At the Royal Masonic School. It is now November and half-term has passed. Life takes on a settled gloom with the end of term an impossibly long seven weeks away. The Infirmary Club continues to meet without any successful outcome. This is a kind of “Reverse Colditz”, a secret committee with the mission of getting people in rather than out. Everybody who is sent to the infirmary says it is fantastic: a place where you get looked after by the attractive and warm nurse and there are no lessons or scary masters. Bliss. A small group of us dedicate ourselves to scamming our way in.
Unfortunately, unlike the intrepid and ingenious eponymous POW’s, we are a bunch of useless children whose only stratagem that I remember was to hold the thermometer against the radiator, if the nurse turned her back or left the room. I do recall faking my way into a visit to the infirmary and did actually get a chance to hold said instrument against the cast iron fins of the radiator for a few seconds but the reading was normal. Attempt failed. In fact I never succeeded in securing a stay in the infirmary the whole time I was at the junior school and the senior school infirmary was run by a glacial old harridan whose cure for everything, including fractures, was a couple of aspirin. A place to avoid. Open bowel surgery in the woods with a stick would have been preferable to a stretch there.
So as day succeeded day, a couple of friends and I hatched a plan to run away and get back home. Our plan of getting to Elstree Airdrome and stowing away on a plane to one of our home towns seemed a masterpiece of cunning and chutzpah. The odd weak points that must have surfaced at the planning stage (e.g. Where is Elstree aerodrome? ) were largely brushed away on the basis, I guess, that we didn’t want to drown in detail. The plan had a certain élan to it, I grant you, but was largely akin to breezing into the Colditz Escape Committee and suggesting “Pole vaulting the perimeter fence and legging it to Blighty”.
Logistics were light too and we provisioned ourselves with a jar of marmite and a half pot of peanut butter, which is all we had in our lockers between us. Thus prepared, one afternoon after games and before afternoon school we jumped the fence and set off in what seemed as good a direction as any. The talk was upbeat and the mood optimistic as we walked along the Aldenham Road, stopping the occasional passerby for directions to Elstree. However, as dusk fell and cold and hunger set in we fell to silent contemplation. All our requests for directions had met with strange looks and “Sorry, I can’t help you” so we decided to knock on a door and ask for help (I am not sure what sort of help: a brain transplant perhaps?).
We crossed the large carriageway that we were perambulating and rang the bell of one of the typical 1930s houses that flanked either side. A middle-aged woman answered the door and to my horror Kim, one of our number, went off script and, dropping to his knees, said that we had “run away from school, didn’t have any food or anywhere to stay and wanted to go home and please, please, please would she let us in and help us?”.
If she was amazed, as she must have been, she hid it well and invited us in. After hearing something of our story she said that she would telephone her husband who would take us home and in the meantime we must have some food. Our irritation at Kim for cracking up subsided, as home now looked in sight. We tucked into boiled eggs whilst she made the necessary call to husband. Hardly had we finished our eggs than the door bell rang and in came…the police.
The drive back to school in the panda car was a joyless affair and the reception by the headmaster, Colonel Dark, also lacked a certain warmth. I can still recall standing in the echoing corridor outside his office awaiting punishment. Courtenay and Kim were given a token two strokes of the cane but I was awarded four as I was deemed the ringleader. I cannot remember which emotion was dominant; the humiliation that a beating always brought (I had several during my first term), outrage at getting a heavier punishment than my co-conspirators or pride at this early identification of my leadership qualities.
After that we were despatched back to the house and sent straight to bed (the whole dramatic escapade had only lasted a few hours) “on silence”. We had to pull the covers over our heads and were forbidden to communicate with other boys.
Needless to say (see post 12) my letters home made no reference and I abandoned for the moment any further thought of cunning plans.
Except for the Infirmary Club. Toujours l’espoir!