Holden was only nine the day of the trouble.
It came on like the winter dark.
His mother had patted his head and picked a thread from his collar. The moon sliced silver into the sky’s bruised belly. An old rattler rumbled and hissed to a standstill. Its lights bathed Holden’s freckled face.
The door of the train swung open and the glow from the interior struggled out. Holden watched a heavy foot punish the ground, followed by another. The door sighed shut, strangling the light. Holden felt his mother stiffen.
In the soft gloom, a large boy ducked his head to light a cigarette. He squinted through the smoke. Drums started in Holden’s head. Doom…doom…doom.
The fag end fizzed. The large boy advanced on Holden’s mother and shook her by the hand. He gave Holden a flashing grin. He had eyes shot with light and a way of looking at you that tied your ribs together. His hair was slicked down with so much hair cream it glistened like butter.
Looking down at her, he said, ‘Mrs Rotherington, the Headmaster asked that I escort young Holden here to St Christopher’s. Name’s Archie. I’m the Head Boy. I shouldn’t linger if I were you. He’ll be grand. Don’t you worry. I’ll make sure of it.’
Obediently, Holden’s mother kissed his cheek, turned and crossed the platform, her shadow diminishing in the dying lamplight until she was nothing. The head boy flicked his cigarette to the ground, screwing it dead. His bear hand folded over Holden’s shoulder. The doom, the doom, the doom, the doom drummed in his head.
‘Right-ho, to the fray,’ he said and clicked open the train door. The glow sucked them in and the door groaned shut. The head boy steered Holden to a seat, tossing his tuck-box onto the netted carrier above. The train shunted and the lights flicked, illuminating his face – on, off. On, off. Doom, doom. Doom, doom. The boy closed his giant hand over Holden’s thigh.
‘As Head Boy it is my job to settle you into life at St. Christopher’s, young H. So it would be wise if you do as I say. It’s safest that way.’ He moved his hand away leaving red stripes where his fingers had been, the skin glowing white between.
A fox about the shoulders of the woman in front dead-stared Holden. Outside the darkened fields surrendered slowly to bleak brick and bitumen.
‘St Christopher’s is a fine college, if you know what’s what.’ The large boy leaned in close. Holden smelt a funk of stale tobacco and coffee.
‘There’s things what I can protect you from, boy.’
He leaned back in his seat. Closed his eyes on the weight of his statement, letting it pin Holden down.
‘For a small price, of course.’
His top lip peeled back to reveal his gum.
The train shuddered along its tracks. Doom, doom. Doom, doom. Great grey cubes of concrete slid by the window. The sky was weak with fog.
‘Let me tell you a bit about life at St. Christopher’s. Well, there’s Captain Hardedge,’ he said, ‘you’ll have him for Sports. Now, I happen to get on swimmingly with the old orange-moustached twig. He thinks me tops, given I won us the Rugby pennant last year. However, if he takes a dislike to you, well…’
The head boy curled his arm around Holden’s neck, forcing his head deep into his sweaty pit.
‘He likes to brand new boys with the end of his cigar. Holds it to their buttocks until they stop screaming.’
He pulled a cigarette from his pocket. A match flared between them. DOOM! His face lit up like Hell’s gargoyle. The fag end fizzed. Holden felt the world crack.
‘And then there’s Matron. She and the Headmaster are ever so close. They both relish any opportunity to bring out the cane for a bit of one, two, whacky-roo.’ He smacked hard the seat between them. Holden felt his ribs double-knot.
‘I have no trouble with Matron, though. Not since I opened the door to the Sick Room and saw her trying to extract something from the Headmaster’s tooth. Very delicate operation it was too. At least that’s what Matron said.’
He crushed the cigarette into the seat in front. It smelt like burnt dog. The concrete cubes outside shouldered in on each other.
‘There’s a chap in my dorm called Tweedie. Unfortunate fellow with a bit of a sinus problem. Snores like the billy-oh. One night I looked up from my pillow to see Matron standing in the light from the corridor. Quite a sight she was too. She has the most frighteningly enormous bosom. Like a battering ram, or maybe a couple of high-explosive bombs.’
He bared his gums at Holden, delighted at his own joke.
‘Tweedie’s snoring away like a pig suckling his mammy and Matron says to no-one in particular, “Snoring is a disgusting habit. Only the lower classes do it. We shall have to teach him a lesson.” I could barely contain myself with the excitement of what delicious horror she was contemplating.
She didn’t switch on the light, but like a great battle ship, advanced silently into the room. She pulled a small box of bicarb of soda from her skirt pocket; from her other pocket, a bottle of vinegar. I didn’t dare sit up in bed, but I couldn’t take my eyes of her.’
His light-shot eyes stared hard at Holden.
‘Matron always carries bicarb and vinegar with her. She says it’s best for removing gruesome boy germs.’
The train shunted over an intersection – doom, doom – and the lights flicked nervously. Outside the moon lit meanly the strangling fog.
‘Tweedie pig-grunted and Matron went right on over to where he lay, and you wouldn’t believe it, she very carefully dropped the bicarb into his gob. She had a whole handful of it. I thought she was never going to stop. Then she opened the bottle of vinegar and poured it right in on top. I wondered if our poor chap Tweedie would actually choke and die.’
The dead-eyed fox wagged his vacant head.
‘But nothing happened. Tweedie kept right on snoring.
The large boy clapped his paw around Holden’s head, covering his face with its sweaty expanse, ‘…he began to gurgle. White bubbles dribbled from his lips. He looked like a rabid dog.’
The large boy gummed at the memory. Doom…doom…doom hammered in Holden’s head. Veins embossed his neck.
‘The bubbles grew and grew until the wretched boy’s whole face seemed to be smothered in a bubbly, foaming, white froth. It was a terrifically horrific sight.’
His eyes lit up like someone had put a penny in him. His giant hand was rammed against Holden’s nose and mouth. Holden’s ears filled with milky noise and his ribs knitted together. Outside the pea soup thickened.
‘Then all at once Tweedie gave a great cough and a splutter and shot up in bed clawing at his face.’
The boy let Holden go. He fell forward, gulping in chunks of air like a ravenous baby bird. The doom thundered in his ears.
‘Now, apart from me as Head Boy,’ he went on, ‘you are also answerable to the Prefects. At St. Christopher’s we call them Frighteners. Now, a Frightener is entitled to give a Junior Boy a right royal thrashing should they find need to. They’re all terribly good at it, but there is one particular Frightener, Bottomley, who is really the most tippity-top – swift and accurate. His work is much admired.’
He leant back and closed his eyes on the thought. The lights flicked his face on, off. On, off. Holden tried not to think about his mother.
‘One unfortunate sod was on the receiving end just this morning. Bottomley had asked him to warm the bog seat and the silly boy clean forgot. Four of the best he got for it. Cracking performance it was too. Ha ha!’
The boy leaned in, grabbing Holden’s forearm and twisting it in a Chinese burn with his huge hands.
‘Extraordinary accuracy with a cane.’ Twist.
‘In the same place.’ Twiiissst.
‘Couldn’t tell he’d had more than one.’ Twist. Twist. Twist.
Doom. Doom. Doom.
‘Stopped just short of blood. Bit of a shame, that.’
He released his torture.
‘He’s a terrific eye, that Bottomley. Why he’s the cricket captain.’
Holden’s arm flamed red. His heart drummed at his ribs like a caged beast.
‘Then just to make sure the poor blighter got the message, Bottomley sent him and his raging bottom off to warm the bog seat. You could hear him howling from the dorm.’
The trouble caught hold. Holden knew it would take years to shake loose. A red stripe of mercury climbed inside him. The double knot pulled tighter. Pea soup swallowed over the train.
‘I suppose I should tell you about Headmaster Fitz.’
The boy clamped a cigarette between his teeth. A match flamed between them. Hell’s gargoyle.
‘He likes a good thrashing, no doubt about it. But he saves up a very special form of torture for the Junior Boys.’
He took a deep drag, squinting at Holden through the veil of smoke.
‘Young Wordsworth copped it last term. Caught cheating, he was. Or so Hardedge said. Sent straight to the Headmaster. Well, old Fitz hates a cheat. So, to make an example of him…’
He grabbed Holden’s hand and slammed it flat on the seat between them.
‘He stapled his hand to the desk. He then began to fill his pipe and lecture young Worthless about sin and wrong-doing.’
The boy crushed the top of Holden’s hand with his bear knuckles.
‘After a bit, Fitz picked up the stapler again and cracked it down on Worthless’s hand. Then the pipe-filling and lecture business went on before a third snap of the stapler. Ten staples in the end.’
He gummed at the gruesome thought, inspecting his own fine punishment of Holden’s hand.
‘Left him stapled to the desk for a good hour before yanking his hand free and sending him off to Matron to be cleaned up.’
The train hammered to a halt. A bleakly lit station welcomed it. The large boy folded out of his seat, pulling down the tuck-box and hoisting Holden to his feet.
‘Right-ho then, to the fray.’
His gums mocked Holden. ‘I’ll be keeping the tuck-box. As payment. For the handy tips.’
He propelled Holden to the door. Light spilled weakly onto the platform. A tall figure stepped forward from the fog, hand outstretched.
‘Evening Headmaster,’ said the large boy, ‘this here is young Holden. Delivered safe and sound.’
The Headmaster shook Holden’s hand. ‘Jolly good to meet you, lad. I trust you had a pleasant journey. Bearseley here is a fine example of St. Christopher’s. You could do worse than be looked after by him.’
The drums beat hard in Holden’s head. The doom. The doom. The doom. The thin red stripe of mercury climbed higher.
The Headmaster gripped Holden’s hand, inspecting it carefully. He held it flat against his own. And then…SNAP!
He cracked his hand on top.
Holden felt warmth invade his shorts.