Two pale bruised peaches. The schoolboy’s exposed buttocks lunged towards the teacher from the inside page of the Daily Mail, the morning of the 21st of July 1987. The article “Caning Head is Cleared of Assaulting Boy” he’d deftly tucked inside the Times Educational Supplement. He sat inside a bulbous maroon leather chair in the corner of the stately staff room. The 13 year-old, underwear yanked down, pullover hitched up, frowned like a scalded puppy. George Lovell, 46 year old physics teacher and House Master of Fox School was enrapt, and angry. He was beguiled by the tender face and spirited expression, the unusually ample proportions. But the article of how the Barnet grammar school pupil was beaten for poor exam results incensed him. Despite evidence from a police doctor and the family GP, the headmaster responsible was cleared of Actual Bodily Harm in court. The fact that anyone could commit this violence to such a vulnerable and indeed beautiful creature made his blood boil. He looked over his paper warily at his colleagues, like suspects in a whodunit mystery scene. They milled around, and looked out the window at the drizzle driving up from the bay. Brigadier Watts leaned on the mahogany hearth disassembling a fountain pen like a Browning pistol. One-eyed Watts liked to boast of his slipper technique. Innocent at least was Miss Faroe the English teacher – her coffee cup danced on its saucer.Present was the worst. A woman, and not even a teacher. She caught his eye from the other corner of the room. His heart palpitated. Miss Zyta Sobol, the 34 year old Polish nurse and housekeeper was shameless. Toast in hand, she beamed at George with a an insane mask-like smile.
The weak bell clattered away incessantly . The teachers proceeded like sleepwalkers towards their classes. Sobol hoisted herself up and walked up to him. She smiled and leant her intimidating face and form over George, as if to plant a kiss. He recoiled. She whispered to him with Marmite breath.
“Maybe you like take paper away with you for …. study, Mr Lovie”
George made a wish that she would drop dead that very moment.
“Well… actually… well that is exactly what I will do Miss Sobol”, said George, defiantly, despite himself, his face turning crimson red.
Sobol emitted a ferocious roar of a laugh, turning all the heads still in the room.
“Look who going to need slipper now naughty man!” she possessively tweaked his jacket ballpoint pen, and left the room. As the bustle in the corridor outside slowly abated, George plotted.
Mr George Clarence Lovell was called “Lovie” by the boys. Fox, a minor public school near Ulverston in Cumbria had been his home for over 18 years. He was the Principal of the science department and a House Master. A very private person, his past was shrouded in mystery. Son of a sailor, his Maltese mother died of TB when he was young. Women and girls in general would never match the esteem he held for his mother. He had decided long ago he would have as little as possible to do with the female sex. Not unromantic, he immersed himself in ancient Greek literature where relations between men from were noble, and superlative. He’d once loved a Polish émigré Antoni, but was jilted. He had subsequently vowed his sexuality would remain non-physical. A polymath, he found sublimation pursuing diverse interests such as algal aquaculture, church architecture, and the Formby Asparagus. Between April and June he would pursue this rare dish cultivated solely on the dunes near his birthplace.
Zyta Zofia Sobol was, as far as Lovell was concerned, only allegedly a qualified nurse. Discrete correspondence with Warszawa had failed to confirm she had ever completed training. She was born in rural Olszytn in Poland. She had a towering stature, was 16 stone in weight, and bleached blonde hair. She came to reside at Fox School two years previously, quickly adding to her portfolio the role of Senior Housekeeper, after a sudden never explained resignation. She took her leave on outings with a partner of sorts called Sam, a Brylcreemed turf accountant from Morecambe. On losing a wager she would prowl the upper landing with a slipper in one hand, menacing the boys. The imminent retirement of the Headmaster she viewed as an opportunity. As a Headmaster’s wife she’d have the run of the luxuriously appointed Lavender Hall. Zyta quietly schemed to secure George Lovell as her husband and the next Head, busy insidiously spreading mild uneasiness in the staff about George’s sexuality. Marrying her would serve to quash her rumours. She would catch him in quiet corners, squeeze his arm, and tell him all she wanted was to see his tenure at his beloved school assured.
Early the next morning George stood outside the shower block checking in boys returning from the daily run. He searched the green and grey of the moor for late returners. He didn’t dare to admit it, but he was in his element… The refreshing keen sea wind met a miasma of sweat, and boot leather smells forming little eddies around him. Inside the room Carter was being called a “Gaylord” apparently because of the designer underwear his father had bought for him in New York. He might have tried to intervene, but he was distracted. The twin boulders of the The Pulpit rock formation in the distance became the bold prominences of the boy in the newspaper. Last night his room in the Porters Lodge he’d heard it. The booming shouts, a long pregnant silence, a series of unmistakable popping sounds. George steeled himself. He needed to find that boy that from last night. He wanted to talk to him. Tell him he would be the last. His body was God’s gift and not to be tarnished. He was going to make it better. She was going to be stopped.
Losing his balance in the dark, George fell backwards. His hands flew back against the refectory back wall. He’d dislodged a rubbish bag above him which split open over his neck. Rancid juices tricked down his tweed jacket. ‘This is war’, he said to himself. He probed the school waste pile with a slide rule. Not a single newspaper. It dawned on him that Sobol must have taken all the reports of the caning controversy. Exhausted, he slumped down into the damp mess. He took in the silence of the black of night. He thought of the theologian Thomas Fuller George: “The darkest hour is just before the dawn”.
It didn’t take long perched on a sideboard in the senior common room at supper for George to get a name. Master Tindall was a bit of a hero. At 10 o’clock George pursued the boy in the East Attic rooms on tiptoes. Victor Ludorum of the summer games, Martin Tindall was an athletic boy with dark hair, eyes and eyelashes. George found him lying on his bed reading an enormous paperback entitled The Law of Tort. Biscuit in his mouth, he fiddled with a transistor radio with one hand, boosting the volume of ‘It’s a Sin’ by the Pet Shop Boys. He turned his head to face the teacher. The boy’s muscular arms and legs looked ready to burst out of his pale blue pyjamas. A secret bead of sweat developed at the nape of the teacher’s neck. Lying prone and looking back over his shoulder, Tindall matched the pose in the Mail article. But the face now was a Mona Lisa with a winsome enigmatic smile. Momentarily unsteady, George clutched a bookshelf. The boy pulled himself up, dragged a pile of books off the bed alongside and motioned for George to sit. He said his roommate was downstairs watching a movie on the VHS, Top Gun, which didn’t interest him.The boy who was happy to talk about the slipper-fixated Sobol. It had been the 6th time. He wasn’t especially traumatised like some younger boys had been. He earned her contempt with his refusal to kowtow to her, finding her a tyrant and a hypocrite. An aspiring lawyer, he had challenged the ethics of corporal punishment with her, which landed him much of exactly that, on the slightest pretext. Once pitying the boy, now he could feel only admiration. He became a confidant, a comrade in the war against cruelty and vulgarity. He was but a boy, but it was as if he had come to rescue George from his humiliation. A young Athenian hero in tight cerulean cotton.
Another day, another class run at dawn. Martin bounded up the path, glistening in sweat. He slowed to give Lovell a discreet ‘high-five’ on his way into the showers. There was a plan. On the pretext of research for a school project, the budding law expert would be conveyed with the rest of his class to the Helperby Library. Martin would gather what reports he could on the legality of corporal punishment.
That afternoon, the boy triumphantly presented George with the prize – a roll of photocopies. It was Section 47 of the Education (No.2) Act 1986. In effect from June, corporal punishment was banned in state schools, and, relevant to Fox School, in schools ‘assisted by a local education authority.’ Now Sobol needed to be caught at it.
It was very late the following night. The floorboards betrayed Sobol ‘s entry onto the landing. Lovell pressed the button on the science department VCR, closed the infirmary glass case, and retreated to the flag cupboard in the corridor. Out of the dark silence came a shout.
“Anyone want explain noise!?….”
Sobol had dispensed with even the slimmest pretext. Sam had failed to telephone her. She was looking for Tindall. He did not disappoint. Stepping out into the corridor, Martin stood to attention before the irritable nurse.
“My mistake Miss Wobbl…, sorry Miss Sobol” The landing erupted in muffled coughs and titters.
“But I’m top of the class Miss.”
“You not learn….. We see!”
Lovell peeked out at the boy being dragged by the lapels into the infirmary. Martin glanced across in Lovell’s direction. The frosted glass door slammed.
This was enough for the teacher, in battle mode, he crept up stealthily to the door, looking at the shadows in the glow.
In slow dramatic rhythm, his knock rattled the glass. Four times.
“Can I have a moment Miss Sobol?”… I think there’s something you need to see…”
She poked her head out of the room and examined the document in the light from behind her. An age passed… Lovell read out key clauses, slowly, as for a child.
She glanced at back into the infirmary. “You….. GET OUT!”
Sobol swung the door all the way open, to be sure George got a good view of Martin on the examination couch. The boy gave him a bashful smile as he wriggled back up his tight blue bottoms. George saw the apple fresh skin was unblemished. Sweeping past the huffing & puffing Sobol, Martin gently hugged George’s shoulder.
“Love you Mr Lovell!”.
Sobol was incandescent. She saw the machine in the cabinet, and wrestled out the tape.
‘So YOU now make recording of boy undressed in the infirmary!”
“What have you done Mr Lovell?”
“What will people think?” Her nostrils flared. She stuffed the tape into her dress.
“You very sick man Lovell”
She reached at him with a perverse caressing gesture… “I only try help you”
George stood back, looked at her, and breathed contentedly. The battle had been won. The war however had only just begun.