Special Friendships - English Fashion Part 1
by N Fourbois
September had arrived and with it the new school year at Buckton College. Fortunately the long warm summer was continuing without any hint of autumn yet. Buckton College, an independent boarding school deep in the Herefordshire countryside, had not yet yielded to the fashionable temptation, nor had it found any need, to introduce girls to its traditional way of life. Indeed, that it was one of the last few male bastions remaining in the English school system appeared to work in its favour for there was no shortage of names on its waiting-list. The School conducted a happy régime which successfully sought to extend with mutual respect the academic, cultural, sporting and general abilities of its pupils with an enlightened Christian background. It possessed its own chapel and Chaplain. Despite its conservative ethos it was by no means the backwater one might assume from its geographical location, but was embracing the best of the twenty-first century. If you were discontented here, you were probably discontented with any form of school life, unless you were seeking co-education, which was the occasional cause of losing boys between the fifth and sixth form. So confident was the School in itself that no one was retained against their will and their place was soon filled with a boy of a more suitable disposition. The foregoing might sound like the preamble to a lesser school's prospectus. The difference here is that there was no necessity to put it into the prospectus, and what is more it was true.
The College was well-endowed - everything at Buckton was well-endowed - which meant that its clientele stemmed not only from the unquestionably rich, but also from the not so well-off who could benefit from the education provided. Because of the high regard in which the School was held by both present and former pupils it was supported by a large, active and generous Society of Old Boys whose only wish was the continuation of the success and happiness they had experienced in their own days between the age of thirteen and nineteen. In their wisdom the Old Boys had rarely provided the School with direct contributions of money, but had over the years built up such a portfolio of investments in shares, land and property that these provided the material contributions that boosted the standards of the School. Certainly the Old Boys had won the right of two places on the Governing Body, but so effective was the management of the establishment that they never needed to dabble in politics, although the extent of their financial backing was such that if the case should ever arise their power would easily force the necessary touch on the tiller. The Old Boys also took a very keen interest in the rare occasions a Headmaster was appointed, and perhaps it was no coincidence that the present one was himself an old Bucktonian, albeit one who had first made a name for himself in the world before closing the circle on his career.
Under his leadership a five-year building plan had reached the third year stage and during the summer holidays six new boarding houses spread throughout the extensive grounds had been completed. The old ones nearer the main school buildings had already been demolished and the ground cleared. The next stage was to build the new sports hall and school hall with a theatre and so in the meantime the school's population would soldier on with the old facilities. Consequently the three hundred and seven pupils would be returning each to his own study bedroom, previously the privilege of the sixth form. The new sixth form privilege was to have en suite rooms. The downside of the School was temporary, namely that it resembled a building-site, but the inhabitants of the College were prepared, as they had been for three years, to tolerate that for the improvements to come.
Still, enough of the physical description. A school is made up of people, not buildings, and it is the people who will interest us.
It was the day before term started officially. Our tale begins in Paxford House. The school coach had just drawn up with a contingent that had arrived at the local station by train. Others had been brought by their adoring parents, anxious to spend those last precious minutes before being exiled from their loved ones and having to return home. They could meet Mr Dalton, the Housemaster, his wife and the other House staff over tea, and impress upon them the personal needs of their own offspring. Marc had returned the previous day at the request of Mr Dalton. Three weeks earlier he had received the results of his GCSEs, an in no way modest achievement, but particularly pleasing were the A* grades in his chosen A-level subjects which would bring him into even closer contact with Mr Bell, the Deputy Housemaster in Paxford. Under Mr Bell's benign influence over the past three years Marc's interests, both academic and extracurricular, had developed. In fact Mr Bell was the first member of staff Marc would turn to whenever he was in need of help and something had gelled between them from the very first term which worked to the benefit of all they had contact with and enriched and brought out the best in both of them. Marc's exam results had become his ticket into the Sixth Form. There was no automatic promotion. At Buckton you qualified, repeated or left.
Mr Dalton had asked Marc and his previous room-mate Tom Grey to be House mentors. A mentor was not a prefect. That was a School appointment which came in the Upper Sixth and had to be earnt. All the twenty-odd sixth formers took responsibilities in running the House, but a mentor was appointed to help the younger boys settle in and in return gave freedom from some of the more tedious house-duties. Appointed in the Lower Sixth they could keep a distant eye on their responsibilities for two years before leaving and the system had been so successful that it often led to lifetime friendships.
It was all hands on deck. Mr and Mrs Dalton were hosting parents and sons to tea and Marc was helping the House staff to entertain and talk to the families. He was enjoying talking to one set of parents in particular. Their son had escaped momentarily. Father was himself an Old Bucktonian and was regaling Marc with stories of his schooldays. As he had been a member of Paxford House it was natural that Sebastian, his son, should find a place there, too. Marc was impressed with how normal they sounded, no airs and graces, and how supportive of the School they were. He told them of his new rôle of mentor and that he would be in charge of a group of new boys.
"So they still have that system," said the father. "In my day that helped you to feel part of the place from the first week."
"If Sebastian is half as happy as his father was, we shall have nothing to worry about." Marc passed on with his tray of petits fours.
Tea over and the parents gone Tom, the other mentor, took the guided tour of the house and the school. The two mentors would not find out who their particular charges were until the following evening. Marc's time was now his own until House Prayers when Mr Dalton would formally welcome everyone back. He bumped into Mr Bell in the corridor who congratulated him heartily on his exam results. Marc had missed Mr Bell over the nine weeks of summer holiday and Mr Bell's mutual feelings were not even thinly disguised.
"Come up for a cup of cocoa before bedtime, Marc," he said. "Tell me about your summer. Now you're a sixth former, it might even be something stronger," and he patted him on the shoulder in a semi-hug. Marc returned to his brand new single en suite study to agonise over the arrangements on his poster boards.
The rest of the day passed as any day prior to the beginning of term. Marc was not on duty, so he could please himself. He put his head round the door of the sixth form common room and joined the gathering where they were chatting about their holidays and exam results. Supper was a noisy affair. The whole School ate collectively cafeteria style in the dining hall. It gave Marc a chance to meet his friends from the other houses. There was no atmosphere of isolationism and the boys were free to associate with whomever they wanted during their own time. In fact, in the warmer months there would be much toing and froing between the boarding houses, though that might not be so frequent with the new buildings, which meant farther to walk. It was dark by eight oclock, the time for House Prayers.
The first time that the House was assembled in its entirety was at Prayers and this was held sacrosanct as an occasion not to be missed without an exceptional reason. Prayers were at eight in all of the houses for that very reason. They were held in the Junior Common Room, known as the Day Room, which meant they were rather cramped even in the new accommodation. Mr and Mrs Dalton were there, of course, as well as Mr Bell and the assistant housemasters. Marc sat with Tom squeezed onto a sofa in the corner. After prayers had been said, Mr Dalton gave his talk, welcoming the new members of the House, welcoming back the old hands and enquiring whether there were any problems still to be sorted, and of course the need to respect the fabric of the new building. Marc was in a dream. He jumped when he heard his name mentioned. Mr Dalton was congratulating those with particularly creditable examination certificates. Brought back to planet Earth and after he had acknowledged the applause he realised he had been staring, not into space, but at one of the new boys sat in the centre of the room. He was blond, slim without being skinny, with a lot of character in his face. Marc had especially been taken by the boy's blue eyes. He blushed when he realised what he had been doing, but that blush was taken as modesty for the praise he had received for his results. He thought no more about it at the time. Prayers drew to their conclusion and Marc went across to Mr Bell to enquire what time he should come for his cocoa.
"Give me until nine. Mr Dalton just wants a word with us and I should be free by then."
The new house had been built in two wings. The staff accommodation and ancillary areas took up two floors in the smaller east wing, while the larger west wing housed the boys' facilities, the junior common room and library on the ground floor, the games room in the basement, while the sixth formers had their own common room on the top floor. The en suite rooms had been dotted around the building at the end of corridors which resulted in closer supervision by the senior boys, while the Head of House's room reigned supreme on the top floor, slightly bigger than the others. Marc's room was at the end of the third form corridor with Tom's opposite, so he was not isolated.
Just after nine Marc made his way down to Mr Bell's study. As Deputy Housemaster he had a large study which acted as his sitting room, and a bedroom again with en suite facilities. A fire door led from his corridor to the Daltons' apartment, but it had been agreed that this was an emergency door as the Daltons had their private staircase. The other rooms on that corridor were used as guest rooms or for the case when an assistant housemaster needed to sleep in instead of in his outhouse accommodation. The accommodation for staff at Buckton College was generous by normal standards, but it was policy once you had passed a strict probationary year to look after the staff.
Marc knocked his special knock and on the command "Come in!" entered.
"Come in, Marc," Mr Bell repeated. "I have missed you this last couple of months and whisky was a poor substitute. A glass of sherry to celebrate your exam results?"
"So this is what the sixth form is about," thought Marc.
"Tell me about your summer, where youve been and what you have been doing and reading." Marc talked about Switzerland with the family and CCF camp. The CCF was strong at Buckton despite being voluntary. And after three years of German he had attempted to read his first German novel. It had been hard going, but he had succeeded. Mr Bell told him about his own holiday and the time passed quickly as they chatted and joked together. "Come on, Marc, time you were making for bed, sixth former or not." Marc said good night, thanked Mr Bell for the sherry and with a cosy glow coursing through his body disappeared back to his own room.
It was surprisingly quiet in the house. Marc met no one on the way. He simply went into his room, got ready for bed and slipped underneath the duvet. Instead of falling asleep immediately he went over the day in his mind. The morning had been uneventful for there had been hardly anyone about. The afternoon became busy with the return of the other boys and then his mind dwelt on Prayers, on the little blond new boy. What was it about him? Had he noticed? What was his name? He certainly knew about the adolescent crushes boys had, either on other boys or occasionally on young masters - rôle models as the jargon would have it. Was this why he got on so well with Mr Bell? But he just liked his company. He had never stared at him or felt attracted to him. Eventually the heaviness behind his eyes overcame him and suddenly the alarm was going for seven oclock.
It was light and there was already activity about the house. Marc's first proper day as a sixth former. They probably would not have any lessons as such, though - Beginning of Term Service, Headmaster's Assembly, admin, timetable, induction, meetings, then after lunch games. It was an easy start for the new sixth formers. The old hands in the Upper Sixth covered all the duties to make sure that the term got off to a smooth start. It would be a week at least before he had any claims on his free time, with one exception. That evening after Prayers he would find out and meet the new boys he was due to mentor. At first sight last night they had seemed a pretty average bunch, normal thirteen year old boys, perhaps a little nervous in their new surroundings though none would probably admit it.
Breakfast at eight, back to the House, then Chapel at nine. No difficulty there. The House was sent across to Chapel at a quarter to nine. Marc walked over with his chum Tom. In front of them was Jackman. Jackman could in no way be described as a typical Bucktonian. He was now in the fourth form and after a year he still had no real friends, liaisons yes, friends no. It was a sign of the general esteem in which he was universally held that he was always called by his surname - Jackman.
In the close community of Buckton College boys were usually known by their Christian names or nicknames, but although several denigrating names might apply and were indeed used as terms of abuse, none had stuck. Indeed, if asked, I doubt if half of the boys in the House knew his Christian name (it was Michael), but they did know he was to be avoided. He could not help adolescence, but neither could the others of that age. His adolescence just served to contribute to his general unsavouriness. Although new, his school clothes were already ill-fitting and bedraggled. Other boys went to the doctor for their acne, he co-existed with his, intensified by the bumfluff on his almost fifteen year old face which just added to the local infection, for he either couldn't or wouldn't shave it off. Most of the school had never heard of, let alone seen boils until they met Jackman. His hair was long, black, straight and perpetually greasy. To him head and shoulders were literally what they were, a place to sport one's dandruff, but never fore-ordained to be combined into the brand name of a shampoo. The boys were issued with a clean handkerchief each day, but his were never seen in public. He walked with a stoop and his eyes stared from slits, but they were lecherous eyes matched only by his lecherous hands if you were unlucky enough to be too close to him. Consequently his liaisons were mainly with boys from other houses. If anyone could wimp out of games, it was Jackman, which alone heaped the disdain of the others on him. The most positive aspect about him was that he symbolised the general tolerance of the College for he was largely left alone even though he did not reciprocate that courtesy.
Marc shuddered involuntarily. His whole being went into defensive mode whenever he saw Jackman. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and he experienced an inner feeling of revulsion. Marc was one of nature's marvels. Just under six feet tall he had been blessed with a perfect physique and he knew it. His good-looking open face was crowned with shining brunette, almost black hair, parted in the middle, neither excessively short nor by any stretch of the imagination long. He had had to shave since the fourth form, but consequently the skin on his healthy and ruddy face was smooth and supple. Slim to begin with he had developed a natural sixpack which from his early adolescence onwards he had sought to cultivate. He was a graceful sportsman and while not outstanding in the sense of national potential could easily hold his own in the School rugby and cricket teams and most certainly on the tennis court and at the swimming gala. His friend Tom reacted similarly to the dreadful Jackman.
"Morning, Jackman. Remind me tonight to show you where the showers are." Marc was not usually that forthright, but Jackman was the exception that proved the rule. Jackman grunted in return and stared at Marcs trousers. Marc buttoned up his jacket and with Tom overtook him.
Uniform was liberal at Buckton. For school you had to wear a school tie of one variety or another with conventional shirt, jacket and trousers. You needed a dark lounge suit for formal occasions. Most boys wore a sports jacket and grey trousers. Marc and Tom as sixth formers were wearing blazers, but this was more a convention than a rule. The tradition of tolerance and freedom at Buckton could only exist alongside the positive spirit of its pupils towards their School. This attitude was handed down from generation to generation on trust and should any boy exceed the bounds he was quickly admonished, usually by his peers or older boys, but on the rare occasions the School was abused, retribution from the top was swift and it was clearly shown that there was indeed a power in the land. Every pupil knew there was too much at stake for the individual and the community and so the community had become largely self-regulating. This did not make the boys angels. They were as fun-loving as any of their age and there were plenty of high jinks, but everyone knew the bounds of acceptability.
The two pals went into chapel. Inside it was set out like a cathedral choir with raised wooden pews along the sides facing inwards. Sixth formers sat in the back row while the years graduated down to the youngest at the front. Marc sat there admiring the pillars and the vaulting. The Headmaster entered, everyone stood and after the opening prayer the Chaplain announced the hymn, "Lord, receive us with thy blessing, once again assembled here." Such hymns were anchor points in the school year and Marc had come to love them. They provided a form of security. The School sang heartily and then sat down to listen to the Chaplain's address. Marc, however, was not listening. He had been distracted, for opposite him in the front row was sitting the little blond boy, the one that had taken his attention the previous evening at Prayers. He was sitting modestly in his pew, eyes lowered, intent as only new boys can be on what was being said. Marc blushed. "Thank goodness he hasnt noticed," thought Marc. He pulled himself together and tried to listen. However, the harder he tried the more he found his eyes wandering across towards the boy, not to stare at him, but to see whether the boy had noticed his staring, which would have been self-defeating apart from the fact that every time he looked the boy was sitting there modestly with his eyes lowered. So why had he blushed?
To Marc it had been one of the shortest sermons ever. Prayers for the new term were said, another hymn sung and the boys filed out to go to the School Hall for the Headmasters assembly. Marc was back in the normal world and in full control of himself. In fact he had forgotten what had happened in Chapel and suddenly found himself fully in the limelight as it was his turn to be called out onto the stage for congratulation by Mr Stainbridge, the Headmaster himself, for his public examination results. What he did not notice, however, was that every one of his steps was being followed by a little blond boy, a new boy in the third form seated near the front, and it was right that he shouldn't notice, for he might also have noticed farther back another pair of eyes, slit-shaped and surrounded by pustules, for the second time that day directed towards the curve of his trousers.
The rest of the day at school passed largely according to expectations. The games lesson in the afternoon was hard, the first one of the season always was. What was worse, the rugby balls were laid out, but not one was touched all afternoon - a psychological con, the carrot dangled as opposed to the stick for fitness training. Marc tried his hardest. It was a fortnight until the first matches. Marc was assured of a place, but in which team? He would have been disappointed if it had been in the 3rds, or even the 2nds, but being in the lower sixth there was hard competition for a place in the 1sts from the year above. Marc was lucky. He tackled well and had played both wing forward and centre in junior teams. When push came to shove he had filled in on the wing and at full back. Marc trained hard that afternoon, single-mindedly. At one stage he had to retire to deposit his light lunch on the edge of the field. It was no consolation that he was not the only one, but he went off for a drink of water to rinse his mouth and prevent dehydration on this hot afternoon and joined back in as heartily as he had done before. To finish the session off they were taken to the swimming pool. They showered off the dirt, plunged into the bath for six lengths and were then in their own time. Marc and his mates chased and bombed one another for ten minutes and got out. They showered off the chlorinated water, changed into tracksuits and took their kit back to the House. Although he now had his own en suite facilities, they only included a shower and he would have to use the general amenities in order to soak away the stiffness that was setting in in a bathtub. He lay back in the hot Radox water and promptly fell asleep to be woken up by a banging on the door and a frustrated enquiry as to how much longer he would be. Feeling much better he pulled the plug, dried himself, let in the waiting fifth former and returned to his room to get dressed into casual clothes for the rest of the day.
Chatting with the lads in the sixth form common room (they were as knackered from rugby training as he was), supper, Prayers. Conscious of the previous evening and this morning Marc made sure he sat where he could not see the little blond third former. He still did not even know his name. He would soon get to know them all. After Prayers Mr Dalton asked Marc and Tom to stay behind while he talked to the new members of the House. They would be introduced as the mentors and told the names of the five they would each be looking after. With the blessing of the Housemaster they would then take them off for cocoa and biscuits to get to know them. As the House was dismissed Marc felt his hair being slightly ruffled. He took no notice or rather he refused to take any notice for he feared it could be Jackman up to one of his tSebs, although, just a minute, he could see him over the other side of the room. He felt relieved and still, in that throng, it could be anybody, either by design or accident, and so he thought no more about it.
Mr Dalton read out the names. "The first five will be under the care of Tom Grey," and he listed the five. "The remaining five will be with Marc," and to make sure, he read their names out too. The third formers murmured amongst themselves, Tom looked at Marc, Marc looked at Tom. They were ready to go. Mr Dalton said "Over to you Tom and Marc, now," and wished them good night. "Right," said Tom, "youll be coming to our rooms, but we need some help carrying the stuff upstairs." They took the group to the kitchen and loaded them up with what Mrs Dalton had ready for them and off they marched like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, ignoring Jackman as he leered at the ten.
As each group followed their leader into their respective sixth form study-bedrooms, Marc immediately noticed that the little blond third former with the smile and the sparkling blue eyes was not part of the crocodile behind him. He honestly did not know whether to be relieved or disappointed, such was the feeling of confusion in his mind. They reached his room, entered and they all settled down. Marc set about pouring the cocoa and got one of the others to deal with the biscuits. He handed round the mugs and only then did he notice he had one spare.
"Seb," came the reply. Marc looked at his list.
"That must be Sebastian. Am I right? Could one of you go and look for him?" But it was not necessary for there came a knock at the door and a face peered round. It was as if time stood still. To Marc the hubble bubble in the room became inaudible and in a few seconds which to him seemed an eternity his jaw dropped, he felt his face go hot, his heart palpitate and he nearly dropped his mug of cocoa. The face at the door looked worried, but the moment he saw who his host was it blushed, gave a most engaging smile and its eyes twinkling enquired "Are you Marc?" The voice hauled Marc out of his suspended animation. It was a broken voice, well spoken, one with that coarseness of adolescence before it finds its eventual pitch. The spell broken Marc said, "Come on in," and looking at his piece of paper said 'You must be Sebastian." "Yes, Im called Seb by my friends. Only my parents call me Sebastian."
"Then Seb you shall be."
"Sorry Im late. Mrs Dalton wanted a word and then I went to the wrong room and Im to give you these," he said handing over another packet of biscuits.
The speed of his little speech displayed a certain nervousness, his body language by way of contrast a certain confidence. Marc's mind was in whirl. It had not occurred to him that he would be looking after this blond boy who had so taken his attention. On the other hand he knew absolutely nothing of the effect that he had had on Seb over the past day and a bit. He did know how Jackman's presence affected him, how he could feel his presence even when he had not even seen or heard him. Seb seemed to have a similar effect, but with this difference, that he enjoyed his presence and he felt his heart and his mood lightened by it. It was all a new experience for him. The tape sped up, the sound switched in again and Marc was back in the real world. But had he ever left it, even momentarily?
"Well, wed better get to know one another," said Marc once everyone had been provided for. "I know Seb. Who are the rest of you?" Daniel, Ian, Rob and Ben. Marc got them to introduce themselves, to talk about their interests, their first impressions of Buckton, why they had come there, about the schools they had come from and finally Marc talked a little more about the School and the House and ended up with what he viewed his job as mentor to be and how useful his own mentor had been when he first arrived at Buckton. He looked at his alarm clock and saw that it was already past the juniors' bedtime and although they wanted to keep chatting in the end he was firm and sent them off along with all the things that had to go down to the kitchen.
He lay back on his bed and thought what a nice bunch he had. "I pity Dave Lane with that creature Jackman." Dave was in the upper sixth now and mentoring the fourth form. "Im getting obsessed with Jackman," and he shuddered saying "Ough". He didnt yet know it. He was indeed becoming obsessed, but it wasn't with Jackman. There was a knock at the door and expecting it to be Tom coming to compare notes he shouted "Come". It wasnt Tom. It was Seb in dressing gown. His heart thumped and a feeling of well-being coursed through Marcs veins.
"I think I left my rough book here. Its got my timetable in." It had slipped under the chair Seb had been sitting in. He picked it up.
"Youd better be off to bed or youll be in trouble." It was Marc who felt delightfully in trouble. "Have a good day tomorrow and if you want to know anything Im here to help. Remember that," said Marc wishing Seb would want to know a lot of things.
Seb said good night and smiled that smile that made his own eyes twinkle and Marc's heart soar. Marc did not know what was happening to him. He was interested in a distant way, but not worried in the least. He got up off his back, went across to Tom's room and after another mug of cocoa and an exchange of their mentoring experiences went off to relax in front of some television.
Marc went to bed and as he lay there mulled over the events of the day in his mind. He felt good, at peace with himself despite his strange behaviour and thought he was in for a good term. Work tomorrow. Then he remembered the parents, the Old Boy and his wife he had been talking to at tea the previous day, and at that he dozed off.
Seven o'clock the alarm rang. Marc rose, showered and dressed. He liked routine. Buckton College encouraged routine seemingly without imposing it. Breakfast with his fellow sixth formers, get ready for school, Chapel, lessons. He was looking forward to starting his A-levels after a taster session in the Summer Term when his GCSEs were finished. He was sure he wanted to take languages, Latin, French and German, particularly German with Mr Bell. He had asked Mr Bell to present him at his confirmation. His parents had unfortunately been abroad at the time of the School confirmation in the fourth form and with their blessing Mr Bell filled the gap and Marc now looked upon him as an ersatz godfather. Although he respected the formality of the School system and avoided familiarity, it was his wish that once he had left Buckton Mr Bell might become a family friend and that they would remain in contact. Mr Bell had this gift of lifting him on those rare occasions he felt low. Equally he could rein him in when the opposite occurred. Hide it as he might try, Mr Bell could not disguise his admiration for Marc who, he felt, had everything going for him, intellectually, physically and socially. He felt Marc could have been the son he had never had. In its values Buckton was still one of those old-fashioned public schools that provided the home and family life for its bachelor masters and in gratitude for lifelong service it would provide practical support and assistance in retirement if so required.
Tim had finally reached Chapel after waiting for Tom and Doug to get themselves ready. He was sitting in what would be his normal seat for the rest of term, if not for the rest of the school year, and so he was not surprised to see sat in the opposite pews Seb. Not only did he seem to stand out from those around, as if a spotlight were falling on him, but he was staring at Marc, just as if he had been waiting for him. Marc didnt know what to do. He certainly did not want to ignore him. After all it was only a reversal of rôles from the previous two days and Marc had liked him from their first formal introduction last night, but on the other hand a sixth former had a certain personal dignity even in these enlightened days and the thought of Jackman's distasteful habits shot through his mind. End up like him? Oh no! Again the time warp had come in. What seemed like five minutes to Marc was but seconds in the real world and when his eyes unglazed he found that he had been staring back, an acknowledgement in itself. His eyes, however, re-focussed in time to see Seb smile and with the smile his blue eyes twinkled. Marc smiled back and nodded. Honour was satisfied. The Headmaster entered, the School stood and Chapel proceeded.
The first German lesson with Mr Bell was an outline of the course. Marc was one of eight in the class, smaller than the average A-level class at Buckton, but average for a subject which from the third form upwards was an option. They would take the literature component and the first book they were to read was Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger. Marc had yet to discover the irony of this choice which would lay his heart bare in the pursuit of intellectual excellence as he probed other works by Mann and came to terms with his biography. Fortunately he shared his two modern language classes with his old friend Tom who had opted for history as his third A-level, and so he would have a sounding board for the ideas his reading provoked within him. To begin with he found Tonio Kröger hard going, but a translation was permitted under the proviso that they did not read ahead and spoil the story. In any case he would be spurred on once he discovered that the eponymous hero bore certain characteristics of his own developing situation. The bell ended the double period and the class left for morning break.
Except during inclement weather the boys of Buckton College were encouraged to spend their breaks in the fresh air. Providing they kept off the 1st team's rugby and cricket pitches they had the freedom of the playing fields. The library was open and most popular during the colder days of winter or there was the tuck shop run by Mrs Miggins, the Head Caretaker's wife, and her helpers. The sixth formers naturally had the privilege of remaining in the Sixth Form Centre which had a comfortable common room away from the study areas, but three years of the healthy outdoors had persuaded even them of the benefits of being outside.
Meanwhile in and outside the tuck shop the younger boys were jostling with one another as they moved up the queue. Seb and Daniel had just had their first three lessons at Buckton. Maths, R S and English. They had met first in the house corridor and got chatting. At their previous schools they had both played rugby and cricket, done some acting, Daniel had even sung in the school choir until his voice had broken. They were both outgoing and fun-loving and when they found out that they shared adjacent rooms and would be in the same form, that cemented their friendship. They were joshing one another as small boys do when Seb felt a hand stroking his bottom. He turned his head and found that behind was the revolting Jackman who leered as he turned round. Seb just carried on talking to Daniel and without warning lifted his leg and stamped his shoe down hard on Jackman's foot.
"Youll pay for that," exclaimed Jackman while trying to suppress the pain. Seb apologised with a smile, but the twinkle in his eyes was noticeably absent while the others in the queue pushed Jackman out with shouts of "Perve" and "Serves you right" and the duty prefect sent him to the back.
"He gives me the creeps," said Daniel.
"The others warned me about him. Thats why I had no hesitation."
The second day of term could have been any day for by now the routine was established. After a full day at school Marc and Tom felt in need of some exercise. They returned to Paxford, dumped their books and got changed into their running kit. They jogged slowly through the school grounds until they reach the playing fields where they opened up and challenged each other to sprint races. They were already feeling the benefit of the oxygen coursing through their arteries and it would help to prepare them for their first rugby match. They ran back to the House, fetched their swimming kit and finished off by doing ten lengths of the pool. Then down to work for the evening, a break for supper and Prayers and the rest of the day was their own. Marc looked first of all at his copy of Tonio Kröger. The German was difficult, more difficult than anything he had tackled so far, but he persevered, then went over to the translation. He only read the first chapter, Tonio Kröger and Hans Hansen at school. He read about the friendship between them although they were poles apart in their interests, but felt that he had missed the point. He would talk to Mr Bell after Prayers.
The boys went off to supper. Afterwards the School moved back to their various houses and Marc and Tom crowded into the day room with the others. Again Marc chose his seat carefully to avoid looking at Seb. Jackman had just lurched in and the juniors were all busy crowding him out so he couldn't sit near them until he ended up for five seconds at most sitting on the lap of another fourth former. Marc felt an inner disgust which by the expression on his face he communicated involuntarily. "Dave, how do you cope?" he asked Dave Lane, the prefect sitting on his other side.
"I dont. I just try to look after the others." Prayers started and finished. Mr Dalton released them and just as Marc was about to rise from the settee he felt his hair being ruffled.
"Get off, Tom!" Tom, however, was on the other side of the room and as he turned he noticed a blond haired third former smiling at him, his eyes twinkling. Marc simply couldn't be angry with him. His irritation melted immediately and he automatically said "Hello, Seb. So its you," in mock despair. "What sort of day have you had?"
"Not bad. Rugby made up for it" and they moved out of the room together.
Marc watched some television and had a game of snooker once the juniors had gone to bed, then returned upstairs to his Tonio Kröger. He wouldn't disturb Mr Bell tonight. When he went to bed that night, he had quite forgotten Jackman and Tonio Kröger. "Funny boy, that Seb. Cheeky for a third former, but you cant help liking him." Then he fell asleep.
The term was now in full swing and Marc felt stimulated by his new courses. The days grew shorter and cooler and the leaves turned as autumn advanced. Another routine had become established as well: the smile in Chapel and the tousling of his hair upon dismissal from Prayers, to the extent that their omission would have caused more comment than their commission. Monday and Wednesday afternoons were games days for the seniors. Friday afternoon was set aside for the CCF which meant that occasionally an exercise could continue into the weekend. The pay-back for this was two extra lessons after the Monday games session. The sixth form had General Studies so no one escaped with free periods. Saturday meant no lessons, but was set aside for School matches and when these were in the morning the populace could enjoy an even longer weekend. Marc was disappointed not to have been selected for the 1st XV, but this disappointment was assuaged to a certain degree by being invited to captain the 2nd XV. An occasional exeat weekend would be fitted in, especially at times of tiredness and stress such as towards the end of a long term or after exams.
Since moving into the new building Mr Dalton had consciously set a policy of converting Paxford House into Paxford Hotel for two days a week and the régime was relaxed. Rising times and breakfast were voluntary. If you missed school breakfast, you could provide your own as each floor had its own kitchen with refrigerator, microwave oven and utensils. For weekend lunch or supper you had to make a firm commitment to attend or withdraw according to the activities on offer. On Saturday evening the school buses made timetabled journeys into the local market town for cinema or "socialising". The return journey was timed according to your seniority. Sunday saw Chapel at ten, made compulsory by the School for all in residence, after which you could join in or ignore any activities available. The only rule was to make a firm commitment and stick to it. What happened in other houses was probably similar, but fine-tuned by the particular Housemaster.
Marc and Tom established their own routine on Friday evenings when they would invite the members of their mentor groups to cocoa and biscuits in their rooms after Prayers. They knew they would at least have this formal contact, but of course they made themselves readily available when needed and if time permitted would join in games of snooker or ping-pong, or cards or Scrabble, as their own mentors had done with them years before. Another little piece of routine had, however, crept into these mentor meetings. During them Seb would just be part of the group, but he made sure he always left something behind so that after he had changed for bed he could return in his dressing gown to retrieve it. Marc had cottoned on to this, even tried to forecast what the object would be, but on the other hand never reminded Seb of the abandoned artefact before his first exit. He would almost anxiously await the knock twenty to thirty minutes later and pretend he was in the middle of some work for this essay or that dissertation, but would have been sorely disappointed had Seb withdrawn and promised to come back in the morning. And he enjoyed their chats, they both did. Bedtimes were half an hour later on Fridays and Saturdays, but even so he would conduct Seb back to his room to prevent his getting into trouble for being late. Usually Mr Bell was on duty on Fridays which oiled the works. Mentoring had its advantages. Both Mr Dalton and Mr Bell would informally enquire of Marc and Tom how their young charges were progressing and whether there was anything they should know, which gave them a chance to pass on the feelings of the lower echelons in the House so that the staff might keep a finger on the pulse. Not that you can have any secrets in such a close community anyway.
The Saturday before half term the 1st XV was playing away and there was no match for the 2nds. Marc was not required to sub, so he decided he would watch the U14s. He was particularly pleased that three members from his mentor group, Rob, Daniel and Seb, had become regular players in the School team. This boded well for the junior House XV to have the School scrum half, outside half and centre. It was a hard and fast match against St Bridges, indeed the School was ten points down at half time, but with the wind behind them and an inspiring captain the pack delivered the backs with more ball which they arduously converted into points. With less than five minutes to go the score was 20 - 25, that is in favour of the visitors, when a surge from the scrum gave Daniel clean ball which he spun out to Seb who zipped it down the line to the right wing. The fullback came up outside giving them the extra man and as the opposition crunch tackled the winger he passed the ball to the fullback to level the score in the corner. It was now up to Seb to convert, difficult for any youngster from just inside the touchline. He carefully placed the ball, measured his run-up and kicked. The ball rose. He had not kicked it far enough to the left. Seb was already running back for the restart, but then a gust of wind made the ball curve slightly in its flight. Seb didn't see this. It hit the right hand upright and dropped. Marc held his breath. Then the touch judges' flags rose in unison to indicate that the ball had passed through the sticks. A cheer went up and the referee blew his whistle for no side. Seb was the hero of the match. The teams exchanged their three cheers and Buckton ran to the side of the pitch to clap off their opponents. As Buckton passed through St Bridge's tunnel Marc managed to slap Seb on the shoulder and in return gained the smile and the twinkling eyes.
Marc helped to clear the flags away and directed the few parents spectating to the pavilion for tea. He thought he would go and congratulate the team, especially his three Paxfordians, and he could hear the healthy jubilation as he approached the changing room. There were high spirits and high jinks. He opened the door and disappeared inside. He blinked through the steam and there was a merry game of pass the jockstrap in progress, each player trying to get rid of it as soon as he was given it. When the intruder was spotted it was thrown to the third former nearest the door who in an act of hubris securely placed the sweaty article over Marc's head with the pouch covering his face. His natural reaction would have been to rip it off, but he could not help but smell it, a combination of detergent, sweat, mud and small boy and instead of finding it revolting the smell had a strange attraction for him which he savoured. The lads thought he was just putting on a brave face to call their bluff, but he wanted to get his fill of the odour. Realising what was going on around him he pulled the jockstrap off his head and looked at the nametape. Fortunately it was comparatively dim in the changing room as he felt the blood rushing to his face in one almighty blush, for what he read there was Seb's name. Playing Mr Cool he scrunched it up and threw it back to Seb, congratulated the team and disappeared back to Paxford.
Marc and Tom went into town that night. Death in Venice was playing at one of the screens in the multiplex and they had been recommended this film as background to their reading of Tonio Kröger. Afterwards they retired to a hostelry, took in a lemonade and a coke (loosely speaking) and caught the last bus back to school.
As Marc lay in bed he could not get the smell of the jockstrap out of his nostrils, nor did he want to. Amazed, he revelled in it and wondered what his reaction would have been, had it been unnamed or someone else's. He thought of Tadzio from the film, he thought of Tonio Kröger and Hans Hansen, and he thought of Seb and himself. Was there a connection? He was prevented from answering his own question by the Sandman.
The following Friday afternoon there was no CCF parade. He was pleased all his charges had joined, but while they were doing their basic training he would not see them. Marc was in the Royal Naval section, the nearest he could get to the Royal Marines whose cadets he would have joined, had there been a section. However, today half term began at midday. The luckier pupils were collected, but Marc had to make the journey by train. The saving grace was that Tom's parents gave him a lift into Hereford giving him better connections than the local station. The Indian summer had continued and Marc took his housemaster's advice. He had left his books at school and would get out into the fresh air during this last week of October before the clocks went back and winter really set in. He was looking forward to being re-united with his family. He had a younger sister, Jessica, who attended a local day school and a brother, Ben, who was destined for Buckton in two years' time. He was fond of them both, but particularly missed his little brother who was only eight when Marc went off to boarding school and now aged eleven he was just about to become a human being. He always made a point of sending them each a postcard every week. He would build up a stock in the holidays. The main thing he wanted to do was to get school out of his head. He loved Buckton College, but even he suffered the strains of the hot house society, the closed community, and holidays were a necessary safety valve. This half term had provided more reason than usual to stand back and take stock. The work was demanding and stimulating. He had that ability to shut himself off from those around him and get on with it. Work was not a problem. Sport was the antidote to work. He joined in the occasional debates and sixth form events when time allowed. One thing he regretted was that because of moving into the new boarding house he had had more luggage than usual at the beginning of term and so had left his guitar at home. That would go back after half term. Marc had a mature singing voice. He sang in the school choir whose main task was to lead the singing in Sunday Chapel and appear at the occasional concert.
The week passed too quickly. He had managed to get to London and stayed the night with his cousin, Susan, who was at university. Her flatmates found him rather dishy and Marc played up to it. They took in a play and the next day he did some shopping while Susan was at college, before taking the train home. He still thought of Seb, much as he had done at school, that is before going to sleep. His heart went out to him, he described his feelings as paternal, as brotherly love, but they were different from the fondness he felt for his little brother. He missed the smile and the twinkling eyes and the tousled hair and during the whole week Seb was his only thought of school. "I wonder what he is doing now," he would ask himself and for fear of appearing to himself as bigheaded tried to suppress the thought of "Is he missing me?" and then his thoughts inevitably turned towards his studies of Thomas Mann's works. He never had gone for that talk with Mr Bell.
As Sunday was the appointed day for the return to school Marc's mother and father offered to take him back by car. Since the weather was still warm they would take a picnic, make a detour into the Forest of Dean for lunch, then on to school. Jessica and Ben could see Buckton College and Marc's room, and the family could pay their respects to the Daltons and Mr Bell. The clocks had gone back that weekend and so it was almost dark when the car drew up in front of Paxford House. Marc took his parents to Mr Dalton's study and made his excuses so that he could return to Jessica and Ben. They helped him unpack the car and carry his bits and pieces to his room and then he took them on a tour of the house ending up at Mr Dalton's study. Mother and Father were ready to leave and just as they were going through the front door Mr Bell caught up with them. Marc took the young ones back to the car and after five minutes their parents turned up.
"So youve made a good start to the sixth form, I hear," said Father.
"Mr Bell is very pleased with your work," added Mother. "Youre lucky to have a master like that. Hes obviously got you off to a tee."
"Well see what we can do about getting you abroad next year. Mr Bell thinks that if you continue as you've started you might try for Cambridge. Anyway, that's something for you to think about, young man," continued Father. Marc was a peculiar mixture. He was well aware of his own abilities, but he possessed such a combination of self-motivation and modesty that he still blushed when he received any praise or appreciation. After a hug and a kiss for all the family they climbed into the car and Marc waved them off as they drove towards the exit.
As he was about to go back into the house, Seb's parents without Seb were coming out of the front door. They recognised Marc from the beginning of term and said hello and were considerate enough to save embarrassment by reminding him who they were.
"Sebastian told us he's in your mentor group," said the Father.
"Hes settled in really well and won't stop talking about how much youve helped him," added his mother. "Youve got a friend for life there," she said. Marc felt the rush of blood to his face again and hoped that in the dusk no one would notice.
"We must go. Keep up the good work." He wondered what good work exactly, but the thought soon left him. He said goodbye and made his way back to his room. In the letter rack there was a postcard for him. He picked it up and went upstairs. The picture was of Disneyland, the stamp French. Back in his room he read: "Dear Mentor M, we've been on Eurostar to Disneyland - fantastic. Hope you've had a good holiday, too. Thanks for all your help this term. Ive missed you. Yours S." His heart leapt. No mistaking who this was from and in an emotional moment he was reminded that he too had missed Seb. He just hoped that no one else had read it.
He now wanted to see Seb more than anything else. The card had finally broken down the defences he had built around himself since that first encounter across the aisle of the chapel. He had never pursued Seb. It was always the reverse although he had never played hard to get either, quite the opposite. Thoughts flashed through his mind. Tonio Kröger - he wasn't alone. Others had suffered the pangs of youthful love. Love - this was the first time he had used the word in relation to himself. He loved his parents, his sister and his little brother, but he had never felt possessive. In fact by being family they possessed each other anyway. Death in Venice - but it was an old man and a boy that made it so tawdry, and he had a fleeting thought of Jackman. There were just over two years between him and Seb and in Death in Venice it was clear that such a relationship led to perdition. However, Tonio grew out of it, or rather through it. Jackman - am I becoming like Jackman? That was the unkindest cut of all, but logic told him that Jackman was revolting, promiscuous, out for gratuitous sexual gratification wherever he could find it. Tim knew he was physically and socially poles apart from that Neanderthal and in any case a celibate or platonic relationship had formed between him and Seb, slowly, as if by chance without imposing themselves on one another. What would his fellow sixth formers think of him? Although when he thought about it several of them flirted with older or younger boys as they went up the school and claimed to have regular girl friends at home. He had always shared the general tolerance and understanding which typified Buckton College. Perhaps that's why he had been asked to become a mentor. For the first time in his life he was filled with self-doubt. He needed to talk, but who could he trust to keep it confidential? What should he do now? The answers ranged between going to see the boy now and the proverbial cold shower. He finally lay back on his bed and exhaled a long breath. If it had been light he would have gone for a long, hard run before supper, but it was not wise in the dark. He was starting to calm down. His logical mind carried on the thought process. His attachment to Seb was emotional, paternal he had described it before. He enjoyed his company, liked his tarting. There! That word had finally been said, but his feelings were in no way sexual. On the other hand there had been the incident with the jockstrap which should have disgusted, but in fact delighted him, enhanced when he discovered whose jockstrap it was and with the realisation that he liked the smell of small boy. However, his options for action were restricted for he was suddenly brought back to reality by the bell for supper.
He walked over to supper with Tom and Doug. Although it was safe, they were encourage to move about the grounds in small groups after dark. Marc also valued their company as a return to normality. They had a week's holiday to discuss and he was pleased to join sixth formers from other houses that evening. They still had half a term's rugby to talk about.
Supper had done him some good and he felt his old balanced self again. At Prayers he sat in his usual place on the settee. How conservative schoolboys are. He kept an eye open for the evil Jackman. He knew Seb was behind him, but the ritual demanded that he should ignore him until he felt his hair being ruffled. Anyway, he could hear him talking away to his mates. Prayers came and went. The House was dismissed and there was a rush for the TV room. The day room was almost deserted by the time the ruffling of the hair came.
"How did you get on in France? I liked your card. Thanks a lot."
"Ive got something for you. It's in my study." Marc followed Seb out of the room, not a care in the world now they were re-united.
Half a term had gone by and he realised he had not yet been in Seb's study. Under the arrangements in the new building there was little need apart from perhaps when he did his three-weekly house duty. Room inspection was in the hands of the Head of House and the prefects when they also made sure that soap and water were regularly applied, but even that was carried out in the floor's washroom. He looked at Seb's poster boards. Mainly pictures of sportsmen, predominantly rugby players, but also Linford Christie and some cricketers. On the board by his bed was a family portrait. Seb had a younger sister and brother like Marc, but in reverse order. His sister was a pretty little girl and she had inherited the same blond hair, smile and twinkling blue eyes. His brother took more after his father. On another board were team photographs, rugby, cricket and cross-country, from his prep school with a centre piece of Seb with another boy, both in white athletics kit, arms round each other's shoulders, the very personification of happiness.
"Thats Guy, my best friend. He won a scholarship to King Edward's. It was taken last term at sports day after we'd won the house relay. Guy ran at number one with me at four. He was also head boy, but I captained the rugby XV and no way would I swap.
"Look. I brought this back from France for you." He handed Marc a flat package. "Go on. Undo it." Amazement had made Marc hesitate. He carefully unwrapped the package and discovered an Asterix book in French. "I thought it might help the A-level work." Marc was taken aback, then went into auto-pilot and gave Seb a hug as he might have done his little brother. He realised what he had done, but it didn't matter. He'd enjoyed it and furthermore Seb responded by putting his arms round him. Marc's moment of introspection was now well in the past. He was back on an even keel.
"Thats wicked. Thank you. That calls for cocoa and biscuits. See you in my study in five minutes." What was he doing? But it was acceptable to take a visit from a member of your mentor group and Marc thought no more of it.
When he had gone along the corridor and reached his study he opened the front cover of Asterix chez les Bretons and inscribed in the corner was: "To M, with gratitude, S"
That night when he went to bed Marc pondered the events of the day, how he had stepped out of one world and into the midst of another. His soul was singing, he realised how lucky he was and while he knew the reason he could not explain it to himself.
There were six weeks of school routine left before the Christmas break. The rugby was going well and Marc made the most of it. Next term would be cross-country, rugby house matches and sevens, but the game was never taken so seriously in the Spring Term which was probably for the better if the weather turned out particularly wet or cold. They also had the use of the indoor nets to prepare for the cricket season. He had looked ahead. Easter was early and he approved of a short Spring Term and a long Summer one.
A week after half term Marc handed in his first German literature essay. It had been an analysis and evaluation of the theme of love in Tonio Kröger. He had enjoyed writing it and had gladly undertaken some extra reading in his research. When Prayers had finished Mr Bell said he could come and fetch his essay if he liked. A quick tousle of the hair and for the first time a return of the compliment and Marc followed Mr Bell out and up to his apartment. Mr Bell sat him down and offered a glass of sherry.
"You know, Marc, I have never read such a mature essay from a lower sixth former. I would be more than happy to receive this standard at the end of the upper sixth. I wont go along with all of it. You didn't develop Ich liebe das Leben and you did not list your sources. Harpprecht was clearly one as you look at Mann's relationship with his own son."
"I started off with a book called The Four Loves which gave me my insight."
"But the tone of your essay is that you have some experience in these forms of love." Marc blushed. He had seen the book in the school library and on reading the cover become interested, not primarily for any explanation of Tonio Kröger, but for his own situation. He did not think 'problem' for to him it was not a problem. In a less tolerant society it might have been. "Have you ever been in love?" You could rely on Mr Bell to come to the point.
"I dont know," Marc replied automatically, but immediately thought he had gone too far in opening up. Yet this is what he needed to do and Mr Bell was probably the only one who might understand. He wouldn't expect his parents to. Tom, much as he was his greatest friend, was too straight forward a guy to understand the occasional feelings of turmoil.
"You dont have to answer that question," Mr Bell went on. Marc felt the genie might be out of the bottle. He had not touched his sherry, but was pleased to now. The two talked about various things going on in the school and the house, which put Marc at ease. He was back on safe ground. Jackman came into the conversation as he had made a nuisance of himself among the third formers, but that was being watched. Marc drank his sherry, left his essay behind so that it could be returned in school, wished Mr Bell good night and decided he wanted to do some guitar practice with Tom. In bed that night he considered the day and knew what the inspiration for his essay had been. It might be hard to produce that standard when they turned to another work and with that he fell asleep.
The term was flying past. Marc and Seb's relationship had developed a sort of normality. That meant they saw each other about the house. The morning and evening rituals continued, accepted by everyone as part of House and School life. The mentor group meetings were also routine with the bonus that Seb would find a reason for returning to Marc's room and they would talk. There was a minor upset when Seb had to be isolated in the Sanatorium with a bout of sickness. Those three days provided an emptiness which was filled by work. Tom sensed that there was something wrong with his friend, in fact knew what it was and jollied him along. The last weekend in November was always an exeat weekend. The boys were free from Friday lunchtime through to six on Sunday. Marc took the train in both directions. At home he was cosseted and given massive doses of TLC, but on the train he had brooded about missing his Friday mentor group meeting. However, once at home he forgot with one exception all about school and took every advantage of home comforts and home cooking. Even Jessica and Ben played up to having big brother at home. Sunday afternoon he was put on the train and collected along with several other Bucktonians from the railway station by the school coach. As he reached his study he found an envelope with a note in it shoved under the door. He opened it. "Dear M, I have something for you. See you after Prayers. Your S". His eyes settled on the "Your S". Was that a misprint for Yours S? He didn't dare answer the question. Supper that night seemed interminable and, in a dream, he was not really listening to his friends until he heard Doug say "Marc's in love." It immediately brought him back to the real world. He blushed. With a blush like that he could hardly say no and, strangely, he was not offended by the statement, especially when the others started joshing him about whom he had met over the weekend.
"Whats she like?" Marc pretended to be coy and parried all the mickey-taking. It was a relief, but it did bring the truth to the forefront of his mind and from the way his friend Tom kept out of it Marc suspected he knew who it was he was in love with. Their group left the dining hall and split to return to their various houses. Marc and Tom were by themselves. They stopped in the dark and Marc turned to Tom and said "You know, dont you?" Tom hesitated and slowly nodded. "How long have you known?"
"Since the time he was in the San." How discreet, even then Tom did not say the name.
"Is there something wrong with me?"
"In the three years I have known you, you were never happier and you've never been a nicer person to know. Most people think it's because you have blossomed in the sixth form. I suppose they're right and I've always let them think that. Your secret is safe with me. If I was going to tell anyone, I'd have done it by now."
Marc put his arm round Tom's shoulder and whispered "Thanks". They quickened their pace back towards Paxford. "You know," said Marc, "Doug's said something I never dared to say to myself. He's right and it's a hell of a relief, but where do I go from here?"
Enlightenment in both senses of the word. Marc had had something made explicit to him and a burden had been removed from his shoulders. It was not long until Prayers. Marc went down with Tom at the last minute. He was playing hard to get and this had given Seb and Daniel the chance of sitting on the settee in the day room. The two seniors turfed them out. They were trying their luck - they knew it - and they took up their normal position behind it. Mr Bell took Prayers that evening. The Daltons had decided to take full advantage of the long weekend and were out. Mr Bell welcomed everyone back, exhorted them to work for the remaining two weeks of term, especially those with trial exams in January. The House was dismissed and Marc felt the customary hand ruffling his hair. With end of term tests prevalent before the last marks order and reports the House had returned in business-like mood and the vast majority disappeared to their own studies to cram for this chemistry test or that geography test before bedtime. So the house appeared almost deserted when Marc left his study and wandered down the corridor to knock on Seb's door. "Password" came the muffled voice from inside.
"Ruffled hair," said Marc. They had never used a password and it was the first thing they had in common that came into his head. The door opened and he was allowed inside. Marc wanted to hug the creature in front of him, but did not dare make the first move. He sat on Seb's bed. Seb meanwhile was undoing his tuckbox from which he produced two slices of cake.
"It was my birthday yesterday."
"Why on earth didnt you tell me? I could at least have given you a card."
"Not a problem. We were away anyway." If a birthday falls on a normal schoolday it was a great tradition in Paxford to acknowledge it with a cake and also with the bumps which were given in a huge blanket with the house staff and sixth formers on the corners to make sure it was held securely. Seb had missed this with his birthday on exeat Saturday, but on the other hand had been able to celebrate at home with his family. He handed a slice of cake to Marc who wished him many happy returns and asked him about his presents. "A new watch," and he brandished his left wrist to show Marc. He couldn't see it properly so he automatically grasped Seb's hand so he could take a closer look. It was the latest combined digital and analogue model with timers and calculators, everything but the kitchen sink. Marc was genuinely interested and so it was more than a minute before he realised he was holding Seb's hand and furthermore Seb had tightened his grip on Marc's. It slowly dawned on Marc that apart from the occasional return of hair-ruffling or sporting pat on the back this was the first time he had deliberately and consciously held him even though Seb had touched him every night after Prayers. It was a lingering moment in which Seb placed his right hand on top and started to stroke the back. It was strange how the junior appeared to be the more experienced and leading the advances and Marc felt his palm being tickled by one of Seb's fingers. "You dont realise, Seb, how fond I've grown of you."
"I think I do. I've adored you since the first day of term, but I had to make you notice me. I didn't even know your name and I was afraid to ask, but you made it easy for me in Chapel. You were looking at me and all I had to do was smile. We were hooked, but I had to make sure and so I tested you by ruffling your hair at Prayers that evening. You didn't hit me or tell me off, so that was it. When I heard that you were going to be my mentor that was the icing on the cake," and he lifted up a piece of icing from his birthday cake and popped it into his mouth.
Marc was gobsmacked. He could scarcely believe what he had just heard. It had taken him until today to understand about himself what had been obvious to this 13, no, 14 year old. It was Seb's bedtime and he couldn't encourage him to get into trouble. He expressed his gratitude and in recognition of what he had just been told wrapped his arms round him momentarily and disappeared to his study. The note he carefully placed inside the Asterix volume. Marc was ready for bed himself. He cleaned his teeth and changed, then climbed under the duvet before switching off the light. "What a day its been. What do I do now? Im hooked. Were hooked. Im enjoying it, Seb's enjoying it, it's not harming my work. Indeed it gave me that high mark for the lit essay, and then there was that incident with the jockstrap.
" Sleep interrupted his chain of thoughts there.
Marc had a free period Monday morning which gave him a chance to run down to the village stores. He bought a birthday card and the largest bar of chocolate they had in stock. He had time to return to his study, wrap up the chocolate and write the card. "To my dearest S, I'm sorry it's late, but it won't be next time. Many happy returns. With all my fondness and love, Your M." He had written "fondness and love" as he would have done in a card to his family before realising what he had done and when he came to think it over he couldn't cross it out without making a mess of the card, and when he thought about it a little more he didn't even want to. He stopped himself from adding kisses, though that just served to open up another dimension in his mind. He sat stock still and pondered. He must have spent five minutes in a day dream. He walked along the corridor and asked one of the house domestics if he could put the card and present in Seb's room, then wandered back to the sixth form centre.
Monday afternoon was rugby training. Marc's fitness was at a peak after almost a term. There was not an ounce of fat on him. He was all muscle and sinew and the sixpack had been honed to perfection. Two matches left they worked at their skills for as long as the light allowed, then finished off with fitness in the gym and ten lengths in the swimming pool. It was hard work, but at this end of term he could take it in his stride and although physically tired he felt mentally refreshed when he returned to school for two lessons, then to Paxford for prep. On his desk were four squares of chocolate - nothing else. After Prayers his hair received the customary ruffling and in his ear he could hear a whispered "thank you" and in an even softer voice "I love you, too". The mouth was so close he could not only feel the breath, but the heat from the lips. If he had moved his head slightly they would have touched his ear. Marc blushed not daring to look round and when he finally did, there was no one else in the room. He collapsed across the settee, breathed deeply and experienced three separate sensations: a lightness of heart, a feeling of longing in the pit of his stomach and a heaviness in his loins. Tom came noisily into the room and challenged him to a game of snooker.
In bed that night he didn't know what to think. The three sensations had returned accompanied by a confused feeling in his head. Sleep did not come until he had relieved one of those sensations.
The final days of term rushed by. Of the two rugby matches, one was won, one lost, but during his speech at the rugby dinner the 2nd XV captain had a good season to report and was back on form when it came to giving an appreciation of his players. The Advent Eucharist on the final Sunday always gave spiritual refreshment at a time of general tiredness leading to bad temper. Marc was singing in the choir so he did not have his usual contact in Chapel with Seb, who, as it was Sunday, was dressed in a dark suit which rendered his adolescent beauty immaculate.
Then the last twenty-four hours had arrived. They took the same format year after year. Afternoon lessons would be cancelled in favour of final preparations. High tea was served at four in place of supper. At six the School would put on its Christmas concert. As well as singing in the choir Marc played and sang to his guitar. He had a mellifluous singing voice, interesting as the two songs he had chosen originated from Bob Dylan and Johnny Coppin, neither of whom merited the epithet mellifluous, but at least it lent his presentation some originality. The concert was well attended by parents who would then spend the night at local hostelries and return at noon the following day to take their offspring home. Seb's parents' attendance owed much to his father's being an Old Boy and therefore nostalgia. Marc's mother and father with the other two children at home found it near impossible.
After the concert it was back to the boarding houses for their respective Christmas parties. This year, the upper sixth had decided, it would be in fancy dress and they had given half a term's notice. Marc had not given it much thought, but had persuaded Mr Bell to lend him a gown and mortar board which let him off the hook. As they were ready people gathered in the day room, but the third formers were conspicuous by their absence when with a great deal of row the door opened and two policeman were dragging in an unfortunate convict complete with arrowed suit, hand cuffs and chain and ball. Behind the large moustaches the faces of Rob and Daniel could be spotted, but more interesting was the identity of the obviously unwilling convict, whose slitty eyes and harvest of pustules meant it could only be Jackman. The third form had got its revenge. Jackman made his protestations, but to a body everyone accepted it as part of the act, joined in the mirth, but did absolutely nothing to help the wretched fellow. By the manner in which the remaining third formers paraded in with an array of imaginative costumes, it was clear they had all been needed to apprehend the deserving victim and it had been an incredibly well kept secret. As the remaining procession was wolf-whistled and cheered no one noticed Jackman being escorted to the corner of the room, made to sit on the floor and further handcuffed to a security bar in front of the window, while one of the sofas was slid in front of him.
Marc looked for Seb. He brought up the rear dressed as a ballerina, complete with tutu, wig and make-up and the object for a volley of wolf-whistles. It was interesting to see how many of the boys - in all age groups - had worked out their fantasies by cross-dressing, ranging from the ugly sisters to a buxom young nurse. The party started off with a series of sketches, some funny in their own right, but many in a satirical vein based on incidents at school or in the house during the term. The staff were naturally frequent butts of the humour. Then followed a buffet supper with a punch and finally the House settled down for Christmas carols. Marc and Tom sat on their customary settee, only today Tom had a moustachioed policeman on his lap set off by a ballerina on Marc's, such was the party atmosphere. It was all Marc could do to control himself for not only did he know who was beneath that tutu, but he had what appeared to be a beautiful woman on his lap with extremely shapely legs. He did not know where to put his hands in order to resist temptation. Jackman had been released prior to the buffet to give him time to calm down before he could do any damage. The party ended with a vote of thanks from the Head of House to Mrs Dalton and the domestic staff. Bouquets was handed over to each and after an exchange of further pleasantries Mr Dalton dismissed the House to bed and left the arrangements in the hands of the prefects.
Marc could not resist putting his head round Seb's door to wish him good night. Seb had removed the wig, but not the tutu. Marc went in and closed the door behind him. "You must give me your address for a Christmas card," said Marc.
"I need yours, too." Seb tore two pages out of his rough book. They wrote names, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses and exchanged. From outside there was a shout of "Ten minutes till lights out".
"Look, Marc, Ive still got to get this make-up off." Marc was staring at his ruby lips.
"Well see each other before we go," he replied and blew a kiss before disappearing through the door. Marc was too exhausted from all that had happened during the day even to try and unravel what was on his mind and as soon as his head hit the pillow he fell asleep.
The last day of term had its own routine. After breakfast everyone went over to school to clear up their things there and bring them back to the houses. A final house meeting of term was quickly followed by the Headmaster's assembly in which he he handed out the bouquets, but usually kept any bSebbats for the following term. However, the headman appeared pleased with what had been achieved, gave the rugby XVs various degrees of praise and encouragement and felt that sufficient work had been done over the term, reminding the School he had yet to see their reports. He finished by wishing staff and pupils a Happy Christmas which the School returned with the traditional cheers led by the Head of School. Straight out to Chapel for the End of Term Service. Since the Choir was used for this Marc would not be in his usual seat. In fact he had had no chance of talking to Seb at all that morning. The final hymn was Lord, Dismiss us with thy Blessing and finally three hundred and seven Bucktonians and their masters were free until the middle of January. Marc made haste to discard his robes and dashed back to Paxford, his one aim not to commit a sin of omission. He reached his landing just in time to see Seb struggling with a heavy case which he was taking downstairs to await the arrival of his father. Marc gave him a hand and as his father had not yet arrived they went back to Seb's study to say goodbye. Both boys felt low and empty, partly from tiredness, the demands of the term and the anticlimax, largely because they knew they would miss one another. Marc had to go to catch the school coach to the station, so he naturally travelled light anyway. They shook each other by the hand, then without further thought put their arms round each other in an affectionate bearhug. They heard footsteps in the corridor and there was Seb's father ready to whisk him away to another world.
"Hallo, you two, had a good term?" Father and son hugged one another and Seb's father shook Marc's hand. "I dont know if it will help, Marc, but would you like a lift into Hereford? Weve got room." Marc did not know whether it would speed his travelling arrangements, but it meant a little more time with Seb, so he said yes. Together they loaded the rest of Seb's stuff into the car along with Marc's luggage, joined the queue to say goodbye and thank you to Mr and Mrs Dalton and left in style. Marc had already said a personal goodbye to Mr Bell after breakfast. And so with Marc deposited at the station it was the end of a chapter and with luck on his side within fifteen minutes he was on his way through the countryside on an Inter City 125.
Back at home Marc collapsed, and mentally physically exhausted. Indeed, he tried to put Buckton College completely out of his mind, which except for one point he succeeded in doing. He was pleased to be back with the family and enjoyed the company of his brother and sister. In addition he received a lot of attention as he too had been sorely missed. Christmas shopping had to be done and in one sortie he went to Young's menswear and collected a set of cufflinks he had ordered during the last exeat weekend with the Buckton College shield on them. These were carefully wrapped and along with a Christmas card duly dispatched with all affection by registered post to Seb. Naturally Marc received a card in return. He was not expecting anything else and had hoped that Seb was not expecting the packet he would receive. As he took the Christmas card out of the envelope something slipped out and onto the floor. Marc picked it up. Under the heading Carte Postale was simply written MxxS, Happy Christmas. He turned it over to see the picture. On a plain white background was printed in fancy red lettering Je tadore.
Seb too reacted in a similar way back at home. The first two days he spent most of the time sleeping, in the armchair if not in bed, but by the third day he had regained much of his normal fun and vigour, every ounce of which he needed to cope with his brother and sister who greatly missed their elder playmate. He was not so introspective as Marc, but mornings as he lay in bed his thoughts did finally turn to his first term at Buckton.
The previous morning his school report had dropped through the letter box, although he had to await his father's return home in the evening to discover the contents. It contained nothing for him to worry about. Quite the opposite. It was probably the best academic report he had ever received. At his prep school the teaching had been directed towards gaining prestigious scholarships at the top public schools, and as mentioned before his best friend Guy had been successful in that quarter. If you were not aiming that high it was easy to be pushed into an academic backwater and after all Seb and the school authorities knew that come what may he was destined for Buckton College. At Buckton he had found a different attitude. To begin with the first goal was GCSE in three years' time. Secondly he had been given a certain amount of choice in his subjects, with some new ones. The teaching at Buckton was thorough and effective, more that of the traditional grammar school, and the whole ethos put work as the top priority and this atmosphere permeated by tradition from the upper sixth down to the new third formers. He had been well prepared by his father on what to expect at his new school and for once time had not washed away the old traditions. Buckton suited Seb better than his old school and he thrived on a more grown up establishment. In the sporting world too he had made his mark, gaining his full rugby colours for the U14s. He had been supportive, sociable and a lot of fun in the boarding house. So all in all Seb and his parents had every reason to be delighted at the way he was carrying on the family name and living up to expectations at Buckton.
Furthermore he had found Marc. Seb knew he had made all the running in forming the relationship, but on the other hand from the Beginning of Term Service he was certain that he had met the right person and that once formed their relationship was mutual, firm and loyal. Again he had his father's experience to guide him there, for although he did not know the details, he did know that Uncle Peter, his godfather, was a close friend of his father's at Buckton, the families had remained close friends and in reciprocation his father was now godfather to Uncle Peter's oldest boy.
Seb had not seen the arrival of a registered packet. Guessing what it was, his mother had forwarded it straight away to Father Christmas to be opened along with the other family presents. Finally Seb summoned the energy to do his Christmas shopping and send his Christmas cards.
Christmas came. When Seb unwrapped the registered packet, he was straightaway on the phone to Marc. They must have talked for a good hour for apart from the postal correspondence they had not been in contact, although both had been thinking of the other as they lay in bed at night, and in the morning. It had been a kind of self-imposed discipline, but with the arrival of the festive day that discipline had broken down. And so Christmas went, and very quickly too with the wild social rounds each family made, and with them the new year had started.
The Saturday before term was due to begin Marc was sitting with the family over breakfast. By now he was his bright cheerful self again and was feeling relaxed. Jessica and Ben had already started their terms. With the post arrived two identical envelopes, identical stamps and postmarks, different handwriting, one addressed to Marc, one to his parents. Marc did not realise that they had emanated from the same address, but on looking at his, his heart missed a beat when he recognised the handwriting. He refused to tear it open, but forced himself to slit it carefully with a knife. Meanwhile his mother had opened its twin and after reading the contents handed it to Father. When he read what was written Marc could not suppress a blush. "My dearest M, I cannot say how much I have missed you. Ive thought about you every day. Thank you for those lovely cufflinks. I look forward to wearing them at school. Why I am writing is this. Every year at spring half term we go off skiing and because I had such a good report Mum and Dad asked if I would like to take a friend this year as a reward. Naturally there was only one answer and so I am inviting you to join us. It doesn't matter whether you have skied before or not. You will find that your parents will have a formal invitation from mine." Marc looked up. Father was still reading. I hope you will be able to say yes. Do let me know as soon as possible. See you next week. Your affectionate S
Mother and Father were giving each other meaningful glances. Marc started to explain the letter he had received.
"Can I?" he said. Father and Mother exchanged more knowing glances. There was no need for discussion. They knew when they were in agreement.
"Well," said his father, "if your mother thinks it's all right. You had better ask her." Meanwhile Jessica and Ben were making all sorts of envious noises.
"I suppose so, Marc," she said, "but well miss you," she added with that little bit of moral blackmail of which only mothers are capable. "Youd better go and phone Seb now and we'll write a formal reply and send it off this weekend." Marc needed no second telling. He was off to the phone, a spring in his step.
Seb was looking forward to returning to Buckton College. He had enjoyed the Christmas break and had fully recovered from the rigours of the previous term. However, with the new year celebrations over life had become dull as it can be during January and February and in general he had always felt that his life lay more at school than at home. Father insisted on taking him back in the car. This was pure nostalgia, for apart from the summer holidays he had always taken the train to and from his prep school. When they arrived in Herefordshire it was a cold, dank and overcast day with patches of snow which had so far beaten the thaw. In contrast Paxford House was warm and brightly lit. Seb took his father in to see Mr Dalton briefly, then they carried his luggage up to his study. The luggage included a large tuckbox on which Father's name could still clearly be seen under a coat of paint, while Seb's adorned the present topcoat. With everything in place they went back to the car, said goodbye and Father motored off. Away from the family Seb was in a different world, but equally at home. He jauntily toddled off, enquired whether the school coach had arrived from the station and as it hadn't he went to look for a snooker partner. There in the games room was only one other person, Jackman, looking his normal revolting self with a particularly large boil on his neck. His slitty eyes lit up like a Chinese lantern when he saw Seb on his own. The lecherous grin did not scare Seb. It just made him feel sick.
"Hallo, Theb. Ive been waiting for you all Chwistmas. Come here and let me stwoke you."
"The only stroke you'll get from me is a heart attack." Jackman made his advance, but Seb was quicker and out of the door. Slamming it behind him, he noticed the key on the outside and turned it locking Jackman in. There were thumps on the door and shouts of "Ill have your twousers off for this." Seb kindly left the key in the door and wandered off to the day room just in time to see the school coach draw up outside Paxford. He was only looking for one person and on seeing him, in order not to make things too obvious, he wandered up to his room, left the door open and listened for footsteps along the corridor. After five minutes they duly came accompanied by the voices of Tom and Marc. Again he displayed some discretion until he heard them part and two doors close and only then did he pad his way along to Marc's room.
He tapped out their private knock and Marc opened the door. Marc took him in, the door closed and they hugged each other as if they had been separated for years. Indeed tears welled up in both their eyes. They stood back, looked at one another and began speaking at once. They drew breath and sat down, Seb in a chair and Marc on his bed. They talked about the holidays, but much more about the coming skiing trip. Marc had brought back his skiing kit as he knew he would not go home before then. The bell for supper rang and the two were brought back into the reality of boarding school life. As they passed the duty prefect on their way out Seb casually mentioned he thought that Jackman was down in the basement playing snooker.
"What was that all about?" enquired Marc. Seb told him and Marc went red, but this time he was not blushing.
The Spring Term soon got into its stride. Games were limited, not by the snow which had since cleared, but by the interminable rain which made the fields unplayable. However, cross-country was available over the surrounding farms and through the country lanes. Both Seb and Marc enjoyed cross-country, having the stamina and right physiques to do well. The indoor facilities were limited until the new sports hall had been completed, due for the new school year in September, but basketball or five-a-side could be played in the gym and there was the adjacent fitness room. Marc had been put in charge of training the juniors for the House rugby competition which would be held in the second half of term. The juniors consisted of the third and fourth form. He was sorry Jackman slipped out of nearly every practice for one reason or another, as he wanted to give him a hard time. On the other hand the atmosphere was healthier without him.
The relationship between Marc and Seb continued to develop. They could hardly avoid each other in the House, while at school, apart from Chapel, they rarely came across one another even in the corridors. The relationship apparently aroused no comment. The little rituals continued, the smile, the tousled hair, the forgotten object. Life had established a normality. The Spring Term was considered a time for work. Those with public exams had taken their trials immediately on return from Christmas. The boarding régime permitted three sessions a day which while pressurised did allow for normal teaching to be resumed quickly. During that time the House was run by the lower sixth.
One Thursday evening at the beginning of February Marc was on House duty. As with everything else he was conscientious. He had just made sure the fifths had gone to bed. With everyone in their own room changed for bed bedtime was like lock-up. No wandering around or music was allowed, but the individual once in his room for the night was left to put out his own lights. A system had been built into the new house whereby the individual rooms' switches could be overridden, but while the threat was always there, it had never been used. The key remained with the member of staff on duty.
The House was quiet. The day room was empty, as were the library, television room, kitchens and games room. The sixth form common room was left to its own devices. Marc wandered around all the landings, took down a "Beware of the Perve!" notice sellotaped to Jackman's door and was just returning to his own study when he noticed a light on in the shower room. He went in and heard the shower running, wondering who had been careless enough to leave it on. He opened the cabinet door just about to turn the water off when he was confronted by Seb. Stark naked he turned towards Marc, made no attempt to grab his towel and looked up at him with a smile and a twinkle of the eyes. How could Marc be cross with him? It was the first time he had seen him undressed and he could not take his eyes off him. The pectorals and the developing sixpack were sheer perfection. Marc took the towel and started drying him, much as he might have done with his little brother years ago at home and said, "You'd better hurry off to bed now. You're rather late." This was a bit of an understatement regarding a third former. They said good night and Marc disappeared off to his room before reporting to Mr Bell who was the master on duty that night. He could now turn in himself. As he lay in bed he had a contented smile on his face and whispered "Just wait until tomorrow."
Tomorrow was mentor meeting day, Friday. Marc thoroughly enjoyed this responsibility and none of the members of his group suffered because of his relationship with Seb. Quite the opposite. It was probably Seb who suffered a little because while their friendship was no secret, through hypercompensation the others gained a better deal, although they did not have the benefit of the 'extra coaching'. The group got on well together and with Marc, in fact like Seb, but to a lesser degree they adored him, and would have done anything for him. Tom had a similar relationship with his group.
Anyway, tonight Seb had left his handkerchief behind. There it was stuffed down the side of an armchair. He had brought a bar of chocolate along to share with Marc. A peace offering? Unnecessary. Marc was just about to say something when Seb piped in with "Not bad Marcing, eh?" Marc looked confused. "Last night, in the shower. You're such a creature of routine."
"So it was all planned. I suspected as much."
"You don't mind, do you?"
"I don't know what to say. I must admit I admire your pectorals and your sixpack - nearly as good as mine."
"Go on. Show me."
"Were talking about you," retorted Marc.
"But you didn't mind, did you?"
Marc stretched out on his bed, exhaled and said "I've had a fight with myself, but I've got to say it was a most marvellous experience and shows you must have one hundred per cent faith in me." Seb thought for moment.
"I'm not quite sure what you mean, but I think you must be right."
"Go on. It's long past your bedtime and I need my beauty sleep if Im to keep up with you." Seb disappeared and Marc changed for bed. Little did he know that Seb had now set himself the challenge of seeing Marc naked. As he lay there he thought "Whats going on inside me?" He had that feeling in the pit of his stomach again.
Half term was approaching fast. There was turmoil inside him and he needed some time to himself to think. In this case he did not even think he could discuss it with Mr Bell, but he just needed some space, some distance. But there again, perhaps Mr Bell could help. Marc had set the weekend aside for work. Otherwise he had nothing planned. So after breakfast he went to Mr Bell's room. Fortunately he was there. Mr Bell spotted immediately that Marc was not his normal self, but he let him talk. Even Marc did not know how to begin. He was rarely emotional. Finally he started with the bland "I need some help."
Mr Bell was a good listener and too experienced to put words into anyone's mouth. "Go on."
"It's not work," said Marc as if to reassure Mr Bell. "It's just that I need to do some thinking and I can't do that with people around me." Mr Bell's look acknowledged that he was listening, but otherwise he said nothing. He realised that something was wrong as Marc was acting out of character. He was also trying to think of a positive way to help. "You know how much I love school, but at the moment it's so oppressive."
"Is school oppressive or is it people?" Mr Bell was indeed a wise old bird. Marc's silence answered the question for him. The silence continued, however, and Marc could see that Mr Bell was deep in thought. It was the look he had on his face in class on the rare occasions he was asked a question he could not immediately answer. Marc knew better than to interrupt. It must have taken five minutes at least before Mr Bell came out with "Ive got an idea, but " Marc waited for the 'but'. " Im going to have to convince Mr Dalton first." That would probably not be a problem. Mr Bell and Mr Dalton had worked together for years and he valued the work and advice of his deputy. As Marc's birthday was in August he was young for the lower sixth, but respected by the staff for his maturity. At sixteen he could legally look after himself. "What I'm thinking about is this. You might know I have got a cottage a few miles from here. It's my bolt-hole when I need to escape. There's one drawback. It won't be heated until I can get there. What I suggest is that you pack a few things and I'll take you across in the car. We'll stop at the village shop as you will need some food. There's not a chippy just round the corner, but if you're prepared to rough it overnight you can stay there and I'll pick you up tomorrow afternoon or early evening. I'll phone before I leave." Marc's jaw dropped. Mr Bell had always been good to him, but he had not expected anything like this. "Go and pack on the assumption Mr Dalton says yes, but don't be disappointed if he says no. Okay?" Marc was speechless, but he managed to nod, his mouth still open.
Marc went off to pack. Mr Bell went off to see Mr Dalton. Mr Dalton was on duty that day, so he had time to listen. In fact his only objection was whether Mr Bell was concerned about the security of his cottage to which he said it was more secure with someone staying there than otherwise. Mr Bell made his way up to Marc's room to give him the good news. Marc had packed some warm clothes, his CCF sleeping bag, some bits and pieces from his tuckbox and took his guitar. He purposely left his work behind as he felt he could not do it justice in the mood he was in, but took the Harry Potter book his sister had given him for Christmas. Fortunately there was no one around when he climbed into Mr Bell's Volvo and sped off, first to the village stores. Within the hour they had reached the single storey cottage set in its own garden.
Meanwhile Seb had gone along to Marc's room and was surprised not to find him there. He went off to find a snooker partner.
Mr Bell opened the front door, picked up some junk mail and went directly to switch on the central heating. He showed Marc round the cottage and helped him stow his stuff in the spare room.
"Just one thing I ask of you, to respect my study and my bedroom, otherwise you have the freedom of the house. There'll be plenty of hot water soon. Any emergency, give me a ring. I shan't be very far this weekend, probably squatting behind a pile of exercise books." He wished Marc a pleasant stay, left him a set of keys and jumped into his Volvo and motored off.
Marc was alone. His earlier confusion had been overtaken by events. He returned to his bedroom, took off his shoes, wrapped himself in his sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep.
* * *
Marc woke about two o'clock. He felt physically recovered, but mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. The cottage had now warmed up a little, though still in his clothes he had sweated profusely tucked up inside his sleeping bag. He had brought his sports kit with him for he knew that there was nothing better than physical exertion when he felt like this. He took off his clothes and slipped on his running shorts and singlet, and over that he wore a sweatshirt, Buckton College and the school crest emblazoned on the front. He put his shoes on outside, locked up, pinned the key safely to his singlet and jogged off. Only now did it occur to him that he hadn't the slightest idea where he was or where he was going. He just took in the surroundings to get his bearings. A milky sun helped him find south-west. He needed all his concentration in order to find his way back and this kept his mind off Seb. After five minutes he came to the local village. He noted its name for now he could return to Bell Cottage, should he get lost, by asking the way to the village. The terrain was rolling countryside and on the other side of the village he found a public footpath going up a hill of pastureland. He skipped over the stile and on soft ground with the gradient against him he started to sprint. His body was working well. Christmas had inevitably taken the edge off his fitness, but almost four weeks into term it had returned and although he was putting everything into his running, his recovery rate was quick. At the top of the hill he stopped to augment his workout with press-ups when another runner, a couple of years or so older, caught him up. They got into conversation and Marc explained he had no idea where he was going. The other harrier saw the Buckton College sweatshirt and asked him if he knew Mr Bell. "Thats where I'm staying," replied Marc.
"My name's Jack and my father's landlord of The Old Spot. We quite often see Mr Bell when he's not at school. Nice chap." Marc was amazed at how small the world was. "Can you manage five more miles?" Marc was more than keen. "Then you can run alongside me and Ill take you back to the village." He soon found that it was quite a challenge keeping up with Jack, but he was not going to lag behind. The downhill parts they jogged while going uphill at a sprint. Jack would do press-ups and sit-ups as Marc followed up the hill and the concentration on the running meant there was not time for thinking. Jack was as good as his word and they arrived back at The Old Spot. Marc thanked him for the workout. Jack explained that he was representing the county in the U21s event the following weekend and was grateful for someone to run against. When Marc heard his standard he was not so disappointed with himself. They shook hands and parted and after five minutes Marc was taking off his trainers before going indoors. He took a long relaxing bath and finally just wearing a clean tracksuit turned the television on, slumped into an armchair and immediately fell into another slumber.
When he awoke he felt hungry and realised he had not eaten since breakfast. He went into the kitchen, delved into his box of supplies and made himself two bacon butties, dripping with tomato sauce and butter. He then sat down and watched Big Break. He felt a great deal better than he had done in the morning. He knew he still had to think, but it was not the right time. The cottage was really warm now, so between television programmes and dozing he read some Harry Potter. He was enjoying the solitude. The run and solitude were exactly the right antidote. At ten o'clock it all became too much for him, so he retired to his bedroom, slipped into shorts and tee shirt, curled himself up in the sleeping bag and fell asleep straight away.
It was eight o'clock and light when he came to. He leapt out of bed after sleeping solidly through ten hours. Again he put on his running kit and took the same route as yesterday. He had no difficulty finding it and this time ran steadily, as fast as he could.
On returning through the village he noticed the Communion service at 10.30. That would put him in the right mood for what he still had to do - think. After a quick shower he got himself breakfast, and having no dark suit with him thought the Lord would have to accept him in what clothes he had.
The sermon made him even more thoughtful. It started with the love of God for every human being, even sinners. It covered all aspects of love and reminded him of his general reading for Tonio Kröger, argued that in order to love you must love yourself as much as God loves you and before returning to the love of God it warned against spurning any genuine love. Marc had listened to every word and in a daze walked out into a bright February day of blue sky and sunlight. He returned to Bell Cottage with an inkling of the way forward.
He sat back on a garden bench situated in a sheltered and sunlit nook with his hands folded on his head. His eyes glazed as his brain got into gear. This was the first time all weekend that he had really thought of Seb. He could face the idea now. The key to it all was love, and that need not mean sexual love. After all his feelings towards the boy had by and large been paternal and fraternal, but he was attracted to him. He was attracted to him physically, by his appearance, by his nature, by his character. He had put his arms round him and hugged him. Or had he cuddled him? Did this make him gay? If it did, did it matter? If it meant being like Jackman, it did matter. And then he came to the final answer of all, the one provided by the sermon. The boy loved him. He had told him so. He had written it. He had done almost everything in his power to be in his company. He had undertaken some strange ways of attracting attention to prove it. This was the boy's love for him and he had a responsibility to return it, to requite it. QED. He had solved the problem. Now he could enjoy life again. Furthermore he could look forward to his skiing trip at half term.
Feeling that much lighter Marc decided to try his luck and seek out a spot of Sunday lunch at The Old Spot. Jack was helping his father out, so he had someone to talk to while digging in to the traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Marc walked back to the cottage, settled down in the armchair to read Harry Potter and dozed off until the phone rang just after six. Mr Bell was on his way over to collect him. Marc hurriedly collected his things together, tidied up the rooms he had used and was ready to leave when Mr Bell let himself in. In the car on the way back they chatted. Marc told him how he had spent the weekend. Finally Mr Bell popped the question.
"Have you sorted yourself out?"
"Yes, I just needed some sleep."
"Was it about a certain third former?" Marc blushed. How did he know? Mr Bell did not say much, but then he did not miss much, either.
"You know then?"
"Am I making a fool of myself?"
"Not in the least. Youre not the first to fall in love and you won't be the last. Just ride it, enjoy it. You can give a lot of pleasure in this world and by the way he's been stomping round the House like a bear with a sore head this weekend. You can rely on me to be discreet."
They arrived back at Paxford. With profuse thanks Marc took his things up to his room. Mr Bell had even saved him some supper and left it in his study. Marc took a plain postcard and wrote: "My dearest S, Im back. Cocoa after Prayers? Your M" and slipped it quietly under his door. (to be continued)