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.


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