A short story by James Barnett
Edward Downdall watched in cold horror as the pile of chairs, tables and desks almost reached the ceiling.
Surely no one could hope to climb over such a loose and unsteady obstacle as this without serious hurt or injury. As the older boys, with help from the housemaster, completed their task, the new boys, some crying, were led away to another classroom to be blindfolded.
They all knew that their initiation was now to be fulfilled. Did the other boys feel the same dread at the certainty of their limbs being painfully broken within the next ten minutes? Edward had heard the rumours and believed them to be true. Boys had been taken to the sanitorium and returned, heroically, with legs and arms in plaster as a result of attempting this ritual test. Only the fortunate or exceptionally skilful would be able to scale the dangerously balanced structure without falling the eight or so feet to a hard floor.
So far, the first term at Bishop Moryat School, Preparatory House, had not been as dreadful as Edward had feared. To be sure, he missed home and grieved bitterly for his mother, he knew they would be there for him again at the end of every term. Lessons were stimulating and engrossing. Miss Villiers was young, lively and enthusiastic and ran her class without the need for stern measures. The school matron was brisk but kind and Mrs Pope, the housemaster's wife, kept an adequate, if unimaginative, household for the boarders. Only Mr. Pope, the housemaster and head teacher, instilled a sense of dread into Edward's heart and, he suspected, it was Mr. Pope who had devised this fearful initiation.
But now had come the moment that boys of only nine years would need to demonstrate that they could overcome fear, pain and possibly the risk of death itself. They were to be tested like Roman gladiators. Courage, stoicism and supreme physical prowess were the qualities expected from those frail, trembling, still feminine forms.
One by one, the names were called. Each boy had to be led by the one in front, who, in his turn, was guided by one older boy, who wore no blindfold. Edward listened to the bare feet on the cold classroom floor. His blindfold has been pulled more tightly than would have been necessary had he not struggled. It cut into his ears and the bridge of his nose, making it hard to breathe. He had already missed his turn because of this. Both the school matron and one of the other teachers had had to grasp him firmly while he thrashed about to make an escape. Even now, he tried to grab the blindfold and pull it away so resulting in further restraint.
The instant that he heard his name, Edward fell into an uncontrollable panic. He screamed and cried tears, struggling and kicking until he heard Matron's soft voice in his ear.
“Edward, Edward, listen to me. Do you hear?” He had not been called by his first name since he had parted with his mother on the first day of term.
“Edward,” she continued in her gentle, lilting Lowland Scots tones, “let me take off your blindfold and I will take you and show you that no harm was ever meant by all this. Come on, now, just settle down and you'll see what I mean.'
Slowly, Edward began to relax. When the blindfold fell from his eyes he could see no-one but Matron. There was laughter coming from the classroom where the trial was taking place. Not harsh, cruel laughter, but a more gentle, humourous kind. He followed Matron and saw that the great wall of chairs and desks had been taken down. Most of the new boys were sitting on the floor, eyes uncovered. Some were joining in the laughter. Just one or two of the last boys to enter were feeling their way along an empty floor, to the amusement of most onlookers.
Mr. Pope, seeing that it was time to put closure on this rather cruel practical joke, clapped his hands and announced that the last blindfolds could be removed. Two of the remaining victims chuckled with relief. Perhaps their own natural resilience had allowed them to enjoy the jape, however the other boy did not take so well to being made a fool of. Looking around, he saw Edward standing next to the matron. It was not a difficult assumption for him to make. He saw that Edward had been allowed to escape the initiation and his cowardice had been rewarded, whilst everyone else who had passed the rite of passage and still felt the remnants of that fear and humiliation had seen their own courage and rite of passage debased and devalued.
On the morning that followed, an extended morning break had been allowed. Instead of the usual fifteen minutes, the boys were allowed outside for nearly half an hour. Just one teacher patrolled both the playground and the school corridors. Edward, whose one companion was a day pupil, named James Everitt, wandered aimlessly along the playground perimeter, for on that morning, Everitt was absent from school. Edward, lost in his own imagined world, had not noticed the boy, Stonefield, who had been the last blindfolded one, following him round. Not only had Stonefield been following him, he had also organised a small group of other boys from the class above to join him. Soon, Edward was surrounded by a hostile group circling around him. They began to manoeuvre Edward, along the wire fence and down towards the steps which led to the public road. The gate to those steps was never locked during school hours and it was easy for the boys to force Edward down the steps and into a culvert. Once there, they took hold of him, roughly, chanting his name, derisively.
'Dowdy Dowdall, Howdy Dowdy! 'Howdy Dowdy!'.
Not harmful jibes in themselves, were these taunts, but they were ill meant and their tone was both mocking and menacing. They pushed Edward into the culvert where he lay on his back, helpless, as two held his arms and the others tore off his short trousers and pants, throwing them up into the branches of overhanging trees. Once “de-bagged” Edward was forcibly frogmarched on to the pavement and pushed up against a low wall. There they left him and raced back, through the culvert and steps, on to the playground, just in time to hear the bell. One of the older boys snapped the padlock on the gate to prevent Edward from following them.
Cars and lorries had to change down a gear on that steep, narrow thoroughfare which led past the school entrance. Edward was painfully conscious of people being quite able to observe his nakedness. He tried to cover himself with his shirt and jumper, but they would not stretch far enough to provide any relief from his shame. Above, blowing in the bare branches, his short trousers and underpants were far beyond his reach. Climbing to retrieve them would result in yet further exposure to the gaze of those passing. His options were limited to walking up the hill, de-bagged as he was, and through the main entrance into the school boarding house. To Edward, this was just not even conceivable. Perhaps, had he had that Boy Scout courage and resourcefulness so lauded by those in whose charge he had been placed, he might have overcome his shame and simply walked into Prep House, trouserless but unbowed. Furthermore, at that time of day he might have been unnoticed. Had he been careful to wait his moment to run up the stairs and into the dormitory, he may have been able to regain his dignity with a spare pair of trousers. However, being in a state of considerable distress and confusion, he waited until he could hear no traffic and no footsteps, climbed the low wall and pulled at the wire chain link above until it came away. He then crawled up the steep bank below the playground until he could see a way around to a clump of trees and bushes beyond. There, he ensconced himself, covering his naked parts in leaves and bracken, to wait out the day.
Miss Villiers did not need to consult her register to know that she was a pupil short for the last lesson before lunch. She appointed the first boy she thought would be responsible enough to take a message to the Head that Edward was missing from her class. Upon receiving that message, Mr Pope, took immediate action. He formed his class of boys into small groups and sent each group to one of the other classes, while he made off to his study to carry out the set procedure for missing boys.
Firstly, a thorough search of the school premises: Mrs Pope and the school matron would undertake this task and report back to him. Secondly: a telephone call to the Senior School Secretary who would organise a strategic look out for boys off premises. Thirdly, he, himself would patrol any other areas not covered by the above, to include the playing fields, the boys' toilets and all routes leading to and from those places that could possibly conceal a young truant.
It was fortunate, for Edward, that the season had been mild. Autumn temperatures had not dipped to freezing point. Indeed, Edward's first night spent in the open was to be something of a record for night time temperatures in early November. He had found a piece of ground, in the woods surrounding the school grounds, that was soft and yielding, being comprised of decayed leaves and dried ferns. He settled himself deeper into its natural protection until he was neither visible nor exposed to the cold. And there he spent the whole day and most of the evening, growing hungry but able to quench his thirst by sucking moisture from the dew on ferns and tree bark. Such was his desperation, he ignored the foul taste it left in his mouth and was grateful for the relief of his parched throat.
As the hours passed, his mind began to clear. His thoughts turned to planning how he could make the long journey home, for he knew, should he stay and be discovered, a severe caning would surely be dealt to him for hiding out, and causing so much trouble. In the near distance, he could hear sounds of trains. Of course, he could not simply walk to the station, buy a ticket and get on the next train home. He would need to find a goods train, he thought, and jump up onto a wagon, just like in stories he had read. Night fell. The town became silent. Lights in the windows went out and smoke from the chimneys rose lazily into the still air.
How Edward managed to run through the dark streets without being noticed was, perhaps, just down to his desperation and to luck. Driven by some kind of mania, he scuttled through alleyways, dashed across roads and hurtled along empty pavements until he was standing by a wide gate which guarded the entrance to the town's railway goods yard. It was an easy climb over that gate and he scrambled along the gritty strip of ground which separated the railway tracks.
And so, on a moonless night in November, a little boy wearing only a shirt, jumper, long socks and heavy shoes, climbed up the side of an open goods wagon and landed on the coal it contained. There he waited, half burying himself in the anthracite cobbles for shelter and hiding.
Luckily, that wagon was shunted along the siding and coupled to others that were consigned away that night. Feeling faint, now and dreadfully cold, as the anthracite offered no comfort, Edward became aware of a sense of continuous movement. He could hear the wheels click and clack over the rails and the huff and hiss of a hard working engine driving along towards the dawn sun. He could be thankful that he had learned a little about the workings of the railway goods system from his Uncle Bert, a wagon inspector, who attended to railway vehicles when they broke down.
He knew that it was usual to take trains of goods and coal to be re-sorted at huge marshalling yards, which were laddered all over with tracks into which those wagons could be arranged according to the destination that had been written upon a cardboard label which could be found, attached by a metal spring clip, to the underframe of the vehicle. When the train stopped, he looked out and saw that he must be at one of these places. In spite of the risk of being caught, he thought it would be a good idea to look at the label underneath. Very wearily, he emerged from his coal hide and clambered down the side of the wagon until he could jump safely to the ground. The entire yard was floodlit, for night working. Although it was very likely that he might be seen, he took his chance. Examining every point on the wagon's underframe, he found the clip holding a square of thin card. “Brynlliw Colliery” was printed in bold letters, at the top. Underneath, scrawled in pencil, the destination was shown as “Ingatestone”. Edward recognised that name as a station on the line from London to his own home town of Eastcliff on Sea. It was one of those “so near, so far” moments. If he stayed on this wagon he would, at least, be going in the right direction, but it would not be far enough. He would need to find another one, this time with a label for home.
Cold, weak and shaking, covered in coal dust, he climbed up on an empty lorry trailer to gain a better view of his surroundings. The marshalling yard spread out over such a vast area that it seemed an impossible task. Wagons were being ''hump shunted'' from the far end of the yard and were rolling down the tracks, silently on their own, before colliding with others, iron buffers clanging. He just hoped that his search would not be too long and that he could avoid being crushed to death amongst the hurtling hulks of timber and steel. He jumped down from the trailer on to the grimy gravel and, treading as carefully along the space between the tracks (the “six foot” he remembered his uncle calling it) he began to inspect labels on all the nearby wagons. To his dismay, every one was bound for the north. He needed to find the sidings for trains going east. This meant crossing over the rails while wagons were rolling downhill, some at quite a speed. Fortunately because of the way the hump system worked, that is with an engine at one end pushing wagons up a little hill then letting them roll down the other side, they were all travelling in the same direction. What Edward did not know was which siding they might be switched on to before they got near to him. He had to watch very carefully before making each move, and then be ready if the wagon he was checking was suddenly hit by a moving one and jerked into motion.
It was almost fully light by the time he found a suitable wagon. The writing on the label said ''Eastern Gas Board, Chichbury''. Only a few miles down the coast from Eastcliff, Chichbury was where his Uncle Bert lived and, as it was on a branch from Eastcliff, he might be able to jump off while the train was stationary. With a final, mighty effort, he climbed up and landed himself amongst the chips of coal that were destined to feed the retorts at Chichbury Gas Works.
Edward was not aware of anything else after that. His body could give no more. Starved, thirsty, cold and exhausted, he lay amongst the coal cobbles until he fell into an comfortless sleep, from which he awoke every so often to hear the rumble of wheels and axles and to sense the motion of travel. For most of the journey, and for several stops where he was shunted onto another line, he drifted into a kind of distant dream, neither fully awake nor completely asleep. It had been almost three days since he had drunk anything and his body and brain were dehydrated. It was a sickening, violent jolt which shook him into full consciousness. All the wagons on the train had been loose coupled, ready to be placed at the end of their journey. They were crashing into one another and rebounding until their coupling chains jerked taut. Edward started to feel quite ill. He wanted to climb over and jump from the wagon, but no sooner had he summoned the strength to do so, the wagon was moving again. The sun had begun to set and a winter afternoon twilight set in. The wagon shunting stopped and his had been placed with others to be taken along the branch line to Chichbury. Edward needed to make a choice. By his reckoning, he was now in the goods yard of his home town station. He had to decide whether to jump down now and try to find his way home or to wait for the gas works engine to come and take him on to Chichbury.
As things turned out, the decision was made for him. Too exhausted to lever himself over the side of the coal wagon, Edward fell back onto the gas coal, almost unconscious. Just before nightfall, the stumpy little gas board engine came up alongside, having left its empty wagons behind. At its own pace, it coupled up to the full ones, Edward on board, and steamed back along the branch line. By a sliver of good fortune, one of the axles on Edward's wagon became overheated. By the time stumpy engine reached Chichbury, an oily smoke wisped up from a near side axle box. This prompted the duty shunter to separate Edward's wagon and have it placed on its own for attention. Yet more good fortune brought Edward's uncle along to inspect the damage and send a telegraph for some new bronzes, for its repair. As he wrote out the repair ticket, he heard what sounded like a child crying, from inside the coal wagon. He stepped up and looked over the side.
'Good God, boy! What the blazes are you doing in there?' he exclaimed, not recognising the filthy little bundle as his own nephew. He called out to the yard foreman who came running over to help. Between the two of them, they lifted Edward out of his hiding place and took him along to the Goods Office.
'Oh, you poor little thing!' cried Miss Leavett, the goods clerk. 'Shouldn't we telephone for a doctor?'
'Perhaps we had better find something to keep him warm,' suggested Uncle Bert. 'I've got some spare overalls in the hut.'
They sat the child on one of the high stools in the office, dressed in a pair of blue overalls, which were ridiculously large, and made him a cup of hot tea with several spoonful of sugar in it. Miss Leavett wiped away some of the coal dust from his face and Uncle Bert made a loud whistle.
'My goodness, it's young Edward!' he declared. 'You must have run away from school. I can't say I blame you. I should have hated Boarding School. All that Latin and such.'
'Don't tell Daddy,' was all Edward could say.
Meanwhile, Miss Leavett had telephoned Bert's wife, Pam. Soon she came running up to the little station carrying a bundle of clothes.
'Right, come on, Edward,' she said, 'put these on and I'll take you home with me.'
Just an hour later, Edward was sitting by the fire in his Aunt's back parlour, sipping hot soup.
'I shall have to ring your mother,' she said to him. 'You know that might mean trouble from your father.'
Edward began to cry. 'I don't want Daddy to know,' he pleaded. 'He will be very angry with me if he finds out I've run away.'
'I can't stop him finding out, Edward,' said his aunt. 'He probably knows already. Don't you think the school will have rung him by now?'
That possibility had not occurred to him. In fact, acting on impulse as he had, no possible consequences had crossed his mind, not even that of his own safety. Aunt Pam, aware of the rising anxiety in Edward's state of mind, tried to reassure him.
'Look, Edward, I am not angry with you, your Uncle Bert is not angry with you. Why should your father be angry? Besides, I'll have words with him before he gets to see you. I told him he should never have sent you to that school. I knew you would never be happy there. I told him it wasn't right for you. Now how about I ring the school and tell them you are safe with us, then you can stay here tonight and your mum will come up tomorrow?'
'I suppose so,' agreed Edward.
'Now, aren't you going to thank your Auntie Pam for putting you to rights?'
'Thank you, Auntie Pam,' said Edward, as he fell asleep in the fireside chair.