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A Rotten Christmas

by Jolyon Lewes

Chapter 2

I was so cold in bed. And so hungry. There was ice on the dormitory windows - on the inside. I wished I'd smuggled into bed the scarf my mother had knitted for me. If I'd worn it round my neck after lights out it wouldn't have made much practical difference but it might have made me feel slightly better. I lay awake for ages, feeling utterly miserable. Thoughts of David drifted by but made me feel even more alone. I felt abandoned. How long could I survive in this dreadful school?

Next day things got even worse. For one thing, nobody used Christian names. The masters called me 'Mannion' or 'boy' and the boys called me 'Mannion' or for reasons I'll explain later, 'Lord Snooty' The first person to address me by my Christian name was my awful grandmother, six weeks later. Then there was the strange language used by the boys. Words and phrases which meant everything to them meant nothing to me. There was the appalling food. I kept a diary and can still read what we were given to eat. Potatoes seemed to come with every meal, either mashed or boiled and were grey and lumpy when mashed, flabby and translucent when boiled. Sometimes I couldn't find any lean on my meat, just fat and gristle. There was a very unpopular pudding like a cold, grey, sloppy jelly called junket. The boys all called it spunket and it was many weeks before I realised why. Then I could never eat it again!

Even before the first lesson I felt completely out of place. I'd arrived in the middle of the school year, so all the boys in my dormitory and my class had known each other for months but I knew nobody and nobody seemed to want to know me. I had to learn the weird routines of the boarding house by instinct. I was only told I'd done something wrong when I'd done it and I did a lot of things wrong. By the third day I'd been warned for talking in the washroom, being late for breakfast, putting my clothes in the wrong place, making my bed poorly, wearing my shoes in prep when I should have been in slippers, the list is a very long one. Nobody ever explained anything. After four days, I was being threatened with punishment for repeating these crimes but the nature of such punishment remained a mystery for a while longer.

Meanwhile, the boys had started to call me 'Lord Snooty', after a character in a weekly comic. My parents had always taught me to speak 'properly', to enunciate clearly, and I suppose we had a 'posh' accent at home. It's how majors in the Army and their wives talked. Also, I was taught to walk with a good bearing, a bit like marching, so I tended to hold my head high when walking. I did all this unconsciously but the other boys noticed and I was ridiculed for these habits. To them, my comical appearance was enhanced by my being so tall and having to wear spectacles most of the time. Many of the boys used a mild West Country dialect to communicate but I eventually discovered there were many boys like me who spoke the Queen's English at home but put on an rustic accent at school, in order to fit in.

One odd little thing I remember well: the lady who ran the tuck shop was a local lady and spoke in a broad Dorset accent. The first time I spoke to her she called me 'my love' and I thought she'd selected me from all the others to be her little darling. I was greatly disappointed when I discovered she called everybody 'my love' but I still liked hearing her say it to me – the one term of endearment in a hostile world. Another thing, because all boys below the Fourth Form were in short trousers I didn't feel too self-conscious in mine, even though thanks to my height they seemed so much shorter than anyone else's. The grey shorts seemed to come in one length regardless of the boy's height. My legs only felt really cold when I was outside, exposed to the wintry weather but I was in the same boat as the other junior boys and they didn't seem to complain.

Very few boys actually spoke to me; they all had their own friends and I was seen as an intruder, but I soon got to know about the punishments I'd been threatened with. In fact, I'd been whacked round the head several times by masters in the classroom before a week was over. We had prefects in the boarding house and they were allowed to whack you with a slipper but that didn't seem to happen very often. More frequent were the canings given by the masters. Within my first fortnight, I'd seen three boys caned in the classroom, in front of all of us. They ended up in tears and sat snivelling at their desks for the rest of the lesson. It wasn't an edifying sight.

I'd written to David before leaving home and naturally hoped for a reply but in my first week at school none was forthcoming so I wrote to him again. In the next few weeks I wrote to David at least twice a week but there never was a reply. In the years since I've often wondered if I was deluding myself and that we'd just been like ships passing in the night. Of course, David might never have received my letters so he might have assumed I'd found friends at my new school who'd taken his place in my affections. Yet I still have my diary for that year and on every day until Easter I wrote 'Thought about David' and about every four days 'Wrote to David.' It seemed that I'd lost him.

Meanwhile I had more pressing problems. At academics I wasn't too bad but at anything involving sporting prowess I was hopeless. The one thing I could do was run but at anything involving throwing, catching or kicking a ball I was next to useless. Because of my height I was put into the set of rugby players a year above me. I'd never played rugby in my life.

"You'll be a back, Mannion," said the master in charge of the Fourth Form set. "You've got the build for it."

Well, if I'd known the least thing about the game I might have known what a back was for but at Salisbury we'd played football in which a back has other purposes so I hadn't a clue what was expected of me. There are two things that I clearly remember about having to play rugby at that school. The first is that we had to wear shorts that were made of cloth with the thickness and texture of carpet underfelt. It was incredibly itchy when dry and pure torture to wear when wet. Most boys preferred instead to wear their flimsy cotton PE shorts but they did this at risk of a beating so I didn't join their ranks although with PE shorts being so tiny I think the authorities quite enjoyed the sight of so much bare flesh and rarely punished boys for wearing the wrong shorts - unless the boy was ugly. The second was that I found myself constantly being tackled and brought to the ground, often by boys on my own side. These manoeuvres inevitably meant my shorts being tugged down to reveal my bottom and private parts. As was common in most schools of the time underwear beneath sports kit was strictly prohibited. If I thought this happened because the older boys in my set wanted to embarrass a younger boy I was soon proved right when on one occasion I felt someone biting my bottom. I don't think he drew blood but his teeth left on my buttock very obvious marks which were spotted in the communal showers afterwards. This led to jeering cries of "Mannion's got a love bite on his bum!"

After a couple of weeks I was demoted to a set two years younger than me. I was now playing with boys no older than twelve and they thought it hilarious to embarrass a boy six feet tall who couldn't play rugby. I was tackled even more often and my shorts pulled down with even more zeal as I lay helpless on the mud. I was jeered by the boys and rebuked for my incompetence by the master in charge. What little self-confidence I possessed was ground into the mud.

I wrote to David about this humiliation but he never wrote back.

I couldn't tell my parents. For one thing, my father would have accused me of lacking moral fibre and for another our letters home, which had to be written on Sunday morning, before church, were censored by the duty prefect and anything deemed to be inappropriate was crossed out and you had to write the letter again, saying only how wonderful everything was. Writing to David was my one and only way of telling the world what a rotten time I was having and if he received my letters he never ever replied.

Six weeks passed and I was still as miserable as I'd been at that rotten Christmas. With no communication from David I began to look for a boy at the school who could be my friend. My dorm-mates did at least acknowledge me by now but none showed what you might call friendliness. They used nicknames amongst themselves but all I was called was Mannion or, even worse, Lord Snooty. Nobody showed the slightest interest in where I'd been, what I'd done or what my interests were. My stamp collection, now with my grandmother, would have generated hoots of derision. My liking for some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals would have met the same fate. I liked one or two pieces of classical music but dared not mention it for fear of being howled out of the dorm.

In late February was the half term holiday - only four days away from school but to a boy as miserable as me four very precious days, even if they'd be spent with my awful grandmother in London. On the Thursday afternoon I travelled by train to Waterloo, a journey of about four hours. Three other boys from school were on the train but as they were seniors they didn't want me sitting near them so I had to find another compartment. This was the first time I'd been out of school in my short trousers and sitting amongst strangers in a train I felt captive, like a creature in a zoo to be stared at. I sat there trying not to look at the passengers opposite but I knew I was the centre of attention and saw them staring hard at my pale, hairless and very bare thighs. My raincoat didn't reach my knees so there was no point wearing it in the warm train. Far better to save it for walking around London in the snow that had begun to fall. Once again I felt nothing but humiliation.

Grandmother met me at Waterloo and we went by taxi to her house in Knightsbridge. Half Term began as dreadfully as I'd feared. She said I'd wear my school uniform all day, every day and I had to behave impeccably or else get a whack on the legs with her walking cane. She was a very powerful woman, standing nearly six feet tall and her whacks were very painful, as I'd soon discover. She'd planned 'improving' things for me to do. This meant polishing my shoes and getting smart and going for interminable walks around London with her, visiting galleries, museums and parks, then taking tea at Fortnum and Mason, on Piccadilly, where I was forbidden to misbehave, under pain of confinement to my room.

On one of our walks, we visited the waxworks at Madame Tussaud's, a place I'd really wanted to see. I loved the Chamber of Horrors and its gruesome effigies. I remember hearing about Brian Johnstone, a famous broadcaster and cricket commentator, who said for a bet he could spend all night alone in the Chamber, with the lights off, next to the most ghastly of the hideous figures. Apparently, when the Underground trains went past on the nearby Bakerloo Line, he could hear a faint rumble and the waxwork figures vibrated slightly and in his torchlight, he could see the wax fingers seeming to flex and the hands to move. He didn't win the bet.

Anyway, while we were going upstairs from the Chamber, there was a waxwork on the stairs, a figure of a Tower of London Beefeater. I poked it hard in the midriff. Unfortunately, he was real, which caused him and some onlookers to chuckle. Not so Grandmother: she dragged me up to the crowded entrance lobby, made me bend over and gave me several really hefty whacks with her cane, with everyone looking on. I was so embarrassed and even more so because the cane really hurt and I was in tears - mostly of shame - in no time, with lots of giggling younger kids watching me. Some of the blows hit the bare skin of my upper thighs and must have left marks because I found kids following me and pointing at the backs of my legs and sniggering.

Back in Knightsbridge, Grandmother had news for me. "I have friends in Eaton Square, Timothy. They have twins, a boy and a girl about your age and each is rather musical. It's time you mixed with your own age group. We are going to a concert with them tomorrow. I have invited them all back here afterwards for a late supper. You will help me to host them."

So now I was going to have to be nice to two kids who'd probably be insufferably superior. Still, it would be a change from having to be polite to an ancient grown-up. I hardly knew any children my age, apart from the boys at school and they all shunned me. As for David, he seemed to have disappeared. I was concerned that I was going through my adolescence and still hadn't even touched a girl, so I thought I would try to make an effort to talk to the girl twin.

I was a bit troubled that I was finding some boys at school attractive, erections appearing when I saw the nicer looking ones getting beaten in class or if I spotted a tasty boy in very short running shorts. I'd never had an erection thinking about girls. Hell – I even found the sight of my own, bare legs slightly sexy as they stuck out from my shorts when I was sitting at my desk. At this concert I would grow up. Yes, I'd make a real effort to be nice to the girl twin.

At the Royal Festival Hall, Grandmother led me to a private bar to meet her friends. She brandished her cane in characteristic fashion as we ascended the stairs to the mezzanine. I looked up and saw two young people who were unmistakeably the twins I'd come to meet. They looked down at us, recognising Grandmother and smiling. The girl was tall, more curvaceous than I'd expected, with long, blonde hair tied into ringlets, a blue dress which finished well below her knees, a necklace of tiny, blue sea-shells and a dazzling smile. I felt quite grown up as I advanced towards Nicole and her twin brother.

Her brother! At this precise moment in my life my destiny became clear! Oh, her brother! Peter was standing beside Nicole, an inch or so shorter, nearly as curvaceous – in a masculine sort of way – with short, blond hair, a light grey suit and a smile much shyer than his sister's. I'd never seen anyone more heavenly than Peter. He was simply gorgeous!

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