5,000 Words

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve. I had no idea why I’d been summoned to the Head’s study. Dr. Treadwell had four clocks there, each a present from a grateful pupil. We heard the chapel clock everywhere in Dean House, deep and reverent, ordering the school day. Treadwell let each of his little clocks chime together on the hour, but Old Ned drowned them.

Dr. Treadwell dripped a little water into the vivarium, a green globe that came to his chest. It held a mossy jungle of knots and leaves, which he pruned with steel fingered instruments of torture. Sometimes he made miscreants stand before the garden, in contemplation, before issuing sentence. His face looked up to me, all wrinkles, ears, nose hair, and eyebrows.

“A Mrs. Anstruther will be here any minute to see the school. I want a responsible boy to show her round. She has two boys, one a beetle, one for the Third. The usual tour, then here for lunch at one.”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I have nets, but of course …” Dr. Treadwell’s genial dictatorship even allowed for some discussion on very minor matters. He kept his cane in the umbrella stand, so you knew it was there, without being ostentatious.

“I think the excellence of our bowling this Saturday won’t suffer from an hour’s less practice.” He coughed. “Henderson, I think … the last two years … it’s been such an improvement. Particularly as an example to the younger boys. The time is fast approaching when I need to pick a Head Boy for next year.”

I blinked.

“More rejoicing over the one that repenteth, Henderson. Assuming that you stay the course. There are other worthy candidates. That is all.” He returned to his little twisted garden.

Head Boy sounded tedious, it would suit a pompous bore, but his opinion of me mattered. That gave a little zing to the day.

Parslow waited. Slight, his black curls poorly controlled with Brylcreem, he shifted from one foot to another. There’s a hideous painting in the chapel, another gift from an Old Boy. The heroic knight slays the dragon. Stage right, a pageboy, anxious, holds the knight’s spare sword. That’s Parslow. If I die, he will pine to death on my tomb.

“New mother. Show her Stalag Luft Dean House,” I said. “Bet she’s hideous.”

“Right,” he said. We had a couple of sins and we were glad Treadwell had not found us out.

“You better run along, you’ll be missed.” He scurried off, that faint limp.

I took a minute in the lavatory to check my tie was knotted with precision, my blond hair slicked so, a clean shave, nothing on my blazer. I looked shipshape enough for the honour of the Lower Sixth. Madame Beauchamp taught French to open mouthed boys, and Maggie in the kitchens had a knowing eye. Otherwise, Dean House lacked female charm. Some people doubted whether Matron and Mrs. Treadwell were human at all.

Mrs. Anstruther waited in Front Hall. In a word, she was ravishing — dark haired, and elegant in blue; classy, from the rimless hat to those slim ankles in black heels. At the sight of her, I stopped being the man about town. I was just a schoolboy, in uniform. I glanced at my hands to look for ink stains. I couldn’t have felt clumsier if I’d been a beetle, in short trousers.

Her smile put a jolt through my spine; it seemed beautiful, and familiar. I held out my hand, and said, “Mrs. An-Anstruther, how d-d-delightful to meet you. I’m … D-D-Daniel Henderson and D-D-Dr. Treadwell asked me to sh-sh-show you round. Then he’ll join you for lunch.”

Our eyes met and our hands touched.

It’s Rachael. My wife.

§

Bright sunlight fell through windows on photographs, trophies, and wood panelled walls.

I’d slain the stammer many years ago, laid it in the coffin. Why was it back? Any good looking woman aroused me, but this woman, she confused me, so far out of my league, so confident and sophisticated. Part of me thought, I can’t blush and trip over words and make it obvious I fancy her. Her oldest is only a year younger than me. It’s humiliating. She smiled a lot, so if she realised, she didn’t mind. But I did.

Part of me thought, she has three moles in the small of her back, I call them the Bermuda triangle. She likes me to kiss her throat. She comes out of the shower, and she takes my hands, and places them on her breasts.

Usually, I did the tour like an automaton. The school has many academic and sporting achievements and I just trot them out as needed. My mother cried when I won the scholarship.

I knew these facts too, solid as the polished wooden floor. My name was Daniel Henderson, aged seventeen. This was clearly May, 1957, a bright afternoon with only a token cloud in the sky. Aston Villa had just won the FA Cup and so Parslow was insufferable. I joined Dean House as a first year, a beetle, and I was captain of cricket. On Saturday we’d play the Boys Grammar, a surprisingly tough match. Our bowling would be key, but then bowling was my talent.

I was sure of this. Gravity pulls down, not up. Here we were in the chapel (compulsory prayers four times a week). If I dropped my grey flannel trousers, which I wouldn’t do, there’d be the ugly scar on one knee from last year’s rugby. I could recite the weekly menu from memory. That’s why Treadwell fed visitors in the study.

Yet. The chapel reminded me of the registry office. I saw her in a cream suit, and she held my hands tight, she looked into my eyes for the vows, her face shining.

“How is discipline?” Mrs. Anstruther asked. There were tiny creases at the corner of her eyes, but she looked magnificent. She said she was worried about boarding. Her family didn’t board. Mr. Anstruther was travelling on Foreign Office business but he hoped to visit the school before any decision.

“S-strict but fair,” I said, because it was. “D-D-Dr. Treadwell will not st-st-stand bullying. And we older b-b-boys look out for the little ones.”

“That’s reassuring, Danny,” she said. I wasn’t Danny to anyone but her. This was the least of my worries. I worried at the name Anstruther, like I had a piece of Dean House stew jammed between two back teeth. Anstruther? It didn’t make sense.

She was funny, and interested in me. She just waited while I tried to get the words out, trying to put me at my ease. That grace, to someone she’d just met, was typical. When I grew up, I’d want to be with someone captivating like her.

I was grown up and I was with her, the luckiest man in London. How ridiculous.

She loved her children and she wanted them safe. Far off, that chimed too.

When I needed my eloquence, it was wanting. Old habits reasserted themselves. Say the Head, not Dr. Treadwell. Avoid trip words. Slow down and choose fewer words. Breathe. I’d beaten the stammer, beaten it hollow. I’d do it again.

That short hour was the best of tours, the worst of tours. We stood, awkward schoolboy and grown woman, before Dr. Treadwell’s study. Old Ned rang out, reassuring that time chugged round as it always did. It was 1957, May, as solid as the stone walls.

“Daniel, it’s been a delight,” she said. “You know, have we met before? Do I know your mother?”

My reply was a jumble of trip-words, just a mess. And here was Dr. Treadwell, reassuring, ugly and in command.

They exchanged pleasantries, and she said to him, “Are all your boys so confident and charming? Daniel is a real advertisement for the school.” I blushed, I knew I was stupid and gauche and inarticulate. We shook hands goodbye.

Here hovered Parslow in cricket whites.

“Wow, what a stunner,” he said. “Trust you, Henderson, to get that jammy job. Lunch?” I wasn’t hungry but followed his lead, for once, rather than stand outside the study door.

§

The fish pie was OK when they were generous with the cheese. Cavendish and Brown, Blimey O’Reilly and the Ape, Parslow, and the Muldoons sat around me, foot-soldiers round the general. I told the story, leaving out the weird bits. So, I tripped once or twice to start but then the stammer was gone, and my tongue ran free. I said definitely a flutter in the female heart. That was true, she’d flirted, in that safe sort of way. The gang looked very impressed. The Ape tried to be a smart-alec, but I slapped him down.

We had Latin and Maths. After lessons I took Parslow to the nets. Brilliant blue sky from horizon to horizon, every tree shouted green and the conker trees flowered white and red. The rough blazed with the gold of dandelions as my oldest friend took guard. If you think about overarm, it’s odd; it’s like running and doing a little cartwheel standing up. I aimed for the point of death.

Parslow was a real duffer like most of the brainboxes. He actually hit a couple, I was so distracted.

“No use,” I said, after half an hour. “Mind’s not on it.”

“I’m sure you’ll slaughter them,” he said loyally. A bee zummed past, a big fat slow one. Neither of us said anything, Parslow unbuckled his pads, and we headed for the woods.

Dean House has four acres of woodland, trees old before the school was thought of. The OTC use it sometimes and we do cross country through it. It’s out of bounds to the young ones but you’d have to be pretty stupid to hurt yourself. I smelt growing things, and I saw pollen dance in the ladders of sunlight. We know a safe, hidden place.

I need to say, Parslow’s pretty queer, actually. I mean, we were miles from anywhere and trips into town were regimented. There were awkward socials sometimes with Sacred Heart up the road, but Treadwell rained fire from heaven if we stepped over the line, let alone the nuns, who were the Gestapo. So I guess we all thought about S-E-X a lot and some of us, well, made do. The thing was, Parslow was really keen to it, if you know what I mean. He listened in to our talk about girls, but he didn’t say much.

In the wood, Parslow kissed me, and I let him, because I knew he was going to do something really splendid. I was just very glad he didn’t expect the same back. He undid my trousers, so he could cup my balls, and he brought his head down, first just to kiss. Oh Lord our help in ages past. I looked up at how the sun behind leaves burned green and gold. I entered his moist mouth and after only a minute, I closed my eyes and stopped worrying about Mrs. Anstruther. Red danced behind my eyelids. Sometimes I thought of girls, but this time I didn’t, just how eager Parslow was, every day if I felt like it, and no attitude. He hung around me, but he wasn’t clingy, which I hate. It lasted ages and it was brilliant. If they taught a class in this, he would get Alpha, like he does for Science.

Afterwards, I helped him out in return, brisk and practical, and he lay on my chest. I stroked his cheek. From this angle, he looked a bit like a girl, his puppy eyes anyway.

Gosh, Mrs. Anstruther set the bar, a real looker. But I couldn’t have met her before and probably wouldn’t again. I just had some weird randy moment, which threw me back to the stammer I had as a little kid. I held Parslow, at peace, and thought about the cricket match and being Head Boy.

“Are you happy, Henderson?” he said. What a weird question. “Yes, pretty much,” I said.

§

I woke up, my heart racing as if I plunged off a cliff. I sat up in the dark. I took at least a minute, reeling, before I thought, it’s the bedroom, Dean House. Just where you ought to be. Parslow stirred in the dark. When we became roommates last year, we grinned, it made life much simpler.

This was my dream.

Rachael, smoking. She is Mrs. Anstruther, but in a jumper and trousers, very bohemian, and she has a haircut like a boy. We are in a public house, very full, quite a lot of coloured people. Coloured is the wrong word. Offensive actually. The music is loud and I don’t recognise it, or even the instruments it’s played on. She taps at something metal and glass in front of her, the size of a packet of cigarettes, but it lights up. A little tinny chime, almost like Dr. Treadwell’s clocks, and she lifts it to her ear. She mouths “Parslow” and I grin.

We’re going to meet Parslow’s ‘latest’. Rachael bet me a Citybreak he’ll be tall and blond and sporty, not queer acting, with good cheekbones. There’s something knowing in her comments, something I don’t want to think about. I didn’t take the bet.

I’m drinking alcohol; in fact I am quite drunk.

She’s my wife of three years. I know how her back arched earlier, when we made love, how she ran her fingers over my skin, I know the smell of her sweat. I know what it means when she puts on the rabbit pyjamas and hogs the ice-cream. When she says Men!, I must back off, just look sheepish.

I’m 32, I’m a management consultant, whatever that is, and I make a lot of money. This is 2004. I wonder if we have a city on the moon yet. I did not win a scholarship, I went to a state grammar school, half girls. I’ve never heard of Dean House or Dr. Treadwell.

We had children, I think. Two boys. There was a problem. I am not sure this is yet. Are the children still to come?

Parslow got into bed, and said, “You OK? You have a nightmare?”

I held him, on autopilot. “Yes, very weird. Mrs. Anstruther.”

“Well, she was very striking. I bet you’ll end up marrying someone extraordinary, a fashion model or an heiress.” I stopped him telling me how handsome I am, him being so queer is deeply embarrassing. A sleepy pause. “Maybe you should see Matron,” he said. “Get something to help you sleep.”

It was cosy. Cuddling is for girls, but that’s what it was. The strange twisted story about me being old and working and married and drunk got odder and more confused the more I thought about it. Things twisted and buckled, like they were in a fairground mirror. The different parts of the dream don’t seem to be in the right order.

No one goes to Matron unless they are really worried. Parslow wanted to kiss me, but didn’t. So I pecked him, and turned my back at once. I slid back into sleep, with him holding me. Dark, warm, and without dreams.

§

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve. I had no idea why I’d been summoned to the Head’s study. I guessed Dr. Treadwell needed to keep the clocks that were gifts, all of them, but why have them all on display? He didn’t need to set them all to time, given the other clocks in every room, and on the chapel tower. School life was a timetable. Old Ned chimed to cue, deep honest notes, so the mechanism of the school day turned.

Dr. Treadwell pruned his vivarium, which looked more complicated than brain surgery. He raised his enormous eyebrows at me.

“Parslow is coming, sir,” I said.

“Well, as he is not here, a word, Henderson.” He’s thinking of me as a potential Head Boy. I said I was pleased in his confidence. He played up the responsibility of the role. “There is more joy over the one sinner that repenteth …”

I’ve been in the study often, for good reasons and bad. I had this strange sense, like this exact conversation happened before. Odd.

Here’s Parslow, his slight limp, his hair slick without being smart. Always keen to see me, like a collie.

Treadwell said, “A Mrs. Anstruther is coming to see the school. I want a responsible boy to show her round, Parslow. She’s likely to be here any minute. She has two boys, one a beetle, one for the Third. The usual tour, then here for lunch at one.”

“Of course, sir,” Parslow said.

“Henderson, to the nets. Think about what I said. We can’t leave Saturday to chance, can we?” He bent over the giant bottle, dismissing us.

I blinked. I’d rather do nets than show some mother around anyway. It would be different if I was skiving old Baldy-win in Geography.

Parslow wasn’t at lunch. We sat next to each other in Latin, for the news, and so I could crib off him.

“Stunning woman,” Parslow said, because he knew my interests. “Very chic. Husband’s something big in the FO. Not sure she buys the boarding school bit.” He put out his fingers and did the ker-ching of a cash register. “No sale to old Treadwell.”

It’s always interesting to see a peach. Anstruther was an odd name, it nagged away. Like the hole when you lose a filling.

My teeth are perfect, when have I had a filling to lose?

Friday evening, English prep. I was finding English coming easy at last. If you do enough Shakespeare you start to get it, or at least to understand what to say in the essays. Doodling at the back of my book, I wrote

James Anstruther

I thought for a bit and underlined it.

Rachael had thrown a plate, I’d brought him up, and she’d calmed down.

“God, no. Not while you’re alive, Danny. You could be in prison for life and I’d still stick with you.” Then she said and it was true, ”If you fell under a bus Danny, just maybe I would marry him. Now he’s ditched that awful woman.”

I met him a few times. We were very civil. Just once, I was drunk and I’d said something stupid like, so you want to shag my wife? And he said, My God, you know she’d die for you, don’t you? I’ve more chance with the Queen. With Victoria Beckham. He’d sipped his drink and said … what? It was important. If she whistled, I’d come.

Who were these people? Why did I know this stuff about them?

Parslow head down, working swottishly. The Muldoons were messing around. The Ape stared at me. I looked at the logo on the exercise book, like the crest on my blazer, the golden snake swallowing its own tail. Round, like a clock. I did a big stretch, last thing I needed was a stiff shoulder for tomorrow.

§

We pretended the dull green coaches were troop transports in the War. They’d been left for days in the open sun, and stank of warm leather and diesel. We got rowdy.

They changed in Nissan huts and their captain was all pimples. I won the toss and I put us first in to bat. I was out LBW for six, which was shocking I kept my head up as I walked back to the pavilion, and Parslow touched my arm, in sympathy. Their innings started better for us, two easy wickets, then they got our measure, and for a half hour they were doing well. I bowled one and caught one, and they started to fall apart. Then a twitch of life, right at the end of their batting order, their last pair made twenty. To the last, I thought they would snatch victory. It was down to me, I breathed, I had the measure of the sloping pitch. Everything came together in the perfect ball, a fast one from the maws of Hell. The off stump flew a yard. All out and we won by five runs.

The team swarmed round me. Treadwell exulted. He commiserated with their Head, who looked grief-stricken, and he clapped me on the back. Oxbridge entrance mattered but so did winning. Parslow, my faithful page, limped over. His eyes shone.

A man in a light suit, broad-shouldered and prosperous, strode towards us. He had a strong, greying moustache. Dr. Treadwell looked at him rather askance.

“James Anstruther,” he said. “I’m coming to see you on Monday, Dr. Treadwell.”

“Of course!” said Treadwell, switching on the charm. “Are your sons sporting? You see what a fine example we set.”

“Sporting enough,” said Anstruther. He looked at me. “The hero of the hour.” I opened my mouth, wondered if the words would come. He looked very different with the moustache. He fumbled in his pocket, pulling out an envelope.

“Are you happy at school, Daniel?” he said. “Rachael sent me,” like the name mattered.

More than happy, I was triumphant. We would celebrate tonight, Parslow would be adoring, and even better, very obliging.

‘Rachael sent me.’ James Anstruther, her trusted friend.

“Well, Mr. Anstruther,” Treadwell said. “Sportsmanship, so the boys must shake hands with the other team. Can I offer you a little liquid celebration, while we talk about the school?” Anstruther didn’t move and looked stern, but Treadwell had a hand on his shoulder, while the other members of the team pulled me away.

Treadwell took the letter. I felt sure Anstruther wanted to give it to me. Odd.

The Head wouldn’t wait till Assembly to sing the team’s praises, he’d probably preach on it in chapel tomorrow. God spoke English and played cricket. Of course it was a team effort, it’s just I was the captain and I took three wickets; you could argue, four.

§

It was an old forest, trunks and vines twisted and covered with thick green moss, I could plunge my hands into the green fronds. Under foot was moist soil like

black shredded bark. Parslow’s face was green; the light came from odd angles, like being under water, or something. Neither of us wore clothes or carried anything.

We could walk, and climb, and explore. Neither of us felt hungry and if we were thirsty, cool water dripped from leaves. Parslow slipped his hand into mine. I looked around; we were alone, so why not? We wandered hand in hand, long hours saying little. No path here was a straight line for very long.

“This looks dry,” I said. He didn’t need asking; he lay down under the canopy of shiny leaves, a little tent for us. I joined him, and our lips touched. After a short while, I turned him over.

Later, I stroked the tattoo on his thigh, a greenish snake eating its tail, and I tried to remember where I had seen it before.

“I wish this could last forever,” I said. I half remembered a name. Rachael. A woman’s name, I thought.

§

Parslow’s flat perched high over city, half a floor of the building, with one wall mostly window looking at the river. Night made London a space-age carnival of lights. He’d thrown the latest boyfriend out. Rachael and I thought blond nine was sane and pleasant. We’d been hopeful.

Parslow and I alone. He was flushed and drunk, he was angry and absurd.

“I know where this is heading,” I said. “I’ve nothing to add. You’re my oldest friend, Paul, but that just isn’t going to happen. And you know it.”

“It could do,” he slurred. “If you’d give it a chance.”

I took the gin bottle off him. “No, I love Rachael and the kids. And, newsflash, you’re a bloke, sorry. Paul, it’s midnight and I’ve run over here to check you’re OK. Not going to do something stupid. You’re my friend. But this is now sick and creepy. Grow up.”

“It just needs time, and no competition,” he said.

“Competition? Christ, after all Rachael did for you!” I said. “You’re like a fucking stalker.”

It was flattering when I was fifteen, but never enough to act on. Now, he did my head in.

“I’ll make coffee,” I said.

I got my thoughts together, and made two strong mug-fulls. He took his one sugar, no milk. Parslow stood by his vivarium, an odd thing in green glass, nearly four feet high. The closed garden was too retro for this modern room, sleek expensive lines with odd geeky touches. Like the old school annuals he collected.

“I’d ask how work is, but I know you’d have to shoot me,” I said. Making him laugh could bring him out of it. Parslow smiled, distracted.

“It’s going really well,” he said, intense. “People will look back on the Bomb, and think it was the Stone Age. Making threats and pointing missiles at each other. Crudest thing you can imagine.”

We always joked about secrecy. No one had a clue what he did.

“You should see someone. I know a guy … highly recommended,” I said. “Relationships and stuff. No bullshit. He helped a good friend at work. Shall I text you his number?”

“Please,” Parslow said. He started to look calmer, less like a bitter teen in a grown-up body. “I’m sorry about the scene, Daniel.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “What are friends for?”

§

It was a bright day in May, and the clocks were striking twelve, the chapel clock and the four chiming timepieces around the study. I’d no idea why I’d been summoned to Dr. Treadwell’s presence. He kept me standing in front of the vivarium while he finished writing a letter, a long one. I remember from Biology, the bottle was a sealed ecosystem.

“The Governors just agreed to expand the school,” he said, out of nowhere. “Significantly more pupils, very shortly. I need a stronger team to lead the boys. I propose to make you Deputy Head Boy immediately. I’ll announce it in chapel tomorrow.”

Wow. I was surprised, and honoured, of course. I said something about being glad I had his confidence.

“Will the school fit them all in?” I said, and he snorted.

“It’s a massively scalable system,” he said, an odd choice of words, like something Parslow said once. Treadwell talked about the challenges, asked me how I thought I could help. Now I was flattered, to be treated almost like an adult. I put my mind to it.

“Sir, I think the older chaps do quite a good job stopping bullying,” I said. “We could do more.”

Treadwell nodded, pleased. “Yes, settling in the little chaps might be worried about that. We’re an effective community, strict but fair. Let’s stay that way. Order,

learning, but time for fun and games too, eh? Let’s really thrash those council boys on Saturday.”

I changed quickly into my whites. The changing room mirror showed my hair was just so. My skin had cleared up and the new razor gave me that clean, manly shave. I’d never say so, but I was pretty handsome. When I left school, I would have no trouble finding a girl. To the nets on this glorious May day. The dandelions burned the same gold yellow as the school crest.

Parslow was bowling, God help them. I waved. There’s a shout. A woman, chic in high heels, held two little kids, one with each hand. She walked as fast as the kids let her, across the turf towards me. It must be slow to walk in heels on grass.

“Danny, Danny, I love you,” she called. She sounded desperate. Something tugged inside, dreams and delusions. Stick to the facts. It’s 1957, I am seventeen, Deputy Head Boy at Dean House, captain of cricket.

Parslow jogged towards me, not towards the woman.

“Let’s go to the woods right now,” he said, pleading. His puppy eyes met mine. I looked at the woman. She was so beautiful, mine, not mine, too old, out of reach. Six of the bigger boys stood round her, tall and strong in their whites. Dean House teaches chivalrous respect for women. The smaller child clung to her, crying. That sadness reached down into me, to my bones, very deep. Somewhere he had a name and it was important. He’d slept in my arms.

“D-d-d … P-p … ” I said. “D-d …” The stutter filled my head. Parslow took my arm, in front of everyone. The Ape held the older boy, who struggled and cried “Dad! Dad!” like it hurt.

“It will be fine if we just walk away,” he said, brown eyes. Parslow, my best friend, the brainbox, my sidekick. He knew what to do.

“Danny!” she screamed, like it was ripped out of her. “Don’t go.” Mrs. Anstruther, a grown woman, another man’s wife. I turned my back and let Parslow lead me away; under the chestnut trees, to our private place in the woods.

I felt pretty down for a long time but in the end Parslow jollied me out of it. He was so excited about my Head Boy news. “You really deserve it,” he said, loyally. Gosh, Parslow’s enthusiasm is a bit much. He did his thing, which was magnificent, and I helped him out in return. Then he lay on my chest, and showed me his watch with his free hand. “Think about a clock,” he said. “It goes round, and yet time goes forward. Once I got that, it was easy.”

I stroked his cheek, and thought how we might win on Saturday. Dr. Treadwell always said these were the best days of our lives. I loved school and I had Parslow to look after me and maybe this was the best day of all.

Stephen Cox lives in London. He’s editing a novel which is repped by Rob Dinsdale of A M Heath. Previous stories include one in Lightspeed and one in the Apiary collection, Tudor Close. He tweets erratically at @stephenwhq.

1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed how this describes environment, weather, social sweat and the briefest of sideway slip-ins that something is temporally wrong, but set against a moral axis, that makes us not quite sure what it is.

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