, dark and velvety themselves, he imagined he was in love but only with an unreachable film star. How stupid I am, just fourteen and I get keen on a girl I can never go out with. Perhaps that’s the point, he mused. I don't know anything about girls, just talk about them a lot with other boys at school and then we stick pictures from Picturegoer of pin-ups such as Lana Turner and Hedy Lamaar on our bedroom walls. “Gosh, my dad doesn't seem to think I should be doing that at my age,” he thought.
Barry wondered about this and felt it was a bit old fashioned of his dad. He concluded that the real problem was that he never met any girls as they were all boys at William Ellis Grammar. Although there was the girls’ school next door at Parliament Hill, they would get detention, or even caned, if they went anywhere near it. Seems daft to me, thought Barry, why don't they let boys and girls study together? He fell to wondering if that could ever happen in this country. Maybe in a hundred years from now! Anyway he was too shy to talk to a girl so why worry about it? Girls were strange creatures anyway. How do adults ever get together, marry and stuff, he wondered.
Flicking through the pages of the latest Picturegoer magazine, Barry was surprised to see a photo of his heroine, Elizabeth Taylor. New Child Star Wins Race was the headline. Interviewed at her home with her mother in Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, Elizabeth Taylor said she was homesick for London and often went to sleep crying at the thought of Hampstead and Parliament Hill where she went to school. “But you might become a real Hollywood star after your performance in National Velvet,” said the journalist. Elizabeth said she didn't really believe this would happen and didn't like the bright lights of Hollywood; she really yearned to go home and live a normal life in London. The reporter wrapped up the interview by saying she'll get over it and see this is her life now, Hollywood. We at Picturegoer think she will go far, even if she doesn't.
Wow, so she came from round here and even went to school next door to me, thought Barry. His best friends at school, Leonard and Neville, had taken up a new hobby: writing fan letters to the stars of the silver screen. Leonard had even received a signed photo from Lana Turner.
Dear Miss Taylor, wrote Barry, I have just seen you in National Velvet and think you were super. I go to school at William Ellis and it is just wizard to think of you being next door. I read that in Picturegoer! When was that exactly? Did you get the bus from the school? Gosh I may have been on your bus. I hope you come back to England. Can I have a signed photograph please? Yours sincerely
To his astonishment, a reply arrived only a few weeks later. That was amazing, especially as his letter probably had to go all the way across the Atlantic in a ship, as he didn't pay for airmail, and then all across America to California, and hers had to do the same in reverse.
He tore excitedly at the envelope but carefully preserved the stamp for his collection.
It was nice to get a letter from you, especially as you live where I lived and go to William Ellis. I remember it well and I did use the bus. Please write to me again and send me something, a picture would be nice, that I can remember North London by? Here is a photo of me which I hope you like.
“What's the matter son? You look hot, haven't got a cold or something have you?”
Barry quickly hid the letter in his homework, and placed his school cap on top of the photo which was half peering out of the envelope. The blue cap with its oak tree emblem reminded him of the school motto: Rather Use than Fame. Perhaps Elizabeth was choosing that herself, rather than the fame she could have if she wanted to stay in Hollywood.
“No, Dad. I ran home from the bus stop because I thought you might be going to work in the pub tonight”. Barry wasn't intending to share his great secret with his father. It was lucky he had got to the post on the mat early this morning so his Dad needn't know the best thing in the world was happening to him.
In his room that night he looked at the picture of Elizabeth. She seemed to gaze at just him with her deep black eyes. She still looked girlish in a dress with puffed sleeves. I wonder, he thought, if......
He searched through the pages of the Hampstead and Highgate Express looking for a good photo he could send. At last on the third week of looking he found it. A great picture of Parliament Hill Fields and a feature on the schools and the area. Perfect! Barry cut out the relevant pages and preserved them as if they were the precious pages of a medieval manuscript.
There was an even bigger surprise at Christmas. Apart from his family, he wasn't expecting any Christmas cards but the one that landed on his mat was from Elizabeth Taylor. And, he excitedly noted, it was hand-made with a photo of her from Lassie Come Home and a message inside “To Barry, Happy Christmas, Elizabeth”. Barry sighed and stuffed it in his satchel to show Neville and Leonard after Christmas.
Barry was even more surprised when a letter arrived.
Mummy and I are coming to Europe next month to promote my new film. We are staying at the Savoy in London and then going on to Paris. Can you come to the Savoy at 6.30 on May 22nd? If you can I'll meet you in the foyer and we can have a cup of tea and talk about London. It would be fun if we could meet.
Barry couldn't believe his luck. He was going to meet her. Was he dreaming? No, this was real and she wanted to meet him. This would be amazing to tell Leonard and Neville and the other boys at school.
They didn't believe him. “Oh yeah, and I'm going to have tea with the King next week” said Leonard with a wry grin.
Counting the days. It seemed like years later that May 22nd arrived. He pulled his best jacket out of the wardrobe and put it on. Looking in the mirror he was immediately worried that it wasn't good enough to meet a film star. But then she would know that no schoolboy would have anything great to wear while the country was still on rationing and using clothing coupons. And his Dad didn't earn enough to buy stylish clothes and certainly not those Spiv jackets in Cecil Gee’s in the Tottenham Court Road. It just would have to do.
Dad had worked as a waiter in West End hotels so he might know where the Savoy was. It turned out he did. “It's in the Strand son. Plush place for posh people. Why do you want to know?”
“I heard this dance band on the radio, Carrol Gibbons and his Savoy Orpheans it was called and I just wondered why it was called that. Do you think they play at the Savoy Dad?”
Dad carried on reminiscing about dance bands. "I met your mum dancing to Ambrose's band at the Lyric Hammersmith before the war.” His father's eyes misted over as Barry was readying himself for his big adventure. Now he knew where the Savoy was, all he had to do was get there on the 134 bus.
Standing outside the Savoy, Barry was overawed. Everyone going in was arriving by taxi or even a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce! Nobody was just walking in off the street. And just look how they were dressed. Didn't seem to have any problem with clothing coupons nor money neither. He looked down at his jacket and thought about turning straight round and getting the bus home.
“Barry - it is you isn't it?” a young girl's voice shouted excitedly. He looked around but couldn't see where the voice had come from. “I'm here, over here”. And then he saw her standing at the entrance bathed in a golden halo of light. Slowly the light dissolved and he saw an ordinary girl standing there, except she wasn't ordinary at all. She was Elizabeth Taylor!
It turned out that Elizabeth didn't want him to go into the Savoy anyway. She wanted to experience a bit of London she had missed and wanted him to take her to Lyons Tea Shop. “I remember they have these waitresses called Nippies and they serve good old English tea in silver teapots. We only get bad coffee in plastic cups on the film set,” she exclaimed. “But won't people recognise you after National Velvet and all that?” “No I'm not that famous and I've got this head scarf.” She smiled as he had always imagined angels smile, as she wrapped the scarf round her head.
Sitting in Lyons everything was as she had said. Though it felt really posh with elegant mirrors and fancy décor, he could see the customers weren't posh at all but more like his own class. Barry looked down as she placed her holdall on the floor and noticed a book peeping out. “Gosh, do you read Virginia Woolf? That's really difficult stuff.” “Oh well, yes, but I like it because she's always writing about Bond Street and Regent Street. That's me and my nostalgia for good old London” she sighed.
At the next table there was a bloke with a girl, probably his girl friend by the way they were looking at each other, all moonstruck. She was a pretty blonde. She might work in Woolies and he had just put his Burton raincoat over the back of the Windsor chair. “Come on Laura - say you'll go to the pictures with me next week. Meet me at the Odeon on Monday night at 7 and I'll get us seats in the three and sixes. Brief Encounter is on. I know you'd love it.”
Barry thought the bloke had won, as the girl gave him a nice smile and squeezed his hand and whispered, “I hope this is not a brief encounter, with us I mean.”
What he hadn't anticipated happened now. His tongue stopped working. Barry didn't know what to say, felt very self-conscious and had apparently had his tongue cut out in payment for this amazing piece of luck. Elizabeth didn't seem to notice much as she was babbling on about her happiness to be in London, her plans for her next film, her Mum's determination that she should become a great film star, her not really wanting this as she would much rather live in London than Hollywood. All this seemed to put him at ease and eventually his command of the English language returned - it was a good school, William Ellis. “But if you become a star won't you be able to get married to a handsome leading man like...you know...like...someone like say Michael Wilding”
“So what, all these stars get divorced in no time flat. I wouldn't want that. And the work too, it's awful. Mummy wants me to do well so I put up with it but you wouldn't believe what these directors expect from you. I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof sometimes, they make you work such long hours and I'm officially still a child so they should give me more time for my school work.”
And soon they were planning to meet again: they would go to Parliament Hill, get some sweets at the tuck shop and go for a walk on Hampstead Heath. “And now I've got to get back to the Savoy. Mummy will be wondering where I am. She was having a rest and I told her I was going to the bookshop in the foyer.” She leant over the table and kissed him quickly on the lips. “I'll write,” she said as she dashed out on to the street leaving Barry in a happy daze, swearing to never wash his lips for a hundred years.
The letter came two days later.
It was so nice to meet you. You are so sweet. I'm so sorry but we won't be able to meet again. Mummy found out from the doorman that I'd walked out of the hotel and met up with a young boy. She didn't like that and has forbidden us to meet again. Mummy and I are off to Paris tomorrow so it's goodbye to lovely London. You know all that bad stuff I said about Hollywood. Well it’s not all bad. I've earned an awful lot of money and I can spend some of it in Paris. I think I’ll buy a Chanel dress and some jewellery with real precious stones, maybe even diamonds. And we are going to go to the Eiffel Tower! I hope you have a nice life.
It was a completely unexplained killing. There was absolutely no reason why Sarah Parks should have been so brutally battered. The police were baffled.
At first it had been assumed that she had wandered on to the tracks and then been struck by an oncoming train, but the coroner’s report had already ruled that out. When I visited the station to collect the CCTV footage, I asked to see the platform where Sarah was last seen. As soon as I saw the safety barrier at the end of the platform, I was convinced that she’d been pushed. I kept my thoughts to myself for a couple of days, but Boyle brought a few pictures to show me over dinner at my flat.
“She had cotton fibre under her fingernails that didn’t match anything she was wearing. Where would that have come from?”
“You could be breaking a hundred different rules by just asking me that question; in fact, I’m sure of it. I can’t interfere or even offer an opinion on a case unless requested to do so by a senior officer.”
Boyle pretended to be indignant. “I am a senior officer,” he said. “Besides, we gather our facts from several different sources as a matter of routine.”
“But you now have to report all your sources to your reporting officer before engaging them in your investigation. Failure to do so could result in severe disciplinary action. And you know what that means.”
“Yeah, she’s going to roast my meatballs on a spit and have them with spaghetti.” Boyle drained the last of his wine. “Remember when I said we were like two sides of the same coin? We look at a situation from different sides, but we invariably see the same thing. What are you seeing here?”
I stared into my glass and swirled the remaining rioja slowly. “I see Sarah being pushed over the barrier by someone wearing clothing of cotton fibre who then followed her on to the tracks to finish her off.”
“Then we agree. But by whom?”
I had no answer. I could only confirm what the station staff had told me. Sarah was alive and visible on the security screens at 10.35 on that Monday night. She turned around and appeared to speak to someone out of view of the camera. The next train to stop at that station was the 10.50 to Hertford and that was when the alarm was raised.
“That’s a pretty tight window,” I commented. “Fifteen minutes to kill someone; it’s pretty brief.”
“But still perfectly possible.” Boyle gathered the notes scattered across my dining table. “The coroner suggested that the killer felt extreme rage; at least half a dozen of the blows were inflicted post mortem.”
I held up my hand and averted my gaze from the sheath of photographs. “Please don’t give me any further details. I’ll go back to the train company in the morning and check the footage again. What about her husband? Aren’t they usually first suspect?”
“Not this guy,” said Boyle. “His alibi is solid. I spoke to him myself yesterday. The poor man’s in bits.”
I gathered together the dirty dishes and wine glasses. “Coffee?”
“Please.” Boyle looked thoughtful for a moment. “Liz, when would you leave your handbag unattended?” He held up a picture.
I ignored it on my way to the kitchen. “Well, these days, I’d like to say never, but there must be times when I do.” I had already noticed what had caught his eye. When Sarah had turned to talk to the invisible fellow passenger, she had left her handbag on the platform bench. I scooped coffee into a cafetiere and closed my eyes as I inhaled the aroma. It failed to calm my nerves.
“You know what this suggests, don’t you?” Boyle came in holding the photograph and leaned against my counter top to look at me.
I nodded reluctantly. “We’re looking for someone she knew and trusted.”
Boyle’s phone jangled and he pulled a face as he looked at the display. I knew it was his boss and couldn’t resist a smile.
“Does your mother know you’re here?” Even having dinner together was now a reportable event.
“I’m going to speak to Sarah’s employer tomorrow,” said Boyle, when he ended the call. “And my boss was wondering if you’d like to join us?”
“Good God! As assistance or a suspect?”
Boyle laughed. “I think she just wants to see you for herself. She wants to know what you think.”
“I’d better iron a blouse, then.”
The following morning I took a copy of one of Boyle’s photographs back to the train station and spoke to the bored young man behind the glass whose shirt tag said his name was Justin. He wasn’t on duty at the time of the incident and was relieved about that.
“They didn’t let old Jim go until nearly midnight,” he said. “I’d have buggered off regardless. Would have been on my sixth pint by eleven.”
I showed him the photograph of Sarah moving back towards the entrance of the platform with her handbag behind her on the bench. “Who else would have been here at 10.35?” I asked.
“Well, Pat does the earlier shift,” he said scratching at the stubble under his chin. “Jim gets in before the 18.12. There would only have been a handful of passengers about at that time of night, plus a few stragglers from 22.11.”
I pointed to the time stamp on the picture. “It says 10.35, here. But the next train was at 10.50, not twenty to eleven.”
Justin laughed and handed over a timetable. He tapped the surface of his digital watch and then pointed to my traditional looking timepiece. “Things have moved on a bit since then,” he chuckled. It’s 22.11.” he separated the two numbers between his hands as if weighing grapefruit. “As in twenty-two hours and eleven minutes. Any passengers hanging around at the time you’re talking about had probably missed their train. There’s a phone number on there, too.”
I thanked Justin and called Boyle as I left.
“Gloria and I questioned the staff. They all say that Sarah was popular and hard working. Everyone was shocked when they heard the news.”
“What time do you want me there?”
“We’re questioning her closer colleagues after lunch. You better get here by 1 o’clock. “
I loved the way he said that.
“Ms Philips, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” DCI Gloria Hancock extended her hand and shook mine in grip that was assertive and kind in equal measure. Gloria was dressed like a business woman for whom the eighties had ended too soon. Her formal, padded jacket and tailored skirt gave her a stern and authoritative air. “We now know that Sarah Parks worked for Ray Seymour as a junior secretary for the last six months having been promoted from another department. Mr Seymour’s wife confirms he was at home with her from 9.30 onwards; he often works a later shift.”
“Here he comes now,” said Boyle. “And he has company.”
Ray Seymour walked into his office with a young lady of about Sarah’s age. “This is Kate; she’s my PA. I thought you might like to start with her.”
“Actually, Mr Seymour,” I interrupted, “I’d like to start with you.” Ray was in his early forties and carried with him an arrogance that he seemed to assume as part of his job description. “Your wife says you were at home with her by 9.30 on the night Sarah died.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So what time did you leave here? I’m told you often work late.”
Ray glanced at his PA. “Well I guess it was probably between 8.45 and 9pm. It usually takes between 30 and 45 minutes to get home from here.”
“Probably? You can’t be more sure than that?”
Ray frowned impatiently. “No, the traffic on the main road out of town often gets blocked even at night. The time can vary.”
“Of course it can,” I agreed, trying to sound reassuring. “But if you are claiming alternative or extra hours at work, you’d need to know what time you left to be sure you got paid the shift rate. Even senior managers have to report their hours. Don’t they?”
“It was 9pm,” stated Kate, confidently. “We were both working on the same project and left about the same time.”
“What project is that?” asked Boyle.
Ray reached over to his desk and handed Boyle a file. “This one; the whole team is involved. It’s for the American market so we’re keeping to US time.”
“And what was your opinion of Sarah?” asked Gloria.
“I liked her,” responded Kate. “She was smart, too. Really nice.”
I turned to Gloria as soon as they had left. “Apart from the fact that they’re hiding an affair, do you believe what they’re saying?”
Gloria hooked a finger over her chin as she stared after them. “Not a single word of it.”
I turned to Boyle. “What’s in the file?”
“It looks like a protective IT back up system. Hmm, that’s interesting. The original notes were compiled by Mrs Seymour.”
“Ray’s wife? Did she work here?”
Gloria answered my question. “Yes, she was Ray’s PA a few years ago. He divorced his first wife to marry her.”
“Is she your next port of call?” I asked hopefully.
“Boyle, you go. We better make it official. The team and I can continue here.”
I smiled my thanks at Gloria as we left.
“I like your boss,” I said to Boyle on our way out.
“She likes you too,” he replied. “Look, I’m still breathing.”
Kathy Seymour was a lot younger than I expected. She was pretty, in her early thirties, I guessed.
“I really don’t have the time for this,” she complained. “I have a nail appointment in less than an hour.”
“I understand that you used to work with your husband before you were married.” I said. “When did you leave?”
“I gave up working after we married two years ago. Ray was doing well and I wanted to start a family.”
“But you compiled the notes for the new system they’re working on.”
Kathy shrugged. “Many projects can take years to get made. And I had previous experience in IT systems. I’m sure that most of the secretaries there now think that IT was what their grandmas used to have at four o’clock.”
“Ray was working late again that night,” said Boyle. “What time did he get back home?”
“By nine thirty. We’ve been over this before and I’ve already made my statement.”
“But that’s not right, is it? End of business in the US would be about 10pm here. Something else happened that night. What was it, Kathy?”
Kathy pressed her lips together and looked at her shoes. “He called me Kate,” she said. “He tried to cover up, but it was just something that slipped out. And that’s when I knew. It was happening again.”
“Ray cheated on his first wife with you,” I prompted. “Is that how it started?”
Kathy nodded, but couldn’t meet my eyes. “I knew another secretary had been promoted and figured that must be her.”
“What did you do?” asked Boyle.
“I knew she took the train home, so when Ray called and told me he was staying late again, I drove to the station.”
“What time was this?”
“And then nothing. She wasn’t there. I asked the guy behind the desk what time the train was due and I’d missed it.”
“Which train was that?”
“Eleven after ten. The next train was at ten to eleven.”
Boyle and I sat in my car, just a few doors away from Kathy Seymour’s house. I closed my eyes and let out a breath. “All of this time comparison is making my head spin.”
Boyle frowned as a thought seemed to come to him. “Do you have a timetable?” I handed it over.
“Look; all the times listed are in 24 hour clock. I’m willing to bet that if you call the helpline number, the voice tells you the time of the next train in 24 hour clock too. Gloria had Sarah’s phone inspected. She called the helpline at 9.40 that evening. That means that she must have left the office between 9.40 and 10pm. She must have thought that she had plenty of time to get to the station, not realising that she’d missed her train.”
“But even in 24 hour clock, Kathy’s timeline doesn’t match with Sarah’s. Sarah would have had to walk to the train station and Kathy took her car. She had probably already been and gone by the time Sarah got there and we know Sarah must have arrived after 10.15.”
Boyle nodded. “Kathy spoke to a member of the station staff. They’ll verify what time she was there. So we know she didn’t do it.”
“What about Kate? She says that she and Ray left the office about the same time; 9pm. She would have been too early to meet Sarah at the station.”
“Unless she didn’t leave,” suggested Boyle. “She may have stayed until 10pm with Ray and no one would have thought that was unusual or strange. And if Sarah made her call when we think she did, she was probably still at the office.”
I looked up to see Kathy hurrying down her driveway to her sporty looking car. “That looks new,” I commented. “This lady really does like the good things in life, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, none of which come cheap. Where do you think she’s going?”
I started the engine and got ready to follow. “I don’t know, but it won’t be the nail salon.”
I kept a safe distance from Kathy and obeyed Boyle’s instructions. She led us back to the office, but this time parked in a residential road nearby.
“She’s going back to straighten out her story with her husband.”
Boyle pointed to another car on the opposite side of the road. “You’re not the only person who thinks so.”
DCI Hancock waited for Kathy to turn towards the office building before getting out of her car. If she was surprised to see us there, she didn’t show it.
Boyle marched towards Ray’s office and demanded he remain seated, but Gloria and I met outside the ladies room. Kathy and Kate’s voices screamed from within.
Gloria pushed the door and jerked her head back towards the office. “I think it’s time we had another little chat.”
Back in Ray’s office I saw the colour drain from his face as soon as Kathy walked in.
“Oh, man up, Ray,” she sneered. “You’re a lousy liar. I was there the first time, remember?”
Gloria fixed Kathy with a stern stare. “You lied yourself when you said Ray had come home at 9.30.”
Kathy glared at her husband. “It was 10.30. Why did you follow Sarah to the station, Ray? Were you sleeping with her too?”
“I wasn’t sleeping with her.” Ray nodded towards Kate. “She said Sarah knew something. I had to find out what. I only wanted to talk to her.”
Boyle snorted. “I’ve heard that one before.”
“But I didn’t!” Kate’s voice was shaking and so were her hands.
“You did. You said she knew all about us and what we did here. I overheard you talking to the others in the office.”
Kate pointed a trembling finger towards Kathy. “I was talking about her. She was the one who had initiated the current project.”
Kathy suddenly threw her head back and laughed. “So she’s the one you’ve been screwing behind my back.”
“But you’d always said you’d divorce me if I had an affair.”
“I was going to divorce you anyway, you twat! Do I look like a stay at home mother to you? You pushed Sarah over for nothing!”
Ray rose from his seat and marched towards his wife, his face in a contorted snarl. “Don’t you get it? I pushed her over for us. You spend money like running water. Sarah went over the spreadsheets and found your overspending in the new software. I couldn’t afford the Americans finding out and I can’t afford another divorce! Why do you think I had to take the American contracts in the first place?”
Gloria stepped in between the two and held up a hand. She pinched the bridge of her nose and looked like she was getting a headache. “All three of you were at the train station that night and all three of you played a part in Sarah’s death.”
“That’s ridiculous,” retorted Kathy. “I didn’t even see her.”
“That’s just the point,” I said. “What would you have done if you did? Push her over yourself? You could have gone looking for your husband.”
“But I was here,” said Ray, panicking. “Ask Kate.”
We all turned our attention to the quietest person in the room who was also the closest to the door.
“He asked where Sarah was,” she said. “I told him that she had already left to catch her train.”
“You made the same mistake as Sarah.” Gloria walked towards Ray forcing him to move backwards towards his chair. “You heard that the train was at 22:11 and assumed that meant twenty minutes before eleven o’clock.”
Ray bounced into his seat. “But she was alive when I left her, I swear it.” He swallowed, looking from Gloria to Boyle and back again. “You have to believe me.”
“I do believe you,” said Boyle. “That’s what makes this so inexcusable. Sarah had a sprained ankle. She couldn’t get up. If you had helped her and made good on your actions, she’d still be alive.”
I looked back at Kate, who was pulling on a pair of soft gloves. “But someone else was there, someone who realised what the mistake with the time really was. Someone who saw what happened and then climbed down onto the track. Who told you that the next train was at 22:11, Ray?”
The office was suddenly very quiet. Kate stared at Ray with hateful eyes. “We all know how you can’t resist a new face.”
“But I wasn’t sleeping with her!”
“That’s what she said.”
Gloria put a hand to her chest. “Oh dear God. She must have thought you were going to rescue her. And instead you gripped her coat and smashed her head against the rail again and again and again.”
Kate simply moved her eyes from Ray to Gloria. “I want a solicitor.”
When I shook Gloria’s hand later, I knew I had made a new friend. “You’re very perceptive, Ms Philips,” she said. “You’d have made a good police officer.”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “You’d have me suspended in a week.” Gloria smiled but didn’t disagree.
“Do you think she’s forgiven me yet for almost turning you to the dark side?” I asked as I drove back.
Boyle laughed. “Sure. It’s me she’s watching like a hawk.” He looked at his watch. “Do you fancy getting a takeaway tonight? Chinese?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “Guess my two favourite numbers.”
In the beginning, there was Catholic school and apart from the incident at the dinner party, Father Ben could remember very little about his early life. This was a blessing for which he remembered to thank God every morning. Each day the padded kneeler in front of Ben’s window seemed to shrink further away and on especially cold days, its distance seemed obvious enough to mock him. Ben gripped the window sill with both hands and tried to brace himself for the pain and embarrassment of his creaking knees. This morning’s ritual had a new dedication.
He was twelve when he experienced the classroom incident and that was how Ben had come to view the majority of his life; as a series of incidents. At St. Ignatius boarding school, Easter was the biggest of all festivals and in the preceding weeks, Lent was the most strictly observed of penitent periods.
It was during the last week of Lent that Simon Dorsey taught Ben to smoke. He and a few other second year lifers, as they called themselves, had gathered in the caretaker’s garage at the back of the sports field to sample the delights of the confiscated stock locker. The locker was kept closely guarded in the headmaster’s study, but at the end of first term, the caretaker was awarded special permission to enter the headmaster’s rooms for Spring Cleaning. This was a wonderful event in the school calendar because it meant the clearing of the confiscated items. All the sins of the outside world were waiting to be discovered, like a Pandora’s Box of Catholic misdemeanours.
Beer, unfortunately, was dispatched to the kitchen to be poured immediately down the sink. Cake, sweets and other edible treats were only permitted weekly after tea on Saturdays and any tardy parent whose dispatch had missed that deadline had their gift immediately confiscated. The boy they were meant for might get his toffees eventually, but the cake and chocolate were invariably never to be seen again.
But it was the forbidden contraband that the boys lusted after most; cassettes of rock music, creased and suspiciously sticky copies of Playboy and cigarettes. This was the evil stock that Mr Hammond was instructed to dispose of forthwith. Apparently, he only kept these items in his garage so that the boys wouldn’t be able to steal them back from the rubbish, but nobody dared to question why the headmaster would keep such things locked in his study in the first place.
Clarke and Adams bagged the porn as soon as it was found. It didn’t really matter how old the copies were or if they’d already been seen. It was the social standing that came with ownership that was important. In the land of the permanently penitent, the boy with porn was king.
“I’ve already seen that lot,” said Dorsey. “That was the bunch of mags that was confiscated from Harris before Christmas.”
“It’s only Playboys here,” said Adams. “Harris had Penthouse and Hustler, too. His older brother smuggles them in.”
“Don’t matter anyway,” said Clarke, shoving one copy up inside his jumper and one down the front of his trousers. “They’re mine now.”
“I’m having this one,” said Adams, loosening his belt. “This copy’s got that actress in it. I don’t mind removing a few staples.”
Clarke glanced over his shoulder. “Best get a move on. Hammond will be back soon.” He and Adams jogged back towards the main building to stash their hoard safely.
Dorsey and Ben were still rummaging in the box, but in Ben’s opinion, all the good rock music seemed to have been taken. “Why bother confiscating this lot? There’s nothing here worth listening to anyway. It’s all Abba and love song duets.”
“Got ‘em.” Dorsey held up his prize triumphantly. “B and H. Good ones. I can’t stand those cheap ones my mum has.” He pulled one from the pack and handed the rest to Ben. “There are matches in here somewhere.”
Ben held the pack back out to Dorsey. “Don’t smoke,” he said. “Never learned.”
Dorsey laughed, his cigarette jiggling between his teeth. “Time you tried, then sonny. Here, I’ll show you.” He shook a match box and lit his cigarette. He squinted a little, as if the strength of the smoke was almost too much, but he kept his cool and handed the cigarette to Ben.
Ben wasn’t too sure about this. He knew he wasn’t as cool or smart as Dorsey, but he’d give it his best shot. The pain of the cough, though, was enough to wind him and Dorsey bent over double as he laughed. Ben was just bent over double.
“Oi! Wot you kids up to now?”
Dorsey shot Ben a startled glance. “Leg it! Hammond’s back.”
They both ran for the door but Hammond was waiting for them outside. “Wot you thieving little tykes got this time. More of my stuff have ya?” He had Ben by the arm, but only managed to grab at Dorsey’s collar. His straggly moustache whistled like reeds in the wind as he puffed his red cheeks out to catch his breath.
“Nah, Mr Hammond,” said Ben, desperate for an excuse to present itself. “We were only looking for stuff for a school project.”
“Oh, yeah? And does that school project require a wank and a fag?”
Dorsey looked like he could wriggle free, but he didn’t bother trying. He and Ben were mates, after all.
Hammond frogmarched the boys back through the school yard and directly past the teacher’s common room. It was just their luck that old Evans saw them. He stood in the doorway to the school hall, waiting, with his hands behind his back, gently tipping backwards and forwards on his heels.
“Thank you, Mr Hammond,” he said, as the boys were presented back to him. “And what is the excuse this time?”
“Looking for stuff for a school project, Mr Evans.”
Evans eyed the boys before him and Ben was sure he could see the faint beginnings of a smile on his smug face. This was going to result in punishment and it was going to be painful.
“Looking for stuff for a school project.” Evans pronounced each word carefully and individually.
“Thank you Mr Hammond. I think I can take things from here.”
Yes. Very painful.
“Well, come on then. Let’s see what discoveries you’ve made that would result in a school project.”
Dorsey and Ben looked at each other. The jig was up. They were going to have to empty their pockets.
“Cassette tapes and cigarettes.” Evans pretended to look confused. “Forgive me,” he said as if the clarity of the situation escaped him. “But this looks a lot like the confiscated items from Mr
“Are you sure it’s not yours, sir?” Dorsey dared to stare straight back. “You can have it back if you want. There were some mags in there ‘an all.”
Evans’ cheeks shone pink and Ben had to bite the inside of his mouth to prevent a smirk.
Evans’ eyes were cold and when he spoke his voice was barely a whisper. “I shall join you in class momentarily.”
Ben and Dorsey walked back to their form room in silence. Of all the form masters they could have had, Evans had to be the meanest, most miserable and downright wacky son of a bitch there ever was. Most of the masters told the boys that they were dirty, un-saveable souls, destined for hell. Most of the masters would indeed have punished the raiding of the confiscated locker items and most of the masters would have sent the boys to the headmasters study for an ear-bashing and a stiffly-worded letter sent home in that afternoon’s post. It was only Evans, the boys learned, who seemed to take a perverse kind of pleasure in ensuring that the boys knew they were un-saveable and destined for hell, in seeing them punished for almost any misdemeanour and in posting the letters home himself.
Ben and Dorsey had only just taken their seats when Evans quietly entered the room. He closed the door gently behind him and stood in front of his desk at the top of the class as he waited for the boys to stop their chattering and stand to attention. No boy in the room could have failed to notice what Evans had brought in with him. It was the longer of the two canes that hung above the mantle in the staff room. Ben also noticed that the punishments book, in which all crimes deserving of a caning were written, was conspicuous by its absence. Usual house rules stated that a caning could only be administered by a teacher if the headmaster was unavoidably absent. Ben wondered where Father Graves was now. He had only had cause to stand in front of Graves once before and had been surprised at the leniency shown to him. Vomiting over a classmate’s shoes at evensong was surely worthy of a stern admonishment, as was the drinking that had preceded it, but Graves had clearly known, correctly as it turned out, that the ensuing hangover would be sufficient.
“Be seated,” said Evans. “Dorsey and Jones, stand here.”
Ben and Dorsey made their way to the front of the class to stand by their teacher. “These two,” said Evans, flicking a wavering finger towards the boys, “broke into the garage at the back of the lower school sports field with the intent to steal the confiscated items held there, presumably for personal use, but also perhaps for redistribution. This action was a deliberate attempt to flout school rules. Their theft and willingness to share the spoils have not only demonstrated their own guilty desires, but also a blatant disregard for you.”
“It wasn’t an attempt,” said Dorsey, moving only his eyes to glance up at Evans. “It was a successful mission.”
“Shut it, Dorsey,” hissed Ben. “You’re making it worse.”
“Ain’t gonna get no worse, mate,” he replied. “Put the kettle on, Grandma. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Evans beckoned his finger at Dorsey. “You first. Assume the position.”
Dorsey stepped forward and the class started to snigger as he undid his trousers and let them fall to his knees. He stood with his back to the class and leaned forward with both hands on the front of the teacher’s desk. His dark blue pants stared back at the class and Adams softly wolf whistled.
“And the underpants.”
The class stopped sniggering. Dorsey had been on the receiving end of his fair share of punishments, some legitimate, some not, but this was a first. “Sir?”
“The underpants,” repeated Evans. “Those, too.”
“But Sir,” protested Ben. “That’s not right.”
“Silence!” commanded Evans. “Underpants. Down.”
Dorsey looked nervous, and seemingly unsure of this new instruction, his hands began to shake. With a red face and deepening embarrassment, he did as he was told. Cowering low, and with his lily-white arse for all the class to see he gripped the desk with renewed fear to await the impending assault.
Evans assumed a stance of his own. He stood by the side of Dorsey, facing the class with his feet squarely apart and tilted from one foot to the other to align his balance. Raising the cane in his right hand high above his head, he arched his left arm up to pinch the tip between thumb and forefinger.
The cane bowed in a tight arch before Evans released the tip and sent it whizzing down to connect with Dorsey’s quivering rear.
Dorsey screamed in pain and collapsed to his knees, his hands still clinging to the desk.
“Sir,” he gasped, “please, sir. No. No more.”
“On your feet, boy,” demanded Evans. “You have four more.”
“No, he ain’t,” whispered Ben. He’d seen enough.
Evans resumed his stance and readied the cane for another swing.
Almost unaware of what he was doing, Ben stepped forward, reached up and gripped Evans’ wrist.
“What on earth are you doing, boy?” shouted Evans. “Let go at once.” But Ben couldn’t hear. Already he had started chanting. His Latin master said he had a gift.
“I beg the Lord to forgive you your sins and cleanse your soul. Obsecro ut obliviscaris sceleres peccata et emundet animam tuam Dominos. I beg the Lord forgive the harm inflicted on the innocent. Ignosce quaeso Domine innocerti nocumenti.”
“Jones,” hissed Clarke. “You’re going to give him a heart attack.”
Evans’ face had already developed an unhealthy purple hue, his anger gathering in tiny droplets of barely contained spittle at the corners of his mouth.
“How dare you! How dare you! Let go this instant.”
Dorsey took a deep breath and turned his face, blotchy and wet, towards his unlikely hero. Evans’ left hand still gripped the tip of the curved cane. Ben lifted his other hand to his chest and felt his heart beating. He gripped Evans’ wrist even tighter as he begged for the forgiveness of sins with all the fervour of a sideshow preacher casting out a demon.
Evans released the tip of the cane and delivered a sudden backhanded swipe to Ben’s cheek, sending him into a spin and crashing into a chair. Ben hit the floor with a dull thud and then there was a second of shocked silence. No one saw Clarke slip from the room.
“Is he all right?”
“Of course he ain’t. Look at him.”
“What’s happening? I can’t see.”
Dorsey hurriedly hoisted his trousers over his hips and limped over to kneel beside his friend. “Jones? Say something, mate.”
Dorsey rolled Ben over and an already ugly looking lump, the size of a duck egg, was forming over Ben’s left eye.
Evans staggered backwards and almost collapsed against his desk. The cane clattered onto the wood and Evans seemed surprised at the sound; too loud in a silent classroom. He pointed a finger at Ben.
“He was being disobedient and unreasonable,” he stated. Dorsey said nothing, but his face was wishing a curse. Evans swung his finger out over the rest of the class. “You all saw it. You saw what he did. He behaved possessed!”
No one said anything. No one dared, but they didn’t look away.
All eyes then swung to the door as Graves entered, followed by Brooks, the Latin master and Clarke.
“You’re a dirty grass, Clarke,” whispered Adams.
“Shut yer face,” spat back Clarke. “This ain’t happening again.”
The boys stood as they were expected to, but Graves waved them back down to their seats. “I shall be taking your class today, boys. Mr Evans, please accompany Mr Brooks back to my study.”
Brooks bent down and heaved Ben up into a fireman’s lift. Ben groaned. “I feel sick.”
“Do me a favour and wait till you’re in Matron’s room, ok? Dorsey, you’re coming, too.”
The unhappy little procession made its way back down the corridor, and in the classes where the door had been left open, curious faces peeped out at what was to be Evans’ last parade.
The boys were dropped at Matron’s office without explanation and Dorsey faced embarrassment for a second time that day as ointment and dressings were applied to his broken skin.
Not too many boys came forward to speak to Graves, despite his assurances that that there would be no further punishments, but times were changing. It was 1975 and Graves’ promise came a little too late. In the end it was Matron’s log book that provided all the shocking details. The words ‘delivered from Mr Evans’ class’ appeared too frequently to be ignored.
Ben and Dorsey remained friends until Dorsey moved to Australia. He became a paramedic there and remembered to send the occasional Christmas card. Ben turned over the letter in his hands and read again the kind and gentle words that told him his dear friend had died. He succumbed to a stroke last week. His wife said that he’d been swimming in the sea with the grandkids only the day before.
Clarke became a lawyer and Adams became a politician. Ben never saw Clarke again, but Adams brings an expensive bottle of something over at New Year.
Ben lifted his head and spoke his “amen” to the sky. “I’ll see you again someday, mate.”
He lifted his hands onto the window sill and assumed the position. It wasn’t just his knees that dictated how he said his prayers, but the memory of a schoolboy hero.