I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong."
--WH Auden, Hymn to St Cecilia
A public school somewhere in England.
Britten lingered at the door of the study, wanting neither to step over the threshold nor to leave. Inside all was peace and calm. Two boys working over their Latin, a fire crackling merrily in the grate, a small room much warmer and cozier than the echoey space of the dormitory. It was decorated with care and some taste, an engraving of Venice over the mantel, cheerful burgundy curtains matching the bright leaves waving outside the mullioned window, two Japanese fans on the wall and a shelf of books bearing testimony to the scholarly bent of its occupants. Sucking his lower lip, Britten bent his head to the side so as to read their spines. Besides the usual schoolbooks there was a battered volume of Tennyson, another of Swinburne, something called the Yellow Book (it was certainly yellow), and a copy of that masterpiece of schoolboy literature, Horace Vachell's The Hill.
Briefly he considered opening his mouth to say that he, too, had pored keenly over its pages. Just as quickly he shut it again, reminding himself that he was not at home or anywhere else where his opinions could be expected to carry weight. He was at Hunstanton School, a new boy, thirteen, and he had been reminded of nothing else for the whole of the three days since he had walked through the gates of the august institution that was, he had been told, to shape him into a man.
He'd had enough now. He was ready to go home.
"Hi, there," said one of the young men looking up from his studies. "Are you going to pour that tea or aren't you?"
He blinked, remembering the heavy iron kettle in his hand. Silently he wrestled it over the teapot, slopping a bit of water over the brim onto the prettily lacquered little table. He put the kettle down on the hearthstones and rubbed at the table apologetically with his handkerchief. At home tea came neatly on a tray along with toast in toast racks and eggs in egg cups and other such delightful things. It was not like this. Not at all.
"What's your name again?" said the young man. He was blond, perfectly elegant and handsome, surely the very picture of a prefect at an English public school.
"Britten, sir," stammered Britten, wishing that his voice were not quite so high.
The young man laughed easily.
"You mustn't call me sir, even if we are prefects," he said. "I am Burra and this here is Pears. Peter Neville Luard Pears. Also known to his dearest friends as Penelope."
He kicked at Pears' shoe so that his toe left a mark on the shined leather. Pears looked up. He was perhaps not quite as handsome as Burra, with a prominent Roman nose and ears that he was still growing into. His suit jacket sat awkwardly on his shoulders. And yet there was something in his hazel eyes that made Britten like him immediately.
"I may call him 'Luard,' but you mayn't so don't try," Burra added.
Both figures seemed so Olympian to Britten that he could barely imagine wanting to address them directly at all. They were men rather than boys, sixteen or seventeen at the very least, lounging casually in their chairs as if they had never known a moment of doubt or fear in their lives.
"A round of toast as well," said Pears. He glanced at Burra. "Two, perhaps. With jam if you please."
"Greedy pig," said Burra with a shake of his head. But Pears paid him no mind.
And so Britten was set to make toast as well as tea, which he did with much fumbling with the toasting fork and sucking of burnt fingers. When he returned from the kitchen, the two prefects were chatting to one another about the First Eleven and the hopes of their house for a cup in the stakes. Names he didn't recognize flew past him, along with hearty laughter, and he forgot the toast to listen. When he finally presented the plate to Pears it was growing cold and sadly bedraggled, charred nearly black on one side and pale on the other, spread lumpily with plum preserves.
"It got away from me," he said sadly. "I shall do better…"
"Never mind about Pears' toast so long as you keep the fire burning," said Burra.
Pears accepted the proffered plate with not a word of censure, graciously nodding his lordly head. Britten felt a rush of warmth just at the gesture. It made him think that maybe he was not so hopeless at fagging as he had feared. All of a sudden the little room seemed very close and stuffy.
Away from the prefects' study everything was cold and cheerless. The fierce wind was blowing leaves from the trees and Britten wandered forlorn through crowded corridors, never quite sure where he was or what he ought to be doing with himself. Most of the boys were far bigger than him and they scarcely noticed another lost soul. Everywhere loud voices and rough talk from which his soul shrank. He was a delicate, sensitive boy, the sort whom a generation ago parents would not have hesitated to send to some kindly clergyman for his education. Now, in the comparatively more enlightened Edwardian age, he was thrown into the hurly-burly of a great public school and expected to sink or swim. Right then he thought it entirely likely that he might sink.
The only thing that he found to console him was chapel on Sunday, which was odd because although he was a good boy he was not as reverent as he might have been. In the seaside town where he had grown up, he had spent his Sundays in a drab and narrow church of awkward dimensions, where the pallid voices of the choir were no competition for the cries of the gulls and the smell of salt air outside. The only voice worth listening to was that of his mother, and hers he could hear in the sitting room when the family gathered around the piano in the evenings.
At Hunstanton the chapel was grander by far than anything he had expected. It was a relic of the school's fifteenth century foundation, richly embellished in the Perpendicular style, its fan vaulting spreading gloriously overhead. It swallowed up the boys as they made their way whispering and fidgeting past the great carved rood screen and into the quire. Britten sat with his hands folded in his lap while the boys next to him fought over the possession of string or bottle tops or some other schoolboy treasures, careless of the glories around them.
Britten's mind was on other things. As soon as the music began to swell he was lost in it. Full-throated masculine voices, tenors and baritones and basses looking ever so grand in their green surplices, even if some of the singing was a bit ragged. It was so different than the piping trebles of his prep school. Britten did not think much of the choirmaster so he ignored him. Instead he gazed at Pears, who was singing heartily in the back row, his eyes fixed on some far distant point. A splash of sunlight fell on him through the stained glass, all red and gold. And in that moment his pure tenor seemed to stand out from the surrounding wash of sound, bringing intimations of something beyond, something far larger and more wonderful than even Hunstanton Chapel.
Britten shivered with a sudden thrill. The promise of Christianity, the hope of salvation, all these had never seemed as near to him as at that moment. Jesus, with his broad shoulders and steadfast love, could have been represented in Britten's heart by the youthful figure of Peter Pears. All schoolboys are susceptible to idol worship and in that respect Britten was no better and no worse than most of them. In that moment, though he did not realize it, he gave his heart without reserve to his older compatriot.
Such a moment of exaltation could only last for so long. At the end of the final verse the organ wheezed to a halt with a cacophony that left Britten shuddering, and the chapel filled with confusion as the boys began to prepare for Holy Communion. A cloud had passed across the sun. Britten looked down at his Book of Common Prayer and resolved once again to stop biting his nails.
"He was one of the miserable little pretty white-handed curly-headed boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows, who wrote their verses for them, taught them to drink and use bad language, and did all they could to spoil them for everything in this world and the next."
--Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's Schooldays
In the following weeks he did his best to fit in and become a credit to the school. It was not easy. He was terribly homesick but he cried only into his pillow at night when no one else could hear. He worked dutifully but he heard talk of cribbing and other things that would never have gone on at prep school. The bigger boys swore most awfully when the masters weren't around and they smoked behind the boat shed down by the river. If Britten had not read Eric; or, Little By Little, he would scarcely have credited it. As it was he knew that he must always be on guard against corruption and impurity, those undefined and mysterious notions that haunt every young schoolboy. No one had told him how he might recognize the latter, much less guard against it. So he was always looking over his shoulder, wondering whether evil and degradation were following him unawares.
And yet he was a romantic soul as well. Like all schoolboys he dreamt of making his mark. On the cricket pitch perhaps, though such a goal seemed impossibly distant. In the schoolroom perhaps, though he never could spell. In the very first week of school he had written out one word when he meant another, and the laughter of his classmates told him that he had innocently made some filthy innuendo. His face still burned at the thought of it.
What he really longed to do, what he thought he could do better than anyone else in school--maybe even better than the choirmaster--was to compose music. Ever since he was a little boy he had written out small pieces for his mother to play at the piano. As he grew, the pieces grew with him. And going from prep school to Hunstanton had not changed a thing. If anything it gave him even grander ideas.
When he was supposed to be writing out translations he sat and dreamed of seeing his pieces performed in the chapel. Britten was lost in contemplation, forgetting the wheeze of the organ and the uncertain intonation of the choir. He would write a solo for tenor. Just the thing. Pears would sing it--who else could it be? And then everyone would see.
His fingers itching with the thought of it, he began to rule bar lines in the margin of his paper, humming under his breath as he pondered just how it would go. A sharp rap on his desk and Britten looked up, startled. It was a patrolling master at full sail. Walton glared down at his young pupil.
"What's that, Britten?"
"Music, sir? What's that to do with your Latin?"
"Nothing, sir. I just--"
"Then see it doesn't work its way into the margins. Back to your Horace now."
It wasn't said unkindly. Unkindness didn't come into it. Walton was a master and Britten was a boy, and therefore Britten took the rebuke as his due. Even so it smarted. When he finally wandered out of hall into the murky drizzle of a late autumn afternoon, the music had left his head entirely. It didn't return that night and he pined for it in the damp chill of his dormitory bed while the boys around him whispered and ragged one another under cover of darkness.
So what had public school to offer him? Friendship. Friendship was the only thing that remained and this, surely, he could find in abundance here. Amidst all the foul language and bullying there had to be some compensation, the noble and uplifting comradeship promised by all the stories. In the afternoons when he had finished his lines, he lingered around the puddled tennis courts and went for walks down by the river along paths carpeted with slimy and sodden leaves. Sometimes other new boys came wandering with him but all of them were just as small and frightened as he and none of them had anything to say for themselves. Together, on cloudy, murky days when rain seemed poised in the air and damp rose from the chill and turbid river, they tried to skip stones and waited for something to happen.
As they lingered there, afraid to do anything of note and yet afraid to admit their own dullness by wandering defeated back to the house, the bloods of the school would come wandering along the path. Behind the boathouse was their habitual haunt, known to the whole school and yet never spoken of to the masters, where they smoked cigarettes and drank spirits and did just as they liked. Even from a distance, perched on a rock at the edge of the river, Britten could smell the alcohol on their breath as they came past. They were very big boys, slouching lazily because there was nothing and no one in the school of whom they need be afraid. Rackham was the very largest of them. He wore his tie at a rakish angle, half-loosed, and his dark jacket was dusty with ash.
"Britten, isn't it?" he said, cocking his head to echo his tie. "Come here."
Accustomed by the habit of years to obey, Britten did so. His small friends had disappeared off somewhere. From an inner pocket of his jacket Rackham extracted a flask which he offered to Britten.
"We like to welcome all the new boys personally. Or if not all, a carefully chosen selection. What are you doing sitting there all by yourself? Haven't got any friends yet?"
"I have," said Britten. Speech seemed a great effort when it was in front of such an audience. "They just..."
"Doesn't look like it to me," Rackham interrupted. He glanced towards one of his cronies, who nodded. "Looks like there's just you. But we'll be your friends, if you like."
What could a chap say to that? Britten knew very well that they were bad boys, not the sort of friends his parents would have wished him to have, but would have taken more strength than any parent could imagine to tell them so to their face. Outside of Parliament, a man almost never will tell another to his face that he is a blackguard and a cad, so how could a schoolboy be expected to do any differently?
It must have been some special grace that caused Peter Pears to appear at that very moment, striding whistling along the path with cricket bat in hand. No white knight could have appeared more of a saviour. As soon as he saw what was going on, he approached the other boys.
"Let him alone, Rackham."
"Can't bear the thought of another chap talking with your little friend, Pears?" said one of the other boys.
"Does he belong to you?" said another. "Maybe we should check his collar for your name."
He took a step towards Britten but was checked where he stood by Pears' next words.
"Off with you," Pears said, and his voice was so stern and imperious that even Rackham took a step back at the sound of it. "I know your lot, Rackham. If I ever hear that you've been bothering him again, you shall have the headmaster to explain yourself to."
At that they scattered, grinding half-smoked cigarettes into the mud of the path. Their parting sneers and jibes were as purposeless as the cawing of crows who awkwardly take to flight only when forcibly driven away.
Britten fell into step with his protector as they made their way back to their house.
"Thanks awfully," he said.
"They ought to be ashamed of themselves," said Pears hotly, "giving whisky to new boys. What cads. What if you'd got stinking drunk and gone reeling back to the house? Would they have owned up? Or would they have seen you flogged and laughed at the sight..."
"I shouldn't have been flogged," Britten said, although he was far from certain that it was true. "I wouldn't have drunk from the flask."
Once roused, Pears' anger was not so easily calmed. He stalked along the path back to the school, switching viciously at the tops of nettle bushes with his cricket bat. His strokes were hard and full, and the crackling of leaves and stems was loud in the stillness of the wood.
"Are you so sure? Would you have stood up to the lot of them, all by yourself? Could you have stood up to their kindness as well as their cruelty?"
Britten was silent, cowed by the violence in the older boy's tone.
"Don't ever hang about with those chaps. Never. Every one of them is a vile beast. They ought to be ashamed to call themselves Hunstanton boys."
"I shan't," he said finally, as stoutly as he could manage, wondering whether Pears was really as angry with him as he was with Rackham. "It wasn't my fault you know," he added. "I don't like them any better than you do. It's just that a chap like me can't say so, not to their faces."
Rain was beginning to fall, great cold drops shaking the oak leaves overhead. Britten turned up his collar just as a drip landed squarely on the back of his neck. There was still the green, open slope of the hill to surmount before they came to the shelter of the main buildings. Pears set up the squelching turf at a fierce pace and Britten followed.
"I know it wasn't your fault," said Pears more gently. "And if they ever come near you again you must tell me right away. Let them know that they shall hear from Luard Pears."
"Would you have fought him?" Britten asked. "Rackham, I mean?"
"If he had made me, perhaps. But I had rather not. Only if he had gone at me. I don't like to fight."
"You would have won, I'm sure."
They lingered under the sheltering branches of an old yew tree by the house, already wet with rain but reluctant to leave the subject behind.
"Maybe, but that's not the point," said Pears.
"When I was little, smaller than you even, a chap like Rackham made me fight another boy. He was my size but I was stronger and I won. I bloodied his nose and knocked him down, and I had to stand there watching him blub while all the other boys cheered. It was jolly miserable. And I swore then that I would never fight again, not as long as I could help it."
Britten was amazed. In all his years at school it had never occurred to him that one had any choice whether or not to fight. That one could remove oneself from it entirely. It was quite staggering to think. And the revelation merely added to Pears' seeming godliness.
He trailed into the house soaking wet and shivering with cold. But even when he woke with a sore throat on the next morning, he thought that it had been worth it.
After that day Rackham never troubled him again. And when another of the bloods wrote him a note inviting him for a walk in the water meadows that afternoon, he knew enough to screw up the piece of paper and throw it into the fire unanswered. It gave him a feeling of such relief that he threw himself down on his narrow bed and sighed. Merely the thought of Pears' friendship was a reassurance to him.
And yet perhaps it spoilt him as well. No young friend of his own age could match the strength and virtue that Britten saw in Pears. None was as interesting nor as kind. As perhaps could have been predicted, Britten became a solitary boy, of average diligence in his studies but not so popular with his schoolfellows. He told himself that it hardly mattered. After all he was interested in better and higher things, like his music. What was popularity compared with that? What did it matter?
Britten always looked forward to Monday with mingled terror and ecstasy, for that was the day that he spent fagging for Burra and Pears. Merely being admitted to that inner sanctum was an honour, albeit one that he hardly felt he deserved. While he could throw a cricket ball and write a string quartet, and even construe a line of Latin verse with decent accuracy and without the aid of a crib sheet, the art of toasting a piece of bread and frying up sausages seemed well beyond him. And Pears liked his food much more than most of the boys of the sixth form.
Even worse he immoderately adored tomatoes and mushrooms, both of which made Britten feel sick. As he tended them, sizzling evilly in the spitting sausage grease, he thought resentful thoughts about Pears. Why could he not enjoy bread and butter like an ordinary boy? Or porridge? Britten had felt ill for days now, faintly queasy and feverish. This didn't help at all. Perhaps, he thought, he had better look away for a bit.
When he came back to the study to get a forgotten plate, Pears was unconcerned, leaning back so far in his chair that the wood squeaked in protest. He was gazing out the window, tapping his fountain pen on the blotter, humming a song under his breath--all of these at once. His hair fell untidily over one eye, and he reached up to push it back again. He was altogether glorious in that harum-scarum way that a boy of seventeen possesses in abundance. And Britten admired him as only a boy of thirteen can do.
Even a hero has his feet of clay and a young man in the First XI is allowed his moral weaknesses that would forever stain the character of lesser morals. Back in the kitchen bent over the hot frying pan, Britten felt that he could forgive Pears even his mushrooms if only…
"Hi, Britten! Watch those, they're burning!"
It was Pears, standing in the doorway. And he was right. Lost in his reverie Britten had left the mushrooms to stick to the pan. They were now charring smokily. Looking down in surprise, he sneezed hard all over the sadly neglected breakfast.
Pears gazed at him in horror. Words of justification died on Britten's lips as he steeled himself for the first swishing of his public school career. It was best to be stout and manful about it. It was best not to plead one's case. It was…
Tears came unbidden to his eyes. He tried to blink them back but more followed, one rolling slowly down his nose to join the mess that he had made of the meal. It was not that he was afraid of being switched. At prep school he had been considered a brave boy, as far as these things went.
"Oh, buck up, do," said Pears anxiously. "I'm not going to cane you for burning my breakfast and it's not worth crying over, really it isn't."
"It's not that," Britten replied, hiding his sorrow in a handkerchief that was none too clean. "It's just…"
"Everything," came the reply, full of stuffy frustration. "These awful boys and this awful school, where no one has heard of Stravinsky or Mahler and football is all that anyone thinks of. One does one's best to stick it but it's more than one can bear sometimes. And it's only November and I am so homesick. Whoever said that school was the thing hadn't the slightest idea."
Britten gulped sorrily. It was probably more words than he had ever said at one time to Pears, who was after all the living embodiment of School and all that it stood for. Now Pears would certainly laugh. Putting the ruined frying pan to one side, Britten looked up at Pears, whose hazel eyes were all of a sudden very keen and intent upon him. Silently Pears took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Britten.
"It's not that bad really," he said slowly. "Not once you find your feet with things."
He looked at Britten as if he had never really seen him before.
"Is it as bad as all that?" he asked. "I shouldn't think it is."
"I'm sure it isn't," replied Britten loyally.
If Pears said it was not then it was not. Missing one's mother was Not Done, however keenly it might be felt.
"It's been such a long time since I was a new boy, you see. I suppose I've forgot all about it."
"I don't know how you ever could forget this," Britten said, gesturing towards the despised frying pan.
"Well, I never did burn anyone's mushrooms."
It took Britten a moment to realize that Pears was joking.
On the next day Britten's sore throat finally turned well and truly into a fever. Ignominiously he was put to bed in the infirmary with nothing to keep him entertained except his music manuscript paper and the occasional visits of the nurse. It seemed such a waste to be at school and to be ill. Better by far to be tucked up at home with a mother to look after one. Everything that he swallowed hurt him and he couldn't get his piano sonata to come right. Outside it was mockingly sunny, so strange in such a dreary month. The shouts of boys at play seemed a long way off.
He slid down in the narrow cot, his pad of paper balanced precariously on his knees. And he sighed. If only someone would straighten his pillow.
A creak of the floorboards. Who should be lingering in the hallway but Pears, leaning his tall and slightly gawky frame against the door jamb. Britten looked around the empty infirmary for any hidden sixth formers who might have merited Pears' attention.
"There's no one here but me," he said in his croaky voice.
"You're just the one I wanted to visit," said Pears, entering the room. "Mr. Walton said you were ill. So I thought I would bring you some grapes."
"Thanks most awfully."
"It isn't anything."
Pears had such a way about him, dismissive and lordly at once. It was as if he was above even being thanked for the gift. And as they didn't sell such things in the tuck shop, it was obvious that he'd bought them from the greengrocers in town. Only sixth formers could do that.
"It is," Britten insisted. "I've been eating nothing but porridge for days. And when I'm ill at home Mummy always brings me grapes. I was feeling just dire without them."
He stopped dead. Mentioning one's mother at school was another of those things that one simply didn't do, except in extremis. It was unsporting somehow. But Pears didn't blink.
"Well, good things to eat are nice when one is ill, aren't they? That's why I brought them."
Quietly Britten sat eating grapes, while Pears pulled up a chair to the side of his bed. He sat there as if he were not impatient at all, as if he could wait all day in that stuffy sickroom with its smells of liniment and castor oil. He sighed deeply, but it didn't sound a cross or an uncomfortable sigh. Just thoughtful. He rubbed at his nose.
"It's like this," he began, and then stopped again.
Silence reigned and Britten gazed shyly up at his companion. Nothing more was forthcoming. Britten reached into the bag for another grape, but he had eaten them all.
"I've been dreadfully greedy," he said. He was just at that stage of an illness where one's appetite returns with a start and one suddenly longs to eat all of the things that one has missed. "And it was so kind of you…"
"Nonsense," Pears replied, waving a dismissive hand. "I had breakfast in town before I came. The grapes were for you."
Britten's throat caught. He cleared it noisily. It was so awful being ill.
"Didn't Perkins cook your breakfast?"
It was Tuesday and therefore it was Perkins' turn on the fagging rota. (Britten knew it by heart.) He was a small boy with a perpetually running nose and he seemed to feel it was a point of honour never to dirty his handkerchief.
"My dear," said Pears, "I never let Perkins anywhere near my frying pan! Tuesdays are dead to me. He makes Burra his tea and then I creep out without fail to the tuck shop. Or to town. Burra is a hardier soul than I."
And here Britten had thought that he was the most incompetent fag ever to serve at Hunstanton School. Obviously not. The thought of the unfortunate Perkins filled him with a delight which he was able to express only through a fit of coughing.
"But you eat my burnt mushrooms," he wheezed.
And Pears reached out and took Britten's hand. He did it forthrightly, as if he could sense Britten's terrible loneliness and thought it nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed by.
"I've missed your burnt mushrooms," he said, his voice so kind and confidential. "I'd quite got used to the taste."
By the time that Britten fully recovered from his illness it was time to go home for the Christmas vac. In that comforting environment of family, mince pies, carols and Lowestoft's annual production of the Messiah, he almost entirely forgot Pears and the doings of school. It was only on Christmas Eve as he knelt in church that he thought of Pears again. Sincerely he prayed for his absent friend and then--as a hastily added coda--for all the boys at Hunstanton.
Naturally the vac passed far too quickly and before he knew it Britten was back at school, once more beginning the weary count of days until the end of term. Every day he noted it in his diary: one past, eighty-two to go. It was enough to make him want to cry, but he was not a new boy any longer and he manfully fought down the urge as he carefully wrote that he was back at school. "Worse luck!"
Once again the only consolation was Pears, who nodded graciously to Britten every time that they passed in the House corridor but never mentioned the grapes or the clasp of a hand in Britten's sickroom. He maintained his dignified distance until Britten plucked up the courage to speak to him one morning after making tea.
"I say, Pears," he began, forcing his voice into a lower register that still sat uneasily in his throat. "I hope you had a jolly time at home. Did you have snow at Christmas?"
Pears looked up from his volume of Tennyson and arched a quizzical eyebrow.
"I haven't got a home," he replied with seeming casualness. "Not really, I mean. My people are in India. So I stopped for Christmas with the headmaster and his family."
"Oh, how terrible," said Britten. He squeaked a bit on the last word.
"Not at all. The headmaster is a jolly chap in his way. Even Imo isn't that bad for a girl, as long as you can persuade her not to dance at you all the time."
Imogen Holst was the fifteen-year-old only daughter of the headmaster, embarrassingly keen on both the dancing and the piano. She was probably the best pianist in the school apart from Britten, and she was irrepressible despite her unusual position as the only girl amidst several hundred schoolboys. She had never been sent away to school herself. After brief morning sojourns with a governess or tutor, she wandered about the grounds of the school as her own mistress. She was often seen down by the river with a volume of poetry, trailing one hand in the water in a manner that reminded one of the Pre-Raphaelites. The younger boys ignored her and the older boys regarded her with a mix of amusement and wariness. As the daughter of the headmaster, she was widely believed to report back to him even if no one had any firm evidence that this was the case. Before lighting their cigarettes the bloods always looked carefully around to make sure that Imo was not wandering down the path.
No one ever fell in love with Imo, even though she was quite a lovely girl. They had other interests and pursuits to occupy them. As for Imo herself, if she ever fell in love with any of her father's pupils, she kept her own counsel.
"I can just see the two of you waltzing around the sitting room," said Britten, unable to resist the little giggle that crept into his voice.
"Don't laugh," said Pears. "I can't think of anything more ghastly."
"Neither can I."
Another giggle. Pears looked as if he were working very hard to suppress a smile.
"Never you mind," he said with mock-severity.
To have gone on like that would have been to embarrass themselves in a public hallway. Pears looked away with an expression of elaborate unconcern. Britten would have started whistling if he hadn't still been trying to suppress his laughter.
"I say," he ventured finally. "Did your boots need blacking?"
"Yes, please," said Pears. "Good chap."
And so they lapsed back into the usual relations of prefect and fag. Hands stuffed firmly into his pockets, Pears wandered away.
"It would not be easy to imagine a more infuriating sight, in the present state of the public temper, than that of a young man in flannels carrying a racket. A year ago, if he attracted notice at all, he suggested one blamelessly bent on healthful exercise tempered by flirtation."
--The Times (1915)
In those days tennis was believed to be, as the saying goes, not quite cricket. Nonetheless the courts were there and the kit was in the games cupboard, so one day Britten and Pears decided to give it a go. They were better matched than might be expected. Pears was bigger and stronger but Britten was faster and more agile and between them they made a good game of it and enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
The courts were just by the headmaster's grey stone lodge, screened by a thick and high hedge of holly so that all one could see of the house from the courts was its the steep peak of its roof and its attic windows. In the attic lived Imo, so one could occasionally see her leaning out to take the air. When she saw that Pears and Britten were playing, she would come down and sit on the bench by the court, reading a book and sucking on the ends of her long golden hair. She looked up only rarely, as if she didn't want to be seen to be watching. And yet she was always there.
"I think she's fallen in love with me," said Pears one day as the two boys were trailing back to their house after a long and hard-fought game. "It's jolly tiresome."
"Worse luck," replied Britten automatically.
One could see how she might have, though. If one were going to fall in love with anyone, one could hardly do better than Pears.
"If only she doesn't run to her father and have words about us."
Britten pondered this enigmatic utterance. At first he wondered whether Pears meant himself and Imo. He had the absurdest image of Miss Holst declaring to her father that Pears was her intended and all that remained was for them to set a date. But that was clearly ridiculous. So he must have meant himself and Britten. All that Britten could think of was that time when, defeated on the court, he had thrown his racket to the ground and sworn most vilely, saying "dash it all!" several times and loudly at that. But the bigger boys used far worse language and even this didn't seem to warrant a talk from the headmaster. So he was left baffled.
"About what?" he said finally.
"Oh, nothing," said Pears, shrugging off his jumper as they came into the front hall of the House. He left his tennis racket leaning against the stairs and kicked off his muddy shoes where he stood. "Pick those up, if you please."
And then he went upstairs, leaving Britten no more enlightened than when they had started.