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.