The sun shone from a clear blue July sky. The older boys had gone swimming, leaving him to his own devices. Alice had been left behind too, but she was too young to provide company for anyone, being content to sit on a faded picnic blanket on the lawn, shaded by the old beech tree, and talking to her doll. Her chatter was normal and peaceful somehow, but not something he seriously listened to, he was more interested in the butterflies that fluttered in the garden. They were beautiful, he admired the colours of their wings and their effortless motion. He wanted to study them more closely, but could never quite reach one no matter how hard he chased them. Every time he came close to catching one, it would fly off into another direction.
Following the twists and turns of a particularly beautiful one brought him closer to where the ladies were sitting in the shade of the trees, having their afternoon tea. They were acquaintances of Aunt Eliza, and their discussions always tended to become hushed when they noticed him nearby. But this afternoon they were too immersed in their conversation to pay any attention to him running about. A snippet of the conversation reached his eager ears.
"...such a pity about the father. Boys need their fathers. I feel sorry for little Michael, it's not something you can just ignore. And other children can be cruel, repeating what they've heard their parents say. I say...."
He had always known Aunt Eliza and Uncle Walter weren't his mother and father, but he had never thought much about the woman and man who were. He had never thought about it much, it was just the way things were, but clearly other people, grown-up people, had, and it was important to them. Suddenly, he felt bereft, as if he had just lost something. Trying to be brave, he blinked hard to stop the tears that were beginning to cloud his vision. Turning his back to the Aunt Eliza's friends, he fixed his eye on the first butterfly he saw, and followed it, not wanting anyone to know what he had realised just now.
Aunt Eliza had been supervising the packing of his trunk all afternoon, checking he was doing it properly and didn't crease his newly-ironed clothes, or forget to pack his socks. It was finally done. He was nervous about tomorrow when Uncle Walter would be taking him to his new school. The father was paying for it, he had been told, which was only right. Otherwise he would have had to stay with Aunt Eliza and Uncle Walter and start learning a trade, which would have been waste of a good brain, according to his teachers, anyway. He wasn't sure he'd like the school. Will and Tom had been telling him awful stories about what happened to swots at their school (he would be going to a different one). He wasn't quite sure if he fully believed them, but if even half of it was true.... But he mustn't let it get to him. Aunt Eliza had told him often enough this was his only chance if he wanted to become somebody, with the father and mother he had.
He wanted to be good, but he was terrified of becoming a failure and being sent back to Aunt Eliza and Uncle Walter.
The sounds from the cricket pitch drifted into his study through the open window and distracted him from his geometry. He had been trying to solve a problem for the best part of an hour but as far as he could see, he wasn't anywhere near getting to the end. He'd have to ask Sidebottom, who'd probably smile and take three seconds to identify the easiest way to tackle it. It all seemed to come so effortlessly to Sidebottom, and to the other boys as well. They never seemed to do any work, they shone at games as well, no one else seemed to need to take so long on their geometry, or their Latin, or struggle with the games. At least he was good at diving, which was something, but not enough. Not when your name was Freeborn and you didn't know your father or your mother.
Sidebottom stomped in and interrupted his thoughts. He sighed, picked up his pencil again and tried to start solving the problem back from beginning. But it was useless, he just couldn't understand what he should be doing. He sighed, and asked the question. As he had anticipated, the problem was simple enough for Sidebottom, and in a couple of minutes he knew how he should approach it.
He wasn't prepared for Sidebottom asking him to explain something that Waller, the science master, had said that morning. No one had ever asked him a question before, and Sidebottom's question showed clearly that he hadn't grasped the phenomenon that Waller had been explaining at all. He opened his mouth but no words came out.
"Don't tell me you didn't get it either," Sidebottom said when the silence had gone on long enough. "I already asked Carter but he made such a muddle of explaining it I thought he was just bluffing. You're my only hope."
He pulled himself together and explained, as clearly and concisely as he could. Sidebottom beamed at him.
"See, I knew you'd know. If only you could explain things instead of that old miser."
"It's not that complicated. Anyone could've done it."
"Don't be so bloody modest all the time. I heard Waller telling Roberts how it's such a pleasure teaching someone like you who's actually enthusiastic about what he's got to teach."
"I bet that was followed with 'pity about his background'."
"As it happened, it wasn't. From your talents they moved on to how the likes of Green and Williamson are hopeless because they never, ever apply themselves. If there's anyone who cannot forget about your background, it's you, Freeborn."
"You wouldn't either if your name was Freeborn."
"You're forgetting it's hardly a pleasure to be called Sidebottom. As you must have heard, the variations are endless."
As it happened, he had never thought about it. Sidebottom had always taken things in his stride, unflappable, untouchable. He couldn't think of anything to say.
"Tell you what," Sidebottom said after a moment's silence, "let's forget about surnames."
"What do you mean?"
"Between you and me, it's first names from now on. Like prefects do. I'm Kit. And you're Mic."
"No one's ever called me Mic before."
"No? Well, it's high time someone did."
His things were unpacked, his books neatly arranged on the shelf above his desk, his clothes in the wardrobe, a couple of his bird photos taken in the summer on the mantelpiece (the camera had been a prize for science). It felt strange having a whole room for yourself. It was the first time in his life he didn't have to share. It felt strangely silent, then he heard doors opening and closing, light steps on the stairs, voices rising and falling in the quad, and everything suddenly felt more normal. Having a room of your own didn't shut the rest of the world outside, but gave you space to feel yourself rather than just the front you presented to everybody else. He wasn't sure if his background mattered less at Cambridge than in his past life, but at least he'd have this.