Summer had gone leaving the days short and damp, and two and-a-half hours of prep, those dull hours reserved for studying under the supervision of prefects, dragged on forever. Adding to this tedium were the type of prep assignments, usually taking the form of read chapters 8 and 9 and be prepared to discuss at the next class meeting, or translate (from or into) pages 111-114, or write a two-page essay on the importance of (fill in the blank), or complete odd numbered math problems pages 260-270. Talk about boring and repetitive. It was enough to drive any self-respecting fifth former to smoke (I might have said drink, but the nearest watering hole was four miles away). But it was the idea of smoking and ditching the drudgery of prep that propelled two of us (and later three) to embark on the following actions.
LS and I had become fairly good friends, if for no other reason than our parents lived quite close to each other. We decided, quite possibly in the back pews during the sermon at a Sunday service, that we needed a place to go for a quiet smoke in the evening and satisfying this need could only be achieved by ditching prep. Taking such action was no easy or trifling matter. After all, there was much to be considered and overcome: where exactly we would go during prep, how to get there unobserved, how we would amuse ourselves once ensconced, what excuses would be needed to explain our unexcused absences of over two hours if challenged by authority, what if we were CAUGHT? We also knew that smoking was a serious breach of the school rules, possibly a sacking offense, certainly a caning offense, and ditching prep wouldn’t lead to house points or other honors, either. Such considerations, however, were not in our vernacular.
We set about solving the problem with great diligence, and, after serious reconnaissance, thought and consideration, we came up with what we considered the perfect smoking retreat: the trunk room, first floor, stable block. The only serious problem with this location was access: a locked door at the top of the stairs leading to the trunk room. But, as LS explained, it would be a snip as access could be gained by climbing up the inside of the hay shoot from the ground floor. It was a done deal.
At the first opportunity, LS and I beetled down to the stable block and shimmied up the hay shoot into the trunk room. There, we took the imposing pile of trunks apart and rebuilt them so that room was left for two or three people in the center of the re-stacked trunks. Access was gained by climbing onto the top of the pile, lifting one of the trunks and descending into the concealed space. We lined most of the space with material to block any light we made (you know, the flare of a match, the red glow of a cigarette, the flash of a torch), and installed a couple of chairs and a small trunk to use as a table. Day after day LS and I would take off after tea and head for the trunk room. We’d make sandwiches at tea, swipe newspapers or magazines from the great hall table, take LS’s radio (Radio Luxembourg), and stock up on ciggies. If challenged, we invented some pointless but plausible errand that had been imposed on us by JHM, or a teacher, the cook, or anyone else we could think of who had a scintilla of authority at the school. And you know, it worked! For a couple of weeks LS and I successfully failed to ever arrive at prep.
It was all working perfectly until---there’s always an until, isn’t there---the flare of a match caught the attention of the school secretary. Our carefully constructed space in the trunk room had a window facing outward and it was not completely covered. The school secretary (you remember her, her gluteus maximus was eligible for the Guinness Book of World Records) happened to be taking a walk---probably smoking---near the gatehouse where she lived. She looked up at the trunk room at the exact moment LS fired a match. We knew she’d seen it because she immediately started walking towards the stable block.
Instinctively we knew there was not enough time to get out of the place and we’d make too much noise if we tried. We heard heavy footsteps ascending the stairs and quickly realized we were trapped. Visions of my immediate future---waiting for the red light to turn green outside JHM’s study, choice of cane before the bow, the embarrassment, nay fear, of being shamed in front of the entire school, that “special” phone call to my parents, no plausible excuse possible---all swam in front of my eyes as I heard a key turn in the lock and a male voice ask, “…are you sure?”
Silently we sat, frozen in the middle of our pile of trunks as the school secretary and Lord Sherborne’s mechanic swept a torch’s beam to and fro over them while asking, “are you sure you saw a flame? You must be mistaken, there’s no one here.” Incredibly, her conviction that she’d actually seen fire coming from the room diminished under the glare of the torch and was extinguished by the mechanic’s dogged insistence that “there’s nothing here.” After a final sweep of the flashlight, and to our utter but silent amazement, they turned and left the trunk room, locking the door as the secretary concluded, “I must have been seeing things.”
We couldn’t believe it. They hadn’t found us; we were still free, not caught, and all dark thoughts of onrushing punishments instantly evaporated. Why hadn’t they moved a trunk, the only items in the room? What was wrong with their sense of smell? We’d been puffing away like crazy, stinking the place up with smoke for a least an hour. But not two to look a gift horse in the mouth, we let a respectable amount of time pass in the hope that they truly had left and were not lurking somewhere in the shadows, and beat a hasty retreat back down the hay shoot and swept, with that air of two good chaps just finished with an improbable but odorous task, into the last half hour of prep.
So you think we’d learned a lesson? You think we thanked the gods for letting us off this “one” time on the promise of never doing it again? No way! Having defied the gods of punishment and retribution once, we were convinced we were invincible, that we couldn’t be caught, that we were invisible to the likes of mere secretaries and mechanics. We were on a roll and all we had to do to keep the good times going was to find a better place, one that allowed no slivers of light to escape and foil our hours of indolent relaxation. But this time it was not LS or me who found our hideout, it was NT, and the price for giving us its location was his inclusion in the group. He told us it was the perfect place, a place where we’d never be found, and so we agreed. A couple of days later NT proudly took us through the graveyard and down an open passageway between the school and the church. He stopped about a third of the way down the passage and opened a heavy wooden trapdoor. As we peered down into its blackness, we knew we’d found our next smoking salon.
What NT had guided us to was the church boiler room. It fit all of our needs: the approach provided good cover from prying eyes, and it was dry and below ground level. Immediately, the three of us set about refurbishing our new lair to meet our needs. In a full court press, an electric hot plate along with pots and pans appeared (kitchen), as did instant coffee (post office), mugs, plates, sugar, cutlery, jam, butter (refectory), fresh eggs (swiped from the chicken coops), candles (from who knows where), pillows to sit on (various dormitories), magazines (swiped, borrowed, bought, or brought pack from exeats) and, of course, LS’s radio.
Evening after evening the three of us would sneak into the boiler room, and cook up fried eggs and bread, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes like fiends, tell jokes, and look at the prurient pictures in our prized magazines. God, did we think we were cool. It was all working perfectly until---there’s always an until, isn’t there---one night we heard a voice say, “You can come out now.” Silence descended on us as we sat there trying to work out if we’d actually heard what we thought we’d heard. “You can come out now,” the voice repeated.” And with that repetition we knew we’d been discovered. We looked up, but all we could see was blackness until a flashlight snapped on illuminating us and the detritus left from our excesses. Up and out we slowly stepped to be confronted by the school's prefects. Not a lot was said. There wasn’t a lot that could be said. Everyone knew what came next: the walk to JHM’s study, the wait, the green light, and disgrace. The prefects, as I recall, were pretty chuffed with themselves, telling us they’d been trying to work out where all the noise had been coming from. And then it dawned on us: our carefully selected personal smoking palace shared a common wall with the prefects’ room (readers might remember the prefects’ room was located on two levels beneath the ship stairs). They had been listening to our stone-muted racket and been searching for its source for days.
We were led away to JHM’s study and told to wait. We stood in wretched silence, casting quick looks at each other telegraphing the same thought: what’s going to happen? We didn’t have to wait long. JHM came out (puffing on a cigarette), looked at us, rolled his eyes with a groan, and dismissed us with a wave of his hand back to our respective preps. None of us understood his response. What was that? Was that it? Had he decided he just couldn’t be bothered with it? Was he plotting and planning his next course of action? After all, there were three of us and we represented some serious school fees. But, with this unexpected reprieve, our spirits soared as we turned and scuttled away. However, we knew in our hearts this reprieve would prove illusory and that our dismissal did not signal the end of the affair, but the beginning of its final act. We knew that JHM’s heavy boot was out there and that it would soon come stomping down exacting its price for our behavior. Yes, we knew there would be a reckoning, a price to be paid, but little did we suspect the bill would be presented the follow morning at assembly.
It was obvious, as we filed into the great hall the next morning at assembly, that the entire school had heard something about the previous evening’s activities. Muttered rumors and sidelong glances between students served to increase our anxiety, which exponentially increased when we saw our contraband laid out before the school: eggs, hot plate, bread, magazines, radio, pots, pans, cutlery, candles, cigarettes, butter, jam, matches, coffee, mugs, sugar. It was all there, looking tacky and tawdry in the early morning light, evidence of our deceit. The three of us were standing separately near the back of the hall as JHM descended the stairs from the quarterdeck. Before reaching the rostrum at the bottom, he stooped and, after quickly eyeing the assembled, he settled his baleful glare on me. He then called for the three boys who’d been escorted to his study the night before to step forward and face the school. Immediately, the school’s sense of anticipation rose in the knowledge they were witnesses to the final act of our drama; ours plummeted with the knowledge that the boot had begun its descent. The school knew we were for it and so did we. So, this was it, then, public humiliation to be followed by……?
Well, as it turned out, the reckoning I’d expected to explode over me never came. Expect for my public humbling and humiliation, not much else happened. I didn’t get expelled or caned, my parents didn’t get that “special” phone call, and my punishment was pretty benign: loss of privileges for a few weeks, and, as a way to make some sort of restitution, I had to weed and rake the front and back courtyards.
The best to you all,
Kings School 1964-67
Note: To the best of my recollection, this anecdote, with exception of the dialogue, is accurate. NT, my co-conspirator, joined me and raked and weeded the front and rear courtyards as we carried on puffing. However, LS was not as lucky. I leave his punishment to your memory or imagination.
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