The Falcon & the Viper

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Part 1 Chapter 1

The two friends raced each other down the hill to school in Dover from their homes perched high in the hamlet of Westcliffe, with its majestic views over the English Channel. The boys, in their early teens with long legs and endless stamina, ran neck and neck along the cobbled Lower Fore Street, splashing through large puddles remaining from the previous night’s gales that had battered the town. As they entered the school gates, Anthony Barker barged his friend Johnny Faulkner aside, who cried out in protest but caught up as they ran across the playground and through the grand stone portico of St Christopher’s school. Inside, they collided with an imposing figure in a black gown striding purposely along the corridor. A sheaf of papers the master had been holding fluttered like falling leaves from a windswept tree to the floor.

‘Faulkner, Barker! How many times have I told you not to run inside the school buildings?’ snapped Mr Thomas, the headmaster, in his lilted Welsh tongue. He grabbed both the youngsters by their ears and gave them a hard tweak, resulting in a howl of pain from Johnny and a loud squeal from Anthony.

‘Pick those papers up now and report to me after morning assembly for your punishment, bechgyn.’ he ordered.

The boys gathered up the scattered papers, handed them back to the master and made their way to the assembly hall for morning prayers. Joining the other pupils inside, the dread of their imminent punishment was brought home by the lines of the first hymn:

’Be still, my soul the Lord is on my side.

With patience bear my cross of grief and pain…′

Johnny Faulkner, a tall lad with tousled, fair hair looked up at the ornate wall above the stage, decorated with a large polished mahogany plaque that recorded in neat gold script the names of former boys of the school killed in the last war and earlier conflicts. Anthony Barker eyed the many oil paintings in heavy, gilded frames covering another wall of past headmasters, who stared sternly back down at him.

Assembly finished and the other boys went to their classes as Johnny and Anthony made their way to the headmaster’s study, where they received six strokes of the best administered by a strong arm with a thin willow cane. The rest of the day was spent uncomfortably on chairs behind their desks learning about Roman emperors, mathematical equations and elementary chemistry.

Their sports master, Mr Windsor, who instructed the boys on the finer points of sprinting during games sessions on the school playing fields, had encouraged the boys’ obvious passion for running. He was so impressed with their athletic prowess that he had entered them in sprint events in the All England School’s Championships, to be held at Stamford Bridge stadium in London on the first week of the new term. He thought they might do rather well.

At the end of what had started as a bad day, the boys’ spirits soared when Mr Windsor told them he had selected them to represent the school at the championships. The headmaster had agreed, for the good of the school, but on the stipulation that they were to be on their best behaviour at all times during the competition. The boys ran back up the steep hill to their homes in Westcliffe, eager to tell their respective parents the good news.

Anthony Barker lived with his parents, Lord and Lady Barker and younger sister, Miranda in a large medieval manor house in Westcliffe. The family preferred the house instead of living in the cold, draughty interior of Walmer Castle, to which Lord Barker was entitled as Warden of the Cinque Ports. The two friends had made a secret passage long ago through the thick conifer hedge separating the property where Johnny lived with his father Hugh Faulkner, mother Janet and younger sister Catherine, named Sea View for its commanding views over Dover and across the Strait of Dover. Johnny’s father Hugh was the harbour master in the port of Dover, after many years commanding one of the ferries that made regular crossings to France and back.

At the end of the summer term, the boys enjoyed their holidays spending days on the clifftops, bumping their bikes over potholes along the narrow, winding paths and playing on a wide, flat area on the edge of the highest cliff. On a clear day, the coastline of France stood out on the horizon. The remains of an old lookout tower stood on the spot, built in earlier times when others had seen history in the making, such as William the Conqueror’s invasion fleet sailing towards them. One of a long line of beacons stretching along the southern coast of England, the tower had later warned the ships waiting at Dover of the approach of the Spanish Armada, with Sir Francis Drake’s flotilla of ships in pursuit. The strong updraft rising along the face of the cliff was ideal for the boys to fly their kites and various model aircraft they had built. Shouting in delight, their imaginations ran riot as the flying machines danced around the skies.

One fine summer’s day, the boys were playing on the clifftop as usual. A Handley Page airliner droned low overhead on its way to the aerodrome of Le Touquet in France as a small collier puffing voluminous black clouds of smoke from its tall funnel sailed towards Dover harbour.

‘I’m going to be a fighter pilot when I get older.’ said Johnny, looking at the aeroplane above.

‘Me too!’ replied his friend. ‘And I bet I shoot down more enemy planes than you ever will, Faulkner!’

‘No you won’t and I will win more races than you in the school athletics championship next week.’

‘You don’t stand a chance of beating me!’ cried Anthony.

‘C’mon, I’ll race you back home.’

Anthony got up, jumped on his bike and pedalled away.

‘Rotter!’ shouted Johnny after him, grabbing the model he had been flying and running to his bike. ‘That’s another false start you’ve made, Barker!’

The following morning, Johnny and Anthony stood in a small group of excited pupils on the platform of Dover’s Priory Station. Their journey to London was about to begin and farthest from the boys’ minds was the athletics championship they would take part in. Instead, the boys were staring in awe at the steaming, snorting monster standing before them. Resplendent in its livery of green and black enamelled coachwork etched with fine yellow coach lines, The Lord Nelson hissed clouds of steam and belched black, sooty smoke from its funnel, standing in all its glory alongside the platform in front of the ten Pullman coaches coupled behind. Flagship of Southern Railway’s fleet of continental boat trains, it was the carriage of the rich and famous plying between London and Dover for the Channel crossing by ferry to France. The Mayor, the governors of St Christopher’s School and other civic dignitaries of Dover had purchased the tickets for the trip to London, in recognition of the proud fact that the boys would represent the town in the forthcoming national championships.

The schoolmasters ushered the boys into the plush carriages reserved for them and reaching up, they placed their small suitcases and bags in the overhead luggage racks. Pulling down the windows, the boys leaned out, waiting eagerly for the black and green monster to steam out of the station. Johnny waved to his parents standing on the platform who waved back as Anthony looked down on Jenkins, the uniformed chauffeur who had brought him to the station in his father’s Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. The carriage jolted forward as The Lord Nelson took up the slack in the couplings, and with hissing clouds of steam, the chuff, chuff, chuff of smoke billowing from the funnel and the screech of spinning wheels on steel rails began its journey. Johnny and Anthony leaned further out of the window in excitement, but squealed in pain as their sports master hauled them back in by their ears.

The Lord Nelson gathered speed, the noise of the clackerty-clack of the wheels over the joints in the rails increasing as the train thundered through tunnels and cuttings, over viaducts and bridges, past villages and towns in the beautiful Kent countryside.

‘How fast do you reckon we’re going, Anthony?’ asked Johnny.

‘Must be well over a hundred and fifty miles an hour!’ said Anthony, looking out of the window at the telephone posts and signal gantries whizzing by.

‘Stop making rash statements, Barker!’ snapped Mr Windsor. ‘I happen to know the distance from Dover to Victoria Station is one hundred miles and it will take us an hour and forty minutes to get there. So work out the average speed that we are travelling, quickly now!’

Anthony frowned and started to work out the equation as Johnny, quick as a flash, calculated the answer.

‘Without taking into account starting and stopping at each end, its fifty-four miles per hour, sir.’

‘Very good Faulkner, I seem to recall Mr Symns, your math’s master singing your praises in the staff room.’ congratulated the sports master while scowling at Anthony, who was still trying to work it out.

‘But if you want me to sing your praises, you’d better win some races at the championships!’

Before long, The Lord Nelson was past the industrial suburbs of London and puffed into Victoria station, pulling to a halt with the dull clanging of the rolling stock’s buffers. The teachers shepherded the pupils out of the coach and down the stairs to the underground station to catch the next train on the District line to Fulham Broadway, their last stop of the journey. Leaving the station, the party crossed the Broadway and checked in to a small hotel for the duration of the championships. Sitting down at the tables in the small dining room and tucking in to some delicious cottage pie, the escorting masters sighed with relief that they had all the boys there in one piece and not lost anyone on the way.

The week flew by until the loud crack of the starter’s handgun on the last day signalled the final event, the one hundred metres. One of the most popular, prestigious races in the sport of athletics, the race was the springboard for many aspiring young athletes. The young athletes rose on their haunches and leapt forward, racing along the asphalt track to the cheers of the crowd in the stadium. Johnny Faulkner, having won all his heats got off to a flying start and determined to give all he could, beat the competition and was first through the ribbon at the end of the track. A roar went up from the masters, pupils and spectators who had travelled up from Kent, as Johnny collapsed in a gasping heap on the grass at the side of the track as his friend, Anthony Barker, came in a close second.

On completion of their final term at St. Christopher’s, the friends prepared to go their separate ways. Anthony Barker, as many of his ancestors before him, joined the ranks of the privileged few at Eton College, where since birth his name had been put down for entrance to the college. Johnny Faulkner won a scholarship to King’s School in Canterbury, thanks to his mathematical skills. The friends still spent time together in Westcliffe during their holidays, when Johnny became infatuated with Anthony’s sister, Lady Miranda, who encouraged the advances of the handsome young man. Anthony Barker showed little interest in girls, other than a platonic relationship with Johnny’s sister, Catherine, which Johnny found strange as his friend had become a good-looking chap.

Both young men continued to do well in amateur athletic events around the southern counties and became accomplished sprinters, finishing in the top level of all the competitions they entered. Many thought their competitive rivalry would spur them on to even greater goals and there was talk among the higher echelons of athletic circles of them being selected for the Summer Olympic Games, to be held in Germany in 1936.

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