Read Silent Noon Online

Authors: Trilby Kent

Silent Noon (6 page)

“I’m Morrell,” he said.

“I know,” Barney said. “Robin told me you used to come here.”

“Who?”

Barney began to feel uneasy. “Robin Littlejohn,” he said. “In the Second.”

Ivor snorted. “Oh, him,” he said, seating himself on a bench that ran the length of the room and kicking his heels onto an overturned metal bin. “A friend of yours?”

“Maybe.”

Ivor grunted, blowing smoke through his nostrils. “And you are—”

“Holland. Barney Holland.”

“If you ask me, Holland, you don’t want to be getting too involved with Littlejohn. Just between us, he’s rather… fragile.”

“Seems all right to me.”

Ivor took a long, deep drag of his cigarette. “He’s untrustworthy. Attracts vulnerable types. That idiot kid, Opie… and now you: a charity case from the urban poor.”

“Sod off,” said Barney, who still hadn’t decided whether or not he’d been invited to sit and so remained standing.

“Cheek.” Ivor leant his head against the wall. “Tell me, Holland: how would you rather die – charging into battle on horseback or jumping out of a plane?”

“Neither.”

“Naturally. But if you had to choose.”

“On horseback, I suppose.”

“I think I’d prefer to die flying. Failing that, I should like to die of gluttony. I’d do it in here, and eat myself to death right on Ratty’s doorstep.”

Barney remembered what Robin had said about his list of people to save and the ones he’d lock out in the event of a nuclear strike. “You’d never fit enough food in.”

“I’d start outside, like animals do before they hibernate,” said Ivor. Then, with a smile as if he was swallowing something unpalatable for politeness’ sake:
“Animals stuff themselves with food, and humans stuff themselves with stories. You’ll have noticed that, here. Apparently old Cray was a brilliant spin bowler. That’s a myth. Or
people will say he was everybody’s friend – a really popular, happy little chap. That’s a myth too.” He squashed the cigarette stub into the floor and ground it with his
heel. “It’s just the school’s way of protecting its ghosts. No one can make a hero of Cray, because he didn’t die fighting for anything. But you can’t tell boys that,
because we’re supposed to believe that death happens for a reason. For glory, for eternity.”

“What’s it like having your name on a plaque in the chapel?”

Morrell withdrew another cigarette from his pocket. “Do you smoke? You shouldn’t, you know.” He handed it to Barney, struck a match. “Seeing as you ask, it’s an
existential conundrum. I imagine it’s a bit like being a backwards ghost. Dead-to-be. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”

“Like the Jerry in the basement corridor?”

Ivor laughed, holding the match out. “Who told you that?” Barney didn’t reply. “Littlejohn again. Well, a bit like that, I suppose. You know why half the school’s
not here, don’t you?”

“Robin said there was dry rot in the walls.”

Another snort of laughter. “The Germans blew up the entire west wing before they left. It was Ratty’s idea that the students should help to rebuild it. He had everyone hauling these
bricks up from a pit on the other side of St Arras, like Pharaoh’s slaves building the pyramids. Now, that’s what I call fascistic.”

Barney didn’t know what to say, and so he said nothing.

“Is that Dolly’s daughter in your form?” asked Ivor.

Barney nodded. “Her name’s Belinda. She’s in my set for Maths.”

“Does Dolly teach you?”

“No, we have Doc Dower.” Barney decided to take his chances and sat down, even though Ivor hadn’t told him to. “Is it true he was tortured by the Japs in the
war?”

“Not unless there were Japs fighting in Italy,” replied Ivor. “Honestly, do you believe everything those idiots in the Second tell you? They’ll say he bludgeons mice with
a cricket bat for sport too.”

“How do you know?”

“Because Dower had me over to his set when I was in my first year.” He cast a scornful look at Barney. “He’s not a pederast. He taught me how to make spaghetti carbonara
like they did in Rome. No cream, lots of pepper. It’s better with real eggs, of course. And bacon, not mutton.”

Barney struggled to imagine Doc Dower and Ivor Morrell cooking dinner in the master’s kitchen.

Ivor clenched his cigarette between his teeth and pulled a comb from his back pocket. “That Belinda goes walkabout at night,” he said, smoothing his hair on either side.
“I’ve seen her wandering past Tern after lights-out.”

Barney stubbed his cigarette against the wall. “Where to?”

“I haven’t a clue. Perhaps to join a witches’ coven in the forest.”

“You could follow her one night.”

The older boy looked up at Barney with a look that was almost fierce. “Could I? And why would I want to do that?”

The shadows began to shift, and Barney glanced at the open door. The patch of forest floor outside the entrance had darkened. “That lot will be getting back soon,” he said.

“You go on. Wait at the hill, but make sure Swift doesn’t see you. Best to slip in behind him.” Ivor flicked his cigarette at the upturned drum. “Nice meeting you,
Holland.”

~

Waiting by the mound of freshly turned earth, Mollie Flood reflected that the tree was a vulnerable-looking thing, dwarfed by the plaque emblazoned with Henry Cray’s name
and the dates
1940–1953
. One or two people had proposed a panel in the chapel, but the consensus had been that there simply wasn’t enough space – and besides,
tree-planting supported irrigation, vital to managing the island’s water levels.

Next to the cakes table, a group of junior boys flapped restlessly in their still-too-large uniforms. At their first school tea the youngest ones always affected a toughness that disagreed with
their tidy partings and round faces. Before the year was out they would be unrecognizable, transformed into loafish adolescents. This was the week in which several would fall victim to the
Sagartians’ midnight dormitory raids: the smallest lashed to the wall bars in the athletics hall and left until morning. Her husband had been the one to discover them once: two boys hanging
from the gym bars, pale and furious and exhausted. Both had refused to reveal their tormentors’ names. They would grow up to form cosy gangs and practise the same laughing cruelty in their
own time.

Behind the juniors stood three larger lads drinking Kia-Ora. One was in a second-hand uniform, while the other two wore civvies: point-collared white shirts, wool blazers, shorts and knee socks.
Mollie did not recognize the first, who was stolid and glooming, but the others – a red-haired boy with an obvious developmental problem and another with the face of a Fra Angelico seraph
– she remembered from the previous year. The taller two were trading insults, while the delayed one grinned stupidly, revealing pointed teeth stained a bright orange.

Michael Swift had paused nearby to speak to them in a fellow-to-fellow sort of way. There were lines at the corners of his eyes now, drawn by the wind on long runs across the chalk ridge. Just
five years ago, Mollie had mistaken the blue-eyed French master for one of the older boys.

“Got there in the end.” Her husband, spruce in a summer suit that had perhaps become just a little snug around the middle, appeared at her elbow with the tea and a plate of
meat-paste sandwiches.

“Is that a new boy?” She settled herself on the blanket. The tea was lukewarm and weak.

“Ah, yes. Holland. Scholarship chap from London.”

“I see he’s hit it off with Henry Cray’s old friend.”

Her husband didn’t reply, focusing instead on blowing imaginary steam from his cup. He had never understood her questions about the boys’ private lives – his term for their
friendships and personal interests – as if they were fully formed human beings worthy of considered discussion. He did not see the point in spending time analysing them as individuals, when
it was the disordered mass that he was tasked with handling in the classroom and the dormitories.

“I thought I’d do a roast chicken tonight – the girls will like that.”

“Sounds lovely.”

Mollie waved a fly away. “Belinda’s been eating like an ox lately. I caught her chewing blotting paper the other day.”

“Must be another growth spurt.”

“I think she’s bored.”

Flood turned to look at his wife. “What on earth has she got to be bored for?”

“I suspect she misses her friends. There’s not much here for a girl of her age. She doesn’t make any effort to pretend to enjoy coming to the shops with me on the weekend. All
she wants to do is have baths. I caught her running her third of the day last night. And she’s been hideous with Lucia the last few evenings…”

“That’s perfectly normal.”

Mollie peered into her teacup. A gnat was floating in what remained of her tea, drifting on the cloudy brown tide as it slapped against the sides.

“Is he awfully deprived?” she said. To look at him one might have thought they’d lost the war. She ignored her husband’s sideways glance as she tipped the dregs of her
tea onto the grass. “He’s not at all troubled? Coming from London, I mean.”

“Not that I’ve been told.” The youngest boys in the school tended to be less complicated than the ones old enough to have experienced bewilderment or grief for fathers returned
from abroad or dead in the war. They didn’t feel entitled to the same battle-weary attitude, these lads who had to be evacuated with their mothers, or in some cases hadn’t been
evacuated at all. “You’d have heard about it if there was anything untoward in Belinda’s set.”

“Would I?” This was not the sort of place where word spread quickly:
loose lips sink ships
was a hard mantra to forget. The masters’ wives were friendly, of course
– they hosted tea parties and knitting circles – but these were cagey affairs dominated by shows of unflagging loyalty to their husbands. Mollie didn’t understand their forced
jolliness or the smiles that said
Aren’t we lucky never to have left school?
– but she tried to emulate their matter-of-fact pride at being too busy with their own families to
bother trying to be substitute mothers for the boys. Mollie had never got along particularly well with the Head’s wife, although she pitied her for being married to a man whose overbearing
solicitude concealed what Mollie considered to be a transparent contempt for women.

The three boys, meanwhile, were picking their way across the green, scattered with clusters of students enjoying their tea in the sunshine. Mollie noticed the young seraph nudge the new boy in
the ribs, nodding in the direction of Ormer House. Her elder daughter was emerging from the side door: barefoot, in Peter Pan blouse and blue capris. Belinda ignored her mother’s eye as she
cut across the green, making a beeline for the cakes. That morning, she had said she wouldn’t be attending the tea because she was stared at enough during school.

“You see, her greed won out,” Mollie remarked.

The three boys had finished eating, and now the seraph and the scholarship lad had begun to tussle on the grass. Belinda filled her plate with scones and a slab of crusted yellow cream before
traipsing along the perimeter of the green to enjoy her spoils in privacy. Several of the students looked up at her with little interest: as a master’s daughter she was off-limits to them.
Yet something about that lonely figure skirting the chattering crowds filled Mollie with pity, and also resentment at what she perceived to be unnecessary furtiveness. Without thinking, she called
out after her.

“Darling!”

The cry made those standing nearby stop to look at the girl, who froze with a startled scowl. For a moment she seemed to stare straight through them all – before turning and continuing
towards a copse of trees in the shadow of the abandoned east wing.

~

Swift was the next person to see her, an hour later, squatting on the steps leading up to the old kitchens with her head in her arms. He knew the girl by sight, but had not
spoken to her since the drinks party at Flood’s five years earlier, when the French master had arrived as a new member of staff. She had been a recalcitrant only child at the time, and Swift
had not warmed to her.

“What’s this?” he said – and by “this” he clearly meant her, here.

Belinda looked up. The fine, almost translucent skin around her eyes was blotchy. She stared at him with a closed look, pressing her palms onto the concrete step.

“Well, now? What on earth is the matter?”

The girl’s face turned even redder as he crouched on the ground in front of her. She shook her head, mouth crumpling to rein in fresh tears.

“If it’s to do with any of the boys, you must tell someone,” he said.

Again she shook her head – impatiently this time, angry.

“Shall I take you home? Perhaps it’s something you’d prefer to tell your mother?”

“She can’t do anything about it,” said Belinda. She nodded at the far side of the kitchen, where weeds grew among the rubble. “It’s too late for anyone to do
anything about it.”

“About what?” asked Swift. Despite himself, he set off to investigate beyond the kitchen wall. Belinda stood up – but then she hesitated, hanging back while the master
disappeared around the corner of the building.

What remained of the walled garden was now overrun with tall nettles and building debris: broken bricks, bits of tile and thick pieces of green glass mixed in with clumps of chalky soil. The
ground was spotted with holes dug by small, burrowing creatures. He told himself that she had probably come across a snake, or a rat. Perhaps she had been stung by the nettles.

A trowel had been left on a ledge of wall, next to which was a pile of freshly turned earth. Over the ledge, something wrapped in a newspaper, preserved from the elements by a piece of patterned
oilcloth. Brownish skin like leather, an open mouth, two arms folded like tiny wings.

By the time he returned to the kitchen steps, the girl had disappeared.

~

“What I don’t understand is how it could have taken this long to turn up,” said Pleming, handing the French master a tumbler and settling in the larger of the
two armchairs. “Half the island buried their silver before the Germans arrived, and half the island dug the place up again once they left. You’d think somebody would have come across it
long ago.”

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