Joe and Mikey

In the winter of ’55 I became a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and boarder at the choir school. The school comprised only thirty six boys aged between eight and thirteen, whose rigid timetable included as much time at choir practice as in class. We were treated like army cadets, and discipline drove us. We were at an age then when war was on our minds. Most of our fathers had fought, and one boy had been born in ’46 after his father’s death in action. He always engendered sympathy when his mother came alone on exeat days to collect him for the three-hour excursion, while the rest of us were met by both parents. Sometimes I envied the drama of his father’s death.
Exeats were scheduled every third weekend, on a Saturday afternoon, and the boys looked forward to them with a passion. Three black marks on the board for bad behaviour between-times meant an hour less exeat, in detention, while our parents waited patiently outside in the car or strolled through the cloisters, and we lived in fear of losing that time with our families. The alternative was a beating by the headmaster, which was considered by the boys to be preferable to black marks. If we could have chosen, we’d all have chosen the corporal punishment over the emotional one, but the headmaster gave beatings for more severe misdemeanors like theft or bullying, while a black mark was given by the masters for talking in class, or running in the corridors. Beatings took place in the headmaster’s study, after classes or in the evenings, with a variety of sticks or a cricket bat.
Francis Talbot, the headmaster, was a tall and serious man with bushy eyebrows and thinning hair. He had been a captain in the army, and as a fluent French speaker, he’d apparently been involved in some very secret missions in North Africa in ‘44. He had served in the Eighth Army, in Algiers, and we boys made up more stories than could possibly be true about his wartime exploits, and enacted Monty’s battles against the Gerries, involving sand dunes and imaginary grenades whose pins were always pulled in the teeth. Despite his severe style, and his military ways, Talbot was considered a fair and reasonable man, and his beatings were always meted out in the name of justice.
One evening, I had been dozing, listening to whispering further along the row of beds in the dormitory. It was a Wednesday in February, and the bare room was cold, so I had my blankets pulled well up to my ears, and the hospital corners I’d made up that morning, among the best in the dorm, held the bedclothes tight against my legs.
The dormitory, one of four, comprised 9 narrow iron bedsteads on a plain wooden floor, interspersed with upright chairs. Each boy had to fold his clothes on the chair according to specific instructions, much in the way soldiers in barracks might, and each was inspected for neatness before ‘lights out’. The bathrooms for each dormitory included two baths and six washbasins in one room, so each boy was scheduled one bath a week, often shared with another child, and we queued for the toilet before the final bell of the day was rung by the duty master. It was an old hand-bell with a long wooden handle, carried from room to room by its clanger and shaken in each at 7.30pm to signal lights out. Using the toilets after that was forbidden, and wetting the bed, while not uncommon, was the subject of merciless teasing. I wasn’t known as a bed-wetter, and if I cried at night, with homesickness or a sense of rejection, it was something I did silently, under the pillow.
Mikey Johnson, in the next bed to me, was shifting noisily. He’d just returned from the bathroom, where he’d been to wash himself, and was crying quietly. Wednesday was Clinch’s duty night, which meant Mikey had just had a visit, as he did most Wednesdays.
Mr Clinch, the maths master, or Fiddler, as we nicknamed him, liked to come to the dorm at around 10 at night, once the matron had left for the evening, and when most of the boys were asleep. He was a large man in his forties, with lank hair and long fingernails. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and a striped tie, hanging loosely over his paunch. He had a habit of pursing his lips, as if to blow a kiss, and he liked to hold boys by a shoulder while talking to them. Sometimes, when he came into the dormitory after lights out, he would just stand in the shadows, listening to the boys’ breathing and then leave silently in his crepe soled shoes.
Tonight, like many other Wednesday nights when I had been awake, Clinch stood over Mikey’s bed in silence, then slipped one hand beneath the covers to explore Mikey’s genitals, while he masturbated with the other. Tonight he’d made Mikey hold his penis when he came, breathing quickly and hard. I lay silently, shuddering in fear, unsure what exactly was happening, but knowing how scared my friend was. He’d told me this wasn’t the worst that could happen. That took place in Clinch’s bedroom on the top floor, under the eves. Now Clinch left Mikey in the bathroom and slid noiselessly from the room, presumably to go back to his own bed.
For over a year, Mikey’s life had been plagued by Clinch, and sometimes by a couple of his friends, who were not working at the school, but who seemed friendly with most of the staff, helping out with school trips and sports events. Mikey had always been a quiet boy, and the rumour was that his father had committed suicide when Mikey was a baby. I liked him for his gentleness, and he was generous with his pocket money when it came to the weekly trip to the tuck shop. We shared a private language and spent the hour of free time after prep each evening together, either on the roof playground, or in the school cellars, hiding from Loats, the school caretaker. Loats cleaned the boys’ shoes, and often bought Mikey sweets in exchange for some sort of game he played with him in the boiler room that Mikey wouldn’t talk about. The boys who knew about Clinch and Loats often speculated about whether they were in it together, whether Loats learned from Clinch about Mikey or vice versa. I wondered why he got the attention of both men. It was as though they both sensed he was vulnerable and accessible – but then in all likelihood, they had talked about him.
Mikey was my best friend, and he was one of the choristers in the choir. The choirmaster was always giving him the most difficult solos, which we all coveted. He had made a name for his performance of the Allegri Misereri, with its top C, which was always the subject of stiff competition among the seniors, when he was only nine. He’d also been chosen to sing the unaccompanied opening of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ on our Christmas carols album that year. He was hoping to go on to Westminster School after his voice broke, where he could train to be a tenor, and later he might get into Kings Cambridge, which had the best choir in England. Everything depended on a scholarship, as his family wasn’t rich enough to pay the fees. Mikey was bright, but I was ahead of him in class, so I always helped him with his maths, and his status in the choir gave me a reflected kudos.
I had been to stay with Mikey in Essex during half-term once, when my parents were abroad, and I enjoyed time with his mother, who was lovely, but somehow fragile. She listened attentively, and unlike my own mother, she didn’t smell of cigarettes and whiskey. My parents were always rowing, and as the fourth child, I was left to my own devices a lot. Once, they’d forgotten to come to collect me on exeat day, and had to be phoned and reminded by Mr Talbot. I sat alone in the classroom waiting over an hour for them to drive into London, and cried in self-pity, till we went to the local Wimpy for the remaining time.
The first time Mikey confided in me about Clinch and his friends, he said he trusted me not to tell stories to the other boys, though I knew that others had witnessed the Wednesday night visits, and had said nothing. He’d told me some of the terrible things that Clinch’s friends had made him do, and though I felt powerless, I sometimes fantasised about calling the police. I had considered telling my mother about it, though she never listened to me about what went on at the school. My parents actively condoned the corporal punishment, so I was not sure they would see these activities as inappropriate. I couldn’t write home about it in my weekly letter, written on Sunday evening in ‘prep’, as all the letters were checked by the duty master, who was usually Clinch. Mikey and I often talked about running away from the school together and living in the forest, but the choir school was in the centre of London and neither of us had any idea of how to reach freedom.
Some days Mikey would be called to Clinch’s bedroom for an hour or more, and would return to the dorm in tears, unable to move in bed without moaning in pain. Other times, he’d be called out in class to stand beside the master’s desk so Clinch could run his hand up Mikey’s trouser leg in front of the whole class while they kept their heads down, pretending not to know what was being done.
Mikey wasn’t the only boy who received this attention. Several of us had many times been ‘tickled’ by Clinch up the trouser leg in class while asking for his help with a maths problem. There were boys who thought this was some sort of fun, some sort of affection, even courting the experience. But I knew from Mikey how it could lead to more painful and awful punishments, and so I always held back, even when I wanted help with my work. Only the senior boys, in their long trousers, were left in peace, and they called Clinch a ‘shirt-lifter’, though I didn’t know why.
“Why don’t you talk to your mum about it?” I had asked Mikey. “Surely if she knew what Fiddler was doing, she’d come in to see Talbot and get him into loads of trouble.”
“I once told her a bit of stuff and she hit me and told me I was lying. She cried a lot, and I don’t think there’s any point, as she won’t do anything. She’s scared of coming into the school to talk to Talbot,” he said. “She’s worried he’d expel me and she’d have to have me at a day school, so she couldn’t work full time.”
On this particular Wednesday night, I took a chance and left my bed to sit beside Mikey in the dark silent dormitory, and ask if he was OK. Unfortunately, I couldn’t scramble back into my own bed before the Matron, returning to the surgery for something, saw me and dragged me by the ear down to the headmaster’s office. I can still remember the terror I felt as we walked the long corridor to the study door. While beatings were fairly regular for some boys, I had not been subjected to any nighttime punishment, which I’d heard was far worse than the daytime beatings, because pyjamas were less protective than trousers.
I can still feel the warmth on my legs from the small curve-backed bar fire by the headmaster’s desk that night, and even now, after sixty years, I have the urge to cough from the musty smell of books and the distinct smoke which pervaded his study, from pipe tobacco that Mr Talbot always kept in his jacket pocket in a leather pouch. The room was small and tidy, with its mullioned window overlooking Smith Street below. It was lined with shelves of cream spined paperback books in French, and wide grey ring-binders inscribed ‘School Accounts 1948’ to ‘School Accounts 1954’. On the shelves in front of the books were several small tribal ornaments, a primitively carved crocodile which must have been painted at some stage, a naked woman in ebony, her breasts pointed and her neck encircled by many rings, and a pale elephant in bone or ivory.
Across the room, behind the closed door, hung a large framed world map in many colours, identifying post-war political powers, and a green baize pin-board covered in timetables and notices. I could see the arrangement of thumbtacks there which someone had made; the shape of a question-mark, and the head’s mortar board hanging on the hook beside it, with the long black silk threads of its tassel hanging down. The image is as sharp as a new photograph, a super-real memory carrying more detail than I would have been able to describe five minutes after leaving that room. It’s a memory charged with emotions I haven’t felt since that night.
It was to be six strokes on the buttocks through the pyjama bottoms, while touching one’s toes, in silence. If you cried out, you had more strokes. If you didn’t thank the headmaster and apologise formally after the beating, that also resulted in more strokes. Six was the normal punishment for ‘talking after lights out’ in the dormitory.
“So, Weiner, what were you talking to Johnson about?”
I was surprised to have been asked anything before the beating. I didn’t expect to have any chance to explain myself.
“Nothing, sir. It’s just he was crying and I was checking he was OK, sir.”
I decided to say this much in the hope that the Head would understand I was only trying to be kind to Mikey.
“And what was he crying about?”
This question, which I saw coming, left me little choice. Either I’d have to lie, and perhaps be caught out because Mikey and I hadn’t worked out our story together, or to tell enough of the truth to help him, and myself, without spilling the whole story, which I just couldn’t bring myself to describe to the headmaster.
“Mikey…. Johnson, sir… well, Mr Clinch was… well sir, he was crying because he was upset by Mr Clinch, who was by his bed, sir.”
Was it enough? I couldn’t bring myself say more.
“What was Mr Clinch doing by his bed?”
And there it was, the perfect chance to tell the Head and be able to say later I’d had no choice.
“I don’t know sir. He was… well he was sort of undressed a bit, sir. He made Johnson…” “What did he make him do? Come on, out with it.”
“He, er, made him touch his thing, sir.”
And that was it. I couldn’t think of how else to say it, and somehow I just knew I had to say it. Talbot was silent. The cane lay untouched on the desk. He sat straight-backed at my side, his head slightly bowed. I thought then that I had done something right and in exchange, would be excused the beating.
Finally he spoke. “OK, Weiner, bend over.”
I was shocked to find out that the punishment was going ahead, despite my excuse for talking. I felt a huge injustice was happening, and I became angry, as I silently clutched my legs and heard the swish of the cane. I felt very little pain, and when I stood to say ‘thank you sir’ and ‘I’m sorry I talked after lights out’, Talbot could see my defiance.
“I know you consider that you should not be beaten for helping your friend, but you broke one of the rules, and if I didn’t punish you, others would feel free to break the rules. Nevertheless, you did the right thing in telling me what happened. Your honesty does you credit. I’ll trust you to keep this to yourself. Just you remember that there is no talking after lights out. If I hear you’ve been spreading gossip, you’ll be straight back here and it’ll be the worse for you.”
The next day, Mikey’s mother came to the school and after a long meeting in the headmaster’s office, with Matron present, Mikey was taken home for the weekend, even though it wasn’t an exeat weekend. He came back to the school on Monday, though he seemed withdrawn and dejected, and he didn’t talk to me. By the end of that week, he was gone, and I never saw him again.
I didn’t try to contact him, as I thought he must be angry with me for telling the Head, and I didn’t get the chance to ask him what had happened, before he left. We didn’t get to say goodbye, which felt wrong, but while I often thought of how our friendship had been important to me before that night, and what it had taken to break us apart, I made friends with other children soon after Mikey left the school. I thought of Mikey going to the local secondary modern and having to make new friends, which would be hard. I wondered if there would be teachers like Fiddler Clinch there who would recognize his vulnerability. I’d been teased a lot at home about my posh accent, and I wondered if he was being bullied and rejected out in Essex. I knew he wouldn’t be singing any more, and that he wouldn’t be trying to get a scholarship to Westminster School, or singing tenor at Kings College Cambridge. I might have saved him from Clinch and his friends, but in that moment, I had taken away his future, and I felt responsible for ruining his life, even though I knew nothing of his feelings.
Fiddler Clinch didn’t leave so quickly, and it was the end of that term before he was replaced. What had transpired between him and the Head, I could only speculate. The other boys gossiped about Mikey telling his mother and her telling the headmaster, as I held to my word and would tell nothing of what I knew, but Clinch went on to another prep school, presumably with good references, so we had no reason to assume he’d been fired. I spent the rest of that term avoiding Clinch whenever possible, as I was sure he would know it was me who had told Mr Talbot. Every time I was asked to bring my work to the front of the class in maths, I became more scared, and my marks went from the best to among the worst in the class. Fiddler didn’t engage with me at all, so I knew he knew it had been me, and he no longer visited the dormitory at night or touched any of the boys in class, and Loats disappeared, though I had said nothing about him. That made me think that Mikey had given a fuller account of what had been happening to him, during his meeting with Mr Talbot, and in a way, it helped me to get over my guilt about reporting him. Mr. Talbot took evening duties himself for a while, and he was very solicitous with me, as well as other boys who were upset by Mikey’s departure. Some of the time I felt empowered, and part of a privileged secret, and then I felt completely at sea with what happened as a result of my actions. Who was responsible for what had happened? Me or Clinch? Had Mikey wanted help? It was strange to feel so helpless once I had begun to open the floodgates, and to find it wasn’t about me. I’d have liked to have someone to share my secret with and ask whether I’d been right that night, but there was nobody.