Friday, September 1, 2017

Tough Assignment

Looking out over that calm lake at dawn, with its fishing boats and flying cranes, it was hard to believe that this beautiful place had been the scene of the worst industrial accident in history.
But months earlier, at about midnight on a cold winter night in December 1984, an airborne blanket of poison gas fell over a sleeping city. By dawn, 1,750 men, women and children were dead. More than 500 people suffered injuries, many of whom died of cancers and other diseases.
            The city was Bhopal, in northern India. By the time the case came to court nearly two years later, almost 4000 people had died, 40 were totally disabled and more than 2600 others had lasting partial disability. The agricultural chemicals plant was owned by the giant and now defunct US chemicals firm, Union Carbide, that made an arguable case for sabotage.
            At Carbide’s Connecticut headquarters, chairman Warren M. Anderson pledged
his company’s moral commitment to the victims and their families, and flew to India a few days afterward, accompanied by some technical experts and a medical aid team, only
to be arrested and sent home by the Indian government before he and his colleagues had
even visited the site of the catastrophe. The US and Indian Carbide companies offered nearly $2 million in immediate emergency relief, and afterward pledged more than $20 million more in funds and services. Carbide employees and its retirees voluntarily raised more than $120,000 for the relief organizations working in Bhopal.
            But UCIL, the Indian company, was less quick off the mark. While it did much to provide relief for the victims’ families, and endured national ostracism with a brave face, it was almost as though its entirely Indian management had been paralyzed with shock. In particular, it had failed to tell its side of the story adequately.  This was why, about ten months after the tragedy, I and my colleagues met Warren Anderson with Carbide colleagues at a working lunch at the company’s impressive Danbury, CT, headquarters. He was seeking help for the local directors in Mumbai, then Bombay. As a member of a New York firm of public relations consultants that advised Carbide, I was assigned to fly to India to develop and implement an India-wide program to better explain the situation to the public at large, to its 23,000 Indian stockholders, Parliament and the many communities where it had numerous plants, five operating divisions and 9,000 employees.
Although I’d worked all over the Pacific Rim, I’d never been to India, but within two or three days of that first meeting with Anderson I was flying to Mumbai, on a solo as-long-as-it-takes assignment.  On the weekend I arrived there was a meeting at my hotel. The meeting was attended by the Carbide company’s Indian board of directors and the managers of their 13 facilities based all over India.
My chief contact was UCIL’s chief executive, Vijay Gokhale, a handsome, intelligent and civilized man who’d had the misfortune to be promoted CEO only two or three months before the Bhopal catastrophe. Within hours of landing I found myself giving, at Gokhale’s request, a ‘reassuring presentation’ to his discouraged audience.
Having met and talked with the worldwide managers in Danbury, and now to the earnest directors, all Indians in Bhopal that weekend, it seemed to me tragic and ironic that, in India and the many other countries where it operated, Carbide had always acted as a company that cared. A major player on the Indian sub-continent since the early 1900s, it looked after its employees and retirees well, and was a good neighbor in every country and city in which it had operations. Carbide’s people were convinced at the time, and its veterans still are, that the Bhopal disaster was caused by sabotage. How else, they asked, would it be possible to pour, at dead of night, as much as 200 gallons of water into underground tanks of poisonous methyl isocyanate, in defiance of warning signs and color-coded faucets, causing gas to erupt and escape?  Since Anderson and his emergency experts were denied access to the Bhopal plant by the Indian Government, they could never carry out their hoped-for search for evidence.
But there was still an untold story to tell.  On the following Monday morning my new Carbide colleagues and I set to work. Over the next few weeks we produced a series of reports, each aimed at a special audience, describing what we were convinced had happened in Bhopal, the social, economic, human and other ramifications, and what action UCIL was now taking. While putting these together, we trained the directors and other managers to handle interviews with newspaper reporters, and on radio and television. Oddly, what I remember most vividly of those long, videotaped training sessions in a stuffy top-floor conference room was the constant squabbling and scrabbling of a flock of vultures that had settled on the flimsy iron roof directly above us.
When we were ready, we issued this new material to the Indian media. There are no fewer than 14 Indian languages, yet English is the lingo of government and business, and most educated Indians speak it well.  And since India is a true democracy, its media are unfettered and outspoken. While they were generally unsympathetic to Carbide after the disaster, and skeptical about the sabotage claim, the national and regional press, radio and TV generally gave fair space and airtime to the company’s viewpoint.
            Several times during the assignment, I made the 450 mile train journey between Mumbai and Bhopal, to see the community and the victims and meet the few remaining Carbide managers there. It was a tough journey alone. Late one night, after an abrupt stop, I woke and found myself looking down from the train window as two railroad workers, lit by searing arc-lights, carried a headless man away on a stretcher. He was presumably the hapless cause of the delay.
Because of the risk of a revenge attack, no one associated with Carbide was allowed to stay at any of the hotels in Bhopal. Instead, I lodged at a company-owned guesthouse in a compound that included their research laboratories, which were still operating near the now-locked and otherwise abandoned pesticide plant. The guesthouse and the laboratories were protected by dense barbed wire, patrolled day and night by armed security men with sub-machine guns. The buildings stood on the shore of the placid lake, across the water from the city’s huge mosque.
The job took two months. Before returning to New York I spent several days in Bhopal meeting with the overseas news reporters who returned to India during the first anniversary of the disaster, to write about the city and the continuing plight of the casualties. At that time, angry crowds milled outside the barricades around the lakeside guest house.
Fax machines and computers were uncommon even in the US at that time, and probably didn’t exist then in India. I wrestled with obsolete copying machines, typewriters and teleprinters that broke down almost daily. There were few telephone lines between Bhopal and the outside world, and those that were available were nearly 50 years old. Our telephone lines were also tapped, which made security difficult, as did the fact that the time in Bhopal was ten hours later than in Danbury and New York. Then there was the heat in Mumbai, heart-rending poverty, and endless, pathetic begging on every street. Above all, there was the touching resignation of the people of India to their intolerable condition.  
            But for all that, a movingly warm, almost affectionate relationship grew between us. These men -- and they were all men -- were in such desperate straits in a company that was now India’s public enemy. Some of them were expecting criminal indictment, and they all so desperately needed help, encouragement and advice. When I left, they gave me a memento, a bronze effigy of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. It has little intrinsic value, but is still one of my most cherished possessions.
I returned to India a year later for a further two months. This time, among other things, my mission included handling local and foreign media relations when UCIL faced criminal trial by the Indian government. It was a strange, anachronistic ritual. The law, and all the trappings of the court, from the judge himself to the barristers and solicitors and their robes and wigs, were reminiscent of nothing more than Public Television’s then popular Rumpole of the Bailey.  Yet there was nothing laughable about the prosecutors, and the cross-examinations, nor about the sentence. UCIL was found guilty and fined $470 million.

But the most distressing thing of all is that now, more tthan 30 years after the tragedy, far too little of that litigation money has ever reached the survivors of that now distant nightmare.      


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Duck Shoot

            Tel el Kebir, known to the British troops in Egypt in the 1950s as Tek, a sprawling mass of sheds and tents shimmering in the heat, rose out of the desert as the jeeps came over the crest of the hill. The sentry recognized Lieutenant Pete Roberts, saluted, and waved him through the camp’s main gate. Roberts looked up at a nearby searchlight tower where, up on its platform, a bored Mauritian soldier scanned a part of the camp’s 17 mile barbed-wired, mined perimeter with binoculars. Another, stripped to the waist, his black body glistening with sweat, languidly polished the searchlight’s reflector.
            Driving the leading jeep, Roberts heard the soldier behind him unclick his weapon’s magazine as they raced down the tarmac strip into the center of the camp, incongruously signposted Oxford Street. He swung his vehicle onto a rough track, at the end of which another sign read PDF, which stood for Perimeter Defense Force.
            Roberts turned onto the uneven rock-hard sand vehicle park behind the building that housed the battalion’s headquarters. It was quiet in the yard. Most of the unit slept in the afternoon, since all the patrols and ambush teams that watched over the perimeter operated at night. In the park a lone mechanic, dressed in greasy shorts and canvas shoes, lay on his back in the dust under another jeep. At the armory, the store man, clearly half awake, leaned on the counter behind the closed lower half of the stable-like door, and jerked to attention when Roberts put down his revolver.
            “Sorry, sir, I’d just dropped off for a moment.”
            Roberts lowered his voice, so as not to be heard by his crew waiting in line behind him.
            “It’s not good enough, Banks. I know it’s bloody hot, but I ought to charge you for sleeping on duty. You know that, don’t you?”
            The man nodded. “Yes, sir.”
            “Well, watch it.”
            Roberts handed over his revolver. “Clean this, will you? I’ve just used it.”
            He thought again of the injured dog that had leaped in front of the jeep an hour earlier in Tek village. Crazed with pain, it had spun around in the hot road. A few villagers, sitting at coffee tables under a jacaranda tree at the curb, jeered and threw stones at the animal that was dragging itself toward the canal, trailing its crushed leg. Roberts leaned out of the jeep, took hasty aim at the dog from about twenty feet and squeezed the trigger. But he’d only wounded it. Now the locals mocked the English officer, catcalling and shouting to their mates in the village street.
            For the dog’s sake, but also to save face, he was determined to finish off the animal. He scrambled out of the vehicle, and walked a few paces back to it. The villagers were closing in a little and Roberts, glancing back, was relieved to see that his armed men in both vehicles were covering him.
            A young Egyptian dressed in grubby khaki with neither hat nor shoes, had moved between Roberts and the agonized animal, making a sneering pretense of shielding it.
“Don’t kill the dog, mister, please don’t kill it!”
He called to the excited crowd and they closed in, quieter now, watching intently. The dog lay maybe a yard to the right and a little farther back from the youth’s feet, and the men all but touched Roberts when he took a few quick paces forward and shot the dog dead. A roar went up from the crowd of villagers, and then they quietened down and scattered, keeping a wary distance from the jeeps.
            Roberts walked back to the jeep and his watchful escorts at a deliberately casual pace, revved the engine to an angry roar, and drove away.

            Roberts looked into the officer’s mess on his way to his tent. Inside, Mike Drayton, Bravo Company commander, was sprawled in an armchair dozing under a whirring ceiling fan, with an empty beer glass on the table beside him. He looked up when Roberts came in.
            “Hello, Pete. Everything OK?”
            Roberts decided not to mention the dog because Drayton, known to be a tartar when he wanted, might well have given him an earful for putting himself and his men at risk.
            “No problems, sir.”
            “How are your men handling this heat?” Drayton asked.
            “They swear about it, but they can take it. The temperature out there’s a hundred and twenty-two.”
            “Like a beer?” Drayton asked.
            “No thanks. I’m going to get some shut-eye for an hour or two.”
            “Good idea. By the way, I’m putting a new man on your patrol tonight. He’s a National Service kid called Cash, straight out of officer cadet school back home. Don’t scare the poor little bugger too much on his first time out.”
            Roberts grinned. “We’ll try not to.”
            Outside the mess hut, he realized how tired he was. In his tent a cheap tin alarm clock ticked away the afternoon. He sat on the end of his bed and slowly unwound his puttees. The black shining leather where they’d been made a tidemark against the dusty uppers of his boots Then he undressed, lit a cigarette and sat naked on the bed, winding the clock.
            “Boy, you get more alluring every day we’re out here!”
            Chris Pollard’s face emerged from under the mosquito net on the other bed. “And you’re smoking too much. Know that?”
            Roberts laughed. “I thought you were asleep.”
            “I was,” Pollard said.
“Jesus, you look worn out, Pete! Take a break. Why don’t you let me do your turn tonight?”
            “No thanks. I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine after a couple of hours kip.”

            Pollard had gone when Robert’s batman woke him at five, with a mug of tea and a canvas bucket of hot water. He shaved in the tent and then showered outside under a galvanized iron tank perched on stilts in the sun. The air was a little cooler outside now. He dressed in a fresh set of khaki drill. In the compound near the mess four jeeps stood in a row, each with a Bren machine gun and a spotlight on the hood.
            The officers’ mess was almost empty at six, since everyone who wasn’t on perimeter patrol normally dined an hour or two later. Major Drayton, captain Hugh Lunt – his second-in-command – and two subalterns were already at the table when Roberts sat down. Cash, the new arrival, had been seated between Drayton and Lunt.
            Roberts leaned across the table and shook his hand.
            “You must be Cash. Welcome to Tek.”
            Cash was slightly built, with a white, vulnerable face and close-cut ginger hair. He seemed a few years older than most of the National Service officers who came out to serve their eighteen-month stint with the regiment.
            “Where are you from?” Roberts asked.
            “Bristol, but I’ve been in London for the last four years getting my degree.”
            “Slade,” Cash said.
 “So, you’re an artist?”
            The young man smiled. “One day, maybe. But I’m not sure a BA in Art’s going to be relevant for the next year or so.“
            While they ate, Max Barstow, another subaltern who made a habit of intimidating young newcomers, and who was one of the least liked officers in the regiment, turned to the new arrival and said, “Done any duck shooting, Cash?”
            The newcomer faced Barstow. “No, why?”
            “Shooting ducks is better experience for this place than painting pretty pictures.”
            Major Drayton glanced at his watch.  “That’s enough, Max. Gentlemen. Let’s . . . well . . .let’s go shoot a few ducks. I want you and your men in your vehicles out there and ready in ten minutes.”
            It was getting dark. Roberts, at the wheel of the jeep with Cash beside him, led a column of six vehicles.
            “So, what’s the routine?” Cash asked.
            “Same old thing. As always, the mission’s to keep these brown bastards from creeping in and stealing our stuff. We take each team to its start point a few hundred yards back from the perimeter. They leave their trucks there and manhandle their weapons and gear up to the wire on their flat feet in the dark. If they’re quiet about it, anyone breaking in will find it harder to know where we are.”
            “What then?”
            “Then you and I cruise the seventeen-mile perimeter a few hundred yards back from the wire. From time to time I’ll accelerate and speed up to the points where no PDF team’s lying there, the dark spots between the searchlight towers. At the same time, I want you to sweep the area with your spot lamp, and if we find anyone sneaking through we shoot ‘em. Of course, if we’re near enough to one of our teams that puts up a parachute flare and starts shooting, we’ll go in and give ‘em some extra fire power.”
            After a year of perimeter patrols, all this was routine for Roberts. He remembered his own fervor in the first weeks and months out here. It may not have been the action he’d hoped for in terrorist hotspots such as Malaya and Kenya, but it was as close as he could get to real action for now. After getting what his fellow cadets at Sandhurst had jokingly called “a degree in killing people,” he’d relished the promise of putting his training into practice. But for Cash, it must be starkly different. This just wasn’t his thing. He was fresh from the secure routine of his art school in London. How would he react to what happened out here?
            Cash had been reticent and diffident in the mess room, but now, as they drove out to the perimeter, with the radio operator and his gear wedged in the narrow seat behind them, he seemed far more self-confident.
            “I met a bloke in Port Said yesterday,” Cash said. ‘He said the stuff behind the barbed wire in here’s worth millions of pounds. Is that true?”
            “Absolutely. It must be the one the biggest army supply places in the world – hundreds of acres of small arms, ammunition, radio, telephone equipment, vehicle parts, tanks, trucks. You name it, and it’s probably here. The wogs come in looking for things they can carry away, especially weapons and ammo. And would you believe they pinch tons of blankets? They get a good price in the street markets. Fancy risking your life for a few bloody blankets!”
            Cash didn’t reply for a moment. “But then, they’re as poor as anything, aren’t they?” he said. “I mean, it’s pathetic. They’re on their uppers. They live in little mud houses . . .hovels, really. I saw a lot of people when we were on the train coming down to Ismailiyah today, out there in the fields. The fellahin. Most of them have arms and legs like scarecrows. Mustn’t there be something wrong with their society if they have to risk being killed for a few blankets? And they must have a lot of guts, too. You can’t help being sorry for them.”
            Roberts was taken aback. Something wrong with their society? Guts? What sort of talk was this? It was lucky the radio operator was busy netting-in with his headset on to hear him. He couldn’t believe it. Here was a newly commissioned officer fresh out from home, trying to justify the sins of their enemy. But then, he was an artist, wasn’t he? He was probably a damn poet, too. Arty people tended to be like this, radicals, a bit left of center. He’d pronounced fellahin like a bloody Arab. Where had he learnt that?
            Now he had a very different view of the bastards. Not long ago they were crawling through the wire and over the mines and blowing up trucks, burning down the storage sheds and sniping at the searchlights. And he just couldn’t get this morning’s incident with the dog out of his mind. That was what these people were really like. They loafed in the streets, spat at the soldiers whenever they were stuck in traffic. They stole from strangers, and even from each other. And guts? Forget it. They had as much courage as the pye-dogs slinking in the village streets.
            “Listen, Cash,” Roberts said. “You’re entitled to your views, but if I were you I wouldn’t air them to your colleagues. It won’t go down well.”
            Chastened, Cash didn’t say anything, but occupied himself with loading the Bren gun that lay in front of him on sandbags on the jeep’s hood, and connecting up the leads of the spot lamp on his lap. Minutes later, the two arrived at the first team’s start point.
            As in the other four teams, there were four privates and a non-commissioned officer, equipped with two medium machine-guns, three rifles with sniping sights, a spot lamp, a two-inch mortar for parachute flares, an Alsatian killer-dog and its handler.
            The men didn’t like the dogs. Too many had seen them tear out the throat of an intruder in a few seconds. They tended to snuffle in the dark, giving away their positions to the intruders. There was also a prevalent belief that, after killing their real prey, they’d sometimes come padding back and attack the team.
            Roberts and Cash watched as the men, laden down with their weapons, ammunition and heavy spot lamp batteries, set out on foot for the perimeter fence, and fading into the dark. An hour later, with their lights and engine off, the two officers were parked in the shadows. Across the sand from the Nile Delta drifted the constant barking of village dogs and the throb of a water pump among the palm trees, like a giant human pulse. Half a mile away a searchlight beam swept languidly to and fro across the desert, like a lighthouse on some dangerous coastline.

            “Just keep your eyes open, and listen for noises,” Roberts said, his voice lowered.
            Another hour passed uneventfully. From time to time they sped to a new position, while Cash, behind his gun, raked the sand across the wire with the spot lamp. The night dragged on, each successive hour longer than the one before. After midnight, a brilliant half-moon rose on the horizon, and it grew colder. With the vehicle parked again, Roberts shivered suddenly, and felt the telltale drooping of his eyelids. Next to him the new man, was wide awake, and sitting bolt upright, watching the moonlit wire through glasses. He’d been as keen himself once, he thought. But now, it was dull routine, with two incidents a month at most.
            Roberts glanced at his watch. Three-thirty. It seemed it was going to be a quiet night.
            But a few minutes later, Cash turned to Roberts.
            “Listen! What’s going on over there?”
            There were raised voices, and then shouts from a nearby observation tower. The searchlight had stopped sweeping, and now concentrated its beam on a point maybe fifty yards beyond the outer ring of the wire. One of the Mauritians was scanning the illuminated area with binoculars.         
            “They’re onto something all right,” Roberts said.
            The men on the tower had swung the beam away for a few seconds and then quickly back to the same spot, hoping for a change of shape – something to identify, maybe someone running.
            “Let’s get over there,” Roberts said. He ground the jeep into gear and drove the hundred or so yards to the foot of the tower and, cupping his hands, called up to the men on the platform.
            “What’s going on out here?”
            Nobody answered, but seconds later there was a rifle shot, and then another, and a third. The shots echoed from the Delta and then, from the platform above, came a burst of convulsed laughter.
            “Hey! I said what’s going on?”
            A head appeared over the railing.
            “Who you?”
            “The PDF officer. What happened?”
            “We shoot him, sir.”
            “Who did you shoot?”
            “A fox, a big one.”

            They were back in the shadows again
            “Are there a lot of foxes here?” Cash asked.
            “Quite a few, but I doubt it was a fox. More likely a damn pye-dog.”
            The young officer was silent again, and neither spoke for four or five minutes.
            “Aren’t we going to get any action tonight?” he asked later.
            Roberts was leaning back in his seat, gazing up into the sky at a moon that was almost dazzling, and a million brilliant stars.
            “I wouldn’t say that,” he said. There’s another hour or two before sunrise. A lot can happen in a couple of hours.”
            The faintest glimmer of dawn appeared on the horizon. Roberts glanced at his watch. In an hour or two, he thought, they’d be back in their tent lines, sleeping off another uneventful night on the perimeter.
            A few minutes passed, and then two short bursts of machine-gun fire broke the silence.
            “Well, Cash,” Roberts said, “you wanted action. Here it comes.”
            He started the engine and they raced northeast up the perimeter road. As they sped past one of the first observation towers, the crew on the platform pointed excitedly toward the next one. But oddly, as they came over the crest of the next slope, there was no sweeping searchlight beam at the top of the tower. Roberts stopped under the platform and yelled up to the men on the railing.
            “What’s wrong with your searchlight?”
            A Mauritian leaned over the railing. He spoke almost unhurriedly, as though there was no need for urgency.
            “They shot it, sir. Right out! There were four of them and we’ve killed one.”
            “Which way did they go?” Roberts asked.
            “Toward the Delta, I think. They have not gone very far. They went back very carefully through the minefield. I think we hit at least one.”
            They needn’t have bothered, Roberts thought. The mines, an unreliable and long obsolete early 1940s model, had been there in the heat for a decade or more, and they rarely detonated. Their value was now mainly psychological.
            Roberts knew the quick way out to the Delta. Several small, locked, heavily-wired wooden gates, known as Q-gates, were installed around the perimeter. These allowed PDF patrols to drive out into the desert through a ten-foot wide mine-free channel, and each was positioned in full view of a searchlight tower.
            “You got a Q-gate here?” he called up.
            “Oh yes, sir. I will drop the keys down to you.”
            The ring of keys pattered down, and minutes later Cash had unlocked the gate and they were through the fence. Although the sun had partly broken the horizon, it was much lighter now, but the dark belt of palm trees in the Delta prevented the fleeing men from being silhouetted against what little light there was. For a few uncertain seconds the patrol circled and peered around themselves.
            Soon they were no more than a quarter of a mile from the trees.
            “Look! We’ve got ‘em.”
            The three men, one of whom had a rifle, were making for the cover of the trees in Indian file, and the man in the middle was dragging his leg. He was clearly wounded, and his companions seemed to have slowed down somewhat so that he could keep up. Roberts veered toward them and, following regulations, he called out his only word of Arabic, ordering the men to stop.
            But the men kept running, stumbling on toward the trees.
            And now, to Roberts’ astonishment, Cash called the second warning, adding a few other words in Arabic. They sounded curt, peremptory. Immediately, the armed man at the rear stopped running and spun toward them. But he wasn’t raising his hands in surrender. He’d dropped on one knee and was taking aim.
            Quickly, Roberts barked a third warning when simultaneously, a bullet struck the jeep’s radiator with a ringing metallic clang.
            Roberts saw a jet of water spurt to the left from the pierced hood.
            “Kill the bastards!”
            To Roberts’ annoyance, even though the man with the rifle would shoot at any moment, Cash held his fire for a few more seconds, and instead yelled one last sentence at the Egyptians. His voice was hoarse, passionate. Roberts recognized only one word. Allah.
            Cash, who was already leaning into the butt of the Bren gun, flicked the control lever to automatic, took aim and opened fire. In a few seconds, at about forty yards, he’d felled the armed man with a quick, well-controlled burst, jerking him off balance so that he seemed to toss away his rifle, falling spread-eagled on his back. The man in front had stopped and turned, throwing his arms around his limping comrade. Then, in one long burst of fire that caused a juddering vibration in the vehicle, Cash swept the gun from left to right and back again, until the magazine was empty, and all three men lay dead on the sand.
            Roberts and Cash sat still, and neither spoke. The radio operator, his face white with shock, was calling for an ambulance. Not far away, from a dozen minarets behind the trees, came a plaintive call to prayer.
            A dazzling sun rose over the Delta. Roberts turned back to the radio operator to whom – though he’d been there with them for eleven hours – neither officer had spoken except to give the occasional order.
            “What’s going on back there?”
            “They’ll have the ambulance here soon as they can, sir.”
            For the first time, Roberts looked into the soldier’s baby face. He didn’t look a day over sixteen. Like Cash, he was probably fresh out from home.
            “So, what did you think of that little action, signaler?”
            The young soldier grinned. “Me, sir? I was friggin’ scared . . .I don’t mind tellin’ ya.’ I thought that little wog was goin’ to do us all in.”

            Though it was only seven-thirty, the temperature must already have been in the upper eighties.
            “How’d you feel?” Roberts asked Cash, who’d still said nothing since the incident.
            “I’m all right,” he said, but his voice was lifeless and he was shaking uncontrollably, as though he was chilled with cold.
            Roberts had been puzzled by Cash’s apparent fluency in Arabic. What an odd fish he was!
            “What did you say to them the first time?”
            The young man shrugged. “I said, ‘stop or we’ll fire.”
            “And the second time?”
            Cash hesitated. “It was, well . . .a kind of blessing, I suppose. It was . . .’may God protect you. Something like that.”
            What was this all about? Roberts couldn’t think of a suitable response.
            “Where did you learn Arabic?” he asked.
            “My uncle taught me, he’s a professor at Oxford. And, we speak it all the time lot at home, of course.” Cash said.
            “How come? And who’s ‘we’?”
            “Well, my mother’s Egyptian, and a lot of my relatives speak Arabic.”

            A cloud of dust was billowing near the perimeter behind them, and the ambulance was coming.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Banana Split

There was something almost ritual and ceremonial about it all, and even though there were fewer than two hundred of us, it seemed like some kind of re-enactment of the biblical Feeding of the Five Thousand.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning. The year was 1942, and Britain was in the third year of World War II. The place was Cranbrook School in Southeast England, and I was eleven years old.
The most frequent topic of conversation at the school during those dark days -- and especially during our dull school meals -- was food. We were, well , consumed by it! Later on, of course, the subject changed to girls, but we hadn’t discovered them yet in our non-co-ed school. We talked wistfully about food because it was severely rationed. Nazi U-boats and battleships were attacking and sinking our merchant ships bringing food from countries in the British Empire. They destroyed an incredible 3000 cargo ships during the war. Besides this, during the enemy occupation of Europe, we were deprived of food or anything else from other countries.
What we missed most were commonplace things that we'd blithely taken for granted before the War, but were now in short supply, such as cheese, sugar, eggs and chocolate. Then there were all the fruits that don’t grow in Britain’s sun-deprived climate: oranges, lemons, tangerines, pineapples, dates, figs and, missed most of all, bananas. We hadn't seen or tasted a banana for nearly three years. We yearned for banana fritters, sherry trifle with bananas on top, bananas and cream, banana sandwiches in the carefree days when you could simply pick up a banana, peel it and chomp on it.
Then, out of nowhere, a boy called Lou Taylor came into our lives and, just once during the six years of the War, enabled us to savor the taste of bananas – and in the oddest circumstances.
Lou Taylor was a shy, gangling, floppy-haired beanpole of a kid in my class, the son of an American diplomat. We took to him at once, but mimicked him mercilessly, and nicknamed him Long Island Lou. Unlike the rest of us, he often received parcels from his grandparents, aunts and uncles in America, and I have to admit that he owed a part of his popularity to the fact that he always shared these goodies with us. For the first time we discovered such trans-Atlantic wonders as Twinkies, Hershey bars, Oreos, bubble gum, Pepsi and Coke.
One morning, a Studebaker with Diplomatic Corps insignia drew up outside the headmaster's elegant Queen Anne house, into which a chauffeur carried a big cardboard box. Lunch was nearly over a few hours later in the big dining-hall, when two kitchen maids brought in an armful of bananas, and set them on the table in front of Dr. C. Russell Scott, the headmaster and his wife. Immediately, Mrs.Scott – known to us all because of her bird-like appearance as The Crow – began to peel them and heap them around a chopping board that was by now on the table in front of her husband.
What was going on here? Scott rose to his feet and, grasping his coat lapels with both hands (a habit that had always made him easy to imitate) announced that the bananas had been sent by Lou Taylor's parents, who’d suggested they be shared with all the boys in Lou’s house. However, the headmaster told us, Lou had generously suggested that this rare, unobtainable fruit be divided not only among the sixty or so boys in his house, but with all of the school's nearly two hundred boarders.
While everyone watched, intrigued, Scott and The Crow began slicing up the bananas into pieces about one inch thick and, in a few minutes, bowls of these were passed around the tables. The headmaster, his wife and the staff at the top table seemed to have made a generous and selfless gesture, because none of them partook of this divine dessert.
It's surprising how long you can take to eat a one-inch slice of banana when you put your mind to it. Some of the boys sliced each little portion into four or five smaller slivers, while others chopped off tiny pieces with a teaspoon. A few less impressionable boys gobbled down their share in a single mouthful.
When we'd all finished, the headmaster led a round of applause for Lou, who shrank, blushing in his seat.
Anyone hearing this story about 70 years later must think it weird that so many people of any age would share so small a collection of bananas in such an earnest and solemn way, as though receiving some sacrament. But in wartime even the most everyday thing becomes a luxury. We’d all grown a little obsessive and fixated about our long lost pleasures.
Look at it this way – what little daily luxuries do you enjoy most? Coffee, perhaps, or cognac, chocolate chip cookies, champagne, caviar or Camembert? Now, whatever it is, imagine you’ve been deprived of it for three whole years, and have absolutely no idea when or whether you’ll ever see it again. Then you’ll begin to fathom what that nostalgic ritual was all about.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Familiarity Breeds, well, Contentment

Patrick Shannon, a bespectacled, timid school-teacher, was convicted of the second-degree murder of his mother-in-law in 1969. He served twenty-eight years of a life sentence in a prison in upper New York State, and was released in March, 1997.
By then he was sixty-seven, with neither relations nor friends. Suddenly, though free to go where he pleased and to do as he liked, Patrick was in an unfamiliar city surrounded by strange faces, with no one to talk to, and no looks of recognition from passers-by. After nearly thirty years under one roof, he was reacquainted with wind, rain and snow, on streets where the traffic was denser and more snarled than he’d ever seen before.
Four days later, he hanged himself in his tiny rented room in Buffalo. A note he left behind told the coroner that he found life in the world outside jail “solitary and soulless, and changed beyond recognition.”
I wonder whether this tragic figure knew that if he’d found even a menial job, made a few new friends and taken one or two easy steps to integrate himself into the community, such as joining a church, a reading group, or even a chess club, he might still be alive and contented, and looking forward to celebrating the New Year, a new century and another millennium in a warm room with friends.
Patrick’s suicide may have been caused by a bout of depression, but it’s very likely that trigger was the absence of familiarity. Whatever his life was like in prison, he had become accustomed to it. He was the jail’s librarian for the fifteen years before his sentence was reduced for good behavior. He made many friends, sang in the choir and had become an unofficial counselor and father-figure to more than one generation of inmates. Even the prison’s daily routines, the plain but regular meals, the walks in the exercise yard, and every year the prison’s Spartan but still humane celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas, were familiar and comfortable.
So what’s all this about?  It’s about the fact that, whoever we are, whether we live in relative luxury in Connecticut, or in a convent or a barracks, the shanty towns of Calcutta or Rio de Janiero, or a cardboard box under Grand Central station -- and sometimes even a jail -- after a few months or maybe a year we become comfortable with those surroundings, the routines and the people we know. It’s simply because we are accustomed to them.
There’s ample documentary evidence of this. After the slums of the East End of London had been devastated in World War II, the new Labor government rebuilt thousands of new homes, with far more living space, and improved heating and plumbing, yet huge numbers of cockney Londoners were vociferously unhappy in their new, state-of-the-art homes, and it was a long time before many of them acknowledged that their lives were better.
This ‘familiarity thing’ has been my experience, too. Once my chairman sent me from London to Malaysia, to run the Kuala Lumpur office until he could find a replacement general manager there. I had only four days to get my shots, do some tropical shopping, pack and fly out. At first this assignment in an office only seven degrees north of the equator, where the staff spoke Cantonese, Bahasa and Tamil at home, and where only one member considered English his first language, was as different and unfamiliar as anywhere you could think of in the world. It was steamy, with temperatures of ninety degrees and eighty per cent humidity and the food was, to say the least, exotic. But when the time came to pack up and return to London, I was reluctant to go. I could have stayed there and made the place my home, and the same happened after much longer stints in Australia and the island of Cyprus.
My son, Graham, too, when in his thirties and married with two young boys, found the same thing when he was transferred to Hungary after several years in Dubai where, incredibly, he and his wife had a thoroughly contented life after the inevitable familiarization period. When he first took up his assignment in Budapest, Graham and his wife found the place sprawling, drab and run-down, the language impenetrable, and the people unusually alien. A year later they were experiencing the comfort that only familiarity can bring. By then the boys were happy at the Little Mozart School, and the parents had made friends, become opera enthusiasts, and were beginning to appreciate the city’s easy access to such places as Prague and Vienna. And then, Graham’s firm decided to close down its plants in central and eastern Europe, and he and his family returned to London.
So what can we learn from this?  The sum of it is that we like what we know. Nobody does the Thanksgiving turkey like Mom did. It’s the same with the software you use on your computer; what you like for breakfast; TV shows; the kind of books you enjoy most, and the tooth paste you use. You’re used to them, that’s all.
It’s even so of spouses and lovers. Why did Professor Higgins miss Liza Doolittle when she ran away? Quite simply, he’d grown accustomed to her face.



Monday, May 1, 2017

Duty Dog

It wasn’t a lot of fun being duty officer. On call during weekday nights or whole weekends, we spent our evenings sitting alone at a desk in the adjutant’s office, and sleeping near a phone, fully-dressed, on a camp bed in a room that was often as cozy and commodious as a broom closet or a kennel. It’s no wonder that the duty officer was nicknamed duty dog.
          On a quiet night you might handle a routine phone call from brigade headquarters, or deal with a minor fire caused by a drunken soldier falling asleep while smoking in bed. But on one occasion I had to confront an abusive street-walker  who was causing a scene at the barrack gate, complaining she’d been wronged by one of our troops.      
          Among the duty officer’s routines was keeping the sentries on their toes. Once every night, some time between midnight and six in the morning, we’d make a surprise visit to the eight soldiers who, woken while snatching a nap in the guard house between their turns on sentry duty, would tumble out under the dim yellow lights, yawning and tousled, their weapons ready for inspection.
          An even less popular function as duty dog was accompanying the duty sergeant-major to the cookhouse, to inspect the mens’ meals and invite complaints. The food was terrible, yet this routine of asking for complaints had been a tradition in the British Army since long before the battle of Waterloo, and both officers and men knew it was a pointless exercise. But it did give even the most lowly ranking soldier an opportunity for a joke at a junior officer’s expense.  The duty officer would approach each table and ask: “Any complaints?”  Normally, old soldiers, knowing the score, would grin and shake their heads, but from time to time some barrack-room comedian would say “Well, since you asked, Sir, the caviar’s not too fresh today.” The sergeant-major would growl something on the lines of   “That’s enough from you, you cheeky young bugger!” and we’d pass on.
          But some nights there were real dramas. One of my first spells as duty officer was at Ballykinlar camp in Northern Ireland, a remote spot where the Mountains of Mourrne really do sweep down to the sea as it’s said in the song. I had a call from a corporal’s wife in the battalion’s married quarters. Her husband was away on a posting somewhere, and she was bellowing with pain, calling for a breast pump. I was a few weeks short of my twenty-first birthday, and had no idea what a breast-pump was, nor why she’d ever ask for such a thing, but her need was clearly desperate, and I dispatched a driver the twenty or thirty miles to the nearest hospital.  Meanwhile, her voice growing more hysterical, the unhappy woman called me every few minutes until the mysterious gadget arrived.
In a more poignant episode in the British Zone in occupied Germany, I had a phone call from the adjutant at our regimental depot back in England.
“Tricky job, John,” he said. “Corporal Randall’s mother’s died. Heart attack. ‘Fraid you’ll have to see the chap and give him the bad news.”
          It was about seven in the evening on a Friday nightt, and the camp was deserted. I went down to Randall’s barrack room, where I found a lone soldier lying on his bed, reading a newspaper.
          “Have you seen Corporal Randall?”
          The man jumped up and shuffled to attention.
          “They’re all out, sir. It’s pay day, see?”
          “All right,” I said. “When he gets back, tell him to see the duty officer, will you?”
          It was past midnight when there was a knock at the door of my room.
          “I’m Randall, sir. You wanted to see me?”
          “Yes, I said. “Come inside for a moment.”
          There were several hundred men in the battalion, and we’d never seen each other before. He entered a little hesitantly, removing his beret. I offered him a seat, clearing my tunic and belt from the only chair in the cramped little room.
          “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, Randall.”
          I held out an open pack of cigarettes. He took one and I lit it for him.
          “Bad news, sir?”
          “Yes. I . . . I had a call from the depot tonight.” I told him. “It seems your mother was taken ill. They asked me to tell you she . . . well . . . she died this afternoon. I’m very sorry.”
          Randall said nothing. He lowered his eyes and took a deep drag on his cigarette. Then he said “She ‘ad one of them attacks before, See? We was always afraid she might ‘ave another one.”
          We talked for a while about his family, and then he stood up, preparing to leave. A little self-consciously I put an arm round his shoulder. “Listen, it’s late,” I said. “Try to get some sleep, and tomorrow we’ll make out a travel warrant and send you home. OK?”
          The next morning, just as I was going off-duty, I had another call from England.
          “Morning, John,” the adjutant said. “I say . . . awfully embarrassing thing . . . turns out it wasn’t Randall’s mother who died.”
          I found it hard to hide my incredulity.
          “Well, who was it?”
          “It’s an odd business. Seems it was his girl-friend’s mother. Not quite the same thing, what? Awfully, sorry, old boy.”
          It was just before seven in the morning, and I sent someone to fetch Randall. Again, he knocked on the door.
          “I hardly know how to tell you this,” I said.
 But to my astonishment, he actually grinned when I told him the true story.
          “I didn’t like her a lot, to tell the truth, sir” he said. “And she’d have been a freakin’ awful mother-in-law.”
There was a genuinely tragic incident a year or two later, when I was duty officer on the island of Cyprus. This time my visitor was another corporal, but unlike Randall – who’d been a fresh-faced draftee of about twenty years old – this man, with two rows of campaign medals on his chest, was a sun-shriveled veteran in his late forties, or older.
          Corporal Benson was an armorer in one of the rifle companies. Each company had its own armory, where its weapons and ammunition were stored. The armories were stone buildings without windows, whose doors, like those in stables, were in two halves, so that the top section could be opened independently. Each armorer slept in his own dingy store room.
          Benson was shaking with emotion when he came to see me. As he told it, a few evenings earlier he’d been sitting alone, naked on his bed doing something to himself that it’s impossible to define with any delicacy. While he was engaged in this solitary act, and unaware that he had an audience, some of his comrades had apparently peered into his shadowy quarters and taken a photo of him.
          “They took a picture of you?”
          “They did, sir.”
          “How do you know?” I asked.
          “They’re showing pictures of me . . .   well . . . doin’ it, around the canteen.”
          “Have you seen these pictures? Actually seen them?”
          “Well, no, sir. Not the pictures themselves.”
          “Tell me this,” I said. “Did you see a flash go off when they took the pictures?”
          Benson thought for a moment. “No. There wasn’t no flash. Not as I noticed. But I did look up and see them there.”
          “Did you see the camera?”
          “No, Sir. Can’t say I did.”        
          As I had done with Randall, I offered the man a cigarette. I weighed-up the story in my mind. The armories were dark inside and, by his account, Corporal Benson had been all of twenty feet from the doorway. Without a flash bulb it would have been impossible – absolutely impossible – to take a picture. I was convinced that he was being fooled by his comrades, and I told him so.
          We talked for a while, and slowly Benson seemed to become as sure as I was that, embarrassing though his situation was, he’d been the victim of a mean practical joke, and no photographs were really being passed round to shame him further.  He returned to his armory relaxed and encouraged. Or so I supposed.
          But back in his room, Benson took a revolver, inserted a single round in the drum, stuck the weapon in his mouth, and killed himself.
          At the subsequent enquiry it turned out that there had, indeed, been no photographs. But even now, even more than half a century later, I can still see the anguish in Benson’s tired old eyes, and I can’t help asking myself what else I might have said to him, and what further comfort I might have offered.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Lazy Saint

1860 was a vintage year. Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. In Europe the year marked the birth of Chekhov and Mahler, and Britain’s launch of HMS Warrior, the first iron battleship. A far less celebrated person was also born that year in England. She was Mabel Harris, my grandmother who, though she may not have made it up there among those notables, would rate a few pages in anyone’s family history.
Besides being a devoted mother, Mabel – everyone called her May -- was a painter, author, musician and a bit of a mystic. She was deeply religious, with a devotion to which only converts to Catholicism can aspire. Many people said she was a saint but, when I was about eight, I looked her up in Volume I of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and was disappointed not to find her there.
As a young woman, May was a startling beauty -- part Wagnerian diva and part Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model -- tall, with wavy, braided brown hair and an hourglass waist. So it wasn’t surprising that John Harris, a mustachioed realtor, fell deeply in love with her and, in her 30s -- late in life for those days – married her and presented her with seven children in just over ten years: Margaret, John, Eleanor, Isabel, Katherine, Andrew, and my mother, Peace.
But the marriage wasn’t to last for long. John Harris, who had a lifelong passion for port wine and pretty women, vanished one night around 1905, leaving May the house they lived in, but no money and no income. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance, Andrew, who had been born stone deaf, was killed in the street by a runaway horse. A year later, Eleanor was crippled by polio.
May was distraught with concern for her family. To feed them and pay the doctor’s bills, she sold the large house in a prosperous section of the beautiful cathedral city of Winchester, and the family moved to a smaller, less expensive one near the North Foreland lighthouse outside Broadstairs, a little seaside town overlooking the English Channel. This move realized enough money to cover the necessities of life, but there were seven children to feed and educate. May’s father-in-law, who was fond of her and the children, came to the rescue. Ashamed of what his son had done, he not only provided financial security for May for the rest of her long life, but also put his many grandchildren through private schools.
There’s an intriguing legend about May’s conversion to Catholicism. Late one winter afternoon, she was playing the organ, alone, at Minster Abbey, a remote, marshy place on the Thames Estuary, where a monastery was founded in the 7th Century. She looked up and saw a monk in a shadowy gallery overlooking the choir stalls. He was beckoning to her, but though she searched for a door or staircase, there seemed no way up to the gallery. A few days later she met Minster’s Abbot, and told him the story.  He shook his head. There was no way up to that gallery, he said, because it had been closed-up for more than three hundred years.
The result of this phantom summons was that May, an Anglican, very soon became a Catholic. Perhaps buoyed by her new faith, and by the unexpected generosity of her father-in-law, she experienced an upsurge of creativity in her middle age. She took up painting, producing pious Renaissance-style pictures, and sometimes huge flower-pieces as much as six feet wide. One of these, I remember had a none-too-well-disguised patch in one corner after her son, John, had poked some sharp-edged object through the canvas in a fit of temper.
In the 1920s, in her early sixties, May wrote and self-published a novella, First Line of Defence (sic), a 17,000 word story about a woman widowed during World War I. The little book, dedicated to her parish priest, has vivid scenes of air raids by Zeppelins over the town of Broadstairs. Her scenes in the communal air raid shelters deep in the town’s chalk cliffs, are grippingly realistic and evocative, though the story is almost painfully devout.
May was 71 when I was born. I never remember her wearing anything other than black. A call on her was not so much a visit as an audience. When we met, she was nearly always propped up on pillows, dressed in her day clothes on her big bed upstairs. She spent a great deal of time there, and it would have to be said that, if she were indeed a saint, she was a somewhat lazy one. Outside, through the windows, lay the cliffs and, beyond them, the sea, and the room seemed to me like some holy reliquary. There was a large black crucifix over the bed, and statues were everywhere: the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Theresa, and others. Rosaries dangled from both bedposts on hand for instant use.
Sometimes she’d descend and entertain us on the piano in her elegant Victorian drawing room. Her favorites were the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, though sometimes she’d tackle short virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Lizst.
I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. My aunts told me that, when they were teenagers, and the Zeppelins came over the Channel in the First World War, they’d all run to her for comfort as the bombs fell and the shrapnel clattered on the roof of the house. Unflappable, and exuding calm, she’d smile and say soothingly “It’ll pass, dears. It’ll pass.”
The only occasion on which anyone recalled May losing her temper was when her children found hefty crates of Belgian chocolate washed up onto the beach from a torpedoed tramp steamer. They arrived at her door, grinning with chocolate-smeared faces, proudly presenting their loads of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. But their mother, who feared the chocolate might have been deliberately poisoned and floated ashore by the Germans, flew into a rage and chided them for their lack of caution.  
May Harris died in her sleep in the spring of 1946. She was 86. Peace Birch -- née Harris -- my long-widowed widowed mother, died in Broadstairs forty years later at much the same age. I’ve never returned to the town, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and where the mansion that inspired Bleak House broods on the cliff tops. Nor have I ever seen a ghost, but it would neither surprise nor frighten me if, along the narrow path near her house, I were to meet that lazy saint, rosary in hand, on her way to Mass.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mr. Evans Wants You

Kevin couldn’t stop glancing at the clock.  It was already 8:17, but they hadn’t come for him. This was Tuesday, wasn’t it?
Every Tuesday it was the same. Crowded in the stuffy homework room under dim yellow lights, they’d wait for the messenger to come over from the house. First, they’d hear his scrunching footsteps in the gravel on the parade ground outside. Then, when he entered, he’d evade all eyes in the hushed classroom, stoop to the prefect’s ear and whisper the names of those to be called.
          Kevin sat at his desk near the back of the room among some twenty-five others, bent over his history project.  The duty prefect, Michael Stafford, a much older boy than most of them, with a grave, acne-scarred face and bloodhound’s eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses, sat facing them on a dais at the front, doing his own ‘prep,’ but keeping a wary eye on his underlings, alert for furtively passed written notes, or hissed conversations behind the backs of hands.
          Trying to concentrate, Kevin dipped his nib in the inkwell and wrote: “Hengist and Horsa were the leaders of the Jutes, who landed in England at Ebbsfleet, Kent, in AD 449. Horsa was killed in battle around AD 455, but Hengist, his brother, went on to rule South Britain . . .”
          Outside, wind-driven rain beat on the classroom windows, but Kevin still heard the approaching footsteps on the gravel, and tensed when the messenger entered. The whispered conversation was longer than usual, and Stafford was making a penciled note of the names.
          A minute or two passed after the messenger left the room.  Wasn’t Stafford going to call anyone?  But when he did look up and speak it was not Kevin’s surname he called, but someone else’s.
          David Griffiths, known as ‘Scruffy,’ looked up, an unkempt, curly-headed boy with a distinct Welsh accent, who always looked as though he slept in his crumpled school uniform.
 “Yes, Stafford?”
          “Mr. Evans wants to see you.”
          Friends exchanged amused glances, and exaggerated coughing broke out around the room.  Scruffy, always in trouble, was called to Mr. Evans’ study on several Tuesday nights each term. The misdemeanors for which he was about to receive four strokes of the cane would, everyone in the room knew, be much the same as they always had been: thirty minutes detention for an untidy locker; another thirty for an unlaced shoe at morning chapel; another for forgetting to bring his French dictionary. For Scruffy Griffiths, like everyone else, an accumulation of ninety or more minutes of detention in a single week meant a beating. Punishments of six strokes were kept for more venal sins: a lie; a swear word, or damage to school property. 
          Scruffy stood up with a sudden jerky movement, his chair making a harsh scraping sound as he pushed it back on the wood-block floor. So Kevin wasn’t going to be first? Somehow that made the ordeal harder to bear. He’d now have to wait, pondering what was to come while the other boy walked over to Mr. Evans’ house, took what was coming to him, and returned to the classroom. If he knew Scruffy, he’d be blubbering when he came back and took his seat. 
Kevin listened as Griffiths’s unhurried footsteps passed the window. Then nearly ten minutes dragged by. When he returned he wasn’t crying after all, though his eyes were swollen and his face flushed.
          On the dais, Stafford consulted the scribbled note beside him.        
          Kevin swallowed. “Yes, Stafford?”
          “Mr. Evans wants to see you.”
            There were a few wry grins around the homework room, but otherwise there was less reaction than when Griffiths had been summoned. Unlike Scruffy, Kevin was not the butt of the jokes and jibes the Welsh boy endured. Kevin rarely if ever found the legs of his pajama pants tied in knots in the dormitory, his bicycle tires deflated, or his toothbrush clogged with carbolic soap.
          Out in the corridor, passing empty, darkened classrooms, he stepped into the wind outside, pulling up his collar against the rain. At the bottom of the parade ground, across the street behind tall, dim street lamps, stood Crowden House, Mr. Evans’ house, with its high, leaded gable windows. The building was totally dark, and yet the front door was wide open.  But Kevin was not allowed to enter through this door, because it was only for the use of Mr.Evans and his monitors, and visiting parents.  Kevin and others, the hoi polloi of Crowden House, went in and out of the building only by its back door. He climbed the stone steps and through the shadowy changing rooms, with their overloaded clothes hooks, draped with muddy Rugby shirts and shorts and grubby towels, past the boot lockers, the echoing white-tiled bath and shower rooms, to Mr. Evans’ oak study door.
          Kevin knocked. There was a chink of light under the door. Beyond it he heard Evans cough. A smoker’s cough.
          The housemaster’s study reeked of pipe tobacco. Evans sat upright, reading a book in a shiny brown leather armchair in front of a hissing gas stove, seeming not to notice Kevin’s entrance.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
          Evans looked up feigning surprise, and eased himself out of his chair. He was an immensely tall man with drooping shoulders, an ivory white face, a beaky nose and mournful eyes. In the school library there was a life-sized marble bust of a lesser Roman emperor that bore a remarkable resemblance to him.
“Yes, Fitzgerald. I did indeed. And I expect you can imagine why.”
          Kevin shrugged. “No Sir. I can’t,” he said.
          “I think you can, boy. Reflect on it.”
          Kevin reflected.
          “It’s . . . is it because I’ve gone over ninety minutes this week, sir?”
          “Precisely. And what does that mean to you and me, Fitzgerald?”
          “That you’re going to beat me, Sir.”
          Mr. Evans smiled. But the smile was only on his thin lips. There was no warmth or friendliness in his sad eyes.
          “Exactly right.” Evans opened a closet door beside the fireplace that seemed to overflow with sports equipment. A golf bag, cricket bats, tennis racquets, hockey sticks. Reaching in behind these he drew out a long, thin bamboo cane.
“Alright, then,” Evans said, “I’ll meet you in the common room. You’ll find the chair down there somewhere.”
          Outside the housemaster’s door, Kevin groped his way along the darkened corridor. In the common room he switched on the lights and gazed round the big, dingy hall. On two unvarnished wood tables lay the disordered remains of the day’s newspapers. Around the room, against the walls, stood some forty upright wooden chairs. At the far end was a worn billiards table.
          And in the middle of the common room, standing alone was a single chair quite different from the others. It had a circular plywood seat on four spindly legs, and it’s back was made of two pieces of brown-varnished doweling, secured to the seat in an inverted U-shape. 
          “Well, we’ve been here a few times before together, haven’t we Fitzgerald?” said Evans, standing in the doorway.
Kevin stood by the chair, with one hand resting on the curve of its back. “Yes.”
“Yes, sir.”
“That’s better. Now take your position, if you will.” He closed the door behind him.
Kevin knew what he had to do. Turning his back to Evans, he faced the chair, grasped its seat with both hands, lowered his head and locked his neck under its curved cane back. Behind him, Evans made swishing practice strokes in the air with his cane with the nonchalance of a Sunday morning golfer.
Bent over in this strained position, Kevin’s back hurt. Why didn’t the bastard get on with it?
“Are you ready, boy?”
“Ready, sir.”
Kevin tightened his buttocks, bit his lip and held his breath. But Evans seemed not to be ready. Kevin could hear him pacing the floor behind him, and involuntarily relaxed a little.
Facing the floor, his head clamped under the chair back, Kevin looked down at the linoleum two feet below. What was that by the leg of the chair? An old sneaker. What was that doing here?
It was at that moment, while Kevin was off-guard and his muscles not tightened in readiness, that the first stroke fell. It cut across both buttocks, perfectly parallel. It didn’t hurt so much as it numbed him. This wasn’t too bad, he thought. He could take this.
          Evans has stepped back a few paces, and as he did so made a few more switches in the air. Nothing happened for a few moments and Kevin lowered his head a little, withdrew it from the chair back, and half turned to look at his housemaster. Evans was standing maybe eight feet behind him, immobile, the cane lowered in his right hand. His eyes seemed to be on Kevin’s buttocks, and he’d have been hard-pressed to interpret the distracted look in the man’s eyes.
“Look to your front,” Evans snapped.
          Kevin took a firmer grasp on the chair seat and squeezed the cheeks of his bottom together as tightly as he could. He heard the little run as Evans approached and the second stroke came slashing in. His body jerked upward with pain, jolting the back of his head against its wooden restraint. Tears welled into his eyes. He braced himself for the third stroke, and it came quickly, this time at a sharp slashing angle to the first two strokes. His feet twisted and his toes curled downward in reaction to the pain. One more, only one more.
          There was another long pause. He could hear Evans walking farther away this time, making little wheezing, breathless sounds between his teeth. Kevin tensed again, and heard the four quickening paces as he braced every muscle in his body, his head stiff-necked, twisting sideways, his jaw locked.
          So great was the force of the fourth, final stroke that Kevin stumbled forward a pace, his head still locked. He stood upright, lifting the chair off the floor, and raised it a little to disentangle his head. Then he lowered it to the ground and turned toward his housemaster.
          By now his eyes were so full of tears that he could barely see Evans. He wiped his eyes with a sleeve of his shirt. Evans said nothing.      
          “Can I go now, sir?”
Evens looked down. “The question’s not whether you can go, Fitzgerald. It’s whether you may go.”
“May I go, sir?”
“Indeed you may.”
Kevin made for the door.
Kevin turned. “Sir?”
“Good man. Well taken.”  He was smiling. The man was smiling!
“Thank you. Sir.”
          Outside, in the darkness of the changing rooms, he loosened his belt and slipped his hand down the inside of the back of his undershorts. He felt the four tender lines, not yet swollen into weals and, where the strokes had crossed, the smallest sticky trace of blood on his fingertips. He withdrew his hand, sucking the rich, iron-tasting blood from his fingertips.
          On his way back to the classroom, on the edge of the parade ground, he passed the lighted red telephone booth on the sidewalk. Feeling in his pocket he took out a florin, hauled open the heavy door, slipped inside and dropped the coin into the slot. He dialed his parents’ number.
          They often had dinner parties on Tuesday nights, but he was sure they wouldn’t mind. He thought of his mother and father at either end of the table in the warm, dark paneled dining room, their faces and those of their guests lit by the three candelabra. 
          It was cold in the phone booth, and there was a smell of stale tobacco smoke. His mother answered the phone. He’d hoped she would.
“Faversham 783”
“Hello, Mummy.”
“Oh, It’s my birthday boy. Happy birthday, Kevin, dear. Did you have a nice day?”
          “Not bad.”
          In the background he heard a roar of laughter, and his mother said, “I can’t talk too long Kevin. We have people to dinner.”
          “That’s all right,” the boy said.
          “Oh, by the way,” his mother said, “I’m afraid your card and present will be a day or two late. I only remembered to post them this morning. But don’t worry; it’s on the way. Really.”
          “That’s okay. It’s doesn’t matter. I expect it’ll come tomorrow.”
          There was a pause, then his mother said: “Well, I must go now, dear. Daddy sends his love, too. You’re all right then, are you?
          “Yes, Mummy, I’m fine.”
          “That’s all right then. Kiss kiss.”
          “Mummy, I . . .”
          “What’s that, dear?”
          Was there any point? “Nothing, Mummy. It’s nothing.”
          “Bye then.”
          A hundred and thirty miles away the line went dead.
          He was limping a little, and it hurt, but it would soon be all right again. Everything worked out all right in the end.
          In the classroom, waiting his return, they heard his footsteps on the gravel.