Fall 2006 [Issue No. 10]
Fuller's School for Feeble-Minded Boys ▪► Sangam MacDuff
The refectory was clanging and whooping with idiots. Some of them sat and banged their bowls on the long wooden tables. Others were strapped into high chairs with bracing under their smocks, all the way up to the neck. They could mostly wield a spoon unaided, but there were those whose chances were less than average; with all the will in the world, their bodies still betrayed them, and so they slumped over their bowls, drooling peaceably into the porridge. Meanwhile the nuns paraded up and down in their starched white aprons and crisply folded wimples, coaxing, goading, scuffing and slapping stupid boys. Some were stern, some severe; all were bitter with reproach. You could see it in the way they marched up and down, with long military strides, chafing against their dresses.
Gideon considered his seat. Ordinarily they each had their set place, but since the ascension of the old Mother Superior last Epiphany, Fuller’s was all change. At her inauguration, the new head witch had said: “Boys must learn to live together in brotherly love,” so now consistency was punished, where before it was irregularities; you just had to know the rules to get on in a place like this. And anyway, the system was designed for order; they were already settling into a regular rotation. “It will teach them tolerance and patience,” the new Mother Superior went on, betraying herself, “two qualities I count as highly in this school as the cardinal virtues. Which are?” – Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, half of them intoned – the half that could speak, that is. It was the school motto, written above the door, in Latin: Justitia • Prudentia • Temperantia • Fortitudo. How much nicer those words were, graven in the weathered stone.
For Gideon, who was in the wrong place, there was only one rule, a simple one: avoid the Cowley boys, and don’t be seen to be doing so. He felt their eyes upon him from the far side of the refectory, under the leaded windows: Leatherman alerting Pierce and Pierce catching Cowley’s wrist. He made a good show of pretending not to notice them glaring at him and took a seat quickly by the mutes. Gideon didn’t like to sit with their kind; he felt contaminated by their sullen stupor, obscurely afraid that at any moment he might be hauled along into the Medical Ward.
Sister Wendy brought him a bowl of cold grey sludge. “Give thanks for God’s bounty,” she said. “Peasemeal: special treat for Shrovetide.”
“Thank-you-Lord Amen,” he said, in one breath.
“Th-ank you Lord, A-men; Th–ank you Lord, Amen; –Thank you Gawd, A-hem – tee-hee…”
One of them was mumbling, stuttering out the words. Gideon put his spoon down slowly and looked up: a little boy with curly brown hair, soft circles all over. He’d never heard him speaking before.
The boy trailed off, peering up warily with his big chestnut eyes.
Gideon stared back at him and held up his spoon like a crucifix. The boy looked puzzled but unperturbed. Not a spook then.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nn-Nothing,” the boy replied.
“So why you looking at me?”
“You were so. See anything funny, do you?”
He made no reply, only looked down.
Gideon felt Cowley approach.
“Ooh, gazing at your reflection again, you little nancy?” he ragged, in a girl’s voice.
Gideon shot his wiry arm out, brandishing the polished spoon.
“He’s the only one in here that can fancy herself,” Pierce said, sniggering, but just then one of the new Sisters from St Anne’s came by with a bucket of gruel and the Cowley boys headed for the door, glowering at him as they passed.
“W-why don’t th-they ll–like you?” the chestnut boy asked when they’d gone.
Was the little wet mocking him as well? – No, he was too stupid for that, incapable of ingenuity.
“’Cause I’m the only kid in here that’s smarter than them,” Gideon replied.
He waited till all the nuns were facing the dais where the Mother Superior sat at the high table, making sure that none of them were looking either, nor any little grasses on the floor, and then he deftly poured his slops into his neighbour’s bowl, setting his own down with a satisfying smack, which drew the attention of Sister Po. The little pig beside him grunted appreciatively. “Thank you, Sister,” he smiled as he left.
Gideon was already nearing the garden when the bells rang, savouring the last scent of the orange groves – no longer the giddily sweet aroma of the trees in blossom, nor the high zest of Christmas, when all the dark-leaved citrus are heavy with fruit, but the last sugary-sweet breath of spring, as the forgotten tangerines and mandarins lie rotting on the ground and the leaves wither and dry. He loved wandering there, through the acres of thick green lollipops, laid out as regularly as a carding board, with its network of irrigation channels, all six inches deep, precisely, and the glare of caustic lime on the hard-beaten orange earth that reminded him of the clay courts at Daddy’s country club, may he rot in hell.
He paused at the corner of the walled garden, peeking round the red bricks to survey the scene. The first boys were lining up. Nothing unusual. He waited for Cowley and his cronies to join their line, then sauntered in behind, near the end, but not last.
Sister Maria read the morning’s tasks off a clipboard and Sister Franklin organised the teams. Their little favourites got to choose. The Cowley boys volunteered for mowing. He raised his hand for watering, looking forward to watching the runnels trickle through the orange grove, but was assigned weeding. What a surprise.
It was just he and Cuthbert, the curly boy from breakfast, weeding onions. There were two kinds. The earlies, sown last autumn, were beginning to form narrow bulbs, pressing out of the ground around the thick green-and-white striped bases of their forking tops, which were already a foot high. The new sets they had planted were just beginning to poke their tiny green shoots through the sandy soil. You had to be careful not to pull them with the weeds. Maybe that’s why they’d been chosen for the job. He worked on hands and knees, loosening the earth with a fork and teasing the roots out of the ground. It was quite satisfying to see the fresh moist soil lying dark and clean where they’d tended it.
They reached the end of the row and Cuthbert went to empty the buckets on the compost, taking Gideon’s without needing to be told. Gideon sat on the bed and warmed himself in the sun, nibbling chickweed, with the smell of earth and onions on his fingers. There had only been dry grass in Daddy’s yard – that and the pool, of course.
A cloud passed over the sun, casting a chilly shadow. The boy still hadn’t returned. Gideon stood up. He was nowhere to be seen.
Behind the currant bushes he heard the Cowley boys laughing and screaming. Cowley came running out behind the lush new growth, pushing a manual lawnmower in front of him, making it rev and squeal as he wound it up against the path and then pushed down on the handle, lifting its teeth into the air, where it whirred madly round the drum in a whorl of spiralling blades.
The three boys came rushing towards him – Cowley with his gnashing blades full of green grass juice and mashed silage around the black gleaming steel of the mower, Pierce scissoring a pair of hefty shears whose shining blades scraped against each other like a knife on a sharpener as he snapped them shut, Leatherman waving a long-fingered rake in the air as a standard. He had long enough to think surely they will cut me up and surely they won’t dare, as the three boys roared towards him and his face whitened. He glanced quickly for the Sisters, for Cuthbert, for anyone, but personne. He raised the little fork and stepped backwards on the soft bed, pitying the onions.
Cowley let his sharp blades churn into the soft earth and laughed as it sprayed back soil and pebbles. He picked up a handful of dirt and threw it at Gideon, who backed away. “Playing in the dirt again, Sachmann, you filthy swine,” he taunted. The other two followed suit, hurling insults at him from the edge of his territory on the bed. Leatherman brandished his rake, throwing it out across the fresh earth towards Gideon and ripping through the tender shoots of the baby onions where they were weeding.
Gideon advanced towards him, making as if to throw his fork and Leatherman retreated slowly, holding the rake out in front of him in both hands.
“Get back,” Gideon said quietly, in his most steely voice, “or I’ll scream for the Sisters.” Leatherman didn’t look impressed. Gideon turned the fork around, pressing its points into his stomach. “I’ll stab myself –” he said, “– if you’re too scared to, and I’ll make sure that you never get out of your braces again.”
Now the Cowley boys were menaced. “You little faggot. You wouldn’t dare,”
“Watch me.” He twisted his neck towards the Sisters, keeping his eyes on the boys.
“Just like a girl,” Pierce said.
“Bloody queer,” Leatherman put in. “What are you anyway, boy or a girl?”
“He’s a little tom boy, aren’t you, nancy?”
“Fuck you, Cowley, you stupid oaf.” He spat at him, but it landed short.
Cowley made as if to jump him, making the lawnmower shake.
“Big words, Cowley!”
Gideon shot a look at the Sisters, who had appeared over by the south wall where the prize fruit were trained up wires, and Cowley stepped back onto the path, pulling the machine behind him.
“We’ll find you later, you little queer,” Cowley said.
“You couldn’t even find your own brain,” he replied.
Cowley laughed. “You couldn’t find your own dick, Sachmann – if you’ve got one that is.”
The boys filed off and he set about recovering the onion plants as best he could, but his hands were trembling and he couldn’t bring himself to think of anything except those fucking boys. He would kill them next time, smash their faces right into the ground. Then he’d leave Fuller’s – carry on clean back to Hollywood and show Daddy how big he was getting! He’d climb the high fence and creep up behind him – surprise! …But his imagination ran away with him and without really meaning it, he saw the old man splutter back and fall into the pool. Daddy couldn’t even swim. He saw the fat mouth choking, drowning – there was nothing he could do. By the time he pulled the body from the water, his father would be dead. He could drag him inside, into the study, but the maid would find him. He’d have to burn the house down…
– Where was Cuthbert? He still hadn’t returned.
The bell went for recess and he walked back through the citrus groves, towards the orchard. As he counted rotting mandarins he heard a rustle behind him and turned. He crouched down, peering under the round-cropped crowns. There: three pairs of legs. He recognised them, even in long trousers. He picked up a hard dry mandarin, spun round on his heels as noiselessly as he could and continued walking as though nothing had happened. After a brief pause, he heard the three pairs of footsteps crunch up behind him.
He began to weave through the trees, circling back towards the walled garden, hoping to reach the safety of the west gate. But the boys cut across behind him, blocking his path. He turned back towards the vineyards before realising that their long rows would be dangerous – he could easily get trapped in there, with no way through. He should have run straight back to the house, but now he was stuck in the orchards – acres and acres of peaches, apricots, avocado pears and nectarines. Perhaps he would find the farmer, or one of the lay workers, to shield him.
But no: they were closing in on him. He couldn’t shake them off without breaking into a run. He held out, heart pounding, until the very edge of the grove, where the orange trees were thickest, and then made his break, careering through the taller trees of the orchard, breathing their heavenly scent through his nostrils as he ran.
Within moments the boys were behind him again. They were surely faster and the orchard was deserted. Nowhere to hide. He veered off to the left and made across the open grass towards the wood. If he could make it to the woods, he would be safe. He knew those trees better than anyone, with all their tangled paths and thorny ways, full of poison ivy.
The four of them raced across the field, Pierce closing in, Leatherman and Cowley falling behind. Gideon sprinted until he felt like his scrawny muscles were falling off his bones, past the old oak and the fine English lime to the thick line of the woods. He zigzagged through the beech trees like a roe deer and crashed into the dense banks of laurel and rhododendron, where he hoped to lose them. Still they followed though, cursing and slashing through the undergrowth. They were approaching the boundary fence, a high black iron railing with sharp-pointed ends. He careened round to the left again through the mixed woodland and came to the stream. There was nothing for it. He would have to jump.
He picked up pace over the last 20 yards through the elegant silver birch, measuring his stride as the green water approached, so as to plant his foot firmly on the very edge of the bank and launch himself out across the water, sailing across its algae carpet, fully twelve feet to the other side.
He landed with one foot clawing at the crumbling bank while the other trailed in the cold water, clutching desperately at handfuls of reeds. Just at the moment he reached the safety of the bank, he heard Pierce come yelling behind him, the pitch of his cry sinking from valour to horror as he sailed through midair and plopped neatly into the ditch, his pretty little head bobbing up in a mask of black mud and green slime.
Gideon laughed at him as he tugged algae and pondweeds from his blonde hair, now green. Pierce struck once, unhappily, for the bank, his face turning red, but the bank was too steep and muddy to climb. He floundered in the stream, treading water, until Leatherman extended an arm down to rescue him.
Back on the safety of land he spluttered and shivered, shaking an impotent fist at Gideon and promising revenge. Already Cowley was talking about finding a log. “We’ll get you, Sachmann,” he shouted. Gideon tossed him a rotten branch and walked off through the open fields, enjoying his first taste of freedom in years.
Gideon had been severely beaten for that. Pierce had squealed like a coward and he was sent for immediately. When they couldn’t find him they were doubly alarmed and sent out a search party. The old Mother Superior used to paddle them herself, but Evil Eye McKay (as they called her) handed him over to the Provost and he decided to make an example of him – not just six lashes of the cane, but nine, and then three more when Gideon still refused to own up, until there was no more room on the buttocks to land the willow switch without breaking his skin: both cheeks were welted high in lines of corrugated white above the red pain. It took days to go down; weeks before he could sit properly, and the other boys teased him even more as he perched on the edge of the bench.
Meanwhile Cuthbert had disappeared. Gideon saw him at prayers and in the refectory, but he never turned up for work any more. The Cowley boys were much worse since the incident at the stream and Gideon had been forced to stick close to the nuns, so he couldn’t be sure that Cuthbert hadn’t been reassigned to the spastics who worked in the house. One morning he decided to follow him, watching him carefully across the dining hall as he chewed his porridge laboriously, talking to no-one, looking at no-one. He was almost invisible, Gideon thought, part of the furniture. You hardly noticed him mumbling or putting down his spoon. He got out from the bench noiselessly, without disturbing it a jot, and drifted out of the hall. Gideon followed a short distance behind.
First the boy went to the bathroom – not one of the big toilet blocks by the dormitories where they washed their faces and brushed their teeth each morning, nor the dreaded shower blocks, but a tiny lavatory down a long corridor next to the cook’s entrance, where the kitchens were, off-limits to the boys. He waited outside for what seemed an age, then cautiously opened the outer door and peered down the short flight of steps. There was a tiny square window there with a sink underneath and red tiles on the floor. It was dusty. He closed the door behind him, letting it rest on the latch, and perched on the middle step, hidden by the curving wall. The boy didn’t seem to be doing anything: no noise, no movement, no flush, nothing. He peered round again, but the door was floor to ceiling. He waited, straining his ears for the least sound of activity: rien.
After about ten minutes, he heard Cuthbert slowly rise and unlock the door. Gideon slipped out and hid behind the coats in the adjacent porch until Cuthbert was well along the corridor again, heading back towards the dorms.
The boy wasn’t going to the dormitory though, for he turned sharply into a recess halfway down the corridor and climbed a tightly turning stairwell Gideon had never seen before. He listened to the boy climb two floors – above the dorms and common rooms, to the Sisters’ quarters – and then dashed up the stairs behind him, two at a time.
He came out on the second floor just in time to see Cuthbert closing the door behind him. Gideon tiptoed softly down the corridor and, pausing only for a breath, opened the varnished door.
Inside, the light was still and even. Tall windows arrayed the east wing, looking out over the rose beds and the tiers of sculptured hedging which ran down to the great lawns and the ha ha at the boundary. From far away, the sound of the morning bell summoned boys to work. Gideon looked around the library, so still and peaceful, with its clear teal light reflecting off the thick green carpet and shiny table tops, picking out blue highlights along the polished shelves and the long rows of leather spines: whole cases of red and burgundy, ochre and chocolate, with tiny gold titles.
Cuthbert watched him from the corner, next to a little spiral stair like that of a pulpit. There was a wide balcony above them, extending to the windows at each end of the long room. Gideon waited for the boy to say something, but he just stood watching.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, feeling uncomfortable at the sound of his voice in the still room. The boy made no answer. After a moment, Cuthbert climbed the steps up to the balcony and Gideon followed him up. There was a little desk there in the corner with a straight-backed chair and the boy took a book from the shelf and sat down, sliding back the yellow ribbon as he opened it. Gideon went up behind him and peered at the book over his shoulder.
“What’s that you’re reading?” he asked.
“The S-Silver Chair,” Cuthbert replied.
“What’s it about?”
“Eu- Eu-stace and J–Jill esscape from the bb–ullies at s-school through a… a door in the wall and – and – fffind AAslan a-gain and … and –“
“– How come you’re not working like the rest of us?” Gideon cut in.
The boy shuffled uncomfortably in his seat.
“Ssister Cull–eelia says I-I-I ddon’t have to, c-cause of… my w–weak con-con-sti- – consti-tution,” he stammered. “I–I help her now – in ththe library.”
“You wet shit,” Gideon said, stiffening. “What’s wrong with you anyway?”
“Yes there is: you wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t. I know what’s wrong with you: you’re a wet little bastard. Aren’t you? – Aren’t you?”
The boy muttered something incomprehensible.
“Now you go and tell Sister Clelia that you need an assistant, alright – cause you’re too small and pathetic to reach the books. You tell her you need someone taller and stronger to help you in the library, someone sensible and intelligent. You tell her your friend Gideon speaks French – and German – not like the other feeble-minded little idiots in this place; – he would be most useful to her. Got it?”
“Good. Now, move over. This is my chair.” He pushed Cuthbert roughly off the chair and began to pull books out at random: John Penrose, Attempt to Prove the Truth of Christianity; Fellowe’s Body of Theology, etc.; The Arians of the Fourth Century: Their Doctrine, Temper and Conduct, by John Henry Newman…
“Where did you get that?” Gideon demanded, pointing at The Silver Chair. Cuthbert pointed at a shelf. “Give me it.” Gideon snatched the book and started reading while Cuthbert sloped back down the stairs.
“Where’re you going?” He grabbed the smaller boy by his hair and shook his head.
“That’s right. Don’t even think about running off. If anyone comes, don’t you go telling them I’m up here. Don’t you dare tell anyone I’ve been here. Understand?”
“Y-yeah. I-I won’t tell.” Gideon let the boy go, and watched Cuthbert’s curly head spiral down, his dark ringlets shining blue in the morning light.
They sat in silence, but Gideon could hardly concentrate. His brain was jumping alarmingly from one punishment to another as his eyes darted over and over the first page, still not understanding it. If he were at home he’d be having his lessons now. Thursday – was it Thursday? – French with Madame Jeunet – she was nice, though she pitied him; Music, with Professor Ronald – Daddy always had wanted to play piano; then Math with old Schwartz, who made him feel sick. Schwartz never looked at him, not even when he was sitting right next to him at the desk, explaining xs and ys. He was disgusting. Gideon had never been allowed to go to school – until the psychiatrist, that is. And now here he was, like Mummy. Father hated her too.
When the bell rang for recess he slipped back down the stairs and out to the garden. Sister Franklin marched him straight to the Mother Superior.
She looked up and Gideon shuddered. “Ah, the Androgyne. What’s this I hear, Sachmann – truanting again, were you?”
“Where on earth have you been then, boy?” She looked at him peculiarly.
“Walking?! And pray, where have you been this time?”
“I thought I heard the birds singing, Maam, and I went to hear them, in the dell.”
“Is that right, boy? It seems we have a little saint in our midst, Sister Franklin! – and there was I, thinking we were given God’s unfortunates.”
“So they are, Mother Superior. ‘Blessed are the children –’”
“– ‘whose mothers go to church’. Did your mother go to church, Sachmann? No, I didn’t think so. – They must learn to show thanks to the merciful Lord, Sister Franklin – and to their benefactors. God loves meek and pure-hearted children; but you are an ungrateful child, Sachmann, a wilful child. Your arrogance and pride must be beaten out so that you may enter God’s Kingdom in Heaven. – Sister, take this boy to see the Provost.”
“Yes, Mother, certainly I will, but if I might make a suggestion: it seems the boy prizes the open air too highly; perhaps he might learn a little more gratitude if he were put to work in the house.”
“Where do you propose, Sister?”
“Perhaps in the laundry, Maam, with Sister Frances. It has done wonders in the past.”
“Very good. The he-she will be alone. See to it.”
“Thank you, Maam.”
He was beaten, of course, though less severely than before. What really horrified him, though, was the thought of being coupled with the spastics, for that was one step closer to the Medical Ward, and no-one ever left the Medical Ward.
But the change proved to be a blessing. Suddenly Gideon found protection from the Cowley boys and time to expand his mind. Sister Frances made a great show of being an old dragon, keeping her two lay nuns on a tight rein – they hardly ever spoke or raised an eye, though she constantly berated them – but she was really quite affectionate under her combative exterior, and glad to have a boy around the place. Gideon had to do his quota of work, it was true: fetching wood to heat the fires under the copper vats; stirring the great swathes of sheets and towels; rubbing at collars and wimples on the scrubbing board until they shone white (the nuns never seemed to wash their underwear)… But while the water heated and the sheets boiled he was free to do as he pleased, so long as he played along with the old maid’s banter. And once the washing was done he would say to her, “Is it alright if I just check on the drying, Sister Frances?” and she would say, “It won’t be ready yet, I shouldn’t think – but run along and see,” and he would go to sit in the warmth of the drying room while the nuns ironed and folded.
Thus he had ample time to sit and read the books he made Cuthbert bring him from the library. Every few days the boy brought him another. At first, they were chosen more or less at random, according to colour, but Gideon soon grew dissatisfied with this method and the tedious ecclesiastical works it produced, especially when he was handed a book in a Cyrillic script he guessed to be Russian. He determined there and then that he would learn it, as well as Greek and Latin, but he was canny enough to see that he must have some order to his studies. He had Cuthbert draw a plan of the library, colour coded, with a rough catalogue of subjects. The document was rudimentary, but it at least served to bring him his first great treasure: Emanuel Swedenborg’s treatise on The Infinite, and the Final Cause of Creation. From Swedenborg’s theosophy he found his way to Alice Bailey, Madame Blavatsky, and Anton Mesmer, which Cuthbert found for him in the library’s Special Collection. He became obsessed with a kind of animist idealism, believing that through the unlimited power of the mind the world could be controlled. Soon he set to work on the Philosophy cabinets, devouring Descartes, Spinoza and Berkeley with rare fervour, seizing on the little passages he understood to fill his fourteen-year old imagination with a vision of the mind of God, himself at the centre. He attempted to read Newton’s Observations and Leibniz’s Theodicy, substituting enthusiasm for comprehension, willing himself to know. But it was Giordano Bruno he loved best, Bruno who was burned at the stake for his Hermetic knowledge of the Infinite Worlds, replete with living, intelligent soul, the anima mundi. It was there that he found the origins of magic in Truth: the omnipotence of omniscience.
He would emerge from the splendid realms of possible worlds filled with hosts of angels and shining souls back into the humdrummery of the drying room where the boiler wheezed and the pipes shook fit to lower a railroad crossing. The concrete floor was always the same – dry and dusty and pure somehow – baked sterile by the constant heat. He would linger awhile at the door, savouring the warm atmosphere like a close embrace – the sweet dustiness of the hot air when the racks were bare, so quiet and still and comfortable; its clean fragrant taste when the humid scent of dripping sheets hung heavily from the ceiling – before stowing his book in the recess under the giant sink, and slipping out to the refectory.
One evening, though, as he stood at the door waiting for the dinner bell, the big iron ring turned slowly by itself, the catch suddenly lifted, and the door creaked open of its own accord. Gideon hastily chucked his book – Browne’s Religio Medici – under a wicker basket, as a familiar blonde head appeared at the door. Pierce looked round before he could hide.
Gideon heard him whispering back through the door: “Here he is. – No: he’s on his own.” Then all three of them came piling in, wearing their jackets over their heads. The latch clicked back with a single rap of iron that sounded once and fell dead in the hot air.
“Now we’ve got you, Sachmann.”
“There’s no-one to save you this time, faggot...”
Gideon opened his mouth to scream.
“Mummy’s gone home; mummy can’t hear you Sachmann.”
“Scream all you like, little girl.”
“We’re going to see what you’ve got in there, Sachs!”
Cowley and Leatherman began to advance towards him. He backed away slowly, towards the long sinks, wondering if he could jump through the window; how far he would fall.
“Go on, jump for it,” Cowley laughed. “I’d like to see you try! There’s no escape, Sachmann, we’ll have you this time!”
He was backing into a corner. He wondered if he could drop the racks on them from the wire pulleys, but they were almost empty, except a few dry towels. He would have to fight for it.
As the three boys closed in on him, he grabbed a dry mop from a bucket in the corner and swiped out in a wide arc that sent them hopping back. It was impossible to fend them all off, though. He swung the mop wildly a few times, screaming and trying to frighten them, but the head was a ridiculous matt of grey string and they jeered at him. As he jabbed at Cowley, Leatherman dived forward and grabbed the handle. While they wrestled, Cowley landed a storm of blows on his face and head, making his cheek sear with pain. He yelled and writhed, breaking free for a moment, but Leatherman grabbed him round the waist and began thumping him in the kidneys. His legs buckled under as Cowley dived on top of him, knocking him to the ground and then Pierce joined in, kneeling on his chest and pinning his arms down with his knees. Struggle as he might, there was no escaping them now.
“Let’s have a look,” Cowley whooped, pulling at Gideon’s pants, but the boy writhed and twisted, making it hard to undo the button. He jerked once, kneeing Cowley in the chin, which made him jump back, freeing his legs to kick at Leatherman. Hurt, Cowley turned and lunged down at the supine boy, smashing him in the stomach with all his weight so that Gideon lurched up violently, butting Pierce full in the nose. Pierce’s nose exploded, sending blood shooting all over his face, as Gideon struck out blindly at his tormentors. He was nauseous and winded, pinned on the ground as Cowley and Leatherman pounded him, but his arms were still free, burning with pain and blind fury. They reached out and clutched Pierce’s angelic face, draining the last of Gideon’s strength into his sharp nails as they dug into the boy’s rosy cheeks and eyes.
The little Arian began screaming in agony, running blindly around the room with his hands over his eyes, screaming and screaming as the blood slipped through his fingers and ran slowly down the backs of his hands.
Leatherman and Cowley stopped their assault, frozen in horror. Gideon watched as a new resolution fell across their faces like a shadow. They bore down on him, their eyes torn with murderous rage and Gideon saw with absolute clarity that they would kill him, that his strength was spent and he would die at their mindless hands. It came to him all at once with a kind of peace – not a big thing, but subtly, soft as the fluff on the boiler jacket.
But there was a sudden commotion of running and shouting in the corridor. A sharp click fell on the dusty air and they all four froze, even Pierce, as the round ring knocked against the door and the latch fell back on its guide.
There was a moment of startled disbelief where time hung suspended like the particles in the hot air; then the two Sisters from the laundry stepped slowly into the room, gasping. They walked in a slow circle, surveying Gideon’s bruised and bloody face, his dishevelled clothes, his helpless posture, and the cowering figures of Leatherman and Cowley. They turned to Pierce, who had collapsed to the floor and lay huddled up, shielding his face in his hands.
“It was him,” Cowley spouted, his arm shaking as he pointed at Gideon. “He was scratching his eyes out; we were just trying to stop him.”
“It’s lucky you came,” Leatherman said. “He would have killed him.”
Gideon lay on the warm concrete and closed his eyes, abandoning himself to the burning pain in his cheek. The entire left side of his head felt like it was cracking open behind the throbbing purple lump. Pain washed over in thin sheets of blood-red dye, folding into the hot darkness. He heard more people arrive, and voices. He was lifted to his feet and carried to the medical rooms, where the fierce sting and smell of surgical spirits revived him.
When the cuts were dressed – despite the pain, nothing was broken – Gideon was marched down the long corridors and up the wide stairs to the Mother Superior’s office, overlooking the front lawn. The Mother Superior was seated behind her desk, the ends of her fingers gently interlaced; the Provost reposed in a red leather armchair, twirling a little sherry glass between his fingers. The room was bathed in the glow of electric lamps. They looked like they had just been waiting for Gideon’s arrival. The nurse closed the door quietly behind her.
He wondered where he should go but there was no seat, so he stayed standing by the door. Sister McKay set her evil eye on him and he studied the floor.
“Now there’s a guilty conscience,” she said, to the Provost, “if ever I saw one.” He nodded.
“Your eyes betray you Sachmann: tell us, what have you done this time?”
“I have done nothing wrong, Mother,” he replied, sullenly.
“Is that so?” She waited, pointedly. “Do you know why we are here, Sachmann?”
“To run the school?” he asked hopefully.
She affected a friendly laugh. “Yes, Sachmann, we are here to run this school, so that we may correct you and guide you in the ways of the Lord. – But we cannot teach you what you will not learn. Forgiveness comes through penitence. You must surely understand that much –”
“On Sunday you will go to Father Williams after Mass and confess your sins – he will absolve you – for confession is a sacred bond before God. But in matters concerning the welfare of boys in this school, it is essential that the Provost and myself, as your primary caretakers, should be involved. Therefore, you must tell us – exactly – what happened this evening.”
He studied the patterns of knots and grain on the highly polished floor.
“We are waiting,” the Provost boomed .
By moving his neck and eyes just a fraction, imperceptibly really, Gideon could make the knots line up – three, four, five of them, along different angles, in the complicated layers of light thrown by the electric chandelier, which cast thin shadows in four – no, five, – six different shades from its ring of tulip bulbs, as they shone through the sculpted basket.
“Answer, boy,” he said more loudly.
Squinting his eyes a little and softening his focus Gideon tried to see whether he could fix all the knots in his field of vision under one or other of the lines of light.
“The cane, Provost,” Mother Superior said sternly.
The Provost rose gravely and took the long willow cane she had placed on the desk. He flexed it in his hands, testing its spring as he approached the dreamy boy. “Now I’ll ask you once more for a civil answer. – I pride myself on being a fair man, but I’ll have no truck with insolence. What have you to say for yourself?”
Gideon contemplated an answer – even went so far as to open his mouth, but then he felt the witch’s evil eye on him again pouring hatred and contempt, like Schwartz, like his own father, and suddenly his anger rose up, hardening into a stubborn refusal to take part in the degradation.
As the Provost pushed him roughly to the window, pulling his shorts down in full view of the Mother Superior before bending him over the radiator, Gideon cut his mind free from the base level of sordid matter, slipping away from the polished floor into the light of the reflections, drifting into the black night beyond the mirrored windows, till he could look down and see the scene like a crow eyeing a chessboard from the heights of a plane tree.
A lone pawn was closing in on the black queen, protected by two white horsemen;
The queen and bishop would be taken; the white armies were storming –
The crow swooped down; the black ranks were annihilated with the board
– White cinder
– pain –
He felt his muscles spasm and quiver involuntarily with every blow; he felt his knees shake and give way once, so that the Provost had to pull him to his feet again, shouting in his ear, asking if he was ready to confess. He shook his head blindly,
flicking sweat and tears
to the ground
as he clenched his teeth – and sought refuge again in the distant realms of the mind – where hosts of spirits flashed through the darkness – in waves of red, blue, green, yellow, white.
In the whiteness there was peace, the whiteness of the sun glaring on limey soil; the glint of sunshine on the still surface of the azure pool –
It splintered into a thousand pieces across the broken surface and the pool burned like quicksilver in a desert.
The sear of the next blow didn’t come and instead his body ignited in waves of pain. He fell forward onto his elbows, huddling against the freezing radiator.
“The boy can take no more, Mother. He will bleed,” the Provost said.
“His back then. Lift his shirt. He must learn.”
Gideon felt the Provost lift his shirt with his fat, sweaty fingers, tucking it over his shoulders. He clung to the radiator, banging his jaw against its crenulations as each blow cracked across his back. He tried to soften it so that the cane would bite into soft flesh rather than his burning, pulping spine, but it was no good – his body was helpless, beyond his control, suffering under the sting of the cane. He could no longer control his cries either, and he screamed continuously from the scintillating pain, pausing only to gulp air as each blow smacked across his back, winding him a moment, before the burning agony raced through his body again, consuming him. The pain took over, but as long as the blows kept raining down he could not even find the solace of unconsciousness. The Provost was hitting him harder and harder, huffing and puffing as he thrashed the willow with all his might against Gideon’s stinging skin…
“That is enough!”
All of a sudden it stopped. The Provost stepped back, sweating and trembling. The Mother Superior rose and walked over to Gideon.
“Get up,” she said.
Gideon’s feet scrambled and he tried to pull at the windowsill, but there was no strength left.
He struggled again and got to his knees.
“You will remember this day,” she said. “When you are proud, it will be beaten out of you; when you are arrogant, you will be brought to your knees. And this is nothing compared to the torments which await you if you refuse to submit your wilful soul to the loving care of God. Repent. Let this be a lesson to you.”
“Yes, Maam.” He sank to the floor again.
Two weeks he spent in the infirmary, in a room on his own, though he could walk again after the second day. After that he was moved into the Medical Ward, locked in with the vegetable cases, who were incapable of working, incapable of doing anything except sitting and staring out of the barred windows. So he sat and stared too. He never saw Cuthbert any more, or the Cowley boys.
He had to see the psychiatrist now, once a week. Gideon was frightened of him at first, remembering what had happened last time – how could he ever forget? – but Dr Kramer was a kindly man, with small glasses and a faraway look. Gideon answered his questions openly, though carefully. The man seemed thoughtful as he looked away, but he never wrote a prescription. Gideon was terrified he would be turned into a zombie like the other children on the Ward. He remembered his mother in the Home. Dr Kramer was different though. Once Gideon asked him tentatively if he might read a book. The doctor had frowned, looking around his empty office, and promised nothing, but the next week he brought The Pearl, by John Steinbeck. That’s how Gideon started on fiction.
As the summer wore on, he read more and more books, discussing them with Dr Kramer, though he never mentioned his old reading. Sometimes the doctor would bring a newspaper and Gideon would devour what words he could, upside down, right down to the line cut off by the fold, as Kramer looked out of the window. And so he found out about the war. No-one had bothered to tell him. He knew somehow that it was forbidden, but even so he asked Kramer for papers. The old man shook his head sadly, apologising, but he still brought the Tribune into the office. Gradually Gideon pieced together an image of black soldiers and tanks swarming all over the mud as civilians fled the burning cities of Europe; of Pearl Harbour sinking beneath sheets of flame; of jungle islands blasted by bombs. One day he saw an advertisement: a sailor carrying a white sack like a bundle of sheets onto a big ship. “Fight. Let’s Go! Join the navy,” it said. In the background ships lay out to sea and planes wheeled through an exotic sunset. Gideon began to dream of faraway places.
Autumn came and the leaves changed colour. Gideon watched the gradual progression, hour by hour, from his seat in the window. Each day the wave of gold and brown would descend a little lower, spreading deeper into the wood, as the top leaves turned copper and russet, and began to fall. Right through September and the first weeks of October, the weather was perfect – a long Indian summer without a cloud in the sky. Every evening as the bells struck and they were strapped into their chairs for supper, the Ward was suddenly flooded with a rich golden light that turned the walls tiger-striped orange and made the barred windows blind. Even the stupidest boys smiled as they were bathed in its warm glow.
One night though, as the sun set and the walls faded quickly from orange to lemon and back to a greyish-white, losing their stripes, a rustling started up outside. Gideon went to the window and saw the trees begin to shake and stir – not the light stir of a gentle evening breeze, but an agitated tremor from the very base of the trunk that set the branches swaying and brushing against one other. Dry leaves began to swirl around outside the schoolhouse, spiralling up and suddenly sinking back down outside the windows of the Medical Ward. As the sky darkened the wind picked up, whistling through the chimneys and the distant trees, making the thin training wires round the rose bushes twang as they vibrated, and even stirring chunks of gravel on the paths. Further down the wall trellises shook and clattered, smacking against the stone, until the first sounds of cracking reached the boys.
It was a terrible storm, raging all night with gale force winds which made the windows rattle behind the shutters as branches came crashing down like cannon and strange objects went sweeping through the air. Eventually the little panes cracked and gave way and the wind came rushing through the huge school house, sending fear into the hearts of nuns and boys, who waited in terror for the dawn.
The sky was still dark when Gideon went to the broken window and opened the shutters, though the sun was long since risen behind the blanket cloud. It was almost quiet now; occasional whooshes and gusts cut through the air. The lawn was miraculously calm, almost untouched, and it was hard to believe there could have been such wreckage until you looked at the woods.
Fuller’s magnificent woods were ravaged. Great gaps had appeared in the tree-line where ancient oaks and beeches had fallen, upending massive boles of roots and earth. Where they fell – a hundred feet tall some of them, and almost as wide across their crowns – they took down whole swathes of younger trees. Fallen limbs lay strewn across the edge of the lawn, some as thick as a wheelchair and as long as the refectory tables. The ground was so densely covered with leaves and brashings, Gideon doubted you could even get to the King tree – the giant beech whose prodigious roots had borne a hundred offspring. It had come down, devastating half the woodland it spawned. A new tree would reign now.
Slowly the Sisters began to emerge, taking stock of the devastation. First thing, the glass and debris in the house was cleared and the glaziers were called. Sister Franklin and Sister Maria made a tour of the grounds, assessing the damage, and that same afternoon the clean-up operation began. An army of boys set out to collect sacks of kindling they barrowed back to the wood stores, and built great mountains of brashings for burning. After a few days the tree-loppers arrived with giant machines that sawed the fallen trunks into planks right where they lay. Meanwhile, the glaziers had mended all the little panes of glass and a plumber fixed the broken pipes. The lay workers and some of the Sisters erected sawing horses and chopping blocks at regular intervals around the perimeter of the lawn, and all day teams of boys could be seen at every station taking turns at sawing, splitting and barrowing. And while the woodcutting went on, others were responsible for feeding the brash fires which burned continuously from morning till evening. They must have burned all night too, for their ash mounds could still be seen steaming the next morning, like little Krakatoas in a sea of dew.
All day Gideon watched the activity from his window in the locked ward. It took almost three weeks for the loppers to plank and stack the good wood, leaving long mounds of blue tarpaulin that cut through the woods in parallel streaks like kitchen plasters all in a line. He watched them load up their yellow trucks and crunch over the gravel track in convoy, their San Luis Obispo tail-plates spattered in mud. There was a naval training base there, at the Polytechnic College; he’d read it in the advertisement. He would rather go to Los Angeles or San Diego though, or maybe further away, to San Francisco. Then he would sail the high seas to Peleliu.
So it was that Gideon began to form a plan.
Each night at 10 o’clock Sister Wendy came in on her round of the wards, leaving the door unlocked. Gideon heard it quite distinctly: two bolts turning in their barrels and the Yale latch springing back. Only the latch clicked shut. Then he heard her footsteps treading softly through the long double L-shaped ward. There was always one of the boys who needed something: water, hot milk and honey, a dose of brandy or opium, a new catheter… More often than not little Wilson started screaming as she walked past and had to be given sedatives to sleep. Wilson had been there when Gideon arrived. He was smaller than Gideon then, though he was older, and he had barely grown since. He had never learned to talk properly and never would now. What could he hope for?
Gideon lay in the dark, fully dressed under the covers, undecided. He thought of poor Wilson and Cuthbert and Sister Frances. Then he thought of Cowley and Pierce and Leatherman; the Provost and the Mother Superior; and all the other sadistic nuns. He pictured Cuthbert vividly in the teal light of the library. His mind still wasn’t made up, but whether he did or not, he couldn’t take anyone with him. He couldn’t even tell anyone else. So he lay there concentrating on Cuthbert’s chestnut locks, which shone with shades of blue and black in the reflected light, and when he had the image so fixed he could reach out and touch it – as Madame Blavatsky put it – he sent him the message, as clearly as he could, Get out!, whispering it the first time, uncertain, then calling it out as urgently as he could through the silence: Get out! – Get Out!
He heard the long iron key drive cleanly into the lock and turn twice, efficiently, in four half-turns. The wide steel bolt withdrew in two stages, well oiled. Then the second lock went through the same motions, a little less smoothly this time, for it was set high on the door, and Sister Wendy probably had to stand on the balls of her feet to get a good purchase on the key. Finally the simple Yale key turned and the door swung open, silently, with a just perceptible influx of cool air from the landing.
Gideon turned on his side and closed his eyes. Sister Wendy padded softly by, peering into the caged beds. Most of the boys were already sleeping – you could hear it in their breathing; but sure enough, when she rounded the corner into the little L-shaped crook at the north end of the ward, Wilson started screaming. Gideon heard the Sister hushing him and quickly jumped out of the cot, stuffing blankets and pillows under the comforter and ruffling them into a humanoid form. He glanced nervously around him: the idiots were all sleeping. Sister Wendy was still murmuring to Wilson. He heard her footsteps and froze, but she was just going to the kitchenette. He thought he could hear a tap turn and water bouncing into the stainless steel sink. Under cover of the noise, he felt for the Yale lock and slotted in a paper-thin nail file he had stolen from Sister Dee, already slightly twisted and bent from his careful preparations, wriggling it gently into place, and coaxing it patiently to turn. There it was: not as easy as the last time, but no hiccups. He looked back once across the ward: no movement – they were all sleeping like babies in their cots; Sister Wendy was still ministering to Wilson. He peered round the door: out on the landing everything was dark and still; just one bare bulb burned high above the staircase. He pulled the door closed behind him as gently as he could, so there was just the faintest click of the brass latch springing back into place. His heart raced as he imagined Sister Wendy coming after him. There was no sound from the ward though.
He slipped down the stone stairs and turned into a twisting corridor through the old servants’ quarters, past the kitchen, avoiding the main entrance. It was so long since he’d been out of the Medical Ward that he’d become disoriented, and was surprised when he stepped through a swinging door into the porch where he’d hidden from Cuthbert. He had been aiming for the yard door, where there was a large casement window, but this was even better: the key had been left in the door. It turned easily and Gideon tasted the fresh night air for the first time in months.
He paused on the step a moment, breathing in its cool pleasure. But as he glimpsed the white disc of the moon shining through the pearly clouds, he imagined the Provost humped over the Mother Superior and felt again that wave of disgust which dirtied the world. He opened the door and stepped back inside the school one last time, withdrawing the long key so that he could lock the door behind him. With the key in his pocket, he slipped round the back of the house, sticking to the shadows by the walls, ducking under dark windows, and coming round to the line of sheds that closed off the yard.
They must have been stables once, but now they were used as wood stores. The first two were stacked right to the roof in back-to-back rows of newly split oak; the third was filled with last year’s wood, bone dry and colourless; and the last was where they kept the kindling and tools. Gideon crept into this shed, right next to his first dormitory, and pulled out a bundle of loose papers – all kinds of scraps and notes he had collected, including a classified supplement to the Tribune from Dr Kramer, scrunching it all up into a pile of little balls in the middle of the floor. Without fuss, he emptied a whole sack of kindling over the pile, letting it spill across the cluttered shed. Next he took the little stash of matches he had hoarded, one at a time, from Minny, the cook’s help, who brought their meals on a metal trolley (she was a secret smoker) and, finding the best one, he pinched it hard right by the pink sulphate-coated head, so that it wouldn’t snap, and struck it firmly across the rough edge of a brick. The match flared up first time and burned with a strong flame. He lit the paper in four different places, and threw the match into the middle, waiting till the whole pile burst into flame and the kindling began to crackle. Then he stacked whole sacks of kindling against the fire, making a pyramid out of the tall hundred-weight flammable nylon bags. As these began to take, he chucked on everything within reach, leaving just as the fire was beginning to roar.
Crouching low, he dashed back across the yard and sped over the open ground to the safety of the orange grove, running through the bitter scent of their nascent fruit, still hard and green where the blossoms were. Pecan nuts burst from their husks, but otherwise the trees were bare. He feared irrationally that he might be visible in the faint light of the cloud-covered moon.
Once he reached the woods he began to relax though. He slowed to a jog as he wove through familiar paths, so changed now, avoiding the deep gashes in the woodland where the blue tarpaulins glinted unnaturally in the moonlight. He arrived at the old line of yew trees which marked the southern boundary and climbed one easily, jumping over the high pronged fence. On the other side of the railing, where freedom lay, the trees thinned out into open fields, sown with long grass for the winter. Gideon kept to the fences and ditches that ran between them and hurried out into the darkness through a low sea of alfalfa, trying not to look back. Far off a huge tree stood alone on a low rise, black against the dark sky. He trudged towards it for what seemed an age, feeling his legs sinking in the soft earth. Sounds of uproar pursued him, though, and he pressed his hands over his ears, walking like a convict. When at last he approached the tree on the hill, he could see it was an old oak that had somehow survived the storm. Sheltering behind its giant girth, Gideon turned back to look at the school.
The entire north wing was blazing now, with sheets of flame pouring out of the windows and curling over the timber roof. The whole of the red brick monstrosity was lit up in a magnificent fiery glow, with a crown of flaming chimneys like torches held to the stars, bestowing it in razure with a majesty and grandeur it had never deserved. As the fire spread to the east end of the building, where the dormitories were, it threw a day-bright orange glow across the lawns, all the way down to the thin line of the ha ha, and Gideon thought he could see black figures swarming like flies. They were: they were running from the doors; pouring through the first floor windows; scurrying across the orange grass. The roof caught fire. Gideon could just make out the black bars over the flaming windows in the Medical Ward. Soon the whole school was blazing, turning white inside, like a candle in the night. Its light shone right across the fields. He almost thought he could see its flicker on the ploughed earth below him, but that was impossible: the woods were in the way. Something was coming though. He slipped behind the tree and watched a tiny black figure approach, closer and closer, until he was silhouetted against the blazing chimneys. A stray shaft of light lit up his blue curls.
The boy held out his book, but Gideon turned and ran.
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