Read Wilberforce Online

Authors: H. S. Cross

Wilberforce

 

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FOR CAMERON

 

PART ONE

 

1

Something was pressing the life out of him.

—He's moving, Matron!

Something searing—

—Step aside, boys.

Something dragging him down, lead on ankles—

—If you can hear me, open your eyes.

Something brighter than the sun, brighter than—

—That's it.

Blinding, aching, twiddling his brains.

—Can you tell me your name?

A pain that swallowed every breath.

—Wilberforce. Morgan … Morgan …

The light retreated. Into focus gradually, Matron's face:

—What day is it?

Tuesday?

—Wednesday?

—And the date?

—February …

Was it?

—I mean March.

It was.

—March … fifth.

Like dread in his ears.

—The Ides of March.

—What year is it?

He knew suddenly and wished he didn't. He had nothing against the year 1926, yet it seemed sinister, as if whatever had caused this pain had also granted him a kind of—

—The Battle of Thermopylae?

This he knew, and said. Light clicked off. Matron frowned:

—You'll survive, Morgan Wilberforce. Though I can't imagine you'll make the varsity if you keep smashing your skull about that way.

A throbbing, then, and a keen stabbing. Matron stepped aside, revealing Laurie in overcoat, Nathan muddy in rugby kit.

—You've gone mad, Nathan said.

—You were airborne! Laurie cried.

—Were you trying to kill him, or just yourself?

—Kill who? Morgan said.

—Spaulding, of course.

A wave of remembrance: the rugby pitch; Burton-Lee's fullback, a powerful boy in the Sixth called Spaulding; the sluggish, timid performance from his own side; Morgan's try blocked by Spaulding; then something in his mind clicking, like an electric plug seated into the mains, an animal sound from the pit of his stomach, and the charge across fifty yards of no-man's-land, Spaulding in his sights as if nothing else existed in the world.

—What happened to Spaulding?

—Not a scratch, Laurie said.

—And afterwards…?

—They crucified us, Nathan reported.

—Hell.

Matron reappeared:

—That must have been quite a bump, Wilberforce. I'm sure you'd never use language like that in your right mind.

—Sorry, Matron.

—Sit up.

Sharp—shooting—arm-shoulder-spine—

—Ah!

—Is his arm broken? Laurie asked.

—No, Lydon.

—It went funny again, Laurie said. JP thought—

—I didn't, Nathan retorted.

—They said you'd gone and—

—Thank you, Lydon, Matron said. You and Pearl had best be getting to tea.

Nathan and Laurie moved towards the door.

—Lucky duck, Laurie said, you won't have to do the Plantagenet comp.

—I will eventually.

—He's right, Nathan said. Grieves never lets him off anything.

Grieves never had and never would, the brute. But that wasn't what was wrong. Was it? He looked to Matron, who was tying his arm in bandages.

—Can I go to tea, Matron?

—You'll stay here the night, she said.

—But I'm all right.

She knotted the fabric and fixed him with a glare:

—First, young man, I'm quite fed up putting that arm of yours back into its socket.

—It's the first time in forever, Matron.

—Twice in forever is twice too often.

He bit back protest.

—Second, the only way you'll be taking part in rugby for the remainder of term will be as a spectator.

—Matron! Please!

He struggled to sit up, but she held him against the mattress.

—I'm on the House XV, Matron! I—

—Furthermore, it is Friday the fifth of March, not Tuesday, not Wednesday, not the Ides.

—I know that now, Matron, I only—

—Last and finally, if you don't lie still, drink your tea, and behave yourself, I shall have to be firm with you.

He tried again to sit up but failed, prisoner to his injuries.

—Matron, I'm …

Mental arithmetic, sluggish subtraction …

—I'm seventeen years old. I'm not—

He dried up before her fierce and familiar gaze. Confident in victory, she left him alone in the empty sanatorium, alone in unyielding defeat. The ache returned then, not from his arm or his head or the bruises across his person. This leaden ache had not been with him before. Before—an hour ago? Less?—he had been playing rugby football, feeling the air burn his lungs. Now in his mouth the aftertaste of blood, in his chest the dread of life turned ill, and in his bones the shock of impact—savage, fatal—with Spaulding.

 

2

Matron told him to sleep, but something kept him awake. At first he thought it was the pain, but then he remembered that she had given him a draft to stop it.

His mother never made him drink foul things. She always put in honey so being ill didn't have to be worse than it was, she said. When he couldn't keep things down, she gave him boiled sweets and ice, hammered to shards in a tea towel. His father disapproved of indulgences, but his mother laughed when he came in to grumble, her rolling, catching bubble that always erupted when things got too serious to bear. When Morgan had fallen head over heels down the slope behind the shed, his mother had shaken with laughter as if it were slapstick, even as she went to comfort him. She would read him that book with the animal noises, and when they got to the page with all the birds—
tweet, feet, peet, fee-yoo
—she would repeat the one that made him laugh until he wheezed and begged her to stop; when he finally caught his breath, she would make to turn the page, but under her breath would escape
fee-yoo
.

He called, but she didn't answer. Then he remembered, and his pulse began to race.

Veronica used to tell him terrible stories that sent his thoughts racing, too, after dark, stories of spiders crawling up plugholes in search of human blood, stories of the Château d'If and its masked prisoner, whom she made him play in the cage beneath the laundry chute, stories of a boy who awoke one morning to find that Death had crept through his village, leaving only him alive.

He was not a little boy afraid of his sister's stories. He was not a Third Former afraid of the Academy's ghosts. Nor was he any longer fag to Silk, dreading the arrival of Accounting Saturday nights. He wasn't under sentence for anything now. No one existed who could hold him to account. No one could make his heart pound by saying to him,
Wilberforce, you troublesome boy, fall into line or suffer the consequences.

Matron had drawn the curtain across the foot of his bed and wound down the crank to leave him flat for the night. Did something lurk nearby, beyond the curtain, something that exerted a fearfulness upon him even now in his seventeenth year? There had been no disaster of late. All that had happened was that he'd collided with Spaulding, banged up his shoulder, and lay now in the Tower. No one was dead. He would recover. Why the taste of iron? He'd sensed this wrongness before but had ignored it.

He'd felt it that day—the first time?—the day he arrived at the Academy. He'd almost forgotten to say goodbye to his mother with the excitement of his tuck box: licorice, potted meats, jams, boiled sweets—
every indulgence a schoolboy should have
, she said. When he and his father drove off in the Crossley, leaving his mother and sisters behind, he'd felt exhilaration, not fear. His father had taken him on every adventure he'd ever had, trekking through the Dales, the Cheviots, Dartmoor. At lunch in the pub, his father kept his advice brief:
Tell the truth, boyo. If you tell the truth, no matter what it is, you'll always find a way out of the muddle.

When they'd pulled up to the Academy's gates, Morgan had felt a thrill seeing his new trunk and tuck box hoisted to the ground. The courtyard had been full of boys, and Morgan had seen Colin Frick, an older boy he'd known at prep school, waiting for him across the quad. His father shook his hand, and the wrongness struck. He'd stood frozen beside his father, unable to breathe with the fear that he might never see home again, or that if he did, it would be like Veronica's story, everyone dead. His father had squeezed Morgan's shoulder and said,
You'll survive. Write soon
. Morgan had broken away. Nothing was going to happen while he was at school. His mother and father, Veronica, Emily, and Flora, would be exactly as he left them, only better from the absence. His presence was not required to stop the world from falling to bits.

Colin had swept him inside to the houseroom, flooding him with chatter about the Academy, how things worked, what things were called, who was who and how they were to be addressed, so Morgan had forgotten about the wrongness. If only he could reach through time, seize the thirteen-year-old boy he'd been, and clip him round the ear:
Listen. Be careful. It's real.

*   *   *

He didn't have time to fear Silk Bradley. Not at first. The night of the fag test, after the Sixth Form had chosen their fags and Bradley had chosen him, Bradley took him to the study, produced a cane, and told him to touch his toes. Morgan had been too stunned to be afraid.

—You'll thank me, Bradley said. Gets it over with. Lets you know what to expect.

Four strokes later, Morgan did not feel like thanking him.

—See, Bradley said. Aren't you grateful?

Morgan thought it unwise to say no. Bradley handed him the cane and told him to put it away.

—What've you got in your tuck box?

Thrown off-balance by the question and by the incongruous sensation of holding the cane while still feeling its sting, Morgan told him.

—Bet the biscuits you're the first to get it, Bradley said.

Morgan didn't want to bet against his biscuits—ginger ones his mother had made—but he sensed he had no choice. Without saying so directly, Bradley made it clear that Morgan's tuck box was now his; Morgan might be allowed some of it, but for this he could thank Bradley's magnanimity and his willingness to overlook school practice. Bradley sent him back to the dorm feeling he was lucky to be the first tyro to get the cane, lucky to lose only his biscuits, lucky to belong to someone as sophisticated as Bradley. Bradley had a way of making him feel lucky, but there was nothing lucky about Bradley, unless it had been lucky to survive him.

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