Saving face

Robin Gordon

Auksford crest: a great auk displaying an open book with the words "Ex ovo sapientia"
Auksford 2017

Copyright Robin Gordon 2017

    In the high and far-off times, o best beloved, before Dr Beeching cut all the railway lines he deemed unprofitable, when every small town, and many a village, had a railway station, and unaccompanied children could travel safely by train all over the country without fear of being approached by unsavoury paedophiles, a tall fair-haired boy of some fourteen summers and his pretty little sister, three or four years younger, were on a train travelling to meet their cousins for the first time in many years.
    Their father was a colonial administrator, and Michael, for so the fair-haired youth was named, had been at a very good prep-school in Kenya for the last few years and was now to join his boy-cousins, George and Richard, at Matchingham.  It should have been an occasion of unalloyed cheerfulness, and would have been, had not the reason for the family’s return to England been a sudden and totally unexpected heart-attack that had befallen their father a few weeks earlier.  He was making a good recovery, but there was no prospect of his return to administrative work in the Empire.  Mother was looking after him at Ablethorpe, while Michael and his little sister, Fran, went to stay with Uncle John and Aunt Hilda for ten days of the summer holidays, and it was there that Michael would meet his new housemaster for the first time, for Mr Williamson was a friend of the family and would be paying a quick visit to assess his new charge.
    The train began to slow as it approached Framlington, so Michael got up to get their cases from the overhead rack.  He swung Fran’s case down with ease, then reached for his own.  He lifted it from the rack, then, with a sudden gasp, swung it down to the seat and clutched at his chest.
    “Oh!  What’s wrong?  What’s wrong, Michael?” cried little Fran.  “It’s not a heart attack, is it?”
    “No,” said Michael.  “It’s not that.  I’ve bust my braces.  I should have got a new pair, but there just wasn’t time.  What am I going to do?”
    “What do you mean?” Fran asked.
    “I’ve got to meet George and Richard and Rachel and Alice, and I’ve got nothing to hold my trousers up.”
    “You mean they might fall down?”   Fran couldn’t suppress a giggle.
    “Don’t laugh!”  cried Michael.  “You girls don’t understand.  A chap’s trousers are very important.  If a chap’s trousers fall down everybody laughs at him.  Even you giggled just thinking my trousers might fall down.

    On the platform at Framlington George, Richard, Rachel and Alice were waiting eagerly for the train.
    “It’ll be great fun having Michael at Matchingham,” said Richard, “and he’s going to be in Williamson’s with us as well.”
    “He’s supposed to be a jolly good spin-bowler,” said George, “and I’ve heard he’s a wizard with the bat.”
    “Fran’s supposed to be a sweet little girl,” said Rachel.
    “And Michael looks jolly handsome in his photographs,” said Alice.
    “It’s a pity about Uncle Thomas,” said George.
    “But he is getting better,” said Rachel.
    Here’s the train now!” called Richard.

    An elderly couple got out of one of the furthermost carriages, then they saw Michael coming out of a carriage near the centre of the platform.  He looked round, then strolled towards them with his hands in his trouser pockets.
    “Hello,” he said.  “You must be my cousins.  I’m Michael.  I say, could one of you give my sister a hand with the cases?”
    They looked up and saw the little girl struggling to lift the two cases out of the train.  George and Richard ran to help her.
    “Does your brother always leave you to do all the work?” Richard asked.
    “I like to help,” said Fran shyly.
    George and Richard took a case each and carried them over to the others.
    “Thanks,” said Michael and gave them a grin.
    He intended it to be a friendly grin.  Rachel thought he had a nice smile, but beastly manners, while Alice and the boys just thought him insufferably smug.

    Their father was waiting with the horse and trap.
    “Got to know each other?  Splendid!” he said.  “How are you, Michael.?”
    “Very well, thank you, Sir,” said Michael, but he didn’t shake hands.  He didn’t even take his hands out of his pockets.
    “Climb aboard,” said his uncle, and the others could see that he was not at all pleased.  Michael didn’t seem to notice.  He pulled himself into the trap, still keeping one hand in his pocket, and sat down.
    “Let me help you, Fran,” said George pointedly, as he handed the little girl into the trap, extended his hand to his sisters, then climbed in himself, followed by his brother.

    “He didn’t shake hands with any of us,” said George.
    “Not even with Dad,” said Richard.
    “And he even kept his hands in his pockets when he met Mummy,” said Rachel.
    “He’s a smug, self-satisfied rotter,” said Richard.
    “He’s a beast!” said Alice.
    “Perhaps he doesn’t know how we behave in this country,” said George.  “If he’s been in Africa for years, perhaps he just doesn’t know.  Perhaps that’s how they behave in Africa.  Perhaps they don’t ever shake hands.  After all the French kiss each other, which we wouldn’t like at all, and they’re only just over the channel.”
    “I still think he’s a beast,” said Alice.
    “I think there must be decent standards of behaviour all over the Empire,” said Richard.  “It can’t be just that he doesn’t know.”
    “Well,” said George, “he is our cousin, so I think we ought to give him a chance.”
    “Perhaps he was tired from travelling,” said Rachel, “and he must be quite worried about his father.”
    “I still think he’s a beast,” said Alice.  “Look at the way he left his little sister to deal with those heavy cases!”
    “Well, he’s been in Africa for years,” said George.  “I don’t suppose white men ever carry anything in Africa.  They just leave it to the native servants.”
    “But Fran is his little sister,” protested Alice.
    “Perhaps it was the worry about his father,” suggested Rachel, not very convincingly.
    “He does seem to be a bit of a bounder,” said George, “but I suppose we shouldn’t judge him until we get to know him.”
    “All right,” said Richard.  “We’ll give him another chance, but we’ll be watching.”

    The girls didn’t get much out of Fran.  They thought she was a nice little girl.  She seemed quite fond of her brother and said he didn’t usually make her carry things for him, but was very evasive when they tried to ask her about the way he was behaving.
    The boys talked to Michael about cricket.  They told him Williamson’s had been runner-up for the house shield two years in a row, and hoped they might win it next time.  They asked him about his old school’s cricket team, and they saw his face light up with enthusiasm as he told them how they had won the Kenyan prep-schools trophy.
    “They say you’re a pretty decent spin-bowler,” said George, and they were pleased that he replied modestly that some people seemed to think he wasn’t bad really.  They got out of him that he had been top-scorer, and were pleased that he attributed it to luck and praised the rest of his team, and that they had to ask him directly before he admitted to being captain.
    “Why don’t we go down to the nets and have a practice,” George suggested.
    Poor Michael!  There was nothing he’d have liked better than a bit of cricket practice.  He loved the game, and he would have liked to show his cousins what he could do – but he had visions of what would happen.  He saw himself at the wicket: an easy ball, a potential four, he swung at it, and down fell his trousers.  He saw himself run up to bowl, and just as he swung his arm up to release the ball his trousers dropped around his ankles, he tripped and fell, and the ball trickled harmlessly to the side.  He saw himself fielding, a low ball speeding towards the boundary, he dived for it, skidded across the grass, slid right out of his trousers and left them a couple of yards behind him.  All of these disasters would end the same way: a howl of derision from the players, and a piercing squeal of malevolent glee from the watching girls.
    His enthusiasm disappeared.
    “Not just now,” he said, looking desperately for an excuse.  Words his mother had used came suddenly into his mind.  “I’ve got a bit of a headache, actually,” he said.
    They were disappointed but determined to be fair.
    “Come for a walk then,” said Richard.  “We’ll show you the woods.”
    “I think I’d better go to my room and lie down.”  Why on earth had he said that?  It made him sound like an elderly maiden aunt.  He wandered off disconsolately, still with his hands firmly in his pockets.
    “What do you make of that?” demanded George.
    “I think he’s a fake,” said Richard.  “All this decent-spin-bowler stuff, it’s all made up to make himself look wonderful.”
    “Yes,” said George, “but we had to drag it out of him that he was captain …”
    “That just shows how clever he is,” said Richard.  “If he’d told us he was captain and top scorer, we’d have known he was boasting.  This way he looks like a modest sort of chap, a proper sportsman.  I bet he can’t bowl at all.  None of us has ever seen him play.  No-one we know has ever seen him play.  We’ve heard about him, but that’s just hearsay, not real evidence at all.  It’s no better than rumours, and I can guess who started those rumours!”

    “Heaven knows what Williamson will make of him,” said John to his wife Hilda.  “The boys can’t stand him.”
    “Neither can the girls,” Hilda replied.  “Alice says she can’t ever forgive him for leaving those heavy cases to little Fran.”
    “The boys were pretty sick at the way he just ordered them to go and help her while he stood around with his hands in his pockets.  I suppose it’s some sort of adolescent fad, trying to look worldly wise and world-weary to the point of boredom.  Didn’t take his hands out of his pockets to shake hands with me.  Just gave me a sort of condescending nod, and I was really cross that he didn’t even greet you properly.  In fact the only time I’ve seen him take his hand out of his pockets was when the dogs came running up to him, and even then it was only one hand, and he looked as if he was scared of them, like a prim old spinster afraid of getting muddy paw-marks on her skirt.  Tom’s always had dogs, so why should Michael be frightened of them.  Little Fran took to them right away, and the dogs took to her, but after the way he treated them they just ignored Michael.  It’s not as if they’re boisterous animals!  Bessie’s getting old and Flossie’s just a big soft lump.  God knows what will happen if Williamson brings Buster.  I suppose Michael will squeal like a girl and sneak off to his room.  You don’t suppose he’ll make such a fool of himself that Williamson will tell the school not to accept him, do you?”
    “Anything’s possible,” said Hilda.  “The children are really fed up.  They can’t wait for him to leave.”
    “Only another couple of days to go,” said John.  “I won’t ask the boys to go to the station – not if we want him to get there in one piece.  I’d better get Harris to take him in the car.  You want the car tomorrow, don’t you?”
    “Yes.  I’m going to take the girls into town to do a bit of shopping.  They both need new clothes for next term.  Little Fran is coming too.”
    “I expect she wants to get away from that awful brother of hers for a while.”
    “She seems to like him, strange as it may seem.  Rachel tried to ask her about him, and she insisted he was nice, but she was rather evasive about his behaviour.  Anyway, I’ll try and be back before Mr Williamson arrives, but I can’t guarantee it.”
    “Well, I hope you are,” said John.  “I need some moral support if I’ve got to show Michael to Williamson.   I shudder to think what he’ll make of him”

    “I wish I’d made a clean breast of it right from the start,” said Michael.  “I should have told George and Richard.  They’d have laughed, and it would have been embarrassing if the girls had overheard, but one of them would probably have lent me some braces.  Now it’s far too late.  If everyone knows I’ve been holding my trousers up all week, I’ll be a real laughing-stock.”
    “It’s all right, Michael,” said Fran.  “Aunty Hilda’s going to take us girls into town to do some shopping.  I’ll ask her if I can get some braces for you.”
    “No!” cried Michael.  “Then the girls will hear.  I couldn’t face them at all if I knew they were imagining my trousers falling down.  I’ll give you some money.  Try and sneak off and buy them without anyone seeing – and bring them straight up to me as soon as you get back.  Mr Williamson is coming tomorrow, getting here in the late afternoon.  I’ve got to have new braces by then, or he’ll think I’m an idle rotter.  He might not even agree to have me in the school.  I don’t know what Dad will say.  I’ll probably have to kill myself.”
    “No, Michael!  Don’t do that!”
    “Try and get them without anyone seeing, and bring them to me as quick as you can.  It’s my only chance.”

    Michael skulked in his room all the next day.  George and Richard made one last attempt to persuade him to come out with them, then went off into the woods.
    “Our only hope,” said George, “is that Mr Williamson will see what a bounder he is and refuse to have him in his house.”
    “Perhaps he’ll tell the Head not to have him in school at all,” said Richard.
    “That would be best,” said George.  “To have a rotter like that anywhere in the school and to have chaps knowing he’s our cousin … well!”

    “Michael skulked into the dining room at lunch-time and didn’t take his hands out of his pockets till he was safely seated at the table.  As soon as the meal was finished, he rose, stuck his hands in his pockets, and strolled off upstairs, not to be seen again until he had to meet his prospective housemaster.  All afternoon he was on tenterhooks, glancing at his watch over and over again and looking out of the window, hoping to see the car bringing Aunt Hilda and the girls, bringing Fran, and his new braces – if she had been able to get them.  Suppose she hadn’t.  He’d have to greet Mr Williamson still with his hands in his pockets.  Could he manage to shake hands?  He tried in front of the mirror, but as soon as he took his hands out of his pockets and stood at attention his trousers sagged dangerously and obviously.  He could manage with one hand, but he had to admit that shaking hands with a schoolmaster, with his left hand firmly in his trouser-pocket, looked very casual and even condescending.  It was better than not shaking hands at all, but still not good enough.  Mr Williamson would consider him a rotter.
    The afternoon wore on.  He heard a car and rushed to the window, but it was parked too close to the wall and he couldn’t see which one it was.
    On impulse he flung himself on his knees beside his bed and prayed fervently that it might be Aunt Hilda, that it might be Fran, that she might have his new braces.
    His prayer was answered.  Fran burst into his room, beaming with delight, and handed over a small package.  He ripped it open, grinning from ear to ear.
    “Hurry,” cried Fran, “there’s another car just coming in.  It must be Mr Williamson.”
    Michael pulled off his pullover.  Quickly he buttoned on the new braces behind, fumbled a bit, and asked Fran to help.  Then he pulled the front straps over his shoulders, buttoned them on at the front and adjusted the clips.  He grabbed his jacket and put it on.  It was really too warm for a pullover, and the boys had looked at him strangely but probably thought he felt the cold after being in Africa for so long.
    “Gosh, thanks Fran!”  He cried.  “You don’t know how much more confidant a chap feels knowing his trousers are secure!”
    Then he ran downstairs to greet his housemaster.

    “Here comes Michael now,” said Uncle John.
    Michael joined them outside the front door.  Mr Williamson turned towards him and offered his hand.  Uncle John groaned inwardly, but Michael stepped forward smartly and shook hands, standing upright, with his left hand by his side, looking every inch the eager schoolboy hero.
    “Pleased to meet you, Sir,” he said.
    “This is Buster,” said Mr Williamson, as his dog turned away from greeting his old friends George and Richard and bounded up to Michael.
    Uncle John sought desperately for some excuse, but Michael stooped and greeted the bouncing dog with enthusiasm.  Buster leapt up at him, and Michael fondled him, looking really delighted to meet such a lively animal.
    “Well, at least he’s putting on a good show,” thought Uncle John, as Michael turned from Buster and hastened to pick up Mr Williamson’s case.
    “Let me help you, Sir,” he said.
    George and Richard looked at each other but said nothing as Michael carried the housemaster’s case upstairs.

    John and Hilda were surprised at the transformation in Michael.  Instead of slouching around, slightly hunched, with his hands permanently in his pockets, he was walking tall and straight, moving briskly, and eager to help whenever anything needed doing.  When Mr Williamson reminded them that one reason he was there was to assess Michael’s knowledge in his various school subjects, suggested that they might devote the next morning to that, and proposed that instead of sitting all day at a table, they should take Buster for a good long walk through the woods and up into the hills and talk as they walked, Michael agreed eagerly saying he was looking forward to it as he hadn’t had any opportunity of getting out into the countryside.  Next morning he set off with Mr Williamson, with Buster gambolling around them and jumping up to be petted.
    “I don’t know what’s come over Michael,” said his uncle.  “He’s certainly impressing Williamson, but why on earth was he behaving so oddly before.”
    “I imagine,” said his Aunt Hilda, “that it was a combination of worry about his father and being suddenly thrust into a strange household with people he hadn’t met for years.  Our lot can be pretty overpowering, you know.  And now he’s settled down and got to know us, so he’s back to his old self.”
    “Well I hope you’re right,” said John.  “It was almost as if he were afraid of our boys.  I just hope Williamson doesn’t want to try him out at cricket.  George is convinced he’s a complete duffer and that the talk of his prowess as a bowler is just talk – boasting in fact.”

    John’s hope was in vain.  When Mr Williamson came back he seemed impressed with Michael’s knowledge and intelligence, and proposed that he and the three boys should relax during the afternoon with a session at the nets.  To everyone’s surprise Michael assented with enthusiasm, and when the session started he soon proved he was no duffer.  Though John had managed to whisper to George that it would be better to go easy on Michael, he received in reply a sound he could only describe as a non-committal grunt, and George certainly didn’t go easy on Michael.
    Michael was first at the wicket, and he quickly showed his prowess as a batsman.  George and Richard tried every different bowling trick they knew, but Michael knew exactly when to block a ball and when to hit it for six – and when he bowled neither George nor Richard stood much of a chance against him.
    Mr Williamson was delighted.  “With your nephew in our team,” he told John, “we’re almost bound to win the house challenge shield, and the school under fifteens will be in a pretty strong position too.”

    Michael and Fran left the next morning.  Michael insisted on carrying both suitcases, and when Harris brought the car round, he put both of them in.  He shook hands with his uncle and Mr Williamson and with his aunt and his cousins.  He patted Bessie and Flossie and fussed over Buster as the dog jumped up at him, then he got into the car and Harris drove them away.

    On the train he thanked Fran again.  “It’s thanks to you I was able to show them what I’m really like,” he said.  “If you hadn’t got these new braces for me they’d probably still think I was some sort of idle rotter.”

    “He’s a grade one stinker,” said George.  “Did you see how he was sucking up to old Williamson, making himself look good?”
    “Well, we know what he’s really like!” said Richard.
    “He’s a beast!” said Alice.  “He left poor little Fran to carry those two heavy cases when they first arrived, but when Mr Williamson was watching he carried them both himself.”
    “He’s an idle, self-satisfied rotter!” said George.
    “He’s a hypocrite!” said Rachel.  “Pretending to be a nice boy, when we’ve all seen what a selfish creature he really is.”
    “Well,” said George, “he may fool the grown-ups, but he won’t fool the chaps at school.  We’ll give him a hard time, I can tell you.”
    “We’ll debag him!” said Richard.
    “Richard!” cried George.  “Pas devant les … um … girls.”
    “Jeunes filles,” said Rachel.  “Any way pourquoi pas in front of us?  What will you do when you debag him?”
    “It’s just a sort of ceremony we have to show a real rotter that he’s not one of us,” said George.  “It’s a way of expelling him from friendship with us.”
    “Like sending him to Coventry?” said Alice.
    “What we do,” said Richard, “is this: a gang of us will grab him and overpower him, and then we’ll pull off his trousers!
    “Oh Richard,” groaned George, but the girls gave squeals of delight.
    “Yes!  He really deserves it!” said Rachel.
    “I know he does,” said George, “but it’s not polite to say things like that in front of you girls.”
    “I don’t see why not,” said Richard.  “He deserves to be debagged, and he deserves to have everyone know about it, especially the girls!”
    “Write to us,” said Rachel, “and tell us all about it.  Tell us how he takes it.  He’ll be so humiliated!  I wish we could see it.”
    “Well, perhaps you can,” said Richard.  “Listen, George, you’re president of the Camera Club, aren’t you, and Mr Grove doesn’t really pay much attention to what you do.  We could buy an extra film, and you could take photos and develop them in the Camera Club darkroom, then we could send them to the girls.”
    It was only for the briefest of moments that George hesitated.
    “Yes,” he said.  “He’s a real stinker of a hypocrite, and he deserves to be debagged and have the girls see the photos.”

    As the train sped through England’s green and pleasant land, Michael looked out of the window.  He slipped his hand under his jacket, fingered his new braces, so strong, stout and dependable, and smiled contentedly.

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