By Auriel Roe
A composite comic novel; thirteen interconnected stories that take place over forty years. Its setting is Blindefellows, a second rate public school in the West Country
It was midday on the 31st August, and the new History teacher had arrived at Blindefellows, former charity school for poor blind boys, now a second division private school for anyone who could pay. Twenty-six year old Charles Sedgewick gingerly carried one little cardboard box at a time into his assigned rooms in Loaghtan Wing, nervously avoiding the oddly prominent incisors of a flock of a few dozen miniature black sheep that jostled around him. They'd been there for generations, deployed by the school's founder to crop the grass of the grounds, and were now trotting alongside him, baaing for a possible treat. Sedgewick, who sported tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses and unkempt wavy black hair, had selected a casual outfit suitable for heavy lifting on his arrival - Bermuda shorts, buckled sandals and an orange tee shirt he’d grown out of which rode up as he carried the boxes, revealing the loose musculature of his midriff.
The Deputy Head, Reverend Beaulieu Hareton and William Japes, the Physics master, watched from one of the Neo-Gothic leaded-glass windows of the Oak Room as Sedgewick, assisted by a middle-aged couple, the female of whom kept referring to him as "Charl", omitting the es, ponderously unpacked a purple Austin Allegro Estate.
"Are those his parents he's brought with him? Are you sure about this one, Bunny?" Japes asked.
"Please, Japes, you know I don’t like being called that now that we’re grown ups," Bunny reminded him. "Yes, I believe those are his parents and yes, I am quite sure about Sedgewick. He lives and breathes History; it's his life."
"Mm, I can tell and that's precisely the problem," Japes sighed. "I'll go and see him tomorrow. Help him to get settled."
"Settled?" Bunny glanced at him, revealing a tinge of anxiety. There was nothing settled about Japes. With his receding sandy, brylcreamed hair, a mischievous twinkle in his hazel eyes, and an ironic smile ever playing about his lips, he had the look of a vampiric sprite. An ex-military man, he was always dapper with a silk handkerchief in the lapel pocket of his brass-buttoned blazers, which showed off his still powerful torso. Despite having now turned forty, his circle of lady friends was ever-growing and he displayed not the faintest flicker of ever getting settled himself.
Extract 2, in which Sedgewick is taken hostage...
And so, at 4 pm on the third day of the siege, with Bunny and Japes waiting in the yard below, Sedgewick tentatively made his way up the fire escape with a hefty basket of provisions in one hand and a white flag in the other. The boys watched his ascent from the windows and unbolted the fire exit door for him.
“Welcome, Mr. Sedgewick!” McDowell called out cheerily as two boys patted him down for weapons. Sedgewick smiled back awkwardly trying to get into the spirit of things.
“I come bearing gifts and the olive branch of peace,” Sedgewick recited his rehearsed opening line.
“Looks more like the white flag of surrender to me, Mr. Sedgewick,” McDowell quipped. Sedgewick had never seen him so bright and good humored.
The boys accepted the gifts, but Sedgewick could see they were hardly starving. They had a camping stove set up and a neat stack of the field rations from the vast backlog of these which had accumulated in Cadet Club hut over the years. It was clearly a very well-planned operation and Sedgewick found he couldn't help but be impressed. The Flock had also been properly catered for. There were a few large sacks of porridge oats, presumably purloined from the refectory stores and the little sheep seemed happy enough pottering around the library and occasionally nibbling the odd bit of leather binding off the antiquarian books Fairchild was carrying on about.
McDowell and Wood read the letter Bunny had prepared. After ten minutes of quiet discussion, they strode back over to Sedgewick. He thought they looked like commandos from some paramilitary guerilla force and he suddenly felt terribly important being the mediator.
“We are pleased with the progress thus far, Sir,” Wood said formally. “We have had confirmation from our contacts on the outside that the installation of central heating and improved hot water is genuine and not a ruse. For this, we are truly grateful and will release all the wethers in the Flock as a gesture of good will. We are also pleased to learn that fagging is being addressed.”
“So am I, Wood, so am I,” Sedgewick nodded, “though I doubt that after what you and McDowell have managed here that any of the current Sixth Formers would've been likely to try it on with either of you again.”
“Why thank you, Sir, always a pleasure to be complimented by a fair and reasonable adult such as yourself, ” McDowell chimed in. “However, the issue of improving school food is nowhere near being resolved so, in lieu of the wethers, we have decided to take you hostage until Reverend Hareton gets his skates on and sorts it out.”
“What?” Sedgewick said, suddenly frightened and glancing about for somewhere to run.
“No need to be concerned,” McDowell added, “you will be given adequate food and we have sanitation in the form of the staff toilet just off the librarian's office.”
“However, if you try to escape,” warned Wood, “we will secure you in the broom cupboard adjacent to that facility.”
“You are now free to wander the library with The Flock,” McDowell indicated. “Dinner will be at eighteen hundred hours.”
“Dinner?” Sedgewick looked at the hay and oats stationed on the bookcase above his allotted area with his fellow hostages.
“No, no, not that! You’re a VIP – a Very Important Prisoner – you get to eat what we eat, baked beans with mini sausages,” McDowell gestured towards the pile of cans, “with currant buns for dessert. Thank you for those, by the way, much appreciated.”
McDowell called down to Bunny and Japes to inform them of the new state of play.
“Something of an adventure for the Shropshire lad,” Japes chuckled.
“Would you find it so humorous, Japes, if it were you they had interned up there? And possibly for some time, too as I presently have no idea where can I get a decent chef capable of bringing round our refractory refectory for the salary we can afford to pay.”
Meanwhile, Sedgewick was noting that with the wethers released, The Flock had split into two distinct factions. A group of three young rams stood apart in the Theology section. They would, without any visible cause, suddenly stand on their hind legs and drift into a clacking of petite horns with each other, ten or so clacks at a time, until one of them caved in and went off for a lie down. The other faction consisted of the chief ram Vivian and the ewes, who resided in the History section. Sedgewick sat midway between the two groups, in one of the library's few commodious reading chairs, having selected from the valuable books the school's copy of the rare signed first edition of the Second Volume of Gibbon, the one dealing with the actual fall of Rome, to which Fairchild had hitherto refused him access. Ironically, in this position of rare privilege, he couldn't read as much as a paragraph with worrying whether he'd be holed up here for a week, or perish the thought, until the Christmas holidays, and the anxiety he’d be sure to cause his parents when their only child failed to turn up in Bridgnorth for Yuletide. The false optimism of ‘it’ll all be over by Christmas’ made him shudder. Vivian arose from History section and the ewes followed suit, taking a turn around the library, tailed by the young rams from Theology at an edgy distance.
The ten boys who comprised the Lambton Library siege force played cards, read the papers and periodically worked themselves up with they called their anthem, “Anarchy in the UK”, played far too loud. This they would accompany with a form of dancing with which Sedgewick was unfamiliar, in which they would bounce up and down as if on pogo-sticks and occasionally slam into one another. It brought back to him a memory he preferred to forget of his university girlfriend, Phoebe, whom he had taken for a person as respectable as himself, jumping about and throwing off her clothes to a song aptly named “Dazed and Confused” after she’d smoked a funny cigarette in the bathroom. He shook his head in dismay at the recollection. In the evening, after a plate of beans, the boys gave Sedgewick a suspicious smelling sleeping bag from the cadet store room and he did his best to settle down at lights out on the cracked leather seat cushions of the three reading chairs which he’d laid out in a row. Unfortunately they would slither apart on the polished oak floorboards each time he turned. Moonlight streamed in through the stained glass windows illuminating the young blind boys depicted there. What had become of this school over the course of the centuries? Sedgewick wondered. Once a kindly place, a refuge for the blind, now a hotbed of anarchy grown out of inadequate heating and sloppy meals. What would Hezekiah Lambton, that humble sheep-shearer turned philanthropic wool merchant have made of it all? Had he, Sedgewick, done the school a favour by helping the Major on his way and bringing in this new Age of Bunny? Guiltily, he rather thought he had. The school chapel bell struck two. Unlike the boys at the other end of the library, it just wasn't possible for him to sleep on the library floor, especially given the regular rising and falling buzz of Vivian's senescent ovine snoring. He'd tried to sleep on the chair but that also wasn't possible, as a rule. He longed for his own bed and fretted over the classes he wouldn't be able to teach the next day. They were up to the reign of the Boy King, Richard II, in Lower Fourth Medieval History and he feared that in his absence the Peasants' Revolt would be misconstrued and the boys would wind up misguidedly siding with the peasants. He wondered about tiptoeing over to the fire exit, ever so quietly unlatching the door and leaving whilst the youthful commandos slept. It took an hour or so before he was able to pluck up the courage to wriggle out of the rather neat sleeping bag, and start his tip-toeing progress across the library. Vivian's head shot up and the ram's marble eye gleamed at him, his teeth looking more like an angry leer than a smile in the moonlight. Sedgewick continued and just as he was about to unlatch the door, Vivian gave his game away with a hideous rumbling baa. Three boys were on him in no time, and he was tossed into the broom cupboard, the door locked behind him, where he sat miserably atop an upturned zinc mop bucket bemoaning his impetuous folly.
Extract 3, in which Sedgewick turns entrepreneur…
“Gentlemen, Matron Ridgeway let us make a start. The first item on the agenda is the future of The Flock, who have grazed the greensward of Blindefellows for almost four hundred years. True, they have their drawbacks, one of them being the expense of keeping them in the present lean times, but before we put them to the vote, one of our younger masters has had an idea as to how The Flock can potentially pay its own way and eventually even turn a small profit for their alma-mater.” Fairchild stiffened in his chair and his foetal features congealed into his favourite formation of disdainful disbelief. “So, without further ado, would you like to enter now, Mr. Sedgewick?”
Japes nudged Matron Ridgeway and all heads were turned to the door. After wrestling with the door knob for a few moments as he was now wearing latex gloves, Sedgewick made his grand entry. He was dressed in white overalls and apron, his hair was in a white mop cap and he wore a white surgical mask. The Oak Room erupted into raucous laughter. Fairchild, reassured that this was no more than a comic turn, joined in and became a more mellow shade of pink.
“How can Charles make a joke out of the slaughter of those sweet animals?” Matron Ridgeway snapped to Japes over the laughter, with which Japes himself was contributing to.
“Just wait, Marion, just wait,” was all Japes could manage to say.
Bunny, smiling, allowed them to be softened up for a few more seconds of fun before they got down to business. “Well, Mr. Sedgewick, what a surprise, come along and stand here between Swainson and myself at the head of the table.”
“So your solution is to butcher the lot of them and divvy them up as joints and chops, eh Mr. Sedgewick?” Rollo bawled out, “All you need's a carving knife to complete that get-up. I never thought you had it in you, old chap!”
Sedgewick took his place between Bunny and Swainson and removed his cap and mask; the laughter died down.
“Go ahead, Mr. Sedgewick,” Bunny patted him on the back and sat down with Swainson.
“Matron Ridgeway, Gentlemen, as Mr. Fairchild pointed out so persuasively last week, The Flock is a drain on expenses. Yet, I believe I have fathomed a way in which they can earn their keep and possibly even turn a profit. I am dressed like this today for a reason. I intend to sell to you the idea of the Blindefellows Creamery-”
“The what?” Fairchild shrieked, his mouth hanging open like a chicken with the gape.
“The Blindefellows Creamery will be a cottage industry stationed in an outbuilding in the grounds and will produce artisanal cheeses, such as those for which Britain was as famed as France before the War when Major Cowerd and Co. closed the small creameries down as part of the national rationing scheme, thereby paving the way for the monotony of Government Cheddar.”
“The man’s barking,” Fairchild yapped.
“Already there is a renascence of fine cheese-making underway in this country but goat and sheep cheese are yet to achieve their due recrudescence. Blindefellows and The Flock will be first to fill this profitable epicurean niche with our product, which will be sold both directly from reception at school as well as at delicatessens in Taunton and Exeter, from whom I have already ascertained firm expressions of interest.”
“Ha!” squawked Fairchild, triumphant, “The equipment needed for this 'udderly', if I make that pun, foolhardy enterprise will cost the school thousands!”
“Not so, Mr. Fairchild,” Bunny languidly rose… “The Percy family, of whose gift of their lawnmower you reminded us only last week, has agreed to kit out the entire creamery with equipment formerly used by their goats’ milk facility, which is now being enlarged and upgraded. Furthermore, in recognition of Blindefellows not inconsiderable efforts in getting Gawain and Geraint, not to mention Percy Percy through their A-Levels, they have generously agreed to provide workmen and materials to renovate the long-disused shearing shed and wool store. I'm pleased to say they've already been in there for two days, quite unnoticed by any of you gentlemen. May I thank you, Mr. Fairchild, for having mentioned them last week because it put me in mind of precisely whom I should call when Sedgewick came to me with this charming idea.”
Fairchild glowered. The other masters, however, seemed to be coming around to the idea, leaning forward and nodding to each other emphatically.
“Mr. Sedgewick, do you propose to make all this cheese alone?” Rollo snorted.
“My intention, Mr. Rollo,” Sedgewick replied, is that we model ourselves on Bedales School in Hampshire, who have their pupils engage in farming projects alongside their studies. Once I have mastered the techniques, I shall pass on my skills to an interested group of students. We can even have them design the packaging and such like.”
“Bravo, Mr. Sedgewick,” Japes shouted, leading a lively burst of applause.
“How are you going to learn to be a damned dairy maid, Sedgewick?” Fairchild sniped through the applause. He’d hated Sedgewick from the moment he’d first set eyes upon him, Sedgewick being the first non-Oxbridge faculty-member the school had hired since it had transformed itself from a humble charity school to a going concern for anyone who could pay in the mid-1800s.
“I am currently studying a selection of books on the subject from the Travistock library,” Sedgewick replied, feeling hot under the collar.
“Blast you, man, books can’t teach you how to milk a teat!” Fairchild reared up to his full height of five feet two inches and Sedgewick reddened.
“I’m sure we can find an experienced pair of hands to instruct Mr. Sedgewick in the art of milking, should the written word fail him,” Bunny interjected, inviting the shaken Sedgewick to take a seat. “So, Matron Ridgeway, gentlemen, we have a bold solution, which isn’t costing us a penny. Let’s give our woolly little friends a chance! If our enterprise fails, so be it, but for now let us put it to a vote.”
The yeas for the creamery drowned out the nays, and Matron Ridgeway thrust herself between Swainson and Sedgewick to give the latter a hug. “Charlie, you're a darling, as always. You can absolutely rely on my help in this”.