Authors: Robert Westall
For Edith Garrett, librarian, in the peace and discipline of whose library some of this book was written.
First published in the UK in 1983. This ePub is version 1.0, released October 2015.
As Head Boy, I’d ordered an early call. My last day, my big day. Parents’ Day. Been planning it for weeks. Of course it’s all crap, Parents’ Day. But I wanted it to be well-run crap, because I was Head Boy. My future might depend on it.
The Chinese mess waiter came in almost silent, bringing my morning tea. Tiny clink of cup on saucer; breathing like velvet. He put down the tray and I said thanks without opening my eyes. Thanks is all we ever said apart from giving them orders. It’s all they expect. Try cracking a joke with them, they just look at you. My father says they were happier thirty years ago, running their own little Chinese restaurants. But it’s not healthy talking about thirty years ago…
I skipped across the polished parquet, pulled back the curtains. Head Boys get the best room; fabulous view over the Solent to the distant robot cranes of Portsmouth. On quiet nights when the breeze was right we could hear Portsmouth, rumble, rumble, rumble all night. Robot ships docking, rolling back their robot hatch covers so that robot cranes could lift out containers into robo-trucks. All in total darkness. Robots don’t need light. If a robot broke down, another robot mended it. There hadn’t been a human being inside Portsmouth for ten years. Except for thieves. Robot security returned the thieves to the dock gates in neat, little fake-marble urns, as ashes, ready for dispatch to their next of kin. Or so college legend said. We hadn’t been across to check. Not a nice place, Portsmouth; funny to think that thirty years ago it was full of pubs and whores and sailors…
But this morning the Solent was glistening benevolently under an ideal breeze; just enough to billow our Union Jacks and bunting bravely. Parents’ Day had dawned sunny all over Britain.
Of course. But, better even than last year, the weather computer had let through a few cirrus clouds, so it all looked really natural. The pilotless weather bombers must have been pretty busy out over the Atlantic, soaring on their long, thin wings, aimless as seagulls while their nose radar located the exact cloud to bomb with dry ice. I saw them once from my father’s yacht. We’d been sailing west of the Skelligs when a gale blew us out into the Atlantic Forbidden Zone. There they were, high and circling against the sunset. “They’re beautiful,” I said. “Forget you ever saw them,” said my father.
I dressed with robotic swiftness, shaving with one hand and drinking tea with the other, while wriggling my feet into gleaming black shoes. But quick as I was, the first-years beat me to the seawall. There they were, turning blue and goosefleshed in dressing gowns and striped pyjamas, brandishing their big brass telescopes and squeaking with cold and excitement. Waiting for the ships that would bring their parents; three hours too bloody early.
Mind you, those ships were worth waiting for.
had escorted Arctic convoys in the Second World War. Afterward, she’d descended to the Brazilian navy, then the Uruguayan, who pinched her guns to start a revolution and left her a sunken wreck moldering in the River Plate mud with every tide passing in and out and palm trees sprouting from her bridge. In 1998 she’d been spotted and floated home by yet another miracle of marine archaeology. Restored to all her former glory, she plied the Solent on
fine days. The kids reckoned half her rusted hull was marine plastic and she wouldn’t last five minutes in a gale.
had been a Margate pleasure steamer. In her finest hour she’d rescued three thousand well-soaked Allied servicemen from Dunkirk. After the war, she’d become a floating restaurant on the Thames. During the Desperate Eighties, she’d sunk to psychedelic drug orgies for weary Eurocrats. Till the militant
had discovered that: Dunkirk veteran is London’s ship of shame. A public outcry from Harrogate to Hove had forced the government to purchase her under the Patriotism Act and restore her, too, to former glory. The kids reckoned she was
plastic underwater and one puff of wind would do for her.
I put on my best authority and called, “Go on, get washed and dressed!”
they bayed like a wolf pack. “You know the ships sometimes come early, Kitson!” Some were bigger than me; all fizzing with Parents’ Day hysteria. Remembering that my reign as Head Boy only had a few hours to run, that today I was as much Head Victim as Head Boy, I was starting to feel nervous when a lot of other prefects drifted down to back me up. Blessed is the Head Boy who’s kept a few mates… this lot would need watching today, or they’d drive the mess boys into a blue Chinese fit.
Moaning, they departed. I turned back for a last look across the Solent, before my longest, most knackering day really got started. As I did, I caught the faintest possible hint of a rhythmic pinging in my ears; the slightest possible headache pulse in the bones of my skull.
Somewhere, somebody had switched on a psycho-radar. Somebody was scanning my mind and that of everyone in college. Not for individual thoughts, but for mood. This somebody, discovering that I was alert and only mildly irritated, would ignore me. But if I’d been suicidal or bottling up a murderous rage…
Instinctively, I calmed my mind further, with the memory of a little waterfall I knew, and scanned the sky. Low down, far off, just blending with the Portsmouth cranes, was a tiny tadpole speck. A psycho-helicopter, with its crew of two Gurkha Paramils. Psychopters, as they were called. Normally, they never bothered us here on the island; stuck to the real trouble spots like London and Glasgow. But of course they’d be round on Parents’ Day, merrier than Christmas, hotter than Guy Fawkes, the great, glad festival of the year. When sixth-formers got blind drunk or jumped over cliffs. The day mothers were so proud they wept, or so ashamed they lay down in hot baths and overdosed on Valium. The day fathers locked themselves in studies and took down cherished antique revolvers from the wall…
“Happy Parents’ Day,” I said to the discreetly weaving psychopter. Then I couldn’t resist playing the old game the kids played. I sent it a burst of pure hate. “Drop dead, bastards. Bastards, bastards,
Did the psychopter hesitate in its discreet weaving? Begin to nose toward me, like a dog scenting a rabbit?
Trouble was, it was a lot easier to open the floodgates of my mind than shut them again. Hate against Paramils flowed out of me like red-hot lava, like being sick. Couldn’t stop. Scared me silly.
The psychopter changed from a sideways tadpole to an end-on dot. Climbed higher for a better scan, abandoning discreet concealment. Got rapidly bigger, heading straight for me, blat, blat, blat. Desperately I tried all the old soothing remedies: thought of burbling streams among dew-specked ferns, white gulls circling, steak and chips. Tall girls gliding in gauzy dresses. Tall girls wading through burbling streams carrying steak and chips for the circling gulls…
I burst out laughing. Baffled, the psychopter retreated, resumed its discreet weaving. I wiped my brow, ruining my spotless white handkerchief. They were good, those Gurkha Paramils. Kept their transmissions to a whisper, yet spotted me straight away. I was getting too old and angry to tease them safely. Leave it to the first-years, whose troubles had hardly started…
But I went and rang up psycho-control, to complain about their transmission level. As Head Boy, on Parents’ Day, I had the right. The Oriental voice was scrupulously polite. They always are; that’s what’s so scary.
Anyway, the psychopter halved its transmissions. But didn’t go away. Now they’d smelled something, they’d hang around for the rest of the day. I could have kicked myself.
It took all we prefects had to keep the kids under wraps till eleven. The mess boys couldn’t cope at all; just stood in nervously smiling huddles in corners, while their young lords and masters hovered on the fringe of going berserk. There’d been black Parents’ Days in the past when all the mess boys lost their trousers, watched barelegged as a flotilla of sodden cloth floated away across the Solent. Blackest day of all, a mess boy had been found dead in the washroom afterward, stuffed down under a sink with his neck broken. They weren’t allowed to resist violence, you see. Helpless as rabbits, expendable as quadraphonic trannies…
Anyway, we did better than that. By eleven, the waxed floors of the dorms glistened, in shafts of sunlight sucked free of dust by the wall vacuums. Beds made, sheets stretched tight as a drum, so stiff with starch they’d have been agony to sleep in. But they weren’t for sleeping in; they were for Parents’ Day. The kids were finally immaculate, blazers speckless, ties vertical, white shirts changed three times because of sweaty thumb marks, knee stockings pulled to exactly the same height and measured with a ruler. Their naval caps were last and worst. Each year had to wear them differently. First-years had them pulled down over their noses, half-blinding them. Seconds tilted their to the left, thirds to the right, fourths pushed theirs onto the backs of their heads. (Only we prefects wore the Victorian tasseled pillboxes, so hard to balance they made walking a torment and running a miracle.) Each year tried surreptitiously to creep toward the style of the year above, which would have given the Head a fit.
At least they were ready to be marched in columns to the seawall and somehow kept from scuffing their diamond-bright shoes, or throwing each other in, before their parents actually saw them. Luckily, twin columns of smoke were just rising above the Portsmouth cranes.
made a brave sight through our telescopes.
paddle wheels thrashed the water into a fine drifting spray full of rainbows.
curved and twisted round her like a playful dog, a bone of bow wave between her teeth. Both sent up quite incredible amounts of thick black smoke. They were actually driven by small atomic motors, but had a separate hand-stoked furnace to create smoke for the sake of historical accuracy, and because the parents always said that smoke smelled
was white with yellow funnel,
pale Mediterranean grey. Both had canvas awnings rigged, to keep sun (and smuts) off the passengers. White ensigns fluttered in the computer-calculated wind. Myriad points of yellow sunlight winked off the newly polished brass of taffrail and binnacle, and the instruments of
ship’s band, playing “Heart of Oak.”
They steered straight at us, heedless of the flow of robot cargo ships that was the Solent’s normal traffic. Desperately the cargo ships’ computers reversed and altered course to avoid a fatal accident. Finally
cut a curve so wild that two robo ships, computers overloaded with data, collided with a reverberating boom. Everyone found that excruciatingly funny. Triumph of man over microchip! When the two human ships had finally crossed the traffic stream, the robo ships realigned themselves and carried on their trade with touching dignity. Aboard the damaged pair, robot welders were already sparking into action, effecting repairs.
A hundred yards out,
dropped antique, red-leaded anchors and swung with the tide. Clouds of smoke blew in over the seawall, dropping smuts on our collars and making the kids sniff ecstatically. Boats were lowered by brown-faced, white-uniformed Lascars, and the parents were rowed ashore.
In fancy dress, as usual. The in-year this year was 1912. Fathers wore top hats and frock coats, or boaters and blazers. Mothers’ skirts ended just above the ankle, displaying narrow white shoes and white silk stockings; also dishlike hats smothered in roses. Several blew off into the water, amid parental hilarity. The Lascars rested on their oars, while fathers fished for them with gamps and walking sticks. Further parental mirth.
1912, of course, was the year the
sank. Several fathers were brandishing lifebelts marked
All fakes. Several more fathers had grown chest-covering beards and, stuffing bolsters up their gold-braided pea jackets, were impersonating
late-lamented Captain Smith. One had a false beard that was blowing adrift from its moorings. By and large, the parents looked pretty pleased with themselves and pretty ridiculous. Especially Mr. Grimshaw (I groaned aloud) who was flourishing a trumpet. Sooner or later, Grimshaw’s father was going to play “Autumn.” “Autumn” was the hymn bandleader Wallace Hartley played, as the
took her final plunge. The great British public had become obsessed with “Autumn.” All this year, at every concert, on every TV show or record-request program, some fool was determined to play “Autumn.” Orchestral versions, guitar solos, bagpipes, specially composed lyrics, versions on musical saws, glasses of water or bashing the spoons. A dog had been trained to howl it. Maybe it was a national death wish … I’d heard it so often it got into my nightmares. I had this awful recurring nightmare that I was looking at Great Britain, and it began to tilt, with the south coast plunging beneath the waves and Scotland lifting out of the water, and people tumbling down from Northumberland to Kent and all the chimneys and the Post Office tower crumbling and falling. Then I’d wake up convinced that I’d been the iceberg that sunk it and feeling terribly guilty.