‘Hi, what’s up, Crookles?’
‘Mel.’ Cruikshank did not turn his attention from the House noticeboard.
‘I have, after some one hundred and fourteen weeks experience of the shades of the prison house closing upon the alas-doomed-to-stick-at-around-about-the-five-foot-eight-mark boy—'
‘What in Christ’s name are you on about, man?’ Cruikshank glanced pityingly over one hunched, beefy shoulder at his form-mate.
Undeterred, Mellor continued, ‘—come to the mature and settled opinion that no House notice in November is worth the pensive and nun-like eye that you are presently casting upon it, sober, steadfast and demure. If it were the summer and the First Ele—’
‘It’s that filthy degenerate Maddox, if you must know.’
‘Really? Never knew you felt so strongly. Or at all, for that matter. He is a damnable poacher,’ he added sympathetically. ‘Tommers was telling me that last half he simply sauntered down to the nets like the villain of a threepenny novelette and wiped his eye of that plump little piece, you know, fair, rather shrill—’
Cruikshank, not altogether famous for perspicacity, caught on and started violently, then contained himself. ‘If I didn’t have better things to do, Mel, I’d fairly hit you about for that hint,’ he said with the mildness of deep disgust. ‘But it is roughly to the point. He’s rearranged the bedrooms, without so much as a word.’
‘Oh. Who’s he swapped about in yours?’
‘Mine? No-one, damn it—do you think I’d be standing here if he’d had the infernal nerve—no, it’s a matter of principle. Decency.’
‘I don’t really see—I mean it’s not that unusual a thing to do mid-half, is it? If the little scugs are acting the goat?’
‘Just look.’ Cruikshank jabbed the smeared pane in front of the noticeboard.
‘Anstruther, Babbington, Blaize, Crab—oh. Blaize. Damn. I say, Crookles—’
Cruikshank sighed; his breadth of chest seemed to sag down into his belly, intimating the physique he might have at forty-five. ‘You have me wrong, you know. I daresay to the normal English public schoolboy I do come across as a prig. I can’t pretend to understand the appeal, that’s true, and I’ll be glad to pass into Sandhurst and be shut of it.’
Mellor, the compact fourth of five scions of a great-rooted military bole, though himself bound for his maternal uncle's stockbroking firm, toed some drawing-pins immovably embedded in the parquet.
‘But I don’t care what people do,’ Cruikshank went on, ‘as long as they don’t shove it up in my face. Maddox is a dashed good batsman and so clever I can only understand about a third of what he says. But it doesn’t mean he can swan about like one of the bally French Loueys installing a new pompier every other week.’
‘Pomp—' Mellor coughed. 'I think you mean Pompadour, don’t you?’
‘I don’t give a damn what the bloody hell I mean,’ Cruikshank said, passionately glowering. ‘The fact is it’s a disgrace to the House.’
‘But, look here. It mightn’t be quite what you think. Makes sense of something the mi. was prattling about yesterday; he’s in that bedroom, you know. Walk with me down to the lodge and I’ll tell you. It’ll be a melée here when the bell goes for bill.’ Cruikshank gave him a suspicious sidelong look but nodded assent.
‘Well,’ Mellor began. ‘It was the night before last. They were leaping about in their smalls, talking rot and filth, you remember how it was.’
‘Mm.’ Cruikshank shrugged off the uncomfortable memory of anecdotes carefully memorised to keep his end up.
‘Anyway, Hughes was ‘visiting’—Topknot Hughes, who I thought was the pompier du jour—’ Mellor looked up nervously at Cruikshank’s growl, but saw it was accompanied by a grin. ‘Just shows how behindhand sedate types like us can be, but anyway, I’m coming to that. Topknot told the one about the choirboy, the tinned peaches and the Rural Dean, as if it had happened to a pal of his, you know, the punchline is—’
‘Yes, I’ve heard it, thanks,’ Cruikshank said shortly.
‘And of course, Blaize’s titters were rather conspicuous for their obvious incomprehension—he really is the complete innocent, quite uncanny, but genuine—so Hughes plumped down at the end of his bed and took it upon himself to explain, and everyone else in the room, knowing the likely result of that kind of exegesis, tactfully averted his eyes. Except then who should steam in like a bloody gunboat but Maddox. He must have been standing listening at the door for quite a while. He has a tread like a lynx if he chooses, but he’s pretty decent about the rubber-shoe shuffle in the normal way of things. Anyway, he stood at the end of the bed for about half a minute, the kid said, looking absolutely thunderous, and Hughes twisted round slowly, gaping. And Maddox just pointed with his thumb at the door, every bit St Michael, but dark, you know, and Hughes said, but Maddox, please and made a sort of lunge for him. So they ended up in rather an attitude. The mi. has more imagination than is good for him, really, and he said it was like the chromolithograph in college, in the corridor outside the museum, you know the one, where Christ’s the gardener and—no, maybe you don’t remember it. Anyway, Maddox bent down and took Topknot by the lapels of his dressing-gown and said something to him—no-one heard what it was, but it was enough to make him duck and bolt straight for the door, with a sort of hunted, haunted look, like a terrier that’s not used to being beaten. And then Maddox went over to Blaize and murmured something very low—the mi. didn’t catch that either, we’ll have to get Matron to flush his lugs with olive oil—turned about, nodded to the company, said, Good night, men, and stalked out.’
They were about twenty yards from the porter's lodge. A bell clanged in the distance. ‘Well, it’s obvious even to me what went on there,’ Cruikshank snorted. ‘Come on, let's turn back.’
Mellor pranced after him. ‘No—but the kid said it wasn’t, you see. Apparently it really was an utter about-face. Sort of—Damascene. So they’re all saying that Maddox has become a saint.’
Cruikshank made a derisive noise.
‘Stranger things have been known in heaven and earth,’ Mellor approximated. ‘Anyway, Maddox let Hughes stew for a day, and called him up to his study after breakfast. If we were to stroll past there now we’d probably catch—’
‘God, Mellor, you really are a thoroughgoing little shit.’ Cruikshank stopped, wrinkling his nose and turning his thin lips into a perfect croquet-hoop. ‘Bugger off, before I crack your ribs for you.’
Mellor studied his companion’s small, puddle-coloured eyes and heavy jaw, seemed to conclude the threat was in earnest, and fled towards Adams’s. Cruikshank followed at a lazy lope, his mind buzzing rather, so that he somehow forgot his path back to his own study would take him past Maddox’s. He paused despite himself outside the baize door, listening to the smooth, consciously modulated tones characteristic of Maddox’s most pitiless layings-on. The hypocrite. The dirty nasty rotten fucking hypocrite.
Cruikshank shoved his hands deep in his pockets, dithering between fetching the dubiously essential notes that lay in his study and turning directly for the stinks lab. It was a fatal temporization, for at that moment the door-handle turned, and Hughes stumbled directly but harmlessly into his well-cushioned solar plexus.
‘Oof. Topknot, you daft owl. Aren’t I big enough to spot?’ he said, steadying the boy by the shoulders. Hughes’s nose was a lustrous pink and his lips pouted puffy and red, like those belonging to the tinted girls in Cruikshank’s favourite postcard album. ‘Jolly rotten head-cold you’ve got there, by the looks of things. A mustard bath is sovereign for it, my old nurse used to say.’
He cringed at his own bluff dissimulation, but Hughes was upset beyond remarking it.
‘Crookles,’ he gulped. ‘Crook—Crook.’ He stared up at him, blinking away rapid tears, his mouth a terribly mobile postbox slot, then seemed to master himself. ‘Nec minus Aeneas, casu concussus iniquo,’ he said, his voice cracked and piping but precise, ‘prosequitur lacrimis longe et miseratur euntem.’ His dignity exhausted, he lurched forward, hiccuping.
Cruikshank leaned against the wall. His knees felt like they were made of wet cement, and his torso of an old jute sack. He drew Hughes’ head against his chest and helplessly stroked the red-gold curls. ‘There, there,’ he soothed, unconsciously adopting the Yorkshire cadence of the advocate of mustard baths, ‘it’ll all be the same in a hundred years, my brave lad, my pet, my bonny bairn.’