– II –
TRUNKS & TUCK BOXES
Chester Bentley stood in the driveway of his new school beside his trunk and tuck box. He had never felt more alone even though he was surrounded by pupils dressed exactly like him in a uniform which was a worrying shade of brown. Car doors slammed and shouts filled the air as children waved goodbye to their parents. He glanced round for reassurance, but his mother’s car was gone. It suddenly dawned on him that he wouldn’t see his parents again for a month. A lump formed in his throat.
He turned away and looked towards the church, where he found himself staring at a dark figure, half hidden behind a tree. It stared back at him with soulless eyes. A flush of cold sweat swept over him. No, not again, he thought. It can’t be. Then all around him fell deathly silent until the only thing he could hear was a soft voice, whispering on a breeze that blew from nowhere, “Bentley, come!” But the figure’s lips were not moving. Its face became blurred. He rubbed his eyes again.
“Bentley, Chester Bentley?”
He jumped and turned; two identical boys were staring at him with curiosity.
“Yes, yes, sorry that’s me, I just…” he pointed at the tree.
“Saw a ghost?” chuckled one.
“I think I did.”
“Yeah, yeah, nice wind up, Bentley. We’ve read about all about you in the papers. First time anyone famous has been at the school. Come on, we’ll help you with your stuff. Welcome to Buckland House! You’re in Bryanston dorm with us.”
They struggled up the grand red carpeted staircase almost dropping the heavy trunk. When they reached the dorm, Bentley could clearly hear the intimidating hum of voices behind the oak panelled door. The others had already arrived. He took a deep breath. Stan pushed the door open. It creaked painfully on its old hinges. Everybody stopped what they were doing and looked up. Except for one person.
Silhouetted against the bay window was a tall broad-shouldered boy. He was facing out, admiring the view. His hands were positioned behind his back, like a Major, inspecting the troops.
“Last to arrive – that must be Chester Bentley. I’m Montague, your guide until you settle in,” he rocked on his feet and nonchalantly swivelled to face everyone.
Then the whispers flew around the room, “Is that Bentley?”
“The real Chester Bentley?”
“That’s him all right.”
“Bentley?” said someone, finally addressing him directly, “As in the cars?”
“Bentley? As in the cars?” someone shouted.
“No, as in the hot-air balloons,” replied Bentley automatically. How many times had someone asked him that dumb question? he thought. The others laughed and Montague seemed to be suppressing a smile.
“Well, we usually refer to each other by our last names here, but I’ve decided to call you Chester. Might avoid a few wise cracks.”
Bentley was glad he had made a good first impression and resolved to build upon his positive start. He was intrigued by Montague. He was slightly taller than himself, with strong forearms and a surprisingly confident look in his eyes. He didn’t lower his stare once and rarely blinked which was quite off-putting. His dark red, thickly matted hair looked almost black. He had a spattering of freckles left over from a holiday in the sun and there was something of the military in his demeanour. He looked fearless.
Montague introduced the others.
“You’ve already met the Cloughs; Stan and Dan.” Montague pointed at them in turn.
“They’re both bookworms and would be joined at the hip if they could. Nothing can separate them.”
“Not true,” laughed Dan correcting Montague, “we have different favourite books.”
“Of course,” said Montague correcting himself, “but that is the only point of difference. Dan’s favourite book is Lord of the Flies and Stan’s is Animal Farm.”
“Apart from that they are one and the same,” said the boy next to Bentley.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I never understood that title about the flies.”
“It refers to Beelzebub,” said Dan, “you know? Satan? Because of the evil that happens when the boys are stranded on the island.”
“Okay,” replied the boy that had asked. He hadn’t really understood the explanation but was too self-conscious to admit it in front of the others, “and Animal Farm?”
“It’s about a bunch of animals on a farm,” interrupted Bentley trying to be funny. No one laughed, they just waited for Stan to answer instead, while Bentley fought a blush.
“It’s a fable about how a revolution gets hijacked by the very forces they are trying to overthrow. It’s about human nature, not animals. It’s amazing; you should all read it.”
“You won’t forget that title in a hurry, will you, Chester?” observed Montague. “And this is the esteemed Audley Quigg,” he continued. “He’s the school academic. If there’s anything you don’t understand, he’ll explain it. He reads Latin and Ancient Greek. No joke. If there’s something interesting said in class, just once, he will never forget it.”
Quigg grinned at the praise but didn’t lift his gaze from the floor.
“Sounds like a genius!” exclaimed Bentley.
Quigg suddenly looked up sharply and stared at Bentley. He turned his head to one side like a curious bird. “Have we met before?” he asked. “I’m sure I know you!”
“From the papers?” suggested Montague. “I believe that Chester is a bit of a legend.”
“No, no, no! That’s not it at all!” Quigg grew agitated and put his head down again, muttering to himself. The others shrugged their shoulders and smiled.
Bentley decided that he liked Quigg who was now wandering off, no longer interested in hearing the rest of the introductions. He sat down on his bed, took out a book, thumbed to the relevant page and immersed himself in it.
“And that behind Audley, asleep on the pillow, is Cheddar the cat. Give him a wide berth; he’s the headmaster’s moggy and the school’s unofficial mascot. India has the cow, and Buckland House has Cheddar.”
The yellow tomcat purred, as if happy that the school year had begun.
“Adam Morris. He’s a farmer and the strong man in the school. Ask him anything you like about tractors, sheep or rugby. Next to Adam is Warren Burrows, yes really. And this is Bertie. He’s the happiest guy we know. Never gets cross. Completely indestructible.”
The atmosphere took a sudden change the moment the last pupil to be introduced began to speak. He had been lying in silence on the bottom bunk by the door with his hands casually placed behind his head and had done nothing more than snigger to himself.
“Bentley? Is it?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “As you look slow to catch on, my name is Ralph Bass-Hasting, the only one here with a truly distinguished name. I’m the head of the dorm, so be careful, or you’ll find yourself outside the headmaster’s study.”
Bentley thought that Ralph must have just eaten a rotten lemon with rind and all from the expression on his face. He stared at Bentley, his frosted eyes as compassionless as a swooping hawk. Then he lifted his nostrils slightly and looked down his nose.
Ralph Bass-Hasting clearly thought the world of himself and very little of everyone else. Bentley knew the type and was disappointed that he had come across someone like it again so soon.
Bentley had a kind manner which probably encouraged the worst kind of people to pick on him. But weak he was not. Wisely, he decided to be patient and wait for his moment to silence his opponent, but first, he wanted to size him up.
“Bentley? What a ridiculous name. As in the car, I suppose?” Ralph continued to taunt him.
Silence descended. The boys held their breath to see if Bentley would take the bait. They were not disappointed.
“No, as in the skateboards,” he replied mockingly. They were delighted he had gone for it and stifled their giggles.
“What the hell did you just say?!” spat Ralph in a voice laced with hatred. Only Montague looked relaxed while Morris braced himself to break up a fight. Bentley was not calm inside. His heart was pounding against his rib cage. He knew what he had to do. He chose his next phrase very carefully, wary of angering Ralph any further.
“Are you deaf as well as stupid?” he said defiantly.
Ralph lurched forward and pressed himself up against Bentley, who squared up to him. Morris put his hands between the two of them.
“You be careful, Morris Minor,” hissed Ralph, “or I’ll put you in your place,” but Morris just grinned.
“Like Bentley just did to you, you mean?” smirked Montague, happy to see Ralph the colour of a beetroot.
It was Tommo, the housemaster though, who put an end to things. The moment Ralph heard the characteristic jangle of his sandal buckles he backed off, pointing a threatening finger in Bentley’s face. Bentley did nothing more than stare him down, and while he looked deep into Ralph’s eyes, he searched for any sign of doubt or shakiness in his expression and then he caught it. It was only a glimmer, but there it was. Ralph’s eyes had softened at the edges, and Bentley knew he wasn’t quite the tough guy he desperately tried to be.
“Pyjamas, dressing gowns, faces and teeth!” called Tommo. “You know the drill.” He smiled kindly at Bentley who marvelled at the man’s huge stature. It should have been menacing yet his blue wool tie lent him an air of schoolboy innocence.
With everyone now in their beds, the heavy footsteps were soon heard pounding down the corridor again. The door creaked open.
“Right then lads, lights out!”
Darkness and silence suddenly engulfed the dorm as Tommo’s footsteps began to fade away. Then the whispering began. They all knew the risks: ‘Talking after Lights Out’ was punishable by four-of-the-best and was the most ‘fashionable’ caning offence. But it was impossible to maintain the silence with twelve boys in a dorm far from the prying ears of an adult. Even Ralph’s limp threats had no effect, especially after Montague had told him to put a sock in it and Morris had offered to do it for him.
Montague leaned over to speak to Bentley.
“Don’t worry about Ralph; he’s harmless even though he’s a right pain.
“I’m not worried,” answered Bentley, happy that Montague was prepared to take the risk and speak to him.
“Yeah, I can see that. You’ll have a good year here, if you keep out of trouble and away from the lake.”
“The lake? Why, what’s wrong with the lake?”
The whispering suddenly stopped.
“What’s wrong with the lake?” insisted Bentley
“We don’t know,” said Bertie, suddenly switching on his torch and placing it under his chin so that it lit up his face eerily. “But there’s something wrong with it, so wrong that two boys left the school because of it!”
“Pack it in, Bertie!” warned Montague, “that’s just a legend!” But Bertie had a captive audience now as one by one the boys sat up in bed to listen. “All we know is,” he continued, “that one dark night, two boys crept down to the lake and there they saw something that changed them forever. They returned so traumatised that they didn’t even wait until dawn to pack up their things and leave!”
“Boo!” shouted Quigg, making them all jump.
“Quigg!” Three pillows flew across the room. He deflected all of them with a book and the dexterity of a ninja.
“Hey, Bentley, you saw something earlier, didn’t you?” called Dan. Bentley hesitated, he could hear the sudden intake of breath as the boys waited for his answer. He remembered the dark figure behind the tree and the voice calling him.
“Just my imagination,” he reassured them. There were eleven sighs of relief.
“Did you know that there could well be Norman ghosts here. According to my research…”
“Shut up, Audley!” everyone groaned.
Bentley snuggled down under the covers, but he felt frozen with fear. Was the shadowy figure he had seen anything to do with what the boys had witnessed at the lake? He lay awake for a long time listening to the sniffles and snores as one by one the boys fell asleep. Outside, the brook that fed the lake bubbled softly. The shriek of a fox pierced the night, and beside the lake the bamboo swished as something moved through the maze.