We called them masters in those days, not teachers, and at St Peter’s the one I feared most of all, apart from the Headmaster, was Captain Hardcastle.
This man was slim and wiry and he played football. On the football field he wore white running shorts and white gymshoes and short white socks. His legs were as hard and thin as ram’s legs and the skin around his calves was almost exactly the colour of mutton fat. The hair on his head was not ginger. It was brilliant dark vermilion, like a ripe orange, and it was plastered back with immense quantities of brilliantine in the same fashion as the Headmaster’s. The parting on his hair was a white line straight down the middle of the scalp, so straight it could only have been made with a ruler. On either side of the parting you could see the comb tracks running back through the greasy orange hair like little tramlines.
Captain Hardcastle sported a moustache that was the same colour as his hair, and oh what a moustache it was! A truly terrifying sight, a thick orange hedge that sprouted and flourished between his nose and his upper lip and ran clear across his face from the middle of one cheek to the middle of the other. But this was not one of those nailbrush moustaches, all short and clipped and bristly. Nor was it long and droopy in the walrus style. Instead, it was curled most splendidly upwards all the way along as though it had had a permanent wave put into it or possibly curling tongs heated in the mornings over a tiny flame of methylated spirits. The only other way he could have achieved this curling effect, we boys decided, was by prolonged upward brushing with a hard toothbrush in front of the looking glass every morning.
Behind the moustache there lived an inflamed and savage face with a deeply corrugated brow that indicated a very limited intelligence. “Life is a puzzlement,” the corrugated brow seemed to be saying, “and the world is a dangerous place. All men are enemies and small boys are insects that will turn and bite you if you don’t get them first and squash them hard.”
Captain Hardcastle was never still. His orange head twitched and jerked perpetually from side to side in the most alarming fashion, and each twitch was accompanied by a little grunt that came out of the nostrils.
He had been a soldier in the army in the Great War and that, of course, was how he had received his title. But even small insects like us knew that “Captain” was not a very exalted rank and only a man with little else to boast about would hang on to it in civilian life. It was bad enough to keep calling yourself “Major” after it was all over, but “Captain” was the bottoms.
Rumour had it that the constant twitching and jerking and snorting was caused by something called shell-shock, but we were not quite sure what that was. We took it to mean that an explosive object had gone off very close to him with such an enormous bang that it had made him jump high in the air and he hadn’t stopped jumping since.
For a reason that I could never properly understand, Captain Hardcastle had it in for me from my very first day at St Peter’s. Perhaps it was because he taught Latin and I was no good at it. Perhaps it was because already, at the age of nine, I was very nearly as tall as he was. Or even more likely, it was because I took an instant dislike to his giant orange moustache and he often caught me staring at it with what was probably a little sneer under the nose. I had only to pass within ten feet of him in the corridor and he would glare at me and shout, “Hold yourself straight, boy! Pull your shoulders back!” or “Take those hands out of your pockets!” or “What’s so funny, may I ask? What are you smirking at?” or, most insulting of all, “You, what's-your-name, get on with your work!” I knew, therefore, that it was only a matter of time before the gallant Captain nailed me good and proper.
The crunch came during my second term when I was exactly nine and a half, and it happened during evening Prep. Every weekday evening, the whole school would sit for one hour in the Main Hall, between six and seven o'clock, to do Prep. The master on duty for the week would be in charge of Prep, which meant that he sat high up on a dais at the top end of the Hall and kept order. Some masters read a book while taking Prep and some corrected exercises, but not Captain Hardcastle. He would sit up there on the dais twitching and grunting and never once would he look down at his desk. His small milky-blue eyes would rove the Hall for the full sixty minutes, searching for trouble, and heaven help the boy who caused it.
The rules of Prep were simple but strict. You were forbidden to look up from your work, and you were forbidden to talk. That was all there was to it, but it left you precious little leeway. In extreme circumstances (and I never knew what these were) you could put your hand up and wait until you were asked to speak but you had better be awfully sure that the circumstances were extreme. Only twice during my four years at St Peter’s did I see a boy putting up his hand during Prep. The first one went like this:
Master. What is it?
Boy. Please sir, may I be excused to go to the lavatory?
Master. Certainly not. You should have gone before.
Boy. But sir ...please sir ...I didn’t want to before. I didn’t know...
Master. Whose fault was that? Get on with your work!
Boy. But sir ...Oh sir.. Please sir, let me go!
Master. One more word out you and you'll be in trouble.
Naturally, the wretched boy dirtied his pants, which caused a storm later on upstairs with the Matron.
On the second occasion, I remember clearly that it was a summer term and the boy who put his hand up was called Braithwaite. I also seem to recollect that the master who was taking Prep was our friend Captain Hardcastle, but I wouldn’t swear to it. The dialogue went something like this:
Master. Yes, what is it?
Braithwaite. Please sir, a wasp came in through the window and it’s stung me on my lip and it’s swelling up.
Master. A what?
Braithwaite. A wasp, sir.
Master. Speak up, boy, I can’t hear you! A what came in through the window?
Braithwaite. It’s hard to speak up, sir, with my lip all swelling up.
Master. With your what all swelling up? Are you trying to be funny?
Braithwaite. No sir, I promise I’m not sir.
Master. Talk properly, boy! What’s the matter with you?
Braithwaite. I’ve told you, sir. I’ve been stung, sir. My lip is swelling. It’s hurting terribly.
Master. Hurting terribly? What’s hurting terribly?
Braithwaite. My lip, sir. It’s getting bigger and bigger.
Master. What Prep are you doing tonight?
Braithwaite. French verbs, sir. We have to write them out.
Master. Do you write with your lip?
Braithwaite. No, sir, I don’t sir, but you see ...
Master. All see is that you are making an infernal noise and disturbing everybody in the room. Now get on with your work!
They were tough, those masters, make no mistake about it, and if you wanted to survive, you had to become pretty tough yourself.
My own turn came, as I said, during my second
term, and Captain Hardcastle was again taking Prep. You should know that
during Prep every boy in the Hall sat at his own small individual wooden
desk. These desks had the usual sloping wooden tops with a narrow flat
strip at the far end where there was a groove to hold your pen and a
small hole in the right-hand side in which the ink-well sat. The pens we
used had detachable nibs and it was necessary to dip your nib into the
ink-well every six or seven seconds when you were writing. Ballpoint
pens and felt pens had not then been invented, and fountain-pens were
forbidden. The nibs we used were very fragile and most boys kept a
supply of new ones in a small box in their trouser pockets.
Prep was in progress. Captain Hardcastle was sitting up on the dais in front of us stroking his orange moustache, twitching his head and grunting though his nose. His eyes roved the Hall endlessly, searching for mischief. The only noises to be heard were Captain Hardcastle’s little snorting grunts and the soft sound of pen-nibs moving over paper. Occasionally there was a ping as somebody dipped his nib too violently into his tiny white porcelain ink-well.
Disaster struck when I foolishly stubbed the tip of my nib into the top of the desk. The nib broke. I knew I hadn’t got a spare one in my pocket, but a broken nib was never accepted as an excuse for not finishing Prep. We had been set an essay to write and the subject was “The Life Story of a Penny”. (I still have that essay in my files). I had made a decent start and I was rattling along fine when I broke that nib. There was still another half-hour of Prep to go and I couldn’t sit there doing nothing all that time. Nor could I put up my hand and tell Captain Hardcastle I had broken my nib. I simply did not dare. And as a matter of fact, I really wanted to finish that essay. I knew what was going to happen to my penny through the next two pages and I couldn’t bear to leave it unsaid. I glanced to my right. The boy next to me was called Dobson. He was the same age as me, nine and a half, and a nice fellow. Even now, sixty years later, I can still remember that Dobson's father was a doctor and that he lived, as I had learnt from the label on Dobson's tuck-box, at The Red House, Uxbridge, Middlesex.
Dobson's desk was almost touching mine. I thought I would risk it. I kept my head lowered but watched Captain Hardcastle very carefully. When I was fairly sure he was looking the other way, I put a hand in front of my mouth and whispered, “Dobson ... Dobson ... Could you lend me a nib?”
Suddenly there was an explosion up on the dais. Captain Hardcastle had leapt to his feet and was pointing at me and shouting, “you’re talking! I saw you talking! Don’t try to deny it! I distinctly saw you talking behind your hand!”
I sat there frozen with terror.
To be concluded in next month’s issue.