Calling all of you writers and readers out there.
My cousin has worked at a revered, very old and established college somewhere in the UK as a maintenance man for many years. I won’t mention which one in case you are sending your little angels there, suffice to say that it provides an excellent and very costly education for around 600 boys, largely on a boarding basis preparing their way to Oxbridge.
Over that time, my cousin has suffered, caused or been privy to numerous incidents, many of which he has developed into rather splendid anecdotes.
For all his skill with a chisel and monkey wrench, my cousin is no writer, and has asked me to write them up to make a book. I said yes.
He’s sent me 26 tales in all, from which I am selecting maybe 8 or 9, many of the others being too libellous or otherwise not suited to the page.
I aim to create some kind of narrative arc, to daisy-chain them from being what they are; a collection of single events from across 20+ years, to give them a flow. I am trying to this by keeping it to maybe 4 or 5 main characters that appear throughout, with a handful of smaller players that come and go.
This is where you come in.
Here in Chapter 1. It sets up the most important characters and, hopefully, retains the humour of the original event.
I’d be very grateful for any feedback, as if I’m taking a wrong turn I’m probably best knowing after Chapter 1 and not Chapter 10.
Chapter 1 – THE SHERATON
I can see the squiggle of veins on the Warden’s temples pulsing. as he points a shaking finger at me and shouts to the Headmaster that, ‘If you’re not going to sack this, this reprobate then by Jove, I will.’
‘Charming,’ I think.
The Head clasps his hands over his walnut desk. ‘Thank you for your impassioned view, Warden, but you will find that particular axe is one the weight of which only I am empowered to wield. His tone is soft and wispy enough to placate an itinerant swan. ‘Let us not be too hasty. Mr MacArney here has given a full account of the circumstances behind this most regrettable of incidents, and I ask that you give me time to consider its merits and demerits in order to best arrive at an outcome most fitting to the interests of the College.’
I resist the temptation to shout ‘hear hear!’ and sit back in my chair, stifling a smirk from the pair of them.
‘With all due respect,’ fumes the Warden. ‘This is not the first time Mr Mahoney has destroyed…’
‘It’s MacArney,’ I correct him. The Warden has been here a year and he still gets my bloody name wrong.
The sunlight coming through the office window lights the sheen of perspiration on the Warden’s brow as he turns and seethes at me. ‘I don’t care what your name is. Whether you call yourself Mr MacArney, Mr Mugabe or Mr flipping MacFisheries is of no relevance to me. To me, you have no name. What you are, sir, is a menace, a buckshee, a mark one incompetent and a slack-jawed bludger, and what’s more you’re not going to get away with it this time.’
I let his insults wash over me. I know the Head will bail me out. ‘Warden!’ says the Head, bailing me out. ‘I don’t need any more of this manner of input from you and demand that you refrain from further profanity. I’ve told you I will deliberate on this matter, and deliberate on this matter I will. Now, I suggest you return to your office and file the appropriate insurance claim if you haven’t already done so, then go commit some acts of wardening somewhere quiet until you have cooled sufficiently to speak less floridly to others. Mr MacArney, you remain seated. I want to speak to you after the Warden has expunged himself from my office.’
‘Humph.’ The Warden utters as he glares at me. He makes sure his chair legs grated across the wooden floor as he stood, before marching from the room.
‘So,’ says the Head, after the echo of the Warden’s heels storming down the corridor has faded. ‘Here we are again, Gareth.’ He reaches into a silver box and pulls out a cigarette. He does not offer me one. ‘Remind me, how long have you been at St Benedicts now?’
‘Let me think,’ I say. ‘Must be nearly 4 years.’
He picks up the onyx cigarette lighter. ‘And as chief of the maintenance team?’
‘Since you promoted me? Two years.’
‘Ah yes.’ He rises and walks his cigarette over to the large sash windows and looks out across the college grounds. ‘A decision rather foisted on me by your good self, I recall. Like so many others since. And in that short but not insignificant time, how many times could, or indeed should I have fired you and allowed the Warden his heart’s desire to stir your entrails with a stick?’
‘Oh, not many,’ I say. ‘Once or twice maybe.’
The Head closes his eyes and blows out a long lungful of smoke. ‘With our present Warden, maybe you are right. But including his predecessors, I have saved your soul five times, Gareth. Five times. A nap hand, as they say.’
I don’t argue with him. Maths is his subject, not mine. We sit in silence. After a little while he again breaks the deadlock. ‘You know, if a man had a shred of dignity in your situation, he would, of course, resign.’
‘Of course,’ I say.
‘But alas, I suspect you’re not in possession of even that most meagre of slithers and will deny our dear Warden that particular pleasure.’
‘Not while we have our little understanding, Headmaster.’
‘Ah yes, our understanding. That’s what you call it. I feel the term blackmail is far more delineative.’
‘On the contrary,’ I say, ‘I see myself more as your protector from great occupational harm and keeper of your family from shame and personal distress.’
To be fair, it could have been any of the Upper Sixth boys that the security camera had picked up selling spliffs to Fourth Formers behind the chapel that afternoon. But as soon as I saw that the dealer happened to be the Head Boy, who in turn happened to be the son of the Headmaster, who just happened to be my direct employer, it seemed to be an opportunity not so much for extortion as a way of enhancing my job security. After all, two years on from the Head announcing his own son as Head Boy, he knows that the Parents Committee are still smouldering with undercurrents of nepotism, and that they would only be too delighted to receive a copy of the incriminating video tape delivered from an anonymous source.
The Head sighs. ‘In that case Mr MacArney, we have nothing more to discuss. I can see the Warden stomping’ across the quad in the direction of the Battersby Wing, so you are probably safe from his immediate retribution. But a word of caution; it’s not always wise to make an enemy of a warden who’s an ex-military man and has the whiff of a court marshal up his nostrils. How artful it would be if our own piqued Warden should reacquaint himself with army issue Webley pistol – should he have such a souvenir, to exact his own brutish form of equilibrium on someone’s kneecaps.’ He turns and looks at me. ‘Good day to you.’
The Head grits his teeth as I too raked my chair legs as loudly as I could. He stubs out his cigarette. ‘You know it’s never too late to do the honest thing, Gareth. Think how much better you would sleep, knowing that I’d diffused the Wardens desire for you to come to great harm, by your simply placing a certain tape in the bottom drawer of my desk here this afternoon.’
‘No, you’re alright, thanks,’ I say. ‘Possession being nine tenths of the law and all that.’
I shut the door behind me and Brenda, the Head’s secretary looks up at me. I give her a wink and her look of concern becomes a smile and gestures to wipe her brow and gives me a little thumbs up. She’s a good sort, Brenda. It might cost me the odd doughnut to keep her sweet, but it’s always handy to have an ally close to high places.
Back in the fresh air, I certainly wasn’t going to risk going anywhere near where the Warden might be. I’d got through a few wardens in my time and they’d all been freshly dislocated from the military and as such had no grip on the job, themselves or their tempers. This one was no different. A wardenship at a private college is the elephant’s graveyard for the officer class, and as much as it may have been a hollow threat by the Head, once back in Civvy Street, there is no telling what diminished responsibility might do to the mind of an ex-Captain with an undischarged army-surplus grenade still lurking in his discharge bag. To be fair, it must be a huge comedown to go from sending men in against insurgents in Helmand’s Province, to life as a warden in a peaceful English Boarding school, responsible for nothing more than college property, from the buildings themselves to their fixtures and fittings within. No wonder they all have such anger issues. I can almost feel sorry for them, finding themselves as they do in a situation that requires little or no violence and discipline to be meted on others. Like the others before him, our current Warden takes his new role particularly seriously and nearly a year in, still thinks he can demand army standards from all around him: no slacking, stand at attention, boots polished as shiny as his own bald head. Like all wardens, he is a total pain in the arse. Like all wardens, I’ve got him in my back pocket – Not that this he doesn’t have cause for discontent with me.
The incident that brought this latest call to the Head for my head, was like so many of my previous imbroglios with the college, born out of potential brilliance. Another one of the College’s potentates, the Bursar, had been on one of his fund-raising drives. You’ve got to admire the Bursar. No matter that there are seven hundred boys at St Benedicts, each with parents and guardians wealthy enough to value their twelve to eighteen year-old darling boy’s educations at over £13 grand per term, not to mention the rents and sale proceeds from the wide range of properties bequeathed to the college by deceased alumni, the Bursar is always scraping around for ways to make ends meet. But then he and all of the board of governors live in college-provided accommodation, all furnished to the highest quality. I should know, because as St Ben’s carpenter/joiner/builder I work on them all, and can vouch that no expense is spared when it comes to their upkeep. What’s more, all of the top-quality materials and high-end appliances delivered to the Bursar and governors’ private residences away from St Bens are ordered in the College’s name. I know this because it’s me that is sent out to them in college time to fit their solid oak kitchens and lay their Indian sandstone patios. This forms the unwritten basis of another of my ‘little understandings’. In exchange for envelopes containing several £50 notes placed in my van when I do their private work, I understand not to question why I am installing college-bought Smeg ovens and bespoke cabinets in their private homes.
By comparison, the Head and the Warden’s staff quarters are pretty shabby, the only ones on the campus not regaled with the latest Holland & Sherry wallpapers and fitted with under-floor heating. I’m sure they would be more than interested to see a fully itemised list of college expenses should anyone feel the need to bring the true accounts to their attention. All I would have to do is to make hint of making this information available to have the Bursar and whole board of governors come running to give me their utmost support. I must be the least sackable man in the UK, let alone in this college.
A few days after I had installed a hot tub in the Bursar’s private home, he came to my workshop. I can tell the current state of the College’s accounts just by way he knocks. This time it was a perky rat-tat-tat, which suggested he’d dreamt up a new scam for replenishing the coffers.
‘The joys of autumn to you, my ol’ Tucker,’ he said, as he strode in with a jaunty skip and slapped me on the back, nearly causing me to mis-chisel the chair leg I was working on. I’ve no idea who ‘ol’ Tucker’ is, but he’s another sure indicator of finances being presently on the rosy side. Contrast this to other days, when his door knocking is reduced to maybe two dour thuds and ‘ol’ Tucker’ never gets a mention, then it’s fair to assume he’s facing another credit crunch.
‘Great news, Gareth,’ he enthused. ‘All is well in the world. I’ve only gone and had the fellows from the auction house round to value that lumpen old furniture on the second floor of Gainsborough.’
‘Oh yes?’ I said. That room is perfect for a ciggy when I work in the pupil’s rooms at the Gainsborough Boarding House because I know no one goes up there. I could picture all the dark wooden chests and cabinets. They must have been up there for decades, probably gifted by some generous ex-student or benefactor. They’re each full of dusty old rocks, almost certainly the product of some imperialist Victorian geologist’s life’s work. I imagine they were removed from countries across the then Third World and carried all the way to an awaiting sail ship with the harsh toil and minimal reward by the same natives forced to dig them out in the first place. The hard-earned stones would probably have been highly prized in their day and essential study items for subsequent generations of geology students. But no one looks at them anymore. I’ll get rid of them as hardcore for the new conservatory I’ve been told to build for one of the governors.
The Bursar showed me a copy of the auctioneer’s report. It specified sixteen pieces in all, each described as things like 19th century sea chests, display cabinets and Wellington-type chests of drawers. It read like the script for the Antiques Roadshow, many having ‘remarkable marquetry’, or ‘outstanding turned columns’. The estimates showed each item to be expected to make circa £2-£4,000, with a ‘George III breakfront bookcase’ coming in at £6,000.
‘Isn’t it exciting,’ said the Bursar, rubbing his hands before snatching it back and gregariously re-reading the figures.
‘Yeah,’ I said, totting up over £50 grand’s worth in my mind and wondering what proportion would end up actually being spent on legitimate College-related purposes.
‘The auctioneers are sending their lorry on Thursday, so I need you to get them all down to the ground floor by 10 o’clock.’
‘OK,’ I said, not enchanted by the thought of lugging the great things down flights of stairs, knowing there was no one else to do it but me and my so-called helpers, Sonic and White-sliced.
Come first thing Thursday, the boys and I met outside Gainsborough. At least we had a dry day for it so could park the furniture outside of the building until the lorry arrived. We had a smoke to build up our strength, but had to stamp them out when the Warden came marching across the square towards us with a clipboard in his hand. Our hearts sank to think that he might be sticking his nose in.
‘The Bursar has provided me a copy of the listings,’ he said, ‘and as I am responsible for the items while they are on college premises, I will count them on to the lorry when it comes. Now chaps, I don’t need to tell you how valuable these pieces are, so I want you to take extreme care. No. no, maximum extreme care. I don’t want to see so much as a single speck of dust on one, let alone a scratch. I’ll be back in about an hour to count them safely aboard,’ and with that he strode away as purposefully as he’d arrived.
We had another light-up, and went in to move the first chest. Twenty minutes later, we were standing back outside, panting and desperate for another fag. We’d finally got the thing down, but it weighed a ton – even with all the rocks removed. I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. There was no chance of us manhandling the other fifteen lumps down the two flights of stairs. My back gave a sharp spasm as if to tell me there was no way this was happening. Then White-sliced – so called because he never uses his loaf, actually came up with an idea.
‘You know those spare mattresses in the supply room. If we scattered a few of them out here, we could drop the cabinets out the window, then come down and only have to move them a few feet.’
‘Brilliant!’ said Sonic.
I wasn’t so sure, but then my back twanged again and I knew it had to be worth a go.
We lined up a platform three mattresses deep on the grass, before Sonic and White-sliced went back upstairs and opened the big double windows on the second floor. For our practise drop, we’d chosen an old desk which was not on the auction list and quite frankly, looked as though it may have been thrown from windows many times in its torrid life. I stood by the mattresses and looked up at the boys. ‘Carefully lift the desk to the edge of the window,’ I said. They shuffled it gently towards its centre of gravity while I poised myself, ready to pounce on the fallen desk to stop it bouncing off the mattresses.
‘OK,’ I instructed and the thing tipped and began to fall. ‘Shi…’ I said, but before I’d finished the oath, the thing landed on the mattresses and I dropped myself on it to tamper it down.
I heard footsteps running downstairs and the boys came out to see what carnage had been caused, but there was none. The desk sat safely on the ground, free of any trauma from its experience. I was impressed, and after a celebratory ciggy, the boys carried it back upstairs and prepared to drop the first cabinet.
‘One…two…three… now,’ I called and the six-draw cabinet plummeted down to the mattresses. I leapt across and smothered all recoil movement. The result was the same, another perfectly delivered lump of mahogany.
Again and again the process worked, and we were all smiles and joking about White-sliced patenting his idea and licensing it to independent colleges across the country. We did so well that the lorry still hadn’t arrived and we only had the George III breakfront bookcase to go. ‘Take the glass doors off it first’, I called up. ‘We don’t want them to get damaged.’
An anxious voice came from behind me. ‘Damaged? What’s damaged?’ It was the Warden who’d snuck up to check on progress.
‘Don’t panic – Nothing’s damaged,’ I said. ‘It’s all going to plan.’
‘Hmm,’ he said, and closely inspected each of the pieces that we’d carefully positioned on protective blankets on the concrete area in front of the Boarding House.
‘Good work,’ said the Warden grudgingly, more in relief than congratulation.
Meanwhile, up above, the boys had carefully removed the glass front and were preparing to wiggle the mahogany monstrosity out to the drop zone.
‘You ready, Gaffer?’ Sonic called from above.
The Warden looked up, saw the teetering monstrosity and I thought he was going to jump out of his skin. ‘GOOD GOD MAN – STOP!’ he shouted. ‘WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?’
‘Don’t worry, Warden,’ I chuckled, hoping to ease his clear concern over our method. ‘I know our method looks a little eccentric, but we’ve got all fifteen down in this way. It’s fool proof.’
White-sliced and Sonic kept shuffling the great mahogany antique.
‘NO, NO, NO.’ shouted the Warden. ‘THAT’S A SHERATON. I COMMAND YOU TO STOP.’
White-sliced did what he was told and stopped. Sonic did not. Thus, the great bookcase swivelled, wobbled a couple of times, then overcame its pivot.
It could only have taken a few seconds, but its fall seemed to take hours. I imagine that most of the damage was done when it struck the first-floor windowsill on its way down. Certainly, this was a significant impact, shattering off two of its corners. The blow slowed the giant objects fall, but not significantly, and caused it to twist in the air and adopt a trajectory not conducive with a cushioned bounce on the mattresses. The Warden and I just had time to jump for cover as the bookcase continued its earthbound journey, its other so far undamaged end smashing square on top of a couple of the standing cabinets, obliterating them entirely. The remains of the stricken carcass stuck grotesquely into the air for a second or two before gravity took over and it toppled over, landing horizontally across the top of most of the other pieces of furniture. The sound that echoed around the quadrangle was truly horrible, like a V1 rocket coming down in the Forest of Dene.
The Warden was speechless, staring at the woody carnage as the auctioneer’s lorry pulled up. The driver climbed down and looked at his collection note as the Warden still struggled to convert what his eyes had witnessed into an outburst from his mouth, while the veins in his temples looked like they might burst. The driver scratched his head. ‘Nah, I can’t take these’, he said. ‘It says ‘in mint condition’ on here.’
‘Hey, look,’ called Sonic, from the window cheerfully. We all looked up. ‘The glass doors are fine,’ and he held them up for all to admire.
‘MA-MA-MA- MAHONEY! The Warden finally managed to spit out.
‘It’s MacArney.’ I said.
There was a crash of glass. We looked up.
‘Sorry,’ said Sonic. ‘I dropped one’.
I turned to the Warden and sighed. ‘You coming with me then?’ and we started the walk to the Headmaster’s office.
If you made it to the end, then well-done and thank you. I planned to reward you with a picture treat. I thought how tricky it might be to sketch heavy mahogany furniture being thrown from a second floor window might be. I gave it two goes just to prove the point!