A Lenten Feast
A Lenten Feast (Working Title)
A cliche movie for the 1950’s…
It was open warfare amongst the Year 8 boys. Peter knew here had to be casualties. Most of Peter’s schoolmates had never heard of the Dieppe Raid. You do not celebrate the disasters, do you? Peter was one year old when his dad became a casualty. There were war movies aplenty, even on his grandfather’s new television. Peter knew the man had not been the movie star. He would have probably been an anonymous extra dying in the background. Something to prompt Dirk Bogarde to take out that pesky machine gun nest with a clever British trick. Perhaps Peter’s dad fell on a potato masher to save Anthony Quayle. Peter would have liked that.
Boys fought. Peter had seen photographs. In the end, the Germans had thrown blond-haired boys like Red Davy into the line in a desperate effort to stem the Allied tide. He thought about those young faces in their ill-fitting Wehrmacht feldgrau wool. The captured boys mostly looked bewildered. Some stared stoically into the camera. Peter liked to think he would have been counted in their number.
The older forms dismissed his war, even fraternizing with the older Day Pupils, so this was Peter’s war. Aelred Abbey was a civilized island surrounded by the savage world of David Jones. Peter and his friends did their best to defend it. David lead the village boys on raids deep into the night. What could the full boarders do? The masters kept a sharp eye on their charges. Night wandering got you the cane, or worse, the loss of privileges. It was so unfair. The Day Pupils ran wild in the night with their friends from the State School in the village. Father Edward cared less that the boys were defending his Abbey. He did not see the problem. So there were raids to beat back and fights on common. David and Peter knocked each other about like clockwork. What did it matter if it just led to another grim interview with Father Edward’s cane?
The feud culminated in a staff-wielding brawl over possession the school’s scraggly kitchen garden one foggy February morning after the half term. William Pettigrew dropped like a stone when a broom handle flayed his forehead open. Everyone scattered. Peter stared at David over the oozing red mask of William’s still face till someone came back with the Masters. David was sent away to join the rest of the Day Pupils waiting for him over the fence. In the House, the Year 8 boys argued over which delinquent Day Pupil struck the foul blow. David’s crew remembered it differently, settling the blame on the Black Princes’ obvious ineptitude with a staff. David squashed that nonsense smartly as soon as he heard it.
That afternoon, Father Edward, wrathfully threatened to expel the ringleaders. Peter took the news with a flinch that only David might have noticed. Peter would be cast back to the grudging embrace of the extended Collins family. He dreaded a future bunking with cousins, passed from family to family until another discrete private school accepted the family’s black sheep. He spared a glance at David who would soon have to answer to his father. It was onto the beach for both, through the razer wire and into the teeth of the German machine guns. The unfairness of it all, Peter thought bleakly.
David probably shared Peter’s turmoil at that point, then Father Aiden intervened. Father Aiden was a devious one. He parsed his boys better than an Oxford Don could explicate Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A Lenten penance, Peter thought, as he received the caning that always preceded his exit from the Head Master’s study.
Father Aiden wasted no time. He marched David and Peter over to the infirmary as the massed Year 8 boys lined the hallway still morbidly reflecting on the metronome of blows heard through the door. Peter shuffled uncomfortably over William Pettigrew’s broken body, as Father Aiden shamed him in a dry whisper. “Yes, you’re a lucky git.” His eyes bored into David, who had asked the question on both their minds. “William is to be fetched away to the hospital, though.” Father Aiden allowed the silence to spin out like a top until Peter wondered when everything would lose its balance. “Look at the sad pair of you.” Father Aiden pointed a steady finger at William. The ghost of Christmas future warning cowering Ebenezer Scrooge. The image popped into Peter’s head and he could not help but smile slightly. Father Aiden took that wrong. “This is on your heads.” Peter and David denied it in unison with just a vigorous shake of their heads. Father Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “Not the blow you nitwit vandals. The pair of you are too canny to lay a broom handle to some poor boy’s skull. You and your game.” The last was exasperation and a profound disappointment that touched Peter somewhere tender.
“As I said to the Head Master, its hard penance for both of you through Lent.” Father Aiden described their Lenten cloister and the strict rule to be laid on them both with the blessing of Peter’s outraged grandfather and David’s dismayed mother. Not expulsion, but suspension and a "Great Silence" would fall on them until after the Easter holidays. They must find a way to get along. Exiled from their friends, they would live and eat apart from the school, do hard labor during lessons and games, and take their tutoring over the evening assignment periods. Father Aiden conceded the boys might need to speak moderately about their chores. Useless and idle words, hard words between them were forbidden. They were doomed to silence.
David and Peter were led off into the abbey ruins to the abandoned walled garden. A two-story cottage not much more than a garden shed lay up against the weathered west wall. Its humble rooms were sandwiched between the vine covered garden wall and the ruins of a Victorian greenhouse. Peter thought it a desolate place.
Peter felt David’s eyes on him as Father Aiden elaborated on their sentence. Under the supervision of Morley Cavanaugh, the pensioned gardener, David and Peter would be expected to repair the tiny stone cottage, then clean the interior, before beginning their real penance.
Father Aiden took them through the greenhouse. He explained the boys would replace the school’s tiny kitchen garden with a working greenhouse by end of term. Peter pointed out that the Great Silence ended at Easter. Father Aiden replied that the boys had the following term and summer holiday, needs be.
It began by carting bedding and Peter’s school trunk out to cottage on a farm cart. When they returned, they found a duffle David’s mother must have left for him. That was week before Ash Wednesday, but the Great Silence had already fallen in the boy’s minds. Neither wanted to give the other the satisfaction of speaking first.
Lessons were over. It was free time and games about the school grounds. David would have been off to his family and whatever chores he had before a slog of homework. Instead, the pair of them trudged off to the kitchen for their first meal together. After that, David went off, wondering through the greenhouse, past the Games Keeper’s cottage where Morley lived with the handyman Arthur Spencer, and out into an abandoned coppiced wood beyond the cloister ruins. Peter tried dribbling a ball by himself and then settled into a book.
It rained the first night. The boys huddled on either side of the great room midst the detritus of decades of neglect trying to stay dry. David’s eyes glittered, staring at Peter over the shroud of his wool blanket. It seemed to signal their war still hot. David blamed him for their predicament. There were insults Peter hoarded like Mills bombs. Just let David open his mouth and Peter would start lobbing them at the Saxon. Only, Peter vowed he would not be the first to break their mutual silence. It was a long first night.
Morley appeared at six in the morning to roust the boys from their beds. He sent them to the school kitchen for an early breakfast and growled at them when they came back late. “There’s work to be done girls.” For two days they repaired the roof with heavy slate recovered from abandoned buildings around the Abbey. Peter’s heart raced each time he climbed the shaky ladder. Still, he would not give David the satisfaction of seeing his fear. When David stripped his heavy woolen sweater off, Peter followed suit. The February damp cut through his shirt like a knife. Morley had them repair the broken panes in windows. Each boy had to cut glass and putty their panes into the ancient frames. “Do it proper, that glass costs dear.” Morley advised. “You’ve a greenhouse to do next.”
A whole day was spent transferring a heavy wooden staircase from another building into the cottage so that they could reach the first floor. Morley seemed a decrepit wreck of a man to the young boys, yet he had found the energy to knock a staircase into bits and pieces. With a few short words, he had the boys pile two saw toothed lifts and a pile of oak treads onto a waiting cart.
David and Peter ignored each other as best they could, as they listened to the instructions from the gaffer. They were not working as a team. “Your way,” Peter blurted out in frustration. The boys were muscling the first of the scavenged strings up against the wall in the gap where the staircase ought to sit. David smiled slightly at this small victory. An angry blush burned across Peter’s face “Watch your hand.” Peter added helplessly. David pulled his fingers free with just a sharp pinch.
They were still for a moment, Peter’s eyes on David as the other boy surveyed the damage. “Thanks,” David replied shortly. It was his turn to blush. It was the work, Peter consoled himself. David sighed. David broke his silence again, “Right, now lift.” Morley grunted satisfaction as the slender boys propped the first heavy plank against the waiting beam. While David held the string steady, Peter tacked it down so it would not slip free while they dealt with the other. David stood thoughtfully. “Brilliant.” he offered softly. Peter had to shoot David a grateful smile. Their wickets were even at five words each.
It was not a proper cottage like Peter’s aunt Casandra’s near Slaidburn or the old men’s standing close by. Peter saw that the first time they stepped into it. Really, it was just a work shop snuggled between the long greenhouse and the high wall of the garden. Grandfather’s garage had a bigger loft than the one David and he had to dust and scrub at the insistence of their taciturn taskmaster.
David sacrificed two wickets to the man as they wearily dumped their muddy pails. Morley scrutinized their effort like a Sergeant Major on parade, no white gloves, just a soiled handkerchief. “Not done by half, start over.” Their shoulders drooped and Peter had to bite his lip. “Save the tears, lad, you and your mate still have the ground floor to do. While you fart away at this nonsense, the greenhouse is not getting done.” Not much sympathy from Morley, it seemed. Well, it was the fifth day they had skipped lessons along with games and free time. Father Aiden had not strolled by to ruin their evenings yet.
Peter found the humour in it, gave David a friendly little shove. “Bugger it,” he added as he stooped for the empty pale. After the boys refilled rusty water from the chipped sink. Morley followed them up to the loft carrying a stool. He watched the boys attack the floor from a corner near a window, delicately tapping the ash from his cigarette into the chill breeze.
“Ease off lads.” The scrubbing faltered. David and Peter rested on their haunches as Morley ponderously rose from his stool. He knelt beside David. “Give over,” he waved an open palm. David handed him the stiff brush. Morley started a lecture on the finer arts of being a scullery maid, scouring with the brush and pausing frequently to sop up a half century of muck with a thick rag. He talked out of the side of his mouth until he paused to hand the cigarette to David. The boys stretched the kinks out of their legs as they watched Morley work.
David eyed the smoldering fag then took a drag. Peter disliked smoking, but when David held it out he determined not to be bested. “Do you get it?” Morley asked sending David a calculating look. The smoldering cigarette hovered behind Peter’s back. David nodded earnestly, as he might when the Math Master explained the Pythagorean Theorem. “Right,” Morley grunted, returning to his cleaning apparently forgetting it was the boy’s job.
David’s fingers groped lightly along Peter’s wrist seeking out the cigarette. It slipped free from Peter’s pinch and back into David’s mouth. After a bit, Peter snagged it back. “Pail needs to be cleaned out regularly or your wasting time.” Morley looked up at David, then over to Peter. He noticed the stub of his Player dangling between Peter’s lips. Peter plucked it out and contritely offered it back to the man. “Cheeky buggers,” Morley grumbled. “Filthy habit, that.” The boys went back to work. Bright boys, they had been watching, and they started to make headway on with the unfinished boards. After the next trip for fresh water, Morley grunted his satisfaction and left them to their silent work.
Peter was proud of the small room. Huge islands of lath punctuated the undulating oceans of whitewashed plaster. A yard up the walls sturdy beams whisked free of dense cobwebs met somewhere in the lofty shadows. Newly placed casement windows welcomed in the evening twilight. It did not matter if his crystal breath rode a persistent draft up the stairs he and David had built together. Winter hardly touched Peter. “Move your arses and clear out the main floor. I’m off and you have another long day.” They thumped their cold charity mattresses up the stairs, Peter tugging and David scrabbling to lift clear of each tread. The lumpy things lay uncertainly flanking Peter’s small trunk and the laundry bag duffel holding all of David’s things. There was a stillness in the room, something needed to be said, but it never was.
The boys dragged their mattresses to opposite sides of the room. Peter undressed with his back to David. He slowly put his pajamas on before looking over his shoulder to where David’s domain began. David was huddled beneath his blanket watching. That made Peter sad. He slipped into his own bed and sat cross legged, blanket swept up to his chin. He fixed his eyes on a patch of lath along the wall beside David, his thoughts settled on the weeks that stretched ahead. He kept David in his compass, ice blue iris fixed on his face.
Peter was used to shifting roommates, cousins, mostly. The Jewish boys or dusky ones with rich fathers at the Public Schools. Bold stares were the pattern of his life. Aelred Abbey was a solitary win for Peter. It was the first school where his skills pushed him to a sort of happiness. He was provisionally acceptable in this isolated corner of Britain. Well, at least among the Year 8’s. Peter let his eyes shift to David, envying the Saxon boy’s ability to blend in. His eyes skittered back to the skeleton stripes of plaster flecked wood.
He had pushed too hard, Peter supposed. Now he was banished from acceptance to the margins of the school, with David of all people. After a moment, David turned his back on Peter, burying himself deeper under the covers. With a sigh, Peter reached for his torch and Prince Caspian. He settled on his stomach under the blanket to read. "High King Peter. The Magnificent. Susan Pevensie: [to Peter] You probably could have left off the last bit. Trumpkin: [chuckling] Probably." He read.