Christmas at Scarhelldeath Hall Part 1


Chapter 1

A tedious rain-saturated journey on the M1 – enlivened only by darling Eddie Elgar on the wireless. Oh, and being stopped three times for speeding by Plod – each of whom happily accepted a few crisp oncers in return for a blind eye. I finally arrived at the sleepy Scottish village of Killcarcass at which I had spent a vast chunk of my childhood. I dread to recall how many decades had passed since my last sojourn here. Even so it had changed little; a sprinkling of television aerials, and a Budgens being the major changes I noticed on first glance.

No, Killcarcass was the same typical Scottish village I remembered from my long-distant youth. Small stone cottages dwarfed by brooding mountains and a scowling grey sky. A small high street of the necessary shops; an off-licence, a MacHaggis takeaway, Kilts’R’Us, approximately seventeen pubs, and of course, no sign of a green-grocer. A string of tartan-coloured tinsel flapped in a criss-cross from street-lamp to street-lamp, while lights in the shape of whisky bottles dangled forlornly from telegraph poles as they waited for the interminable night to draw in.

As I drove up the high street, an old cove, his kilt billowing in the wind, doffed his tam-o-shanter and waved his cromach at me. I pulled over, wound down the window of the Rolls and asked him the directions to Scarhelldeath Hall. I was fairly sure I’d remember the route, but I wanted to be sure. He made some noises with his mouth which were of no use to man nor beast, but he gestured in what I had deduced was the correct direction., so I tossed him a half a crown for a tot, and drove away.

No sooner had I left the high street than memories flooded back and I found myself recalling the route one took when returning to school from a no doubt illicit trip to the village to stock up on sweets, the latest escapades of Tiger Tim, and, if one could bribe a local, a wee dram.

What had oft seemed a long trudge when a small lad was no distance at all when in a top-of-the-range Roller, and in no time I was pulling into the extensive driveway of my Alma Mater – Scarhelldeath Hall!

The school stared balefully at me as I neared it as if preparing to administer a damn good thrashing for some misdemeanour of which I was unaware. I shuddered involuntarily. I had loved my years at Scarhelldeath Hall, but fear, punishment, hunger, cold and death had been my 24 hour companions. Several of my fellow pupils had died during our schooldays, but no more than the national average for prep schools in those days.

I parked the car and approached the big wooden front door. Whilst a pupil, it was strictly forbidden for any boy to use the main entrance at pain of a very sore bottom indeed, not to mention the ensuing gangrene. It felt both wrong and victorious to take this route now.

Did I mention the weather was viciously cold and wet? Or does that go without saying? The sky was pendulous with clouds, with that curious yellow tinge that usually foresees snow.

I rang the doorbell, producing a sonorous chime, the same clang I recall raising futile hope in our young breasts? Perhaps the visitor was for us? A delivery of tuck from home, or a parent come to visit or even, oh fruitless optimism, to extract us and whisk us back to the bosom of the family?

I scanned the vicinity. The grounds were unchanged; ruthlessly neat, but joyless in the lack of aesthetic flora. I knelt down and examined the gravel of the drive. It used to contain tiny fragments of glass not only to discourage any bare-foot activity, but to make surreptitious escape impossible. The slightest unauthorised crunch and the headmaster, the Rev Jethro Maestri, a man who’d lost both arms in some Victorian skirmish or the other, would unleash the dogs of war – or at least two elderly Alsatians and his spinster sister, Prudence, who would chase after the fleeing youth and drag him back by their teeth. And, by God, that woman had strong teeth!

I was awoken from this nostalgic reverie by the sound of the door being slowly opened to a long-forgotten deafening creak. A small boy stood there in that familiar uniform, peering owlishly at me from behind what must surely have been unnecessarily strong spectacles. He was undoubtedly bullied mercilessly by his peers, I thought, or would’ve been if I’d had anything to do with it.

‘Hello, young feller-me-lad!’ I exclaimed. ‘Sir Desmond Stirling here, now run along and tell the Reverend Nodward-Holder I’m here.’ The boy gapped at me, foolishly. ‘Chop chop, lad, if you don’t want to feel the Head’s strap on your behind!’

The boy fled.

I stepped into the vestibule and breathed in the heady aroma of my childhood: cabbage, socks, dust, urine, tweed, sweat, stale blood, Dettol, chalk, feet, kippers, carbolic, and fear.

If only they could bottle it..

I gulped a hefty lungful and then…

‘Can I help you?’ boomed a Scottish voice.

A fierce-looking woman marched out of the gloomy corridor towards me, her fulsome eyebrows creased into a frown, her impossibly black hair scraped forcibly back into a bun, her lips set implacably into a declaration of war. I glanced at the uniform encasing her ample rugby-playing body.

‘Ah, Matron!’ I exclaimed, switching on the old Stirling charm which never fails to woo the lassies.

Except this one, it seemed.

‘May I ask who you are?’ she barked, hands on hips, her impressive biceps revealed through rolled-up sleeves. She had stopped right in front of me, like a tank ready to mow down a Bolshie dissident. She was at least an inch or two taller than yours truly, and that wasn’t entirely due to her brogues.

I quickly gave name, rank and number. ‘Is Noddy around?’ Her face darkened.

‘The Reverend Neville Nodward-Holder,’ I elucidated. ‘The Head, don’t you know. Old school chum. He invited me.’

‘I am Dorcas Nodward-Holder. The Reverend is my brother.’

‘I don’t recall Noddy ever mentioning a sister.’

‘And neither did my brother mention a guest.’ She spat out this last word the way a civilised person might say ‘socialist.’

‘I’m dishing out the prizes, apparently. Best essay, best…’ I floundered as I couldn’t for the life of me think for what else one gave the little buggers anything. Best crying? Best bed-wetter?

‘You’d best come in then.’ The charmless Matron narrowed her eyes and gestured for me to follow her.

‘So where’s Noddy then?’ I asked her not inconsiderable buttocks as I followed her up the stairs.

‘The Headmaster,’ she corrected me, ‘is taking a class. Geography.’

I let out a bark of laughter. ‘Geography? Old Noddy? Are you sure? He could never find his own arse without an A to Z.’

Matron’s behind quivered with disapproval, but she didn’t break stride.

After two flights of stairs, Matron let out a roar which, frankly, could’ve felled an antelope. ‘Giggle Minor!’

A short spherical boy rolled out of the shadows, looking terrified.

‘Why are you skulking?’ Matron growled.

‘Please Matron, I was on my back from the lavatory?’

She thrust out a gnarled and calloused fist. ‘Chit?’

He fumbled in his pockets and produced a crumpled piece of paper. Matron scanned it, cuffed him around the ear – I swear I could see the birds tweeting around his head – and said, ‘Go to this gentleman’s car, and bring his luggage to the Guest Suite.’

‘I say, Dorcas…’ I said.

‘Matron,’ she insisted.

‘Matron,’ I protested, ‘the nipper’s smaller than my suitcase.’

She ignored me and held out her hand for my car keys. Reluctantly, I handed them over. She hurled them at the boy and he scarpered sharpish. Couldn’t blame him, the old bat was beginning to terrify even doughty old Stirling!

‘He won’t drive off, will he?’ I asked her, only half-jokingly.

She flashed me a look of contempt, but as this seemed to be her usual expression, I didn’t take it personally. I wouldn’t fancy being dependent on her TLC if I was poorly.

‘He wouldn’t get far,’ she replied. ‘McPortillo the Groundsman is armed.’

Continued here….

To hear Sir Desmond at work go to http://www.whatnoise.co.uk

Read my memoirs THE DEVIL TALKS THE HINDMOST

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