The loneliest day of my life was my first day at Christchurch Boys' High School – a thousand boys and I knew no one. The day before school started Dick and Mum took me up to Town. First to see the principal, Mr Jim Leggatt in his large, book-lined study. He had strong twinkling eyes, I liked him, and he treated my country parents as important people. But at Adams House, the hostel, the reception was more perfunctory, people were busy and everybody seemed to know everybody else.
I was pleased to see them go, Dick's hat-twirling and Mum's ill-concealed concerns were embarrassing, but as the De Soto car pulled away I felt both abandoned and ashamed of my emotions. My brother Doug had gone to Tec, to the hostel there, he was used to crowds and a dormitory. I wasn't.
Mr Kidson the housemaster asked one of the prefects to show me around. He looked so confident in his blazer, whereas I felt ill at ease in mine, still it was nice to be wearing grey longs after three years of tickling woollen shorts. He introduced me to Pat Vincent, the Canterbury rugby captain and duty master. High on the bank at Lancaster Park I had watched his chunky figure twist and dart to score many a try for the province. "Do you play rugby?" The question was perfunctory, I had neither the build nor the confidence.
"Pat's one of the heaviest caners in the school."
This was a whole new world in which I lacked experience. I had never been caned in my life, hadn't been strapped for years. The prefect showed me where he and his fellows each had their own little room, "we can cane too". Obviously I was entering a hierarchical universe which I only knew through reading. I contemplated the prospect.
"Don't worry, sixth formers rarely collect it."
He took me upstairs to the senior dorm, sixteen beds, mattress curled up on a wire frame, folded blankets, flannelette sheets, pillow-case, a combination locker wardrobe for each boy, the space looked bare and spartan though a large chestnut tree outside the window filtering sunlight into the room made it look more bearable.
"Take your pick."
"Wont the others mind."
"No. If they do say I told you."
"Which one would you suggest."
"Not near the window, its drafty. Plus kids come and go." He saw my bewilderment. "They're not supposed to use the fire escape but they do because they can shiny up the tree and drop onto it. Near the door's probably best. You look a bit shy, get's a bit rough in the middle sometimes. Pillow fights. Apple pie beds, and it always pays to check your bed before you sit on it".
I began a denial about being shy, it seemed particularly important to tell that particular lie, but I was overridden. "Behind's the door the best. It was mine last year. Give's you time to pop into bed when old Pat or the others come round. Or me, prefect's job to check lights out you know."
Finally, he took me to the ablution block. The showers and hand-basins were even more spartan. The scent of Jeyes Fluid hung strongly over the dank concrete floor. There was no privacy.
There was none in the dormitory. I faced the wall to get undressed. Being behind the door was advantageous. A game consisted of putting the legs of the bed at an angle so that they collapsed at the first weight. Very early on, someone illegally visiting us from another dorm dived under the nearest bed, when Pat appeared at the door with a boy out late. Pat escorted the recalcitrant, a big hefty lad from the West Coast to his bed growling and telling him to hurry up, it was well past lights out. The Coaster sat down to take off his shoes and the bed collapsed on the poor youth underneath who gave a scream. He needed several stitches to his head. No one owned up to the action so Pat caned all of us to set the standard. What I saw as injustice made me furious. Having been a teacher I realise that boyhood code of non-telling on your mates made a collective punishment necessary. I think my rebellion was more about the barbaric nature of the punishment.
If the hostel proved alarming, the first week of school was equally so - barracks week while the timetable was sorted out. The house prefect who befriended me first day at Adams House held rank in the Air Training Corp. Claiming it as more fun, he pointed out that one might get a flight. I had never flown. So I joined, only to find myself on parade a sixth former surrounded by third formers. Being suddenly one of the taller boys made me stand out. Never having been drilled or shouted at in this fashion, and with a poor sense of left or right I hesitated about which way to wheel. Several times I shambolised a parade, and received punishment, standing to attention in the hot sun with a rifle over my shoulder. No one believed my protestations that my actions were unintentional. Each time we marched I remained in a cold panic - a condition which made me more hesitate at the barked command and therefore liable to create more chaos.
In a week of hot nor-westers, I was back in woollen shorts and serge blouse, instead of the comfortable grey slacks bought to go with my blazer. We marched, we stood at attention, we stood at ease, we lined up in ranks, we presented arms, we marched, and we wheeled. It all seemed pointless. There was a lesson on assembling a machine gun - even more pointless because half the parts weren't there, we were asked to imagine them.
The only enjoyable moment was a spell in the swimming pool with rubber dinghies, pretending to be shot-down airmen. What a relief to get into swimming togs and mess around - I'm sure the masters realised we needed a break. We went out to West Melton to shoot in the butts. Again, it seemed pointless, lying spreadeagled to shoot at a distant fixed target when around us were real live running rabbits.
Confusion reigned at the passing out parade. On a stinking hot nor-west day we stood to attention while the Brigadier reviewed us. Several boys fainted but we were kept out in the heat at attention. One third former beside me muttered he was going to "throw a sickie" to get into the shade - his rather theatrical faint caused quite a stir. Some perverse demon prevented me from following suit. Stubbornly, stupidly I held myself ramrod stiff. Mercifully the parade ended. Our officers were taken off for a flight - the ranks got another march to keep them occupied.
I went home for the weekend very unhappy. Dick had little sympathy. "That's what the army's like," he said. Mum said that once lessons started I would like it more. She was right about that, but not about the austere hostel. The culture shock was too great. I felt most of the boys were unnecessarily crude - for the first time in my life I felt prudish, which is probably more a commentary on me than them - the canings brutal and unfair while the food was basic, bulky and poor. At prep time I'd finish my homework but found it difficult to read because of the mutterings and distractions. I had no space to retreat into my private world of books and thought.
After five weeks I made a lunge for freedom. I rang Mum, "Come and get me,please. I can't stand it any longer." Without arguing she did, and took me in to town shopping. I spent my remaining pocket-money on two books: Eric Williams' The Tunnel and Aspley Cherry-Garrad's The Longest Journey in the World - both accounts of non-academic men, defeated but still heroic in front of an applauding world. The next day I cut manuka with Dick, the dogs lolling around as I built up a huge bonfire. Rolling a cigarette, Dick asked me what I wanted to do. Cautiously pointing out that I wasn't strong enough to be a farmer he said I should do something with my brains. "What about the Church?" he asked. I replied that I wanted to go on but wouldn't go back to that school. Maybe I could get University Entrance by Correspondence? "You do want to go to University?" he asked. I nodded. He picked up the chain saw and tackled a big tree.
The next day he put on his best suit and disappeared in the car. I carried on clearing manuka. When he got home it transpired he'd been to see Mr Leggatt. "He wants you back. Says it would be a waste for you not to continue.” I remained adamant, I wasn't going back to the hostel. Mum had been on the telephone to Aunt Thora’s mother, Mrs Mason. She lived in a small cottage in Fairfield Avenue in Sydenham, the surrounded maze of streets so well described by Stevan Eldred-Grigg in his Oracles and Miracles. Boarding with her and her accountancy student son Barry, I could bike to school as a dayboy. "Will you try it?" Mum asked. I knew I wanted to, but then Dick added the sting in the tail. "Did you cut up Pat Vincent's canes when you left?" I had, every one of them into small pieces. I admitted it. Inwardly I felt a bit ashamed, it was an act of cowardice rather than audacity. "Well, Mr Leggatt says you'll have to be publicly caned for that. It's part of him taking you back."
The following Monday saw me back. At morning break I reported to Pat. For a time he looked at me with brown eyes that rather twinkled. "What are we waiting for?" I asked. He continued to scrutinise me. At last he spoke, "Character analysis. I thought you were a sneak, cutting and running. Maybe you have more spunk than I gave you credit for. Bend over." Four of the best, but it was a private caning. At the finish he shook hands. "Welcome back". Backside on fire I returned to class, feeling rather proud about his comments - high praise from this doyenne of masculine society.
Words - Douglas McLennan
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