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Charlie's first day in boarding school, in the highlands of Scotland.
The housemaster walked through the dormitory, clanging the brass bell. Little Charlie Milne sat bolt upright with shock in his small steel framed bed.
It was his first morning at his father’s old boarding school. His older brother Trevor, who’d also been student at the school, was now in the army. All the men in the family had been officers in the British army, but Charlie had no intention of following their footsteps. He hated the disciplined life that his father had insisted on when he’d lived at home, in the lowlands.
Back home his bedroom had no carpets, and the windows were ordered open at night, even during snowstorms.
‘Fresh air is good for you!’ his father had boomed at him as Charlie put on his clothes under his snow-capped doona, to keep the freezing morning air away from his shivering body.
His father always wore a kilt to the evening meals at home. Dinner was eaten in silence. No scraps were to be left on anyone’s plate. Trevor and his twin sister, Angela had both grown up and left home. Charlie’s other sister Barbara was at a boarding school for girls in Edinburgh.
The master’s footsteps in the dormitory had terrified him. It had reminded Charlie of the stomp of his father’s big hob-nailed boots echoing through the house early in the morning back at the farm.
‘Time to get up an have your bath Charlie, my lad,’ said the master. ‘Follow the other boys to the bathroom. Quick, or you’ll be late for breakfast.’
It was still dark outside. He scurried out of bed. The floor was freezing cold. His toes looked blue as they squeaked across the polished wooden floor in protest. The passageway was long, dark and cold. The ceiling disappeared into the long shadows, caste by the wooden, Gothic beams. The eyes of the Ghost-like portraits of former masters, hanging on the walls seemed to follow him as he padded along. He started to wonder if the stories that he’d heard about the headless gardener walking around the grounds during Halloween were true .
The other boys from his dormitory were waiting for him when he arrived in the bathroom.
‘Hop in Charlie! You can go first,’ said a bigger boy.
He jumped in and gasped with shock. The water was so cold that he’d broken a layer of ice on the top. Everyone laughed. He pretended to laugh too, and said,
‘V-v-v-erry f-f-funny. Ha ha ha.’
He was mortified. He only hoped that they thought the stuttering was his reaction to the cold water. The truth was that he’d developed a stutter early in his childhood, when forced by his junior schoolteachers to write with his right hand. He was a natural ‘leftie.’ It was strange that he thought about Trevor while he dried himself. Trevor also stuttered, even though he’d finished school and was an Army Captain. Trevor was right handed. Why did Trevor stutter?
There was no time to think of an answer, as it was time to quickly dress and run to the dining room. All the boarders were seated at long tables, in rows. The prefects had ‘pride of place’ at the head table. The two boys seated at the bottom end served breakfast at each table. Charlie soon learned that the fastest eaters got a second helping. It was ‘survival of the fastest.’ Charlie managed to get a second helping that morning. The porridge was lumpy and luke-warm. The bacon was cold and fatty and the scrambled eggs were watery. On the plus side, the bread and jam weren’t too bad, and the tea was piping hot. At least he wasn’t hungry.
Morning Chapel was next. Each day of the school term, they sung each psalm from the musky old prayer books. Charlie was not particularly religious. The Psalms were sung in Old English. Willie, who sat next to him, whispered that each Sunday they sang the Te Deum in Latin. Charlie wondered if this daily dose of Chapel was going to put him off Religion for the rest of his life!
There had been severe snowstorms, prior to Charlie’s arrival. One of the first chores for the boarders between classes was to shovel the pathways clear around the school. They were dressed in rugby gear, which was hardly suitable for the cold - shirts, shorts and knee high socks with sandshoes!
Helicopters flying in supplies to the highland school, was the highlight of the day. The school had become isolated from the nearest township. It was like living on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe, except, that this wasn’t a tropical island. It was more like living in Siberia.
Darkness set in around three in the afternoon. The evening meal was sloppy stew with huge dollops of mashed potato, followed by rice pudding and treacle, and piping hot tea. Afterwards, everyone filed out to their respective houseroom to do their homework and reading under the supervision of the housemaster.
Charlie wondered if he was going to find any enjoyment at all at this school. Although he didn’t miss his father, he missed the cosy evenings with the gardener and his wife, in the farm’s basement flat. He missed sitting in the big kitchen, watching his mother cook the jams, make bread, cooking a pig’s head for stock or stirring a jugged hare in the large pot on the wooden fire stove. Most of all he missed his Nanny. Nanny lost her job, the day he went to boarding school. She’d been his friend and confidant during his early years. His mother had been too busy raising chickens, stewing fruits, tending her rose garden and knitting sweaters and socks for the family, to spend ‘quality’ time with her youngest child.
When it was finally time for ‘lights-out’ and sleep at the end of the first day, Charlie felt as if he was the loneliest, saddest boy in Scotland. Tears welled up in his eyes. He frantically blinked them away. No one would see him crying!
Willie’s voice called out to him from the next bed. Willie had become his first friend at the school.
‘Hey Charlie. Are you awake?’
‘Can you play rugby?’
‘C - course I can!’
‘Great. Our team needs a good prop forward. You’re big. That’s good. I’ll talk to the sports master … G’night Charlie.’
‘G - G’Night Willie.’
‘A small smile appeared on Charlie’s face in the darkened dormitory. He loved sport. He really loved to play rugby. At least he never stuttered when playing. The wind howled outside, bringing more snow to be shovelled. He lay still hearing the snowflakes pattering against the small lead glass windows. As he drifted off to sleep, he mentally noted the first of his personal Ten Commandments … for survival at Boarding school:
Thou shalt not be the first in the cold bath each morning!
Wendy Laing © 1999
Site: Wendy Laing
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