This two-page story is excerpted from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh. It occurred at a school in London whose “grimy main building was so tall that even with my head tilted back, I couldn’t make out the details of the roof beyond some protrusions that I fancied were turrets.” Although I don’t remember my exact age, circumstances narrow it down to between five and seven. Names, of course, are changed:
In the playground, I found the children’s activities incomprehensible. They clustered together, talked and shouted, laughed and cried, urgent and suddenly indifferent, like volcanos bursting and just as abruptly subsiding.
The playground was ruled over by Maurice, the only West Indian boy in the school, and “the Gang,” which he led. When the mood came over him, he and the Gang would chase and taunt me. It was one of those brute facts of life.
One day the Gang gathered at the railing fence around “the pit.” Originally a loading bay, the pit was perhaps five feet deep and set against the school’s front wall. Even though there was nothing down there except concrete walls, it was enticing. This play time a railing had disappeared, leaving a gap wide enough for a boy to squeeze through. I ventured over, sensing the Gang wouldn’t torment me because the pit had their attention.
Somehow the decision was made to go in, one at a time. A boy jumped down, ran a circle and hoisted himself back up. A second followed while the rest of us stood around and shielded them from view. Another went down, then another.
“Boys!” came the dread voice of a lady supervisor from a door to the building. “Miss Reed wants to see you.”
Miss Reed, the headmistress, as old and grim as her building, was a shadowy figure lurking in the background. I’d never been in her office before. I stood alone on her right while the other boys faced me across her large room.
She said, “I happened to look down from the window and saw one of you go into the pit.” We hadn’t thought about detection from above. “As you know, it is a caning offense. I’m going to ask each of you if you broke the rule.”
She turned to me, and my name hung in the air.
Had I gone down? I couldn’t remember. Maybe I had, maybe not. Maybe I’d gone down only in my imagination. But didn’t that amount to the same thing? I’d only been waiting my turn.
“He didn’t,” Maurice said.
“Dismissed,” Miss Reed said to me.
I edged out of the room and slunk toward my teacher’s classroom at the far end of the empty playground. Why had Maurice, the bully, protected me? All I knew was he’d shown he was a better boy than me.