10th August


You descended a curved flight of stairs to the school dining-room, in the basement. The stairs had rubber treads on them, a precaution against slipping. Ninety small boys and various adults – teachers, cooks, cleaners – went up and down them several times a day, so this made sense. There was a banister too, but to hold on to this was considered, among the boys, a sign of weakness.

At morning break the ninety boys queued on the stairs, then shuffled into the dining-room to a table on which were stacked three crates containing small bottles of milk. Each bottle contained one-third of a pint. You took a bottle and a straw and pierced the bottle’s foil cap with the straw. In winter the milk was cold, sometimes containing ice. This was tolerable. On hot summer days the milk was warm, yellow and sickly, and great resolve was required to drain the bottle. The ninety boys walked in single file round the dining-room’s perimeter, between the wall and the tables at which, two hours later, they would sit to eat dinner. By the time you returned to the starting-point you were supposed to have finished your milk. You showed a teacher or prefect your empty bottle before depositing it in one of the crates and throwing the straw into a waste bucket. Sometimes you might get away with leaving the last quarter-inch of frozen or cheesy milk. More often you would have to suck until the straw noisily declared that the bottle was completely empty.

The milk ritual was a torment for many boys.

A horizontal black line ran round the wall, halfway up. Below the line the plaster was painted a dark reddish colour, above it the plaster was off-white, not unlike the colour of the milk in summer. Above the line was a row of photographs of past rugby and cricket teams: squads of small boys, trying to look stern or fierce, who had in their time undergone similar rituals.

As you walked you saw how much they resembled you, although they were men now. Some perhaps were dead.

They watched you sucking your daily ration of milk. They understood, even if they were ghosts.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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