The Headmaster, Dr. Foster-Evans, was a tall, gaunt man of indeterminate age. The perpetually stern expression on his naturally bony face and the dour demeanour he projected when confronting troublesome boys had caused a trembling in the knees of the hundreds of those who'd faced him in his study. His reputation was that of a tyrant, a particularly humourless misanthrope who enjoyed nothing more than sacking pitiable young boys and sending them packing on the flimsiest of suspicions before enjoying his afternoon tea. His balding head and skeletal build could have been the cause of jokes and caricatures in a less intimidating man. Neither aspect of the man was referred to by the boys in his school. This was the measure of the man and the instinctive reaction to him by his charges.
As so frequently is the case, the reputation belied the man. Dr. Foster-Evans was in reality a caring man and an enlightened professional educator. His position of authority required a certain gravitas and the adoption of a strict and no-nonsense demeanor was de rigueur, but it was reluctantly he wore both mantles. He did expel some boys when such was the only choice available, but it was always with a feeling his school and indeed he himself had failed them if the need for such drastic action was acute and that he hadn't done enough in advance to forestall the expulsion. But this form of discipline was rarely necessary. He was much more likely to find other, more creative and less final punitive means to reach the odd misbehaving boys who came before him and steer their new behaviour in more appropriate directions.
Today he was faced with adjudicating a fight in the dining hall in his school. Fighting was not permitted at his school, and harsh repercussions were the usual result. It was policy that, should two pupils come to blows, both combatants should be expelled. Dr. Foster-Evans was not a proponent of either draconian punishments or following pre-set guidelines. He did not like his hands tied by rules that allowed for no discretion. He had usually found that if there were a fight, there was a history involved and underlying reasons that led up to it, and that normally one participant was more eager to promulgate it than the other. It was almost always more the fault of one boy than the other, and he had in the past dealt with the situation accordingly. Life was not fair, especially in a boys' school, but that didn't stop Dr. Foster-Evans from doing his utmost to approach that end.
There was a quiet tap on his study door, and then his wife opened it and told him three boys, Blake, Tanner and Hogsford, and three masters were waiting for him. He asked for them to be ushered in.
Tanner and Blake were the first to enter, accompanied by the master who had spoken to them in the dining hall. They were followed by a second master, then Hogsford with the third master bringing up the rear.
The Headmaster asked them to draw up chairs and they did that, assembling six chairs in a semi-circle facing his desk, and then all seven sat.
The Headmaster, very much in his authoritarian mode, looked at each boy for a few minutes. Only Hogsford was able to meet his gaze without withdrawing his eyes. In Hogsford's eyes glinted the light of one who feels his actions were those of the just, that what would ensue would for him be exculpation. His expression reflected this thought, too. After all, he'd been attacked, first by one boy he'd defended himself from, then a second boy from behind. He had done nothing wrong. Vindication was certainly his.
The Headmaster noted all three boys' expressions. Then, as Hogsford looked so eager to give his story and the other two looked like they'd rather be anywhere other than here, he asked that boy to tell him what had happened.
"I was sitting, having tea with my mates, and I looked up, and here was Blake coming for me. I could tell by the look on his face he wasn't coming to ask me the time of day. I stood up, and he swung at me, then charged me and fell on top of me. I'd just managed to get him off me when Tanner jumped on me from behind and started clawing at me. You see these scratches on my face. He did that. I shook him off, and that was the end of it."
Hogsford finished, looking smug. The Headmaster kept him in his gaze for several seconds, then asked, "And that is entirely what happened? According to that account, you did nothing. A boy swung at you, knocked you down, and your only response was to roll him off of you. Another boy attacked, and you shook him off. That was it, then? You didn't do anything else?"
Hogsford was not deterred. "I don't remember anything else. It was something of a brawl and all, and over quickly, but that's what I remember."
Again the Headmaster simply stared at him for a few moments, then asked him to stand. Hogsford did so.
"Now, Blake, Tanner, would you two stand as well, please?"
Both boys hesitantly rose. Dr. Foster-Evans looked at the two boys, then at the one. Clive Hogsford was substantially larger than either, and in fact outweighed them even with their weights combined.
The Headmaster asked them all to take their seats, then spoke again to the largest boy. "Hogsford, it is quite obvious that neither of these boys is of your stature. Yet they both attacked you. It would seem a silly sort of endeavour, that, taking into account your size and then theirs. That leads one to ask, why would either or both these boys do that? I am missing that point, I believe. Can you assist me here? They would certainly not undertake such an action without some motivation, and it is very unlikely you would be unaware of what that was. I will ask these boys the same question, so it would serve you well if you would give me a full and honest answer, even if it did not show you in the most favourable of lights."
Hogsford hadn't expected this. This was a bit harder. He felt he was on safe ground about the fight itself. About the events leading to the fight he felt less secure. Still, he was sure he was on the moral high ground here, and had nothing of which to be ashamed.
"This Blake is a homo and no one wants him here. He's a disgrace to the school, sir, and quite a few of us have let him know that. We all feel that way. Now he's messing around with this little one, God only knows what they do together but it's disgusting to think about. I don't know why Blake came at me today, but maybe his friend decided not to be his friend any more and Blake blamed that on me, sir. I don't really know the reason he attacked me. He would know the answer to that, sir."
The Headmaster looked at the two smaller boys without saying anything as the silence in the room stretched out after Hogsford had stopped talking. Then he looked at the three masters and asked them to take Hogsford into the hall and stay with him while he interviewed the other two.
When they were alone, and both Liam and Will were feeling even more nervous, the Headmaster asked Liam if he'd tell him his side of the story.
Liam gulped. He couldn't see any way this was going to end happily for him. If he gave his reasons for attacking Hogsford, that he was a homosexual who had been bullied and preyed upon by Hogsford for weeks on end, and that Hogsford had attacked Will for being his friend and his own anger had got the better of him because of that, he was pretty sure he'd be expelled before he even finished talking. Homosexuality was in and of itself reason for dismissal at most public schools. If he didn't tell him this factor, what reason could he suggest that would explain Hogsford's actions? If he merely said it was schoolboy antagonism between them, or some petty incident, then he would be expelled for starting a fight. Nothing he could say could save him, he saw that only too clearly.
The Headmaster watched Liam. He saw the swallow, then the slumping of his shoulders and the paling of the face. He saw a defeated boy in front of him. Still, he didn't change expression. He waited for what was to come, his face stony.
It surprised them both, then, when Will was the one to speak. "Please, sir, may I speak?"
"Why, certainly. You are William Tanner, I believe?"
"You are the one who keeps to himself, I believe?"
"Yes sir. Till very recently, sir."
"All right, then, Tanner. What do you have to say?"
"Sir, Liam, er, Blake, was angry today, but it was because of what I said to him that he was angry, and it was because of that he got in the fight. Hogsford, accompanied by two of his friends, hit me after games today. They have been telling me to stay away from Blake. I didn't do that and they got mad at me. When I told Blake what had happened, he got angry. That's what caused it. Please, sir, it would be unfair to punish Blake for this. He's been being bullied by Hogsford for weeks. What happened today was because of what's been happening. Please sir, don't make Blake suffer even more than he already has."
"And you, Tanner? You attacked Hogsford as well. Was that justified, too?"
"Yes, sir. He had already hit Blake once. Blake was dazed, and Hogsford was going to hit him again. You can still see the mark on Liam's face where he'd been hit. Hogsford was holding him down, had already hit him in the face and was about to again. He might well have done some serious harm. I couldn't let that happen, sir."
"Why you? If I may say so, you're not of a size to be entering into a fray with someone the size of Hogsford."
"No one else was stopping him, sir. And Blake is my friend, and I feel a sort of a protective interest in him. Hogsford is too big and too mean to be hitting him, and I had to jump in."
The Headmaster's eyes opened a bit wider at that. He looked at both, his eyes moving from one to the other, and back again.
After a pause, he said, "Boys, I think I have to ask you something here. I'm not good at beating around the bush, so I'll simply ask it. Hogsford said you, Blake, are homosexual. Now Tanner is suggesting his relationship with you is something more than just as a school friend. Before you answer the question I'm about to ask, I have to tell you something. While I am the Headmaster of this school, the fact a boy is homosexual will never be the basis of any official censure. What is not acceptable is homosexual behaviour. Just as it is inappropriate at co-educational schools for boys and girls to engage in sexual activities, it is inappropriate for boys to do the same thing here. But the nature of anyone's sexuality is not an issue. One is what one is, and you might as well punish a Turk for being Turkish as a homosexual for being simply that. So now, after that bit of philosophizing, let me state my question. Are you two boys as Hogsford suggests? Homosexuals?"
Liam looked at Will for a moment, then back to the Headmaster. It didn't make any difference now whether he could believe what the man had just said or not. The truth was the only thing that made sense.
"I am, sir. It's the reason I've been having such problems lately. The boys here found out, and they've been giving me a bad time. Actually, it's mostly Hogsford who's been doing so, but he commands a certain amount of fear with the other boys, and so no one has been willing to side with me. Except for Will, I mean Tanner, sir. Without him, well, I'd prefer not to talk about that, sir. But, to answer your question, sir, yes, I am, but Tanner isn't. He's simply my friend. Although that word doesn't do justice to the feelings I have for him and what he's meant to me."
The Headmaster looked at Tanner, who knew what he wanted.
"I don't believe I'm a homosexual, sir, but I don't really know. I do know I have strong feelings toward Blake. They've been growing. What they may become, I don't know. But I don't seem to have any sort of sexual feelings for him. For him or anyone else."
"You're 14, are you?"
"All right, we'll leave that. I think I'm getting the picture here. You, Blake, have been going through a rough patch. You have been tolerating Hogsford's attentions, but when you learned he had attacked Tanner because Tanner was being loyal to you, your bile flared. You, Tanner, on seeing Blake was about to be badly beaten by a larger boy and no one was stepping in to stop it, took it upon yourself to prevent further injury. So you, Blake, fought for Tanner, and you, Tanner, fought for Blake. Does that about sum up the affair?"
Liam wasn't sure what he was feeling, but amazement was part of it. The Headmaster seemed to have merely accepted his homosexuality and moved on. Could that really be? He had been sure if that were found out, he'd be expelled. Had he been wrong about this? He found himself looking at the man through newly opened eyes. And wondering if he could believe what he was seeing.
Will was looking at Liam, and when he didn't answer the Headmaster's question, Will did. "Yes, sir, that's very much what happened. Please sir, I know we're not supposed to fight, but Blake wasn't thinking straight, and I had to help him. I had to."
The Headmaster had to work to keep a smile from his lips. Image was everything, dealing with boys. He regarded the two nervous boys, then asked another question. "You boys help one another, don't you?"
Liam could answer that quite easily. "Yes sir. More than you could know. I was feeling pretty desperate. Then Will was there for me, and my whole life changed. He's has been my salvation, sir."
"And you, Tanner?"
"Oh yes, sir. I would have failed for sure, and I had no friends, and things were getting worse and worse, somehow. For some reason I can't even say, Liam's, er, Blake's been able to get through the wall I'd built up, and it's like a dark cloud's been lifted. You won't expel him, will you sir? He did what he did for me. If someone has to be expelled, make it me, sir. I don't think I could stay without him anyway. I wouldn't want to."
The Headmaster turned to his desk for a moment without responding. His eyes fell to the framed picture that was prominently displayed there, a picture of a 14-year-old boy, a beautiful boy, his son Eric. He always experienced a pang of sadness when he looked at the picture, and he felt that pang now.
He turned back to the boys. "Neither of you is to be expelled. I was thinking of something else when I asked that. Something fairly extraordinary, I think, but perhaps warranted. I was wondering if you two would like to change houses and be put together. Mr. Fitzsimmons has space, he's a good man, he feels much the same as I do about most things, including the things we were talking of here today, and you two might like staying in his house. What do you think?"
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