The unfortunate business with the head boy’s younger brother was so long in the past that everyone was once again convinced that I was nothing more than a benign old buffer with deep pockets, so they ignored my stern looks and carried on exchanging staffroom tittle-tattle and I was forced to gently clear my throat. I would not have dreamt of doing anything as vulgar as tapping my champagne flute with something metallic.
As the schoolmasters slowly responded to my diffident call for attention a shuffling silence crept upon the room allowing the last strains of the cathedrals’ bells to be heard an uninitiated observer could have been forgiven for thinking that peace had finally broken out.
I looked about me, around the walls haphazardly slouched on the bruised antique furniture, stained gowns drooping and regarding me with a shared air of genuine indifference were the world weary, a dwindling cabal concerned with nothing beyond the imminent free booze up.
To the front, calculating, expensively suited and looking eagerly at my wallet were the ambitious and the greedy. A growing band since that woman’s recent ascent to malign power had made greed good and called time on society.
Closest of all, heading this hungry, double-cuffed wolf pack was the new headmaster, recently appointed and nervously awaiting my announcement, almost slavering at the prospect of making his first successful extraction from my wallet. If I heard once more of the urgency of getting started on the new computer room, I’d…
Poor man, he was in for a disappointment, there would be no gifts in that direction just yet, not that I wasn’t convinced of the wisdom behind his early technological ambitions. I have never been a Luddite but at the time I didn’t need anything in return.
The deputy head I couldn’t see, no doubt he was hiding his leather elbow pads among the corduroy cynics at the back of the room. He would be just as eager, just as expectant but for something more than a backhander, not that he hadn’t had more than his fair share of those in the past. He would be praying that I’d be announcing plans to retire to my family estate in Umbria. He too would be disappointed. I wasn’t ready to run just yet. More than that I wasn’t ready to let him push me.
I cleared my throat once more: “I do hope you will all join me in a little celebration.” I paused, all eyes turned to me, chilled glasses poised, a smile of sorts on every face.
I milked the anticipation before announcing.
“My wife’s just died!”
The half raised glasses slipped downwards and the smiles turned to embarrassed grins.
My own grin widened maliciously and as they slowly realised some mischief was in the offing, one by one the masters recovered their composure.
“I didn’t even know you were married Alex.”
“You kept her quiet.”
“Where did you keep her Alex, in the cellar?”
“Or in the attic like Mrs Rochester.”
“A wife? Alex, not you surely.” That from one of the more knowing members of staff.
I ignored him.
“Yes I took the plunge, many years ago, it didn’t last and we’ve communicated by cheque for decades, hence…” I lifted my glass.
“Gentlemen … and ladies, don’t think me entirely heartless, I am truly sorry to hear that she’s gone.” I paused just briefly. “Now let us celebrate the demise of a rather hefty standing order.”
“If only I could do the same.” Grumbled one of the more obviously married members of staff.
Murmurs of agreement quickly spread among the badly groomed assembly and for many the champagne turned a little bitter.
I intervened. “Drink up gentlemen, there’s plenty more on ice.” I signalled to cook to start refilling glasses and grabbing a bottle for myself I tried to dodge the swooping headmaster.
Too late, he got me.
“Alex, my condolences.”
I nodded. “Top up Martin?”
“Thank you Alex. I’m terribly sorry to hear of your loss, was it sudden?”
“Sudden to me, the first I heard of it was when my lawyer called me this morning.”
“A shock then? Had you been married long?”
“For many, many years, almost thirty in fact but we’d been separated for most of them.”
“I’m sorry to hear that too.”
“Don’t be Martin, it was for the best. You know…”
“Of course.” He nodded and smiled weakly. “Now Alex please don’t think me too forward but if you find yourself with a little spare cash perhaps you could take a look at some of my plans for the school. I think you will agree with me that the computer room project is just too important to be put on the back burner.”
“Be happy to Martin but can it wait until I’ve sorted out all those things the recently bereaved have to deal with.
“But surely after such a long separation, it won’t fall to you.”
“No an awful lot won’t, Anne, my wife had a partner.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow.
“And two sons by him. I’m sure the cuckholder and his bastards will deal with all the domestic arrangements.”
“You sound bitter Alex.”
“No, no I’m long past bitterness, in fact I rather expected my gift of horns.”
He gave me a puzzled look.
“I do beg your pardon Martin, I forget that you are a science bod, your tailor camouflages it so well. ‘Gift of Horns’ refers to an old English custom of heaping further humiliation on a man with an unfaithful wife by presenting him with a crown of antlers.”
“Thank you Alex. Was there a reciprocal arrangement?”
“Did they give something to a woman with an unfaithful husband.”
“I shouldn’t think so, not enough stags.”
The headmaster smiled. I went on.
“So her taking up with another man was not a cause of bitterness, not even a surprise. I had after all got my retaliation in first.”
He looked puzzled: “Retaliation?”
I shook my head.
“I see.” He didn’t so he pressed on with his own concerns. “Now Alex about our plans.” He handed me a glossy brochure from Bytes Computers.
“Martin I’ve told you, I’ll look at them as soon as I have the time. I may not have the run of the mill matters to deal with but there’s still a lot of paperwork to attend to, settlements to adjust, family trusts to be amended, that sort of thing. I’m expecting a weighty parcel from my lawyers special delivery tomorrow and I have many meetings scheduled for next week, there’s bankers, lawyers, accountants to see.” I passed the brochure back to him.
“As you wish Alex but we must meet up very soon, we’ve had a complaint.”
“Yes I’ve had one of the choristers’ parents making all sorts of allegations.”
“Allegations motivated by money as usual.”
“They are pretty adamant, saying you forced the boys to parade around in the nude and when their son refused you tore his swimming trunks off him and that later you touched him…intimately.”
“Of course Alex, I’m sure there’s no substance to what they say but we must meet and discuss our next move, I must think of the school.”
“Don’t worry Martin, there’s nothing here that my lawyers can’t deal with. I’m seeing them about my wife’s affairs on Thursday so I’ll get them working on this at the same time. We’ll have lunch and discuss things after that, early next week maybe?”
“Couldn’t we meet sooner?” He went to pass me the brochure again.
“After I’ve seen my lawyers.” I turned away leaving the headmaster standing with the brochure hanging limply in his sweaty hand. Quickly he regained his composure and rejoined his colleagues. His glass of lukewarm champagne must have suddenly tasted even more acid for I knew for a fact that forty gleaming Sinclair ‘something or others’ had been ordered, a small deposit paid and soon the suppliers would be hammering on the school door for the balance.
Finding myself alone I took advantage of the opportunity to slip out to the terrace for a pre-dinner pipe. I still had a bottle with me so I refilled my glass and took a seat at the elderly cricket table that comprised the only reliable furnishing on the mildewed terrace.
Something else that man will put the bite on me for. I grizzled but only briefly as sitting back and inhaling the scent of the stocks as it drifted over the terrace took me away from the mercenary cares of the headmaster and the rest of the school.
I was sitting eyes closed, pipe gone out, lost in thought when the delicate aromas bathing the terrace were rudely replaced by the smell of cheap cigarettes. I opened my eyes to see that the seemingly ineffectual young woman who teaches pre-prep had joined me. She was standing awkwardly hopping from one blue leg to the other and drawing nervously on her cigarette.
“Mrs Richards would have had you shot.” I smiled. The former headmaster’s wife had an almost pathological disapproval of smoking. “I’m fireproof…” I sent a cloud of pungent smoke billowing from my just re-ignited pipe…“which is just as well.”
“At the my interview for this job, at which Mrs Richards was present, why I do not know, she asked if I smoked and I denied it.”
“I think I would have done the same, she was pretty formidable. I still bear the scars from tangling with her over the school book shop.”
She gave a mock shudder. “I remember that getting pretty bloody. Even though she’s gone I still look over my shoulder every time I light up. I couldn’t be worse could I? A smoker and a liar.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“Oh really and who among the smokers has been telling lies, not you Alex surely?”
I ignored her question.
“Or who among the liars has been smoking.”
The woman is quicker than she appears, definitely less ineffectual than she makes out. I must be careful not to underestimate her. I must also remember that she is enthusiastic supporter of the staffroom faction headed by the headmaster.
“Sorry to hear about your wife and about the other trouble.”
“The boys making mischief with all those wild allegations.”
Does Martin really think I’ll reveal anything to this slip of a girl? Is the use of this pinafore interrogator an elaborate double bluff? Does he think that as I perceive her as absolutely no threat I will let my guard down? Her hint of Edinburgh polished tones have no effect on me.
“Oh that piffling little incident, a storm in a teacup nothing more.”
“So there was an incident? The allegations are not a complete fabrication, there is something at the bottom of all this.”
“Not an incident as you call it. I just forced some of the boys to shower naked. For some unknown reason they have begun to adopt the ridiculous practice of putting on swimming trunks after games to get into the shower. I simply told them that it had to stop and anyone who kept their trunks on didn’t get into the shower. Wearing trunks to shower was not only ridiculous it was really rather immature to be embarrassed by their bodies.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“They didn’t seem to agree, they just stood there dithering. So I explained to them that it was healthier and more hygienic to wash themselves properly. Still no-one moved, they just fidgeted and shivered. So I thought I’d speed things up. I singled out Tom Scott as the eldest there and I tore his trunks off him.”
“Sorry wrong choice of word, makes it sound like something out of a romantic story in a tacky Women’s magazine.”
“Bodice rippers I think they’re known as.”
“Are they really. Well it was nothing like that, I simply took hold of his swimming costume and dragged it down his legs. Then I gave him a little shove towards the water but as his legs were still encumbered he tripped a little and the others laughed. I embarrassed him and that’s what’s behind all this. It had the desired effect though as the others quickly dropped their trunks and with hands for fig leafs shuffled into the showers.”
“That’s all that happened?”
I nodded. “That’s all. A storm in a teacup I told you.”
“The parents may turn it into something more serious, I believe that they are saying you took pleasure in watching the naked boys in the showers and that then you...”
“Well they would say that wouldn’t they? When you’re wangling for a pay out it’s always wise to spice things up with a totally unfounded sexual element. It’s an occupational hazard.”
“Ironic when teaching isn’t really your occupation.”
“I’m sure my lawyers will appreciate that particular irony when they put a stop to all this nonsense.”
“Are you coming back inside?” She stubbed out her cigarette.
“I’ll be just a moment.”
I needed to take a moment to get my story straight, both stories in fact, the one for public consumption.
And the very private one…the incident had begun just as I had told Katy MacDonald but when I tore the dratted boy’s swimwear down I had unwittingly scratched the rear of his thigh. The damage was minor but once his classmates had left for double French, he came to see me, bristling with malicious intent. He dropped his grey flannels and confronted me with two accusing red welts.
“Shall I get something from Matron for this Sir?”
“I think we can deal with ourselves don’t you Scott? Come over here, there’s some Savlon in the first aid kit.”
I passed a scruffy tube of ointment to him. He fumbled with the cap.
“Oh give it to me Scott. I’ll do it.”
I squeezed a healthy amount onto my hands and began to rub it into his thigh, beginning with the two small scratches and then roving further afield over his drum skin smooth haunches. His soft, supple flesh gave a little with the pressure of my fingers and my caresses became more expansive, my fingers running up his thigh, to the base of his buttocks, cupping the firm young flesh.
He shifted against the pressure of my hands and I continued to rub the cool white cream into his pure pink skin.
“Feels good doesn’t it Richard?”
He murmured something in response.
“A little more I think and you’ll be as good as new.”
I applied another thin coat, moving my creamy hands in broad strokes, gently massaging his thighs and buttocks. My tingling fingers took on a life of their own and began to inch around the front of his body, the sensuous movement of his hips in response to touch compelled my hands forward drawn to his freshly showered penis. Before I knew it my hands were rounding his hips, luxuriating in the glorious symmetry of his pelvis, feeling the firm beauty of his hip bones beneath my fingers. I stopped myself. I blinked away the mists of my compulsion and prised my hands away from his warm flesh, one by one dragging my fingers free.
“Right Scott that’s all done. You will be fine but just as a precaution take this.” I handed him a five pound note.
“When you’re next in town buy yourself some more cream, to make sure it heals properly. Now cut along.”
The boy silently took the money and still pulling up his trousers ran from the changing room.
So a fiver had not been enough to silence friend Scott. No matter I would still come through alright, it would just cost a little more. I was not worried by the allegations, just a little perturbed by my own complacency. I chuckled ruefully at my smug dismissal of the Head Master just minutes earlier.
“ I didn’t need anything in return.”
Well now I did, I needed the Head Master’s backing.
I would not bring our lunch date forward, I didn’t want him to think I was worried so we would meet early next week as I planned and I would plant the seeds of my defence with him.
’I am loathe to dignify such outlandish allegations with a response but if I must. It’s mischief making, malice, jealousy, angling for a pay out, you know how wealthy I am.”
“You know that’s not my bag. I’m a married man. Alright not happily, separated but that was due to personal differences not the sort of differences you are alleging. I may prefer the company of men to women but not the intimate company of men.”
If he pressed.
“Maybe but notice I said the company of men, not boys.”
And if pressed further.
“Besides I was dining with the Archdeacon that evening. The local MP was there as well. Fortunately he left early. His hair, which I am certain is not his own is always such a distraction.”
If that didn’t work I had a fall back position. I had given a little financial assistance to the new Deans’ wife, pretty woman, dark, petite and very smart but useless with money.
“On the day in question, we took afternoon tea together.’”
Finally I would go nuclear with.
“Nothing else for it but to retire to my estate in Umbria, it’s beautiful, idyllic even, an estate agent would claim the Pope for a summer neighbour but the upkeep is so very costly, if I were there full time and couldn’t rent it out…well…”
That should be enough, I smiled and sipped my champagne listening to the faint sounds coming from the Cathedral, the choir, my boys, my David performing the solo and quite well too.
I was dragged back to the banality of the dining room by a tap on the window signalling the arrival of the soup. I put my pipe in my pocket, making sure it was safely extinguished, the smoking pocket was a tactic I’d save for later, ditto the wrongly buttoned waistcoat, mismatched socks and the pee stain strategically placed just beside the fly. I didn’t want to overdo the harmless absentmindedness just yet, so fixing my most benign smile firmly in place I re-entered the fray.