The knot in David’s stomach had been there for days on and off, but for the past two or three hours it had grown to a state of permanent and unavoidable presence. Nothing Pat or Richard said would shift it. His mum tried to make him feel better by saying how soon it would be before they would see him on a visit. His dad was impressed by the architecture of the school and tried to encourage him to see it too. Nothing helped. All there was to do was to pretend to be brave and he wasn’t doing that very well.
The morning had started early. They had to be two hours away in Horsham by noon and the car had to be packed. A typed list sent from the school four weeks earlier made it clear what was and what wasn’t allowed. Most of his favourite stuff had to stay at home. The drive had been uncomfortable with his father talking about how proud he was and what a good opportunity it would be and what a great school it was. His mum kept quiet and David felt her anxiety. His brother and sister, stiff in their best clothes sat alongside him in the back of the Rover, making occasional comments to pass the time. ‘I spy’ was tried without any enthusiasm. They were all mostly silent with their own thoughts.
The first impression as they drove through the ornate iron gates to the school was of a long country house drive with red brick houses either side. It felt very different from the photos David had seen in the brochure. It felt hard and cruel in the September sun. They drove slowly, wide-eyed faces peering nervously from the car windows, following the signs put out to direct new parents. Various cars had recently arrived and David saw other worried-looking boys arriving with their families. Once parked more signs directed them to a big hall overlooking a grassed quadrangle, a chapel on one side and another big hall opposite. Cloisters ran along two sides and as the family walked silently along one they passed notice boards giving information about school activities, lists of rugby teams and faded notices. A silent wait as they gazed around the hall with plaques dedicated to famous old blues as old boys of the school were called. They listened with all the other families to a speech by the Headmaster, a small, unsmiling, owl-faced man with a Cambridge gown who then directed the new boys to their various houses where it was expected that they should attend to matron’s office for uniform fitting. The parents and families were free to wander around the school while this happened.
For David the next hour was a strange and worrying experience. Suddenly and unexpectedly split from their parents, David and three other boys found their way to their allocated House and once there were directed to Matron’s office. The old woman was fat and unsmiling. Fitting the uniform meant David had to strip to his underpants in front of her as she tried on various sizes. Matron’s gaze frightened him and even though he had known about it, he hated the uniform from the start. Through his last years at Primary he had been looking forward to wearing long trousers, but what he had been given to wear today was a pair of thick wool breeches with silvered buttons just below the knee, long bright yellow wool socks, a shirt stiff with starch, clerical bands at the collar which had to be fastened with two safety pins and to top it all a heavy dark blue wool coat reaching to the floor with silver buttons down the front and a leather hip belt. It all felt heavy and itchy and alien. From the time he had put it on and was passed as fit by Matron, he knew this was for real. The reality at that moment was that this was his new life, this discomfort in a place with no warmth, no friendliness, no understanding of what was going on inside his head.
Meeting up again with his family dressed like this was difficult for them all. Surely they could see how much he hated it? Nothing was said though and almost without any more discussion it was time for them to part. Goodbyes were awkward and dreadful but nothing more was said.
David watched as the Rover disappeared back down the drive. It would soon be teatime and uniformed boys were gathering in the House Day room. David had unpacked his trunk and put the box of Quality Street, Miss Heathcott’s gift to him, in his locker. He crept into the dayroom. In one corner a group of boys were listening to a radio. They ignored him. Pop music David didn’t like. He was feeling desperate. He fetched the Quality Street, opened it and offered the tin to one of the boys.
‘You don’t offer us sweets. You don’t talk to us.’ The boy sneered and turned away, laughing at the squit’s audacity.
Life would never be the same again for David and he knew it at that moment. His past life was forced to fade into distant memory by the sharp pain of rejection. Instantly he was on guard, ready for the next assault. It wouldn’t be long in coming as the Christ’s Hospital bell rang for tea.
All the best from a road near you,