There was no debating the absolute fact of my abandonment. I hated her for it. At least I wasn’t going to have to see her till Christmas now. I could just imagine her, gloating to the relatives over Christmas Lunch, of the exclusive Edinburgh school I went too. The wheels of the train grumbled into motion, taking me away to my future. She did not wave or dab a handkerchief at a wet eye, like the other mothers on the platform.
Hungry already, I ripped open the brown paper package, eager for the thick white bread filled with butter and jam. I Stuffed both sandwiches in my mouth and panicked that I would not be able to swallow the mass of bread. I might die before I even reached school. That would teach her to send me away. Would the older boy in the carriage save me? He did not even look up from his Boys Own to acknowledge my existence. The lump descended uncomfortably to my belly.
Walking in through the iron gates of George Heriots Hospital School, the first thing I learned, was that there weren’t any doctors at all, only one fat nurse who checks us for lice. The second thing I learnt was ‘don’t ask stupid questions’. I trailed at the back of our boys’ brigade, now referred to as Greyfriars House. There was a group of boisterous lads who all knew each other from their prep school. Their leader was Stuart McGregor, who had a smirk that left me unsure if we would be fast friends or I’d be groomed for his next prank.
Our housemaster, Mr Weir, led us past the granite Heriot’s Memorial and said a speech about The Great War. I scanned the list of dead men, excited to see if any had the same name as me? Lots of Thomas’s but not a single Boyd. This was now the third disappointment of the morning. McGregor poked me.
‘Don’t get on the right side of Tobacco David.’
‘Weir? And don’t you mean wrong side?’
‘No. I mean what I say Boyd, as soon as I found out I was in Greyfriars House, my brother set to informing me all about Tobacco David. Him and Headmaster Mann have a Favourite’s List.'
‘Why is he called Tobacco David?’
‘Because he sends his Favourite’s out to the village for tobacco and they deliver it to his rooms.’
‘Shut up you will get us in trouble.'
The first night, I was not sure if I was awake or asleep. I thought I heard thunder and had a feeling of being pulled down, through the mattress, through the concrete, under the cellars of the school, suffocating in the mud. All the while, Mr Weir’s grey eyes stared, his hot breath stinking of tobacco. Before long, it was daylight.
‘No bedwetters. A successful first night Mr Weir’ said nurse 'off you go for your bacon, boys.'
I wondered if the bacon and the sausage had both come from the same pig? Also, if anyone had ever eaten an entire pig for breakfast? I convinced myself, at the earliest opportunity, I would run away to London, find fame and fortune, by being the first boy to eat an entire pig.
‘Boyd’ Mr Weir whispered in my ear, ‘eat up, Headmaster wants to see you,' I gulped down my food.
‘Remember what I said,’ smirked McGregor.
The sound of McGregor and his flunkies faded, as I was marched down the maze of shiny corianders.
‘No matter what Boyd, keep your chin up. There will be no tears, do you hear me, this will be the making of you, young man’.
Mr Weir stood by the door of Mr Mann’s library, blocking my escape to London. Perhaps Mother knew all along what an evil place this was?
‘Thomas, I’m afraid I have some incredibly sad news for you, I received this telegram notifying me of your father’s death. There was a storm in Argyll, the boat was wrecked.’ He passed me the piece of paper to prove it was not a prank. ‘Mr Weir will take you back to the station, but you will be back with us soon. I have written to your Mother to assure her that you will be added to our list.’ I remained silent. ‘The Foundationer’s List, are the scholarships given to boys whose fathers’ have died, there are many others like you, mostly from The War, it means your family will not have to worry about fees. Your father was an Old Boy, we look after our own here. Do you have anything to say Boyd?’
Even in my young mind, I understood the gravitas of the moment.
‘Will I be back for supper?’
Copyright © Sarah Armstrong as ‘Dita Kelly’ 2021