My schooldays were not the happiest of my life. They were never a privilege, always an ordeal; a daily fear in my chest that was great, not small. I can see us now, huddled at our desks in windswept rooms, damp and cold. It felt like perpetual winter; the candles guttered by draughts as we carved our names, our hopes, our dreams into dark, old, unloved wood. I remember the dormitories at night, the hands straying beneath the sheets, eager for our first juvenile spendings. And the ice in the trough at wash-time, the bad food, the bad smells, the evil stick, the interminable Latin and Greek, mumbled like chanting at a witches’ sabbat.
Yet I’d scratch away with my goose-quill, doing all that was asked and more – always more, because it was in me to do it. As it was to leap-frog in the muddy yard, play hide-and-seek with the blind boy Johnson, who could never find us, though he tried and tried, strayed so far that he walked straight over the crags at the edge of the school grounds and left his brains on the rocks below. I scrambled down to take a look, to dip my handkerchief in the matted mess. I keep it to this day – as a penitential reminder that I, as a child – like most children – was heartless and cruel.
Ours was a provincial academy, owned and run by the cod-faced thrasher, Dr Curt, who bared our buttocks on the flimsiest pretence. Heavy-breathed, bronchial-coughed, round eyes ever bulging, convinced of endless wrongs; wrong on every count of misdemeanour he charged us with save our frigging in the dark. It was our little bit of schoolboy lust, our warmth, our snugness; most of all it was our comfort, our reassurance and protection, our surrogate love that kept us sane.
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