It was half past five on the morning of the first of September, 1968 and Mr Boyt was afraid.
He was a man bald and round of head, round of face and of feature, who resembled nothing so much as a very large baby. Mr Boyt had lived happily and calmly for forty five years and had – at least, until recent weeks – been entirely content with his achievements and his prospects. Entry to his local grammar school at the age of eleven had been followed by solid, though not outstanding, academic achievement, culminating in what he thought of as a decent degree from the local university and then a modestly successful career in teaching. There had been great happiness when his pleasant colleague, Miss Minster, had agreed to be his bride and thereafter contentment with the respectable and orderly life they led together. As he entered his forties Mr Boyt had been somewhat disconcerted by the sense that the values he held dear – values of decency, propriety and restraint – were increasingly mocked, by pupils and by his younger colleagues. Yet none of this had threatened to upset the even tenor of his tidy life in the manner of the acid fear that paradoxically both filled and hollowed out his stomach on this, his first day as Headmaster of King George’s Grammar School for Boys.
Mr Boyt eased himself out of bed tentatively so as not to disturb the slumbers of the former Miss Minster who lay, snuffling and content in curlers and winceyette nightdress, on the left hand side of the bed. Despite his terror of what lay ahead he congratulated himself on the propriety of this arrangement, the right hand side being, of course, conventionally allocated to the master of the house. Even so, as he sat on the edge of the bed and looked around for his slippers, the very appearance of the bedroom, with its pine furniture and indian cotton curtains, caused his stomach to contract painfully. Had it been entirely wise to accede to his wife’s wishes in this respect when they had taken up residence in the Headmaster’s House? Should they not have purchased something – something darker, more traditional? But Mrs Boyt had insisted on the modern furniture.
‘It’s 1968’, she had asserted, ‘not 1958. We must move with the times.’
He sighed. Although he suspected it to be foolish (after all, who else would ever see the bedroom?), Mr Boyt nonetheless felt that he would have been more confident, more secure in his respectability, had the house been solidly and traditionally furnished throughout. But then, as he ruefully acknowledged to himself, he would have felt more confident and secure in his respectability on this, the most important day of his career, if he himself had, as it were, been more solid and traditional throughout. The truth was that Mr Boyt felt himself to be lacking: in solidity, in substance, in gravitas. And the fear which had gripped his body and soul and which was even now almost suffocating him seemed proof enough of his inadequacy: it was, he thought, hardly the demeanour of a headmaster who would command the respect of both masters and boys, who would bestride the school like a colossus, whose name would go down in its annals, who…he brought himself up short.
‘You’re getting carried away,’ he muttered to himself, still feeling around for his slippers, ’and talking rot into the bargain. Colossus – annals – drivel, old chap. You won’t get away with cliches like that with the masters,’ he continued with a shudder. For this was the heart of the problem: the masters. Mr Boyt’s heart quailed at the very thought of the masters of King George’s, who were renowned throughout, if not the land then certainly the county, for their academic prowess, social superiority and what might be politely termed independence of thought. Or, as it had been put to him by the outgoing headmaster Dr Bradshaw, sheer bloody-mindedness.
The rubicund and peppery Bradshaw had invited him to lunch at the Old Boys’ Club. ‘Congratulate you on getting the job, don’t you know? Give you a few pointers, that sort of thing’. Boyt had sat patiently breathing the club’s sticky atmosphere of boiled vegetables and gravy, steamed pudding and custard whilst Bradshaw elaborated on the bewildering list of ways in which an unwary new headmaster might unwittingly infringe the school’s customs and traditions and thus mark himself out as unfitted to the role. Bradshaw had concluded with the slights and subtle insults he had received from the masters. ‘Don’t take any damned nonsense from them, Boyt,’ he had concluded in a tone which – so Mr Boyt had felt – rather implied that Mr Boyt might as a general rule be all too well inclined to take nonsense.
‘Quite so, headmaster, quite so,’ he had replied with an air of calm confidence which entirely belied the fear that had just started to peck at his heart.
‘Jolly good, Boyt old boy, jolly good. There’ll be some ribbing to begin with. Only natural. Unusual to have a chap like you at the reins of a school like this, don’t you know? First headmaster from a red brick university. That sort of thing.’
Boyt had involuntarily echoed Bradshaw’s words, hoping as the words came out that it didn’t sound like mimicry. ‘That sort of thing?’ he had responded, wishing that he could loosen the tie which seemed to be gradually tightening around his throat.
‘Grammar school boy yourself, weren’t you? Father a foundryman? Nothing to be ashamed of, not these days. An achievement, first headmaster without a private education. Pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, don’t you know?”
Mr Boyt had only been able to nod and swallow, fear pecking ever faster at his heart as the torture continued.
‘Degree in Classics, what? School tradition to have a mathematician at the helm. Nonsense of course, all nonsense. But tradition’s tradition, don’t you know? Tradition’s tradition. Masters see a weak spot, they go for it, old chap. Damned clever at finding weak spots. Twist ‘em about and use ‘em to justify bloody insubordination. Excuse my French.’ Bradshaw had pulled himself upright in his seat, the expression of his hazel eyes sharpening as he continued, ‘Nothing to worry about, though. Just show ‘em who’s in charge and they’ll soon buckle down. Deputy’s a good sort, give you a helping hand. Brilliant mathematician. Bentinck’s the name. Oxford rugger blue, don’t you know? Try to keep him on your side.’
This, then, or so Mr Boyt had thought bitterly to himself over the ensuing six weeks of sleepless nights amongst twisted sheets, had been the point of the invitation to lunch. Bending down to look under the bed for the elusive slippers, Mr Boyt suspected that Bentinck – who had by now assumed in his imagination all the characteristics of gravitas and solidity he felt himself to lack – would have been an altogether more appropriate choice for headmaster. Bentinck wouldn’t have been groping under the bed, unable to find his slippers, fear pecking his heart and burning his stomach. No, Bentinck the rugger blue would be on tip-top form, ready for the scrummage – he wondered if that was quite the right word, being a cricket rather than a rugby man himself – and prepared to take on all comers. Whereas he himself (at this point he glanced resentfully at his slumbering wife) couldn’t even take on his own wife in the matter of bedroom furniture.
Sighing and giving the bedroom slippers up as a lost cause, Mr Boyt resigned himself to the discomfort of bare feet on cold linoleum and went downstairs.
It was half past four on the afternoon of the first of September 1968. Mr Boyt was smiling contentedly as he prepared to leave his study.
His first day as Headmaster had not – of course, he said to himself, of course – been half as bad as he had feared. Not half as bad. There had been the odd ticklish moment: he had been quite taken aback to discover that the school had its own pop group. A lover of operetta and the lighter classics, Mr Boyt had little familiarity with popular music beyond a sneaking affection for the comic songs of Val Doonican. But he had, he congratulated himself, recovered well from the shock of hearing the strains of something he now knew to be called “Honky Tonk Woman” emanating from the music room at lunchtime. Not his cup of tea, not his cup of tea at all, but it wouldn’t do to get the reputation of being a stick in the mud. Never a bad idea to show oneself to be a good sport. It was 1968, after all. Mustn’t let standards slip too far, of course, but a little leniency here and there would do no harm.
The staff meeting really had gone remarkably well, all things considered. The odd fast ball from the staff but nothing he couldn’t field. And the last question – the last question had certainly allowed him to whack the ball into the long grass.
It had been almost the end of the meeting when the Head of Mathematics, Dr Edwards, had stood up.
‘A final question, if I may, Headmaster,’ he had declared. Mr Boyt’s heart had sunk. Respectable though Dr Edwards looked in his tweeds, his agitated tone led Mr Boyt to fear the worst. ‘It was the view of the previous Headmaster,’ Edwards had continued, his voice shaking, ‘and indeed I understand it to be the view of the Deputy Headmaster that the interests of this school, a school which has survived for five centuries as a boys’ grammar school, would be best served’ – and here Edwards had paused to give the words their full effect – ‘by it admitting girls and becoming a mixed comprehensive. What, Headmaster, is your view of that?’
Mr Boyt had, for a moment, been taken aback by the question. So it was this that had been behind the lunch with Bradshaw, behind Bradshaw’s praise of Bentinck and his criticism of the masters. Here, then, was Mr Boyt’s opportunity. And Mr Boyt glowed with pride at the memory of his reply. Inelegant, yes, but to the point.
‘Not on my watch, Dr Edwards,’ he had replied,’not on my watch.’
Mr Boyt chuckled, recollecting Bentinck’s obvious discomfiture at the hearty round of applause that had greeted his reply, and looked appreciatively at the oak panelling and velvet curtains of the Headmaster’s study. His study. This was a room which exemplified all the virtues of decency and restraint it was incumbent upon a headmaster to embody. A room – he elaborated to himself – which showed that respectability could and would prevail, however unfashionable a quality it might be. Tradition, that was the thing.
As for Bentinck: not a bad chap in his own way. Misguided, to be sure, but it took all sorts to make the world. He’d have to have a word with him about his hair, of course. It was hardly fitting for senior staff to go about with hair past their collars. Not to mention (and here Mr Boyt shuddered) the fact that the chap was wearing a purple paisley shirt. Shoes could do with a good polish too. Still, it would do no harm to let him have the odd minor victory. Softly softly catchee monkey and all that. Yes, old Baden Powell knew a thing or two.
Mr Boyt packed his briefcase and took a final glance back at the study as he left. Entirely appropriate room, entirely appropriate. Could do with a bit of brightening up though, make it look just a touch more modern. He’d ask his wife if she had any of that cotton stuff left over from the bedroom. After all, it was 1968.