Rite of Passage
They shouldn’t have been indoors on this wet afternoon, lounging in the big, frayed armchairs in the Day Room, bored, and chucking paper darts into the air. It was a school rule that, on Sunday afternoons, boarders must be out of doors, walking in the woods or exercising in the playing fields from two p.m. until four-thirty.
But, then, Rex was always breaking the rules. Just thirteen, he’d already established a certain notoriety among the teaching staff. And on this gloomy October afternoon he was, as usual, doing most of the talking.
“Let’s do it today, then,” Rex said to Michael.
“Climb up the chimney? Now?”
Michael hesitated. “I . . . I don’t think I’m ready for it.”
“Ready? What do you mean? How will you be any readier tomorrow, or next week, than you are now?”
“It’s just that . . . well, I want to think about it a bit first. That’s all.”
“You’re scared, you little ninny!”
“Then I dare you. I’m going anyway,” Rex said, “if I put it off another year I might be too big to crawl through the furnace. Nobody older than fourteen’s ever squeezed through it.”
Looking at the two it was hard to believe that Rex and Michael were the same age. Rex, taller, with his lank mousy hair and oafish, freckled face, already had the look of a fledgling Rugby full-back. But Michael, slightly built, with pale blue eyes and a vulnerable smile, seemed a year or more younger.
Michael didn’t like Rex but, as an easy target for the school’s bullies, he was often glad to have the bigger boy as a protector.
“You haven’t answered me, you gutless retard. Are you coming up the chimney or not?”
Michael had no choice. That was how things were most of the time. It was always Rex who beat the drum, and Michael who followed it.
“All right, then,” he ceded. “I’ll come. They say it’s filthy up there. Soot, rats and stuff. What are we going to wear?”
“Gym things. Shorts, a PT shirt, and gym shoes. Stop yakking and let’s do it while there’s nobody around.”
Tying his shoelaces in the locker room, Michael said, “We’ll be in dead trouble if they catch us, you know. They beat three boys for doing the chimney last term. And someone broke his back once. They had to call the fire brigade to get him down.”
“Well, they won’t catch us,” Rex said, “They must’ve been bloody morons.”
They left the house and, trying their best to look nonchalant, crossed the street and strolled through the tall gates. Even Rex looked apprehensive as they glanced up at the assembly building beyond the gravel parade ground, with its elegant, glazed cupola perched high on the roof maybe a hundred feet above them.
“It’s a long haul up there,” Rex said. “I bet you’re scared as hell.”
“Just a bit. I’ll be happier when it’s over.”
“You’re such a yellow belly. Listen, this is what they call a rite of passage. We all have to do it. It’s nothing to wet your knickers about.”
Michael loathed Rex’s sneering put-downs and his everlasting assertions that everyone was an idiot except himself. But he’d have given a year’s pocket money for just an ounce of that self-confidence and assertiveness. You either had it, he told himself, or you didn’t. He supposed this was something he’d got to live with.
As Rex burst through the tall main doors of the assembly building, Mr. Cranston, the senior math master, was pinning notices on the board by the entrance to the dining hall, and turned when they entered.
“What are you villains up to, indoors on a Sunday afternoon?”
Rex’s reply was instant. “Hello, Mr. Cranston, Sir. Just going for a spot of exercise in the gym.”
With forced jauntiness, and with Michael close behind him, Rex swaggered out of Cranston’s view toward the rear of the building. Beyond the deserted kitchens was the door to the cellar, in a shadowy corner under the stairs that led up to the assembly hall. In seconds Rex had heaved it open, propelled his companion forcefully down the first two steps and, with one rapid movement, sprang in behind him and closed the door.
They stood together in the darkness while Rex groped for a switch, and suddenly they were staring down a steep wooden staircase. At the bottom, surrounded by a heap of newly-delivered coal stacked almost to the ceiling, ready for the winter, loomed the big cast-iron furnace.
Rex whistled. “It’s a hefty bugger, but the door’s pretty small.”
Michael, his chest by now tight with fear, and his pulse racing, pulled open the heavy furnace door on its stiff hinges and looked inside.
“What do we do now?”
Rex took a small flashlight out of his pocket and shone it into the black mouth of the furnace. “That’s the fire-box in there, where the coal burns. The boiler tank’s just up here, see? People who’ve done this before say that if we clamber round the side of the tank and onto the top of it, we’ll find ourselves in the chimney. That’s where we start climbing. I’ll lead the way – take my torch and give me some light.”
While Michael focused into the furnace with the flashlight, his burlier companion climbed feet-first into the firebox, and only by breathing in and scrunching up his shoulders could he wriggle through the narrow space.
Michael followed with room to spare, and they crouched together in this tight, sooty space pondering their next move.
“I’ll climb up onto the tank first,” Rex said, “then I’ll reach down and pull you up. You’re not strong enough to do it yourself.”
A minute or two later, their eyes growing slowly more used to the dark, they stood atop the boiler tank and gazed up at the dim disk of light at the very top of the tall chimney. From the bottom of this narrow, claustrophobic shaft they could only just distinguish the iron rungs, each set into the sooty brickwork, up which they must now climb.
“You go first,” Rex said.
“So I can catch you when you fall off!” Rex let out an explosive, mocking laugh that reverberated in the chimney above them.
For the first fifty feet, climbing hand-over-hand on the rusted iron rungs, Michael’s confidence returned a little. This wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. The rungs seemed firmly set in the brick and, because it was so dark, he wasn’t unnerved by seeing how high they were. Below him he heard Rex count the number of steps under his breath.
“Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven . . .”
“How many rungs are there?” Michael asked, by now short of breath.
“We’re about half way.”
They climbed on, and soon the rusted iron rungs cut painfully into the soles of his feet through his thin canvas shoes.
He could actually hear his heart beat now, and the flakes of rust had made painful cuts in several of his fingers. Above him the disk of daylight was a little larger, but scarcely any of it filtered down to them in the acrid-smelling chimney. Suddenly he wanted to stop, and to tell Rex he couldn’t do this any more. It was all too much. His eyes burned, and he wanted to cry.
“ Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four.”
It couldn’t be far now. Michael was slightly encouraged, and managed to regain control. This had to be the worst part, didn’t it? He’d heard you had to crawl along a narrow beam up in the roof to reach the cupola, but it must be lighter up there. It couldn’t be as bad as this. Could it?
Michael could hear that Rex’s breathing had become labored. Could it be, he wondered, that for all his bluster Rex wasn’t as tough as he always claimed to be? Even though he wasn’t as big, Michael wondered, might he have the edge on his partner? Maybe this was going to be all right. They climbed on, and he found himself, like Rex, counting the number of each rung.
“Ninety-seven . . .ninety-eight . . .”
“Hey! Stop a minute,” Rex said.
Michael lowered his head, though he could see nothing below.
“What is it?”
“I’m knackered. I need to rest a bit. And I think we’ve come too far.”
“Too far for what?” Michael asked.
“There should be a door here, the one that leads into the roof and along the beam. Hang on a second.”
Below him, Rex grasped the rung with one hand and switched on his flashlight to examine the brickwork a few rungs down.
“Yep, here it is!”
“Good,” Michael said.
There was a long silence while Rex clambered down to the door.
“No . . . not good. Bad.”
“There’s a ruddy great padlock on it,” Rex said, “we can’t get in.”
Neither of them spoke. A while ago, Michael would have seized any excuse to back out of this exploit, but now, after they’d come so far and his morale had taken a turn for the better, he felt deep disappointment that they weren’t going to see it to the end.
“Isn’t there any other way?” he asked.
Rex grasped the lock and rattled it angrily.
“What a stupid question! No, there isn’t.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“We’re going to piss off home. That’s what.”
Taking care not to tread on Rex’s hands, Michael followed him down. On the next few steps he tapped the brickwork with sore fingers, his ear cocked for a hollow, more metallic sound from the padlocked iron door. And there it was. He fumbled for the lock in the darkness, and his fingers closed around it. It seemed to swivel freely from left to right. Might this mean . . . could it be . . . that it wasn’t snapped shut but was just hanging there, unlocked?
He raised the padlock an inch or two, and there it was in his hand. His heart racing, he slipped it into his pocket, and shoved the iron door inwards.
“Rex! Come back up. You’re wrong.”
He’d never said that to Rex before.
“What do you mean, you cheeky little sod?”
“It wasn’t locked. It hadn’t been snapped shut, that’s all. Everything’s all right. I’ve opened the door and I’m going in.”
He could hear Rex heaving himself up again.
“What can you see?”
On his hands and knees inside the low doorway, Michael glanced around him. The roof-space, its apex maybe twelve feet above him, seemed like a huge barn. It was too dark to see the far end, but about sixty feet away, through a crisscross of heavy beams supporting the roof, a dim late afternoon light glowed down from the decorative cupola that was their final destination.
“I can see the way to the top.” Michael said. “It’s easy. Nothing to it. We have to crawl along a beam to the bottom of the cupola. Then we’re nearly there. Follow me.”
They were perhaps ten feet along the beam when it struck Michael that he was a foot or two above the ceiling of the lofty assembly hall below. If one of them lost his balance, he’d hurtle through the plaster, crashing into the pew-like oak benches in the auditorium maybe thirty feet below.
He looked back to where Rex, still breathing heavily, crawled silently behind him.
“Watch it here, Rex. Keep all your weight on the beam. There’s only plaster on either side, keep your hands and feet off it, or you’ll fall through the ceiling.”
Something strange had happened in the last few minutes. Rex wasn’t giving the orders any more. Was he just exhausted, or was he in a funk? Whatever the reason, Michael knew he’d become the leader. He was giving the orders now, giving orders to Rex. And it felt good.
They took their time on the beam, inching cautiously toward the thin glow of light that shone down from the cupola on the roof. When at last they reached it they found a square, boarded platform maybe six feet across and stared up into the glazed turret above them. A knotted rope, twice a man’s height, hung down from its center. They were only a few yards away from their goal.
“You all right?” Michael asked.
Rex nodded, but all the familiar self-assurance and the cocksure arrogance had gone.
“But I’m not going up that rope.” Rex blurted out.
“Come on, Rex, you must. You’ve just got to! You’ve come all this way . . . ”
“Say what you like. I’m not bloody well going.”
They stood together silently in the fading light. Blackened with soot, like coal-miners emerging from a day’s shift.
“All right, then,” Michael said. “You wait here and I’ll go up. I’ll be a couple of minutes. By the time I’m back maybe you’ll have changed your mind.”
The thick rope, hanging down from the cupola, had knots tied in it, making it easy to climb the dozen or so feet to the top. Michael reached up, tensed his muscles, raised himself, and clenched his feet above the first knot. A minute or two later he was sitting on a narrow wooden sill that circled the inside of the cupola.
“Boy! You should see this,” he called down.
In the last half-hour of daylight on this overcast fall afternoon, the town of Cranbrook spread around him. Over there to the north was the town’s 15th Century church, the lights through its windows already turned on for evensong. Here, its windows black, was the main classroom block and the headmaster’s elegant Queen Anne house. The lights of cars shone on rain-wet streets. Immediately below, on the parade ground, two boys sauntered toward the door of the assembly building. Lights were going on in windows everywhere.
He’d done it, and it had been worth the effort, the sore feet, the blooded knuckles. What had Rex called it, a rite of passage? It was too dark to see Rex down there now.
Taking a last look out the windows, he eased himself back down the rope.
“Put your torch on, Rex.”
In the flashlight’s glow he saw Rex look up sheepishly. He hadn’t moved.
“Now it’s your turn,” Michael said. “Come on, matey. You can do it.”
“But I can’t.” Rex was shivering. “I’ve . . . I think I’ve lost my nerve. I’m so frigging scared.”
Michael sat down beside him. “Listen, if you don’t do this, you won’t ever forgive yourself.”
Rex didn’t answer.
“Yes,” Rex said. “I know you’re right. But I can’t. I just can’t go on.”
“’Course you can.” Michael said. “Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll take the rest of this in separate stages. Forget about going back over the beam or down the chimney for now. Just concentrate on going up the rope. OK?”
Michael scrambled to his feet and started up the knotted rope for a second time.
“What are you up to?” Rex asked.
“I’ll be there waiting for you. Now, up you come.”
Rex stood and, hesitantly, made his way up the rope.
“There you are! That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?”
The two sat together on the sill, their legs swinging in the space below. By now much of the detail of the view through the windows had faded into the darkness, but the streetlights and the glowing windows all round them still made it a sight to see.
“How’s that for a view, then?” Michael asked.
“Bloody marvelous!” Rex said. And he smiled a little.
They were half way along the beam on the way back to the chimney when Rex, crawling behind him, said, “The torch is going out. The batteries are dying.”
There was a hint of panic in his voice.
“No problem,” Michael said. “If we take our time, we can do it all by feel. How are you doing back there?”
“All right,” Rex said, and added ‘Thank you.’” Michael couldn’t remember him ever saying those words before.
“Good. Turn off that torch. We may need whatever’s left in it on the way down.”
When they got to the iron door that led down to the chimney Michael stopped, leaning against the lintel.
“This is the last bit, Rex. Take a few deep breaths. We’re in no hurry, and it’ll be a lot easier going down.”
For the first time in his life, Michael felt the thrill of having complete control. Of being in charge. Carefully he pivoted on the beam to reposition himself feet first in the doorway. “I’m swiveling round here, Rex. You’ll have to do the same – and keep your arms and legs off that ceiling, all right?”
Michael slipped the padlock from his pocket and passed it through the doorway.
“Don’t close it. Just hang it up the way it was before.”
And now they were going down, down until the dim yellow glow of light through the furnace door grew closer and closer. They were home.
As Michael turned to go up the cellar steps, Rex caught his arm.
“Hang on, Michael. What are you going to say to them?”
“Say to who, about what?”
“About . . . hell, you know what.”
“No,” Michael said, slowly. “I don’t know. Tell me.”
Rex nodded toward the ceiling. “What are you going to tell everyone up there about . . . you know what I’m trying to say.”
“Then say it, Rex. What mustn’t I tell them?”
Defeated, Rex swallowed hard. “Damn you, Michael -- about me chickening out. What else?”
“Me? I’m not going to say a word. I’ll bet if it’d been me you’d never have dreamt of telling everyone. Not for a second, would you now?”
Rex looked down at his feet. “No, ‘course I wouldn’t.”
“Well, then, nor would I.”
Together, they walked up the stairs to the hallway, and back into the light.
The Assembly Hall at Cranbrook
School – note the cupola on the roof.
The chimney can just be seen
Through the tree branches at left.