hursday, March 7th, 1974 was an important day, a memorable day. It was the day Philip made his first foray into journalism, and it was the day Benjamin found God. Two events which were to have far-reaching consequences.
It was also the day on which Benjamin's worst nightmare seemed about to come true.
For many days now, Philip had been hard at work on an article which he hoped to see published in the school newspaper. The Bill Board appeared once a week, on Thursday mornings, and he was one of its most avid readers. The title betrayed its humble origins as a loose collection of typewritten essays and notices which used to be posted on a bulletin board in one of the upper corridors; but this had proved an inconvenient format, in most respects, and the previous year an enterprising young English master called Mr. Serkis had overseen its transition into print. The paper now extended to eight stapled sheets of A4, put together on Tuesdays by a cartel of sixth-formers in the glamorous secrecy of an office tucked away in the rafters above The Carlton Club. It was rare, very rare, for someone as young as Philip to have anything accepted by this uncompromising crew; but today, somehow, he had managed it.
Shortly before nine o'clock that morning he was to be found sitting in the school library, reading his article for the twelfth time through eyes misty with pride and excitement. The front page of the paper contained a long editorial penned by Burrell, of the upper-sixth, lamenting the indecisive outcome of last week's general election, and the reappointment of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. Philip couldn't possibly aspire to writing such a piece, at this stage; the front half of the paper would remain unreachable, beyond imagination. But at least his review came before the sports results, and Gilligan's cartoons. And how comfortably it nestled on the page, between Hilary Turner's magisterial discussion of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which had just opened at the Birmingham Rep, and a few lines of appreciationpenned by Mr. Fletcher himselfabout the poet Francis Piper, in advance of his keenly anticipated visit to King William's (a visit scheduled for that very morning, Philip almost-registered in his trancelike state). To see his own efforts slotted in between the work of these senior practitioners was more than he would have dared hope for.
And yet, thought Philip, reading his piece again for the thirteenth time, and now with something like objectivity, there was no doubt that he deserved it.
"Tales from Topographic Oceans" [he had written] is the fifth album from Yes, without doubt the most musically talented and advanced rock group in Britain today, if not the whole world. Without doubt it is their masterpiece.Flushed with self-congratulation at the ingenuity of those final lines, Philip was not aware of Benjamin's presence until he felt the tap on his shoulder. Even then, he failed to notice how distressed he was looking.
"Have you seen this?" he said, in a triumphant whisper. "They printed it. They actually printed it."
Then he realized, suddenly, that his friend's cheeks were pallid, his hands trembling, his eyes rheumy with tears.
"What's the matter?"
And when he learned the awful truth, it provoked a horrified intake of breath. It was far worse than he could have imagined.
Benjamin had forgotten his swimming trunks.
King William's had an outdoor swimming pool, tucked away behind the chapel, adjacent to the main rugby fields. It came into use halfway through the spring term, after which Benjamin's form would have two swimming periods a week, on Monday and Thursday mornings, directly after break. Benjamin dreaded these periods at the best of times. He was not a good swimmer, he did not like exposing his body to the other boys, and he disliked, intensely, Mr. Warren, the PE master, a laconic sadist popularly known as "Rosa" on account of his passing resemblance to the mannish villainess in From Russia with Love.
It was not just his penchant for driving the boys to the point of exhaustion that made Mr. Warren universally feared. Where his swimming periods were concerned, there was also one notorious rule, responsible over the years for any amount of humiliation and psychological damage. This rule was perfectly simple, and admitted of no exceptions: if a boy forgot to bring his swimming trunks, he had to swim in the nude.
It's true that there existed some schools, at this time (and perhaps still), where all boys were required to swim naked as a matter of course, either in the mistaken belief that it was character-building or simply in order to gratify the none-too private enthusiasms of the sports teacher. But that, in a way, would have been different. It might at least have created a kind of beleaguered camaraderie, a redeeming sense of everyone-in-the-same-boat. The awful thing about the King William's arrangement was its malign, inexorable divisiveness. Any unlucky pupil caught in this situation would not only have to run a gauntlet of sniggers and pointing fingers on the day itself, but from then onwards could look forward to weeks, terms, even years of relentlessly single-minded taunts about his deficiencies in the genital area, whether he had them or not. This was the sort of treatment more likely to destroy character than to build it, and there were one or two cases (shy, defensive Pettigrew of the fourth form; taciturn but sexually obsessed Walker of the remove) where this already seemed to have happened.
Of course, there were the occasional showmenfreaks and exhibitionists, for the most partwho could cope; who even revelled, out of some perverse bravado, in the attention they might generate. Chapman, for instance, had forgotten his trunks so often that most people were now convinced he did it on purpose. But it goes without saying that he was the proud owner of a quite colossal member, which on the many awestruck occasions it had been exposed to public view had been compared variously to a giant frankfurter, an overfed python, a length of lead piping, the trunk of a rogue elephant, a barrage balloon, an airport-sized Toblerone and a roll of wet wallpaper. And it was Chapman, in fact, who one memorable morning had brought embarrassment upon the school by combining two misdemeanours: forgetting his trunks, and talking during a swimming lesson. For a second offence the culprit was traditionally punished by being made to stand on the top diving board for five minutes; which Chapman duly did, only for Mr. Warren to realize, after a minute and a half, that the naked felon was clearly visible from the Bristol Road to anyone travelling on the top deck of a 61, 62 or 63 bus. The sight of that legendary instrument, glimpsed suddenly and without warning on a routine shopping trip to central Birmingham, must have impressed itself deeply on the passengers' consciousness. During the course of that day the Chief Master had received four complaints, and one request for Chapman's telephone number.
But Benjamin was no Chapman. For the whole of his school career he had been dreading that this might happen. That morning his father, summoned to deal with an ineffectual foreman at the Castle Bromwich plant, had offered to drop the children at school on his way. How eagerly, with what thoughtless delight had Benjamin leaped at the chance of a lift, an escape from the bus, an extra ten minutes in bed! But the treat had been his undoing. Somehow, through some catastrophic oversight, he had left his kit bag on the back seat of the car. He could see it now, picture it, lying redundant against the upholstery in some distant car park, unnoticed by his father; unreachable. The towel, the freshly laundered rugby shirt, the scuffed plimsolls, and the all-important swimming trunks: those few square inches of terylene which alone had the power to shield him from disaster. All gone. There was nothing that could save him now.
Chase was consoling, sympathetic, but there was little he could offer in the way of practical help. The obligations of even the closest friendship (and Benjamin could see this, had absolutely no illusions or expectations in this area) stopped well short of any kind of sacrifice: Chase would be swimming in the same period, and wearing his trunks throughout. A loan was out of the question. Had Benjamin asked around, to see if anybody had a spare pair? Apparently he had, and it had only made the situation worse. No one had been willing or able to help, and the only effect of asking had been to spread the news throughout the third form, so that now his entire class was anticipating the swimming lesson with an impish, neurotic hilarity, and could talk of nothing else. A few minutes earlier he had slouched shamefacedly into the form room, only to find Harding entertaining a circle of his usual admirers with a dramatization of the scene they could expect to witness in two hours' time.
"And now, emerging from the changing rooms," he was saying, in the kind of plummy whisper a BBC commentator might adopt for a wildlife documentary, "we see a magnificent specimen of manhood in all its glory. Naked as nature intended, the great-crested Trotter creeps out from his nest, blinking into the sunlight, a hand clasped, protectively, over the genitalia which no man, woman or child, is ever permitted to see; or indeed capable of seeing, without the use of a powerful electron microscope. Invisible to the human eye, in fact so small that a team of biologists, working around the clock, are still struggling to prove its existence, the Trotter penis cannot be measured on any scale so far"
Harding had broken off when he realized that Benjamin had entered the room, when he saw the wounded look, the wordless accusation of betrayal. The audience dispersed, but the only person to say anything to him was Anderton, who had been lurking at its fringes, half-listening. "Just leg it, mate," he advised. "Head off into town for the morning. Don't let the bastards grind you down." As for the others, their giggles and sidelong, ribald glances persisted, following Benjamin as he performed a brief, forlorn circuit of the room, before he regained the corridor in his search for Chase, and the sanctuary of unconditional friendship.
He had wanted simply to offload his panic, to unburden himself. He wasn't expecting salvation, or anything like that. But suddenly, as he sat beside his friend in the library, head in hands, contemplating the end of tolerable school life as he knew it, salvation was exactly what Chase appeared to find.
"Wait a minute," he whispered, snatching up the magazine. "There's no swimming today."
The clouds parted. A ray of fragile, impossible sunlight. "What?"
"There are no lessons this morning after break. They've been cancelled."
"Because this guy's coming to read to us. This old poet."
Chase handed Benjamin his copy of The Bill Board, already open at the page where his review squatted presumptuously alongside the rolling Johnsonian cadences of Mr. Fletcher's article. He pointed at the closing sentences. "There."
Benjamin craned forward, weak with hope. "Mr. Piper's reading will take place at approximately 11:45 in Big School, " he read. "Thursday morning's timetable will be amended accordingly. "
"There you go," said Chase, triumphant. "No swimming. You're saved."
Benjamin still had his doubts. It was too good to be true. "It doesn't actually say that," he pointed out. "It only says 11:45 approximately. "
"Well, swimming ends at ten to twelve. They're never going to cancel the whole period just so we can get there five minutes earlier."
"They'll have to. I'm sure that's what it means. Just you wait and see."
It was easily said, but less easily managed. Benjamin dragged his way through the next sixty minutes in an agony of unknowing. There was no school assembly on Thursdays, only form meetings, and no definite information was forthcoming there. Benjamin's form master, Mr. Swallow, was hazy about the revised arrangements: either the last three periods of the morning had been cancelled, or only the last two; he couldn't be sure, and didn't appear to consider it very important. Benjamin was left to drown in uncertainty, his innards churning with apprehension, light-headed, unable to concentrate even for a few seconds on Mr. Butterworth's account of the restoration of Charles II, which occupied the first forty minutes of the teaching day. Then, during the English lesson that followed, the issue was finally resolved. At the beginning of the lesson (devoted, inevitably, to the work of Francis Piper), Mr. Fletcher announced that the great poet's reading would now take place at twelve noon, and the third period of the day would proceed as usual. On hearing which, Benjamin froze in his chair, and then clutched his stomach, convinced for a moment that he was going to be violently sick. He looked across to where Chase was sitting, in the adjacent row, and caught his concerned eye, but was obliged to turn away at once, too ashamed to hold his gaze.
So it was real. It was happening. There was to be no reprieve. That fleeting possibility, which Benjamin had never really trusted anyway, had been snatched away as whimsically as it had been offered.
Dark terrors began to crowd Benjamin's brain, and at ten to eleven he could remember nothing of what had passed in Mr. Fletcher's lesson.
* * *
As it happened, he had missed a good one. Or at least, he had missed a confrontation between Fletcher and Harding which found them both on vintage form.
"Can I ask you a question, sir?" Harding had asked.
Mr. Fletcher, fresh from explaining Francis Piper's tangential association with the Bloomsbury group, and sketching out an analysis of The Unkindness of Birds, one of his most famous verse cycles, looked up warily. He could sniff trouble a mile off.
"Yes, Harding, what is it?"
"Well, there's something about these poems that puzzles me.
"It's just that... I mean, it's a little hard to understand, with all these allusions and metaphors you've been talking about but these are meant to be love poems, aren't they?"
"Of course they are. What about it?"
"Well, I only wondered, because nearly all the personal pronouns, and what have youthey all seem to be male."
Mr. Fletcher took off his glasses.
"Very observant of you, Harding. And so?"
"So this bloke Piper, sirI assume he must be a bit of an old shirt-lifter."
Mr. Fletcher rubbed his eyes tiredly. Was it really worth rising to the bait?
"His sexual orientation, Harding, is frankly neither here nor there."
"But I am right, aren't I?"
"In thinking that well, takes it up the Hershey Highway, as our American cousins say."
"The Hershey Highway?"
"Yes, sir. Bournville Boulevard, I suppose you'd call it round here."
This got a good laugh from the rest of the class. Mr. Fletcher, deadpan as ever, stared out of the window for a while, pensive, unflinching. His words, when they came, seemed heavier than ever with fatigue and indifference.
"Your basic problem, Harding, is that you have a grubby and ultimately rather banal little mind. I suggestin fact, why be coy about thisI insist that you report to me in this classroom at five minutes before twelve today and instead of attending Mr. Piper's reading you write an essay of not less than twelve sides entitled 'Why the artistic temperament has no gender.' And since this will be at least the fiftieth imposition I've set for you this year, I imagine that by the time you've finished it you will have enough for a book and I personally recommend that you send them all off to Faber and Faber with a covering letter and a self-addressed bloody envelope!" His voice, which had risen to a pitch of something like irritation, if not actual fury, subsided into its regular monotone. "All right, the rest of you. Gidney here is going to read from one of Mr. Piper's most affecting villanelles. Page seventy-five of the anthology, please: 'The sweat of the young working boy stiffens my resolve."'
Morning break was at ten to eleven, at which time most of the boys would sprint off to the tuck shop and stand in an unruly queue, scrambling for the processed meat pies and warm baps filled with sausages that passed for delicacies to this undiscriminating clientele. Normally, Benjamin would have joined them, but there could be no question of food today. This particular condemned man would not be eating a hearty breakfast prior to his hanging. Nor could he tolerate the company of his so-called friends, whose teasing and unconcealed anticipation grew more gleeful by the minute. He could think of nothing to do except crawl to a remote corner of the locker room, where he sank to the floor and assumed a foetal position, solitary, forsaken, pulling his knees tightly beneath his chin in fierce despair.
He was in the furthest corner of the locker room. There were three rows of empty lockers here (for there were more lockers than boys in the school), and it was rarely, if ever, visited. The silence was absolute. Benjamin settled in for a long dark fifteen minutes of the soul.
He thought about the advice Anderton had given him. Should he just make a run for it? It was a measure of his desperation that Benjamin even considered this prospect, since he was by nature almost pathologically conformist, and had never once, to his knowledge, broken any of the school rules. All the spirit of youthful rebellion which animates most boys at this age was channelled, in his case, into admiration for Harding and his devilish, anarchic humour. Benjamin would only ever be a dissident by proxy. Besides, there were serious obstacles to any plan of escape. If he were to head off along the school drive at this hour of the day, or across the playing fields, he would almost certainly be spotted by a master. The only realistic alternative was to find a quiet spot somewhere in the schoolone of the music practice rooms, for instanceand cower there for the duration. Or even wander into the library and pretend to have a free period; sit reading the newspapers, and brazen it out. That's what Harding himself would have done. Probably Anderton too, for that matter.
The simple fact was that he didn't have the courage. But what he decided to do insteador rather, found himself doingwas, in its way, even more radical. And certainly more surprising.
Afterwards, he would not remember getting to his knees, or starting to talk aloud like a mad person in the silence of that empty locker room. He would not remember how his first involuntary moans, his mechanical repetition of the phrase "Oh God, Oh God, Oh God," had somehow evolved, cohered, and begun to assume the character of a prayer. He had never spoken to God before. Never needed him, never looked for him, never believed in him. Now, it seemed, within the space of a few rapturous seconds, he had not only found him but was already trying to strike a bargain.
"Oh God, Oh God, send me some swimming trunks. Send me some swimming trunks in thy infinite wisdom. Whatever it takes, whatever you want from me, just send me some swimming trunks. Send them to me now. I'll do anything for you. Anything at all. I'll believe. I promise that I'll believe. I'll never stop believing in you, trusting in you, following you, doing whatever you want me to do. Anything. Anything in the world that's in my power to do. I don't care. I don't mind. Just please, please, please, in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Ghost, please, God, just grant me this one wish. Send me some swimming trunks. I beg of you. Please.
Benjamin's eyes were screwed tightly shut as he repeated the word.
And then there was silence.
And then there was a sound.
It was the sound of a locker door slamming open and shut in a breeze which Benjamin had not even noticed before. In fact, as he would discover during the swimming lesson, it was an absolutely windless day, so this could not have been an earthly breeze at all. It was the breath of God. The sound came from the next row of lockers, and when Benjamin stumbled to his feet and walked there with quaking, reverent footsteps, he knew what he was going to find. The door slammed open and shut again, and as Benjamin approached it, all points seemed to converge on this locker, as if he were seeing it through a distorting lens. It spoke to him. It beckoned him.
He opened the door and found what he knew was there. A pair of navy-blue swimming trunks. Damp, recently used, and many sizes too large. But they had a drawstring, so that didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing would matter from now on, ever again, for as long as Benjamin lived.
* * *
By everyday standards, it was an exceptionally disastrous swimming period. Benjamin was chosen to be part of a relay team captained by Culpepper, and was clearly the weakest link in the chain. By the time he had completed his two purple-faced, asphyxiated, floundering lengths of butterfly stroke, their lead had been all but erased, and they were later beaten at the post by the number two seeds, a more consistent line-up headed by the tenacious and ruthlessly competitive Fit Eddy. Benjamin's colleagues were furious. They piled scorn and abuse on him without mercy.
"You arsehole, Bent," Culpepper hissed, as they changed back into their uniforms. "You fucking useless pathetic little arsehole weakling tosser. You let us all down. Every one of us. We would have won if it wasn't for you. You wimpy sherring tosspot arsehole. "
But Benjamin simply smiled back, and that seemed to infuriate him even more. He wasn't even doing it to antagonize him, either. He was smiling because he loved everybody and everything, including Culpepper, and from now on nothing could shake his faith in humanity or the essential rightness of things. And the same smilebeatific, serenewas his only response when Chase grabbed him by the arm on their way to Big School and demanded, "What happened? Where did you get them?" Later on he would tell him, "They were a gift," but that was the closest he would ever come to explaining the mystery of those knee-length, ill-fitting, navy-blue swimming trunks. They entered, for a while, the arcane and changeful mythology of King William's School, and then were quietly forgotten. Other wonders took their place.
Benjamin listened with great attention to Francis Piper's reading. Not to his words, exactly, but to the pleasing tremolo of his seventy-year-old voice, a fragile woodwind playing melodies which sounded, to Benjamin's newly devotional ears, like the distant echoes of some psalm or hymnal. He gazed intently, too, at the old man's kindly, placable face, scored deeply with laughter-lines, and felt that he was seeing notas Mr. Fletcher might have hopeda little piece of twentieth-century literary history, but an emanation, a vision of perfect clarity that was for his eyes alone; something not unlike the face of God.
Dustclouds swirled in the beams of gold around Francis Piper's dove-white, angel-white hair, and it was all Benjamin could do to stop from laughing out loud. It was everywhere. Divine Grace was everywhere.
Excerpted from The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe. Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan Coe. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.