ESU Roly Sussex Short Story Competition 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the behaviour of adolescent boys and dogs is affected by the weather. Just as blustery winds and the full moon will turn an affectionate poodle into a howling banshee, a hot summer night at the end of term will transform a dormitory of cowed and obedient boarders into a baying wolf pack. On such a night it is advisable to turn down the lamps, lock the windows, and ignore the insistent scratching at the door. It is a pity the Bishop did not heed this advice.

Saint Cuthbert’s Anglican Hostel in K city housed sixty boys from the surrounding countryside, the sons of smallholders, shopkeepers, feed merchants and war widows. We boarded during term and attended the public high school.

In my memory, the Warden was one of the hollow men from “The Wasteland”, with a stringy moustache and corduroy trousers, who nibbled Sao biscuits and avoided looking you in the eye. No-one seemed to know his real name or how he came to be in charge of us. He sometimes disappeared for days at a time and was returned late at night in the Bishop’s Morris Minor. Stevo, in his fifth year at St Cuthbert’s, said Warden would rather walk five miles in the rain than accept a lift in a Japanese car.

Matron was the other adult in loco parentis. As far as anyone knew, she had no nursing qualifications, but she dressed in a blue uniform with a white collar and cuffs and wore a watch pinned to her mountainous bosom. Her pharmacy was limited to Friars Balsam for any respiratory conditions from sore throat to asthma; kerosene in a bathing cap for nits; and a big jar of black ointment for cuts, stings, boils and eczema. She was less concerned with our health than our wickedness and she kept a record in the Warden’s Day Book: Trespassing, Answering Back, Slouching, Hair (long), Language, Manners. Bed wetters were assigned to wringer duty in the laundry. Picky eaters would spend the free hour after dinner sorting the slops for the pig swill. Blasphemers and masturbators copied out the relevant verses from the Book of Leviticus.

Saint Cuthbert’s Hostel was managed by the Parish Council and, as Chairman, the Bishop assumed responsibility for our spiritual welfare. He was spectacularly spherical—his purple clerical shirt was always escaping from a waistband equal in inches to his height.  The Bishop joined us for dinner once a month, for which we were grateful, because it meant meat and two veg, instead of the usual stodge. We didn’t think it abnormal that he often appeared at ‘starkers hour’, when boys were either undressing for bed or lining up for the weekly hot shower. He subdued any signs of homo-erotic horseplay with a flick of a rolled, wet towel to the steaming rumps of naked tearaways.

Bert Fowles arrived at Saint Cuthbert’s half way through first term. Matron told us in confidence that his father had just died and we should “Go easy on the poor boy.”

Try saying that to a dingo pack when you’re holding a rabbit.

Any boy named Fowles is going to be nicknamed “Chooky” and be greeted by the sound of clucking. Bert had other imperfections that marked him out for attention: a polio limp that disqualified him from sports (“Long John Silver”), Coke-bottle glasses for myopia (“Goggle Eyes”), and acne, which he tried to cover up with pink zinc cream (“Max”—as in Factor).

But facile taunts bounced off him like arrows off a turtle’s shell because Bert had mastered the art of the bald-faced lie. He confided in Matron that he suffered from Von Willebrand disease, like the Russian royal family, and might bleed to death from the smallest cut. He convinced the Bishop that his Christian name was not Herbert, but Cuthbert, “Same as our patron saint, Your Holiness.”

His father, a soldier-settler farmer, had walked outside one night and put his army .303 rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe. His mum was left with Bert and five sisters, the youngest still in nappies, the eldest aged 16 and up the duff, and a farm that couldn’t even grow weeds. When the Parish Council offered Bert a place at Saint Cuthbert’s, his mother said, “One less mouth to feed.”

Or was this another one of Bert’s stories?

Our dormitory was originally an army barracks and had been jacked up onto wheels after the war and towed 100 miles to K city. It was a meat fridge in winter and a bread oven in summer. It was home to 18 of us: eight beds down each side of the room and two at the end. Our personal domain comprised an iron-framed bed, a wooden locker and three feet of hanging space in the wardrobe. Each morning we stood to attention at the foot of our beds while Matron inspected us and handed out demerit points for untidy hospital corners, dust balls under the mattress and illegal items in lockers.

Bert was allocated the bed next to mine, so we were united by proximity.

Our dormitory prefect was Stafford Slipper, a rugby forward whose neck was wider than his head (Bert had it on authority that Staff had been dropped on his head at birth).  Stafford never tired of warning us that his surname referred to the slipper he would apply to the backside of any boy who brought demerits to “his” dormitory. The slipper in question was a canvas tennis shoe with a rubber sole, sliced across with a razor blade so that each thwack pinched as well as stung.

In the days before social media, let alone television, our world-view was formed by the gossip that did the rounds after lights-out. The nocturnal telegraph in our dormitory hummed with wild speculation about girls and sex, theories about pig hunting and ‘roo spotlighting, the ghastly diseases that lurked on toilet seats, and rumours about where the Warden disappeared to and what he got up to. Bert could tell a ghost story that had the junior boys squeaking in terror, he was a cruel and accurate mimic of teachers and prefects, and he had an inexhaustible fund of bawdy jokes.

But our nightly scuttlebutt was not without danger. Talking after lights-out was an offence punishable by a week of “mop dancing” in the dining room if Matron caught you, or “emu parade” in the yard if it was the Warden. Punishments were recorded in the Warden’s Day Book and included in the end of term report to parents. But the prefects conducted their own informal discipline regime: if Stafford was the one lurking outside the window listening for a breach of the rules, it would be trial by torchlight followed by a swift slippering.

Why did we put up with it? Why didn’t we rebel, or complain to our parents about the lack of privacy, the finger-numbing cold and oppressive heat of the dormitories, the bullying prefects, the inept adults, the inedible food?

Because we knew our parents had experienced much worse.

How could we bellyache to men who had spent the war swaying in hammocks in the bowels of battleships, or scratching tropical ulcers under dripping canvas in muddy jungles, or dropping with exhaustion and malaria on the Kokoda trail? How could we protest about unfair prefects to men who’d been subjected to the mind-numbing stupidity of military discipline?

Or, to mothers whose husbands had returned damaged, or not at all?

Bert never complained, and he was the Scarlet Pimpernel when it came to dodging punishment. He could always prove he had been somewhere else when the stink bomb was thrown, or that his withered leg would have made it impossible to damage the light fitting (now dangling by a live wire), or that he had never owned the purple biro that wrote the offending verses in the toilet stall. On the occasions he could not wriggle out, Bert might persuade Stafford that he was on his way to run an urgent errand for Matron, or repair a puncture on Warden’s bicycle, or wash the Bishop’s Morris Minor. Acts such as these attracted merit points and surely cancelled out the crime.

At weekends, any boys who could, escaped the tedium of hostel life through team sports. Being dragged through the mud in a rugby scrum was preferable to the boredom of the dormitory or the “little jobs for idle hands” that Matron devised. Bert’s myopia and lopsided gait excluded him from ball games, so when the Bishop announced Confirmation classes, he persuaded me to join—as much for the free tea and biscuits in a warm room as for my hatred of rugby in the rain. The classes were taught by Calvin the Curate, a pale young man not much older than us. The syllabus covered the sacraments, the catechism and how to live a clean, Christian life. Colonel Liversidge, a one-legged ex-army chaplain drilled us on the begats in Genesis, and the Nicene Creed. The octogenarian Miss Guilfoyle read us Bible stories, but Bert could always persuade her to lay aside the good book and relate hair-raising tales of her youth as a missionary in New Guinea.

When we heard that the Bishop was recruiting altar boys Bert and I were first to volunteer. Altar boys didn’t have to dress in school uniform on Sundays and march behind the Warden and Matron to the cathedral and back; they could ride their bikes, dress up in scarlet and lace cassocks and play supporting roles in the great theatrical performance known as Holy Communion. Our duties comprised leading the procession into church, placing the week’s sermon text in the pulpit, counting the congregation and assisting the Bishop to kneel and stand—a delicate manoeuvre, given his girth and heavy, gold-stitched robes.  The Bishop was short-sighted and wore glasses to read the sermon, so he relied on us to estimate the amount of bread and wine he needed to bless for Communion. Once consecrated, any surplus wafers and McWilliam’s Muscat (now miraculously transformed into flesh and blood) could not be thrown out—they must be consumed by the priest himself, or shared with the other actors in the liturgical drama. Bert calculated that if our count was only 5% over, the Bishop would polish off the leftovers himself, but if we bumped the estimate up by 10%, he would have to invite us to help him out. On those Sundays, Bert and I cycled home tipsy.

Our charmed lives as altar boys came to an end when Bert’s exuberance got us into trouble. The Bishop, having discovered that Bert had mastered the Qwerty keyboard, asked him to type up some of the handwritten sermons in the filing cabinet. Bert was a fast, but careless typist and he sometimes missed a page or got them in the wrong order. No-one was counting when the Bishop’s sermon listed twelve Commandments, but when he merged the Garden of Eden with Sodom and Gomorrah, Miss Guilfoyle was so shocked she refused to accept communion. Colonel Liversidge huffed that the sermon was more appropriate for an address to troops about to go on leave in Cairo.

The Bishop regretfully informed us that in future, Calvin would be handling the altar boys’ duties.


The last night of term was oppressively hot, and a blustery wind was exciting the neighbourhood dogs. Our parents were due the next day to take us home for Christmas. The Bishop was hosting a Yuletide sherry with Matron, Warden and the Parish Council. The scuttlebutt express was getting underway when the door burst open and the light snapped on. It was Stafford, red-faced and angry.

“Chooky you little bastard. I’m going to kill you!”

“What’s he done now?” yawned Stevo, who often stood up for us younger kids.

“He’s bloody well poisoned me, that’s what. If I die, he’s coming with me.” And Stafford pulled back Bert’s blankets and hauled him out of bed. “Show me them pills again, you ugly little cripple.”

“Calm down Staff,” said Stevo, “What’s the problem?”

“I’ve been glued to the dunny for the last hour shitting my guts out, and my piss has turned blue. I reckon my kidneys are fucked.”

It was a convoluted story, made difficult to follow because Stafford was acting apoplectic. It seems the rugby coach told Stafford he was getting too fat and, unless he lost a few stone by the end of the term, he’d be relegated to the reserves. Bert heard Stafford asking Matron about weight-loss pills and offered to sell him some of his sister’s. He swore she’d lost three stone in a week. Stafford took three pills that night, with the aforesaid consequences.

“Show us the packet Chook,” demanded Stevo.

Bert dug around in his locker and held up a yellow tube of Ford Pills.

“These are shit pills,” read Stevo.

“My sister’s boyfriend’s a jockey,” said Bert with a straight face, “He uses them to lose weight before a race.”

Stafford seized Bert’s pyjama shirt, “It doesn’t say anything about pissing blue though.”

“OK Staff, show us,” demanded Stevo, and led the way to the toilet block.

Which is how 18 boys happened to be crowded around the urinal, pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of Stafford’s miraculous turquoise pee. Which is why Matron, Warden, the Bishop and Miss Guilfoyle abandoned their sherries and trooped down to the toilet block to see what was causing the disturbance.

“Who’s responsible for this riot?” shouted Matron.

Stafford pushed Bert forward. “Chooky Fowles tried to poison me.”

“Why did you do that Cuthbert?” asked the Warden.

“Revenge,” Stafford spluttered, “Because I gave him a detention…” then he bolted for the nearest toilet stall.

“What’s that in your hand?” demanded Matron and prised the tube from Bert’s fingers. She read the label, “How many did you give him?” She banged on the door of the Stafford’s toilet stall, “It says here you shouldn’t take more than one!”

The Bishop (or the sherry) had had enough. He pointed at Bert and thundered, “Cuthbert Fowles, if that is your real name, you’ve exhausted my patience. I’ve offered you trust and given you every consideration on account of your poor mother, but you have betrayed the hand that feeds you once too often. It’s time you glimpsed the wrath of the Lord.”

He took Bert by the ear and led us back to the dormitory. We stood to attention at the foot of our beds. Stafford (looking green about the gills) was dispatched to bring the Warden’s cane.

“Six of the best,” pronounced the Bishop.

“Pyjama pants down and bend over please boy,” instructed Warden.

“No,” replied Bert.

Shocked silence.

“How dare you refuse the Warden’s instruction!” fumed Matron.

Bert looked the Warden in the eye, “It’s against the law.”

The Bishop’s pointed finger was like God’s, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, “What would you know about the law, you filthy little blasphemer?”

“My uncle’s a solicitor,” Bert lied. “The United Nations has passed a law that corporeal (sic.) punishment must not be given on the bum. Only on the hand.”

The Bishop snatched the cane from the Warden and brought it down with a crack on the iron bedstead, “Six of the best I promised and six of the best you’ll get, Cuthbert Fowles! Hold out your hand.”

Matron whispered to the Bishop, “Your Eminence, should you be both judge and executioner?”

The Bishop shoved the cane back into the Warden’s hand, “All right Gordon, you do it. I’ll settle for Pontius Pilot.”

Bert’s hand was steady. The Warden’s was shaking and he was sweating. He took a two-fisted grip on the cane and raised it above his head like a samurai sword. He closed his eyes.

“What are you waiting for, you weakling?” Matron snapped.

With a strangled shout of “Banzai!”, the Warden brought the cane down across Bert’s outstretched fingers…

No-one had noticed that when the Bishop struck the iron bed frame, the business end of the bamboo cane had split in two, creating an edge as sharp as a knife. Blood spurted from Bert’s hand, down his pyjamas, over his bed and across the Warden’s face. The Warden dropped the cane and collapsed to his knees, moaning and shaking uncontrollably. Matron turned her back in disgust.

“Help him up!” The Bishop shouted to the closest boys. But we were all staring aghast at Bert’s white face and the severed little finger, curled like a grub on the floor.

An ambulance took Bert to hospital. The parents took their sons home and wrote angry letters to the Parish Council. The Warden was dismissed. Saint Cuthbert’s Hostel was closed. The Bishop was encouraged to retire.


Ten years later, I passed through K city on the way to my first teaching appointment. I unwrapped my sandwiches on the park bench beside the cathedral where Bert and I used to lean our bikes. In the cemetery, an elderly gardener was raking the gravel into the concentric circles of a Zen garden. He looked familiar and I was trying to place him, when I noticed another man seated in the shade on the low cemetery wall. He looked thinner and much older than I remembered. He unscrewed the lid of a thermos and poured two cups of tea, added milk and sugar from Tupperware containers, then laid out two buttered scones on a picnic plate. He looked up and quietly called to the gardener.

“Gordon, time for tea.”

I watched the Warden and the Bishop, seated side-by-side, blowing on their cups to cool the tea and chewing on pumpkin scones. Wordlessly, contentedly, at ease, like an old married couple.

Or was it my imagination? A neat ending, like one of Bert’s stories?

© Ian Hart 2021