This is my first attempt at a story. I'd love to hear some feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons alive or dead are purely coincidental. All the usual disclaimers apply.
Chapter 8: Henry II Academy
"I'm up Dad," I said again, a little louder this time, in response to his second knock on my bedroom door in less than ten minutes. I tried to snuggle down again, pulling the bedding tighter around my body; just five more minutes. But it was too late; that second knock had done its job well. My brain must have decided it would be less effort to wake up than to return to sleep and had totally locked me out.
Maybe it was just as well though, because what little I remembered from the dream I was having was not very pleasant. As the dream receded further from my grasp the more awake I became, there were only two things that stayed with me; the sense of running through the woods at night and the feeling of being scared to death. Even those vivid impressions were becoming increasingly vague and indistinct as each moment passed.
With a sigh I untangled myself from the sheets and sat up, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes with the heels of my hands.
I don't know why we have to get up so early today anyway, we didn't need to be at the school until nine thirty after all and it was now... barely seven fifteen, according to my cell phone. I groaned. Dad said that he'd call me at seven thirty.
I walked over to my dresser and pulled on a T-Shirt. Not bothering with sweats I went downstairs in my boxers. I'd be having a shower after breakfast so I didn't see the point in getting fully dressed.
Dad was sipping from his coffee cup and flicking though some papers when I walked into the kitchen.
"Morning sleepyhead," he said glancing up at me, "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as usual, I see."
It was far too early in the day for sarcasm, so I just grunted a hello at him but otherwise ignored the comment. Fixing myself a bowl of cereal and a glass of OJ it took a seat opposite him and started eating.
"I was just going over the paperwork from your old school," he volunteered. "It all looks to be in order but I expect I'll hear if the new school has any specific requirements. You know they'll probably need to test your academic level independently?" he asked, putting the papers to one side.
This was news to me and caused me to almost choke on my cereal. "Wha..?" I spluttered, wiping a dribble of milk from my chin with the back of my hand. "Today?" Why hadn't he told me this earlier?
"I'm not sure... maybe. It would make sense to do it today, although they could always do it when you start tomorrow," he shrugged. "I'm sure we'll find out soon enough though."
"B..but I haven't had chance to prepare," I said throwing up my hands, "why didn't you tell me?" I could feel my face getting hot. This was going to be a disaster!
"Well," he smirked, "precisely to avoid this sort of over-reaction. Don't worry kiddo, the kind of tests we're talking about here don't need any preparation and are designed more to get a feel for your comprehension and reasoning skills, you'll do fine."
"But what if I don't? What then? What if they won't take me?" I demanded, still freaking out over his revelation. Oh God! That would be sooo embarrassing!
"Hey! You're NOT stupid, Jon," he insisted, "you're far from stupid. So just relax and try to have as much faith in your abilities as I do, OK? Besides," he added ruefully, "they've already taken payment up to the end of the school year, so it's just a formality."
I did calm down a bit after he said that but I still felt anxious at the prospect of doing badly. I finished my cereal in silence then said I was going to take a shower. Dad stopped me before I left the kitchen.
"Jon? Look, I'm sorry I didn't mention it before," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder, "I just didn't want to add to your worries, what with the move and everything. Do you understand that?"
I thought about it and I suppose that I could see his point. "Yeah, I suppose so," I sighed, "I'm sure it'll be alright," I added, more for his benefit than mine. I wasn't convinced.
"Good. Well go get yourself showered and dressed," he said, checking his watch, "we should probably leave at around eight thirty, just in case there are any problems on the road, we don't want to be late getting there."
Back in my room, I stripped off and went into my bathroom for a quick, but still refreshing, shower. After brushing my teeth and combing my hair I walked back into the bedroom with a towel wrapped round my waist. Drawing back the curtains from each window I was glad to see that it had stopped raining and the day looked quite bright, although undoubtedly still cold. I noticed that the curtains in the upper window of Peter's house were still closed and wondered if he was up yet?
Thinking about Peter cheered my up somewhat. Maybe I'd bump into him during my visit to the school today? I laid out the clothes I was going to wear today and, removing my towel, put on some fresh underwear. I opted for briefs instead of boxers today; I didn't mind either type, it's just sometimes briefs were more...I don't know...comforting? After a quick squirt of my pits with deodorant I got dressed and went back downstairs.
Dad had suggested that I didn't wear clothes that were too casual, so I'd decided on a black pair of jeans, a light-gray button down shirt and my black Old Skool Vans. I'd found a steam-iron and ironing board in one of the spare bedrooms, after a short scavenger hunt following dinner last night. We'd set up the ironing board where I'd found it rather than take it downstairs and after I'd ironed my shirt and jeans, Dad did his shirt and pants. Dad said that whoever found it first got to choose what we had for lunch today and so, as I'd won, we are going to be having Chinese food. I would normally have opted for pizza, had we not had one just a couple of days ago. Anyway, Chinese food comes a close second to pizza in my book; that's assuming we could find a decent restaurant in Bedford, of course.
In the kitchen, Dad looked ready to set off. He had on one of his favorite tweed jackets which, in my opinion, made him look every inch the college professor. Taking a sip from what I assumed was his second cup of coffee, he slipped my school paperwork into his briefcase and turned to me. Giving me the once over, he nodded his approval of my choice of clothing.
"I'll nip down to the garage and get the car," he said, retrieving the car keys from a small earthenware bowl he'd adopted as their repository. "In the meantime, if you can fetch your coat and wait by the front door we can set off as soon as I get back, okay?"
"Sure Dad," I answered as he left the room.
I figured it would take him five minutes or so to get the car out and return so I helped myself to another glass of OJ, which I drank in two large gulps, before heading off to get my coat. I stepped out of the front door to be greeted by the approaching sound of tires on gravel. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the car rounded the corner and drew to a halt. I walked around to the passenger door and got in, dumped my coat on the back seat and buckled-up.
"All set?" Dad asked as I settled in.
I nodded and he pulled away from the house. He drove out through the gates and turned right.
"Didn't we go that way last time?" I asked, pointing back over my shoulder.
"Yes, we did," Dad nodded slowly, "but, as we need to get to Bedford and not Cambridge this time, going in that direction would be counter productive, don't you think?" he added with a little smirk.
'Well, at least one of us is having fun,' I thought, although I wasn't really that bothered that it was at my expense. Dad was fond of making the odd friendly jibe and I, unfortunately, gave him plenty of opportunities to do so.
"Ha-ha, very funny," I said, rolling my eyes at him.
We passed a signpost that announced 'Howeton 1/4' and pointed down a side road that we'd just passed. I didn't ask why we weren't going through the village as it might lead to another smart remark. Dad saw me looking though.
"It'll be quicker if we take the road around the village," he said, "we can always drive through it on the way back if you like? I expect you're curious about it?"
"Yeah, a little," I shrugged, "it would be nice to see what's there."
"Well, don't get too excited," he cautioned me, "there's not an awful lot to see really. If you blink you might miss it. Still," he added in a wistful tone, "looking back, it is a nice quiet village and not a bad place to grow up around. Although, I remember I felt differently about that when I was your age. We used to pray for something exciting to happen, anything. But in the end we always had to make our own fun, hehehe, and we did have some fun I can tell you. One time I remember we..."
I could tell he was about to launch into on of his 'boyhood adventure' stories and, whilst I didn't mind him talking, as it would help break the monotony of the journey, I had heard about all of his exploits many times over the years. I'd much rather we talked about something of more pressing concern.
"So. Dad," I interrupted, "what was this school like when you went there? You've never really talked about it much."
"Huh? Oh, well let's see," he began, slightly flustered by the sudden change in topic, "hmmm, I do have some very good memories of my time at the Academy. Although, to be honest with you, there were also times that I hated it there."
This was news to me and I was beginning to wonder if it would have been better not to have asked.
"Really? Why did you hate it?" I prompted him, after he didn't offer further elaboration.
"Oh, well, don't get me wrong," he said, looking at me briefly before returning his full attention to the road ahead, "it is an excellent school. It's just that I wasn't a very good student, at least not to start with."
I found that hard to believe given Dad's chosen career and excellence in his field.
Detecting my skepticism he ploughed on. "It's true! I was rebellious and much more interested in having fun than applying myself to my studies. I butted heads with most of my teachers and drove my mother and father to absolute distraction with some of my antics, hehehe," he chuckled lightly, but his expression was more sad than mirthful.
"Um, so what changed?" I asked, not able to identify the Dad I knew from the image he'd just drawn of himself as a student. "I mean, you went on to University and stuff..."
"It wasn't like I had an epiphany or anything like that," he said, shrugging. "There were probably a number of factors that contributed to my change in attitude and that change definitely didn't happen overnight. I suppose I got tired of the canings for one thing. Although, to start with, I was proud of each stripe I received across my backside and even thought of them as battle scars; wearing each like a badge of honor. But eventually I realized that, out of all the boys in my class, I was the one getting most of the punishment. Most of my friends encouraged me and laughed along when I played the class clown but they weren't laughing with me; they were laughing at me. And there's a big difference, believe me."
I understood what he was saying but my mind kept skipping back to his mention of 'canings'. Did they still beat the kids at this school?
"Anyway," he continued with a sigh, "about the same time I was realizing the error of my ways, things had come to a bit of a head and I was very close to being expelled. My mother and father were called in to meet with the headmaster to discuss my future at the Academy; if I had one. Mother was very upset by the whole affair and seeing her in tears over my bad behavior, I think, was another tipping point for me. After that I began to apply myself more and resisted the urgings of my classmates to perform for their entertainment. Of course, they weren't too happy that their pet clown was no longer 'dancing to their tune', so to speak, and they gave me a lot of grief over it. It was also hard to convince the teachers, at first, that I was a reformed character; a bad reputation is hard to live down and it takes a long time to build trust again. Thankfully, I had an unexpected ally in the shape of my history teacher, Mr Williams. It was especially surprising to find him in my corner, given that he was the teacher with whom I'd had the most run-ins. I think he could see that I was sincere in my wish to change and actively encouraged me to take a serious interest in the subject. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the years that followed, the rest, if you'll excuse the pun, is history."
He flashed me a quick grin and I rolled my eyes. I couldn't help but smile back at him though, despite the lameness of his little joke.
It was fascinating to hear that Dad's road to academic success had been a rocky one and that, had he not turned himself around, his life could have easily taken a completely different path. I wondered absently where that path might have lead him. If he hadn't gone on to University he wouldn't have met Mom, which means that I would never have been born. The more I thought about it the clearer it became that the choices we make can have a huge impact on people lives. That everything we do has its consequence; action and reaction. Those consequences, like ripples on a pond, spread outwards from their source; each ripple affecting everything it comes into contact with, creating more actions and more consequences.
"We're here," said Dad cheerfully, startling me from my contemplation, as he prepared to turn off from the main road. I looked over at him and he nodded in the direction of a sign next to a large set of iron gates which read:
Henry II Academy
An Independent School for Boys 11-18
I sat up straighter in my seat and got my first look at the building which loomed up before us as Dad drove through the gates. Now that we were here my nerves had returned with a vengeance and I chewed anxiously on my bottom lip.
It was a large building constructed almost entirely from red brick, except for the pale stone surrounding the wide mullioned windows. It put me in mind of a castle with its main entrance looking like a gatehouse with two tall square towers flanking it and large many-windowed walls extending outward to meet towers set at each corner. There were at least three stories and the towers were slightly taller again and stood slightly proud of the walls, all were capped by a steep slate roof. A clock tower rose over the central 'gate house', at least another story above the rest, concluding in a spire that looked twice as tall as the other roofs. A weather-vane crowned the spire but I couldn't quite make out the detail of the motif, I didn't think it was a cockerel anyway.
At the end of a short drive leading to the front of the building Dad turned left, into the visitors parking lot, and pulled to a halt in the nearest available parking bay. I scanned the dashboard until I located the digital clock display which read nine fifteen; there was still time to compose myself before we had to go inside. Dad though, appeared to have other ideas and unbuckled his seatbelt, making to get out of the car until I grabbed his arm to stop him.
"Wait! It's not time, don't go yet," I pleaded, tightening my grip.
He settled down in his seat again and turned to look at me. "Come on kiddo," he said in calm voice, patting my white-knuckled hand gently, "there's no point in putting it off just because we're a little early. You know, you're not likely to feel any better ten minutes from now, if anything you'll feel worse. Best to get it over with, eh? Don't you think? Best foot forward, and all that. Besides, it's not as if you're visiting the dentist or getting a shot or something else equally as unpleasant is it? This is just a school, Jon. Regardless of how big and impressive it appears, it is just a school. And, what's more, it's going to be YOUR school for the next few years, so why not start as you mean to go on, hmm?"
I knew he was right, of course, and his words did help to relax me somewhat. If I started off acting like I was scared of my own shadow I was sure nothing good would come of it. If necessary I could probably raise my shields a little, as I had back in the U.S., at least until I found my feet and got used to the place.
I let go of his arm and lowered my head a little, now feeling slightly foolish about the whole 'first day of school' style panic attack. "Sorry, you're right, I'm being stupid again," I muttered but managed a weak smile, "let's go."
I unbuckled my own seatbelt and opened my door but Dad stopped me before I could step out.
"Jon?" He said, causing me to turn back and look at him, "Just relax, okay? You've got nothing to worry about here, trust me."
I offered him a curt nod, which I hope conveyed to him that I was feeling a little more confident. Although, thinking about it, maybe it was more for my benefit than his. I stepped out and closed the door behind me, leaving my coat on the back seat. I'd be too hot if I wore it and, even if it did rain later, we'd still be able to get back to the car without getting too wet in the process. Together we walked the short distance to the school's main entrance.
We climbed up three wide stone steps before stepping through the open doorway. The two halves of the heavy arched door had been fastened back to the wall with hooks at their base. The long hallway before us was empty and had doors spaced at regular intervals on both sides. I let Dad lead the way, he'd gone to school here himself so I trusted that he knew his way around the place. He stopped outside the first door on the right. Upon the wooden plaque on the wall beside it were the words 'Bursar's Office' in black script style lettering. Dad rang the bell that was fixed to the doorjamb and waited. No more than ten seconds later the top half of the door swung inwards and a balding middle-aged man with round wire-framed spectacles and a substantial pot-belly poked his head out.
"Good morning, sir," said the man, "how may I assist you?"
"Good morning," Dad said in a business-like tone that I wasn't used to hearing him use, "my name is Thomas Barrett, and this is my son, Jonathan." Dad said, inclining his head in my direction. "We have an appointment at nine thirty this morning with the headmaster. Would you be so kind as to let him know that we are here."
"Ah yes, Professor Barrett and son," said the man referring to a clipboard that he had materialized from somewhere, "just one moment if you please sir, I'll just call the headmaster's secretary and advise her of your arrival." He retreated into the room, leaving the door ajar.
"What's a Bursar, Dad?" I whispered.
"Bursars generally manage a school's finances and administration, although their duties can vary greatly from school to school," he whispered back.
The man returned shortly and smiled at us. "If you would care to take the second door on the left," he said pointing down the hallway ahead of us, "to the headmaster's suite. His secretary is expecting you."
"Much obliged," Dad nodded to the man and marched off down the hallway.
I glanced up at the man, who gave me a quick smile and a wink as he was closing the door, before scooting off to catch Dad up.
Dad paused outside the door to the headmaster's suite and waited for me. Opposite the door was a large glass display cabinet that had caught my attention. Displayed on shelves within it were many trophies, shields and other sporting memorabilia, together with what I assumed were framed photographs of the winning teams responsible for all the silverware. It certainly looked like they took their sport seriously here.
"If you remind me on the way out Jon," Dad said from behind me, "there's something I'd like to show you. But for now, we'd best be getting along, we shouldn't keep the headmaster waiting."
I turned away from the cabinet and joined Dad at the door. He knocked once and then stepped through into the secretary's office. As Dad spoke to the secretary, I glanced about the room, taking in rich wooden paneling on the walls and several framed portrait photographs of serious looking men dressed in academic gowns. Ex-headmasters I assumed. My attention was snapped back to Dad as the door in the wall, past where the secretary's desk stood, opened and a tall distinguished looking man stepped out. Easily as tall as Dad's 6'2", if not slightly taller, he had dark brown hair which was graying at the temples and an air of authority about him that demanded your attention. His military like demeanor was softened by a humorous twinkle in his eyes and crows-feet, implying he was no stranger to laughter. He strode out into the room, right up to Dad, and thrust his hand out. Dad accepted his offer and they both shook vigorously.
"Professor Barrett," he said still gripping Dad's hand, "my name is Robert Sterling and I have the honor of being the headmaster of this fine establishment. It's very nice to meet you." He finally let go of Dad's hand and his eyes moved from Dad's to mine. "And this must be Jonathan, how do you do young man?" He stepped past Dad and stuck his hand out again, this time in my direction.
I hesitated only briefly before responding politely. "Yes sir. How do you do, sir?" I said, taking his hand. I expected a vice like grip but he was surprisingly gentle. He squeezed it firmly, but not painfully so, pumped my hand once and then released me.
"Well gentlemen," he said, "if you'd both care to join me in my office we can get down to the pleasurable business of formalizing Jonathan's enrollment." He spread his arms and ushered Dad and I through the door. "Please make yourselves comfortable while I see to refreshments. Tea or coffee, professor?"
"Coffee please," said Dad taking one of the two comfortable looking leather seats set before the headmaster's large pedestal style desk.
The dark wood practically gleamed after what I suspected was many years of frequent polishing and the desktop was inlaid with a tooled black leather writing surface. Several small piles of paperwork were neatly arranged down one side and the left hand corner was taken up with a 15 inch LCD monitor, keyboard, mouse and a telephone. The center of the desk was bare apart from one single file; mine I assumed.
"What about you Jonathan? Some fruit juice perhaps?" He asked from the doorway, raising an eyebrow enquiringly.
"Yes please sir, some orange juice would be nice if you have any." I answered.
He left the room briefly and spoke with his secretary before returning and closing the door behind him. Taking a seat in the high backed leather chair across the table from us he scooted the chair forward slightly and leaned on the desktop, folding his hands and interlacing his fingers.
"The refreshments will be with us shortly," he began, "in the meantime, if you'll forgive my curiosity, how are you both settling in to life back in the UK? I understand that the move was very recent and I appreciate, from past experience with other students and their parents, that such upheavals can take some adjusting to."
Dad and I both looked at each other briefly before Dad responded to the question.
"I think we're doing very well, under the circumstances," he shrugged. "As you know from our previous correspondence, we had lived in the U.S. for just six years so, for me at least, the transition has been relatively easy. It has been much harder for my son, although he'd be the last to admit it, as he's had to leave all of his friends behind. All in all though, he is coping very well so far. I'm very proud of him," he finished, reaching across and giving my shoulder a gentle squeeze.
I couldn't help but blush a little at the praise and lowered my head slightly.
"Now, now Jonathan," the headmaster admonished me, "no need to feel uncomfortable. I believe that the ability to receive praise graciously is a sign of maturity. One should always accept compliments when they are freely offered. Once you learn that you'll be more inclined to compliment others in turn, when it's due of course," he smiled at me as I raised my head and returned his gaze, mulling over what he had just said.
The door opened and his secretary bustled in bearing a silver tray.
"Thank you, Jane," he smiled genuinely at the secretary, as she set down the tray upon which were two steaming cups of coffee and a tall glass of orange juice, "and hold all of my calls for the duration of this meeting, if you please."
The secretary simply nodded and quickly left the room.
"Please do help yourself to cream and sugar, professor," he said gesturing to the small jug and bowl of pale-brown sugar cubes that had accompanied the drinks.
"So," the headmaster said after Dad and I had taken our first sips, "let's get down to the business at hand. I have Jon's transcripts from his last school together with the reference that I requested independently from his last school's Principal," he said laying his hand on the unopened file before him on the desk, "both paint a more than satisfactory picture of Jonathan's performance and future potential. There was, of course a noticeable drop-off in academic performance last year but, under the circumstances, that was only to be expected and won't be a hindrance to his enrollment. I am also informed by the Bursar's Office that the fees for the remainder of this school year have been paid in full. Thank you, professor," he said, inclining his head in Dad's direction.
He continued without waiting for a response. "All that remains to be done is for you to let us see the originals of the documentation you have provided thus far and to supply us with the signed enrollment papers that we recently sent you. Also if you have it, a copy of the insurance certificate, relating to the policy we recommended that you take out, would be useful for our records. I'm sure you appreciate how important it is to make plans to cover the cost of the continuation of your son's education here, should your future financial situation change."
"Yes, headmaster," said Dad, handing over the bundle of documents he'd brought with him, "I have everything you need right here, including the insurance certificate. Although, I can't foresee there being any future financial issues as my income is not dependent on my continued employment."
"Excellent," said the headmaster, "that's always reassuring to hear. Now," he said turning to look at me, "Jonathan, have you been informed that we require you to undertake our standard entrance examinations?"
"Yes sir," I said, nodding my head.
"Very good. From what I've seen and heard thus far I don't expect you'll have any difficulty with them. We find that they are a useful tool for us to measure a students grasp of the basics. Any shortfall can be readily addressed with a tailored tutoring programme. The examinations are in English, Mathematics and Verbal Reasoning and should take no more than one and three-quarter hours in total to complete. Before that though, I have arranged for you to have a whistle-stop tour of the school and it's facilities. No doubt there will be far too much for you to take during one brief tour but I'm sure that, in the weeks to come, you will get to know the school like the back of your hand." He picked up the telephone handset and pressed a button.
"Jane, I assume Daines has arrived, good, please send him through would you?" He put the phone down just as the door opened and a boy walked into the room.
I turned my head and looked at him as he approached the headmaster's desk. He didn't look at me or Dad, his eyes were fixed on the headmaster.
"Ah, Daines," the headmaster began, "this is Professor Thomas Barrett and his son, Jonathan. Jonathan is joining us with effect from tomorrow and needs to be shown the lay of the land. His entrance exams are scheduled for ten thirty," he paused, glancing down at his watch, "which gives you some 30 minutes to give him an abbreviated tour of our campus. Are you up to this challenge?"
"Of course sir," said the boy, "to whom should I deliver him at the end of the tour?"
"Oh yes, the exams will take place in Small Hall. Mr McPherson will have oversight."
"Very good, sir," he turned to look at me for the first time, "would you follow me please, Jonathan?" He said, heading for the door without waiting for a response.
I looked uncertainly at Dad, who nodded and smiled encouragingly. So I got up and followed the boy out of the door, through the secretary's office and back out into the hallway where he had stopped and was waiting patiently for me.
I looked up at him expectantly and waited for him to speak first. He was taller than me, but then again most older boys were. I guessed that he was around 5'10" and looked pretty solidly built though it was difficult to tell for sure as his uniform softened the definition of the body it contained. But there was something about the way he moved, a controlled fluidity, that gave the impression of cat-like athleticism.
"I'm Daines," said the boy, offering his hand for a shake, "first name's Nigel but we always address each other by our surnames here. So from now on, Jonathan, I'll be calling you Barrett, as will everyone else, you'll need to get used to that."
"Okay, Daines," I said, trying out his name and shaking his hand briefly, "thanks for the heads-up."
"American, eh?" He said arching his eyebrows. "Oh well, it could be worse, I suppose. Follow me and I'll fill you in on how things work around here."
I frowned at his comment but don't think he'd noticed. He was already marching off down the hallway making me increase my pace to catch him up.
"I'm not an American; I'm English," I protested, trying not to sound petulant, "I've just lived over there for six years, is all."
"I didn't mean anything by it. Look, as a Newbie you should expect some ribbing, more than the usual amount I expect, given your origin. But it's good natured, or at least it should be. If it does turn nasty just seek out one of us prefects," he said pointing to an embroidered five-pointed star on his lapel, "and we'll rectify the problem. All the boys here know the score, having been through it themselves at some point. Of course, in this sort of environment you're always going to find the odd arsehole who thinks he can get away with murder. Not in the literal sense, of course, so don't fret about it," he added quickly in response to my deepening frown.
"What's 'ribbing'?" I asked, not being familiar with the term.
"Teasing," he explained, looking at me curiously, "you must have seen that in your last school, surely?"
"Unfortunately, yes," I confirmed, as we reached a set of glass doors at the end of the hallway.
"Well, just think of it as a way of getting to know you," he shrugged. "People will try to push your buttons to get a reaction from you. It's okay to react or not react, that's up to you. If you do react, it's HOW you react that shows them what sort of person you are. Just keep you eyes and ears open, that's the best advice I can give you."
"Sounds great," I said sarcastically, "I can't wait."
Daines turned to look at me and sighed. "Look, I'm sorry if I'm giving a bad impression of life here because this is a fantastic school; the teachers are great and the facilities are first class. You'll love it here, trust me, I do. I'm really going to miss this place when I leave for Uni at the end of the year. I just didn't want you to be caught off guard if somebody does or says something that might upset you."
He pushed open one of the glass doors and we stepped through onto a covered, many columned walkway surrounding a large open area on four sides.
"This is the quad," he said, slipping back into tour-guide mode, "I like to think of this part of the school as being like a square bicycle wheel. The fish pond is the hub," he said gesturing to a squat square structure in the center of the open area which, as we walked towards it, did indeed turn out to be a raised fish pond.
There was even a fountain in the middle fashioned to resemble Aquarius with water pouring out of the vessel she was carrying into the water below. Small and not so small goldfish could be seen near the surface, darting away to hide in the depths as I peeked over the edge. Slatted, bench like seating surrounded the pond, fastened to each three and a half foot tall section of wall.
"The paving is the spokes," he continued his analogy, pointing out the eight paths formed from well worn stone flags radiating outwards from the fish pond to the covered walkway. Between each spoke was an area of lawn containing a flowerbed, a small tree or in some cases both. Very low, and neatly trimmed, privet hedges bordered each lawned area, adding definition to each path. "You can think of the colonnade as the wheel's rim and the main building as the tyre," he concluded and looked at me as if to assess whether or not I was paying attention.
I just nodded and waited for him to continue.
"Okay, well let's see" he said, pausing briefly to scratch his chin, "the hallway we just came from is the administrative centre of the school, housing offices of the Head, Deputy Head, Bursar's staff and formal meeting and dining rooms, mainly used by the Board of Governors. All of this building," he said, sweeping his arm around in an all-encompassing gesture, "we call the Old School and is pretty much dedicated to the core subjects, English, Mathematics and Humanities. It's the oldest building on campus. There are separate and much more recently constructed blocks dedicated to Science & IT, Music & Drama and Art & Media Studies. We also have a large Sports Hall which includes Squash Courts, Fitness & Weight rooms and a 25 metre heated swimming pool.
"Humanities?" I asked, jumping in when he paused to take a breath.
"Oh, you know," and he started listing subjects and counting them off on his fingers, "History, Geography, Modern Languages, Classics, Literature, Philosophy and Religious Studies. I think that's all of them," he finished, lowering his hand.
"I'm afraid I'm not going to have time to show you all the way around the school today, but there should be a detailed plan of the campus in the information pack you've been given. I recommend that you study it closely. This is a big place and it's very easy to get turned around when you're new. I probably have time to show you the sports ground quickly, then we'll have to get you back to Small Hall," he said, clapping me on the back before heading across to the opposite side of the quad from where we came in.
I followed him through another set of glass doors and down a hallway similar to the first one I'd been in. Although this one was lined on both sides by lockers like the ones I was used to in my last school. We passed by a number of doors and familiar sounds of classes in progress seeped out into the hallway.
Daines was looking at his watch again. "We'll have to be quick as the bell's going to sound soon and then all hell will break loose. Come on," he urged as he started to jog towards the end of the hall. Another set of double doors this time led out onto a wide terrace surrounded by a stone balustrade, except for where four broad steps lead down to and expanse of well manicured lawn.
"This is the main cricket pitch, there's another further out past the sports hall and the practice nets are setup there too. There are the Science, Art and Music blocks I was telling you about," he said pointing at three separate three story buildings, which did look significantly newer than the old building now behind us. It also looked like a lot of care had gone into their design, so that they did not contrast too much with the red bricks and stone of Old School.
I was standing at the top of the steps, taking in the sight of the surprisingly large school campus and thinking about how long it would take for me to be able to navigate around he place, when bells suddenly rang out from several different directions.
"Crap!" Cursed Daines, "I was afraid this might happen. Prepare yourself for the Tuck Shop stampede, Barrett," he smiled and backed away from the steps to lean on the balustrade.
I followed him, uncertain of what to expect. I did find out soon enough though as three sets of double doors, the one we'd come out from and two more set into each corner of the Old School building, burst open spilling forth a torrent of boys, all bumping into and jostling each other as they poured out onto the terrace. A large proportion of them raced in our direction before veering away and down the steps, racing around the cricket pitch towards a low, wide building that Daines hadn't identified as yet.
I looked up at him and raised my eyebrow in expectation of an explanation.
"It's ten twenty-five, we get a 20 minute break before the next two periods and then we break for lunch," he said nodding in the direction of the now thinning stream of boys as they disappeared into the building. "That's the Dining Hall. It's open from eight o'clock in the morning, should you ever miss breakfast at home. It also has a Tuck Shop where you can buy snacks and sweets to top up on before you get lunch at twelve thirty. It's always busy as you can see, so it's best to get there early," he shrugged his shoulders, "hence the stampede. If you're smart though, you'll buy yourself a snack when you arrive in the morning and try to resist eating it before the morning break. You'll live longer that way," he added with a smirk.
"Come on," he said clapping me on the shoulder again, "let's get you back to Small Hall or I'll be up before the Beak for dereliction of duty."
"Huh?", I was finding some of the things he said hard to follow, "'Beak'?" I asked.
"Oh," he grinned at me, "that's what we call the headmaster, just make sure he never hears you say it."
"What have you got their Daines? Fresh meat?" Came a voice from behind us, quickly followed by its source as a three boys approached us across the terrace.
"Mind your manners, Ellis," Daines snapped suddenly, whipping his head around in the direction of the newcomers, "I'm sure I don't need to remind you that you're already on very thin ice with the Beak. Just one more 'incident' and you'll be history, or have you forgotten so quickly?"
"Whoa! Keep your knickers on Daines, or are they your sister's? Hehehe," the larger of the three boys sniggered, shortly echoed by the other two at his shoulder, "we just wanted to welcome the Newbie, you are a Newbie aren't you?" He asked, now grinning in my direction. It wasn't a pleasant grin, one of his front teeth was chipped and a slightly duller color than its partner.
I nodded a confirmation without speaking, remembering Daines' reaction when he heard my accent. Besides, there was something about this boy that I took an instant dislike to. Maybe it was because his smile didn't reach his eyes or maybe because those gray-blue eyes seemed to radiate malice. Talk about '...windows to the soul', I thought and shuddered inwardly. Thankfully, ever mindful of the time, Daines rescued me from further discomfort.
"We're going to be late," he said, placing his arm around my shoulders and shepherding me away from the group, "let's go."
"Well, very nice to meet you, Newbie," Ellis shouted after our retreating backs, "we'll see you around." I resisted the urge to look back over my shoulder, I didn't want to see that grin again, or those eyes.
"Um," I said, looking up at Daines as we left the terrace and stepped back into the hallway, "should I assume that was one of the 'odd arseholes' you mentioned earlier?"
"Oh yes, Ellis is an arsehole alright and they certainly don't come much odder," he said, grimacing in distaste, "he's one to avoid at all costs, seriously." His sincere expression left me in no doubt that my initial assessment of Ellis wasn't far off the mark.
I jogged along beside Daines, avoiding collisions with boys that were still in the hallway where necessary. We crossed the quad, where several groups of boys were standing around chatting, while others were sat on the benching around the pond eating their snacks. Some of them cast us curious glances as we jogged past them and a few called out to Daines, but most of them ignored us, far too involved in their conversations to notice our passing.
Instead of entering the administrative hallway, Daines veered to the left as we passed the pond and headed down the diagonal path. He stopped when we got to the covered walkway and pointed to a large set of wooden doors.
"This is Small Hall," he said, pointing at the doors as I caught my breath. I was definitely going to have to work on my fitness. "It's used mostly for exams, unlike Big Hall which is used for full school assemblies. You should knock and then enter, McPherson will be waiting for you. His bark's worse than his bite, just be polite and you'll be fine." He advised me then turned to leave.
"Daines," I called after him, causing him to turn towards me again, "thanks a lot for the tour and the advice."
He didn't stop though, he just walked backwards along the diagonal path towards the pond. "Just doing my job," he called back. I think he appreciated my comment though judging by the smile he shot me before turning around again and heading off towards the hallway that led to the terrace.
I turned my attention back to the doors before me. After checking that my appearance was still tidy, I raised my hand and knocked three times on the nearest door before opening it and stepping through into Small Hall.
"Ah, there you are boy, Barrett is it?" A man in his mid-thirties stood up from behind a desk and walked towards where I stood just inside the doorway. Tall again, like the headmaster but, where the headmaster had been lean, the man before me was very powerfully built. He was wearing a dark-green polo with the school crest embroidered over his left breast, the muscles of his upper arms bulged out of the short sleeves. "Well? Speak up boy, I haven't got all day," he demanded, folding his arms and staring down at me.
"Y..yes sir," I responded, feeling intimidated despite what Daines had said, partly by the man but also because of the surroundings.
Small Hall wasn't small at all in my opinion. It was easily least sixty feet long and half that in width. The double height ceiling made it feel even larger. Windows, set high in the wall above the doors, allowed natural light in from the quad. The polished oak parquet flooring was laid in chevron patterns, adding to the feeling of space. If this was considered small I wondered what Big Hall must be like. The only furniture in the room was two small desks and two plain wooden chairs; one set back against the far left wall, the other about twenty feet away towards the center of the hall.
"Well, come on then Barrett, don't just stand there, take a seat and we'll get started," he growled, pointing at the far desk, "you're already five minutes late."
I hurried over and sat down as directed. A small sheaf of blank paper, a pen, pencil, eraser and six-inch ruler were neatly arranged on the right-hand side of the desktop.
"Right," said the man, striding to the desk near the wall before returning to me holding what I assumed was an exam paper, "my name's Mr. McPherson and I'm the Senior Sports Master. I also have the duty of being one of several exam adjudicators here, which means I get to make you sweat on and off the field." He paused as if waiting for a response from me.
Was that last comment meant to be funny, I was too nervous to think straight. So, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, I said nothing.
"This first paper is English," he continued, placing the paper face down on the desk in front of me, "you will have 40 minutes to complete this paper. Read each of the questions carefully and then enter your answers on the exam paper itself. The last question is an essay question and is worth 50 percent of the overall score. I suggest you take five minutes to plan out your essay and the remaining 15 minutes to complete it. You can use some of the paper to your right for your essay plan. You should include your plan with the finished exam paper. Do you have an questions?"
"Um, no sir," it seemed straightforward enough, I just wished that I had brought a watch with me.
"Very well," he said returning to his desk once more and picking up a stopwatch, "when I say 'Start' you may begin," he paused briefly then barked at me, "Start!".
I picked up the pen and turned over the exam paper, carefully reading the instructions on the front cover. They were pretty much exactly the same as the instructions he'd given me verbally, so I took a deep breath, turned over the page and started the exam.
To be continued...
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