He frightened me. There was nothing cruel about him, not like some of the other masters. He didn’t cut you down to size with a sarcastic comment. He didn’t take a run-up when beating boys. He didn’t lose his temper and throw things at us, or come to within inches of us, veins bulging and spit hitting our faces. It was what he didn’t do, or say, that scared me. He’d sit there, behind his desk, in his immaculate suit, his hair perfectly combed and oiled, his glasses glinting at me, and he would just look at me. Into me.
The old man only taught me once or twice, standing in for our form master. We’d see a flash of who he’d been before the war, before whatever had happened. He even smiled, telling us about the milk cart coming down his street, the clattering sound of the horse’s hooves on the cobbles, the clank of metal as the milkman took the lid off his pail and filled this once-young boy’s jug. And then the door closed. His face went back to its impregnable mask.
We made up all sorts of stories about the old man’s war. Four years in Changi prison. Fighting in the Burmese jungle. And as for the right arm that hung uselessly from his shoulder, we put that down to the desert campaign in North Africa. None of the old men who taught us talked about their war. Only the young masters chattered about their lives, their likes and their dislikes. We listened and laughed when the young men told us their stories, but we also waited for the weather to change, braced ourselves to be shouted at or beaten.
He was different. One Sunday afternoon, soon after I’d come to the school, when I’d stood, shaking, in his study, knowing I’d done something wrong, he didn’t shout or threaten me. He asked me what I had done and why. He listened to me while I told him that I’d found the knife and didn’t think it was wrong to keep it. And then he said nothing for the longest time. He looked at me from behind the glitter of his spectacles, while his left hand scratched out notes in the strange script he’d learnt to use after whatever had happened to his right arm. The clock above the fireplace sounded impossibly loud. I could hear distant shouts of boys somewhere else in the boarding house. The floor above us thudded.
And then he spoke. His eyes didn’t move from mine for a moment. “You may have been brought up to believe that what you did was acceptable. But it is not. You stole that knife. It is called stealing by finding.” He paused. “You will never do anything like this again.” I felt shame surge through me. Tears fell down my cheeks and I stood there, shaking. His eyes remained on me, clear, blue, unblinking. Then they snapped down to his notes. “Go back to your dormitory.” It was over.
Other boys had stories about the canings they’d had from him, about purple stripes that he’d inflicted on their legs with his clumsy left arm. I would rather have had that than the way he’d seen into me that day.
Months passed and I found my place in the strange society of a preparatory school boarding house in the early seventies. I knew who I could and couldn’t play with, and accepted that I came at the back of the line in games. It is difficult now to explain how long time felt before children had computer games or smart phones or the internet. That particular Sunday stretched almost limitlessly ahead of us, once chapel and lunch were out of the way. So we resorted to savage, reckless games. In the middle of the playing fields, there was an oak, as old as the school, immense and dense. With a little help from one another, we could climb up into its lower branches. Once there, the tree was ours for a game of ‘It’. I’ve not heard of this version anywhere else: the game involved finding a place where you couldn’t be caught. Whoever was ‘it’ stayed on the ground, took off his shoe and threw it into the branches above him. If you were hit by the shoe, you had to climb down, replace the boy and take off your own shoe.
I hated the game. I wasn’t built for it, as I was shorter and weaker than most of the other boys. And I was terrified of the tree. The boys would laugh at me as my legs shook uncontrollably on even the lowest branches. I fought back both fear and my unwanted, humiliating tears every time I climbed and clung to the tree. So why did I play this game? Why didn’t I just stay in the boarding house’s library and flip through tattered copies of National Geographic magazines? I played the game because I needed to be someone. I needed to be accepted.
It was getting late on that summer afternoon. The sun was still strong but we knew we only had time for one more game. My throwing was even worse than my climbing, so I didn’t mind too much that someone else was ‘it’. I clambered up the boy’s body, stood uneasily on his shoulders and pulled myself onto the branch. Looking around, I could see that the best places were taken. And the other boys all knew it. They jeered at me as I clung on and searched for somewhere safe to hide.
Today was different. Normally, I’d accept a place near the trunk and silently take the sneering comments about my cowardice. Today, I saw red. I’d had enough of being at the bottom of everything, of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. So I climbed. I surprised myself, finding an energy in my anger that propelled me further and further up the tree. I was oblivious to the cuts and scratches that the branches inflicted on my legs and forearms. Higher and higher I went. The other boys’ voices became quieter and the canopy above me became lighter. I was on the top of the world, swaying in the highest branches. This was heaven. I found myself as secure a place as possible to sit, and I waited.
The game went on beneath me. Every now and then, there would be a cry when a boy was hit by a shoe – I wasn’t sure if it was pain or disappointment and I didn’t care. I was unreachable up here. For the first time, I was a winner. I closed my eyes and drifted off.
The first thing that struck me when I came out of my daydream was the silence. Not just in the tree; it was the whole field. I searched around for the other boys but couldn’t see anyone. I tried to look beyond the tree but all I could see was sky and leaves. I looked for my watch but realised that it must have come off at some point during the climb. I had no idea what time it was and I hadn’t a clue about how I was going to get down.
So I shouted. I shouted and screamed until my voice gave way and my throat was raw. While I know, from my visits to the school in more recent years, that the playing fields are nothing like as vast as they had seemed to me when I was ten, they were still large enough to have swallowed my cries for help. No one heard me. I tried to get down, but the courage and clarity of mind that had propelled me up here had now left me. I could hardly move. Every attempt to find a lower place made my legs shake and the branches tremble. I imagined that every creak or crack was a branch about to break. The strength in my arms also failed me. All I could do was cling to my place and cry.
Looking back now, I know that no child would be left forever in the topmost branches of a tree. I know that even if no one had noticed my absence at supper or afterwards, my empty bed would have alerted an adult. But I was only ten, and time didn’t have the same reality that it does now. I was terrified.
The light was beginning to fade when I heard his voice. “Are you up there?” he called from the ground below. At first, I said nothing. I’m not sure if it was fear or shame, but I couldn’t bring myself to reply. “Are you up there?” he asked again.
This time I spoke. “Yes.” My voice was so faint that I am surprised that he heard me.
“Can you climb down?”
“I can’t. I’m stuck,” I replied. And then, breaking into sobbing, messy tears, I said, “I’m too scared.”
“Look around you,” he told me. “Is there anything below you that could take your foot?” I looked through the blur of my tears and saw something. Already, his voice was giving me a better sense of how to get down. “Find something secure for your hands and then put one of your feet on the branch. Three points of contact at all times and you’ll be fine.” And for that moment, everything did seem fine. His voice would get me down. I would be safe. I followed his instructions and made it to the next branch. Again, he asked me if there was somewhere for my foot and a branch to hold on to. There was, and I found another secure place.
But this time, when I looked around, the drop to the next branch was too far. I tried it out, dangling down to it, but I realised that I would have to drop onto it and risk losing my grip. My hands and arms were shaking and had lost a lot of their strength. Beneath the branch, I could now see him. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He was looking up at me, though all I could see was the light on his lenses. I burst into tears again. “I can’t do it. It’s too far. I’m scared.” Even at that distance, I could see a look on his face that I’d not seen before. He was worried about me. Frightened though I was, in that moment, this mattered to me. He tried again and again to coax me out of my place, but I just couldn’t move.
And then he did something extraordinary. He began to climb. His left arm must have acquired a strength to compensate for his right arm, because he pulled himself up onto the lowest branch with some ease. His right arm, though his hand was incapable of grip, was no longer quite so lifeless. Looking all the time at me, and struggling from branch to branch, he made his way up towards me. Soon he was immediately beneath me. His hair was tangled, the long forelock hanging across his face. At some point, his glasses must have fallen because I could now see his eyes.
“I can’t see you clearly and I cannot climb any higher,” he told me. “The branches above me won’t take my weight.” So it seemed that we were both stuck. Then he said, “I need you to be very brave and to climb down onto me.” I saw now that he had made a firm shape with his body, his feet in a strong position and his right arm jammed into the fork of a branch. And I looked at his left hand, which reached up to me. I put my hand in his and, for a few seconds, he held it. That made me feel better. Then he released his grip and said, “I will have to hold on here and you must use me as a branch. First wrap your legs around me and then put your arms onto my shoulders. Like a monkey.” That sounded so ridiculous that I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. He smiled. “That’s better. You’ll be down soon.” I did as he told me, and soon I found myself clinging to his back. He was warm and his body felt strong, not what I had expected for an old man. In front of me, I saw the nape of his neck and the small tail of his hair, tracing a path down towards his collar. I smelt limes and hair oil and then I was down onto the branch beside him.
I made my way to the trunk and sat down, holding onto it tightly. He looked over at me and smiled again. “You okay the rest of the way?” I just nodded and began to turn myself around for the next step. He waited for me to find my footing, them walked along the branch to the trunk. I looked up at him. He wasn’t frightening any more. He’d cared about me and he had come looking for me.
And then I slipped. I still don’t know what happened; I must have lost concentration in that moment. I fell and landed on my feet, awkwardly. They bent in a way that they weren’t meant to. Sharp bolts of pain went up my legs and I felt a numb ‘thunk’ in both feet. I collapsed onto the ground and lay there as he completed his descent, pulled on his jacket and found his glasses.
“Stay still,” he told me. “Let me take a look at your feet.” He knelt down and lifted one of my shoes, unlaced it and took it off. He pressed gently into my ankle. His hands, however careful their movement, made me cry out in pain. “They’re sprained,” he said. “You’ve sprained both of your ankles.” I felt stupid and began to cry again. “No need for that,” he told me, speaking quietly, “you’re safe and you’ve a bed waiting for you.” And without another word, he gathered me up in his arms and began to carry me back towards the boarding house.
I will never know the truth about his war. He died soon after this, shockingly, during term time. But somewhere, in that Sunday afternoon, I saw him for who he was.