Mr Henderson

The angry sun locked onto the station plinth and flushed the corrugated station hut. An enamel plaque read 'Gilgil.' 'Gilgil', the name of my school, Tom thought. He got off his case and looked down the track. A gust of wind brushed back the grasses and made him tighten his grip on his bush jacket. He noticed that the gleaming lines run curving away into the scrub, but faded almost immediately. In the distance he caught stray whisps of black, mushrooms exploding in fragments only to fade in the dying brilliance of the sky. He could hear the faint chug of an engine, the rhythmic, insistent but alarming beat that usually set joy gushing but today triggered resentment, Never-neverland, he mouthed.

The train was getting nearer now. The steam and chuff synchronised. He could make out the sheen of its funnel, the forward-and-back of its wheels and the long line of carriages following like brown sheep. An Impala took fright and bounced across the lines, but on went the cortege, almost comically jogging through the bush. Suddenly a whistle-shriek blew shrilly. startling Tom so much that he almost fell onto the track. The earth trembled and heaved and then like a great snorting buffalo the engine was standing on top of him spitting fire and. smoke. Henderson made a spectacular entry too. Tom was snoozing under the Baobab tree with his friend when Henderson arrived. With a rattle, a crunch of gravel and shouts from a score of boys he came up the drive. The bike carried a guitar, parcels a string basket and one rucksack while the rider wore a brown suede coat and sported hair that shot out in all directions like hydra. As he slowed, chasing boys caught up with the motor bike. They touched him and stroked his coat. They were bewitched by the bike, hypnotised by his person. He said that he wanted to see the headmaster and was escorted to the office by a throng of boys.

Mr Henderson soon made himself at home at Gilgil. Shaking his hand was a new experience. Crunch and you wondered if you would ever escape those eyes, silvery blue, laughing, mocking, holding and rejecting. Tom had him for Henry VIII. The subject suddenly came alive - the mistresses and the matrons, fat Heenrry and skinny Wolsey. He buried himself in the library to please Mr Henderson. It was worth it just to hear him say: 'Good boy Tom, you're the only one that takes the subject seriously.' Henderson was supposed to take cricket. It was funny to throw him a ball to catch and see him go crab-wise backwards to get out of the way. As umpire he never succeeded in counting the six balls in an over correctly. The players got used to counting the balls for themselves and changing over without instruction. He was in charge of Morning Rise, the getting up period and usually surfaced as the last pupils were leaving the dormitory. He needed to smoke in lessons and usually went out twice in a double period to 'have a fag.'. In the bush he was completely unafraid. Tom took him over the plain to the nearby race track. As they walked along a rutted path a puff adder rose viciously in their path. 'Back ' Henderson shouted, catching Tom's ribs as he pushed him backwards. Then savagely he stamped it to death with his sandals. 'It's like nettles he said, 'show fear and you're dead.' Tom felt very afraid but realised it was wiser not to say so.

The school had decided that he was O.K. He wasn't like any of the masters that the boys had known before, and they were willing to cover up for him. Alison Major took over cricket coaching and choosing the teams. At Morning Rise without him, his dormitory was quieter than if there had been a member of staff there and in lessons whole classes were silent when he went to have his fag breaks. One night Tom saw a little brown tent outside the dormitory. 'It means I don't have to go outside every time I have a fag,' Henderson explained. Tom was pleased. He thought that it would give him more time to come into the dormitory to tell his stories. In fact he came less. Some said that he was getting bored with the school. Others nodded knowingly.

After a time Tom noticed that some of the other boys were going out of the dormitory late at night. They didn't say much. He heard that they usually had sticky cocoa, and loads and loads of sugar all boiled up on the paraffin stove. After that he tormented himself with the pictures and stayed awake for hours imagining the festivities. Tom was desolate. He could not understand why Henderson had not chosen him. He was the brainiest, the one who tried hardest in lessons and yet Henderson seemed to choose loungers and misfits. How could Henderson like talking to them? When he heard their laughter he curled up in his bedclothes and put the blankets in his ears.

Then it happened: the summons to the gym. Something had happened. In the middle of the second lesson all lessons had to stop. The whole school had to go to the gym in silence. Each pupil crammed into the gym, onto the climbing horse, strung on the wall bars, stood high on the rubber mats or sat on top of the hymnbook cupboard. There was a feeling of excitement, dread, anticipation. Somebody was in big trouble. The Headmaster was keeping the school waiting. Tom held his breath. He knew that if he moved a fraction he'd be glared at and if he coughed he'd be publicly humiliated. The sides of the cupboard rim were digging into his bottom and he did not dare look up. Mr Haggard came in, mortarboard, black robe and a thick short cane. His scowl stretched from ear to ear. The other staff were deadly calm. Haggard measured the cane lightly with two hands and Tom's felt his stomach dissolve. Then Haggard spread his gown out like a giant crow and rapped the desk with his cane. He started speaking very softly. Tom stretched his head forward to try to catch what he was saying.

'You must not listen to filth,' he said, 'you must not look at dirty things, and you must certainly not do dirty things. By this I mean every one of you.' His voice rose to crescendo as he said 'do dirty things'. The eyes of the staff raked the room. They seemed to all focus on Tom. He felt like standing up and shouting out that he was sorry. He had never meant to do it and would never do it again. Worse was to come: 'Mr Henderson has gone. He's gone for ever.' Not Mr Henderson. Not him. Tom thought. The one person that he'd die for. The one person who made school school, who shone through his lessons and joked him to bed. 'You must never say his name or talk about him again.' A boy standing on the mats slithered to the floor. 'Take him out and leave him in the shade Mr Jones. Come back when you've done it. I need you here.'

Mr Henderson, dear Mr Henderson. Why did they want to go on so? What had he done.? Why did Tom feel so sad and empty? 'I just want to tell you one thing before I finish.' That ginger moustache was clipping up and down. Mr Haggard knows. If any of you do dirty things, he knows. If you say dirty things, he knows and if you so much as mention Mr Henderson he will know more than ever.' The cane had descended at each statement, but crashed down at the last. He moved to the centre of the gym. 'If Mr Haggard knows it will be much much the worse for you.' He whacked his cane on the floor by a boy's ankles. A boy on the wall-bars at the side of the room slid to the floor.

That was about it. The staff walked out scowling. The boys sidled out in silence. For davs Tom was afraid to ask his neighbour to pass the butter in case he said something forbidden. Then people began to forget. The affair still haunted Tom and the pain lurked always in him, but others were laughing and joking. They had forgotten.

He once asked his best friend what Haggard meant saying 'filth' and dirty? His friend did not answer. A few days later when they were in the middle of the plains he got a conspiratorial answer. 'He sucked him.' Tom knew that it would show real ignorance not to understand and nodded wisely. Afterwards he wrestled with the answer. What did it mean? Did it mean sucked up to him.(Lots of boys would have done anything to get a kindly word from Henderson.) Or did he really mean licking? Maybe it was fluff in the belly button. A finger could easily do that. If only his parents knew about fluff in belly buttons. If only they knew Mr. Henderson. He was sure they would take him on holiday with them and everything would be fine.

'Wake up, silly.' It was his mother, looking down from the compartment of his railway carriage. He felt a searing heat as the stoker shifted the eye-plate. The molten flames looked all-consuming. 'You're going to get burnt so close to the engine.' His father said. 'Come up into the compartment.' 'The Jackson's have been at Malindi a week,' his mother said when he got himself and his bag into the compartment.. 'Aren't you looking forward to our holiday? You remember Silver Sands with Piers. All the good times?' Tom looked at her blankly. Piers and sandcastles. How exciting! All he could think of was Mr Henderson. Hunted, probably jobless and homeless, alone. Probably riding about at that very moment on his motorbike, with all his parcels and yet quite alone. He wouldn't know that there was one person in the world that still stuck up for him, stuck up for him through thick and thin.

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