By the time we reached St. Oswald's, fog had completely
smothered the coast. Even this far inland, the mist was impenetrable; our white
headlights merely illuminated the fact that we couldn't see. Hunched over the
wheel, father edged the car forward a few feet at a time. We might have driven
off England and into the sea if not for a boy waving a torch in bored zigzags by
the school entrance.
Father came to a halt in front of the main hall, set the
brake, pulled my bag out of the boot, and turned to me in what he probably
imagined was a soldierly manner. "Well," he said, "this is it."
This is what? I stared at the gloomy Victorian
building and imagined those same words used by fathers sending their sons off
into hopeless battle, up treacherous mountains, across the Russian steppes. They
seemed particularly inappropriate here. All I could see was a depressed
institution of secondary education suitable shrouded in fog. But I said nothing,
having learned a thing or two in sixteen years of carefully judged mediocrity,
including the value of silence.
It was my father's idea that I attend St. Oswald's, whose
long history and low standards fitted his requirements exactly. He must have
rejoiced that such a school existedone that would accept his miserable failure
of a son and attempt to transform him (me) into a useful member of society, a
lawyer, say, or someone who worked in the City.
"It's time you sorted yourself out," he said. "You're
nearly a man." But a less true description could scarcely have been uttered. I
was barely managing to get by as a boy.
My father shook hands with our welcoming committee as if
he, not I, were matriculating, and a few moments of chat with headmaster and
housemaster ensued. Wasn't the weather hadn't standards next thing we know one
I stood by, half listening, knowing the script by heart.
When we returned to the car, father cleared his throat,
gazed off into the middle distance, and suggested that I take this opportunity
to make amends for my last two educational disasters. And then, with a
pessimistic handshake and a brief clasp of my shoulder, he was off.
A bored prefect led me away from the main school toward a
collection of rectangular brick buildings arranged around a bleak little
courtyard. In the misty darkness, my future home uncannily resembled a prison.
As we entered Mogg House (Gordon Clifton-Mogg, housemaster), the weight of the
nineteenth century settled around my shoulders like a shroud. Tall brick walls
and narrow arched windows seemed designed to admit as little light and air as
possible. The architect's philosophy was obvious: starve the human spirit, yes,
but subtly, employing economies of dimention and scale. I could tell from here
that the rooms would be dark all year round, freezing in winter, cramped and
airless in summer. As I later discovered, St. Oswald's specialized in
architectural sadismeven the new science lab(pride of the establishment)
featured brown glass and breeze-block walls dating from 1958, height of the ugly
unfriendly architecture movement.
Up three flights of stairs and down a long featureless
corridor we trudged. At the end, the older boy dumped my bag, pounded on the
door, and left without waiting for an answer. After a time I was granted entry
to a small dormitory room where three boys looked me over impassively, as if
checking out a long shot in the paddock at Cheltenham.
There was a moment of silence.
"I'm Barrett," said the blunt-featured one in the middle,
producing a small black book from his pocket and pointing to the others in turn.
"Gibbon. And Reese."
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