31st May

The Essay

The headmaster’s hand on the back of your knee.

‘I’m not trying to needle you,’ he said.

Thursday evening. Thursday prep was English. Every week you wrote an essay or a story. He wrote three titles on the blackboard. You chose one and wrote about it, and later he marked the essays. He called boys to his study, one at a time, and went through their essays with them.

‘What do you mean by this sentence?’

You felt yourself reddening. You stood beside his chair and his hand was on the back of your knee, squeezing it.

‘I’m not trying to needle you. What do you mean by it?’

You were good at English so usually these one-to-one sessions were all right. You even enjoyed them: special times when he took the trouble to dissect your writing and discuss with you what worked and what didn’t. He wanted you to write as well as you could. He was a good teacher in that respect.

‘ “Sex would corrupt many pupils, and it would be too late to regret it,” ’ he read out. Your words, from his mouth.

‘What do you mean?’

You didn’t know what you meant. You meant something, but what? The essay was about co-education. Should the school take girls? You were twelve. Twelve was innocent then.

You mumbled something about boys and girls going to bed together.

‘Why would that be wrong?’ he said. His hand squeezing the back of your knee.

You didn’t know why, it just would be. Sex was wrong. But you were thinking about it. More and more. You couldn’t help yourself.

‘Corrupt’. Where had that word come from? From the Bible? From him?

You wished you’d never written the essay. You wished you’d chosen another title. You wished he hadn’t summoned you to his study but you knew why he had. Because of what you had written. That one word, ‘sex’.

‘I’m not trying to needle you,’ he said. What did ‘needle’ mean? What did he mean?

His hand, big and heavy, on the back of your knee. Was that needling?

Nothing happened. Whatever it meant, nothing else happened. But you don’t forget something like that. Not ever.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Harp: Esther Swift
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