Oliver repositioned his hands, left over right, palms upwards, and stared straight ahead as the leather tawse came down for the second time. His bottom lip pouted slightly, but he didn’t flinch. He kept his hands outstretched, anticipating another, but the teacher ushered him back to his seat. David, the accountant-to-be, put two strokes down on his tally, and hid the paper in his desk. Oliver sat down, rubbing his hands under his desk, his reddened face hidden from the class as he gazed out of the window.
Our teacher replaced the belt in her desk, and put her gown on. There was an assembly that morning for an important announcement. We lined up in the corridor to walk down to the hall. We were the last class to enter the hall, which on any other day was the gym.
The noise of fidgeting feet and excited chattering echoed through the hall. Our class filtered in to the room, jostling for space to form neat lines. Two boys jumped down from the jungle gym as the first teachers appeared on the wooden stage. A master clapped his hands, twice. The noise reduced slightly, just enough to hear the panelled oak doors swing open.
He walked in slowly, his leather brogues creaking on teak floorboards. A large black bat, his gown, clung to his back, framing his green, checked suit, which tightly corseted his powerful chest.
He towered above the now silent rows of boys, who were sitting uncomfortably, cross-legged on the gymnasium floor: Mr. Bridger – our headmaster.
Mr. Bridger had been a Gurkha in Nepal. One day he had brought in his kukri. We didn’t understand any of the three words: Gurkha, Nepal, or kukri; we knew that one was Mr. Bridger, one was sharp, and one was far away. He presented his kukri with ceremony. We leaned forward in eager waves to view the worn-leather scabbard, concealing the shine of the lethal blade. We weren’t allowed to touch the knife, but there were two smaller, cleaning knives, in leather pockets, which the braver boys tried to ease out – their hands quickly pulled back at the slightest movement of Mr. Bridger’s hand. He smelled a little of mothballs, wet tweed, boot-polish, and perhaps old age, hardship and pain.
On this day, he didn’t have his kukri; he was there to introduce the new headmistress: Mrs. Clark. A ripple of un-crossing of cramped legs whispered through the hall in the few seconds it took her to reach the lectern. She carried an unfathomable glass of water in her hand – the same kind we used at school-dinners. The glass was half full of water, or half empty: I don’t remember which; her hand shook so much, it was hard to tell whether the water was above the line in the glass. She went on to tell us about optimism and pessimism, repeated her name, and went back to her seat, spilling a little water with each step.
Mr. Bridger returned to the front of the stage, silencing the hall once more. He told us that he would be in the school until the end of term, and that anyone stepping out of line would be dealt with severely. I thought of cold winters, frostbite, and chilblains; other boys looked nervously at the various lines painted on the floor, marking out tennis and basketball courts, but I think we all knew what he meant. He pointed a finger at Oliver, who was sitting with his legs straight out in front of him.
‘My office, Oliver. Now!’
He waved a hand, and we lined up at the back of the hall. Oliver walked the other way.
We didn’t see Oliver until morning playtime. A few boys went over to him. David took out his piece of paper, raised two fingers as he looked at Oliver. Oliver nodded, and David made a note. Archie, the journalist-to-be, squinted at David’s paper.
‘That’s almost 100, Oliver!’ he announced, ‘no-one’s ever broke 100.’
Oliver’s face turned red, his freckles almost obscured.
I approached Oliver, and put a hand on his shoulder– it seemed like the right thing to do. He lashed out, instinctively, and caught me on the nose. Before Charles, the doctor-to-be, could look at my potentially broken nose, Ralph, the sports-promoter-to-be, had started the chant:
‘Fight. Fight. Fight!’
We were surrounded by baying schoolboys, and were pushed to the ground as the ring closed around us. Within moments, the shouting stopped. The infantile circle, which was our arena, opened, and dispersed. A drop of blood fell onto the mirror-like brogues. The tweed trousers touched my face as I rose. The smells of blood and mothballs mingled as I faced the polished buttons of his waistcoat. I couldn’t look any higher.
No longer were we on the gymnasium floor, cross-legged and anonymous – we stood alone, shaking before this fierce warrior. He led us, by our ears, into the school. The bell went for the end of break, and the other boys returned to their classes. Mr. Bridger pulled the belt from under his coat, and placed it on the desk in front of us. He took the kukri out of the drawer, and placed it next to the belt.
‘Hands out, boys.’
Oliver placed one hand on top of the other, and his lip pouted. His face reddened.
‘Side by side.’
He drew the kukri from its scabbard, and placed it across our hands.
‘It’s your choice, boys. You can get in line, or cross the line, but the line is always there.’
He replaced the kukri, and sent us back to the class.
When we entered the classroom, Dave looked at Oliver, who nodded, raising two discreet fingers. Dave pointed at me.
Oliver raised two fingers.