Christmas at Scarhelldeath Hall Part 2


Chapter 2

The Guest Suite was a bare room with a solitary bed, a candle, a chest of drawers on which stood a jug of ice-crusted water, and, opposite the bed, a portrait of the late Reverend Jethro Maestri in his usual yellow-eyed fury. A more suggestible chap than I would have sworn the eyes glared at me with unusual vivacity, but I put that down to the candlelight and incipient hypothermia.

I unpacked my slight luggage – travel light, I learned that in the SAS – and decided I needed to thrust Thomas at the Twyfords. I rummaged under the bed and found an antique Edgar Allan.

I must have dozed as off as I was woken by a knock on the door. I found myself in pitch black so dusk at the very least had fallen. I groped my way in the dark – my owl-esque vision honed by many nocturnal missions during the War, but schtum! – and opened the door. A small boy stood outside, blue of knee, clutching a candle which guttered in his shivering hands. He looked familiar.

‘Sir Desmond?’ he quavered. ‘I am Nodward-Holder Minor, I have come to take you down to dinner.’

‘Give me a moment to refresh myself, lad,’ I told him. ‘Been snoozing.’ Before I abluted, I handed him my awash Edgar Allan. ‘Empty that, there’s a good chap.’

I hurriedly splashed cold water on my face, combed my still magnificently-full head of hair, and checked my nose hairs. There would be minimal female presence so I didn’t waste any of my precious Limited Edition Brut Classic by Faberge.

I followed the boy downstairs. ‘Nodward-Holder, eh? Any relation?’

‘The Headmaster is my father,’ he told me.

‘Old Noddy’s sprog, eh?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘That must be the purple pim. Ribbings from the other boys, I expect, eh?

‘Yes, Sir, but I have just been appointed Bully, Sir.’

I looked the little squirt up and down. Not promising bully material, I thought. One puff of breath and he’d flap away into the horizon. Unless he is the brain and has a certain amount of back-up muscle of dopier boys? Perhaps he just cheats and uses his Pater’s clout to endorse his threats which, frankly, wasn’t on in my book.

The stairway was very dark, lit only by young Noddy Minor’s candle.

‘Someone needs a shilling for the meter?’ I jested.

‘Electricity is restricted, order of Matron.’

‘Good Old Auntie Dorcas, eh’

He didn’t reply.

Even in the gloom (not helped by the impenetrable condensation from my breath fogging my vision), I could see that Scarhelldeath Hall had barely changed since my day. The same splintered and creaking wooden flooring, and I doubted that a single lick of paint had graced a single surface in the previous century. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the dust was still the same. I recognised all the paintings too, mostly various ancestors of the Maestri family. I wondered if Jethro had been the last of his line. I didn’t recall a wife. Indeed, we boys often pondered if his arms were the only appendages shot off in the war.

There was a half-hearted attempt at festive décor – the odd tattered string of tinsel, sprigs of half-dead holly, even faded paper chains hanging limply from the ceiling – but these emphasised the gloom rather than dispersing it.

I peered through the door into the Dining Hall. It hadn’t changed much either. Still lit by candles, albeit hanging from several cobweb-coated chandeliers dangling high and precariously above the tables, connected tenuously   to the ceiling by somewhat antique and rusty chains. I lost count of how many boys were injured in my day having to clamber up ropes to light them all.

The same aroma of burnt cabbage filled the air, and the draught was sharp enough to slice lemons. Which reminded me – I had been hoping for a warming G&T before convening for dinner. Drinking in front of the boys would not be the done thing. When I was a lad, being caught boozing by Masters was most unwise – they’d pilfer your grog for a start.

A large Christmas tree stood in the corner, lit by a small handful of candles, its branches drooping sadly in the draught, a dead-eye angel slumped atop, the bough entering her skirt and exiting through her neck, much like one of the victims of Vlad the Impaler.

Boys were already sitting at the lines of table, silent and still. None of the exciting whispering and fidgeting which usually took place when I was here. I also couldn’t help noticing how many empty places there were at the tables.

Nodward-Holder Minor tugged at my sleeve and whispered in my ear. ‘Wait here and Father will introduce you.’ With that, he slid away into the Dining Hall.

A few minutes later I heard the noise of chairs being scarped back. I glanced though the crack of the door and could see that all the boys were now standing. I presumed that the staff were arriving at Head Table.

I strained my ears to hear. There was the muffled & echoing sound of a voice, but I could barely make out what was being said. My hearing is absolutely 20/20 so Noddy should have learned how to project, what with being a head beak and all.

Suddenly, I heard the word ‘Stirling’ followed by a weak round of applause. I took this as my cue and I marched in. I walked up to Head Table acknowledging the applause which was perhaps not as enthusiastic as I am used to, but after all they were small boys with small hands.

Noddy stood in front of Head Table, holding out his hand, seeming genuinely pleased to see me. In fact, I could swear I spotted gratitude and relief in his eyes. He hadn’t changed much in the intervening decades, still being thin, bespectacled, balding, but with what remained of his hair scraped over his pate like liquorice over a boiled egg. He still affected enormous sideburns, carefully primped out like bushy mudflaps. I had forgotten that these had first manifested in our schooldays, teased out from the earliest traces of his incipient bumfluff. It only occurred to me at that moment that his young lad was so closely resembled his father when we were at school together. It then flitted across my brain: wasn’t Noddy a bit long in the tooth to have sprogged such a young offspring? The old goat!

Matron Dorcas had her usual ‘Sea Elephant with a Prolapse’ expression clamped to her face, but I had already decided I was going to pay her as little attention as was humanly possible.

I glanced at the sprinkling of teachers who comprised the rest of the Head Table. The usual reprobates, failures, ex-jailbirds and pederasts who taught at this level of Prep School. An exceedingly elderly master dozed, his mortar board slumped across half his face as he dribbled onto his gown. Proud Old Boy I may be, but I was under no illusion at Scarhelldeath Hall’s status in the educational firmament. Not even Royalty sent their more idiot offspring here.

Noddy called for silence which frankly had already fallen.

‘Boys!’ he said (squeaked, if I was going to be harshly critical). ‘We have a very special treat for you. As you know, tomorrow is Prize-Giving day!’ Noddy paused for some sort of response. There was none. Well, except for what sounded like a gentle fart, but that may have been from the snoozing old master.

‘And to hand out the prizes we have a very special guest. An Old Scarhelldeathian who attended this very school many, many years ago…’

One too many ‘manies,’ I thought.

‘…and has gone on to be the most acclaimed British novelist of his generation.’

I should be, but I’m not. Even after darling Dickie Francis popped his clogs I still wasn’t.

‘I wonder how many of you have read his books?’ continued Noddy. More silence. Under the bedclothes, maybe, I thought, but they are hardly likely to admit to that in front of their teachers!

‘So a big Scarhelldeathian round of applause for the esteemed author and war hero, Sir Desmond Stirling!’

I acknowledged the boys’ clapping while noticing that the Matron didn’t join in.

‘Thank you, Boys’ I said. ‘It is a great honour to be asked back by here by my old schoolchum Reverend Nodward-Holder to hand out your presumably much-deserved prizes tomorrow. Remember, it’s not the taking part that counts, it’s the winning. There’s no shame in not winning, just humiliation and regret. Both of which will hopefully fuel your drive to succeed at all costs in later life.’

I noticed Noddy subtly gesture to his watch, so I wound up the proceedings.

‘I won’t keep you now as I’m sure it is past your bedtime and you have books to read under the bedclothes…’ I gave a theatrical wink, ‘But be prepared for a hefty dose of the Old Stirling wisdom tomorrow at the Ceremony.’

More applause, but still not enough. I made a mental note to have a word with Noddy about teaching the boys the necessary clapping levels.

Noddy was about to dismiss the boys, when Matron coughed very pointedly. Noddy’s face fell. ‘Matron?’ he asked, nervously.

Matron mouthed something at him.

Noddy gulped. ‘Oh yes,’ he muttered. Come on, Noddy, man up, I mentally willed him.

‘Ahem,’ he actually said. ‘It’s been brought to my notice that boys have been attempting to perform exorcisms.’

My ears pricked up at this. Not even my form did that and we were rather feral, hence the high mortality rate.

‘And I believe the ringleader is…’ he paused, ‘ so I gather… erm… Bollywood Major.’

There was a stir amongst the boys and they all turned to stare at the named culprit. The aforementioned Bollywood Major tried to shrink into his chair.

‘Approach to the Head Table, Bollywood Major,’ Noddy instructed him, unhappily.’

The boy, a small Indian cove who didn’t seem old enough to be off the titty yet, scrambled off his chair and, knees quaking, tentatively made his way to the Head Table. He stood in front of Noddy, staring up at him, saucer-eyed, his mouth twitching. Even as the staunchest supporter of corporal punishment, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the little lad. However I didn’t imagine that Noddy was a fraction of the brute that the Reverend Maestri had been, so I suspected that Bollywood Major’s behind wasn’t in too much danger of GBH.

‘Now, ah, Bollywood Major,’ continued Noddy, ‘You know very well that exorcisms, indeed any form of occult rituals, are strictly forbidden under school rules.’

‘But, Sir,’ whispered Bollywood Major, ‘The Ghost…’

Now this was jolly interesting. We never had the supernatural during my time here. Hardship, hunger and violent death, but ghosts..? No such luck.

Noddy actually showed a bit of fire. ‘There are no ghosts at Scarhelldeath Hall!’ he declaimed. ‘Now, Bollywood Major, how shall you be punished, eh?’

Matron instantly produced a cane, a vicious-looking instrument of torment. And so was the cane! Guffaw!

Bollywood Major looked as though he were about to faint. So did Noddy.

‘Ah, the cane,’ said Noddy, feebly. ‘Hmm, I’m not sure if that’s absolutely…’

Matron swished the cane viciously through the air, causing Noddy’s Combover to ripple in the air currents. She then forcibly thrust it into Noddy’s hand.

‘Yes, well, erm, very well…’ said Noddy, sadly. ‘Bollywood Major, bend over the table.’

Bollywood Major, green about the gills, tried to do as instructed, but was too short to do so without the aid of at the very least a step-ladder.

Noddy, looking equally queasy, tried to swish the cane too, but failed to make the air crack in the required fashion. I was a bit out of practice, but I contemplated offering to do the job myself.

Matron huffed. I half expected her to retrieve the cane and beat the poor little blighter herself.

Noddy took a deep breath, raised his arm high into the air…

… and all the candles in the Dining hall were snuffed out by a terrific wind. Some of the boys screamed. The elderly teacher jerked awake with a surprised snort.

‘Silence!’ roared Matron. Noddy lower the cane and said, rather feebly, ‘Now, boys it’s just a draught. Knockout Minor, relight the candles.’

But before anyone could budge, the door to the Dining Hall crashed open, and there stood the most bizarre figure. It was a teacher, in full gown and mortar board, a kilt and sporran adorning his lower half, empty left sleeve pinned to his jacket, a cane held aloft. But in the darkness caused by the snuffed candles, this unexpected apparition was glowing!

The Hall fell silent. All stared open-mouthed at this uncanny spectacle. I snatched a quick look around. Noddy seemed aghast; the teachers even more gormless than usual; only Matron’s face was implacable.

The door slammed shut. A couple of the older boys raced to escape the Dining Hall, but they were unable to open the door, although whether because they were panicking or if it was jammed I couldn’t tell.

The luminous spectre was halfway up the aisle by now. Its macabre face was a grimace, eyes burning as it stared fixedly at Noddy. It slashed the air with its cane. I could’ve sworn sparks flew off the cudgel with each swish.

‘Nodworth-Holder Major,’ the spectre cackled. ‘Prepare to meet thy doom, boy!’

‘Oh Lor’ wheezed Noddy.

The shimmering banshee bared its yellow gnarled teeth ‘Your dismal behind will be like haggis after I’ve finished with it.’

And then I recognised the figure. ‘Noddy!’ I called out. ‘It’s old Maestri!’

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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